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Sound Bites: Gemma New

A maestro from New Zealand conducts Susannah in Saint Louis.

By F. Paul Driscoll

Photographed by DarÍo Acosta

Hair and makeup by
Paola Orlando

GEMMA NEW, who makes her Opera Theatre of Saint Louis debut this month conducting Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, admires the composer’s “American sound. I find the way he uses a cappella for Susannah quite touching. When she starts off, she sounds naïve, but not in a silly way. In the opening of the aria ‘The Trees on the Mountain,’ she shines so brightly, and then you hear her with the harp. To me that sounds as if Floyd is presenting her as a spiritual, goddess-like creature who should not be tainted.”

New, who is from Wellington, New Zealand, started playing the violin at five and the piano soon after, but she became interested in conducting when she was twelve. “The three conductors of the youth orchestra I played in were very different. One was the grand master, the other was hilariously entertaining and the third was really quiet, but if you listened carefully, he had great things to say. I thought this relationship between the players and the conductors was fascinating. I got my first chance to conduct when I was fifteen, and I immediately told my best friend, ‘This is it. This is what I want to do!’”

Formerly resident conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, New is now artistic advisor and principal conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, music director of Canada’s Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

© DarÍo Acosta

New, whose operatic wishlist is headed by Doctor Atomic, looks forward to leading Floyd’s opera. “Floyd adapted a Biblical story that people could relate to. There are two sides to the human spirit—good and evil. Blitch comes across in public as being so good, and so wholesome, yet immediately he asks leading questions that show that he’s not what he seems. His behavior is absolutely despicable, obviously—and we still have horrendous hypocrites in the world today.

“We don’t often end an opera with a scene of great happiness, especially with a tragic piece. But looking at life that way gives us such food for thought. The levels of emotion in tragedy help us to see everyday life differently. Often a piece touches on some of the frustrations in your own life—the things that keep you awake at night—and can help you to say, ‘Yes. I recognize that situation or that person. Let’s process this.’”