Q & A: Music Director Sean Kelly on ‘Macbeth’ & Why New Yorkers Love LoftOpera

By David Salazar

LoftOpera’s “Macbeth” has garnered tremendous reviews for its fantastic casting, nuanced production and brilliant music-making. “The crisp orchestral playing of the orchestra under the baton of Sean Kelly was highlighted by an atmospheric account of the first act prelude, with portentous horn fanfares seeming to “hang” forever in the vast space’s cavernous acoustic,” wrote the New York Observer.

Despite being the company’s music director, Kelly actually kept his conducting in the shadows for a long-time, “feeling safer behind the piano.” As a pianist vocal coach he has had a tremendous international career working with such theaters as The Metropolitan Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Wolftrap Opera, Seattle Opera, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma and Teatro Comunale Francesco Cilea among others. He has also been a faculty member at numerous Universities and theaters.

But his calling as a Music Director was “inevitable” and he has since worked with LoftOpera on a diverse range of repertoire in unique environments (this “Macbeth” is being performed in a warehouse).

OperaWire had an opportunity to talk to him about the success of the current “Macbeth,” its development and the challenges of taking on Verdi’s early masterwork.

OperaWire: What are the particular challenges of doing a work like Macbeth? How does this compare with other Verdi opera’s?  

Sean Kelly: In this score, more so than in any other Verdi opera, especially considering how early it is, he asks for so many colors from the soloists, especially from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I can’t think of another opera where he asks for cupo and voce spiegata so frequently. He also uses many colors in the orchestra, a lot of con sordina in the strings and solo winds. These two elements together create a wonderfully dark and mysterious musical environment, which perfectly conveys the nature of the situations.

OW: What are some of your favorite parts of this score?  

SK: Where to begin? The prelude is gorgeous, and in the Mast Brothers Factory space, the reverb is exhilarating when we get to those short forte chords. I absolutely adore the Act 1 finale, and the Paris version of ‘Patria Oppressa’ is one of Verdi’s most beautiful and moving choruses ever. The two duets between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are so full of unique colors and drama, and her arias are perfectly written to convey her emotional journey.

OW: Which version of the opera are you guys working with? Did you consider the original version of the opera, particularly since that is a current trend in the opera world?  

SK: I considered using some of the Paris ending, which I prefer to the Firenze ending, but in the end it became difficult and too costly to find parts for both. We’re doing the standard modern version, which is actually a hybrid of the two versions. As much as I love the original act 2 aria for Lady Macbeth, ‘Trionfai’, I feel that its demands change the center of gravity for the soprano. ‘La luce langue’ is such a colorful and narrative piece, and I feel it more strongly conveys her emotional state. As I said earlier, the Paris version of ‘Patria oppressa’ is just a masterpiece, one of my personal favorite movements of the opera.

***Verdi originally composed the opera in 1847 when it premiered in Florence. He made numerous revisions in 1865 for a Paris production.

OW: Do you have any favorite recorded versions of the opera? Any conductors who inspire you in this work? 

SK: There really isn’t one recording that I feel is ideal, but there are bits and pieces of a few that I love. The first one I fell in love with was of course the Callas/deSabata. Muti is always an example of style and restraint for me in early Verdi, and I love Abbado, who is peerless in my opinion.

OW: Tell me about working with the singers in this production? How did assemble the cast?  

SK: As Music Director, I am lucky to be able to cast the principals and chorus, and I have a wonderful group for this production. Too many times the reviews seem to imply that the company just magically acquires these fantastic singers, but it takes a lot of work and thought on my part to put together the perfect ‘family’. The four leads are all close friends and colleagues, and we love and respect each other, which makes for exciting work. Together with our stage director, the brilliant Laine Rettmer, we all collaborate and share ideas.

OW: Speaking of putting together the perfect ‘family,’ for this opera you have assembled the largest orchestra in the company’s history with 33 players. What has that experience been like?  

SK: One of the challenges with this company is choosing the right show for the right space, and although it’s the largest group we’ve used thus far, it is still on the small side for this score. That being said, they really are playing beautifully, and it’s quite an exciting sound. 

OW: What is it like to work in a warehouse where you do not have complete control of your environment? 

SK: Next question!! All joking aside, it is the singular biggest challenge with this company. Acoustically speaking, this one in particular is challenging because of the sheer size and height of it. The reverb is formidable, and the singers must rely exclusively on watching, and not listening, which is harder than it sounds when you’re on stage. For me, I had to change many articulations in the orchestra and amongst the singers to shorten notes in order to accommodate this endless echo. That being said, at times it’s absolutely wonderful to hear the decay in the space, especially after a loud moment.

OW: How did your relationship with LoftOpera begin and how is it different from working with other companies? 

SK: Everything about this company is unique! I have the great opportunity with LoftOpera to be involved from the ground floor as far as productions go. Many times the directors and I choose the repertoire, I cast the shows and rehearse with the leads individually before production begins, which is a luxury these days. To do an opera like Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory” without that specific attention to detail would be ridiculous. I’ve already begun working with the soloists for our upcoming “Otello,” which begins rehearsals in February. This is my third season with the company; I joined the team immediately after their “La Boheme.”

OW: LoftOpera seems to fill the house every time it puts on a production. Not many opera companies can say the same. What makes Loft so successful in reaching new audiences and what can other companies learn from it?

SK: There are so many things Loft does that just resonate with the audience. Taking the stage and orchestra pit out of the equation makes for some very exciting theatre, as do the acoustics and vibe of these crazy factories. All that cold beer doesn’t hurt either!

OW: What do you think we can we do to make opera a bigger part of our creative and social environment? How do we change the perception that the mainstream has of this art form?

SK: Unfortunately we live in a society now that neither awards nor respects intellectual curiosity. We as artists have to try even harder now to keep doing what we love, making a small difference when possible, and positively affecting those around us. Let’s hope that the pendulum swings back from reality TV stars and auto-tuned ‘singers’, to literature and music and opera, which is the best of it all.


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