World-renowned conductor Gerard Schwarz has presented concert music and operas all over the world and made hundreds of recordings. Marking his 70th birthday in 2017, Naxos released a 30-CD retrospective of his half-century recording career. But neither age nor pandemic has slowed him down.
Since 2019 he has led the Frost School of Music’s conducting program, where in addition to guiding future maestros he is championing new works. Next month he will lead student musicians and singers along with seasoned professionals in the world premiere of Michael Dellaira’s opera The Leopard, based on the 1958 novel Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
The historical drama about Sicily during Italy’s reunification period became a film legend in 1963 with the release of Luchino Visconti’s Palme d’Or-winning classic adaptation. It will come to life all over again through Dellaira’s music, and a libretto by the late American poet and author J. D. McClatchy, when the opera premieres on March 5 and 6, 2022 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. Met Opera baritone Kim Josephson joins Robynne Redmon, Frank Ragsdale, Kevin Short, and rising students of the Frost Opera Theater in the cast.
Maestro Schwarz is well known for his long tenure with the Seattle Symphony and for leading the nine-time Emmy Award-winning All-Star Orchestra. Today, in addition to the Frost School, he holds positions with the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina and the Palm Beach Symphony.
He was kind enough to speak with us about the new production, and about conducting opera in general.
You’ve been a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music since 2019. How are students involved in The Leopard, and how valuable, as an educational experience, is an opera production like this that includes students alongside seasoned professionals?
The orchestra is made up of all students. The cast is comprised of both exceptional professionals and outstanding students. The chorus is all students. The director etc. are all professionals but the assistants are students. We are doing this in a professional manner so that all of the students are experiencing this as professionals would. It is a real entry [for them] into our professional world of opera production.
It is also very challenging because the music is new to everyone. There isn’t a tradition to hold on to; everyone has to make it their own.
Were you familiar with Michael Dellaira’s work before this project?
Yes, I was familiar with both of his previous operas [The Secret Agent and The Death of Webern, both with librettos by McClatchy].
How would you describe Dellaira’s opera music and The Leopard as a whole? And what kind of audience response do you anticipate?
I think the opera is wonderful. Michael Dellaira has written a brilliant work and the libretto by J.D. McClatchy is excellent. The opera uses leitmotifs that are clear but subtle. [Dellaira] has also written some wonderfully touching arias and very effective ensembles. His music always brings the story forward and is engaging. I think that this remarkable work and the excellent direction by Jeffery Buchman will receive an overwhelmingly positive response.
You’ve conducted operas by Wagner, Janáček, Strauss, Mozart, Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Beethoven to name a few. In general, how does conducting opera differ from conducting concert music?
With concert music, we need to think and care about one aspect, the music itself. That also means the orchestra’s performance. If there is a soloist, then that becomes part of the larger equation.
With opera, there are added components. There is the text, the direction, lighting, costumes, coordination and balance with the stage and more to consider. So often the musical direction can take a back seat to all of these considerations, but with a great stage director and great singing actors, the results can be magical.
What are your responsibilities at the Frost School, and what kinds of projects are you involved in there in a typical year?
My main responsibility is as music director of the Frost Symphony Orchestra, not dissimilar from any orchestral music directorship. I also have four conducting students and make myself available to many students for musical guidance. For this opera production, I am the guest of our outstanding Director of the Opera Theatre, Alan Johnson.
I imagine that like most musicians you had unexpected time on your hands during the pandemic. How did you use this time?
I was one of the lucky ones with both Frost Symphony Orchestra and the Palm Beach Symphony doing concerts and television projects. It was a very busy time and I feel so lucky to have been able to continue my love of music through performances and television.
Have there been music-related pandemic-era adaptations that you think will persist into the future?
I think that the live steaming that has become so important during these last two years will continue with many organizations. This is a wonderful way to bring classical music to a larger audience to make it easily available to those whose are not able to come to a live concert.
Anything else you’d like to tell our readers about The Leopard?
Thank you so much for your interest and in helping promote this important premiere.
The Leopard is the final collaboration between Dellaira and McClatchy, who died in 2018. It premieres March 5 and 6, 2022 at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. American Opera Projects commissioned the opera, and the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and the Paul Underwood Charitable Trust provided funds.
For tickets call 786-573-5300 or visit SMDCAC.ORG.