Well remembered for his many years as conductor for Boston Lyric Opera, Stephen Lord will mark his arrival as New England Conservatory’s artistic director of opera studies on February 28 at the helm of a semi-staged production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Jordan Hall. Lord was appointed last spring as part of NEC President Tony Woodcock’s program to “…take opera at NEC to a new level of eminence.”
Asked how he felt about returning to Boston, Lord said, “It is a mixed bag, I admit. My voluntary departure from BLO was bittersweet. It maybe should not have happened as it did, but it has propelled me to other places and I believe both I and BLO have now benefitted from it. But it remains bittersweet.”
Concurrently serving as the music director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis and as a guest conductor at companies like English National Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Chicago Lyric Opera, Lord will oversee all aspects of the NEC opera training program.
He was asked if he had a chance since he arrived to hear the superb NEC orchestras, and which one would be the pit band for Candide.
“Since I am new, I am not fully informed as to how the orchestras get chosen for opera. The one I have for Candide is very young but the musicians are enthusiastic, play well, and by the performance, will be superb.” The NEC Symphony Orchestra will be on stage, he explained, adding, “The orchestral department at NEC is certainly a shining jewel. — We must banish the word pit band! They are, to me, equals to the singers and production. One must stress that playing opera is a way of living for a good many instrumentalists, and there is nobody today who would not want a job at the Metropolitan, Vienna State Opera, et cetera.”
Mezzo-soprano Luretta Bybee, who has been a member of the voice faculty since 2004 and was named executive director and chair of opera at the same time as Lord’s appointment, will sing the role of the Old Lady in the combined student-professional cast. Sean Curran will be the stage director. Performing the role of Pangloss/Voltaire is Ron Raines, a regular singing actor on Broadway and a long-running character (Albert Spaulding) on the CBS-TV daytime drama The Guiding Light, who has sung leading roles in virtually every major American musical and operetta.
The production will also feature NEC soprano Jennifer Caraluzzi M.M. ‘11, winner of the 2010 Jenny Lind Competition for coloratura sopranos, in the role of Cunegonde. Michael Richard Kuhn will sing the role of Candide; David Tafone is Maximilian, Emily Brand is Paquette, Marquis Fuse is the Captain, Thomas Suber is the Governor.
The level of the singers’ abilities varies, Lord told BMInt. “There are always too many women – but many of them are quite good. I wish there were a way for them all to benefit from tutorial work, but the numbers are too great. We are doing what we can. NEC is aware of this and is determined to make this change. We do now what we can with as much care and support as we are able.”
He intends to be both teaching and coaching at NEC, but since his career is still very active and he has bookings into 2015, his time is limited. “Tony Woodcock knew this as we discussed how this would evolve. This is one reason we have the wonderful Luretta Bybee as executive director and me solely as artistic director. However, I am committed to a certain number of weeks and, starting next year, productions. I hope to give even more time as the years pass along and I am determined to be one on one with the best of the best and also encouraging people from my generation, now nearing retirement from active performing, to be involved. I think that is actually under way and it excites me and will aid as a recruitment tool in the future.”
What productions will be presented in coming years depends entirely on the student body, Lord explained. “The number of students in the future will be smaller, which is a good thing, as individual attention can be seen to in a better, more tactically precise way. Opera usually need tenors, so the recruitment of more of them is essential. And operas that young voices can perform have to be chosen carefully. But until we know the student body, we cannot assess or speculate too much. It is always folly to choose a piece and try to fit people in. I do think opera in concert should be part of the curriculum for a style of music that might not be feasible to stage but will give the singers the opportunity to explore the style in performance.”
Beginning in the 2011-12 season, Lord will conduct one staged production each year at the Majestic Theater, which led BMInt to ask if he was surprised that we still have no real opera house in Boston.
“Not in the slightest. A new opera house is always a political issue, along with a financial one. What is called “The Opera House” never was an opera house, nor was it designed to be one, so it was only a compromise when Necessity became Mother of Invention. But until the state and city governments decide Boston needs to be culturally competitive in this area – as even Kansas City has done – then no matter which opera company expands the most, they can never fulfill their desires and serve the art form to the best of its ability. Toronto, Dallas, etc., have all ponied up. And they do not call themselves a cultural Athens. It is a shame, all of it, especially walking down Washington Street and seeing that hole.”
How about Aida at Fenway Park?
“Well, … no. First of all, Aida is only a huge opera for a couple of scenes. Second, almost nobody can sing it today as it was meant to be heard. Third, you have to see opera, and being so far away and hearing music over microphones is just not the way to serve that piece. BLO almost made a form of it happen on the [Boston] Common, following the enormously successful Carmen, which was the dream of BLO’s former general director. It was close. The funding fell short by very little, but enough to kill the project.”
Lord rattled off the names of prestigious alums: “Lilian Nordica, Denyce Graves, Frederick Jaegel, Eleanor Steber, Lisa Saffer, … and there are many, and, one prays, will be many, many more.”
Candide will be performed one night only, on Monday, February, 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20; Students and Seniors $16; WGBH members 2-for-1 with I.D