James Conlon to retire as Los Angeles Opera music director after 2025-26 season, end 20-year tenure

FILE - Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon, left, appears during a news conference in Los Angeles on Sept. 6, 2006. Conlon is retiring as music director of the Los Angeles Opera at the end of the 2025-26 season, ending a 20-year run that will have spanned half the company's history. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File) (Reed Saxon, Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

James Conlon will retire as music director of the Los Angeles Opera at the end of the 2025-26 season, ending a 20-year run that will have spanned half the company’s history.

Conlon made the announcement Wednesday, five days before his 74th birthday. He will become conductor laureate in 2026-27 and intends to return to the LA Opera as a guest conductor.

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“It will be my 20th anniversary as the music director. It will be the 40th anniversary of the company. We wanted to do that together,” Conlon said in a telephone interview. “I am not retiring. I’m not stopping conducting. I have a lot of other activities I’m going to do. But I’m a certain age. I’m going to be 76 years old by then.”

The LA Opera began performances in 1986 and Kent Nagano became principal conductor in 2001-02, then was promoted to music director in 2003. Conlon replaced him for 2006-07 and has led more than 460 performances in LA of 68 operas by 32 composers.

“He’s made a titanic impact,” company CEO Christopher Koelsch said. “It felt like the right time for generational change.”

Conlon anticipates his performance total will reach 500 by the time he steps down.

“I want to devote myself more urgently to other things about American musical life that I think are bigger and more important than any individual orchestra or opera company and that is education, gaining back the audience,” Conlon said. “I remember how things were in New York public school system when I grew up in the ’50s and ‘60s. ... We all know that that disappeared a long time ago, and we are seeing the effects in the audience in our country. We didn’t create this problem — orchestras, opera companies, chamber music series — but we have to fix it.”

Conlon was principal conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic from 1983-91, general music director of Cologne, Germany, from 1989-2002, principal conductor of the Paris Opéra from 1995-2005 and principal conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra in Italy from 2016-20. He also was music director of the Cincinnati May Festival from 1979-2016 and the Ravinia Festival, summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from 2005-15.

In LA, Conlon launched a Recovered Voices project to bring attention to works of composers suppressed by Nazi Germany, including Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Eine Florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy)” and “Der Zwerg (The Dwarf),” Viktor Ullmann’s “Der Zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug),” Walter Braunfels’ “Die Vögel (The Birds),” Franz Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized).” He plans to continue with the project in LA and elsewhere.

“Recovered Voices is a part of my life that goes beyond Los Angeles Opera and will continue, and you can be sure you’ll see more of that in the future,” Conlon said. “I will never live to see the end of that mission. It takes time. And it is an example of how easy it is for humanity to destroy and how difficult it is to rebuild.”

Conlon conducted the company’s first production of Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” a complete cycle in 2010 staged by Achim Freyer, and also led “L’amant anonyme (The Anonymous Lover)” by Joseph Bologne, a Black composer from 18th-century France. This season includes “Highway 1, USA” by William Grant Still, a Black American composer who faced prejudice.

Koelsch will appoint a search committee that includes musicians and hopes to have a successor start in 2026-27.

“There’s so many extraordinarily exciting conductors that are emerging,” he said, “Involving musicians in that process, I think that’s important that they have a voice in the selection of their new leader.”

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