Kazushi Ono conducts Brussels Philharmonic. Photo: Wouter Van Vaerenbergh (detail) View full image

Miracle achievement

With Bernard Foccroulle’s new opera Cassandra opening at La Monnaie this month, Kazushi Ono discusses the work and explains why conducting sometimes involves doing very little

What is Cassandra about?

The first part is set within Greek mythology. Cassandra has a special talent to foresee the future – but not to be believed – given to her by the god Apollo. Matthew Jocelyn’s libretto examines this talent and imagines how Cassandra would be in our age. He creates another heroine, the young Sandra, who is also from a poor family and is isolated by her special talent – her foresight.

The first time that Cassandra and Sandra meet each other is a very dramatic point in the opera. Cassandra hands the baton to Sandra to focus on the future of humanity – war, disease and the inevitable destruction of the human race. Sandra leaves her family and her education behind to save humanity. She does this for Cassandra and for everyone who is born into the world. The most important message of the opera is about love.

In Foccroulle’s score, the singers tell the story, but he also creates so many different kinds of whispers and effects in the orchestra, which you can recognise as the sounds of the cosmos. In my interpretation of the score, the singers and the libretto are focused on the future disaster, while the orchestra describes the planet itself. We started work on the opera over two days in June with the singers, and the musical standard is going to be very high.

How do you go about studying a new opera score?

Normally, I learn the score on the piano, singing along myself, but with this kind of contemporary music it’s hard to play the piano, so I mainly I read the score, pretending to be both singer and actor. For me the joy of learning a new opera score is the marriage between the music, the libretto, the orchestra and the singers.

When I work with singers, I try to explain to them the relationships between the music and the libretto. This is the most fundamental thing to discuss. I can recognise immediately if a singer is singing without thinking about the libretto. I try to understand what they mean in their singing, and make suggestions. It might be about changing the colour of the sound, or where they put stress on a word – for example, TragEDY is completely different from TRAgedy. This is always the conversation between me and the singers, and the director.

How do you feel when you conduct an opera?

I get excited by the many dimensions of opera: singers, orchestra, set design, costumes, chorus, backstage. When everyone is concentrating a hundred per cent I enjoy sending the results to the audience. When that happens I feel nothing! That’s because during the preparations and rehearsals I’m at the centre of activities and say so many things, but during the performance I don’t speak at all. My movements are minimal and concentrated so that the orchestral players listen to each other. An orchestra pit is very wide and not as big as a concert stage so the players have to be very sensitive. As a conductor you can’t make big movements.

This is one of the miracle achievements of a conductor – creating absolute concentration. In a bigger concert hall the players can see me (even if they don’t want to!): they can see my face to make eye contact, but in an orchestra pit it’s so dark that not everyone can see my eyes. I also have another dimension to control, on stage. A pit orchestra should be like a soft cloud for the singers, supporting their sound and sending it up to the upper circle of the audience.

How has opera changed since you started out?

Nowadays even though singers show me their back they can see the monitors, which makes moving around stage much more comfortable. This is very important for the drama of what they do. The technicians are very important in this process and work very hard – sometimes it takes hours to get it right.

Compared to several years ago, there are more directors who are like contemporary artists – you can’t always understand what their sets or costumes mean. There should be a balance with this. It’s important for directors to be free creatively and to experiment, but it has to be done in conversation with the score – with Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner.

Cassandra opens at La Monnaie on 10 September and runs until 23 September