"I curse occasionally, but it doesn't really do any good," says Jeffrey Tate. The 42-year-old conductor has more to curse about than most of us, but also more reason to be thankful.
Tate, who is conducting the Metropolitan Opera here this week in two performances of "Lohengrin" and one of "Cosi fan tutte," is one of the hottest opera conductors on the international scene -- besides being busy at the Met, he is principal conductor of the Geneva Opera and is about to take the position of principal conductor at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in his native England.
He is also severely handicapped, with two spinal malformations (spina bifida and kypho-scoliosis) that have twisted his 6-foot-6 body down to a height of 5 feet 8. His left leg is paralyzed and shorter than his right.
Jeffrey Tate, who cannot work standing up, conducts from a chair.
Still, his arms and hands -- a conductor's essential tools -- are in fine condition. So is his state of mind. "My problem is not as serious as Itzhak Perlman's," he says, "and I'm not so militant about the rights and problems of the handicapped, though I am willing to do whatever I can to help. I try to ignore my disability as much as possible; otherwise, you end up being very angry and wasting energy."
So far, he says, his experience has made him think that "obstacles can ultimately give you advantages." Ignoring his disability and turning obstacles into advantages, Tate followed two career tracks simultaneously until 1970. In that year, having earned his degree in medicine at Cambridge and finished his internship in a London hospital, he was ready to go into practice but decided instead to devote his life to his other love, opera. "Technically speaking," he says, "I could still go into medicine, but I would have to take a refresher course. A lot has changed since 1970."
Tate's story is a familiar one in music biographies. He showed a special love and talent for music at an early age, but his parents, who encouraged him to overcome his handicap, also worried that their son might become a starving artist. They insisted that he should learn a profession. His crippling illness developed progressively during the first 10 years of his life and then stabilized; he walks today with the aid of a cane. "I had two major operations, which were considered successful at the time," he says. "They could have been much more successful if I were having them now."
He was a dutiful son, following his prescribed path, but continued to be active as an amateur musician throughout his years of study. The hospital where he interned had a staff with its own orchestra and chorus, and he became the conductor. Earlier, at school, he played the piano for student operatic productions -- for example, an "Amahl and the Night Visitors" that had its composer, Gian Carlo Menotti, in attendance.
He was also a singer -- in the internationally respected choir of King's College, Cambridge, and in some student productions. "I was one of the pickled boys in one of the first productions of Britten's 'St. Nicholas,' " he recalls. "That's when I met Benjamin Britten; he came to hear us, even though it was only a school production. I think it was then that I realized that music was a way of life. I don't call it a career; if you think of it as a career, you're finished." (The "pickled boys" are the subjects of one of the miracles attributed to St. Nicholas and celebrated by Britten in his cantata.)
"My family was not particularly musical," he recalls, "and my father, who was a postal worker -- decidedly lower middle class -- made me stop taking piano lessons because he thought they would interfere with my academic work. But I went on playing even after the lessons stopped."
He began to study opera at the London Opera Centre during his 18-month internship, and when a vacancy opened for a rehearsal pianist at Covent Garden, he applied for and got the job -- a full-time post in one of the world's leading opera companies within a year of leaving medicine. But his work was all backstage; he did not conduct at Covent Garden, where he is now becoming principal conductor, until April 1982, nearly a year and a half after he had made his debut at the Met.
"I did not originally think of becoming a conductor at all," Tate says. "With my experience as a singer and a pianist, I thought I could be useful as a vocal coach and might eventually get into administration. That was my original objective at the Met. But almost purely by chance, I happened to be invited to conduct 'Carmen' at Cologne, and it went very well, so I was invited back to conduct 'The Magic Flute' the next year, and then before I knew it I was conducting on radio. Then, at the Met, while I was playing the piano for rehearsals of 'Mahagonny,' Met conductor Jimmy Levine kept telling me, 'You've got to conduct.'
"Finally, I was scheduled to conduct 'Cosi,' then it was canceled because of the strike, so I found myself instead making my Metropolitan Opera debut conducting 'Lulu' without ever having had a chance to conduct a rehearsal. Of course, I had coached it and helped Pierre Boulez to prepare his premiere performance of the complete score -- but was that enough? Georg Solti said I was crazy, and I thought he was right. Jimmy kept saying, 'Of course you can do it,' and he turned out to be right."
That was December 1980, and since then Tate's conducting career has been moving quickly and steadily upward. As chief conductor at Covent Garden, he will share responsibility for the opera house's musical life with music director Bernard Haitink. He is also becoming the principal conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra and has just signed a four-year recording contract with HMV that will include a complete cycle of the Mozart symphonies.
"It will be nice to have my life centered in England again," Tate muses. "I have been there, of course, but I haven't lived there since 1977 and I'm homesick. I've been a New Yorker since 1978, and I have acquired the Manhattanite's usual prejudices against the rest of the world, but I'm homesick. I need to be part of an English landscape again."