Woman Wielding A Baton

Lesbian conductor Lucy Arner opens up about her life as Maestro

Lucy Arner, the expertly gifted, drolly engaging Cuban-born, Midwest-educated, Barcelona-honed maestra—an assistant conductor at the Met and an increasing presence on international podiums—has actually never hidden that she is the suavely deadpan drag king accompanist Sergio Zawa to Ira Siff’s wondrous creation, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh. Arner recently sat down for a conversation with this reporter while readying what are billed as Madame Vera’s really, truly farewell concerts, March 22, 24, and 25 at the Nimoy/Thalia.

DAVID SHENGOLD: Are you comfortable being “an out lesbian conductor” in print?

LUCY ARNER: Let’s see…a I’m gay, I’m a conductor, I think I’m out, and I seem to be comfortable putting on the goatee and the tails with Ira, so I guess it would be OK.

DS: Could you talk some about your path to being a conductor?

LA: I started out as a solo pianist, but really enjoyed accompanying at Baldwin-Wallace College, especially the vocalists, thanks to a wonderful teacher there, Sophie Ginn. At Indiana University I continued, encouraged by my teacher, Balint Vazsonyi, who loved opera and vocal music, and encouraged my interest in singing and opera as an alternative career possibility. Conducting always fascinated me, but this interest was subtly discouraged––not in so many words, but also by a complete lack of encouragement.

The message I always got was that women were OK as choral directors, but not really to be taken seriously in front of orchestras. As I worked professionally I saw that too few conductors in opera were coming through the ranks of opera house coaches, as had been the tradition. As the prejudices against women conductors began slowly to change, I felt that I wanted to try my hand. I felt that I had something significant to offer singers if I could do with an orchestra what I can do at the piano. It’s been difficult, but in the last few years opportunities have started to open up, and I hope that continues.

DS: You’ve had many guest engagements in Spain, Israel, and Latin America. Do issues relating to sexuality—or, maybe more likely, gender—arise in different musical cultures? Have male players and singers accepted you?

LA: So far, knock on wood, I have not felt any resistance on the part of orchestral players to my being female, and certainly not after the first rehearsal. My experience has been that if the players feel the person with the baton knows what they are doing and knows what they want, can show it with the stick, and treats them professionally and respectfully, they will give their very best, because that’s what they really care about. Singers are more accustomed to working with women as coaches, so the transition is easier.

DS: How out-and-open do you feel working at the Met?

LA: The Met does have an aura of conservatism about it, but there are so many gay people around, stage directors, music staff, chorus, supers, administrators, and support staff… I don’t make a big deal about it, but I don’t go to any pains to hide it either. My partner comes by, I’ve taken her to parties, and always introduce her as “my partner,” I use the “we” form and mention her frequently, so it’s pretty much out there if anyone isn’t completely brain dead. That’s how I handle it, low-key and matter-of-fact, which is pretty much how I like to be.

DS: How did your involvement with Ira and Vera come about?

LA: I have always been a fan of Anna Russell, P. D. Q. Bach, and anything musical and funny, so of course I was a Gran Scena fan. I met Ira at a party; a couple of years later we were both teaching at a summer program in Italy, and it was really there that we found this incredible rapport musically and vocally. I realized what an extraordinary teacher Ira is and we began working together through our students.

During one of many discussions about singing and music I mentioned that I would play for him anywhere, any time. He didn’t think I realized what that could mean, but I assured him the dressing up didn’t faze me at all. A year later, his pianist of many years retired. By that time we were great friends, and the thought of making music, our kind of music, together was irresistible. And so Sergio was born, just so Ira and I could explore the many ways we could stretch and express a phrase.

And you know, it’s eerie. We rehearse and work out the details of something as essentially ‘Vera-esque’ as [Francis Poulenc’s] “Chemins d’amour,” and when the performance comes around, something magical comes over us and it’s totally different, and totally wonderful, and nothing at all like we rehearsed it. It’s what musicians live for, to experience that feeling when the music just takes over, and we go where it takes us.

DS: Anything special on your agenda for these Farewell Concerts?

LA: A new opening aria [Giaochino Rossini’s “Cruda sorte”] and a new cycle of 20th century song [homages] written especially for Madame by Richard Burke. The combination of the “new musics” with Madame Vera’s unique expressive style is enlightening, to say the least. One might say it’s mind-blowing… er, mind-boggling… or certainly mind-altering! We will reprise last year’s new offering from “Manon Lescaut”, as well as some of Madame’s traditional standards.

DS: Is there a future for Sergio, or will he retire to the cruise-ship nostalgia tours with Madame Vera?

LA: Possibly the years spent playing exclusively for Madame Vera have spoiled Sergio for other, more conventional prima donnas. After all, when one is accustomed to exotic flavors and colors, a bland diet of “Come scritto” [“As written”] is not enough to keep the expressive juices flowing. I expect Sergio to continue to follow Madame, perhaps trying to pass on to the younger generation of singers the glories of bel canto à la Borskh. A cruise-ship tour sounds pleasant…

DS: What would your dream gig be?

LA: Not much, really. How about a theater with an excellent orchestra and chorus where the emphasis is on the singing and the music, which is why it’s opera, doc! This mythical paradise would also have an active young artist program to train young singers and hopefully instill in them the things that Madame Vera and Sergio value so much, such as expressive singing that respects the traditions of the past, the overwhelming importance of a legato line, striving to understand the intent of the composer and communicate it faithfully to the audience.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about the arts in many venues.

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