Conductor  Emmanuel  Villaume

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


"Balance" seems to be the word that best describes conductor Emmanuel Villaume.  His current title is Music Director for Opera and Orchestra at the Spoletto Festival, USA, and that seems to fit his overall schedule of performances.  He divides his time - and has homes - in both Europe and New York, and manages to do not only the expected and unexpected French repertoire, he also lends his artistry to standard and unusual pieces from other countries around the globe. 

Now in the midst of a fine career, he has given Chicago quite a bit of time in various venues - The Chicago Symphony, the Civic Orchestra, the Grant Park Festival, and, of course, Lyric Opera of Chicago, where he'll return in the fall of 2008 for the production of Manon which opens the season. 

More biographical and schedule information as well as photos can be obtained at his official website,

I managed to snag him for a chat in April of 2006, and he was pleased to speak about many aspects of his career.  Again, the balance was what came through the entire discussion, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You do both opera and concert.  How do you divide your career between those two?

Emmanuel Villaume:  I try to really balance the two.  Right now things are more in favor of opera than symphonic in my schedule.  It's about two-third opera and one-third symphonic, but I still am pushing, as much as I can, for the symphonic career because I really believe in the balance between the two.  The qualities you need in the symphonic field have to do, mainly, with extreme precision and attention to details, which is merciless.

BD:  Precision performance details, or details of interpretation?

EV:  Both.  That's actually a good question, but mainly the details are in the performance itself.  That really means you want to have the most precise texture in the orchestra.  The rhythm must absolutely be impeccable throughout.  Sometimes, let's say, that standards of togetherness, intonation, colors, respect for layers of sound for very good orchestras are slightly higher than they would be in the operatic field.

BD:  Is there ever a time that you get it perfect?

EV:  There is some time where you think it might be perfect, then you listen to it and it's not perfect anymore.  But if you listen to it, that means you have killed the moment, so it cannot be perfect, because perfection is in the moment and most of the time you are not aware of it.  Sometimes you achieve perfection in opera even more than in the symphonic field in the sense that you can find a moment where there is grace and something absolutely miraculous in the room between the stage, the orchestra and the audience in a way that is so unexpected that is even more miraculous.

villaume BD:  I would think there's so much more that can go wrong in the opera house!

EV:  Exactly.  On the other hand, the qualities you need in an opera are, obviously, dramatic qualities - the ability to tell a story; the ability to take the audience from point A to point B and eventually lose them in the way and show them things they never expected to see or to hear.  When you use those dramatic qualities that you are essentially required to deliver in the opera field - otherwise you don't do your job - when you take them at the highest level in the opera, or in the symphonic field, these are extremely valuable.  After all, let's not forget that when Mozart was writing Haffner, or all of his symphonies, he was writing operas at the same time.  And sometimes, when we forget it's the same guy, there is a vision of those symphonies which is a little dead, which is a little lacking in humanity or drama!  Mahler, as we know, was conducting so many operas he knew the whole repertoire!  If you don't have that sense of drama, of tragedy, of feelings connected to a story when you conduct a Mahler symphony, I think you are missing one of the points of the symphony.  It's not the only point, but you are missing that.

BD:  But there are so many symphonies which are just "absolute music" with no real story, do you have to make one up as you go along?

EV:  I think it would be a big mistake.  But I would challenge you to give me a lot of those symphonies, actually.  You will see that very few are totally abstract.  They are always connected to tension and release.

BD:  I see, but there's no program to it...

EV:  [Interjects]  There is no program to it!  There is not necessarily a program to it.  There is not a program in any of the Mozart symphonies, but you can definitely relate to something which has to do with human feelings or with a sense of heroism!  Of course it's not connected to a specific story, or when it was connected to a specific story, let's say, Napoleon - I mean Bonaparte - then, when he didn't like the guy anymore, which is totally understandable, the program would change!

BD:  [Chuckles]  Sure!

EV:  That's very convenient.  But the same feeling of liberty, or of fighting the stupidity of the masses and being victorious is a very human feeling.  Sometimes it's crazy but still connected to humanity and to certain expressiveness.  The understanding of the pacing of emotion, then, not specifically a story, but a pacing of emotion that you need to have in opera, is extremely valuable in the symphonic field.  Having the knowledge of all the symphonic repertoire, and having practice of rehearsing these great masterpieces in a very, very, very demanding way can be, sometimes, very, very valuable if you are rehearsing a Butterfly with a company that has done it for years and years.

BD:  These things that you try to find in a symphonic work with no program, are these things that you find and communicate, or do you expect the audience to get them in their mind as they listen to the concert?

EV:  I think if you put things directly in the face of people and if you want them, at this moment to really have these very specific ideas, you are missing the point!  The work needs to be there for the people to understand it their own way with their own background and their own history.  So if you are in the way of the understanding of the piece, you're really not doing your job!  There is a fine line there that you have to walk or to dance.

BD:  So you have to put in what you can and then get out of the way.

EV:  Exactly.  Or you have to put in what you can in a way that is going to try to reach within yourself what is the most universal that people can relate to, which is difficult because sometimes you go to very specific emotions.  If you do the Sixth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, for instance, it's all about destruction, aggressivity, darkness, death.  Actually it's not all about this, it's all about what we do with this.  But in order to have this on the table, or on the podium, or on the stage, you need to go within yourself, at a certain point, and try to connect to those emotions or to those feelings or to those scenes.  If you do it in a way that is going to be too specifically personal, maybe the entire audience, or a big part of the audience is not going to understand this.  In my opinion, if you don't, at least at one point in the process of the conducting, connect to these emotions, I think you are missing a big part of what you are supposed to do in this context.

BD:  So if you make the connection with the orchestra, you assume, then, that the music will make a connection with the audience?

EV:  Eventually, if the audience is ready for it, it's going to happen.  And most of the time it happens.  You know, it's very easy to fall into clichés when you talk about these things, but you really feel when you are on.  When you all of a sudden know you're rolling, there is something happening and the people are with you.  Usually you have a silence in house.  You know what's going on.

BD:  So you feel them behind you.

EV:  You do feel them behind you.  Then, the next morning you might get reactions which are totally the opposite to what you thought you were feeling.  The great thing in being in a city that has more than two papers is that you can see one reviewer saying it was too excited, and another saying it was too slow and boring and not excited enough.

BD:  I've often wondered if the reviewers were sitting in the same hall.

EV:  [Without hesitation]  And probably they were not!  [Both laugh]  But I think it's not only about emotions.  I really think music is also about pure texture, form, structure developing itself within a certain time frame.  It's playing with the time and the sound as pure time and pure sound, and not necessarily as a psychological, or human component.  But in most of our music you have this, too.  I really believe that any actor who would pretend to go onstage and just give us words and not any kind of meaning would miss what he is there for.  The comparison between drama and music is actually, in a way, going to fail, because these are two universes that can never totally do entire justice to the other one, or totally explain what the other one is about.  But sometimes musicians can get lazy with what they are supposed to do, and part of what they are supposed to do is deal with that. 

BD:  So it's your job to keep them awake?

EV:  I think it's our job, as conductors, to keep the piece alive, and to keep the piece alive you need to keep the orchestra - and the audience - awake.  Some people don't like to be awake, eh?  [Both chuckle]  It can be disturbing or troubling.

BD:  Well, what do expect from the audience?

EV:  [Thinks for a moment]  Silence.  [Laughs]  That's one thing.  I don't know, I never thought about this, because all musicians, performers, we are slightly paranoid.  "What do they think?  What do they expect of me?"  I never thought of the question in this way.  I think what you expect is for them to forget about the preconceptions they might have about a piece, forget about maybe even old recordings they have heard of the one piece they are going to hear tonight, and just be open and be honest in their listening.

villaume BD:  Does this, then, make it a little easier for you when you conduct unusual repertoire or new repertoire?

EV:  Of course it makes it easier.  Go conduct a Beethoven Fifth with any major orchestra in a major city.  Come on, it's a lose-lose situation!  Go conduct Traviata at La Scala in Milano - it's a sure failure!  In a way you can make your point maybe more easily if it's a piece that is less known than the big repertoire.

BD:  I've often wished that we could take the fifty most-played works in the opera house and the concert hall, and pack them away for ten years and never play them.

EV:  Yes!

BD:  Then we could come back to them more fresh!

EV:  Yes, that's true.  That's true.  But, you know, I have lived with Carmen all my life since childhood, and at the end of every run of the opera I say, "Never again," and all of a sudden I find myself rehearsing Carmen and having a lot of fun and enjoying myself tremendously!  Because these are masterpieces, you always find something new in those pieces.

BD:  Especially in the opera, where you're dealing with one long production over many nights, how do you decide, "Yes, I will accept this contract or no, I'll turn this opera aside"?

EV:  It's difficult, and I might get in trouble for saying this, but it's the difficult balance between what you are looking for as an artist and what you think is good for the career - or what people around you think is good for the career.  And at one point you always have that in mind.  But if it's something I've never done from a composer I really admire, and my calendar is free, I think I would accept to do it if there is an orchestra good enough, a chorus good enough, and a cast good enough to do it!  And you can sometimes get artistic results of a very high quality in places that are not that famous because you just have this kind of enthusiasm, this conviction, this real love of the music that you find in places that are a little remote from the big circuit.

BD:  Do the technical standards keep going up year by year?

EV:  I think so.  The technical standards keep going up year by year.  The technical standards for orchestra playing, at least, are, generally speaking, higher in the States than they are in Europe.  If you talk about the main five American orchestras and the main five European orchestras, you will find some people would prefer this one or that one.  But if you go down the list, the level is going to be high.  A university orchestra here is going to be better than a "C" orchestra in Germany.  I really think that's a fact.

BD:  Now this is technically?

EV:  Technically.

BD:  What about musically?

EV:  [Takes a deep breath]  Well, artistically, musically, and technically, these are, as you imply, totally different categories.  There is no point discussing the musical merit of anybody if the technical abilities are not there at least at a certain level.  I would say you need some time, when you are in the States, to kind of explain a little more what you artistically intend about a piece.  But an American orchestra is going to be very interested in hearing that from you.  A European orchestra is going to say, "He is not going to teach us what this symphony is about; what does he know?" 

BD:  You're from France...

EV:  I'm French, yes.

BD: wouldn't you have a lot to talk about French opera, then?

EV:  Yes!  And all the French repertoire in general.  I must say in that repertoire I have been most welcome in the States and people really are willing to listen to the story you have to tell.  I'm Music Director in Charleston [at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, South Carolina] since 2000.  These are young musicians who are in their very early twenties and the level of sophistication, of culture, of sheer interest and love for the music is absolutely remarkable.  It's la crème de la crème, it's the best of the best.  It's an amazing selection of the best of what this country has to offer!  They are intellectual, and when you talk to these people, you really don't feel you are teaching them; you're just discussing and interacting with young colleagues.

BD:  Does that make the rehearsals go faster?

EV:  That makes them more interesting, so they feel like they are going faster, and then you can go further.  You can go much further.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  I don't want to dwell on this too much, but what is it that the rest of the world needs to understand about French opera?  What is it that the rest of Europe and the United States don't get about French opera that we should?

EV:  [Takes a deep breath]  It's difficult to say because all the discussion about national identity and colors are, in a way, not only politically dangerous but they might be even artistically dangerous.  After all, if you start at the 16th century or 17th century, Italians, Germans, Austrians, French, Spanish, they were all traveling!  You would have a different school of playing, of articulation from one city to the other but they were very much influenced.  Wagner, in the 19th century, was extremely influenced by Bellini, Berlioz (more than he wants to say), Glück, and Meyerbeer, and so on and so on.  Anyway it's totally interconnected. 

villaume BD:  But not nearly as much as today where it's almost instantaneous!

EV:  Today it is instantaneous.  I think if there was a book that would tell you about the difference in the French music compared to the other musics, it would say it's transparency.  It's a certain clarity of the sound or a certain achievement in the orchestration which can be extremely light and you can see through it, but at the same time it can be powerful.  That might be true of Ravel or of Debussy, it might be true of some of Berlioz but not always, although he's a genius.  I think the specificity of the music of any nation or culture has to do with the language.  That is definitely a factor.  That means the way you articulate the language is certainly going to determine a certain length of a phrase, and a musical phrase is going to be influenced by that kind of pacing.  There is a certain timing of things, a certain weight in some sounds, or certain points in a general phrase that are going to be different if it's Czech music or if it's French music or if it's Italian music or, for that matter, if it is [speaks in a long, drawn-out manner, for effect] a long German period that really ends after a few words, and so on, and finally you have a point at the end.  And this is obvious in opera because the music itself is always, or most of the time, depending on the text!  So the pacing of the music and even the pacing of the general drama has to do with the language from a point of view which is even more immediate than what I'm trying to describe, which has to do with almost mental structures of one culture.

BD:  And you have to figure all of this out before you go to the first rehearsal!

EV:  It's too late to figure it out if you are starting the rehearsal!  [Laughter]  But yes!

BD:  I don't know whether you specialize in the French repertoire, but you have this in your blood, yet you have to be almost a generalist to do the French and the Italian and the German and some Czech and maybe a Russian and a Spanish opera, and maybe even an American opera once in awhile, too!

EV:  Well, I was born in Strasbourg which is at the border of Germany, so I think I benefited from both cultures.

BD:  So you had a festival of two worlds really from the beginning!

EV:  I had it somewhat, yes, and I worked a lot in Italy.  I speak Italian, and it does help when you deal with this music.  But it's true that you also have to know the literature.  For instance, I think it's important to know German literature if you want to really understand Beethoven and Mahler!  You have to have a feel for this context.  Some of my colleagues, maybe more talented than I am, at least in the past, were not cultured and had an amazing, immediate understanding of that music.  But I think it helps you not to make huge mistakes to know what Goethe and Schiller were writing before you conduct a Beethoven symphony.  I really believe in that and I understand if you disagree with this.

BD:  It goes into what makes your performance and your interpretation, so good or bad, it becomes you!

EV:  Yes!  Exactly!  Good or bad, it becomes you!  It becomes relevant to you and it becomes you in ways that you are not totally aware of.

BD:  When you're learning repertoire, do you learn new scores that you hope to conduct, or do you just learn new scores that you think are interesting?

EV:  Whew!  [Chuckles]  Right now I don't have much time and I confess this.  I'm sorry, I don't have much time to open scores that I am not going to conduct in the next month.  But it happens to me sometimes when you listen and you are trying to find repertoire for a concert.  Then you start listening to things and you get very, very interested.  In the past I used to do this, I used to just go and buy a score of this symphony or that opera because I thought, "Well, one day it would be wonderful to do that, so I had better be prepared for it and look at it."

BD:  So then you'd add it to your repertoire and hope to get called to do it.

EV:  Exactly.  And usually you actually end up doing them.  Although there are some...  In the operatic world, for instance, no music director is going to give to a guest Tristan or Meistersinger or Die Frau ohne Schatten of Strauss.  These are goodies that they want for themselves.  So I have to wait till the moment I have one of those houses that does this repertoire to actually do it!  You might do it in Germany where they do those operas month after month, but even then, a Tristan is going to be always played by the General Musikdirektor, because he wants to keep it for himself!

BD:  I assume, though, that if they assign you a Manon or Le Cid or something else that is in your obvious repertoire that you will try to make that as brilliant a production as possible!

EV:  Yes!  But especially when it's a repertoire you have done a lot, you have to put it in question every time you do it. 

BD:  So if they ask you, for instance, for yet another Manon or yet another Carmen, would you be able to say, "Ehhhhh, I'd rather do Grisélidis" or something like that?

EV:  Actually I would rather do Grisélidis.  It is a great piece.  But if it's the Lyric Opera of Chicago and they say, "Well, it's Manon," and you want to do Manon because you want to work with that artist, then you are going to accept Manon because it's the reality of the situation!  And when you do that Manon, you really have to do it questioning the score again and again, trying to find new things in it, and you will, necessarily, have to reposition yourself toward the piece because you will have a different soprano, you will have a different baritone, you will have a different tenor and you will have to adapt to what they are doing.

BD:  Do you throw away your old score and get a clean one so there are no markings in it?

EV:  Actually I don't do that, [chuckles] but maybe I should.  Sometimes the score has been so marked before that I get a new, clean score and I redo it.  It's interesting:  I marked the scores a lot but all that has to do with interpretation and I always mark with a pencil that you can erase, which maybe shows something about the fragility of the thing, or maybe the humility.  Or maybe it's very practical.  If I write a ritenuto, or if there is a doubt between four and two - you know, subdivided or not subdivided - I always write it with a pencil that can be erased.

BD:  And then have your assistant erase the score after each production?

EV:  Yes.  Or I do it myself because it's kind of fun.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  You rehearse up until the first performance and then it goes along.  Do you expect everything to be done in rehearsal and that all the performances are the same, or do you leave something for the spark of each evening?

EV:  I think you don't leave something for the spark of the evening; the spark of the evening is falling on you anyway, because there are so many things that are totally unpredictable.  The work of the rehearsal is really to try to understand - in the case of opera or if you're doing a concerto - what your colleagues have as a vision for the piece.  So you need to try to connect with this universe of your friends and colleagues - the pianist or the soprano or the stage director - and try to see how much you can have your own ideas get in connection with them.  Sometimes you even back off a little because you trust that these people can do what they need to do and you shouldn't be too much in the way, and sometimes you say, "Well, maybe this person needs a little help, so I'm going to spoon-feed a few ideas there.  It can go very far in this with a pianist or with a tenor if they are willing to do it!  So you have always to calculate that and bargain sometimes.

villaume BD:  And you know who you can trust, then, in the performance?

EV:  And you know who you can trust in the performance.  Another part is evaluating all the things that can go wrong and prepare everybody for that.

BD:  That would be another volume there on your stand!

EV:  That's another volume on my stand and I try to limit it.  Nowadays, with little computers you can put things in, but you need to cover your ground as much as you think you can. 

BD:  Is it ever fun when things come crashing down?

EV:  [Firmly and without hesitation]  No.  No.  No.  No, it's not fun.  It's fun in rehearsal because you can laugh, but if something doesn't go the way you planned, you feel that a good part of audience is going to notice it, and you're always furious.  And you are hurt.

BD:  And yet someone will come backstage after that performance and say, [excitedly] "This was the most brilliant performance of this that I've ever heard!"

EV:  Of course.  And you know what?  Don't tell them it was not because they are going to believe you.  But things happen in performance that you cannot rehearse.

BD:  For instance?

EV:  Ideas, magic and visions.  So it does happen and this cannot be rehearsed at all.  But if you haven't prepared a score which is going to be holding enough together in order for this to happen, then it's never going to happen.

BD:  Now you don't need to give a specific example, but have there ever been times when you're in the middle of the run of a series of performances, and you think, [nervously] "Oh, my God," and you look at the score and you think, "I have to rethink everything right from the beginning because something has come to me"?

EV:  Well, it's more organic than this.  I don't think there is ever going to be something that makes the whole thing fall apart, because if the conception can fall apart just by one detail, that means that it was really not that strong from the very beginning.

BD:  Well, perhaps not fall apart, but you're going along and all of a sudden the light goes on.

EV:  Yes!  That happened to me.  Usually you never know, really, how you feel about a piece, at least not necessarily about your own conception about the piece, before you have performed it with an audience.  You might have an anticipation of what it is, but all of a sudden you say, "Ha!  I get it," because all of a sudden everything is there and it's developing itself in front of you, and you understand that there is, maybe, a third, virtual line there in the music that is the main point of what the composer is doing.  Maybe sometimes even if he doesn't know it, and that's what you want to hold.  And you will remember that the next time you look at the score.  So definitely the performance is going to give you information on the score that you would not find otherwise - even listening to the performance of someone else because you do it and then, "Aha!  Here."  That's the way things develop themselves and there is sometimes no way you could have felt that just by listening to a recording of a colleague or looking at the score.

BD:  So is your study before the performance just from the score, or is it also from performances and recordings?

EV:  You know that they teach you in schools not to listen to recordings; you make up your mind from the score!  I think this is B.S., if I might say.  First of all, there are traditions and you need to understand those traditions.  If you don't have a very strong reason not to do a tradition, you should do the tradition.  It's a question, somehow, of humility.  Then, if you are convinced a tradition has no meaning, or you find out in a rehearsal that the reason for a fermata to be in that phrase is just because the celli have to turn the page - which does happen - then you say, "Let's make a photocopy and we don't do the fermata."  I work very strongly on the score in the first phase and then I listen to a lot of recordings.  This is always giving you ideas - sometimes of what you shouldn't do.  Or you say, "Well here maybe I could do it that way," or someone else did it that way and you are not convinced.  And sometimes it's going to give you new avenues!  It's going to make you feel, "Ha, that's interesting!"  Yes, there is something I really had not seen there!  So it's making you smarter!  It's like saying in order to write a book, you should not ever have seen any book before!  This is ridiculous!

BD:  So you don't want to copy, you just want to get new ideas for yourself.

EV:  Exactly!  And it's going to be your idea; you are going to put it in your style.  I mean, who can pretend doing a Bohème without knowing what all these conductors have done with Bohème before.  It's going to be your Bohème, but you need to know what they have done.

BD:  What if someone comes to you and says, "Oh, but that was just like so-and-so, conductor X, or conductor Y?"

EV:  You know what?  I'm going to surprise you.  Here we are in this little room talking to each other, so I am not on guard and people are listening:  it never happened to me that someone came to me and say, "Oh, you are doing what so-and-so is doing."  Sometimes I am consciously doing something that I know that I have picked from this person, but I try to make it mine!  In my scores, when it's a conductor I really respect and it's a piece that is very strong repertoire, very often I write the name of the conductor and where here he is doing a rubato - slowing down or rushing and so on - because it's always interesting to know what these people have done.  These are my own markings and then you make your choices. 

BD:  All right, let me get you to gaze into your crystal ball fifty or a hundred years hence:  are you going to be shocked when some other conductor has your name written in the score with that little bit of rubato or this accentuation?

EV:  Well, in 50 years I don't know; I hope I might still be on Earth.  In one hundred years I hope I will be somewhere else.  We don't know.  It's possible!  I have heard interpretations that I thought very vividly I was the only one doing, but it could be that we both had the same idea.  It is going to be; unless you stupidly copy something, it's going to be yours.  That's what culture is about.  It's about exchange; it's about getting smarter by using the intelligence, the knowledge and the culture of the person who is in front of you.  Not by isolating yourself.  Then, if you are a copycat, you're not smarter, you get even more stupid because you are not being yourself!  But you learn to be yourself by just having this connection with the other people, and just having your brain go against the brain of someone else and sometimes taking the brains of someone else.

villaume BD:  Is this what makes some operas, perhaps, better than others - that they come from a better brain, a more facile brain?

EV:  Yes, it could be.  Although, if you want to be a little more paradoxical, sometimes weak pieces lower your own intelligence, and the little ounce of genius that we all might have within ourselves expresses itself more greatly because you have to defend the text, you have to build the text, you have to nourish the text.  You have to make it alive and...

BD:  ...add what's missing?

EV:  You have, in a way, to help what is there.  Yes, it can happen!  It's still a privilege, most of the time, to deal with these amazing composers that can become, for us, those friends.  I remember going through the last pages of Die Zauberflöte, which is the last opera that Mozart wrote.  And when you are so much into the study of a score - especially with Mozart - in a way you feel very close to that person.  You feel, really, that you understand the movements, the body language, the gesture of the mind of Mozart.  And I remember closing the score and thinking, "He is not there anymore," and being personally touched by the fact that Mozart was dead.  It's a little corny, but that's the feeling I had at that moment.

BD:  But is it you and Mozart, or is it you and Mozart and Schikaneder?

EV:  Well, it's me and it's certainly not Mozart like he was, but this is the image we have built of Mozart and the image I have built myself of Mozart.  Although when you are dealing with those texts - Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Puccini, too, why not? - you feel you have a pretty good idea of the soul and the spirit of these composers.  They might have been, actually, very disappointing human beings, with a lot of frauds and flaws and problems, but they have given the best of their soul.  It's still their soul which is there, and you feel you are connecting to that.  You really feel you are connecting to that, like you feel you are connecting to a poet in his works of literature.

BD:  Because you were a dramaturg, did you have any closer connection to the words than maybe "just" a musician.

EV:  Well, I don't know because you can never understand the words in opera as pure words.  They are words which are there to be put into music.  So there is always a shadow in those words that you need to understand, and that the music is going to use, to make these words more alive.  There is this possibility that the words are going to be taken, absorbed, eaten, swallowed by the musical flow, and their weakness is, in fact, part of their function for the music to develop itself.  When you look at it just on paper, the libretto in itself sometimes looks weird, bizarre and weak.  But that weakness and those holes are exactly where the music is there to develop itself.

BD:  I've often wondered about that.  Are there some poems and plays that are too strong to accept any music?

EV:  I think so.  I personally think so, and that's what most of the great poets have said.  Maybe there are exceptions to this, but real poetry has its own music within the poem.  So it requires a genius that somehow is going to take them from another angle and add something else.  But it is an extremely complex challenge, and the chances it's going to fail are bigger than the other way around.

BD:  Do you have any advice for a composer who wants to write an opera these days, as we're now in the 21st century?

EV:  I really don't know.  I don't know because we are in a time where we feel, at least, you cannot tell a story the same way you were telling it even fifty years ago.  I think the person who has the answer to that and still has standards that are extremely high is going to be the next genius of music.  So I don't have the answer.  [Laughs]

BD:  Do you expect that genius to be coming along?

EV:  Maybe.  But geniuses are here just to change history so you can't anticipate them.  I don't think you can anticipate.

BD:  Lots of people are saying opera is dead.  I'm just wondering if you feel that way.

EV:  I think there is a truth to that.  New creation in opera is problematic!  There is a future in music-theater.  That means great plays with music that's going to help support the play!  But opera means the musical value is first, and nowadays, at least, it's a form that has a lot of problems.

BD:  So you think, maybe, it's run its course?

EV:  No, I think you would need to reinvent the genre and the form to really succeed at the level that we are trying to reach with this.  It's not very nice to say this, but that's what I believe.  It's not necessarily the same thing with contemporary music in general.

BD:  Symphony and chamber music?

EV:  Symphony and chamber music, yes.  There is a great future in theater, with music there to help the theater, but as pure musical values, it's more difficult.  Even Messiaen's Saint-François d'Assise.  It's a great piece, it's a fantastic piece.  Is it an opera?  I'm not sure it's totally an opera.   So if I answer your question honestly, I think we are still waiting for that.  It's possible; it's not impossible, but they would need to reorganize the old form.

BD:  Are we waiting for a change, or are we evolving and we're too close to it to see the evolution at the moment?

EV:  It's actually maybe the same.  Personally I don't see how it could be done nowadays.  I don't even see who could do it, although there are a few names; Thomas Adès is working now fantastically, and Golijov.  There are several people who are and maybe it will come from some of those people who nowadays are working on the problem.  I just don't see it, but it might happen tomorrow!

BD:  Well, I'm always interested in what's going on, but I wouldn't give the crown to one person or another.

EV:  I don't think we can!  I don't think we can and that has to do with the time!  You might have brilliant Broadway shows that are going to be written in the next years, but that's totally different!  We are talking about opera as the form that has developed itself since the 16th century.

BD:  Well, we'll remain optimistic.

EV:  Of course!  [Both laugh]

BD:  Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

EV:  [Cheerfully and optimistically]  Yes!  I hope I am going to enjoy myself as much as I am enjoying myself today, and in order to do this, it needs even more development in the career.

BD:  So, back to your scores!

EV:  Back to the scores.  [Laughter]

BD:  Thank you so much for sharing the time today. 

EV:  Thank you!  It was fun!

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© 2006 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on April 28, 2006.  This transcription was made in 2008, published in The Opera Journal and posted on this website at that time. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.