This spring, as he prepared to rehearse Susannah at the Met, CBS News Sunday Morning Arts Correspondent Eugenia Zuckerman found out what makes him one of the most accomplished conductors of his generation.
On a spring morning, there was electricity in the air at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It was the final dress rehearsal of the opera Susannah, written by American composer Carlisle Floyd nearly 40 years ago.
The opera Susannah had been performed around the world more than 800 times, and now had finally come to the Met, starring Renee Fleming, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley, with James Conlon as conductor.
"I find that opera is a humanizing experience," says James Conlon. "We are able to see and hear people live out very, very basic, important life experiences in an artistic way that gives us an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and reflect on our own deepest feelings."
James Conlon grew up in Queens, New York. His parents, both labor union activists who met on a picket line, took him to the North Shore Opera Company when he was 11.
"And I would say within six months my entire life had changed. It's just suddenly I felt that I had seen something that had so completely taken over my personality and fascinated me that that I didn't want to live without it," he says.
Conlon's big break is a classic story. A conductor of a scheduled performance of La Boheme falls ill. The diva Maria Callas recommends James Conlon, a 22-year-old Juilliard student, as his replacement.
"She said 'take him,' so I loved her already. I absolutely adored her after that. And that was how I got my start," he recalls.
Now 49, Conlon is married to soprano Jennifer Ringo and they have two daughters, Luisa and Emma. While they keep an apartment near Lincoln Center in New York, home is Paris. His career is centered in Europe.
"The choice to go to Europe was developed naturally out of a personal attraction to Europe. I was always curious and fascinated with it for a reason I can't explain. Once I started traveling there, that fascination became a passion," he says.
This is Conlon's third season as principal conductor of the Paris Opera, his primary job. He's the first American to hold what has been considered a risky position since the two previous conductors, Myung Wha Chung and Daniel Barenboim, were unceremoniously fired.
Conlon, however, felt no trepidation about taking the job. "I took this absolutely because I instinctively felt that it was the riht thing for me. And that I was the right person for what they need at this time," he says.
"I think that this vision of Paris and the Paris Opera as so terribly dangerous is, of course, exaggerated. Yes, events have taken place in Paris unlike any other place in the world. And they can repeat themselves. And if I'm the third one, I don't care. What difference does it make? I will have done whatever work that I set out to do" he says.
Conlon also spends time each year in Germany, as general music director for the City of Cologne. "When they offered me the position, they said, 'we would like you to become generalmusicdirector.' That's a German word. It's one long word. They love long words. That's a word!"
But it's the German love of music that makes him feel at home there.
"I would say that music means so much to so many people that you feel a value. You feel valued as a musician. You feel valued as an interpreter." Conlon says. "They don't go to the concert to be seen, to show off jewelry, or anything like that. They go to the concerts to listen to music."
Conlon is as passionate about choral music and symphonic music as he is about opera. This month he is celebrating his 20th anniversary as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival, the oldest choral festival in the U.S.
Whether he is conducting in Cincinnati or with the New York Philharmonic, he has one guiding principle. "Surrendering your personality, making yourself empty. As empty as possible of your own ego to let the music flow through you," he says. "And to inspire other people who are with you at that given moment, in this room, together on this stage. To express what you see as the composition together with what they see as the composition."
At the Aspen Music Festival, he works with young singers helping them to discover their own musical personalities. After 25 years as a successful international conductor, James Conlon has an important message for young artists:
"My attitude is a way of life. It's not about career. The older I get the more I hate the notions of career and profession as we were taught them when we were young.
There isn't one of us that hasn't had great reviews. There isn't one of us that hasn't had terrible reviews. I've got a drawer full of them. I mean, after a while, it just does not matter any longer, because it's not about that.
It is about moving people, taking them from one place to another through the medium of music. That's the only thing I love, and that kind of passion of music is what keeps me going."
If you would like to be moved by music visit the Metropolitan Opera House Web site for program information.
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