Saturday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m.
George Mason University
Center for the Arts
4400 University Dr.
Tickets: $98, $80 and $48
Adam Turner, principal conductor and artistic adviser of Virginia Opera, moved to Norfolk, Va., four-and-a-half years ago after attending college at D.C.’s Catholic University.
Next weekend, he’ll return to the Washington area to give two performances of Puccini’s “La Boheme” at George Mason University in a production the company is also doing this weekend (Nov. 6, 8 and 10) in Norfolk and in Richmond on Nov. 20 and 22.
Turner will be in the pit directing a 50-piece orchestra (the Virginia Symphony) with seven leads, a chorus of 24 and a 12-voice children’s choir.
“It’s like a huge old circus up there,” the 33-year-old Louisville, Ky., native says. “It’s a lot of people to manage and keep on the same track.”
We spoke with him during a break in rehearsals last week.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Was it a big adjustment moving to Norfolk from Washington?
ADAM TURNER: The short answer is yes. It was a pretty big adjustment because it’s just a different pace of life, I think, down here. But I enjoy it, being this close to the water. The Hampton Roads community when you put it all together is over a million people spread out over Virginia Beach, Hampton and Newport News yet it still feels kind of like a small town where everybody knows everybody. But there’s a good restaurant scene and the arts are extremely valued here so that’s what drew me.
BLADE: Tell us about “La Boheme.”
TURNER: It’s very romantic and super relevant and a familiar story to anyone who has ever been in love or who has an artistic side to them. It’s just one of those pieces that really resonates with just about anyone. … There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer wakes up from a coma and suddenly he’s an opera singer and he sings “La Boheme.” I remember thinking, “Wow, opera is everywhere … even ‘The Simpsons.’” It’s one of the classics.
BLADE: Was there opera in Louisville when you were growing up?
TURNER: My grandmother took me to “The Nutcracker” every year and later I saw Broadway musicals like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Starlight Express.” … Then when I was a little older, I saw my first opera in Louisville, which was “The Magic Flute.” I think just basically the vocal acrobatics of it and the stamina and the talent you need to sing those roles was just overwhelming. It really left an imprint on me.
BLADE: Is there overlap between the worlds of opera conducting and symphonic conducting? Do some conductors do both?
TURNER: I think the old-school conductors trained in Europe did both and always started in the opera house and then went to symphony conducting or ballet conducting or whatever. It was something that was just included and considered part of your job, but opera conducting is probably the most challenging work there is in classical music performance and I think that’s why I probably am drawn to it because it is such a challenge. There’s a lot more to manage and not only are you leading the orchestra and influencing the music and all of that, but you’re also keeping all these forces together, you know, uniting them with the same vision and the same precision. … Anytime I’ve done anything orchestral or with soloists, I love it, but I always kind of am wondering, “OK, where are the singers?”
TURNER: I think singers give so much more drama to the process and they need attention and a lot of care and tenderness, care and attention. I just work really well with them. … It’s a real challenge but a fun challenge.
BLADE: Is opera your first love or conducting or did you sort of discover them simultaneously?
TURNER: I think I discovered them simultaneously. The first time I ever saw conducting was when I was 5 or 6 and I was immediately taken by the conductor and all he was doing and thinking, “Oh, I want to do that someday.” … I grew up listening to Elton John and Ben Folds and Billy Joel, you know, piano men, and then somewhere along the way I found out about Pavarotti and Domingo and all these famous opera singers and I was really attracted to that sound and just the romanticism of the music and I kind of float both sides. I really like pop music and old-school rock but then I’m just as happy working in opera which I think is just one of the more challenging things because it pulls all these great art forms together.
BLADE: There’s lots of handwringing in classical music. How are things overall at Virginia Opera?
TURNER: When I first came here there had been some major upheavals with the artistic director. He had been fired so there was a lot of instability and uncertainty about what the future direction was going to be. So I was hired to provide artistic stability and also some new fresh energy to the company and along with that, my goal was really for us to find new audiences, people my age. I would love to see more 20- and 30-somethings in the opera house and how do we do that? So for me the main goal was just getting people into the theater to experience it for themselves and let them know it’s not this scary, sacred institution. … Once they do that, they’re just overcome with the emotion and raw passion of live performance and live playing. … We try to find repertoire that will appeal to our seasoned opera goers … and also find a way to get new folks in. … Last year we did “Sweeney Todd” and it was thrilling to see so many young and new faces. … And then they come back and now they’re giving Puccini a run or maybe even Verdi or Mozart.
BLADE: There’s so much worry and prognosticating on this topic. Do you think when millennials get a little older, they will do a better job of picking up these batons or will our traditional arts companies continue facing challenges?
TURNER: I think they will face challenges if they don’t adapt and try new things and that’s the thing I keep harping on. We have to keep trying different approaches to find out what works best. People are all craving this kind of live experience. It’s not something you can get on Netflix sitting at home by yourself. Live acoustic performance is unlike any other form of entertainment and companies all over the world are trying new approaches. … We started an initiative where for the past five years, we’ve been doing one new production each season we’ve never done before in our 40-year history. … You have to do new things that will entice people to come to the theater and try a new piece they’ve never heard before.
BLADE: You’re running a marathon next Saturday the same day you’ll conduct in Fairfax. Why?
TURNER: I’m just crazy, that’s why. … I run all the time, sometimes up to 50 miles a week. It gives me so much more energy and really kind of sets the tone for my day and gives me a lot of focus and drive. … I just wanted to find a marathon that fit my schedule and this was the one that fit and that I thought I could handle.
BLADE: How long have you been out?
TURNER: Since I was 20. Basically in college in D.C., I blossomed, so to speak.
BLADE: Has opera been as gay as we typically think of it in your experience?
TURNER: People who like prissy things are attracted to opera and I think a lot of gay men appreciate beautiful singing and beautiful sets and costumes and the grandiosity of all that. I can certainly see why it would attract the gay culture. … All over the country there are gay men running opera companies … because they’re so passionate about the art form. I have no explanation for it or anecdote, but it’s refreshing to know we have all found our niche.
BLADE: Is there much gay life in Norfolk?
TURNER: Oh yeah, I have a great circle of friends here but it’s different than the gay community in D.C. or even in Richmond. It’s more laid back. I just found out last week that Norfolk has the highest gay marriage rate in the state. … I’m not getting married anytime soon, but I certainly enjoy dating and going out with my friends.
BLADE: You’re working on a production with the Washington National Opera next year. Does that have any connection to your work with Virginia Opera is that a separate thing altogether?
TURNER: That’s completely separate and I’ll be on staff for one of their productions as part of a fellowship I was awarded earlier this year. We strive to do different repertoire, like last year they did “La Boheme” and this year we’re doing it. Even though they’re totally separate productions and a completely different market … we strive to do our own thing.
BLADE: Who’s your favorite classic opera diva?
TURNER: I’m a huge fan of Marilyn Horne, a great mezzo-soprano. I tend to like the lower-voiced women.
BLADE: You were awarded a $10,000 stipend with the Julius Rudel/Kurt Weill Conducting Fellowship this year. What did you do with the money?
TURNER: It’s in savings, I haven’t done anything with it yet. I’ll probably use it for career-development stuff. Travel and networking stuff.