Anne Manson







A Rising Star to Shine Briefly in New York


November 15, 2006

The American conductor Anne Manson has stacked up some significant achievements in the international opera world. In 1994 she became the first woman to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival. The occasion was a production of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” This breakthrough came three years before this obdurately all-male orchestra hired its first female player.

Ms. Manson had previously gained attention in England for founding and directing the Mecklenburgh Opera, a London-based company devoted to neglected 20th-century repertory, which thrived for eight years. She has conducted at the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels and the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.

By now, you might think, one or both of New York’s major opera companies would have sought her out. Guess again. It took the Juilliard School to give Ms. Manson her first notable opportunities in New York. In 2004 she led the Juilliard Orchestra in a scintillating account of Ives’s visionary Symphony No. 4. In February she conducted a demanding program of contemporary works at Juilliard’s Focus! festival.

And this evening Ms. Manson will be on the podium when the Juilliard Opera Center presents its production of Offenbach’s wickedly humorous operetta “Orphée aux Enfers” (“Orpheus in the Underworld”), a work that demands resourceful conducting technique and a sure grasp of style.

Is lingering sexism truly the reason for the continuing under-representation of female conductors at America’s major orchestras and opera companies?

“It’s so hard to answer this,” Ms. Manson, 45, said last week during an interview at Juilliard. The field does seem “a little stuck,” she said.

“When you are on the podium, being a woman is no problem at all, I’ve found,” she continued. “It’s more of a factor when you are considered for engagements. But it’s difficult to know why people hire you and why they don’t.”

Other than a four-year stint as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, she has worked mostly in Europe. Perhaps, Ms. Manson suggested, this has kept many American opera companies and orchestras from knowing the full range of her work.

She grew up in Cambridge, Mass., studied piano and viola, then enrolled at Harvard as a premed student. But music won out. She received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London, where she became interested in conducting.

“A tenor friend there asked me to conduct ‘Così Fan Tutte’ in a little courtyard in Bloomsbury,” she said. “We hired a semiprofessional orchestra. And that was it. I was off. It was a transformational experience.”

In 1988 she inaugurated the Mecklenburgh Opera with a production of a neglected work, “Der Kaiser von Atlantis,” by the German-Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. To raise funds for the production, she turned to prominent cultural figures in London who had roots in Eastern Europe: the conductor Georg Solti and the playwright Tom Stoppard. The success of this production earned the Mecklenburgh Opera regular support from the government arts council.

Her landmark appearance in Salzburg was made possible by the renowned conductor Claudio Abbado. Ms. Manson went to Vienna to observe Mr. Abbado in rehearsal at the State Opera. Just then the maestro’s assistant quit. Mr. Abbado invited Ms. Manson to be his new assistant, which involved helping him prepare performances at the opera house, including a production of “Boris Godunov.” When the Vienna Philharmonic performed this Mussorgsky opera at Salzburg, Mr. Abbado could not conduct one of the performances. At his suggestion, Ms. Manson was hired.

Her New York performances have shown the trim, energetic and efficient Ms. Manson to be an assured technician and insightful musician, an impression vividly confirmed during a rehearsal last week for “Orphée aux Enfers.” The session took place in a rehearsal studio crammed to the walls with orchestra players, choristers and a large roster of solo singers. There was no funny business in her conducting of this smart, elegant and frothy score. Everything was lithe, crisp and clear, and the young musicians, who looked very relaxed in their casual clothing, seemed to follow her easily.

Stopping them during a bustling ensemble, she asked the orchestra, “How quietly do you dare to play this?” Offenbach frequently writes pianissimo dynamic markings over intricately busy passages, she explained, adding, “It’s even funnier when it’s quiet.”

The operetta takes a satirical poke at the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, in particular at Gluck’s revered operatic version. Offenbach ends his comedy in Hades, where Orpheus, a self-absorbed violinist and composer in Thebes, has been compelled by the character of Miss Public Opinion, the guardian of virtue in the city, to reclaim his argumentative wife, who enjoyed a fatal fling with Pluto. All join at the end for an infernal can-can.

At the rehearsal Ms. Manson took the familiar dance at an excitingly brisk tempo. The playing was bright, buoyant and almost, though not quite yet, in perfect sync. “They will get it,” Ms. Manson said later, heaping praise on the skills of the Juilliard musicians.

Though Ms. Manson still works mostly in Europe, for three years she has been living in Washington with her husband, a lawyer, and their two young sons. She wants to continue with orchestral engagements but would love to have a music director’s job at an opera company “anywhere,” she said. Last year at the Washington National Opera she conducted the premiere of the composer Scott Wheeler’s opera “Democracy: An American Comedy” to considerable acclaim.

The orchestra in her new hometown, the National Symphony, has yet to call her. Ms. Manson has learned to be patient.

“Orphée aux Enfers” will be performed tonight, on Friday and on Sunday at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at the Juilliard School, 155 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center; (212) 769-7406.