Laurence Dale at his directing début

To celebrate his tenth year at the head of Evian’s Les Escales Musicales, renowned opera singer and director Laurence Dale conducts an orchestral evening on May 21 bound to make any Brit nostalgic for the homeland with Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory from the Enigma Variations. He tells Swisster how singing has helped him prepare to hold the baton.

‘England, my England’ is the theme of the orchestral evening that launches this year’s edition of Evian’s Les Escales Musicales, one of Lake Geneva’s best kept secrets. In the sublime Grange au Lac, an auditorium made entirely of pine and red cedar, some of the finest orchestras in this world have performed.

The Evian festival was created in 1983 by Mstislav Rostropovitch, the world famous cellist-conductor who remained artistic director until 2000.

Upon his departure “they wanted to reinvent the festival, so they came to get me in Paris,” says Dale, whose career in opera direction was just taking off.

Before realizing his “lifelong dream of staging operas”, Laurence Dale was recognized as one of the best lyric tenors of his generation, with a voice as distinctive as Callas’s and an ability to pack as much emotion into his operatic performances as Laurence Olivier did in theatre.

His performance as Fenton (see video) in the 1987 ‘Falstaff’ production with José van Dam continues to be mentioned and his portrayal of Tamino in Mozart’s ‘The magic flute’ in 1991 was described as “legendary”.

It was Peter Brook, who had cast him in the title role of José in his landmark production of ‘La Tragédie de Carmen’ who pushed Dale to opera direction.

“It’s funny how in my life things just happen,” he says wistfully “although three great men have perhaps nudged my career in ways that it would not have gone without them.”

Sir Colin Davis was to give Dale his first break at Covent Garden just after he finished his studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

“Imagine at 22 singing with the best voices in the world!” he exclaims with enthusiasm. “Davis also taught me a fundamental principal which is to always anticipate.”

Sir Peter Pears, the English tenor and life-long partner of Benjamin Britten, was also to share with Dale another guideline that he always keeps in mind. He said: “Think of what it would be like if you did it the other way round.”

And finally Peter Brook who just before the end of the last century challenged him with: “Why don’t you direct?”

Don Giovanni, Mozart, Vlaams Radio Orkest in Amsterdam Concertgebouw, 2006

By then Dale was tired of fighting allergies and health problems as a singer “always having to request special pillows in hotels and staying away from air-conditioning.”

“I lost contact with my voice,” he admits sadly “but what has been my loss has become useful for others,” he adds, because he “can anticipate what a singer will need.”

“Directors are often asking for results right away. But singers need time to absorb,” he explains.

Laurence Dale’s transition from singer to director “was miraculously smooth” and came swiftly, with one success leading to another.

Land des Lächelns, Franz Lehár, Salzburger Landestheater, 2002

Over the last ten years, he has engaged in a vast variety of styles, from lighter operettas (Franz Lehar and Offenbach), opera baroque (Haydn and Purcell), opera seria or grand (Verdi, Meyerbeer), 20th century opera (Britten and Darius Milhaud), as well as contemporary opera by Thomas Adès.

“What is so exciting about directing is that I have a chance to apply all my experience and knowledge and yet I’m still learning. Also, I actually like people.”

Aida, Opera Africa, 2008

A long-term collaboration with Opera Africa in South Africa led to the creation of ‘Opera extravaganza’ to teach children from the townships to sing.

He warns us to look out for South African Kelebogile Boikanyo, “a soprano to rival the greatest”.

The move to conducting came only recently and “completely by accident” when Dale led the Johannesburg Philharmonic in 2008 in a performance of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ that he had also staged. A double-booked conductor did not show up, so Dale stepped in.

“It was ecstatically received!” so Dale has carried on conducting.

“The thing about orchestras is that you need to understand their psychology,” he observes. “The best thing a conductor can do is to 1) Be there to help 2) but know when to get out of the way.”

“My respect for orchestra musicians has skyrocketed,” he admits, “because they come up with wonderful ways of phrasing the music. There are times they don’t even need a conductor.”

He will be leading the German Philarmonia of Nations on the first night in Evian. The second night will be dedicated to a romantic programme with Dvorak (Cello Concerto) and Brahms (Symphony N°4) under the baguette of Justus Frantz.

On the last evening on 23 May, the Orchestre National d’Ile de France has been invited to share a Russian programme (Borodine, Tchaïkovski, Moussorgski).

But the highlight as far as Dale is concerned is the taste of Britannia with Elgar’s ‘Land of hope and glory’ from Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, Britain’s unofficial national anthem, “which sadly was ruined by Benson’s lyrics,” Dale believes.

Elgar is not the “twee composer that he is said to be,” insists Dale. “He was actually in the great Viennese line and his orchestration is as complex as Wagner’s,” which is the reason the two composers, along with Brahms are included in the same programme.

“I don’t think I could have done what I am doing fifteen years ago,” Laurence Dale guesses, “because I’ve never belonged to a particular school.”

“I still don’t know how it all happened,” he reflects.

Laurence Dale, Lausanne, 18 May 2010

Laurence Dale’s website
Les Escales Musicales
La Grange au Lac

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, trained as a journalist, became an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London before moving to Switzerland, where she now covers the art beat and presides several associations.

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