Marathon Man

Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan, music director of the Paris Opera and music director designate of the Vienna State Opera, is one of the world’s hottest Wagner talents, winning widespread acclaim for his performances of the composer’s music in Paris and at the Bayreuth Festival. In 2019, he returned to the Met for the first time since 2007 to lead three complete Ring cycles. In advance of the premiere of Das Rheingold, he sat down with the Met’s Mary Jo Heath to discuss opera’s grandest and most grueling epic.

You’ve conducted quite a lot of Wagner. What is it that makes his music particularly rewarding for you?
No other composer makes me so emotional while conducting. At the end of La Bohème, if I’m sitting in the audience, I cry. But when I conduct La Bohème, this doesn’t happen. I’m still moved, but I’m very concentrated. With Tristan und Isolde or the Ring cycle, there are moments where suddenly something happens in the music, and the emotion just comes out of you and you don’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes you have to consciously decide to push the emotion down because, otherwise, how will you last another hour of music?

What about the technical aspect of his music? Does it pose particular challenges because of its monumental scale?
Wagner brought me to another level of conducting, more than any other composer. In Wagner, shaping the music over long distances, with a far bigger orchestra than with Mozart or Verdi, requires a special way of conducting, a special way of shaping tempi. For example, you start to think in bigger units instead of smaller details, and you start to trust the orchestra more and let things flow. Also, younger conductors tend to do slow tempi really slowly and fast tempi really fast to make a contrast and a big effect— something I used to do as well. In Wagner, you learn to do the opposite. You learn not to take slower sections too slowly, so that the music doesn’t start schlepping and the energy doesn’t fall apart.

The complex, sprawling story of the Ring has so many possible interpretations.What do you think about this world and its inhabitants?
Well, first of all, I don’t see the gods as gods. For me, this is very important—it’s always about human people in Wagner. The gods may be aristocrats or politicians, but they are not perfect gods. Take Wotan, for example. He’s chasing after women, he’s having a big new house built without money to pay for it, and so on. Only after he recognizes his own failure, in Walküre, does he become more noble, more godlike. So to me, Wotan’s story is about a young man growing up, trying to make good in the world and to lead a civilization. To see his failure makes him human, as does the knowledge that he’s not going to last forever. He passes his power and responsibility to the next generation, to Siegfried and especially Brünnhilde. She has to clean up the mess that the gods made, which makes her probably the greatest character in the cycle. She is the only one who really understands what is going on and finds a way to make things right.

The Ring features Wagner’s most extensive use of his system of leitmotifs, those recurring musical themes that represent certain plot elements or ideas. How do you think they communicate with the audience?
People who love opera want melodies. Over such a long piece and with such complex music, you need melodies to get attached. And you usually love what you know. Wagner is very clever in how he takes advantage of that. Returning to these motifs again and again really helps the listener understand things. They also give you so much more information. For example, if someone is lying and sings a melody that is deceiving, but there is a different, underlying leitmotif in the orchestra that is telling the truth, we know exactly what’s going on.

Wagner composed the Ring over a very long period of time—more than 20 years. Do you hear him developing throughout the cycle?
Absolutely. After finishing Die Walküre, he wrote the first act of Siegfried and got into the second act, and then he ran out of money and couldn’t continue. Before he returned to the Ring, he wrote Tristan und Isolde, which changed the whole harmonic system of music. His writing also became more metaphysical, all about feelings and symbolic things. And then he also wrote Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—a comedy, mostly in major, full of counterpoint. He really reinvented himself with these two pieces. So it’s quite fascinating to see him, when he came back to write Act III of Siegfried, pretending to be the same composer of Walküre and Rheingold, so that the style is not too different. He goes back to the same leitmotifs, and he tries to write with the same kind of orchestration, but you just feel how the sound explodes. It’s like a new world is opening up. He tries to hold it back in Siegfried, but definitely in Götterdämmerung, we go into a completely new world.

What is it like for you mentally and physically to conduct a Ring cycle in the course of a week?
It’s very rewarding. It’s kind of the marathon effect. You have to invest a lot, but at the same time, it gives you the endorphins to keep going. After each opera, you’re tired, but you know there’s still more to do.

And once you’ve gotten through all four operas and arrived at the end of the cycle, how do you feel?
Well, I’m very exhausted. Especially my feet— taking off my shoes is the best moment. And the next day, you feel it in the shoulders. You learn to be economical with your conducting, to not make too many big gestures all the time, because otherwise you won’t survive it. But the most exhausting part is the emotional side, what you experience in yourself. That’s where it gives you a high that takes several days to come down from.

And how do you want the audience to feel?
I just want them to have an incredible time, to enjoy this marathon. And one great thing about the Ring cycle is that you sit together with the same audience, the same singers, the same orchestra, the same conductor, and you share something. And when you see the same people sitting beside you, you start to talk to each other—you start to exchange. That’s the idea of the festival that Wagner envisioned. People commit to a thing together, an intellectual and emotional experience, and it becomes a transcendent human experience that one should never forget.

Mary Jo Heath is the Met's Radio Host