Opera + Classical Music Features

Andris Nelsons: “People are too shy to show their emotions. Music forces you to open your heart” – Interview

We caught up with the exciting Latvian conductor, Andris Nelsons on the eve of his eagerly-anticipated Royal Opera debut. He discusses working on La bohème with veteran director John Copley and his future plans.

Talent, a smattering of luck, and steely determination lurk behind the easy going charm of Andris Nelsons, who recently rocketed into the position of hottest young conductor in town. Born into a musical family, he started with piano, then began learning the trumpet aged 12 after falling in love with a brass band tune. He ended up practicing six hours a day – “until my lip bled!” he tells me. His musical studies were further augmented by singing and conducting lessons. But it was all worthwhile – his sometimes painful dedication earned Nelsons a position playing trumpet in Latvia’s National Opera Orchestra at the age of just 18.

But he continued to study conducting, nursing a dream that began at the age of 5 when he was taken to see Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The normally voluble Nelsons struggles for words to describe how overwhelming he found the experience. “I just – loved it so much,” he says. Although his father prepared him beforehand by explaining the themes and stories using recordings, Nelsons was still stunned by the emotional impact of the real thing, and knew he wanted to be a part of it some day.

Then came a lucky break. After stepping in when a trumpeter from the visiting Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra fell sick, Nelsons met their conductor Mariss Jansons. Jansons became both teacher and a decisive influence on his young fellow Latvian. “He is just about music,” says Nelsons admiringly “which is not as simple as it seems – you can be distracted by so many things.” He remains inspired by his mentors open-mindedness and constant development even now, in his sixties, Jansons will re-examine scores he’s played many times before. And on a practical level, Nelsons gained invaluable insights into working methods, rehearsal organisation and most importantly, proper preparation. “The worst thing for an orchestra,” he says, “is a conductor who doesn’t know what he wants”.

“experience and tradition from the old masters”

His career progressed rapidly after meeting Jansons, and he became music director of Latvia’s National Opera in 2003, a position he relinquished in 2007. Still only 31, he is now principal conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with invitations to opera houses and orchestras across the globe. He recently debuted at the Berlin and Vienna State Operas and the Metropolitan Opera. Next year sees his first Bayreuth Festival assignment – a new production of Lohengrin, to be directed by Hans Neuenfels.

And then theres the reason why hes in London today his eagerly-awaited Covent Garden debut conducting five performances of Puccini’s La bohème starting on 19 December. John Copley’s venerable production was unveiled at the Royal Opera House in 1974 – a full four years before Andris Nelsons was born. Nelsons believes there are some operas that benefit from a contemporary approach, citing Wagners Ring cycle. “If you just illustrate it, that’s too naïve”. But with La bohème, he says, it’s difficult to make a modern production that respects the musical drama. Puccini after all took a long time to adjust both music and libretto, making it very specific, thinking at every moment where the action is going. Nelsons finds the Royal Operas very traditional approach beautiful and logistically well-organised.

And he’s enjoying working with the octogenarian but perennially sprightly Copley, who is back at Covent Garden to direct his production in person. Copley’s long years in the profession have gifted him with a mine of stories that he’s pleased to share with his younger colleagues. Nelsons is particularly excited that Copley once did bohème with one of his great conducting heroes, Carlos Kleiber. Kleiber remains an elusive figure who never gave an official interview, so Copley’s personal recollections and anecdotes are priceless. “That’s what we need as young artists, to take experience and tradition from the old masters”.

“Raise the temperature a bit higher, then the orchestra is living and taking part”

La bohème holds a special place in Nelsons’ heart. It was the first opera he conducted as music director in Riga. “Every evening was a special event,” he recalls. And on top of that he met his future fiancé, Latvian soprano Christine Opolais, who was playing Musetta. Nelsons acknowledges that not everyone likes Puccini. Perhaps, he speculates, some find his music too emotional or naive. But for Nelsons Puccini ranks alongside his other two favourites, Strauss and Wagner. “People are too shy to show their emotions. This music is forcing you to open your heart. We can become cold, but this warms us up. It’s perfectly organised and dramatically built up. He knows what to do in order to touch people. It is not just melody. He knows what to do to make people cry – that’s not so easy!”

For Nelsons, his task as an interpreter is simply defined. “We just need to add this fire, this life.” It’s part planning and part inspiration – he hopes every evening will be different. An avid CD collector, his favourite La bohème recordings are by Carlos Kleiber and the Royal Opera’s own Antonio Pappano. What they have in common for Nelsons is sensitivity and acutely judged rubato, a feeling that the orchestra is breathing with the singers. It’s what he aspires to himself. “The orchestra is not just accompanying. When it’s only an accompaniment, it supports the life of the stage but doesn’t live it. Raise the temperature a bit higher, then the orchestra is living and taking part. Then it’s so much more.”

As for what comes next in Nelsons’s meteoric career, he’s already booked to return to Covent Garden in future seasons, and will develop existing relationships with orchestras like the Concertegebouw and opera houses like Vienna and the Met. But his main focus will be the CBSO, who in less than two years have become like a family to him. He talks about big plans to raise the orchestra’s profile to include extensive international touring and festival appearances. Further down the line, he’s looking forward to a concert version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

But busy as he is, Nelsons recognises that if you fill your time totally with music, you can miss the life you should see in order to understand that music properly. If you don’t know struggle, you cannot understand how Beethoven struggled, he says, and if you don’t experience the power of nature, you can’t understand Mahler. Finding himself at a loose end in New York recently between Met performances, Nelsons occupied himself visiting parks and museums and walking the streets. It wasn’t easy; his instinct was to be with an orchestra. But sometimes, as he says, “You just have to force yourself to take that time.”

La bohème opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on Saturday 19 December.

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Andris Nelsons: “People are too shy to show their emotions. Music forces you to open your heart” – Interview