Meet Detroit Opera’s New Music Director

Detroit Opera’s new music director Roberto Kalb talks what to expect at the Opera House this fall.
Photograph by Simon Paul

Roberto Kalb says there are no dumb questions when it comes to trying to understand what a music director does for Detroit Opera, but I tried to push the limits of his patience anyway.

Like, what exactly does a music director do?

“A conductor’s life is 95 percent sitting and studying,” laughs Kalb, who was appointed in November 2022 and is only the second music director in Detroit Opera’s 50-plus-year history — and the first who is also the conductor of symphony orchestras and opera.

“I’m at the piano. I’m studying my scores. With pieces that are older than 100 years old, there’s a tremendous amount that you need to read.”

And some of the material may be in a language he doesn’t speak fluently.

“It’ll take me months and months to prepare. All the work really happens before I even see the musicians,” says Kalb, who oversees the day-to-day operations of Detroit Opera, which includes hiring and managing the musicians in the orchestra. And he’ll conduct at least one production per season. This season, it is The Cunning Little Vixen, onstage in May 2024.

Kalb holds a degree from the University of Michigan and once worked as an assistant conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He previously served as resident conductor and head of music at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. He’s led productions all over the world, from Oklahoma to São Paulo.

What’s the flavor of conducting he’s bringing to Detroit? The part of the process we actually get to see with our own eyes as a discerning audience?

“I think I’m known for having a very clear technique and for being very musical. I’m not a tyrant. I’m a big proponent of egoless art making. I don’t try to put my stamp on things. It’s already there by me being me.

“My favorite artists have this thing where I don’t hear them,” Kalb says. “When you turn on the recording or see the video, it’s clear it’s them working, but it’s them being a conduit for the art.”

Kalb, who hails from Mexico City, says representation is a powerful tool for filling up the opera house again.

“There’s a large Latin community and Spanish-speaking community that hasn’t had their language represented. I really hope and plan that we can do more in the future.”

The future is this October, when Kalb will conduct his first concert for Detroit Opera, Arias and Overtures, which will feature all-star singers performing Spanish zarzuela selections alongside works from Verdi and Bernstein.

My last question for Kalb is an easy one for him to answer: Why, when you could truly work anywhere in the world, choose Detroit?

“I really think it’s the coolest city in the States,” he says. “The vibe. The food scene. The incredible visual art. The things that are happening at the Detroit Opera are amazing. It sold me on the city.”

And if you haven’t been sold yet on the work Artistic Director Yuval Sharon, Associate Artistic Director Christine Goerke (who is a stunning soprano singer to boot), and now Kalb are doing at Detroit Opera, you’ve got a hard question to ask yourself.

This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.