SF conductor Nicole Paiement on 'The Little Prince' and being a female leader in opera

SF conductor Nicole Paiement on 'The Little Prince' and being a female leader in operaMaestra Nicole Paiement, music director for Opera Parallele. | Photo: SF Conservatory of Music
Cedric Westphal
Published on December 07, 2018

This weekend, contemporary opera company Opera Parallele will present an opera based on Antoine de Saint-Exupery's beloved children's classic The Little Prince. But in a twist on the story, both the pilot and the little royal will be female, as are two of the creative leads: composer Rachel Portman and conductor and San Francisco resident Nicole Paiement.

In the world of opera, women have long worked in environments where they are the exception, rather than the norm. In its entire history, the San Francisco Opera has only presented works by three female composers (one of them Portman), none of which appeared on its main stage. 

That hasn't stopped Paiement, a native of Quebec with a Ph.D. from the Eastman School of Music, from building Opera Parallele into a Bay Area powerhouse. 

Born from Ensemble Parallele, a music ensemble Paiement founded as a professor at UC Santa Cruz, it's dedicated to reinventing modern opera for new audiences — including young ones — in more intimate settings. 

The small company punches above its weight, collaborating with top composers like Philip Glass, Jake Heggie and Laura Kaminsky, from whom it recently co-commissioned Today It Rains, an opera about the life of Georgia O'Keeffe. (Set to premiere next March, the new opera will run in New York in September 2019.)

Yet despite being attached to these two decidedly female-centric projects, Paiement says Opera Parallele's mission is not necessarily to advance diversity. 

"I am a woman conductor, and I enjoy collaborating with and encouraging women composers, conductors, assistants," she told Hoodline. "I am conscious of the importance of promoting women. But it's not part of [Opera Parallele's] mission, which is to advance opera as an art form, and to present operas with a contemporary aesthetic." 

Eve Gigliotti as The Pilot in the opera adaptation of 'The Little Prince.' | Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

A professor at the SF Conservatory of Music, Paiement, who lives in the hills near Buena Vista Park, has a growing national profile as a conductor. She spends as much as two-thirds of the year conducting orchestras outside of town, including as principal guest conductor at the Dallas Opera. (She spoke to us on the phone from Washington, D.C., where she was conducting at the Kennedy Center.)

"I don't apologize for being a woman on the podium," she said. "On the podium, I am a musician, not a woman. I am a conductor, someone who understands the work and translates it through motion and musicality."

While Portman originally wrote the role of the 'Little Prince' pilot for a baritone, Paiement says the composer was delighted by the concept of hiring a woman, mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti, for the role. 

"She went: 'Ah, I should have thought of this myself,'" she recalls. "She loves the idea. We wanted to change the point of view a bit."

Casting her Little Princess was harder, "but we found two little girls [who alternate in the role]," she explained. 

Fans of the book will still find plenty of familiar aspects in the production. Artist Matt Kish, who previously worked with Paiement on an opera of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, created a uniqu set design that projects original illustrations from Saint-Exupery's book onstage. 

And while the genders may be different, "the relationship is all about humanity," Paiement said, noting that "both men and women raise children now."

Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo

"These are human beings," she added. "It's beautiful. This opera is nice for people of all ages; the story is really universal."

The Little Prince runs tonight, December 7 at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 8 at 2  7 p.m. and Sunday, December 9 at 2 p.m. at the Marines’ Memorial Theater. Tickets are $25-$75. 

Editor's note: This interview was conducted in French and translated by the author.