PeopleWhat I Do

‘You have to be mad to be a conductor ... We’re a weird breed’

What I Do: Elaine Kelly is a resident conductor with the Irish National Opera

I was on a J1 back in college and went to see the San Francisco Symphony orchestra outside on a gorgeous day overlooking the city skyline. The orchestra finished tuning up and out walks this female conductor. To this day, I remember something clicked inside me. I sat there, completely in awe, and watched the concert with a different energy about me.

Before that moment, I never thought of conducting as a possible career. I hadn’t ever seen somebody like me doing it. I couldn’t wait to go home and email my college lecturer to ask to be in his conducting module. Thankfully he accepted me, and that’s where it all started.

I’m 34, from outside Mallow, Co Cork, and work as a resident conductor with the Irish National Opera and a freelance conductor based in Dublin.

Music was always a massive thing in our family, and I started to play the violin very young. At college in the Cork School of Music, conducting was one of the modules and it was just a different kind of a buzz.


After trying my hand at it for a while, in 2014 I won the Feis Ceoil Orchestral Conducting competition in its first year, earning the prize of conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at a special concert. It was terrifying. I was still pretty fresh into conducting at the age of 24, and I remember being so scared. But performing with such a talented, welcoming and supportive orchestra – that’s what you live for, isn’t it?

When you are so certain of your interpretation of a piece, it can’t help but come out in your gestures. That’s what you work your ass off for

I now work on most of our operas as an assistant conductor, preparing the score and ready to step in for the conductor at a moment’s notice. I also conduct myself and I’m the course director at the Irish National Opera, preparing people to sing in upcoming operas.

When you conduct, you learn and interpret a musical score and communicate that to the musicians. It’s quite an incredible thing that through a physical movement or facial expression you can convey an idea that’s in your mind, and the musicians can pick that up.

My right hand with the baton does the timing and the left hand is shaping the music: How loud or quiet do you want it? How smooth or short? What’s the character of the music that you want? When you drive a car, you’re thinking of your first gear and second gear, and after a while it becomes second nature. It’s like that in conducting. When you are so certain of your interpretation of a piece, it can’t help but come out in your gestures. That’s what you work your ass off for.

I really loved living in Cork, but Dublin is a different beast. I’m a 34-year-old adult with a full-time job in conducting, yet I’m having to rent a room because Dublin is just impossible. It’s incredibly defeating. You’ve trained to a certain level, you’re working hard every day, and you still don’t have a place to come home to call your own. You have no choice but to share with someone you didn’t know.

Recently friends and family were ringing me asking if I’d seen Tár, Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-nominated film. I was really excited to see it. How incredible to have a movie, firstly about a conductor, but secondly about a female conductor. But honestly, I did not enjoy the movie. They had an opportunity to get people really interested in conducting, but it just wasn’t there. I don’t know whether it was a true portrayal of the job either.

I’m not gonna lie, conducting is incredibly demanding. It’s a seven-days-a-week job. There are no weekends, no start or end time – you’re up first thing in the morning studying before rehearsal, which could be from 10am to 10pm, and then you come home to study for the next production. I do that every day.

Nobody goes into this thinking it’s purely for fun: it’s work, and it’s lonely

Work is constantly on your mind. Even if you’re going for dinner, you’re thinking about that passage that just doesn’t sit right yet. Because they are long days and endless weeks, I spend months away from family and friends. I’ve had maybe a day off every few weeks, but that day is generally spent preparing a score. December was the last time I had a week off – to go to New York for my debut there – and the next will be in June.

You don’t sign up to it lightly. Nobody goes into this thinking it’s purely for fun: it’s work, and it’s lonely. You’re constantly on the road, on your own and away, always focusing the music. It’s your whole life and it takes its toll on family and friends. We’re a weird breed clearly. But that was my choice and I’ve dedicated my time to building my career. Regardless, conducting is the biggest privilege and pleasure.

You have to be mad to be a conductor. When you think about it, in an opera you could have 80 people in the pit and 70 people on stage, and there you are holding it together and asking them to sing or play your interpretation. You have to be really strong. – In conversation with Conor Capplis