Utah Opera’s new chorus master, Caleb Harris, makes his debut with this month’s production of “La Traviata.”
The opera company has pianist Heather Conner to thank for finding him. Conner, an associate professor of piano at the University of Utah, has no connection to the company. But Harris, whom she married last June, was interested in relocating to live with her. (He learned of the Utah Opera job opening from Barlow Bradford, the U.’s director of choral studies, who’d just been hired as Utah Symphony chorus master.)
Harris, 33, was the second of seven children growing up in a musical household in Borger, Texas. When his father, a pilot and rancher who played trombone on the side, decided to take up piano, Caleb and his older brother followed suit. There were also some country singers in the family tree, and Caleb Harris added voice to his musical studies as a teenager.
“I’ve always found the human voice the most intriguing instrument,” he said. “None of the others sing text. The voice is the one that is really capable of the broadest range of emotions.”
He earned degrees in piano performance from Oklahoma Baptist University and the Eastman School of Music, with secondary study in voice and conducting. He held the Nat King Cole Fellowship at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center for two summers, studying piano, art song, opera — “we did it all,” he said. “That led to lots of opportunities.”
Harris has appeared as a piano soloist, chamber musician, vocal coach and conductor across the United States, Europe and Asia. Most recently, he was on the faculty of the University of Northern Colorado.
He met Conner in 2011 when she was a guest artist at a piano festival he co-founded in Colorado. “By the time that purely professional engagement ended, there was a personal energy we wanted to explore — and obviously, we did, so here we are,” he said.
Utah Opera artistic director Christopher McBeth said he’s delighted with the new hire. “Quite honestly, he fell into our laps,” McBeth said. “He was the top candidate among some really impressive talent. All of his musical experience in this country and Europe is absolutely priceless.” McBeth said Harris was also the top choice of a committee of longtime Utah Opera chorus members who helped vet the finalists.
Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony | Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach, is a 21-year veteran of the opera chorus who sat on that committee. “Caleb is articulate, warm, thoughtful and generous and comes really well-prepared,” Fowler said.
The opera chorus master has wide-ranging musical and administrative responsibilities. He maintains the chorus roster, prepares the chorus for mainstage productions and assists the guest conductor as needed. “Any time the chorus is called, the chorus master is there,” Harris said.
The breadth of Harris’ experience has prepared him well, Fowler said. Because Utah Opera employs a series of guest conductors rather than a full-time music director, “he makes musical choices for a music director who’s not going to appear until the production,” she said. “He prepares the chorus to be flexible in live performance. Caleb has practiced with us in many ways — at different tempos and all kinds of dynamics. He plans the rehearsal period very carefully.”