Obituary: Robert Keys

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The Independent Culture
FOR 35 years Robert Keys worked at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, first as a repetiteur then as assistant head of the music staff. He was widely respected in the profession and a key back-room figure in helping turn Covent Garden into a house of international standing.

Not long after Georg Solti had become music director of the Royal Opera, he was taking a rehearsal for which Keys was the pianist. Keys played the introduction but before the singers could come in, Solti stopped him, pointing out to everyone that they had just heard something quite remarkable: a pianist who played all the notes. Keys had that rare talent, even amongst repetiteurs, of being able to make the piano sound like a full orchestra.

He could well have become a concert pianist. He came from a family without music - his father worked on the railways - but was a precociously talented child, playing his first public concerto at the age of eight. After leaving the Royal Manchester College of Music (as it then was) he began working as a pianist. He also began conducting light music, with orchestras in Bournemouth and Leamington, developing a passion for Viennese music in particular.

The Second World War put paid to any hopes he might have had of becoming a soloist. During the day he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries; during the evening, he played troop concerts and began working with local operatic groups and choral societies. Working with voices was to become his metier.

In 1948, Benjamin Britten invited Keys to join his English Opera Group at Aldeburgh as a repetiteur (the person who plays the piano for rehearsals, stands in for the conductor and coaches singers in their roles, as well, in big opera houses, as being in the prompt box bringing in the singers during the performance). As well as working on all the operas Britten staged over the next four years, Keys was seen on stage in Let's Make an Opera, accompanied Peter Pears in recital whenever Britten was not available, and appeared on recordings with Britten.

In 1953, he joined the music staff of the Royal Opera House, becoming senior repetiteur in 1972 and then assistant head of the music staff in 1974. Keys was the perfect company man. Despite his brilliance as a pianist, he had no wish to push himself. His talent lay in helping others and during the 1960s and 1970s, he developed a reputation for being one of the best opera coaches in the world. It was largely due to Keys and his colleagues on the music staff that Covent Garden attracted so many international stars. The house gained a reputation for the way singers were prepared for their roles, including singers who were already household names and may even have recorded their parts. Keys worked closely with them all and with visiting conductors such as Carlo Maria Giulini. He coached young singers preparing to sing a role for the first time, including Joan Sutherland.

On the face of it Keys was a shy man, but he became dynamic the moment he sat at a piano and began coaching. He was warm and witty and befriended young people joining the company. He organised concerts for members of the chorus and was never too busy to answer questions or to offer help.

Keys's influence extended far beyond Covent Garden. Because of his abilities he was often loaned out to other companies. He set up opera courses for students in Vancouver, he went to Holland to assist Giulini on a production of Don Giovanni. He took a great interest in helping students at the London Opera Centre and was, through the Donizetti Society, instrumental in helping put Donizetti back on the map.

His knowledge of musical history was encyclopedic as it was of musical styles, and he joined the Donizetti Society, the Havergal Brian Society and became founder and secretary of the Friends of Austrian composer Robert Stolz, long before such composers became fashionable.

He also composed himself, arranged and translated, and, together with Roger Carpenter, was co-author of a life of the Yorkshire composer William Baines. Away from music Keys's great passion was railways and if ever anybody in the Covent Garden company wanted to know how to get anywhere by train, he was the person they would ask.

In 1953, Keys married June Brimlow, who died in 1975. They had a son and daughter. In 1977, he married Elaine Korman, herself an accomplished pianist. After his retirement in 1988, they moved to Dorset but not to a life of leisure. Keys continued to coach young singers, work as secretary of the Robert Stolz Society and organise and perform in concerts for his favourite charities.

Richard Fawkes

Robert Keys, pianist and repetiteur: born Scholar Green, Cheshire 30 January 1914; married 1953 June Brimlow (died 1975; one son, one daughter), 1977 Elaine Korman; died Stalbridge, Dorset 28 August 1999.