So what music will you be listening to for the holidays? Hidden in that CD collection, you might find an opera name or two… Indeed, while there is no regularly performed Christmas opera (like ballet’s Nutcracker), singers seem more than willing to lend some operatic power to the traditional Christmas carol. Some examples include dedicated Christmas albums from Leontyne Price, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti.
Personally, I just listen to actual operas over the holidays. There’s something about a lush, soaring melody that warms the heart and helps you forget about the freezing temperatures outside. (Something useful for a Wisconsin winter, I imagine!) Which leads me to part two of my series on Edo de Waart – “The Opera Conductor”. (For the first part, see “The Mahler Conductor“.)
About three or four times a year, I go through a “Rosenkavalier” obsession. Ever since I heard the Strauss opera during my freshman year in college, I’ve been completely captivated by its music and its characters. During all-nighters finishing various assignments or bowing parts for the school library, the three hours of sublime music would keep me company. Other times, I would end an assignment early and still I would finish listening to the opera rather than sleep. As far as symphonic works go, I would never dare to suggest I have a favorite piece since it will undoubtedly change week to week. But I never hesitate when asked about my favorite opera – 1st place goes to Rosenkavalier and 2nd place is filled on a rotating basis.
Not sure if I can really justify my undying love of this opera. But besides the heavenly music, it is a story of youth – both its naivety and freedom; it is a story of love – both frowned upon and unnoticed; and it is a story of generosity – both as an act of sacrifice as well as acceptance. It is this last part that is so devastatingly beautiful and leaves most of its audience including me in tears every time…
See, I even get carried away from my intended subject while writing this post! Why mention Rosenkavalier at all? It was the first time I saw Edo de Waart conduct – when he stepped in at the last second for an ailing James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. Of course, I had been hearing about him for years (I was born in San Francisco shortly after he finished his nearly decade-long post with the San Francisco Symphony) and I knew him to be a Strauss expert so it was no surprise to see him brought in on short notice. It was only this year that I found out about his heroics – juggling rehearsals and performances in Milwaukee and New York sometimes in the same day. (There’s a beautiful photo slideshow on the Journal Sentinel’s website detailing one of these days.)
When I found out I would be working with Edo de Waart at the MSO, part of my excitement was because I knew he was an incredible opera conductor – and there aren’t a lot of them these days. Opera companies have become extremely compartmentalized over the past 50 years or so. The main duties are split among the coaches (they prepare the singers), the director (deals with everything on the stage), and the conductor (prepares the orchestra and puts together the music with the singers). While this allows for the most efficient process (which is undoubtedly why it has come to be the norm), we are losing an important kind of musician: the opera conductor.
In the contemporary situation I mentioned, the conductor’s role is essentially the same as when working with an orchestra – preparing the orchestra, coordinating soloists (i.e. opera singers), and leading performances. However, in the tradition that Edo de Waart grew up in, the opera conductor was responsible for the artistic integrity of the whole production. The conductor worked closely with the stage director and the coaches to ensure that the entire “team” was working towards a common goal. The conductor was expected to have an understanding of singing, acting, and know the libretto as well as the singers. Interestingly enough, some of the best experiences these days are found in the small opera houses where the artistic staff have to rely on each other.
It’s not necessarily that our current system inhibits great opera conductors (although many would make that argument), but rather it doesn’t allow for the development of new highly skilled conductors in the opera field, as we are expected to more or less stay in the pit. To show you the depth we are losing, here is the great James Levine in rehearsal of Ariadne auf Naxos – playing piano while coaching his singers, giving them tips on everything from diction, to acting, to phrasing. You can tell he knows every detail and understands every singer. This is what is quickly disappearing and why I’m so grateful to have the time with Maestro de Waart to understand his experiences.
Despite the falling importance of the opera conductor, I still hear the difference when a great opera conductor like Maestro de Waart is in the pit who understands his singers, their needs, and the dramatic connection between the music and the stage. In a bit of online evidence of this, here’s a video from de Waart’s first Ring Cycle at the San Francisco Opera in 1985 – the famous “Ride of the Valkyries”: