Absolutely on music conv.., p.19
Absolutely on Music: Conversations With Seiji Ozawa, p.19Haruki Murakami
OZAWA: I also invited him to conduct the Saito Kinen. He was definitely interested in the orchestra—enough to come to a concert we gave in Germany. But he wouldn’t commit himself one way or the other. I invited Maestro Karajan, too, when he was in his last years. I couldn’t get him to come, though. He was supposed to conduct the Boston Symphony for me. He had conducted the Chicago Symphony in Salzburg at Solti’s request. He said he couldn’t travel all the way to Boston, but he wouldn’t mind conducting the Boston Symphony if the orchestra ever came to Europe. He died, though, before we could make it happen.
MURAKAMI: That’s too bad.
OZAWA: He never gave me a clear answer as to whether he would conduct the Saito Kinen or not, but he did invite us to Salzburg. That time, I told him I would conduct one piece and leave another one for him, but I never got a clear yes or no from him. He passed away the following year. I’m sure he had already weakened considerably.
MURAKAMI: I wish I could have heard Kleiber or Karajan conduct the Saito Kinen!
OZAWA: Maestro Karajan was very interested in the Saito Kinen. Which is why he made it a point to invite us to Salzburg. It’s no easy matter to invite a whole orchestra to the Salzburg Festival!
Operas and Directors
MURAKAMI: Come to think of it, you told me there was once a plan for you to do an opera with Ken Russell directing.
OZAWA: Right, right. We were supposed to do Eugene Onegin in Vienna with Mirella Freni. This was before I moved to Vienna, when Lorin Maazel was still music director. I met with Ken several times to discuss it. But then, I don’t know what happened—there was a big fight with the opera house and he got out. I had nothing to do with that.
MURAKAMI: If it had come to fruition, I’m sure it would have been a wild production.
OZAWA: No doubt. His earlier Madame Butterfly had caused a lot of controversy with its big background photo of the atomic bomb exploding, a giant Coca-Cola bottle on the stage as a symbol of America…When I met him, he impressed me as a radical sort of person.
MURAKAMI: His movie Mahler was pretty far out.
OZAWA: Yes, he showed it to me back then. We met in some kind of club in the middle of London, a weird, dark place where only men were admitted. That’s where we talked. He said that in Pushkin’s original, the protagonist, Onegin, is portrayed as a more repulsive character. In Tchaikovsky’s opera, he is certainly weak and vacillating, but is not presented as the all-out womanizer he is in the original. Russell said he wanted to emphasize this dark side in his production.
MURAKAMI: I’ll bet that would have caused an uproar. [Laughter.] But anyhow, the project never happened.
OZAWA: No, that was the end of it.
MURAKAMI: It must be tough to choose a director.
OZAWA: The director I first teamed up with on Così fan tutte, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was truly wonderful. I still think of him as a genius. He understood the music so well! The first thing you do with an opera is to rehearse the bare music, without stage sets or anything, just piano accompaniment. But he pointed out to me that even then, the music would be more natural if the singers went through the gestures and movements they would be performing on the stage. This was my first experience with conducting a staged opera and a totally new discovery for me. So I asked him how he was able to do such a thing. He said he would listen to the music over and over until he became completely immersed in it. I’m sure he had a special understanding of music.
MURAKAMI: So he wasn’t one of those people who would crank out a stage set before he’s actually heard the music?
OZAWA: No, no, not at all. He and I were on the same wavelength. When I met him in Paris just before he died, we talked about doing The Tales of Hoffmann together. He was working on a new production of Hoffmann at the Paris Opéra-Comique, but he suggested we move it into a larger venue. I was all for it, but a short time later he died. It was such a shame! To me, he was truly a marvelous director.
MURAKAMI: Just recently, I saw, on NHK, a stage production of Manon Lescaut that you conducted in Vienna in 2005. The one with a modern-day setting.
OZAWA: The director of that was Robert Carsen. Of all the many operas he directed, the most wonderful one was Richard Strauss’s Elektra. It was a tremendously modern setting, but he did a fantastic job. And one other one—Janáček’s Jenufa: it was flawless. He also did Tannhäuser. You know how that’s the story of a song contest: he changed it into a painting contest.
MURAKAMI: You can do stuff like that?
OZAWA: Yes, a picture contest. I conducted that one—at Tokyo Opera Nomori, and again in Paris. The reception in Japan was kind of lukewarm, but the production was very well received in Paris. I guess the French are fond of art.
MURAKAMI: When you put out the money to mount a new opera production, I suppose you can’t make up your expenses unless it’s performed a certain number of times.
OZAWA: In fact, from the theater’s point of view, they’d like to do the same production of a work for ten or twenty years to get their investment back. For example, the Vienna State Opera still has Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème. That must be going on thirty years by now. At the very least, the theater assumes it will keep a production it’s mounted for three years. If it performs the opera for three years, say, a dozen or so times a year, that’s about forty performances. Then they can recoup their investment. After that, they can make a profit renting the sets out to somewhat lesser opera houses.
MURAKAMI: So theaters can make a profit that way?
OZAWA: That’s right.
MURAKAMI: Some years ago, you conducted Beethoven’s Fidelio in Japan. Were those borrowed sets?
OZAWA: Yes, of course. They were brought over on a ship. But that time was a little different. It was a tour performance of the Vienna State Opera, so the theater didn’t have to rent the sets. Next they’re going to do Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, and all the sets will be shipped from Vienna.
MURAKAMI: So what you’re saying is that stage sets or the production itself becomes an opera house’s asset?
OZAWA: Correct. In Japan, though, even though we might want to store a stage set, we’ve got no place to put them. In Vienna, there’s a great big storage facility out in the suburbs. The theater got a big piece of property from the government, and they keep all their sets there. They bring them back and forth to the theater by truck. The Vienna opera house can’t hold the equipment for more than two operas at a time, so the trucks are hauling sets back and forth between the theater and the storehouse almost every day.
Booed in Milan
MURAKAMI: I guess it’s safe to say that opera is the very essence of modern European culture. It has always borne the most colorful and brilliant part of European culture on its shoulders, from the age when it was patronized by the royalty and aristocracy through the time when it secured the feverish support of the bourgeoisie, to our own period of corporate sponsorship. Do you think there has been some sense of resistance to the idea of a Japanese conductor invading such territory?
OZAWA: Yes, of course. I was treated to some intense booing when I first appeared at La Scala [in 1980]. I was conducting Tosca with Pavarotti. He and I got along well, so he invited me to come to Milan. He was very eager for us to work together, and I liked him, so I finally took the bait. [Laughter.] Maestro Karajan was totally opposed to the idea. “It’s suicide,” he said. “They’ll kill you!”
MURAKAMI: Who would kill you?
OZAWA: The audience. The La Scala audiences are famous for being tough on performers, and, sure enough, they booed me like crazy. I conducted seven performances, but after the first three, I suddenly noticed they weren’t booing me anymore, and the rest went off without a hitch.
MURAKAMI: They do a lot of booing in Europe, don’t they?
OZAWA: A lot—especially in Italy. There’s never any in Japan, though.
MURAKAMI: None at all?
OZAWA: Well, maybe a little, but nothing like the mass howling they do in Italy.
MURAKAMI: There seems to be a culture of booing. As a novelist, I’m used to having my books trashed in print, but if I don’t want to see bad reviews, I just don’t have to read them. I don’t have to get angry or depressed. But a musician does his stuff right there in front of an audience, so if they boo him to his face, he can’t run away from it. That must be awfully hard, isn’t it? I always think how tough it would be.
OZAWA: I got booed for the first time in my life when I was conducting those Toscas at La Scala, and that was exactly the time my mother came all the way from Japan to Milan. Vera couldn’t be there because the kids were still small, so my mother came in her place to cook me Japanese food. She came to the theater for the first performance, and when she heard all the booing around her, she figured they must be yelling “Bravo!” [Laughter.] It was so loud, she assumed people must be enjoying the performance. When we got back to the hotel, she said, “Wasn’t that wonderful? There was so much cheering for you!”
MURAKAMI: Ha ha ha.
OZAWA: So I explained to her that they weren’t saying “Bravo!” but “Boo!” She had never heard anything like that in her life, so she just didn’t get it.
MURAKAMI: That reminds me of the time I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and every time the third baseman Kevin Youkilis came out, the crowd would start yelling “Youuk!” at the top of their lungs. At first, I thought they were booing him, but I couldn’t figure out why. They were “You-ing” him, not booing him.
OZAWA: True, they sound a lot alike! But anyway, when I got booed in Milan, Pavarotti tried to comfort me. “When they boo you here, Seiji, it means you’ve made it into the top ranks of the music world.” And some of the orchestra members told me that no conductor had ever appeared there without being booed. Even Toscanini had been booed at La Scala. But no matter what they said, I didn’t find it comforting at all. [Laughter.]
MURAKAMI: Still, it sounds as if everyone was very concerned for you.
OZAWA: My manager, too. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said, “because the members of the orchestra are on your side. That’s the most important thing. If a conductor gets booed and he doesn’t have the support of the orchestra, he’s done. So don’t worry, just put up with it for a little while. I guarantee you it will all go well.” And he was right: I did have the musicians behind me. Sometimes they would even boo right back at the audience. I saw it happen.
MURAKAMI: So it worked out all right?
OZAWA: It did. The booing died out after a few days. It got weaker and weaker, and then one day it was gone. From that point to the end of the run, I had no booing at all. But, boy, if it had gone on to the end, it might have done me in. I’ve never had it that bad, so I really can’t say what I would have done.
MURAKAMI: And you’ve conducted lots of operas at La Scala since then, haven’t you?
OZAWA: Yes, quite a number: Weber’s Oberon, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and a bunch of others I can’t remember offhand.
MURAKAMI: And you were never booed after that first time?
OZAWA: Hmm, no, I don’t think I was. Maybe a few times by individual audience members, but never again by the whole house like that.
MURAKAMI: Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?
OZAWA: Well, look, don’t you think it was just that the music sounded a little different from what they were expecting? The sound I gave to Tosca was not the Tosca that they were used to. I think that’s what it was. And also, of course, to some extent, as Italians, they had a hard time accepting the fact that an Asian conductor could come and conduct Tosca. Sure.
MURAKAMI: Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?
OZAWA: Yes, I suppose I was. But as I said before, I had the enthusiastic support of the orchestra members at La Scala, and of the chorus, for which I was very grateful. It was the same thing at Chicago. The first year I was appointed music director at the Ravinia Festival, the newspapers tore me to bits. The music critic at the most influential paper just didn’t like me, I guess, or maybe there was something else going on behind the scenes, but he wrote these scathing reviews of my performances. It was the same as when Lenny was lambasted by the New York Times music critic Schonberg. But the orchestra members gave me their full support, and at the end of the first season, they even gave me a shower.
MURAKAMI: A shower?
OZAWA: I had never heard of such a thing, either, at the time. You know how the conductor withdraws from the stage at the end of the last number and then comes out again for a bow? At that point, the musicians all make random noises with their instruments—the trumpets, the strings, the trombones, the timpani all together make one big fwaaan or gaaaan sort of noise. You see what I mean?
MURAKAMI: I see.
OZAWA: That’s called a “shower.” It took me totally by surprise, I didn’t know what was going on. So the second violinist, who was the orchestra’s personnel manager, came over and explained it to me and said I should keep it in mind for the future. In other words, this was kind of like the orchestra’s musical protest to the critical reviews
MURAKAMI: Oh, I get it.
OZAWA: That was my first and last shower experience. The Chicago papers were trying to destroy me, to get rid of me. But I contracted with the Ravinia Festival for the following summer and, let’s see, how many years was I with them? Five years altogether, I think. They didn’t manage to destroy me.
MURAKAMI: I guess you have to bear up under such external pressure and survive.
OZAWA: Maybe you could say that. But to some extent I was already used to that kind of stuff. In Vienna, in Salzburg, in Berlin—the reviews were scathing at first. So I was pretty accustomed to getting dumped on.
MURAKAMI: Scathing reviews? What would they say?
OZAWA: I don’t know, I couldn’t read the papers! But people used to tell me they were really bad.
MURAKAMI: Maybe it was like a baptism of fire that all newcomers have to go through.
OZAWA: No, I’m sure it wasn’t that. There are lots of people who never experience it. Take Claudio Abbado, for example. I don’t think he ever got a bad review. He was recognized as a gifted conductor right from the start.
MURAKAMI: In those days, there weren’t any Asian musicians active in Europe. Do you think that made the headwinds against you all the stronger?
OZAWA: Well, it was very big news back then when the Japanese viola player Kunio Tsuchiya became a member of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1959—an epoch-making event. Nowadays, it would be hard to imagine a major European or American orchestra without Asian string players. Things have really changed.
MURAKAMI: I suppose they assumed back then that an Asian musician couldn’t understand Western music.
OZAWA: That might have been part of it. I really don’t remember what they were saying about me exactly. The orchestra performers themselves, though, welcomed me warmly. I think that to some extent, they felt sorry for me. Here’s this young guy who comes from faraway Asia all by himself and everybody’s giving him a hard time, so let’s get behind him. That kind of thing.
MURAKAMI: That kind of support from your fellow musicians must be very encouraging when the media are being so negative.
The Fun Far Outstripped the Hardships
MURAKAMI: When you’re conducting an opera, you have to relate not only to the orchestra but to the singers, too. You have to direct them both. Isn’t it hard to get used to doing that?
OZAWA: Well, it’s all a matter of contact. You have to make contact with the orchestra and with the singers at the same time.
MURAKAMI: Unlike members of an orch
OZAWA: There are some difficult personalities, of course, but once you start working on a piece and asking them to “sing this part like this” or whatever, there’s really nobody who is going to object. Everybody wants to do the right thing.
MURAKAMI: So you haven’t had that much trouble with opera singers?
OZAWA: That Così fan tutte in Salzburg was the first staged opera I had ever worked on in my life, and I did absolutely nothing to hide that fact. Before we started, I announced to everybody, “This is my very first opera,” so they all pitched in and very kindly taught me everything—from the singers on down to the assistant conductor. Maestro Karajan, of course, guided me through several parts, and even Claudio Abbado showed up and taught me things—like how to make the sound of the orchestra work with the singers’ voices.
MURAKAMI: Nobody was mean to you?
OZAWA: Mean? I wonder. Maybe somebody did something mean, but I didn’t know it at the time! [Laughter.] We got along very well. It was like one big, happy family. I invited everybody over for a potsticker party.
MURAKAMI: So it was less a matter of everyone’s confronting the challenge of putting on an opera together than just enjoying the whole thing?
OZAWA: Yes, it was much more like that. Of course, I had a very strong sense that I had a lot of hard, serious work to do, but mainly it was fun. Opera was something that came later—a special added treasure that came to me after my career was well under way. Even now, I’m hoping for the chance to do more and more opera. There are still tons of them that I’ve studied but have never actually worked on.
MURAKAMI: The invitation for you to become the music director of the Vienna State Opera was rather sudden, wasn’t it?
OZAWA: Yes, very sudden. I had been going practically every year to conduct in Vienna, not just with the Vienna Philharmonic, but I did a lot of opera there, too. And then all of a sudden they asked me to become music director. By then, I had been in Boston for twenty-seven years, and I was starting to think that thirty years in the same place was too long, that it was time for me to quit. I figured that working in the opera house might be a little easier than working as the Boston Symphony’s music director. I’d have more free time, and maybe I could have longer stays in Japan. But it didn’t work out that way. Working on new material was very time-consuming, especially in Vienna, where they put a lot of time into preparation. And I had to travel more, going all over the place with the company. We did concert performances everywhere we went, rather than staged productions.
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