A Long Conversation with Conductor Ivan Cherednichenko on the Premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Lviv National Opera Translated by Lesya Lantsuta Brannman

Іван Чередніченко. Фото: Юрій Грязнов

On June 15 and 16 the Lviv National Opera will premier Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites, the first production of this work on a Ukrainian opera stage. We spoke with Ivan Cherednichenko, the Chief Conductor of the Lviv National Opera and the conductor of the new production about its details.

Good afternoon, Ivan! A reason for our conversation today is the upcoming premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites at the Lviv National Opera. However, I wanted to start with some other questions. I noticed that you rarely give interviews. The very few interviews that you ever gave are dedicated to certain events, and you hardly ever talk about yourself. Is it your conscious decision not to give interviews? Is it to create some kind of mysterious image of the conductor, or perhaps you don’t have time?

This is a conscious position, but not because I want to create some mysterious image.  I am a conductor in an opera house, and I am an “underground” person. For me, it is important that those who work on stage should receive applause. My task is to help them. Indeed, everything I want to say to the audience, I “say” in the orchestra pit or on stage. It’s hard to say anything about music. It’s true what they say: “music begins where words end”.

Photo by Ruslan Lytvyn

— Your words suggest your idea of a conductor’s role today. If we are talking about conductors of the twentieth century and opera conductors in particular, they were musicians who were the focus of attention. Most opera productions and symphony concerts revolved around them, and their authoritarian methods become legendary. If you are trying to avoid publicity, can we say that the public’s perception of a conductor’s role has changed?

Obviously not, because it is just my personal preference. I am not a public figure. De facto, I am a public figure and, as the chief conductor of the opera theater, I must comment, attend press conferences, and so on. I must admit that it is quite difficult for me since I have a different attitude to the conducting profession. For me, this profession is primarily about helping the orchestra and soloists, helping them do the best they can in terms of how they communicate with the audience, what meaning opera singers put into words they sing or musicians into musical texts they play. However, I don’t see why a conductor should be made into an idol around whom everything revolves, like TV programs, interviews etc.

Programs featuring symphonies are another matter – the figure of a conductor is much more important there. Still, the opera stage requires a conductor to be more in the shadow of soloists since they are more important.

— Speaking of symphonies, in the summer of 2022, you spoke in an interview about a series of symphony concerts at the opera house. You conducted the Third Symphony by Lyatoshynsky and, prior to that, you conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony. It seems that you are not indifferent to the symphonic repertoire. Do you currently consider adding symphony concerts to the opera theater’s repertoire?

I worked for almost 10 years at the Dnipro Philharmonic, so symphonic music is very close to me. It is my deep conviction that opera orchestras should play symphonies. First, it is an opportunity for an opera orchestra to come out of the “dungeon” and onto the stage. An orchestra musician can experience excitement, for example, when playing solo. It also improves musicians’ perceptions of how they play. After concerts on stage, musicians have a different attitude to playing music in an orchestra pit. It’s no longer just an accompaniment, but another type of musicianship where the orchestra expresses what a soloist can’t express.

It leads to such dualism in music, when an orchestra gives a different color to the music that a singer sings. Their performances mix and result in an unexpected complex sound for audience. This is very difficult to put into words, but the result is that listeners always feel a special musicianship quality on a subconscious level.

Unfortunately, nowadays we have shorter working weeks and practice less than we would like. We had plans to play a whole series of concerts of Mahler’s symphonies and will perform them eventually.

— The Lviv Opera generally stages Ukrainian operas. The opera’s program Ukrainian Breakthrough speaks to this. After the start of the full-scale invasion, almost all the premieres at the Lviv Opera were works by Ukrainian composers. The premiere of Dialogues des Carmélites changes this sequence. How do you see this balance of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian works?

The Ukrainian Breakthrough program is starting to work in full force now. I met with Vasyl Vovkun, (Artistic Director of the Lviv Opera) when I won the audition for the position of music director in 2019, and was fascinated by the Ukrainian Breakthrough program, primarily because of its intended support and development of distinctive Ukrainian operas and ballets. I am happy that I can be a part of this program and contribute to its development.

In 2019, there were very few commissions by Ukrainian opera theaters to composers. One of the goals of the Ukrainian Breakthrough is to support Ukrainian composers so that they would not just write operas and ballets that end up on a drawer but had an opportunity to be staged. That is why 90% of the works in the Ukrainian Breakthrough program are Ukrainian compositions that have been staged and scheduled to be premiered. Most were commissioned by the opera house.

Dialogues des Carmélites changed this strategy. It is an addition to the Ukrainian Breakthrough project because an opera theater must be multifaceted. The idea to stage Dialogues of the Carmelites was conceived some time ago. This opera was undeservedly little known in Ukraine, and this is the first production in Ukraine. Many of the worlds’ most staged operas aren’t performed in Ukraine, but people know about these operas and have heard of them somewhere. For example, Verdi’s Otello is not currently being performed in Ukraine, but people know this music.

Any opera house must perform the standard opera repertoire. For example, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Tosca, Turandot, Nabucco and others undoubtedly are performed in any opera theater.

Dialogues des Carmélites has a different specificity from the standard opera repertoire. It has a different music, phrasing, and sound productions for vocalists, orchestra and choir. That’s why it’s interesting for us, and I hope it will be interesting for the audience.

— It seems that the Lviv Opera has started a new trend to commission Ukrainian composers, which has been picked up by the Odesa, Kyiv, and Kharkiv opera houses. My question is about practicalities. I have been following the ticket sales of [Semen Hulak-Artemovskyi’s – L. B.] Zaporozhets za Dunayem [ in English A Zaporozhian (Cossack) Beyond the Danube – L. B.] and it is almost always sold out. Last year I went to see [Dmytro Bortnyansky’s – L. B.] Sokil [ in English The Falcon – L.B.] and Alkid [in English Alcide – L. B.], and they are less attended. Apparently, this music is not well known and not to an audience’s liking. How are works commissioned by the Lviv Opera attended?

What I will say is my own opinion and not a general statistical analysis which isn’t possible since not enough time has passed. For example, [Ivan Nebesnyi’s ballet – L. B.] Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an absolute record holder in sales at the Lviv Opera. All the performances were sold out, and I’m very happy because it’s a new Ukrainian product.  This performance gathers even more viewers than ballets such as Giselle, La Bayadère, Esmeralda, or operas like La Traviata and Carmen.

As for the operas Sokil and Alkid, it’s complicated. They are wonderful productions. However, in our musical community everyone associates Bortnyansky with choral music and forgets that he also has wonderful opera works in his baggage. I’m sorry that we haven’t known about this; it is our problem. I think that Bortnyansky’s operas will find their time and audience.

The situation with [Yevhen Stankovych’s – L. B.] Psalms of War is even more complicated. This play doesn’t sell well but must be in our repertoire. Perhaps it could find a bigger audience abroad – it’s hard for me to conduct it myself. Time must pass and we must win this war, and the play will have a new breath.

— Let’s return to Poulenc. Ukrainian Breakthrough was a project proposed by Vasyl Vovkun. He is also quite active as Artistic Director of the Lviv Opera and he often determines the opera’s repertoire. However, in the premiere’s commentary, we learn that Dialogues des Carmélites was proposed by you. Why Dialogues des Carmélites?

That commentary in a sense contained a little joke from Vasyl Vovkun. When I came to him with this opera, I immediately said that I would very much like him to take on this work. He was understandably reluctant for a long time. Later he found a conceptual solution and literally fell in love with Poulenc’s music. We spent a lot of time discussing certain aesthetic and technical solutions for the performance. This was a time of excellent and well-coordinated cooperation between the director and the conductor. We heard each other. I think the result will be interesting.

Ivan Cherednichenko and Vasyl Vovkun Photo by Andriy Sitarskyi

Yes, this opera isn’t an obvious choice. There are many factors that influence a decision when we consider an opera score for a production. So, why Poulenc? Poulenc had a difficult life, and his opera Dialogues des Carmélites opera carries interpretation puzzles, both for the conductor and the director. There are many encoded signs that have ambiguous and non-obvious meanings. For me, this score remains a puzzle in many ways.

Poulenc’s opera can be interpreted in many ways that will be radically different from each other. This is rare for composers, because the musical language itself is quite straightforward for those who know it. We will never interpret a minor scale as something cheerful or, if the English horn plays alone in the extreme high register, it is suffering for the musician, and this will be transmitted to the audience.

Poulenc incorporates self-referential quotations and motif connections in his score. These motifs, among other things, convey the emotions of the characters. Music, after all, should convey the spirit of the hero. However, in Poulenc’s opera these emotions are very clearly defined. Opera composers usually use leitmotifs to convey the emotions of a character or an event. Poulenc goes deeper into the psychology of his characters.

The second reason why we chose Poulenc’s work for staging was the ability of the opera company to comprehend this material. Today, the Lviv National Opera has a very strong female cast. Our female performers can work subtly with such psychologically complex material. Of course, you can order many more operas for performing, but if an opera house doesn’t have at least two casts for them, it would be a shot in your own foot.

Lastly, I regretfully was a sinner and didn’t know the Dialogues des Carmélites opera previously. When I heard this music, it fascinated me with its incomprehensibility, and I was curious about how I could interpret it.

— You must have discussed ideas with your team on how to interpret Poulenc’s opera and what relevance it has for the Ukrainian audience. I can see a feminist perspective in this work. However, there are political and religious themes, like you mentioned, that could be difficult to interpret and could be read ambiguously. This opera needs pinpoints on how to interpret it today. What relevance do you see in this score today?

The opera Dialogues des Carmélites is primarily about how an ordinary human soul can resist absolute evil. Blanche is the only fictionalized heroine in this work. The author of the original story, Gertrud von Le Fort, included Blanche as her own projection. Some French researchers point out that the singing of 15 Carmelites before the guillotine impressed the frenzied crowd so that the horrors slowly began to subside. That is, there is an historical interpretation that the Carmelites execution prevented further terror. I’m not a researcher of the French Revolution, but this fact shocked me. I believe this could have happened.

The second point is that Poulenc’s opera is about fear. It has a motif that French researchers call the motif of fear. It is heard in the commissioners’ part when they arrest the Carmelites, and in the Marquis’s singing, who waves the Chevalier away. This motif of fear is heard in the music of almost all the characters.

Blanche, who was born in fear and whose mother died in fear of the savage crowd, went to the monastery to get rid of this fear and left the monastery realizing that she could not get rid of fear in the monastery. In the last scene, she performs a rather strong act that shows her opposition to absolute evil. The relevance of this opera is precisely in this performance. Any terror will end. It doesn’t matter how, but we see and know that it will be end.

Of course, there are many other ideas in the opera. However, religious philosophy, in my opinion (not being a religious scholar), should not be emphasized. That’s why we have appropriate cuts in our production. We focus on the main idea of this opera, on emphasizing milestones of its drama development, and on the effects of events on the characters.

— I think that to understand this opera, it is necessary to know Poulenc’s biography. In the character of Blanche, we can see a reflection of certain moments of Poulenc’s own life. Do you highlight a connection with Poulenc’s life, or is it not so important in this production?

We cannot ignore this. Indeed, this is a great tragedy of a man who had experienced a forbidden love. I can imagine this torment, when a person cannot manifest what nowadays is taken for granted. It is terrible.

It seems to me that Blanche’s character is less autobiographical for Poulenc. There are more autobiographical reflections in his opera The Human Voice. It’s more of a projection in Dialogues des Carmélites.

We have a very tremulous duet between Blanche and her brother, which can also be interpreted ambiguously. However, it’s not about literal things, but about pure love. Pure love can be in any form. In our production we focus on pure love and on pure love for your neighbor. This is what Poulenc must have felt at the time. This duet carries a lot of different semantic impossible possibilities – I’m sorry for my obscure language. I still think that we have conveyed that ambiguity in the scene where Blanche and the Chevalier are singing about one thing and try to convince others of it but, in their minds, they are thinking about something else. I’d like the audience to understand this.

— I think that Poulenc’s experience of life under the German occupation is important. First, his music was his resistance. Second, it was difficult for an openly gay man to survive in those conditions. Blanche is also a person “fallen out” of all contexts generally accepted by society and needs some action to overcome this. In this opera, the way out doesn’t look very optimistic, like in The Human Voice. For Poulenc, it could have been a form of therapy that he found in his own work.

I agree with you to a large extent. However, if we’re talking about Blanche’s acceptance by society, one thing is also encrypted here, – Poulenc ‘s dualistic perception of monasticism. On one hand, these people are devoted to God. On the other hand (Mother Mary appears there for a reason), he wanted to show that such a zealous, thoughtless attitude to religious dogmas could lead to catastrophic consequences. Poulenc had a difficult relationship with the church, but he was a deeply religious man. Having experienced such difficulties in his life, he could not be unequivocal about certain religious issues. Therefore, this dualistic component is constantly present here.

After all, Blanche wasn’t accepted by either the leadership of the monastic order or by society. She realized that she had to fight herself and left the monastery. The reason for that was not fear, like it’s often emphasized, but her very strong character.

— This is the first production of the opera Dialogues des Carmélites in Ukraine. It is an exceptional event to hear an opera of the twentieth century, (something beyond Puccini), in Ukraine. What is the problem with performing twentieth-century operas? Why do you think they are so rarely performed in Ukraine?

This is obvious. Theaters, especially in times like these, must save money. Also, it is difficult to predict how an audience will receive such music. This is a risk, in any case, that the Lviv Opera is willing to take. In addition, there are already unshakable traditions behind the performance of music by Verdi, Puccini or Mozart. There are no problems with interpretations of those operas.

Photo by Andriy Sitarskyi

As for modern music, I can specifically speak about Dialogues des Carmélites. The specificity of the interpretation is that Poulenc blurs the concept of the beat. This is very challenging for singers who grew up with classical canons. At the same time there are still a lot of semantics; there are some important words, and words that seem to be unimportant at first glance but need to be emphasized because they will be repeated somewhere else in the score.

There are a lot of such things in this opera. When I started working on the score, I immediately remembered Karajan’s statement that a beat is death to music. I agree with him. Do you understand my surprise since a conductor is the very person who emphasizes the beat with his gestures?

— So, you are an inquisitor in this case.

That’s right! This brings us to where we started our conversation. I am also tormented by this, but I can’t help but give a beat “one”. Musicians count: 300 beats of pause and, if I miss to give a beat “one” somewhere, the orchestra goes astray. Who will be to blame? I’ll. If the orchestra doesn’t sound unified, the conductor is to blame; if the singer doesn’t sing together with the orchestra, the conductor is to blame; if the choir does not sing together with the singer or the orchestra, the conductor is to blame.

Coming back to the beat, I could not understand the meaning of Karajan’s expression for a long time. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it came to me gradually, perhaps too late, but it was in the Dialogues of Carmelite that I understood Karajan’s words to the fullest.

— I’m going back to certain prosaic things, though they are closely connected with the history of the Dialogues. A question of copyright is probably one of the factors why this music wasn’t performed earlier. It is simply too expensive. How did you obtain the copyright for Dialogues des Carmélites?

Only one publishing house, [Casa – L. B.] Ricordi, has the exclusive copyright for Dialogues des Carmélites. You know, when people in Ukraine are afraid of copyright, it means that no one wants to do anything. After all, you can pick up the phone and call the publishing house Ricordi.

Yes, we pay copyright fees and for Ukraine (unfortunately, I can’t say the amount) it is a significant cost. However, I want to mention that we have already had more than one case where publishing houses have met us halfway. They realize that the market in Ukraine is lost, and disorganized. For them, it is a black hole. That’s why, when we negotiate with publishing houses, we explain how it works here, that we still want to be integrated into the process of receiving music in the European community, and they meet us halfway.

Publishing houses understand that Ukraine is a large country with at least 20 serious opera companies with whom they can build relationships in the future. So, I think we just need to talk to publishers and to copyright holders.

Also, God willing, the copyright holders of our Ukrainian composers could at least start earning a penny from their work. I understand that they all work because they have the inspiration and desire to do so. However, I’m sorry, in terms of copyright, we are simply in a barbaric archaic era. It needs to be regulated, and copyright must be paid. That’s what we’re doing in Lviv.

— I came across a quote by Poulenc. He says that a composer under 30 years of age, to write some serious music, must either be as brilliant as Mozart or have the same musicality as Schubert; that he himself could not take on such a text as the Dialogues des Carmélites at his early age. Hence, he began to work with these complex problems at the very end of his career. Is this idea true for conductors as well? Is there a correlation between age, life, practical and artistic experiences, and the material you take on for staging?

My education and the time I’ve been involved in music – that is, all my life – tells me that there is indeed a correlation. If I live to be 60 or 70 years old, I’m sure I’ll look at this score differently.

However, I can contradict myself and say that nowadays the age of conductors has decreased significantly. Let’s mention Klaus Mäkelä, the Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic and Music Director of Orchestre de Paris, a very young guy of 28 years old. I look at this conductor and see a genius. He takes on some extremely difficult pieces, for example, Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. It’s incredibly difficult. However, when such a young guy performs these things with an orchestra, why should he wait until he’s 60? He’s already doing it brilliantly, from my point of view. So, I am not completely convinced myself about the correlation.

As for Poulenc, I can’t tell you that I’ve deciphered every measure of his score and know with absolute certainty that this is the only way it should be interpreted. Perhaps, I lack experience, knowledge and something else. I am convinced that with my maturation as a conductor, and as a musician, a deeper understanding will come. If a conductor can build a holistic concept of a work and not just demonstrate fingering (any music major student can do this) and help the soloists or the orchestra (or at least not interfere them) in that holistic picture, then it seems to me that his interpretation has a right to life, and he should do it.

I was once struck by the thought of a conductor… unfortunately, I cannot recall his name. When he was about 80 years old, he was asked, “Well, what is conducting?” He said: “There are three types of conductors. The first is a conductor who does not interfere with the orchestra. The second is one who not only does not interfere, but also helps. The third type of conductor is one who both interferes and does not help.” He said, at the age of 80, that he was between the first and the second types.

I wish I could say that I am between the first and the second types at the age of 80. Now I try to at least not interfere. If I could help a musician in some way, I’d be happy!

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