March 8, 2018
Interview with conductor, Jessica Cottis
How did you get into conducting and establish your career?
Spending my early 20s studying and working as an organist in Paris and London, I subsequently developed a wrist injury which meant I couldn’t continue playing. After studying law for a while I happened upon an extraordinary performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera. The colours, from both stage and pit, were overwhelming. What a sound. There was a communion between singers and orchestra and, from this moment, I knew I had to conduct. It was like a match struck suddenly in the dark.
Sitting at the organ is not unlike being right in the middle of your own enormous orchestra, so this felt a natural progression. I studied at the Royal Academy of Music and in 2009, my final year there, applied for the job of Conducting Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Assistant Conductor at the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I won the positions and this marked the beginning of my freelance career, particularly here in the UK, developing relationships first with BBC orchestras, and leading on from this, with RPO, LPO, Liverpool Philharmonic, the Royal Opera House and so on. I also spent two years in a similar post with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, working closely with Vladimir Ashkenazy. On the strength of my work there, very quickly a substantial career in Australia also developed. In terms of establishing myself, a positive snowball effect has developed and I’m now also enjoying working with wonderful orchestras in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and the US.
How much of your work is in opera, and how does opera differ from the other genres in which you work?
Most of my work is as a symphonic conductor, yet I always make time for at least a couple of operas every season. The two disciplines nourish each other, opera especially so. Working in the opera house has deepened my understanding of how music can express the psychology of character, even when there is no text. And, of course, all music has to breathe: working with singers really attunes this.
This year I’m conducting Na’ama Zisser’s new opera ‘Mamzer/Bastard’ for the Royal Opera. I can’t wait. There is an aching sense of mystery in her writing, it’s like no other and is often surprising.
What do you love about your job?
The music, every note of it.
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
Gender is no way relevant to the challenges of my job. Whether male or female, a conductor has to inspire, listen, and bring out the very best from everyone.
What do you think needs to be done in order to balance out the male to female conductor ratio that we currently see in opera? What is already being done?
I’m often asked in interviews ‘why aren’t there more female conductors?’. It’s a good question but I don’t know why, in 2018, we still need to ask it. Alex Ross has said “the art of conducting is wrapped up in mythologies of male power”, but really there is no good reason why there should still be an imbalance. Talent, vision and creativity are gender-blind.
Over the last couple of years I’ve led a programme—set up by Alice Farnham—for aspiring female conductors, focusing on contemporary classical music. On the course are composers who are looking for guidance in how to direct their own works, and promising conductors who’d like to know more about the complexities and paradoxes of new music. I find it impossible not to think about the impact of my own work. Ultimately, if we’re going to encourage more women to become conductors we need to challenge established hierarchies by fostering both hands-on experience and visibility of inspirational role models. It’s hugely heartening when change is evident: I still get letters from little girls saying “I saw you conduct at the Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms and I want to be a conductor just like you when I grow up.” How wonderful is that! A future filled with of possibility.
What do you think are the biggest barriers for conductors who have families?
It’s a nomadic lifestyle. Conductors often spend an enormous amount of time travelling, and there are also the hours of intense silent study. I think this can at times be exceedingly difficult for the people we love.
Which operatic heroines particularly interest you?
Brünnhilde, Jenufa, Leonore, and, whilst not strictly a heroine, the Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos.
Which women in the opera industry do you admire?
There are so many women in the opera industry I admire. Simone Young, the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera and at the Opéra Bastille, really stands out to me, especially because of her incredible knowledge, intellect, work ethic and sheer drive to create great art.
image © Kaupo Kikkas