Viswa Subbaraman

Opera and Orchestra Conductor


It has been an interesting few weeks. I'm writing this while in Rennes, but I'll devote more time in future blogs to my week conducting in France. I the past few weeks, I closed up my time in Houston, packed up the apartment, and drove the cats to Milwaukee. The move was a completely nightmare (especially if you were to ask Milton Cat). I wanted to write a blog about my time in Houston, but I think it took a few weeks away to be able to sit down and think about it clearly. In many ways, I've called those seven years my crucible. I think that's a fair assessment, but it was also an amazing time. While in Houston I made some amazing friends. There are so many to name. I'm not sure that without Rene Salazar, Joe Carl White, Anne White, Jerome Istin, Scott Sullivan, Natalie Istin, Rick Pal, Tanya Pal, Jeanne Morrissette... Ok.. you get my point. My life would not have been as vibrant without them. (I'm sure there are many people such as Vernon McDonald, Alex Lawler, and oh so many others who are wondering why I didn't name them, but I think I could fill a number of blogs with names of people who were instrumental in my life in Houston). I don't know what the future holds and how often I'll get to see them, but without the people who were in and out of my life during the past few years, I would not be the person I am now.

I got to Houston and stayed because I started an opera company, and I met someone. By the end of my time there, I had lost both, but I had gained so much in return. Opera Vista did 7 world premieres in the time we ran the company. We performed Powder Her Face and received a review in Opera Magazine that I swear I didn't write myself, but it sure seemed that way. I served on steering committees for Houston Young Professionals for the Arts and Asia Society's Young Professionals. I was invited to be a young leader at the Asia Society summit in Jakarta. I spoke at Indiaspora, which in turn lead to an invite to the White House!

In the end, I cried as we pulled out of Houston with 2 cats in carriers and the MINI Cooper filled to the roof with stuff - not because of the crucible it had been but because of the amazing regeneration of the past few years. As we were leaving, I glanced at my Facebook and message after message from friends talking about how sad they were I was leaving popped up, and as my dad said once, "the way I always knew you were an ok person was that you have incredibly high quality friends." He's 100% right, and so many of them are in Houston. I can't thank you all enough for supporting me and supporting Opera Vista. It was an amazing 7 years of my life, and I'm excited about the new adventures we'll have at the Skylight and in Milwaukee, but Houston is always going to have a soft spot in my heart.

I am a lucky guy - in the past month, I'll have been in 3 of my favorite places in the world: Houston, Milwaukee, and Paris. Who could ask for anything more? (Waiting to see who the first person is who comments with "Toyota.")

Building a TEDx Talk (Part 2)

I've always admired leaders who inspire and allow the people around them to do their jobs without micromanaging. I think it allows for people to do their best work. No leader wants to be a tyrant or a dictator.

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Inauguration Weekend (Part 4) revised to NYC (Part 2)

Another amazing day! I probably couldn't live in NYC permanently. It's only Tuesday, and I feel like I've done more in 2 days than I have in the past month. I actually caught up on sleep this AM, so see - Viswa does sleep. I then walked to the Century Club where I met with Daron Hagen. Daron has been a huge influence on me. I had the pleasure of conducting "Vera of Las Vegas" with Opera Vista, and Daron served on many a jury for the Vista Competition. I think he probably has forgotten more about musical theater and opera than I know! I met him at the beautiful Century Club for lunch. The lunch lasted many many hours. Talking with Daron is inspiring, educational, humbling, joyful, and collegial all at the same time. We discussed ideas for future collaboration, but more than anything - we are just good friends.

From there I killed some time over tea with Clara Yang and talked about conducting. I also had a nice conversation about a potential collaboration with Raghava KK. (If you don't know him, look up his TED talks). We then headed off to the Manhattan School of music for another round of Masur masterclasses. Seeing him coach the 2nd movement of the Eroica was enlightening and inspiring. At the break I met him back stage and caught up on old stories and life in general. He is still one of the most inspiring people I know.

Inauguration Weekend (Part 3)

I'm not even 100% sure how to describe this day. It was seriously one of those days that can only happen in New York. I woke up this morning late - my alarm didn't go off. Odd how that happens when you put it on silent. It silently rang. I rushed, and I somehow made it to the Manhattan School early. Not sure exactly what time warp allowed that to happen. It was day 1 of the Masur seminar at the Manhattan School. You devoted readers know that I worked with Maestro Masur for a bit over 3 years as an assistant conductor of the Orchestre National de France. In many ways, he gave me my first shot. My actual "legitimacy" in the field. I'll write about that experience another day.

I think in so many ways, Maestro Masur have me permission to be the musician that I am. I think of music very conceptually and emotionally. That is exactly how KM (Kurt Masur) rehearses. He is like a musical father-figure to me. When I was his assistant, it was like a dream come true. (If you don't know KM'a story, you should google him).

I left Paris about 6.5 years ago to start an opera company in Houston. I have felt like I didn't have anything to really show him that is faith in me was justified. I felt like I never lived up to his ideas of where I could be. Now, I'm the Artistic Director of the Skylight. Stephen Wadsworth's and Francesca Zambello's company. (As everyone in New York keeps reminding me). If you've sen pictures of the theater, you will understand this next comment. I finally had a reason to return and see him.

I almost teared up when he recognized me and smiled and asked me where I had been. I started showing him pictures of the Skylight and he smiled more, and we started talking about repertoire. It is amazing when you see a mentor after a long time and get to show off what you accomplished because of their training. It is amazing when you realize how much that one smile means to you. I hope I keep living up to it. I wish I hadn't waited so long to go back.

I left the master class and went to lunch with the talented Chicago-based conductor, Daniel Black. From there it was off to a meeting with Marc Scorca at Opera America. Opera America is doing excellent advocacy work for opera companies across the US, and Marc is the energetic leader of it. I left the meeting inspired.

From there I met with Robert Guilder who asked me to listen to some of his singers for the Skylight. He also offered me tickets to Comte Ory at the Met. Miraculously I was at the Met tonight. Pretty Yende brought the house down! What an incredible feat of singing. She is a beautiful talent. Somehow I ended up in the dressing rooms meeting her and Juan Diego Flores.

From there it was to a friend of Robert Guilder's we went. I met the soon to be opera company founder Edwin Cahill. We were then invited to a performance of the interesting (but perhaps a bit too soon for Milwaukee) group The Skivvies. I encourage you to google The Skivvies NYC if you aren't faint hearted. They were delightfully entertaining. It ended up being that they are Broadway stars. Perhaps you will see some of them at the Skylight? A good portion of the second half of my day was absolutely not planned. NYC is truly great, non?

Inauguration Weekend (Part 2)

Wow. What a day! Yesterday was the Indiaspora Inaugural Ball. I met my friend Bill Morris in the afternoon for lunch. I hadn't seen him in years. It was nice catching up with a wonderful musician. I headed back to Mike Votta's with the distinct goal of taking a nap. It didn't happen, so I threw my tux on. (And successfully tied my white bow tie all on my own. I haven't been wearing bow ties much. Even when I conduct I tend to wear a longer tie.) I then walked to the metro in my tux. (My skinny tux!) I can't quite explain how many weird looks I got from people because I was wearing a tux on the metro. DC doesn't seem to have the same tolerance for the bizarre as NYC.

As I got off the metro at L'Enfant Plaza, I realized I was turned around and had no clue exactly which direction I was aimed. Who knew the compass and map app in combo would be so useful? I walked over to the Mandarin Oriental where I was going to meet Peggy DeAnda for a drink before the Ball. It's not often one gets to meet friends from Big Spring in DC. I then took my ticket and walked in.

Little did I know what to expect! It was amazing! They had a red carpet with an Indiaspora background. There were photographers and reporters. I was behind Congressman Ami Bera. I think there was a bit of a let down as I walked down the red carpet. The reporters weren't sure who I was. I'm a bit curious what the photo of me on the red carpet looks like. (Especially since I could take up the whole frame since I wasn't sharing my moment in the limelight with a date or anything - perhaps something to work on in the future?)

As I walked in, I spotted MR Rangaswami and went up to say hello. He introduced me to a few people as an opera conductor, which usually sparks some need for explanation as to how an Indian kid ended up in orchestra and opera. After feeling like I was talking about myself too much, I asked the gentleman what he did. He replied, "I'm actually a congressman." (My inner monologue at that moment was "D'oh!"). So I had a nice conversation with Congressman Honda from Silicon Valley. I then turned around and was introduced to Dr. Ami Bera. Congressman Bera! That was pretty neat. He has a great sense of humor.

The night seemed to be one amazing person after the next. Many great Indiaspora friends. I could spend the next 2 pages naming them all, but I have come to really treasure the opportunity to spend time with them and hear their amazing stories. There are so many people doing some great work.

I then turned around and was introduced to Ambassador Nirupama Rao, the ambassador from India! When she heard I was an opera conductor she said, "my favorite opera is *****." My jaw dropped! What were the odds that ***** was the very opera we were contemplating opening the Skylight season with? (I'm forced to edit because the season hasn't been announced, and we really like suspense. We do create drama after all). So then I told her who we had directing, and she said, "***** is such an interesting choice! It sounds like I should come see this production." Here is hoping Milwaukee hosts the Ambassador from India on September 20th. Madame Ambassador, you have an open invitation. (As an aside, it was very cool that she retweeted the picture of us from the ball! Then I saw on her twitter feeds that she had a picture with Zubin Mehta and a picture with me!!! Talk about feeling very cool for 30 seconds…. Now if only I was invited to conduct in Berlin and Vienna. Hint hint).

Later that night I ran into Maneet Chauhan from the Chopped series on the Food network. She asked me how the food was and I realized I hadn't had time to eat. She smiled and walked me back to the kitchen, and we talked for about 30 minutes over some amazing Indian food. A quick plug - Maneet has a new cookbook coming out! you should all look forward to buying it! I asked her about Red Rooster in NYC. (Marcus Samuelsson's restaurant). It looks like I might be going there with Maneet sometime this week. Talk about ridiculous! Going to an amazing chef's restaurant with another amazing chef!

I honestly can't say what the night was like. I was blown away by meeting so many incredible people. The credit has to go to MR Rangaswami. The work he put in to create an event like this is truly monumental. I think Indiaspora is going to blossom into an important place for the exchange of great ideas. I feel honored and humbled to be part of the family!

Inauguration Weekend (Part 1)

So an interesting trip is beginning. (I know it seems as though I just got home from one). I'm in DC now, and I'll be in NYC for a week starting on Sunday. I was invited to Indiaspora's Inaugural Ball. As I've talked about in the past, Indiaspora is an organization that I think is becoming extremely interesting. When I attended the summit, I honestly did not think it would blossom like this. Partly because a good number of us from Indiaspora are keeping in touch, and the founder, MR Rangaswami, has done a lot to keep everyone involved. The inaugural ball is tonight, and I'm excited I fit in my skinny tux for it. Thank you Crossfit. I arrived on Thursday, however, and have spent the past two days with my very first conducting teacher Mike Votta. When I was at Duke, I was premed like all good Indian kids, but I kept realizing that the place I was happiest was in the music building. It was during the Wind Symphony's residence in Vienna when I decided (over mediocre Mexican food) while talking to Mike that maybe I should jump in the music (conducting) pool.

I don't think he quite knew what he was getting into. It was during that trip that I saw my first professional orchestra concert - the Vienna Philharmonic - in the Musikverein. Claudio Abbado conducted. It's been downhill ever since. I really knew very little about music. (Mike has many an embarrassing story about that, and I'm praying he keeps them quiet. Though the number of people he's already told…)

It has been good catching up. I'm so happy that he's at a program where he really enjoys his life. It's also interesting to be able to talk about music and conducting on a different plane. No matter how old I get, I always learn when I talk to Mike. Tonight is the inaugural ball. Next week I get to see Maestro Masur after a number of years. Reunions abound.

Viswa- Asia Tour 2012 (Part 5 Finale)

One further snake anecdote from my last blog:This trip has me thinking about family. I can't believe I forgot this story when taking about Sankari. It was, in fact, the firs place I ever saw a live cobra in the wild, but it was also the place where I saw a live cobra in a house. This was when my grandmother was still alive (my father's mother). My grandmother and her sister-in-law (my grand aunt?) were cooking in the kitchen. We were in the living room reading or something. In India - especially at that time but even now - doors were kept wide open to allow for air circulation in the heat. Suddenly we saw this black streak go across the floor and head to the kitchen. Evidently it was a cobra that went into the kitchen and did a figure 8 around my grand aunt's legs and disappeared into the pots and pans. My grandmother walked out of the kitchen as if she were announcing it was dinner time. She looks at us and says (completely dead-panned), "there is a snake in the kitchen." I would have been screaming and running around as if I were a character in Airplane!.

The past 2 days in Madras were relatively uneventful. I got to spend some time with my grandparents (the big reason for my trip to India), one of my aunts, and some of my cousins. There was a rather funny incident on the way to the airport, however. I had arranged a taxi to the airport and was waiting at my grandparents' place with my cousin and her husband. We suddenly get a phone call 10 minutes before I was to be picked up. The taxi driver was calling to ask how to find our neighborhood! It doesn't give you much confidence when the taxi driver doesn't know how to find the place to even pick you up! He swore he knew the way to the airport, and luckily he did know his way to the airport, but while on the way there, he ended up getting in an argument with a driver of a truck that was passing us. They literally were yelling at each other through open windows and threatened to pull over, so they could start fighting. Ummmm… really? He then pulled into a gas station - I swear I thought I'd never make my flight.

I flew into Singapore and jumped into a taxi to meet Darrell Ang for dinner. I've known Darrell for years, and he is an incredibly talented conductor. It is funny that 2 years ago, I basically did the same trip and had Christmas dinner with the Angs. I think they are beginning to think I only drop in for dinner at the holidays. It was then a 24 hour flight via Moscow back to Houston. It was great to be home and to see the cats. They haven't left my side since I got home!

Viswa - Asia Tour 2012 (Part 4)

So on December 23, I flew back to Mumbai to take a morning meeting on the 24th with Shyam Benegal and Raghava KK. It was a quick trip north. I went from the meeting back to the airport and flew from Mumbai to Coimbatore. My uncle met me at the Coimbatore airport and we jumped on a bus to Salem. (These aren't necessarily famous Indian cities, which should give you an idea of where all I'm traveling). I was wrong about the taxis Indian cities showing us that miracles exist. It's regional buses in BFE India that prove miracles exist. This Coimbatore to Salem bus is an education. (I'm typing this on my phone while on the bus). Indians take using their horns to a whole new level. There is not a driving instant that doesn't seem to be made just a bit better by slamming on the horn. This bus driver could be measured by when he is NOT hitting the horn. It would be easier to calculate.

So, I got on the bus and there is a speaker literally tied to a luggage rack with jute rope that is playing the best of Indian film music from the 70s and well… 70s. I think I recognize the music from my parents' playlist. Even then there are guys with their headphones in playing their music loud enough to where I can hear it clearly. On top of that we have 2 people who decided to forgo the entire pretense of headphones. Between the multitude of music and the car horn, I feel like had Ives been Indian, he would have been proud.

Then we have the drunk guy at the back door of the bus who asked everyone to move, proceeded to take his sandals, use them as pillows, lie down in the aisle and go to sleep. Unfortunately, as the bus got more full, he kept getting accidentally stepped on. He would wake up and yell at the guy who stepped on him, roll over and go back to sleep.

We reached Sankari. I hadn't been to Sankari in over 15 years. My uncle had been the head of marketing (after working his way up through the ranks) at the India Cements factory. We used to go there every other summer. When we first started going, there wasn't even a train station. The train would slow down in the middle of these sugar cane fields, and we would literally jump off a moving train. A lot has changed, but much around the factory has stayed the same. (Though now it is my cousin who works there as my uncle is retired). My cousin, by the way, is sporting a seriously Tamil Cinema mustache.

The next day, we jumped back on a bus and headed to Salem to see my aunt, uncle, and another cousin. It was a nice trip to Salem, though the mosquitos are still ridiculous. I think you could hit them with a baseball bat and they might even fight back. That night it was back on the bus to Sankari. I was able to spend the day hanging out with my "nieces" (my cousin's daughters), then it was off to the night train to Chennai.

I used to love taking these night trains, but of course, much like the discussions of the snake infestations in Sankari freaked me out, the discussions of people in the AC cars being robbed freaked me out. Also, supposedly the blankets they hand you for the journey can at times be infested with insects. (I used to have such a sense of adventure - I feel like stories like these and the fact that they freak me out are showing me that I'm getting soft. Though I'll elaborate on the snake story in a second and that may vindicate me).

I made it to Madras at 5:30 AM and proceeded to make my way to the prepaid autorikshaw stand. (In India, be sure to use as many prepaid autos and taxis as possible. They really do work on hosing you - I speak Tamil and STILL got hosed). As I was walking to the prepaid stand, I was accosted by the usual auto drivers who were trying to get me to use their vehicles. My favorite was the guy who said he would take me to my destination for Rs. 150. He was saving me money because the prepaid asked for a fee. Yeah - the prepaid fee is 3 rupees and the prepaid fee was Rs. 111. Ironically the guy who took me only had a 10 Rupee note to be able to make change, and I ended up having to pay him Rs. 140. Oh well. They always find a way to cheat you.

So the snake story - the first place I ever saw a cobra in the wild was at the India Cements compound when I was younger, so I know there are snakes on the grounds. My aunt tells me that they recently brought snake handlers in to clear the grounds and caught around 40 dangerous snakes. Great. That inspires confidence. Well, a day before I got there, a poisonous snake was captured on top of someone's bureau in their house and its mate was caught in a suitcase near by. This was AFTER the big snake hunt. Then while we were in Salem, a snake fell on my cousin's wife while she was in the car port. Anyone else hearing Samuel L. Jackson's voice?

Viswa - Asia Tour 2012 (Part 3)

So, I was supposed to land in Chennai (Madras) at 0:30AM. Unfortunately, the flight left Bangkok almost an hour late, so we didn't land in Chennai until 1:30AM. As I said in my previous blog, I wasn't 100% sure they would let me back in India. There had been a law ok the books (until 2 weeks before I arrived that said you had to have 2 months between visits). I knew the law had been repealed, but I didn't know of the people at immigration knew it was repealed. It is India, after all. Unfortunately with the delay, 3 flights all landed at the same time, so the line in immigration was a mess. I do have to admit, however, that the airport renovations are looking nicer. I just wish they had used the opportunity to reorganize a bit. Maybe that's still in the cards? I finally made the front of the line. The guy looked at me and asked if I spoke Tamil? I said yes. He stamped my passport and said, "not bad." He let me right through. Then came baggage claim. I can never get used to the sheer difference in personal space in India - there is none. Plus people just push their way to the front even if you're standing there. Maybe it's my Duke background, but there should be something to beating the other person to the spot. By the time I got my bags and made it to my aunt's place, it was 3 AM.

It was an interesting taxi ride at 2AM. Madras has changed. Overall the roads seem cleaner and there are some nicer buildings. It is nice to see the move in the right direction. Of course that does not do much for the incredible amount of poverty in this country. (Mumbai is perhaps a more glaring example where you see Aston Martin dealerships juxtaposed against some of the largest slums in the world.)

There is still a long way to go, but it is nice to see some improvements on the horizon. It's always amazing to me that Madras seems like a brand new city each time I come back. There's a sad side to that as well. Some of the beautiful houses in Abhiramapuram are gone in favor of huge apartment complexes. It feels more and more like a "big city". Much of that Indian-ness is falling by the wayside. The temples are suddenly crowded by buildings and people, etc.. But, that is often the price of progress. Man, I sound old.

Viswa - Asia Tour 2012 (Part 2)

I arrived in Bangkok at 5:30AM. The plan was that I would meet my parents at baggage claim when their flight arrived at 6:30AM, and we would then take the hotel "limo" to the Rembrandt. Sometimes the best plans…. About 2 hours after their flight landed I was still walking around baggage claim with no idea where they were. Like all good kids, I had assumed my parents had ignored my thoughtful instructions. I went up to the information desk and asked if they could page my parents, but evidently my English wasn't sufficient, and my Thai is non-existent. It was about that point where I thought I should head to the hotel and try to figure it out from there. Luckily, I walked by the baggage carousel one more time and a suitcase stuck out. My dad has a penchant for sticking multiple return address stickers on his suitcase. (You know the ones they send you in the mail for "free" if you make a donation to some cause?) I noticed one suitcase that looked like a 3rd grade girl had attacked it after receiving a birthday present of stickers, so I knew my parents were still in the airport. I finally come to find out that they had been sent to get a visa because the Thai Airlines folks had assumed they were Indian citizens. They stood in line for almost 2 hours only to find out that as Americans thy don't need a visa and should just stand in the immigration line.

We proceeded to spend the next 2 days sightseeing. We saw the reclining Buddha statue at Wot Pho one day. The next day, my dad and I were measured for suits. (I highly recommend St. Marco tailors at 1 Sukhumvit Soi 15.) We then headed down to the Grand Palace. It was the second time I saw the Grand Palace, and I have to admit that it doesn't get old. It's truly beautiful. (You can see pictures on my website.)

The next day I met up with Somtow Sucharitkul, the director of Opera Siam. We discussed some cool ideas (still under wraps) that could be very neat for both Opera Siam and The Skylight. That evening, I saw a rehearsal of the Siam Sinfonietta - a youth orchestra. I was energized by the level of excitement those kids brought to their playing!

The next morning was the craziest brunch ever. I ate enough for 10 men. We had brunch at the Grand Kempinski, and I have to say that it was magnificent. From there I walked to pick up my suits. Picked up my bags from the hotel and headed to the airport. This is where I got lucky. Unbeknownst to me - because I had forgotten - one is not allowed to re-enter India on a multiple entry visa until 2 months after the initial entry. If you remember, I was in India just before Bangkok. Luckily that 2 month law was repealed 2 weeks before!!! I made it back to India with no problems.

Viswa - Asia Tour 2012 (Part 1)

I really have meant to write more, but the travel schedule has left me exhausted. I left Houston on December 6 and landed in Singapore on Dec 8. (By way of Moscow). Upon landing, the composer John Sharpley was kind enough to lend me his spare bedroom to recover from my 22 hour flight. It was wonderful to be able to see him. I then took the metro into Singapore for a couple of meetings. (I'll let you know with whom should they come to fruition.) That night I jumped on a plane to Mumbai. For those of you who don't believe in miracles, I highly recommend riding in an Indian Taxi. It's miraculous that there aren't more accidents than already happen. As my aunt said, "it's best to get in the taxi and close your eyes until it arrives at your destination."

I stayed at my cousin's place and spent some time with my 92-year old uncle. (One day!) The next day was off and running - I met an Indian tenor, Amar Mucchala in Bandra and then headed into Mumbai. I stopped by the NCPA and said hello to my old friend Khushroo Suntook and finally ended up meeting my brother's boss from his time at PUKAR for dinner.

The next day started with a meeting with the famous Mumbai filmmaker (Bollywood for you Americans), Shyam Benegal. It was a true delight to meet with him. We had a great meeting and discussion about a variety of subjects. (Again, if it comes to fruition, I'll fill you in!) I did a good bit of walking around Nariman point and then headed off to the Taj Lands End to meet another director - Feroz Abbas Khan. We talked about theatre and art for a few hours then it was off to a private screening of his new film. The film was really wonderful. I look forward to seeing it again when it makes the international circuit as I have no doubt it will. I had one more day in Mumbai with the family then it was off to Bangkok to meet my parents and Somtow Sucharitkul.

Mr. Subbaraman Goes to Washington (Part 2)

After slogging away and sacrificing to build Opera Vista with no sense of where my life was going, my father’s son was invited to the White House. How can you put those feelings in words? I feel about as blessed as one person could feel.

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Mr. Subbaraman Goes to Washington (Part 1)

I kept thinking that my father had landed in the US in the early 1970s with $7 in his pocket, and his son was going to the White House. (It seems that EVERY Indian came with $7 in their pocket back in the day. I used to think it was a tall tale, but it was actually confirmed by my grandmother before she passed away).

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Building a TEDx Talk

As I was putting the talk together, I kept coming up with a variety of ways to begin. The first was a rather professional look at leadership styles. The second was to actually talk about what spawned my way of thinking about leadership as I go forward.

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