Rhinegold Photo credit: Roger Way

Toby Deller

Artist of the month: Sonia Ben-Santamaria

8:49, 3rd June 2019

‘I keep having the thought that I just don’t fit the box,’ says Sonia Ben-Santamaria, the Toulouse-born conductor who has been resident in the UK since she arrived as a student in 2003. Her CV may appear conventional enough: piano studies at her local conservatoire, a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, places at the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House as Link Artist conductor and the Dallas Opera Hart Institute, and an appointment as associate at Opera North to come later this year. But the story begins in a more unlikely establishment.

‘I come from a Spanish emigrant family, very much from a working-class background: my grandparents were manual-labourers, they didn’t speak French when they came to France. My dad is a jazz musician – self-taught, but he became a professional. He had no idea about classical music. My mum had no ear for music. I just fell in love with classical music. I was in the supermarket; that was the music that was on in the background. I went crazy! It was from that moment that I was obsessed.’

With the encouragement and financial sacrifice of her father, she began piano lessons aged six. But she found the conservatoire regime in France a contradictory experience. ‘The music resonated with me and I knew classical music was a fit. I went to the conservatoire and it happened that I was gifted and it worked quite smoothly. But I just had nothing in common with the other students. All my teachers were interested in me because they saw the creative side, but what was worrying them was I was wild – they couldn’t quite get me in that box.’

She began to realise, however, that her future may not lie with the piano. ‘Too much of a box! I couldn’t be creative: you need to play Bach like that, your wrists have to be like that and it’s just too suffocating. I was a super anxious kid until I saw Bernstein on TV doing young people’s concerts. And I thought: you can’t beat the sound of an orchestra, that was cool. And it looked like he was doing what he wanted and all his imagination was translated by the players and I thought: that’s where I fit.’

She put the ambition on hold, having made the mistake of telling the conservatoire’s head of music and receiving the traditional response. ‘He said: oh no, your piano’s great, you’re doing really well and you’d get a really horrible time with the players, it’s just not a female career. So that was it, I forgot about it and carried on doing my classes.’

It’s not with knowledge and power that you are a good leader; it’s with generosity and humility

It helped that she began to focus more on piano accompaniment and collaborative work than solo piano, which she admits she couldn’t wait to give up. This led her to do the postgraduate course for repetiteurs and accompanists at the RAM, going on to traineeships at the National Opera Studio in 2010 and English National Opera in 2011-12. The move into opera conducting began with stepping in on the day of the performance to do The Magic Flute with Chelmsford City Opera and Orchestra in 2013. ‘I sweat buckets but I managed it and I said: ok, this is my career path, for sure, 100 per cent.’

The trail of opportunities, however, ran dry, until she scraped together some funds to put on a couple of showcase performances of Die Fledermaus in a church in Notting Hill. James Clutton of Opera Holland Park was among the guests, and he was persuaded to offer Ben-Santamaria two performances of Un Ballo in Maschera this month.

The question of which opportunities are given to which musicians is one that exercises her and while she has found the musical culture of the UK refreshingly open-minded in many ways, she has come up against obstacles. She cites, as one example, the influence of Oxbridge on the conducting profession.

‘Don’t get me wrong, you have the best education. I would never have got into Oxbridge, I was way too thick! I understand you are knowledgeable, you do lectures about tons of stuff, and you get a fantastic network. But it ends up being 75 per cent a personal network. That’s not meritocracy. I don’t think it’s fair. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you can be a good conductor and you communicate well and you are a good leader. That’s the wrong way to think of leadership. It’s not with academic knowledge and power that you are a good leader. I think it’s with generosity and humility and doing things because you want to share it with other people and communicate it with your players and the audience.’

She becomes especially passionate on the subject of inequality, largely because she believes the idea of equality to be a red herring: things should not be more equal but more fair. ‘There’s no way we were all born equal, let’s face it,’ she argues. ‘If you really want to change and to progress it’s not equality that you need, it’s equity. So if someone’s got the potential but hasn’t had the chances, then they need extra help. And that will raise the level for everybody.’

Such ideas will be reflected in the Citizen Artists Orchestra that she has been planning with pianist Marina de Lucas Garcia and hopes to launch soon. Meanwhile, she has Verdi to look forward to in June. ‘I was a repetiteur so I have a huge love for singing, and I love drama, I love the theatre. And what I love about opera – especially Verdi, one of my favourite composers – it has a fantastic translation, musically and intellectually, of human beings. You can see there’s no black and white in human beings; we’re all grey, we all have bad and good in us, and Verdi translates that.’

Sonia Ben-Santamaria conducts Un ballo in maschera at Opera Holland Park on 26 and 28 June.


On playing the piano

One of my tutors at the academy was Julius Drake and he asked: do you want to play some Bach? Because Bach was what I fell in love with in that supermarket. And I told him: sorry, I can’t play Bach. He said: what do you mean, you can’t play Bach? And I said: I’ve been told in France that I can’t play it. And he told me something: do you know Bach? Did he tell you how to play his music?

On women conductors

There has been such an awakening, it suddenly exploded everywhere. My concern is that female conducting becomes a fashion. Fashion comes and goes, you know. I’m slightly worried about that.

On the conductor’s role

I don’t know why it all became a myth. It’s not, if you have the right heart for it. I don’t understand why it’s so complicated, suddenly. And comparing my profile to the stereotypically privileged white man, I can see why the orchestra might find me refreshing. They finally see someone they can relate to. Someone who is normal, who has no ego. I’m very creative but I have no ego. I don’t do it for the power – both my parents’ families have anarchist backgrounds.

If you listen to El Sistema you can see they are so happy to play; every single kid in that orchestra has a huge personality. You just need one person in the orchestra to channel the energy together. That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to tell people: feel like this, feel like that. I just want to encourage people to express themselves and just to make sure we are all on the same page otherwise it’s a mess.


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