The up-and-coming Canadian maestro stepped on the Met’s podium for the first time when Richard Eyre’s production of Carmen opened on New Year’s Eve 2009. During a break on the first day of rehearsals, the 34-year-old conductor told the Met’s Philipp Brieler about bringing the opera and its legendary title character to life.
How did your involvement with this production come about?
We started discussing repertoire after the Met first approached me in 2007 or 2006. Originally it was supposed to be a different piece, but when this new Carmen happened, they said, “Look, it would be really great if you would take over a new production.” Which for me was quite a wonderful opportunity! As a French-speaking person, I’m well aware that in French opera it makes sense to have someone who knows the language. The shape of the vocal line is different from Italian opera, and it does help when the conductor speaks French.
How does it feel to be making your Met debut with such an iconic opera as Carmen?
Carmen is a very special work, and it’s true that when one does a new production of it, especially at the Met, there’s a lot of attention. But the most important thing is to love whichever work you’re conducting—and what’s not to love about Carmen? It’s one of a few operas, like Figaro or La Traviata, that we’re always quoting as being perfect operas, because of the balance between the dramatic line, the quality of the music and the text. So for me it’s not inhibiting at all. It’s not even challenging, I’m not thinking about it really. I’m just thinking about getting back to the score and being amazed at how rich it is. I’m not looking at it in terms of, “Oh, we need to do something different,” and I’m so happy that’s also what Richard Eyre has in mind. We just want to make a real, true, significant Carmen, so that everything we do musically, as well as on stage, has something completely organic about it. And to have the opportunity of doing this at the Met, in the best conditions possible—it’s just a joy for me.
Bizet’s score contains some of the best-known melodies in all of opera. Does it affect your interpretation to know that the audience will be familiar with a lot of the music?
Yes and no. I really hate it as an artist when, because it’s well known, someone is trying to do it differently just for the sake of doing it differently. That makes it sound forced, as if you wanted to say, “I have an idea, I’m original.” However, it’s true that to refresh a piece, one has to put oneself into the mindset of the first audience: what was shocking about it, what was so beautiful about it? And there are some moments where you can use that as a key element to make the audience think, “Oh, we were expecting this but it’s not exactly the same way.” But to do that I think it’s enough to just go back to the score, and not to try and put an interpretive idea on top of what is there. So, does it affect me? Yes, I guess it does, because one is aware of it. But it does not affect me in a first-degree way, in terms of doing it differently just to make it different. I’m talking from the music’s point of view, but of course in the staging that’s even more obvious. It’s good to start from the right place. You know, this is the first Carmen I’m conducting, and for Richard Eyre it’s his first production as well. Not for Roberto [Alagna, who’s playing Don José] obviously, but also for Elīna [Garanča, who sings the title role], I think it’s only her third or fourth production. So that, by definition, I hope, will bring something new to it.
Have you worked with any of them before?
No, I haven’t. Roberto I met for the first time this morning. I introduced myself and said, “I’m Yannick, pleased to meet you.” And he said hi, and then he turned back and said, “Hold on, you’re the conductor. But—you’re a kid!” (laughs) So I said I was actually from the children’s chorus in Carmen. No, just kidding! I saw him and Elīna perform Carmen at Covent Garden a few weeks ago. I was very excited and couldn’t sit still in my chair, thinking, “Well, in one month...” They’re a great couple.
You’ve just started rehearsals, but can you tell us about collaborating with Richard Eyre?
I can already say that what I like about him is the way he treats opera, even though this is only his third or fourth opera production. He’s used to working in Shakespeare, which always has a certain frame to it. But he never sets himself against the musical frame of things. I find this is a mistake directors sometimes make. They want a certain idea so much that they try to make the music fit the idea, when obviously it’s the opposite. I think in any performing art we tend to have too much of a dichotomy between being true to the text and being creative. The whole thing should work together, and we do things together as much as possible. Which means I can say something about the staging, and Richard can say something about how a vocal line is going, and it’s my role to find a way to make it work musically, with respect to the text. It’s important to have an interpretation that is open enough to encompass many things that come from the singers or the orchestra. I’m not saying it’s, “Oh, you want to do it this way, that’s fine.” It’s much more subtle than that. But it’s good to work with a director who has a similar approach.
The character of Carmen has been portrayed in many different ways. How would you describe her?
What I like about Carmen is that she’s not black or white, not good or bad. The role is not really a mezzo and not a soprano either. There’s this gray area. And I think that’s a metaphor of who she is as a woman. She is an immensely complex character. She’s a temptress, a seductress. And paradoxically, she has so much strength and she’s believing in her instincts so much, that when things are not going her way, of course she is reacting fiercely. But she’s reacting fiercely because she’s caught off guard. So in that sense she’s not that strong but extremely sensitive. There are endless possibilities. But the character can sustain all those different visions. That’s why Carmen is still the opera that’s staged most often around the world!
This interview was first published online in December 2009.