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Principal Piccolo of the Royal Opera House Orchestra (Covent Garden – London)

In your opinion, what are the main differences between playing in a pit orchestra and a symphony orchestra?

If someone had asked me this question eight years ago I would have said that there was very little difference except that one plays in a pit! However I have learnt a lot about my playing since being at the Royal Opera House. The orchestra and wind section in particular make a very beautiful and refined sound within a very confined space. Being surrounded by four walls one has to think upwards and outwards, and it can also feel as though one is very much under a microscope, especially as a piccolo player. The orchestra obviously can play very loudly, but is also required to play incredibly quietly. In these situations it is very easy to stop blowing and supporting, which can be disastrous – and just when you think that you are quiet enough, something changes on stage and you need to find something even more transparent. The other side of the coin is that in the louder passages it is very easy for the piccolo to dominate, and one is continually looking to produce a forte sound that blends with the orchestra and does not overpower the singers or have the violins running screaming from the pit. One can never take anything for granted with this job and I have to be continually adjusting, which makes life more challenging. It is interesting then going back into a concert hall situation, especially with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, because the sensation of space and sound can be overwhelming and it makes one realise how this orchestra has had to really focus a large percentage of its efforts on creating something so beautiful in the pit. This is particularly evident if one sits in the auditorium at the opera house and hears the warm velvet sound emanate from below without any of the nuts and bolts that can get in the way.

How does the lifestyle of the musicians differ in these types of orchestra? Do you do a lot of touring, rehearsing and new repertoire, or not?

The orchestra spends nearly all of its time in the Royal Opera House. This is different from a symphony orchestra, which can spend a larger proportion of the year touring within the UK or abroad. Touring can be a wonderful experience and it is something I have always enjoyed, but the knowledge of being in the same place is also comforting, especially as I occasionally had a tendency to go to the wrong venue. The Royal Opera has gone to Birmingham and it is interesting to see how the Orchestra responds, ranging from the bewildered looks of those who have never left the building to those who attempt to get all of their last 10 years’ non-touring experiences into one evening. In 2010 we spent three weeks in Tokyo, which was a luxury as often orchestras move very quickly from one city to another, but opera works on a very different timescale. This meant that one could get used to the same bed for three weeks; even if the jet-lag didn’t always allow you to sleep.
There is a relatively quick turnover of repertoire and it is not unusual for five or six productions to be in rehearsals and performance at the same time. There are generally eight performances of each opera and more for ballets so we never have a chance to get too used to the same repertoire. There are two players sharing most seats so between us we organise the schedule so that we have variety and balance in the season. There are always new operas and ballets each year while certain more familiar productions come back more often. However, when I joined the Orchestra all of their repertoire was new to me so I had little chance to become complacent or bored. We have more rehearsals on new works and productions but some of the well-known productions can still arrive at the first performance as a bit of a shock.
More and more I try to make sure I have time out of the building during the course of a day either by going for a walk or teaching. This may sound strange but if you have a rehearsal in the morning in the pit, find a room to do some practice in the afternoon and then a performance in the evening it is very easy not to see daylight for 12 hours.

Do you think that the action happening on stage influences how you play, or does your playing influence the acting on stage?

We are all told to research the context of our famous excerpts such as Prélude de l’après-midi d’un faune, but in reality you cannot see the stage from the pit, so does the story have much bearing on your playing?
Certainly the context of the music is incredibly important in opera and ballet and it is true that we often cannot see the stage, however in both we are very much creating a very overt and narrative style of soundscape; the greatest conductors are masters in how they understand and convey to us through their gestures the dramatic significance of this soundscape. The themes, colours, textures that are produced within the orchestral palette describe everything from the protagonists’ surroundings to their underlying emotions and even to their future and past relationships; the whole spectrum of emotions is there and it is impossible become involved in this and let your imagination take you through these moments on stage; this is often a very much stronger image than when you actually see the production for real in certain cases!
The greatest singers certainly take the whole performance to a different level and create a range of intensity that can be anything from terrifying to rapturous. You can feel them respond to the orchestra and then take the orchestra with them in other moments, creating a wonderful dialogue that I have not experienced anywhere else.

There have been occasions when due to lack of time I have not completely grasped what an opera is about, and this can be a peculiar experience as you then latch onto beautiful or strange moments without knowing why, and you arrive at the end of the opera feeling slightly bewildered, especially when the plot of the whole work may have been tortuous in the first place.

Why did you choose to move to a pit orchestra from a symphony orchestra? Do you prefer the opera and ballet repertoire to the symphonic repertoire?

In truth I wasn’t sure how I felt about the opera and ballet repertoire when I joined the orchestra; my feet were firmly planted in the symphonic world. All I knew was that I was ready for a change but I just wasn’t sure in which direction. I had been part of the BBC for 19 years, first with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and then the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Opera House couldn’t have been more different; plus I am also not great at dealing with change! I was used to a very fast turnover of repertoire with the BBC Concert Orchestra; we would often have a three hour rehearsal followed by a live broadcast and this could occasionally feel like a musical equivalent of fast food (albeit a very high quality fast food!). My knowledge of both the ballet and opera repertoire was limited to isolated arias and ‘bleeding chunks’ of ballet music. I suppose that being confronted with hours of rehearsals and eight performances of the same piece (often longer in one act than a whole concert) gave me musical indigestion.

Gradually however the repertoire seeped into my bloodstream. Initially I would listen to members of the Orchestra raving about various moments in operas I’d never even heard of and I felt bewildered and worried that I didn’t feel like this. Also, with me being a Yorkshireman, there was an inbuilt resistance to anything potentially pretentious! However after about nine months we performed Verdi’s Don Carlo and when the singers arrived I was absolutely gripped. Opera in its essence is about real people and emotions. The music came alive and into raw focus and got completely under my skin; some of the most devastatingly beautiful, poignant and dramatic music I have ever heard emerged –with a last act that just keeps building in intensity and beauty. From there followed each year Simon Boccanegra, Puccini’s Il trittico, Wagner’s Der fliegendeHolländer, Donizetti operas such as L’elisir d’amore and La Fille du régiment which are so exuberant and wonderful to play for the piccolo; ballets such as Henze’s Ondine appeared and I was hooked! Strangely, shortly after this I went and did a symphony orchestra concert with another orchestra and something was missing; I kept waiting for the singer to appear. I found myself enthusing about opera and it made perfect sense; to me anyway.

When you audition new musicians for the orchestra, do you usually consider people who do not have a lot of experience working in opera or ballet orchestras if they have had other types of orchestral experience?

It is interesting as many of the adverts for positions in the orchestra now say ‘require relevant experience in opera and ballet’; however, many of the players appointed (myself included) had very little experience of these genres previously. The players come from a variety of musical backgrounds; the majority from other major symphony orchestras, and occasionally we have younger players who have relatively little experience of any genre but are wonderful musicians, and this is the crux; it goes without saying that they have to be great players but more importantly they have to be sensitive and able to listen and respond to that which is happening around them, and this orchestra is superb in this respect. The operatic repertoire can be incredibly fluid and at the slightest nuance the orchestra has to be right there.

Our Orchestra also has a particular sound based on the musicians who are already in place and the environment in which we play, and this has developed over many years. Therefore it will look for players whose sounds will blend with those in place; you can have the most amazing performer apply, but if their playing and personality do not fit and they are not able to respond it could be a real disaster, especially within the confined environment of the pit!

 

You are the principal piccolo player of the Royal Opera House and principal flute of the English National Ballet Orchestra. How do these roles differ and do you prefer playing one instrument, or is your approach to both the same?

I have always had a slightly schizophrenic career, in that the positions I had at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC Concert Orchestra demanded I played piccolo and first flute often with very little notice as to when I was moving from one seat to another; this literally became the norm. Although it has taken me a while to understand and feel where I fit, I suppose I was happy to avoid being labelled and as such remained a moving target. In truth it can leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable on both seats; a ‘jack of all trades’, as one can never completely settle in any role. I would try and deal with this by focusing completely on the instrument I was on at the time, but then when I was required to move to the other seat I always felt as if I were starting from a negative position. Therefore, I have come to see both as an extension of the other: so I play the piccolo as I would the flute and understand the subtle differences with each as a flexible part of the same technique. This helps if I make the flute and piccolo part of the same practice regime, always finding a place for each in the day.
The working environments of English National Ballet and the Royal Opera House are very different, as are the styles of playing, and I do enjoy the variety; working with other orchestras is important as it gives you time in which you can reassess your playing. The people in both orchestras are also very important to me and I always like to move from one to the other.
I am fortunate with both positions that the schedules are organised well in advance so I can plan the workload and also see how it may impact on my playing; this has taken me a while to understand. As with most musicians the temptation is to fit in as much as possible; I know in my case this is no longer a good idea.

Playing down the line also requires both the flute and piccolo and one is never out of your hands for very long; but on the other hand when playing first flute I hope I know the needs and difficulties faced by the other members of the section and know that as such, my job is no different from theirs. There can sometimes be situations where I am juggling a piece with a major piccolo part at the Royal Opera House while at the same time managing a big flute programme at the Ballet and then I can end up disliking both instruments – but it doesn’t last long!

 

What is it like working with one of the most highly regarded opera houses in the world?

I feel very privileged to be part of the Royal Opera House. I have been very fortunate in my career so far, and very strongly believe that I have come to the right place for me at the right time. The demands on our playing and time are considerable; we can start rehearsals at 10.30am and finish 12 hours later, but there is a real sense that you are working towards something that is really appreciated and recognised worldwide. The audiences are incredible and I will never forget the first time I heard them roar and shout! You are also aware of how the Opera House as a whole is a real machine and never rests; from the Development Department through to the technical staff and onto the frontline of the Orchestra, Chorus and soloists they are constantly aiming to create a world-class organisation. Not every production or performance is given the opportunity to be extraordinary, as the physical and schedule demands mean we can be rehearsing something like Der fliegende Holländer the same day as the first night of another opera. In an ideal world this would never happen, but the Orchestra will always rise to the challenge and give completely of themselves.

When I first joined the Orchestra I had an unusual experience; as the wind section had been sitting on the side of the pit for many of the productions I had done on trial (they also sit in the middle of the pit depending on the repertoire) and there are two players sharing many of the seats, I wasn’t actually sure who were the members of the Orchestra, because often I couldn’t physically see them. Therefore, it took me a while to settle. This was compounded by the incredible size of the theatre and the many people in the building with very different roles. However, just like the repertoire, the building and the people gradually came into focus and became a major part of my life. One then has to be careful that the job doesn’t rule your life and I’m finally starting to get the balance right.

 

You were in EUYO when you were a student. Do you think this affected how you play now or your career prospects? What did you gain from EUYO and do you recommend it to your students?

EUYO was a great experience for me and I was amazed when I got a place. I had gone to university for my undergraduate and postgraduate courses and I could safely be described as a late starter and developer (I started playing the flute when I was 15). Suddenly I was surrounded by players I certainly had heard of before and who all seemed to know each other; it was pretty daunting at first but they were also wonderful people. The standard and quality of playing and performances were extraordinary. There was a passion and energy to produce something outstanding, with the luxury of time and rehearsals with some of the most incredible conductors (I shall never forget Bernard Haitink conducting Bruckner’s Symphony no.8 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw), offering an experience that is rarely possible in a professional environment. Many of the players in that orchestra now occupy principal seats in the top orchestras in the world; at the Royal Opera House alone there are three of us from that wind section, so the system certainly works. It really focussed my mind and heart on what I wanted to achieve and that might actually be possible! I kept my head above water with some of the best and this inspired me to work harder. The week after my last course with EUYO I did what was to be the final part of my trial with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, where I had my first job. This was not only a sharp contrast but also a difficult transition at 22. I had been used to being surrounded by my own generation, equally hopeful and open to ideas, and suddenly I was with people old enough to my parents and I felt incapable of approaching them if there were intonation issues; it had to be my fault! Also I felt that I was supposed to know how everything worked on a daily basis at a speed unknown to me before. For many these first steps in the profession are an exhausting ‘baptism of fire’.
This being said, EUYO, though it is something I would always recommend my students to apply for, is not the make or break of a student’s success or career, and many of Europe’s finest players have either not got into the orchestra or have not applied. It does not mean the members of the orchestra are all necessarily the best in Europe, and why someone was or wasn’t a member can often not be quantifiable. Now there are many other youth orchestras that attract just as high a standard, and, often just as in the profession it can come down to the particular style or vision of playing that the organisation has.

 

Most of our subscribers have a busy work schedule with teaching, working and playing. We know that your schedule is even busier. Do you have any advice or suggestions regarding the practice regime in these time constraints?

One can feel that there is never enough time, and this is further compacted when you are juggling two instruments. For me, working towards a technique that does not change between the instruments is essential (which also includes the choice of instruments), so that each can enhance the other and so that one is an extension of the other. I find that if I can just put aside half an hour to an hour in a room with a mirror to calmly focus on the basics of my playing – the balance of the instrument, posture, relaxation, blowing and support – it helps me feel grounded. These aspects can very easily become out of focus when one is confronted daily by many notes, personalities and lack of space. If there are technical aspects in the music that I am performing I will use these as the basis of that practice time so that it reinforces the repertoire.

More and more, I am managing the repertoire, so that pieces I know I have to play well in advance can be slowly absorbed, and also absorbed more thoroughly so that they do not jostle with those pieces that appear last-minute or I have forgotten about and have to be crammed; there are still times when I still don’t learn!

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