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Cottoning to Los Angeles

James Conlon has made good first impressions since taking over last year as music director of L.A. Opera.

February 25, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

AFTER just a few months on the job, Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon has already had a salutary effect on the company's orchestra.

"We've all played with a lot of conductors," says concertmaster Stuart Canin, "but James' rehearsal technique is way beyond everyone else's. He has a way of doing things so that we get to hear the other sections and connect with them, and that's what makes a great ensemble."

Others have been impressed as well. Times music critic Mark Swed wrote that Conlon's conducting of Verdi's "Don Carlo" early this season made the score "feel impressively unrelenting" and that his "tight" leadership of Verdi's "La Traviata" at the opening gala provided "a necessary anchor for a loose production."

Conlon honed his technique working in Europe over two decades, leading the Paris Opera, the Cologne (Germany) Opera and the Rotterdam (Netherlands) Philharmonic. The affable and still-boyish Manhattan-born conductor, who will turn 56 in March, returned to New York in 2004 after accepting the job of music director at the summertime Ravinia Festival in Illinois. But back then, Los Angeles wasn't even on his map.

"I'm an East Coaster," he said recently during one of a series of interviews in his small office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "California has basically played almost no role in my life."

All the same, L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo kept urging him to come here after Kent Nagano left the company last year to become music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Germany, and the Montreal Symphony. And, said Conlon, "The more I thought about it, the more I picked up his infectious enthusiasm about a company that is growing so fast."

Family matters had also been on his mind. His daughter, Luisa, named after the heroine of Verdi's opera "Luisa Miller," was in high school, and he wanted her to go to college in the U.S. So Conlon, his wife, soprano Jennifer Ringo, 17-year-old Luisa and another daughter, Emma, 10, decided to move to the West Coast. Conlon is in temporary digs until Luisa graduates this year. Then the whole family will relocate.

As it turns out, Domingo's association with Conlon goes back a long way.

"We've known each other since he was practically in his teens and I was just 25 years old," the famous tenor said by phone from Barcelona, Spain.

"We met when he was a student at Juilliard and I was in New York City Opera making my debut with Ginastera's 'Don Rodrigo.' I'd always see this young boy coming to these performances. Next time we met it was a few year later, when he came to the Met. He's conducting me in 'Boheme'! He's a brilliant musician. We're lucky to have him. Being an American is even better."

Wagner has an ally

RIGHT now, it's a bit early in Conlon's tenure for him to be willing to go beyond generalities, but the conductor does have a vision of the future. He wants to make Los Angeles a center for Wagner (an L.A. Opera "Ring" has been scheduled since he came aboard) as well as the launching pad for his "Recovered Voices" project -- reviving music suppressed during the Third Reich. He's already shown himself a passionate advocate for such composers as Viktor Ullmann, Alexander Zemlinsky, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa in concerts in Europe and in guest conducting stints in the U.S. Among his extensive recordings are nine Zemlinsky works.

"No major opera company has produced any opera at all from this period," he said. "That's amazing. We're going to be the ones to do it. And we're not going to be able to do it in two or three years. This whole issue will outlive me."

He also wants to give performances that are as life-changing as the one he heard as an 11-year-old seeing his first opera.

"It was the moment I became completely conscious of classical music and how much I love it," he said. "It transformed my life to what it is today. Every time I go out on that podium, I think to myself, 'There are people out there -- they could be 11 years old, they could be 5, they could be 80 -- but you have the chance to change somebody's life for the better. They deserve 100% out of me, and they deserve 100% out of everybody on that stage, everybody in the orchestra.' That's the credo."

He's particularly gratified that L.A. Opera is a young and growing company.

"Sometimes you can be innovative there in a way that's harder elsewhere," he said. "So I'm now very happy.

"There is no such thing in life as no obstacles, no problems," he added. "And there is certainly no such thing as an opera company with no problems. We have enormous challenges in front of us. We have enormous things to be accomplished."

Could he be more specific?

"Basically, I've been here two months," he said with a smile.

What about the state of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, slated for a makeover within the next few years?

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