Interview: Susannah Wapshott

susannah wapshott

First published in The Herald on 1 October, 2014

Susannah Wapshott is unfazeable. She has to be: as staff répétiteur for Scottish Opera, her role translates to quick-fire knowledge of pretty much every aspect of the opera business. Wapshott can sing a decent approximation of any vocal part and sight-read full orchestral scores at the piano. She can coach singers, direct chorus rehearsals, shadow movement directors, fine-tune diction in several languages. She can provide a shoulder for singers to cry on in rehearsals and nerves of steel in performances. And she can conduct. “An almighty multi-tasker,” she calls herself. “A jack of all trades. A blagger who has to convince everyone, including myself.”

But Wapshott doesn’t look like she is blagging. She is a formidably capable and self-composed musician. And, because of the shoestring nature of Scottish Opera’s touring productions, she is also unusually visible for a UK répétiteur: she not only works behind the scenes preparing the chorus and soloists for full productions, but also plays the role of orchestra and conductor in small-scale performances accompanied from the piano. Her handling of Verdi’s La traviata two years ago was stylish, shapely and rock-solid (a collection of attributes that Scottish Opera’s as-yet-unappointed new music director would do well to live up to). She is currently travelling the country with a vocal score and a Yamaha upright, conducting, and playing, Verdi’s Macbeth from Lerwick to Langholm.

“I love this tour,” she tells me over a coffee the morning after the tour’s opening night. She looks bright-eyed, calm, entirely undaunted by the prospect of 14 more performances. “I love changing people’s opinions of what opera can sound like on the piano. Proving that it is possible to make a real range of colours. Audience members often tell me that they were initially sceptical when they saw it would be a piano-accompanied performance, but that within two minutes of the overture they’d forgotten there was no orchestra. For me, that’s the greatest complement ever.”

She says that Macbeth is the trickiest opera she has yet conducted from the piano because it involves so much ensemble work. Inevitably she can’t provide the consistent direction that a conductor would – she’s busy using her hands for playing most of the time. Add to that the fact that tour performances are often staged in venues where sight-lines and luxuries such as off-stage monitors are limited, and the challenge of musical synchronicity at times comes down to, well, collective intuition.

“The trick is drilling the singers, getting them to take responsibility for their own rhythm,” Wapshott explains. “Some do struggle, especially more experienced ones who have got into the habit of always seeing the conductor and having monitors everywhere. I try to build up a good rapport between the cast during the rehearsal period and to work on subtle cues. I make sure that my face is lit wherever we perform because there’s so much I can do with my expression and movements.” It’s a bit like performing in a string quartet, she says. “Eventually the ensemble playing becomes second nature.”

It’s interesting that Wapshott compares piano-accompanied opera to chamber music; certainly the sense of intimacy and shared responsibility can bring similar benefits. “When singers aren’t just relying on someone else to give them cues but are actually listening to each other, you can hear that in their legato line. The danger,” she says, “is that nobody keeps the momentum going. Over the years I’ve learned how to make singers feel as though they’re in control, but ultimately it is my responsibility to pace the thing…”

For her own part, the main challenge is not to strain her muscles through the sheer physicality of being an entire orchestra. She says that she thinks “one hundred percent orchestrally”; that she hears the score as it would be played in the original instrumentation. “There’s a risk of overplaying in order to bring out the breadth of sound that I want. Often it’s about knowing what to leave out as much as what to leave in. Mostly it’s about staying relaxed.” Paradoxically, she achieves more sound at the piano the more relaxed she is. Her shoulders gave her grief during The Barber of Seville a couple of years ago; all those fast Rossinian repeated notes. She went to an osteopath, who pointed out that her job is effectively that of an endurance athlete.

Luckily Wapshott learned the right kind of solid, flexible technique back when she was a teenager. She grew up in Shropshire in a home that had plenty of sheet music lying around. Sight-reading always came easily: she didn’t practise much for lessons, but instead would play through any music that caught her fancy. “I’m probably a good reader because I have such a short attention span…” It’s to do with more than that, of course; there’s pattern recognition and anticipation. When faced with a full orchestral score there is no way to read every single note; the trick is speaking the composer’s language fluently enough to guess. Plus there were the inescapable scales. “I practised scales for years and years and years,” Wapshott says. “That’s probably the real secret!”

After an academic music undergraduate at Manchester University, postgraduate studies in accompaniment at the Royal Northern College of Music and répétiteuring at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Wapshott applied for the Scottish Opera job and got it. “I fell into this because it’s something that I love,” she says. “But it was also practical. Singers can pay an obscene amount of money to train, whereas there’s often funding to study répétiteuring. We’re sort-of working for the conservatoire – basically, they need us.”

Wapshott recently took over as music director of the venerable Edinburgh Grand Opera music society and will conduct its production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in the spring. She says that she interested in straight-up conducting and wants to do more, but is reluctant to say she wants to go down the route of actually being a conductor. “That would mean I wouldn’t play so much and I’d hate that. Besides, some scores I would much rather play on the piano.” She mentions Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, which surprises me: wouldn’t she want to conduct such a sumptuous panoply of orchestral colour? “Na,” she replies. “It’s just so wonderful to get those colours out of the piano.”

Macbeth tours Scotland until November 1