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Opera Conducting

Hello,
 
I am looking into graduate school (although perhaps a few years too early as a Sophomore) and I was wondering if any schools offered programs with a choral emphasis, but a significant portion of time devoted to orchestral conducting OR a program with a Dual M.M. in Choral and Orchestral conducting? My goal is to conduct opera and it seems necessary that I understand how an orchestra 'works', but (as a singer) nothing is more frustrating than a conductor who does not understand how singing works. 
 
With that said, I have two main questions...
1. What is the best route to pursuing an operatic conducting career?
2. Are there Master's programs with both choral and orchestral opportunities?
 
I should mention that I realize being a proficient accompaniest is EXCEPTIONALLY important to being an opera conductor, and I do take that into consideration. But, I was hoping  that someone might have some insight about the best way to pursue opera.
 
Thank you!
 
Matthew
Replies (4): Threaded | Chronological
on May 11, 2012 2:10pm
Matthew:  When I did my grad work at Indiana (and things may have changed), you definitely had to choose between Choral Conducting and Orchestral Conducting (and probably Wind Ensemble Conducting) at the graduate level.  Different Departments with different requirements, and you couldn't get into the Orchestral Conducting program unless you were a concert-level pianist already.  (And opera conducting came under orchestral conducting.)  On the other hand, there was a huge emphasis on opera, with a fully-staged production every weekend during the academic year.
 
As a Sophomore (rising Junior?) you have 2 years to prepare, and you should get both as much conducting instruction and practice as you can and as much orchestration and score study as you can.  And if it takes you a little more than 2 more years, so what!! 
 
But more importantly you should start NOW becoming a real opera nut (a flavor that Baskin-Robbins has not yet come out with!) by studying everything you can get your hands on about opera history, opera production, and opera scores, and of course building a collection of recordings and REALLY getting to know them.
 
You'll probably get anecdotal answers about individual universities and conservatories, and pay attention to them.  Every school has a different emphasis and different things to offer.  But look for one where they take opera AND conducting seriously.
All the best,
John
Applauded by an audience of 1
on May 11, 2012 5:35pm
Matthew,
 
Since you mentioned opera coaching in your other post, and now are interested in conducting opera as well as accompanying, I'd like to offer a little advice from my own experience as a repetiteur, music director and coach:
 
1.  Get a solid piano technique.  Playing an entire opera is just as challenging as playing a piano concerto, so you need chops.  You will likely start out as a repetiteur, or rehearsal pianist, and that can mean 6-9 hour days on the piano bench, between rehearsals with the principals and the chorus. Most operas are 3-4 hours long, so you'll also need stamina and a technical approach that is not tense at all or you'll find the piano dress rehearsal exhausting. 
 
2.  Study collaborative piano.  The skills an accompanist needs are different from a soloist's.  Mastery of balance (between hands and between players), timbre, voicing and communication are essential for a collaborative pianist.
 
3.  Languages!  A good opera coach has spent years studying the major languages of the operatic repertoire, and should have a working knowledge of Italian in particular.  The conductors I've worked with have been able to converse with their international casts in several languages, and even a rehearsal pianist should be able to understand what's going on in Italian, French and German. 
 
4.  As John said, read up on opera history, including historical performances and traditional performance practice. Know the repertoire.  Wikipedia and YouTube are your friends, not to mention Opera News, Classical Singer magazine, Met Opera broadcasts in theatres, MetOpera radio on satellite and iTunes.  I also love reading the memoirs of retired opera singers.
 
5.  Does your school have an opera workshop class?  Ask if you can play for their rehearsals, and apprentice yourself to the prof.  My first mentor was the opera coach at my undergrad school, and he had me do everything from playing Mozart recit. to playing the harp part (on the piano) in the pit orchestra.  This is a great way to learn how to follow a conductor, and learn the special skills of conducting opera, such as throwing cues to the singers and prompting from the pit while keeping track of the orchestral cues.
 
6.  Summer programs.  There are lots of summer opera training programs and festivals that you could do as a pianist, and that gives you the opportunity to do nothing but practice and listen to opera all day.  Opera immersion, you might say.  I did one right after my B.Mus. that was the best education I ever got in opera, at a world-class summer festival.  Join YAPTracker.com for all the listings, or just peruse the pages of Classical Singer magazine to get an idea.  You can also do a summer program as a singer, but then your focus would be on your own development and roles, which is not the same perspective as a pianist working with the conductor.
 
7.  Orchestral conducting training.  Conducting opera is really a lot more about the orchestra than the singers.  The conductor is at all staging rehearsals, even in a professional house, but not to guide the singers the way a choral conductor would.  He/she is more concerned about maintaining tempi, understanding how entrances and exits are going to work with the music, making sure that he knows what cadenzas and rubati the singers are going to take, and honoring the composer's concepts while the stage director focuses on the text.
 
8.  Know the difference between a rehearsal pianist and a coach.  A rehearsal pianist has great chops, can make the piano sound like an orchestra, knows the orchestration represented in the piano reductions, can improvise recit. accompaniment, can follow a conductor and loves the repertoire.  An opera coach can do all that PLUS has spent years studying languages, opera history, literary sources of libretti, characters and interpretation, and can give valuable guidance to singers re. diction, dramatic interpretation and traditional performance practice. Not many people start out as coaches...they end up as coaches.
 
9.  Very few singers have combined singing opera with conducting it (Placido Domingo is one notable exception).  The skill sets and focus are so different that eventually you'll have to make a choice -- sing on the stage or sit in the pit.  This is why getting your piano chops together is so important, because you'll get closer to the goal of conducting from the piano bench, believe it or not.  I can name lots of conductors who are also opera coaches and fabulous pianists (James Levine, Daniel Barenboim, Eduardo Muller, David Agler, etc) but very few singers.
 
10.  Notice I haven't said anything about choral conducting.  Choral music is really a different genre altogether, and John will be the first one to tell you that an opera chorus is not the same as a symphonic chorus or chamber vocal ensemble. Opera companies hire music directors to rehearse the chorus (and sometimes they also play for staging rehearsals), but even then those folks are more likely to be pianist/coaches than dedicated choral conductors.  Opera conductors arrive in town expecting that the chorus has their music memorized, their diction learned and are ready to roll.  Conducting opera is not the same as conducting choirs, but there are some who do both.
 
If you want to conduct choral works, study choral conducting.  But if you want to conduct opera, study orchestral conducting and be prepared to work your way up.  There are master's degree programs specifically in opera conducting, so do your research.
 
best,
 
Nancy
 
 
on May 11, 2012 8:14pm
Hi Nancy,
 
Thank you so much for your help and advice. I'll admit...I did not start piano until about a year-and-a-half ago, so my skills are certainly not up to par, but it is something to work towards! I'm also glad that you made the distinction between choral and opera conducting; I assumed that they would come hand in hand but evidently not. It is quite intimidating trying to figure out how to become a conductor, but your advice has been really helpful. Again, thank you!
 
Matthew
on June 18, 2013 7:10am
Is there a school with both dance and opera musical theatre accompaniment, and choral training program emphasis on practical skills for pianists? Are there jobs for those just as rehearsal pianists rather as coach? Thanks
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