The success and popularity of the CBSO’s principal conductor Andris Nelsons is leading him to performances across the world. He talks to Christopher Morley about his hectic schedule.
Though Birmingham audiences know and love him as principal conductor of the CBSO, Andris Nelsons is having an amazing season in the world of grand opera, and not just in his two home countries of Latvia and England.
“Fifteen performances of Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in two runs around Christmas time, and then Covent Garden with La Boheme...” he recalls.
The Turandot production was not without its problems, as this extraordinarily affable giant of a man tells me over a late lunch at Strada in the ICC, half-a minute from Symphony Hall.
“Before the premiere the principal soprano fell ill, so we had to get her replacement from the second cast. She was rehearsing with us, not with orchestra, but just with the piano, so she really had to jump in.”
Following its success, Nelsons has been invited to return to the Met for the forthcoming season.
“I’m going back to do Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, and that’s wonderful.”
After the Met came a residence earlier this year at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, with Andris’ second consecutive Puccini opera, La Boheme, and he sounds almost apologetic about loving this beautiful piece.
“It’s still one of my favourite operas. Maybe it’s very naive, but there’s something so sincere about it. Even someone like Carlos Kleiber conducting it, such a big man, you need to respond emotionally...
“I think sometimes that simplicity is the key to solving many, many problems. Humour and simplicity can go through many things. Generally, Puccini operas tell us that the most difficult thing in life is to sacrifice something for someone, and what is the strongest sacrifice is your life.
“Liu in Turandot sacrifices herself for her love, and Butterfly sacrifices her life for her child, and Tosca...
“You know, I think this is such a difficult act, the highest possible, and people sometimes think. ‘oh, this is nothing special, she just died for someone, so what? It’s more important to go and create a new country, or a new currency.’
“But if you look at things practically, to give your life for someone, this is the highest human act you can do.”
Then we go on to agree about how Calaf is the nastiest character in Turandot. The Princess herself cannot be blamed for her actions, having known nothing else other than power and cruelty, but the little slave-girl Liu dies under torture rather than deliver Calaf into Turandot’s clutches – yet he still pursues his desire for that tormented woman, despite all her atrocities, and her crimes against the girl who gave her life for love of him.
“At the end, what changes Turandot is not Calaf, but Liu actually,” Andris explains. “She sees someone dying, and telling her it’s for love, and then she starts to think. Liu is the strongest personality in that opera.
“Going back to Boheme, it’s a great opera, very sincere. So it was a great time in Covent Garden, really.”
Then something came along which was totally unexpected, and certainly not in the diary. Andris’ great mentor, Mariss Jansons, was scheduled to conduct Carmen at the Vienna State Opera just a few weeks ago, but had to withdraw for emergency heart surgery (from which, happily, he is successfully recovering). So Andris was called for to step into the breach.
But Andris was simultaneously undertaking important concerts in Birmingham, and on several occasions this involved dramatic flights from rehearsal to rehearsal on private jets between Vienna and here – and Andris hates flying.
“It was unexpected, but it was so exciting to do Carmen with the Vienna Philharmonic – though I’ve already done Butterfly, Tosca and Queen of Spades in Vienna, so I knew the orchestra – but this was a great chance for me.
“I love Carmen very, very much. It’s another masterpiece.
“There’s something in this opera which attracts every conductor, even opposites.” And Tchaikovsky and Brahms, I interject, composers who hated each other (“that scoundrel, that talentless bastard,” once spat Tchaikovsky about Brahms) but who both adored this opera.
“I had to combine Vienna with Birmingham – Shostakovich 4, and then the Rachmaninov Symphonic Dances – and in between the Vienna rehearsals and performances. The only way to get between the two places on time was on private jet. Vienna organised that.”
This was not Andris’ first experience of such a tight schedule. “It happened also in Vienna two years ago, when I had to jump in for Seiji Ozawa in Queen of Spades, and it was the same kind of situation. I had Hamburg Opera, Zurich Tonhalle, and Vienna Opera all at the same time.”
And now we are all looking forward to Wagner’s Lohengrin on Saturday, one of the biggest (and longest) concerts the CBSO has ever undertaken.
“I’m so happy that so many people can be involved,” enthuses Andris. “Orchestra, offstage players, the Chorus, the Youth Chorus, and the soloists. And it’s almost at the end of the season, so we all come together like a big party.”
We go on to discuss the intricacies of Lohengrin, its links with Wagner’s last opera Parsifal (which Andris Nelsons will conduct in Vienna in the future), and then Andris reveals that there will be a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde from the CBSO in the next season but one.
Birmingham and the Midlands are in for a heady Wagnerian period, not just at Symphony Hall (the Philharmonia’s Tristan under Esa-Pekka Salonen at the end of this September and Birmingham Hippodrome (Welsh National Opera’s Mastersingers with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs), but also at Longborough Festival Opera in the Cotswolds, where a Ring-cycle is steadily unfolding (Die Walkure is staged there at the end of July). Andris’ ears prick up when I describe to him how Longborough has turned itself into a mini-Bayreuth (never mind Glyndebourne), with a pit thrusting underneath the stage in order to accommodate a full Wagnerian orchestra.
And Bayreuth is very much in Andris Nelsons’ mind at the moment, as he has been invited to conduct Lohengrin there at the revered Wagnerian festival, which has a waiting list of between five and 10 years for fans wishing to attend this annual showcase for the German composer’s music.
The production will in fact open this year’s festival in the quaint Bavarian town, which runs from July 25 to August 28.
“We start rehearsing there in the middle of June. I met with Wolfgang Wagner (the composer’s grandson, recently deceased) a couple of years ago, and other members of the Wagner family.”
Andris’s first operatic experience was at the age of five, when his parents took him to a performance of Wagner’s Tannhauser in the opera-house at Riga. Andris has told me in the past how he rushed home and tried to compose his own opera. But now he expands upon his reactions to that life-changing event which left him in tears.
“I’m trying to remember... I was watching the conductor all the time. I was so afraid for him. I thought in my mind that the conductor’s every movement is reflected in the sound, so I thought if he does something wrong, one movement wrong, it all would collapse, I had this feeling.
“Now I realise that actually the orchestra can play without the conductor.
“Remembering this is so funny, now that I’m conducting in Bayreuth. It’s like a dream. My parents will be coming. That link between when I was five and they took me to the opera, and now I can take them.”