We are Almost Skating on Thin Ice – Modestas Pitrėnas

We are Almost Skating on Thin Ice – Modestas Pitrėnas
Mārtiņš Otto, Riga2014 . Conductor Modestas Pitrėnas
Una Griškeviča
“Choristers, you’re wanted in the dressing room! Children’s choir, the director is waiting for you!” we hear through the Latvian National Opera’s intercom system as the final preparations for the world premiere of Arturs Maskats’ “Valentīna” continue at the opera. We are here to meet the director of the performance, Modestas Pitrėnas.

One of your colleagues once said that what a conductor is feeling before a premiere may be compared to what a woman feels while preparing for childbirth… How about you?

Very much so. (Thinks) Even though this is not the first, nor the second performance I’m staging, I still try to learn from my mistakes. But when there’s one week remaining until the premiere, I try to create a quiet atmosphere, also for the orchestra and creative team, as I can feel that right now everybody is keyed up, and musicians and soloists alike are almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If someone strikes a match incidentally, there may be a big blast. This is a very dangerous situation, which is why a conductor has to be a diplomat and feel, with every fibre of his body, the energy in the orchestra and on the stage, and try to somehow take all this process towards the premiere. Furthermore, the culmination must not happen too soon, everything has to proceed steadily, one hour at a time, until the climax is reached. The fact that this is a world premiere means additional commitments – usually world premieres are staged in collaboration with the author, so they may be considered joint productions, so to speak.

I would even go as far as to say, this could be considered joint composing, as we together with Arturs Maskats make slight improvements to the score before and after, even during the rehearsals.

Isn’t it a bit too late to do this just a few days before the premiere?

Well, it’s never too late. Ideally, of course, it should have happened half a year before the premiere. Everything can be done half a year before the event, but only once you have heard the music yourself can you decide what to do about it all. And that’s what is happening, literally, at this very hour. But I believe that all of this makes the score ever more refined, and the music easier to play.

I believe it was at the press conference for the premiere when you said there was “too much beautiful music” in this opera…

(Laughs) I did, and that’s exactly what I meant: Arturs (read an interview with composer Arturs Maskats here) composes music as if it was meant for a symphony orchestra, therefore his compositions can be performed by an orchestra alone, without soloists – as a symphony. And that, at times, makes things complicated for the singers, as it’s harder to hear what they are singing, but the libretto is very important. That’s why some voices in the orchestra have to be “shortened”, some layers of sound thinned out, so the voices and the message can be heard in all their glory.

Have you succeeded?

Yes, that is exactly what we are doing now.

Do you remember the first time Arturs Maskats told you that he was planning to write an opera?

I don’t remember the exact moment, but I do recall that it was some two years ago, and he also said at the time that he would like me to conduct. I was deeply moved, because I knew that Arturs was a very good composer. What I didn’t know was that the process would be so difficult, and that I can say with all honesty.


Is it more interesting for you to work on complicated projects?

Of course it is! Although I also feel happy when I know the entire score by heart, for instance, Bizet’s “Carmen”. After all, there are traditions of performing “Carmen” that go back 150 years, so everyone knows what to expect – and that’s your chance to surprise the listeners, because you know what can be done better. On the other hand, it’s not always all that interesting to play music you know, music that is popular and canonical. During the “Conversations before a Premiere” on the 1st of December, I said that we had actually been skating on thin ice for the several weeks, much like the ice you can see in the Riga Canal. We’re taking little steps and watch all the while whether the ice will hold this weight or not. (Smiles)

Right now we are two or three metres from the shore, no one has fallen through the ice yet, but it ice is crackling all the time. To me, it’s good that the ice is thin, as it puts you on a kind of an edge. And when a musician is on the edge, he starts to create, that is where the miracle begins! And I think that the thin ice we are on right now is doing this particular piece of music a great deal of good because everybody starts to listen… And through this thin ice, we can see the Atlantis.

Have you read Valentīna Freimane’s book “Farewell, Atlantis!”?

No I haven’t, but I obviously know what it is about thanks to the opera. The book has not been published in Lithuania yet, I think it has not been translated into Russian either, therefore I didn’t have the opportunity to read it. But the story about Valentīna Freimane as an outstanding personality is simply amazing. (Thinks) When I’m being asked in Lithuania who Valentīna Freimane is and what the story is about, I tell them that we also have a similar personality – a theatre director who is also almost 90 years old. She, too, has survived the war, she had many love affairs, she smokes non-stop… Well, the bohemian type of person. Certainly, Valentīna may be more intelligent and unassuming than our lady, but both are colourful, strong personalities that have a lot in common. And that gives the music a kind of a central axis upon which all else is built. (Thinks) Speaking of this opera, the background is definitely very important – there’s war, the Holocaust, but, as importantly, the opera is not about the war or the Holocaust, and not about the tragedies of the Latvian and Jewish nations.

The entire opera is set against the background of these historic events which we know well, which have to be thought about and understood, but the main idea is the individual in a certain period of history, and her life. In short, the opera “Valentīna” is about the individual, and love. I believe it needs to be emphasised so people would not think that this will be a psychologically tough on them. Because the opera is about hope, about Atlantis, the little fire in every one of us, about the wish to live and create, to love and be loved.

That, I believe, is the main message in Arturs Maskats’ new opera. That is also how the opera ends, and that’s the reason it is so emotional.


Could there be more messages in the story, do you think?

Yes, certainly – it is a story of Riga that was, is, and will be, about all these periods in the life of the city. It is a story of a city with colossal history of civilisation, the main city in the Baltic countries, a city that has no equals in the Baltics. So yes, I could also say that opera “Valentīna” is an ode to Riga and the people who live here. This message is also very important to me.

You recently spoke very highly about our opera diva Inga Kalna, who will sing in the premiere of “Valentīna”. What is it like to work with such a professional?

We have worked with Inga on staging Verdi’s “Requiem”, and that’s probably the only time I met her before.

Inga is a true gem, a great personality, professional, and a very clever woman, which is also very important.

She has very good education, she has perfect pitch, and that gives her great freedom of expression. This is one occasion when I feel that we both are on the same wavelength. I do not dictate, instead I give her something, and get something in return. I can feel that this is reciprocal, and this is a very pleasant and important feeling.

Orchestra musicians said after the rehearsal, “Inga sang the last aria so beautifully that everyone was crying.” Is it not difficult to work if the conductor and the orchestra are all crying?

You know, I have experienced this. I will not go into details, but once I kept crying through the entire finale of an opera, and the concertmaster later told me, “Mestro, please don’t do this again, because we cannot play too…” (Smiles) Surely, such moments tug at the heartstrings, and that is all very well – much better than those instances where the singer’s performance leaves you indifferent. But at the same time, singers have the rule of trying to sing so that everybody else cry except the singers themselves. Thus Inga is doing everything in a professional manner – she does not cry but makes everyone else cry. (Laughs) Believe me, it is not easy for the singers, too.

It is too early to say what exactly will come out of this, that we will only find out on Friday. Or maybe after the second performance on Sunday.


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