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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Desert Songs And Water Music: The Summer Adventures Of Johannes Debus

By Joseph So on August 12, 2019

Leading up to the second edition of Wellington Water Week on August 17-25, it’s easy to see why people are flocking to picturesque Prince Edward County.

Wellington Water Week, 2019
From the closing night performance of last year’s Wellington Water Week Festival: (L. to R.): Graham Abbey (Artistic Director of Festival Players), Alain Coulombe, bass; Elissa Lee, violin; Johannes Debus, Music Director. (Photo: Rick Matthews)

To the discerning music lover, nature and music are inextricably linked. There’s something magical about a performance in the great outdoors, a frisson that’s not present inside the concrete environs of an opera house or a concert hall. This is true for both the artist and the public.

Just ask Johannes Debus, the Canadian Opera Company’s Music Director. He has conducted Les contes d’Hoffmann and Beatrice Cenci at the Bregenzer Festspiele at the Seebühne, on the shores of Lake Constance in Austria.  A performance on this floating stage, an outdoor theatre that seats 7,000, is an unforgettable experience — it gives new meaning to that famous Schubert song, “Auf dem Wasser zu singen.”

Last summer, Debus, together with his violinist-wife Elissa Lee, spearheaded Wellington Water Week, a new music festival in picturesque Prince Edward County in Ontario. It was in part inspired by their experience in Bregenz and other summer festivals such as Aspen and Santa Fe.  Like Bregenz, Wellington is by the water, not to mention its special charm of small-town Ontario. Wellington already has a vibrant visual arts scene and a well-established theatre company, the Festival Players under its AD Graham Abbey. Last season, Wellington Water Week contributed a classical musical component to complete the picture.

Starting a music festival from scratch is a daunting task. It requires a huge commitment, lots of planning, a deep pocket, and most of all, a true vision and a belief in its future. I was keen to find out from Johannes Debus how things went last summer.  By a happy coincidence, my annual visit to the Santa Fe Opera Festival coincided with his conducting debut there, in Janacek’s Jenufa, a work also new to the Company.  An interview was in order.

The original plan was to interview both Johannes and Elissa in Santa Fe, as she has been instrumental in the programming of WWW. But by the time I got to SFO, she had already left after attending opening night, to return to Toronto for her many concert commitments. As a member of the Ensemble Made in Canada, she performed in the Toronto Summer Music. She’s also heavily involved in the Mosaïque Project. Fortunately, I was able to get her comments to my questions by email, incorporated into the body of this article.

(Photo: Rick Matthews)
(Photo: Rick Matthews)

Johannes and I met up in the canteen on the idyllic grounds of the Santa Fe Opera, nestled in the high New Mexican desert. Throughout our chat, one could hear birds chirping, children frolicking in the swimming pool not far away, interspersed with the sounds of singers warming up with their vocalises:

Johannes, is this your first visit to the Santa Fe Opera?  What are your impressions of Santa Fe, and the opera house?

JD: It’s my second.  I came for the first time 10 years ago, just out of curiosity. One of those performances I saw here — The Letter, a new opera (by Paul Moravec) with Patricia Racette – it was one of those thunderstorm performances. I remember sitting in the audience, the back of the stage was open, and the storm was so powerful that chairs on stage were collapsing! I remember Pat holding onto the props (laughs). I assumed they would stop any moment, but nope, they kept going! That just tells you what kind of special environment it is here. Sometimes it can be distracting and problematic for the singers onstage — they can’t hear the orchestra over the heavy thunderstorm.

EL: And I’m so lucky to be able to occasionally follow Johannes to experience these amazing places in the world!  Santa Fe is definitely one of the more stunning places we have visited.

You mention thunderstorms. In my 20 years of coming to Santa Fe, an occasional storm during a performance is almost a given…

JD: The storms can be incredibly powerful and they enhance the (theatrical) experience. When it comes to a composer like Janacek who’s so connected to nature, and who actually had a number of storm scenes written into his scores, like in Vixen and in Katya, an actual storm feels almost appropriate!

Is this your first Jenufa, Johannes? 

JD: Yes, it is. I had done Katya Kabanova, in a student production.  I remember someone telling me ‘you’ve got to listen to this music.’ — before that I had not heard a note of Janacek. Well, it was an incredible experience. At that time, I had this famous Decca recording with Charles Mackerras and Elisabeth Soderstrom.

Did you ever meet Mackerras?

JD: Not in person. I corresponded with him when I was preparing Excursion of Mr. Broucek. I wanted to check some material and I knew Universal Edition had his material in the archives. Julia Jones suggested that I use the material by Mackerras, and I had to ask him for permission. He was very generous and gracious.

You enjoy the working environment here in Santa Fe?  What is it like making music in the New Mexican desert? 

JD: Oh yeah! If you work in one of these rehearsal stages, you are amongst all the flowers, the birds singing, and other creatures showing up. It’s hard to go back into the dark spaces!

Haha… here you have mountains and deserts, and after this, you go to the other extreme, to the land of lakes and water of Wellington.

That’s right. You can argue here in Santa Fe, there’s a lack of water. But people tell me that this summer it’s been more rainy than usual — it’s being in touch with the elements!

Last summer was your first season of Welllington Water Week. How did the festival go, your inaugural season?  

EL: It went very well! As you can imagine, we had no idea what the reactions would be. It was inspiring to hear that people were stunned by the quality of the performances and that at the end of the week, people were already looking forward to next summer.

JD: Yes, I think we could be quite happy with how things went last year. The feedback, the encouragement that we got from all sides was to continue the festival.  This season we’re teaming up with Festival Players, the theatre company that has been in town for a long time. This summer they are the presenters of what we do — we’re part of their program.

Elissa, I understand you’ve played a big role in the programming.  What’s involved in planning a festival program?  How did you pick and choose what to present?  

EL: This year, we’re trying to bring in a larger variety of concerts, in different locations. We also try to give each concert a little “twist”, something intriguing or different. The goal is to make it an especially memorable experience for the audience. We tried to be as creative as possible, to create a full week’s programme where one person could attend every concert and be constantly surprised.

Johannes, I notice that you have a concert this year with Sarah Slean. Have you done this sort of basically non-classical concerts before?

You know that I have worked with Rufus Wainwright?  Not just on his opera, but I did a concert with him, on more symphonic arrangements of his music at the Proms in London.  You see that I’m a colourful bird! (laughs) I find for myself inspirations in all genres; sometimes I wish I could ‘speak’ in the other genres. I envy my brother who is a jazz musician. I tried, but I don’t have the talent in the jazz vocabulary. I have great admiration and appreciation for other types of music, for the different possibilities of expressing something in different musical genres. For example, Sarah’s concert, and the pre-concert mass choir…

Architek Percussion
Architek Percussion (Photo: Kevin Scanlon)

Ah, I’ve read about this concert.  SING! — where everyone is invited to register and participate, and no experience required. Have you done anything like that before?  It strikes me as very unpredictable…

Absolutely!  It’s totally unpredictable.  You don’t know what kind of voices will show up. One mandate of this festival format is to find ways to include the audience participation. It’s not a new concept, but perhaps in new in Prince Edward County, and it can be fun. I think it’s important to come up with something where people feel they are having an experience, and it’s not only the old model of “here’s the stage, on the stage there’s the ‘sender’ and the audience is the recipient.”  That has its merits — I’m not questioning that. We have lots of concerts in this old traditional format, but we try to see what we can do to make it more fun, to heighten the experience.

EL: The idea to unite people in song is an old one, and it is a very powerful one. We wanted to create an event for the community, bringing people together in a musical event, where everyone can sing! We admire what CHOIR! CHOIR! CHOIR! does, and this was inspired by them and their activities. A choral arrangement of Pharrell Williams’ song “HAPPY” will be distributed to registered participants and Johannes will rehearse the choir for about 30-40 min before they’re joined by the fabulous Sarah Slean, to sing the solo line with the choir. We hope that we’ll get a great turnout… we need lots of voices to fill the air and sky with joy and happiness!

That does sound like a lot of fun! I’ve gone online to check out your program.  It seems that you’re avoiding the more formal, stuffy type of concert-hall programming in favour of more light-hearted, informal fare, with lots of innovative touches.

JD: That’s right. For example, we have a food component. We do some concerts that include dinner. We have a Promenade concert where musicians perform in different places, and we’ve teamed up with a chef in Prince Edward County to create tapas for each of those stations.

Elissa, will you be playing in this year’s Festival?

EL: Yes, I will be performing during the Musical and Edible Promenade.  I also managed to convince Johannes to join me for a bonus performance on the piano as well, as part of a string quartet accompanying Sarah Slean in concert. I’ll also be in the final concert, Exuberance et Nostalgie, which won a Prix Opus for best mixed program concert in 2018.

Since you are a husband-and-wife team, I want to ask — what is it like having two musicians in the family?  I’ve interviewed singer couples and they tell me having two voices in the family can get complicated… practice time for one thing. But of course, Johannes, you don’t make any noise (laughs)! 

JD: Yes, I don’t make any noise… [sounding only slightly amused] There’s a lot of logistics involved. We’re based in Berlin and Toronto; we have to plan our calendars carefully. I am very fond of what Elissa does. She is an amazing musician. I always ask her about the things I do and she has always given me great input, so I’m more than happy if I can support her and I try as much as I can. I am happy that she can come to Santa Fe and attend opening night and we can spend some time together as a family.

And to balance career and family and children — especially you, Elissa?

EL: It’s never boring! Always juggling, organizing, booking travel and analyzing the calendar. It is nice to have this shared project though, to join our minds and hearts in trying to put together an exciting programme.

On that note, toi toi toi to both of you, and I hope to make it to Wellington to cheer you guys on!

Wellington Water Week (August 17-25, 2019). For details, see here.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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