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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Meet the Staff (sort of): Francesco Milioto, Interim Chorusmaster & Assistant Conductor

This week I bring you a little interview with our most recent chorusmaster/assistant conductor candidate, Francesco Milioto. I was curious about what it's like to come in and have what essentially amounts to a month-long audition. Francesco was great to work with, and I appreciate the time he took to answer my questions.



Where are you from?

Born in Toronto, Ontario CANADA but I now live in Chicago.


What's your background? Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

My background, Sicilian.  Started playing piano at 6 or 7. Came home from school and my father had bought me an upright piano and put it in my bedroom. I never asked to play an instrument, never played one. He had already signed me up for lessons. I guess it worked out. I went to the University of Western Ontario for my undergrad in piano performance where I studied with Ron Turini, a former pupil of Horowitz. Then for a Masters in Orchestral Conducting and Opera repetition at the University of McGill in Montreal.


You came to join us mid-season, and were thrown right in. You didn't meet the Tosca chorus until the first rehearsal, and then hit the ground running with chorus rehearsals, staging rehearsals, artist coachings, previews, a recital. Can you tell me a little bit about this experience? What is it like? Is there a particularly unique challenge to this situation, or is it pretty much par for the course for anyone who guest conducts?

I would say this whole situation was a bit unique! I am auditioning for a position that encompasses a variety of responsibilities. As an assistant conductor I am certainly used to hitting the ground running with coachings, staging rehearsals and other musical needs. Meeting a chorus for the first time as their interim chorus master can be tricky. I have no idea who was there before me, how they did things, and what the dynamic of the group is!!  Thankfully this chorus is as kind and fun as they are talented. Also in this opera I worked with a children's chorus, which is never dull. They learned their music in less than an hour and a half, and had it memorized before the end of their second rehearsal -- amazing. It is usually only when I am a guest conductor at an opera company that I give a masterclass or have some connection to the young artists. It was wonderful to work so closely with Caitlin Mathes on her recital and have a close coaching relationship with these 5 young artists.  


In addition to chorusmaster and coach, you're also acting as assistant conductor. Have you ever worked with Maestro Colaneri before? What is it like to jump into that role?

I have a lot of experience in being an assistant conductor so this is a fairly normal to me. It's adding the chorusmaster and young artists to the mix that made it intense! I have never had the privilege of  working with Maestro Colaneri before, but I have enjoyed watching him work. His attention to detail, high standards, deep understanding of the style and drama were fantastic. However, most impressive was his approach to his artists (chorus and orchestra included of course :) ).



What's the craziest/funniest thing that's ever happened to you while conducting/performing?

SO MANY THINGS. I was once assisting on a production of Butterfly and was backstage for the beginning of Act III. During the prelude I heard an odd percussion crash and out of curiosity went to the pit door to see what was going on. I found the percussionist passed out on top of her percussion table from dehydration and exhaustion. I picked her up and moved her into the hallway, got some help and made sure she was OK. At this point, I realize we are coming up to some serious tam-tam parts before Butterfly's final aria and suicide. I had no idea where we were in the part so I turned to the last page, found the music and at least knew when to start I did...all the way to the end.


What have you enjoyed the most during your time here?

I enjoyed the staff, this wonderful music and cast, the scenery and city of Portland, and some coffee! I also am more accepting of reflective clothing! (For safety only, of course).


Tell me a little bit about what else you do in your "real life." You conduct for I think literally one million other groups. What is it like to juggle so many different orchestras (which is par for the course for many, if not most, conductors)?

I do have a lot on my plate, but it is normal for someone in my position. It is really tough to stay on top of all these ensembles and be as involved as I like to be. It's always a question of time management and starting things early. Last minute never works!


My blog readers probably know by now that I am very interested in and passionate about accessibility in the arts. You've mixed hip hop & opera, you've programmed Mozart and house music on the same concert -- I LOVE this kind of stuff. Can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of projects like these? What inspires these kinds of combinations/collaborations?

I've created these shows and combinations for the New Millennium Orchestra, things like DJ Beethoven and Hip H'opera. It really is possible only when you have a group that is interested and versatile enough to do it. Dominic Johnson, one of my fellow co-founders on NMO, is not only a fabulous violist, but also a DJ. The original ideas for this came out of being hired by the Harris Theater to do a super cool kids show. We came up with DJ Beethoven and I created the program and arrangements.  We sold over 1,000 tickets to this first show! Many of the members of NMO play a big variety of music so for us it is an fairly easy task. I've had live drums and DJ play over Mozart's Le nozze di figaro overture; we have had beats and a full on rap in the Habanera and Toreador song -- crazy stuff, but the audience loves it!


What's your favorite opera?

The one I'm conducting.


How has Portland treated you? We're sorry about the rain :(

Portland is a cool city, the people are nice, it is very pretty and I like that it is GREEN is both senses of the word.


What was it like to work with R. Kelly? (Jess note: In prepping for this interview, I did some Google stalking of Francesco, where I found an interview in which he very casually mentioned having played for R. Kelly. The interviewer didn't pursue it, but I had to!)

You are too funny. Working with R. Kelly was pretty fun. We were hired to play background music for his "happy people" album's private release at his house. So we were picked up at his studios in Chicago on his tour bus, with the curtains drawn so we didn't know where he lived. Got to his awesome crazy house with a shark tank, and full on Amazon themed indoor pool. We set up and played on the upper staircase landing: arias, classical music and, of course, R. Kelly sang a string arrangement of Amarilli or something -- one of the 24 Italian songs he learned in school, I think. Ha! I conducted R. Kelly. That's just funny. He was very nice, a gracious host and can throw a hell of a party!

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