OPERA NEWS - Storyteller
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Conductor Roberto Kalb engages with text as well as music.
By Fred Cohn

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Courtesy Promethean Artists
“When you’re conducting an opera, you’re conducting the story.”

ROBERTO KALB WAS THROWN into the lion’s den early in his first season as an assistant conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It was the dress rehearsal for Handel’s Riccardo Primo, receiving its U.S. premiere, and the conductor, Grant Llewellyn, had missed a plane connection, so Kalb had to take over. “I had about thirty seconds of terror,” he says. “There I was conducting the Saint Louis Symphony! But I realized they were following my every single gesture, and it became easy.” 

Over lunch this past fall, Kalb’s relaxed, thoughtful presence makes it easy to see how he summoned the necessary sangfroid. But for all his air of calm, his manner takes on urgency when he talks about his work in opera. “I love conducting symphonies, but there’s something about a singer onstage, accompanied by an orchestra, delivering a message, that’s unlike anything else,” he says. “That’s what I live for.” 

Riccardo Primo was in 2015. Kalb performed assistant-conductor duties at OTSL for the next three years, mastering each season’s eclectic roster of works and leading a number of one-off performances. The thirty-two-year-old Mexican–American conductor’s apprenticeship is now over. He has graduated to the maestro role for productions at Florida Grand Opera, Kentucky Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre and Tulsa Opera and is now resident conductor and head of music at OTSL, where he led a new production of Rigoletto in June 

Throughout Kalb’s progress, Stephen Lord, now OTSL’s music director emeritus, has been a guiding force. The two men first met in 2014 at New England Conservatory, where Lord was artistic advisor to the opera-studies program and Kalb was a doctoral candidate in composition. (Although he still composes, conducting duties take up most of his time and attention nowadays.) In order to continue to work on his conducting technique, Kalb volunteered to conduct staging rehearsals of Lord’s NEC productions. The senior maestro agreed to let Kalb assist with the conservatory’s upcoming production of Die Fledermaus. 

“I wrote him asking, ‘What version of the score do you use?’” Kalb remembers. “So he sent me his own score. He’d never even met me!” When the first Fledermaus orchestra rehearsal ended fifteen minutes early, Lord ceded the podium to Kalb to conduct the famous overture and headed for the exit. “It’s a very challenging piece,” Kalb says. “But when I started—yum bah BUM!—he put his bags down and watched the whole thing.” Kalb assisted Lord in Michigan Opera Theatre’s Madama Butterfly the next year before stepping into the assistant-conductor slot at OTSL.

Lord has served not only as a mentor but as a matchmaker. As an undergraduate at San Francisco Conservatory, Kalb had had a crush-from-afar on mezzo-soprano Jennifer Panara, then in the master’s program. Seven years later, when he started at OTSL, Panara was one of the company’s Gerdine Young Artists—and Lord whispered to Kalb that she was single. “So I asked her out for a glass of wine,” Kalb says. “Three years later, we’re engaged.”

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Curtain call after Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Tulsa Opera, 2018
© Shane Bevel Photography

As an itinerant conductor, Kalb is a man without a home, which is okay with him. Visits to his family, now based in Florida, provide a measure of stability; so do his trips to Mainz, Germany, where Panara has been a fest artist at the Staatstheater. “I do love to travel—I love staying in hotels,” he says. “I love the lifestyle of being a conductor.” 

Kalb has been focused on opera ever since his time in San Francisco, when he saw a Donald Runnicles-led Fidelio at San Francisco Opera. “It was an instantaneous love connection,” he says. “I knew this was something I wanted to be around.” His love for the genre has given him very definite ideas about the components of good opera conducting. “You have to be completely vulnerable and empathetic but still have complete control over the orchestra and singers,” Kalb says. He offers as a negative example a Puccini performance he recently attended, in which the conductor gave all his attention to the pit. “There were moments he created in the orchestra that were gorgeous but totally missed the point, because they didn’t move the plot forward,” he says. “I started studying the audience, and every time he did that kind of thing, people would start fidgeting in their seats and coughing, because there was a big disconnect from the drama.

“The best opera conductors have an incredible sense of the drama going on onstage,” he says. “When you’re conducting an opera, you’re conducting the story. Our job is not to put our stamp on things. By conducting it the way I think it should go, I’m already giving myself to it. I love the music I conduct, so I devote myself to bringing that music out.” spacer 

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