Growing up around opera and working on Broadway proved to be excellent training for conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos in his work leading live-to-picture events.
“My operatic training is the basis for everything I do,” said Kitsopoulos, who will conduct the Chicago Symphony in the performance of the film musical “An American in Paris” (1951) on March 22 and 24.
American musical theater differs from opera “in the way the audience perceives it,” said Kitsopoulos, who has led many national tours and conducted his share of hits (and flops, he adds) in New York. Because musicals nowadays are amplified and opera is not, for the latter, “the audience has to lean in and really listen.”
In the space between, Kitsopoulos conducted Baz Luhrmann’s acclaimed Broadway production of Puccini’s classic opera “La Boheme.” “That was the gig of a lifetime,” he said. “Puccini eight shows a week? I was fine with that.” As a director, Luhrmann taught Kitsopoulos “how to work on an opera from the point of view of the text. That approach stayed with me, and it fundamentally changed the way I approach things.”
On Broadway nowadays, “directors want to make the experience more cinematic, with lots of underscoring and sound mixing,” he said. “But if I want a cinematic experience, I’ll go to the movies. Or better yet, go to a live concert with the film above it.”
The latter has become a very popular segment of orchestra programming in recent years, and those concerts are filling Kitsopoulos’ calendar. But when he’s conducting a live movie soundtrack, “the difference is that no matter what I do or what the orchestra does, the film keeps going. Failure is not an option.”
To prepare, he watches the film hundreds of times to study “why the music was applied to the film the way it was.”
It’s also helpful to remember that in the filmmaking process the composer is usually the last person to come in, and in the case of “An American in Paris,” “Gershwin wasn’t even alive.” The composer died in 1937, and the loosely plotted movie was assembled around many of his hit songs, plus a 17-minute dance sequence that uses material from his tone poem of the same name. That scene, Kitsopoulos said, is “the dancers’ revenge on conductors. I’ve got to follow the dancers. I have to get into the mind of Gene Kelly — how he’s moving, how he choreographed the whole thing and how he’s counting it.”
That scene, he said, is “not at all the tempo you’re used to hearing it in the tone poem. It’s a lot faster.” That means an adjustment for orchestras playing the soundtrack, since they’ve done it the other way many times.
Seeing a movie while a live orchestra plays the soundtrack is “a much more visceral experience to hear 70 or 80 musicians playing a glorious score and having the sound wash over you” than a typical evening at the multiplex, Kitsopoulos said. The concerts will mark his debut with the CSO, and he said, “I’m so looking forward to hearing the Chicago Symphony play this score.”
A common technology for conductors leading live soundtracks today is the use of a computer tablet on the music stand that plays the film with visual cues added. But for this film, Kitsopoulos said, “We’ll do it old school. I’ll have the video of an analog clock with the second hand going around, and I have the timings marked in my score.”
For movies made before the split-second precision of digital technology, that approach works fine, he said. In fact, when he conducts “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), to take one old example, he can line up the live soundtrack to the events onscreen better than the recorded version does.
“This way of seeing a film is just a great experience,” Kitsopoulos said. “Every time I do one, someone comes backstage afterward with their kids and says, ‘This is the first time my kids have heard a live orchestra.’ This is a chance to perpetuate what we love to do.”