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”

The Rest is Noise: The Playlist

The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-nominated tome, remains one of the most impressive and convincing books on twentieth-century music. I recently finished reading through it a second time (the first was during my undergrad) and instantly fell in love with it all over again. Using cultural history, biography, style history, and analysis (along with a twinge of music criticism), Ross pulls together dozens of seemingly disparate threads and weaves together a dazzling historical “quilt” that gracefully charts the development of classical music after 1900. His writing style is also remarkably clear and accessible—something I admire in particular—which makes a potentially complex and “sticky” subject understandable to a wide swath of readers, both music specialists and non-specialists alike.

While working my way through the book, I realized that a Spotify playlist would be the perfect aural complement to Ross’s survey. Below is the fruit of that idea. Going chapter by chapter, more or less in order, I selected about 14.5 hours (!) of musical examples that Ross discusses and/or mentions in The Rest of Noise, beginning with the slinky clarinet phrase that opens Strauss’s Salome and ending with the chugging, minimalist stylings of John Adams’s Nixon in China. Some composers/pieces receive a generous acknowledgment (the playlist highlights seven different selections by Stravinsky, including his entire Rite of Spring), while others only get a brief nod (I only included one selection by Prokofiev, for instance). Still others, sadly, were left on the cutting room floor entirely. (Sorry, Christopher Rouse!) There are also a few selections of my own choosing, including Tōru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch and a movement from Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan. While this playlist can (and should) be enjoyed in tandem with Ross’s book, it can also be listened to on its own—a deep dive into the vast, kaleidoscopic world that is twentieth-century classical music.

(Oh, and here’s a link to purchase Ross’s book for those interested. 10/10 would recommend!)