Los Angeles Opera will make history in May by unveiling the company's first complete Wagner Ring cycle: it carries a chunky $32 million dollar price tag, and was created by director/designer Achim Freyer. Among the less-traditional choices made for the staging there are light sabers and puppet heads (photo below). Freyer's new production was already staged in parts for L.A. Opera the past year: Das Rheingold in February/March 2009; Die Walküre in April 2009 (with Plácido Domingo as Siegmund); Siegfried in September/October 2009 -- now Götterdämmerung’s premiere is imminent for April 3, and after its run, Der Ring des Nibelungen will be presented in L.A. Opera's first complete performances (in three full cycles) that will take over Los Angeles in May & June.
The man behind the Ring initiative is the Music Director of the L.A. Opera James Conlon, who has championed Wagner through his career and conducts all of Wagner’s works for the L. A. Opera. The American conductor's 60th birthday is today (YAY!) and Conlon’s still trailblazing. When he’s not at the L.A. Opera, he divides his time guest conducting at the world's top houses (we had him at La Scala in February for Rigoletto). He's also Music Director of the Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and Music Director of the Cincinnati May Festival. His early career was marked as Principal Conductor for Paris National Opera, General Music Director of the City of Cologne, and Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. All richly deserved, he’s got a couple of Grammys, a 2004 Commander de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and a 2002 Légion d’Honneur.
In addition to Götterdämmerung and this summer's Ring cycle for L.A. Opera, Conlon's rehearsing a new production (by Ian Judge) for the U.S. premiere of Franz Schreker's late-romantic tragedy, Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), the first time a Schreker opera will be heard in the USA (although his work has been staged in Europe). Four performances will be given of Schreker's best known work, and will be presented as part of Conlon's Recovered Voices Series, a unique project that revives the works of composers who were silenced by the oppressive ideology of the Nazi regime, erasing a legacy of (mostly Jewish, but not all) composers and musical heritage. Conlon's Recovered Voice project was inaugurated for the 2006/07 season and includes the works of Walter Braunfels, Erich Korngold, Ernst Krenek, Erwin Schulhoff, Viktor Ullmann, and Alexander Zemlinsky.
Opera Chic was able to speak with the American conductor in Milan while he was here last month to conduct (a critically acclaimed) Rigoletto at La Scala. We discussed with the maestro the L.A.’s Ring, his love for Zemlinsky and Varese, his ideas about interpretation, and all about Alma Mahler’s taste in men.
Click for the full interview...
Opera Chic: Your professional biography and resume is proof of how useless all the talk of Italian conductors having an Italianate sound is, of the German Maestri having a special knack for Wagner, etc. After all, Leonard Bernstein became a Mahler champion when very few A-list conductors seemed to care about Mahler -- he didn't have much competition. And he was American, of course. Do you still have to hear, after four decades on the podium, the nonsense about "an American doing Verdi", or Wagner, or whatever?
James Conlon: Before the middle of the 20th century, nobody would have even asked the question: “Do you conduct symphony or do you conduct opera?” It was a given that you did both. That question, you know -- Mahler and Toscanini -- all the way up to WWII. Now with the world of specialization there’s the question, “Are you an opera conductor or are you symphony conductor?” First of all, my answer is, “I’m a conductor.” Second of all, I couldn’t possibly renounce one or the other because of the greatness of the repertory. I would say one thing, though: as a conductor you should not walk into the opera house if you do not have a legitimate love and instinct for theater and drama. Because it’s just not for you. And I would go further: your feeling about the word, the language, the poetry, the theatrical moment, and the spontaneity of the art -- all has to be very much part of your personality if you want to conduct opera. This is a reality of our art form. It’s a composite art form that includes all the elements: There’s theater and there’s music. There’s voice and there’s orchestra. There’s acting and there’s drama. There are costumes and there are lights. The highest moment is when it all works together. The lowest moment is when it doesn’t. And by the time you have my experience, you’ve seen it all, and you arrive at a point where you understand that it all fits under the universe of the theater and every type of experience there is about this.
As a conductor of classical music, you have an enormous repertory, much more than you can possibly do in nine lifetimes. You can’t do it enough. I could have spent my life completely conducting and studying Mozart’s symphonies, and Brahms and Beethoven symphonies, and Debussy and Schumann and Tchaikovsky. You can spend your entire life on the podium. If you love the opera you could spend your entire life in the opera.
Opera Chic: I'm not talking necessarily about Achim Freier, but does it ever happen to you to simply think, "Okay, now the director's going too far"? Riccardo Muti famously toned down Graham Vick's Zauberflöte in Salzburg back in 2005, and in the 1990s he pulled out of a Salzburg production because he disagreed with the directors. Suppose a director wanted a singer to deliver an aria standing on tiptoe or hanging upside down -- would you allow that?
James Conlon: I’m very open to the theater. I love theater and I believe in theatrical values, as distinct from conductors who don’t want theatrical values and just want things together musically. However, on that scale, I reject absolutely the imposition of theatrical values which in fact deform the nature of the operas that are being performed. And that is now a very critical question because we are living through a time of the emergence of the production as protagonist. And if I were closed-off to theatrical values, I would always say, “Listen, I always want to see a Rigoletto that is the most extraordinarily beautiful, classic representation.” Am I against it? Absolutely not. Does that mean I always want it to be that way? No. But what I do always want is that the production serves the value of the chief dramatist. And the chief dramatist is always the composer. This is where the problem is. Because if -- I am open to any possibility as long as it is in harmony with the real dramatic values as they are. I don’t mind abstract sets. I really don’t mind anything as long as the drama is intact and honest. What I mind very much, and what I’m really against, is recasting the opera as a vehicle for production values. I’m against it but I’m against it in all aspects of my work.
Opera Chic: Is there a composer -- or a work -- that still seems to you to be somehow elusive? Claudio Abbado has said that he sometimes listens to old recordings of his and wishes he could change things he doesn't agree with anymore -- his Mozart, for example, became in time much leaner and more HIP-influenced.
James Conlon: I’m against people who present a Mozart symphony and say, “Okay, now I’m going to dissect this work and show you what it really is.” To me it’s a false point of departure. Our job as performers is to surrender our own egos and to completely open ourselves to the work itself and to transmit that work as if we’re not there. This is on the one hand a very easy and simple thing to do. On the other hand, we’re all crippled by our own egos. To me, I’m not interested in knowing what my interpretation is.
When I was studying at The Juilliard School, the big movement was objectivism vs. subjectivism and the popular methodology was, “You have to find your own feelings, your own voice, and you have to find yourself. What’s your take on this piece of music?” Well, I had an allergy to that type of conversation. I thought, “I know what my feelings are and I couldn’t care less what my own feelings are. I want to know what the object is.” Is that objectivism? Well, yes, that’s objectivism. I want to know who Haydn is. I want to know who Beethoven is. I want to know how their music works. How does it fit? Why is it this? And why is it that? And to me, the beauty of that method is that you can devote yourself to the other, and a byproduct of that is that you find yourself. However if you go from the other point of view -- the “find yourself” subjectivism -- you don’t find the other. It’s very simple -- so simple that we don’t do it enough.
Therefore, you can imagine I have a strong sense of resistance to anything that wants to superimpose itself on the work of art. It is our job to serve the work of art, not to make the art a vehicle of ourselves. So consequently, if it’s true for symphonies, it’s true for opera, and true in all its cases. And even more true when you have the meeting of two worlds: the drama world, and unfortunately, very often, accompanied with a form of arrogance which says, “This is an extinct form that we have to bring into relevance.” Well -- who says it’s irrelevant? Is the St. Matthew Passion irrelevant? I don’t think so. Is a Bach prelude irrelevant? Is a Mozart or Beethoven piano sonata irrelevant? Well I don’t think so at all. Is Rigoletto irrelevant because it was written in the middle of the 19th century? Well I don’t think so, and I don’t say that you can’t reset the story, but I do say that it does not need an explanation or an apology or a facelift in order to bring it into relevance. It’s our job to see the relevance, not its job to show that. The Rigoletto that Verdi wrote, everything that Mozart wrote, and everything that Brahms wrote – the reason that it’s still here today is that it reverberates outside of time. If Brahms could have been heard by people in the Renaissance it may have been very strange to them, but if they listened to it long enough it would have had relevance. Well, it works the same way for us. It’s okay to have an ego but never put the ego in front of the music or the art.
Opera Chic: Your Recovered Voices Series uncovers lost works from some of Europe's most talented composers who were silenced by the racist ideologies & repressions of the Third Reich during the first half of the 20th century. As survivors of these traumas, we embrace organizations and programs that bear witness to the Holocaust to find understanding: through scholarly writings and art, poetry and cinema -- but musically, it seems more challenging to find a common language of remembrance. Why do you think that is?
James Conlon: First of all, the themes of the Holocaust are contained in abstract in many other ways. Cruelty is dealt with in art. Cruelty is the same whether it’s 6 million lives from the Holocaust or violence. Cruelty is cruelty, and rather, it’s a question of the dimension of the cruelty. Music exists outside of that place. It’s abstract but in the sense that it doesn’t need to be tied to any time or place. Whatever the magic of music is -- it makes sounds that evoke human responses and emotions that go beyond time, place, and all of that. So I think it really is there, although it may not be specifically labeled as such.
On the other hand, there’s a reason that it’s not labeled and this is part of the big issue which I’m trying to put out in the world: the history of classical music that directly proceeded the Holocaust has been obscured. All the music that was around in the ‘20s and the first part of the ‘30s -- and even compositions between 1900 & 1915 which was retroactively banned -- fell out of the public’s consciousness. And there was no way for it to be brought back, either because people didn’t know about it or that the people who did know about it were dead or gone. There was no public concert life at first, and people were confounded from the trauma. People did not want to revisit any of it. The guilty did not want to revisit it, the victims didn’t want to revisit it. It was a terrible trauma and just like with physical trauma -- like a car accident or something severe where you wake up from a coma five weeks later and you simply don’t remember things. This was a global trauma on an immense scale. And with the trauma, a lot of the stuff just simply never came back. And there were movements that had no interest in going back to it. The postwar orthodoxy of Serialism, of Darmstadt, of Stockhausen -- they had no interest. And the most conservative of the conservatives who were there had not been interested in the ‘20s and ‘30s, so they just wanted to go back to Bach and Beethoven. Fine. Those immigrant conductors, people like Klemperer and Bruno Walter, they could have defended. Last year I conducted Walter Braunfels' Die Vögel, which was conducted and defended by Bruno Walter. Bruno Walter did nothing for Braunfels after the war; Otto Klemperer conducted one of the premieres of Der Zwerg, and then did nothing for Zemlinsky. So you think they just hadn’t given it much thought. But no, it was a very different thing. They were brought under tremendous pressure (via London and America) as the personifications of the great German tradition. Americans were always conservative. They didn’t want to hear the latest thing that had been big right before the war. They wanted to hear Beethoven and Brahms. To Bruno Walter and Klemperer Mahler was revolutionary in their times so they had to impose Mahler. And even they didn’t succeed. Who succeeded with that was finally Bernstein. Even though Mitropoulos, Walter and Klemperer had been trying (Walter and Klemperer because they were his disciples, Mitropoulos because of his great genius and his great devotion) it took the personality of Leonard Bernstein to impact the public with Mahler. So we have all these elements. They also wanted to forget. They had their own past that they needed to put behind. The sociology of this question is fascinating. And it all lead to the common end that music had lost its place from whence it was born. Music was born in the middle of that.
Opera Chic: La Scala will soon stage Das Rheingold in a Guy Cassiers new production – he will complete the Ring by 2013. Neither Abbado nor Muti did a complete Ring cycle here, and aside from Furtwaengler, it was done once again in the 1960s. Now Barenboim brings it on. Why do you think there’s this noticeable absence of The Ring?
James Conlon: The Ring that I’m doing for the L.A. Opera is the first Ring ever there. Los Angeles is not Milano, and that said, at the Opéra national de Paris (I was there nine years) we did Wagner, and since I started my career in Cologne, 1989, I’ve done Wagner every year of my life. I don’t let a year go by because I love Wagner and one of the reasons I went to Cologne is because I was very frustrated as a guest conductor that nobody would give you Wagner. I said, “If I’m coming, it’s to do Wagner” and they said, “Then that’s what you’ll do!” I did all the operas in the course of my thirteen years, and some of them over and over again in Cologne. When I went to Paris, it was the same thing: we did Tristan, Meistersinger, Parsifal three times, and Der fliegende Holländer -- and I wanted to do the Ring but we didn’t. Paris Opera hasn’t had a complete Ring in fifty years.
It’s very difficult for an opera house which is in repertoire to do a Ring because it’s there like an enormous, giant glacier. And it really defines an opera house to be able to put on a Ring and do everything else at the same time. The Ring is one of the most exciting things for me right now in Los Angeles -- although I’m relatively new there and I love it -- it’s an opera company that is young and an opera public that is young. It’s totally different from my past experience (I started at The Metropolitan Opera in 1976 – I grew up in New York and went to The Met as a kid and worked as a guest at The Met for over 30 years).
You know Milan is different, Paris is different, Germany is different, and London is different. We have a totally different set of circumstances and one that gives me pleasure. But, the maturing issue of a company is that when you’ve done the Ring, you will finally earn the status of an opera company. And so, that’s what it is. It’s really hard to produce. I don’t know why it’s the case in Milan, but I think everybody should have their Ring. To me there are three absolute staples of every opera house that must be there constantly: Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. Everything else is great, and you should do everything else, but those three should be at the center of every opera house. For the Ring at the Los Angeles Opera, we have people coming from all over the world. They’ve already gotten their tickets.
Opera Chic: I have this crazy idea that, musically, the 20th century really began when 21-year-old Alma Schindler saw Alexander Zemlinsky conduct the world premiere of his cantata Frühlingsbegräbnis in the Musikverein. A year after that, she dumped him for Mahler. Have you ever wondered, maybe 20th century music was changed radically because of Alma's taste in men?
James Conlon: Well of course, the short answer is “no”. According to those who knew her, Alma Schindler’s extraordinarily high intelligence made her desirable by some of the greatest minds in Vienna. I don’t think she impacted music, but she has to be considered a very important individual in her own right -- not just because she was the consort and lover of many famous artists, but because she was obviously some kind of magnet. She impacted many lives, and to some degree maybe she influenced their way of thinking. The stories concerning Gustav Klimt, Walter Gropius, Franz Werfel, Kokoschka, and Zemlinsky are all very amusing, and all of that makes terrific froth, but she was an extraordinary individual and a talented composer [Alma composed songs, instrumental works, and part of an opera, and fourteen of her songs were published in her lifetime.] I’ve conducted a few of her songs and there’s no question that if it had been a different time or a different era she would have made her path as a composer -- but Mahler squelched that. So there are many different ways of looking at Alma Schindler. Her presence was astounding. As far as her impact in music, she was an accompaniment, but she established herself as a fantastic personality in her own right.
Opera Chic: Reading Zemlinsky's biography, I was struck by how someone who was so successful -- and who received the sexiest fan mail – could end his life poor and forgotten, in America. Why did Zemlinsky's music fall out of favor with the public, is it really just about the rise of atonal music? Because it's so clear that Zemlinsky created astonishingly beautiful music, as traditional as it might have sounded.
James Conlon: His music didn’t sound traditional! I’m not necessarily contradicting you, but I contradict the insinuation. Zemlinsky had a very difficult life and the public didn’t embrace him as a composer. He considered conducting an indignity the same way Gustav Mahler considered that his conducting “job” got in the way of his composing, and he was never able to get ahead of that curve where he didn’t have to conduct. By all contemporary accounts, Zemlinsky was one of the great conductors of his times.
But Zemlinsky, for whatever reason, spent a life of being on the wrong side of every question, politically and on the politics of music. He had a lot of misfortune. One of his misfortunes was that his biggest public success, which was The Florentine Tragedy, took place during the First World War where there was no way to export the music. Had that same opera gone out to Paris, Milan, or London at the time, it would have been a very different story.
But it couldn’t be any different. It had to stay within Germany. Be that as it may, it’s been said many times that Zemlinsky was too progressive and too modernist for the conservatives -- and retrospectively, because he rejected Serialism, by the orthodox Serialists, afterwards he was considered old hat. One of the great weaknesses of the 20th century was the tendency and the need to categorize, and therefore people just didn’t know where to put him. But that’s the problem of the people. Art doesn’t have to justify itself to a category. And in fact, all great art -- as do all great human beings -- exist outside of categories. Categorization is a form of reductionism that we try to use to figure out the question, “Where do you fit in”? That translates to racism, as racism is a form of categorization of reductionism. So the fault is never in the music itself. And the fault is never in the art or the artist itself. The fault there is that if it simply doesn’t fit in and we don’t know how to grasp it or define it, then we don’t know what to do with it.
That same subject was dealt with all the way back in the scriptures. You couldn’t mention the name of God because that would mean that you could grasp him, or you knew him, or that you were greater than him. That’s a whole issue, and this is part of the same issue. Zemlinsky couldn’t be put into a category. And therefore people had a lot of trouble with it after the fact. Now, the sad end is due to the Nazis, no question. But the saddest part of all of that is that we’ve been deprived of a great deal of great music. For me, Zemlinsky was the point of entry into this whole question because I fell in love with his music. I started performing it and recording it, and then one thing led to another: I started asking questions and then I started reading names like “Franz Schreker” which led to another artist and then one thing led to another. But Zemlinsky was really at the core of that. And one of the difficulties in bringing Zemlinsky to everybody’s attention is that the nature of the repertory is not the nature that people are likely to use as vehicles. He wrote eight operas. His great works for orchestra mostly consist of works that involve voice. He loved the human voice, he loved poetry, and he loved the word. Even his publishers told him in the ‘30s, “Please write a piece for orchestra that’s just for orchestra because the conductors are too vain to share the podium with someone else.” He had written the symphonic poem, “Die Seejungfrau”, and that was all there was. His greatest work, “Lyric Symphony” is of course, two singers. So he wrote the “Sinfonietta” in the 30s. And that was actually the only piece that was ever played in America during his time. Had he written a piano concerto or a violin concerto that some virtuoso had defended, it might have been a very different story. You know, people don’t realize it now but for the first half of the 20th century, Sibelius was known for two things: “Finlandia” and the Violin Concerto. Nobody listened to the symphonies and no one played them either. Out of the vast works that Sibelius wrote, he was known for the Violin Concerto and it’s still one of his most well-known pieces. But those are accidents of history. Had he have written one it would have been a very different story.
It also would have been very different for Franz Schreker. Schreker wrote thirteen operas. He excerpted some of those works for orchestras which are magnificent -- but never concertos, violin or piano, and nothing that anyone could use as a vehicle. So we live in world of career mongering. It was already a little bit then and it’s very much so now. And this is also retroactively working to the disadvantage of the propagation of this music. But one month ago I did “Die Seejungfrau” with the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in, and I did “A Florentine Tragedy” at Teatro alla Scala in 2004, and I’ve done the Der Zwerg in Florence. So I have been able to bring a certain amount of that to Italy. So I don’t like to necessarily focus on the tragedy of Zemlinsky. What I do want to focus on instead is the greatness of his music, and how we as a public have been deprived not just of Zemlinsky but of an entirely enormous legacy.
Opera Chic: Riccardo Chailly, another Zemlinsky champion, says that the public's taste evolves slowly. And he still hopes that, one day, people will whistle Varese's "Ameriques" while walking down the street. Do you share Maestro Chailly's optimism?
James Conlon: Ameriques is a piece I absolutely adore. There are two versions of it and I’ve done both. It was so enormous that he revised it downwards from 140 players to 118 or something like that. I did the original version in Paris with the Orchestre de Paris. I’ve done the revised one, which is already enormous with the Philadelphia orchestra. I did it in Moscow – they had never heard it and had never done it in Moscow.
I did it in New York two years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra. You know, Philadelphia orchestra premiered Ameriques with Leopold Stokowski in the ‘20s and they had never played it again. There was a lot of noise. So much that as the anecdote goes, a worker in the hall complained about the noise to the city officials. I love Varese – you know, if people listen enough to something, they’ll whistle.