Calvin: You grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Was yours a particularly musical household?
Steel: Yes, it was, I suppose. As kids, we all sang. I was the youngest of four. We sang in our town choir and our local church choir (partly because my grandfather was a Methodist preacher, I suppose). My mother sang in the Washington Cathedral Choral Society,which was founded by the same man who founded Washington Opera and conducted the men and boys choir that I would later join, so there was a nexus, if you can imagine, between church music and opera.
Calvin: Who were your childhood heroes?
Steel: I became a choirboy at about age eight and the guy who ran the choir was Richard Dirksen: Wayne Dirksen as he is known: and he was a really charismatic guy: a conductor, a composer, and one of my early idols.
Calvin: You sang in the Washington National Cathedral Choir. Were there lessons you learned in that environment that stick with you today?
Steel: That was where I was born, in a certain sense. I sang five services a week from the age of nine until the age of nineteen and rehearsed every single day. So I learned all kinds of lessons: important musical lessons, rhetorical lessons from people who came to preach, and theatrical lessons from the way music and action mixed together in a space like that: built for music and action.
Those were very profound lessons that stuck with me; Wayne Dirksen (among others) planned all kinds of things that mixed church music and liturgy in interesting ways.
Another big, I might say, seismic influence on my life was Leonard Bernstein, who I met because he hired the cathedral choir to sing his third symphony around 1978. Later on, I went to see Mass: Bernstein's Mass: that opened the Kennedy Center in 1971 and was revived a decade later.
For Mass, LB asked me to act as his assistant during the rehearsal and production process. I was there, taking notes and getting people cans of soda and whatever else you do if you're a scrappy kid on a show production. And it was wonderful because it was my music, in a sense; it was church music: a piece of liturgy turned into a piece of theater. And that was a very powerful experience for me, to translate what I knew innately about how church-as-theater worked onto the opera stage.
Calvin: Backtracking to that "scrappy kid," tell us about the Amorphous Wombat Brothers.
Steel: How do you know about the Amorphous Wombat Brothers? The Internet is a dangerous tool. Well, my friend Jay Harris and I started a secret society called "The Amorphous Wombat Brothers" in seventh grade. It had no purpose other than that we could draw the logo and show it to each other. Both of us were singing in this concert with Leonard Bernstein and we decided we would make him the first "honorary fellow" of the Amorphous Wombat Brothers and so we presented him with a profoundly ugly tie, a membership card and I don't know what else: he was very, very touched. It was that "ceremonial" introduction that began our friendship.
Calvin: The Dallas Opera's chorus master, Alexander Rom, has this theory that there is no musical instrument more powerful than the human voice, in terms of its ability to move human hearts. And, that a chorus is that power "times fifty or sixty." Would you agree?
Steel: Wow, what a deep thought! Yes. To me, the human voice is the center of music making; there is no better way to teach music making than to teach people how to use their voices to sing. To have the music emanate from you: there's no better ear training, from a pedagogical or emotional point of view. It's a very beautiful sentiment. There are some times, in fact, when an instrument is almost more moving precisely because one senses subconsciously that it cannot sing. In a way, musical instruments are captive in their inability to sing. They refer to singing, but with a lack of facility that singers have. Either directly or indirectly, singing is certainly the center of music making.
Calvin: When exactly did you begin composing?
Steel: As soon as I began singing; well, maybe even before that. My brother used to make up tunes on the piano; my mother let us use the piano for whatever purposes we saw fit, including making forts out of it. The poor thing's just been retired, that piano. Yeah, we made up things on the piano all the time and it was through the process of being in the choir that I learned to write those things down.
Calvin: Were there specific themes you explored in your compositions or were you "all over the map?"
Steel: All over the map. As a young composer, you're learning how to take those sounds you love. Basically, you're out in the field collecting specimens and you pin them up and learn how to make that sound. I was very interested in church music because I sang a lot of church music. I was very interested in writing music like that composed by my choir master. Later, I was very interested in Leonard Bernstein's and Stravinsky's music and emulating that and all kinds of other music, as well. So you try to duplicate what it is you've heard and you replicate it in a way that reflects who you are.
Calvin: If I politely shoved you up against the wall and forced you to choose one: composing or conducting, which would it be?
Steel: [wincing:] Oh, man. I suppose conducting because composing is a secret act that can take place even if I tell you I really want to do conducting.
Calvin: In other words, you'd cheat!
Steel: Well, I can lie to you about composing but I can't lie to you about conducting because it's a very public act. Conducting represents the communal quality of music making: what is so beautiful about making music. Conducting is that act of teaching, of learning what's wonderful about an art work and persuading performers, audiences, and all the other people in this business how wonderful the piece is. So it's the central act of communal music making: I mean, aside from just playing the piano.
Calvin: What is your greatest asset as a conductor?
Steel: [self-mocking:] Oh, enormous charm... [serious:] A conductor's greatest asset is insightfulness. Ninety-nine percent of conducting is private; it's studying. And then it's about concentrating those things you've learned and showing them to a group of people in the most direct way possible.
Calvin: How is conducting great preparation for running an opera company?
Steel: Conducting, as I say, is one of the most intense forms of musical communion. And that's what running an opera company is all about. You must learn about great works of art and you must communicate how wonderful it is, first to everybody in the company and then the public. In my job I'll meet with my publicist and say, "This is the greatest piece ever written; go get people excited about it." But that doesn't work! You have to sell everybody all the time, and in order to do that you must really love it yourself. You must really, deeply love it. Audiences respond to that. If you're telling people, "Let's go see this thing because one ought to see it," or, "Beethoven is full of fiber and Vitamin B _12," it's not remotely interesting. But if you say "This is the piece that changed my life and it will change your life", that's much more compelling. Conducting and running an opera company are, in many ways, the same thing.
Calvin: After you graduated from Yale in 1994, you began doing everything. You taught, you produced, you arranged, you conducted, you composed, you founded, you consulted and I've probably left out two or three things. Do you enjoy a multifaceted lifestyle or were you searching for something in particular?
Steel: I do like to do everything but they're all about music. I serve music; that's my role. And I am a go-between between music and people, whether they are performers or sitting in the audience. That's what I love to do. It's my central mission in life.
Calvin: In your eleven years with the Miller Theatre, you won over your public and the critics. How did that job prepare you for this job at The Dallas Opera?
Steel: Naturally, I learned a lot of lessons about the mechanics of running an institution, how to negotiate in the complicated cultural marketplace, how important it is to speak to people authentically about what you really love, how to get rid of programming that one does out of a sense of duty...or fear, or cowardice: eliminate it! That's a very powerful lesson to learn. In the performing arts business, there's an enormous amount of programming that goes on because you think you're supposed to do it. It's profoundly dull, it radiates dullness, and it drives people away in droves. You have to develop a trust in your own instincts. Do something you really, really care about; something worth grabbing someone by the lapels and saying "I know you're busy but I want you to stop what you're doing and come see this thing because it's going to change your life." That is the threshold.