Classic Opera, Mozart and Gluck: an interview with conductor Ian Page and theatre director John Wilkie

Mel Cooper talks to the conductor and founder of the Classic Opera company about the latest step in his Project 250 and also meets the show’s director, John Wilkie

Conductor Ian Page is the founder and Artistic Director of a company devoted to exactly what it offers in the title: Classic Opera/ The Mozartists. John Wilkie is a Scottish director working with Ian’s project for the first time on a fully staged concert performance of two short operas by Gluck, Bauci e Filemone (no, I had never heard of it either) and a reworked version of that pivotal opera, Orfeo, to be given in London at the Royal Festival Hall on 29 and 31 May 2019. Both originally formed part of Le feste d’Apollo, a triple-bill composed exactly 250 years ago to celebrate the wedding in Parma of Ferdinand, Duke of Parma and grandson of Louis XV, to Maria Amalia, Archduchess of Austria and daughter of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia. One of the operas, Bauci e Filemone, is so rarely done and obscure and that it has to be considered a real find. The other opera is a somewhat shorter and revised version of groundbreaking Orfeo ed Euridice.

I met Ian Page and John Wilkie in the theatre restaurant of the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith after a rehearsal. We had a conversation about their work and about these short operas in particular. The first thing that struck me about both was the energy they displayed after a long and tiring day in the rehearsal room and the almost palpable excitement about their work.

Ian began by filling me in on his motivation for these performances. In about 2015 he decided to work his way through the development of Mozart’s operatic achievements and also the works that were contemporary with it and influences on him. “Each year we explore the music written by Mozart and/or his contemporaries exactly 250 years earlier. The choice for this year was made partly because Mozart wrote very little in 1769 so we can move sideways and deal with music of his period. By 1769 Gluck was into his revolutionary work but had already written twenty-five operas most of which had been written before his reforms and were not particularly innovative. Mozart would have known the original Orfeo. This version was written for a higher castrato than the one who originally sang Orfeo. It is actually more well-suited to a modern mezzo. If Janet Baker had known this version she might easily have preferred it. Gluck wrote a triple bill in 1769 for the Hapsburg wedding in Parma. Luckily, one of the three operas is considerably less good than the other two, otherwise we would be doing a very long evening! So we are doing the best two, and recreating the best of the wedding entertainment. The first one, Bauci e Filemone, is very little known and is totally charming and delightful, lovely music and simple story. It’s based on one of the Metamorphoses of Ovid.”

John Wilkie agreed with Ian about the simplicity and purity of the music in these works. “There’s also,” he pointed out, “a fascinating coloratura aria that makes the Queen of the Night sound positively amateur. I guess it must have been some sort of influence on Mozart. The music relates to the characters very clearly and helps me understand the characterisations. This is a joy for me as the director because the music conveys a lot of emotion, a lot of what we are trying to put on the stage dramatically; all of it manifests from the music. Especially, of course, in the Orfeo opera. We’ve been working hard relating to the music itself. This is my first time with Classical Opera and I’m loving every minute of it. We’re still not working with the original instruments, though, which I’m hugely looking forward to.”

Ian interrupted to say, “Ah, but we are already tuned to 430!”

John said, “And the more we listen to this version of Orfeo the more beauty we are finding in it. For me as a director, there is so much emotion that stems directly from the music. It’s all there in the notes.”

Ian explained what some of the differences in the 1769 version are from the original first performed in Vienna on 5 October 1762. “Amore and Euridice are almost exactly the same as in the first version. Mainly Gluck slightly reduced some of the more extravagant orchestration. For instance, he left out all cornets and trombones, some of which only play for two minutes or less, so he was obviously thinking about not having to pay extra for musicians. I think it was a budgetary concern, but it makes the sound very clean in the new version. I guess he had loads more money to fritter away on the original Orfeo, This version is reduced so it is a standard classical chamber orchestra. Another difference is that whenever Orfeo sings he often stays in the same key but Gluck changes the vocal line or he transposes upwards for the higher voice that he had on this occasion. So “Che faro senza Euridice?” is up a minor third, and the duets with Euridice are a bit higher but he also rewrites the lines. I love it that when the 1762 version was first performed, the very next day the six-year old Mozart arrived in Vienna with his father for the first time; and for me from the Gluck Orfeo ed Euridice to The Magic Flute is the most amazing chapter in classical music; and I am sure Mozart’s career would have been very different if Gluck hadn’t written Orfeo and if Mozart hadn’t heard this music. Gluck’s greatness lies in his ability to marry character and music, the music and the emotions, and words and character working completely together rather than the music being something that is ornate on top of the dramatic action. With Gluck nothing is display for its own sake, the music becomes absolutely central to the dramatic development and all the emotions. What confuses me about this music, though, is that it is heart on sleeve passionate and yet objective and even austere. These two things co-exist in Orfeo in a way that I still can be confused about. I don’t find this quite in any other composer. Gluck had written his Alceste by the time of this revision, so it’s in the middle of the reform movement. The Filemone and Bauci opera kind of goes back to his earlier style and even has secco recitativo. I think that Calzabigi, the librettist, was the big force behind the reforms that appear in these operas. Gluck took advantage of the stimulation of what Calzabigi wrote and responded brilliantly to it all.”

I asked John if he was familiar with the idioms of this period. He replied that he had worked on a production of this period before but that he had really got to know the idiom as a member of audiences. “From that experience, my main aim is to respond cleanly to what the music is telling me so that the story line is perfectly clearly conveyed. If the music is really well written it informs you, the more you investigate the music and the more you question what it is saying the more you are able to know what it is that you have to do on the stage. It’s been a hugely collaborative experience so far. I want to make sure that everyone feels they have a part to play throughout the development of the rehearsal process. There’s a constant conversation in the rehearsal with very intelligent and very talented performers who have a huge amount to contribute. We are avoiding any kind of dictatorial process.”

Ian agreed. “I remember working years ago with a director who would arrive an hour or more early, have a kind of battleship grid that he then took the stage staff through because he had already worked out the blocking for the day and the performers had not even come in yet.

I asked Ian where he planned to go next with the 250 Project. Obviously on to 1770, I suggested. “I discovered earlier this week that the singer who sang the stratospherically high aria in Bauci e Filemone, the following year Mozart and his father travelled through Parma and met this very singer for whom the part was written, and she invited them for dinner, and she sang three arias for them after dinner. Mozart, who was fourteen, was so totally amazed by how high her voice could go that he wrote down some of the phrases she sang because he thought that when he got home no one would believe him. Leopold Mozart in a long letter writes a description of this. I read it to everyone in the rehearsal today. I find that a bit of touching history. So next year, to answer your question, we will do Mitridate. Mozart spent the whole of 1770 in Italy and there are six songs we know he heard. So we will do a whole weekend of concerts playing some of the music. And the proof that he did hear at least one of the songs is that there is an aria in Mitridate that is almost a carbon copy.”

I told John that I was curious about how he had come to be a director of theatre and particularly of opera. “I did a lot of singing as a child and also played cello and piano so there was a lot of music in my upbringing .and the crossroads was about whether I should go down the opera singing route or do the acting route. Luckily someone in my family suggested maybe my voice was not so good, and I went and followed in my mother’s footsteps as an actor. But when I was training in Glasgow friends were in an opera school there and wanted to put an opera company together and asked me to be involved and we set up a company called Opera Bohemia ten years ago in Scotland. I’d already, as part of my acting degree, done some directing and got a real taste for it and found that I completely loved it and so started training. I came to London about ten years ago and from there it has progressed and I have been very lucky to get a lot of work. Opera Bohemia is doing The Merry Widow for its tenth anniversary celebration. And I am also working with Opera Holland Park. Back in Holland Park I assisted the wonderful Martin Lloyd Evans on a production of Adriana Lecouvreur, and then the next season I was the Young Artist Director on their Young Artists scheme and did a main production with them. From there, I’ve been working at the Royal Opera House in London and also in Denmark and in New Zealand, so it’s snowballed a bit. This year I will be directing Wolf Ferrari’s The Secret of Susanna at Holland Park.”

Ian took us back to talking about the upcoming performance at the end of May. “With this version of the Orfeo, one major change is that Gluck cut the final ballet and for me that is quite wonderful. It’s the one thing that harks back to the baroque. Once the story gets resolved we have to sit through this slightly tedious ballet and so this version is quite short by comparison. But much more lean. The focus of it is almost like Janacek. There’s not a wasted note or moment. I hope a lot of people come to hear this for themselves.”

You can hear it for yourself when Gluck’s Bauci e Filemone and reworked Orfeo are performed by Classical Opera as part of their Mozart 250 project at the South Bank Centre in London on 29 and 31 May 2019.