Since becoming a member of the Royal Opera House’s Young Artists scheme in September 2004, Stirling-born conductor Rory Macdonald has assisted leading conductors Antonio Pappano and Mark Elder in various important productions, led performances of Philip Glass’ Orphe in the Linbury Studio Theatre, and even conducted a performance of The Barber of Seville on the main stage.
Now at the final curtain of his time at the House, he’s conducting the other Young Artists in their end-of-year concert of staged popular operatic extracts. We caught up with him at the end of a busy day of rehearsals for the concert, which had clearly left him very tired.
And he seems not a little wistful to be leaving after an intense apprenticeship. “I’ve had an amazing time, a fantastic two years. I’ve done everything a bit of stage work, I’ve been a rptiteur, I’ve done some assisting, a bit of conducting: you name it. So I feel it’s given me a real grounding in the opera world and how that all works. I’m just looking forward to going out into the big wide world!”
He’s evidently looking forward to the concert on Sunday, which includes some of opera’s most loved extracts by Mozart, Strauss and Gounod – “it’s a lovely programme, lots of quite popular excerpts some juicy bleeding chunks’ though he didn’t choose the music personally. ‘It was really chosen by the directors of the programme, to find pieces that are suited to the singers. Though I must say that when we heard a couple of singers from the programme singing a duet from Arabella at the start of the year, we thought it would be fun to have a crack at the trio from the end of Rosenkavalier. So that was something we were all excited about doing.”
The joy of the Artists’ end-of-year recital is the fact that it brings them all together in a performance that really seems their own. What’s the dynamic like between them are they all friends? “Yeah it’s interesting because I’ve known about half the singers for two years now, we started out together at the start of last season. So they feel like old friends. Then I know the new intake well too, though I haven’t worked on shows with all of them.
“But there’s always a really nice feeling of teamwork at the end of the year because it’s the only chance when everyone gets to come together. And we’ve got also Harry Fehr, the Young Director on the programme, who’s doing a brilliant job he’s a talented chap. So it’s been quite fun, because we don’t usually get to do that.”
“There’s always a really nice feeling of teamwork at the end of the year because it’s the only chance when everyone gets to come together…”
– On the Jette Parker Young Artists’s summer concert.
While not keen to single out any of his colleagues, Macdonald nevertheless assures me that “there are definitely stars in the making there. There are people in the programme who I think will go very far indeed.”
From the outside, I suggest that it’s not perhaps entirely clear what being a Jette Parker Young Artist entails, so he tells me, “It has given me the confidence to work with singers. It’s been important working with Tony Pappano and Mark Elder, who are both people who come from opera house roots and they know how to coach singers. And they know how to make music come alive and use the language to create a whole unlike some conductors who are just used to conducting symphonies all the time that’s a very different discipline. I’d done a bit of opera before I came here, but this is where it solidified for me – what the job entails, how one should do it what to do and what to avoid. It’s been great fun.”
Working for so long in the House, Macdonald must have a personal perception of what it’s like as an organisation and so it turns out. “For me it’s a buzzing hive of activity. Sometimes it feels like an ants’ nest because you’ve got literally 900-odd people working here if you include the ballet and the caterers. You also get to know a lot of people from a lot of different departments I have some friends in the development department and all kinds of parts of the opera house, and we go to the pub on Friday nights across the road. So you can get to know a lot of people and it’s a very friendly place to work. At the same time, if you want to be a little bit anonymous sometimes, which happens if a rehearsal has gone badly for instance, it doesn’t feel insular because there is the stream of new people coming in and out. There’s always a new influx of something different.”
“For me it’s a buzzing hive of activity. Sometimes it feels like an ants’ nest because you’ve got literally 900-odd people working here…”
– On the Royal Opera House.
Since joining the programme, Macdonald has assisted productions of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Berg, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini but is this representative of his tastes? ‘Well the one thing that I haven’t done here though I’ve had a bit of everything except Mozart – is Jancek. I’m a bit sad about that because he’s one of my all-time favourite opera composers. They’re doing Kta Kabanov next season, but I won’t be here for that, sadly. Other than that it’s been a good grounding’.
And which conductors has he worked with here that have made a difference? “Pappano’s made a huge impression on me, just in terms of his work in the rehearsal room and how he engages in the rehearsals. A lot of conductors will just sit back and just let the director get on with it, but he’s very hands on and he’s interested in making it a real piece of music theatre with all the elements coming together.
“I’ve learnt a huge amount also from Mark Elder he’s done some wonderful work with the orchestra, he’s very aware of the different styles. He’s also in love with the Italian repertoire, which is quite rare for an English musician, to want to make it work properly. I enjoyed working with Maurizio Bernini on Traviata as well, which was my first time working on any Verdi, so it was a steep learning curve but I thought he was fantastic at that piece.”
When he arrived at Covent Garden, Macdonald already had various high-profile experiences under his belt, most especially an apprenticeship with Ivn Fischer at the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “It was very different from what I’ve been doing for the last two years. Basically, it involved living in Budapest for two years, which was quite a daunting thing to do, coming out of university to do that, but I’m very glad I did, I think it toughened me up a bit to be honest. He’s a very inspiring, spontaneous musician. He’s very good at getting special colours from the orchestra, characterising things and shaping the music. He’s also very good at the psychological aspect, making the musicians gel, and team building. He started the orchestra from scratch. It was very exciting for me to travel around Europe with them to various halls. He also gave me my first taste of the opera world when he was working with the Lyon opera.”
Before his conducting training, Macdonald completed a degree at Cambridge, graduating with First Class Honours does this academic grounding help his understanding of the music he conducts? “Yes it does. The great thing about Cambridge is that it’s easy to perform completely separately from your coursework you can just call up friends and arrange a concert and put up the music stands yourself and design the poster (actually that was the most fun part really!). That was all very exciting and a good education. And I think that having keyboard skills and harmony and counterpoint is very useful to me too.”
“Basically, it involved living in Budapest for two years, which was quite a daunting thing to do, coming out of university to do that, but I’m very glad I did, I think it toughened me up a bit to be honest!”
– On training with the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
Has conducting always been a burning ambition? “No, I used to play the violin, and I was in the National Youth Orchestra for several years. We used to work under really top people like Colin Davis and Ivn Fischer (that was where I met him actually) and there was Rostropovich and Roger Norrington all kinds of big names. It was very inspiring for a 15 year old to sit in this orchestra with 20 first violins and 10 double basses and have all that sound coming at you.
“But as much as I enjoyed playing, I felt I wanted to have a go at shaping the music, which was not until I went to university. It’s funny, when you’re a student you don’t realise fully the nature of what it is to be a professional conductor, it’s a different job. It’s a different thing to have your friends in front of you people tend to be more accommodating of mistakes.”
Macdonald is about to go on to be Assistant Conductor of the Hall Orchestra in Manchester, where he’s to conduct various works in the 2006-7 season. ‘There’s quite a lot of concerts out of town and things like that. I’m doing the Scottish Symphony [by Mendelssohn] a bit cheesy maybe! and Pictures at an Exhibition. Quite a lot of big pieces.
“I used to play lots of symphonies, and I’ve been in the opera world now for a few years, which has been great, it’s what I feel closest to at the moment. But I’d like to go back and work a bit with an orchestra. It’s something I haven’t done much of. When I was in Budapest, I’d often take rehearsals, but not much in the way of concerts. So this is quite a new thing for me to be doing quite a few concerts of just standard repertoire.”
“And they’re a very nice orchestra very young and very friendly, and very happy with Mark Elder. They do some really interesting stuff in Manchester, some great programmes. And they have a lovely concert hall up there.
“The other thing about the Hall is the Youth Orchestra, which was only formed about three years ago, so it’s very new. They’re a lovely bunch of kids, sort of secondary school age. We have a course starting on Monday in Manchester, the day after the concert.”
“They’re a very nice orchestra very young and very friendly, and very happy with Mark Elder. They do some really interesting stuff in Manchester, some great programmes.”
– On the Hall Orchestra.
How does this Young Artist see the role of young people in the continuance of opera? “I think it’s complicated. There are certain operas that are incredibly complex works of art that not everyone would be able to fully appreciate immediately. I would think twice before taking a friend of mine, even someone in their early twenties, to Tristan as their first opera although it’s quite possible that they might love it and find it overwhelming if it was the right production and singers!
“But to me going to opera is a bit like going to the cinema it has a visual element, it has the storytelling, it touches people’s emotions. I don’t think there’s any reason why that should be restricted to any particular age group or category of person. In short, young people should definitely go to the opera, but they should be careful about what they go to first!
“I’m optimistic about the future of opera. The theatre in London’s always packed; there’s always an audience for Covent Garden. But what happens to opera in the regions is a difficult question, because music education has gone down the tubes and it’s quite hard to expect people to be able immediately to understand what’s going on in an opera because it can be so removed from the sort of music that they are normally used to hearing. I would still think that because there’s a real spectacle and a story and characters and words, compared to classical music, there’s a lot to appreciate even if you aren’t going to be blasting Beethoven symphonies out when you go home!”
“To me going to opera is a bit like going to the cinema it has a visual element, it has the storytelling, it touches people’s emotions.”
– On opera.
As a young conductor, Macdonald cites Hans Knappertsbusch’s Bayreuth Wagner recordings of the 1950s, Karajan’s Strauss opera recordings and Abbado’s breadth of repertoire and integrity as key influences. Although he hasn’t yet set his sights on the top jobs in the industry, he says that, “In the near future, I’d like to gradually build up my opera repertoire and do new pieces gradually nice pieces! And I’d like to keep my hand in doing some symphony orchestra concerts, some interesting repertoire and programmes just do as good a job as I can. It’s hard when you’re quite young to do a balancing act about how much you push to get from an orchestra, and how much you take in. It’s always a difficult balance to strike, and I also have to work at my people skills and try and get the best from situations. And try and stay normal and sane, which is hard as a conductor!”
Although he’s leaving the Young Artists programme, London audiences will be able to see Macdonald in action next year at the Royal Opera House when he returns to conduct Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave from 23 April to 5 May 2007. ‘It’s a new chamber orchestration by David Matthews which I don’t think he’s finished yet, so I’m not entirely clear about the orchestration I think it’s for about 14 or 15 players. It’s going to be directed by Tim Hopkins, who I’m looking forward to working with. It’s a problematic piece, because it was originally written for TV, so it’ll be interesting to see how it transfers. Dramatically, it’s quite hard, but it’s got some wonderful music in it, because it’s late Britten. The interludes are particularly beautiful and quite special.
“We’ve got a fantastic cast the star is a young baritone from South Africa who’s joining the Young Artists programme from September, called Jacques Imbrailo. It’s going to be a real mix of young singers and also some older, more experienced singers. We’ve got Vivian Tierney, for instance, and Richard Berkeley-Steele, who played Siegfried at ENO. I’m looking forward to it!”
The Jette Parker Young Artists 5th Anniversary Summer Concert takes place on Sunday 23 July at 7pm, with tickets from 2 to 28. The programme includes excerpts from Faust, La Favorite, L’elisir d’amore, Idomeneo, The Bartered Bride, Don Giovanni and Der Rosenkavalier.