Parlando: The COC Blog


Keri-Lynn Wilson: A Passion for Puccini

By Kristin McKinnon, Publicist and Publications Co-ordinator 

Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson has impressed audiences and critics alike with her nuanced and expressive performances while leading some of the most prestigious orchestras around the world. This spring she comes home to make her Canadian Opera Company debut conducting Puccini’s Tosca. With such success, it’s hard to believe that an international conducting career was not always part of her plans.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Wilson knew her future career would involve music. You could say it is in her blood. “I grew up in this very musical family,” she says. “My grandmother taught me piano and my father (conductor, educator and violinist Carlisle Wilson) taught me violin.” She was also an accomplished flautist, playing in the Winnipeg Youth Orchestra which her father conducted. “Playing in the orchestra was the most memorable part of my childhood. I lived for the weekly Saturday afternoon youth orchestra rehearsals.” These experiences sparked an early fascination with conducting. “I knew at some point that I wanted to conduct but I didn’t know how seriously I would actually pursue it,” says Wilson. “I would have never imagined that I would have ended up having the career I have.”

She went on to study at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, pursuing both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree in flute, with the intention of becoming a professional orchestral musician. But in her final year, she hit a crossroads. “I became bored with flute,” she recalls. “I was taking all sorts of other courses, like conducting courses and various opera courses… I wanted to broaden my horizons in every way.” It was after observing one of these conducting classes that she came to a sudden realization. “Somebody said to me, ‘Are you intending on taking the audition at Juilliard for conducting?’ And I said ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m just fascinated with watching the conducting.’ When I walked home that night through Central Park, I thought ‘Why don’t I take the conducting audition?’ So I made the overnight decision (to audition).” It was a choice that changed her life.

After undergoing a grueling audition process, where the inexperienced Wilson had less than six months to prepare challenging repertoire, including The Rite of Spring, for her colleagues in the Juilliard orchestra, she was accepted into the conducting program. She studied under German-American conductor Otto-Werner Mueller, who became a major formative influence. Like Wilson, Mueller’s early career started in Canada where he was a pianist, composer, arranger, and conductor for CBC. He then moved to the United States, joining the faculties of Juilliard, the Yale School of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music over the course of his career, and became one of the country’s most eminent educators and conductors. “He was from the German school and had a very thorough way of teaching orchestral repertoire,” says Wilson, and he had way with teaching young conductors.

Another important mentor was Claudio Abbado, one of the most celebrated conductors of the 20th century. During her time off from Juilliard, he allowed Ms. Wilson to watch his rehearsals with the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras and she even assisted him at the Salzburg Festival one summer. “He was a huge influence because he represented the spontaneous and fantastic, yet emotional, approach to conducting. The artistry of Claudio Abbado is an inspiration.” He contrasted with Mueller’s more analytical approach but their dual influence proved to be a “perfect complement” for Wilson as she embarked on her own professional career.

After graduating from Juilliard, Wilson spent four years at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Initially a purely symphonic conductor, she leapt at the chance to “enter the lion’s den” and conduct her first opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, in Verona. The resulting success opened doors to companies across Italy and she established herself as a specialist in Italian opera early in her career. These days, her repertoire has become more varied. She has a special passion for Russian music and a desire to conduct more Wagner, and she performs with symphonies and opera companies around the world, including recent appearances with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres, English National Opera and Bayerische Staatsoper. While she prefers to keep a “perfectly balanced season” of symphonic and operatic music, she enjoys the intellectual challenge of conducting opera. “Symphonic is pure music… however, opera is embracing of so much–the music, the story, the passion, the libretto, the history... I love that.”

The COC’s Tosca marks a return to Wilson’s conducting roots. It was the first Puccini opera she ever conducted and despite revisiting it many times since—including at the “magical” Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago where she received Puccini’s granddaughter’s seal of approval—it continues to captivate her. “It’s always fresh to come back to because I love it so much for its passion, its dramatic energy, its power, its beauty and its intensity.” Audiences around the world agree, with Tosca continuing to be one of the most performed works in the operatic canon since its premiere in 1900. “I’ve performed Puccini all over the world and it’s never any different – audiences just love Puccini,” says Ms. Wilson. “It connects immediately to your emotional being. It gives anyone shivers… It’s just so fantastic.”

Her passion and respect for the music comes through when she’s at the podium. “When I conduct Tosca, I feel it through my entire body. It’s so easy to communicate because I really feel it. It’s an incredible emotional journey.” She finds Act II particularly moving and a testament to Puccini’s perfection. “It’s the most thrilling to conduct because it feels like you’re becoming Scarpia or becoming Tosca. Right from the beginning, it is one big dramatic force of passionate beauty and intensity.”

Wilson has travelled the world as a sought-after maestra and has conducted Tosca numerous times, but with a fresh cast and production, the experience is always new. She’s particularly looking forward to the COC’s cast, most of whom she’s never worked with before. “It’s fantastic seeing how one Tosca is different from the next… It’s a journey, a discovery.” And returning to the country of her birth, where she maintains close ties and got her musical start, gives her COC debut added meaning. “When I’m in Europe, I proudly say I’m Canadian,” she says. “I’m really excited to come back.”

Keri-Lynn Wilson is generously sponsored by Robert Sherrin.

See Keri-Lynn Wilson conduct our production of Puccini's Tosca from April 30 to May 20, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Photo credits (top - bottom): Keri-Lynn Wilson, photos by Daria Stravs Tisu and E. Moreno Esquibel 

Posted by COC Staff / in Tosca / comments (0) / permalink

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001



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