(Opera New Jersey photo by Bruce Fuller)
I conducted my first opera in 1986. So it was something of a surprise for me that during the rehearsals and performances of LUCIA at Opera New Jersey I felt like I had learned something from working with the New Jersey Symphony. NJSO has a fine reputation and Opera New Jersey was very excited to have them as partners in the orchestra pit.
During the final rehearsals and performances, I placed my consciousness in a different place than I usually do. I was certainly performing "in the moment" a great deal of the time, but I came in and out of it--rather like a swimmer going under the water, but also coming up for air and looking around. LUCIA has moments that require one to "perform" but there are also plenty of pages in the score where the orchestra musicians do the heavy lifting and the conductor can go on autopilot for several bars at a time.
So, rather than constantly focusing on myself, on my performance, I was alternating between my performance and the performance of the many musicians. They, after all, are making the music. This moving in and out, allowed me greater freedom to communicate with the orchestra. If it were sports, it would be rather like being a player/coach or alternating between the roles of player and coach. It is not that I hadn't done this before, but that I did it with great frequency during the performances and dress rehearsals.
Another way I might describe it is like being a commercial or fashion photographer. You have set up the scene according to your concept, but you are also dealing with a group of folks who need to be inspired. The conductor is shaping the music which is moving through time and not only are you providing clues as to its future shape--the beat patterns, the cues--but also some sense of how it's going. In this way, I was able to provide a great deal of instantaneous, well deserved positive feedback as the performance went along, which, along with a certain amount of confidence in my cuing and shaping of the phrases, created a very effective feedback loop between all involved in the performance.
Yet another way to describe it might be working with glass or clay. Like those two media, the music is shaped and changed by physical gesture and the kinetics have to be combined with real time information, in this case from the musical sounds created by the singers and orchestra.
The result was generally and aggressive and tight performance which we all seemed to enjoy and the audience enjoyed too.
I haven't seen much on the web about the consciousness of the conductor, so I will seek some responses from some colleagues....