At thirty-five, conductor Philippe Jordan, son of the esteemed Swiss maestro Armin Jordan, is heading into his second season as music director of the Paris Opera, the first to hold that title since Myung-Whun Chung, whose tenure, from 1989 to 1994, covered the company's inaugural season at its imposing second home, Opéra Bastille. (During Hugues Gall's time as general manager, from 1995 to 2004, James Conlon performed distinguished service in the post of principal conductor.)
The news of the younger Jordan's accession broke in 2007, just as New York audiences were catching on to his gifts, yet he was hardly a new face even then. His Metropolitan Opera debut came on December 19, 2002, with a revival of Die Fledermaus. Then came Met revivals of Don Giovanni in March 2005, Carmen the next October and Le Nozze di Figaro two seasons later, in October 2007. The Figaro, in particular, seemed a kind of revelation, from the first bars of the overture, which flew by with a fleetness and transparency that would have done honor to the Salzburg Festival. Prompt confirmation of Jordan's gifts came with his New York Philharmonic debut that December. An aristocratic account of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the centerpiece of the program. Before and after came Dvořák and Smetana, shot through with poetic romance. Jordan's bio listed an ongoing relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic and an imminent Ring in Zurich. Who could begrudge him his good fortune? Still, it was sad to think how little time there would be in his calendar for further visits to our shores.
Since then, Jordan's visibility hereabouts has been highest on DVD: his videography includes a Glyndebourne Carmen built around Anne Sofie von Otter's controversial performance; a Vienna Werther starring Elina Garanča; a Tannhäuser from Baden-Baden, directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff; and a Salome from Covent Garden, directed by David McVicar. The Salome lingers in memory for highly specific visual images conjured up by the orchestra — the ballroom, the barracks, moonshine versus torchlight. The Tannhäuser is remarkable for its sense of spaciousness and measure. When Jordan is presiding in the pit, one senses him listening rather than micromanaging, inspiring the musicians to listen, inviting the audience to listen actively, too.
Jordan's resumé lists jobs as Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater Ulm (1994–98), as assistant to Daniel Barenboim at the Staatsoper unter den Linden, Berlin (1998–2001), and as principal conductor for the opera and symphony orchestra in Graz (2001–04). He is in Paris on a six-year contract, with an option to extend for three years. The great project of his first season was the launch of a new Ring. In March, he opened Das Rheingold; in early Mayhe was preparing Die Walküre. (The balance of the cycle will follow next season.) Following a long day's rehearsal, Jordan returned to his office at the Bastille for an extended conversation about his personal history, his music-making and the new job.
OPERA NEWS: If I have this right, your musical education started in Zurich with piano lessons. Next you sang in the Zurich Boys Choir, later took up the violin, then graduated with honors from the Zurich Conservatory as a piano teacher. At that point you went straight to work as an assistant to Jeffrey Tate on the Ring at the Châtelet, in Paris. But you never studied conducting, correct?
PHILIPPE JORDAN: Yes, that's right. I learned my profession the old-fashioned way, in the opera house.
ON: How important was it to your development that your father was a conductor? If you have siblings, were they affected, too?
PJ: Of course my father's influence was tremendous. All my music-making is somehow linked to him — to his recordings, to the rehearsals I attended when I wasn't in school, to his performances. Everything about his work fascinated me. I wanted to experience his world. In our family, everything revolved around music and the theater. My mother, Käthe Herkner, was a ballet dancer. My younger sister Pascale Jordan is an actress in Switzerland. So none of us has turned away from the arts.
ON: You have said that all music grows from silence, and that silence is the most beautiful music of all. That seems as much a philosophical or ethical statement as an aesthetic one. Could you elaborate?
PJ: Every great composer has to immerse himself in silence to develop his thoughts, and to build from there. For performers it is the same. When I work with the orchestra and with singers, I always try to develop our sound from silence and from piano. We can always raise the volume to a big fortissimo, but the base — for the sake of a good dynamic and a good shape to the sound — is always a piano, which is related to silence. We have to listen to each other. At night in the mountains or the desert, the silence can be very loud! It's amazing music, very impressive and strong. It forces you to listen, to calm down. Silence is very healing. It centers you.
ON: After you left your post as principal conductor in Graz, there was a burst of intensive guest conducting. How did that suit you?
PJ: Even before I left Graz, I started making all those debuts at the Met, in Glyndebourne, in Covent Garden and so on. After Graz and before Paris, I was guest conducting pretty much exclusively, also with orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Deutsche Staatskapelle, Santa Cecilia and many others. It has been invaluable to get to know the identities of different orchestras, their ways of working, their distinctive sounds, their traditions — to get to know what they care about and what you must pay special attention to, to get to know what their audiences care about and how they react. It was a very challenging, very exciting time. You travel a lot, see lots of places, meet lots of people. Of course, it's very hard as well, and it gets more so the longer you do it. The travel is boring. You miss your home, musically as well as personally. You have to take orchestras as you find them. It's very challenging if you want to develop something personal.
ON: There's a huge premium on youth in the music business today. You've moved very quickly in your career. Do you ever feel that things might have moved too fast?
PJ: It feels to me that I've moved forward very methodically, step by step. It's normal to take on such responsibilities at this time of life. Myung-Whun Chung was in his mid-thirties when he became music director of the Paris Opera. Georges Prêtre directed the Opéra Comique at that age. I feel young for the work I am doing, but not too young.
ON: In your first season in Paris, you're focusing on core repertory of Mozart and Wagner. In your second, it's the same, plus Puccini, with Il Trittico.
PJ: At least one Italian!
ON:But what of the indigenous Parisian repertoire? Is that a long-term priority? Should it be?
PJ: Of course it should be. But it's been so long since this orchestra has had a music director, I thought it was crucial to begin with demanding work that would establish a way of working together — a sound, a style as a basis for our future work. Our orchestra is divided into two équipes, which never change. That makes the Ring very convenient: one équipe is doing Das Rheingold and Siegfried, the other Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. From the third season on, I'll do French repertoire as well. As general manager, Nicolas Joël has made it very clear that we'll do at least one new production of French opera a year. But cultivating the Parisian repertoire isn't a project for us now, as it was for Chung. We don't regard it as an obligation.
ON: After assisting Tate in Paris and Barenboim in Berlin, you did your first Ring in Zurich in 2008–09. How has your thinking about the piece evolved through your work with the different institutions, different orchestras, different casts?
PJ: Doing my first Ring in Zurich was very helpful for developing my conception of the whole cycle. I'm interested in a transparent, sometimes Impressionistic orchestral language, which the small house in Zurich simply demands. You can't play the music there as you would at the Met or in Berlin. It's just not possible. Playing the Ring in Zurich helped me find a way that is clearer, which helps the singers come through more easily. The text becomes easier to understand. The textures and motifs register more clearly. And yet you don't have to sacrifice the grandeur of the drama, which we need as well.
ON: And in Paris?
PJ: Here, I have had to modify my approach, not really because of the players but because of the hall. The Bastille is very big, but the pit is very singer-friendly. Usually the voices come through quite easily. The problem is that the orchestral sound can be a little cool or indifferent. So even with an identical conception, you have to work completely differently. The playing has to be stronger, more sustained. It has to project more. You need to heighten the color of the strings, because they can get swallowed in a low pit. It's a new beginning, and it has given me new ideas. Thank God. But what I'm doing now is based on the conception I developed last season. It's good to experience new conditions. New conditions give you new ideas.
ON: Six years ago, you conducted Così Fan Tutte at the Salzburg Festival. The production was revived the following two summers, but you didn't return. Why not?
PJ: The directors, Ursel and Karl-Ernst Herrmann, felt that Fiordiligi and Dorabella couldn't be so stupid as not to recognize their lovers in disguise. So in their production, the women overheard the men making the bet, and everything had to proceed on that premise — the musical choices also. It's an interesting idea. But as a result, every sentence had to be reconsidered and rethought, and there was never time for me to do that with the singers in peace and quiet. I simply was not allowed to do my work. The directors decided to have a hammerklavier onstage rather than a harpsichord in the pit. So I couldn't accompany the recitatives, which are so vital in Mozart's operas. The directors also dictated tempi and dynamics, color, articulation. They inserted over two dozen long pauses for dramatic effect. Musically, the performances fell apart. There I stood in the pit, unable to get the momentum going again. So rather than return, I took the next two summers off, which wasn't so bad. I'm not proud of walking out, and of course it cost me something. But I would have been miserable, and it just wasn't worth it.
ON: One hears a lot of lamenting from the older critics that the French style is disappearing, or already gone. Do you agree?
PJ: From my experience, I'd say they are thinking mostly about vocal styles. In Germany and Italy, language is much more standardized than here in France. In diction and pronunciation, many things are changing, even at the Comédie Française, so you have to work hard to stay up to date. There are many opinions as to what is right. But in the history of French opera, there have always been many styles, some more Germanic, as in Les Contes d'Hoffmann or Werther or even Pelléas et Mélisande. Some scores are much more Italian. My opinion, which may be wrong, is that it's very hard to identify a standard French style at all. So you have to ask, "How will I approach the music this time?" Take Carmen. Working with the singers, do you want them to sing very lyrically, very transparently? Do you want something more in the direction of opéra comique, with almost a chamber orchestra and spoken dialogue? Or do you want grand opera, with the machismo of a Spanish toreador? There are lots of decisions to make. And even with a single opera like Carmen or Hoffmann, there's a great diversity of styles, from operetta to drame lyrique and Italian opera, along with a lot of Weber and early Wagner and Schumann. That's part of the fascination of such pieces.
ON: There used to be a great tradition of Wagner in French. Would it be possible to revive that today?
PJ: A hundred years ago I would have said yes immediately. You know that when Wagner was approached about a Lohengrin in Australia he said yes, on condition that it be sung in English. Today, with titles, I can't imagine that.
ON: The Opéra is blessed with two big houses, the glamorous nineteenth-century Palais Garnier and the austere late-twentieth-century Bastille. Would it help also to have a house for chamber opera?
PJ: I think our situation is fine as it is. Though the Garnier is big, it feels intimate, and the acoustic is intimate. When it was rebuilt, the pit was reduced to a smaller scale. So we have two wonderful halls where you can work on all kinds of repertoire.
ON: There's an old dichotomy distinguishing Dionysian from Apollonian personalities. Where would you place yourself on that continuum, if you agree that it exists?
PJ: I want to embrace both ends of the spectrum, but how the work comes across is for others to say. A piece like Tannhäuser contains and demands both, with Venusberg and the Dionysian bacchanal on the one hand and the very reasonable, Protestant world of the Wartburg on the other. Sometimes I feel like an architect trying to find the ecstasy in the music. We can't be ecstatic from start to finish. There has to be a development. The conductor is only a guide. In the end, the orchestra musicians are the ones who must play and express the ecstasy.