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The Value of Great Technical and Musical Preparation

Joao Pires faces a great challenge

Pianist Maria Joao Pires was in for the shock of her life when, during rehearsal, the Conzertgebouw Orchestra started playing a concerto different from the one she was expecting to play. On the video you can intuit the surge of conflicting emotions within her. Thanks to her unusual talent and preparation, she was able to play the concerto she was presented with. Luckily, she had it in her repertory. Her talent, aplomb, experience and technique enabled her to recall all that information and bring it to life at a moment’s notice. Amazing!

The lesson for performers is to regularly review the repertory and to be ready to tap into it at a moment’s notice. Many great careers have been started that way. Do you know any such story?

Schuman-Heink got her big brake when a colleague fell out of favor with the management of the Hamburg Opera. She then sang Carmen without reharsal and later took on two other big roles at that opera house.

Kudos to Ms. Joao Pires and to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, amazing performers and brave human beings!


For those of you who may like to read Schuman-Heink’s own colorful account of how, after struggling for years, the opportunity came about for her to sing Carmen and other important roles in Hamburg, scroll down. This is taken from SCHUMANN-HEINK THE LAST OF THE TITANS BY MARY LAWTON New York THE MACMILLAN COMPANY 1928

“Well, anyway, after this period things began to be

easier and I must tell you how I first began to get

better parts in Hamburg. It was when one of my col-

leagues the prima donna contralto: Goetze was her

name started to make trouble. She was always my

worst enemy and kept me down. Now, Pollini was

much interested in Goetze, and so, too, was von Bil-

low. She had studied Carmen with him, so in a way she

was a kind of protegee of von Billow, always getting

the preference, the big parts. She always sang Carmen,

and I had to be content with Her cedes, a small bit,

until this time although I wanted to sing Carmen

myself like every other singer on the face of the


Well, Goetze had some kind of quarrel with Pollini

which often happens with prima donnas and Pol-

lini flew into a terrible rage. He got furious with her, and told her:

“You are not the only one who can sing Carmen.

There is some one else right here in the opera who can

do it! I will now give the Heink the opportunity she

wants. That’s what I’ll do!” (You see, Pollini had

changed his tune about me.)

So it was that Pollini sent for me in great excite-

ment and asked if I could sing Carmen that same

night without a rehearsal.

Of course, I said, “You bet,” or something equally

strong in my best German!

I sang it Fd have sung it if I had died on the stage

for I knew now was my chance at last.

But now comes a funny thing. You see, I had

studied Carmen by ear with my teacher when I was

very young, and from that time on I had always

watched each of the different Carmens, always hoping

I could get a chance to sing it, and had learned it in

that way. I learned a little from them all mostly

their faults, though by just watching; and Mahler,

the conductor, said afterwards (Oh, how he laughed!) that I had all the mistakes of all the Car-

mens combined! I had learned all the faults when I

learned the part which was perfectly true.

“Yes,” Mahler said, “the Heink, she has all the

peculiarities of all the Carmens! She makes the same

stupid old mistakes that they all make but she sings

it, just the same.”

And, thank God, I sang it that time and saved the


Of course, I had no costumes at this time, and noth-

ing ready for Carmen, but my colleagues were very

good. They all helped out. One gave a veil, another a

skirt, another beads, some one else a comb. Everything

I could lay hands on I borrowed for that great occa-

sion. And Marie Kauer I’ll tell you about her later

gave me her beautiful shawl.

It was funny, when you come to think of it, for all

those things from the different singers were of all

sizes and lengths: one was too short, another too long

one too big and one too small. But I managed some-

how everything except the shoes, and they were too

short. Ach! I could hardly walk, they hurt me so. But

I did walk somehow. I suppose excitement made me

forget the pain. At any rate, my Carmen was a great

success. Today I would not dare to do such a thing,

but then well, that is youth plus ambition.

The next opera was to be f( 7> Prophete.” Goetze

who was furious, of course, at my success in Carmen

cancelled again. She thought this time I was not pre-

pared, and couldn’t jump in as I did with Carmen,

and would make a terrible fiasco. But Pollini, still

angry, comes again, and asked if I could sing Fides,

too. Again I said, “Yes, you bet,” in my strongest Ger-

man. Now, you must understand that Fides, in ff Le Pro-

pbete” is one of the biggest contralto parts ever writ-

ten. It goes up and down with coloratura oh, what

a part! Even Pollini doubted me in fact, they all

thought I couldn’t possibly do it ; that I wouldn’t dare

to attempt this difficult role without even a rehearsal.

But he was in such a hole he had to risk it.

I went home and studied like the devil was after

me, and I did manage it somehow, and I sang Fides in

f *Le Propbete.” It was a tremendous success, I may say.

And then for the third time Goetze, who was now

raging, cancelled for Ortrud in “Lohengrin.” And

that, too, I sang without a rehearsal. Then I was made

at last! Then it was that Pollini all smiles, this time

came and gave me a new contract.

Well, I was ready for him ready to sing Carmen,

Fides, Ortrud all the big roles everything. I took

my opportunity with both hands. I tried to learn

from every one. I never was so swell-headed that I

didn’t know I could learn from others, and poverty

had made me very humble. Ach! what I went

through! All the years I slaved for my profession,

until I came to the United States. It took me twenty

years to make my career. That is why I respect to this

day the highest and the lowest be it a boy in the

theater, a working man, every one can teach me a

little bit of life and all that helps to a career and


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