“I had always wanted to be a conductor,” said Dr. Steven White (BMus ’85), artistic director of Opera Roanoke in Virginia. Growing up, White was surrounded by music, especially within his family. His parents served on the music faculty at BJU. His father, Dr. Duane White, taught piano and was head of the Department of Music History and Literature, and his mother, Frances White, taught voice. White considers himself fortunate that both of his parents were classical musicians. “My father … was the most influential teacher for me,” he said. “He taught me the love of great music.”
Additionally, his parents both influenced him through the way they viewed sacred music. Said White: “My mother … really knew how to sing sacred music in such a way that you felt the sincerity of the text. Of course, that is important in sacred music, but it also applies to everything that you do as a musician. The way you feel about music has to be something that you convey or else the performance does not have the way of impacting the audience unless you believe it yourself, unless you have a way of making your intention clear.”
Musical Influence of BJU
The quality of BJU’s music program influenced White’s love for music, even before he began his undergraduate degree. As a third-grader, he was an extra in an opera, and he sang in his first opera when he was a high school freshman.
“I don’t think people realize the gift that Bob Jones University provides in their commitment to classical music,” White said. “The opera program and the productions that they put on there are absolutely second to none. And some of my earliest experiences have been not only being in the operas at a young age but witnessing them, and it was just an incredible environment, and I learned to love it very early on.
“The commitment to excellence at Bob Jones is not something that you can take for granted at other places. For me, it was so very instrumental to be surrounded by loving and caring faculty members who all felt the same commitment to integrity and musical standards. It was wonderful, and I had such tremendous opportunities there.”
The Pursuit of a Career in Music
Except for the time he thought he might like to play third base for the L.A. Dodgers, White always knew he wanted to have a career in music. “It never dawned on me from my earliest days that I’d have a career in anything else,” he said.
At first, he double majored in voice and piano, but after a few years, he decided to concentrate on voice. “Singing for me at the time was easy,” he said. “You could sing in the shower. You could practice anywhere. You could sing as you walked on the way to the dining common. Practicing the piano meant hibernating away for hours in a practice studio. I didn’t have that discipline.” He added, “I wish I had had more discipline, but … I obviously went the right direction for me.”
The Responsibility and Privilege of Conducting
While his early experiences in music introduced White to the concept of conducting, Dr. Dwight Gustafson sparked White’s passion for the art. Said White: “He really was the first person whose conducting made me want to be a conductor. I’ve had all kinds of professional mentors … along the way. But Dr. Gustafson — from my earliest age watching a conductor — he is the one that let me realize that conducting is a responsibility and a privilege. And when you take the responsibility seriously, you take the privilege seriously, and I saw that in Dr. Gustafson, along with his tremendous talent and intellect.”
White, like almost every conductor, followed his own path to becoming one, a path which excluded a degree in the field. Instead, he gained experience by taking classes in graduate school, founding his own choir, and even assisting renowned choral conductor Robert Shaw. Those and other opportunities led to his becoming the chorus master for the Greater Miami Opera — now the Florida Grand Opera. “I got my first opportunities to be around a really complex professional conducting environment,” White said. “My experience as a singer had given me a tremendous advantage over conductors who don’t really have that vocal background, particularly in the field of opera.”
As chorus master, he also learned how to conduct orchestras, which are essential to opera. White explained, “I spent a lot of time with orchestras and began to realize that I had some talent in that regard, and that’s how it all started.”
Opportunities as a Conductor
Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke
During the 20 years White has been the artistic director of Opera Roanoke, he has had the opportunity to conduct a large operatic repertoire. “It’s a small company, but we do really good work,” he said. “It has given me the opportunity to do certain pieces for the very first time.” He has then been able to conduct these pieces — such as La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida and Carmen — with companies like the Metropolitan Opera.
In addition to increasing White’s repertoire, being at Opera Roanoke has taught White business experience. He said, “It’s been a great training ground for me not only as a musician but also as an administrator because I learned to deal with budgets and … scheduling and all of those kinds of things which are tremendously complex in terms of running an opera company.”
Not only does White conduct professional orchestras, he also conducts students. “In my years since I’ve had my conducting career, one of the things that is important to me is to work with young people and particularly in an academic environment,” White said. “One of my favorite things to do is to go and be an artist-in-residence.” Schools like Indiana University, Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and The Juilliard School have benefited from his artistry.
In 2014 White conducted BJU’s performance of Aida. “It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life,” he recalled. “I have always known, because I grew up there, how good the BJU Symphony is, but actually to work with these young people in a rehearsal process — starting from scratch and taking it to a final product — there’s nothing more rewarding. I absolutely loved it.
“I guess one of the things you could say, too, is that there are wonderful people everywhere. I go and work with orchestras and work in other institutions, and as a general rule, classical musicians are really decent people. But there’s something about the character of the young people at Bob Jones. They’re there for a higher calling, and they have a commitment to that, and it shows in their work ethic. It shows in their desire to work with me as a conductor and to grow, and so I don’t think that you can discount the character and quality of the young people when it comes to the kind of results that I and others have been able to experience in working with the ensembles there at Bob Jones.”
Although White equally loves conducting symphonic and operatic works, 75% of his conducting is for opera. Opera rehearsals at the venue last five to six weeks while preparation for a weekend of symphonic concerts only lasts four or five days. “When you’re committed to being an opera conductor, it doesn’t leave much time really to do a lot of straight symphonic work,” he explained.
Continued Love for Opera
Having conducted over 65 different operas, White has a few favorites — Tosca, Otello and The Marriage of Figaro — plus a few he has not yet conducted. However, his preferences do not limit his enjoyment of the music. “I tend to love whatever it is I’m conducting,” he said, “and the great privilege of working with classical music is that you’re not dealing with any duds.”
His love for the music does not change even after repeated performances of certain works. “Some people ask me, ‘What’s it like to do the same opera … over and over again? Don’t you get tired of it?’ No. Do we get tired of reading the 23rd Psalm? No. I’m not putting classical music in the same category as inspired Scripture, but … we’re dealing with music that is of the highest caliber and written by geniuses far more genius than I, and it’s a privilege to work with that.”