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Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera

Conducting in High Def

Although we live in the most media-saturated era in history, emerging conductors struggle with a valuable commodity: high-quality video. Keith Cerny discusses.



published Sunday, March 6, 2016

 

 

DallasIn anticipation of International Women’s day on March 8, I wanted to provide an important update on The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors. Next month, I will preview The Dallas Opera’s concert of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony on April 24, 2016, in the 75th memorial anniversary year of the Nazi’s massacre at Babi Yar in the Ukraine.

Quick question: What are the two most important requirements for an aspiring conductor (beyond innate talent, great coaching, and hard work)? The first is, of course, rehearsal time with a professional orchestra, which can easily cost $5,000 per hour (and up, depending on the size and stature of the orchestra).

The second requirement is less obvious: securing High Definition video of themselves conducting a full orchestra. This material is essential for conductors (male and female) to promote themselves with artist managers, opera General Directors and symphony CEOs, artistic directors and administrators, executive recruiters, and search committees for Music Director appointments.

The application process last year for the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors at The Dallas Opera clearly demonstrated this need. As I have described before in this column, the company’s new conducting program received more than 100 applicants from 27 countries. The application asked conductors to submit biographical information, a detailed resume and personal statement, artist management contacts (if any), and references. As part of the application process on YAPtracker.com, we also encouraged conductors to submit up to five audio or video clips of their work. 

As we reviewed the applications, we found that despite our encouragement, very few applicants submitted High Definition (HD) video of their work. Some conductors submitted HD video of themselves working with a chorus, or in rehearsals with piano, but submitted little, if any, footage working with a full orchestra. Most of these videos were “point and shoot”: i.e. a single camera, from a single angle. While this is better than no video at all, the monotony of a single perspective becomes a problem, even if the viewer tries to ignore it. Only a handful of applicants submitted video of themselves conducting a full orchestra. These, too, were from a single camera, and not in High Definition. In summary, none of the applicants submitted the “triple crown” of HD video, with full orchestra, and multiple camera angles. This was very surprising to me, since some of the conductors had 15 or more years’ experience with professional orchestras.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Keith Cerny

As we reviewed the applications, we needed to rely heavily on the résumé and personal statement to evaluate how advanced the conductor was in her career, and whether she would be a good fit for TDO’s conducting program. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume, Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement and I reviewed the applications in detail, ably supported by Artistic Administrator Ian Derrer and Assistant Artistic Administrator David Lomeli. We found that while this portfolio of materials gave us some information to work with in selecting program participants, it was not an ideal substitute for video. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video must be worth at least a million.

In today’s video-immersed world, this lack of conductor videos may strike the reader as surprising. After all, it is trivial to record a conductor on a mobile phone, and post content on a file-sharing site such as YouTube. However, this simplistic approach ignores a complex web of artist rights, labor contracts, and publication fees for works not in the public domain. An orchestral performance with singers requires participation of an orchestra, vocal soloists, stage management, stage crews (e.g. to set up the pit and music stands), someone to operate the lights and house curtain, and someone else to prepare and cue the supertitles. All of these individuals recognize the educational nature of TDO’s conducting program, but, at the same time, they have every right to be paid for their time and talent. In addition, living composers also have the need to be paid for their works on some reasonable basis, and even some deceased composers with vigorously managed estates also require royalty payments.

About a year ago, I began to negotiate fees with a range of stakeholders to be able to stream videos of the Hart Institute conductors. While opera companies are generally allowed to use of up to 3 minutes of recorded material for promotional purposes, I wanted to be able to record entire works conducted by our program participants, which would give future decision-makers viewing the video a much better sense of the conductor’s abilities and potential. 

In the inaugural performance of the Hart Institute for women conductors last fall, we captured video from three separate camera angles, all focused on the podium.  This is markedly different from a typical video or simulcast of a concert, in that the total focus is on the conductor. In a video of a concert, the camera’s attention might move from the conductor to various orchestral players, to the vocal soloist, and maybe then back to the conductor. This makes for interesting video, but does not give the conductor what she needs: namely, a video totally focused on her. We also captured high quality audio to synch with the video of each performance.

Fast forward a couple of months, and The Dallas Opera is excited to report that we have secured the necessary approvals to post several clips of full overtures or arias and small ensembles for each of the Hart Institute’s six conductors from the inaugural residency last November/December. We are delighted to have the support of our three primary unions: The American Federation of Musicians, the American Guild of Musical Artists, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. I would also like to thank our media partner, WFAA/Channel 8 for their continued excellent work with The Dallas Opera in a range of media projects, and our Marketing Director, Carrie Ellen Adamian, for managing the editing process. In order to ensure contractual requirements are met, TDO’s website tracks the number of times each video has been viewed; these statistics can then be aggregated into quarterly reports for various stakeholders, as needed.

In short, examples of the video-captured work of the six conductors from the Hart Institute can now be seen and heard on The Dallas Opera website. (A sample is here.)  The conductors are already sharing links with interested parties, including artist managers, and we are getting enthusiastic feedback from them. Speaking as someone who engaged our Music Director, Principal Guest Conductor, and other guest conductors, I am struck in watching these videos how revealing they are about the individual skills and personalities of the conductors. Some of the easily observable elements include how effective the conductor is at cueing singers, the degree of variation in their beats based on the musical content of the moment, their overall level of confidence, and—a subtler point—how completely and persuasively they embody the music, moment to moment, and communicate with the orchestra and soloists.

All new teaching programs evolve, and I am sure that we will learn even more as we approach the 2016 residency on how to make the video an even more valuable and effective informational/promotional tool. We are already working with our media partners on plans to record the upcoming Hart Institute concert on Dec. 10, 2016. (There will be a separate concert on Dec. 4, but it will not be recorded). We are also working on ideas to improve the lighting on the conductor, putting her even more in the spotlight, so that the video is even clearer, but without dazzling the audience or creating a distraction that would take away from the performance. I look forward to reporting more on this issue of conductor video in another piece in the future. In the meantime, I encourage readers to go to TDO’s website, and sample the diversity of talent on display.

 

◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:

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Conducting in High Def
Although we live in the most media-saturated era in history, emerging conductors struggle with a valuable commodity: high-quality video. Keith Cerny discusses.
by Keith Cerny

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