The lightning conductor

Mark Elder left English National Opera for a larger stage. But now he's back
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The Independent Culture
It's A stressful business, making music. At least that was the conclusion of a recent conference on the mental health of orchestral players which cited unsympathetic, overbearing conductors as a prime source of professional angst. That's one side of the story. Mark Elder puts another, which is that slick, ill-disciplined, clockwatching orchestral musicians can be a prime source of stress for the conductor. The difference is that he's never had any truck with it.

"I always treat individuals in an orchestra as if they have something to offer, and I expect them to give," he declares. "My job is to give some integrity to the performance. That may mean I'll ask them to play something in a way they won't want to, but that's for me to decide. What I can't bear is laziness, when people aren't giving." So what does he do about it? "They get the devil's glare. They know that I know because my eyes are everywhere."

He utters these words with the sort of deliberate composure that only thinly conceals the basilisk beneath. Mark Elder CBE is still on the youthful side of 50 (just), but his style is that of the old-school maestro: dictatorial, often stern, temperamentally apart. It's hard to imagine him knocking five minutes off the end of a rehearsal and joining the brass section for a pint. He has never much courted popularity. When he first took on English National Opera as Music Director at the age of 32, he did not flinch from inflicting pain in pursuit of the highest musical standards: making swingeing changes of personnel; stamping out the age- old practice of deputising, whereby players could pay colleagues to turn up in their stead; insisting and insisting that the musicians match the level of commitment he himself was prepared to make to each new score. It may have earned him the spiteful nickname "The Ayatollah", but it worked. Whatever audiences and critics thought of the more way-out ENO productions during the Eighties, everyone agreed that what came from the pit was consistently magnificent.

Then, in 1993, he threw it all up. After 14 years as Music Director, having raised the quality of both chorus and orchestra to an all-time high, he decided to go freelance. In a savagely competitive profession, he reasoned, there was a need to be seen to be earning one's spurs in prominent places. And the Coliseum, for all that we hold it dear, is not prominent on the world circuit. A less principled man would have made it a sinecure and done his own thing willy-nilly. But Elder believes that "the job at ENO needs one really to commit to it, not just to turn up and do a few rehearsals and go away. The company lives and performs under the greatest duress, and they need real, passionate championing."

You could argue that ENO has suffered its greatest moments of duress as a direct result of Elder's going. Discretion forbids him to comment on the short reign of his successor, Sian Edwards, but in theatre-bar circles it was rumoured at one point that the board was poised to beg Elder to return. However, Elder's diary is now pretty well booked up into years that start with a two, and the man himself is determined to enjoy what he calls "throwing himself to the lions". He no longer has the luxury of players drilled to his own exacting methods of working, of course. He must take what he finds. Does this mean a re-emergence of Elder the demon headmaster?

"Building a rapport," he says, "whether over a short period of time or a long one, is fundamental to the job. If you know each other well you start in on a different level. But your ability to centre on the music, to portray the music with gesture, to ask for things that then transform the sound and produce the right effects, that's the craft of the conductor. It can be tiresome, though, after all this time, to feel that one is on trial. That probably sounds arrogant. I do understand that if you're not known somewhere, you may be 95 years old but if you haven't conducted in Siberia, you've got to start from scratch in Siberia. But one always hopes that there is an organic development in one's career. And there simply isn't always."

But opera is international, so isn't it pretty much the same working at La Bastille as at the Met?

"You may work with soloists you know," he concedes, "but the orchestras and choruses are indigenous, and fascinatingly so. I've always been interested in the word, what it is about a national characterisitic or temperament that is expressed through the way they speak, because it's absolutely related to melody. Players articulate their music as if they were talking words, and then they construct sentences, then paragraphs, and that's where the conductor comes in - trying to make each individual syllable part of the paragraph as a whole."

Elder spurns the services of an interpreter when conducting abroad - "you lose that direct contact, the process is too remote" - and has become adept at rehearsing in German and French, and indeed American. He makes his Italian debut this summer, so he's brushing up on his Italian. What this permanent globe-trotting has done - ironically - is to reinforce his fundamental belief in what ENO stands for: "That there's a place for opera in the language of the country, whether it's England or Germany or wherever." Doesn't the advent of surtitles change things? Not much in his view: "They're helpful in slow-moving operas. Otherwise they're an infernal nuisance." At ENO he is famous for spending hours poring over the translations with librettists, "making the words good, making the words credible so that the singers are proud to sing them." This goes well beyond what most conductors see as their brief, and is clearly an issue that fires him.

"Operas are about theatre," he says with emphasis, "theatre that is heightened, and empowered, and inseminated by the presence of of music. The drama - the way the characters think and dream and talk to each other - is the first thing. The music makes it plain, or moving, or stange. But it's that way round. So that when you're doing an opera in a foreign language and all the cast are foreign to that language, you're compromised. Choruses never have the time to really learn what they're singing about so it never, ever lives. To me this is anathema. Like Madame Tussaud's."

There are certainly no waxworks in Elder's latest project, a new production with a new translation of Berlioz's vibrant dramatic legend, The Damnation of Faust, back at his old stamping ground at the Coli. It is his third new production as ENO guest conductor in the four years since he left, and one in which he rejoins forces with David Alden, his compagnon de guerre from the Eighties. Getting his teeth into the world's wildly colourful sound-world with both orchestra and chorus has been a joy to him. "It requires the chorus to be holier than possible one moment - singing with the most gorgeous tone - and be lager louts the next. I absolutely love rehearsing it, because you have to make it live."

There are those at ENO who still can't understand why Mark Elder chose to go. Some who know him well believe he now finds himself in a bit of a wilderness, and craves a major job again. There will be an empty seat at Covent Garden in the not-too- distant future. But the next incumbent there is likely to be one who's been winning his spurs for some time. So, for the time being, this roving conductor will rove.

'The Damnation of Faust' opens at the Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), tomorrow.

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