As part of our extended coverage of Santa Fe Opera's production of the brand new critical edition of Rossini's Maometto II, we talked to Maestro Frédéric Chaslin, who had been holding for the last three years the position of Chief Conductor at Santa Fe Opera.
Frédéric Chaslin made his SFO company debut in 2009 leading the highly acclaimed production of Verdi’s La Traviata. Conductor, pianist, composer and author, Chaslin was born in Paris and educated at the Paris Conservatoire and the Salzburg Mozarteum. With an operatic and symphonic repertory that ranges from Bach to contemporary music, he has appeared with major opera companies and at international festivals in New York, Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome and Venice and with all the major Parisian orchestras. He served as music director of the Rouen Opera, general music director of Germany’s Nationaltheater Mannheim, chief conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and a resident conductor at the Vienna Staatsoper.
Maestro Chaslin made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2002 conducting Il Trovatore, and subsequently The Tales of Hoffmann, Sicilian Vespers, The Barber of Seville and La Boheme. In 2005 he led the Los Angeles Opera production of Romeo and Juliet starring Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko.
As pianist Maestro Chaslin has appeared with major orchestras in Austria, Japan, Italy and Israel. As composer he has written orchestral pieces, movie soundtracks and operas. His opera Wuthering Heights has been recorded by the London Philharmonic and London Symphony Chorus. His latest book, Music in Every Sense is an in-depth look at aspects of modern music and its relationship with the audience. It has been published in French and German and will soon appear in English.
After having met the conductor in person and securing his agreement for the interview, Almaviva sent the questions by email; Mr. Chaslin then replied by email as well (which explains a bit of a disconnection, with some leads not being followed up - for example, he hadn't disclosed yet that he was leaving Santa Fe Opera when the questions were formulated - he did send a follow-up to this part, and we've edited the interview to include it).
OPERA LIVELY - Dear Maestro, congratulations on an outstanding performance of Maometto II this past weekend at Santa Fe Opera. One must say that opera doesn't get much better than that - gorgeous music, phenomenal and unique setting with the open air stage and the mountains in the background, great singers, a great stage director, beautiful sets and costumes, and a very well oiled orchestra, competently conducted. We gave to this performance a score of 98, very close to perfection. Anyway, we from Opera Lively have been following with interest Dr. Philip Gossett's explanations about the importance of a critical edition. Had you conducted this opera before from less well prepared versions? What difference did it make to count on this new critical edition?
FRÉDÉRIC CHASLIN - The exciting thing is that almost nobody has ever conducted that opera since 1820! Claudio Scimone did a full recording and the San Francisco Opera a revival in 1985, but that is not enough to build a real tradition on a piece. I will conduct Tosca here in Santa Fe as well, and everybody has an opinion on Tosca. But Maometto? Everything has to be invented like for a new modern opera, and that makes it incredibly exciting and demanding.
This said, critical editions, compared to older editions, rarely provide content that you can hear or perceive. In this production, the contribution of Mr. Gossett has been mainly in providing the variations, the cadenzas, which is of course a lot of work, and as a paradox, it is pure invention, nothing to do with the authenticity to the original text. All those extra notes have to be invented by either the performer, or a musician like Mr Gossett. So, I would say, this is the highest level of expertise and responsibility.
As for the "old text", I have to say that you could not find a lot of differences between the previous edition and the new one. Actually, I had to reverse a lot of articulations and phrasé that were missing in the critical edition, as compared to the older one. That is sometimes the paradox of new editions; they lack important information. For instance, there is a last aria in 6/8 in the finale 2. In the new edition; all the begining is written fortissimo, which is absurd. So, I had to re-introduce all the nuances of the traditional version.
OL - How do scholars and conductors work together?
FC - I am a composer myself, so I have strong opinions about the harmonics, contrapunt, orchestration, style, etc. Mr. Gossett knows Rossini to the core. So, that provides for a rich collaboration, without any conflict because we are both aiming to the same goal: the best interest of Rossini. We worked on sometimes different opinions, but we tended to the same "heading" so all went well.
OL - What other operas are badly in need of a critical edition? Has it happened to you that you open a score and think - "this isn't right. I wish I had a critical edition for this opera"?
FC – All the French operas, including, and maybe particularly those that have been "critically" edited in the recent past. The biggest fraud of all history of music is probably the Michael Kaye edition of Tales of Hoffmann. It starts with incredible mistakes in the French "prosody", the way the words are badly set to music, which Offenbach would have never done. There are as well hundreds of pages that are the pure fantasy of a non-talented self-proclaimed musicologist. I recall a day, in Leipzig, when Mr. Kaye sent me a fax with a "new ending" that he had just found! Yes, Offenbach's spirit was certainly talking to him in his sleep. And that page, in bad handwriting, was so full of mistakes that only a child would have dared to pretend it was from Offenbach. I sent the fax back with the mention "learn to write music, then let's talk!"
OL - Should we the press and the public be more mindful of what edition of an opera is being played by an opera house or a recording company? It is interesting to notice that in journalistic reviews, opera house playbills, and CD or DVD inserts we find all sorts of information, but rarely the edition of the score that is being used is mentioned. I'm thinking of an analogy with wine labels. Maybe a critical edition would be a Grand Cru Classé while generic versions from houses like Kalmus would be called a Vin de table. But, seriously, should we all aim for a system of making explicit what exactly is being played?
FC - The problem is, who made the critical edition, how reliable they are, and how well the publisher forwards the corrections of the editor. At some point, it is almost impossible to hear, from an old recording, to a "correct one", any big difference. The most important additions are, for instance, forgotten or lost arias. In generally, mistakes, typos, are easily identified by the musicians and corrected right away. I would say, there is no ideal edition to this day. There are only ideal musicians who know to read between the lines!
OL - Are there any interesting triumphs that you would like to share with us, regarding the genesis of the Maometto II project?
FC - The response of the audience has been our biggest surprise and our biggest reward. We had never expected that, because we thought the amount of new music would be too challenging on the audience's attention. So we underestimated either our audience, or the power of that music!
OL - What is your opinion of Rossini's musical genius? I am personally a huge fan of his music, and I'm always dismayed to see that some people believe that he was "just" a comic opera composer who would cannibalize his own works and churn out one opera after the other for the sake of making quick money. Much the opposite, for me - listening to works like Ermione, La Donna del Lago, and Maometto II - Rossini was absolutely brilliant as an opera composer.
FC - I love Rossini for his ability to mix tragic and comic. In the darkest moments of Maometto you can find a moment to smile, for instance when the soprano is interrupted by a canon shot. I find the serious Rossini always more inspired than the light one. I absolutely adore all of his opere serie, while I enjoy, as an audience member, listening from time to time to the lighter ones. Rossini clearly invented all the Italian opera of the 19th. century.
OL - Let's talk about Santa Fe Opera now. What is your artistic vision for the company? What are some of the goals you would like to accomplish in the next few seasons?
FC - I am not returning to the Santa Fe Opera next season so I just wish them well... It is a company that has huge potential. I think everybody agrees that the orchestra has made huge progresses. The General Manager is making artistic decisions there, so the visions and goals and achievements will be just as big as he makes them.
OL - Oh, too bad. Where are you headed now?
FC - Paris, Jerusalem, Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo... The usual! I'll be the Music Director for the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which is going to be plenty!
OL – I particularly love the fact that Santa Fe Opera has always been rather bold in commissioning new works and presenting somewhat obscure pieces in the existing repertoire. Given the economic crisis, however, many opera companies have been reaching for more established pieces that are surer bets for ticket sales. Do you foresee any trouble ahead, or are you confident that Santa Fe Opera will be able to continue its pioneering work?
FC - There are many great operas being written today. The choice of an opera house can be to favor the speculation, like we do in Europe, at the expense of the audience who is not following, or an opera house can chose to favor composers who write pieces that have all the elements operas always had in the golden age: beautiful music, arias, lines that don't sound like perpetual screaming.... I believe the choice of Oscar for next year is good. I don't know about the following years...
OL – We at Opera Lively are always curious about contemporary opera, so it's nice that you've mentioned Theodore Morrison's opera Oscar which is scheduled to have its world premiere next season, co-commissioned by Santa Fe Opera and The Opera Company of Philadelphia. You won't be conducting it, but did you have a say in promoting this new piece?
FC - I didn't, but I think it's an excellent opera.
OL - Looking at Santa Fe Opera's repertory, we notice the company long-time commitment to the music of Richard Strauss. However, the most notable absence is one Richard Wagner, only represented by one production of The Flying Dutchman. Do you know of any plans to strengthen Santa Fe Opera's Wagnerian side?
FC - I don't think so. It is a real pity.
OL - How did you keep your orchestra sharp, given that the work is seasonal (summer festival) and the company closes down after the summer?
FC - I used to work in sections with the strings and winds separately and it helped a lot. There are more improvements that I wanted to implement, like the acoustic of the orchestra pit that needs a layer of wood to sound better and give justice to the orchestra. Right now I know they are redoing the offices so I hope the music will soon have the next priority.
OL - How do you see the future of opera in the 21st century? People are always talking about budget crisis and ageing audiences, but then we travel to the middle of the desert in a relatively small town, and we see sold-out performances in this gorgeous theater, and world-class shows on the stage and the pit, one feels confident that opera will continue to thrive.
FC - I don't have the competence of a fortune teller! I can just hope that culture will remain high in the priorities.
OL - While an apprentice and assistant conductor, you've worked under such prestigious conductors as Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez. Would you please tell us a bit about these two great artists? How was it for you to work with them?
FC - Wonderful, and without them I would be nowhere. To start as a conductor you need to be pushed by a Maestro. One was giving but extremely demanding - Barenboim, the other one let me observe him from afar but gave me a lot of opportunities to conduct.
OL - You've conducted the very first production of La Traviata that featured Natalie Dessay as Violetta. This must have been an interesting time. Would you tell us a bit about working with Ms. Dessay in preparing this event?
FC - She is just the greatest actress/singer that I’ve worked with, together with Thomas Hampson and Ruggiero Raimondi. There is just too much to say, that would fill an entire interview.
OL - You've composed operas, including Wuthering Heights and Vampire Junction. What is your compositional style, or school?
FC - Again a vast question. I was atonal, now I write melodies, because they are the most difficult thing to create.
OL - Let's talk first about your well-known opera, Wuthering Heights, which has also been recorded. Your librettist for this opera was Paula Heil Fisher, who is also a filmmaker and Broadway producer. How did the idea for this opera come about? Did you approach her, or did she come to you?
FC - She gave me that idea and I wrote it in just 2 years, the 4 hours of music. I met her after a Tosca in Munich and Neil Shicoff introduced us. Since then, we wrote 3 operas together.
OL - The recording of Wuthering Heights which was released last year has a couple of opera's top young talents, Olga Peretyatko and Andrew Richards, as Cathy and Heathcliff. Are there any plans to bring this opera to Santa Fe?
FC - Certainly not. There has been a Wuthering Heights seventeen years ago by Carlisle Floyd. The SFO apprentices just performed a scene from Wuthering Heights, but that's all.
OL – There’s still a third opera with the same topic, the one by Bernard Hermann in 1951. Herrmann's Healthcliff is sung by a baritone, but you wrote the role for a tenor in your opera. How do you decide which voice type you will write a particular role for?
FC - To me, the tenor is the ultimate lover/romantic hero. The baritone is the guy who can never have the girl... Seriously, I was inspired by Neil Shicoff to write the role.
OL - Are there other novels or plays that you would like to use as the basis for an opera?
FC - Plenty of science-fiction novels. I want now to explore the future...
OL - What can you tell us about Vampire Junction?
FC - That it is not complete! But it is the best vampire novel ever written. And stolen from other colleagues....
OL - Are you currently working on a new opera?
FC - I am finishing Clarimonde, the story by Theophile Gauthier of a priest falling in love with a vampire! The libretto is by Paula Fisher.
OL - How was for you the experience of composing for the movie industry, when you did the Diva Dance for the sci-fi movie The Fifth Element?
FC - Frustrating because even though I got the credit at the end of the movie, I never had the chance to compose more than that, in that particular movie. But it was interesting because from that song, I got my idea of mixing classical and pop.
OL - The Arena di Verona staged its first opera almost a century ago, and since then, open-air opera performances have become popular, like the Bregenz festival. And Santa Fe's productions are performed in this beautiful outdoor setting. What are the particular challenges you face in conducting an open-air performance?
FC - The differences of moisture and dryness are dramatic. The altitude is a problem for some singers. The noise coming from the highway, the cold drafts and rain that shower us from time to time are other challenges.
OL - You admire both of Berg's operas, but have likened them to a "dead end" for the atonal or 12-tone style of writing operas. You've said that any contemporary operas written in this style are likely to draw only a limited audience and will be infrequently performed. So who are the current opera composers whose works you think will appeal to a broader audience and will have a chance of becoming part of the mainstream repertoire?
FC - Adam, Picker, and Glass. [Editor’s note – Tobias Picker’s first opera Emmeline had its world premiere in Santa Fe and has been released by Albany Records. Others include Fantastic Mr. Fox, Thérèse Raquin, An America Tragedy, and in 2012 San Francisco Opera will premiere Dolores Clairborne].
Thank you Maestro Chaslin for your interesting answers, and we regret the fact that you'll be leaving Santa Fe Opera. We wish you the best of lucks in your next endeavors.
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