From the orchestra pits of the Royal Opera House and the Paris Opera, to the podiums of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the resumé of acclaimed Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson spans continents and musical genres.
But there was a notable entry missing from Wilson’s curriculum vitae for decades — up until this week.
The flutist-turned-conductor makes her long-awaited, and perhaps some will say incredibly overdue, Metropolitan Opera conducting debut Thursday in the company’s revival of “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” running from Sept. 29 to Oct. 21.
It’s particularly fitting, Wilson said, that she should making her Met debut with this opera, one of her favourites in the classical repertoire.
“I feel empowered by Dmitri Shostakovich’s music. There’s so much humanity, so much contrast and every aspect of life is in it,” she said in a recent interview with the Star. “I feel charged by it and I’m so delighted to be making this opera come alive with one of the greatest opera companies in the world.”
Shostakovich’s expressionistic opera, which premiered in 1934 and is based on the novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, follows a 19th-century woman in a small Russian town who is driven to murder after falling in love with one of her husband’s workers.
The opera was ill-received by the Communist Party, which issued its infamous editorial titled “Muddle Instead of Music,” effectively banning the work and leaving its composer living in terror for months afterwards.
Even after the opera resurfaced in the second half of the 20th century, it was rarely performed. This Met Opera production, originally conceived by English opera director Graham Vick, has only been revived twice since it premiered in 1994.
“This production inspires me because it’s so dramatic and powerful in every moment,” said Wilson. “It’s fresh, modern and very clever.”
That it has taken Wilson so long to make her debut conducting with the Met Opera Orchestra can perhaps be attributed to the fact that her husband, Peter Gelb, is the company’s general manager of 16 years.
The couple has been wary of Wilson appearing at the Met for fear of poor optics, even though the programming of conductors in any given season is handled by music director, and fellow Canadian, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, not Gelb.
“I’ve been very careful not to appear to show any kind of favouritism towards Keri-Lynn, so I’ve leaned over backwards, unfairly to her I guess, to keep her away from that. But she certainly deserves this debut,” said Gelb. “Obviously, it feels different for me than any other conductor’s debut since we’re married, so I’m personally very proud and excited for her.”
Though “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” marks Wilson’s official debut with the venerable opera company, she has worked with the organization before. Wilson’s opening night Thursday comes just weeks after she wrapped up touring Europe and the U.S. with the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, an initiative conceived by Wilson following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and supported by both the Met Opera and Polish National Opera.
Wilson, who was born and raised in Winnipeg, home to Canada’s most concentrated Ukrainian population, is of partial Ukrainian descent and has always been passionate about her Slavic roots.
“My Ukrainian background was very strong,” said Wilson, recalling how she learned Ukrainian dance as a child and would often spend Orthodox Christmas and Easter with her great-grandmother, who didn’t speak English.
The Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, made up of recent refugees and Ukrainian musicians working abroad, was a galvanizing force wherever it toured — be it at the BBC Proms or the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. — and a testament to how art, music and Ukrainian culture can endure in spite of the war.
Wilson still receives texts of gratitude and is sometimes stopped in the street by passersby, who thank her for creating the orchestra. But she feels uncomfortable accepting those messages of thanks. “It was the least I could possibly do to help fight,” she said.
“I still haven’t quite digested it all because it was an emotional journey,” she continued. “You know, there was never a dry eye in the hall after we played our encore, which was this beautiful, heart-wrenching arrangement of the Ukrainian national anthem.
“It was more than a concert; it was really a statement.”
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