January 6, 2019
Ahead of her Washington National Opera debut conducting the world premiere of Kamala Sankaram’s Taking Up Serpents, conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya spoke with the Washington Post about new music, speaking in tongues, and reconciling personal experience with an opera’s subject matter.
Performances will be at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on January 11 and 13; tickets can be purchased via WNO.
What makes an American opera? Companies across the country seem to be perpetually asking this question. The Metropolitan Opera is said to have turned down Rufus Wainwright’s opera “Prima Donna” on the grounds that it was in French and therefore not an American opera. Other companies turn to Hollywood — the Minnesota Opera has presented operatic versions of “The Shining” and “The Manchurian Candidate” — or book adaptations — the San Francisco Opera has offered “Dolores Claiborne” (based on the Stephen King novel) and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” (based on the Amy Tan novel). Many of the support programs designed to promote new work create the somewhat amusing spectacle of American artists such as Sankaram, whose father is from South India, or the opera’s conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, whose family emigrated from Russia when she was 9, compressing themselves into someone else’s “American” template.
“Going into this opera, that worried me,” Yankovskaya says. “It’s much more difficult to express something you’re not intimately familiar with yourself. But then, of course, I’m not intimately familiar with what it’s like to be a courtesan in Europe,” which hasn’t stopped her from conducting “La traviata.”