Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Former IMG Executive Bill Palant Launches Étude Arts LLC

Agent Man: Bill Palant launches venture
with exciting roster of opera singers
Now at the pinnacle of his career, artist manager Bill Palant has launched a new boutique company called Étude Arts LLC. We sat down with him to discuss his thoughts on the opera world and what it means to be independent in the opera industry: "Founder and Managing Director of Étude Arts, Bill Palant manages some of the world’s most acclaimed classical artists. His clients appear at the world’s greatest performing arts institutions and many have been recorded by the most distinguished media labels in the industry. Before establishing Étude Arts in 2015, Bill Palant was Senior Vice President at IMG Artists, where he served for nearly nineteen years. He also has worked for the Metropolitan Opera’s Rehearsal Department and for the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. He was graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in psychology."
"Étude Arts is an independent management agency built on experience, fuelled by integrity, and emboldened by the possibilities open to artists and the arts in the twenty-first century. Étude Arts offers flexible, personalized service underpinned by the authority, expertise, and vision of its founder, Bill Palant. Having guided the careers of some of the world’s most accomplished classical musicians, Bill Palant approaches the culture and industry of classical performance with skill and discernment, combining – like any great artist – distinguished technique with creative flair. Étude Arts embodies a commitment to the development of exceptional artistry at every level of the profession. Bill Palant is dedicated to the holistic success of both performer and presenter: to health and well-being, to dynamic growth and career longevity, to progressive business practice, and to outstanding performance on a global stage." For more information and a complete roster of artists, visit the official website by clicking here.

How did you come up with the name of the new company? I was inspired to name the company Étude Arts after attending a transformative performance of Philip Glass’ piano etudes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Not only was it a magnificent concert but also the experience prompted me to consider the meaning of an etude and its function as well as its practice. That the etude promotes the exploration and expression of a particular skill and the strengthening of technique resonated with me greatly and served as the perfect metaphor of what I am doing in this evolution of my professional career.

What got you interested in managing opera singers? After working for five years at the Metropolitan Opera, I wanted to spread my wings beyond the responsibilities of the Rehearsal Department. At the time, there weren’t positions available in New York City with other performing arts organizations of the same (or even near the same) caliber of the one I had at Met, so I looked beyond the stages of great artistic institutions like Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, etc. My introduction to the world of artist management, during my Met years, was less than
inspiring. A majority of the agents I worked with were, shall we say, ‘slimy types.’ After my introduction to Susana Meyer, my first boss at IMG Artists, and the managerial leadership style of Edna Landau, who ran the North American operation of the company, I quickly recognized there was a place in artist management that does, indeed, celebrate values that were more akin to my own – creativity, caring, balance, artistry, artistic development, and a long-term, holistic career trajectory. The culture nurtured by Edna Landau and Charles Hamlen at IMG Artists was a good fit for me; their uncompromising work ethic fostered a healthy environment to learn, to grow, to challenge and to be challenged, and to hone my skills first as the booking agent of the Vocal Division and, then, as an artist manager with my own roster of clients.

Do you remember your first experience hearing opera? The first opera I recall hearing was Don Giovanni, presented by the Opera Company of Boston in 1984. My cousin, conductor Jonathan Shames, was an assistant to Sarah Caldwell, and my parents took me to the Boston Opera House to see him conduct.

When did you begin to study music? My parents introduced me to music, formally, when I was around four or five years old. They enrolled me in Yamaha Music School classes to learn the basics of rhythm, notation, and keyboard skill. I began studying clarinet in the second grade and played until my graduation from high school. I began singing in high school and enjoyed many kinds of performance there including choral, musical theater, barbershop quartets, and even three years in a rock band! I sang in choir for my four years of college, as well.

How did your experience at Oberlin influence how you work in the music business? Though I took many classes in Music History – as well as Religion, Spanish, and a host of other subjects – I was graduated with a degree in Psychology and I believe that my formal study in this subject has enabled me to see and hear the needs of the performing artist in a more sensitive and experienced way. I joke often that when I began at Oberlin, I had wanted to pursue a career in pediatric psychology and now I work with opera singers! There is a clear connection between psychology and the arts, so I certainly can apply my formal academic studies to my job today. Oberlin inculcated me with a spirit of engagement and possibility and, without a doubt, the personal and academic experiences there helped to hone and harness my professional strength and focus.

You have a brother who is a conductor. Does that influence you musically? My brother is a gifted choral conductor and educator, yes. I don’t know if he influences me musically, per say, but we certainly do enjoy talking about compositions, performances, and the business.

Could you describe the process of getting a singer hired by an orchestra, opera house, or festival (i.e. study seasons, know repertoire, house administrator relationships, etc.)? There is not ‘one process’ of getting a singer hired: there are so many ways this industry functions and, so many times, a decision to hire or not to hire is made by one not even remotely involved in the conversation between artist, manager, and administrator. Conductors and, especially, stage directors wield so much power in the upper echelons of the classical music business, so it often is the case that casting is pre-determined by a director who tells the opera administrator he wants ‘this singer for this role’ or by a conductor who tells the symphony administrator she wants ‘that singer for that piece.’ It is the manager’s responsibility to nurture the process with the administrator by providing information, tools, and awareness of connection and to campaign as rigorously as possible. However, ultimately, and logically, the decision to hire is not the manager’s no matter how enthusiastically and energetically one does his/her job!

Are you a believer in booking five years (or more) in advance for engagements or do you think the system will change to accommodate last minute bookings in repertoire a singer decides they want to sing immediately? There are not many singers who are booked five years out. Perhaps this existed in the past but today’s economic and cultural climate has restricted the horizon of the performing arts organization and virtually no presenter can afford to hire anyone that far ahead in the calendar. A reality of our industry today is that there are very few singers who can “decide what they want to do and when they want to do it,” so it is more common nowadays that the conductor or director decides what s/he wants to do and the performing arts organizations respond to his/her desires and demands. We are in the age of the stage director; no longer are we in the age of the performer.

How do you learn repertoire? 
I listen to music voraciously and my ears are open to many sounds and styles of sound. I also attend concerts regularly whether they be classical music, jazz, musical theater, rock, world music, etc. I want to be excited and engaged by all forms of music, so my willingness to learn is interwoven with my appetite to listen.

Which singers of the past have served as inspiration for you?
While certainly not a singer of the past, anyone who knows me knows that Montserrat Caballé has provided insurmountable joy, inspiration, and – to me - is the voice of all voices. From the classical music world, others who move me deeply are Victoria de los Angeles, Leonie Rysanek, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Barbara Bonney, Dame Margaret Price, Brigitte Fassbänder, and Herman Prey. I also am passionate about non-classical voices and find great pleasure in the artistry and honesty of Sarah Vaughan, Barbra, Patti Labelle, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, and Natalie Merchant.

Is your job a little bit like puzzle solving?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. Lots of pieces with lots of unique shapes; I am part of a small team (the artist, the teacher, the manager, a trusted coach, and maybe a spouse or significant other) that works thoughtfully to put the shapes together into a greater and cohesive form.

What are some of the differences between working for a large institution like IMG Artists and a smaller, independent company like Étude Arts?
In a larger corporate environment, there is fundamentally and, by design, one currency: money. The Arts is a business, of course, and one cannot be blind to the value of money; however, my goal is to invest in and harvest the richness of many currencies such as artistry, creativity, connectivity, and holistic career growth (my own and the artists’). Another difference, I am finding, and I am making, is the practice of increased dexterity, proactivity, and a concentration of personalized focus serving both artist and presenter clients.

Which opera houses in the world are your favorites to revisit? 
I always feel like I’m ‘home’ when I’m at the Met. This is the house I know best because I worked there for five years, I have attended performances there for over two decades, and NYC is my base of operation. There is a warm place in my heart for Glimmerglass as well as for both the Gran Teatre del Liceu and Boston Lyric Opera (where I did internships). And, I have enjoyed many wonderful performances at the Opéra national de Paris.

If you were an opera character, which one would you be?
Without any question it is Susanna from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. She doesn’t have the title role, she doesn’t have the most famous tune in the score, nor does she ‘seem’ to be at the center of the show. However, she is the foundation upon which the story is built and it is her being and spirit to which every other character is tethered. Susanna is smart without being proud, she is clever and concise showing no hint of awkwardness and bloviation, and, when done the right way, she gets the final bow at curtain calls!

Who are your top five favorite composers?
Handel. Bach. Mozart. Rachmaninov. R.Schumann.

What are your top five operas?
Don Carlos. Le nozze di Figaro. Idomeneo. Elektra. Parsifal.

What is your advice for young singers?
If you can possibly do anything else, do it!

When listening to singers for consideration on your roster, what distinct qualities are you looking for during an audition?
First and foremost, I want to be engaged by a singer who has something to say. Of course the voice needs to be of a very high quality (technically and artistically), but singing is a form of communication, so I want the singer to tell me something, to move me. I also hope to find someone who is unique and has something marketable. The best audition leaves me speechless and in awe because of the highest level of artistry and, at the same time, makes my mind spin out of control with ideas (he needs to sing for this conductor, she has to learn that piece of music, I can’t wait until he is ready to sing that role, etc.).

What non-classical music do you enjoy listening to at home or in concert?
80’s pop (such as Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, New Order, and Pat Benatar). I love Rush and the Scorpions. Jazz (mostly vocals) and world music (particularly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern). 

What are the biggest challenges facing opera as an industry over the next five years?
Certainly there are too many challenges to address in just this single interview! However, insofar as the North American opera market, some of the many hurdles include the emaciation of philanthropy, a paucity of really good voice teachers, the decimation of the attention span in our society, suspended music education in public schools, and parents whose choices in child-raising are void of cultural substance and any meaningful richness in the arts. It really is a sad state of affairs and the horizon is not sunny in the least bit!

In the mid-20th century singers were told to study at a conservatory and then go to Europe for stage experience. Then a system of young artist programs was founded in the United States that fed singers into opera house repertoire. Now it seems many artists are getting Masters Degrees and Doctorates before setting out on their careers. What do you think the next model will be? I don’t care to look into the crystal ball on this. Soon enough, we’ll find out.