Thanks so much, Asher, for the wonderful readings of Turandot and Fidelio you’ve given Seattle Opera. What do you take away from this experience, from doing these two shows back-to-back?
Turandot is a great opera. It’s very well-written, and it’s amazing to conduct, because it’s so much fun and you can have so much control. But you can’t compare it with Fidelio, where I feel like I’m part of history with every bar. It’s such a joy to be able to run a smooth Fidelio performance, I can’t tell you. For Turandot, I know it’s a hit with the audience, and that’s wonderful. But I think many people can conduct Turandot very well. If you’re a good opera conductor, and you know how to maneuver things and how to deal with a big chorus, you can do a very good Turandot. But I think fewer people can conduct a good Fidelio. It is such a tricky piece. I’m happy we dealt with it the way we did, switching the overture, and with our great cast. So I’m happier with my achievement in Fidelio.
When did you start doing Fidelio? Did you hear this opera growing up as a kid in Israel?
No. I learned it when I assisted Barenboim in Berlin. He did a new production, and to work with him on this piece was amazing, because he’s such a Beethoven-man. But there were problems with the casting, and I learned then that in order to do a good Fidelio you really need singers who can maneuver in music that is really very unfriendly to the voice. That was my first, and then I was privileged to conduct it in Vienna. You don’t usually get much chance to rehearse there, but it’s amazing. The orchestra just takes off by themselves, whatever you do. When you get to “Leonore #3,” before the final scene, as a conductor you just stand there and enjoy the music. They play Fidelio as though they’d composed it.
There it really is part of history. Here it’s a different experience, with people who aren’t as familiar with the opera—
Completely. Here you can really shape it the way you want it. You might be able to do that in Vienna if you do a new production. But I don’t think I would want to do that...you might just spend your time fighting with the orchestra!
(Chris Gonz, photo)
Speaking of orchestras, I just saw a late-breaking news item about you: while you’re here on the West Coast, after conducting Fidelio for us you’ll also be making your debut with the San Francisco Symphony conducting their upcoming concert.
Yes, there was a cancellation, and luckily it worked out perfectly with our Fidelio schedule here. So much so that it seemed it was meant to be. The concert has the Prelude to Lohengrin, Mozart Piano Concerto #22 in E flat major, with David Fray playing the solo, and Brahms’ 4th. Repertory right up my alley, and stuff the orchestra already knows, so it should be good.
Prelude to Lohengrin, hmmm...they’re doing Lohengrin right next door, at San Francisco Opera, starring a former Young Artist from our Seattle Opera program, the great Brandon Jovanovich.
Yes, in fact I asked about that, and apparently they always coordinate with the opera if they’re doing a concert performance of an entire opera, so that both companies aren’t offering the same title the same season. But as it happens now, people can compare how we do the Prelude!
Your Lohengrin Prelude and that of Maestro Luisotti, who’s conducting the Lohengrin. Good. Speaking of comparing performances, I saw that you’re going to conduct Parsifal for the Met next spring. Has your reading of that opera changed since you made your Seattle Opera debut with it 10 years ago?
Yes, actually I’ve managed to prolong the first act two more minutes! [laughs] This sounds ridiculous. I never time my performances, but I do time my first act of Parsifal, because this famously slow piece is an exercise in yoga, in self-control. It’s about knowing how to pace something...to feel the variations in tempo, and not to be afraid of stretching it out. But not going too far.
Are you aiming for a certain range?
Yes. At the world premiere in Bayreuth in 1883, with Hermann Levi conducting, the first act was one hour forty-six minutes.
Karajan holds this tempo, Barenboim holds this tempo. For years, I could get to 1:42, 1:43. Now the range, mind you, varies between Pierre Boulez or Vittorio Gui, who are one hour thirty minutes, and James Levine or Christoph Eschenbach or now Daniele Gatti, who are over two hours for the first act. It all sounds slow...but look, that’s a half-hour difference, or 25% over two hours. I want to get to 1:45 or 1:46, maintaining the tension. It’s very difficult. With the second act, it doesn’t matter, but with the first act, the goal is to hear the difference between slower, slowest, and ridiculously slow.
That’s so interesting. You’re right, that first act puts you in this otherworldy head-space. Is that question of self-discipline, of yoga true if you play just the Parsifal Prelude in a concert?
No, that’s not a problem. Let me give you an example: after the Grail scene is finished, there’s still a lot of music. Everybody, including me and the audience, is wanting to get on with it.
[Hums march of the grail knights exiting the temple]
Again we are starting with this march! To take this slow is really hard—your dramatic feeling says, “Go for it! Close it up, we’re out of here. Let’s have the Voice from Heaven and finish the act!” The thing that has changed for me—I think for the better—is that now I don’t go with my instinct of rushing the music. But on the other hand, you have to keep it under a certain limit so it doesn’t become slow for slowness’ sake. That’s what I feel with people who do it over two hours—I think they say, “It has to be slow, that’s a tradition.” Wagner was not so slow. This came later, with Cosima in Bayreuth. We have quotations from Wagner about Das Rheingold, screaming at singers in rehearsal, he said it was supposed to be two hours long! “If you were not schlepping the tempo the whole time we would have it done in two hours!” And today Rheingold is normally about two and a half hours. Or 2:45, something ridiculous like that.
And Hermann Levi, who conducted the first Parsifal at 1:46, as you point out, he would have done whatever Wagner wanted.
Levi was a great conductor, and he probably had a lot of input in the shaping of it, but Wagner was the strictest of all composers in regard to the execution of his music.
(Alan Alabastro, photo)
Speaking of Wagner, tell us what you’re most looking forward to about being here next summer? Or does anything makes you nervous about it?
No, by now I know the Seattle Opera orchestra can play the heck out of the Ring even without any rehearsals! We have such an understanding by now, I have no worries. Excitement? Yes, of course, to do the Ring again! This will be only my second complete cycle.
You conducted the first Ring cycle done in Australia, a few years ago, which was made into a wonderful recording...
Yes, and I’ve done operas from the Ring here and there, but for a conductor and a Wagnerian, leading a complete cycle is the pinnacle. For me the most exciting thing about the Ring is not to have to do the same piece for four weeks, because that kills me. Last year I did 11 Merry Widows in Paris, and I almost went berserk. When I lived in Vienna, I did a different opera every night. I love repertory theater, which is what the Ring is like.
Asher Fisch in a Seattle Opera video
Changing the subject a bit, some of the videos you’ve done for us have been some of the most successful we’ve had on our website. Tell us about your experience as a journalist and educator.
When I was in the army in Israel, instead of fighting in Lebanon I wanted to be doing music. I thought, I’ll be a music editor with the army radio. But I knew so much about current affairs they made me a reporter, and for four years I was a radio journalist. I interviewed Sadat when he came to Israel in ’77, I had a lot of interesting experiences there. So I learned to speak—in Hebrew, of course—and I love to teach, I love teaching conducting and coaching singers and explaining music. We have to do it. It’s important, for the future of classical music. It’s so much stronger when the performer speaks about the music, more so than an educator or musicologist. If I had my choice, I would speak to the audience in every symphonic concert that I do. Because then people listen in a completely different way. Even if you only speak for one minute, or point out one little thing, you give them a point of reference.