The phrase "a real gentlemen" comes up often when singers speak of conductor Harry Bicket, currently leading the Los Angeles Opera's three-week run of Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
"There's no maestro ego about him," says Susan Graham, the celebrated mezzo-soprano who sings the title role of Poppea in this production, her second collaboration with the conductor, following an album of arias they recorded in 2000. "He's smart enough to know how to get the best work out of you. He doesn't hound or insist; he's very collaborative. And if you're smart enough to know how good he is, then you'll get his way of thinking."
Bicket, 45, who was born in Liverpool and educated at Oxford and the Royal College of Music, studied harpsichord, organ and piano in addition to conducting. But his professional success seems to rest as much on his interpersonal instincts as on his technical skills.
"He trusts you," says veteran mezzo Frederica von Stade, who as Ottavia is working with Bicket for the first time. "And if you don't do it right one time, he knows you'll do it the next. He doesn't create a nervous atmosphere. With a piece so filled with notes, there will be errors, but that's not the issue with him. It's about the intention."
Countertenor David Daniels, who sings the role of the cuckolded Ottone, has worked with Bicket regularly for a decade. He offers similar praise. "Harry's very calm in the pit," Daniels says. "I've had conductors who've dropped the baton and pulled their hair because I made a wrong turn in a melisma, but Harry just puts up his hand and cues me when to start again."
Bicket's affection for singers is long-standing. "If you do this period of music, you have to work with singers," he says. "And if you're interested in text, as I am, you have to do this period. But I've always loved speaking through music. Even in the instrumental playing, we look for phraseology that imitates human speech, rather than legato. And that's part of the appeal: One feeds off the other."
But the appeal is more than intellectual. Bicket lauds the stamina of singers, and their vulnerability. He is attracted to their personalities, including their egos and fears. "They're doing the hardest job," he says. "Working with them, it's like getting inside their soul, because their instrument is actually part of their body."
"Poppea," directed by Pierre Audi, marks Bicket's second engagement at L.A. Opera. He first appeared with the company in February 2001, leading Handel's "Giulio Cesare" with Daniels in the title role. Bicket was already regarded as a Handel specialist then, and his reputation has only increased. This year, three of the five operas Bicket conducted were by Handel.
Bicket caught his big break in 1996 conducting Handel -- replacing an ailing William Christie in Peter Sellars' Glyndebourne Festival production of "Theodora," with Daniels, Dawn Upshaw and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. As word of his prowess spread, so did demand for his services -- provided he was conducting Handel. And so he did, at Munich's Bavarian State Opera ("Rinaldo"), Chicago's Lyric Opera ("Partenope"), London's Covent Garden ("Orlando") and Santa Fe Opera ("Agrippina").
In December 2004, Bicket conducted the premiere of Handel's "Rodelinda" at New York's Metropolitan Opera, in a splashy new staging featuring Renee Fleming and Daniels.
Even in his New York Philharmonic debut later this month, he is conducting "Messiah."
"In the same way that French conductors bemoan that they only get to conduct Bizet and Massenet," Bicket says, "I am usually picked for Baroque opera, because I'm known for that now. I wouldn't have been asked by the Met to do a new production of 'Trovatore.' "
Though Handel may be his calling card, Bicket is no stranger to Monteverdi. He made his American debut in 1997 leading "Poppea" at Florida Grand Opera in a production that featured Daniels in the role of Nero. And he has conducted it in Munich and Tel Aviv since.
Like nearly all who conduct operas written before the late 18th century, Bicket is committed to performing such works in a manner approximating their original incarnations. In the case of "Poppea," which had its premiere in 1643, that presents special challenges.
"The score is only a sketch," he says. "It doesn't tell you very much. It's open to interpretation." That, of course, is part of the appeal for Bicket, who, though not a musicologist, is informed and opinionated regarding pre-Mozart scores.
"I like them because they return us to the original ideals of opera," he says, "of text being heightened by music, and in that order. They take wonderful words and elevate them through music to be something greater. I don't think a lot of composers in the 19th century cared much about language. Whereas you could probably do 'Poppea' as a spoken play."
That last point doesn't exactly calm the nerves of singers, who are, after all, responsible for conveying those words. And that's on top of their concern about spare instrumentation in an early opera like "Poppea." In Audi's production, there are only 13 instruments, one of which is the harpsichord Bicket plays while conducting. Moreover, because these instruments are constructed to period specifications, they produce less volume -- and thus offer less cover -- than their modern counterparts.
"There's no place to hide at all," Graham says. "You feel like you're out there naked." Which makes Bicket's calming presence all the more welcome.
"Everything becomes easier when he's around," Daniels says. "He knows when I'm going to be ready, and when I'll peak. He knows me so well that he doesn't get uptight. If I keep forgetting a word, he knows that by opening night I'm going to know the word. And though we can get bitchy with each other, he knows it doesn't mean anything. Besides, Harry doesn't get too bitchy; he's English."
'The Coronation of Poppea'
What: Los Angeles Opera
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 10; 7 p.m. Dec. 7, 13 and 16
Price: $30 to $220
Contact: (213) 972-8001