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Simone Young
, 2002

by Bill Henson

triptych of type C photographs (each framed: 136.5 cm x 186.0 cm)

Simone Young AM (b. 1961) is one of the leading conductors of her generation. A graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, in 1985 she became the youngest person and the first woman to be appointed resident conductor with the Australian Opera Company. She made her debut at the Sydney Opera House with The Mikado and The Little Mermaid at the age of twenty-four. From 1987, when she was named Young Australian of the Year, she was based overseas, where she worked with the Cologne Opera before joining the Berlin State Opera. She was the first woman to conduct at the Vienna State Opera and at the Bastille in Paris; engagements at Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera followed. She was Director of Opera Australia from 2001 to 2003, a period in which she was applauded for developing the company’s musical standards and invigorating opera in Australia. Still the only woman in the world to have conducted a full cycle of Wagner’s Ring, from 2005 – 2015, she was the Artistic Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Music Director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

The National Portrait Gallery approached Bill Henson about a portrait of Young in 1998, on the basis of the artist’s 1991 Paris Opera Project. However, the commission did not come about until some years later, when the conductor’s and the photographer’s schedules were compatible. Henson says of the portrait: ‘I was interested in the way great music affects us. The sheer force of such beauty causes us to fall in love. It is that love that I wanted to see transform the subject’s appearance. But strangely, to suggest any of this, one must step right back. That unbridged gulf … Only across such a distance might one describe such intimacy and such longing.’ Young herself has compared the portrait's structure to the three acts of an opera.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Commissioned with funds from the Farrell Family Foundation and the Basil Bressler Bequest 2002
Accession number: 2002.73.a-c