A Swedish opera company bringing a Philip Glass opera to Brooklyn feels a little like coals to Newcastle, but how did an Aussie conductor come to be involved with Folkoperan Stockholm?

A colleague invited me who is familiar with my commitment to and conducting of contemporary music. This was back in 2016 where we initially scheduled about 20 performances of Satyagraha. Each show was sold out and we had to extend the season to accommodate demand. In 2017, we once again performed to sold out audiences in Stockholm and then toured to show to Copenhagen earlier this year as part of the Copenhagen Opera Festival. We now take this to New York as part of the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Folkoperan Stockholm’s Satyagraha. Photo © Markus Gårder

What is distinctive about this staging of Satyagraha?

Folkoperan has married this production with the Swedish circus company Cirkus Cirkör. The sung music uses passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the text that heavily influenced Gandhi and provided the basis of his religious practices. As the opera essentially does not have a plot or a story line, the circus artistry creates the scene and represents the human and personal element of Gandhi’s struggle. This has created a very moving production, which is extremely pertinent to our volatile world at the moment.

Satyagraha is famously written in Sanskrit, a language alien to an average opera audience, yet it seems to be Glass’s most performed opera of late. Why do you think that is?

Just as the audience eventually relaxes into the enveloping minimal style of the music, the same happens with the Sanskrit. This opera is perhaps more unique in that it is not translated with surtitles as a more typical opera presentation would be.  Here the combination of the musical language and circus artistry take over and the audience is quick to realise that a literal translation of the text is not required to understand the messages of this work.

Folkoperan Stockholm’s Satyagraha. Photo © CPH Opera Festival

You studied at University of New South Wales, majoring in composition. Do you still compose? And why did you ultimately choose conducting as a career?

I am a much better conductor than a composer! As a student I was much more obsessed with other people’s music than my own and as a result ended up as an interpreter rather than the creator.

You studied conducting with the legendary Jorma Panula. How did you find his ‘classes’ and what did you learn there?

I feel very fortunate to have been taught by Jorma, who provided a foundation that every young conductor should have to progress into a professional career. Jorma is brilliant at quickly identifying and rectifying bad or unnecessary technical issues and rehearsal technique. The biggest lesson, which sounds easy but is difficult in practice for a young conductor, being ‘less is more’.

Folkoperan Stockholm’s Satyagraha. Photo © Markus Gårder

You’ve spent a lot of your career in the UK and Europe. Was that a definite decision, and if so, why?

When I left there was no ongoing training, post a masters degree, for young conductors in this country and extremely few professional development opportunities. However, I was very fortunate to win the position of Conducting Fellow at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and subsequently moved to the UK. This move ended up providing me with many opportunities, including holding the position of Associate Conductor with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and invitations to conduct many of the UK’s great orchestras including the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Philharmonic and at the Royal Ballet Covent Garden.

So what led you to accept the position of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra? And what have been your most memorable moments over five years?

I had been living and working in the UK and Europe for many years and was keen to be back in Australia on a more permanent basis. So when the position became available to return to home to work for the DSO I jumped at it. I had absolutely no expectations, as I had never been to the Territory before, but after coming and meeting the orchestra and familiarising myself with the landscape I quickly became aware that this was a unique place of tremendous opportunity. The most memorable experience would have to be the two concerts we presented at Uluru, becoming the first orchestra to perform in front of Australia’s most iconic landmark and the programs of outreach and education, especially those delivered in remote communities.

Conductor Matthew Wood at Uluru

How well known have you found Australian composers abroad, and have you managed to advocate for Australian composers overseas?

I am always trying to do my best to promote, program and commission Australian music. There is, thankfully, a healthy attitude to the programming of new music in Europe, with the focus being somewhat geographically focused on supporting their local composers, which is, in itself, terrific. There are Australian composers doing very well throughout Europe, but this work often starts at home, which is why supporting our composers in Australia is so very essential. Being back in Australia has provided me with some wonderful recent experiences both commissioning and conducting numerous new Australian works by Ross Edwards, Iain Grandage, Lachlan Skipworth, Matthew Hindson, Kat McGuffie, Elena Kats-Chernin, Elliott Gyger, Nigel Butterley, Ella Macens and Daniel Rojas. It is a tremendous privilege being part of creating something new and to work alongside such exceptional Aussie artists.


Matthew Wood conducts Folkoperan Stockholm’s Satyagraha at Brooklyn Academy of Music from October 31 – November 3

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine