James Conlon to Step Down as Music Director of Los Angeles Opera

James Conlon to Step Down as Music Director of Los Angeles Opera

The year 2026 will mark James Conlon’s 20th anniversary as music director of the Los Angeles Opera. That seemed to him like it would be the right time to step down.

“I’ve had 20 years — that’s a good round number,” Conlon, 73, said in a telephone interview. “I want to stop when I’m at my full capacity and I want to be able to go on loving the company the way I do.”

His final season, the 2025-26 season, will coincide with the company’s 40th anniversary, and Conlon said that he “wanted to be there to celebrate that with them.”

“It will mean I will have been there for half of its history,” said Conlon, who has led more than 460 performances of 68 different operas there, more than any other conductor.

Conlon will be named the opera’s conductor laureate, which the company said would be in recognition “of his distinguished tenure and contribution to Los Angeles Opera and the community at large, and in acknowledgment of the mutual intention for Conlon to return to the company as a guest conductor.”

Christopher Koelsch, the opera’s president and chief executive, praised Conlon’s musical leadership and said that there was “something elegant about the timing” of his departure, coinciding as it does with both anniversaries. He added that the transition “presents an opportunity for us as an organization for a different perspective and generational change.”

It will be a transformational moment for classical music in Los Angeles: 2026 is also the year that Gustavo Dudamel will leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the New York Philharmonic.

L.A. Opera is already in a moment of transition. Plácido Domingo, who was instrumental in its creation, reigned for decades as its leading star and served as its general director, stepped down in 2019 amid allegations of sexual harassment.

As to what the opera will be looking for in Conlon’s successor, Koelsch said, “Someone who has a similar evangelism for the art form and a 21st-century point of view on what that means.”

Conlon, who will be 76 when he steps down, said he is not retiring, and that he plans to continue as a guest conductor in Los Angeles and elsewhere, devote time to personal goals (“I still want to see the Taj Mahal and I’d like to go on safari”) and to continue to focus on music education.

“The most important crisis facing classical music is we’re all fighting for an audience,” he said, adding that he “can be very persuasive in enticing people who feel afraid of classical music not to be inhibited by these big buildings that look like fortresses.”

Education has been a hallmark of Conlon’s tenure. Before performances he talks audiences through key moments of each opera, lectures captured on the company’s “Behind the Curtain” podcasts and YouTube channel.

Highlights of his tenure in Los Angeles include the company’s first staging of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle; a “Figaro Trilogy” that featured Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles”; “Britten 100/LA,” which celebrated the centennial of the composer Benjamin Britten’s birth; and a performance of “The Anonymous Lover,” a rarely seen opera by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prominent Black composer in 18th-century France.

Conlon has conducted at many leading opera houses around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Paris Opera, where he was the principal conductor.

He has consistently sought to bring attention to composers suppressed by the Third Reich with efforts like “Recovered Voices,” which has brought neglected operas to the stage of Los Angeles Opera since 2007.

“If you’re a good music director, it means you’re really devoted,” Conlon said. “That has always been my purpose and goal — to be a good music director.”

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