Although it took me a few years to figure it out, vocal coaching was destined to become part of my professional activity almost from the beginning. When arrived at Indiana University as a freshman piano major, I already knew that I enjoyed accompanying, and that it was a good way to make some money while simultaneously learning a few things. I quickly understood that, unlike, say, violinists, singers needed me every week at their lessons! At that time, one couldn’t interact with singers at IU for long without realizing that most of the best singers studied with a woman named Margaret Harshaw. When I finally had the opportunity to play in her studio, a little voice deep inside me said, “Pay attention! There’s something interesting going on here.” I’m glad I listened, but of course, in Miss Harshaw’s presence, it was impossible not to pay attention!
It’s almost impossible to fully appreciate the vast body of knowledge she possessed, gained from a 22-year career as a lead singer with the Metropolitan Opera, singing more Wagner roles there than any other singer in its history. Her influence on my ears and ideas about singing is incalculable. She taught me how to listen to voices and really understand who should sing what. Not a single day goes by that I do not quote something she used to say in her lessons.
Of course, I’ve picked up a lot great ideas from other sources along the way, but it was Miss Harshaw that first captured my imagination when it came to singing. I’m also blessed with a good ear and a knack for languages, which has resulted in a good working knowledge of German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Czech (three of which I speak with reasonable fluency). Even so, I think my greatest strength as a coach lies with my understanding of music and style.
I was unbelievably fortunate to go to IU at the exact time that I did. It was the era of some stellar regular faculty, but I was there during the miraculous, all-too-short period when John Wustman was a visiting professor at the School of Music. The sad fact that so few seem to know who John Wustman even is at this point seems to be directly related to our lot as “supporting cast”, but for those that don’t know, he is the greatest vocal accompanist/collaborator of the last half of the 20th century. He is also a truly great teacher, to which an entire generation of students is living testament. My work with Menahem Pressler was giving me the means to play the piano. Mr. Wustman taught me how to shape a piece of vocal music, how to play with a singer, and how to really support them. I’ve worked with a lot of vocal accompanists since then, and I assure you that John Wustman is in a league of his own.
He came to Bloomington for a few days every month or so for three years, and special days those were. He would teach a three or four hour class each afternoon, open to anyone who wanted to attend (to participate, one needed to audition and be accepted into the class). Luckily for me, between the irregularity of the class schedule and the fact that almost no pianists seemed to know to sign up for it, I was often, for long stretches at a time, the only pianist playing for any and all singers that wanted to sing, as Mr. Wustman preferred to coach both a singer and pianist rather than simply coach a singer from the piano. What an education! I was learning reams of repertoire by the seat of my pants while being coached by the wisest, wittiest, most supportive master of said repertoire on the planet. This went on for three years. Even today I can hardly believe it happened that way.
His love of the art song repertoire – with a handful of well-known exceptions – is as great as the breadth of his knowledge. He seemed to know every song ever written, and if somehow he didn’t, he had an unerring instinct as to how to best approach it. He has the almost magical ability to free up both singer and pianist to allow the music to speak in the strongest, most natural fashion. My kind of teaching!
Of his many extraordinary qualities, perhaps my favorite is his wit, so I can’t resist relating a couple of stories here. The first time I met him was at my audition for his class. I didn’t know enough about him at the time to be nervous (ah, the ignorance of youth!), but the audition was at some ungodly hour like 10 a.m., and my brain was not yet firing on all cylinders. I played part of a solo piece (Scriabin 4th Sonata, I believe), and he then had me play Musetta’s Waltz with a soprano that was also in the room. Well, Musetta’s Waltz has a short introduction that trips up many a pianist – including me to this day, if my concentration is less than 100% – and trip I did, with no way to conceal it. John immediately chimes in: “We understand – it’s phlegm!”
Some weeks later, a soprano friend and I decided to bring in a French song we had prepared to his class. We were both unaware at the time of his antipathy towards this particular composer’s music, and this was one of the worst – and most famous – of this composer’s songs. If we had known, then we would have been ready for his first suggestion: “I think it should go FASTER! You wouldn’t want this to last any longer than absolutely necessary, would you?” (Of course he was right, and I have appropriated this comment for my own use countless times since.)
When it comes to vocal music, art song is my first and greatest love, thanks to Mr. Wustman. (He is the only pianist I know of to have publicly performed every single one of Schubert’s songs.) I only wish there were a larger audience for song recitals… I might get to do it more often. I was delighted to have the opportunity several years ago to record a CD of one of probably my favorite song cycle, Die schöne Magelone of Johannes Brahms. This CD is now out of print, but I’m told the contents can still be found in various platforms (Spotify is one, I believe). I’ve put two tracks from the CD on my YouTube channel and made them available here as well.
Paul Mow & Eric Malson | Brahms | Magelone songs, Op. 33 | “Liebe kam aus fernen Landen“ | 2007
Paul Mow & Eric Malson | Brahms | Magelone songs, Op. 33 | “Wie froh und frisch” | 2007
My arrival at Indiana University, with its eight fully-staged productions a year, jump-started my interest in opera as an 18-year-old. Meeting and working with Margaret Harshaw cemented it, and I knew I wanted to work in that realm at least some of the time. But I also fear boredom and was reluctant to pursue a full-time job in an opera house because I didn’t want to do the same thing every day for the rest of my life. This completely destroyed any real career trajectory I may have had in the opera world, but I still found it rewarding enough to learn over 60 complete operas, and scenes from dozens of others. I have always had a special affinity for the German repertoire, particularly Richard Strauss, Wagner, Korngold and Zemlinsky, but have great fondness for Czech and Spanish opera, too.
Over the years, I have been hired to prepare over 40 productions in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. Some professional and musical highlights:
Ariadne auf Naxos (R. Strauss), Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon.
My first professional opera job was an Ariadne auf Naxos in Germany, and it’s the opera I’ve been hired to play more often than any other. (Runner-up: Salome.) It’s also, overall, my favorite Strauss opera. But as a free-lancer, one rarely gets to work with the kind of cast I got to work with in Lisbon in 1996: Anna Tomowa-Sintow was the luminous Ariadne (not to mention an infinitely gracious colleague), and Sumi Jo was the best Zerbinetta I’ve ever heard. (Oddly, I’ve worked with Sumi Jo three times… as a free-lancer. Go figure.)
Hansel and Gretel (Humperdinck), Cleveland Opera and elsewhere.
This opera is a joy to play from the first measure to the last. The music is, quite simply, divine. That doesn’t mean it’s without its pitfalls, chief among them finding singers that look enough like children that have voices that can cut through a Wagnerian-sized orchestra (Margaret Harshaw used to refer to H&G as “Wagner at play”). I was lucky enough to play two shows in Cleveland with the wonderful maestro Imre Pallo conducting, and this was one. Word to the wise: having the angels in the pantomime trussed and flying is a BAD idea. In the piano tech rehearsal, I must have played that pantomime scene 10 times as they tried to work out the bugs… I’m not sure they ever got it right. Besides, it’s infinitely more moving if one does what Humperdinck asks for in the score – utterly simple and utterly beautiful, as the production I saw at Indiana University as a student proved beyond all possible argument.
Les Troyens (Berlioz), Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon.
This is one amazing opera. I’m not sure I’ve ever had so much fun playing an opera score. Difficult for all involved, but more than worth the effort – an experience I’d love to have again sometime. Deborah Voigt was the big name in the cast, and it led, indirectly, to a recital I played with her a year later.
Wozzeck (Berg), Dallas Opera.
What a magnificent work to immerse oneself in for a month or so – a magnificence that defies description. Having this opera under my belt stood me in very good stead, since for the next few years, roughly three-quarters of the cover cast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Wozzeck would coach it with me privately.
Neues vom Tage (Hindemith), Oper der Bühnen der Stadt Köln.
Köln needed a pianist at the last moment to play rehearsals for their Wiederaufnahme of Gunther Krämer’s marvelous production of the original version of Hindemith’s Neues vom Tage (the one banned by the Hitler regime because of its bathtub scene), and I was delighted to do it. A great cast, including the legendary Karen Armstrong, and a truly excellent conductor named Johannes Stert, with whom I hope to have the chance to work again some day.
María del Carmen (Granados), Wexford Festival, Ireland.
Okay, the opera isn’t Granados’ best effort, especially when one compares it to Goyescas (which I have only prepared for concert performance). But it got me to Wexford, a festival that specializes in just the kind of off-the-beaten-path repertoire I love. And I got to work with the Spanish conductor Max Bragado-Darman, an excellent musician and consummate professional.
Otello (Rossini), Caramoor Festival.
With my passion for German opera, people find it odd that I love Rossini so much. But I do – especially his opera seria. Since I have yet to have the chance to work on a production of my dream Rossini opera, Guillaume Tell, this one takes pride of place as the most fun I’ve ever had working on a Rossini (indeed, any Italian) opera. There is a lot of fantastic music in this show, demanding real vocal fireworks. As a bonus, all involved were enthusiastic and well-prepared (that’s something that is, sadly, no longer a given in this business).
Ring cycle (Wagner), Seattle.
It’s the Wagner Ring – need I say more? Unfortunately, I was something of a last-moment “extra” hire and wasn’t needed for subsequent productions, but it was great to be doing all that Wagner for a summer with a lot of people that love that music as much as I do.
I’m tempted to balance this with a list of “worst opera experiences”, but in a rare spasm of reticence, I’ll save that for a discussion to be had only after consuming at least two martinis.
The policy of the Indiana University School of Music is that all music majors must participate in an ensemble. The astute among you may have already gleaned the conundrum: what does one do with all those piano majors? Well, when I attended IU’s summer program for high school students, I was put in chorus – the standard “solution”. The fact that I could not, and still can’t, sing was completely immaterial (so I now do the next best thing – tell singers what to do!). Still, it wasn’t without interest: I participated in performances of Bartók’s Cantata profana – a too-little-known masterpiece, and Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Robert Shaw. Interesting indeed.
When I arrived as a freshman, it seemed a good idea to accept an “ensemble scholarship” for playing bassoon – which I had been playing through high school – in one of the university bands. Yes, I was given money to play the bassoon (! – I was not particularly good) two years before I was ever given scholarship money for the piano. I soon realized what a terrible idea that, in fact, was, and on the recommendation of a friend, was asked to play for the masters and doctoral conducting class. This fulfilled my ensemble requirement while getting to play a lot of great music and learning how to really follow a conductor. That experience paid off nicely on my first trip to Germany a few years later, when I won the only available opera house job in the country because I could play Ariadne auf Naxos AND follow a conductor.
For my last year at IU, I was invited by the head of choral activities to play for the Music School’s elite chorus, the Chamber Singers. That year, they were preparing the Bach B-minor Mass for a performance in Alice Tully Hall, among other places. Playing that music every day was – if you’ll pardon the expression – divine. There is no other word for. And it signaled the beginning of the intense phase of my love affair with Bach’s music. Many years later, I was asked to play rehearsals for several concerts the Orchestra of St. Luke’s gave of Bach cantatas. That is one of my visions of heaven – the cantatas are, for me, the most stunningly varied and inspired body of work by any composer in musical history.
Around the time of Bach B-minor Mass rehearsals, I also participated in a performance class given by violinist James Buswell on the music Schumann. When he mentioned his admiration for the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, I went investigating – Buswell’s opinion on such things is not to be taken lightly. And was he ever right… it is magnificent, utterly human, and deeply moving. Almost incredibly – since it is almost never done – I have since then assisted in the preparation of not one, but two performances of the work. When all the elements line up, preparing oratorio rep can be one of the most satisfying activities around… I’ve done a lot of it, and am eager to do more.
If one is a pianist in New York who works with singers, playing auditions almost inevitably forms a significant part of ones professional activities. I have played hundreds – thousands is probably more accurate – auditions, and I’m not done yet! For the singer, this artificial situation is a necessary evil in the course of pursuing a professional career, and I have nothing but sympathy for those that go through it. There is also a part of me that rather enjoys shaping a performance “on the fly” like that, even investing it with a bit of spontaneity. This is possible because I know literally all of the standard audition repertoire, and quite a bit of non-standard rep – opera, oratorio, and art song.
I have been – and continue to be – hired by numerous opera companies and vocal competitions to accompany their auditions. And because European opera pianists tend to know the operas they play in the theater and not audition repertoire, New York International Opera Auditions (NYIOP) has hired me many times to play for their auditions in Europe (Vienna, Berlin, Bologna, Lyon). No one was more surprised than me to realize playing opera auditions – albeit on the highest artistic level – could get you trips to Europe!