Conducting is a truly elusive and abstract art form. As conductors, we don’t play anything while performing but rely on gestures and telepathy to guide and inspire our colleagues in the orchestra and onstage. It is the ultimate in multitasking, and I love the opportunities for growth and new ideas presented by each different work or cast of singers. The moments where one feels an incredibly palpable collective energy flowing between the audience, orchestra, and singers, are moments where we as performers experience a connection to something divine and much larger than ourselves. We are at our most powerful yet vulnerable and feel free despite the incredible structure we perform within.
I didn’t set out to become a conductor, in fact, others saw me on this path long before I did. I started as a pianist, playing the solo classical repertoire as well as rock and jazz, while also studying French Horn, Trumpet, Voice, Organ, and Cello. When I first began working with singers, I felt an instant affinity and love for the voice. Each singer’s voice is unique, as their body is their instrument. Their emotions and life’s journey color the text, making the human voice the most powerful communicative instrument there is. The telling of stories through the singer, along with the orchestra and fantastic visual elements, made opera irresistible to me.
My journey from pianist to conductor began with invaluable experience in opera houses where I was given the opportunity to learn the repertoire by playing rehearsals, coaching singers, and conducting Banda, as well as being a chorus master and assistant conductor. After getting my operatic feet wet by working at The Banff Center for Fine Arts in the Opera, Musical Theater, and Music Theater programs, I had the privilege of being in the Houston Grand Opera Studio for two years. It’s impossible to overestimate the value of the training I received with so much hands-on experience in a world-class opera house such as HGO. My first productions there included being on the music staff for the world premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China as well as Aida with Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni – very exciting first major operatic experiences for a kid from Victoria, British Columbia! My time in Houston was followed with many years of working with other companies including the Canadian Opera Company as Head Coach and Interim Chorus Master, Lyric Opera of Chicago as Assistant Conductor, and The Santa Fe Opera where I am presently Head of Music Staff. Relationships with these companies afforded me the luxury of learning a wide range of repertoire and intricacies of style and tradition while working on my craft with the world’s top singers, conductors, and directors until I reached the point where I felt comfortable in my own skin as a conductor, and it became the inevitable next step. Though the majority of my time has been focused on conducting for many years now, I still concertize as a pianist and have been fortunate to collaborate with today’s finest singers in many of the world’s renowned concert halls. These experiences, as well as playing chamber music, always enrich my work as a conductor.
An operatic conductor needs to love theater and be prepared for the fact that anything can, and likely will, go wrong. I bring high standards to my work but also try to create a space with an atmosphere of positive energy and joyful collaboration. In both rehearsal and performance, singers need to feel enough structure and support to be able to work freely, allowing them to experiment and take risks. Since they must perform from memory, while also acting and relating to their colleagues onstage, it is essential that I’m aware of their needs almost before they are, and to always be available to them should they need to look to me in the pit for visual reassurance. As with the singers, it’s important to me to give the orchestra enough of the score’s structure, yet the freedom to be able to bring their own musicality to their performance. I begin my work from a place of fidelity to the composer, striving to discover why they wrote what they did in reaction to the librettist’s creation. After formulating my thoughts of a piece, it’s always a joy to move to the rehearsal room to work on the intricacies of the score and share ideas with the singers and director. Ultimately it is my responsibility as the conductor to bring the entire cast’s ideas together into a cohesive musical whole. I find the collaborative element to be the most special aspect of this art form, making it possible to perform certain pieces many times over and always finding something new in them.
I’m often asked what my favorite music to conduct is, which is a question I find impossible to answer. Though I’ve performed most of the standard works of Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Gounod, Bizet, as well as Janáček, and will always love returning to these classics, working on new works has always been a vital part of my career. I’ve been fortunate to have worked alongside many composers from the beginnings of the workshop process through to the birth of their new works. We are fortunate to be living in a time with many incredible composers and librettists, who are creating works that are very relevant today and resonate with our current audiences. I feel it is important to bring these new works to life and am excited to continue this work in an even larger way in the future.
I believe passionately in the power of music and theater to tell stories through the human voice and find it fascinating to observe how composers from such diverse eras and nationalities find their individual language to channel human emotion. It has been a privilege and constant source of inspiration to play a part in enriching people’s lives through these great works of art, and for this, I am most grateful.