When did you start playing an instrument?
I was seven when I started piano lessons.
I started to lead some musical theatre productions from the piano with a four-person combo when I was 14, also preparing the vocal soloists and choruses for those shows as well. Then graduated to conducting musicals in local amateur theatre and in high school when I was 16.
Why did you start playing?
In kindergarten, we would have sing-around-the-piano time every day, and I was completely transfixed by the sounds coming out of those white and black ‘things' – I didn't know the word ‘keys' yet – the teacher would press down. So I desperately wanted to learn how to do that.
Which musicians inspired you most when you were young?
I think I was about 11 or 12 when a documentary about Vladimir Horowitz came on TV. We had no classical music in my home, nor was there any interest in it, so TV and school were the only places I learned of anything in my small town in the south of Indiana in the middle of America. So this was a watershed moment for me.
I had no idea of what kind of goal or possibilities there were in music beyond what I knew in my small town before this… which meant being a school music teacher or amateur theatre musician. I didn't know people went around and played the piano for a living and the orchestras played concerts as a job etc etc. All of a sudden, I was aware that there was a world beyond anything I knew, a level of artistry beyond anything I had even remotely dreamed of.
A few years later, after working in musical theatre, I had the idea that I liked classical music and I like musical theatre – the old classic musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jerry Herman, etc – so I had an idea of opera from the occasional appearance of Beverly Sills on US talk shows, so I thought, “Well, I will probably like opera, because if you put classical music and musicals together, that's opera, right?” So I asked some teachers if they could give me guidance as to what to listen to. The first things they gave me were recordings of Leontyne Price singing arias from Trovatore, Forza del Destino, Carmen etc, then various collected hits recordings, with all the usual pieces on it. I was hooked, as we say.
Which musicians (instrumentalists or singers) do you most admire?
I mentioned Leontyne Price and Vladimir Horowitz, to them I would add a long list, but if I keep it to conductors, then I would say in my top list would be the three great Hungarians: Reiner, Szell, Solti… to them, I add of course Karajan, Böhm – particularly in live opera performances! – de Sabata, Santi.
What's your favourite piece to conduct?
Impossible to say, other than the standard artist answer: “The one I'm doing right now!” From the concert stage, of course, the Brahms and Beethoven symphonies have a special place along with, perhaps surprisingly, the works of Rachmaninov. I never have anything but an enormous thrill when conducting his music. I've done almost everything he's written for the concert stage, all the symphonies, and concertos and tone poems… truly glorious.
What piece have you never conducted but would like to?
Tristan und Isolde.
What's your favourite piece to listen to?
Probably the music of Richard Strauss… or adagios of Mozart and Beethoven.
Who is your favourite composer?
So tough to say… again, Strauss holds a special place perhaps, but maybe, minute per minute, it's Brahms… but then there's Verdi… oje!! And Rachmaninov.
Who is your favourite writer?
T C Boyle.
Who is your favourite theatre or film director?
David Lynch for film and Zeffirelli (I know he did both, but I think of Zeffirelli most often as theatre director).
Who is your favourite actor?
That is tough!!! Perhaps a three-way tie between Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, and Cary Grant.
Who is your favourite dancer?
Certainly the one I'm working with at that moment! Among those I never worked with, it is impossible to not love Baryshnikov. I believe him in everything he does as an actor long before he raises a foot.
What is your favourite book?
T C Boyle's Water Music.
What is your favourite film?
Again, a three-way tie between David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and the very different Star Trek: The Motion Picture (I grew up with their adventures on TV so this first film holds an incredibly special sentimental spot for me!) and Charade.
Which is your favourite city?
Vienna. It's the city I've spent the most time in during my adult life by far, and it literally drips music!
What do you like most about yourself?
That I have made a life in a very special art form while coming from a background very far from it. My parents owned and ran a 24 Diner for truckers in that southern Indiana town, my father went only to the 6th grade and my mother to high school. They were only able to give me the opportunity to study piano, which is a LOT, but more they could not, so I had to find it all out, discover it all on my own.
What do you dislike about yourself?
That I'm not better at what I do and get in my own way so much of the time!
What was your proudest moment?
Again, this is very tough to say… every successful performance feels like the greatest moment when it's happening. But I would say, during my ‘try-out' year at the Vienna State Opera with the ballet, when after managing two Nutcrackers, my next assignment was to conduct Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, which would be for the very first time in my life, without any rehearsal other than a couple of days with piano in the studio… and I survived!!!! At that point in my life, in that house, with that orchestra, with that work, with those soloists on stage for whom to deliver what they needed, and a full audience behind me… and the fact all deemed it a success… this really felt like an achievement! And still does 27 years later 🙂
When and where were you happiest?
Every night during a performance which is going well!
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
What is your greatest fear?
Not delivering and not realising it.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would eliminate all my bad habits!! And exercise.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
When I see old friends, who view my career in a certain way, and say after a few moments of being together: “Wow, you haven't changed, you're still the same Kevin from school!”
What is your most treasured possession?
My concert grand piano that, because I travel, I don't get to play that often!
What is your greatest extravagance?
Furniture… I love mid-century modern furniture and well, have spent a few evenings-worth of performances on my collection.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Although it's not a virtue per se, if I put that in the context of the performing art business, I'd say youth. I simply can't get interested in another child who plays some amazing performance of a concerto… or conducts it. That's great and all, but rarely is one saying, “What an amazing interpretation”.
I also find it such a shame that we don't have more ballets that feature mature performers. There are so many great stories that could be told and interpreted by some incredible artists who while at the height of their artistic maturity, are maybe not leaping as high as they used to… must that be so important? I can easily think of dozens of dancers who have retired because they ‘must' who should be on stage sharing their artistry in works and pieces tailored to their capabilities. I think we are missing out on some great theatre of ballet because we measure a bit too much perhaps only by the ability to do the most technically difficult or impressive work.
On what occasion do you lie?
I truly try not to. I cannot stand the burden of remembering a falsehood.
If you hadn't been a conductor, what would you have liked to be?
A film director.
What is your most marked characteristic?
People tell me it's energy and enthusiasm.
What quality do you most value in a friend?
Trustworthiness and truthfulness.
What quality do you most value in a colleague?
Trustworthiness and seriousness with the approach to the work
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Now THAT is interesting… I've never really thought about it… I suppose as an American, I must admire, as a group, the former slaves of the 19th century who fought for the end of that incomprehensible practice. The list of individuals is long, so I hope that will suffice.
Which living person do you most admire?
What do you most dislike?
Lies and falsehoods.
What talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could be some form of visual artist.
What's your idea of perfect happiness?
A perfectly dry, sunny day under the shade of an umbrella, by a pool, in the desert with a temperature of about 30°C, and a great bartender 🙂 …and Frank Sinatra and friends on the stereo.
How would you like to die?
Quickly and before my cognition, mobility or other physical abilities have left me.
What is your motto?
Do it, and do it as well as you can every time… you never know if it's your last opportunity.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.