Pamela Gilmore is the opera department at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School. Yes, the entirety of a one-person department, she says in a telephone interview. “I wear many hats.”
As the director of Mason Gross’ Opera Workshop, Gilmore calls herself the producer of the annual main stage productions of the ensemble. “I don’t want to be confused with the stage director,” she says. “I manage the production. I do what’s necessary.”
For its main stage opera this season, Gilmore, under the corporate-sounding name of “Opera at Rutgers,” presents Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” in Nicholas Auditorium on the Douglass College campus during two successive weekends. Evening performances take place on two Fridays, January 31 and February 5. Sunday matinees are scheduled for 2 p.m. on January 31 and February 7. Kynan Johns, Mason Gross director of orchestras, conducts. Doctoral student Claudia Zahn is stage director. Mason Gross students share vocal roles.
Written in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations wrecked the careers of authors, scholars, and artists, Floyd’s opera retells the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders. Set in Appalachia in the early half of the 20th century, Susannah is unjustly accused of immoral behavior and is shunned by her neighbors. The tuneful music is easily accessible. The plot vividly portrays the damage done by self-righteous, narrow-minded leaders.
Gilmore selects operas for Mason Gross in collaboration with members of the vocal faculty. “We choose what will best serve the students,” she says. In recent years Opera at Rutgers has presented a wide range of vehicles: Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Lehar’s “Merry Widow,” Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” and Weill’s “Street Scene,” among others.
“I have insisted on a cycle of languages for the operas at Rutgers,” Gilmore says. “French, Italian, English, and German. They all present challenges for young singers. French is probably the most formidable foreign language. When you look at the text, you cannot tell how to pronounce it. With Italian and German, if you know the sounds, you know how to pronounce and spell the language.”
Gilmore describes her professional specialties as vocal coach, chorus master, music director, repetiteur, and foreign language coach. “I’m a vocal coach by training,” she says, “and I don’t mind branching out, but for a main stage production I prefer professionals for costume, lighting, and set design. I like to do as much as possible in our own backyard, and I draw on the Mason Gross theater department.”
After David Reeves, her predecessor at Mason Gross died, unexpectedly in the fall of 2001, Gilmore took over mid-semester. “It was my first full-time academic appointment,” she says. “Before that I was the adjunct at large to the greater New York area.”
The workshop assigned to the opera department is classified as a performance ensemble program. When Gilmore started at Rutgers, it put on three performances a year: two were devoted to scenes from assorted operas; one was a full opera. Five years ago, after baroque specialist Andrew Kirkman arrived at Rutgers, the workshop expanded to include an annual semi-staged baroque opera, for which the instrumental support is supplied by Kirkman’s Musica Raritana.
Gilmore was born in Baldwin, Long Island, New York. She grew up in the 1960s, the child of schoolteacher parents. “My father was a frustrated poet who taught math,” she says. “My mom was an English teacher. My mother’s family were all amateur musicians; everybody played at least one instrument. I grew up accompanying my younger brother, Edward, who is a world-class clarinetist.”
Opera won Gilmore’s allegiance by a slow and circuitous route. Her first lessons were at the piano; when she was five, her mother began to teach her. “Within a year, she farmed me out,” says Gilmore. “She was not a piano teacher; her level of patience was not suitable.”
Gilmore says she has stayed with piano her whole life. “I’m still primarily a pianist. I toyed with banjo in college and played harpsichord a little. I’ve accompanied for my whole life. I accompanied my brother, and school choruses. In college I discovered that accompanying was one of the highest-paying campus jobs.”
She majored in piano performance at Mount Holyoke and minored in English. “I didn’t think I was going to end up being a musician; I thought that writing was more important. I was a dedicated young poet. My growing awareness that poetry and music were inexorably linked made me change focus. I realized that music amplified the word.”
Gilmore’s lifelong participation in choirs played a role in her slowly evolving interest in opera. “I sang in choirs as long as I can remember,” she says, “and loved the sense of being in something larger than myself.”
After finishing at Mount Holyoke, Gilmore left Massachusetts for Washington, D.C., where she earned a master’s degree in opera at Catholic University. “My M.A. was in vocal accompaniment,” she says, “and I had little exposure to opera. However, right out of graduate school, I was offered a job as a repetiteur for ‘La Boheme’ with Washington Opera. A repetiteur plays the music — a kind of reduced orchestral score — at all rehearsals until rehearsals with the orchestra begin.
“The light bulb went off. It was an epiphany for me. I was hooked on opera from then on. It spurred me to move to New York, which is the operatic epicenter of the universe.”
In New York Gilmore met Joan Dornemann, a prompter at the Metropolitan Opera House, who became a mentor. “She took me under her wing,” Gilmore says, “and my career as a vocal coach was underway. The ways that people acquire job skills as a vocal coach are diverse, eclectic and fairly random. Until fairly recently, there were no academic degrees that addressed the skill set, and people more or less found mentors to guide them. That was certainly the case for me.
“Young vocal coaches play in lot of vocal studios to learn about voice,” Gilmore continues. “If you’re playing 40 hours a week, you’re attending more lessons than a singer gets in a year. You learn from the best of teachers and from the worst. You learn not only repertoire but also what I call ‘many different vocal languages.’
“You have to translate a libretto yourself,” Gilmore says. “You can’t rely on the printed translation. It has the right number of syllables but it gets far away from the original meaning of the text. You appreciate opera so much more when you know what’s happening in the story.”
Gilmore’s experience includes a stint in 1990-’91 in Dornemann’s field of prompting during actual performances, where she deepened her understanding of the details of public presentations as viewed from an onstage prompter’s box. She explains the work of a prompter as being only partially predictable. “If you’re there from the beginning of a production, you know the danger points, the places where errors have arisen. But, more than that, there’s a look that comes over a singer’s face when they’re likely to go blank. You have to pay attention and get sensitive to that. You have to be very attentive because anything can and will happen in live performance.”
That aspect of opera can only be transferred elsewhere in part. “Only really large houses have a prompter’s box,” she says. “In Nicholas [Theater, at Mason Gross], there’s nowhere to put me for a main stage production.”
Since 1984 Gilmore has maintained an active studio in Manhattan. Her institutional affiliations before coming to Rutgers in 2001 include Northwestern University, Mannes College of Music, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.
She has spent five summers in Israel at the International Vocal Arts Institute; has been head coach of the Spoleto Vocal Arts Symposium, in Spoleto, Italy, for a decade; and has worked at the Metropolitan Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera Guild Competition. She joined the “Singing and the Brain Workshops” as a charter member six years ago.
Gilmore says “Singing and the Brain” “is a return to a holistic approach to singing. She comes up with what she calls “a tremendous oversimplification” to summarize the workshops: Most vocal pedagogy techniques talk a lot about breath, she begins. Actually, our bodies want to breathe, she says. Breathing is a natural process. There is no need to focus a lot of attention on something that the body will do on its own. Indeed, excessive focus on breathing can result in muscular tension. Good vocal technique is a matter of letting things happen instead of making them happen.
Letting things happen instead of making them happen is an approach that certainly applies to more than singing. In fact, the very thought of letting things happen instead of trying hard to make them happen induces a desirable mellowness in individuals susceptible to tension. Try it on the tennis courts or the ski slopes.
Susannah, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Nicholas Music Center, 85 George Street, New Brunswick. Fridays, January 29 and February 7, 8 p.m.; Sundays, January 31 and February 9, 2 p.m. Opera by Carlisle Floyd. $25. Optional four-course Southern-themed theater dinner at the University Inn and Conference Center, 178 Ryders Lane, Friday, January 29, at 5 p.m., features dishes including peanut soup, creole chicken, gumbo, crusted catfish, truffle macaroni and cheese with wines. $80 includes performance.732-932-7511 or www.masongross.rutgers.edu.
Also, Opera Discussion, East Brunswick Library, Jean Walling Civic Center. Thursday, January 28, 7 p.m. Joanna Barouch leads a discussion of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.” 732-390-6767. www.ebpl.org.