Macbeth: A Personal Note

JC Real

Maestro James Conlon during a rehearsal for Macbeth (2016)

As an addendum to my essay “Why Verdi’s Macbeth Is Important,” I want to add a very personal note about why this opera, which has been with me for my entire professional life, has been so important to me.

For no particular reason, it has turned out that I have done more productions of Macbeth (this will be the eighth) than any other opera. Whereas it is hardly a rarity, it is also not a work that is so popular that it comes up every other season.

JC Conducting

Maestro James Conlon conducting the LA Opera Orchestra during a rehearsal of Macbeth (2016)

My second professional operatic engagement brought me to Washington and Philadelphia to conduct it. The first invitation to conduct an opera in Europe turned out to be for Macbeth. I was invited by Peter Hemmings (LA Opera’s first General Director) to the Scottish Opera, where I conducted the work during two tours throughout Scotland and northern England. Conducting the operatic version of the “Scottish Play” (as Shakespeare’s work is known) in Scotland, was like bringing coals to Newcastle, which, in its turn, was actually one of the cities we visited.

It was also the first opera I conducted in Russia, at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg.

In each city where I have served as the principal conductor of an opera house, Macbeth eventually found its way back to me: Cologne, Paris and now Los Angeles. And also, 20 years apart, I have twice done productions in Florence, the city of its birth. In 2013, the bicentenary of Verdi’s birth, I conducted the original 1847 version in the Pergola, the very theater in which it was premiered.

On the day that I write this note, it is not the Verdi opera of which I have conducted the most performances. Tied with Don Carlo in third place, it still trails behind Otello and Falstaff (Verdi’s other great Shakespearean operas). Opening night will be my fiftieth performance, but by the end of this series of performances in mid-October, it will take over first place.

What is the meaning of all of this? Perhaps it is only about, in Macbeth’s own words, “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” But to this fortunate “poor player,” it is a special moment, and he would like to share and celebrate that occasion with his colleagues and public here at LA Opera.

Want to hear James Conlon discuss Macbeth in greater detail? Listen to his Macbeth podcast with KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen below.

James Conlon is celebrating his tenth year as the Richard Seaver Music Director at LA Opera.


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3 Responses to Macbeth: A Personal Note

  1. David Searfoss says:

    Dear Mr. Conlon, It has been a while since I have performed with the LA OPERA as an “extra trumpet”. I miss you guys! David Searfoss

  2. Gehan Cooray says:

    Since Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’ is perhaps my all-time favourite Italian opera, I couldn’t be happier that Maestro Conlon has helmed more productions of this than any other opera. 🙂 Not since Victor de Sabata has this score been conducted as powerfully and exquisitely as James Conlon did last week, and I look forward to catching at least one more performance of ‘Macbeth’ over the next few weeks.

    And as a baritone myself, I am deeply grateful to the venerable Placido Domingo (one of my musical idols) for bringing so many lead baritone roles to the forefront over the past couple of years – from the protagonist of ‘Thais’ to ‘Macbeth’. Verdi himself clearly had an enormous love for the Baritone voice, just like Mozart and Rossini, where so many composers salivate over tenors. Opera is all about chiaroscuro, and there’s something about the Baritone/Soprano combination that is fundamentally much more compelling than the generic tenor/soprano combinations.

    Thank you also, Maestro Conlon for analysing the Sleepwalking Scene so keenly in the audio interview. The last person to provide so much insight into it was Maria Callas, during a 1968 Dallas radio interview. And thank you for continuing the tradition of combining Verdi’s original 1847 ending of the opera with the revised 1865 ending – Shakespeare himself may not have approved of Macbeth’s final death aria, but it offers an intriguing hint that the soul of our anti-hero may repent at least in the after-life, much like Lady Macbeth.

  3. Michael Lawler says:

    Maestro Conlon,
    Instead of your usual white tie and tails, to celebrate your milestone 50th performance, I suggest you have some fun and conduct the orchestra for the great Scottish opera in your formal Highland wear: a Prince Charlie jacket and kilt.
    Michael Lawler

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