Pianist plays key role in Toledo Opera gala

Written by David Dupont, Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor

Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune, 2013 - Published Friday, April 5, 2013
by David Dupont
TOLEDO - Bowling Green tenor Shawn Mathey will be surrounded by women during the upcoming Toledo Opera Gala.
The event features international performer Mathey with four sopranos, including his wife Sujin Lee, all from this area but with impressive resumes. The conductor will be Sara Jobin, of the San Francisco Opera.
Helping redress the gender imbalance will be master of ceremonies and narrator Kevin Bylsma, a familiar face on the local music scene for his work with both the Toledo Opera and the opera program at Bowling Green State University.
The gala will be presented April 12 at 8 p.m. and April14 at 2 p.m. in the Valentine Theatre in downtown Toledo. Tickets are $30 to $75, contact (419) 255-7464 or www.toledoopera.org.
In his years on the area musical scene Bylsma has worked with all five singers, including Mathey's debut as Pinkerton in "Madama Butterfly." Two of the sopranos, Lee and Jennifer Goode Cooper are Bylsma's colleagues at BGSU. He worked with Lee last fall in "Madama Butterfly" and just recently he conducted Cooper in Haydn's "Lord Nelson Mass." Bylsma has worked with Jenny Goode Cooper and , of Perrysburg, for the past 15 years. He was there the first time Jennifer Cresswell sang in an opera. She was a 14-year-old member of the chorus in a Lenawee Opera production of "Madama Butterfly."
Bylsma will be called upon to tie together the varied program which includes Verdi's "La donna e mobile," the lesser known "Song to the Moon" by Anton Dvorak and even "Be My Love" from the repertoire of Mario Lanza.
"I'm really excited about the program," he said. "Just the atmosphere of the gala is fun."
He'll also move to the orchestra pit for a couple numbers to play piano.
For a classical pianist he got something of a late start, beginning lessons at 10. He explained that "my parents forced my older brother and sister to take lessons with disastrous results. So their attitude was 'we'll see if Kevin wants to take lessons and then maybe we'll let him.'"
By 10, Bylsma wanted to play piano. "I was begging," he said. And when his parents relented, "I practiced like mad."
The one drawback was his small hands, "so big orchestral repertoire wasn't my thing," he said.
He studied music at Calvin College and was engaged to accompany piano students in the studio of noted vocal teacher Trena Haan. An adjunct instructor, she was assigned mostly beginners who "really were not interested in what she had to teach."
"So she spent a lot of time with me, training my ear," Bylsma said. "She heard something in me ... that collaborative piano would be a natural thing. The attention she gave me opened my eyes and ears to a different career in music."
That one of her former students was John Wustman, who founded the vocal coaching and accompanying program at the University of Illinois, also impressed Bylsma.
He went on to study organ at the University of Michigan, but after a year was hired away by the Michigan Opera Theatre.
Bylsma said his piano teacher at Calvin complained that he was "too social" to ever be a great pianist. But that sociability was an asset as a collaborative pianist, who must work closely with others.
A collaborative pianist must have "the ability to almost get into the mind of the singer or instrumentalist they are playing for."
"You know their vocal line, their text almost better than they do, so you're prepared for anything that happens in performance," Bylsma said. "If they need to take a breath, if they need to move a phrase, you know it before they do. There has to be that kind of communication."
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