Music director for Minn. Opera is a man on the move

Published 9:54 am Friday, April 26, 2013

ROCHESTER — Michael Christie is a maestro on the move.

At 38, he’s the music director of the Minnesota Opera, one of the nation’s top companies. He’s also wrapping up eight years as music director of the Phoenix Symphony, leads the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, guest-conducts orchestras around the world, and last year was on the cover of Opera News magazine, which in the opera world is like being the cover model on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Aside from all that, he’s the doting father of a 4-year-old and keeps the household running while his wife completes a medical fellowship at Mayo.

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“It’s kind of a funny way of life,” Christie said. “When I’m not doing performances or rehearsals, I’m here at home, I do the school drop-off or walk with my daughter to school, and then I’m at home learning music, which is a pretty slow process. When I’m home in Rochester, I’m truly at home.”

He isn’t the youngest music director of a major U.S. orchestra or opera company — the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel comes to mind — but he’s among them, and you can chalk it up to talent, good looks, being in the right place at the right time, and a gusto for what he does.

“I was talking to a singer about this the other day,” he said — “I’m amazed that we get to do this work that we love and that every night, up to 2,000 people come and seek out what we do.” That’s the best part of his job, he said.

His career has followed a charmed path — from trumpet study at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he was encouraged to try his hand at conducting, to an award in a first-ever international competition in Finland in 1995, which led to an apprenticeship with the Chicago Symphony and to the Berlin State Opera in 1996-97.

That led to connections at the Zurich Opera and the Finnish National Opera, and a chance fill-in for Riccardo Muti with the New York Philharmonic in 2007. Somewhere in there was a stop with the Queensland Orchestra in Brisbane, Australia, where he met his wife Alexis, and when he took the job in Phoenix, Alexis got a job at Mayo Scottsdale. Just to keep his plate full, he also was music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic from 2005 to 2010.

The Minnesota Opera created the music director job for him in January of last year, and he moved to Rochester in June with his wife, who’s now a fellow in pulmonary critical care at Mayo, and their daughter Sinclair.

Despite their hectic careers, they’ve had time to get familiar with the city, explore the bike trails and parks, and enjoy “every restaurant in town,” he said.

“From the moment we got here, we went straight to the county fairs, the state fair . we jumped right in and have really explored the area,” he said. “We’ve been to every park . we drop in on pancake breakfasts at churches and those types of things, just to participate in the life of the city.”

When he has time, which you’d imagine is never, he flies. He has a Mooney Acclaim aircraft at the Rochester airport and, in addition to traveling to Phoenix and other gigs, he flies as a volunteer for the Angel Flight network. There are parallels between conducting an orchestra and flying, he says, including keeping a firm hand on the tempo and dynamics.

Last week he was in the pit at the Ordway Center, leading performances of Puccini’s “Turandot,” then was off to San Francisco to conduct the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s opera, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” Throughout his career, he has championed new works, which made the Minnesota Opera an attractive landing spot.

The downside to the Minnesota job has been driving back and forth to the Twin Cities “four or five times a week” during the season, but those days are just about over. In June, Christie and family will move to the metro area.

Christie, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., said he’ll miss a lot about Rochester, including the market at Zzest on 16th Street, the farmers market, and Thursdays on First & Third during the summer. “We’ve enjoyed our stay immensely.”

He won’t miss the driving, but with Christie, you get the impression he’ll always be driving or flying somewhere — and in a hurry.