What is a Music Director, Really?

by Ari Pelto – Opera Colorado Music Director and Conductor of The Scarlet Letter

In 2015 I was appointed Music Director of Opera Colorado; the first in the history of the company. This happened at a time when some prominent companies were cut their artistic leaders. So, what is a Music Director, really? What do they do? Is it necessary to have one?

To the last question, I say yes. That is, if you want to have an opera company that has a coherent vision, that strives to have an identity and that commits to achieving artistic goals, goals that are worth striving for.  That all might sound obvious, but, in fact a company can in fact very well choose not to strive for any or much of that. It can function in a more or less simpler way, by putting on some shows in its season, selling tickets and trying to survive in the complicated world of the arts in the 21st century.

Ari Pelto - Music Director
Ari Pelto conducting a rehearsal for Aida in November 2015.

In my view that’s not enough. Art, to me, represents the greatest achievement of mankind; the greater the art, the greater the achievement. Great opera is at the pinnacle of that achievement. That means, for those of us involved in creating it we have a responsibility to do it on the highest level. This is the pact we have made with the geniuses who have given us the masterpieces that we are privileged to share with the public.

Ok, enough highfalutin language!

What is a Music Director? What does s/he do?

The first order of business is to figure out what we want to produce. In our case, this happens in collaboration, sometimes a daily collaboration, with Greg Carpenter, Opera Colorado’s General Director. Once we have decided on programming, we have our casts and production teams to choose. How and what we choose has everything to do with what I described above, our identity. A particular aesthetic we believe in.

Casts and productions change with many moving parts.

  • Sometimes we have a favorite singer back, or might bring back a popular production, but on the whole, it’s new and different each time.
  • Nearly every year we have a fresh crop of Young Artists, who will be with us for a season, sometimes two, and then we send them out into the wider world with a hearty handshake. The Orchestra and Chorus are constant. Give or take small changes or additions, depending on the needs of the piece, they are with us for every show.
  • We have a chorus master, whose main occupation is the preparation of the chorus.

What about the instrumentalists?

The orchestra plays, literally and figuratively, a central role in opera.  Every phrase, every emotion is expressed in equal parts by the singers on the stage and the players in the pit. They are one.

As a guest conductor, you can be the fun uncle. You spend a limited period with a single group. You don’t have to make them eat their vegetables. Let them eat cake and ice cream! As Music Director you have to provide a more well-rounded diet. After all, you’re going to see them again in a few weeks, and they need to be in good shape.

“Art, to me, represents the greatest achievement of mankind; the greater the art, the greater the achievement.”

You may have heard the notion that conducting is to some extant about psychology. It’s true. Every orchestra has it’s own personality. This one tends to be more open, another more reticent. One is boisterous, the next well-mannered, quiet, efficient. Some love poetry, others mathematics…

The psychology involves how one handles those differences. If you ask the clarinet to play with a hard, aggressive sound (because that reflects what the character on stage is expressing) and that player meanwhile takes pride in their lusciously sweet tone, you better do it in a way that makes them feel that they are being challenged to do something different and exciting and not just disregarding their natural strengths. When you describe what the character on stage is feeling and expressing, it clicks. They are empowered to use their imagination. The more every player in the orchestra knows about what they are part of expressing on stage, the more compelling the performance.

Opera Colorado is unique and distinctive. I see it as my job to heighten that distinction and uniqueness one production at a time.

See Ari Pelto in action conducting the world premiere of The Scarlet Letter!

This article originally appeared in OVATION! Winter 2016.

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