Cleared for take­off

A new pi­lot on the podium at Santa Fe Opera

Pasatiempo - - Music - James M. Keller

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.

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