The Dallas Opera just closed the books on a golden season, but that doesn’t mean artistic director Jonathan Pell and assistant conductor Michael Heaston get to relax. They’re already hard at work on future productions.
Although the normal lead time is two or three years, Pell and his staff started booking the stars of this season’s Richard Wagner’s bold and brassy “Tristan & Isolde” four years ago.
“Because the number of singers who do this repertoire is so few, we had to plan much sooner,” he explained. “We were very fortunate that we got the people we originally wanted.”
Pell’s professional résumé reflects years of devotion to the world of opera. Pell began his career with TDO in 1985, coming from WNET/Thirteen in New York. In addition to creating opera-related programming, he was part of the team that produced the annual “PBS Gala of Stars,” hosted by Beverly Sills. He has also managed singers, conductors and stage directors.
In addition to his work at TDO, Pell is a much sought-after vocal competition judge and has given masters classes on “The Art of the Audition” at Southern Methodist University and the University of North Texas, among others.
In June 2010, Pell was presented Opera America’s Service Award for 25 years of dynamic leadership. In January of 2011, Pell was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Opera Association.
“If you had asked me when I was 18 would I have this career in opera, I would have laughed at you,” he said. “I thought it was this stuffy art form.”
Heaston, who hails from Des Moines, Iowa, started his musical journey with piano lessons at age 12, which is “much later than most” professional musicians who begin at 4 or 5.
“I found myself doing the high school musicals. I was drawn to musical theater,” he explained. “Any time a Broadway show would come through Des Moines I would be there. I had this vision when I was 12 or 13 that I wanted to become a keyboard musician that played in the pit orchestras.”
It was while he was in college at Drake University in his hometown that he discovered the beauty of opera.
“I started playing for friends who were voice majors,” Heaston said. “I had never seen an opera in my life or even listened to one.”
He didn’t hear his first opera until he was “21 or 22,” but he knew immediately that opera “completely fit” him.
Heaston’s mother is from Puerto Rico, and although he didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, hearing her speak helped him develop what he calls an ear for languages, which is critical, as most operas are not sung in English.
When Heaston completed a master’s in accompanying and coaching from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, he began a round of apprenticeships, getting his first job as a pianist for the Des Moines Opera company during the summer.
“While I was there, I got a phone call from the Amarillo opera,” he said. “They needed an apprentice for the month of August. That began my work in the South.”
It was during these apprenticeships that Heaston first met Pell.
“Jonathan was doing a masters class [in Amarillo] in 2004,” said Heaston. “Two years later, I was the young artist at the Glimmerglass Festival [in Cooperstown, New York]. He heard me there and said ‘We need to discuss a contract for next year.’ Five seasons later, I’m still here.”
When asked what it is, exactly, that an assistant conductor does, Heaston laughed and said, “In the most basic way, an assistant conductor assists whoever is the conductor. Before we get with the orchestra, there is someone who plays the orchestral productions on the piano. We do that. We play all those rehearsals. When the conductor can’t be at a rehearsal, we’ll get up and conduct in their absence. We’re also proficient in the foreign language diction. We make sure the singers are pronouncing the lyrics correctly. When there’s an offstage band – a bonda, like in ‘La Traviata,’ – we conduct those. In ‘Magic Flute,’ I conducted some off-stage chorus stuff. I was also the thunder, too, and played the celeste [toy piano] sound in the orchestra. It’s totally fun.”
For Heaston, there are three highlights of the past season.
“Getting to do my first production of ‘Tristan & Isolde,’” he noted. “It’s such a big thing to mount and produce. I work at the Metropolitan Opera, too, and filmed the opera five or six years ago, but wondered if I’d ever get to do it again. It was a true joy.”
Just two days after “Tristan & Isolde” closed, TDO opened its small chamber opera “The Lighthouse.”
“It was the hardest score I’ve ever had to learn,” Heaston explained. “I played four instruments. It made me stretch more than a lot of other pieces. It was a challenge to keep all that music prepared.”
Also on Heaston’s memorable list from last season was “The Magic Flute.”
“I was principally in charge of it,” he said. “Anytime I get to do Mozart with Graeme Jenkins, for me, it’s just a revelation. It was the most solid ‘Magic Flute’ cast, across the board.”
Heaston played a part in “Flute’s” success. He was responsible for unraveling the mysteries of Mozart’s masterpiece at the Joy and Ronald Mankoff Pre-Opera Talk, held one hour prior to each performance. All the presentations are top shelf, but Heaston’s passion for opera permeated the standing room crowd.
Even though this opera is heavy with Masonic symbolism, Heaston gave us permission to let go and let the story and music flow over us. It was one of the best pre-opera talks I’ve attended in 30 years.
“I heard so much from so many people about what a delightful experience it was that I got myself out front,” Pell said of Heaston’s lecture. “He really was charming and informative and delightful.”
On Broadway, an artistic director serves as the producer, bringing all the elements together. That’s essentially what Pell does for TDO.
“I find the singers, the directors, the physical set,” Pell disclosed. “All theatre is a collaborative process, but ultimately it is my responsibility to identify the right conductor, the right musical director, who the right stage director might be, and, of course, the right singers. It’s almost like alchemy bringing the ingredients together. You hope it will turn into gold.”
This is the first in a three-part series about two of the creative minds behind The Dallas Opera. Check out Monday’s edition for Part II.
Single tickets go on sale in September. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance by calling 214-443-1000 or visiting www.dallasopera.org. Season tickets are available from $76 to $1,015.
TDO also offers special student discounts, family packages and build-your-own-ticket options. Visit the opera’s website for complete information.
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