WITHOUT EMOTIONS THERE IS NO MUSIC. The internationally acclaimed conductor Daniel Oren was born in Jaffa, Israel in 1955. He came to prominence in 1975 when he won first prize in the Herbert von Karajan International Competition for Conductors in Berlin. Since then he has conducted all over the world. This summer he is musical director of the Arena of Verona where he opens on Friday with La Traviata, sets and costumes by Franco Zeffirelli who has died on June 15th 2019, at the age of 96.
This will be a very special Traviata for you. What kind of relationship did you have with Maestro Zeffirelli?
Franco and I loved working together, he always told me I was his “pupil” as a conductor. Between us there was a strong friendship and a very particular artistic feeling: my way of making music and his manner to conceive it on the stage were always in total symbiosis.
What did you learn from Zeffirelli?
I learned many secrets of the Theatre from him. In each of his actions you could see a sensitiveness that was out of the ordinary and an immense culture.
What does his disappearance mean for the music world?
Maestro Zeffirelli leaves emptiness in the world of Art and in our hearts. I will always remember him through the music which bonded us from the beginning.
What are you doing in Verona this summer?
I am conducting 25 of the 50 performances at the insistence of the new director, Cecilia Gasdia, which will be very difficult. I open with Traviata, and then I am doing Carmen and Tosca.
And after that?
I am going to La Scala. La Scala really is a temple, which last year I entered for the first time with Aida. This year I will do Rigoletto, and then Fedora with Roberto Alagna in May/June 2020.
How come you were recently in London to conduct seven performances of Andrea Chénier with Roberto Alagna in the leading role?
After the music director of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano, conducted Andrea Chénier four years ago he said to me, “Next time you have to do it.” In September I return to Covent Garden for La Traviata.
To be a conductor is a great vocation. How did you come to it?
The very religious family of my mother was Hasidic and came from Poland. My mother told me she prayed before I was born to give her a son who will be a musician. When I was 13 she understood that I will not be a cellist or pianist and will be a conductor. They thought she was crazy, to begin at 13 years old was impossible, but she insisted. She found a conductor that accepted to teach me and she was always there during the lessons. One time the teacher said to me: ‘Calm down, you have too much fire,’ and she said: ‘I don’t give you the authorisation to change the ego of my son. And don’t forget it’s me who pays you!’
You were also taught by Leonard Bernstein?
I was learning singing, which is also crazy for a boy of 10 or 11 because generally you wait until the voice changes. My mother heard that there was an important solo in the Bernstein opera and when Lenny arrived, two days before the concert, she insisted he should listen to me, and he said: ‘OK. That’s the boy.’ My mother knew very well what she wanted, and I was with Bernstein from 13 to 18.
“A musician should communicate great emotions to the public. Without emotions there is no music.”
Where did you start your conducting career?
I won the von Karajan conducting competition in Berlin when I was 20. I was only 22 when I conducted Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Rome opera house with the biggest soprano of the time, Raina Kabaivanska. It was my first opera, and the big diva didn’t want to come for the first rehearsal. She came after two or three days, and from that moment it was a most important collaboration. We did all her repertoire together, all over the world, and Tosca with Luciano Pavarotti was a best seller.
What is your forte?
Verismo opera, Italian opera. One of the most important is Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. And Puccini and Verdi. When I started in Rome the opera and chorus were so thrilled that they nominated me musical director, and for three years I did all the Italian repertoire. It was a very big joy.
Did you love working in Italy?
It was not easy to leave and accept other propositions. I was so in love with Italian music, Italian opera, and the Italian public, who are unique because they are really experts on opera. They know every word and understand the voices. The reaction of the Italian public is not because you are famous, they judge you in the moment. To have success in Italy is a real success. You can be the biggest name, but in Italy, if they don’t like you, you are finished.
And then what did you do?
I went to Paris, and the Royal Opera House, and Tel Aviv, where I have been music director for many years, and then the Metropolitan and San Francisco.
Which is the best orchestra?
Every orchestra has its strengths and weaknesses. The great conductor makes them always sound like they were the best in the world.
“I am on my mother’s mission as an ambassador of music from Jerusalem.”
Do you also conduct concerts?
Yes, classic or romantic. The first concert after I won the van Karajan was on a Friday evening and I am an orthodox Jew. I went to the Rabbi in Berlin and I was shocked when he said it was OK. “You can conduct because you are not working and the others are working!” I am on my mother’s mission as an ambassador of music from Jerusalem, and you have to make compromises. For instance, I can’t insist on conducting all over the world wearing the kippah.
Is wearing the kippah a problem in European countries?
It is no problem in Italy, but in most European countries I don’t wear a kippah. In some places I saw a bad reaction and I could not do music, because to do music they need to appreciate and love you.
Is our classical music much appreciated in the Far East?
The Chinese are at a good level. In Japan they are very serious and very good musicians, but from the moment they are born they are educated to hide their emotions, which is not good for our music. When I tried to explain this to a singer in Japan she was crying and said: “I know you are right, but we cannot.”
Are singers the most important in an opera?
It’s wrong for the public to judge the singers more than the conductor and orchestra. The music begins from the podium.
What is your relationship with singers?
I always had a great relation with the singers, but it also depends.
I have a very good relation if they are good, and if they are not good I hate them.
Has this happened?
Yes, at the beginning when I conducted in Italy, but in great theatres like Covent Garden and Paris and the Metropolitan they have the best casts in the world. Everything should be perfect, not just the big rose. Toscanini didn’t begin with Otello. It begins with a small rose, and when the small rose sings it has the same importance as the big rose.
Franco Zeffirelli and Daniel Oren
“It’s wrong for the public to judge the singers more than the conductor and orchestra. The music begins from the podium.”
How was working with Luciano Pavarotti?
He is one of the most incredible tenors. He is the voice of the tenor, with the high notes, and the last one to reach them naturally. Fortunately we have all the CDs of Luciano, so we can still enjoy his musicality and technique.
And Plácido Domingo?
Domingo is the great artist, actor, and interpreter; and the soprano Mirella Freni is also a great artist.
How do you feel when you conduct Freni?
You feel that you are thrilled, and so enthusiastic that you can realise finally the opera at the highest level.
Are there fewer stars now?
These days there are two: Anna Netrebko the big diva, and Jonas Kaufmann the big tenor. I will work with Netrebko in a year and a half when she sings Nabucco with me.
Is your life scheduled far in advance?
A soprano who sings with me is scheduled for at least four years. She doesn’t have one day free, and neither do I.
Is conducting still a passion for you?
Yes. It’s a miracle. It’s in me. I can’t do different. It’s impossible. Every day is like the first day.
What is the most important quality in a conductor?
A musician should communicate great emotions to the public. Without emotions there is no music. The interpretation is to give people a frisson, and as a conductor you have to interpret with your arms. It’s not enough to feel it. You have to do it with your arms, and communicate through your arms to the orchestra.
This is how you keep the orchestra together?
Yes, and in opera it’s more complicated: the singers, the chorus, the distance. Sometimes the voice is coming in late, and sometimes the singers don’t want to follow the movement of the conductor, they can be so arrogant and diva.
What would you like to do that you have not yet done?
Wagner. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to, like many Israelis. But now I would like to, because he is a great musician.
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