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Stellan Sagvik
18 Nov 2010

Stellan Sagvik: An Interview

Swedish composer Stellan Sagvik is a protean figure with a large and diverse body of work ranging from works for solo flute (most recently written for his wife, Kinga Práda), to chamber music — five string quartets, with another on the way, and symphonies, operas and choral music.

An Interview with Stellan Sagvik

By Tom Moore


In addition to all this Sagvik devotes himself to producing and releasing recordings of contemporary Swedish music on the label he founded, Nosag Records. We spoke by Skype on March 29, 2010.

TM: Where were you born?

SS: I was born in 1952 in a little town called Örebro, in the middle of southern Sweden, but moved from there when I was only four years old in 1956, so I have no memories whatsoever from that time. I grew up mostly in Stockholm.

TM: Were there musicians in your family?

SS: Not really. On my father’s side they had good singing voices. My grandfather, I think, played the flute, and one of my cousins played the guitar and was also a piano builder. Not really any musicians, and no composers whatsoever. On my mother’s side everybody is tone-deaf.

TM: Including your mother?

SS: Including my mother. She cannot sing two notes in a row.

TM: How did you get started in music? With an instrument? Or was it singing?

SS: I am told that when I was little I was sitting behind a big armchair pretending that I was a little radio. I don’t know how old I was at the time — maybe four or five. I was singing and making music — hitting some cans, or drumming on a stool. If you are talking about real music, I started playing recorder, as most children do in Sweden, at about six or seven. But then I thought that the songs in the recorder book were tedious and not very interesting, so I wrote my own. I was not a wonder-child — my mother kept them, and still has them, and they were random notes on lines on the paper.

TM: I suppose that when you were pretending to be a radio that the family did not yet have a television.

SS: Yes — there were no televisions in Sweden until the very late fifties, and early sixties. I saw a television for the first time in my life when I was seven. It was a big thing — some people had televisions. My mother said “It won’t be in our lifetime” that we would get a television.

TM: Was the broadcasting service through the government?

SS: In Sweden we have a rather unusual system. It is only very recently that we got commercial radio. Before that it was not government radio — it was owned by the unions — working people owned the system of radio and television in Sweden. The state was a not an owner — they had some involvement on the boards. It was ten to fifteen years ago that commercial radio got started in Sweden.

TM: What sort of music were you listening to on the radio?

SS: When I was little, there was very little music. There was one “Gramophone Hour” a day. The rest was talking, talking, talking, talking. There were some concerts on Saturdays, but I was too little. Once I was aware of what music was, when I was ten or eleven, there started to be more music being broadcast on the radio, and there was also a second station — there had been only one at the beginning. The second one was filled with music. When I was fifteen, they started a third channel with pop music. That was terrible! according to most people, but I thought it was rather OK.

TM: You were playing recorders with the other schoolchildren. Did you move on to other instruments?

SS: Not at the beginning. I was eleven or twelve when I started to play saxophone, which I played for a couple of years, but I thought it was a very heavy thing to carry that big box around, so I started taking leave. I would leave the house with my saxophone, tell my mother I was going to my lesson, and never went to the lesson, so my teacher called my mother after a couple of weeks asking where I was. She wondered “what is this???” since every week I had been going to the lesson, but I had been walking around with my big box, doing nothing. So I was not very interested at that time. I started really to take it more seriously when I was fifteen. I had a girlfriend at the time who was playing violin, both folk music and classical music. She took me to concerts — there were free concerts for youngsters at the concert hall at the time. She took me there, and I started getting interested. I also got some records. I got my first LP from my mother’s boyfriend (my father had died when I was little). He gave me an LP with the Beethoven fifth piano concerto. He was not a very nice guy — he bought it because he wanted me not to listen to pop music. It was a sort of kick in the ass — instead of buying Beatles or jazz he bought me Beethoven, and thought I would be mad. But I enjoyed it. By the end I knew every note because I listened to it all the time. When I started the relationship with this girl, I was fifteen, and began to write some music for her violin. I remember that I drew lines on a normal blank sketchbook, the sort you use for drawing, and I started writing a piece that later became a canon for two violins. At the time it was for solo violin — that was my first piece, from about ’67, ’68.

TM: Had you been studying music theory in school?

SS: Nothing like that. Again, it was this girlfriend that inspired me to start thinking about maybe getting some education in music, because I was very bored with school at the time, and wanted to quit. I was thinking about different ways to turn, and she said “Why don’t you go to the music school and see if they have some courses?” I met a very nice man, who quoted Handel, and said you have to learn everything that there is, and then go your own way. I took his advice, and started playing clarinet, since I still had some technique remaining from the saxophone. I had a very nice teacher who helped me to see music as expression, not only as notes that you have to manage with your instrument, but also something that you can speak with. You can tell something, tell stories, express feelings…. That’s how it all started, and just kept on rolling. I did a lot of work in theaters in my youth, so now I play almost all the instruments that there are. It sounds strange, but I play almost everything — I am not an expert on any of them, but I know how they all function, I can play tunes, I can use them for world music — for that type of concert.

TM: It’s much easier to write for them if you know what they do well, and what they don’t do well.

SS: Of course -and how they sound in their various registers, and what they shouldn’t do. You cannot write for a trombone in the same way that you write for a clarinet, and yet people who are writing with synthesizers don’t realize this — they write the same thing, regardless of what instrument it is for. But you have to think of this all the time.

TM: This is what Telemann said — that you must give the instrument what it likes to do, and that way the players will be happy, and you will be too.

SS: Absolutely. If you don’t write something that puts down or diminishes the musician, the musician does much better work, because they feel that you are using their skills, their musicality — you don’t insult them by coming with stupidities. I always have in mind that you have to work with the musicians, not against them.

TM: What was the musical environment when you were taking up the clarinet? Certainly there was rock and roll, and jazz, and contemporary music going on in Stockholm.

SS: Like most of my generation the basics were pop music — we didn’t call it rock, we called it pop. What Michael Jackson was doing is now called pop, while what we called pop is now rock. Most young people listened to Merseybeat, but I was more interested in those who were not doing the middle-of-the-road stuff — I wanted music that was more developed, that used more resources, perhaps worked with orchestras, did longer suites — not just two or three minutes, but six or seven or eight. That was what I listened to. When I got older — fifteen, sixteen, seventeen — I started listening to experimental groups like Parsons, King Crimson, Zappa….

TM: You mentioned your canon for violins. Where did you go after that in terms of the music that you were writing?

SS: I tried almost all types of ensembles, and sizes — my third or fourth pieces was my first symphony. For example, I read that there several types of clarinets — A, B-flat, C, D, E-Flat, F, A, A-flat — I used all of these in my symphony, and I also used the bassett-horn, that was not so common at the time, and also alto clarinet, and bass clarinet. It sounds like a clarinet symphony — that was not the case — but for every movement I changed the tuning for the clarinets, because I wanted to I see if the D clarinet had a different sound than the B-flat clarinet. Of course it does, but nobody ever played the symphony, so I didn’t get to hear the difference, and I don’t think people would be able to get access to all those different instruments.

TM: Where did you go to study music formally?

SS: That was rather late — I was twenty-four when I started higher education in music. I played clarinet, I played flute, I played oboe, I played several instruments — but I was not really any good compared to those that specialized in one. I played all the instruments, and so I couldn’t specialize in any, and couldn’t pass the entrance exam. When I did enter higher education, I did so as a composer, and not as an instrumentalist. This was in ’75 that I started.

TM: At the college of music in Stockholm?

SS: I slipped in — that’s my theory, anyway. There was a new professor of composition that year, and I had a very good recommendation from the boss where I had worked. He was a well-known director, and a well-known personality in Sweden. His
recommendation rather impressed the professor, so that’s why I got in so easily as a composer.

TM: You had been working at the theater?

SS: I had written pieces for the plays at the theater, and played many instruments. The director put all this in the recommendation. By this time I had already written about fifty pieces.

TM: Who was the professor with whom you went on to study?

SS: Gunnar Bucht, who was born in ’27, I think. He was professor for ten years, and then became headmaster of the college and the university and so forth. As a composer and a teacher he is very academic — very strict and filled with rules. He told that I would go through the program pretty much undisturbed, but that he thought that I could prune a little in my exuberantly growing garden. He thought that I had too many ideas, and his main aim was to try to get me to focus on few ideas, and develop them more.

TM: What was his background in terms of pedagogy?

SS: He had studied in Germany with a serial composer, I don’t remember who, and had also had lessons from Blomdahl and Rosenberg.

TM: The music you were writing was not twelve-tone….

SS: I did some pieces, but mostly as spin-offs from my professor’s assignments. Some of them I reused in pieces later, but I was never much into this…I thought it was a waste not to use the music which I had done — I tried to reshape it and make it useful. I made a flute concerto, the first one, and a piece for flute and organ, which were twelve-tone. The flute concerto I wrote when I was nineteen, and finished it with this professor. The piece was really finished already in ’72, but I reshaped it a little — shrunk it from big orchestra to flute and strings only.

TM: Would you say that you are self-taught?

SS: No, I wouldn’t, because in spite of what I said earlier, I got quite a lot from Bucht, because he made me more aware of what I was doing. I had lots of ideas, and wrote a lot of music, but based on intuition and not so much on thought. He made me focus so that I was aware of what I was doing, and why. I won’t say that the music that I did before was very much different from what I did after, but at least I felt more in control after my education.

TM: What would be a typical work from the time when you were studying with Gunnar Bucht?

SS: I don’t know if there are any typical works from that time, because I continued writing in all genres of music, from simple songs with piano up to orchestral pieces and full-scale opera. So I don’t have any typical pieces. I wrote an orchestral piece that was meant to be played by the orchestra of the school, and Bucht managed to have an agreement to make all the parts and scores and printing and so forth, and also with the professor in conducting, Jorma Panula, to direct this piece. But when it came time to begin the rehearsals, the students didn’t turn up. I don’t know if was a misunderstanding, bad planning… but it was never performed then. It was performed later.

TM: To follow up on what you were saying about moving from an intuitive approach to a more considered approach, would you say that your approach to composition is a narrative one, moving from the details to the structure, or an architectural one, moving from the large structure to filling in the details?

SS: Neither of them, really. I work with intuition. I don’t plan details. I have a goal, and I know where I am going, and I know what kind of stations I will pass, but the exact way of traveling, and who I meet — that is more from intuition, and almost improvisation sometimes.

It’s funny that you mention this about architecture, because one of my colleagues made a presentation about a concert of my music, and he made a comparison with architecture, saying that I am not one who makes a drawing or a sketch, something that you have to follow in every detail, but that I am an architect who uses one technique to build a pool, another for building a school, and another for building a theater, because you have to use different tools, you have to imagine different audiences, so that you have re-draw your drawings. I think that I work mostly from intuition and improvisation, but with a very clear goal.

TM: Another composer described a long piece as a long journey to a final vista, which has more of an effect because of the path you have to take to get there.

SS: Earlier I worked with texts — poetical texts, lyrics of different kinds, and abstract texts in non-existent languages, which helped me to make a structure. I also wrote four or five op eras, and equally many pieces for the stage. Now, in later years, I work more and more with chamber music, for special musicians, or for a special occasion, or for a special tour, or a special audience. That makes other demands, and gives other possibilities. The pieces are shorter, more concentrated. I wouldn’t say sketchy, but like short-hand, drawing — you throw out the idea rather quickly. I could write a piece in a couple of hours to be used the day after. In earlier times, I could sit for four or five months over a one-hour piece. It’s a different way of working today.

TM: Perhaps you might say something about your chamber music. You have a considerable amount of music for flute. Did you work with a particular flutist or flutists?

SS: I worked with the flutist Mats Möller, who did the first performances of many of my pieces. I wrote many of them for him or his ensembles. My wife, whom I met in 1995, is a flutist as well, so there are many pieces written for her to premiere. Her name is Kinga Práda, and she is originally from Transylvania. So I get big bites every day.

TM: Hence the title Vampire State Building.

SS: Exactly. There’s a very odd story about that. I wrote the piece around the time of 9/11, and Kinga was going to premiere the piece in Germany. The producer said “No, you can’t perform a piece with that title. It’s not possible”, because of the events. So I couldn’t call it anything that had to do with buildings, or planes, or flying, or travel, or anything having to do with the United States. So I had to rename the piece “Flute Status”. When the first performance finally took place, people’s nerves were more at ease, so I could go back to the original Vampire State Building.

TM: Not politically correct.

SS: Absolutely not.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about the idiom of your music for flute. Do you have a particular approach for flute?

SS: Normally I work rather traditionally. I don’t use the flute as a baseball bat, or something like that. I prefer to use it as it is supposed to sound. The Solar Plexus suite is based on the solar system, with the characteristics of the various planets, or, if you like, the Roman gods, their powers, their different temperaments….here I use somewhat more extended techniques, but still it is connected with flute playing, not with flute sounds or strange behaviors. I think it is the trickiest piece, technically, that I have written.

TM: Would you like to talk about some fairly recent pieces?

SS: I have several small pieces, mostly for chamber ensembles, for two, three, four musicians, the type of pieces based around the musicians playing them — portraits of the musicians, of their backgrounds, what they have been working with, if they are known for playing certain kinds of music — perhaps I will use that as a way of writing for them. I have some pieces that make references to impressionism — the great French repertoire for flute from the last century. I make comments on these in these small pieces.

I have done a lot of work for choir. I am now planning recording sessions to try to record all of my music for choir, collaborating with great conductors here in Sweden to document about four or five hours of choral music over the next two years.

TM: Which conductors and choirs?

SS: An American, Gary Graden, who has been working in Sweden for twenty years or so, who has a very good choir at the Jacob Church in Stockholm — the Jacob Chamber Choir. I am also working with a young conductor, Hans Vainikainen, who is working with one of the biggest choral congregations in Stockholm with six or seven choirs, six hundred choir singers. He has just recently started there, succeeding the guy who built this tradition. And there is Bengt Ollén, who has a very good chamber choir that has made several good CDs with both American and English music. The choir has a clear, young sound, so I plan to use that for some of the sacred pieces. They can’t be heavy or pressed, in the old sort of sacred tradition, there must be plenty of fresh air in the music.

TM: We were talking earlier about the difficulties of contemporary music, but it’s easier if you have a record company to release your music. How did your company get started?

SS: I really don’t remember….I was playing in the seventies in a world-music group, and we made some LPs. We wanted to reissue them on CD, and nobody was interested. So I took care of it — it started like that. At the same time I was singing in several choirs, and became the sound engineer, and recorded the concerts. One of the conductors said “We can make a CD from this concert”. “OK!” I said. It just grew more and more, and by now I have made 250 CDs, and release 20 each year, mostly with contemporary Swedish music. It’s totally idealistic — I don’t earn any money from this. I am no saint by saying that — I just feel that it’s important. All of the big companies tend more and more to make yet another set of Beethoven symphonies, or another Mahler series, or another of this or that, because each conductor has to do his own. Somebody has to work with contemporary music, and since I have been working with the composers’ union in Sweden, I know most of my colleagues and I try to focus on those who are not represented on CDs, so that they have a CD as a sort of calling-card, to introduce their music. You cannot send scores anymore. My experience is that people cannot read music anymore. They want mp3 files, or midi files — they cannot read music.

TM: The good side at least is that the composer is able to put his music out in a form that even those who can’t read a score can digest. That would seem to be the positive side of the deleterious effect that the mp3 has had on the recording industry.

SS: Of course. The bad side is that many people produce computerized files by feeding their score through a synthesizer, and they call it music. I am very much opposed to that, because I think that you have to work with living musicians. It’s important to have musicians play contemporary music, not just another Mozart flute concerto.

TM: The result from a MIDI program is totally off-putting.

SS: I don’t think it’s very sexy, to be honest. Of course, if you are trained, and you have the course, you can see what it is supposed to be, but you cannot use it as music — you only get disturbed by everything that is lacking. I myself don’t use synthesizers for composing, though I use software to make the scores themselves. I prefer to make sketches with pencil and pen, and then use the computer to make it tidy.

TM: Forthcoming projects?

SS: I always have several projects going, but my problem is finding time to realize them. The choral project will keep my busy, but I plan to go on working on the fourth symphony which is with texts which are semi-political — it’s environmental, about relations between nations and people, and a little about the courage that people show in standing up against bad regimes and bad decisions. I have planned it for many years. I want to make something that inspires, and doesn’t oppress, in the end. But to reach that you have to go through mud and blood and dirt to lift the curtains and let the sun shine in.

I am planning to write a third flute concerto for my wife, because she asked me to, and I also have more choral projects. I have five string quartets, and I have a sixth coming up, and we will have to document the set. That’s what I will work on over the next two years.

I wrote a big Missa Maria Magdalena, which was very successful, and plan to do another on the same scale, with a big orchestra, and several choirs, for the Cathedral of Stockholm. It’s something I have planned for many years, but haven’t had time to realize.
It’s not so much a church piece, but historical, looking back.

People don’t go to church every Sunday — they go when there is a catastrophe or something very disturbing happens — then they search for comfort. The piece is more about that, than a missa. More like an oratorio — a stage play for church.

TM: Final thoughts?

SS: The problem with me is that I always work in different areas, different genres. I had different jobs outside the musical world as well. Sometimes people say that I am not devoted enough to the composing business. But I want to work helping contemporary music to meet its audience, because the audience is there — the problem is that it is difficult to reach, because you have a wall of commercial culture — films, books, newspapers, music — everything is standing in the way. I know they are there -the people who want to listen to what my colleagues and myself are doing — but they cannot find us.

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