Meet the Artist: Geoffrey McDonald, OSO’s Music Director
On Site Opera is proud to announce Geoffrey McDonald as our Music Director. An exciting conductor and musician in high-demand, Geoffrey is equally at home in the concert hall, the non-traditional opera venue, or performing in his “eccentric chamber pop” band, Miracles of Modern Science. We’d love for you to get to know him better, so we asked him a few questions. Don’t forget to check out the playlist to hear some of his favorites!
• OSO: What was the first opera you ever saw?
GM: I saw Don Pasquale on a school trip. I was probably 10. I confess it did not make an enormous impression on me, but I remember thinking the singing was impressive. I sang in boy choirs from an early age, and this was obviously a more substantial kind of singing than I was accustomed to.
OSO: Name from an opera…Your favorite:
• OSO: Aria?
GM: This is torture! Torture! Let’s say: “È strano…ah fors’è lui” from La Traviata
•OSO: Love duet?
GM: “O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” from Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
GM: I can barely listen to the end of Peter Grimes. Aida, too. Can you tell I like sad things?!
GM: Ettore Bastianini/Rosa Ponselle, even though there’s not a huge body of recorded work.
•OSO: Who’s a composer (dead or alive) you’d like to have dinner with?
GM: Hector Berlioz
•OSO: Do you play any instruments? If so, what instruments?
GM: Cello and Piano
•OSO: Music you last listened to on your iPod?
GM: Sonic Youth, Goo; Schubert Winterreise (Bostridge/Uchida); Audiobook about the Beatles
•OSO: Favorite cocktail?
GM: I’m a Manhattan man.
•OSO: Have you conducted site-specific opera before? How do you feel about taking opera out of the opera house?
GM: I have done some site-specific work before. I was one of the conductors for a very cool project in the Park Avenue Armory a few years back. A joint composition by Paul Haas, Bora Yoon, and Paul Fowler for an exciting group called Sympho. It used the space beautifully. I also worked as assistant conductor on Gotham Chamber Opera’s production of Il mondo della luna at the Hayden Planetarium. This was my first professional opera gig! I suppose the productions of Händel operas I’ve been conducting at The WhiteBox Arts Center downtown count at some level, as well, but more as a function of how you transform a blank, almost aggressively non-theatrical space into a vivid operatic experience. At any rate, I am totally sold on the importance of expanding the horizons and boundaries of operatic performance, and want to do everything I can to be a part of that growth. That’s why I’m so pleased to have joined the team at On Site!
•OSO: Can you tell us a bit about On Site’s Figaro Project? Musically, how does Paisiello compare to the Rossini version?
GM: I love that On Site will present this trilogy of works starring a cast of familiar theatrical characters who, in total, have probably strut more collective hours upon the stage than any others in operatic history. And yet, the three versions of the story we will present are unknown to the wider public! As to the music, its style, its quality: the Paisiello is wonderfully charming. And funny. Not exactly comparable to the Rossini in my mind, separated as they are by a couple generations of operatic composition, and dramatic upheaval in politics, society, and aesthetics at the beginning of the 19th century. I like them as different pieces, eloquent emblems of two separate ages. I would, to be sure, give anything to hear Paisiello’s (reportedly acidic) reaction to young upstart Rossini’s piece on opening night in 1816.
•OSO: On Site Opera is performing the opera with only eight instrumentalists. What are the challenges of leading a small ensemble through the drama? What aspects of the ensemble are you looking forward to?
GM: It is easier to wrangle a smaller ensemble, for one thing! Though that advantage might be offset by the challenge of coordinating an ambitious staging concept: playing outside, singing from balconies, and whatever other bold things Eric dreams up. The other challenge as I see it is translating the robustness and detail of a full orchestral score into vivid living color with a petite group. I think, however, that we can turn the chamber ensemble sound — with its prominent solo timbres — into an asset. I look forward to exploring how each solo instrumentalist can play “in character.” The small “cast” in the orchestra is actually a wonderful metaphor for the interactions and intricacies of the plot. For another kind of music it might not work as well — you might lose dramatic sweep or some necessary variety in timbre — but here I think it works nicely.
•OSO: Scholars believe that Mozart developed some ideas for The Marriage of Figaro from the foundation laid by Paisiello. Can you speak to that?
GM: There is no question that Mozart learned some lessons from Paisiello (while discarding other elements of his style), and even seems to pay tribute to him. Not just Le nozze di Figaro, but also the Overture from Così and the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni seem to have older cousins in Paisiello’s work. It’s fun to trace the hidden dialogue of reference and homage (and even sometimes a little theft) running through music history. Mozart and other great composers always manage to transform borrowed material into something very much their own, which is one difference between them and, say…um…other artists in the news lately who have gotten dinged for musical shoplifting.
•OSO: There is a good amount of repetition in the score. How do you work with singers to find variations in the repeated text and music?
GM: Paisiello seems perfectly willing to have something repeat almost ad nauseam…but only almost! That is, the repetition is not exhausting or arbitrary. It serves his sense of comic timing, and loosens the musical structure to accommodate the stage. I think this is one of those elements of style that Mozart doesn’t fully embrace. In Mozart’s musical universe, there is a rate of repetition, a sense of proportion, that serves musical structure above all, and he will not bend it. Paisiello seems a little less uptight about that. As for the challenge of repetition, we’ll take our cues from the composer: Why might he be “staging” that line in his head once, twice, three more times than expected? What’s funny about these distortions in the pace of delivery? It’s not something we have to work around, but rather work with. I look forward to that.
•OSO: Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
GM: I am a huge fan of Ivan Fischer’s. He is not afraid to shake things up, take risks. Reconfigure the orchestra or the audience experience. Musically, he doesn’t take a single note for granted, and is always looking for — and finding! — lyricism and poetry in purely orchestral music. He is also a composer and has even begun to stage direct some opera productions. The urge to that sort of directorial auteur-ship has never crossed my mind, as a conductor, but I think it speaks to his completeness as an artist, and his respect for the true integration of sound, image, and idea.
•OSO: What is the relationship like between a stage director and a music director?
GM: Hopefully a felicitous one! I think both should be coming at the same task from different directions, rather than working in parallel. That might sound obvious, but it’s less common than one might think. Conductors and directors should be inspired by everything around them, including each other. Of course the conductor should have a very clear sense of how he/she wants the thing to sound, and should be connecting the notes on the page to his/her visual imagination; similarly, the director will likely have ideas about the delivery and speed of musical “speech” and gesture, which can help spur the conductor’s imagination. Together, they build a performance in which the staging teases out aspects of the score (even abstract or deeply psychological potential within it), and in which musical choices magnify the drama. The music is there to support, contradict, annotate, and elevate the text.
•OSO: We hear that in addition to being On Site’s Music Director, you are also in an “eccentric chamber pop” band called Miracles of Modern Science. We’re intrigued — can you tell us more?
GM: The MOMS five-piece line-up is violin, mandolin, cello, upright bass, and drums with vocals. We play mostly original music, which we write together. It’s pretty danceable indie pop rock, with an off-kilter, restless creative energy born of the fact that we are all music geeks with very eclectic taste. We don’t censor our various influences and interests, be we do like the discipline of honing those creative impulses into a more recognizable pop/rock format. We are releasing our second full-length album this summer. So stay tuned for that! In the meantime, you can check our music and videos out at www.miraclesofmodernscience.com.
Check out the playlist below to hear some the music mentioned in Geoff’s interview!
Hailed by The Philadelphia Inquirer as a “promising and confident” member of the newest generation of conductors, Geoffrey McDonald commands a broad repertoire with extensive experience in operatic, symphonic and choral works. He is also the music director of the Longy Conservatory Orchestra and the Bard College Orchestra. A proponent of new works and new approaches to presentation, McDonald has led operatic performances ranging from baroque to contemporary. Recent performances include Händel’s Alcina at the Whitebox Arts Center, Xavier Montsalvatge’s El gato con botas for Gotham Chamber Opera, workshops of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird by Daniel Schnyder and Breaking the Waves by Missy Mazzoli for Opera Philadelphia.