Wei Wu returns to CU, where he started in opera

Now a guest artist in same role, same opera, same set, same stage, ten years later

By Peter Alexander Oct. 20 at 10:10 p.m.

Wei Wu left Beijing in 2008, a young bass singer with his eyes on a career in opera. The first place he came outside of China was Colorado, to study with Julie Simpson at the CU-Boulder College of Music.

He remained in Boulder for five years, singing in most productions during those years, and graduated with a master’s degree in 2013. The first full opera role he sang anywhere was on the Macky stage, in the role of Colline in Puccini’s La Bohéme.

Wei Wu as Colline in the current CU production of “La Bohéme”

This weekend he returns to the Macky stage, in the role of Colline in Puccini’s La Bohéme—and in the very same set as ten-plus years ago! (You can read about the opera and the current production here.) He will appear in all three performances presented by the Eklund Opera program, Friday through Sunday (Oct. 21–23; details below).

“It’s been like 10 years and that was the first production I did, and I’m so happy to be back,” Wu says. “Boulder has been so special to me and to my wife too, because Colorado is the first state I came to. I just love Colorado.”

Indeed, he loves Colorado so much that he has moved back to Boulder permanently. His operatic career is well established, he has an agent who can land roles for him with opera companies around the country, his wife has a job in Boulder, and he still has many friends here who are “more like a family member to us,” he says. After several years in New York, he was happy to return to a place he loves. 

Leigh Holman

Leigh Holman, the director of the Eklund Opera Program and stage director for La Bohéme is equally happy to have him here. “It’s been great for the students for him to work right alongside of them,” she says. “They have the opportunity to ask him questions and get to know him as a person, but also ask him about his experiences as a young artist.”

Wu’s experiences after leaving CU have been a model for rising young singers. After graduating, he landed a position in the Domingo Young Artist Program at Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. From D.C. he moved to New York for several years, in order to be close to auditions and agents that could help him launch into the professional world.

Weigh Wu (r) with Ken Howard (l) as Steve Jobs at the Santa Fe Opera, 2017. Photo by Ken Howard.

He sang with several companies, but his breakthrough came in 2017 when he sang the role of Kōbun, Steve Jobs’s guru, in the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates at the Santa Fe Opera. I reviewed that production on the Sharpsandflatirons blog, writing that he “sang with a deep resonant bass as Kōbun. In a role filled with both wisdom and wry humor, he captured the changing nuances perfectly.” (See the full review here.)

“That was my career turning point, singing in Santa Fe,” Wu says. “The world premiere brought me many other world premieres, doing more new operas. And on that they did a live recording that won the Grammy!”

His Chinese family has come to visit him in Colorado, but he has not been able to return to Beijing since the pandemic hit. His family played a large role in his interest in music: his grandfather played trumpet in jazz bands in the 1950s, and when he was growing up in the ‘80s, his father had cassette recordings of classical music.

Wu admits to a certain amount of culture shock when he first arrived in the US, and credits Holman with helping him adjust. “She was definitely one of my big mentors during my student years, who opened up my mind and helped me develop a lot,” he says. “She gave me a lot of opportunities to touch something as me.” 

His sang roles that certainly were not stereotyped for an Asian singer, including Jigger in Carousel and the sexually predatory southern preacher Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Asked about his mastery of Southern English, he said that he has a good ear for accents, then sang out, “Howdy Brethren and sisters!” with a good touch of twang.

After the production of Bohéme in Macky, Wu has some exciting professional engagements coming up. Next will be Tosca in Los Angeles in November and December, and Bellini’s Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in February and March. And The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs continues to pay dividends: he will sing in a new production that was co-commissioned by several companies around the country, including the Utah Opera, where you can see him May 6–14, 2023 in Salt Lake City.

Now that he lives in Boulder, there may be more guest appearances with the Eklund Opera as well. “As long as the schedule works out, I would love to,” he says. 

# # # # #

Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
CU Eklund Opera, Leigh Holman, stage director
Nick Carthy, conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct.21, and Saturday, Oct. 22
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23
Macky Auditorium



Jorgensen and Bryant discuss their CD of Beethoven’s violin sonatas, played on period instruments.

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 22 at 1 p.m.

Albany Records TROY 1825–28
(4 CDs)

Listening to Beethoven on early 19th-century instruments is the next best thing to time travel.

On their CD recording of Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin (Albany Records TROY 1825–28), released in July 2020, violinist Jerilyn Jorgensen and pianist Cullan Bryant play all 10 sonatas on restored historical instruments, transporting listeners back in time to 19th-century Vienna.

As historical performance practice instrumentalists, Jorgensen, a member of Colorado College’s performance faculty, and Bryant, a chamber musician based in New York, are breaking new ground. They are the first duo from the United States to release Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas on period instruments from an American collection.

Jerilyn Jorgensen and Cullan Brant. Photo by Lee A. Brown

Their expertise in classical-era performance practice has led to invitations from the Historical Keyboard Society of North America in 2018 and 2021, performances at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, and an early-piano concert series in North Carolina.

In 2020, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, a year flooded with Beethoven recordings, their interpretation stands out, offering listeners an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s music as it sounded during his lifetime.

On a first or superficial listening, listeners may find the sonic differences between period and modern instruments rather subtle. But after learning about the historical context and the technological developments in instrument making, listeners will be better able to identify and appreciate the musical nuances.

“Playing on period instruments doesn’t lend one to being more academic in one’s interpretation,” Bryant says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It invites more emotional involvement, and in the case of Beethoven, a little more insanity, a more romantic interpretation.

Jorgensen and Bryant. Photo by Christopher Greenleaf.

“The instrument is telling you how to play. It is telling you what it needs to express the music. You don’t play the same (as on modern instruments), and you gain a new insight into what Beethoven was looking for interpretively. It is precious.”

On the album, Jorgensen uses a Viennese classical-era violin constructed by Andrea Carolus Leeb in 1797, and four period bows. The Leeb violin is one of few surviving period violins with the original neck setup, which allows for traditional gut strings.

The modern violin fingerboard and neck setup allows for greater tension on the modern wire strings. This creates a larger, louder sound that can fill a larger concert hall, but it does not necessarily reflect the sound that Beethoven had in mind while composing.

The distinctive aesthetic of Jorgensen’s period violin, when compared to a modern violin, is the most striking difference of the recordings. The sound is slightly thinner and quieter, almost delicate at times, yet it also has a deep, rich resonance and profound, lyrical expressivity.

Bryant recorded the album on five historical pianos from the Frederick Collection, which is located in Ashburnham, Mass., a small town located 50 miles north of Boston. The Fredericks own the largest playable, historical piano collection in the United States, which currently includes 24 restored pianos, dating from 1795 to 1928, mostly built in Vienna and Paris.

Anonymous piano from 1795, the oldest instrument in the Frederick collection

“We went up there originally to choose a piano for the set,” Bryant says. “But both of us were like kids in a candy store. The character of each piano lent itself so wonderfully to the music.”

“I was absolutely blown away,” Jorgensen adds. “This is the best collection of working early pianos that you can play in the United States.”

For Bryant, playing on these different period pianos was difficult at first, due to the difference in touch and size from a modern piano. For each recording session, he needed a few days to adapt his technique.

“The pianos sound dramatically different than a modern piano, (in terms of) the clarity, the smallness of the instrument and the technique,” Bryant says. “There is a great distance between a sforzando and pianissimo. For a pianissimo, you can’t even see your fingers move.”

Despite Bryant’s assertions, the differences between the period pianos and the modern piano can be quite subtle, especially when compared to the period vs. modern violin. Overall, the Frederick Collection’s pianos can be distinguished by a quicker speed of attack and less sustain when a note is played and a solid dynamic range, allowing for extremely quiet moments that maintain clarity and gradual, steady dynamic builds.

The collection’s oldest piano, an unsigned Viennese style piano from 1795, is featured on the album’s opening work, Sonata No. 1 in D major. The piano, with a reverse-color, five-octave keyboard and geometric-patterned case, has a somewhat sharp attack, though this is balanced by an overall lightness of sound.

Piano by Caspar Katholnig (1805–10)

A piano by Caspar Katholnig, used for Sonatas 3, 5, 6 and 7, has a notable historical connection with Beethoven. In the early 19th century, this piano, built between 1805 and 1810, was housed in Esterházy palace, located outside of Vienna in Eisenstadt. Prince Nikolas II Esterházy, known for being the last patron of Haydn, also supported Beethoven early on and in 1807 commissioned his Mass in C. This instrument has a deeper, richer tone than the 1795 piano, lending itself well to the passionate turmoil and expressivity of these four middle-period sonatas.

Bösendorfer piano, ca 1830

For the 10th sonata, composed in 1812, Bryant chose a Bösendorfer piano built between 1828 and 1832. Ignaz Bösendorfer was an apprentice of Joseph Brodmann, whose piano was used for Sonatas 2 and 8. He later became one of Vienna’s most influential piano makers, after being championed by Franz Liszt in 1838. The company still exists today, though owned by the Yamaha Corporation. The Bösendorfer‘s sound is almost modern, with more sustain, a smoother attack and greater aural consistency.

To complement the Bösendorfer’s aesthetic, Jorgensen uses a modern style bow, built in 1830, rather than the transitional bows she used for the first nine sonatas. The transitional bows, referring to those in use between the Baroque bows of the 17th century and the more modern bows of the 19th century, were designed to resonate more than project. 

Violin bows, from Baroque to modern

In contrast, the convex modern bow, developed in France by François Tourte in the early 19th century, was designed to project in larger concert halls. The bow is capable of more tension on the bow hairs and thus a louder sound. Jorgensen felt a modern bow would better match the “sustaining quality of the piano and the lyrical lines of the 10th sonata,” Jorgensen says.

”The 10th sonata is sitting on the cusp of Beethoven’s late period,” Bryant adds. “He got more introspective with more lyrical, longer lines.”

Overall, Jorgensen and Bryant present a unique window into Beethoven’s musical world that is both intellectually and sonically stimulating. Though the album is still enjoyable for casual listeners, to truly understand the musical significance, listeners must commit to deeper, dedicated listening with an ear for subtle differences.

“I hope that (listeners) will be able to hear the music in a new way,” Jorgensen says. “(Period classical instruments) are not anything that people have necessarily heard before. I am hoping that people will say, ‘Wow! That really caught my attention. I never really heard it that way before.’

“I hope they will be entranced with the sound and feel transported back in time a little bit.”

# # # # #

NOTE: For more information on bows, watch the documentary The Bowmakers, presented online during the holidays by the Friends of Chamber Music in DenverThe stream of The Bowmakers will open Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 26, and be available through Sunday Dec. 6.

The documentary features Brooklyn Rider, the Miró and Dover quartets. More information and streaming tickets are available here.


NOTE: Updated to correct the sentence “They are the first duo from the United States to release Beethoven’s complete violin sonatas on period instruments from an American collection.” The sentence as originally posted did not include the modifier “from an American collection.”

Thomas Steenland dreams of a world without mp3

The story behind Boulder-based label Starkland 

By Izzy Fincher Oct. 1

“New music always stood out to me. I gravitated toward it,” Thomas Steenland says.

After 43 years in new music, the appeal hasn’t faded for Steenland. With his Boulder-based label Starkland, he continues to release genre-defying, innovative new music for adventurous listeners.

Thomas Steenland

Steenland established himself in Colorado’s new music industry in the 1970s. After graduating from the University of Colorado, he took over Owl Recording, Inc., a new-music label founded in 1976. Owl, the brainchild of Steenland’s professor Cecil Effinger, was one of the United States’ first major non-profit labels, a revolutionary idea in the music industry. Freed from industry norms, Owl pursued their mission of releasing new music LPs of “high artistic, educational or historical worth not otherwise available” with Steenland at the helm. 

After 15 years at Owl, Steenland’s entrepreneurial spirit grew restless, as he saw Owl’s legacy fade when CDs began to eclipse LPs. He decided to revamp Owl’s mission to meet technological advancements. This led to the creation of his own label in 1991, based in Boulder, which released CDs exclusively. 

“I think a label can be based anywhere,” Steenland says. “But I was here in Boulder and had connections that evolved out of my experience with Owl. It was an easy transition from running that label to forming my own label.”

He decided to name his label Starkland, a play on his last name Steenland (which means “stone land” in Dutch).

“I have always loved the word stark, and I wanted it to indicate that it was edgy music,” Steenland says. “It wasn’t easy listening, new-age music.”

The word stark certainly embodied the label’s mission. Stark means utter and sheer, suggesting an absolute commitment to new music. Stark means severe, harsh and sharp, suggesting the tendency of new music to challenge expectations. Stark also means desolate and barren, perhaps a nod to unexplored musical territory and the sparsely populated landscape of the new music industry.

Original album of Dockstader’s Apocalypse

Starkland’s first release, a reissue of composer Tod Dockstader’s LPs on CD, sat at the intersection of unexplored musical and technological territory. The CD reissue presented the audio, especially the bass, with greater depth and authenticity than the original LPs released 25 years earlier. The reissue garnered attention and rave reviews from critics.

From there, Starkland grew, releasing music by cutting edge composers including Paul Dresher, Jay Cloidt and Guy Klucevsek. Later, Steenland experimented with new audio techniques, notably surround sound in the 2000 release Immersion, which featured 13 experimental electroacoustic commissions.

Nothing was too extreme for Starkland, not even Elliott Sharps’ 2015 album The Boreal, a turbulent auditory experiment.

“I can’t say I have rejected anything because it’s too extreme,” Steenland admits. “There would be other reasons. Elliott Sharp’s album is very challenging to listen to. You have to be in the right frame of mind. But he’s a big name, and that album got over 30 reviews. He has fans, but it’s not easy listening.”

In the digital music age, Steenland has been forced again to adapt to technological advancements, this time unwillingly, as CDs fade away like Owl’s LPs, eclipsed by mp3 and digital streaming services.

“The big change is how music is presented and sold to the public,” Steenland says. “I made the transition from LPs to CDs and now from CDs to digital, but the music is a constant. I really enjoyed CDs because the sound was significantly better than LPs. Now CDs are going away, and it’s becoming a digital world.”

Steenland is not a fan of this new “digital world.” Frustrated by low quality audio, he dismisses millennials’ listening habits.

“People are more interested in convenience than quality,” Steenland says. “On Spotify or SoundCloud, the quality is really low. It’s a very different experience for the listener. Spotify’s data rate is about one-seventh of what a CD is. They are throwing away six-sevenths of the music. That’s discouraging when you worked really hard to make a beautiful sounding master tape.”

In the future, he believes 5G wireless will eliminate the need for mp3 by expanding current limits on storage capacity and data rate.

“I think if 5G comes in, that is incredibly faster,” Steenland says. “It can stream high resolution video in real time. That would mean it can also stream high resolution audio. Hopefully then mp3 will go away, and we can go back to listening to CD or even better quality.”

Amidst the pandemic, he admits little has changed for Starkland, as the label focuses on chamber music releases. Musicians do their own recordings in home studios or in a socially-distanced studio setting. The only issue is promotion, such as Starkland’s recent release of Danielle Buonaiuto’s Marfa Songs, a “problem everyone faces” in the 2020 recording industry, he says.

“When COVID-19 came in, Danielle could not have a release party in New York City. That was really unfortunate. [A release party] gives critics more reason to pay attention to the album. It’s a problem. It’s disappointing, but what can you do?”

Instead in 2020, Steenland chooses to focus on what he can control. So he continues his 40-year mission of releasing new music and pursuing the highest-quality sound, meanwhile dreaming of a day when mp3 goes away.

# # # # #

You may access the full Starkland catalogs here.

Peter Oundjian wants Colorado Music Festival to be dynamic, “exciting, a celebration”

First year as Music Director will be ‘about consolidating, preparing’ for the future

By Peter Alexander June 6 at  3:15 p.m.


Peter Oundjian

Violinist/conductor Peter Oundjian served as artistic advisor of the Colorado Music Festival for the 2018 season, a position halfway between giving advice and being responsible for the season’s programming. He conducted three of the six weeks of orchestral concerts and invited some of the guest artists, in a season that featured works by American composers.

Now, he has been appointed the CMF’s fourth-ever music director, making 2019, in a way, “his” festival. “I guess you’re right,” he says thoughtfully about that observation, and then goes on talk in general terms about what he would like CMF to be under his direction.

“A festival should be a celebration,” he says. “I want it to be really dynamic, really exciting, with artists from all over the world., making concerts really appealing and building larger audiences.”

He is still conducting about half of the orchestral concerts, but he has shaped the programming of the entire 2019 festival and given the orchestra series an explicit theme. In anticipation with the 250thanniversary in 2020 of Beethoven’s birth, the 2019 season is an exploration of Beethoven’s influence on music that came after him, from the 19ththrough the 20thcenturies.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

The full summer schedule and ticket information for the 2019 Colorado Music Festival may be found here.

Bass Kevin Langan brings 40 years of Sarastro to Central City

Sometimes his career “just happened,” but he’s been lucky

By Peter Alexander July 24 at 4:05 p.m.

Bass Kevin Langan, Sarastro in this summer’s remarkable production of Mozart’s Magic Flute at Central City Opera, brings a little bit of experience to the role.


Kevin Langan is performing in his 20th production as Sarastro, at Central City Opera

It is his 20th Sarastro over a 40-year career, starting with a performance at the Indiana University Opera Theater when he was a student.

That was a particularly remarkable production, since among the cast were singers who went on to performances at the Metropolitan Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, La Scala, the Salzburg Festival, the Bavarian State Opera, and other major opera houses. Many are conservatory or university faculty today. (I resist the temptation to name some for fear I will forget others, and they all have had serious careers.)


Kevin Langan and Sally Wolf earlier this summer in Central City (photo courtesy of Kevin Langan)

One I can name: soprano Sally Wolf, who sang the Queen of the Night in 1977 and married Langan a few years later. Both Langan and Wolf have performed at CCO over the years, although only Langan is cast this summer. They just celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary while in Central City.

I knew Langan and Wolf when we were all graduate students at Indiana U., and I attended that performance in 1977. I don’t remember it in detail, having heard many Flutes since then, but Langan does. After hearing the performance in Central City last week, I sat down with Langan and asked him to reflect back on his 40 years of singing Sarastro, and talk about his interpretation of the role. Interestingly, he says it has not changed much since 1977.

“When I first saw Magic Flute (it was) at the Metropolitan Opera around 1977, right before we did it at IU, because I wanted to get an idea of what it was like,” he says. “The German basses who used to do it at the Met were usually big voices that sang loud, and I thought that’s the way you’re supposed to do Sarastro. Over the years as I did it and worked on it, I decided no, Sarastro should be sung like an (art song) singer would sing it, like you were going to sing Schubert or Schumann.”

Langan names one singer as a model for his approach. “I never saw him live, but I liked the way he sounded on records, and that’s Ludwig Weber,” he said. Weber was an Austrian bass who sang leading roles in Europe from the 1930s, including roles at the Royal Opera Covent Garden during the Second World War and the Vienna State Opera in the 1950s. (You can hear Weber here.)

“The music is not bombastic. That’s the way Mozart wrote it. I don’t think he writes fortissimo once for Sarastro, barely even forte. The more times I did it, I would go to conductors and say ’I don’t want to just go up there and hammer it out, I want to do it like a song.’ And the conductor this time around [André de Ridder] said, ‘Perfect. That’s exactly how I want to do it.’”

Like the Queen of the Night, Sarastro’s part consists largely of two major arias: O Isis und Osiris, sung to the priests of his temple, and In diesen heil’gen Hallen, sung to Pamina. “They’re lessons,” Langan explains. “The first one is a lesson about the gods, and In diesen heil’gen Hallen is a lesson to Pamina, who’s been just devastated by her mother (who asked her to kill Sarastro and rejected her when she refused). It shouldn’t be (sung) out to the audience, it should be to her, and the audience is privy to these two people talking.

“That’s my approach to the role, no matter what production values you give it. I don’t want to make him a blowhard—I want him to be friendly. And that’s the way I sang it at Indiana.”


Poster for the Houston Grand Opera production designed by Maurice Sendak

Langan has been thinking back about his career, partly for a potential memoir of his years in opera. He has sung with many of the greats of the operatic stage over the years, including Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and Cesare Siepi, to name a few, so he has a lot of memories to draw upon. And of all the Magic Flutes he has sung, two stand out. Interestingly, he remembers them more for their production designs than their musical interpretations.

One was designed by children’s author Maurice Sendak, created originally for the Houston Grand Opera and later performed by other companies around the country, including Opera Colorado in 1999. That one was like performing inside a story book, Langan said.

He and Wolf both performed in a production designed by the English painter David Hockney. Originally created for the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1978, that one also toured around the country. Langan and Wolf sang in the Hockney production in San Francisco in 1991, and a DVD of the production from the Metropolitan Opera was released in 2000.

Zandra Rhodes FLUTE San Diego 2001

Langan backstage with designer Zandra Rhodes (photo courtesy of Kevin Langan)

Those are not the only productions he remembers, though. Another favorite was a production designed by Zandra Rhodes, a clothing designer from the “Swinging ‘60s” in London. “I looked like Don King with orange hair,” Langan recalls. “I had a bright orange outfit, and she herself always had purple hair. We had a lot of fun with that show, but it was more about the visuals.

Calgary FLUTE 1997

Langan in costume as Sarastro at Calgary Opera (photo courtesy of Kevin Langan)

“I played Sarastro as an Indian chief in Calgary. We were all a tribe of Indians and I was their chief. That was fun. And there was Zack Brown’s production that we did in Washington, where I was in a white gown, bald, very elegant. That was cool—I almost look like I’m out of Star Wars!”

Looking back, Langan feels lucky, because he was never asked to do Sarastro in a production that was too crazy. “I don’t think I ever did one that was really ridiculous. I’ve done some pretty whacked-out shows, but not Flute. I was pretty lucky.”

Magic Flute, SFO, Summer, 1991 (Ruth Ann Swenson & Jerry Hadley)

Langan (left) as Sarastro at the San Francisco Opera in 1991, with Ruth Ann Swenson (Pamina) and Jerry Hadley (Tamino) (photo courtesy of Kevin Langan)

And that’s the last point that Langan wants to make, especially for young singers: His career may look like it was all well planned, going from one Sarastro to another, singing other great bass roles including Osmin in Abduction from the Seraglio, Timur in Turandot, King of Egypt in Aida and The Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos. You might think that’s just the way he planned it, but that’s not really the case. Some of it was luck.

“I had a lot of things happen to me that were unusual for a young singer,” he says. “Going to San Francisco so young, and working with all these great singers. (But) I had no idea what was going to happen next. It was an odyssey. Things just happened. And that’s one thing about a career, you have no control over it. It takes you on a trip.”

As a lifelong fan of the Beatles, whom he credits for his first interest in singing, Langan can’t resist one more comment. “I say John Lennon’s line, ‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’ That is so true.”

Langan will continure in the role of Sarastro at Central City Opera through Aug. 5. Tickets are available here.


Kevin Langan outside the Central City Opera House (photo courtesy of Kevin Langan)

“The most important aspect of an orchestra is to really be in the community.”

—Elliot Moore, candidate for Music Director of the Longmont Symphony

By Peter Alexander

Each of the four candidates for music director of the Longmont Symphony Orchestra will conduct a concert during the 2016–17 season. When each candidate visits Longmont, I will take the opportunity to introduce him (and yes, they are all male). The questions will include serious questions about the job of a music director, but also questions that help introduce each of them to the reader. I hope this will give a clearer picture of the strengths of each candidate.

The first candidate, Elliott Moore, will conduct the orchestra on  Saturday, Nov. 12. The following works are on the program: Mozart’s Symphony No. 32 in G major; Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, with pianist Vivian Choi; and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Here are his answers to the questions I asked:


Elliot Moore

PA: What attracted you to the Longmont Symphony?

EM: They seemed to be an orchestra that has, first of all, a presence in the community. They seem to be an orchestra that is well run. There’s a feeling about the orchestra, and I got that already from their online presence, that they’re an orchestra that takes pride in what they do. They’re an orchestra that wants to be playing great music, and they’re an orchestra that wants to be in their community.

How do you think about programming for a community orchestra? What would a season of the LSO with Elliot Moore look like?

Whenever I think about programming, I consider a couple of different things. I consider, what does the audience want to hear, what do they expect to hear? I also always think about what will further the artistic achievement of the orchestra. If they haven’t played much from the classical period, that is something that I would want to begin focusing on, or, if they haven’t done much modern music, perhaps doing some living composers would be good for them to start doing, so that they become a well rounded orchestra in all the different musical genres. And then, once I have sort of the overall season done, I look to see if there’s something for everyone.

I think that pops plays a role in a season’s program, and the orchestra certainly has a pops series. When there are pops concerts, it’s important to still showcase the orchestra. One other thing: Something that should be in the programming would be opportunities to work with other local arts organizations, whether that be modern dance ensembles, or videographers, or choreographers—all kinds of different artistic media that the orchestra can work with in order to connect the dots within the community.

There have recently been alarm bells for classical music and orchestras, especially the larger orchestras that have had serious budget issues and labor disputes. Do you think that these problems will affect community orchestras as well? And if not, what do you think are the challenges for the smaller orchestras?


Elliot Moore

I see it as being less of an issue for the Longmont Symphony. What I think is the most important aspect of an orchestra, period, is to really be in the community. What are the specific needs of the community, and is the orchestra playing a role to address those needs? I know in Longmont there is an Hispanic population of approximately 30%, and I know also that they tend not to be coming to the LSO concerts. How, in an authentic way, can the Longmont Symphony bridge the gap to that community? Connecting different organizations, to create one incredible cultural community—I think that that is important. And I think that once you really connect with your community, in an authentic way, really thinking about it, really considering how to make this community better, then go after that. So making a plan and then taking action. When those things are done, the chances of an orchestra folding are much less because they are in the community and they are making a difference, and their presence matters, and the public knows that, they understand that and they feel that.

How do you balance and prepare for the various aspects of the conductor’s job: the musical requirements, the social demands with the public, and the diplomatic demands with contributors, the board and musicians?

That’s a really great question. Let’s talk about the musical first. The job of a conductor is largely one where you are alone a lot of the time, studying the scores. That is what informs inspiring rehearsals. It’s impossible to have inspiring rehearsals if you don’t really know your music, you don’t know the context in which it was written, or you know don’t what inspired the composers of the music you’re performing. That is probably the single most important aspect.

When conducting, I imagine myself as a conduit. I empty out and then I fill up with the music. It’s like a straw that’s flavored with chocolate flavor: when you drink milk through the straw you get chocolate milk. My experiences as a human being, they’re like that straw, so when the music flows though me, it has that flavor of Elliot, Elliot’s experiences, Elliot’s beliefs.

In terms of working with boards, fundraising, interfacing with the audience, a couple of things come into play. First of all, having a fundamental respect for everyone is very important—being able to empathize with people and see their points of view. But also having a business sense is very important. So combining vision with empathy is a very important aspect of working with people.

When the organization is more than just an orchestra, it’s a fundamental part of the community and makes the community better, then it’s easier to go and sell the orchestra to potential donors because the orchestra is not just playing a symphony; the orchestra is playing a symphony that transforms people’s lives and transforms the community. When you see fundraising from that perspective, being part of an organization that is actively fundraising is a great thing because all of these things help contribute to the wellbeing of the community. I think being an empathic person is very important.

About you, now: Where did you grow up?

I grew up in many, many different parts of the United States and the world. I was born in Anchorage, Alaska. I lived in south Denver for 6 months when I was 6 years old. I lived in Texas, for about 10 years, in Midland and Plano. Then I finished high school in Cleveland. I lived in Switzerland for 6 years—I speak French and German, I lived in the French part and the German part. And I’ve lived in New York City and now Detroit.

Did you come from a musical family?

The joke is, my mom plays piano, my dad plays tennis.

Who are your musical mentors?


Mstislav Rostropovich presenting an impromptu concert after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nov. 1989

I have a couple of musical heroes. The first one is Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist/conductor, in part maybe because he’s a great cellist and conductor, and I am also a cellist. What I would say about him that has been so inspiring to me over the course of my childhood and career has been the humanity that he shows to everyone. There are so many stories, but one was that there was a stage hand or maybe a custodian at the National Symphony where he worked, who passed away. Rostropovich wanted to go to the funeral, which is amazing for a music director to go to the funeral of a stage hand. He couldn’t make it to the funeral, so he went and privately played his cello at his casket, and said to the orchestra’s executive director, “I don’t want this to be a media thing, this is just me expressing my feelings about this man and to his family.”

There’s a great photo I had up in my bedroom when I was child, a photo of Rostropovich letting a soldier sleep on his shoulder. The soldier was supposed to protect him and he was so exhausted he fell asleep and Rostropovich let him sleep on his shoulder, and there was a gun leaning up against his leg. That sort of attachment to all human beings is something that I certainly strive for. The attachment to music and humanity is why he’s my musical hero.

Are there any conductors today whose work you especially admire?

I really look up to Manfred Honeck, the music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. There are many things that I enjoy about his music making. One is his authenticity at how he brings his experience to conducting. He’s not about being in the spotlight; he’s about putting the spotlight on the music. I think that resonates with their audiences, with the players, with the orchestras with which he works. It’s a breath of fresh air to see somebody come in and be about the music, as opposed to about the spotlight.

Moving on to some less serious questions: Do you have a favorite food?

I feel like this isn’t a very interesting answer. I love all kinds of foods, and I Iove to cook. Often my wife will choose what she wants to have, and she chooses very interesting things that I would have never chosen, and then I cook them. So I love to cook, and I like trying things that are different. I have tried many different kinds of foods, and basically love them all.

Since you lived in Lausanne, Switzerland, what about raclette?

Raclette! I lived in Lausanne, yes, and I do love raclette and I do love fondue. I find that I it’s not quite the same here.

As you know, Colorado is an outdoor recreation state. Do you have a favorite activity outdoors? Or are you too busy shut up in your studio studying scores?

No, I’m not too busy shut up in my studio. The great conductor Carlo Maria Giulini said that if you have to study a score for 10 hours, you should study your score for one hour every day for 10 days and the rest of the time you should spend walking in the woods. Yesterday I had just an unbelievable experience, going up into the Rocky Mountain National Park, all the way up to the top. I love photography, and so I took some really stunning photos. It’s been a blessing to be here, for many reasons, including the outdoors, but also there are just lovely people here.

Do you follow any sport or team?

I have been a Cubs fan since I was 7 years old! There was an LSO Board meeting on the night of game 7 of the World Series, and as soon as the board meeting was over I ran into a sports bar where they had the game on, and I made a lot of new friends!


11.8. Minor typos corrected on this page


Central City Opera reaches out for new audiences

A conversation with general director Pat Pearce

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera Opening Night 2006- Page 2 of Book

Opening Night at Central City Opera. Featured in Central City Opera’s 75th anniversary book, “Theatre of Dreams, The Glorious Central City Opera- Celebrating 75 Years.”

Central City Opera opens its 2016 Summer Season tonight (July 9) with their 60th anniversary production of Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe, which premiered at the Central City Opera House July 7, 1956. (A review will appear in Boulder Weekly July 14).

Other works on the summer season will be Puccini’s Tosca and two shorter works—The Impresario by Mozart and Later the Same Evening by John Musto—which will be performed both in Central City and on the road in Boulder and Colorado Springs, respectively. Those shorter works take the place in the company’s schedule of a third production in Central City, and they represent an effort to reach out and build new audiences for opera.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pelham (Pat) Pearce, general/artistic director of Central City Opera, about the motivations for taking those shorter works on the road, and on the condition of opera in American today. Here is part of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Alexander: Over the past few seasons, you have been looking for the right menu for Central City Opera—is that fair to say?


Pelham “Pat” Pearce

Pearce: I think so. These days, everybody is having to adjust and in many cases, shift and change for the environment we’re living in. But ultimately everything we’ve done over these past oh-so-many-years has been about finding and developing new audiences for this art form. That’s really what it’s been about.

Some of it involved taking a show that we were doing up here (in Central City) down to Denver. Other things involved us actually creating down in Denver in the music theater vein. And what we’ve done in the last year, and what we’re doing this is year, is taking one of our slots and devoting it to an effort to find and drive new audiences for this art form.

We’ve come up with a list of things that we felt were barriers for people, and we think we’re right about this. One of them is price, and opera tickets everywhere can run to be fairly expensive, mostly because it’s the most expensive art form in the world—and even with those expensive tickets that’s still only a small percentage of what it actually costs to do it. But for something that you either don’t know or don’t think you’re going to like in the first place, you’re hesitant to spend a lot of money to try something out. So price was a deal.

Length was a deal—perceptions about how long opera is, how long the sit is, so we created things that were around an hour in length.

The fact that it’s in a foreign language is another perception, and so we tried to basically focus on things that were written in English. This year we have one piece, the Mozart Impresario, that we will be doing in translation, from its original German to English.


Historic Central City Opera House, interior

And the other thing is making people come to you. Doing opera in spaces that were created for doing that is the easiest way to do it. We have everything we need—dressing rooms, lighting, pit—all of those things we need to produce the art form. But we find that crossing that threshold is problematic for some people. So, we have said that we will do these pieces in non-traditional places, so that any pre-conception about what you have to be, who you have to be, what you have dress like—all of those things are shifted to the side and we’ll do these pieces in nontraditional places.

So those four things are sort of the drivers for us, in addressing how we take this third of our offerings in the summer and translate it into something we think will address all of those barriers. So this year that happens to be Mozart’s Impresario and John Musto’s Later the Same Evening. That was a long answer to your question, but I think that’s absolutely the correct answer in the end.

This fascinates me, because there are areas of opera that are thriving right now. For example, I’ve been to some very successful premieres in the past year: Manchurian Candidate by Kevin Puts at the Minnesota opera; Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon at Santa Fe; and The Shining by Paul Moravec, again at the Minnesota Opera. And we had Scarlet Letter by Lori Laitman at Opera Colorado this spring.

 People do seem to respond to new work, at least the first time. There’s always a cachet with a world premiere, especially these days. It becomes an event, a “thing” that everybody feels like they need to be there, which is great, especially for the original commissioner and presenter. The subsequent productions of it, in other places, (are another matter).

In the 1980s and ‘90s Opera America and the National Endowment for the Arts gave out money for people to commission new work. And what they found was that people were willing to commission new work, but the work was not really going anywhere because there weren’t subsequent productions. It didn’t have the opportunity to grow and to evolve, and for more people to see it. And so in the next couple of decades they gave money to encourage people to take the risk of that second production of the work.

In many cases these days, people have co-commissioned new works and they’ve set up, like they did with Moby Dick (by Jake Heggie), and like they did with Cold Mountain, multiple presenters. That cuts down on the risk and the cost of the original commission. As part of doing that, they have first dibs (on subsequent productions in other places). And so Cold Mountain went from Santa Fe last summer to Philadelphia over the course of this past season. The largest one in recent memory was Moby Dick, which started off in Dallas and it took it almost two and a half years to get through all of the co-commissioners.


Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk. Central City Opera, 2014.

Today, some pieces do go on to have real success around the country. Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which you produced in 2014, is a good example.

 Dead Man Walking is a really wonderful piece. It works, and nine times out of ten, new work is not going to work. I mean, that’s the reason most people don’t present new productions of works after the premiere—because having everything come together and have a piece actually work is hard, and it’s rare. Even back in the heyday of opera, there were lots of operas written, but the ones that we still see today are the ones that rose to the top.

There are many operas we’ve never heard of, for good reason.

 There are a lot of different ways to develop a new audience. And in addition to people that are commissioning these new works, in big houses, and doing them in their home theaters, there are also a plethora of new, very small opera companies that are popping up in larger cities, usually, that do work in non-traditional places—in warehouses, that sort of thing. Nobody gets paid much and they don’t charge much for the tickets, but people show up to see it. And so far they’ve managed to do it.

So everybody’s trying a lot of different things, and we’re all trying to learn as quickly as we can, from other people’s risk-taking, about what seems to work, and we try to adapt our offerings to that. Or at least a portion of our offering, so that at the same time we’re producing standard repertoire and interesting repertoire for our current audiences, we’re also working to develop new audiences. We set out a goal last year of having at least 50% of the people that bought tickets to the shows be new audience. We actually did 55%, so we did really well with that last year.

My concern was that our current audiences would want to see everything that we were doing, and would fill up all of the seats—which is a wonderful thing, but ultimately wasn’t the reason specifically we were doing it. Which is why we’ve taken at least a few of these performances off the hill, away from here. Last year we went up to Ft. Collins and down to Colorado Springs. This year, we’re going to go down to Colorado Springs and to Denver with Later the Same Evening, and to Boulder with two performances of The Impresario. So we’re taking it off the hill on purpose, and that’s often where we get the new audience.

# # # # #

Central City Opera
2016 Summer Season

CCOperaLogoPreferredThe Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore
2:30 p.m. July 13, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 27, 31; Aug. 2, 4
8 p.m. July 9, 29; Aug. 2, 6
Central City Opera House

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini
2:30 p.m. July 20, 24, 26, 30; August 3, 5, 7
8 p.m. July 16, 22
Central City Opera House

The Impresario by W.A. Mozart
12 noon July 27 and Aug. 3, William’s Stables Theater, Central City (sold out)
6 and 8 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Nomad Playhouse, 1410 Quince Ave., Boulder

Later the Same Evening by John Musto
7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, Pikes Peak Center Studio Bee, 190 S. Cascade Ave., Colorado Springs
8 p.m. Saturday, July 30, Denver Art Museum, Denver
7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, Gilman Studio, Lanny and Sharon Martin Foundry Rehearsal Center, Eureka St., Central City


Edited 7/10/16 to correct typos


Kenneth Woods is “very excited” to be stepping into MahlerFest

The festival’s new music director looks forward to the music and the mountains

By Peter Alexander

Kenneth Woods. Photo by  Benjamin Ealovega.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega.

I spoke to Kenneth Woods, the incoming music director of Colorado MahlerFest, by phone recently. We talked about his vision and plans for the future of the festival, as well as a few personal details that will help introduce Woods to the Boulder audience. (For more on Woods, I highly recommend his blog, A View from the Podium.) Here is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:

PA: You are clearly well aware of MahlerFest. Have you attended a performance before, or do you know of the festival by reputation? Have you met Robert Olson?

KW: I’ve never been able to attend a MahlerFest in the past, and I’ve never met Bob (Olson) in person. The degrees of separation between me and Bob, and me and the festival, are very few. I think I first became aware of it through an email listserv called Mahler List, which a lot of Mahler conductors and scholars and aficionados are on. And Colorado MahlerFest has always been a great gathering point for people on that list.

I can remember joining in back in the late ‘90s or early 2000s and everyone would be gearing up for Colorado MahlerFest, talking about what papers were presented, and what repertoire was played. So I became very aware of it then, and the sort of footprint of people who’d come through as speakers and lecturers is pretty astounding. There’s a lot of really interesting debate about key aspects of Mahler scholarship and performance that has come out of people who have spoken there, and the papers presented there, so there has been a lot of real great interest on the musicological side of the festival over the years. It’s a very small world, and particularly so when you get into Mahler. So I’m very excited to be stepping into that.

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Näher.

Gustav Mahler. Photo by Moritz Näher.

Mahler seems to attract a kind of devotion that other composers don’t—such as people traveling halfway around the world to go to a festival in Boulder. Why do you think that is?

I think part of it comes out of the historical way in which Mahler came into the repertoire. Even when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s the music was more written about than heard and performed. A performance of it was a rarity—back then you could come across the First and Fourth symphonies sometimes. But a piece like the Sixth or the Seventh or the Ninth was a real rarity.

My understanding is that one of the reasons Bob set up the festival, and one of the things that helped get it going initially, is that the music was not very often performed. For people who love it, there weren’t that many chances to perform it. That’s really changed in the past 15 years. It used to be considered something that only orchestras with the largest base of players and the biggest budgets would ever dare tackle. Of course, nowadays all sorts of youth orchestras and community orchestras play it. But I think for people who grew up in that age, that sense of advocacy and immersion and curiosity sticks with us.

For me working through the symphonies as a listener as a young musician, you had to order the record and wait for it to show up. You had to go looking for it. And the idea that you can go on YouTube now and instantaneously access dozens and dozens of Mahler performances these days—it’s a totally different world! And in that sense, I think MahlerFest means something very different that it probably did 28 years ago. That sense of discovery and immersion is really important. And to have a place that is all about Mahler, where you come and really focus on it for a week, I think is a really important thing for this music.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Stephanie Yao/The Oregonian.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Stephanie Yao/The Oregonian.

Do you think the fact that Mahler performances are much more common now than 28 years ago presents a challenge to the festival going forward?

The music is always going to be special and exciting and have great appeal to audiences. Staking out our territory as a place that really owns Mahler, that cares about Mahler—that’s not something that every conductor and every orchestra is well suited to. So it’s good to have a place where we can get back to first principles of Mahler, and really immerse ourselves in it. In terms of contextualizing the music, we’ve only sort of scratched the surface there, so I’m not worried about running out of things to do, anytime in my lifetime at least.

It’s almost a reverse of the paradigm of 30 years ago. At one point MahlerFest was needed because there was nowhere else to go to play and hear the music. Now it’s needed because we need a place where the music isn’t taken for granted, or just a piece that’s good for box office. In that respect, the festival is a very important institution, and one that I think makes a strong claim to being essential to the music.

Do you have any thoughts about next year? Do you expect to continue cycling through the major works, or have you even had time to think about that?

I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and nothing is set or announced. The big question is whether we finish the cycle that Bob has been working on the past several years, which is not quite complete yet, or start over from scratch with the First Symphony next year. I’m somewhat inclined to finish with the two symphonies that he hasn’t done in this cycle, which is Seven and Ten, in the next two years, for a couple of reasons.

The festival has never done the Deryck Cooke version of the Tenth Symphony [which the composer never finished], which was the first and in many ways the most influential. I think that would be a wonderful thing to add to the repertoire of the festival—it’s such an important moment in Mahler scholarship. And I also like the idea of getting to know each other, finding out what possibilities and the strengths and weaknesses are before we start on the next cycle.

Mahler's autograph score of Symphony No. 7.

Mahler’s autograph score of Symphony No. 7.

It could very well be that we start with Seven next year, which is one of my favorites in the cycle and not that often done generally. And then the Tenth Symphony the following year, and then start a fresh cycle in the third year, from the First Symphony onwards.

You did not mention the Eighth Symphony, which has not been done as part of this cycle.

I was a little unclear about where that had fit in the last run of things. I would love to do the Eighth, and it might be that we would do that in the third year. That’s a particularly ambitious one logistically.

From what you’ve seen so far, what do you think is the greatest strength of this festival that you would want to build on?

I think there’s two. The combination of live concert giving with idea sharing is really potent and something that the festival does better than the vast majority. And I think it’s something that can really be built on.

And the other thing is the community spirit that seems to exist within the orchestra and within the festival itself that Bob has obviously nurtured very carefully in terms of this volunteer band with very high standards, high aspirations. People really doing it together as a team out of a sense of shared purpose is something to really build on.

Have you thought about expanding the repertoire to people who were important for Mahler, or were influenced by him, as ways of giving audiences new perspectives on Mahler the composer?

Mahler hiking in the Austrian alps.

Mahler hiking in the Austrian alps.

Yes, absolutely. These things are already on discussion—whether it’s hearing, say, Mahler 1 with Beethoven 4 where there’s an obvious modeling at work between the two pieces, or pairing the Mahler 7 with the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony, where there’s thematic borrowing between the two pieces.

It would be nice to get into some commissioning over the next two years. I was involved with a festival at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester a few years ago where they commissioned a new work to go with Mahler symphonies in a new cycle, and I thought that worked really, really well. Not all the pieces were masterpieces, but three of four of them were sensational. It was really interesting to hear Mahler in a context alongside music that was written to comment on it or reflect it in some way. It would be nice to see some of that kind of work at the MahlerFest. At the end of the day, commissioning is what becomes the legacy of any artistic institution.

I know you have spent time in Colorado before. Do you know Boulder at all?

I spent a couple of summers in Aspen back in my student days. And I did a chamber music festival way out in the opposite corner of the state, in Durango, maybe 2006 or ‘07?

I do know Boulder quite well. I’ve got a lot of friends that teach at Rocky Ridge up at Estes Park, so I know that part of the world quite well. I’ve done a lot of skiing in Colorado too, but that won’t be happening in May.

There are ski areas that are still open through May, up at the higher elevations.

True. I could come a week early and ski, then do Mahler. That sounds very alpine.

Two things that people in Boulder really care about, aside from music of course, are outdoor recreation and food. Do you have preferences in those areas?

The thing I miss most when I’m in Britain is American beer, so I’m always happy to come back. Fat Tire was always the official beer of Aspen when I was there in past years, so I’ll be happy to catch up with a nice cold Fat Tire once I get to Colorado.

My favorite Colorado food is the Mexican green chili that no other state in the USA does as well, so I’ll be looking forward to that, assuming I can still find it there.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by  Chris Stock.

Kenneth Woods. Photo by Chris Stock.

As far as the outdoor stuff, my parents got my sister and me started with backpacking in the Rocky Mountains when I was about 5 or 6. We spent half of my summers at least in Colorado hiking as a kid. I will very much be looking forward to getting up in the mountains and doing some hiking while I’m out there. And my summers in Aspen I did a lot of road biking. Once you’re in shape, there’s nothing more satisfying than biking up to something like Independence Pass and riding back down. I’ll be looking forward to bringing with or borrowing a bike while I’m there and getting on some hills. It will be humbling the first couple of times, but it’s so spectacular there.

Michael Christie talks about life and career since Boulder

“I’m not dealing with violin soloists as much as I’m dealing with tenors”

By Peter Alexander

Michael Christie

Michael Christie

When I was in Minneapolis March 5–9 for the premiere of Kevin Puts’s opera The Manchurian Candidate at the Minnesota Opera (see review below), I had the opportunity to speak with former Colorado Music Festival Music Director Michael Christie about his life and career since he moved to Minneapolis. Christie, who is now the music director of the Minnesota Opera and conducted the premiere, had interesting observations about the life of symphony conductors vs. opera conductors, how much he loves Minneapolis, and how much he misses his friends from Boulder. Here is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

PA: I understand that you will take your first summer off in how long?

MC: Seventeen years! I’ve been contemplating for a few years what it would look like to actually take a sabbatical. I worked with my manager to identify the summer of ‘15 as an opportunity, and certainly when my wife and I discovered that we were going to have a little boy I thought ‘Oh, this will be fantastic, he’ll be one, my daughter will be seven, it’s a perfect time to just have some time!’ So I’m taking three months off. The coming summers after that will be mayhem. There will be some wonderful announcements about future summers soon, so that’s good.

Is your career mostly opera at this point?

I’d say it’s still 50-50, but doing an opera is a five to seven week time commitment. Doing Carmen or Manchurian Candidate or anything like that takes a big chunk of time, versus doing one orchestral project, which is a week. In terms of the actual amount of time per year it’s heavily weighted toward opera, but in terms of the number of projects themselves, it’s still quite balanced.

Of course, opera preparation time is pretty massive.

Yes, absolutely. Just speaking of Carmen, which we’re doing next month, that score is 750 pages of music! Even though it’s this ubiquitous title, and we generally know the orchestral music (and) a lot of the great arias, there is all of this connecting tissue—hundreds of pages of connecting tissue. And then with the director you have to figure out how is the drama going to work. To do that over 700 pages is a lot of time.

Michael Christie with the cast of "Manchurian Candidate" at Minnesota Opera

Michael Christie with the cast of “Manchurian Candidate” at Minnesota Opera

And when you do a premiere, nobody has heard a note of Manchurian Candidate until it arrives on your desk.

That’s right, but that’s what’s great about this particular team. (Composer) Kevin Puts and (librettist) Mark Campbell have worked together (before), we’ve worked together as a group, and they are very attuned to what’s happening on stage. So when we make decisions about a tempo or something like that, it will be Kevin who will say, ‘We need to tighten that up,’ or ‘We need more music here.’ He’s not one of these guys who says ‘Two years ago I wrote music and it must remain that way.’ He looks at it and says, ‘Oh, I see, they can’t get the sofa onstage in time, can you repeat those two bars?’ Which is really amazing.

So he’s very practical.

He’s very practical. And there are some times when he just says, ‘Look guys I can’t draw this out any more, you need to tighten up on your side.’ But certainly, it has been very interesting to experiment with the piece, (to) try this a little quicker, or a little slower. It’s been very exciting but wonderfully collaborative.

At this time do you hold any other positions than music director at Minnesota Opera?

All of my work outside of Minnesota Opera is freelance. Music Director at Minnesota Opera is my one title. Having held three at one point, I can tell you one is a good thing.

For many years Christie had to fly his own airplane to get to and from the three positions he held as conductor.

For many years Christie flew his own airplane to get to and from the three positions he held as music director.

That must give you a lot more flexibility and a lot more control of your schedule.

Yes, that’s exactly right. When I look back at the ebbs and flows of the intensity of life (in) my late 20s and early 30s—Phoenix, Brooklyn, Boulder—sometimes I’m amazed that I survived, because the needs of those organizations beyond doing performances was enormous. It’s good to have been through that, to know now what an organization needs from one of its artistic leaders.

Your wife and your children must appreciate the fact that you now have a more stable lifestyle.

Yes, absolutely, and my wife had been doing all of her medical training during that same time period. We both were on a hamster wheel, just running like crazy. She’s in an amazing medical practice here in Minneapolis, so it’s all just worked out well. So we do have a great life with a lot of interesting opportunities.

And you like Minneapolis?

It’s an amazing place for culture and cuisine. In a lot of the cities I’m visiting around the United States, the food’s just getting much, much better—everywhere, cities large and small. Minneapolis is a city that goes out. People go out of their homes, they go to theater and they go to sports—they just go out, so they want to have a good scene.

Michael Christie.04

Photo by Jared Platt

Do you miss planning an entire symphony or summer season, which gives you the opportunity to a different kind of planning than what you can do with an opera company?

I’m certainly keeping an eye on what’s going on in the business, who’s doing what kind of programming, who’s doing what kind of collaboration, those groups that are bringing more multi-media, interdisciplinary performances. Some of the stuff we had started doing in Boulder, we were thinking in a way that the industry was starting to think as well. I’m very pleased about that. I’m not sure that I miss it per se, but I’m aware that I need to stay on top of it in order to be effective the next time around. It’s a new set of colleagues, and I’m not dealing with violin soloists as much as I’m dealing with tenors.

I won’t ask if that’s an improvement.

Exactly! But it is different. It’s nice when I am doing some of the symphony projects, and if there’s a voice required, I now have a rolodex of people that I can recommend. I don’t view the opera and symphony worlds as segregated. There are more of us that are crossing over and are able to negotiate the needs of both pretty readily, I think.

When you are planning for a symphony, whether it’s the regular season in Phoenix or a summer festival in Boulder, you can do a broader palette of composers and styles, whereas with opera—how many works do you do in a season?

We do five.

Christie in the pit of the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Music Theater

Christie in the pit of the Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Music Theater. Photo by Michal Daniel.

And of those you will conduct?

I will do between three and five. It depends on what’s going on outside, but I definitely get your point about variety. You can’t do 24 operas in a season! But at the same time, one thing that I have come to really appreciate is that when you do five operas and you have five weeks for each, you really get to grow into it.

Sometimes in the pressure cooker of a festival or just a normal symphony season, you’re thinking about 10 different programs at a time. If you don’t stay on top of it, you’re not ready to start that next program the minute the previous one ends. There is something quite nice to having a little bit more space to ask yourself, ‘Well, should it and could it be a little bit this, or more of that?’ Whereas sometimes with a symphony you have to show up on that Tuesday morning (to start rehearsals), you have 10 hours and come hell or high water—it’s going to be within a fairly narrow range.

I like that you get to know people a lot better, too. You get to know that group of singers very well, certainly the stage director, but even the orchestra. On one project we’re probably together for 30 hours vs. the 12 for a symphony.

I would guess that the orchestra players would have a different attitude toward the repertoire because while they have played Carmen before, it’s not a Beethoven symphony that they may have played dozens of times before.

That’s right. Some of our orchestra (members) have probably played it twice. I think there isn’t an exhaustion with the repertory. Since the Minnesota Opera does happen to be on quite a great run over the last couple of decades, there’s so much ownership (by the players). And I do think when somebody’s decided to be part of an opera orchestra, there is thinking that goes into how they approach playing together. They know that they play a more supportive role than they would if they were on a concert platform. Opera orchestras know you have to listen, and we have to work this out together.

In opera there are so many different elements to bring together, it seems to me about the most difficult art form. And I don’t know of any job harder than what an opera singer does, mastering the vocal technique, learning all of the music, doing it onstage, in costume, while acting.

I agree. And you have to do it with lights shining on you, and you have this guy down in the pit waving his arms trying to keep together 60 people with you at the same time. Opera is very complicated. When you think about the other art forms that are somewhat similar, Broadway musicals are on a continuum with opera, but that band is 12 people, most of the time keyboards.

And the singers are all miked now.

Right, the singers are all miked. When you think about the cast of Lion King, some of my buddies who do this stuff say they sing with 30% of their voice, 40% of their voice. That’s what you have to do to survive eight performances a week. When you hear an opera singer who’s been going at it all night afterward, and they speak to you, that voice is a little bit strained. It’s such a massive physical undertaking.

Photo by MIchal Dnaiel for the Minnesota Opera.

Photo by Michal Daniel for the Minnesota Opera.

Is it an increased challenge professionally, moving from orchestral to opera conducting?

I think it just depends on your approach to it. If you want to be a dictatorial conductor who only wants it their way, opera’s not your bag, because you have to be sensitive to what’s going on in the drama. So it’s not that I’ve taken a step up, it’s that I feel like I’ve just opened up my ears, opened up my mind toward different interpretational concepts.

I actually think that when I go back to the symphony repertory now, I can’t help but think—Dvorák for example. Given that he’s written something like nine operas, there’s no way that he wanted people to have relative freedom in his operas, and then absolute rigor: ‘Don’t you diverge one iota from my symphonic writing!’ Sometimes you would think that if you’re doing symphonies, it says an eighth note so it must be an eighth note. Well, maybe that eighth note’s there to facilitate a breath before the next phrase, or whatever that case may be. So I just feel very lucky to have had that training.

I learned when I started listening to opera, that with singers, an eighth note is not just an eighth note.

That’s exactly right. It’s a time for reflection, or it can be a moment of anger, curtness, it can be a moment of pause. That’s what’s fun about those five weeks, that you get to work with the singer on developing, if it’s going to be anger, what do we have to do around that to make that happen, with the lighting, with the orchestra crescendo, etc.

And when you work with a living composer, in an opera like Manchurian Candidate, you realize that at least with certain composers that they’re saying to us, ‘I’m trying my best to write this in a way that gives you as thorough of a road map as possible, but you have to make sure the drama works.’ And that makes me even more convinced that (with) Mozart, Berlioz, these composers that were steeped in both traditions, those traditions definitely overlapped each other. And it gives much more license than we would normally think.

Another thing that I love about opera is that the patrons, the fans—they’re just so rabid. I love that people are as fussy about whether they like the singing of the mezzo singing Carmen as they are about the sets—they’re watching all the elements, they’re listening and wondering, ‘Can I hear this? Can I see that? Why did they make that cut there?’ And they let you know! Which is fine.

I’m sure they do! The outrage over some of the recent Met productions, as intense as it has gotten, is also somehow reassuring, that people care so much about the art form.

I think so, too. I love that. I think it’s healthy and was one of the things that really attracted me to coming to the Twin Cities. First of all, the opera position afforded the opportunity to get involved in that world, but the community itself has very high expectations for everything. So whether it’s education, the environment, or just the community asking ‘Can we access that bike trail? What’s our access to the river like? What’s the quality of life?’ It’s such an interesting thing to be in a community where there’s this underlying expectation of ‘We’re here and it’s got to be good.’ That’s a wonderful bit of pressure for an arts company.

To wrap up: Is there anything coming up that you can share with us? Any future plans, other than having the summer off?

We’ve announced next season. We have The Shining which is our new opera for next year, based on the Steven King novel. It will be by Paul Moravec, the composer, and Mark Campbell is also doing the libretto for that. Unusually, we’re bringing back a production of Magic Flute which was a co-production with the Komische Oper in Berlin. It’s (based on) this fantastic 1920 film. It’s really quite remarkable, it kind of harkens back to my multi-media film with orchestra concepts.

The bigger news starts in 2017. That will start coming in the spring of this year, and we can talk about that when it happens.

Do you have a message for your friends in Boulder?

I miss them all! Every summer was a pivotal time because we tried things and it was fun to see what worked, what had to be changed, and everything that we did together really kind of informs decisions I make, whether it’s opera or symphony. So it’s a special place in my heart.

Note: Edited March 12 for clarity and to correct minor errors of punctuation and typos.