Coda: Listener of Note — David Hyde Pierce
DAVID HYDE PIERCE: I started taking piano lessons at age eight. After about a year of lessons, I loved it. I had a wonderful teacher, a French woman named Edith Stonequist. Her mother had taught at Paris Conservatory, and she told me about sitting under the stairs in her mother's home and listening to Alfred Cortot play in the apartment.
OPERA NEWS: How did you first encounter opera?
DHP: I grew up in Saratoga Springs. When I was a small boy, they built the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which became the summer home of the New York City Ballet. I saw my first opera there. I was, let's see, fifteen, and they did Boris Godunov with Norman Treigle. He had a fantastic death scene, and I have always been obsessed with death scenes. When I came down for breakfast as a little boy, I would die and fall down the stairs. I would play the opening bell-tolling chords of the opera. I couldn't get it out of my head.
ON: After that, I understand your love of opera was a long, slow build. Was there a performance that turned you off and kept you from exploring opera further?
DHP: When I was in college, I got — through a raffle — I got a ticket to see Tristan at the Met. I went to the Met and was very excited and did not know that for some technical reason they had canceled Tristan and were doing The Magic Flute. I have come to love The Magic Flute, but geared up for Tristan, I found it completely baffling and silly. I was prepared for something to touch a deeper, darker place. Now, the character I played on Frasier was such an opera fanatic. I didn't know that much about opera. John Mahoney, who played my father, is a huge opera nut. John lives in Chicago, and I finally got to see Tristan with him — Ben Heppner, Jane Eaglen and René Pape. The singing was spectacular, but I found Ben Heppner's performance very moving and very true.
That's something — coming from my background as an actor, I have a low tolerance for bad acting in any situation. That's what I would say — I don't think I've been to an opera that I wasn't able to identify with the music, but I've been to performances where I just shut down because of the acting. The same thing happens sometimes in musical performances, where people think there's a different standard for acting. And suddenly everything is in quotation marks and has exclamation points after it. I just think, "Just be people." When opera catches you, it's because it lifts you to a level of emotions commensurate with the emotions of the characters onstage. But that can't happen if the people are faking it.
ON: In Christopher Durang's wonderful play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, you had a long speech in which Vanya rants about the world that is no longer the reassuring place he knew as a child — it's now a place of texting and too many TV channels, and no cultural commonality. Could you feel, each night, the audience's identification with this outburst?
DHP: That speech ultimately boils down to how there was a time when we were all connected through the popular media like television — even though the things we were watching may have been idiotic, we were watching them together as a family, as a country. Now, because of the profusion of new technology and social media, we find ourselves by ourselves, watching whatever we're watching. We feel disconcerted. That's something that an older generation recognizes as something that's been lost. The younger generation suddenly realizes something they may have been feeling but weren't conscious of. When you talk about the opera or theater or a concert hall, those are the places where we still get together and experience something like a group, as an audience. That's a kind of connection that has become more precious because it is more rare.
ON: In Carson McCullers's story "Wunderkind," a young girl hits the moment where she realizes she does not have the talent for a career as a concert pianist. You entered Yale as a piano major and switched majors quickly. Did you have a "big moment," like the character in the story?
DHP: Mine was not dramatic in that way. When I went to Yale as an undergrad, I thought I was going to be a music major focused on piano performance. In a way, it was as simple as realizing over the course of the first term that I just wasn't interested in a lot of the classes that I would have to take, in a lot of the amount of the time that I would have to practice. I was always a good sight-reader. I thought if you could play many of the notes, why would you have to bother to play all of the notes? I think it was a kind of gradual realization that my heart wasn't in it in that way, even though I love music. The thing that happened a few years ago in L.A. was that I found a great Russian piano teacher, and that started me on a new journey in music-making. So many of the people I've met who were professional musicians and then gave it up to do other things in the arts say, "I never play anymore, because I couldn't stand how far I've fallen from my standard." I feel I was blessed by being mediocre. I play every day. Instead of just reading through stuff, I work on things, and I improve, because there's no pressure and nothing lost and no performance I'm aiming for. The sky's the limit. I'll play as long as I can move my hands.
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