Born in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., Stephen Wadsworth has been a freelance director of opera and spoken theater for 28 years, working in such venues as La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, and Seattle Opera. This month, he directs a new production of Boris Godunov at the Met, with Valery Gergiev conducting, while across the Lincoln Center plaza, New York City Opera is staging Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, for which Wadsworth wrote the libretto. A Juilliard faculty member since 2008, he has taught at the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and at the Manhattan School of Music, and has been a guest instructor at numerous colleges, universities, and opera companies.
When did you first know you wanted to be a musician and how did you come to know it?
After seeing Don Giovanni at the Met in 1959, with Cesare Siepi, I got it in my mind that I would be a conductor. And then in fifth grade my piano teacher gave me some simple pieces by Bartok that made me want to know why he wrote like that.
Who was the teacher or mentor who most inspired you when you were growing up and what did you learn from that person?
I had a brilliant music teacher called Marjorie Gifford who was a friend until she died 10 years ago. She taught me to read music and led the choir at our school. She was a purist: she loved Gregorian chant and thought opera was appalling. She used to shut up a chatty class by playing stride piano—everyone was stunned into silence. A piano teacher, Sallie Goerl, also took my interest in music very seriously and encouraged me to articulate my responses. Both women were interested in helping me become whoever I was, more than in making me become a musician. The great mentor figure in my life was Leonard Bernstein. We wrote an opera together, A Quiet Place, and we spent several years working on it together. Lenny told me to go forth and do whatever it is I had to do, and without apologizing for it ever. That was just one of many useful things I learned from him, and it’s one I pass on to students all the time.
What was the first recording that you remember hearing or buying? What was its significance to you?
That Don Giovanni at the old Met was my first experience in a theater, and I could not stop thinking or talking about it. I sat in a box on the corner of the horseshoe, so what I saw straight ahead of me was the proscenium, dead center, with the performers on the stage to the right and the audience watching on the left. I was looking at the relationship between art and people. That made an impression every bit as deep as the music did. Cesare Siepi had recorded the role on a set of old Decca LPs, and my parents gave them to me that Christmas. Bounty! I could have this huge musical tapestry at my feet whenever I pleased.
What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve had as a performer or in your career?
There have been thousands, sadly. A couple of years ago I showed up at a lighting rehearsal and complained during the building of every cue that it was just too dark. We worked for a couple of hours, adjustments were made, and then I realized I was wearing my sunglasses. The list goes on. The worst feeling of embarrassment comes when I have misunderstood someone, or made an assumption about them that turns out not to be the truth.
If you could have your students visit any place in the world, where would it be, and why?
I would love to spend a semester in Europe with them, show them buildings and paintings and vistas and ruins and restaurants and concert halls and opera houses, so that they could look closely at the histories that produced most of the art they are eager to interpret.
What are your non-music related interests or hobbies? What would people be surprised to know about you?
Music, words, pedagogy, directing, writing, translating, history, and most of all people interest me, but they all seem to me to be one big pursuit, at least as I experience them. How people relate, the extent to which they do or do not connect, how they live in their private worlds—these are the most interesting things in my world. I’m interested too in how the brain functions.
If your students could only remember one thing from your teaching, what would you want it to be?
I’d like them to remember that one’s career is part of one’s life, and not the other way around: your life isn’t part of your career. The most important thing is to become who you actually are, and use your craft to tell the deepest truths you can access, either in yourself or in the world around you.
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
My work with students at Juilliard and the Met, and my time directing at the Met and City Opera. I actually really don’t like living here at all!
What book are you reading right now, or what CD are you listening to … and what can you tell us about it?
I’m listening mostly to Boris Godunov, because I am taking over the new Met Boris with only 25 days prep time. But I’ve also just heard superb new aria CDs by Jonas Kaufmann and Joyce DiDonato. I have bookmarks in about 18 books, some of them about the first two years, since I have an 8-week-old daughter. I just finally read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, one of the most beautiful books ever—a poem dressed up as a novel. I’ll get back to serial reading when Boris has opened.
If you weren’t in the career you are in, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a novelist or a therapist. A therapist with a particular interest in child abuse and trauma recovery.