Maestro Patrick Summers, Principal Guest Conductor of San Francisco Opera and Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera, has been associated with SFO since his participation in the Merola Opera Program in the late 1980s. Since then, he has led a vast repertory of productions for the Company, including Ariodante
; Samson et Dalila
; Iphigénie en Tauride
; Il Trittico, Xerxes
; the world premieres of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire
(1998), Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking
(2000), and Christopher Theofanidis and Donna Di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier
(2011); and the West Coast premiere of Heggie’s Three Decembers
(2008) as well as Moby-Dick
(2012). Recently, Maestro Summers took the time to answer our questions about Wagner, his enduring relationship with SFO, and how he balances his many diverse responsibilities.
1) This spring, you will be conducting Das Rheingold at HGO. What are the unique challenges of conducting Wagner operas? How is The Flying Dutchman helping you prepare for The Ring Cycle which you’ll be bringing to Houston in the very near future?
The challenge of Wagner is giving his music transparency and purity of expression, honesty, if you will. Wagner was, among many other things, a symbolist, and for his innumerable metaphors and symbols to be heard with clarity, a conductor must be careful not to overdo it, and not to impose upon it the last thing it needs: personal ego.
2) This year marks Wagner’s bicentennial which SFO is celebrating in this production of Flying Dutchman. Why do you think his operas remain relevant today?
Many philosophies and spiritual traditions have attempted to connect mankind to its own transcendent thought, but Wagner thought the clearest way to do this was through connection to the "epic", a word which has a slightly altered meaning now. For Wagner, "epic" meant the stories of wandering heroes which were not, on their surface, "real", but which in their symbols and emotional depth were absolutely true. I think the dramatic ambiguity and human beauty of his operas, wrapped as they are in such extraordinary music, explains why his works remain before the public.
3) Wagner operas are considered some of the most musically complex works in the repertory. How do you make an opera like The Flying Dutchman musically accessible to audiences?
Wagner made the music accessible. It is our task to perform it as truthfully as we possibly can.
(Above: Maestro Summers leads a performance of Handel's Xerxes in 2011. Photo by Cory Weaver.)
4) You first came to San Francisco Opera as a member of the Merola Opera Program and have served as our Principal Guest Conductor since 1999. What have been some of your favorite moments at San Francisco Opera over the years? Of what productions are you particularly proud?
Such incredible memories! I recall with great joy the conducting of Charles Mackerras, as he and I were close colleagues, particularly Semele, Der Rosenkavalier, and what I recall as one of the great performances by the company in the 1990s, Dvorak's Rusalka. But going back into my early years, I so admired Christoph von Dohnanyi's Die Frau ohne Schatten, and I sat, playing the harpsichord, at the feet of Sir John Pritchard for the final performances of his life, the 1989 Idomeneo. Of my own performances, certainly the Rossini: Otello, William Tell, Ermione, these were very important to me and remain highlights of my career. The world premieres have always been special, as well as Il trittico, which remains my favorite evening of Italian opera in the entire repertoire. My most cherished memory at SFO is Serse, for it gave me my happiest moments as a conductor. Immersion in Handel teaches so much about music that simply cannot be learned by any other means.
5) You have been Music Director of HGO since 1998 and were named their Artistic and Music Director in 2011. While you are in San Francisco, what does a typical day look like for you in terms of managing both music rehearsals here and remotely running HGO?
I stay with a dear and generous friend in the northern part of the East Bay, and so a typical day begins with a long solitary walk in one of the beautiful golden hills of California. No matter where I am in the world, I spend a lot of time on the phone and e-mail with my colleagues at HGO, and fly back to Houston whenever possible.