Friday, October 18, 2013

Meet Our Artists: YVES ABEL, Conductor

Maestro Yves Abel conducted his first Seattle Opera production in 1996, when he was just starting out. He remembers those days—and looks forward to conducting two fantastic operas in French this season for Seattle Opera, La fille du régiment and Les contes d’Hoffmann.

Why should people come to hear Daughter of the Regiment?
It was one of the greatest hits of its day, because its music is of such high quality. And there’s a beautiful story behind that music, concisely told, with all the contrast of farcical nonsense on the one side and great, deep human feelings on the other. I think that combination, wrapped up into this piece, with these memorable tunes and such a great cast, is well worth seeing!

Seattle Opera is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this season, and I looked it first worked here 17 years ago! What memories do you have about some of your ancient history with this company?

My very, very first important contract was in this house, in 1996, when Speight took a chance! There was this young guy, and people were saying, “Hey, he’s doing some good things in New York, try him out!” And what I was doing in New York was French opera...but Speight hired me for La Cenerentola. But I love that, because with that opera, for one side of it you need a young person’s energy and verve and excitement; but there’s another side of it, more serious and mature. I think I was more successful on the first side, in those days!

Have you conducted that opera since?
Yes, with Larry [Brownlee, Seattle Opera’s Tonio] in Pesaro, at the Rossini festival, with a largely Italian cast, and we had a great time. But thank God I’d been able to do it before! Our Seattle Cenerentola in ’96 went very well, we had a wonderful cast, and then Speight asked me to do something totally different: Vanessa, by Samuel Barber, which is an amazing opera.

By then you must have been getting used to Speight surprising you with his requests!
Well, he has this instinct. It has served him extremely well over the years. I’d never done Vanessa; in fact I’d done very little American opera. And I took it very seriously, studied the piece inside out, went out to Scotland to visit Gian Carlo Menotti in his castle. We talked about the libretto, and he shared all sorts of secrets, things that were ‘inside information’ between him and Sam, who were friends at the time. I got a wonderful bird’s-eye-view of the inside of the piece, and its compositional history, the premiere, etc., so I felt like I had prepared as well as I could before I arrived here.

And that was a new direction for you, at the time. Later, in Seattle, you did The End of the Affair, another new American work. Have you done lots of other contemporary work?
Yes, but mostly symphonic. Modern opera is now being done so rarely, it’s become a specialty of certain conductors. But I must say I love doing it. I loved doing both of those operas. And then, I also did Die Fledermaus in Seattle!

Right, which probably has more in common with Daughter of the Regiment than many of the shows you’ve conducted in Seattle!
Speight pointed out the other day, this is actually the first French opera he’s asked me to do!

Joyce Castle (Marquise of Berkenfield) in Daughter of the Regiment
Elise Bakketun, photo

And a colleague who was also in that Fledermaus is back: Joyce Castle, who played Orlofsky in ’99. Any other previous connections with this cast?
Just Larry and Joyce. But I’m very impressed with the caliber of the cast; the role of Marie is extremely difficult, and Sarah Coburn is doing a fabulous job with it. Not only has she found the Italian style behind the French style, but you need two sides to it: you need the pathos, and the farcical, energetic side, and she has them both! And Larry, of course...he’ll never miss any of those high Cs, I can guarantee that!

Sarah Coburn (Marie) and Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio) in Daughter of the Regiment
Elise Bakketun, photo

Tell us a little more about this curious situation with, what did you say, “Italian style behind the French style.”
All the composers of that period, everybody wanted to make it in Paris. Because Paris is where the bucks were. An Italian composer working for a Paris theater would make five times as much money as he would writing an opera for an Italian theater. So there was this rush of Italian composers, hurling themselves at Paris, hoping that somebody would grab their opera. That included Rossini, who wrote not only Le Comte Ory, but the most famous opera of that period, William Tell. And Donizetti, whose Fille du régiment became such an enormous hit. Because of these unbelievably catchy militaristic tunes, plus its completely Italian style—these slow, languid cavatinas—Italian style, but they’re sung in French. Donizetti did this, and a French version of Lucie de Lammermoor, and Les Martyres, a massive piece. And Verdi later wrote Don Carlos for Paris, and a version of Macbeth...and Trovatore, do you know he did this Le trouvère with an added ballet for Paris?

That’s amazing.
But getting back to Fille, this opera has these two sides: these French farcical strophic songs, and then these more signature Donizetti pieces, “Il faut partir,” for Marie in Act One, which is probably the equivalent of “Una furtiva lagrima,” you know, this gorgeous melting tune which could only be written by an Italian. She sings two arias in that style; in the second act her aria starts in that style and then breaks into “Salut à la France!”

I wonder if this situation, with Donizetti composing a French opera, is anything like Mozart writing operas both in his native tongue, German, and also in Italian.
Composers were so facile back then, so good at so many different styles. They were exposed to a lot of what was going on, and they were anxious, for the sake of a compositional challenge, in learning something new.

Yes, hopefully building on what they knew they could do well.
I suppose it’s like Oscar Wilde writing Salomé in French, or Beckett. Or Joseph Conrad or Nabokov, writing amazing novels in English, even though that’s not their first language.

We’re looking forward to hearing you lead Hoffmann later this season. What can you tell us about this production? What scenes, what acts, what music will we hear?
It’s not yet finalized. But we know which version we’re doing—we’re not doing the critical edition, which has way too much music, it goes on for hours and hours. We want to be concise, and to tell the story as well as we can, without holes but without making a Wagner-length evening out of it! We begin with what was a more traditional Hoffmann, the one that’s been done all over the world, but we’re adding little bits and pieces here and there to expand the role of the Muse/Nicklausse.

That will be the fantastic Kate Lindsey—one of her strongest roles. septet?
Well, we’re discussing that! I’m pushing for it, in fact...I think the music is fantastic, and it’s not SO long.

Oh, my! That may be new to Seattle. At least, in recent memory. Well, we’re greatly looking forward to hearing it!

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