For most of her 17 years, Alma Deutscher was a musical triple threat. A talented pianist and violinist, she has been composing since the age of 5, beginning with simple piano pieces before moving on to full-scale concertos and operas.
Today, she’s added conducting to her portfolio of accomplishments, because when it comes to classical music, there seems to be nothing Deutscher can’t get his hands on.
When her opera “Cinderella” returns to Opera San José on Saturday, November 12, Deutscher plans to be in the pit, doing everything a conductor does. She will set the tempos, direct the singers, balance the volume of the orchestra and make sure the score sounds as close as possible to what she imagined.
After all, as Deutscher pointed out in a recent interview with The Chronicle, she has a distinct advantage as a performer: “I know music extremely well.”
The version of “Cinderella” set to hit the stage at the California Theater in San Jose is the latest and most complete version of a work Deutscher first composed at age 10. Another revision had its US premiere at the San Jose Opera in 2017, with famed British conductor Jane Glover leading the performance and the 12-year-old composer playing solo interludes on the violin , piano and organ.
But over the next five years, Deutscher expanded and rethought the piece as his musical understanding developed. She redid the orchestration, changed some of the vocal writing, and even added a children’s choir (the Bay Area’s Ragazzi Boys Chorus).
“The melodies are the same, but I tried to bring out more drama and humor,” she said. “I have a lot more experience now, and when you look at music with fresh eyes, you see a lot of things we could do better.”
Deutscher speaks with an odd mixture of childlike whimsy and extraordinary sophistication. She is so articulate and has given so much thought to the music and its aesthetic demands that one can be drawn right into the conversation.
Then she lets out an irresistible laugh, or puts on a dimpled smile, and the truth comes out: this is someone operating at a level well beyond her years.
Andrew Whitfield, the assistant conductor and choirmaster, recalls feeling some skepticism about Deutscher before the 2017 production.
“We learned that we were doing the play only four months in advance,” he recalls. “I didn’t know who Alma was, and I just thought, ‘She’s 12?’
“But we were all won over by the play. She operates with such sincerity and skill, and there is such childlike innocence in her. She doesn’t try to be anything other than who she is right now and expresses herself with talent.
During a recent orchestra rehearsal, Deutscher guided the musicians through several scenes with a clarity that could only have been a boon to the performers. Standing straight and high on the podium, she helped sort out some difficult string passages and directed the instrumentalists to the emotional subtext that would become more apparent later, with the arrival of the singers.
For anyone who watched the HBO series”game of thrones“, it was hard not to think of Lyanna Mormont, the leader of the tweener clan (played by Bella Ramsey) who carried herself with a similar air of improbable self-confidence. The difference, perhaps, is that Deutscher is more a collaborator than an autocrat.
“She’s doing extremely well as a conductor,” said Cynthia Baehr-Williams, the company’s longtime concertmaster. “She is very clear and expressive in her movements and, of course, she has a deep understanding of the score. We can play and she’ll stop and say, “Second horn, it’s a B-flat, not a B.” ”
Deutscher grew up in Surrey, south-west London, the eldest of two daughters from a scholarly family. She started showing her musical gifts at the age of 3 and quickly composed on the piano. The music of Mozart and Strauss were early favorites that continue to shape his creative thinking.
Many Americans knew her in 2017 – shortly before “Cinderella” premiered in San Jose – through a segment on “60 Minutes”, in which she dazzled interviewer Scott Pelley with her musical ease and her natural charm. These qualities have only grown over time.
Two years ago the family moved from the UK to Vienna, where Deutscher is now studying conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. This, she says, brought her into a more social phase of her life.
“I have a lot of friends now, which is so nice,” she said. “It’s so nice to have people who speak the same language.”
Deutscher was not referring to German – although she is also fluent in that language – but to music, which remains her deepest mother tongue. In England, she was home-schooled and solitary, believing at the time that socializing might not be for her.
“I always thought that I preferred to be alone and that it was more interesting to imagine things on my own,” she said. “But when I arrived in Vienna, I discovered that I liked being with people and having good friends.”
For “Cinderella”, Deutscher – who also wrote the libretto – transformed the familiar fairy tale into a fable about the artistic process. In her version, Cinderella is a composer, and the Prince a poet; their love isn’t based on shoe size, but on how perfectly their respective designs fit together. The stepsisters are opera singers, which makes them easy to ridicule.
“When we first did the piece, I was so touched by the presence of this girl who loved the music and was immersed in it,” said soprano Stacey Tappan, who returns to San Jose as a Griselda, one of Cinderella’s half-sisters.
“My goal in all the rehearsals was just to make her laugh. There were a lot of jinks and diva jokes, and anytime I could do something that made her laugh, it was on the show.
Deutscher’s writing is lush and melodious, built around a profusion of graceful melodies and elegant tonal harmonies. It happens, in other words, as if nothing notable had happened in music since about 1890 outside of Strauss’ operatic career.
It is this taste for scholarly anachronism that attracts some listeners and intrigues, even alienates others. But Deutscher is adamant in his avoidance of modernism (his next opera, “The Emperor’s New Waltz,” is an incisive satire on musical style). She also rejects the idea that her music imitates that of past masters.
“I don’t try to write in someone else’s style,” she said. “I just write music that comes naturally from my heart and that I find beautiful, inspired by the great composers of the past.
“You see, for me, it’s not important when a piece of music has been written. I don’t really mind if it was written 5,000 years ago or five minutes ago, I’ve always wanted to write music that I find beautiful myself.
Deutscher insists she’s not alone either. She says she often hears from young musicians who find inspiration in her work and want to write tonal music like hers. But they are “crushed,” she says, by their teachers and those in power in the music world.
This is what motivates one of Deutscher’s goals for the future, which is to found a school of music where composers can be taught in the way she deems important: with a solid foundation in harmony, a lot of practice in improvisation and an openness to melody. , tonality and beauty.
It’s a big challenge. But at this point betting against Deutscher in anything musical would probably be a fool’s game.
“Cinderella”: Opera San Jose. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 12. Until November 27. $55 – $195. California Theater, 345 S. First St., San Jose. 408-437-4450. www.operasj.org