Glyndebourne Tour 2013 - An interview with conductor Jack Ridley

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Jack Ridley is an up-and-coming English conductor who is making his Glyndebourne debut conducting two performances of The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Tour 2013. Here he talks about his career, explains why opera in the UK needs to step outside its comfort zone and reveals that the cast of The Rape of Lucretia share a passion for Netflix!

You have made amazing progress for such a young conductor, what is your secret?

I think that if I knew the secret, I’d be much more relaxed about my career prospects! I’ve been very privileged and fortunate to have been given such wonderful opportunities, and I’ve tried to repay that with real conviction for, and commitment towards, the projects which I have worked on. Getting on with people and working well as part of a team helps too!

The 2013 Proms saw Marin Alsop become the first woman to conduct the last night of the Proms, what was your reaction to this?

Wonderful for Marin Alsop, who is a brilliant conductor, but also sad that it’s taken until this year for it to happen. Influential people within the classical music industry (as illustrated by recent comments by Vasily Petrenko, although thankfully he was quickly challenged) clearly and nonsensically still have a problem with the idea of female conductors. It’s obvious from watching Marin Alsop (or any number of the other excellent female conductors I know) that being a man isn’t a necessary requirement for being a good conductor; but the propagation of views like Petrenko’s make reaching equality an uphill struggle, and make it much more likely that we will miss out on the talent of many young, female potential conductors, discouraged from their ambitions.

In no more than ten words, tell me why I should come to see The Rape of Lucretia on 28 November?

Gripping, focused drama, without any operatic clichés. And beautiful music.

You have studied at illustrious universities across the globe, what have you learnt from these international cultures that has helped drive your career?

It’s difficult to be too specific – although I suppose that the obvious advantage to living in Austria, as I do now, has been becoming fluent in German. Mostly, though, it’s to do with becoming familiar with different traditions. When I lived in Oxford, there was, and still is, a strong tradition of choral music, which I loved being a part of. It’s also, incidentally, something which the Austrians hold in very high esteem.

Living in Vienna, there are very strong opinions about how the works of composers from the first Viennese School should be performed, or Strauss, or Mahler, or Bruckner… On the one hand it’s great that there’s such a strong sense of identity that the Viennese feel with their music; on the other hand it can feel a bit stifling that interpretations outside of their tradition are often dismissed. I think that the thing that has helped me most from a career point-of- view has been the need to defend my own interpretations of the music in the face of that sort of criticism, and to make sure that I am aware of why I make each musical choice that I do.

What is your choice of entertainment when you are off duty for the night?

The whole cast seemed to be addicted to Netflix while we were working on The Rape of Lucretia, particularly because the last episode of Breaking Bad became a thing. Since we finished production, I’ve picked up on the Netflix theme, and I’m really into House of Cards at the moment.

What advice would you give to other young conductors keen to develop their careers?

I think when you’re young, it’s all about experience, really. I’m very lucky to go to a music university, and to have worked for Glyndebourne – both have been extremely supportive and given me lots of opportunities to conduct. Do something that excites people. Try to find people who like you and will back you. They don’t have to be mainstream or “establishment” institutions; maybe contemporaries who share your outlook – keep your horizons as broad as possible. I moved abroad. Friends of mine have got involved in fringe opera. But if you really love music, and you have a spark for it, don’t give up on finding a way to carve your niche.

If you weren’t a conductor what would you be?

Really hard to say – I’ve had a passion for music since I was very young, and it’s difficult to imagine anything else now. I’ve been involved in activism in the past – but I don’t know whether I could make a career out of it. Environmental scientist? Human rights lawyer? They don’t sound very creative. I like cooking – maybe a chef?

Are there any surprises ahead for opera in the UK?

I hope so! I’m not sure what the surprises are going to be, but I’d like to be a part of them.

It’s a shame, but it’s true, that opera in the UK has an image problem. Most people don’t go. Of course, not all people will like all opera, not all people like all TV either, but continuing with that analogy, I’m convinced that more or less all people will like some opera. It’s often seen as expensive, but there are lots of tickets available for, say, less than the price of a Premier League football ticket. It’s sometimes seen as inaccessible or clichéd (full of tenors indulging themselves on high notes), but it shouldn’t be if it’s done well – this production of The Rape of Lucretia is the polar opposite of that misconception.

It’s partly a cultural thing, I suspect – opera doesn’t have the same stigma attached to it among the general public in Vienna, for example, as it does in England (although that comes with its own set of problems) – but, to go back to the original question, opera in the UK certainly needs to step out of its comfort zone in order to confront these issues. Historically, opera has been something which has constantly had to reinvent itself; and although I can’t predict what the next reinvention will be, it’s something that I’m personally very interested in, and see it almost as a duty to get involved with.

If you could conduct any opera at Glyndebourne, what would it be?

Tristan und Isolde was the first opera I saw at Glyndebourne. I’d love to conduct it there myself in the future, though I’m not ready yet.

What are the secrets of a great conductor?

Love for the music is the obvious thing that everyone says, but I think you need more than that – almost a childlike curiosity. If you really believe in the music, then inspiring other people to get excited about it too is a natural next step.