5 Questions to Daniela Candillari (conductor)

Daniela Candillari is a conductor, composer, and pianist whose recent calendar is chock-full with opera appearances of the highest caliber. In March, she is conducted Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s An American Dream at Lyric Opera of Chicago. In May, she will conduct a new production of Rene Orth and Mark Campbell’s Empty the House with Opera Philadelphia. In the past year, Candillari conducted Ellen Reid’s p r i s m with LA Opera, the Asian premiere of Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone, and the world premiere of Dan Visconti’s PermaDeath. Candillari is a learned scholar in several spoken languages and many musical languages, so I wanted to delve into how her vast knowledge of these many types of communication inform each other in the choices she makes conducting and premiering new contemporary operas.

You wrote an incredibly moving essay for TED about the period of time when you and your husband were living on opposite sides of the world, and how “to help bridge the distance,” you created a book club just for the two of you. How has your consumption of novels informed your process of reading through opera scores?

Ever since I was child, I’ve been drawn to stories and have enjoyed going on incredible journeys with the characters. That fascination with the development of a story and its characters has always been present. Often when reading a novel, I actually “see” all of the actions being played out and hear the music that should be supporting the story.

Now when reading an opera score, I always start with the text, and I view the score as if it were a novel. For instance, while studying Gregory Spears’ Fellow Travelers or currently preparing Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon, there is an additional layer of information, given that these operas are based on novels. But the questions while studying any opera remain the same–what is the setting? How do we get from one point to the next? What are the relationships?

Additionally, in opera I think it’s important to ask: what are the connections between the emotions of a character? Are those emotions given to the orchestra? What role do specific instruments play in a given scene, or are they connected to just one character? Just as much as with reading a novel, I try to identify or somehow inhabit the characters in an opera and understand their psychology, which then informs the musical choices. Of course, with opera being such a collaborative discipline, the reading and my own interpretation can change once we start the conversation with the stage director and the singers in the ensemble.

Daniela Candillari--Photo by Damjan Švarc

Daniela Candillari–Photo by Damjan Švarc

Talk to us about your education in music as a child and how that lead to you choosing to become an opera conductor. Do you see many differences between the European music education system you grew up in and the American music education system that you’re now deeply involved in? 

My path to conducting was perhaps somewhat unpredictable, though looking back now, I can see the dots connect. I started playing piano when I was 5 years old. It was my first contact with music, and it started through my grandmother who was an opera singer. Before I started formal education in music, I knew for instance how to play “Habanera” from Carmen and would very often listen to tapes of operas and operettas and try to find the melodies on the piano. That early of an introduction to operatic repertoire turned out to be a foreshadowing of my career later on, even though I didn’t really know what my path was going to be. A few people that I worked with told me I should give conducting a chance and that’s when everything started making sense.

One of the things that I’m extremely grateful for was that, in addition to my early exposure to music, our schools were built in such a way that arts and sports were part of the daily activities. From my experience, I think those early years are incredibly important in starting to have conversations about music and making it an integral part of life. I think we live in a time when curiosity and the search for specificity is so strong, that it invites us to talk about music in terms that are much more direct. I believe the more specific we are about introducing a piece of music, the more real it gets and the better understanding we as a whole have of it.

You were the first musician from Slovenia to win a Fulbright Scholarship AND a TED Fellowship. What was one of the most influential or poignant moments from your time on your Fulbright? 

Both the Fulbright Scholarship and the TED Fellowship were really unique experiences. There are a number of moments from both that fed my own curiosity in ways I could not have predicted. The most illuminating aspect though of both was—and still is—having conversations with fellows from different disciplines, and realizing how much we actually have in common. For instance, I specifically remember conversations with two professionals from completely different fields. One was with a software developer where we were able to draw the parallels of the process of coding with that of composition, or for that matter any act of creating something new. The other one was with an eye surgeon, and the parallels between the performance of eye operations compared to a musical performance. I was so inspired by uncovering these connections, that it opened up a whole new set of questions for myself, specifically in how I approach my creative process.

Daniela Candillari--Photo by Dominic M. Mercer

Daniela Candillari–Photo by Dominic M. Mercer

You speak five languages fluently and are currently studying two more just for fun. Is there a difference between your favorite language to speak and your favorite language to conduct? 

Both of the countries I grew up in, Serbia and Slovenia, are quite small, and there was always an unspoken understanding that we had to learn one foreign language for the sheer practicality of being able to communicate with foreigners. Additionally, the interest for languages and different cultures was always present and supported by my family, so since early on, I was already invested in learning as many languages as I could. Later, I came to discover that our personalities somehow adapt based on the languages we speak, think in, and are surrounded by. This discovery happened while reading a novel in an original language and then a translation of it. I found it fascinating that the written word in a different language can trigger a different emotional reaction, let alone the impact that the spoken words have in our daily lives.

As often as I can, I try to find ways to integrate different languages. My favorite language to speak depends on the situation. In a purely musical setting, I believe that languages also dictate and inform the tempo of the music. If we were to put two pieces, notated in the same tempo, by the same composer side-by-side, with the only difference being the language of the piece, the actual tempo would slightly change. Working in different languages to me means getting a closer connection and exploration of the culture, of the composer’s background, and how that translates into our time. So in terms of having a preferred language to work in, those decisions are somehow made through the music, but it seems that English, Slavic, and French repertoire are more present than others.

A great deal of your professional life includes knowledge about music other than that of the contemporary classical music canon. You sang with a successful professional Slovenian funk band as a teenager, you have a M.M. in Jazz studies, and you have a Ph.D. in Musicology. In your work bringing contemporary classical operas to life, how often do you see non-classical music elements being used by composers? 

It’s really interesting to experience first-hand how all of these elements from the past connect in the present. In my work as a conductor, being involved with many contemporary operas, I would say the crossing of styles happens more often than I would have anticipated. During my education, I honestly could not have predicted that these two worlds (non-classical and other musical genres) would have connected as much as they do now. But when I look at the repertoire that has been in my life only in the last two years, it’s amazing to see different approaches and how composers include elements of rock, electronic, pop, jazz (specifically Bebop), and folk music into their musical language. For instance, there are three specific operas I’ve conducted this year (Ellen Reid’s Pulitzer Prize winning p r i s m, Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angel’s Bone, and the opera we’re currently rehearsing, Rene Orth’s Empty the House) which all have an incredibly beautiful way of incorporating electronics into the orchestral texture, and how the electronics represent a different world in each of these three pieces. Additionally, there is an aria in p r i s m that created this world of a Joni Mitchell song. In Empty the House one of the characters is supported by a dance beat in her arias, which in the context  informs us so much about her character.