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Leadership at the Opera

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

There are many times when a conductor’s most effective direction to an orchestra is simply a straightforward instruction: “play softer here,” “take time with the triplet,” “bring out the woodwinds,” etc.

But sometimes the most beautiful results can’t be dictated by the conductor. They require an artistic partnership with the musicians who, after all, are extremely good artists. The players probably just haven’t thought about the piece as much as the conductor, who ultimately carries the most responsibility.

I was told about a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera with Carlos Kleiber, the greatest of all conductors. At the end of La Boheme there is a moment when it becomes evident that the heroine, Mimi, has just died. The orchestra has gone silent and Rudolfo, Mimi’s lover, notices the eerie stillness and understands its devastating meaning. The next sound the orchestra plays is a strident minor chord in the brass. Kleiber, in rehearsal, told the players that this chord could sound like “the ugly face of death.” Then the players knew exactly what to do and produced a timbre of such originality and creativity that no one knew exactly how they’d achieved it. They were simply inspired by the beautiful meaning of the moment and drew on even greater artistry than they’d realized they had.

Stories of Kleiber’s genius challenge all leaders to delve deeply into the meaning of their work and invent ways to partner with the workforce to achieve it.


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