Listening to Elaine Douvas

Volume 114, No. 5May, 2014

Elaine Douvas (Photo: John Abbott)

Elaine Douvas (Photo: John Abbott)

As the principal oboist of the Met Opera since 1977, Elaine Douvas speaks from experience. Equally devoted to her career as a teacher, she has served on the oboe faculty of Mannes, Bard College and Juilliard, where she is chair of the woodwind department. Her students hold positions in numerous orchestras and university faculties, and her three albums of demonstration and commentary for Music Minus One are used by teachers and students across the country. In the summers she teaches at Aspen, and she has given master classes around the world. She also enjoys playing with her quartet (named “Pleasure is the Law”), which recently performed Messiaen’s “Quadruple Concerto” for flute, oboe, cello and piano with the New York Youth Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Douvas lives in Ridgewood, New Jersey with her husband Robert Sirinek, former trumpeter with the Met and orchestra manager since 1986. They have two grown daughters, Portia and Margot, and a Jack Russell terrier named Rusty. For many years, she has devoted her spare time to figure skating and has passed 11 USFSA tests in freestyle and moves.

Douvas has been a member of Local 802 since 1977. Recently, she sat down with Local 802 recording rep Bob Pawlo to speak about teaching, performing and how she fell in love with classical music.

Bob Pawlo: How did you first find your musical voice? Were you from a musical family?

Elaine Douvas: Not really. My dad – who was an an eye surgeon – had no idea he was singing on one note! But we got a piano when I was seven, and my mom liked to play from her high school piano books after doing the dishes every evening. From that, I took an interest in collecting composers’ names and reading their biographies. I became fascinated with composers’ lives. As soon as I started piano lessons, the world opened up. I grew up in Port Huron, Michigan. With a population of 40,000, looking for classical music there was like going on a treasure hunt. I checked out records from the library and joined a mail order record club. If the wind was blowing the right direction, I could tune in a classical radio station from Detroit. Classical music also came to me at ballet class in first grade. Then there were the movie soundtracks: my mom would let me go to bed early with the agreement that she would wake me up at 11:30 p.m. for the late night movies. I loved those Hollywood soundtracks. I fell in love with Chopin from hearing all the beautiful music in the 1945 film “A Song to Remember,” with the blood on the keys. I still love the 1947 film about Robert and Clara Schumann – “Song of Love,” with Katharine Hepburn portraying Clara.

BP: When did you realize your calling for the oboe?

ED: After piano, I added violin for a year in fifth grade. I could tell that even in my small town I was not outstanding at these instruments, but I was still determined to find a way to get in the music. Everyone was joining the band in the sixth grade, so I thought I would choose a band instrument too. I played French horn briefly, and then picked up the oboe thinking I would have less competition and it would be easier to get in. I didn’t understand what it meant to have musical talent on one instrument but not on another, that each instrument has its own set of physical aptitudes. It was lucky I happened onto the oboe, and I progressed quickly. My band director was a wonderful mentor.

BP: What happened from there?

ED: Coming from Michigan, it was my ambition to go to Interlochen, known then as the National Music Camp. Our junior high band gave out some scholarships, so I was intent upon winning one. I succeeded, and went for two weeks to All-State. It was the first time I’d ever played in an orchestra, as there were no strings in our school system. I thought Interlochen was enchanted; it has such a beautiful natural setting, with pine trees and lakes and music coming out of every corner of the place. I just went from building to building and hut to hut, awed by everything I heard coming out. I was there for five summers and three years of high school. I attended their boarding school, the Interlochen Arts Academy. You couldn’t tear me away from that place; it is still like a second home to me, and I often return to teach.

BP: What was the curriculum like?

ED: Interlochen specialized in arts training, so we had orchestra six days a week and gave a concert every two weeks in the winter, and every week in the summer. I had the first chair for two years and three summers and basically played everything before I got out of high school.

BP: When did you realize you were going to make a career as a musician?

ED: I was determined to do this even before I started the oboe; it was the music I loved, and I was going to find a way to make this my life. My parents agreed to let me to go away to boarding school hoping I would find out I didn’t really like it that much or I wasn’t good enough. It didn’t turn out that way.

BP: You went to college at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where you studied with John Mack. What was he like?

ED: How do I boil this down? John Mack was an amazing guy. I’m so glad I studied with him. He believed in teaching musical concepts from the Barret Etude book. For him, every bar of the Barret contained some universal musical truth. In phrasing, he particularly emphasized the effect of the harmony on the melody.

BP: How did he approach reed making with you?

ED: John Mack was a do-it-yourselfer in every way. His motto was “Never take ‘no’ for an answer from inanimate objects!” He had a very analytical mind, and he was a reed making genius, but he didn’t teach reed making. He would fix your reed or his own reed, narrating as he went along. You had to ask questions. People are surprised when I say there wasn’t anything like reed class. He wasn’t that organized! He was against speaking about physical things; his approach was to say what he wanted to hear, and you had to figure out how to make it happen. Actually, I always had a good attitude toward reed making. I am good at things involving detail and precision.

BP: Did he work with you work on repertoire or solo music at that point?

ED: Yes, but he did so apologetically. His teacher, Marcel Tabuteau, also believed in teaching only from etudes, and it was for the student to apply the principles to orchestral and solo repertoire in a personal way. Mack knew other teachers were directly helping their students with solo and orchestral audition material, so he went along.

FINE TUNING: The woodwind section of the Met Opera at a recent rehearsal. Elaine Douvas pictured in blue shirt. (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

FINE TUNING: The woodwind section of the Met Opera at a recent rehearsal. Elaine Douvas pictured in blue shirt. (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

BP: Were you regularly attending Cleveland Orchestra concerts as a student?

ED: Oh yes. The idea was to get a volunteer position as an usher and hear the concert every week for free. It was an expected part of our training to go and hear the finished product.

BP: What other things were stressed in your Cleveland Institute experience?

ED: At the time, the school orchestra was conducted by James Levine, who is of course the other main influence on my musical life.

BP: And what did Levine emphasize?

ED: Both of them taught respect for the composer’s intentions. Levine instructed people to enter the composer’s world and to study from the score. Since they both worked under conductor George Szell, I heard many similar musical points from the two of them. (Levine also said, “don’t cross your legs” – to him this connotes casual attitude and lack of respect for the job.)

BP: Upon graduation, is that when you won the job in Atlanta?

ED: Well, I began taking auditions in my third year of college, and I was lucky enough to win the principal oboe position in Atlanta at the end of the year, so I didn’t graduate. Maybe I’ll still do that sometime in the future!

BP: What was it like working for Robert Shaw, the great choral and orchestral conductor?

ED: A big regret is that I didn’t attend some of his Atlanta Symphony Chorus rehearsals and see how he worked his magic. The chorus was something unbelievable.

BP: How did he bring the choral singing music to the orchestral world?

ED: I often heard people say he wasn’t successful at carrying it over. Shaw was a little insecure in front of the orchestra, and perhaps as a result, he was tyrannical in his behavior toward the players.

BP: How long were you there?

ED: Four years, and it was very stressful. He wouldn’t let you have the satisfaction of thinking you were even doing an okay job, let alone a good job. When I was new at the Met, someone stopped me in the hall and said, “You’re the girl from Atlanta? I’d like to retire to an orchestra like that.” And I thought, “You have no idea! In those days Atlanta struggled to get up another rung on the status ladder, and they tortured their membership to do so.”

BP: When you landed the job at the Met, what was it like playing with the greatest singers in one of the great orchestras of the world?

ED: The Met of 1977 and the Met of today are two very different orchestras. James Levine has built the orchestra into its magnificence over a period of 40 years.

BP: What concepts and ideas did Maestro Levine bring to the Met to transcend it to its incredible level of today?

ED: Levine wants everything to sound vocal: smooth attacks, a deep, rounded tone, glowing vibrato, and he reminds us all the time to think of the people who are hearing the music for the first time, both when it was written and those in the audience now; to make it as fresh and exciting as possible for them, not just another night. Although his requests are quite detailed, his attitude is very positive with the orchestra. He is a great teacher-conductor, and I think one of his most laudable accomplishments is that he transformed the orchestra without firing people. I think for a conductor to come in and fire people is a second-rate way of improving an orchestra.

BP: So he took the players there and made them better?

ED: Yes. He conveys his finely honed concept of orchestral sound and his musical taste, which is faultless in every style. He is a good psychologist, listing the good points before a criticism, and trying to make people comfortable so they can do their best work; it makes you want to do a good job.

BP: That must be extraordinary. How did working week after week with the greatest singers in the world affect your concept of playing?

ED: I remember when I was in high school my teachers said we should play as singers sing, and I had no idea what they were talking about. When I thought of a singer, I thought of the tendency to scream, or vibrato a mile wide. I had not trained my ears to appreciate what a good singer does. It rubs off on you at the Met, and it influences the sound of the orchestra. Now, if someone asks, “What does it mean to play as singers sing?” I’d say we are chiefly meant to imitate their legato, their smoothness and flow, their connection of notes, unencumbered by mechanical things such as an instrument, reeds, or fingerings. Levine says the sound must be beautiful enough to carry the musical idea. One time somebody asked me, “What did you think of that oboist, tone aside?” I was just dumbfounded by the question. I can’t answer a question about music “tone aside.” I can’t imagine someone asking, “What did you think of that singer, voice aside?” It’s all one thing.

BP: How did you adjust to the incredible Met schedule, with such long rehearsals and performances? How did you approach that?

ED: It is a very hard job, but being immersed in a life of music is a dream come true for me. The pressure to make enough good reeds was extreme in my early years when I hadn’t achieved enough skill.

BP: How much time did you dedicate each week to reed making and reed adjusting?

ED: Maybe 15 to 20 hours per week in those days, mixed with practicing, and it was so hard to learn so many operas at once.

BP: What is the typical schedule of a week involving practice, teaching, rehearsals and performing at the Met, plus commuting from New Jersey?

ED: I leave home about 8:45 a.m. for a 10:30 rehearsal, get out around 2 p.m., and then teach for about four hours. The evening performance begins at 7:30 p.m., and I head home about 11 p.m., arriving around midnight. I play three or four performances a week at the Met. Rehearsals in the daytime take about 10 hours over three days, and I put in about 10 to 16 hours a week teaching. On days when I do not rehearse, I catch up on reed making or business and planning with the students: their recitals, repertoire, recommendations, helping with resumes and stuff. Or I go practice my figure skating!

BP: What did you learn early in your experience that led you to be able to balance so many skills and situations?

ED: Being around John Mack’s energy stretched my concept of what was possible. Before one of his oboe camps, he said, “This group of people has never seen a human buzz saw before.” When I observed he could teach for ten hours straight with no problem, it was a concept I hadn’t really considered. I thought, “Well, if he can do that, why not me too?”

VOICE FROM ABOVE: Singer Diana Damrau in a scene from Bellini's "La Sonnambula" with Met Opera musicians below. (Photo: Marty Sohl)

VOICE FROM ABOVE: Singer Diana Damrau in a scene from Bellini’s “La Sonnambula” with Met Opera musicians below. (Photo: Marty Sohl)

BP: I understand you are quite an accomplished figure skater. How has your discipline in playing the oboe improved your skating and vice versa?

ED: Well, “accomplished” – I don’t know about that! I’ve been a serious hobbyist at figure skating for 20 years, and they do influence each other. I suppose the main thing I’ve learned from skating is to present myself: chin up, arms out, and cover ice! The flight, the buoyancy, the travel, the glide, the wind in your hair. It is a great feeling. As in music, you balance detail and discipline with abandon, and all sorts of analogies carry over. If you’re tracing a figure eight, it’s just like playing a long tone; you need a perfect attack, push-off and total symmetry. It is a balancing act; you use opposition of different body parts, the same as support on the oboe. The difficulty of learning a skill like figure skating gives me a lot more sympathy for people who are trying to learn the oboe and doing things they’ve never tried before.

BP: You’re in a lineage that goes from John Mack back to Marcel Tabuteau back to George Gillet, the father of the modern oboe. What skills have been passed down from generation to generation that you intend to pass on to the next generation of oboists?

ED: I believe all the players of the lineage thought it was most important to teach from artistic etudes. I think this has been handed down for a long, long, time. There’s something more universal about learning a musical concept in an etude book, instead of belaboring it in a piece of music. I feel urgently about keeping that going, fulfilling my part in the oral tradition. When the students only want to drill audition excerpts, it is exasperating.

BP: How do you prepare your students for auditions?

ED: I wish I didn’t have to prepare them for auditions from the day they arrive. I try to keep in mind the definition of a “conservatory.” This is a protected time for the student to learn, to nurture his or her abilities, to grow into an artist in a safe place, and I wish the audition stuff could be put off until later. Everybody wants to cut to the finish line, when the most important thing is first to become a fine interpreter and to learn as much music as possible. And how are you going to do that? If you take audition excerpts to ten different teachers and combine all of their thinking, you haven’t really learned to interpret anything yourself.

BP: What advice, in the current incredibly competitive musical world, would you give to young musicians just starting their careers?

ED: Musicians should study whole works, not excerpts, and use a score to think more like a conductor. They should listen to recorded examples from many decades. Despite the technical and audio flaws, it is important to hear both the freedom of interpretation and the reaction against too much freedom that’s happened over a century of recorded examples. The pendulums swing this way and then back. I think we’ve passed into an era of a lot of literalism, and things will pass back to something more personal.

BP: What message would you leave to Local 802 members and union members around the world? What would be your message to them?

ED: I think it’s very important to educate our students about the history of the union and its importance to the field of classical music. I remember my dad used to buy his surgical instruments from a man in the Detroit Symphony, and I thought it was so cool that he knew somebody in the Detroit Symphony. What I didn’t understand was that everybody who worked in a symphony orchestra in those days had to have another job on the side, because the orchestras only worked about a 32-week season. Besides honing their art as musicians, they had to have other kinds of jobs, often menial ones, selling things, going door to door, driving cabs in New York, and that’s very sad, because to be a really top musician takes all your time and attention just as it would for somebody to become an Olympic athlete. I think young people today don’t really understand what the union has done to help us get a living wage and longer seasons. I teach a sort of career development class at Juilliard, and understanding the union is one of the essential topics.

BP: What inspires you to keep going?

ED: I am greatly inspired by the commencement speech given by the famous cellist Lynn Harrell for the Cleveland Institute of Music, when he was 50 years old. You can probably find it online. He tells the story of his first job in the Cleveland Orchestra and how he got his come-uppance at the hands of George Szell, who told him he was behaving like one of the herd, bored because he wasn’t trying hard enough, and then opening his eyes and ears to what was around him. I identify with this story. Every night I sit in the orchestra I am surrounded by so much beauty, so much excellence on the part of my fellow musicians. I’m awestruck by how fantastic the strings are. I can often hear them individually, and they are so good! There are glowing, resonant, flexible woodwind tones all around me, and I struggle to fulfill my responsibility in this amazing choir. In my early years I just didn’t understand this, and I didn’t know how to listen. After I had been in the Met for about five years, I thought, “And now I’ll go back to playing in a symphony!” After ten years in the Met, I got married and had two children, and I realized I would probably spend the rest of my career in the Met; I had a complete change of attitude. I realized the more I put into it, the more I will get out of it, and so will everyone around me; to know more about the music and more detail about the operas, the more it’s going to hold my interest. Someone asked Harrell, “Don’t you get tired of taking the Dvorak ‘Cello Concerto’ all around the world?” He said, “What? Are you kidding? I’m always learning something new about this piece, even from my students, and every time I work on it, I see something new.” It’s that attitude I also get from Levine and also from John Mack: if you dig deeper, there is always more to find, and you will keep your energy and inspiration forever.