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PARIS — There were murmurs of astonishment when conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, dressed in what one music critic described as a “sexy, short dress,” took her place in the pit to direct Handel’s “Rodelinda” at Britain’s prestigious Glyndebourne Touring Opera. In the male-dominated world of classical conductors, Haïm is a novelty to be sure, with her flowing auburn hair and striking features.
Not that everyone appreciates her looks — or her sex. “A man near the front protested out loud,” jokes Haïm, sipping champagne at the Hotel Crillon bar, recalling the incident, which occurred about two years ago. “He didn’t like that I was wearing a dress, or that I was a woman.”
Unflustered, Haïm lifted her baton and delivered a spellbinding performance that the critics hailed a “revelation.” Almost overnight, she emerged as the hottest new name in the increasingly popular field of Baroque music. A shower of invitations followed, with engagements this year in London, Stockholm and her native Paris. In May, she will make her U.S. debut, conducting Handel’s “Agrippina,” at the Chicago Opera Theater.
Haïm’s recording career has also taken flight. Last fall, she released her first studio recording, a rare collection of Handel’s Arcadian duets. Under contract with Virgin Classics, she will issue recordings later this year of Handel’s early Neapolitan cantata, “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo,” Monteverdi’s “Orfeo” (opera’s first great masterpiece) and Purcell’s “Dido” and “Aeneas,” with a star-filled cast including soprano Susan Graham and tenor Ian Bostridge.
Haïm’s specialty — and passion — is music of the Baroque era, which so often spotlights her instrument, the harpsichord. “The music is very rich and suits my temperament,” she says. “Eighty percent of the music is vocal, and I love the voice. I love the stories from the operas. They’re filled with gods and goddesses and tales of tragic love. I love the theater and the beauty.”
Yet what’s most remarkable about Haïm’s thunderbolt success is that it was not planned. Trained as a harpsichordist at the Paris Conservatory, Haïm, who is in her mid-30s, played for a decade after her graduation in several orchestras, most notably under the tutelage of the great American director of Baroque music, William Christie.
“I didn’t think I wanted to become a conductor,” she confides. “I was quite happy playing the harpsichord.”
Then, three years ago, at the urging of a friend, she agreed to conduct one of France’s star sopranos, Nathalie Dessay, in a private concert at a chateau in Rambouillet, just outside of Paris. “I was terrified,” says Haïm, her hands cutting through the air in time with her gravelly alto. “But it came off extremely well and I found the experience exhilarating. It was then that I realized that I needed to conduct.”
Recruiting friends from her conservatory and performance days, she founded her own Paris-based orchestra, Le Concert d’Astree, which takes its name from Honoré d’Urfè’s vast Baroque novel.
But success didn’t come immediately. “It was really quite tough,” Haïm muses, dragging on a Marlboro Light. “I did all the photocopying and office work. I called everyone, begging them for a chance to perform. I phoned every foundation for a grant.”
Despite her quick ascent, Haïm, dressed in a Yohji Yamamoto jacket and short black dress, still has one complaint. “You see, I refuse to direct in trousers,” she says. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t wear a dress. But the problem is that after one performance, you’ve got to find a new one. I suppose I need a designer to do my wardrobe.”
The requirements of Haïm’s concert wardrobe?
“It has to be easy to move in,” she says. “And it has to look good from the back.”