The Masked-Life of a Maestro in Times of Covid-19
Part Two 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.
For a year now, governments—and often doctors—have redesigned how people can live to combat and survive the Covid-19 pandemic. In some regions, entire sectors have sometimes been shut down: travels, restaurants, hotels, and sport arenas, but also bookstores, museums, theaters, concert halls, and opera houses. Culture and art often don’t fall into the lines of the iconic contemporary word: ‘essential.’
Remarkably though, the Paris Opera was opened for a few weeks in the Fall of 2020. Hopes were then high in France that Covid-19 was being contained, yet it came back with a revenge. While rehearsing Carmen for her debut at the Bastille Opera, Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson experienced it first-hand. Within a minute, rehearsals were halted, and the opera shut down by the French Government. The same happened for movie theaters, museums, bars, and restaurants.
Wilson’s dream of conducting in Paris was postponed. So, she went back to New York and resumed what she had been doing since March 2020: sharing music online and studying new scores. She created a ‘Becoming the Conductor Series,’ on Instagram, launched a YouTube Channel, built her own playlist on Spotify, and shared many videos and recordings on her website.
Thank you for the internet! It allowed schools to close and switch to online classes, museums to open virtual galleries. The Paris Opera even launched its streaming platform. A digital alternative to much needed cultural exchanges to move forward as one as a society.
But for many, this past year has also meant an absence of work and live performances. In the Opera and ballet world, thousands of musicians, dancers, technicians and administrative people were put out of a job. “A feeling of desolation and desperation,” explains Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson.
How did you manage to spend all these months without a performance?
The day after I landed from Warsaw, I said to myself, ‘Well, there’s no way I’m going to be traveling anywhere until there’s a vaccine, and that vaccine is probably not coming for a year.’ As a conductor, we have no time to study. We are either rehearsing, performing, traveling or dealing with administrative things. It is so rare when you have the time. You prepare by cramming sometimes. Wagner wrote The Ring Cycle in 25 years. To study it and prepare it, which I have never done—I’ve never had the opportunity to conduct The Ring yet—I’ve always had in my mind, ‘When am I going to find that time?’ Quarantine was the perfect time. I immediately got all the scores for The Ring and studied it every day. (…)
I was very inspired to be as creative as possible to combat this horrible feeling of desolation, desperation, and just being cutoff artistically because if I don’t have art in my life, if I wake up in the morning with no music or nothing, no literature, no Russian poetry, I am dead inside.
For almost a year now, the question has been, ‘How to defeat Covid19?’ The new question might actually become, ‘How to live with it’? In the meantime, the key question is, ‘What is and what is not essential in our lives.’ Is culture, is art essential to our lives?
Well, you and I, and everybody who’s watching, and everybody we know, I’m sure is dying to get back to the theater and to hear live music. What we’ve been seeing on this interview of video footage is absolute torture. The audio is horrendous. The visual is one dimensional. Everything is one dimensional and is artificial. It’s a sterile environment.
That’s all we have right now. It is fantastic to visit museums online but that will never replace being able to go to a museum in reality.
Perhaps in a way, this will encourage more people, who weren’t even interested necessarily in getting out, to open up their horizons. There is so much more to life than sitting home and watching this screen.
If I don’t have art in my life, if I wake up in the morning with no music or nothing, no literature, no Russian poetry, I am dead inside.
You mentioned a performance without an audience. Theaters and opera houses are closed for the moment to the public, but some of them—including the Paris opera—has kept a few performances on for streaming. One of them in Paris was actually a ballet, La Bayadère. Here are a few minutes of last December 13th La Bayadère performed at Bastille, without an audience. The dancer is Paul Marque (still available on https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/)
Can you hear the silence… there is no one.
No one is clapping.
Have you ever conducted a ballet?
I have not and I’m a little terrified to. If you don’t have the right tempo for the dancers, it’s not good of course for the dancers, it’s the same with the singers, you always have to take the right tempo. If I feel strongly about the tempo, but if the choreographer feels completely differently, then there’s trouble. I would feel extremely pressured by having to serve the dancers and not being able to. The other reason is a loaded question. Did you hear the music just now? I think the dancing was extraordinary, but the music wasn’t exactly Bizet’s Carmen. For example, Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliette or Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. If you take them and reduce them into suites and perform them symphonically, that is fantastic music. But when you get into ballets. there are all sorts of orchestral interludes or moments that has to fill in all of the choreography, so it’s less intense, it’s less good music to put it that way. I like more sophisticated level of music in opera. With Ballet sometimes, it’s weaker music.
Back to last December’s Bayadère in Paris. We live in extraordinary times, so extraordinary things happen. At the Paris Opera Ballet, the highest recognition for a dancer is to be an Étoile—a Principal Dancer. Étoiles are usually promoted at the end of a performance. The recipient is not aware about what is about to happen, neither is the audience. The General manager comes on stage with the Dance Director and then makes the announcement. Let’s look at what happened to Paul Marque last December 13th in this candid video taken by one of the Paris Opera employees who was allowed, along with some of his colleagues, to attend this performance from a balcony.
My father was the conductor of the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra where I played. So, it was kind of an overnight decision to continue my studies as a conductor at the Juilliard School.
How and why did you decide to become a musical conductor? And I know this is not the topic of our conversation, but this is still a very male-dominated art. Women conducting is very recent. You actually were the first woman to ever lead an opera in Verona (for Puccini’s Tosca and Madame Butterfly), in Tokyo (once again for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) and in Roma for Aïda. And you would have been the first woman conducting Carmen in Paris. You are a musician. Why did you decide to become a conductor?
I played many instruments and in the orchestra as a child. I went to Juilliard (School) as a flutist and I played in the orchestra as a flutist. I suddenly became bored. After five years getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I decided that I did not want to play Prokoviev’s flute symphonies for the rest of my life. The repertoire is very limited for a flute. So, I thought that I would play in the orchestra but that wasn’t enough for me. I had the experience of so much more in my upbringing and I thought I would put it all together. I embraced everything that I learned as a child, everything I grew up doing, which was orchestrally involved. My father was the conductor of the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra where I played. So, it was kind of an overnight decision to continue my studies as a conductor at the Juilliard School. I auditioned for the program. I spent another four years to get another degree. It is like for a doctor: you keep doing it because conductors aren’t born conductors. You have to be a musician, hopefully playing in an orchestra—I would say that is essential.
It was a perfect upbringing and a perfect foundation for a conductor. So, I made the big steps backwards to become a conductor because you look like a fool the first time you pick up your baton. As a Juilliard student, I was conducting the Juilliard orchestra to learn; it was called The Laboratory Orchestra where my colleagues were paid—basically they got extra points—for playing in the orchestra. They would watch me to make a fool of myself conducting The Rite of Spring at the audition, but I had the courage and the chutzpah to pursue four years conducting, and I’m so glad I did.
What are the challenges of leading musicians? You’ve been conducting almost everywhere. Orchestras are so different from a place to another.
Orchestras have a common language. We all have a common language. We have music. What is different is the culture of every country. It is a matter of—when I’m guest conducting from country to country—sort of smelling immediately, picking up the psychology in the room, the chemistry, what they respond to. I don’t mean musically; I mean how communicating and how we rehearse. You do a lot of speaking when you’re rehearsing. If I see that they’re very responsive based on not talking so much, if I can accomplish a lot, then that’s great.
Immediately you have to feel what they’re responding to. If it’s not quite working, if you have to work extra hard in certain areas, you have to understand that immediately. You know how to make them play better. That’s ultimately why you’re there: to inspire them and do make a great performance. That is only done by inspiring and engaging with them.
What is your relationship with stage directors? Here you are giving the music a pace, a heart and soul, you are bringing pages of music to life, but you have to compose with the director in the way he or she wants the characters to move around and express themselves on stage.
If they’re a good director, ‘Fantastic,’ because what they do is ultimately serve the music. They understand that. Any director who comes in and says, ‘This is my way; I don’t care if it’s difficult musically,’ then that’s the end of our relationship. For singers too, the director must understand the music and what singers can do, so that any direction serves the music. The other thing is to make the story alive. If it is working on stage, if it’s something interesting that enhances the story, then that’s all the better for the music. It serves in a way that inspires the music, inspires me, inspires the performance, and it brings magic for the audience.
You have to make classical music cool. It has to be hip. That’s how I fell in love with it as a kid.
The future of opera is also its audience. What can we do to bring a younger audience to the opera?
It has to start with education. How do we educate today—especially in quarantine it has to be over the Internet—it has to be done in the schools, but the Internet is a great source. Instagram—that’s why I’m active on Instagram. If you can get people engaged for what they usually do for pop music. You have to make classical music cool. It has to be hip. That’s how I fell in love with it as a kid. I think it starts with a performer who has that way to communicate to the youngsters and say, ‘Hey look, I am doing this; you guys can do it too.’ It has to start with making music cool.
That’s why you have your Spotify list. If you were to select three opera composers?
Oh, it’s like asking what what’s your favorite painting! Go to the Louvre! So hard.
Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and perhaps Tchaikovsky. These are the most symphonic of our opera repertoire.
And three symphonic composers?
Definitely Mahler, Shostakovich—he is perhaps my favorite—Beethoven, and Brahms if I can sneak him.
Visit Keri-Lynn Wilson website: https://www.keri-lynnwilson.com/