At a press conference this morning, the Dallas Opera presented French conductor Emmanual Villaume as its new Music Director, only the third person to serve in that position in the opera’s 56-year history.
Villaume comes to Dallas with the pedigree you might expect for such a prominent position in the company. He has conducted in the world’s major opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Opera de Paris, and many more, and he brings years of experience leading ensembles such as the Slovak and Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestras. Dallas audiences got a preview of the conductor at last year’s Dallas Opera gala, which Villaume conducted. His first appearance as Music Director will take place at the start of next year’s season, when he will lead the company’s season opening production of Bizet’s Carmen.
That pairing, a French opera with a French music director, may suggest a programmatic direction for the company, particularly because Villaume’s resume is dominated with operas by French composers or with French librettos. At this morning’s event, however, Villaume insisted one of the reasons he was attracted to the possibility of leading the Dallas Opera was the chance it offered to pursue his interest outside of French repertoire. Specifically, Villaume mentioned his interest in German composers, name-dropping Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten.
Dallas Opera General Director Keith Cerny’s cited Villaume’s versatility as one of the attributes that attracted his interest.
“I have personally watched him conduct a wide range of musical styles,” Cerny said.
Cerny also laid out a three-fold mission for the new Music Director, who will be expected not only to conduct two productions a year with the Dallas Opera, but also assist with shaping the company’s musical and programmatic vision and participating in community outreach.
Speaking after the press conference, Villaume admitted he was attracted to the stability the position in Dallas offered as well as the chance to establish a “home” in Dallas (he is looking for an apartment in Dallas). Villaume also cited the potential for growth after years of cuts in the name of fiscal responsibility as another reason he was attracted to the Dallas position.
“The company has taken decisions that were tough decisions but were right decisions,” he said. “It’s now really, really fit, and I think it is ready to grow, to blossom. It’s always interesting to take a place that can go to the next level, and it is more exciting than going to number one and just trying to stay up there. It will be the work of many years; it will be serious work. And you need the support of the community to do this. But I think all the elements are in place.”
Those elements for Villaume include an attractive opera hall, which the maestro got to test drive at the gala performance, as well as an orchestra he described as having “desire.”
“There was a love of music that is there, and we just needed to speak the same language and go together in the same direction,” he said of the Dallas Opera’s orchestra. “But the feeling of importance of what we were doing was there, and the desire, the mental quality that one cannot buy.”
The position of Music Director of the Dallas Opera is a tough one considering the orchestra is a part-time organization. When asked about handling the burdens of shaping an ensemble’s sound in light of limited time, Villaume cited his experience conducting at the Spoleto Music Festival, in which orchestra turnover ranged from around 60-70 percent every year. Villaume also mentioned Cerny’s commitment to investing in the quality of the orchestra and the process of expanding the company’s season to five or eventually six productions a season as reasons he believed the Dallas Opera could flourish under his baton. But the key, he added, is programing.
“I think you need to defend the classics or the main repertoire; you need to do it well,” he said. “You need to balance that with either pieces that are less performed or contemporary pieces.”
The key is to develop a relationship with the local audience, he said, so that the audience can allow the opera company to explore the kinds of productions that can help bring wider notoriety as a company.
“We need to establish a trust with the audience,” the maestro said. “Whenever we do something that is off the beaten path, it’s done so well that people say, ‘Okay, we didn’t know what we were going to see but we liked it.’ So next time we have one of those weird titles we are going to trust them and we are going to go there.”
This process takes a lot of time, and it may prove even more difficult in a city like Dallas that has historically been characterized by conservative tastes both at the opera and symphony. And Villaume says he doesn’t plan on forcing challenging work on his new audience.
“You cannot ignore your community, you cannot ignore your audience,” Villaume said. “You cannot talk down to them and ‘educate’ them. You just need to bring them with you in what you love in a way that is going to be smart and progressive.”
Opera companies plan seasons years in advance in order to secure top stars for their productions, so it will be some time before Villaume’s impact on the company’s program will be felt. In the meantime, his work with the orchestra, which begins at the start of next season, will represent the maestro’s main impact on Dallas Opera’s profile. That contribution alone will mark a major shift for opera goers. The opera’s previous music director, Graeme Jenkins, stepped down this past weekend after nearly 25 years as the company’s maestro. And while the Dallas Opera has enjoyed music directors with very long tenures, there is reason to believe that Villaume’s time with the company will not be as long.
“I think you cannot make an artistic mark in less than 3-4 years, and I think to stay more than 10 years — there should be an exceptional reason for that,” he said. “And in a few years, we will see how things develop.”