What does a Music Director (Theater and Opera) do?
At its core, the music director’s job is to understand how songs and music serve a show’s story, setting, drama, and emotional context, and to bring out those critical elements in high quality and consistent performances. As a member of the show’s central creative team—alongside the stage director, composer, librettist, and choreographer—the music director is hard at work from the very beginning of the production process: developing an overall vision for the production's music, leading the musical aspects of the audition process, helping cast actors and singers, and selecting and hiring pit orchestra musicians—possibly with the help of a music contractor.
The best music directors are simultaneously leaders and team players, understanding when to take charge and when to accomodate another's creative vision.
As the rehearsal process begins, the music director personally schedules and oversees separate music rehearsals for the cast and orchestra. During cast rehearsals—which could consist of the full cast or various smaller groups and configurations of singers—the music director or repetiteur accompanies on piano, while during orchestra rehearsals the director conducts. Whether working with instrumentalists or singers, the music director strives to shape and blend their sound, create a shared sense of ensemble, and develop a unique musical interpretation. The music director is also likely to consult with the show's sound designer on technical aspects of the performance. Once the production opens, the music director's duties include leading warm-ups before each show, conducting the orchestra in performance, and holding occasional rehearsals to maintain consistency and incorporate notes from the stage manager.
At a Glance
The music director is the highest musical position on a musical theater or opera production. Qualified individuals have many years of industry experience as a conductor, pit orchestra musician, or repetiteur, and generally start out directing community and college productions before moving on to regional and, ultimately, professional ones. Some go on to become arrangers, composers, or musical theater adapters, while others advance in their careers by directing productions for increasingly prestigious musical theater or opera companies.
Generally speaking, theatrical music directors are freelancers who might be hired by theater companies, opera companies, or universities. However, music directors for opera often have a close relationship with a particular opera house or company, and may even be full-time employees. Similarly, a broadway music director might work in-house for a particular company. Aspiring music directors should network with producers, directors, and artistic directors, and always keep in mind that musical theater is more than just Broadway; there's a wealth of other opportunities out there, from musical theater productions done by community and regional theaters to experimental plays, hybrid performance art, and immersive theatrical experiences.
- Reading and writing music
- Accompanying on piano
- Broad knowledge of instruments
- Experience with theater
- Verbal communication
In addition to possessing hard skills like piano playing, conducting, arrangement, and transposition, music directors must be capable of collaborating with a group of creative artists with conflicting interests, communicating effectively with singers and actors, and making quick adjustments to the score or performance when something isn't working. The best music directors are simultaneously leaders and team players, understanding when to take charge and when to accomodate another's creative vision.
As for many who work in the theater, short periods of intensity—like in the frenzied weeks leading up to opening night—alternate with opportunities for relaxation, regrouping, networking, and acquiring new skills. This could present a challenge for some, but those with a passion for theater tend to relish the highs and lows of putting on a large, collaborative production.