By Diane Eisenman
A proud member of the first violin section in Los Angeles Opera Orchestra for a quarter century, Olivia Tsui has been successfully pursuing her career ever since completing her violin studies at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
Her westward journey began in 1986, when Olivia arrived in the U.S. to continue her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music, followed by USC where she studied under Alice Schönfeld. Quickly becoming active in the Los Angeles music scene, she joined the LA Opera (LAO) Orchestra in 1992, followed by appearances with other local orchestras and chamber groups.
“How can you not love the violin?” she exclaims. “It’s my first love, since my grandfather, who was the first generation to play western instruments in China, started teaching me violin when I was four years old.” Her father was a math and physics professor and an amateur violinist, while her mother was an engineer. Olivia was surprised to discover only last year that her mother had also been a college choral conductor. Finally, Olivia realized the family roots in her “two hats!”
Olivia loves the color she can create on the violin. But she also realized that the entire orchestra included a full palette of colors, and the conductor had all of these at her disposal with which to create beautiful music. She determined that she wanted to learn conducting and forged her own path of study to that end.
After meeting with Olivia, Maestro Jorge Mester agreed to teach a weekly master class in conducting which she organized with a few USC conducting students and herself, continuing over three years. In her time off, she continued to attend conducting institutes in Europe and New York, and even studied with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting teacher.
This spawned a conducting career that has grown steadily over the last 20 years. “Playing violin in an orchestra gives me a distinct advantage for conducting. As an orchestra member, I understand what musicians want and need from their conductor. Further, with my violin, I can demonstrate what I am looking for without a language barrier.” As guest conductor for the National Philharmonic of Mexico, you can imagine this strategy has clearly worked.
In seeking conducting opportunities, Olivia has created some wonderful experiences. She grew with the Glendale Symphony Orchestra, from assistant concert master to music director in 2006. After that, she wanted to bring first class music to audiences on the Westside who were unable to attend downtown musical events. So she founded the Los Angeles Virtuosi Association in 2005, where she is music director, conductor and performing artist in chamber concerts. She especially enjoys inviting talented young musicians to participate in these performances, including our very own Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists.
This summer was Olivia’s eighth year at the three-week Astoria Music Festival in Oregon where she serves as resident conductor, assistant concert master and director of the young artists’ program. The festival upholds high standards for music, attracting Metropolitan Opera singers, soloists from international stages and “In the Pit” section leaders from our LAO Orchestra. Olivia conducts a staged opera there each year with young singers and appreciates how much she has learned about opera production from her LAO experience. It is a special challenge to produce such an opera in just three weeks.
Her son Caelan, at only 13, is already a veteran of the LAO stage. Getting his start with a small part at the Astoria Festival in Gianni Schicchi, Caelan has since sung one of the three spirits’ parts in The Magic Flute, and the young midshipman in Billy Budd. Her second son Adrian, age eight, is hoping to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. For a change in scenery, Mom and sons enjoy spending special time together outdoors in nature.
“I love this all so much,” Olivia says. “It is so inspiring and energizing for me. And the end product is so beautiful.” She feels very lucky to have had the best teachers and great opportunities to pursue her dual careers. Her first musical priority is always as performer at LAO, yet she happily finds ample time to wear both hats, and to be a mom. Truly not just a super musician, but a super woman!