Dane Lam, Conductor, Opera Queensland's La Traviata

Opera aspires, above all others, to unite every aspect of creative endeavour: music, poetry, drama, design, language, visual art, prose and everything else.

In all of music, the conductor is one of the most recognised and revered positions. The crucial cog that dictates pace and tone in any orchestral setting, conductors are akin to being the rock stars of the classical realm. Dane Lam is one of the world’s best young conductors. He’s performed across three continents with a host of leading international orchestras and opera companies, but right now he’s working as resident conductor and associate music director of Opera Queensland, a massive boon for our local opera scene. Dane will be conducting the upcoming production of Verdi’s La Traviata – a seminal piece of opera beloved the world over. We spoke to Dane about how he forged his path as a conductor and what audiences can expect when Opera Queensland performs La Traviata from July 14–23.

We’d love to start by getting some insight into when your passion for music began. Can you recall any formative moments that sparked your interest in opera music specifically?
I’d always been captivated by the theatre and drama unfolding on stage. In fact, my very first career aspiration, when I was about four years old, was to be an actor (and you could probably argue that being a conductor makes heavy demands on one’s dramatic skills). I’d played piano and clarinet from an early age and then had the good fortune to gain an excellent music education in the Queensland State School System (a gem for propagating a love of music that we must fight to maintain and grow!) So when it became clear that conducting was for me, my love of drama and languages pointed to opera as a likely musical path. I’ve never looked back.

Even those not familiar with opera know that the conductor is an extremely important role, but most wouldn’t know what it takes to become one. What path did you take to becoming a conductor and what is required to perform the job at the highest level?
I was fortunate to come along at a time when the Federal Government through Symphony Australia was making a massive investment in training the next generation of Australian conductors through its Conductor Development Program. From the age of eighteen I had the invaluable opportunity of working with all of Australia’s professional orchestras under the guidance of eminent conductors. At the same time, I received a thorough grounding in the fundaments of music through my undergraduate studies at the University of Queensland. This led to me being accepted for my Master of Music at The Juilliard School in New York followed by a Fellowship at The Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – and that basic training was just the beginning!

The conducting profession still works best through the master-apprentice model. I still count myself lucky to have been mentored by some of the greats of the profession: Kurt Masur, Sir Mark Elder, Gianluigi Gelmetti, and James DePreist. Latterly I’ve been able to benefit from the experience of the great English opera conductor, David Parry.

What would you say are the biggest challenges in your line of work?
The biggest challenge of being a conductor at the highest level is balancing competing demands and priorities inherent in leading a large group of highly-trained musicians to create a convincing, powerful performance based on fairly arbitrary marking on a piece of paper. How loud is loud? How fast is fast? And does the composer literally mean those eight notes should sound equally heavy or should it sound more like a beating heart?

The conductor needs to make decisions on how this particularly performance should go while remaining open to new interpretative contributions offered by orchestral members and singers. Once that interpretation is clear in your mind then you need to rely on your arsenal of gestures, built up over years of training, experience and human interactions that will transmit the musical intentions to the musicians without uttering a word – time is money, after all! In the end though, conducting is about leadership. How do you persuade, cajole, convince a group of musicians to follow you?

You’re currently working as Opera Queensland’s resident conductor and associate music director – can you give us some insight into what that role entails?
I work closely with Patrick Nolan (Opera Queensland CEO and artistic director) and Narelle French (head of music) in putting together various programs, consult on casting decisions, and am generally around as a sounding board and a conductorial pair of hands to help the music come to life. I also get a kick out of speaking with audiences about the music and so I’ve increasingly added hosting performances to my duties. And, of course, the greatest pleasure of my role in 2022 is conducting this awesome production of La Traviata.

We can’t wait to take in Opera Queensland’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata! For the uninitiated, can you give us some insight into the history of this opera – particularly its themes and importance within the greater operatic landscape?
La Traviata is arguably the most performed opera in the world. It is replete with hummable tunes, soaring voices, and relatable human stories. The opera came along at a time in history when our protagonist Violetta’s profession as a sex worker was highly contentious. Yet Verdi, in a deeply conservative, Catholic Italy, chose to use music to make Violetta the only truly sympathetic character in the opera. He literally gave voice to the marginalised. This is something that opera has been doing, subversively, for centuries. And apart from these political aspects, there are so many vibrant, emotive, powerful set pieces that speak directly to our emotional sides.

What are some ways that you, director Sarah Giles and the rest of the Opera Queensland team have worked together to reinvigorate La Traviata for this production?
Opera is such a collaborative art form. It aspires, above all others, to unite every aspect of creative endeavour: music, poetry, drama, design, language, visual art, prose and everything else. Working with Sarah Giles has been a supremely collaborative process. I love it when, in a rehearsal room, the director and conductor can bounce ideas off each other, challenging the other to interrogate the work in a myriad of ways. This spirit of collaboration ensures that the production transcends the mundane and the self-importance of individuals and creates something universal for our audiences.

Throughout your career you’ve worked with countless Australian and international orchestras and opera companies – do you have any moments that stick out as career highlights?
My London mainstage debut at Opera Holland Park conducting Rossini’s La cenerentola was a milestone in my career. I was thankful to be welcomed into the UK operatic landscape by artists, audiences, and critics alike. Another highlight was performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra (of which I am Principal Conductor) at the world heritage site of the Terracotta Warriors, just outside of Xi’an. Closer to home, my debut at the Sydney Opera House conducting La bohème was very special.

Finally, do you have any personal mantras that you adhere to, be it creatively or how you live your daily life?
I can’t say I adhere to any mantras consciously. I am always aiming to be more present in daily life which, at its peak, can translate into those “moments of flow” in performance. And, as important as music is to me as my overriding life’s passion, it’s also important to remind oneself that the most important things in life are friends, family, and love in all its incarnations. To be surrounded by loved ones, who wouldn’t care if I made a pig’s ear of a performance, is truly a gift.

Opera Queensland will be performing Verdi’s La Traviata at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre from July 14–23 – tickets are moving fast, so be sure to snag one quickly!

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