Figaro's feminists: Q&A with conductor Zoe Zeniodi

Figaro's feminists: Q&A with conductor Zoe Zeniodi

Conducting the New Zealand Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro is Zoe Zeniodi, 'ingenious Greek maestro' and lifelong lover of La Traviata. She spoke to What's Hot New Zealand about piano playing, Carnegie Hall, and eating bananas.

How did you get into opera? When I was little, at home, unattended, as things used to be back then, I remember coming back from kindergarten and putting on a video tape that I had found on a shelf which showed a lady being in agony for a long time and dying on her couch. I loved ‘dying’ with her every day on my couch after school. It was a daily ritual for me. I had never realised what I was watching, until much later, in my 30s, I found that old tape again and decided to watch it. It was La Traviata by Verdi. I had been watching the complete La Traviata daily throughout my early childhood without ever realising that this was an opera. I went into classical music at an early age. I started my life as a pianist, so I was very involved with instrumental repertoire and performances. The first time I consciously realised that I love opera was when I moved to London for my studies at the Royal College of Music and a friend invited me to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden to watch Tosca by Puccini. It was one of the most powerful experiences in my whole life – it was a life-changing moment, the moment I realised I really wanted to be able to work with voices and this amazing genre.

What was your first-ever on-stage experience? The first experience with an audience was actually when I was seven years old and I had travelled with my father to Switzerland. There was a piano in the hotel and I remember, after approximately a year of piano lessons, sitting on the piano during breakfast and playing all the little pieces I was learning. I think I really had no idea that there were people there, I had not thought of the piano as something that relates to an audience. Suddenly, I heard all the hotel guests applauding, I still remember feeling happy and embarrassed at the same time, not really understanding why they were applauding. Let’s call this my first-ever on-stage experience. Soon after though, when I was 12 years old, I started playing recitals and public exams in front of audiences.

You came to New Zealand especially for The Marriage of Figaro, right? Where have you been spending the last year or so? New Zealand has excellently handled Covid-19, creating the possibility of live concerts for its people. Unfortunately, most places in the world were not able to be as effective. In Europe, we all stayed home for a very long time, and that was Greece for me. Before Covid, I used to travel a lot for my work. The year before I had gone for concerts to Vietnam, Japan, Colombia, Italy and the Czech Republic, along with my concerts in Greece. I have to admit that taking a year off has been a very beautiful and recharging time, a time of introspection and mindfulness. But, I am more than happy now to be able to come back to music through my collaboration with the wonderful New Zealand Opera.

Where has been your favourite place to perform around the world? I have lived in London, Salzburg and Miami for 20 years – these have been homes for me and places where I connected strongly to music. I have performed in all the continents and in great concert halls. If I have to name one concert hall, Carnegie Hall in New York would be the one. The sound, the acoustics, the energy in that hall are phenomenal. I remember giving the first downbeat – I was conducting Beethoven – and being totally taken aback with the sound I received from the orchestra. I almost had to stop as I was really in shock with the beauty of the sound. A most fulfilling experience!

Have you spent much time in New Zealand before? No, this is my first time visiting this wonderful country – I hope to see as much of it as I can! And certainly, visit more than once.

What stands out to you about the country? As we speak I’m in my Managed Isolation Facility so I cannot really talk about any personal experiences yet in the country. What I feel though strongly is that the people, the system, the system’s care for the people, the infrastructure of the country, as well as the kindness and generosity I have already come across are certainly beautiful characteristics of this nation. I feel that people live happily here and I am eager to discover more of its outstanding qualities.

What’s special about the music for The Marriage of Figaro? Words would never be enough to express the magic of this music. It is a piece full of energy, perfectly written, with an intelligent and witty plot where action is constant. It is a very enjoyable work, beautiful characters and vocal lines, not a moment to be bored. I could go on for hours, but really, just come and enjoy the ride.

What do you hope the audiences will take away from the performances? This opera has deep political connotations and insights. It was very revolutionary for its era, but still, there are similar issues in the world, so it is very much contemporary. I hope audiences will be able to enjoy the music and the plot, relax and have fun but at the same time, leave the performance with the hope that the world can change, that we are all connected into making changes that will aid humanity to its development, a present where we can all be happier, healthier and we can relate beautifully to each other.

What music are you listening to at the moment? Le Nozze di Figaro – it runs inside my brain most of the time, day and night. I find it impossible to listen to other music while I am working full-time on a piece. These past months are very much just Mozart. I will be able to say farewell to the piece the day after my last performance here.

How do you relax? I exercise and meditate. I read books and I drink tea. I enjoy time with my twins. I love nature and I walk a lot. I feel that being conscious constantly, living in the present and being able to concentrate very well when needed, lead to a beautiful and pretty relaxed life.

What’s the most common misconception about conductors? People that I have come across have expressed two thoughts that are certainly misconceptions. Firstly, they tend to believe that the conductor is someone that just moves her hands around and things happen. They are not properly informed on what really the job of a conductor is. Secondly, they tend to believe that the conductor is a type of ‘dictator’, a machine of power who has the right to do what she wants. This is totally wrong and this would never be accepted anymore by any orchestra in this world. The conductor should be an inspiring musician, a leader and collaborator to all the team, someone that the orchestra, the singers, the musicians really want to make music with.

Do you have a pre-performance or post-performance ritual? The one thing I need to do on the day of the performance is to have the space to be totally alone for the majority of the day. I need to be able to lie down and rest as much as I need, to take a nap before the performance, meditate and concentrate. And just before the performance I normally eat a banana.

Read our Q&As with the other women of The Marriage of Figaro creative team: Lindy Hume, Eleanor Bishop and Tracy Grant Lord.


Tue 8 Jun - Tue 13 Jul

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