The Catholic University of America

Nov. 18, 2013 

CUA Junior to Conduct “Hansel and Gretel” Nov. 21-24

  Junior Nathan Blair conducts a rehearsal of the opera.

Students at Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music will usher in an early start to the holiday season with performances Nov. 21 through 24 of the opera “Hansel and Gretel” based on the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.

Often performed at Christmastime, the opera by 19th-century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck premiered on Dec. 23, 1893, under the direction of Richard Strauss. At Catholic University, Nathan Blair, a junior majoring in collaborative piano performance and a three-time winner of the National Young Composers Challenge, will conduct the opera in Ward Recital Hall.

Though the story of a brother and sister who get lost in a haunted forest is simple, the music is difficult, says Sharon Christman, professor and head of the music school’s voice division who is coaching the opera’s singers. Christman says that in the more than 20 years she’s been affiliated with CUA, she doesn’t recall another undergraduate conducting a major opera production at the music school.

But, given Blair’s talent and the mentoring he receives from music school faculty, he’s ready for the challenge — no small task given that Humperdinck was heavily influenced by opera heavyweight Richard Wagner in writing “Hansel and Gretel,” Christman notes.

“Nathan is a wonderful musician,” says Christman. “He plays the piano beautifully. He also sings and he understands singers. This is a great opportunity for him. Why not let him conduct here? What are we waiting for, when we have so many mentors at the music school who are willing to help?”

Since the Ward Recital Hall stage is small, the production will feature two pianos instead of an orchestra. Blair will conduct CUA accompanists Nicholas Catravas and Seyoung Jeong and the singers. The roles of children in the opera will be played by students in the lower grades at St. John Academy in McLean, Va. St. John music teacher Christine Laird, who earned a bachelor’s in musical theatre at Catholic University in 2010, is directing them.

Blair has worked as an assistant conductor and accompanist with past opera productions at the music school, but “Hansel and Gretel” marks the first time he’s served as music director. “Of course,” he says with a smile, “it’s intimidating, but I think having this opportunity speaks of my passion for opera. I absolutely love it.”

  Blair is a collaborative piano performance major.

Blair is the first student in the music school’s new collaborative piano performance program. He studies piano with Ivo Kaltchev, associate professor and head of the piano division, and conducting with Professor Murry Sidlin.

Blair grew up in a family of musicians. He started taking piano lessons at the age of 5 with his mother, a jazz pianist and singer. His father is also a jazz pianist as well as a composer, and his grandfather Sid Blair is a well-known saxophonist and award-winning music educator, now in his 80s, who has played with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“Growing up the joke was here’s the family of cool cats and here’s the classical snob,” says Blair, who talks with ease about the lyricism and orchestration of Humperdinck’s opera. “We see the influence of Wagner, but there are moments, for instance with the entrance of the Dew Fairy in Scene I of Act III, that are pure Humperdinck.”

Blair started composing at the age of 10 under his father’s tutelage. He won his first National Young Composers Challenge in 2007 at the age of 13 and again in 2008 and 2010. Each win led to a performance and recording of his work by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.

“Ultimately the most important thing in conducting is being able to understand what the musicians are going through,” says Blair. “I’ve worked as a pianist and a composer. I’ve learned these things. Now it’s time for me to do my job. They can trust me. Trust is so crucial.”

Debbie Niezgoda is serving as stage director for “Hansel and Gretel.” Performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 21; Friday, Nov. 22; and Saturday, Nov. 23; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24. Tickets are $20 for general admission; $15 for CUA alumni; $10 for seniors, students, faculty, and staff; and $5 for CUA students. They can be purchased online at For more information, call 202-319-5416.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy Hines in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.




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