Michael Christie began his tenure as the new face of Minnesota Opera when he took a bow Saturday as music director for "Nabucco," at the Ordway Center in St. Paul. He will conduct three of the troupe's five productions in this 50th-anniversary season.
Three shows over the next eight months makes it sound as if Christie will be underemployed in a position that almost feels new for the Minnesota Opera. The office of music director has been vacant since George Manahan was principal conductor from 1988 to 1996. But Christie sounds confident he will find enough projects around to keep him busy.
"You're making decisions about hiring musicians, setting the overall musical tone for the organization, expectations, making decisions about growth, artistic direction, developing productions," Christie said.
In fact, Christie said, he will do much the same job as a music director at a symphony orchestra -- except that he's not giving concerts every week.
On a recent Friday, for example, Christie was talking with doctoral conducting students at the University of Minnesota. At 38, he presents a model for students curious about a career on the podium.
A trumpet player from Buffalo, N.Y., Christie graduated from Oberlin College. His first music directorship was with the Queensland Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia. He led the Brooklyn Philharmonic for five years and is currently music director of the Colorado Music Festival at Boulder -- a job he will retain.
Christie's highest profile assignment was music director with the Phoenix Symphony. He will spend considerable time there next spring in a final transition season.
In each case, Christie was known for his efforts to add value for audiences. In Phoenix, for example, he would work the lobby before concerts, shaking hands and chatting up patrons. "How do we give people that sense of chemistry, the experience of being part of the performance?" he said to the students. "I want as many people as possible to enjoy this business."
The new production
Though "Nabucco" marks Christie's debut as music director, he is familiar to fans of the Minnesota Opera. He conducted "La Traviata" and "Wuthering Heights" in the spring of 2011 and then returned last November for the world premiere of Kevin Puts' "Silent Night," which won the Pulitzer Prize for music last spring. His ability to develop new work dovetails with the opera's interest in making that niche a key part of its definition.
"Nabucco" is a Verdi opera from 1842. It is the story of Jewish exile in Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar (Nabucco). Social intrigue arises when a daughter of the king converts to Judaism and he is forced to confront his own cultural prejudices. The choruses have a distinctive Verdi feel in rhythm and melody. The most famous is known colloquially as the "Chorus of Hebrew Slaves."
While Christie will be in the pit, director and designer Thaddeus Strassberger makes his Minnesota debut. Strassberger is another young turk in the world of opera, and the production in Minnesota is the same design that Strassberger used at the National Opera in Washington. He told Opera News in August that he sees the intersection of politics and culture in "Nabucco," which is relevant and current in the United States.
Minnesota's production includes baritone Jason Howard (John the Baptist in "Salome") as Nabucco, soprano Brenda Harris ("Mary Stuart") as Abigaille, the king's older daughter, and bass-baritone John Relyea as the Hebrews' high priest.
The new wave
Christie was featured in the same August issue of Opera News as part of the next wave of opera. In the article, he was quoted as saying, "We have to be courageous again. I think getting the patrons, whether donors or ticket-buyers, to get their appetite built up around the excitement of the art form is going to be a big thing."
When he spoke with the conducting students, Christie mixed specifics with vagaries in discussing how audiences can "have a great experience." He's not particularly impressed with efforts to lure 35-and-under patrons.
"It should be under a much bigger umbrella of what we do and what we present," he said.
He did, however, suggest that digital and social media -- podcasting, streaming audio, musicians' blogs -- are valuable tools in helping audiences get into the lives of performers.
Christie and his wife, Alexis, live in Rochester, where she is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. They have a 4-year-old daughter and chose Minnesota partly for its education system and quality of life. Despite his relative youth, he said, he does not see the Minnesota Opera as a career hop for him.
"It doesn't feel like it's fleeting," he said. "I feel that if you're in a place where you can strive toward amazing work, that feels so much more gratifying than flapping about. It feels better to be settled as a music director."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299