Maestro Valéry Ryvkin : A 'Singer's Conductor' on Orchestrating the Key Elements of Opera

Growing up in Leningrad back in the 1970s, Maestro Valéry Ryvkin was a huge fan of opera. Though his parents were of modest means, they were, as he recalls, “opera buffs with good ears and great taste.” He was always listening to opera, whether it was wafting from the radio as he ate during mealtime or pouring from the stage of the Mariinsky Opera or Leningrad Philharmonic as he sat in the audience.

He started studying piano at seven, fell in love with it, and eventually attended the Leningrad State Conservatory. It was the late 1970s, and artistic life in Leningrad was fabulous. Culturally, it was the golden age of the Iron Curtain. But there were many difficulties in navigating a music career through the communist system, and for Ryvkin, the golden age quickly began to tarnish.

So at 18, with the impudence of adolescence and a tenacious streak that Ryvkin says has always served him well, he announced to his parents, “I’m going to America to be a musician in a free country. Would you like to come?”

Little did he expect that what started out as a desire to be a musician would take him from student to teacher at both Mannes College The New School for Music and the Juilliard School, and from rehearsal pianist to cover conductor at the San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera. From there he transitioned into conducting, leading productions at companies such as the Portland Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Mississippi Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Sarasota Opera, where Maestro Ryvkin conducted the North American premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov’s May Night.

He has since become artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara and the Greensboro Opera, both of which have received bequests in several millions of dollars as a direct result of the success of Ryvkin’s efforts to elevate the companies to the highest artistic level.

In June 2009, he makes his international conducting debut in Germany at Theater Erfurt with Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. In September 2009, he conducts the world premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, at Opera Santa Barbara.

CS sat down with Ryvkin to discuss the makings of his career, as well as what’s on the horizon.

You’ve conducted at many of the major opera companies in the world and received phenomenal reviews. You have an outstanding reputation in your field for your artistry, musical interpretation, and rapport with orchestra and singers—yet you’ve never had any formal training as a conductor. That’s somewhat of an anomaly in today’s world. How did that transpire?

You know, I’m convinced that some of the best things in life often happen by chance, and that was surely the case with my introduction into conducting. I came to New York City very young, having had very rigorous musical training in Russia, although my English was not very good. So I made a commitment early on to absorb everything I could.

I enrolled at Mannes College of Music, continued my piano study, immersed myself in musicology, and was also quite fortunate to study the Schenkerian Analysis system. It was a wonderful in-depth study of the structure of musical composition, and it has served me well as a conductor. At the same time, in order to earn some money for music, books, and tickets to concerts and opera, I began to play for voice lessons and gradually started coaching singers and playing auditions. 

The next step was to go to Juilliard for my master’s degree in collaborative piano, while teaching at both my undergraduate and graduate alma maters.
With your combined gifts of working with singers and rigorously studying musicology and analysis, it seems that conducting was a natural next step.

Exactly. And that’s when the chance happened—and a stroke of good luck. I was hired as a vocal coach at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara. We were working on Verdi’s Falstaff, and I knew that I would need to conduct some staging rehearsals with the piano. My friend and mentor at the time, Maestro Yakov Kreizberg, generously gave me a few tips on conducting. I also took a couple of private sessions on Falstaff with one of the most knowledgeable coaches at that time and also the assistant conductor at the Met, Alberta Masiello.

As a coach preparing the singers and the chorus, I knew the piece very well and so when, at the last minute, the conductor got an invitation to work at a very prestigious house, I was naturally the next choice. I was “the coach who could conduct.” I fell in love with conducting immediately. I had so many colleagues and mentors who stood by me during that time. Stage director Bodo Igesz was particularly supportive. From there it was certainly not an overnight process, but word got out, and I started to get engagements as an assistant or cover conductor for such masters as Valéry Gergiev, James Levine, Antonio Pappano, and Donald Runnicles. I observed very closely how they worked. Gradually I began getting my own conducting engagements.

Opera Santa Barbara started out as a very small “mom and pop” operation in the early 1990s. You have been with the company almost since its beginning and, under your leadership, it has now developed into a highly respected regional company with a glowing reputation and an annual budget of $1,600,000. In addition, as a result of your work, Opera Santa Barbara recently received a $5 million bequest. Can you share with us how that all evolved?

I had been a guest conductor at Opera Santa Barbara for a couple of seasons, and the board asked me to step in as artistic director following the resignation of the first executive and artistic director. I was delighted and daunted by the tasks ahead, but committed that the company would not only survive, but thrive. I launched right into the fundraising part, spending most of that summer on the phone. Within six months, I had personally raised 10 percent of our annual budget, which helped the company move forward. 

Fundraising is an entirely different animal from the artistic demands of conducting. Did you have a background in it, and how did you navigate that piece?

No, actually I had no background in fundraising at all. In fact, I was quite shy when it came to both networking and fundraising, and felt awkward at first. My wife, Vicky, and people that I know laugh because I’m anything but shy now when it comes to both those things.

But at the time, the president of the board, James Ballantine, was exceedingly helpful. And Vicky had worked for five years as a professional fundraiser, so she gave me a quick crash course in it, encouraging and teaching me all the way. Building a good team (office manager, administrative assistants, general director, etc.) made a huge difference as well. Because of the quality of our productions, our reputation grew and, as a result, our donor base expanded.
It takes quite a collaborative effort to make that happen.

Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest mistakes some general as well as artistic directors make is they think they’re supposed to do it all themselves, so they either don’t delegate enough, they get into controlling or micromanaging, or they don’t take board members’ and staff’s feedback. I think that’s a terrible oversight.

In terms of the actual fundraising, what do you find is the best approach to take?

Interestingly enough, although I’ve learned so much since my early work as an artistic director, I still use the same approach to it now as I did then.

I believe that it is essential to really get to know your audiences, what their tastes and sensibilities are. It is equally vital for a local opera company to immerse itself into the surrounding community.

Make your donors feel extra special, because they are. Always be professional, but go the extra mile. Most of our donors in Santa Barbara are opera aficionados and have seen performances at many of the world’s leading international companies.

So not only are we meticulous with the quality of our opera productions, but we offer a variety of educational and outreach programs that we believe would be of interest to them. Whether it is an elegantly organized salon with a featured soloist or a lecture by a noted musical scholar, such events create strong personal and positive relationships between the company and its constituents.

That kind of relationship building is the foundation for all fundraising. And I often communicate directly with donors. Sometimes it’s a note, sometimes a phone call—sometimes I invite someone to coffee or for a drink, which gives me an opportunity to really listen and respond to the donor’s ideas or concerns. I like to let the donors know that I recognize them as individuals, not just a money pool for the opera.

For example, if I run across a special recording that I know will interest a particular supporter, I will send it to that person with a personal note. Those kinds of gestures are so easy to do and mean so much to the person receiving them.

What are the surrounding issues that can make or break a company?

I am always looking at the whole picture of what allows a company to thrive—artistically and financially. And believe it or not, staying within the budget is at the top of the list. When choosing the repertoire, one must balance the tried-and-true (Carmen, La bohème) with some innovative new work, to keep the financial health of the company strong. I always come in right on or even under budget. Staying within the budget allows the company to plan its future. One has to ask first, “What does the company need in order to thrive?” versus “What piece do I want to produce?” That’s a far more long-term perspective that allows the company to provide high-quality opera to the community in a sustainable and satisfying way. Patrons feel good about donating to a company that not only is committed to artistic excellence but is also fiscally responsible, stays in the black, and immerses itself in the community.

It doesn’t have to be a huge budget. I’ve created extraordinary productions on rather ordinary or modest budgets. You just have to get creative. Until recently, at OSB we performed in the Lobero Theater, a charming space, but one that is small for opera, and with a small stage that meant we had to design and build our own sets, rather than renting them. A very expensive proposition! This season we’ve moved our main productions to the newly rebuilt Granada Theater, so now we can rent sets from top-level international companies and get more bang for the buck, so to speak.

What are some other key pieces that have been instrumental in the enormous expansion in both Opera Santa Barbara and Greensboro, where you serve as artistic director?

It seems exceedingly obvious, but one can’t reiterate enough the importance of being committed to the quality of the production. I look at how we can create excellence in each piece of it, from the performance, set design, direction, and, of course, the music. When you deliver a production that celebrates the music and drama, honors the composer’s work, and extracts the true gifts of the singers and orchestra, then people get excited. Word gets out. Marketing is easier when you can be proud of your product. Everyone wants to be part of something great.

Lastly, be excited about what you’re doing. I love opera, all parts of it—the music and working with the singers and the orchestra, with the directors, board members, staff—and so I share that enthusiasm every time I talk with a donor, an audience member, a singer. When you’re excited, people are inspired. All of these things, I believe in my heart, constitute what goes into taking a company to the next level. You literally can’t separate one from another.
In addition to receiving a $5 million bequest for Santa Barbara, the Greensboro Opera also recently received its first ever $1 million dollar bequest as well. How did that happen?

In both those cases, they were donors who had seen many of the top opera companies in the world. That being said, when they saw both the caliber of productions that we were doing at Santa Barbara and at Greensboro, and the intricacies of what was involved in both cases, they both thought it very important to offer generous portions of their estate to continue to develop the artistic quality and the legacy of opera.
Not only is that a testament to your work, but also on a personal level, I’m sure, very rewarding.

Absolutely, it confirmed what I know is true—that people are really affected by opera that honors the music and touches them on a very deep level.
I know that you feel very strongly about the Young Artist Program at Opera Santa Barbara. What can you tell us about it?

The Young Artist Program was a dream of mine for many years. Three years ago that dream came true in Santa Barbara. It has been an absolute joy and has brought a fresh, youthful energy to the community. In so many of the most popular operas, the chorus plays a huge role, and many of the very best singers in the chorus now are from the Young Artist Program. It is vital that we support the talents of young, emerging artists. It teaches our young people so much about the creative process, discipline, and artistic excellence. My daughter was in the children’s chorus for several of the productions, and even for them it was a rigorous schedule.

In Greensboro, we have an excellent relationship with the University of North Carolina and often use students and sometimes faculty members in our productions there. We also do a jointly produced spring production featuring UNCG students. Everyone benefits from this collaboration.

You’ve mentioned the importance of young people and the life of opera depending on them. Given the steep ticket prices to cover production costs, what are some important ways around that so young people are not discouraged?

With the new theater in Santa Barbara, we can diversify ticket prices, so some of the ticket prices are as low as $20. At Greensboro with a 2,500 seat house, we have $5 student tickets on the day of the performance.

We also have a final dress rehearsal at noon, and school students get to see the shows for free. They are amongst our favorite audiences. They have an amazing attention span and spend three hours with great excitement and respond with enthusiasm to opera.

In Santa Barbara, we now do a family production each fall, which is a bit like the Met’s Magic Flute: a one-hour show for children. Our children’s show is entirely underwritten, which allows us to offer three complimentary performances to the community.
You conducted the San Diego Opera premiere of the first, 1869 Musorgsky version of Boris Godunov, featuring the American debut of Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the role of Boris [see December 2006 cover story]. What was it like to work with such a world star of the opera scene?

It was one of the most rewarding experiences. Ferruccio Furlanetto is not only a phenomenal talent and very professional, but the complexity and richness that he brings to his acting is extraordinary. He adds such a deep layer of psychology to the character. He’s under the skin of every single moment, embodying the work on all levels. And all of it in impeccable Russian.

The collaborative process was so rewarding. We would work for hours, delving into both the music and drama of the role, often with barely a word spoken, sensing everything. Ferruccio and I also became great friends.

Furlanetto has described you as the “singer’s conductor” and “unforgettable to work with.” Can you talk more about that?

That’s very flattering and it really means a lot to me. I think it’s the combination of having both taught and worked with singers for years that has allowed me to really understand what they go through.

That’s why I always start musical rehearsals at the piano, playing the score myself, rather than having the pianist play it. It’s much more intimate than just waving a stick at the piano. It allows the singer to be more at ease and it also familiarizes me with each singer’s instrument on a vocal and acting level. You have to be so attuned to every breath, every beat.

It’s a collaborative process and, while I’ve done exhaustive research and preparation on the music, none of my choices are engraved in stone. The final product is always a combination of my ideas and what each singer brings to the role.

The first rehearsal is our time to meet and greet each other musically, and it sets a very important tone for the next three to four weeks of the rehearsal process. Then the “chemical” reaction can take place between music, drama, and stage direction.

What would you say the role of conductor is in relation to stage director?

I see the roles of the stage director and the conductor as musical parents. When there is true collaboration between both parties and both are equally interested in the other’s input and influence, then the “children” (the singers) can relax and know they are in good hands. It is an absolutely invaluable piece of the puzzle.
This fall you will be conducting the world premiere of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, written by Broadway icon Stephen Schwartz and commissioned by Opera Santa Barbara. Schwartz has said, “I feel my opera couldn’t be in better hands, literally and metaphorically.” Can you please share your process on how conducting a world premiere differs from working on an already established classic?

Firstly, I was deeply honored when Stephen Schwartz saw the production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at OSB a couple of years ago. He was impressed by the level of the company, which prompted him to accept our commission at Santa Barbara Opera.

Collaborating with him on this project has been a totally exhilarating experience. Stephen was trained as a classical musician and has enormous talent and experience writing for voices and the stage. He wanted to create an opera based on this particular story, which was made into a movie decades ago. The story is very operatic, and in the workshop that we did in November, everyone in the cast and in the small, invited audience could feel that this was going to be something very, very special.

In terms of working on a world premiere, there is literally nothing else to compare it to. The ink is still wet, so to speak. There is no recording to listen to in order to get an idea how it goes. It is a dynamic dance between the conductor, composer, singers, stage director, and orchestra. The cast is absolutely first rate. They are full of passion, enthusiasm for the piece, and imagination. We work together as a total ensemble that makes it a very rewarding process. I am very excited about this project and confident that our audience will find it an incredible musical and dramatic experience.

Given the economy and the competition for both artistic excellence and fundraising dollars, what would you say are the essential elements in keeping opera alive?

Again, I would say stick to the basics. Keep within the budget, readjust the number of operas you produce if need be, keep reaching out to the community. And find more cost-effective ways of bringing the music to the people—for example, festivals and Young Artist Programs. Be smart, strategic, and sophisticated. And be prepared to be flexible and respond to what the newer, younger audiences might want to see on stage.

You’ve also taught a lot, both at the university level as well as with Young Artist Programs. Do you see yourself doing more teaching, and in what capacity?

Yes. I started teaching very early on at Mannes and Juilliard back in 1986. Teaching has always occupied an important part of my life and my career. It keeps me connected with the singers and, in between engagements, I continue to do lots of coaching. I find it very satisfying and look forward one of these days to combining my conducting and artistic director’s work with teaching at an opera program at a university or a conservatory.

What is your advice for up-and-coming as well as veteran singers? What are the broad stroke dos and don’ts which they need to be mindful of in regard to both auditions and training?

Well, firstly, I think it’s essential that singers audition only with arias that best represent them—ones that they are so comfortable with that they can wake up in the middle of the night and perform spot on. This may seem blatantly obvious, but I’m amazed how many singers come in wanting to show a piece that “stretches them,” that ultimately is not a fit, or they’re not as strong in—and, invariably, that’s the one we ask for and that’s the one that remains in our mind.

Preparation is also essential. You must have the piece down musically, dramatically, and stylistically, and your diction must be impeccable. Auditions are performances. Show your personality and tell the story. Be rigorous with your training and development as a singer. The competition is fierce, and it takes inordinate amounts of work to stand out and be noticed.

As every great opera has a final coda, what would yours be for this interview?

In spite of the economy and changes that opera has gone through, I am and always have been incredibly optimistic for the future of this very important art form in America. It has gone through a tremendous transformation since the 1960s. Look at how many new companies have sprung up over the last 30 years, as well as the many new works that are being composed and performed in America. Audiences love our “Aidas” and “Butterflies” and always will, and they are inspired by all the new works that create new life. All of that proves that despite the current economic challenges facing the country, opera is a vital and vibrant part of the cultural life of our country. I am very proud and happy to be a part of it, and I hope to keep being a part of it for as long as I can lift a baton.

Lois Barth

Lois Barth is an empowerment and relationship coach and a writer. She is the life coach and source expert of SELF magazine’s SELF Challenge. She has written for the New York Times and for SELF, Fitness, Classical Singer, and Natural Awakenings magazines. Barth is also a contributing author for two anthologies on empowerment.