From Africa to Baltimore: The long path to education for a Hopkins star

Sara Jobin will become first woman to conduct an opera at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
"I just want to think about the music," says Sara Jobin, first woman to conduct an opera at the Lyric.

The Lyric Opera House has been galvanized by the voices of some extraordinary women during its 122-year history, starting with Nellie Melba on opening night and going on to include such luminaries as Beverly Sills and Renata Scotto. Another notable woman, soprano legend Rosa Ponselle, was at the helm of the old Baltimore Opera Company for many years after her retirement from the stage.

But for nearly a century and a quarter, the podium in the orchestra pit has been the sole domain of men for opera productions — until this week, when Sara Jobin conducts Lyric Opera Baltimore's production of Rossini's perennially popular comedy "The Barber of Seville."

"Thank God — finally!" Jobin says with a smile, seated inside the Lyric during a break from rehearsals. "But I just want to think about the music. It's not about me."

Still, the occasion does seem to warrant at least a little fuss.

"I could find no record of a female conducting an opera production here," says James Harp, artistic director of Lyric Opera Baltimore, which rose from the ashes of the old opera company that folded in 2009 and is part of the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.

Sarah Caldwell, who made history in 1976 as the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, appeared at the Lyric the following year. But that was as guest conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She slipped a touch of opera into her program, though, opening with the overture to none other than "The Barber of Seville."

"I'm honored to be conducting where Sarah Caldwell conducted," Jobin says.

The 45-year-old Massachusetts native, named interim resident conductor of the Toledo Symphony and associate conductor of the Toledo Opera last year, has previous experience breaking what she refers to as "the glass podium."

In 2004, Jobin became the first woman to conduct a production at the San Francisco Opera.

"Not by design," she says. "I had been the assistant for a while. Finally, I told them, 'Are you going to let me conduct or not?' They gave me a performance of [Puccini's] 'Tosca.' Then, my first Wagner, 'Der Fliegende Hollander,' with [the major soprano star] Nina Stemme."

Other San Francisco engagements included performances of Philip Glass' "Appomattox" and two other contemporary pieces, Rachel Portman's "The Little Prince" and Nolan Gasser's "The Secret Garden."

Jobin found herself more and more involved with contemporary music.

"My teacher, Charles Bruck at the Pierre Monteux School [in Maine], premiered 500 works," she says. "That really impressed me. My Beethoven Fifth would not be so earth-shattering, but I can be useful to composers of my time."

Those composers include John Musto, whose "Volpone" she conducted at Wolf Trap Opera in 2007; the subsequent recording was nominated for a Grammy. Last summer, Jobin led a workshop of an opera-in-progress based on the novel "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini, with music by Sheila Silver and libretto by Stephen Kitsakos.

"We've been in discussion with some companies about premiering it when it's finished," Jobin says. "It's a beautiful piece and a timely subject about two women in Afghanistan married, both against their will, to the same man — and he's pretty terrible. The women care for each other and they love each other. It's a universal story about hope."

As chief conductor of the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York, an organization that has developed and produced new works since 1982, Jobin stays connected to projects aimed at broadening the art form.

Jim Schaeffer, general and artistic director of the center, calls Jobin "not just a superb woman conductor, she is a superb conductor, period. And I am very happy to see she's getting the opportunities she so richly deserves."

That's the sort of assessment that caught Harp's ear when he started assembling a cast and creative team for "The Barber of Seville," the first of two works Lyric Opera is presenting over the next two months. (Because of financial constraints, the company has not offered a production since November 2014.)

Jobin "has been on my artistic radar screen for a long time," Harp says. "She is very well regarded by her colleagues. I thought 'Barber' would be a wonderful fit for her."

That view is confirmed by Steven LaBrie, a dynamic baritone who stood out in Washington National Opera's "La Boheme" in 2014 and sings the title role of the crafty Figaro in the Baltimore production.

Jobin is "a very pleasant person to work with, so nice to be around," LaBrie says. "On the first day, we asked her what she preferred to be called, 'maestro' or 'maestra,' and she said, 'Call me Sara.' She's just that type of person. She puts herself on an equal standing with everyone. There's no pomp, no feeling of superiority. She's simply one of the cast."

Putting colleagues at ease appears to be a Jobin specialty.

When the Center for Contemporary Opera offered a production in the city of Szeged, Hungary, a few years ago, a local orchestra was hired.

"I was concerned how a tough Eastern European orchestra would respond to a female conductor, a rarity there," Schaeffer says. "Unknown to me, Sara had leaned some Hungarian. At the first rehearsal, within minutes, she had charmed them all and brought about a great performance."

At Lyric Opera Baltimore, Jobin has been engaging singers in discussions about how to approach the music, especially the issue of adding vocal embellishments to the arias, a practice common in Rossini operas.

"She makes you feel comfortable about bringing your ideas to the table," LaBrie says. "And she wants to bring out the humor in the music, just as [stage director Jeffrey Buchman] is bringing it out in the staging. She'll say, 'It'll be funny if you do it this way.'"

The comedy in "Barber" can still click, 200 years after the opera premiered (opening night was a notorious disaster, but that was mostly bad luck and disruptions by fans of a rival composer). The plot concerns a nobleman determined to woo a woman away from her crusty old guardian; local barber and factotum Figaro works his wiles to help facilitate the romance.

"It's a perfect opera for someone who has never seen one before. It's so funny and clever," says LaBrie, who gets to deliver the most famous aria in the work, the one with many shouts of "Figaro, Figaro."

Jobin also sees "Barber" as an ideal piece for the operatically uninitiated. And for seasoned opera-goers, she promises fresh touches. Figaro's aria, for example, will be "full of surprises," she says, and solos for some of the other principal singers will contain "lots of embellishments — the more the better" (in Rossini's time, adding extra notes to melodic lines was standard practice).

"A Rossini opera is kind of like champagne," Jobin says. "It's so frothy. The most fun is the 'Rossini crescendo,' which he made famous. I love conducting those moments, going from very, very piano [Italian for "soft"] and upping the tempo just a tiny bit, while everyone onstage is looking more and more crazy. There is always a lot of hijinks going on in 'Barber.'"

More Rossini operas might figure in Jobin's career.

"Conducting 'William Tell' [a dramatic work about the Swiss folk hero] would be fun," she says. "My background is Swiss. My Swiss grandfather was a truck driver."

Jobin, who also studied at Harvard, did not start out to be a conductor. Her skills as a pianist opened an opportunity to study at the famed Tanglewood Music Center in the Berkshires in 1986, when she was 15.

But when she discovered that any student could attend orchestral rehearsals, she spent less and less time in the piano practice rooms. And when she witnessed Leonard Bernstein rehearsing orchestras at Tanglewood, Jobin was fully hooked. (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, no stranger to making history as a female conductor, also counts Bernstein as a major influence.)

"Whenever I heard Bernstein conduct, the music would just reach out and graft onto your heart, whether you wanted it to or not," Jobin says. "Of course, he was excessive. But he didn't have blood running through his veins; he had music. He couldn't help it. I want to touch people like that. I'm not saying I have that monster talent. We have to work with what we've got. I try to find out what the composer wanted. That's all."

Jobin's dual duties in Toledo and her freelance conducting enable her to expand her repertoire of opera and orchestral music.

"I haven't done Mahler yet, but I would like to," she says. "I've done some [Richard] Strauss. I love the big Germans. I don't know why."

In September, Jobin will conduct a performance of Bach's B minor Mass at the site of Dachau, the World War II concentration camp, in honor of a woman executed there in 1944 — Noorunissa Inayat-Khan, the descendant of Indian royalty caught spying for Britain.

Jobin's advocacy for women is also manifested in the Different Voice Opera Project, which she founded in collaboration with feminist, psychologist and author Carol Gilligan. The project aims to develop works that have female characters who aren't tragic victims of society, as they so often have been in operas.

Working in what used to be a male-only career, and remains largely so, does not seem to faze Jobin.

"I'm used to being the oddball one," she says. "I ride my bicycle for transportation. I have never done anything normal. Wanting to be a conductor is not normal. But musicians don't care that you're a woman — musicians from the age of 50 on down. They care that you know the score, that you are respectful toward them and the music. It's nice that more young women are going into conducting today and not limiting themselves. It is inspiring for me to see."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Lyric Opera Baltimore presents Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" ("Il Barbiere di Siviglia") at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $50 to $165. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.

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