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Q&A: Conductor Alan Gilbert, Caught Between Opera and Symphonic Work (And Loving It)


18 Nov 2006

Alan Gilbert
photo by Mats Lundquist

Alan Gilbert has a growing reputation as a conductor who makes sparks fly, both on the concert podium and in the opera pit. This was highlighted this past season, when he received ecstatic reviews following an unscheduled debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as raves for the two new productions he conducted at Santa Fe Opera. Of the former, a critic for the Berliner Morgenpost called Gilbert's performances "the embodiment of a conducting ‘event'."

Critics reached for superlatives to describe the North American premiere of Thomas Adès's The Tempest, with one writer for The Wall Street Journal praising Gilbert's "nuanced account of this complex and rewarding score." When Gilbert conducted Bizet's Carmen, a critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer lauded the "superbly prepared" conductor and cast, adding wistfully: "That, plus a strong emotional presence from conductor Gilbert, leaves you ready to start begging recording executives: Will somebody please get some microphones in front of this team? Now?" In the previous season, a production of Britten's Peter Grimes was widely hailed as one of the most impressive achievements in the company's history. One Opera News critic reported, "Alan Gilbert found much of wonder and strangeness in Britten's orchestration, achieving an interpretation of volcanic, unexpected power."

In addition to his work at Santa Fe Opera, where he was appointed the company's first music director in October 2003, Gilbert has also had successes in recent seasons at Zurich Opera, where he led productions of Zemlinsky's Der Kreidekreis ("The Chalk Circle") and Puccini's Turandot.

The Manhattan-born Gilbert, who was the cover artist for the June 2006 issue of Opera News, first discovered his passion for opera when, as a high school student, he used to attend performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera. Below, Gilbert discusses some of those early experiences, other aspects of his burgeoning career in opera, and his current project — his Los Angeles Opera debut with a new production of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel.


Tell us more about the new production of Hansel and Gretel you're conducting in Los Angeles.

Alan Gilbert: First of all, the music itself is just wonderful — truly magical. It's a real masterpiece, on the level of Richard Wagner, only without all the neurosis! Hansel and Gretel may be thought of as a children's opera, but it's a universal story for people of all ages. It's about growing up, facing your fears, testing your ability to face the unknown, breaking away from your parents. It's such an iconic fairy tale that sometimes you don't think enough about what it's all about. It reminds you that things that are frightening at first can turn out to be positive experiences, and even benevolent.

This opera is really a perfect vehicle for [director] Doug Fitch's talents: the production is a dazzling achievement that satisfies and delights in so many different ways. Tenor Graham Clark is the witch; he's creepy and psychologically compelling and it's also funny as hell seeing him in a pink dress.

When did you first discover your interest in opera?

When I was in high school in New York City, I used to go to operas. I went with my family and mostly have very positive memories, although I think I fell asleep the first time I saw Macbeth! By the time I was a junior and senior I was going multiple times a week in standing room — I was a real junkie.

Can you share your memories of a few performances and singers that made a big impression on you?

I saw some incredible Walküre performances at the Met. The "Abschied" ["Farewell"] scene, with James Morris as Wotan, was something I'll never forget! It was back in the early 1990s and I went to as many performances of the Met's Ring as I possibly could. But there is one particular performance of Walküre that stands out in my mind. James Levine was conducting, and I had one of the best seats in the house. I heard the first act. Then I went across the street to conduct a concert at Juilliard. The timing was perfect, so I was able to return to the Met just in time for the last act. The final scene was incredible, and deeply moving — it was Morris, Levine, and Wagner at their best, and I was not the only one in tears.

I also remember vividly a performance by Fiorenza Cossotto singing Amneris in Aida with Levine conducting. Something turned on in her, and after her big aria the audience was screaming. It was fantastic.

I'll also never forget the great Figaro casts at the Met, with people like Te Kanawa, von Stade, Battle, Thomas Allen, and Ferruccio Furlanetto. They were perfect casts for that Ponnelle production and they gave wonderful performances.

You've done a wide range of operatic repertoire thus far, from favorites like Mozart's Don Giovanni and Bizet's Carmen in Santa Fe to a rarity like Zemlinsky's Chalk Circle at Zurich Opera, and a new work like Adès's Tempest in Santa Fe. Would it put you on the spot now to ask you to name your three favorite operas and three operas that you most want to conduct?

Well, I'd have to start by naming Figaro, Otello, and Tristan on both counts, but the list of what I like and most want to conduct goes on and on. I'd love to do a Ring cycle with Doug Fitch one day. Doug's insight into drama, theater, literature, and humanity in general is deep and multi-layered. He has a childlike enthusiasm paired with Freudian understanding — perfect for an epic saga and depiction of what it means to be human.

Are there any areas of the operatic repertoire that you don't feel a particular interest in doing?

Although I think it's great music, I'm not burning to do Lucia or I Puritani! But there's more than enough Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner to keep me busy.

You are currently Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of Hamburg's NDR Symphony Orchestra, with an impressive list of guest conducting relationships. This season alone will find you on podiums leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony. Do you feel a conflict in pursuing a career as both an operatic and symphonic conductor? Do you ever feel pressure to focus more on either operatic or symphonic work, as you plan your future engagements?

I like to do both and will continue to do both, because that's what matters to me musically. I think there are conductors who completely bridge the gap between opera and symphony. Symphonic music should tell a story just as opera does, and opera should have the same musical values as a good orchestral concert. I feel comfortable now, and happy too, that people are enjoying my work in both areas.

How about the pressure between doing new works vs. classic repertoire?

Alan Gilbert: When you're bringing a new work to life, you are creating something on your own and not supporting or fighting against a tradition. Ultimately, your approach to learning a totally new work or a very familiar work should be the same. Tradition shouldn't definite your interpretation, though you can learn from it. The key is to discover each work, whether old and new, on your own.

If you had the chance to commission a new opera whom might you ask?

I think Anders Hillborg could be a very interesting opera composer. I've done a bunch of his orchestral music and he's enormously talented.

You're planning a hiatus next summer and won't be returning for the Santa Fe Opera's 2007 season. What will you be doing with your time off?

It's an official sabbatical from June through August 2007. For four years I've been protecting that time and I have said no to lots of engagements that have been offered. This is all about taking personal time off to be with my family. I'll come back with the final concert of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival — Beethoven's Violin Concerto and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring — at the beginning of September 2007.

And your job in Stockholm?

Next season will be my final season in Stockholm.

Since we've mostly been talking about opera here, can you tell us about some future engagements you'll be doing?

Next season I'll be doing a revival of Turandot in Zurich as well as Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci with José Cura. And I'll be making my Vienna State Opera debut with Carmen.

There are rumors that you'll be coming to the Metropolitan Opera at some point in the near future.

Let's just say that I will neither confirm nor deny these rumors.


Conductor Alan Gilbert makes his Los Angeles Opera debut on November 19 conducting a new production of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel directed and designed by the acclaimed visual artist Douglas Fitch (who has been friends with Gilbert since their student days together at Harvard). There will be seven further performances through December 17; for more information, visit www.laopera.com.


Alan Gilbert




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