Don Quichotte is based on a Spanish book, but it’s a French opera. Do these characters reflect French culture at all?
I think Don Quixote encompasses all sorts of culture. Don Quixote is the culture of dreams. If your dreams are alive, desire is alive. Yes, the story takes place in Spain, but it could be someplace else, what’s important is this character, who’s able to transform others through his belief of what those people could be. The message is totally international, for me. The funny thing about Don Quixote is he’s the most international, global character in literature. Worldwide, this may be the most important novel. People keep on reading it, quoting it.
But writing this music, Massenet was in fact a Frenchman putting down his impressions of Spain.
Yes, and it’s definitely a French sound, just like in Carmen. You know, Bizet never went to Spain but, the music of Carmen sounds Spanish. You wonder where they got the inspiration, where they heard it, because there was no radio, no tv, no records, but occasionally Spanish musicians turned up in Paris, where these composers lived. They had very little information to work with.
Keep in mind, too, Massenet was a god when he wrote this opera, for Monte Carlo in 1910. And it’s such surprising music: it changes every second, it’s impossible to predict what he’s going to do next. And it’s short, very concise.
Is Don Quichotte crazy, or do you understand his actions?
A man who starts thinking his own thoughts, fighting against the--how do you say...the mensonge, lies, who puts integrity at the center of his life, will very quickly be marginalized. And when you spend a lot of time alone, you may turn a little nutty, or maybe a bit depressed. Certainly he is a nostalgic man. What makes Don Quichotte a great character is, at the end of his life, he’s now 50, old for that time, he gets up and says “Now I’m going to do what is right for the world.” It’s an extraordinary message, it’s so modern: don’t get frustrated about your state, one day you can wake up. It’s what we’re seeing in so many countries in Africa and the Mideast, all these awakenings. That’s what he does, Don Quixote awakens, he decides he will make good in the world, provide his energy, his dreams, to the people around him.
In French opera, the text is extremely important. As a native French speaker, do you think it’s challenging for non-native French speakers to get the style right?
Well, I’m French, but I’ve sung Bluebeard’s Castle, in Hungarian, or Janáček operas, in Czech; that’s just as complicated as an English singer learning to sing in Russian, or whatever. Some languages are a bit easier to sing...Italian is a very lyrical language, as is Russian, but French is not always an easy language to sing. We have many vowels that are closed, which makes the language more difficult than some. Even French singers struggle with it. I find it easy to sing in English because it is quite frontal. Also, the dipthong helps you; I use that, technically, to mellow ceratin sounds. Anything but French! When I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music, in London, I only sang a few French songs. My teacher would sometimes tell me, “You must open the vowel or else your sound won’t come out properly and you’ll ruin the line.” So yes, for a lot of French singers it’s a battle to sing their own language. It’s interesting to hear foreign singers sing in French. John Relyea, who’s Canadian, has very good French.
Do you think Dulcinée is making a mistake by saying no to Don Quichotte, or does she have good reasons to turn him down?
Ah, very romantic question! I think Don Quixote is a passeur, he passes on the flame to other people. To Dulcinée he says, “That’s how beautiful you are.” It’s what Gandhi did to his people, Gandhi had the faith, using nothing, and nonviolence, to bring faith to millions of people: stand up for what you are, you are free. That’s what Don Quixote wants people to be: free. Dulcinée, you know, is full of scarcasm and boredom, and being like that you can’t be happy. And he comes along and says, “You are the most beautiful.” Everybody wants somebody to come and look in their eyes and say, “You are the most beautiful." But she asks him to stay with them, and he is beyond that; his work is done. It’s like a relay race: he passes his thoughts to a few people, like the bandits. He could have been moralistic to them, you know, to tell the bandits, “Don’t steal!” Instead he says to them, “Bandits, you have courage, you stand for what you believe. I understand, you don’t yield to the pressure of being under a dictator, and I respect that, as a free man myself."
Much of your career has been back in France. What are some of the differences are between the French opera scene and the rest of the opera world?
I can speak from the English point of view, since I spent 12 years in England, six years at the Royal Academy of Music. In France, when you finish your studies you go straight from student life into professional life, and sometimes it happens a little bit too quickly. We don’t have all the choral societies, like they have in England, who will give young singers work, a few bucks for singing a Mozart Requiem, that kind of thing to get experience, which--no matter what level it’s at--is what you’re craving as a student. In France, as soon as you’re a professional they’re expecting the utmost of you.
You’ve been in Seattle once before, in 2009. What do you look forward to doing here now that you’re back in town?
Honestly, I haven’t been feeling well, there’s been a fair amount of illness in our cast. So mostly we’re concentrating on getting healthy! But if it’s not too wet, I’d like to go back to the Olympic Peninusula, to go into the rain forest and not just see rain.