Interview by Tiziano Thomas Dossena
Next April, the Taconic Opera, in collaboration with the Circolo Culturale di Mola di Bari, will offer to the Westchester public the American premiere of Doña Flor, an opera by Niccolò van Westerhout. Last October, I had the occasion to be at the opening of their production of Verdi’s Macbeth, and I have to confess that he exceeded all my expectations. The music was flawless, the singers competent and pleasant, the direction exciting and original. We take the opportunity, then, of introducing you the General Director of this esteemed Opera Company. Supplemental information may be found at their site: http://www.taconicopera.org
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Dan Montez, General Director of the Taconic Opera, tenor, pianist, composer, writer, and the list goes on… Is there something in the Arts you have not explored?
Dan Montez: My parents were both artists so the arts were in my genes. My mother started me on the piano at age six. At 14, I became church organist and began playing with a local orchestra. The conductor encouraged me to explore composing. I also loved acting and studied drama in high school. In college I was on piano and voice scholarship at the same time. But the voice is what really excited me the most. I found the voice to be the most expressive of all instruments, and although I felt it was the most difficult for me, I decided I would figure out how to sing. I became an opera singer and found that that the best opera singers were never just singers, but well-rounded musicians, most of whom were also pianists. Wanting to sing at Lincoln Center was a dream of mine, which I achieved during my 14 years of full time singing. During this time, I also had many opportunities to direct operas. When I began running the Taconic Opera 12 years ago so I could raise my children, I decided to make directing my focus rather than singing.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: You manage to balance an extremely hectic life with an exceptionally positive attitude. Were you always this way or was there a specific point of your life when you picked that up?
Dan Montez: I worked for the Zig Ziglar Corporation (a motivational book and tape company) as a teenager. In order to motivate me to achieve my dreams and goals, I listened to tapes and read books on motivation and achievement for many years. I am not self-motivated–I really needed external motivation. I began publishing a subscription periodical, Positive Life, and wrote articles on positive attitudes and overcoming the negativity that surrounds us. I wrote a cover story for Norman Vincent Peale’s magazine as well. I ended up writing my own books, like Don’t believe It, to help inspire others to achieve their own dreams. I have also long believed that creating a balanced life, where family comes first, has kept me grounded and positive.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Mr. Montez, you founded the Taconic Opera 12 years ago as a “resident opera company”. How well has this original blueprint worked in practice and what was the inspiration behind this resolution?
Dan Montez: Taconic Opera has always used only local artists to present its productions (you can read our philosophy on our website on our philosophy page). This has worked well for us. The community enjoys seeing their own local singers perform for them. They are a part of their community and they are proud to have and support their own artists. The artists as well get to know each other on stage and learn how to react off of one another’s acting styles. This creates a more cohesive production where singers aren’t trying to get personal attention from the audience, but rather committed to an ensemble production the same goals of telling the story and transmitting the intentions of the composer.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Why did you choose Westchester County, and in particular the historic Yorktown as the location of your company?
Dan Montez: Westchester didn’t have a fully professional opera company, and being less than an hour north of New York City, I felt that they was such a shame with so much talent residing in the area. In addition, I live here myself and want to see the arts grow. Yorktown is only one of the venues we have performed. We perform throughout the county, in Purchase, Harrison, Yorktown and also Peekskill.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: The Taconic Opera also works with the schools of the area. Could you elaborate on the programs you run?
Dan Montez: Taconic Opera produces both in-school and main stage productions for children. We go into schools in our county and even surrounding counties with short operas for children and other programs. In addition, three times a year, we bus in children from schools to come see our main stage productions–the same ones seen by adults. The singers and orchestra get off of work to do this great service at 10AM in the morning so children can be exposed to the arts. Taconic Opera feels an obligation to the next generation. Exposing children to the arts increases their cognitive abilities, their IQs, and also helps to develop the creative, problem solving side of their brains.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: In one of your articles, you state that “Who the artist is as a person is evident in the work the artist produces”. In view of the fact that, observing the artistic world as a whole, this does not seem to appear as a self-evident truth, could you clarify this fascinating statement?
Dan Montez: It’s hard to see this evidence from an audience standpoint because the audiences are kept from witnessing the personal lives of performers, making it hard to make comparisons. However, having been in the arts my whole life, I have come to believe that it is impossible to separate the art from the artist. Everything we are and everything we experience has an artistic influence on the art that we produce. We are limited in our art by our lack of character. Our experiences add to our palettes, our styles, and our intentions we use to produce that art. Apart from popular opinion, unhappy and depressed artists don’t necessarily create better art. In fact, when we force artists to go on the road rather than sing locally, we keep artists from having the experiences that the rest of us have in being part of families and communities with their accompanying sacrifices. Ironically, then we turn to these artists to create a vision of how we can lead better lives when the artist himself doesn’t even know what it means to live a normal life. Good art requires balanced artists. If not, then society becomes as myopic and self absorbed as the artists are. They begin worshiping the mediums of art and do not see art as only a vehicle that is supposed to show us something else–something better than ourselves.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Doña Flor will be the thirtieth opera you will direct, in the spring of 2010. Directing all these celebrated composers’ works has undeniably vested you with an enviable experience, but how do you feel about presenting to the American public a musician who is little known by them? Do you feel that this is an added responsibility toward the composer himself?
Dan Montez: It’s certainly more difficult. Mainstream composers have many books written about them and commentaries abound criticizing their works, their strengths and weaknesses. Unknown composers require a bit more homework. I personally feel that I want to the audience to know the special things that Westerhout has to offer that are unique to him.
Tiziano Thomas Dossena: Has this work by van Westerhout interested from the first introduction or did you have to warm up to it? What do you feel are the musical characteristics of this opera that will charm your public? What about the narrative itself?
Dan Montez: Van Westerhout, like many composers that were not given as much of a chance to be heard, like say, Puccini, has much of his own style to offer. Much of his strengths reveal themselves by working out the music. First, we work out the musical issues and just sing through the piece. Phrasing and interpretation have to be explored during this process. We have to make decisions on style without being able to consult the composer. Sometimes the period he composed the work lends a clue along with the residence of the composer and the people he studied with. His librettist lends clues as well. Then we move on to staging and creating a dramatic interpretation. This causes us to rethink decisions we may have made musically. Slowly, the composer begins to reveal himself. This is a painstaking and detailed process. The opera, Doña Flor, is interesting in many ways, if only that it is one of the few times a lover kills her own beloved through manipulation. The baritone, or role of the Ambassador, reveals and interesting personality in that he doesn’t choose violence himself but rather manipulates others to violence–just the way an Ambassador would do in his political position. This is great fun in many ways in spite of the fact that the opera is a tragedy. And, of course, what opera wouldn’t be complete without a Venetian tenor to make the soprano happy.