Nicole Paiement

Photo by Nicole Steen

Photo by Nicole Steen

In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at thecounterpoints[@] A complete list of our interviews can be found here.

Nicole Paiement is the artistic director, founder and conductor of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle. Awarded First Prize at the 2012 Opera Production Competition (sponsored by the National Opera Association), the non-profit organization has devoted itself to the production of contemporary chamber opera and the re-orchestration of familiar scores. Paiement is also the principal guest conductor of the Dallas Opera. Below is the transcript of our November 5, 2012 conversation with Nicole Paiement.

EH: What is your musical background and how were you introduced to the art of conducting ?

Paiement: My mother was a music teacher and my father was a gifted, though not professional musician. I have quite a few musicians in my family as well, and I actually learned to read notes before words. My musical studies began at the piano and I then moved on to various instruments of the orchestra. I actually came to conducting during my undergraduate years at McGill University, in Montreal. When it came time to decide what I would do in life, I had actually considered a career in architecture and I studied that quite a bit; I found that there were actually quite a few similarities studying musical scores and thinking of architectural structures.

At the time, in Montreal, there was no place for someone to do a graduate degree in conducting, and being quite young, I spoke with the dean at McGill. The result was that they actually created a program for me. I spoke very little English then, but I went on to Eastman in New York. They had an amazing program, for one person, and they offered me a full-scholarship to study there.

EH: In your formative years, who were some of the great conductors who made an impression on you ? Whose artistry do you find yourself admiring still ?

Paiement: As a young conductor, I was actually very interested in Ernest Ansermet. Still to this day, I’m attracted not only to his way of writing about music – a beautiful balance of understanding the musical architecture and the philosophy of music – but to the way he brought out lines in a manner that not many conductors are able to. I’ve read a great deal of his works and have always admired that he did not want to repeat the canon of repertoire over and over again. Ansermet premiered so many works by different composers, some of whom we might not know if not for him.

EH: I’m curious to know, how did you become so involved in the contemporary music scene ?

Paiement: I have a very natural curiosity for repertoire and we often select people who have a similar interest and collaborative spirit for it. While studying at Eastman, I had the wonderful opportunity to conduct various formations – chorale, wind ensembles, traditional orchestras, opera, contemporary ensembles – I was able to touch all of these things. I also did a lot of early music as well, and I found relationships with contemporary music that I particularly enjoyed. I also love the sound of the voice – I’m not a singer myself – but I love working with singers.

With contemporary opera, I think we live in a very narrative community - with the film industry, television, etc. – and opera is a great medium because it brings stories and visuals to the people, introducing them to the sounds of the twentieth century.

When I arrived in California, I also found a certain closeness with composers that I had never experienced before. Composers are so eager to send you their music, and I began receiving scores, reading through many of them. I also had a personal goal, like Ansermet, to promote new music and sort of help move audiences into the 21st century. I really enjoy working with living composers and getting different perspectives from them. I talk to composers all over the world to find out about what’s going on in their countries, and we are always on the lookout for works that each time will bring in a new audience. It’s a very different experience and I’ve always enjoyed it very much.

I think that performance art should be a mirror of society in many ways. Think of Beaumarchais and the criticism of society in Mozart’s time. A good operatic piece will make the people think. I personally love opera because if you really think of the design and the content – and we spend a great deal of time discussing and brainstorming about the meaning of an opera – there are many, many layers beyond the beauty and aesthetics of the opera. The difficulty lies in finding a way to let those layers come through to the audience.

EH: What kind of unforeseen difficulties have you experienced as conductor and director of the opera company ? Have there been conflicts with respect to the programming of certain new works ?

Paiement: Our priority has always been to make the best and highest-quality productions, and most of our money has actually been spent on the productions themselves. The company is quite young and we don’t yet have a lot of administrative support, but we have a very hands-on board, one that is extremely supportive and open-minded. We have a very artistic committee that reviews our plans and ideas for different works.

One of our goals is also to bring opera to a larger audience, beyond the typical opera-goer. This means making it available for those who cannot pay, say $100, to see a production. The balance for us then is to find a way to keep our standards of production while making this possible. Another very interesting and practical point is with respect to the limited space for opera in San Francisco. Some of our piece selections simply can’t be done due to the hall restrictions.

EH: Please give us your thoughts on the recent award and the Opera Parallèle season.

Paiement: This is our first time designing a full season, and we’ve carefully spent a lot of time in preparation for it. One of the things we’re very interested to bring is the re-orchestration – and not reduction - of certain pieces. This year, we’ll be presenting Leonard Bernstein’s more intimate, Trouble in Tahiti, which isn’t performed quite as often. It uses just a few singers and a large orchestra, a combination that doesn’t necessarily work so well in a large venue, but it’s definitely a gem. A new re-orchestration was done just two years ago and it’s never been performed until now. It’s lighter in spirit – we’re going to be doing it in a sort of Mad Men style of the 1960’s - but it makes you think of how we’ve evolved as couples in society. And this will be combined with Samuel Barber’s A Hand of Bridge, which deals with the issue of marital problems of the 1960s. The way we’ll deal with this is by moving the singers from the first opera to the characters of the second, in a sort of continuation of their problems.

The last opera is a newly commissioned work that we’re bringing to the audience, Dante De Silva’s Gesualdo, Prince of Madness. De Silva is a young composer with a lot of talent. Here, we’re exploring the relationship between renaissance style and music with contemporary music; we’ll be bringing the two worlds together. The audience will actually be able to interact and be part of the process, and we’ll discuss and ask their opinions of the work. So this season, we’ll be going from the largest and less intimate production, to smaller and much more balanced, intimate performances.

It is very important to Opera Parallèle to receive an award like this and we are most honored. Up until now, we have devoted most of our financial support to the quality of our productions. Receiving such an award (two years in a row) confirms that it is the right thing to do for the company. It also lets us know that our work is not isolated to the Bay Area, but is being recognized in the context of artistic institutions across the country. Of course, we wouldn’t be successful without the dedication and support of opera lovers and supporters here in the Bay Area!

EH: Nicole, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Paiement: It was my pleasure – thank you, Elijah!