Santa Fe Opera House is truly one of the wonders of the world. Perfectly situated on a mesa a 30-minute drive from historic downtown, and offering breathtaking views of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the Sangre Cristo Mountains to the east, its state-of-the-art design – open at the sides and back of the stage – allows not only great comfort and acoustics, but also glimpses of New Mexico’s brilliant night skies.
I’ve been around Irish America for so long now that I’m hardly surprised when I come across Irish people in unlikely places, and finding a Belfast man holding the baton in such an exotic clime is delightful but not altogether unexpected. What is surprising about Kenneth Montgomery, conductor of international renown and Santa Fe Opera’s principal guest conductor, is that he came from a family with no background in music.
Born in 1948, he grew up in a working-class family in Belfast, the son of an electrician and a mother who had spent a couple of years working for the Electric Board before becoming a full-time wife and mother. Yet, the way Montgomery tells it, from the moment it was discovered that he had an interest in music – an aunt noticed that on Sunday visits he was fascinated with her piano – not only were his parents on board, but it seems like the stars were in alignment, for he soon embarked on a journey that would lead him to a brilliant career in music.
He began piano lessons when he was seven and singing lessons when he was eight. Soon he found himself in a boys’ choir under the tutelage of Arthur Martin. “My parents were not at all musical, but Arthur Martin was not only a good vocal coach, but a very encouraging person. And he encouraged my parents to buy me a good piano. ”
They bought him a Steinway upright!
More good fortune followed. “An acquaintance of the family died and left me a whole pile of music,” he recalls. At the age of ten the young Montgomery could sight-read all this music. “Sometimes a Victorian ballad and sometimes a Bach oratorio.”
He learned to play the bassoon as well as the piano and played in amateur orchestras, but he knew from an early age that he wanted to be in front of the orchestra, not in it.
“From the age of 10 I knew I wanted to be a musician and by the age of 12 I knew I wanted to be a conductor. There was an orchestra in Belfast at the time called the City of Belfast Orchestra and they used to rehearse on Wednesday afternoons. And an arrangement was made that I could go to these rehearsals instead of sports.”
Getting out of sports was a welcome relief for Montgomery. He recalled that when he ran into the school principal in Amsterdam about five years ago he thanked him “for letting me off those nasty sports and letting me go on with music instead.” The principal was delighted to have played a part in Montgomery’s success. “He said, ‘Well, we’re very proud you’ve reached the kind of position that you have in the music profession.’”
It could have been rather nerve-wracking for a young man from Belfast, a city far from the center of things musically, but by this time, Montgomery had acquired a really wide musical knowledge, and soon he was making a name for himself. In fact, in his third year at the Royal College he was asked to go to the Glyndebourne Festival Opera as assistant conductor. That exposure helped him get a scholarship to study in Germany. And by the time he had done that he was working with the famed English National Opera (then known as Sadler’s Wells), which he did for three years.
Montgomery also made a name for himself in the Netherlands, following his 1970 début with the Nederlandse Opera in Cavalli’s L’Ormindo. In 1975 he was appointed principal conductor of the Dutch Radio Symphony Orchestra and subsequently of the Dutch Radio Choir with some 80 singers, as well.
Back to Belfast
He found “a very healthy climate of music making” in Holland and in 1979 decided Amsterdam would be his base. It’s remained so ever since.
“Music is subsidized in Holland, so there was a lot of contemporary music, commissions of Dutch composers and important world composers, constantly being performed, and at the same time there was a move towards learning to play early instruments,” he said.
Montgomery was also becoming well-known internationally. He was a regular guest conductor with the main orchestras in Europe, Canada and the U.S.
Then in the mid-80s he was asked to help redo the opera company in Northern Ireland, and he returned to Belfast. He recalls that period in his life fondly.
“I enjoyed that period very much and we managed to get very good reviews from the British press. It was very heartwarming. They would say, ‘You should go to Belfast to see a wonderful production of The Magic Flute.’”
Alas, the North of Ireland was caught up in both economic and political struggles at the time. The Europa Hotel, next door to the Grand Opera House, was bombed constantly, and there were financial troubles as well. It was, he said, “very special that we were well thought of. But it was always a bit of a struggle to make the money work out.”
After Montgomery left the opera company it folded. (In 1991 he was made director of opera studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where a chair in opera studies was set up in his name.) “[The Belfast Opera Company] existed for another two or three years but the people that took over the management were not so canny at making the arts council help us,” he said sadly. “It’s a great pity because I felt very much at that time that a city of roughly half a million people should have an opera company of its own.”
It’s also a great shame, according to Montgomery, that young Irish musicians still have to go abroad to complete their education, as he had to go to London as a young man. “The one thing that we really miss in Ireland is an advanced training course for musicians. You get to a certain level then you have to go somewhere else to reach the final performance level. I would be very keen to see something develop so that people from Ireland don’t have to go abroad,” he said.
His favorite opera is “nearly always the one I’m doing at the time but if I’m really pressed I suppose The Marriage of Figaro. I think it’s got the greatest humanity of any piece I know. The forgiveness at the end, all that comedy you go through . . . Life is a comedy and people have to be big-hearted. I did it here [Santa Fe] last year and it was a wonderful group of artists doing it.”
The Marriage of Figaro aside, Montgomery has an appreciation for the not so commonly performed – perhaps harkening back to the catch-all of music left to him as a child that he would draw on to surprise his music teachers. “I was curious about all kinds of music, sometimes bringing pieces to my music teacher in Belfast and he was horrified, saying, ‘What is this?’”
He still likes to surprise. We meet for lunch between rehearsals for Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Alceste with American soprano Christine Brewer in the title role. The opera, which has no sub-plot, and is based on the play Alcestis by Euripides, is a challenge for any conductor. But then Montgomery is the sort who revels in a challenge. In fact, the reason he was invited to Santa Fe was because of his penchant for the unusual.
“It happened because I’d been working in Toronto with the Canadian opera and met a stage director there called Bliss Hebert who had been working regularly here [in Santa Fe] and I think it was he who suggested my name for Mignon, an opera by [Ambroise] Tomas. Now I’ve done quite a lot of rare operas. I like to do rare operas and I liked very much doing it in Sante Fe. They seemed to like me also, so two years later I was back for The Secret Marriage [by Cimarosa].”
Mignon was in 1982; Montgomery has been a regular conductor at Santa Fe ever since. And he is happy to be here.
“It’s such a fascinating mixture of cultures. After you’ve been here a bit you begin to feel the Hispanic and the Native American cultures and you begin to realize that the Anglo culture is less important than both of them. It’s kind of mysterious as well. There are all kinds of elements that make it interestingly mysterious,” he said.
“I’m very, very happy working here, the orchestra is absolutely wonderful, and of course the setting is fantastic. The founder of the company, John Crosby [a New Yorker], was a wonderful organizer and administrator. He really knew how to put things together. He was a conductor as well and a superb musician and so his combination of music and brilliant administration has made this company as good as it is. And it’s a great pleasure to work here because you know everything is going to be organized as well as it possibly can be. As you can imagine opera is a very complicated thing to organize, there’s so many different things that have to go together. This is one of the finest opera companies I know.”
Montgomery never lost touch with Belfast. Shortly after our meeting he opened the 2009/10 season at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall with the Ulster Orchestra. Having served as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, he became its principal conductor in 2008, the first Ulster man to serve in this position.
Sadly, his father had passed away, but his mother gloried in her son’s triumph.
“Unfortunately, my father died when I was 21 or 22 and had been ill quite a bit before so he didn’t see me perform much. But my mother is still alive, 98. In fact when I was appointed principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra I went to see her and as she’s deaf now, I had to write the news of the appointment down for her. She didn’t react for a while and I thought, ‘Can’t she read or what’ and then she banged her arm on the table and said, ‘I told them so.’
“She had a group of friends who used to say to her, ‘Lily, you’re not having any life of your own for all these choir practices.’ She had to take me – two buses – and wait for me. And her friends would say, ‘You’re doing too much for him.’
“And so,‘I told them so’ was her way of saying, ‘It was worth it.’”
He pauses before adding thoughtfully. “My parents were marvelous really; they just let me get on with it.”