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Key Partnership

LINDA HALL offers a coach’s insights on singing. by Willliam R. Braun

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Hall in a studio at Tanglewood, where she is a member of the vocal arts faculty
Photographs by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta
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Hall on the Tanglewood Grounds
© Dario Acosta

A member of the music staff at the Met — where, among many other things, she assisted with the house premieres of The Great Gatsby, A View From the Bridge and An American Tragedy — pianist Linda Hall is also a chamber musician, a fixture at Tanglewood in the summer and an in-demand accompanist for auditions and competitions. Last June she took the time to talk with a fellow coach/ accompanist about her many jobs, her musical preferences and her famously extended consultations with competing singers.

OPERA NEWS: There can be misunderstanding about vocal coaching. A vocal coach is not a voice teacher.

LINDA HALL: The voice teacher basically tells you how to sing, and the coach doesn’t usually mess with it. But if something is wrong, and you know the person very well, you might say, “What’s going on here?” — right? But it’s not our job. Our job is to make sure that the rhythms and the notes and the language and the drama, all of that, is there.

ON: How much of what you ask for in a coaching is your own preference?

LH: We want to be behind the conductor. We want the show to go well. You see, for us, what if something happens? What if somebody gets sick, what if a plane doesn’t arrive, what if somebody runs into a curb in Brussels and breaks a leg — what happens? You’ve got to put somebody else in, and that somebody else has got to be with the conductor, and you’ve got to help them be with the conductor. The conductor is boss, always. 

ON: Do you ever hear anything you’ve suggested working its way into the show?

LH: I doubt it. I did The Ghosts of Versailles, but John Corigliano was there the whole time. I was at his apartment one day, and I had the nerve to say about one place, “John, this is unplayable,” and he said, “The hell it is,” and he sat down and played it. So I said [in an Eeyore voice], “Oh — O-kay.” You know, you try to get away with stuff if you can.

ON: You work with the opera repertoire constantly. Can you still enjoy the music?

LH: There are operas I’ll probably never get tired of — Billy Budd, Tosca, Butterfly, Onegin. Right now I’m working on Lulu, and I can just sit there — I mean I can’t play it because it’s so damned hard — but I sit there and think, “My God, this is so beautiful.” I mean, there’s parts in it that make you just want to cry. And somehow when I get to the part near the end where it’s raining and all, I just see it all in my head when I’m playing it. I find I want to call up my niece — she’s a musician — and try to introduce her to it. I just want her to hear it and see how gorgeous it is.

ON: When you play big opera competitions, you’re known for talking to singers for a fair amount of time before they sing. What are you talking about?

LH: It might feel like a fair amount of time, but it isn’t. What I’m doing mostly is finding out about cadenzas, because people don’t write them in — and they should.… Or there’s a chord in Lenski’s aria, from Onegin, that in some editions is printed wrong, and if it’s wrong I might ask, do they know this note is wrong? And if they don’t know, I’ll play the wrong note that they’re used to, so I don’t throw them off. Tempi, always tempi. A lot of times, I’ll say, if there’s a tempo change in the piece, “You just change it if I’m wrong, even after the lead-in. Just do what you do.” Another thing I’ll say, but only after the audition is finished, is “How dare you? The hardest thing for a pianist is to turn pages, and you’re not putting these pages back-to-back, so I have twice as many page turns. How dare you!” But that’s when it’s done. You can’t say that before.

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Hall in the studio with soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon
© Dario Acosta

ON: What’s your advice for choosing arias?

LH: You want to have arias that aren’t terribly long. You get the feeling, when people offer something like Zerbinetta, that they’re saying to the judges, “You know, I’m a lot better than everybody else, so you can listen to me for twice as much time as you’re going to listen to my colleagues around me.” And it could be true, but it’s not a nice thing to say. The judges want short and sweet.… I think people have to find a mix between well-known arias that fit their voice and personality, and their looks, even, and then add something new and spicy that might pique the judges’ imagination.

ON: Are you often surprised by who wins?

LH: If I don’t agree, the thing is that I’m hearing something different from what the judges are hearing, because I am behind the singer and they are singing out to the judges. And that’s something else I might tell a singer. Some singers go so far away from me and turn their backs on me, and if I have a lot of things I have to do to stay with them, that’s the stupidest thing you can do. It’s to their advantage if I can see them breathe. I need to.

ON: When you see another pianist play auditions, are there things you want to change?

LH: It’s not your show. It’s the singer’s. So don’t play two pages of introduction. And I’m always careful not to play too loud — but to play loud enough, because they need something behind them. It’s a fine line.

ON: Looking back over your career, does anything come to mind as a highlight?

LH: I’m very glad to have worked at the Met. You are friends with people who are twice as young as you are, older than you are, from all different religions, from all different places. There are no boundaries to friendships at the Met — none — and there are not too many places like that. 

William R. Braun is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 

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