Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Conversation with Maestro Lawrence Foster, Part 1: Mozart and “Usher” at the San Francisco Opera

December 7th, 2015

Maestro Lawrence Foster is currently music director at the Opera Marseille, and conductor of the production of Lalo’s “Le Roi d’Ys” that I reviewed last year. This season he made his San Francisco Opera debut, conducting Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. He will also conduct the double bill of Getty’s “Usher House” and Debussy’s “The Fall of the House of Usher (La Chute de la Maison Usher)”.

[Below: Maestro Lawrence Foster; edited image of a publicity photograph from festivalenescu.ro.]


Wm: Maestro, it was a great pleasure to have reviewed the opening performance of Lalo’s “Le Roi d’Ys” that you conducted at Opera Marseille in May 2014 and then to be present at your San Francisco Opera debut this season for Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”.

You previously conducted at the War Memorial Opera House before over a half-century ago.

LP: My previous experience at the War Memorial was as Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. I served as the Ballet’s Associate Conductor during the early 1960s.

Wm: How did you come to conduct the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra?

 LP: I was born in Los Angeles. I grew up in the émigré community of Los Angeles of Central Europeans who had escaped the Nazis and their allies. I had become attracted to conducting and trained under Maestro Henry Lewis.

I was invited to conduct for the San Francisco Ballet by Conductor/Composer Gerhard Samuel, who was a German émigré raised in Los Angeles who had recently been appointed the Ballet’s Music Director.

Wm: It must have been quite different to return to the War Memorial conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

LF: It was a wonderful experience to wind up in the War Memorial’s orchestra pit, conducting with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

Wm: You had responsibility for conducting the first revival of the popular Jun Kaneko production. What did you think of the Jun Kaneko production? 

LF: I loved Kaneko’s “Magic Flute” sets and costumes and I loved David Gockley’s English translation. I had the time of my life conducting it.

[Below: The Queen of the Night (Albina Shaguritimova, center) appears before Tamino (Paul Appleby, left) in the 2015 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: What attracted you to the Gockley translation?

LF: I think that Mozart and his librettist Schikanader would have loved Gockley’s use of American slang. Schikanader was very much a people person. “The Magic Flute” debuted in Shikanader’s theater in Vienna when Shikanader was actively seeking to attract the Viennese population to his theater and the plays and operas it performed.

Wm: Like the “Nutcracker” for a ballet orchestra conductor “The Magic Flute” is something an opera conductor may have conducted many times. Do you still find things to challenge you in it?

LF: I’ve done “Magic Flute” 50 times and still find new things about it! I consider having the opportunity to conduct Mozart’s “Magic Flute” which is such a different experience than, say, conducting performances of the “Nutcracker” ballet.

Wm: Can you give me an example of finding something new?

LP: Yes. We associate the idea of muting tympani with Hector Berlioz. The orchestral score to “The Magic Flute” gives no indication that the tympani are to be muted, but a reference is made in the libretto’s stage directions. Thus, we know, Mozart was employing the technique long before Berlioz.

It’s informed practice to play Mozart fast, but I started the performance with a very slow introduction to the opera’s overture. I use it to demonstrate one of the only examples of a long adagio where there is no change of harmony at all. These were both major discoveries for me.

Wm: You are associated with the Welsh National Opera’s productions of the double bill of Getty’s “Usher House” and Debussy’s “The Fall of the House of Usher [La Chute de la Maison Usher]” When did you first begin to work with these pieces?

[Below: Lady Madeline (Leanne Benjamin) dances with Roderick Usher (Steven McRea) to Kim Brandstrup’s choreography of the Debussy ballets at the 2006 Bregenz Festival; edited image, based on a Karl Foster photograph for the Bregenz Festival.]


 LP: I first became acquainted with Debussy’s work at the 2006 Bregenz Festival in Austria. It was part of a triple bill that began with Debussy’s ballets “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and “Jeux”. This was followed by “La Chute de la Maison Usher” in the form completed by Robert Ortledge.

The three works together were presented without a break and the intent of the pair of ballets was, first, to show Roderick Usher’s childhood and youth, to be followed by the opera about the end of his life.

[Below: A scene from Phyllida Lloyd’s 2006 Bregenz Festival production of Debussy’s “La Chute de la Maison Usher”; edited image, based on a Karl Foster photograph for the Bregenz Festival.]


Wm: Phyllida Lloyd’s production of the Debussy Triple Bill took place at the Bregenz (Austria) Festival which was then associated with Director David Pountney, who later moved to the Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, where he paired the Debussy-Ortledge opera with Getty’s “Usher House”. He, of course, is the director of the San Francisco Opera production that you are conducting.

What are your thoughts on Debussy’s and Getty’s approaches to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story?

 LF: My first introduction was to the Debussy work. As I got to know it, at no point did I feel that there are parts of it that are “not Debussy”. In “La Chute” 22 minutes is Debussy’s original music and the rest of the opera is Ortledge’s elaboration of Debussy’s ideas. I don’t feel that Ortledge’s contribution is some “bridge” to something that is not Debussy.

Wm: What are your thoughts about the double bill and the production?

LF: The main role, sung in San Francisco by Brian Mulligan, is a killer. Roderick Usher never stops singing, He has two long monologues, but does have some involvement with the other characters. The production is startling and totally engrossing.

[Below: Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher in Getty’s “Usher House”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The pieces are very different. The Getty opera has more emphasis on text than the French opera does. The Getty setting is almost like attending a lecture or reading with subtle music accompaniment, interrupted at moments by orchestral outbreaks.

The second scene is so attractive that I have thought of doing it as an orchestral encore.

Wm: They are quite different approaches to the same subject matter.

LF: These pieces sound different. The Getty piece has the open harmony one associates with American composers, like Barber’s “Vanessa” or the pastoral moments of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”. It’s not like any other piece, however.

Getty’s music suits the voice very well. It is possible to understand every word he puts on paper. You might call the music modernistic, but Getty basically is an old-fashioned composer who intends for singers to be appreciated and to be able to put across to audiences what Getty is trying to convey. I enjoy conducting his music.

The Debussy is a different world, a different sound with direct open harmonies and ambiguous sounds. The dynamic range is quite different with orchestration that is more romantic.

In Getty you get a disciplined classicism, something like you might expect composer Ralph Vaughn Williams to have set to music, although Getty has a certain level of intensity not usually found in Vaughn Williams.

Wm: As a conductor who lives in Europe and spends much of his time conducting there, do you have some thoughts about debuting at the San Francisco Opera?

LF: I found the San Francisco Opera to be an amazing company. I would be hard put to name any other company where the whole staff makes the guest artist feel so comfortable. Whatever problem comes up is taken care of.

Many opera companies have fine staffs, but the San Francisco Opera company’s staff exceeds anything I’ve ever experienced.

Wm: What are your thoughts about the San Francisco Opera Orchestra?

LF: I am very impressed. This is an orchestra that really listens and watches very closely what the conductor is communicating to them. It’s like the New York Met’s Orchestra.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra knows the music very well and pays attention to the singers. That’s not a universal quality among orchestras.

In fact, I recall making a conducting mistake during a rehearsal, but the San Francisco orchestra knew what it was supposed to do, and played what I intended rather than what I had signaled. They sustained the singers. No one followed my error.

It is amazing to me that this orchestra would work for four hours during the day rehearsing Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” then would come back that evening and perform “The Magic Flute” flawlessly.

As of the moment we are conversing the company is rotating operas by Rossini, Wagner and Mozart and just completed one by Donizetti. The company approaches each one in the correct stylistic manner.

It’s impressive that the orchestra picks up on the subtle stylistic differences between performing Rossini and Donizetti and then performs “Meistersinger” as if they were Bayreuth on the Pacific.

[Below: a view of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra during a 2015 performance of Sir David McVicar’s production of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”; resized image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: With your long experience in conducting in so many venues, would you have advice for the San Francisco Opera Orchestra?

LF: I would like very much to see this orchestra have a series of symphonic concerts, which I believe would only enhance their skills. As music director of the Opera Marseille, I have scheduled ten concerts a year. And, of course, I believe the reverse: that symphony orchestras should play more opera than they schedule.

I am impressed that the Vienna Philharmonic performs with many of the greatest singers in the world, and I believe that the symphony benefits from that experience.

The second part of my conversation with Maestro Foster will appear at a later date. For my review of “Le Roi d’Ys” see: A Rousing “Le Roi d’Ys” at Opera de Marseille – May 10, 2014.


Tags: William's Conversations