James Conlon (March 18, 1950 - ) is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera and Principal Conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Torino, Italy, where he is the first American to hold the position in the orchestra’s 84-year history. He served as Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival for 37 years (1979–2016) holding one of the longest tenures of any director of an American classical music institution, and is now Conductor Laureate. Mr. Conlon has also served as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony (2006–15); Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera (1995–2004); General Music Director of the City of Cologne, Germany (1989–2002), where he was Music Director of both the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne and the Cologne Opera; and Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1983–91). He has conducted more than 270 performances at the Metropolitan Opera since his debut there in 1976. He has also conducted at Teatro alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Mariinsky Theatre, Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, Teatro del Opera di Roma, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. He is also known for his efforts in reviving music by composers suppressed during the Nazi regime.
Conlon grew up in a family of five children on Cherry Street in Douglaston, Queens, New York City. His mother, Angeline L. Conlon, was a freelance writer. His father was an assistant to the New York City Commissioner of Labor in the Robert F. Wagner administration. His siblings were not musically inclined, nor were his parents. When he was eleven, he went to a production of La Traviata by an amateur company founded by the mother of a friend (Edith Mugdan, the mother of the young Conlon's best friend, Walter Mugdan, and the founder of the North Shore Opera). He asked for music lessons and became a boy soprano in a children's chorus in an opera company in Queens. He dreamed about being a tenor, then a baritone, and even wanted to sing the role of Carmen at one point. Finally it dawned on him that the only way to do everything in opera was to become an operatic conductor.
He entered the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art at the age of fifteen and at eighteen he was accepted into the Aspen Music Festival and School conducting program, and in September, 1968 he entered The Juilliard School of music. In 1970, the Juilliard Orchestra took an educational tour to Europe and he was invited to Spoleto the next year as an assistant doing work as a répétiteur, coach and chorus conductor. During that time, he conducted one performance of Boris Godunov. He recalled that he had fallen in love with this opera at a young age, and had dreamed that it would be the first opera he would conduct.
In 1972, at a scheduled Juilliard production of La Bohème directed by Michael Cacoyannis, conductor Thomas Schippers suddenly pulled out. At the time, Maria Callas was doing a series of master classes at Juilliard and heard Conlon in rehearsal. She suggested to Juilliard's president, Peter Mennin, that Conlon should step in to conduct.
Conlon received the conducting award of the American National Orchestral Association and in 1974, and at the invitation of Pierre Boulez, became the youngest conductor engaged for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's subscription series. In 1976 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut, his British debut with the Scottish Opera, and in 1979 he debuted at Covent Garden.
In an effort to raise public consciousness to the significance of works of composers whose lives and compositions were affected by the Holocaust, Conlon has devoted himself to extensive programming of this music in North America and Europe. This includes the works of such composers as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Kurt Weill, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Erwin Schulhoff, and Ernst Krenek. In addition to Recovered Voices at LA Opera, as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, each summer Conlon presented a different composer from this group with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
-- Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
James Conlon at Lyric Opera of Chicago
1987-88 Forza del Destino - with Susan Dunn, Giacomini, Nucci, Kavrakos, Sharon Graham, Andreolli; Maestrini, Schuler (lighting)
1988-89 - Falstaff - with Wixell, Daniels, Corbelli, Walker, Horne, Swensen, Hadley; Ponnelle (original prod)/Calabria, Schuler
1989-90 - Don Carlo - with Rosenshein, TeKanawa, Troyoanos, Hynninen, Ramey; Frisell (dir), Quaranta (des), Schuler
1992-93 - Pelléas et Mélisande - with Esham/Stratas, Hadley, Braun, Kavrakos, Minton; Galati (dir), Israel (des), Schuler
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 26, 1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following July, and again in 1989, 1990, 1995 and 2000. This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.