Q & A : Conductor David Robertson on ‘Porgy & Bess,’ Listening, & The Future of Opera

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė

A former chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and former music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson has served in numerous artistic leadership positions.

To this day he occupies some of the most prominent platforms of the international music scene and has been named an “American musical visionary.” His work in opera has reached new heights in a deep and continuous relationship with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which was the birthplace of many critically acclaimed stagings such as Janacek’s “The Makropulos Affair” (1996) and Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” (2008) and “The Marriage of Figaro” (2012). The newest fruit–James Robinson’s “Porgy and Bess,” starring Eric Owens and Angel Blue–had its premiere in September 2019. The overall combination of music, words, and ideas alongside a complex blend of Americana made this a unique and impressive work both within and beyond the operatic repertory. A few seasons and a pandemic later the recording of this performance was released. It did not pass unnoticed, being named the year‘s “Best Opera Recording” in the 63rd Grammy awards ceremony.

OperaWire spoke to Robertson about listening, success and Gershwin’s classic.

OperaWire: I imagine that a pandemic was a huge pause in your life as a composer. What was the reality for you in relation to the Metropolitan Opera and its orchestra?

David Robertson: I’ve been fortunate to be a guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera for about 25 years now. I’ve done all sorts of different kinds of productions. At the Metropolitan Opera, you see just how incredibly professional everyone is and how good they are at what they do. And it’s just amazing how many people are working together. I’m not very privy to information about what’s going on behind the scenes. But I know that the real problem for all arts organizations is that we depend on the box office as much as the generosity of patrons and donors. A ticket price alone does not pay for all of the things that go together to produce the performance. Opera, in the end, tends to be the most expensive art form, more so than most theater and musical productions. It‘s just been tragic when all of a sudden you can’t get the people together for an art form that was really meant to be shared with others.

OW: It also must be worrying to think about the coming seasons and how the orchestra will rebuild?

DR: I think the long-term memory of an organization like the Metropolitan Opera is great. There are people who have worked as coaches for legendary figures and people in the orchestra who have made their whole careers ‘in the pit.’ They all know the operas by heart, even if it’s a new opera.

I remember when I did Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer.” At the end of Act one there is a part where the strings are just holding very calm chords and there is a very involved, quite complex, recitative: singers are going through lots of different texts. The basses have pitches in very unusual places lined up with the text–either just before a word, with a word, or just after a word. Going the first time through this in the Sitzprobe it was all a little bit shaky, but during the actual performance, the orchestra had memorized what the singer was singing. It was therefore the easiest thing in the world to keep them in place: you would look at them, give them the beat and they would hear the singer and know exactly where all of the proponents were.

I think that kind of memory is something found in all the people who have worked at the Met in their training and performing capacity. These things will stay and the moment that we are back to something normal-like, those things will all come roaring back in a surprisingly comforting fashion.

OW: How was this year for you, since conducting is also all about bringing people together and collaborating?

DR: I have been fortunate to do a number of projects, some of which are virtual. These are videos with the musicians but no audience, though in a couple of places we were able to have restricted audiences. It’s a little bit different. The main thing that one sees is just how flexible the organizations can be. With my time spent in Paris at the Ensemble, I am used to very different formations. Occasionally I would only conduct six people in a complex piece of new music. So for me there’s no real change whether you’re conducting six people or 600. You have to do slightly different things when there are more people, but the essential communication remains the same.

From that point of view, it’s really been a change in the amount of work, because if you are doing something virtually with cameras and you have to maintain distance, obviously there are a lot of constraints that you don’t have when you can simply set up a lot of chairs for everybody on stage, doing things the way you have habitually done before. But sometimes it allows you tremendous flexibility and possibility. I look at constraints not as compromises but as artistic possibilities. I don’t think that when Bach sat down to write a fugue he thought, “Oh no, I’m going to have to make my voices enter in just this sort of way and I’m going to have to do an augmentation at one point and the diminuendo at another.”

For some groups, it has been interesting to see how a piece that we would normally play in close proximity changes when we spread it out. We performed a piece with the New York Philharmonic that previously had been performed in Lincoln Center, but now we were in the New York City Cathedral and the strings were farther away from each other. There’s a solo quartet and there’s the main group of strings. For the first time ever–and I’ve performed the piece with many orchestras–I was really able to get a clean separation between what Elgar wrote for the string quartet and for the larger group. So while you could say that it is not ideal, that it is hard to hear people far away, there are aspects which we have gained from that experience.

In the same concert the woodwinds played a Strauss serenade and the principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill, said “You know, when you play this together, everything around you is so loud. It’s very hard to really pick out individual voices. Whereas when there’s the space involved, suddenly you hear everyone with tremendous clarity.” So, as we say, it is an ill wind that doesn’t bring someone some good. Even in moments of great difficulties, such as what we’re going through globally at the moment, there are still moments where the spark of human ingenuity shines through.

OW: In one interview you mentioned that a musician has to be the ambassador of music in everyday life. How can one be an ambassador of music today?

DR: The composer John Cage, whom I was fortunate to know at the end of his life, had a wonderful statement which I think is really important, particularly in today’s world. He said that music is continuous, only listening is intermittent. His idea was that there’s always a kind of music. Cage lived in New York City, which is a very noisy place, but he actually heard the kinds of sounds that were being made. Rather than think “Oh, this is just noise”, his brain was able to turn the sounds into music. I think that when we are really listening, we understand. This is the way that we must be. There is so little understanding of others in the world at the moment and I think that music, with its requirement to listen and pay attention, is really essential for people. The more that we can help people to remember about listening, the better the world will be.

OW: I also read that classical music in a way invented the art of listening, or at least added to it.

DR: Yes. I think the interesting thing is that humans co-evolved with music. Some anthropologists say it was almost 5 million years ago when our voice box dropped enough that we could modulate our sounds. I think when we were modulating the sounds to make spoken language, we were also modulating sounds to do something else with our voice, which was to somehow mimic the things we heard around us. That gradually turned into something we now refer to as music. Our vocal tract is only so long, so we found pipes and other instruments that will extend it.

Then we discovered all sorts of other things. So the existence of humans and music has always been a partnership. And a lot of times it has been involved in various rituals that are solemn, such as when someone is born or when they die. In that sense, in various different cultures, not only the ones in the West where we would refer to it as classical music, there was this idea that you could take the music and make it something just for itself, that it had a beauty of its own. And this is then where the music starts to become an art where we look at it.

This sense of classical music, where it might be Korean classical music or Chinese classical music or Indian classical music or European classical music, is something uniquely human. We have evolved this music that on one level seems not to mean anything–it doesn’t serve any purpose, it’s not going to make you do anything in particular, you may not even be able to dance to it–but it is a very rich avenue of expression for things when we feel words are inadequate.

OW: What makes the music good?

DR: From that point of view, the definition of good music for me is that it’s something that makes you want to pay attention to it. In any genre, there are composers who I don’t feel want me to pay attention to the music. Most of them are thankfully now forgotten. There are others where you hear a couple of notes and you suddenly think “wow this is it.” The musical experience is shared by all humanity. You see it even with infants: they’re crying and when their parents start to sing they suddenly stop. It interacts with the chemicals inside our brains. Well, of course, it can also put us to sleep very efficiently even if it isn’t good too.

OW: Also, you mention that classical music always has to be about the future. How are you approaching innovation in a historical opera, such as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess?

DR: I worked very carefully with the stage director James Robinson. I spoke about the fact that there are so many melodies and songs that have taken on a life of their own. When you have something like “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” or “I Loves You, Porgy” or “Summertime,” you have versions by Ella Fitzgerald, by Nina Simone, etcetera. They are all great, but they are like relatives who have gone off and now live in a completely different part of the country of music. That’s not to say that where they live isn’t a wonderful place to live, but Gershwin really wrote a complete opera which is fashioned in a way to tell a particular story.

As happens with the best stories, you need to be very specific in order to make it universal. Here is a small, close-knit community in the Gullah area of Charleston, South Carolina. Gershwin tried to figure out the best way to use this culture. Not so much in an ethnographical sense of studying the culture and writing what he found in it, but using it as a starting point to tell the story of redemption through love, and that story ends up becoming something that people all over the world can identify with.

When I was in Tokyo, between two runs of the performance, I had all sorts of people coming up and asking me to sign their brochures from the Met which mentioned the worldwide broadcast of “Porgy and Bess.” It was so interesting to see all these Japanese people so excited in anticipation of watching this opera. The number of African-Americans in Japan is relatively small, but that is not what opera is about. It is about the human condition as perfectly expressed by this community. The challenge, when making something like this, is to leave enough interpretative freedom for each one of the singers to bring their own personality to it, but not so much freedom that we’re no longer playing Gershwin’s opera but some version of what other people have done with Gershwin.

OW: Do you have a favorite part of the recording?

One of my favorite examples that you can hear it in the recording is in what is traditionally Act Two. We have Bess, who finds herself in a terrible position. She doesn’t know if Porgy, who is really her anchor to life, is going to be gone forever and possibly killed. There’s Sportin’ Life in her life who is really just a businessman. He doesn’t have any sentimentality towards anyone except his business. Sportin’ Life realizes that Bess would be a great business investment for him to take to New York and to have her become a high-level prostitute. So she’s upset, he is trying to convince her and gives her a hit of cocaine. While her brain is reacting to the changes that the chemical is causing in her, he sings this wonderful tune There’s a boat that’s leaving soon for New York. The melody is incredibly seductive, it’s just wonderful, but the song itself is incredibly dark and nasty, because of how it is being used.

The way that one might want to play is where it feels happy, but then, if we’re really telling the story, it’s like the three little pigs. In the end, the pigs said to the wolf, sure, come into our brick house and we’ll all eat dinner together and the wolf came inside and he ate up all the little pigs. So in the recording, you hear the extreme tension between the choices. Bess doesn’t know if the thing that she wants will survive. She hates the idea of leaving but doesn’t see any other way. And at that moment Gershwin’s music brings back the theme Bess you is my woman now in such a way that we can hear Bess thinking. In the recording on stage, you can hear the frustration of Sportin’ Life, as he has done all of this and he still hasn’t won. Then all of a sudden the ground shifts and he does win. At that point, Gershwin has the typical American theater play out the theme. And when I say typical, it is also typical of what Verdi does at the end of a triumphant scene.

In Act Two of “Aida“, you have the triumphal march, which can be played either as a celebration and receive lots of applause, or alternatively as I think Verdi understood it: to show the horror of the heroes, people who are subjugating others and enjoying all of the wealth that they have stolen from this country just because they are the winners. The same is happening in the Gershwin production at this point. I try to make it so that the audience in the actual opera sees the horror of this situation. And I’m fully aware that I’m pretty much killing the applause because who wants to applaud Bess for making the worst choice she could possibly make. It’s a fascinating thing to try and put the opera onstage, as opposed to just performing the pieces of music.



OW: Do you have a favorite performance?

DR: The reason I can’t pick one is mainly because on each night, people are slightly different and how the audience is listening also differs. You can tell when they’re with you, maybe they are shocked, etcetera, and you can tell when they are not. It’s a whole combination of things that goes into making a recording. In a sense, it is a wonderful document of the things we are trying to do in that particular production. If I made a recording of “Porgy and Bess” that was just a recording, then I might treat certain things differently. But that is such a huge question to get my head around that I don’t believe I would know how to answer it.

It’s very interesting to talk about the storytelling aspect: music’s power to tell stories. In opera, you have so many people with their own individual views and you see all the psychological elements from the portrayed characters. How do you create a story out of a group of people? How you bring it to life?

We had plenty of time in the production to build a community. The way that my partners in the production brought things about was essential. I’ve mentioned Jim Robinson already, but Camilla Brown, the choreographer, was important in getting people together and making them feel comfortable. She was not criticizing the movement singers were capable of but got them to understand how to do more so that it really communicated who they were.

Then you have Donald Palumbo, the chorus master, who worked with all of these incredible voices to make something where there was a shared sense of how we were going to do this in “Porgy and Bess.” The challenge in creating this cohesive community that tells the story in a particular way is to make sure that all individuals fit into something that everyone understands is the way we’re telling this story. That is something that we were incredibly blessed with. And in fact people’s individual portrayals contribute to the richness of the one story being told.

OW: Does the recording process require any adjustments from you?

DR: This is one where you do your best to get everything as good as you can make it, but in the end, you have to completely trust the person, in this case, David Frost, to make the recording. Luckily he has plenty of experience recording, not only other pieces of music but also in the Metropolitan Opera. He works very hard at making sure the overall sound makes you aware that it was performed onstage, but not so noisy that we can hear people thumping around the stage the entire time. He’s the one responsible for this delicate auditory balancing act. And it is not a studio recording: it is a document showing what is happening in the production where there are 14 possible performances. You end up having a document that shows where we are in the process and how we were trying to tell the story.

In a way, the recording does even more than the digital film. The HD production is wonderful, but when I saw it for the first time there were many places where I had been used to looking at someone else on stage, but that’s not the one the cameras decided to show. And that’s the difference of audio recording; you can hear a global nature of what a complex opera production like this is about. Meanwhile the best HD productions have a person choosing the camera angles and shots. You are going to get their version of it, which is why filmmaking has to be an art.

OW: Did you have any input in the post-production stage of the recording?

DR: There were a couple of takes that I said we shouldn’t try to use, but I think that those places were obvious also to Mr. Frost. Sometimes things happen onstage. There’s not enough blood, for instance, and there’s extra time that Mariah might have taken to get the effect to work visually. Things like that never happen in a recording studio. I never worry about whether there’s enough blood in the recording studio.

OW: I want to ask about the relationship with the orchestra and the communication of ideas with them for this production.

DR: The interesting thing is that the Met Orchestra is like an extraordinary actor or actress. They can do so many different roles. So if you say “ladies and gentlemen, we need to be in Vienna in 1786”, or in Russia in 1872, or 1840s Milano, or 1930s America, you get to explore different worlds with them. Because the orchestra has such a broad experience, not only in opera but in music at large, you can often use examples of other music to help them understand and they will take it from there.

For example, when we were working on just the right amount of swing for the Portuguese Theme, I mentioned Gershwin preludes, which have a very famous violin transcription and said “that’s the kind of swing that I would like.” And immediately they all knew what I meant, and they delivered.

Because they are so good at listening to voices there were a couple of times where the precise kind of rhythm that I was getting from the chorus was what I wanted from the orchestra. I could say “orchestra, just listen; chorus, can we do this acapella once more?”

Afterwards, the orchestra would have taken a mental photograph and imposed it on their rhythm. It is just marvelous to have that kind of flexibility and quickness in this sort of music. There are other orchestras that are equally good at lots of different qualities, but, in my opinion, the Metropolitan Orchestra is the best.

OW: Are there any psychological elements for you as a conductor to work with?

DR: The main thing that everyone needs to establish is trust. The singers need to trust that the conductor is there for them at every moment. If one evening they need a little bit more time for a breath, they trust that the conductor will hear it and give it to the orchestra. And the conductor has to trust that the orchestra is paying attention at every moment. I am grateful to know that after 25 years of working at the Met that I have established that trust with the orchestra, with the chorus and the solo voices.

OW: The recording received many accolades. How do you feel about your work being publicly reviewed?

DR: As I was saying at the very beginning, it is important to listen. When you listen critically, you can often hear that people are writing about one thing, but they’re actually trying to say something else. I think it can always be helpful. If you only look at what people are writing–if it’s a great performance or it should be put in the trashcan–then you’re looking for the wrong things. But if you have someone say something like “I noticed this aspect, I feel that there’s this element that should be important, I love the way they do this, but I didn’t like the way they do that”, such things can be very helpful. It helps us in understanding what other people experience of our work. While you may not be able to apply it to another recording of “Porgy and Bess,” you can take that information and use it as part of your overall experience of how things are received.

OW: Music can be perceived so individually, everyone has their own understanding and view of it. Did you ever have moments where you got an opinion and it influenced your performance?

DR: I’m sure there were many. I think the danger with a recording like this is to think that there is one person who is responsible. Because there are passages that Angel Blue sings a certain way, that Eric Owens sings a certain way. They bring to it something that is unique to them. For me as the conductor to think “I could make another person bring that out” is a bit pretentious. It’s a lot pretentious, actually. My situation is to figure out how to take all of this creative energy and focus its light in such a way that it will illuminate the piece.

The influences can be everywhere: maybe it’s something Rouben Mamoulian, the first producer when “Porgy and Bess” was done on stage in 1929, has said, maybe it’s something that a musicologist said, something that one of the players in the orchestra said, something that a chorus member remarked in a break. All of these things become part of the whole experience. They are all so closely knit that I think it’s very difficult to pull it apart and single out the main influence.

OW: I want to ask about the future of opera. This art form survived so long and had to go through so many changes. Yet at the core, it’s still very traditional. How do you see it moving forward in the upcoming years?

DR: I think at the core opera is about telling a story using the original human instrument: the voice. From that point of view, where there may be superficial changes in how something is portrayed, the use of voices to elongate speech and add an extra level of depth, for the story to touch us extremely deeply, will not change. If you look at the range of opera being written today–whether it’s Philip Glass or John Adams or George Benjamin–these are very different approaches to the art form of opera. And yet they all manage to really get us both with the heart and the head in the way that has always drawn us to opera from the very first.


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