Antony Walker: Big things lie ahead for opera conductor

HOLDING THE BATON: Walker led the Washington Concert Opera performance of "Cenerentola."
HOLDING THE BATON: Walker led the Washington Concert Opera performance of "Cenerentola." (Bill O'leary/washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010

When Antony Walker, an Australian conductor, came to Washington in 1999 to make his U.S. debut at Wolf Trap, he was affable, slightly pudgy and, in this country, unknown. Now, having wrapped up his seventh season as artistic director of the Washington Concert Opera with Rossini's "Cenerentola" on Sunday, he's still affable, trimmer and considerably better known.

"Known," in the opera world, is relative. To a considerable number of insiders, and a growing number of the public, Walker, 42, is someone to watch. "He is not a household name now," Mark Weinstein, then the head of the Pittsburgh Opera, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2006, when Walker was named that company's music director. "But within the industry, his name is hot." (Weinstein became executive director of the Washington National Opera in 2008.)

This year is rich in debuts for Walker: His January debut with London's English National Opera ("Lucia di Lammermoor") was especially significant, because when Walker left the U.K. for the States in 2002 (he'd been chorus master and a staff conductor at the Welsh National Opera), he thought that perhaps his career there was over. "I was trying to be pragmatic," he now says, adding, "The point is to work hard and make the best music you can, and not be distracted by thoughts of, 'Oh, I long to conduct in London or Paris.' "

This summer, he's making his debut at the Santa Fe Opera, America's most important opera festival, with the ever-beloved "Madama Butterfly." He spoke recently by phone from Toronto, where he was leading Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" for his first performances with the Canadian Opera Company. This is all good stuff.

"Known," to the general public, involves a slightly higher bar. It usually means regular appearances in the world's major houses, the names of which are scattered, like diamonds, through program-note biographies: La Scala, Vienna, Covent Garden. If opera had the equivalent of baseball cards, this would enhance your trade value. Next season, Walker will cross this threshold: He's debuting, with Gluck's "Orfeo ed Eurydice," at the Metropolitan Opera.

"Known" in Washington has its own definition. Here, Walker is simply the bel canto specialist who leads the modest Washington Concert Opera in two performances a season in the slightly dusty time capsule that is George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium. His energy and urge to communicate are palpable as he conducts, now leaping from the podium, now simply standing, turning his head from side to side to include the whole orchestra in his field of vision, his arms outstretched in an impressive wingspan ending in a baton, whipping the air around him into a froth of sound.

Walker didn't mean to be a conductor at all. Involved in opera, yes. As a child living in Paris -- his father, a linguist, took the family there for two stints while on sabbatical -- he was showered with tapes of things like Britten's "Peter Grimes" and Strauss's "Salome" by a music teacher who was, he says, "grateful that someone was really interested." (The teacher was evidently enlightened in her views about giving quality things to smart children without regard for age-appropriate content.)

He'd already started piano lessons at 8, with a Hungarian expatriate named Elizabeth Kozma, a former director of Budapest's Liszt Academy who began her lessons with an hour of conversation about music or art, Walker says. "Sometimes I would take her my compositions," he recalls. He thought well into his 20s that he would be a composer -- or a singer, since he also studied voice.

Kozma, though, had already predicted his future. "From the age of 12," Walker says, "she said, 'I think you're going to be a conductor.' I had no idea what that meant."

Walker is still working it out, testing the waters. In Australia, he's known as an early-music specialist. (He's an artistic director of the Pinchgut Opera, a small company devoted to less-known repertory, which he and some friends founded in 2002.) At the Minnesota Opera, he made a reputation for contemporary music: Poul Ruders's "The Handmaid's Tale" and John Adams's "Nixon in China." At WCO, his main focus has been bel canto, the Italian style of the early 19th century, in operas such as "Cenerentola" or Donizetti's rarity, "Maria Padilla," heard last season.

In Pittsburgh, he did become known as a singer. Newspapers all over the country reported on the 2008 performance of "Aida" at which the tenor got sick and the conductor himself sang Act 4 from the podium, with a microphone. (Microphones are usually taboo in opera, but opera singers don't usually sing with their backs to the audience while conducting, either.)

Walker is still young in conductor years. "I think he will mature into an even better conductor," says Christina Scheppelmann, the WNO's director of artistic operations (and the person who does the hiring). "I think he is where he should be right now," developing his chops in Pittsburgh. In short: He's not coming to WNO any time soon.

But Walker, having worked on "Cenerentola" with the virtuosic Alaskan mezzo Vivica Genaux, is doing just fine. For all of the major debuts, in fact, he shows a notable sense of loyalty: staying true to Pinchgut and WCO; retaining the same, Washington area-based agent he's had since the start of his American career, Donna Wolverton, whom he met the first time he came to Wolf Trap.

"The game plan," he says, "is just to work hard, with interesting productions, and find organizations and singers I like to work with."

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