Q & A: Ari Pelto on Opera Colorado & Being Music Director

By Francisco Salazar

In 2015, Opera Colorado appointed its first-ever Music Director, Ari Pelto.

For the last eight years, he has been widely celebrated with the company conducting a wide array of repertoire and bringing the company’s artistic powers to the fore. He has also been in demand at opera houses and concert halls throughout the United States at the Spoleto Festival, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Virginia Opera, and Chicago Opera Theater.

Internationally he has conducted at the New National Theatre of Tokyo and the Teatro Nacional Sucre in Quito, Ecuador.

OperaWire spoke to Air Pelto about the 2023-24 season at Opera Colorado and about being the Music Director of the company.

OperaWire: Tell me about your work with Opera Colorado.

Ari Pelto: It’s my final year of a contract that’s coming up. But we are all intending to re-up the contract. My first work with Upper Colorado was 10 years ago. I came as a guest conductor and actually during that time I was here for “Don Giovanni.” I was asked by Greg Carpenter, the General Director, to come on first as artistic advisor and then I became a Music Director two years later.

I think I signed a three-year contract and then I renewed for a five-year contract and now I’m about to renew. So I’m in my 8th year as Music Director.

OW: How has the orchestra and the company grown throughout your eight years? What keeps you coming back?

AP: Well, this is my first music directorship. Previous to this I had been an assistant conductor many years ago. But besides that, I was a freelancer and I enjoyed being a freelancer, traveling around and conducting in various places. I went back to some places several times.

I was kind of a regular guest in various places, but when this was offered to me, it was really the first time I felt I was very interested in being Music Director, being kind of the musical head of the company, and it hinged on several things.

One was that I saw in this company a very high level of production values, singers, and many other things. We had also at the time when I came decided to have our own orchestra and that was a key component to my time here. I had a kind of mandate to grow the orchestra, to create an orchestra on a high level, and to improve all of that. And so over the last eight years, I would say a big part of my identity and the thing that I think about most is my work with the orchestra. And I’m very proud of the very high level we have achieved.

Each production has improved. When I first started we were only doing two productions and now we’re doing three and sometimes more. Part of that had to do with building an identity. It’s all about the way of playing and building a certain sound. All of that takes a lot of work and a lot of time. Over the eight years that I’ve been here, we’ve had auditions and the level has gone up with each audition.

We’ve done some pretty major repertoire. Last year we did “Die Tote Stadt” by Korngold, which very few companies in the US have done. Those other companies were New York City Opera, San Francisco, and Dallas, which are very big companies.

I think the combination of the work with the orchestra, with the chorus, the casting, all of that, in combination with repertoire that I’m very proud that we’ve done makes this a job that I’ve been very grateful for and happy to have.

OW: This season for example you have “Don Giovanni,” “Samson and Delilah,” and “The Flying Dutchman” which are three very diverse works. How do you program and when you’re programming do you think of casting that?

AP: The programming comes first.  We’re very careful in how we put together a season. In this particular season, we have an Italian opera, we have a German opera, and we have a French opera. “Samson and Delilah” is an opera that’s not done all that often and that’s part of what we try and do. We try and balance repertory so that we’re able to earn the right with our audience to be able to do something a little bit more adventurous or something that’s not done all the time.

With casting, I work with Greg Carpenter, the General Director. Sometimes I draw quite often on the fact that I’ve worked with many singers in many places. And so if there are singers that I think would be particularly suited to a certain role, I recommend them. For example in the case of “Samson and Delilah,” it’s not done often.

You have to be quite careful with your casting and the role of Delilah is famously difficult and Samson is also not easy. But Delilah was the center of the casting. You have to have a great Delilah. And so in the case of “Samson and Delilah,” we talked about the possibility of doing the piece and immediately went casting and who to bring for it.

And of course, “The Flying Dutchman” is done much more often, but you have to have a very wonderful Dutchman. And there again, we had hired Olafur Sigurdarson a few years ago to sing Falstaff based on auditions actually in New York. He sang for us and we were very impressed. And he sang our “Falstaff” and I thought he would be the person we wanted to come to do “Dutchman.”

And then in the case of “Don Giovanni,” we had in mind Bruno Taddia. I think I could safely say that Bruno is not your typical choice for “Don Giovanni.” He’s a comic genius and the Giovanni that he created is not exactly your typical Giovanni. It’s wonderful and compelling and again we thought a little out-of-the-box and decided that we wanted to see what would happen with him singing Giovanni and then create a cast that made sense around him.

And for a piece like “Don Giovanni,” which is an ensemble piece, it relies on having six or seven very strong characters as colleagues on stage and as an ensemble. So for the rest of the cast, we started to put together a list of people that I’ve worked with before or those who I’ve been interested in for a long time and we were able to bring them on board. So it’s repertoire first and then casting. And all of that happens often two to three years before the season.

OW: What do you find to be the challenges of conducting such a variety of repertoire and what are some of the rewards of being able to pick this diverse repertoire?

AP: I’m intensely lucky that I get to do this and pick largely what I’m doing. To be on the the level doing “Flying Dutchman,” “Samson” or last year’s “Die Tote Stadt” is an incredible privilege.

Although, I tend to gravitate toward certain composers. I love doing Mozart, I love doing Verdi, I love Puccini, and nonetheless, I’m interested in lots of different kinds of repertoire. I think it’s also very important for us as an organization to have the flexibility to do things that are part of the repertoire that are diverse and different, including contemporary works. It’s very important for the orchestra so they can feel like a true ensemble.

But I think it’s very important for the orchestra to have that opportunity and with each repertoire we learn more about playing together and the kind of sound we’re looking for.

OW: You are well known for your interpretation of “Don Giovanni.” Tell me about your recent performances of the opera with the company. How do you keep this score fresh and what keeps you coming back?

AP: I’ve done more Giovanni’s than any other piece. I think this is my eighth or ninth time doing “Giovanni” over 20-something years in various places on various levels. I’ve done the opera with professional companies as well as student productions. So I know the piece intimately and I have for a long time.

I have to say I haven’t heard a recording of “Don Giovanni”  since I can’t remember. And so what I would say is it’s a combination of hearing it because of that long association and intimacy with the people. Every time you have different singers means there’s something different. It will never be the same because it simply can’t. Even if it was the same cast, the conditions change. My psychology is what it is and it’s everybody else’s is also different. But specifically with each cast, each singer needs and brings their sound, their flexibility, and their way of singing.

Even though I have my ideas of how it goes and my way of doing it, it’s a collaboration and I still take from each singer what they give.

OW: The company did “Don Giovanni” in November and there is a break in between until February. During these months, tell me about the company’s planning and the work that happens.

AP: Well, we have a robust young artist program. It’s called the artist-in-residence program and we have seven artists in residence. So during the times in between productions, often they have concerts or performances. I work with them from time to time, not only for those performances but also because they’re young professionals and they have auditions for companies. So I work with them on preparing them for auditions.

We have artistic planning sessions. We’re preparing for next season and beyond. We have auditions in New York in December and that’s the period in between our productions.

I’m also traveling and doing other performances in other places, but there’s always a throughline of work here that has to do with preparing for the “Dutchman” coming up. There are still things that need to be put in place for our “Dutchman” production. We’re waiting for the music to come and we’re talking with the librarian about cuts or you know creating a rehearsal schedule.

So the time goes by pretty quickly.

OW: How long does the company generally have to be able to prepare the production given that there’s only three productions? When do you guys start working with the orchestra and when do the soloists come in?

AP: Our typical schedule is about three and a half weeks of preparation,

So for “Don Giovanni” the stars came in on the second weekend of October. We began rehearsals on the ninth of October and that started with a day of musical rehearsal. And then we did a musical sing-through the next day and then staging rehearsals began.

And staging rehearsals we do six hours a day, six days a week. And we did that for two and a half weeks before I saw the orchestra. I had three reads alone with the orchestra. And then we had our Sitzprobe. And then we go into tech week. So the singers are here for a total of five weeks.

OW: Is this longer than most companies?

AP: Yes. We work longer periods than many companies and it’s a very intense period. The thing for me that’s always central about our schedule is the moment when the orchestra and singers come together and how important that moment is to go from the first readings with the orchestra which all happened in a short period.

Having a longer period gives you the ability to be able to bond and be able to have more time with the singers and more time with the orchestra.

It is also important when choosing a director, David Lefkowitz, who directed “Don Giovanni” is someone I’ve known since New York City Opera 20 years ago. We’ve done several shows together over the years and when we look at the season and think about the repertoire, the director is central to that.

I generally have a very close relationship with the directors who I work with. We work together every day and for me its very important to have a robust collaboration with the director. David is somebody for example that I love working with.

OW: This season you have two operas with two female directors. Tell me about these two directors.

AP: It’s kind of fascinating to be able to see those two works through the eyes of a female director. It’s quite fascinating to see we are creating our own production for “The Flying Dutchman.” Kathleen Belcher, who’s directing, brought in her own designers and the design aspect of that has been going on for more than a year. I think it’s going to be very exciting and it’s wonderful to have a new production of “Dutchman.”

And then of course “Samson and Delilah,” it’s not a new production by Keturah Stickann and it’s a production that we’re bringing in and it’s a bit more traditional. Keturah is somebody that I’ve worked with also for many years, so it’s exciting.

Is there a particular repertoire that you have yet to explore that you’re dying to do with the orchestra?

AP: I think we are due to play some Strauss and I definitely, have that on my wish list. But it has a lot to do with how we can put the season together and find a slot for it. I would also like to some more Janacek. We have “Jenufa” in mind for the next couple of years.

I think more than anything I want to continue doing diverse repertoire.



Behind the ScenesInterviewsStage Spotlight