Nathan Gunn welcomes us to a transitional time for the School of Music at The University of Illinois. This is a time to “refocus the program to teach core skills to both graduate and undergraduate students” so they’ll have a leg up on the circus that is the performing world. As general director of Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, Nathan Gunn, along with Julie Gunn and Jerry Siena, has assembled a team of guest conductors, instructors, directors, and designers to strengthen these students’ voices until they are skilled experts.
Paul Vermel is the Conductor at the helm of Orpheus in the Underworld — and on short notice, according to the production program. Vermel works with Dawn Harris, the stage director, and Cara Chowning, the Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master, to build a world for our tragic hero at the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert. I had a chance to speak with Vermel this week, and we delved into his musical background and history with the U of I.
Smile Politely: What is your position in this opera and how did you get it?
Paul Vermel: I am the conductor of Orpheus in the Underworld. Nathan Gunn, the head of Lyric Theatre at U of I, asked me to do this last Fall. It is a real pleasure to return to the School of Music since retiring in 1994. (I was Professor of Music, conductor of the UI Symphony and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, and head of the orchestra department. I also conducted many operas while at U of I).
SP: Tell me about your years at the University of Illinois. What were some memorable operas you conducted?
Vermel: I was at U of I for 20 years. Among the most memorable operas were Massenet’s Manon, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, all with tenor Jerry Hadley, who after he left the Master’s program here, became an opera superstar. Other wonderful young singers from my years here (who went on to big careers) include soprano Erie Mills and bass Eric Halfvarson, as well as the head of Lyric Theatre, Nathan Gunn. Nathan was an undergraduate when I retired, so I didn’t get to work with him, unfortunately.
SP: What’s your journey to where you are now in Orpheus?
Vermel: Many different kinds of rehearsals: coachings, musical run-throughs, staging rehearsals, technical rehearsals. But before that, I spent several months learning the score to Orpheus.
Orpheus and Eurydice
SP: How does one learn a new score? What’s your process?
Vermel: It’s a long process and involves learning every single note and line of music, often by playing score at the piano, and then, going over and over and over the music. What it really is is a matter of getting the big picture first, and then finding more and more detail (like instrumentation, what voice or what instrument is the most important at any given moment) until you really know — absolutely cold — exactly what is going on. It’s almost like learning the lines in a play, but you have to learn all the parts.
SP: I think I’ve had that actor’s nightmare…
Where did you grow up, and how has that impacted your work?
Vermel: I grew up in Paris, France. I studied music there and also at The Juilliard School in New York.
Being from Paris gave me the best possible training for and insight into this French opera. The cultural life in Paris was and is remarkable and it was wonderful to be surrounded by great art (music, dance, visual arts) all the time while growing up.
SP: What are the biggest differences between the study of music in Paris and at Juilliard?
Vermel: The differences are that in Paris, I studied music privately for the most part (although I was a student at the Ecole Superiure de Musique) — piano and organ, as well as extensive private conducting study with Andre Cluytens. At The Juilliard School, I was involved in a full graduate program in conducting, with the great French conductor Jean Morel. I studied conducting and all kinds of other academic courses, and conducted the orchestra and sometimes [an] opera. My first opera, at Juilliard, was Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
SP: One of my favorites! What inspires you?
Vermel: The sound of a great orchestra and all the variety of repertoire this is for the orchestra. Also great singers and wonderful operas inspire me.
You can check out this performance starting tonight and running through Saturday, March 6-8 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 9th at 3 p.m. in the Tyron Festival Theatre.