Spotlight on Joel Ayau, Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist

AyauJoelheadshotJoel joined the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists as a pianist and coach in 2015. Read even more about him here. 


Where were you before you entered the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program?

In the army! My first job after finishing my doctorate at Michigan was as the pianist for the Army Chorus, a part of the United States Army Band, “Pershing’s Own”. It was a great first job; interestingly, it was also the position that my piano teacher Martin Katz held during the Johnson administration. I was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, VA, and performed for visiting dignitaries, military ceremonies, and concerts. I also performed at Betty Ford’s funeral services, played for all of the former living presidents, accompanied Frederica von Stade and George Shirley, and travelled to China twice to assist in joint concerts between the US Army Band and the band of the People’s Liberation Army.

So do you speak Chinese?

I do. Studying Mandarin has been one of my hobbies for about ten years; I’m half-Chinese, and initially I started learning it because I wanted to learn more about my heritage and Chinese culture. I guess I ended up getting a little obsessed with it. Now I travel to Taiwan once or twice a year, either for teaching and concerts or to visit my wife’s family; she’s a Taiwanese violinist.

A double-musician couple! Do you play together often?

Actually, very rarely. We met at the Aspen Music Festival, both on fellowships — hers in the ACCA orchestra, and mine as an apprentice coach in the Aspen Opera Theatre Center. Her friends joked that she was getting a free accompanist for life when we got married, but we seldom get a chance to play together. I guess we’re both so busy that when we’re together, I’d rather spend the time enjoying her company than arguing about the tempo of a Brahms sonata or something.

What kinds of musical activities take up your time these days?

I am lucky to have a variety of different musical experiences in my life right now. Last week I performed the Brahms Piano Quintet on a Millennium Stage concert with members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. Next month I’m accompanying Andrea Bocelli on his North American holiday tour. I serve at church and try to perform solo piano repertoire every once in a while. But of course the majority of my time is taken up collaborating with the incredibly talented singers that make up the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. They are truly an incredible bunch, and a joy to work with.

What’s it like being a pianist in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program?

Busy! But I wouldn’t want it any other way. We are often the “cogs” of the machine that keep the program running smoothly, playing for voice lessons and coachings with many astounding guest artists, helping to prepare the singers for their upcoming auditions or opera roles, or serving as an assistant conductor on a mainstage show. At the same time we are working on improving our own skills, learning opera scores with the help of a renowned conductor on staff and studying Italian and German. Hopefully when we “graduate”, we should be well prepared for a career as an opera coach and pianist.

And what would that look like? Are you looking for a full-time job at an opera house somewhere?

I would say that stable, full-time jobs as a singer or pianist are extremely rare. In Europe, many opera houses employ pianists year-round to work in a house, but the American system is different. Often an opera house here will only employ a pianist for one or two productions, so in order to have a career playing opera, one has to string together contracts from several different houses. I’m hoping not to have to travel too much for my work in the future, but the reality of being a musician is, often we go where the work goes.

Well, it seems like you already had a full-time job to begin with! Any regrets about leaving the army?

Not at all. My army time taught me a lot about myself and the basic essentials of having a job, but I am so grateful to be on my current path. When I get to be a part of an amazing work of art like Carmen, it reminds me of why I love music, and its power to move hearts.

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