Athlone Artists is delighted to welcome Christopher James Ray to its roster of artists. A conductor with a diverse background in both traditional and contemporary operatic works, Ray is currently Resident Conductor at Opera San José and an assistant with the San Francisco Symphony. In 2017, Christopher joined the music staff of the Bayreuth Festival where he worked on productions of Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Götterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Parsifal.
In the 2020-21 season, Ray was to have conducted Opera San José’s Le nozze di Figaro, Carmen, Salome, and West Side Story as well as debut with the Lima Symphony Orchestra and Music Academy of the West. In place of the previously planned season, Ray has been working with Opera San José to create a variety of filmed performances including Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, a fully-staged chamber opera starring Susan Graham that is available online throughout the month of December.
“I suppose you could say I was in the right place at the wrong time,” says Ray of his current role conducting for the digital space. “I would’ve conducted my first Salome this season, but of course we had to transition to smaller shows. Khori Dastoor (Opera San José’s General Director) is a very impressive person, and she quickly pivoted to streaming opportunities as part of Opera San José’s new Fred Heiman Digital Media Studio to bring performances to audiences at home.” Ray recently performed Schumann’s “Dichterliebe” with baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, deemed “excellent in terms of both performance and as a fine example of the art form of the song cycle” (MD Theatre Guide).
A native of Sumrall, Mississippi, Ray began studying piano at the age of six, with much of his musical education coming from church or school programs. “In early high school,” Ray recalls, “I really wanted to attend the Juilliard pre-college program, so the whole family went up to New York City so I could audition. I did get in, but I wasn’t able to go. I remember being told at the time, ‘people like you, from places like this, don’t get to have things like that.’ I think that has driven me to think that people like me from places like small-town Mississippi can do whatever we want.”
Ray discovered opera while he was a piano and organ student at Mississippi College. “I went to see a Met Broadcast in Pearl, Mississippi – the Madama Butterfly starring Patricia Racette with all of the puppets – and I went straight back to my teachers and said, ‘I want to do something with opera. This is important.’ My organ teacher knew someone from Mississippi Opera and I immediately started playing piano for their rehearsals. It was great, and it gave me a leg up, having had professional experience when I auditioned for the opera coaching and conducting program at Florida State University. There, I had even more conducting opportunities, and most importantly I met my mentor, Carlisle Floyd.” Ray continues to be a sought-after interpreter of the American composer’s works, and recorded an album of Floyd’s songs entitled “Letter to the World” with the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, available on GPR Records.
Ray made his professional conducting debut leading a double bill of Gianni Schicchi and Pagliacci with the Mississippi Opera in 2014. Later that year he conducted performances of Così fan tutte, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi with Opera in the Ozarks. Additional conducting credits include Copland’s The Tender Land, Handel’s Alcina, Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters, Glass’s In the Penal Colony, and Britten’s The Beggar’s Opera. Other recent performances at Opera San José have included Il trovatore, Hansel and Gretel, Die Fledermaus, Heggie/Scheer’s Moby Dick, and Pagliacci. As assistant conductor, Ray has worked with the Salzburg State Theater (Brokeback Mountain), North Carolina Opera (La bohème, Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro), Sarasota Opera (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Carlos), Opera on the James (Carmen), Opera on the Avalon (Die Zauberflöte), Syracuse Opera (Die Fledermaus) as well as the Memphis Symphony and Portland (ME) Symphony.
One of Ray’s most special moments thus far was during his second summer at Bayreuth, conducting the women’s chorus in Parsifal from the 6th floor fly loft as specified by Wagner. “There’s this whole page of music when I was the only person conducting.” In the near future, Ray plans to put all of his energy and resources into moving his career to Europe, and is looking forward to joining the roster of Athlone Artists and Insignia Athlone Artists. “In my search for management,” says Ray, “I found Miguel Rodriguez to be a good fit. It’s clear that Miguel and I operate in the same way in creating both short and long-term plans. I am especially drawn to the German system because they do so much repertoire all of the time. I always want to be learning something new.”