One might expect as experienced and distinguished a conductor as Sir Richard Armstrong to be a formidable person to interview, but he turns out to be extremely modest and chatty. Of course, the man is formidably intelligent, but in a human and generous way. When I ask him if he's enjoying conducting The Makropulos Case at English National Opera, which is our reason for meeting, he says, with a schoolboy's enthusiasm, 'Well, it's Janacek. I always enjoy it.'
Sir Richard's career has taken him all over the world, including long stints at Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera, as well as acting as Solti's assistant at Covent Garden. But the composer with whom he's most associated is Janacek, whose operas he was instrumental in bringing to the West. His knowledge of these pieces is second to none, and he matches insight with an overwhelming passion for the music. We're lucky, then, that he's back at English National Opera to conduct a revival of Christopher Alden's production of The Makropulos Case, previously conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras (a lifelong friend and colleague of Armstrong's). I begin by asking how he become such a champion of Janacek's music.
'The first thing you have to remember is that when I was musically growing up, Janacek was unknown in this country. His music was not played at all,' the conductor explains. 'There were no recordings of any of it when I was growing up. My first opportunity to hear a piece of Janacek was in the early '60s when I was an organ scholar at Cambridge. There was a performance of the Glagolitic Mass going on at the Royal Festival Hall by the Bach Choir, with David Willcox conducting. There's a fantastic organ solo in the piece, a virtuoso number, and it was played at this performance by Simon Preston, who was the organ scholar at King's. So there was a local interest – David was my director of studies at Cambridge – to go and hear this piece, and I went with a number of friends. And I thought "Wow!".
'Two or three years later, I heard one of the first performances in the UK of From the House of the Dead, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. That was my first opportunity to hear Janacek live in the opera house, and it was something else. In a small theatre like Sadler's Wells, where it took place, the sound pins you to the wall. Again, I thought "More of this please!"
'My first job in London was as repetiteur at Covent Garden during Solti's time. In around 1967 or '68, there was a revival of a production of Jenufa from the '50s, which had been done when Kubelik was music director of the Royal Opera House, and he came back to revive it for a rare guest appearance. I was lucky enough to be the assistant playing for rehearsals with Kubelik, and he was there for six weeks. To spend all that time with him, every day, and really start to understand the music from the inside and really learn it, and to be taught by him, was wonderful. He really took me under his wing and showed me things. That got me hugely excited, and it was a very strong cast: Marie Collier was the Jenufa, and even in 1967, Kostelnica was played by Astrid Varnay –a German singer learning the piece in English to sing in England.
'That was the defining moment for me – when it really got under my skin. I was desperate to hear everything he'd written, but it was incredibly difficult. There were some recordings on the Supraphon label, but it was hard to find a distributor in this country. So I knew in my bones that when I started to conduct, Janacek would be on the list. I became Music Director of Welsh National Opera in 1973, and one of the first things I did was to schedule Jenufa in '75. That was the start of my conducting of the composer.'
But what is it about the music that gets to him so much? 'I love Czech music anyway. I love the bounce of the rhythms. I love the melodies. I love the harmonies. I don't know why; I do. I love Smetana and Dvorak, and of course Jenufa comes right out of that tradition. In the later operas of Janacek, of course, it's much harder to hear that tradition, because he's gone way elsewhere by then. But I guess that's the easier aspect of a piece like Jenufa: you can absolutely hear where it comes from. Yet, it's got a very special, stark quality of its own – already, a lot of Janacek's own individual quirks are there, especially if you're listening to the original version with all the repeats. At some of the original performances in Prague, the repeats got cut out; that Prague version of 1916 was what I originally knew, and I didn't understand that my Universal edition of the score wasn't pukka. I was staggered when I was in Brno in 1978 and just in the local music shop managed to pick up this other edition. I didn't realise what it was at the time, and it was marvellous to get it home and see that some of these passages should be repeated two or three times.
'As I got to know the later operas, and began to see where Janacek's compositional style ended up, suddenly I realised I was in the presence of one of the very greatest composers of the twentieth century.'
Are there editorial issues with Makropulos? 'Already when I did Makropulos, which was the second Janacek opera I did in Cardiff (in 1978), the score was pretty decent and had had a going-over. A lot of the additions had already been taken out. In 1980, in our WNO-Scottish Opera Janacek project, we did The Cunning Little Vixen, and it was immediately clear that the score was a mess. I commissioned John Tyrrell, the Janacek scholar, to tidy up the edition. So he went to Brno with a clean score, and came back with one full of markings to give to me. It's never utterly straightforward with Janacek, so it's not always clear who wrote things. We managed to come up with a reasonably cleaned-up version for those performances. Shortly afterwards, that got me linked with Charles Mackerras, although we had already spoken about Janacek before because we were both passionate about it. He was in the middle of his Janacek recording project with Decca, the Vienna Philharmonic and James Mallinson (the producer).
'We enjoyed sharing stories about the opera, and in a way we were excited boys about this thing. Many times when they were recording little bits that hadn't been played before, or sections of pared-down orchestration, they would say "Oh, I bet Richard would love to hear this", so they would put it on a cassette and put it in the post. When Charles came to record Vixen, he had not conducted it before – which people find hard to believe – but he knew I'd done it a lot, and he also knew that I had a good score. So we talked about it, and for his recording he used my score and parts, and we had very nice conversations beforehand about it.
'One of the interesting things for conductors in Janacek is the question of tempo, and particularly of tempo relationships between different passages. Everything is interrelated. Tempi rarely change from one unit to another; they tend to evolve. You have to decide what's happening. Sometimes Janacek tells you, but sometimes you have to work it out for yourself. Two very well informed conductors with the same information can come to a different conclusion.
'The next opera I was due to do in Wales was From the House of the Dead, and the editorial problems there were huge. But Charles had already had the work done, and he very generously gave me all the material, so we were just able to copy his scores. He wanted the opera to be heard as it should be heard, and subsequently he oversaw a new edition of the piece.
'After that, I had a revival of Jenufa scheduled. The 1975 original production had used the published score, because at that time I didn't have anything else. When I'd been in Brno in 1978 and seen the original scores in the archives, I had made a lot of notes, and when I next did the opera I cut a lot of stuff out. But it was not a scholarly edition, and I didn't know everything. So this later edition used Charles's stuff again, which he kindly lent me. And that meant that in about 1983, WNO did the first performances outside Brno of the original edition of Jenufa. It was kind of unannounced; we just did it.
'When I was asked to do these ENO performances of Makropulos, I was aware that some changes had been made for the original run which Charles conducted four years ago. So naturally, I phoned him up and asked him about it, because he was the only person with the information. There will be a new scholarly edition in the next couple of years, but in the meantime Charles let me have his scores and parts. That was the last dealings I had with him – I got the parts a couple of weeks before he died. I have worked on them, and it has been a huge labour of love to cross-reference them and mark up my own score with the markings. What we're playing now is what was played four years ago.
'We're fortunate now that we have a good edition of Katya, the new edition of Jenufa, the full score of Makropulos is not too bad, and there's a new From the House of the Dead. It's a lot better than it was.'
Is there anything different or daring about Sir Richard's interpretation of Makropulos this time round? 'Well of course, just because I'm using the same material as Charles, doesn't mean that it will sound the same. It's an opera that I've conducted many times in the past, but when I came back to it this time, I was surprised to realise that it's over 25 years since I last conducted it. In a way that's a great thing – to have a great performing knowledge of it, but to come fresh to it too. I enjoyed sitting down and making new decisions about certain things. There's nothing colossal, though. Purely on a personal level, I enjoyed not opening my old score at all – in fact I haven't even opened it. Makropulos was the second Janacek opera I conducted after Jenufa, and subsequently I've done Katya, Vixen and House of the Dead many times. Janacek's style was getting so advanced by Makropulos and House of the Dead, which were the adjacent operas.
'What's been interesting for me is to come back to Makropulos after doing the other operas – particularly House – so many times. I see many more musical affinities than I ever saw before. And it's interesting to see how he notates fluctuations of tempo. Sometimes he seems to write very extreme changes of tempo, such as Adagio to Allegro, but I've learnt to realise that very often these notational things are very emotional. Something can be a huge change of mood without actually nudging the tempo as much as one might think.'
I then ask what place Sir Richard feels Makropulos has in the Janacek canon. 'The last three masterpieces are extraordinary: Vixen, Makropulos, House of the Dead. Who would have thought it possible to write an opera on any of those subjects? House doesn't even have a plot; it has fascinating and horrendous narrations, and prison life as the dramatic glue, but there's not plot. When Janacek first approached Karel Capek [who wrote the original story] about the idea of turning Makropulos into an opera, he tried to put him off because it didn't seem like obvious material. He pretended he'd sold the rights to the piece to someone in America, even though that was irrelevant to copyright in Czechoslovakia. In the end, though, Capek gave him carte blanche to do absolutely anything he wanted with it. And apparently Capek loved it in the end. Then there's Vixen, with all these cartoons about the relationship between a fox cub and a man. What's all that about? The sheer daring of this man in his sixties is amazing.'
I mention the issue of doing this piece in English rather than Czech, expecting Sir Richard to feel that the original language is preferable. But to my surprise, he says 'I think it's helpful. I always prefer to do Janacek in English in this country. Of course, the vocal lines are often difficult to project even in the Czech language, which is written with hard consonants, because the orchestra's so big. English is considerably softer as a language, but I think you can hear a lot of it. Sometimes it can be frustrating, no matter how attentive the conductor and orchestra, because there are places where the wash of sound is too big. I think supertitles help with that a bit, so that you can find out what's being sung. But I think that contact of a singer singing to you in the audience in words that you understand is worth a lot. It's not that difficult to find words that fit the music pretty well. The challenge is that in the Czech language, the words are always strong at the beginning of the phrase. The first syllable of words is the accented one. But if you don't know the music inside out, and therefore don't understand the phrasing of vocal lines when trying to translate it, forget it. I've done translations like that where nothing fits, and it's a jumble. But where translated by people who truly understand where the music phrases, it's possible to get good versions. And yes, the singers have to work very hard on the articulation.'
We move on to have a brief discussion of Armstrong's musical life. 'I was brought up in the Forties. Music was always in the house: my parents were good amateur singers. My father was a countertenor in the church choir, so I joined it too. I started to learn the piano when I was six, and inevitably I wanted to learn the organ when my legs were long enough. That was my grounding in music, and the style of teaching I received as a schoolboy related to church music, as well as the basics of harmony and counterpoint. I had superb teachers.
'That was my musical world until I was eighteen. I didn't know much beyond that. We were never able to travel. There was a regular chamber music club of very high quality in Leicester, where I was, so I was used to hearing quartets like the Amadeus once a month or so. And there were regular orchestral concerts, usually with the Halle and Sir John Barbirolli. But we had no gramophone and very little in the way of radio, so music was what you did yourself. Therefore my parents would have sixteen people come round to sing madrigals and part songs. That was my world. The organ playing came about as a consequence of that, and it was a wonderful introduction to like at Cambridge.'
And how was his time in Cambridge, where he was organ scholar? 'It was enormously helpful for all of the music making I did there. Academically, it was much less so.' And how did he end up at Covent Garden? 'I got very excited by opera and wanted to work in the opera house. We're talking 1965 or so, and there were really just two opera companies – Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden – because Glyndebourne's seasons were one-offs and very specialised. So I sat down and wrote a letter to both companies to ask for an audition. I didn't know any operas, even though I'd heard plenty! I never got an answer from Sadler's Wells, but I did get one from Covent Garden, and I went and played to them. After a few weeks, the head of music got in touch with me and told me I needed to get more experience. The Friends of Covent Garden had a bursary to the London Opera Centre, and they offered it to me. I had never heard of the place, but I thought, why not? It seemed like a good opportunity to stay in music making. I did a year there, and when it ended I was really lucky that one of the repetiteurs at Covent Garden was retiring, so there was a vacancy for the first time in years. Since I was the bursary person, they asked me if I wanted the job, and I did an audition for Solti and he gave it to me.'
Was Sir Georg an intimidating colleague? 'I worked with him a lot. It wasn't scary at all. I was an ingénue. Many people in the company were still frightened of him, and I think he was frightened of them, too, because of the cultural thing. To me as a new boy, he was fine. I learnt my stuff, I could play well, and I had learnt to try and play orchestrally – to replicate as much of the score on the piano as possible. Solti liked that in me. He liked having me around, so I worked on a lot of his shows. In those terms, for the three years I was there he was my teacher. Whatever one thinks about his conducting of this, that or the other, he was the most amazing music director. He knew everything you need to know how to run an opera house. And he treated me with respect and affection.'
And how did the conducting come about? 'I had done bits and bobs, but nothing at a professional level. I had always wanted to do it. I started working as an assistant conductor on some of the shows, and then I started pestering Solti to try and get me going. He rightly said, [he mimics Solti's voice] "But you have no experience, so vat am I to do?"
'Then in what turned out to be my last year, he was doing a production of Gluck's Orfeo. He liked to have a really strong assistant, because when the orchestral rehearsals were starting he always got the assistant to do it the first time, so that he could go and sit out at a desk at the back of the stalls and listen to it from the audience perspective. He'd come back and give notes to the orchestra and then do it himself. It's not such a bad idea! The podium is often one of the worst places to hear from.
'When Orfeo came up, there was nobody obvious to be his assistant. So he let me do it. Not long after that, I left to take up a very different kind of life in Wales.'
I ask him about his time at WNO. 'At the time I started, the company was still semi-professional. The chorus was amateur, made up of people from Cardiff and Swansea who had conventional jobs during the day time. In 1968, as part of an initiative to develop high-quality touring opera in the UK, the Arts Council put the company through a five-year transition to professionalise them fully. It was meant to ease away the problem of touring Sadler's Wells. One of the first things to happen was the creation of a small professional chorus in the spring of 1968, to sing alongside the amateur chorus. Because the amateur chorus all had day jobs, they couldn't tour to Liverpool or Birmingham. So the professional chorus used to do the Figaros and Traviatas. What the company was famous for was the big chorus operas, which is what they were famous for – because it cost nothing! – and they did them two or three nights a week.
'I came in fairly early on in that process, and it was well developed by the time I was asked to become Music Director in 1973. The orchestra for the last few years had been freelancers from London. The manager was a top brass player who played at Covent Garden. He was brought in to fix the orchestra, which was high-quality from 1970, but only part-time. By 1973, the volume of work that was coming in had expanded to such a level that it was clearly going to be more economical to have a full-time orchestra. It was an historic moment, because there had never been an opera orchestra outside London. So to get that going was an enormous challenge: I had never run an orchestra before, let alone formed one. It was a fascinating thing to do. Within two to three years, it was becoming a fine instrument.
'People really started to like our work, and it got better and better. There was an appetite for new things. The brief is very different now, but at that time the Arts Council's attitude was that if you could do it and do it well, yes please and show us more! It was very positive like that, and things are very different now.'
And what made him decide to move to Scottish Opera? 'I freelanced for several years in between, and it didn't lead to any other likely long-term connection. I was getting a bit frustrated by all the travelling. When I was sounded out about going to Scotland, my first thought was why? Why would I want to settle for that again? Indeed, many other people asked the same question! The invitation from Scotland was to continue the Ring Cycle that they had started with Richard Jones. They did Rheingold, but waited three years until they did Walkure. The Music Directorship was up at that point, so they were interested to see how they could continue this Ring. They said that they'd like me to do the Ring, and then said "We'd also like you to be Music Director, but you don't have to be if you don't want to". So I got involved in working out how this Ring was going to work. I saw the Walkure, and liked it a lot, but it was already apparent that it was going to take at least two years to bring the Siegfried to the stage.
'By that time, Richard was saying he couldn't live with that Rheingold, and that he wanted to do a new one. So I thought, what kind of world is this getting in to? I would have been happy to commit to a Ring Cycle if I'd felt that the right things were in place, and that I could deliver something of quality. But there was no point in going into a big project like that, knowing it was stretching the company's resources. I didn't even feel I could guarantee the result. So I signed up as Music Director and got involved in the Ring negotiations, and proposed to the board of the company that they should cancel it. Instead, I suggested that I should set about reinvigorating and revitalising the company in all areas of basic repertory. Perhaps then, when that was done, the company could consider a Ring Cycle if they had the resources. That meant I could be involved in the planning of the cycle from Day 1. And the rest you know about!' he says with wry humour, referring to the financial problems that ensued, ending in Armstrong's resignation of the company.
'In Scotland, when the Ring was cancelled it was a scandal, because people were desperate for that area of the repertory. Wagner never happened up there, and audiences were very frustrated. Before I started there, they had scheduled a Parsifal and then cancelled it. So there was a real need for Wagner up there. The proposal to do the Ring was never mine: it came from the board of Scottish Opera. I'm very happy with my artistic record in Scotland, but it tends not to get talked about; people always talk about the money.'
And now? 'I have an itinerant life again, which is sometimes very nice and sometimes very rewarding. And sometimes it's frustrating! I did some lovely projects in the last year. I did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Australia with Sue Bullock. It's a score that I thought had bypassed me, and it was wonderful to do it, especially with Sue. She was stupendous in that role, and I hope she gets to sing it in this country. I did four projects in Australia last year in fact. I also went to San Paolo in Brazil, where they have a very fine symphony orchestra. They have the most sensational concert hall, with wonderful acoustics. The orchestra has 120-130 players, and they have a full-time professional chorus of nearly sixty people. It's of absolute top-quality. Bit by bit the world is getting to know of it. I did semi-staged performances of Rosenkavalier for them, and it was an interesting challenge for them: it's quite a long piece. They let me have leading singers such as Anne Schwanewilms and Franz Hawlata, and then some Brazilian singers in the other roles. They were excellent: all the Brazilians had learnt their roles from memory. The orchestra was wonderful: it exhausted them, but their performance was to die for. Experiences like that are satisfying. I am happy to have no ties any more. It's nice to have some free time to myself.'
The Makropulos Case opens at English National Opera on 20 September 2010.
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