You were still quite young when your true nature began to show. It was clear that you had a need to establish links between music, singers and musicians. This, coupled with your need to act—and to act efficiently—are two of your distinctive character traits.
Choosing music as a profession wasn’t the easiest road to take. I was a late starter: most of my contemporaries had much more technical know-how and experience than I had at that stage —but I realised how much music mattered to me! Cambridge was bursting with talented musicians just then, and divided into opposing groups. I didn’t feel I belonged in any of them. Take for example the choir of my college, King’s: it was technically superb, but sang in a rather mannered and artificial way that I couldn’t relate to. Then there was David Munrow, a marvellous musician, one of the pioneers of Medieval and Renaissance music. Christopher Hogwood was a member of his remarkable group, The Early Music Consort of London. There were also people specialising in contemporary music, but that wasn’t for me, either. To make music I found that I needed to form a group who shared my approach and were willing to experiment. Thurston Dart, the wonderful professor of music at Cambridge, supported me in this, though I did not study with him then. He was willing to guide, and advise, and when he left Cambridge to create a new music department in London, he invited me to go along. So I did.
After that you studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger. She attracted dozens of students through her fame as a teacher, and you were one of them.
I adored Nadia Boulanger, and I studied two years with her in Paris. She had great authority, an absolutely extraordinary woman, at times autocratic, at others compassionate. In her will she left me a number of scores of contemporary music and transcriptions she herself had made of music from Dunstable to Rameau, which mean a lot to me. I was her student during the unforgettable months of May 1968. The city was in turmoil. I went often to the Sorbonne to witness the vehement debates and the students’ passionate commitment. But musical life was dead in those years. Apart from Pierre Boulez’ contemporary Domaine Musical and the Comtesse de Chambure’s Société de la Musique d’Autrefois, nothing was happening: it was a desert.
But I remember the creative vitality of Giorgio Strehler and his new way of staging Mozart operas. He helped people understand Mozart’s genius for drama in a new, more relaxed way.
Yes, I remember his Marriage of Figaro at the Opera Garnier. The Mozart operas he directed were wonderful. He presented them with such apparent simplicity—with almost nothing, but a nothing built on complete mastery of stagecraft and of their contemporary culture. I appreciated his obvious wish to keep things natural-seeming and informed by his great intelligence. He respected the spirit of Mozart’s works and translated his musical intentions in dramatic terms. Since his day there have been countless directors who have tried to impose a clever but arbitrary point of view of these works, leading to aberrations that have nothing to do with Mozart and Da Ponte! I am not in principle opposed to updating the period of an opera, but it simply does not work in Così fan tutte, which is so subtle and so much a period piece. It cannot be wrenched out of its contemporary setting without doing violence to its discourse, its convention and its harrowing emotional vacillations. Setting it in a cafeteria, for example—which has actually been done—seems completely absurd.
From Monteverdi you gradually made your way as an orchestral conductor. Monteverdi has been like a spiritual father and a beacon for you ever since the foundation of the Monteverdi Choir.
Monteverdi is in some respects the source of all modern music. I find him infinitely moving, not only as a musician, but also as a man. One encounters such poignancy and truth in his letters: one can follow him in his suffering, his wounded pride, his complaints about commissions received peremptorily from the court in Mantua, the painful loss of his wife, his worries about his sons, all expressed in an overwhelmingly human way. At the same time we read of his passionate commitment to music and of his pride and conscience as an artist. When he became maestro di cappella at Saint Mark’s in Venice, he could finally breathe freely; it was as if he grew gradually younger in the second half of his life. I think I now know all his works: every piece, every madrigal, every psalm, and certainly his surviving operas. His music is a part of me; it’s always there as a fixed point to which one can always return.