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Conclusion of Yves Abel interview at San Diego Opera

Maestro Abel holds forth on risking it all and leadership.

Continuing the conversation with Yves Abel.

San Diego Reader: We've seen conductors who have been very positive but haven’t always maintained a high standard. You appear to be able to stay positive and keep a high standard.

Yves Abel: I’m not going to say that the relationship between conductor and musicians is like that between parent and child but hear me out.

I have a child. Rearing children is a difficult balance because on one hand you want them to discover things on their own but you have to be the guide and you have to be strong in helping them make good choices.

Children welcome that. I think the children that are most successful in life are the ones who have not had overbearing discipline--not that at all--but have had someone who strongly guided them.

Orchestras and people in a communal situation are obviously on an adult to adult level but essential it’s the same thing. Somebody has to lead and you can’t be afraid to lead and insist [on a high standard] for the good of the piece.

You have to show people that you care deeply about this music and let them understand that this is the real motivation behind, “let’s do it again” or “let’s do it better”. I think that kind of spirit lets other people get excited and then when the results arrive, everyone is really happy.

SDR: So, if I’m hearing you right, leadership is about holding people to a high standard and giving them the support and the tools and the vision to achieve it?

YA: Right. I think to what the principal at my son’s school said, if they don’t have high expectations for the kids, they’re not going to have high expectations for themselves and they’re not going to strive for that higher level.

It’s the same thing with orchestras. If we don’t have high standards and high expectations for the final result--which will always fail because perfection is impossible to reach--but at the same time we must always strive to get as close to it as we can and in doing so is the real reward. There’s the real satisfaction, there’s the feeling that we really accomplished something good.

SDR: Can we talk a little bit about the athletic aspect of opera singing?

YA: Singing is so difficult to do well. You have to breath properly, you have to place the voice properly, you have to have mental images of the sound, and while you’re doing that you have to look at the conductor, you've got to phrase properly, you’ve got to remember where he says sing piano or sing forte, crescendo or diminuendo...

SDR: ...and stay connected to the text.

YA: ...and stay connected to the text and pronounce the text--which is often in a foreign language. There is so much for the singer to do and then the costume isn't quite comfortable and the lights are blinding, it goes on and on. What a singer has to do is very similar to what a great track athlete has to do. Such as when a sprinter counts and prepares the exact number of steps they take in a race.

SDR: The thing that draws us to athletics is watching people exceed the perceived limits of human ability. I think it’s kind of the same with opera. We want to hear the loudest, longest, fastest singing.

However, that seems to be going away to some extent and is being replaced by more refined artistry and musicality. I want to hear both.

I want to hear Stephen Costello hold a high C for as long as he can and I don’t think it is artistically bad for a singer to do that. I think it adds to the opera experience.

YA: Yes, you want the added thrill of it. I think music is a real balancing act. On the one hand if you’re a purist and you do exactly everything that you think was in the imagination of the composer that’s great but is that going to translate?

We’re in a space that is what, 3200 seats? Is that person way up in the back going to get the same theatrical, visceral, vocal experience? Also, we’re not making a movie here. If you only move a face muscle as an actor, nobody is going to see it past the first five rows, even then, maybe I won’t even see it.

Yet if you do big gestures the audience will see it and be moved by it because there is a better understanding. Somehow we've got to bring this music to the public in a way that’s going to impact them and now we don’t have those cute little theaters that Donizetti used to have with 800 seats. We’ve got to play to these big spaces that require broader strokes.

SDR: Ferruccio Furlanetto is going to be here this season in Murder in the Cathedral. We've seen him here as Don Giovanni, King Philip from Don Carlo, Boris, Mephistopheles, Don Quixote, and...

YA: ...he’s the best, simply the best.

SDR: Ferruccio sometimes uses those big, almost cliche opera gestures but they work. They always appear to be coming directly from the character and it makes our hair stand on end.

YA: Yes. I want to go back to what you inferred earlier about artistry taking over. I’m not sure that’s the case because old time singers or pianist were trying to accomplish something artistically.

They may not have been as technically polished as we are now. You can’t make a mistake on the piano anymore. You really have to perfect or as close as you can be. In the old days they used to make fistfuls of mistakes.

But why? Because they weren't afraid to take chances. They weren't afraid, for the sake of the music, to go for it, such as taking a tempo that is absolutely hair raising--in terms of its dramatic context--but could very well end up in a train wreck.

They weren't afraid to try that. Now we’re petrified to do that. I always have to tell singers, “take chances, take chances” because that’s how you truly move people. If you don’t take chances you’re blocking something in human expression--something that isn't going to channel to the public.

Why? Because of CD’s and recordings where we try to measure everybody up to this artificial standard. The falsification that goes on in recording, that’s an art form in itself! Glenn Gould taught us that. He used to not want to perform anymore because he said he could never get to the same level of perfection that he can with a recording. So many singers have become the imitators of that kind of artificial experience.

SDR: Right. Pavarotti sounds great as Canio on CD but to see him in a live telecast, I don’t believe he’s going to kill someone whereas Del Monaco might.

YA: Good point but there you’re also talking about a singer’s temperament. There are people who, like Callas for example--she was opening her veins on stage and that’s why she only lasted about 15 years...

SDR: ...or forever.

YA: … or forever. That’s the trick with singers. You've got to find the comfort zone then find how far you can go dramatically without harming them physically or technically. That’s something that I can’t answer as a conductor but I will always push because it’s my job to get a performance out of people that is going to be for the ages, that is going to revolutionize this piece that is going to make people be moved. We so need that now. We need, in our daily lives, to feel more.

A clip of maestro Abel in a staging rehearsal at San Diego Opera.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ay4456qmOLc

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Continuing the conversation with Yves Abel.

San Diego Reader: We've seen conductors who have been very positive but haven’t always maintained a high standard. You appear to be able to stay positive and keep a high standard.

Yves Abel: I’m not going to say that the relationship between conductor and musicians is like that between parent and child but hear me out.

I have a child. Rearing children is a difficult balance because on one hand you want them to discover things on their own but you have to be the guide and you have to be strong in helping them make good choices.

Children welcome that. I think the children that are most successful in life are the ones who have not had overbearing discipline--not that at all--but have had someone who strongly guided them.

Orchestras and people in a communal situation are obviously on an adult to adult level but essential it’s the same thing. Somebody has to lead and you can’t be afraid to lead and insist [on a high standard] for the good of the piece.

You have to show people that you care deeply about this music and let them understand that this is the real motivation behind, “let’s do it again” or “let’s do it better”. I think that kind of spirit lets other people get excited and then when the results arrive, everyone is really happy.

SDR: So, if I’m hearing you right, leadership is about holding people to a high standard and giving them the support and the tools and the vision to achieve it?

YA: Right. I think to what the principal at my son’s school said, if they don’t have high expectations for the kids, they’re not going to have high expectations for themselves and they’re not going to strive for that higher level.

It’s the same thing with orchestras. If we don’t have high standards and high expectations for the final result--which will always fail because perfection is impossible to reach--but at the same time we must always strive to get as close to it as we can and in doing so is the real reward. There’s the real satisfaction, there’s the feeling that we really accomplished something good.

SDR: Can we talk a little bit about the athletic aspect of opera singing?

YA: Singing is so difficult to do well. You have to breath properly, you have to place the voice properly, you have to have mental images of the sound, and while you’re doing that you have to look at the conductor, you've got to phrase properly, you’ve got to remember where he says sing piano or sing forte, crescendo or diminuendo...

SDR: ...and stay connected to the text.

YA: ...and stay connected to the text and pronounce the text--which is often in a foreign language. There is so much for the singer to do and then the costume isn't quite comfortable and the lights are blinding, it goes on and on. What a singer has to do is very similar to what a great track athlete has to do. Such as when a sprinter counts and prepares the exact number of steps they take in a race.

SDR: The thing that draws us to athletics is watching people exceed the perceived limits of human ability. I think it’s kind of the same with opera. We want to hear the loudest, longest, fastest singing.

However, that seems to be going away to some extent and is being replaced by more refined artistry and musicality. I want to hear both.

I want to hear Stephen Costello hold a high C for as long as he can and I don’t think it is artistically bad for a singer to do that. I think it adds to the opera experience.

YA: Yes, you want the added thrill of it. I think music is a real balancing act. On the one hand if you’re a purist and you do exactly everything that you think was in the imagination of the composer that’s great but is that going to translate?

We’re in a space that is what, 3200 seats? Is that person way up in the back going to get the same theatrical, visceral, vocal experience? Also, we’re not making a movie here. If you only move a face muscle as an actor, nobody is going to see it past the first five rows, even then, maybe I won’t even see it.

Yet if you do big gestures the audience will see it and be moved by it because there is a better understanding. Somehow we've got to bring this music to the public in a way that’s going to impact them and now we don’t have those cute little theaters that Donizetti used to have with 800 seats. We’ve got to play to these big spaces that require broader strokes.

SDR: Ferruccio Furlanetto is going to be here this season in Murder in the Cathedral. We've seen him here as Don Giovanni, King Philip from Don Carlo, Boris, Mephistopheles, Don Quixote, and...

YA: ...he’s the best, simply the best.

SDR: Ferruccio sometimes uses those big, almost cliche opera gestures but they work. They always appear to be coming directly from the character and it makes our hair stand on end.

YA: Yes. I want to go back to what you inferred earlier about artistry taking over. I’m not sure that’s the case because old time singers or pianist were trying to accomplish something artistically.

They may not have been as technically polished as we are now. You can’t make a mistake on the piano anymore. You really have to perfect or as close as you can be. In the old days they used to make fistfuls of mistakes.

But why? Because they weren't afraid to take chances. They weren't afraid, for the sake of the music, to go for it, such as taking a tempo that is absolutely hair raising--in terms of its dramatic context--but could very well end up in a train wreck.

They weren't afraid to try that. Now we’re petrified to do that. I always have to tell singers, “take chances, take chances” because that’s how you truly move people. If you don’t take chances you’re blocking something in human expression--something that isn't going to channel to the public.

Why? Because of CD’s and recordings where we try to measure everybody up to this artificial standard. The falsification that goes on in recording, that’s an art form in itself! Glenn Gould taught us that. He used to not want to perform anymore because he said he could never get to the same level of perfection that he can with a recording. So many singers have become the imitators of that kind of artificial experience.

SDR: Right. Pavarotti sounds great as Canio on CD but to see him in a live telecast, I don’t believe he’s going to kill someone whereas Del Monaco might.

YA: Good point but there you’re also talking about a singer’s temperament. There are people who, like Callas for example--she was opening her veins on stage and that’s why she only lasted about 15 years...

SDR: ...or forever.

YA: … or forever. That’s the trick with singers. You've got to find the comfort zone then find how far you can go dramatically without harming them physically or technically. That’s something that I can’t answer as a conductor but I will always push because it’s my job to get a performance out of people that is going to be for the ages, that is going to revolutionize this piece that is going to make people be moved. We so need that now. We need, in our daily lives, to feel more.

A clip of maestro Abel in a staging rehearsal at San Diego Opera.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Ay4456qmOLc

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