There are many paths to the podium. In days of yore, it was to come up through the ranks of the opera house, from répétiteur to maestro. Nowadays, it is a doctorate degree from some prestigious university combined with the de rigueur stopover at Tanglewood. Not so for Marco Zambelli, who has impressed in his Dallas Opera debut, marshalling Gounod's Romeo and Juliet to their tragic end. He started out as a concert organist.
Tall, lean and with a George Clooney-esque shock of premature gray hair—and leading man features to boot—he looks more like a tennis pro than the usual rumpled opera conductor. In a recent interview, at an outdoor table at Starbucks, he shared his thoughts on music and conducting with TheaterJones.
TJ: So how did you go from concert organist to conductor?
MZ: It all started with an offer to conduct a choir. First it was a boy chorus and then the opera chorus in Lyon. One thing just led to another.
TJ: But you had quite a career going as an organist.
MZ: That’s true; I won Second Prize at the Kaltern International Organ Competition in 1986. It wasn’t so shocking a change since organists are always conductors of choral music.
TJ: So you never really studied conducting?
MZ: No, I didn’t, and I think that might be an advantage. After all, the gesture is an extension of a conductor’s personality and how they conceptualize the music, not something learned and practiced in a mirror. I learned on the job, so to speak. I was tossed right into conducting choral performances and I had to learn quickly what worked and what didn’t.
TJ: Is it that choral background that gives you such a good feel for vocal music?
MZ: My first professional assignments were concerts of sacred music with the orchestra and choir of the opera in Lyon. I have always had a great love of singing and vocal music. But opera has the added element of the theater. It has to be great drama, not just great music.
TJ: Your career has stuck to the more traditional pieces. What about more contemporary music?
MZ: I am not as much in sync with modern scores as I am with the more standard repertoire. However, there are lots of new operas that stay more traditional while still being fresh.
TJ: Such as Samuel Barber’s Vanessa or William Bolcom’s McTeague? Maybe Lee Hoiby's Summer and Smoke?
MZ: Good examples. But who knows where my career will lead, I am open to new scores as long as I can understand them by the time the curtain goes up.
TJ: Do you coach the singers from the piano or do you have a rehearsal pianist so you can conduct?
MZ: I coach from the piano. You can be more open with the singers when there isn’t a third person in the room while you are working. A witness, so to speak. (laughs)
TJ: And do you learn a score at the piano? Or sit in silence somewhere quiet with it open on your lap?
MZ: When I start with the score, I play it through so many times that I hardly need the music. I prefer to touch the music rather than to hear the score in my head. That is fine on an airplane going somewhere but I much prefer to study at the piano. Music starts as a concept for a sound before it becomes a dot on the paper. Of course, I never play for musical rehearsals with the cast. There, I always conduct.
TJ: How much freedom do you give the singers, or yourself for that matter, at performances?
MZ: Every night has to seem like an improvisation yet still be consistent with how we rehearsed the piece. Actors always say that the audience must think you are performing the role for the first time, even at the end of a long run. It is the same with an opera.
TJ: So what is next for you?
MZ: A Carmen in Spain. Then a Macbeth [Verdi]. And then an Aida. But I have really enjoyed my time in Dallas and am proud of the Romeo and Juliet production.