Minnesota Opera

Minnesota baritone Conor McDonald stars in Boston Symphony Orchestra's New Tanglewood Tales

October 02, 2014
Conor McDonald
Conor McDonald sings in New Tanglewood Tales

Minnesota-born baritone Conor McDonald, who as a youth performed with the Minnesota Opera and the Children's Theatre Company (CTC), is featured in a Web series that gives a behind-the-scenes look at the life a musician.

New Tanglewood Tales: Backstage with Rising Artists profiled six fellows in the prestigious Tanglewood Music Center, a summer academy run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Episodes 1-6 of New Tanglewood Tales are available at the BSO Media Center and on YouTube. I talked with McDonald about the series and about trying to make a career out of his life-long dream.

What is the Tanglewood Music Program like?

It's really an amazing place. Most young singers, when you do summer programs you go to an opera festival where you work in choruses or you do a small role or a big role in an opera. Tanglewood is very different, where we do mostly art songs, oratorio, new music — there's very little opera that goes on. Each vocal fellow had five or six recitals or concerts to prepare throughout the summer and you get so much individual attention from the best coaches and teachers in the industry. You coach with these people a couple of hours every day. It's an amazing place because it's so intensely focused on your development as a young artist as opposed to building a production.

What's New Tanglewood Tales all about?

New Tanglewood Tales is a series of documentary shorts about six of the fellows this past summer at Tanglewood. There was one singer — me — there was a conductor, a violist, a flutist, a cellist, and a percussionist. So they followed the six of us around all summer long in our coachings, in our rehearsals, in our performances, in our social lives, and it gave viewers an opportunity to see what our daily lives were like at Tanglewood.

It was a really interesting project. I think in the beginning they were marketing it as a reality series — a more grown-up reality series I guess — but as they went on in the summer, it became more clear that intensely focused young musicians don't necessarily give you material that is great for a reality show. So it ended up becoming more of a behind-the-scenes documentary endeavor.

Have you seen the series yet?

I have seen clips from episodes. As a singer it's difficult to listen to yourself. It's hard to hear recordings of yourself, and it's even harder to watch yourself. But my family has seen the episodes; my friends have seen the episodes. They all say really good things. They say it's very charming and a really interesting series. I think it will be fun for me in a bit of time when I'm more removed from the situation to go back and to watch all of them and to relive that.

How do you fit in time for yourself or social life?

At Tanglewood, I was very lucky to have some very close friends there already. And then within the program you make other close friends. Our schedule at Tanglewood was never overwhelming. I think I only ever had three to four hours of coaching or rehearsal a day. But you have so much repertory that you're working on when you're not in rehearsals or coaching, you're seriously trying to memorize or learn new music and stuff like that. Having said that, we did make opportunities to hang out.

Really what we'd do must often is go to BSO concerts at Tanglewood. There's so much programming, so many incredible musicians playing and performing at Tanglewood itself that on weekends that's what we'd do to unwind. You'd bring like a picnic dinner, and bring it to the lawn and listen to some great music. So that's sort of the best way we could relax at Tanglewood.

When did you know you wanted to be a singer?

Growing up in Minneapolis, I had my first professional production in the children's chorus at the Minnesota Opera when I was probably 11 or 12 — that was sort of my first exposure to opera and singing. I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world being on that stage with those singers. It was a really incredible opening to this kind of music. After that I was at the Children's Theatre Company for seven seasons, I think: being in mainstage productions there, and in studio theater productions with Matthew Howe — who was the director of the Theater Arts Training Program at CTC while I was growing up and while I was in high school.

While I was with the Children's Theatre, I thought I might go into theater or go into acting, but I always have done voice. I was always serious about studying voice when I was growing up, so then later in high school as I was getting ready to apply to colleges and figuring out next steps, singing always felt more natural and I could say what I wanted to say more easily through music than text, just spoken text. So I decided to apply to schools as a singer as a musician rather than as an actor.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I don't know where I see myself in ten days. My hope is that in ten years I will be supporting myself by making music, by singing opera or by singing recitals and oratorio and things like that. I hope to support myself by performing.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based writer. She writes frequently for the Twin Cities Daily Planet and City Pages, among other publications.

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