insight - Joseph Colaneri, Artistic Director
Written by Gregg Henglein
“Opera is the confluence of all the arts; of music, language, drama, and visual arts especially with the technology we have, there is so much that we bring to the stage now.”
So says Joseph Colaneri, and with his resumé, who would know better? Having served as the musical director of the New York City Opera National Company, and as artistic director of The Mannes Opera at Mannes College The New School for Music since 1998, as well as being a member of the conducting roster with the famed Metropolitain Opera New York, Colaneri’s background is as deep and robust as the catalogue of performances he has led. From Puccini’s Tosca to Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and the highly acclaimed 1993 world premiere of Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, to name but a few highlights, Colaneri’s expertise and passion has now lead him to his new role as artistic director of the West Australian Opera in Perth, which will begin in October of this year with a production of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.
“From the minute I heard about it, it felt like the right fit,” says Colaneri, who has served as a guest conductor in Perth on four occasions, so is no stranger to Australia.
Hired by soprano Beverly Sills to serve as chorus master with the New York City Opera in 1983, Colaneri had two weeks to learn 16 scores.
That moment out in front is what Colaneri was striving for. First was a Wednesday matinée during a run of South Pacific, then a performance of La traviata at the end of the following season’s run. After that, he would get his own productions each season to conduct, while maintaining his role as chorus master. “It was a pretty busy life,” he recalls.
From there, Colaneri became music director of the New York City Opera’s National Company, a touring group reaching between 50 and 60 cities a year. The seven-tour run, from 1992 to 1998, offered more valuable learning experiences.
“The touring companies were great laboratories for people like me, as well as for a lot of young singers trying out roles for the first time, young instrumentalists playing in the orchestra, some of them right out of school just starting to get their feet wet and get experience,” Colaneri says.
When the touring company closed in 1998, Colaneri joined the music staff of the Metropolitan Opera, while also becoming artistic director for opera at Mannes College The New School For Music, which under his leadership has become one of the best-regarded conservatory opera programmes in America. “I come from a long line of teachers, mostly language teaching,” says the speaker of the operatic languages of Italian, German, and French as well as some Latin and Greek. “If I hadn’t done music, I would have gone into linguistics.”
Yet the language of music is what called him, and for nearly 15 years he has had the opportunity not only to teach the aspiring talents of tomorrow, but work at the Metropolitan Opera in a marvellous catalogue of performances, including the Met’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which was broadcast live in HD via the Great Performances series, while also having been released on DVD. Such opportunities have brought work with legendary singers including Olga Borodina, Stephanie Blythe, and the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti.
Colaneri’s passion is evident throughout our conversation, for this is a man who not only loves the art of his craft, but also loves the engagement with the audience during its execution.
“I remember doing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met and finishing the great finale to the second act,” he says. “This is one of the most rousing operatic finales, and as the orchestra was playing and the curtain was coming in, the audience started applauding as I played the last three or four measures,” he explains, his back straightening, shoulders rising. “You could feel the energy of the public just holding you up, and that’s what it’s all about. When you’ve got this fully engaged public, and when they give back their roar of approval, it’s perfect.”
When I ask him what, after all he has accomplished, is his dream gig, his smile is that of a man very much at ease. For his new opportunity presents yet another chance at reciprocity – to teach and to learn, engage and be engaged.
“I guess really the dream in a lot of ways is coming up here [to Perth],” he says. “This is an opportunity for me to come from a distance and take the experiences that I have and work together in this new place, and to think about being part of the artistic fabric of the city, to bring to them what I have and to also take, to receive what they have to offer.”
That give and take is evident in every relationship Colaneri discusses during our time together.
“I want to engage the public and artistic community [in Perth] in lots of different ways, as conductor, lecturer, and just having an opportunity to meet people, get to know them,” he says. “It’s going to be a great, wonderful adventure and opportunity for reciprocal feelings.”
An experience certain to be music to his ears.
Working With Pavarotti
Larger than life, the great Luciano Pavarotti is opera’s most recognisable figure. Joseph Colaneri had but a single opportunity to work with him. “It was wonderful,” Colaneri says with a broad smile. “It was Aida, a piano dress rehearsal in the theatre. I remember getting stuck on the train; it was delayed for whatever reason and I didn’t have a cell phone.” Petrified, Colaneri came through the doors 10 minutes late to see Pavarotti standing in the wings. As a panting Colaneri attempted to gaspingly explain his circumstance and his apology, Pavarotti interrupted him. “He puts his hand on my shoulder and he says ‘my dear Maestro, I just come too, my train was late also.’ He told me ‘relax, we have plenty of time.’” From then on, the experience was a dream come true. “He was so wonderful, such a warm spirit, it was just a great experience,” Colaneri recalls. “We had several great conversations in rehearsal about different repertory, styles of singing…he loved to talk about the art of singing!”
Year of the Diva
Joseph Colaneri will conduct the West Australian Opera Chorus and West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Madam Butterfly at His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, on October 23, 25, 27, 30, and November 1 and 3. Sung in Italian with English surtitles.
Madam Butterflyis the final show from the West Australian Opera’s ‘Year of the Diva’, which showcases the principal female sopranos – Minnesota-born Kelly Kaduce takes the lead as Cio-Cio-San.
West Australian Opera