With Die Fledermaus about to wing its way into Hamilton Place as Opera Hamilton’s inaugural offering of the 2009-2010 season, it seemed an apt time to sit down with guest conductor Willie Waters and seek his views on the well-travelled tale of revenge and deceit (in the glory days of maestros, all of the biggies from Mahler through Karajan found a special place in their choice of repertoire for the Johann Strauss Jr. gem).
JWR: Welcome to Hamilton! It’s your first visit, I believe.
WW: Thanks, with these performances I will have conducted in every Canadian city with an opera company except Toronto. I was delighted to get the call last summer from [general director] David Speers. We’ve known each other since meeting in 1979 when I was adjudicating in Edmonton. Since then, we’ve stayed in touch through our connections with Opera America and Arizona Opera. And I’m reminded of how I gave Richard Bradshaw [the late and revered artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company] his first job in North America as chorus master in San Francisco [where Waters worked as artistic administrator]. With my own company [Connecticut Opera Association] succumbing to the financial downturn last winter, I’d been looking for some engagements to fill in those weeks. Fortunately, and also a sign of the difficult economic climate, companies are booking later and later.
JWR: Scheduling, money and sometimes egos make assembling the ideal cast more challenging than ever. How do you bring everything together?
WW: (laughing) The ideal cast? It doesn’t exist! But even after just one day of rehearsals [unlike many of his more senior colleagues, Waters attends every minute of the staging sessions; a typical day for this production has 3, three-hour rehearsals, carefully planned so that no singer is on call for more than six hours], I’ve found this group to be extremely well prepared and already bringing a sense of their characterizations into the mix. They’re a very good cast even though only one of them has done their role before. It seems with across-the-board shorter time to stage an opera these days, singers are better prepared. A good production staff makes all of the difference [for The Bat, Glynis Leyshon is the stage director]. With every opera the process is the same even as the characters and music vary.
JWR: I understand this is your second of three productions with different companies this season. What is the allure of this score?
WW: Over the years I have garnered a great respect for not only Strauss’s compositional and orchestration skills but his special ability of weaving the social milieu of the era into his work—it’s simultaneously crafty and entertaining. From the ‘other Mozart of Vienna,’ one can feel and hear the undercurrents of relationships in the interactions of the characters. Some dismiss [Strauss operas] as ‘not real music’ or just pieces of fluff. Sure, there are sections of farce but also many serious moments—if the dramatic balance is to succeed, everything has to be taken seriously. In the Overture, the transitions can be tricky and you must find just right Viennese hesitation. I’m trying to bring that lilt and especially charm—as well as a lot of bite when required—to these performances.
JWR: Judging from the enthusiasm and obvious love that the Miami native displayed throughout our conversation, this Die Fledermaus is bound to please. JWR