Adam Rogala
© Eduardus Lee
Ordinarily, when preparing to sit down to talk with a pianist, one would spend time with recordings of solo performances in order to become familiar with their work. In the case of 29-year old Adam Rogala – one of the talents currently training at Dutch National Opera Studio – although there are recordings on YouTube and beyond, they haven't been the main focus of his career. But then, Rogala is no ordinary pianist.

Born in Łódź, Poland, Rogala’s life has revolved around the piano since the age of seven, when his parents signed him up for lessons at the local music school. His development as a performer had all the predictable teenage ups and downs. “I was very close to being kicked out of school when I was 12 or 13 because I was simply not practising the piano. When I was that age, you know, boys were climbing trees, exploring old factories, and I was not really keen on practising – and I should have practised three hours a day!” Despite this wobble in dedication, plus the possibility of focusing on other subjects – “I was very interested in mathematics, it was always quite easy for me,” he tells me – the experience nonetheless ended up confirming in Rogala’s mind that the piano was the thing he wanted to commit to. “That was the moment for me: realising I’m so connected to the music that I don’t really see my life without it. I subconsciously decided that I really love it, and I really want to do it.”

After school, he went on to study piano solo performance at the Feliks Nowowiejski Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, though Rogala says he never had serious aspirations to become a concert pianist. “When I came to university I already knew that I didn’t want to be a soloist. That was not a goal for me, as there are so many pianists! I felt good playing chamber music with my colleagues, and then I encountered vocal music.” 

Rogala quickly found himself strongly drawn to performing with singers. “It was a surprise to me, because as it happened I was just a substitute pianist, and yet I felt the most comfortable there. I never had any self-doubt when I played with singers because it was so organic to me. I felt relaxed, not overthinking things and it was easy. I was absolutely inspired by the voice. So that was the moment I started feeling this turn into a vocal career. I felt it and it stayed with me.”

Thereafter his practice began to shift towards becoming a répétiteur and collaborative pianist. He describes the process as “unofficial”, beginning with learning a great deal of repertoire. His skills were noticed by the Academy, and more time in his final year of study was spent performing with singers. Yet the progression from soloistic to operatic playing was far from straightforward. “Opera was not where much of my education went, so after all of these years – I was 23 or 24 – I felt like I was starting to learn a completely new instrument. It’s absolutely different: the way the piano is treated, it must sound like an orchestra. An orchestra is very big fusion of 60 to 80 people, so the piano must also behave in a different way.” For Rogala, it meant beginning again with the instrument in an entirely new context. “Getting to know the piano as an orchestra instrument was a very weird sensation. Basically after I graduated I had to learn a new dimension of playing.”

Though a difficult process, Rogala immediately felt the benefits of moving away from soloistic performing. “It’s less stressful for me because I know that the concentration of the audience is not only on me. I feel much freer sharing with someone, it helps me to be more at liberty in my expression and in my playing.” 

Rogala believes the mindset needed for collaborative work is very different from that of a soloist. “To cope with the other’s feelings about music, and how to find each other in between... some people are just not meant to do it. It’s quite sad, but if someone is very dedicated to some certain way of doing something, this person will be less likely to be open to someone else’s opinion, and that’s a problem. It’s not a problem of musicality: it’s the idea that this person thinks that their way of doing something is the only good one. This is the end of a conversation. You have to be flexible in this job.”

Asked if the reason is to do with ego, he elaborates that it’s more to do with understanding the role. Historically, the emphasis during piano training has been directed at producing soloists, without adequate exploration of collaborative forms of performance. As a consequence, many of today’s répétiteurs have either been in the job for decades, due to a lack of suitable replacements, or have been forced to learn on the job. But he notes that this situation is changing and today most of the bigger opera houses have programmes that include training for répétiteurs.

Training of this kind has occupied Rogala since graduating in 2016. Initially he remained in his homeland, spending three years at Polish Opera on their Young Talents Development Programme. This was followed by two years based in Switzerland, in the Zurich International Opera Studio. It was during this time that, as with all musicians, he was impacted by the pandemic, the effects of which initially cut him off from returning to Zurich. “I had a flight to Poland and then our government shut down everything. I was supposed to be back in rehearsal on Monday, but I was stuck in Poland: I had a suitcase for three days and I stayed for three months!”

The prohibitions resulting from the pandemic, followed by the more impactful second wave, overshadowed the remainder of Rogala’s time in Zurich, resulting in many performances taking place without an audience, only made available via streaming. Rogala had mixed feelings about this experience, due to being separated from the presence of the public. “It’s great to be doing what you know, but it’s still very artificial. It’s like having a rehearsal. If you don’t have anyone that you can perform for, what is the point of doing it? If it’s only for my pleasure, there is no reward.”

As life slowly returns to normal, a new chapter in Rogala’s life is just beginning. In August 2021 he joined the Dutch National Opera Studio, a two-year training programme designed to “prepare young talent for an international opera career”. Alongside six singers, Rogala will receive coaching and experience, including mentoring from the entire professional music staff at the DNO Studio, under the overall leadership of soprano Rosemary Joshua. “My role is mainly to learn, but also use my knowledge to coach and prepare singers. We receive masterclasses that help me understand structure better.” For Rogala, the programme has already helped in new ways, particularly on the day of our conversation, when for the first time he was asked to run the coaching session. The feedback, he says, provided invaluable insights into efficient interaction. “I always try to be as fully understood as possible, but singers have to work very fast, and if you interrupt them every 15–20 seconds you have to communicate something in the easiest way possible. How to communicate more effectively: I’ve never had this kind of feedback.”

Most exciting of all, his role includes actively assisting with performances. Alongside conductor Lorenzo Viotti, who is also beginning his first season as Chief Conductor at Dutch National Opera, Rogala will join the team of staff répétiteurs in the forthcoming productions of La Traviata in December and Tosca next spring. He is confident that “this experience of productions with wonderful musicians and conductors” will serve him well as he pursues a career as a professional répétiteur.

Ever since Pierre Boulez declared that opera houses should be blown up, opera has faced an uncertain, at times even pessimistic future. Not surprisingly, Rogala is optimistic, believing the key to success lies in the right combination of presentation and promotion. “It’s a thing that is alive, and it’s as good for younger as for older people. It all starts with education: the more people are exposed to classical music, the more popular it becomes,” he tells me. “For the younger generation, this means cheaper tickets and advertising on social media popping out on Tik Tok and Instagram when you scroll. Opera should adapt to the cameras and acting must change to be more cinematic, especially now that everything is recorded or streamed. It doesn’t have to be so dusty – the same gestures and staging you saw 40 years ago, it’s so boring. It must be like a movie, it must be an experience. And the thing that’s the magic in there is the music. The music will always defend itself.”

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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