Sunday, May 14, 2000

Conlon celebrates success on a grand scale

At 50, May Festival conductor finds himself at height of his powers, winning acclaim in Paris

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        PARIS — James Conlon pauses for a nanosecond to take stock of his life's work. He has just finished taping an interview for National Public Radio in his office at Paris' Bastille Opera. Outside, his driver waits to whisk him to a live interview on Radio France.

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        Downstairs, in the vast, $560 million concrete, steel and glass structure, the company is rehearsing a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann. Mr. Conlon's days here have been scheduled down to the minute since his return from conducting Wozzeck at Italy's La Scala.

        “It used to be that the May Festival was the most intense part of the year. Now it's all like this,” he says, motioning to his overflowing desk and a sleek black grand piano strewn with opera scores. In the small anteroom outside, his secretary mans her desk and nearby, a young Italian conducting assistant pours over a score.

        Mr. Conlon, the first American to hold the top musical job at the Paris Opera, is a survivor.

        While his international career has increased tempo, Cincinnati May Festival, which opens Friday, has remained a constant for 21 years. For the past decade, he has also been general music director of the City of Cologne, Germany. In 1995, he celebrated his 200th performance at the Metropolitan Opera. At the Paris National Opera, where he has been principal conductor since 1996, his longevity has surprised observers, who predicted he would succumb like his predecessors (Myung-Whun Chung and Daniel Barenboim) to power struggles and politics.

        It is March 17, the day before his 50th birthday.

        “To be honest, on this momentous occasion, I'm not thinking about my career — I'm thinking about my life!” the conductor says, sinking into the black leather sofa in his spacious, ultra-modern office. He has a drop-dead view of Paris, from the Marais District to the Eiffel Tower. “First thing, I don't feel 50. When we were kids, we thought 50 was ancient. I don't feel any different from the way I felt 20 years ago.”

        While NPR's producer does a sound check, Mr. Conlon dashes down the hall to deliver a gift to Hugues Gall. “It is also my boss' birthday, and he has a zero on his as well,” he says, grinning.

        Ten years apart — Mr. Gall is turning 60 — they share more than birthdays. They are old friends, and they are a team. Since the tough administrator arrived from the Geneva Opera in 1994, the once dysfunctional and debt-ridden company has turned a corner. Mr. Gall brought Mr. Conlon on as music adviser in 1995, then added principal conductor to his job description in 1996.

        “My job is to give him all the advice I want,” Mr. Conlon says. “Our relationship is built on good chemistry, it's as simple as that.”

Greetings from Cincinnati
        He sits down for the NPR interview. Yes, he has renewed his contract in Cologne until 2002, he says. He patiently answers the persistent question: If the Boston Symphony offered him the music director job, would he take it?

Occupation: Music director of the Cincinnati May Festival, principal conductor of the Paris Opera (first American to hold the post) and music director of the City of Cologne. Also, former music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, 1983-91.
Born: March 18, 1950, in New York.
Lives: Paris' Latin Quarter; plus a Manhattan apartment.
Family: Married to soprano Jennifer Ringo; daughters, Luisa, 11, and Emma, 31/2.
Recording project: The music of Alexander Zemlinsky. His series on EMI Classics encompasses almost all of Zemlinsky's operas, orchestral and choral works.
Mission: “I remember how much classical music meant to me, as a child. And if I had any mission in America at all, the one that's important to me is to use whatever personality I had to open that door to a lot of Americans who could love music, and who don't yet.”
        “You can't speculate about that,” he says into the microphone.“I'm very happy in Paris. I have renewed until 2004.”

        When the interview ends, he exuberantly holds up a stack of birthday wishes. “Look at this!” he says, unscrolling a giant card signed by all members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and a stack of greetings from the members of the May Festival Chorus.

        Although he has no celebrations planned, Mr. Conlon suspects that something is up. “Very strange things could happen. A whole lot of people just happen to be in Paris from back home,” he says.

        Unbeknown to him, his wife, soprano Jennifer Ringo, has planned a birthday boat cruise on the Seine for 100 close friends.

        Within 30 minutes, he has moved seamlessly from French (his secretary) to English (NPR and the Enquirer) to Italian (his conducting assistant) to German (a phone call from Cologne).

        “I've always loved Paris. I came here in 1971 for the first time, when I was 21 years old,” he says, turning to the panorama out his window. The opera house (on Place de la Bastille) is just a few blocks from the Pompidou Center.

        “I live right behind the Pantheon, see it there?” he points toward the Latin Quarter. “If I go out in the morning to take (daughter) Emma to school or to get bread, it's like a little village there.”

Taking the subway
        The Conlons' day starts with their two children. He encourages the family to take the Metro, Paris' sprawling subway system. “I'm into taking the Metro because I grew up using the New York subway system. I don't want (daughter) Luisa only to be driven around,” he says.

        If there is a rehearsal at the opera, his day might end in the wee hours of the morning. As soon as the run of Tales of Hoffmann begins, he will fly back and forth to Cologne, where he is conducting a concert version of Wagner's Gotterdammerung, followed by concerts in Greece. “So practically every day is spoken for,” he says.

        “I would love to do (Wagner's) entire staged Ring,” he adds. But the Bastille's schedule is set through 2004, and there is no Ring cycle. For now, his dream will have to wait.

        Mr. Conlon thrives on such a schedule. Living in Paris is a bonus. “At the end of a long, hard day, you walk out the door — and you're in Paris!” he says, ebulliently.

        He grabs his leather jacket for an impromptu tour of the opera house. As he dashes past a group of French tourists, they suddenly grow silent, moving back and saluting him with nods and “Monsieur” as he passes.

        The house is enormous — so large that entire sets can be rolled off and stored without tearing down. The cast rehearses on an exact replica of the stage, complete with orchestra pit. Some 360 performances are given here a year, including opera, ballet and recitals.

        The company also travels to the Palais Garnier, the grand 19th-century Paris opera house that recently reopened following a $30 million refurbishment.

        The Bastille, possibly the most state-of-the-art opera house in the world, was built in 1989 in response to criticism that opera was an expensive luxury for a few people, Mr. Conlon says.

        “The idea of building the Bastille was to have an opera house that would be popular for a lot of people,” he says. “The season sells incredibly — 97 percent. That's the proof that Paris needed two opera houses that were open all year long, and there's enough audience to come if you produce quantity and quality.”

Innovative "Hoffmann'
        The next day, every seat is taken in the 2,700-seat hall for a dress rehearsal of Tales of Hoffmann, which is being filmed by crews for French television. The abstract, ingenious production is by the widely hailed fresh face on the opera scene, the Canadian Robert Carsen. His concept is an “opera-within-an-opera,” viewed from a different perspective for each act. In Act One, the audience is viewing an opera (Don Giovanni) from the wings of the Garnier.

        Soprano Natalie Dessay brings down the house as a remote-control Olympia (the doll), in which she matches her body movements to her coloratura amazingly. At the climax of her aria, she too climaxes atop Hoffmann, causing an uproarious response in the French audience.

        The second act is postponed while the orchestra plays “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Conlon, with the audience singing in half English, half French, then cheering him heartily.

        In the pit, Mr. Conlon cuts an energetic figure, hair flying as he leads authoritatively. He silently mouths the words along with the cast and appears to feel every note of the music. Among the few other music directors who convey such a combination of involvement and joy is the Met's James Levine.

        Before Mr. Conlon took over, the pit orchestra was widely considered to be mediocre at best. All that has changed. It is now regarded as the best orchestra in France — in or out of the pit. Mr. Conlon's new EMI recording of Stravinsky's Rossignol was recently chosen as the best classical music album of the year in France.

The perfect day
        Afterward, friends and family wind through the backstage maze up to Mr. Conlon's office for a champagne birthday toast.

        This is his first Tales of Hoffmann.

        “I saw Tales of Hoffmann at the Met with Nicolai Gedda,” the New Yorker says. “I remember the magic, I remember the doll, and I loved Hoffmann, but for some reason, I never felt a burning need to do it.

        “Now I'm very glad I said yes. I really have forgotten how great it was. This is a profound and wonderful work.”

        Perhaps it is the perfect opera to conduct on one's 50th birthday, he muses.

        “I have changed, I know that, and I am different. But physically, what I'm doing and what I want to do, it's just exactly the way it is,” he says. “I want to get up and conduct every day, and I love what I've been doing.

        “It's a cliche to say it, but I can't believe how fast this time has gone.”

- Conlon celebrates success on a grand scale
Cincinnati May Festival.

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