Ben Glassberg was recently appointed principal conductor of the Glyndebourne Tour. He tells Giverny Masso about the challenges of being a young conductor and the changing perception of the role…
How did you get into opera?
My aunty’s an actor so I grew up going to the theatre a lot. I went to Cambridge and did a music degree and to the Royal Academy of Music in London where I trained as a conductor for two years. I wanted to combine musical theatre and conducting. With musical theatre you might get an orchestra of 15 but with opera you get an orchestra of up to 70, which is pretty awesome. I started as an assistant at Glyndebourne and worked my way up. My big break was with La Clemenza di Tito, when I had to go on at short notice as the conductor was ill. It was the first time I’ve conducted a professional orchestra. I also won the Grand Prix at the 55th Besançon Competition 2017, which is an international competition for young conductors. Those two combined opened doors for me.
What have you got coming up?
Planning for Glyndebourne on Tour. How many trombones we need and things like that. We haven’t started rehearsals for Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore yet, it’s a revival of an older production. In June, I’ve got Hansel and Gretel at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. I’m really excited. I spent a lot of my childhood at Regent’s Park theatre and this is the first time I’ve worked with English National Opera.
What is your process for approaching a production?
If it’s a revival, I’d always want to see a DVD of the production. If it’s new, I’ll talk to the director as much as possible. It’s so important the music and drama are integrated. Then I’ll study the score, spend a few months maybe playing piano, working out what the composer is trying to say. Then go through the vocal parts. I start off working in broad strokes then get more into the details.
What is the biggest challenge in your career?
Being a youngster is always tough. I’ve been very lucky to start working at a great level from a young age, but have occasionally come up against resistance. Mostly singers and orchestras are generous, but occasionally someone is not interested in what you have to say because you’re 24. It’s important to be honest with people and it’s also about trying to defuse a situation. We can take ourselves seriously but really we’re a bunch of people walking around a stage singing and shouting at each other.
What skills are essential for being a conductor?
People management. Having a good technique and being a good musician are fundamental, but plenty of people who have those will struggle because so much of it is about dealing with people. It’s about being respectful of allowing others to be heard, but also being able to make a decision. It’s also important to be aware of other people’s responsibilities. It’s about being aware that the conductor is not the most important person in the room. It is a serving role, not a dictating role.
Training: BA in music at Cambridge University (2012-15), MA in conducting at the Royal Academy of Music (2015-17)
First professional role: conducting La Clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne (2017)
Agent: Alan Coates at Keynote Artist Managemen
For details of Ben Glassberg’s upcoming performances, see: benglassberg.co.uk/concerts