Esther Gonthier: when discipline and enjoyment come together at the piano

Actualités lyriques


March 09, 2023

Text : Véronique Gauthier

Photos : Marianne Charland

Whether in an opera rehearsal, with the orchestra, at a coaching session, in a university setting, in concert, in recital, in recording, at international competitions, there is no denying that Esther Gonthier, rehearsal pianist, vocal coach and conductor’s assistant, is a ubiquitous presence on the opera scene. In all spheres of the field, in Montreal and beyond, she draws on her massive expertise to benefit the artists with whom she collaborates.

For the past two years, Gonthier has provided guidance to the young artists of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal in her capacity as Head Vocal Coach, a role she embraced at just the right time in her career. With 30 years of rich experience behind her now, her thorough mastery of the repertoire and profound knowledge of the opera world, there is plenty to enrich any artist’s time in the program!

Becoming the pianist she always was

What did Esther Gonthier want to be when she grew up? It’s a question that never seems to have arisen in her mind. After starting piano lessons at age 3, her vocation was already obvious. And although her family was not exactly immersed in the world of music, there was never any doubt music as an option for this youngster from Lévis. 

“I always knew I wanted to be a pianist. It was obvious. At 5 years old, I was practising two hours a day. Not because I had to, because I wanted to!”

Since her best childhood friend loved to sing, the young Esther began accompanying her from the time she was 10. The duo grew up playing music together … and two careers were born! “She became an opera singer and I became a collaborative pianist. It’s always what I’ve done! I accompanied other instruments during my studies, but I was good with singers because I breathed with them. I have always had this natural penchant for singing.”

A clear path forward

Such precociously developed skills made her a fine accompanist for opera students during her CÉGEP years and while studying at Université Laval. Things seemed to flow naturally after that. 

“A solo career might have been possible, but I didn’t feel like remaining all alone. And I’m too scattered for that! Being a coach is perfect for my brain because it requires tremendous concentration and focus. I’m too busy thinking of so many things at once that my mind doesn’t disperse in all directions.”

Work-life balance

When she joined the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal as its very first resident pianist in 1989, Esther was already the mother of a 19-month-old toddler and a 2-month-old infant. How did she do it—strength of character, bundle of energy, force of nature? All of that certainly describes her just a tad (a lot)!

“When I came to audition, I was about to give birth, two weeks later, to a 10.4 lb baby. My belly was massive, I had trouble reaching the keyboard! Bernard Uzan, the Artistic Director at the time, prepared two piles of scores on either side of the piano, and then listed off what he wanted me to play. I played piece after piece, and at some point, he asked me if I wanted a break. I looked him right in the eyes and told him no. It was clear then that I had him. I knew that’s when he realized things were going to be all right.” 

For this diligent worker, pursuing a career while raising kids was frequently no picnic! “It was hard, though! I have always said that having kids forces you to make better choices. Instead of trying things out left and right, it makes you prioritize and say no more often.”

A customized position

After her term as a resident with the Atelier lyrique, Esther stayed on with the Opéra de Montréal’s institution as a vocal coach and rehearsal pianist. Several years later, following Marie-Ève Scarfone’s departure for Zürich, she was approached for the position of Head Vocal Coach. The idea of acquiring a permanent position had not figured in her plans.

The role of Head Vocal Coach involves multifarious responsibilities. While talking with Holly Kroeker, also a pianist and a former resident with the Atelier lyrique, the idea emerged of forming a tandem to fulfil the position’s various intrinsic functions. The two then submitted a proposal to Program Director Chantal Lambert, who soon after gave it her affirmative response. In autumn 2021, Esther officially became Head Vocal Coach of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, and Holly was appointed the program’s Training Assistant. A highly complementary duo!

A human-centred and collaborative program

In her first year in the position, the entire team worked very hard to develop the optimum mode of operation and create failsafe synergy. When that year was over, the core faculty was rock solid.  

“Together with Ariane [Girard], we are truly a team. We talk to one another, consult one another, level with one another, we work together in a unified direction.” The boon of the program is its humanity. “It’s truly unique. We try to understand our young artists in all aspects of their lives, and make sure that the “singer” piece is gratifying. This is partly why there is a significant psychology component. It changes everything.” 

Discipline first

Whether she’s working with students from McGill University’s Schulich School of Music, emerging artists with the Atelier lyrique, or well-established professionals in the field, Esther’s ethics remain the same: discipline first, and the score is the key to everything.

“I am known for that! My raw material, my truth, remains the score. I always start there. After that, once the architecture is properly built, you can divide up your house any way you want, but your structure must be solid.”

Even having played an opera dozens of times, Esther won’t hesitate to revisit her notebooks and go back to the sources. “When you think you know something, that’s really the worst. It’s important to wonder. But you have to like doing it! I love having a score in hand, looking it over, analyzing it, rediscovering details I had forgotten. So, discipline yes, absolutely, but you have to enjoy it. It’s fun to be disciplined! It’s not a straight jacket. If anything, your freedom is far greater once you have mastered the score.”

With discipline comes freedom!

Her proudest moments? Seeing opera artists carry their work though to the end and master the score so well that they can endow it with something that is truly their own. “Then it really blossoms and it’s extraordinary. It doesn’t need to be perfect, something happens, and it soars completely.”

Meaning business, both on and off the stage 

While musical discipline is essential, so is a disciplined attitude and professionalism. Arriving on time, being adequately prepared, putting away one’s cell phone when appropriate, are a few fundamentals she instills in the young artists of the Atelier lyrique. “All of us in our lives have excuses, good reasons to say, “yes, but.” In the end, though, what’s important is the degree of preparedness we show up with. In addition to technique, we develop their work ethic. I am somewhat of a maternal authority figure with them. I hold them accountable, and nothing gets by me!” she added with a chuckle.

A profession that takes time

Being a pianist and vocal coach means wearing several hats: mastering diction, history, the ins-and-outs of the profession, styles, being adept at playing and listening simultaneously. “I find that developing oneself takes time. You have to do it gradually: first, identify the notes and rhythms that we haven’t gotten accurately, then, we can learn languages and correct our diction. With time, we acquire a command of the style. It takes work.”

One must also be able to develop a lot of flexibility and tremendous agility to meet the various demands of conductors that one will work with throughout one’s career. Whether working as a rehearsal pianist, coach, or accompanist, being able to adapt to each requirement is vital. 

With the Atelier lyrique’s two resident pianists, she views herself as a collaborator. “I invite them to tell me what it is they need, and I ask them a lot of questions. I try to empower them too. Often, when they come to me for a coaching session, a singer will join us, and the resident will do the coaching. I intervene, I comment, I complete. The way I teach is immediately bound up with practice in this way.” 

By virtue of her impressive experience, dedication, hands-on involvement and discipline, Esther transmits to the residents of the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal some valuable insights so they can begin their careers with the necessary tools to brave the field’s reality and its professional requirements. Much like the musical work in which she engages young artists, it is almost as though they exit the program having worked so diligently on the score, they can now freely build a career in their own image!