Emotional Journey

A Met classic, Anthony Minghella’s powerful staging of Madama Butterfly returns this month, with soprano Aleksandra Kurzak starring as the tragic heroine. On the podium is Chinese conductor Xian Zhang (pictured above in rehearsal), now in her eighth season as music director of the New Jersey Symphony and third year as principal guest conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Maestro Zhang recently spoke to the Met’s Christopher Browner about the experience that launched her conducting career and her connection to Puccini’s heartbreaking masterpiece.

You were previously an assistant conductor with our neighbors at the New York Philharmonic, so debuting at the Met must feel like a homecoming of sorts.

It’s so nice to be back. I used to live on West 70th Street, and it felt like I was living in Lincoln Center day and night. The schedule with the Philharmonic was always very tight, but whenever I could, I used to get standing room tickets at the Met. I just wish I could have seen more. I’ve always loved opera—actually, my public debut as a conductor was leading The Marriage of Figaro.

Did you study music from an early age?

My parents trained me on the piano from the age of three. I thought that I would continue down that path until I met my conducting teacher when I was 16. She was leading a lot of opera productions, and I was her répétiteur, accompanying rehearsals on the piano. And then, the night before the sitzprobe for The Marriage of Figaro, she came to my dorm and asked me to run the rehearsal. I was only 20. I had studied orchestral conducting for two years, but it was my first time actually conducting a full orchestra. The musicians started giggling because they were expecting my teacher and instead saw this little girl. But it ended up going well, and she asked me to conduct the two performances as well.

You spend much of your time leading concerts, but you also maintain a steady diet of opera. Do you approach an opera differently than an orchestral work?

To me, symphonic conducting and operatic conducting are very, very different. In opera, there’s so much following and listening. In a symphonic work, I determine most of the structure and lead the orchestra to go the way that I have chosen. But in opera, I try to leave much more space for the singers. Instrumentalists tend to be more predictable in the sense that, once we have rehearsed, they play each performance in a certain way. But singers may be different every night, which is also great because it makes the live performance very exciting. And in opera, when everything comes together, the gratification is really tremendous because it’s a much larger force.

BFLY23_1690a combo for web.jpgA scene from Madama Butterfly

What do you enjoy most about conducting Madama Butterfly?

Even before I ever conducted the opera, I remember attending performances and was very moved. The feelings of love and abandonment and betrayal that you have in this story are universal across cultures. As a conductor, it’s particularly special to me because Puccini gave such a large role to the orchestra. From the very beginning, the orchestra is like an unnamed role in the story. Puccini uses these little cells, these small musical fragments and motifs, throughout to build the story. So my job as a conductor is really about pacing and building a structure out of these musical fragments.

Which moments in the opera do you particularly look forward to?

Of course I enjoy the most famous bits—Cio-Cio-San’s aria “Un bel dì,” the love duet in Act I, the Humming Chorus—but my favorite part is actually Act III. It opens with this large orchestral interlude to set the stage, but then, Puccini makes the rest of the music very sparse. It creates a space that really builds the anticipation and tension—the longer we wait for something to occur, the more powerful the experience when it finally comes. The amount of suspense that Puccini builds into the score leading up to the tragic ending really shows his mastery of theater and drama.