"There's no set course if you want to be a conductor," says Kazem Abdullah, 29, who makes his Met debut this week in Orfeo ed Euridice. An assistant conductor there the past four seasons, he now emerges from that shady underworld, taking center pit on Wednesday and Saturday.
"I'm not nervous," said the Indiana-born, Dayton-raised musician, whose exotic name was bestowed by his Sierra Leonean father. "It's going to be lots of fun."
At rehearsal, Abdullah works out a tricky music cue as the craggy set slowly revolves, bearing mezzo Stephanie Blythe as Orpheus who leads soprano Danielle de Niese out of Hades before totally blowing it. James Levine gives a few pointers to the young maestro, poised and confident, as histrionic director Mark Morris fine-tunes the singers' movement in his dance-savvy production.
"What's so amazing is how Gluck did much with so little," observed Abdullah. "His opera is only 90 minutes, but goes through the whole gamut of human emotions, with the simplest of musical means." For sure. It's a feature-length, less-is-more masterpiece from 1762.
Abdullah started on clarinet, excelling to the point where he could play in the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. He had already flirted with conducting in classes at Aspen and Verbier, but decided to go the whole hog in Miami.
"I really got to experiment at New World," said Abdullah who showed initiative by taking up the baton for challenging pieces by Schoenberg and others. "Kazem's this calm, sunny, constructive personality in the service of rather difficult music," said an impressed Tilson Thomas. Abdullah furthered his technique under Gustav Meier at the Peabody Conservatory, whipping together concert performances of Ariadne auf Naxos and Cosi fan tutte with the same get-up-and-go.
His role in opera, he says, is to "keep the dramatic flow, and help the singer be the best they can." Levine, who has mentored him the past two summers in Tanglewood, says, "Kazem has natural authority, and displayed very impressive development very quickly." The maestro is a key influence on the young musician. "He's not someone who imposes an interpretation," says Abdullah. "He goes by what's in the music, and that's my mantra too."
Black conductors are rare: the last one in a similar position to his was Calvin Simmons, who died tragically at age 32 in 1982. And there are of course other fine conductors out there like James DePriest. But Abdullah envisions more African American interest in classical music during the hopeful Age of Obama, in a "globalized world where more and more people have access to this art form." He himself was ignited as a kid catching great black singers like Price, Norman and Battle on radio broadcasts and "Live from Lincoln Center."
Abdullah is slated to conduct Scott Joplin's Treemonisha in 2010 at the Chatelet in Paris. "Joplin was trying to find legitimacy as a black classical composer," he said. "So I feel simpatico. To think this son of slaves created such a great opera about the African American experience!"
Abdullah's stutter, which continues to improve, only makes his eloquence more charming. It's also taught him how to be succinct.
"There've been great people with speech impediments, such as Winston Churchill," he said. "I've never considered it a barrier because I knew I'd be able to control it. In a way, it was extra training in not going on and on but just saying what absolutely needs to be said about the music."
Kazem Abdullah conducts Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met Wednesday, Jan. 28 and Saturday, Jan. 31. Both performances are at 8 PM.
For tickets and information, visit The Metropolitan Opera.
Robert Hilferty is a critic for Bloomberg News and appears on its arts and culture show, MUSE, globally televised on weekends.