Opera Theatre of St. Louis was barely five seasons old when a young musician named Stephen Lord, a fellow who might have been a French teacher had he not developed a reputation for being a crackerjack music coach and accompanist, was hired as head of music staff of the fledgling company by its founder, Richard Gaddes.
Lord, 66, believes now is the time to move on, so after the 2017 opera season, this ebullient musician, who eventually became music director of the company, will become music director emeritus.
His new role won't entirely free him from responsibilities in the Opera Theatre sphere, it provides personal and professional flexibility. He will return each season to give master classes and to conduct the company’s annual Center Stage concert, in which Gerdine Young Artists and Gaddes Festival Artists perform excerpts from the operatic repertory. Working with these groups is fitting, as Lord is known as a keen spotter of talent. “Stephen’s knowledge of young singers is without parallel,” Gaddes said, “and he was a magnet for them.”
It also is a clear and courageous expression of his beliefs about the opera business and its management.
“I initiated this move a few years ago,” he said in a telephone call Monday from New York, where he was attending auditions. He said friends and colleagues of long standing were changing roles or moving on, but the more compelling factor was his belief, “You have to hand the business over to younger people. You have to make room for people who are moving up, and to provide the space and the opportunities for growth and change.”
Lord said he sees his move a way of expressing gratitude to Opera Theatre. "The reason I’m doing this is for an institution that has been so great to me.”
General Director Timothy O’Leary didn’t want Lord to go. “But I am really happy that Stephen and I were able to figure out an evolution, that with the emeritus title we will keep him deeply involved with Opera Theatre as he gains increased flexibility as he continues to build his own career.
“What makes him such a great colleague is the same that make such a great human being -- his understanding and knowledge of opera is enormously deep, but so is his great understanding of all the characters that he brings to life in his music making,” O'Leary said. ”And likewise his understanding of the artists as human beings has made him so gifted and inspiring. He has the ability to communicate and to pass along knowledge in a magical way.”
Lord, whose permanent residence is Bolton, Mass., has a raft of admirers. One is St. Louis Symphony Orchestra cellist Anne Fagerberg, who met Lord when she was an undergraduate at Oberlin College and he an upperclassman. They reconnected when they encountered each other again at Opera Theatre. "The first time I met him he was Bunthorne in ‘Patience,’ one of the Gilbert and Sullivan shows produced at Oberlin annually. "He was fabulous."
When they reconnected, "He remembered me after all those years. He is a delight, personally and musically, and such a kind and caring individual he makes everyone feel loved. That is a gift."
Another artist whom Lord affected profoundly is Christine Brewer, today an internationally famous soprano, but when Lord first came to town she was a member of the chorus. Lord was her coach.
“I loved the work we did together and I learned so much from Stephen. We also did a big recital together at the Sheldon … that may go down in history as the longest recital I ever sang. I think the first half was over an hour long! And then came the memorable “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Stephen conducting the brilliant Nic Muni production that was pretty controversial in the staging.” The audience saw the whole production as if it were being performed from backstage.
“I will never forget that experience and Stephen, the coach and mentor, now as the conductor, helped to guide me along."
For his part, his years with Opera Theatre have been remarkable. Asked for five highlights, he mentioned these musical moments:
1 and 2: In 1982, the company produced John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” in an apple shed in Clarksville, Mo. For Lord, the company and its audiences, it was one of the most affecting experiences in any theater, anywhere. Number 2 was similarly extraordinary – a production of Benjamin Britten’s ”Parable for Church Performance, The Prodigal Son,” presented at Christ Church Cathedral downtown in 1987.
3. "'Sweeney Todd’ meant a lot to me.” Lord conducted Opera Theatre’s profoundly moving production of Stephen Sondheim’s work in 2012.
4. Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (1991) was conducted by Lord and was “a very special production,” he said.
5. Et cetera: “There was the night when I was head of music staff and we couldn’t find our Sparafucile for ‘Rigoletto.’” Lord was told to scour the bars and “to drag him back.” Lord failed to find him but the bad guy turned up in the theater.
It's all part of the job and gives "emeritus" actual meaning.