Canadian conductor Judith Yan will lead the Vancouver Opera Orchestra for our production of La Bohème. Equally adept on the podium for opera, ballet, and symphony, Yan’s career has taken her internationally, conducting for major companies in Germany, Poland, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. She has held Staff Conductor positions at the San Francisco Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, and the National Ballet of Canada.
As a successful conductor in a field that is traditionally male-dominated, do you have any inspiring words for aspiring female musicians and artists?
When I was a child, my parents showed me a picture of a conductor, named Helen Quach. We watched a clip of her conducting the New York Philharmonic on TV and I always thought that was what women did. Since I was shown that as a child, it never occurred to me otherwise.
What would one say to anyone who aspires? Don’t let anything be an excuse (or anyone give you an excuse) to not pursue what you love. What you perceive as a disadvantage—your gender (male, female, or other), your height (too short, too tall, too medium), your appearance (too beautiful, not beautiful enough, too ordinary)—may be the most intoxicating element to someone else.
As a conductor, you have one goal: represent your colleagues and make them look good. Companies in general are far more interested in your ability to fulfill your responsibilities, produce a certain quality of work, and (I feel this is very important) how enjoyable you are to work with, rather than what you look like.
But here’s the best part: conducting is complex, challenging, and never dull. It is a puzzle that takes decades to unravel and you will be brilliantly surprised at every turn. There is a never-ending list of knowledge and skills to acquire, but the journey is magnificent.
How do you bring a fresh take to Puccini’s much-cherished music, that has so much history to it?
To me, La Bohème is about much more than a woman dying of consumption and the man she loves, set to gorgeous and sumptuous cinematic accompaniment. What makes the work timeless is not just Puccini’s brilliant portrayal of Mimi, but it is of his depictions of the complex and intimate world of each character, from the brilliantly drawn principal characters to the magnificent chorus.
I also see the opera as being about making the most out of your life with what little you have, and that what you perceive as a disadvantage or an advantage may not be that at all. Take the minor but very important character of the rich patron, Alcindoro. He has position in society and all the money in the world but he can’t get the one thing he wants, the love of Musetta. While Marcello, the artist, has the sex appeal, youth, and artistic talent to attract Musetta, he doesn’t have the means to keep her. Benoit, the landlord, has property and riches, but he yearns for his youth, and while Rodolfo loves Mimi, he cruelly lies to her for he does not have the means to save her. Then there’s Musetta. Her famous aria, “Quando m’en vo soletta per la via (When I walk alone on the street)”, the centrepiece of Act II, speaks as much of the necessity and her willingness to use her attributes, as it does of Puccini’s admiration (and profound sympathy) of a woman’s power.
We love these characters as we aspire to be as adventurous as they are, to love as vividly, and live as boldly as they do.
How did growing up in Hong Kong and Canada contribute to your decision to become a conductor?
I am very fortunate to have been born in Hong Kong and grown up in Canada. Hong Kong, with its tremendous appetite for culture and art, is the very definition of cosmopolitanism. When I was 9, my family came to this great country of ours, Canada. We were welcomed without reservations.
There is an attitude of openness that is so much a part of Canada and an inquisitive friendliness that is part of Hong Kong. To explore beyond, to see different points of views, is necessary in this profession. I’m lucky that my family exposed me to this attitude from a young age, that to be in new environments and meet new people was something to celebrate.
There are very few female conductors working in your field, particularly female conductors of colour working in the West. What challenges have you faced?
I think every job has its challenges. Perhaps its having been born into the pragmatism of Hong Kong – as the supplier, if your customer is happy, they’ll engage you again. If they don’t, find out why and try harder. Each engagement, I try to be better than the last, to deliver a better experience for everyone.
You have conducted around the world. Tell us your favourite places to work.
Each of my mentors, from the late Richard. Bradshaw to Donald Runnicles, encouraged me to explore the world. As a musician, the minute you walk into any rehearsal studio, orchestra pit, stage, or theatre, it’s like coming home. And the best part are your colleagues – it’s like having family all over the world. Last year, I was in Australia, Seoul, Edmonton, St. John’s, and I get to see all of these companies again in 2019.
However, as a Canadian, it is always thrilling to work in and contribute to my own country!
You conduct ballet, opera, and symphony. What are the differences, if any, between leading an orchestra for ballet compared to opera?
Each medium has taught me how to better serve the other. Symphony allowed me to focus on sound, to tell a story without visuals or words. Ballet taught me how to incorporate many technical demands while making it seem effortless. In ballet, you must serve many: the choreography, the traditions, the physical demands particular to each dancer, while maintaining musical integrity and a dramatic narrative.
Opera, with its union of sound, visual, and words, perhaps has the richest resources of all. I am always intensely aware of the Director’s vision, from stage directions, to lighting, to even set changes, as every element affects the pacing of a performance. To attend an opera (especially this brilliant Barbe & Doucet production) live and in person, even one as beloved and well-known as La Boheme, the experience will always be new