Starting this season, Kevin Rhodes is the new chief conductor of the Slovak National Theatre Opera. In an interview with Opera Slovakia, he speaks about his beginnings and his journey to the European theatre scene, his views of music as art, the opera and the ballet theatre and, of course, about his closest plans related to the SNT Opera ensemble.
American conductor Kevin Rhodes, a native of Evansville (Indiana, USA), studied at the Michigan State University and the University of Illinois. During his artistic career, he collaborated with more than 50 orchestras, mainly in America and Europe. Under his baton concerts, operas, and ballets were performed. For more than two decades he was the music director of two American orchestras: the Traverse Symphony Orchestra in Michigan and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts, and since the 2010/2011 season he has been the principal conductor of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra in Boston. For several years he worked as the principal ballet conductor of the Vienna State Opera.
From the 2022/2023 season, he is the chief conductor of the Opera of the Slovak National Theatre in Bratislava, Behind the conductor’s desk he has so far performed here the performances Beyond the Sin/The Karamazov Brothers (SNT Ballet), Signatures of the Masters (SNT Ballet), Turandot (SNT Opera) and concerts: SNT Summer Gala (SNT Opera and Ballet open air concert in front of the new SNT building) and Edita Gruberová Tribute. Next, he will appear in the musical staging of the new production of Bizet’s opera Carmen (premieres on September 29 and 30, 2022). (Read more at: www.kevinrhodesconductor.com)
At first, we would like to ask you where was you born and how did your career as a musician began?
I was born in Indiana, of course America. I come from a family that has almost no relationship to music. Nobody played, nobody sang and the only music that we knew was country and Western like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and others. My parents had a restaurant open 24 hours around the clock, especially for the big truck drivers. And when I was five, I guess, in nursery school, this was the first time I saw somebody playing the piano. The teacher played and we sang. For me it was like a miracle, and I felt I have to be able making such sounds.
Therefore, I asked for piano lessons and rather soon, after few years when I was ten, I probably played well, because I started to accompany the school choir so that the teacher could then conduct instead of playing herself. In another few years this led to playing the piano for amateur theatre productions like Hello Dolly – such kind of musicals. So, by this way I really developed my love and connection to the theatre for the first time. This subsequently led me to the learning about the opera and the decision that I really want to go in this direction and become a conductor.
What was your journey to the European theatres?
You know, I always use to say that luck is so important, and I think, have been very lucky. At the end of my master’s degree course I, still as a student, conducted a concert with the school orchestra. We played Egmont overture by Beethoven, symphonic poem Don Juan by Richard Strauss, and some Anton Webern music. After this concert, one of the voice teachers came to me together with her husband. She knew that I played piano also for the opera and explained me that her husband had a son from his previous marriage who was the music director in the Opera House in Basel, Switzerland. She also knew that I wanted to go to Europe, so she said, “Well, maybe we can connect you with him.”
So, I went to Basel, passed through an audition, and started to work there as a piano accompanist. It was a little funny story because before this audition, I was said that on that day the music rehearsal to Act Two of Tristan and Isolde will be going on. But I was in doubt because I already knew how it uses to go in the theatres. Therefore, I rather learned the piano part from the whole vocal score consisting of more than 700 pages. And, of course, when I came to that rehearsal, the first thing I heard was “Let’s begin with the Act Three…”
When I came for this job, I was also explained that I would get an opportunity to conduct some performances to see how it would go. I guess, it went well because from this point I really started my professional conducting. In this theatre I was performing all so-called traditional opera repertoire like Tosca, Zauberflöte, Rigoletto, Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Bartered Bride, and later on also a ballet.
Then, one of the conductors whom I was first assisting and later I took over his repertoire, he was going to Vienna. He said he would like me to come with him. I thought “Ok, maybe it is interesting, we will see …” and agreed. At first, we arranged that I should conduct one performance in the Volksoper. Some guys from the Vienna Philharmonic will be sitting there, watching me and judging is it Ok that I will conduct them in the big house of Vienna State Opera. So, after this was done, they said “Ok, he can conduct us” – great.
How did you begin in Vienna?
I started here with the premiere of The Merry widow ballet version (1994) and several performances of Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky and Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. These ballets I conducted for the first time in my life, without rehearsal, but it went very well. Then, there was a change in an administration. The guy who invited me to Vienna left and I was said “We bring you to be our main ballet conductor in Vienna”. So, this is like it really began.
I came to Vienna when I was about 30 and, in this point, I also changed the theatre from Basel to Düsseldorf, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, doing similar repertoire: – Zauberflöte, Rigoletto, Salome, Rosenkavalier, Fledermaus and other. Going back in forth between Vienna and Düsseldorf many people from various places began to call me saying, “Oh can you come to us and conduct this or that…?”. “Yes, I come…” – because you know, you must when you start.
What was the impetus for your performance in Paris and Milan
Since I was working in a really great house in Vienna with lots of people coming through to dance and to see the performances, and since I also conducted Le sacre du printemps by Stravinsky in some places, Gerard Mortier, at that time the opera director in Paris, and also the leader of festival in Bochum, Germany said “We would love you to come and conduct Romeo and Juliet in Paris”. So, then I started my work also in Paris and now I am doing quite a lot there. And, after seeing me conducting some performance, another dancer agent called me to come in La Scala. And then it just developed rolling along…
However, after some time the situation of my wife’s family complicated – her father died, her mother was getting older and felt a bit alone so that we moved back to America and I took two purely concert orchestras, but all that time I still often came back to Europe – in fact I spent four to eight months of the year in the Europe while I had two orchestras in the America. I was extremely busy.
But along the way, I worked with current SNT ballet director Nina Poláková in Vienna where she was a dancer. In June of the last year, she told me that she is going to Bratislava, and it would be nice if I could come to work there. So, year ago, in August 29 I went for the first time to Bratislava. We talked about this idea also with the director Matej Drlička and after I first conducted the orchestra here, it began to develop more and more into my role as a chief conductor. I am very glad about this because it has been a long time – 20 years – since I was working stably inside one opera house.
So, now you can work with the opera much more intensively…
Yes, exactly. In fact, an opera is the reason why I wanted to become a conductor. I was never really interested in being the guy standing on the stage like a Grande Maestro in concert. Opera conductor is a little bit anonymous person, working downward in the orchestra pit, listening to the chorus and soloists, but the attention is focused on the scene, and this is what I love, being a part of this whole system. I just love this atmosphere one day working, for example on Carmen, next day welcoming Turandot, then to check in with the ballet about La fille mal gardée etc… This is where my heart really is.
So, if I understand it correctly you became well known as a ballet conductor somehow “by mistake…”
Exactly. It was thoroughly in accident. I conducted in several new opera productions back in the nineties in Basel and Germany when I was young, but now it has been a very long time, I haven’t done it. My wife and me had lived in Switzerland eleven years, and right in that time when we decided to move back to America some smaller opera houses in Germany were calling me to get the music director position there, but I went a different way. Now I feel it really almost incredible that 31 years after I first came to Europe and after 22 years of being a chef of two American concert orchestras, also conducting various chamber orchestras for about 10 years, I am turning back to the Europe becoming a regular conductor just in the opera house.
There should be an advantage that since I am 58 years old now, I think, I can come here with the certain perspective I would not have when I was, let’s say 35. Well, maybe I could do this job somehow also in that time, but, in my opinion, elder people understand the others around him and the world much better. They can better understand that, for example, the job of chief conductor is not just “play shorter, longer, faster, slower…”, but it is really being here for the people and love them. Maybe, the man at 35 is not so comfortable in that human part of this position.
You told you have been a music director of two American orchestras more than 20 years, do you still continue this work?
I am still a music director, the position which involves basically the same as the chief conductor, of one of these orchestras now. With the second one I finished this position in 2021 but I have been still working with it. This year I was already planning a busy season but when Bratislava came along, I had to make many changes. So, this season I am more here in Europe than in America and I hope I can soon coordinate all my matters in a more elegant way.
How did your artistic view on music developed or evolved?
It is difficult to put in order according to the importance. I just say what comes to mind, but I think, for me the rhythm of music is the first element. The music lives from its own rhythm. Thinking about it, in the history of humanity, the first what the people did in this way was beating on rocks when they lived in caves. Then, eventually, they took bones and beat together, as it can be still seen in some parts of the world. And then somebody got the idea of making a drum or taking a bone with hole inside which became a flute… I think, the rhythm started at the first place and to confirm this there can be found also a bases in the humankind history. At first there was a rhythm before any melody.
The next element for me would be the strength of contrasts. I would put this in the context of European classical music, especially Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and others because in times they lived this was really the basic rule. When you write sonata or symphony, there is e. g. theme “A”. If “A” is forte and vigorous, then “B” must be delicate and lyrical or vice versa So, at this point the European music has already started with contrast being one of the most important elements. And if these differences are not made in every type of music, then I do not feel this music being realized in the right way.
For example, if we take Carmen prelude, this is a perfect example. The first phrase is a strong march with sharp rhythm but then immediately comes the Toreador theme which must be played lyrically. If it is not so, then there is no contrast. Emphasizing the contrast – subito (immediately) forte, subito piano, subito lirico, subito staccato – is one of the hardest things to do but this is what I am always trying to find in the music.
And regarding the music for the stage, I definitely have learned a lot from conducting ballet because there are no words, but the story is. The dancers act it, but the orchestra must provide the words. It must play the love theme which finally makes public ready for crying. But the fight scene, for example from Romeo and Juliet, must be really wild so that the orchestra must be able to go immediately back and forth according to the expression demands.
Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky begins with music for the Witch. Therefore, it has to explode immediately from the first note. The beginning of this piece always remains one of my most explosive moments which must be crazy because the Witch with all that dark magic about her is also crazy. However, after short time this finishes very sharply and then comes the music for the Heavenly Fairy, who is going to resolve everything…
I am trying to get these contrasts out of the orchestra because they must appear for telling the story. Maybe I did not see this in the same way before I was involved in the ballet music, but by conducting ballet I came to know how to tell the story through the music also in opera, just in this order.
From this season, you are a new chief conductor in the Opera of Slovak National Theatre (SNT). Can you tell us some of your plans with the opera ensemble?
Well, the most important is to know the real situation. Because somebody can come for a visit and after maybe 15 days he can say “Oh, I know what those people need.” This is not hard to do but naïve. What I am doing now is that I am really getting to know the situation here. And what I do know just now, is that I don’t feel everyone here realizes how great the artists in the Slovak National Theatre are. Because I use to go to places that do not have such quality, but anyway, the people act there like “Hey, we are the big, we are it…”
This certainly applies to the orchestra, chorus, it is just a sort of the general mood. So, my first objective is to really get to know all the artists in this theatre. Well, your question is a bit wider, and it exceeds the basic problem involving just the way how to prepare a new production. At this moment I can only say that I must really learn the situation and the people because trying to develop a big artistic plan is like trying to steer the huge ocean liner which does not turn around in a moment like a little car.
And that is what this institution needs and once it must be realized. Some of my younger colleagues which I have spoken with, sometimes spelt like “Ok, I can arrive, I do this and that, and just it will be how I want it.” That is not what my approach is. When I was 35, I took these two American orchestras. Such story happened me when I was one of the candidates for one of those jobs: after the concert and the rehearsals were all done, we had a little breakfast with the orchestra chiefs who talked to me “Yes, right, nice chemistry, it was a positive experience, you know, you were the first of all the candidates who certain talked to us and who did not give us a list of the musicians that you want be fired.” I think, this is not just a part of my personal mentality and certainly not how I feel one should behave working in this position.
The seating plan of the orchestra has changed, which reasons does it have?
We are indeed trying out a different arrangement of the orchestra. It is a setup used in many theatres, including Vienna most notably. It puts the woodwinds to the side, which has their sound going across Theorienstreite instead of directly into the auditorium. This also has the advantage in our theatre that now the woodwind players can much better hear the singers with whom they have many moments of intimate music making, and the same goes for the singers. The other advantage is that the strings sit in a different arrangement which many feel makes the string sound more “transparent“ and puts the basses in the middle of the orchestra, which is good for everyone in the orchestra.
How do you feel the current repertoire in the Slovak National Opera?
Well, I do not know all the productions sitting in a warehouse which could be brought on the stage. But I must say that I am very fascinated about the Slovak opera repertoire, Cikker and Suchoň, two composers who I did not know until four months ago. I did not ever hear their names. So, I began exploring their music and I was really amazed that it is not performed like Bartók or Janáček who is now played by almost everyone. I was really shocked that this music is not being heard outside.
I am sure that my colleagues in the opera department already have the plans for many years but, of course, I would love to be able doing some of the music I really love, for example the Richard Strauss and Wagner pieces. And for sure, the chorus would be amazing in the Tannhäuser. Of course, it is a big challenge, but, I think, the feeling of an accomplishment when orchestra and chorus have learned the plays like Salome by Strauss is great. There is hardly more perfect opera than Salome. I also hope for the opportunity of bringing some pieces in a concert situation.
Of course, it is great to play all the standard pieces which everyone knows and loves, but I would like to introduce some of my familiarity with American music like Bernstein and Gershwin pieces. For example, Bernstein wrote operetta Candide – a magnificent piece of music. Some opera houses made quite success using combination of ballet and certain opera singers with the, for instance, West Side Story. It would be quite fun for me being able to bring some of this. Also, Porgy and Bess is a fantastic piece and I there is a whole crew of singers back in America whom I could make one call and Porgy and Bess can be done in few days. Some of them have sung it also in the MET.
West Side Story was one of my first complicated things I was conducting when I was young. Many years later I came back to this music with complicated irregular metrics and other specialties in concert and when I was relearning it again, I thought “How did I do that when I was seventeen?” Because in that time I got barely few lessons of conducting, but somehow, I guess, I did.
Which kind of pieces should be involved in the opera repertoire of SNT, as the most representative theatre institution in Slovakia?
The answer to this question, of course, depends on what type of opera house it is spoken about. I have heard many discussions also about that kind of theatre which Italians call staggione where one month one piece is played, next month another one etc. with many variations. But in our institution, I think, there are two obligations. At first, it is obviously needed to play enough pieces, that can be attractive to more-less anybody. Especially for that people who come and just learn about this art form. Because as time goes on the world is still farther away from classical music and the same follows for the opera as well.
These are such pieces like Carmen with well-known melodies like Habanera or Toreador, and also many Italian operas like Aïda, La traviata, Rigoletto or Il Trovatore… By the way, if you want to give a real example of, let’s say, diamond, you say the Hope Diamond or the example of tall building, it can be one of those crazy houses in Dubai. And the really best example of 19th century Italian opera is surely Il Trovatore with its famous strettas and heroic choruses. This is the real opera; I extremely love it…!
But the serious artistic institution like SNT has to come through an effort of fulfilling a sort of higher obligation to the art. Maybe I don’t exaggerate if I say that it is similar like the church has the obligation to the Almighty. Therefore, I mean that we are also obliged to play new pieces and the pieces which belong to the national history like the composers I just mentioned, keeping them alive and remind people that their works still exist and, perhaps, with the right type of publicity to let the wider world know about them who also wrote great music which deserves to be heard.
So, it is always the balance between the so called “popular” and, let’s say, more peculiar repertoire. As for the baroque music, this is such a specialized field which is very difficult for an opera house like ours to navigate. For example, also in Paris, when the opera is going to do some piece by Händel, for instance, an external orchestra, chorus and hired guest singers are invited. Because nowadays the baroque music is already generally considered as requiring real specialists for its interpretation.
But there are also many important pieces among the other operas. Let’s mention two great examples of the music written in the 20th century, both from Alban Berg – Wozzek and Lulu. They still sound modern although they were written more than 100 years ago. Since we, musicians, are educated we know, of course, that it is already old music, but when playing it to somebody else, he will hardly identify that. Many people tried to write like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern but in my opinion, they were not successful so that I think, these experiments from the thirties, forties and fifties, maybe can be left alone because they probably do not have the adequate quality.
But if something from the fifties should be performed, the amazing and very special piece is Dialogues de Carmelites by Poulenc, which is again very special. Especially ladies chorus would be lovely in it.
I also hope that I can discuss with somebody from the theatre department about trying to help the people living here in Bratislava to know what we are doing. Because in America my job also means being a public person so that talking about the music in various kinds of discussion formats is completely a part of my job. I must say that I am extremely comfortable in doing this. Of course, this will probably need some translation by titles but on the other hand the level of English that I find in the people here is really amazing. In fact, the people use to say that I can explain how to listen music in a way which everybody can understand so that maybe just this I can do also here…
Like Leonard Bernstein…
Yes! Exactly. When I already knew this should be a sort of work I would need to do, that is explaining what’s going on in the music, in concerts for children or sessions with adults – it was announced as “On Sunday at three o’clock maestro will talk about Tchaikovsky and Brahms…” – I sat at the piano, played and talk. But before that I watched every piece of that films with Bernstein explaining music indeed to learn it from the best.
Maybe, Bernstein and me, we have a little bit similar thread because he also did not come from the musical family. His dad manufactured hair products – for ladies. He also started his career as an assistant conductor, but he was also performing Broadway musicals in the theatre. And he often liked to tell the story that when he told to his dad he wants to be a musician his father’s reaction was “What?! You want to be a Klezmer?” – because he, of course, thought he would take over the family business, as my father thought I will take over the restaurant… The difference is that Bernstein was also a composer.
What do you feel now, coming to Bratislava, as the greatest challenge?
Yes, I have one which I want to be able to accomplish when I will have a little bit of break in fulfilling my personal matters and finishing my current artistic obligations. I would say, my biggest challenge would be learning Slovak because if we decide to continue the relationship with SNT for a number of years then I must block out several months for doing intensive course where I would be working eight hours a day to learn this language.
Because, you know, there is very sparse connection to the Latin or the Germanic languages. When I am hearing it, I feel there is not any such syllable. If I am hearing a string of French or Italian, maybe they’re talking fast and I don’t get it all but when I hear a “libro”, I know that they are talking about books – at least. I can’t even do this with Slovak yet.
So, this was a little bit humorous answer but now, very seriously, I think, my biggest challenge certainly is managing this transition period while I finish the obligations that were in places before I began here. This is quite a lot of stuff. If we had known much earlier that I would come here than I would have said no to some proposals before I started to realize them but now, I am not feeling proper to just cancel everything for other people because they are counting on me. And let me tell you, this is truly a big challenge because, among other things, the planes always don’t fly at the time or day you need them. But I rather tend to think more in terms of what will be the joy than what are the challenges because the joy will be great.
How do you perceive the maintenance of artistic quality in reprises?
Yes, I know what you are talking about, during the time the performances in the theatres are repeating and there is a problem to maintain the quality. But there is certainly something what I not even had ten years ago: every time when I am leaving the conductor’s room before the performance I newly say to myself “Maybe tonight it is the last time I ever get to do this… Maybe tomorrow I walk across the street and the car hits me or the doctor tells me a terrible news – you never know… There must be everything if it’s going to be my last.” This is just my own little mental game I play with myself, but I really believe it at all.
I think, each of us remembers at least one colleague with whom he was working standing next to him and the next day some terrible accident or heart attack happened – I would certainly hate for my last performance to be feeble… But, as I told, this is the mental game and I am surely not going to die anyway, but this is something I had to learn and maybe I can say that I love it because it helps me easy to get excited. The only case when it is not functioning well is if you are working so much and the body is tired. But when this is over, I always want to start again.
But you need to persuade the people that they should do it by the same way…
Yes, and that is why I feel the conductor must try to set the example. I can’t stand in the front of the orchestra marvelling „Oh, why was it so dull? Why were you bored…?” In very early times of my career an agent in Vienna, which is one hour and five minutes away from here, said me in his wonderful Viennese accent “You know, a conductor is an animator and I think he’s quite right on this. Because your job is to try giving an impulse for all artists doing the work on the stage by making the sound, because you don’t make any sound.” Yes, my job is to give them a clear impulse for the direction they go…
What are you planning for this season excluding SNT?
In Ljubljana, Slovenia I am going to conduct Mahler’s Lied von der Erde and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht. I am really looking forward to this nice evening. In Rome I was asked for two productions, Giselle by Adam and some performances of Nutcracker. So, my work in this year is still based upon the ballet, but for the next ones we were already talking about some operas and some other pieces.
I’m really thrilled to be doing all of that again – at my current age I am much more experienced so that I can combine both ballet and opera. But this combination brings me also some new freshness because I am not coming to Bratislava with “Ok, just another opera house, just another boss position…” but I am in a way returning to something which I haven’t been doing for a while. I feel really very fresh about it, but maybe in a different way than if I were 28 years old.
The questions were asked by: Ľudovít Vongrej
Collaborated with: Ján Marták