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Philip Voldman - Opera Conductor and Repetiteur


1. What was the first piece(s) you learned to play? Was the piano the obvious instrument for you?

Nora Kaplan began teaching me at 9 years old and the first major piece we worked on was Glinka’s The Lark. I seem to remember struggling endlessly with technical issues that the piece demanded. Earlier in my learning with Ludmila, we worked on some technical skills but also aimed to learn how to express something as a child beginning a relationship with an instrument. This was very important. If at this stage you are not guided with a love for the instrument and a feeling of how the music should flow, it’s very easy to quickly lose your passion. These two teachers showed me the possibilities of the instrument and the options beyond solo playing, which proved to be very influential. In school I learned the xylophone and clarinet and both proved to be essential in my musical preparation. The clarinet taught me aspects of transposition and orchestral playing, while the xylophone gave me good grounding in musical rhythm.

2. Your aunt Ludmila Kandiba was one of your early teachers, is any other member of your family musical?

All of the members of my family in some way are musicians but were ‘sensible’ and found other careers. My father is a retired Civil Engineer plays the piano for enjoyment. My mother started to study violin and while she never pursued it as a career, always maintained a passion for music. My older brother has a natural talent for music and the family tell stories of him playing fluently by ear back in the Ukraine (where my family comes from), but never considered performing and moved into a different but successful career path. Like any parent they wanted stability for me and undoubtedly had some concerns about the sometimes precarious nature of the music business, but when they realised that it was where my talents and passion lay, they have only ever shown their love and support in my musical achievements.

3. Which famous musicians do you admire? Why?

It’s very difficult specify only one or two, but I grew up loving the music making of Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti. I never heard them live, but their recordings have been part of my musical upbringing. Others include singers and conductors from the past. I love old recordings and listening to style. One can learn so much from the way pieces have been interpreted and performed throughout musical history and this I find very inspiring. Current musicians I admire are those that inspire me to make the music come alive - fly off the page. I love it when someone can show me how to unlock the hidden meaning behind the dots on the page and express something wonderful. It’s a very rare feeling.

4. You graduated from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York. Can you tell us about your time and teachers at this iconic institution?

This was where my passion for opera came alive. Nowhere before had I been exposed to it in the way I was here. This is the FAME school and many of the things that were in the film don’t actually happen, but the vibrancy and passion for what people specialise in is incomparable. Being steps away from Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera, one can freely go and watch a rehearsal or go to the Performing Arts Library and learn with an open heart. It was a wonderful time. Almost every teacher, whether it be Literature Class, History, Music Theory, Gym Class, Biology etc taught with a passion and a love for the subject. Within the specialist arts classes (in my case music), you were given intensive exposure to an incredible breadth of musical variety, rarely found in a mainstream high school, that you could not fail to find something to excite or inspire you. The academic classes gave you an opportunity to mingle with students from all of the other arts – drama, dance, visual art, vocal and instrumental music etc which had a uniquely creative atmosphere. I learned so much and even to this day some of the teachers are very good friends of mine.

5. What are your fondest musical memories, privately or performing?

I have so many varied and special musical memories, but the most incredible experience in a performance, which is the reason why I do what I do, happened only a few weeks ago. It was a performance of The Magic Flute with the Complete Singer, directed by Jenny Miller and music directed by Lesley Anne Sammons. At our performance in St Mary in the Castle, Hastings, I realised that never before had I been surrounded by a cast of singers who were so geared up to do an amazing show and who loved every moment of the process. After this electric performance the audience gave us a standing ovation. This has never happened to me before and was a very moving experience, which I will never forget.

6. In 2005 you collaborated with the newly formed opera organization called City Youth Opera Inc. (CYO) working with Andres Andrade and Jennifer Griesbach and as Musical Director, staged the inaugural production of La Serva Padrona by Pergolesi? Can you tell us more about the philosophy behind CYO and your experience with this inaugural production?

CYO, run by Andres Andrade, offers young singers in-depth musical, dramatic and interpretive training, culminating in a public performance of legitimate operatic works by the great composers of music history. The program is open to students ages 14 to 21.Attention to repertoire is what makes CYO unique. While other programs have been created to coach teen singers in individual arias, art songs or in the process of creating an original opera, CYO teaches skills to bring forth a polished performance of established repertoire, in addition to also offering aria study geared to the individual performer’s needs.

I met Andres at LaGuardia where he was the director of the Opera Ensemble group. He took me under his wing and taught me everything I should know about Opera: repertoire, style etc. I owe my passion for the art to him and it was such a pleasure to come back as an Alumni of the school and work with him on that production. La Serva Padrona was an excellent choice as a piece to bring out the best in young artists. It is well suited to voices that are early on in their training, giving young singers the sense of achievement of performing in a full production, whilst being supported by music which encourages them to shine rather than feel overwhelmed. We used a piano for the performances and this brought an intimacy to the production allowing the focus to fall on the dramatic as well as the vocal capabilities of the young cast.

7. In 2002-3 you began your work experience at The Amato Opera Theatre as an assistant répétiteur and studied with Anthony Amato. Can you tell us more of this phase of your life and what sort of mentor Mr Amato was?

Working with Amato Opera was my first experience of being in an actual theatre, quite a contrast to doing scene studies in a classroom setting at a performing arts school. It gave me an appreciation for the fact that Opera can only truly comes to life in the theatre with a living, breathing audience. This place was pure magic and Tony was at the heart of it all. It was inspiring that this short old man could be such a towering figure.

Along with Andrade, Tony planted a seed of a committed and professional way of working, never settling for “just ok” performances. Both men strived for perfection and this was something I looked up to then and indeed still do now. Tony’s productions were traditional and very small scale, but that was perfect. The true essence of the drama and the music shone through and it felt like everyone who worked there was family.

At the end of a run of shows we would take the set down and bring it up into the attic where 60 years worth of shows were stored. We would then tuck into home-made meatballs with tomato sauce made by Tony himself and Iris’s (one of the company members) wonderful brownies…unforgettable. Tony is sadly no longer with us, but his mark has been made in the lives of many people.

8. What advice would you give to those who wish to embark on a professional concert music career?

Make sure you love for what you are doing and have an appreciation for the hard work that is required. As with any job, there are times when being a repetiteur can sometimes seem a little thankless and hidden in the background, but those times are always overshadowed by the positive experiences of working with other people – singers, coaches, conductors, directors, who share your deep passion and strive to create something beautiful together.

Nothing is a substitute for gaining as much practical experience as possible and always approach every opportunity with love and an open heart.

9. How often and for how long do you practice?

That depends completely on how difficult the pieces are. With a full Puccini, Verdi or Wagner opera you really need to sit down and dissect everything that is happening; which instrument is playing what, where the phrases are going, which parts require emphasis, what is being said and how to make this clear etc.. This requires time and slow preparation. Just translating a Wagner opera can take a week!

Once this is done, then I start looking at the full score along with the vocal score and seeing how to make it work on the piano. Sometimes the full score can look easier than the vocal score! I then listen to a number of different recordings of the piece that I trust to get into the sound world of each composer. After this whole process I can then sit down at the piano and practice playing the notes whilst maintaining an awareness of everything else, which includes singing the vocal lines as I play to understand what the singer needs to achieve. This is where I love working with singers. Knowing that all this preparation will hopefully benefit the way a singer sings is what I love about it.

10. In April 2008, you were on staff as a repetiteur with the Cardiff International Academy of Voice under Dennis O’Neill. Do you still or would you like to teach music / act as a repetiteur?

This is what I specialise in now, along with coaching singers and preparing roles with them for productions. At CIAV I really honed this skill as I was working with many different types of singers with a range of needs and I loved every moment of it. Since I speak Russian, I love working on Russian repertoire with singers who would like to explore it further, especially if it suits their voice. I met Dennis after the Royal College and it was my first major engagement. I worked very closely with Dennis and learned an immense amount about what works on an international stage and how to prepare singers in this way. Many teachers teach ‘room technique’ as in, they try and teach the student to make a beautiful sound in a room but acoustically, the sound will not carry on a big stage. In some cases the higher and brighter the sound (acoustical properties), the better it will carry. A bright, resonant sound was what Dennis taught immensely well and it was wonderful to see many singers transformed and embarking on international careers. Although I would love to keep expanding my conducting experience, I still really enjoy collaborating with singers as a repetiteur.

11. In 2007 you graduated from the Royal College of Music, London with a Bachelor of Music. While at this institution amongst your tutors were David Ward & Simon Nicholls (Fortepiano) for which you received the Amadeus Fortepiano Prize. Can you tell us more of your time in this institution and the nature of this prize please?

My time at the RCM was a varied one. It was the first time I had ever been outside of the US which was a little nerve-wracking; however, this was balanced with knowing I had the amazing opportunity to study in one of the cultural capitals of the world, London.

I owe my technical and musical prowess to the studies I had with Ruth Nye. She is an incredibly warm, supportive and loving teacher and she was wonderful. As part of my degree I had to specialize in other keyboard instruments, to vary my expertise. I chose to study the Fortepiano and Harpsichord. These were very tricky to learn as the touch and style requires such finesse. I had a difficult time, but I learned a lot from my experiences. David Ward and Simon Nicholls were very inspiring and conveyed their love for the style and instrument very well and very warmly. I learned a lot of the Bel Canto singing style from these instruments. Towards the end of my training on the Fortepiano, David Ward had seen me make great strides from the initial difficulties to being confident and comfortable with the possibilities of the instrument and awarded me the prize which recognizes dedication and passion for the instrument.

12. Do you compose? What inspires you?

I tried my hand at composition a few times a number of years ago but I felt that I couldn’t quite put down on paper what I really wanted musically. There was a time, I think I was 13, where I wrote down a few bars of a really amazing idea I had and thought it was the greatest piece of music ever. I later found out that I had transcribed the first 8 bars of the second movement from Beethoven’s 8th Symphony!

I get inspired when I am shown how to make the music come off the page, really live and feel as if it had just been written. This happens very rarely and only a few people are capable of making it happen. I am also inspired by working with singers that express music with a sort of ‘open throat’, whole hearted singing that sends shivers down my spine. Singers such as Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Franco Corelli, Jose Carreras etc. are a few that come to mind.

Also on a personal note, speaking with my wife Rachel about theatre, her work with stroke patients (she works for InterAct Reading Service who hire actors to work with stroke patients) and her love for making people feel good comes as a constant inspiration to me.

13. Do you listen to ‘world music’, how wide is you taste in music genres?

I try and listen to as much varied music as I can but Opera and Classical Music is my main type of music. I’m always happy however, to pull out the Queen songbook at a wedding or party and jam with people who have the enthusiasm to join in! I’m always interested in wider musical genres, speaking of which, I should go to a Jazz bar sometime…

14. From 2009-10 you were at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on the Opera Repetiteur course where you were assistant conductor on various productions and you graduated with a MMus with distinction. Can you tell us some memorable experiences while you were at this institution?

This was where my real repetiteur training began. I had weekly classes with many different coaches and conductors on varied repertoire focussing on how to make effective and efficient orchestral sounds on the piano. Knowing what to omit and what to add to the vocal score to make it sound more orchestral was taught in a very professional and to a very high standard. Working in the theatre on productions and scenes solidified years of preparation and made me a more confident repetiteur. It was also here that opportunities for conducting opera became more available. I studied weekly with Sian Edwards on conducting technique but it was putting this into practice working on productions like Cherubin and Albert Herring as assistant conductor and repetiteur to head of opera Clive Timms, which gave me valuable experience conducting and the realisation that that was a field I wanted to pursue. As a Repetiteur Fellow the year after my MMus studies, I continued working in this way and also gained valuable experience with surtitles which rarely one gets training in.

15. You recently completed your repetiteur traineeship at the National Opera Studio, London, supported by The Leonard Hancock Memorial Trust Bursary. Can you provide some more details of this seminal period of your life please?

It was an amazing privilege to be one of four repetiteurs and aspiring conductors to be chosen to train at this very intense and prestigious institution. I have never worked as hard and learned a vast amount in a short period of time. It is here that I learned how to make the music ‘come off the page’ and to create theatre in my playing, one of the most fulfilling musical experiences of my life. I worked with some incredible musicians and singers and have made friends and contacts for life.

16. In the recent Grimeborn Opera Festival you were the Music Director and Pianist for a production of Il Tabarro directed by Aylin Bozok. How did this production go like and how was it like to work with this lady?

I was very lucky to be introduced to Aylin by a colleague of mine from Guildhall. It was an incredible experience working with a director who has as much passion about theatre and Puccini’s music as I do and it was invaluable that she comes from a musical background. We barely ever disagreed and bounced some great ideas off each other. She opened my eyes to wonderful nuances in the drama which I hadn’t seen before. It was a pleasure and I look forward to future collaborations.

17. Can you tell us more of future projects in the pipeline?

At the moment I am preparing for a week of concerts in Seville with Opera Interludes/London Festival Opera with whom I did a cruise of the Rhine and Main in Germany in July. It involves one concert based around Carmen’s Seville and then two opera galas with music connected with Seville, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia, Don Giovanni, Fidelio etc.

After that, I have two concerts in Portugal with baritone Ricardo Panela who was a colleague of mine from Guildhall. He is a wonderful singer and I look forward to our collaboration.

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