The SFCM alum will work with the company’s dance department as a ballet pianist.
Brian Fitzsousa (MM ’16) joined the Metropolitan Opera in a coveted and unique role: ballet pianist. Below, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music alum—who studied with David Conte, chair of the composition department, and worked at the Conservatory and San Francisco Opera immediately after graduation—shares insight about his new position and his time at SFCM.
What is your role as part of the Metropolitan Opera music staff?
I am a member of the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera serving as the ballet pianist. The music staff of any opera company is the group of pianists, assistant conductors, coaches, and prompters who are responsible for musically preparing an opera and serving as a one-person orchestra for rehearsals, playing the score from the piano. As the ballet pianist, I specifically work with the Met’s dance department playing daily company ballet class and all rehearsals for shows that include the dancers.
It’s a unique situation to be in in the opera house. Generally, you have one group of principles, coaches, assistant conductors, etc. connected to each production, and they work solely on that show during its rehearsal period. Meanwhile, the ballet (and chorus) are involved in many different pieces at the same time and on any given day might be rehearsing two or three different operas during the day, and then performing in an entirely different work in the evening. It makes for a very exciting, faced-paced daily schedule and requires a lot of flexibility on my end, because I have to be able to jump from opera to opera and work with music in a lot of different styles at the same time.
How did you land the job?
I sent a resume to the Met! I held the same position of ballet pianist at the San Francisco Opera from 2016 to 2018. When I relocated to New York I wrote to the Met to let them know I was an experienced ballet pianist and was interested in working with them. They called me one day in 2019 when they needed a last minute sub for a rehearsal of [Christoph Willibald] Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice, and I happily jumped in. It was a great experience and we all worked well together, so I was happy that they called me when the full time position opened up!
What are you most excited about working for the Met?
The Met is an incredible company just in terms of the sheer number of shows they put on each season. Next season they will present productions of 24 different operas. Just to spend a day in the house is an education. I’m excited to get to absorb so much of that music and learn from being in the rehearsal room, seeing the way that different conductors, directors, musicians, and other artists collaborate.
I am also excited to be involved in the Met’s opening night production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up In My Bones, the Met’s first production of an opera written by a Black composer. This is a milestone that is being reached far too late. Yet it is still historic and I look forward to working on that piece, celebrating that milestone, and continuing to work as an ally to the BIPOC community, trying to help fight against racism and structural hurdles that exist within the classical music world.
You taught at SFCM for a few years after graduation. How was the transition from student to faculty?
I had the enormous privilege of working with Dr. Rebecca Plack as a graduate assistant in the Music History department during my second year at SFCM. Rebecca fostered my love of music history and challenged me as a writer, thinker, and teacher in many ways. I had developed an interest in musicology as an undergraduate at NYU and so it was a great opportunity for me to continue to explore that interest in grad school and I really thrived in that position and learned so much from TA’ing for Rebecca.
After graduating, I was working for SF Opera, which is of course a seasonal company so it’s not a full time job. I was also hired by SFCM to work for the Student Academic Enrichment Center as a writing tutor, and during that time I would sometimes sub in the classroom on a few occasions when a professor was out. One thing led to another and eventually Rebecca called me and asked me if I would be interested in teaching the Graduate Review seminar. It was a great fit for me as it covered lots of classical and romantic opera repertoire. I also developed an original graduate seminar on the history of opera since 1950 focusing on works of Ligeti, Saariaho, Adams, Ades, Stockhausen, Glass, and other contemporary composers. I loved every minute of it.
What led you to apply to SFCM? What was the best part of your experience at the Conservatory?
I found out about SFCM through another composer, Michael Kropf (MM ’16), a friend and classmate at NYU (where we both did our undergraduate degrees). Michael attended the European American Musical Alliance in Paris the summer before our junior year and studied with David Conte there. The following fall, David was in New York and I was able to meet him through Michael. As soon as I met and started talking with David, it was clear that I needed to move to San Francisco and work with him.
What was it like studying with David Conte? What was the greatest advice he gave you?
David Conte had a profound impact on me as a composer and as a person, and has not only remained a mentor to me but has also become a dear friend and colleague. David always stressed the importance of performing, writing, and understanding vocal music, which is the oldest tradition of music that spans all countries and cultures throughout time. His emphasis on singing as well as playing your own music on the piano helps composers get out of the very abstract world of putting notes on a page and into the practical realm of sound, breath, and the human qualities that go into creating and performing music. Studying music like this has helped me not only as a composer but as a pianist as well.
David passed on two pieces of advice to me. One was from the late Conrad Susa (former chair of the composition program at SFCM) about building a career. Conrad said that in order to have a successful career, “You have to be good at something and someone has to know about it.” It’s the second part that is hard for many artists who are so used to carefully honing their craft in the privacy of the practice room or their studio, but it has been so important in my career to develop relationships with artists and just make sure people knew I was out there and around and ready to collaborate. Not just networking in the strict professional sense, but building personal, artistic, and professional relationships over time.
The other piece of advice comes from the great Nadia Boulanger and is something I think about all the time: “Never avoid the obvious!”
How did your time at SFCM change the course of your career?
SFCM was a huge shift for me having attended NYU previously which is such a massive university. It was the perfect balance for me to have gone to a big liberal arts school as an undergraduate and then to move to a small, intimate setting. The opportunities that existed for composing, performing, and teaching all in such active ways were exactly what I needed at that point in my education and I really thrived there.
To be honest, I never expected to have a career primarily as a pianist. I was of course pursuing composition as my degree, and was interested in writing concert music and stage works, film scoring, playing in rock bands, as well as being very interested in Musicology. My life was absolutely changed by meeting and working with Alla Gladysheva at SFCM. I studied piano with Alla while I was at SFCM in addition to my composition studies and she completely changed my technique and helped me become a serious pianist. Alla also recommended me for my first ballet pianist position at San Francisco Opera. Without having met and worked with her, I certainly would not be in the position I am now.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your time at SFCM?
I loved my time at SFCM and tried my best to take advantage of everything that I could while I was there. College and graduate school is such an intense, precious time that goes by so quickly. It’s easy to get our head caught in the sand with the large pressures of recitals, studio classes, and other projects. I encourage current students to always try and remain curious with a spirit of exploration while they’re in school. I never expected or planned on being where I am today, and I credit a lot of my success to just being open to doing something new.
Learn more about SFCM’s composition department.