An Interview With Sara Jobin: It's All About the Music

Georgia Rowe on October 27, 2009
On November 7, 2004, Sara Jobin made opera history by becoming the first woman to conduct a San Francisco Opera main stage production. The opera was Tosca, and Jobin has since conducted the company’s performances of The Flying Dutchman, Norma, and Appomattox, as well as the S.F. Opera–Cal Performances coproduction of Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince.

Yet Jobin’s musical horizons extend beyond the opera stage. At age 16, she attended Harvard and Radcliffe colleges, where she was a Leonard Bernstein Music Scholar. She studied conducting with Charles Bruck at the Pierre Monteux School; in 1999 she was the first recipient of the JoAnn Faletta Award from the Women’s Philharmonic. As a freelance conductor, she has worked in opera houses and symphony halls around the country. This year, she led her first Faust at Tacoma Opera; she’ll return to the company this season to conduct The Marriage of Figaro. Jobin has appeared with Symphony Silicon Valley and the Dayton Philharmonic; her recordings include Chris Brubeck’s River of Song with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and a live recording of John Musto’s Volpone at Wolf Trap.

SFCV caught up with her recently in Grand Forks, N.D., where she was preparing to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Born and raised in western Massachusetts, Jobin told us she’s preparing to move her home base from San Francisco back to the Berkshire Mountains area: “one of my favorite places,” she said. 

A lot of Bay Area music lovers know you as the first woman to conduct a San Francisco Opera main stage production.

Yes, I was in the right place at the right time. It was Tosca, with Carol Vaness. Right after that, I did The Flying Dutchman with Nina Stemme, and the next year I did half the run of Norma. Two years later, I came back for Appomattox, and then I did my own production of The Little Prince, where, for the first time, I conducted all of the performances.

Do you have a preference as far as working with opera or symphony orchestras?

I really love it all, and I have such a diversity of what I’m doing. It’s great. If I had to choose something and I could only do one thing, it would be opera. I love the ability of the voice to carry emotion, and when you combine that with an orchestra it’s like I’m in heaven. If I had to choose, I could never not have voices again. I’ve been fortunate this year; right now I’m conducting my second Tchaikovsky symphony this year. It’s the first time I’ve done the Tchaikovsky Sixth and I did [Tchaikovsky] Four earlier this year. It’s such a treat. The other thing is that Brahms didn’t write an opera. So that would be a problem.

What are some of the other milestones in your career?

I love the opportunities I’ve had to conduct some of the really big Romantic and German repertoire; I don’t know why I’ve been given these opportunities, but I’m so grateful. With Symphony Silicon Valley, I did Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel and Rosenkavalier Suite. I’d never done Strauss before. The Rosenkavalier in particular just felt like swimming in an ocean, surrounded by these big currents. And the Tchaik 4 I did this year with the Dayton Philharmonic was just so satisfying. I like the Russians, I like the big German stuff. The Dutchman, the one performance I did at S.F. Opera, was amazing. Dutchman is the only opera that I have never rehearsed, but I have conducted four performances, with two different companies and three different casts. It’s a great piece. It’s my first Wagner opera, and it’s been sort of a good-luck charm.

What else have you been doing this year?

This summer I was doing the Shakespeare festival in New York City, which was totally fun. I was there for two months, and just had a great time. I was playing synthesizer in the band, and conducting part of the time. It was a Greek play called The Bacchae, and it was music by Philip Glass. It was a premiere, and Philip Glass was there. I had worked with him on Appomattox, and he recommended me for this, hooked me up with JoAnne Akalaitis, who was directing. It was a lot of fun. This is what I mean about the diversity of what I’m doing. This project was so different. To be working with actors in New York City was a lot of fun.

With the SFCMP, you’ll be conducting two programs here and taking some of those works to France.

Yes, I’m conducting [works by] John Harbison, Morton Feldman, and Edmund Campion on the first; the second includes Ken Ueno, Donnacha Dennehy, and Philippe Leroux. They’re all interesting, and all very different pieces. I really like the poetry in the Harbison. The Leroux piece is just wild, and wildly difficult for all the players. But it’s beautiful. It’s all about texture. It’s sort of a tour de force. This will be my first time at the MANCA festival, and my first time in Europe. Then I have another concert at the Bochum Symphony in Germany, which will be my European orchestral debut. I’m doing a kids’ concert there, conducting Saint- Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. That will be on July 4, 2010 — a great debut date for an American!

When you were studying music, did you always want to be a conductor, or were there other paths that you considered?

It’s funny, I guess I’m an example of how important it is to let kids see all the different options out there. The first thing, when I was 7, was that I begged my stepfather to let me sing in the church choir a year earlier than I was supposed to. That was my first musical experience. When I was 8, I started taking piano lessons. I loved that. Around the same time, I started playing viola in public school in Chelmsford, Mass. They had musicians come in and demonstrate instruments for the third grade. So I played viola from the third grade all the way to the end of conducting school. Even though I don’t consider myself a violist and I never practice, it was fun, and it gave me a lot of experience.

What happened next?

When I was 15 and old enough to apply for the high school program at Tanglewood — called the Boston University Tanglewood Institute — I went there as a pianist. And that’s where the whole world of the orchestra opened up to me. At that time, I was doing everything I could musically at my high school, accompanying the chorus and already conducting some vocal ensembles. But here were these orchestra rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra that we could go to for free, every day. Leonard Bernstein was there, and he became my hero. His music-making just really grabbed me, and I started dreaming of being a conductor.

So many people were touched by Bernstein and his love of music. What was it about him that spoke to you?

It was exactly what you’re saying, being touched by his music-making. It wasn’t so much him as just the music — the sheer soul-force of the music coming off the stage. It felt like they were playing their souls, with everything they had for him. That just hit me.

Were there pieces from that period that you particularly remember?

It’s funny — Tchaik 4 and Tchaik 6, which I’m doing this year, really stand out from that summer. They were just sort of emblazoned into my head and my heart, so it’s really a pleasure to be doing them now.

So he was obviously a big influence. Were there others early on who helped set your direction?

My piano teacher, who I started with when I was 10. Her name was Helen Thomas. She was an amazing person. She was old — I think she was 83 when I first met her — and very eccentric. But I really came to love her. She taught me to pursue excellence. I was with her every week from age 10 till age 16. She helped me decide, should I apply to Juilliard or Harvard, go to conservatory or a liberal arts college? She brought in her friends to hear me play and we all consulted about it. She prepared me very well, and I stayed friends with her until she died at age 99. Then my conducting teacher, Charles Bruck, at the Pierre Monteux school. He was Hungarian, a tough disciplinarian, and I just loved him. He believed in me 100 percent and gave me everything he could. He was fierce, and his focus was “You do not matter as the conductor. It’s not about you, it’s about the music.” I love that teaching, and it’s what makes me able to get up on a podium and demand the best from others. It’s not about me, it’s about Tchaikovsky.

At that time, there weren’t a lot of women becoming conductors, right?

That’s true. It’s changing a little.

Is the term “woman conductor” becoming obsolete?

Not really. For a lot of people, I’m still the first woman they’ve seen on the podium, or worked with in the orchestra.

How does that affect you?

Whatever. Sometimes it puts a little more attention on me, which I appreciate.

Is there a downside?

Maybe just my internal dialogue, which might be different if I were a man in this culture. I’ve heard that from other women conductors, too. I guess for me, I need to be demanding things because I know the score better than anyone, or that’s how I think it should go. Once I know the music, I have very strong feelings about it. But I don’t always feel entitled to have it my way.

Can you say a little about your own personal musical philosophy?

I love music. The thing is that I love all different kinds of music. I’ve been singing in the gospel choir at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco for 8 years. I love that place, and I love the music. It’s a completely different style than what I grew up with; I’m from a very white, Episcopalian, straightlaced background. In this choir, you get up on the risers and sing; there’s no music, and it’s a completely different part of your brain. But we’re going for the same thing that you go for in a big production at San Francisco Opera, which is some spirit that takes hold of you. And then you just let go and lose yourself in the music. That’s what I love about music, and I don’t really care if it’s classical or singing in a gospel choir.

What goals have you set for the next few years?

I just want to be working with good people, and continuing to learn repertoire. You know, that’s something I really like about the S.F. Contemporary Music Players, because they’re such good musicians, and they’re so committed. Beyond that, I’m starting an interesting project that’s kind of a dream project for me. I love the operatic literature but I’m sick of seeing women onstage saying, “Help me, help me!” and then they die. So I’ve started a project called “The Different Voice Opera Project.” It’s with feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan, and the idea is to get away from women being victimized by society. I’m starting to be able to articulate what I want to see onstage, and what interests me is stories of resistance, inspiration: women resisting victimization. One arm of the project is an opera being produced by the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City. It’s called Pearl, and it’s a sequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, told from the point of view of the girl, Hester’s daughter. In this sequel, she’s grown up and coming to terms with her relationship with her mother, the way that her mother asked her to be silent. We’re in the process of choosing our composer now, and the organization will commission it. The Web site is Contemporary Opera.

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