Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A conversation with Ari Pelto, who will conduct "The Rake's Progress" for Portland Opera

Ari Pelto returns to Portland Opera to conduct “The Rake’s Progress,” which opens at the Keller Auditorium on Thursday (June 11). Pelto conducted “The Marriage of Figaro” for Portland Opera in 2011 and “Hansel and Gretel” in 2010. Just a few months ago, he was back in town to conduct “The Marriage of Figaro” in a Portland State Opera production. In the meantime, Opera Colorado announced Pelto as its conductor designate, and his schedule is filling up with engagements in Italy, Memphis (where he is Principal Guest Conductor of Opera Memphis), Denver, and Omaha.

Tell us a little bit about your background, where you are from.

Pelto: I am from Hartford, Connecticut, and I have an interesting background. My father is from a Finnish family and my mother from a Lithuanian Jewish family. So I fall into a small subcategory of Finnish Jews or Jewish Finns.

Do you speak Finnish?

Pelto: Yes. It is a very difficult language. It has 16 cases.

Yikes! But Pelto sounds too short to be a Finnish name

Pelto: Pelto means field and Peltonen means of the field. So part of the family were field workers.

How did you get into conducting opera – through singing?

Pelto: No, I was a violinist, and my music lessons were in Boston. Lots of music on the weekends. Later, I developed some hand problems halfway through my time at Oberlin where I was studying violin. So when I was 20, I had to stop playing for about a year, and I never went back. I finished my degree as a violinist and I stayed playing violin. But after that I never considered myself a violinist. So while at Oberlin I started studying conducting. From there I went to Finland to study conducting with the famous Finnish teacher Jorma Panula who was the teacher of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Osmo Vänskä. I also studied for a little bit in Israel. I touched all of my heritage.

I came back to the US and went to Indiana University where I found my mentor, Imre Palló. I studied there for three years.

You conduct both opera orchestras and symphonic orchestras, but it looks like you do more work in opera. Does opera hold a special attraction for you?

Pelto: My love for opera came originally from playing in the pit, being part of the dramatic expression, and then a love of languages. The combination of loving the drama, being in the theater, storytelling, and language steered me in the direction of opera, especially in the States. I love conducting symphonic orchestras as well, and in Europe there is not such a distinction between the opera and symphonic orchestras. And that’s not including ballet, which I love to conduct also. But my biggest love is for opera. That is for sure.

I have been reading about how opera orchestras listen and react to the singers on stage as well as the conductor. Is that true?

Pelto: Yes. I always say that the best opera orchestras have the greatest ears. I learned that firsthand at New York City Opera where on any given night you might have a different tenor, soprano, mezzo, or bass in a lead role. I did a “Carmen” with a woman who stepped in to sing Carmen with no rehearsal. I did a “Madame Butterfly” where a tenor did Pinkerton with no rehearsal. Of course, I am conducting; so it’s not a free-for-all, but the orchestra, on a night like that, is especially attentive and can move on a dime. If they hear a little something or see me do a something different, they can turn a corner like that. I couldn’t believe it the first time it happened.

The synthesis between the orchestra and the stage is sometimes misunderstood. In the opera world, between there’s a perceived separation of orchestra and what the singers are doing. The orchestra players play their thing and the singers sing their thing and it all sort of happens. I like to think of the orchestra has having exactly every part of the expression that the singers have. The second oboe might have a delicate line that perfectly goes with what the mezzo is singing.

I feel that as a conductor, part of my job is to create that connection between the orchestra and the singers so that they feel each other. They feel that they are not just in sync, but are part of one expression. We are striving for a transcendent performance, in which everyone is expressing as one.

Have you conducted “The Rake’s Progress” before?”

Pelto: Yes, I’ve conducted it before, about five years ago at Curtis Institute. It’s an immensely tricky and complex work. But even though it is complex, it is brilliant because it sounds simple when it is right. It sounds as if it just flows along. In fact, Stravinsky said something absurd regard his opera. It was something like “the music is quite simple, the drama is difficult.” But of course, anyone who has been involved in “The Rake’s Progress” knows that the music is horribly complex, and would laugh at what Stravinsky said. But I think that what he meant was that the overall effect of the opera is on of simplicity. The expression of the music needs to be simple to be heard clearly.

Stravinsky loves to change meters and switch things up all the time.

Pelto: He resists any sense of pattern. As soon as you think that something is logically going to come on a downbeat, he is sure to put it right off the beat, or just before the beat, or some other place. Then you get through it and you think it will be that way again, but he’ll switch it to the downbeat. There’s no pattern to it.

So how do you study for this kind of thing? It must be maddening!

Pelto: I do the same thing as I do for any other opera. At first, I read the words to get the story and how it works. Then I sing it – again just as a story. “The Rake’s Progress” doesn’t require a huge orchestra. It’s a Mozart-sized ensemble, but the counterpoint is intensely complex. So you have to study it a little more like an orchestral score and understand how the instruments are being voiced and put together. But it all has to serve the dramatic phrase. So in the end, you sing, sing, sing, and listen in your head to how everything is being put together.

I read that Stravinsky refers to other composers like Monteverdi all over the place in this opera.

Pelto: There are some very specific things. There’s a moment that is exactly like “Così fan tutte.” It’s one bar and it has all the wrong notes, but it is very clearly a quote from “Così fan tutte,” which he was really into at the time. There are “Don Giovanni” moments and lots of Mozart in general. The fanfare at the beginning reminds me of Purcell or Handel.

One of the most interesting things occurs during Tom Rakewell’s first aria. It’s very much like Donna Elvira’s aria from “Don Giovanni” with strings only and the rhythm. In “Don Giovanni,” Mozart is referring to Handel and an older Baroque style. So in “The Rake’s Progress,” we have Stravinsky looking at Mozart looking at Handel. Later on, near the end of the opera after Tom has lost his mind, then the music feels like it has gone further back in time to Monteverdi. The music sort of loses all of the complicated texture and becomes much more like the first operas of Monteverdi.

What are the challenges of doing this opera in the Keller Auditorium?

Pelto: Since the Keller is a large space, you need to sing and play in a way that will fill the hall but at the same time keep the character of the piece, which is lighter, crisper, and more intimate at times. That’s a balance that we have to work out in rehearsal.

The music and text are whimsical and humorous and the sets by David Hockney are witty. The opera is dry, dark, witty, humorous stuff.

Sounds perfect for a Portland audience.

Pelto: It makes for a very entertaining evening.

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