Takes on New York City Opera
WORDS BY MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK AND CAMILLA MIKOLAJEWSKA | NEW YORK | MUSIC
APR 11, 2023 | ISSUE 6
Constantine Orbelian by Ella Mazur
With a career spanning several decades since his graduation from The Juilliard School, Constantine Orbelian has made a name for himself on the international stage. The famed piano prodigy and conductor now returns to New York—just after the release of his latest album, I Puritani—as the newly appointed Music Director of the New York City Opera (NYCO). Though Orbelian takes pride in the NYCO’s penchant for presenting lesser known operas, his first go at the podium will be conducting Rigoletto on August 29th. For the conductor, it won’t be just another Rigoletto—the last time he presented it was alongside the late superstar, Dmitri Hvorostovsky—so this production carries an extra special significance for Orbelian and the NYCO.
Taking on this new role, Orbelian has made it his mission to expand access to opera to younger audiences and emerging artists alike. He speaks with smART Magazine about what that means to him, and how he envisions the NYCO’s role in the future of North American opera.
sM | What would you say the NYCO offers to audiences that can’t be found elsewhere in the city?
CO — The reason the NYCO was started in 1943 by Mayor Fiorello Laguardia—whose father was an opera singer—was to fulfill the mission of an opera house that was affordable and accessible to the general public. They also gave the opportunity at the time, and for years to come, for young artists to make their debut. Artists such as Jose Carreras, Renée Fleming, all the great singers that we know today had to start somewhere, and that was at NYCO.
The second part of the mission was to allow a platform for American composers and young composers from around the world to have a venue where they can produce their operas. I want to continue that in a big way, giving people an opportunity to hear new works, and that's what we have planned for the next season, a bunch of premieres.
As we slowly come out of these pandemic times, we'll have to take it slow in the beginning. We want to be really careful to make sure we can fill the hall to as many as possible. So we’ll take it slow in the fall, and then start the winter off with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis with the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The NYCO was stationed out of the Lincoln Centre for many years, then the state theatre closed for renovations, and then it just didn’t work out financially. So then they moved to the Rose Theatre where Wynton Marsalis has his series of concerts. It’s just the right size and has the best acoustics in town. It has a transforming stage where we can truly utilize the space for any production. We did Tosca there right before the pandemic, and I think that’s where we are going to start in regards to big productions. Small productions, like The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which is more for a chamber group, is ideal for a space such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
At the same time, I want to start doing something that I believe is incredibly important, and that is doing outreach to children. I want to do operas such as Cinderella or Barber of Seville, giving them a little intro, a taste of the music, and having them grow up with opera. I want to make sure kids aren’t afraid of opera, on the contrary I want them to be turned on to it. When I was in Moscow recently, I went to visit the Moscow Children's Musical Theatre. It’s a whole theatre that only works on producing operas for children. These are professionals performing for children. It’s on a very high level, with a wide variety of children’s stories, such as Goldilocks, that are being made into operas. They interact with the children, take photographs while they’re in costume. The educational aspect is very important for me because if we don’t educate the kids now, we won’t have an audience in the future.
sM | What special significance does Rigoletto have for you since the passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky?
CO — This is the first time I’m returning to this opera since his passing. He was an extraordinary artist, he was an incredible friend, a phenomenal colleague, it was an honour to stand next to him on the stage for 18 years. We actually did a bunch of concerts together in Canada and the U.S.. He’s one of those people who are irreplaceable. The whole persona, the whole package, the incredible voice and musicianship, the extraordinary gift that he had and was able to give to people was incredible. I’ll have a little bit of a lump in my throat when I start rehearsing.
sM | What do you have planned for the near future at the NYCO?
CO — In the summer, we were able to have these concerts in the park, which were only allowed with piano accompaniment. In the meantime, we will see how things are opening up and make sure that the money we spend will be spent well and that we’re working at venues that won’t break the bank and truly do some interesting stuff. I’ve commissioned some operas, one of which is The Love Letters of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Russian Czar. Their common language was English, so the opera will be in English, which I thought was a great idea. As visas become available, in the future we’re hoping to partner with opera houses across Europe in places such as Moscow, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. They have a lot of wonderful music that no one has ever heard here. I want to bring excellent, high-quality music to New York that you won’t hear at the Metropolitan Opera House. For example, when we did Tosca, it was a copy of the original production from Rome, a really authentic production that Puccini himself saw.
sM | How do you compare your role as Director of the Yerevan Opera Theatre and the opera community in Armenia, to New York and North America?
CO — The four years in Armenia taught me a lot. I started out really running, and I invited all of my friends from around the world. I invited John Fisher, deputy director of the Metropolitan Opera, and an incredible musician and coach, Howard Watkins, the chief coach of the Met and Renée Fleming who also came for concerts. I invited all kinds of different people to come. I organized my first international vocal competition in Armenia, so I had a bunch of incredible people come and be a part of the jury, individuals who are on the top of the shelf as far as musical organizations are concerned. Everything was really moving along and then the pandemic came and shut everything down. My time in Armenia is virtually over, which is why I took this job once it came up, because coming back to New York, at my age, is a good time to come back. This is a unique situation, and having the experience of running a huge organization already—I had 700 employees in Armenia—I figured I could handle that.
I really do feel that the arts will thrive as this pandemic subsides. As people calm down and are vaccinated and back to normal, there will be a huge flourishing of the arts. No one wants to watch another concert on Zoom, it was nice when you had absolutely no other option, but once you do have options you’re going to take the other option.