The composer’s ambassador

A portrait of Susanna Mälkki

By Leyli Daryoush 07 February 2019

© Simon Fowler

The composer’s ambassador

Susanna Mälkki is at the Paris Opera to conduct Rusalka. Leyli Dayroush spoke with her and offers us a portrait of her career and her vision of her profession. In association with the magazine Alternatives théâtrales.

Music above and beyond everything else?

“As a child, I began my musical studies with the violin. That instrument was the choice of my parents but it really didn’t suit me. Around the age of nine, I discovered the cello at a school concert. In Finland at the time, in order to introduce children to music, instruments were made available to them at school, so one day, I went home with a cello...

As an adolescent, I was interested by many things. I wanted to study languages and the arts… My father was a scientist ans my mother taught art at school. Both of them were music lovers and had passed on their taste for music to their children. Of course, I loved music, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to commit myself to it professionally. I had a teacher who encouraged me, but it wasn’t obvious to me right away. Ultimately, my intractable love for music won the day. It was the only possible choice for me.

I prepared myself to become a conductor.

In the Finnish musical curriculum, orchestra is an integral part of the school syllabus. And during those years of study, I became interested in the work of conducting I had no difficulty identifying myself as a woman in that role but I knew that attitudinal problems would arise if I committed to that path.

That awareness of the difficulties wasn’t only linked to the fact I was a woman—it’s one of the most difficult professions there is. In truth, before launching myself along that career path and feeling the critical glare of others, I wanted to make sure that I myself wanted to do it.

In other words, I wanted to feel ready professionally, which above all meant completing my studies as a cellist and playing chamber music. As regards orchestral direction, experience is essential as is refining your ear by playing an instrument. And I needed that skill all the more since I was a woman and the requirement level would be higher. But artistic motivation carried me through.

My career isn’t only about contemporary music.

Even before I studied to be conductor at the Sibelius Academy, I had a strong affinity for contemporary works. I felt a different relationship with the score: more direct, more spontaneous, and in terms of performance, I was able to take more risks. It is a different approach to the classical repertoire where the conventions are numerous and performance traditions are often restrictive—at least while you are studying, unfortunately.

In terms of orchestral direction, I think that the success of the Finnish school is a result of that specificity: the training enables you to acquire all the tools necessary for the profession, but it’s also a field of study in which responsibility for the way a work is interpreted is left entirely to the conductor. An analysis of the causes and consequences obviously has its place, as do the stylistic questions, but it’s for the conductor to come up with the initial and specific idea for the work’s interpretation. After all, it’s the reason we’re here, isn’t it?

In contemporary music, the job of conducting often calls for very different skills and requirements. It’s why there are so many of us in the milieu. Since resistance to women conductors was still an issue twenty years ago, I had a lot of great opportunities with that repertoire.

My career has always embraced all repertoires but, until recently, my work was less associated with the classical repertoire. That false image is perhaps linked to marketing and the habit of seeing a male conductor.

At the opera, I’m the composer’s ambassador.

We often talk about confrontations between the conductor and the director. Personally, I have never experienced that at the opera. I think that in the absence of confrontation, there are often power struggles. Especially when the work of the one encroaches on that of the other and the staging, for example, prevents the music from working.

However, the presence of a conductor at the very beginning of rehearsals is effective at avoiding tensions because the music is a constant, and the director becomes acclimated to the conductor’s interpretation of the music earlier, as things advance. Conversely, the late arrival of a conductor is problematic because the latter runs the risk of imposing certain demands on a production in its final stages.

I appreciate the fact that there are visionary directors with a theatrical approach to opera. In those cases, I see myself as the composer’s ambassador: if the musical expression wanted by the composer does not correspond to—or even runs contrary to what's happening on stage, it is your duty to discuss it with the director and envisage a solution that allows the two mediums to express themselves. To retain the very spirit of the work, I can find a musical solution which preserves the director’s initial idea. And if the director requires something difficult from the singers, I need to be there to defend the singer or the director depending on the situation!

I respect the work of the director. It’s not for me to say whether I like his or her vision or not, especially since good directors never offer a vision without a strong supporting idea. I only ensure that the different aspects of the production fully coexist, even if the concept behind the staging is not to my taste or if I find the costumes a little strange. It’s truly not for me to judge: that area is the territory of the other.

I believe in theatrical experimentation at the opera.

I believe in opera as an art form but for the genre to succeed all its elements need to be in harmony and that is why I defend experimentation in the staging. In any event, we must leave a place for a new way of seeing things.

But again, we mustn’t think of staging as a gratuitous provocation, but rather a “staged thought". Whether it is done in good taste or bad, it all depends on the definition given to taste, since the aim is to help people rediscover certain things. I’m not saying that all modern productions are extraordinary, but the old ones are not necessarily references either. The sets are a facade or a window into the production—at best, the key to the dialogue between artistic mediums—but the real content of a scenic vision is the direction of the actors, namely, the complexity of the human relationships and the interaction between the characters. We have to keep looking again and again, otherwise we limit ourselves to an interpretation that is devoid of all meaning.

Rusalka at the Paris Opera

The Paris Opera is a really beautiful opera house. Each time I come here, I have a wonderful artistic experience, with some exceptional singers, an incredibly good orchestra, and great directors like Krzysztof Warlikowski, Guy Cassiers or Robert Carsen. In Dvořák’s Rusalka which I’m conducting at the moment, I’m really lucky to have such a stellar cast! The singers are all of the highest calibre and I go to the rehearsals each morning with a big smile on my face!
It’s the first time I’ve conducted Rusalka and I adore the work. It’s magical dimension made me very pensive during rehearsals: entering that magical bubble is a wonderful thing, but there’s also a profound message about love and forgiveness. Although I’m extremely involved in contemporary music, I’m aware of how much this magical, dreamlike world also enriches the soul; beauty makes us cry and we need to protect that enchanting experience in our world at all costs.”

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