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Manahan gives opera a twist

Music director leads "Don Giovanni" with big industrial flair


by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND OPERA - George Manahan, Portland Opera music director, leads the Opera's orchestra at its 'Big Night' event. When George Manahan takes the conductor’s baton and steps in front of an opera orchestra, he doesn’t try to change the essence of music.

Mozart has stood the test of time. Why mess with success?

“There are always choices a conductor makes stylistically,” says Manahan, the new music director with Portland Opera, which features Mozart’s music in “Don Giovanni,” Nov. 2 to 10 at Keller Auditorium. “Some conductors want to try to authenticate, come close to how it sounded in the 1790s. I like to take this beautiful music and see how it’s urgent for today. Same notes, don’t change the orchestration, but the notes and how dramatic they are, the speed of the numbers ...

“I prefer a little more industrial-strength sound. ... It’s not that I change the music, it’s that you can do it so many different ways. Frankly, that’s the fun part.”

George ManahanManahan, a 61-year-old Atlanta native, has been around the business for decades, rising to be one of the rare conductors of both opera orchestras and symphonies, most of the time on guest basis. He resigned last year as music director at New York City Opera, bent on exploring his career options and tiring of the long seasons — 16 productions over two seasons — in the hotbed of American opera.

He had known Christopher Mattaliano, Portland Opera director, for many years. The two had worked together in Omaha and Minnesota for opera companies, and they had the same manager. The connection brought him to Portland. Manahan will continue to live in Manhattan with his wife, Mary Lou, and French bulldog, Spike. Manahan will oversee Opera music for its four productions, while conducting two, starting with “Don Giovanni,” and he also conducted at the Opera’s opening “Big Night.”

The “Don Giovanni” orchestra will feature about 55 musicians, playing for eight soloists.

Having lived in New York, Manahan likes the pace of Portland on his extended visits to the Rose City.

“The food — it’s become such a foodie town,” says Manahan, who has been guest-conducting with Portland Opera for the past six years (debuting with “Macbeth” in 2006). “And, this is a New York chauvinist talking. And, of course, the biking — the bikers actually have to follow traffic rules here. In New York, it’s a free-for-all.”

The Portland Opera offers a free bicycle, helmet and lock to visiting artists, and Manahan has taken advantage of the benefit.

The more mild weather in Portland appeals to him, as well.

Two careers

Manahan saw his first opera at age 15, “Marriage of Figaro” at a music camp. He played piano and bassoon growing up and began conducting in college. While playing piano for the Sante Fe Opera, a guest conductor canceled an appearance and Manahan stepped in.

“I was very lucky,” he says. “I made my debut in the summer 1980.”

His career took off, both in opera orchestras and symphonies.

Manahan spent 14 seasons at New York City Opera and 12 years with Richmond Symphony, and still works as music director for American Composer’s Orchestra. He’ll also make his debut with the San Francisco Opera in 2013 and Philadelphia Opera in 2014.

Tickets for “Don Giovanni” can be purchased at portlandopera.org. Shows are 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, 2 p.m. Nov. 4, and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 and Nov. 10 at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St.



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