On a mid-November evening, world-renowned conductor Jeffrey Tate stands in the center of a small classroom, listening to the chaotic polyphony of chattering kids and chirping computers. It's the computer lab of the PACER Center, a Minneapolis-based organization (also known as the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights) that serves children and young adults with disabilities and their families. Tate, an Englishman who now serves on the organization's advisory board, moves among the youngsters, fielding questions and offering encouragement. Several kids sit in wheelchairs, others have no apparent disabilities. The computers have touch-responding screens, oversized controls, and strangely shaped keyboards. The room resonates with bleeps, laughter, whirring, talk, and music.

Tate, who would stand 6 foot, 4 inches tall were it not for his own disability, which causes him to hunch, cuts an imposing figure among the six- to 11-year-olds. He's strong, too. As parents and other adults greet Tate, their hands disappear into his grip--bones crunch as he says hello. His deep baritone voice, with a mellifluous British accent, is warm and inviting. Tate could talk about the weather and you'd feel as though you were listening to Sir Ian McKellen reciting King Lear.

Walking through the room, the conductor spends a fair amount of time with each child. With one young boy, he asks for a demonstration of some music-composition software. He talks with another boy about living with spina bifida. A girl shows Tate a drawing she made of a horse. "I like form in art," she tells him with surprising sophistication. Tate tells her to come to the concert he's conducting with the Minnesota Orchestra that Friday because the program includes Mozart, a composer who elegantly embodied form.

As a youngster, Tate also tried his hand at sketching and drawing. Today, however, those hands are more likely to be holding a baton or the rapt attention of a professional orchestra. As principal conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra's Viennese Sommerfest, Tate will kick off the annual festival on July 8 with a program of Strauss, Mozart, and Lehar. Almost a household name among classical-music lovers, the 55-year-old Tate regularly conducts the English Chamber Orchestra and l'Orchestre National de France, and he serves as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and as principal conductor of the Royal Opera-Covent Garden. The list of recordings that bear his name is extensive.

He's also openly gay, wedded in mind and temperament to Klaus Kuhlemann, his partner of nearly two decades. Tate's schedule of international appearances is unrelenting--taking him from Paris, Rome, and Buenos Aires to Luxembourg and Boston--but Kuhlemann's constant companionship provides Tate with a more normal "home life" even on overseas travels.

The globe-trotting Tate hasn't forgotten the history of his success, however, and on this fall evening at the PACER Center, he's more than willing to tell his tale. After retiring to a reception room and receiving a plaque that acknowledges his newly established association with the PACER Center, he entertains questions from the children about his life. "Have you met the Queen?" a boy in a wheelchair asks. "What was it like growing up?" one girl wants to know.

"I didn't know I had a disability until I was about four years old," the composer tells the children and parents. Tate was born April 28, 1943, in Salisbury, England. His father, Harry Tate, had been an officer in the Royal Air Force, was an outdoorsman, and an excellent cricket player. Jeffrey was a robust child and seemed destined to follow his father's physically active life. There was one problem, though: Jeffrey had flat feet. When the boy was three, his mother took him to a specialist who determined that he not only had flat feet, he also had a severe malformation of the spine.

"I went to the hospital alone for a whole week," Tate continues. "It was a difficult experience. I saw doctors and surgeons and was diagnosed with spina bifida and kyphoscoliosis." Both ailments are caused by genetic defects. Scoliosis is a deformation of the spine, and kyphosis is an additional twisting of the vertebrae. Spina bifida, in Tate's case, has led to a tethering of certain nerves. "Luckily I had a mild form of kyphoscoliosis that affected the bottom of my spine," Tate says. "Thus it affected the lower part of my left leg, and not the brain. More severe forms of this illness can lead to degeneration in the brain."

Besides surgeries to "straighten" him up, which included removing a rib and grafting it to his spine, the boy for two years had to wear a leg iron that immobilized his left side from the hip to the ankle. After one surgery when he was eight, Jeffrey had to lie in a plaster bed without moving for three months. Though the experience was painful and exasperating, Tate is convinced that these interventions saved him from a life in a wheelchair. "I owe my ambulant nature to medicine," he says.  

Early on, Tate developed an inclination toward music. "I was interested in music for as long as I've existed," he tells the PACER kids. "I played the piano since four. My mother and grandmother played music." Tate adds that much of his love of music stems from having attended a school with a strong music program. "I sang as a small boy, and performed in a cantata by Benjamin Britten that was presented in front of him," he says. His clear soprano tones earned him a spot as head chorister at the chapel of St. Thomas in Bourne.

Tate knew he wanted to devote his life to art, but his parents were unhappy about such a prospect. "I was told to go into medicine as I was good with sciences," he says. "I knew [medicine] from living in hospitals, and owed a great debt to it. I never really wanted to go into it, but I was a good boy and did as my parents wanted, and I practiced [as an intern] for two years."

After completing his medical internship in 1969, when he was 25, Tate was registered as a doctor. He put off practicing medicine, however, to try out a position at the London Opera Centre. It was, as he saw it, his final opportunity to give music a serious try. Tate never turned back. At the Opera Centre he worked as a répétiteur, an opera coach who does a little of everything. His career and reputation blossomed and boomed. At 35, with no formal music training, he accepted an invitation to direct Carmen with the Göteborg Opera of Sweden--his debut with a professional orchestra. "As the music moved under my hands," Tate once told a reporter, "I suddenly felt that I was doing something I had been waiting to do all my life."

One of the riskiest invitations that came his way was in 1979. The Metropolitan Opera of New York City asked Tate to take over a performance of Alban Berg's Lulu, one of the most difficult operas ever written, without the benefit of a single rehearsal. Though Tate knew the score, he had never conducted it before. Conductor Georg Solti told him he'd be mad to do it. But Tate, always a risk taker, took the podium anyway: The performance went flawlessly, with one exception--his glasses flew off in the heat of the performance. Tate couldn't read the score until a player in the pit retrieved the specs for him.

A few days after Tate's reception with the children, Tate speaks with me just prior to a concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, a subscription concert featuring British composers and a Mozart piano concerto with Alicia de Larrocha. The interview takes place in the back recesses of Orchestra Hall, in conductor Eiji Oue's office, where Tate now presides. With its comfortable sofa and coffee table, the office seems more living room than work space.

Tate is going over scores of music with Asadour Santourian, the orchestra's director of artistic planning. Already in November, preparations for Sommerfest in July are underway. Although the evening's concert is scheduled to begin in less than an hour, Tate whiles away the remaining minutes by going over music he'll perform eight months later and doing an interview.

He is in concert dress, wearing a black tuxedo, white shirt, and cummerbund. The formal dress makes him appear imposing, perhaps even unapproachable, but he smiles in welcome, and his face shines with a boyish quality.

I ask Tate about a comment he'd made at the PACER Center about Benjamin Britten. In addition to earning respect worldwide as one of the great composers of this century, Britten lived an uncloseted life as a gay man. He and his life partner, an English tenor, lived openly as a couple from the 1940s until Britten's death in 1976. Tate acknowledges that Britten had a "profound influence" on his own development as a musician.

Tate returns to the story of his first meeting with the composer. "In 1954 we did a cantata with Benjamin Britten," he says. "Both Britten and his lover, Peter Pears, attended. Pears was born in the town where I was brought up. Pears sang in the cantata, and I was one of the four boy solos. It was formidable to meet them. Britten was in full swing with his career then, the central figure in the music of the time."

Over the years, Tate became friends with Britten and Pears. He continued to meet the couple socially, and often attended their concerts. After Britten's death, he further collaborated with Pears, helping prepare Britten's opera Owen Windgrave at Covent Garden in the 1970s.  

"Britten was such a powerful figure," Tate recalls. "Being openly gay wasn't such a problem. He had it lighter than most. If you're an established figure in the arts, doors open to you nonetheless."

Tate tells one story about Britten that is not well known. "In the 1960s he came down with a rare disease," Tate says. "Much of his heart valve was destroyed by it and he lived perpetually on the verge of heart failure. His music began to lack energy. His early music was so energetic, like the opera Peter Grimes. [Britten's last opera] Death in Venice, on the other hand, is very atmospheric. Britten started drinking. He was an incredibly talented man, yet he was in despair. This illness disabled him and he didn't know how to cope." For Tate, a disability has been a challenge to overcome. For Britten, a disabling disease was an adversity that ultimately crushed him.

I eventually ask Tate about his long-term relationship with Klaus Kuhlemann, whom he met in Cologne, Germany. Kuhlemann is a geomorphologist by training, and a music lover. "I have been with Klaus for almost 20 years," Tate says. "A lot of people seem surprised, but obviously it takes work to make a relationship work. Klaus sacrifices a lot to be with me. We don't assume that the other is willing to do everything."

In a profile of Tate published in The New Yorker in 1990, Tate's mother characterizes Klaus' presence in Tate's life as "extremely beneficial." She continues: "He is completely devoted to Jeffrey and is a calming influence. In an unobtrusive way he irons out all the creases in Jeffrey's complicated existence. Jeffrey doesn't have to do the worrying, and that gives him the time he so much needs.... Without Klaus, Jeffrey just couldn't do what he does."

Kuhlemann, however, prefers to let Tate have all the limelight. He declined to be interviewed for this article. He is a private man, according to Tate, and the two men have created a world apart from their complex professional lives, a safe space they can retreat to when the day is over. "I have to keep up a 'normal' life with all the travel," Tate says. "Our relationship keeps a kind of 'home life' consistent. I don't think either one of us at this point could imagine living without the other."

Living in America, in particular, requires a bit of adjustment. Conductors in the United States, for example, are treated differently from their counterparts in Europe, Tate says. "I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts today," he says during our interview. "People stopped me and said they enjoyed the concert. It is unlikely that would happen in London. I was very moved. After Sommerfest last year, someone yelled out from a car, 'Great concert!'"

But the trip to the MIA has also got Tate thinking about culture and the place of classical music in American and European culture. "I can see that classical music is austere compared to pop culture," he says. "High culture always has been for a limited number of people. I saw the same thing at the Art Institute. You have loads of school kids coming in for field trips, but few other people were walking around. Is high culture important? I think the answer is that it is important, that it says, if nothing else, something about what humans have achieved."

Moments after our interview ends, I find myself scrambling to my seat while Tate makes his way across the stage to thunderous applause. He walks briskly, using a cane, past the instrumentalists, greets concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, and bows to the audience.

From the first piece, which is the American premiere of Thomas Ades' Asyla, to the lush Enigma Variations by Elgar and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20, Tate's conducting style is calm and precise. The consummate professional, Tate is a man who does his job and expects the instrumentalists to do theirs.

Many of the children whom Tate had met at the PACER Center are in the audience. After the concert, the kids come backstage to meet their new role model.

In the green room, throngs of people bump and collide, and it is nearly impossible to hear over the din of voices. Near the door, in a large chair, Tate holds court. Though many of those in the room would like to shake his hand, including some of the orchestra's wealthy benefactors, one can't help but notice that Tate's full attention is on the children.

The youngsters meet with him one by one, bubbling over with observations about the concert and bending Tate's ear on matters large and small. Though their words get lost in the noise that surrounds them, Tate listens keenly and responds. Perhaps he's reiterating some of the advice he offered days earlier at the PACER Center: "Find out what you want to do for yourself and just do it. Know within what's most important. Pursue your dream--unashamedly and unabashedly."

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