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.’