Access all arias: Interview with Benjamin Pionnier
This article first appeared in Time Out Singapore in August 2009
by Derek Lim
Benjamin Pionnier, 32, nearly did not make it to Singapore. He is here for the very first time to conduct the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) in their production of Offenbach’s hyper-colourful ‘Tales of Hoffmann’, with its courtesans, dolls and dramatic stage sets. He was asked to do the honours when the original conductor and current Young Associate Conductor of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Chua Guan Ee, had to withdraw.
I spoke to Pionnier to size him up before his first encounter with Singapore. Born in Versailles (‘the city, not the palace,’ he tells me), near Paris, Pionnier grew up in a musical family and describes himself as French with a ‘very European mix’. Pionnier tells me how he became a musician: ‘When I was a kid, there was a piano at home, and I was really attracted to this instrument, this big furniture, and I was playing it by myself when my parents saw me and decided to send me for piano lessons. I was really fond of it, and couldn’t stop playing. Then I went onto double bass, singing, and finally conducting.
When he was a teenager, Pionnier’s family moved to the French Riviera and the young musician entered the prestigious Music Conservatory of Paris to advance his studies. Conducting came later. ‘As a student, I was already trained in piano, double bass and other instruments,’ says Pionnier. ‘I loved playing as a soloist, as well as playing chamber music and accompanying others, but as I performed in my first concerts, I felt that something was missing. I found this “something” in orchestra conducting – the exchange and relationship with every musician. When conducting, it’s great when magic happens, because you have the same idea as the musicians in front of you on stage – it’s really worth it.’ Pionnier went on to study conducting with British maestro George Hurst, formerly the chief conductor of BBC Northern Orchestra.
Orchestra and opera conducting are very different animals, though many maestros of old started off as orchestral conductors before taking on full-time positions at major symphony orchestras. Pionnier’s sympathies lie with orchestral conductors. ‘It’s really different because, for orchestral conducting for the symphony repertoire, you have almost one week of rehearsals. You’re alone with the orchestra or the soloist, and you know that the performance will be the same as the one you have prepared in rehearsal.
‘But with opera it’s totally different,’ he goes on. ‘Because everything happens in the moment. You have to focus on nearly 200 people, and the singers don’t look at their instruments! You have to understand people, and learn how to work together with them, and you have to create a team within three to four weeks.
‘It’s much more fulfilling,’ he adds, ‘because you can go deeper into the work and details. Also, for example, if you rehearse [an orchestra concert] for one week and you perform the concert twice, each time you will get basically the same thing. With opera, it will be very different each time. Between two performances, the singers won’t have the same mood; they won’t feel the audience in the same way. I prefer it because it is also about theatre, and not just music.’
Pionnier currently serves as the artistic adviser for the Nice Opera. He conducts one production each year – this year it’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ by Gluck in April. The Nice Opera also shares ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ with the SLO. Pionnier did not divulge director Paul-Emile Fourny’s vision of the production, but it was critically acclaimed by the French press.
When Offenbach died, he left his last opus, ‘Tales of Hoffmann’, incomplete. Initial performances of the opera were a mish-mash of different editions, some with additional arias, some with arias that were entirely removed, and some with the acts shuffled. For this production, the SLO will be using a specially tailored edition, which Pionnier described as a mix of 1876 and 1907 editions. ‘This version is best for the audience because it has everything,’ says Pionnier. ‘It has all the great arias and the story is fantastic – you can understand why the Muse fell in love with Hoffmann, and why Hoffmann so desperately loved women. It’s always complicated when you have so many versions of the score, because it needs a long period of preparation. But we’ve done it, and it will be ready for Singapore.’
If you thought Robert Carsen’s production of Hoffmann at the Opera Bastille was something amazing, be prepared for a production that underlines the ‘fantastic’ element of the work – Offenbach aptly subtitled the work as ‘Opera Fantastique’. Pionnier promises that every act will have its own character within a common stage. There will be big set elements with lots of different spaces, and ‘lots of poetry and sensuality’.
‘And you will see that Lombardo is the best French-speaking Hoffmann of his time,’ he adds. Pionnier’s so enthusiastic about Offenbach during the interview that I wondered if he has become a favourite. The conductor insists he doesn’t have an all-time number one, ‘but when I am focusing on a work, it always becomes my favourite,’ he says.
‘I love Puccini, and French music too. For example “Romeo and Juliet” by Gounod is a masterpiece. But I don’t want to specialise in one opera in particular, because it’s good for a conductor to have a large breadth of operas to conduct.’
How about Wagner? ‘I love Wagner. I was once asked to do Wagner, but I told the director, “let’s wait a couple of years, because I feel I must have time to get into another way of thinking it.” This is because you cannot conduct Mozart on Monday and then Tchaikovsky on Tuesday. You need time to get involved as much as possible.
‘What I like about opera is that you meet people you would never have met otherwise, and that’s fantastic. You get to know other cultures, other ways of thinking. It’s really important for a musician to have such meetings.’
Have his good looks helped him in his chosen career? ‘I don’t think it has an influence on conducting,’ Pionnier confesses. ‘Perhaps the musicians look at me a bit more, but what they must see are my hands for conducting, and my eyes for intention. To be a conductor, you have to be a musician, an actor, and a dancer. It’s a really complicated job, but it’s so exciting!’
The Singapore Lyric Opera performs ‘The Tales of Hoffmann‘ on 13-14 & 16-17 Mar at the Esplanade Theatre.
Read Don’t forget the lyric – Time Out Singapore‘s interview with lead tenor Luca Lombardo.