Q & A: Ramon Theobald on Life as an Opera Pianist

By João Marcos Copertino

It is a very busy time for Brazilian pianist Ramon Theobald, as he is preparing the singers of Paris Opera’s Atelier for their production of Rossini’s “La Scala di Seta.” He works as both pianist and assistant conductor. Amid the intense routine of rehearsals, he found some time to explain further about work as a pianist in an Opera house. After all, the coach pianist—or partner pianist— though ubiquitous in any opera company, never ascends to the stage. Theobald ensures me that his job is “completely different from a soloist pianist’s job.”

OW: How different is training for a pianist that will be working in an opera house from those who work as vocal coaches, in chamber music, or as soloists?

RT: I struggle to understand this difference because I come from Brazil. There is no official training for it there.

I made my first audition in Florence [Italy], in 2017. I was only twenty-four years-old, and I was completely lost. I did not know how to perform in the audition. I did not even know that it was possible to sing and play [Puccini’s] “La Bohème” at the same time. In the audition process, I came to realize how things work. Then, back in Brazil, I started to search for pianists who called themselves “opera pianists” in order to begin my own formation.

The life of an opera pianist is completely different than a piano soloist. An opera pianist must understand a lot about language, diction, and also a good deal of vocal technique.

OW: An opera singer’s teacher or vocal coach usually is very close to the singer and sometimes closer than a parent. How do you, as a pianist, work with the singers?

RT: Pianists who try to be the vocal teacher, do not help the singers. We pianists have been trained in a different way than singers, and the ways that we can collaborate with singers are very different from what a voice teacher does.

The voice teacher usually focuses on the production of the sound, the voice, the high notes, the sustaining, the control, the fiato, etc. If the pianist concentrates on that, they will not help the singer as they should. The pianist’s role is to pay attention to the word, to the dramaturgical details of the opera—our job is to listen in a different way.

OW: How do you work with younger singers?

RT: When I hear something that technically does not work—and I know what does not work because I learn from voice teachers—I feel compelled to comment, but I do it respectfully, because it is not the main goal of my collaboration with the singer. I can say “try this,” but I will not affirm anything.

OW: It is a complicated zone.

RT: Indeed, it is. I was working with a baryton last week, and he was covering the sound of the D and E too much. So I suggested that he not cover the higher notes so much. I did not dare to say anything about his palate or tongue—I do not talk about that. He changed something in his own technique, and the sound came out better.

OW: On the language side, in how many languages are you working with the singers currently?

RT: [In Paris Opera] we speak three languages every day: French, English, and Italian.

OW: And when you are preparing repertoire with them, what languages do you work in?

RT: I cannot coach someone in Russian. For example, they go to someone specific to that repertoire. I am responsible for repertoire in Italian and French, and to a lesser degree in German.

OW: And you have assisted people with speaking Portuguese! I saw how great Martina Russomanno’s Portuguese was when singing Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas” this season. I suppose she does not speak the language. There are many recordings of the piece, but most of the time, the Portuguese is incomprehensible. How does one make the language understandable?

RT: My personal pride as a coach is that I am mad about diction. I know how to [phonetically] transcribe all Portuguese, Italian, French, and German. I truly understand each sound, I know all the mixed vowels in French, the unwritten doppias in Italian, …. A coach pianist must know it all, so they can help in the pronunciation. In the case of Martina, I specifically had to say how the sound of the word should be made. I was not madly speaking Portuguese to her in the hope that she would copy the sound.

It is something beyond just speaking the language. In Rome, beyond speaking the language, I had to seek out all the books of diction in the language. There are things that even the Italians themselves do not think about because it is natural to them. Their unwritten doppias, for example, change the language’s expressivity a lot.

OW: Another question about the coach pianist’s job is to understand how the politics work. For example, how far a pianist, conductor, or even vocal coach, can go. How do you navigate through that?

RT: This is a subtle and diplomatic politics.  If the pianist says something different than the conductor does, the final call is the conductor’s. However, that is not a problem; indeed, it is a discussion. In our new production [Rossini’s “La Scala di Seta”], we openly converse about the choice to do something in legato or staccato.

OW: When does this conversation most happen?

RT:  This is particularly complicated. Nobody arrives to sing “Carmen” without having sung it many times. In the case of this particular production of Rossini, we had a coach from the United States who prepared the singers in their first steps, and a month later the conductor came. When the conductor arrived, she had different proposals for the tempi and the stacatti.

OW: Another idiosyncrasy of the coach pianist is that you do not perform on the stage. Where are you during the Opera’s opening night?

RT: I am in the audience.

OW: And your heart?

RT: It is very calm. We did a good job, and the singers are well prepared: it is a good production. I am in the audience, listening to everything, and looking for mistakes caused by the adrenaline of being on stage. After the performance, I have to tell them they did a good job, what worked out, what did not…

OW: With your specialization in Opera, is it an open decision to never occupy the stage?

RT: Now I have started to study conducting more seriously, so maybe I will be on the stage. However, I am at peace with my decision of not to being on stage. There are pianists who have crises about that.

OW: How did you come to such a decision?

RT: I have never had the profile of a soloist pianist. I have always enjoyed the presence of people a lot. I started to work in Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro when I was twenty-three. They needed more pianists and I fell in love with life inside the theater. It is so interesting and dynamic. It is full of very interesting people, and there is no monotony.  There is always something different: a new staging, a special singer coming… it is incredible. Therefore, I found myself in this role because of living conditions: it is a life shared with many people. A soloist pianist plays alone, seven hours every day, and then they travel and give concerts alone. There was not much for me to decide; it is a matter of personality.

OW: Also, it is an interesting decision, artistically speaking. Opera theaters are a mosaic: they combine theater, art, music and dance, all together. What is your part in this?

RT: I cannot say much about the Paris Opera routine since my affiliation is to Paris Opera Atelier. The Paris Opera pianists have a very busy schedule: they play two operas in two months. It is a lot of work. And the singers that arrive to sing at Paris Opera are at the highest level. They arrive to rehearsals extremely ready.


Behind the ScenesInterviewsStage Spotlight