The Show Must Go On: Mo. Michael Christie

Q:     As a conductor, when do you normally find out that an understudy is going on?

Christie:    Well I think at the most, you find out about a day before, and probably the least amount of time is maybe two hours before, so it’s in that range.

Q:   How much of an effect does that have on what you have to do, depending on where it falls in the time frame?

Christie:    Actually, it doesn’t really bother me. I actually really quite enjoy when the covers go on. I think it’s exciting for them and it brings a nice energy to the event. So really, I suppose if I was to think about it: “What are the issues that one might have to deal with?” I just try to think about where the typical areas for places where people might not breathe or they might breathe. If I’ve had them in rehearsal; trying to remember what their tendencies were for various issues. Yeah, I usually just have a hit list of like there are five places where you could go either way. Which way to go, right?

Maestro Michael Christie, conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2019 run of Verdi’s La Traviata.

Q:     You mentioned rehearsals. Typically, does a conductor get rehearsal time with the understudies, or is that just hit or miss depending on if someone’s out in the rehearsal process?

Christie:    Yeah. I think typically that’s it. If someone’s out in the rehearsal process you get the chance… trying to remember…  Albina [Shagimuratova] was a day late to start Traviata, so Emily [Birsan] sang in music rehearsal. So we knew what she was up to from the very first day, coincidentally. But then …

The Stage Manager’s announcement interrupts over the backstage monitor: 

“Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, the time now is one thirty. Thirty minutes please to the top of Traviata. Ladies and gentleman, a reminder to silence cellphones backstage.”

But then Mario [Rojas] for example, I never…

“Chorus there are notes posted. Please read them. Thank you.”

I heard him in the cover run, but I didn’t actually get a chance to work with him, so I kind of went with my hit list for him: “What do you do here, what do you do there?”

Q:     So as a general rule you won’t have a separate set of rehearsals where you get to work with the understudy specifically?

Christie:    No.

Q:     Let’s say you’ve maybe had some rehearsal, and you’ve gone through the “hit list” of potential trouble spots. During the actual performance, if an understudy goes on, who’s more in control of the way things go? Do you follow the singer and accommodate them, or do you expect them to slot into what the performance has become and go with you?

Christie:    I try to be as helpful and as relatively deferential as I can and try to gauge how their nerves are. Really, I watch them breathe. I watch to see…

Mo. Christie’s speech changes to illustrate a singer in distress. He speaks rapidly, runs his sentences together, and does not pause for breath.

            …like are they panting? Like are they getting are they running out of breath, are they…? If early in the show, are they singing maybe too loudly? So I try to help them. Try to deal with balance things so they don’t feel like they have to push. I try to do a little bit of triage during that.

                        His speech has become calm again.

I try just to kind of gauge how they’re going and if they’re looking relaxed and in the mood for what’s going on in the scene. And if they take some time… “hooray!” And there are some times where people just get in their own way and you can just see that they’re getting all stacked up or whatever the issue is. You think: “Okay we’ll give you a chance to have a breath and then we’re not going to get into that again. Let’s just keep moving.” And so you have to kind of sometimes use that to make your best guess based on the whole scenario. Not necessarily wanting them to do exactly what the other people have done. Everyone’s built differently so they operate differently. So trying to ram that peg into that hole just doesn’t always work, and just usually causes more stress. I try to be pretty aware.

Q:     We’ve been talking generally, so let’s focus on our Traviata specifically. At a recent performance here at lyric we had what we call the “domino effect”.

Christie:    Oh yeah.

Q:     So we had our lead tenor out…

Christie:    Yes.

Q:     …and there are several people in the cast covering an additional role.

Christie:    Yeah.

Q:     And when the lead goes out then everybody bumps up, and I think we had three people…

Christie:    Yeah.

Q:     …that bumped up. Do you find that’s a typical situation or is that….

I think it’s a great situation! I think it’s great that you have the ability to have people bump up, and so I just talked to the people quickly. Just checked in with the people that moved up. And I just think if the main person in that role had been doing certain things, I would say: “Hey, look, you know it’s been going this way but just, you know, really try to make sure that we… I‘m just trying to think of when Eric [Ferring] moved up…

A knock at the door interrupts. General Director Anthony Freud peeks in.

Christie:    Hey how’s it going?

Q:     Hi, how are you?

Freud:      Fine, how are you?

Christie:    Excellent. Yeah, we’re just talking about understudies.

Freud:      Oh Right.

Q:     We’re coming up. Thank you.

Mr. Freud will give an interview on his perspective of understudies later in this series.

Christie:    So I talked to Eric about Mario, and how Mario related to Giorgio [Berrugi], and just said “Sometimes this happens, sometimes that happens. Since we don’t have that, pay attention here and really just be with me in this place.” And so we kind of took care of a little logistic shop stuff; of little corners where you could go one way or the other. I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same path about “if this happens we’re gonna do this”, so it was good. Everyone’s very professional.

Q:     I really get the sense that you like the situation. For you it’s something new, it’s exciting, it’s live, it’s in the moment…

Christie:    Yeah, I like it!

Q:     It’s easy to talk about the singers onstage doing the roles, but you’re a performer in your own right and you have quite a role to do and it’s live.  Is there an understudy for you?

Christie:    Yes! Francesco Milioto is my understudy, so he does some of the backstage music as his duties in a show like this that has backstage music. He’s there with me from the beginning. And so, as I’ve tried to do with all the assistant conductors I have, I try to make sure they do some of the rehearsals, so they get the feel for just how it is, you know, how they are going to operate in the environment that was created. And so I try to look at this as a bit of a mentoring opportunity just to make sure they’re not just sitting there twiddling their thumbs all the time.

Q:     So if there was a situation in which you would not be able to conduct a performance for whatever reason they would go on…

Christie:    He’d be ready!

…and they would conduct?

Yes. And I believe for Cendrillon he went on for at least one of the performances. And then of course in the last La Bohème one of the other assistants went on when the other conductor was done with his contract. So I think actually it’s a really good thing to have. If you’re going to entrust those people to do it, I always like the idea of giving them one of those performances so they really get the feel for it. There’s no way to get a feel for how this machine works unless you’re really sitting in the driver’s seat.

Q:     It’s different to sit and watch than it is to get up and do it, right?

Oh yeah. And make the decisions. I think that’s the biggest thing. Making the decisions. Beating. Whatever. You know, that has whatever people like about that part: being part of the performing aspect. But actually having to make the call in the moment: “Right. We’re doing this. On hearing that, I want to do this, dit dit dit dit dit.

Mo. Christie evokes a verbal “dot dot dot”, indicating that one decision leads to another.

Q:     Musical decisions.

Christie:    Exactly. In the moment. And I think you can’t experience making those decisions and then kind of having the repercussions unless you actually do it, so I’m really in favor of giving those people the chance.

Q:     Did you ever have that experience when you were starting out?

Christie:    Yeah. When I started out I was at the Zurich opera and my boss, Franz Welser-Möst, would put me in all sorts of different situations. So I did a lot of the staging rehearsals without him there. And then he would want to go out and listen, so I would conduct some of the rehearsals and he’d be out in the hall. Then, you know you get your own productions, so I take his trust very much to heart, actually.

Q:     You view it as more of a collaborative or mentor situation than that of employer/employee?

Christie:    Right. That’s what we hope for.

Q:     Curtain time is coming up, so let’s wrap up with your “best” and “worst” understudy stories.

Christie:    Yeah. So I think the one that will live with me forever is we were doing the world premiere of an opera called Silent Night by Kevin Puts in Minnesota, and Bill Burton was singing the main tenor role and he got laryngitis for the world premiere performance; THE opening night. And so the cover went on, and Bill walked it and the cover was standing at the edge of the stage. And… we had prepared the covers to a certain extent, but we were so focused on this big, burly new world premiere that we didn’t really…

Another knock at the door.

We… I think we kind of undercooked what might happen there, so…

This time it is Željko Lučić who sings the role of Germont who leans in to report that he is not feeling well. The conversation concludes:

Lučić:      I will give my best.

Christie:    Alright, we’ll see you or whomever up there.

Lučić:      I can’t promise anything, but we’ll see.

He will sing the performance, narrowly averting the shortest notice in Mo. Christie’s experience of an understudy stepping in.

                        Mo. Christie takes a breath, then resumes:

Christie:    Well it was amazing because the audience really got behind this guy and it was just a very special thing because he had the music there and he was just off in the corner and we were just staring at each other. Meanwhile, this world premiere is going on and it was very special actually. I felt that was kind of the best of opera; that it all really pulled together and coalesced. And so that was actually kind of a proud moment for the whole company, but a wild coincidence.

Q:     Has there ever been an experience that sticks out as just a disaster?

Christie:    I don’t think so. No, usually anybody that’s covering is usually ready to go. So I can’t think of anything that was harrowing or just absolutely failed. Everybody brings what they can but, by and large, the vast majority of things were at least acceptable and mostly beyond or above that.