Conlon grew up in a family of five children on Cherry Street in Douglaston, Queens, New York City. His mother, Angeline L. Conlon, was a freelance writer. His father was an assistant to the New York City Commissioner of Labor in the Robert F. Wagner administration. His siblings were not musically inclined, nor were his parents. When he was eleven, he went to a production of La traviata by an amateur company founded by the mother of a friend (Edith Mugdan, the mother of the young Conlon's best friend, Walter Mugdan, and the founder of the North Shore Opera ). He asked for music lessons and became a treble (boy soprano) in a children's chorus in an opera company in Queens. He dreamed about being a tenor, then a baritone, and even wanted to sing the role of Carmen at one point. Finally it dawned on him that the only way to do everything in opera was to become an operatic conductor.
He entered the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art at the age of fifteen and at eighteen he was accepted into the Aspen Institute conducting program, and in September, 1968 he entered The Juilliard School of music. In 1970, the Juilliard Orchestra took an educational tour to Europe and he was invited to Spoleto the next year as an assistant doing work as a répétiteur, coach and chorus conductor. During that time, he conducted one performance of Boris Godunov. He recalled that he had fallen in love with this opera at a young age, and had dreamed that it would be the first opera he would conduct.
In 1972, at a scheduled Juilliard production of La bohème directed by Michael Cacoyannis, conductor Thomas Schippers suddenly pulled out. At the time, Maria Callas was doing a series of master classes at Juilliard and heard Conlon in rehearsal. She suggested to Juilliard's president, Peter Mennin, that Conlon should step in to conduct. This is an apocryphal story. James Conlon was prepared for months by Stanisław Skrowaczewski to conduct this concert.
Conlon received the conducting award of the American National Orchestral Association and in 1974 became the youngest conductor engaged for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's subscription series. In 1976 he made his Metropolitan Opera debut and his British debut with the Scottish Opera, and in 1979 he debuted at Covent Garden. He was named director of the Cincinnati May Festivalin 1979, which he has acted as every year since. After engagements with the Paris Opéra, Maggio Musicale in Florence, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Lyric Opera, Conlon became chief conductor of the Cologne Opera in 1989. In 1996 he was appointed music director of the Opéra National de Paris while serving concurrently as Music Director of the city of Cologne, Germany.
Since his New York Philharmonic debut in 1974 at the invitation of Pierre Boulez, Conlon has appeared with virtually every major North American and European orchestra. He has also appeared with many of the world's major opera companies, including Teatro alla Scala (Milan), the Royal Opera at Covent Garden (London), the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence). Associated for almost 30 years with the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in 1976, he has conducted more than 250 performances there, leading a wide range of works from the Italian, German, French, Russian and Czech repertoires.
Conlon has held several major European posts, including Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic (1983–1991), General Music Director of the City of Cologne, Germany (1989–2002), where he was simultaneously Music Director of the Gürzenich Orchestra and the Cologne Opera, and Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera (1995–2004), where his Paris tenure was the longest of any conductor there since 1939. His leadership is associated with an increase in artistic standards, overall productivity and attendance, which, in an era of diminishing audiences, has increased exponentially in the past decade.
Los Angeles Opera
Since the 2006/07 season, Conlon is the Music Director of Los Angeles Opera. He is also currently Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, having held that post since 2005. Conlon continues to serve as Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival, a post he has held since 1979. In September 2007, Conlon extended his LA Opera contract through the 2010/11 season.
His work at LA Opera includes a series called "Recovered Voices", a multi-year project during which Conlon will bring the music of composers affected by the Holocaust to the LA Opera stage. The series begins this season with a double-bill of Alexander von Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg and Viktor Ullmann's Der zerbrochene Krug, and will include operas by composers such as Schreker and Braunfels, among others, in future seasons. Since beginning his tenure at LA Opera, Mr. Conlon has sought to establish a Wagnerian tradition in LA, and this season's Tristan is one of seven Wagnerian works he will conduct there over the next four years, including the first ever performance in LA of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen beginning in 2008/09.
Conlon recently completed a two-year artist residency with his alma mater, The Juilliard School. During the residency, Conlon worked with the school's young artists in its three divisions – dance, drama, music – in an educational project meant to promote growth and historical curiosity in students and audience members alike. The cross-genre project consisted of performances, symposia, master classes, and coaching. In addition to study and performance of the lesser-known repertoire of composers affected by the rise of Nazism and the events of World War II, of which he is an ardent champion, Conlon moderated symposia and spoke about the role of the artist in current times.
Composers from the Holocaust Era
In an effort to raise public consciousness to the significance of works of composers whose lives and compositions were affected by the Holocaust, Conlon has devoted himself to extensive programming of this music in North America and Europe. This includes the works of such composers as Alexander von Zemlinsky, Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas, Kurt Weill, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Erwin Schulhoff, and Ernst Krenek. In addition to "Recovered Voices" at LA Opera, as Music Director of the Ravinia Festival, each summer Conlon presents a different composer from this group with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He has highlighted works of Viktor Ullmann, Erwin Schulhoff, and Alexander von Zemlinsky thus far. A production of Ullman's Der Kaiser von Atlantis, conceived by Conlon, has traveled extensively since its first showing in New York. Produced in cooperation with The Juilliard School, it has since been reprised at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, the Ravinia Festival, in cooperation with the New World Symphony Orchestra, The Houston Grand Opera and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where it was performed in 2004 at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Conlon is committed to working with young pre-professional musicians and, in addition to his continual work with Juilliard ensembles, has devoted his time to teaching at the Aspen Music Festival and School and Tanglewood Music Center. He is actively involved in the Ravinia Festival's Steans Institute for Young Artists as well as Ravinia's model community outreach and education programs, and plans to help lead and expand educational projects during his tenure at Los Angeles Opera. Conlon has been active with the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition since 1997, where he not only conducts the final round of the competition, but also initiated a program through which he leads master classes and coaches finalists. His work in several Cliburn competitions was taped and aired in a special series on PBS, the most recent of which debuted in spring 2006, and the Final Round concerts comprising the concerti and recital performances, rehearsals, symposia including “A Talk with James Conlon,” and the awards ceremony, were webcast live during the 2009 competition. He is also featured in the final round section of the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition documentary film The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge.
Conlon has recorded extensively for the EMI, ERATO, Capriccio and Sony Classical labels. He made his first recording for Telarc of the world premiere of Franz Liszt's St. Stanislaus oratorio, released in January 2004. A champion of the works of Alexander Zemlinsky, he has made nine recordings of the composer's operas and orchestral works with the Gürzenich Orchestra-Cologne Philharmonic for EMI. Several of these recordings individually have earned prestigious international awards, and in October 2002, the series was awarded the 2002 ECHO Classic Award for "Editorial Achievement of the Year." Mr. Conlon has also inaugurated a new series of 20th century works with Capriccio, including a CD of works by Erwin Schulhoff with the Bayerischer Rundfunk, and a CD/DVD of the works of Viktor Ullmann with the Gürzenich Orchestra, which won the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (German Record Critics Award for Excellence). His other Capriccio recordings include the works of Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Dmitri Shostakovich with violinist Vladimir Spivakov and the Cologne Philharmonic. His most recent recording is a CD of works by Bohislav Martinu with the Bayerischer Rundfunk on Capriccio.
PBS aired a series of six shows hosted by Mr. Conlon entitled "Encore" during the spring of 2006, part of an ongoing series of documentaries on his work with the finalists of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which have also included "Playing on the Edge" and "Hearing Ear to Ear with James Conlon." Among his other recent television appearances on PBS are, "Concerto," six half-hour shows hosted by Mr. Conlon, and "Cincinnati May Festival 2000.
Conlon has also conducted the orchestra for Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute (2006), a film version in English of Mozart's opera, reset during World War I, but otherwise very faithful to the original plot. The film has been released in Europe, but, as of April 2010, not in the United States, nor has it been shown on American television.
- Grand Prix du Disque (France), for EMI recording of Zemlinsky: The Dwarf, 1997
- In 1999, Mr. Conlon received the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Zemlinsky Prize, awarded only once before, for his efforts in bringing the composer's music to international attention.
- He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music Degree by The Juilliard School in 2004, an honorary Doctor of Arts honoris causa by Chapman University in 2009 and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Brandeis University in 2009.
- In 2005, Mr. Conlon received one of five annual Opera News Awards given for the first time in recognition of distinguished contributions from leading figures in the world of opera.
- He has been honored by The New York Public Library as a "Library Lion", an annual award given to individuals in recognition of their contributions through their work.
- Conlon was named an Officier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 1996, and in September 2004 he was promoted to Commander—the highest honor awarded by the Ministry of Culture in France. In September 2002, James Conlon received France's highest distinction from the President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac—the Légion d’Honneur.
- Conlon was honored by the Anti-Defamation League for his work championing composers silenced by the Third Reich. Conlon received the League's Crystal Globe Award at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park near Chicago on August 12, 2007.
- Conlon received the Medal of the American Liszt Society in recognition of his distinctive performances of the composer’s works.
- He received Italy’s Premio Galileo 2000 Award for his significant contribution to music, art and peace in Florence in 2008
- Conlon received the Music Institute of Chicago’s Dushkin Award in recognition of his artistry and passion as a performer, educator, and mentor in 2009
- Conlon's rendition of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny won a 2009 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. The recording was made with Los Angeles Opera.
- Conlon was inducted in 2009 into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
Conlon married Jennifer Ringo, a soprano and vocal coach, on January 9, 1987, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. She is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and the University of Iowa. They have two daughters, Luisa, who was named for the Verdi opera Luisa Miller, and Emma. Luisa acted in the 1998 Merchant-Ivory film, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries.
- Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict, Erato Disques.
- Liszt: Faust Symphony, Erato Disques.
- Mendelssohn: Elias, EMI Classics.
- Puccini: La bohème, Erato/Red Seal, 1998.
- Puccini's Heroines: The Power of Love, Warner, 2002.
- Shostakovich: Violin Concerto no. 1; Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk Suite, Capriccio, 2002.
- Bo Skovhus: Arias, Sony Classical, 1998.
- Stravinsky: Le Rossignol, EMI, 1999.
- Zemlinsky: Eine florentinische Tragödie, EMI Classics, 1997.
- Zemlinsky: The Dwarf, EMI, 1997.
- Zemlinsky: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2, Angel, 1998.
- Zemlinsky: Cymbeline Suite/Ein Tanzpoem/Frühlingsbegräbnis, EMI, 2001.
- Zemlinsky: Choral and Orchestral Works, EMI, 2002.
- Amore II: Great Italian Love Arias, Sony Classical, 2000.
- Sony Classical
- F. Paul Driscol (July 2009). "Rethinking the Maestro Mystique". Opera News 74 (1). Retrieved June 24, 2009.
- The New York Times, January 10, 1987
- The New York Times, October 7, 2001
- San Francisco Symphony
- Boise State University newrelease (2005).
- Matthew Westphal (10 September 2007). "James Conlon to Remain Music Director at LA Opera Through 2010/11". Playbill Arts. Retrieved 2007-09-25.
- The Enquirer, July 20, 2007
|Music Director, Cincinnati May Festival
|Principal Conductor, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra
|Music Director, Gürzenich Orchester, Köln
|Principal Conductor, Opéra National de Paris
|Music Director, Los Angeles Opera
|Music Director, Ravinia Festival