Review by David Shengold ’81

In the opera world, assistant conductors do the scut work—meeting individually with singers, rehearsing sections, following along with the score in rehearsals. All the while, glamorous, globe-trotting conductors lead the performances, the way a surgeon comes in and does the actual operation.

J. David Jackson ’80 has worked for seven seasons as an assistant conductor at one of classical music’s most revered venues: the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Over the years, he’s mounted the conductor’s podium at major opera centers in Europe, but never at the Met—until now. On January 31, 2008, he led the Met season’s final performance of an acclaimed new production of Hansel and Gretel

The 1893 fairy-tale opera, the master­piece of Richard Wagner’s student Engel­bert Humperdinck (the real one, not the ’60s crooner), is a darkly comic take on the Grimm Brothers’ story. For two months, Jackson assisted star conductor Vladimir Jurowski in Hansel rehearsals and musical preparation, standing by on performance dates in case Jurowski (who is a very healthy 37) couldn’t appear. But Jackson was always scheduled to lead the last show.

The production involved internationally renowned singers: Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer as the titular kids and Philip Langridge as the Julia Child-meets-Margaret Thatcher witch (a mezzo role sometimes done by tenors). Working with a pianist and a staff director, Jackson conducted his own musical and dramatic rehearsals in a basement studio two days before the final show, making slight tweaks to tempi. He worked most with baritone John Hancock, who assumed the role of the father under Jackson’s baton. “My challenge,” Jackson said in the days leading up to the show, “will be to preserve the split-second interactions among cast and orchestra that Vladimir and I have worked on, providing the singers with their firm sense of timing and balance, while trying to shape the work slightly differently.”

Besides detecting influences of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wagner, Jackson describes a “Mussorgskian sense of color and composition” in parts of the opera—“the perfect foil to the more innocent music beforehand.” The nonpareil Russian composer is important to Jackson; one of the conductor’s proudest achievements is his completion of Mussorsgky’s truncated masterpiece Khovanshchina while head of music at Brussels’ legendary Monnaie theater in 1996.

Besides Brussels, Jackson has had major engagements in Barcelona and Genoa, at England’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera, at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia and at Central City Opera’s Summer Festival in Colorado. In 2000, Jackson led concert performances at Amherst of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Life is a Dream by Lewis Spratlan, the Peter R. Pouncey Professor of Music, Emeritus; Jackson hopes to someday lead a complete, staged version. As a student at Amherst, Jackson played first violin in the Amherst/Mount Holyoke Orchestra, sang in Glee Club and Concert Choir (assistant conducting on tours) and handled the rebec in the Early Music Ensemble. He attended Baltimore’s Peabody School of Music before embarking on his “galley years” in small German opera houses including Kaiserslautern and Mannheim.

On Jackson’s big night at the Met, the responsive orchestra played splendidly. Hansel is by no means kids’ stuff. “Humperdinck has a lot of moments when it’s hard to hear the singers, due to the complexity of the instrumental writing,” Jackson says. “There are so many delicious passages in the score, though. Such a masterful sense of instrumental color—pure joy to conduct.”

At the final curtain, the audience cheered for Jackson. He relished most his young nephews’ post-show comment. “They wanted to bring the potato cannon,” Jackson says, “because they thought it would be cool to shoot it at me onstage from the audience.”

At a restaurant across Broadway, Jackson had ordered food for 100. Many more attended: colleagues, the cast, friends and family from all over the world, a substantial Amherst contingent. Someone—Jackson doesn’t know who—sent over a ginger­bread-house cake.

“It was an amazing, surreal high,” says Jackson, who, besides ongoing Met duties, has upcoming opera gigs in Turkey. “Once you’re on that podium and the curtain goes up, you feel acoustically like you’re at the intersection of two huge bathtubs. I felt like a new NFL player at the Super Bowl. I felt like I grew up!”

Shengold is a professional opera critic whose work appears frequently in international magazines.

Photo by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera