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Conversing with the conductor: Meet Jennifer Peterson

At the musical helm of OSO’s production of Rameau’s Pygmalion is conductor and harpsichordist Jennifer Peterson. With just a week until opening night, we sat down with Jennifer to learn a bit more about early music.

Jennifer Peterson conducts Handel’s Agrippina Photo by Tina Fineberg
Jennifer Peterson conducts Handel’s Agrippina Photo by Tina Fineberg

OSO: Your company, operamission, is currently in the midst of producing all of Handel’s operas. How does Rameau’s music compare to Handel’s?

Jennifer: There are huge differences in musical style between Handel and Rameau. By 1748, the year Pygmalion was written, Handel had already written and mounted all of his 40+ operas and was deep into writing oratorios. French influences abound in much of Handel, starting as early as his first opera from Hamburg in 1704. By 1748, he was working in cosmopolitan London, and it is fairly common knowledge that he imported Italian singers from his first arrival in London in 1711 with Rinaldo, but French instrumentalists and dancers were also frequently finding their way to the London stages, so the music was enriched constantly by their direct influence.

My approach to Rameau is very different from my approach to Handel. For the French it always came back to their language, which of course they saw as superior. All French opera must be approached with this in mind. An intensely prevalent respect to the shape and flow of the sung text gives all of French opera a quality that hadn’t concerned the Italians in the same way. The Italians’ priorities started with projecting their poetry into a theatrical setting by amplifying it via harmony and bel canto vocal technique. The French were doing the same thing essentially, but from the very beginning they wanted to add their own touches, including the element of dance, specific types of ornamentation, and a rhythm of the language that was unique to their own natural manner.

Many of the basic concepts of baroque music and early opera can be carried over from Handel to Rameau, but I find myself using an entirely different mindset when approaching this music. Having done so much Handel recently, I’ve been actually amused by the way I find similarities and intentionally try to approach these musical moments from an entirely different direction.

I would say it’s comparable to the difference between conducting Massenet and Wagner, or even Puccini and Kurt Weill. There are huge influences between the two, but our jobs as musicians include the responsibility to show audiences how they are very different voices in communicating their stories, and that they come from very different stylistic backgrounds.

OSO: Pygmalion deals with a sculptor’s obsession with his work. What’s your obsession/guilty pleasure?

Jennifer: I am guilty of many obsessions, but feel more proud than guilty…. I always find myself obsessed with pieces of music and composers, so currently I am obviously entirely obsessed with Rameau’s Pygmalion, and am elated that Eric Einhorn has asked me to collaborate with him on this wonderful production.

I suppose I have a long-term ongoing obsession with Handel’s operas, but to me that feels more like a necessity, i.e., a job I have to accomplish. When I was in music school I began a lifelong obsession with Franz Schubert and decided I wanted to perform every piece he ever wrote. Although I am not doing very well with that one, the obsession has not gone away.

I might also be obsessed with the ‘process,’ which I think has motivated so much of my work with living composers. It was an exciting moment in Pygmalion rehearsals when Marc Molomot and I realized that Rameau was probably letting us in on his own internal and emotional ‘process’ in his portrayal of the sculptor and his relationship with his craft.

I don’t generally become obsessed with food or objects, but definitely can be guiltily obsessed with people I love.

OSO: We know you have experience with site-specific opera including OSO’s The Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse at the Bronx Zoo and operamission’s performances at the Gershwin Hotel. What do you think are the benefits of taking opera out of the opera house?

Jennifer: From an audience’s perspective, I think site-specific opera is an opportunity to experience something unexpectedly wonderful. I do think the expectations are quite different than with opera in an opera house, and this can be quite liberating for the producer. In the case of On Site Opera where it is at the core of their mission, Eric Einhorn makes very smart storytelling decisions. He matches venue with opera in every detail, and because he is a great communicator and collaborator, the result has so far been audiences who really seem to enjoy themselves.

Speaking for myself, I have been confronted with the fact that producing opera in New York City presents severe limitations. I personally love the phenomenon of the opera house: the orchestra pit, the vast ceilings and their acoustics playing with the beautiful voices and orchestral sounds, and even just the energies that mysteriously hang in the air before and during shows. But after many years of wanting to run my own organization but not having an opera house in my back yard, I finally landed on a space that inspired me to fill it with music, singing, and people hungry to hear and learn about opera. My work with operamission is not ‘site-specific’ per se, rather I embrace the limitations of the various venues that inspire me. The result that has emerged has been one of letting the art speak for itself, which brings me back to my first point, that both Eric’s and my audiences are coming to operas with open minds. And I do think this is very important as we open the doors for the future of opera in the United States and whatever other lands follow our leads.

I want to briefly add that Madame Tussaud’s is not the strangest location to which I’ve schlepped my Flemish single manual harpsichord. In 2011, impresario Judith Barnes of Vertical Player Repertory Ensemble in Brooklyn invited me to lead her production of Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto which took place under the stars near the Gowanus Canal in a post-industrial courtyard of a 19th century factory building. We drew in many baroque opera converts with this musically authentic and hugely successful production, as I am confident our current Pygmalion will do as well. Please come and enjoy!

OSO: What inspired you to start working in opera?

Jennifer: The challenge!

OSO: What is your favorite part of working on early music?

Jennifer: My favorite part of working on early music is, obsessions aside, the fact that it keeps me sane. The relaxation required to process the style and sounds are the best antidote for living in the big city that I could ever ask for. I love that I can share my passion for historical performance with singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and of course audiences!

OSO: Besides Pygmalion, what projects are coming up next for you?

Jennifer: Upcoming I am in the planning stages for the next Handel opera in the series: Rinaldo, HWV 7, which will be following some workshops, a recording project, and perhaps a cabaret evening. Please follow operamission.org if you’re interested in what we’re doing.


Join us for Pygmalion
Tuesday, June 17 at Madame Tussauds New York
Friday, June 20 & Saturday, June 21 at Lifestyle-Trimco Showroom
All performances start at 7:30 | Tickets available at onsiteopera.showclix.com


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