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Obituary: Kalmen Opperman

Master clarinet player and teacher who helped refine the techniques of some of the world's finest players

Born: 8 December, 1919 in Manhattan, New York.

Died: 18 June in Manhattan, New York, aged 90.

Kalmen Opperman was a master clarinetist whose intensive teaching methods helped mould some of the top players of the past 50 years, died on 18 June 18 in Manhattan. The cause was complications of congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Roie Opperman.

Opperman began his professional career playing for ballet and Broadway, but it was his relentless pursuit of musical perfection and highly personal teaching methods that drew generations of students to his studio.

"He was the elder statesman of the clarinet," said Stanley Drucker, a longtime principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic until his retirement last year. In his quest for excellence, Opperman became an expert in the mechanics of the instrument and often fabricated tuning barrels and mouthpieces, but only for his students. He wrote a series of widely used technical studies and the first authoritative guide to making and adjusting clarinet reeds.

Perhaps his best-known pupil is the international soloist Richard Stoltzman, who had just completed a master's degree at Yale in 1967 when he sought out Opperman for instruction on reeds — the two-and-a-half-inch-long pieces of cane that are the obsession of most players, a passionate fraternity of tinkerers.

"I came to him with a sense of entitlement, to take my place in the music establishment," Stoltzman said: "He had me play a little. Then he said, 'Yeah, well, you don't really know where the holes are on the clarinet yet.' It was then that I realised I would be a lifelong student." Opperman was single-minded about extracting the most from those he taught.

To that end, Stoltzman said, he composed wry epigrams and taped them to the walls of his studio. They gradually expanded to fill much of his apartment on West 67th Street in Manhattan. Among them were: "Everyone discovers their own way of destroying themselves, and some people choose the clarinet."

Larry Guy, a symphonic player, teacher and author of books on reeds and embouchure development — the taut formation of the lips around the mouthpiece and reed — was already an established player when he went to Opperman to correct problems with his right hand. Instead, Opperman identified embouchure problems. Over three years, Guy's embouchure was restored, and the hand problem vanished. "People went to him to clean out all the clutter and the dust in their playing," Guy said.

"He saw things that other people didn't see. And he had great ears. This made him a great diagnostician."

Kalmen Opperman was born in 1919, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and grew up in Spring Valley, New York attending high school there. His parents, Hyman and Rose, were immigrants from Austria and Poland.

His father, an artist and flutist, became his first music teacher. As a teenager, Opperman studied with Simeon Bellison, the principal clarinetist of the Philharmonic from 1923 to 1948.

From 1939 to 1943 he studied with Ralph McLane, a revered player and teacher who later became the principal clarinetist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Through McLane, Opperman grew to exemplify the so-called French school, whose lineage dates to the Paris Conservatory in the late 18th century.

In 1938, Opperman successfully auditioned for the West Point Band, where he played for three years, ultimately serving seven years with Army bands. His Broadway career followed, including nearly two dozen shows as principal clarinet, the last being the original production of La Cage aux Folles in 1983. He was also principal clarinet for Ballet Theater (later renamed American Ballet Theater) and for the American tour of the Ballet de Paris. He taught and lectured widely, at symposiums and universities around the country.

Opperman was married three times and divorced twice. After an early marriage, he wed the former Prudence Ward. Their children, Roie Opperman and Charles Opperman survive him. Also surviving are his wife, the former Louise Cozze, and his brothers Georg and Melvin.

Opperman students often found that lessons meant to last an hour could go on for four. Stoltzman recalled spending at least a week in the Opperman apartment some years ago, rising early for "a farmer's breakfast" and then starting the day's work.

"He would deconstruct you," he said. "He would expose your false attitudes about things. But at the end, he would restore you to a whole and make you feel that it was all still possible."

 
 
 

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