By Diane Eisenman
When she was a child, Lina felt she had received the biggest gift of her life: a Casio keyboard.
Her parents found her playing symphonies by ear when she was six or seven. By 12, Lina was taking piano seriously, and by 15, she had decided to become a musician in a family of doctors and lawyers. Once her parents realized music was going to be their daughter’s passion, they learned more about music just so they could remain close to her. They were also very thankful Lina had chosen a passion that kept her indoors, the safest place to be in Cali, Colombia, where the political situation was volatile.
To this day, Lina’s parents are her biggest fans, traveling worldwide to hear her concerts. Her dad, now retired, is staying in Los Angeles for two months while Lina rehearses and conducts Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for LA Opera. Her mother will join them for the performances.
During Lina’s years studying piano in Cali, her mother encouraged her to honor her Latin American musical roots as part of her identity. And so Lina’s piano teacher would prepare piano arrangements of traditional Colombian music. Lina says this music is now ingrained in her purpose and musical identity.
Pursuing her undergraduate degree at a college in Bogotá, she majored in piano and minored in conducting. By this point, Lina had decided to leave her native Colombia for the U.S. because she felt there were more conducting opportunities here. First, she attended the New England Conservatory in Boston, where she studied wind and chorus conducting. It was there where Lina met the aspiring trumpet player whom she would eventually marry. While earning her doctorate in orchestra conducting at Boston University, Lina founded the Unitas Ensemble for showcasing Latin American music and began her international freelance conducting career. Today, Lina and her husband live in Philadelphia, where he plays with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
When I ask how she went from pianist to conductor, Lina explains that conducting best suited her personality. Growing up, she was by herself much of the time. Music became a kind of friendship, yet she missed the companionship of other children. Consequently, as a young adult, Lina became an extrovert, loved to go to parties and felt most aligned to her true self when making friends with others.
At first, conducting was about communicating with a myriad of people, not always an easy task. Then it became about the repertoire. “Now I prepare and study, making connections with the music, and through the music I make connections with the musicians,” she says. These days Lina spends most of her time working alone, studying music history and performances as well as learning the score. It can take literally years of study for a three-hour rehearsal.
“I still love connecting with people,” she says. “But I become a different person on the podium. There I concentrate on the moment. I forget the body and live the higher essence and purpose. In this spirit of conducting, I connect with others because I live in the music.”
As a music student, conducting opera was a faraway dream for Lina. For one thing, there are far fewer conducting opportunities with opera productions than symphony performances. And progress toward more acceptance of a woman conductor has been slow, even slower for women of color. It wasn’t until 2009 when the first woman opera conductor in the U.S. was hired, in Tulsa, OK. And in 2010, upon Lina’s graduation in Colombia, there was even less opportunity to conduct as a woman. Moving to the U.S. to study was a huge jump for her, the opportunity of a lifetime. While studying for her Doctor of Musical Arts in Boston, orchestras called her frequently to do guest conducting, which she did. But she was seeking another kind of opportunity. “I wanted to conduct opera,” she says.
And then, last year, Lina landed two training opportunities: apprentice conductor to Riccardo Muti with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and conducting fellow with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Lina had had great preparation and training. Now she needed the opportunity to demonstrate what she had learned.
By the time LA Opera called her about becoming their next Resident Conductor, Lina had conducted operas and many symphony orchestras as a freelance conductor in both the U.S. and Europe. After all that traveling, Lina says she is not only excited about conducting operas with a top-tier opera company, she is also thrilled not to be traveling quite so much.
As Resident Conductor, Lina will not only conduct LA Opera productions, she will also be a community ambassador for opera, creating opportunities for people to fall in love with music. “It is a huge gift I have been given to join LA Opera, a true vote of confidence,” she says. “I am eager to meet you who are music lovers, who so generously give of your time and resources to support this beautiful world of opera.”
Her preparation for conducting Lucia, LA Opera’s opening production of the 2022-23 season, was extensive. With her two years of studying Italian plus a year spent with Maestro Muti, she began reviewing various versions of the score. She researched the opinions of Italian musicologists, listened to great singers in the roles and watched productions, including the most recent Met production which is the same one LA Opera is staging. Lina taught herself the score by visualizing herself conducting it in her mind, and then singing and playing the score on piano.
The story of Lucia involves a great musical and emotional range, from love and sadness to craziness. The title character is simultaneously brave and hopeless. “The unusual setting for this production maintains this emotional essence in the music without changing it,” Lina says. “The setting does not break the beauty of the music. This is the same beauty that makes life so fascinating in all its aspects. I search for beauty in a world here that doesn’t offer that. I miss the pure noise of nature in the countryside of my home in Colombia.”
Though she has the Lucia score memorized, Lina will use the music during the performance to free up her attention to follow the actions of the singers on stage, as they may unfold spontaneously and unscripted. She also sees her job to make the singers comfortable, to sense and support them.
“The real goal of my preparation is to have the music in my heart,” Lina says.