Aug. 07--Eric McEnaney calls what he does for the Minnesota Opera "evil Jenga."
It's his description of what it's like to sit down at a piano for a workshop production of an opera and try to figure out how to get close to the sound of an orchestra with just a piano or two.
"It's up to your skill level to make it pianistic and to capture the feel of the orchestra," says McEnaney, 35. "That's why I say it's like Jenga. You have all of these parts in front of you -- in a modern opera, there are like four or five different lines because there are so many things going on in the orchestra -- and you pick and choose, doing the brass one minute and then the woodwinds the next."
McEnaney earned a degree in collaborative piano from the University of Minnesota in 2006. It's a degree that speaks to the variety of things he does as a freelancer: some vocal coaching, some accompanying and some recitals, as well as directing a program for young artists in Fargo. Having graduated from the Minnesota Opera's resident artist program last year, he also travels around the country, playing for various opera companies.
McEnaney recently worked with Minnesota Opera on the development of "The Manchurian Candidate," which will have its world premiere next spring. McEnaney says that process has been streamlined because he performed similar chores for Minnesota Opera's commission of "Silent Night," which debuted in 2011 and, like "Manchurian," was composed by piano-loving Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts.
"It makes it a lot easier," McEnaney says. "The hard thing about being an opera pianist is that you have to do so much preparation, maybe 20 hours, alone in a room, before a day like (a workshop rehearsal of 'Manchurian'). And then there's suddenly so much stimulation when you get in the room, with all the singers and the opera people, that I can't even think about them. I treat it like a solo piano performance, even though, if I'm doing my job right, people won't even notice I'm there."
McEnaney and his partner, Scott Crenz, decided to make the Twin Cities their home even though McEnaney, who grew up in northern Illinois, is on the road for work about seven months of the year. Sometimes he works in the Twin Cities or gets a road gig that's as close as Lanesboro, but the rest of the time, his partner and his family enjoy turning McEnaney's work locales into vacation destinations.
They are, of course, not vacations for the hard-working McEnaney. Which is maybe why the place he dreams of spending more time is right here at home.
Q. What's your favorite place to be?
A. Any fabulous park, outdoors, on a 75-degree day. I seek out the great city parks wherever I go when I'm traveling. And, when I'm home, now that I have adopted the state of Minnesota, it's all about being outside. I walk around and bike around Lake Calhoun a lot. And I like the Cedar Trail.
Q. What would you do if you had a million dollars?
A. Probably travel to Europe first. I'm only been once, to Paris, for an anniversary. And, being in the opera, Europe is the genesis of all of this. I'd love to see some composers' homes, hear some operas, that sort of thing.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a vocal coach?
A. Grad school, at the University of Iowa. I had a mentor, like many people. I was doing a piano performance degree because I thought I was going to go into education, and she said, "You might want to think about vocal coaching." I had no idea what that really was but she said, "Why don't you sit in the corner of my studio and watch while I do it?" I probably sat there for 50 to 60 hours and it started to make sense to me. Then, it took about 10 years to develop the skills, especially learning three new languages. You have to learn at least Italian, French and German to be able to coach.
Q. What's the best thing about your job?
A. I really like traveling around the country and seeing how people live differently in other places. Another great thing is I get access to people you wouldn't normally have access to. Somebody like Garrison Keillor, for instance, who is a big supporter of the opera. Why would I know him, otherwise?
Q. Whom do you admire most?
A. I admire the people of my adopted state, especially since there has been so much social change and especially with same-sex marriage. That just blows my mind still. I admire the people of my city, too. Seeing the (Interstate 35W) bridge lit up for Gay Pride makes me feel completely at home in Minnesota and that's something I never thought I would see until maybe the later part of my lifetime.
Q. What's your motto?
A. There are several I try to live by: "Yesterday is gone but tomorrow will soon be today" might be my favorite. I don't even remember if I read it or saw it or heard it or what. Another one I live by -- I think this might be Maya Angelou -- is, "When people show you who they are, believe them."
Q. Who would play you in a movie?
A. I would say Tobey Maguire, but he's too short. I'm 6-1. There's something sort of nerdy but intelligent about him that fits, though. And I've always liked his work as an actor.
Q. What's the scariest thing you've ever done?
A. I went to Music Academy of the West, a big music festival in Santa Barbara. They made me the chief opera pianist for the summer so I had to play an opera score I had never learned before and I had to play it in front of (legendary mezzo soprano) Marilyn Horne, who directs the voice program there. Everyone was watching me and the conductor was not the nicest person, although I had great respect for him, and I was screwing up all over the place in front of Marilyn Horne. It was the most formative experience I've had, learning from that level of artist.
Q. What was your first job?
A. I was a busboy at a resort in Lake Geneva, Wis.
Q. What's going through your mind before a performance?
A. "You've done your preparation. Here we go. Let's do it!"
Chris Hewitt can be reached at 651-228-5552.
Follow him on twitter.com/ChrisHMovie.
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