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Interviews

Jac van Steen [Photo by Jac Kleur]
22 May 2015

Jac van Steen in Conversation

Last year’s Strauss anniversary year — 150 years since his birth — offered, at least in the United Kingdom, a typical number of opportunities and frustrations.

Jac van Steen in Conversation

An interview by Mark Berry

Above: Jac van Steen [Photo by Jac Kleur]

 

We heard a good number of excellent performances, not least a superlativeFrau ohne Schatten from the Royal Opera and Elektra at the Proms, both, far from coincidentally, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. A fine Macbeth from Mark Elder and the LSO notwithstanding, there was not, though, so much in the way of rare, or even rarer, Strauss. For that, one would have had to travel further afield, or indeed — I should apologise for having slipped into ‘Fog over Channel: Continent Cut off’ mode — have been there in the first place. However, two eagerly anticipated treats for me this year will be Garsington Opera’s new production of Intermezzo and Die schweigsame Frau at the Munich Opera Festival, both works I shall see for the first time on stage.

Intermezzo has never fared well in this country, partly, I suspect, on account of unfounded fears concerning the speed of its dialogue. (If that be a problem, then so surely should it be in Der Rosenkavalier.) It came to Edinburgh in 1965, Glyndebourne in 1974, Buxton more recently still in 2012. Now a company that has long prided itself in Strauss performance has opted to perform it, staged by Bruno Ravella and conducted by Jac van Steen, whom I spoke to following rehearsals in East London. I began by asking why he thought the work, for which, following an initial approach to Hermann Bahr, Strauss wrote his own libretto, had been so neglected.

Jac-BBC-3-Credit-Ross-Cohen.png[Photo © Ross Cohen]

JvS: Let me start at the end of the answer. For me, it’s a challenge to prove that it is worth programming this opera more often. The reason I can only guess; it is not a symbolic, metaphorical opera with many layers, like those with libretti by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which also have so much psychology, so much Freudian background. This opera with very domestic action stands, in the Strauss repertoire, pretty awkwardly. Also, if you look to the title, it isn’t a Traviata: it isn’t called Christine.

MB: Or Ariadne, Salome, Elektra, and so on…

JvS: Exactly. What happens is that in Intermezzo, he opens a new path for conversational style in twentieth-century music, which is, in the early ‘20s, a very courageous thing to do. In the meantime, we have heard so many musical works that combine a play and opera that it becomes difficult to take seriously something so trivial as a change of names [a mistaken conclusion Christine draws from a letter written by her husband, the composer Robert Storch] to be the cause of a great fuss in Robert’s life. But the score is so brilliantly written that I want to convince everyone that it is worth listening to and programming it more.

The other reason I think it is so little performed is that it is so hard, so demanding, for everyone: all the singers have very difficult roles. The orchestra has an even more difficult role; it plays very sophisticated themes played against many other themes. So I try to find my way through the score to make most of it possible to understand; meaning, we worked very hard on understanding of the words. Not because it is in English, but because of the conversational style Strauss asks for.

We perform it in English, not in German, but it is set in a German parlando style, so now we have to adapt that style in translation, and then to back to Strauss, and discover what did he want this or that theme to sound like … so we discover that we need another word.

MB: … because it doesn’t work; it doesn’t sound as it should.

JvS: Exactly. The music is always number one.

MB: Which is interesting, given that the general idea is of a conversational piece. But then we see similar relationships in so many of the greatest opera composers when they ascribe greater importance to the poem: Wagner, Monteverdi. And there is Janáček too, who, in this case, we should think of as a contemporary.

JvS: Yes, indeed. Strauss took a lot of time over this work. For instance, he was on tour with the Staatskapelle Dresden. They had three weeks of touring in South America. If you go on tour, if I go on tour, I need a very good book and a good number of scores, because you are not there as a tourist but you have so much spare time. If you go to Buenos Aires, you have the atmosphere, but you are not a tourist; you do not go out because you know that, in the evening, you have to perform. So I imagine that he had so many creative ideas at this time. Of course, his life was composing, but at this time, his hobby was composing too, because he was there to conduct. He could ask himself: how can I make this character, how can I shape this theme? And I think that’s a special joy that composers feel. …

I’m very lucky in having a fantastic cast of singers and an excellent, thoughtful director, who is very sensitive to the text. He’s a very musical young man, who is very detailed, as detailed as Strauss is; and he makes the set and the setting so detailed that the combination of what you see and what you hear really fits together like it should, but as — let’s be honest — it does so rarely. And working every day six hours on that score must reflect a bit of the fun Richard Strauss had when he was in his hotel room in Buenos Aires. Performing a beautiful Strauss concert in the evening and then returning to write something very bright and intelligent.

MB: Also a little like the card games he so loved, which we see here in the opera. His love of skat, whose rules I’ve never been able to understand.

JvS: Yes, when we started to discuss the piece, he flew to Holland and came to my house. We had two lovely days and we said we’d play the game. I tried and it didn’t work, because it is so difficult. This is not a one-evening thing. But Bruno, he took a morning with the five card-players and explained the rules of the game. Not out of an idle desire to show off, to show how well he knew the rules, but to show the musical fun that Strauss knew in all of the biddings, the mistakes that colleagues make, all of which is in the music. They did that all morning. … What you see on stage now is the official game as Strauss wrote it out. It’s not just Figure 25: someone puts his hand down, and so on. They actually play the game. Someone loses a great deal of money, for example, and the audience will see that it means something, and that we have a lot of fun in playing the game.

MB: So it will convince?

JvS: Yes, it will convince. It’s not only performing as an actor and giving your hand because you are told to do so, you are playing the game, and during that game, you are singing your line. It’s one of the hardest scenes in the whole piece. Five people talking with each other, against each other, over each other, through each other, and as a conductor, you have to cue them all in. But as long as they do what Strauss writes, then it works.

MB: There’s a lesson there then?

JvS: Very much. There is no room for improvisation and that is the motto of the whole opera. I don’t let them improvise, and then it sounds like you and me sitting here talking about the opera, having a good conversation with music.

MB: Do you find the shortness of the scenes, their almost filmic — silent filmic — quality, followed by orchestral interludes, a difficulty?

JvS: I understand your question but I try not to see it as a problem. What I did, as a parallel to the director playing a game of skat without music, I did the opposite. I asked the singers not only to learn their own parts but … to learn the orchestral, instrumental liaisons between the parts. Sometimes just one beat, sometimes [and then he sang] a short motif, the Eternal Love theme, maybe four bars in the orchestra, to avoid this short-breathed conversational, cinematographic, cartoon-like style.

MB: … which can be a big problem.

JvS: It can be a very big problem. You then do not see the whole story. So what they do is now, the moment they stop singing [in rehearsals: the orchestra had yet to join them at this point in the rehearsal schedule], they sing in their heads the music from the orchestra. They will sing a clarinet line and carry it on until they sing once again. That helps out, so the conversational, short motif-style has a much longer line behind it. It’s all chopped up into pieces, but we try to convince by having the orchestra as a vocal part, and the vocal parts as an instrumental part. And Strauss is such a genius, that if you understand that trick, then it is all doable. Then the enormous mountain that singers initially have to climb — all this jumpy music: ‘where am I?’ — is part of something else. So long as you understand that process, it is doable. Ok, it takes a bit more time than Traviata, a bit more time than Tosca, but it is doable.

MB: What you say makes it sound a bit like Webern, where if you take notes pointillistically, in isolation, they mean nothing at all, whatever Stockhausen and certain others might have said. The moment you hear the line moving between different parts, then it’s like Mozart.

JvS: Yes, exactly. I did a lot of Webern earlier on in my career; now I seem to be asked more to do Bruckner and Mahler. But I’m convinced that you must respect the tradition — and then I’ll come back round to Strauss too — of Mahler, of Strauss, of Wagner, in Webern too, and don’t treat it as a note which is difficult to pitch, because unless you have perfect pitch, you can only work it out…

MB: … by interval…

JvS: … by interval. What I do with Strauss too is respect tradition, in that Strauss was a fantastic Kapellmeister, a fantastic conductor, so what you hear in the score is the relationship with Strauss’s role as Kapellmeister. It’s like the game of skat my director played: my assistant and I, we have tried to find the quotations that come from the repertoire of German opera houses. We come to Freischütz; we come to Forza del destino; we obviously come to Nozze di Figaro. It’s in the score; it’s a bit hidden, but it’s in the repertoire. And if you respect that tradition, respect that it is an opera composer writing a conversational piece, with the opera that he conducts in the back of his head, then you really get somewhere. It would be a fantastic quiz: to see who could pick out fifty quotations. Not five, not fifteen, but fifty! But what happened eventually, as we did this, my assistant and I — he’s a very intelligent young man, so he wanted to go further, to find another one, which I hadn’t, and so did I; I’m pretty ambitious — was, one evening, we came to a passage, and we said: ‘What is that? It’s absolutely a quotation, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, it is. Shall I look it up?’ ‘Yes, look it up, and play it.’ ‘I can’t find it anywhere.’ And then we have walked into the trap that we are treating Richard Strauss — not Heldenleben or Also sprach Zarathustra, but Intermezzo — as a quotation. It’s archetypal, and we couldn’t think which opera it was from; suddenly we realised that it was the music in which one of the male characters talks about Christine — F minor, the key — now we think we have a quotation, but it is from the work itself. It has become part of us. … The writing is almost Mozartian. If you look at the manuscript for Nozze di Figaro, you don’t see a line to which he then added a harmony. It’s all one. That’s what Strauss does as well.

MB: And of course no one loved Mozart more than Strauss did.

JvS: And I’m sure there are more things in Nozze di Figaro — not just the motifs, the tunes that you and I can sing — to be discovered musically. I conducted the work a lot, and I made a tonal clock: I connected, as with seventeenth-century Affekt, which feeling he related to a certain tonality. Strauss is exactly the same. G minor is for her, when she’s bitchy. A-flat major is when they are in love. And it’s all the same sort of pattern as Nozze di Figaro. …

And then, of course, there is the descriptive quality. As you know, Strauss can orchestrate the opening of a door.

MB: That pictorial element: you can almost see what is happening on stage, just by hearing the score. Just as much as you can in Till Eulenspiegel or the Alpine Symphony.

JvS: In my Weimar years, I did a lot of Strauss, because he was there and everybody was very proud of Wagner, Liszt, Strauss having been in Weimar. I was the twenty-fifth Kapellmeister. And through doing that you understand the quality of the handwork, of how to write for an orchestra. He knew exactly what was good for the instruments, and what was possible, and how to go a little bit further…

MB: … to extend its capabilities just a little. The level of craftsmanship is something I always find astonishing in Strauss. He’s probably the only person who could have revised Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration.

JvS: Very true. And this opera is set for a very small orchestra. I only know Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and Divertimento — of courseAriadne is not so big, either — which need so small an orchestra. Frau ohne Schatten — it needs a gigantic orchestra. Intermezzo needs only Beethoven’s orchestra. It’s so abundant in its instrumental writing. I’m looking forward to working with the orchestra at Garsington, because for them, it is really tough. The London orchestras are very good: they can play anything. So now my task is to give them the fun that we have already had over the last four weeks. … There’s one thing that is always very special in Garsington: they have a Mozart and Strauss accent to the festival. I hope that the audience will not be afraid of the unknown aspect, and that we can convince, once you are inside, that you will have a fantastic evening: socially, Nature, the great music. …

What I would like is for the audience to feel what we did yesterday. We were all moved, almost to tears, when Christine declared her love to Robert. She sings six minutes of the most gorgeous music.

MB: That reconciliation is something quite special. As you were saying, the plot is trivial, but the relationship at this point doesn’t seem entirely unlike that of the Figaro Count and Countess — although responsibility is somewhat differently apportioned. It’s as if they’ve been dragged into the 1920s, have lost their titles, and have become a bourgeois couple; after all, Strauss calls the opera a ‘bürgerliche Komödie’, doesn’t he?

JvS: Very true. Everyone says that, in the opera, Strauss is giving his wife [Pauline, on whom Christine is based] a very bitchy character, but she has great love for him, and incredible respect. And, although she was a singer, she wanted very much to be a countess in life. They lived at the very height of Munich society. Strauss was a world star.

MB: That whole world of Thomas Mann…

JvS: …and Hofmannsthal, and so on. I think also of Prague, now, where I have a relationship with one of the orchestras. If you go to Prague and know that Alban Berg was there, Mahler too: they were all there: cultural centres with music of composers they loved to play every day.

MB: Mozart and Don Giovanni too.

JvS: Of course! Strauss is like that in Munich, Vienna, Dresden. All of these cities with such a rich tradition in opera. Prague had three opera houses, playing every evening.

MB: And so close to Dresden too, where this opera was first performed. One realises that when one visits, and sees the road signs, even the restaurants. Much more so than in much of the rest of Saxony, Leipzig for instance.

JvS: It’s a very interesting area. And in the 1920s, after the First World War, so alive! I love that era: I do a lot of Stravinsky, a lot of Alban Berg, a lot of Strauss.

MB: Schoenberg too?

JvS: Yes, although I’ve never done Moses. It’s very high on my list, but you need a good house that will let you do it, and I’m free on the market.

MB: The sort of work a Music Director will keep to him- or herself, then, as a statement?

JvS: Very much so. And as a guest, it is more the other repertoire.

MB: It would be wonderful to do Von heute auf morgen too, which is not entirely unlike Intermezzo with its ‘modern’, bourgeois plot. A similar dynamic, also a Zeitoper.

JvS: And the Hindemith opera, which resembles it a bit too, with a divorce situation…

MB:Neues vom Tage.

JvS: That’s it. This conversational style has a very short history, but a very interesting one. With Pierrot lunaire, Schoenberg took Sprechstimme so far, but the 1920s offered something different, which we still know far too little.

Intermezzo at Garsington should offer a splendid opportunity for many of us to put that right.

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