In conversation with… Andrea Katz, repetiteur, pianist, vocal coach

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki

I had the chance to speak to Andrea Katz, a busy pianist, repetiteur, vocal coach and true jack-of-all-trades. Andrea is the founder of Songmakers Australia, a vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of art song and lieder. Songmakers Australia is the Australian branch of the Songmakers Almanac established by Graham Johnson. Andrea also teaches and accompanies vocal students at Melbourne and Monash University, and runs the artist development program the Young Songmakers.

Alongside Andrea, the current core lineup of Songmakers Australia is: soprano Merlyn Quaife AM, tenor Brenton Spiteri, bass baritone Nicholas Dinopoulos and mezzo-soprano Christina Wilson. Songmakers Australia will soon be presenting a concert at Tempo Rubato, ‘Crossing the Bar’, in collaboration with vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six. Among the pieces performed will be Calvin Bowman’s piece ‘Crossing the Bar’. The full program and tickets can be found here.

Andrea can be contacted for coachings and collaborations through her Facebook page or website. You can keep up to date with events held by Songmakers Australia through their Facebook page, Instagram page, Youtube account or website.

The Young Songmakers can be followed on their Facebook page. Their next engagement will be taking part in the Beethoven marathon held by community radio station 3MBS on February 23rd.

You started your studies as a concert pianist. So I was wondering how you ended up as a repetiteur working intensely with singers and opera companies, was it a gradual transition or were the two paths intertwined from the beginning?

My life has been a serious of turns. Mostly dictated by the universe!

I was always attracted to vocal music. There were always records of great singers in my house. I come from a family of musicians so there was always music around, of all kinds. My mum played in an orchestra until a few years before she died. One of my first memories is me sitting on the floor in the middle of her chamber orchestra at rehearsal, just looking up at it all going on!

The idea of being a concert pianist was always there… and then you face reality. Looking back, I’ve realised that in order to be a concert pianist, I was probably about two or three years late every single turn. And the expectation is getting earlier and earlier. By the age of sixteen, if you’re not at the top of your game, that’s it, you’re late.

So I was about three or four years older than that. And by being later and saying to myself, okay, so I will go to a new place and I will start trying again, what happened was… it turned out that I had been collecting all of the information that I needed in order to be a repetiteur and a collaborative pianist.

So when I look back, the career that I have is the result of everything I have done my whole life. I don’t have any regrets over not being a solo pianist. I say solo pianist, not concert pianist… If I need to play a solo I’m able to play a solo, if I need to play with the orchestra, I’m able to play with an orchestra. In general my life is so much more fulfilling because I have so many other things. And that includes teaching!

On the topic of education, you’ve run the Vocal Ensemble subject at Melbourne Conservatorium of Music since 2006. Being in that class was a highlight of my degree because we actually got to get out there and sing a whole range of stuff! The first time I ever learnt passages of coloratura (virtuosic fast paced vocalisations) was for a piece for Vocal Ensemble.

Does it get easier over time to find repertoire for young singers? Some singers come to you when they’re 18 and they’re very fresh, and some singers come to you when they’re 22 and you can throw them in the deep end a bit.

During the first two or three semesters of Vocal Ensemble it was a little difficult to select repertoire. But then this magic thing started happening, where people kept coming back.

Because in theory, you only need to do Vocal Ensemble once. But you have the students who return. The ones that do it for credit, the ones that do it not for credit, the ones that have finished university like in the case of opera singer Daniel Todd. He was finishing his law degree after finishing his music degree, and actually came back to watch and participate in the class for a semester, as a kind of musical escape while he was studying law!

The class has evolved into this fluent thing, where you always have people coming back who take the new students under their wing. There is much more of an integration of the voices, and even if the repertoire sometimes is slightly out of the reach of the person assigned to it, by working with a group, it just elevates them.

A similar thing has been happening with the Young Songmakers singing alongside the senior Songmakers. They have been working with me for the entire year and they have been developing and they are all very, very talented. But the moment you combine them with the senior Songmakers, suddenly it’s like, bam. They start breathing in a different way, they start projecting in a different way… and it’s not forced, it’s just this osmosis of musical skills.

Andrea Katz (left) and Nicholas Dinopoulos (right)

So is the Young Songmakers program something that developed naturally through doing Songmakers Australia with Merlin Quaife and Nick Dinopoulous, who both work in music education alongside having active performance careers?

It was the natural progression, first of all because our model which has been the Songmakers Almanac with Graham Johnson. They also have a Young Songmakers program.

One really beautiful, serendipitous occasion was when Sally-Anne Russell, our original mezzo-soprano, decided after six years that she wanted to move on and do different things… So I got in touch with Christina Wilson, initially to ask her to take part in a concert which was coming up in three or four weeks. And she was absolutely magnificent and we just thought, she’s the right replacement. So I talked to her about it and she joined us. And the funny thing is, Christina studied in Manchester where she met her husband Alan Hicks, who is also a singer. And after moving to London together, they were actually Young Songmakers with Songmakers Almanac, under Graham Johnson!

Can you name a handful of composers who persistently inspire you? For someone who’s been in the game for as long as you have, it really means something when a composer’s work is still inspiring you decades and decades later…

Well you’ve touched on one of my favourite subjects. I’ve said this many times, I’m very honest about this… I love Schubert, I love Chopin, I love Beethoven and I have a very, very great affinity for Schumann.

But the only way that I can describe my relationship with Brahms is… Music for me very spiritual, very emotional, blah blah blah, whatever. And you can describe music as sensual or sexy, but that doesn’t mean you have that sort of relationship with a composer. But the only composer, I mean the only composer, whose music makes me realize immediately that am a woman, is Brahms. And I have no idea why. I hear two notes, three phrases in Brahms pieces and I just go… okay, I’m a female!

Andrea with the 2019 Young Songmakers. From left to right: Alastair Cooper-Golec, Hamish Gould, Andrea Katz, Stephen Coutts, Emilia Bertolini.

In March 2019, you performed in the play 33 Variations, named after the 33 variations Beethoven wrote on a waltz by Anton Diabelli. You were on stage playing the variations throughout the play. What was your role in the production and how did you find the theatrical elements interacted with your performance?

The main character of 33 Variations is musicologist. She discovers that she is suffering from motor-neuron disease, after she has been given a very important grant to research the 33 Variations. She wants to find why Beethoven was so obsessed with something so trite as the waltz by Diabelli. (That’s her opinion, not mine!) So there are parallels between what’s happening in her life, and what happened to Beethoven.

The play is very clever. It’s in 33 scenes. It doesn’t touch on all of the variations, but it touches on all the influential ones.

So she travels to Bonn, to the archives of Beethoven’s work and correspondence… And I cannot tell you how much fun we had searching through the materials, because you can actually access them online! In Bonn she meets a music librarian who becomes a very close friend. And while they start talking about Beethoven and his secretary Schindler, and Diabelli, there are flashbacks to scenes between Beethoven and Schindler. So you have scenes in the 18thcentury and the scenes in the 20th century. The one connection is the piano.

I learned the variations separately from the play, abstractly. In the same way you would approach any solo piano music. I did my analysis, finding the pulse of the music, etc, etc.

When we actually started rehearsing, none of those fundamental things changed for me in playing the pieces. I never changed the tempo of any of the variations to fit the action. Also, the choice of the variations are absolutely perfect. The author of the play actually worked with a very famous Beethoven scholar, so the choice of the variations was not left to chance.

What did change for me though, was the emotional attachment to the music. It proved to me that even abstract music does have a plot. I knew that before, but it became much clearer to me after working with actors at such a close proximity. During rehearsals we were talking about the situations, talking about the text, getting the dynamics. So some of the timing was changed.

It did become such an integral part of the performance. To the point that it was up to me to start the transition to the next scene. I would finish a variation in a way that would cue a lighting change, or the opening of a door. The variations very much became another character in the play.

Andrea Katz (left) and actor Ellen Burstyn (right) during the 2019 production of 33 Variations.

Do you think there is operatic repertoire that is often overlooked? Operas that you would like to see performed more frequently?

I think there is a lot of repertoire that is overlooked. For instance, there are some early Mozart operas which are really extraordinary. I remember working on Mitridate, re di Ponto with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. And Mozart wrote that when he was 14. There is something for everybody, there are three sopranos, two countertenors, tenors, baritones, basses, everyone! And it is extraordinary music and absolutely entertaining.

Cendrillon by Massenet is an absolutely magnificent opera that should be done much more. Pieces like Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges should be done more, it’s beautiful and would attract a lot of young children to the opera.

So basically if you follow some of the really interesting new, boutique opera companies in Australia, that’s the sort of repertoire that bigger companies should be doing too.  

As a very busy teacher, repetiteur, performer, coach…how do you tackle time management?

I’m a very disorganized person, but I’ve learned my lesson! So I rely more and more on planning and having a really clear calendar.

Sometimes the only way that you’re going to survive is by blocking two hours here and two hours there. You erase them from every booking calendar available for students or coachings. And that way you have those blocks in your personal calendar and you know you have that time.

I recommend to my students that they make a list of what they need to do the following day, and to actually cross the things they’ve achieved off their list. It’s very important to recognise all the achievements you’ve done in that day. It’s very foreign to my nature, but sometimes you have to learn to be organised!

And in more extreme cases, sometimes the only way that you’re going to survive is if you completely cancel one day. Because you’re overstretched and you really cannot do anymore. You apologized profusely, you lock the door and then you catch up with the word.

Have you had like what’s been a really rewarding moment for you in Vocal Ensemble out of all the like I’m sure there’s been multiple but do you remember like some moments over the years of doing it where you’re like, oh, I’m so glad I’m doing this.

So we did the Mozart requiem about six or seven years ago with the Melbourne University Orchestra. They approached me about doing it. And I said, yes I’ll do it, but all of the soloists have to come from the class.

So I had the four quartets, and one soprano at the beginning and the end. And the choir was made up of the biggest vocal ensemble class I ever had, we had 41 people. The entire semester was devoted to learning the Mozart requiem, and everyone sang everything except for the four quartets and solos. So that was a big one!

We did a Salon concert at the end of 2018 with Linda Barcan which was really gorgeous. We did Vaugh Williams’ Serenade to Music with sixteen solos, we’ve done Brahms Zigeunerlieder. And in the oratorio concert we had at the end of 2019, we had large groups singing without a conductor leading any of the ensembles.

A central philosophy of the class is to give people the tools to be as independent as possible.

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