Emmanuel Plasson: Interviewed by Margarida Mota-Bull
Emmanuel Plasson, son of Michel Plasson, has followed in his father’s footsteps and has been making a name for himself as a conductor, particularly regarding his interpretations of French music, while also exploring the musical treasures of his country. His approach is often refreshing, and is always energetic and enthusiastic. Personally, I found his opinions about music and conducting not only insightful and interesting but at times also inspiring and moving. His schedule is a rather busy one, as Monsieur Plasson becomes more and more in demand from the great orchestras and opera houses of the world. He kindly agreed to an interview via e-mail and took a break from his work to answer my questions.
MMB: First of all, I would like to know why you decided to become a conductor? You started as a violinist. Why did you not continue into a career as a concert soloist?
EP: I became curious regarding conducting when I was about 22. The following year, I attended a conducting Master Class at the Pierre Monteux School in Maine, and it felt like I could do well in that discipline, so I pursued it. I never gave up playing the violin, as it is a wonderful way to keep a physical contact with music through an instrument.
MMB: Was your father Michel Plasson, himself of course a distinguished conductor, a direct or indirect influence on your decision?
EP: I grew up living every day in the middle of opera rehearsals, orchestra rehearsals; music was what we ate, drank and slept! So, to me, it was only natural to be influenced by my father and his work with the Toulouse Orchestra, an institution that he led for thirty-five years. I think I learned so much about conducting just by observing him for so many years.
MMB: Your biography states that you “have established yourself as an ambassador for French music”. Could you please explain in what way?
EP: I consider it a great honour to be able to coach the French repertoire to musicians and singers. French music and style is a very specific way of making music, and it is not always easy. It’s all about refinement and lightness of play, finding the right sound and touch. Also, when it comes to opera, the way you treat the text is essential. Singing French is difficult because it has so many subtleties to it. I do feel I have something significant to offer regarding the diverse, great French repertoire, having absorbed it throughout my early years, and I enjoy bringing this music to many parts of the world where French repertoire is rarely experienced.
MMB: How French do you think French music is from your perspective as a conductor and a French national? Do you think that it bears certain characteristics that only a French person or a person with that kind of cultural background can truly appreciate? And if yes, what?
EP: As I said, it requires creating certain colours, lightness in the textures and rhythm and, above all, a freshness and joie de vivre that is quite typical of French culture generally. A foreign musician will bring other flavours to it, and I think that can be interesting. However, I also feel that non-French musicians must strive to apply these essential principles of freshness and lightness. They are the trademarks of French music.
MMB: Would you agree that music as such has no national boundaries and it is really a universal language?
EP: It is indeed a universal language because it doesn’t use words. It expresses emotions anybody can feel and understand. That is the unique magic music has.
MMB: Going back to the concept of French music, would you approach Verdi or Rossini as Italian music or purely from the perspective that they are very different composers? With the same concept in mind and in operatic terms, would you look at the national aspects if you were doing a Wagner opera or Beethoven’s Fidelio, for example? Please elaborate a little if possible.
EP: I think as a conductor one has to understand a particular style, no matter what genre or period of music it is. Every repertoire has a specific feel and character and it has to be taken into consideration when crafting an interpretation. It is always very useful to listen to recordings made by nationals when it comes to their music because you’ll always hear something that will make you go “ah yes, that’s it!” I believe that I can understand and produce the right style with Italian and German music, but would it be totally convincing to the musicians of these countries? I don’t know. The more we know about the general history and culture of a country, the more we may understand its music, but it is still a great challenge to get as close as one can to an authentic expression.
MMB: Your repertoire is very varied. I would like to look first at your operatic repertoire. You have a lot of French composers within your operatic repertoire: Berlioz, Bizet, Chabrier, Gounod, Massenet (to name but a few). Now, from my perspective, I think that although they are all French, they are all very different composers too. So, how do you approach works such as: Bizet’s Carmen, Chabrier’s L’Étoile, Gounod’s Faust or, for example, Massenet’s Cendrillon?
EP: There are differences between these operas you mention. Carmen is romantic, lyrical and intense at heart. L’Étoile is a light and charming piece that requires the colours and textures that I mentioned earlier, and Faust is a classic (not a romantic) work. So, you can see that there is a lot to consider when you approach these different pieces! But there is a common link between these operas and that is the spirit they possess. French music can go from a humorous and light atmosphere to a nostalgic and tormented one in an instant. These contrasts often make this music bitter-sweet.
MMB: I believe that, as a conductor, your father has strongly influenced the manner in which certain works are interpreted. For example: one of Massenet’s masterpieces, Werther. I have had the opportunity to have a detailed look at your father’s recording with Alfredo Kraus and, more recently, with Jonas Kaufmann. Would you take into consideration your father’s interpretation in this particular piece? Or would you deliberately take your very own approach and distance yourself from your father’s?
EP: With Werther, I probably produce a lot of the same things as my father does (although he told me that I take a few different tempi!) so, I think the core of it might be quite similar with some differences here and there. I feel very fortunate to benefit from his exceptional source of inspiration because he has a profound understanding and feel for this particular music. I still try to respect my own natural instincts with what I wish to do. Hopefully, this approach can propose slight differences to his interpretation; so, what I do is not a carbon copy of it!
MMB: How much is your interpretation of and/or approach to an opera dependent on the singers that you will have to work with? Can you elaborate a little and, if appropriate, give some examples, please?
EP: First of all, as an opera conductor, you must always take into consideration the voices you have to work with. That means that you have to help the singers find their comfort zone without sacrificing your own musical wishes. It’s a very subtle compromise, and it takes a long time to be able to master it, but when you do, it can be immensely satisfying. I believe that singers always produce their own musical truth because they do it with their vocal possibilities, which is something you have to respect.
MMB: Still within your operatic repertoire you also conduct bel canto from the first half of the 19th Century, meaning Donizetti, as well as some Rossini. What do these particular operas mean to you?
EP: They are the basis and inspiration of the operas that followed them. Every time I conduct one of these operas I feel how well they were crafted for the voices, how well they fit and sound. It is always a pleasure for me to perform these operas, even if it can be tricky because of all those wild cadenzas!
MMB: How do you approach Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (a bel canto opera buffa) compared with Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila?
EP: Again, it’s a matter of approaching them being aware of their own specific style. Barbiere is virtuosic for the voices; so, the conductor has to be very attentive to the needs of that virtuosity. I personally try to conduct bel canto operas with the same lightness of playing as I use in most of the French ones. Samson is actually a bit of a different French animal because it is thicker in texture than Bizet or Gounod. It’s very romantic, and yet Saint-Saëns was more of a classic composer in his style.
MMB: Bizet’s Carmen is a highly popular piece – possibly the most popular opera from a French composer worldwide – and one that even people who are not into opera will recognise. From your perspective, as a conductor, why do you think that is particularly, when one thinks of Les pêcheurs de perles – to my mind as beautiful and certainly musically equally accomplished but considerably less known or performed in full (the only exception being the famous duet “Au fond du temple saint”)?
EP: Carmen was composed with an extraordinary inspiration by Bizet. Every moment, every section of the opera is memorable. It’s the consistency of this inspiration that makes this piece so timeless. Pearl Fishers is beautiful but doesn’t have that level of creation. Carmen is genius and it is the quintessential French music.
MMB: Your operatic repertoire also includes Mozart: All his greatest operas and additionally an earlier one that is not so well known, i.e. Der Schauspieldirektor. Why this one? Is there a particular reason for it? Please explain.
EP: Actually, it was the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s choice. They hired me to conduct their production and I was delighted with it. It’s a wonderful piece that allows for a double-bill because it is a one-act opera. The other piece we did was Viva la mamma by Donizetti and that worked very well alongside the Mozart.
MMB: Personally, I think that the later Mozart operas are probably still the greatest operas ever written. What does it represent to you to conduct these operas and how do you approach them? Do you stick to Mozart’s score or do you attempt a different, more daring and inventive reading?
EP: I feel that today Mozart is generally done very fast and I don’t agree with this idea. Music needs to breathe properly and find the proper timing for it to “live.” In Mozart’s case, I try to find a balance between spirit and expression. His music is so rich with beauty. Every note deserves to exist fully, and it is not necessary to try to do too much with it because it is all there. You just have to let it breathe as naturally as possible.
MMB: From a purely conducting perspective I think that Berlioz must be very challenging. You don’t include the monumental Les Troyens in your repertoire at the moment. Would you actually venture into it? If yes, what would you see as your main challenges?
EP: Well, Les Troyens is challenging for everyone and everything! Logistically, it’s a huge undertaking because of the number of roles, and the subject itself being grandiose. You cannot present this monumental piece halfway. You also need the right voices because these roles are very demanding. I would love to be able to conduct this piece one day, but of course, it would monopolize my schedule completely because of its length!
MMB: Moving now to your symphonic repertoire: It is actually longer and more comprehensive than your operatic one. Was this a conscious decision? And if yes, why? Or perhaps, did it simply happen by chance? And if yes, would you like to change it?
EP: Actually, I have been doing more opera than symphonic work for the past few years. I always try to keep a balance between the two because one discipline helps the other. I think it is easier to come from the opera environment and then go into the symphonic than the opposite. Opera gives a conductor a very complete experience in regards to handling the breathing of the singers with the orchestra. It teaches you to be flexible in your conducting and this is very helpful when one has to conduct a symphonic repertoire because you can apply the same opera technique to it. Many of the great and well known conductors of the past and present started their careers in an opera house to learn all the experience I am talking about.
MMB: From your conductor’s perspective, what do you prefer doing? Leading an orchestra that is accompanying singers during an opera or leading an orchestra in a great symphony? Please detail your reasons or if you have no preference, please explain why not.
EP: I generally feel a more complete satisfaction with opera because when it clicks with all the forces, it’s a fantastic experience! But I do have moments with a symphony orchestra that can provide great thrills too. I think the voices bring an extra emotional dimension that makes opera such a unique sensation. Opera is total theatre!
MMB: Your symphonic repertoire comprises mostly French composers but there are many Russians, some Italians, some Schumann and Mendelssohn, and one piece by Bach. I noticed the absence of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Is there a particular reason? If yes, please explain.
EP: Oh dear, we have to update my repertoire list! I love doing Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Actually, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was my true wake up call when I was 9 (numbers…)! My father conducted it in Toulouse in front of a big audience and I will never forget the impact it had on me. It literally sealed my musical destiny. As a conductor, I think you must do these pillars of orchestra repertoire because they allow you to do other works better.
MMB: As a follow up of the above, are there any composers that you do not particularly enjoy performing? If yes, which and why.
EP: I love having any opportunity to make any music, as long as it says something; as long as I feel there is something that moves me or speaks to me in a strong way.
MMB: On the other hand, are there any composers that you particularly identify with and enjoy performing more than most? If yes, which and why.
EP: As I said, Beethoven holds a very special place in my heart and there are so many others! Of course, French composers always gravitate close by. I also love Bartok and Prokofiev. These two are among my favourites from that period.
MMB: On your website, you list your collaborations with other artists; both with singers and instrumentalists. I have a couple of questions regarding this: First, which do you prefer (if at all): collaborating with an opera singer or an instrumentalist? Please explain why and if you have no preference, please also detail your reasons. Second, are there any particular opera singers that you enjoy working with? Is there one that you have not yet worked with but would like to and, if yes, who and why?. Third, the same questions as for opera singers but regarding instrumentalists, please.
EP: I don’t have a real preference between a singer and an instrumentalist because as long as there is a great exchange, that’s what matters. I enjoy working with Giuseppe Filianoti, Alan Held, Vinson Cole, Inva Mula to name but a few. I would love to work with Jonas Kaufmann because he is such a great interpreter. I like working with Yefim Bronfman, Hilary Hahn, Truls Mork.
MMB: As a conductor what do you find more thrilling: playing in front of a live audience or recording a particular work?
EP: I enjoy a live performance because it is live! The experience of communion between the musicians and the audience is unique and very rewarding. Studio recording is very difficult precisely because there is no audience anywhere! You always end up being more technical than emotional due to the demands of the recording.
MMB: Do you think that audiences differ, depending on where they live? For example, how would you rate an American audience and a French audience?
EP: Generally, the American audience seems very receptive and open to all sorts of musical experiences but it is rather sad not to see enough young people at concerts and operas. Generally, there seems to be more of them in Europe, which is a bit of a paradox! I think it’s all up to promoters and artists to be able to present our art form in the most attractive way for our times and that is always difficult to do. Young people need to be seduced by the beauty and communion, which a concert or opera can bring and that’s why anybody who has any kind of musical responsibility must work endlessly to attract these young audiences so they can become our future public.
MMB: I noticed in your upcoming events that you have an engagement in Portugal in November to play in Lisbon at the Teatro de São Carlos (the city’s opera house). I was surprised to see this. I come from Portugal (though I haven’t lived there for some time) and I know that culture does not have a high, or even a medium, priority. So I am curious. How did this engagement happen? What do you expect from an audience in a country that is not very accustomed to having world renowned artists, like yourself, performing there?
EP: Well, I have always been curious about Portugal because of its special geographic and cultural situation. I heard that the people there are warm and hospitable. I am excited to do this concert precisely because I am bringing the music from my land (Berlioz) to a country that doesn’t hear French music often, I believe. This engagement was found by my French manager.
MMB: Yes, the people are very warm and hospitable and generally very responsive too. Anyway, moving on! Your biography states that you won the Donatella Flick International Conducting Competition in 1994, conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. How important was this victory for you personally and did it have any impact on your career? Please explain why or why not.
EP: Winning this competition was the proudest moment of my career because it took place in London, with a prestigious orchestra. It was also the first year that the competition was open to all Europeans. It allowed me to launch my activities in England in a major way and opened doors to many other things like managers, etc. I have studied the violin at the Guildhall School of Music, in London, and I have always felt energised in a special way in that wonderful city that offers so much quality and variety musically speaking.
MMB: Some time ago, in an interview you gave Adam Wasserman from Opera News, you said, of Chabrier’s L’Étoile that at the time it came out it was “a kind of a musical UFO”. Would you care to explain, please?
EP: L’Étoile is a gem of the highest value. It was composed by Emmanuel Chabrier who was himself a bit of a UFO! He was the quintessential French composer and at the same time, he had the most original spirit and flair to his music. L’Étoile is total theatre because it has alternative music numbers and dialogue, like the Offenbach operettas. It is delightful because it is poetic, charming and touching in many ways. Light music can be very deep and moving actually. Chabrier’s musical language is so very original with the rhythm, harmonies and ideas. It always surprises you when you least expect it!
MMB: Is there a particular work by any composer or a particular composer that you do not perform and would like to? – Or a work or a composer that do not fit in with your path as a conductor? If yes to both questions, then why?
EP: There are so many pieces I haven’t done yet…I would love to do Bruckner’s 4th, 7th and 8th Symphonies because for me, this music is an Everest! The problem is that, generally, orchestras don’t ask a younger conductor to do Bruckner Symphonies with them because they may think that they need a more mature and experienced one, and actually, sometimes they have a point but I would still cherish the opportunity of doing these monumental works!
MMB: How do you approach a brand new piece? Do you decide yourself where the emphasis is and the kind of reading you think is right? Would you listen to other conductors’ readings? Would you seek advice from a more experienced conductor? Or would you simply follow the composer’s score?
EP: First, I try to find a recording, which could get the closest to what I want to do with the piece. I listen to it a few times and then stop in order to find my own way. Finding a recording that you can identify with is important, especially, if you prepare the piece from memory. But you know? It is amazing that we conductors can still find things in a score we never noticed over years of studying them! There are so many little details you can overlook. It’s a never ending discovery.
MMB: Finally, once you step on stage or into the orchestra pit for a performance, how much do you fear the audience’s reaction to your interpretation? Do you take into consideration what the audience may think and will it have any influence on your reading of the piece?
EP: I think we all feel nervous before a performance just because the pressure of being out there is huge. I don’t think I have time to worry about what the audience will think! I have much to manage in my mind for the performance itself. I truly love performing! I love the rush and the adventure of it.
MMB: Have you ever had an instance when the audience showed you their disapproval at the end of the piece? If yes, how did you react and how much did it impact you? If no, then how do you think you would feel and would it have any bearing on your interpretation of the same piece at a later date?
EP: Well, fortunately audiences are generally polite enough not to show too much disapproval! But yes, it is possible to feel their disappointment either due to your performance or the music itself. Because music performing is such a “live” experience, sometimes it clicks and succeeds, sometimes it goes flat. It’s like everything else!
MMB: Monsieur Plasson, thank you very much for agreeing to answer my questions. Hopefully, I will soon have the pleasure of visiting one of your performances in London.