Saturday, April 25, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Conductor Eve Queler forges ahead

Eve Queler conducting.

Eve Queler may perhaps be the most acclaimed conductor to lead the popular Palm Beach Opera Vocal Competition in some years. The internationally renowned conductor and founding music director of American’s leading opera-in-concert organization, Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY), will be on stage at the Kravis Center at 3 p.m. Sunday.

Queler has a repertoire of more than 100 operas that she has conducted at Carnegie Hall. The list includes neglected works, especially by Russian and Czech composers, that she has championed in the United States. Her U.S. premieres include Puccini’s early Edgar with Carlo Bergonzi and Renata Scotto; Boito’s Nerone and Smetana’s Libuse. Her seven studio and live recordings feature opera’s greatest singers in rarities by Donizetti, Massenet, Verdi and Richard Strauss.

Along with her nose for operatic rarities, the 73-year-old Queler has a knack for discovering young singers with star quality. Year after year, the stars she discovered and nurtured return to the Opera Orchestra to sing novel new roles they could never broach at the Met and City Opera. Queler has given critical early exposure to many rising stars who now have major careers, including José Carreras, Renée Fleming, James Morris, (part-time Vero Beach resident) Deborah Voigt and others.

In March 2008, for her 100th performance at Carnegie Hall, she attracted a guest list including sopranos Fleming, Aprile Millo, Latonia Moore, Eglise Gutierrez and Scotto, along with mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick and tenor Marcello Giordani. The star power also celebrated the star in Queler’s crown, the Opera Orchestra of New York, the one-of-a-kind group she founded in 1971.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper's Sharon McDaniel talked with Queler in advance of her appearance at the Palm Beach Opera competition:

McDaniel: How did you get into this field?

Queler: I basically was working as a New York City Opera pianist, a coach. That’s the way they do it in Europe; you don’t start conducting right off the bat.

I loved my job at City Opera; I learned a lot of repertoire, worked with some wonderful singers – and some terrific conductors. It was the ultimate graduate school. During the years I was there, occasionally I was assigned a rehearsal to conduct. In one case, it was the entire Act II of La Boheme, complete with singers, staging – everything! After that, I thought, "Hmmm, I guess I should start learning how to conduct."

I was at City Opera from 1965-70, during the move over to Lincoln Center. I decided to go back to school. I applied to Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. In both cases, they said they were not accepting women conductors. That’s just the way it was at that time.

So I started an orchestra and began training myself – it was a training orchestra. And New York had quite a few amateur orchestras from conductors gaining experience. So that is the kernel of the Opera Orchestra of New York. I started without any real plan, when I look back after 25 years. So that’s how I got into it.

McDaniel: The orchestra is rehearsing and performing at a local high school auditorium. It's even starting to attract a following. How did the orchestra really get off the ground?

Queler: Because I knew a lot of singers. I those days, I played a lot of auditions, Met (Metropolitan Opera) National Council Auditions. And through that, offered some (singers) jobs (as soloists with the orchestra). As they became famous, they didn’t forget.

McDaniel: But you were conducting elsewhere too, right?

Queler: Well, along the way, word began to get around. I was getting offers to guest conduct. The Santa Fe Opera offered me a position. I said I’m not accepting anything without conducting duties. (The offer came from founding general director) John Crosby and he didn’t feel that he wanted that. But he did come to a production of La Boheme I conducted at the school.

The same offer came, too, from (conductor) Julius Rudel, and Seattle Opera with (its founding general director) Glynn Ross. And I said to Ross, I wouldn’t accept anything unless it came with conducting duties. And he said, ‘Well this would, and you’d work with the young singers and lead (Seattle’s) national touring company."

Well, I was married, I lived in New York, I had children. I just didn’t see how I could manage it, so I turned it down. And one day at home, I was telling this nice story to someone on the phone, and my husband overheard and said, "Why didn’t we discuss this?"

And I said, "Why should we?" And he said, ‘Because we’re a couple. And if we get some offers, we should talk about it." Well, another offer came: to conduct in Fort Wayne, Indiana. And he said, "You have to go!"

When I protested that the children were in school and I had a household to run, he said, "Well, tell me what you need!" I said, "My son likes the vanilla cupcake and my daughter likes the chocolate cupcake. You pack their lunch every day and make sure you don’t get it wrong!"

He was so supportive I’m very fortunate he felt that way. But after a trial year at Indiana, I left. It was not the type of place I could live in. So I returned to New York. And my husband had done a wonderful job with the opera orchestra. Running it out of his office, I said I needed two flutes and two oboes, and he’d get them. And it bloomed and I can’t tell you how it happened.

Initially we were in a school and had no funding. The first funding came from people who were really interested in the young singers primarily. And I said, if you want to show off the young singers, this concert should take place with orchestra. And I have an orchestra!

Attendance grew, and one of the regular audience members said, "You should really get out of this school and into some place like Town Hall, and I’ll help you get sponsorships." I didn’t know how to do that! It never occurred to me to ask for them! So it grew.

Then singers started to come to me, like (the now-defunct group) Friends of French Opera. And they brought in soloists like Nicolai Gedda and Richard Tucker. And the Friends wanted to do operas like William Tell – well, I knew the overture, but nothing else. But the audiences were very hungry to hear singers like Tucker in (operas by) Meyerbeer.

One day (Spanish soprano) Montserrat Caballé called and sent for me. And I went to her suite at the hotel, and she said, "I tip my chapeau to a lady conductor!" I loved it! Without all of these people – especially Spanish soprano Suka Baeje, and Placido Domingo -- they opened the doors. They know I have their good at heart.

But my passion is the young ones I hear at these auditions and they grow and you hear them again and they don’t have time in their schedules anymore!

Eve Queler poses at Carnegie Hall.

McDaniel: Does gender seem to matter less today or is it still an issue for orchestras? Young conductors and American conductors are making lots of progress, career-wise. But could you comment on why there aren't many women conducting big operations?

Queler: When I was at NYC Opera, my husband would say, "This is so beneath your talent." It just hadn’t occurred to me. Your questions are about the social aspect and I’m just so into my music, I don’t see a lot of things that a lot of people can see. They just don’t occur to me. It’s been a good thing for me, I don’t think about where I’m not or who’s not inviting me

McDaniel: When you think about the G-20 economic summit that just ended, or the more recent Summit of the Americas, you see at least one, two or three women. So what about the Big Five orchestras?

Queler: Sure, there are a couple of heads of state in Europe -- England and Germany -- who are women. The Pakistani leader (the late Benazir Bhutto) inherited her position and she seemed to be very capable at it.

But a better measure is how comfortable people feel, how comfortable they are taking orders from a woman. I can’t judge that from OONY. But I’ve never sensed any hostility anywhere I’ve traveled.

I’ve conducted a lot in Hungary, and when I travel, I make an effort to learn their language. I learn to count and some words and I can bumble along in Hungarian. It gets applause from the orchestra.

I have three pat sentences: "It’s an honor to be here," and "in this historic venue’"– let’s face it: over there, it’s always an historic venue! – and ‘"I’m looking forward to making music with you" – even in Czech! -- and "Let’s begin." And when I bumble and say something hysterically funny, we laugh together!

I’ve conducted the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestra in summer festivals. I walked out on stage in Philadelphia and somebody said, "Right on!" I had a good time with them and Cleveland. And they were in summer, so the concerts were broadcast and heard throughout the United States, so I received quite a few invitations and went to (places like) San Diego and Utah.

And so I feel that if there’s any opposition (to women conductors), it’s not from the players, who are always a little bit ahead of the curve. Ahead of, say, the management.

McDaniel: Are the invitations from opera companies as forthcoming nowadays for you and other women?

Queler: I may have a reputation, completely unfounded, and I’m known for the opera-in-concert. And so maybe the (opera) companies don’t want that focus on that format.

In San Diego, I worked with (San Diego Opera Resident Conductor) Karen Keltner, a lovely person and very good at what she does, and she gets a lot of opportunity there.

So where are the women? Hamburg State Opera has a woman music director and general director (Simone Young), so she gets two salaries. But she’s Australian. Australia has made a point of targeting talented people and sending them all over the world to develop further. She found her way to (conductor Daniel) Barenboim who mentored her -- he’s wonderful about that.

But (Leonard) Bernstein also mentored women. He didn’t mentor me; I was too old. But he asked me how rehearsals for (Mussorgsky's) Khovanschina were going and he really was excited about getting into the Russian (language) and all that. [Editor's note: Queler was the first conductor in the United States to perform the unfinished Khovanschina, with orchestration by Dmitri Shostakovich.]

Conductors of that stature don’t care about gender. The press could be helpful, too, by making no distinction. I’ve finally gotten over people writing about what I was wearing. I guess it’s easier than reviewing what you’re hearing!

McDaniel: How else does the press get it wrong?

Queler: I’ve also been reviewed as having flabby tempi. But what I try to do in bel canto, I tend to want to make the singers feel very comfortable. Or (I’m criticized for) serious balance problems in the orchestra, which is on stage along with the singers. But the singers have practically a brass band behind them! So in my shushing and small beating to the orchestra, perhaps I don’t give a clear idea.

It’s just a matter of what you’re seeing, rather than what you’re hearing. But I’ve run the gamut with reviews: wonderful reviews, patronizing reviews – yeah, those don’t make it onto my Website!

McDaniel: What are you expecting to find at the Palm Beach Opera Vocal Competition? And how do you feel not knowing what you're going to conduct on Sunday until the judges choose the 14 winners and choose the best aria for each?

Queler: With 50 contestants, (each singing) four arias, that’s a lot! And they get the orchestra parts together at the last minute, too – hello! This music needs to be bowed! I have no idea of what’s going to be on this concert (on Sunday). At least I know a lot of operas.

I also led the finals of a piano competition at the University of Maryland and they had about 40 piano concertos and I knew only about six of them. If I had to learn a Prokofiev concerto in three days, it wouldn’t have been easy.

But I’m very accommodating. Whatever (Palm Beach Opera) says they need, I’ll be as big a help as I can be in four days!

McDaniel: Any hints of what we might hear?

Queler: They’ve chosen some very difficult repertoire. I saw one person chose (Janacek’s) Jenufa, and I said wow, I’d love to learn that! [In 1988, Queler gave the first Czech-language performance in the United States of Jenufa. The year before, she introduced Dvorak's Rusalka, and in 1979, Janacek's Katya Kabanova.]

Also, it’s not easy to put together (a full concert) on one read-through only. Plus, the singers are nervous, of course. And hope I have time to work with them at the piano. My reasoning is, I’m not going to ask. That’s my M.O. I say, "Oh, I think I can do that!"

McDaniel: No worries at all?

Queler: See, I don’t have a lot of experience in modern music – Susannah, Ballad of Baby Doe, yes. But I’m not very up on Baroque music. The singers are required to bring four arias: one Italian, German, French, English. That means contemporary music or Benjamin Britten or Baroque are about your only choices for English – unless it’s Broadway or Gershwin.

But I don’t understand why there aren’t more competitions for young singers. I’m not aware that opera companies other than the Palm Beach and the Met have them – I know New York City Opera doesn’t. In New York, mostly the foundations hold them.

But I’m so looking forward to getting to West Palm Beach. The first time I ever heard Renée Fleming was in a competition -- I gave her a prize! Then I heard her again at Alice Tully Hall, and I said, "Oh no, I have to hire her!"

I’ve judged a lot of competitions. That way, I hear a lot of young artists. One young singer I worked with got a contract from La Scala to sing (Verdi’s) I Due Foscari – the same work that she sang with me. Wow!

The Palm Beach Opera’s 40th Annual Vocal Competition features 14 emerging artists competing for $85,000 in prize money. Guest conductor Eve Queler leads the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra in the grand finals concert at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd. It’s at 3 p.m. Sunday. For competition details, visit For tickets, which range from $20-$75, call 833-7888 or 832-7469.

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