Jimmy Vaughan returns to play at concert for Veronica Dunne’s 91st birthday

The Dublin native explains life as head coach do at one of the world’s great opera houses

Jimmy Vaughan has been gone a long time from his native Dublin. His name does crop up from time to time in recitals with singers, or on a competition jury. But the heyday of his work at home was as long ago as the 1980s. He's back in Dublin to play at the celebratory concert Veronica Dunne Turns 91 on Saturday, September 1st.

When we met up I asked him first for a potted history of his post-Dublin career. He graduated from TCD with a degree in musicology and composition, and describes that landmark as “the opportunity, finally, to go somewhere. Most of my contemporaries studying piano would have been going to London or New York or maybe Berlin or Vienna, I had always been very much attracted by the idea of Italy. I desperately wanted to go there.”     People seem to have thought the choice a little crazy for a pianist. But, he says, “I was so much taken by world of opera, chamber music as well, but mostly the culture of Italy and the language — I wanted to get involved in that immediately.     “I went to Rome, and got an Italian government scholarship to study at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, at the time when it was still on the Via della Conciliazione. When you walked out you turned to the right and saw the Vatican at the end of the street. To the left was the Castel Sant’Angelo and the Tiber.”

For whatever amount of time he spent in the Accademia, he says, “I spent 10 times more walking around the city in every direction. It took me a while to understand that what I was doing was just breathing in the culture and the language. That was, in fact, an ideal preparation for a career in opera.”

There was of course a major snag. “It was difficult to get work. We need to eat! You’ve seen the first act of Bohème. That’s when I learned the word gerontocrazia, gerontocracy. I hadn’t come across it before. Everybody told me that Italy was a renowned gerontocracy and to get work, especially in an opera house, you had to bide your time.”     The solution came from “the wonderful violinist Maighréad McCrann” with whom he had worked a lot. She was working in Vienna and suggested that musical life there was so rich he would surely find something. ‘”I said I’d invested all my time learning Italian, my world is the Mediterranean world, now. She said, come up, anyway.”


Studying in Vienna     

Ironically, he explains, "although I had to start studying German there, I found work almost immediately, and developed a great love for the city, which is a Mecca for musicians. It should be mandatory for all musicians to spend some time there. I knocked on doors in the Hochschule für Musik and asked to attend venerable professors' lessons who I'd never heard of the day before. I came and listened to the lessons knowing that sooner or later they would need a pianist to stand in because somebody hadn't turned up. That did happen, and X leads to Y, and so on."     A year or so after he got his toe in the door, "I got the call from the Wiener Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera, which I really hadn't been expecting. Although I spent most of my evenings there, I didn't expect to work backstage. They were urgently looking for somebody to work on an opera by an almost-forgotten Viennese composer, Ernst Krenek, who had escaped from Germany just before the war. He was one of the Entartete Kunst composers." Krenek's greatest claim to fame is the 1927 so-called jazz opera Jonny spielt auf.      "He wrote this opera called Kehraus um St Stephan, Last Dance around St Stephen's Cathedral, just before the Nazis took complete power. It was left and never performed. They wanted now finally to perform it as a tribute to him. He was coming over for it, aged over 90. But it was only in manuscript, and I suppose they were looking for somebody who was prepared to put in the 12 hours a day to actually decipher it. That's how I got in. It went very, very well. I met Krenek and I worked with him, and then they offered me a contract."     The Vienna State Opera, he says, is "the most extreme opera house in the world, because it has a performance every night of the year for 10 months. So you can be working today on Arabella by Strauss, tomorrow on Salome, then on Walküre and the next day on a baroque opera.      "I just remember my first two or three years there as being a dizzy whirl, and having to stay up at least two nights a week purely to study and prepare. It was very, very tiring, very exhausting but very enthralling. You were working with some of the greatest singers and conductors straight away. When you weren't working with them, you were listening to others and getting as much repertoire into your system as possible."     In spite of the extreme challenges, he says, "I thank the gods always for those first three or four years, because I got into my system very quickly an enormous repertoire. And that's what helped me thereafter."     Thereafter involved "a bit of freelancing" and work around the world "in China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil. And then, Riccardo Muti [music director of La Scala in Milan], who had known me from Vienna, called me to Milan to work on the opening of the season, which was Wagner's Götterdämmerung.      "We had a great rapport, straight away. He just said, 'Don't you want to stay here and work with me?' My answer was yes. And now, next October, I will be 20 years working there. I've had the opportunity also to work in Paris, in Berlin, and in many other leading opera houses. But La Scala is where I've been stationed. Home has been Milan since 1998."

One of world’s great opera house   

The initial deal at La Scala was a one-month contract to work on a single production. And then, when he was asked to stay, "I presumed I would be working on the German repertoire, and perhaps the rare English repertoire that would come up. But no. Muti insisted he wanted me for everything, Verdi, Puccini. I was given the position of head coach in 1999, which I've held ever since."     So what exactly does a head coach do at one of the world's great opera houses? "You work on seven to eight productions a year, hands-on, personally preparing the singers, working very closely with the conductor — that in itself is an enormous amount of work. You perform in the operas where necessary, if there's a keyboard part, or where there's a continuo.      "The general work of an opera coach can range from scenic rehearsals to working with one singer over a period of many months on one role. I remember having to prepare a Tristan, we worked for nine months consecutively before we did the wonderful Patrice Chéreau in 2007 with Daniel Barenboim. That was really just nine months shut off from the world, to prepare the Tristan. Because, as you know, it's one of the longest and most complex roles, and requires the greatest stamina. But it's also intellectually demanding. In the Second Act there are passages in there that are pure philosophy. There are many Germans who don't quite understand what's going on there. That was an extreme example."

Problem solver     

His workload is varied enough for him to have played, all alone in the pit, keyboard works by Handel for a ballet danced by Roberto Bolle. Next year he will do the same for a ballet of Schubert’s Winterreise. “As you can imagine for a pianist interested in Lieder this is one of the great, great works. It gives me the opportunity to play that eight times next year, and to go into it in a depth I haven’t had the opportunity to do before.”      The way in which he describes his work makes him sound like a kind of messenger between conductor and singers, but also an interpreter, an adviser, an instructor, and a person who solves problems in the background so that some of his colleagues might never even know there was a problem there to be solved in the first place.      ”Luckily in the theatre I work in, you can assume you will have singers of a very high technical level. That means you can ask more and more and more of them. You can be much more demanding, in a collegial way, obviously. You have the joy of working on a quintet or a sextet with those voices together, at the piano first of all, for many rehearsals”.      He instances issues of getting the balance absolutely right, throwing a spotlight on a dissonance and its resolution, or dealing with issues of text.     ”It goes right until the last performance. In every performance I will be there, noting, writing, correcting. That means a visit to every dressing room before every performance, and, if necessary, adding in rehearsals during the run. We may have a second cast, we may have substitute singers. The work goes on until the last performance, and we have a very demanding audience in Milan. There’s no question of relaxing once the premiere is behind you.”     He describes the singer and teacher Veronica Dunne as “music incarnate,” adding, “I can’t believe it’s to celebrate her 91st birthday, because she shows 20 years less than that. I think she is somebody who is sustained by music. You see that she is motivated by music and by love of music from the morning through to midnight. That’s what keeps her so special for us, what keeps her so enthusiastic, and what draws people to her.”

The celebratory concert Veronica Dunne Turns 91 at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, September 1st, features Miriam Murphy, Young Woo Kim, Gemma Ní Bhriain, Robert McAllister and Jimmy Vaughan. nch.ie