This blogpost has originally appeared online and in print in the magazine International Arts Manager
In 2012 I was serving my final year as a junior fellow in conducting at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Having already garnered good experience in symphonic repertoire, I was looking for an opportunity to immerse myself in the operatic world.
Fortuitously, I learnt about a new conducting position at English National Opera (ENO) that was being advertised for the very first time. I applied along with 70-80 other candidates, and after a thorough selection process during which I had to work with singers and conduct the ENO orchestra in various opera scenes, I won the ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship.
The fellowship was exactly what I needed at the time: to glimpse every corner of this amazing and colourful factory that we call an opera house. I acted as an assistant conductor to five productions throughout my two-year tenure, covering the main conductor of each production, working with the singers and often leading stage and music rehearsals. I was guided and mentored in my every step by ENO’s music director at that time, Edward Gardner.
I worked on Rigoletto, The Barber of Seville, Wozzeck, Benvenuto Cellini and The Pilgrim’s Progress with stage directors such as Terry Gilliam, Christopher Alden and Jonathan Miller. I was even given the opportunity to conduct a whole new production: The Magic Flute, directed by Simon McBurney.
Needless to say that this experience opened new doors for me. Soon after I was invited to conduct productions at De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, Grand Thèâtre de Genève, Hungarian State Opera and Opéra de Dijon, while being able to maintain and develop my symphonic engagements, too.
Highlights from past seasons were my debuts with Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra Nazionale della RAI and a recording with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, while this season I am preparing for my Barbican debut with BBC Symphony, and Royal Festival Hall debut with Philharmonia Orchestra. In short, my dream came true, and today I am able to strike a good balance of working both in concert halls and in the opera pit.
Besides the obvious career benefits of such a fellowship, there was an unexpected bonus. The ENO Mackerras Conducting Fellowship is supported by an organisation called the Philip Loubser Foundation (PLF). A few weeks after my successful audition in 2012 I was travelling to Amsterdam, unrelated to my new job at ENO, when Michael Loubser from PLF got in touch. By coincidence his apartment was just across the road from my hotel, so we met the next day.
Michael is the founder and mastermind of PLF, which he created and named after his father, to realise a dream of supporting outstanding talents across the arts. His `brainchildren’ were the different PLF fellowships, all named after artists Michael admires and linked to outstanding institutions: the Royal Ballet School Nadia Nerina Scholarship, Royal College of Music Benjamin Britten Piano Fellowship, Toneelgroep Amsterdam International Ibsen Fellowship, and my position at ENO.
The more I got to know Michael, the clearer it became that he was not the archetypal wealthy philanthropist with a passion for arts, who enjoys them at arm’s length. Instead, I discovered a man who himself had worked as an actor and then as a dancer in his youth; hence his deep understanding of all the hard work, doubts and self-criticism that go with being a performing artist. He changed professions later on, building a multinational marketing company, but his earlier artistic involvement made him unusually passionate and sensitive about offering help exactly where young artists need it most.
By the time I met Michael he already had a clear vision about building a large creative family, consisting of present, past and future beneficiaries of his foundation. Today there are 13 outstanding fellows, who can each thank PLF for major opportunities that took their careers to the next level.
Earlier this month this creative artistic family came together for the first time for two days of activities and conversations. It was fascinating to exchange ideas with artists from varied disciplines about subjects that concern us all, in different ways: how a pianist deals with stage anxiety, how a ballet dancer prepares for the competition of a lifetime, how a conductor behaves at a first rehearsal with a new orchestra, and so on.
We didn’t just get to know each other more thoroughly, but were able to benefit from each other’s experience. I consider myself very lucky to be part of such a network, on which we can rely in the future.
Photo: Michael Loubser, Gergely Madaras and Cathy Loubser © Elliott Franks