Musical maverick: N.C. Opera’s Timothy Myers marches to his own beat

by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Juli Leonard 

Don’t even attempt to think you know what Timothy Myers is going to be like before you meet him. You’ll be wrong on most counts.

Myers, the principal conductor and artistic director of the North Carolina Opera, is everything you wouldn’t expect a conductor to be. Boyishly handsome and refreshingly charming, he’s two parts boy next door and one part hipster, with a smidge of daredevil mixed in.

He tweets about Tim Tebow getting sacked, kickboxing, and going to Bojangles’ (for the first time). He has a classic cartoon of Bugs Bunny as an opera conductor on his Facebook fan page. He is as eager to talk about his motorcycle as he is about composers like Gustav Mahler.

Arthur Fiedler he is not.

And for the North Carolina Opera, that’s a good thing. In the two years since taking the conducting job in Raleigh, Myers has helped usher in a fresh, youthful approach to the opera company, driving ticket sales northward by making opera more accessible in Raleigh than it has ever been.

“I want to break down the barrier,” Myers says. Dressed in a snap-pocket plaid shirt, Raleigh Denim jeans and just-slightly spiked hair, he speaks with passion: “I see it as my generation’s responsibility.”

At 36, Myers is one of the youngest conductors in the country and a celebrated one at that. The Boston Globe called him “a treasure.” The Denver Post said he was “wonderfully precise, energetic.”

“On the world stage, he’s a well-considered young conductor who is on his way up in a big way, or maybe he’s already there,” says Betsy Levitas, an NCO board member and the chair of the organization’s Nov. 10 gala. “He could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, and he decided to live here.”

And not just in Raleigh, but in the urban core, as one of a growing number of people living in downtown condos. On weekends, you might find him at the local music festival Hopscotch, at Kings Barcade on Martin Street to see a new local band, or simply at a downtown bar or restaurant with friends.

“For me, it’s hard to think of something better than having a beer with friends and talking about art and literature,” he says. “Being a conductor is actually quite solitary. Most of the time is spent studying scores. So I find social time is really important to be connected to people.”

And it’s not just the usual dinner and drinks that keep him busy socially. This summer, on a whim, he accepted an invitation from his friend Grayson Currin, the Independent Weekly‘s music editor and the co-director of Hopscotch, to spend a day with friends at Wet’n Wild Emerald Pointe, a water park near Greensboro.

The trip also included Myers’ first Bojangles’ biscuit, which he later called “divine,” Currin recalls. “Tim seems to be pretty much down for anything. He’s up for trying silly things.”

Timothy Myers, principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Opera Company of North Carolina, plays a grand piano in a neighbor’s penthouse in Raleigh.

It’s that willingness to try new things and his ability to connect with people – both in person and with music – that help make him successful at his job.

Audiences are taking notice, filling the house for traditional operas like Carmen as well as modern operas by Philip Glass. Season ticket sales were up 28 percent last year from the previous year, says Eric Mitchko, the North Carolina Opera’s general director. The Philip Glass opera, Les Enfants Terribles, sold out, and this summer, a Handel and Mozart concert was so hot that Mitchko had to juggle comped tickets to meet demand.

Modern appeal 

Mitchko and Myers both came to the Opera around the time it was formed in 2010 by the merger of Capital Opera Raleigh and the Opera Company of North Carolina. They bring a realistic vision of what will appeal to Raleigh’s broad and diverse audiences, using digital art and other modern staging tricks to make performances come alive, not just to season-ticket holders, but also to novices and first-timers.

“We’re growing, and it’s because we’re really paying attention to the people,” Myers says. They’re also willing to take risks with productions, says Carrie Knowles, the director of Cary Cross Currents Chamber Music and Arts Festival, which partnered with the opera on the sold-out Handel-Mozart concert.

Knowles recalls a production of Faust during the NCO’s inaugural season, in which Myers and Mitchko put a full orchestra on stage, instead of in the pit, and then surrounded it with digital images rather than traditional stage sets.

“You still got the whole opera, but not the super-elaborate staging,” Knowles said. “It was fabulous. And for me, that was the first time I went: ‘Wow, these guys are doing something exciting here.”

The new season is designed to bring even more wow factor, with a mix of familiar and traditional operas that hit on a range of human emotions, from love and adventure to power and energy. The season starts in January with Wagner’s Act 1 of Die Walkure, followed by Aida in May and Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (or The School for Lovers) in October.

Insatiably curious 

Myers, who grew up in Kansas, never envisioned a career as a conductor. He didn’t hear an orchestra live until he was 12. He attended his first opera at 21.

Myers’ parents told all three children they had to study piano. But after piano, Myers just kept picking up instruments. Trombone, cello, violin. “They had no intention of us becoming professional musicians,” he says. “I am an insatiably curious person. I didn’t realize people like me could make a living making music.”

He took three years off between high school and college, picking up jobs as a chef and in film. Then he earned a philosophy degree at Southwestern College in Kansas. He still played music, but he realized he was not going to be a concert pianist. “I liked making music with people,” he says.

Timothy Myers, principal conductor and artistic advisor of the Opera Company of North Carolina, enjoys a beer outside of Capital Club 16 in downtown Raleigh.

Then he took a conducting class, and he was hooked.

He found a mentor (American conductor and composer Lorin Maazel). He found a graduate school (Florida State University, where he earned a master’s degree in opera coaching). Then he worked hard and took opportunities as they came.

“I’m not saying it’s been easy, or it flowed like it was supposed to,” he says. “The personal cost is high. The travel is extensive. There’s pressure all the time. And you’re at the mercy of the reviewer. There was a time when I wondered if it was worth it.”

After all, being a conductor isn’t just a job, it’s a lifetime career.

But his path became clear when a friend asked him what his favorite book was. The full score of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, he replied. “I read my life there,” he says. “I read pain and joy and melancholy and sorrow and excitement. I read it with such a deep emotional connection. I realized then I was a conductor for life.”

That was three years ago.

Since then, he has logged stellar reviews and major mileage, taking assistant/associate positions with the New York Philharmonic, New York City Opera and London’s BBC Symphony. He also has conducted the Jerusalem Symphony, American Symphony, Brooklyn Philharmonic, the opera companies of Palm Beach, Anchorage and Asheville, the Bard Festival and Music Academy of the West.

“Tim has this great combination of musical ability and leadership,” Mitchko says. “A conductor has to have the force of personality to get other musicians to do what he says. Tim combines all the qualities you need. The orchestra loves playing for him.”

Myers first guest conducted in Raleigh in January 2008. He commuted for two years to Raleigh from New York, where he was on the conducting staff at the New York Opera. When he decided to take the artistic director job here, he made Raleigh his home.

“I was tired of being all over the place,” he said. “I so wanted to have a part of my life that wasn’t work or a career. In New York, I always felt that I was working.”

In Raleigh, he’s part of downtown’s vibrant scene. He walks to restaurants from his condominium, and he lives within blocks of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, where many of the opera’s performances take place. “I love being of the middle of it,” he said.

During those rare moments of downtime, he rides his BMW GS, a dual-purpose sport bike that can go on and off road, around Jordan Lake and to the mountains. And if there’s a dirt road he wants to explore off the highway, he pulls off to see what’s there.

He’s also generous about giving his precious-little free time to his friends. Currin recalled a weekend this fall when Myers spent a long day helping him and his girlfriend with some difficult yard work. And then Myers was willing to come back to their house during the week to meet someone to deliver some mulch.

“It was an important lesson for me, to take breaks in life and do something else than your job,” Currin said.

Still, though, Myers’ calendar is full for the next few years with guest conducting gigs in Atlanta, Houston, Fort Worth, Texas, Portland and Malaysia.

“It’s good to be busy and have interesting work,” he said. “You can be busy and be bored at the same time. Fortunately that’s not the case for me.”