Ask Opera Australia’s new assistant chorus master, Thomas Johnson, how he would describe his first two weeks at the national company, and he bursts out laughing. “Very full on!” he says. And upon reflection: “Full on but amazing.”
Johnson began his full-time OA career in Melbourne, where he rehearsed extra chorus members for the Company’s Lucia run last Spring. A week later he was in Sydney, where he added three more operas – Madama Butterfly, A Masked Ball and Il Trovatore – to his repertoire.
If he’d done things the conventional way, he’d be at Uni completing the final semester of a music degree. But for Johnson, making music was always more important than acquiring certificates that said you were able to make music.
Having started piano lessons at the age of five, after his parents had bought a converted pianola from a furniture store for $200, his first exposure to show biz came in high school, when the teacher who was playing for the school musical fell ill and Johnson was pulled from class to sight-read the piano score. “From then on I was the rehearsal pianist for musicals at our school,” he says, with a grin.
Some years later at Uni, when invited to play piano for the Oz Opera La traviata tour, he jumped at the opportunity even though he was halfway through his degree. Uni, where he’d been accompanying singers in their lessons and coaching sessions every week, had provided excellent experience for the Oz Opera adventure. He says: “I never dreamed of being a concert pianist; that solitary, difficult life does not appeal to me. I enjoy the sociability of working with singers and in an opera company.”
The Oz Opera tour, “the hot tour to all the beautiful tropical places”, enabled Johnson to spend three months on the road gaining invaluable experience. At the end of it, having forged close friendships with several orchestra members who all lived in Melbourne, he decided to move to the Victorian capital and take his chances there. When Oz Opera Director Sandra Willis invited him to be music director for Schools Company, everything fell into place.
Preparing and touring with the company’s Magic Flute production was another great learning experience. “Kids have such honest reactions to opera,” Johnson says. “They let you know if they’re enjoying it…and they let you know if they’re not enjoying it too!”
Five weeks after the end of that tour, and back at Uni, he saw the ad for the position of assistant chorus master on OA’s website. He didn’t think he had a chance of getting it – “I’ve played a lot, but not professionally” – but applied anyway, and was invited for an audition.
He remembers standing in front of the Opera Australia chorus, feeling very nervous. Ten days earlier he’d been given a section to prepare. “[Chorus master] Michael Black took the rehearsal and I played piano for the first half hour, then it was my turn. To be in a smallish room with 42 professional singers singing at the top of their lungs…that was an amazing experience.”
Chorus masters are among the most multi-skilled professionals in an opera company, and it goes without saying that they are expected to be accomplished pianists with outstanding sight-reading skills. They also have to be able to learn large amounts of music quickly, and have a basic knowledge of Italian, German and French. And it helps to have a smattering of Russian and Czech.
But the really important thing, Johnson says, is the ability to follow the conductor and singers’ mental processes and respond to them. “You have to be able to absorb a lot of detail through observing people, but with experience you get used to it.”
As part of his preparation for Lucia, he listened to four different recordings of the opera. The most important thing he learned from exposure to such variety was that tempi vary widely from conductor to conductor. “During the audition, we were rehearsing a fast section in 3/4 time. Then Michael gave me a quick glance and said, ‘We’re jumping to one beat per bar.’ You have to be able to go with that kind of change straightaway.”
For a new member of music staff, the first year at an opera company is a huge learning curve – by November this year Johnson will have worked on 19 different operas. “I feel very privileged to have a job where I get paid for absorbing this amount of music,” he says. “But it’s a good thing I love opera!”
How much time does he spend preparing? “Pretty much as much time as I have.”
As a result of his appointment with OA, Johnson has had to defer his studies again. “I’ve completed all the practical modules and I want to finish the rest, but for now, it’s all opera.”
He’s not too concerned. “I’m not much of a planner; things have always fallen into place.”