Tag Archives: Richard Wagner

James Conlon Talks Life, Opera, and Ten Years in Los Angeles

James Conlon; Photo: Chester Higgins

James Conlon; Photo: Chester Higgins

This fall, James Conlon will mark ten years as LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. Throughout the past decade, he has led the orchestra through almost fifty operas, from the great masterpieces of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner to contemporary works like The Ghosts of Versailles and Moby-Dick. To celebrate his birthday on March 18, we sat down with Mr. Conlon to chat about his life in classical music and what he loves most about opera in Los Angeles.

(Scroll down for information on Office Hours with Maestro Conlon)

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.

Maestro James Conlon conducting Don Pasquale at The Julliard School in 1972; Photo: Beth Bergman

Maestro James Conlon conducting Don Pasquale at The Julliard School in 1972; Photo: Beth Bergman

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.

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Iconic Productions: The Season of Lohengrin and Mass

“Wagner wanted nothing less than that [Lohengrin] exude, through music, the mystical sensation of being in the presence of the Holy Grail, as if it could pour out ‘exquisite odors, like streams of gold, ravishing the senses…[Maximilian] Schell’s production is grim and intelligent, with a strong dose of brutal realism bringing dramatic point to Wagner’s mythic drama..” –Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times

<em>Lohengrin</em> (2001); Photo: Ken Howard

Lohengrin (2001); Photo: Ken Howard

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Norma: Behind the Masterpiece

Norma; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

Norma; Photo: Craig T. Mathew

The Nearly Perfect Partner

Librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865) was one of the central figures in early 19th-century opera, working with the most important composers of his time, including Bellini’s greatest contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti. (Verdi even recycled an existing libretto by Romani for his early comedy King for a Day.) Romani wrote the texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas. After their success with Norma, however, their relationship soured when an overcommitted Romani missed deadlines for their subsequent collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda. Bellini used a different librettist for his next opera, I Puritani, but the two men began to repair their relationship through letters and intermediaries. Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, however, made I Puritani his final opera.

The First Two Divas

Considered two of the greatest singers of all time, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi created the leading roles of Norma and Adalgisa in the 1831 premiere of Bellini’s masterwork in Milan. Pasta was Bellini’s favorite singer, treasured for her unusual vocal colors and passionate emotional range. Pasta encouraged her younger colleague to move up to the role of Norma. When she did so, in 1835, Grisi was considered by many critics of her day to be superior to her illustrious predecessor.

 Ponselle and Callas

Two American-born sopranos, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, are considered by many to be the greatest Normas of the 20th century. Ponselle sang her first perfor­mances of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, when she was an established star; Callas’s debut as Norma came two decades later, in Florence, when she was only 25 years old. Revered Italian maestro Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was the conductor on both notable occasions. Ponselle confessed that “I had a lot of sleepless nights, wor­rying about how I was going to do in Norma.” Callas, who once described Ponselle as “her idol,” told a friend “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.”

Callas Feels Confident

On the eve of her 1948 role debut as Norma, a giddy Maria Callas wrote to her voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. “I pray that it will go well, that I’ll be in good health, because after those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed every­where, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!” It was indeed a triumph, and Callas would perform Norma nearly 90 times, more than any other role. Still, as she told Maestro Serafin during rehearsals, “It will never be as good as it is now in my mind, unsung.”


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The Flying Dutchman: Iconic Productions Day 9

“I can listen to the music in my home and imagine the most amazing imagery. But quite often when I go to the opera and then I see it, I’d rather close my eyes, because you can’t match the music.” – Julie Taymor (Frida, Across The Universe) on what made her desire to push theatrical boundaries in opera for The Flying Dutchman (1995)

The cast of The Flying Dutchman (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

The cast of The Flying Dutchman (1995); Photo Credit: Ken Howard

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