ValŽry Ryvkin led Opera Santa Barbara for more than a decade | Credit: David Bazemore Photo

In Memoriam Valéry Ryvkin 1960-2020

He wasn’t central casting’s version of a maestro. Without curly locks like Dudamel’s or Lenny’s silvery hair, Valéry Ryvkin was short and bald-pated and boasted a cherubically rotund stomach. But when his glistening head popped up in the orchestra pit at the Lobero or Granada, audiences whooped with delight. “Bravo, bravo, Valéry!” they shouted. Whether it was opera, concert, or other musical entertainment, they knew they’d be in store for another enchanted evening of beautiful sounds.

The beloved Ryvkin, who died January 22 of a rare cancer at the terribly youthful age of 59, led Opera Santa Barbara for more than a decade, first as principal conductor and later as artistic director. He oversaw its growth from what he fondly called a “mom-and-pop” shop into a respected regional company. His productions included grand opera’s ABCs (Aida, La bohème, Carmen) as well as many lesser known works.

Invariably lauded by critics (“…coaxes the best out of cast and chorus alike” —Los Angeles Times), he received invitations to conduct with companies on both coasts and as far off as China. Perhaps his finest hour came when he was asked by Broadway legend Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to oversee Opera S.B.’s premiere of his first opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon.

For those who knew and worked with him, Valéry was very special, making friends as easily as he flicked his baton. Rarely did he just shake your hand. He hugged and bussed you like a long-absent relative. Circling the room with a tumbler of vodka in hand at post-performance receptions, he warmly greeted everyone in sight. Without a hint of a prompt sheet, he’d rattle off the names of every member of the cast and crew and throw in fitting words of praise and biography. 

As someone told to lip-sync during grade school music classes, I won’t pretend to pontificate about Valéry’s musical credentials. I’ll defer to Opera S.B.’s current artistic director, Kostis Protopapas, no slouch on the podium himself. “He was a singer’s conductor,” Kostis told me. “He loved the voice, and he could help singers bring out their best.” The celebrated bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, who sang Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov for Valéry at San Diego Opera, recalled him as “unforgettable to work with.” Especially memorable was Valéry’s nonoperatic temper. Hearing a misplaced high C or a screechy string during rehearsals, he’d respond with encouragement rather than rebuke.

At no time were these abilities on better display than last March when Valéry returned to Santa Barbara to guest conduct Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin as part of Opera S.B.’s 25th anniversary. For most of the singers, Russian was an unfamiliar language, and Tchaikovsky’s score was a demanding potpourri — folk tunes, soaring arias, a ballroom promenade. But the Russian-born maestro turned the performance into a triumph for singers and orchestra alike. Sadly, it would be last time we’d see him in the pit.

Photo: CourtesyCurtain Call

Growing up in what was then Leningrad, the son of a physician, Valéry showed his musical inclinations early. “I remember music always playing in our home, on record or the radio, especially opera,” he recalled. By age 7, he was studying piano. Despite the hardships of the Soviet era, the Ryvkins had first-rate performances available at such theaters as the Kirov (now Mariinsky), home to famed opera and ballet companies. Still, for a young Jewish music maker, the USSR wasn’t a promising place for a career.

At 18, Valéry boldly announced he’d move to the United States. Giving the tough-minded teen their blessings, his parents later joined him. In New York, Valéry scrambled to get by, taking any work he could get, including toiling in the hustle-bustle of Manhattan’s garment industry, until he gained admission to the Mannes School of Music, then Juilliard. There he decided his real passion was not the piano but conducting opera.

“I felt too bored practicing alone for eight hours a day,” he explained. “I wanted to make music with other people. I love people.” At Juilliard, his classmates included, among others, the future opera star soprano Renée Fleming.

But the climb up to the podium requires an apprenticeship. He worked as a vocal coach and rehearsal conductor at a number of opera companies, most notably the Met. There, no less than the peripatetic Russian conductor Valery (no accented é for him) Gergiev recruited him to lead rehearsals for the Met’s production of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.

While Valéry was vocal coaching at the Music Academy of the West in the 1990s, he caught the attention of a local opera maven, Marilyn Gilbert. A singer herself, Gilbert and her husband, Nathan Rundlett, had a dream: They wanted to start their own opera company. By 1999, after several DIY productions, they realized they needed full-time professional help and hired Valéry.

It was something of a package deal. Joining him was his wife (and ex-Manhattan landlady), soprano Victoria Hart. While studying for a PhD in music at UCSB, Victoria occasionally joined his casts, as when she took a powerful turn as the Principessa in Puccini’s one-act Suor Angelica. My own introduction to her occurred when I saw her singing, with Valéry at the piano and their adorable toddler Amanda listening raptly, in a national television commercial for Merrill Lynch.

Until his departure in 2010, Valéry watched over the production of some two dozen operas, typically conducting two per year himself. He went on to lead other companies and teach at Temple University and Carnegie Mellon. Even while tending to a dying mother, he kept his illness quiet, even from friends. That makes his sudden passing all the more shocking. And it makes the memory of his smiling face and warm embraces with vodka in hand all the more poignant. 

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