Marc Leroy-Calatayud on conducting (and taking lessons in!) ballet, repertoire picks & his time in Bordeaux

Conductor Marc Leroy-Calatayud, who joins Askonas Holt this week for general management, is Assistant Conductor at the Opéra National de Bordeaux, where he regularly conducts opera and ballet performances, and symphonic concerts. Marc speaks to Toby Deller about different styles of conducting, what he has learnt in Bordeaux, and why he’s taking ballet lessons…

What have you learned during your time as Assistant Conductor at Bordeaux?

I think it’s a very important step when you go from being a student doing a lot of projects here and there to a young professional who works in a big institution. Two things were really great. First, to realise that I have the ability to learn a lot of scores very fast: you have to be very focused and learn instantly what you are studying without having three or four weeks to learn one piece but more like three days. The other thing is how different it is to conduct in the pit for opera: how much more clear you have to be for the choir, for the singers, where they are really expecting you to give them leads or give them phrasing, where you have to be accompanying and at the service of what they are doing in the music.

Do you have particular repertoire and composer preferences in orchestral music?

Composers between, say, 1880 and 1930 because it’s a fantastic period in Europe. You have a lot of experiments: they go one way with Strauss, one way with Bartók, one way with Stravinsky… If you take 1900 to 1914, in those 14 years you have all the big Mahler symphonies, all the big Stravinsky ballets, all the big Strauss operas and it’s fascinating to see how people were going different ways at that time, how creative people were. And the other composer I really love is Mozart.

Conducting is not a theoretical activity: you are dealing with actual human beings. Do you find that an easy part of the job, to be a motivator and so on?

That’s exactly the thing I like about conducting. Of course you want to motivate the orchestra, you want to be very clear, you want to show leadership, you want to show ideas. But it’s strange to realise that it doesn’t work the same way with every orchestra. Some orchestras react to a metaphor or an image or a source of inspiration while some others just want you to show everything.

I must ask you about ballet. Is it true you are having lessons?

Yes! The first time I entered the ballet studio in Bordeaux it was really a shock: it’s a very different universe with different words, different ways of working and different mentalities too. It was also a time when I didn’t really like the posture I had when I was conducting: I was very tense with very high shoulders. So I thought this would be a good way of learning a lot of things about ballet and how you should conduct it, and also improving my posture. I have private lessons very early in the morning when the studio is free. I really love it!


Marc Leroy-Calatayud © Cyril Cosson


How is conducting ballet different from other conducting?

Usually when you conduct a symphony or opera it’s very clear how it should sound because the composer’s intentions are quite clear in the score: you know that the note that the singer is singing should be heard at the same time as the orchestra. But with the ballet you have no score for the choreography so you really have to learn steps and learn when the music should be exactly together and when you should not react to the dancers if they are dancing a little bit ahead of the music – sometimes you should leave them be and catch them at the next phrase.

I read that you started your own orchestra, Orchestre Quipasseparlà.

When I was 17 a friend of mine was doing Offenbach’s Le voyage dans la lune, and he needed a conductor. So I said: sure I’ll come and conduct, I’ll bring some friends and make a little orchestra. That’s how it started. That was my first opera production and it worked quite well. Then, this group of friends, we said: why not keep playing together and found an orchestra as other young people would a rock band? Next season is going to be the tenth season of the orchestra. It was great because on the one hand I was studying in Vienna and on the other hand I had this orchestra of motivated amateurs and young professionals to try out what I was learning at the same time. The first two or three years I was doing it all by myself so I had to do advertising, fundraising, how to organise concerts – we did five tours – book halls, rent trucks to move the timpani…


“One of the big things we did was play a concert on New Year’s Eve at a soup kitchen for homeless people. They were completely surprised to have a concert there. People started dancing; it was a really nice experience.”


And you looked for opportunities to play outside concert halls?

Yes, that was our big thing. We thought: we love this music but we want to share it with as many people as possible. So our concerts were always free and I would always talk to the audience before the concerts to explain the pieces. We also did interactive concerts where people could come and sit in the orchestra or conduct the orchestra for a movement. The orchestra did a lot of things like playing in hospitals and playing in homes for people with mental illnesses. One of the big things we did was a concert on New Year’s Eve at a soup kitchen for homeless people. They were completely surprised to have a concert there. People started dancing; it was a really nice experience.

What about the future for you?

I would like to be able to do a lot of opera and ballet productions. I think I’m more at ease with this kind of repertoire because it always tells a story. That comes from when I was a child and playing with my Legos or Duplos and inventing stories – I think it’s this same feeling I still have today when I do opera and ballet!

All photos © Cyril Cosson

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