Q & A: Chicago Opera Theater Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya on Future Goals, Conducting and the Future of Opera

By Marjorie M. Rusche

Lidiya Yankovskaya, the new Music Director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT) is a musical unifier and explorer.  Her goals for the future at COT include presenting a variety of underrepresented repertoire, supporting and promoting the best of new operatic works being created in our current “golden age of American opera,” and bolstering COT’s current education and community engagement initiatives. Yankovskaya will regularly conduct for COT starting with the 2018-2019 season.

Yankovskaya, an immigrant from St. Petersburg, Russia, attributes her childhood as a major aspect of her artistic birth and growth. “I studied ballet from 3-5 years old, then benefited from the Russian Specialized Music Schools early musical training as a pianist, violinist, and singer,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “Culture was readily accessible in large cities in Russia and in St. Petersburg people would go to the opera like people in Chicago go to see the Cubs game.  My first opera memory is of Prokofiev’s ‘Love of Three Oranges.’” She then moved with her mother to upstate New York and attended a public high school with a great music program.  “My high school had 5 bands, 4 orchestras, and 7 choirs.”

While she has enjoyed a solid international career, her new position in Chicago further solidifies her ties to the US. Here is what she plans with the organization over her tenure and a look at her style and views on creating opera.

OperaWire: What are your current goals and dreams for your tenure as Music Director at the Chicago Opera Theater?

Lidiya Yankovskaya: An essential part of COT’s mission is to promote repertoire that we are unlikely to hear elsewhere in Chicago.  This mission allows for endless opportunities to create innovative, relevant work that speaks widely to our community.  There are so many areas in the repertory that have not been heard in Chicago—this includes the wealth of the Russian opera, Spanish-language operas, like the works of Daniel Catán, certain French repertoire, and so many fantastic contemporary works.  Right now, there are also so many exceptional composers writing opera in this country.  There is nothing more exciting than presenting work that is of our time and place and taking part in developing new work.

I also very much look forward to bringing some of the most exciting singers performing today to the COT stage.  Over the past decade, I’ve had an opportunity to collaborate with some exceptional vocal artists, and part of my job now will be traveling regularly and hearing new talent all over the country so I can be sure that our stage presents the best singing possible.

Lastly, I will be working with COT’s General Director Doug Clayton to ensure that the company receives recognition not only in Chicago but on a national and international stage.  COT is a leader in innovation and, I believe, represents the future of opera—wide breadth of repertoire, focus on work that is relevant to our time and place, and flexible performance styles and venues.  My hope is to ensure that our performances are always on the highest possible level nationally and internationally.

OW: The first opera in the COT’s season (starting November 4, 2017) is “The Consul” a Pulitzer Prize-winning Musical Drama in Three Acts with words and music by Gian-Carlo Menotti. The main character is Magda Sorel, a soprano desperately trying to get documentation to allow her family to leave an unspecified post-WWII Soviet bloc country. Do you feel it has a particular relevance for 2017?

LY: This opera has perhaps become more relevant today that it has been for many years.  Even when my family moved to this country, it took a three-year wait, countless visits to the consulate, and piles of paperwork to move here.  We had to have immediate family in the U.S., financial sponsorship, high level of education, and to pass various health screenings.  This was pre-9/11 and before the internet age.  I can’t imagine how difficult it is now, especially for those trying to flee the middle east.

OW: You have been involved in the development of new operatic works, what work are you most proud of in this respect? Will you be continuing this emphasis on creating new works and the COT? Do you think COT might consider a composer residency program?

LY: I have developed and/or premiered dozens of new operas; Some have ultimately been more successful than others, but each has been a tremendous learning experience.  Working with composers on developing new work gives one a totally different view of the canon; You start to recognize that Mozart and Verdi and Tchaikovsky also workshopped their pieces, responded to feedback, and dealt with practicalities.  When the composer of a work, alive or dead, becomes a real human being, you start to relate to the piece on a much deeper level.  I love working with composers and I hope to continue to do so regularly, both at COT and with other organizations.  I believe that we are currently in a golden age of American Opera, with countless successful new works produced each year and companies like American Lyric Theater, Opera Philadelphia, Juventas New Music and Beth Morrison Projects dedicating their resources specifically to training emerging composers in writing opera.  It is essential for COT to remain a part of this exciting movement, presenting the opera of and for today. A composer residency or similar program is definitely something of interest.  Meanwhile, we’re in talks about several possible world premiere opportunities in the near future.

OW: What elements do you think are essential and important in creating a successful contemporary opera? What process do you think works the best in the very complex task of creating a new opera?

LY: It is essential for the composer to have a deep understanding of drama.  An opera composer is, essentially, a stage director—providing both physical guidance and an emotional undercurrent to everything happening on stage.  Writing opera also requires a deep understanding of the voice and exceptional orchestration skills that allow for the voice to emerge and the dramatic impetus of the work to shine.

OW: Speaking more generally about conducting, what do you love most about your profession?

LY: I love the opportunity to work with so many phenomenally talented, inspiring people every day.  Not only the musicians in the pit, but—in opera—also the designers, composers, directors, production team, and those making it happen behind-the scenes.  It is very exciting to be in a position to bring people together musically into a unified whole—something much greater than any one of us alone. While on the podium, I also get to be in the best vantage point to see the process of all the elements coming together, and to see the final product when it all becomes one.

OW: What are some of the favorite operas you have conducted and why? What are some of the operas that you love but would rather not conduct and why?

LY: Whatever I’m conducting at the time tends to be my favorite thing.  However, some operas that I’ve done stick out—I love Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” and Verdi’s “Otello,” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” is a real masterpiece.  I cannot think of a work I wouldn’t want to conduct, but I suppose if there is an opera in a language I don’t speak, I probably would not work on it until I did some serious language study.

OW: How do you balance out the tug-of-war between the voices and the instrumentalists in the pit?

LY: I don’t think of it as a tug-of war, but rather a symbiotic relationship.  The orchestra and the singers are a unified whole.  One must hear text and vocal lines clearly over the orchestra, but neither should the orchestra become secondary.  With composers who are really exceptional orchestrators, Rimsky-Korsakov is one example, the conductor doesn’t have to spend much time worrying about balance if the music is shaped appropriately.  Under most circumstances, this is something on which one spends a great deal of time, especially since many opera theaters come with a variety of acoustical challenges.

OW: How do you prepare for your first rehearsal? How long is your rehearsal time for each opera?

LY: The preparation varies with each work, but with an opera, I generally start with the text and ensure I have a full understanding of the librettist’s intent.  I then spend a lot of time starting at the score, tearing it apart, and analyzing it, seeing how the music shapes the characters and the plot.  After I feel that I know the work well, I will sit down and sing/play through the whole thing, so I have a complete understanding of what the pianist is seeing in rehearsals and what challenges the singers might face.  The rehearsal period proper can vary dramatically, but at COT it’s generally about a month, most of which is focused on staging rehearsals. 

OW: How do you cope with nerves and pressure and obtain optimum performance from yourself and the performers you are conducting?

LY: I find that I never get nervous when I conduct—I believe it’s because conducting isn’t about one’s self, but rather about bringing others together.  Anxiety is generally related to our own sense of insecurity… but I don’t actually make a sound or create anything—my job is to help others do so. The first step to this is preparation—it is essential to put in the necessary time with the score so that I am confident in my knowledge of the work.  Once I’m in the rehearsal room, it becomes about the performers.  How can I effectively encourage those in front of me to be focused and calm and to give their best performance if I am worrying about myself?  When I get up on the podium, my focus is the music.  

OW: Let’s turn a bit to your formative years. As an immigrant, what was your strongest initial impression of America? How old were you when you came to America, and why did your family emigrate?

LY: My family came during the post-Soviet Reconstruction period in Russia and I was nine at the time.  The country had collapsed economically, politically and socially, and there was rampant anti-semitism.  We came here as refugees with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

OW: How did that early experience connect with your current Artistic Directorship of the Refugee Orchestra Project?

LY: I have been very surprised by hostility towards refugees that has arisen over the past couple of years.  Even among the liberally-minded, there is a mentality that places refugees as a very clear “other.”  I believe it’s important for us to realize that any of us could be refugees, and that displacement is not an effect of one culture or religion.  It’s easy to forget that nearly every American has an ancestor who came here as a refugee and that this country is built on the talents and labour of those who have sought refuge here.  Refugee Orchestra Project seeks to highlight specifically the musical contributions of refugees to our culture and society.  In addition to countless classical works, did you know that “God Bless America” was written by a refugee?

OW: You have been part of Marin Alsop’s Taki Concordia Fellowship and also the Dallas Opera’s inaugural Institute for Women Conductors. How have you dealt with the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated field?

LY: These two programs have been instrumental in helping talented conductors receive notice and professional opportunities.  The Dallas Opera just did a study on women in leadership positions in American Opera and I was saddened to see that I am currently the only female Music Director among all opera companies in this country among the top three budget levels; There is only one other woman with a named position in a multi-million dollar company (Nicole Paiement, Principal Guest Conductor at The Dallas Opera).  This is certainly problematic, especially since I have encountered so many talented female conductors who are working in other areas or with smaller organizations. I believe the challenge is mostly in getting an opportunity to step up to the podium in the first place, and these programs are starting to address the issue.  I find that once you’re on the podium, if you are prepared, know what you’re doing, and treat your colleagues with respect, what your gender is becomes unimportant.  Ultimately, everyone is there to make great music, and with professional musicians, that goal overshadows any other factors.

OW: What advice would you give for aspiring women conductors?

LY: The same advice I would give any conductor.  Hone your skills, be open to learning as much as you can from every experience, and focus on the music and the music-making, so that when an opportunity arises—you’re ready.

OW: How have previous experiences prepared you to be successful in this position? What have been some of your most growthful conducting situations?

LY: Immediately after college, I was lucky to land in graduate school in Boston, which has an exceptionally vibrant music scene, filled with music organizations of various sizes.  As soon as I started graduate school, I had an opportunity to take advantage and work with numerous opera companies, orchestras, and new music ensembles.  In the years after grad school, I was regularly conducting about ten full opera productions a year, in addition to various concerts.  I was also fortunate to receive the position of Music Director of Lowell House Opera at Harvard University.  Here, I had a chance not only to shape the organization and lead it from an administrative standpoint, but, more importantly, to conduct major, large-scale repertoire, including Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades,” Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Delibes’ “Lakmé” and more, in full production, with full orchestra, and with exceptional soloists.  The rehearsal time was often very limited. There is nothing that will teach you to conduct better than making performances of repertoire of this magnitude successful under limiting circumstances.

OW: What other musical activities will you be continuing with, withdrawing from, or initiating in addition to your new music director position at COT?

LY: I am withdrawing from some of my more regular positions on the east coast, such as my work with Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra and serving as Artistic Director of Juventas New Music.  However, I will continue to guest conduct regularly across the country and beyond. I have a residency at National Sawdust in New York City this season, I will still work with Juventas regularly as a conductor and in other capacities, work regularly in New York, and will have various operatic and symphonic guest conducting engagements.

OW: Finally, what do you think makes for a great opera experience?

LY: Singing and music-making that reaches the listener to their emotional core; music that is not only beautiful on the surface, but that makes one feel that which cannot easily be described in words or images.  And, a complete unity of the various art forms that make up opera—a merging of music, text, movement, visual art, and storytelling that transport us into a new world.  I believe that at its best, opera—in its fusion of all art into one—can achieve something of which no other art form alone is capable. 


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