President of the London Symphony Orchestra and former Music Director of the Royal Opera, Sir Colin Davis is amongst the world's most distinguished conductors. How does one begin to describe his long and varied career? Born in Surrey, he studied the clarinet at the Royal College of Music but pursued conducting, and after notable appearances in the late 1950s he became the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1971 he joined Covent Garden, where he stayed until 1986, and led seminal productions of the works of Berlioz, Mozart and Britten, as well as several premieres of operas by Michael Tippett. In 1977 he became the first English conductor to perform at Bayreuth, and he also held posts with orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Bavarian Symphony and the Staatskapelle Dresden. London audiences have been lucky to see much of him in the last decade since his tenure as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, which he took up in 1995, becoming President in 2007.
Next Tuesday, Davis is back at the Royal Opera House to conduct a new production of Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel with an all-star cast including Angelika Kirshschlager, Diana Damrau and Anja Silja. Surprisingly, the work has not been performed at Covent Garden, and Davis cannot recall the piece ever having been considered for production during his time as Music Director. I caught up with him during rehearsals to ask about his views on this, one of the most important products of the post-Wagnerian ethos in German opera.
'It's a beautifully-composed piece,' he says of Hänsel. '[Humperdinck] has lovely ideas and is such an expert at orchestration.
'I don't know why he's criticised for using Wagner's language – that was the language that was around! I think it works really well for a fairy story. It doesn't have the overbearing subject matter of the Ring – the politics and social criticism. But you know, sometimes I think music is better when it doesn't have those things!' he laughs.
'And he makes very charming use of folk melodies, which are very effective. They're very simple and childlike and easy to understand.
'I like it too because, unfortunately, fairies and witches and giants have kind of gone out of fashion – they only appear in children's cartoons. But Humperdinck takes them seriously. They're not real, but he treats them as if they were. I like that very much; it's an honest piece.'
In recent times, it's become popular to present Hänsel as a dark tale for grown-ups, with Richard Jones' WNO production (also seen at the Met) and Laurent Pelly's Glyndebourne staging taking occasionally grotesque and disturbing images out of the piece. Does Sir Colin see it as an adult story about children? 'I'm happy to see it as a fairy tale and make my own conclusions. Too many producers are anxious to tell us about their own psychology, and I don't think that's what their job is! Their job is to present the opera as it is.'
I probe the conductor about Covent Garden's new production, which is directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, veterans of several of the company's Rossini productions as well as a much-revived staging of Madama Butterfly. 'I think you have to wait and see!' Davis says, mischievously. Is it traditional? 'Yes and no. There are one or two intrusions, like there might be a plastic bag with 'Tesco' written on the side. But it's a very simple story, and if you play it beautifully and have great singers, you'll have a lovely evening.'
The conductor comments further on the relationship between Hänsel and Wagner, one of the most important influences on the work. 'Humperdinck worked with Wagner at Bayreuth, so he knew him well personally. But aside from that, Wagner was such a huge influence on music in the nineteenth century that it would have been impossible to escape the power of the man. But when people say that Hänsel is 'Wagnerian', you realise how different it is from Wagner's operas. It's obvious that Wagner could never have written this piece. Absolutely impossible!
'But then it's the same as saying that Mozart wrote in the style of Salieri. Probably they all were at that time, Haydn too; they had a common language.'
What does he think is the key message of Hänsel und Gretel
The conductor mentions the fact that Humperdinck wrote quite a few fairy operas, including The King's Children and Sleeping Beauty – 'I think he was particularly interested in the old stories' – and Davis expresses an interest in fairy stories even as literature. 'Well, I read them,' he says, 'and I've read them again for this. Some are interesting, and some are banal, of course. Most of them are not very kind to women – they always come out of it badly! There are always evil nannies or witches doing spells. It's a shame: I think it demonstrates a fear of women.'
He agrees that this is also a key facet of Wagner's art. 'He's hung up on them, totally. That's not the case with Mozart: he understands women. But Wagner doesn't treat his women very well, does he? Lohengrin really upsets me!'
I ask him to elaborate on this comment. 'Lohengrin comes on the scene as a sort of deus ex machine knowing everything that has happened and everything that's going to happen, and yet he allows it to happen. He allows Elsa to betray him. Why? Have I misunderstood something?' Davis has mixed views about Wagner, largely because of the deep-rooted cynicism and extra-musical agenda that the composer seems always to pursue; he cites the destruction of both people and musical themes through the course of the Ring into Götterdämmerung as an example of an aspect of Wagner's art that makes him uncomfortable. 'I do admire and enjoy his music,' Davis assures me, 'but I think it's true to say that there's a negative undertone to his operas which can sweep you out to sea if you don't look out!'
However, he says that he enjoyed conducting the Guildhall Orchestra in a concert of Wagner's music a couple of years ago. 'It's alright if you do the best bits of this and that. For instance the Prelude to Lohengrin is a beautiful piece of music, as are the orchestral highlights from the Ring apart from the "Ride of the Valkyries” – things like Siegfried's "Rhine Journey” and "Funeral March”. I wouldn't do a whole opera now, though – I don't have the energy.'
After Christmas, Sir Colin Davis will lead the London Symphony Orchestra in two performances of Verdi's Requiem, a colossal work that has been in his repertoire for decades. He seems fascinated by the relationship between the Church and musicians, which was the cause of both tension and inspiration, with lapsed Catholics such as Verdi going on to write extraordinary Mass settings. 'They were brought up as Catholics,' says Davis, 'but although they stopped going to church and didn't subscribe to it, they never forgot what it was like.'
The post-Christmas period also brings the great conductor back to one of his favourite composers: Hector Berlioz, the composer with which Sir Colin is perhaps most associated. In January he will conduct L'enfance du Christ (a work he's recently recorded with the LSO) at Cadogan Hall, followed by a return to the LSO for the Te Deum, which he performed with the orchestra in a memorable Prom back in 2003. 'Well we're going to try – the Barbican's too small for it really. It's such a loud piece and it's going to make a lot of noise! But there's nowhere else we could do it – the LSO can't book the Albert Hall to do it mid-season and St Paul's is no good.
'I'm really looking forward to conducting it again though. These choral works are the greatest pieces we have, because of what they deal with. The St Matthew Passion, the Verdi Requiem, Berlioz's enormous Mass, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis – now there's a piece!'
At the age of eighty-one, Sir Colin shows no signs of slowing down. When I remark that he seems in great shape, he responds with 'Yes, it looks alright from the outside!' while when I ask him if he plans to do any more opera, he replies: 'Well if I survive, yes! I think I'm down to do another Figaro and a Così. We'll have to see what happens.' But although he jokingly says of his recent concert performances of Benvenuto Cellini that 'they nearly killed me!', it seems unlikely from his lively conversational stance that that this modest, intelligent and inspirational musician will be retiring from the podium any time soon.
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