Last night The Winter’s Tale returned to the Royal Opera House for its third run since it was created by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot for the Royal Ballet in 2014. And even though the three-act ballet is fast becoming a staple of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire, a few opening-night nerves wouldn’t have been surprising – particularly if, as the conductor, you were making your Royal Opera House debut and you also happened to be eight months’ pregnant.
But Alondra de la Parra is taking it all in her stride. When she talks to me a day later, rave reviews are already beginning to trickle in: ‘The pacing is carried along by Alondra de la Parra’s vibrant conducting of Joby Talbot’s score’ (The Independent); ‘Talbot’s coruscating score is given a potent performance by the house orchestra under Alondra de la Parra (The Telegraph). But de la Parra hasn’t even seen them. She’s resting up, nursing a cold, and conserving her energy. Yes, there’s always the pressure of opening night, she says, but, with her second child due at the beginning of April, it was also about finding ‘the physical endurance’ required for two performances – one run-through, and then the first show – on the same day.
Not that she’s complaining. Having conducted performances of The Winter’s Tale in Brisbane as part of the Royal Ballet’s Australian tour last summer, she has grown to know and love the production and the dancers. ‘It was a special night for me,’ she says. ‘When I see the dancers on stage, and what the music does to them, it’s so inspiring. It really pushed me to do my best.’
Known internationally for her performances of and commitment to the music of Latin America, de la Parra founded the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas back in 2004. Last year she began her term as Music Director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, making her the first ever Music Director (a new, more all-encompassing role than the usual position of Chief Conductor) of an Australian orchestra. It would seem then, on paper at least, that ballet conducting isn’t exactly within this conductor’s comfort zone.
But in fact, de la Parra has loved ballet since she was a girl. ‘I studied eight years of classical ballet and my stepmother was a professional ballet dancer, so I’ve always been close to the ballet world,’ she says. ‘I really appreciate it as an art form, and it was always my ambition to conduct ballet.’ Prior to The Winter’s Tale in Brisbane last year, de la Parra had conducted The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet and several ballet galas in New York and Mexico. But few biographies of her mention these performances. ‘Ballet conductors are invisible,’ she laughs. ‘In mainstream classical music, ballet isn’t seen as an integral part of a career – whereas I see that it really is.’
We talk about the traditional ‘accompanying’ role of ballet music and how that may have helped feed the misconception that a ballet conductor is merely an accompanist. ‘But it’s not accompanying at all,’ she insists. ‘It’s absolutely a collaboration. You’re creating some kind of trust with the dancer. It’s an unspoken bond, it’s like you’re reading each other. You’re giving them something to dance off from.’
De la Parra wonders if some of the negative attitudes towards ballet conducting as a profession stem from how challenging it is to pull off. ‘The instincts you need to conduct ballet are tremendously difficult – as difficult, if not more so, as in opera. The work of so many others depend on the music, and that can be daunting and scary sometimes. But I enjoy it.’
There’s also a fair amount of preparation involved, particularly when – as in this production – there are multiple casts: ‘You have to get into the studio to know the dancers and learn the choreography,’ she says. ‘You need to feel the timing of it, and how it relates to the music; to know when the dancers need more of a “breath”, and when it needs to flow.’
Making compromises in terms of tempi to suit the dancers can be irksome for some ballet conductors, but not de la Parra: ‘Yes, the music sometimes has to be stretched in ways you wouldn’t normally stretch it,’ she says. ‘But I’ve had conversations with dancers and choreographers and told them, “We’re losing the pacing here”, and generally they listen. It’s not set in stone.’
Working with Christopher Wheeldon has been a particular joy for de la Parra, who first met the choreographer 10 years ago in New York. They subsequently worked together for a project that brought together Wheeldon’s Morphoses company with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. ‘We hit it off immediately,’ she recalls. ‘We had similar companies and we wanted similar things artistically.’
De la Parra believes that Wheeldon has created something ‘very approachable and direct’ with The Winter’s Tale, for which Joby Talbot’s score can take equal credit. ‘What Joby has done is remarkable,’ she says. ‘The score is full of rhythm and complexity – it’s hard to play whether or not someone is dancing to it.’ Not that the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House have struggled with it too much. ‘They’re so gifted,’ she says with admiration. ‘I don’t think many orchestras have the workload that they have. It’s extraordinary what they’re able to do. And we’re having fun!’
Directing the onstage musicians – an Indian bamboo flute, African and South American drums, hammer dulcimer and accordion – has added to de la Parra’s challenges, but it has helped that they’re the same musicians who played in Brisbane and know exactly what they’re doing. ‘It’s an amazing team of professionals at the Royal Opera House,’ she says. ‘It’s great to see how everyone does their job flawlessly to get the show to be what it is.’
De la Parra has always said that the only time the ‘gender issue’ raises its head is in interviews. So once again, the question has to be asked – but this time in the context of ballet conducting. She is the first female conductor at the Royal Ballet for many years – how significant is that? ‘I acknowledge that there haven’t been many women at Covent Garden, and that’s terrible but that doesn’t change my work as an artist,’ she says. ‘Women are very strong, but so are men. Everyone is unique.’
Has gender ever been a disadvantage to her as a conductor? ‘It’s hard to say,’ she says. ‘Conductors always face resistance – rejection, challenges … It’s a hard job to have, whoever you are.’
And what about positive discrimination? Has she ever been given a conducting job because she’s a woman? ‘If someone’s giving me a concert because they want a woman, they’re not going to tell me that,’ she says. ‘So maybe it has happened – but I wouldn’t necessarily know about it.’
She continues: ‘You have to really want this job, you have to be obsessed with music and want to dedicate your life to it. It’s not something you can do on the side. But it’s a beautiful job all the same.’
As if proof of her enthusiasm were needed, de la Parra launches into her plans for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. ‘We have plans to tour and record,’ she says. ‘We’re engaging with younger audiences and the community, and changing a little bit how we reach audiences – so you might see a beatboxer with orchestra, or music by 20th-century composers mashed with new music by younger composers. We plan to collaborate with our sister ballet and opera companies, and we’re expanding our education and outreach programmes. It’s really exciting.’
The Winter’s Tale runs until March 21; Alondra de la Parra conducts performances on February 15, 16 and 24. For tickets, visit roh.org.uk