Kwamé Ryan: Classical Rebel

In the high-strung world of classical music, the young Trinidadian conductor Kwamé Ryan has earned a reputation as a brilliant maverick.

  • Kwamé Ryan. Photograph by Ute Schnell
  • Photograph courtesy Professor Selwyn Ryan
  • Photograph courtesy Professor Selwyn Ryan

Some of the most important things Kwamé Ryan learned as general musical
director of the Freiburg Opera and Orchestra had nothing to do with music.

“I discovered I was stronger than I thought. I became a realist. I remain
an idealist in my personal life.”

At 33, Ryan is already one of the leading conductors of contemporary music
in Europe. A shortish man, he has broad shoulders and a deep, smooth voice.
He speaks in a polished, precise manner, but with a bouncy Trinidadian inflection
rippling through, like pebbles tossed across a pond.

He was named after Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, but Ryan has added an
acute accent to the “e”, because he got tired of Europeans mispronouncing
his first name. The accent tells them to say Quah-may. “It’s my registered
professional name now, so you have to use it,” he says, lightly.

Ryan was born in Canada to Trinidadian parents: Selwyn Ryan, the well-known
political scientist and university lecturer, and Joya Gomez, who now teaches
English to adults in Germany. He has an older sister, Michelle, who works
for a telecommunications company in Canada.

He was a toddler when his family moved back to Trinidad. When he was 12,
his parents separated, which was like the splitting of the emotional atom;
at 14 he was sent abroad to boarding school in England. But those emotional
extremes prepared him well for the challenges he was to face in his musical

Ryan was just 28 when he became the general musical director
of the Freiburg Opera, in 1999, a post he held until July 2003. The honeymoon
lasted about two weeks. He had to find his mettle as a leader, and he quickly
realised that musical talent was not enough.

“I was just thrown in. My job is to take all the energies and filter out
all that’s negative. And that has nothing to do with music.” He adds, “Certain
wisdoms I had not yet attained in dealing with people. I was still an idealist.
I didn’t understand how to use politics to oil the wheels. I was very honest,
too honest.” He laughs in a deep baritone. “There were good lessons to learn,
but nobody to teach me. I spent a good half-year wondering, Why didn’t somebody
tell me, why didn’t they tell me?”

His race, colour, and background were not the issue so much as his attempts
to develop his own distinctive, let’s-break-some-rules style. While still
faithful to traditional music, Ryan introduced some twists and turns of his
own. “I refused from day one to create museum art. I refused to be the keeper
of the closet.” He wanted to attract a new crowd by including jazz and rock
influences, so that young people would see contemporary classical music isn’t
so scary after all. By the second season, after he had hired his own artistic
team, his direction and style became clearer, and the audience and critics
became aware of that.

Ryan has conducted new productions of Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman,
Puccini’s Tosca, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. But in the 2001–2002
season at Freiburg he also initiated a fringe chamber music series called
“et cetera”, which featured programmes like Messiaen’s Quartet for the
End of Time
(written while the composer was interned in a Nazi concentration
camp), and a programme of Turkish court music. The season was called “Outsiders”,
and the whole programme was about what it means to not belong.

The 2002–2003 season was Ryan’s jazz season. He opened with a programme
called “Surrogate Cities”, which examined historical and contemporary ideas
of city life. The set depicted a fallen skyscraper, with the dancers on the
outside walls and the orchestra sitting in groups in the horizontal windows.
The idea was to involve all three artistic departments (dance, drama, opera)
in a project that was a mixture of contemporary classical music, jazz, and
ethnic elements.

“There are things you do for a big audience, like The Magic Flute
and Carmen,” he explains. “Others you do for the profile of the house,
to keep the critics happy, to be on the cutting edge.” This is a man who likes
to keep his audience guessing. “They never know what I am going to do next.
That’s the most fun thing, the freedom to influence people’s thoughts, to
broaden their horizons.”

But, sometimes, overcome by sheer self-doubt, he found himself lying flat
with exhaustion, reminding himself why he had chosen an artist’s life in the
first place. The ambivalence of his experience inspired projects for his
farewell season at Freiburg. He played on the Greek legend of Prometheus,
who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, and was punished for his
presumption. Prometheus was chained to a rock; every day a vulture would pick
out his liver. By night, the liver would regenerate, and he would go through
the whole painful experience again the next day. That’s what being an artist
is like.

“The bird of self-doubt picks out your liver,” he says, with a look somewhere
between a grimace and a smile.

He called the Prometheus programme “A Hero’s Life/No Hero’s Life”. “Like
Prometheus, artists take fire and give it to the people, risking it all, chancing
it all, whatever the consequences.”

But last July, Ryan walked away from the Freiburg Opera, turning down a
new contract, and job offers in bigger cities, to be a freelance conductor
again. “Oh, the freedom, I want that again,” he says passionately. “I want
to be an artist again.”

He’s proud of what he accomplished at Freiburg, but he no longer has to
prove anything. “It’s good to have done a management job. I don’t have to
take a job to prove I can do it.”

He adds, “I don’t want to forget why I am doing this in the first place.
When you go into management, you take on a lot. You need stamina. It does
erode the altruism and the holiness of what you wanted in the beginning. That’s
why I want to go back to freelancing.”

Ryan knew from early childhood that he wanted to spend his
life in music. His mother sent him to piano lessons when he was five — and
had to nag him to practise. He also learned to play the steel pan, and he
and his sister composed calypsos together; she wrote the text and he wrote
the music. He accompanied her on the piano on both occasions when she won
the calypso queen competition at her high school. “Those were great, great
days,” he says, dreamily.

It was one of his early music teachers, Nellie Bailey, who told his parents
that the boy had a special talent. By the time Ryan was 12, he began to feel
stifled, and wanted to go abroad to study music. His father’s initial reaction
was that no child of his would go to boarding school. But two years later,
when his parents’ marriage had finally disintegrated, they thought it best
to remove him from the family tension, and enrolled him in Oakham School,
in the small English town of Rutland. His father recalls, “I told him if he
was good, he would teach. I told him he had to be really, really good, and
he assured me that he would be.”

Ryan kept his promise to his father. He studied piano, violin, bass, and
voice at Oakham. “It was an adventure. It was great, terrific. I wouldn’t
have been able to realise my potential in Trinidad. I felt blocked — and between
the ages of 12 and 14, I felt that particularly strongly.” He went on to
Cambridge to study musicology and conducting under the avant-garde Hungarian
conductor Peter Eotvos.

When Ryan first visited Germany in 1992, on a scholarship to Tübingen
University, he intended to spend one year there. He took German lessons for
six weeks in Trinidad, flew to Tübingen, and in six months was fluent
in the language. His most embarrassing moment came when he arrived at the
airport and a customs officer wanted to check his luggage. He thought she
was offering him a taxi. “Nein danke,” he replied, smoothly, “No, thank you,”
only to be hauled over and have his luggage rummaged through by a very angry

After his first year in Germany, Ryan began to get work as a freelance conductor.
The rest of the time, he taught aerobics to make extra money. From 1998 to
1999, he was assistant to Lothar Zagrosek at Stuttgart State Opera. When the
post of general musical director in Freiburg opened up, his indomitable mother
helped him prepare by holding mock interviews and firing questions at him.

Although his work centres on contemporary European music, he also enjoys
pop, jazz, and calypso. He sings it all when no one is listening. Asked what
he would be if not a conductor, he says, “I could possibly imagine myself
working in film.” He has a collection of over 300 DVDs, and finds it hard
to pick a favourite. “Maybe The English Patient. It kills me every

Now that Ryan has left the Freiburg Opera, the world is his stage. He has
built up a reputation that will allow him to go just about anywhere and work
with anyone. “It’s about choosing what not to do at this stage,” he says.
“It’s about being careful and knowing when you’re ready.”

He’ll continue to be based in Freiburg, where he recently moved into a new
apartment in an art nouveau neighbourhood, but this October he’ll be conducting
at the Tonhalle, in Zurich, to be followed by opera at the National Opera
of Paris, the Stuttgart State Opera, and the Welsh National Opera. Ryan already
knows what he’ll be doing two years from now. In 2005, there will be concerts
with the Baltimore Symphony, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and the National
Orchestra of Belgium.

Living out of a suitcase has its limitations, but Ryan is excited about
regaining his freedom. And he has never lost his enjoyment of performance.
Nothing compares with those few seconds just before he strides on stage,
dressed in formal evening-wear. “Who else gets to dress like that?” he jokes.
“Except maybe the maitre d’ in a restaurant?”

“But, more seriously, I am blessed in that I have no performance nerves.
I get a kick every time, going on stage. At that moment, I have a perfect
score, 100 per cent. I spend the rest of the night trying to hold on to that
perfect score.”

Kwamé Ryan discography

1999 Stäbler: Rachengold (Col Legno)

Ryan conducts the South German Radio Chorus/Vienna Klangforum in a performance
of the choral work Apparat

2000 Feldman: Neither (Col Legno)

Ryan conducts the Bayerischen Rundfunkorchester in a performance of an opera
with text by Samuel Beckett

2000 Xenakis: Orchestral Works (Col Legno Collage)

Ryan conducts the South West France Symphony Orchestra in a performance
of Ioolkos

2001 Sciarrino: Chamber Works (Kairos Series)

Ryan conducts the Recherche Ensemble in a performance of four chamber pieces