Online Journal

Putting the Music back into Opera

The second in a two-part interview with conductor, David Roblou.

In the second of a two-part series,'s editor, John Woodford, talks to conductor and Artistic Director of Midsummer Opera, David Roblou. Here they discuss his work as an opera conductor and the bearing that his work as an interpreter of early music has on performances of more modern works.

Unlike your work as a harpsichordist, your role as a conductor is something for which you are not as well known. There almost seems to be something of a paradox here: David Roblou the harpsichordist vs. David Roblou the conductor of, for example, La Bohème. How do you reconcile the two sides?

I see opera as an all-embracing form; it involves singing and playing,
and encompasses the entire "bel canto" period.

'For me they have never been a problem, since they are just two interests that have overlapped throughout my working life. I have always liked quite full-blooded singing, but have to admit to a disinterest in both "early music" singing and the bellowing that often occurs in some opera companies; my interest has always been somewhere in the middle and is something that has arisen since I started becoming involved in opera. As I did with the harpsichord, I started by performing the earliest operas and worked my way forward to more modern works. I see opera as an all-embracing form; it involves singing and playing, and encompasses the entire bel canto period. This evolved around the end of the sixteenth century and developed over the following three centuries into, roughly speaking, the first half of the twentieth. After that, it gradually disintegrated in favour of the modernist, "in-your-face" style. Therefore, we have a dichotomy of performing styles: early music singing is often very quiet, but modern opera is hideously loud! Discovering the balance between a total lack of inhibition whilst simultaneously retaining poise, elegance and sophistication is difficult to achieve, but it is certainly something that was common in opera of the last century. These are elements which should be kept in balance for music of all periods and places; in a way, it's a part of being civilised.'

So how do you channel your understanding of musical styles? Your enthusiasm for bel canto, for example, runs contrary to the way in which singers are trained today; at least some singers must resent your requirements.

'It's a diplomatic job, and there are only two ways of doing it - either you run your own company in order to be able to control everything and therefore stand a better chance of getting everything the way you want it, or you work as a freelance conductor where you have to take what you get. Although it is not possible to change everything in the course of an afternoon's rehearsal, you can influence things deeply: conductors with strong ideas cannot help but show the singers how they think it should go. Another way is through the orchestra - many conductors don't know how to make the orchestra accompany; they neither shape the music assertively nor accompany the singers effectively. When directing from either the keyboard or the podium, it is always necessary to drive the music strongly in order to give it shape, rhythm and dramatic direction. There are moments when, in the course of a performance of, for example, La Traviata, the music has to be incredibly flexible, where it is necessary to follow the singing, take hold of it and push it forwards quite ruthlessly, as part of a dialogue with the stage actors. Whether it is with grander, late Romantic works or the small, theatre-orientated operas of the Baroque and Classical periods, all operas have common principles. Once the vocabulary has been learned it is possible to apply it to almost anything.

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