Easy to Swallow

It’s always interesting to hear what operagoers say during intermission. “That’s not the Puccini I know and love,” said one woman Saturday night at the opening of LA Opera’s “La Rondine” [The Swallow].

Oddly enough, that’s precisely the Puccini I know and love, having discovered the underappreciated work after hearing the famous “Doretta” aria in the film “A Room with a View.”

For some 13 years I’ve enjoyed the recording of Lorin Maazel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra with Kiri Te Kanawa and Placido Domingo — to the point that I have every note of the work memorized (at least for the first two acts).

With so long a build up to seeing my first staged version — and with such a high bar set — disappointment was inevitable. Still, “La Rondine” proved a delight, at least for those like me with an unapologetic taste for light melodies in a Belle Epoque setting.

In advance of the opening, FineArtsLA spoke with Keri-Lynn Wilson, who makes her LA Opera debut conducting this seldom performed work.

FALA: Why is “La Rondine” a neglected work in Puccini’s oeuvre?

KLW: Even non-operagoers know “Boheme,” “Butterfly” and “Tosca.” These are the big works that really represent what he was so good at: the incredibly powerful emotional ride one goes on with his music. With “Rondine” he took a side step. He was commissioned to write an operetta by Vienna. It was something he’d never done before, and in a way he struggled with it. He’d written some comic dialog but, ultimately, he couldn’t help himself and added this really dramatic, tragic element. But the charm and elegance throughout is really very special. Today we’re trying to find as much repertoire as possible that’s been neglected over the decades, because it’s more interesting for performers and the audience. But it also has to be worthy of performance, and I think “Rondine” is having its chance now.

It’s difficult in that it’s very light, and so it has to be well done. It’s a challenge for me as a conductor because of the comedy, but also in making the drama felt.

FALA: What are the other challenges with this particular work?

KLW: Keeping it light, keeping the waltzes flowing, and keeping it always elegant, so it never becomes vulgar. It’s like a musical, in that it’s too easy just to play. But it has to be done with elegance, and that was the biggest challenge.

FALA: You’re a female conductor, which is quite rare. Why do you suppose that’s so?

KLW: I’m always asked this question, of course, and it’s always an issue for the media. But it’s not for the musicians after a few minutes of music making. But I’ve had really wonderful experiences with orchestras you wouldn’t think would be so open to my being a woman, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the last orchestra in the world to only have men in it. Conducting is one of the last frontiers for women. But we’re more fortunate in the arts [than in the corporate world], because it’s about the art.

I went to Juilliard thinking I would be an orchestral musician, playing the flute. But upon graduating I changed to conducting and never touched the flute again.


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