Throwback Thursday: Stephen Lord at Opera America

On November 10, 2015, I experienced Stephen Lord in conversation with Opera America's President, Marc Scorca. Stephen Lord was named one of the 25 most powerful people in opera by Opera News and is acclaimed for his conducting and superb collaboration with singers. Among his formidable experience and accolades, he was formerly the director of Boston Lyric Opera, but is currently music director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Some of the main points and words of wisdom he imparted were thus:

  • The world of opera conducting today is separate from symphonic conducting. An opera conductor needs to be attentive to singers, needs to see their faces, eyes, stomach, their breathing. This makes being an opera conductor unique from symphonic music, where conductors deal primarily with the orchestra's musicians, who are playing instruments, not singing and acting.
  • James Levine makes singers happy to be there singing - This is one of the many things that makes a conductor a singer's conductor.
  • Music school wants you to conform. Schools don't teach you music, but if you manage to find a good teacher, that person should guide you.
  • To be a conductor, you have to know music first, and also love music.
  • In his career, he always says, "Let's try," instead of "I want." He thinks using "we" instead of "I" fosters a better collaboration. And music and opera especially, is so much about collaboration.
  • Bel canto is about expressing the theater through the voice and music, and using rhythm to do so. It's not about beautiful singing. It's about the music.
  • Your attitude should be about "why not?" instead of holding back.
  • Pianists are actors at the piano - it's all theater.
  • When working with singers, pianists should help the singers!
  • What makes an artist? Curiosity. Imagination.
  • Real mentors are people who don't want anything from you. People who actually believe in you.
  • YAPs (Young artist programs) these days are often stuck with people doing remedial work, once they actually get there. There is a huge chasm between being in a YAP and having a career. And there's not much work for singers in the U.S., which is why so many go overseas.
  • The best singers have attitude. They give back what you give them.
  • If you're an aspiring performer, have your own story. Life experience is what singers need!
  • You and your pianist at your audition should have an act. So try to bring your own pianist as often as you can. Go in there wanting the job! Make sure you have good language, care about what you sing, care about the words!, don't go in with a pianist you haven't rehearsed with, when you sing, "pillow talk" the words into their ears, and don't be scared!!!
  • Remember that when you're auditioning, you're supposed to make the experience vivid for the panel. Imagine that if they were to close their eyes, they could actually see you doing the things they are hearing. Your voice should speak to them - so don't be a parrot! BE DIFFICULT. (meaning, don't be generic).
  • You sing the same in a small theater as you do in a large theater, it's just that you're closer to the people you work with in a small theater.
  • Be nice to the doormen! Be kind to the invisible people. Say thank you.
  • The words, "I hope we work together again soon," are not good words to use. They sound a little desperate.
  • We get back what we give out, and there's always more to give out.
  • With the right training, you can sing just as well in English as you can in any other language.
  • You have to let the younger people gain positions of power - don't be greedy!
  • Telling the truth happens to be his power.
  • In music, there isn't enough mentorship, unfortunately.
  • What he looks for in singers - Are they doing the best they can?
  • INVENT YOURSELF. He invented himself.
  • As a conductor, the composer throws magic dust on you and then you have to think beautiful thoughts - this is the way to musical bliss.
  • Every performance is like a good physical relationship. Give and take: What would you like?
  • Remember to think beautiful thoughts!

At the end of his interview, I got to ask him a question: is it necessary for aspiring singers in this country to get into a YAP in the quest to launch a sustainable career in opera? Stephen responded that this is now the perennial question. The idea behind getting into a young artist program should be to make connections and network, and to learn how to become an entrepreneur for your career - getting your foot into the business; it's not about singing a particular role. Young artist programs are not a magic pill - you have to invent yourself! As a young singer, you have to find a way you can tell your story. Whether that means creating your own ensemble, writing your own operas, whatever it is....Knowing what you want is easy. Knowing what you do not want is difficult as young person, however: "Once you know what you won't do in life, then what you might do is enormous...So don't feel you're going to get lost if you don't go to a young artist program."

This evening was particularly entertaining, as Stephen Lord has a big, loquacious personality. Everyone had a great time talking to him after his interview, and I think we all learned a lot from his sharing his opera-world experience that night. I also want to thank Marc Scorca for always letting me ask a question to his extraordinary guests. Marc is not only an opera lover, but a fiercely intelligent interviewer whose lifelong work has made the world of opera richer and more resourceful for artists. Thank you Marc Scorca!

If you're interested in watching the entire interview, click on the Source link below. Opera America is the best at sharing their wonderful programming with the world. Thanks Opera America! And thank you Stephen Lord for being awesome!