Juneau Color: Conductor Hunt helps keep opera alive in Juneau

Posted: Monday, September 29, 2003

William Todd Hunt arrived in Juneau in February of 1999 for a temporary gig conducting the Juneau Lyric Opera's production of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music."

Four-and-a-half years later, he's still here.

"I was supposed to be here one month. I was in grad school at the time. But I met my wife and the rest is history," Hunt said.

The opera conductor moved to Juneau in the summer of 1999 and married nurse Therese Thibodeau that December. Since then, he has ensconced himself firmly in the city's vibrant arts community, conducting operas with JLO and Opera To Go, founding the Amalga Chamber Orchestra, and teaching saxophone, bassoon, flute and clarinet.

Hunt began studying the saxophone - his main instrument - in elementary school and majored in the instrument as an undergraduate at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he grew up. Later in college, he picked up the bassoon because he wanted to be able to play with the orchestra.

"The saxophone in the orchestra is used sparingly. That's one of the reasons I became a conductor: because of the lack of usefulness for a classically trained saxophone player," Hunt said.

A few other factors led Hunt to the path of opera conductor. He began studying conducting as an undergraduate because he had been composing music and he felt a composer should know how to conduct. Soon he had stopped playing the saxophone altogether and was conducting exclusively.

"It's a lot like playing an instrument. It's a very fine tuning process, picking up a part ... and turning that into a little work of art, and then putting everything together and it becomes a large work of art," Hunt said.

He became interested in conducting opera through his first wife, who was a singer and opera director. He earned a master's degree in conducting at Indiana University.

"Opera was everywhere in my life. I found I had a certain creative knack for it," Hunt said.

After seven years of conducting opera exclusively, Hunt has begun studying symphonic conducting, which he says requires a different technique. In symphonic conducting, the conductor controls the tempo and changes in dynamics throughout the entire piece. But in opera conducting, the conductor must give special consideration to the voice.

"You have times (in opera conducting) where you take control, like in opera choruses you're shaping everything. But, say, in an aria and some duets, depending on the singer, I'll let the singer lead," Hunt said.

Juneau singer and voice teacher Joyce Parry Moore appreciates Hunt's experience with opera.

"It's rare and so gratifying to find a conductor who knows how to conduct opera. When you're a singer and you're with a conductor that really knows the voice and how to conduct the voice, it makes a huge difference in how you sing," said Parry Moore, president and founder of Opera To Go, who has sung in several productions directed by Hunt.

Hunt has conducted Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" and "The Turn of the Screw" by 20th century composer Benjamin Britten for Opera To Go, as well as several other operas for Juneau Lyric Opera and opera companies in Indiana.

"It was great in Britten, because not many people know that repertoire and he was very familiar with it. I consider Todd a real gift to the musical community here and the vocal community because he really knows his repertoire," Parry Moore said.

Hunt is the chorusmaster for the Juneau Symphony's upcoming performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and will conduct Maurice Ravel's "L'Enfant et Les Sortileges" for Opera To Go and Gioacchino Rossini's "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" for JLO in the spring.

He said Juneau's unique music community provides lots of opportunities for those who choose to keep music a hobby.

"There's a lot going on here, and I find a lot more enthusiasm here (than in Indiana)," he said.

As a result, Hunt said he has been able to dig into the operas he conducts in Juneau more than he might have in a larger city.

"Most of the singers that get roles with the opera aren't people who went to music school. That puts me in the position of working on a role with most people totally from the ground up - notes, rhythm, diction - it's a really great way to learn operas," he said.

He said the enthusiasm of Juneau musicians harks back to a time when music was considered more accessible and more a part of people's lives, regardless of skill or talent.

"You'd have people over for dinner, and after dinner you'd sit down around the piano and play a Haydn string quintet or piano trio or something. We've lost a lot of those enthusiastic amateurs," Hunt said.

• Masha Herbst can be reached at masha.herbst@juneauempire.com.

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