The following conversation took place in the administrative offices of The Dallas Opera, whose facilitation of this conversation is much appreciated.
[Below: Conductor Emmanuel Villaume; resized image of an Akos Photography publicity photograph.]
Wm: One of the first questions that I ask artists with whom I am having a conversation that will be posted relates to their earliest musical experiences. What is your background and your introduction to music?
EV: I was born in Strasbourg in 1964. My father was the city planner. My family was culturally from the North of France and Paris. I earned a spot in the Strasbourg children’s chorus. Alain Lombard was the conductor. The first time I walked out on stage was in a production of Puccini’s “Turandot” starring José Carreras and Montserrat Caballe.
Wm: This was Strasbourg’s famous Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production that traveled to San Francisco for the Fall 1977 San Francisco Opera season for Caballe and Pavarotti. I saw it twice. What impact did it have on you, being a children’s chorister onstage in that dramatic production?
[Below: a scene from a 1977 San Francisco Opera performance of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s Opera du Rhin Strasbourg production of Puccini’s “Turandot”; resized image of a production photograph for the San Francisco Opera.]
EV: I caught the fever right away. I understood that this was my place. In fact, I accepted it was like an existential moment of truth. This had an enormous impact on my life in general, my choice to be a musician, and my decision to attend the Strasbourg Conservatory of Music.
My parents wanted me to have classical training, and I agreed to their plan. In the French system you can obtain a degree in two intense years at the Sorbonne.
There, I studied philosophy, history and musicology. When I was done, I returned to Strasbourg, because I wanted to go where I felt I belonged – the Opera National du Rhin. They took me, barely out of my teens, to be part of the opera company. They offered me the jobs of Assistant Director and Stage Manager, to write articles for program books and to lecture, all of which was very interesting for me.
At the time, I thought I might become a stage director. I studied theater in Strasbourg and quickly realized that as interesting as stage direction was, it was conducting that interested me more.
Wm: How did you move from stage management to conducting?
EV: At that time, Maestro Spiros Argiris, who was to become music director at Spoleto Italy and Spoleto USA, was conducting Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in Strasbourg. Because Argiris was interested in discussing music with me, I told him that I had decided to become a conductor.
“What have you done?”, Argiris asked. “You will not learn how to conduct sitting in a lecture hall. You will learn by being an assistant.”
Argiris said “You have a better ear than some of the conductors now working. Let’s try this.” He took me as his assistant in Spoleto, Italy, assisting him on Wagner’s “Parsifal”. I was charmed by the city of Spoleto and there were lots of assistants from prestigious schools to talk with.
“You should take lessons from me in Strasbourg during the next year”, Argiris said. “You will conduct Rossini’s ‘Petite Messe Solennelle’. Let’s see how you do.”
I was his assistant on many other concerts, as well. He was doing the Mahler Third Symphony in an open-air concert with sound enhancement. He asked me, “Why don’t you pick a movement and conduct it?”. It felt so natural and I had so much fun conducting the Mahler Third that they had to grab me and pull me off the podium.
Wm: How did you make the move from being another conductor’s assistant to conducting on your own?
EV: My conducting came to the attention of Giancarlo Menotti. “Listen to this crazy French guy”, Argiris said. “He sounds interesting”, Menotti replied. “We have a few free performances of Mozart’s ‘Nozze di Figaro’ scheduled for Charleston. You should give those performances to Emmanuel.”
[Below: Maestro Emmanuel Villaume conducts a concert at Spoleto USA in Charleston, South Carolina; edited image of a production photograph for the Spoleto Festival USA.]
It was Renée Fleming, early in her career, who sang the Countess Almaviva in those “Nozze” performances. I worked hard on the assignment and it went well. Every year thereafter I served as a member of the staff and was assigned to conduct concerts, then opera productions.
The Paris Opera invited me to assist Maestro Seiji Ozawa for Puccini’s “Tosca”. Knowing that would be good experience for me, I agreed to do it.
Seiji and I connected very well. I became his assistant conductor in Japan, where he offered me lots of guidance and advice.
Wm: What was it like assisting both Spiros Argiris and Seiji Ozawa?
EV: Both were extremely important in building my career. Argiris was an intellectual conductor. Ozawa was an intuitive genius in conducting.
[Below: Maestro Emmanuel Villaume; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Wm: How did you move beyond your successes in the Spoleto festivals?
EV: My first big assignment outside of the Spoleto festivals was at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, at that time under Charles MacKay and Stephen Lord. I was offered Puccini’s “La bohème” in the production designed by Marta Domingo.
Wm: I had written an extensive analysis of Marta Domingo’s production of “Rondine”, when it was last presented in Los Angeles [Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008]. This was obviously an important project for Marta and Plácido Domingo. How did it go in Saint Louis?
EV: One of the outcomes of the Saint Louis performances is that Ed Purrington of the Washington National Opera liked it enough to schedule me to conduct it soon after Plácido Domingo became Washington National Opera’s general director.
Plácido liked my conducting for “Rondine” as well, and after that gave me many opportunities at WNO and at the Los Angeles Opera. We also did Menotti’s “Goya” in Vienna.
Wm: Through “Rondine” you became a protege of the Domingos.
EV: Yes, for my musical development, the three most important influences on my career were Spiros Argiris, Seiji Ozawa and Plácido Domingo. Then Spiros died, and I was asked to become the musical director for Spoleto USA. I served in that capacity for the next ten years.
Wm: I have long advocated that American companies devote more time and resources to the French repertory. I’m a partisan of the most familiar operas of Bizet, Gounod and Massenet, but it does seem to me that too little from that repertory is regularly performed here.
There are some amazing productions, such as Sir David McVicar’s production of Massenet’s “Manon” that you conducted at the Lyric Opera, starring Natalie Dessay, Jonas Kaufmann, Raymond Aceto and David Cangelosi, that is coming to The Dallas Opera.
EV: The McVicar production of Massenet’s “Manon” at Lyric is one of my best memories – one of those moments when everything falls into place. There is a grace and magic in McVicar’s production. Jonas Kaufmann was in superb form. Natalie Dessay, David Cangelosi, Raymond Aceto were at their best. Graham Jenkins is the conductor for The Dallas Opera revival of the McVicar production opening March 4th, 2016.
Wm: And you will be holding up the French flag in Chicago by conducting Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” at the Lyric Opera when “Manon” is in Dallas.
[Below: Maestro Emmanuel Villaume; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
As a French conductor, what would you like to perform for American audiences?
EV: I would love to do Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”. I love Berlioz in general and especially would love to do Berlioz’ “Les Troyens”, which I believe to be like performing Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”. There are definitely some Massenet and Meyerbeer projects under consideration. My personal preference is to do pieces somewhat off the beaten path.
I have the mental image of a large repertory, including Berlioz’ “Benvenuto Cellini”, Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable”, Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” or the its French version, “Vêpres Siciliennes”
Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” at the La Fenice in Venice has caused great excitement. This, perhaps, could be interesting to perform in the United States.
Wm: In fact, the San Francisco Opera mounted Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine” for Plácido Domingo and Shirley Verrett in two different seasons. It was well-received. Few people realize that Domingo sang more performances as Vasco da Gama, the opera’s tenor lead, than any other role in San Francisco.
In the Kurt Herbert Adler days in San Francisco we also got Massenet’s “Esclarmonde”, “Thaïs” and “Le Cid” and, in its Spring Opera series, Thomas’ “Mignon”. In th 1970s Tito Capobianco at the San Diego Opera presented Thomas’ “Hamlet” and Chabrier’s “Gwendoline”. It was at the San Diego Opera that I saw Sherill Milnes in Saint-Saëns‘ “Henry VIII”, that I suspect few French opera goers have ever seen.
Now, for out of the way French works one apparently has to go to places such as Marseille, where I saw Lalo’s “Le Roi d’Ys” a couple of years ago. It would be fascinating for such works to surface in Texas.
You conducted Lee Blakeley’s imposing production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” at the Santa Fe Opera, which set the opera in 19th century French colonial Sri Lanka. I’ve suggested to Lee that he also conceptualize a production of Delibes’ “Lakme”, which is very much a opera about native resistance to colonialism in India.
EV: I conducted “Lakme” for the Spoleto Festival and loved it.
We’ve been talking a lot about the French repertory, but I would also like to be doing Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” or Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten” with a stage director who can make sense out of the piece. Our orchestra pit is big enough for it, but you would have to hire the 116 musicians that you would need for that opera. I also hope to be able to conduct Berg’s “Lulu”.
At first I didn’t want to be pinpointed by an accident of birth, but French and German opera is an amazing repertory and I do it gladly, although I go outside that repertory when conducting in Europe.
[Below: The Dallas Opera’s general director Keith Cerny (left) with The Dallas Opera’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume (right); edited image of a publicity photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
Wm: You generously credit those who mentored you. You may be interested that in the interviews that I do, several artists, without any prompting on my part, have cited you as important to their careers. That includes both David Cangelosi and Raymond Aceto, Laura Claycomb and Lucas Meachem. In a recent conversation I posted Meachem cited your “friendliness and musical prowess” and called you a “monster on the podium!”.
EV: I conducted “Rigoletto” at the Paris Opera with Laura Claycomb as Gilda, who was wonderful. She is a great artist. And, I don’t think there’s a better Figaro singing today than Lucas Meachem.
I have been touring Europe with Meachem and Anna Netrebko for many years performing Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”. We all love the piece and are all advocates for it. The tour was going so well I offered to take my orchestra on the tour. Deutsche Grammophon recorded the opera and released it last year.
[Below: the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta”; resized image of an album cover for Deutsche Grammophon.]
Wm: My visit to Dallas principally was to attend the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” that you conducted and I reviewed. What are your own thoughts on that work?
EV: The Dallas Opera cast – all of us believed in “Becoming Santa Claus” from the first day of rehearsal. There is, first of all, a masterpiece of craftsmanship in Adamo’s approach. It is absolutely brilliant. The orchestration is shimmering, detailed, and efficient.
The styles are very varied. You have reference to pre-classical baroque music, jazz plays a big part, there’s even a bit of rap music – not to mention quartertone music. It flows easily from one style to another. The fact that you have a masterful composer who is also the librettist assures that words and orchestration complement each other.
Wm: This is the second consecutive Adamo opera world premiere that I’ve attended, following his “Gospel According to Mary Magdalene” at the San Francisco Opera for which I reviewed the first and last performances in its run. I think there is great substance in his works and one benefits from seeing additional performances of them.
EV: I’m not personally acquainted with the music of his “Mary Magdalene” but I have observed in “Becoming Santa Claus” the care he devotes in his music to each of his characters. Claus and the elves Obi and Yan all have interesting parts, as do the other performers and the orchestra also.
The piece, from the musical part of view is organic and fluid. There is an arc of music that is very natural. It is so well written and leads to a strong finale. We knew that the finale would work. I, for one, felt that the wit and richness that is almost like Bach. There is craftsmanship that is at a very high level.
[Below: a scene from The Dallas Opera’s world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]
This is the first time performed in front of audience. One could be concerned that this would be so much happening.
Very often, you wonder what am I going to do with this? Why did he write it? What does it mean here? What was he doing? But our job is to present the piece; our best interpretation of the composer’s unique vision.
Wm: I have been a reviewer for number of opera world premieres, including four this year, and am struck by what I think are odd criteria by which new operatic works are judged by some critics. These critics call for new works, yet write condescending, often hostile reviews, that to me seem underserved.
EV: I agree with your observation. I’m troubled that so many critics review operas as to whether they conform to the critic’s particular ideas of what new operatic music should sound like. It is my impression that a higher proportion of reviewers give good reviews to an average performance of, say, Bellini’s “Norma”, than a first-rate performance of a contemporary work.
Wm: Some critics are unforgiving of operas whose music finds favor with the audiences. If they hear a wisp of melody they accuse the composer and opera company of presenting “accessible” operas. The companies are condemned for failing to challenge their audience, of pandering to the people who are paying for the tickets. It’s hard to think of another human enterprise in which there are critics who regard you as a failure if there is evidence that people appreciate the product you provide them.
EV: There is a unity in the reviews that you write for the operawarhorses.com website. I think, however, that some opera critics apply standards to new operas that differ from the standards that, say, book reviewers apply to new fiction. I can’t imagine a reviewer of one of Cocteau’s novels getting away with saying that Cocteau should have written something else instead.
Wm: Opera is a method of telling a story, surrounding and immersing it in music for theatrical effect. The idea that the music in opera has to fit some pre-ordained pattern approved by musicologists is unhelpful, especially if one wants to see new works successfully added to the opera performance repertory.
EV: I regard musicology as a non-science. It is an excuse to hand out some university credentials, but it is not an academic discipline in itself. If you want to understand opera you need to study music, literature, art and history. I remember a revered musicologist trying to make the point that Verdi was a second-rate composer.
Wm: It’s not uncommon for a conductor to have permanent assignments in two or more cities. You currently spend a part of each year the Dallas Opera and part of each with the symphony orchestras of Prague in the Czech Republic and Bratislava in Slovakia. Your reputation in North America is principally based on French opera.
EV: I would like to be seen in the United States as a French and Italian repertory conductor, which I love. Working with the Dallas Opera as well as two symphony orchestras gives me an opportunity to balance my work between the symphonic and the operatic. Take the great conductors: Gustav Mahler, Bruno Walter, Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. They were equally versed in both genres.
Even Pierre Boulez became a better conductor because of opera. Boulez admitted that working on the ”Ring” gave him another approach to his orchestral conducting. You must understand that within the music of a symphony that there is dramatic value to the music. You cannot understand Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony if you don’t understand Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”, “Don Giovanni” or “Nozze di Figaro”.
At same time you gain an understanding the chemistry of an orchestra, how the orchestra can best associate various instruments. When you do a Stravinsky instrumental piece or a Mendelsohn or Mahler symphony, you learn how an orchestra can be at its best for a Bellini opera. I believe that the two are complementary; you can’t fully understand one repertoire without having familiarity with the other.
Wm: You are an advocate for opera orchestras performing symphonies and vice versa.
EV: I think the best orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, are doing both. That’s why here in Dallas we have decided to do occasional symphony concerts with the orchestra onstage. It’s important to explore different repertory beyond the operatic favorites.
Wm: Thank you so much for your time.
EV: Thank you.