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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 6 JUNE 2007—Only a few years ago Emmanuelle Haim worked in the background under such conductors as William Christie and Christophe Rousset. A few years ago she formed her own orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée, giving concerts and recording with them. The results thus far have been most satisfactory, with the best recording to date of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo , a fascinating compilation of Handel’s Chamber Duets and a scintillating Dido and Aeneas, alongside a controversial Monteverdi Orfeo and new recordings of Handel and Monteverdi that are reviewed concurrently. Haim has also conducted other groups and has been responsible for revivals of Theodora and Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne.

Culturekiosque: How did you get started in the musical world?

Emmanuelle Haïm: Very young, as a child. My father in a flight of fantasy bought a grand piano, and when the piano was delivered my mother wept because neither of them had a job. They both played as amateurs, and one of my aunts was a professional, assistant to Yvonne Lefébure, a well-known French pianist. I started with my aunt, who later brought me to Yvonne who was a delicious and gifted old woman. So it started early because of that piano.

CK: And when did you discover the harpsichord?

EM: Late, in my teens. My mother bought me a recording, at 415, and at the time I had perfect pitch, but that is now compromised because you get quite confused between 392, 400, 415, 440, 445, 465 and 485 . At the time I was completely puzzled because I had to transpose everything I was listening to. It was slightly later when I had the opportunity to play this music myself that I really liked it.

CK: You went to the Conservatoire?

EM: Yes. I studied harpsichord, but first I did "Ă©rudition", something more developed in France than in other countries in which you study harmony, counterpoint, fugue, analysis.

CK: Did you have an idea at that point that you would become a professional harpsichord player, a virtuoso?

EM: Not at all. I didn’t have a clue. I was just exploring it all and I didn’t know what to do. I started teaching those same subjects at the Conservatoire, and then I discovered the harpsichord and I thought, "Well, I still have time to learn, so why not? I’m here and Kenneth Gilbert was teaching and then I went to listen to the classes of Christophe Coin and William Christie. I played for all the classes I could for pleasure, not really thinking of anything professional.

CK: And how did you start professionally? With William Christie, I think.

EM: Yes. And others asked me to do concerts, either solo or accompanying. And Bill asked me to play in his orchestra, as did Christophe Rousset. It gradually took more and more of my time, and I knew that one day I wanted to perform certain pieces. I worked closely with Christie and Rousset for ten years.

CK: And then what happened?

EM: I was asked by friends to conduct them, and then orchestras asked me.

CK: How long ago?

EM: 1999. And Glyndebourne asked me, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, all at the same time. And I also thought about creating my own orchestra, the Concert d’Astrée.

Emmanuelle Haim
Photo courtesy of IMG Artists 

CK: How many of the musicians do you share with the others?

EM: It depends. Many have plural activities: some teach and play, or do chamber music and play, some do research and play, some just play and play….I played in two orchestras, with Bill and Cristophe, according to the repertoire they were doing. I assisted both of them as neither could offer me a full-time job and discussed music with both of them. It was a perfect learning process and it was good to have the two of them.

CK: And now all your attention is focussed on the Concert d’Astrée.

EM: The experience I had with other conductors made me realise that I wanted to challenge myself, with something not too comfortable, constructing this orchestra for myself.

CK: Are you conducting symphonic repertoire as well?

EM: No, only baroque repertoire, because that’s my strong point and I can bring something to the work.

CK: So you stop at Handel and Rameau, for example.

EM: No, maybe Mozart. Early Mozart, for sure. Maybe later Mozart, later.

CK: Or Haydn later.

EM: Maybe. I don’t know yet. I really don’t make plans. All my life has been like that. Yes, I do plan, in the sense that I know I want to do a certain piece. I couldn’t believe when I found myself playing in Atys with Bill, because I had seen it two years earlier. Or when you do those big monuments, like the Bach B Minor Mass or the Passions. They’re not done so much in France so I didn’t even have the opportunity to hear them or participate as a player. My plans stretch out only over four or five years. I know that I need to do a particular piece for a particular reason. And I know what I need to explore, but I cannot say that in ten years I will be doing something specific.

CK: You’ve already conducted staged performances of opera, at Glyndebourne, of Rodelinda and Theodora. Any others?

EH: Yes, at the Opéra in Lille where we have a residency we’ve done Tamerlano, and then the Monteverdi Orfeo (also performed in Caën, Strasburg and in Paris at the Châtelet). We also have plans to do a Rameau opera and a Cavalli opera.

CK: When you talk about Cavalli, do you go and dig out the manuscripts? Do you enjoy doing that, like Cecilia Bartoli who did the same thing for the music she performs on her Salieri and Gluck recitals.

EH: Yes, but I need a few lives to do everything. And Salieri is in better shape than Cavalli who had a very bad handwriting. If I ever meet him….

CK: Isn’t that true though of most of the Venetian composers of that era?

EH: No, it depends on the individual. Cavalli makes sketches, uses odd bits of paper. It’s fun. I get some help here and there, especially with the librettos.

Emmanuelle Haïm and her baroque orchestra Le Concert d'Astrée

CK: When you conduct an opera, do you sometimes think, "I can’t stand what’s happening on stage, I want to close my eyes"?

EH: Not yet. When I go to the opera, it sometimes happens, but I try to figure out why the director has done what I’m seeing. But sometimes he’s missing the point. It’s important for me to meet the stage director I’m going to work with so that we have something in common to talk about. At the same time, I love it when stage directors can bring something new. When you’re on your own for a long time with a story it’s difficult to share it. I am amazed that some of the directors who have no musical training can be so extraordinarily musical. It’s like the collaboration between composer and librettist. Think of the collaboration between Mozart and da Ponte or Monteverdi and Busenello. Sometimes the director hears something in the music that a musician would not hear in the same way.

CK: Don’t you think that working well in the theater is not the same as in opera where there are other demands?

EH: Sometimes they are able to bring an extra dimension that you feel the composer intended. I guess it’s a freedom that can be given in a Monteverdi opera. Musical writing is already a theatrical indication. Yes there are obligations but they can be shared with an open-minded person. The conductor should also keep an open mind.

CK: Do you feel that you can say at a certain point, "I don’t think you should do that." I think a lot of musicians are afraid of stage directors who have more power than ever.

EH: It depends on who. If it is someone you respect, you pay attention to what you say. When I talk to a singer, I rarely say "No, not like that." We discuss the matter. If I’m not comfortable with something, I’ll try as hard as I can to go in that direction. If I really cannot do so, then I ask myself if I’ve gone as far as I can. It’s a question of mutual respect. I would be afraid of damaging someone’s confidence and try to find a compromise, which I hope the other person would also do. I would never, for example, suggest things I didn’t think the person could do. When I worked on Mitridate I looked at contemporary ornaments that had been written down that are way beyond reality, but political correctness now decrees that’s how it should be done. Depending of course on the singer you have and his or her qualities and possibilities and the desire. There is a change where Mozart starts to write down himself what he wants.

CK: You have performed Charpentier’s David et Jonathas. Was it written for an all-male cast?

EH: Yes, boys for the high-voice roles and men for the bass parts. It’s like the difficult question as to how one casts the castrato roles in Italian operas. Countertenors have great qualities but they are not the same as the castrati. You have to cast on the basis of who you have and their qualities. We don’t have a boy for the role of Jonathas so it will be sung by a woman. There’s also the convention of pitch, because that’s all that 392 is. The organ at St. Gervais is at 400, while flautists would probably say that 394 is ideal for the length of the flute, but each instrument has different problems so that compromises must be made. 392 means that David can be sung by a tenor, which was not possible in Christie’s recording which was done at 415.

CK: Going back to the question of castrati vs. countertenors in Handel’s operas?

EH: Some countertenors have warm, beautiful voices. I have no preference, it depends on the person. It’s also rare to have a woman who can cope with some of the castrato roles that are written for a very low voice. It’s hard to find the voices for Handel’s operas because they are so difficult. You need the most incredible singers on earth. For a long time those operas were under-performed, not performed by the right quality of singer, leaving people with the impression that it’s "ok" music, but it’s not that – it’s hard. And it’s also difficult to cast the low parts: Marilyn Horne had extraordinary qualities, or there is Sara Mingardo who has a beautiful, dark sound or Andreas Scholl who has a very warm sound. David Daniels has a more feminine sound, almost mezzo soprano, and Brian Asawa is also very mezzo. So everyone comes up with a different solution in casting Handel’s operas.

CK: Why hasn’t anyone thought of the revised Giulio Cesare with a tenor cast as Sesto?

EH: I have. But it’s convention. Even if you want to change a small thing in a Rossini opera, it’s like lèse-majesté. There are at most five Handel operas that are played all over the world: Alcina, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Serse, and Tamerlano maybe, not to mention the others, some of which are extraordinarily good. The alternative versions in Tamerlano, for example, are quite a big issue, and definitely in Cesare. But you need to meet with the stage director, sometimes casting directors who don’t know about that, and find the right tenor for the role of Sesto. Handel was very pragmatic. In Tamerlano, the role of Irene is suddenly shifted from soprano to mezzo. Cesare is interesting because the balance changes totally if you have a tenor Sesto.

CK: If only someone had the courage….

EH: It’s not only courage. You have to be strong enough to convince them. Opera houses that can afford a baroque orchestra are rare – it’s an extra expense on top of the regular orchestra, and the opera house that can afford the right cast cannot always afford the orchestra. You must convince them that you need a baroque orchestra. And then there is the question of the unions. But you cannot do Monteverdi or Rameau with a modern orchestra. When I conducted Rodelinda for the Glyndebourne touring opera, we made the right compromise, because either you don’t tour such a work at all or you do it with the orchestra engaged for the tour. It’s a question of finance. And it’s fine. The orchestra in question is quite open, has done a lot of this music and can go quite far in terms of the baroque aesthetic. We of course did it at standard modern pitch, which could not be done for a French work as they are unperformable at 440.

CK: Is being a conductor a problem today for a woman?

EH: No. Just don’t wear a super miniskirt or a strapless dress.

CK: But why aren’t there as many women who conduct as are capable?

EH: Because it’s new, it’s unusual, and the life of a conductor needs a lot of support. Most of the male conductors I know have the support of a woman who is more used to such a role. It’s difficult for a man to assume such a role. Life in the 19th century was pretty simple: one person works and brings in the money, the other takes care of the family, but also taking care of the social schedule. Women are raised differently today, they are encouraged to be competitive, get good grades in school, get good jobs, and that’s frightening to men. You need both men and women who are advanced to enter in to a new way of life, with shared responsibilities. It’s a whole new way of thinking for our society. And it’s not only artists. It’s a big question for today’s society. And what about the person who accompanies an artist – what kind of life can he or she lead. The stress is enormous. Is it fair to ask someone to do that? I just do what I think I have to do. I think the question is more, "Why are you a conductor?" rather than "Why are you a woman conductor?". I thought of it as early as twelve, but I waited. I wasn’t involved in baroque music then and was seeing big orchestras. In my first teaching job, all the students were older than me and were men and I was terrified. Now, I don’t think about such things.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of Culturekiosque.com


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