Interviewing Conductor Antony Walker on Undervalued Masterpieces – and His Unexpected Celebrity

Last October, I was impressed by the insightful conducting of Pittsburgh Opera’s musical director, Antony Walker, whose work complemented the extraordinary Moffatt Oxenbould production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” from Opera Australia. Having returned to the Pittsburgh to review its mounting of Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”, also to be conducted by Walker, I had the opportunity to interview him.

Whatever order of questions for the Musical Director/Conductor I might have planned for the interview six weeks ago, everything changed when, unbelievably, on April Fool’s Day(!), he became an instant celebrity, when the world media – Internet, television and print – reported that he sang the part of Rhadames from the orchestra during the last act of Verdi’s “Aida” while simultaneously conducting the opera.

It is relatively rare that something happening in an operatic performance becomes a lead news item on, say, the Yahoo! website. (I doubt that anything since Roberto Alagna’s decision, a couple of years ago, to walk off the La Scala stage, when he was in mid-performance as Rhadames,  received so much media attention).

[Below: Antony Walker, Pittsburgh Opera’s Musical Director and Principal Conductor, across the Allegheny River from Downtown Pittsburgh; edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

Wm: Antony, could you walk us through the events of the first of April, 2008?

[Below: Tenor Vladimir Kuzmenko, the Pittsburgh Opera Rhadames, seen in this picture as Don Alvaro in Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” with Andrea Gruber (Leonora), edited image of a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

AW: Yes. About 3 p.m. on performance night with a 7 p.m. curtain, the Pittsburgh Opera’s Rhadames, Vladimir Kuzmenko, reported that he was coming down with something.  We were able to get into contact with Eduardo Villa, who was available to sing the part of Rhadames, but was in New York City.  Although he agreed to come to Pittsburgh right away, there was no feasible way for him to arrive in Pittsburgh before the opera’s first intermission.

Kuzmenko consulted with a physician, who indicated it would be all right if he sang the first part of the opera, until Villa could relieve him.  However, recognizing that there might be the possibility of Villa’s plane being delayed, I thought it prudent for me to do some vocalizing, just in case.

Wm. How does a conductor prepare to sing the part of Rhadames, while conducting?

AW: I was trained as an operatic tenor, and I do sing the principals’ parts when rehearsing the chorus alone; and I sing the chorus parts when I rehearse with the principals. However, there are practical reasons, beyond the obvious ones, why conductors do not sing during actual performances. Conducting is aerobic and, therefore, dehydrating.  Singing requires abundant moisture.

Before Kuzmenko’s indisposition surfaced, my preoccupation had been integrating a third Amneris into our production of “Aida”.  The originally announced Amneris, Stephanie Blythe, had fallen ill to a virus, so for the first performance we had to fly Marianne Cornetti in from Amsterdam.  Cornetti was only available for one performance, and we had secured Jane Dutton to sing in  the second performance, that same April 1st night that Kuzmenko fell ill.

As it happened, the Aida, Eszther Sumegi, over the four scheduled performances ended up with three different tenors performing the role of her lover, Rhadames, and three mezzos in the role of her rival, Amneris.

Wm: I recall having a conversation with [Pittsburgh Opera Artistic Administrator] Christopher Hahn in October 2007 about the Zurich Opera’s production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” that I had seen a month before in which the Norina, Isabel Rey, collapsed and there was no cover to replace her until the final scene; the Zurich impresario Alexander Pereira made two disastrous cuts in the opera to eliminate Norina’s scenes.  Has this experience with “Aida” changed any Pittsburgh Opera policies towards covers?

AW: We do use the incumbents in our Young Artists program to cover many roles, including the major roles in operas (such as Bellini’s “I Capuleti e i Montecchi” that you will be attending) that do not require the large and mature voices that Verdi’s “Aida” does.  However, it is not feasible to have artists on site covering Aida, Amneris and Rhadames.  If you have a problem, you work hard to find someone somewhere.

Wm: At what point did you decide to go ahead and sing during the opera’s last scene?

AW: At the first intermission, we became aware that Villa’s plane was delayed.  Kuzmenko agreed to continue on, although he was obviously uncomfortable. (We had announced his indisposition to the Pittsburgh audience.)  I used the intermission to warm up vocally.

At the second intermission I asked the technicians to set up a microphone and amplifiication in the pit.  I drank enormous amounts of water and kept the physical process of conducting to a minimum – small hand gestures, when I normally would be using my full arms.  The Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra knew the opera, so I was certain that they would be able to adapt without any problem to the change in my conducting style. I was deliberately breathing very slowly, so, that when I had to, I could concentrate on my singing technique.

Kuzmenko was able to get through the Judgement Scene, which is very baritonal.  The scene in the tomb, is very lyrical and that is what I sang, with Kuzmenko acting the part.

Wm: At least two conductors, Placido Domingo and Jose Cura, also have sung Rhadames many times.  Do you think your performance puts any pressure on them, if something similar happened in the future?

AW: I really don’t forsee this happening again, not in the way it happened in Pittsburgh.  I alluded to the physical differences between conducting and singing.  There are examples of conductors who have scheduled themselves to sing the same night they conduct, although not at the same time. And my guess is that they would ask for double fees.  It is much easier just to keep track of the physical location of other singers who would know the role and might be available to replace an ailing singer.

Wm: You are noted as a champion of rarely performed operas, especially at the two smaller venues where you are artistic administrator – the Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia and the Washington Concert Opera in D. C.

AW: Actually, each of these companies has its own special focus on opera rarities.  Pinchgut specializes in baroque and classical opera. The Washington Concert Opera specializes in forgotten 19th century masterworks.

In fact, I will be conducting a performance of Donizetti’s “Maria Padilla” on November 9, 2008 for the Washington Concert Opera and, then again, will lead Saverio Mercadante’s “Il Giuramento” at Washington Concert Opera on May 31, 2009.

Wm: You have been a champion of French works.

AW: Very much so.  I have a love of anything French, with a particular interest in French baroque opera.  At Australia’s Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, we performed Rameau’s “Dardanus” in 2005 and our 2007-8 production is Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “David and Jonathan (David et Jonathas)”.

Wm: What works are you most interested in seeing produced?

AW: I probably have a list of a hundred operas. So much is waiting to be discovered, from baroque times through the 20th century one act operas of Darius Milhaud.  That, of course, includes neglected 19th century works by Gounod and Meyerbeer and Massenet.  I am interested in operatic works with especially lovely interplay between chorus and orchestra such as is found in Meyerbeer’s “Le Prophete”, Massenet’s “Esclarmonde” and Goldmark’s “Queen of Sheba”.

Wm: What attracts you to opera?

[Below: Antony Walker sits on a staircase in the foyer of Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center, co-promoting an operatic production with a visitor from the Pittsburgh Zoo.]

AW: I find working in opera is so stimulating, because it is a synthesis of so many art forms – dance, lighting, chorus, orchestra, individual vocal performances.  I love the way it comes together, and provides a unique way of communicating ideas.

Since it is such a combination of artistic endeavors, there can be very different reactions to a performance.  Some operagoers come to see the singers; others come to watch the production, so that everyone might be seeking a different experience.  As a conductor, I am impressed by the teamwork that goes into producing an opera, and personally love helping singers achieve their very best performances.

Wm: Do you take a position on how much leeway a production designer or concept director should have in shifting the time or changing the story of an opera?

AW: Things do tend to go in cycles, as in life in general.  There are times to be experimental and times to regroup. Without experimentation in the performing arts, things can become pretty uninteresting over time.  Yet, at the same time, as a conductor, I am the composer’s advocate, so am looking at experimentation to see if it produces something that the composer would recognize.  The goal of innovation should be to present something that magnifies the composer’s vision, and to be serious about discovering the core essence of a piece.

Wm: Thank you, Antony.

Wm’s Postscript: After the interview with Antony Walker, I had a conversation with Elizabeth Parker of the Pittsburgh Opera staff, who was at that performance. She recalled that members of the staff, hearing about what was happening assumed at first it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke.  It was when people realized that Villa was not in the theatre and that an annoucement was to be made to the Pittsburgh audience that Walker would be singing from the pit that she and others became convinced it was really happening.

She also noted that Walker received a great ovation, as did Kuzmenko, whose valiant efforts could have proven injurious to his voice (but  who had to be coaxed out for a curtain call, since an indisposed singer can receive a mean-spirited reaction from some houses in other parts of the world.)