Daniela Candillari
Daniela Candillari | Credit: Damjan Svarc

There are compliments, and then there are compliments. When you guest conduct a prestigious ensemble and subsequently get invited back, that’s a compliment. When they like you so much they create a position for you, that’s a different level entirely.

Amazingly, that has happened to Daniela Candillari not once but twice over the past couple of years. Following highly successful appearances, she was named principal opera conductor of the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and principal conductor of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Neither position previously existed.

“I felt an immediate affinity with my colleagues at the Music Academy,” she said a few days after arriving in Santa Barbara, where she is conducting Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin July 15 and 17. “I love working with young artists — both the musicians and the vocal fellows — as well as the faculty. It takes a lot of people to put an opera together, and the Music Academy has a wonderful support system.

“I was surprised as well at Opera Theatre. I was there for the first time last year, conducting three new pieces, as well as a concert with the St. Louis Symphony at the end of the season. The invitation came a couple of months later. I was honored and grateful that we were able to build that amount of trust in a short amount of time.”

Daniela Candillari conducts
Daniela Candillari conducts | Credit: Anna Yatskevich

A rising star of the opera world, Candillari has already conducted at the Metropolitan Opera (Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice), LA Opera (Ellen Reid’s prism), and Lyric Opera of Chicago (Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones). She discussed her burgeoning career and approach to music in an interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

You made your Music Academy debut in 2019 with the West Coast premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain and will be in Santa Barbara for at least the next three summers. Is working with the young professionals and pre-professionals at the Music Academy a different experience from working with an established orchestra, as in St. Louis?

I view the young artists as younger colleagues. I’m not lowering expectations in any way. Things come together a little more quickly with the St. Louis Symphony, since they work together regularly as an ensemble for 10 or 11 months a year. They have their own routine; they have their own sound. At the Music Academy, there is a different body of students every summer. For some of them, this is the first time they have played an opera.

The concertmaster of Cold Mountain (Yeajin Kim) was such a rock star. I met with her before our first rehearsal, and she told me that not only was this her first opera, it was the first time she was a concertmaster. It’s quite a challenge to step into that leadership role. There’s an extra component when playing with singers — breathing with singers, learning what to listen for, learning to react to what’s happening on stage. Opera is a highly collaborative, highly reactive art form. Learning those skills is so valuable for these musicians.

You have a family connection with Onegin — your grandmother frequently sang the role of Olga at the Slovenian National Opera. Did she inspire your career choice?

Yes. I was born in Serbia and raised in Serbia and Slovenia. My grandmother was a professional opera singer — a mezzo-soprano. I was 5 years old when I saw my first opera, which was Carmen. At that age, I didn’t really understand that opera was a make-believe world. When Carmen was murdered by Don José at the end, I said they must go through many singers, because they need a new person to do it every night!

Both of my parents were athletes. So is my sister. But the sports gene fell short in me, so I started taking piano lessons when I was 6 years old. Even early on, I realized I was not going to be a concert pianist. There was sometime about the solitary lifestyle of a concert pianist that I did not recognize myself in.

When I was 15, I entered university in Austria as a piano performance major, and while there, my focus shifted to chamber music. It was there I discovered the joy of collaborating with instrumentalists and singers. Somehow through that, I started working as a vocal coach. I have an affinity for languages, which was very helpful in opera. I’m fluent in five languages — six if you include French. But I still read the subtitles when I watch French movies, so I don’t consider myself fluent.

So let’s say 5 ½.

Daniela Candillari
Daniela Candillari | Credit: Damjan Svarc

That’s a good number! Anyway, [after graduation] I went to Indiana University on a Fulbright Scholarship, where I continued operatic vocal coaching, as a student and then a faculty member. After that, I returned to Slovenia, where I worked as head coach of the Slovenia National Opera. That was when I started getting that feedback that I should be a conductor.

At one point, I was asked to be a chorus master there. My first rehearsal [in that role], leading 42 people, was really telling. I realized all the people telling me I was a conductor were actually correct. I started working as an assistant conductor, started covering shows, and eventually having my own productions.

In other words, you became a conductor the old-fashioned way, moving up the ranks of an opera company. Did that have its advantages?

I learned so much about the way the voice works. My chamber music experience in college also taught me how to collaborate. Opera is the biggest form of collaboration we can have. It’s about connecting the stage with the pit. That is the world of the opera conductor — not just shaping the music but connecting those two worlds.

How do you do that?

By rehearsing, and by listening. By understanding what direction we need to go, what we need to address. Is it the vocalists who are currently leading the musical idea, with the orchestra supporting them? Or is it the other way around? It’s constantly being attuned to what is happening in the room. The more you work with the musicians, the faster you can diagnose what needs to happen, and what needs to change in order for it to happen.

Speaking of ensembles, I read that as a teen you were in a Slovenian funk band. What exactly does a Slovenian funk band perform?

We did a lot of covers by Tower of Power. Looking back on it, it was a great experience. It was great training, in a way. That career started to take over a little more than I anticipated, so when I was 19, I had to have an honest conversation with myself about my future. I decided I needed to focus on finishing college. Getting good training was incredibly important to me.

Daniela Candillari conducts
Daniela Candillari conducts | Credit: Anna Yatskevich

Yet you didn’t stick exclusively to the classics. At IU, parallel to working as an opera coach, you earned a master’s degree in jazz piano. Why did you decide to do that?

I was curious about everything! I wanted to learn as much about music as I possibly could. Jazz is such a different language. The thing jazz taught me really well is freedom of performance within a structure — and also active listening. Nothing trains you better than learning how to improvise and learning how to respond to a [colleague’s] solo. You might play with a trumpet player you have never played with before. It’s all about adjusting and really understanding what they need to support their solo: where they need room, where they need more from me.

So how did you establish yourself as a conductor when you returned to the United States in 2012?

Because of my association with IU, everybody I knew in New York knew me as a pianist. So I had to start again from scratch. Again, I began coaching and worked my [way] up. I conducted a couple of things in 2015 and got a bigger break in 2016, when I conducted a showcase that was run by Opera America: I conducted a piece by Hannah Lash. That got me a bit more attention.

My really big break came in 2018, when Lyric Opera of Chicago invited me to conduct Fellow Travelers [Gregory Spears’s contemporary opera about the Joseph McCarthy era]. They invited me back and gave me more opportunities. So I’m grateful for them for taking a chance on me.

Going forward, do you want to conduct a mix of contemporary works and established masterpieces?

Daniela Candillari
Daniela Candillari

Absolutely. I just did my first Carmen in St. Louis. That was another of my grandmother’s signature roles. I did a lot of contemporary work early on, which became the thing people knew me for. But my pedigree is in the standard repertoire.

How does the fact that you have worked with many contemporary composers impact your approach to the classics?

You learn to see the composers as craftsmen. When you work on Mozart, there can be a sense that you’re working with God. Working with living composers teaches us that when we revisit the traditional repertoire, we are still working with human beings.

Of course, working on a contemporary piece, you can ask the composer, “What does this mean? Is this what you want?” Do you have those conversations in your mind with Mozart or Bizet?

Absolutely. I constantly ask myself why this is notated the way it is. Why is this rest there? What were they thinking? There’s a very nerdy part of my brain that loves doing that sort of analysis and simplifying a complex structure. I’m doing that now with Onegin — recognizing where motives are and what they mean, at least in my interpretation. What is the thread that connects an entire opera, or symphony? Finding that is essential to dramatic storytelling.

Were you ever told, at any point, that conducting isn’t a proper career for a woman?

No one told me that. I was brought up in a household where I was told I could do anything — that gender didn’t matter. What mattered was how good you were at something.

You live in New York City with your husband. Is he also a musician?

He’s a bass trombonist. He plays with New York City Ballet and is an associate member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. When I made my Met debut this past year with Eurydice, he was playing that night. That was our first performance together. It was really great.

You also have a degree in musicology and are a composer, although you understandably haven’t had time to write much music lately. Given your varied musical interests, do you sometimes look back and think you could have gone in a very different direction?

No. When I look back now, I see that everything that I did led me to where I am now. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Eugene Onegin will be performed at 7:30 p.m. July 15 and 2:30 p.m. July 17 at The Granada Theatre in Santa Barbara. For ticket information, call (805) 969-8787, or go to the Music Academy’s website.