Startup culture is fascinating. I sing opera. Neal Goren founded an opera startup called Gotham Chamber Opera. Since Gotham is one of the more successful recent opera startups, I thought it would be great to pick Neal Goren’s brain about what he did – and still does – to make the company work. We talk about his relationship with Leontyne Price as her exclusive collaborator, his love of the non-traditional, the upcoming performances of Gotham Chamber Opera’s double bill of Martinu that I’m performing in, and what it takes to stand out as a new company and as a performer.
OperaBox: So, I was thinking that you probably have a lot of singers come to you for direct career advice, and I’d love to cover some of that, but I wanted to sort of take a different tack and talk more about how you’ve gotten to be where you are, running one of today’s most successful opera startups. I’ve read that you’ve collaborated with some incredible people; Leontyne Price, Thomas Hampson, Kathleen Battle. And I understand you were Leontyne’s exclusive collaborator?
Neal Goren: Yeah, after David Garvey died, I got a call one day – it was a Valentine’s Day, I remember – and Lewis [Jacobsen] and I got home and there was a message on the machine saying, “Maestro, Maestro Goren, this is Leontyne Price. I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at the White House.”
OB: Ha! Nice.
NG: Right? And she said, “Call me, it doesn’t matter what time.” And I actually thought it was somebody doing a Leontyne Price imitation, because back in the day when she was performing, everyone did Leontyne Price imitations. She had such a heavy Mississippi accent – Laurel, Mississippi is where she was from. So, I thought it was one of my sopranos doing a Leontyne Price imitation. But I called; it was like 12:30 in the morning, and she picked up and said, “is this Maestro Goren? This is Leontyne Price. Something terrible has happened. My accompanist of thirty years, David Garvey, died today. Can you play a recital for me?” And I said, “Absolutely.” She said, “Don’t you want to know when it is?” I said, “I don’t care when it is, the answer is I can do it. I’ll cancel anything.” And she said, “It’s the day after tomorrow in California.” I said, “Fine. We’re on.” So we set up a time to rehearse the next day, and I was about to hang up and she said, “Don’t you want to know the program?” I said, “Okay, but I think I’ve played most of the stuff you sing.” And she went down the list, and it was almost all new; almost everything. She said, “I’ll send my driver with the music and you’ll have it first thing in the morning.” And it was great; she became like a second mother to me. It was amazing; she was great. And we kept it up until she was seventy; for four years. Because of that, I sort of threw myself into conducting even more, because I realized, sort of, who do you play for after Leontyne Price? She was of course one of the greatest singers of all time, but she was also one of the greatest listeners. She responded to any little thing I did on the keyboard; it was like dancing a tango when we performed together. It was a great experience.
OB: And you’ve gone on to conduct and teach throughout Europe and Italy and you judge competitions. What I find most interesting is the focus you’ve had on non-standard operas; the unusual repertoire. I’ve got a little bit of experience with that, having sung Frank in The Postman Always Rings Twice by Stephen Paulus…
NG: Oh, that’s good stuff.
OB: Yeah, and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, which is a chamber piece, as well as Il matrimonio segreto. It’s really cool because you get a different perspective than you would get doing just the standard pieces.
NG: Did you see Leon Major there [at Gotham Chamber Opera’s rehearsal of Martinu’s Alexandre Bis and Comedy on the Bridge] today? He was the head of the Maryland Opera Studio, and one of the most important opera directors of the 1960’s, ’70’s, ’80’s. He’s the father of Naomi who works in our office. He came down to talk with me after rehearsal and said, “I so appreciate what you do. Who wants to see another f***ing Butterfly? Who wants to do another f***ing Butterfly? This is where it’s at.” I don’t know if “this” is “where it’s at,” but for people who’ve seen it all, been in the business, or live in New York, this is a chance to get into something new.
OB: Do you look at opera as a genre differently having focused on so many non-standard pieces? How do you view it differently, if at all?
NG: That’s a good question. I do view it differently because I’ve got a wider perspective. When I see the masterpieces and I’m bowled over, I analyze them and figure out what makes them great; why are they masterpieces? And then I try to apply the same standard to other pieces and see what makes them work and what doesn’t work. I do a lot of work with composers and librettists…
OB: Nico Muhly…
NG: Yeah, Nico Muhly. We have great composers-in-residence. Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, and now David Little, who’s just fabulous, too. And I talk a lot with them. We discuss what will make a libretto good or not good, what makes an opera good or not good. And what I do is I talk to them about how to write for the voice, because very few composers now know how to do that. They’re all taught at conservatory how to write for instruments but they’re not taught how to write for the voice. Jake [Heggie] knows how. But that’s because he’s a pianist and accompanist.
OB: He pays a lot of attention to that, yeah. Have you found any things that you think make for a good libretto, or a good vocal line?
NG: Yeah, good storytelling, good clarity of thought and architecture. If it’s the least bit unclear, then it doesn’t work. And also, it has to be very concise. Concision is everything because it takes, on the average, three times as long to sing something as to say something. So therefore, for a piece to take a whole evening, it has to be about one-third as long as a normal play. So, concision is really necessary. As far as a vocal line, composers need to know the difference between range and tessitura. And very few do. I remember hearing an opera that I was really bowled over by in spite of the vocal writing which had the baritone spending most of the evening between F and A-flat and A, and occasionally dipping down two octaves for a low note, with not much in between. Just insane writing. I mean, the character’s supposed to be insane, but that’s not the way to show it. You want to have it sit in the normal speaking range and then hover up and hover down as a special effect. So when I teach the composers, what I do is go through Verdi scores with them and let them come to conclusions about how Verdi writes because he was the one who did it best. Mozart actually didn’t do it so well. He didn’t understand that your voice could stall if it sits in the same three or four notes for a long time. It’s like driving in the same gear for a long time. Mozart learned that with Clemenza di Tito, but not until then. And that was in his own estimation. He was the one who said that. And Puccini knew the rules and violated them on purpose because he usually wanted singers to sound at the end of their rope. He didn’t want them to sound beautiful, he wanted them to sound desperate most of the time. So during Puccini’s lifetime, the singers who sang his repertoire lost their voices quickly. Toward the end of his life it was Nellie Melba and [Enrico] Caruso who went to their teachers and learned how to sing that repertoire healthily and still give it the emotion it needed without ruining their voices.
OB: That’s really cool. Verdi sounds like a great place to start.
NG: That’s why I try to show these composers it’s okay to break the rules as long as you know the rules first. You don’t want to have a baritone sitting in the passaggio all evening and then going and hitting A-flats.
OB: No, that sounds really uncomfortable.
OB: So, you went to Reed College, North Carolina School of the Arts, and you did some study in London.
NG: Yeah, that was really interesting for me. After college I got a grant from the Watson Foundation, it was IBM, and I went to London and I studied with Jacqueline Du Pré, the cellist. I was her only piano student, which she thought was an odd idea. She asked, “Why do you want to work with me?” And I said, “Because you’ve got the best ears in the business. You’ve got the most interesting approach to music. And it’s the most hyper-emotional playing in the world and I want to be able to tap into that.” She didn’t judge herself while she played, she just threw herself into it and I so admired someone who could do that so it was very left-brained, rather than right brained. And she said it was because she’d done all the study work on right brain that she could just let it flip. I’d actually wanted to study with Sir Clifford Curzon, a pianist who died a long time ago. And when I went there, his wife died and he said he couldn’t teach me. And my second choice was Daniel Barenboim. So I went and played for Danny, and he said, “I’d love to work with you but my life is too complicated; I live in Paris now, I’m conducting the Orchestre de Paris. Why don’t you work with Jackie?” And I said, “That’s exactly who I’d like to work with.” So he put in a good word, and that’s what we did. So I’ve sort of been iconoclastic that way in that I wanted to work with the best musicians. When I started conducting I’d already learned what it takes to be a musician but I hadn’t learned what it takes to be a conductor. I didn’t know what the expectations are, what the orchestras expect and what they need. And my job is to give them what they need so they can do their best. So I went to a bunch of teachers and really learned. And one of the teachers told me, “You should just assume that in any orchestra, half of the players think they can conduct better than you can. And of those, half of them can, no matter how good you are.” It’s a very humbling thought. But what that meant to me was that these are people who’ve spent their lives honing their technique as instrumentalists and they really resent conductors who don’t do the same. Many conductors have a lot of buzz about them; they have charisma and maybe good musical ideas. They get ahead that way and they don’t really know what an orchestra needs in order to do their best and feel secure. So, when I was forty and really started conducting I then started really studying and trying to get different teachers to get what I needed.
OB: Neat. Would you say that your career started to happen more after your college training? How did college contribute to the career preparation?
NG: I’d always been sort of an iconoclast; I don’t do, sort of, the expected thing. I didn’t go to Juilliard; I didn’t go to conservatory. I’d already been at Interlochen and North Carolina School of the Arts, so I’d already kind of had that conservatory experience in high school that most people go to college for. And I realized there that it wasn’t all that it was supposed to be. So I realized that wasn’t necessarily for me. I didn’t discount the option. I’d had a great piano teacher [the late Joan Brown] at Interlochen who I’d followed to Oregon when she left Interlochen to continue my studies with her; she was one of my mentors. And I decided that the most important thing wast or me to stay with her and absorb what she had to teach. And I was in Portland, Oregon. Sort of a cool place, but no place in the music world. And they had one great college there, Reed College, which is one of the best colleges in the country and very challenging in the best sense of the word, so I decided to go there and study with her on the side, and it was a great experience. Also, musically, I was a big fish in a small pond because it’s not New York, so I had lots of opportunities I wouldn’t have had elsewhere. I got to play with the Portland Youth Orchestra a couple of times; won their concerto competition. And then when I decided to see what it was like working with instrumentalists, I got to work with the best instrumentalists in the city. And singers – when I was twenty I got to work with the best singer in the city [Alyce Rogers] and I was giving concerts with her. And she’d already sung with Chicago Lyric Opera and all these places. But, I think to the heart of your question, the answer is it’s okay to not go the standard route, if you know what you want to do and you keep your eye on the prize, there’s lots of ways to get there.
OB: That relates well to something else I wasted to ask you about, which is: do you have any routines that keep you focused, or anything that you come back to every day? How do you start your day? Is there something you do every day?
NG: No, not really. I go down to the gym a couple times a week, but nothing like that. The interesting thing about what I do, about having an opera company, is that your life is varied; that no day is like the next. There are always lots of challenges being thrown at me and there’s no way to predict what they’re going to be, so life is never boring. It keeps me feeling alive and young. And the challenges are great. One day, we need an extra five thousand dollars. Another day it’s now to deal with a problematic interpersonal thing in the cast. Another day, it’s dealing with music publishers. Every day is different, but every day is interesting. So I’m sort of A.D.D. that way I like doing lots of things. That’s why liberal arts college was the best thing for me. I remember when I started at Reed, every single teacher I had took me aside and said, “I think you should major in what I’m teaching.” Well, there was no way I was going to do that. I’ve always been interested in everything. And most of the interesting singers are that way, too. These days, when I audition people, as often as not, the ones I think have something special to offer didn’t go to Curtis or Juilliard or CCM. They went to Harvard or Yale or Princeton or something. They have an interesting take on things. And they understand that it’s about communication in a different way than others think it’s about perfection.
OB: There are so many things that I’d like to ask you that that reminds me of, but I think I want to stick to the questions I’ve got here.
NG: Like what I’m looking for?
OB: Sure, yeah. My guess would be that it’s something that’s different, unique, or special, rather than the cookie cutter.
NG: Well, yes and no. If somebody doesn’t have a certain level of technique, forget it. Because then all they can communicate is distress, which nobody wants to see. Unless they’re singing the second act of Tosca, but even then you don’t want to see vocal distress, you want to see emotional distress. So, there’s some technical things, too. I’m not interested in singers who don’t have a good scuro, and a warm, dome-y sound on top. If it’s too spread on top or too thin… there are a lot of people who like that. I’m just not one of them. So that’s the first thing I look for. And then, connection to text. But the big thing is having something you’re communicating; having something to say about the repertoire or just about themselves. Someone who has the freedom to be communicating something about the music and showing me something I might not have thought about before. Trying a new tempo, maybe bringing it off, maybe not, but I’m really big on having strong convictions.
OB: Making decisions and sticking with them.
NG: Yeah making decisions. Lots of people don’t do that. F*** ‘em. Let them go to someone else.
OB: Right. Now I know you said that that Opera Today interview was a while ago [2010, http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/01/neal_goren_of_g.php], but I did enjoy the transparency with which you discussed the budget. You mentioned that opera isn’t a business you can sustain through ticket sales. I liked what you said about selling productions with “hooks” like a big name composer or director, as well as creative partnerships. When you’re describing a production to a donor, how do you demonstrate the value for their investment without monetary returns being part of the equation?
NG: Well, if they don’t already believe in the importance of the art form, then there’s no point in going to them. If they don’t believe that culture is important, then I’m barking up the wrong tree. These are the people who already have opera in their lives; it means something to them. People who have the funds will already be donating to the Met or formerly the City Opera, or BAM or something. People who have the interest. Occasionally I find people on the way up financially who can do that. As far as “hooks” go, I’m not always as smart as I should be. This production [Bohuslav Martinu’s Alexandre Bis and Comedy on the Bridge], for example, has no hook. There was someone very involved in Czech culture who was trying to get us to do some more Czech opera. He said that he would find a way to get us $60,000, which is much less than the production cost; maybe, I don’t know, I couldn’t say, but it’s a small percentage of the production. But that’s a lot of money. Sixty grand. And I started to think that with that foundation we could produce this again and I’d find other people. And so I went on that assumption, and then he died, leaving us without that money. But the people in the office were so committed to the project from the beginning that we thought it was exactly what we should do. It’s the sort of pieces that we should do. Especially because we do a lot of weird-ass stuff that are not really operas; they’re pieces that we make into theater pieces. So, we thought we should do a “traditional” opera that had charm that people would like and we thought this would fit the bill.
OB: They’re wonderful.
NG: Yeah. I probably could’ve gotten a name director for this as a hook, but it was getting a little late in the game about a year ago when people would’ve been busy. I thought instead of getting a name director, why don’t I just get the best person I can get. And I of course thought of James because he did such a brilliant job for our Eliogabalo. He’s such a delight to work with, comes prepared, but not rigid. So, he has ideas but then he takes in what people bring to it and works with that. And he’s a good musician and a love to work with, so I thought, let’s do the best show we can do regardless of fundraising and see. My goal for the first ten years of Gotham was to establish a brand. And I think we did it. The brand is that we’re going to do interesting things that you’re not going to see generally anyplace else, or hardly anyplace else. But do them with integrity. With musical integrity, with dramatic integrity, with good values, with great young singers. And with different sorts of theatrical focus. Some directors will want a traditional production, others will want something “out there.” So regardless of whether, as an audience member, you love what you see, you’re going to respect the musical values and the theatrical values and you might, hopefully, be tempted to come back and see another show with a different theatrical approach. And you’ll like that one. So our goal was to establish a brand and establish trust with our public; our small public, of course, but with operagoers who care about music and care about singers and care about theater. So, that’s the brand that we try to develop.
OB: It seems that you manage to find pieces that really fit into that mold and I imagine you must look through so many scores in order to figure out what exactly will fit that mission statement. Because it needs to be entertaining – I’ve noticed that you’ve chopped down the longer Handel pieces.
NG: That’s always painful. I mean, it’s all about the audience experience, of course. And also, my experience. The best thing about having your own opera company is that you get to work with the best people because you get to choose the best people. The least good thing about being an itinerant conductor is that you’re thrown in with these people who other people think are good but you don’t. Whatever, directors or singers or whatever. It was Truman who had something on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” So the buck stops here. If you don’t like the singers, you can blame me. If you don’t like the director, you can blame me. If you don’t like the designers, you blame me. But I chose them. And I don’t back off. I chose them because I believe in them. And, you know, a singer might not have a good day. They’re human. That’s the good thing – they’re human. But their very best is always good enough because they’re at such a level. And the same for the directors, and designers, etcetera.
OB: Well, it’s been a very good working environment because on the one hand you do maintain a lot of musical and dramatic excellence and you’ll crack down when it’s necessary.
NG: I’m a hardass.
OB: But after the rehearsal, you’re always saying, “Great job.” It feels like a family.
NG: Yeah, that’s the thing. What I learned is that it’s important to give people appreciation. If people feel appreciated and supported, then they’re open to suggestions or criticism as it were. Or just ways to make it better. But the bottom line is that I’ve gotta think it’s good in the first place in order to feel secure enough that I can make it better without having to feel that I’m criticizing them personally. And it’s never about that; it’s always about the music. And I’m never harder on anyone than I am on myself. That’s the bottom line.
OB: In that same Opera Today article, you mentioned that in addition to a great deal of money, you need a whirlwind. How did you get that whirlwind?
NG: I didn’t. Never got a whirlwind. It’s just been one step at a time. And it’s frustrating because you’ve gotta do good work all the time. One bad show and everyone’s forgotten that you’ve done seven good ones. So you’ve gotta keep upping your game and you can never let your standards slide because in the days of the internet, it’s out there. Everybody knows about it. So you’ve gotta really keep your standards up and be on your best game all the time. So that’s what we do. In this financial environment people are loath to take chances. So I’ve gotta be very careful to present us as a company that – we are not a risk resistant company. But an arts organization that’s worth it’s salt is going to take risks. We’re not gonna do Bohème. We’re not gonna do Butterfly. That would be less of a risk, but less of an interest also.
OB: And maybe these days it’s actually more of a risk.
NG: Actually, when I was conducting at [New York] City Opera, I remember talking to the administration about another Martinu opera that I’d been reading a lot about; it’s called Juliette. It’s a beautiful piece. It’s more like Pelléas than anything else; ravishing. And it’d just been done in Paris; had phenomenal reviews there. And then it had been done at ENO in London and got great reviews there and I said, “This is the place to do it here.” They said, “We can’t even sell tickets for Magic Flute and for Bohème. We can’t possibly take that risk.” And I said, “You can’t not take that risk, because why should people come to see your Bohème and your Magic Flute when they can go next door and see the A-cast of the world instead of the A-cast of America?” So, the minute you’re risk-averse, you’re dead. On the other hand, you’ve got to promote yourself to businesspeople as being solid and stable. And you have to know what they’re looking for and show them that you’re that. You know, that you’re not going to throw their money away. You’re going to do a really good job. And I personally will stand behind my decision to do pieces that I honestly think are good and deserve to be heard. Look; these Martinu are wonderful. I’m not telling anybody that they’re as great as Trovatore. But they’re delightful and anybody who comes is going to enjoy it. I’m looking for something rather than the Berlin Philharmonic coming in and doing only the greatest masterpieces ever written. We’re doing pieces that are worth seeing that people who like opera will be interested in.
OB: I’ve actually been describing the Martinu night as almost just an evening of theater where there’s some surprisingly beautiful music and just really unique stories that are told in a very crisp, quick, understandable way. So, to my friends who’ve never been to an opera before, I’m sort of saying, “Don’t think of it as opera, although it is part of the genre. It’s going to feel more like a night at a play or a musical because of the pacing of the drama.”
NG: I think you’re right.
OB: And it also doesn’t have big arias and big high notes. It’s definitely more of an ensemble piece.
OB: Well I have a couple more quick questions I’d like to throw out here. If you could go back in time to when you were twenty or twenty-five, what advice would you give yourself?
NG: That’s interesting. I think the hardest lesson to learn, for anyone, is that your best is good enough. So that you’re not whipping yourself all the time. Because when you realize that when your best is good enough – if it is; let’s hope your best is good enough – then you can have the confidence to move forward and not check yourself all the time. Not build yourself back. Not be torn. I think it would be to believe in myself. I might have said this in a previous interview that it was Leonard Bernstein who said I should be a conductor. And I sort of poo-pooed it at the time, but you can’t poo-poo Leonard Bernstein. He knows. And so, eventually I let it sink in and I had to do a lot of personal work to get to accept that that was a possibility in my life and move forward. So, it took therapy and lessons. Those are two things that helped.
OB: That’s great. Remember that your best is good enough. I like that.
NG: And if it’s not good enough, then change professions. Or fix what needs to be fixed.
OB: What it does is help you focus on continual improvement.
NG: Instead of beating yourself up all the time.
OB: Yeah. Next question: Do you have any operas, recordings, movies, books, or podcasts that you can throw out there?
NG: Go to the opera as much as you can. Go to the Met, come see us. For a certain level of connoisseurship, the very best book is called Opera and Drama by Joseph Kerman. It’s about what makes the masterpieces great. What about the librettos, what about the music, and how they interact with each other. But that’s for a certain level of connoisseurship; if you’re already a professional or on your way to being a professional. I mean, I’m someone who likes to think critically as well as giving up and enjoying it. There’s certainly a lot out there. A lot of great recordings, a lot of great books.
OB: Anything that’s been transformational to you? Anything you can’t stop listening to?
NG: Actually, my favorite opera is Fidelio. I love Fidelio. There’s a great recording with [Otto] Klemperer and Christa Ludwig. It’s unsurpassable. I come from a strictly instrumental background when it comes to music; I’m a soloist. And I got to know some opera singers and they were extolling the virtues of opera, and I would listen to Verdi and Puccini and I thought, “eh, this is tacky, there are all these out of control people, and the music seems simplistic to me.” And I sort of minimized the value of the art form as a result. And it was only when I learned Italian that I realized how great these pieces are. How they reflect the emotion of the language. So that was the big transformative thing for me. But also, getting to know voices. I got to know voices because when I got to New York I had no money, so in order to make money fast, I worked in voice studios and played lessons with lots of really great teachers, many of whom are dead now. So I got to learn the mechanics. What makes voices work, what doesn’t make voices work. How a little minute thing can make a huge change in resonance. And I fell in love with the sound. And that’s really my motivating factor right now. I so love the sound of the human voice. Even now, I so love the sound of the human voice being done properly. That’s what gets me up in the morning.
OB: Yeah, that’s great. I certainly love it, too. What do you wish young opera singers would focus more on or do more of?
NG: As a conductor, I would say musical skills. You know, knowing the difference between beat two and beat three. Knowing what a sixteenth note is versus a quarter note, which, shockingly, some singers don’t think is important. They’re trained to think they’ve got great voices and that’s all that matters. The whole landscape has changed. That’s not the case anymore. Unless you’re Angela Meade or Christine Goerke. And the interesting thing about them is that they care about every detail: dotting every i and crossing every t. So, it makes a huge difference from my standpoint if a singer is a good musician. And singers need to be in touch with their bodies as well. And in touch with themselves. If a singer is comfortable with themselves then there’s a chance that they’ll be able to be comfortable on stage and give to an audience. If they’re not comfortable with themselves, it’s over right there. So, I’d strongly advise self-knowledge, therapy – therapy’s a great thing – and a willingness and openness for self exploration. That’s the most important thing. You can tell, in any audition, by the way someone walks in whether they’re comfortable with themselves. And then the way the audition plays out, as someone who listens to tons of auditions, the first few notes usually confirm what you expected from the way they present themselves. The rest of the audition is just playing it out. I’ll ask for a second piece based on what I think the first piece is hiding. If the first piece doesn’t have a high note, I’ll ask for something with a high note. If the first piece is all agility, I’ll ask for something legato, just to see how much of the package they’ve got. But it basically just plays out from what I observe the first two seconds.
Tickets for Gotham Chamber Opera’s performances of Alexandre Bis and Comedy on the Bridge can be found HERE.
Neal Goren is… Artistic Director/Conductor: Gotham Chamber Opera. Guest conductor throughout US and Europe. Spoleto USA Festival and Lincoln Center Festival (2005). New York City Opera debut: Magic Flute (2003). European debut: Turn of the Screw (Angers Nantes Opera, 2002). As pianist, concert partner for Leontyne Price, Kathleen Battle, Thomas Hampson, among others. Festivals: Israel Vocal Arts Institute, Aix-en-Provence, Rossini-Pesaro, Mostly Mozart-New York. Master Classes throughout U.S.A. and Asia. Board member, Richard Tucker Music Foundation. Voice Faculty, Mannes College of Music since 1991.
More info about Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek at www.christiaansmithkotlarek.com