Welcome to the inaugural Celebrity Soft Spot!
Each month an artist will be interviewed showcasing their exciting work in WA. To launch the series we get behind the scenes with Australian conductor Brad Cohen who has just snared the top job at WA Opera. Brad is energised and disarmingly honest, with a soft spot for bel canto and wind surfing among other things. Brad arrives in Perth on February 25th and it is easy to see why everyone at WA Opera is buzzing…
Why are you joining WA Opera? Be honest was it the beaches, the weather?
Well, I was born in Mauritius, probably the most beautiful place on earth, with plenty of beaches and lots of weather! So no, it wasn’t that. I’m taking up the role of Artistic Director with WAO because I love and respect the team there, I believe in the future of opera for the State and region, and the timing (with the National Opera Review and our 50th anniversary year in 2017) is perfect.
Audiences in Perth are protectively proud of our state opera company. But we’re also getting a little bored (not another Madam Butterfly…). What are your plans for the company?
WAO currently offers the operatic equivalent of a four-course meal to our audiences across each season – four productions, including Opera In The Park. Now steak frites is a delicious main course, and I love to eat it, but if I was offered it time after time, its appeal would pall. By extension, I want to create a balanced, diverse operatic menu for WAO. There are plenty of major, core repertoire operas which Perth has either never or not recently seen.
What music gets your heart racing?
Music fills my waking life (and quite of a few of my sleeping dreams as well). At the moment I’m listening a great deal to Richter playing Schubert piano sonatas. But Uptown Funk is also on my playlist…
What calms you down?
I balance myself through exercise, particularly swimming and cycling. I love to read when time allows, and baking (sourdough breads in particular) is a passion.
What do you sing along to?
I sing non-stop in my head, to all sorts of things. When I hear music in my head, I am always singing. But my choirboy days are far behind me. And my singer friends take pleasure in mocking me when I sing their lines in rehearsal.
Composer Mark Applebaum says music should be above all else interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?
I think no-one fully understands why we make music – its source must lie deep in our limbic brains. I have often wondered why music took possession of my life in the way it has, and I don’t have a neat answer. But there are clearly emotional, healing, and fantasy elements to music, beneath the sounds. Something in it compels many of us to embrace it.
You have a soft spot for bel canto opera – what is the appeal of this repertoire?
The singing voice lies at the core of opera – it is its power. That vibrating throat is the basis of everything I do in music, and I believe all musical expression ultimately originates in the voice. The bel canto approach, where the singing voice is extended, refined and polished to create the most beautiful line possible, is a touchstone to which I constantly return.
There is no school for conductors. How did you learn your trade?
On the contrary, there are many schools for conductors, and I went to most of them! But your question hints at the real learning, which (unfortunately for many orchestral musicians) only really takes place on the podium. The music, in a way, is the easy bit. Bernstein said conducting was 5% music, 95% management. All the elements – rehearsal technique, stick (baton) technique, emotional intelligence, motivating, inspiring and leading – are what take a long time to learn. And – honestly – I’m still at the foothills.
Conductors are meant to be confident, assured, brimming with authority. How do you cope with nerves?
That’s the Mills & Boon version of the conductor. We all have self-doubt, anxieties, and frustrations. I don’t suffer from nerves much, and I thank my early days as a boy chorister for ‘professionalising’ me before I was aware it was happening!
You were a mentor on the BBC2 TV series Maestro – what sort of tips you give to young conductors? What makes a good conductor?
Good conductors simply encourage and co-ordinate the energy of their colleagues and performers. The advice I would give to young conductors is the same as Simon Rattle gave to me: Keep going!
Watch Brad Cohen in Air Studios, London, rehearsing Jonathon Dove’s TV opera Man on the Moon.
Do you ever get into arguments with people who say opera is outdated and exclusive? What do you say?
I don’t argue in those situations. The classical music industry needs to acknowledge its own part in both patronising and alienating its audiences over the past century. If we make our offering distant, uncommunicative and unlovable, whose fault is that?
Your first gig with WA Opera is Faust in October but you will be sitting in on rehearsals this month for Madama Butterfly. What will you be doing?
Lots and LOTS of meetings. Planning, introductions, auditions, meetings over meals. Plus rehearsals and performances themselves.
Where will you be living while in Perth? Where (and who) do you normally call home?
I’ll be in the CBD, close to the theatre, for my Perth periods this year. Home is where my wife and son are – currently Oxford, UK.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
I get enthusiasms. I love tech, cycling, movies, baking, travel, new experiences. I’ve done paper-making courses, I’ve recently started wind-surfing.
Big thanks to Mr Cohen for making time for Celebrity Soft Spot. For more info on the conductor go to http://www.bradcohen.net. You may get to meet him for yourself if you head to Madama Butterfly (24 Feb – 7th March) or The Barber of Seville (Opera in the Park) on March 6th.
This post is our first Celebrity Soft Spot session for 2015. Do you have a suggestion of who we should include on the list? Is there an artist you know doing something exciting in WA?