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Interview: Sir Colin Davis
A wide-ranging conversation with a gentleman of the baton
By Joel Kasow

MILAN - Operanet spoke with Sir Colin Davis, on the morning after the first La Scala performance of Les Troyens since 1982. The revival offered a leitmotif for our conversation which continually returned to Berlioz.

Operanet: How many times have you conducted Les Troyens?

Sir Colin Davis: It's difficult to say, but it must be at least a dozen or more times.

Operanet: Only a dozen?

CD: I was a very young man when I first did it with the Chelsea Opera Group, and then later at Covent Garden, and then I didn't touch it for twenty years. I did it in concert with the London Symphony Orchestra less than three years ago, but this is the first time in the theater since I was at Covent Garden. I must say that the piece is stupendous. It's the most stupendous idea. The music touches me immensely.

Operanet: Is there a piece of his you don't like?

CD: There are things that are not quite so impressive, but every composer has his schwache stunden.

Operanet: We noticed that you did not include the scene with Sinon.

CD: I don't know that piece, and of course it only exists in piano score and was orchestrated by Hugh MacDonald. Berlioz himself rejected it and therefore I don't think there's justification to include it. I think the succession of scenes in La Prise de Troie is so extraordinary, with such drive. The only obstacle in this production is having to lower the curtain at one point. And in the second act we had to actually insert a fermata in the scene with Hector's Ghost because you can't play a tremolo for five minutes.

Operanet: The layout of the orchestra in the pit is unusual. Is this your doing?

CD: It was forced upon me - I didn't know anything about it. When they first did this production they took out two rows of seats to get all the orchestra and half the chorus into the pit.

Operanet: Why was half the chorus in the pit anyway?

CD: Because Mr. Ronconi's production uses all those lifts, he couldn't incorporate the entire chorus so the solution was that half of them should sit in the pit. When I came I was told there would be no problem because they would put the orchestra under the stage. Nobody seems to have considered that if you keep an orchestra like cattle under a stage, they are not going to like it, so they of course refused. The seats had already been sold so there we are.

Operanet: It does wonders for musical accuracy with the chorus not on stage.

CD: But it does actually change the sound.

Operanet: The axes of your career, one might say, are Mozart, Berlioz ...

CD: Tippett, Stravinsky, Wagner, Brahms, Sibelius ...

Operanet: You're the all-round conductor.

CD: Vaughn Williams, come on. We might leave out Tchaikovsky.

Operanet: You don't respond?

CD: I do, but Tchaikowsky is overplayed, like Mahler.

Operanet: But you're starting to record the Mahler now.

CD: Only the things that I really love.

Operanet: You're not being forced to do a complete cycle?

CD: Nobody's going to do that to me. Recently I've been involved in a Brucknerfest in London. That was a wonderful voyage of discovery. I had done only a couple of major pieces in Munich, the F minor Mass, the Seventh Symphony, but I had to learn four new symphonies, which took a long time. I really enjoyed discovering those pieces.

Operanet: Are you glad to be back in London, with the London Symphony Orchestra?

CD: There's a great satisfaction in coming full circle. When I left London I was spoiled. I had had three major jobs and it was time to go.

Operanet: Is there anything you still haven't done that you'd like to get your hands on? You've done all the Wagner operas I think.

CD: All but one, Parsifal, which I'm learning for the new recording.

Operanet: Are you then going to start recording all the other works?

CD: I doubt it, considering the financial state of the record companies.

Operanet: You must be a happy man, with two record companies employing your services - is there any division between Philips and BMG as to which of them records what?

CD: No, if one doesn't want to record something the other one can.

Operanet: You've just rerecorded the Berlioz Roméo et Juliette ...

CD: With the Vienna Philharmonic.

Operanet: Are they a good Berlioz orchestra?

CD: Well, they're a good orchestra, like La Scala.

Operanet: How long a rehearsal period did you have here?

CD: About three weeks [interspersed with strike threats]. It's a special style, a very vertical style, sudden, vital, fast, staccato. But the septet is still one of the great moments.

Operanet: We were struck again last night during the love duet, that once again the initial phrase is broken in two; we're not sure if that's the intention, looking at the score, but then again the limits of the human voice must be kept in mind.

CD: If you try to do that phrase in one breath you run the risk of distorting the music because you want to get to the end of the phrase. We had a long discussion and I always said that a breath never distorts anything and you articulate the music in another way, and the stunt of doing it in one breath which is occasionally indulged in often results in something unmusical.

Operanet: You've already done Peter Grimes, Turn of the Screw and Midsummer Night's Dream of Britten. Do you have more plans in this area?

CD: We have the War Requiem in which Philips seem to be interested, with the London Symphony.

Operanet: Very good. Everyone seems to be trying to come close to the first recording, with Britten himself.

CD: That's bad. I'm a heretic in this respect. I suppose people could say that I'm just a leftover romantic, but I feel more free to do with the composer what I want instead of following the metronome markings exactly. It's almost like there's a Stasi examining the metronome markings and reports being filed.

Operanet: Do you feel that the old music movement has anything to teach you?

CD: When I was young, everybody was doing that anyway. There was Thurston Dart, George Malcolm, Nadia Boulanger, Tony Baines, Arnold Goldsborough, Dolmetsch, etc. It was common knowledge. Everybody read Quantz and Leopold Mozart. It was very interesting. Now suddenly it's become holy writ. But if you try to tell me that the B Minor Mass sounds good with a chorus of single voices, I don't believe it. The Gloria is a great public statement, it's as though the whole heavens suddenly burst into song. Don't tell me that isn't what he had in his head. He didn't have the material, just a rotten bunch of school kids. Just think of Mozart's enthusiasm when he had forty first violins in Paris. The princes couldn't afford huge orchestras, only a few fiddles. We're interested in the sound they heard in their minds and not what they actually heard.

Operanet: We tend to forget that, despite your specialties, you're the man who conducts everything - except Tchaikowsky.

CD: I have conducted Tchaikowsky, Romeo and Juliet, a selection of dance music and I remember greatly enjoying the Fourth Symphony. It's wonderful. There are masterpieces like Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. Stravinsky said he learned everything from Tchaikowsky, and learned it also from Berlioz, how to make an orchestra sound. Tchaikowsky is a whiz. If somebody said that I had to do all the Tchaikowsky symphonies, I'd say, "How fantastic, now I can really get down to it".

OperaNet: You're now redoing the Sibelius symphonies.

CD: Yes, he still needs advocacy, in Germany especially, in France, in Italy. He speaks to me very loudly ...

Operanet: Could you please give us the key, so that we might begin to understand?

CD: (talmudically) Well as I said to someone else who asked why he liked Sibelius, "Look in the mirror".

Operanet: Are there any pieces which you will never conduct or conduct again?

CD: Well, I have to admit I have blind spots when it comes to Prokofiev and Rachmaninov. I find the mixture of late romanticism and neoclassicsm very difficult to manage - Stravinsky goes the whole hog while Prokofiev has one toe ...

Operanet: How about Shostakovich?

CD: I've done some Shostakovich. I enjoy it up to a point, then this tradition - if that's what it is, or do they hide behind it - of a sort of circus music. And that comes from the ballet, from Petrouchka, with the greatest circus music, but these relentless scherzi, relentlessly banal. I know he means it, but it's very difficult. Both my daughters play the cello and they both practice the first concerto [humming the first few measures] - it's just for the sake of it. The Tenth Symphony, there comes a point in the scherzo where there's not enough music. But the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, that always touches me, one of the best things he ever wrote, and that was supposed to be in response to being ticked off by the authorities, but I think he really meant it. People flocked to the Shostakovich Festival in London recently.

Operanet: Have you ever conducted an opera in which what was happening onstage was so awful that you were doing it with your eyes closed?

CD: Yes, many times, but I'm not going to name names.

Operanet: Nor would we dream of asking you to do so. How can you justify this to yourself?

CD: It's very difficult to escape from it. You're going to work with someone, you've seen a design, which can be quite different when it occupies the stage. By then you're committed, you can't just clear off and leave the others to get on with it by themselves. It's not professional. You've got a responsibility towards the orchestra and singers, and you've got to go down with the ship.

Operanet: We sometimes think that three or four times a year a conductor should simply stand up and say, "That's it, you've gone too far!".

CD: We do, and it has resulted in the most terrible quarrels, which you know nothing about, I hope. Muti's walkout in Salzburg made headlines. I've had problems because it became some kind of fashion that the producer had supreme power over his production; the musicians are very much to blame as the conductor often comes later when he's not in a position to say anything. When I've been involved in a production from the beginning, if I didn't agree there would be the most awful scenes. It's also a desperate attempt to do something different. Whether it's entirely justified, you know as well as I do.

Operanet: You've done a fair share of Verdi in your time. Is he less on your mind at the present.

CD: No, I adore Verdi. Falstaff is another Mozart opera. I adore the Requiem. It's got nothing to do with the operas. It's shot through and through with the fear of God, not the Virgin Mary but Jehovah who executes those he loves the most.

Operanet: Would you today take on running an opera house?

CD: I don't want to take on running anything. I'm the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and one of the conditions under which I accepted the position was that I should have no power. They organize everything, hire the musicians, do all the work and I perform.

Operanet: And you get first choice as to repertory. What more could you ask for? How much opera are you doing these days?

CD: I'm going home to do Entführung, with other operas under discussion. I guess I shall be doing more. I've got one more production in Munich, a new Ariadne, but then I don't think I shall be doing much outside England as it takes up a lot of time.

Operanet: Are you a "hands-on" conductor who likes to be there from the start of rehearsals?

CD: I don't like to miss too much, no.

Operanet: You must play the piano?

CD: Badly, not worth discussing.

Operanet: Of course, you were a clarinettist. That explains why you love the Andromache scene.

CD: It's one of the most wonderful ideas anyone ever had. If you really get down to that opera, the music and the text and the action and the visual element are all unified, just as the orchestra does every gesture, even just two horns, has to do with what's happening onstage. That's why it's so difficult, like Mozart. I'm dead after a performance of Nozze di Figaro. It's exhausting. You must pay attention because if you don't you're going to miss something.

Operanet: Would you say that Les Troyens is more exhausting to conduct than Parsifal or Götterdämmerung?

CD: Wagner was mentioned last night. There are far more musical events in Berlioz because there isn't this expansion of normal time. There are wonderful moments but "time" as in the Septet ... and of course the texture of Les Troyens isn't as overlaid. Also, Götterdämmerung is a fairly negative piece, by the time all this treachery is coming to fruition, all those wonderful melodies are being subjected to such torture. This isn't to say that it isn't a masterpiece, but it's another flavor. You can say that Troyens also ends negatively, but it doesn't make that impression, because of its epic nature it's principally about history. I think the only way to end the opera is suddenly. After all, Enée is gone, Didon is gone, the only thing left is this ghastly vision.

Click here to read Joel Kasow's review of the La Scala production of Les Troyens

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