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Richard Mills on working in opera

10 Feb 2023

What does the role of the conductor entail within the context of an opera?

Well, it depends on the conductor. A conductor is a teacher, a mentor, a guide, and has to engineer the performance. But a conductor has to have an intellectual and artistic authority. Keeping the performance together is the last, that’s the tip of the iceberg. The whole shape, the whole musicality, the whole rhetoric, every part of speech, every aspect of the language, musical and verbal, is the conductor’s business. And balance.

What do you do to prepare when you’re conducting an opera?

Just study, that’s all you do. Study, study, study.

Is there anything you look for in the score?

No, you just learn the score at the piano and then if it’s really complicated, like Elektra, you have to actually go through it in real-time to get the rhythms. There are subliminal rhythms in every opera, I mean in Elektra it’s a broad two, which is inexorable though the opera, I mean it manifests in different ways, and the same with The Butterfly Lovers, is really this fast-moving mercurial pace that opens the opera which is there being transformed the whole time.

Why did you want to become a composer and what did you do to get there?

It just was an appetite I guess, it’s just like you want food. I just felt the need to do it. I wanted to do it, I had music inside me and it wanted to come out. I don’t know. I’d advise anyone against it, it’s a terrible life.

What would you have done if you didn’t do music?

Oh anything. I mean, music’s a very hard life and writing music is one of the hardest of all. It’s the physical labour of writing any long piece is enormous. It just takes time, I mean hours at the desk actually physically putting the notes on paper. It takes time. And for a piece that is ninety-five minutes long, there are a lot of notes, even though it is a small orchestra. In a way I found this even harder than writing a conventional opera with a conventional opera orchestra. Because every note has to earn it’s place and it’s very tricky.

Finally, what advice would you give to any aspiring composers or/and conductors?

Study your craft. Conductors should be able to play an instrument very well, preferably at a professional standard, and a keyboard as well. They should be able to play an orchestral instrument as well as the keyboard at a high level. I was an orchestral principal and I played piano well enough to coach professionally.

Then you need to be able to arrange, you need to have a complete working knowledge of the orchestra. You have to have knowledge of historical performance practice; an understanding of structure, of architecture; an understanding of musical cultures and of national styles; an understanding of program building; an understating of opera, of languages, and all the secrets of the human voice. There is much to know. I mean there is a formidable amount to know and my advice to anyone who wants to work as a conductor is to become involved with opera because opera is the mother of conductors, it has always been so, because it deals with breath and the human voice. It deals with pacing, it deals with balance, it deals with shaping, drama, everything, so it’s the mother of conductors, so that’s where, if you want to become a conductor you should work in opera.

Taken from the education resource for The Butterfly Lovers, by Ioanna Salmanidis.

Ioanna Salmanidis is a classical pianist specialising in solo and chamber performance. She is the co-founder of Ochre Trio, a Melbourne-based chamber ensemble that performs contemporary classical music composed by established and emerging Australian composers and regularly performs with tenor, Douglas Kelly, presenting lieder and art song. Ioanna is also an arts administrator with a focus on arts education. She has over five years experience administering music education programs to schools and young musicians.

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