Monday, September 24, 2012

Opera Man: After a 15-year search, the Minnesota Opera hires 37-year-old Michael Christie as its new music director


Michael Christie is the definition of Wunderkind.

At 37, his biography reads like a who’s-who of the classical music world. From the New York Philharmonic to the Zurich Opera, he has directed some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras.
So the announcement that he would be joining the Minnesota Opera as its first music director since 1996 (the organization has subsisted without one in the meantime) was a welcome one—both for a company whose musical cachet is quickly rising, and for its promising new hire.
“I didn’t expect a company of this stature to be looking at me,” says Christie, whose tenure with the opera will officially begin in the 2012-13 season (though he will be conducting most of the Madame Butterfly performances this month).
“We have been searching for the right person for over a decade,” says Opera Artistic Director Dale Johnson. “We need someone to help bring out our best; [Minnesota Orchestra Music Director] Osmo Vänskä is one of those guys. When Michael stepped in front of the Minnesota Opera’s orchestra last year there was instant rapport and respect. It was at [that] moment I knew he was our guy.”
The Minnesota Opera is a rare opera success story these days, and the addition of Christie is a clear sign of that. Sitting on secure financial and artistic ground, the organization has so far avoided the difficulties of other recession-addled opera companies like Opera Pacific and the Baltimore, Connecticut and Cleveland Operas, all of which shut their doors in the past few years, presumably due to financial troubles. Even in Italy, the country considered the birthplace of the art form, companies rely heavily on government funds and are struggling amidst the current European fiscal crisis. With a solid fan and financial base, excellent pit musicians and the resources not only to perform but to commission new work every year, the Minnesota Opera’s sustainability attracts fans and talent from all over the country.
“A lot of the stars seem to be aligning for [the Minnesota Opera] to become one of the most important operas in the country,” Christie explains. “We view that as part of the mission to help opera become something really important. If I can contribute meaningfully to that, I feel like I will have done a lot of my job.”
Christie’s strengths lie in creating interdisciplinary theater offerings, and his background with other performance arts, such as dance, will add new elements to performances. The Minnesota Opera’s diverse programming and flexibility create the ideal environment for him to build relationships between the Twin Cities artistic community and the opera.
“Over the last 75 years, all different art forms have become quite compartmentalized,” Christie says. “More and more in the last 15 years, they’ve had to come together for a lot of different reasons. It’s essential that we get wrapped up in this wave of collaboration and lead where we can.”
Christie also stresses opera’s accessibility, and hopes to make it less intimidating for novice audiences.
“It’s unique to have a company that operates at this level of creativity and it’s a very special thing that it’s here in our community,” he says. “I hope the creativity of it is something people can get into, and [that they will] not be so worried about whether they know if it’s Mozart or if it’s Puccini.”
Christie’s relative youth, ambition and discipline will presumably help move the Opera forward. Just as important, though, is the experience he brings with him. At 21 years old he worked with the ballet company at the Zurich Opera. He leads an annual music festival in Boulder, Colo., acts as chief conductor for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia and has won an International Sibelius Conductors’ Competition prize for outstanding potential.
“There are a lot of things that I need to do for music and performing arts and for audiences, and I feel like I have the energy to do it,” he says. “Once I got past 35 it felt like people started looking at me like, ‘you actually know how this goes,’ even though relatively speaking I’m doing it a decade earlier than most people. You do still have to pay your dues; I just paid them a little bit earlier.”
Aside from the Minnesota Opera’s musical potential, location was a big part of Christie’s interest in his new position. Originally from Buffalo, New York, he is excited about living in Minnesota and will likely be found hunting down the new restaurants and cultural events the Twin Cities has to offer before his boxes are even unpacked.
“Honestly, I love the Cities so much,” he says. “The history of the Twin Cities and underpinning behind education, the arts, just living—being a human being in that society is so amazing and so incredibly dynamic and renewing.”
Christie is remaining in Phoenix for the spring, where he directs the Phoenix Symphony. He will move to Rochester with his wife, Alexis (who will be a fellow of intensive care at the Mayo Clinic), later this year, but is eager to start life in Minnesota.
“I hope people won’t be surprised that I’m going to really dig in and try to contribute meaningfully to cultural life here,” Christie says. “I can only do this once. I want to make sure I’m giving it all I’ve got.”