Opera music director Andrew Altenbach was nominated for Best Director of a Musical (Opera) for his work on La Cenerentola (Cinderella). In his interview, he explains opera and his work to my neophyte self and tells us about collaborating with co-nominee Katherine Carter on La Cenerentola.
What projects or productions are you currently working on?
With the Boston Opera Collaborative, we are preparing a project at the Oberon Theater where Spanish and Russian song is staged and paired with flamenco and modern dance. Then May is Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song with Albert Herring in the summer. Outside the company, I will do Rape of Lucretia at the Boston Conservatory, plus a world premiere in South Africa with Opera Africa.
What drew you to music directing? What drew you to opera? Have you directed musicals? How do you think the two mediums differ?
I am a pianist who was playing for singers and became interested in the fantastic repertoire. I have directed musicals, but many years ago. They differ in compositional style, relationships to popular music, instrumentation, etc. However, they are both similar by the idea of story-telling.
Do you have a favorite piece (opera, musical, or other song) to perform? To listen to?
Not really a favorite – I am often obsessed with the project I am currently working on, but I am a sucker for Bach, Mozart, Brahms and Verdi.
Do you travel to perform with different theatre companies? How do you acclimate to the different cultures and climates? What is the biggest challenge for you?
Yes. I think one needs to do lots of observation in a new culture so that you can soak up the richness of it while also being respectful of differences. It doesn’t change my personality, though. You have to be yourself, in the end. The biggest challenges often can be language, especially when I work in a place like Africa.
Do you have a favorite performance space? Why is it your favorite? What have you performed there?
Sorry, not really. I am still on the search for the perfect space. Sometimes, I love the acoustics of a space but am not fond of the location. Sometimes, I have had the most moving experiences in very unassuming spaces – playing a Winterreise in a church in St.Paul, conducting a chamber orchestra in Auer Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. In Boston, I love the spaces of Symphony Hall and Emmanuel Church, but have not performed there.
Who inspires you? Why?
My teacher, David Effron, a VERY profound musician and great human being. He has been conducting for over 50 years and knows most scores inside and out, yet he still studies tirelessly every day and always wishes to know the score more deeply. Others would be pianist mentors- Karen Shaw, Steven Blier, Martin Katz. As to why, my answer is, go hear them play . . .
Talk to us about how you music directed La Cenerentola. Were there any challenges with that piece? How did you face them?
Yes, one challenge was performing with a period orchestra. Lots of aspects in intonation (we tuned to A=430, which is slightly lower than standard performance pitch), articulation, and ornamentation. Like any Rossini production, too, each singer needs ornaments that help the text come to life and yet be flattering to their individual instrument. That process takes lots of trail and error.
Is there anything you would change about the production? Do you ever have any regrets after finishing a production?
I only wanted more rehearsal time, but I think most musicians regret that a little after performances. It is almost impossible to address everything one wishes in the allotted time.
What is your biggest fear? About performing/directing? Otherwise?
I think I’ll keep this to myself. We all have to have secrets.
Speaking of insider secrets, what advice would you give to aspiring music directors? How did you get your opportunities?
Often, you have to make your own opportunities. Work hard, study scores nonstop, and stay in touch with as many people as possible. Opportunities come your way when you least expect them to [come].
Are there any works that you would like to direct in the future? Why these works?
Anything by Verdi. I love his music and La Traviata is how I really started to fall for opera.
Talk to us about collaborating with a stage director. How do you feel about the process? What challenges and rewards do you encounter? How was working with Katherine (Carter)?
I think the best directors are those that honestly respond to the music and don’t try to put some kitch, nonsense concept on top of a work. Conventional and bizarre approaches can work if the response is honest. The challenges occur when the conductor and director have different responses and need to establish common ground. Sometimes, I have to defer to a director, and sometimes, I ask them to defer to me – all depends on the context and with your friends, it’s done with immense mutual respect. Katherine is superb, and NO shortage of high energy, which I love. She is smart and funny, and our work together has been very rewarding.
Can you tell us anything unique about you?
I was very late in deciding to make music my life. I had never heard a Brahms symphony or opera until I was 20! Many of my peers knew when they were ten years old, then went to Juilliard or Curtis. In some ways this can put someone behind, but the different experiences, I feel, allow me to view the music world with a broader lens.
Do you have anything else to share with our readers; what do you think they should know about you?
I love pasta – as much and as varied as possible. Sometimes I approach my life in music like that – as much and as varied as possible!