Updated: Aug 5
Andrew Litton is an American orchestral conductor. Born in New York City, Litton graduated from the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano and conducting from The Juilliard School. He has previously served as Music Director of the Bergen Philharmonic, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and, most notably, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, where he selected over ⅓ of its current musicians. During his tenure with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Litton was awarded the 1997 GRAMMY award for Best Choral Performance for his recording of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Litton is also a distinguished opera conductor, having founded the Bergen National Opera, a project for which he received the Norwegian Royal Order of Merit. Among his many honors are the Yale University Sanford Medal and Elgar Society Medal. Litton is currently the Music Director of the NYC Ballet, one of the premier ballet companies in the world.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis, Student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School
Founder of AppreciateOpera.org
July 8, 2023
Alkis Karmpaliotis: What are your earliest memories of music, and when did you know that you wanted to become a conductor?
Andrew Litton: My parents weren’t musicians but they loved music. Our family’s best friend was a timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — Richard Horowitz, who was there for sixty-six years, from 1946 to 2012 — and he took me under his wing. So my mother — who was, of course, a tough Fieldston mom! — let me go as many as three times a week to the Met with Dick and sit in the pit where the timpani are. And I had a pretty good vantage point. I could see like two-thirds of the stage and, of course, the whole orchestra and the conductor. It was just an amazing education, also to get to know opera. The funny part was that, as you know all too well, every few minutes in Italian opera there's a dramatic moment where someone is discovered to be a traitor or an adulterer, and this is always accompanied by a loud timpani roll. Because I didn’t know when these were coming, he would always whisper to me, ‘psst!’, and let me know so I could cover my ears! Of course, after a couple of years of doing this, I knew when they were coming, so he didn't have to do that anymore! The really cool thing is I was so young that I got to hear [legendary] voices such as Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Luciano Pavarotti when they were absolutely in their prime.
My first love — just as yours! — was opera. A parallel I have with you is that, for my senior year at Fieldston, they allowed me to teach an elective class on opera; I worked with the Met and was able to bring everybody to a Magic Flute performance. Once a week, we would listen to excerpts from operas and I'd tell the story and explain what was going on. I always forget about that until somebody like you comes along! Fieldston was great because it allowed opportunities like that back then.
"My first love — just as yours! — was opera"
AK: You are a distinguished alumnus of the Fieldston School — the high school which I am currently attending! What do you remember about your time at Fieldston, and how did your experience at Fieldston influence you later in life?
AL: Everything's changed so much since I went there, but the biggest thing for me was that the middle school was on the main campus, not in a separate building. And so you were integrated immediately with much older upperclassmen. Also, the largest club in the school was the Musical Comedy Society — I don't even know if it still exists. Actually, the actual first conducting I ever really did was at Fieldston.
Fieldston meant the world to me. I still have friends that I get together with, and I think that's really telling. I had some teachers that I was absolutely crazy about and I literally cried when they died. Obviously, a place is very strong in your life if it means that much to you 40, 50 years later. You don't realize how strong the ties are until years later. Within my class, I think we didn't appreciate each other so much at the time, but, now, there are routine get-togethers — not organized by the school — and it’s neat because they're all wonderful people. So yeah, I think the school is amazing; it was amazing for me in all those ways back then.
AK: You later received your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Julliard in piano and conducting. How did your time there complement your musical development and education?
AL: First of all, my bachelor’s was just in piano, but I was able to place out of the first year so I got my bachelor's in three years. That's because I studied all the extra stuff that you need to study — theory and ear training and all sorts of stuff — privately before I went to Juilliard. So, they tested me on day one and I just placed out of everything.
In the second year, I tried auditioning for the conductors program, which was generally just master’s students. And I didn't get in the first year, but, in my third year, I did get in but then I went off for the summer to an opera conducting course in San Diego. This was the summer of 1980. There were six of us who were chosen to be active participants and one of us was going to be chosen to conduct the final performance of a very obscure opera by Verdi called Giovanna d’Arco. I think it's his third opera or something like that. And the most developed of us won, of course, because he was very experienced — and I was a kid so I didn't know what I was doing. But then the teacher, a guy named Eduardo Mueller, who conducted lots of Bel Canto up at the Met, said that there was a second prize. He said, ‘I'd like to invite the youngest member of our class to spend a year at La Scala with me.’ And everybody's like, ‘What do you mean? Where did this come from?’ Everybody was so pissed at me! [Laughs] I was thrilled, but I was also like ‘No! I just got into the Master's Conducting program at Juilliard!’ So anyway, obviously I was gonna go to Milan, then I went back to New York afterwards. It was an incredible opportunity. Suddenly, I got to be in another country. I learned Italian and I played fourteen piano recitals. In the spring, we put on a little production of Donizetti’s Rita at the PICO, which no longer exists because there are fire code violations — but back then nobody cared. Donizetti wrote Rita probably on the back of a napkin! It's 45 minutes long, it's a very small piece, but it's beautiful; it's typical Donizetti. And so, in the same style that all posters from La Scala are built, like the ones that say ‘Arturo Toscanini’ or ‘Herbert von Karajan,’ I have one that says ‘Andrew Litton.’ This was the point where conducting was finally overtaking piano, which is what I wanted to do since I was young.
Then, in London, January of 1982, I was in a conductors competition called the Rupert Foundation BBC International Conductors Competition and I won it. I was 22, and it started my career boom; I automatically got management and it was a pretty amazing feeling. And so, the very first orchestral concert I ever conducted was with the BBC Symphony. My London debut happened in January a year later with the Royal Philharmonic. So these things just took off. But, at the end of May of ‘82, I graduated and sat in my little studio apartment, thinking, ‘What do I do now?’ And then the phone rang and it's the National Symphony in Washington. And they said ‘[Mstislav] Rostropovich would like to invite you to come and audition.’ And I thought, well, ‘how did he know?’ And it turns out that a music critic, by chance, walked into one of our student concerts at Juilliard and wrote this glowing review which then filtered through to Washington. And that's how I got invited; it was amazing. That started everything for me because, now, not only did I have a job, but I had a base. It was the ultimate finishing school because I got to conduct young people's concerts twice a week, and I could ask stupid questions, make stupid mistakes and be forgiven.
And they were amazing; the orchestra was very kind to me. That was all an amazing blessing. They also gave me the time to go off to Europe where I was starting my real career. It was a fantastic time because it just seemed like everything was great and effortless. It was almost like there was some sort of synergy — one thing led to the other and it was kind of luck in a way. But of course, when luck happens, you have to have the backing to live up to it. It's fine getting invited to conduct an orchestra, but getting invited back is the key.
"It's fine getting invited to conduct an orchestra, but getting invited back is the key"
AK: In 1997, you were awarded the GRAMMY award for Best Choral Performance for your recording of Sir William Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and Bryn Terfel. What did winning this prestigious award mean to you?
AL: Well, the interesting thing was that I wasn't even aware we’d been nominated. It was sort of surreal when somebody called and said, ‘You just won a Grammy;’ I was like, ‘What?’ That recording was a huge challenge and to be rewarded for it was super cool. It was Decca's decision to record it in Winchester Cathedral, which has a huge reverberation time. You've probably been in huge cathedrals before so you know what I'm talking about. The way we had it set up, I was basically in the middle of the church, and in front of me were all the strings except the basses and the woodwinds. But then behind me were the bases and then the brass and then further back the percussion. So I was literally in the middle of this surround sound of noise. And the chorus was behind the woodwinds. So I had two podiums with two music stands so I could conduct depending on who was important at the moment. And Bryn [Terfel] popped in for a few minutes to do his bit and he was in the traditional spot right next to me. It was incredibly difficult to get it all together, so being rewarded for this was so huge because nobody listening to it knows that it [took] a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make. And I've made 140 [recordings] now and I can tell you that none were as challenging as that. So it's like, OK, I kind of deserve that Grammy; I'll take it! And the chorus too.
AK: You are also an amazing opera conductor, having performed in major opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and Royal Opera House. You even founded the Bergen National Opera in Norway. What makes opera special, and how is conducting opera different from conducting a regular symphony orchestra, ballet, or chorus?
AL: When I finally got to conduct opera, it was so thrilling for me. I've conducted all of my favorite operas now which is super cool, some of them just semi-staged, like in Minnesota when I ran the summer festival there. We did several things semi-staged — like 10-12 operas. But my favorite production was Porgy and Bess at the Royal Opera House. Not only was it the first American opera ever performed at the Royal Opera House, but it was such a hit that they added performances; it was very exciting. Then, the other opera I absolutely adored — one of my all-time favorite operas — was a production of Salome at the English National Opera with an amazing director.
Sometimes it's working with the orchestra that makes it an exceptional experience, or working with the singers, or working with the director — but when it all comes together, it's amazing. The thing I love about it is that, after rehearsing for like six weeks, by the time you get to opening night, it's huge; this has been the only thing you've been doing, living, and breathing for six weeks. It's just such a feeling of empowerment. But, most importantly, you're making the best possible music that you can and hoping that everybody is delivering.
Opera is, of course, the most difficult thing to conduct. There are so many little factors that go into creating an opera on stage. In concert-world, it's pretty different: when you conduct a Shostakovich symphony, every last decision is your own as a conductor, whereas, when you're dealing with opera, the singers might have a wanna say, ‘I don't wanna hold that b-flat this long. Can we move through the phrase?’ So there's more interaction.
"Opera is, of course, the most difficult thing to conduct"
AK: You’ve had success in choral, orchestral, and opera conducting. Now, you are the Music Director of the NYC Ballet. Tell me about your work as a ballet conductor, specifically with the NYC Ballet.
AL: I had never conducted [ballet] until my audition at the NYC Ballet in 2014, so very late in my career. It was amazing because, after almost four decades of following sound, now I'm following sight because, of course, the dancers don't make noise. So you have to plant the orchestra chords with the dancers at the right time. It was a very steep learning curve because it was totally different from anything I'd been used to.
The great thing about New York City Ballet, from a conducting standpoint, is that the repertoire is huge and varied and fascinating. We do very few story ballets — which are kind of the bel canto operas of ballet — where it's just much more about the ballerina than the conductor, but we do twenty-three works of Stravinsky. Coming up, in Saratoga, which is our summer residency, the week of the 16th, I'm conducting our new Copeland ballet, Billy The Kid, which is actually seventy-six minutes of music attached, no intermission. It's challenging, but it's great music; it's so exciting to get to do it.
It's weird, having run orchestras for virtually my whole career up to now: when you run a symphony orchestra, you are the ‘pie’, but in a ballet company you’re like 1/6 of the ‘pie’, so it's a very different mindset. You're down the food chain a bit, so, if you don't like something, it goes to a committee. It's a very different feeling in that way. But I have to say this: I get a great kick out of driving to work to Lincoln Center — where I grew up. I used to joke that I was the original ‘West Side Story’ because I was born two days after the ground was broken for Lincoln Center, which of course, as you know, replaced the tenements of where West Side Story is set.
"I get a kick out of driving to work to Lincoln Center"
AK: The main purpose of my website, AppreciateOpera.org, is to make classical music more accessible and appealing to young people like myself. Therefore, a large number of people reading this interview will be children — in fact, this interview will also be published in Fieldston's school newspaper, the Fieldston News, of which I am the Editor-in-Chief. With that in mind, what are some ways in which kids can learn to appreciate classical music, and how can the classical music community appeal to younger audiences?
AL: That's the $64,000 question, as we used to say. Certainly, orchestras that I've been a part of agonize over how we can make it attractive. ‘Bring in a younger audience’ is very often the catchphrase. Opera, in some ways, has it the easiest because there's a visual, there's something going on to look at. Whereas, when you look at a string quartet playing, what is there to see? It's just using your ears — but opera is gonna be so much more engaging. Tapping into the right repertoire [is important]; for example, I think going to any mainstream Puccini is a winner because they're actually only two hours long. Boheme and Tosca are only two hours long; it's just the intermissions that make them go till 11 pm.
Pieces like that, that aren't so far-fetched like some verismo operas can get, work. I think there are many other verismo operas that are also very effective like Andrea Chenier; when we studied the French Revolution at Fieldston, I did a report to the class about the opera and it worked so well because it's totally French Revolution! Sometimes historical connection really works.
Opera companies, orchestras, and ballet companies do performances with much lower prices to attract new people — we do that every season at the Ballet. Another thing is to keep things on the shorter side, which is hard with opera. But our shows [at the NYC Ballet] are always exactly two hours, pretty much, with intermissions. I mean, Flying Dutchman without an intermission is tough for somebody who doesn't love opera.
When I was in Dallas, I got the money together and we did four televised young people's concerts which cost a fortune back then. But they used these videos in the school system across the country for many years. I always had a segment where little kids would come up and conduct the orchestra; I told the orchestra to follow them, and the piece would slow down or speed up, and I said, ‘Do you see what a conductor does?’ and they were like, ‘Whoa!’ With little things like that, you're making an impact in the hopes that they'll come back.
The most important thing is not to pander while keeping the standard really high. It's not elitist; it is elitist in that it's good — that is the elite part. But it's for everybody. At the ballet, every time I walk out, I look up at the curtain and I go, ‘OK, we're about to change lives.’ And it's true because I can see the faces of the people in the first row; this is what it's all about. I still go to the Met from time to time and, when it's a great performance, you just feel it in the house, everybody's there with you, enjoying it to the max.
Music keeps living because there's always a new discovery or realization of something new. I've been helping Leonard Slatkin with a book to help conductors interpret. Basically, it's all the secrets of decades of performing these works.
"It's not elitist; it is elitist in that it's good — that is the elite part"
I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. I hope you enjoyed this interview! I founded AppreciateOpera.org in 2019, and you can support my work by becoming a member and reading some of my other articles!