'Harry Potter is way more complicated than any opera plot': In conversation with Harry Bicket
Lillie Harris caught up with Harry Bicket before The English Concert's performance of Messiah in Bristol, to talk about religion, humanism, theatres, and accessibility...
LH: The soprano Erin Morley described working with The English Concert as ‘a riveting, dramatic experience’. Music can be thrilling but can also be a relaxing experience that lets the audience drift along happily, like a warm bath. What makes performances with TEC so engaging?
HB: The English Concert is made up of a very extraordinary group of musicians - we’re an orchestra, but every single member of that orchestra is, in their own right, a great soloist. There are people who have very strong musical opinions, they’re incapable of playing a note in a boring way. Sometimes in orchestras, people feel their individuality is somehow being sucked out of them, because you have to play together - and it sounds like a contradiction, but it is possible to take personal responsibility for every note you play and be a good colleague, blending and playing at the same time as everyone else. It seems antithetical, but actually in a great orchestra it’s not, and that’s what I find in this orchestra: I get so much energy coming off them. Most singers are astonished when they first start working with the orchestra, because they can’t believe that almost instantaneously, whatever they do, the orchestra is there with them, moulding, shaping with them, always listening. You can’t relax, it’s impossible for us to do that! We’re always completely on, 100%.
LH: Do you find that what you may have rehearsed with the orchestra before the soloists arrive ends up being quite different depending on who those singers are?
HB: Oh totally, yeah. It depends if it’s a piece that’s well known, or not - the Messiah is a piece that we all know and have performed a million times, so we know the parameters. But even so, there’s stuff that some of the singers have brought this time round, which is very different to what we’ve done before. It’s thrilling, and we’re very happy because it keeps us on our toes, and we find new ways of looking at it: ‘We always play that piano, what if we do it forte with more of an attack, to match the words and the way they’re colouring it?’ It’s a very polished but very deep-thinking orchestra; they all think the whole time.
LH: There’s often a perception of ‘classical’ music as being boring, but the Messiah in particular is dramatic and emotional. How important do you think emotional sensitivity is when performing this music, and what is it about the ensemble of musicians in TEC that does this well?
HB: Different orchestras need different things. I conduct all over the world with a lot of modern orchestras as well as with period orchestras, and for something like the Messiah, the Chicago will need something very different from me [compared] to what The English Concert needs. They need help with style, with articulation, with colour, those kinds of things; my orchestra [TEC] really just need an idea. So I can say, ‘This needs to be more about loss than it needs to be about faith.’ Now an aria can have both those aspects, but just by saying that they channel that, find their own emotional response for it, and then find a sound to match that. It may not be instantaneous, but everyone is invested in finding an emotional response to it. What’s been wonderful on this project is that what Tom Morris has done with the staging has reminded us a lot about how extraordinary this music is. It’s great music anyway, and it still has an amazing impact.
I was in China recently and I was asked by someone in the audience, ‘How are we meant to respond to the Bach B Minor Mass because we don’t believe in God?’ I said, ‘I don’t believe in God either!’ The idea of faith is something I think that human beings have - it doesn’t need to be about a deity, just how do we make sense of humanity, life, death, and loss? I think Handel does that. Someone once asked Handel, ‘Do you expect the Messiah to help people find God?’ He said, ‘I don’t want people to find God, I just want to make them better.’ That’s a great, humanist view and I feel exactly the same way - the power of this music to make people feel better about themselves, or less desperate about their lives, is fantastic. This audience’s response was fantastic in that respect.
LH: It’s amazing that such an humanist attitude existed then and is still relevant today, just trying to improve people’s lives.
HB: Even more so, yeah.
LH: There was some controversy in the early days of the Messiah’s existence, regarding its performances in non-sacred, theatre spaces. The Hallelujah Chorus was later re-used for a benefit concert for the Foundling Hospital in London - do you think that was what ‘saved’ the work, or did it simply have its own merits?
HB: Well no, because Handel wrote forty operas and many oratorios, and it’s amazing how many of the great ones were total flops. But it was partly the culture in those days - everything was about new music; you were only as good as your latest piece. So there was a throwaway culture in a way, but we know the Messiah was, right from the start, a massive hit. Everyone knew it was a really successful piece. The controversy I think was slightly overplayed; it has never been out of the repertoire, and Mozart was so enamoured he did his own arrangement of it. If you compare that to someone like Bach, whose music for a hundred and fifty years was lost and not played, then suddenly rediscovered - we can’t imagine that now! But Handel’s Messiah has never, ever been out of the repertoire, and that has to be to do with people’s response to it, and the emotional significance of it.
LH: The Handel theme will continue for you and TEC, moving from oratorio to opera with your upcoming tour of Ariodante this year, following Theodora (2014), Alcina (2014), Hercules (2015), and Orlando (2016) - what to you is special about Handel’s writing as opposed to his contemporaries (such as Bach, Telemann, or Vivaldi)?
HB: There’s a slightly hackneyed quote, ‘Bach writes about God and Handel writes about Man.’ I think that’s very true, and in the operas particularly: even if they’re ostensibly about Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, or the King and Queen of Bithynia, the actual arias (which is where the meat of the opera is) are all about what it’s like to be in love, or to be in love with your friend’s wife; what it’s like to be threatened, to be a good ruler - all these eternal questions that humans have. One of the things that people say when they’ve heard these pieces is how very contemporary they feel the themes are - that’s why it speaks to people, because you go, ‘Yeah, I know someone like that!’ or ‘I’ve been in that situation before.’ I think Handel gets that in such an economic way with the music. Beethoven used to say, ‘If you want to make the biggest gesture with the fewest number of notes, look at Handel.’ He knew how to use apparently very simple chord progressions to devastating effect - you find yourself being so touched by the simplest tune, the simplest harmony. Yes, Vivaldi can do that, but what Handel takes ten bars to do takes Vivaldi a hundred bars to do. There’s something so distilled and beautiful about what Handel does, and we know he took a lot of care to do that. You see the drafts he did of even the smallest aria, he keeps cutting out bars - a bit like Mozart did at the end of his life, as the arias he wrote then are modelled on earlier work, just distilled down to fifty bars from two hundred and fifty.
LH: Handel increasingly moved from opera to oratorio - was this primarily due to changes in musical fashion do you think, or was Handel motivated by religion?
HB: I think he was motivated a lot by the Enlightenment idea of ‘oratory’ - that’s why the term became ‘oratorio’. The idea of speaking truths. This was around the time of the philosophical movement that led to the United States of America, and the Declaration of Independence starts with ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’. It was the first time anyone was allowed to say that, as before it was ‘God says this’ or ‘The King says this’. The idea that truths even exist was quite a new idea, as was the idea that you could use oratory to speak to those things. For Handel, the draw was for a numbers of reasons: firstly, the chance to say something in English. This poor audience in London had been sitting through Italian operas for so long, none of them spoke Italian! So you have something in English, with Old Testament stories for the burgeoning Jewish community in London, and Theodora is absolutely talking about persecution - religious persecution. There’s a great line, ‘Ought we not to leave the free-born mind of Man forever free? For vain is the attempt to force belief with the severest instruments of death.’ I did that piece during the Iraq war - and this [work] was written in the eighteenth-century! There was a man saying at the same time, ‘I think if people are Muslim, they should probably just be left being Muslim. Certainly using guns to tell them to change their belief is probably not what we should be doing.’
We know from [Handel’s] writings that he was a funny mix; he was someone who both dined with the King, but also the man that left the bulk of his fortune to an orphanage, the Foundling Hospital. He was both a man of the people, and someone who mixed in High Society, and he used that - he knew he could do good, could make people better. Yes, there was the issue of not being able to perform opera in Lent, but he never went back to opera - it’s as if he went, ‘This is actually an interesting thing, and I can use these Biblical stories to say things I can’t in opera and certainly couldn’t say publicly about the way man should treat his fellow man.’
LH: Do you think that also has to do with how stripped-back an oratorio is as opposed to an opera? Because it was a newer form, did it allow him greater freedom?
HB: Maybe, but the oratorios all have stage directions. In Theodora, where Didimus is disguised and goes into the cell to get Theodora out, it does say: ‘Enter Didimus, his visor shut.’ And then he has to sing an aria! You couldn’t do that on the operatic stage anyway, so the whole point is he knows you’re not going to wear a visor during an oratorio, but you can say that he’s in there and is disguised. It’s not like they’re not theatrical, or there aren’t stage directions, or that kind of plot. I think the big difference in the oratorios is that of course he suddenly uses choruses, and in fact the chorus become, mostly, the absolute focal point of the piece, whereas in the operas there are very, very few with choruses.
LH: And a lot of the choruses are what we favour today of the oratorios.
HB: Well, because also with the great choral tradition in the UK, when people want to put on a piece with a large choir, there had better be a lot of chorus! And Handel is perfect for that.
LH: Ever the entrepreneur!
LH: Do you think it is necessary to understand the meanings and provenance of the sacred texts used in Handel’s oratorios to ‘understand’ the music?
HB: I don’t think there are many texts that are not fairly self-evident. There are some where you read them, and it’s ‘His yoke is easy, and his burden is light’. Even when you say it over and over again, you go: ‘I’m not entirely sure what he’s talking about there!’
What Tom has done, which is so brilliant, is to give a very clear emotional and visual context, so that actually the words are part of a bigger whole - whereas obviously when you just do it on stage in a concert, you have the music and the text and that’s it. Tom’s idea of setting it as a funeral [means] the whole piece is an emotional journey through grief: how do you, even as a non-believer, reconcile loss and hope, faith and despair? For an example, ‘Rejoice greatly’ is not just someone rejoicing, it’s someone trying to persuade people to find hope. That’s a very difficult concept to do in a concert, but in the context of what you see on stage [in our staged interpretation], you get it completely.
LH: How much work goes into arranging a tour of an opera like your upcoming Ariodante? Have you had to make concessions for practicality?
HB: We don’t really stage those operas that go to Carnegie Hall and around Europe - they are concert performances. But having said that, we do ‘stage’ it in that we have a playing area, and people come on and off, and they interact so that if someone is singing an aria to someone else, that other character will be in the space. No, we can’t possibly take sets and costumes with us - the cost of it would be impossible, as well as the rehearsing. We have three or four days of rehearsal and that’s it. In an opera house, there would be a five- or six-week rehearsal period. But I always try to find people who have sung the roles before, and then we work incredibly quickly. With the level of singers attracted to work with our orchestra, so far we’ve had some amazing casts. For Ariodante, someone said to me, ‘You could never put that cast together in an opera house, they just wouldn’t all be free at the same time!’ But for us, because there’s just four days of rehearsal, they can do it.
LH: You are an incredibly accomplished and successful director of operas - a musical form that is still incredibly popular even today. What is about operas that appeals to you?
HB: It doesn’t always work - but for me it’s a kind of mind-bending fusion of so many elements that when it works, the whole is more than the sum of the parts. I think that is so exciting. The music of this repertoire is incredible. Handel is probably best known now for Messiah, but if you talked to someone in the eighteenth century and said, ‘What does Mr Handel do?’ they would have said, ‘He writes operas.’ The oratorios were not that well known, and certainly Messiah is very untypical of his oratorios so in a way it’s the weird, black sheep of the oratorios; it doesn’t really have a linear story; it’s a funny collection of text. But in opera, there is a virtuosity about the fact you can get these people doing all these incredible things: the coordination of the set, the costumes, the visual things. I always loved the front of house stuff as well - I used to love the tickets, the little stubs on the tickets - there was always something very exciting to me about that. I know that people who get the bug just get the bug.
It’s given a bit of an unfair press in this country - I don’t understand why. Generally, the mainstream media (if you like) still follow the line of ‘It’s elitist’, but it’s been proven time and time again just statistically that it’s not elitist. If you look at the numbers, the cost of the ticket, all that, it’s clearly not elitist. But you can’t shake that somehow, and there’s no one really going ‘Let’s give this up because it’s not true’; it’s simply not true. I think a lot of younger people; with music in schools being cut back so much, they have no exposure to it so to them, it’s very weird. But I have two small children, both under five: they’ve been coming to opera since before they could walk, and they’re not opera fiends but they just see it as something completely normal.
LH: Do you think that’s what we ‘need’ - to make it normal in this country? How might we go about doing that?
HB: Not to make going to an opera mandatory or anything, just saying ‘be open’. Children are so open - when you’ve got them in a music class, you don’t have to play them Beethoven, play them some Stockhausen! They’ll be just as fascinated by that, but we’re so cautious, not wanting to give them something they might be ‘put off’ by - they’d love [Stockhausen]! Loads of percussion, electronics, are you kidding me? What’s not to like about that? They’ll probably like that far more than a piece of Vivaldi but no-one ever does that. I don’t really know what teachers are taught themselves to do in class; all I would say is just have a teacher who is open-minded - who says, ‘Yeah, just go for that.’ Go to pop concerts too; I’m not advocating for everyone to go to classical music; I just hate the fact that it’s got a reputation for being specialised. People say about opera, ‘Oh, I need to read the libretto before I go.’ I go, ‘No you don’t!’ When you go to a movie, you don’t read the story; when you read a novel, you don’t read a synopsis to tell you what’s about to happen. Why can’t you just go to an opera and either be engaged, or not be engaged? I would ban all synopses - for me, I read about two sentences and I’m totally confused! If a child can understand the intricacies of all the Harry Potter books, they can get through an opera. Harry Potter is way more complicated than any opera plot, and yet people say opera is so complicated.
LH: Especially when opera plots are based on human stories that we would all recognise, as we’ve discussed, and that are repeated several times!
HB: Exactly, exactly - if not more!
LH: If you could pick two pieces or movements across any of his works that together ‘best demonstrated’ Handel’s range of expression, which would they be?
HB: I’d probably pick something like ‘Scherzo infida’ from Ariodante, which is the emotional core of the piece - somebody who thinks they’ve just seen their fiancée enter the bedroom of another man, and he’s just suddenly completely dumbstruck that this person could do that to him. He sings an aria ‘Scherzo infida’ - unfaithful games - saying, ‘Go ahead, you play your tricks, but when I’m dead I will come back and haunt you for this.’ It’s one of the most beautiful arias he ever wrote, it’s just hypnotic in its power and to me, it’s very like the way we think about things in real time. That criticism of opera, ‘Oh they’re saying the same thing over and over again’, well if you’ve just been dumped, you can sit in a room and curse for hours and nobody says, ‘You’re saying the same thing over and over again’ - that’s the way we are!
[Also] one of his joyful pieces, ‘Da Tempeste’. The last Cleopatra aria in Julius Caesar which is about nothing - it’s about a ship, it’s a simile aria. ‘When a ship returns to harbour after a storm, everyone celebrates’, which sounds like nothing, but the music makes you just want to dance, it’s just so thrilling. It’s incredibly virtuosic, just gives a good smile to your face - he was a good showman; he knew how to do a good final number to get people going.