For conductor Michael Christie, this run of “Rigoletto” will be more emotionally charged than ever. Minnesota Opera opens a brand-new production of the Verdi classic Saturday evening, with Christie leading the next two weeks of performances. However, this will be Christie’s last production as Minnesota Opera music director.
Christie won his post in 2012 after leading the premiere of Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night,” one of the most acclaimed productions in recent Minnesota Opera history. His three-year contract was renewed in 2015 for a second three-year term.
But when details of the 2018-19 season were announced recently, Christie’s name was not to be found on the conductors’ roster. It was clear his tenure as music director was over.
While no official explanation was given for Christie’s departure, Minnesota Opera’s president and general director Ryan Taylor said in a recent interview that the company was committed to finding a replacement. “I don’t know exactly what that role will look like, but I do know it’s our intention to find someone to have that steady hand for the orchestra,” said Taylor, who joined the company in May 2016.
Minnesota Opera is already seeking a new artistic director to replace Dale Johnson, who is transitioning to an advisory role after 23 years. So the next two seasons have been earmarked for identifying possible music director candidates. “In the middle of all of the other transitions, we felt it would be wise to use the next two seasons to figure out how to make that decision deliberately,” Taylor said.
Meanwhile Christie, who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and two children, is busily preparing for “Rigoletto” — a dark tale of court intrigue concerning a jester with physical disabilities whose efforts to protect his daughter from a lecherous Duke end in tragedy. Christie took a break from rehearsals to discuss the new production and share a few thoughts as he concludes his tenure. The interview has been lightly edited.
Q: Can you give us a flavor of Minnesota Opera’s new “Rigoletto” production?
A: We have a young director, Austin Regan, whom I’m intrigued to work with. He has definitely asked some new questions about the piece. So instead of Rigoletto being a hunchback, he’s been given a leg brace, to get away from the operatic stereotype and make people look at him differently.
Q: “Rigoletto” was written in 1851, but some of its themes — sexual predation, abuse of power, social inequality — feel very contemporary. Is that reflected in the new production?
A: In many ways, yes. For instance, the director is leaving the all-male chorus on stage for the entire third act. He’s saying that from the moment these men showed up at the Duke’s party in Act One they’re complicit because they didn’t say anything about his behavior. Or they encouraged it.
Q: Is “Rigoletto” a good opera for you, personally, to end on?
A: It is. The roles are so touching, and so beautiful. And as a father, when you hear Rigoletto singing and trying to protect his daughter, you can’t help but look at your own life and wonder, “How do I make sure my beautiful daughter lives her dreams?”
Q: Minnesota Opera was your first job as music director at an opera company. Did you have much operatic experience before coming here?
A: I spent several years at the Zurich Opera with Franz Welser-Möst, who went on to be music director of the Cleveland Orchestra. I saw everybody and their brother singing there. And I conducted a lot of ballets and revivals.
Q: Do you think having a music director is necessary for a company like Minnesota Opera, which doesn’t employ a full-time orchestra?
A: Yes, I do. It’s actually one of the big reasons Minnesota Opera brought me here. They went 20 years without a music director. They wanted somebody to make the relationship between company and orchestra whole, to watch over the audition process, to know who the substitute players are. And it’s also about developing [musical] standards, building something that feels like more than a per-service orchestra.
Q: Have you enjoyed it?
A: Yes. I feel the orchestra is more confident now, and we can handle almost any kind of repertoire. I will miss the players deeply; they’re my neighbors here in town.
Q: Of the 26 productions you have done at Minnesota Opera, are there any that stick in your memory?
A: “Silent Night” was a huge, important event. But beyond individual titles, I think of when Robert Ainsley, who’s now at Washington National Opera, was here as Head of Music. There was a three-year period from about 2013-15 when we were really firing on incredible cylinders, and it was so much fun. He had developed the chorus into such a powerful, flexible ensemble. We did Strauss’ “Arabella,” Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” Bizet’s “Carmen.” From my perspective that was a golden moment.
Q: How is the opera world changing?
A: I think there’s a large part of the repertoire that is falling away. The Donizetti operas, Rossini — these are long evenings, and the stories are a little comical. So opera is getting shorter, more like a movie-length experience. Also, so many companies are doing new works now. And they’re much more sensitive to social issues.
Q: How would you summarize your feelings as you exit Minnesota Opera?
A: The work we’ve done over eight years has been extremely important to me artistically and personally, and I couldn’t feel more ready to take on future artistic leadership opportunities. ... Where one door closes, another opens.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.