Playing piano for opera stars requires finesse

He would prefer if you don’t call him an accompanist.

Call him a collaborative artist, instead.

The latter is the name that best describes what pianist Mark Robson will do when he performs with noted soprano Ruth Ann Swenson and tenor Frank Lopardo in an evening of operatic music at the Crest Theatre on Nov. 22.

That event marks the debut of the Sacramento Opera under the merged organization formed with the Sacramento Philharmonic. Snagging Swenson for this concert was a nice coup for the Sacramento Opera’s first concert of the season.

Robson’s successful collaborations with Swenson spurred the vocalist ask that the multitalented Robson be booked for the concert. To his credit, Robson has a varied career that includes soloing, chamber music, composing and conducting. In the latter, he worked as assistant conductor with the Los Angeles Opera since 1991.

At the Crest, Robson must offer the right musical horizon for his singers in a way that the singer shines. And he must sell the idea that an accompanist, or collaborator, is an integral part of the musical brilliance and equation being offered.

Robson spoke to The Bee about his career and the qualities demanded when collaborating with noted opera singers.

Where did your musical journey begin?

It began as an organ and French major at Oberlin. I later converted to the piano, chiefly because of my enthusiasm for my piano teacher.

Why the organ, initially?

My mother thought it would be wise to learn something that would be lucrative.

I understand you moved to Paris after college and studied with the wife of composer Olivier Messiaen, Yvonne Loriod?

Yes. It was important for me to be studying with someone that was an actual performer. It didn’t hurt that she was also someone that was associated with a celebrity, of sorts. The environment I was in there was one of no longer being coddled. I would prepare major pieces and present them, including a lot of works by Messiaen. That sort of shaped the notion of me getting things on their legs and getting programs ready.

What are the challenges when accompanying singers?

It’s always important to make the soloist look good. That means when you’re playing for a singer, you have to know how to breathe for a singer. You have to make allowances for the kinds of phrasing points they need. One core requirement is to be sympathetic about the level of their breathing and diction. You have to be prepared to coordinate musically with the way a consonant is placed just before a beat. You’re really locking into the words and then the volume of the voice.

You have to have the capacity to anticipate problems that are about to happen onstage. You have to be able to give a word if there is a hesitation with something that is being memorized. It’s a collaboration.

What kind of direction do you give singers, if at all?

I try my best to suggest an orchestral texture at the piano. Not all of the reduced scores we play from are terribly descriptive. Sometimes you have to go back to the score and realize they left out a little extra line from a specific instrument, or perhaps you need to add an octave here or there to add to the sonority.

Can you give me an example?

In the bel canto repertoire, there’s a phenomenon where you have a simple bass line that may be something like a pizzicato in the contrabass. And then the violas and second violins will be holding a chord and some kind of ostinato pattern above it on the violins. This kind of texture is not easy to sound properly at the piano. So I try to suggest the sense of underlying sustaining harmony. This is a little tricky. To do it, I would play a sustained chord with one hand and maybe reposition the chord in right hand so that it’s separated – that way you hear the difference between the two. Or you can throw in an occasional pitch sound – like a lower octave in the bass. Little touches like that give a more textured feeling to the music.

Is accompanying much like a temporary marriage of two minds, two personalities?

The person who is the soloist basically has the larger side of the equation, so you have to give that person their due. There has to be a similar enthusiasm about the music. The accompanist has to be aware of the style of the person singing, and also of their temperament. You have to ask yourself: Am I playing for a generous temperament, or a diva?

What does not serve an accompanist well?

I don’t like an over-brilliant and harsh sound. From an accompanying standpoint, this is usually the last thing that you are likely to hear, however. What you hear more is the other direction – too much self-effacement for the sake of not overpowering the singer.

What piece are you looking forward to doing most at this recital?

Even though it’s such a war horse, I’m really looking forward to doing “Una voce poco fa” from “Barber of Seville.” That’s always a great and fun piece to play. And I did have the chance to work with Ruth Ann when she did “Othello” this past summer ... so I think doing the “Ave Maria” will be a great treat.


International Stars of Opera recital

What: Opera recital featuring soprano Ruth Ann Swenson and tenor Frank Lopardo

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

When: 8 p.m. next Friday

Tickets: $30-$40

Information: (916)442-5189;