Leader of the pack: The strange art of conducting

Elaine Kelly forged a dynamic path with Irish National Opera during lockdown

Cork musician Elaine Kelly won the the inaugural ESB Feis Ceoil Orchestral Conducting Competition back in April 2014. The competition was held in conjunction with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and Kelly made her concert debut with the orchestra in a lunchtime concert at the National Concert Hall the following August.

It was by any reckoning an auspicious debut for a still inexperienced conductor. There was nothing effortful in her work, no sign that she was daunted by the big occasion. She asserted herself, musically and technically, without having to make any show about it. As if it was something she had been doing her whole life.

As I wrote at the time, "The talent may be there, but the Irish training ground is closed." The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's assistant conductor post, which David Brophy and Gavin Maloney had benefited from, had disappeared in one of RTÉ's rounds of cutbacks.

Her big opportunity has instead come from the world of opera, where Arts Council policy has restored regular provision to Dublin since 2018.

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Kelly became a member of Irish National Opera’s ABL Aviation Opera Studio in 2019. That saw her working as chorus director and assistant conductor on individual productions. And the disruption of the pandemic increased her workload, with INO’s productivity burgeoning online while theatres were closed.

She conducted nine of the short operas in INO’s 20 Shots of Opera, a project – 20 new operas composed, rehearsed and filmed in lockdown – that brought her work to the attention of an international audience. The Wall Street Journal called it “an exhilarating jaunt through up-to-the-minute lyric creativity”.

Kelly, who exited the studio this year, has now been appointed the company’s first ever resident conductor. She was already slated to conduct the tour of Peter Maxwell Davies’s horror opera The Lighthouse, which opens in Dundalk on Saturday, November 20th. The new post puts her involvement with all INO productions on a formal footing.

Violin training

Conducting was not the initial focus of her musical ambitions. She trained as a violinist in the Cork School of Music, and conducting was just a minor part of the course there. She enjoyed it but was blind to the opportunities it might have presented. “I absolutely adored it,” she says.  “But it never clicked with me that this was a possibility. It was just part of college.”

That all changed when she worked in San Francisco on a J1 visa, and saw an outdoor concert by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by a young woman. "She was brilliant, so engaging, so fantastic, so young, just a couple of years older than me. And I thought, That is actually really cool. I got straight on to emailing my conducting lecturer, Alan Cutts.

“I hadn’t been sure about continuing conducting, and he had been trying to get me to do it. I was going into my final year of the degree and the modules were already full. I asked could I please take conducting elective. He got back straight away and said, ‘There’s always room for you. I’ll put you into that list.’ And from then it just took off.”

She explains the difference between her experiences of violin-playing and conducting. “I could always hear how I wanted whatever I played on the violin to sound. I always had a clear musical idea of it. I wasn’t ever proficient enough on the violin to be able to do it. I was never able to deliver what was in my head. And that was frustrating. I found, without having to think too much about what I was doing, I was able to really communicate what was in my head when conducting.”

Conducting is probably the most mysterious and widely misunderstood of musical callings. Someone, usually a man, waves his hands in the air, the players respond and music is made. The technique is complicated, yet musicians who have no training in it can actually conduct with great artistic success. And highly trained conducting wizards can be as dull as dishwater.

Kelly heaps praise on her teacher, the late Alan Cutts, and hesitantly suggests he deserves the word "genius". "Extraordinary conductor. Amazing teacher." She went on to study under George Hurst, the first principal conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra back in 1990, at the end of his life at the Sherborne Summer School of Music.

“A lot of people say that I was the one who killed him,” she jokes. “I didn’t. There were worse people than me on the course.” She describes herself as not really knowing what she was doing at that stage, but admits she had a lead on most of her fellow students. “It came to me more naturally. I see some students really having to think about the gestures, what they are and where your hand goes – if you want to do the second beat you have to go here, and how do you lift out of this pause. When I was a student I didn’t have to really think about all of that.”

Beautiful sound

We talk about the story of the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler coming into the back of the hall when a not very successful conductor was having a frustrating rehearsal with the Berlin Philharmonic. The moment Furtwängler was spotted, the playing improved. When he left it went back to what it had been before.

Kelly has a personal experience on the same lines. “In my final year with George Hurst, I was conducting, and he was right behind me. I thought I was doing the business. He just stopped me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know [she almost whispers this].’ He literally stepped back and went [she makes a tiny, right-hand conducting gesture], and the orchestra sounded so beautiful, like it was the most beautiful sound ever. It was a really good lesson. What was so different for him versus me? I really got it. Because I wasn’t just watching it. I was part of that, where you’re seeing how different it can be. And why.”

She joined the ABL Studio in September 2019 and talks enthusiastically of the first production she worked on. She was chorus director and assistant conductor for Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which was nominated for the Best Production award in The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards.

She says the buzz was so great that nothing could ever beat it “as my first main-scale opera. You were just watching hundreds of people, all the backstage crew, the chorus ready to run on, Fergus [Sheil, conductor and INO artistic director] on his monitor, the orchestra, the cast singing way, the audience out there.

“What I love about it is that every single person in that theatre that night had a job, a role to play in this opera going ahead. My role was to make sure the offstage chorus were singing in time and with Fergus’s downbeat. It’s all so important. But it doesn’t fall on one person, either. Every single person is so important to putting this on. Which is terrifying and exciting as well. Because it tells you how many things could possibly go wrong.”

Opera karaoke

She sings the praises of INO, and says that – because “they’re dynamic, they’re interested, they’re innovative” – she ended up doing much more during the pandemic than was originally planned. “I’ve been involved in recording, in filming, being in the studios, wearing the headphones, going through scores, checking every note on the recording, worrying about lip-synching ... and Strauss’s Elektra, recording a huge backing track, like opera karaoke.”

And of course, The Lighthouse, an opera based on the real-life, mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900. “An extraordinary work. Incredibly challenging for everybody involved. And for the audience, it’s an intense musical and dramatic experience.”

“I adore my job now,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier. I’m wrecked all the time. I’ve been bitten by a bug. Opera, for me, is the ultimate. And I’m getting to do it at home, in my own country.”

The Lighthouse is on tour from Saturday, November 20th, to Saturday, December 11th. irishnationalopera.ie