Dallas — In the appointing of new artistic staff in the past year, the Dallas Opera added Nicole Paiement to the roster in June. She becomes the group’s first-ever Principal Guest Conductor, following the appointment of Emmanuel Villaume as Music Director a year prior; and preceding the more recent appointment of Ian Derrer as Artistic Administrator.
Paiement is the Artistic Director and conductor of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, a company that does experimental operas. This has catapulted Paiement to the forefront of conductors who specialize in contemporary music—especially opera.
Her two visits to The Dallas Opera as guest conductor were both to conduct such works, and tough ones at that: We’re not talking Samuel Barber’s lush neo-romanticism or Menotti’s confections here. It’s thorny dissonant modernist scores that usually drive the audience insane (those that stay, that is). Not so with Paiement on the podium. The audience hung on every dissonant note and plot turn (some were quite creepy) in both works she conducted in Dallas.
The first was probably the most difficult—Peter Maxwell Davies’ modernist and gothic horror story of an opera, The Lighthouse. Here is my review. There is a lot more on TheaterJones about this production, including a video series (this is part one of seven).
This was a groundbreaking event for a number of reasons. First, it was the first—and long overdue—TDO collaboration with the Dallas Theater Center. It was a success, and significant credit for this must go to Paiement. She was a sea of calm and competence on the podium as she brought order to what would otherwise be chaotic noise. Bringing such abstract and dissonant music to life, to an audience not used to hearing it, was close to miraculous. She inspired the singers and freed them to create their characters. But the anxious orchestra never took their eyes off of her reassuring presence for a second.
Her next TDO assignment was no easier. It was Tod Machover’s science fiction opera Death and the Powers. Once again, her absolute command over a bewildering score brought logic, and thus accessibility, as she built the tension to a shattering ending (here’s my review).
And here’s my audio interview with her. It is fascinating because you can hear her excitement, and charming accent, as she talks about conducting such a strange opera. How strange? Some characters are robots and the leading character enters cyberspace, presumably as a series of ones and zeros.
MORE THAN CONDUCTING
Her assignment in Dallas, which is no surprise, is to conduct contemporary operas over the next four years, two of which will be world premieres (more on that later). But she is most excited about another part of her duties.
“I’ll be establishing a mentoring program for women opera conductors. Having a career conducting opera is difficult, bordering on impossible, for anyone but it is a really big reach for women,” she says. “This is something that Keith [Cerny, TDO General Director and CEO] and Emmanuel [Villaume, the new Music Director] care about and are determined to impact.”
It’s true—there have been too few women conductors. The best known would be Sarah Caldwell, who started the Boston Opera Group in 1957, which became the Opera Company of Boston. In 1976, Caldwell became the first female to conduct a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
But after Caldwell came the chasm. There are some female conductors of symphonies. The League of American Orchestras informs that of the 103 ensembles with major budgets, only 12 have female conductors. Fewer make it to the opera house podium. Paiement and Cerny are determined to change that.
“This first year, we will work on galvanizing the program: just exactly what it will be and how it will work. We will implement it full force in the following season [2015-2016],” she says. “This is just another sign of how the Dallas Opera is thinking forward, with the future of opera itself in the balance. They need podium time and something to conduct other than the children’s show.”
CLIMBING TO THE TOP
Her first project in her new position is to conduct the world premiere of Everest, for which the Dallas Opera commissioned composer Jody Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer, who was the librettist for the Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Moby-Dick, with composer Jake Heggie.
The opera is based on a true story about the ill-fated 1996 expedition to the summit of Everest. So far, the subject has inspired two films and more than five books. This is the first opera to address the gruesome subject.
“We will workshop Everest in September with a reading,” Paiement says. “This is very important because you can fix things before you get on the stage, when it might be too late. Pacing is also established. This work will be difficult for the singers, so we want to be completely prepared.”
“Prepared” is an understatement when it comes to Paiement. She examines every single note and then builds the score up from this most basic unit, like a house made of bricks. She is close friends with every note and knows which of them need some help and which she can trust “off leash.”
These are the most difficult scores in the repertory for singers as well as orchestra members: written in non-traditional harmonies and meters, with complex multi-rhythms. “See, this isn’t so hard,” she seems to be saying as she calmly and clearly negotiates even the most thorny briar patches ever written. That gives the performers confidence, with the security that she will always be there for them.
“I would like to conduct some Mozart,” she said at the end of out interview. “Maybe some baroque opera like Handel. I am comfortable with scores in the classical and early romantic period and can bring something new to them.”
No doubt. These are all works that require the same meticulous care that she lavishes on contemporary opera and also the same clarity in performances. The big romantic scores, such as Puccini and Wagner, still need attention to details but rely more on the sweep to the big moments. Some conductors can ride that current without the same intricate study modern scores require. But, this perhaps underestimates her musical abilities. Frankly, it would be most interesting to hear her bring that “something new” to these scores as well.
It might be the same effect as washing the musical windows and taking out the trash, disposing of decades of out-of-date traditions.