Journey To The Underworld: Christine Brandes Travels From the Stage to the Pit

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For the past seven years, celebrated soprano Christine Brandes has been producing operas presented at San Francisco State University. Then, in 2016, the orchestra director went on sabbatical and she suddenly found herself producing Handel’s Alcina without a conductor. For years colleagues had told her that conducting was in her future, so she thought “I know this opera incredibly well, why not conduct?” Thus began a mid-career pivot that finds her on the podium this summer conducting West Edge Opera’s production of Orfeo & Euridice.

When asked what it was about her musicianship that made her colleagues so confident in her destiny on the podium, Ms Brandes could only guess. “Perhaps the way I think about music… or the way I hear music in its entirety… It’s easy as a singer to be invested in how beautiful your own voice is, but conducting requires hearing multiple voices; you need to be attentive and aware of all the elements of the score at all times.”

Despite the confidence of her peers, the transition itself was not quite as easy as the decision to switch roles. “I could only begin to imagine how hard conducting was”.  For one thing, conductors need to communicate to the performers what needs to happen with enough time for them to respond. “If as a conductor you want something that’s been piano to suddenly be forte, you need to make that gesture before the sound. You’re constantly thinking ahead of what happens.” Furthermore, conducting asks something very different from the body than singing does. ”It’s about the physicalization of what you want to hear. In singing, the thought is what matters, and that’s super intuitive for me, but expressing that with the stick has been challenging.” 

You need to make that gesture before the sound. You’re constantly thinking ahead of what happens.

This perspective has given her new insight into some past performance and rehearsal experiences. “There have been frustrations dealing with conductors. You think ‘Dear God, why is it happening that way?’. These days I have a lot of compassion for how very hard it is to do this well.”

After time, Ms Brandes found her experience as a performer a great advantage in conducting. “Many opera conductors come from behind the piano, with backgrounds in coaching and accompanying. That’s a very different relationship to singing. I have a good intuitive sense of both how to manage and follow singers, when to follow, when to lead. And that’s a crucial question in singing, from both sides of the stick. Being a singer, I have a particular slant on it that’s helpful”

Ms Brandes has rapidly grown into this new role, now conducting all of the shows at San Francisco State, conducting at Victory Hall Opera in Virginia, and receiving other engagements and opportunities to develop her already formidable skills. She began taking lessons, attended a summer conducting retreat, and is the assistant conductor of the Oakland Civic Orchestra. Such an appointment with an orchestra provides invaluable time on the podium every week. “Finding opportunities to conduct with real players is one of the many challenges of heading down this path. I can practice all by myself until the cows come home, but it doesn’t mean anything until I’m in front of people. It’s like practicing air guitar; until you have the instrument in your hand, it doesn’t mean anything.”

As for the future, Ms Brandes imagines splitting her time between conducting and singing. “I still have some good tread on my singing tires. That said, when Mark [Streshinsky] first left a message about doing Orfeo & Euridice with West Edge, my first response was ‘Ugh. Do I really want to sing Euridice again?”. When I discovered that he was actually asking me to conduct my response was ‘Absolutely! Without a doubt!’ So maybe that shows where my heart really lives.”

Brian Rosenorfeo