Interview with Taconic Opera’s creative Dan Montez

OperaMetro (OM) has the esteemed privilege to chat with Dan Montez (DM), General Manager and Artistic Director of the Taconic Opera, which, for two decades now, has been performing operas in English for the enjoyment and pleasure of those nearby. Pretty much standard repertory, right?

But wait, there’s more: this October Mr. Montez will be staging the world premiere of his very own brand new opera! Always one curious about the creative process, I asked him to discuss the project. Imagine that we’re chatting in the rear of an auditorium, on the stage of which is a rehearsal of one of his productions. Actually this is not too far from reality: he and I usually have talked there in recent years! But time and space being what they are today, and the fact that I've been away in Paris, truth is he responded to my carefully crafted questions via email. These I have reformatted below.

  Dan Montez

Dan Montez

OM: Dan, thank you for coming on board.

DM: My pleasure.

OM: So, a new opera…cool! Like most people, you just woke up one day and said, “I think I’ll compose an opera…”

DM: More or less.

OM: Please tell me about it.

DM: It’s an opera buffa, titled In Bocca al Lupo, which, translated, means Into the Mouth of the Wolf, opera’s equivalent of the theater’s “break a leg” wish for good luck. And yes, I more or less got a sudden itch to compose an opera.

OM: But I’ll bet scratching that itch is the tricky part.

DM: The plot itself was a hurdle from the very start. As you can imagine, I have the plots of all these other operas floating around in my head. What to do? But as people often say: write about what you know best! And I realized that, sure, I know the operas very well, but I also know the opera business very well, from bottom to top, from, you know, “how about we do this one next year?” to the final curtain, season over. Of course!! Operas are put on by real people (he’s knocking his head now) and there’s a lot of drama in this! Also a lot of humor. So Bocca al Lupo is about a buffoon trying to run an opera company; it takes us on a journey through the audition process, running the opera office, holding a fundraiser, musical coaching, stage directing, backstage disasters during a performance, and finally presenting the show.

OM: From back stage to on stage.

DM: Right. It’s actually an Italian opera nested within an English opera.

OM: I don’t wish anyone reading this to think that one simply wakes up and composes an opera from page to stage. You’ve lived music and opera your whole life. you wear many hats.

DM: One way to put it.

OM: A few details?

  Jorge Ocasio is the Director, here as Mustafa in Rossini's  Italiana  

Jorge Ocasio is the Director, here as Mustafa in Rossini's Italiana 

DM: Well, among other things, early on I was trained as a conductor, but I was drawn to the stage and I had a voice, so I became a fulltime opera singer.

OM: Seems the natural thing to do.

DM: For 14 years or so I performed about sixty leading roles at locations including Lincoln Center, San Francisco Opera, and Carnegie Hall.

OM: Importantly as Tamino. Do I remember this correctly from past discussions we’ve had?

DM: Yes, I sang Tamino, other roles, of course, but the pace, the schedule was daunting. I was on the road for about ten months at a time each year…and then my dear wife got pregnant.

OM: The life of a young wandering minstrel is not an easy one for the family man.

DM: I barely saw my daughter for the first couple of months of her life. It was awful. After much soul searching and introspection, I decided to stay put locally and be with my family, which eventually numbered five.

OM: But you can’t sit still, oui?

DM: Right! And so, in 1997 I founded an opera company in Westchester, called it the Taconic Opera, and the rest is history. I’ve staged all of the operas there over the past twenty years, more than sixty and counting.

OM: Admirable resume! Conductor, performer, parent, stage director and drama coach, intellectual…wait, am I leaving anything out?

DM: Throughout I was composing as well: six major works, all liturgical oratorios and lots of other choral works, performed throughout the United States, a Trio Sonata last year for Violin, Piano and Clarinet.

OM: But…I can hear a ‘but’ coming…

  Samia Bahu is Miranda Sfortunata, here as Puccini's Tosca

Samia Bahu is Miranda Sfortunata, here as Puccini's Tosca

DM: But I got to thinking it was time to compose an opera. Do it as part of the celebration of Taconic Opera’s 20th anniversary this year. Fitting, right? Why not?

OM: Sure, why not?

DM: I thought, after writing such serious works, I needed a departure. It would be my first foray into actually creating an opera, as opposed to recreating someone else’s on stage. Once I decided to go for it, I knew I wanted to write a comic opera. Being a Rossini and bel Canto specialist, singing that repertory, also having staged a lot of them, by this time I understand how a comic opera is laid out. I ‘get’ the genre. Problem was I really didn’t want to write the opera libretto myself. I don’t feel like I’m a terrific word-smith. Yes, sure, I had written the texts for my oratorios, but would be very different.

OM: I’m hard pressed to think of last comic oratorio I heard.

DM: I thought seriously about finding a librettist. I first asked my wife, who is a wonderful, super writer, but she didn’t feel qualified. As I considered my options, in context of my limitations, the plot and the genre more or less just bubbled up.

OM: So you rolled up your sleeves…

  Sarah Nordin is the Conductor, here as Isabella in Rossini's  Italiana

Sarah Nordin is the Conductor, here as Isabella in Rossini's Italiana

DM: And got my hands dirty! My libretto is silly, full of rhymes, but also in English, as is our rule at Taconic.

OM: Like William S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan?

DM: The G & S light operas are really the English bel-canto equivalent of the Donizetti and Rossini comedies and for sure their spirits are always by my side. But though to some extent these composers were my inspirations and role models, I decided I wanted to write a distinctly “American” opera buffa, not something Italian or British.

OM: Can’t wait to hear it. You’re doing the stage direction?

DM: Yes.

OM: Of course. Am I leaving anything out?

DM: I designed the sets too.

OM: Okay. Are you conducting this premiere as well?

DM: No.

OM: Ah!

DM: My wonderful music Director, Jun Nakabayashi will be conducting the opera. Doing the stage directing is hard enough, so I’ll stick to that! He is a masterful conductor—and he ‘gets’ me, I mean he really understands my methodology of stage direction. I trust him, believe me.

  Jun Nakabayashi conducts

Jun Nakabayashi conducts

OM: The structure of the plot?

DM: As I alluded to earlier, there are basically seven scenes. We have an audition scene, an opera office scene, a coaching scene, a stage directing scene, a fundraiser, a backstage scene (during the opera), and the opera proper.

OM: You mentioned Sullivan, Donizetti, and Rossini, which begs the obvious question: will your score echo their music?

DM: It’s an interesting question because so far everyone who hears it “uncovers” something different! Most of them will clearly hear Rossini’s influence, some have told me they hear Sullivan, but then some tell me they also hear Poulenc, some Prokofiev, some Sondheim, others Puccini. I’m sure there are bits of all of them in it. I will say there is a lot of jazz influence. When I began composing this, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to write in a style similar to my oratorios, one I’m more comfortable with, or whether I would go even more modern.

OM: It has to fit you, right?

DM: I agree. Above all I needed my opera to be fun. I didn’t want to get pretentious by making the score musically complex at the expense of my audience’s involvement. So, I wrote a buoyant and harmonically accessible work—almost a “light opera.”

OM: But actually it’s two ‘operas.’ You have the two distinct sections: backstage, then onstage in performance.

DM: Yes, and therefore, to me, my opera must have two distinct compositional styles: one for the opera company itself as real people and another for the Italian comic opera produced by the company on stage with its various characters from the company. These should be contrasting musical styles. As I wrote the Italian opera sections, I had fun lampooning Romantic Italian opera music, language and style along the way.

OM: Ha! Should bring out big smiles in the audience! Back in the day composers wrote for the strengths of specific singers. You as well here?

DM: You bet. Before I even started, I had my dream cast. The Director is being done by my favorite bass-buffo, Jorge Ocasio. He has already done my Mustafa in Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers, Donizetti’s Sulpice in Daughter of the Regiment and Don Pasquale. Jorge is the absolute king of this genre! It’s as if every note was lovingly written with him in mind. No one, I mean this, makes me laugh more. My soprano lead, Miranda Sfortunata, is taken by Samia Bahu, who sang roles with us for over a decade. She’s a real Verdi and Puccini heroine.

Esmerelda Bell'Odore will be sung by Tina Cody; the character of the Conductor will be sung by our coloratura mezzo, Sarah Nordin, who has done Isabella in the Italian Girl in Algiers and Falstaff…fabulous bel-canto singer! I wrote an aria crafted especially for her voice about the difficulties of being a female conductor! A new addition is tenor Adam Klein, who sings at the Metropolitan Opera. He’ll be doing the lead role of Haroldo Narciso. Tammy Smithson is sung by Kristina Cook, and finally, of course, David Richy, who has also done some of my leads at Troupers Light Opera in Connecticut. He rounds out the cast as the exploited Stage Manager. David plays a great straight man.

OM: I’m hoping all who read this will come to see the world premiere run! It’s certainly a positive thing, your new opera celebrating the 20th year of Taconic Opera. How is the artform doing in 2017?

DM: Opera is having a hard time still. The economic difficulties since 2008 have caused the doors of many opera companies to close. One of the reasons I believe we are still here, in addition to the quality of our productions, is our lack of a salaried administration. As General Director of the company, I have not taken a paycheck for running the company over the past twenty years. This is a labor of love for me.

OM: As well as for the others.

DM: But I think that administrative costs are what have caused many smaller companies to close their doors.

OM: What would you say to a reader who is on the fence about taking that first plunge into opera?

DM: Oh my gosh, they should take the plunge, by all means! Everyone that comes to the opera for the first time—especially at our shows, walks out saying “I had no idea this is what opera was about. This is wonderful!” And they’re soon back for more. Opera has something for everyone. There are comedies, powerful dramas, love stories, sci-fi and fantasy operas, horror operas, you name it. There are also different kinds of music for every taste. But what’s very special, certainly for those of us who love the human voice, is that visceral something about hearing singers without microphones too. It’s pure sound, straight from the singer to your ear without electronic reproduction. I find it powerful and exciting, and it must be seen live!

OM: Totally agree. I still get chills remembering the great singers I heard live on stage.

DM: Adding this last: if you are going to go to an opera for the first time, this opera is a great choice. Comic operas are meant to be entertaining. You’ll come away with a smile.

OM: Dan, thank you for talking to me.

DM: My pleasure!

OM: Into the mouth of the wolf!

Photos courtesy of Taconic Opera.

Dan Montez’s opera buffa, In Bocca al Lupo, is performed on Saturday, October 21, 2017, at 3:30 pm, Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY, followed by a second performance the following day, Sunday, October 22, at 2:00 p.m., again at Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY. A wide range of ticket prices are available and significant reductions are offered for seniors.  To encourage youth attendance, student prices are only $15 regardless of seating selection.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the company website at www.taconicopera.org or call the toll-free number: (855) 88-OPERA (855-886-7372).

In addition, a special performance for area schools is Thursday, October 19, 2017, at 10 a.m., Yorktown Stage, 1974 Commerce St., Yorktown Heights, NY. In Bocca al Lupo will be performed in both English and Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage.

Immense fun! Support your local opera!

Soon it will be fall!