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“Opera conducting is astoundingly complex”


Joram Bauwens, student in musicology, was invited to join the 2nd session of the Opera Conducting Workshops cycle -held at the De Nationale Opera - Dutch National Opera from May 30th to June 4th - for an immersive experience alongside the six young conductors of the workshop. 


Joram Bauwens

student in musicology

June 12, 2017

Conducting. If there is any aspect to classical music that is severely underrated by its audience – perhaps except for the few deeply immersed aficionados – it must be conducting. Most casual concert-goers will look at any given conductor and recognize an orchestra’s need of a timekeeper;  slightly more experienced audience member might even spot signals for orchestra members to come in or stop playing, or gestures that influence dynamics or tempo. Of course, it must be said that such practices are indeed part of a conductor’s role. However, they are part of a role that is played during the final moments of a long process – one of nuanced corrections, repetition upon repetition, and painstaking perfectionism. It is here, along a journey of attempting to flesh out a musical vision and transfer it into the collective conscious of an orchestra, where a fundamental part of any conductor’s work is located. 
It is here, along a journey of attempting to flesh out a musical vision and transfer it into the collective conscious of an orchestra, where a fundamental part of any conductor’s work is located.

In my own naivety I was convinced that, as an almost-graduated Musicology Master student, I knew a thing or two about this process. Being a brief member of an amateur orchestra and witness to many great performances had me thinking that I, at the very least, somewhat understood the work conductors put in. This was my state of mind right before I got to witness the enoa workshop Opera Chorus Conducting* by Dutch National Opera talent in Amsterdam; it quickly turned out that I was rather wrong. Opera conducting is astoundingly complex and far more demanding than I even imagined. Next-level attention to detail, the incredible nuances of choral conducting, the challenge of merging a freely-singing soloist on stage with an orchestra in the pit – all facets that are easily undervalued and probably grossly underestimated by an audience that only sees the end result. Simultaneously, these facets are also difficult to master for young conductor, as they often require a full-fledged orchestra and/or chorus to practice with. This is where the enoa opera conducting workshops cycle comes into play: six young and upcoming conductors are selected to hone their conducting skills over the span of three workshops across three cities (Waterloo, Amsterdam and Lisbon), with each location highlighting a different aspect of opera conducting – working with soloists, a professional opera chorus, and finally a professional orchestra. 

Here in Amsterdam, the challenges of conducting a professional opera chorus were tackled. The young conductors attended a chorus rehearsal led by the wonderful Ching-Lien Wu, two masterclasses by Ching-Lien Wu and maestro Carlo Rizzi (who, at the time, was conducting Rigoletto at the National Opera), but also received ample opportunity to conduct. Their individual styles and methods were clearly on display when they did, and it was captivating to witness how occasional critical remarks from either Wu or Rizzi (who were each present on one of the two days I observed) would influence the way of effectively transferring their desired musical idea to the chorus. I spoke to one of the conductors, Jan Wierzba, and had the opportunity to ask about his experience of and reflections on the Workshop: 


Shall we start off with a bit of general information on your background?


Jan: I’m sort of Polish Portuguese, I was born in Poland and raised in Portugal. Although I have 100% Polish blood, I consider myself more Portuguese than Polish. I studied most of my life in Portugal and did my piano and conducting undergrad there, respectively in Porto and Lisbon. Then I moved to Manchester where I did my Master’s – this was when I was 28 – and now I’m studying in Weimar and living in Leipzig, dividing myself between there and Lisbon, where I have most of my freelancing activity. 


So far, now that we’re a few days into the workshop, what has been your highlight?


Actually, I guess every day is a little bit different. We have the opportunity to learn and experience something new – either being on the spot, conducting working with Ching-Lien or Carlo, or just watching my colleagues work. The level of the workshop is very high, I think we are all talented – not only talented but also competent, and sometimes we even go beyond that, which I think is a good thing as it is great to be able to learn with colleagues of the same generation who are struggling with the same kind of life in a certain way. We are trying to find our way of working, where to work, how to be (a conductor) specifically. So, I wouldn’t say there was one kind of big highlight.


Could you perhaps briefly talk about the friction between being on one hand the conductor or leader and on the other hand a student?

[laughs] It’s a very hard thing. It’s not the first masterclass for any of us, but this is the thing – right now I’m 31, I’ve been officially studying conducting for the last 6-7 years and of course we all feel that we are young conductors because we are young conductors. There is a big fashion nowadays for very young conductors, which I have nothing against and these people can be very inspiring, but I consider myself a young conductor still and I probably will do so for the next decade, after which maybe I will become an experienced conductor; I don’t know. But it is hard, because we all have our backgrounds, which are different, and this is one thing I really appreciate about this masterclass: we all have different personality and are not trying to be different on the spot. We’re not playing a part, we’re actually being ourselves. This is something I most appreciate about conductors. Generally speaking, when someone is confident enough in themselves – not to impose their personality, but just to be themselves in front of an orchestra or chorus. So of course, it becomes a bit of clash when we have teachers interrupting and giving insight, which is always fair, but the rhythm of work or the development of work on a certain piece or section, we have our own way of doing it and believe it will work. But of course, a maestro like Carlo or Ching-Lien have their own way of working, and it’s great to get to this because we’re learning other ways of working. But at a certain point we just have to switch off the conductor or artistic side, try to be a sponge and try to experiment with what they’re giving us. It is a moment to actually come out of our skin and try new things.


With regard to your own style of conducting, do you feel you might have developed a new perspective on your own way or method of conducting? Has it changed your style already?

Well, I wouldn’t say already. This is something I learned doing masterclasses – they often affect you weeks, months, if not years after. Even from my first conducting teacher, whom I started working with also when I was 25, I still use most of what he told me. With regards to this specific workshop, lately I have rarely had contact with that true maestro feeling where you are the complete boss and expected to make things happen. Of course we are, but I do believe – and this is terms of my personality – I very much believe in cooperation. Of course it’s not a democracy, but I do believe in searching within this system for a certain kind of levelling. But this is hard, and there are moments when you do have to become the boss, be controlling. It is great that you have this tool, to control everything and be extremely quick in your work. There are so many variables to working with a group of musicians, from the energy of the group to the weather. What Carlo is teaching us and expecting from us is a very good tool, to control that true maestro feeling. Do I believe in it as a basis to my work? – no, because this is not the way that I was even brought up, but it’s an amazing tool and very nice to have it. Plus it’s very nice to have someone who reminds you of this, because I have lost this ‘fight’ with the orchestra from time to time when I was trying to be a little bit too democratic. So it’s very nice to have this experience and be reminded of how great of a tool it can be. Specifically for opera conducting, because there are so many people involved and you try to match so many personalities, emotions, playing, singing, staging, drama, etc., and in this way, the figure of the maestro is sometimes extremely important. So it’s great that we’re having this.

As Jan kindly pointed out, the challenges of working within an opera production are numerous and substantial, which is precisely the reason that a workshop such as this occasion can be so valuable to young conductors. Due to many financial and pragmatic reasons, it can be very difficult to arrange for conductors to actually practice with a complete chorus or orchestra and have a teacher of world-class available to provide new insights and techniques. To actually witness this process was a great joy, as for me it both reaffirmed the level of musicality and genius that conductors bring to the table, but also showed the meticulous and incredible development that is required to reach this level. I am certain we will see these conductors at the head of the musical pack in the near future.   


Joram Bauwens