About Opera: So, how does it feel to conduct at Glyndebourne Festival?
Leo Hussain: Well, it’s pretty good, actually. For me it feels a little bit like coming home, because, when I was very young, just after I finished my studies, I worked at Glyndebourne as an assistant conductor a few times. And then I took a ten year break and now I’m back there, so it feels very comfortable actually to me. It’s a wonderful place to work.
A.O.: That’s great! So, this is the first time you are effectively conducting there an opera?
L.H.: Yes, absolutely, before I was only behind the scenes, as a music staff, not as a conductor.
A.O.: I see. And now how is it going on with The Rape of Lucretia? Does it have success?
L.H.: It’s a wonderful piece, and we have a great production, by Fiona Shaw. And it’s been received very well, and the singers, of course, like always at Glyndebourne, are fantastic, so, yes, it’s been a very good experience for all of us…
A.O.: I’m very glad to hear that. Now, This interview will be released during Enescu Festival.
A.O.: So, while you are already here, in Bucharest, conducting. Now, doing my research on the internet about you, I had some things to fill, to complete, so, I would ask you some personal questions, I hope you don’t mind if they are inappropriate.
L.H.: Of course not… (laughs).
A.O.: So, you are a British conductor, but I’ve never found where you were born.
L.H.: I was born in a small town called Redding, which is to the West of London, so I was born close to London.
A.O.: And the resonance of your family name, Hussain… It doesn’t sound British, it doesn’t sound English.
L.H.: (laughs) Well, actually, more and more these days it’s more common in England, but originally, my father’s family was from Pakistan. So, this is where the name comes from, it’s a Pakistani name.
A.O.: Thank you! So, also, since you are debuting now at Glyndebourne, as far as I understood you will also have a debut at the Royal Opera House, with Enescu’s Œdipe, in 2016.
L.H.: Yes, that’s correct.
A.O.: The production is the same as the one in Bruxelles, you conducted a couple of years ago, in 2011, so you know it very well. But this is also a premiere: it’s the first time when Œdipe is performed in the UK. What are your expectations about this? How do you think the British public will receive this opera, this production, that you know very well? You also know the public reaction in Bruxelles and so on…
L.H.: For me it’s difficult to be objective about it. I have such a strong personal feeling about the piece, I so passionately believe that it’s a masterpiece, it’s very difficult for me to understand anybody could not love it. So, it’s a very difficult question… I’m very, very happy and very, very honoured actually to be doing it in London, because I think it is a piece which deserves to be played in the greatest opera houses in the world, and by the greatest orchestras and the greatest singers. And, so I hope really that it’s the beginning of a kind of rehabilitation for the piece, in an international context. I know that it has been played in Vienna and obviously in Romania, and in Berlin, places like this, but I think it’s a piece that really deserves to be in the repertoire of every major opera house. So I’m very excited to have the opportunity to bring it to London.
A.O.: On the same level, in Romania, you will also conduct Wozzeck for the first time. This has opera has never been performed before in our country. You have already conducted both of those operas, Œdipe and Wozzeck. I read that you did Wozzeck in Salzburg, at Landestheater, and you did it with a reduced orchestra, with 21 instruments, with a re-orchestration by the Canadian composer John Rea. Now, in Bucharest, you will do it with a full orchestra, and with the original score, that of Alban Berg? Is this the first time you are doing it in this version?
L.H.: Yes. It will be my first time with the full orchestration, but obviously it is also a great honour to be able to play another masterpiece from the XXth century for the first time in Romania. And I’m always very happy to do this, I did this a couple of years ago, with Gurre-Lieder, and now to bring Wozzeck, again, it’s really a dream…
A.O.: If I may say, you are living on the edge with national premieres in two countries, in a very modern repertoire, masterpieces both of them.
L.H.: (laughs) Yes, you are right. But I think it’s very important for every artist to push the boundaries and to explore things that aren’t so familiar for people. I think life would be very boring if we only had to play Verdi and Mozart, as wonderful and masterpieces their pieces are. The more broad we can have our horizons, the richer our life is, I think.
A.O.: Yes, but you are also a very young conductor, with a broad repertoire…
L.H.: Thank you, I hope so! (laughs)
A.O.: It’s hard for me, for instance, to imagine Karl Böhm conducting Œdipe. I could imagine him conducting Wozzeck, because it’s more familiar, more well known in the opera repertoire. Do you think that contemporary music is the asset of young conductors, who have to find their path to glory by having success in this kind of repertoire, is this a path?
L.H.: Well, I hope not, because for me there is no such thing as contemporary music, or classical music, or romantic music, it’s all just music, and either it’s great music or it’s not great music, and I don’t like to talk about the differentiation of XXth century music or XVIIIth century music. Also, sixty years ago it was very easy for a musician to make a career compared to what it is today, and you know, I think that probably 50-60 years ago it was quite comfortable just to say “OK, I pick up and conduct this and this piece, and I do the repertoire, and we don’t have to care about the audience”, whereas today we have to be more pro-active and we have to be more interested and interesting for people. And I think the days when people would see Nozze di Figaro for four times in one season, in one year, are over. And I think people, the public expect a much more varied repertoire than the public did 50 or 60 years ago. The public these days is much more open minded and hopefully we can encourage the public to become more and more open minded with this music. But I think it’s also going to be for me not a fight, but a challenge to broaden people’s horizon and introduce them to music that they might not otherwise listen to.
A.O.: What’s this Wozzeck about? Not the libretto, I mean, but what’s you view on Wozzeck? Because, since it’s the first time when it will be performed in Romania, of course there are people who know the music from recordings. But in Romania we also have a strong tradition of theatre, and while the opera has never been performed, the play by Büchner has been frequently presented on the Romanian stages by great directors. And the theatre public in Romania is quite different from the opera public, they are not the same persons: the guys going to the opera do not frequently go to the theatre, and vice versa. But since there is a festival which is very, very important in Romania and gathers all kind of people there, large, very large audiences, much more than in the opera houses or in the theatres, it will be performed at Sala Palatului, the Palace Hall, with a couple of thousands of people, which is much more than the capacity of opera, which is only 1000, or small, experimental theatres, with couple of hundreds… So, that could be interesting to know your perspective on this opera, well, as stupid as the question might seem, because you cannot probably express in just a couple of words… Can you try?
L.H.: (laughs) For me it’s a good question, because I think Wozzeck is one of the most perfect operas ever written, I think in many ways it’s the perfect synthesis of music and theatre. And of course it is slightly a different context that we talk about when we play the piece in a concert performance. I think the wonderful thing about it is that the music is so theatrical, and it’s so dramatic, and it’s so strong, that in many ways any concept you choose is also a theatrical experience and I think that particularly with a piece like Wozzeck, I think in my mind, any possible form for Wozzeck is an evening of theatre, it’s not just an evening of music. It’s a piece which very, very well, and very successfully crosses the boundaries between theatre and music and I think, in my experience, people who are interested in theatre love it for what it is, and people interested in music love it also for what it is. I hope it might be a chance, maybe, to cross the audiences.
A.O.: Since it will be in a concert form, well, how would you solve the presence of the kid, Wozzeck and Maria’s boy, in the last scene of the opera?
L.H.: (laughs) In which way?
A.O.: Well, usually, in standard productions of Wozzeck as an opera, there is the final scene where the kids are announcing Wozzeck’s boy about his mother’s death. And the kid keeps riding a wooden horse, a toy, and … you know… While, you do have this in concert, so there will be no such imagery. How would you solve this?
L.H.: I think it is also possible, even in a concert version, to make the dramatic sense clear, it’s something we have to think about pretty carefully, and we have already. But I don’t want to give it all away, but I think it will still be a very affecting scene. And for me the important thing is this sense of this utter despair and desolation of the child, a little bit like the end of Pelleas et Melisande. The child is the one who has to live with the consequences of everything.
A.O.: You are getting more and more involved with the George Enescu Festival. In 2013 you had a great success with Gurre-Lieder, after that scandal with Bertrand de Billy leaving and you took it as the French say, au pied levé, and you made it a success. Now, you’re coming with Wozzeck, but I also saw a poster from the National Opera, with your name on it, about you conducting also an Œdipe, at the Romanian Opera, in September.
L.H.: Yes, this is also as part of the Festival actually, these two performances that we give. And it’s like I said, it’s a piece about which I think it is wonderful and it’s an honour and a responsibility to play it in Bucharest. It’s a great pleasure for me.
A.O.: So, in a way, this Œdipe could be also like a public rehearsal for your Royal Opera House debut in a way, in a musical way.
L.H.: No, I wouldn’t put it like that really at all. Because it’s a piece that I know very well, anyway. So for me it’s much more an opportunity to present the piece in its home country, which is also something very special for me. I don’t in any way think of it as a public rehearsal. We have a great cast, you know, and an orchestra that is used to playing the piece, which is also extraordinary for me, because I only used to play it with orchestras that do not know it at all, so to be able to learn something from the orchestra about the piece will be something very good to me.
A.O.: I understand. So, going on further with Wozzeck and Œdipe, which will be performed basically at the same time, first Wozzeck on the 14th of September and then Œdipe, on 18th and 20th of September, as far as I can remember. Both operas are composed quite in the same period: Alban Berg saw for the first time Büchner’s play in 1913, by the same time George Enescu received the libretto from Edmond Fleg, for Œdipe, and started composing it and, at the same time, Berg was thinking about making an opera out of Woyzeck. They were quite finishing at the same time. By the time Berg had his premiere, in Berlin, Enescu had just finished to compose the opera and it remained only the orchestration to be refined. Now, could it be an influence from Berg to Enescu or from Enescu to Berg? They were both exploring a sort of new musical language in parallel ways…
L.H.: I am not so sure I would talk about influences either way. But I think what is very interesting is the whole atmosphere of the world, particularly the musical world. If you think of the events of the first part of the XXth century, it’s a very strong historical story, and I think one of the times that interest me most is the very beginning of the XXth century, I think it must have been an incredibly interesting and rich time to live. And I think that the flavour of this sense of freedom, and not necessarily experimentation, but a freedom to express yourself artistically, musically, was something that existed in a huge amount in the musical world. And I also think of Janáček in the same kind of way, and maybe Britten as well, even if he lived later, but nevertheless, this sense of freedom of expression among composers is something very special.
A.O.: Also, it was the time when la Belle Epoque was finished, it was the end of a world and the beginning of a new kind of world, after the First World War. Also, all those artistic currents in Vienna, which led to a new breed of composers and artists…
L.H.: And not just in music, but also if you think of Freud or Klimt, and all the other Viennese artists or scientists… It’s the sense of really a new world.
A.O.: Do you think Enescu was influenced by Freud and modern psychology when writing his Œdipe? Not only from the perspective of the mythology, about Œdipe myth, but for instance his encounter with the Sphinx. La Sphinge, as Edmond Fleg put it in his libretto, where the sphinx has a feminine gender.
L.H.: (laughs) I think it probably would have been difficult to avoid this influence of Freud… Particularly when we are talking about that story, but I’m not a specialist enough in the writings of Freud in order to be able to give you a good analysis on that, but certainly what you can see in the music is very… sinuous. It clearly is about something very much underneath the story. And I think this has always been one of the wonderful things about this opera, but I think it becomes very clear in that situation that it’s all in the subtext.
A.O.: In Romanian, you know, the sphinx has only a male gender, it’s not feminine.
A.O.: Fleg’s libretto, which is in French, says “La sphinge”, so, it’s a feminine sphinx, which is quite odd for a Romanian. We might picture a sphinx as a woman, with the voice… that is just weird…
L.H.: I didn’t know that at all, this is very interesting, because then it becomes much more freudian, the whole thing!
A.O.: Well, also the particular white voice that is indicated in the libretto, “La Sphinge with the white voice” that says “je t’attendais”… And supposedly Enescu wrote in his conversation with Bernard Gavoty that, by the time he finished that scene, the music of the Sphinx’ encounter with Œdipe, he said he just put the pen down for while, because he felt he was about to become mad, to become insane.
L.H.: Wow!!! That’s interesting!
A.O.: It consumed him so much… That became a focal point and probably because of this quote from Enescu it became a focal point in some productions of this opera.
L.H.: But I think it’s also so most extraordinary scene that is composed, the sound of it is just something completely new and so powerful, in my opinion, its music is one of the highlights of the opera, as well.
A.O.: So, how do you find Enescu festival? You have been conducting all around Europe, in all kind of places, you are now in Glyndebourne…
L.H.: I think it’s a very special place, and I think Mr Hollender has done a huge amount of good for this. And it really accounts as one of the top international festivals now. And it’s always a pleasure, I love Romania, my girlfriend is Romanian, and we spend quite a lot of time there. It’s really a pleasure to go there and to feel the atmosphere, the concentration, a sort of focus on doing exceptionally good work. And I will remember for the rest of my life very clearly these rehearsals for Gurre-Lieder, which was my first experience with the Enescu Philharmonic and the sense of cry in the performance, which is something that you can’t learn, it is something too very special, I think.
A.O.: Thank you very much, it’s very kind of you to say this about the festival. And the last question, a little bit off topic from the rest of the conversation: which are the latest classical or opera music records that you listened to and liked lately? Could you tell us a couple of words about them?
L.H.: I don’t tend to listen to very much music at all, particularly when I am busy working. So, the last thing I saw was this production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Glyndebourne. I don’t listen to music to relax. For me, it’s much more of an active thing. I don’t have enough time to listen…
A.O.: Thank you very much! If you want to add anything to this, please…
L.H.: I am very much looking forward to being there!
A.O.: Me too, I am looking forward to seeing you both in Wozzeck and in Œdipe. Thank you and good luck with The Rape of Lucretia and all you are doing!
L.H.: Thank you very much, good bye!
July 17, 2015
Photo Gallery – The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne, 2015