For the past four years I have worked at Victorian Opera in various capacities, progressing from a repetiteur for Youth Opera productions to a Developing Artist and Assistant Conductor, where my role involved playing the piano, coaching singers, assisting music director Richard Gill and generally learning as much as I could about the craft of producing an opera. In mid-2011, I was told that these years of support and guidance from the people at Victorian Opera would lead to my debut as a mainstage conductor, in a double bill of Falla’s one-act puppet opera El Retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show) and the Australian premiere of Elliott Carter’s only opera, What Next?.

After all that time, during my training, that I had spent imagining how I would go about interpreting an opera to take on this extraordinary opportunity. The question at the forefront of my mind: given the fact that in opera everyone must know the music and all its details before arriving at the first rehearsal, how does one prepare for such an experience?

During my preparation for the darkly comic, musically challenging opera What Next?, written when Carter was already in his nineties, my request to meet with the composer himself was granted. In May I flew over to New York and found myself sitting opposite this 103-year-old titan of modern music in his studio, surrounded by scores and sketches for some of the most influential pieces of music composed during the 20th and 21st centuries. (You can read Limelight‘s interview with him here.)

Elliott was very generous with his time and advice, even asking me to incorporate some new “corrections” which he wanted changed from the printed score (making this revised version a world premiere of sorts). What particularly struck me about Elliott was his remarkable intellect – still recalling, at 103, the most detailed events and morsels of information about his past and the history of music, even specific performances he has seen of the other half of this double bill, Master Peter – as well as his genuine and deep love for music. Elliott seems to be the exceptional and fortunate man who still loves what he does with the same level of passion and vigour as is displayed in even his most youthful music.

For a conductor, preparation begins with analysis, both textual and musical. Textual analysis for a conductor involves taking apart the text of the libretto, as the way this text is constructed always guides a composer in how he will set to music the librettist’s text.  For example, a conductor must have an appreciation of the stresses and rhyming schemes of a libretto, as this can provide useful clues into how a melodic line should be phrased, as well as where little “packets” of the libretto begin and end.

Textual analysis also involves getting a grasp on the dramaturgy of the libretto, and making sure you understand why certain effects have been used, particularly vocal effects such as asides and sotto voce, which – though appearing only as words on a page – have to be realised by the performers, and which make a huge difference to the way certain text is perceived by the audience.

Musical analysis involves deconstructing the forms and patterns of a composition. For example, one of my first discoveries in Elliott Carter’s What Next? was two choral patterns (both very common in Carter’s music in general), one of them a tetrachord (four notes) which includes all of the intervals up to a tritone (and hence all of the intervals when their inversions are included) in the smallest number of notes. The other is a hexachord (six notes), which in the smallest possible number of notes contains all types of triad – major, minor, augmented and diminished.

“Why is this relevant?”, you might ask; it is relevant because this then becomes the way Elliott moves harmonically, by selecting common notes (notes which are the same in two different versions of these chords), he seamlessly moves around all twelve tones of the scale harmonically without these moves seeming jarring or random.

After all of this preparation there remains only one question. What Next? is a grim, existential piece; Master Peter’s Puppet Show is a playful shadow puppet show based on an episode from Don Quixote. How does one link such contrasting operas to make a coherent night at the theatre?

I promise this: director Nancy Black’s solution is fantastic.

The answer is, however, a secret. (Until you arrival at the Recital Centre during August. See you there!)

Daniel Carter conducts the Australian premiere of What Next? as part of a Victorian Opera double bill on August 15–22 at the Melbourne Recital Centre. View event details here.