Spring Thaw
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Spring Thaw

Conductor Jorge Parodi helps The Snow Maiden bloom at MSM.
By F. Paul Driscoll 

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© Sergio R. Reyes
“The conductor is desperately needed during an opera performance.”

NICOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV'S Snow Maiden—the composer’s favorite of his own operas—will return to New York on April 11, when Manhattan School of Music’s Senior Opera Theater presents a new staging, sung in English, in the school’s Alan M. and Joan Taub Ades Performance Space. Cast with MSM undergraduates and accompanied by an MSM student orchestra, the Senior Opera Theater shows are generally repertory rarities and inevitably a highlight of the spring opera season in New York. In the past few years, the offerings have ranged from Paisiello’s Nina and Schubert’s Verschworenen to Delibes’s Roi l’a Dit and Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen. Directed by Dona D. Vaughn, the school’s artistic director of opera programs, the operas are conducted by Argentine-born maestro Jorge Parodi, the program’s music director.

Parodi made his Senior Opera Theater debut in 2008, with Dido and Aeneas. “I was working as a coach at Juilliard, and I was asked to be coach of the pre-college division. I decided to do the whole Dido and Aeneas, and I asked Dona if she would like to direct it at Juilliard. A few years after, she called and asked if I would like to do this again at MSM.” That Dido began a series of presentations that offer first-class performance opportunities to those MSM students who are not ready to be cast in the school’s justly celebrated mainstage productions. The Senior Opera Theater shows are simply produced, with minimal props, costumes and sets; with the focus on the music and the text, the students thrive. The choice of repertory begins a year in advance, with Parodi working in consultation with Vaughn to select an appropriate opera. “When we hear the school’s junior class, we start the huge work of research for a piece that will suit the singers who will be seniors the next year—do we have an outstanding baritone, or several good mezzos, and so forth. And then we find what we hope will be singable for them, and what will be possible in our performing environment, which uses a reduced orchestra and limited production tools. This year The Snow Maiden will be done in the reduction that Opera North did, which makes it more manageable for us.

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Conducting Bellini’s Capuleti e i Montecchi at Teatro Avenida in Buenos Aires, 2016
© Liliana Morsia

“This experience is a big step for the singers. For many of them, it is the first time they have to learn a complete role. They have to learn how to follow a conductor, how to do the staging while following a conductor, how to deal with pacing themselves through the whole piece, taking all the stagecraft that they slowly have been learning in the classroom and applying it to a whole show. It is also challenging for the orchestra, who are also undergrads. For many of them, it’s also the first opera. Playing an opera is a bit like performing an endless concerto, with so many singers to follow, with tempo changes that they’re not used to, with repertoire that most of them have never heard.

“It’s a long process. We start working in September, and the show is in April. We work essentially twice a week, so the learning process is much slower than it would be in the professional world. We learn the music from the basics, layer by layer. I’m always trying to judge the learning curve of each person—who needs more time, who is o.k. on her own, who needs to start adding the layer of rhythm and text to the process of learning the notes, and so on.”

Parodi, who studied music in Argentina and at the University of Michigan, began his career as a pianist. Although he still does some coaching and performing, his principal work for the past decade has been as a conductor. Conducting opera feels “very natural” to Parodi. “It is what I should be doing,” he says. “I was always drawn to text. Even as a pianist, I always preferred programmatic pieces. My favorite was Pictures at an Exhibition, which I performed like twenty times, for the storytelling and the color-painting. When I started conducting, I was a little unsatisfied with conducting symphonic repertoire—I felt as if these guys looking at me were making music, and I wasn’t. But opera was immediately attractive to me, because it has a musical space where we all perform together and work together. The conductor is the link between the stage and the pit, and the conductor is desperately needed during an opera performance. You hope that together you can achieve a performance that is a good experience for the audience, for the musicians, the singers. That is what is challenging—and a little scary!” spacer 

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