Rising Stars – An Interview with Conductor Carolyn Kuan

This interview was conducted on the Ranch of the Santa Fe Opera. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera and the Washington National Opera is deeply appreciated.


[Below: Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image, based on a professional photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]



Wm: Where were you raised as a child?

CK: My family is from Guangzhou in China. I, myself, was born in Taipei.

I came to the United States at age 14. Like many Asian girls I started playing the piano at a very young age. At one point early on I wanted to become a singer, and at another, a ballerina.

Wm: What are your earliest memories of music and of opera?

CK:  My earliest memories of music are from when I was five.  My brother got a piano for his 10th birthday.  Being the young sister, I quickly convinced my parents that I am the one that will become a concert pianist and should be allowed to play on my brother’s new piano!

My earliest opera memory is listening to the Peking Opera at my grandparents’ house.  I sang in choirs throughout my childhood and started studying voice seriously in high school.  I wanted to be an opera singer!

Wm: It’s interesting that opera is flourishing in South Korea, and many singers come out of that country and out of China, but not Taiwan.

CK: South Korea has developed its opera resources to the point that there are international opera stars who are from there and who perform there. I am aware of the efforts in developing opera in Hong Kong.

However, I’m not fully on top of what is happening in Taiwan, because by now I’m probably a bit more American than Chinese.

Wm: What were the circumstance that led you to come to America at age 14?

CK: My middle school had an American “sister school”, which had a program that would permit Chinese students to take summer school in the U. S. studying English. (The school also took us to Disneyland.)

Wm: This obviously was supposed to be a short-term educational experience. What happened that caused you to stay?

CK: I was very impressed by how students learn in the United States. In Taipei, so much of education is memorization. Sixty people attend a lecture, whose content you are expected to memorize. There was very little opportunity to ask questions and to explore ideas. As a 13-year old in Taipei, I was very rebellious and did not like not being able to question anything.

I was struck by the fact that the American teacher said that we should feel free to ask questions and even to disagree with anything that was said. Secretly, I applied to the American high school, because I had decided that that is how kids should learn.

Wm: You graduated from an American high school and then completed your higher education in the United States. But you did not pursue the educational pathway that your parents were planning for you.

CK: My parents wanted me to be an investment banker. I told them that I needed to learn more about music before I returned to Asia.

My father long ago felt he had lost control of the situation, and has given up on my becoming an investment banker in Asia. By now, my father accepts that I am a musician.

Wm: But how did you become drawn to music as an academic pursuit?

CK: My entire musical journey has been based on curiosity as why music is different from math and science. The human voice is a divine mystery. You can hear it, but not be able to explain why it is beautiful. Music is transcendent. There is nothing like it.

[Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]


Wm: Describe your higher education.

CK: I went to Smith College. I obtained a scholarship to study conducting at the University of Illinois. After that I went to the Peabody Conservatory and then got a job with the New York City Ballet.

Wm: Did you find conducting to be academically challenging? 

 CK: Yes, in the sense that it was hard to deal with it as an academic “subject”. As a student, I always understood mathematics, chemistry and physics. There were answers to my questions that everyone can agree upon. The more questions I asked, the more the answers explained whatever I wondered about.

Conducting is a mystery. How can anyone know exactly what conducting is? What does a conductor do? You can’t really know anything about conducting until you do it. There is no guarantee when you repeat something you’ve done, that it won’t have a different result.

Wm: You were awarded a Herbert von Karajan conducting fellowship. How did that come about and what did you learn during the fellowship?

 CK: There was a rigorous application process. You send them a resume and a video-tape, and then they invite you to auditions if they like what you’ve submitted. In my case, there were actually members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on the jury watching the auditions.

There was no conducting involved in the fellowship, but it was a summer of immersion in a musically rich environment.

Wm: But you did have conducting lessons at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California.

CK: The Cabrillo Festival is where I grew up as a conductor. They have an annual conducting workshop for seven conductors and three young composers. You get to work with the composers to bring music to life. Some of the new pieces of music were absolutely brilliant. I love new music – imagine being able to talk to Mozart or Beethoven!

[Below: Conductor Carolyn Kuan; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]



Wm: Give me a sense of how the conducting students work with the young composers.

CK: It has been a long time since I was a conducting student working with a young composer. I remember there being a lot of questions and we were able to try different things. New music under Marin Alsop is incredible and inspiring. The musicians at Cabrillo are not only amazing, but also they are always open and helpful with suggestions.

For ten years I participated every summer at the Cabrillo Festival. Composers at Cabrillo included John Corigliano, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, and John Adams.

Wm: What attracts you to opera?

CK: The reason why opera is special is because a great story is paired with great music. That’s why I love opera. I would not be interested in seeing “Tosca” as a play. The drama in “Tosca” is enhanced by Puccini’s music.

Wm: What are your thoughts about your first season at the Santa Fe Opera.

CK:  Since this is my first new production of an opera, I don’t have the experience of having worked with other productions. But everyone here has been so positive, that I feel we are creating great art. The staff is absolutely first class. It has really been a privilege being here.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis, front, below statue) stands in front of a statue commemorating his role in creating a modern China; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: What role did you have in bringing Huang Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” to the Santa Fe Opera stage?

CK: I actually joined the “Dr SYS” team after the Santa Fe Opera made the bold choice to present it. My role this summer has been to work closely with Huang Ruo and the entire artistic and production team in bringing it to life. In addition to making adjustments to support the drama, which has a very different flow than the premiere with various scene changes, Huang Ruo and I had lengthy conversations about the Western instrumentation, as well as the addition of three Chinese musicians, each playing various different instruments.

As you know, the Hong Kong premiere used a traditional orchestra. Adding the completely new set and the scene changes, in many ways the Santa Fe Opera performances were like the world premiere.

Wm: Do you regard the work as a Chinese opera, or as a “Western music” (as the censors in Beijing implied) with a “Chinese sound”?

CK: I can’t speak for its composer, Huang Ruo, but I don’t consider it a Chinese opera. I think the opera has Eastern influences, not just the language, but through the addition of various Chinese instruments to the complement of Western instruments adds subtlety to the sound. There is also the influence of Eastern philosophy in the story as well as a particular way of singing the Mandarin and Cantonese phrases.

Wm: Let’s take these “Eastern influences” separately. You have three Chinese instrumentalists integrated with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra.

CK: Yes, there are three Chinese musicians, who play several Chinese instruments. One is the pipa, a four-stringed instrument that is rather like a Western lute, or perhaps a guitar. The sheng seems to be the “great-grandfather” of the Western organ, with lots of little pipes. Other instruments correspond to our flutes, reed instruments and strings, but all of the Chinese instruments add a very different color than the sounds of the Western instruments.

Wm: A characteristic of the sung Chinese dialects is a different way of completing a sung phrase than one hears in Western opera.

CK: That is an influence of Chinese opera.

Wm: In your reply on what attracts you to opera, you mentioned the opera “Tosca”, an opera whose pace is one of melodramatic urgency.  Yet much of “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” has a static feel.

CK: To me, one of the essences of the opera is that Sun Yat-Sen never gives up on his goals.  This theme is exemplified in the determination of Sun Yat-Sen to persevere in his goal of leading a revolution against the Qing dynasty.

I believe there exists a difference between Eastern and Western philosophies that are evident in this work. In Eastern philosophy there is no feeling of a need to go somewhere, to move on to the next thing. A Westerner may see this as being static. For me, it is beautiful to just BE.

I think the opera combines East and West in an imaginative way that is neither Chinese nor Western. Much of Huang Ruo’s music has an emotional flavor, particularly when accompanied by the Chinese instruments.

[Below: Doctor Sun Yat-Sen (Joseph Dennis, left) and his wife Ching-Ling (Corinne Winters, right) work together to overthrow China’s Qing Dynasty; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: Yet, I found some of the most effective parts of the opera were those of the revolutionary mobs, exemplified by the action pieces for the chorus. The dance sequences inspired by martial arts were particularly interesting.

CK: I think James Robinson’s staging deliberately sought to display Sun Yat-Sen’s personality and the strength of character of his impressive wife, Ching-Ling. The two are not only engaged in a forbidden love affair, but they share an ideology that is intent on bringing about revolutionary change in China.

There are tender moments between Sun Yat-Sen and Ching Ling and, of course, the sympathetic portrayal of Sun Yat-Sen’s first wife, who is truly a victim, crippled by the old social order.

Wm: You have assumed the music directorship of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Also, you have two important opera assignments coming up, conducting the Washington National Opera 2014-15 season’s first opera at the Kennedy Center with Catan’s “Florencia en el Amazonas”, and opening the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival with Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. Would you comment on these assignments?

CK: My alma mater, Smith College, is less than 50 miles from Hartford, Connecticut, which is now my home.

It is absolutely thrilling to work with companies like the Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, and the Glimmerglass Festival. Each is unique and wonderful in its own way.

[Below: Carolyn Kuan conducting; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of Carolyn Kuan.]


“Florencia” is an amazingly beautiful score with rich lushness and vivid colors. All of us can relate to the emotions of the characters, and the music heightens everything.

I, of course, have long admired Francesca Zambello. It will be amazing to finally work with her at Washington National Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival. “The Magic Flute” that opens the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival will be a new production, inspired by Native American folklore. What a fabulous idea!  I very much look forward to working with the production’s creator, Madeline Savet!

I’m very pleased to be conducting for both the Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass seasons

Wm: Thank you, Carolyn. I expect to see you again next summer in Glimmerglass.

CK: Thanks.