Conducting wasn’t necessarily on his radar. On the other hand, becoming a music educator was. He wanted to be just like the teachers who inspired him, who taught him to play percussion, then French horn. And it was as a horn player that he got to know one fateful piece of music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4.
Playing the horn sections of that symphony, Cox could feel the human behind the notes—all the turmoil, the depression, the heartache Tchaikovsky threaded into his work.
“I just felt like I could hear so much of his biography, so much of his life story in the music,” Cox told San Francisco Opera in a recent interview. “That's the music I gravitate toward the most: music that evokes images in my head, music that evokes this passion. And this is the first piece that did that for me.”
It was the start of a new career. Cox wanted to know what it would be like to conduct that kind of symphony. And he realized that, if he stayed on the path to becoming a teacher, he might never get the chance. A voice inside was telling him: “I want to conduct this piece for the rest of my life, for as long as I can."
“From that point, I changed my path and never turned back,” he says. Now, Cox—winner of the 2018 Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award and founder of the Roderick Cox Music Initiative—faces a new challenge: helming the return of live opera in a time of pandemic.
On April 23, Cox is set to make his company debut with San Francisco Opera under the most surreal of circumstances. Gone are the comforting confines of the opera house. The stage is now a massive outdoor platform formerly used for the Coachella music festival. His singers are rehearsing in masks. And his orchestra is pared down to 18 players, spaced out in accordance with COVID-19 safety measures.
Together, they will bring to life one of Gioachino Rossini’s most ebullient comedies, The Barber of Seville. It was an opera Cox was scheduled to conduct in San Francisco well before the COVID-19 pandemic—but the future of that production was thrown into doubt as the virus spread and theaters closed.
Now, Cox is reuniting with much of the original cast—including baritone Lucas Meachem, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, and tenor Alek Shrader—to perform against an unprecedented series of obstacles. How do you conduct singers across a video screen? How do you prevent lag when your musicians are spaced apart? How do you manipulate sound without the acoustics of a theater?
“We’re making adjustments every day: Oh, maybe the flute could be over here versus over there, or maybe the clarinet could be over here,” Cox explains. But he’s optimistic: “I think it will be extraordinary. But we’re working extra hard to learn new tricks.”
Read on to hear how Cox became one of the most sought-after conductors today—and what inspires him to take on the challenges of performing during a pandemic.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Every performance space has its own particular challenges. How much did you know going in, and what challenges have arisen?
COX: I found out in January that we were going to go ahead with this production and that it would be an outdoor drive-in a couple weeks after that. It seemed like something that really goes against everything we’re trained to do as an opera company, as live performers. The hall, the opera house, is our instrument. The hall is so important for how we make music together. And to take that element away is a huge adjustment.
And then to learn that the orchestra would be in a separate location and also distanced is another element. So really, everything we do as performers in an opera house has been adjusted for this production. Any curveball that could be thrown at an opera production has been thrown at this particular production.
However, the team—the planning team and the creative team and the artistic team and all the musicians—are working countless hours to bring this to life for the San Francisco audience. It should not be understated how revolutionary this is in the United States: that an opera company of this size will be doing a production with live music, with a cast of this level. It is a first in the nation, and it should certainly be applauded and recognized.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did COVID and the sudden shutdown of American stages impact you personally in the past year?
COX: I think for most artists, it was demoralizing. To not know if you will work or when you will work is discombobulating. You certainly have bad weeks, weeks when you don’t have the inspiration to make music at all.
As a conductor who is coming here for a debut, who has never worked for this opera house, it was tough because I had to decide: Is this the right time? Is this the best scenario in which you can show your talent? Is this the best scenario in which you can make a successful debut? However, I recognize that many of the considerations one would normally have pre-COVID have to be somewhat adjusted.
It means a lot that almost everyone from the original cast said, “Yes, we’re coming to do this.” What also blew all of our minds was that this is becoming bigger than any of us realized. We thought: a drive-in Barber of Seville? This is odd. This is so odd.
But the stage is humongous. It looks like a rock concert stage. I think many of us are feeling that just the stage standing there makes us feel a sense of purpose. It shows the seriousness of this moment. So we’re certainly up for the challenge.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In this role [as interviewer], I’ve come across a few artists who have come to opera by pursuing music education as a degree. George Shirley comes to mind. Is that a typical path for a conductor?
COX: First of all, we all have to be musicians before we become conductors. The paths are always so different before one can become a conductor. It’s the most elusive of all the professions in the arts.
But it’s not typical to have a degree in music education. I have a license—it has expired by now, I’m sure—to teach K-12 music. And that is surprising to many people.
But that was my path. I thought my band director was a hero. I grew up in Macon, Georgia, where band was everything and orchestra was more secondary. So I grew up thinking I wanted to do that. I wanted to be just like him.
So that was just my path. I’m not apologetic about it because it taught me a lot about myself and a lot about the instruments, because you have to learn how to teach them. Some of my friends laugh because I know how to tune a timpani or I know what the percussionists are doing back there. I’ve had to learn their techniques and had to play many of their instruments, which a lot of conductors may not have had the experience of doing.
But yes, I literally had to play many of those instruments and take exams on them. So I think it makes me empathetic to what they’re doing on those instruments—and a more appreciative musician of any orchestra I’m working with.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Speaking of Macon, Georgia, I read that you used to set out your action figures like a chorus that you, as a child, would then conduct. Out of curiosity, which action figures? Was this a chorus starring Batman, for example?
COX: You know, I was not really into masks. I didn’t like masked action figures. So I didn’t really have Batman or anyone who had a mask on. I loved action figures who were more human. And I loved action figures who had powers. So if you were Storm from X-Men, I would have loved to have you in my collection.
That was so good for my imagination, being a child alone without all of these tablets and things now. I look at my niece and nephew and they’re like one years old or three years old and on these tablets. We didn’t have those things. You had to have your own imagination and go out in the yard and entertain yourself sometimes. So that was certainly a high musical moment of my childhood.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you remember one of the first experiences with classical music you might have had, and how it impacted you?
COX: The first university I went to was a small liberal arts university in Valdosta, Georgia, called Valdosta State University. I didn’t stay there. I transferred away. But Alek Shrader, who is the Almaviva in this production—his father was the head of the music department back then. So that was a trip down memory lane!
But I remember when I went to that university, you had to audition for the music ensembles. So you had to audition for the band, you had to audition for the orchestra, and so forth. My horn teacher at the time wanted me to audition for the orchestra. And this was a semi-professional orchestra.
She said, “Learn this excerpt of the Dvořák cello concerto. And learn this excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s symphony. And learn this excerpt of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.” I didn’t know these works in their entirety at all. So I had to learn.
Surprisingly, my 18-year-old self performed well enough to be admitted into this orchestra. There were only a couple students in the university, especially wind players, who were allowed to play in the orchestra.
So now I’m playing with professional musicians and seeing how an orchestra concert is put together. I just loved the type of contribution that my sound—my individual sound as a player—made to this unit of an orchestra. That’s certainly what fascinated me. It was the ensemble, the organism that is an orchestra.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You were the first African American conductor at the Houston Grand Opera in nearly three decades. It’s probably the same here at San Francisco Opera. Is there a pressure being the first? And representing Black artistry in these spaces?
COX: No, not really. I don’t do that research. I allow other people to do that research and talk about it and discuss it. I’ve learned for myself it is healthier to focus on the work and the job.
The job itself of conducting, it’s already so hard that it would behoove me not to add another element of pressure—and maybe to eliminate as much pressure as I can.
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You talk about Tchaikovsky putting his biography into his music with the Tchaikovsky Four symphony. I wonder what the symphony of your life would sound like.
COX: That is an interesting question. I don’t know. I would hope that it would be a good symphony! [Cox laughs.] I think it would be one that starts slowly and comes into formation and grows and becomes something beautiful and grand.
Maybe it would be like Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, something that’s just so organic that it feels like there’s a seed that’s planted, that’s churning and growing and being watered and discovering new things and turning new corners and then finally climbs this mountain at the very end and opens up.
And then you see this massive landscape of opportunity and hopes and dreams and beauty. And then it rolls into this glorious, energetic vivace finish, which is what I hope we all want to do as we live on this earth.