An Interview with WA Opera's Brad Cohen
Ahead of his opening of the classic opera Lucia Di Lammermoor on 26th October, we sat down to have a chat with the creative director of the Western Australian opera, conductor Brad Cohen!
So this is the 50th year of the WA opera. Did you choose Lucia Di Lammermoor on purpose to celebrate the anniversary?
Yes, this is the piece that pays tribute to our history. And so in the 50th year we wanted to celebrate the whole history of the company, because firstly Lucia is traditionally a vehicle for great Australian sopranos and we’ve got one here, Emma Pearson. And we’re doing in the production of Joan Sutherland, the original made her own. So it’s about continuity, really. Some of the pieces here are looking forward, like the gala earlier this year and tosca was a new production, but this is all about our history.
I did read in your blog that this year’s productions continue your vision of renewal from within. Do you feel as if Lucia does this also?
Well the renewal in Lucia comes from the casting, the actual production is known and old, and beautiful, but the casting is new.
So this is a dramatic opera, do you think you have more fun with this genre than others?
No (laughs), I have fun doing whatever I do. There’s definitely a lot of fire and brimstone in this one, but theres plenty of that in the others as well. The thing that I love about Lucia is working with voices, particularly that I’m their obedient slave most of the time.
That’s how you view yourself?
Absolutely. I’m just enabling them to do their best. I’m less kind of controlling than I am in some other oepras, it really is about enlisting the best in a very particular kind of style. I don’t impose myself, I really try and listen intently to what they’re doing and respond to it. I never arrive with a fixed idea of how it should go. I really listen to them in the first rehearsals and think, oh okay that’s what they can bring to that moment. So that will determine the tempo and such.
You’re in your third year of being artistic director for the WA opera, obviously increasing your work load. Did that seem like a daunting task?
No, I was looking forward to it. It's not a massive time commitment for me, I spend about 16 weeks of the year here in three blocks. I was excited by it.
Yeah great, did it seem like a natural progression for you?
Absolutely, yes as a conductor but also a natural progression with my relationship with the company because I’ve been here as a guest three times and so I’ve built up a lot of relationships so I knew what I was coming to. Sometimes people are appointed artistic director and they don’t really have much experience with the company, but I wasn’t in that experience. It definitely felt like an organic development.
Is the role of artistic director something you always thought you would do?
(Pauses). I don’t know really. I think I wanted to be responsible for the artistic direction of a company at some stage, it wasn’t the title. Because I could have become the music director of a company, but I love being an artistic director here because my responsibilities go way beyond the music to all the choice of directors and productions and the whole thing so that’s very rewarding for me. I’m not just one of those musicians who just stay in their little box; I’m all about the unity of what we’re doing.
Every day must be a little different, you’ve got so many things going on...
It’s like a really complicated jigsaw puzzle; you have good and bad days, obviously. All operas have a different colour and I think this one especially, is very distinct.
What do you mean by colour?
Well it’s a phrase that Verdi used, he said each one of his operas has what he called a tint and it's just the colour of the voices he used and how dark the story is, what kind of weight everything has. All these pieces exist in a little world of their own, and I go to that Lucia place and in rehearsals, I’m in that little world. It's not like any other world, I can't really describe it any better than that.
Do you have a favourite scene?
I love the mad scene obviously, that’s what everyone is waiting for, but so musical and dramatic as well.
Does your conducting ever get affected by the level of interest you develop into the opera?
No, I wouldn’t be a professional if I got too carried away (Laughs). My role is to energise and make everyone else explode, but I have to keep perspective on the whole thing. It's not that I’m involved, I’m totally involved, but I have to keep that perspective. Otherwise, if I lose that I’m not really doing my job right. My job is to offer a framework that everyone else can feel.
At Isolated Nation we have a younger demographic audience. Do you believe a certain genre provides a larger surge of interest to younger audiences? Any particular genre?
I think younger audiences have a different dramatic sensibility to opera than older ones. Because of all the shows we watch, the Breaking Bads and the Netflix culture, they have a different way of receiving stories, to the older generation, but that’s just my feeling. And our expectations are slightly different. So when we see a very traditional production we don’t connect with it as well as something that puts a bit of charge into things, that mix of very traditional static productions I think older audiences like them but younger viewers are a little bewildered by them, as it doesn’t really speak to them in the right way. But last year when we did Elixir of Love, the younger people absolutely loved it, they really got it. It was set in a country town, it was the playfulness of it that I think really worked. It was a light touch that really worked.
You’ve conducted orchestras as well, not just operas. What would you say the main difference was? Do you enjoy any one more?
No, I love them both but operas are much more complex. If you think of them both as engines, opera has many more parts, that’s the only difference really. The emotion and the messaging and the intensity are all the same. It's just that operas are in a much much bigger frame and you have singers and stage to deal with and lighting and everything, you know.
Have you ever dropped the baton?
(laughs) All the time. Flown into people’s heads, into violins, all of it. Usually, one of the violinists will jump down and get it for you. which is very kind of them.
Can you give us any clues as to what to expect for your productions next year?
Without giving too much away, my theme for next year is free spirits and how do you decide the kind of life you’re going to live and how you execute that life in a way that is your choice and not forced on you. That’s the kind of question we’re posing to everyone in our audiences next year and all the operas we’re doing speak to those questions. We’re widening our scope next year, definitely. Every year I’m here I try to increase the diversity in demographics so instead of a very traditional opera for one audience, we’re trying to have a little more distinction, like this piece will be great for families and so on. It's like finding touch points for everyone, so we don’t just have one vanilla audience. I believe strongly we don’t have just one audience in Perth. I just want to get away from that idea.
Lucia Di Lammermoor opens next week on the 26th of October
Get tickets here!