'If you really want to conduct you must go'

She left home for a taste of opera in Europe. Fourteen years later Simone Young is still here, but now Australia is wooing her back. Nick Kimberley met her
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The Independent Culture

Simone Young is an Australian conductor on the way up, and her homeland is proud of her: she was chosen to conduct the national anthem at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games in September. Yet like many before her, Young has built her career, not in Australia, but in Europe. When she was in her mid-20s, a "Young Australian of the Year" scholarship took her to Germany, where she quickly established a reputation in the opera houses of Cologne and Berlin. Within a few years, engagements followed in Vienna, London, Paris and New York. Australia had to join a long queue competing for her talent.

Simone Young is an Australian conductor on the way up, and her homeland is proud of her: she was chosen to conduct the national anthem at the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games in September. Yet like many before her, Young has built her career, not in Australia, but in Europe. When she was in her mid-20s, a "Young Australian of the Year" scholarship took her to Germany, where she quickly established a reputation in the opera houses of Cologne and Berlin. Within a few years, engagements followed in Vienna, London, Paris and New York. Australia had to join a long queue competing for her talent.

Young is matter-of-fact about why she came to Europe: "In Australia, I was a good assistant conductor and répétiteur, but I didn't want to be the fourth-string conductor doing the third revival of Gilbert and Sullivan for the rest of my life. A conductor friend, Stuart Callender, said to me, "You're having tremendous success, but you're a big fish in a small pond. If you really want to conduct, you've got to go to Europe and see what the world looks like out there." So I decided to take a year or two, maybe three, in Europe; and it's ended up being 14 years so far."

Her home is now in Sussex, but she hasn't abandoned Australia. In January she becomes artistic and music director with the Australian Opera, spending six months of the year with the company that has Sydney Opera House as its base: "I'll only be half an expat in future," she suggests.

Most opera companies separate the jobs of music and artistic directors. Young is happy to occupy both positions: "In Europe the two people are rarely appointed at the same time. I've worked a great deal in Germany, in France, in Austria, and I've seen the problems that arise when they are not of like mind. At the Australian Opera, the buck will stop with me."

One of the opportunities she relishes is the chance to extend the company's association with the best antipodean cinema and theatre directors: "Baz Luhrman did a wonderful Bohÿme and a lovely Midsummer Night's Dream for us, but I think we've pretty well lost Baz to Hollywood for a while. Bruce Beresford is another film director who's worked with the company, and we have several productions by Neil Armfield, who's a wonderful theatre and opera director. Now there's a whole crop of new directors coming through that I'm keen to encourage. I'd love to do Traviata with Jane Campion, for example; I know she'd have an interesting angle."

The recent Olympics provided a glimpse of a forward-looking, multi-ethnic Australia. Opera, though, belongs almost exclusively to the past and to Europe, yet Young insists that it has a place in the new Australia. "I'm 39, and my generation's education was based exclusively on European models. People who are ten or 15 years younger than me will have an education influenced much more by Asia. And the country is constantly changing demographically: it's the great land of immigrants.

"Like most Australians, I have three grandparents who were born elsewhere. The percentage of Australians who come from a background in Britain and Ireland is still the largest, but there is now a huge community that has its background in Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, as well as in the Middle and Far East. That multicultural nature is celebrated, whereas 30 years ago it was kind of apologised for. That's a huge turnaround, and questions are asked about opera as an art form that is European. But the company is specifically Australian, and there is something peculiarly Australian about the vibrancy of the performances, so we're not quite the public whipping boy. My feeling is that the Australian public is warm to the opera company and its achievements."

For now, though, Young's attention is fixed on Covent Garden, where over the coming weeks she conducts Janacek's Katya Kabanova and Verdi's La Traviata. When we spoke, she was immersed in the world of the adulterous and eventually suicidal Katya: "In her context, being a married woman having an affair requires an enormous act of defiance; it has little to do with the man, it's more about her state of mind, her very being. The key for me is that Katya escaped from her environment long ago, but only in her head. During the course of the opera, she escapes from it physically. We are left to contemplate a society in which the only way to create freedom is to destroy yourself. My job is to translate that through the thematic material of the music."

That, of course, is every opera conductor's responsibility, but it's unusual to find one who talks so eloquently of finding the music through the drama. Running any opera company isn't easy, but you sense that Simone Young is up to it. Maybe one day she'll do a similar job for one of this country's beleaguered opera houses.

'Katya Kabanova': Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 29 November; 'La Traviata': 24 November to 18 December, 11 May to 1 June, 2001

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