James Conlon is in a hurry. At a Grand Avenue crosswalk on a recent morning, he is repeatedly pushing the button to cross the street. Tap, tap, tap, tap. His efforts don't make the lights change any faster. He has to wait like everyone else.
Conlon, who is the music director of the Los Angeles Opera, doesn't like to stay still. Not even for a minute. He's on his way to Starbucks for his morning cappuccino fix. It's surprising that Conlon needs stimulants at all. The conductor is his own internal combustion engine, giving off sparks that can either dazzle or burn, depending on how close you want to get.
Since he arrived at L.A. Opera in 2006, Conlon has worked to put his personal stamp on the young company. His twin artistic obsessions — the music of Richard Wagner and composers suppressed by the Nazis — have become centerpieces of recent seasons. He also has become a familiar and accessible face to the city's classical music fans, becoming a regular at cultural speaking events whenever he's not otherwise occupied in the orchestra pit.
The current season is arguably the biggest of Conlon's career. He will be leading performances of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung," a massive endeavor that requires 15 hours of conducting for each cycle. (The company is producing three full cycles starting May 29.)
Conlon also turned 60 this year. "I certainly don't feel 60," he says. "I don't know where the time went."
Time is a scarce and slippery commodity in the Conlon zone. Spending time in Conlon's shoes —following him around on one of his typically busy days — is a high-impact athletic event not meant for the weak, the thin-skinned or the easily flustered.
When Conlon enters a room, it's perfectly clear who's in charge. He's physically compact, but he projects a brusque sense of authority. His small team of assistants is constantly swarming around him in a frenzied but ordered nimbus of activity. It's all a variant on what Conlon knows best — conducting.
It's a little past 11 in the morning. (In the classical world, days tend to start and end late.) Conlon is sitting in his plain, functional office at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion discussing his schedule with his assistant, Bill Gorin. There are no performances today but that doesn't mean Conlon has the day off. Quite the contrary: His schedule is packed with meetings, a music class and an evening speaking engagement.
"Working with James is like competing in a triathlon — it's all about focus, flexibility, patience and above all endurance," says Gorin.
First up: An online video that Conlon wants to post on the opera's website isn't working correctly. Conlon is on the phone with the company's head of marketing, who can't get it to work either. Throughout the conversation, Conlon multitasks his way through a list of other chores: Lunch is ordered; BlackBerry messages are sent; a massage appointment for tomorrow is confirmed.
Conlon's office is cluttered with books and scores. (He keeps his scores in a carry-on piece of luggage.) Three hefty volumes that represent the entirety of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" rest on top of an upright piano. On his shelf sit two Grammy Award trophies.
He likes to eat healthy — he often snacks on Balance Carb Well Bars and organic fruit — but he doesn't go the gym. "'Götterdämmerung' is my workout," he says.
The Internet video glitch persists but it will have to wait until later. Conlon has a master class to teach and he's already running late. In the hallway, he pushes the button for the elevator. When it fails to immediately appear, he takes the stairs instead, leaving the rest of his team to catch up with him.
Conlon sits in a rehearsal room with seven aspiring singers who are part of the company's Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program. They each perform an aria which he then critiques in front of the entire class. He is blunt but never cruel. His criticisms are often delivered with a smile.
"I circled all the rests you didn't do and then my hand got tired," he tells one student.
"Vocally perfect, note perfect, but with no meaning at all," he says to another.
"The intonation is simply not good enough for this," he chastises yet another.
"More volume is not better, it's just more," he says to the entire class. "Sing within the conditions of your voice. Every forte has to be a dignified forte."
At one point, he tells the class an anecdote about meeting the 100-year-old soprano Magda Olivero in Italy. The conductor explains that even at her advanced age, the singer still had formidable abdominal muscles.
"You don't lose you voice as you get older. You lose these," says Conlon, pointing to his own abdominals.
The singers behave deferentially to Conlon and some of them are visibly nervous, especially when the conductor approaches them to demonstrate a certain technique. "Don't be terrified that I'm here and looking at your larynx," he says.