Bassem Akiki (detail) View full image

Being the bridge

As he prepares to conduct the world premiere of Philippe Boesmans final opera, On purge bébé, Bassem Akiki explains how his role as conductor is to communicate between composer and audience – and to avoid panic on stage

What is the background to On purge bébé?

Philippe Boesmans was writing it when he died in April 2022, working on it chronologically from beginning to end, without jumping scenes. It was completed by his friend Benoît Mernier.

Philippe’s score is so clear. You understand every note he wrote and why he wrote it. He thought in a theatrical way, not just about the music. Everything that relates to the action can be read in the score. When I first read it, I could already see the stage – that’s very rare these days for a new opera.

You can feel his knowledge of the history of opera and hear the inspiration of Wagner, Mendelssohn and other composers. This is a composer who knows the tradition well, understands voices and writes very well for instruments. All the elements are perfectly matched.

The language and humour remind me of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, which was also a comedy. That says a lot about Philippe’s personality: he was a very positive person, full of energy, happiness and enthusiasm. I never saw him sad. He loved people.

What are the themes of the opera?

The Follavoines have a problem – their son is constipated. In this comical situation you see society’s problems at the beginning of 20th century – and even now. The businessman is focused on his own porcelain business and forgets what is important in life – his son and his wife. Everything collapses. The child’s problem will be solved by the end, but it causes a lot of trouble in the meantime, which the adults don’t know how to solve. It’s comical right until the end – you laugh throughout, but when you leave the theatre, you think about what it means in real life.

I already knew the original Feydeau play: French literature is important in Lebanon, where I was born, and I was in a French school. There is also a great French influence on Polish art and literature, although Feydeau is not well known in Poland, where I now live. It’s very hard to translate it into Polish because there’s a lot of word play and nuance. The whole opera even starts with this idea: a character is looking in the dictionary for ‘Les Hébrides’ but he can’t find it. This first scene is so comical. The ‘bourgeoisie’ think they are very intelligent and educated, but they are not – they cannot even spell a simple word.

What are the challenges of the score?

The score is very difficult, especially for the singers, because the tempos are so fast. The characters don’t have time to think – they just talk and talk, and then regret what they said. The tempos underline the comedy of this. We reach a tempo of 192, which I have never come across before. In rehearsals we play everything slower and then make it faster to reach the final tempo. At some point, the tempos have entered our bodies and voices and become normal. Now, a tempo of 144, which is usually quick, seems to be slow relative to 192.

When I spoke to Philippe about this, he said it’s okay to slow down the tempo if needed, because the most important thing is to understand the text and not to jump notes. He was very careful – a word or phrase that happens in a very fast tempo is repeated so that if you don’t have the chance to understand it the first time you have another chance. He used this technique to be very clear with the main ideas.

What are the differences between conducting a new opera and one of the classics?

When you conduct a well-known opera, you already have a tradition – there has been a premiere and many other productions and conductors. That makes its both easier and less easy. With Verdi or Puccini, for example, you know the style and language, whereas with new music, you have to discover the composer and learn the style. But whether the composer is alive or dead, my aim is always to get close to them. I read Puccini’s letters to understand his way of thinking and his approach to women, and it’s the same with Philippe. I try to understand his way of being, talk to his friends and read his letters and interviews. The way of working is the same whether it’s a classical or contemporary composer.

Established traditions make it harder to find the composer. From the premiere of the classics onwards, many singers and conductors have interfered with scores. Some of these ideas have made their way into editions – fermatas or ritenutos, for example. You say, ‘Puccini didn’t write a fermata here,’ and people respond, ‘but Carlos did this,’ or ‘Pavarotti did that.’ I respect tradition, but I want to get back to the original. Some traditions go against the original thoughts of the composer. That doesn’t happen with contemporary music. As conductor, you are creating the tradition so you are responsible for doing as the composer wants.

Some conductors hate it when the composer is in the audience. I love it, because I receive feedback about the original idea – why and how it was written, how it sounds better. Your job as conductor is to be the bridge between composer and audience. That bridge doesn’t lead wherever you want it to. You communicate with the audience through the orchestra, singers and musicians, but you are also in communication with the composers and you must be faithful to their idea. You are the first one to hold their score in your hands and to make it happen. That’s a huge responsibility.

How does being a composer affect your approach to conducting?

Before I started composing, as a conductor, I would look at a score and it often seemed that what the composer had done was accidental. When I started to compose myself, I gained more respect. The more I write, the more respect I have, because now I know how hard it is. Sometimes you sit down for weeks to write only four bars, and sometimes you write 20 minutes of music in 10 minutes – it depends on your inspiration.

I try to separate the two jobs. When I compose, I don’t think about performing the music – I will worry about that later. When the score is finished, I pick it up as a conductor. That’s when I make adjustments, while staying faithful to the music.

When I conduct music by inexperienced composers, I sometimes suggest changes before giving the parts to the orchestra. I know that if the players read it, they won’t understand and it won’t sound right. I’ll suggest changes to make it easier to read, but to give the same effect. You want young composers to improve, but you have to be very careful about giving feedback. It can destroy the other person and their piece. You need to know the limits to interfering – when it helps and when it harms.

What is the role of the conductor in opera, apart from the musical one?

As the conductor, you have to give the singers confidence, whatever the situation. Opera is so difficult. Panic can take over at any moment and that is the one thing you can’t allow. There are so many elements in a rehearsal: scenery, score, acting, a demanding stage director, a choreographer who wants the left hand to be up and the right hand to be down. Some directors don’t care if the singers have to dance, stand on their head or jump three times while singing their high C.

It’s important to work on the various elements separately. Then it’s easy when you join them up. If I see a problem with the musical performance, I do a little coaching. I take the singer away for 30 minutes to think about the music and come back to the stage rehearsal.

The closer you are to the premiere, the more important it is to avoid panic – to spread a nice energy to everybody and deal with problems separately. There are people who panic and start to make more and more mistakes. They have 50 things to think about at once and they are not secure with their score yet, especially with a world premiere. When singers perform Verdi or Mozart, they know how the music sounds, but with new music they can’t hear it until the first orchestral rehearsal. Sometimes you have to deal with this and explain the details of the score: ‘You only have two violins with you, so be a little softer, even if it’s written forte, because forte is the character, not the volume.’

It’s important for there to be respect between the music director and the stage director. I have excellent harmony with Richard Brunel. If something is disturbing the music, he discusses it with me but he’s not stubborn about his ideas. Some stage directors know the libretto, but not the score, so their vision might work in a theatre, but not for opera. I never treat this as a power game. It’s not about the conductor or the stage director, it’s about the piece itself and the composer. The composer is the creator and we have to respect them. It’s a long, beautiful process that is full of surprises, which is what makes it interesting.

On purge bébé opens on 13 December at La Monnaie and at Opéra de Lyon on 5 June.

Bassem Akiki conducts the world premiere of Animal Farm from 13 March at Dutch National Opera.