Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe

Laura Poe is a musician of kaleidoscopic talent. Besides being an outstanding solo pianist, she is an accompanist, vocal coach (or répétiteur, as the French say), music editor, arranger, and educator who has worked around the world with some of classical music’s finest artists. Though equally comfortable in the concert hall, her primary home is the opera house. She is an ensemble member at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein (in Düsseldorf and Duisburg) and San Francisco Opera, where she helps prepare numerous productions each year. The repertoire she works with is stylistically vast and eclectic, ranging from beloved favorites by Wagner and Mozart to more recent works by John Adams and Oliver Knussen. Simply put, Laura is the rightful bearer (and wearer) of many musical “hats.”

Laura’s association with the music of John Adams is of particular note. For the past several years, she has worked closely with the composer on his two latest operas (Girls of the Golden West and Antony and Cleopatra), accompanying staging rehearsals, coaching singers, and performing with the orchestra in the pit. To top it all off, she also helped prepare the piano-vocal score, or piano reduction, for both operas, a monumental task in its own right.

As readers of this blog know, John Adams is one of my all-time favorite living composers. So, one can imagine my excitement when my dad and I recently had the opportunity to fly up to the Bay Area and attend one of the first performances of Antony and Cleopatra at San Francisco Opera. While a curious detour from Adams’s well-trod “turf” of stage works based on twentieth-century historical events—most famously with Nixon in China—this more-or-less straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s play was magnificent. It had everything one could want in a new opera: thrilling and gorgeous music, a stellar cast—namely Amina Edris (who heroically stepped in for Julia Bullock), Gerald Finley, and Paul Appleby—and a dazzling 1930s Hollywood-inspired production. Such a venture was a huge creative risk for Adams. Early reviews have reflected this, ranging from enthusiastic praise and acclaim to disappointed shrugs. Whatever the critics may think, my dad and I loved it, and thought the gamble paid off handsomely. (We also had the honor to chat with Adams for a bit at intermission, a huge “geek out” moment for us.)

Laura, my dad, and me after the San Francisco Opera’s performance of Antony and Cleopatra.

Before the performance, my dad and I met up with Laura for brunch near the opera house. Laura was a student in my dad’s middle school music program in Irvine, California, many years ago, and we all had a wonderful time talking about music and hearing some of Laura’s behind-the-scenes stories about the opera’s development. Several weeks later, Laura and I sat down over Zoom to chat more about her career, her association with Adams, and her experience working on Antony and Cleopatra. What follows are excerpts from our fascinating and wide-ranging discussion.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved with opera? What first led you to work in this world?

Every path I took with my education somehow led to where I am today. I knew I wanted to work with people but didn’t know yet in what capacity. I have a music education degree; I don’t have a solo piano degree and was never striving toward that.

After I finished my undergraduate program, I met a new piano teacher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro named Dr. Andrew Harley. I started taking lessons with him and one day, he asked, if I would consider pursuing my Master’s at UNC Greensboro, and continue studying with him. That was never a part of my plan, but I thought that it couldn’t hurt to have a Master’s degree. He was a very dedicated teacher, and I will be forever grateful. He came to every recital I accompanied, and during that time, he encouraged me to audition for my first music festival, which was Music Academy of the West. He was a wonderful teacher who nurtured my love of collaborating with people and gave me not just the encouragement but the idea that I could do it. A few years later, I ended up in New York City where I pursued a Graduate Diploma degree in Collaborative Piano at The Juilliard School.

Upon graduation, I auditioned for several doctoral programs and the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. At one point, I had the great fortune of having to decide whether I wanted to go to the Met or do a doctorate at the New England Conservatory… and I chose opera. From there, it was a sharp right turn to a life in the opera house—getting lessons in piano and conducting and prompting, playing for legendary singers and coaches, and soaking in as much information as possible. My wonderful mentor, Margo Garrett, encouraged her students to attend as many live performances as possible during our Juilliard years, and it is advice that I have carried with me to this day. A typical day would start around 9:00 in the morning and end around 5:00 or 6:00. I would rush to get a quick bite to eat in the cafeteria and then stay for an opera. I watched almost all the operas each season between four to eight times. I did that for two intense years and loved it.

When did you first meet John Adams?

In 2009, I was a vocal coach for the Department of Vocal Arts at Juilliard. One of my first assignments was to prepare the singers for a semi-staged performance of The Death of Klinghoffer, with John Adams conducting. It was a three-week process where we coached the singers before John arrived. At the first rehearsal, he surprised us by saying that he did not want to conduct the rehearsal but wanted to watch what we had been preparing. And we looked around, wondering, “Who’s going to conduct it?” The other pianist looked at me and said, “I’m not conducting!” So, when I first met John Adams, I conducted a run-through of Klinghoffer (without the choruses).

Laura and John Adams after a 2011 masterclass at Juilliard. (Used with permission)

The night before the performance, he asked if I could sit in the front row of the Peter J. Sharp Theater and assist him by cueing all the singers during the performance. (The solo singers were behind him as it was semi-staged; there was no pit.) I think it was the naivety of youth because now, as an adult who has been doing this for almost fifteen years, part of me wonders, “How did I do that?” But I just sat there with my music stand and gave every single cue. Afterward, John was very grateful. His memoir, Hallelujah Junction, had just come out, so he went to the Juilliard bookstore and bought me a copy as a thank-you gift.

Continue reading “Living with an Opera: A Conversation with Laura Poe”

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

Reflections on the Aspen Music Festival and School’s 2021 Season

As Joni Mitchell so aptly put it in her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi,” you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. If the pandemic (and the year 2020 in general) has taught us anything, it’s that very lesson. Though the year was abysmal for numerous reasons, for many people—myself included—the gradual cancelation and ultimate absence of live music was one of the more disappointing casualties of that raging dumpster fire. As the months dragged by, I couldn’t wait to sit in a darkened concert hall once again and even surmised what the experience might look like in a post-COVID world.

The cover of our 2021 program book. The lovely artwork is by the Aspen-based artist Isa Catto.

Although we’re not in a post-COVID world quite yet, live music has once again become a reality. (At least, for now… PLEASE get vaccinated, people!!!) Because of this, I recently had the opportunity to spend a third summer working as the Assistant Program Book Editor at the Aspen Music Festival and School. While program book and various other work responsibilities took up a sizable portion of time—i.e., lots of proofreading—I was still able to attend several concerts during the Festival’s eight-week season. This was, in a word, wonderful. After spending well over a year getting my music fix from live streams and Spotify, it was so, so refreshing to hear in-person concerts again (and in the gorgeous mountaintop setting of Aspen at that). Though concert protocols looked a bit different than normal years—mask-wearing, distanced seating, etc.—it was nonetheless a memorable summer filled with some incredible performances.

I’ve always wanted to do some sort of post-season wrap-up of my summers at the Festival, but the looming responsibilities of grad school always (rudely) got in the way. Well, since I’m now solely writing my dissertation—not that this isn’t a looming responsibility in itself!—and don’t have to worry about classes, I thought this would be the perfect year to compile some thoughts on Aspen’s 2021 season. That said, here are a few of my favorite concerts and performance highlights from the summer:

Favorite discovery: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat major

While the music of Felix Mendelssohn is justly celebrated, it has too often eclipsed the output of his just-as-talented sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. This is slowly starting to change, though, as musicians begin to grant Hensel a rightful place in the spotlight. One such case occurred at a recital presented this summer by the Pacifica Quartet. Alongside quartets by Florence Price and Sergei Prokofiev (both marvelous works), the program featured Hensel’s sole String Quartet in E-flat. I only became aware of Hensel’s output several years ago, but this piece eluded my radar for some reason. Hearing it for the first time at this concert was a delicious surprise—it’s a brilliant work packed with craft, lush beauty, and charming wit. My favorite moment: in the second movement, Hensel throws in a short fugato as if to say to her nineteenth-century haters, “Oh, so you think women composers can’t write counterpoint? Well, how does it feel to be WRONG?” (There’s also a fiendishly difficult cello part in this movement that actually made me chuckle out loud.) A truly wonderful discovery.

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Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020

Can I be perfectly honest for a second? I almost didn’t write this blog post. This year has been unbelievably challenging and draining on so many levels—COVID, protests, wildfires, murder hornets… need I continue? For a good while, a year-end wrap-up of my favorite albums from 2020 seemed like an almost pointless, even naive, undertaking.

Reaching the end of 2020 like…

Truth be told, though, music was one of the main things that helped me get through this “dumpster fire” of a year, and there was so much great stuff released despite (or in spite of) the state of the world. I truly believe that it deserves proper recognition. In fact, it quickly became a challenge to narrow down my initial list. Once I began thinking about my favorite releases from this year, the list grew to almost 40 candidates. Not bad for a year such as this!

Since this was such a “wonky” year (boy, is that an understatement!), this list is also a little wonky. Due to the presence of so many streamed music events, both live and pre-recorded, I decided to include some of those as well. As a result, this year’s list showcases 10 of my musical favorites from 2020—6 albums and 4 music streams. Once again, though, there were a ton more things that I could have selected. A handful of other favorites appear at the bottom of this post as “honorable mentions.”

Same as years past, each listing is accompanied by a short blurb and an audio or video clip. (In a few cases, there’s even a full recording.) If you like what you hear or see, I highly encourage you to support the artists by purchasing the album or donating directly to them and/or the performing organization. Artists need our support now more than ever, and financial contributions are one way to show our gratitude and help guarantee a return to concert venues once it’s safe.

Before launching into the list, an amusing anecdote: I was recently perusing through some old blog posts and noticed that in December 2017 (the year I started this blog), my first end-of-year album wrap-up began as follows: “It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one.” Oh to be a time traveler and inform my 2017 self what a “heck of a year” really looks like.

Anyway, here are my favorite albums and streams from 2020. In no particular order…

String Orchestra of Brooklyn & Eli Spindel – afterimage (Furious Artisans)

I am a sucker for concert programs that juxtapose old and new music, and this album scratches that itch perfectly. Released in January (pre-pandemic), afterimage perfectly pairs two recent works by Christopher Cerrone and Jacob Cooper with older pieces by Paganini and Pergolesi. The newer works are a particular highlight. Cooper’s expansive, time-suspending reimagining of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater emerges seamlessly from Cerrone’s luminous High Windows, a concerto grosso-like showcase for string quintet and orchestra. Add in phenomenal performances by the Argus Quartet, singers Mellissa Hughes and Kate Maroney, and the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, and you’ve got an album that I had on repeat many times throughout the year.

Continue reading “Favorite Albums (and Streams) of 2020”