May 09, 2022

People of Lyric: Donald Lee III

For nearly five decades, The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center has nurtured the talents of a diverse range of emerging singers and pianists. Building on that legacy, the program added a new position to its 2021/22 Ensemble: Conductor/Pianist. We are thrilled to introduce the first person to take on this role, Donald Lee III. 

How does it feel to be the first artist in this new Conductor/Pianist role with the Ryan Opera Center?

It feels incredible! I am extremely humbled and grateful to be in the Ensemble. I fell in love with piano, opera, and the idea of one day being a conductor within a short span during my childhood, and the opportunity to bring all of these passions together at the highest level is a dream come true. 

What led you to Lyric?

I was supporting my partner in a round of the Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition in Tennessee, and Ryan Opera Center Music Director Craig Terry happened to be adjudicating that afternoon. Afterwards, I introduced myself to Craig and asked about choosing between being a solo pianist and a collaborative pianist, when one has a passion for both. Without missing a beat, he told me that I don't have to choose—one does not preclude the other these days. That conversation stuck with me, so when I saw that Lyric had created a new conductor/pianist position (and saw that Craig would be one of the advisors), I jumped on the opportunity. 

Donald Lee III conducting Lyric's 2022 Lyric Rising Stars in Concert.

What's a typical day like for you and what is the nature of your training?

In my role, a typical day involves helping my colleagues prepare for roles and other performances in one-on-one coachings and playing voice lessons with Ryan Opera Center Director of Vocal Studies Julia Faulkner. I also take private conducting lessons and observe Enrique Mazzola and Lyric guest conductors lead rehearsals and performances for the mainstage season. Enrique has been incredibly supportive and generous in mentoring me. Of course, I also maintain my own rigorous study and practice regimen with piano and conducting.

What's the most challenging aspect of your role?

One of the challenging aspects of my role is balancing conducting and piano playing. Both require large investments of mental resources and time, and there is a high standard of preparation that must be met. That said, being absolutely in love with both disciplines makes this challenging aspect of my role also the most exciting.

Donald Lee III and Lyric's Music Director, Enrique Mazzola, at Sunday in the Park with Lyric's Rising Stars

What's something about studying to be a conductor that people might not know?

People might not know the depth of self-reflection that goes into studying to be a conductor — both figuratively and literally. I spend a lot of time watching myself conduct in the mirror. A conductor has to communicate a massive amount of information through body language, and everyone’s body language is incredibly unique. I watch the gestures that I make, reflect on what I was trying to communicate, what I actually managed to communicate, and why any disparity might exist. It is in the “why” that I sometimes learn a lot about myself, and it leaves me more confident in who I am, which in turn makes me more confident on the podium. For me, it’s not enough just to make the right motions — I want them to come authentically from the core of who I am.

A favorite Lyric moment?

Hearing Ailyn Pérez and Lucas Meachem suspend time as they floated the words “Tutto scordiam” in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci during the stage/orchestra rehearsal as part of the Lyric film project last spring. I am getting chills as I am saying this.

Beyond opera, what are your other passions?

I am passionate about solo piano literature and doing my part to expand the canon. Outside of music, I also love visual arts (as a patron), collecting fountain pens, stationery, and cooking.

Header photo: Donald Lee III conducting alongside Lyric's Music Director, Enrique Mazzola, at Sunday in the Park with Lyric's Rising Stars. Credit: Kyle Flubacker

All other photos: Jaclyn Simpson, Kyle Flubacker