Q & A: Gerard Schwarz on ‘The Leopard,’ Florida Audiences & Performing a World Premiere

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Ben VanHouten)

On March 5, the Frost Opera Theater will present the world premiere of Michael Dellaira and J. D. McClatchy’s new work “The Leopard.” The opera is based on the 1958 novel, “Il Gattopardo,” by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa, which later became a 1963 epic historical drama film directed and co-written by Luchino Visconti.

The opera will be conducted by world-renown conductor Gerard Schwarz, who serves as the Artistic and Music Director of the Palm Beach Symphony, and a Distinguished Professor Of Music at The Frost School Of Music.

OperaWire had the chance to speak with the conductor about the new opera, working with professionals and students, and working with a living composer.

OperaWire: How did you get involved in this production of “The Leopard?”

Gerard Schwarz: I knew Michael Dellaira’s music because of his previous operas. I was aware of his music and it turns out that the Music Director Frost Opera Theater at the Frost School of Music is Alan Johnson and Alan is knowledgeable about all operas. And this work by Michael was due to be premiered someplace in Europe but with all the COVID-19, it was postponed. So I said to Alan, why don’t we do it. Rather than have Michael wait and maybe it will never happen. So Alan pursued it with Michael and from there we moved forward.

Producing an opera is not simple and producing a new opera is even more difficult. Alan, who usually conducts the opera here asked me if I would do it as a guest and I said I would do it. I love Michael’s music and I am a great fan of his. I also knew J. D. McClatchy’s work and I knew this was his last libretto. I also know the novel which has become a cult novel. And so here we are. We have a great director and a great cast.

OW: Were you familiar with the movie as well?

GS: It’s interesting because the film is a cult film and I did see it. I find that the novel is a lot better and I think that the opera production in terms of the drama is even better yet. I think McClatchy did an extraordinary job in producing it. In an opera, you can’t take a novel and write every scene and every word. You have to cut it back significantly and at the same time hit the high points and important points and make sure that with great music it has real resonance. I think McClatchy did a phenomenal job and the music is incredible.

OW: Tell me about the music and how his musical style and writing are?

GS: Anything that is new is challenging. If you have never seen “Falstaff” and you got to it for the first time you may not like it. But even if you do, it will not be as much as if you have seen it for the fifth time because you see so much of it. This work is like that and First of all the language he uses harmonically is something that can resonate with the audience. I have to say it is neo-romantic. It is a 21-century opera with some traditional harmonies and some that are not with some gorgeous arias and ensembles and then some recitativos passages that are less melodic. He uses leitmotifs in a way that is effective and he even uses the orchestra in that way. He’ll bring certain instruments at specific moments to what is going on dramatically. He is very specific and wonderful. The audience will find a poignancy to the music but at the same time, the music is quite dramatic. I think the audience will appreciate it on the first go but of course, the more you hear it the better it gets.

OW: What is it like to work with a living composer and be side to side while you bring this piece to life?

GS: I’ve never worked with Michael before so I look at everything he wrote on the page very literally. My objective at the start is to do exactly what he wrote like the tempos and the inflections. As the process has continued I ask him questions about the tempos and other general things to get a feeling for what his ideas are. I am happy to say that he has said for me to use my musical judgment to make it come alive. Which means I have some leeway to make this piece to life. Some composers are not accepting. He really wants the music to have a personality and he is happy to have the cast, the director, and me to give it personality.

It is thrilling to do this and forever, I will have done the premiere of the work. What a thrill!

OW: Tell me about the cast because it is a mix of veterans and students?

GS: In a way, it is a little different than I have ever worked before. In all the operas I have done, I have always worked with professional opera singers. When you have this combination of artists like Kim Josephson who has so many performances at the Met and then bring the students who are excellent in these roles, there is a certain excitement. There is a certain desire to do the best they can. And then on occasion, Alan Johnson who is there all the time coaching and helping, actually teaches which you never do in a professional setting. Alan told the chorus that when they are working on a scene even if you are not in it, you see what we’re doing and how we are analyzing the drama and the music. He wants the students to be actively involved in the production even if they are not on the stage. I forget that a lot of them are students because they sing so well and are very prepared. That juxtaposition is very exciting.

I am also used to doing music rehearsals from 9 to 5 every day. But in this production, we work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and it’s a little different from what we are used to. Even orchestrally a lot of times we spend time on the stage and little time with the orchestra. In this case, I have five orchestra rehearsals and then we start the sitzprobe. So it’s more time and it is phenomenal.

OW: Tell me about the orchestra and working with these young musicians?

GS: I would say that a lot of these professionals have never played an opera. So this is a new experience and they are prepared and know the music. It starts to make sense as a whole. My primary responsibility is so they know where they are and so we can work on this together. It will be a great experience for them.

OW: How has your collaboration with state director Jeffrey Buchman been?

GS: He is phenomenal. He is musically knowledgable and musically sensitive. I have not had to ask him to change anything. He knows the score so well that his direction is terrific. He is very flexible and he likes to see how the singers are presenting it so it helps him with the direction. I will ask on occasion during staging rehearsal, “May I” because it is his rehearsal and not mine when I have to go through measures with the singers and he has always said “yes.” He knows that it is needed even though it is his time. Our relationship is strong and I am a great fan of his vision and artistry.

OW: What can audiences expect from the piece and tell me about your relationship to the Florida audience?

GS: My relationship with the audience is new. I came here often with Seattle and the New York Philharmonic but it was different. But I never spent much time there. I was a west coast and east coast person. So my life was New York, LA, and Seattle. So for my wife and I to come here was a great opportunity between the music director in Palm Beach and here at the Frost Opera Theater. The fact that I can give back is very exciting to me. I have done a bunch of classes and I have core conducting students.

The audience is excited and it has grown incredibly in Palm Beach and we do a lot of outreach. In Miami, we are at a university and it is always a problem. We do great performances here and we are isolated in an area outside of Miami. And slowly that audience is growing and we are taking our educational organization into the community. It is having a great impact.


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