Nightly in New York, there are dozens and dozens of performers taking the stage at various clubs, bars and theaters in their own cabarets. Most of these performers rely on their voice to belt out Broadway standards. Others rely on their wit and humor, spitting out crass jokes about sex and the subway that hint they’re simply over it all and ready to move home. Henry Koperski is relying on his heart, as he proves in his new one-man show “Halo Top” playing at The Duplex.
Koperski is already known on the cabaret circuit of New York, but not as the leading player. Instead, his name is usually second billed as the accompanist, as every week he backs many of the city’s most vivacious talents in their own pursuits of becoming the next big thing. He also plays piano bars like The Duplex and Sid Gold’s, performing for drunk bar flies and tourists looking for a quintessential New York night out.
His show will surprise you, not because of his vocal talents or song choice, but because of his ability to move the audience with a few stories and anecdotes of love and loss. One story, about his only friend in middle school, moved many in the audience to tears — proving no matter how jaded a city like New York can make most people, there are still souls like Koperski willing to look at the glass half-full.
Most shows barrel through songs and jokes to get the audience out and onto the next thing, as in New York everyone is rushing to get nowhere. Koperski begins his show with pause and the simple instructions: “Everybody breathe.” Come for the piano player, stay for the healing.
We checked in with Henry Koperski before his next show Tuesday at The Duplex. We chatted about being out on his own, his love for Jill Scott and how he’s slowly coming to terms with “being enough.”
Usually you’re the one playing for others at their shows. Why are you deciding now to do a solo piece?
As much as I enjoy playing for others and collaborating in that special singer/pianist way, I also have a lot that I want to share of myself, and I knew that it was finally time to give myself the opportunity. I feel ready to share my voice (literally and figuratively).
What have been some of the challenges in this process stepping out onto your own?
There have been a few times when my old fears of not being “enough” have snuck into my mind. That stupid, fake voice that says, “You’re not a good singer. Stay behind the piano.” Or, “Why do you think anyone wants to listen to you?”
When those voices first started coming into my head, I hired three other musicians to play with me, as a band, and I was going to invite special guests to fill out the show with me. Then a couple weeks ago, I had a revelatory moment where I realized I was hiding from myself, so I redid the whole thing and went back to just me and a piano. Someday I will do a bigger show with a band and guests, but right now is my time.
Tell me about your relationship with your voice. Singing so much in this show, was there any fear you had to overcome?
I am very comfortable and confident as a pianist, and I do sing all the time in the piano bar scene. However, putting on a show and having people sit silently and watch you sing alone adds another level of performance anxiety. Through meditation and a lot of positive energy, I’ve been able to conquer that fear, and I’ve been really enjoying singing, and I would say I even feel great about it.
How does working with a director in the genre of cabaret work?
I’ve never worked with a director on my own project before. I didn’t even know what that was going to be like. I just know that most people get a director when they do a show, so I asked my amazing voice teacher Michael Pesce. He was so helpful in connecting the dots of all my ideas and finding incredible synchronicities and through lines for my songs and stories. He also connected to me spiritually in a way that was so special, and helped make this show really personal and meaningful to me, and hopefully the entire audience.
The story of your best friend was gut wrenching. Why did you decide to include that story in this piece?
It’s a story that I had forgotten about for years and years until I had a dream last fall, and I realized it kind of sums up my entire adolescence and early twenties, and that I had a lot to learn from it. Really analyzing this relationship and seeing how it made me who I am today was powerful, and it created the perfect frame for my show.
You talk a lot about the people who inspire you, including Maya Angelou and Leonard Bernstein. Who is one icon you forgot to include or you left on the cutting room floor?
Definitely Jill Scott! She is my favorite singer, songwriter, musician, poet ever. I discovered her in my early twenties right when I moved to New York, and I listened to all her albums on repeat, all day, every day. She truly allows her spirit to take the wheel and she just is her music. Listening to her songs is like breathing cool, night time mountain air. Also, she has an incredible voice. I’ve never tried to sing any of her music myself because I literally respect it too much and don’t want to risk ruining it. I realize she would probably find that silly. Someday I’ll figure out how to do it.