In 1970, when Hal France began his freshman year at the University of Vermont as a football player, the little light that had been flickering above his head of black curls suddenly clicked on in all its megawatt splendor. The epiphany changed the course of his life.
“In just a matter of months, I got completely driven into music and became a different kind of person,” says France, who started piano lessons when he was a boy, in his native northern New Jersey. “I was a jock who went from not playing the piano to practicing intensely every day.”
France never veered from the path he chose all those years ago, but he did broaden it considerably. The young man who became a virtuoso pianist branched out into opera, transforming himself into one of the most sought-after conductors in this country and throughout Europe.
Omahans know him as the artistic director of Opera Omaha from 1995-2005. His responsibilities covered every aspect of a production, from the music to the scenery and costumes. A permanent resident of Omaha since 2003 (after spending eight years flying into Omaha several times a year), France’s many other roles include performer, teacher, coach, executive director of KANEKO, humanitarian, volunteer, mentor, friend, and one of Omaha’s most tireless advocates for all the arts, not just opera.
“It’s really important that live music and the classics be continued,” says France, 63. “Whether you like classical music or not, live gatherings of human beings, face to face, is not replaceable.
Sipping black coffee in lieu of his usual drink preference, hot tea, France reflects on his life’s improbable U-turn. “I played football and basketball through high school and all my friends were athletes.” But didn’t the cultural mecca across the river from Jersey draw him? “Yeah, except I was a Yankees fan and went to their games from a young age. The Yankees, Jets, and Mets—that was my culture,” he says with a dimpled grin.
France praises his late parents, both musicians, for patiently allowing him to find his own level. Once he decided on a “purposeful life” in music, he transferred to Northwestern University for a degree in piano performance. His next stop: the prestigious Juilliard Opera Center, followed by a degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory.
Why opera? The answer may lie in his heritage. “I’m Italian on both sides, and my grandparents spoke Italian,” he says, indicating the family name had been shortened along the way. Music of all kinds, including opera, filled the house daily.
France started out in the orchestra pit as a rehearsal pianist for a small opera company in Colorado and fell in love with “all the excitement and the energy of that collaboration.” He joined other companies and moved from the pit to the podium in a short time, working his way up the conductor ladder with zeal and an unbridled passion “to bring music to life.” He would soon bring life to the music in Omaha.
“I first came to Omaha in the mid-’80s as a guest conductor at the opera,” he recalls in his low, well-modulated voice. At the time, France was paying his dues at the Houston Grand Opera under the tutelage of John DeMain, who functioned simultaneously as Opera Omaha’s music director. “One year John couldn’t come up here, so he sent me. That marked the beginning of my freelance conducting career, setting off on my own.”
Over the next 10 years, the charismatic France brought an insightful, entertaining, and masterful command to each orchestral or operatic production, from Santa Fe to Stockholm, London to St. Louis. But he never forgot Omaha’s level of talent, community involvement, and impressive philanthropy. In 1995, he readily accepted a position with Opera Omaha and built upon its growing national reputation for high artistic quality. Says attorney David Gardels, a longtime opera board member, “Hal instituted long practice and rehearsal sessions. It was very professional. The chorus people loved him.”
And France loves singers, whom he considers smart as well as skilled. More importantly, he respects them. The admiration flows both ways. “There is no one who believes in a person more, or who has pushed me harder as a musician,” says Opera Omaha soprano Tara Cowherd. “He will memorize an entire opera and sing every note. He’s amazingly talented and humble.”
Strands of gray now weave through his black curls, but France still racks up frequent flyer miles. His coming opera engagements include a production with the Hawaii Opera Theater and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s also teaming with the Omaha Conservatory to present a series of community-based programs about music, while continuing his mentorship of young singers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Divorced from Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, France enjoys being in a committed relationship with Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “Being connected to her life, which is so different from mine, is a real blessing,” France says. “I love music, but one becomes a better musician as one becomes more connected.” With no children of his own, he dotes on his nieces and nephews, hoping a light will some day lead them to a life of fulfillment.
Visit operaomaha.org for more information.