Detroit Opera's new music director envisions broader reach

Amelia Benavides-Colón
The Detroit News

The Detroit Opera is transitioning to an edgier era of opera with new Music Director Roberto Kalb, who plans to expand the theater’s influence into the Latinx community. 

Born in Mexico City, Kalb said his interest in the arts began with a love for film and a desire to write soundtracks. 

“I was a pianist since I was young, I started playing when I was 5 years old and I fell in love movie soundtracks as a teenager…that’s what took me on my composition journey,” Kalb said.

After earning an undergraduate degree at the San Franciso Conservatory of Music, Kalb received his master’s in composition from the University of Michigan.

While in California, Kalb said he attended his first live opera performance by Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles.

“I was immediately in love with it and I wanted to be a part of the opera world,” Kalb said. 

Kalb is not a stranger to the orchestra community, said President and CEO of Detroit Opera Wayne S. Brown. 

Roberto Kalb

Most recently, he led a reverse-chronology production of “La bohéme” in April.

“It was (a) unique (experience). I came into the process with apprehension because I didn’t even know what it was,” Kalb said. “From a conducting point of view, it was very taxing…but very rewarding.”

Kalb said Artistic Director Yuval Sharon’s "La bohéme" is just an example of the many ways Detroit Opera has worked to re-image itself after retiring the name Michigan Opera Theater.

“The world is looking at Detroit certainly (as a) leading-edge American opera company, it’s very exciting,” Kalb said. “’s now the place for opera with a twist…”

As part of his new role, Kalb will join Sharon, Artistic Director Gary L. Wasserman and Christine Goerke, associate artistic director, as a member of the opera’s artistic leadership.

“Roberto will complete an important component of our organization with his direct relationship involving the orchestra and also working collaboratively with our course master for all our chorus activity,” Brown said. 

Kalb said he plans to do two productions each season, giving the orchestra an opportunity to stray away from the classical, traditional styles it’s used to.

“I want to accentuate the role of the orchestra and the institute,” he said. “I want to highlight how important the orchestra is and I also want to bring the orchestra to the level it’s capable of…”

Because of the high turnover of orchestra players, Kalb said Detroit Opera has a unique opportunity to bring in outside talent and add them to the mix. 

“This orchestra plays naturally romantic music incredibly well. They love the lush sound… and I want to expand the palate so that it’s known as also a great Mozart orchestra, a great Baroque orchestra, a great contemporary orchestra,” Kalb said.

Brown said the COVID-19 pandemic gave Detroit Opera the opportunity to try new things, and experiments bringing the opera outside of the normal theater setting. 

In Oct. 2020 the Detroit Opera House Parking Center was transformed into a drive-thru performance of "Twight Gods."

“It underscores the fact that when you think about opera, it need not be limited to the grand stage of opera…but indeed opera can live within and be available to our community in a variety of settings,” Brown said. 

Kalb said he hopes to reach further into Detroit’s large Hispanic community and will maintain the outdoor performances started during the pandemic.

“I want to reach into the community (with performances) so that we can bring the orchestra to the community directly,” Kalb said, “I think in our work as musicians that the most important part of what we do is really to reach out to the community and especially our young people.”