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The Mountain Climber

MATTHEW SIGMAN talks to one of opera’s most adventurous spirits, conductor Nicole Paiement, who leads the world premiere of Everest this month at Dallas Opera.

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The conductor at a workshop for Everest at Dallas Opera.
© Luke McKenzie, Dallas Opera 2015
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© Luke McKenzie, Dallas Opera 2015

Nicole Paiement, the French–Canadian conductor who has emerged as a leading exponent of contemporary opera, is the ne plus ultra of her hyphenated heritage. An intellectual in the European tradition, admired for her meticulous preparation of complex scores and ability to contextualize them in a socio-political vernacular, she is also an unabashed adventurer, a pioneer eager to explore the most forbidding American musical topography. With equal élan, she can unearth operatic gems (Lou Harrison’s Young Caesar), redefine classics (a chamber version of Wozzeck) and scale new heights: this season she leads the premiere of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest at Dallas Opera, where she was recently named principal guest conductor. Her roots now extend to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she is artistic director of BluePrint, a contemporary-music series, and holds the Deléage Chair in new music. 

In an era in which opera has become a director’s medium, Paiement stands out as the rara avis — a visionary conductor who shapes new works from score to stage, and who, unlike peripatetic conductors eager to fill their resumés with name-dropping gigs, is happy to stay home and cultivate her exotic musical garden, Opera Parallèle.

“If I want Opera Parallèle to become part of the artistic fabric of San Francisco, then I need to be part of that community as well,” she says. “I need to be available. It may not be about conducting or fundraising. It may be a symposium that’s not even about opera. It’s about developing an audience.”

Along with her talent, curiosity and sense of place comes charisma that makes it easy to understand why audiences — and collaborators and funders and musicians — are eager to follow her lead. Robert Ellis, an investor in internet companies and longtime fan of Paiement, likens the growth of Opera Parallèle to that of a tech start-up — a visionary leader, a devoted team and new products in pursuit of an uncertain market. “Founders count for a lot in any of these endeavors, and Nicole is both charming and incredibly determined,” says Ellis. “If you’ve been around a long time, as I have, and you come across a founder with that conviction and talent, it’s hard not to get sucked in.”

It was Ellis who forged the path that brought Paiement to Dallas. A longstanding board member of both Opera Parallèle and San Francisco Opera, Ellis brought Dallas Opera general director Keith Cerny to a performance of OP’s Wozzeck. “I was stunned by the musicianship and quality of performance she was able to deliver,” says Cerny, a conservatory-trained musician. Paiement was soon invited to conduct the Dallas production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Lighthouse, and again to helm Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers. Both works, challenging to conductors and audiences alike, were critical and popular successes.

Dallas Opera has not previously had a principal guest conductor, but Cerny says Paiement was a logical addition as he continues the company’s commitment to new work. The Dallas legacy includes Dominick Argento’s Aspern Papers (1988), Tobias Picker’s Thérèse Raquin (2001) and Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (2010), the last two with librettos by Scheer. In addition to Everest,Dallas Opera offers two more world premieres in the near future — Great Scott, by Heggie and Terrence McNally, and Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus. Paiement and Dallas Opera music director Emmanuel Villaume will alternate on the podium for premieres and contemporary repertoire as their schedules allow.  

Prior to The Lighthouse, Paiement had never been to Dallas. She was impressed by how open-minded the audiences were — as much as, if not more than, those in San Francisco, where new opera often struggles to be heard. She notes another major difference between Opera Parallèle and Dallas Opera: “Dallas has a lot more money.” 

Raised in a musical family and trained in several instruments, Paiement initially eschewed a career in music in favor of architecture, but she soon realized that her ambitions were not mutually exclusive, that the baton could be an instrument that fused the two. “I realized I enjoyed studying scores in the way you would look at a blueprint. Where are the pillars? What are the colors? When you are conducting an orchestra you are building something. There are lines, there is structure.” 

After studying at the University of Ottawa and McGill, Paiement pursued a doctorate at Eastman, where Jens Peter Larsens and Alfred Mann, specialists in Haydn and in the Baroque, were her influential teachers. But her true inspiration was the long-deceased Swiss mathematician/conductor/ philosopher Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969), conductor of the Ballets Russes, founder of the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande and exponent of the thorniest twentieth-century music. His writings and recordings inspired Paiement’s passion for breathing life into new music.

In 1988, fresh from Eastman, Paiement was appointed to the faculty of the University of California–Santa Cruz, where, like Ansermet, she established an ensemble to record undiscovered and underappreciated works. Her formidable catalogue of more than two dozen recordings ranges from Heinrich Schütz (1585–1672) and Germaine Tailleferre (1892–1983) to contemporary composers John Harbison and Hi Kyung Kim. The recording ensemble begat Ensemble Parallèle, which begat Opera Parallèle. OP’s first production, Young Caesar,had its premiere in 2007. Harrison, who worked with Paiement for three years to create a revised edition, died four years before the premiere. 

A spate of innovative productions followed, including premieres and chamber interpretations of marquee works by Glass, Thompson, Harbison and Bernstein. Last season, OP’s production of Adam Gorb’s Anya17, a searing look at the global sex trade, was heralded by opera congoscenti. This season, in addition to leading intimate productions of Tarik O’Regan and Tom Phillips’s Heart of Darkness and Heggie and McNally’s Dead Man Walking, Paiement takes on a new role, as librettist for a one-act children’s opera, My Head is Full of Colors, set to a score by Chris Pratorius.

Paiement hastens to add that as the company’s musical leader, she is by no means a soloist. “I’m a collaborative individual,” she says. “We have an artistic team, and we work together as a whole.” Director/designer Brian Staufenbiel is known for inspiring visualizations, including innovative uses of projections. Artistic director Jacques Desjardins, previously the company’s general manager, has been with OP since its founding. 

That collaboration extends beyond the artistic team. “The board is active and hands-on and very dedicated,” says Paiement. “They really believe in this organization.” That board continues to evolve from a friends-and-family cohort to a team of community leaders with potential to provide the resources the company needs to grow. According to Ellis, the board plans to increase last year’s budget of $600,000 to $1 million this year. However, he says, the “irrational exuberance” fueling the city’s economy does not make it a boom town for opera. “Audiences can be very conservative here, and it’s a struggle to get people’s attention,” says Ellis. The wider Bay Area is rife with progressive companies such as West Edge Opera, the Paul Dresher Ensemble and Townsend Opera, but Opera Parallèle is committed to the city of San Francisco, with the 720-seat Yerba Buena theater as its current home base. 

And then there is the $77-million gorilla — San Francisco Opera, which has a long tradition of presenting new work in the grand manner and has continued to do so under the leadership of general director David Gockley. “Nobody is more committed to contemporary opera than David,” says Ellis, who credits SFO for creating the audience for contemporary opera from which Opera Parallèle can draw. But Goliath becomes David in 2016, when SFO inaugurates a new 299-seat flexible theater space designed for producing traditional and contemporary chamber opera. Like many opera companies, SFO recognizes that adaptations in scale, venue and repertoire are necessary to survive.

Returning to San Francisco after a workshop of Everest in Dallas, Paiement effuses about “an amazing six days of collaborative work, a week of complete collaboration between composer, librettist and conductor.” On hand were Talbot, Scheer, director Leonard Foglia, two principal artists, choristers and a modest instrumental ensemble. The challenge of Everest is formidable — an empathic story of the events of May 1996, when eight climbers perished on the slopes of Mount Everest.

The story was most notably captured in Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air, but for the libretto Scheer developed an original narrative based on interviews with those present at or connected to the tragedy. What was originally planned as a thirty-five to forty-minute piece grew to a seventy-minute work, ideal for coupling — for its premiere Dallas has chosen to pair it with Act IV of La Wally, yet another tragedy on the slopes of fate — but sufficient for a stand-alone production. The Dallas cast features tenor Andrew Bidlack, mezzo Sasha Cooke, bass Kevin Burdette and baritone Craig Verm, the last an accomplished climber in real life. Without giving anything away, one may note that the production includes logistical as well as emotional leaps of faith.

Paiement lauds Scheer’s libretto (“poetry in action”) and Talbot’s score. “Joby is very good at creating a unique sound world,” she says. “There may be five percussionists in the pit, but it is not about volume. It is about colors and textures — a storm, the wind.” The orchestral forces are substantial, with triple winds, two pianos and a large string section. The chorus, representing the spirits of the mountains, must blend with the orchestra to become one. The resulting tableau of words and notes, she says, “is a mindscape rather than a landscape.”

Talbot is firmly established as a composer for many genres — symphony, ballet, film, chamber music, choral works — but Everest is his first foray into opera. He confesses that he had a vast amount to learn about balancing voices and orchestra, a learning curve for which Paiement has been “a godsend.” Like many composers, Talbot dreads first readings (“usually horrific”), but at the Everest workshop he felt instant relief. “Nicole totally felt what I meant,” he says. To capture both the real-time unfolding of events and the psychedelic descent into hypoxia, Talbot requires the orchestra “to jump from one world into the other.” The duality is embedded in the score with “a combination of metronomical rhythms with Romantic melodic and harmonic materials.” The temptation for the orchesra, he says, is to let the rhythms slip into Mahlerian rubato. The performance ultimately depends on Paiement’s ability to weave not just words and music but spirit and sound.

“You never really know with conductors,” says Talbot. “They can be obstinate middlemen, who stand between you and the realization of what you want, or the most enabling collaborator. And Nicole is most certainly the latter. I have complete faith.” spacer 

MATTHEW SIGMAN is editor of Opera America magazine. A three-time winner of the ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism, he has written for American Theatre, The Voice and Symphony. 

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