When Boston Ballet music director and principal conductor Jonathan McPhee steps to the podium Thursday night for the opening performance of “Coppélia,” it will be the sixth production of the ballet he has conducted: one apiece with American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, Australian Ballet, and National Ballet of Canada, and two with Boston Ballet, including the current one, choreographed by George Balanchine. A tale of dreams versus reality, set in motion by a beautiful doll apparently come to life, “Coppélia” is one of the most popular ballets in the repertoire, originally staged in 1870, with a groundbreaking score by Léo Delibes.
Q. Many consider this the first great score written for the ballet. Do you agree?
A. In modern terms, yes — this is the modern ballet orchestra. “Coppélia” really is an operetta score, the first example in ballet of a real brass section, a lot more percussion, more colorful music. It’s also the first and finest example where every character has their own music and the dramatic action has special music — the comedic sneaking-around music, the funky mechanical music in the toy shop. What is really fun is listening to the audience reaction. When the doll blinks, you hear that in the music, and the kids laugh. One of my favorite spots is when the doll first comes to life. You see her breath swell, and the music just lifts. It’s so dramatically perfect.
Q. It’s also quite memorable, with a lot of folk elements — a mazurka, a czardas, a bolero.
A. All these national dances. He incorporated them very naturally. Dr. Coppélius thinks his doll comes to life, he throws a Scottish plaid on her, and she does a little jig. Audiences were so thrilled by this national music and the corresponding dances that it became part of a new tradition to put national dances in the last act. It changed the structure of ballet music.
Q. How does Balanchine’s “Coppélia” differ from others?
A. Others omit some of the score, but Mr. Balanchine really loved the full score. When Mr. Balanchine wanted to mount his version, he worked with [Alexandra] Danilova, one of the great Swanildas, and went back to the early roots of the choreography she knew for Act 1 and 2. Act 3 is pure Balanchine, and that’s where his version stands apart. He used everything Delibes originally wrote and added more [from other Delibes compositions].
Q. You worked closely with Balanchine for 2½ years.
A. Mr. Balanchine was an excellent musician. The first time I heard him play, he played Gershwin songs. So wonderful, this elegant Russian sitting at the piano playing “Who Cares?” He was one of those unique choreographers who made choreographic steps from a musician’s standpoint.
Q. Why is live music for ballet so important?
A. [For] certain works and certain choreographers, I don’t feel the taped music restricts them. But for ballets intended to be done with live music, it does. It handcuffs the spontaneity, deadens things down entirely.
Q. You’ve conducted all over the world, not just for dance, but opera, and symphonic work. Which do you prefer?
A. I love making music with an orchestra, the total freedom, just you and the musicians. But there’s something about the scale of doing opera and ballet that you miss when doing symphony, a different kind of theatricality when you’re part of larger-scale work.
Q. So, life in the pit — the Opera House pit is smaller and much deeper than the Wang. What’s it like down there for the players?
A. [Laughs.] Past the uncomfortable. You put a symphony orchestra in a small room with no roof and it’s gonna get loud. Space is an issue. You want to have enough bow room, and you don’t want to have a trumpet right in your ear. Another thing you find in the pit is musicians feeling, “Yeah, nobody knows I’m here,” like second-class citizens. You need to feel appreciated even though you feel you’re like in a hole.
Q. And it must be frustrating when you can’t see what’s going on onstage.
A. Yes, for ballet even more than opera, where at least you can get a sense from the singers. I’m the only link to the characters, so I try to give [the orchestra] an idea in rehearsal what’s going on so they can visualize how important that music is.
Q. The orchestra is a bit unsung, even though it’s Boston’s second-largest musical organization.
A. When critics don’t notice the orchestra, it’s frustrating. The morale is different. They want to feel part of a production, not just be the hired help. After all, the music is the dancers’ voice.
Q. You made your professional debut with the Martha Graham Dance Company in 1979, and you’ve been with the Boston Ballet for 26 years. Is it getting old?
A. We had nine really challenging years — administrative changes, the turmoil of exiting the Wang, the terrible recession. But now we have a very exciting director, next year is our 50th anniversary, we’re touring, choreographers are noticing that Boston’s got really phenomenal dancers and musicians, and they want to come here. It’s an extremely exciting time. All the years to build the company are finally coming to fruition, and I’m happy to be a part of that.