Q & A: Keri-Lynn Wilson on ‘Inspired by,’ Repertoire & Wagner

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Erik Berg)

Over the last 20 years Maestro Keri-Lynn Wilson has developed one of the most distinguished careers as a conductor. She has led some of the greatest orchestras and opera companies and has worked with some of the world’s most renowned soloists and singers.

Her repertoire is vast and ever-expanding as her curiosity to explore new works can be seen in her new series “Inspired by” where she talks about a work that fascinates and motivates her.

In a recent interview with OperaWire, Wilson spoke about her new series, her favorite repertoire, and what she hopes to conduct in the coming seasons.

OW: How did you come up with the “Inspired by” series?

KLW: It came about when performing life came to a standstill and I had time on my hands to study works that had always intrigued me. I’m someone who always has to be working or preparing. So, I’m now focusing my down time on exploring scores that will distract and inspire me.

As a conductor, I want to touch my audience. Since I can’t conduct right now, I’d like to reach people through sharing my insights about composers and their inspirations, including their literary sources, and the visual artists with whom they’re linked. This is how I’m channeling some of my energy right now.

OW: How do you go about picking the composer or piece you want to talk about?

KLW: It’s mostly spontaneous. For example, for my post about the Shostakovich Symphony No. 13, which I haven’t yet conducted, I was inspired by my favorite composer’s collaboration with the Russian poet Yevtushenko. Shostakovich exposed the suffering, repression and cynicism of Soviet life in Babi Yar, which I think is an apt reflection of today’s societal woes and the numbing effects of the pandemic.

It’s how I’m feeling and I’m sure it’s how other people are feeling these days. I posted about Mahler because his music expresses heroism — the heroism I feel for the doctors and nurses.

OW: What has been the audience reaction to the series?

KLW: People thank me for making them think about the music and for finding their own emotional connections. Russians in particular, members of the older generation who have survived traumatic times, felt directly connected to my posts about Shostakovich and Prokofiev. I want to help fill up other people’s lives.

OW: You also have a series “Becoming a Conductor.” What inspired that idea?

KLW: I wanted to do something instructional and meaningful. I’ve always been asked “what does it take to be a conductor,” so I decided to provide the answers to how I became a conductor through this series. I hope it is informative and that it will demystify a process that is often misunderstood.

OW: Since we’re on that subject, what inspired you to be a conductor?

KLW: I started by the playing piano as a young child. When I was eight I started playing in my father’s youth orchestra. I played the flute and the violin. He was the conductor. Watching him, I was inspired and thought to myself, “I would love to conduct one day.”

But I didn’t think that would actually happen. Attending Juilliard as a flutist for my Masters, I really thought I would end up playing in an orchestra. But I found myself more interested in studying Verdi and Wagner, and I wasn’t practicing the flute. In orchestra rehearsals, I was more interested in following the complete scores and less and less interested in my flute lines.  One of my fellow students asked, “Why aren’t you taking the conducting audition at Juilliard?” And I said to myself, “Yes that is what I want to do.”

It was supposed to be my final year, but instead I studied for the conducting audition and was accepted. I spent another four years at Juilliard, studying to become a conductor. I never touched my flute again, although I still play piano and violin.

OW: Where does your passion for opera come from?

KLW: I did not like opera as a kid. My grandfather was a baritone and was very popular in Canada. He even had his own television variety show. He tried to teach me to sing, unsuccessfully, although I loved joining in the choir as part of a larger group. But opera turned me off.

As a teenager, I would only listen to Mahler and Bruckner.  It wasn’t until I went to Juilliard and I started going to performances next door at the Met that I fell in love with opera. In my third year as a flutist. I took a course on the Ring.

When I graduated, I became the associate conductor of the Dallas Symphony for four years and put my opera interests aside, since I was conducting only symphonic repertoire. In 1997, when I was still in Dallas, an impresario in Italy invited me to conduct a gala concert at the Vatican with a number of great opera singers, including José Carreras and Daniela Dessi.

Afterwards, I was invited to conduct “Lucia di Lammermoor” in the Verona opera house. Of course, I said yes, but then spent the next six months preparing, since I didn’t know a single note of the score. So I listened to every recording of “Lucia” and asked opera conductors for their advice. That’s how I learned some of the basics, like singing the recitatives along with the orchestra in rehearsal. That was my first opera and it took off from there. That summer I conducted “Tosca” at the Arena di Verona in front of 16,000 people and fell in love with opera for good.

I consider myself both an opera and orchestral conductor. It’s important to have the balance of repertoire.

OW: Since that first “Lucia di Lammermoor,” you have gone on to conduct a variety of styles and operas. Is there a style you prefer?

KLW: Every opera is rewarding in its own way, but my preference is for operas with big orchestrations. I used to do a lot of Bel Canto but my first love is for the big stuff — Shostakovich, Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and of course Wagner. I want to do more Wagner, like the Ring Cycle. It is what I’m studying now.

OW: Bel Canto also provides some challenges. What do you think are the most difficult ones?

KLW: Bel Canto requires the right tempi and good taste. Since the singing is so exposed, you also need really good singers. Bel Canto has to be beautiful. That’s the greatest challenge.

OW: Next season you will be conducting works by Puccini, Bizet, and Verdi. Tell me about going from style to style and performing these very different composers.

KLW: I think it comes naturally to me. I think the biggest challenge is adjusting from theater to theater, gauging the amount of rehearsal time and making proper use of it. Every opera orchestra is different. My job is to make sure that we’re performing and executing according to what the composer intended, which requires different amounts of fine tuning in rehearsals. The goal is to get as close as possible to the interpretation you have in your mind.

Opera orchestras and singers usually already have their own interpretations in their minds, which is sometimes an obstacle I have to overcome. Some orchestras I knew better than others. For example, when I go to Munich to do “Rigoletto,” it’s a house where I have already done a lot of Verdi and I am familiar with how they play. So I know what to do, even if there are few rehearsals, which is typically the case when it isn’t a new production.

OW: Each theater has a different rehearsal period. How does that affect the way you plan a rehearsal?

KLW: It’s all about how well I know an orchestra. At the Bolshoi I know the orchestra so well that I can easily anticipate their needs and mine. With great orchestras like the Bolshoi and Munich, I concentrate on style and phrasing. It’s  how you use your body to communicate. If it’s a new production with much more rehearsal time, I can dig deeper. But you always have to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances to get the best results.

OW: What is your process of working with singers?

KLW: The first rehearsals with a singer are with piano in a room. Then, everything changes when the singers are on stage and are thinking about their stage directions. They are expected to do a hundred things at once, so I try to manage the musical process accordingly. After that first staging, I typically have a musical rehearsal and reshape things. I have to be patient and supportive. But as the rehearsals progress, I don’t want to compromise the integrity of the music, while also honoring the intentions of the production.

OW: When you have limited rehearsal time and you have never worked with an artist, what do you do?

KLW: Singers need support, both musically and psychically. When it is a new singer, I have to be more cautious initially in the rehearsal period, offering only gentle criticism and trying to make them feel comfortable. A good working relationship is about respect and collaboration. That is why I really enjoy working with a cast that I have worked with before. We’re much freer from the start.

OW: Is there anything you look forward to conducting in the future?

KLW: More Wagner! I want to do them all. I would like to do more Russian operas, including Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” and “Love of the Three Oranges.” And for symphonic works, the first piece I want to conduct when the pandemic is over is “Babi Yar.” It is so fantastic. It will lift your soul.


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