Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Profile interview for City Magazine (Roanoke)

Below is the unedited version of a profile interview City Magazine just published in their fall arts issue.

Nice photo on the look young...How many years have you been involved with opera?

I joined the music faculty of Washington & Lee University in the fall of 1996, having just finished a Master’s degree in conducting from Westminster Choir College. I became involved with Opera Roanoke in 1998. I assisted the director, Craig Fields in preparing the chorus, and sang the smallest of roles (Parpignol) in La Bohéme. I was then promoted to Chorus Master and Associate Conductor, and began working more actively behind the scenes. I assisted Steven White on his first Opera Roanoke assignment (Lucia di Lammermoor) in 1999, the year I left the W&L faculty. I taught at Shepherd University (then College) and earned my Doctorate from the University of Maryland, and then moved up to New York City to further pursue a singing career. All the while, I was a frequent guest of Opera Roanoke, assisting Steven behind the scenes, conducting or singing in productions, as the need arose.

You are quite a vocalist (a tenor) -- do you plan to perform with Opera Roanoke as well as conduct?

Why thank you! I am grateful to be in a place where there is support for music directors doubling as performers. I look up to Maestro David Wiley in that regard. This season I have the privilege of conducting the Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly in March, and then singing Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings on our season finale program in May. That concert features Elizabeth Futral in a work written expressly for her, so I’m very flattered to be her “opening act” May 8!

What unique or special quality do you feel you bring to Opera Roanoke?

I am equally passionate about every aspect of my job as general and artistic director. Purgatory for me would be choosing between conducting, performing, and advocating. The years I spent as both a teacher and a student continue to inform who I am—I’ve studied in Weimar and Bayreuth, Germany; I’ve been an apprentice at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh and at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. I believe one of my roles, to paraphrase the great American conductor, Robert Shaw, is to be a preacher of “the Gospel of the Arts.” As the moniker implies, it is a “calling” and for me it is inseparable from my roles as a musician and my position as an artistic director.

Who are your musical influences?

Who isn’t?!? Starting with my high school choral director in Chesapeake, VA, Dennis Price, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors, teachers & colleagues. My teachers at JMU gave me much more than the fundamentals an undergraduate program should provide. One of the most significant influences on my development was working with Joseph Flummerfelt (dubbed by Leonard Bernstein the “greatest choral conductor in the world”) at Westminster Choir College. I’ve been fortunate to sing under great conductors from Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel to Esa-Pekka Salonen and James Levine. Working with Tim Carroll, the “Master of the Play” at Shakespeare’s Globe continues to shape my work as a performer and teacher. Closer to home, Steven White has been not only a great colleague and dear friend; he is an inspiring mentor. Watching him lead the Roanoke Symphony in rehearsal—observing their growth from a great Symphony orchestra into an exceptional Opera orchestra—has been revelatory. Roanoke is doubly blessed to have Steven White and Elizabeth Futral—two world-class artists—in our midst.

What is your favorite genre(s) of music and which artist or composer most inspires you? Why?

That’s a tough one! I do enjoy a wide variety of music, from all kinds of jazz to American songbook “standards;” from Portuguese Fado to Ali Farka Toure (the Malian guitarist). But I never get tired of classical music, and love all genres of it. It is not cliché to say that this music is my life. In addition to opera, I love choral music (I conduct the Norfolk-based Virginia Chorale, our Commonwealth’s premiere professional chorus). I have an abiding love for the symphonic repertoire and am passionate about 20th and 21st century music. My single favorite composer is Gustav Mahler, whose symphonies are like great stories or epic poems. They are worlds unto themselves, and like all great works of art, offer something new with every visit. My favorite opera composer is Giuseppe Verdi. Of the many reasons to love Verdi, the central one is his grande anima. That’s Italian for “great soul” and it describes the subjects of his operas AND the characters that inhabit them (it applies to Verdi himself). I’ve been listening to the African-American soprano Leontyne Price, whose distinguished career paralleled the advent of the Civil Rights Era in the U.S. Her classic recording of Verdi’s grand opera, Aida is superb. Not only does Aida have all the grandeur and larger-than-life “stuff” of opera—great choruses, the famous triumphal march, and if you’re lucky, live elephants! But it has the stuff of real life itself. From the range of personal, social and political relationships to the tension and conflict of a great drama, Aida conveys the depth of human emotions in what is ultimately a love story.

What does a typical day in your life look like?

Define “typical?” It is as eclectic as my duties and interests! I usually have a meeting or two with colleagues, patrons, board members &/or community leaders. I try to balance my time in a manner that is consistent with my varying roles, so I try to carve out time each day to read, study &/or practice. More time than I’d like is spent sifting through email, and I’m on the phone quite a bit, whether I’m in the office or on the go. There are always administrative tasks at hand. Yesterday it was editing the monthly e-newsletter; today it’s getting the fall program book together. Yesterday I put together a CD of excerpts from our season to be included in our advertising “spots” on Blue Ridge PBS, and today I’ll go to WDBJ to record voice-overs for our spots on Channel 7. Our board of directors has a phone-a-thon tonight to sell subscriptions and tickets for this, our 35th anniversary season, which opens October 16. Much of my time between now and then will be promoting this barn-burner of a concert, called Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil! I write a blog for the Opera ( and next on that to-do list is an article about the upcoming MET HD broadcasts (live, high-def “movie theatre” broadcasts from the MET stage) that are coming to Roanoke through a partnership with the Opera and Virginia Western Community College. That exciting season opens October 10 with the premiere of a brand new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

What do you feel will be one of your greatest challenges in your new role with Opera Roanoke?

Roanoke is incredibly fortunate to have a great artistic soul itself. Cities as small as ours (in the US) typically don’t have an Orchestra, Opera company, major museum, and the range of arts organizations we have, all making invaluable contributions to the quality of life here. Take the arts out of the picture, and Roanoke as we know it would shrivel and die. That is to take nothing away from the businesses and corporations that have made Roanoke their home base. They are equally vital. And equally dependent on the contributions—aesthetic AND economic—the arts make. My point is simply the artistic pulse of a city is the best indicator of its desirability and the most significant determinant of its quality. I see my biggest challenge as convincing a greater percentage of the citizens in the region that they should support Opera in Roanoke—not for our budget’s sake, but for the sake of the quality of life here. Opera has long been misperceived as an elitist and specialized form. Anyone who has an interest in the quality of life in Roanoke should go to the Opera, attend RSO concerts, and visit the museums. Engaging in the arts is as vital as patronizing local businesses. We go to the grocery store and dine out to satisfy our taste buds, and we go to the arts to feed the rest of our senses. This is the classic “preachin’ to the choir” when I’m addressing our core audience. The challenge is to get more people to come out and support the fine arts right here at home.

Where do you see Opera Roanoke in five years?
I envision turning Opera Roanoke into a festival company where, instead of spreading out concerts and productions across a season, we would concentrate our offerings into a short festival season. We would offer several full productions in repertory under a festival umbrella whose theme would vary. I’m picturing a “Viva España” season where we’d offer Carmen, The Barber of Seville and/or Don Giovanni. We would collaborate with not only our current partners Center in the Square, the RSO & the Jefferson Center, but with museums and galleries, dance companies and theatres. I envision exhibitions, plays, films, non-classical concerts & more all coming under the festival’s banner for a week or two each spring. We would partner with local businesses and create package deals that serve a variety of interests and account for an equal variety of budgets. This Opera Festival would help turn Roanoke into the tourist destination it could be, and build on the vibrant cultural center it already is. Leonard Bernstein’s description of what makes opera great also applies to cities like ours:

Any great work of art is great because it creates a special world of its own. It revises and readapts time and space. And the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world; the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air…when we come out it, we are enriched and ennobled.

I’d like to see Opera Roanoke continue to “enrich and ennoble,” and reach more and more people from southwest Virginia and beyond in the fantastic process of bringing these great musical dramas to life.

Thanks for giving me the chance to do one of the things I most enjoy: talking about what I love!

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