Backstory — James Conlon
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Backstory: James Conlon

by Fred Cohn. 

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Illustration by Gary Hovland
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JAMES CONLON WAS ONLY twenty-six years old in 1977, the year he first hit the pages of OPERA NEWS, but his personal tie to the magazine dates back even further: he’s been an avid reader since he was twelve. “Deep down in some storage space, I’ve got hundreds of OPERA NEWSes from the ’60s,” he says. Over the years, the conductor has appeared in the magazine on many occasions, including two cover features, and in 2005, he became one of the first batch of OPERA NEWS Award winners. Conlon is one of the very few of the magazine’s subjects who have also been contributors. He has written analyses of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (December 10, 1994), Carmen (March 22, 1997) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (October 2013), all of them informed by his deep immersion in the works and set forth with a clarity and precision that could make a full-time journalist want to take up another profession. 

“I never sat down and said, ‘Now I’m going to write,’” Conlon says. “It came about organically.” He started in November 1991 with a program note to a Richard Tucker Music Foundation gala he was conducting, which featured not the usual opera potpourri but an all-American program. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to say something,’” he says. Later, as music director of Cologne Opera, he wrote notes for new productions, starting in 1992 with Pelléas et Mélisande, which he felt needed an extra push to succeed with the German audience.(“I had noted a not-so-gentle disdain for French music in the atmosphere.”) 

The Lady Macbeth piece grew out of a similar impulse. Conlon was about to conduct the Met premiere of Shostakovich’s opera—a brutal, dissonant work that was bound to confound and upset a portion of the audience. He proposed a piece to OPERA NEWS. Conlon’s passionate argument helped pique the curiosity of potentially reluctant operagoers. “[It is] an enigmatic, paradoxical work that speaks in tongues,” he wrote, “in a language that simultaneously reveals and obfuscates, confesses and denies, equivocates and speaks truth, accuses and finally forgives.”

The impulse to serve as advocate for the music he performs has also turned him into an inveterate lecturer, as music director of LA Opera. Held in the foyer of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before every performance, these sessions have become standing-room-only events. “I started talking because audiences have a thirst for context,” Conlon says. “Program notes used to do that, but people respond in a special way if you turn to them and address them.”

The conductor has kept writing, contributing an occasional blog posting to the Musical America website on subjects ranging from Leipzig’s musical tradition to a Beaumarchais-quoting barber he met in Rome. (“P.S.: The haircut was great.”) He also plans a book-length project, the nature of which he’s unwilling to divulge: “I always thought I’d write it when I retire, but somebody said to me, ‘Don’t wait—you’ll forget it!’

 “Music starts where words stop,” Conlon says, “but writing lets you say something specific about the music. I’m grateful to OPERA NEWS for giving me a first break.” spacer

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