You can certainly be excused if you haven't. Unlike Nezet Seguin's much publicized appointment as Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Kwame Ryan's ascent to the podium of France's Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine last year passed with little notice in Canada. In fact, it's fair to say that most musically inclined Canadians have never heard of the 38-year-old maestro. But in Europe, he's an increasingly prominent musical force--and he has a strong interest in opera.
Ryan hadn't worked in Canada until this spring, when he made a guest appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Nor had he even spent much time in the land of his birth. The Toronto-born conductor spent the first month of his life here, before his parents moved the family to Uganda. A few years later, the Ryans moved to Trinidad (where his parents were originally from). From there, the family often visited friends in Canada--and when six-year-old Kwame heard the TSO on a trip to Toronto, he decided on the spot that he would become a conductor.
Two years later, as the soft-spoken Ryan explains, he saw his first opera. "Once a year, the Trinidad and Tobago Opera Company mounted a production. They got string players from around the island, wind players from the military band and flew in a conductor from the U.K. The first opera I ever saw was Carmen. I remember being absolutely spellbound."
Supportive of his musical ambitions, his parents sent the teenaged Ryan to study in England. And it was at Cambridge University that the budding conductor led his first opera production: a double bill of Cavalleria rusticana and Gianni Schicchi. "I worked with Lynn Binstock, who was a staff producer at English National Opera," he recalls. "She got me in the stage door, and I spent some time following Mark Elder around."
After graduating from Cambridge, he moved to Freiburg, where he studied with composer-conductor Peter Eotvos, and briefly held the position of assistant music director at the opera house. But he made his professional debut in Brussels' Theatre de la Monnaie in 1997, stepping into a production of Bluebeard's Castle for the last four performances.
Then, at the age of 28, he scored a big break. Acting on the advice of his agent, who thought it would be "good experience," he auditioned for--and won--the position of Music Director for Freiburg Opera. Ten years later, he's still a little astounded by his coup. "The fact that I was slotted in right at the top of the system meant that I had no repertoire. I had only conducted three operas in my life! I was playing catch-up all the time, doing three or four premieres for the house a year. Plus there was the symphonic season that needed to be conducted. I have to say that it almost killed me."
But as his mentor, conductor Lothar Zagrosek, told him, what didn't kill him would only make him stronger. And the repertoire he conducted in Freiburg--Tosca, Die Zauberflote, Der fliegende Hollaneder and Nixon in China in his first season alone--gave him experience in a wide variety of styles.
Since then, he's made a couple of prestigious guest appearances, leading Salome at English National Opera and the world premiere of Matthias Pintscher's L'espace dernier at the Bastille at worked in Paris. And if he's not yet worked in a North American opera house, he says "it's not for want of offers." (He cautiously acknowledges that he's had some discussions with the Canadian Opera Company that may lead to something.)
While his recent appointment to lead the orchestra in Bordeaux has led to a temporary stepping-back from opera, the lyric stage is still very much in his future plans. His contract permits him to conduct one opera per year with his orchestra, and next year he'll be doing a Tosca. "I've enjoyed a season of autocracy on the concert stage," he says with a smile, "but there's something about the Gesamtkunstwerk of opera that I miss."