Saturday 29 January 2022

Expanding her horizons: Lada Valesova on conducting Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Opera Holland Park

Lada Valesova conducting Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at West Green House in 2021
Lada Valesova conducting Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at West Green House in 2021

Lada Valesova was due to conduct the Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin in 2020, but fate of course had different ideas. In the event, in 2021 she conducted the Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro [see my review] as well as conducting Eugene Onegin at West Green Opera. And this Summer, she will be at the helm of Opera Holland Park's main stage production of Eugene Onegin. Lada is familiar to many as a pianist [she and soprano Natalya Romaniw released Arion, a disc of songs by  Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Janacek, and Novak in 2020, see my review] and a coach, but her move into conducting is relatively new. We met up recently to chat about Eugene Onegin, conducting opera and more.

Lada Valesova conducting Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at Opera Holland Park  with Jacob Philips, Charlotte Bowden, Guy Withers (Photo Ali Wright)

She has, of course, coached Eugene Onegin many times but this involves working on particular aspects of the opera, the language or a specific role. As a conductor, she moves from lieutenant to captain, and is responsible for everything musically whilst the orchestra makes a great deal of difference too. Eugene Onegin is an opera she loves and each time she goes back to the score finds more details and gains deeper insights into the music. 

Of course, Tchaikovsky did not just write a single opera, and it would be a dream to work on Queen of Spades, whilst she would enjoy the chance to work on some of his more rarely performed operas such as The Maid of Orleans and Mazeppa. And not just the operas, but Tchaikovsky's ballet music too though even in Russia these are now more frequently conducted by ballet specialists and fewer conductors perform all of Tchaikovsky's theatre music.

Eugene Onegin was premiered in 1879 by the students of Moscow Conservatory, though Lada feels that the piece would be rather ambitious for those studying on an opera course. A role like Prince Gremin would be tricky to cast and though Tatyana is written for a lyric soprano it is a demanding role and in its way relentless so that even in the second act when the character sings much less, she goes on an emotional journey. And in a way, a good actor can make people believe that they are a teenager, and she cites seeing Krassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana at Covent Garden.

This leads us to talk of the distinguished Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (herself a fine Tatyana) whom Lada met by chance and started playing for Vishnevskaya's coaching sessions for young singers (and Vishnevskaya as a teacher was so generous with her time for young singers). When coaching Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Vishnevskaya demonstrated the role and whilst singing she was transformed, she became a 16-year-old geisha, then she promptly turned to the young singer and said this is how you do it, and if you cannot get a 9 to 5 job. Lada adds that this is the school she was brought up in, a harsh school where you are demanding on yourself. But we have to remember that an artist of Vishnevskaya's generation, singing under the old Soviet system, had to perform in harsh conditions, a different mentality was needed with resilience and an expectation to have to do everything.

There are many other pieces that Lada would like to get her teeth into, and she mentions the Czech composer Pavel Haas (who died in Auschwitz Birkenau in 1944) whose songs Lada has already recorded [see my review]. One of her ambitions as a conductor is to work on such passion pieces that have not been regularly heard, and she looks forward to reaching a stage in her career when she can bring rarities and neglected masterpieces back. Another composer she mentions is Rachmaninov. She worked on Scottish Opera's double bill of his operas Aleko and Francesca da Rimini, and that gave her ideas for visualising and staging the two works. One of the reasons that the medium of opera appeals is its complexity, the combination of music and visual arts. Lada's brother is a painter, which means that she grew up in a world with lots of visual stimulation, and this is reflected in the way she thinks about opera.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Lada Valešová and City of London Sinfonia - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Lada Valešová and City of London Sinfonia - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)

As a conductor, Lada has great respect for a director's autonomy but she also loves collaboration and enjoys working with directors. When she was studying on the opera course at the Guildhall School, which was then led by Clive Timms he emphasised that everyone in the theatre has their particular role and that you should not step into it. Lada adds that if everyone unites then they feed into each other, and that is when the magic happens. As a coach, she has experienced various constellations of the relationship between the director and the music director from collaborating to barely speaking, yet each has created theatre. After all, in life, we don't have the choice of whom we work with, and that is why people are professionals. For Eugene Onegin at Opera Holland Park, Lada will be working with Julia Burbach whom she describes as fantastic and she looks forward to enjoying working with her [see my interview with Julia Burbach in advance of her production of Wagner's Die Walkure at the 2021 Grimeborn Festival].

Lada is very grateful for all the support that she has received which has enabled her to reach this point in her career. She points out that she and Opera Holland Park go back a long way, and she has received support also from the Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS), the Royal Opera House and the National Opera Studio. She was in the first cohort on the RPS pilot Women Conducting Opera course, and she will be taking part in the RPS Women Conductors Course at Sage Gateshead. This will be a series of sessions (over two years) working with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and will be all about communication including getting feedback from the orchestra. But sees such courses as also being about establishing ongoing connections. Lada has also recently been assisting on the recent performances of Tosca at the Royal Opera House.

Playing the piano was initially the right vehicle, but she realised she was a musician and expressed herself in everything she does. Becoming a conductor has enabled her to encompass all the knowledge that she already has. She sees conducting as enabling her to take everything that she had done before and channel it in one direction. She grew up (in the Czech Republic) obsessed with the piano and from the age of 14, the instrument took all of her passion. But she always sang as well, and in her career has been drawn to singers and accompanied a lot. But growing up, there was only one woman conductor in the Czech Republic, Miriam Němcová (who is now Head of the Conducting Department at the Prague Conservatoire). As a result conducting was seen as not very feminine, as something for the boys. When she came to the UK, it was her language skills that led her to be a coach and work in opera. Initially, she was not necessarily thinking about being a conductor but she was there, in rehearsals, and gradually realised she had strong opinions about how the music should sound. Eventually, she thought to herself, if you are so clever then try or hold your peace! So, she tried conducting and decided that she definitely wanted to do it. She had her first conducting lesson from Sian Edwards in one of the tents backstage at Opera Holland Park.

There is a balance that you need to bring to conducting, you need to go into it ready to accept that you have something to contribute, but also there is a lot you can get back, realising that you will not be perfect and have lots to learn. And she points out that as a pianist, she has been practising the piano for hours each day since she was six. The comfortable place is to stay where you are, where you are familiar, but that is not Lada's personality and she is constantly seeking something new. But she is also realistic, there is the possibility of failure and she returns to the idea of balance, between humility and confidence.

Her Russian teacher, Vladimir Ponkin (a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire) has commented that conducting is a profession for the second half of your life, so that you have already acquired knowledge and life experience, and then you can channel this into the next half of your creative life. That said, she points out that there are fantastic young conductors too; it is important to honour your own individuality.

Lada Valesova (Photo Martin Kubica)
Lada Valesova (Photo Martin Kubica)

Looking ahead, Lada is leading three Sing at the Royal Opera House afternoons on 4 February, 18 February and 4 March, where people can come along, and do some warm-ups and then learn a chorus from a famous opera, and this will be the first time that these events have been able to happen since lockdown. She enjoys this sort of activity, engaging people and making them believe that they can produce a sound. 

As well as Eugene Onegin at Opera Holland Park, Lada will be conducting the opera Svadba by the Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic at Waterperry Opera Festival this year. This is a six voiced a cappella opera, and the work is difficult, earthy, and raw, but also feminine with a real strength. The director will be Rebecca Meltzer, who was the director of the Opera Holland Park Young Artists performance of Le nozze di Figaro in 2021. Further ahead there is another operatic project, as well as more coaching. Not only does this help build connections, but she is interested in the work itself, it excites her. The importance of personal connections is one that Lada mentions a few times in our chat and she feels that there are two sides to the music business, the work that is created and the personal connections that are made.

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