May 14, 2021

Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis: Memories and tributes

Throughout his years of association with Lyric, initially as guest conductor and ultimately as music director and principal conductor for just over two decades, Sir Andrew Davis has had a profound influence and effect on countless members of the Lyric family on both sides of the curtain. Here are just a few fond reflections and some behind-the-scenes revelations.

Amanda Majeski, soprano

I will never forget the opening night of The Passenger. We knew the story we were telling was so important and poignant, and could feel the audience with us the entire night. As the last chord faded away, Sir Andrew slowly let his hands drop to his sides, holding us all in this pregnant moment of silence, all together sharing that powerful moment in our shared humanity. It was the truest, purest moment I've ever experienced on stage.

I have gained so much from my work with Sir Andrew over the years. His skill, knowledge, and unwavering collaborative support were crucial to my development as a young professional. For me, you can tell so much about a conductor by their face when they're at the podium. A smile from Sir Andrew during performances meant the world. In that smile he said, "I hear you. I've got you. Go for it, I've got your back." I can't tell you how freeing that is in performance!

Sir Andrew Davis leads soprano Amanda Majeski (Countess/The Marriage of Figaro) and the Lyric Opera Orchestra in Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, From Mozart to Stravinsky.

Melissa T. Kirk, violist

I joined the Lyric Opera Orchestra viola section in 1982 and have shared the entire ride through Sir Andrew's tenure from his first Marriage of Figaro to his second, nearly complete Ring cycle. There are many musical highlights but I will share two of my personal favorites.

Sir Andrew's deep understanding of and love for British composers made our performances of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd in 2001 an unforgettable experience. With Kim Begley as Captain Vere, Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd, Samuel Ramey as John Claggart, and Sir Andrew conducting, it was a magical combination.

The poignancy of "Salve Regina," the final scene of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, conducted by Sir Andrew in a Lyric premiere in 2007, is another moment that will always stay with me. We were transported in the way that only opera can accomplish, and I nightly shed a few tears, as did Sir Andrew.

Thank you Sir Andrew for sharing your musical gifts and passion, your wit and excellent sense of humor. Come back soon!

Susan Miller Hult, assistant conductor, prompter

I loved seeing how his eyes shone with pride and delight at his son Edward's superb (and musically accurate) portrayal of the Cabin Boy in Billy Budd.

In Strauss's extremely challenging Capriccio, which includes one of opera's most excruciatingly difficult ensembles that had us mortals absolutely terrified, Maestro Davis (who made his operatic debut with that opera at Glyndebourne) knew it so well he hardly had to consult the score, and beamed as he dexterously conducted with ease and much joy. Also especially memorable is the glorious music he made with Renée Fleming.

I treasure the brilliant stories he regaled us with at break times of the illustrious composers, conductors, and singers he'd worked with — like the most brilliant, enlightening, and entertaining of post-doctorate classes.

And, in over 20 seasons together, there was never a performance without many moments where he drew out from singing or playing artists something of such beauty that it took my breath away.

Recent Ryan Opera Center alumna Kayleigh Decker wins an approving look from Maestro Davis for her portrayal of Cherubino in Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinsky.

Kayleigh Decker, mezzo-soprano

When I returned to Chicago to film the concert celebrating Sir Andrew, it was my first time setting foot in any opera house in an entire year. After a year of loss, and too many challenges to name, stepping back into that space was not just daunting, but also overwhelmingly emotional. After a year of silence, how could I possibly sing again? My last day in the Lyric Opera House was Friday, March 13, 2020, and Lyric had just canceled the rest of the season.

I collected everything I'd accumulated over my two years at Lyric in the Ryan Opera Center. There were suits, dresses, curling irons, high-heeled shoes, and sparkly earrings, all of which would become useless to me over the next year, but there were also scores, all the music I had learned and performed, plus books, gifts, sheet music, photos, review clippings, and CDs.

Teary-eyed I lugged it all out. By that time everyone had left; there was no one to say goodbye to at the opera house. As I approached the stage door, burdened with proof in grocery bags hung over my shoulders of all that I had become over those two years, the door swung open. Holding it was Sir Andrew. We had a brief conversation and he sent me on my way with the wish that we would work together again soon in the future. That would turn out to be a full year later for this recent recording project.

Returning to Lyric, for all of us involved in this project, was exciting and beautiful, and also really challenging. It was awkward and jarring, and no matter how much preparation was done individually it was shocking to break the silence and to make music with other live human beings for the first time in a year. But having Sir Andrew as the conductor of the project made everything feel more like home.

When I heard the sound of the orchestra as I gazed into the golden, ruby velvet of the Lyric theater, it took everything in my being to not melt into a puddle of tears under the stage lights and in front of the cameras. When I went to breathe and phonate, questioning what would come out after a year of silence, it was like the theater itself embraced all of us brought together in that moment of collaboration. It was like we saw just briefly who we used to be reflected back to us, and it was a gift.

These memories of working with Sir Andrew Davis I will always cherish, and I am grateful for every door he has so generously opened for me, both real and imagined.

Christine Goerke, soprano

To point out that Sir Andrew is a spectacular musician, or that he is a wonderful conductor, seems almost unnecessary. It is absolutely obvious to anyone who has ever seen him in front of an orchestra or singers. What people might not know is that Sir Andrew is one of the most joyous of collaborators. Quick with a smile, filled with miraculous information, and seemingly egoless on the podium. There has never been a moment that I have been on stage in front of him that I have not felt totally safe. As though I could do anything with his help.

Sir Andrew has always helped to bring out the best in each of us, while allowing us to stretch and grow as performers. I will be forever grateful for that gift!

Sir Andrew Davis leads members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the overture from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.

Judith Kulb, oboist

How lucky I am to be in the Lyric Opera Orchestra with Maestro Davis on the podium. He has built, shaped, and nurtured our orchestra into not only one in which we all feel a great deal of pride, but one which has achieved worldwide status for excellence. We are his orchestra through and through. He has achieved this by uncompromising musical standards expected from us all, his ability to lead and conduct from a point of his vast knowledge of the scores he conducts, and his own innate love of music. He brings passion and joy to the music he is conducting. He has a wonderful sense of humor. He will often infuse our rehearsals with timely and witty quips, jokes, or stories to make a musical point. "I might as well save my breath to cool my porridge" is one which we have heard when he feels we have not listened to what he has said! He is ever approachable to us in or out of the pit.

His performances elicit the best in all of us in the pit. The joy he brings to his Mozart, the drama of his Strauss, and the depth of his Wagner will always be unforgettable to me. Many others I will cherish — Billy Budd, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Thaïs, Cendrillon, just to name a few.

Maestro Davis creates a performing environment where one feels his support. He trusts his musicians. He allows them to express their own interpretation of a solo passage. He might offer suggestions, but he trusts and respects what his players musically bring to a particular solo passage. I remember when we performed Parsifal in 2002. I was playing the First Oboe part. I did not yet have the Principal Oboe position, and playing this wickedly hard part was very daunting for me. The Good Friday Spell music is in the third act, and it has one of the most beautiful and difficult oboe solos. This solo also occurs about four hours into the opera, so when you need the most, you have the least! Maestro Davis always had a big smile for me when he cued me. It was such an act of "I've got your back." As his Principal Oboe for 17 years now, I can attest that I have always gotten that "I've got your back" from Sir Andrew.

His leadership and musical stamp on his Lyric Orchestra Family will be a wonderful legacy and gift for all of us as we move forward. Thank you, Maestro.

Matthew Polenzani and Janai Brugger perform a duet from The Rake's Progress with Maestro Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra in Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinksy.

Matthew Polenzani, tenor

It has been one of the great pleasures of my musical career to make music so often with Sir Andrew. I have been lucky enough to have collaborated with him on so many great pieces — Idomeneo, La clemenza di Tito, Werther, La traviata, The Abduction from the Seraglio, among many others, were all joyous occasions, and left lasting cherished impressions. He has always been among the most supportive and musical conductors I've had the pleasure of working with, and knowing he was in the pit meant I could concentrate on the drama without worry. Recording these pieces from The Rake's Progress was just a further continuation of every one of the experiences I've had with Maestro Davis. Moreover, the joy of working with the extraordinary Lyric Opera Orchestra right there on stage with us, instead of in the pit, made this experience even more visceral and memorable.

Beyond the musical, he is one of the nicest colleagues in our business, and though he is leaving the position of music director at Lyric, I hope that our musical journey will not end for years and years to come. Congratulations Sir Andrew!

Janai Brugger, soprano

I've had the great honor and privilege to work under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis a few times now. Once at the start of my career when I was a finalist in The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2012, again later in my career when I made my role debut as Ilia in Idomeneo at Lyric, and then for this unique virtual gala concert experience just recently. Sir Andrew is one of the nicest conductors I've worked with. Extremely knowledgeable in the repertoire he conducts, it was amazing to learn and witness how he viewed each character, the nuances in the score, and the opera as a whole. I also admired his jokes and overall positive attitude, which always helped me when I was feeling nervous to just relax and let go.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen discusses a scene with Maestro Sir Andrew Davis during the filming of Celebrating Sir Andrew, From Mozart to Stravinsky.

Kyle Ketelsen, bass-baritone

I've had the immense pleasure of working with Sir Andrew a number of times in the past 20 years or so. He's one who understands that what we're doing is a collaboration, not a one-sided venture. Ever positive, flashing the smile for which he's known, he instills confidence from the podium. His presence at Lyric has perpetuated the welcoming, congenial environment so important for creating art. Chicago will miss him.

Eric Weimer, assistant conductor

I think that the sound of the orchestra has improved markedly since Sir Andrew began his tenure. Unexpected perhaps, as they have had progressively less rehearsal time, with schedules becoming more compressed. Yet Sir Andrew has that special capacity to indicate instantly what he expects from the orchestra. He just doesn't waste time. And one thing he insists upon is a real preciseness of attack, thus rendering their sound even more transparent and clean, an approach superbly suited to our acoustical environment.

Speaking for the orchestra, I'm sure we all appreciate the fact that every spring Sir Andrew and his wife, Gianna Rolandi have hosted the orchestra and music staff at Coco Pazzo. (And the music staff was grateful to have its best opportunity in the course of an entire season to interact with the orchestra.) At such events, Sir Andrew always praised the orchestra for its stylistic versatility. He would give a speech in which he lavished praise on an orchestra which in the course of one week might play an opera by Handel, a bel canto opera, and a Wagner or Strauss blockbuster. But such versatility and adaptability is surely a strong trait of Sir Andrew himself, who has certainly encouraged the orchestra to develop in this direction.

Now streaming

Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinsky

Celebrating Sir Andrew Davis, from Mozart to Stravinsky

Music Director Sir Andrew Davis leads members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, Lyric Opera Chorus, and star soloists in a rousing concert that celebrates his remarkable career at Lyric. The program includes selections from Mozart's beloved comedy, The Marriage of Figaro — the first opera Sir Andrew conducted at Lyric — and Stravinsky's English-language masterpiece The Rake's Progress — the last opera he would have conducted as music director this spring — with personal tributes from some of your favorite Lyric artists.

Join us to raise a glass to Sir Andrew — and to more than three decades of his glorious music-making at Lyric!


All photos: Kyle Flubacker