James Conlon Was Born to Lead

Victoria Looseleaf on May 25, 2019
James Conlon | Credit: Dan Steinberg for L.A. Opera

James Conlon first conducted a season-opening production of La traviata for Los Angeles Opera in 2006, the same year the maestro began his appointment as music director of the company, with Plácido Domingo, its General Director, then a tenor. Since his debut with the Verdi classic, Conlon, who has conducted nearly 60 different operas and more than 375 performances to date with the company, will end his 13th L.A. Opera season by leading six performances of Traviata, which opens June 1.

Indeed, New York-born Conlon, 69, will soon mark his 500th Verdi performance at the Salzburg Festival in August, when he leads the orchestra in a concert rendering of Luisa Miller, with none other than Domingo, now a baritone, singing the role of Miller. But, as they say, who’s counting, with Conlon having proved over the decades that he’s got serious musical cred.

Conducting virtually every major American and European symphony orchestra since his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1974, he also guest conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, where he took the podium in 1976 and went on to lead more than 270 performances at that august institution. In addition, he has served as principal conductor for the Paris National Opera (1995 — 2004), music director of the Cologne Opera (1989 — 2003) and music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1983 — 1991), as well as having conducted at the world’s leading opera houses, including in Milan, Vienna, and St. Petersburg.

James Conlon in action

Talk about a frequent flier, as part of his musical sojourn, Conlon has also served as music director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (2005 — 2015), and is currently conductor laureate of the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest choral festival in the United States. It was there that Conlon was music director for a mindboggling 37 years (1979 — 2016), marking one of the longest tenures of any director of an American classical music institution.

Unpacking Conlon’s dense list of credits is no easy feat: It also includes the musician having become the first American to be named principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai in Turin, Italy, since its founding in 1931, a post he has held since 2016. And not content performing only the classics, Conlon has been on a mission to call attention to lesser-known works of composers silenced by the Nazi regime in a groundbreaking series of programs, “Recovered Voices.” Devoting himself to programming this music throughout Europe and North America, Conlon was awarded, among other honors, the Roger E. Joseph Prize at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2013 for his extraordinary efforts to eradicate racial and religious prejudice and discrimination.

And did someone mention Grammys? Conlon’s got four, all recordings of L.A. Opera productions, two each respectively for John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Chatting by phone with the maestro from Austin, Texas, where he was finishing a residency, our conversation included his enduring love for Verdi, how he plans a season with Domingo, and why he believes Mozart is a healing force.

It was a live performance of La traviata that inspired you to become a musician. What is the continued attraction to this work — from the audience’s standpoint and from yours — and how do you bring new energy to music you’ve conducted literally hundreds of times?

It’s probably amongst the most beloved operas by the international public. When that is so, it’s rarely an accident. You might prefer another work, but when it has remained — I don’t like using the word ‘popular’ — when something is loved by the public basically since its succession, although the premiere wasn’t a success — there’s a reason. It’s Verdi in one of his extraordinary moments of artistic equilibrium, and this is not to suggest that it doesn’t go on and up and up and up. But it did in his three so-called middle period masterpieces, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and La traviata. They vary in their different ways and are a perfect balance of extraordinary musical and melodic inspiration. And one of the keys to opera’s popularity is that people identify with it.

You can say what you want about the stories, particularly Trovatore — [which was a set piece] in the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera, and it is ridiculous. But those three works were all very brazen and, if not revolutionary works, they were absolutely pushing the envelope in a way it hadn’t been done by taking protagonists who are either despised or rejected by society. It was, by making a hunchback, dwarfish type of personality into a melodramatic and complex character, a step forward in Rigoletto. People with handicaps were considered circus acts and kings had dwarves as we see from [the painter] Velázquez and Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf. Suddenly here is an extraordinary father and not a totally benign individual. That’s revolutionary.

Choosing an opera, Il trovatore, where the central subject is a Romani — a gypsy — that was a despised race in Europe to a great degree. Verdi was going to call the opera [The Gypsy] even though she’s a little bit crazed. As for [Traviata’s] Violetta, you can find whatever euphemistic name you can find, but although she’s essentially a prostitute, she shows herself to be a more evolved human being. Those are revolutionary works. Is that the reason they’re popular today? I don’t know, but it’s not old hat, and I’m very conscious of that every time I confront these works and then confront them again.

I have no trouble with these works staying fresh and I’m not bored of a single work. In fact, I’m fascinated how going back to something many times gives a different type of satisfaction. One of the characteristic forces of classical music is that it gets better and deeper, or your relationship to it gets better and deeper with repeated hearings — or direct contact. It’s the opposite of getting stale. I simply don’t experience that.

How do you go about programming a season with Domingo, who is on the cusp of 80 and, astonishingly enough, has just performed the titular character in El Gato Montés, his 151st role?

Plácido’s is a phenomenal story in all of music. I now remember with amusement how he undertook Otello in the late ’70s and people were saying, “In two years he’ll be ruined.” He’s proven everybody wrong in an amazing way.

With regards to programming, it’s fun and exciting and very frustrating. There are so many, many things one wants to do and see produced than, in fact, there are possibilities of productions. I’ve been on that side of the fence — this is the third opera company where I’ve had that responsibility. You start with a wide variety of things you’d like to see, then you get diminished down to the number of productions and then reality sets in. There is nobody available to sing a role, you need a chorus of 120 — to sing in Russian. A season gets whittled down by reality.

Plácido Domingo in concert with the S.F. Opera Orchestra | Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Financial considerations are major, of course. But basically, it’s Plácido, [president and CEO] Christopher [Koelsch], and me. We are three very different personalities but we all get along with each other very well. We have different views and perspectives, but Plácido is the boss and ultimately, it’s his decision. I’m okay with that. But the big goal is to make sure that all forms of opera are available to your public, either in the case of a season or when a season doesn’t have that many productions, in the course of three to five years and everything is represented — Italian, German, French, Russian, Eastern European. We also have a larger Hispanic component than many and that has to be balanced.

Contemporary [opera] also has to be a very important part of the mix — not just for your public, but as a music director I want to make sure my orchestra can play every style. I spent a certain amount of years playing bel canto, but many people don’t consider that important — that the orchestra’s not that interesting. But everything shows; it’s like playing Haydn. It shows and it’s difficult. The fact is, it’s not just good for the public, but it’s important for the institution.

You’ve been passionate about performing works of composers who were suppressed during the Nazi regime, and you’ll be curating and conducting a concert at Colburn School on June 15, “A Tale of Two Émigrés with James Conlon.” The program features the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg, a large ensemble from the L.A. Opera Orchestra, and a talk by you.

Neither of the pieces [Korngold’s Sextet, Op. 10 or Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9] were created in L.A., but both composers emigrated to L.A. and lived and died in L.A. That celebrates something about who we have been. In America, when immigration is targeted in what I consider an un-American way, it’s important that we show that. Yet again, this too is immigration, and America owes its greatness to immigration. My grandparents were immigrants and you talk to most people and you don’t have to go back many generations to find immigrants.

James Conlon | Credit: Bonnie Perkinson

Curating is a euphemism for talking. It’s a popular word these days, and I’ve done a lot of this. Certainly, it was a highlight of my Ravinia years. I would take a subject, talk about it very much the way I do in my pre-performance talks at the opera, but it would be interspersed with a performance that was often related to “Recovered Voices.” I’d be talking about the influence of jazz in European creations after the 1920s and while that was going on it crossed over into Venn diagrams — where jazz in Europe and the composers who were suppressed by Nazis are areas of overlap. I talk and give historical context to the program.

What have been some of the highlights for you at L.A. Opera?

It’s hard to say, it’s like asking who is a favorite child or friend. In looking back, I’m certainly happy about the Wagner years — that it put the company on a level where it could do that and be integrated into the experience of the opera company. I’m proud — but I’m not a proud person — that we [were] the first opera company to make any contribution to “Recovered Voices.” Most of us agree it was good to do it — great to do it, important to do it — and a lot is left undone. And that is money; it’s nothing else but financial. Music is not a top draw in terms of support from the world in general and I would like to see that change back.

Off Grand [the initiative to expand the definition of opera] has also been a very positive development and a successful development, with a lot of experimental theater. I hate words like cutting edge, so I’m not going to use them, but this has given us a good form. Ultimately, though, it’s very important what happens on the main stage. I would like to see the number of productions increase again — so the motor doesn’t stop in the course of the year [because] music celebrates the best in our civilization and nurtures the best in ourselves. It has a kind of spiritual power.

What’s your fitness regimen, as most people don’t think about the physicality a conductor needs to do the job?

I think that we — conductors — are subject to back, shoulder and neck problems. I don’t go to the gym and I didn’t do exercise until five or six years ago, but I have had a physical therapist since then. The one thing he’s taught me is that you don’t get injured as much if you strengthen everything around those areas. I have not cancelled a performance or significant rehearsal in the time I’ve been in L.A. I cancel rarely. I do get sick from time to time, but if you’re sick you feel you have a responsibility to conduct that performance and you get up there anyway. The determination to keep going, to fulfill obligations, it’s a pleasure, it’s a positive force.

I almost always feel better about life at the end of hearing or conducting a Mozart opera, symphony, piano concerto [because] I think Mozart has a salutary effect on health. He had gifts that went beyond those of a musician that seemed to understand something about the basic harmony of the universe. I always feel better, invigorated, I feel life has been affirmed. Yes, we want to see The Marriage of Figaro, the human foibles, and somehow, we always have a feeling at the end of an opera, that the universe is in place. All the people, with their strengths, weaknesses and faults — they’re all okay. Mozart is like Humpty Dumpty where everybody falls off the wall, and he puts it back together in the end, showing us everything with his incredible music.