The Postponed Musical Feast of a Woman Maestro in Paris
Part One of a digital conversation with Keri-Lynn Wilson presented by The American Friends of the Paris Opera and Ballet
Access to the full video of the webinar at the bottom of the post.
A French version was published via Le Petit Journal
Only a handful of women conducted at the Paris Opera, and none of them ever took her baton to present Carmen, possibly one of the greatest operas of all time. The Canadian-born Keri-Lynn Wilson was supposed to do just that—and to also make her debut in Paris last December.
With the threat of Covid19 everywhere, and the measures local and national governments have taken to contain the pandemic, Wilson’s calendar has been reduced to just a few performances. A digital tour of her website (here) lists the many changes: A Concert with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Grand Opera Gala at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Carmen at the Bastille Opera, Rigoletto with the Bayerische Staatsoper, all canceled… With the exception of the opening streamed-concert of Mozart’s Week last January 21st, Wilson actually has not conducted for a live audience since March 2020.
Yet, had the French Government not decided to shut down all theaters in France a few days before the Christmas holidays, she would have led an exceptional performance, in times of Covid19 and in a major European city. A musical feast.
Not a raincheck, but a pandemic check. The flutist who became musical conductor at Julliard in New York has since conducted orchestras throughout the world, from Tokyo to Los Angeles, from the Royal Opera House to the Wiener Staatsoper. When Wilson met with us ‘digitally’ from her New York home, she displayed more appetite and energy than ever. In perfect French, she explained that she lives for la joie de faire de la musique, this excitement and vertigo of performing live and taking all the risks, in front of an audience.
Art and Culture, after all, are essential food that need to be consumed and digested on the spot and together. It will soon happen in Russia. Wilson is actually rehearsing with the Bolshoi for a series of performances this March of Un Ballo in Maschera.
Here is the verbatim first part of a conversation with Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson. (the conversation was edited for clarity).
You were in Paris last December. In any moment of time, I would have said, ‘Fantastic but So what?” Right now, to a lot of us, it sounds like, ‘Lucky you!’
If we put it into perspectives, I stopped conducting on March 12th. It was Carmen at the Warsaw Opera. I put down my baton not knowing when the next time I would be picking it up, and sure enough it would be for a Carmen rehearsal à Paris nine months later.
When I came to the opera, there are so many wonderful stories, but one sums it most: the feeling of warmth when I walked into the first stage rehearsal. The whole chorus was there, the production team, the creative team, the director, the assistants, all of my assistants came together with 200% energy. With masks, you could feel la joie de faire la musique encore une fois (the pleasure to perform music once more). It was the most exhilarating thing because not only I had not played for nine months but also for the opera company. I know they did symphonic concerts, but the chorus was thrilled. There was so much love—I know they won’t disagree with that because I had so many chorus members come up to me said, ‘We are so happy to be singing again and so happy to be working with you.’ It was really a love affair from the first day.
Here is a short video of you conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra:
You know it was actually not permitted to take videos at that time. One of the singers took that. It was a wonderful souvenir. It’s very sad to watch. The way that video cutoffs was the way our rehearsal period finished. It was very much a guillotine.
Everybody was eagerly waiting for you to make your debut in Paris conducting Carmen. What happened?
I know you wrote me when I first arrived, ‘We are so excited,’ and I wanted to write back, ‘You have no idea how excited we are just to be able to perform again.’ It was after two weeks of full preparation, staging rehearsals with the singers with the chorus: I’d finished the rehearsal with the orchestra alone, then we had two opportunities before the general, two staging orchestras. We had just finished the act one and act two, and we were on break, before the second staging orchestra, and people walked into my dressing room and told me that the government just announced that theaters had to be shut for the next uncertain period. There were many tears in the whole theater… Everybody felt they finally got their hopes up, their energy and passion, and we’re all making music, and everybody was alive spiritually, our souls were alive and then it was just stopped. Very difficult.
How can you conduct wearing a mask?
With great difficulty. When we conduct, it is a physical exerting activity. I was chocking. Some of the musicians told me, ‘You could probably ask; it’s probably OK if you take off your mask,’ but I wanted to be respectful so, of course it kept it on. it was very difficult to breathe, and all of my expression as actors—conductors are actors—there’s so much we are showing: the intensity of our expression on our faces is part of our body language. So, that was cutoff. They only saw my eyes. It was an unusual feeling. However, after the first minute of music, we were just so happy to be making music. Their eyes were on me. It was all about our eyes. It was beautiful, and what better music than Carmen to be together.
You were about to conduct the production of Calixto Bieito, which is a beautiful production and is actually available on the new digital platform from the Paris opera. So that we understand what kind of Carmen you were about to conduct, here is the trailer of Bieito’s Carmen at the Paris Opera. (full opera available to rent on https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/)
This is quite a sexy, contemporary production, isn’t it?
Well, the opera Carmen is very sexy, so this production really does it justice. Carmen is a very earthy, raw, and emotional character. This production gives her the atmospheric emotional field to play with it. It’s not the typical stereotypical Spanish gypsy kind of thing, it’s put it in a modern setting. It felt so natural and even more emotionally gripping than any other production I have conducted.
The opera is about Carmen’s free spirit of course, but it is also about Don José who falls in love with this woman. Yet, the day he puts his military duties ahead of Carmen’s passionate flame for him, she breaks up with him, and he becomes so jealous and frustrated that the once charming and dedicated soldier from act one has now become a dangerous and violent man at the end of the opera. Still very newsworthy to you?
Absolutely. It is verismo. Bizet had great genius. He was writing for the Opera but ultimately it turned into this verismo, way beyond his ears, this raw story of this woman who is killed by her lover—not her lover but somebody who is obsessed by her. I don’t think love ever enters into this opera. I think it’s obsession, violence, emotions, and a very unsettling mood that we experience with this opera.
Carmen has been so successful because of the music, because of this incredible range. There is so much in la joie de vivre, de l’amour, des cigarières (the joy of life, love, and cigarette workers). This is a French opera to the core. La fumée… And then it turns so dark, it becomes so symphonic. it’s very satisfying for the audience in every way—and for the performers and for all the musicians. It’s just a great opera.
The French television loved the fact that you were about to conduct Carmen in Bastille. Their cameras take us backstage. Let’s watch this video( in French and available on Keri-Lynn Wilson IG account @kerilynnwilsonmaestro).
Wasn’t it remarkable that the Paris opera was opened for a little while last Fall? Here in New York, everything’s been shut down for almost a year.
There were several factors. First of all, it was the government’s support that allowed of course the theater to still maintain and pay their musicians. Alexander Neef (Paris Opera’s General manager) was fantastic in creating projects, to have these streamed performances, but it wasn’t until our performance in December where it was going to become a reality. Another aspect is the fact that it was under a very controlled environment. There were tests done all the time for the chorus, the orchestra, every member who walked into the Bastille theater. It was a controlled sanitary environment. We all knew that we were being respectful for the Covid conditions, so it functioned. It was a working place. I just wish that… Let me tell you a little story: in between rehearsals, I would go out for lunch break and do an errand or buy something. The stores were filled with people not respecting the meter distance, and I thought, ‘What a pity that we don’t have this balance between culture and what was being allowed to happen.’ I mean, if you have the libraries, museums, and Opera houses closed, there must be something there that we can (do). Next time, we have to be prepared for this. We weren’t prepared, and it wasn’t handled perhaps so well. But the Opera de Paris was super well prepared.
You actually were able to conduct Mozarteum Orchestra recently for the opening of Mozart’s week in Salzburg.
This was a miracle that this concert happened. The annual Mozartwoche, ‘Mozart birthday,’ is a week of very prestigious orchestras. There is a series of concert, all Mozart. From 27 concerts, they reduced it to seven. I was the opening concert. It was streamed but without an audience. We were able to rehearse without masks because everybody was tested constantly, so that was freedom and wonderful to make music again in that open environment but what was difficult was there was no audience. It was the most bizarre feeling. At the recording: the energy and the thrill of finishing a symphony, and musicians looked at each other, and we weren’t sure if I should have them stand or should we just smile and walk out the podium. It was a bit of a question mark, but we were thrilled to be performing. It was streamed a week later.
What is the role of the public, how important is it to feel the people behind you when you perform?
There’s an old kind of saying that orchestras don’t care about rehearsals, they just go right to the performance, and that’s when they really give 100%. Rehearsals can be arduous; you have to technically make everything perfect. It’s a process. Ultimately, we do it because of the performance which is when the art comes alive. We prepare everything in hopes of having an audience.
For me personally, people always ask: ‘Do you get nervous?’ I say, ‘Absolutely not.’ I mean performing is about this exhilarating feeling of having so much energy behind your back as a conductor or in front of you as a musician. That is the inspiration of performing, knowing that we are speaking, communicating and sharing all of these emotions that of course are serving the composer and are conduits from the composer to the audience. We live for performing. That’s what’s so incredibly difficult about the pandemic.
When you enter the orchestra pit at the beginning of a performance, the light goes down, the curtain most likely is still down—sometimes it’s already. Someone back in the hall sees you walking and starts clapping, and everybody else claps. You walk to your position. The orchestra rises, and you bow to the audience, you salute them, and you turn around, take your baton, and that’s it. How important are those first few minutes; how important is it to feel that public?
That’s not important at all. What’s important is that downbeat. That moment of the upbeat, either that’s going to express Carmen fast pace, or it is going to be the opening trumpet note of Rigoletto, very soft. You want to create an atmosphere with that upbeat. If it is a fast and loud upbeat, I would l come, would stand for the applauds, and as soon as they sit down, it would be ‘boom,’ go. That’s easy, much easier for me because you have the audience energy and then you start.
But if it is slow and soft, I have to contain my energy and be very controlled. After the orchestra stands, still having the mental f control of what I’m about to conduct, you have to face it—and above all demand silence from the hall. How does one demand silence from the hall?
Well, you have to wait, but there’s always somebody who is coughing. This seems impossible to get. It all depends in what country you’re in, but most audiences are excited about the champagne, about the music. I have to be quite patient. Sometimes the orchestra and I (wonder) when this is gonna stop! So, there’s a fine line as to when I can begin. How many coughs, and somebodies are still squeaking their chairs or the hush. I think a lot of conductors can relate to that.
How annoying is that coughing!
(laughing) Audiences are excited, but they should know better when to stop.
You need a lot of practice to get into these live performances. I wonder if the musicians, the singers, the ballet dancers will be able to jump back into their arts when live performances will resume.
They will be jumping way forward. They will already be at the stage door saying, ‘Let me in.’ We are all desperate to work, we are desperate to embrace each other, we are desperate to spit and sing to each other’s faces, we are desperate to be in the pit and doing what we do, which is to make music together but ultimately for you, you the audience.