Life of a Flutist with Lisa Kawasaki

The flute produces an incredible sound. Many people can’t name the sounds of all the different instruments in an orchestra, but it’s hard to miss the flute. You may remember it from Bizet’s Carmen or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It pierces through the air with a clear expression while breaths, shapes, and keys, all work together in delicate harmony producing these magical tones. It is wonderful. 

At the Estonian National Opera, one of their talented flute players comes from Japan. Like many artists, she began her musical training right at home as a young girl, but it soon took her around the world.

“I’m from Ehime, it’s in the south of Japan. I’m the only musician in my family. I started with Piano when I was five or six years old and then I started to play the flute when I was thirteen. I saw the flute and thought it was so beautiful, so I thought, ‘ok, I want to play it.’ I needed to play the piano to enter the music academy so I kept it up. I can still play the piano, but not so well.”

Lisa did make it into the Music Academy where she stayed for four years before moving abroad.

“I was 18 when I went to the music academy, it’s more like a music university, I was there for four years and then I went to Germany to do my masters for two more years. But while I studied in Germany, I worked in the opera house in Kassel and the Symphony Orchestra. It was study, work, study, work. Studying and performing means a lot of practice. Then I also had to read books, but now, with only work, it’s just a lot of practicing and listening to the music.”

Lisa also switched flute for awhile when she went abroad.

“I changed to Baroque music. In Baroque music, you use a wood flute with no keys. It’s not harder or easier, just different. Baroque music is much softer in sound compared to classical and it has a small ensemble, not a big orchestra. The classic, modern flute is what is played in most opera houses and theaters, it is more romantic. Baroque music is more played in the church or a house concert. I played the modern flute, actually, not for so many years, so I had to practice it more. But I like them both equally.”

As a classical musician, your workplace could be a small private ensemble, a national opera, or a symphonic orchestra, sometimes the opera orchestra and symphonic orchestra are the same group, but here in Estonia they are more or less separated.

“My dream was to be in a Symphony Orchestra. Because here, in an opera house, you’re always in the pit, and on the stage is the ballet dancer and opera singer, and we are ‘just the orchestra’. But somehow I grew to like it. I guess because I like ballet music. And because we have so many performances. We don’t have rehearsals, just performance, performance, performance. It’s nice. And somehow, I don’t like contemporary music. For me, it’s a strange technique. For my instrument it’s not so good. But if you’re in a symphony orchestra you have to play it. I like more old music.”

Lisa stayed in Germany after completing her studies for another five years before moving on to something new. Like any performer, moving almost always means auditioning…

“I did so many, so many auditions. In Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and when I came here, Estonia, I got the job. It was only then I thought, ‘where is Estonia?’ I just bought the flight ticket to Tallinn and left. I remember landing and telling someone, ‘I need Estonian coroner..’ and they said, ‘everything here is euro!’ I didn’t know anything!”

If you’ve ever participated in an audition, you know just how daunting it can be. Not only is the actual audition stressful, but also it generally means a lot of traveling and a lot of expenses for what can turn out to be no more than a five-minute audition. And the competition is high.

“Usually, the first round starts around 10:00. Maybe Mozart concerto, and then maybe pieces from orchestra excerpts, and it continues through the day. Each round they read out which numbers (people) go to the next round. Sometimes it happens that you go by plane, pay for a hotel, and then go to the theater, then after three minutes after the first round, ‘thank you very much…’ I had one audition, in Sweden, where for one position, 160 people auditioned! In one orchestra, like here, we are four flutists, maybe in bigger orchestras or symphonies, eight. For a flutist, it’s so hard to find a job.”

Lisa is now settled in Estonia; she’s been working at the Estonian National Opera for seven years, is married, and has a beautiful baby girl. However, being away from her home and culture is still hard at times. 

“The nature here is very nice. I don’t like Tokyo, it’s so many people. Here is calm. The negative would be that Estonia is so small, and not so many Japanese. Fortunately, I have good friends though.”

Her every day at work is often split into two shifts, rehearsing for the upcoming productions, (at the Estonian National Opera there are, on average, five different ballets and five different operas, all running symultaneously. That’s ten productions constantly on rotation for the orchestra, just in the course of one month) Needless to say, there is always work to be done and barely enough time to rehearse it.

“A normal working day starts at 11:00 with rehearsal, normally until 14:00-15:00 and then at 19:00-22:00 a performance. So we have two shifts, morning and evening. But I don’t perform every day. We are four flutists and we rotate. It depends on the performance, but normally we need 2-3 flutes per show. On a show day, I come normally an hour before to warm up and practice. But in my first years here, I lived in the theater! Now it’s ok, but in my first year, you’d get one rehearsal before the performance, even for a three-hour opera! I would listen to the piece one time, and that, just listening would take three hours.”

While artists always aim to give their everything in a show, there are still preferred productions.

“For ballet, I loved Onegin. Onegin was so nice, such a beautiful piece. Tchaikovsky, I also like.  But some ballets, like Bayadere, (Minkus) for example, it’s a little boring. Giselle also (A. Adam), the music is led by the violin. It always plays the melody and the other instruments keep the tempo, it’s very repetitive. But generally Tchaikovsky I like. For opera, Puccini, Tosca, Bohem, it’s so beautiful. My dream piece would maybe be Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, it’s very nice.”

Then there’s the forever battle of the “right tempo”. Every ballerina wants this or that adjusted, but more than anything we generally want a steady predictable tempo. This, however, has very little to do with the orchestra and mainly the conductor, but also, a steady tempo is generally a boring tempo for the orchestra.

“The ballet dancers always want a steady tempo. Not too fast or too slow. But we can’t do anything. It all depends on the conductor. Changing conductors every night isn’t that hard. If it’s a nice conductor, it’s easy, but if it’s a bad conductor, we can’t understand anything. Some conductors can’t give the right tempo, but we still have to follow. On the other hand, if we keep the same tempo the whole time, as the ballerinas want, for us, it’s so boring, it takes away a bit of our artistry. If the conductor is emotional it makes it much more interesting for us. But I understand that it’s uncomfortable for the dancer. I saw on the stage what the ballerina is doing and I see it’s better to keep the tempo. Actually in Giselle’s second variation in act 1, in this piece I can choose the tempo because it’s my piece, I play the flute solo. But for this piece, to keep the tempo and breath, I have to cut a few notes. I just concentrate to keep the tempo. When you are leading a solo, you can choose the tempo and the orchestra and the conductor have to come with you. So some advice for dancers, if you have a tempo request for the second variation in Giselle or Sugar plum variation, find the flutist and talk to that person.”

Passion is the fuel behind this beautiful flutist. Passion and purpose are what give people the courage to leave the comforts of home, face the rejections of auditions, and work through the stage nerves. The feeling of knowing that you are doing what you are made to is almost second to none.

“I know I am meant to be a musician. I can’t be anything else. It’s my passion. I’ve tried to do other things, but I can’t. I can’t just work for money. Musicians, they aren’t normal people. We don’t socialize, we are always with other musicians. But being a musician has made me stronger somehow. Living abroad, auditions, having a child even though my family is in Japan, somehow it has all made me stronger.”

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