Voice Leader

When the curtain falls on the 2023–24 season this June, Donald Palumbo, the Met’s beloved C. Graham Berwind, III Chorus Master, will step down from the post he has held since 2007. Over the past 17 years, with tireless energy, unrelenting pursuit of improvement, and uncompromising attention to detail, he has transformed the ensemble, now widely considered the best opera chorus in the world. It is a fitting legacy for a man whose entire life has been lived with a singular devotion to the art form he calls “a triumph of humanity.” By Jay Goodwin 

When he was ten years old, Donald Palumbo was puzzled to find himself in the gardening section of his local library. For a fifth-grade essay, Palumbo wanted to write about Lily Pons, the scintillating coloratura soprano who had captured his imagination through the Met’s Saturday Matinee Radio Broadcasts. But opera was not exactly a popular pastime in 1950s Rochester, New York, and the librarian wasn’t familiar with the name. She had brought him to books about lily ponds. 

That Palumbo was writing essays about sopranos in grade school reveals just how early he was bitten by the opera bug. He remembers his first experience of the art form, when he was seven or eight years old and an aunt who had a particular love for La Traviata played him some excerpts on her 78s. From there, he became a regular listener to the Met’s broadcasts, frequently visited the library to borrow opera recordings, and made sure to catch the star singers who occasionally appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. 

“Even at that young age, I was overwhelmed by how beautiful these works of art were,” Palumbo says. “I was bowled over by the genius of these great composers.” 

That reverence has endured for some 65 years now, and in his career as a chorus master, Palumbo’s determination to do justice to the masterpieces of the operatic repertory has driven him to uncommon levels of effort in pursuit of the very highest artistic standards. 

“He’s enormously committed and indefatigable in his energy,” says Kurt Phinney, a Met chorister since 1994 and Chorus Manager since 2001. “He’s also very demanding, but it comes from a love of the music, a realization that we at the Met are at the pinnacle of our art form, and a profound sense of obligation to every performance and to the audience.” 

Donald Palumbo

In practical terms, Palumbo’s commitment translates to a focus on even the smallest details and a refusal to accept that anything is beyond further improvement. In the chorus’s extensive preparatory sessions, this means that attention is paid to every word, every note, and every expressive marking, and that not a moment is wasted. “He’s a master of time management and of just using every second in everything he does,” says Met Chorus Administrator Dan Hoy, who sang as an extra chorister for more than a decade before taking on his administrative role. It also means that the chorus’s work is never done. Palumbo walks restlessly around the stage and auditorium during rehearsals, chiming in with instructions to the chorus whenever there is a lull in the action. And during most performances, he can be found roaming the wings, listening and thinking of ways to make the chorus sound even better. (One longtime chorister, Belinda Oswald, once bought him a pedometer to track his prodigious pacing, but he didn’t take the bait.) Before performances, the choristers find notes from him on their dressing tables indicating what he’d like them to change. 

More often than not, the notes have to do with the ensemble’s fundamental sound or the color of its tone in a particular moment. For Palumbo, this is the essence of choral singing. “I was taught that beauty of sound is paramount—not just the execution of the notes and the rhythms, but a sound that fills the house with a warm, rich tone,” he says. It’s worth explaining what Palumbo means by “taught” because one of the most remarkable things about his career is that he rose to become one of the world’s leading figures in choral direction through a combination of natural affinity and learning on the job, without going to conservatory or having any formal training. 

Growing up, Palumbo played piano—“I could sight-read almost anything, but I was a horrible technician and never practiced”—and sang in his high school chorus, as well as joining the chorus of the Eastman School when they needed extra singers for their opera productions. But despite his love of music, he had no vision of an operatic career. He was a self-described “math nerd” who happily attended a summer program about number theory at Ohio State University (“a bunch of 15-year-old kids talking about infinity,” as he explains it), and when he graduated, he went to Boston University to study chemistry. 

Palumbo and the Met Chorus backstage during a performance of Thomas’s

But Palumbo quickly learned that a career in science wasn’t for him. According to now-retired Met Executive Stage Director David Kneuss, a close friend of Palumbo’s who lived in the dorm across the hall from him at BU, the future chorus master “didn’t really have to study, so he just listened to opera recordings all day.” Palumbo admits that this isn’t far from the truth. 

He inherited a tireless work ethic from his parents, who owned a hamburger restaurant on Lake Ontario where his father worked seven days a week until he was in his 90s. “So I knew that whatever profession I took up, it would take over my life, and I just knew deep down that I was not a chemist. I wanted to do something that was more creative, that was more about beauty. But by the time I realized that, I was already a sophomore, and I didn’t want to commit to a longer college term. So I just gutted it out.” 

During his college years, Palumbo scratched his musical itch by singing with Boston’s Chorus pro Musica. But it was after he graduated that his story takes on a tinge of destiny. In 1970, he moved to Vienna, where he spent three years singing in several choruses, including the Singverein, the chorus favored by Herbert von Karajan. “He was probably my first teacher, so to speak, even though we never said more than hello,” Palumbo says. “But I was just observing everything I could about music and opera.” With Karajan on the podium leading the Berlin Philharmonic, Palumbo sang in the chorus for Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem with Gundula Janowitz and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier, Fischer-Dieskau, and Walter Berry. In his free time, he bought standing-room tickets at the Vienna State Opera, where he eventually got to take the stage himself as a chorister in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron.

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Palumbo with director Peter Sellars during a rehearsal of John Adams’s
Nixon in China 

Palumbo says it’s impossible to overstate the impact of the Vienna years, but they didn’t lead directly to full-time musical employment. In 1973, he moved back to Boston, where he says the only job he could get was doing analysis of gas exhaust fumes at a Boston Edison power plant. “After about six months, I realized that my hands were being eaten away by the acid used in the chemical reactions, so I could barely play the piano, and my throat was being destroyed by all the fumes. I knew I had to do something else.” 

Palumbo took over as manager of the Chorus pro Musica and found a position as a pianist in the studio of prominent Boston voice teacher Clara Shear, frequented by many singers with links to the old-world opera tradition. He watched and learned from a master teacher of vocal technique, and slowly, he began to make connections that would start him on the bottom rungs of a ladder to the top. After volunteering as a pianist and then coach for various vocal and choral projects around the region, the big break came. He had done some choral work with conductor Joseph Rescigno, who mentioned him to his uncle, Nicola Rescigno, the director of Dallas Opera and former co-founder of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Nicola eventually brought Palumbo to Dallas to assist Roberto Benaglio, legendary former chorus master of La Scala. Suddenly the trajectory was clear. 

“Benaglio taught me that being a chorus master was a job unto itself,” Palumbo says. “I basically learned opera in the purest sense in an Italian company that just happened to be based in Dallas, Texas. The entire Italian opera system was beaten into my head over four years there.” 

Benaglio also taught Palumbo the fundamental choral philosophy that has guided his work ever since: a focus on tonal beauty; the melding of many unique voices into a unified ensemble sound; the flexibility to mold that sound to the requirements of different composers and different dramatic moments; and the creation of vocal intensity regardless of the dynamic, so that the sound of the chorus has a physical impact on the audience even at pianissimo. “Benaglio’s concept of sound was Italian—mellow, dark, never edgy, and never forced. He would always say, ‘If we have to sing so loud that it gets ugly, I’d rather they didn’t hear it.’” 

Palumbo in an interview with chorister David Frye and host Anita Rachvelishvili during the
Live in HD transmission of Verdi’s Macbeth in 2014 

After proving himself as an assistant in Dallas, the opportunities came quickly for Palumbo. Soon he was chorus master at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, then at Canadian Opera Company, and then briefly at Opéra National de Lyon. Projects in Paris, Palermo, and Aix-en-Provence followed. After Benaglio died, Palumbo returned to Dallas for one season as chorus master, and then received two offers at the same time, from two of the biggest American companies: San Francisco Opera and Chicago Lyric. He chose Chicago and, over 16 years, built his reputation as one of the best in the business. 

In spring 2006, the Met invited Palumbo to prepare the chorus for a revival of Wagner’s Parsifal. The company was determined to elevate the quality of the chorus to match that of its peerless orchestra, and was looking for a new leader. After that test-run Parsifal, the position was offered to Palumbo. “When I became General Manager in 2006, Donald was already widely considered to be the very best, and we made it a priority to bring him to the Met,” says Peter Gelb. 

There was no hesitation from Palumbo, other than regret at having to leave a brand-new townhouse in downtown Chicago built to his specifications over several years. “We had literally just gotten the last rug when the offer came,” he says. But he knew that he couldn’t refuse. “I thought to myself, if I turn this down, I’m basically saying that I’ve reached the end of the line, that I’m not open to anything else. Plus, for an American who grew up listening to the Saturday Matinee Broadcasts, it was a no brainer.” 

Since the moment he walked through the Met’s stage door, Palumbo has been laser-focused on the goals laid out at the beginning: establish and refine a distinctive sound, achieve artistic parity with the orchestra, and consistently deliver best-in-the-world quality night after night after night. He has accomplished exactly that. 

“For decades, Donald has ascribed to the credo that excellence is not an act but a habit,” says Gelb. “The chorus will miss Donald’s relentless pursuit of perfection, and so will I.” 

Palumbo and Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Met Chorus

Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin agrees. “Donald is a true legend. Having started as an opera chorus conductor myself, I have always looked to him as an inspiration,” he says. “Our collaborations have been some of the greatest joys of my life, and he will forever leave his mark on the Met. Under his leadership, the chorus has never sounded better.” 

Palumbo himself is too modest to speak of his impact in such grand terms, but he does believe that, during his tenure, the chorus has achieved the rich, physical sound he craves. “And not only do they know the notes and the rhythms and the words, but they know the shapes and the phrasings,” he says. “They know how all the operas work beyond their own parts, and so our sense of ensemble and singing together is so much more fine-tuned.” 

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A scene from
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg 

The memories he will take with him, of course, are many, but if he had to choose just one highlight, it would be working on Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. To him, it is a microcosm of what makes opera uniquely moving. “The piece is just pure genius—so detailed and so meticulous and so rewarding when it’s right,” he says. “It’s so varied as far as human emotion, and color, and styles of writing,” and when you finally reach the Act III finale, “it’s a triumph of humanity and good will. You’re again convinced that the world is humane. I just find the experience so helpful for my soul that I want to be a part of it, so that other people can feel the same thing I do.” 

At the close of the season, Palumbo passes the torch to Tilman Michael, currently chorus master at Oper Frankfurt. Michael takes the helm as Met Chorus Director starting with the 2024–25 season, with a brilliant chorus at his disposal and enormous shoes to fill. 

After his time at the Met comes to an end, Palumbo and his husband, John Hauser (former director of the Met’s rehearsal department), plan to split their residence between Santa Fe—where Palumbo coaches young artists during festival season—and Wildwood Crest on the Jersey Shore. When asked what he plans to do with his time after being freed from the punishing Met schedule, he notes that he will return to the company briefly next season to prepare the chorus for the new production of Verdi’s Aida, and cites several upcoming projects with the Chicago Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He will also continue to coach students at Juilliard. Pressed to come up with anything that couldn’t be considered work, he says that he looks forward to listening to non-operatic music, mentioning some holes in his knowledge of orchestral and chamber music. 

“Listening to music used to be all I did,” Palumbo says. “I want to be able to listen to music again and be more relaxed about it. And it would be nice to read and finish a book in a reasonable amount of time.”