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Mark Wigglesworth on conducting Wagner's Parsifal: An interview by Jim Pritchard (JPr)


Mark Wigglesworth. Picture © Ben Ealovega

Mark Wigglesworth was born in Sussex and studied music at Manchester University and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. There have been concerts with most of the UK’s orchestras and many of the finest ensembles in Europe, North America and Australia. He is equally at home in the opera house and he began his operatic career as music director of the Opera Factory in London. Since then he has worked for Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera, Netherlands Opera, The Met, New York, The Royal Opera, Opera Australia and, of course, English National Opera where he has conducted Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Così fan tutte, Falstaff and, most recently, Katya Kabanova. We met a few days before the first performance of a revival of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s well-travelled 1999 production of Parsifal for English National Opera that was on 16th March.

Mark has conducted the Parsifal Prelude recently in concert programmes but this will be the first time he conducts the complete opera. I wondered whether he would feel daunted by the significance of Wagner performances to the history of English National Opera as he enters the pit on the first night of these Parsifal performances.


Actually I think I’ll put myself under more pressure but the music is such a privilege to conduct that it takes over from all the difficulties funnily enough.


It will be now fascinating to do this as part of the opera because I think one should do this completely differently. In concert it is a mini stand-alone tone poem but now I can be subtler because it is the preamble to a long evening. Everybody who comes to the opera knows what they are there for whereas it is possibly different for the concert audience. I’ve also done the Good Friday Music which doesn’t really work on its own to be honest. In its proper place this music creates a most unbelievable moment of simplicity: Wagner gives to this climax in Parsifal music that is profoundly moving. This simple music - done on its own - just doesn’t have the same power.


This was the only work Wagner wrote specifically for Bayreuth and that unique acoustic. Wagner is meant to be played in the pit and have that slight distance on it. With the Parsifal Prelude you are expected to focus on the detail and I think that is was what the Bayreuth acoustic allows. It is often disconcerting when you conduct in an opera house because you never really know what it all actually sounds like.


I must say that the ENO orchestra is breathtaking in the beautiful and flexible music – what it most needs is that flexibility. As we speak we haven’t really rehearsed the Prelude yet because I think that once you’ve played the opera and you get it in your blood the Prelude can then - just essentially - happen. Because of all our rehearsals the orchestra can get to be comfortable with the sound and the context of all the music.


I told Mark how I had learnt about these performances last Easter from Sir John Tomlinson who told me he was preparing to sing Gurnemanz in English for the first time. I asked when he first knew he would be conducting Parsifal and whether he could give me some insight how he had prepared in the intervening time.


I have known about it for over two years and I have been able to plot the preparation into my diary so that I have been able to spend time with it in advance on my own.


Sir John and I started work on this last August, essentially concentrating on the text. When you have a singer who is able to deliver it as he can – it is not just wonderful diction but flexibility once again, as well as, freedom and clarity – it is a total justification for singing it in English so that the audience can really be with us in the moment. I’ve always been a supporter of opera in English when appropriate but when I came to Parsifal it was the only opera I thought – before coming to itit might not be suitable. The piece is not ‘sacred’ but what is sacred is the perfection with which Wagner colours every word exactly the right way. Of course the translation has to have the right meaning – and that is the easy bit – but I was apprehensive about getting that exact alignment, not only with the emotion but also whether it is a consonant or vowel or whether it demands the right energy from the singer. I must say that if you work hard on the translation - and constantly sing it in relation to the original German as we have done - then it is entirely possible as long as you are faithful to Wagner’s intentions.


It’s not perfect ,of course, but the payback – with singers such as Sir John, Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson – is that their diction is so phenomenal. Whenever John sings I want to flick the switch for the surtitles and turn them off.


Wagner started with the text and the music was the easier bit for him and we’re doing the same actually. Wagner when it is text-led is endlessly fascinating; occasionally when singers over-sing it at the expense of the text it causes a wash of sound that you feel is going on too long. In Bayreuth the focus is so much on the singers and the orchestra and that makes it easier to engage in that contrast. It has been great having John give his leadership to the whole cast.


I’ve known Parsifal for 28 years and I like the fact that the singers are really able to perform their roles.


I asked what his first impressions were of Parsifal.


It was when I left school and went to Cologne for six weeks to watch every rehearsal of a new Jean Pierre-Ponnelle production which featured an unknown Waltraud Meier, not doing her first Kundry but her first major one, Thomas Stewart, Karl Ridderbusch and Peter Lindroos. I was so young I really didn’t know who any of these really were. I spent six weeks of my life working on Parsifal every day so I am very steeped in it but at that age I didn’t really understand it. I suspect things work on you sometimes in ways you are not really aware of.


Nikolaus Lehnhoff has described his original production as being ‘an existential drama about the dilemma of human existence’ I asked Mark to comment on this.


This is some endlessly fascinating subject matter and I think particularly for this today’s world where we appear, on the one hand, wonderfully connected cyberwise and through the global economy and all that but potentially I feel that the result is we are all a bit disparate. There are not many things that bring us together and there is a tension in the world; there are too many people and too many things do not work properly. I find there is stress and Parsifal’s message of compassion and being a bit more understanding of each other is very important.


Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production reflects that; the idea of whether being so wise is actually getting us anywhere or is it taking us away from our natural sense of wonder? The idea of Parsifal being a child – or at least childlike in his simplicity rather than a fool which has unfortunate connotations – is I think incredibly touching. If we can find that child with us perhaps it is a way to be at ease with ourselves and with each other.


Mark had previously conducted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Covent Garden and I wonder how that had been for him.


It was a thrill. It is a totally different opera and I found it surprisingly easy at the time because of the reality of the people. I loved the fact that you could almost engage with the real Hans Sachs. It is a very human piece that one can therefore approach on that level. With Parsifal I felt slightly reluctant for a long time to find out who these people are and, of course, they are not ‘real’ people apart that is from Gurnemanz who tells us the story, everybody else appears to be just the embodiment of an idea. I think if you can make that psychological jump and be able to engage with people as an ‘idea’ rather than a ‘character’ then I am comfortable with the subject matter … but I wouldn’t say it is easy.


Looking back I asked when he knew he wanted to become a conductor.


From a very early age I was a pianist and violinist though I always felt these were the means to some other musical purpose. I was either so young that I cannot remember it or it just happened. I went to Bryanston School who were very encouraging and gave one the sense that it is ok to go on and stick your head above the parapet so I just went on from there. I had been more interested in the music than the instrument I was using to play it: perhaps that is a polite way of saying I probably wasn’t very good [Laughs]. There are two aspects to the job of conducting – firstly there is the music but then there is the leadership one and all the psychology that involves. That is in fact the more complex part of my job in a sense that you can’t study that in simple isolation. You can give the music as much time as you want but the subtle – and ultimately incredibly important role – is leading and empowering people and that is more complicated.


I have always been fascinated how some conductors can conduct from memory and wondered - given the complexity of musical scores - how this was possible.


Some people have a photographic memory but I don’t have that. It is difficult to say what I would decide to do from memory but it would not be an opera because I feel that is slightly irresponsible as it’s too much – there is so much that can go wrong that is beyond your control. With a symphony – and anyway I prefer to use the phrase ‘by heart’ – if you really understand it then it can allow you to be free. Some conductors actually feel freer with the score and they are right to do that. For me the decision by heart or not is simply in which way am I freer to go with some spontaneous imagination about a musical idea. I might actually be freer because I have got the security of the score so that’s what I’ll do. I used to do everything by heart but I now appreciate the advantage of not having to engage that particular part of my brain.


I was particular interested in talking to Mark because he is renowned as a Mahler conductor. I have always been keen on spotting hints of Wagner in Mahler’s music and I felt Mark was in an excellent position to comment on how real this connection is. I reminded him how David Matthews had written a famous article about Mahler and Parsifal.


Mahler’s Tenth Symphony is a piece that I have done more than any other Mahler symphony and, of course, ‘Erbarmen!’ is scrawled on the score. In fact when I first did it I conducted it with the Parsifal Prelude and David Matthews was there. It was back in the early 1990s and he told me he was writing his article. I do feel what is fascinating about Wagner and Mahler – and I essentially came to Mahler first – is that they were conductors first and then composers. Dave Matthews being a Mahlerian saw all the things in Mahler that come from Parsifal. The negative instructions such as ‘don’t rush here’ ‘don’t drag here’ and approaching the music from a conductor’s point of view actually started with Wagner. He essentially invented the conductor through the concept of flexible tempo - although that is a slight simplification.


Mahler followed this of course and with late Mahler – and I don’t mean 9, 10 and Das Lied von der Erde that he did not hear and could not revise as a result – you do exactly what he says and it sounds fantastic. You look at the vertical page of Mahler Seven - I have only done it once before and will do it again soon in Melbourne – and there are various instructions about the dynamics he wants all there on one page, so if everybody does that it sounds amazing. I conducted Das Lied recently and as much as I adore it I find it endlessly frustrating to realise that Mahler didn’t hear it and you cannot stop thinking – given how much he changed everything – is that really what he would have wanted? With the Seventh you know precisely what he wanted and that makes my job relatively easy.


I told Mark that I always felt an outsider in the world of Mahler scholarship because I believe Mahler’s music is intrinsically operatic and that he would have composed operas if only his circumstances would have allowed him to.


I agree with you and what I think is significant is what was opera like in Mahler’s day with regard to its staging. Wagner prohibited Parsifal to be played outside Bayreuth and he did this for two reasons, one, of course, is the acoustic which we have already discussed: the other, more interestingly, is that he did not regard it as an opera and did not want it sullied by the theatrical traditions of the time which one tends to assume he considered slapdash and clichéd. Similarly Mahler probably was so surrounded by the compromise and practicality of the whole opera repertoire system that he felt unable to write something for those conditions.


I think his music is incredibly ‘operatic’ but I am wary of categorising music as one thing or another because in Parsifal, for instance, there are moments of such Lieder-like writing. Das Lied is as ‘operatic’ as it comes really and that is why there are so many balance problems in it because Mahler was probably imagining the orchestra pit in some sort of aural sense. There are so many operatic gestures in the Mahler symphonies but this must be judged against the fact he only wrote about 15 hours of music which is about the same as the Ring has.


Mark has been involved in a project to record all the Shostakovich symphonies for BIS and this has been ongoing for several years, I wondered how this was getting on.


It is now finished but they have not all been released yet. It has been 14 years and when you think it is a bit more than one symphony a year it doesn’t seem too bad. It has been wonderful to do them all. The Second and Third Symphonies are traditionally only done as part of a complete cycle because there is the cliché that they are a load of rubbish and full of Soviet propaganda. My record producer and I thought that too and decided to just slot them in at the end. We finished with them this year and it was a revelation how wonderful they were. We had approached them with a certain amount of trepidation but were completely bowled over by the quality of these pieces.


Spending so long on a project I asked whether, looking back, there was anything he was unhappy with.


Yes, there is one recording I would like to do again – the Fifth – from the point of view of regrets over what we did. However all the symphonies are so different that what you learn from one does not tell you how to do another of them: it just gives you the confidence to make a decision about the others – but that is not quite the same thing!


With our time together coming to an end I wanted Mark to let me know anything he was most looking forward to in the near future.


There are various things I am thrilled about but I’m not looking beyond Parsifal right now. To do eight performances with this quality of preparation makes me feel very fortunate. The fact that it is a piece that can constantly grow and - because of the freedom and flexibility we talked about earlier that you need - it is something that can only benefit from that number of performances. Although there is a certain glamour to the first night it is not necessarily the best – come at the end!


© Jim Pritchard


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