An Interview with John Nelson

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege to talk opera with conductor John Nelson (JN), who led literally a small village of artists in the new Erato recording of Hector Berlioz’s massive Les Troyens. From the chilly north, OM chatted with Maestro Nelson in probably much more comfortable Florida by telephone. Since OM has fleeting fingers on the keyboard, the following is actually pretty close to verbatim.

John Nelson conducts  Les Troyens

John Nelson conducts Les Troyens

OM: Thank you for agreeing to this interview!

JN: You’re welcome!

OM: You’ve had a long standing love affair with Les Troyens, and you’ve now fulfilled a dream with this wonderful new recording. Tell us about your path to this point.

JN: Yes indeed! Like most deep loves, I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me. First let me say for starters that Les Troyens is a marvelous work, for me it’s the pinnacle of 19th century French opera. Sadly, it was neglected for decades, probably because of its complexity, its large cast and orchestra, its length, all of which put substantial obstacles in the way of performing it…or it could have been the irascible old Berlioz himself, who was misunderstood and had enemies in high places. But the more I studied the score the more fascinated I became with the music. It is incredible music! Though there had been truncated performances here and there after the war, Boston, San Francisco, Covent Garden in London, the first complete recording in 1969 by Sir Colin Davis introduced the opera to the wider modern world.

OM: I remember many evenings back then listening to it over and over again. Apart from reading about it, all I’d known from it was the Royal Hunt and Storm interlude.

JN: Right, as was the case for most of us. I began preparing the score and subsequently made my Carnegie Hall debut in 1972 conducting the complete opera in concert. This led to my appointment as an assistant in the musical and choral preparation for the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere production of Les Troyens in October of 1973 under the Met’s first appointed Music Director, Rafael Kubelík. He made his Met debut conducting its opening night.

OM: I saw that production in ’73…Drove all the way from Delaware to be there! I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing the score live in the house…but also the cast, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig, Shirley Verrett, and of course Kubelík. It was eye and ear opening!

JN: It was certainly a big event at the Met.

OM: But then you took over for Kubelík at the eleventh hour for two performances soon after the opening.

JN: Yes, with not much more than a day’s notice. But I had prepared and conducted it at Carnegie, Kubelík and I had worked on the preparation together for a whole year before, and as an assistant I had rehearsed the chorus and soloists at length, so it was an honor to be at the helm, not in any way stressful.

OM: What was your experience preparing the score with Kubelík?

JN: The man was a genius, insightful, knowledgeable, perceptive, passionate. I learned so much about the score…you know, some years later I heard a broadcast of my Carnegie Hall Troyens, which WNYC had taped. I was shocked, even embarrassed! I mean, it was well received by the critics at the time, but they didn’t know the piece, very few knew it, apart from the recording, and they, like everyone else apparently, were overwhelmed by the sheer experience of it all. Frankly I’m so glad now I didn’t push to record it in the studio, tempting as it may have been back then.

By my studying with Kubelík, my relationship with the piece matured. It still grows each time we, I and Les Troyens, get together in the opera house. The color of the score, and therefore the individuality of the subsections, the pace, it’s all very natural, marvelous…it requires a long time to get it right. Well, I mean, all of the great compositions take a long time to get right. But because Troyens is often so big, one senses others have a tendency to think the big numbers will just play themselves, so they see the task at hand is to go from one big moment to the next, which, unfortunately, shortcuts the process of working through each section’s place in context of the whole. If it’s properly paced with exceptionally good singers, it’s all there, perfectly set out.

OM: It is a wonderful recording, John. I’m struck by two things immediately: the singers, fine as they are, seem remarkably young, but also expressive and, second, the orchestral texture is rich but not dense.

Erato's new CD release of  Les Troyens  

Erato's new CD release of Les Troyens 

JN: Thank you! Yes, I too feel the casting is brilliant. Alain Lanceron…

OM: Ah! Alain Lanceron! OperaMetro spoke with him a little more than a month ago on the Warner Classics release of the Remastered Live Recordings of Maria Callas!

JN: Yes, well, he knows singers like no one else in the business! And above all, because of his passion for this opera, he wanted it sung by the very best French singers available. Other recordings Les Troyens do not have near the same proportion of French singers. But I was able to lobby for the three principals: Joyce DiDonato as Dido, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Cassandre, and Michael Spyres as Énée.

Joyce DiDonato is Dido in new Erato recording of  Les Troyens

Joyce DiDonato is Dido in new Erato recording of Les Troyens

OM: They are remarkable, as I say, young sounding, fresh. Joyce DiDonato, whom I adore, is an obvious choice, but I confess I’ve not heard of the other two.

JN: All three were doing their roles for the first time, which perhaps is a good thing because we didn’t spend any time on unpacking the baggage from previous performances. We spent three intense weeks together, lots of rehearsals, several per day, but not one moment was wasted. I, they, and the rest of the cast, everyone became a part of a remarkable situation.

And you mentioned the orchestral texture: one of the joys of doing this recording was working with the excellent Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg. I’ve worked with other orchestras on this score, spending a lot of time, a struggle, actually, to get the right sound. But with this group everything flowed so naturally. I didn’t have to talk to them about style because it is in their blood.

OM: The proof is in the recording, obviously.

JN: Some reviews are positive, superlative! I was interested that Norman Lebrecht, a rather tough critic, gave it a rave review!

OM: It deserves it. On another note, you end with the “traditional” ending, the Trojan music as Dido expires on her pyre. But John Eliot Gardiner ends his Théâtre du Châtelet 2003 production of Les Troyens (with Susan Graham, Anna Caterina Antonacci, and Gregory Kunde)* with an extended finale. Is Les Troyans like Verdi’s Don Carlos, meaning: are there other alternate versions available or waiting to be resurrected and performed?

JN: Yes and no, but mostly no. There is a small section in an earlier scene which Berlioz did not orchestrate, and therefore it was not included in the final score. Someone scored it and performed it once maybe. The extended final scene you talk about had not been used before, but with good reason: it deflates the impact of Dido’s death and finally we get tired of what's added. The whole opera is about the Trojans and their fated journey to Italy. We retain the traditional ending.

As to that, though, his Benvenuto Cellini exists in a few versions, each quite different. But not so with Les Troyens. And Cellini, the title role, lies very high. Difficult to cast.

OM: The newcomer to Berlioz’s operas should start with Les Troyens, but where to next?

JN: Beatrice and Benedict is a jewel, full of charm and grace, not a drop of tragedy in it. Sadly it’s underperformed these days. I’d also recommend that fans read the Memoirs of Hector Berlioz.** Fascinating man, fascinating music.

OM: Yes, fascinating. I find myself thinking after I've listened to Symphonie Fantastique that it must have been composed in the 1860s, not 1830. Okay, so “record the perfect Les Troyens” is now checked off on your list of things to do really well. What then lies ahead for you, John?

JN: Well, I kind of made a commitment not do any new productions of pieces I don’t know yet. This means I’ll concentrate on what I know well, revisit the score, rethink it, and do it better. I’d love to do Debussy, more Verdi, more Massenet, maybe these are in my playbook down the line. But I’m finding I really have a difficult time in the opera world these days. The stage directors, the management, and consequently even some of the artists have too much influence. And sometimes bad ideas: I once did a Les Troyans in which Dido was more or less in the guise of Angela Merkel! Absurd! It is the conductor who holds the whole thing together. But I adore doing opera in concert and recording. Unfortunately these don’t happen very much.

OM: Looking back at my notes, because I keep notes of these things, I see that you conducted the Met’s new production of Janacek’s Jenůfa in fall of 1974.

JN: Ah yes, Jenůfa.

OM: I was at the opening performance of Jenůfa, again up from Delaware. I’ve always been a fan of Czech music, Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček, Martinů, so I was very eager to see it on stage, coming well prepared from an old Supraphon recording.

JN: It was a bit of luck for me, but unfortunately, as it turned out, not so for Maestro Kubelík. He was eager to revive it here, but ultimately assigned Jenůfa to me just before he left, based on the quality of our relationship preparing Troyens.

OM: He left rather abruptly, yes? At the Met only more or less a year?

JN: Yes, but apparently there were power struggles behind the scenes. He mentioned Erich Leinsdorf.

OM: Hmmm. Well, Leinsdorf had conducted the new Schneider-Siemssen production of Tristan und Isolde in 1971 with Birgit Nilsson and Jess Thomas, then conducted a revival of Die Walküre and the new Siegfried, both with Nilsson in 1972, and he had the Tristans with Jon Vickers in the winter of '74.*** But might Leinsdorf have been more than a little miffed that Kubelík assigned the new Götterdämmerung to himself in that spring of ’74? As to that, it struck me as odd at the time that the first complete Ring cycle with the Schneider-Siemssen sets (based, you’ll remember, on the Salzburg Easter Festival production with Herbert von Karajan) in spring of 1975 was conducted by Sixten Ehrling (?).

JN: Don’t know. Still, his work with me on Jenůfa was professional and untroubled. We spent hours and hours dissecting the score, getting those intricate rhythms and orchestral balance just right. Kubelík wanted to do it in Czech, of course, but the Met probably could not have casted it with familiar big draw singers like Jon Vickers if it were not done in English. And there were no back seat subtitles then.

OM: Right. One of my several vivid memories of that opening night of Jenůfa was when, before the house lights dimmed, an elderly woman stepped into one of the side boxes and many in the audience turned, stood and applauded. She bowed gracefully. An older gentleman to my right, probably younger than we are now, John, said audibly “That’s Maria Jeritza!” I knew the name, of course. Later I found out that she was born in 1887 in Brno, Janáček’s home town, she probably met him, maybe even performed for him. She was the Met’s superstar after Geraldine Farrar retired. In addition to all of the other great things she did here, she was the first Jenůfa at the Met in 1924 (sung in German). Maybe the older gentleman had been at one of those performances as a young man…

JN: I hadn’t entered the pit yet, so, unfortunately I missed this.

OM: It was a moment, for sure. The other time I heard you conduct at the Met was in 1999 with the revival of Handel’s Giulio Cesare with Jennifer Larmore, David Daniels, Stephanie Blythe, and others. I remember thinking then, wow! Handel has really arrived! Well, best wishes to you, John Nelson and congratulations on a fine Les Troyans. Been a pleasure chatting with you.

JN: My pleasure. Thank you.

Footnotes: Among other things, John Nelson made an early splash conducting Carmen at NYCO; after his 11th hour Met debut with Les Troyans in 1973, detailed above, he was assigned Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci in October of 1974, then taking on Jenůfa in November and Il Barbiere di Siviglia in fall of 1975. Nelson was a Music Director at Caramoor Music Festival from 1983 to 1989 and also conducted P.D.Q Bach performances here and there as well as the Philharmonia in Greenwich, CT

*John Eliot Gardiner’s Les Troyens is video recorded by the BBC, released on three Opus Arte DVDs.

** My edition of the Memoirs is "a Dover edition designed for years of use! It is an unaltered, unabridged replication of Ernest Newman's drastically revised, annotated edition (1932). Paperbound edition is 1966. Not false advertising, this: mine still hasn't fallen apart.

*** The evening of January 30, 1974 was the only time Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson sang Tristan und Isolde together at the Met. Talk about an electric evening!!! I'm told there is an underground copy of this performance....and one of the ushers maintained that the two even offered to do a second performance on a Sunday, just to please their fans.