David Fallis is surely one of the most important musical minds in Canada. He is Music Director for Opera Atelier, a long-time member and Artistic Director of the Toronto Consort, and director of Choir 21 (a choir specializing in 21st century compositions).
Fallis teaches in the Graduate Department of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. On the one hand Fallis is an important scholar-conductor, leading Opera Atelier’s productions of Lully’s Armide (including its tour to Versailles and later, Glimmerglass this past summer), and historically informed Mozart operas encompassing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, and La Clemenza di Tito. But Fallis has also commissioned contemporary composers with the Toronto Consort, led Christopher Butterfield’s Contes pour enfants pas sages this past spring, and leads R Murray Schafer’s The Love that Moves the Universe with Soundstreams tonight in Toronto (a concert I’m sorry to miss). And Fallis is also the historical music producer for the TV series “The Tudors” and for “The Borgias”
The occasion for this interview might be the most interesting operatic project in the Toronto area this season, namely the Opera Atelier production of Weber‘s Der Freischütz.
I ask Fallis ten questions: five about himself and five about his role in preparing the Opera Atelier production of Der Freischütz.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what s your nationality / ethnic background)?
A bit of both, really. People say they see my Dad in me, but they’ll see my Mum’s brothers in me too. A bit of a mix – mostly Irish, some English. Way back, a little bit of German.
2) What is the BEST thing / worst thing about being a music-director?
Best: Chance to work with great musicians – great singers and players – and to do great
Worst: Sometimes you have to make decisions that won’t keep everyone happy.
It’s a good life.
3) Who do you listen to or watch?
Wow. Well, I don’t have much time for watching TV as much as I’d like to get into these series. Listening to relax all together – I love the Jazz bassist Ron Carter, a great player. I like going to live concerts. I don’t listen around the house. If I have time off, I’ll go to a live concert. If I really need calming down, I listen to Bach organ music.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Oh, well. One always wishes you could have even better ears – people talk about having perfect pitch, which is a nuisance really. I’d love to be able to hear music even better. You stand in awe of people who can understand music perfectly. It’s a good exercise to try to write a piece, for any musician, because you really understand how difficult it is.
5) When you’re just relaxing (and not working) what is your favorite thing to do?
In the summertime, my favourite thing is to get outside. Even as simple as getting out to the garden, or out of the city. I love tramping around ponds and all sorts of places. In the wintertime, I’m not a great winter camper, so I do enjoy going to live theatre – straight theatre. Since there’s so much musical theater in my business, I like to go see straight theatre a lot.
Five more about being the music-director for the upcoming period production of Weber’s Der Freischütz with Opera Atelier.
1) How does preparing & conducting an opera in period performance (particularly of an opera you’re performing for the first time) challenge you?
Of course you really have to know it from the inside. I spend a lot of time with the text – with the words – so I get to know exactly what’s going on. I’ve done this many times; I go to a native speaker because they can catch innuendo or implications I miss. In Italian or German operas there are a lot of Dante or Biblical references that are lost in translation. If you don’t know the original it doesn’t pop out at you. You don’t always get it as a non-native speaker. Passages have a variety of meaning.
This is a bigger orchestral piece and you have to know how all the parts are going to fit together. All the tricky connecting points where you go from one tempo to another or one mood to another. And there is a lot of this in this piece.
The Wolf’s Glen scene has a lot of short bits and the singers actually speak over music at this point. Usually the orchestra stops when there is spoken dialogue. They call this melodrama; where the orchestra plays through the spoken passages. The music has to synchronize with the talking.
Here’s an example of the melodrama from an old recording.
I also listened to Weber’s other operas Euryanthe and Oberon. I listened to them years ago but didn’t know them very well, so I listen to them and some of his contemporaries too. You like to have context for the piece. I spent quite a bit of time reading about 19th century performance practice – e.g. how they handled trills and how they handled the staccato marks. There’s quite a bit of change in this period. And of course, this is something Tafelmusik is interested in too. We want to make it sound plausible from the 19th century point of view. In the so-called early music movement, we started out by spending quite a bit of time on the Baroque. It was so far away that nobody knew what it was like at the time.
But now, people are saying that about the 19th century. Just because it’s closer to us in time doesn’t mean we know more about the performance practice. We can’t assume that the way we play it is what they had in mind. Even the size of the orchestra. The size in Dresden (where Weber worked) is a bit smaller than some other Romantic orchestras of the time so it worked out for us.
2) What do you love about historically informed performance?
Well, I’m curious I guess, really, about how things might have sounded. I should say it doesn’t mean that’s the only way to play it. You stand in awe of the genius of the great composers, so naturally you wonder what was in their minds. And of course, Mozart didn’t have in mind a modern piano. They had in their mind’s ear the instruments and sounds of their period. I want to see if I can get inside the mind of the composer, so understanding what was available at the time and how the instruments sounded and all those kinds of things are important in understanding what the composers wanted to say.
3) Do you have a favourite work that you’ve conducted?
I got asked once at a Q&A at the end of a lecture what my favourite piece was. And I said, “I try and love the one I’m with.” I have a list of favourite composers and a list of favourite pieces, but I wouldn’t want to have to choose one.
4) How do you relate to period performance as a modern man?
Well again, it arises out of curiosity. If you travel geographically around the world and you hear music from India or Egypt or Mali and you think, “Wow, this is incredible music” and it’s wonderful to be taken into this other world. With this, you’re having fun travelling to another world chronologically. And, if you’re interested in music you’re interested in different kinds of music, and there are lost of different kinds across the globe and across the ages. And you start to notice differences and similarities. Chinese opera sounds
quite different from German opera.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
I’m not sure I would think of anyone particularly. I love to hear great singers, great pianists,… in terms of this repertoire: John Elliot Gardiner has done a lot of recording of this type of period.
My first piano teacher was a man named Court Stone and I had a choral instructor Lloyd Bradshaw – they both had a lot to do with why I went in to music at all.
David Fallis leads Opera Atelier’s new period production of Der Freischütz in Toronto at the Elgin Theatre opening October 27th, running until November 3rd.