ByKathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Guest conductor Eve Queler rehearses with the Honolulu
Symphony musicians for three concerts with singer Keith Ikaia-Purdy.

Conducting life
with passion

From a ‘shy’ opera conductor
comes eloquent stories

By Elisabeth A. Crean
Special to the Star-Bulletin

For someone who says she's "interview-shy," opera conductor Eve Queler tells eloquent stories of both the singers and the street urchins she's encountered in her career. The unifying theme is her passionate concern for people.

From her home base in New York City, Queler is in town to conduct the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra. The set of concerts will feature homegrown tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy, who sings in Europe with the celebrated Vienna State Opera company.

While this trip marks Queler's first visit to Hawaii, she and Ikaia-Purdy have performed together before. Last year she conducted him in a Verdi Gala concert that toured Germany.

A review of the Gala pointed out Queler's strong suit: working with singers. Wiesbaden's paper said she was "able to elicit subtle differentiations from the young musicians with precise, reserved, but perfect commands."

Earlier this week, just hours after arriving from the mainland, the dark-haired, 50ish Queler talked quietly but ardently about her work, and especially about the people she's worked with and met over the years.

Twenty-six years ago, Queler founded the Opera Orchestra of New York. The company presents lesser-known operas in concert form -- without costumes, sets and staging -- at Carnegie Hall.

The organization allowed her to gain experience as a conductor. Queler carved out a niche for her company by performing obscure works of major composers. She also put on operas outside the mainstream Italian, German and French canon, such as Czech and Russian operas.

"There are so many beautiful works that nobody knows," she said.

The concert versions revealed the charming music of forgotten operas, and helped spur companies like the Metropolitan to mount fully staged productions.

In the process, Queler worked with many great voices. Their names fall casually and affectionately into the conversation: Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Joan Sutherland, Nicolai Gedda, Beverly Sills.

"I love singers," Queler said. "I'm a real singers' conductor and singers' friend. I have a lot of feeling for them, their struggles and their needs as musicians."

She asks singers like Domingo what roles they want to tackle. "They're going to ask me for things that really interest them, that really show them at their best."

Getting the optimal performance from singers is a process that starts long before the baton's first downbeat on opening night. Queler aims to put them at ease. Gedda said: "In spite of the seriousness of Eve Queler's work, her rehearsals always took on the nature of a party."

Guest conducting engagements have taken Queler to Europe, Australia and South Africa.

Three years ago, she went to St. Petersburg to conduct at the Kirov Opera.

Petty street crime, almost nonexistent under communism, has burgeoned since its fall. One day, while Queler was sightseeing, boys selling T-shirts swarmed her. Later, when she reached for money for a street musician, her wallet was gone.

Her driver later collared one of the boys, Yuro.

The 12 year old explained that he worked for men who "pay off the teachers so that the teachers keep them on the roster," while the kids work for the criminals instead of attending school.

"These men give him the drugs" to get him addicted and keep him working for them.

Yuro led her to where the credit cards and passport were stashed and kept an appointment to return her exit visa.

"His colleagues had found out what he had done and he was in serious trouble ... He said he was going to his grandmother."

Yuro refused a job offer from the theater, saying it was too dangerous to stay. Queler begged him to get off the drugs.

And she kissed him goodbye.

A taste of opera

What: Tenor Keith Ikaia-Purdy, guest conductor Eve Queler and the Honolulu Symphony perform operatic works
When: 4 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $10-$45
Also: Pau hana concert 5:45 p.m. Wednesday at Hawaii Theatre, with "happy hour" at 4:45 p.m. Tickets $20
Call: 538-8863 or 545-4000

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