Clinton Smith Interview
Clinton Smith is in his third season with Minnesota Opera’s Resident Artist Program as assistant/cover conductor and chorus master. It was a delight to interview him a few days ago as he prepares to make his professional conducting debut. Please join us at the Ordway for this 2pm performance of La traviata, the last in our series of eight performances!
MD You will conduct a performance of Verdi’s La traviata on for Minnesota Opera at the Ordway in St. Paul on March 13. In what way is this a first for you?
CS This will be the first time I have conducted a professional orchestra! Every other orchestra I have conducted up to now has been a civic group, a volunteer group, except for Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra, but a church hired them, so in a way, it does not count. This is a true professional debut for me! And I know it could be a risk for Dale Johnson and Floyd Anderson to give me this opportunity, so I am very grateful to them for their trust.
MD What do you think has led to this feeling of trust in you?
CS I think the system here is the right one. I came into the Resident Artist Program as a pianist. I worked very hard, learning a lot of repertoire, including many arias for the various auditions. It was sink or swim and I realized very quickly what I needed to learn immediately, and what I would be learning later.
MD And you have been with a lot of different guest conductors in the past three years! You have seen so many ways of conducting and working!
CS Yes, I have seen many rehearsal styles, or ways of communicating with singers. There was a time in the rehearsal for La traviata where the coordination was lost between the singers and the orchestra. I might have said to the singers at that moment: “You are ahead of me.” But Maestro Christie said: “I just don’t feel it that quickly.” What an eloquent way to express his interpretation of what had just happened! It shows what a classy guy he is! He does not let egos get in the way, or take things personally, which I very much admire. And I see what a good relationship he has established with the singers.
MD What are you expecting from your experience of conducting a performance on March 13?
CS I feel ready! I know that the time I have put in at Minnesota Opera so far has made a difference. I would not have been ready for this when I first came, or even a year ago. I feel very secure in my relationship with the players. I have been working with them to help in the pit and in the rehearsals. We have a good rapport, and they have even been asking me: “When are you conducting?” I think they will be excited for me, and be on their toes! I know when I look out over them, it will be great to feel that I know everybody.
MD Did you have the same feeling of rapport with the players when you conducted La boheme in Michigan in 2007?
CS I did in a way….my confidence was high, basically because I was too inexperienced to understand how complicated it was! I was thrown into conducting La boheme with little rehearsal, although I convinced my teacher, Martin Katz, to let me conduct a little bit of the dress rehearsal, and a minimal amount in some orchestral rehearsals. So I feel that, if I was able to jump in and do a performance four years ago, I can certainly do one now, even though I realize this is a different level.
MD How are you practicing to prepare for this upcoming La traviata performance?
CS As I sit in rehearsals, I conduct it mentally while picturing the layout of the players.
MD Do you feel that kind of preparation gives you the more or less automatic coordination that you need as a conductor for this piece?
CS Yes, when conducting, you cannot be searching in the score. If you are totally present to what the singer needs, everything else must be automatic.
MD Do the singers know that you will be conducting them for that performance?
CS They do! I feel that they are supportive, too, because we worked together in the staging rehearsals for a whole week when Maestro Christie was absent. I was able to “get it in my body” and they could see that I am clear, and that I listen to them. And I am also excited to see the chorus onstage from the pit!
MD They know you so well, and they are ready for you!
CS I definitely feel ready and welcome. I will not be in uncharted territory.
MD You will also have some performances with the Minnesota Opera next season for Madama Butterfly and Lucia di Lammermoor. Then after that, what do you see as the next step in your career as a conductor?
CS From what I understand, I need to start building a base as guest conductor in smaller companies, while having an assistantship at a bigger house. This would help to connect me with other professionals, and to build my repertoire. I would like to reconnect with places where I am already known, such as in Michigan and Texas. I think coming out of here with those three operas under my belt will be marvelous for me.
MD Do you feel that conducting the Minnesota Opera Orchestra is like driving a Rolls?
CS More like driving a beautiful Italian sports car in the case of La traviata! And I will always remember this first Traviata!
MD And I see that you have a beautiful edition of the orchestra score, bound in red!
CS I feel so secure with it in front of me! It stays open! And it is big enough so I can glance down at it and get the information that I need instantly! It is one thing to sit in a chair with a score, and another to stand in front of so many people, especially in terms of finding what you need in the score.
MD If you have to search for your place in the score, you could lose your coordination? You are like a dancer perhaps?
CS Yes, and you must always think ahead, while always being “present”.
MD I am so happy for you, and we all are. In a few weeks, we will have another conversation with you to find out how it went and how you feel after this wonderful debut performance on March 13!