Jack Ridley Q&A
Conductor Jack Ridley tells us what it was like to make his Festival debut
We asked Jack to tell us more about his work on the production, and how our Cover Artists programme helps to support upcoming talent…
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career so far?
My parents are actors, and I started learning the piano when I was very little, so I’ve always had a tendency towards the performative! While I was at uni, I was very kindly directed towards Glyndebourne by Louise Alder’s mum, Susie, who played in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and I sat in on rehearsals at the Festival, which cemented for me the notion that conducting was something I wanted to pursue.
Afterwards, I went and studied conducting in Vienna and while I was there, I kept in touch with Glyndebourne, who gave me my first job on the Tour in 2012. They invited me back the following year to assist on The Rape of Lucretia, where I ‘jumped in’ for the dress rehearsal and also conducted a show. Since then, I’ve been working freelance, largely in the UK and Europe, and have been back to Glyndebourne on the Tour a couple of times (I conducted two performances of Cendrillon in 2018, and also the inaugural Glyndebourne Christmas Concerts that year), as well as making a film of Britten’s Phaedra with my partner, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Lynch, and the Glyndebourne Tour orchestra.
I’m passionate too about introducing the next generation to opera and I’ve done lots of work with children (I retrained as a teacher during the pandemic and spent 18 months as a classroom teacher in an inner-city primary school). The arts are so important and children literally are the future, so I’ve tried to steer towards education work wherever possible.
What does an Assistant Conductor do?
You’re an extra pair of ears in the rehearsal room (which is particularly important for balance, once the rehearsals reach the stage); you might be called on to mark up the orchestral parts; you have to be ready to take the reins if the conductor is indisposed. If there are cover artists or understudies, you take responsibility for those rehearsals, as the conductor would do for principals.
Different conductors can want different things – Robin Ticciati is incredibly open and genuine, which is such a joy. Your brief in the main rehearsal room is to offer ideas, and Robin is so receptive, which instils a real sense of collaboration in the rehearsal process. With the covers, you have to allow latitude so that it feels fresh and personal and authentic, but not so much that the performance is no longer recognisable. There is a lot of trust involved, and it needs to be repaid with integrity and sensitivity to everyone’s needs.
What is a cover showing, and how do they help upcoming artists like yourself?
A cover showing is a performance of the opera by the cover artists and assistant conductor, directed by the assistant director. It is sometimes abridged, almost always with piano (rather than orchestra), and usually with limited costume or set.
The idea is that it gives everyone a chance to demonstrate that they are ready to ‘go on’ if need be, and also to use it as a showcase for themselves in that role. It’s usually a bit of an occasion: other members of the company come and watch – some of the chorus will sing in chorus sections, if they can – and to be able to perform a whole opera in a low-stakes, supportive environment is a real luxury.
How is Glyndebourne’s approach to Cover Artists different to other opera houses?
It’s the most thorough approach that I have experienced. Some opera houses don’t have covers at all (replacement artists are flown in last minute, if need be); here we had four full weeks of rehearsals with me and Donna Stirrup, the assistant director, which gives the cover artists the chance to really immerse themselves in the role. The detail in Glyndebourne’s approach – singers learn the complete staging (with provisions made for costumes and wigs should they have to “go on”) and are given individual coachings to help with musical preparation – puts the development of singers at its centre, and makes it an attractive prospect for singers looking to learn a new role.
How did it feel to make your Glyndebourne Festival debut, conducting one of our performances of The Rake’s Progress this summer?
It felt AMAZING! Obviously I was a bit taken aback when the call came in, and I felt for Robin who was clearly suffering, but the support I had was unbelievable. Firstly from Beth, my partner, who despite being in rehearsals herself elsewhere, metaphorically held my hand all day; next from the cover artists and Matt Fletcher, our amazing rehearsal pianist and continuo player, who I had a full run with that morning (and the cover show the next day, so I ended up conducting the piece three times in just over 24 hours!); and then from all of the cast and company management, who did everything to show that they were in my corner.
And the show itself was such a dream. Often in the heat of the moment, you can forget to enjoy it, but the London Philharmonic Orchestra – who I’d never conducted at all before the show began – were so responsive, so sensitive, so musical that I just adored every minute of it. They also went above and beyond by being really warm and positive and just lovely – it’s a night I’ll never forget, and in the days afterwards I felt on such a high. Just a massive, massive thank you to everyone.
Is there a particular opera that you would love to conduct?
There are lots! Tristan und Isolde is the opera that I first saw at Glyndebourne, when I was sitting in on rehearsals all those years ago, so that’s high up on my list. I’ve got a big soft spot for Szymanowski’s Król Roger. Also The Turn of the Screw, Werther, La clemenza di Tito, Jenůfa, Der Rosenkavalier – and many more than I’ll likely ever get the chance to. And also, children’s opera: it’s an area which is sometimes wrongly disregarded as not serious, but many of my most rewarding artistic experiences have been making music with children. I’ve conducted some wonderful pieces for children by composers like John Barber and Russell Hepplewhite, and it’s something I hope to do a lot more of.
Where can audiences see you next?
Certain things are under wraps for now, but you can keep an eye on my website. I have concerts coming up with the Cinematic Orchestra of London (I’m their Principal Conductor designate). The main thing to look out for is Der fliegende Holländer in Birmingham next summer for a company called Persona Arts: an organisation which combines elements of community participation, championing of diverse artists, and – above all – just barnstorming music.
Photos: Natalya Chagrin, Rupert Rand, Maureen Amar