This month, William Boggs will answer the question: How do you conduct an opera when you’ve never heard the music?
William Boggs works in orchestral genres from operetta to symphonies. But the Grammy Award in his name is for his work in contemporary opera – the Florentine Opera’s recording of Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein’s Elmer Gantry. This month, he’ll conduct the Florentine’s world premiere production of Aldridge and Garfein’s Sister Carrie (Oct. 7, 9; florentineopera.org), based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic 1900 novel about a rural Wisconsin woman struggling to survive in Chicago.
What’s the greatest challenge about working on a world premiere?
There are no recordings. By listening to different recordings … you find out what’s hard by hearing what’s difficult on the recordings. With a world premiere it’s all brand new. You can guess where the pitfalls are by looking at the score, but you don’t really know until you’re in rehearsals. And even though there are notes and words, there’s so much music beyond what’s written. Where do we push? Where do we pull? You have to figure out how to get all the drama out of it that’s not on the page.
How would you describe Aldridge’s music?
It’s Neo-Romantic. It’s not purely intellectual. Bob’s not out to prove that he’s the smartest guy in town. It’s
music written for people to enjoy. I love that about it. But it’s a challenge because it’s sneakily hard. Like Leonard Bernstein or Richard Strauss—it’s lyrical and beautiful and accessible. But if you look at the nuts and bolts, it’s tricky stuff.
How will you approach the music in rehearsals?
The trick is to support the singers. Opera is about the singers, and I want to give them whatever they need to give the best performance. That’s about really listening, being there to support them so they can just lay it all on the line for the performance. If they are getting tied up in knots and have to be overly careful, you get the old-fashioned stand-and-sing-and-stare-at-the-conductor kind of thing. I don’t want that. I want them to be free to express themselves, and know I’m going to be there.