Cleared for takeoff
A new pilot on the podium at Santa Fe Opera
On May 4, Santa Fe Opera announced the appointment of French conductor Frédéric Chaslin as its chief conductor, a three-year position he assumes in October. Also a composer — his oeuvre includes an operatic setting of Wuthering Heights — he has previously served as music director of the Rouen Opera, chief conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and music director of the Mannheim National Theatre. He’s a veteran of the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera (where he has conducted five operas), and he was warmly received in his Santa Fe Opera debut last summer, when he presided over La Traviata. Although he’s not on the roster this summer, he will be on the podium for the opening production of Santa Fe Opera’s 2011 season.
Pasatiempo: You must have enjoyed good rapport with Santa Fe Opera last summer or else you wouldn’t have wanted to get involved further.
Frédéric Chaslin: I have never wanted to conduct an orchestra that didn’t want me as their conductor. The little I know about horses is that a horse that doesn’t want a rider is impossible to ride. It is the same with an orchestra; if they don’t want you, you will not go very far. Orchestras are not automatically easy and loving. They can be very rough. I think it worked with me because the minute I arrived here, I loved it. I was about to leave Santa Fe without knowing anything about [former chief conductor] Edo de Waart not renewing his contract. I was not really lobbying for myself, but I was just thinking if I don’t say a word now, I would leave and [general director] Charles [MacKay] would not have any idea that I would be interested. So I needed to just say I would be interested. It reminds me a lot of Bayreuth, spiritually, because Bayreuth is a beautiful place as well, beautiful countryside, and the players come from all over the world, mostly Europe. They are exhausted after the long seasons, and they arrive and immediately they are regenerated because they are so happy to be in this unique place. And this is a unique place. When I describe Santa Fe to friends in Europe who have never been here, I say it is like Aix-en-Provence or Bayreuth, and then they understand what I mean.
Pasatiempo: You have held the titles of chief conductor and of music director. Do you think that those titles carry different responsibilities?
Chaslin: I don’t think it’s a big difference. What is important in this structure of Santa Fe Opera is the connection between me, Charles MacKay, and Brad [Woolbright, Santa Fe Opera’s director of artistic administration]. I was generalmusikdirektor in Mannheim, which was a super-powerful title. In reality, I was suffocating there, because I couldn’t start any of my dreams, any of my projects of bringing the company outside. I met a gigantic wall of inertia. So this title meant absolutely nothing. So here, if, as a chief conductor and in a great collaboration with my partners Charles and Brad, I can really develop our common dreams, then I think my title would be infinite. I don’t think the title matters so much. I have complete responsibility and control with what’s happening with the orchestra. That will be my principal job — bringing the members together, training the orchestra, all the things that are the everyday life of the orchestra.
Pasatiempo: During your formative days as a conductor you worked with Pierre Boulez and Daniel Barenboim. What did you learn from them that was especially useful or inspiring?
Chaslin: Barenboim was my original influence. What he brought me in terms of the technique of conducting was the idea that I should not
The obsession of the 20th century for analysis was certainly useful for certain things, but for art, it has been almost lethal.
— Frédéric Chaslin
be ashamed as a very young apprentice to imitate another maestro. Of course, he meant by that, “Imitate me!” Basically, he made me understand that I didn’t have to try to find my own movements, my own body language immediately, but I should first assimilate a lot of others and then find my own technique. And I think that’s a very good idea, because the difficulty of conducting is to think as little as possible of what you are doing. So instead of thinking of me, I was thinking of another conductor. It was like I was wearing a costume.
And then Boulez, of course, has a very unique and very special technique which is almost an anti-technique, because actually you don’t see much happening. It’s everything driven by thought. I discovered with him how the result can be so incredibly pedagogical and exciting, because you don’t waste time with details, and you go right to the point. If the mechanics are broken, he knows exactly where to point and what to repair. So that’s two completely different personalities that taught me two separate sets of skills.
Pasatiempo: How would you describe yourself as a conductor? Chaslin: Ohhhh, that’s impossible. I keep changing. I have phases. I have been in a phase where I was very obnoxious about details. I was in a phase where I was more obsessed about transmitting an inspiration. And I think now I’m in a phase where I’m trying to meld those two. I think I’m like a pendulum.
Pasatiempo: For your first appearances as the company’s chief conductor, you’ll be leading the opera’s first production of Gounod’s Faust. Is French repertoire a particular infatuation of yours?
Chaslin: I absolutely adore Faust. I have conducted Faust in Valencia, Vienna, Berlin, many places. Also Roméo et Juliette in Los Angeles. Those are the two Gounods I did. I’ve always thought that a conductor controls the opera by controlling the language. That’s why I would never conduct an opera in a language that I absolutely ignore. I wouldn’t conduct Janácˇek, for instance, because I don’t speak one word of Czech. And that doesn’t make sense for me. The flow of the opera comes from the libretto, from the words, because that’s how the composer created. So, by nature, of course the French repertoire is closest to me because the language is closest to me.
Pasatiempo: Have you begun thinking about possibilities for future repertoire in Santa Fe?
Chaslin: I am thinking in a three-year time span, but, well, I have a lot of dreams. I love cycles. What would be the perfect cycle to do here? I don’t know yet. It’s Charles’ job, really. If I were to suggest ideas, as a composer I would, of course, go to the side of premieres.
It is important to find always the rare combination of the title and the performer. Like, for instance, last summer — that was about Traviata and about Natalie Dessay. So I have to think about what title to do here in combination with an artist.
Pasatiempo: What opera productions have you seen recently that you particularly loved, and which directors have affected you deeply?
Chaslin: My last extraordinary experience was 1984 [based on the Orwell novel] by Lorin Maazel in a Robert Lepage staging. I went four times in a row. I was absolutely amazed by this new music that I found exciting. Great staging, great performing, and the audience was holding its breath for two hours.
I like very much David Pountney’s staging. I just saw his new La Juive in Tel Aviv. He was using, like always, the space in an interesting way, with a rotating stage. He has great talent for making great masses move; he gives a dramatic role to the chorus. I like Christopher and David Alden as well. Recently, since I know Paula Heil Fisher [the librettist for Chaslin’s Wuthering Heights], I’ve discovered Broadway. I was unaware of the magic of the musical. First thing I’m going to do when I leave here is attend The Addams Family in New York.
Pasatiempo: Tell us about your book, La musique dans tous les sens
[ Music in Every Sense].
Chaslin: I am now looking for a publisher in English. I finished it four years ago. I wrote this book especially to observe what is the problem between the composers and the audience: Why does the audience still resist modern music? I’m going back to linguistics, semiology, psychoanalysis, and even back to cabbala, alchemy — the roots of music and of human thinking and where there is a necessity for human beings to create music.
People in the 20th century began to dedicate themselves to analysis, including the composer. And for me, that was a big turn — if not probably the root of the problem — because a composer cannot keep analyzing himself, because by definition he is doing the opposite process, he is synthesizing. I quote Boulez, who explains he’s doing real-time analysis of his compositions while he is creating, and at some point he admits himself that it creates a blockage. The obsession of the 20th century for analysis was certainly useful for certain things, but for art, it has been almost lethal.
Pasatiempo: What are your passions apart from music? Chaslin: Aviation. I’m a pilot. I was scared of flying, and that was my only cure. It’s very similar to conducting. You have to manage your aircraft, and you have to play with the winds. With an orchestra, you’re in an element that’s moving, and you can never be harsh with an orchestra, like you can never be harsh with a plane. If you do a very sudden movement with an orchestra, you can really have a disaster. When you fly, you have to keep an eye on every instrument, altitude, speed. And when you conduct an opera, it’s the same thing: stage, singer, orchestra, get ready for the next entrance, the next tempo. You have to manage your orchestra like a plane and your plane like an orchestra.