Saturday 24 April 2021

The balance between a perfect art form & giving people what they want: conductor George Jackson chats about Mozart's 'Le nozze di Figaro' with which he opens Opera Holland Park's 2021 season

George Jackson and the Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice Genovea
George Jackson and the Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice Genova

The conductor George Jackson first appeared on these pages in 2014, and since then he has popped up at various times whether it was conducting Elgar's Symphony No. 1 as Trinity Laban's Charles Mackerras Junior Conducting Fellow in 2016 [see my article], Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Opera Holland Park in 2018 [see my review], or Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel at Grange Park Opera in 2019 [see my review], alongside working with the Ensemble InterContemporain, London Symphony Orchestra and Hamburg State Opera, not to mention replacing Daniel Harding at short notice in Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony with the Orchestre de Paris at the Philharmonie de Paris in 2018.
Now George is returning to Opera Holland Park to conduct Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro for a new production which opens the season on 1 June 2021. I recently met up with George, taking advantage of the weather and the relaxation of restrictions to chat on a park bench by Clapham Common about performing Mozart, the importance of being flexible and putting a work into context, as well as discussing contemporary music, Janacek and much more.

During the 18th century no two productions of Le nozze di Figaro
were the same

The auditorium at Opera Holland Park is not necessarily the most obvious space to perform Mozart's music, but George points out that during the 18th century nothing was fixed about opera performances and no two productions of Le nozze di Figaro were the same, and this gives a modern-day company the freedom to be flexible. The opera was regarded as less holy than we do nowadays, and George likens some performances as more akin to pantomime and cites the example of one production which, lacking a singer for the Count, replaced the singing role with a spoken one. 

The 18th century also lacked our concept of a perfect version of a work, so that when Mozart returned to the Burgtheater in Vienna three years after the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro for a revival of the work, his Susanna (Nancy Storace) had returned to England. Faced with a new singer in the role, he wrote her new arias, though these are rarely performed nowadays, but George asked Elizabeth Karani (who sings the role of Susanna at Opera Holland Park) which arias she preferred.

Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Nick Pritchard, Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, Peter Coleman Wright, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte - Nick Pritchard, Nicholas Lester, Sarah Tynan, Peter Coleman Wright, Eleanor Dennis, Kitty Whately - Opera Holland Park 2018 (Photo Robert Workman

In one of his letters, Mozart wrote that in opera, for solo pieces the music is the singer's but for the ensembles, the music is the composer's. Mozart's intention was to make the arias fit the singer, and George feels that we should have the same flexibility today, and it was only in the 19th century that the idea of a perfect version of a work first appeared. Whereas in the 18th century the idea of anything being fixed was impossible. Part of the problem for performers nowadays is that this flexibility included a lot of unwritten conventions; so much was unwritten and Mozart, in writing his music, assumed a level of understanding and intelligence in his performers. 

We need to consider what Da Ponte took out of the play

Mozart's opera is based on the play by Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799) which premiered in Paris in 1784. Operatic adaptations of Beaumarchais' plays are very much on George's mind at the moment as he was supposed to be conducting Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the operatic prequel to Mozart's opera) at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna this year, but the production has been postponed to 2022.

When working on either the Mozart or the Rossini, George always has three things on his desk, the score (or scores, depending on editions), the libretto and a copy of Beaumarchais' original play, and it is important to switch between them. For Le nozze di Figaro he sees it as important to recreate the processes that the creators went through, to look at how Lorenzo da Ponte adapted Beaumarchais' play, and to look at how Mozart's music relates to the libretto. Most importantly, George feels we need to consider what Da Ponte took out of the play so that for instance Figaro's highly political speech in the play is replaced by an attack on women. Da Ponte had to create a clever re-working of the play to get it through the Viennese censors (the opera was allowed, the play was not). And George points out that one of the interesting things about Le nozze di Figaro is that it was rare at the time for a libretto to be based on such a recent play; the opera premiered just two years after the play.

What we have is a French play, adapted into an opera libretto by an Italian, set by an Austrian and performed in Vienna. But for George, the play does not have a strong national impetus, its subject is the Enlightenment and it is this pan-European idea that makes the opera more interesting. Nowadays we have a tendency to prize Le nozze di Figaro for its exploration of these Enlightenment ideas and forget that the work was intended as a comedy. George describes Emperor Joseph II as being obsessed by comic theatre, and Giovanni Paisiello's operatic version of Il barbiere di Siviglia (which premiered in St Petersburg in 1782) was extremely popular in Vienna. Mozart's opera was premiered by singers who were opera buffa specialists, and when performing the work nowadays we need to recreate that. 

George Jackson
George Jackson

The plot had strong comic potential and we tend to underestimate that now

A plot where it is the servants who have the power probably, in Mozart's day, had strong comic potential and we tend to underestimate that now. But there was influence from serious opera too, so that the Count is very much a serious figure, and Mozart's approach to the genre was very mixed. It is also fascinating to speculate what other contemporary operas influenced the creation of the work, and we should not forget that arts and culture did spread quite widely in Europe. Composers would write out other composer's music to explore it (no photocopiers!) so Mozart spent much of the early 1780s copying out Bach and Handel, which relates to his own use of counterpoint in his music.

At Opera Holland Park the work will be performed by a relatively young cast and George comments that in all likelihood the principals will be singing their roles for the second or third time. But it is very much an ensemble piece, and rather than the conductor telling everyone what to do George wants the singers to develop ideas. Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto is full of complex details, the more we know it the more we can read into it, and George hopes that his young cast will be a curious cast, eager to explore.

When Gluck and Calzabigi created Reform Opera in Vienna in the 1760s [see my article] they were protesting about the fact that all the drama in opera seria was in the recitative, and Gluck deliberately moved drama into the musical numbers. For Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte deliberately followed this lead and put the drama into the musical numbers, not just the recitative. And they knew that because of this the opera would be long. In fact, you cannot cut much of Le nozze di Figaro because so much of the drama is in the musical numbers rather than the recitative. When the opera was premiered, the Emperor had to decree that they were not allowed to repeat any of the numbers with more than one singer, because moments like the Act One finale were being encored!

In recent years, George feels that we have rather become obsessed with having recitative in Italian but it was not always so. When Le nozze di Figaro was first done in London, the recitative was spoken in English so the audience would understand. And 10 years ago, when George studied in Weimar (at the Franz Liszt Hochschule für Musik), all the professors there knew the recitative of the Mozart operas in German.

But whatever the language, George comments that if the audience laughs at a line of recitative then you have done your job. He sees the mechanics of comedy as being very much about rhythm, and if you change the words you change the rhythm and can get a different effect on the audience (and he talks about studying comedians doing this). So the Da Ponte's words in the libretto, delivered the right way will create comedy.

George Jackson conducting Ensemble InterContemporain
George Jackson conducting Ensemble InterContemporain

His career is increasingly polarised between contemporary music and the 18th century 


 George is finding that his career is increasingly polarised between contemporary music (and anything after 1950) and the 18th century. He has worked on all of Mozart's mature operas and worked with many important living composers. What he realises is that he enjoys collaboration, in opera he will be collaborating with the director and the performers, in contemporary music it is the composers themselves that comes into the mix. And this is where George's interest lies.

When it comes to contemporary pieces, then he is often drawn to complex works. Complexity interests him, and he talks about the loneliness of studying such a score and solving the problems of a new piece. With a symphony by Brahms, there are lots of resources available, performances that other conductors have done, but with a contemporary piece, you are rather on your own. This is the sort of challenge that George loves, and whilst some are intimidated by the process he enjoys the feel of being able to do what is possible with a new work. 

He feels that there is often too much emphasis on making a work be correct, which means that it can become mechanical, whereas George wants to make a piece of music. He cites as an example Berg's opera Wozzeck where the challenge is to make the piece emotionally expressive yet you are working with a complex score. This balance between expressivity and complexity is a challenge that George enjoys. He mentions John Cage's percussion music where having removed tonality (as Schoenberg did with his 12-tone music) Cage decided to explore rhythms instead and this led to an explosion in the 1930s of West Coast percussion music.

Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel (Act 3) - Susan Bullock - Grange Park Opera 2019 (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Putting the work into perspective, relating it to now but also relating it to its own time 


When we talk about repertoire, a lot of George's comments are about putting the work into perspective, relating it to now but also relating it to its own time. He sees it was very easy to look at a work with hindsight, but we should consider also the work's own time when composers could only look back so that what comes after is irrelevant. So that we can look at Mahler's symphonies as the end of a line of works that include symphonies by Schumann and Brahms, rather than being the start of something new. People forget, for instance, that Verdi's operas come out of the Italian bel canto tradition. When George worked on Verdi's La traviata he noticed how much Verdi uses the bel canto style for the older character of Papa Germont. Even with Wagner, bel canto and the operas of Weber are important elements.

The challenge for performers nowadays is how to deal with a work historically. How should we approach Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro when in 1786, for Mozart's singers they were dealing with an entirely new work which still comes out of the music of the past. We can see the influence of Handel's operas, with their star singers and ornamented da capo arias, in Mozart's mature operas. George sees Mozart's Cosi fan tutte as, to a certain extent, a satire on Handel, composers were both influenced by the past and reacting against it, which makes another challenge for modern performers. 

The next engagement in George's diary is supposed to be a concert tour with Opera de Rouen but the challenges of travelling at the time have put this into question. And when we talk about quarantine requirements, he comments that the effect is to make performers almost part-time. When we spoke, there were a couple of weeks to go before rehearsals for Le nozze di Figaro started, but quarantine is such that George was unable to accept any foreign engagements before then.

But he has been using the time usefully, to learn. He comments about Claudio Abbado taking a sabbatical in order to learn Wozzeck, and George feels that he has had more time than usual to study Le nozze di Figaro (though adding that it is such a rich and complex work that you never really know it).

Janacek's music is like film music, every single emotion on stage is replicated in the music

Next year not only includes Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia in Vienna, but a Janacek opera in the UK. He finds this exciting and sees Janacek as being not a million miles from Mozart. For George, Janacek's music is like film music, every single emotion on stage is replicated in the music, a quality that is also true in Mozart's operas. Both composers were theatrical animals, and their music comes alive in the theatre. Controversially, George often thinks that Mozart was at his best in his music for the theatre, and he sees the level of drama and character in the music explode when a text is involved, and you can make a similar assessment of Janacek's music.

At the moment, they have not decided which language the Janacek opera will be sung in, English or Czech. George finds that he has learned in lockdown that performers do not really exist without an audience, so he wants people to come to the theatre to watch opera. For all Janacek's intimate links with the Czech language, George wonders if English people will want to come to hear people singing in Czech. But he admits that Janacek is difficult to pull off in English!

Interesting, on the subject of language, George comments on a letter that Richard Wagner wrote when Lohengrin was to be performed at Covent Garden. Wagner wanted the opera done in English so that the audience would understand.  But at the moment we are looking for the perfect version of an opera, which involves using the original language, and George quotes Richard Taruskin's comment about us not wanting period dentistry!

Music has to be about the audience otherwise it is a dead art form

Ultimately, opera has to engage with the community, so we return to the need to balance between a perfect art form and giving people what they want. Music has to be about the audience otherwise it is a dead art form, which means that there must be a balance between giving the audience a good night out and respecting the music. And he comments that what he enjoys about London (and the same is true of Berlin) is that there are two opera houses representing these two traditions, one generally in the original language and the other in English.

George also has more concert work coming up next year in the USA. In addition, he was been working on the Ensemble InterContemporain's Reich Richter project which combines music by Steve Reich, his latest work from 2018, with a film by Gerhard Richter, and George will be giving more performances of this in Europe. George has been engaging quite a lot with Minimalism recently and is keen to dive into these composers' operas. He comments that with much of this style of music you only need a couple of chords and you know who the composer is. Great composers transcend harmony and counterpoint.

We often associate Minimalism with something mechanical. It does look mechanical on the page, but like Mozart, we need to find the emotion within it and we need to bear in mind that a composer like Steve Reich comes from the point of view of a jazz drummer. George has been working on Reich's Eight Lines in Paris, and just because there are the same note value repeated does not mean the music is the same. The challenge is how to make the music metronomic but expressive and free, the way jazz is.

George Jackson and the Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice Genova
George Jackson and the Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice Genova

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro at Opera Holland Park, director Oliver Platt, conductor George Jackson (performances from 1 June to 20 June) with Julien Van Mellaerts (Count), Nardus Williams (Countess), Elizabeth Karani (Susanna), Ross Ramgobin (Figaro), Samantha Price (Cherubino), Victoria Simmonds (Marcellina), James Cleverton/Alex Jones (Bartolo), Clarie Lees (Barbarina), Daniel Norman (Basilio/Don Curzio), Henry Grant Kerswell (Antonio).

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Thoughtful and imaginative: The Children's Hour sees baritone Gareth Brymor John and pianist William Vann taking a very adult view of childhood  - record review
  • Rediscovered: British Clarinet Concertos by Susan Spain-Dunk, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rudolph Dolmetsch, Peter Wishart from Peter Cigleris, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Ben Palmer - record review
  • A disc to enjoy: William Towers and Armonico Consort in Handelian Pyrotechnics  - record review
  • Flight at the museum: Seattle Opera's new film imaginatively re-locates Jonathan Dove's opera - opera review
  • Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price - record review
  • New Beginnings indeed: the Royal Northern Sinfonia and its principal conductor designate, Dinis Sousa, launch Sage Gateshead's new live season - concert review
  • When 2020 forced the cancellation of the first Riga Jurmala Academy in Latvia, it moved its programme of masterclasses on-line: I find out more from director Toms Ostrovskis - interview
  • The music positively explodes from the disc: Australian group Ensemble Offspring's Offspring Bites 3:En Masse - record review
  • Richard Strauss satirising his publisher & exploring exoticism with vertiginously high vocals: Unerhört (Outrageous) from tenor Daniel Behle and pianist Oliver Schnyder  - record review
  • Manchester Song Festival: Kathryn Rudge, Kathrine Broderick, and RNCM Songsters at Stoller Hall - concert review
  • Towards Perfection: the idea of an ideal version of an opera has not always played out in history, with composers being surprisingly willing to rewrite works to suit circumstances - feature
  • Go, not knowing where: I chat to pianist Elan Sicroff about Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann and the Thomas de Hartmann project - interview
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month