Living the Seine to Santa Fe Circuit: An Interview with Frederic Chaslin

The following interview was conducted at the Santa Fe Opera “ranch” in August, 2011. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera is very much appreciated.

[Below: Conductor and Santa Fe Opera Music Director Frederic Chaslin.]

Wm: You were born in Paris. What were the influences that led you into a career with musical  composition and performance?

FC: What led me into music? I think it was always in me. My first musical memory was at age four, that I was visiting with my father in an antique store and ran over to a piece of furniture that I somehow knew contained a keyboard. Soon, I was playing with the piano’s keyboard. Something tells me that I was attracted to the instrument instinctively, because no child can tell what was under a piece of furniture.

I was always attracted by church organs. First, I was too young to play one. But I was interested because of its big sound that wanted something richer than just one song. Still, I became at age nine the youngest organist in France, maybe in the world, and played every weekend the three masses in the nearest church.

Wm: Which of the Parisian churches is what you refer to as “the nearest church”?

FC: I played where my teacher was the titular organist, the Eglise Saint-Merri, which is just a few blocks from the Centre Pompidou.

Wm: You were interested in playing keyboard instruments and in conducting from childhood. When did you first become interested in musical composition?

FC: Composition was always an obvious pursuit for me. As a child, I could hear music within myself, as if I had a radio in my head that was playing music that I invented. Some people have long discussions with themselves. I had the same process with music.

Wm: You attended the Conservatoire de Paris and Mozarteum University of Salzburg and you became an assistant conductor under Daniel Barenboim at age 26 and Pierre Boulez at age 28. In addition to Barenboim and Boulez, you have cited conductor Franco Ferrara as having a decisive influence on your conducting career. How would you describe the impact of these conductors on your life work?

FC: You take something just by meeting them. You sense their greatness.  They give you a feeling of how many steps you have to climb.

Wm: What was it like to receive instruction in conducting from Franco Ferrara?

FC: Ferrara was intense. He was an extremely important influence and a great inspiration, even though I did not come to know him early enough that I could be completely trained by him. Ferrara gave me the will to always try to turn what I’m doing a notch higher. It continues now in everything I do.

[Below: Conductor Franco Ferrara; edited image of an historical photograph.]

When I myself advise younger conductors, I say that the most important thing you have to achieve is to realize that your will to improve yourself is infinite. I always want to improve, I always want to be better.  What can I improve in my conducting, my composition? When I stop wanting to go further, I will retire.

An experience I had over 20 years ago was a strong influence on me. In 1988 I visited Richard Wagner’s house and Wolfgang Wagner showed me a composition that the great Wagner had written when he was only 20 years old. Nothing about the composition was good. But the key to Wagner’s music is that through his great will he taught himself what he needed to create the new forms of music that led to “Tristan” or “Parsifal”.

Wm: Which composers influence you?

FC: I’m currently writing a fictional book on Gustav Mahler. I think he was the most incredible, intense musician. A great musician will never stop turning the knob seeking improvements.

Wm: You have expressed doubts about the future of operas, beyond Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu”, that are written in atonal or 12-tone forms. What are your thoughts about Berg’s operas, and why his successors have not been as successful?

FC: I love the two Berg operas and cannot have enough of “Wozzeck”, which is the best operatic example of a movement in musical composition that challenged the world of Mahler, who was important both to Berg and his teacher, Schoenberg. I have been attending every “Wozzeck” performance this Santa Fe Opera Festival season.  The story of “Wozzeck” is quite depressing. Just as Wozzeck’s world was collapsing around him, so it seemed that world civilization was collapsing around Berg and his audiences.  It’s not a hopeful piece.

Yet, I always have the same pathetic feeling while listening to Berg’s Operas: It is a dead end. They are operas without successful children. It’s not Berg’s fault, that no one was able to go further than him. Any opera that’s a successor to “Wozzeck” and “Lulu” in their style of composition, has a small audience and no real future with the opera-going public. I see Zimmerman’s “Soldaten” or the atonal operas of Henze as the children of “Wozzeck”, but none of these children will ever find their way into the repertory or will be widely performed. I just don’t consider the “12 tone” style of composition as the future of opera.

Wm: I have returned to Santa Fe after hearing Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Seattle Opera. Gershwin knew Berg, and studied and admired his music. Yet, is it not possible to consider Berg’s operas as “museum pieces”, the best of a genre that is no longer living art?

FC: I do agree. I am not surprised at the idea of considering “Wozzeck” and “Porgy and Bess” together. But Berg mocked popular music, especially the waltz and honky tonk, whereas Gershwin embraced it. In “Wozzeck” the dancing scene is intended to describe a decadent world. Much of the jazz and folk music in “Porgy and Bess” is the music of hope.

What I think is surprising is the extent to which Berg is a spiritual successor to Mahler. Mahler was the composer that when he came to work in America, he developed a strong interest in understanding American popular music. There are quotes of Mahler in “Wozzeck”. Berg was a Mahler admirer.

But Berg couldn’t bring himself to meet Mahler, other than shaking hands, although Berg’s teacher and mentor, Arnold Schoenberg, had known him.

The coincidences in the Mahler and Berg deaths I find quite interesting. Both died of blood poisoning, and both were almost exactly the same age at their deaths – each a week or so over 50 years, 10 months.

Wm: Would you think that if Mahler had lived long enough, he would have approved of “Porgy and Bess”?

FC: I believe Mahler understood that by embracing music that people know, the “music of today”, you can communicate the quickest to the brain. When Mahler arrived in America in 1908 the first thing he asked was “what is the popular music of this country”. Mahler was interested in incorporating the European folk music into his big symphonies.

Gershwin’s incorporation of jazz into “Porgy” was a great example of this. And both Richard Strauss and Benjamin Britten followed the “folk music” or “popular music” paths successfully as well. Strauss, of course, was berated by many of his contemporary colleagues. “The world is collapsing, and Strauss is composing ‘Capriccio’, a charming salon opera” they might have said.

Wm: Which brings to mind, that the crucible of opera is the part of central Europe that includes France, Germany, Italy and Austria, and all of these countries were battlefields for much of the time that our standard repertory operas were being composed.

FC: An artist can either reflect the bad things of his time or decide that life goes on. What is important for a creator is not the war outside, that will eventually cease, but to keep creating for the world after the war. All of the great 19th century operas were written during periods of war. War should not stop creation. That would be the greatest triumph of war.

Wm: You are a Parisian, famous for living on a houseboat on the Seine. Yet you have accepted the role of Music Director at Santa Fe Opera. I assume you are comfortable splitting the year between these two very different locales?

FC: Very much so, and I am from next year on music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, founded for Otto Klemperer, and celebrating its 75th season, so I will be splitting my time between those three places and many more!

Wm: Paris is a city that I consider possibly the most important to the development of 19th century European opera (excepting perhaps the work of Wagner). Do you agree?

FC: I think the Germans by the late 19th century had rigidified into the idea that you had to follow the format decreed by the principles of Wagner. The Italians made a point of the big arias and the big ensembles. But it was the French (and later the Austrian Richard Strauss) who synthesized all these ideas.

In Paris, Meyerbeer invented the form of grand opera. He and his contemporary, Halevy, who created “La Juive” that tenor Neil Shicoff has revived so effectively, became a third force between the Germans and Italians. Berlioz was influential as well, through his attention to orchestration and demonstrating how one could compose music for the theater in a symphonic style.

But it was Gounod and Bizet and later Massenet who created the synthesis of all these styles and indirectly changed the course of Italian opera as well. Gounod’s “Faust” and “Romeo et Juliette” and Bizet’s “Carmen” were built on German, Italian and French ideas, and the operas they created are very open and fast moving, whereas that cannot be said of the works of Meyerbeer and Halevy.

[Below: Mephistopheles (Mark S. Doss) and Faust (Bryan Hymel) take part in the village fair in the 2011 Santa Fe Opera production of Gounod’s “Faust”, conducted by Frederic Chaslin.]

Eventually Massenet incorporated the German ideas of the through-composed operas without separate arias and choruses. Then Debussy incorporated the ideas about other tonal systems that had such an influence on later French opera (such as Dukas’ “Ariane et Barbe Bleu” and Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnol”). But I believe that since the time of Debussy, French opera languished, and eventually succumbed to the early and mid-20th century atonal fashions. Later 20th century French opera never had a composer like Benjamin Britten, who could develop a unique style that attracted audiences.

Wm: In my review of the new production of “Faust” that opened the 2011 Santa Fe Opera Festival with you conducting, I said that I would be very satisfied if the Santa Fe Opera would exclusively perform French works from this point on. Granting that there may have been a bit of exaggeration in my comments, do you believe that there are more French works (beyond Bizet’s “Pecheurs de Perles” scheduled for the 2012 season) that should be done here?

FC: I’d like to see Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” done here. I’d like to find a French work that might be offered to Natalie Dessay.

[Below: Natalie Dessay as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”, which opened the 2009 Santa Fe Opera Festival with Frederic Chaslin conducting; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: Regrettably, she seems to have dropped the title role of Delibes’ “Lakme” from her performance repertory.

FC: Dessay was the perfect Lakme. When she stopped singing the role, it was a setback for that opera.

Wm: If you had the power to do so, what French operas would you schedule for performance?

FC: Certainly, “Lakme”. Then, I’d like to see some of the Meyerbeer operas revived. He really invented grand opera. I am impressed with Lalo’s “Le Roi d”Ys”, although it needs a powerful mezzo-soprano for Margared, a role that seems ten times more difficult than Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and you also need a spinto tenor and soprano. You need famous name stars if you’re going to do that opera, and very often you can’t get the right singers.

Another opera that deserves revival is Chausson’s “Le Roi Arthus” (King Arthur), which has a heavy Wagnerian influence, and I would like to see Chabrier’s operas done as well.

Wm: You yourself have gained recognition as a composer, especially of opera, in which the use of melody is an important part. You chose to write your opera “Wuthering Heights” in English. How do you decide on a subject, and in which language in which to compose the opera, and do you believe that melodic opera will regain popularity?

FC: I like composing in English because the language has such rhythm and the spoken language has an inherent musicality to it. When English is spoken, you can hear the music. I believe that you could set a telephone book that’s published in the English language to music.

I recently have composed music to several poems written by Robert Frost, who is my favorite American poet. He wrote ten songs about birds. That’s a gift for a composer. One is inspired to write music describing the big things in life, like nature, love, storms.

I think that our “Wuthering Heights”, that I wrote with my librettist P.H. Fisher, would be a good show for an American opera company. I wrote it in a cinematic style, trying to merge the influences of today’s popular music, and the style of melodic writing that has always been important in movie scores, into my own style of composition.

Wm: You earlier had worked on an opera on S. P. Somtow’s Vampire Junction.

FC: That’s an unfinished work. This, and my “Napoleon” will be completed after I finish the current works in progress.

Wm: On what operatic subjects are you currently working ?

FC: Actually, my librettist Paula Fisher is here in Santa Fe with me. In fact, she is sitting at a table nearby. [Wm: At this point, Maestro Chaslin introduced me to Ms Fisher.]

We currently are working on two projects that are based on fantastical short stories by the 19th century novelist Theophile Gautier. One is Avatar, a short story that was part of the inspiration for James Cameron’s movie of the same name. Another is Clarimonde, about a priest who falls in love with a woman who turns out to be a vampire, although this vampire is a very discreet one, requiring very little blood.

Wm: I believe these ideas would fit very well with the popular interest in subjects with such elements of fantasy.

Thank you, Maestro, for your time.