Seldom is the road not taken as plain to see as in the case of the conductor Will Crutchfield.
Around New York he has been most visible over the last 15 years as the director of Bel Canto at Caramoor, in Katonah, N.Y., a garden spot about an hour north of Manhattan. The association began in 1996 with Rossini's Cinderella opera "La Cenerentola." Since then Mr. Crutchfield has returned every summer, mounting concert or semistaged performances of nearly two dozen operas in collaboration with the Orchestra of St. Luke's. The fare has ranged from Donizetti's long-lost "Elisabeth," believed to have been a world premiere, to standard repertory like Verdi's "Traviata," all examined in the same spirit of fresh discovery.
Next Saturday evening and on July 16 Mr. Crutchfield, 53, will conduct "Norma," Bellini's tragedy of a Druid priestess who has been sleeping with the Roman enemy. And on July 24 he follows with the late-Donizetti rarity "Maria di Rohan," a swiftly paced tragedy set in the Paris of Louis XIII (and thus "The Three Musketeers" ).
Yet how easily Mr. Crutchfield might have been observing someone else's performances from the safety of the auditorium, notepad in hand. For a decade, from the early 1980s, he did a meteoric stint as a music critic at The New York Times, starting at the age of 27. His veteran colleague Harold Schonberg told him then that he was the youngest music critic in the newspaper's history. (When Alex Ross followed Mr. Crutchfield, in 1992, he was 24.) If musicians, impresarios and marketing departments sometimes winced at Mr. Crutchfield's judgments, editors and the public found him a breath of fresh air. But the work did not satisfy him, and he walked away.
"I wasn't very good at being a critic," Mr. Crutchfield said recently between classes with about 20 young artists associated with Bel Canto at Caramoor this summer. "Sometimes even without meaning to, I was explaining how I thought the piece should have been done. The way to show how you think it should be done is to do it."
He was none too impressed by his early work as a conductor, either. "Getting jobs wasn't hard," he said. "It was just hard to do them well. I tormented several student orchestras with my inexperience, but eventually I learned to do it better."
Mr. Crutchfield came to music early. His father, a Presbyterian preacher, Robert Crutchfield of Newport News, Va., led a double life as a professional operatic tenor. As a youngster Will studied piano seriously enough to know that a concert career was not for him.
"I didn't have the patience for methodical practice, because I wanted to play through everything with the expression and tempo of a performance," he said. "So I became a very mediocre pianist who knew a huge amount of music." Before long he began capitalizing on his skills as a vocal coach and rehearsal pianist.
In 1975, while still in high school, he signed on with the fledgling Virginia Opera, which had been organized the previous year in Norfolk. Peter Mark, the company's founding general and artistic director, recalls his astonishment when Mr. Crutchfield brought in, as an inspiration for the cast of Rossini's "Barbiere di Siviglia," a stack of embellishments painstakingly transcribed from historic recordings. (He still does this.)
"It was amazing in a community where opera was just taking root to find someone who had made such a precise study of ornamentation," Mr. Mark said. "What Will did was in support of the essence of bel canto, helping the singers to develop a sensitivity and virtuosity and define the borders of taste by showing the variety of practice through the ages. He has an unusual turn of mind, combining musicological and analytical skills with the practical skills of music making."
But his light was to remain under a bushel a while longer. Following a girlfriend to New Haven, Mr. Crutchfield continued to piece together a living by playing piano, notably at lessons given by the distinguished American soprano Phyllis Curtin, an education in itself. Criticism had never been his goal, but a chance encounter landed him a job writing reviews for The New Haven Register, where he caught the eye of Donal Henahan, then the chief music critic of The New York Times. Mr. Crutchfield contributed his first freelance piece to The Times, a review of opera recordings on the Bongiovanni label, in 1983. Several months later, The Times offered him a full-time position. His rhetorical zest and throwaway, self-assured erudition were instantly apparent.
"When a major figure in one field turns his hand to amateur efforts in another, the results can be memorable, as the drawings of William Blake, the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, or the caricatures of Enrico Caruso attest," Mr. Crutchfield wrote in 1984. "Comparable achievement, unfortunately, cannot be claimed for the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose piano music was offered by Utaco Knowles in a recital Thursday evening at the Puck Building."
Since abandoning criticism in the early '90s Mr. Crutchfield has followed his star far off the beaten track to Pretoria, South Africa, and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, as well as to steady positions with opera companies in Bogotá, Colombia, and Warsaw. Closer to home he has conducted in more than a half-dozen North American cities. He has formed lasting partnerships with established stars like Sumi Jo and Ewa Podles and played Pygmalion to important new singers like Angela Meade, this summer's Norma, and Takesha Meshé Kizart, this summer's Maria di Rohan.
To judge by her smoldering performance in Verdi's "Forza del Destino" last year, Ms. Kizart may be Mr. Crutchfield's most important discovery yet. To those who might point out that "Forza" is hardly a bel canto opera, Mr. Crutchfield has this to say: "I use the term 'bel canto' at convenience. Sometimes it means the generation of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, and sometimes it means the whole tradition of Italian singing." (He has presented Verdi's "Otello" at Caramoor too.)
From the first, Mr. Crutchfield's predominant passion was for opera, an art form he has dissected with microscopic attention, illuminating the momentous communicative consequences of the minutest technical tics or choices. His disquisitions on the intricacies of vocal embellishment and improvisation, some written while he was still in his 20s, can be found in scholarly journals and on the subscription service Grove Music Online. A long-promised book on performance practice in Italian opera remains a work in progress.
To catch Mr. Crutchfield in a recent class was to see a born teacher in his element. Late one morning, in a rehearsal studio near Times Square, he expanded on the elements of virtuosity. The poise and control of the long phrases heard on recordings by historic paragons like John McCormack, Pavel Lisitsian and Emma Calvé took the young singers' breath away.
"Should every singer be able to do this?" one shaken young artist asked. Pointing out that not every singer has the same lung capacity, Mr. Crutchfield answered that you should always aspire to control the breath you have.
Then members of the class sang, prompting comments on tempo, dynamics, pauses for breath and more. "Sometimes superficial things can make a big expressive difference," Mr. Crutchfield told a singer who had been unconsciously throwing out his hands with each new breath. "If you punctuate every phrase with a gesture, it breaks up the thought."
Professorial but also constructive and collegial, he offered tips for improving a trill, the quicksilver oscillation of notes a half or a whole step apart. To some singers, this trick comes naturally. Others fake it as best they can with a hazy flicker of vibrato, a natural characteristic of almost any singing voice, trained or untrained.
"If the vibrato is pronounced, and the trill is modest," Mr. Crutchfield pointed out, "there isn't enough contrast." Bringing a natural vibrato into the "shaky" part of the trill, he suggested, gives the ornament its "juice." As exercises he suggested modifying the vowel or broadening the interval to "a Tarzan trill," unleashing merry hooting all around the room.
Mr. Crutchfield's focus on mechanics might seem to brand him a quintessential canary fancier, but in the end his concern is with content. At a time when impresarios and divas alike belittle "La Sonnambula," Bellini's tale of the sleepwalking orphan bride, as so much silliness imperfectly redeemed by pretty music, Mr. Crutchfield mounts a detailed and vigorous defense of the libretto as psychological and poetic theater.
His frequent collaborator Vivica Genaux, the Cinderella of the Caramoor "Cenerentola," sees an affinity between Mr. Crutchfield's approach and that of Frank Oz, of Muppets fame. "Frank Oz once said that technique is the rocking chair you sit in while you're making your art," Ms. Genaux said recently from Paris. "Our art lies in what you have to say in the music, your reactions, the clash of emotions, all heightened 150 or 200 percent above what you see in real life."
Given the imagination he invests in study of the bel canto literature, it stands to reason that he would find his richest performance opportunities there. "You do what you know," he said. But that glosses over his deep knowledge of the symphonic repertory. And what of Wagner, whose music dramas he used to write about with such insight and flair?
"Wagner is my favorite, but you don't conduct Wagner unless you're either a star or the music director of the theater," Mr. Crutchfield said. "I know every page, though. You can give my e-mail and phone number to anybody who's looking."