What are the skills needed for operatic conducting? Anna Picard spoke to conductors Dane Lam, Lada Valešová and Matthew Kofi Waldren to find out.
We all know the opening of Bizet’s Carmen – that sudden flash of French brilliance and Spanish heat, the sparkle and rat-tat-tat of the first few bars and the sequinned bullfighter swagger that follows them. But how do you set it in motion, gathering every section of an orchestra from the strings to the woodwind, brass and percussion? Behind the Beat, an online workshop devised by three of Opera Holland Park’s conductors, looks at the craft and art in the seconds before the music starts.
Dane Lam, Lada Valešová and Matthew Kofi Waldren have long connections with Opera Holland Park. A former singer, Waldren was in the first cohort of OHP Young Artists in 2012. Lam also made his company debut as an OHP Young Artist, while Valešová, pianist, accompanist, vocal and language coach, and music director of Ivo Van Hove’s acclaimed production of Diary of One Who Disappeared, was assistant conductor to Sian Edwards in last year’s production of Iolanta and was scheduled to conduct the OHP Young Artists in Eugene Onegin this summer. Between them, they have worked on repertoire from Mozart and Rossini to Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Mascgani, Tchaikovsky, Janácek and Britten. Lam is also principal conductor and artistic director of the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra in China.
Under lockdown, Lam, Waldren and Valešová have been working online, teaching, coaching and studying scores during the months in which they expected to be preparing for the 2020 season.
Conducting in the time of COVID
“Music making has been changing over this period of time and it’s challenging and we’re all trying to find our way but we will learn something by doing this this way”, says Waldren.
“We’ll learn to communicate in a different way. We’re probably going to have to do this for some time so this Open Day will be fun but it’s also a chance for us to learn something about how we might have to work in the future.”
Behind the Beat offers a 360 view of conducting from the basic definition of the job to the basic physical vocabulary through which a conductor can shape tempo, dynamic, timbre and articulation. “There might be some glitches but I think it’s going to be exciting”, says Valešová.
“Dane has been teaching conducting online. I’ve been having conducting lessons online with Sian and Jessica Cottis, so I’ve been on the other side. I think it’s doable if we all support each other.”
What is the role of a conductor?
So what does a conductor do? “This is the big question, isn’t it?”, says Waldren. “In its simplest sense, we are there to provide the pulse to a large group of musicians, so that they understand what the pulse is and we can keep everybody moving together. If we’re not going to be helpful to the musicians we’re with, then there’s not much use in us. But we also wouldn’t be much use if that’s all we did.”
The term ‘maestro’ is rarely used in Britain unless ironically. “I really think that of all the languages, English speakers have worked out the best word for this strange profession of waving a stick around, because in a lot of languages it’s director, chief, commander in Chinese”, says Lam. “The only language I know that has this word ‘conductor’ is English, and that’s what we deal with – we transmit energy between the audience and the orchestra and the composer. I think that’s what orchestras feel from a great performance or a great rehearsal, it’s this exchange of energy. So it’s a good name.”
Back to basics
How do you teach conducting to a complete novice? “I would probably just do some movements to show you the beats in the bar, the gestures”, says Valešová, tracing an elegant, even, clear and dynamic shape in the air. “One, two. One, two. One, two. Down and up. It can be up like a little curve.”
I attempt to mirror her movements and realise that my motor control and my sense of rhythm are complete strangers, if not mortal enemies. What am I doing wrong?
“First of all we just give ourselves a count. One, two. One, two. Left and right, as if we are doing little arches,” she says.
Is this any better?
“You are hanging on the top! We are one, twooooo. One, twoooo.”
It’s really hard, I whimper, feeling like a seal in a circus act.
“Yes. You can also start simply from tapping, you know. You can start from a small movement. If we go one and two, and one and two. You can subdivide. Let’s start together, and one and two, and one and two. Yes. That’s better.”
Keeping in time
My imaginary Carmen is now chugging along at a funereal pace. It’s better than it was a few minutes earlier but I’m shocked by how difficult it is to maintain an even beat.
“It’s like pianists having scales in their hands. Whatever the speed is, the gesture gets imbued with the character of the music. Nobody wants to see the basics. It sometimes helps to think of a pendulum or a metronome. With my teacher in Russia we even had a little string tied to my teacher’s middle finger and I would swing to the left and the right, just to get the feeling of never stopping regular movement.”
So you don’t stop at either end of the gesture?
“Exactly,” says Valešová. “Within that one beat you have many subdivisions contained but the gesture has to be the same length. But it’s amazing. It’s fascinating. I love it. You can feel the brain moulding as you go with the process.”
“Two, three and four in a bar are the bread and butter”, says Lam. “I’ve been thinking about it and I think teaching with movements like opening a door, back-handing a tennis ball or turning a door knob can help unlock musical gestures.”
Height, width, and depth are also important considerations, he says, describing them with his hands. “This is the expressive space we have to work in. This is all we have and so we have to use it in a way to convey the sound, the mood, the articulation. So I think that ground zero for a conducting gesture is lowish, around the abdomen, not too far away, not too close to your body, nice and easy. Up high and close to your body is soft and light and sprightly. And then further out and bigger gestures is louder, more robust, more generous.”
Aha! My quarantine Carmen may be slow but it’s getting some colour and flavour. I take Carmen back to Waldren, determined to pick up the tempo.
“Having that little bit of rise in the wrist really helps”, he says. “One, two. One, two. And also up and down, rather than down and up. One and two, and one and two, and one and two. So actually before the upbeat, I think we need to understand the pulse, how fast you want to go, and you’ve got that decision as conductor.”
I decided to go a little faster, then a lot faster. Big mistake. Huge.
“Composers are clever enough to write stuff that can be played, so if in the end the orchestra is struggling to play it, it’s probably your fault, as opposed to the composer’s fault”, says Waldren. Oops. “Clarity is more important than speed sometimes – specificity can make something sound fast.”
Leading a performance
Across three conversations I have learned enough to know that my place is not on the podium but in the auditorium, where I will watch the conductor with a little more understanding than before, regardless of the repertoire. Still, I’m curious about one thing, what does it feel like when you’ve walked to the podium, acknowledged the applause, and turned to face the orchestra at the start of the show?
“It feels pregnant with possibilities and crackling with energy”, says Lam. “You’re a leader, so the way you project yourself, that’s what you get back”, says Valešová.
“The opening upbeat is the only time where the conductor is solo. That is our concerto moment. You really don’t want to screw it up. Everyone needs to understand, so the simpler the better, I think”, says Waldren. “The orchestra and singers have so much knowledge. You are just helping these people to create the music. You can’t do it without them.”