Meet the Maestro!
Brian Garman, Crested Butte Music Festival’s new music director of opera, recently sat down with Mark Moorman, Director of Artistic Administration, to discuss the Festival’s new production of Falstaff, his surprising debut with the festival in 2015 (in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale), and how he came to love vocal music and opera.
Mark Moorman: Many of the Crested Butte Music Festival audience will remember your dramatic festival debut when you substituted for David Stern for the first two performances of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale in 2015. How did you manage to accomplish this feat and what were your memories of your experience?
Brian Garman: It was a bit dramatic, wasn’t it? Though I was aware that I might be needed, due to an illness in Maestro Stern’s family, Lynn Baker, CBMF opera’s artistic director, called me the morning of the opening performance, and I was on a plane from New York that afternoon. But these are things that happen sometimes in this crazy business, and those are the times that you really have to trust your knowledge of a piece. Fortunately, Don Pasquale was still in my brain from having conducted it two years earlier. And you especially have to trust your technique — you must be able to show everything in your hands because you don’t have the chance to actually stop and say, for example, “here’s how I would like to do this section.” My job, though, was made very easy by the fact that the cast was extremely well prepared and they knew the score backward and forwards, and the talent and professionalism of the CBMF orchestra was astonishing. I felt like we had a remarkable “synergy” and there were no potential curve balls I could throw to them that they couldn’t catch. It all made for quite a wonderful weekend, and I was also happy that I had a free afternoon to do some hiking and exploring of this beautiful area. That was my first time in Crested Butte, and I’m looking forward to many more days like this summer!
MM: How did you become interested in opera?
BG: It’s curious – this has been on my mind since the great soprano Leontyne Price’s 91st birthday this year. When I was a kid, there was a TV commercial that Price did for the United Negro College Fund (it’s actually up on YouTube now), and it got a decent amount of airtime, as I recall. She sings throughout the commercial and ends with a high A-flat followed by a high C. I clearly remember seeing this commercial for the first time: I had played the piano since I was very young, but I’d never heard an opera singer before, and I didn’t know what hit me! There was something about that sound that was just beyond my imagination, and I became obsessed with this commercial.
Fast-forward a couple of years. My grandmother and a friend of hers would go to as many live classical performances in the area as they could. This was in rural Iowa, so there wasn’t always a wealth of opportunities for such things, but this was also during the time that the Met and New York City Opera were still touring. So they took me to my first opera — I must have been 12 or 13 years old — which was a touring production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Honestly, I remember thinking it was crushingly boring; but then, they took me to Rigoletto a year later, and immediately I knew I was listening to something that instinctively made sense to me. Verdi’s operas, more than those of any other composer, have been very close to my heart ever since then. This is part of the reason I’m so excited to conduct Falstaff at CBMF this summer.
MM: In addition to your distinguished conducting career, you have devoted much of your time to working with young artists. What is special about opera singers who are “emerging young artists,” and what kinds of support do they need?
BG: I find working with young artists extremely gratifying. Having a career in the performing arts is very, very difficult, especially in the beginning. It always has been that way, and it continues to become even more so as jobs and other opportunities become more and more scarce. This is why I believe that all of us who have had success in this industry have an obligation to help the “next generation” of artists, and I’m happy to see so many young artist training programs thriving at opera companies around the country. Even though I feel that singers often tend to stay in college too long getting degree after degree, they sometimes come out of school with significant gaps in the knowledge they’ll need for a successful career. These are the gaps that the best young artist programs try to address. One of the things I admire most about CBMF, in fact, is the seriousness with which they take the training of young artists. Working daily with vocal coaches Lynn Baker and Susan Caldwell means that CBMF’s singers will be in the best possible hands, and it’s easy to hear this reflected in the high level of artistic quality of the performances.
MM: Tell us about Verdi’s Falstaff? What kind of an opera is it and what should we listen for in the music?
BG: For me, the fact that Falstaff exists is something of a miracle. It is an incredible piece, and there are bars and pages in it of such genius that you say to yourself, “I just can’t believe someone actually thought of this and wrote it down.” Nearly every scene has these marvelous, intricate ensembles that have to run like clockwork. They perfectly capture the mood of every moment, and at the same time, clearly define these characters by the way they sing. This is no small feat in a large cast of 10 characters. This was, of course, one of Verdi’s greatest gifts — the clear definition of characters and personalities through their ensemble music. The Rigoletto quartet is maybe the most famous example of this, but he developed this skill to its fruition in Falstaff. It’s also a genuinely funny opera, and completely entertaining from beginning to end. The text — Shakespeare (from The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV) through the filter of librettist Arrigo Boito — is, of course, remarkable, and there’s not an extraneous word or note in the entire score.
Verdi broke a lot of the old compositional “rules” in this opera and ended up creating something new and vibrant and youthful…all at the age of 79. This was his last opera, and he was determined that he was going to write what he wanted, in the way he wanted.
I’m so eager to return to Crested Butte and get to know the audience and the orchestra better. Performing Verdi’s music in breathtaking surroundings…what could be better than that?