By James Conlon
On the occasion of LA Opera’s production of Cinderella (La Cenerentola), and in a departure from my customary style, I am writing more personally; in particular, the story of my love for the music of Gioachino Rossini.
The bel canto operas (a term used to loosely denote the Italian operas of the first half of the 19th century) have an important place in the repertory of LA Opera. Every opera theater must produce works in many different styles, speaking to all tastes. It must offer a balance of known and unknown works in the Italian, German, French, Anglo-Saxon, English-American and Russo-Slavic repertories. It must include 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century works, along with contemporary opera. Beyond serving the public, we—all of us who are devoted to opera—are responsible in the long term for keeping the art form alive and healthy.
In the Italian repertory, the heart of the theater is a tripod consisting of bel canto, (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini), Verdi and verismo (primarily Puccini). Whatever else is performed, any international opera company must be able to perform with appropriate stylistic sensibilities in each of these three categories.
I have been devoting myself to the bel canto repertory for the past several years, and will continue to do so. There are two reasons for this.
First, it is important that these operas be recognized as the great works that they are. The art of singing, conducting and playing bel canto operas must be learned and mastered. Knowledge of both tradition and modern critical trends is necessary to conduct these works. The preservation of this now “classical” art and its style is highly important. For the orchestra, performing a Rossini opera demands the same elevated level of transparency, clarity and wit as a Haydn symphony. Whatever charms a theatrical production can provide for these marvelously entertaining and amusing works, nothing justifies mechanical or indifferent musical performances, whether emanating from the stage or the orchestra pit. No theatrical virtues can compensate for a rendition deficient in any of the demands of the bel canto style. Beauty of tone, limpidity of phrasing, brilliant fioratura and clarity of text are neither optional nor dispensable.
Second, in the many years of my professional life, I have largely missed out on the personal satisfaction of conducting much of this repertory. The fact is, at the tender age of 11, Rossini became my favorite composer after I saw The Barber of Seville. It was only the second opera I attended, but it, more than any other, was responsible for the rapid metamorphosis in my life, which drew me inextricably into the overwhelming embrace of classical music. To amuse myself in the summers, I twice organized little performances of the Barber with my friends. Producing them with the limited means and abilities of youngsters, we made up in enthusiasm whatever else we lacked in ability and training (which was just about everything).
In the following years, as a sort of apprenticeship to learn the ropes in an opera theater, I volunteered to work backstage whenever the opportunity presented itself, including several bel canto operas: The Turk in Italy, Cinderella and The Elixir of Love. I came to know them from the inside out. I got my first opportunity to conduct Don Pasquale at the Juilliard Opera Theater when I was 22, and a year later, to my great joy, The Barber of Seville. My dream had come true, I was conducting the very opera that had set me on my path a little more than ten years before. Seven performances with a double cast (Frederica von Stade and Maria Ewing sharing the role of Rosina) in five days, conducting from the harpsichord at the Washington Opera, provided one of the high points in my life thus far. I thought to myself afterwards, “How wonderful, now that I know how to conduct The Barber, I can do so all of my life.” And then, irony of ironies… I never did again. In fact , until now, I had only conducted Rossini operas at 20-year intervals: Semiramide at the Metropolitan Opera (1990) with Marilyn Horne, June Anderson and Samuel Ramey, and LA Opera’s Turk in Italy (2011). Aside from the numerous concert performances of overtures, the Stabat Mater and the Petite messe solennelle, there were no more Rossini operas.
Spending so much time on the concert podium and plunging into “big” operatic repertory, the bel canto simply remained on the sidelines. There were inevitable choices to be made: Boris Godunov or Norma? Pelléas et Mélisande or La Sonnambula? Tristan or I Puritani? The irresistible pull toward Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, Mussorgsky and Puccini had the effect of putting it all on hold.
Three seasons ago, when I conducted The Elixir of Love, I enjoyed myself so thoroughly, that I decided to personally oversee all the bel canto productions here at LA Opera. My decision, far from being merely practical, gave me the opportunity to reunite myself with several works that I have loved since childhood but never conducted. In doing so, I have rekindled a source of excitement and satisfaction within myself, a source neglected for far too many years.
To paraphrase Giuseppe Verdi, sometimes to make progress we have return to the beginning. I am, with Cinderella, reliving a part of my youth, and, who knows, maybe I will even conduct The Barber of Seville again.