Elena Schwarz. Photo: Sarah Marshall/QSO (detail) View full image

Meaningful exchange

As Elena Schwarz prepares to conduct Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence at Dutch National Opera, she explains why she enjoys the collaboration involved in opera and how conducting new music supports her interpretation of classical repertoire

What has it been like working on Kaija Saariaho’s Innocence?

In opera there is so much possibility in starting not only with music but also with text – that’s the great joy of opera projects. In this piece, the music and libretto are equally brilliant. I’ve always been a fan of Kaija Saariaho’s music and her operatic work, and this opera brings together so many echoes of other pieces by her. Sofi Oksanen’s libretto creates a strong structure to bring these aspects of Saariaho’s writing together, and create a cinematic feeling. They worked on the opera together and it’s a brilliant piece from both points of view, and a real pleasure to be part of it.

What are the challenges of this opera?

One challenge is that it has already been performed a number of times and has a history. Some people have been with it since the beginning, others on one performance or another, while along with some of the singers, I’m new to the work. One must respect and honour its performance history, but also start afresh, because that is how we best serve a piece, having fresh eyes and ears.

The piece is also very demanding, brilliantly structured to match the libretto. There are recurring themes, but also recurring tempos that are associated with different people. The structure is extremely intricate, mathematical even, but it also has a lot of freedom and emotion. It’s interesting to find the right line between getting everything perfectly in place, but also giving it the space to breathe and adapting to the fantastic performers, giving them the sense of freedom. That’s a challenge but a great pleasure.

How does collaboration work with opera directors?

What I love about opera is that it’s a team effort and a real collaboration with a director who comes with a completely different point of view. I’m fascinated by how directors work. When the collaboration works, there’s nothing better.

Working with Barbara Wysocka on Káťa Kabanová at Opéra de Lyon this spring, we both felt a special connection, which made for a powerful show. Before we met in Lyon, we had a couple of conversations about the meaning of the piece, in very general terms. Barbara told me her vision and I shared my intuitions about the music. We were able to work in a way that wasn’t, ‘this is my domain, this is your domain’. By the time we came to Lyon, we had agreed on the basic feelings without defining anything. From that point we talked about practical things, but everything else came out of having those meaningful exchanges. That’s what really excites me about opera – when there’s sympathy and exchange at the base of everything. When things start from that point, it’s possible to feel something coherent and that’s fantastic.

This contact with a director is so important, and that’s why it’s a great joy be in an agency alongside directors and creatives now, where these worlds mingle. That should be the starting point for projects – dreaming up projects with directors with whom I have a connection. I almost went into literature before I chose music, and I find it inspiring to work with people who are so talented in that way and are imbued in that world.

How do you go about learning a new score?

If I don’t know the composer, the first thing is to get a general idea of their language and soundworld. Initially, this is more important than thinking in too much detail. Then I get an idea of its structure. These ideas will inevitably change, but sometimes we get early intuitions about pieces that we should not disregard. After that, I go into more detail. With a new piece, it’s possible to speak with the composer, which is fantastic.

How is this process different for the classic repertoire?

The experience I had early on with new music and being in the same room as the composer has informed my way of approaching music from the past. Of course, we need to be aware of traditions, and part of the richness of our world is that there is so much information about music of the past. But the experience of seeing a new score for the first time offers an approach to finding that spontaneity in well-known repertoire, in dialogue with tradition.

What have you learnt about the psychology of conducting?

The job of conductor requires one to be aware of the complexity of situations and of human beings. It’s important to move in a situation of respect, in which each person feels in a good position to work. My guiding principle when I go to an orchestra is that every person in the ensemble is talented and motivated. My role is to create a situation where we can all express ourselves freely and to and highest level. Of course, our environment can involve high tension, but I start from the point of view that everyone wants to do a beautiful job, feels strongly about the music, and has a sense of responsibility to the composer and the audience, like I do. This is our job, together.

What does your ideal career look like?

I’m very happy with where I am now because I get to do three things that I always wanted to do: symphonic concerts with beautiful repertoire; opera, with interesting projects and directors; and new music with specialist ensembles. I’ve always wanted to find this balance, because I love the possibility of going between these worlds. I don’t think they’re contradictory in any way – rather, they feed into each other. I feel blessed by the projects in which I’m involved. There are established orchestras and ensembles I like to work with and return to, and in the medium term, I would like to work more regularly with one orchestra. I would be excited to participate in a vision that goes beyond the programming of one concert or series and involves how the orchestra is related to the community and the identity of the place it serves, as well as contributing to shape its artistic identity.

What are your hopes for classical music?

I recently performed a concert in Bold Tendencies, a converted car park in London, with Philharmonia Orchestra. I think it’s important to connect with audiences in different spaces like this. Traditional concert halls have great acoustics and feel like home to me as a conductor, but we must sometimes get out of our comfort zones to connect with our communities, to make music for everyone. We have to be active about that and I’m always pleased when I can be part of these initiatives. I see a lot of that happening at the moment and it makes me very hopeful.

It’s also about what we perform: bringing in other influences and programming with the idea of representing our society. There is a lot of good music we can bring to the concert hall, and a lot of energy we can take from people who have traditionally not come to concerts. I believe that given the opportunity to listen to the sound an orchestra can produce, and the expressiveness and emotions that can be felt in classical music, everyone can feel welcome.

Innocence opens at Dutch National Opera on 7 October and runs until 22 October.