Mee-may-my– Oh! Hello you darling people! I’m doing vocalises because today’s Guest Star is an Opera Stage Director at none other than New York City’s Metropolitan Opera!! You heard that right, The MET!! He’s assisted and directed over 25 productions in 14 years! Yeeeeeee-Haaaaaawww (That’s a vocalise I learned in the deep south, clears sinuses and ear canals)
He’s also worked at Juilliard, the Salzburg Festival, Bregenz Festival, Berlin Staatsoper, Covent Garden, MET tour of Japan, Santa Fe Opera, Banff Festival, the LA Opera, the San Diego Opera, Israeli Opera, and soon to be in Montreal working on the MET’s highly anticipated new Ring Cycle, said to be a “wizardly high-tech version” celebrating Wagner’s 200th anniversary.
This is it – my BIG BREAK!! OK, I haven’t sung professionally – or unprofessionally–since I had my daughter twelve years ago, but I’m sure it’s like riding a bike. Only with your mouth. (nervous high pitched laugh)
I shall remain composed, up-right, and speak only with pure, open vowels. (adjusts ball gown) Here he comes!
Kristi: (deep curtsy to floor) Welcome, Maestro, to my humble blog.
Knighten Smit: (picks gigantic camellia off floor) I believe this fell from your …em… big hair?
Kristi: (elegant arm gesture) How kind.
Knighten Smit: Your hand’s cold… I hope you’re not nervous?
Kristi: I’m a real ‘Che gelida manina’, Maestro! My sweaty palms keep my hands nice and cold.
Knighten Smit: (wipes his hand on jeans) “Maestro” is for orchestra conductors and chorus masters. I’m a stage director. So you can call me “Your Highness”.
Kristi: Of course, what was I thinking, Your High–
Knighten Smit: I’m kidding.
Kristi: I knew that. (shrill laughter, then sings) Won’t you sit doooooown?
Knighten Smit: (blank expression) Oh. I get it. You’re making fun of opera singers by singing terribly. How clever and unique…
Kristi: (stops singing) Making fun? No, not at all, I used to sing oper–
Knighten Smit: (smiles towards grand piano)Your pianist isn’t bad, though.
Pianist: (beams thanks, continues playing arpeggios up and down keyboard)
Kristi: (Diva stance, arm in air) How loooooong have you direeeeeeeeeeeeeec-ted?
Knighten Smit: Good Lord, enough, didn’t that gag go out with the Marx Brothers?
Pianist: (agreeing eye roll, plays “Miserere” from Il Trovatore)
Kristi: (stage whisper) Just answer the question.
Knighten Smit: I’ve been an opera director for 18 years, working at the MET for 14.
Kristi: (sweeps to yon balcony, deep diaphragmatic breath) Wh–
Knighten Smit: STOP– I can’t take it!
Kristi: Me either! (shouts) Where the hell’s my follow spot?
Kristi: No, no–please don’t go!
Pianist: (snickers, plays “Addio del passato” from La Traviata)
Kristi: (crosses to pianist, slams down lid) Laugh, clown, laugh!
Pianist: (exits stage left with director’s phone number, peels of laughter from wings)
Kristi: And I was about to have my big moment.
Knighten Smit: Look, it used to be about the music, but now it’s rare that an “opera moment” makes me pause.
Kristi: You mean I made you pause?
Knighten Smit: Like a heart attack.
Kristi: (glowing) So tell me what drew you to directing?
Knighten Smit: (sits back down) I like the collaborative essence of the art form. That’s what took me away from the solidarity of practicing scales at the piano – the combination of Music/Theater/Art/Drama/Voice. I like that the work is sporadic: busy rehearsals, more relaxed during performances, weeks off between productions.
Kristi: Is it exciting to travel all over the world?
Knighten Smit: The travel is nice, though I’ve made something of a lifestyle choice not to bop around too much. New York is my home, and in my profession working in your hometown is an intoxicating luxury. A nice trip or two a year is enough.
Kristi: Do you have any favourite performances, other than mine just now?
Knighten Smit: You mean “those opera moments” that are fantastic and cannot be compared to anything except…well, you know?
Kristi: Except what?
Knighten Smit: I’d say it but I don’t want you to get any of those “for a hot time…” bots trolling your site.
Kristi: (lifts eyebrow) Are you implying people don’t have a hot time on HowDidYouGetThere?
Knighten Smit: OK, it starts with an “s” and ends with an “x”.
Kristi: Oh - SAX!
Knighten Smit: (winks) Right. Let’s see… great opera moments in my career? Well, in no particular order:
1) Hei-Kyung Hong‘s Liu from TURANDOT — beauty of voice, dignity of character, understanding of leveled emotion — Wow.
2) Karita Mattila final scene from JENUFA. An opera about compromised, adult love — with a bitter-sweet ending.
3) Watching Jimmy Levine and Placido Domingo work through the Flower Song from CARMEN in a rehearsal room (five feet away from me) when only, say, four years earlier I was standing in line at the Vienna Staatsopera for hours to hear Domingo in standing room. Of course, fast forward less than a year later and I’m eating a cheese burger in the booth while Domingo’s singing away. Since then I’ve worked with all of the “Three Tenors” but that’s a story, or series of stories for another time.
4) Sharon Sweet singing Turandot in a room. She never made it to the stage, herniated disc. She wanted to sing sitting on a stool. Volpe said no. But in the room, absolutely glorious — full, round, rich sound, never screaming as can happen in that role.
Knighten Smit (con’t): SAX is SAX, opera is opera and never the twain should meet. I have had more great SAX than great opera moments — Thank Bacchas!
When the reverse is true you get opera queens. I’ve broken up with exes whom I’ve realized didn’t understand the difference.
Kristi: An opera director who plays saxophone– How cool are you?!
Knighten Smit: (confused) I play piano.
Kristi: Right, saxophone AND piano.
Knighten Smit: No. I’ve never played the saxophone. I got my Bachelors’ degree in Piano Performance, followed by a Master’s in Musicology.
Kristi: So your training in musicology, piano performance and great sax paved the way musically. How did your innate qualities add to your success?
Knighten Smit: Well, I have never had qualms speaking/directing in front of crowds, probably due to speech and forensics in high school. I’m pretty personable… humour helps.
Kristi: Did you hear the one about the–
Knighten Smit: –and I’m quite organized on the job. I’ve the skill set of a type A personality, but am a definite type B.
Kristi: Gets along well with Divas – check! Any interesting jobs prior to stage directing?
Knighten Smit: I waited on tables for a good decade, through college, grad school, and bartended while figuring out how to get on the career ladder.
Kristi: You’re a shrink, too? Bet that comes in handy with the Tenors.
Knighten Smit: Moved to New York and worked, non-paid, at the amazing Amato Opera while I…. waited tables. Got a gig at Juilliard, as an Assistant Administrator at Vocal Arts—glorified secretary—so I could Assistant Direct with Frank Corsaro and others. I left Juilliard to work at Santa Fe for the summer, but returned to no job, so I … waited tables again.
Kristi: I guess cash flow and experience don’t always go hand in hand.
Knighten Smit: No, but it was a good year, met folk that are still the closest to me. Got the MET contract–too soon–but I proved myself.
Kristi: Too soon? I thought Younger was always Better in the arts!
Knighten Smit: Only in the minds of TV producers and internet hackers. The rest of the world demands experience.
Kristi: I see.
Knighten Smit: So I had a short-ish MET contract the 1st time, the most humbling thing having to return to waiting tables after my first year. It took all my self-restraint—which I famously lack—not to throw hot pea soup on laps or stretched faces of upper East side women. It’s now been a healthy 13 years since waiting tables, so far so good, but NEVER to be taken for granted.
Kristi: How did you get your first shot?
Knighten Smit: Luck. I worked with a director at Santa Fe Opera Festival and at the end of the summer I had a please-give-me-advice-lunch with him. He, at the time, worked often at the MET and advised me to apply, said he’d give a good word.
Kristi: You must’ve been over the moon!
Knighten Smit: Actually I was thinking, “What? Too soon, I was looking for this in five years!” but my colleague suggested “Just meet with the Executive Stage Director. What harm would it do?” so I thought “I’ll scrap together a resume and FABRICATE!!”
Kristi: Lying is highly under rated.
Knighten Smit: (winces) I don’t recommend it. Several years later I needed a C.V., found my file, saw my first resume for the MET and literally said: “Wow, I would never have hired me!” My boss heard me and said, “I hired you in a safety position. If you failed, no harm done, I had enough back up. If you passed muster I’d consider hiring you again.” In short, no ego = no ego.
Kristi:Any otherprevious employment you’d like to share?
Knighten Smit: I taught business English after studying at the Vienna Hochschule — where I learned German, got the opera bug (DAMMIT!!) and drank. Favourite teaching day: my students brought food and booze, and I brought a video of MOONSTRUCK. Picture a Dutch Calvinist–my father was a missionary–with a bunch of Austrian Business Folk explaining Brooklyn Italian Catholics.
Kristi: (head still spinning) And lastly, any life lessons you’d like to leave us with, preferably ones that don’t involve dying romantically of tuberculosis?
Knighten Smit: If I wanted to get all Oprah on you, I’d talk about the definition of luck. Opportunity + preparation = Luck. Right? Well, I wasn’t so prepared. I’m just damn good on my feet — an innate talent I use to this day, not to mention still good on my SAX.
Kristi: But I thought you said–
Knighten Smit: Gotta go!
Kristi: (Hops to feet, Diva stance) Thank You, Knighten for Plaaaaaaaaaaaying!! (falls dramatically to floor after high note, dead)
And now, for your listening and viewing pleasure…a few opera moments!
Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon (Oo-la-la) “Sempre libera” La Traviata by Verdi, Salzburg 2005
The GOD-like Placido Domingo and Monserrat Caballe ”O soave fanciulla” La Bohème by Puccini
Maria Callas, “Una voce poco fa” Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini, 1958 Paris
For you Wagner fans: Hildegard Behrens as Brünnhilde and Jessye Norman as Sieglinde in Walküre by Wagner
And Kristi’s favourite transcendant moment…pull out the kleenexs for Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier performed at the James Levine Anniversary Celebration by Renee Fleming, Anne Sophie von Otter and Heidi Grant Murphy
To end on a comic note — here’s a how a baritone enters the room…at least in Rossini’s Cenerentola!