Jeffrey Tate's Baton Wields a New Vigor in Opera, but the Real Drama Occurred Off the Podium

By any measure British-born Jeffrey Tate, 41, is extraordinary. Since Dec. 26, 1980, when he made his auspicious debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera conducting Alban Berg’s intricate three-act modern opera, Lulu, without so much as a rehearsal, he has been lauded in production after production. Last December the accolades became transatlantic when Tate was named principal conductor of the Royal Opera at London’s Covent Garden. Not half bad for a musician who is also a Cambridge-educated physician.

But what sets Tate’s accomplishments as a conductor most dramatically apart is his physical condition. Afflicted from birth by spina bifida and curvature of the spine, Tate’s body is so badly crippled that his natural 6’6″ frame is reduced to 5’10”. His hunchback posture, clubfoot and paralyzed lower left leg would suggest that he could hardly ascend a podium, much less conduct an orchestra for hours on end. Yet he manages to turn each appearance at the podium into an athletic as well as intellectual event. Says bass-baritone James Morris, “A lot of conductors are just metronomes—Jeffrey puts his whole being into conducting. For him every eighth note has meaning.” Adds a Met orchestra member, “You can’t help thinking, ‘How is he going to last?’ But after a while, you just forget his handicaps. It’s amazing.”

Tate so lathers up while conducting that between opera acts he has to change right down to his shoes and socks, but he finds his work “not only exhausting, but life-enhancing,” adding sagely, “An unusually high number of conductors live to a ripe old age.”

His major effort, of course, is expended prior to a performance. “I work every day of the week,” he says, “even Sundays, by reading scores and getting to know what they say.” His fluency in four languages helps with singers. “He can change from French to German to Italian in a single conversation,” marvels one tenor. Tate himself says, “A voice is an instrument. I conduct singers like any other section of the orchestra—through eye contact, facial expressions and arm gestures.”

Son of a post office official in Salisbury, England, Tate says, “I was odd from the word go. Slowly, as I grew up, my back began to stoop over and my left leg became shorter than the right one.” An operation at age 8 partly alleviated his crippled condition but left an emotional scar. “I lay on my back for four months and I had to relearn to walk,” he recalls. “I suddenly realized the world was a much nastier place than I ever imagined. I started to make my own secret world.”

His parents, however, encouraged Tate, who has a younger sister, to be “a perfectly normal child. They insisted I do errands, clean my room, ride my bicycle into town to get groceries—things all children generally do.” Music played a central role for Tate, who began studying piano at age 5. But at his parents’ urging, studies in medicine won out. He received a scholarship to Christ’s College at Cambridge University, but by the time he entered London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital (planning to specialize in ophthalmology), his discontent was manifest. “I would go on ward runs in black leather jackets and jeans,” he says. “I knew more and more I couldn’t fit into the doctor cast.”

A friend diagnosed the problem, which Tate already sensed: “You’re pining to be a musician.” Nevertheless, Tate completed his medical studies before entering the prestigious London Opera Center for coaches. At the conclusion of that rigorous yearlong course, he was hired by the Royal Opera. For the next six years, under Georg Solti and Colin Davis, Tate coached some of opera’s leading singers, including Kiri Te Kanawa, and became recognized as one of the outstanding voice and dramatic coaches in Europe. Engaged as second in command at the Cologne Opera, Tate also began conducting in Germany and Sweden. In 1979 James Levine invited him to join the Met; he has since been hailed in the New York Times for “shaping the music with chamberlike care.” This season Tate will conduct 26 Met performances. Exclaimed an opera administrator, “I’ve never seen a career take off so quickly.”

Tate now lives “a gypsy life,” commuting between Europe and the U.S. His pleasures include fine restaurants, antique hunting and museum visits. Having climbed so many metaphorical mountains, he also dreams of visiting the Himalayas and facing Mount Everest. “Perhaps I am in awe of it,” he says with a smile, “because I know it marks my limit.”

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