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Stepping Up

In-demand maestro James Gaffigan believes that emotional empathy with the singers is what makes a great conductor. This month he leads Fanciulla this month in Munich.
By Joshua Rosenblum 

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Leading the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, 2017
© Vera Hartmann
“Sometimes if you are too clear, you get a very strange result.”
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© Vera Hartmann

JAMES GAFFIGAN is effusive about working with singers. When I caught up with the thirty-nine-year-old American conductor by phone at the end of January, he was finishing a run of Porgy and Bess at Dutch National Opera. “Ireally have such a love for what they do. It’s something I can’t talk enough about,” he says. “I look at the guys in this Porgy—like Eric Owens, whom I adore. Every night he delivers on such a high level. And Latonia [Moore] and Adina [Aaron] and Janai [Brugger]. They’re incredible people, and I have so much respect for them. That’s why I love doing what I’m doing.”

Gaffigan’s June assignment, Carmen at San Francisco Opera, featured J’Nai Bridges in the title role and Matthew Polenzani as Don José. “It’s one of those pieces of music where people say, ‘Oh, it’s Carmen again.’ But I think it’s a masterpiece. Think about the fact that [Bizet] died, and he thought it was a failure, and now it’s one of the most performed operas today. For some reason it’s been dumbed down, it’s become this ‘popular’ opera, but there’s such depth in it, and I think it really strikes a nerve. If you have a great cast and a great production, you can have a big success.”

Gaffigan achieved just that with his Met debut last year, conducting a critically acclaimed revival of La Bohème. He speaks eloquently about the challenges of conducting from the Met’s podium, which is notoriously far from the stage. 

“It’s the most unnatural thing to make music with a singer who’s basically in Brooklyn and you’re still in Manhattan,” he says. “It’s disconcerting, especially when someone like Ailyn Pérez, who I love, is coming from the back of the stage in the third act. How on earth is she together with the orchestra?” Miraculously, says Gaffigan, it works most of the time, but when it doesn’t, the conductor needs to speak up. “The worst thing you can say to a singer is ‘It’s behind,’ and then they have to sing ahead of where they think they should sing. That’s a very unnatural way to make music.

“I’ll tell a singer, ‘I know you can’t hear us, and you’re waiting to hear us, but by the time you’ve heard us it’s too late.’ I would say, ‘You need to lead this, and you need to trust that I’ll be with you.’ Otherwise it becomes this game of schlepping.” Gaffigan says singers need to learn early on how to sing with an orchestra. “If it’s a part of their young training, how to have control in that moment, they’re going to have a wonderful career.”

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Conducting the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, 2015
© Thomas Brill/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

In Gaffigan’s view, emotional empathy with the singers is part of what makes a great conductor, in addition to extreme preparation, knowledge and a good ear. “The whole ‘Maestro’ thing—I think that time is coming to an end,” he says. (Gaffigan, in fact, quickly dissuaded me from using that title to address him.) “To tell a singer that it must be this tempo, that this is the way it must be, is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Because every singer is different, and everyone’s voice spins differently. They have so many gymnastics to do up there, so I want to make their lives as easy as possible. We should know when to help them and when to leave them alone. This,” he declares, “is the golden rule of operatic conducting.”

As for working with the orchestra, Gaffigan says clarity is important, but it’s not always the primary consideration. “It’s a weird combination—you need to be a chameleon at times,” he says. “Sometimes if you’re too clear, you get a very strange result. There are moments to be clear, in Stravinsky for example, or if you’re doing Ligeti’s Grand Macabre. However, if you’re doing Pelléas et Mélisande, if there’s this amazing transparent, magical moment, to be extremely clear might give edge to the sound, and I think a string player doesn’t necessarily want to see a clear four pattern in their face when they’re playing this beautiful music representing Mélisande’s hair.” 

Gaffigan recalls a formative experience, when he was a student at New York’s LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts and  his orchestra director gave him a shot at conducting the last movement of Dvořák's Eighth Symphony. “[She] knew that I knew the score very well, and that I was passionate about it. So she said, ‘Get up there,’ and as soon as I started, I said, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing, without a doubt.’ And it had nothing to do with ego or control. It had to do with watching all these people breathe and move together. It’s something you can never explain. The excitement I get watching people make music with one another, and having something to do with it, it’s the most exhilarating thing in the world. It was a big wakeup call.” spacer 

Joshua Rosenblum ’s musical Einstein’s Dreams, an adaptation of the novel by Alan Lightman, will have its Off-Broadway debut in the fall.

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