Leo Hussain: I have this dream of doing a concert with Stravinsky’s „Oedipus rex” in the first half, and then the fourth act of „Œdipe” in the second half.

I met the conductor Leo Hussain the day before the first Œdipe in a series of six, that will end on June 8th. It was our first meeting face to face, as the other interview he had given me had been by phone, last year, when he was conducting at Glyndebourne. The dialogue took place in his dressing room at The Royal Opera House, and this is how I got, for the first time, backstage in this extraordinary opera and ballet theatre. It was my first contact with this performance as, somewhere in the technical space near the stage, I saw a part of the iconostasis-like set. There were nearly 24 hours left…

Oedipe set

Alexandru Pătrașcu: So, this is your third Œdipe I think…

Leo Hussain: It is, yes! I think I must be the only conductor in the world to be able to do it three times. (laughs)

A.P.: So, there was Bruxelles, then Bucharest, and now the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden. How can you compare these three orchestras? How is this experience?

L.H.: I think I’d turn the question around and I’d say how can I compare myself these three times. Because one of the things that have become clear to me while rehearsing this time is that Œdipe is a piece that, however much you work at it and however much you think you learned it, actually it’s a piece you have to live with in order to really understand it. And it’s not to say that I’m not proud of the work we did in Bruxelles, but, coming back to it now, five years later, it feels like it’s a very different way of working here. So it feels like actually I would rather compare myself than to compare the orchestras, to be honest.

Leo Hussain 2

A.P.: Now, there is this problem with Œdipe’s score, which is not edited and printed as it should be. As far as I know this concerns the conductor’s score, not necessarily the instruments. 

L.H.: Also the instruments.

A.P.: Also the instruments? 

L.H.: The vocal score, the piano score is printed, but the rest is not.

A.P.: Oh, my God! And the orchestra here, from Covent Garden, are playing from a manuscript? 

L.H.: Yes, me too. In fact the only orchestra score that exists as far as I can tell is a photocopy of a photocopy of this score that was used by the record producer in the ’90s. So, not only it’s been photocopied hundreds of times, but it also has grey big scrolls of, you know, “don’t use take 78 for this bar”… I mean it’s pretty illegible, and this is something I have long discussions with the librarians, and the publishers about. What I fear is that, unless there is a proper edition, the piece will never find its place in the repertoire, because, you know, we could have saved probably two entire orchestra rehearsals here if the parts had been printed properly. And when you are talking about two entire orchestra rehearsals, that’s a lot of money.

And considering the rights we pay to the publishers in order to perform this, it’s a huge amount of money, and I think at some point it really has to be looked at whether it’s acceptable, whether it’s realistic to have this kind of parts. There does need to be a proper edition. And I did also think to myself whether I should try and do on myself if I have the time and maybe I will have the time because it’s something I would enjoy, I think. Because it’s a piece that in the score presents a lot of challenges and you have to really make a lot of decisions about things which are clearly mistakes, things which could be mistakes, and things which are clearly not mistakes but they sound like mistakes. (laughs)

Enescu’s amazing harmonies with slightly wrong notes… The piece is full of these. So I think this would be a good challenge for me. But I haven’t yet had the time.

A.P.: But you know, in Romania George Enescu is a subject of national pride, therefore there is Enescu museum, a lot of musicologists are studying related to Enescu, so it should be possible to have a team, a cooperative international team to edit this score. 

L.H.: And it should be. I think the problem is that now it has to be done through the French publishers.

A.P.: Salabert.

L.H.: Is it Salabert or Durand?

A.P.: Salabert. But it’s a shame, it’s a disgrace. We are spending lots of money on George Enescu Festival, which aims to make Enescu’s music popular in the world by inviting orchestras and ensembles to play his music, and then to love Enescu’s music, and then to play in their own seasons. Which I don’t know how much it happens. I mean there was the Third Symphony played by Jurowski, then Peter Ruzicka also recorded the Fourth and the Fifth Symphonies. And your efforts. La Monnaie production was probably independent from all the Romanian efforts to promote Enescu’s music in the world. I think that somehow Enescu’s emerging effectively in the XXIst century more than in the XXth century, when his opera was not performed in the Western Europe, except for a performance in Paris, where he died, and then another one in Bruxelles. And them some Romanian efforts to promote him in concerts. And there was a performance of Œdipe here, in England, in Edinburgh, in 2002, conducted by Cristian Mandeal. They did this in a concert, in Edinburgh Festival. 

L.H.: That’s right, because somebody said to me, in fact, that they had seen this and they were sure there was a printed score. I didn’t know who conducted it, but it was Mandeal, wasn’t it? So, maybe he then has a printed score of Œdipe, because somebody said they had seen it and they were absolutely sure there exists a printed score. So maybe he has it. I have to find out!

A.P.: So, the printed score is a mystery. But a mystery that has to be solved. Quite a detective story.

L.H.: Exactly, and maybe Mandeal is the key to solving it.

A.P.: So how did the orchestra react to this peculiar aspect of rehearsing after a manuscript?

L.H.: In fact, they’re very flexible, they’re quite used to reading manuscripts, because they play quite a lot of contemporary staff and also music for the ballet. But after they kind of deciphered it, I think, but you can never tell and you can never say 100%, but I feel they really enjoyed getting to play this. And I think there’s also a surprise in it, because we don’t know so much Enescu’s music in here. And we all think “oh, well, XXth century opera, epic theme, and it’s never played, it must be kind of intimidating and musically difficult”. And I think when they realised that actually it encompasses everything, from, you know, post-dramatic Strauss to Berg, then it feels a little bit like a child with a new toy for Christmas, it’s really fun actually. The rehearsals were really, really fun.

A.P.: That’s great. And they also had the experience last year with Król Roger, by Szymanowski.

L.H.: Exactly!

A.P.:  That gave them a taste of Eastern contemporary music. And now they have Œdipe. It’s a pity it’s not broadcasted as part of the HD season. 

L.H.: It is. And it’s a pity also they’re not filming it for DVD, because there is no DVD that exists with this piece and these days it’s a good way to disseminate it.

krol roger2
Król Roger – Szymanowski @ ROH

A.P.: There will be a radio broadcast, on the 4th of June, but I don’t know if the Romanian radio will relay it (Meanwhile the broadcast was confirmed by Radio Romania Muzical- n.n.). 

L.H.: Yes, I think they are, because I did an interview with someone from there last week and they said it was for the intermission of the programme.

A.P.: This is great! In fact, it wasn’t confirmed. But it would be unmissable, in fact it’s the only Romanian opera known in the world… 

L.H.: Maybe it’s still not confirmed. (laughs) But they have an interview, anyway.

A.P.: There were rumours at some point that the Bruxelles production would be issued on DVD.  

L.H.: I don’t know, I haven’t heard anything about this, but it’s possible, I guess. From a selfish point of view, it would be better to issue this one, because I think it is much better conducted this time. In Bruxelles it was five years ago! (laughs)

A.P.: How is the cast? I mean, it is remarkable!

L.H.: It is amazing, really incredible! It is one of the reasons why I was so pleased to do it here. Because this is the kind of house that can assemble the cast according to the needs. There are not many places in the world that can cast someone like Sir John Tomlinson to sing for ten minutes and that’s it. And it’s the same right throughout the cast. And Johan Reuter is just amazing, an animal, he’s so strong. Every day I can remark how intelligent and how prepared musically speaking he is, how clever and how powerful he is in everything he’s doing. He’s also impressive to watch.

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; John Tomlinson as Tirésias; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
Sir John Tomlinson – Tirésias (Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA)

A.P.: Related to his cleverness, I recently saw an interview with him given to a blog, and he was comparing Œdipe to Simon Boccanegra, the same journey of the character, the change of ages…  And he said all sorts of other clever things in that interview and I can’t wait to see him tomorrow.  And also, you have Sarah Connolly, Stefan Kocan, Sir Tomlinson, it’s a dream cast. 

L.H.: It’s really a dream cast. And I think it has also been interesting to see how each of them has reacted to the music. Because, of course, these small characters, they are only in one scene or two scenes at the most, so they turn up and they don’t really know the whole piece. Of course, they have done preparations to know what it is, but they know intensely their scenes and they are kind of discovering it while it’s going on. And this is interesting to watch.

A.P.: You have one of the most intense scenes with the Sphinx, which I can’t wait to hear. Also, Antigone has a large score in the end. The same for Thésée, and so on… So, are you nervous about tomorrow?

L.H.: Yes, I guess I am. I feel quite a big responsibility about it, because it’s a piece that I feel very deeply about, it’s a piece that I love and it’s a piece that I really want to give the best possible chance and really to bring it to people. And, yes, I feel the pressure. It’s never been performed in the UK before, this is possibly the greatest  opera house in the world, and it’s my debut here, in my home country, in the Royal Opera, it’s a big deal for me tomorrow.

A.P.: Me, too, I have great hopes that this opera will have big success this week. I saw the tickets were sold quite well. For the premiere 94% were already sold yesterday. And I think they will sell everything until tomorrow. (at present, all the performances are sold-out, n.n.)

L.H.: That’s really good.

A.P.: And I noticed they are cheaper, but it’s fair, because it’s not Bellini, it’s not Donizetti, it’s not Lucia di Lammermoor.

L.H.: That’s also one of the things they do really well here, in my opinion. It’s the balancing of the season with these kinds of things. They just played 11 Lucias, and now they will have 6 Œdipes, and they’re sensible about what they can do with pricing. Having thought of it recently, about management of operas and these things, one of the things that really impress me here is the way it runs so well as a business. And because of that it is also free to run well artistically. And that’s I think something very important, that, you know, of course that one thing depends on the other thing, but I don’t get the feeling that one thing interferes with the other thing. I have the sense that the business works and artistically it works, and it doesn’t necessarily interfere with each other, which is great! It means everyone is free to do their job.

A.P.: Also, if I have to make a parenthesis to this, in Romania, in Bucharest National Opera, the former management tried to import a lot of best practices from here, from the knowledge of the Royal Opera House, and anyway, British opera. Not necessarily the ROH productions, but they did Così fan tutte, directed by John Fulljames at Garsington, they brought Graham Vick, but the nationalistic side of things in Romania is still very strong, “we don’t like foreigners”, “we have our own ballet”. So, it wasn’t as successful as it should have been, even though all the opera fans in Romania admire unconditionally all the recordings from the Royal Opera House, on DVDs or in HD transmissions. That’s a parenthesis, not necessarily on the record, but still…

I think in 2013, there was an Œdipe in Bucharest, during the Enescu Festival, conducted by Adrian Morar, in the production of Anda Tăbăcaru-Hogea, the one that you conducted too. And there was a review written by John Allison, from the “Opera Magazine”. And he was saying there that there were rumours about having an Œdipe at the Royal Opera House in 2016. Maybe it wasn’t confirmed, maybe it was still only a rumour, but when were you approached by the Royal Opera House for this?

L.H.: Good question! I was just trying to figure this out. I think that probably it was confirmed by then. It must have been 2012-2013, around that time. Certainly a long time ago. And I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

A.P.: So, you were contacted through your agent. And you said yes, of course: „Where do I sign?”  (laughs)

L.H.: It wasn’t a difficult decision to say yes.

A.P.: But, it’s quite a long shot, three years, no? Don’t they usually plan ahead two years? 

L.H.: I don’t know, I think it depends on the theatre. Here, for example, I think they are planning for the next four years, with a few gaps, I am sure, but the big premieres are pencilled in a long time in advance.

A.P.: Did you get the whole cast at once? Or by roles, one by one?

L.H.: Well, we’ve discussed a lot about the cast in the past few years. Also because it’s not a piece that people know, it’s not a piece people are used to doing casts for it. They were very, very careful about this. And we spoke quite a lot about who was right for what. It was clear that it was going to be a stunning cast, of course. I guess the cast must have in place probably two years ago, I guess, something like that.

A.P.: And the part for Œdipe is very long.

L.H.: Of course, and he needs the time to learn, as well.

A.P.: I made an interview with Davide Damiani, a very nice person and also a very fine baritone, a very good Œdipe, he touches my heart with his way of doing it. We did an interview in Bucharest, he was talking about the role and he said it is a role for a life. He doesn’t expect that he would play this role very often, but he would play it as long as he can, as he sings during his career. And the difficulty of this role being this length, not necessarily in the ways it has to be, high or very low. 

L.H.: But also, it’s written in such a way that is is a very extreme role. But I think, I’m pretty sure Enescu knew what he was doing. If you think about the really extremes of the role, I mean all the low tessitura is almost always present when he is speaking with Créon and kind of growling a little bit at him. And the high tessitura is always in these very highly emotional situations, and I think he knew what he was doing, Enescu, I don’t think it’s a role where you have to find somebody who has an absolute, even voice, from low E to top G. It’s not a super-human role. Everybody will kind of fit, and of course it extends ridiculously, but then… this is another thing I’ve been amazed by when watching Johan, the way he works to deal with the challenges of the role. It is just amazing, and you’ll see this tomorrow. (laughs)

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
Johan Reuter – Œdipe (Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA)

A.P.: So, do you speak about this music with other conductors, with Antonio Pappano, for instance? 

L.H.: No, I never met Tony yet. But I do speak with colleagues about it. I know Simon Rattle is a great fan of this. I mentioned to him that I was doing it here and he was like “Great! I must come and see the rehearsals, or even come to a performance!” And he said he’d loved it for a long time, because I think Lawrence Foster, in the ‘90s, was trying to convince him that he should conduct this as well, so he might as well have listened to it. And I was trying to convince him we should programme the fourth act in concert. I think the four act of Œdipe would make a wonderful concert. Or, I have this dream of doing Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex in the first half, and then the fourth act of Œdipe in the second half. But it’s ridiculously expensive, and nobody has yet agreed to do it, but I keep trying.

A.P.: When you were in Bucharest, you were supposed to conduct the new production made by Valentina Carrasco, but it wasn’t ready in time…

L.H.: I think they had planned to have a new production by somebody else, and then that fell through and they decided to play the old production. But then they decided to have a new production for the Opera Europa Conference, so then Valentina was asked at the last minute to come with this other production. And luckily, because she knew the piece, she had done this one, here. I don’t think the plans were to do the same production, because when I was originally asked to conduct it, they were still trying to arrange it.

A.P.: In the spring of 2015, the manager Răzvan Ioan Dincă said that the Opera would have a new production, in the autumn, probably letting people understand that this would be presented during the Festival. No names were said and then it was you on the plan, and I thought there would be a new production. But it wasn’t, and, after that, when Valentina Carrasco did it for Opera Europa Conference, I thought that you and her were meant to work together on this new production.  

L.H.: No, it wasn’t like that. And I was very disappointed. Not that I got to conduct the old production, but because part of the reason I wanted to be in Bucharest was the chance to really work on it, properly, with proper rehearsals, time for a new production, I planned to be there for a long time, because I wanted to be there for this big rehearsal period.

A.P.: And you had also Wozzeck, which was great!

L.H.: Exactly, they were quite at the same time. And that is another masterpiece. So, yes, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a new production, and also, you know… It makes a big difference in the atmosphere of a house when you are just reviving something you have done many times. You can put it up in a day, or something like that, you don’t do something new and creative. It’s a very different experience.

A.P.: I’m very curious tomorrow to see the differences and the likenesses between Valentina’s production from Bucharest and this one. Definitely there should be some things similar, but I can’t wait to discover them.

L.H.: There are many differences, as well, I was speaking with her last week about this and she was saying there are differences. Well, I didn’t see the one in Bucharest, of course.

A.P.: I’ve seen it two or three times. It’s very nice. I couldn’t imagine why the Sphinx is a Stuka plane, but ok, we’ll see. (laughs)

OEDIPE by Georges Enesco; Royal Opera House; Covent Garden; London, UK; 20 May 2016; Johan Reuter as Oedipe; Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Sphinx; Leo Hussain - Conductor; Àlex Ollé - Director; Valentina Carrasco - Associate Director; Alfons Flores - Set designer; Lluc Castells - Costume designer; Peter van Praet - Lighting designer; Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA
ŒDIPE by George Enescu (Photo: © ROH Photographer: CLIVE BARDA)

L.H.: Davide was telling me they are planning to play this Bucharest one in Hungary, or something?

A.P.: Well, yes, they will do this at the beginning of June, at the Miskolc Opera Festival. And, when George Calin was still involved in the Opera house, I was planning to go with them and to see it, and to measure the reaction of the audience. Because it strikes me very deeply, as a spectator, the myth is very powerful, even if it’s about murder, incest, parricide, all the horrors. But still the music and the whole context of the opera are not really a horror movie. 

L.H.: A lot of people complained that Fleg and Enescu changed the end of Sophocle’s text, by making it less dark. Actually I completely disagree, I think what they did is that they recognised the fact that if you want to have an evening like this, of epic scale, regardless of the story, you don’t want people going out of the theatre depressed. They can be moved, they can be affected, they can be all kinds of things, but you know, there has to be some pay-off in the end. I think it’s basic dramaturgy, really. And I said this to somebody else two days ago, the miracle of it is that you go through this horror, as you say, and yet that end is so uplifting and it’s such a kind of positive, not least musically, of course, but the end is such an uplifting positive thing, that it doesn’t feel like you’ve seen the tragedy. A little bit like Tristan in that respect. The end takes you somewhere else.

A.P.: And making Œdipe very human as a character, not super-human. It’s not oversized.

L.H.: And it’s something that this production does very well: it makes him too human and relevant to all of us.

A.P: So, that’s pretty much all the questions I had. I wish you very big success tomorrow and I hope this production will impress the British audience. Thank you very, very much!

L.H.: You’re very welcome!