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Classical Notes

Lord knows opera and education

He has big plans for Conservatory

Stephen Lord at New England Conservatory during a rehearsal for Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.’’ Stephen Lord at New England Conservatory during a rehearsal for Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide.’’ (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2011

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Monday’s semi-staged performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide’’ represents Stephen Lord’s inaugural production as artistic director of New England Conservatory’s opera studies program. But Lord is no stranger to Boston: He spent 16 years here as music director of Boston Lyric Opera, winning praise for his leadership of both musicians and singers in a wide range of repertoire. He left BLO in 2008 to become music director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a position he plans to keep.

Indeed, the 61-year-old Lord is so busy that it’s a wonder he had the time to take on a new gig. In addition to his St. Louis position, he maintains a full slate of guest engagements. During a recent phone conversation, he runs down his list of recent and future commitments, which include visits to London, Santa Fe, Chicago, San Francisco, and Toronto, among others.

“There were those people who were telling me I was a fool to add something to my plate,’’ he says, adding that Tony Woodcock, president of NEC, “courted me like Romeo and Juliet.

“I know how young people should be educated,’’ he adds. “So if there’s something I can do to help restructure this program — which is in dire need of that — then maybe my input could be beneficial.’’

Others might find it impolitic to speak bluntly of the problems they were brought in to fix, but Lord is refreshingly frank about what he thinks needs to change in NEC’s program, his straight talk backed up by the decades of experience in the often inhospitable world of opera production.

“If NEC wants once again to be in the vanguard of training people, it’s lost position — to Juilliard and to Curtis and to American Academy of Vocal Arts and others,’’ he says. “But Boston — besides the fact that it’s so expensive — could be a luxury destination for a singer, and we have to be sure that we can offer them the best of everything.’’

Tops on the list of what the graduate program in opera studies needs, he says, is fewer students. “Right now there’s an enormous number of kids,’’ he says. “And, I mean, it’s just too many.’’ Lord says he wants to reduce the program’s enrollment initially by 30 percent and eventually by 50 percent — some by attrition, and some, “if they’re not cutting the mustard, will be sent away.’’

That might sound cruel, but, he says, “you have to be this way in the business. A career in music is enough of a dream. And if the dream’s not going to be realized, and you know so, there’s nothing wrong with telling someone that it’s not working out, and good luck, and find something else if you’d like.’’

Lord also wants to see a renewed focus on mentoring students — not just artistically but on the practical, business side, an aspect he thinks is often neglected in opera training. “The problem, and it’s rampant in the United States — you get people teaching a business who either aren’t in it or were in it so long ago that picking up a telephone and doing something really isn’t possible. Or they’re teaching a business that was so long ago that they don’t know the realities of what’s happening in the US right now. And it’s very important that these kids have access to that information.’’

He’s equally critical of the shortcomings of American opera students, some of whom he calls “woefully uneducated.’’ “How do you sing a libretto by Da Ponte, which is in beautiful verse, if you don’t know how to read poetry? You memorize a bunch of nonsense syllables and think that’s good. But it’s not. And a lot of time we have to do remedial work with young people who just don’t have any culture.’’

Regardless of the extent of his criticism, Lord seems excited by the prospect of what NEC’s program can become. He will conduct one fully staged production each year, as well as semi-staged and concert productions in Jordan Hall. Among the repertoire he wants to program, one of the more unusual entries is Britten’s “Paul Bunyan,’’ which the composer wrote for students early in his career. And Lord wants to bring in guest directors and designers, to give students a wider view of what’s going on in the opera world.

He’s aware that changes on the scale he envisions will take time. “There are growing pains, as all things have. But Tony [Woodcock] is very committed to doing this. . . . You know, opera is really drying up so much in the United States. But perhaps if we start doing this thing and making it good, when the cycle turns around again, perhaps NEC will be in a really good position.

“I just hope, in the next few years down the line, this will become again one of the destination points,’’ he continues. “Not a safety college, but a first choice.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S “CANDIDE’’ Presented by New England Conservatory

Stephen Lord, conductor

At: Jordan Hall Monday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $20, 617-585-1122, www.necmusic.edu