Q & A: Conductor Nicole Paiement on Championing Rare Works at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

By Christina Waters
Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Opera Parallèle was founded in 2007 by conductor Nicole Paiement to develop and produce contemporary opera. It continues to pioneer the commissioning of new works and exploring underperformed musical creations and landscapes. Coming up in April 2024, Opera Parallèle (OP) joins with SFJAZZ to present “Birds & Balls,” a program of multimedia opera, pairing two short works—a world premiere of Laura Karpman and Gail Collins’ “Balls” with a one-act bittersweet comedy, “Vinkensport,” or “The Finch Opera” by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek. Paiement, native of Quebec, expands her reach as an active guest conductor and new music specialist, conducting Joby Talbot’s “Everest” with the BBC Symphony at London’s Barbican Center in June 2023. Maestro Paiement is Principal Guest Conductor at The Dallas Opera, and is a celebrated interpreter of the work of Philip Glass and Jake Heggie. She will conduct the Austrian premiere of John Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” in June 2024 at the Vienna Volksoper.

OperaWire recently visited with Maestro Paiement to learn more.

OperaWire: Throughout your career you’ve been a champion of lesser known composers, as well as a pioneer producer of shorter, genre-crossing opera staging. Operas under two hours in length are popping up everywhere. Can you comment on the trend of contemporary opera toward the creation of chamber operas?

Nicole Paiement: Yes, I’m seeing contemporary opera in general, not always but often tending to be more like a 90 minutes experience or even shorter, even 70 minutes. They are full operas, and they are meant to be a full evening. Composers are sensitive to what society now feels is an appropriate length of time to keep the focus of an audience. So they tend to be shorter. It’s also a practical consideration. When you have a complicated new work, and you have orchestral rehearsals that are, with the break, normally about two hours and 25 minutes, you want to have time to work through new scores. And it just gets to be very, very long and becomes extremely expensive. Or under-rehearsed, which actually it is most of the time, because what happens is you don’t get more rehearsals. You just have less time to cover the material.

Time constraints and financial constraints dictate shorter operas. So for a lot of reasons, many contemporary operas are shorter, but they’re also small gems here and there that have been composed with the idea of being either at first half of a concert, or commissioned as a shorter work, Often these don’t get performed because when you do two operas, it’s often twice the work. Because it’s difficult to do everything twice.  You have to get into the language of the composer and for many reasons these works often are not performed. We at Opera Parallèle work to find them and find a way to make them become part of the repertoire by combining them in a very smart way with another short one, to create a bigger piece.

The audience is getting a full evening but they’re also getting a single, unified experience. They’re not sitting and eating Chinese for the first half and Italian in the second half. They’re getting a unified experience. And that’s tricky. In our program coming up, “Birds & Balls,” we have brought the two pieces together to create an über story that enhances each of them. And that is where we put a lot of energy and not thinking of two short pieces because that will work financially and with the singers. Often we find one piece that we really, really want to do. And then we search for what would be a companion piece to enhance that first one.

OW: Opera Parallèle is known as an incubator for new operas. Describe the process of selecting works to be produced.

NP: We have meetings at Opera Parallèle once a week for an hour and a half. As an artistic team we have a very dedicated group of people and we talk about repertoire and the score and all that every week. That is something that is a religion for us. When you study new opera, you help bring them along, bring them up to production value and then help get them born into the world.

We don’t do as many commissions, especially large commissions as large opera companies will do. We do get a lot of new work sent to us by composers because of the reputation we have. So we are lucky enough that we can give world premieres. Or we can start working with a composer without having to build it from ground zero, even though we will do that too. But we don’t do it for as many large productions because they’re very costly. Another thing that interests us is the difficulty often for new works to get second production. They get one production, they get a commission to get it done and after that it dies.

So one of our goals is to identify the pieces that are dying. If we believe it’s a great piece we ask why is it dying and how can we give it life? We do that a lot. Sometimes it is through a re-orchestrating with the composer. Not simply reducing the size of the orchestra. But re-orchestrating it in a way that we’re preserving the sound worlds of the composer, but still we are making the orchestra a tiny bit smaller. That way it can fit more easily into various halls. It has more flexibility. And, of course, it’s less expensive for the company to perform a work for fewer instruments. We’ve started a trend where a lot of young composers or new composers write or orchestrate two versions, one for very large orchestras in case it goes into a huge space where you need more instruments in the hall, and then another orchestration that will be slightly smaller so that it can fit other venues.

OW: Smaller chamber operas are attracting young audiences. How does OP use smaller works to the build future audiences?

NP: There are a lot of people doing great work in the grand opera tradition, in major opera houses, keeping the tradition alive. And that’s very important. Classical opera is an amazing tradition and we love that—so we don’t want it to die. And for that we need to get the younger people coming to them. And so when we started Opera Parallèle, the idea was to find an entry point. We’re not going to try to compete with big houses and start doing “Carmen.” We’re going to find a way to complete a little bit of the fabric of what is needed for the operatic form to survive, to attract new audiences. So that once they fall in love, they’ll say: Oh, I love opera and I’m going to San Francisco Opera or I’m going to go to Chicago Lyric. Because they’re not intimidated anymore. They’ve fallen in love with the idea of hearing the singing voice.

They will have an easier time, I think, falling in love with a chamber opera because it’s more intimate. The audience is closer to the action of the story. And also what we do is we often produce more stories that speak to them, that are more relevant to their lives. We make operas with an aesthetic that is more modern, that looks more like their world. And so all of this helps them develop an affinity for the art form and also makes them less intimidated by it. And then they can move on to the huge great pieces. This is absolutely crucial.

OW: What are some of the challenges in switching from a small chamber group to working with a large symphonic orchestra? For example, when you guest conduct?

NP: It is exciting. One of the things I really, really love is to try to get an extreme pianissimo with 24 first violins [laughter]. Last time when I was connecting the BBC orchestra in “Everest,” and I’ve conducted that piece in many large opera houses in the world. I was so excited because I really got this huge string section to play the softest pianissimo I’ve ever heard. There is a magic of having that amount of players and being able to demand such a wide spectrum of volume and colors. Often that is more difficult to obtain when you’re doing chamber work.

I find that the most challenging, as a conductor, is to conduct small string sections, because there is not that empowering feeling of being the only one playing that line. Yet it’s not that huge community of 16 first violins. It’s the middle point where you can be a little intimidated and you have to blend with the first chair. So it’s very demanding. My approach, especially with strings, is to really conduct in a way that I am encouraging them and feel that this is chamber music, that they are almost one on a part.

Doing chamber works you can develop a relationship with the players that is very unique because you are close to all of them. If you’re conducting only 30 players as opposed to 90, you know them, are looking at them, you can really see if they’re all using enough bow or not. You can really have a different relationship. I enjoy doing both. It’s true that I love doing opera that has just a few roles but I am a huge fan of large ensembles. I love choral music and I love an opera chorus.

OW: I’d like to ask about the idea of crossing genres and styles. You are known for this as a guiding principal. Is this something you embraced immediately as a conductor or did it take a little while to ease into breaking through traditional categories?

NP: I think that my kind of path was not your traditional path because I arrived in my mid 20s at University of California, Santa Cruz and I was sort of a sponge. I wanted to do everything that was offered to me. I was lucky to be exposed to various projects, various kinds of music. The music department at the time did a lot of Baroque music but also a lot of new music. The Santa Cruz area was very buoyant in terms of the variety of styles of art and so I feel that was a perfect incubator for my career. I was so excited to be asked and also because all these people, like Lou Harrison, were wonderful to work with. I got exposed to everything. So when the new styles, the hybrid new forms started to emerge, as they are now today, I didn’t feel intimidated because I had been exposed to that kind of music before in a very unique, specific way. Now styles are being blended and I understand how they work. As a result I have quite a facility in finding and navigating scores that have structure of something else inside, for example I find myself at times now conducting Mozart or conducting French romantic music and finding in them the seeds of jazz. All music contains other influences.

Today I was working on a very jazzy score. Jazz has taught me a lot about how to look at textures. In this particular score there was a moment when it was so clear that the composer was having the orchestra play some Schubert. I wouldn’t see that if I had not had the experience of knowing Schubert. It’s fun to bring all the resources you have to a piece of new music and discover other influences inside the scores.

OW: Turning to a serious issue, gender disparity in the international conducting world, do you feel any of that is loosening up?

NP: I think that things are changing. And we’ve just had this big conversation because of how our world has changed since Billie Jean King’s effort, which is featured in the upcoming “Birds & Balls.” But we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t say yes, the world changed and now we’ve arrived. We can never feel that way. The world of conducting is changing. I’m involved in the Hart Institute of The Dallas Opera as principal guest conductor and I’ve worked with amazing female conductors from around the world every year and yes things are opening up.

But I think it’s definitely still a man’s world. I mean, classical music is a very traditional art form. The way we look at the maestro and the way the orchestra stands. All these traditions that we have. That makes it beautiful but it also makes it at times hard to break barriers.

OW: Do you personally feel that your career has encountered resistance on the part of, for example, large leading opera companies as far as invitations to conduct?

NP: I’m a person who never really thought about things that I can’t do. I think of what I want to do and I just find a way to do them. I don’t focus on the obstacles, I focus on the opportunity. In my career I find that I was given amazing opportunities that created a career path completely unique from any other conductor. And I’m happy with that.

And yes, I have had some disappointments and I had at times positions that I was hoping to get and felt I should have been considered for more seriously. But I think everyone has that experience in their careers. And so I just don’t focus on that so much. I like to think of myself as a conductor and not a woman conductor, just like you’re not a woman bus driver. You just are what you are.

I definitely will continue to work on opening doors for my gender in terms of what we at Opera Parallèle are doing, and I think things are moving forward. What I don’t want is for this effort to become like crossing off a box on a list. Not to say okay, now we’re hiring a woman conductor because she’s a woman and that’s all we need to do. We need to be taken very seriously. There are great women conductors, and there are less experienced ones who at times are put on the podium before it’s time. That’s not helping the movement of having diversity on the podium. I think we have to be very wise about these choices.

OW: I can see that OP engages your personal creative ambitions. But is it also important to continue to work outside your company, to work with other orchestras as well?

OP: I would not say that Opera Parallèle fulfills my creative ambitions completely. I always wanted to create an organization that was different, ever since I was writing grants as a Professor at UCSC. I had been inspired as a young person by the letters of Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet. My father gave me a book of his correspondences about new works, he was an exponent of early 20th century works and produced premieres by Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Ravel. So even though I did not know I would become a conductor, I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing when I grew up to build something new rather than just repeating something that’s already been done.

And that’s why I wanted Opera Parallèle to explore the work of obscure composers, or little-known works of known composers. And I have done that. Opera Parallèle has become a lot bigger organization now than I first planned, and while I’m loving it, it’s a huge responsibility. Luckily, I now have a big staff and a great board. But Opera Parallèle doesn’t do John Adams, or even what I do at The Dallas Orchestra when I guest conduct. There I can really focus on being a conductor. And that is something that I really need to be able to do and let go of worrying about, oh my God, I hope we sell the tickets, or how can we afford this concert. That is one thing I find very difficult in this country is that art is supported primarily by donors. That’s hard. And I want to be authentic. Yes, Opera Parallèle is a great part of my life, but not the only part of my life.

OW: What do you see for yourself looking ahead? What is still undone for both Opera Parallèle as well as for Nicole Paiement?

NP: Well, again, I’m not a person who thinks in terms of five-year goals. My intention is to continue to do great art, and to do it well, to continue to grow. This is one of the great things about conducting as opposed to, say, being a dancer. The older you get as a conductor, the better you can be if you’re aware of the opportunities you’re given. It’s also important to find time in your life to read and learn and do other things that feed you and that you can bring to the podium. I do take time every day for that. It’s crucial, because you can’t just be empty inside in order to convey what an opera means.

I would say that Opera Parallèle is in a great place right now. We’re going to be celebrating our 15th anniversary next year. We have big plans for that celebration.

We realize that we’re no longer a startup innovative company. We have much momentum in terms of co-producing with other companies nationally and co-commissioning with other companies. Our productions are being rented by other companies so there’s a buoyancy that I’m enjoying and that I want to stabilize. I want to make sure we can continue to be able to do all of that without killing ourselves! You have to respect that. I hope that we can continue to be a leader in redefining what opera is in the 21st century and breaking the barriers for that art form even more.

I think we are deepening our relationships in the larger Bay Area. And for my own professional guest conducting, I hope to continue to take on projects that I think will balance the work I do here. I don’t want to repeat the kind of work I do here. So it’s very important to me that when I do accept something outside, that it stretches me in a different direction, that I keep healthy that way. That it balances my artistry that way, such as conducting the John Adams in Vienna, and symphonic concerts of Bach and Shostakovich there too. It’s another kind of balancing act that I very much enjoy.


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