Hillman Opera conductor returns to his roots for ‘Summer and Smoke’
Conductor Andrew Bisantz has many memorable opera credits to his name. Currently the artistic director and conductor for the Eugene Opera, he has conducted more than 60 productions for companies throughout the United States earning accolades from publications including The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.
However, his upcoming engagement as the conductor and music director for the Hillman Opera production “Summer and Smoke” at SUNY Fredonia holds special significance. Bisantz is a 1995 graduate of Fredonia, where the seeds of his career were planted.
“I really feel this is a wonderful homecoming,” Bisantz said. “It’s coming full circle. I’ve accumulated experience at some of the top opera companies in the United States. I’m now able to bring that experience to this production to help the students find what I found at Fredonia.”
“It’s coming full circle. I’ve accumulated experience at some of the top opera companies in the United States. I’m now able to bring that experience to this production to help the students find what I found at Fredonia.” - Andrew Bisantz, '95
Bisantz arrived at Fredonia in 1991 as a Piano Performance major, studying with Professor Robert Jordan.
At his freshman orientation, an advisor suggested Bisantz look at courses in vocal conducting as a natural complement to his major. However, Bisantz had more interest in instrumental conducting and chose that path instead. It was a fortuitous decision, as the professor for his freshman conducting class told Bisantz he had a natural gift.
That led to an independent study his sophomore year with former School of Music faculty member Grant Cooper, who is perhaps best known locally for his 16-year stint as the conductor of the Fredonia Chamber Players.
“I found what I wanted to do for a career,” Bisantz said of the experience.
After graduating from Fredonia, Bisantz went on to earn his master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music. There, Bisantz served as assistant conductor of operas and made the decision to pursue a career as an opera conductor.
His experiences at Fredonia played a major part in the decision. Bisantz had taken part in the Hillman Opera as a student, beginning with the 1991 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
“That was the first time I was part of an opera production and I was hooked,” Bisantz said. “I remember hearing the orchestra perform with those unamplified voices - it was universe warping moment.”
More than two decades into his professional career, Bisantz remains committed to staying connected with today’s music students.
“I try to have at least one university production on my schedule,” he said, which is in addition to teaching master classes at various university.
And his connection to Fredonia has stayed strong over the years.
“In 2000, I conducted Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra,” Bisantz recalled. “When the production came to the Fredonia Opera House, the whole piano faculty came to see it. I was so flattered how they had taken an interest in my career.”
Likewise, Bisantz has taken an interest in his alma mater.
In 2011, he returned to campus for a teaching residency and during the pandemic-impacted season of 2020, Bisantz was an online coach for the Hillman production of “Beatrice and Benedict.” He has also conducted master classes with Fredonia’s Student Opera Theatre Association.
Then came the opportunity to conduct “Summer and Smoke” this season.
“When [School of Music faculty member] Joe Dan Harper called, I was thrilled,” Bisantz said. “I finally had the opportunity to come back and conduct the opera.”
Bisantz is also thrilled about the work he will be conducting. Lee Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke” is based on the 1946 Tennessee Williams play of the same title.
“Some consider ‘Summer and Smoke’ to be a forgotten masterpiece and I’m thrilled Western New York audiences will have a chance to hear it live,” Bisantz said. “It has a very romantic score people will enjoy.”
The Hillman Opera runs from Nov. 10 to 13 in Marvel Theatre on the Fredonia campus. Performances times are 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10, 11 and 12 with a 2 p.m. matinee on Nov. 13. It is presented by the Fredonia School of Music in cooperation with the Department of Theatre and Dance.
There will also be a pre-performance talk with the directors, to be held an hour before every performance in the Costello Community Room, which is located in the Lake Shore Savings Gateway to the Arts Atrium outside the Marvel Theatre entrance.
“Summer and Smoke” is sponsored by Gugino and Ryel Financial as part of the Lake Shore Savings Season.