Opera may not be native to North Philadelphia, but few people realize the prestige of the voice and opera department at Temple – a department that now proudly houses a highly acclaimed conductor behind its curtains.
One of the many new professors recently added to the staff roster for the 2013-2014 school year is Russian native Valéry Ryvkin. He has exerted his musical talent all over the country, attributing his passions for teaching and conducting to his fondness of collaboratively working with other musicians in an enriching environment.
“I always loved working with people and making music with people,” Ryvkin, who is the artistic director and cconductor of Temple Opera Theater and associate professor of the department of voice and opera, said .
Ryvkin first realized his love of music when he was a very young boy living in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“My family wanted the children to play music. It was very traditional,” Ryvkin said. “At that point, no one in my family was ever a professional musician.”
It wasn’t until Ryvkin was a teenager that he started to seriously think about becoming a musician.
Ryvkin’s drive to study music landed him at Mannes College, a noted music school in New York City, where he received a degree in music theory and piano. After graduating, Ryvkin continued his studies at the Julliard School, where he earned his master’s in collaborative piano.
For the majority of his life, Ryvkin was a pianist, but he said his switch to collaborative piano was due to his love for the synergistic product that resulted from the efforts of aligning his creative ideas with other musicians.
“I felt too bored being a pianist practicing alone for eight hours a day. I wanted to make music with other people,” Ryvkin said. “I love people. I love working with them and making music together. Therefore, that led me to play for singers, and chamber music eventually led me to conducting. The more people I can work with, the more people I can make music with.”
Upon receiving his master’s in 1988, Ryvkin began teaching at a school that had a small ensemble of about 10 instruments. During that time, he discovered his passion for conducting.
“I had to lead the musicians somehow, but I did it and I liked it.” Ryvkin said. “I began taking some lessons in conducting after that.”
In 1990, Ryvkin landed his first serious conducting job while working as a prep course master at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“[The job was] through playing the piano for opera companies,” Ryvkin said. “Working with the singers and educational institutions like the Music Academy of the West, [the conductor position] landed in my hands because I was there, and I knew the conductor was not going to be available. They offered me the position in the summer of 1990. It was a full orchestra and very complicated.”
By “very complicated,” Ryvkin undoubtedly described his own position as a prep course master for which he was required to have a very extensive skillset.
“In the professional opera world, the job of the conductor is to be there completely and know every single thing – piano, stage director, the singers, work out details – bringing it all together, keeping the tempo, the music, the singing, etc.,” Ryvkin said.
“Conducting is like directing, it’s a virus,” he said. “You just want to do it more and more.”
After becoming more known by opera companies as a musician and coach, Ryvkin eventually landed his own company in California in 1995 where he became music director.
“When I started in Santa Barbara at 34 [years old], it was a new company,” Ryvkin said. “It was 3 or 4-years-old, a mom and pop company founded by a husband and wife. I took over as teaching director with a $500 or $600 dollar budget, and it grew to a $2 million dollar budget. I brought the quality up. The artists, directors, singers, all of it got improved and all of it got on a different level.”
Ryvkin was the artistic director for the Santa Barbara Opera from 1999 to 2008 where he worked to transform the opera from a small, low-budget company to a highly accomplished and trustworthy opera company acknowledged on a national level.
But despite Ryvkin’s efforts and achievements as conductor, the magnitude of responsibility that comes with the job is strenuous and tiring.
“It became a highly respected regional opera company,” Ryvkin said. “It was good enough for composers to trust us. It was important to have a base and a company of my own, however small but professional, where I could invite singers and musicians. It was feeling like, ‘Yes, you are a conductor now, as opposed to someone who is trying to be a conductor.’ It was a valuable experience that went way beyond music.”
Ryvkin described his time as a pianist as much easier than being a conductor when the entire orchestra relied on his ability to lead effectively. As a pianist, he said he prepared singers once in awhile, but the success of the entire performance was not his responsibility.
“The energy, the singers, everyone on the stage feels it,” Ryvkin said. “The conductor is almost like the heartbeat – he or she doesn’t sing or present any notes, but a conductor in good form gives the performance completely different energy. A famous conductor once said that conducting is the profession of the second part of life. You have to mature to really become a good conductor.”
Ryvkin’s career took off after his great success with the Santa Barbara Opera. Ryvkin became the art director of two different companies, one in North Carolina and the other in California. Between juggling two operas and a family, Ryvkin began to find it difficult to manage both responsibilities.
“You are no longer just a creative artist,” Ryvkin said. “You now have to prep, fundraise, do administrative jobs, spend day and night on the phone, constant emails and then maybe 10 minutes looking at the score and starting the music and such. Between family – my daughter, being a father – and an administrator, there was very little time left for music.”
Ryvkin decided to start teaching as a way to settle down without giving up on the music industry that has given him such joy in life.
Despite the challenges that arose from the responsibilities of conducting, Ryvkin said that the hurdles he faced were nothing compared to the end results. In his new position at Temple, he said that he looks forward to collaborating with other creative musicians.
Ryvkin will appear with the Temple Opera for the first time this fall to perform the opera “Albert Herring” by English composer Benjamin Britten. The show will debut Nov. 15.
Shayna Leigh Kleinberg can be reached at Shayna.firstname.lastname@example.org