Sir Mark Elder Interview – Part 1


Sir Mark Elder talks at length to Seen and Heard International

Interview with Sir Mark Elder at Manchester in November 2011 by Michael Cookson.

I’ve always assumed that the singers would be grateful not to have to do it all in one go because many of the roles are so taxing.” – Sir Mark Elder

Part 1:  Wagner and other Operas and Musicals

1.1  Opera Concert Performances and Semi-Staged Operas with the Hallé

1.2  Concert Performances of Wagner Operas

1.3  The Situation at Opera Rara

1.4  French Grand Opera – Meyerbeer; Donizetti; Rossini; Verdi and Wagner

1.5  Hallé to Play Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at Lowry Theatre, Salford

Sir Mark Elder, photo Simon Dodd

Sir Mark Elder CBE is the pre-eminent, home grown conductor based in Britain today. It was good of Sir Mark to agree to the interview at his Manchester apartment. I can only hazard a guess at the constraints Sir Mark’s diary must place on his available time. The previous evening Sir Mark had conducted his Hallé Orchestra at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall in a programme of Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 5 and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture with the Dvořák Wind Serenade directed by Andrew Gourlay.

Now in his twelfth season as music director Sir Mark has had great success in rebuilding the Hallé Orchestra’s international reputation. From his first concert as music director in 2000 the Hallé under Sir Mark has gone from strength to strength. The partnership achieved a double success in the 2010 Gramophone Awards winning both the Opera and Concerto categories with their live recording of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and the Elgar Violin Concerto with soloist Thomas Zehetmair.  Another success for Sir Mark and the Hallé has just been announced with the 2011 Gramophone Award for Elgar’s The Kingdom in the Choral category.

Opera is a clear passion for Sir Mark who said that he discovered opera in the late sixties whilst still a student at Cambridge University where he would attend productions at Covent Garden. After university as a protégé of Sir Edward Downes he cut his teeth conducting opera at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Later from 1979 he became music director of English National Opera a post he held for 14 years. Sir Mark appears regularly in a number of international opera houses; in particular the Royal Opera House London, the Metropolitan Opera New York, and the Opéra National de Paris. He became the first British conductor to conduct a new production at the Bayreuth Festival. Sir Mark’s enthusiasm for English music is well known with each Hallé concert season including a number of works by composers from these shores. I cannot think of another conductor around today with a profile as high as Sir Mark who programmes as many works by English composers.

In recent months Sir Mark has been an integral part of the much talked about BBC 4 flagship series Symphony presented by Simon Russell Beale. As well as commenting eruditely on this musical journey charting the history of the symphony Sir Mark has been conducting the Hallé Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

1.1  Opera Concert Performances and Semi-Staged Operas with the Hallé

MC: After performing Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre are there any future plans for more opera concert performances by the Hallé? Or even another semi-staged opera like Verdi’s Falstaff that you did a few years ago?

ME: To semi-stage an opera requires considerably more time to do than a concert performance of an opera. The operas that we have been doing recently have been Wagnerian. We did Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre and we may do more Wagner in 2013. Because 2013 is his anniversary, the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth. Yes, we did semi-stage Falstaff some years ago now and it’s possible to do it if the orchestra isn’t too large; so that leaves you space on the stage. Falstaff was written for a classical orchestra whilst the Wagner scores almost all of them are written for much larger forces; so you just don’t have the space. And for these long operas you need more time. The non Wagner ones are generally much shorter and of course they are very expensive to put on at the moment. The budgets that we are all surviving under have been cut back and cut back. We have to be very careful how we use the little money that we’ve got. But I hope that it will be possible to find opportunities.

MC: So you remain hopeful?

ME: Yes, yes.

MC: But nothing has been formalised?

ME: Nothing that I am able to talk about at this stage… what can I say!

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1.2  Concert Performances of Wagner Operas

MC:I’m thinking back to the Hallé’s concert performances of the Wagner operas. Does the concept work of dividing the work over two nights?

ME: I think that it depends on your previous knowledge of the work. I’ve seen the pieces for such a long time that I’m used to the length that’s involved, the concentration and the energy you need to listen. I thought that on both these occasions, generally speaking, that it did work. Götterdämmerung’s first act is so long and so demanding. The idea is that we do the performances not too late at night so that people have a chance to travel after it’s finished. As the performances are concentrated into these two days it makes an interesting visit for people from London or elsewhere in the country who have travelled up to Manchester. It makes the travelling back afterwards much easier.

MC: Would you ever consider doing the whole Wagner opera on a single night?

ME:  Oh sure. Sure we would consider it. But the feedback and the actual idea seem to have captured people’s imagination and we have the feeling that it was a success.

MC: On the other hand I feel that some people might not have liked the idea of travelling into Manchester two nights running for one opera. But I’m glad it was a success. Would you continue with the idea again?

ME:  Well only if it was long enough to do, such as the whole of Tristan und Isolde, we might do it over two nights. I don’t know. You see the orchestra here is a wonderful orchestra but of course the stamina required to play these scores if you haven’t done them before in one go is enormous. I think that the orchestra felt it was helpful for their energy levels to think. Right, I’m coming in, I’m going to play this one act for two and a half hours and then tomorrow we are going to do the other two acts. So it will keep them fresh. However, some of the singers said to me that they preferred to do it all at once, as they were up and running they preferred to finish the race.

MC: I’m not surprised that once they are fully prepared and actually on the stage, as soon as their voices had warmed up and acclimatised they wanted to carry on.

ME: Yes, and that might be a good reason to do it all in one go. I’ve always assumed that the singers would be grateful not to have to do it all in one go because many of the roles are so taxing.

MC: I recall reading recently where you talk at length about there being so few Wagnerian singers around. The best ones must be in constant demand?

ME: That’s true. There are so few around that they are mainly booked up for years.

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1.3  The Situation at Opera Rara

MC:I’d like to ask you about the situation at the record company Opera Rara. The financing from the Peter Moores Foundation has now stopped so how does that affect your involvement with Opera Rara?

ME: Well the fact that I’m involved at all is because with the death six years ago of Patric Schmid, Opera Rara is having to reinvent itself. [Note: Patric Schmid co-founded Opera Rara] Also the repertoire they do has always interested me; the Italian operas particularly. Without Patric at the head of the organisation, because he founded it, he did everything; you actually need to replace Patric with a number of people. You can’t have just one person. I didn’t have the time to do everything that Patric did and I’m not a musicologist. So it means that the whole Opera Rara organisation has to come together and we needed to find people to fill all these different roles and make it into a fully fledged organisation with fundraisers for the first time in the organisation’s history. Because Peter Moore’s great generosity kept it all going for years. He put in hundreds of thousands a year. So it’s a huge, huge issue. At the moment we are trying to find out whether with my artistic directorship and Roger Parker the professor of music at King’s College, London who is a Donizetti specialist, someone to help with the casting and two people to help fundraise and build up the office whether or not we can survive. Now it’s a difficult time to do it. But my impression is that there are people who would support Oper Rara’s projects rather than supporting other different types of music and we just have to find these people and try to impress them and inspire them in supporting what I want do.

MC: I can sense your passion for the rare and forgotten opera repertoire.

ME: O yeah, when they are good. The one we have just put out on Opera Rara is  Maria di Rohan one of Donizetti’s most mature pieces.

MC: I’m sure that Maria di Rohan will be a new name for many opera lovers.

ME: Yes, it will be. However, it was staged this summer at the Buxton festival.

Sir Mark Elder at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, photo (c) Laurie Lewis

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1.4  French Grand Opera – Meyerbeer; Donizetti; Rossini; Verdi and Wagner

MC:I’m very interested in French Grand Opera, especially the early period when Paris was dominated by Meyerbeer, Halévy and Auber. These composers exploded on the scene in Paris in the early 1830s and were the pop stars of their day. But today their works are rarely heard and almost never staged.

ME: Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it.

MC: I’m just thinking of those operas that achieved the most stagings at L’Opera in Paris. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots had over eleven-hundred Paris performances, then there is his Robert le diable, Le Prophète and L’Africaine. There’s Halévy’s La Juive, Auber’s La muette de Portici and Thomas’s Hamlet just to name the most successful ones. Probably the only exception being Rossini’s William Tell which as you know is sometimes revived and has been recently recorded by Antonio Pappano.

ME: The equivalent nowadays Michael is the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Where the mixture of the particular story and the lyrics, the tunes, the way he sets the whole musical idea, not just the songs but the bits in-between, and the lavishness, the stage effects of the production; that is what Meyerbeer really perfected. Meyerbeer was clever, a really astute man. The son of a Jewish banker in Berlin he was very eclectic. Meyerbeer learned a lot from the Italian traditions, he realised what the Parisian public would like from his time living and working in Italy. He had the German sense of the big scale.

MC: Meyerbeer was marvellous at marketing himself and his music too.

ME: Absolutely brilliant. Yes, he took all his critics out on the night before the premières. Bought them dinner and made sure they gave good reviews.

MC: Those must have been wonderful days for French Grand Opera, in spite of all those rather dubious goings-on with the claque. There was the epic, serious, often historical scope of the libretto, the lavishness of the sets; the entrepreneurship of Louis Véron; the extended length of the operas; the active choruses and necessity for the inclusion of a ballet.

ME: That’s right because of the taste. And this whole question about Opera Rara and the repertoire over the last three hundred years is to a huge extent connected to the taste of the country; the taste of the city sometimes; the taste of the period. And how our taste has changed; what we enjoy. It’s very, very difficult to make one line through it all. I have come at that Grand Opera through Donizetti and Verdi. Verdi first wrote Jérusalem for Paris which is a re-write of I Lombardi; it’s a very good opera. He re-wrote Il trovatore as Le trouvère and changed it a bit and as you say put in the ballet.

MC: Yes, he knew one had to have the ballet to appease the requirements of the Paris Jockey club.

ME: And Wagner got that wrong didn’t he with Tannhäuser? He knew he needed a ballet in the second act but he thought he would get away with it… Les vêpres siciliennes is another one; much better performed in French than in Italian. Don Carlos is too in my view but it’s just very difficult to find French singers. It’s difficult to do these works in French really beautifully. One of the first Donizetti operas that I recorded was his last opera Dom Sébastien which was him absolutely trying to beat Meyerbeer at his own game. It’s a terrific opera; it’s got very, very striking scenes in it, full of grand and memorable music.

MC: Has Dom Sébastien been staged in recent years?

ME: No it hasn’t been staged. You would need a theatre that was really passionate about doing it. I’ve just been in Paris doing Tannhäuser and I’ve often wondered if I ought to talk to the Paris Opera about whether or not they would consider doing it. Because it was written for them.

MC: Was it for commercial reasons that Dom Sébastien hasn’t been given for so long?

ME: Sometimes in the theatre world Michael it’s actually the way pieces are staged that may make the difference between it being a commercial success or a commercial failure. This is where the taste aspect comes in. Robert Wilson for instance the American director has had success for some years now in Paris with the very refined, beautifully lit productions that he likes. They don’t really go down well in London at all. In Paris they did his Magic Flute and I conducted his Pelléas et Mélisande some years ago at the Garnier theatre in Paris and I don’t get it. He did a Frau ohne Schatten at the Opéra Bastille and I’ve lasted one act. What he does is so refined and so beautiful that it’s another form of entertainment. Paris is the city that invented perfume and their French cooking. This refined cultural activity is something that they have always loved.

MC: It’s infused in their character. We are so close to each other in proximity but British and French taste can be so very different.

ME: Yes, that’s right… I would really like to try some of these French Grand operas. I’ve studied Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable a lot and I would really like to do that. I don’t really think it’s worth doing now if you wanted to record them unless you do them complete. Because they have never had a chance to be assessed complete. We know Meyerbeer cut them but I sense from studying Robert le Diable his command of the big forms. Because each act doesn’t have many numbers, but each number is very broad in its construction. And if you start taking out little bits it’s like how do you define the human body beautiful if it’s only got one arm or one leg. It’s tricky. I think it’s time that someone did some Meyerbeer and did it full on, one hundred percent. But now in a recession?

MC: Meyerbeer certainly finds it hard to get a foothold in the repertoire today. Wagner’s anti-Semitic attacks on him affected his reputation.

ME: There is that of course. My view is that he had everything apart from the talent to be a great melodist. His tunes, most of his tunes are not as good as Verdi’s.

MC: I fully agree. But in each of his most successful operas there are two or three really fine extended scenes that are most dramatic. That also goes for many of the other successful grand opera composers of the day.

ME: That is absolutely true. But the ones that survive and the ones that fall down, for our time now, don’t necessarily equate to the ones that need to be heard. The most outstanding example I can think of in recent times was about twenty years ago when I did the British première of the opera Ermione which is the Italian word for Hermione by Rossini. We did two London concerts with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. If you look into the history books Ermione is just dismissed because it was only given two performances because the public of the day couldn’t get it. He didn’t give them what they were expecting, it was very unconventional and so they were disappointed and they thought the music wasn’t good. They booed it, it was just a disaster. But if you don’t read all that and just get a score and study it yourself; as I did. I became completely gripped by it and I could see the potential to make it exciting. So we did it and everyone was incredibly moved by the piece. We thought, how can we not know this opera? Well a month ago the Opera Rara recording of Ermione that my friend and colleague David Parry conducted won a Gramophone award. The work is now absolutely established as an important tragic Rossini opera. Glyndebourne decided to have a go at it and did it after the performances that I did. It’s been done a bit in Italy but this is the first really good recording and it won a Gramophone award; it’s wonderful.

Wonderful Town

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1.5  Hallé to play Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at Lowry Theatre, Salford.

MC: I’m fascinated that the Hallé is to perform Bernstein’s Wonderful Town.

ME: Yes, for the first time we are taking the orchestra into the pit this Easter at the Lowry Theatre at Salford. I’m collaborating with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Wonderful Town.

MC: Yes, the Leonard Bernstein musical that will star Connie Fisher. But a musical, not an opera?

ME: Yes but it’s a great, great piece. This orchestra, as you probably know, swings better than most English orchestras. It does an enormous amount of American music at Pops concerts; that sort of thing, like the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Sir Mark Elder, Connie Fisher at the Wonderful Town launch, photo (c) Ben Blackall

MC: Do you really need a top ranked symphony orchestra to play music that is normally played by a pit orchestra?

ME:  Yeah, a pit orchestra absolutely. Well yes and no. After we do the three weeks here at the Salford Lowry the whole show is going to go on a national tour with a much smaller orchestra conducted by a great friend of mine my assistant Jamie Burton. It’s going to go on a national tour for three months and that will be in a more usual format. But because we’ve got a large pit here in Salford and I’ve wanted the Hallé to do something different like that. And I think they will enjoy it. I’ll have quite a good string section there and all the wind players that you see will be from the Hallé.

MC: It should be great. I hope to report on it. I’m looking forward to it tremendously.

ME: So the sound should be really special and we hope to attract attention through that.

Michael Cookson

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Part 2: Sir Mark Elder talks about English Music

Part 3: Sir Mark Elder talks about Attracting Audiences and Broadcasting Live Performances