Back in February, the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announced the appointment of their first-ever principal conductor, Daniela Candillari. In her new role, Candillari will conduct one festival production each year, in addition to the annual Center Stage event featuring the company’s Gerdine Young Artists and Richard Gaddes Festival Artists. This season, she opens the OTSL festival season with Carmen, the opera classic that began her long journey with music. We sat down with the rising star as rehearsals were underway to discuss Carmen, the upcoming season, and her time in St. Louis.
Tell us a bit about where you’re coming to us from.
It was a long, long, long story. I was born in Serbia, and my mom moved to Slovenia when I was a kid. I went with her, and those were also my first musical beginnings. I started playing piano when I was 5 through my grandmother, who was an opera singer. And funny enough, the first piece that I learned how to play was “Habanera” from Carmen, which is the first opera I’m conducting in St. Louis this season. Last year, I did the three world premieres, but this season, it feels like I’m coming full circle in my life somehow. From Slovenia, I went to Austria, and I started university when I was 15. I started out as a concert pianist…but very early on, I discovered chamber music and just completely fell in love with it. It was really that collaboration and making music with people in the room that I discovered that I really enjoyed a lot. Through that, I started working with singers a lot as a vocal coach. I came to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship to Indiana University, and after my Fulbright finished, I got my second masters in jazz piano of all things. Through that, I then started working as a vocal coach and assistant conductor in opera. And then, again, long story longer, after my time at IU came to an end, I went back to Slovenia, and I was working there initially as a vocal coach and then chorus master/assistant conductor. Then I moved to New York in 2012, where I’ve been since.
And this isn’t your first time working with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. What drew you to the company?
Last year I was here for the first time when we did the New Works, Bold Voices program, so that was the first interaction. But since I studied at IU and [Bloomington] is another great city in the Midwest, a lot of my colleagues, a lot of singers and pianists that I was working with, would come to St. Louis. And they just always had an amazing time at the Opera Theatre here as young artists. So I always knew about the tradition of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, their investment in creating new works and investment in nurturing young artists and young singers. So I always thought that was that sort of brilliant combination of creating and also looking forward into the future, and nurturing operatic voices, nurturing young pianists, composers, librettists…and really being active and bringing all of the contemporary voices into music and onto the stage. That was a massive draw. And then last year, when I got invited to come here for the first time, I thought that was just sort of the greatest thing that could have happened to any human being.
The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis seems especially dedicated to cultivating a future for opera, as opposed to just performing the canon.
Exactly. I mean, we’re working on Carmen right now. And one of the really early conversations that I had with [General Director] Andrew Jorgensen and [Director of Artistic Administration] Yvette Loynaz and [Artistic Director] Jim Robinson was about translations. We’ve been on the phone numerous times, just discussing, since the Opera Theatre does things in the English language, how is that reflected in the language that we use nowadays? And I think that sort of goes hand-in-hand with keeping the tradition alive, but also looking to the future. When we started working on Carmen with our stage director, she and I spent numerous hours on the phone, just adjusting the translation, finding words that are more resonant with 2022, finding terminology and language that resonates with the characters in the production as it is set in our production. So I think that looking, as you mentioned, to the future goes across all of the boards at Opera Theatre.
Your role as principal conductor is also a brand new one. Tell me what it’s been like settling into that position.
It’s really an exciting time. I’m super excited to work with everyone at the company here and with the members of the Saint Louis Symphony. It’s such an amazing orchestra. We did one concert last season at the end of our operatic season there at Powell Hall, which was special on so many levels. First of all, because it is the St. Louis Symphony. It’s one of the really great American orchestras. But also during COVID, I think this was, if I’m not mistaken, the largest orchestra that could be on the stage that night. Sort of coming out of a year of not making music, being able to be in that situation was incredible.
But there are also so many initiatives through the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, like the New Works initiative, which connects the creatives of the greater St. Louis community. There is so much creativity in St. Louis and so much art, and so much curiosity for art and for life and for telling stories. Being able to be part of that conversation in a musical sense, helping shape the musical landscape, helping shape the uniqueness of St. Louis and the great, vibrant artistic community here is just incredible. And I’m thrilled to be part of that.
It’s definitely an exciting time to be an artist in this city. There are so many great voices and opportunities.
I mean, last summer was the first time I was here, and I mentioned this last night at Spotlight on Carmen: My husband came to visit, and he and I just wanted to sort of drop our bags and stay here. We were just going to figure it out. It’s just such a welcoming community. It’s such a beautiful city. I’m just ecstatic.
What it’s been like working on this upcoming season thus far. What are you most excited about?
As I mentioned before, [“Habanera” from Carmen] was the first piece that I learned how to play on piano. And it was also the first opera that I saw. So I’m thrilled to be working on it. We’ve already been in staging rehearsals with our cast and the chorus, and this week we start rehearsals with the orchestra. [This season] is such a great mix of repertoire. We have Carmen, we have The Magic Flute, and then we have the premiere of Awakenings, a new opera by Tobias Picker, one of the great American composers, and that is led by Roberto Kalb and Jim Robinson. Then we are doing a new version of Harvey Milk by Stewart Wallace, directed by Seán Curran and Jim Robinson partnering up. So I think it’s just such a great season. I was talking to somebody a few days ago from St. Louis who had never been to an opera. And they said, “Why should I come to the opera? Why should I come and see?” And they expressed how much they love musical theater and musicals. And I said, well, if we’re gonna be really honest, I think that musicals and musical theater come from The Magic Flute. I think that was the first example of musical theater. Then we get into Carmen, which was a hundred years later, and it sort of follows the same pattern. Then, of course, we get into Awakenings and Harvey Milk from two great American composers that just have a very different style of writing. They have very different musical worlds that they create. And I think it’s such a colorful and interesting season that’s based on storytelling and all that the characters go through from beginning to end. And then we have the Center Stage concert in June with young artists, and the repertoire is equally colorful. We have a piece from Monteverdi up until a piece that was written almost yesterday. So there’s this great arc encompassing all different styles of singing and of storytelling. It’s just thrilling.
Opera being for everyone is at the heart of all this, but I think it’s really an exciting season for that. You’ve got two very recognizable, really approachable operas alongside these two stories that people may be familiar with but will be experiencing in a brand new way.
Exactly. And I think there is a little bit of a tradition in contemporary opera to bring the stories that we might know from different mediums onto the operatic stage. At the end of the day in opera, what we’re dealing with are our human emotions, our characters, our human stories, that each one of us can find something in to get inspired by, get intrigued by, have a question about, to get their curiosity awoken a little bit. As somebody who is in that world, I think it’s a really exciting time.
For those who haven’t experienced an opera before, what should people expect? What would your advice to them be?
I think the main thing that I’ve seen in the past myself, through friends of mine who have maybe not been to a classical music concert or the opera, I think there’s a little bit of fear that they may not understand something. But every single time that I’ve encountered people who have never been to the opera and came the first time, they felt right at home. I also think not every opera is for everyone. I think opera in general is for everyone, but we have to sort of look at opera as we do movie genres. Not everybody loves comedies. There are people who only watch comedies. There’s a really vast repertoire and massive possibilities of everyone finding something in the world of opera that is really going to resonate with them, that is going to capture them. But the one invitation that I would give is just to come. Come as you are. Be there as you are. Have no expectations, and see what happens. See what catches your curiosity, see what inspires you, what you might have a question about.
I think that’s great advice. After all, who doesn’t like a good story?
Absolutely. I mean, the great thing that opera does is really telling stories and always keeping some sort of tension and drama, and keeping us on the edge of our seats, as it were. But it’s also such a great way of creating these worlds that keep us completely in the storytelling. With pieces like Carmen and with pieces like The Magic Flute, they’re recognizable tunes. They’re recognizable melodies, but they always sound fresh and always sound as if they were written yesterday. I think that’s what keeps us coming back. That’s what keeps us engaged. And that’s what keeps the freshness of the music alive.
Is there anything else you’d really like people to know about the opera or this season at OTSL?
I think the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is such a unique place that nourishes community engagement, that nourishes connections, always in a beautiful setting with great music. And I think that’s the world that we live in. This sort of goes back a little bit to your previous question, but audiences are part of our world. Without audiences, it is just another rehearsal for us. But performances really also live through the audiences. And so, however the audience comes, we feel that, and we’re on this journey together.