Sunday, November 11, 2012

Abominable Showman, November 11, 2012

(photo credit: Yves Renaud)
The Conductor
Winnipeg native and internationally-acclaimed conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson returns to L’Opera de Montreal to conduct Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman
by Richard Burnett 

“This story is so incredible I know it won’t ever happen again,” internationally-acclaimed conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson told me backstage in her dressing at Montreal’s Salle Wilfred-Pelletier last week, an hour before the full dress rehearsal of L’Opéra de Montréal new production of Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman.

“I was on tour with the Parma Orchestra [in 2007] – Parma is the world capital of Verdi – and we were in Hong Kong and in the first scene [of Verdi’s opera Rigoletto], the singer comes out in his costume hat, made a gesture so that a ball fell off his hat and rolled into the orchestra pit and fell onto the cello of the principal cellist who was a hot-tempered character." 

Wilson laughs good-naturedly as she continues. “It made this big noise on the cello. So the cellist stood up and was so angry he threw the ball back onto the stage! All the cellos stopped playing. That made a huge gap but I had to keep going. And the audience – there was no gasp because they’re so reserved. But I was horrified and embarrassed. Musically we suffered, I mean the cello section didn’t play for two minutes!”

(photo credit: Yves Renaud)

Keri-Lynn Wilson grew up in Winnipeg in a musical family (her father Carlisle Wilson was a violin teacher and the conductor of the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra) and performed with the Junior Musical Club of Winnipeg before winning a scholarship from the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg. While all the other kids at school listened to Rock’n’Roll, Keri-Lynn fell in love with classical music. 

“I was always with the geeks,” Wilson, now 45, recalls. “And classical music was always a natural part of my childhood. I started playing music on the piano with my grandmother who is 92-years-old today. And my father taught me how to play violin. But he saw I was not physically able to play violin because my wrist can’t accommodate the violin. It is still my favourite instrument, though.”

“It cries,” I say.

“Yes,” Keri-Lynn says. “It sings.”

Not bad for a young kid from Winnipeg.

Early in her career she performed as a flute soloist with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1989. After graduating from Julliard (where she studied with Otto Werner Mueller) in 1994, she made her conducting debut with Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Orchestra and would go on to conduct some of the planet’s finest orchestras on the classical world’s most fabled stages. She was the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s associate conductor for four years, then in 1998 began her career as an international guest conductor, alternating between symphony orchestras and opera productions. She’s conducted the Rome Opera Orchestra, featuring Jose Carreras and Andrea Bocelli, and the Hong Kong Orchestra with violinist Isaac Stern.

Then in 2003 she married Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical and GM of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Not bad for a young kid from Winnipeg.

“I don’t really feel like the girl from Winnipeg when I’m onstage anywhere in the world,” says Wilson, who was actually born in Milwaukee in May 1967 before the family moved to Canada. “New York has been a huge part of my life, 25 years already. I’m actually born in America but when people ask me if I’m American, I always say I feel Canadian still. It’s a beautiful thing to have grown up here [in Canada]. It’s a very open-minded [society]. My earliest memories are of growing up in Winnipeg and being infatuated with classical music. There was no pressure, it was just my own passion.”

It’s always a question of chemistry.

When asked if being a woman slowed her climb to the top of the heap, Wilson replies, “I really have no idea if it made my journey more difficult. I am very fortunate to have done what I have been able to do, and I do feel it’s really all about one’s personality and how you communicate with the orchestra, as a man or woman. It’s always a question of chemistry.”

But when an opera singer gets out of line, Wilson will put her foot down. She smiles when I ask her if there are strategies to cajole the divas of the opera world.

“I try to do [so] in a way that [says], ‘It’s not for me, it’s for the composer.’ I try to make sure their interpretation doesn’t veer away from what the composer wanted,” Wilson points out. “We’re all artists who have opinions and sometimes you come across situations where it’s very difficult to convince others. This happens all the time. But that’s what opera is all about. Some singers have different capacities, for instance, in terms of breath control, that can affect tempi. So there’s a lot of compromise involved, which is the best way to describe my approach when something is wrong. But I will put my foot down if after several rehearsals they haven’t changed it.”

Wilson – whose last Opéra de Montréal appearance was Simon Boccanegra in 2010acknowledges opera audiences around the world are very different. “In Italy, if they really like something they’re electric. In New York, Vienna and in Germany too. Russia is very warm. Then there are some who are more reserved, like Spain where despite being a Latin country [audiences] will not shout.”

And her favourite stage?

“Vienna. The Staatsoper,” Wilson says without missing a beat, about Vienna’s glorious State Opera House built in 1868 by gay architect couple Eduard van der Null and August Sicard von Sicardsburg. “When you go into the conductor’s dressing room – and there Mahler used to sit in this same chair! You feel every emotion. It’s a wild ride.”

As the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) himself once noted, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.”

For maestra Keri-Lynn Wilson, returning to Montreal to lead the Orchestre Métropolitain and the Opéra de Montréal Chorus in Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, this is a very special event.

“My 92-year-old grandmother is flying in from Winnipeg to see me conduct the orchestra in Montreal,” Wilson says, smiling broadly. “She loves Wagner, so this will be a special night for us all.”

Read our review of Dutchman.

L’Opéra de Montréal’s 33rd season continues with Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, sung in German with English and French surtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission. At Salle Wilfred-Pelletier on November 10, 13, 15 and 17, at 7:30 pm nightly. Click here for tickets and more details. 

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