Interview: Kazushi Ono on future plans, new music and joining the Opera de Lyon

'I am not a conductor of opera or a conductor of symphonies, but a conductor of Mozart or of Wagner. You have to be the voice, the interpreter of the composer'

10 October 2008

Kazushi OnoConductor Kazushi Ono is in London to rehearse the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a Barbican Hall concert on 10 October.

I caught him between a full orchestra rehearsal of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain (or 'Bald Mountain' as we nowadays call the version untouched by the Rimsky-Korsakov hand) and a piano/soloists rehearsal of the work by Matthias Pintscher, 'pourquoi l'azur muet', that will be given its world premiere in the same programme.

Ono has just taken up the post of Principal Conductor at the Opera de Lyon. Why choose Lyon after Brussels? 'After I had decided to leave La Monnaie, I had three offers – one in Italy, one in Germany and Lyon. I chose Lyon because I like the approach, the ideas of Serge Dorny who is the Intendant there, especially his emphasis on new work. I found in discussion with him that we shared many concepts, that we both want to discover new repertoire and to dig out existing works that are maybe not performed that often any more. And Serge has come up with what I think is a unique idea: we are going to do a series of operas that will be co-productions with Amsterdam and with Berlin or maybe Vienna, each opera having its premiere in one of the three cities and then moving a few weeks later to the second and then to the third city. If we start in Lyon, I shall take the whole production team, the chorus and orchestra on the tour with me. Another year the same thing might happen in reverse, with Lyon hosting a production that has just been given in Amsterdam or in Berlin. It's a very exciting project. Co-productions nowadays usually take place in different opera seasons, with different casts and often the original director does not even turn up to re-focus the work. This way the whole team will stay together and there will be three genuine premieres for everybody involved'.

Kazushi OnoOno's first production in the Lyon opera house will be The Gambler by Prokofiev. Why choose this piece? 'It's a powerful work and I think it needs to be aired more than it has been. It's not a standard repertoire opera and so it fits exactly into the category I just mentioned, a work that needs to be brought out and performed. I feel at home with Russian repertoire and I already did The Fiery Angel at La Monnaie'. Indeed he did: the word of mouth on this Richard Jones production was particularly good and one reviewer spoke of Ono's 'protean ability to make the most of a complex score and secure the best of results from his orchestra'. But Ono, noted already for the quality of orchestral sound that he manages to coax from a wide variety of ensembles, is equally interested in The Gambler as a psychological drama. 'It has to work as a whole, so we have engaged a Dostoyevski specialist to direct the work: he's the Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, and he's got a special feel for what it's all about. I went to see a play he has just directed at the Edinburgh Festival this year – it was quite something'. Did he see Scottish Opera's The Two Widows while he was there? 'No, I missed that but the Mariinsky were in Edinburgh too, with Aleko and Semyon Kotko in concert'. Ono clearly keeps a keen eye on what is going on and has the curiosity, as well as the energy, to check out the competition. But he was not aware that we Brits had seen The Gambler in a David Fielding production at Grange Park in 2007.

I asked him how he would one day like to be perceived as a conductor: a master of the symphonic repertoire or a leading operatic maestro. This took us into a long and interesting discussion. 'I love both types of experience but honestly I cannot imagine doing one without the other. Let me explain what I mean. You have the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy and in Figaro, Cosi and Don Giovanni you have the whole emotional world of Mozart. Well how can you conduct Mozart symphonies or concertos without knowing that operatic language, without exploring those scores and understanding how Mozart fits his music to the narrative. Or take a Mozart piano concerto – it is really a dialogue, like an operatic dialogue, between the soloist and the orchestra which you, as conductor, have to feel. Let me put it the other way round with Richard Strauss. I have conducted all the big orchestral poems, Ein Heldenleben, Also sprach Zarathustra, Till Eulenspiegel, even the Alpine Symphony. And I have to bring the orchestral language that Strauss teaches me with these works into the pit, when I conduct Salome, Elektra or Die Frau ohne Schatten. I can take it even further. I believe that to interpret Debussy effectively, you have to know the musical language of Wagner. All of these composers interconnect, right through to the twentieth century. As the interpreter of their works, you have to make that connection. In doing that, you do justice to the composer. So I am not a conductor of opera or a conductor of symphonies, but a conductor of Mozart or of Wagner. You have to be the voice, the interpreter of the composer'.

Who was the conductor who first made a big impact on the young Kazushi Ono? His answer is unhesitating – Bruno Walter. Did he see him live? 'No, it was through records. My parents bought a Bruno Walter recording, with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, of Beethoven's Third Symphony. Those opening two chords transfixed me. I was completely bowled over. I played that record over and over again and, in my mind, I got to know Walter. I have to quote him to you here. He was once asked what made a good conductor, and he replied that to conduct you have to be a good actor'. Here Ono demonstrates a range of feelings through his expressive, mobile, face. You can imagine him in the pit, coaxing feeling out of his Mimi or, next year in Lyon, out of his Lulu. 'For the repertoire in Lyon, we want to achieve a sort of balance. So I'm doing The Gambler and Lulu in 2009, then Manon Lescaut and a new work in 2010, and Parsifal and another new work, or a 20th century piece, in 2011'. Does Ono favour the incomplete Lulu, exactly as Berg left it when he died (and as the 2002 Bechtolf/Welser-Most production in Zurich showed, can still work powerfully onstage) or the Cerha completion? 'Oh, I think you have to do it complete now. It has been done very beautifully' and here Ono traces a line in the space between us, with an imaginary baton, taking me through Lulu's descent in the final act.

Does he come from a musical family? 'Not at all. My mother was a teacher of the tea ceremony and my father a computer engineer. But music entered my life when I was very young and I instinctively knew that I wanted to be a conductor – there is a family photograph of me, probably aged around 4, waving a chopstick as I 'conducted'. We had one room with a piano – an upright Yamaha – and the room next door was set out for my mother's classes in the tea ceremony. After playing the piano one day I went into my mother's room and suddenly I found myself in this mystical space, somewhere up there above the proceedings, aware and yet detached. This ability to project into a sort of 'overview' mode is something I still have today, and it helps me remain objective about what I am doing'.

Kazushi OnoI had been told before meeting Ono that one of the more refreshing aspects of his personality is a lack of 'conductor ego' : the modest, self-aware approach he took to answering questions and discussing his various projects confirmed that. He also has that Japanese quality of respect for the great European tradition of classical music-making. Talking of his planned Parsifal in Lyon in 2011 he told me: 'It's a work I conducted in Karlsruhe, where they have this incredible Wagner tradition. Felix Mottl, who came to Karlsruhe from Bayreuth, actually brought with him annotated scores, with phrase and tempo markings from the first Bayreuth performances that have survived to this day. So when you conduct the Karlsruhe orchestra, you have this heritage in your hands'. I suggest that maybe 19th century tempo markings could sound a bit strange today, as evidenced by some of the historical recordings that are now available, but Ono insists that performance history of individual works is a vital aspect of their interpretation, even today. 'When I was assistant to Sawallisch in Munich, there was one of the music coaches at the Bavarian State Opera who had marked each score in detail with the tempi that individual conductors had adopted: W was for Bruno Walter, B for Karl Bohm, S for Sawallisch and so on. Then you could measure your interpretation against some of the historic figures of the past'. The history of music making is clearly important to Ono, who has steadily increased his reputation as a 'musicians' musician' in the past few years.

Does he see himself as a Wagner conductor? 'Oh yes, I want to do much more Wagner. Mind you, I have conducted most of his works already – not the very early stuff, obviously, but nearly all of his major operas. As an opera conductor I see the three major fixed points of my conducting future as Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. And contemporary music interests me a lot. In 2010 we shall premiere in Lyon a new opera by Kaija Saariaho, with Karita Mattila. The following year, maybe another new commission – I don't know yet'.

Kazushi OnoWhat about other conductors who have influenced him? He mentions Seiji Ozawa ('of course') but his list is dominated by the German heavyweights of the classical repertoire, some of whom acquired big followings in their lifetime in Japan. 'Klemperer, Otmar Suitner, Horst Stein, Sawallisch, von Karajan…' I ask him about Karajan, famous for the perfection of his Berlin Philharmonic sound. 'To be honest, I have always found the earlier Karajan performances and recordings the best. I think when he was conducting different orchestras, moving around, learning from different traditions and influences, he achieved some wonderful results. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for example, he was dealing with some of the older players who had vast experience of the repertoire and who could transfer their own past influences to him. Later, when he worked nearly all the time with the Berlin Philharmonic, he imposed his own rather monumental sound on them and that became a tradition in itself. I think the essential difference between those two orchestras is that the Vienna Philharmonic work a lot with opera, with singers, and as a result they have a more flexible sound'. Ono does not say so, but I infer that the Vienna Philharmonic is the orchestra that he prefers, an orchestra whose sound is influenced by the voice.

How was his Glyndebourne debut (where he conducted 15 performances of Hansel and Gretel this summer)? 'It was a great experience. The London Philharmonic Orchestra were wonderful to work with and I think we achieved some good results. I had conducted them once before, when I was a last-minute replacement for an Emmanuel Krivine concert, and that seemed to work well. They say they will invite me again and we shall have to see about dates'. I mention that the 2009 Glyndebourne season is already fixed and Ono counters by saying that there are plans afoot for him at Aix-en-Provence – a short hop from Lyon – in the 2010 and 2011 summer seasons. But he would clearly like to repeat the Glyndebourne experience. What about the reaction of the critics to Humperdinck's fairy tale opera, most of whom disliked Laurent Pelly's (to my mind) rather imaginative production? Ono wrinkles his nose. 'The funny thing is that most of the German critics – the people you would expect to be quite severe about a German masterpiece – actually rather liked Pelly's work. They were much more enthusiastic than their English counterparts'.

Kazushi OnoAfter Friday's concert, Ono will be back in the UK to conduct Mahler's Seventh Symphony in Cardiff on 15 November. We have no time to go into his affinity for Mahler, a composer who in some ways wrote the final pages and coda to the great Central European orchestral tradition that Ono so much admires. We move to the soloists rehearsal room, where for the next hour he works with the soprano Claudia Barainsky and the mezzo Claudia Mahnke on the Pintscher – a dramatic cantata that derives from Pintscher's earlier piece of music theatre about Arthur Rimbaud, L'espace dernier. Ono switches effortlessly to German to coax his two soloists into getting precise word articulation for the French text they have to sing. It is clear to me (even if it had not been from our earlier conversation) how much he likes working with singers, and they with him. Even with piano accompaniment only, the Pintscher is clearly an enormous collage of sound which makes colossal demands in terms of precise pitching, note values and voice coloration on its soloists. We all emerge an hour later, pretty drained by the experience!

Kazushi Ono is clearly a conductor on a roll. Since he knows Dorny at Lyon, and shares his artistic vision, the results should be exciting – although there have long been mutterings in France about the 'unbalanced' repertoire that Dorny favours – the obscure and the avant-garde over the mainstream. But Ono has a good orchestra and an extremely good chorus to work with at the Opera de Lyon, and his performances there will be ones to watch. The sound he conjured from the LPO at Glyndebourne in the summer was one of my personal musical highlights, so I envy Lyon its new acquisition. But it is a fairly safe prediction that in the UK we shall be seeing more of maestro Ono in the next few years.

By Mike Reynolds

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