This month you’re conducting The Bartered Bride in the inaugural performance of a new collaboration between Juilliard and the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. How did this project come about?
We decided to put our resources together with Juilliard to collaborate on developing young operatic talent. Part of the plan is for me to periodically do a project with them—a concert opera or a staged performance or some other piece. And we just thought that instead of starting with Figaro or Gianni Schicchi or something that’s very familiar in opera workshops, why not The Bartered Bride? New York hasn’t had a Bartered Bride in a long time, and it’s a piece that would be very rewarding for the students to work on. It’s one of the great opera scores ever written, one of those great human comedies. Smetana was a marvelous composer—I find his music full of vitality, very moving and inventive. So it just seemed like a very lively candidate for this first collaboration with Juilliard.
Last season we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Met’s young artists program, which you founded. Take us back to the start of that program, which is now very influential and successful.
The reason we started the program was that we felt the need for training young singers during the awkward period between graduation from school and a full-blown “career.” Also, we could feel the operatic traditions gradually weakening, and it was clear to me that if we didn’t train some singers of our own, we were one day going to be in trouble. I was very aware of the fact that each young singer I heard, no matter how talented, always had something to learn, whether it was language or technique or acting or subtleties of stylistic expression. I wanted a situation in which we could use the extraordinary artistic resources of the Met to help very promising singers get through that gap between school and the professional stage. And we have done that successfully with a great many singers. It teaches you very quickly that when you first hear young singers, you cannot be absolutely certain which one has a talent that won’t grow and which one has not yet manifest anything approaching the use of the talent that they’ve got.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the young artist program actually functions? How do you find these singers?
Finding them is not really difficult. We all hear singers all the time. Coaches and teachers and administrators hear them and recommend them to us. They come up through various auditions programs and schools and opera programs. But our program has one or two things that have been hallmarks since the beginning. One is that we made a rule that no singer could accept an engagement without our approval during their time in the program. That way, we could at least make sure they didn’t start running around singing things they shouldn’t—too much or too heavy. Second, we sometimes offer them small roles on our stage—which they do not have to accept. It’s just that some singers learn a lot by being on stage in a role that doesn’t have to hold up the whole evening—that’s hands-on experience that can be extremely helpful. That’s also why this Bartered Bride with Juilliard can be so rewarding, since it gives young singers the rare opportunity to sing leading roles. For others, though, it’s better to wait. Basically, the program was designed to help each singer with what that individual singer needs to improve. One of the things I insisted on was not to take on a singer whose career was already in the bag. What I wanted to do was take the singer with the big talent who might not arrive if we didn’t help, and we have had very good luck with that principle.
What is it like for you to observe someone over the course of a career, a singer who started out with you as a young artist and then really soars?
There’s nothing like it. And of course each singer has his or her own trajectory, because it depends on a marriage of skills and talents and opportunities and timing. When people ask me for help, I always try to give them advice based on as clear a projection as I can make of their individual situation. It can be very complicated for somebody who’s trying to make their living and their art with two little vocal cords. And sometimes, at crucial moments, they all need a little help. —Matt Dobkin
This interview was first published online in January 2011 and in the Met’s Playbill in February 2011.