Portland Opera's Guest Conductor Muses on Working in Vacationland

By Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

For Stephen Lord, the best part of conducting the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor" in Portland this week is waking up with the loons. It's also the worst part.

Lord, guest conductor for the Gaetano Donizetti piece that will be presented Thursday and Saturday by the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre at Merrill Auditorium, lives much of the year on Long Lake in Harrison. Part of the reason he agreed to conduct the opera was so he could work nearby while staying at his home in Maine. But he has found it increasingly difficult to leave the lake each day for the hourlong drive to Portland.

"I am looking for the show to be a success and for it to be over, so I can get on with my vacation," he says. "I can putt around my little garden, and the house is a camp that my father gave over to me. I converted it to year-round, so there is always something to do, someone to call, something to accomplish."

Lord is filling in this year for Bruce Hangen, who wasn't as familiar with the "Lucia" score as he would have liked. He opted to hand off conducting duties to someone with greater expertise.

Lord, music director of Boston Lyric Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, has conducted the piece "probably a gazillion times. I have always loved it. There are a lot great operas out there, but they don't give me the feeling inside that this one does. It sure has grabbed me, and I never got tired of it."

Set in 17th century Scotland, "Lucia" is Donizetti's best-known work, with a plot that combines forbidden love, revenge, deception and madness. It is particularly challenging and rewarding for the soprano and tenor voice, which will be provided by Alexandra Deshorties and Garrett Sorenson, both of whom come to Portland via the Metropolitan Opera.

Other cast members are bass John Cheek, baritone Philip Torre, mezzo-soprano Sarah Blaze, tenor James Archie Worley and tenor Jeffrey Picon.

Dona D. Vaughn returns for her ninth season as resident stage director.

Several cast members have sung with the Portland opera company before and all are either up-and-comers in opera or established stars - testimony to the company's growing reputation in the opera world, Hangen says.

"The young talent that we have is talented enough to match themselves at a very high professional standard, along with someone like John Cheek, who is the most experienced member of the cast and who has been there at the top of heap for many, many years," he says. "I detect a growing interest in our company on the part of the Metropolitan Opera. We have various representatives of the Metropolitan who come to our performances, and that's saying a lot."

"Lucia" is known for challenging singers in the bel canto technique. Translated, bel canto means "beautiful singing," and it describes a charming quality of Italian singing that is unique to Donizetti, Bellini and other similar composers.

Handing off "Lucia" to Lord was an easy decision, says Hangen. Since the founding of the Portland opera company nearly a decade ago, Hangen has tried to ensure that its success does not hinge on his leadership. He has told the company's board of directors many times that he would welcome a guest conductor, and this year made the most sense given his lack of intimacy with the "Lucia" score.

Further, Lord is well familiar with the Portland opera company, Hangen says. "Stephen has attended virtually every performance we have done every year, and he is a good and friendly face to have around for rehearsals. Plus, he lives here in Maine, so we couldn't ask for a better combination," he says.

For Lord, the clincher was the chance to work on stage at Merrill. He adores the hall, calling Merrill "the envy of Boston."

And besides that, he can work by day and return to his lake home at night. The drive west on Route 302 can be tiresome, he says. But he isn't complaining too loudly.

"I had to rearrange my vacation to do this, but that's OK. There are never too many loons on my lake or too many quiet nights.”

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