Karel Mark Chichon on his debut at the Met, working with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and his Gibraltarian roots

In the midst of a very successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera, conductor Karel Mark Chichon spoke to Andrew Mellor about working at the Met, his relationship with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, repertoire choices and his Gibraltarian roots. 

‘Madama Butterfly’ will be broadcast live in cinemas on 2 April 2016 as part of the Met’s ‘Live in HD‘ series.  

You’re mid-way through ‘Madama Butterfly’, your Met debut. Does the orchestra live up to its reputation?
Oh yes. It’s extremely friendly, open and flexible; the players listen fantastically and use an incredible variety of colours. I actually think you can achieve a far higher level in this theatre than in most; the level of professionalism is unbelievable. Both the orchestra and chorus take such pride in producing the best performances night after night, and you get more generous rehearsal time than you would have in most European theatres. There’s really no such thing as a ‘repertoire’ performance at the Met.

If you’ve got two performances a week, what do you do for the rest of the time?
I tell you, since I arrived here at the end of January to my first performance on 19 February to now, I’ve not had time to breathe! We’ve had some cast illnesses, which means lots of extra rehearsals with the replacement singers. So I’ve been rehearsing in the theatre literally every other day. Normally I’d be studying scores, dealing with correspondence and spending my time with my two daughters who are here with me. I like to play father at least five or six hours a day.

Soon you’ll be conducting more Puccini, ‘La bohème’, with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie – your German orchestra. How will they take to it?
I’m sure that they will take it very positively. I’ve already done opera in concert with them; we did ‘I Capuleti ei Montecchi’ and toured it to Baden Baden and Geneva.

Is the orchestra more attuned to the Mediterranean, operatic repertoire thanks to you?
One thing I’m proud to say I’ve done is make the orchestra more flexible. I think its style of working, its sound, its approach to music in the last three or four years is not so German – without wanting to stereotype. This is an orchestra that wants not only to improve but to find other ways. It’s not an orchestra that says ‘this is how we do things’. I believe that a symphony orchestra playing opera makes them a better symphony orchestra and an opera orchestra playing symphonic music makes them a better opera orchestra. You can’t get the complete picture of what orchestral playing is – or even what conducting is about – without both genres.

But you’re standing down next year, so how do you feel about someone else taking over? Will it be like sending your daughters off to an au pair?
I tend to think it’s more like leaving your wife and finding another! It’s like saying, ‘I think it’s time we should part’. It’s time to move on both for them and for me. They have very clear objectives about what they want for the future and so do I. I hope that I’ve placed the orchestra in the right position to go to the next step.

Does that mean you’re on the lookout for a Music Directorship somewhere?
I certainly feel I’m going on to a second phase and I feel I need an orchestra that fits that phase. With some of the orchestras that I conduct – and some that I haven’t conducted yet – there is mutual interest to have a more permanent relationship. But I think these are things you have to handle carefully; if you search for them they never come. So let’s say there are certain orchestras that I’m ‘dating’ right now, we are getting to know each other.

That requires some patience…
Exactly, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in this profession it’s that you need patience. Anything that you rush or push tends not to work. I’ve turned down big engagements with new orchestras or opera houses in the past because I’ve felt I wasn’t ready or the repertoire wasn’t exactly right. You have to remember that first impressions are so important. Orchestras have a very long memory for the first encounter, whether it goes well or it doesn’t…

Does that patience go for repertoire as well?
To an extent. There is certain repertoire that I feel I shouldn’t touch yet, like Bruckner for example. I’m just not experienced enough to tackle it. But I have an enormous respect for those symphonies and I’m sure that one day I’ll do them.

Do your Gibraltarian and British roots have any sway on your repertoire choices?
Certainly – I do a substantial amount of British music; Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton, and I do quite a lot of Spanish music too.

It makes for an interesting mix in terms of temperament…
I’ve always thought a Gibraltarian has the manners and gentlemanly attributes of a British person but with the fiery temperament of a Spanish person. And in many ways I think that is me! Of course Elgar is certainly not Falla. But I think you can understand Elgar and Falla better as a Gibraltarian than somebody who is just British or just Spanish. Of course a Spanish conductor can do wonderful Elgar, but it’s a little bit about what’s in your blood – how you feel it. You cannot compare how a Spaniard feels the music of Elgar to how a Brit does, and vice versa. It’s impossible to say otherwise.

Karel is conducting ‘Madama Butterfly’ at the Metropolitan Opera until 12 April 2016, with Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Kristine Opolais as Cio-Cio-San. The performance on 2 April will be broadcast live in cinemas as part of the Met’s ‘Live in HD’ series. Following his run at the Met, Karel will conduct a concert at Opéra Royal de Wallonie on 30 April with Elīna Garanča, then return to the Bayerische Staatsoper for performances of ‘Tosca’. 

Karel is Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern.

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