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An interview with John Nelson

By Joel Kasow

LYONS, 21 July 1997 - A few days after the first performance in Lyons of the "Châtelet" Don Carlos, Operanet took the opportunity to talk to conductor John Nelson about his experience with this production and also his long-range plans, which include some fascinating premieres.


Operanet: You've just been conducting Don Carlos (the Chatelet version) here in Lyons after a few performances in Nice. How did you feel about taking over a version which could kindly be called "musically idiosyncratic"?

John Nelson: First, let me say that it's an enormous privilege to do this piece in French, the original language. Even if I took over from somebody else - and my two predecessors were Antonio Pappano who was responsible pretty much for the version along with Luc Bondy, and then Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden - I'm the third and have somewhat the same cast so there's a lot of tradition that comes down to me through these performances. That's not always easy, not easy at all in fact, because (1) people come with set ideas and (2) there's very little rehearsal time since the major singers have already rehearsed and performed this version, so you don't have the luxury of working alongside the stage director and coming up with new ideas, your own ideas, and mixing it in a communal creative way.

Operanet: But if we look at the musical choices...

Nelson: Since it was handed down to me, and I was told I could not change it, I didn't bother doing any research. I've never done the Italian version of Don Carlo, so I'm coming to this absolutely fresh. Had I come into it at the start, then I would have gotten into it thick and gone to the library and done all the historical research and made my own choices. Since I had no choice, I decided to spend my time otherwise. On top of that, I can't help but put my own imprint on it.

Operanet: My problem is that Verdi did come up with a final version in four acts and acceded to demands that the first act be reinstated. When, however, you start replacing final versions with earlier material, as was done in the Carlos-Posa duet or Philippe-Posa duet, for example, then you're on dangerous ground as we do have Verdi's final thoughts which are more concise and more interesting musico-dramatically.

Nelson: I would have to agree with you. However, we're living over one hundred years later, and the community at large has been through many Don Carlos, and we're also living in a museum world of opera, not creating much opera of our own, so we have to redo everything, somehow make it fresh for the public. They all want something a little bit different, so in that context I think it's perfectly okay to do this bastardized version. However, this will live, or not live, on its own merits. Whether it will live in history, only history will tell. I don't think it will. To do it in French, however, is superb. I'm not even sure I can give you the exact reasons why. Verdi came to Paris twice: he did the Vêpres Siciliennes and then this. He hated the first experience and it is somewhat evident in the music that he wrote. It's a good opera but it's not one of his great operas. Don Carlos is a great opera and he clearly enjoyed doing it this time around. I find it marvelous to hear this Italian composer in the framework of the Paris Opéra. One would have to put the ballet back to get a full view, but then you're talking about five to six hours in the theater, which is a bit much.

Operanet: How much of your time is spent doing opera these days?

Nelson: I do a minimum of two productions a year, maximum of four. I've been busy with Don Carlos now for almost seven weeks, and just before I was doing Vêpre Siciliennes in Rome, the other French opera, so I've been immersing myself in the French side of Verdi.

Operanet: And you did it in French. How did that go?

Nelson: It was a mixed bag. We did the entire piece, with ballet. It can be done, but it was not successfully done on stage. This was an unfortunate situation where Graham Vick was supposed to do the production and we had been talking about it from the outset, and it could have been something very special, but for various reasons he dropped out and we were left hanging. What was left, stage-wise, was not very good. But it was such a great experience doing every note of the piece: another five-hour experience.

Operanet: Do you ever have the feeling that you'd like to conduct with your eyes closed because you don't like what's happening onstage?

Nelson: I would say more than fifty percent of the time.

Operanet: Why are conductors so powerless in this respect?

Nelson: There are many reasons. I will blame my own colleagues first, because I can blame directors of opera companies, stage directors, but I will choose to blame my own colleagues, and myself first of all, because we don't allow ourselves the time to work with the company or the stage director. We are so busy, we people who have full careers, with engagements we turn down right and left. We have very little time and, unfortunately, many of my colleagues are more interested in the financial side of our métier than the artistic side. We overbook ourselves, we don't allow for the freedom of spending time collaborating with the opera company, the intendant, the stage director, all the people involved in the fantastical world of opera, in order to create something special. I have had a few experiences in my life when I've done it right. I will never forget them and they will always remain in my memory as the ideal. I really think it is the conductor's fault: we have abdicated, and we should be in charge.

Operanet: You say there's very little operatic creation today, but last year you were here in Lyons for Galina.

Nelson: That's a case in point. Life in opera is hardly ever ideal. In the case of Galina, where I was in the mix from the very beginning, I was still not totally in charge. The person at the head of the triumvirate was Jean-Pierre Brossmann (director of the Opéra National de Lyon) and he selected the metteur en scène, who came from television and had no experience in opera, so that it was a very difficult experience. I can't say that I'm proud of the results. My relationship with Landowski, however, was just superior and he took many of my suggestions. He was completely open and as a result I was very open to him. It was a beautiful relationship. Musically and a lot of things scenically were quite wonderful.

Operanet: When you do modern music, are you open to all aspects, or to use a French dichotomy, are you more open to or do you feel more at home with the school of Boulez or the school of Landowski, as it were?

Nelson: School of Landowski, no question about it. We all have personalities. Why we try to make ourselves into Boulezes or Landowskis is ridiculous. My makeup happens to go towards Landowski. I am a person who believes very strongly in communication. If my music doesn't communicate, even on a first hearing, I feel as if I have missed something. I am not performing, or if I were a composer I wouldn't be writing, for one hundred years from now when I'm dead. I want to communicate something valuable, something interesting, something productive, something beautiful, something real, something truthful to the public. There are those of the ivory tower, there are those of the market place - I think that's the difference between the "schools" of Boulez and Landowski - and I admire everybody who admires Boulez and he is a very particular individual who will go down in history as great for many, many reasons. Maybe Landowski will survive that sort of historical sieve - I doubt it. But we all have value in what we do and we have to be true to ourselves.

Operanet: At least you admit it. I read in the program the other day that you have a new foundation called Soli Deo Gloria.

Nelson: I must stop you right away and say it's not a foundation because that sounds like it's my money and I'm not very rich at all. This is an organization that I helped found which raises money from all sources; it is not a foundation that has its own resources, it searches for support for music that is of a religious nature, for lack of a better term, or spiritual nature. If you look back on the 20th century, everyone will say it was a secular century, and as we approach the 21st century it has gotten increasingly secular. We feel uncomfortable with "spiritual" matters, and yet everybody down in the depths of his being has some sort of sensitivity to - even if you call music spiritual, if you don't go as far as saying God, we all are spiritual individuals. What this organization exists for is to try to replenish the classical repertoire with substantial works that address the Almighty. I love choral music and I love the repertoire called the "sacred masterpiece repertoire". I would trade ten operas to do one St. Matthew Passion.

Operanet: How do you feel these days when the "authentic" music movement has in effect cornered the market on Bach, Handel...

Nelson: There again, my world has abdicated, and I will not blame the John Eliot Gardiners or the Roger Norringtons and others for "taking away" this music. It is the Christoph von Dohnanyis and George Soltis of this world that have abdicated and we are scared to do this music because we don't think we can do it right any more because the authentic movement is "doing it right". I admire the authentic movement enormously and I have worked with original instruments myself and I adore it. I have learned so much by being part of that world. What needs to be done now is to inform the world at large - the classical world at large, the larger operatic and symphonic world - of how to do this music on contemporary instruments. We don't have to use old instruments to do all this music, but we have to do it in a better way. I've done performances myself and I've heard performances myself on contemporary instruments where you could almost swear you were listening to old instruments, just because - intelligently - we know how to use vibrato, we know where to place the bow, etc. That's where I am in this mix. I'm taking over an orchestra in Paris [Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, editor's note] and I will bring to that orchestra some authenticity in style.

Operanet: How did you end up taking over the EOP?

Nelson: Marcel Landowski. He was one of the founders and he came to me in the middle of rehearsals for Galina and asked me whether I was interested and I said no. I turned it down on a number of occasions but they kept coming after me, and I started making some demands that would make it possible for me to be happy in this situation, and they met all these demands. I am really pleased.

Operanet: How much time are you going to be spending with them?

Nelson: Fourteen weeks a year.

Operanet: Do you feel that's enough for a relationship...

Nelson: That's all I can do at this point. My schedule is such that I can't really do much more - unless I were to cancel half of my work. That's an interesting question and one that's difficult to answer. If I had to answer yes or no, I'd have to answer no. A music director should spend more time with an orchestra, more time than not. That should be his main priority, so he should spend more than fifty percent of his time with his orchestra.

Operanet: As when we were young, Szell or Ormandy did.

Nelson: It's very difficult. We live in a difficult age where authority is not appreciated. You can see it in politics, you can see it in family life, everywhere. Authority is just not respected, so music directors have to be careful. I don't think a George Szell could exist nowadays, and yet orchestras desperately need George Szells. The discipline is not there as it used to be. Detailed work, real hard rehearsal is absent from most of our orchestras in the world. The other thing is money. We're living in a world economy where it's very difficult. You go to a place like England where you have to live on very few rehearsals - this orchestra I'm taking over in Paris is living on borrowed time from the past and we still have lots of money and lots of rehearsal time, but the future, who knows?

Operanet: Will you be doing any big choral or operatic works with them next season?

Nelson: I'm not yet music director next year, only the following season and I can't yet say anything. I will be here for four concerts next season, one of which is a Messager operetta, L'Amour masqué, another will include Mendelssohn's Second Symphony, Lobgesang, a glorious masterpiece not too many people know, a third program is Beethoven's Eroica juxtaposed with Strauss' Metamorphosen, an obvious juxtaposition as they both have the same theme.

Operanet: When your career was beginning, you sort of burst onto the scene in New York with Berlioz. How important a role does Berlioz play in your life today?

Nelson: Very important. He'll always be important to me. I'm now working towards the year 2003, the 200th anniversary of his birth, and that entire year I will spend doing nothing but his music. I might be so tired of it that I'll never do it again for the rest of my life, but I figure I owe it to the man who has been very good to me.

We talk about Béatrice et Bénédict, of which Nelson has made one of the best recordings, and the fact that we both prefer Colin Davis' first recording which is much sharper than his second. Nelson agrees that this is often the case, citing Karajan's Beethoven symphonies, of which he finds the first recording ten times better than his second and third versions. When I suggest that the basic concept remains throughout one's life, he replies:

Nelson: I can be objective about other people, but not really about myself. I hope I change. I'm sure I change. When I go back to orchestras I haven't been with for years, sometimes a musician will come up to me and say, "My how you've changed" (laughter) - my first reaction is, "What do you mean by that?" - and it's generally for the better, so that's nice.

Operanet: To return to "spiritual" music, which pieces are your favorites?

Nelson: There's no question, the St. Matthew Passion is in a league of its own.

Operanet: Do you see yourself performing that with the EOP?

Nelson: It's already planned, but in a unique way. That's all I can say now, but it will be very different - not interpretatively - in the way we're going to present it. Maybe, we'll even build a tradition of performances at the various religious holidays during the year. This is one of the reasons I'm so interested in this SDG (Soli Deo Gloria) organization that I founded three years ago, because I would like to replenish, and give the 20th century - before we run out of time - a chance to exonerate itself as a sensitive century. We have three commissions. The first is a work by a Jewish composer who lives on a kibbutz in Israel named Paul Schonfield. He's writing an oratorio based on the story of Deborah in the Book of Judges, and it's going to be in an Afro-American style. It's just wild. The world premiere will be in Haifa, we've got a black choir, and then the American premiere will be with the National Symphony in Washington and most likely a recording with Decca/Argo. The second commission is for 1999. James MacMillan, a Scottish composer who is being touted as the Benjamin Britten of our time, and he may well be, is an extraordinary young man of 36 and he is writing an epic work based on the Book of Revelations, a huge work. The libretto is like the Messiah in that it is all scripture, but it has been compiled and assimilated by Colin Graham, the stage director. I've already seen the libretto, which is brilliant, and MacMillan will begin writing it this summer. The third commission is a Missa Solemnis by Gorecki, written for the millennium and to be premiered at St. Peter's, because the Pope is his dear friend. It's a beautiful mix of people. There you have three major pieces being turned out at the end of the 20th century.


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