During last year’s collective confinement, Gustavo Dudamel (Barquisimeto, Venezuela, 40 years old) was forced to leave the maelstrom that his life had become. “It allowed me to reinvent myself, to live everything that I did not have time to live properly, both in my family life and in my work,” he affirmed on Wednesday in a refined New York-style hotel in the heart of Barcelona, a “second home” To which he entered, greeting the staff effusively, confirming that reputation for bonhomie that precedes him and that, strangely enough, never seems overstated. The change of pace was pronounced when, last January, he definitely left his thirties behind, a round birthday that could be difficult to digest for a man who no one tires of treating like a young prodigy, no matter how gray his curls already look. serpentines.
Gustavo Dudamel, new musical director of the Paris Opera
“I don’t know if it’s the turn of the decade, but before I thought a lot, I was very self-critical, I flattered myself when I left the concerts. Now I try to find a balance that allows me to feel full, ”says Dudamel, recently appointed new musical director of the Paris Opera. For the next six seasons, he will combine this position with that of head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, an institution he has headed since 2009.
“I do it because I know I can do it. It is an opportunity for my artistic development, which will be much more consistent, more complete. I am still young, but it is no longer the youth of my 20s. It is a good time to take on this challenge ”, says the director, who has just finished 11 performances of his Othello at the Liceu. From now on you will have two kingdoms, one on each continent, but also a paradoxically calmer life. “They will be longer trips, two or three months at a time, and no longer a week in each city. As a family, we have been looking for stability on both sides for a long time, ”says Dudamel, a partner of the actress María Valverde, who assures that they will have a third foot in Madrid, where her in-laws live. The director still does not have a home in Paris, but he has already begun to learn French, a language that “has its complexity”, but that this “denied to languages” says he feels “close”.
It is one of the shortcomings of artistic institutions: we continue to believe that the public should come to us and not the other way around.
At the head of the Paris Opera, his project will consist of alternating “important titles in the history of opera with a new repertoire, creating a balance between the traditional and the new.” A line similar to the one he successfully developed at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, although in Paris the lyrical will have to prevail over the symphonic. “Even so, I don’t come with the will to repeat the same recipe, because I don’t feel like it and because they are very different places. What I can do is use what I have learned and implement things that I am proud of, ”he says. In his first season, he will direct Turandot Y The wedding of Figaro, one in each of the two rooms of the Paris Opera, the historic headquarters of the Palais Garnier and the eighties fortress of the Bastille. He has also scheduled symphonic concerts by Ravel, Mozart, Berlioz, Mahler or Boulez, which will allow him to “find a sound” with his new orchestra. Then “new composers and never performed operas” will come, projects with artists from other disciplines and pop musicians, such as the ones he has developed in Los Angeles, which he aspires to stage outside of those two official venues. “Breaking down those barriers is the best way to get the audience closer,” says Dudamel. “It is one of the deficiencies of artistic institutions: we continue to believe that the public should come to us and not the other way around.”
The genesis of his appointment is in his first and, to date, only collaboration with the Paris Opera, where He directed Bohemian by Puccini in 2017 with a controversial staging by Claus Guth, who decided to place her in a dystopian future. “There was a wonderful connection with the orchestra and the choir. It was one of my most special operatic experiences, to the point that it ended that well, ”recalls Dudamel. The offer was not finalized until Alexander Neef, a 46-year-old German and a disciple of the late Gérard Mortier, was appointed head of the institution last year to replace the incombustible Stéphane Lissner, on the verge of retirement. His superstar profile and his fluency in different registers drove Dudamel’s candidacy, but also the good memory he had left in the musicians of an orchestra known for its human toughness. Why do you think they liked it so much? “They saw the respect that exists on my part for the artists with whom I work. And a flexibility, because I am not a tax person. I am rigorous, but without imposition, ”says Dudamel after a few seconds of hesitation, stopping on the threshold of immodesty. “Growing up in the environment where I grew up is a gigantic fortune. It made me aware of the importance of the musician in the orchestra, of the demand expressed through understanding and never through obligation ”, he adds about his training in the Sistema, the revolutionary organization of public orchestras in Venezuela. “I bet on a leadership where everyone feels represented. There has to be a guide and you have to feel like a guide, but there are ways of saying things. Others hit three screams. I present my criticisms within the framework of a reflection, which in reality can be harder, more laborious ”, he admits.
Will the Dudamel method, in favor of the essay, take hold as a co-production between the teacher and his musicians, in one of the most turbulent temples of European lyrical art? Its new director knows the long history of conflicts in this institution, where tensions and strikes have abounded. His friend Benjamin Millepied, another Angelino by adoption, threw in the towel after just two years leading the ballet at this same Opera, unable to promote the renewal he wanted. He says he gives her respect, but not fear. “If I was scared, I would have said no. I would not expose myself to this, and even less in such a complex moment, ”says Dudamel, who assumes the management of an institution that lost 45 million euros due to the 2020 cancellations and which is, according to its own officials, on the brink of bankruptcy. “I tend to see difficulties as opportunities. If there are problems, they will need to be fixed. Afterwards, we don’t always have to agree on everything. Something wonderful can come out of antagonistic ideas, ”he says.
I don’t know if it’s the turn of the decade, but before I thought a lot, I was very self-critical, I flattered myself when I left the concerts
When Stéphane Lissner was appointed as director in 2014, he sent a resounding message: “You have to provoke intellectually.” It opened its first season with a montage of Moses and Aaron, Schönberg’s impenetrable opera staged by Romeo Castellucci, that eternal agitator adored in Parisian cenacles. When chosen as his successor, Neef used different words: “There will be an evolution, not a revolution.” Dudamel is inscribed, without a doubt, in this second way. “The word evolution is fundamental. Through evolution it can also be provoked ”, he maintains. “Sometimes, we want the change processes to be immediate. But sometimes when they are done like this, they are not understood, because they have no depth and they fade. It’s like repairing something halfway: it takes a while, but it ends up being more expensive. The transformation must respond to a process of collective thought, of exchange of ideas, of greater solidity ”. That does not mean that he sees himself as a man of consensus: “Not everything we do will have to be liked by everyone. Leaving room for a dialogue between comfort and discomfort seems healthy to me, but I don’t believe in radicalism, because they never work in any aspect of human development. The radical never transcends, never leaves a base ”.
An American in Paris
His appointment makes Dudamel the first Latin American to lead a great European opera and shows that there are other ways to achieve excellence that the Viennese model of the conservatory and his cult of the soloist. “Those times have changed… a bit. Music is very important in my country, but it is not comparable to the places where it was born and developed. That said, the System has been an example of the transformation of teaching in many parts of the world, including the conservatories themselves ”, he considers. The fruit of this alternative pedagogy now reaches the heart of the Paris Opera. Does that mean that cult music has changed forever? “It is a sign that it has evolved and I think it should continue to do so. It cannot be enclosed in a smaller and smaller box. It must be protected and respected, but also allowed to change with the times ”.
Music is very important in my country, but it is not comparable to the places where it was born and developed
Is this American’s triumph in Paris a historic revenge of the new world over the old? “I couldn’t say that …”, says Dudamel with a clean laugh. “But there is an important symbolism, as it conveys a positive message to a new generation. Some of us go ahead, opening the way for others to follow us. And I didn’t come here out of nowhere either: I am the result of the development of a system that precedes me ”. What would your teacher, José Antonio Abreu, founder of the System, say if he called you to announce this good news? “I would be happy. Or rather, he is very happy. I talk to him often, ”he says about his mentor, who died in 2018. His disagreements with the Nicolás Maduro regime prevented him from attending his funeral in Venezuela, which he has not been in for years. “But I’ll be back soon, as soon as possible,” swears Dudamel with tremolos in his voice. “The situation hurts me a lot, but I have faith in my country and I know that it will come out of this situation. Meeting points must be found on the fringes of politics, in society itself. People are jaded. They want to live and not survive ”.