Conductor  George  Manahan

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



George Manahan is Director of Orchestral Activities at the Manhattan School of Music, as well as Music Director of the American Composers Orchestra and the Portland Opera. He served as Music Director of the New York City Opera for fourteen seasons and was hailed for his leadership of the orchestra. He was also Music Director of the Richmond Symphony (VA) for twelve seasons.

Recipient of Columbia University’s Ditson Conductor’s Award, Mr. Manahan was also honored by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) for his “career-long advocacy for American composers and the music of our time.” His Carnegie Hall performance of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra was hailed by audiences and critics alike. “The fervent and sensitive performance that Mr. Manahan presided over made the best case for this opera that I have ever encountered,” said the New York Times.

Mr. Manahan’s guest appearances include the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, as well as the symphonies of Atlanta, San Francisco, Hollywood Bowl, and New Jersey, where he served as acting Music Director for four seasons. He has been a regular guest with the Music Academy of the West and the Aspen Music Festival, and has also appeared with the opera companies of Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Santa Fe, Paris, Sydney, Bologna, St. Louis, the Bergen Festival (Norway), and the Casals Festival (Puerto Rico).

His many appearances on television include productions of La Boheme, Lizzie Borden, and Tosca on PBS. Live from Lincoln Center’s telecast of New York City Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly, under his direction, won a 2007 Emmy Award.

George Manahan’s wide-ranging recording activities include the premiere recording of Steve Reich’s Tehillim for ECM; recordings of Edward Thomas’ Desire Under the Elms, which was nominated for a Grammy; Joe Jackson’s Will Power; and Tobias Picker’s Emmeline. He has conducted numerous world premieres, including Charles Wuorinen’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, David Lang’s Modern Painters, Hans Werner Henze’s The English Cat, Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne, and Terence Blanchard’s Champion.

He received his formal musical training at Manhattan School of Music, studying conducting with Anton Coppola and George Schick, and was appointed to the faculty of the school upon his graduation, at which time The Juilliard School awarded him a fellowship as Assistant Conductor with the American Opera Center. Manahan was chosen as the Exxon Arts Endowment Conductor of the New Jersey Symphony the same year he made his opera debut with the Santa Fe Opera, conducting the American premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Von Heute Auf Morgen.

==  Links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

We met at the end of October of 1993, during the run of Susannah at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  The production featured Samuel Ramey, and the house debut of Renée Fleming.  Manahan would return the following season for Candide directed by Harold Prince.

Since he conducted both opera and symphony, we discussed both areas, as well as a few general music topics.  Portions were used on the radio, and on an internet series which featured new music.  Now, the entire interview is being posted on this website a few months before his 70th birthday.  That being said, it is interesting to see how his ideas and beliefs have held up nearly 30 years later.

Here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You seem to have a big interest in 20th century music.  Why?

George Manahan:   It’s hard to say exactly why I’ve always been interested in it.  Certainly, I love music of today and I love the old masters, but I knew very early on, when I first was interested in conducting.  I was a piano major at the Manhattan School of Music, and since I wanted to conduct just to get some experience, I would form chamber groups and chamber orchestras.  Of course, whatever combination of instruments you have made up of your friends, you can find some kind of piece.  Usually, Hindemith has some piece that’s for any strange combination.  I was also very active as a pianist with The Group For Contemporary Music, which was in residence.

The Group for Contemporary Music is an American chamber ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. It was founded in New York City in 1962 by Joel Krosnick, Harvey Sollberger, and Charles Wuorinen. It gave its first concert on October 22, 1962 in Columbia University’s MacMillin Theatre. Krosnik left the ensemble in 1963. It was the first contemporary music ensemble based at a university and run by composers.

The Group was based at Columbia University from 1962 until 1971, when it took up residency at the Manhattan School of Music. Initial support was provided by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia, followed later by a broad range of foundations and public sources. The Group’s success led the Rockefeller Foundation to form lavishly-funded "spin-off" ensembles at Rutgers University, the University at Buffalo, the University of Iowa, and the University of Chicago in the middle 1960s.

Early supporters of the Group included such Columbia faculty as Jack Beeson, Otto Luening, and Vladimir Ussachevsky. Edgard Varese and Aaron Copland were also among its champions. The early years of the Group were tied in, as well, with the early development of electronic music in the United States. Early on the Group affiliated itself with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, and many premieres of important new works involving instruments and electronics by such composers as Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, and Vladimir Ussachevsky were presented on its concerts.

At the heart of the Group were its performers, and a broad range of composers was represented by the Group over the course of its first 25 years. A brief (but not exhaustive) list includes Edgard Varèse, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Donald Martino, Peter Westergaard, Benjamin Boretz, Otto Luening, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Mario Davidovsky, Goffredo Petrassi, Stefan Wolpe, Ursula Mamlok, Ralph Shapey, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Harley Gaber, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, Ezra Laderman, Raoul Pleskow, Elaine Barkin, Arthur Berger, Yehudi Wyner, Bülent Arel, Joji Yuasa, Tōru Takemitsu, Francisco Kropfl, Jeffrey Kresky, David Olan, Goffredo Petrassi, Aaron Copland, Morton Gould, Frederick Fox, Ross Lee Finney, Roger Reynolds, Robert Stewart, Jacob Druckman, Bernard Rands, Robert Hall Lewis, Claudio Spies, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Chester Biscardi, Carlos Salzedo, Lukas Foss, and Richard Edward Wilson.

The Group recorded extensively for a number of labels (CRI, RCA Victor, New World, and later Koch and Naxos) and performed in venues such as the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, Southern Illinois University, Amherst College, Swarthmore College, Princeton University, the Eastman School of Music, Washington and Lee University, Stony Brook University, Avery Fisher Hall (for the New York Philharmonic), and Rutgers University.

The ensemble was awarded a citation from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1985.

manahan BD:   Are you on some of the recordings?

Manahan:   No, but it was at the time they were collaborating a lot with students at the Manhattan School.  They ran the Modern Music Program, and a lot of the concerts would be joint ventures.  This was also in the time when Boulez was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic.  I was going to concerts all the time, and I still remember that he thought he was going to change the whole New York scene, which, of course, didn’t happen.  But the concerts were wonderful.  I would see him do a Mozart piano concerto, and he was totally bored and made no secret of it.  But on the same concert, they would maybe do Stravinsky
s Symphonies of Wind Instruments [1920], and he made that music breathe in a way that I had not heard.

BD:   Let me ask perhaps an impossible question.  Should Boulez have been able to change the whole New York scene?

Manahan:   He was trying to do it single-handedly.  He didn’t embrace the help he could have gotten from the composers who were writing new works.  He tended not to do a lot of them.

BD:   He stuck with Stockhausen, and Kagel, and Berio?

Manahan:   Yes, and Boulez.  He was going to do it by God by himself.  Probably there were some mistakes made in that way, because a unified front might have helped.

BD:   If he had gone to the
uptown people and the downtown people and gotten their assistance, might it have changed things?

Manahan:   I think so.  The little he tried to get their help was just a token bit.

BD:   What I’m really asking is if that have would have changed everything, or would it just alienate the subscribers?

Manahan:   That’s tough one.  If I had to guess, it might have just alienated the subscribers.  I’m the Music Director of the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia.  The city is about 700,000 people, and we have a 38-week season.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  My goodness.

Manahan:   Yes, it’s quite big.  There are the standard series where we do the Tchaikovsky symphonies and all that, which is wonderful, and we have a new series called Double Exposure, where we do the new and unusual.  When I first conducted there as a guest conductor, I did a John Adams piece, Shaker Loops.  All my friends were saying, “Don
t go to Richmond, Virginia and do that piece.  Its a kiss of death.”  What I did was talk to the audience a little bit before we did the work.  This gave them a few clues.  I have found the audiences are willing to try if you just give them something to hang on to.  I think they’re open to things if they’re presented right.

BD:   This, of course, was not the only work on the program.

Manahan:   No.  I sugarcoated it by doing Brahms and, surprisingly, Hindemith.  The Symphonic Metamorphosis was on that program as well.

BD:   How did they respond to the Adams?

Manahan:   They loved it.  They gave us a standing ovation in the end of the piece.

BD:   It’s a piece that goes round and round and round.

Manahan:   Right.

BD:   Is that perhaps easier for the subscription audience to take than a Boulez work?

Manahan:   Absolutely.  I purposely picked a piece that would be audience-friendly, knowing that if you can establish some credibility, then we can push into harder dissonances.  That’s certainly more accessible than even some pieces of Berg, and the whole Second Viennese School.  To us, or to many performers, when I hear that music it’s like nostalgia, but it’s still pretty tough going for audiences.

BD:   Is the minimalist school still in progress, or have they lost that identity now?

Manahan:   I’ve been very active with Steve Reich, and have recorded some of his works.  I don’t think they, themselves, take that
minimalist title too seriously.  Certainly, Steve’s music has changed.  I don’t think it’s minimalist anymore.  It’s something else.  He’s come a long way from Drumming, which is 50 minutes of drummers hitting very, very slowly with no change.

Drumming is a piece by minimalist composer Steve Reich, dating from 1970–1971. Reich began composition of the work after a short visit to Ghana and observing music and musical ensembles there. K. Robert Schwarz describes the work as "minimalism's first masterpiece."

The piece employs Reich's trademark technique of phasing, which is achieved when two players, or one player and a recording, are playing a single repeated pattern in unison, usually on the same kind of instrument. One player changes tempo slightly while the other remains constant, and eventually the two players are one or several beats out of sync with each other. They may either stay there, or phase further, depending on the piece.

Schwarz characterized Drumming as a "transitional" piece between Reich's early, more austere compositions and his later works that use less strict forms and structure. Schwarz has also noted that Reich made use of three new techniques, for him, in this work:
  1. "the process of gradually substituting beats for rests (or rests for beats) within a constantly repeating rhythmic cycle", or "rhythmic construction" and "rhythmic reduction"
  2. combination of instruments of different timbres at the same time
  3. incorporation of human voices in imitation of the sounds of the percussion instruments in the ensemble, including whistling effects
The length of the piece can vary widely, as the number of repeats taken on any given measure is up to the performers. Recordings of the piece span between 55 and 84 minutes.

BD:   But all of it notated?

Manahan:   All of it notated, yes.

BD:   It was Adams who mentioned to me that all of his bars are written out, rather than employing repeat signs.

Manahan:   Right.  Adams does leave very little to chance, but even in the early stages of Shaker Loops
the original version for seven string playersa lot was still left to the performers, such as when to move on.  When he arranged it for string orchestra, he took all the chance out of it.  I think it’s a better piece because finally, certain proportions found themselves.

manahan BD:   If you’re presented with the opportunity of playing a new piece, do you select the minimalist piece, or do you opt for a Boulez piece, or a Wuorinen piece?

Manahan:   I try to put my own prejudices or preferences aside, and make sure that we do a diverse mix.  Certainly, I’m interested in the audience not being bored.  This is the first thing.  We still are entertainers first.

BD:   [With mock horror]  This doesn’t mean that you sell out, does it???

Manahan:   [Smiles]  No.  It’s a matter of presentation, such as talking just a few minutes before the concert.  If the quality of the performance is good, that makes a big difference.  We have the advantage of hearing Beethoven’s symphonies a lot, and every time you hear it, you have heard more performances, and this is good.  I take as a motto something that Alban Berg said,
I try to play old music as if it were new, and new music as if it were old.  That seems to work.

BD:   Is that good advice for a conductor?

Manahan:   I think so, and for performers in general it’s good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re running the Richmond Symphony, can you rehearse enough to play a work of the complexity of Wuorinen?

Manahan:   That creates problems, but there are creative ways around it.  We usually have four or maybe five rehearsals for a special concert, but if I have a very challenging work, I’ll make sure that the rest of the program is something that we can probably put together in a lot less time.  Not every work on the program has to be difficult, so 80% of the rehearsal time can go to this featured work, the new work, and we fill it out with the standards.

BD:   It seems like many of the conductors of the major orchestras turn it on its head.  If you have a Beethoven symphony and a new work, they’ll give all the attention to the Beethoven symphony, and maybe run through the new work once or twice and that’s it.

Manahan:   Right.  I’ve seen that happen a lot.  Also, conductors will save the concerto until the dress rehearsal when the soloist is there, and just sight-read it at the end.  I’m not a believer in that.  When you’re planning a season a year or two years ahead, I take those factors into consideration.

BD:   When you’re planning a season for your Richmond Symphony, what kind of a balance do you have between standard works, novelties, and new works?

Manahan:   Depending on the series, with the large orchestra where we do the Mahler, and Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, we make sure that the majority of it are these standard works that people are expecting to hear.  That series is made for that, but I still try to get several live composers on those concerts as well.  One advantage is that we have started this new series in a different location, and it is, as I said, for the new and unusual.  So, the people who come to that know what they’re expecting.  They’re not going to get a nasty surprise.

BD:   Can you do throw in something new even on the big series?

Manahan:   Yes.  I prefer modern music to be in the context with old music, so that it comes out of tradition.  I hate to ghettoize it, and just make modern-music concerts.  I tend to stay away from all-anything concerts.  I don’t even like all one-composer concerts.

BD:   Even all-Beethoven concerts?

Manahan:   Beethoven is the exception, because he has a lot to say.

BD:   Then, when we shift over to the opera house, generally you’re dealing with a single-composer evening.

Manahan:   Exactly.

BD:   How do you reconcile that?

Manahan:   You’ve got so many things in opera.  You bring all the arts
singing, drama, orchestral musicand that’s the thrill.  For me, conducting opera is the collaboration with the singers, the director, choreographers, designers, and when it comes together right, there’s really nothing like it.  It’s just the best high in the world.

BD:   Is it ever

Manahan:   Yes, and it depends on the night as well.  In certain productions, all the elements come together, and you know you’ve got a winner.  But part of the thrill of doing opera is that there’s always the chance that something is going to be quite different.  It can as simple as a prop not working, or not being there, or a set not working as it rolls on to the stage.  That makes you think on your feet, but it’s all very exciting.

BD:   Can it also be a certain flash of brilliance, that something which might not have worked, or you might not have thought of suddenly becomes a crucial part of the scene?

Manahan:   Oh, absolutely.  The challenge for me, and for the best singers, is to take some fluke or some accident like that and turn it to your advantage.  That’s the difference in opera, as opposed to the symphonic world.  When you rehearse for a symphony concert, basically you can count on the fact that it’s going to stay as it was in rehearsal.  But there’s so many factors in opera that just make you think on your feet.

BD:   We will come back to the opera in a minute, but when you’re talking about symphony, do you do all your work in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark of the evening?

manahan Manahan:   Absolutely one has to leave something for the performances.  If all goes well, you’ve worked in rehearsal and are working up to a peak, a heightened sense of the music.  But if it’s ideal, you want to plan it so that the best is yet to come.  You don’t peak at the dress rehearsal.

BD:   Do you peak at the opening night, or do you peak at the third performance, or the eighth performance?

Manahan:   Opening nights can be exciting for the adrenaline, and sometimes they can be very, very special.  But for me, whether it’s the run of an opera or the second and third symphonic performances on a series, in general it gets better and there’s more polish.  Frankly, no amount of rehearsing is going to substitute for just the experience of performing the piece.  That’s when it really grows.

BD:   Even in dress rehearsals, you can stop, but performance you can’t.

Manahan:   Yes.  You could talk about something for ever and ever, but at a certain point you just have to play it and feel it together.  That’s the joy of making music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your time between the symphony and the opera?

Manahan:   For the last few years, I would say it
s probably about 75% symphonic work and orchestral conducting.  I’m also Principal Conductor of the Minnesota Opera, so I will always give them a certain amount of time.  We do two productions a year, or sometimes three.  It just depends.

BD:   Do you select those, or are they assigned to you?
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Jerry Hadley.]

Manahan:   I select them.  That’s one of the things I like about being the Principal Conductor.  I have some say in the repertory, and naturally certain pieces I feel stronger about than others.

BD:   From this vast repertoire of known and unknown operas, and new operas, how do you decide which ones you’ll do this year, or next year, or never?

Manahan:   There’s so many factors that come into it.  When we’re planning our season in Minnesota, we all make our wish lists.  I make one, the Executive Director makes one, and the Artistic Adviser as well.  There’s so many factors to consider.  What have we done recently?  Which shows do we feel we can cast well?  That comes into the availability of singers.  What is right for a balanced season.  What will sell?  Another factor coming in more and more is what joint productions can we do with other companies.  We do joint productions with Houston, or Omaha, or places like that.

BD:   Each place has a similar stage?

Manahan:   Yes, and what shows do we agree on that we would all like to do.  There’s some negotiation there.  In these times when money is tight, the production itself is such a big commitment.  Joint productions are the trend more and more.

BD:   Would your artistic decisions change at all if money was not a factor?

Manahan:   I don’t think the repertory would change.  What would change is the rehearsal period.  We would have more rehearsal.  You could always use more.  In this country, we have learned to be incredibly efficient with our time, because we don’t have the state government subsidized situations like they do in Europe.  In general, one can certainly say that the rehearsal period in Europe, whether it’s for symphonic concerts or for opera, is about twice as many rehearsals, and twice as long.

BD:   Do they need it, or do they get twice as much done?

Manahan:   I frankly don’t think they get any more done than we do.  When you’ve got that much time, you wind up using it the same way.

BD:   Are they wasting it?

Manahan:   I’m not sure if it’s being wasted...

BD:   For instance, you get to the extreme of Walter Felsenstein, where he had many months to rehearse.  Can something get over-rehearsed?

Manahan:   I certainly believe it can.  Maybe I’m in the minority, but I am not a conductor who necessarily wants to just rehearse all the time.  I want to get in there and perform.  Being an orchestral player in the past, and a pianist who played in orchestras, I was certainly the first to be impatient if I felt like the conductor was wasting time, or he was being redundant.  In this country, we’ve gotten now to a fine point.  There’s no time to waste.  So, if you’re in this profession in this country, you can’t waste time.

BD:   I assume when you come to a major company such as Lyric Opera, you have a certain amount of rehearsal.  Is that a sufficient amount of time?

Manahan:   It is.  I must say that the standards are high here, and they certainly don’t skimp on artistic quality.  If a production needs the time in staging, or extra rehearsals, they are willing to make the commitment to do it.  From what I see, when they take on a challenging work that perhaps is out of the ordinary, they also make the commitment to do it right, which is a wonderful and rare thing.

BD:   How early in the discussions and in the planning do you get involved with the designer and the stage director?

Manahan:   The stage director and designer are talking way, way back, but I started to have a few conversations with the director a few months before we got into rehearsal, just to check on a few big things, and see where we were.  But most of it really happens when we get here.  Bob Falls, the director for Susannah had several long meetings with me, just seeing that we had the same point of view.

manahan BD:   Were you here for all the staging rehearsals?

Manahan:   Yes, right from the beginning.

BD:   Is that good?  Should the conductor do that, or is it a luxury you don’t get very often?

Manahan:   It’s a luxury you don’t get very often, but sometimes it’s not necessary. Speaking as a conductor, sometimes if I am around for every staging, I start letting the tempos and phrasing sound right with the piano.  Then I have to step back from it, and remember that yes, there is still an orchestra that’s going to have a big say.  Although one can plan the pacing, and work out phrasing separate from the orchestra, you can get a little bit too involved.

BD:   Does the orchestra have the say, or do you have the say, or does the composer have the say?  Who’s got the final say?

Manahan:   I do, but the orchestra has 70 players.  It’s going to be a different animal than one piano.  So, that comes into it.  With Susannah, Carlisle Floyd is still alive and well.  There is an advantage, in a way, to having the composer who can answer questions for you.  If you say, “What did you mean in that measure?” it’s wonderful to be able to call the source.

BD:   Does he tell you what he meant, or does he just say to play it the way you feel?

Manahan:   Actually, both.  The best composers do let you play it the way you feel, because they are aware that every situation is going to bring something new to it.  Carlisle certainly knows that.

BD:   Steve Reich told me that when people come to him, he always says to pretend he’s dead.

Manahan:   Yes, and Carlisle had no problem with this.  The director and I felt very strongly that we did not want the composer to come in too early.  He waited until we were in dress rehearsals.  Bob mentioned that he feels this way with playwrights too.  Part of the process is finding these answers for yourself, but if you have the composer or playwright sitting there, it’s easy to say, “What did you mean by that line?”  They’ll usually tell you, but then you just have your answer.  You don’t search.

BD:   Would this balance shift if it was a world premiere?

Manahan:   Yes, because the piece is hot off the press then, and it’s still in the evolution process.  With the William Bolcom work that was done last season [McTeague], he was around all the time, and it was changing.  He would alter things for the singers, and that’s great.  But a work like this that has proven its worth, and it’s a jewel, it’s ready to go.  It’s like a child that’s grown up.  The composers have to be able to step back from it, and the best ones do.

BD:   If the composer can change things for the singers at the world premiere, why can’t either the composer or perhaps the conductor change things for singers in the third, or fifth, or eighteenth production?

Manahan:   We do, to a certain degree.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  That
s not heresy???

Manahan:   [Laughs]  The tempo markings, and the metronome markings that are in a score could be unrealistic for certain other singers.  For instance, in this production of Susannah, we have some singers with tremendous voices.  Sam Ramey, who sounds so wonderful as Olin Blitch, his tempi for his production are generally a little slower than what the score says.

BD:   Because he can just expand the sound so much?

Manahan:   Yes, and fill the hall.  This hall is bigger than the average one the piece is performed in.  Certainly, it’s much bigger than how Carlisle Floyd originally conceived it.

BD:   Would you have preferred to do this in a hall half the size of the Civic Opera House?

Manahan:   No, absolutely not.  We are doing the original orchestration, which is quite big.  Later, the composer reduced it by half, and that’s appropriate for small theaters.  But what’s wonderful for me is that I always think first ideas are the best.  This work has a cinematic quality to it, and with a house this big, and with voices this big, you need that kind of stereophonic cinemascope approach.  That’s been the joy of doing this piece.

BD:   Have you done this work before?

Manahan:   I conducted it about ten or twelve years ago in Omaha, with Floyd directing.

BD:   Obviously, there were not surtitles back then.  Has the introduction of surtitles into this particular production changed it in any way, or changed your approach in any way?

Manahan:   Actually, when we rehearsed the work we insisted on clear diction as much as we could from the standpoint that there were no surtitles.  They’re very helpful, and some of the challenges of this piece are that sometimes I write this up to the youth of the composer at that time.  There’s a lot of information being fed to the audience.  He has a tremendous amount of counterpoint going in the orchestra, and he has the voices singing rather low.  So, that makes a lot of problems to try to solve, and you can only solve them so far.  But we certainly went for that.  Just as in any opera, there are times the composer will say the words are not as important.  They’re secondary to the musical line, but we certainly tried to work to a place that got the information out.  For instance, in the very first scene, the elder ladies are sitting down explaining who people are.  It’s a lot of words, and it’s almost in real-life time.  They’re speaking as fast as they would if they weren’t singing, and yet there is a square dance happening with all sorts of confusion in the orchestra.  So, even as you block it, your eye is pulled away from the ladies sitting there talking, because you want to watch the dancing.  Some of that you just have to accept. That’s when it does help to have the surtitles.

BD:   In this work, or in any stage work, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

Manahan:   I do it case-by-case.  In a three-hour opera, the words speak forever.  However, I’m prejudiced towards the music or dance in the line.  But certainly, when the drama has to be clear and set forward, we’ll do anything.  We’ll stand on our heads if we have to in order to get the words out.  The piece is so wonderful, but it makes you appreciate the great masters when you see how they learned over the years how to get the important information out.

*     *     *     *     *

manahan BD:   You say you worked a lot on your diction in this Susannah.  Do you also work on your diction in an Italian language production, such as Traviata?

Manahan:   Yes.

BD:   Even for an American audience?

Manahan:   Yes.  It’s important because the language has a rhythm, and the clarity of the words, the rhythm of the words helps pull off the music.  If the performer is clear on what they’re trying to express and goes for that, even if it’s a non-Italian speaking audience, something extra gets across.  I’m an idealist.

BD:   I assume that in the various places where you conduct opera, everything has the surtitles?

Manahan:   Yes, with the exception of Santa Fe and the Met.  They’re the holdouts.  I’ve worked at Santa Fe for many summers.

BD:   Is there any way to put them there, or is it just philosophy not to have them?

Manahan:   It’s been the philosophy not to have them, but who knows?

BD:   Would you lobby for them?

Manahan:   I’m a believer in them.  They have solved a lot of problems, and it’s the hook for opera.  It’s the reason that there’s been such an enthusiastic growth of audiences liking opera.

BD:   You’re the Music Director in Minnesota, and you conduct opera all around.  Where’s the balance in your career between standard works and new works?

Manahan:   If I had my way, I would probably do more new works, but I’m becoming so damn respectable as a Music Director, you do a lot of the great standards
which are great works!  They’re standards for a good reason.  They’re wonderful pieces.

BD:   Are you like Doolittle, becoming a victim of
middle class morality?

Manahan:   [Laughs]  Oh, my God, I think it’s possible.  Maybe I’ll have to chuck it all and become a revolutionary.  I do wish that I could do more, and I’m always looking for avenues to find ways to be involved in new works, because there is an urgency about it that is just special.  It’s wonderful to be working on something new and untried, where you’re not dealing with traditions, but making your own.

BD:   How do we get the audience more involved in that, because they seem to be scared of it?

Manahan:   Think about all the various movements we have been dealing with, because, let’s face it, for years it seems that the composers have just left the audience in the dust.  In a way, the minimalist movement is a reaction to that.  It certainly got the audiences back, and the answer is somewhere in between the two.  But as performers, our problem, our challenge is to find ways to interest them.  As I say, we’ve had success in Richmond by making it less formal, getting it out of the museum, speaking to an audience for a few minutes to give them something to hang on to with the new work.  But I’m very sensitive to the fact that a concert first should be a sensual experience, and not an educational experience.  One can go overboard.  If you start pulling out the blackboards and drawing diagrams, then you’re in trouble.  From my experience, audiences are willing to try if you just give them something to hang on to.  Give them a little benefit of the doubt because they want to learn.  They want to know more.  New York had a reputation of being the place where they are open to new ideas and new music, but I remember watching those Pierre Boulez concerts, and the audience was leaving in droves in the middle of an Alban Berg.  That’s hardly on the cutting edge.

BD:   Then let me ask the big question.  Where’s music going today?

Manahan:   I was scared you’d ask me that.  I like to think that as we speak, there are the next Verdis and Wagners coming up.

BD:   Without mentioning names, is there a Verdi or a Wagner on the horizon, or even producing today?

Manahan:   Without saying names, it’s possible.  At this point there are so many influences, whether it’s minimalist, serial music, or jazz.  In theater, for instance, Stephen Sondheim is sophisticated.  It’s so amazing, and certainly his influences are all over.  The things he’s doing theater-wise are just on the cutting edge.

manahan BD:   Is Stephen Sondheim considered opera?

Manahan:   It’s somewhere in between, but even the operas that are being written, such as McTeague, are somewhere in between.  They’re certainly changing.  It’s evolving.  It’s not grand opera.  It’s something else, and I think it’s great.

BD:   So, it’s a good thing?

Manahan:   Oh, yes.  Absolutely.

BD:   Will the opera houses have to evolve along with the music that they’re presenting?

Manahan:   It’s inevitable.  Sure.

BD:   Will there always be a place for works such as Traviata?

Manahan:   Oh absolutely, because they touch the human heart somehow.

BD:   Will there ever be a time when a company can produce Traviata, Porgy and Bess, Sweeney Todd, and Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the same season?

Manahan:   That’s a tough one.  I know that American singers are certainly talented enough and versatile enough to be able to do these things.  I’m quite a fan of the American singer.  With the training, the discipline, and the talent of their voices, the quality of the work will be as high as ever.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask you a little bit of your current history.  You conducted in Omaha?

Manahan:   Years ago, yes.  I’ve been a pretty regular conductor at the Seattle Opera.  There’s a tradition in both Chicago and Seattle.  They’re very special places.  The smaller companies serve a different purpose.

BD:   What will that be?

Manahan:   Probably doing more of the new works.  Even within the traditional opera repertory, there are so many diverse works that are standards.  Those works are more appropriately done in smaller houses.

BD:   You mean to say that Omaha and Kansas City are going to be the cutting edge?

Manahan:   It’s possible.  Certainly Minnesota is.

BD:   Minnesota has had that tradition, though.

Manahan:   They have had the tradition of new works, and there’s some other places.  For instance, in Little Rock, Arkansas, the small theater there has been commissioning new works.  Years ago when I conducted there regularly, they did Sweeney Todd with The Marriage of Figaro and Albert Herring.  Those were some of the best shows I still remember doing because of the combination of directors and young singers.  They were done in 500- to 600-seat theater, and there was an urgency about those productions.  It was just great, with all American singers, not big-name people.  It was just fabulous.

BD:   Let me introduce yet another problem into all of this.  Are the audiences that are going to become cutting edge in Little Rock and Kansas City and Omaha going to be swayed by what they see week after week on PBS, operas coming from Chicago, and New York, and Los Angeles, as well as Europe?

Manahan:   I am a firm believer that as wonderful as video-taped performances of operas are, there is nothing as special as live theater.

BD:   But if they can go out and buy a tape of a production from La Scala, are they then going to expect that same quality in their smaller city?

Manahan:   Possibly, but that problem has been around forever with recordings.  We listen to Callas’ performances of great works, and every performances we see of Norma, we want to compare to those.  I don’t think that’s so bad, because the performers will bring new things to it.  On the other hand, there are many directors that are terrible.  There’s always the experimentation with putting old shows in new settings.  I sometimes lose a little patience with that when the integrity of the music gets lost in the dust somehow.

BD:   Does this mean you won’t work with someone like Peter Sellars?

manahan Manahan:   No, I think he’s wonderful, because somehow everything still comes out of music.  The intent is still clear.  It can be totally out in left field somewhere, but still he seems in touch with the music.  Many directors will superimpose a concept on top of whatever piece they happen to be doing, and they’ll force it to work somehow.  Then the music seems to just be lost in the shuffle. That’s when I find it frustrating.

BD:   Then those directors will not have your participation?

Manahan:   Right, and I do have my list of those.  It’s always getting bigger and bigger.

BD:   When you’re offered an engagement, do you ask who the director is, and if it’s someone you don’t want to work with, do you turn it down?

Manahan:   Yes, that’s usually the first question I ask, and it’s becoming more and more important to me.  One of the thrills of conducting opera is the collaboration.  I don’t believe in being the tyrant who is going to insist that his interpretation be used no matter what’s happening onstage.  It’s important that we all come together and have the same point of view.

BD:   So, you will reshape and adjust where necessary?

Manahan:   Oh, absolutely.

BD:   How much?

Manahan:   If I believe in the director, I’ll go pretty far.  If I think that the concept is legit, or it has a point, sure, whether it’s changing the order of numbers, or certainly with tempi.

BD:   That has to do with the pacing?

Manahan:   Yes, the pacing.  I’m willing to get away from the ink on the page if it will work.  That doesn’t mean changing, rewriting the chords, or re-orchestrating, but one can go pretty far with that.  That’s why opera can stay alive and well, if one is always looking for those new ideas to bring to it.

BD:   More so than on a symphony concert?

Manahan:   One is a little more restricted in the symphonic world.  These days, symphony orchestras are going through real problems.  Ticket sales are down, and they are having to re-define their roles, or have a second look at their job in the community.  Certainly, it is to bring great music, and the challenge is to keep the integrity.  Some orchestras are almost going too far trying to change to fit the times, and that’s a mistake.

BD:   Is that a cop-out, or is that selling out?

Manahan:   It’s maybe selling out.  There are many times managements they feel like they can get in, but it’s not up to a symphony orchestra to be all things to everybody.  The challenge is to bring people in and make them appreciate what we do well.

BD:   In Richmond, do you fight a little harder than in the opera house to have a standard work live up to the recordings of Solti, Furtwängler, and all the rest that have performed and recorded it before?

Manahan:   In a city such as Richmond, we certainly have some of that, but the majority of our audiences are not as sophisticated as those in the
big city, where I think there would be more that.  We certainly do have standards that we have to keep, and people leave the concert either liking what they heard or not.  Probably a lot of them base that opinion on whether it sounded like the record, but that keeps us on our toes.  On the other hand, it’s a live performance, and if it’s enthusiastic you can feel it in your heart or in your gut.  Hopefully you get both, but I’ll be happy with one or the other.

BD:   You’ve been Music Director there for a while.  Do you know what their limit is, and do you try to take them just beyond that?

Manahan:   Oh, absolutely.  Yes.  I have learned where that line is, and we push it a little bit each year.  I believe that at a certain point people will come to hear specific works.  But after a while, if you’re doing your job right, the institution, the orchestra gains credibility, and they’ll trust you.  You want to build up a little trust.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you at the point in your career where you want to be?

Manahan:   Yes, I am.  I’m about as busy as I can manage, and I’m getting to perform works that I want to do with artists that I want to work with.  So, I feel very lucky.  There are certainly challenges, things to look forward to and to work for, but I feel very happy where I am.  The mix for me is very good.  I like having my season mixed between the symphonic literature and opera.  I’ve always liked going from one week doing Steve Reich’s work to the next week doing bel canto.  One helps the other.  There are certain disciplines that have to take a higher priority in either one, and to cross over and mix them up is good.

BD:   Does something ever come out being
Steve canto?

Manahan:   God, I hope so.  [Both laugh]  I remember when we were rehearsing Tehillim
which I recorded with the group laterwe were about to do the tour, and we were rehearsing it very hard in New York for about three weeks before we went on the road.  Steve is one of the percussionists, and to get a certain sound I would say, This is Mahler right here.  There’s a particular cadence, and it’s the same cadence for about fifteen minutes, but it was modern, and I remember Steve loved those.  He had no problem with that at all.  He liked the idea that I could describe his music, or work on it with romantic terms.

BD:   I would think it would be especially disconcerting to have the composer in front of you.  It’s one thing if the composer is behind you, listening, but to have him in front of you while you’re actually directing the composer...

Manahan:   [Laughs]  It was not easy, and Steve is not one to be shy about speaking up.  He certainly had as many opinions as I did, and what remarkable ears he has.  In Tehillim, as with his works in general, there are a lot of textures.  It is not simple at all.  There’s nothing simple about his music.  Just like lightning, he would catch wrong notes, or a little inconsistency in something.  I was very impressed with that.

BD:   Should he not have been conducting rather than you?


Manahan:   He doesn’t conduct.  In fact, when Tehillim was written, his intention was not to have a conductor.  He had always written for his group, and he always participated, but this piece was quite big.  So, when I was originally approached by him to conduct, it was for the rehearsals.  He realized they couldn’t coordinate it because it was too big, but he needed the conductor.  His idea was for me to rehearse it, get it on its feet, and then wean them of a conductor.  But it was clear after about a day and a half that it was impossible to do this piece without a conductor.  So, he asked me to make my schedule clear, and do the tour with us and do the recording, which I was only too happy to do.  I did have to make some changes, but I knew it was worth it because it was a special piece, and working with him was quite fun.  We collaborated on many projects during the next years after that, and about this time his career really began to soar.  He was getting commissions from orchestras.

BD:   This was in the early

Manahan:   Yes.  Orchestras were commissioning works for him, so he began to write pieces with a conductor in mind.  In fact, that was the point when he first started writing works that were not to be played by his ensemble, which was a big step for him.

BD:   So, it was pivotal for you, and you were pivotal for him.

Manahan:   Yes.  It has been a very happy collaboration.  We stay in touch.  We spoke a couple of weeks ago.  He called and wondered if I was going to be in New York to see The Cave, which I unfortunately was not able to see.  But to get back to your question, in those rehearsals it was very intimidating have the composer right there.

BD:   Have you championed his works, and made sure that they get a lot of play on your concerts?

Manahan:   As much as I can, yes.  Steve’s orchestrations don’t always fit into the standard orchestra, or they require a tremendous amount of extra percussion.  He writes for his percussionists, those guys that he’s had for years that are able to do incredibly disciplined playing, and keep their attention, which takes some doing.

BD:   It seems almost robotic.

Manahan:   Yes.  They’re a remarkable group.  I have done some works of his in Richmond with my orchestra, but not as many as I would like.  I’ve wanted to do Tehillim for years there, but it would require so much rehearsal.  It would have to be outside of our regular schedule.  We worked six hours every day for three weeks in New York before we went on the tour with it, and this was with his people who were used to playing his music, and already had the charts before I even came in.  They were committed to it, and it was great to do, but those occasions are pretty rare.

BD:   Have you made some other recordings?

Manahan:   A few years ago, our orchestra in Richmond recorded a piano concerto by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, where we collaborated with Santiago Rodriguez.  Also on that recording [shown farther up on this webpage] is Ginastera
s Variaciones Concertantes [as well as the Concertino for Piano, Strings, and Cymbals by Carlos Surinach].  We’re very proud of that recording.  Also, I recorded with Joe Jackson!  He is a rock and roller.  He’s had several top 40 hits, and has done several soundtracks to some movies.

BD:   So, what’s the record you made with him?

Manahan:   It
s called Will Power.  I got a call from this rock and roller, and I had no idea what the story was.  I knew some of his albums.  He’s English, and has collaborated with Sting.  It turns out that he brought his scores over.  He had this orchestra music he wanted to record.  Some were from his days in college, and some were new works.  Turns out that he went to the Royal Academy, and one of his classmates was Simon Rattle.  These scores were beautifully edited.  He just had worked out the transpositions, and they were ready to go.

BD:   Is it concert music, or is it rock music?

Manahan:   It’s both.  I would say it’s crossover.  
We recorded it at RCA Studios with the top freelancers in New York.  For instance, the principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera was playing for us.  David Nadien was the concertmaster and contractor, and it was a pleasure to do.  But yes, there were a lot of rock influences.  Some of the pieces were quite symphonic, almost Prokofiev-like, but others had big rock influences.


See my interviews with Marin Alsop, and Seyour Barab

BD:   You conducted all the pieces on that album?

Manahan:   Right.  I still hear from him sometimes when he has an orchestra track he wants to lay down behind his a group, but at this point he’s doing albums with his group.  I understand that he’s been commissioned for a Steven Bochco project to write the music for him.  [At this point we digressed for a few moments into chit-chat about various TV programs.  He then mentioned his wife, soprano Kathryn Gamberoni.]  She played Marilyn in Ezra Laderman’s opera about Marilyn Monroe.  She’s was here in Chicago as Papagena about six years ago with Lyric Opera, and last season in Bartered Bride, she sang the tightrope walking soprano, Esmeralda.

BD:   Are you two ever able to collaborate on a production?

Manahan:   About twice a year, we work together.  We have the same manager, and her advice was only to work together twice a year.  That’s enough.  When we are working on a project together, we have our little house rules.  For instance, if it’s a new role for her, I don’t coach her on it at home.  She learns it with her own coaches separately, and we only work together then when we go into production.  It makes for a better home life.

BD:   With you having a musical career and she having a musical career, are you able to spend enough time together?

Manahan:   We hardly see each other these days. She’s in Seattle right now, and I had four days off, so I ran up there to see her.  But then we’ll have several months when she’s back in Richmond, and since I don’t work 9-to-5, we have a lot of time together.  We have worked a lot together in Seattle.  We’re doing Pearl Fishers there in a few months.


See my interview with Vinson Cole

BD:   Do you ever engage her to sing with the Richmond Symphony?

Manahan:   I have, but when I was first there, I was very cautious not to overdo that.  But she has done some big gala events for us.  Last year, she did the Songs of the Auvergne with us, which were just wonderful.  We’re going to New Orleans in the spring.  I’m doing a guest appearance with the New Orleans Symphony, and she’s going to do the Songs of the Auvergne there.  So, that will be fun.  
She has such a big career and it’s wonderful.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Do you like being a wandering minstrel?

Manahan:   It’s wonderful and exciting getting to know new cities and work in new places, but I must say I do like having a home base, Richmond being home and having my own orchestra to go back to.  Then, I regularly work in Minnesota, so it’s nice to go to places that are familiar where you have friends.  Life on the road can be quite stressful, and I’ve cut back on a good bit of it now, being a Music Director, so that when I do go on the road, it’s for projects that I want to do.  But it can be tough.

BD:   What advice do you have for the next generation of conductors, either symphony or opera?  Should they combine those activities, or should they keep them separate?

Manahan:   My advice is to conduct anything you can get your hands on.  Try things when you’re young.  You don’t want to specialize too soon, so try your hand at everything.  Musicians are musicians, and music is music, and waving your stick is about 5% of the job.  The rest of it is learning how to deal with human beings, musicians, and how you’re going to get the results you want.  It’s psychology.

BD:   Is it learning how to deal with musicians, or is it learning how to deal with the music?

Manahan:   Both.  Given that one is always going back to the scores and learning new ways, there’s always something new to learn.  Frankly, you can have tons of ideas, but if you have no way of expressing them, or getting your ideas across to the players physically or verbally, then you’re stuck.  That’s where I am still learning, and probably will be for the next twenty years.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

Manahan:   I am.  We go through cycles of angst.  The symphony orchestra is going through a period of transition.  [With a grin] Of course, if you spell
transition backwards, it says, “No, it isn art.” [Both laugh]  But opera has found the hook.  Surtitles have changed everything, and it’s given opera a new life.  Symphonies will find something like that, too.

BD:   It’s my contention that the surtitles were demanded after people started getting used to them on the television.

Manahan:   It could be.  Is it true that Lotfi Mansouri in Toronto was the first to use them?

BD:   They started up there when Lotfi was General Director.

Manahan:   Then it was embraced immediately by a lot of companies.

BD:   Right.  Are surtitles going to mean the death of standard operas in translation?

Manahan:   I hope so.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  I like opera translation when done in smaller theaters.

Manahan:   Using surtitles solves a lot of problems, such as what translation to use.  That
s such a subjective thing, but I have enjoyed the fact that we’re able to get back to using the original languages.  Many stage directors will disagree.  I know several who just hate surtitles.  They feel surtitles are like putting five scrims up between the audience and the singers, because naturally they figure the eyes are wandering up.  But if they’re done right, they’re much more help than hindrance, and they’re getting better all the time.  It also depends on the opera.  If it’s an opera I’m not familiar with, I will watch them a lot.  But if it’s Tosca or something like that, I don’t bother looking.  It shouldn’t distract.

BD:   Some singers have told me that they get two laughs
one when the audience reads it on the screen, and one when they see it on the stage.

Manahan:   Yes.  In Susannah we had that.  There were some lines that showed up on the surtitles that got an unexpected laugh, so we cut the surtitle.  We also drop one if it is redundant, or if we think it’s going to get silly.  When Brother Sam comes back and asks if anything happened while he was gone, he gets a little laugh.  I don’t mind it, because it is a 30-year-old piece, and if you play it right, it’s all right.

BD:   Like the old joke... nothing happened, but the dog died.

Manahan:   [Laughs]  Right, but we took the surtitle out.  When they ask Blitch, “How do you know she’s innocent, preacher?” he says, “The Lord spoke to me while I was praying in the night.”  I don’t even mind that laughter because I think it breaks the tension, and that’s all right.

BD:   Is there any major difference now in the Olin Blitch character because we’ve gone through the tribulations of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker?

Manahan:   Maybe we’re a little more cynical.  Maybe now we feel like we’ve seen this character before.  Maybe in earlier years he was a little more unique, although we had Elmer Gantry to refer to.  His name, and Jimmy Swaggart’s especially came up in rehearsals a lot.  There was crying on television, and he repeatedly said,
I have sinned, with the prostitutes, and the way we played Blitch, we figure that he has been with prostitutes.  That’s why, when he’s on the road he needs a woman.  In the past, he was able to probably find one.  We just figured in searching for the character that he goes to them, and it’s anonymous.  He’s able to forget about it because they’re that kind of women.  When he comes to New Hope Valley, because of all the rumors, he thinks that Susannah’s that kind of woman, but he’s destroyed when he realizes she’s not.

BD:   Thank you for speaking with me today, and I hope you will return to Chicago.

Manahan:   Thank you.


© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 28, 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001; on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2010; and on WNUR in 2010 and 2018.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.