• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Maestro Leon Botstein

    Luiz Gazzola is traveling to Annandale-on-Hudson, New York State, to attend the prestigious Bard SummerScape festival, held at the architecturally and acoustically spectacular Richard B. Fischer Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College (designed by Frank Gehry), for their new production of Emmanuel Chabrier's opéra-comique Le Roi Malgré Lui (The King in Spite of Himself). In a follow-up to our very interesting interview with stage director Thaddeus Strassberger (read it by clicking HERE), this time we have interviewed Maestro Leon Botstein, who will be conducting the opera with the American Symphony Orchestra for the Bard. [Opera Lively interview # 45]

    Leon Botstein has been music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra since 1992, and is conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, where he served as music director from 2003–11. He is also the founder and artistic codirector of the SummerScape Festival and the Bard Music Festival, now in its 23rd year. He has been president of Bard College in New York since 1975.

    Botstein maintains an active schedule as a guest conductor throughout the world. Recent engagements include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Hawaii Symphony, and Taipei Symphony, among others. He may also be heard on numerous recordings, including operas by Strauss, Dukas, and Chausson, as well as works of Shostakovich, Dohnányi, Liszt, Bruckner, Bartók, Hartmann, Reger, Glière, Szymanowski, Brahms, Copland, Sessions, Perle, and Rands. Many live recordings with the American Symphony Orchestra are now available for download on the Internet.

    He is the editor of The Musical Quarterly and the author of numerous articles and books. In 2011 he gave the prestigious Tanner Lectures in Berkeley, California. For his contributions to music he has received the award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Harvard University’s prestigious Centennial Award, as well as the Cross of Honor, First Class, from the government of Austria. He is a 2009 recipient of the Carnegie Foundation’s Academic Leadership Award, and is a member of the American Philosophical Society.

    The American Symphony Orchestra was founded 50 years ago by Leopold Stokowski, with the specific intention of making orchestral music accessible and affordable for everyone. Under music director Leon Botstein, the ASO has kept Stokowski's mission intact, and has also become a pioneer in what the Wall Street Journal called "a new concept in orchestras," presenting concerts curated around various themes drawn from the visual arts, literature, politics, and history, and unearthing rarely performed masterworks for revival. These concerts are performed in the Vanguard Series at Carnegie Hall.

    In addition, the orchestra performs in the celebrated concert series Classics Declassified at Peter Norton Symphony Space, and is the resident orchestra of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, where it appears in a winter subscription series as well as in Bard's annual SummerScape Festival and Bard Music Festival. In 2010, the American Symphony became the resident orchestra of The Collegiate Chorale, performing regularly in the Chorale's New York concert series. The orchestra has made several tours of Asia and Europe, and has performed in countless benefits for organizations including the Jerusalem Foundation and the PBS. ASO's award-winning music education program, Music Notes, integrates symphonic music into core humanities classes in high schools across the Tristate area.

    As part of the Carnegie Hall series, the ASO strives to present as many US and New York premieres as it can program each season. No other orchestra in New York offers such extensive exposure to works of historical significance. In the context of the ASO’s thematic concerts, such rare and under-performed works have attracted deserved attention, earning audience approval as well as fresh performances by orchestras and opera companies around the world. The ASO’s premiere of Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue during the 1998-1999 season resulted in the opera’s staging by New York City Opera in 2005, and then its recording by the BBC Symphony. Similarly, the revivals of Strauss’ Die ägyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danäe on the stage of American opera houses were influenced by the initial championing of the American Symphony Orchestra during its 1998 and 2000 seasons.

    The ASO’s performance of Gavriil Popov’s Symphony No. 1 during its 2002-2003 season led to a recording by the London Symphony that received a Grammy nomination. The Bern Symphony has performed the violin concerto of Switzerland’s Paul Kletzki, whose works were thought destroyed by the Nazis until the ASO resurrected his concerto. While some rare works are available with complete parts and a score in useable condition, others required extensive restoration and even creation to render them performable. No orchestral parts existed for Johann Strauss Sr.’s Four Temperaments Waltz, for example; the ASO’s extensive efforts to create these parts mean that the work is now available for performance by other orchestras.

    In addition to many albums released on the Telarc, New World, Bridge, Koch, and Vanguard labels, many live performances by the American Symphony are now available for digital download. In many cases, these are the only existing recordings of some of the rare works that have been rediscovered in ASO performances.



    Opera Lively - Dear Maestro, thank you very much for doing this, we're honored with your attention. Please tell us more about Chabrier, the composer. He is remembered for his great command of orchestration and interesting harmonies. He did not shy away from using dissonance, and his compositions are varied and lively. He had his own style and was an innovator. Do you agree with this assessment? What would you add to it?

    Leon Botstein - Everything you said is right. The most interesting thing is that he integrated a very sophisticated and original Wagnerian view of chromatic harmony into a light French style. So in one hand he was deeply influenced by Wagner, as his Gwendoline makes clear, but his Wagnerianism was not as obvious as Chausson's, whose Le Roi Arthus in its orchestration and rhetoric is very French but very indebted to Wagner. Chabrier particularly in Le Roi Malgré Lui took the French light opera tradition, the opéra-comique tradition and the aesthetic of Bizet, and he integrated Wagnerian expression practices regarding harmony, and related them to the text, the way Wagner did. So, the text and the harmonic language reinforce each other. It's a very integrated attitude to text, action, and music.

    OL - Le Roi Malgré Lui has been kept in relative obscurity, in spite of the fact that scholars find it to be Chabrier’s masterpiece (well, we do love L’Etoile as well); it was his best received piece in his lifetime by the public of the time, and composers such as Ravel and Stravinsky wildly admired it. The structure of the piece indicates that Chabrier is in transition between opérette and opéra-comique. All the fun including the humoristic couplets by Fritelli, belong to the structure of an opérette, but Chabrier does get more serious and profoundly lyric in making of his piece a more substantial opéra-comique, for example in the duo between Alexina and Minka in Act III, which was described by Huebner as "one of the most beautiful numbers in fin-de-siècle French opera." Its flowing lyricism is extraordinary. How would you describe some of the musical strengths of this opera’s score?

    LB - Le Roi has the strengths of grandeur, intimacy, humor, lightness, and musical imagination - tunes that stick. So it has all the crucial elements of great opera. It is definitely striking in its range. Although it's a comedy, there are fantastic, almost Meyerbeer-like theatrical moments of drama. And there are beautiful intimate moments like the Barcarolle [Editor's note - the Barcarolle duo between Alexina and Henri "Ô Venise la blonde! Ciel pur, joyeux printemps!" ], the solo aria for the King himself, so it has a full range that we don't associate with a comedy, necessarily.

    It is really his masterpiece - the most versatile, the most wide-ranging. It has fantastic, fantastic melodies! Now, the reason why it has lingered in obscurity is because on the surface the plot seems very confused and confusing. The libretto was written by three people - the two people who are credited, and then by Chabrier himself! He tinkered with it himself. So not only Najac and Burani, but Chabrier himself. The libretto was originally produced in the Opéra-Comique way with a lot of dialogue, like Carmen, for example. So the attempts to revive it have always shied away from the dialogue. And the moment you take away the dialogue, the story ceases to make sense.

    But the story is very, very simple. It is a historical story, it is not made up. The core of the story comes not out of myth or somebody's sense of humor, but it is a real historical venture - the later Henri the Third, Henri de Valois, becomes King at the end of the Jagiellon dynasty - the first elected King of Poland. He only spends six months as King of Poland, because his brother dies and he becomes King of France.

    But his ambivalence about going to Poland is clearly because going there was something that seemed from his point of view relatively bizarre, although there was historically later in the 18th century and the 19th century a very strong Polish-French connection, because the French became immensely sympathetic to Polish aspirations for independence after the dismemberment of Poland in the 18th Century. So the French liberals became big patrons of the Polish cause. Rousseau wrote the constitution for Poland; Napoleon I was considered a hero in Poland because he created the Grand Duchy of Warsaw; so the association of the French pre and post revolution with the liberation of Poland becomes an important part of the French sensibility. The connection is only cemented by the career of Chopin as an émigré in Paris, and the myth of it was built around that.

    So when Chabrier was writing in the 1880's, the fate of Poland as a suppressed nation was a popular cause, and it even goes into the 20th century when the Poles were invaded by the Nazis. In the Polish imagination, their fiercest allies would be the French.

    But still, for a 16th century Parisian to go to Cracow could as well be like sending someone to the moon, from a French perspective. So it was great for comedy! What makes Le Roi Malgré Lui very interesting is that underneath the humor there is a very serious issue, especially relevant today - which is, what does European unity mean? As the European Union struggles to hold itself together, it's a very relevant question about what the conceit is of its various constituent nations. And of course it has a sort of spoof on the monarchy also. So there is a sort of vague but perceptible political undercurrent in the opera.

    It is interesting that Chabrier himself studied with Alexander Tarnowsky [composer and violinist] who was Polish-born.

    OL - There are frequent references (quotes) to other composers in this piece, and funny parodies. Examples include Fritelli's parodically doleful mazurka in Act I ("Le Polonais est triste et grave"); references to Berlioz's Marche Hongroise in Alexina's outbursts in Act III; references to the overture to Tristan and Isolde; the 'Ensemble de la conjuration' was compared by contemporary critics to the 'Bénédiction des poignards' in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots; and Fritelli’s Act 3 couplets end each verse with a quote from the Hungarian March from Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust. The "Fête Polonaise" has been compared to Berlioz's "Roman Carnival" in Benvenuto Cellini. On the other hand, not only this piece quotes others, but it was also quoted by others. Satie and Debussy, for instance, have composed pieces based on the opera's Prélude. Ravel's choreographic poem La Valse has been said to have been inspired by the "Fête Polonaise." How do you place Le Roi Malgré Lui in the history of opera? Do you consider it historically important?

    LB - Well, it is definitely important because of the interest that, as you've mentioned, Satie, Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel had in it. It's more important in the history of music composition. It has more of an influence in the character of French modernism after Debussy. Whereas in operatic practice, now, its quotation is also a very subtle reference to Meistersinger as well. You can find quotations. I'm not sure the quotations were done just for the sake of quotations. It has a freshness that doesn't make it sound like a pastiche of quotes from other people.

    What is ironic about its impact - for example the big waltz sequence in the opening of act two that is definitely connected to La Valse - is that it is hard for me to believe that Richard Strauss was nowhere near it when he was writing Der Rosenkavalier. So I think it has had some influence. Strauss conducted the first staged performance of Briséis [Editor's note: Chabrier's incomplete opera, very Wagnerian, subsequently completed by others]. I think its greatest influence was actually ironic, because it is against the Wagnerian, in terms of the experience of the dramatic stage. You know, Cosima Wagner went to see it - Wagner was dead, since Chabrier composed it after Wagner's death - but she went to see it and...

    OL - Hated it, yes.

    LB - ... she thought it was complete junk! Because its effect, the impression it makes, is extremely light, extremely graceful, humorous, and accessible, and light, in a way that Wagner just isn't.

    OL - I see. You have conducted this piece before, in 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall. Patricia Petibon was Minka. We find Ms. Petibon to be a very interesting singer, given her great stage presence and acting abilities. Do you have any memories from this performance and from working with her, to share with our readers?

    LB - Oh, yes! She is an electric performer! Electric!! There are very few of us who were there who still don't remember it. First of all she looks so striking, and she commands the stage, and she is really a fantastic artist. She was born for the role. But our Minka in this performance is fabulous; Andriana Chuchman is a terrific Canadian singer.

    You hate to put on operas that are fit for only one role - one person - you know, the opera is only successful if X sings it. I'm very reluctant to do operas that are dependent on having just one person sing them. So this is a showpiece for any virtuosic soprano, the kind that would sing the Queen of the Night.

    OL - Someone with agile coloratura.

    LB - Yes, lyrical coloratura, if you will, with a lightness. The Queen of the Night has a heavier quality to it. But it is a wonderful role, particularly for a young soprano. And it requires acting, and our Minka is terrific!

    OL - This production at the Bard will be with Chabrier’s original score, first version; not with Carré’s version that has been staged elsewhere. Would you educate us about the differences?

    LB - I've never looked at the Carré, I've never looked at it. So, I never had any interest in it. I'm relatively allergic to other people reworking things. So I never made a close comparison of the two. What is important about the 1887 version is that it calls for dialogue which we do have. Now, we've shortened the dialogue because it doesn't need to be quite as long as the original. So the dialogue is streamlined but it is there.

    OL - Staging this opera at the Bard, was it your idea?

    LB - Yes.

    OL - Why did you pick it?

    LB - Because every summer we focus on a composer and his world. This year the focus of the Summer Festival is Camille Saint-Saëns, and so we decided on a 19th century French opera. So we narrowed down the choices; it came down to three. We always want an opera that is not spoken for. This year we are in a joint production with Wexford. So, we wanted to do something that we could find a co-producer for, and that was also unjustly, rarely given. So it came down to three. The other two were, first, Henry VIII of Saint-Saëns, which we felt would make a better impression initially in a semi-staged concert version, which we are doing. And the second one was the Chausson, Le Roi Arthus, which I very much believe in as a staged opera, but my colleagues thought that of the two Le Roi Malgré Lui had a better chance at being picked up by other opera companies, largely because Le Roi Arthus is probably harder to cast. Lancelot is a hard role to cast. The closing of Le Roi Arthus is a very complex choral ending. And the feeling was that it is so dependent on a first rate chorus that it was less practical as an opera to be staged, whereas Le Roi Malgré Lui is completely a natural for the stage.

    OL - How are the acoustics at the Richard B. Fisher Performance Arts Center? It’s a relatively small house. Were there any problems in getting this staging going?

    LB - Oh, no, no. We had nine operas there, it is an ideal opera house - about 900 seats, fabulous acoustics, great for the singers, it's a terrific hall.

    OL - We on Opera Lively are particularly fond of Thaddeus Strassberger and Liam Bonner, given that they are part of the group of our former interviewees. Can you please tell us a little about your experiences while working with Thaddeus and Liam?

    LB - Thaddeus is a brilliant, original, and highly thoughtful director. He's a pleasure to work with. This is my third project with him. Next year we are working together again. We are doing Oresteia by Sergei Taneyev, based on Aeschylus. Our subject is Stravinsky, who thought very well of Taneyev, so we were looking for a Russian opera with a fabulous score that is not in the public view, and we settled on Oresteia. It will be a sensation, and Thaddeus is going to direct it. So this will be my fourth project with him. He has a tremendous visual and dramatic sensibility. He can make something that seems not stageable, stageable. And I trust him with the seriousness of the task. He is never arbitrary.

    And Liam Bonner is just a terrific singer with a tremendous theatrical gift. Beautiful voice, powerful, and excellent actor.

    OL - Good! We agree! So let's shift gears from this production, and talk a little bit about the American Symphony Orchestra. It’s been trying to focus on neglected repertoire, and it doesn’t shy away from coming up with a fair number of US and New York State premieres. What do you want to accomplish with the orchestra? Are you happy with how things are going?

    LB - Oh, I'm very proud of the orchestra. What I want to accomplish is to rescue the history of music. What is happening in classical music is the erosion of historical memory, and the disappearance of the larger part of the historical repertoire, especially in its larger part - symphonic, and operatic. So we are left with a very vibrant new music scene, restricted to chamber music and small ensembles and crossovers, and occasionally new opera, which, you know, depends on lavish resources - and a complete erosion of the historical repertoire for opera and orchestra.

    And that will bring nothing but disaster to the tradition of operatic performance and symphonic performance. You cannot sustain 52-week seasons and 35-week opera seasons with Tosca, Bohème, Traviata, Giovanni... It just doesn't work. You can't do nine symphonies of Mahler over and over and over again. And the nine symphonies of Beethoven. And a few Mozarts, a few Haydns, a few Dvoraks, it just doesn't work! Nobody wants to hear this stuff over and over again, really. We can no longer survive performing them, artistically. You're neglecting it - why do Tchaikovsky's 4th, 5th, and 6th, right? There is Glazunov, there is an endless number of symphonic music, there is Josef Suk, there is Carl Nielsen, obviously; in the 20th century there is Karl Amadeus Hartmann; there is a tremendous amount of American repertory in the 20th century; European repertory... we have just talked about three or four French operas. There is also Le Roi d'Ys... We did a lot of rare operas at the American Symphony Orchestra, we did The Wreckers, we did Franz Schmidt's Notre Dame...

    OL - You did Ariane et Barbe-Bleue...

    LB - That was at least done by the New York City Opera. I mean, there is an incredible repertoire that is being simply neglected. So our task is to fight for the viability of repertoire beyond the very standard, narrow repertory.

    OL - One might say that the ASO is politically engaged (e.g., from its choice of repertory and its “thematic programming.”). Any comments?

    LB - Yes, that's totally right. We are fighting an erosion of memory in our culture. If you believe that if you can find a reference in Wikipedia or you can find a rare recording on YouTube, a piece is spoken for, that's not true! Music only comes alive on the stage, in live performances.

    OL - Yes! Has the ASO been engaged in outreach efforts?

    LB - We have a collaboration between the Los Angeles Philharmonic and one of our schools in Boston, the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Boston. And that's an effort to adapt the success of El Sistema in Venezuela to the American context.

    OL - The ASO seems to be unusual in various regards (in a positive sense - I'm an admirer). Is this in part due to your personality? Are you a person who enjoys being a bit aside from the mainstream?

    LB - I would like to change the mainstream. I don't particularly enjoy being away from the mainstream. I'm a Conductor Laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, I was music director there for eight years, and fought to widen the program there, in a radio orchestra... So I don't particularly relish being at the margins, you follow me? I'd like to influence the mainstream.

    OL - Interesting answer! Talking about your tenure at the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, we’ve been curious about the following issue: how is the acceptance of Wagner’s music progressing in Israel? Daniel Barenboim has been trying to work on this. What do you think of it?

    LB - I think it's only a matter of time, and that is when the last of the survivor generation dies out. I've written very extensively on this question. I believe that as a non-Israeli unlike Barenboim it was not my place to engage in what I viewed as an internal political matter. I believe as a historian and as a citizen, that the ban is both a bad idea, and also falsifies history. Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, but he died in 1883. And the murder of six million Jews in Europe has nothing whatsoever to do with Wagner.

    To simplify the causal relationship - how so many innocent people could be murdered - by pitching to a younger generation that somehow this music was responsible, or this man was responsible, is so to displace the real ethical responsibility, as to be intolerable.

    It's lying to the public. It's doing to the survivors - I am myself descendent from survivors - a disservice, because it is impossible to tolerate this amount of deceit. There's no doubt that Wagner is part of the fabric of anti-Semitism that needs to be explored. But if we eliminated every anti-Semite from the concert repertory we would be listening to nothing.

    Furthermore, the situation is completely hypocritical. They will do Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which was written to please the Nazis - he was a Nazi sympathizer! They will sell and buy Karajan recordings. I'm sure ex-Nazis conducted the Israel Philharmonic, you know, with a collaborator. And so it goes! It's completely inconsistent and it has become a kind of popular culture symbol. It eventually will die out, but its most egregious error is that it tells a false story about the Holocaust.

    OL - You are not only respected as a conductor, but also as a musicologist. We’ve been talking lately on Opera Lively about critical editions. Do you see a strong need for more critical editions in opera?

    LB - Well, there needs to be more critical editions. The greatest progress has been made on Verdi, where the performance practices in the editions and the nature of theatrical life make creating performing editions very important, and critical editions very important. A lot of progress has been made in Rossini as well.

    OL - Right, that's Dr. Philip Gossett.

    LB - Yes, Philip Gossett has done a fantastic job. He is a fantastic musicologist and he's done terrifically well. There is a good critical edition of Rienzi but there really isn't a good performing version. The critical editions in general are very important, assuming that the scholars are good. There are critical editions of Brahms, not opera, which I subscribe to, and I subscribe to the Mendelssohn critical editions. These are very, very useful. But in the end, the practical judgments - for example, I recently did the St. Paul of Mendelssohn, right? There are two critical editions. One I didn't use, because while there is a lot of interesting material in it, and interesting indications, the actual performing materials are unusual because they are impractical. You have to make decisions about bowing, you have to make decisions about variances in discrepancies, and you need to use your judgment.

    In order to be good critical editions, they have to be performable. Critical editions are very important from a scholarly point of view, but from a performing point of view, the text of music doesn't really tell you how to perform it. It's filled with hints and instructions. In Mahler, for example, there are many variants. He changed his mind a lot. As a performer, no critical edition will absolve you and get you out of the problem of having to make choices and decisions. Our string playing, for example, is a completely different technique when you do Le Roi Malgré Lui. One of the things you have to do is that you have to calibrate the orchestral sounds.

    For example, I think that the current performance practice of Wagner is impossible. It's much too thick, much too loud, much too heavy. And it's a function of the way we play and the instruments we use. Sometimes you have to change, because the players are different, and they are bowing and fingering, and their vibrato is different. Sometimes the fingerings that are put in by the composer *are* useful, and they give you expressive devices that are helpful. But sometimes they sound so antique, or sound bad, that you can't use them.

    OL - What do you think of HIP orchestras? [Historically Informed Performances]

    LB - They're very interesting, but many of them are creative history! (laughs) You have to be absolutely clear about what History can tell us, and what History cannot. History cannot tell us how it was played. That's creative archeology. It's like taking a fragment from a pot and then drawing the pot. It's very interesting, but is somebody absolutely right? No! Do we really know? No. For example, the main people believe that there was no vibrato use in the early nineteenth century - it's not true!!! Patently not true!!! But what it actually sounded like, what ensemble intonation was like, what sound quality was like; these are approximations.

    All the historically informed performances people are tremendously useful. But they are experiments. They are creative experiments. For those of us who make our career with modern instrumental techniques, we're learning from them what the variety of possibilities might be. But in the end musical communication is between a contemporary audience and a contemporary performer.

    So even if you could - which you can't - recreate what it sounded like, it wouldn't say what actually the impact was. Music is a form of communication. So, if you could recreate early Classical performance practices, it might look ridiculous or sound ridiculous, it wouldn't have the impact of moving somebody, or amusing somebody, or communicating loss or nostalgia...

    I'm always amused to listen to historical performance practices in modern halls, where the acoustics are profoundly different. So, there is a lot of factionalism, arrogance, "we know what it was really like." The achievements of people like William Christie are fantastic, but they are creative achievements of the modern imagination, they are not historical recreations.

    OL - I see. Back to opera, what about the Regietheater movement of reinterpretation?

    LB - I'm very skeptical. I think that in many cases it's gone much too far. The question is, does it respect the music? Does it trust the music? Does it essentially trust the integrity of the argument? So, the reinterpretation of Wagner and modernizations of Fidelio are to me completely unnecessary, gratuitous, and actually getting in the way of the music and ruining the piece. Because the opera audience unfortunately tends to be only interested in the visuals, essentially in the supertitles, in the dramatic, and maybe in the vocal virtuosity. Making a truly integrated musical performance is still very hard in opera.

    How many more questions do you have?

    OL - That's it, actually.

    LB - OK!

    OL - I understand you are a busy man, and we need to keep it at a certain length, because when we go for too long an interview, it's hard on the readers.

    LB - I agree, I agree.

    OL - These days people have short attention spans... (laughs)

    LB - (laughs) Yes, but they sit through Wagner for six hours!

    OL - Right! (laughs) But I think we got the ideal length, 40 minutes.

    LB - I'm very glad. I appreciate it very much. You know, the only reason Wagner exists today is that they can read the supertitles.

    OL - Right (laughs). So, I'll attend the opening night, and I hope I can meet you in person.

    LB - Oh yes, come backstage!

    OL - I will!

    LB - Glad to meet you!

    OL - Thank you very much, and have a nice day, sir!

    LB - You too, bye.


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    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Very clear views....

      I tend to agree with the need to widen the repertoire, the Wagne'sr performances (or non-performances) in Israel, and the true significance of HIP.

      Taneyev's Oresteia sounds like an interesting project.

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