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Chi Lives: Gwen Halstead, artist of a thousand voices

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Two accomplices to great vocal music tend to go unsung. One, the accompanist, may at least be seen and heard, and astute audience members appreciate the pianist's contribution to the singer's performance. The other, the repetiteur, is entirely invisible--but without his or her knowledge of how languages are to be sung (which often differs from the way they're spoken), of musical styles and phrasing, and of the whole history of vocal music and its performance, the singer would not sound nearly so impressive. After the voice teacher, who trains the voice physically, a good vocal coach is a singer's primary need: the repetiteur goes over every note, measure, and syllable of what's to be performed, in what may seem at times nit-picking of the first degree. But the result is a performance that is the best it can be, from overall interpretation to the dotted eighth notes. The repetiteur is an artist, and Gwen Halstead is one of the best.

Halstead, short, motherly, and ginger-haired, might not resemble the Great Musician, but behind the slightly fluttery manner, big glasses, and a tendency to call everyone "dear" lurks one of the sharpest intellects in Chicago music. Since moving to the Chicago area from her native Melbourne, Australia, in 1976, she has established herself as a concert pianist, accompanist--and outstanding vocal coach. And, proving that a prophet need not be without honor in her own country, Halstead has just spent the month of January contributing to the Australian Bicentenary celebration, imported to play in a Sydney recital.

Halstead began her public life as a very young Highland dancer, kicking and twirling in a small Robertson tartan kilt that she still has tucked away. She came to the piano relatively late, at 13, but took to it immediately. "It went very quickly; I got medals and all that sort of thing," she says matter-of-factly. "I was promised a bicycle for honors--so I did it." Something of a prodigy, she began studying at the local university as a teenager. As part-time assistant to a choir director, Halstead played for choruses and solo singers--and she was hooked. "I'd played for violinists and so forth, but there was something about the human voice. Once I worked with it in close quarters, got it under the microscope, I found I had an affinity with accompanying."

Halstead is modest but eloquent when she describes what a vocal coach does. "A repetiteur is not a voice teacher," she stresses. "He doesn't teach actual production. But when singers get to a certain stage, they need another set of ears. They also have a lot of ground to cover--languages, music, getting the shape of the music with the piano. A coach/accompanist/repetiteur just prepares singers for performance. That's the work I like to do--honing it until it's really shining and ready."

When Halstead married at 23 and moved to England, she worked at the Royal College of Music and played for opera classes for three years. On the couple's return to Melbourne, virtually every Australian musical organization of note put her on its payroll, among them the Elizabethan Trust, forerunner of the prestigious Australian Opera (whose present home in Sydney she describes as "that building with the sails"). When Joan Sutherland and her conductor husband, Richard Bonynge (arguably Australia's best-known musical exports) organized a national touring company after Sutherland's first big triumphs at Covent Garden, Halstead worked as their repetiteur.

When Halstead and her family moved to Hinsdale in 1976, she soon found herself helping out with a fledgling opera company, the now-defunct Hinsdale Opera Theatre. From there she moved on to work at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Opera Theater (of whom she says enthusiastically: "The work I do there--that's real coaching!"), as well as privately and with other institutions. "I had never auditioned for anything until I played for the Lyric; in Australia, it's all word of mouth," she explains. "In America, it's very different--every man for himself--because there's so much competition, so many young music graduates coming along every year."

Halstead rents a studio part-time in the Fine Arts Building, but most of her students gravitate to her big Tudor-style house in Hinsdale, where the living room lined with books and records is dominated by a grand piano and a painting of the Australian countryside. The warmth of the setting complements Halstead's coaching style.

Halstead's comments are diplomatic, adjusted to the singer's level of comprehension. But she doesn't hesitate to say so if she thinks a given song or role is not suited to a student. And woe betide those who enter her studio unprepared. Still, what might be taken as stinging criticism from another is, with Halstead, always cloaked in a fine, dry sense of humor that makes even harsh analysis bearable; during a lesson, more laughter than advice is in evidence.

She's playing more chamber music these days, both with the Hinsdale Chamber Orchestra and with her own chamber group, "whose name is as yet unknown." Chamber music, she says, "is as much a part of me as playing for singers." She lectures for Lyric Opera, and she's currently preparing recitals with tenor Glenn Siebert and bass Myron Myers.

Once she gets over the jet lag from her most recent working trip to Australia, she'll begin working with the soloists of Chicago Opera Theater's 1988 season. And a wide variety of Chicago-area artists and would-be artists, with her help, will wring every last drop of meaning and musicality out of the vocal literature they bring to her. She is known for imposing her artistic vision on all but the dullest of vocalists. "I find I can get anyone to do anything if I use humor," she observes. "And I'm absolutely besotted with singers."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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