Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Meet Maestro Lidiya Yankovskaya

Lidiya Yankovskaya; photo by Kate Lemmon

By Glenn Hare

Lidiya Yankovskaya is the music director of Chicago Opera Theater and the founder and artistic director of the Refugee Orchestra Project. She is highly noted for conducting operatic rarities and contemporary works. Yankovskaya is co-leading Seattle Opera’s virtual production of Don Giovanni with stage director Brenna Corner. In this interview, she discusses conducting during the pandemic, her favorite Don Giovanni role, as well her passion for new works and the music of refugees.

When did you realize you wanted to be a conductor?
I started conducting when I was still a teenager. I was regularly leading sectionals as a violinist in my high school orchestra, accompanying as a pianist, and led some orchestra rehearsals from the piano after winning a concerto competition. I would have never considered conducting as a possibility, but my high school orchestra conductor suggested I get up on the podium and offered me a movement of a symphony at a concert. I conducted the third movement of Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony in rehearsal and performance and was absolutely hooked! In college, I pursued a liberal arts education and continued to study as a solo instrumentalist and vocalist, but I also continued conducting and knew that this was the path for me.

You’re spearheading this production with stage director Brenna Corner. Have you worked with her before? As women, do you bring new insights to the Don G story and Mozart’s music?
This is my first time working with Brenna and I am so thrilled for the wonderful collaboration! Even during these unusual circumstances, Brenna has proven to be exceptionally inventive, creative and flexible. I am so excited for the production that she has in store for everyone. As with any creative team, I hope that our personal experiences will allow us to sympathize fully with characters whose depth has not been explored and to bring new perspectives to the work. I hope that in the near future, it will become less remarkable to have production teams made up largely of women, or BIPOC artists, ensuring that our interpretations continue to evolve together with our world.

Some commentators believe that Don Giovanni is NOT about Don Giovanni at all, but the women who surround him—Anna, Elvira, and Zerlina. What do you think about that particular perspective?
I agree wholeheartedly. The women in the story—especially Anna and Elvira—are more multi-dimensional and have more complex relationships with the other characters, including with the Don. Don Giovanni is a tool through which Lorenzo Da Ponte tells of the challenges and experiences of women from different social classes within that society. Don Giovanni himself is a trope and he continually acts in the expected manner, while the three women (and often Leporello) continually defy our expectations and assumptions. For many years, there existed an unfortunate convention of cutting the epilogue and ending the opera with Don Giovanni’s being dragged to hell. Sadly, this change takes the focus away from the social commentary that is so crucial to the opera, and turns the piece into a much weaker morality play. With the epilogue intact, the story is clear—Don Giovanni is gone and the other characters have the last word.

How will social distancing procedure affect how you conduct Don Giovanni?
In any opera, the music and the drama are one—under normal circumstances, this means that the movement on the stage and the musical energy and line are intimately linked and constantly affecting one another. In this case, to ensure everyone’s safety, we are pre-recording the orchestra and the singers and the singers will then lip sync for the video recording. This adds an extra challenge to ensuring that the musical and dramatic portions feel fully unified. To aid with this, the stage director, Brenna Corner, and I will be holding staging rehearsals and getting a full sense of the dramatic arc and specific movement within the opera before we record the sound. This should mean that by the time we record, the dramatic motion will guide our musical choices. After the sound recording is complete, the balance will be in reverse, with what we create musically dictating the dramatic motion. It’s better, of course, to be able to feel the two together as one—in the moment—but with these great collaborators and Seattle Opera’s highly organized process, I am confident that this will be a compelling artistic experience.

Rehearsal for Seattle Opera's Don Giovanni with strict COVID-19 safety protocols. Paula Podemski photos.

The music of Don Giovanni is noted for its variety and its ability to uniquely support the personalities, social statuses, and temperaments of the characters. Musically speaking, do you have a favorite character and why?
I really love Leporello’s music—largely because of all the humor and variety that we see within his role. In an opera that could easily become exceptionally dark, we see self-referential moments, comedy, and even fun. In this way, Leporello gives dimension to the opera.

For someone experiencing Don G for the first time, what do you recommend they keep their ears open to hear?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart uses trombones in only two short moments in the opera. Can you hear where they are? Hint: trombones symbolize death and the underworld.

The same question for someone who has experienced it multiple times?
When I go to hear this opera, I always listen for the way each baritone singing Don Giovanni interprets the mandolin aria in Act 2, “Deh, vieni alla fenestra.” In some ways, it’s the simplest part of the opera, but it’s also the section that leaves some of the largest range of interpretative choices to the performer. I am also always very interested in the way different sopranos and directors approach the characters of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. There are so many ways to interpret these characters and to sing these roles.

Your interest in developing new opera is shared with Christina Scheppelmann, general director of Seattle Opera. What drives your passion to nurture new works and then showcase their performances?
Opera’s greatest strength is reaching us at the core of our emotional being, no matter who we are. Opera can be even more powerful when it speaks to our times, our society, and our current state of being. Supporting the development of living creators and living works allows us the opportunity to have more powerful operatic experiences and to bring new audiences to the art form through expanded representation in our storytelling. It also allows our current society to leave a mark on history and ensures that the art form has a strong future. Only in very recent times did we begin focusing on showcasing traditional work rather than developing new repertoire and we’ve seen this tactic dramatically harm classical music—it’s time that opera gets back to its roots as the most current and most innovative art form.

I’d like to ask you about the Refugee Orchestra Project. What inspired to you to launch a music organization featuring musicians and vocalists connected to asylum seekers--people running away from violence and persecution abroad?
My family came to the United States as refugees from Russia in the 90s. When I saw a rise of xenophobia surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis 20 years later, I founded the Refugee Orchestra Project to showcase—through music—the critical role that immigrants and refugees have played in our culture and society. ROP features refugee performers and works by refugee composers throughout history, including composers like Donizetti, Rachmaninov, Chopin, and Schoenberg, who have all been critical to the development of opera and classical music.

Why is it important to bring the stories of refugees to the forefront at this time? 
One of the reasons I love working in music—and in opera in particular—is that I have an opportunity to work with and get to know people from all over the world, from all walks of life, and of all backgrounds. There is something magical about so many people coming together to one place for a month to make art—everyone from tailors to musicians to administrators. This is also one of my favorite things about the United States—we are not only a country of immigrants, but also a country that—at its best—embraces multiculturalism, its beauty, and its many benefits. In our increasingly segmented society, it’s easy to forget the thrill of our multiplicity.

Photo courtesy of Lidiya Yankovskaya

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