A Chat With Alain Altinoglu

The Met's recent new production of Werther boasted a rarity -- a French opera conducted by a French conductor. That conductor is 38-year old Alain Altinoglu, who made his debut at the Met in 2010 conducting Carmen and has returned for Faust, Otello, and this year, Werther. This has been a busy season for Altinoglu, who also has an upcoming Salome in Zurich and had assignments in Vienna and Paris. Nevertheless, the conductor took time out of his busy schedule (and preparations for the upcoming HD of Werther on March 15) to talk to me about his career, views on opera, orchestras, productions, and various other topics. Thank you Alain!

Tell me a little about your early musical education. How did you get into classical music? Did you play an instrument? 

AA: My mother was a pianist and a piano teacher. I grew up hearing music at home. My mum taught me reading music at 5 so that I was able to read the notes before the letters! Unfortunately she died when I was 12 and then I decided to continue in classical music.

As you started your career in conducting, did you have any role models or mentors? Or were you pretty much on your own?

AA: I used to be a vocal coach in opera theaters since I was 16 years old. It gave me the opportunity to work with really great and really bad conductors :) One day , I wanted to try by myself. I didn't really have mentors or role models. I knew the famous conductors like everybody: Bernstein, Karajan, etc.

Do you like conducting in New York? How do you find the New York opera audience?

AA: I love conducting at the Met. Everybody is so professional. And the orchestra is really amazing. For the audience, it depends. Sometimes it's a nightmare. For example, I went to Jonas (Kaufmann's) recital at Carnegie Hall. He sung some beautiful Schumann songs, but some people were really rude -- phone rings, candies, etc. And it happens sometimes at the Met. Of course it's not the majority at all, but only one telephone ring (on 4000 people) can kill a beautiful operatic moment. Some of the audience members also have this weird wish of leaving the hall after the last note of the orchestra without waiting for the singers to take the bow. It takes just a few more minutes and makes the singers on stage so much more happy:)

Describe the experience of conducting the Met orchestra. They have a reputation for being occasionally uncooperative with conductors. How did you command their respect and attention?

AA: Uncooperative?? I can't imagine! I always had an amazing relationship with them. I started with Carmen and no rehearsal (I came in, in a run just after an other conductor.) The next season I had one rehearsal for Faust, so they could hear the sound of my voice:)
This Werther is my first new production that means also more rehearsal and more relationship. For me, it's an amazing opera orchestra: they listen to the singers, they do the colors you wish, they follow so well.what else? Oh yes, next time I come, I'll play some chamber music with some of the musicians of the orchestra :) 

I notice this season you have several engagements at the Vienna State Opera. That’s also a legendary institution. How is conducting at the Vienna State Opera different from conducting in New York?

AA: I love Vienna too and actually, I conducted much more operas there . In New York: Carmen, Faust, Otello, Werther. In Vienna: Romeo et Juliette , Faust, Falstaff, Nozze Di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Simon Boccanegra and Salome, and Don Carlo next season. 
The two orchestras are totally different! The sound is different. The strings are the absolute center of the sound in Vienna and have a really particular sound, The tradition is very strong and you play the Viennese music in a certain way. The musicians rotate much more in Vienna so each performance is really different sometimes. Just walk in the street in NY, and walk in the street in Vienna, both have beauties and amazing sights but they are so different. The same goes for the orchestra. 

I also notice many of your assignments (Otello, Werther) are operas that are famous for their rich orchestration. Have you ever considered conducting bel canto operas where the orchestration is more spare and singer-centered? Or, on the opposite end, Wagner or Berg, where the orchestration plays perhaps a bigger role in the opera than the voices?

AA: Of course, I conducted bel canto at the beginning. Maria Stuardà, Barbiere, L'italiana, Médea, Don Pasquale. I do less bel canto now. I've also done Hollandeŕ, Salome, Bluebeard's Castle, etc. but you have to choose. I will do more Wagner and Strauss in the future.

This production of Werther stages the overture with scenes of Charlotte’s mother’s death. Staging overtures and interludes has become very common in modern opera productions. Do you approve of this trend? Or do you think that in orchestral overtures and interludes the music should speak for itself?

AA: I think it depends of the composer and the piece. And of course of the staging. For (the director) Richard Eyre, it was really important to show that the death of the mother leads to the story we see after. For him, it has a great importance. I don't have a definitive idea on it, it really depends how it's done. 

Speaking of Werther, this opera has a cast of children. Do you have to take a different approach when working with kids onstage? How do you communicate with them?

AA: It's different because it s a group like a chorus . I love teaching and I love children. My son is about 8 years old and I try to talk to them in the same way I would do with him. With respect and consideration but also trying to make them learn something . At the Met, they are really experienced and they know how to follow a conductor. I try to find images that suit more to their own world. I like Harry Potter too :)

As we all know, on March 3, Jonas Kaufmann fell ill and cancelled his scheduled performance of Werther and his cover Jean-Francois Borras went on his place. Borras and Kaufmann have two very different voices. Did you have to make any adjustments to accommodate the different voices that sing the same role?

AA: Of course I did have to. It's my role! It's really difficult to explain.. I m the one who leads the opera from the beginning to the end and have to find an homogeneity in the interpretation. I don't conduct the same Werther when I have Jonas Kaufmann or Jean-Francois Borras because it changes for me the whole point of view on the opera. Of course, it always stays in my idea of the opera and the composer. That's why it's so important to know the composers well. I'm lucky I grew up in Paris and my teachers were the students of students of Massenet. Massenet was really sometimes so unbearable during rehearsals but when he loved a singer, he was always ready to change tempi, etc.

I assume you have an affinity for French opera. Is there a French opera you’d like to champion in the future as being a more regular part of the international repertoire? And if so, which opera is it and why would you like to champion this opera?

AA: The opera I m going to start in 2016 is Pelleas et Melisande. So important for me. I did already too many Carmen's and Fausts ... :) 

Nowadays the productions of opera are as talked about in reviews as the musical values. Does a director’s conception of the opera affect the way you conduct? Or do you just try to focus on the music?

AA: That's why I don't like so much conducting revivals. When you do a new production, you can share and discuss the ideas. I don't conduct this Werther the same way as I would do another staging. It's important that all makes one. 

If you had to choose, Manon or Werther?

AA: Werther definitely!!!! (I don't like Manon so much haha ...)

Speaking of Manon, have you seen Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet version of Manon, which uses a lot of Massenet pieces, especially from Cendrillon? If so, do you like the mishmash or do you feel strongly that Massenet’s music has to be played all in one piece?

AA: I haven't seen it but Massenet did by himself a short version of Manon! (Editor's note: I did not know that!)
I love Cendrillon! But I think we have to interpret the pieces like they are composed initially.

Thanks so much again for this interview. Any last words you’d like to say? And good luck in the HD!

AA: I have to practice my terrible English accent for the HD! 


  1. Ivy - big fan of yours here and on Parterre!


    1. (Sorry, the preview showed the emoji worked, but I guess not)

  2. Thanks anyway! I kind of neglected this blog for awhile but now it's baaack!


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