Conductor Dane Lam will arrive in Canberra tomorrow, Sunday 21 March, to rehearse National Opera’s inaugural production next month of a Mozart masterwork.
La Clemenza di Tito, a Classical opera seria of emperors and court intrigues in Rome, was one of the first operas Lam conducted, in Manchester in 2009.
Since then, Lam has made a name for himself as “one of Australia’s most talented young conductors” (Limelight Magazine): leading orchestras on four continents, and performing the first Western operas and symphonies heard in China’s former imperial capital, Xi’an. Now he returns to the Mozart opera with greater depth and experience.
“It was great to crack open the old score again, and compare my old markings; to see what had changed, and the way I thought about the music,” Lam said.
Tito is generally considered second-tier Mozart: still one of the 100 most frequently performed operas, but by no means as popular as the three great da Ponte comedies (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte) or the German Singspiele (The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Magic Flute).
Written in the last year of Mozart’s life, 1791, Tito was popular at the turn of the 19th century (it was the first Mozart opera performed in London), but 20th century critics like Alfred Einstein, Edward J. Dent, and Charles Osborne found it a formal, conservative opera, “a museum piece”. More frequent performances in recent years – including splendid, moving productions by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for the New York Metropolitan Opera and by Göran Järvefelt for Opera Australia – have revealed a humane, noble work.
Tito may not be well-known, Lam argues, but it has stunning music and stylistic innovations.
“There is such a wealth of amazing tunes that are also really deeply felt moments.”
The standout moments include a simple but touching duet, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto’; Sesto’s aria ‘Parto, parto!’, as he leaves to assassinate his best friend Emperor Titus, contains vocal fireworks and great passages for the basset horn (a historical instrument like a big clarinet); and the complex villainess Vitellia’s aria ‘Non più di fiori’ is a piece of simple, unadorned, heartfelt emotion.
“Mozart was a crucial turning point in the entire history of opera and musical drama,” Lam believes.
Mozart imbued moving passages of music with action, drama, and real emotion in a way that he says Handel or Gluck did not; the story is carried forward not in speech-like recitative, but in music, highlighted through the orchestra.
“He elevated the operatic art form to a whole other level.”
“They were a very open orchestra, willing to try new things,” he said. “Not all orchestras have that inquisitive and open quality to experiment and try new ways of playing things.”
Lam views conducting as a relationship between conductor, performer, and audience; but opera can be more complex than a symphony. Singers’ instruments are inside them: the voice. “It’s a very sensitive and beautiful thing, but it requires diplomacy, tact, and encouragement,” he said.
The conductor must work hand-in-hand with the director to bring the drama alive in a way that is true to what Mozart wrote, and that singers feel able to deliver their very best – and then convey that to the audience.
Tito is the first production of baritone Peter Coleman-Wright’s fledgling company, which he hopes will put Canberra on the international music map and nurture Australian artists.
Lam remembers discussing a new Australian opera company with Coleman-Wright in London. He thinks National Opera could be “a breeding ground for a whole new generation of Australian singers, conductors, directors, and designers. It could really be the foundation of the whole operatic ecosystem in the region.”
“The National Opera is an excellent treasure for the people of Canberra to have their very own professional opera company promoting the best of Australian singers and opera professionals,” Lam said. “I encourage all Canberrans to embrace the new company, and to cherish it. Come along and experience some fantastic drama and some fantastic music.”
Tito follows “a very busy start” to the year, Lam said: four orchestras, four different programs, in five weeks, conducting the Melbourne (MSO), Queensland (QSO), Adelaide (ASO), and Sydney Symphony Orchestras (SSO).
It was with the ASO that he gave the first live orchestral concert to a paying audience in Australia, following his return in August from London, where he had been based for several years.
“It was a very strange feeling after not conducting for so long,” Lam recalled.
As he started the first movement of Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony – “that blazing, sunny A major” – a lot of feelings welled up, he said. “You could say there were tears in the orchestra as well.”
Perhaps in the audience, too. “It was impossible to be there and not moved,” Lam said.
“Nothing compares to sitting in a room, and having that wave of orchestral sound roll over you, in some proximity to other human beings. That’s what music-making and art are all about: this human quality that we can’t possibly do without. It’s a mystical experience when a group of people, often strangers, are all engaged silently in this most amazing artistry that has stood the test of time.”
In December, Lam was appointed Opera Queensland’s associate music director and resident conductor – a position created for him. Lam, born in Brisbane, was Young Artist with the company a dozen years ago, conducting some of his earliest operas; he will conduct Figaro for them later this year.
He will lecture in conducting at the University of Queensland, his alma mater.
Lam also hopes to return to China, where he has been principal conductor of the Xi’an Symphony Orchestra since 2014. He conducted the first performances of Mahler and Beethoven symphonies and Western operas in China’s former capital.
The orchestra had only been formed the year before: “Mostly younger players without a whole lot of orchestral experience. It was a matter of working out how to build an orchestra from the ground up.” Under his aegis, the XSO has attracted such world-famous soloists as José Carreras, Leo Nucci, and Anne-Sophie Mutter.
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