Questions for Eric Weimer: coaching Götterdämmerung for COC

A veteran of over 30 years at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Eric Weimer has coached over 100 Lyric productions, as well as an additional 100 productions in other international houses, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Bayreuth Festival. Renowned particularly for his expertise in German opera, he has prepared no less than 13 different productions of Wagner’s epic Ring cycle. Active also as recitalist and conductor, he has worked with most of the leading singers and conductors of the past generation.

When I looked on youtube i found the following video from the past summer, a lovely demonstration of his sensitivity.

If you look on his website,  you’ll see that he was just in Toronto until today, January 29th between a pair of engagements with Lyric Opera of Chicago.

  • September–November, Lyric Opera of Chicago Cover conductor, Das Rheingold and Les Troyens
  • December 27–January 29, Canadian Opera Company Head of Music Preparation, Die Goetterdaemmerung
  • February–March, Lyric Opera of Chicago Eugene Onegin

Although Eric leaves town today to return to Chicago to prepare Eugene Onegin for LOC, in the meantime the Canadian Opera Company are about to open Die Götterdämmerung on Thursday February 2nd.  In anticipation of that opening I interviewed Eric.

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Eric Weimer: pianist, conductor, opera coach (photo: Theresa Tam)

1-What is the best thing or worst thing about what you do?

The best thing about my job is easy to convey: I get to work with the very best singers and conductors in the world to prepare some of the greatest music ever written: operas by Mozart, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, and company. Over the past 27 years, I’ve gotten to prepare some 14 or 15 cycles of Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen. How great is that? The worst things pale in comparison and would seem to be mere trivialities or minor annoyances: having to work some evenings and most weekends, an occasional staging rehearsal in which I might not be playing very much or could be playing the same passage over and over again. (But if that’s the worst, then I shouldn’t be complaining!)

2-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

What I listen to: here it comes, I’m a Bach cantata freak, with some 150 cantatas stored on my iPhone (performances all directed by Ton Koopman or Philippe Herreweghe ). I listen to them while cooking at home in Chicago. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m convinced that those series of weekly cantatas that he composed during his first three years in Leipzig (some 50 a year!) constitute one of those titanic artistic outbursts, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the Shakespeare canon. What I watch: not much, PBS mostly. Like so many Americans I have been shocked senseless by many aspects of the past presidential election (particularly the results!), so I retain a morbid fascination with the state of the American economy and political world and consider it my duty to stay as informed as possible.

3-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

To not make so many mistakes while I type this? Seriously, I admire people who have the ability to write floridly, in a manner that doesn’t just convey information accurately, but expresses the individuality and quirks of the writer. Similarly when I speak German (or Italian) I wish that I could just vent some of my joy or anger and not be so caught up in the intricacies of grammar. (Did I use the imperfect subjunctive incorrectly? Even Germans sometimes make mistakes with their word order.)

4-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I love to travel, and I love to plan for the trip, i. e., researching museums, attractions, hotels, restaurants, history, and creating a detailed itinerary that permits us to enjoy each day to the fullest. (A 40-page itinerary is not out of the question!) Currently planning a trip to Barcelona, Valencia, and points in northern Spain.

More about preparing Götterdämmerung for the Canadian Opera Company.

1-How did you begin as a coach?

Having spent most of my late teens and 20s in the towers of academe—BA in history from Haverford College and a PhD in music history from the University of Chicago—I barely knew that such a thing as voice coaching even existed. But one does have to put food on the table, and when a job in musicology failed to materialize (thank god!), my mother suggested that with all my skills as a pianist, experience with foreign languages (German in particular), and familiarity with the opera repertoire , I should hang out my shingle as a voice coach. (While in middle school and high school, I spent countless hours listening to operas and playing through opera scores on the piano —doesn’t everybody?) This was obviously a crackpot idea, so to prove her wrong, I took her up on it. One thing lead to another….numerous private voice students as well as a part-time job as rehearsal pianist for the Chicago Symphony Chorus under the indomitable Margaret Hillis. That was a real challenge: learning to follow an unpredictable beat and contending with some extremely difficult rep (Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, for example).

But the person who gave me my first “break” into the opera world was John Crosby, founding director of the Santa Fe Opera. I was already 35, a bit long in the tooth for starting a career in major opera houses, but John always conducted a major Richard Strauss opera (sometimes from the “forgotten but not gone” category). I was given the assignment of pianist for Die Aegyptische Helena and I must say, after the drudgery of writing a PhD dissertation which tracked style change in some 635 Italian opera seria arias and the first 50 symphonies of Haydn, the discipline required to master at the keyboard a lengthy 350-page reduction of a late Richard Strauss score was a pure delight! Assignments at other houses—Lyric Opera of Chicago (my professional home for the past 30 years), the Canadian Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Met, and the Bayreuth Festival in Germany followed in quick order.

2-Please talk about what you’re doing for the Canadian Opera Company, in helping to prepare their production of Götterdämmerung.

I think the most basic thing I’m doing in our COC rehearsals for Goetterdaemmerung is functioning as a substitute orchestra in all of our staging rehearsals and music rehearsals. This means playing the piano “reduction” (I put this word in quotes since a version for piano of an opera like Goetterdaemmerung is exceedingly complex and difficult to play) in a manner that accustoms the singers to hearing certain solos or themes that they will need to hone in on when they finally get with the orchestra. I also need to be actively listening: to pitches and rhythms, to their German (when a language gives you 16 different possibilities to say the definite article the, the possibilities for going astray are legion!). But language is critical: it’s not only a matter of correct pronunciation, but also of intent. Does the singer deliver the text in such a way that it is clear that they understand the significance of each and every word?

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Eric Weimer (photography: Theresa Tam)

3-Please tell us about the singers in your production

What’s particularly exciting is when you have world-class singers performing their role for the first time, and this we have with Christine Goerke (Bruennhilde), Ain Anger (Hagen), Karen Cargill (Waltraute), and Ilenna Monltalbetti (Gutrune). Even the veterans of this production, Andreas Schager (Siegfried) and Martin Gantner (Gunther) haven’t sung their roles so many times in the past; in a real sense, even they are still exploring these roles. So in all cases, we’re talking about a process of discovery, and an openness to interpretative suggestions. When we finally get to the main stage and have the orchestra in the pit, we’re in the eleventh hour, so to speak, and singers can be in a bit of a panic whether they can be heard over the orchestra in certain places. I may have to encourage them to “take a few steps forward” or “don’t sing into the wings” to help them achieve maximum vocal impact. (It’s not easy to project a single human voice over a eighty-piece orchestra with lots of brass!) Maybe there’s a place where I feel that a slight tempo adjustment might improve the singability of a certain phrase, and perhaps I can bring this to the conductor’s attention? I cherish my relationship with all of these people. They seem to trust me, and I’ll do whatever I can to improve their performance.

All of these people have been a joy to work with. Christine Goerke I rarely have to give a note to: she’s incredibly disciplined and self-aware in all she does. Only one errant pitch needed to be brought to her attention (which she promptly fixed). And it has been particularly gratifying to see Ain Anger grow in his portrayal of the titanic figure of Hagen. 

4- In your years of listening to the Ring Cycle live or on recording, which versions / performances stand out in your memory?

Frankly, it’s been a long time since I’ve listened to a recording of the Ring! But I have been involved in some 14 or 15 complete cycles. They’re all different, but my favorites are the ones in which really accomplished singers are tackling these supremely challenging roles for the first time. That would mean the current COC production as well as the most recent San Francisco production of 2011, in which so many of the main roles (Wotan, Siegfried, Bruennhilde, Siegmund) were role debuts for their respective artists.

I’ve prepared the Ring with quite a few conductors–(in chronological order) Runnicles, Mehta, Levine, Andrew Davis, Bradshaw, Debus, did I leave anyone out?–but I just realized that Johannes Debus, whom I also assisted last year with Siegfried, is the first German conductor with whom I worked on this monumental German work. It was about time for that, I’d say! It’s been a real pleasure to hear his insights to matters to text and subtext. And he really knows how to bend the tempo to suit the music and text. Our relationship in fact is much like the special relationship I had with the late Richard Bradshaw, when I assisted on the Ring cycle which opened Toronto’s acoustically thrilling opera house in 2006. With both Richard and Johannes I have felt that I can give advice, sometimes on tempo but particularly on balance. The orchestral forces of the Ring are of course colossal and a certain amount of intervention is called for (adjusting dynamics) to improve the stage-orchestra balance. My relationship with the COC goes back in fact to 1990 (Wozzeck and Otello). I very much cherish this relationship and hope to return again in the not-too-distant future.

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The Rhinemaidens – Allyson McHardy as Flosshilde, Laura Whalen as Woglinde and Krisztina Szabó as Wellgunde in Götterdämmerung (COC, 2006, photo: Michael Cooper)

5- What is your favourite opera and who is your favourite opera composer?

I have often maintained that the greatest opera of all time was Pelleas et Melisande (except for the times when I award that distinction to Don Giovanni).

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Eric Weimer has gone to Chicago to prepare Eugene Onegin for the LOC, but in the meantime, the Canadian Opera Company –who he coached over the past two months–open their production of Die Götterdämmerung on Thursday February 2nd.

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