This season, James Conlon celebrates ten years as LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. Throughout the past decade, he has led the orchestra through more than fifty operas, from the great masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner to contemporary works like The Ghosts of Versailles and Moby-Dick, and will continue do so for several years to come. On the heels of a contract renewal that will have him at the podium through the 2020/2021 season, we sat down with Maestro Conlon to discuss his life in classical music and what he loves most about opera in Los Angeles.
What inspired you to become a conductor?
It wasn’t a single person but, instead, a series of events that inspired me to become a classical musician. I went to the opera for the first time in 1961. I was 11 and the experience transformed my life within months. I wanted to hear classical music day and night. Soon I was studying piano and violin. I also began singing in the children’s choir of a small New York City opera company. A few years later, I decided I wanted to be a conductor, at which point every career decision I made focused on that goal. At 22, I graduated from The Julliard School and my professional life as a conductor was on its way.
What are the greatest challenges you faced in the field and how did you overcome them?
The greatest challenge I faced when I was starting out was proving myself as a young conductor in both symphonic and operatic institutions. Unlike today’s world, which now welcomes young conductors, it was just the opposite when I started out. I also faced the challenges of both proving myself in Europe as a qualified American conductor (and a young American conductor to boot), and additionally proving myself in the United States, which has historically preferred foreign (mostly European) conductors.
How did I master these challenges? I simply devoted myself to my work: Seriously. Relentlessly. Passionately. At a certain point, conducting ceased to be a career and became a way of life—something that still holds true today.
After being in the field for so many decades, how do you keep each operatic or classical music experience fresh? What about opera still excites you?
Sir Rudolf Bing, the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, once wrote that there is no stronger addiction than to the excitement of the eight o’clock curtain at the opera house (seven thirty in our case at LA Opera). The focus, the adrenaline, and the sense of excitement are all palpable. I have never had to pose this question to myself; music is always fresh. The beauty of classical music (as opposed to much commercial music) is that it grows on every hearing. For instance, when I am conducting a Mahler symphony for the 50th time, it is just as, or more, exciting than the first time.
I have conducted more than 100 operas and probably several thousand performances by now. I am excited every day I rehearse or perform. It has always been that way and I suspect this will never change.
What are some of your favorite memories from your decade at LA Opera?
It is always difficult to single out favorites of any type, be it music, composer, performer, opera, or symphony. In Los Angeles, I have now conducted over 300 performances of 48 different operas, 24 of which were company premieres, two U.S. premieres and one world premiere.
There have certainly been highlights, including the production of the Ring cycle and the establishment of Recovered Voices, a series which has devoted itself to reviving works of composers suppressed under the Nazi regime. Every collaboration with Plácido Domingo is also a special and privileged moment, guaranteed to be full of excitement.
Furthermore, the annual opera we produce for, and with, the community at large, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels has given me particular satisfaction. I brought the idea to LA Opera from my work at the Cincinnati May Festival. Non-professional choirs, student orchestras, and young children all combine with our LA Opera Orchestra and young artists in a way that speaks very much to the community. In ten years, we have always filled the cathedral to capacity, with over 60,000 people seeing our shows over the decade.
What do you love about opera in Los Angeles?
I love opera everywhere in the world, but I love LA Opera and Los Angeles in a special way. There is a spirit of openness and a very special energy that drives the company and everyone who works in it. The relative youth of the operatic tradition in Los Angeles (LA Opera is only 30 years old) creates a sense of discovery amongst our audience members, regardless of their age. It is also gratifying to participate in our education and community outreach programs, which are exceptional. Speaking to the students who attend the opera is especially pleasurable. My pre-performance talks have become part of the opera experience here in Los Angeles for many people and I appreciate that. I believe that it is this welcoming attitude of openness that has created an atmosphere that nurtures a special relationship with LA Opera audiences and the community as a whole.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.