Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Meet the Artist: Jay Rozendaal

Jay Rozendaal
By Glenn Hare

Jay Rozendaal has been a staff Coach-Accompanist at Seattle Opera since 1991, working primarily behind the scenes to support singers throughout the rehearsal process. In this interview, Jay talks about how the pandemic has challenged the way he works, his desire to learn the piano as a child, and his recent thrust into the limelight.

As one of Seattle Opera’s coach accompanists, your work is done mostly behind the scenes. However, during the pandemic you have been in the spotlight. Your piano playing has been heard in the Don Giovanni production and you took center stage during The Elixir of Love performance. What do you make of this recent notoriety?
I’d have to say, it is gratifying to be in this position, being in the spotlight. Nevertheless, it is interesting how most people don’t realize that David McDade (Head of Coach Accompanists) and I even exist. What is more surprising, is explaining what we do, even to people who know a lot about opera.

What do you tell them?
I remind them how expensive it would be to have an orchestra playing at all the rehearsals. They go, "Oh, right." Our role throughout the rehearsals is to emulate the orchestra—to serve as a sort of substitute. Of course, we can’t sound exactly like an entire orchestra, so choices have to be made—what to play and what to let go. There are times when the piano score is close to the orchestra score. But when that doesn't really represent the true orchestration, we have to make adjustments. Mainly, we try to best represent what the singers will be hearing when the orchestra is added.

You and David McDade, Head of Coach Accompanists, were onstage for The Elixir of Love production. What was that like?
Yes we were, right behind the performers. At the end of the performance, we took a bow like orchestra players during “normal” productions. With Don Giovanni, we ended up recording the accompaniment in advance of the filming. Although we are not seen in that production, we'll be heard, certainly. The entire experience has been different, and fun. I really love what I do. It’s like I said, this has been deeply gratifying to have people actually see what we do.

In pre-pandemic times: Jay Rozendaal with David McDade, Head of Coach Accompanists. Photo by John Keene

Usually, how long does it take to prepare for rehearsals?
It's kind of a tricky calculus. It depends on how familiar I am with the piece and what else is going on. Normally, after the season is announced, at my first opportunity, I will play through anything that is new—anything that I do not already know or have not done before. I play the entire piece to find out how hard it is. Then I determine how much time I will need to learn it. Once that is done, I figure out how to fit the unfamiliar piece around the other shows on the calendar. You know, the production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was a hard piece. The piano score did not represent the orchestra well at all, so there was a lot of work to do there. I started working on it six months ahead. Flight has taken about the same amount of time. With a piece that I already know, it takes about a month of preparation. Don Giovanni or La traviata takes only a few weeks for fingers to remember them. Familiar works come back just that fast.

An onstage rehearsal of The Elixir of Love, 2020. Christina Scheppelmann photo 

When did you start learning to play the piano?
I was seven, just before my eighth birthday is when I started playing. There was no Suzuki Method back then, and seven was considered too young to start learning. But I nagged my parents since I was five or younger. I really wanted to play. Back in the 1960s, teachers wouldn't take me. My parents kept telling me to be patient and wait. They finally found a teacher who would take me when I was almost eight.

Was there a piano in the house?
Yeah, my mom played a little bit. My dad played a little bit. I remember my mom taking lessons when I was little. I would sit at the piano and imitate her. My mom took a photo of me sitting at the piano pretending to play when I was 18 months old. It was inevitable that I became a piano player.

Other than the usual challenges of your job, how has the pandemic changed the way you work?
You know, just trying to work with singers remotely has been a big challenge for us. The early artist recitals—the ones we did remotely before we started recording them here in the Opera Center—were tough to do. It is hard to be on the same page when you are not in the same place. There are many emails, lots of give and take, and lots of clarifying. Coaching remotely is not impossible, but it is challenging. The technology to be able to play and sing together in real time remotely is still improving. It requires a lot of digital infrastructure, and not everyone has access to it yet.

In pre-pandemic times: Jay Rozendaal (front, right) with Phil Kelsey, Assistant Conductor, and David McDade, Head of Coach Accompanists. Philip Newton photo

Do you miss the intimacy of rehearsals?
Yes. Even though we are getting to rehearse together again, it is not the same. It is not the same because the COVID protocols keeps us at some distance from each other. It is impossible to have close conversations with colleagues from six feet away. But we’re managing. It is amazing how adaptable people are. For the most part, we are finding ways to adapt to and cope. Hence, witness what we are doing here at Seattle Opera. We are finding ways to do the thing that we love.

What would you like audiences to know about Seattle Opera and how we are striving to create new art?
I would like them to know that all of us love what we do. We love the art that we make, and no pandemic can keep us away from it. It's who we are as artists. It nourishes us to be in this creative endeavor and to be in it together. Secondly, the audience is essential. Yes, we do it because we need to, but also because others love opera, too. The audience and the performers—we all need each other. There is a mutual love and enrichment in the practice of performing.

One last questions: how do you sanitize a piano without damaging it?
Our piano technician recommended that we lightly wipe the keys down with rubbing alcohol. Hand sanitizer and other kinds of cleaning wipes can be severely harmful to the keys. We wipe off the keys each time before we sit down to play.

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