Opera for People Who Don’t Like It

Would you buy an opera from this guy?
Would you buy an opera from this guy?
Conductor, noun (kǝn dǝk tǝr): A musician who plays no instrument, yet always gets top billing.

Train Wreck, noun (trān rek): In ensemble music, the condition that results when one of the players or singers makes a wrong entrance, causing others to (a) follow suit in a disastrous domino effect or (b) stop singing or playing. The end result is a conductor about to go nuclear.


An opera conductor is easy to spot. He’s the guy standing on the podium in the orchestra pit, with his back to the audience, waving a stick at the orchestra and the singers and occasionally flashing a dirty look at someone or other. He is under the impression that he is the boss.

I use the pronoun “he” because 99.9 percent of working conductors in the world are men. This is one of the last bastions of male dominance. There are female conductors, but you rarely see one in an opera house or in front of a symphony orchestra. I have a theory that this is because most women don’t want to stand with their backs facing a whole theater full of people, especially if they have fat butts. I could be wrong about this, and I probably am. It could also be that nobody wants to hire female conductors because everyone thinks it’s a man’s job, like running a forklift or taking out the garbage.*

Okay, so conductors like to think they are the boss. Technically, this is at least true in part, because it is his job to see to it that the orchestra musicians, the principal soloists and/or the choristers are performing the same measures of music at the same time and sounding good as they do it. This sounds like a big responsibility, and it is. Don’t let that fool you, though. Conductors love it. It’s the ultimate ego trip.

The catch is that this can cause a certain amount of friction between the conductor and other people who also think they are the boss, such as stage directors and leading singers. Conductors get really nervous when they think the singers aren’t looking at them. Singers hate to stare at the conductor, especially veteran singers who know what they are doing by now. There is also such a thing as peripheral vision, which comes in handy when you want to see what the conductor is doing without staring at him like a cat stalking a laser beam. This makes singers look stupid, and nobody wants to look stupid in front of a bunch of people who have paid for tickets and don’t want to see people looking stupid onstage. In addition, conductors have an annoying habit of giving musical suggestions during staging rehearsals, when the stage director is busy filling the singers’ brains with complicated movements. Having your brain sliced in two like that is both painful and damned annoying.

Like singers, opera conductors come in types:

1. The Dream. The Dream conducts the music with just the right tempi and knows where singers have to breathe, when to slow down, when to speed up, etc. He makes the orchestra sound great, and always with perfect balance. He gives the singers just enough freedom to give their best interpretations. Singers are lining up and begging to work with him.

2. The Racer. The Racer thinks that the faster the music is played the better. He isn’t happy unless every singer onstage hyperventilates at some point during the performance. It’s almost impossible for the onstage performers to do anything resembling an interpretation, because they are busy just trying to keep up with him. Singers will work with him if they need the money, but they don’t like it.

3. The Old Guy. Everyone is lucky if he stays awake through a whole performance.

4. The Metronome. This guy’s main characteristics are an inflexible beat and no nuances. Can we say boring? To the singers, he’s just an idiot with a stick in his hands, a necessary aggravation on the way to the paycheck.

5. The Waver. The Waver’s beat is so imprecise that it’s anybody’s guess what he’s trying to get people to do. The orchestra is probably used to him by now and has figured out what all those waves and circles mean. The singers aren’t so lucky. He is a train wreck waiting to happen.

If any of you conductors are reading this and are now pissed off, I have just one request. Please don’t hurt me.

*Both of these jobs can be handled by women, by the way. We just prefer to make men do anything involving lifting or filthy stuff.

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9 thoughts on “Opera for People Who Don’t Like It”

  1. This series is one of my favorite things to read. I learn so much. I look forward to John’s request, and how about one about the behind the scenes practical jokes? I know in a group that large, with egos even larger, there has to be some pranks…

    1. There is a book called “Great Operatic Disasters.” It’s not about pranks; it’s about some very funny mishaps. You might enjoy reading that.

      As for pranks, singers are usually too nervous backstage to play jokes on each other, but occasionally one gets played. It isn’t always appreciated, though!

  2. I think it’s just rude to turn your back on an audience, be you a conductor or not. The audience are the people who feed you your meals and tell you when it;s time for lights out. Wait a minute, I’m talking about prison. Ignore what I say for I don’t make sense. Isn’t that a turn-up for the books???

    1. Well, the only alternative is to conduct with your elbows, as Mitch Miller used to do on television. The big drawback to that is that it looks really stupid.

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