Portrait de Nathalie Stutzmann par Lionel Esparza.
Portrait de Nathalie Stutzmann par Lionel Esparza.
L’Orchestre symphonique de Seattle. Le Royal Philharmonic de Liverpool. Celui de Stockholm. Le Philharmonique de Londres. L’Orchestre national de Washington. Ceux de São Paulo et Philadelphie… Ce ne sont là que quelques exemples des phalanges que la chef et contralto française Nathalie Stutzmann a été invitée à diriger, ces dernières saisons. Si la liste donne le tournis ce n’est rien à côté de ses engagements présents et futurs.
En résidence auprès de l’Orchestre philharmonique de Rotterdam pour 2018-2019, elle prendra en septembre ses fonctions de chef principale de l’Orchestre symphonique de Kristiansand, en Norvège. Poursuit son mandat de première chef invitée à la Radio de Dublin. Son ensemble, Orfeo 55, est toujours résident à l’Opéra de Montpellier. 2019 devrait la voir diriger La Dame de pique de Tchaïkovski, à La Monnaie de Bruxelles. Et il se pourrait que certaines grandes maisons d’opéra, outre-Atlantique, ne tardent à lui ouvrir leurs portes.
Pour l’heure, c’est un autre défi qui l’attend: diriger la première production lyrique des Chorégies 2018 : Mefistofele de Boito. Première fois qu’elle dirigera à Orange. Première femme tout court, d’ailleurs, à diriger au Théâtre antique. Première fois aussi qu’elle empoignera le pupitre de l’Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France.
Qui plus est dans un titre aussi méconnu du grand public. “Il m’aurait été plus facile de diriger Tannhäuser, que j’ai déjà fait, concède-t-elle. Mais je crois que je suis une femme de défi. Et en dépit de toutes les difficultés qu’il peut poser en termes de gestion de l’acoustique, ce lieu m’inspire. Cette oeuvre aussi. L’opéra italien le plus proche de Wagner. Il y a dans cette fresque métaphysique, qui est plus une succession de tableaux qu’un opéra, tout ce que l’on attend à Orange: de grands airs, des bandas en coulisse, des duos et des choeurs magnifiques. J’ai toujours été à l’aise avec les grosses productions.”
Elle le sait, la tâche ne sera pas aisée. Elle s’en réjouirait presque : “J’ai rarement vu un opéra avec autant de changements de tempi et de caractères”, semble-t-elle s’émerveiller. Elle mettra bien sûr son expérience de contralto à profit pour soutenir les solistes. “Ce sont des rôles lourds, qui demandent des tessitures très belles et très larges. J’ai la chance d’avoir face à moi une distribution de haut vol.”
Outre Erwin Schrott dans le rôle-titre, elle retrouvera en effet Jean-François Borras en Faust, Béatrice Uria-Monzon en Margherita et Marie-Ange Todorovitch en Marta. Elle pourra également compter sur sa propre connaissance du lieu et de son acoustique, qu’elle a déjà pratiquée en tant que chanteuse. Ainsi que sur le soutien indéfectible de Jean-Louis Grinda. “Il a été le premier à me faire confiance pour diriger un opéra à Monte-Carlo. Le fait qu’il soit en plus à la mise en scène a été un argument supplémentaire, s’il en fallait !”
Le public, lui, pourra s’en remettre à la fraîcheur de sa lecture. Plus qu’une aspiration, une philosophie : “Une femme de 95 ans m’a dit un jour: “Le plus important dans ma vie est de pouvoir encore me dire que c’est la première fois.” J’y repense chaque fois que j’entre en scène”, confie l’artiste. Avec la voix et l’humanité profondes qui la caractérisent si bien.
Conducting and singing are at opposite ends of the performing spectrum. Conductors do not need to make any sound during a performance. Singers are unique in using only the vibrations of their own bodies to make music. How have the two extremes interacted in her approach to making music?
“It was such a strange feeling at first for me, despite my long dreams about conducting, to not really directly produce the sound,” she says. “However, I think the conductor does produce the sound in a way. If you put the same orchestra in front of three different conductors, and just ask them to give an upbeat and the first chord, you will get a different sound.”
She goes further. “It’s wrong to think you don’t really produce the sound. You don’t produce it with your body. But your body shows your imagination of the sound you would love to get. You inspire the musicians who are directly producing the sound. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of conducting. Telepathy, in a way. Charisma, of course. But there should be something more, in your body language. The actual body of a conductor has an impact on the sound. A skinny guy will not produce the same sound as a very fat one.”
In relation to her singing influencing her conducting she points out that, “When you see many great conductors in rehearsal they are often singing, or trying to sing. Some have ugly voices but they still do it. Some have beautiful voices, like Riccardo Muti or Carlos Kleiber, and then you hear Karajan just doing this” – she growls hoarsely to imitate the sound.
The conductors are communicating about shape, not about beauty of tone. “They always try to sing the phrase – half of the music is about how to phrase, how to sing a line. When you talk with musicians, they always say they would like to play like a voice. And when you talk to concert singers they always hope to sing as beautifully and purely as an instrument, especially in Bach or Mozart or classical repertoire. The connection, the exchange of experience, what you can share between the two, is really interesting.”
Is there any influence in the other direction? “Has the conducting influenced my singing? I don’t know. But I think I am the sweetest girl with any conductor. Because now I know really how hard it is. You have no idea until you have done it yourself about the storm that is always happening in a conductor’s brain. I have much more respect now, even for the ones I don’t like.”
Her preparation as a singer, she says, was always “very complete and intense”. But even just in terms of time, she says, “it’s nothing compared to what you have to do as a conductor”.
Her study always begins with the big picture. “I want to understand the structure. That’s the most important thing at the beginning. I want to know how it’s built, how the structures of the phrases are made. I play it on the piano, I play every line. If you want to go deeply and imagine how the players feel, for example in a solo, of course I sing it. Then I can sing it to the player during the rehearsal, but I can also just influence him, or I can also prepare and mark the parts of individual players.”
It eats her life, she says, but she finds it very useful. “Most of the time you have three days’ rehearsal, and for the kind of work I like to do, it’s very little. Marking the parts saves a lot of talking. You don’t need to do it for everything. Someone like Mahler writes everything in. For Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann it’s very useful.”
When she has dealt with the overview and the fine detail and she knows what she wants, she does what she says would have been a dream for conductors in the past: searches out other views online and from her extensive CD collection. Stutzmann says she likes to trust orchestral musicians, to encourage them to express themselves freely, even if their views and interpretative approach are different from her own. In this regard she sings from the same hymn sheet as Benjamin Zander, whose rehearsal skills and theories about orchestral practice took flight in a way that enabled him to launch an independent career as a management guru.
Her debut with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in February was an intimate, soft-spoken, chamber music-like experience. The quality of an orchestra, she says, is better judged by the hush of its pianissimos than by the blaze of its climaxes. She talks of taking time in rehearsals to remind players of what their colleagues are doing, drawing their attention away from what is the immediate and obvious focus of interest. Quite apart from the obvious shift in balance that can result, there’s another kind of shift that results from helping players to listen in a different way, too.
When you listen differently, you play differently.
The newly appointed principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra talks to Toby Deller about her dual career.
“I am never happy if I work with people who have no really instinctive reactions,” says Nathalie Stutzmann. “If I do a rubato, the kind of people who say: “You’re going faster here and slower there”. I know immediately it’s impossible.” She does so cheerfully, however, even though it is after a day’s rehearsing at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo where she is preparing to conduct Tannhäuser. But then, as she goes on to add, “You need a lot of humour in rehearsals – in the world, in music. I love to work very hard and I’m very disciplined but some people take themselves so seriously that it’s very boring.”
The observation comes after some 30 years as a contralto with an international career and now more than 50 recordings to her name. But she also says it as one of the rare singers of that kind of calibre to have made an undeniably successful diversion into orchestral conducting. The move first came to fruition in 2009 when she set up the period and modern instrument chamber orchestra Orfeo 55, taking on a hybrid role of conductor and singer that allowed her a greater freedom to develop interpretations closely with instrumentalists. “Everybody said it’s impossible, you can’t sing and conduct at the same time; I said it’s possible and I did it. And now many people copy [the idea] and I’m very happy!”
In fact, Stutzmann’s dreams of conducting go back further, when she also played the bassoon and piano and before her singing took her in another direction. “I was always fascinated by the conductor’s work, and when I was a teenager I wanted to conduct. But when I was a teenager, being a woman was a big issue and it was very clear when I was attending the conducting class that the teacher was very unfriendly and wouldn’t give me any chance to get on the podium. I quickly understood that I couldn’t make it as a woman, so I left it and I was so lucky with the voice. But I guess I always had a little hope in my brain that things would change a little bit and evolution would allow me to go on with that passion.”
She credits two conductor friends with helping her make the initial transition: Seiji Ozawa, who invited her to test the water by conducting his orchestra in Japan; and Sir Simon Rattle, who pointed her in the direction of the conducting teacher Jorma Panula. After an incognito audition with this “maestro of maestros”, as she calls him, she was accepted into his class, fitting sessions into her singing career. She also began working on a mentor basis with Rattle (who she still consults) and invitations to conduct started to come from outside of her own ensemble: her freelance engagements outside France have included Japan, the USA, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK – she will be with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in late March.
One of the most anticipated highlights every year of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s holiday calendar is Handel’s Messiah. The world seems a little less divided when the audience stands up and sings the chorus of Hallelujah in unison. The Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, led by Joe Miller, will perform the oratorio with the orchestra this year on December 18 at 2pm at the Kimmel Center. French conductor and vocalist Nathalie Stutzmann will be making her Philadelphia Orchestra conducting debut. She has previously conducted the Messiah in Detroit and at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to great acclaim.
Stutzmann is a different kind of conductor. She believes her victory as a conductor comes when she finishes a rehearsal and the back of the orchestra is smiling as they play. She said, “If I give them the pleasure to play, if I remind them why they want to make music, if they are happy to play, they will give me everything.”
Your eyes don’t deceive you. Yes, that’s Nathalie Stutzmann, the distinguished French contralto, conducting Handel’s Messiah with the Philadelphia Orchestra at 2 p.m. next Sunday at the Kimmel Center. Like soprano Barbara Hannigan, Stutzmann is serious about conducting – to judge from the radio broadcast of her St. Louis Symphony Orchestra guest-conducting date this year. Her rendition of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 exuded insight, intelligence, strategy, and the kind of heat one associates with Gustavo Dudamel. How those virtues translate into Handel’s Messiah remains to be seen. But it’s a fair bet the performance won’t be routine.
David Patrick Stearns