Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Mansel Stimpson talks to Covent Garden’s long-serving Head of Music who will share conducting honours during the current revival of Le nozze di Figaro…
On meeting David Syrus one immediately realises that he is the most unassuming of men and that fact explains in part – but only in part – why he is less well-known to the musical public than might be expected. He is after all a key figure in the world of opera in the United Kingdom: that has to be the case given that he has worked at the Royal Opera House for almost four decades – he went there in 1971 as a répétiteur and since 1981 has been Head of Music, and his duties at Covent Garden extend to conducting public performances. His conducting also takes him abroad (last year he did La cenerentola for Tokyo Opera, this summer he returns to the Crested Butte Music Festival in Colorado for La bohème and La clemenza di Tito in Toulouse is booked in for 2012). Furthermore his abilities also encompass giving performances and recording as a recital pianist as well as being a continuo player. A man with many significant achievements, he would be justified in blowing his own trumpet, but David, who stresses how lucky he has been, is not one to do that. Instead I come away from the interview believing him to be self-effacing to a degree despite his huge talent and I leave it to the reader of this article to decide whether or not this is a musician inclined to play down his own achievements.
It is, of course, the case that a répétiteur, someone who coaches and tutors singers, is a figure who for all his importance functions behind the scenes rather than in the public gaze – and that’s true too of somebody who takes on other responsibilities and duties as Head of Music in an opera house. It’s David’s conducting, epitomised by the fact that he is the conductor for the last four performances of the current Covent Garden revival of David McVicar’s production of La nozze di Figaro, which more than anything else puts him in the public eye: the fact that he so obviously lacks an ego may help to explain why even this aspect of what he does has brought him less into the limelight than it might have done. In seeking to learn more about this rather elusive figure, I ask him first about his origins.
“I was born in 1946 and come from Hastings from a working-class background. My mum played the piano a bit and would sing in the local Methodist church which was very much central to the lives of both of my parents. My dad was not musical, though, and it was my mum who took me as a nine-year-old boy to see The Marriage of Figaro.” That may not be the most obvious work to select in order to introduce a child to the world of opera, but there was a reason for it. “The choice was Figaro, Faust or Carmen. For a Methodist household Faust had the devil in it, Carmen was even more unacceptable and as for the Mozart, well I was already playing easy piano pieces by him so that seemed to mum to be the best idea. My family background was not what you would call knowledgeable, especially not in a musical way, but my parents were very supportive when I showed some ability and when I went to Oxford, where I read music. Earlier, aged sixteen, I had come here [Covent Garden] to see Götterdämmerung. You didn’t need to come from a privileged background to do that – in those days you could look in at the local library, find a Covent Garden booking form, jot down the dates and send in your postal order. That was how at sixteen I attended the first night of Götterdämmerung featuring Solti, Nilsson, Windgassen and Frick. The music teacher in my grammar school although a very good master hated opera and thought it was a waste of time, but my friends and I decided that that was what we wanted to spend our paper-round money on and so we came here. As well as being available to everyone, the Royal Opera House has always been a place with the highest of standards, and still is.”
The man who would later record Lieder with Hildegard Behrens then comments on how he saw his future when at Oxford. “I was never a good enough pianist to consider that I could become a performer and, because music was what interested me most, I assumed that a career as a teacher would automatically follow. But I had a huge obsession with languages and was very much fascinated by theatre and it therefore became clear to me on reflection that being a répétiteur would combine all the things that most interested me. After Oxford I went for a year’s course for répétiteurs at what was then the London Opera Centre and had two years as a freelance before coming to Covent Garden at the age of twenty-four. At that time I had no flicker of interest in conducting – that just grew gradually over the years when I saw how other people did it and began to feel that I would have something to bring to it. I certainly didn’t start life imagining that I would be a conductor and, even now, I still have to pinch myself to think that I’m doing Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House.”
Ten years after his arrival at Covent Garden David reached a point when he felt that he had to assess his situation. “By then I’d already done four summers as an assistant at Bayreuth which gave me a wider perspective and Mark Elder had tentatively offered me a possible job at ENO. That might well not have been right for me, but in the previous ten years I’d played for Carlos Kleiber and Karl Böhm and all the rest of it and I had the feeling that I needed to move on. If I stayed put it seemed that life was never going to get very much different. However, when the Covent Garden management indicated that they were willing to ease me into a certain amount of administrative responsibility I didn’t need to look elsewhere – and I’m very glad, not least because at that time, in 1981, I had very small children. I welcomed the chance to stay here, from time to time doing other jobs, but not in a way disruptive to the family.”
It was in the 1980s that his wider-ranging role led to his being asked to conduct some smaller scale works including operas for children which Covent Garden was putting on at other venues such as the Roundhouse and the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre. Then in 1985 owing to the unavailability of others David was asked to conduct a work in the main house, Ariadne auf Naxos. “It went very well and, contrary to all expectations, Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle didn’t eat me up for breakfast. In a way it was absolutely terrifying, but it was also wonderful and I would have liked it to continue. However, no gap came along immediately because there were senior people around to pick up the odd performances when the conductor booked wasn’t available. But a turning point eventually did come for me although it happened twenty-two years after my arrival here! However, that gradual development was right for me because at a much earlier age I wouldn’t have been ready for it. As it was, it was in 1993 that things changed and that was thanks to three people: to Bernard Haitink, Nicholas Payne and Jeremy Isaacs all three of whom thought that I could be trusted with conducting more for the main stage. So I was lucky that, by the time I felt ready, the management was willing to risk it – it was very generous and in a way quite courageous of them because I wasn’t proven anywhere, and still am not.”
Whatever contract exists between David Syrus and the Royal Opera there is nothing that guarantees a number of appearances each season as a conductor. “Some German houses do things like that, but I don’t feel it would be right here. It’s not that I think that people are getting a compromise when they have me out there – actually I think I can do quite a good Figaro – but this is a house where people expect to see the best conductors in the world. However, the reality is that occasionally a conductor can’t do the odd night and somebody from the house will take over. Initially that was my predecessors, the older people, and now as an older person myself I get a very generous allowance of these pieces. But that’s shared out – it’s not just me but colleagues such as Paul Wynne Griffiths and Christopher Willis. Anyone on the music staff who’s keen to conduct will tell the management so, and then if opportunities can be found to introduce them in a gentle way that will be offered.”
Operas that David has conducted at Covent Garden range from The Bartered Bride to Der fliegende Holländer and he recalls with particular pleasure the one performance that he did of Michael Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage (“It’s done so rarely that the chance to conduct it was quite special and for my generation the piece is very special too”). He has a strong devotion to Mozart’s operas (“Who wouldn’t be passionate about those pieces?”) and also to the work of Richard Strauss. “I have conducted Salome, Elektra and Ariadne which is a huge privilege – and they went well. It may sound vain to say that, but the fact is that when you take over you go in there having had all the benefit of the previous conductor’s work and you’ve got friends in the orchestra who, if you don’t do it too often, are really on your side. If they saw me every night they’d probably get a bit bored, but if you go in just occasionally the spirit of co-operation and helpfulness from them is absolutely stunning. If you know the pieces – and obviously I’ve lived with them all my working life – the odds are that something reasonably alive and authentic will come out of it. But only the public can judge that: maybe people feel cheated when I’m there, I don’t know. I hope not.”
Preparing a schedule so that a conductor is always available is part of David’s duties. “I have to do that for the season so that every piece is covered and there’s a plan in place should a conductor suddenly not be available. Paul Wynne Griffiths, for instance, is covering La fille du Régiment and I am not only conducting the last performances of Figaro but am the cover conductor on Carmen ready to step in should that be necessary.” Even when a conductor turns up as planned it may be that the rehearsals with orchestra need to start prior to their arrival date. On those occasions preparing the orchestra at this preliminary stage is another of David’s jobs. Since on these occasions he is often unlikely to be conducting any performances, I wonder to what extent it is necessary for him to avoid or play down the element of personal interpretation which is what a conductor usually brings to a work. In asking David about this, I find him expressing a view on interpretation generally.
He comments first of all on standing in at an early rehearsal, as he was doing at the time of our meeting for Sir Colin Davis the conductor of the first six performances of this revival of Figaro. “There’s no point in bringing any personal interpretation into it – that would just confuse the issue. However, there’s no truly objective way of preparing a piece because even the way in which each conductor gives an upbeat is personal. In general, though, you choose slightly slower speeds as a way of practising the music. In rehearsal you are trying to help the players to energise the music and you’re giving them space. For example in Figaro you find a lot of motor rhythms which can be very tiring for the second violins so you set a speed at which they can rehearse that and gradually build up their stamina. You can point out dynamics too, something especially important in the Act Two finale of Figaro. But what you are really trying to do in rehearsal is to remind the players of everything that stands in front of them in the score and that is more than enough to get it all going without bringing in my own thoughts of what Mozart might be aiming at.”
But when it comes to preparing his own performances of Figaro it will doubtless become more personal? “I don’t think you will get my personal performance, my personal ideas about Figaro. Hopefully you will get a helpful synthesis taking account of what is offered by the artists and by David McVicar as director. There are people who think that a conductor should come with a tempo in mind and that it’s a pity if he compromises with a singer who regards it differently. I don’t believe that. You’ve got to start somewhere and you do set a tempo, but that’s only in order to tease out of the appropriate people the speed at which they can best express what they need to express. Some conductors especially those of an earlier generation took a different attitude, but Haitink, for example, was absolutely one for sitting back and listening to what other people brought and then seeing how much of that he could incorporate in the piece. I find that extremely admirable both on the human and on the artistic level. If I were a famous conductor – which I’m not – that’s how I would want to work too. One is there to enable and surrounded by such wonderful musicians the notion of imposing my ideas on them is nonsense. If I were in, say, a music college, with people of lesser abilities it might be different, but on this level without being a total cipher yourself what is required is that one should be drawing out the huge talent that is there.”
As he looks back over nearly forty years at Covent Garden David Syrus is eager to praise the tremendous work done there by Sir Georg Solti, Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, and now by Antonio Pappano. Again and again he stresses how under all four the standards have been of the highest. His own role in this is something that he underplays, but Covent Garden is lucky to have him and those who know his work wouldn’t hesitate to say so.
- David Syrus conducts the performances of Figaro on 20, 23 & 30 June and 3 July
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