Woman at the helm

Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Anne Manson is responsible for a number of "firsts" for women. The first woman to conduct at the Salzburg Festival, she is one of only three to serve as music director of a leading American symphony and is now the first woman to conduct the Virginia Opera. The company's season opens with Manson on the podium conducting its debut of George Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," a work that was rarely done until recent years.

"This is a beautiful score that I love for its luscious, lyrical melodies, its phrasing and the French language that I've spoken since childhood," Manson said. "The friendship duet, 'Au fond du temple saint,' has become well-known, but there are other moments in the opera that are equally beautiful, such as the scene between the soprano and the baritone. It's one of the most dramatic in the repertoire, and I love driving it from the pit."

The native of Cambridge, Mass., began studying in this country, performing duets on the piano and viola with her sister on flute. After completing her studies in England, she became assistant to the great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado. He was responsible for recommending that she conduct the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival.

'The Pearl Fishers'
Where: George Mason University Center for the Arts, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Info: $44 to $98; 888-945-2468;

"They were very frightened because women were not allowed even to play in the orchestra at that time," she said. "They were terrified to think that a woman would be conducting a production of Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godunov.' Since then, it's more common to see women conductors, and a lot of them are now directors of young orchestras. Abbado gave me an opportunity, which has led to many others. I've been very fortunate."

Manson spent nearly a decade as music director of London's Mecklenburgh Opera, where she conducted operas ranging from Mozart to present-day composers and some new commissions. During and since her term as music director of the Kansas City Symphony from 1999 to 2003, she has guest conducted operas and major symphony orchestras worldwide.

Currently, Manson is the music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. With that group, she has led two successful tours featuring soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. But for now, her focus is on the Virginia Opera production of "The Pearl Fishers."

"These singers have beautiful voices, and the orchestra's woodwind solos are equally gorgeous," she said. "I'm grateful for the opportunity to bring to the audience what is for many a new opera, yet one that is not contemporary and is extremely approachable."

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