Zombies, Wildlife, and Cartoons: Conductor Darrell Ang Reflects on a Life of Many Passions

Zombies, Wildlife, and Cartoons: Conductor Darrell Ang Reflects on a Life of Many Passions

Darrell Ang

If you scroll through the social media accounts of Singapore-born conductor Darrell Ang, you’re as likely to be greeted by polar bears as you are by selfies and music.

The Yale-educated musician projects a decidedly eclectic persona, full of wide-roaming passions. One minute, he might be celebrating the sounds of the rock band Coldplay. The next, he might be denouncing the evils of wildlife trafficking, considered one of the biggest threats today to biodiversity, next to habitat destruction.

And yet, ever since he was a child, Ang has been serious about music. He currently helms China’s Sichuan Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as artistic director and chief conductor.

His career has taken him around the globe, from Tokyo to London to Vienna and beyond, leading symphonies and operas alike. He counts figures like Seiji Ozawa—the former music director of the San Francisco Symphony—as mentors.

But Ang has distinguished himself as a leading interpreter of contemporary Asian composers. His recording of the symphony Humen 1839—composed by Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long and Pulitzer finalist Chen Yi—earned him a Grammy nomination. It commemorated the 1839 destruction of 1,150,000 kilograms of opium in the coastal town of Humen, an act which prompted Great Britain to declare war on China.

Now, Ang is setting his sights on another Asian-led work: Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s Dream of the Red Chamber. The opera is based on a masterpiece of Chinese literature, and it marks Ang’s debut on the San Francisco Opera stage.

As he prepared to travel from New York City to San Francisco, Ang sat down with San Francisco Opera via video to share how cartoons and camaraderie inspired him to conduct—and why animals and zombie movies capture his imagination.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What were your earliest experiences with classical music? Was it an immediate attraction to the art form?

DARRELL ANG: I first encountered classical music as a child in my favorite Looney Tunes cartoons. I remember fondly Bugs Bunny as Leopold Stokowski conducting a tenor and forcing him to hold a note until his face turned first red, then purple, then blue, then green. And everything was crashing down around him. There was Elmer Fudd in “The Ride of the Valkyries.” And I also remembered Schubert’s unfinished symphony and The Magic Flute overture being used in the cartoon series The Smurfs.

All this music didn’t mean very much to me at first, but several years later, when I was about 12 and discovering classical music seriously as a member of my school orchestra, it all came back to me.

I realized I had known all this great music all along. And with those early memories flooding back, this new impression gained a certain gravitas. And thus I started to form a real bond with classical music.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you decide to be a conductor? What drew you to the conductor’s podium?

ANG: As a kid, it was never my intention to become a professional musician. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed making music with friends in my school orchestra, but that was more like a hobby, which I took a keen interest in, of course.

However, on the night of my 14th birthday, I had a dream. And in this dream I was told by a voice to become a conductor. I had no idea what that really meant, but I soon had many opportunities to conduct in school. And thereafter, I was really bitten by the conducting bug.

What really clinched it for me was the collective sound that everybody was making—that glorious sound of an orchestra, which became so addictive—and the camaraderie involved in the act of music-making, as well as the conductor's role in the entire process, especially in the interpretation of music, which felt very much like detective work, because there's so much research, knowledge, and pure inspiration involved.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was the hardest part of becoming a conductor?

ANG: For me, it was the particular route one should take to become a conductor, which was especially difficult. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Singapore, where I come from, there were no professional music conservatories. So a lot of my education was through private instruction and autodidacticism.

My family couldn't afford to send me overseas for professional training. So I had to find ways and means to make that happen. But I took a leap of faith—and so did my parents—and I will always be grateful to them for all the sacrifices they made in order to let me pursue my dreams of becoming a conductor.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How would you describe your philosophy as a conductor? What style or ideals do you aspire to?

ANG: I believe the conductor is like a football coach. He or she is there to help steer a collective of unique and talented individuals and unite them into one singular vision. The conductor must be musical, of course, but more importantly, the conductor must know how to communicate his or her ideas—and more importantly sometimes, when not to communicate.

To summarize, I believe that conducting is not so much about music. Of course there is that. Of course. But it is more about collaborating effectively with people.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What has been your exposure to the novel Dream of the Red Chamber and its many adaptations? How would you describe the novel’s impact in China and neighboring countries?

ANG: I was given an extremely simplified version of the novel as a school boy for leisure reading. And I remember that, as a teenager, I was drawn to a comic-book version of the novel. It is very much the comic-book version that still recites in my memory, as well as its many manifestations on television as TV drama.

The novel itself, of course, is a part of every Chinese or Chinese-speaking person's identity. In China, they read it from a very young age, and the language inherent in that novel has been the basis for modern Chinese as we know it today.

But more importantly, the social nuances described in the story very aptly describe society today in Chinese-speaking countries—even Singapore, where I come from, as most of our ancestors arrived there from China.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In the United States, classical music institutions are facing questions about diversity—or the lack thereof. Have you ever encountered barriers as an Asian conductor leading orchestras and opera singers around the globe?

ANG: Yes. And I'll leave it at that, because I really don't want to open a can of worms. But let me just say that being Asian, especially an Asian male conductor, has been a challenge. Hopefully it will change. And hopefully in my lifetime.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’re very passionate about animals. You even told the publication Tatler Asia you wish you could be David Attenborough! Where did your passion start? Tell us the story of your earliest interactions with the natural world and how they inspired you to speak out to protect wildlife.

ANG: My very first book as a child was a book on animals. And I was so enraptured by the pictures and drawings of wildlife from around the world. I've also always had pets at home. So living with animals has always been a part of life.

I admire animals for their unique individuality, beauty, intelligence, and role on this earth’s very diverse ecosystems. Now, each one of them—whether the insect or mammal, vertebrate or invertebrate, flora or fauna—plays such a perfect and significant role in the proper functioning of our planet. And I'm sorry to say that we as human beings, despite our achievements, have done much to upset and destroy that balance.

I want to speak out to protect wildlife because to us, the human race, they are largely silent as we are certainly unable to understand them or their right to existence. This is therefore something very, very close and dear to my heart.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Your Twitter bio reads that you’re “willing to play a ferocious zombie in a movie.” What’s your favorite zombie movie, and why?

ANG: Well, I love the horror genre. I think it's because I love the thrill of it all. And I especially love zombie movies because, well, first of all, it's so hard to kill off a zombie and the possibility of a zombie apocalypse or something similar ever happening is perhaps not entirely in the realm of fiction.

I am a big fan of The Walking Dead series on AMC. The graphic novels are great too, but of course I think the television series is just outstanding.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What advice would you give to aspiring conductors who would like to have a career like yours?

ANG: Work hard. Believe in yourself. Believe in the people you work with. And above all, be humble. Believe that there is always room for improvement.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What should audiences look forward to in this summer’s Dream of the Red Chamber?

ANG: Oh, it's a real spectacle. I think that the San Francisco Opera's production of Dream of the Red Chamber is such a beauty to behold—its lavish costumes, its opulent sets, the rich lyrical and very colorful score that the composer Bright Sheng has written. And oh my God! What a cast! What an excellent, superb and star-studded cast that has been assembled. This is surely the one opera nobody should miss this year.

See conductor Darrell Ang live and in action starting June 14, 2022, as Dream of the Red Chamber comes to the San Francisco Opera stage. And follow along on Ang’s adventures on social media or through his website, darrellang.net.

At Home With Tenor Konu Kim, Chickens Rule the Roost