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FD Luxe Magazine

February 2014

“Music…is one of the very best ways we have of showing who we really are.” So said Tod Machover, wizard of MIT’s Media Lab and composer of Death and the Powers, soon to be seen on the stage of the Winspear Opera House. This is a work from a post-new-age-space-age impresario who never discarded a critical insight that could by now be considered the wisdom of yesteryear: for high tech to succeed with an ever widening public it must also be high touch.

This is as true of opera as it is of iPhones, and the idea is not lost on Machover’s students, no matter how attuned they are to the wonders of tomorrow. In 2005, a couple of them invented Guitar Hero, the wii computer game sensation in which, according to The Guardian, “the player manipulates a guitar-shaped controller to simulate playing rock classics.” In other words, you think you’re making those spectacular sounds, but you’re not. Not really.

It’s not far from there to the hyperinstruments – souped-up cellos, pianos and violins – that Machover favors for his operas. He calls each one “an instrument that knows how it is being played—and can sound like anything.” They are mad electronics that absorb from musicians their bow gestures, wrist motions and fingering to create data that shape the sounds of amplifiers. Machover made a hypercello for Yo Yo Ma. He loved it.

So what does this music show us about Keith Cerney, general director and CEO of the Dallas Opera? It is he, after all, who is bringing Death and the Powers to Dallas with its dozen strangely lovely robots and musical chandelier that recalls Phantom of the Opera. Only it has been drastically updated to such an extent that audience members in Palo Alto, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, London, Stockholm and Paris can use their smart phones to lighten or darken the shine of this anthropomorphic fixture, the dwelling place forever of the hero Simon Powers, now departed from the haphazard but irresistible realm of humanity. What this music tells us about Keith Cerney is to look much deeper than appearances.

If Cerney has the appealing, persuasive power of a choirboy to disarm opposition, that’s because he started out as one, singing in the San Francisco Boys Chorus. He matured into a high baritone, low tenor with the San Francisco Opera troupe and at the same time made Beethoven his core composer on the piano, playing with the Berkeley Youth Orchestra, where, at 15, he was an assistant conductor, and also the youngest undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley.

Physics was a natural major for him, along with music, since his father spent 50 years on the faculty at UC as a physicist in the chemistry department. Cerney’s mother was a PhD in educational psychology.

From that campus Cerney went to London on a Fulbright, learning more about conducting and accompanying opera singers as well as pursuing piano with Natasha Spender, wife of the poet Stephen Spender.

He also met his own wife, Jennifer, a specialist in speech science who sings soprano with perfect pitch. So does their son Nicholas, a member of the chorus in Carmen last fall. The Cerneys have three other boys – William, a cellist in the string ensemble of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra; Michael, big in debate; and Matthew, drawn to computers. Their household includes two guinea pigs; a rescued snoodle named Libby; Matthew’s cat called Paris, tolerated by Cerney who’s allergic to cats; and, until recently, a fancy rat that died. A chosen few travel from time to time to the family house in Santa Fe.

All this is to explain that Walter White was right on in“Breaking Bad” when he said that chemistry (also physics) is the study of change. Keith Cerney is a master of change, shifting artfully to an M.B.A. at Harvard, a PhD in Economic Development Studies at the Open University in Britain, six years with McKinsey, a stint at Accenture, and, finally, executive director at the San Francisco Opera, before landing in Dallas, where he seems born to be.

Cerney took over a company that had been drifting for years without a long-term manager, living way beyond its means in an elegant new house it could not afford, driven by financial necessity to lackluster productions with too many (but certainly not all) second-rate singers that made its triumphant Moby Dick seem like a fantastic, distant dream, never to be repeated. Immediately he cut to three operas and began to rebuild, but not with a penitential dose of the old favorites, designed for an audience already satiated to the point of aggravated fatigue. In the very next season, planned well before his arrival, Cerney took four offerings from the 18th and 19th centuries and plugged in The Lighthouse, a 1979 stunner by Peter Maxwell Davies, performed at the Wyly and directed by Kevin Moriarty of the Dallas Theatre Center. Gasping in wonderment, people looked at each other and said, “This is what we’ve wanted.”

Now, Cerney has taken the Dallas Opera back to four productions with a plan for five in 2014-15, including two world premiers he has commissioned, with another to follow the season after that, all with top-flight talent. The truth is that the Dallas Opera is back – back to the glory days of Larry Kelly and Plato Karayanis when it was considered one of four great companies in the country, after the Met in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Houston displaced Dallas somewhere along the way, but the days of being dismissed as a regional house are over. The prodigy-physicist-musician, seasoned in the language of business, steely in his sure knowledge of his own intentions, has soothed the nerves of the opera community, justifiably jangled, into embracing a new day of high adventure. Ready or not, here it comes.

 

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