A Year in Berlin

The life of a professional musician is a juggling act: rehearsing and performing the repertoire of the moment and gauging how much time to devote to upcoming projects. Just how much time do I need to devote to this Brahms symphony or that Wagner opera? (The answer: a lot, and no matter how much time I allot, it's never enough; there's always more work to do, and one can always know a piece better.) There's often the question of what to do next; where will I live 3, 6, 12 months from now? The profession can be precarious, and I've been fortunate to work as a full-time musician since I was a teenager, but last year for the first time I faced the prospect of a dry spell.  So when Marcus Küchle of Cincinnati Opera recommended me for an audition at the Komische Oper Berlin, I hit the practice room and got on a plane for Germany.

For an audition at a German opera house a conductor-pianist is expected to "mark" the vocal line; that is, sing all the vocal parts while playing an orchestral reduction on the piano. When there's more than one vocal part, you sing the most important entrances and what would most logically help the singers in an ensemble or staging rehearsal. For this audition I prepared all of La Boheme (the first opera I ever learned,) the 2nd Act Finale from Le Nozze di Figaro (well over a hundred pages long,) the Jew Quintet from Salome (which sounds a lot more beastly than it is, so long as you play it - counterintuitively - like it's Mozart,) and for a solo piano selection, the Wagner-Liszt Liebestod. Added to that roughly three hours of music was sight-reading the opening of Moses und Aron, which fortunately is an idiom I feel comfortable in. The audition must have gone well, because I got the job, and after a few beers, I flew back to the States for Fellow Travelers with Cincinnati Opera.

At the Brandenburg Gate

At the Brandenburg Gate

It was trial by fire to learn the German opera house system. So many aspects of the job were foreign to my experience: a repertory house (instead of the stagione system,) a fest ensemble of singers, the dramaturges, a frequently rotating orchestra, the KBB (the Künstlerisches Betriebsbüro, the brain of the house,) a fest opera chorus, the ubiquitous Regietheater (often dismissed as "eurotrash" by Americans, it can expand the imagination in a way we rarely see in the States,) the language -- my German was already pretty good, but rehearsing Wagner in German, as I did on my first day on the job, was humbling.

Germany has eighty (80!) full-time opera houses and the Komische Oper is the hottest house in the country. Barrie Kosky, the Komische's famed intendant, has infused his vision and glamorous flair into every aspect of the company. My initiation was a test of courage: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg consists of almost five hours of glorious and demanding music. My assignments included nine other operas, including Barbiere, My Fair Lady, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and ending with the modernist masterpiece Medea by Aribert Reimann. I also played orchestral keyboard parts in Petrushka and L'enfant et les Sortilège and accompanied singers auditioning for the house. Dryly listing these activities in retrospect is somehow gratifying, but it doesn't convey the sense of fun (and terror) that I usually felt.

As is always the case, the people with whom you make music are at least as important as the art itself, and my colleagues at the Komische were marvelous. The supportive atmosphere even extended to our production of Medea, the score of which was 500 pages of dastardly, complex music. The Studienleiters Henning Kussel and Christoph Breidler are masters of the modernist style, and they shared their expertise with gentle and authoritative leadership. Thanks to them I'll never again fear a piece of music, no matter how daunting. I shared this sentiment with my pal, assistant chorus master Andrew Crooks, who responded, "You're a proud son of a bitch, aren't you?!" Andrew, always a mensch, knows when I need a reality check.

But my year in Berlin wasn't limited to the Komische Oper. I conducted a new production of Boheme with Puccini's Toaster, a cool new company. I reconnected with my college buddy Moky Gibson-Lane to play chamber music with Berlin Philharmonic principals. My hands appeared in a film on Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony, playing the piano. I played two lieder recitals. I accompanied five separate programs for Opera On Tap, a gig in which opera singers jam (and drink) at a bar in Neukölln. I twice played with the Konzerthaus Orchestra. And the city! I soaked up as much of Berlin and its environs as possible. The city has more music than anywhere in the world. Nowhere else can you see Barenboim, Runnicles and Fischer three nights in a row.  The music-making you can experience is inspiring like nowhere else in the world. (Pace New York, Paris and Vienna.)

But as much as I'm in love with Berlin and the Komische Oper, I knew from the beginning that it would be a short-lived affair. The next stop on my journey is still in Germany, this time farther south, in Wiesbaden. But before that next step, a glorious summer in my beloved why-oh-why-Ohio.