By Joel Kasow
PARIS, 6 JUNE 2007â€”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
dâ€™AstrĂ©e, giving concerts and recording with them. The results thus far
have been most satisfactory, with the best recording to date of Handelâ€™s
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo , a fascinating compilation of Handelâ€™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
Emmanuelle HaĂŻm: 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
LefĂ©bure, 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 didnâ€™t have a clue. I was just
exploring it all and I didnâ€™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? Iâ€™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 dâ€™AstrĂ©e.
Photo courtesy of IMG
CK: How many of the musicians do you share with the
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 playâ€¦.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
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
EM: No, only baroque repertoire, because thatâ€™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 donâ€™t know yet. I really donâ€™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 couldnâ€™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. Theyâ€™re not done so much in France so I didnâ€™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
CK: Youâ€™ve already conducted staged performances of
opera, at Glyndebourne, of Rodelinda and Theodora. Any
EH: Yes, at the OpĂ©ra in Lille where we have a
residency weâ€™ve done Tamerlano, and then the Monteverdi
Orfeo (also performed in CaĂ«n, Strasburg and in Paris at the
ChĂ˘telet). We also have plans to do a Rameau opera and a Cavalli
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
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 himâ€¦.
CK: Isnâ€™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. Itâ€™s fun. I get some help here and
there, especially with the librettos.
Emmanuelle HaĂŻm and her baroque orchestra Le
CK: When you conduct an opera, do you sometimes think,
"I canâ€™t stand whatâ€™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 Iâ€™m
seeing. But sometimes heâ€™s missing the point. Itâ€™s important for me to
meet the stage director Iâ€™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 youâ€™re on your own for a long time with a
story itâ€™s difficult to share it. I am amazed that some of the directors
who have no musical training can be so extraordinarily musical. Itâ€™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: Donâ€™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 itâ€™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
CK: Do you feel that you can say at a certain point,
"I donâ€™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 Iâ€™m not comfortable with
something, Iâ€™ll try as hard as I can to go in that direction. If I really
cannot do so, then I ask myself if Iâ€™ve gone as far as I can. Itâ€™s a
question of mutual respect. I would be afraid of damaging someoneâ€™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 didnâ€™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 thatâ€™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 Charpentierâ€™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. Itâ€™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 donâ€™t have a boy for the role of
Jonathas so it will be sung by a woman. Thereâ€™s also the convention of
pitch, because thatâ€™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 Christieâ€™s recording which was done at 415.
CK: Going back to the question of castrati vs.
countertenors in Handelâ€™s operas?
EH: Some countertenors have warm, beautiful voices. I
have no preference, it depends on the person. Itâ€™s also rare to have a
woman who can cope with some of the castrato roles that are written for a
very low voice. Itâ€™s hard to find the voices for Handelâ€™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 itâ€™s "ok"
music, but itâ€™s not that â€“ itâ€™s hard. And itâ€™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 Handelâ€™s
CK: Why hasnâ€™t anyone thought of the revised
Giulio Cesare with a tenor cast as Sesto?
EH: I have. But itâ€™s convention. Even if you want to
change a small thing in a Rossini opera, itâ€™s like lĂ¨se-majestĂ©.
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 donâ€™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 courageâ€¦.
EH: Itâ€™s not only courage. You have to be strong enough to convince
them. Opera houses that can afford a baroque orchestra are rare â€“ itâ€™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 donâ€™t tour such a
work at all or you do it with the orchestra engaged for the tour. Itâ€™s a
question of finance. And itâ€™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
EH: No. Just donâ€™t wear a super miniskirt or a
CK: But why arenâ€™t there as many women who conduct as
EH: Because itâ€™s new, itâ€™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. Itâ€™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 thatâ€™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. Itâ€™s a whole new way of thinking for our society. And
itâ€™s not only artists. Itâ€™s a big question for todayâ€™s society. And what
about the person who accompanies an artist â€“ 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 wasnâ€™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 donâ€™t
think about such things.
Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor of
Pitch and Tuning
Compendium of Baroque Musical
Operaâ€™s First Master: The Musical Dramas of Claudio
Antonio Vivaldi: Music for
the Chapel of the PietĂ
Spanish Baroque Music: An
interview with Eduardo Lopez Banzo
French Baroque Music: Music at
Review: Baroque Masterpieces
Baroque Opera and Sacred Music by
Vivaldi and Alessandro Scarlatti
Weekend at the Festival de Beaune
Maxim Vengerov: Baroque