French conductor Guillaume Tournaire is in Australia for Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni

Reading Time: 6 minutes

French conductor Guillaume Tournaire, is currently in Sydney for Opera Australia’s production of Don Giovanni. He has been to Australia working with Opera Australia several times. We speak to him about Don Giovanni, opera and him. Read our interview with Guillaume Tournaire below.

Guillaume Tournaire, you’re in Australia for Opera Australia’s production of Don Giovanni for which you are the conductor. Tell us a little about this production.

This show was conceived by the famous director David McVicar who was invited by Opera Australia to produce a new (and magnificent) production of what is called the “Da Ponte Trilogy“. After having composed numerous operas such as Idomeneo or The Abduction from the Seraglio, Mozart collaborated three times with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. This extraordinary encounter left us with three masterpieces, Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan Tutte (1790).

 

After having already directed this trilogy for The Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) in London, David McVicar has directed a new production for the Sydney Opera House. I have already had the pleasure and privilege of conducting Le Nozze di Figaro [The Marriage of Figaro] for Opera Australia (in 2016 and 2019), and it is with great emotion that I return to Sydney for this [production of] Don Giovanni.

 

You have worked with Opera Australia on several productions since 2011 but Don Giovanni will be your first performance in Australia since COVID, I believe?

As for most of us (and not only musicians…), life seems to have stopped for close to two years. For many families, this period was very difficult, even tragic. It has shown us how fragile life is, and how our behaviour and the future of humanity must now be our constant concern.

 

What do you appreciate about Opera Australia’s work?

Its excellence! But also, and above all, the wonderful humanity that lives in the heart of each of its members, whether they are singers, musicians, technicians, administrative staff… I admire this company enormously.

 

Why did you decide to become a conductor?

I don’t really know myself, but it was a childhood dream. Although there is no musician in my family, for as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of doing this job. As a child, I sang in a very Amateur choir (with a capital A) in a small town in Provence, and the pleasure I felt every Saturday in sharing music with others undoubtedly led me to this path.

 

And what led you to opera specifically?

The beauty of the human voice, and the richness and complexity of the exchanges and feelings that are shared throughout the development of a production. It is undoubtedly the most complex expression of the performing arts, combining creation, tradition, music, theatre, literature, visual arts, dance, technology… The life of an opera company also resembles in many ways that of a circus, where we share long periods of rehearsal together, in which each must be attentive to the other.

 

What are the qualities required to become a conductor?

Of course, one must have a solid musical education, play one or more instruments, have as much knowledge as possible, and know perfectly well the scores one chooses to conduct… but that is not the main thing. Unlike a teacher who, in principle, addresses students who expect him to teach them, a conductor is surrounded by musicians who all have tremendous talent and a great musical background. His mission is not to teach them anything, but to communicate his own passion, his own perception of a work while soliciting their interest and making them listen to each other. When the magic happens, you really get the impression that the orchestra is on fire and that there is nothing more beautiful in the world…

Guillaume Tournaire, Don GIovanni, Opera Australia

You also studied piano. Do you still play it?

Yes and no… I still play the piano regularly, but only to work on my orchestral scores or possibly to rehearse with a singer. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to work on my technique as I used to, and I don’t want to play in concerts anymore.

 

In addition, you have also written your own versions of the music of Grieg, Mozart, Mahler, Prokofiev, Damase among others. Tell us a little about this experience.

I believe that one of the greatest qualities should be curiosity in everyone. I have always enjoyed going to libraries to look for little or unknown scores, just to read them and eventually play them in public. On that note, in Australia, I was lucky to record with the Victoria Orchestra of Melbourne and the Brisbane Symphony Orchestra, works as magnificent as unjustly unknown (until then) by Louis Vierne or Camille Saint-Saëns. I am excited about two major projects for this new year. In October and December 2023, I will conduct two fantastic (forgotten!) operas by Camille Erlanger (1863-1919): L’Aube Rouge (at the Wexford Festival) and La Sorcière (in Geneva)!

 

Do you ever feel like playing music and not conducting it?

A few years ago, I used to play a lot of chamber music with friends. I miss it very much, but life is like that and I am so lucky to be conducting that it would be inappropriate to complain.

 

How many hours of rehearsal do you do with the orchestra before the opening night? I imagine the musicians must all be fairly familiar with the score by the time you arrive in Australia?

I don’t just rehearse with the musicians… For a new production, we usually have four weeks of musical and stage rehearsals with the singers and a pianist. Then we have a few reading sessions with the orchestra alone, and then the singers and musicians are reunited a few days before the premiere. Whether or not the score is known to the orchestra, we always have reading sessions to find the colours together, an interpretation, and of course, the musicians all arrive already perfectly prepared before the first rehearsal.

 

You have conducted orchestras all over the world – in France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Austria, Russia, Portugal and even South Korea – what has been the highlight of your career?

I couldn’t possibly single out one production above all others. However, I can remember many strong emotions that I experienced here and there, for one reason or another, which is not always related to the musical quality alone. Since we are in Sydney, I can’t help but think of the wonderful productions I conducted here of Eugene Onegin, Faust, Thaïs, Figaro, shared with Nicole Car.

 

What is your favourite opera to conduct? Do you have a favourite composer?

It’s always the one I’m rehearsing or conducting… When you go on stage, you always have to do it with the thought that it could be the last time in your life.

 

Are there scores that are extremely difficult to conduct?

Yes, alas,… those that are less great… Often the difficulty is not where you think it is…

 

Why should people come to see Opera Australia’s production of Don Giovanni this January and February?

The more years go by, the more experience I have, the more it seems to me that Mozart is the light that enlightens us. His music is the very outpouring of life. The laughter that overcomes all darkness. The most fragile and profound humanity.

 

Our societies seem to be finally discovering the horrors and abuses of macho behaviour… but as early as 1787, Mozart and da Ponte had Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina testify to the abuses of Don Giovanni. Long before the MeToo movement… and far above the gutter talk of social networks, their denunciation stuns us with its strength and elevation.

Guillaume Tournaire, Don GIovanni, Opera Australia

Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself, about opera in general or about this production of Don Giovanni?

Perhaps a word of advice to those who have never heard opera before… Come and discover Don Giovanni… you will be astounded, stunned (among other wonders), by the evocative power of the final scene, where two titans, Don Giovanni and the Commendatore, confront each other until the annihilation of evil.

KEY INFO FOR DON GIOVANNI

WHAT: Don Giovanni presented by Opera Austalia

WHEN:

  • Tuesday 10 January, 7pm
  • Saturday 14 January, 12pm
  • Tuesday 17 January, 7pm
  • Thursday 19 January, 7pm
  • Saturday 21 January, 7pm
  • Wednesday 25 January, 7pm
  • Saturday 28 January, 7pm
  • Thursday 2 February, 7pm
  • Thursday 9 February, 7pm
  • Friday 17 February, 7pm

WHERE: Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

HOW: Buy tickets via the Opera Australia website: https://opera.org.au/productions/don-giovanni-sydney/

HOW MUCH: Adult tickets from $81 plus a $9.80 booking fee

Cathy Di Zhang stars in Don Giovanni too. Read our interview with her when she starred in State Opera South Australia’s production of Bohème on the Beach

For other events with a French connection, read our What’s on in January article

 

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Tomas Dalton talks to us about Opera Australia’s Carmen on Cockatoo Island

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Tomas Dalton is a tenor singing in the chorus of Opera Australia’s production of French opera, Carmen on Cockatoo Island. Directed by Liesel Badorrek, it is a modern interpretation of Carmen performed on the stunning Cockatoo Island in Sydney harbour. We chat with Tomas Dalton.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Image: Opera Australia

Tomas Dalton, you’re part of the chorus in the Opera Australia production of Carmen. Tell us about this opera and your role in the chorus.

Carmen is a busy evening for the chorus, there is a lot of marvellous music to sing, and the chorus is often present to participate in or comment on the action In this particular production, the chorus is almost always there.

 

The production is a very modern interpretation of Carmen. What are the elements that distinguish this production from others of Carmen?

I think that this production of Carmen is particularly unique because of its location.  It’s the first time that an opera has been performed on Cockatoo Island, and the view is magnificent. The addition of fireworks, motorcycle stunts and incredible dancing and singing makes this event very special.

Dancers in rehearsals for Carmen on Cockatoo Island. Photo Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

What is director Liesel Badorrek’s vision for Carmen? How does her methodology differ from other directors with whom you’ve worked?

For Liesel, I think that Carmen is the story of a woman who wants to live freely and live by her own rules. The world we depict is one of misfits, rebels and outcasts; Suzie Quatro was a source of inspiration for the rock style of this production. (I think French audiences may also remember the spirit of the soixante-huitards)  [Those who took part in, or otherwise supported, the civil unrest in France in May 1968].

Liesel came to the rehearsals with so much knowledge and preparation, while simultaneously working in a very collaborative style. She has very clear ideas and is also interested in the performers’ ideas. As an artist, it’s a perfect balance. It also helps that she is very easy-going and a very funny and dynamic person.

 

This production of Carmen will take place outdoors on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. What are the challenges of singing outdoors?

Opera is typically an acoustic art form, and we have been learning for many years to sing in a theatre without amplification. Of course, to sing outdoors in such a large space, it is necessary to use amplification, so it is an unusual experience for an opera singer. However, the technique is the same, you have to trust the usual feeling of singing, and trust the sound technicians to transmit it to the audience.

 

We are also praying for good weather.

 

What sort of audience is this opera for?

This opera is for the enthusiast and the beginner alike. The exuberant staging and performance make it accessible to all, and the truly world-class singing is a treat for connoisseurs.

 

Do you think that the fact that it is a modern interpretation and that it is performed outside will bring a younger audience to the opera?

I hope so! Through my work with Opera Australia, I have shown many friends their first opera. Each time, they are amazed and delighted to love it so much. This opera is able to appeal to a wide range of sensibilities. I also think that the outdoor setting will be familiar to those who are used to music festivals.

Carmen on Cockatoo Island
Sian Sharp as Carmen in Opera Australia’s production of Carmen on Cockatoo Island 2022 Photo Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

How many people will be singing with you in the chorus?

There are forty-six singers in the choir. Each of them is a great artist, and I have the privilege of calling them my colleagues.

 

You have also sung in various tenor roles for Opera Australia, including French opera La Juive earlier this year. Is it difficult not to stand out more than others when you go from solo to chorus? 

You approach singing in chorus or solo a little differently, but the fundamentals are the same. For example, the blend and sensitivity that a chorister needs are the same for a soloist singing a duet, trio or quartet. If one has a solid technique and a well-developed musicality it is possible to move from one to the other.

 

During our Carmen season I will also be understudying Rodolfo for some rehearsals of La Bohème. This will require careful management of stamina and energy, but this is also true of my fellow choristers who often perform up to four operas at the same time.

 

How long have you been singing? What made you choose singing as a profession? And why did you choose opera as a genre?

I think I was like a lot of singers, and I’ve always sung since I was little. My parents understood that I liked to make music and they allowed me to study piano and sing in children’s choirs.

 

The decision to sing opera came later. I began studying piano in college, but had sung in musicals in school and always loved to sing. It was when I participated in a student opera at uni directed by the late Richard Gill that I realised that opera was the only choice for me.

There is something transcendent about opera. It is the truest, most human emotion, but set to sublime music sung by Olympian voices. I love the idea of speaking directly to someone in the audience’s soul and making their day better.

Tomas Dalton
Tomas Dalton
Image: Opera Australia

You studied music at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and in Italy as a recipient of the Acclaim Awards Italian Opera Scholarship and the Johnson Bequest. Tell us a little about your experience studying in Italy, do you speak Italian?

It was fantastic to study in the birthplace of opera. Of course, in Australia we have a very vibrant arts scene, but opera is such an integral part of the cultural life there. One restaurant owner even told me “it’s in our blood“.

I was very lucky to find a great teacher who helped me a lot with my voice, and of course to have the chance to study and practice Italian every day. I’m not saying I speak it perfectly, but I am very grateful to be able to converse in Italian. Just like French, it is a great help with singing.

 

We are doing this interview in French, you studied in Italy, do you speak other languages?

I think that even though I speak French and Italian quite well, I do have a touch of other languages. Of course, German is another important opera language. I studied how to pronounce it and sing it, and I can understand it a little and have very simple conversations.

 

I think it’s polite to learn a few phrases of the language whenever you travel. So I can order coffee and ask for directions in Greek and one or two other languages. But I absolutely cannot read the Greek alphabet!

 

How did you become a Francophone?

I was very lucky to have inspiring and knowledgeable teachers at school. Thanks to them, I realised how much better you can appreciate a culture when you understand its language. They inspired me to continue to study French in parallel with my music studies at the university. And of course to travel at every opportunity – the greatest language teacher of all! The challenge is to find the opportunity to practice so that it stays in the mind.

 

Alexander Sefton as Escamillo and the Opera Australia Chorus in rehearsals for Carmen on Cockatoo Island.
Photo Credit: Rhiannon Hopley

You have toured Australia, Germany, Denmark and France as a soloist with the Australian Chamber Choir. Tell us about your experience touring Europe with the ACC.

Doing this type of performance is a great experience, but it’s also like an endurance sport. You arrive in a new city almost every day for another concert. You have to have endurance and discipline. I’ve also been lucky to have so many friends in the choir because we spent almost every moment together for several weeks.

 

It was a great gift to be able to see so many beautiful cities, even briefly, and to share some of the most beautiful music with a very appreciative audience.

 

Do you have a ritual before you go on stage?

I don’t have any superstitions before I perform, but I always like to warm up my voice with the same exercises. The most important preparation is well before the premiere; learning, studying, and rehearsing. It’s a wonderful feeling to trust your preparation and surrender to the music and the character.

 

It is also important to do fairly mundane things like sleeping well, staying hydrated, etc.

 

What is your favorite opera to sing?

Recently, I had the opportunity to sing Alfredo in La Traviata for the first time. I learned on the morning of the premiere that the tenor was ill. It was an exhilarating experience that would be difficult to match.

 

What is your favorite opera to watch or listen to?

It changes so often. Sometimes I listen for pleasure, sometimes to learn. I might listen to the same aria sung by ten different singers to understand how they solve a problem of technique or music.

 

Almost all the operas in the repertoire speak to my soul, but I am particularly touched by the works of Gounod and Puccini.

 

What are the challenges of singing in a language that is not your own?

There are many, but for every challenge there is a great reward. Of course, one has to be convincing to native listeners, and we are very lucky to have Nicole Dorigo, our wonderful language coach for Carmen. Not only the pronunciation of the words, but you also have to consider the rhythm and cadence of the language, especially in Carmen where there is also dialogue.

 

You have to understand the words to give a believable characterisation. A dictionary can be enough, but I find a sense of freedom in having my own understanding of a language. I can be much more spontaneous and intuitive in the rehearsal room.

 

Do you think that being French-speaking helps you sing operatic languages like Italian better?

I think learning French has given me the confidence to try other operatic languages without fear.

 

French and Italian are both very well suited to beautiful singing, although they do have their differences. The task of the singer is to integrate these differences into a consistent and coherent vocal technique while respecting the language of the composer.

 

Do you have a dream opera that you want to perform? And also, a dream venue in which you dream of performing?

I hope one day to play the roles of Faust and Werther. Two troubled and fascinating men, each gifted by their composers with truly sublime music.

I feel I should probably say in a French interview that I would love to sing at the Garnier Opera!

 

Why should people see Carmen on Cockataoo Island?

Come hear some wonderful music and have a fun, fabulous and truly unique evening!

We thank Tomas Dalton for this wonderful interview.

KEY INFO FOR CARMEN ON COCKATOO ISLAND

WHAT: French opera Carmen

WHERE: Cockatoo Island, Sydney

WHEN: 7:30pm from 25 November to 18 December (except Mondays)

HOW: Purchase your tickets via the Opera Australia website

HOW MUCH:

Adults from $79 for B Reserve to $149 for Premium Reserve (+ $9.80 booking fee)

Ferry tickets to and from Cockatoo Island can be booked separately when you purchase performance tickets

Have you seen a performance of Carmen before? Or an outdoors performance of opera?

 

For other events related to France, the French language or the Francophonie, click here.

 

If you’re interested in opera, you may like to read some of our other interviews:

Opera Australia’s La Traviata takes you to Paris

Soprano Cathy-Di Zhang stars in State Opera South Australia production Bohème on the Beach this weekend

French opera La Juive is currently on in Sydney

See Elena Gabouri in the Opera Australia’s Aida in Sydney and Brisbane

French opera The Pearl Fishers on in Adelaide from this week.

Franck Evin, lighting designer, chats to us about The Golden Cockerel

 

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