James Conlon

Janos Gereben on March 10, 2009
When you conduct the San Francisco Symphony March 12 and 14 (and at the March 13 "6.5" concert), you are leading your own suite from the Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. What is your interest in the work?

Besides its enormous musical value and historic role (Stalin turned against Shostakovich because of it, the composer almost ended up in Siberia), Lady Macbeth is seldom produced in opera houses, so in most cities — with the notable exception of San Francisco — this great music can at least be heard performed by the Symphony. 

Have you actually attended one of the San Francisco Opera productions? [Katerina Ismailova, with Leopold Ludwig, 1964; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, with Calvin Simmons, 1981; with John Pritchard and Ian Robertson, 1988; and Donald Runnicles, 2003.]

I was here for a performance with John Pritchard, but heard about the other performances as well. San Francisco did as well by this opera as any city. 

Describe the suite.

The opera has had an adventurous history. The original, 1936, version in Leningrad received its American premiere in Cleveland's Severance Hall the same year, Eleanor Roosevelt herself attended a performance. The score later disappeared, Shostakovich produced a different version in 1962 [nine years after Stalin's death], called Katerina Ismailova. Reconstruction of the original version has been more popular in recent years.

I conducted it in Cologne in 1988 [where Conlon headed the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, which serves both the city's opera and symphony, 1989-2002], in the Harry Kupfer production, then at the Metropolitan in 1994, Graham Vick directing.

The suite, which runs about 45 minutes, incorporates all orchestral intermezzi, and pretty much follows the story of the opera, vocal lines of course given to instruments; for example, the oboe "sings" Katerina's music. Otherwise, the music is all original, I haven't changed a note.

You succeeded Kent Nagano as the Los Angeles Opera music director in 2006, and you are now conducting the Wagner Ring, beginning with Das Rheingold. Is this your first Ring?

In the U.S., yes, but I conducted it in Cologne before. My experience goes back some 40 years, seeing Götterdämmerung with Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Jon Vickers and George London; then Karajan's one-and-only Met appearances with Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. In 1973, Karajan gave me permission to attend his Ring rehearsals in Salzburg!

This music grows in you long before you even think of conducting it. The Ring is also something no music director ever lets anyone else conduct. When I signed up with Placido [Domingo, general director of the Los Angeles Opera], I had only two conditions: to let me present Wagner and composers of the Holocaust — and he said yes to both, without hesitation. This, of course, in addition to Mozart, Verdi, Strauss, etc.

What makes the Ring special and how has your understanding of it changed over the years?

It's an enormous tapestry, a work that must be viewed, heard, and presented in its totality. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak about Wagner and the Ring before the Wagner Society of Northern California on Saturday.

As to the relationship to the music, we all — as artists, as human beings — learn and grow every day, our perceptions change even without noticing it. I "knew" the Ring for many years, but as I am re-engaged with it these days, it's all new and fresh, deeper and different.

Note: Happy birthday, maestro — Conlon turns 59 on March 18.