A Conversation with Emmanuelle Haïm

Emmanuelle Haïm is a French harpsichord and piano artist, a conductor and an artistic director, who has been one of the most prestigious performers of baroque and 18th century music for decades. The artist and her orchestra, Le Concert d’Astrée founded in 2000 visit the Budapest Spring Festival as a part of a tour from Ireland to Bahrain, during which they perform Italian baroque cantatas. BY JÁNOS MALINA.

Revizor: You are among the best known performers in the world of „Baroque”. As a player of keyboard instruments, a conductor and an artistic director you have already co-operated with several great performers and orchestras during your career – both before and since having founded your own orchestra in 2000. Was it primarily these encounters that defined and formed your highly complex activity and interest, or quite the contrary, were you always following your own path, and chose appropriate partners for the aspired goals?

Emmanuelle Haïm: Music is of course born of one’s encounters. As a child I was always interested in music, and luckily it was important for my family, too. My parents were both amateur pianists and music aficionados. Music was therefore present in our everyday life, as all the children: my sisters, my brother and myself, played some instrument, and we frequented concerts. After my father passed, I had the fortune of meeting a number of Hungarian musicians through my Hungarian step-father. Zoltán Kocsis, Miklós Perényi and András Schiff to name a few, and they of course all made a great impression on me. All through my life I met fantastic musicians, and I feel I also made a connection. This is part of the wonders a musician experiences. 

R: You are an orchestra leader who started her career as an excellent instrumentalist. And you are also one of the handful of successful female directors. But I do not know of anyone else who can boast with both. Does this special circumstance result in any disadvantage, challenge or opportunity?

EH:  From the point of view of conducting old music, being a keyboard instrument player is unquestionably an advantage, as those instruments are in the very centre of the musical plot. A pianist is often the assistant of the conductor; she accompanies the singers, prepares them for an opera performance; she is involved in stage rehearsals; and is of course part of the orchestra as a continuo-player. And one is also involved in the preparation or proofreading of scores in case of works that have not yet been performed or published; she is involved in the creation of the programme; and by and large has a say in everything, giving her plenty of opportunity to learn. So this indeed helped me. As for the female conductor part, I never saw that as a disadvantage. I was confronted with this question right from the start, and I was surprised, even irritated by it. I simply did not wish to look upon it as a problem. I did what I was convinced I had to do, and refused be to self-conscious. Perhaps it took some time before I could master this attitude. Things change, however, and doors definitely open for younger girls, which is great. 

Emmanuelle Haïm
Emmanuelle Haïm
R: Opera is obviously one of the centres of gravity of your interest and activity. How does an instrumentalist get so intimate with vocal music?

EH: I was always passionate about stories, theatre, poetry, actors, dancers and the stage in general. And I was passionate about music, musicians and orchestras. Opera merges these two worlds. And enables people to be overwhelmed by fantastic emotions. I have an example in mind: The quartet beginning with „Andrò ramingo e solo” in Mozart’s Idomeneo. We hear it when Idamante is rejected by his father, and he despairs. Can anything be more touching than that? Or in Charpentier’s opera, Médée, when Médée hands over her children to her rival, Créuse: „Princesse, … prenez-en quelque soin” (Princess, take good care of them) – she tells her husband’s lover. The simultaneous B♭ and B of the flutes and the singer express the extraordinariness of the moment. Beautiful, isn’t it? This is why I love stories told in music. But the instruments are capable of the same with words hidden behind the notes. 
R: How would you describe your incredibly broad musical interest ranging from Monteverdi to Mozart? How would you characterize your personal relationship with music?
EH: I believe my interest is even broader, it extends to Debussy, Bartók, Schubert, Stravinsky or even Sibelius… But the music I preform is somehow always connected to the harpsichord or the early fortepiano. What matters is that when I start a project, for instance with the works of Cavalli, Purcell or Delalande, I want to learn about their music as much as possible: one can immerse oneself in 17th century Italian music for years! And then the English masque or the French grand motet captures one’s attention. One lifetime is certainly too short to explore everything. When I get acquainted with a new work, I first read the score and then I start engaging with the text. Its meaning (if it was written in a foreign language) and its origin. And I try to understand the motivation of the composer when he chose that particular text to set music to. I also try to find out about the circumstances in which the piece was created; and then I play it and sing it in order to learn it, and I also analyse it. And finally comes the most important part: the real singers and instrumentalists, with whom I bring this work to life. 

R: On your homepage there are photographs showing you in front of the orchestra conducting baroque music with both hands, a method that has only existed since the 19th century. Does this discrepancy raise any issues for you?

EH: Historically informed performance is a question of compromise: we often play in modern theatres, on modern stages, in modern orchestra pits. The distances are big. The singers, for example sing far away in the back of the stage, as opposed to the 17th or 18th century practice, and this obliges us to conduct in a more modern way compared to how we imagine the contemporaneous conducting. At other times, when we are working with a show committed to a historically informed performance, we can afford to have a more in-depth research. I don’t think there is a single truth in this matter. 

R: At the Budapest Spring Festival this year you will play with five other instrumentalists in the company of two singers. But most of your concerts this season take place in spacious theatres and churches (and you perform not only operas and churchmusic). The Music Academy, however, seats less than 850 people. Are the sizes (that of the orchestra and that of the venue) a mere constraint, or do they also inspire you to do things differently?

EH: The Music Academy is a wonderful historical site filled with meaning and memories for me. It is very moving that I have the opportunity to play here, not only because of the good characteristics of the room, but also because of the events of music history these walls have witnessed. 
Le Concert d’Astrée
Le Concert d’Astrée
R: In a few days we will hear in your performance three of Handel’s early Italian cantatas written with dramatic forte. Can we look upon this performance as one teaching us something important about baroque opera – even without costumes and scenery?
EH: These works of the young Handel radiate with the enthusiasm he felt towards Italy he had then recently discovered. They were written in 1706 and 1707, and in them Handel condenses the beauty surrounding him as soon as he experiences it. These three stories are of course mini operas. Two deal with the tragic fates of the protagonists, Armida and Lucrezia. One is abandoned, the other is raped. Fortunately the Arcadian inspired duet of Aminta and Fillide consoles us with the moral of trust and loyalty leading to romantic bliss. Meanwhile the charm of the sensual trio sonata saturates the whole show. 

R: Would you say a few words about the solo singers of the concert?

EH: It is a great joy to be performing with two remarkable, young French singers. With Sabine Devielhe we have already worked together a few times before this evening. In Mozart’s Mitridate and Handel’s  Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno. Sabine is an extraordinary performer, she is in great demand, and she is also an able musician. She does not merely excel in the baroque repertoire, she is also deeply expressive and moving. And in addition to her talent, she is a very selfless person as well. With Lea Desandre we have known each other for a long time: as a young artist she sang with me at the festival in Aix-en-Provence, and so I was lucky enough to witness the start of her career. I was touched at once by her grace, the gentleness of her tone, her very self-confident musical instinct. She has strong ties to this repertoire that she knows and loves. 

R: The Handel opera productions in Glyndebourne were among the most resounding of your successes. Will the series continue? Shall we start looking for plane tickets on the internet?

EH: Those interested do not have to travel such a long way this next season. Only as far as the Opera house in Lille if they wish to enjoy Handel’s Rodelinda, and to Dijon, if they care to see Rameau’s Les Boréades in our performance. 
Translated by Péter Papolczy 
Szerző: Malina János