9 May 2014 at 2.58pm | Comment on this article
‘Apparently, I came home from school one day and said I wanted to learn the piano,’ says Paul Wingfield, conductor and répétiteur on the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. ‘I wanted to play in musicals, The Phantom of the Opera in particular, and at about nine or ten years old I was writing letters to bands saying I would love to have the piano part in their orchestra!’
From his early West End ambitions, Paul had a natural enthusiasm for piano. In sixth form, he saw his first opera, The Royal Opera’s Tristan und Isolde, an experience he describes as 'seminal', before becoming an Organ Scholar at Oxford University. Now, as a Young Artist, his role includes accompanying rehearsals, performing in the orchestra pit and conducting. Since joining the Programme in 2012, he has worked as First Répétiteur on Elektra and Don Giovanni.
‘You have lots of different hats as a répétiteur,’ he says. ‘People say you only notice if the répétiteur is getting it wrong, but without them in rehearsal, nothing would be able to happen at all; it is a hugely unsung role.’
A répétiteur acts as a pianist and coach in rehearsals, playing the vocal score for singers, taking notes for the conductor and helping to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
‘The répétiteur has to adapt the vocal score to make it sound orchestral, but still play all the notes on a piano. At times, it’s a case of not playing what’s on the page, but finding ways around it to create the right sound for the singers,’ he says. ‘We are also a sounding board for advice and opinions - the go-between for the singers and conductor. In a way, it is as much about diplomacy and people management as it is about the music. You have to make quick decisions about what sort of person you are working with and how to get the best out of them.’
For Paul, preparation is key; the répétiteur needs to know the detail of the instrumentation and word for word what is going on in the libretto. ‘There is no way you could turn up to a rehearsal here without being completely on top of it. If you are in a position where you are advising people and suggesting things, you have to be on a front foot with it and the person who is the most switched on.’
‘The celeste has a distinctive bell-like sound that cuts across the orchestra. It is often used with Tosca’s entrances, which gives her a sort of showbiz sheen. There is something slightly sparkly about her music, creating a sense of the prima donna,’ he says. ‘Tosca has the most fantastic dramatic sweep and so it is great to also play the organ as this really contributes to the drama on-stage. It is an electronic organ located in the left-hand corner of the stalls circle that feeds through to speakers at the back of the stage. I don’t end up hearing very much, but I’m told that backstage, it is deafening!’
Previously, Paul has played the organ in Turandot and harpsichord in Don Giovanni.
‘After playing harpsichord in Don Giovanni I thought I had a good impression of it, but I saw it on TV last week and it was a complete surprise to me,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing what happens to the sound when it goes over the orchestra rail into the audience. Everything gets blended together and it sounds completely different. You always have to bear that in mind as a musician.’
Paul’s role as répétiteur also includes stage duties – one of which is to conduct off-stage musicians during performances. In Tosca for example, there are off-stage bells played backstage by two orchestral musicians. They are conducted by the répétiteur with a TV monitor to the pit.
‘It can be very difficult due to the delay in sound reaching the pit and audience and so there is a bit of trial and error to get a feel for it. My rule of thumb is that if feels wrong or risky, you are probably right. If it feels exactly right, you are behind!’
Since joining the Programme in 2012, Paul has undertaken stage duties for many productions, including Parsifal, Turandot and Die Frau ohne Schatten. However, he still finds time for other pursuits: ‘I’m learning to tap dance at the moment. Although it’s not part of my répétiteur duties, I love movement direction and you can’t underestimate the importance of moving to music. In a way, a conductor is the only person allowed to dance to the music and so it’s very important to be aware of the expressive possibilities of the body.’
On the Programme, Paul has conducted Southbank Sinfonia for both productions in Meet the Young Artists Week in the Linbury Studio Theatre, Mozart and Salieri (2012) and El gato con botas (2013), and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in the overture and part of Act I of Die Zauberflöte for the JPYA Summer Performance on the main stage in 2013. To conclude the Programme, he will conduct Act I of La favorite in the JPYA Summer Performance later this Season.
‘There have been so many big challenges on the JPYA Programme. When I started, I could never have imagined doing all the things I have done; from playing The Minotaur, which was just a forest of black notes with more rhythmic drive than melody in the traditional sense, to playing the harpsichord for Don Giovanni, a huge responsibility. Everything is its own mountain, but so far, so good!’
Paul will also be acting as First Répétiteur for Manon Lescaut. The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme is supported by Oak Foundation. Find out more about the programme in our News and Features section.