July 2012

Arts & Letters

Superconductor

By Peter Conrad
Simone Young in 2005. © Klaus Lefebvre
Simone Young

“Eine Power-Person”: that’s how the Australian composer Brett Dean describes Simone Young. She proved him right by commissioning his opera Bliss in 2001, when she was the music director of Opera Australia; then in 2010 she exercised her combined powers as artistic director of the Hamburg State Opera and principal conductor of the Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra to bring the Australian production to Germany. Whether or not Dean spoke in pidgin Deutsch when he made the remark to Young’s German biographer Ralf Pleger, his phrase sounds threateningly Teutonic, with its gruff indefinite article and its coupled, capitalised nouns. Conducting is about remote control, transmitting power through gestures and glances. The baton that Young wields could be the kind of accessory that field marshals used to brandish, and when she straightens her back for a downbeat you can imagine a pair of high heels clicking together in a salute.

Young is famous for the vertiginous footwear in which she ascends the podium. After Opera Australia – unwilling to pay for her ambitious plans – declined to renew her contract in 2003, the grassroots campaign to keep her relied on a placard with an image of those discarded stilettos. “No one else can fill her shoes” was all it needed to say. But when I met Young in Hamburg to discuss her August visit to Brisbane with her opera troupe and the city’s symphony orchestra, she didn’t teeter in mid-air on her customary spikes. Between a morning of rehearsals and an afternoon of administrative chores, she was relaxing in sandals; instead of the filmy black lace she wears when performing, she looked happily casual in a white smock, as if managing an opera house were like running a suburban household with a nuclear family to nurture, rather than 700 singers, musicians, technicians and bureaucrats to rally and inspire. 

The power, however, was merely in abeyance, as I discovered when I dropped my pen on the floor of Young’s enormous office. Clutching its cap, I scrambled on my knees to retrieve the rest of it from under a table. “Are you right?” she asked as I groped between her feet. “Ah, I see, it’s a Mont Blanc. Smart of you to bring that – Hamburg’s their headquarters, you know.” By the time I struggled back to my seat, she had rummaged in her desk and was holding up her own Mont Blanc fountain pen. “Look what they gave me when I took over here in 2005. It’s the Karajan Edition, shaped like a baton, with a keyboard round the bottom of the cap.” My puny rollerball seemed to shrivel in my hand, and I decided against a duel. Young – who is sporty, addicted to cricket, and keenly competitive – guffawed in triumph.

She then explained how she got from Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in Sydney to Hamburg, where she is cherished as the city’s muse. “What happened,” she said, chuckling in amusement and amazement, “is that a series of great music teachers challenged me and pushed me – and they sort of created a monster.” I’ve met a few operatic monsters, some sacred and others merely profane. Fanatical conceit is part of what it takes to stand up in front of two thousand strangers and play an instrument that consists of two frail bits of gristle in the throat; conductors, accustomed to giving orders, are also natural autocrats. Young, convivial and unpresumptuous, has none of the usual character defects, so I asked her what she meant. “Well, they turned what could have been a nice hobby or an amusement into a passion, an obsession.” Her eyes flashed: here was the Young you can see – moodily sublime, stirring up an invisible maelstrom in the air with her fingers – in Bill Henson’s photographic triptych, commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 2002.

Passion and obsession are qualities not often celebrated in laid-back Australia, and music literally dislocated the adolescent Young, ejecting her into a different mental space and suspending time. One night in her student days at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music she didn’t make it home to Manly. As the hours passed, her parents became frantic, and her father went to the police station to report her missing. Simone had gone to a friend’s house after a recital and noticed a copy of Georg Solti’s recording of Götterdämmerung, the last instalment of Wagner’s Ring cycle. (She will conduct a concert version of Das Rheingold, the cycle’s prologue, with her Hamburg company during the Brisbane visit.) The music was unknown to her: how could she resist the keening rages of Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde, or the molten fury of the Vienna Philharmonic as it brought the world to an end? After five hours spent listening to the entire opera, she got home, still inflamed, just before dawn, to find her parents distraught. “Ever since,” she said, “I’ve associated Wagner’s Ring with chaos and turmoil!”

“Maybe Australia is a bit too quiet and comfortable. In 1996 when I conducted Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten – another cataclysmic work – my European agent, Michael Lewin, travelled out to see it in Melbourne. I took him on a trip to the Healesville Sanctuary, and I remember him watching a koala very lazily chewing on a eucalyptus leaf. Eventually, he said, ‘Ah, I get it. Now I understand Australia!’ I find my biorhythms altering when I’m back: nothing seems urgent, the sun’s always shining. In a way I’m grateful for the appalling climate we have here in Hamburg. It makes you try harder, makes you more creative.”

Is it monstrous to prefer culture to nature, to opt for the agony and ecstasy dispensed by German romantic music rather than the drawling otium of Australian life? Not necessarily; Young’s steely edge only emerged when, at the age of 26, two years after her first conducting gig in Sydney, she moved to Europe, where she took up a post as assistant to James Conlon, the American conductor who then ran the Cologne Opera. As a newcomer, she survived and prevailed thanks to a fortitude of will that Nietzsche would have admired.

“I had several strikes against me in Cologne. I was the youngest person on the music staff, I was a woman, and pregnant too. Plus, I was Australian. But I was determined not to let any of that hamper me. I knew the music well enough; what I focused on was learning to speak German really well. It helped that my husband Greg Condon is a language teacher. Anyway, now I speak it fluently, and without any accent.” I could see her retrospectively enjoying her victory over those who had underestimated her. “My written German isn’t quite so perfect,” she conceded. “I don’t have the time to sit down and get that right.” Then she shrugged off this self-deprecation by saying “Who cares? I have a secretary to do my writing for me!” and roared with justified delight.

She needed to be tough, since her progress depended on outfacing an entrenched misogyny. Like all careerists, Young is an instinctive Darwinian, transforming obstacles into challenges to be overcome. When Lewin tried to secure her an engagement at the Vienna Opera, the company’s boss, Ioan Holender, scoffed: “A female conductor? She’d need to be twice as good as a man.” “She’s three times as good,” replied Lewin. At the time, music in central Europe was a male dominion. Herbert von Karajan fell out with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1983 when he tried to force the clarinettist Sabine Meyer onto the ensemble; the Vienna Philharmonic, even more stubbornly bigoted, admitted no female members until 1997. Young had snarling disputes with recalcitrant players during her first season assisting Daniel Barenboim at Bayreuth. In Italy she was asked if a female conductor needed a special baton. “Oh yes,” she simpered, “with a pink ribbon tied round it.” Back in Australia for an engagement with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1995, she overheard a Russian violinist remark to a compatriot in an adjacent chair, “A woman should stay in the kitchen and cook, not stand up there pretending to conduct.” Young, by now multilingual, replied in Russian: “As a matter of fact I do know how to cook. But now we are going to rehearse.”

The baton, like the tongue, is a weapon, and she jokingly attributes some of her skill with it to the fencing lessons she received from a former Hollywood fight director when she was rehearsing Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in Sydney. Her body language in the pit is bouncy and nonbelligerent, but she can also use her stick like a rapier, with sudden stabbing attacks.

Soon enough, no one had the gumption to patronise her. Even Opera Australia didn’t dare risk a showdown: its board shiftily waited until she had flown from Sydney to Los Angeles before it announced the end of their association. Absolute power, when she attained it in Hamburg soon after the Australian disappointment, enabled her to let down her guard, and she now behaves more like a mother hen than a bossy cock of the walk. I watched her bustling about in the orchestra pit before a performance of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos; ignoring the audience, she adjusted her chair and matily gossiped with the musicians while they tuned up. When we spoke the next day, she called Nicholas Carter, a young Australian whom she has hired as assistant conductor, “a very talented lad”, and she could indeed be his mother as well as his mentor. She likewise referred to the baritone who sang Harlequin in Ariadne as “just a baby – I took him over from the Opera Studio in Berlin”. The brilliant Korean soprano Hayoung Lee, scooped up by Young after a master class in London, has become “a close personal friend”; in Brisbane, Lee is cast as the water nymph Woglinde in Rheingold and will also sing the soprano soloist’s blissful summons to resurrection in the Hamburg Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony.

Young’s contentment in Hamburg derives from a sense of spiritual repatriation. Ethnic ties also matter. Her mother – christened Simica – is Croatian, and when Young conducted in Dubrovnik in 2000 she felt she was encountering long-lost relatives in the streets. “I look like a typical Dalmatian. The Germans think I’m a bit exotic, people sometimes guess that I might be Iranian or Israeli.” Physically, she belongs to the eastern Mediterranean; her soul, however, has its roots in Germany. “When I grouse about the weather here, I remember how many deep thinkers and great artists have come out of this part of Europe – and out of Scandinavia, where it’s even gloomier!” Deep thinking is all very well, but how, I wondered, does Young find life in a country with such a solemn populace? Without missing a beat, she answered, “It’s really difficult!” She then whooped with laughter, as if unsure when she next might have a chance to do so. “It’s true, when I’m in Australia I can allow my sense of irony to come to the fore.”

Two days before we met, a wet, bone-chilling winter had suddenly turned to torrid spring. “I was backstage last night with Nick Carter and we were talking about this lovely weather, saying it’s what we miss about Australia and so on. One of the singers overheard us and asked, ‘Why are you over here then?’ And Nick said, ‘Because in three days you can record a Bruckner symphony, perform Ariadne, and rehearse Tristan und Isolde’ – which is our work so far this week. Then if that’s not enough you can get a train to Kiel or Bremen or Hannover, where the scene is equally lively, or to Berlin with its three opera companies. There’s a bizarre depth and variety to the society and the culture, whereas Australia has just those five cities, scattered across a continent the size of Europe. And everything is so centralised there, like it is in the UK: Germany doesn’t have a centre and doesn’t want one, which is how a place like Hamburg can be on the fringes but not provincial. It’s a mercantile city that used to be run by its guilds; the opera company was founded in 1678 by the citizens, not by some prince or grand duke who wanted it as a court amenity.”

These days there are limits to the munificence of the Hanseatic city’s moneyed burghers. In the harbour, idle cranes encircle the Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who have propped a lofty galleon with sails of rippling glass on top of a sturdy brick warehouse. The hope was that the building, like the Sydney Opera House, would relaunch a city better known for drab commerce or – since it is a busy port, with sailors in need of relief on shore – for the sleazy bars of the Reeperbahn. But the project is catastrophically behind schedule and over budget, and work at the site has halted. Nevertheless, culture remains a civic obligation. Young underlined the contrast with Australia. “During the last 15 years, classical music there has wandered towards the luxury end of the entertainment industry: it’s expensive, and that means it’s expendable. I read with horror the stories of what the budget cuts at ANU are doing to the Canberra School of Music.”

Although she and Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia’s current artistic director, have had what she calls “positive, collegial discussions” about a return to conduct at the company, her professional life will always be in the northern hemisphere. She is due to leave Hamburg in 2015, in order to shed executive duties and concentrate on music; her current plan is to live in Paris for a while, then perhaps move to the lower Cotswolds, outside Oxford. But Australia retains its magnetic tug. Young’s private landscape does not consist entirely of the jagged alpine peaks and shadowy abysses evoked by Bruckner and Strauss.

“My husband was born in Condobolin – Condo for short – in the exact centre of New South Wales, where you have to take a packed lunch if you want to cross the main street, and when I was a kid my father used to teach in single-teacher schools in the far west of the state. So Greg and I share this deep-seated love of archetypal rural Australia. My earliest family holidays involved being packed into a Ford Falcon, which was always boiling over, and setting off down unmapped dirt tracks. Even now my two daughters love careening round the backblocks in a ute on their uncle’s property near Mogo – though their cousins call them ‘princesses’ because their accents are a bit foreign and fancy. We worked hard to maintain the connection, because we didn’t want the girls to be stateless. Yvann, the elder one, was born in Cologne, and we indoctrinated her by watching The Flying Doctors on Dutch TV, baking Anzac biscuits, and using lots of Aussie slang that was probably completely out of date. Every night we used to count the stars in the Southern Cross on a paper flag we had pinned on the back of our front door: we always referred to the Union Jack as ‘that fuzzy red bit in the corner’. Yvann’s now married to a Scot whom she met while she was studying at Oxford: a good thing the Scots don’t play cricket, so we won’t have problems about who to barrack for! She and Lucie have British passports and haven’t ever lived anywhere except Europe. Even so, both say they’re Australian first and foremost.”

But how easy is it for the music in which Young specialises to bestraddle the hemispheres? What becomes of the religiosity of Wagner and Mahler – stretched between salvation and perdition – when their work is performed in pagan, happy-go-lucky Australia? Wagner in particular is incriminated by a history that Germany has not yet lived down: behind the opera house I noticed a curiosity shop with Third Reich memorabilia in its window, and in a nearby park a military memorial dating from 1938 has a frieze of iron-helmeted troops trudging towards extinction behind an inscription insisting that the fatherland must live. “There are certain pieces of music,” said Young, “that you still can’t play in Germany – one of Liszt’s Preludes, for instance, which the Nazis used to introduce broadcasts about military victories. We’re doing Wagner’s Rienzi in concert next year: we really can’t stage it, because it was Hitler’s favourite opera, a source for the Führer cult. I chose Claus Guth to direct our Ring, which he doesn’t treat as a tribal epic; for him it’s a story about a dysfunctional family. After all, the operas did exist before fascism.

“Yes,” she concluded, “these scores are uplifting, but they can also drag you down. I’ve often conducted Strauss’s Elektra: it ends in C major, after an hour and a half of matricide and incest and assorted perversities. That key usually leaves me feeling overjoyed, but with Elektra something nasty lingers, that has to be washed away with copious quantities of very good red wine. And when I’m rehearsing Tristan, I have the weirdest dreams! The waves of sound in Wagner can drown you, and there are certain chord clusters and key changes —” Instead of completing the sentence, she clutched her stomach with one hand and clasped her forehead with the other.

In Brisbane she will be taking the residents of the Sunshine State on a tour of the dark side. Das Rheingold starts on a riverbed and later delves into sulphurous clefts where dwarves grub wealth from the earth, and Mahler’s Second Symphony begins with a thundery funeral march; luckily the opera ends with a sky-high apotheosis, and in the symphony a massed chorus finally exults in its own resurrection. Young, in charge of making her audiences imagine all this, is returning home on a metaphysical mission. For a week in August, thanks to Wagner’s volcanic noise and Mahler’s wrenching chromaticism, a part of Australia will no longer be so quiet and comfortable.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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