CI: You did those wonderful Classic Talk interviews with Bing. How did that start? You were both so good at that!
DG: It was Bing’s original idea, thinking to draw upon my many years of involvement with great singers and musicians, and his skill of engaging people in conversation. Our goal was to conduct very casual “chats” with musicians, to be watched by all kinds of people around the world, in and out of the opera world, to see what performers are like as real people. While we have been traveling in places as diverse as Nova Scotia, Japan, and Russia, people have recognized us, and told us how much they like our program. That makes us feel we have succeeded. Also, we thought it was a great way for young musicians to learn from hearing about the lives of successful performers.
CI: Let's talk about sports! You and I shared a love of basketball those days we shared the studio; it was just after 'Linsanity' had hit NYC and you were a huge fan of his! I've gone over a bit more now to baseball (easily done because of the Yankees) and had no idea you were a baseball fan as well. Did you have favorite players as a kid?
DG: Yes, I had a great love of sports as a kid. I played baseball, football, and basketball. As a spectator I preferred baseball and football. I had a great collection of baseball cards, and knew all the players’ names. My favorites were Stan Musial, Luis Aparicio, and Yogi Berra. As far as Jeremy Lin is concerned, I have to say Linsanity did have the effect of increasing our watching time of professional basketball!
CI: Do you play any other sports? What about other hobbies? Do you read a lot? Who are your favorite authors? And what is your favorite type of reading?
DG: Now Bing and I enjoy playing tennis. Golf always played a role in my life, but now I rarely play. Traveling probably qualifies as our favorite hobby. I love to read, and always remember being frustrated when I was working so hard at the Met, because I never had time to finish a book. Learning languages has always been a favorite pastime of mine, and I’m currently immersed in Russian.
CI: Who are/is your favorite composer(s) and why?
DG: Mozart, Strauss, Puccini, Verdi (Ditto for why!)
CI: Who are/is your favorite conductor(s) and why?
DG: Carlos Kleiber for amazing thread of legato and sense of shape, James Levine as the best all-round conductor from whom I learned the most, Klaus Tennstedt for his unequaled Fidelio, and Marco Armiliato, Fabio Luisi, and Gustavo Dudamel for the sheer joy of making music with them.
CI: Let's talk about the art of coaching. How has your coaching changed as you get older? Do you have any advice you would give to young coaches? This is a BIG subject!
DG: Over the years I have learned that most important is to simply open my ears and listen to the singer standing in front of me, disregarding any preconceived expectations I may bring to the coaching. I let them sing uninterrupted a bit, to make them feel comfortable, listening carefully to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Then I focus on whatever the most immediate issue might be, large or small. It is so easy when coaching to not see the forest for the trees. Of course the trees have to be nurtured, but I’ve learned to do it with the big picture always in mind. Otherwise we both spend the hour wallowing in a sea of minutiae.
CI: I think it is difficult sometimes to be able to be a 'big picture' kind of assistant rather than just a detail oriented assistant. How does someone acquire this skill? Taking and giving notes for a 'big picture' happens at a certain time in rehearsals and it's also a way of letting the opera GO and roll over on its own, and work up into something amazing, instead of beating "mistakes" to death. How does this happen?
DG: This is a tricky one, and I agree with what you just said. The answer lies in finding the right balance and timing. Every situation is different. Many times when assisting a conductor I see the conductor must concentrate on the big picture, and rightfully depends on the assistants listening out in the hall to fix the details. It is most important to do that, or the mistakes go unfixed. However, I’ve learned by experience there comes a time in the rehearsal process, and it is different with every singer and situation, when you have to look past some small mistakes in order to help the singer with aspects of their performance that are more important. That is where years of experience pay off.
CI: Here is a rapid round! Who are/is your favorite singer(s) and why?
DG: Ladies: Renata Scotto, Natalie Dessay, Diana Damrau, Olga Borodina, Frederica von Stade, Joyce DiDonato. Men: Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Simon Keenlyside, Dimitry Hvorostovsky, Kurt Moll (No time to explain why in a rapid round! Also, I have many, many more favorites, and regret having to omit them.)
Carol Isaac: Dennis, what a pleasure it is for me to connect with you again! I remember so well how you welcomed me to the Met and to your studio C-13, which I was then lucky to share with you for many years. Can you tell me about your childhood and how music played a part of your first stage of life? Were there other musicians in your family?
Dennis Giauque: I’m happy to connect with you and share some thoughts and moments from my past. Yes, studio C-13 was our cozy, convivial little corner, complete with a Nespresso coffee machine!
My childhood was mostly spent in rural western Nebraska, not exactly an enclave of classical music! Perhaps my dad planted the seed by telling me how as a young child he would ride his horse through the fields into town for his weekly piano lesson. So my parents bought a piano for my sister and me, bribing me by saying if I stuck with piano lessons for two years, I could start lessons on the band instrument of my choice. My father played French horn, until he sold it to buy my mother’s wedding ring. He also sang lead in a local barbershop quartet, the only memory I have was hearing their opening song, in which they introduced the four singers. When they came to my dad, they sang “But we never introduce him ‘cause we can’t pronounce his name!” My mother was totally tone deaf. However, she was my most loyal supporter, starting from my first piano lessons, when she would sit down with me as I practiced, counting the times I repeated each scale, and ending when she and dad flew to Boston to hear me play my senior piano recital at the New England Conservatory of Music, one month before her tragic death. It was a tremendous loss for me.
CI: Talk to me about your first piano teachers - did you look forward to going to lessons? How did your teachers inspire you?
DG: My very first teacher inspired me by pasting gold stars in my music when I played well! My most influential teacher was an amazing man with an insatiable love of all kinds of classical music. He was a real treasure in this rural community. Every Thursday afternoon after school for six years my mother would drive my sister and me 30 minutes to our lessons with him. And yes, I loved going to my lessons. He inspired me and introduced me to the world of classical music. When the time came to start thinking about where to attend college, he convinced me to enroll at the University of Wyoming, where he felt the strongest piano teacher was. However, late in my senior year of high school I performed at a national piano convention in Detroit, where the guest concert pianist, Theodore Lettvin, heard me perform the Samuel Barber Sonata. Afterwards, he asked me where I was going to college. I proudly replied University of Wyoming. He said, no you are not, you will come to Boston to study with me. He arranged a good scholarship for me to make it possible. First big break of my musical life!
CI: Did you play any other instruments?
DG: That band instrument turned out to be trombone. I remember that our school was so small, at halftimes of our football games I had to march in the band playing my trombone in my football uniform. Yes, I did play football AND basketball! But that ended when I dislocated a finger playing basketball, and my piano teacher gave me the ultimatum of piano or sports. That ended my sports career!
CI: And what about teachers in other subjects - was there a subject which competed with music? If you hadn't devoted your life to music what other profession would have lured you?
DG: When I was seventeen I attended a summer music camp in the Colorado mountains. Six weeks with other young musicians completely engulfed in music brushed aside any thoughts I may have had of doing something other than music for my life. But, since you asked, I was good in Math, and had fleeting moments of heading in that direction.
CI: How did you make the leap to opera? Was it a natural progression? And tell us about the first opera you ever heard. Was it "love at first listen"?
DG: That all took place in Boston. Many piano majors at NEC had the luxury of taking accompanying class with John Moriarty, and I was one of the lucky ones. He turned me on to the richness of vocal music, both opera and song. After attending my final piano recital, we had a heart-to-heart talk in which he strongly recommended I pursue a career in vocal music, convincing me I had the right personality, desire to make music with others, love of languages, and all those things we coaches supposedly have. I have never regretted making that decision.
The first professional opera I ever saw was La Bohème, with Pavarotti on tour with the Met at the Hynes Auditorium in Boston. That was it for me; hooked for life!
CI: Where was your first job as a répétiteur? Tell me about the first few opera houses you worked for.
DG: That would be the San Francisco Opera. I was engaged as assistant chorusmaster, accompanied Brown Bag Operas, and coached in the summer Merola program. At the end of my first year Kurt Herbert Adler arranged an audition for me with his assistant, Willie Waters, to see what further use I could be to the company at my very young age. The outcome was that I played La Bohème very well, but had almost no repertoire. So true it was! In my meeting with Mr. Adler he suggested I go to Europe to “learn” opera, and then come back to them. So I applied for and received a Rockefeller Grant to pay for a six-week audition tour, mostly in Germany.
CI: I know you worked in Stuttgart for a long time - which other opera houses did you call 'home' for long stretches of time? And also, how did you come to the Met and how long did you work there?
DG: Actually, my first job in Germany was in Nürnberg. When I auditioned there with the two other operas I had learned, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Ariadne auf Naxos, I was given a job immediately, and they needed someone to start rehearsing a new production of the Strauss opera the next Monday. After three years in Nürnberg it was time to move on. Next followed three years in Stuttgart. It was there that I immersed myself in German lifestyle and theater life. To this day I am grateful for all that I learned those six years in Germany. My German, Italian, and French opera repertoire grew immensely. But I was starting to yearn to return home to America. James Levine was looking at that time for someone to be a regular member of his music staff, and my name was suggested to him. So off I went for my audition in List Hall with the man himself. He spent forty-five minutes with me, first listening to me play and sing parts from my favorite two audition operas. Then he directed my attention to a huge stack of vocal scores on a table, asking me to sort them into three groups: 1) those I knew very well, 2) those I knew a bit, and 3) those I didn’t know at all. Then he chose a section of one opera from each group for me to play and sing. It was going well until he selected Tosca from the second category. Afterwards, I heard nothing from the Met for a long time, returning to Stuttgart to fulfill my obligations there. Almost a year later I received a call, saying that someone on the music staff for Pelléas had canceled, and would I immediately come to the Met for six weeks of work. Stuttgart graciously allowed me to leave, and at the end of my work on Pelléas, Levine offered me the full-time position for the following season. As they say, the rest is history.
CI: What is the difference between working for a big rep house and a smaller opera house? It can be a pressure cooker inside a bigger house!
DG: Small houses can also be pressure cookers, but there are differences. At the Met, we knew months in advance which operas we were responsible for. I remember walking into the Nürnberg house one day and being told I would play stagings for Die Meistersinger all day. I had never opened that score. I was told not to worry, just keep the bass line going and play their melody; that was all that was required! At the Met we pianists always prided ourselves on playing the scores as beautifully as possible; rehearsals, especially those on stage, were like performances for us. In the smaller houses I was also asked to do many tasks, such as backstage conducting, giving light cues, etc. I was always amazed in Nürnberg when singers would arrive for their first coaching having just picked up their score in the library. My job was to pound out their notes for them! Another difference was that in the small houses our work was almost always directed towards the opening night performance. After that, we almost never attended performances. One of the things I liked most at the Met was attending all of my performances, taking and giving notes, feeling pride at making the performances improve as the run went along.
CI: How do you learn an opera? What is your first step? Everyone is so different and I know my methods have changed a lot and keep changing to some extent. But once one settles into a method it seems to stay quite solid, doesn't it? What is your method?
DG: First step has already been to become acquainted with the text. In the old days there were no Nico Castel books or translation internet apps. It meant sitting with the score and a dictionary, tediously going through trying to comprehend the text word for word. I had great help from colleagues, such as Irene Spiegelman, Bob Cowart, Denise Massé, and Pierre Vallet. After that step, I spent what seemed like hundreds of hours at the piano, starting with just playing the accompaniment, then trying to play and sing at the same time. As years went by I found myself spending less time concentrating solely on the piano part, and more on the vocal line. Embedded in my head was a comment Walter Taussig said to me once, as we were discussing how a young pianist played a stage piano rehearsal. “He plays like Horowitz, but it has nothing to do with Strauss. It all sounds like Prokofiev!” Of course I listened to recordings, mostly to hear the texture of the orchestra and what important parts were missing from the vocal score.
CI: We all do so many things as an assistant. There are SO many different skills. What is your favorite thing to do? Playing rehearsals? Coaching? Endless tech rehearsals? Playing recitative? Taking notes in orchestra rehearsals?
DG: If you simply mean what I enjoy most, I would say playing rehearsals, coaching, and playing recitatives or piano parts in the orchestra. Some of my fondest memories are from my earlier years playing musical rehearsals for Maestro Levine in List Hall. Incredibly stressful, but so rewarding! Performing in the orchestra pit was also a great joy. My favorite of course was playing the piano part of Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m not one for counting performances, but I determined that I played it in over sixty performances with the Met; actually every performance the Met did from 1987 until now. But I will be happy to enjoy hearing someone else play it in the upcoming season! Being a part of what we used to call the continuo corner with David Heiss and Larry Glazener was another favorite, with Figaro being at the top of my list. In my early years it was most often harpsichord, cello, and bass. What fun we had! Finally, I don’t want to forget the delight I had playing the glockenspiel in Zauberflöte!
CI: You know, speaking of being a versatile assistant, I never told you this, but one famous conductor, still on the circuit, told me you were his favorite assistant at the Met and he always hoped you would be on his shows! And I also very clearly remember a different conductor having some (quite a bit of) trouble, and rather than 'jump ship' and back away (which a lot of people did) you very discreetly and quietly went to him and offered advice which he so gladly took and then he depended on you! What are the qualities one needs as a person (not just a musician) to be able to be this kind of invaluable assistant? I mean, truly, that opera was headed for disaster had it not been for you!
DG: Being a versatile assistant has a lot to do with people skills. Although every situation is different, the first step is winning the respect of the conductor and the soloists, not only for being a good musician and collaborator, but also for being a good, trustworthy person. We are there to help them, and whether we agree with their way of making music, or not, it is our job to do what we can to make the performances better. This takes experience, patience, and insight, to know when to speak, and when not to. It was always very satisfying for me after a performance to know that my work with the singers and the conductor had made for a better performance that night. One valuable lesson I learned from Maestro Levine was that if we had constructive criticism, give it directly to the singer or conductor in question, as opposed to complaining to our colleagues and friends about the person.
CI: Who are/is your favorite director(s) and why?
DG: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for his uncanny understanding of text and music.
CI: What is your favorite opera? Why?
DG: I pass: too many to mention!
CI: What is your favorite language to work in?
DG: German, with French close behind.
CI: Also, can you tell me about some of your favorite most revered colleagues whom you admired and who really showed you the way (as you did for me)? What kinds of things did they teach you?
DG: The first name that comes to mind is the former chorusmaster, David Stivender. He was very generous in helping young musicians, singers and coaches alike, whom he liked. David had a great affection for Mascagni, being an expert on Italian verismo. He convinced the Met to put on Riccardo Zandonai’s opera Francesca da Rimini. I was first pianist on the piece, and the style was completely new to me. I went to David, who spent several hours with me, taking me through every measure of this opera he loved so much. The venerable coach Walter Taussig was always there for me in my early years at the Met to answer my questions about the German language and style.
CI: What is your favorite memory of the Met?
DG: I was playing harpsichord recitatives in a performance of Marriage of Figaro one evening, and everything from my point of view went extraordinarily well. After the performance Bing and I went for dinner at a lowly diner, the only open restaurant on the Upper West Side at that time of the night. It was a terrible meal, but I was the happiest person in the world!
One more quick one! Quite a few years ago Natalie Dessay attended an evening at the US Open Tennis Championships in Queens, and met Novak Djokovic after the match. She invited him to a piano stage rehearsal at the Met the next morning to show him what she does for a living. When he came on stage during the break, he said he had sung an opera aria from Don Giovanni when he was in school. So I sat down at the piano, and he sang the opening of the aria. Not many people can say they accompanied Novak Djokovic on the stage of the Met!
DG: Yes, how lucky I was to meet Bing at a birthday party many years ago. Traveling has always been a very important part of our life together. I must say we are fearless explorers, whether it be when we are lost driving at night in Namibia, hiking up a mountain in Tibet with a group of nuns, hiking all the way to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, or staying in a family’s yurt in the grasslands of Mongolia, drinking their yak butter tea. We hate the idea of any kind of organized group and we almost never make advanced reservations for anything. Bing is happiest with his camera in hand, and I am happy just going with the flow. We get on the plane to explore far corners of the world that are unknown to us. We now have two books bringing our travels to life, both published by the QCC Art Gallery Press. The first is and the second , both available at Amazon.
CI: Dennis, I miss you a lot! I hope you are enjoying yourself - I won't say "in retirement" - because I know you are still working a lot!!! I also miss those bags and bags of apples every fall from your place upstate! What a wonderful memory! I think of you now when I make apple crisp. Thank you my dear friend for sharing all this with us.
DG: Thank you, Carol, for giving me the chance to “talk” with you. Yes, when I left the Met five years ago, it was not to retire, but rather to move on to the next stage of my life. I have been fortunate to be able to combine my love for coaching young singers with traveling to such places as Russia, Japan, and Ecuador. I’m looking forward to the time when I can start doing it again!
CI: What is more important? Music or text?
DG: It depends! These two examples illustrate what I mean. A Mozart recitative is all about text, whereas an incredibly beautiful Puccini aria or big Verdi ensemble is about a musical melody sweeping us away. Singers need to know which is more important at any given moment. Obviously, a happy marriage of music and text is ideal.
CI: Dennis, I remember our studio and the photos Bing took from your many trips together which you hung on the walls. I remember just staring at those photos when I was practicing. Those were from Mongolia! How did you meet your partner Bing, and please talk a bit, too, about your love of traveling.
CI: When things open up again where would you both go FIRST? And I mean for pleasure, not work.
DG: At the top of the list is to climb the Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in China, something that had been planned for last year and had to be postponed. Other destinations are New Zealand, Australia, Western Africa, and many returns to our favorite spots in Europe.