fri 10/04/2020

theartsdesk Q&A: Sir Charles Mackerras | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Sir Charles Mackerras

theartsdesk Q&A: Sir Charles Mackerras

A great conductor's ageless master class in candour

At 84 years of age, Sir Charles Mackerras is one of the best-respected and best-loved operatic conductors working in the world today. He conducts Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw for the English National Opera tonight and, despite bouts of ill health, found time to talk about his friendship - and falling out - with Britten, his time conducting the opera under Britten's watchful eye, his experiences in Prague in 1948 as a witness to the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, his pioneering performances of Mozart from the 1960s and his run-ins with Richard Jones and Christopher Alden over their "monstrous" modern productions.

IGOR TORONYI-LALIC: You must know the English National Opera inside out?

SIR CHARLES MACKERRAS: Yes. I have been working here for a terribly long time. I started with this company [when it was based in Sadler's Wells and called Sadler's Wells Opera] in 1947 as second oboe on a tour that they were doing. I suppose it's a record for length of service for this company.

You knew Benjamin Britten?

I became associated with Britten during a season of Let’s Make an Opera, which was an opera by him, in which the audience participated. They had the little boy David Hemmings, who was a little sweep. It was about how the servant girl helped this little sweep to escape from his horrible master who was sending him up the chimney to sweep out this noble household. I went on tour with this opera. It required audience participation. The conductor had to address the audience and help them to sing these songs. There were four lovely songs. I became associated then with the English Opera Group - I was the musical director of the English Opera Group, in succession to Norman Del Mar - and I happened to hit the time when The Turn of the Screw was new. And I was able to conduct a few performances in London.

Under the guidance of Britten?

Britten had done the world premiere in Venice. It had been written for the Venice Festival.

Did you conduct it in Venice?

No. That was Norman Del Mar, I think. Actually Norman and Britten slightly fell out over tempi.

And you fell out with Britten as well, didn't you?

Yes, but that was later. Everybody fell out with him eventually. I always say that he was the greatest musician that I had ever been associated with. But he was very fickle.

Did you fall out over musical matters?

No. No... well, partly, I suppose. I don’t know. He always found a way of getting rid of you somehow. Even though we worked so hard for him. Don’t forget there was no political correctness about homosexuality in those days. Everybody laughed at it. It was before ho... I nearly said "before homosexuality was invented". It was before political correctness was invented. So the - so to speak - straight people in his entourage really rather giggled a bit at that. John Cranko, who had been my colleague on Pineapple Poll and The Lady and the Fool, these wonderful ballets that we did together, took stories back to Ben, and Ben was naturally furious. But it was not the end of our relationship by any means, because he played the piano for Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Poulenc and I conducted the world premiere of his Noye’s Fludde to great success. Later, not much later, we did the television version of Billy Budd and that was a huge success.

And when you conducted The Turn of the Screw I read that you shared the baton with him?

That’s right. When it came back to Scala, London - not Milan - I did some performances, as well as him. Then we went to Canada, to Stratford, Ontario, where Tyrone Guthrie was running a Shakespeare Festival. I went with the original cast but I had to rehearse the orchestra, who didn’t know it. It's quite difficult if you don’t know it. It’s really quite daunting.

Such small forces.

Yes, absolutely. The orchestra here incidentally know it extremely well. I was amazed at how wonderfully they know it. They must have been very well prepared previously. But I had to prepare the orchestra in Stratford, Ontario. And Ben did I forget how many performances and I did some too.

Did he approve of the way you conducted your performances?

I think so. I’m not sure how much he heard of them. Peter Pears seemed to like it very much. And I think Ben did like the way I did it, yes.

Did he lay out the musical directions and tempi changes very clearly?

He’s terribly accurate the way he writes things down. I remember one singer coming to him and asking him how he should interpret one of his songs. And Ben said, "I do not wish to be interpreted. You sing what I have written and that will suit me well.” It is true that every single nuance is written in the score, both vocal and instrumental. If you play it exactly as it is written that is how it should sound.

It’s not always like that. You famously presented an edited version of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in the 1960s.

Yes, that was quite different.

Do you do a lot of editing of old scores?

Yes, Mozart particularly. I have special ways of doing it. In 1965, in Sadler’s Wells Theatre I did what was then an epoch-making Marriage of Figaro in which I not only introduced appoggiaturas [grace notes that are normally performed before a note in a melody and usually have half its time value], which are still being argued about today - about how many appoggiaturas are suitable or whether they’re suitable or not; I believe that a lot of them are suitable - and ornamentation, which was certainly what the singers of Mozart’s time did. The problem with Mozart’s music is that it is so perfectly written that you have to be extremely careful as to what you add in the way of ornamentation, which in a way does contradict the whole question of ornamentation because it is meant to be improvised. But because one is dealing with Mozart, the greatest of composers in my view, and not Salieri or J C Bach, you have to be terribly careful in what you write in terms of ornamentation. However, as Mozart himself wrote out several ornamented arias and so did J C Bach, who is a composer he very much adored and respected, you can get a good idea of how much ornamentation is appropriate in the various arias of Figaro and Così.

What was the reaction to the performance?

In 1965 I’m afraid we rather went over the top and overdid the ornamentation. It was accepted very much with glee, particularly the critics, who really thought it was most interesting. I wrote articles about it in Opera magazine and in the newspapers at that time. Desmond Shawe-Taylor, the great critic on the Sunday Times, was terribly enthusiastic about this whole style. I was rather pleased that in the same year as all this stuff about ornamentation, in 1965, I was able to bring to fruition in Sadler’s Wells Theatre a performance of Peter Grimes and, with Colin Davis, Stravinsky's The Rake’s Progress, two original English-language operas. We toured around Europe - Geneva, Amsterdam, Vienna and Prague, where I conducted in my old theatre, near the station, then finally Hamburg. Rolf Liebermann, the Intendant at Hamburg Opera, was so impressed with the way I had conducted Peter Grimes that he expressed great interest in me and I went back to Hamburg and did a few unrehearsed performances of Trovatore, Fidelio and Così, which was sort of an audition, and he gave me a job.

You wrote a fascinating essay on operatic conducting, in which, considering that you have given over so much of your life to it, you finish on a very sombre note. You write, "The ascendancy of the producer over the musician has largely ruined the pleasure of working in opera."

I still agree with that.


I really do. I think the ascendancy of the producer and the so-called Regietheater is ruining the whole of opera because they tend to do productions of operas - and I’m not referring to this one, which I, in general, quite admire – that have nothing to do with the opera. They always talk about subtext. Well, for me, it would be better if they produced the text of the opera, but so many of them seem to regard that as being of no importance. So the result is that you get productions that are nothing to do with the opera. Look at this monstrous man Calixto Bieito and the way he produces operas that have nothing to do with the text of the original opera.

Turn_of_Screw_3Have you had run-ins with opera houses whose productions you've disliked?

I don’t work with them. I tend to try to do revivals. I tend not to do new productions, if I can get away with it. For example this production of The Turn of the Screw (pictured above) is in fact a revival because it was done last year or two years ago by David McVicar. So I was duly able to say whether I wanted to do it or not. But I made rather a mistake over The Makropulos Case over here. The production of Christopher Alden's was completely monstrous and unacceptable. Although, as with a lot of these directors, I got on very well with him in the two operas that we had done. So I sort of chose him to do The Makropulos Case but what he produced was in my view completely unacceptable.

In film – which is quite similar in a way - if something like that happened, if the director and producer don’t get on, the director would either be replaced or the film would be shelved. But in opera I imagine you have to keep going?

You have to keep going; that’s the trouble. Very often they try to force something upon you that’s unacceptable. Usually the conductor has to walk out because they say, "Sorry, we’ve made the sets now," or "You should have told us this before if you didn’t want us to do it." In Munich they asked me to do Handel's Julius Caesar with Richard Jones. I had disliked his productions very much. However, I was determined for the sake of the piece that I would try to work with him. We didn’t see eye to eye on anything. So I had to withdraw because they said, "Sorry, we have the costumes already and the scenery is already made, and we believe in his production." That shows you that they consider the production more important than the music. It had one very good result in that the conductor who took it over, Ivor Bolton, has now become a very well known conductor of Baroque music in Germany.

Is this one of the reasons why you don’t conduct on the Continent because a lot of the worst excesses of this style of theatrical direction, of Regietheater productions, come from Germany and France?

Yes, I’ve tried to avoid it and of course slowly but surely they realise that I don’t want to do it, so they don’t ask me. To be quite honest, I now prefer concert performances of operas. I like semi-staged operas and, at the Edinburgh Festival, I am hoping to do – it will probably be my farewell – a big concert performance of Idomeneo. I’ve done a lot of concert performances at the Edinburgh Festival: Fidelio, Leonora, Der Freischütz, which Jonas Kaufmann was so wonderful in - it was his UK debut, I think - and also I did all the famous Mozart operas.

A lot of the behaviour of certain Czechs was a bit suspect. But what were they supposed to do?

Let’s talk about Prague and your lifelong championing of Czech music.  You lived in Prague in 1948, just at the time of Communist takeover. I’m intrigued to know what it was like living there at that time.

There was a lot of political unrest. There was a lot of people being accused of collaboration with the Nazis because they had kept people’s jobs going during the occupation. A lot of the behaviour of certain Czechs was a bit suspect. But what were they supposed to do? Václav Talich, the great conductor, was in charge of the National Theatre and he was expected to continue running the National Theatre in order to keep people’s jobs otherwise they would have been sent off to concentration camps. I had spent the war in Australia; I was a teenager. And even though I had read about all these horrors, I didn’t have any personal experience of it. I was horrified to see all the terrible things that had happened during the war, particularly [the massacre at] Lidice, all those people being slaughtered and everything.

It was a very suitable time for unrest and the Communists to take over because they said that all these people had been collaborating with the Nazis. "We will show you a new way," they told them. That gave rise to some very unpleasant things. People started forming action committees and started throwing out their bosses. I was a student at the Academy. One of my fellow students there formed an action committee. It’s a pity because he was quite a friend of mine, he spoke perfect English and he had been in England in the Air Force during the war. He became the head of the action committee; I was rather shocked. He would say, "Well, he has to go, he has to go " - all these teachers, who depended on having these jobs for a living.

Talich had formed this wonderful chamber orchestra of young players. The Communists when they took over said to the management of this orchestra, "You've got to get rid of Talich otherwise we won't subsidise you any more. You have to sack Talich and what you do after that is your business." So what they did was quite clever and something that could not have been done with anyone but a great musician like Talich. They said that they had sacked him. In fact, what they did was to hold rehearsals secretly where Talich would speak to them in his inimitable way – he would talk about the philosophical side of music; it wasn’t just dots and crotchets and quavers – so he conducted all the rehearsals, and then at the concert they were so sure of everything that they could do it without a conductor. And that’s what became of the so-called "orchestra without a conductor".

That’s such a Communist compromise.

Isn’t it? But actually the concerts that they gave were marvellous, really superb.

Did you worked a lot behind the Iron Curtain?

I wanted to stay in Czechoslovakia and get a job there as an assistant conductor. However, I was not able to do that because we were really frightened to stay in this Communist country. So after the Communists came in February 1948, I and my wife – I had got married to a clarinet player in the Sadler’s Wells orchestra, who I had married before we left for Prague – left. I came to Sadler's Wells after that. It was about 10 years before I dared go back to Czechoslovakia. I had started promoting Janáček because I had heard his wonderful operas. I suggested to Norman Tucker at Sadler's Wells that Kátya Kabanová would be a very good opera to do. We did that and with very great success. So much so that they did other operas by Janáček and I conducted some of them. I conducted House of the Dead and The Makropulos Case with Marie Collier in the title role, a wonderful soprano, a wonderful, sexy girl; she did all these sexy parts, like Katerina Ismailova, Kátya Kabanová and Tosca.

The thing about conducting is that anybody can beat time. It’s the emanations that flow out of the conductor that are the essence of conducting.

I went back to Czechoslovakia, however, because they were interested in showing me the original manuscripts of Janáček in Brno. I got friendly with the people at the State Concert Agency there. Their whole trouble was that they had wonderful orchestras, wonderful musicians, but they could never invite anybody to come as guests because they couldn’t pay them, except in their currency which was not transferable. However, I was able to get over that because I had so many friends in Czechoslovakia, particularly in Prague. And I was able to go and conduct these marvellous orchestra like the Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Radio Orchestra and make lots of recordings with them because I was prepared to accept their currency, which I then spent there on... for example, I conducted opera in Berlin in the Staatsoper and spent [the fee] on material, on orchestral parts, which I have marked and edited and carefully preserved. Now when I do a Beethoven symphony, I present these parts to the orchestra and say, "Play it like that and I’ll be happy." It saves a lot of time and lot of worry.

You have a very distinct conducting style. It's very crisp and clean. Where did you learn that?

There was a wonderful conductor at Sadler's Wells when I first joined the orchestra; he was their best conductor, Michael Mudie. He had a superb technique and a wonderful way of conducting these Puccini operas and getting them beautifully together. I don’t know if you realise  this but La Bohème and Tosca - but especially La Bohème - the beginning of Act 1 and Act 4 are terribly difficult to conduct and to get really together. Also another couple of terribly well known operas that are difficult to get together are Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci. During our tour I learnt a lot from Michael Mudie. He used to give me private conducting lessons. However, while I was away in Prague, he developed disseminated sclerosis which was a terrible thing for him and he eventually had to give up, which was just the time when I was back in London. We were preparing Kátya Kabanová and it became completely evident that he would not be able to conduct it. I was only an assistant and I had to take it over from him in order to save the show. Thus, his misfortune became my fortune because I then became very well known as a Janáček conductor.

It isn't all about technique for you at all, however. You say in your essay, "You must launch yourself and your personality on the orchestra."

That’s what conducting is all about. The thing about conducting is that anybody can beat time. (Although that’s not true.) It’s the emanations that flow out of the conductor that are the essence of conducting. A lot of people can stand in front of an orchestra but the orchestra will immediately feel whether they are in the presence of somebody who loves it or whether it is some amateur.

You’re famous for being one of the "good guys" of the conducting fraternity. You’re not a shouty conductor like the famously grumpy chief conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell.

No no no. You can’t do that these days.

Did you ever try this method out?

No. My opinions about conducting have altered in the last 50 years but I believe the chief thing about the conductor is the emanations. Szell was the worst. He was horrible. Marvellous conductor. But horrible. He and Fritz Reiner [the chief conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra] were the nasty ones. Reiner was one of the ones who emanated evil. He would conduct like this... [Sir Charles pulls several stern faces]. There was this famous time when he was doing the introduction to the beginning of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony. [Sir Charles sings the first two notes.] “You!” he would say, “You should be playing with THIS part of the bow! How DARE you!” [Sir Charles sings rest of the opening.] Then he suddenly would say, “Be happy! Be HAPPY!”

Sir Charles Mackerras conducts The Turn of the Screw tonight at the English National Opera. There are five further performances, concluding on 9 November. Book here.

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