In anticipation of New Philharmonic’s season opening performance of Puccini’s TOSCA, Sept. 20 and 21 (tickets here!), Maestro Kirk Muspratt sat down to share a few thoughts.
Why choose this particular opera to open New Philharmonic’s 2014–2015 season at the MAC?
Tosca has been one of the favorite operas of our audiences. And at this particular moment in the history of the MAC, I wanted a piece that would really show off the astonishing new acoustics of the renovated hall. The beautiful new shell and reworking of all the materials inside the hall, make it a listening heaven for our patrons. The sonic warmth and power of Tosca – both in the orchestra and with the singers – make this a great piece to show off the hall.
For the casual concertgoer, how would you describe Tosca to someone who’s about to see it for the first time?
I would tell them that the music is delicious and passionate. Puccini has crammed this opera full
of astonishing melodies, melodies that truly TELL the piece and EXPLAIN the characters. For me, Puccini is in
a place of his own; he’s the supreme melodist. The music is supremely beautiful and accessible.
There are decidedly intricate plot twists and poignant themes throughout the opera, including politics. Do you see any similarities between today’s political environment and that of the past?
My personal opinion is that we have not learned a thing from history, from our mistakes, from the lessons that our ancestors might have tried to teach us. We have legislated some things that make day to day life better, more organized, perhaps less violent, perhaps more fair. However—and again this is just a personal opinion—the storylines and character flaws of Shakespeare and all the operas of Verdi and Puccini still ring completely true, whether it is Julius Caesar, Merchant of Venice, Otello, or Tosca. There have always been Scarpias, in every corner of the globe. This is what makes this opera so timeless.
For this production, you welcome soprano Karen Slack to the stage. What’s unique about her abilities as a performer?
We first learned of Karen when we heard about her performances of Tosca at Arizona Opera. We had an opportunity to see her up close at performances at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last season. Equally, I wanted to hire Dominic Armstrong (Cavaradossi) after hearing him sing at the Stearns Institute at Ravinia several years ago, then I had a chance to see him work on the main stage of Lyric Opera in 2012 in A Streetcar Named Desire.
As a conductor, what do you find challenging about this particular performance?
Wow, everything! Opera is the hardest thing to conduct. Period. With a few exceptions, Puccini is the hardest composer to conduct as the tempi, the pace of the drama is changing every few seconds. In addition, the storyline is composed in the music; unlike a composer like Handel or Mozart, the music is not created to have a lovely aria then stop. In Puccini, every bit of dialogue, movement on stage, change of emotion is created in that instant. His orchestration is more complex than anything written before his time. On the podium you have to be completely aware of the plethora of instruments entering, creating ensemble, creating balance challenges, deciding upon articulations. And so one’s mind is racing at a super multi-tasking pace from the moment you begin until the final curtain. There is nothing harder than conducting a Puccini opera. Whenever I give conducting master classes, I always try to include a small snippet of Puccini in there to make life really terrible (and hopefully later helpful and rewarding) for the young conductors.
The story of Tosca is rife with drama. How would you measure the quality of the music in relation to the intensity of the story?
Puccini paints each sentence, each inner thought, each reaction of the characters perfectly with his music. This is something that ONLY a genius can do. When one studies Puccini’s scores, it is actually mind boggling to see how Puccini and his librettists have stripped away everything that is nonessential and packed the heartbeats, the terror, the jealousy, the sweetness, the realization of EACH moment and EACH character into JUST that.
You have an extensive knowledge of classical music and opera. How would you rank Tosca among your personal favorites?
Of all the operas in the world, Tosca has to be one of my favorite three. I would guess that I am not alone in this.