Meet the Conductors!

New York City Opera has long had a reputation as a place to catch young singers as they embark on major careers. And that’s still true: City Opera’s new production of Don Giovanni in the fall, for example, featured no fewer than six debut singers, all of whom were excellent.

But the focus of New York opera in recent months has been more and more on who’s in the pit in addition to who’s onstage. The recent Metropolitan Opera debuts of conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen and Riccardo Muti have gotten as much attention as the singers and productions they’ve led, and next season brings, with great fanfare, William Christie and Simon Rattle. City Opera, too, is showcasing its conductors, but just as it tends to feature younger singers on the cusp of international careers, so does this spring present a pair of up-and-coming conductors.

Emmanuel Plasson, 45, conducts Chabrier’s comic opera L’Etoile, which opens on Thursday. In an interview with The Observer at the Koch Theater, the tall and soft-spoken Mr. Plasson (who made his City Opera debut in 2005 with Bizet’s Pearl Fishers) was enthusiastic about the theater’s improved acoustics and was even able to see a bright side to the company’s drastically pared-back season. “We had only one dress rehearsal for [Pearl Fishers] to put it together,” he said. “It was a busy time then. It’s very different now, less productions, but the good thing is, we have more time for each production to prepare.”

Mr. Plasson spent his childhood in Toulouse, where his father led the city’s orchestra. “I’m from a very musical family,” he said. “My father is a conductor and my mother was a violinist, just retired. So I was born in this tourbillon, this whirlwind. I can’t imagine having done anything else.”

He assumed he’d have a career as a violinist and began conducting on a bit of a whim. The first opera he conducted was Massenet’s Cendrillon. In fact, he’s conducted a lot of French operas; that seems to be something of a burden for conductors of his nationality. “It’s a bit difficult,” he said, “because once you get into the opera world and you do something that people like, like French opera, they keep asking you to do it. As a French artist, you want to convince them that you can do the Donizetti, the Verdi, but when you propose it, they always go back.”

Conducting Handel’s Partenope, which opens on April 3, is Christian Curnyn, a 39-year-old from Scotland appearing at City Opera for the first time.

Mr. Curnyn didn’t grow up in a high-powered musical family, but his father was an enthusiast who would get monthly mailings of the groundbreaking period-instrument recordings by the Academy of Ancient Music. Mr. Curnyn was hooked on the period sound, and when he got to school, he decided to play the Baroque trumpet, albeit without much motivation. “I went to study music,” the dark-haired and boyish-looking Mr. Curnyn told The Observer with a smile, “with the intention of not doing music.”

Though he is artistic director of Britain’s well-regarded Early Opera Company, which is devoted to period instrument performance, most of his guest conducting is with modern ensembles, including at City Opera. He’s honed a way of getting the effects that he wants without aping period styles.

“They have to be invited to do it,” he said of modern instrumentalists, “rather than told. That’s very important. You have to go in there with respect for what they do, and you need to go in there with an ability, which I’ve learned through teaching … to explain to them how to do it. What I can’t stand is a kind of mock-Baroque approach.”

Mr. Curnyn has recorded Partenope with his company, and loves the work. “It’s got all the elements of good Handel,” he said. “It’s very light, very Italian in its way. It’s not one of the big serious ones, it’s got a lot of joie de vivre in it as well. But it’s not all comedy; there’s a lot of tragedy in it.”
The debuts of young, promising conductors will continue during City Opera’s 2010-2011 season, which was announced last week. That even opera is living very much in 2010 is immediately obvious by the existence of a 141-member-strong “Jayce Ogren Fan Club” on Facebook. Mr. Ogren, 31, from Washington State, will conduct the New York premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place. A revival of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love will be conducted by Brad Cohen, a 43-year-old Australian.

George Manahan, City Opera’s longtime music director, will conduct the other three productions: a revival of Strauss’ Intermezzo; the New York premiere of Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the first opera by Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz (I haven’t fully processed that one yet); and, most interestingly, an evening of three 20th-century “monodramas,” one-act operas each featuring a single female singer. It will feature Schoenberg’s Erwartung; Morton Feldman’s Neither, with a libretto by Samuel Beckett; and a 2007 work by the popular New York composer John Zorn.

The monodramas come closest, perhaps, to George Steel’s conception of City Opera’s role in New York’s cultural life. It also hits close to home for the unassuming Mr. Manahan, who was, perhaps surprisingly, a hard-core atonalist in his student days. “I was a radical,” he said via telephone.

“This was when Boulez was music director of the Philharmonic, and I totally bought it: If it’s tonal, we should burn it. … Obviously, I’ve changed my views a little bit.” For six performances next spring, though, it’ll be like the ’70s again at City Opera, making—like so much in New York opera these days—the conductor very happy.

zwoolfe@observer.com

Meet the Conductors!