Nicole Paiement is a remarkable conductor who focuses on contemporary music and opera. She is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle. She received her Doctor of Musical Arts from Eastman School of Music.

Nicole has served as the Artistic Director of the BluePrint Project at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and as the Director of Ensembles at the University of California – Santa Cruz. She received the UCSC Eminent Professor Award in 2014.

Nicole has conducted many premiere works around the globe. Some of the past works she has conducted include Peter Maxwell Davies’ 1979 thriller, The Lighthouse, the groundbreaking film project Everest, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.
Nicole’s chamber opera performance of The Lighthouse marked only the second time in the 54-year-history of the Dallas Opera that a woman conductor took the podium.

She was awarded the “Champion of New Music Award” in 2016 by the American Composer’s Forum for her outstanding contributions to contemporary music.

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with the remarkable Nicole Paiement:

Guy Kawasaki:
I'm Guy Kawasaki and this is Remarkable People.
Today's remarkable guest is Nicole Paiement.
She is the remarkable conductor who focuses on contemporary music and opera. She is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of San Francisco's Opera Parallele.
She received her Doctor of Musical Arts from the Eastman School of Music.
Nicole has served as the artistic director of the BluePrint Project at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and as the director of ensembles at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
She also received the UCSC Eminent Professor Award in 2014.
Nicole has conducted many premiere works around the globe. Some of her past work include Peter Maxwell Davies' 1979 thriller, The Lighthouse, the groundbreaking film project, Everest, and Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking.
Nicole's chamber opera performance of The Lighthouse marked only the second time in the fifty-four year history of the Dallas Opera, that a woman conductor took the podium.
She was awarded the Champion of New Music Award in 2016, by the American Composers Forum for her outstanding contributions to contemporary music.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People.
Now, here is the remarkable Nicole Paiement.
If you hear someone play for about thirty seconds, have you already made up your mind? Can you tell, at that point, that quickly?
Nicole Paiement:
You're talking about playing an instrument, a musical instrument?
Guy Kawasaki:
Nicole Paiement:
It takes more than thirty seconds to really grasp an individual, because some of the finest players pace themselves in terms of how they get really into who they really are.
Thirty seconds is not enough. You can get a very superficial picture of perhaps what that artist is, but it takes longer than that to really grasp their artistic soul, which is much deeper than just their skills.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you think that great musicians are gifted or they work harder? What separates a great musician from a mediocre one?
Nicole Paiement:
You definitely have to have talent. That has to be the basic of that.
But talent is not enough to really make it in the career of being a musician. Talent is the foundation of who you are as an artist.
But if you rely strictly on the talent, it will be very difficult for you, unless you're one of those very fortunate people that meets the right person who will basically take you and guide you in that way. And even with that, it takes a lot of work to develop that talent.
It's just like a garden. You can have really good earth in there, but if you don't plant and work the soil and continue to enrich it, the earth will just at one point be there and not really go to fruition.
A talent is the seed. The work develops it in some way, so you need both.
But hard work alone will not make you great, and neither will the strict talent.
Guy Kawasaki:
Showing more of my ignorance of music. As a conductor, when you look at a score, do you hear it in your head? What happens when you see a sheet of music?
Nicole Paiement:
Every conductor is very different. My goal when I look at a score is to basically figure out, a little bit like if I was looking at a blueprint for an architect, of seeing the structure and seeing how it's built and how I'm going to basically create that building of sound.
For me, it's a sound building. It's not a structure, but it's a musical structure. I sit at my table and I start by hearing the basic sound forms of it.
But yes, I sit down and then I start really slowly working through the pages. It's like reading a book. I start to hear different things, if there's different technique. It depends a lot on the kind of score it is, if it's a very dense score.
This morning I was working on a score that was extremely dense. I had done this first initial reading of just looking at it and hearing a general mix sound. Now I started to go line by line and hearing how this line goes with this line.
Yes, I get familiarized with the score and I hear it in my mind, and especially when it's a new score. If it's an older score that I've heard before, it's very different. I'll read it and I hear it already because I've heard it before outside my mind.
Then it's a matter of re-hearing it, hearing the way I want to interpret it, which is a very different work than hearing a piece for the first time, creating a piece for the first time, which is you've never heard it outside your own self and you learn it.
So you learn to hear it that way. It just depends on what kind of score. But generally, yes, a conductor would sit and look at the score, and just like reading a book, you'd be reading that page and hearing them... When you read a book, you understand the words in your mind. When you understand the notes and it creates a different kind of language, but a language in your brain.
Guy Kawasaki:
When you look at a score or when a conductor looks at a score that has been played thousands of times before, what is there to imagine?
Isn't it cut and dried, it's there, it's notated? What's happening here?
Nicole Paiement:
That's such a good question because a piece stays alive, but it moves in time. So a work that was performed by Mozart or Beethoven that we all know, that was performed centuries ago, lived at that time in a very specific world, a world where pacing wasn't a specific way how people moved, what kind of call we had, how people were.
We forget to think that musical works are living things, really.
So as they moved through time, if I'm performing Mozart now, the tempos I will choose to do, the contrast of loud and soft, all these things are dependent on our society today and how we are.
There was a period where I actually wondered. I was going through a phase where I saw myself looking for transparency in small scores that are dense… romantic period music. I was striving for a lot of transparency. I started to wonder if I was not influenced by this big lean period that there was in the nineties, of a lot of lean architecture, lean cuisine, lean all kinds of things.
I thought, "I'm being influenced on presenting these pieces with the colors of today." And it made me realize how these pieces say different things today to our world. We have to find what they have to say to move the people of today. If we were to interpret them as they were interpreted in the nineteenth century, I don't think they would resonate, and they have to resonate to today.
And also, on top of that, every conductor will look at a score. It's like reading a poem. If you read a poem, you interpret it, you will find the words that move you, and then you'll emphasize that word.
You'll pace that phrase differently. You'll find the meaning of it perhaps differently than someone else who was reading that poem. Or the same thing with the score. I'll read the score and I'll decide, "Oh, there's not a going to be a breath in that whole page. It's going to go so long that people are going to feel breathless at the end of that long melody."
Other times you could decide to make it shorter, all these choices that perhaps you're not aware when you're listening to music, but a conductor thinks about, to give it to the audience.
Guy Kawasaki:
When somebody says, "Oh, that's Mozart's fifth," it's not that cut and dried...
So you're saying when Mozart played it, and when you hear it today, 2021, would you even recognize it? How different is it?
Nicole Paiement:
It's not that different. As I said, a poem is a really perfect example of that.
You will recognize that it's a poem from Baudelaire.
But first of all, the message, the emotion that comes out of it will be of reading it today, will be contemporary.
But also, just because of how I'm going to read it, will give it my stamp, my way of dealing with this language. My stuff is influenced by my life, my society, by where I live, by the way that I'm in the 21st century and not in that century.
But, of course, you would recognize it, but the way of playing instruments has changed a great deal, the way the kind of bow, the kind of violins that were there, all these sounds of these instruments were very different than they are today.
So even just that, it's like different colors of paint. Green existed, but perhaps green will be a little different now. All these things influence the sound of the piece, and so, it will have, yes, the same words like a poem, but it will just have a different feel.
Guy Kawasaki:
For someone like me with a tech background, that is just so the opposite.
If you were to write a computer program, you want it to execute the same way every time for the next 200 years. You're not looking for some conductor to put their spin on how the code executes.
Nicole Paiement:
That's true, except that you perhaps will hope that your code will influence something new, that something will come out of it. And in that way, the music of the past influences new instruments.
They say, "Oh, this was so hard to play. But if we change this instrument and gave it an extension, let's say, for the double bass, we could get those low notes so much easier for these kinds of things."
So your programming will influence new development, probably. In music, it will influence other composers.
What is most important is that the music of the past influences new composers to write. It's a lineage. We don't write in a vacuum, and you don't create code in a vacuum. You come from what was done before and you're building on that.
Composers build from the past and try to surpass what was done before and move it along.
Guy Kawasaki:
Okay. Backing up a little bit, what exactly does a conductor do?
Nicole Paiement:
Guy, there are so many people who do not know, and they think we're just up there moving our arms, and that everything could be done without... It depends, again, if you're conducting a symphonic work, or if you're conducting a choral work, or if you're conducting an opera. That will vary.
But in a general role, what we're doing is that first we study a score and we have a precise idea of how this piece holds together, just like a blueprint, like someone that is a contractor and goes on the territory and sees, "Okay, this is how we're going to build this building."
So we enter the space on the podium understanding the whole structure.
Musicians in the orchestra have their one line. They read one line out of your score and you have forty, fifty lines in your score that you're reading vertically at the same time.
So you have all the information. They have very small part of the information. So you're putting all of this information together so that the walls are put at the right place, and that we all have the same door. We breathe at the same place of the same thing as building a building.
So that's the basic thing that you do. You cue people and say, "You enter here in that moment. Here you need to play a lot softer so we can hear this instrument, who has the melody. Oh, here we have to move faster, so this is the pacing. I'm giving you the pulse." So everyone's moving at the same tempo, same fast... There's speed, there's color, there's texture, all these things you give through your body.
There's basic body language that you do to give that information to seventy-five musicians that are sitting there in front of you, and that needs someone to guide that.
But for me, also, which is very important, and not all conductors would necessarily say that, but I like to think that I help them listen to each other more by my gesture, by saying, "Okay, here right now there's something crucial that's happening in the violas." My gesture to everyone will be to focus on, "Let's listen to this right now and react to this and help people react so that it becomes very spontaneous rather than planned."
That's where it's different than a blueprint, because if you're building a building, you're not spontaneously saying, "Oh, let's add a window here. It would be nice." You just follow the plan.
I like to have a plan so that I can get out of the plan. And then, depending on how we're all working together, what would be the best for someone to understand what a conductor does is to sit into a rehearsal and to watch a conductor work, because at the concert, that kind of work is done.
You're still going to try to deepen those ideas and push those. But these ideas have been established in rehearsals.
We have gotten to know the tempo, how fast we want to move, how soft we want to play. All these things have been put into place. We've fixed the wrong notes, if there were any problems. If you're doing a new work, often you'll hear, "There's a mistake here. This should be a G sharp."
We've fixed everything, so by the time you get to the concert, it's a very different thing. The audience sees the final results, which I'm just basically now reminding everyone of that, hopefully, unless there was a train wreck and then you try to fix it.
Guy Kawasaki:
What took you down the path of becoming a conductor, as opposed to a musician?
Nicole Paiement:
Wonderful questions.
You have to be a musician, of course, to be a conductor.
But not every great musician can be a conductor. But you cannot be a conductor if you're not a good musician.
It's in one direction. It's very rare that you will decide when you're six years old that you're going to be a conductor. I know people say, "Oh, that person knew when he was six years old that he was going to be, or she was going to be a conductor."
Maybe, but it takes this process of deepening your knowledge to understand that you want to go beyond just being the sole interpreter of that instrument, that line, you want to make your instrument a much more complex instrument.
Because for me, my instrument now is the orchestra, or is orchestra and singers when I do opera. So it's developing that and saying, "I'm feeling limited with just the instrument that I have. I'd love to get these colors."
That first element attracted me a great deal. Obviously, I'm very attracted to architecture and building that. I really thought, when I was starting to be advanced enough to really study scores, I thought, “It's really looking at a blueprint. I can really decide where the pillars are going to be, what this room is going to be like.” I started to think I could maybe blend both of my love for architecture and music by becoming a conductor.
Then there's also the idea that there's a great feeling of collaboration when you're on that podium, if you're willing to go there.
I know you love the water and you love the waves. You like to surf.
Well conducting, it has that element. It's dangerous. I was attracted to pushing my capacity as a musician to a more dangerous place where you're needing to take even more risk because your instrument is bigger. I liked that also.
Also, the biggest thing is that I was so attracted to working with living composers and putting my stamp on new repertoire of the century.
I am a pianist. It's much more limiting in terms of the impact that you can give to the repertoire of the twenty-first century if you're just with one instrument. So there was a lot of reason for it.
Sometimes I wish that I had not, because it's very challenging. But it's also very exhilarating.
Guy Kawasaki:
In business terms, you have made the transition from being an individual contributor to being management.
Nicole Paiement:
Good management requires leadership, not only leadership, but also passionate leadership so that you inspire.
But yeah, in a way you could think of it that way, that it becomes a way to basically expand your company, expand how you work within your field.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do any sports team analogies work? Are you the coach, the general manager?
Nicole Paiement:
Yes, you could think of it that way.
First of all, often, I feel it's not necessarily a team sport, but swimming, which actually I love, I think of swimming in that when you're swimming, you have to have that movement, that constant movement in that breath.
When I'm conducting, there's for me an element of being in water and swimming with the sound and the density of the water. I really relate to my arms moving into the density of water to create warm tone and all of that.
So there is that, in terms of my own physique when I'm conducting. But a good coach, though I'm not an expert... I love sports, but I mostly do individual sport, not a lot of team sport. But I could see that the idea of a good coach understand their strong players, understands when to use the strong players in the forefront, understands the balance between when the people are getting tired and when they need a rest, all this dynamic that you have in rehearsal, in a practice when you're in sports, you have to have that.
Rehearsal technique, being on the podium, going back to your question of not every musician can be a conductor, this idea of having the capacity to have empathy, but also understanding a group and saying, "Okay, right now they're getting tired. We need to do this that will bring back the energy." Or, "This is a very good player. I need to take advantage of that strength in that player to bring all the woodwinds into that same dynamic."
Just like any sports, the orchestra is as strong as its weakest player.
You need to make sure that you build strength in all of the participants. So there is a lot of analogy between sports and orchestra. You need to be in shape to play these instruments a bit.
Guy Kawasaki:
Do you make hiring and firing decisions on the members of the orchestra?
Nicole Paiement:
Yes, I do.
Guy Kawasaki:
What do you look for?
Nicole Paiement:
I look for professionalism. Of course, talent. They're not going to be hired if they cannot perform.
But once, assuming that they have the capacity to do the job, then if you're hiring them for a specific position, for me, it's a lot about professionalism, respect of others, because we're working in a team and to work, we have to have respect.
Also, capacity to grow.
Again, it's very similar to being in any company, going into a rehearsal open-minded that, instead of saying, "I have played this piece five times, this is how it's supposed to go and I like it this way." If I decide we're going to actually slow this moment down a great deal, and actually rather than giving the line of the violin, the major line that you'll hear in the texture, I'd like to bring out the bassoon countermelody because it will make it interesting, having someone say, "Oh, okay, I'll play softer here."
So having that kind of willingness to grow with the piece that they've played before, is an indication that someone is open-minded and wants to make art, not just recreate something, but create something. Creating rather than recreating, as an artist, is very important.
I look for that a lot.
Guy Kawasaki:
At the level that you live in, are all the members of the orchestra superstars, or are there still people who just stand out? There's this one cello player that's clearly just better than everybody else, or is it everybody is at that level?
Nicole Paiement:
It depends a lot... I conduct in various places, so I wear many hats.
In the group that I hire for, let's say for Opera Parallele, they're all very strong players. I love to also help young musicians that really need that final opportunity to make their career bloom. They might not yet be at that level of the first chair of the orchestra, because it's a hierarchy. The first chairs have a leadership and have a way of playing that helps the other people in there, if we're talking about string players.
There will be, let's say, twelve first violin, the concert master, or the principal's second or something.
They're not necessarily better on their instrument than the person sitting right beside them. But they have a different kind of leadership in their playing that will help the others play at their best.
I will be very excited often to bring in players that are just slightly almost there yet, but that will benefit, will grow from that experience, and will bring a different kind of energy, will remind everyone that at one point they were there.
So yes, they're all people that have great talent, great capacity of their instruments. But there will be at times in orchestras super superstars on one instrument. As a guest conductor, you arrive, everyone plays beautifully.
But all of a sudden, there's a solo for the first horn, let's say, and that first horn plays and you think, "Oh my God, that is an amazing sound." And you see that person's potential. It can be just that in that piece, that person raises to it too. But generally speaking, everyone has attained a very high level.
Guy Kawasaki:
Now there've been many places where you were a guest conductor.
Explain that to me because you show up in Dallas and you inherit the crew and off you go.
How does that work? You're not building your own team. You're given a team and you just have to make do with it?
Nicole Paiement:
Exactly. It's like you're a great coach of this baseball team.
And all of a sudden you arrive and you have to go work with this other team, and play a set or a series, because that's what it is. It's a very different skill because you don't have that relationship. You have to first build that relationship when you get there, very quickly.
Like right now, I'm going to Italy to do an orchestra concert. I will have three rehearsals and then the concert. I will not get to create a relationship with this Italian orchestra.
And so, it depends on how long you go as a guest conductor. When you're going to do a production of an opera, you have the luxury because of the staging and because of the complexity of an opera. You're there for five to two months or actually next fall, I'll be two and a half months in London.
And so, it depends on how long the production is. But for orchestra, it's a very short time. So depending on the length, you have to just put on your acceleration. But you have different goals.
You have the goals, perhaps a little more precise, just like if you have a baseball team, you want to have them win that game. You want them to play at their best for that set because your impact will not be long term.
You can't build and start feeling as if it was your own team.
I go there. I analyze very quickly in the first rehearsal, what the strength of the orchestra is, how I'm going to make them better for the project we have in hand. I find the strong links. I identify that right away.
And then I focus really on just creating that piece, rather than in the long-term relationship of building a product together in the long term, which you would do if you're managing a company, or if it's my own opera company. Very different.
Guy Kawasaki:
I would ask you, every once in a while, maybe it's because you're a conductor and you're so used to waving your hands with a baton.
Nicole Paiement:
I use my hands a lot.
Guy Kawasaki:
Yeah. You hit your microphone, so there's a click, just FYI.
I'll explain that in the podcast, because that's actually a funny story. I want you to explain to me the concept of what does "opera for our time" mean.
Nicole Paiement:
You're taking that from the website. What it means, it means that it's opera that will represent what right now people would enjoy seeing when they go into the theater, just like this restaurant would say "Food For Our Time".
It used to be that Jell-O was popular. Now we don't expect that in a restaurant. We expect something else.
So it's not food for our time, it's opera for our time. It will be something that we'll be able to relate to it. When we sit in there, we will enjoy it because it makes us feel comfortable that it's from our time.
Guy Kawasaki:
If I may be somewhat of a devil's advocate, again, showing my ignorance. But to me, the experience of opera is something like, I want you to go to a performance that's going to be several hours long, in a language you do not speak, so you have no idea what's happening.
This would be like saying to me, "Would you like to attend a Ted Talk in Russian for four hours?" And I would say, "No, I have no idea what you're talking about."
On the other hand, I saw Pretty Woman, and I saw Richard Gere saying, "Opera moves your soul no matter what language." But how do you expect people, if you expect people, to appreciate opera when it's in a language that many people don't understand what's going on at all?
Nicole Paiement:
Well, first of all, this is why Opera Parallele exists and why we say "Opera For Our Time", because you have to be initiated first.
And so, the operas we do are generally a maximum of ninety minutes, so an hour and a half, sometimes even no intermission. You go in, you can bring a glass of wine if you want. You sit down and you watch the opera.
Generally, it's in English. If it's the very few operas that we do in other languages, would have super titles.
But generally speaking, we try to find operas that are in the language of the people that live in that community.
Then the story that we tell is a story not necessarily of something that happened in the sixteenth century, but something that has a quality anyway that will relate to stories of today. If it's not exactly of today, it'll be staged, in a way, visually, in the spectacle, will look like the aesthetic of today. It'll be modern. It'll use technology.
So you'll feel very at home in that environment, and you'll feel that you're watching a spectacle.
I'm not going to say it's like Cirque du Soleil. But why is Cirque du Soleil so popular, is that they took the circus and they brought elements of today to it. Circus was always popular, but there's something very vibrant about something like that.
We are bringing that kind of aesthetic and modern aesthetic to opera.
It's just like if you go to the restaurant and you don't think you like fish, you don't start with necessarily raw octopus. You might start with something that is a little less... Then later on you'll say, "Maybe I'll try this. Maybe I'll try something else."
In that same way, people might, like Pretty Woman, decide to go and hear operas of the past and be more than comfortable with hearing perhaps a language they don't understand, because it's just pretty music.
But they will love still the spectacle. But they will have been initiated to that.
But in order for that initiation to happen, it's our responsibility to keep it modern and to keep the door open so that people like you will come and say, "Oh, is that opera? I love opera. I didn't think that was opera."
The problem is starting at the wrong place. When I started to do mountain biking, I did the mistake, the first time I had my bike, of going into the Santa Cruz mountain and having one of the steepest mountains to climb without really understanding how to do the gears and all of that.
I thought when I got to the top, "I hate mountain biking." And I'm a cyclist. I cycle all over in countries, doing cycling trips. That's because I had decided on the wrong hill to climb for that first time.
It's the same with opera. You have to start with the right kind of hills to climb, to love it.
That's why we created Opera Parallele. It's really to demystify it, for people to go and say, "Oh, maybe I should try this more." That's what we do.
Guy Kawasaki:
Is the rest of the opera business just appalled that you would do such a thing?
Nicole Paiement:
No, actually, we have been a model and a leader, or ahead of the curve.
So a lot of companies have caught on and said, "Oh, this is how we're going to build our audience of tomorrow. This is how we're going to get younger people. This is how we're going to get donors," because they want new things.
Also, the older generation will pass on and we need to make sure there's an audience of tomorrow. We have actually been a great model for many companies. We go to conference and talk about how we do things.
The thing is it doesn't belittle opera at all. It enhances it. We don't take simple scores, and we don't think we need to simplify things so people like it. On the opposite, the scores we do are quite complex.
But the way they're presented appeals because people are generally intelligent people. They want to be stimulated, but they need to be stimulated with the right ingredients. So that's what we do.
A lot of companies are trying to do at least one production a year where that will happen, and then they resort back to the older style. But they are realizing, actually, that perhaps the modern opera that they do in the year is very popular, more popular than perhaps some of the older work.
So it's catching on. It takes time. It takes time to change, but we are ahead of the curve.
Guy Kawasaki:
So you're reinventing opera?
Nicole Paiement:
We are redefining it for our time. Nothing is static. Even your code that you say that will live on for 200 years, eventually it will trigger something else and it's still going to be called code, but it's something else.
That's what keeps everything vibrant and alive. We are just continuing to make that happen, rather than making it a dying art form, which I remember when I started to do opera, looking at articles, so many articles, "Dying art form," all of this.
I thought, "That is too bad because, honestly, opera is one of the most complete and beautiful art forms. So there's no reason for people not to love it, if it's right."
Guy Kawasaki:
If someone is listening to this and they are not somewhere that they can see one of your operas... If you asked me, how should I start surfing? I could tell you where to go, what conditions, what kind of board, and what to do. Surfing for dummies.
What is opera for dummies? If it's not going to be one of our operas, then the one you should go listen to or see is what?
Nicole Paiement:
Okay. First of all, it's interesting because you said, if for surfing, you would say where you would go. So I would say go to San Francisco and hear a production of Opera Parallele.
But if they could not do that, I do think that experience live rather than listening to an opera is really important as a first experience, because being in the hall, feeling the other people there, the excitement of that, seeing the lighting, seeing the spectacle, basically, of it is very unique.
It's just like being the water. If you're surfing, don't just read about it, get yourself wet. So go live. The first thing I would do is look in your area where you live for an opera that will be performed perhaps in your language, depending what you speak.
If you speak Italian, you might want to do... Try to find something that's not long, that's not a three-hour opera. It's better to start with a shorter piece.
The other thing I would say is that it's okay not to like something at first. It doesn't mean you shouldn't go back. We think we have to love everything. I'm sure when you started surfing, it was a little dreadful at first and you were scared of the waves, and-
Guy Kawasaki:
To put it mildly. Yes.
Nicole Paiement:
You still pursued. So you can't just go once and say, "I don't like it." You've got to give yourself at least three chances. Say, "I'm going to commit to this three times. I'm going to find an opera that I like, in the language that I like. I'm going to find it short, and I'm going to try to see that it's a story that will touch me, that I'm attracted to."
For some people, it might be a comic opera. For some people, it might be a story about Malcolm X, and there are jazz operas.
You can also look at what kind of music. Nowadays you have a mixture of genres. It's not strictly classical music that does opera.
So find a genre of music that you like and look for that. But it has to have the word opera in it.
Go and sit down and do it three times. Then write to me and tell me what you did, and then I'll have a conversation with you.
Guy Kawasaki:
But I want to push you harder. I want you to name names. I want you to say, "I recommend the following three."
Name a name. Don't say, "It has to be short, and in English, and a story you like, and blah, blah." Just name names.
Nicole Paiement:
Okay. I will say, for example, recently I went to hear Terence Blanchard's opera, Fire Up in My Bones at the Met. It was an opera.
I know Terence Blanchard well, and Opera Parallele actually did his first opera, Champion, which was an amazing opera. So I would say, if you have a chance to see the opera Champion, go see it. Because one of the thing is that it has a beautiful length. The story, you will completely relate to the story.
Terence Blanchard is a brilliant jazz musician. So the orchestra, it's a full orchestra. It's a classical orchestra. But it has inside this classical orchestra, a drummer, a bass, a jazz trio in there. And the harmonic language, the languages he uses has some jazz element rhythms in there.
You'll feel very comfortable. That's an opera you could see, either Champion or Fire Up My Bones. Great pieces to see.
It's a little bit of a longer opera, but one composer that we have in San Francisco, actually, that's very well known, Jake Heggie, who wrote Moby Dick and Dead Man Walking.
Dead Man Walking is about the death penalty. It's a great story. It's very dramatic, but it's a good story. It doesn't take a stance on what you should think of death penalty, but it makes you think. The music is great. It's in English. It has a big chorus. There's all these funny elements. There's tragic elements. Very good. But it's a little long. That one's a little long.
Moby Dick is also a great one by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer is the librettist. I would say another opera that I love to conduct and that is great is called Silent Night by Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell is the librettist.
The librettist is the person who writes the story, the text to be sang. That one is about the truce during the war, when the French, the Scots, and the Germans had a truce on Christmas eve, a true story.
But what's great about it is that it has four languages, because the Scots sing in English, the French sing in French. There's Latin in there. So you have all these different languages.
The story is beautiful, and it's a big spectacle. It's like going to see Hamilton. It's great music. It's a great story. You'll love it. My list is long. These are things that are the first good first ways.
But there are many others. I know so much repertoires and that I love also, that it's hard for me to even mention just those few names.
They just come up right now, but I could name many, many, many, many, many operas. I should mention operas from women composers.
Missy Mazzoli has some, Breaking The Waves by Missy Mazzoli, minutes minutes long. Great story, fantastic music, young, vibrant composer that speaks before, if you go to the show.
If you can meet the composer, it makes you realize, "Oh, these people are alive. They're not all dead somewhere. This is something that people do still."
Guy Kawasaki:
You touched on this very briefly, but why are there so few women conductors?
Nicole Paiement:
There are more and more women conductors, especially in the symphonic world. In the operatic world, a little less, because it's even more demanding in terms of the amount of knowledge.
You have to know a lot of technical knowledge on top of the musical knowledge when you do opera. And a lot of that had often been reserved to being in the male leadership. But I think that that's changing-
Guy Kawasaki:
What do you mean reserved? Reserved by whom?
Nicole Paiement:
Who used to build the computers? Like who did the tech of all of that?
Was it all these women that would do that, or mostly men? Women could think about creating that, but who actually built it? That kind of thing. These hands-on were reserved in the past... They thought that they were more for men.
And so, in opera, you have to understand how productions work, that this is going to slide down and you're going to have to wait before you cue the singer because the set has to change, and the lighting.
It's now in the backstage, there are tons of women, and lighting designers, all of that are female.
But in the past, in the history of opera, that used to be all male. It took a little longer for having women conductors in that seat because you're really driving the whole thing when you get to the performance.
Classical music used to be very old fashioned in that we have traditions. We hold to our traditions. We wear our tuxedos and the conductor walks in, the orchestra rises.
Actually, before that, the concert master walks in, tunes the orchestra, the oboe gives the A. They have all these traditions that are being kept.
Part of that tradition was the Maestro. That was the male leader. Only men in orchestra were playing. Took a long time to have women in orchestras.
It's just slow, but we have caught on. Now I see that when I go and guest conduct somewhere, people are not as surprised to see me on the podium.
I often am surprised when I go somewhere and they'll say, "Oh, this is the first time we have a female conductor on the podium." But they are not uncomfortable with it.
So that's the first step.
There are so many great institutions now that are promoting women conductors, so giving a voice to female conductors, and realizing that there can be more difference at times between two female conductors than my conducting and a male conductor.
It's very individual, not about female or male, for me anyway. I know some other female conductors feel differently, but for me, female or male, doesn't really matter. It's who I am as a musician on that podium.
Guy Kawasaki:
What's your advice to young people who are interested in this field, either as musicians, or conductors, or singers?
Nicole Paiement:
I love working with young people, and I definitely would say if you feel that you have a passion for it, try it. My personality is one that loves to dare and push forward. If you have that inside you, it's a gift to have it.
We need to encourage people that have that desire to have the courage and the opportunity to do it. So I would say it's not an easy ride, but it's a great ride, and that you just have to stay...
Again, I'll refer to cycling. If you see a big hill, you don't look at the top. You look in front and you just cycle and stay steady and just work on getting up there. It's the same for any career.
And so, I would say, if you feel that passion, just get on the ride and look just ahead of you, thinking that you want to be successful. But just find the opportunities and work hard. Be honest to yourself. Be in the present, just like any other field.
If you feel that passion, it's no different. You just have to believe and do it and work on it. It's no different than if you want to become a chef pâtissier in a restaurant and you just work your way in doing it.
Guy Kawasaki:
A complementary question to that question is, what's your advice to parents of potential professional musicians? Do you push them hard? Do you not push them? Do you make them do other activities?
If you were a mother or father, what would your advice be to them for kids who have shown an interest or an aptitude or a passion for music?
Nicole Paiement:
I don't have children, but first I would say don't be scared.
I think that parents tend to be scared and fear for their children, because if you do a degree in engineering, your chance of getting a position is pretty clear. You'll become an engineer.
As if you go into music, there are many roads of making a career as a musician. It's not just being a conductor. There are so many opportunities to do that.
If your child is interested in music, it's a privilege to be a parent of a child that loves music like that.
It's so hard right now, with everything else that's going... The way that our society is pushing other things in our world, that if you have a child that really has a passion for music, it's a privilege and that you should honor it.
You should find a way to make it enjoyable. I don't think you should push.
Let's say you wanted to be a musician and you didn't have the opportunity to do it, and push it on someone. It has to come from that child. But if it's there, it has to be nourished and it has to be honored without fear.
We forget that there are so many ways that you can make a living as a musician.
Guy Kawasaki:
One last point of clarification, so several times you've said, "Go to a short one." What exactly does that mean? Is a short opera five hours instead of eight? Or is it ninety minutes?
What's a short opera?
Nicole Paiement:
I premiered an opera called Everest by the composer Joby Talbot and the librettist Gene Scheer. That opera is sixty-two minutes long. It is a total journey based on the true story of the Krakauer book, Into Thin Air.
But it's not exactly that story. They actually researched it and then the librettist gave a very personal rendering of that story. But it's that story.
It's an adventurous story. It's beautiful music. It's extremely accessible, wild, brilliant music. The story is touching. It's in English, sixty-two minutes.
And then, actually, Opera Parallele right now, this is during COVID, we created a graphic novel opera version of this.
So you can actually watch a graphic novel opera of that and listen to the music. You could actually go see the opera, then you could see a graphic novel opera of it. You could see all kinds of things in it. That's a great way to start loving opera. That's what I mean by short. There are operas that are sixty minutes long.
Guy Kawasaki:
That I can handle.
Nicole Paiement:
You know what? I will send you the link to our graphic novel.
Guy Kawasaki:
All right. Thank you very much. You've brought me out of the darkness of opera.
Nicole Paiement:
I'll make sure that I invite you to our next production.
Guy Kawasaki:
I will come.
All I can say after this episode is, I've got to try opera.
Nicole provided some examples of what to see.
There you go.
If Nicole says go, I think you go.
I'm Guy Kawasaki. This is Remarkable People. I just want to thank the remarkable Peg Fitzpatrick, Jeff Sieh, Shannon Hernandez, Luis Magana, Alexis Nishimura, and Madisun Nuismer for the remarkable work that they've done.
This episode would not have happened were it not for my friend and mentor, lighthouse, inspiration, Marylene Delbourg Delphis.
Merci beaucoup, Marylene.
Until next time, as we say in France, mahalo and aloha.