Kwamé Ryan

Conductor Kwamé Ryan looks forward to an intense theatrical journey

11 October 2022

Kwamé Ryan was born in Canada, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and then moved to England to pursue his dreams at the University of Cambridge. Here he not only studied musicology, but also piano, voice and double bass. He learned the ins and outs of conducting from Peter Eötvös and is now a celebrated conductor with several awards to his name. He is also committed to furthering the musical development of young talent as director of the Academy for Performing Arts in Trinidad and Tobago. In November, he will conduct for Dutch National Opera for the first time, in the contemporary opera Blue by Tazewell Thompson and Jeanine Tesori.

Text: Naomi Teekens

Music has been part of Kwamé Ryan’s life since the beginning: from an early age, classical symphonies, cassette tapes with jazz and calypso, and LPs by Indian raga singers echoed through the family home. Yet, in his own words, he only discovered his love for music, and musical storytelling in particular, when he and his family saw Star Wars at a drive-in cinema in Trinidad and Tobago: ‘I still remember how blown away I was. For days afterwards, I was lost in my own little world. It had such an impact on me. It was like pure magic, the way music could embrace a story like that and, above all, propel it forward. From that point on I started experimenting with music myself, and my parents’ love for different musical styles and traditions started to pay off. In my own playful compositions I brought together all those different influences and created my own eclectic musical world.’


A surprisingly biting libretto

When he first read Blue’s libretto, Ryan was immediately impressed by the work’s narrative power and bite: ‘I was immediately taken on an intense theatrical journey. In his libretto, Tazewell Thompson describes the black American experience in a very direct and incredibly honest way, which at times surprised me. This makes for a powerful, but also very intimate and vulnerable portrait. He knows how to convey a wide range of socio-political themes with great simplicity.’

Blue is rooted in a problem that is broader than the American black experience.’

Musical and opera

The conductor finds that same directness in the music of Jeanine Tesori. As he describes it, she seamlessly weaves together the worlds of opera and musical in her compositions, resulting in a deft interplay between the two genres. ‘I was immediately enthusiastic when I was approached by Dutch National Opera to conduct this work. I have a strong preference for works whose musical structure embodies this kind of crossover. In fact, when I was working as musical director of Theater Freiburg, I programmed the musical Cabaret in my third season, to conduct myself. In Tesori’s music for Blue, her highly efficient way of conveying emotions quickly and directly is something I recognize from the world of musicals. I could also unmistakably hear how she allowed herself the freedom to let the story unfold and develop musically at certain key moments – as we often hear in opera. She clearly understands the power of these two different musical narrative conventions, as she uses them to create a very interesting and enriching form of storytelling.’


An opera about the black experience

In recent times, Ryan has worked on several contemporary operas that focus on themes like colour and the black experience. For example, last season he conducted The Time of Our Singing at De Munt in Brussels. Ryan hopes that by showcasing stories like Blue he can contribute to a growing awareness of issues such as systemic social inequality in the world: ‘Blue obviously has its origins in the American context, but the work is rooted in a problem that is broader than the American black experience. I believe it’s vital to present stories like this. This encourages dialogue and gives food for thought to people who may just be becoming aware of these issues. At the same time, operas like these can also help deepen the understanding of people who have already been involved with issues like social justice and equality for some time. As both a conductor and a human being, I hope to contribute in this way to broadening the awareness of every person.’