Music Academy's production of 'Carmen' lead performers, from left, Xuyue Qing as Don José, Kayla Rae Stein as Micaëla, Maggie Reneé as Carmen, and Paul Jang as Escamillo | Photo: Zach Mendez

Carmen, we thought we knew thee. The powerful, crafty and seductive lead role in Bizet’s ever-popular opera showed up on stage at The Granada Theatre last fall, as the big grand opera opener of Opera Santa Barbara’s season. She returns to the same stage, in a very different and more contemporary, stylized staging this Friday night and Sunday afternoon (July 12 and 14) as this year’s model of a fully staged opera production in the Music Academy of the West (MAW) festival.

Conductor Daniela Candillari | Credit: Jennifer Taylor

Voice and opera are treasured elements in the Academy’s academic life and international reputation, led for many years by the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. Now with Sasha Cooke and John Churchwell at the helm, its once-per-summer productions are not-to-be-missed occasions on the serious musical calendar.

For this incarnation of Carmen, expect at least some unexpected sights and themes. Director Ken Cazan and flamenco choreographer Manuel Gutierrez are involved in what promises to be a fresh, contemporary-geared production configuration, with feminist qualities in the mix. Is Carmen a conniver, or an empowered woman ahead of her time? Her Granada return may provide an answer or two.

Last week, we caught up with rising star conductor Daniela Candillari, who will lead the opera orchestra and is now officially the Music Academy’s primary opera conductor. Since her first appearance in Santa Barbara in 2019, the conductor, who grew up in Serbia and Slovenia, has enjoyed upward career mobility, which found her making her New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall debuts, and an expanding roster of international engagements, especially in the realm of opera, old and new, and newer.

You are returning to the Music Academy of the West action, as its primary opera conductor. Do you have particular first and lingering impressions or observations about the operations and artistic values of the Music Academy?

This will be my fourth summer at Music Academy. As always, I look forward to the work that is ahead of us, collaborating with the faculty and administration. Music Academy of the West is such an incredibly creatively vibrant and rich environment, and it’s very exciting being here. I’m always very proud of the work that the vocal and instrumental fellows do. It is so rewarding to hear from the instrumental fellows, especially those who may not have had a chance to play in an opera yet, how much they enjoy the art form and want to do more. On stage, we get to see individual artists who during the production and the summer develop into ensembles.

In both cases, it speaks to the integrity of the fellows and also the incredible support and teaching that the faculty and the leadership of the Music Academy offer.

The Academy’s voice department and the annual opera project are very strong and widely respected. Do you have a sense of being part of the deep legacy there, and consider how you would like to explore new ideas in your position there?

Before I came to Music Academy the first time in 2019, I was certainly aware of the opera and vocal programs, and the strong traditions that were built. The most important question to ask is, how do we prepare the future generations to continue in this art form, and what path are we setting up for them?

This has been a significant season for you, including conducting premieres of Grounded and 10 Days in a Madhouse. And your first work with the Music Academy was conducting Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, in 2019. Do you feel a sense of a mission in terms of championing new work and expanding the existing opera repertoire?

Even though I grew up in quite a traditional opera house, where most of the repertoire was made up of Italian, French, and Slavic opera, my conducting debut actually happened with a new piece. So perhaps subconsciously I have been leaning toward 20th-century and contemporary repertoire.

Personally, I like doing both traditional and new operas. I think doing both gives one a chance to question everything and to perhaps hear some things a bit differently. At the same time, I think it’s incredibly important to invest in new work, living composers and librettists. They are the minds of our times who can capture our world and create a very unique experience that reflects our collective philosophies.

It has been invigorating to see at least some semblance of long-awaited gender balance in areas of classical culture in recent years — including the culture of conducting. Is it rewarding for you to see movement, and do you feel a part of some vanguard in that regard?

There have been some very important changes and discussions happening in our field with regards to gender balance. Personally, I have always been interested in becoming the best musician I can possibly be. It is of course very humbling hearing that perhaps, for some of my younger colleagues, I am seen as a part of the change.

Your background is diverse and fascinating, including classical studies in Vienna, focusing on piano, and jazz studies in Indiana. Are you naturally eclectic as a musician, and does your variety of experience tribute to your overview as a conductor?

Mezzo-Soprano Maggie Reneé as Carmen | Photo: Zach Mendez

Yes, my musical tastes and curiosity are quite eclectic. That has been the case since I was very young. The thing, though, that I was and am most interested in, is the creation of something. I find the same excitement and curiosity in learning for instance about how Nelson Riddle or Richard Strauss thought about orchestration, how they created textures, and then the most important question is what is the emotion behind all of those choices.

For me, it’s really about learning and understanding the craft of music and art, because it does shape how we then approach music and how we hear it.

Speaking of Music Academy connections, once removed, you conducted the Met premiere of Matthew Aucoin’s wonderful Eurydice — which I remember he was working on when he taught at Academy back several years ago. Two related questions: Do you have particular reflections of that interesting opera, which nicely flips the script of the myth, and do you find yourself interacting with artists with tentacle connections to the Music Academy?

A few years before Eurydice, I worked with Matthew on a production of Crossing, his first opera, and fell in love with his musical language. So when the offer for Eurydice came, I was very excited to work with Matthew again. There are so many elements of that opera that I love and think about often: orchestral moments that remind me of Wagner, especially in the scenes between Eurydice and her Father. Eurydice’s aria in Act II, There was a roar, has an incredible structural build up, and Eurydice’s last aria Dear Orpheus invokes a great sense of honesty, loss, and heartbreak. This last piece always touched me, in both rehearsals and performances, and I think it speaks to a unique musical language and a great emotion behind the opera.

Music Academy of the West is such a collaborative place that invites wonderful musicians and artists. So it can happen quite often that one meets at Music Academy and the collaboration continues in the future.

Considering your achievements and résumé at this juncture, do you have the feeling of both having arrived and now being enabled to charge forward as an artist? Is this a happy moment for you?

I’m very grateful for the opportunities that have come my way, the productions, projects, and institutions I’ve been involved with. I think it’s important for an artistic development to think of the whole trajectory, to reflect a bit where one has been and where one would like to continue.

A few years ago, I saw a fascinating documentary about David Bowie. The documentary was focused on five albums he created in a span of 10 years, and they could not have been more different from each other. Since then, I have started thinking differently about arrival points, and prefer to think more about strong curiosity that propels one forward.

Music Academy of the West presents Georges Bizet’s Carmen at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Friday, July 12, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, July 14, at 2 p.m. For more information, see

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