On a Journey to the Unfamiliar: Ian Page and Artaxerxes [The Royal Opera, 30 October-14 November 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to conductor Ian Page as he prepares to bring Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes back home to Covent Garden…

Ian Page

When Ian Page’s parents moved from Manchester to the Watford area they were unknowingly taking the first step that would eventually lead to their young son becoming a chorister in the Westminster Abbey Choir School, thus establishing a link with music which would become central to his life. It was while he was at school and aged twelve that an exchange took place between him and one of the teachers which he still remembers vividly. “In front of some of the other kids the teacher said ‘Ian wants to be a concert pianist when he grows up – don’t you, Ian?’ And, as though it were completely obvious, I just turned round and said: ‘No. I want to be a conductor’. But then in my teens I rather rebelled against it and instead got into sport and other things.”

Nevertheless English and music became the twin passions in Ian’s life. “Academically I found myself pulled more towards literature because I felt that the proper response to a musical score was to perform it whereas writing about writing was a more natural mode of expressing one’s reactions. I think too that I had the unfounded belief that to take up music made you like one of those kids in Fame who found that for every person that succeeded nine were going to fail. So at York I took an English degree. Even so, on leaving I went to the Royal Academy of Music and that was because in my last year I had come to realise that if I wanted to be creative music was the thing for me. But it was only at the Academy that my direction became clear. First, I found that my interest in being a pianist, which until then had remained a possibility, had declined. Although I was very interested in accompanying singers and playing chamber music, I recognised the sacrifice and loneliness involved in being a soloist. Secondly, I challenged the head of the Opera Department regarding a claim in their brochure offering a course for répétiteurs of which I could see no sign whatever. I was told that they would provide it if I could find four others who would also be interested, and that I did. The first person they brought in for this was Covent Garden’s Head of Music, David Syrus, and I immediately saw in him a musician I could really admire. It was the impetus that he gave me that got me into opera and, of course, I quickly came to realise that, having done my degree in English, it was the perfect fusion. In fact I had become alarmed at the Academy by how many musicians approach things from a predominantly technical viewpoint. My approach, influenced by those three years studying English literature, was always to ask such questions as ‘What is the composer trying to say? What is the emotional message behind the notes?’ And for me that is just as applicable when approaching a symphony as it is for an opera.”

Ian Page

Although Ian would love to do more orchestral repertoire, he does favour the less frenetic world of the opera house where you can just immerse yourself in one piece for perhaps as long as two months. But when it comes to being inspired by conductors he has encountered either as a listener or as an associate there is no need to distinguish between the stage and the concert hall. “In my teens I would often sit behind the orchestra at the Festival Hall paying £2.50 for a seat and thus found some favourite conductors: Tennstedt, Giulini, Abbado, the latter massively underrated as a Mozart conductor I feel. And then there was Carlos Kleiber – every conductor loves him. Of the people I worked with, Alex[ander] Gibson was phenomenal. I couldn’t watch him enough. His technique was weird yet he could always make clear exactly what he wanted, but you could never quite make out what he was doing that made it so clear.

“But the one conductor I feel an absolute link with – and I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise – is Sir Charles Mackerras. It’s wonderful how he is viewed as a specialist in so many different spheres: Mozart, Handel, Gilbert & Sullivan, Janáček. But the thing is that he’s got this ability to make pieces come alive because he is able to imagine them afresh yet without imposing an extraneous ego on the music. With some conductors you feel that they’re battling hard to be original, whereas with Sir Charles somehow the music just speaks – and it sounds original because he is getting rid of negative traditions and thereby reaching the truth of the music.”

Ian’s comments on Mackerras strike me as particularly pertinent and indicating indirectly what Ian himself aspires to as a conductor. In this respect another comment by him is also of special note. “I think that when it comes to repertoire you are pulled toward doing things that you feel are not being properly done”. He elaborates this point by referring to the Classical Opera Company which is now central to his work and of which he is artistic director. He founded it about twelve years ago. “When we started the company, I felt that Handel was not the right territory for us because a lot of people were doing [him] very well – although all these years on I’m beginning to dabble in Handel because I can’t resist it. But I don’t at the moment go earlier than that, and it’s not because I don’t love some of that music but because I don’t feel I have enough original stuff to say about it. Similarly with cutting-edge contemporary music there are a lot of people who do it better than I do.”

When it came to his next step after three years assisting at Glyndebourne, Ian had in mind the saying that there are only two ways into conducting: either you set up your own group or win a competition. “I think that the idea of setting up a company had been gestating in my mind for two or three years and Mozart more and more came into focus as the composer to feature. In a sense there was a parallel with what the Royal Shakespeare Company does for the bard because it seemed to me bizarre that Mozart had written eighteen or so operas but that only a third of them were in the mainstream. Consequently when I formed the Classical Opera Company the most important thing was repertoire, the emphasis being on Mozart and the second half of the eighteenth-century in general. Second to that was the development of young singers because that fits this repertoire so well and is of great personal interest to me, and third was my desire to share a journey with an audience and build a trust with them – something for which the role model was probably what Simon Rattle had done in Birmingham. Now, however, the priorities have almost gone into reverse. The most important thing to me now is connection to the audience and if at some time we were suddenly to change and become the Neo-Classical Opera Company and put on The Rake’s Progress, I’d be equally happy.”

Artaxerxes design by Johan Engels

What is happening just now is that Ian Page is conducting the Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company in the Royal Opera’s staging of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes in the Linbury Studio Theatre. It is a work that his company has already presented in a concert performance, in 2002, but the present project is directly due to the enthusiasm for this work of Covent Garden’s Director of Opera, Elaine Padmore. She it was who introduced a BBC Radio 3 broadcast of it in 1978 and, since the venue when the piece was first performed in 1762 was the Covent Garden Theatre, the place of this revival could hardly be more appropriate. “It was her idea and when she involved me in it I mentioned three possible directors. But it was Martin Duncan whom I put forward as my first choice and she said ‘Yes’. I selected him not specifically for what he could bring to this particular opera – actually he has a special penchant and skill for comedy and this is most certainly not one! – but because when we met last year we immediately clicked. We both share an attitude which favours maximum rapport between the director and the conductor – I have never favoured those strict divisions between music-calls and production-calls during rehearsals – and both of us believe in an approach which is coaxing and encouraging. The interchange with the singers in rehearsal is always fascinating and central to it is the balance that exists between the need for them to come prepared and the willingness to be flexible. I find that if you ask a singer to do something and then they don’t do it because they’ve either forgotten or haven’t quite understood, then that is probably a sign that it was either not a good idea in the first place or that you haven’t explained it helpfully enough. In contrast to that, it is satisfying when they take on-board something you have asked them to do because it has a strong rationale behind it that makes sense to them. And I do feel that what nudges you in the right direction is often the music, because the text on its own may suggest one thing but what the composer has done with it can answer so many questions for you.”

Arne’s opera is set in Persia and tells a story involving murder and grand passions, but the history of the piece itself is only slightly-less dramatic since the manuscript of the original score was lost in a fire and the work survived only through a reconstruction of it by Henry Bishop, the music director of Covent Garden from 1810 to 1824. He had the advantage that the overture, the arias and the two duets had been published earlier but the recitatives and the finale had not been included. Bishop’s version with new recitatives and a fresh finale kept the opera in the repertoire until the late 1830s although his treatment of the recitatives involved some heavy cutting. In recent times the academic, Peter Holman, prepared a fresh edition of the opera, one that has been recorded by Hyperion, and this version took account of Bishop’s contributions.

The present production, however, is adopting a different approach. In 2002 Ian did it in a concert performance held together by a narration spoken by Simon Russell Beale thus eliminating anything not composed by Arne himself. That would not do for the staging in the Linbury, so Duncan Druce has composed a finale and Ian himself has created recitatives to replace those set by Arne but lost (it helps that the original libretto survives showing exactly how much was set and what was omitted). “In preparing this new performing edition no delusions of grandeur are involved: the aim is simply to enable the piece to function by filling the gaps with music which is hopefully consistent with Arne’s style in 1762.”

Artaxerxes design by Johan Engels

The staging will resolutely avoid any modernisation, although some aspects may reflect the period of the composition rather than the world of ancient Persia. There will, however, be a deliberate contrast between relative naturalism for the recitatives and a certain degree of stylisation for some of the arias and this involves what promise to be fascinating designs by Johan Engels with something of a Japanese flavour. “There are extras – four actors – whose contributions include such actions as bringing in a sword or opening up one of the screens in order to create a separate backdrop behind a singer which will feature a particular colour suited to an aria. But the designs are there to enhance and empower the singers and often to provide a beauty of shading that will give them the courage to stand still and express themselves fully. This is all very much the opposite of productions that are full of unnecessary business.”

Musically Ian regards Artaxerxes as akin in the beauty of its melodies to Gluck’s Orfeo which appeared in the same year. “However as a soundworld I’d say that it feels mid-way between Handel and Mozart – and, indeed, it was written three years after Handel died and five years before Mozart’s first opera. It was definitely a work that the young Mozart heard when he was in London. In terms of drama, the most interesting character in it is Arbaces because he is the one who is wrongly sentenced to death for a murder that he didn’t commit and, knowing that his father was responsible, he keeps silent. It’s a role of extraordinary nobility, but there’s also music in a contrasted vein here, especially that for Mandane, the lover of Arbaces, a role being performed by Elizabeth Watts. The original performer of this part was not just a pupil of Arne’s but also his mistress, so he lavished all his virtuosity on Mandane.”

Artaxerxes is so rarely heard that interest in it is acute, but Ian has good news for those unable to get to the Linbury since these artists will be recording it (for release in October 2010). Ian’s enthusiasm for this opera is so evident that one is aware that the staging and recording of Artaxerxes are bound to give him great personal satisfaction.

But what of his broader view of things? Ian Page has been described as a musician with a ‘genuine sense of vision’ so I field a final question as to what that vision might be. “I think it’s about feeding an audience and to do so not with what you necessarily think they will be bound to enjoy, which can lead to dumbing-down, but instead to try and take them to less obvious places where, having once gone, they will feel grateful to have been.”

  • Performances of Artaxerxes in Linbury Studio Theatre at either 7.30 p.m. or 2.30 p.m. between 30 October and 14 November
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Hyperion’s recording of Artaxerxes is available on CDD22073 (link below)
  • Hyperion Artaxerxes

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