Let’s go back to the very beginning. It’s 1971, and you’re making your Met debut conducting Tosca. What do you remember most about that experience?
I remember most keenly, above everything else, this uncanny sense of feeling at home. I probably should have been very nervous, but instead I was just very positively excited. I’d been attending Met performances since I was 10 years old—1953—and of course I was glued to the radio every Saturday afternoon. So by the time I made my debut, the Met and its tradition and its excitement and its quality were very familiar to me. Tosca was a work that the company knows like the back of its hand and had performed brilliantly many, many times. The cast for that performance was very exciting—Grace Bumbry was singing her role debut as Tosca, Peter Glossop was making his house debut as Scarpia, and the Cavaradossi was Franco Corelli, who was just a god of a tenor. Working with all of them was a huge pleasure. So I remember thinking, part of the way through Act I, “It’s impossible to feel nervous here because I’m so at one with it.”
But how did you get to that point?
Well, you have to remember, I had started to hang around opera when I was 10—between the ages of 10 and 14—and we had opera in my hometown of Cincinnati, at the zoo, of all places. We had a fantastic outdoor opera there every summer, filled with Met singers, Americans who liked being in the States in the summer and Europeans who, for whatever reason, weren’t working in Europe. I even supered there! I carried wood onstage in the first act of Bohème to various tenors (Peerce, Conley), and I led others onstage in the third act of Samson (Vinay and Baum). I even spoke a line once in The Bartered Bride. I was the kid who shouts, “The bear is loose! The bear is loose!” I had a lot of fun.
What was the first opera you ever saw?
Carmen, when I was eight, with Irra Petina and Ramon Vinay. And I remember that I fell asleep in the third act. I was tired, it was late, and my father gently asked if I wanted him to take me home. I said, “No, no! I want you to wake me up if I’m still sleeping because I want to see when he kills her!” I was so fascinated by the idea that I was going to see that on stage. So he did in fact wake me up from my little nap and I stayed awake wide-eyed until the end of the piece.
Tell me a little bit more about the orchestra and the company as a whole 40 years ago.
Well, it’s very important to make perfectly clear that the Met was already one of the greatest companies in the world and had been for decades. But I think over the past 40 years, we have improved a lot in many respects. The Met orchestra and chorus and ensemble today are capable of rehearsing and performing a much more diverse repertoire in a much wider variety of styles, and I think our performances have a greater depth of detail. We are a better instrument from having been able to work with a certain kind of consistency and continuity. Not to mention we now have the Met Chamber Ensemble and the Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall, which expand our repertoire in many new and exciting directions. What still thrills me is that people are just as passionate about opera as they always were, if not more so. And opera has really proliferated—there are more and more places around the country that do high-quality work.
How would you characterize the state of regional American opera today?
I would say that now you have really good opera of all kinds being done all over the place, which means that the conceptual burden on the Met is somewhat relieved. There always used to be a sense that everybody wanted the Met to do everything. It’s flattering, of course, but people forget that the Met is only one company—a very great and resourceful one, but still only one. So I think in the last 40 years, what used to be the second- and third-line opera companies have improved to the point where a really good result can be achieved in a great many places—which is thrilling.
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