No Artifice: : Patrick Summers

Patrick Summers, music director at Houston Grand Opera, maintains a major presence at opera houses around the world, including San Francisco Opera, Opera Australia, and the Metropolitan Opera. He has worked with singers such as Ruth Ann Swenson, Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel, and Patricia Racette. His repertoire spans the musical periods, including Baroque through contemporary works.

An Indiana University alumnus, Mr. Summers began his career with the San Francisco Merola program. Before joining HGO, he spent five years as music director of the San Francisco Opera Center. In this capacity, he led the touring group across Canada and the United States, and in five opera tours of the Pacific and Asia.

Mr. Summers’ impressive discography includes Renée Fleming’s 2002 Grammy Award-winning recording Bel Canto, featuring the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. He has taught, coached, and conducted at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and conducted the first ever production of Puccini’s Tosca in China.

What are your responsibilities as HGO’s music director?

My chief responsibility is the maintenance and administration of the orchestra and the performances that I conduct here. But I’m also involved in deciding the future repertoire [and] the casting; all of the artistic decisions in the company involve me.

Do singers audition for you?

Yes. For both David Gockley and me.

What do you look for in an audition?

I look for a very individual timbre, someone who doesn’t sound like anyone else, a beautifully produced voice. I’m looking for someone whose voice is inseparable from who they are. I’m looking for a person’s relationship to music through their voice. I want to see that their voice is the utmost expression of who they are, and thus, who the character is.

So they don’t sing something as separate from their selves…

Right. I can’t bear artifice, and someone who sings something that they think I will like, or sing something in a manner—you know, that sort of sculpted and manufactured kind of product. I’m looking for honesty.

Any advice for singers when they audition?

Never sing music you don’t like.

What if a piece you sing is very well suited to you but it’s out of your Fach?

I think that’s fine! Artists aren’t machines with labels. Maria Callas sang I puritani and Die Walküre in the same week. She didn’t do too badly!

What makes a bad impression on you?

Artifice. Any kind of fakery. I want to know who you are when you audition for me. I don’t need you to tell me that in words; I want to see it and hear it: “I love this music more than anything in the world; that’s why I’m singing it,” even if it’s something nobody knows.

Then you don’t really look for résumés, and experience, and teachers, and so on?

No. I could care less.

Describe your experience as music director of the San Francisco Opera Center?

I was fortunate to be at the San Francisco Opera at a very young age. I was studying there myself when I was 22, and I worked there for 15 years before I took my position in Houston. I was music director of the Opera Center for five of those years. The Opera Center is the umbrella organization over the Merola Program, and the Adler fellowship program, and Western Opera Theater, which is now gone.

I was exposed to a great era in the company. There were a great many young singers who auditioned for us. Sometimes the greatest talents are not the most finely put together at a young age, so I learned to develop discernment and trust, as well as a strong aesthetic sense. Some singers who came to us were young and “green,” but you could see their incredible relationship to music, whether they could or couldn’t express it at that time. That’s what you train. Then you find that core of imagination in them.

Of course, they have to have the voice first. You cannot create a great voice from a mediocre voice. You can make a great voice greater by training it.

Do you teach?

I don’t any longer. I taught at the Opera Center and also at the Shanghai Conservatory, through an exchange program.

How was the Shanghai experience?

It was probably the most influential part of my life, as far as my real relationship to music. I first went in 1987, and I was last there in 1992. China is very different now, but the conservatory students of the ‘80s had grown up in the Cultural Revolution, so their entire formative years were shaped by it. The idea of a singer going to a conservatory in China and being entitled to a career was absolutely foreign to them.

These conservatories were populated with the most incredible talents and the most enormous amount of desire. Look at the obstacles they had to overcome to get there!

The two major conservatories in China—the central Conservatory in Beijing and the Shanghai Conservatory—actually date back to the Victorian era.

Did the students study Chinese opera and traditional Chinese music, or did they also study Western music?

Now, you can do either.

But you couldn’t study any Western music during the Cultural Revolution.

Oh, no! During the Cultural Revolution, the voice department head of one of the conservatories hid her records under the floorboards of her house. When students would come over, she would play Caruso records at this tiny, tiny volume. All the kids would gather close to the LP player so they could hear it. But then she was sent away, as were most intellectuals, to work on a farm.

I’ll never forget a night in Shanghai; it was in the spring, very warm. At that time, Shanghai didn’t have enough electricity to light the entire city all night, so they had periodical blackouts, and everyone was accustomed to this. I started a class in the evening with 12 singers, and lots of people attending. We were just going to work on some music like always, and the lights went out, so all the students went to get candles and gas lamps.

So there we were in this classroom, three stories high, over a completely black Shanghai—I’ll never forget it. And on this particular night, I heard a young soprano who I’ve now lost track of—but I remember her on that candle-lit evening. She was singing “Ruhe Sanft, mein holdes Leben” from Zaide by Mozart. She had a wonderful voice, and I asked her through my translator: “What is this about?” (In that era, it was rare for them to speak English.)

I had worked with this girl before and she had a beautiful, creamy voice. When I asked her this question I was expecting a sort of translation of the aria, or a set-up of the scene, but she spoke to me in English for the first time and said: “In this aria, Mr. Mozart wish peace on whole world!” And it suddenly dawned on me that there were forces at work here that weren’t necessarily career-oriented! That is what attracts me in a singer! The career comes if you have that impetus inside of you, and I don’t think it’s the other way around.

You developed the Pacific Voices program for the San Francisco Opera Center. Tell me about that.

Pacific Voices was a San Francisco opera program. It was meant to celebrate and utilize San Francisco’s position in the Pacific—San Francisco Opera being the oldest cultural institution on the Pacific Rim. So we decided to go to as many countries as we could, on the Pacific borders, to see what kinds of special talents were out there.

The aim was to do a miniature Merola program, for about two weeks. We took two singers from each country and brought them to San Francisco, and it was a process we hoped would be ongoing every two years, but the San Francisco Opera didn’t take that up.

It was an absolutely amazing experience, and it resulted in some singers who have gone on to careers, like Alfredo Portilla, Vassily Gerello and others. There were people who went on to musical careers that weren’t classical.

It was unusual, very outside of the box and very heartfelt; it’s something I wish I could do more of.

You conducted the first ever Tosca produced in China. What was that experience like?

That was in 1988. It was extraordinary! We had a cast in Mandarin and one in Italian. We were performing Tosca for an audience that didn’t know it. It was a real melodrama for them: they didn’t know she was going to kill Scarpia, or that she was going to jump. They screamed when it happened!

It was really visceral. I kept thinking: “This must have been the experience of seeing it in Italy for the first time!” Their participation in the performance was not to see how the B-flat is at the end of “Recondita armonia.” It was the story itself, which was very exciting for them.

Now Shanghai has its own opera house and they produce Western opera all the time; they’re a big international city. Then, they were certainly a big city, but that kind of Western culture was not so common.

What do you think it was about opera that appealed to them?

It’s just amazing how opera appeals to every culture. Operas are grand statements of emotion; that’s why they appeal to all of us, no matter where we come from.

Do you do any master classes?

I have, very often in San Francisco. I sometimes still do them.

How does teaching singers enrich you?

Of all of the ways to express oneself in the classical arts, singing is the most personal, and the one from which you cannot separate yourself, because it’s coming from inside of you. As hard as a lot of singers try, they can’t separate that.

The exciting part of teaching is watching singers gain confidence in themselves and thus in their vocalism. As you know, classical singing is a very physically demanding art form, because your ability to sing—the technique of singing itself—is the art form, and you’re living through it. When you get a score, you’ve got all of these things you have to fulfill, and it is your technical ability to do that which makes you an artist. That takes a huge amount of courage and personality.

Do you give freedom to singers in tempo, phrasing?

Absolutely.

What would you tell singers who are faced with impossible stage directors?

I’d ask: Are the singers participants in the production, or are they puppets?

A lot of singers, especially in the German Fest houses, don’t dare to speak up because they’re afraid they might lose their jobs.

And they probably would. But they have to stand up for themselves. And isn’t part of our attraction to the operatic world to go see personalities? Why else would you go to a live performance?

One of my favorite types of work is working with the stage director; that’s one of the most rewarding things in my life—when it works, and when they’re really collaborative and wanting to work out what it is today, here and now! Conversely, when they can’t do that, when they can’t collaborate, it is hell! It really is hell! So you try to avoid those situations. But as a singer, you have to assert yourself.

What is it like for you to conduct so many world premieres for which there is no precedent for performance, where you can give it your own personal stamp?

By nature of what we do, whatever I conduct has my personal stamp—but my purpose in conducting is to say what the composer needs to say, not to put my personal stamp on a work.

Conducting premieres is a wonderful thing to do. But that’s the same creative activity that should inform La bohème or La traviata every time we do those operas: like you would do it for the first time. You have to think: “What does an opera mean in the context of all the people who are in this rehearsal room today?” That approach is harder to do than it sounds. But I think the more work you can do on new music, the more able you are to transfer this fresh approach to standard repertoire.

How does it feel to be part of this innovative and groundbreaking company?

One of the great attractions of HGO is that we’re sort of in perpetual festival. The company tends to approach all the works as new, because even our standard repertoire doesn’t come around nearly as often as it does in bigger companies. For us it’s every six or seven years between “Bohémes.” The higher percentage of your activity that is devoted to new works, the greater chance you’ll have that everything in your company will be new. Every time we rehearse “Traviata” or Rigoletto, it’s new. We haven’t just done Rigoletto last season and we’re reviving it this season—which happens in a lot of companies, and that has its advantages too—but here, it’s rather an event when we do Rigoletto And it should be. All operas are events.

You went to Indiana University. How did your education there influence your future?

The big influence that shaped me at Indiana University was Margaret Harshaw, in whose vocal studio I played at an early age. And it was Margaret who first told me that I was a conductor. She said: “You play the piano like a conductor, so you should be one.” I played orchestrally, and I’d never even thought about it. So, at her encouragement, I got involved in the opera program at IU, played a lot of operas, and eventually auditioned for the Merola Program, where I went as a coach in 1986.

I had a great education at IU and many teachers had a big impact on me. The depth of knowledge and experience there in that era was absolutely remarkable. I owe a lifetime debt to that organization. But Margaret was the reason I have this career.

I wanted to be a musician. I started out as a pianist, and I had not been allowed to dream about conducting to that extent until it was suddenly in front of me. That is, after all, what major educational institutions should do: provide you the ability to dream and imagine something that you didn’t know was available to you.

Margaret was a remarkable pedagogue. She was not for everyone; she was very controversial. She was tough, old-school, New England screaming—you never knew what you were going to get in there, but at the heart of it was a dedication to this art form that you rarely see today.

Unfortunately, that’s happened in every art form. Are we going to see 40-year Hollywood careers anymore? I’m not sure the aesthetic is to find a young Katherine Hepburn and follow her through her life as an actress. And she was rare. There were a couple of dozen Hollywood careers from the ‘30s and ‘40s that lasted a lifetime and the public followed them on the screen for 40 years, not for five—like Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart. You went to those movies because they were in them.

I think in the operatic world, too, we’re now post-Sutherland and post-Pavarotti, all of these long-career singers. There was an event around those singers taking on a new part. That’s what everyone focused on. That has disappeared. We don’t focus very much on the activities of singers—but then we turn around and say there aren’t any stars. The 19th century pieces, especially, are written for great star personalities. You can’t pretend they’re not. Just as you can’t pretend that Hamlet isn’t for a grand star actor.

How does a conductor expand and improve his orchestra?

I once heard a conductor say that the success of a conductor depends on how good the orchestra is. So, you can have an average conductor, but if the orchestra knows how to play, can a mediocre conductor can get away with sounding well anyway?

Is the point of our work to “get away” with something? Sure, the Met orchestra can get through “Bohème” no matter who is on the podium, and it’s still a Met orchestra performance. Our orchestra here can get through a piece with quite a lot of aplomb now, no matter who is up there. But that’s not what we’re doing.

What do you do as a conductor? You chip away at bad habits. You greatly encourage the musical things that are in the direction you want to go. You have to be very clear technically with the orchestra, so that there can be flexibility in a piece like Madama Butterfly, because it’s very flexible music. What you need in performance from the orchestra is creating a really tactile response to the beat. It’s very complex because most of that special connection that happens between an orchestra and a conductor is something you never talk about. If you talk about it, you don’t have it anymore.

You don’t get along with everyone and you can’t please everyone. If that’s your goal, you’ve set yourself up to fail. The approach does not have to be: “This is how we’re doing the following 10 things.”

I am not a screaming totalitarian. The approach is to create the greatest amount of flexibility so that the conductor can just privately address those 10 things. I’m not only training them to perform with me, they’ve got to perform with other conductors. So, they have to be able to respond to a wide variety of people. Then the bigger issues, like sound and intonation, don’t take care of themselves; you have to address those things. But they are all positively affected by a response of being in the moment.

You’re a musicologist; music to you is not just performance—it involves a level of intellectual analysis and understanding. Singers can get trapped sometimes into too much analysis, which may inhibit the performance instinct. How do you combine the intellect with the visceral experience of music making, and what would you say to a singer in regards to that?

I think you’ve got to do your homework and know what kind of stylistic things you’re dealing with. But when you go in to rehearse, you’ve got to forget about that; they are two separate acts. Musicology is part of a conductor’s technique, but not the technique itself. Then you can make an informed choice. You can’t make an informed choice if you’ve never educated yourself about what the choices are.

Working with a singer, you’re trying to find out what the piece is, between the two of you, which is different between different people. We’re supposed to be striving for the highest level of creative activity, and that is what, not when, nor even how. “How” is your technique, and that has to be done, you can’t ignore it. I’m going to conduct “Trovatore” for the first time in January and I’m studying away on “how”: the history and the performance practice of the piece. But that is so I can rehearse at a higher level. You’ve got to do that work.

What words of advice do you have for singers today?

Don’t build your career. Build yourself and the career will come along. It’s your self that we want, so work on that, and the career follows. Don’t start with the career in mind. That will work for three or four years, but how long do you want to be here? Are you so dedicated to this art form that you want to do it for the rest of your life?

If you want to do it for the rest of your life, you’ve got to work on yourself, because you can’t keep up an artifice for 30 years—and why should you? It’s not rewarding. There can be a very short-term reward. You may get in there and all the right people will listen to you, and famous person A and famous person B will tell you things, and maybe you’ll get an article in Opera News. That’s all noise. Who are you? It’s your self that’s going to propel the career.

A career cannot bring you along. It’s the other way around.

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.