Derek Bate has impacted different aspects of the musical life of Toronto, known both for music-theatre & opera. A one time Chorus Master of the Canadian Opera Company, Derek was in the pit for the original Toronto Production of Les Miserables, for Harold Prince’s production Showboat in New York and over 1000 tour performances of Phantom of the Opera. In addition to his regular appearances with Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) he is the resident conductor of the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
Derek will be leading the TOT production of Candide beginning December 28th at St Lawrence Centre. I had to find out more by asking him some questions.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I have elements of both my father and mother in me. My father was a physics teacher and later a high school principal. His musical ability was limited to a party trick, together with his identical twin brother, of playing “Oh Susanna” for piano 4 hands. While what I do is not exactly teaching, there can be an element of that, especially when working with younger artists, and I hope I have inherited the ability to create an environment in which performers are able to achieve their best.
My mother was more of a music lover who owned a small collection of 78 rpm records of Beethoven symphonies and the like, which I listened to as a child. One thing I have to admit inheriting from her is a strong stubborn streak. When it became obvious that music was my calling, they steered me towards a career teaching music in schools, and my degree from U of T is in Music Education. But even during those university years, other career opportunities came calling!
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
The best thing for me has always been conducting the performances, the thrill of bringing to life these amazing pieces of music in real time before a live audience. Each one is a unique moment that will never be exactly repeated.
But it is also very rewarding to sit in the Four Seasons Centre and hear a great performance that I have contributed to as assistant conductor. There is no worst thing about what I do, I’m very fortunate to be able to work at something I love. The only thing that can be frustrating is that financial constraints sometimes put such limits on rehearsal time. We would all love more time to refine and work on detail
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
When I’m not working, I tend to avoid listening to music. I am more likely to watch Leafs or Blue Jays games, or a few television series that my wife and I enjoy – currently Outlander, Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace. We get out to a fair bit of theatre and opera performances and the occasional movie.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish my languages were better. I have studied French, German and Italian, but can’t claim to speak any of them with fluency, having never lived and been immersed in any of them for an extended period. Although a recent stint conducting with Opéra de Québec did allow the opportunity to improve my comfort with French.
I am able, with the help of a dictionary, to understand the opera libretti I am working on, which is absolutely essential. I would like to learn Russian – I found it challenging to conduct Eugene Onegin in Russian without really understanding the language. Perhaps when I retire (ha ha), there will be time!
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
My favourite thing is to work hard all year and then spend as much of the summer as possible at the cottage, even if I sometimes have a score or two with me to prepare for the next season. I was fortunate to inherit a small (less than half-acre) island in Georgian Bay that was purchased 100 years ago by my great-great aunt. It’s a very simple place, off grid, run by solar power and propane. And with modern smartphone capabilities, I can still be in touch and take care of business, while enjoying the calm and natural beauty of the area.
More questions about leading the Toronto Operetta Theatre production of Candide.
Please talk about the version of Candide that TOT will be performing.
Has there ever been a piece that has been revised so often? We are using the 1999 Royal National Theatre version. Musically, this is quite close to the 1989 recording conducted by Bernstein himself, which he considered his final version, but it is scored for a small Broadway style orchestra. I think the reason for all the revisions lies in the problem of structuring a story in which so much happens and which moves through eight different locations in Europe and South America. I expect our performance will run about two and a half hours including intermission, so it all moves very fast. Fortunately we have Mr. Voltaire himself as a narrator to guide us through the travels.
Leonard Bernstein was able to write popular melodies for Broadway & Hollywood, yet was also a serious classical composer for the concert hall. How do you reconcile those contrary impulses in Candide, and does that have any impact on your preparation of the singers & the orchestra?
Bernstein himself considered Candide an operetta, and certainly it is more in that style than his other great Broadway success, West Side Story. But it is definitely operetta tinged with a New York sensibility in the rhythm and the jazz-inflected harmonies. I see these as complementary impulses rather than contrary ones, and my approach, as with any operetta or musical, is to tease out the right tone for each number based on the text and the music.
In the last 75 years, when opera seemed to be dead or dying, the operetta –aka the “musical”—has continued to be a viable form both artistically and commercially even though it doesn’t enjoy the same kind of respect as opera. You’ve worked on productions of historically important musicals such as Show Boat, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera. What are your favourite musicals, and are there any you’d like to do?
I found those musicals very satisfying to do, especially Les Misérables, with its great story and the emotional and dramatic punch it packed every performance. I would love to do Sweeney Todd (almost everybody I know says the same thing), or really any other Stephen Sondheim piece. The intelligence and wit of both lyrics and music is unmatched. By the way, Sondheim contributed some lyrics to Candide too. I also love The Light in the Piazza by Adam Guettel, another strong dramatic piece with a beautiful score.
Who’s in the production of Candide?
We have an amazing cast of Canadian performers.
Tonatiuh Abrego is Candide, whose beautiful “Meditations” illustrate his journey from young innocence through the adventures and misadventures of life.
His love interest, Cunegonde, is played by Vania Chan, who gets to sing the most famous song from the show, “Glitter and be gay”, a virtuoso coloratura showpiece.
Nicholas Borg appears as Voltaire, who acts as narrator, and also transforms into Doctor Pangloss, teacher and mentor to Candide and Cunegonde.
A mysterious character known only as the Old Woman is played by Elizabeth Beeler. She suffers a unique affliction, which I would not want to divulge, as it would require a “spoiler alert” for those not familiar with the story.
What advice would you offer to a young musician dreaming of being a conductor?
I would say try everything. Sing in a choir. Learn an instrument and play in an orchestra. Study and listen to a wide variety of repertoire and attend concerts and operas. Take any opportunity to conduct small ensembles. In the later stages of your education, classes, workshops or apprenticeships in conducting can be valuable, but the truth is, you only learn to be a conductor by doing it. I was fortunate to be given occasional opportunities to conduct the school band, the church choir, performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, all while I was in my teens. I also learned and continue to learn from all the other conductors I have worked with. If opera is your particular interest, work as much as possible with singers, as an accompanist, or with choirs. Most of the best opera conductors start as coach/accompanists, and many have been chorus masters as well.
What’s your favourite piece that you’ve ever done?
It’s impossible to choose, there are so many. I always say my favourite piece is the one I am working on now. You have to treat it as such in order to do justice to the material, even if in fact it may not be the greatest piece. Of operas I have not had the opportunity to work on, I would put Werther at the top of the wish list. The music and poetry are passionate, yet intimate and conversational.
What was / is the hardest piece to conduct, and why.
Different repertoire brings different challenges. The difficulty in Handel or Mozart is interpretational, since the composer leaves largely a blank page in terms of articulation and phrasing and sometimes dynamics, in contrast to Britten (or Bernstein), where it seems every note has some inflection written on it. In Wagner it’s a question of structure over long sentences and long through-composed scenes, and finding the shape and flow for that. In Puccini, by contrast, it is the detailed and constant fluctuation in tempo. Stravinsky brings technical challenges with shifting and uneven metres. There’s a scene in Renard that is the most technically challenging I have ever conducted.
Surprisingly, one of the most difficult styles to conduct is the Viennese operetta. One senior conductor told me “If you can conduct The Merry Widow, you can conduct anything”. This is because of the subtleties of the rubato, especially in the waltzes, and controlling that rubato within a beat that is often a slow one beat to the bar. Also because, structurally, the extended musical numbers are not always well put together, and knitting them into a coherent whole is challenging: unlike, say, the finales in a Mozart opera, where the structure is crystal clear.
Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I have been fortunate to have crossed paths with so many fine musicians early in my musical life. The first important influence was as a boy soprano in the church choir under John Sidgwick, founder of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. Then, Lloyd Bradshaw taught me choral conducting at U of T. He was also Chorus Master of the COC at the time, a position I took myself about eight years later. Kenneth Montgomery was the principal conductor of a COC production of Carmen, in which I made my debut conducting two of the performances. I also worked on several other productions with him, and he was a mentor, and an example of the highest integrity in musicianship and leadership, without ever being a tyrant in the old school way.
The Toronto Operetta Theatre present Bernstein’s Candide beginning December 28th at the St Lawrence Centre December 28, 30, 31, 2017 & January 5, 6, 7, 2018. For ticket information click here.