Dallas — These days conductors in international demand spend their life on the road. They go from city to city, sometimes in America but other times in Finland or South America. They stay in luxury hotels and have their every need catered to but, as glamorous as that sounds, it gets old in a very short time. After all, when you return to your hotel tired after long rehearsals, or worse, after a magnificent performance, there is no one there to greet you or share the moment. Skype isn't the same. A phone call later, you are still alone and, no matter how nice the hotel, it is not the same as being at home.
Such has been the life of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume for years, who has conducted at many of the major opera houses in Europe and America, including the Santa Fe Opera, where we photographed him this summer. He was also the Music Director at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. from 2001 to 2010.
But on his recent arrival at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it was different; more like coming home. That's because Dallas will become his home base, as he's soon making his debut as only the third musical director at the Dallas Opera since it was founded in 1957.
In an interview several weeks ago, the happiness in his face was apparent as he described the feeling of being home as the airplane approached the landing. And in a more recent interview, he appears even happier now that he is in the middle of rehearsals for Bizet's Carmen, which opens the Dallas Opera's 2013-14 season on Friday.
"When we met a few weeks ago, I hadn't even had the first rehearsal so all I could say was how comfortable everything felt on my arrival,” he says. “Now, I can tell you that the actual experience of preparing this opera has exceeded my most optimistic predictions. The cast is a joy to work with and they could be in a production in any major house in the world. The chorus and orchestra are also excellent. So, my overall impression is completely positive. Everything is in place for a great night.”
Actually, it is only by a concurrence of events that Villaume will be on the podium for his first opera as musical director. These things are cast far in advance and conductors' schedules fill up years ahead. As it turns out, once he was contacted by the Dallas Opera as a serious candidate, he cleared some room in his schedule this October—just in case.
Villaume is a vibrating mass of positive energy, but he is also well aware that a music director must fit the community and is not just the biggest name available. While he knew that he had the qualifications for the job and the international reputation to back it up, there was always that “it” factor over which he had no control. He didn't need to worry because his personality and energy has charmed everyone. There is nothing of the “great maestro” about him whatsoever, even though he is one.
In addition to being the Music Director for the Dallas Opera, he holds the post of Chief Conductor of the National Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra in Bratislava; and from 2008 to 2013, was Chief Conductor of the National Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra in Ljubljana. The respect that other conductors haughtily demand is freely accorded to Villaume, without a single afterthought, by everyone he works with.
Even though he didn't have any input in the matter, he's excited about this cast. This fact alone bodes well for the future. If there were noticeable differences in casting philosophy between the Dallas Opera artistic staff and the music director, that would wear a blister over time.
He is especially pleased with Clémentine Margaine, who will sing the all-important title role. Much like Puccini's Madame Butterfly and Verdi's La Traviata, the casting of Carmen dictates the rest of the cast.
“Margaine's name is just beginning to circulate among the big European houses as a mezzo on the rise, and rapidly,” says Villaume. “She is a real mezzo, with the darkness required for the most ominous moments, like the card scene, yet has the steel to project over everything in the biggest moments. Further, she makes a good contrast with our Micaëlla, Mary Dunleavy. These are two very different voices. Further, we have two fine singers portraying Don José (Brandon Jovanovich and Bruno Riberio), both of which have the voice and are completely believable in the role.”
This contrast between the two loves in Don Jose's life is critical to the dramatic crux of the opera. Micaëlla is the girl from back home and Carmen is the Gypsy.
“We want to emphasis that contrast,” he says. “One way we are doing that is by opening all of the music that is usually cut, so that the characters have more time to develop. “Micaëlla represents everything wholesome: mother, sister, family and a life well lived. Carmen represents just the opposite: lust, darkness, the liberty and freedom of being an outlaw. Also, these two voices are dramatically balanced, with [Dunleavy's] beautiful lyric sound juxtaposed against the dark resonance of [Margaine].”
This is a dark opera, no doubt about it. The pall of death hangs over the entire plot. Carmen predicts it for herself. Don José feels it coming. Escamillo, the bullfighter (Dwayne Croft) who is the other love interest for Carmen, faces it every day in the bull ring. In fact, it is that danger that first attracts her to Escamillo. That, and the fact that he is a big sports hero, much like today's star football players and other famous athletes.
Carmen is opéra comique, although there isn't a single funny moment. While the term may have originated for funny shows, by the time of Carmen, it meant an opera with dialogue which was presented at the Opéra Comique theater, as opposed to the Paris Opera.
“We have condensed the dialogue to the bare essentials,” says Villaume. “Perhaps with a French speaking audience, you could do all of the spoken dialogue, but it really isn't necessary for following the plot and the motivations of the characters.”
It was the shocking nature of the plot that created quite a scandal before and after its premiere, and nearly led to the management canceling the production all together. Opening night was a complete fiasco, with a glacial audience, sitting stunned. Critic Ernest Newman wrote that the audience was "...shocked by the drastic realism of the action." He went on to decry the criminality and vacant morality of the characters. The opera played to half-empty houses, even with many tickets given away.
Carmen has proved to be a bridge to the next opera tradition that was waiting in the wings, verismo. This is opera about real people, not kings and royality. Carmen set the stage for that with its disreputable characters: thieves, army deserters, and an onstage murder. Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana came later and defined the genre for decades to come, but Carmen paved the way.
Bizet never knew the impact of his opera. Right after the 33rd performance, Bizet died from ill health brought on by overwork and heavy smoking, finished off with a heart attack, at the shockingly early age of 36. Many of our great opera composers, such as Verdi and Wagner, were just getting started by that age. Bizet died thinking that Carmen was a failure.
“I would like to give him a call,” Villaume says. “I would like to let him know that Carmen is the most popular opera in the world.”
There is a story that Bizet was seen in the wings, watching his opera, on the night he died. Maybe he already knows.