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26 Opera Canada

Round about

Route Leslie Dala had a wide-ranging career in music before he decided he really wanted to be on the podium By Robin J. Miller

The musical roles of at least two of the children in the Dala

family were, they thought, pretty well set: Leslie was to be “the pianist,” while older brother Peter was already “the conductor.” Except that things haven’t quite worked out that way, and now the family boasts two conductors. Imagine the dinner discussions: over the 2010 Christmas season in Vancouver, Peter conducted Alberta Ballet’s Nutcracker, while Les handled Goh Ballet’s version. Peter Dala, currently Music Director of Alberta Ballet and a frequent guest conductor for Edmonton Opera after many years with ballet and opera companies in Europe, took the more traditional route: he studied conducting at the Royal College of Music in London. Leslie, on the other hand, never formally studied the art of conducting and took a more circuitous route that had him follow his brother as a boy chorister at St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto, while also studying piano, violin and organ. He finally settled on piano for his undergraduate degree in performance at the University of Toronto, and a Master’s degree in piano at the University of British Columbia. “I was the youngest of four kids,” says the 42-year-old, born to parents who left Hungary, separately, after the 1956 Revolution to settle in Canada. “My mother was determined that we would all study music. We

Spring 2013


“I think I am all the richer now for not starting to conduct earlier or going to school to learn conducting”

already had a conductor in the family, so I wasn’t really supposed to do that. But I couldn’t leave it unexplored. I felt I also had to be me.” And being “me” meant he had to pursue conducting. He started working in opera as a rehearsal pianist soon after he finished at UBC in the mid-1990s, but he quickly began to feel left out. “I loved playing the piano, but what I felt was that, as a rehearsal pianist, you’re not part of the final process. Performance is a whole other world that you’re just not part of and I finally could not live with that. I had done a little church conducting here and there, and I realized I had to make a decision. “I was in Vancouver looking for a way to get started, so I began auditioning for choirs and community orchestras and such like—just learning on the fly really. I did it in a very roundabout way. But I think I am all the richer now for not starting to conduct earlier or going to school to learn conducting. I experienced a lot of repertoire, made a lot of different kinds of music that I would have missed if I’d zeroed in on conducting earlier. Hopefully, that’s all banked upstairs.” Dala confesses to being perhaps a little envious of

28 Opera Canada

Photos: karen tregillas

someone like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who knew he wanted to conduct at about age eight, and now, at age 38, is among the hottest conductors in the world today. Dala and Nézet-Séguin worked together on Gounod’s Faust for Vancouver Opera in 2006, and he counts it as a great experience.As Nézet-Séguin’s assistant, however, he also saw up close the amount of pressure that was already being placed on him. “If I was in his position right now,” says Dala, “I’d be stressed, but I’d feel I could do it. I couldn’t have done it a few years ago. Conducting is a strange thing. One has to be, I think, a

really fine musician and somebody who is able to communicate and listen. With all of my experiences, of playing a number of instruments and being in the background for so long absorbing a lot of repertoire, I think I’ve got that now. I’m not sure I would have felt that way at, say, 23. I needed to work my way up.” Those different situations have included continuing as a recital pianist—“I need the tactile, too. It keeps one honest”—as well as working with the chorus atVancouver Opera and with the singers of the UBC Opera Ensemble. He also spent eight years as Music Director of the Prince George Symphony, where he had the opportunity to “program and perform a whole variety of music—new music, Baroque music, Romantic music. It gave me a great fantastic base.” And he has served on the music staff at l’Opéra National du Rhin, Santa Fe Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. Today, Dala’s positions include Music Director of theVancouver Bach Choir, Music Director of the Vancouver Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra and Associate Conductor and Chorus Director with Vancouver Opera. For VO, he has conducted West Side Story, Rigoletto, The Threepenny Opera and La bohème, besides assisting on more than 50 mainstage productions.This winter, he also made his debut with Pacific OperaVictoria conducting Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, the first-ever co-production between POV and VO (and to be mounted in the larger city next fall). It’s an opera Dala is very familiar with after conducting it with UBC Opera Ensemble in 2011, and one that he loves. “I adore the humor of it and the complexity that Britten brings. It’s highly sophisticated music.” After Victoria, he returned to Vancouver to prepare to conduct a remount ofVancouver Opera’s well-received 2007 Coast Salish-inspired Die Zauberflöte.

Other recent highlights include guest conducting engagements with Soundstreams Canada in Toronto and the Thirteen Strings of Ottawa, as well as conducting John Estacio’s Lillian Alling for the Banff Summer Festival and the Opening Night Gala for MusicFest Vancouver with Sarah McLachlan and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Dala has also worked with all the leading contemporary music ensembles inVancouver, including the Hard Rubber Orchestra and Standing Wave. Dala has also somehow found time to be husband to wife Rosalind and father to young sons Christopher and Andreas, and to work with theVancouver Bach Choir on presenting some exceptionally challenging programs. These have included both the Rachmaninoff Vespers and Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, and, a highlight of the Christmas 2012 season, the Canadian première of John Adams’ El Niño. It was a coup, Dala says, to get the rights from Adams to present the nativity opera-oratorio, but it also proved to be a much riskier endeavor than he first expected. Though called a “Messiah for the modern age” in

the choir’s publicity materials, El Niño was a hard sell at the box office. In an interview with the Globe and Mail a few days before opening, Dala said:“Tickets are moving extremely slowly, which I find terrifying.”While sales did at last pick up, audience numbers were not as high as he and the choir had hoped, and the Orpheum concert hall was less than half full. Dala does not, however, attribute this low attendance just to the fact thatVancouver audiences may not know Adams or appreciate his work.“Even The Messiah can lose money inVancouver,” he says.“It’s odd, you know. Living on the West Coast is a blessing. It’s an incredible place and there’s so much that is life-enriching here. But there is not always a big audience and it is maybe not the most adventurous. Add to that the cuts in music education stretching back a couple of generations, and it puts a huge dent in the audience. It’s also seemingly harder for people today to focus on a long piece of music, so I think we also have to recognize that what we have to offer is a niche product. One has to temper one’s expectations. We won’t get the big audiences, at least not for new music, and have to get used to the small.” Though that may sound a bit glum, Dala’s outlook is generally quite sunny. “I said in one interview that El Niño was the event of the season for Vancouver—of the whole 2012/2013 year— and I stand by those words. It’s a piece of huge proportions and the people who did come loved it.” He’s also looking forward to Vancouver Opera’s relatively rare experiment in the contemporary this coming May with Tan Dun’s Tea:A Mirror of the Soul, for which he is chorus director and cover conductor. In all, Dala comes across as an essentially happy (and very tall) man who feels ready for the next step in his conducting career, whatever it may be.“There’s so much great music,” he says.“What I have done so far is tip of the iceberg. I think it’s really like travelling through an art museum. It’s fabulous to spend time with each form, each piece—new, old or in the middle, opera, choral or symphonic. I love what I do and I’m very grateful to be able to do it. I am living my dream.”

Spring 2013

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