Liberating The Music – Interview With Yuval Zorn (Bird of Night)

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to the young Israeli artist
Yuval Zorn about his approach to conducting and about his involvement in “Bird of Night”, which opens on 19 October at The Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre…

My meeting with Yuval Zorn took place at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a familiar spot for him since he spent two years there between 2002 and 2004 under its Young Artists programme. More recently he has made his debut with the New Israeli Opera conducting Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and he is now back in London for the world premiere of Dominique Le Gendre’s opera “Bird of Night”.

Talking to Yuval one soon becomes aware that he is a young man with a natural depth of thought, a facet that colours the way in which he approaches his work and guarantees that his career will be an interesting one.

Although here as a conductor, Yuval’s first involvement with music was as a pianist and, if he no longer places much stress on solo work, he would hope to continue to appear as an accompanist, a role that has already taken him to the Wigmore Hall. “I would always like to be able to do that, and it’s not something that I would like to neglect or to lose,” he tells me, “but conducting is my life.” Asked when his interest switched, he is able to be absolutely precise. “I was 18 or 19 and doing my military service in Israel. I went to a concert performance of “Tosca” and it was an absolutely fantastic experience. The way in which the piece was performed meant that I really saw the stage in my mind. It made me realise the fusion that exists, the extent to which the drama that illuminates the psychology of the characters comes totally from the music and from the conductor who brings that about. Storytelling of that intensity I hadn’t known before. It was seeing that that was possible that made me want to do it myself, because conducting opera is ultimately about telling a story in a very, very intense heightened way and to be able to do that is at once a great pleasure and a great privilege.”

Yuval’s parents are music-loving academics and from them he has inherited an interest not just in literature but in philosophy and psychology too. This range of concerns informs his music-making and explains why, despite enjoying symphonic music, that is not his preference: “When you do theatre it’s something that can actually relate to people’s lives in a direct way and I love that.”

As a conductor Yuval has been inspired by many established figures. However, if he has learnt from others the need to dig deeply, to actually copy them would not in his opinion work. “A big mistake would be to try to find the same route as theirs because it wouldn’t be authentically yours. You must follow your own path so that eventually you own it and that takes a lifetime, but in the doing of it you find the way that belongs to you and to nobody else and that’s a marvellous thing.”

But although you shouldn’t duplicate others you certainly benefit from working with them and Yuval has had the good fortune to assist at least three notable conductors in recent times. He offers a snapshot of each. There’s Daniel Harding with whom he worked in Paris on Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”. “Daniel is a genius with orchestral colour and the clarity he has in rehearsals when describing orchestral nuances to the musicians is amazing: it’s a combination of ear and intellect, and it’s a great art to be able to say such things very simply and concisely.” At Glyndebourne the opera was “Così fan tutte” and the conductor Iván Fischer. “To say he’s sharp intellectually would not be enough: he has antennas that pick up so much; he has extremely fresh and original ideas and not just about the music.” But even more central in Yuval’s career is Antonio Pappano. Significantly he was the conductor who affected young Yuval so strongly in that concert performance of “Tosca” and Yuval’s time at Covent Garden found him assisting Pappano on several productions. “With Pappano it’s the passion,” he says, and he goes on to pick out what it is about Pappano’s approach that has impressed him the most. Everyone is aware of Pappano’s dedication and of the intensely sympathetic rapport he has with singers but, while recognising all this, Yuval alights on another more unexpected facet: “He deeply experiences his characters showing an almost personal concern for Tosca or Marguerite or Katerina Ismailova or whoever it may be. I can’t really explain it, but it’s as though they were his friends. That degree of sincerity in his relationship with the piece is an extraordinary thing.”

Moving from the recent past to the present, we talk about what it means to be preparing a new work. “With any conducting you have to put yourself a few steps ahead, but with something like “Bird of Night” which has not been done previously, it’s double the amount of steps you need. You’re constantly having to think forward and to use your imagination because it’s territory that no one has ever explored before. There has been a great deal of collaboration with the director Irina Brown as well as with the composer Dominique Le Gendre and we’ve had many an insightful talk about the characters in the opera. For me it was very enlightening to hear Dominique on that because how she saw them was so exactly reflected in the construction of the music. Although I make my own suggestions and ask about anything that isn’t clear to me, ultimately it’s the composer’s vision that is there to be realised and the score must be respected. I can only contribute the best of my understanding in order to make it happen because ultimately music is what happens when it’s heard. We learn it from the page but then what’s written has to be liberated from the page.”

Finally, we discuss two aspects of “Bird of Night” itself, the first being the nature of the music. “Because it’s set in the Caribbean and is the work of a Caribbean composer people ask if it uses local elements and features all sorts of Caribbean rhythms. The answer to that is, of course, that it does, but it doesn’t present them self-consciously: they are never imposed. It has a language and a sound world that relate to the setting because that’s the environment of the characters. But these elements are never there as decoration: they exist at the heart of the music and represent the emotional truth of the characters on stage. From flutes to percussion the instrumental colouring contributes to this and Dominique is one of those composers who writes directly into the full score from the outset rather than settling the instrumentation later.”

In addition to commenting on the music’s style Yuval talks also about its character. “Dominique has a great sensitivity for vocal lines and uses both the voices and the instruments in their home territory. It may be good for modern music to be challenging on occasion but one sometimes feels the loss when there’s no sense as there is here of a love for melodic lines and for where the voice naturally lies.”

The other aspect, with which we conclude, moves away from the actual music to the question of what the audience can expect in dramatic terms and here Yuval refers directly to the young heroine at the centre of the piece, a 15-year-old who had earlier had dreams of flying. “The essential thing is that despite the specific setting it speaks to the human situation generally. It’s about somebody wanting to take off and the price they pay, and maybe the price that other people pay for that. Nevertheless, taking off is a very uplifting thing and, bearing in mind that almost everybody has had dreams of flying, audiences should recognise here something that resonates within them.”

  • Bird of Night opens on 19 October at 7 o’clock and continues on 21, 24, 25, 27 and 28, and with a performance on 22 October at 6 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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