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Back in Australia for a series of concerts around the country, Sydney-born conductor Simone Young discusses her storied career, the jewel-like music of Richard Strauss and the portrayal of women in 19th-century opera. “The composers, however appallingly these women might be treated, clothed these figures in some of the most glorious music ever written. And that’s what Strauss does. Strauss takes these difficult situations and creates compassion for the women in the audience by giving them music that is deeply moving.” By Kári Gíslason.

Conductor Simone Young

Simone Young.
Credit: Klaus Lefebvre

“Do you mind if I finish this row?”

Simone Young has her feet up on her dressing room couch, knitting laid across her lap. “It’s for my mother,” she says of the work in progress – a jumper with a lovely, slightly old-fashioned cable pattern on the front. For a moment, I sit and watch. It’s an unusual way to start an interview with one of the world’s leading conductors but knitting has a certain magic – the way different lines form a whole, much like a composition.

As Young puts the jumper away, families are walking past outside the window, in the low afternoon light of a winter’s day. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been overseas,” she says, “part of you just always wants to come home. I mean, look at the weather out there, and the way people are relaxed.”

Young herself looks relaxed, comfortable in her skin, although there’s a workmanlike seriousness there, too. She speaks in phrases that sweep and change in volume, apologising every now and then for a yawn – having just finished a series of performances with the Zurich Opera, she’s rehearsing today for a concert in Brisbane and feeling jetlagged. Born in Australia, she now lives in England but conducting at the highest levels means she frequently travels. “I live close to Gatwick,” she says, laughing. It’s been four years since Young left Hamburg, where she directed both the state opera and the city’s philharmonic orchestra for a decade. She had a budget of $97 million and a staff of 700 people. Now she is freelance, self-determined, and one of the world’s most in-demand conductors, famous for her interpretations of German music, and for a style of conducting that is expressive, embodied and direct.

Young’s musical life began in Sydney, where she attended Monte Sant’Angelo Mercy College, an independent girls’ school that insisted there were no jobs women couldn’t do. She has proved that many times over. Early in her career, she broke into a field that long resisted accepting women as conductors when, in 2001, she was the first woman and youngest person to direct Opera Australia. Other breakthrough achievements followed. But Young says she can tire of discussing “all these firsts”. “The first woman to conduct the Vienna State Opera, and Paris, and Dresden, and, and, and… Great. Now there are a few others, and they’re ticking off some other firsts, and I’m delighted for them … I’ve been conducting professionally in Europe for almost 30 years, so all those firsts are in the far past, as far as I’m concerned. And they’re far less interesting, I think, than actually if you want to assess what somebody’s achieved and look at the career as a whole and put gender and nationality outside of that.”

Young acknowledges it was “a very big deal” to be the first woman to conduct the Vienna State Opera. “There were at the time no women in the orchestra, and getting over that hurdle meant that nobody else had a leg to stand on if they were to say, ‘Well, you know, can a woman really do that?’, which people were still saying in the ’90s,” she says. “They can’t say that anymore.”

Later this year, Young will be leading orchestras in Vienna, San Francisco, Tokyo and beyond. But for now, her itinerary brings her back to the cities of her youth. In August, State Opera South Australia will host Young and four friends, all sopranos, in a concert of highlights from Richard Strauss’s operas and lieder. It will be familiar ground for Young, who’s worked for long spells in Germany, often conducting the operas of Strauss.

She’s also worked with all four singers before – Emma Matthews, Miriam Gordon-Stewart, Catherine Carby and Lisa Gasteen – thus the title for the event: Girls’ Night Out, a reunion.

“Strauss wrote for the female voice in a way that’s kind of unparalleled for this period of music,” says Young. The young German composer first fell in love with the female voice in the early decades of the 20th century. It was a time of great change and musical innovation, but few artists were putting women at the centre of their endeavours. Strauss was captivated by the task.

“If we think of all his operas,” says Young, “if we think of the central female roles, attractive or unattractive as some of them are dramatically, you are never left in doubt for a moment that he doesn’t absolutely adore the women that he’s writing for.”

Strauss’s muse, it was said, was his wife – the soprano Pauline de Ahna. Over the course of their marriage, she was a constant source of inspiration. Strauss once wrote that she was “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before”.

It’s not an entirely flattering portrait. But it does read as loving, with a mix of frankness and teasing humour, comfortable in enjoying a partner’s complexity, their contradictions. Many feel this openness also comes through in Strauss’s female characters, and in how they face their troubles. He wrote that he “thanked the Almighty Creator for the gift and inspiration of the female voice” – acknowledging both his wife’s influence and that the female voice could be a muse in its own right.

Young mentions she’s been reading the work of Karl Kraus, a satirical writer who lived in Vienna in the first part of the 20th century. “Kraus wrote some very interesting and some not very attractive but very thought-provoking aphorisms about women. One of my favourites is: ‘A woman is only truly beautiful who can acknowledge being ugly.’ I think that’s amazing.”

The Marschallin, a leading female character in Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, could be a case in point. The work, written with the Austrian librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is one of Strauss’s most famous and most performed operas; the concert in Adelaide will feature its brilliant closing trio of soprano voices.

“I think the Marschallin is one of the great all-time female characters. She is, in her life, very indulged, she’s the head of this court, but she’s living in the loveless environment of an arranged political marriage. She indulges herself with young lovers, and along comes Octavian, who really touches something in her. In the final scene of act one, she’s honest with the audience about the fear a woman has about ageing in a way that, up to that point, was unparalleled in operatic repertoire.”

The Marschallin’s affair with the younger Octavian ends in heartbreak when she realises that she must release Octavian to be with Sophie, the woman he really loves.

“We already know there can’t be a happy ending for the Marschallin, but that she’s okay with that, because that’s how the way of the world is supposed to be, in her picture of the world. Her extraordinary musical and emotional generosity in the trio becomes completely understandable for an audience because we’ve had an incredibly intimate conversation with her at the end of act one.”

 

Although Strauss’s affection for the female voice was ahead of its time, the musical language he used to express it most often looked to the past. “Strauss was not a musical innovator, as such,” explains Young. “He took what was happening at the end of the 19th century and ran with it and developed it. He didn’t actually change paths anywhere, like a Schoenberg or Berg.”

By World War II, many composers had moved away from the heritage of Wagner, Brahms and Mahler and were searching for new tonalities. But there was still room for someone like Strauss, who wanted instead to perfect what had come before him. “With Strauss,” explains Young, “it was as though he was such a lover of the late-Romantic textures and colours and the brilliance of the orchestration that he took this and refined it and refined it and refined it, until it became this perfect jewel of music.”

That jewel is often described as decadent, even decaying and ironic, but also as deeply sensual. “Some of the phrases that he gives them to sing are so exquisitely beautiful,” says Young. “It’s a combination of things. It’s the tonality that he puts it in. Strangely enough, he writes a lot in flat keys – D-flat major, E-flat major, A-flat major. They’re all keys that have a kind of…”

Young searches for the right expression. “You know, Italians have a great word for this kind of softness: morbido.” She explains that it would be “completely wrong” to translate this word as “morbid”. “The morbido is the kind of softness that you sink into. It’s softness that is three-dimensional.”

With Strauss’s affection for the female voice came an equally strong dislike of tenors. “He just loathed them,” says Young, emphatically, sitting up straight and bringing her hands to her knees. She recounts a correspondence between Strauss and Hofmannsthal when the two of them were working on Der Rosenkavalier. They were going over what voice type they would use for Octavian, the object of the Marschallin’s attentions. “Strauss said: well, we’ve already got a baritone and we’ve already got a bass, so that only leaves a tenor, and I’m not having Octavian as a tenor because they’re all so stupid.”

Instead, Octavian was cast as a “pants role”, or when a woman sings a male part. This, too, was an old-fashioned device by the time Strauss employed it. And yet, insists Young, with Octavian we end up with one of the best pants roles ever written.

It may seem unusual for a Girls’ Night Out in 2019 – conducted by Young, with her list of firsts as a female conductor – to draw on music from 100 years ago, by a male composer who had his ear firmly in the 19th century. “There’s a lot of discussion raging about 19th-century opera, libretti, and how the 19th century regarded women and whether we can really put that on stage today,” says Young. “What one loses sight of in that discussion is the fact that the composers, however appallingly these women might be treated, clothed these figures in some of the most glorious music ever written. And that’s what Strauss does. Strauss takes these difficult situations and creates compassion for the women in the audience by giving them music that is deeply moving.”

And ultimately, the soprano must inhabit the role for themselves. “Singers who can sing Strauss,” says Young, “and not everybody can sing Strauss – it requires a great deal of flexibility but as well a lot of power – they tend to really love these roles. Because they offer so much in terms of interpretation. You can take one single line and give it 15 different colours and they all work. I don’t know any female singers who don’t enjoy singing Strauss.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "Conductor’s orders". Subscribe here.

Kári Gíslason
is a writer and an academic. His most recent book, co-written with Richard Fidler, is Saga Land.