LOS ANGELES — US conductor James Conlon, who worked at the Paris Opera for nearly a decade, likes the "visceral" passion of opera goers in Los Angeles even if he feels at home in more "intellectual" France.
Conlon, who this weekend will launch the LA opera's new season, says audiences on the West Coast are generally "young," in cultural terms at least, as well as curious, enthusiastic and not as critical.
"Every time I go to Paris I feel like I've never left," the former principal conductor of the Paris Opera told AFP, his conversation switching effortlessly between English and French. "For me it's like being at home."
But he added: "Los Angeles is a young audience. Not because it's young people, but it's young culturally. This opera company is 25 years old. It's a huge difference from Paris opera, for example."
The LA opera's 2011/12 season will include performances of Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."
Conlon, musical director of the LA Opera since 2006, says he is an unashamed workaholic, pushing his musicians to the limit to produce the absolute best performance they can.
"I rehearse intensely everywhere I am. Any opera house that I would be involved with can expect not just a commitment of time in terms of months, but also in terms of intensity of work," he said.
"I come here in the morning, I leave at midnight, almost every day. For me, an opera house and a symphony orchestra needs that type of commitment... Unfortunately it's become more rare in our world. But that's the way I am."
But while his way of working is the same wherever he is, audiences are definitely different, he said.
"There is absolutely no difference in the way that I make music or conduct, because in essence, the primary relationship of the director, the artist, is with the music itself," he said.
But of LA opera-goers, he said: "The good side of a young audience is that people are very open and willing to listen, curious and enthusiastic. People have their opinions, but they are not a critical audience."
"There is curiosity in a very intellectual way, in Paris. Here, in LA, it's in a very visceral way," he said.
Conlon is certainly no intellectual slouch himself: he cites the Renaissance concept of the "homo universalis" to describe his widespread passions, not only limited to music.
"I'm thirsty to know everything ... not only in music but in life," he said.
In terms of music, the global economic slowdown has made it even more important to choose the right repertoire.
"We have to be very smart about how to provide very high quality to our audience," he said, adding: "We try to provide a good balance of repertoire.
"You have to be sure to give the audience every taste of what is part of our tradition and at the same time to develop the company's ability to deal with all styles, from Baroque to contemporary."
Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who will this season sing Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" under Conlon's direction, is full of praise for the American.
"I have always been struck by his expertise in every single corner of the repertoire, whether it?s core repertoire like Verdi or Mozart, or more unusual programming," Domingo said.
"Our musicians have enormous respect and affection for him, and the orchestra has never sounded better. The Ring cycles he conducted here last summer were incredible.
"He also has an uncanny understanding of voices, and singers love to collaborate with him. I certainly do. I love the energy he brings to the company."
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