On The Cusp
Interview with Chicago Opera Theater's Newly Named Music Director, Lidiya Yankovskaya 

By David Henley

From the Autumn 2017 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts 

She is the future of opera. In a centuries-old genre that has been craving fresh vision for the past 50 years, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya emerges as the real McCoy. Recently appointed music director for the daring Chicago Opera Theater (COT), Yankovskaya routinely marshals a bold imagination, a hearty love for the operatic medium and a healthy respect for compositional nuance, all to shed fresh light on classic operatic works and unveil new treasures, along with hidden works of great masters that have rarely seen the light of day. In doing so, she’s quickly risen the ranks of promising young conductors with a solid place in opera’s vanguard.

She helms the podiums of some of the most creative, burgeoning opera initiatives in the nation. Simultaneously serving as artistic director of Juventas New Music Ensemble; music director with Commonwealth Lyric Theater; director and founder of Refugee Orchestra Project—bringing together hundreds of performers who are refugees from countries around the globe; and managing a host of guest conductor roles in venues across the globe (including Wolftrap Opera, American Lyric Theater, Stamford Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra), Yankovskaya is not just at the forefront of opera’s future, she is poised to shape it.

As music director for Chicago Opera Theater, she’ll do just that, working in tandem with General Director Designate Douglas Clayton to lead COT’s artistic vision. And taking the podium with the launch of the 2018-2019 season, Chicagoans will get to see her in action.

I had an opportunity to talk with Yankovskaya upon the announcement of her new appointment. Something tells me her well-rounded vision for opera, healthy bent for collaboration and laser-like focus will mean great things for Chicago Opera Theater and the city’s avid opera audiences.

Q: What first inspired you to pursue a career in conducting as a young musician?

A: I was a precocious musician as a child—as a pianist, singer and violinist. By the time I was in high school, I was regularly leading string sectionals, accompanying various choruses, and leading rehearsals from the piano. My high school orchestra conductor once asked me to lead a rehearsal in his stead, and realizing that this came naturally to me, asked me if I wanted to conduct a piece at the next concert. At that point, I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I started learning more about orchestration and taking lessons with the various conductors in my life and, at age 17, conducted the third movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in performance. The opportunity to bring my peers together to create this beautiful music was exhilarating—I was hooked!

Although I fell in love with conducting then, it didn’t really occur to me as a viable career choice. Solo piano seemed to be the logical path, but I found that I was also very interested in pursuing a liberal arts education. In college, I studied music (piano, voice and musicology were my foci), but also philosophy and languages, and I soon found that conducting created the perfect opportunity to combine my various interests.

Q: As a young musician, there must have been some conductors that inspired you the most. Who were you biggest inspirations in the field and what was it about their work that resonated with your own growing musical aesthetic?

A: As soon as I graduated college, I joined the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (the chorus of The Boston Symphony), where I had a rare opportunity to sing under the batons of some of the greatest conductors of our time. Each had their own strengths and each had something different to offer—I learned so much from observing how each channeled his own personality and aesthetic into his work. Levine’s fluid flexibility and knowledge of when to let the orchestra go, Ozawa’s crystal clear technique, Haitink’s magic in producing the most polished sound, Frübeck de Burgos’s energy and wit, and so many others—all so different from one another—had a great influence. I also had the privilege of working with some incredible mentors, including Lorin Maazel, whom I assisted at his Castleton Festival in the few months before his death. Maazel had a great mind and his intellectual approach forced one to look more deeply into the music.

More recently, as part of a mentorship program with Marin Alsop, I have had an opportunity to learn from this incredible trail-blazer, whose strength and resilience are an inspiration. Although I’ve learned a lot from watching these world-renowned conductors, some of my early teachers and mentors also taught me incredibly valuable lessons about leadership, conducting, and music in general. Many of my cohort and colleagues in the field continue to do so every single day. In music, one never stops learning.

Q: What is it about opera and operatic repertoire that has drawn you so much as a conductor?

A: I love the inherent collaboration in opera. In opera, I am able to work with some inspiring artists—not only musicians, but also stage directors, designers, dancers, and on and on. I get to make great music with orchestras, but also work with singers. The music is always varied, dramatic, colorful. Additionally, I have an opportunity to use my knowledge of various languages, my interests in history and sociology and philosophy and art. It is beautiful to also be able to regularly step away from the kaleidoscopic chaos of opera and focus on polishing a purely symphonic work, but I believe that the collaborative process of opera is what truly fuels the musical artform. Music, like any art, is a reflection of the world around us; opera brings these connections to light.

Q: Your propensity for bringing finer nuance out of an orchestra section is well known. How much do you work to enhance instrumentalists' awareness of that delicate nuance within the scores you work with?

A: There are so many elements to any given piece of music. As an instrumentalist in the orchestra, it is often easy to focus on the technicalities of one’s own part and to lose track of the whole—what the audience member is actually hearing. I believe that a large part of my work is to connect musicians to one another and to get individual players to really hear the whole and be aware of one another. It is when each member of the orchestra thinks about the sum of the individual parts that great music is made. With your affinity for new works, it's clear to see where your focus coincides with Chicago Opera Theater's (COT).

Q: Does your experience as an instrumentalist help you relate in this respect, and therefore, connect with the instrumentalists you work with?

A: Absolutely. The years of experience I had playing and singing under different conductors was absolutely essential. Now, I still try to regularly find opportunities to play or accompany for another conductor’s rehearsals or do something to put myself back into the performer’s shoes—I believe this is very important. Although I never pursued this as a career, I also did some operatic singing when I was a student and early in my career, and in the last few years, I’ve twice unexpectedly jumped in to sing roles. In both situations, a singer was unable to perform at the last minute and I was the only one who knew the roles —once as an assistant conductor, and another time on a piano recital version of a new work that I had previously conducted. This was a great reminder of what it’s like on the other side—when you’re on the podium, it’s easy to forget the enormous difficulty of a singer’s work. Without a score, a singer must perform music beautifully, all while often very actively moving about a stage, following a conductor, representing the character, understanding and pronouncing whatever language impeccably, and meanwhile dealing with the issues that come with having one’s body as the instrument (whereby temperature shifts, fatigue, mood, dust, what one ate for lunch, etc. all play a role). Performing as a violinist and pianist and singing in choruses my entire life were all very important, but I am most thankful for having had an opportunity to stand in the shoes of an opera singer. It’s one of the most multifaceted careers in music and I believe that having this experience has given me a much better sense of how I can help a singer perform his or her very best.

Q: How do you see that manifesting in future seasons as you work with COT's General Director Designate, Douglas Clayton to program bold new repertoire?

A: There is such a breadth of new operatic repertoire being created today, in particular in this country. I believe that we are truly living in a golden age of American opera, and we are still just on the cusp—amazing training and development programs around the country are producing some spectacular work. As we finalize details for upcoming seasons, Doug and I are looking at a number of works, some composed within the last 5 years. We are also exploring the possibility of commissioning some world premieres and having more formal associations with specific composers in upcoming seasons.

​Q: Are there any living composers whose works you would love to see programmed in future seasons?

A: There are so many wonderful composers living today, so it’s difficult to pick out just a few. I would certainly say that our city has missed out on hearing Jake Heggie’s impressive oeuvre of work. There are also some young composers like Missy Mazzoli, David T. Little, Paola Prestini, and many others writing really exciting operatic music, along with several exciting Chicago-based composers (I’m currently working on a new piece by Dan Visconti). Of course, when it comes to programming a season, there are many artistic and practical considerations, so I’m thrilled that we have so many fantastic living composers to choose from!

​Q: You already work regularly with many of today's young emerging opera singers. Is the opportunity to work even more closely with these up-and-coming young artists (as well as some of the luminary artists that are often slated for COT productions) one of the draws that attracted you to the post of Music Director at Chicago Opera Theater?

A: Absolutely. The vocal training in our country today is at an exceptionally high level, and there is a plethora of young singers who are just starting out on their paths to stardom. I’m currently working at Wolftrap Opera, which focuses on exceptional young singers at the cusps of their careers, and even in this one Wolftrap production, the wealth of talent is immense. COT’s repertoire focus, role, and size allows for a great deal of flexibility in both programming and casting. While larger houses sometimes will not be able to even consider singers who don’t meet certain resume markers, we can have the flexibility of hiring the best singers, regardless of other factors—both the best-known veterans in the field and the most promising young talent.

Q: That flexibility adds a kind of vibrancy to Chicago Opera Theater's performances, doesn't it...in that audiences have an opportunity to see some of tomorrow's opera luminaries today working among seasoned professionals, growing, in a sense before our eyes?

: Singing is an athletic activity, and so the peak of many singers’ careers—the period of time during which they are at their absolute best—is generally shorter than in many other fields. Depending on the voice type, many singers don’t develop fully as vocalists until they are at least 25-30 and most retire quite early. Unlike athletes, singers cannot just win a race and immediately gain recognition—careers take a long time to nurture and develop. This means that for any great singer, it is often precisely at the point when they begin to be noticed by companies the size of COT (and start really building their careers) that they are at their peak performance. Additionally, the biggest opera houses often book as much as 5 years out—in five years, a performer’s voice can change dramatically, and a role that had been perfect for them may no longer quite fit. At COT, we and our audience have an opportunity to catch some of today’s best singers at the very top of their game—that is very exciting indeed.

Q: You stay incredibly busy. How do you manage balance when it comes to juggling so many responsibilities in your work?

A: I love my job. Every day, I get to create great art with great people who inspire me. This love for my work gives me an endless flow of energy and enthusiasm for every task I undertake. On a more practical note, I am extremely organized and efficient in my work, and make sure to balance my various work commitments very carefully.

Q: That said, there have got to be some things on your "dream" to-do list you'd love to get to. Care to name a couple of things that would engage your passions away from the podium?

A: There are so many!! I love languages, but due to the essential linguistic needs in my work, have had to focus mainly on learning and maintaining the various languages used in traditional opera. Last year, I studied Japanese for about a month in preparation for a trip, and absolutely fell in love with the language and culture; at some point, I hope to have time to really dig into this language! I also love to travel. I’ve been fortunate to see much of the world, but I’d like to see more that is removed from the major centers that have operas and orchestras—I want to experience more of the incredible natural beauty throughout our planet. And then, MIT recently started putting all of their lectures online—I would love to watch all of their physics lectures—it’s such an endlessly fascinating field. I’m a decent sailor, but have never done a long-distance oceanic voyage. As a kid, I used to paint very seriously—if only I had time for that. There are also so many great books out there… and still so much great music to perform! On a musical note, I wish I had more time to play solo piano, and my current list of conducting ambitions includes conducting many of Wagner’s operas in full. Should I go on?

Q: Chicago Opera Theater has a decided bent for staging bold and daring productions. You know a thing or two about daring productions. Tell me about your work with Juventas New Music, where productions have included puppeteers, circus performers and even robots.

A: Juventas New Music is a Boston-based organization focused on developing and presenting work by emerging composers at the cusp of their careers. One of the ways we have maintained an enthusiastic audience base who are open to the great range of musical styles coming out from the next generation of composers is by focusing on collaborative projects that cross artistic boundaries. In addition to an annual opera production, we have collaborated with a wide range of artists, performers, activists, and technologies. We often have composers working together with someone from another field (a circus performer, a robotics engineer, a performance artist, etc.) to create new work. In my experience, this kind of collaboration generates brand new musical ideas that otherwise may not have emerged. One of my favorite recent projects was a collaboration between a percussionist and a juggler, who used percussive juggling equipment and rhythmic movement to create a very exciting new piece.

Q: Tell me about the Refugee Orchestra Project. How did the initiative come about?

A: I came to this country with my family as a refugee from Russia and would not have the life and opportunities I’ve had without the support of this nation and the people in it. In the current political climate, many have expressed fears of immigration. I believe that often, we forget just how much of our country was built by refugees of one form and another, and just how many refugees or descendants of refugees are among us. The Refugee Orchestra Project showcases the contribution of refugees to our culture and society by featuring refugee performers and composers. It’s easy to forget that “God Bless America” was written by a refugee, and that many great composers throughout history have had to flee their homelands for various reasons. This season, this topic will be featured in COT’s production of Menotti’s The Consul, directed by outgoing General Director Andreas Mitisek.

Q: What interests do you indulge most away from the podium?

A: I love to be active and to be outdoors. I really enjoy hiking, skiing, and biking, and I love the water. I’m especially excited to be moving so close to a giant lake, where I can partake in the many water sports that I enjoy—waterskiing, boating, sailing, kayaking, swimming… I also really love to read—all kinds of things, but generally classic fiction, or whatever article in The New Yorker strikes my eye.

Q: In your first visits to Chicago, what has been your favorite part of the city, thus far?

A: I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the city, and am so thrilled to be in Chicago regularly throughout the year and then to move here by fall 2018. Chicago is such a vibrant, diverse, energized city, full of really exciting art-making. The museums are fabulous, the architecture is beautiful, and as I mentioned earlier, I love the lake. I’ll be coming to Chicago in less than a week and am already counting down the days!

After an extensive global search, acclaimed conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya has emerged as the new music director for Chicago's forward-thinking Chicago Opera Theater (photo courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater).