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In a backstage bay at the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, a row of chairs is lined up neatly along the front edge of a stage riser. The principal cast members of the Palm Beach Operaproduction of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman occupy the seats during an initial rehearsal, but instead of ornate costumes, they're dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, so it seems slightly incongruous when resonating, sonorous voices burst forth from the street-clothed singers. Also dressed casually is maestro Anton Guadagno, who wears a tab-collared yellow shirt and light brown slacks, not the tux in which audiences are accustomed to seeing him.
The slight, elfin conductor faces the singers on stage from behind a black podium with a row of lights around the top inside edge, which illuminates the sheet music spread out on it. He's traded his long white performance baton for a plain yellow pencil, with which he can both count out beats and make notations on the score.
Speaking in a hyper-paced blend of English and his native Italian, Guadagno is both stern and accommodating. At age 76 he's a seasoned veteran who knows just how he wants things to sound but who comes across as a benevolent leader rather than as a draconian dictator.
"I follow you. No obbligato," the maestro tells lead singer Monte Pederson in a thick Italian accent after stopping the rehearsal. Bass-baritone Pederson, from Toronto, is a New York Metropolitan Opera veteran acclaimed internationally for his command of demanding roles, like the lead in Dutchman. Still, he's getting used to the style of Guadagno, who explains to him that he should come in when he's ready. As conductor Guadagno assures him he will use Pederson's entrance as a cue to bring in the orchestra for the next passage.
Guadagno sets similar ground rules for soprano lead Nina Warren, who plays Senta, the object of the Dutchman's affections in the three-act opera.
"Do I come in right away?" asks Warren during one break.
"I leave it open to you," Guadagno responds, "to give you room to ," and he trails off, finishing charades-style by expanding his arms as if taking a deep breath.
The animated Guadagno often switches from English to Italian in midsentence and gesticulates furiously to drive home his points. The unusual mixture of languages and signals seems strange to an outsider sitting in on the rehearsal, but the singers have no problem interpreting. Neither do they have a problem taking direction from a respected conductor like Guadagno, a rarity in the opera business because of his care and nurturing of vocalists.
"Although I have a voice that carries well -- and Monte Pederson also did -- it's great to still feel like you're floating above an orchestra and not getting drowned out," Warren says. "That is really becoming a lost art. I mean, I've done Salome [the title character in the Strauss opera] where you're just thinking, It's a wall of sound. Am I even being heard? And the thing that I thought he did so well is accompany the singers." She recalls an instance when Guadagno adjusted the score in favor of the vocalists. "And someone [in the orchestra] said, 'Well, it's written forte.' And he said, 'But we don't play forte when we're accompanying singers.' He's one of those rare conductors that makes sure the singers are always heard."
Warren, another Metropolitan Opera vet, says the level of respect paid to Guadagno is also rare these days. "I was doing one production where the conductor was injured and I had 13 performances of Salome, and I had 10 different conductors. And what I found is -- I won't name the orchestra, but they were a very good orchestra -- the players were wonderful, but depending on whether or not they liked the conductor or had respect for him, they would play horribly.
"But somebody like Guadagno has a career and respect because he's respectful of the singers and the orchestra," she continues. "Now, if he wants something, he lets you know. It's not like he's a softie. When things weren't going how he wanted them to during rehearsal, he really -- I wouldn't say 'threw his weight around' -- but he makes sure that he gets what he wants. The thing is he knows what he wants. He's done this a long time, and he's got a great ear."
In fact Guadagno's reputation allows him to bring in opera talent that might otherwise take a pass on roles with a company the size of Palm Beach Opera. He has been artistic director and conductor since the 37-year-old company's 1984-85 season, but he had achieved lofty stature in the opera world long before his arrival in South Florida.
Born in a small town near Palermo, Italy, Guadagno began his musical career playing trumpet but gave up the instrument to pursue composition and conducting. After graduating from the Palermo Conservatory, he went on to the Saint Cecilia Conservatory in Rome and did his postgraduate work at the famous Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria.
"You must go there to be maestro," he says.