Symphonic and Opera Conducting: An Unhealthy Separation

I've written about this subject before, but the older I get the more baffled I am by the wall that seems to exist in this country between symphonic conducting and operatic conducting. It is not necessarily true at the highest level, where conductors operating at both major opera houses and major orchestras are not at all uncommon (James Levine, Andrew Davis, Donald Runnicles). But in smaller and mid-sized communities, there seems to be very little crossover, even in cities that have both an opera company and an orchestra. Furthermore, I have often talked with people involved in music director searches for symphony orchestras--not only lay people, but even orchestra musicians--who have said, "Oh, he's an opera conductor," with a tone of disparagement and an implication that the orchestra wouldn't be interested in him.
It is difficult to overstate just how silly this separation is. Virtually every important symphonic conductor in the 20th century (and the 19th, for that matter) began his career in the opera house, or at the very least had operatic work as a major chunk of his conducting foundation. Yes, I can name a handful who did not: Mengelberg, Stokowski, Koussevitzky. On the other side of the ledger we have Furtwängler, Toscanini, Klemperer, Walter, Mahler, Strauss, Bernstein (not only early appearances at La Scala, but the theater world of Broadway too), Szell, Reiner, Muti, Abbado, Barenboim.

Where has this separation, this pigeonholing, come from? And why is it uniquely American? One reason is the vast difference in musical life, particularly operatic life, between Europe and America. Because of government support, there are not only more opera companies in European cities, but they perform far more frequently. Once you get into the smaller communities in America, even mid-sized cities, you get opera companies that do two or three operas a year. In Europe, particularly in Germany, the opera companies operate year-round, and produce a dozen or more different operas each season. Often, the opera orchestra in a European city is also the symphony orchestra. The result is much more opportunity for cross-fertilization, for music directors and even assistant conductors to work in both venues. Here, the opera companies in our smaller communities are small and tend to operate in their own world, with more of a sense of competition for local audience and contributed revenue. All of that leads to less synergy, less working together artistically. This can be true even if the symphony orchestra serves as the opera orchestra.

I continue to believe that there is almost no musical training as valuable for all conducting as the opera house. First, it teaches flexibility--it forces a conductor to be aware of what is happening on stage and with voices every single evening, and to react to it quickly and naturally. Second, the music is based on singing--not a bad basis for most music-making. Third, it opens a conductor to many different musical perspectives besides that of the orchestra itself--those of the singers, the stage directors, and the requirements of the theater on any given night. This too is valuable.

I hope I live long enough to see the day when no one says, with a tone of disparagement, "Oh, he's just an opera conductor." Then I'll know we've grown up.

August 28, 2009 10:26 AM | | Comments (1)



I have noticed the separation as well but from the opposite side. As a primarily symphonic conductor, I have heard from the opera world the comment "Oh, he's just a symphony conductor". The way I have heard it, symphonic conductors don't know voices or languages so they are "underqualified". Conversely, opera conductors work primarily with voices so they "don't know orchestras" and "only follow (singers) and don't know how to lead" and are therefore, also "underqualified". And yet as you so clearly point out, the upper echelons seem to disregard any disparity of skill when it comes to doing both.

Having conducted some professional opera, I have seen this bias disqualify me and other symphonic colleagues from opera opportunities. I imagine there must be some prejudice the other direction as well although I will say that I generally see more opera conductors also conducting symphonically than I see the other way around.

I agree with you that opera conducting is one of the best ways a conductor can learn his craft and I too hope to see the day that the door is not only open between the two at all levels, but that it also swings both ways.

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