This month, Jessica Cottis will lead the Canberra Symphony Orchestra in an opera gala honouring the late Richard Gill, who was inaugural Artistic Director and Chief Conductor from 2001 until 2005. On hand to perform favourites by Mozart, Bizet, Puccini and more in celebration of his life are soprano Jacqueline Porter and bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman. Cottis speaks to Limelight about what Gill meant to her, the journey audiences will take, and what makes the CSO unique. 

Jessica Cottis. Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

What did Richard Gill mean to you, and how do you hope to honour his memory with this concert?

I met and worked with Richard Gill a number of times when I worked as assistant conductor at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, back in 2012-2014. He left a big impression on me and shaped my development as a young conductor: his insatiable intellectual curiosity, his extraordinary musicianship, and his tireless advocacy for music education. I hope this concert honours all these aspects, but most especially his irresistible enthusiasm for communicating a love for and appreciation of classical music.

Was the program already in place before you were involved, or have you had a hand in putting it together?

Richard had completely devised the repertoire, however, we weren’t left with any instructions as to how he planned to link the pieces, or even the rationale behind his choices. It’s a brilliant program and I found in it a beautiful internal logic to his choices. Ultimately, we wanted to share this wonderful music with as many people as possible, so we’ve kept his program intact, making just a few small changes in arias, really to reflect the strengths of our soloists.

The composers featured – Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini – represent important milestones in opera’s development. Is it a challenge to showcase such different styles in the one event, and what are the pleasures of these kinds of opera gala events?

Each composer’s way of writing is like a language. In most concerts, we might therefore have say three or four languages, but in this one, about 10. With this comes a real excitement and sense of discovery. We become musical polyglots, jumping from the flayed raw emotions of the music of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi in the early 1600s, through to the electrifyingly charismatic score of Georges Bizet’s Carmen (Spain, late 1800s), to the slick sophistication and wit of Cole Porter in 1940s Baltimore. There’s always an intellectual appeal in finding a common thread, no matter how abstract, but when it comes to the performance day, it’s just a joy for us to bring all these different types of music together at one event. You know, it was hearing an opera – Der Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera – in 2005 that was the lightbulb moment for me wanting to conduct. Opera is incredibly powerful, it can completely blow us away. The sheer drama of this marriage of text and music goes beyond any rational thought. As Monteverdi himself wrote: ‘All good music directly affects the soul.’

Have you worked with Jacqueline Porter or Jeremy Kleeman before?

I’ve worked with Jacqueline at the Sydney Symphony, and have heard Jeremy sing for Pinchgut Opera. Canberra audiences are in for a real treat.

Opera is something you obviously enjoy and excel at. What are the particular demands of conducting an opera as opposed to orchestral works?

Orchestral works and opera work in mutualistic symbiosis, I find it very inspiring to do both as they give motivation and energy to each other. Because the form is ultimately abstract, symphonies, even programmatic ones, demand a high level of imagination. In other words, symphonic works require the dramatic verve that runs naturally through opera, whilst opera – a very complex machinery of singing, playing, staging, lighting, props – requires the kind of incredible focus, flexibility, and calm multi-attentiveness that I’ve found can be perfectly honed through music-making with top symphony orchestras. The art of conducting is infinitely subtle yet hugely collaborative.

Are there any personal favourites on the program for you?

Personal favourite: The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart was a genius. His music is endlessly fascinating, and I’ve had the huge pleasure of conducting many of his symphonic and concerto works with orchestras across the world. His operas are among some of the highest achievements of our civilization, and Figaro is without doubt one of his greatest. Brahms wrote: “each number is a miracle, it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect, nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.” I couldn’t agree more! Talking of Beethoven, Fidelio, his only opera, is another firm favourite for me, it reaches the sublime.

How would you characterise the Canberra Symphony Orchestra?

Each orchestra has its own personality, of course. Canberra is a dynamic capital, the development of creative energy is almost palpable, and the CSO is an important part of this. I’ve been really taken by the huge spirit and heart of all the musicians and staff, and I feel this is an orchestra going places, with a wealth of musical talent, and bags of vision for the future. Most of all, whenever I come here, I feel we make music not just as colleagues, but as friends. Canberrans are very lucky to have this gem of an orchestra right in the heart of the city.

The CSO Opera Gala is at Llewellyn Hall, ANU on May 18