Genius alone seldom forges a path to critical recognition. Michael Morgan, the Washington-born assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is well aware of this. "There are certainly strikes against you as a young conductor, as an American conductor and as a black conductor," says Morgan, who will conduct the New York City Opera production of Verdi's "La Traviata" this Tuesday and Thursday at Wolf Trap's Filene Center. "These things do not so much cause people to have anything in particular against you, but do cause people to want to test your abilities more thoroughly before they actually believe you can do anything."
At 29, Morgan has embarked upon a most promising career, drawing comparisons to the young Leonard Bernstein. He has guest-conducted many of the world's renowned orchestras, including the Vienna, Warsaw and New York philharmonics. He made an impressive operatic debut at the 1982 Vienna Festival, conducting the Vienna State Opera in Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio," and in 1984 conducted Mozart's "The Magic Flute" at the Deutsche Staatsoper in East Berlin. And as Sir Georg Solti's assistant in Chicago, he has had the opportunity to conduct what is considered one of the finest orchestras in the country.
But as a black conductor, Morgan has had to make a path for himself. "There haven't been very many black conductors," he says, "so there really aren't a lot of role models. The opportunities for black conductors have only really opened in the last couple decades."
His musical career began, by chance, when a family friend moved to California, leaving his piano here with Morgan's parents. By the age of 8 he was taking piano lessons, and by the age of 12 -- "an absurdly young age to start conducting" -- he was leading his school orchestra at MacFarland Junior High.
Two years later Morgan joined the D.C. Youth Orchestra program, where he gained three years of invaluable experience as a student conductor. "I had a lot of actual time conducting, and that's the most important thing for a conductor," he says. "And one gets a lot of experience in that particular youth orchestra program because you get exposed to so much of the standard repertoire. That early background is very important."
After graduating from McKinley High School in 1975, Morgan attended the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. "I was a composition major in college, but only to become a better conductor," he says. "I'm not interested in composing at all. Learning to compose gives you some idea of how the composer's mind worked, and it also gives you an edge in terms of analysis of the work that you do."
Morgan left Oberlin in 1979 without a degree to become the apprentice conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and in 1980 he was appointed the Exxon/Arts Endowment Conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Last year, he was selected by Solti and the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to become assistant conductor.
Throughout his developing career, intensive self-education has complemented Morgan's formal training. "A lot of conducting is always going to be self-instruction, because there are so many things you just can't teach," he explains. "A lot of it has to do with watching other conductors and learning from them." When he was younger, he attended National Symphony Orchestra rehearsals whenever he could.
The same attitude underscores his views on the competitions in which he has participated. Downplaying his national and international prizes, which include first prize at the 1980 Hans Swarowsky International Conductors Competition and fourth prize at the 1975 Gino Marrinuzzi International Conductors Competition, Morgan points out that competitions "are valuable only if you use them as a tool for learning. They're important only in that they help you focus your education. And you meet your colleagues and learn from them."
Working with the Chicago Symphony has been an ideal opportunity for Morgan. "Solti is a great inspiration -- Solti and Bernstein have always been my inspiration when I was growing up -- and it's wonderful to actually get to work with him now. He's very paternal and very protective of us. Even though he is extraordinarily busy, he helps us whenever and however he can."
Now Morgan is looking forward to the further challenges of directing regularly for a major opera company. "Opera has always been the training ground of all the great conductors of the last few centuries," he says. "As enjoyable as it is to conduct concerts, it's that much more difficult to conduct opera because of the added elements of theater and singing."
Morgan's direction of the New York City Opera's "La Traviata" this week at Wolf Trap, with six more performances in New York later this summer, will be another step toward fulfilling his aspirations. While at Wolf Trap, Beverly Sills' City Opera will also perform Puccini's "Tosca" on June 24 and 26, and Romberg's "The Student Prince" on June 27 and 28.