Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Harry Bicket talks about Handel’s Alcina, Baroque Opera, and Santa Fe

Conductor Harry Bicket
LA Opus’s Desirée Mays chats via telephone with Santa Fe Opera Chief Conductor, Harry Bicket, covering issues that range from the staging of baroque opera in the age of broadband, influences on the conductor’s career, his relationships with his orchestras and his family, and what’s up for the summer of 2017 at one of the world’s most beautifully located opera companies. Bicket conducts the run of Handel’s Alcina in Santa Fe (link: this summer.
LA Opus Publisher

DM: My guest today is Maestro Harry Bicket who will be in Santa Fe this summer to conduct Handel’s Alcina. Welcome, Maestro.

HB: Thank you, it’s nice to talk to you.

DM: I am talking by phone with the Maestro who is in Kansas City. Why Kansas?

HB: Well, we are in the middle of a tour of Handel’s Ariodante with Joyce di Donato singing the title role and this is Joyce’s hometown, so no trip to America would be complete without a visit here.

DM: I understand that this tour, in one week, is taking you to the University of Michigan, Carnegie Hall in New York, and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.?

HB: That’s right. We flew in Monday night to Ann Arbor and had a concert on Tuesday night so for all of us, singers and musicians, the third act of Ariodante was being technically performed at 5am London time for our body clocks. So, it’s quite a tough tour.

DM: How do you maintain your sanity with this kind of traveling?

HB: Well, funnily enough, I have two small children under the age of five so I am quite used to sleeplessness these days. My jet-lag isn’t so bad since having children.

DM: You were born in England. Is London your base for you and your family?

HB: Yes, I was born in England. My mother was American and my father’s mother was also American, so I grew up in quite an American community, in Liverpool, which is where I was born. But like many people I gravitated towards London after leaving University and started working there and that’s been my home for almost 30 years.

DM: Let’s talk about Alcina. It premiered in London in 1735. At that time audiences were totally in love with everything Italian. The Santa Fe production will be sung in Italian. Can you tell us what Alcina is about?

HB: There are two answers, one is the literal story: Alcina lives on an island, she takes lovers and then rather brutally turns them into wild animals or rocks or whatever. It is one of those fantastical stories, basically the story of Ruggiero the knight, who is a very small part of the bigger story from Orlando Furioso, the epic written by Ariosto. Handel took this and his operas Orlando and Ariodante from Ariosto. Audiences at the time would have known that this is a little chapter from the bigger work in which Ruggiero turns up at the island and falls madly in love with Alcina and falls under her spell. His fiancée, whom he has left behind, comes to the island to try to rescue him and eventually succeeds. Alcina, having found true love, finds her magic powers slip away and eventually Ruggiero escapes from the island. I think the bigger picture for this opera is that it is about the breakup of a relationship. The whole relationship between Ruggiero and Alcina is finely etched by Handel. It is interesting that Ruggiero and Alcina have the same number of arias which is unusual in a Handel opera because there was a huge hierarchy -- all sorts of politics involved.

DM: Now, our production is not going to be quite in those terms. I understand you first worked on this production in Bordeaux with the director David Alden. Perhaps you could say a few words about his approach?

HB: Yes, David Alden always approaches these pieces with interest in the trappings of the story on one level so, if it’s set on an island you don’t necessarily expect, in an Alden production, to literally see a palm tree and a beach and waves lapping at the side, because what interests him is the story of these characters and how they interact. The production is full of typically David Alden highly theatrical images. He’s a director who responds so viscerally to the music. You talk to any singer who loves or hates David Alden, and there are many in different camps, but the one thing they say about David, it is humbling when you arrive in a rehearsal room with him because he knows those operas better than anybody. You could stand David Alden in a room and he would sing you all Alcina from memory.

DM: That’s very unusual because there are some directors who cannot read a score I understand.

HB: The director who turns up with a CD booklet and the translation and follows along with a finger is what makes your heart sink.

DM: How does the conductor interact with various directors? Clearly you and David Alden are on the same page because you can discuss the music.

HB: We go back a long, long way. We respect each other and know how we work. He has very strong opinions about the music and that can be a problem sometimes, if he has a very clear idea about how the music should go and I don’t agree or the singer doesn’t agree.

DM: How is that resolved? You sit down and talk it out?

HB: How is anything in opera resolved? One of the beautiful things about opera is what you start off with is not necessarily what you finish with and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think if each individual imagines that he is going to end up with exactly what he thought it was going to be, I don’t think it would be a very good show. What’s fascinating is how we all work together and how we feed off each other and we come up with different ideas. And I should say, I’ve been happy to do something different. I can’t imagine how many performances I’ve done of
Ariodante, for instance. With Joyce di Donato there is one particular aria where she wants it at least half the speed that I’ve ever done it. I was shocked when she first said it. “I don’t know that I can do that,” I said, “It’s insanely slow.” She said, “But I really, really want to do this. I really think I can make this work.” We are now doing it that way and I must say she’s right. Whether I would do it again with anyone else I don’t know, but with Joyce it works fantastically well.

DM: Let’s talk a little about the castratos who were the big draws in London in the 18th century. Farinelli was singing for Handel’s rivals, but he had another great castrato sing the role of Ruggiero in Alcina. Today these roles are sung either by countertenors or mezzo-sopranos. How does the transition happen, does it work going from the role as originally cast to either of those voices? Do you have a preference as to which one should take on the castrato role?

HB: You’re right, the castrati were not only big stars but big sex symbols. Women loved them. We know they were very tall, with extraordinary voices, and sang warriors such as Orlando and Rinaldo.

DM: Castrati singers had a very high range.

HB: This wasn’t regarded as strange at all. The good thing now, since there aren’t any castrati, is that occasionally Ruggiero is sung by a countertenor. Personally, I don’t like it, the role is too high for a countertenor. With no disrespect to countertenors, I think that mezzo-sopranos have a lot more range of color at their disposal for a role that has eight arias. One interesting thing, Handel and his audiences were not at all interested in the sex of whomever was singing. It was a tradition onstage, both in the opera and the theatre, to have men playing men or women playing men and it wasn’t regarded as odd. What Handel was interested in was the pitch at which people sang.

DM: It was a much more purist approach in a way because audiences went for the voices, not for gender. I had a question about da capo arias which have many repeats, wonderful ornaments and embellishments. How does it work today as to how those ornaments and embellishments will be sung in any given production?

HB: There is no one simple answer to that. I believe the ornaments need to be there for a reason. Historically, people in the 18th century did just go out there to show off. I have nothing against singers showing off, it’s fine, but I think what many directors have made us more aware of is what is this coloratura singing about. How do we find a theatrical way to justify what these people singing long, long melismas are about? If it’s only about showing off, I don’t think you can sustain that theatrically. So, what we do is try to find a justification for it. In the ornaments of the da capo aria, I don’t like, usually, to pre-ordain the ornaments. There are colleague conductors I know who will send out sheets and sheets of ornaments that they have written and tell the singers to arrive on Day One knowing this.

DM: That must make for problems.

HB: Some people are fine with it saying, “OK, I don’t have to do it myself,” and others say, “Wait a minute, that’s not even suitable for my voice, and anyway it may be in the scene I am doing something completely different and these ornaments would be inappropriate given what we are trying to do.” This cast with Elza van den Heever, Anna Christy, and Alek Shrader have all done this production with me so I expect they’ll all come and we’ll do what we did last time and we can tweak it if necessary. The other singers are all excellent stylists. I find that my job is to help. If the singer is struggling for an ornament somewhere, I am very happy to write something, but I try to do it with them so they feel comfortable and they have some input. Also, I try to give a template as to what kind of ornament we are going to do because there’s nothing worse than one singer ornamenting as though it is Donizetti or Bellini and another ornamenting in another style, because then it seems a bit weird. On the other hand, I have done productions where the foreigners, whether they are magicians or sorcerers, whatever, ornament in a different way because it helps the idea that these people speak a different kind of language.

DM: What is the size of the orchestra you will conduct in Santa Fe?

HB: We will be a smaller orchestra in Santa Fe and what we are going to do is raise the pit so we are higher up. If you play with a bigger orchestra lower down, the orchestra has less chance of hearing the singers. Also, the more musicians you have the less flexibility you have. The thing I ask modern orchestras to do in terms of articulation is very fine and very detailed and very hard to do if you have a huge string section because, with the best will in the world, when you are playing with five desks of violins, the people at the back can’t play the same way as the people at the front do, they just can’t. It would never be together. Then you lose out on the detail of articulation so what we do is have a smaller group but raise the pit up so the musicians hear the singers better, and the singers hear them. You don’t miss the bigger orchestra because our sound is elevated, if you like, and it matches the singers better.

DM: So, an ideal situation must be when the baroque orchestra is onstage with the singers in a concert version, where the singers become like instruments of that one ensemble. That must be much easier?

HG: Oh, it’s wonderful. In these performances, we are doing now, Joyce (di Donato) just joins in. We are playing a little interlude and she just turns around and starts dancing along with the orchestra, as if she were part of the orchestra, another instrument.

DM: You conduct period instruments. What accommodation do you have to make in terms of sound with a modern orchestra?

HB: I don’t think you can make a modern orchestra sound like a period orchestra. These are different instruments, so they are playing on metal strings or wound strings with higher tension, playing with modern bows which are designed to do totally different things, and the pitch is different. So, what I try to get is some basic bowing techniques and ways in which we bow which help the gesture. Gesture is the word which is the most important thing. I think a lot of modern players when they see baroque music, which is not technically difficult for their left hands, tend to be not very interesting with their right hands. In the baroque era, everything was about the right hand. A famous quote from a manual in the 18th century says your violin is your body and the bow is your soul and basically everything is done through the bow. For modern players, it’s sort of the other way around, for what the bow does is to produce the sound and the expression is all with the left hand, either with vibrato or fingering.

DM: So, there was no vibrato with baroque violins?

HB: No, that’s not true. Vibrato was one of the many means by which you would color the sound. Modern players are taught that you don’t play a note on a modern stringed instrument without vibrating and they are taught to vibrate every single note and that’s something one must work quite hard to change. I don’t like it when conductors say they ban vibrato. Sometimes we start saying let’s just do no vibrato, then we’ll add it in because the orchestra feels they must produce a good sound. You simply can’t cut out vibrato, you will sound like a High School orchestra. It’s not nice, and it doesn’t make people feel confident. And the issue of intonation tends to come to the fore because vibrato in fact covers a lot of imprecision in intonation. Think about it, if you are vibrating your finger you are in a minuscule way altering the pitch so you are disguising what your core pitch is, and so you can sound in tune if you vibrate, but if you suddenly take the vibrato away you really realize, wait a minute, that third in the chord isn’t in tune with the other notes, and you must find exactly where that third is.

DM: Fantastic, so it is really a challenge for any musician to switch from one to the other, baroque or modern?

HB: It’s mind boggling. When we did Platée in Santa Fe I remember a lot of the orchestra coming up saying this is harder than Wozzeck in terms of concentration, what we must do on every single note is more exhausting and more demanding for us.

DM: How would you advise people to best prepare for Alcina before they see a performance from a musical standpoint?

HB: I suppose if you are a baroque fan and you know what
opera seria form feels like, you know that the story moves fast during the recitatives but the arias are reflections on the emotional situation. You must let your mind go, in a way, during those arias and not be impatient but instead to relish the opportunity to think about the text and what’s being said, and to relish the glory of the music and the voice. I think that’s the main thing. I’m not a big fan of over-preparation and this is a dangerous thing to say to you, because I know you give the most wonderful pre-performance talks, everyone comes away from them thinking that was so good and so helpful!

DM: Thank you! I preach that opera is about the music. The more familiar you become with these arias the more you fall in love with them, so by the time you arrive in the theatre you are already familiar with the music. This is certainly true of the baroque era, where the most beautiful melodies are hidden within these arias. Is there anything else you would like to share with us about Alcina?

HB: Only that I think Alcina is Handel’s greatest opera, one of the three top ones along with Ariodante and Julius Caesar. Santa Fe has a wonderful cast and I must say I love David Alden’s production, which is fantastically theatrical, moving, funny, and ironic where it needs to be. It is compelling and I am thrilled that we are doing it in Santa Fe.

DM: You are quoted as saying about baroque opera that “the emotional quality of the sound of the singer, the music, and the aria is more than the sum of its parts.” Perhaps you could comment on that in terms of the baroque period and say a little about why you are attracted to this style of music.

HB: I got into baroque music slightly by accident. I had been playing for The English Concert but I had also been conductor at the English National Opera for five years where I did everything: Puccini, Verdi and Wagner, as well as contemporary music. It was only at the end of my time there that I was asked to do Ariodante in 1993 when it really wasn’t a known piece at all. I remember Mark Elder, the music director, saying to me, “Well, you play this music outside the opera house, you know how this goes, so why not conduct it?” Anyway, it was a very big success. People weren’t into Handel opera, which, until then, had been regarded as fairly unstageable, mainly because of the opera seria stereotype of people thinking that it was inherently untheatrical. So, in a very short time I found myself being a baroque specialist, I’m not quite sure how that happened. Last year in Santa Fe I did Romeo and Juliet, in Houston Rusalka, in Canada a Rossini opera, so I continue to do other repertory. I never sought out the 18th century, but the more I’ve done it the more I see an amazing modernity about it. I don’t see an old-fashioned form at all. In fact, something many audiences say to me is how amazingly modern it is, not just in terms of the structure and the melody but the kind of human emotions in Handel’s works, even when he was writing about Alcina, the sorceress, the mythical island, and all this magic. What the arias are really talking about is what it means to be in love or what it means to love someone who doesn’t love you, or betrayed love, and those emotions never change. That is about being a human being, not about being a sorceress.

DM: Isn’t that one of the things that distinguishes the baroque period? In the arias, the singers embody the emotions they are feeling more than getting into character development and story. Baroque opera is also slow; you must gear down for it.

HB: This is it. To pick up on your point about its being slow, I think about it as humans thinking through situations in real time. It is not unusual to say to oneself for ten minutes in real life, I love this person, and then to say for three minutes, but that person just betrayed me, and then to say for another five minutes, I love this person. And, of course, when you say I love this person the second time, that is in the context of their betrayal. It’s a wonderful way of thinking in real time as opposed to Mimi and Rodolfo, for instance, who meet in La Bohème and within three minutes they are singing a love duet. We all know that’s preposterous and unrealistic, and we love it, don’t get me wrong; that’s part of what we are used to now. I think in baroque operas, you let yourself go and allow yourself to just think about the two sentences in an aria and the many ways in which we, as human beings, deal with problems and thoughts. It becomes a very familiar and appealing way of thinking about life.

DM: What you are describing is the da capo aria?

HB: That’s it. It is basically the ABA structure. You say one sentence, then you say another sentence, then you go back to the first sentence. It comes from a dance form and goes on to be the basis of sonata form which then governed the whole musical form right the way through into the 20th century. I think one of the reasons Handel opera has had such a revival is because there are singers who can hold your attention and interest in a da capo aria, and directors who have found a way to make it theatrical and very real, believable, and compelling. Staging opera seria was about the massive egos of the singers that Handel had to write for. They all wanted show-off arias with no-one else onstage. You had your intro and your big da capo aria, and when you repeated the first stanza, as the tradition was, you ornamented to show off your virtuosity, and then you would leave the stage. Nowadays, one of the things directors have managed to achieve is that you don’t sing alone onstage then walk off because everything you sing about has a different impact on everybody else onstage so what you get is this deep psychological understanding of how one person’s words can mean one thing to one person and something else to another. The orchestra adds another layer, sometimes the orchestra is saying something different to what the character is singing about and that becomes multi-layered, very deep, and completely compelling.

DM: It’s amazing how, in the baroque period, in some arias the lead character may be lying but the orchestra is telling the truth and the audience gets it. That’s one of the thrilling aspects of all this.

HB: I completely agree.

DM: You are the chief conductor of the Santa Fe Opera and will be here for Handel’s Alcina. Santa Fe must be appealing to you at least for this one reason that you can stay in place for three whole months.

HB: Absolutely. When Santa Fe first approached me about the job, I was of course very flattered. I’ve always loved coming to Santa Fe. But, I have the (English Consort) orchestra in London. My wife is a Professor of Environmental Science and we have two small children and the idea of months away from home seemed too much of an ask, but it also coincides with school holidays and the whole family comes out. My wife fortuitously found herself a job as a visiting Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute so she carries on working when we come out. She can carry on her research at the Institute which she absolutely loves. It is the highlight of her year, as well as mine, to come to Santa Fe for both the work, the environment, and the wonderful company.

DM: Let’s talk about your work with the company. In terms of Santa Fe, what is the definition of a chief conductor?

HB: Well, I always say my job is to look after the well-being and health of the orchestra. It’s very specifically centered round the orchestra. The orchestra is, of course, an amazing group of people who come together only in the summer. They all drive across the country with their kids and basically move their lives to Santa Fe. This is the only time we can get things done on the administrative, planning, or personnel side during those months, so it’s important that when we get together, I am a figurehead for them both in terms of the well-being of the orchestra, being a champion for them and being a good liaison with the management. Of course, I do meet with general director Charles MacKay and artistic administrator Brad Woolbright about repertoire, casting, and all sorts of other artistic matters. But my job title is very much linked with the orchestra.

DM: Your musicians come mostly from out of state. Are they with other orchestras the remainder of the year? What is the makeup of the musician body?

HB: Most of them come from various places, a lot of them play in other opera companies, we have a fair number from Lyric Opera Chicago, Philadelphia, some from Canadian Opera. Many are symphony players because for them if you play symphonic repertory all year, it is nice to get your opera fix during the summer. The main attraction is that this is a very fine group of players who all want to be there. It may sound surprising, but that isn’t a given. There are a lot of summer festivals in my experience where there is a kind of vacation atmosphere. That’s not true of Santa Fe. This is a serious orchestra and they want to be the best and they want to play the best. That always appealed to me, that the work ethic and the desire to dig deeper is very strong with them. They are not an orchestra that is happy if you release them half an hour early from a rehearsal, thinking you will somehow curry favor with them. You’ll get an earful. They’ll say, “Wait a minute, you really think we couldn’t have used that last half hour to get that better.”

DM: We can have up to 90 players in the pit for Richard Strauss operas but Alcina has a smaller number. How many play in Alcina?

HB: That’s a question I can’t answer exactly. It’s a typical small Handel chamber orchestra with a complement of strings, harpsichord, woodwinds, and then two horns that must play one of the hardest arias even written right in the middle of the third act so they must sit around then sound out these very high-lying horn parts. That was very typical of Handel opera because there weren’t very many horn players around in London. So Handel, literally, had to find them, saying, “OK, so you’ll be free at 10 pm in the evening, I’ll write an aria for you in the third act because I know you’ll be playing at Covent Garden at 8 pm.”

DM: That’s incredible. I know in the work schedules at the SFO there are three sessions in a day: morning, afternoon, and evening performances. In June, those musicians play phenomenally long days. I know they get some time off once the five operas are up, but they run from one rehearsal to another for different operas with different conductors. I don’t think people realize the extraordinary challenge for musicians who must be first class to be able to handle it.

HB: Well that’s right and because of that schedule they all come super prepared for each opera. Generally in an opera house with a more relaxed schedule, the first orchestra reading will be that, literally, the orchestra reads their parts without any real depth of understanding of how the opera relates to other people or how the music goes even, whereas in Santa Fe at the very first reading you know everybody is prepared, they’ve practiced their parts, they know how their parts fit with everybody else so you start at a much higher level, but you have to because you can’t find your way into a piece when you are playing four other operas at the same time.

DM: What happens when you include electronics in the mix, as will happen with the Steve Jobs opera this summer?

HB: That’s a very good question. It’ll be a big learning curve. Of course, Santa Fe has a big reputation of doing contemporary works.

DM: Are the electronics in the pit or in another part of the house or has that yet to be decided?

HB: I think in the pit. The confidence I have for that is that the composer, himself, Mason Bates, controls all the electronics and there is also a big part for acoustic guitar. The man who plays guitar has collaborated with Bates all his career and I think Mason knows how these pieces get put on. We have been workshopping this piece for quite a long time, so when we come to rehearsing, we come from a very good level of what exactly is required. But you don’t really know until you get into the theatre and the pit as to what is and isn’t going to work. We must be quite quick and ready to adapt as necessary.

DM: This must be true of all soloists and instrumentalists in opera where they have their own solos whether it is electronics, a flute or even a glass harmonica. Are we going to have that in Lucia di Lammermoor?

HB: We are, absolutely, and thrilled to have it, but how does a glass harmonica actually work in a big space, in an outdoor theatre, ostensibly, in terms of balance, in terms of its being heard in the auditorium and onstage? Most Lucias are used to doing the aria with two flutes and of course they have a very different kind of color and tone quality. I myself will be very interested to see how it sounds. I am very excited we are actually going to do the arias with a glass harmonica.

DM: It has that extraordinary ethereal sound. How does it work when you are conducting, when the instrumentalist can’t even see the singer who is onstage and the voice and the instrument should play as one? What is the role of the conductor in the middle of all that?

HB: Opera orchestras are famously good listeners because that’s what they do the whole time. As a conductor one has many different roles, sometimes it’s leading and being proactive and helping the orchestra if, for example, they can’t hear the singer. What a lot of people don’t know or understand is that the orchestra and quite often the conductor cannot hear the singers even though the audience can. We are down in a pit, the singers are above our heads, quite a long way above the heads of an orchestra. If you are playing a violin, you have an instrument under your chin the sound of which is going in one ear and probably the other ear as well, so when you are playing you are drowning out anything that is happening onstage. Even as the conductor, I spend a lot of my time lip reading. I can’t hear if they are upstage so I lip read and listen for consonants a lot because if I hear an ‘S’ or a ‘T’ I know where we are and I watch their mouths the whole time. So, sometimes I’m helping and being proactive and they should trust me completely, other times I am just being an enabler. I let them listen and if there is any problem I help them get back on track. Most importantly I help them understand what it is the singer is doing.

DM: Here is a final question: is there one opera you would really like to conduct that you have not yet been involved in, a wish-list opera?

HB: Die Meistersinger

DM: And one opera you would never want to conduct?

Les Huguenots.

DM: Why Die Meistersinger?

HB: It’s the first opera I saw, believe it or not, with my family quite by chance. The music teacher at my school had a group going to
Meistersinger and I thought, I’ve no idea what it is, but I’ll give it a go. It made such a huge impression on me. It was in the early 1980s. When the Solti recording came out, I had the cassettes and I used to sit there playing them endlessly. It’s a wonderfully human piece which I have never got to work on.

DM: I must say, Maestro, it has been such a privilege to talk to you. I have been so looking forward to this.

Performances of the Santa Fe Opera’s Alcina will be on July 29, Aug 2,11, 17, and 23rd. You can go to the box office at 800 280 4654 for tickets, or go online to for more season details.

I’d really like to thank you, Maestro Harry Bicket, for being my guest today.

HB: It’s my pleasure, thank you.

DM: This is Desirée Mays. See you at the Opera!  

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