When conductor replacements are needed, opera companies and orchestras scramble in a game of musical podiums, with one change causing a cascade.
Several orchestras needed to make shifts Friday (Dec. 22) after they severed relationships with Charles Dutoit after The Associated Press reported sexual assault accusations by three singers and a musician.
The field of top replacements is small.
“You don’t book every week of the year. But they’re not sitting around waiting,” said Jonathan Brill of Opus 3 Artists, which manages many conductors, singers and musicians. “Valery Gergiev, whom we don’t represent, probably works around 60 weeks a year,” he said of the notorious workaholic.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, where the 81-year-old Dutoit is artistic director and principal conductor, said Friday the symphony and Dutoit “have jointly agreed to release him from his forthcoming concert obligations with the orchestra for the immediate future.”
Dutoit’s guest conducting appearances were canceled, too, and he was replaced by “To Be Announced” at the New York Philharmonic (Jan. 17-20), Boston Symphony Orchestra (Feb. 15-17), Cleveland Orchestra (Feb. 22-24) Chicago Symphony Orchestra (March 8-11 and April 5-10) and San Francisco Symphony (April 19-29). The Sydney Symphony Orchestra also cut ties.
Securing substitute conductors for symphonic concerts is far easier than for operas. Usually conductors arrive shortly before a run of two-to-four performances of an orchestra concert and have a day of rehearsal. For operas, work with orchestras, singers, directors and technical staff can span several weeks and even more than a month.
When the Metropolitan Opera decided the first weekend of December it was suspending music director emeritus James Levine following allegations of sexual misconduct, Met general manager Peter Gelb gathered his top staff to find a replacement for a major new production of Puccini’s “Tosca” scheduled to open on New Year’s Eve.
With “Tosca” rehearsals two weeks from starting, Gelb described the process as an “urgent kind of a scrum.” Administrators like to reach out to conductors who have histories with the orchestra, knowing the musicians and the acoustics.
“It’s about having a shorthand and a level of trust,” LA Opera President Christopher Koelsch said.
Unlike his colleagues in Europe and the U.S. East Coast, Koelsch has an added complication when seeking quick replacements for his casts. Much of the talent pool is regularly working in Europe.
“LA in some ways is like the other end of the world,” he said. “It still is something that causes me tremendous agita.”
Gelb had to find replacements in three productions for Levine, the Met’s music or artistic director from 1976-2016. The Met announced Dec. 5 the new “Tosca” conductor was Emmanuel Villaume, music director of the Dallas Opera and Prague Philharmonia. The weekend the accusations against Levine became public, Villaume was at the Met to conduct the last of seven performances of Massanet’s “Thais.”
“A few days before the end of the ‘Thais’ run, he had said to me that he wanted me to know that he was interested in conducting Puccini at the Met,” Gelb said.
Gelb conferred with assistant GMs Robert Rattray and John Fisher along with artistic administrator Jonathan Friend before settling on Villaume to replace Levine, himself a replacement for Andris Nelsons. The Boston Symphony Orchestra music director withdrew last summer after his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, gave a poor performance of Tosca’s second-act aria at a Met gala and was replaced by Sonya Yoncheva.
But Villaume had to first be released from a New Year’s Eve gala with tenor Marcelo Alvarez and the Prague Philharmonia at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman. Villaume also got out of a Jan. 5 concert in the Czech Republic capital and will conduct seven performances of “Tosca” from Jan. 3-27, the last to be simulcast to movie theaters around the world. Villaume will skip a pair of Met performances on Jan. 15 and 18 to conduct Haydn’s “Die Schoepfung (The Creation)” in Prague on Jan. 20.
“Because it’s the nature of the small world, everyone was cordial,” said Brill, who represents Villaume.