Absolutely on music conv.., p.18
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       Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.18

           Haruki Murakami
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This conversation took place on March 29, 2011, when both of us happened to be staying in Honolulu. It was eighteen days after the gigantic earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region of Japan, when I was working in Hawaii. Unable to return to Japan, all I could do was follow the situation as it unfolded each day on CNN. The news that came in brought one painful fact after another. Discussing the joys of opera in such a situation seemed strangely out of place, but opportunities to grab the busy Seiji Ozawa for an organized discussion did not come around all that often. And so we spoke about opera, interspersing our musical conversation with such pressing questions as what would happen with the nuclear power plant breakdown and where Japan was headed.

  Nobody Was Further Removed from Opera Than I Was

  OZAWA: I conducted opera for the first time in my life after I became music director of the Toronto Symphony in 1965. It was a concert performance of Rigoletto, done without stage sets. I was so happy—or should I say fulfilled—to have my own orchestra. I could perform Mahler if I wanted to. I could perform Bruckner. I could even perform opera.

  MURAKAMI: I imagine that conducting opera would be very different from conducting ordinary orchestral works. Where did you study the techniques for conducting opera?

  OZAWA: Maestro Karajan insisted that I conduct opera and he had me assist him when he did Don Giovanni in Salzburg in 1968. So I learned the opera well enough to play all parts of it on the piano. That was the beginning of my opera study. The next year he had me conduct Così fan tutte, which was the first stage production I conducted myself.

  MURAKAMI: Where was that?

  OZAWA: Salzburg again. Before that, a good friend of mine, the African-American tenor George Shirley, suggested that we do an opera together. He wanted to do Rigoletto, which is how I came to do the complete work in Toronto. That was a lot of fun. In Japan, I did Rigoletto at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan with the Japan Philharmonic. That was a concert performance, too. Come to think of it, I still haven’t done Rigoletto as a fully staged opera.

  So anyway, that’s how Così fan tutte turned out to be the first opera I conducted for the stage. The director was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. He was a marvelous director, but tragically he fell backwards into the orchestra pit when he was working on a production in 1988. I think he injured his back or something, and he died not long afterward. Karl Böhm was supposed to have conducted Così fan tutte, but he had health problems, so I took his place. I’m pretty sure he was having eye surgery.

  MURAKAMI: Catapulting the young conductor into even greater prominence.

  OZAWA: Right. I think they were really worried about putting me in charge. [Laughter.] I mean, it was my first staged opera, after all. Both Maestro Karajan and Maestro Böhm attended a performance because they were worried about how I’d do. They also came to rehearsals. Come to think of it, Claudio Abbado conducted The Barber of Seville on the same stage in Salzburg that year. That was his Salzburg opera debut. Of course, he had probably conducted operas in Italy before that.

  MURAKAMI: Abbado is a little older than you, isn’t he?

  OZAWA: Yes, a year or two, I think. I worked as Lenny’s assistant just a bit before he did.

  MURAKAMI: How well received was your Così fan tutte?

  OZAWA: I’m not sure, but it couldn’t have been too bad. I was invited to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic after that, and I started hearing now and then from the Vienna State Opera, too.

  MURAKAMI: Did you enjoy conducting a staged opera for the first time in your life?

  OZAWA: Oh, man, it was so much fun! And the cast was superb. We worked like one big, happy family. I conducted Così fan tutte again at Salzburg the following year. At Salzburg, you perform the same piece two or three years in a row. I was invited to Salzburg again, years after that, to conduct Idomeneo, another Mozart. We performed Così fan tutte in the small theater, the Kleines Festspielhaus, and Idomeneo in the Felsenreitschule, the theater they built in an old stone quarry. Come to think of it, most of my experience conducting opera took place in the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris and Milan’s La Scala. And also the Vienna opera house. Those three. I’ve never conducted opera in Berlin.

  MURAKAMI: Were you conducting opera on the side while you were Boston Symphony’s music director?

  OZAWA: Yes. I would take a break from my work in Boston and go to Europe. Working on an opera takes a month at the very least. So that’s how long my break from Boston would be. Which meant I could never do any new productions. They’re too time-consuming. I did work on some new productions in Paris, though—Falstaff and Fidelio, for example. But the Turandot I did there was an old production. Later, I did Tosca with Domingo. And the Messiaen Saint François d’Assise, which I did in 1983, was a world premiere.

  MURAKAMI: Opera has been a major part of your career for many years, hasn’t it?

  OZAWA: You know, to tell you the truth, nobody was further removed from opera than I was! [Laughter.] By which I mean that Professor Saito never taught me a thing about opera. So as long as I stayed in Japan, I had nothing to do with it. Except, while I was still in school, Maestro Akeo Watanabe conducted Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges with the Japan Philharmonic. I’m pretty sure that was in 1958.

  MURAKAMI: That’s a short opera, isn’t it?

  OZAWA: Yes, short, maybe an hour-long piece. I remember they did it in concert form, not staged. I sometimes stood in for the conductor during rehearsals—Maestro Watanabe was so busy with his duties as music director. That was truly my first opera experience.

  MURAKAMI: Where was it performed?

  OZAWA: Hmm, I’m not sure…Sankei Hall? Maestro Watanabe used to do an opera every couple of years. I’m pretty sure he did Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande after I went abroad. He chose somewhat unusual pieces.

  MURAKAMI: So the first time you really grappled with opera, you were conducting under Karajan?

  OZAWA: That’s right. He gave me some very good advice. “The symphonic repertory and opera,” he said, “are like two wheels on a single axle. If either of the wheels is missing, you can’t go anywhere. In the symphonic repertory, you have concerti, symphonic poems, and so forth, but opera is utterly unlike such forms. If you were to die without ever having conducted an opera, wouldn’t that be like dying without ever having really known Wagner? Of course it would. That is why, Seiji, you absolutely must study opera. Puccini, Verdi: you can’t say a thing about them without touching on their operas. Even Mozart poured half his energy into operatic works.” When he told me this, I knew that I would have to do an opera.

  MURAKAMI: So that’s how you made up your mind to do Rigoletto in Toronto?

  OZAWA: Correct. And I reported my plans to Maestro Karajan. So when I was leaving as music director of the San Francisco Symphony to move to Boston, he suggested that I wait, and take a leave of absence to work with him. He would give me thorough training in the conducting of opera.

  MURAKAMI: How kind of him!

  OZAWA: Indeed. He seemed to think of me as one of his direct disciples. I was supposed to be resigning as director of the Ravinia Festival and taking over the Tanglewood Music Festival that summer, but I asked Boston to let me postpone for a year and spent the summer studying with Maestro Karajan instead. That was the Salzburg Don Giovanni I mentioned earlier, when I assisted him. He not only conducted the opera but he directed it, too. He even worked on the lighting himself.

  MURAKAMI: Amazing.

  OZAWA: He didn’t go so far as to do the costumes, of course, but the maestro was tremendously busy, so I got to do a lot of conducting in the rehearsals.

  Mirella Freni’s Mimì

  OZAWA: The title role was sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov, a bass from Bulgaria. Mirella Freni sang Zerlina. I accompanied their rehearsals on the piano almost every day. Before long, they were a couple and they ended up getting married in 1978. They were like family to me. [Laughter.] Afterward, I invited them to Tanglewood, and we did the Verdi Requiem. He appeared for me in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Tchaikovsk
y’s Eugene Onegin. Of course Mirella Freni sang Tatiana in Onegin. For years, we made it a habit to dine together after the opera. Unfortunately, Ghiaurov died in 2004.

  MURAKAMI: So Freni could sing opera in Russian?

  OZAWA: Yes, she often appeared in The Queen of Spades. Ghiaurov’s repertory included a lot of Russian operas, so she had to learn a lot of them, too, if they were going to work together as husband and wife. They were always together, on and off the stage.

  MURAKAMI: So Freni made Russian opera one of her specialties.

  OZAWA: Because I was lucky enough to meet her in Salzburg, I got to do a lot of different operas. We worked together on five or six of them, but the one she most wanted to do with me was La Bohème.

  MURAKAMI: Singing Mimì. It’s one of her signature roles.

  OZAWA: For years, she would say to me, “Let’s do La Bohème together next time, Seiji.” But for some reason, we never did it. I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but around that time, Carlos Kleiber brought La Scala to Japan and did La Bohème. I saw a performance and said to myself, “I could never do that. He’s just too good. There’s no hope for me. I could never top that.”

  MURAKAMI: That was the 1981 Japan tour, wasn’t it? The tenor was Peter Dvorský.

  OZAWA: And Mimì was Mirella Freni. I finally got to do La Bohème some years later, but by then Mirella was no longer singing. Now she’s back in her home town of Modena teaching voice. The timing just never worked out for us.

  MURAKAMI: That’s really a shame.

  OZAWA: Her Mimì was so beautiful, you’d never want to hear anyone else do it. You know how, in drama, an actor might appear as if he’s not acting at all? You ask him about it, and he’ll tell you, “It may not look it, but I’m out there acting as hard as I can.” As far as you can tell, though, as an observer, he’s barely working. He just seems to be there, naturally, entirely as is, no technique, nothing. Mirella’s Mimì was just like that.

  MURAKAMI: La Bohème is an opera that won’t work unless Mimì makes the audience cry, don’t you think?

  OZAWA: That’s quite true.

  MURAKAMI: And Freni could do that naturally.

  OZAWA: You can tell yourself, “I’m not going to cry today,” but you can’t help yourself. I’m thinking I’ll go visit her in Modena next time I’m in Florence.

  He drinks hot tea.

  OZAWA: This is sugar, isn’t it?

  MURAKAMI: Yes, it is.

  About Carlos Kleiber

  MURAKAMI: Was Carlos Kleiber’s La Bohème really so wonderful?

  OZAWA: You know, the conductor was totally enveloped in the play. All questions of technique had simply vanished somewhere. I asked him afterwards how he could manage to do such a thing, and he said, “Hey, Seiji, what are you talking about? I could conduct La Bohème in my sleep!”

  MURAKAMI [laughing]: Amazing!

  OZAWA: I had Vera with me at the time, so I wondered if he was showing off for her, but it’s true, he had been conducting La Bohème since his youth—enough times to be sick of it.

  MURAKAMI: He had every last detail of it in his head, I suppose. But Kleiber had a rather limited repertory, didn’t he?

  OZAWA: Yes, he didn’t have that many operas—or even symphonic pieces—in his repertory.

  MURAKAMI: Funny, though, in a book I read recently, Riccardo Muti recalls a time when he was conducting Wagner’s Ring and Kleiber came to visit him backstage. They started talking, and Muti was astonished to realize that Kleiber had every last detail of The Ring engraved in his mind. He had never once performed The Ring, but he had studied the score with meticulous attention to detail.

  OZAWA: Yes, Kleiber was a very studious conductor, and he knew his pieces well, but he could be a bit of a troublemaker. When he was conducting the Beethoven Fourth in Berlin, there was so much wrangling, they never knew from day to day whether he would actually go on. I knew him well and had an intimate view of the situation, but it appeared to me as though he was looking for an excuse to quit conducting the piece.

  MURAKAMI: Have you ever cancelled an engagement?

  OZAWA: Sure, with all my recent illness. But if I’m just running a little fever or something, I tend to tough it out and go on.

  MURAKAMI: How about getting into a fight, to the point where you pack up and go home?

  OZAWA: That happened just once. I think it was my second year as guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic. You know the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera?

  MURAKAMI: No, never heard of him.

  OZAWA: Well, anyhow, I was conducting his 1941 composition Estancia, which is performed with a big orchestra. Maestro Karajan had chosen it for some reason, not to conduct it himself, but to have me study and perform it. I don’t know why, but I guess the orchestra was supposed to perform an Argentine piece. So I did what I had to do and studied it as hard as I could. I think the second part of the program was a Brahms symphony. I don’t remember which one. When I started rehearsing this Estancia, it turns out the percussion part is tremendously difficult. You need seven percussionists. Because it was so hard, I had only the percussionists rehearse their parts, letting the other musicians wait. But the rhythms were too complicated, and as we worked on it, we got bogged down completely. It was impossible. So then one of the percussionists, a young guy, laughed out loud. That made me furious, and I yelled at him, “What the hell is this? You’re laughing?” But he just sat there without apologizing, and that made my blood boil. So I yelled again, “You’re supposed to be the great Berlin Philharmonic, aren’t you? What’s going to happen in two days when you’ve got to perform this thing?” That just made it even more impossible to play. I was so mad, I left the score there, yelled one word, “Break!” and got the hell out of the room.


  OZAWA: So then I called my manager, Ronald Wilford, in New York. I said, “I’m coming home. I can’t work in this place anymore. No way. I want you to apologize to Maestro Karajan for me.” Then I notified the orchestra managers that I was returning to America and went straight back to the Kempinski Hotel. In those days, though, Berlin was still divided between East and West, and there were no direct flights from West Berlin to New York. You had to transfer somewhere. So I had the hotel order a ticket for me and started packing.

  MURAKAMI: You were pretty worked up, weren’t you?

  OZAWA: I checked out and was getting ready to leave the hotel when the orchestra’s president, Rainer Zepperitz, a double-bass player and a man deeply trusted by Maestro Karajan, came with several other members of the orchestra to apologize. “Our behavior was inexcusable. Ever since you left, the percussionists have been working hard to master the part they were unable to play before. Won’t you please come to rehearsal once tomorrow, if only to see what kind of progress they are making?” Well, when they put it that way, I really had no choice but to go, don’t you think?

  MURAKAMI: Yes, I guess so.

  OZAWA: So I called Wilford again and said I’d give it one more day, and I had the hotel cancel the ticket. That was the one little drama I had. It was a pretty famous incident.

  MURAKAMI: So did you perform Estancia, in the end?

  OZAWA: We did. I went back and conducted it.

  MURAKAMI: I bet Kleiber would never have gone back.

  OZAWA: No, I’m sure you’re right! [Laughter.] In my case, though, the lack of direct flights to New York was a big factor.

  MURAKAMI: They won you over while you were waiting for the transfer to be worked out. [Laughter again.]

  OZAWA: By the way, Rainer Zepperitz was the lead double bassist in the Saito Kinen Orchestra for twenty-some years, from the time of its inception. I’m afraid he passed away just recently.

  Murakami note: Estancia, op. 8, was originally ballet music composed by the Argentine Alberto Ginastera in 1941. It was Ginastera’s second piece for ballet, following his Panambi, op. 1 (1934–37), and can be viewed as one of his most representative works. Depicting the lives of the gauchos and
others who live on the South American pampas, the work is rich in color. It was later refigured as a shorter suite (op. 8a), which is the form now most generally performed.

  MURAKAMI: To get back to Kleiber’s Japan performance of La Bohème.

  OZAWA: Right, right.

  MURAKAMI: It seems to me that Carlos Kleiber is a conductor who at times can bring out a whole new pattern from even the most familiar compositions—the Brahms Second, for example, or the Beethoven Seventh—and give the listener a fresh sense of discovery, as if hearing for the first time something that was always hidden deep inside the music. There are lots of very fine conductors, truly gifted musicians, but there aren’t many who can do what he does.

  OZAWA: Yes, I see what you mean.

  MURAKAMI: I imagine that it takes a very deep reading of the score to accomplish something like that.

  OZAWA: Yes, he was an incredible reader. The unfortunate thing for him was that his father was such a great conductor.

  MURAKAMI: Erich Kleiber.

  OZAWA: I think that’s what made him so nervous. It was pretty extreme. But he seemed to like me and always treated me with affection. I wonder why. He was also fond of Vera and was fairly chummy with her. He came to several of my concerts and bought me dinner on more than one occasion. When I was appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera, Carlos was the first to send me a congratulatory telegram—a very long one!

  MURAKAMI: He sounds like a difficult character.

  OZAWA: Oh, tremendously difficult. He was famous for his cancellations—he’d cancel at the drop of a hat. Later, he also gave me a call to congratulate me on my appointment, so I took the opportunity to ask him if he’d come to conduct in Vienna once in a while now that I was there. I mean, it was so hard to get him to come anywhere. So he said to me, “Hey, I didn’t send you that telegram because I was looking for an invitation!” [Laughter.]

  MURAKAMI: Meaning, the two had nothing to do with one another.

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