American conductor Eve Queler (born 1936) founded the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) in 1967 as a means of gaining conducting experience at a time when that profession was largely the domain of men. Concentrating on seldom-performed works and yet-undiscovered singers, she built the company into a much-beloved and viable member of New York's sophisticated opera scene. And while some continued to resent Queler's success, few could deny her achievements.
Trained and Frustrated
Queler was born on January 1, 1936, to an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City. Something of a musical prodigy, she began studying the piano at the age of five. She attended the New York City High School of Music and Art, and graduated in 1954. At this point, Queler's musical education became more complicated.
As the young pianist took classes at the City College of New York and the Hebrew Union School of Education and Sacred Music, she started to become interested in conducting, and in 1956 she entered the Mannes College of Music, where she began studying the discipline with Carl Bamberger. Queler then continued her training with such major American and European figures as Igor Markevitch, Herbert Blomstedt, Leonard Slatkin, and Joseph Rosenstock. Despite impressive training and obvious talent, she received little encouragement to pursue her preferred career. The famed Juilliard School turned her down for its conducting program. Rosenstock, who often conducted both the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera (Met), told her that the best she could hope for was conducting a symphony orchestra somewhere in the hinterlands, and that opera was not even a possibility. Even the female manager of the New York Philharmonic, Helen Thompson, assured Queler that women were simply not suited to conducting the music of certain composers, such as Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner. Conducting, in short, was a man's world.
In the late 1950s Queler took a job with the New York City Opera as a rehearsal and audition pianist. She progressed to become a performing pianist and, finally, an assistant conductor. Yet even that triumph was short-lived. "But I didn't get to conduct," Queler told Donald Rosenberg of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "The boys got to conduct (in the pit), and the girls got to conduct the backstage bands." It was well into the 1960s by that time, and Queler decided to take matters into her own hands.
Began Opera Orchestra of New York
Queler made her conducting debut with Cavalleria rusticana at an outdoor concert in Fairlawn, New Jersey, in 1966. Although this was undoubtedly satisfying to some extent, the aspiring maestro realized she would have to do more to achieve her goals. "I needed experience as a conductor," she explained to Stacey Kors of the American Record Guide. "And I didn't expect anybody to offer it to me. So I started getting people together to rehearse and play in a school. It was an amateur symphony with practically no money." The enterprise, begun in 1967 as the New York Opera Workshop, was soon given an assist by a Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund grant. By 1969 it had moved to new digs in Alice Tully Hall, and in 1971 the company became known as the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) and began its long residency at Carnegie Hall.
Outside of a brief posting to Fort Wayne, Indiana, as associate conductor of its symphony and musical director of the opera, Queler devoted herself to her fledgling venture. OONY presented opera in a concert setting, as opposed to full-blown stage productions, and Queler quickly recognized that she would have to carve a niche in order to survive. She told Kors, "I realized that I couldn't really do what the opera companies were doing—there wasn't much point to it. After all, their works are staged. They have the full element there; I only have the music." So she set about acquiring long-neglected and little-known operas, many of which had rarely, or never, been heard in the United States. This, coupled with the flexibility that a small company could offer in terms of dates and repertoire, attracted both emerging vocal talent and established performers in search of uncommon vehicles with which to display their voices. Queler also saw an opportunity in the Met's failure to showcase bel canto opera. The term, strictly translated as "beautiful singing," refers to a style of Italian singing and also to Italian operas of the early nineteenth century by such composers as Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donizetti. In the 1970s there were European opera stars who specialized in the genre, but who rarely appeared in New York because there was no venue. This hole in the New York music scene was yet another opening Queler was quick to seize.
OONY's well-received 1972 season offered a prime example of Queler's willingness to offer artists a chance to perform unusual works. Nicolai Gedda and Richard Tucker were seasoned tenors with a yen to sing something outside the Met's offerings, and Queler obliged them with Rossini's William Tell and Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, both bel canto operas. Although Gedda did not end up singing because of illness, the performance of the two little-known operas caused New York music society to take notice. That same year, an unknown Jose Carreras (later to become renowned as one of "The Three Tenors") demonstrated Queler's eye for spotting new talent when he made his American debut at OONY. Two years later Spanish superstar and Met veteran Placido Domingo got his wish to perform Massenet's Le Cid, a work the Met would not stage, in front of a New York audience, thanks to Queler and OONY. The widely-hailed performance was recorded live, and marked the first time a commercially-recorded opera had been conducted by a woman. Queler filled still another gap in New York opera by presenting Czechoslovakian works and artists, such as Gabriela Benackova in Janacek's Katya Kabanova in 1978. Over time, OONY performed myriad bel canto operas, including Donizetti's Parisina d'Este, Gemma di Vergy, and Dom Sebastien, and Bellini's La Sonnambula, Il Pirata, and Beatrice di Tenda, as well as others by Rossini and Meyerbeer. U.S. premiers of works by composers such as Modest Mussorgsky, Mikhail Glinka, and Richard Strauss were also presented. Further, OONY provided a debut venue for dozens of artists, including Aprile Millo, Ghena Dimitrova, Richard Leech, and Jennifer Larmore, who went on to enjoy major American careers. By 2005 Queler's company had staged more than 90 concert performances and had become a much-loved institution in New York opera. Even Queler seemed a bit nonplussed by such success. She told Rosenberg, "It just took off. I managed to develop an orchestra that is really devoted. They get a big kick out of the concerts. The audience goes bonkers."
Not everyone was a fan, of course. Queler had plenty of critics, especially in the early years, when journalists inexplicably found her physical appearance as compelling as the music they were ostensibly reviewing, and others objected to her husband providing the company's financial support. Her conducting, too, was a point of contention that continued throughout OONY's success. While some saw Queler's style as too lax and accommodating to the singers, others found it refreshingly sensitive and innately musical. Long-time colleague Doug Martin described Queler's relationship to the music to Anne Midgette of Opera News: "She doesn't impose her will on it, but lets it grow." Known as a "singer's conductor," she was, naturally, adored by her performers. Larmore, one of Queler's "finds," told Midgette in the New York Times, "She's a singer's dream…. She wants to support you, to collaborate, and you need a collaborator, not a dictator. She's good at finding the right tempo, breathing with you." But whichever side of the question one espoused, it was difficult to ignore the maestro's accomplishments.
Succeeded and Prospered
As OONY approached its 35th season in 2006, Queler could surely look back on her career with satisfaction. Even in the twenty-first century, she was still one of few professional female conductors in the world. Among several other "firsts," she was the first woman to conduct at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall, and the first female to conduct the Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Montreal Symphony Orchestras, a far cry from Rosenstock's long-ago prediction of obscurity. She received France's insignia of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2003, in recognition of her many contributions to the arts. Despite such accolades and trailblazing, however, it was perhaps most gratifying to reflect on the continued success of OONY itself. "I never expected Opera Orchestra to last so long," Queler told Kors in 1996. "When I started it, I was not thinking ahead. It never dawned on me that it would flourish. At the end of each season I thought I should stop, because I was sure I couldn't possibly top the season before…. And I still feel that way. I feel as if I've exhausted nearly all the possibilities of interesting operas that people haven't done yet." But of course, she had not. Queler continued to come up with ideas, and OONY continued to prosper into the twenty-first century.
It was difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for OONY's ongoing success. Certainly, Queler's talent for filling in musical spaces in New York's opera experience was vital. And although by the turn of the century even the venerable Met had begun to put more new faces before its audience and had effectively halted Queler's access to Russian works via the installment of Valery Gergiev at its helm, but there were still plenty of uncommon works to be found and produced. Opera stars retained the desire to perform music the Met would not stage, European singing sensations existed who had not been asked to join the cast at the Met, and there would always be lesser-known lights who deserved a shot at fame. Thus, it appeared that OONY still had an important role to fill. Queler's knack for identifying opportunities, her gift for nurturing singers and audiences alike, and her skill with the music itself were unlikely to go out of fashion anytime soon. But perhaps the real key to Queler's achievements lay in her way with people. Longtime OONY volunteer Louis Ruffalo put it succinctly for Midgette in the New York Times, saying, "She makes people want to do their best for her. She finds a different way of getting what she wants." That may well be a universal recipe for success.
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"Queler, Eve." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/queler-eve
"Queler, Eve." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/queler-eve
"Queler, Eve." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/queler-eve
"Queler, Eve." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/queler-eve