Opera Conducting: A Firm Foundation for the Symphonic

Why is it that for much of the second half of the twentieth century, the American classical music scene has tended to divide the symphonic world and the operatic world into two distinct arenas never (or rarely) to meet. There are exceptions, of course, particularly in our larger cities. But I can't count the number of times I have heard people in the symphonic field say about a conductor, "oh...he's an opera conductor." This is unfortunate.
Of the truly great conductors from the first half of the twentieth century, a very small handful were only symphonic conductors. Mengelberg, Koussevitzky, and (for the most part) Stokowski perhaps fit into that category. But we also had Toscanini, Furtw√§ngler, Klemperer, Walter, Bernstein (his early La Scala performances with Callas are true treasures of the operatic underground), Leinsdorf, Monteux, Reiner, Szell--the list goes on and on of conductors whose art was actually built on a foundation of the opera house.  And this was the case for Wagner, Mahler, and Strauss before them.

The basis of music is singing. Cavemen sang before they invented instruments. Church music began with the voice. The best instrumental and orchestral music still comes out of the world of the voice, no matter how complex it may be. Additionally, operatic conducting teaches flexibility, quick reaction time, support of soloists. It seems to me that the best thing one can say about a conductor is that she works a lot in opera. And yet when I've been advising orchestras on music director searches, I have time and again encountered negative reactions to those conductors who have primarily been involved in opera.

I hope that can change. I truly believe that there is no experience more helpful for any symphonic conductor than a firm foundation of conducting opera. Such a foundation is something to be treasured, not reviled.

December 26, 2008 2:59 PM | | Comments (4)



The most frightening thing one can attend (and I have!) is a performance of a piece of operatic proportions (Verdi REQUIEM, Mahler EIGHTH, etc.) that's fallen into the hands of a choral conductor. The pieces that I associate with Solti, Toscanini, etc. have been conducted--if you can call it that--by some real amateurs who are nothing more than Kappellmeisters.

So, what's NEW? This is recycling, other than Bernstein, who had only the US premiere of "Peter Grimes" under hs belt before the Italian seasons.
Warmly, rcd

There is a third kind of classical conducting. It is conducting for dance, which is an art unto itself.
Here in Syracuse Calvin Custer is a demi-god but one of my knocks was that he attempted to conduct for the Syracuse Ballet & never really succeeded - in my not so humble opinion.

This has needed saying for too long! As an opera conductor, one must master the coordination of what goes on both on stage and in the pit--what better way to prepare for conducting an orchestra alone. Furthermore, and just as important, to be a successful opera conductor one must know the works and the musical/historical/political and social background from which they arose. For those of us who believe that music is more than notes on a page, this depth of knowledge is essential for symphonic conductors as well.


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