Despite enjoying a glittering conducting career across the Atlantic, Australian-born maestro Antony Walker is only now making his London debut with a revival of David Alden’s highly-acclaimed production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoorat ENO.
We caught up with him during rehearsals at the Coliseum and discussed what it was like working with David Alden and the specific challenges he faced working on Donizetti in English.
You’d never have guessed that Antony Walker had been in rehearsals all day at the Coli for ENO’s first revival of David Alden’s critically feted production of Lucia di Lammermoor, as he was a bundle of energy, highly animated and full of praise for the American director: “I’ve worked with his twin brother Christopher at Glimmerglass on L’Orfeo but his is the first time I’ve worked with David, and it’s really wonderful. I love his approach to this work, it’s actually very dark and setting Lucia in the Victorian era gives it a real underlying sense of violence. It’s really well thought through and David is extremely passionate about the music as well he can sing every bar and we’ve had some very good discussions as we have similar ideas about the thrust of the drama.”
I point out that most audiences expect a ‘stand and deliver’ approach to staging the bel canto works, whereas Alden makes exacting physical demands of his singers. As a conductor how does he help singers cope with the exceptionally difficult music and the demands of the staging? “Well David expects a lot from people physically and I expect a lot from people musically and vocally. Everybody in this production is really up for the challenge of that synthesis of a highly dramatic staging and being highly expressive vocally.” He goes on to add that it’s not only the bel canto repertoire that used to be perceived as being ‘dramatically static’ as until recently Handel’s operas were also tarred with the same brush, “but if you have a director that understands what the composer and librettist is trying to achieve dramatically, and bring that out and go even further, then these pieces are very relevant by modern theatrical standards.”
In many ways audiences at ENO are able to understand precisely what the composer and librettist intended given that the operas are performed in English, but as a conductor what, if any, allowances need to be made when a work is being sung in translation? “Yes, there are many. This translation by Amanda Holden has gone through quite a few re-writes, and it works really well but it took a while to get there, simply because the cadences in the English language and the cadences in the Italian language are sometimes not very compatible. And if you translate directly from the Italian into English, it doesn’t have the same resonance.” He goes on to point out that given the work’s Scottish setting, and that a British audience can relate to the Victorian era, performing it in English to a British audience makes a lot of sense. The staging mirrors the language and is something they can relate to. “Working with the singers, and the ENO have assembled a brilliant cast, there is a period of adjustment where you have to say ‘OK, we have to try and achieve an Italiante style through the English text.’”
But does performing in English alter his decisions over tempi etc? “It certainly affects articulation and also particularly the underlay and rhythmic setting of recitative. We have tried to maintain the integrity of Donizetti’s rhythms in the recitatives as much as possible but every now and then it’s not just possible so you have to make them as intelligible and true to the original as is humanly possible. The secret is to make it sound natural.” This is not always easy as he points out that in English there are more consonant clusters so as a conductor he needs to give singers more time to breathe so all the text comes out.
It is evident throughout our conversation that he is one of those rare breeds of conductor a singers’ conductor, who instinctively knows what singers require. This empathy and understanding is something that goes back to his early musical education in Australia. His father was a linguist and his mother a physical education teacher and ballroom dancer, and they both loved music so wanting to be a conductor seemed the logical career path for him to take as a conductor needs to combine physicality with the ability to process sounds. He started learning the piano at the age of eight “from a fantastic Hungarian lady who used to be the deputy director of the Liszt Academy in Budapest under Dohnanyi and Kodaly. It was she who first suggested that all the aspects of music I was interested in piano, singing and playing the cello would shape me into a conductor. And they did.”
Growing up in Sydney he was fortunate to attend Sydney Grammar School which had a fantastic music department, where the headmaster was Alastair Mackerras, Sir Charles Mackerras’ brother: “I’ve known Sir Charles for many years, and I was the first Sir Charles Mackerras’ music scholar at Sydney Grammar.” There was a vibrant musical scene at the school, with Walker singing the lead tenor roles in G&S productions, playing in the chamber orchestra and composing, and despite being told that he didn’t have the talent to be a conductor or a good enough voice to be a singer decided that after a year of studying the cello that conducting was the career path he wanted to follow.
He has worked with all the major choirs in Australia and was chorus master of WNO in the late nineties and cites that working in depth with choirs has been an inestimable advantage to honing his conducting skills.
And does he still sing? “Well when the tenor singing Radames took ill in the last act of a performance of Aida I was conducting I sang the role from the pit whilst conducting the opera.” Surely some record, but at least the ENO management know that should something similar happen in the run of Lucia performances at least there’s a reliable pair of lungs in the pit.
Antony Walker makes his ENO debut conducting the revival of David Alden’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO from 4 February.