Conductor Joana Mallwitz
Preparation, authenticity and an eye for detail
At last, the moment has arrived. In June, conductor Joana Mallwitz, a standout figure among her generation, will make her long-awaited (corona-postponed) debut at Dutch National Opera with Rusalka, directing the esteemed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This marks a pivotal moment in the career of a fervent, dedicated conductor on a meteoric rise in her career.
Text: Laura Roling
Mallwitz (born 1986) hails from the historic German town of Hildesheim, located south of Hanover, and displayed extraordinary musical talent from a young age. At just thirteen, she was accepted into a programme for gifted students at the renowned Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien. Among her peers was virtuoso pianist Igor Levit.
It was during this time that Mallwitz realized her calling as a conductor: “We were studying Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and I found it captivating. Soon after, I experienced The Rite of Spring live for the first time, followed soon after by Tristan und Isolde. I was spellbound by the energy emanating from the orchestra pit. When I examined the scores, I immediately had strong visions of how they should sound. In order to study scores for the rest of my life and bring my interpretations to life, I knew I had to become a conductor. That much was clear.”
At thirteen, Mallwitz never considered the rarity of a woman pursuing a conducting career. “I had found my passion! Well-meaning people warned me: ‘You’re quite sensitive, and it’s a tough world. Should you do it?’ But I wanted to stand in front of an orchestra and make music, and I can’t pretend to be someone I’m not. Fortunately, you can be a female conductor and still be true to yourself. I’ve secured a solid position. One or two generations ago, I probably wouldn’t have succeeded. Of course, you must work hard and be skilled, but that applies to any conductor.”
She prefers not to discuss this though. After all, a male conductor isn’t constantly asked about being a male conductor. In 2020, Mallwitz officially became the first female conductor at the Salzburg Festival, where she led a highly acclaimed, corona-proof Così fan tutte. Only two female conductors, Anne Manson in 1994 and Julia Jones in 2004, had come before her in Salzburg, although as last-minute substitutes for originally booked male colleagues. With Mallwitz, it was the first time that a female conductor had been deliberately chosen. In an interview with The New York Times, Mallwitz stated: “Conducting a Mozart opera with the Vienna Philharmonic during the Salzburg Festival is, of course, a tremendous honour, but I have been conducting Mozart operas in major houses all my life, and I wasn’t asked to conduct in Salzburg just because I am a woman. That’s not how it works.”
‘I wasn’t asked to conduct in Salzburg just because I am a woman. That’s not how it works.’
Following her graduation, Joana Mallwitz’s career progressed swiftly. She began at the opera house in Heidelberg as a répétiteur and later a Kapellmeister (a sort of ‘house conductor’), and in 2014, at just 27 years old, she was appointed General Music Director of the opera house in Erfurt, the capital of the German state of Thuringia. This appointment made her the youngest music director in Europe at the time. After four years in Erfurt, she moved to the Staatstheater Nürnberg, where as General Music Director, she led the orchestra and opera house to impressive heights. Unsurprisingly, she was named ‘conductor of the year’ in 2019 by critics of the esteemed magazine Opernwelt. “Nuremberg sounds different since Joana Mallwitz arrived, so different that it seems as if the orchestra has been replaced. The musicians are like putty in her hands,” observed one of Opernwelt’s critics.
At the close of the 2022/2023 season, Joana Mallwitz will bid Nuremberg farewell and assume her role as chief conductor and artistic director of the Konzerthaus Berlin. However, her transition to a symphony orchestra doesn’t signify a departure from opera as an art form. “I adore opera and will continue to conduct operas as a guest. An opera engagement always entails spending several weeks in another city. Naturally, my work will be centred in Berlin from 2023 onwards, so we’ll have to see how much I can do in addition to that. But it won’t be the case that I say goodbye to opera from 2023 onwards. There are many intriguing offers from various theatres, both nationally and internationally. More than I can accept.”
Conducting style and repertoire selection
For all conductors, it is essential to have both a clear vision and strong leadership skills, as their task is to lead a large group of individual musicians. Mallwitz admits she has little regard for conductors who project an overbearing ego and exert their power over an orchestra. “In my own experience, the authority you need arises not from authoritarian behaviour, but solely from thorough preparation and authenticity. In the opening moments of a rehearsal, it becomes evident whether a conductor has established a rapport with their musicians or not.”
‘I want to make choices with an orchestra or opera house that really fit both sides and are artistically productive’
For the selection of the repertoire she performs, Mallwitz uses several criteria. “I want to make choices with an orchestra or opera house that really fit both sides and are artistically productive. Ideally, the collaboration is enjoyable, and you can build something together. It has always been my great fear not to be asked back somewhere. At the same time, I have to be careful not to do too much and not too quickly. I now have the great privilege of being able to influence that myself and not having to accept everything that comes my way. But that also means you have to look very carefully: when is the right moment for which piece in which place?”
She recently conducted Dvořák’s opera Rusalka at the Semperoper in Dresden. In the words of the press: “For the first time, Joana Mallwitz stood on the stage with the Sächsische Staatskapelle. She explored the wide variety of facets, timbres and nuances in Dvořák’s music in a perfect way. With powerful gestures and a keen eye for passion and dramatic intensity, she brought the orchestra pit and the stage together.” One thing is certain: with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's exceptional musicians, Mallwitz's interpretation of the work can only continue to evolve and flourish.
- The opera Rusalka will be performed at Dutch National Opera & Ballet from 2 to 25 June.