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CHRISTOPHER JAMES RAY
Assistant Conductor, Conductor, Chorus Master
of  OSJ  Production of  “PAGLIACCI”

In Conversation with Iride Aparicio


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Christopher James Ray (Photo Courtesy OSJ)

SAN JOSÉ, CA – Opera San José, announced  the debut of  its new Assistant Conductor, Conductor and Chorus Master of the opera Pagliacci, Conductor CHRISTOPHER JAMES RAY.

The conductor, who has a diverse background in both traditional and contemporary operas, will conduct some performances of  LEONCAVALLO’s opera Pagliacci and train its chorus in its role as Chorus Master. He will also conduct JAKE HEGGIE’s Opera Moby Dick for Opera San José 2018-20l9 Season.

CHRISTOPHER JAMES RAY’s is a well-known conductor whose professional credits are too many to enumerate in this article, but include: Conductor and Assistant Conductor for the Mississippi Opera, for  the Opera in the Ozarks and the New York City Opera in the USA. In Europe, he is part of the music staff of the Bayreuth Festival, created by German composer RICHARD WAGNER, in Bavaria, Germany.

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Pagliacci’s peasants choir (Photo Courtesy: Opera San Jose)

In an exclusive interview with CULTURAL WORLD BILINGUAL we ask Conductor RAY:

CWB: What attracted you to opera?

C.J.R.: “It is a tough question to answer, because there were many things that attracted me to opera, because opera is everything. I was a Piano and Organ student when, in undergraduate school, I saw my first opera in the theatre in Mississippi where I grew up.  But the opera that made me want to do (conduct) operas was a Live-Broadcast  of the production of the Metropolitan Opera Madame Butterfly. I was very affected by it. The music, the drama, the chorus, just everything. And this production has also  a KABUKI’s puppet theatre and the Japanese fans’ work, and all these together was something that I really felt moved by, and I wanted to be a part of creating them. So, immediately after that, I went back to thinking what’s my next step? how could I become a part of this?

C.W.B.  What attracted you to choral music?

C.J.R. “I got acquainted with choral music singing in church and during my under-graduate years, and in the last couple of years I’ve been working at the BAYREUTH FESTIVAL preparing the chorus in their Wagner’s  productions. Here, as Assistant Conductor I’m also the Chorus Master for  Pagliacci.”

C.W.B.  What else do you do as Assistant Conductor?

C.W.B “You do different things at different Opera Houses. At the Metropolitan Opera, the Assistant Conductor must be a pianist and play for all the rehearsals.. But here I’m not playing rehearsals, but work with the main conductor (Conducting Pagliacci  at certain performances ) and serve as an extra set or ears and eyes to facilitate what the main conductor is doing in rehearsals. I am also rehearsing the choir.

C.W.B.  How in your opinion,  is the chorus of Pagliacci different  from other opera’s choirs?

C.J.R. “The function of the chorus in most operas, is that they come and sing something and they leave. Some other times, they are “the characters” on the stage, the town people, the crowd, Pagliacci has a good mixture of both.  On one side they are the town’s people who are excited about the clowns' show, but in the opera they have their "set piece" to sing, which isn't unusual, but it is a characteristic in Pagliacci.  That may be different from other operas. Another thing, is that their function in this opera is not purely as a choral or people who is just around, but this chorus have their own chorus music moments, where the chorus really shine. And then, at the beginning of ACT II (When the chorus is the audience in the clown’s show) they have their whole theme, just the chorus talking about what’s going on,  So, in Pagliacci the chorus has two feature moments.

C.W.B.  What are the challenges of a Conductor of an opera chorus?

C.J.R: “I think that it may be dealing with the people.  Not that they are difficult, but you have many people, At BAYREUTH there are one hundred and twenty, for Pagliacci we have thirty three, but these people have varying personalities, varying levels of experience some times and I have to get every one to the same place, to the same goal, the same level.  If we are doing something in Italian I wanted to sound like Italian, which is very difficult because many people in the U.S. do not speak Italian. So I’m working hard in (teaching them)not only to pronounce the language correctly, but in understanding what they are saying. But perhaps the most difficult thing for me is inspiring them to want to be in the same pulse.”

Conductor RAY started  his musical career at the age of six, when he asked his parents to give him piano lessons. They obliged and he continued with his lessons until the age of thirteen when he changed and began taking organ lessons.  At College, he Major in Piano and Organ Performance, discovered opera, and decided to become an Opera Conductor.

During his Operas Conducting he has served as Interim Music Director for Opera at the RUDI E. SCHEIDT School of Music at the University of Memphis where he led performances of  MOZART’s operas. He conducted  HANDEL’s Alcina at Pennsylvania State University, NICO MUHLY’s  Dark Sisters at Texas Christian University, Le Nozze di Figaro  for Land of Enchantment Opera, and HEGGIE’s productions of  Three Decembers  and Glass’s in the Penal Colony, MENOTTI’s The Old Maid and the Thief, and BRITTEN’s The Beggar’s Opera, at  Florida State Opera.

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C.W.B. Since you also will be conducting some of the performances of Pagliacci. What, in your opinion, makes a “good” Opera Conductor?

C.J.R. “I would say that the best Opera Conductors, must know how to lead, but they also must know history, and art and literature because so much goes into opera that the more you know about everything the more prepared you are to create a performance of an opera.  The conductor must also be able to know how to work with the singers, (in ballet you have to work with the dancers) and in symphonies (with the orchestra) but in opera you need to know what the singers need, how they breathe, when they need to lead, when they need to follow, what are the demands of the theatre and the music.

Also, when conducting an opera, many musical decisions must be made from the text, So, I start with the libretto. I read the words, first. And try to find out what the story is all about, before I read the music. Then I make the musical decisions based on the text.

In the case of Pagliacci, since  LEON CAVALLO wrote both the text at the music, we can’t tell if he wrote the text first and then the music or it was the other way around, because many times composers of both text and music have such a beautiful idea for the music,that they just make the text fit. We don’t know how CAVALLO wrote Pagliacci,  but it must have been a great challenge for him to write something that was musically correct and also makes the words of  his libretto work perfectly.

At the end, to answer your question. of what makes a good Opera Conductor, I think that the best Opera Conductors are the ones who know how to inspire his musicians and his singers.”

Conductor RAY is a protégé of American composer CARLISLE FLOYD, an interpreter of FLOYD’s works and has served as his assistant recording an album of his songs.

OPERA SAN JOSE  PAGLIACCI will run from November 17 to December 2, 2018. To order tickets call the box office at 408-437-4450 or order them online at https://www.operasj.org.