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The honor of conducting The Ellie's grand opening concert went to STEPHEN LORD, one of America's most distinguished conductors of opera today and a favorite guest conductor of Opera Colorado since his debut there in 2003. When he's not guest-conducting, the maestro divides his time between Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis where he is concurrently Music Director. Certainly, the success of the Gala Concert owed much to his masterful conducting of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Thus, by most everyone's estimation he was the hero of the evening. "He did an amazing job!" said composer Jake Heggie. "The orchestra played with the proper accompanying dynamic," remarked tenor Ben Heppner. 

Maestro STEPHEN LORD, known in the opera world as a "singers' conductor" says of himself: "I am really the composer's conductor and try, through the singers, to bring the theater and music to the fore with no ego."

FanFaire caught up with the maestro a few weeks later while he was rehearsing Opera Colorado's 2005-06 season opener Carmen with Denyce Graves in the title role. He very generously took time off from his 12-hour rehearsal days for the following email interview in which he talks candidly about conducting from The Ellie, about the complex art of conducting opera in today's musical environment, and a bit about himself. [Photo: courtesy of Opera Colorado]

As first-time visitors to Denver we were quite impressed by the lively state of the arts in Denver, most especially by the enthusiastic support from the city and the people for their new opera house. Do you feel as we do that the completion of The Ellie was indeed a worthy cause for celebration and Denver would be a good model for many cities in America, big and small?

LORD: The opening of THE ELLIE is a triumph of community, governmental and personal commitment. Coming from Boston and seeing how the older institutions get most of the support from the most generous donors and politicians, etc., it is wonderful and a model to be here in Denver and see what a new company of only twenty hears of age has been able to accomplish. Denver, as it is a young city, cannot rest on laurels and so the politicians and supporters give generously of their time and enthusiasm to make life in Denver as beautiful as the mountains.

FANFAIRE: As the conductor who inaugurated and opened the first season in the new hall, do you think Opera Colorado has every reason to be proud of its new home? What can you say about the acoustics and the design of The Ellie from the conductor's/performer's point of view?

LORD:  Since I am conducting, I haven't a clue as to what it sounds like in the house. Rehearsal time is short and I have not been blessed with the time to give the stick to someone else and go hear for myself. As it is a new theater and there is no acoustical aid through electronics, it is important to judge these acoustical things over a longer period and make adjustments to seating of the orchestra, the size of the pit and its location. (It is built to be more in the house or less in the house, depending on seating and acoustical requirements), etc. before coming up with a final judgment. I am honored to have done the concert and the first two productions in the theater so we can get a lot accomplished before other personnel come and enjoy it.

FANFAIRE: An opera conductor of course has no choice, but is the pit a comfortable place in which to conduct an orchestra?

LORD:  This is a loaded question. Yes and no. Depending on the theater, the orchestra feels part of the performance or it doesn't. We also use the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, a wonderful group which does not do opera full time. So there is always the getting-accustomed-to-the-medium feeling within and always, everywhere, comparably small lack of rehearsal time.

FANFAIRE: Is The Ellie's pit one that an opera conductor would consider ideal, i.e, designed to serve the needs of the conductor, the orchestra, and most of all, the music?

LORD:  It can and will be. We are still making seating adjustments so the performers in the pit feel as connected to the audience as the ones on the stage do. The space itself is marvelous and we are always working to use it to its best advantage. We are well on our way. The staff of THE ELLIE and of OPERA COLORADO are without peer and they want this as badly as do I and are willing to go fifteen extra miles to make it all happen.

FANFAIRE: How much of the sound from the hall comes back to the conductor in the pit? Is this a matter of importance to a conductor?

LORD:  Nothing comes to me from the hall. But it doesn't anywhere. There have been times in this period where we have adjusted various walls and panels so I can hear the stage better and the orchestra can hear them better. There were times at the beginning where the sound went over my head and I was following up. But these things are working themselves out, as they must in any new facility.

FANFAIRE: We would think that conducting opera is a very complex art (or craft) because opera has many players and so many elements. And the conductor is the linchpin that holds all of these together, the presence that is always there - in rehearsal and in performance. How do you allocate, so to speak, your attention between the musicmakers in the pit and the singers on the stage above you? Does an opera conductor pay more attention to the latter since one would think the stage is where the focus of the audience usually is and where mistakes are more likely to be made and noticed than in the pit?

LORD: Although it seems to be that many elements are hungry for attention, the one thing that needs attention is the score as the composer wrote it. If we all start from that particular page, then it is a matter of staying true to it. The attention has to be equal between stage and pit. Nobody gets preference. Remember that when a soloist is doing an aria, there are still 60 something people who need equal attention. What is always difficult is when there are off stage singers or instruments as they are only in touch through television cameras and the beat is oftentimes transferred through another conductor behind the scenes. And then there is the time lag that invariably happens and the seeming flatness of the pitch as it travels through velvet masking. This is the only thing that ever gets my nerves going - the backstage stuff.

FANFAIRE: How do you prepare for an opera you're conducting for the first time? How do you study the score and libretto to discover the composer's feelings and intent? And how long does this usually take?

LORD: I like a year. So it takes careful planning of time and resources. I like to have as many questions answered when I start to rehearse as possible. Unless it is a world premiere, the singers singing a role for the 10th time and I doing something perhaps for the first come from different places. But the freshness of what I might have seen and they might have forgotten is always good to explore. And, on the other hand, I have done so many pieces of diverse styles, that when I have singers doing things for their first time and I have done it often, I can bring something to them that rewards me a lot.

FANFAIRE: Do you sometimes restudy an opera you have conducted many times? Do you sometimes find that you need to make changes in your interpretation?

LORD: Remember that many of the standard operas were written with someone's talents and voice in mind. So by definition your interpretation changes with the forces you are given, including the orchestra. Time does wonders, too, in making one rethink things and attitudes of characters. This means tempi adjust, too. Once I have learned something I have learned it and it becomes organic. However, I am very, very flexible when it comes to interpretations, tempi, etc. Singers beware: I have thought carefully; so, come well equipped with your own knowledge base and we will get along just fine. Don't come with feelings about what you are doing or want to do, come with knowledge.

FANFAIRE: Is preparing for an opera composed by a living composer much different and more difficult than preparing for a Verdi or a Puccini or a Wagner opera, for example?

LORD: No, it shouldn't be. But it sometimes is. Verdi (not necessarily Wagner) was open to making pieces work for the forces at hand, the singers, the language. Many great operas and composers had no problem hearing their music done in the language of the audience and would change rhythms, notes, etc. to suit. Cuts, too, were often discussed, as were cadential high notes, etc. Much was understood to be proper without notation. But we have lost that because of some poor choices in taste over the years and now we are on the strictly-as-we-see-it-on-the-page mentality. There is a happy medium if the conductor has the courage to do it.

FANFAIRE: If the conductor's allegiance first and foremost is to the composer, how do you balance your own interpretation of the work with the composer's intent?

LORD: We must not separate the composer from the drama, as is so often the case. This is why I like to be at stage rehearsals and give a musician's point of view to the stage director, who might not have that perspective. I am willing to try many things with the music to make the drama come to light. This is what misses in many conductors of opera - they know music but they don't know theater well and so stick to only what is on the page. The composers themselves want the drama to come through, otherwise they would not have written music to text. So it is always a collaboration between conductor and stage director. If it isn't, I am not interested in working in that situation.

FANFAIRE: You are well known as a "singer's conductor" or a "singer-friendly conductor." What does the term exactly mean and do you take this as a compliment? Does it also mean that with you on the podium, there can never be a battle of the egos between conductor and singer? How much latitude do you give the singers, so that at times during performance it is you who may have to follow the singer and not the other way around? And when this happens, how do you keep the orchestra and everyone else in sync? Does this sometimes lead to a tension-filled moment?

LORD: I always laugh when I hear that statement about someone who does opera. Does this mean there are actually people out there who are not singer-friendly? Unfortunately, yes. When the conductor is praised to the hilt and the singers damned something is wrong with the one giving praise or damning. The same applies to the reverse - the conductor killed and the singers all praised. One cannot live without the other and they should equally get credit or blame. Singers always know I have their best interests at heart, as they are the ones giving the text the composer has carefully chosed and collaborated on with the librettist. My job is to be sure thay can deliver it, within a framwework, and be as comfortable as possible while serving the drama. I am always stricken by the oddity of "singers' conductor" as I am really the composer's conductor and try, through the singers, to bring the theater and music to the fore with no ego. With no self-aggrandizement, let me say I oftentimes know the singers better than they know themselves and they sense that so they trust me. I am proud of this nomenclature. But the orchestras always respond very well as they know I have their best interests at heart, too. Most of all, however, I have the audience's best interest at heart.

FANFAIRE: Opera more often than nor is written in a foreign language. And quite often, a conductor has to communicate with foreign-born singers. Is it essential for an opera conductor to have excellent language skills?

LORD: Yes.

FANFAIRE: Do you agree that conducting is an "art in precision"?

LORD: I hope not. Too many people take precision as an end unto itself. It is nothing like that. Conducting is a live art form with different variables every time you start. Hopefully, there is precision. But it is never the first thing on my mind, nor is it the last. It is the spirit of the piece and music and theater that is the most important. Hopefully, the technique of the orchestra, conductor and singers allows precision, but it is far from primary. Maybe I am wrong, but this is my philosophy.

FANFAIRE: Some conductors do not use a baton; how important is the baton in communicating with members of the orchestra? With singers during an opera? Are there different signals communicated by the left hand, the right hand? Sometimes a conductor jumps or moves his whole body; how important is body language to an opera conductor?

LORD: All that is truly important is the mental attitude and communication of the conductor. This is why there is no set technique to conducting. Certain things are "givens" but they are so elemental and are secondary to how the singer and player think you are thinking and interpret your thought, not always gestures. Sometimes I go without a baton as it is like finger painting then and is a more direct communication of paint to paper, metaphorically speaking. But most often, the player looks at the stick and your face both, as well as other body signals. But the eye of the orchestra player is trained to the end of the stick first.

FANFAIRE: In his busy schedule that involves travelling from one city to another, does a conductor ever find time to interact with members of the orchestra before or after rehearsal/performance?

LORD: I always do. I make it a point. I cannot conduct a piece alone, they have to play it, not me. They don't have to be friends, but we need a good working relationship. Some conductors with problems in people skills will say "They played badly for me" Well, that may be so to them. But no musician who has dedicated themselves to art plays badly on purpose. Never. I refuse to believe that. Many orchestras because they are in the pit feel anonymous and underappreciated. And many times this is indeed the case. And this is wrong, which is why I try very hard to include them in everything. Oftentimes conductors take time out of services to introduce the singers. I do not do that. I feel if I can't introduce each member of the orchestra to each singer, then the street seems one way and I find it unfair. So I don't do it.

FANFAIRE: It can be argued that a purely orchestral performance need not have a conductor, but one cannot possibly think that with regard to opera. Is there a world of difference between being an opera conductor and a symphony conductor? Does conducting opera require more rehearsal time than a symphonic concert? What in your view is your most important role as an opera conductor?

LORD: Much of this has been addressed already. However, remember that the best conductors of the world started in the theater. And when the reverse happens, it is usually without good result.

FANFAIRE: You are considered first and foremost an opera conductor. Are you happy to make this your life's work or do you see yourself literally taking center stage and expanding into the symphonic repertoire as well?

LORD: It is an intriguing thought. I love so much of that repertoire. However, for me, life in the theater is more interesting - the personalities, the love between all the forces, the coordinating and just feeling it all come together is different for me. Opera conducting is not anywhere near so lucrative as symphonic conducting, as the rehearsal periods are long and without pay. Many symphony people can go from one job to the next within a week. Each of my jobs take five to six weeks. The smell of the theater, the costumes, the lights, the watching of a whole thing come together are where my heart is. I would like to do more concerts, though, as I believe many of them need some infusion of bigger personality and theatrical elements.

FANFAIRE: We read somewhere that a conductor becomes one because: a) either he/she is born a conductor OR b) he/she achieves conducting OR c) conducting is thrust on him/her. Which of these applies to Maestro Stephen Lord? In other words, please tell us how you came to be an opera conductor: Have you always wanted to be a conductor from early childhood? When did you start studying music? When did you start conducting? Was your first conducting performance an opera or orchestral music?

LORD: I started conducting very late. In fact, I started music very late. I wanted to be an accompanist of singers, as I was a pianist first. I had great opportunities to study with a lot of the best accompanists. But I was employed as a pianist for opera and I needed the money and it went from there. I met many of the world's best singers early on and I became their coach, sometimes exclusive coach, and I learned a lot from them and from trusting myself. I had a couple of long term employements in opera companies and learned repertoire, met conductors, observed and learned singing. I was encouraged time and again by conductors and stage directors to try it out, but I was and still am shy, and was afraid of failure. Conductors that come to mind are Sir John Pritchard and Nicola Rescignio. Stage directors who wanted it for me were Jean-Pierre Ponnele and Colin Graham. Finally when preparing something for Colin, there was an opening and he insisted I fill it. I did and have not stopped since. But I never ever set out to do this. It just happened. And I am happy it did. And grateful to Colin and Opera Theatre of St. Louis for giving me very protected chances.

FANFAIRE: You are the Music Director of both the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) and the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL). While such is not an uncommon arrangement nowadays, how do you "allocate" your loyalties, or is this not necessarily an issue to contend with? But does not one company at times feel jealous of the other?

LORD: I can't speak for the other companies, but I do know one hand washes the other. I give opportunities in Boston to many young singers I have met in St. Louis, thus fulfilling the missions of both venues. And the reverse is true in St. Louis. I do know that I work 24/7 and when I am not doing something for one, I am doing it for the other. In between are quest appearances, such as this Denver job now and San Francisco and Chicago and Dallas coming. I just do the best I can and try not to cheat anyone. If anyone gets cheated, it is my life. But this is also the life I have chosen.

FANFAIRE: At BLO and OTSL you have many occasions to work with young singers. Do you come away feeling great optimism for the future of opera in this country?

LORD: Alas, no. I see lots of potential and I see a lot of it fade within a short period of time. Frankly, I am not encouraged as I don't find young people to be courageous enough to know themselves. Instead of putting their faith in themselves and knowing themselves, they rely on this week's quick fix. The same applies to many of our current fads of diet, etc. etc. So music is not at all immune. Everything is sped up. It took forever to do what I do, but I had a good support system who knew what was right for me and encouraged it. No longer is the formula of moving to NYC, etc., finding an agent, audition and becoming a star realistic. The best young singers are often found in the most out of the way places, as they have not been mucked up. Too many people are conducting and coaching without putting in the time and requirements necessary. This means knowing theater, languages, music and people skills. I find too many teachers, coaches, etc., being the blind leading the blind. Rather than take time to gather experience, people try today to get it by paying a fee for advice they really don't need or just skimming major issues.

FANFAIRE: What does Maestro Lord see in his crystal ball?

LORD: I really do not mean to be pessimistic. But I would like to see opera go back to where it belongs - out of the hands of people who market it. How does one market emotion and life-bettering experiences without setting the audience up for disappointment? This is not the better apple or more comfortable airplane flight at the cheapest price. Opera needs to regain its dignity and that means from the ground up - better singing, more committed performances by more committed performers, and productions that make sense and don't need road maps. This doesn't mean everything traditional. It just means honesty. It is possible. We all must chip in.

FANFAIRE: And finally, going back to The Ellie, are you having the fun of your life conducting Carmen and the star who literally owns the role now?

LORD: I had previously done La Périchole with Denyce and saw her other side... light, funny, comedic. I appreciate her more than I can tell you. She is a major star without attitude and a generosity towards life, family and colleagues that is truly what the great people do, not the pretenders. She is the real thing.

Maestro Lord returns to Opera Colorado in February 2006 to conduct the season's second offering, Bellini's Norma.



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