How Anthony Barrese Is Making Sure Opera Endures
OperaDelaware's music director cultivates audiences while pushing boundaries.
Anthony Barrese was hired as OperaDelaware’s music director in September.//Photograph provided by Anthony Barrese
In the dark and dusty archives of a Milan publishing house in 2004, Anthony Barrese wrote a number on a slip of paper and passed it to an archivist.
In his hands, covered with latex gloves, was placed a faded, delicate parchment. It was an all-but-forgotten manuscript of an opera, “Amleto,” that had been last performed in 1871.
Barrese painstakingly reconstructed the work, an operatic version of “Hamlet,” transcribing the author’s hand-written music into a publishable opera. His off-and-on project of a dozen years was premiered on the East Coast by OperaDelaware in 2016.
“It gave us a much wider reach,” including reviews from critics in America and Europe, says Brendan Cooke, OperaDelaware’s general director.
Barrese, hired as OperaDelaware’s music director in September, says opera’s relevance depends on its ability to meet the demands of its audience while cultivating its appetite for innovative work. He says it was an overreliance on the classics that once calcified opera and earned it a reputation as a museum art.
“If you only do ‘Carmen’ and ‘La Bohème’ every season, that’s death, that’s artistic death,” Barrese says. “You might fill seats, but you are saying nothing.”
Innovation is an economic imperative, as well. Unlike cinema, opera cannot rely on blockbuster hits to sustain itself. Ticket proceeds from a sellout will defray only about a quarter of a typical opera’s costs.
Groundbreaking art such as “Amleto” captures attention, especially of donors and critics, says Paul Weagraff, director of the Delaware Division of the Arts.
“In striking the balance programmatically between the familiar and the innovative, they earn the trust and respect of private and corporate donors, who recognize the value of what they’re doing in the cultural life of the community,” Weagraff says.
As a composer and conductor, Barrese has the experience and aptitude to strike a balance between the known and the unknown. Adventurous and eclectic—he’s a pro on the accordion—he’s known for his sense of humor.
Soprano Lindsay Ohse remembers Barrese injecting some levity into a rehearsal’s quiet moment. As the director was talking to a singer, Barrese started to play a song from “Super Mario Bros.” on his harpsichord.
Barrese’s colleagues are quick to note he’s no dilettante. There is a real commitment to music behind his impishness.
“If you know Tony, it’s like he lives and breathes and eats and drinks opera,” Ohse says. “It’s not just a job for him.”
From serendipity to the stage
Barrese, born and raised in Chicago, entered the world of classical music in high school for that most clichéd of reasons: a girl.
She was a violin player, so Barrese followed her to orchestra class, where he learned how to play violin parts on his guitar and to compose arrangements. The relationship fizzled, but composition clicked. Barrese specialized in the field. He eventually earned his master’s at the New England Conservatory of Music.
He hadn’t conducted at all until the age of 24, when he essentially stumbled onto the role. Barrese was studying composition in Milan under a composer of growing renown. His teacher was called away with work, so the conductor’s baton was passed to the youngest man in the room.
“I had no fear,” he says. “I wasn’t smart enough to know I should be afraid of this.”
Even after developing a deeper appreciation of conducting, Barrese says, the role never filled him with the anxiety that playing piano did. It helps that he’s the only person in the production who doesn’t make a sound.
“The biggest problem is you’re getting in the way,” he says.
In 2007, Barrese joined Albuquerque-based Opera Southwest as music director. In 2011, he became its artistic director and principal conductor. Barrese can do most of his work for both opera companies remotely from his Chicago home. Moreover, the two groups have different performance schedules, so he can conduct for both.
It can be difficult to describe one’s style as a conductor, as the whole enterprise defies easy analogy. One comparison he favors is with his favorite sport, boxing.
“If something gets a little off, it feels like you are getting knocked left and right and you’re about to go down,” he says. On the podium, these split-second crises usually go unnoticed by the audience.
Still, “it can feel in the moment like I’m getting killed out there.”
If you want to get a sense of Barrese’s idea of a masterful conductor, look no further than Bugs Bunny.
A cue from Bugs
In an iconic Warner Bros. cartoon from 1949, Bugs Bunny plays a haughty conductor named Leopold. He wields absolute sonic authority against audience, orchestra and singer alike. Music is made and silence falls at his slightest gesture, as if he is creating sound through force of will.
The cartoon, Barrese says, gets at something essential about conducting. Part of the job is technical—he or she must manage the orchestra and singers using a handful of gestures. But the larger part, the artistry, is less in technique, more in the bearing, the will.
“The part that takes years is to make it look smooth and natural,” he says. “When you start conducting, you hope the orchestra responds. Later, your gesture commands that a sound be made.”
That said, Barrese believes the best music is made by listening.
“I hope, at the best of times, that my gesture indicates not look, but listen. Conducting is a huge encouragement for everyone to listen to each other.”
Singers who’ve worked with Barrese say he is known as an affable collaborator who nonetheless wrests emotion from singers and players. Cori Ellison, a New York City singer and opera scholar, says Barrese isn’t the stereotypical conductor, “but he’s about as rigorous a musician as you can get.”
Ohse, the soprano, says Barrese cracks jokes, but has the musical chops to “tell you exactly why a specific piece should be taken in this particular style.”
“A really good conductor makes performers think it’s a collaboration, but still gets them to do what he wants,” she says.
A world safe for opera
When Cooke took over at OperaDelaware about six years ago, the company was the 15th oldest in America. As other companies failed, it’s moved up the list.
“The last 20 years have been interesting ones as we have seen a sort of collapse in corporate support of the arts,” he says. OperaDelaware survived in part by rethinking the season-based subscription model that had sustained it since 1945.
By condensing its season into a two-weekend festival, the company has been able to raise its profile. Despite the difficulty of pulling off several productions more or less concurrently, the gambit has worked, Cooke says. Over the past two years, OperaDelaware has attracted more than 1,500 visitors from at least 30 miles away.
“For some years, our motivation was avoiding losing people to Philly and Baltimore,” Cooke says. Now, OperaDelaware is asking itself how to compel people from those cities to come to Wilmington.
Arts observers praise OperaDelaware for balancing artistic recognition with accessibility to potential new patrons. Its Opera Uncorked series combines pared-down performances with optional beer or wine tastings. The approach helps demystify opera and divide it into easier-to-digest chunks that make it more palatable to newcomers, says Guillermina Gonzalez, former executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance.
“You need to help people relate to things in a way that’s more natural to them,” she says.
A May performance in OperaDelaware’s Riverfront Studio, called “A Flight of Puccini,” will comprise one act from each of three of Giacomo Puccini’s most famous operas: Act I of “La Bohème,” Act II of “Tosca” and Act III of “Madama Butterfly.”
Barrese says Puccini’s popularity leads some to assume there’s something pandering about his stories. “Really, he’s just a great composer,” he says.
Puccini fans will appreciate OperaDelaware’s 2018 Festival, held April 28 through May 6 at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. In addition to the “Flight,” the company will put on the three one-act plays of Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” plus a one-act sequel, Michael Ching’s “Buoso’s Ghost.” The four acts will be spread over two performances of about two hours each.
It is an example of mixing the new and old.
Weagraff, the Delaware arts division director, says OperaDelaware is “seeking to strike a balance between attracting an audience with what’s familiar and cultivating that audience to return for exhibitions they might be less familiar with.”
The karting conductor
On show days, Barrese seeks out his zen in an unexpected place. He climbs in a go-kart and careens around a track at 50 miles per hour. Kart racing, he says, shares more than a few similarities with conducting. As in conducting, he measures his kart race against his last performance. And as a conductor depends on an orchestra, a driver can always blame his kart. But a steady driver can master a clunky kart, and part of conducting is reacting to missteps.
“At its base, it’s competitive because I’m a really competitive guy,” Barrese says.
Austin Slovin, a manager at Mid Atlantic Grand Prix in New Castle, says riders in it for the adrenaline rush like to drift around the corners, which is fun but not optimal for speed.
Slovin has watched Barrese drive, and the conductor is nearly always on what’s called “the line”—an invisible path that, if followed, shaves precious seconds off your lap time.
Slovin also says Barrese tends to race with earbuds under his helmet. “I would imagine he’s listening to opera,” he says.
Not quite. Lately, Barrese’s playlist has been a mix of hip-hop and industrial rock.