This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
The next time you hear the glory rising from the orchestra pit, spare a moment’s thought for the man behind that sound, who pours himself into his piano.
The goal is to keep the sound from dying, always. The piano and the man playing it both have their limits. Coaxing forth the sound of an orchestra from a single piano is a partnership between man and instrument; where the piano isn’t up to the task, the man must pour in more of himself. “If you just play a solid chord, the sound begins to dissipate right away, whereas if you do tremolo, you can sustain a fortissimo chord for a whole measure, or three measures,” says Robert Byrens.
As the rehearsal pianist for Opera Grand Rapids, Robert is the engine room of the opera’s musical apparatus. For weeks of rehearsals, which can last eight hours in a single day, Robert must represent the whole of the orchestra with his piano. That’s where the tremolo comes in. “You shake your hand to play a full chord, and not have the sound die like it would on the piano if you play a solid chord.” This intentional quivering is one of many grand gestures Robert makes to approximate the sounds of a full orchestra, so that the singers in rehearsal can build their performances over his music, hour by hour. It’s impractical to have an entire orchestra play at every rehearsal, so opera companies retain rehearsal pianists like Robert to stand in for the orchestra during rehearsal. Channeling dozens of musicians for eight hours can be exhausting, intellectually and physically.
“In order to stay really relaxed and be able to play all that time, you have to develop a skill of playing with the most effortless style that you can,” says Robert. “You can’t play in an intense, vigorous style for eight hours without really sore arms and a really sore back. Over the years, I’ve learned to relax as I play even more.” But sometimes the music doesn’t want you to relax. Hours of navigating intense passages occasionally send even the most seasoned pianist home to ice his arms or get a massage.
“It can be laborious,” he says. The score for OGR’s recent performance of Rigoletto, for instance, is three hundred fifty-seven pages long. It’s a herculean task that can take its toll after twenty-four years. Robert freely admits that the physical part of the job has gotten more difficult with time. But he explains this with a warm smile; he conveys the sense of contentment common to people for whom the terms “career” and “art” are interchangeable. “It’s one of the joys of my life. I love doing it. It’s been a great run so far. I’m looking forward to many more years.”
As challenging as his role can be on a physical level, the rehearsal pianist’s greater challenges are intellectual ones. One his main functions is “orchestral reduction”—that is, distilling the dozens of instruments in an opera into a piano piece that is recognizable as the source material, without omitting anything essential. Sometimes this means interpreting a smaller chamber orchestra for a Mozart opera; sometimes, it means trying to make a mere ten fingers do the job of a thousand. “It can be a very large orchestra for Strauss or Wagner where I’m trying to duplicate a hundred instruments. Obviously, I can’t do that,” says Robert. But when he’s doing it correctly, the listener gets the sense of the piece just the same. It’s a trick that clever composition and deft performance play on the ear.
Developing the skills to learn and interpret complex music in this way takes years of practice. Even a veteran like Robert spends long hours on his piano bench in the months preceding a production. “I’ll spend several months preparing an opera. I don’t come in and sight read at rehearsals. I do lots of work prior to the first downbeat, and I like to feel really well-prepared,” he says.
Since their skillset is so unique, rehearsal pianists are invaluable to an opera production. Without someone to play the music, there can be no proper rehearsal. The essential nature of the job is another reason Robert treasures it. “I like being the structure and support that the rehearsal needs, in the musical sense,” he says.
His love of music began very early. His mother is also a pianist and singer; he has early memories of skipping his nap time as a young child to sit underneath his mother’s piano and listen to her teach singing lessons. A few years later, he would go on to join a boys choir. Not long after, he took up the viola, which he played in symphony orchestras for twenty-six years. He plans to pick up the instrument again in retirement. For now, his focus is solely on his duties at Opera Grand Rapids and at Grand Valley State University, where he is on the music faculty.
As you read this, Robert may well be immersed in the score for his next opera, preparing to take up the pleasing burden of the one-man orchestra once again. The sore arms and musical puzzles won’t scare him away. He loves being part of the Opera Grand Rapids family. And while he may never say so, he has reason to be proud: he brings an enviable grace to one of the company’s hardest jobs. The next time you hear the glory rising from the orchestra pit, spare a moment’s thought for the man behind that sound, who pours himself into his piano.
OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.
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