Joana Carneiro has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. She was born in 1976, two years after her native Portugal overthrew dictatorship for democracy.
“The country was open to opportunity for everyone — there were no barriers,” Carneiro says, grateful for the opportunities for an aspiring conductor.
Twenty-six years later she has her own orchestra, international guest engagements and, this week, she’s in the pit for Cincinnati Opera’s production of John Adams’ A Flowering Tree.
Carneiro led three previous productions and she comes with the distinct advantage of being Adams’ assistant for the 2006 world premiere in Vienna.
“I learned the score from John, which is a great privilege,” she says. “While John was rehearsing the singers, I worked with the orchestra and Peter Sellars who did the staging.”
A Flowering Tree is a major departure from Adams’ politically informed works (Dr. Atomic, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer) and is based on a South Indian folktale about Kamuda, a young woman who transforms herself into a flowering tree whose blossoms support her impoverished family. She marries a prince, but his jealous sister drives them apart. After years of separation and hardships, the couple is reunited.
“It’s about the power of love and how it can change us,” Carneiro says. “It’s an old story yet it’s quite contemporary.”
Adams’ score is an intriguing mix of complexity and the accessible, which is to say it’s classic John Adams. When I describe the transformation music as Zen-like, Carneiro nods enthusiastically.
“It’s different from his other pieces but it’s a continuation,” she says. “The sense of pulse and pacing is so characteristic of his work, and it comes from the words and the story line.
“I have a more organic sense of the piece than I had five years ago,” she continues.
“I know the inner voices more. The sense of layering, the sense of pulse, the tempo and the pacing become clearer and clearer to me from a dramatic point of view.”
The cast features the extraordinary singers who originated the roles: soprano Jessica Rivera as Kamuda, tenor Russell Thompson as the prince and bass Eric Owens as the storyteller. Adams wrote the parts specifically for their voices, and Carneiro relishes the casting choices.
“To me, they are the characters,” she says. “It’s difficult to imagine the roles done by anyone else.”
The production is a new one created by Cincinnati Opera, with members of the Cincinnati Ballet and video projections designed by Jennie Chacon and Paula Rakestraw. Carneiro is “very excited about it. The nine dancers and the chorus have such important roles and they do this in such a powerful way. I think the production is quite beautiful.”
The maestra has the highest praise for her ultimate responsibility, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). After the first read-through of the score, she immediately emailed John Adams.
“I told him, ‘I hope you will be filled with joy when you hear it. This is such a beautiful, beautiful orchestra.’ ”
The CSO has performed many of Adams’ compositions under his baton, and Carneiro says the orchestra has a deep sense of the composer’s intentions.
“I’ve conducted Flowering Tree many times and (at the first rehearsal) it was so moving to hear that understanding and what it entailed,” she says. “The CSO is one of the great instruments of the world.”
When asked how a young conductor establishes authority, Carneiro responds that the first encounter with a new ensemble is always a challenge.
“What I can control is my preparation,” she says. “Authority comes from knowing the score and from communicating verbally and nonverbally. When I’m well prepared, it’s not a problem.”
Carneiro is one of very few women with an international career. She frequently refers to herself as “privileged” to be doing what she loves and even more fortunate in having virtually no experience with sexism.
“From the time I decided to be a conductor, my family and my country supported me, giving me scholarships and professional opportunities from the time I graduated,” she says. “I started conducting without realizing what a rarity it could be.”
Attending the first roundtable for women conductors held in Brussels in 2000 was an eye-opener. She heard stories of being denied access to auditions and mentors and being told straight out that women need not apply.
“If I’d been born five or 10 years earlier, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. “Many of these women had to create their own orchestras just to get experience. These pioneers made it possible for me to do what I’m doing.”
Carneiro started out as a violist, attending music classes with her eight siblings and received a scholarship to the Academia Nacional Superior de Orquestra in Lisbon. She moved to the U.S. for her master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern and doctoral studies at the University of Michigan.
After racking up major awards in conducting competitions, Carneiro was music director for the Los Angeles Debut Orchestra from 2002 to 2005, the year she was named an American Symphony Orchestra League Conducting Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, working with the legendary conductor and composer Esa Pekka Salonen. In 2009, Carneiro achieved another milestone when she was named the Berkley Symphony Orchestra’s third music director.
Joana Carneiro continues to enjoy a unique sense of timing. Her fiancé will be in the audience for her Cincinnati Opera debut and so will her mentor, John Adams.
A FLOWERING TREE, conducted by Joana Carneiro, is presented by the Cincinnati Opera 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.