• WOMEX 20 Digital Edition
  • 26-29 MAY 2021
  • ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS
Interview with Joanna Lee

Fasten Your Seat Belts

Connecting the art music scenes from New York City to Hong Kong and everywhere in between.

Concert ValkyriesSingapore premiere of Die Walkuere, presented by the Orchestra of Music Makers (January 5, 2020)

Joanna Lee can do it all. The Classical:NEXT 2020 Jury Member splits her time between North America and Asia, never really spending more than two weeks in one place, Joanna has rare, yet vast and varied insight into the art music scenes of multiple regions. With the recent outbreak of coronavirus, she has stayed put unusually long in New York City, giving us the chance to catch up with her. Below, Joanna provides us with a front row seat into the life of an art music globe-trotter:

What is it about travelling that you love? And what does a typical trip of yours involve?


Both my husband and I fly a lot for work and pleasure (which often overlap in the performing arts world). We actually love air travel. I sleep very well on planes, and we use that time to catch up on books and films. One transpacific flight can accommodate an entire TV series, or a month’s worth of magazines.

Nearly all our travel involves seeing performances—and if it doesn’t at first, it probably will once we scour internet listings and consult our local friends. We also try to visit museums (art, history, crafts, or pretty much anything). More than the performing arts, museums (and how they present their collections) gives you a good barometer of the city or a country.

Not long ago, we visited the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. The gallery arrangements are clearly an indication of how the country sees itself. You notice where they place their pride, and also what they refuse to discuss. The museum is free and open to the public, and the cross-section of local and international visitors we encountered was inspiring.

Being in the classical music profession, we also try to attend rehearsals, outreach events and pre-performance talks. In January, we were in Singapore for the local premiere of Die Walküre by the Orchestra of Music Makers. OMM organised preview activities the day before, featuring animated videos, talks, a backstage tour of the Esplanade and a sneak peek of a working rehearsal. This wasn’t about gauging the quality of the singers—most of them were saving their voices anyway—but rather to see the age range of participants and learn more about how OMM targets its audience.

We were really inspired at the actual pre-concert talk the next day, which was given by two young musicians in the orchestra. One was playing cello in the orchestra that night (and pursuing a degree in geography at Cambridge), the other was a former violinist who was flying back to London hours later to open his next term. Rather than hearing history from some local Wagner expert, we got young musicians sharing the excitement of how discovering opera had transformed their lives. Their synopsis of Die Walküre included family trees and cartoon drawings!

I believe we’re all getting closer and closer. Wherever we are on the globe, you can see those connections grow tighter. Even when we’re not physically travelling from place to place, we constantly stay in touch through Wechat, Whatsapp and Facetime. The international scale of music education has already globalised our community.

Joanna Lee about exchanges between the international music community

What is it that stands out to you most between the regions you frequent? What similarities or differences do you find and how can they learn from or exchange with one another?


I believe we’re all getting closer and closer. Wherever we are on the globe, you can see those connections grow tighter. Even when we’re not physically travelling from place to place, we constantly stay in touch through Wechat, Whatsapp and Facetime. The international scale of music education has already globalised our community. Decades ago, I travelled from Hong Kong to London to study at the Royal College of Music, where I met international students from all over the world.

Back then (and certainly before) orchestras in different continents looked distinctly different, but now you see a similar rainbow of ethnicities—both on stage and in the audience—whether you’re in Berlin, New York or Hong Kong; ditto with opera productions. You’ll find many of the same singers performing in Macau, Houston, Düsseldorf or Sydney—sometimes performing the same roles. This internationalism celebrates both our commonalities and our differences. We thrive because of our diversity.

I later trained as a musicologist, focusing my research on the reception history of the German avant-garde. I’ve always been enthusiastic about new music, especially seeing young composers find their voice.

Technology and the use of lighting and projection has also really increased the dramatic potential of any musical performance exponentially. Most recently, I was introduced to opera surtitles beamed into cell phones in multiple languages (you choose which). What a great way to bring down barriers!

OMMSingapore premiere of Die Walkuere, presented by the Orchestra of Music Makers (January 5, 2020)

What lies ahead for the global art music scene?


I’m also a world music enthusiast. As the exoticism fades from that genre in the pop world, I’m hoping that it will find a more mature expression in art music. Really, music is music; any other categorisation shouldn’t be very rigid.

These days, since I’m not flying around as much as usual, I look forward to running into talented musicians online. In the virtual world, we can all meet and interact, reducing the distances of sound and space to zero.

Back to New York City, where I am now, I’m still catching live streams of concerts all over the world, and on-demand videos of opera productions from the past year (and beyond). We can reach out and engage with artists virtually, 24/7.

With all the travelling you do, what purpose does an international gathering like Classical:NEXT serve for you?


Call me a traditionalist. I love technology, I video-conference a lot, but I can’t wait to hug all of my colleagues and friends in person when we are at De Doelen! Classical:NEXT is a place where you discover new ideas and make new connections in person. Exchanging ideas during conference sessions, as well as listening to new artists share their talent, reinforce my faith in culture and human goodness.

I look forward to visiting the exhibition booths: you never know what you learn from the people you meet! We are individuals who form a strong community. Grabbing a coffee or a drink makes any social experience all the more enjoyable. (Years ago, I used to have “phone cocktails” with friends: each of us enjoying a drink while speaking at length on the phone, despite our being separated thousands of miles…) I rate hugs the highest, but in light of COVID-19, we’ll have to improvise with elbow bumps and shoulder bumps!