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Used to the Challenge

Simone Young, the first female conductor to appear with Los Angeles Opera, has had similar experiences around the world

September 01, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER

The stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion has been transformed into the fanciful world of a bygone-era western movie: On one side, a cutaway cabin complete with a politically questionable Indian couple inside and a hitching rail outside; on the other, a woodsy hill with a tunnel passageway.

An extremely patient pinto named Flash, saddled and bridled in his western show-biz best, is being ridden for the first time by game but tentative soprano Catherine Malfitano. Around and around the circular track they go, disappearing into the mountain tunnel and emerging around the other side again--sometimes together, sometimes not.

Malfitano, who is making her role debut as the Bible-toting and saloon-owning heroine Minnie, and Flash, who has a non-singing role, star with Los Angeles Opera artistic director Placido Domingo in Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West," opening Wednesday at the Music Center.

Yet there is more than one stylish heroine on stage on this recent night.

Looking like yet another Minnie, conductor Simone Young holds forth from the front of the stage, guiding pianist and singers through sections of the score even as Malfitano and her mount make their rounds. Like the soprano, she has long hair and wears a flowing black dress. But her footwear is definitely not of the cowgirl variety.

On Young's feet are what must be the single most you-go-girl pair of stilettos worn by a conductor, well, anywhere, ever. About 5 inches high, with metallic heels and leather straps adorned with buckles, they've already become the talk of the building. "It's a bit of a personal quirk," Young says of her passion for shoes, walking impressively well on the delicate devices as she makes her way to a rehearsal-break dinner.

It's also the kind of unapologetic gesture that typifies the personality of this woman who is not only an internationally recognized conductor, but also the music and artistic director of Opera Australia.

"There's nothing I like better than a challenge and nothing I like better than proving critics wrong," Young says. "So somebody says, 'No, you can't possibly do that,' that's just incentive for me to get in there and do that. Maybe it's just the Irish in me."

Even in 2002, going against the grain is often the lot of the Minnies and Simone Youngs of the world--women who operate in realms still overwhelmingly dominated by men. "It keeps coming up every time I go to a new city and, once again, it's the first time they've had a woman conducting," Young says. "For example, here. I hadn't realized it's the first time you've had a woman conducting at the Los Angeles Opera.

"I was the first woman to conduct in both houses in Vienna, the first woman to conduct in Munich at the opera and in Hamburg at the opera and in Paris at the opera and just recently in Linz at the Bruchner House," Young continues, reciting a litany obviously not for the first time. "It surprises me every time. And yet, it shouldn't. It's still the way of the world, and it's going to be a few years before things change. It's a reality that's changing, but it's still the contemporary reality."

As Young's experience attests, such change typically happens one person at a time. "The nice thing is I think I've got to the stage where it's not really an issue as far as I'm concerned," she says. "It's just about the work now. As anybody will tell you who works with me, it makes absolutely no difference after the initial surprise and the constant amusement at my shoes."

Based on a 1905 play by American playwright and producer David Belasco, Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West" is set in a mythical version of Gold Rush California. The picaresque tale follows Minnie, whose heart is stolen by fugitive bandit Dick Johnson (Domingo, who will share the role with Luis Lima), whom she redeems with her love.

It's a work that admirers often acknowledge as something of a guilty pleasure. "I adore it," Young says. "It's an absolutely gorgeous score." But, she is quick to add, "it's problematic."

The problems lie in the libretto's racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes. "It's the original spaghetti western, it really is," Young says. "It's a great story, it's just got some very strange moments. The Italian-speaking Indians--they say 'ugh.' Actually its 'oog' in Italian. With contemporary sensibilities, some of that's a little cringe-making. We have to make it as feasible and as belonging to its time as is possible."

While the opera is extremely accessible, there are several reasons why it is not performed as often as, say, "Madame Butterfly" or "Tosca." One is that it is more difficult to cast. "It takes a rare combination of three exceptional principals," Young says. "You need an exceptional woman as Minnie. She has to be able to do anything vocally, from really soft to really big, up high to down low."

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