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In 1986, a young pianist named Patrick Summers arrived at San Francisco Opera's Merola Program, armed with a bachelor's degree from Indiana University and ambitions to be a conductor. Today, Summers is the artistic director of Houston Grand Opera, where he conducts Verdi and Wagner this month; principal guest conductor of San Francisco Opera — and one of the most in-demand maestros in the business. He sits down for a conversation with F. PAUL DRISCOLL.

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Photographed by Julie Soefer in the Grand Foyer of the Wortham Theater Center, home of Houston Grand Opera
© Julie Soefer 2013
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Outside the Wortham Theater Center in Houston
© Julie Soefer 2013
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© Chris Newlin 2013

In a few hours, Patrick Summers, San Francisco Opera's principal guest conductor, will lead a performance of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick at the War Memorial Opera House. Despite the approaching curtain time, Summers seems focused and unhurried as he sits in a downstairs conference room — a place, he points out in a gentle aside, that was used by the Merola Program in 1986, the summer when Summers began his SFO career as an accompanist with ambitions to be a conductor. Artistic director of Houston Grand Opera since 2011 — and a conductor whose freelance career has taken him to every major opera company in the world — Summers is an articulate speaker who frames his answers with care, rather than caution. He says he has a new appreciation for talking about opera since taking on the role of artistic director at HGO: "I actually love that. I believe it's very good for a musician to have to articulate his decisions."

OPERA NEWS: When and how did you get so hungry for so many different kinds of music? You do new works, you have Wagner on your schedule, you have Verdi, you have Gluck, you've got Jake Heggie, you've got everything. How did that happen? 

PATRICK SUMMERS: When I started my career, I wanted very much to specialize in Baroque music, yet I also felt — and people close to me felt — that I would be a much less successful Baroque specialist if I didn't do the other things that interested me. That's just my nature. Believe me, there's nothing in the world I'd rather do than conduct a Handel opera. I'm thinking back on many, many years of conducting things in this building, for example, and nothing has equaled conducting Xerxes here last season. That, for me, is just an ultimate experience. Rodelinda at the Metropolitan, Julius Caesar in Houston — those are really, really peak experiences for me. They're not the only ones, but they're the ones that I kind of marinate myself in when I remember things.

When I came to San Francisco Opera [as a member of the Merola Program] in 1986, one of the first people I became close to — and who became a very important mentor of mine — was Charles Mackerras. He was conducting here a lot in those years. I assisted him on Lohengrin here in 1989, shortly after the earthquake. Charles was very influential on me, because he had a wide range of interests. He was very much of the school that's quite against the zeitgeist of the industry right now — not the art form, but the industry. He was very much of the school that if you were a musician, you were interested in music — and you were interested in the specific details of how Bach and Handel were performed, and how that can both inform and change the way you conduct Strauss and Wagner. He often said to me that the choices you have to make and the technical skill you have to have to conduct a bel canto work successfully are way beyond, as a conductor, what you need to conduct Siegfried. Now that's not to say that Siegfried isn't the greater work and the more satisfying and the harder to play and all of that — that's a different set of issues. Those bel canto pieces are very, very challenging but very rewarding, because they are about transparency and simplicity and knowledge of the voice. That very much informed how I approached Lohengrin for the first time. Very much. I was so dissatisfied, for example, in rehearsal with the end of the first act of Lohengrin in Houston. It just wasn't working. We had our radio mics on to do the mic test for the radio, and I listened to it, and I thought, "The tempo's all right, the singing's okay, it's together. It's … nah … it just isn't working."

Then it occurred to me that I was being a spectator, instead of being in it and performing it. I decided I was going to solely concentrate on the contrabass and the viola line, and I'd leave everything else, which was of course something Wagner himself suggested to conductors. Then, all the music staff, Anthony Freud, everybody who was at that next rehearsal came to me at the end of the first half — "My god, oh my god, oh my god. What was that?"

And, you know, I don't know why that is. It's something I tried to do with Moby-Dick as well, because it's also a very dense piece. It's taking yourself — it's not taking yourself out of the performance of a work, it's making the decision not to wallow in the aesthetic pleasure of all the sound. Does that make sense?

ON: Is that something that you believe works for a later Wagner work, such as Tristan and Isolde?

PS: Totally, totally. It took me a long, long time to figure out Richard Strauss's set of rules for conductors, some of which are very sort of tongue-in-cheek — you know, to conduct Elektra and Salome like Mendelssohn, as though it were fairy music. What does that mean? I now believe it means a small intensity of gesture and concentrating not on the effect but on creating a foundation by which the effects can happen, if that makes sense.

That was very much Charles Mackerras's aesthetic as well — if the tempo was right, and if you got into a groove and achieved the balance between what's marked in the part and the ability to have the orchestra respond to you without being afraid of you, that you could more quickly go to the heart of a work. It's something he achieved in a greater and greater way over the course of his life. What I always admired about Charles, as opposed to some other conductors, is that I inevitably left one of his performances thinking, "God, Un Ballo in Maschera is a great opera," or, "Wow, the Seventh Symphony of Dvořák is a great symphony." Instead of, you know, "Wow, what a great conductor." There was such a focus on the work itself. 

I feel better at Wagner and Verdi because I've conducted a lot of bel canto operas, and I feel better at the bel canto operas because I've conducted a lot of Mozart and Handel. 

ON: How does that inform modern works? 

PS: I don't know if there's a direct connection, but somehow all of the work I've done with living composers has given me some kind of feeling of trying to have those conversations with composers that aren't here. When you are doing a new opera, it's such a living, breathing creation. 

Now in the workshop stage, I'm pretty direct. I am as honest as I can be, but I'm mindful that I've also been involved with new operas that got workshopped out of their … [pauses]

ON: Vitality?

PS: … Exactly! Their vitality. The best new operas I've been involved in were workshopped, but there weren't too many cooks involved. If your goal in workshopping a piece is to get textual clarity or orchestral clarity or dramaturgical clarity, fine. But if you're talking about wholesale rewriting, where everybody involved with it has to be the person who "saved" it, then the investments on the table are different from those of the creators, if that makes sense. And that's counterproductive.

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Conducting La Traviata at HGO in 2012
© Chris Newlin 2013

ON: You will be conducting Il Trovatore and Tristan in rep at Houston this spring. Is there any kind of switching of gears for you, mentally or physically, between Wagner and Verdi?

PS: It was kind of an accident of the architecture of next season that I'm doing both of those in repertory. They are the perfect Apollo and Dionysus pairing, aren't they? It would be fascinating to have a Verdi opera of the same era as Tristan, since [Verdi and Wagner] were born in the same year, but that's not how it worked out. I adore Trovatore, so I'm very much looking forward to being in that world again. And I've not done Tristan and Isolde. I mean, I've known it for many years and am looking forward to that. Tristan, to me, feels like a much larger experience than simply going to a music drama — and it feels dangerous to me. 

ON: Dangerous?

PS: I have always felt Tristan was very dangerous to me. For many years, as a younger musician, I sensed that there were things in it that I didn't want to know about. That may sound odd to you. But I will tell you that I had three opportunities to conduct Billy Budd before I finally did it in Houston [in 2008]. For the first two offers I studied through that score, and I knew I couldn't spend the psychic energy. It was too painful to me as a work of music. I just couldn't do it. I didn't want to spend those weeks of my life with that, even though I know now that it's one of the most moving things I've ever been involved in in my whole life, and I'd do it again in a second.

ON: What changed that made you accept it?

PS: I grew up, I guess. I grew up. I don't consider myself a young conductor anymore, but for a while there, I was. And I was very sensitive to conductors my age taking on works that I felt needed more maturity and life experience. You know, the Mahler symphonies, the Beethoven symphonies — these twentysomethings are conducting these works all the time now.

To me, Tristan and Isolde was a more mature work, one that would benefit from someone who didn't have so much to prove by conducting it. You can live in Tristan's world better if you aren't invested solely in making your own impression. And I knew that Tristan would be part the trajectory I wanted to take Houston Grand Opera on, to prepare us for The Ring. I wanted the orchestra to have played Lohengrin and Tristan before we started The Ring in '13–14. 

ON: How did you get the reputation for being such a good singer's conductor?

PS: I believe that working with [voice teacher] Margaret Harshaw [as a pianist] when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University had a lot to do with my understanding of the singing mechanism and the singing psyche. And I don't have the prejudice against bel canto works that many of my colleagues have had. You know, I don't do quite as much of it as I used to, but every time I go back to Donizetti's works, it is a revelation. This past spring [at HGO] was the first time I'd done Maria Stuardaand what a glory it is! It is just amazing. Those are the works that teach you about singers, because they're very, very vocal-line driven. And accepting that has to be okay for your conductor's ego. It has to be okay to accompany sometimes and to be the boss sometimes. And if it's not, you're not going to be a good singer's conductor. You have to lead them knowing their vocal mechanism. You lead them making them think you're following them, and you give those works their rhythmic impetus where needed, and their limpidity and their elasticity where needed. The worst thing for a conductor to do in bel canto is to be too accommodating or too rigid. It's finding that balance. As a conductor, I find achieving that balance to be just wonderful — the moment when you get to a passage and you realize, "Oh, we can just accompany here." And getting the orchestra to listen and realize "Okay, we're just taking a little time here, and then we're going again." And it's wonderfully satisfying.

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Summers at the opening night of The Heart of a Soldier, in 2011
© Drew Altizer 2013

ON: So to go back a little bit to new works. Your knowledge of the voice is so specific. Is that something that you immediately share with someone when you are looking at a new work?

PS: Yes. As in "This vowel on this note is going to be unintelligible."

ON: Right.

PS: And is that the aim? Is unintelligibility the aim? — because that's what you have. I do a lot to get the text understood, certainly. A lot of things contribute to that — the size of the theater and that sort of thing, and just rehearsing the singers properly. Understanding the voice, though, is important for that, too. Many times there's nothing uglier than singers putting on consonants that are louder than the vowels, and things like that.

Nothing in my life has been as influential on me as playing hours and hours and hours of voice lessons as a teenager. My piano teachers at Indiana wanted me to do it, because they thought it was good for piano playing. One of the problems pianists have is that they are always alone. Playing for singers allows a pianist to get outside himself and listen. If there's a reason I have a reputation as a singer's conductor, it's because of that. 

This sounds self-important, but behind closed doors, I tell singers what I really think. This is very much an art form that calls a spade a shovel. Singers want real information, and it's very hard to get. Just give them the information. They're longing for it. The more famous they get, the less information they get. And it's very scary, very scary. Many times, voice teachers become invested in students emotionally, because they need that performance fix themselves — and that's not healthy either. You know, you gotta teach singers to be alone and not need you.

And so, if something's not working in rehearsal, let's go in a studio, and I'll sit at the piano, and let's figure it out. Let's figure it out. I know from my own life, the teachers that I have admired the most were simply the ones who just answered the question — and didn't answer it in a roundabout way.

Musicological knowledge is extraordinarily important, but it's not everything. A map is never as beautiful as what is mapped. You have to use knowledge in a practical way with the artists that are your colleagues. 

You know, one of the big issues with conducting is that conductors can have a performance in their head that has nothing to do with the people in the room with them. That happens quite often — and you can tell in the first bar. spacer 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6