Mark Wigglesworth

OPERA May 2003, pp.530-535
PEOPLE: 295

Mark Wigglesworth is happy that he’s been invited to conduct, not one but two productions, at Glyndebourne this summer – La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro. This young (nearly 39) conductor began working with the world’s top orchestras as soon as he left college, and has a huge concert hall repertoire. Comparatively speaking his opera list is small and select (about ten major works so far), but the unanimous admiration heaped upon his recent performances at ENO and Covent Garden has marked a turning point in his career. After the itinerant apprentice years he seems ready for a quieter lifestyle, and what he wants to conduct more than anything else is opera.

He’ll be particularly pleased to be at Glyndebourne because the Sussex countryside is home to him. He grew up there and has stayed – he now lives in a remote village near the sea when he is not at his London pied à terre or conducting concerts abroad. And the working conditions at Glyndebourne will suit him down to the ground. At the moment he doesn’t have a regular job with an orchestra (though he has had several) but he relishes the opportunity to rehearse intensively, spend time with one group of singers and give several performances of the same work.

It seems that Wigglesworth always knew where he was going. ‘I used to go and play my piano pieces to Ward Swingle (the founder of the Swingle Singers) – a family friend – and he was the first person to suggest that I should conduct, which at the time I thought was a compliment, only now do I see that it maybe wasn’t… I can’t even remember how old I was, but I have always assumed that this is what I would do. The first operatic experience I remember was auditioning for one of the little foxes in The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne and being desperately upset when I didn’t get chosen. But the reward was a ticket to the dress rehearsal. I remember being painfully bored through La Voix Humaine (I was only 10) in the first half, but loving Vixen‘.

He went on to a boarding school, Bryanston, that encourages individuality and a certain ambition (its musical traditions seem to nurture tough conductors, his predecessors include Mark Elder and John Eliot Gardiner), which Wigglesworth thinks was ‘both a good and a bad thing, but it was great because music was something you did, not something you listened to. Other people’s performances were never as important as your own, though obviously they were much better’.

So it wasn’t until he went to study for a university degree in Manchester that he began to go to ‘other people’s’ concerts. ‘I didn’t go straight to music college. I think there’s no rush for a conductor, and the later you start the better. I went to hear the Hallé every week during Skrowaczewski’s first years – I sat in the front row for 50p -and that’s where I heard Beethoven’s symphonies for the first time. And though I wasn’t officially part of the Royal Northern College of Music, that pool of talented players was available’. He organised concerts, forming an orchestra called the Manchester Sinfonietta, and then went on to the Royal Academy in London, firstly to study with George Hurst, but also because the Academy was the only college that offered a three-year conducting course. ‘In my first year at the Academy I did one concert. In my last I did nearly twenty. I would sit by the door and ask people who came through to play for me. Some would just say no, but enough would play. I did whatever was possible’.

That’s rather a modest assessment of his Academy years. He also formed the Premiere Ensemble, so named because it included a new work in every concert and, in august 1989, when he had only just left the college, won the prestigious Kondrashin Conducting Competition, and was immediately catapulted into a brilliant but punishing international career.

But he talks much more animatedly of what now seems to have been the really important event at that time. Paul Daniel, then music director of Opera Factory, asked him, in 1991, to assist him on Don Giovanni and conduct some performances. ‘I learned an unbelievable amount from him and from [the director] David Freeman, and still believe that Opera Factory is, or rather was – alas, profoundly right in its approach, that opera is not about singing at all, but about expressing drama through the voice, that way round, not expressing the voice through the drama.’

Wigglesworth then took over as music director when Daniel went to Opera North, so his first intensive operatic experience was at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Opera Factory and his own Premiere Ensemble conducting The Rake’s Progress, Birtwistle’s Yan Tan Tethera and the revivals of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. At that time he was also associate conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and went on to spend four years as music director of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (1996-2000). So, though he worked twice at WNO (Elektra in 1995, The Rake in 1996), it’s only in recent years that opera has again begun to assume the major role in his professional life and to occupy as much of his time as concerts. But with three stunning debuts in as many years, Glyndebourne in 2000 (Peter Grimes), ENO in 2001 (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) and last year Covent Garden (Die Meistersinger), all of them superlatively received and reviewed, he set off on a path which looks as straight as a roman road. He triumphed with the new Così at ENO last year now there’s Glyndebourne, followed by Così again, then… there will be more.

The recent triumphs, apart from the Così, were revivals, but Wigglesworth doesn’t really believe in the term. ‘David Freeman taught me that there is no such thing as a revival. You may use the same sets and the same costumes, but with different people singing, you start all over again.’ His approach to stage rehearsals is surprisingly hands-on, and several have confirmed that he’s terrific to work with as he comes to rehearsals so thoroughly prepared. Last year he cancelled all his engagements in order to spend several months preparing to conduct Die Meistersinger at short notice and, in January, knew precisely when he would be studying La Bohème. ‘The time issue is fundamental. I spend three or four months on one piece if you include the study – I’m doing 2+2+3 weeks’ preparation for La Bohème.

Glyndebourne will be his first Puccini experience – ‘I find the score, and the structure and the orchestration perfect’ – and he regards the opportunity to work on it with an orchestra (the London Philharmonic) that hasn’t played it since 1976 as ‘an amazing luxury, to rediscover the traditions for himself with them. I aspire to provide a unity within which the singers can be completely free. I would never make a singer do something that they didn’t believe in. It’s the same with a solo in an orchestra, if they must play it, they must believe in it. It would be easier to be a tyrant but if I can enable performances that are fulfilling for the people who are making the sound, they’ll be fulfilling for the audience as well.’

He has realised while spending more time doing opera that the human dimension of the theatre means more to him than the concert platform. ‘Concert life is quite solitary, you don’t have time to get to know people. But on the first night of an opera you’re not the only one that’s under pressure. I genuinely believe that an opera performance is more important than a symphony performance – it’s at least 50% longer, more work has gone into it, the public have bought their tickets in advance and invested more emotional commitment.’

The ENO Così was due to be ‘revived’ this autumn at the Barbican, while the renovation of the Coliseum is completed. But, for various reasons, only Wigglesworth and Andrew Shore (Don Alfonso) will be returning and there will be new sets and five new singers, cast from ENO’s young principals, and a new director who has directed only once before – the actor, Sam West. Concern that Così might be a hard one for an inexperienced opera director was dismissed; ‘It is and it isn’t, but once you know what you think about it it’s quite easy. I think it makes sense for a theatre director to begin with Mozart, It’s quite conversational and an awful lot easier than something like Tosca.’

And West won’t be alone. Wigglesworth firmly believes that, in an ideal world, director and conductor do the production together. ‘With a few exceptions, there is never a good reason to separate the music from the characterisation. To have music rehearsals at the beginning of the rehearsal process is alien to me. To have them towards the end is much more beneficial because by then everyone knows what the dramatic setting is, physically as well as emotionally. In Figaro how can you set the tempi of the Countess’s arias until you know how old the director, the singer and you believe she should be? I have no problem with the director making that decision but, if you have a good relationship, when he says something you disagree with, you will question it. I would love directors to come to my so-called music rehearsals and interrupt – I’ve no doubt that with Sam West that will be the case. It frustrates me when opera companies try to keep the conductor and the director apart – mainly for the traditional reasons – because they hate each other or because the conductor has disappeared to do a concert. Two minds working on something is more interesting than one, but it is hard for singers to take leadership from two people at once. They often say: “Oh I was just thinking about that high note”. But if they can’t respond to both then they should stick to concerts or plays.’

Wigglesworth is passionate about Mozart. `His tempi are so flexible and should be so responsive to characterisation, that a problem with the characterisation, or a rift between conductor and director will be more noticeable in Mozart than in anything else. The subtlety of the direction is not so crucial with certain other music, so for example in Elektra or Lady Macbeth, the director has a concept and the music plays itself in a way. If you had a slight disagreement in Shostakovich or Strauss, it’s not going to really affect your interpretation because the music has its own pulse.

It is quite surprising that all the operas Wigglesworth has conducted so far, with only two exceptions (Elektra in Wales, Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden), have been performed in translation. So he is keen to discuss opera in English and surtitles. ‘I think the arrival of surtitles is the greatest tragedy to hit opera since the death of Mozart, I really feel it that strongly. The brain can switch very quickly, but no one cannot read War and Peace and listen to Beethoven 7 simultaneously. Opera doesn’t have to be rationally understood all the time, the music affects you at a much higher level if you allow it to, but reading prevents that. It amazes me that so few opera companies are concerned about what makes opera special. It is far more elemental and more profound than a play with music, which is what surtitles are turning it into.’

I also hate surtitles because they deprive the singer of any creative subtlety in terms of timing, which goes for nothing if the audience are reading. In comedy, a singer may time a certain moment but the audience will laugh at a different moment. So singers and conductors are becoming lazy in identifying with the text. I’m convinced surtitles are wrong; if you don’t hear every word it doesn’t matter, but if you can’t hear more than 20% the singers and the conductor are to blame; the audience needs to relate to the text. Working in English is a compromise, but it’s nothing, nothing, compared to the other compromise, which is that the audience doesn’t have to listen. A good translation won’t be noticed until people realise how much part of the experience it was. If surtitles arrived at ENO I would, without hesitation, withdraw at 24 hours’ notice.’

So, were he running an opera house, what would he do? ‘Tragically, to get rid of titles is not an option in today’s world. I’d try to raise the money to do what the Met has done (put titles in the back of the seats…). At least I could then to try to persuade people that they can get a better experience by not switching them on.’

Given Wigglesworth’s passion, impeccable track record and profound commitment to opera, one would hope, and bet, that he’ll be running a major house in the fairly near future. His enthusiasm for texts in translation and ensemble work suggests that he would one day be an ideal music director for ENO. But, wherever he works, the conditions would have to be right; this fiercely single minded conductor knows exactly what he wants and what he won’t accept.