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VOL. 132 | NO. 158 | Thursday, August 10, 2017

Opera Memphis Hires New Music Director

By Andy Meek

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No one really needed to twist Michael Sakir’s arm to sell him on the Bluff City in advance of taking the job Aug. 1 as Opera Memphis’ new music director.


For one thing, he’d already worked a little in the city as a kind of itinerant musician, helping out as guest director for Opera Memphis programs like its 30 Days of Opera series. Those visits also introduced him to what life in Memphis might be like, should he choose to live here, with Sakir building relationships and getting introduced to civic, artistic and cultural landmarks and institutions that he found himself falling in love with.

“I am so taken just by how real everyone is here,” says the California native, whose training has included stints at the Oberlin Conservatory and Boston Conservatory, among other programs. “There’s an authenticity to everyone that’s so refreshing. The city is cool and hip just by being itself, and I think it’s been using that identity and magnifying it to really great things.”

He was able to start getting introduced to Memphis in recent years thanks to spending the last three years as a traveling opera conductor and pianist, hopping from job to job as they materialized. It allowed him to be flexible with his schedule and take last-minute jobs, which is how he landed in Memphis temporarily for the first time two years ago.

It was then that Opera Memphis reached out and asked him to music-direct the organization’s 30 Days of Opera series in September of 2015.

“I happened to have the month free, and I’d heard great things about the company,” Sakir said. “I’d heard how they’re really thinking outside of the box in terms of the art form, and 30 Days of Opera is a perfect example of that. So I’ve been music-directing that the last two years.”

The program is a month-long series of opera performances for which the company likes to say it turns the opera house inside out, taking performances outside the confines of a performance hall and straight to the people. And that includes street corners, festivals or anywhere else.

The company, under general director Ned Canty, has taken a view toward embracing innovations like that in how it presents opera to Memphis audiences. And it’s that philosophy that Sakir warmed to, while Opera Memphis likewise saw value in bringing him on full-time.

Says Canty, “Michael brings with him not only his considerable talents as a conductor and musician, but an endless well of enthusiasm – for opera, for food, and most of all for Memphis. Having him on the team will allow us to continue expanding our audience and our civic footprint for years to come.”

Already, Sakir has enjoyed a busy career that’s taken him from guest spots with organizations like the Des Moines Metro Opera to Opera Orlando, in addition to working on-staff with the Santa Fe Opera and Washington National Opera, among other companies.

As the company’s new music director, that means Sakir is responsible for “everything musical,” as he puts it. Which means everything from conducting main stage productions to hiring the piano tuner.

“I always knew I wanted to be a conductor, and I was a pianist first and foremost, so I trained in those areas,” Sakir said. “And through that training i discovered how much i enjoy working with singers, how much I enjoy storytelling and theater. But over time, I guess actually in the last two to three years, it’s become a lot more than that.

“I think opera more than most of the performing arts is about empathy and getting ourselves to get out of our head and into the world of another character. And that’s done through the text, and through the music especially. It’s good at challenging us to experience perspectives that we would not otherwise experience.”

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