MICHAEL MORGAN began his operatic career at the top last year, conducting Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" at the Vienna State Opera. His European conducting credits include orchestras ranging from Italy to Denmark, and in this country, he has worked with the Saint Louis Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony and the Buffalo Philharmonic--more orchestras than the average young conductor can shake a stick at.
On Wednesday evening in the Hartke Theatre, he will make his American operatic debut. He'll be raising his baton for the Summer Opera Theatre's "La Traviata," in the city where he decided to be a conductor when he was about 9 years old, and learned how to do it in the public schools.
"Things keep happening to me," said Morgan between rehearsals at Catholic University. "You keep your goals reasonable, but things happen. In Vienna, I used to walk past the State Opera and think, 'Well, maybe some day they will let me do something there,' and now that's happened already. I had always planned to do things in opera anyway; I had never planned to start at the Vienna State Opera. There is something wonderful about getting these outrageously pretentious things out of the way early."
It happened because he entered the prestigious International Hans Swarowsky Conducting Competition in Vienna, not expecting to win but to broaden his experience and prepare for a less lucrative competition--the Malko in Copenhagen. "I like competitions," he says, "but I'm against taking them seriously. You go into them because you want to learn something and see what other people are doing." Morgan won the Swarowsky, and the opportunities to conduct the Vienna State Opera and the Vienna Symphony were part of his prize.
"It was not a high-pressure situation for me," he recalls. "It seemed safe precisely because the prize was so enormous, both monetarily and with the engagements one could get; it's really the most prestigious prize we have going right now in conducting. So I figured it was a pretty safe bet they weren't going to give a first prize. It was the second time they had held this competition, and they didn't give any first prize the first time, so I fully expected them not to give a first prize this time, too.
"Then, almost before I knew it, I was a strong contender; the three top contestants were still holding their places, but they weren't moving ahead. I was way behind, around number 15, after the first round, which was a written test of Swarowsky trivia; then, the second day, I jumped from 15 to around 7, while the same guys were one, two and three, but you could see their point totals had declined--they were losing favor with the jury. You could score from positive 2 to negative 2, and at the end, I was the only one who had a positive score with the jury, and the next highest was negative 1.4. They had a very complicated computer system that kept track of the judging, something like the computers that forecast presidential elections in this country, and the Wiener Kurier a daily newspaper very early on started predicting that I would win, back around the second round."
When he made his opera debut in Vienna in May 1982, Morgan says, "My only goal was to get in and out of the State Opera without being booed. I had been there many times, but only twice when the conductor was not booed. My own performance was the second time. The first time was a performance of 'Lucia'; I didn't think the conductor was very good, but the audience was so busy cheering the soprano, Gruberova, that it had no time to boo the conductor. In America, we don't have booing like that even at sporting events."
The road to Vienna began at the Dale Music Company in Silver Spring when Morgan was 9 or 10 years old and began to hang around, "living in the miniature score section," knowing already that he wanted to be a conductor. "David Burchuk, who ran the store, took an interest in me, went through some of the scores with me and gave me the run of the place," he says. The career accelerated when Morgan was 12 years old and entered MacFarland Junior High--a school with its own orchestra, which he soon began to conduct. "I played piano in the orchestra at first," he says, "but I went there with the purpose of conducting." Herman Suehs, who founded the orchestra at the school and who now teaches at UDC, was his first conducting mentor.
He also had an open invitation to attend National Symphony rehearsals during the Dorati era, and he says he "grew up watching Dorati rehearse the National Symphony . . . I was there the day the NSO began to read Mahler's Fifth Symphony. It was the loudest rehearsal I have ever heard." At the time, he was also rehearsing the Mahler Fifth with the D.C. Youth Symphony Orchestra. The quality of the two orchestras is reflected in the amount of rehearsal time they spent on this work: a few days for the NSO, a year and a half for the Youth Symphony.
Besides the school orchestra and the Youth Symphony, Morgan also had a small community orchestra that he conducted regularly. He still speaks with wonder at the way musicians take instructions from him: "From the time I was 12 years old," he says, "I have always been able to find groups of people willing to let me conduct them--stand in front of them, ostensibly telling them what to do. I found that the District of Columbia was a good place to learn how to become a conductor.
"I really feel that the conductor is just another player; I mean, someone has to arbitrate, but the idea that the conductor is way up here and the orchestra is at his command . . . I can't work that way. I know that historically, some conductors have gotten an incredible response with that approach. But it's not in me to work that way; I have to feel as though I'm convincing them that there is a reason to go with me--not just because I'm on the stand in front of them."
"Hobbies? Personal life?" He repeats the words as though they're in a foreign language and breaks into hysterical laughter. "Who has time for personal life? You need to be concentrating. Otherwise, at no point are you going to be as good as you could have been.
"I really think that if you are not absolutely obsessed, absolutely devoted to being a conductor--if you can even think of being anything else, then you should. It's really a discouraging field, the work is hard, you're constantly running into disappointments.
"In opera, it's impossible to even start to come up with anything like an ideal performance. There is always something that you're not satisfied with, something that should be different, something that doesn't go quite right--always something to complain about . . . always," he says, "and everyone does."
He began, as many conductors do, by playing the piano. "There were no musicians in my family," he says his father is a biologist with the National Cancer Institute at NIH, his mother a program assistant at NIMH , "but they got a piano--I think they bought it from a neighbor who was moving--when I was about five. At first, I treated it like a big toy; then, I began to study it seriously when I was about 8. But it never really occurred to me that it would be a fun thing to spend 10 hours a day in a practice room becoming yet another brilliant young pianist.
"Then somebody told me what a conductor does, and I thought, 'Hey, I can do that.' I was wrong at the time, but I've learned a lot since then."