Marine metaphysics

Marine metaphysics

Australian conductor Simone Young debuts at La Scala with Britten’s first masterpiece, an opera in which “the smell of the sea is everywhere”

Simone Young2(c)Sandra Steh sito quadrata

Workaholic. That’s how Australian conductor Simone Young would define herself. She is sought-after by the most prestigious theatres in the world for her charisma and attention to detail. Her resume depicts the story of an artist with talent and a courageous trailblazer. After having worked at barely 20 years old with distinguished maestros, such as Daniel Barenboim, she was the first woman to conduct the Wiener Staatsoper and later the Wiener Philharmoniker; since 2019, she has been chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This month, Simone Young makes her debut at La Scala with a piece that is particularly dear to her: Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.


LP What are your expectations for your debut at La Scala?

SY In my almost 30-year career, I have conducted Vienna, Berlin, Paris, New York, Sydney… I think La Scala is one of the few great opera theatres where I have not yet worked. This chance is a dream come true for me. What’s more is I will have an exceptional cast with me. I know all the singers and have already worked with many of them. For example, with Nicole Car, who is Australian like me and will play Ellen. We recently did Mahler’s Symphony no. 2 in Sydney. The great English bass Peter Rose I have not only worked with many times in the great German and Austrian theatres, but is also a dear friend. Brandon Jovanovich and Ólafur Sigurdarson are renowned Wagnerian performers, and I believe they will be perfect as Peter Grimes and Balstrode.


LP There is a 1958 recording of this opera conducted by its author, with Peter Pears, the first to perform Grimes, in the title role. Was this recording a reference for you?

SY It’s always interesting to listen to a recording done by the composer. Britten in particular was a great musician, pianist and conductor. Pears likewise had something special in his voice and as a friend and partner of Britten, perceived the music in a very personal way. However, Job Vickers was also a famous performer of Peter Grimes because he offered a completely different interpretation from that of Pears, one that was less lyrical and more aggressive. I believe that this character can be sung by a different kind of tenor. Personally, I conducted the opera many times with very different performers, such as Jonas Kaufmann and Michael Schade. Jovanovich has a very flexible voice. I’m certain that Grimes will be a great role for him.


LP At La Scala, the opera will be presented with new direction by Robert Carsen. Have you already had a chance to work with him?

SY I have conducted many of his productions, such as his Tosca in Hamburg and Der Rosenkavalier last March at the Metropolitan. These were filmed, so I never had direct contact with him. This will be the first time we do something together. In recent months, we talked and exchanged a few emails. It was intense work, but I believe it will be very interesting because Robert and I truly love Britten.


LP Your personal interest in Peter Grimes is in some ways due to the fact that you, like the composer, grew up on the seaside (for him, Lowestoft, and for you, Sydney)?

SY Operas with a marine atmosphere speak to me in a special way. For example, my favourite opera by Verdi is Simon Boccanegra, a piece in which, like in Peter Grimes, you can feel the sea from the very first page. In the finale, the moment in which Simon breathes in the sea breeze from the last time is extraordinary. In Peter Grimes, the smell of the sea is everywhere. The sea is musically represented in different ways depending on the weather, from serene to hurricane. These changes are reflected in the protagonist, who is a man who works with and against nature.


LP Speaking of the protagonist, Peter Pears once described him as such: “He is neither a hero nor a villain, he’s just an average weak man.” Do you agree?

SY To me, Grimes is more than anything a lost man. It’s true, he is not a villain, but he is very violent. Perhaps Pears meant to say that the character is a man with a weak spirit since he cannot control his passion or express his emotions with words. This is evident in his relationship with Ellen, the woman he loves and with which he’s unable to be gentle.


LP The first time Ellen and Peter sing together, at the end of the Prologue, it seems like there is hope for their love…

SY When Grimes and Ellen meet, the music becomes delicate and complex, in contrast to that of the community which is clear and simple. Their duet is a small a cappella moment marked by bitonality with each singing in a different key. In the final lines, however, their singing fully overlaps, ending on an E, which is important because it refers to Grimes’ usual key. The character’s great arias are in E, fluctuating between major and minor and creating an ambivalence that you can hear in almost every phrase.


LP Grimes’ aria “Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades” is also in that key, and on top of that, the vocal melody tends to continuously flatten out on the E.

SY This aria too is like the sea. At times the surface of the sea seems flat like a mirror but underneath it’s moving constantly, full of mystery; likewise, Grimes’ song remains calm, with a note that sounds clear and repeated, whereas the orchestral accompaniment is more complex. The mystery of the deep sea is connected to the fact that Grimes is in contact both with nature and with the metaphysical world but unable to express himself.


LP In addition to moments like this, with the lyrical expansion for soloists, there are many instances reserved for the chorus.

SY This is a great opera for the chorus because as a collective character, it takes on a very important role. It is one of the operas that choruses love because there are many small roles for soloists and because the music is truly beautiful and difficult. The orchestra also becomes a character during the interludes.


LP In the opera, the relationships between the voices and the orchestra vary greatly. In the finale, for example, Balstrode asks Peter to return to the sea to sink his boat, using the spoken style without any accompaniment.

SY This is such a sad moment that perhaps it wasn’t possible for Britten to put it into music, so he chose the spoken word style to make it even more profound. Not even Sprechstimme by Schönberg and Berg could have worked better in this scene. After these words there is a long silence and then you hear the music of the sun again as it rises and the life of the village resuming as if it were a normal day. It is a very strange ending but I believe it is also the perfect ending.


Liana Püschel