This August, WASO (West Australian Symphony Orchestra) will be performing the epic Tristan und Isolde in a five hour special concert, complete with two intervals. We caught up with Cor Anglais player, Leanne Glover ahead of rehearsals for the gargantuan concert.
FOURTH WALL (FW): Tell me about the Cor Anglais.
LEANNE GLOVER (LG): Well, the English Horn is a member of the Oboe family, so it’s a woodwind instrument. It goes back throughout history – someone translated it as being ‘English/Anglais’ but it was actually ‘angled.’ So, over the years it’s become known as the English Horn but it has nothing to do with brass instruments! I have also just recently heard ‘Angel Horn’ which I think is nice, too.
FW: So, how did you get into playing the Oboe?
LG: I grew up in the country, Mount Barker, and there was a teacher down there who taught all of the instruments and his son had given up playing the Oboe and there was one under the bed…I don’t remember the exact moment! Apparently I heard an Oboe on the radio and said to my Mum ‘I want to play that one!’ So I learned from the teacher at school and then I gave it up for horses – but I picked it up again when I was sent away to boarding school. MLC had a really good music program so I got involved in that. People tend to do what comes easily to them, so I didn’t think how hard it would be to get a job! No-one sat me down and said, don’t! Luckily, it worked out.
FW: Tristan und Isolde is probably one of Wagner’s most intimate works but it is obviously still epic in scale, how is this being staged?
LG: Well, traditionally when we present these works in a concert-style, the singers stand behind the orchestra, but [the conductor] Ascher Fisch may put them up the front, I’m not sure yet.
FW: How does it feel to play something like this, that walks the fine line between epic and intimate?
LG: It’s a wonderful journey, a wonderful experience to do it – of course I’m going to say that! – but actually it is. It’s quite a marriage of a few things, because Wagner himself wrote the text, which is very unusual, and wrote the music to go with it – emotionally, the two are so blended because he did both. So, it’s just integrally so together, and intimate as you say. It’s such a love triangle, everyone loves each other – King Marke loves Tristan, Tristan loves Isolde and King Marke, Isolde loves Tristan – so it’s all there. It all leads towards intimacy.
FW: I just think it’s such a beautiful story and one that lends itself to the music. The fact that it hadn’t been done before Wagner is quite interesting.
LG: It is such a great story, and it is interesting that no-one had taken that legend and done it. But it’s so integral to the human experience – I mean, it’s King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. It’s come up in the human psyche so many times, this love triangle – even though there’s a love potion which gives it a kick that it might not have originally had.
FW: But that’s the operatic side of it, isn’t it? That’s what makes it so perfect for opera as a medium.
LG: Well it is pretty interesting considering it was meant to be a death potion but thanks to the handmaiden it became a love potion. It just gives it all these twists, but I think everyone can relate to the love story in it and we’ve all felt parts of this, moments of that. And the music is just so inbuilt into the building, building, building moments of passion. You know, the performance takes five hours, but it’s not just five hours of playing, there are two relatively large intervals so it makes up three just-over-an-hour performances, which is absolutely doable.
FW: So, it’s quite similar to a regular concert?
LG: Yes, with one extra bit really. It’s like one extra ‘half.’ I think, because the music doesn’t stop and the story doesn’t stop, like in operas that came before it they always had this little recitative section where you talk about what is happening and then this big long aria, where you sing about what happened before, and that doesn’t happen in this. It’s just continuous singing and action and story, and because we’ll have the subtitles up it’s shows what a good story it is.
FW: What I really like about it is this idea that it doesn’t stop – do you think that’s what compels people to see a Wagner opera?
LG: I think it’s an experience to go and see a Wagner opera. It’s not something that you would do six times in a year – well some people do, they chase them around! – but it’s a real experience to go and commit yourself. I’m making it sound like it’s a massive thing to do and it’s not! But it is a real journey and I think you come out of the concert hall feeling different to how you went in. That’s what’s the best thing – it’s like when you go to a really good movie – Shindler’s List – you go in on a normal day and you come out changed in some way, you come out affected by what you’ve seen and heard, and I fully expect that that’s going to happen to every person in the concert hall – that they’ll come out different.
FW: I think also, because the work has been entrenched in the canon for our whole living memory, it’s been in existence for so long, it’s like going to see Shindler’s List a second time – you know what you’re in for.
LG: Yes! You notice different things, many more details and you’re prepared to be open and to let yourself be carried away and I think if you go in closed it won’t be successful But if you go in and you sit in your seat comfortably and you let yourself go exactly where Wagner takes you and you just be open and really feel the emotion that the singers are singing about and that we are supporting – it’s not even a support, they’re equal. The music and the text are totally even and they rely on each other. I think it’s exciting!
FW: What’s your experience with Wagnerian music?
LG: Just what we’ve done in the orchestra here, really. I’ve done Tristan und Isolde as a concert before, although I played a different part, I played first Oboe – so this is the first time I’ve played the Cor Anglais part, which is massive. It’s the Shepherd, it’s this mournful lamenting tune that comes back in the third act. It keeps saying ‘no, her ship’s not here! I’m really sorry.’ I mean, Isolde is the only one who can save him, so they’re all asking ‘is she here yet?’ and I’m going ‘no! There’s no ship on the horizon.’
FW: Does the music aid you in conveying that emotion? Is it in the writing, the playing, or how it’s conducted?
LG: Oh, absolutely. It’s all those things. Because Wagner wrote it so specifically, he knew exactly what he wanted having written the text – it’s all there but you have to interpret it and you have to put your heart into it, otherwise no music works. We haven’t played much Wagner – of course we did Stuart’s CD [Stuart Skelton sings Wagner with WASO] with Ascher and we did some Wagner on tour with him. It will be very interesting to see what Ascher does with it, because it is so well known.
FW: Have you seen the opera independent of WASO?
LG: Not live. I’ve seen it on my computer in its entirety but I’ve only ever played it. I’ve never really had the chance to see it live because I haven’t been anywhere it’s on while I’ve been there!
FW: What do you think audiences will get out of the live experience?
LG: I think it’s the journey experience that they’ll get. They’ll come out having gone somewhere in it. They’ll have some moments of fatigue, and then they’ll get back. But I think they’ll be elated. They’ll experience something that they wouldn’t have experienced on that day, otherwise. I think it would be good for people to read up about it first, know a little bit about Wagner. And go in with the right attitude. Let yourself be immersed in it.
FW: WASO’s program is quite diverse – one week you play with James Morrison, the next concert is Wagner, how do you prepare for a part and for so much change?
LG: Well, I switch between instruments for a start – I’m either playing the Oboe or the Cor Anglais, so it’s just part of my job to be able to switch between the genres. I’ve been practicing my part for Tristan for quite a while because it’s a big part for me, personally, and it’s actually quite fatiguing. The third act is big, so I’ve been trying to build up my stamina to be able to play it the way I want to. You’ve got to stay a few weeks ahead – you get to know what you’ve got to prepare for a lot and what’s going to be fine. It comes down to experience – the first years in the orchestra, you absolutely look at everything but I’ve been in the orchestra for 28 years now, so I know what I need to spend time on. Occasionally I get surprised! But I like to be super prepared.
FW: How much do you do at home? I would assume that the rehearsals are like the office job – you come in, you do your work and then you go home – how much do you ‘check your emails’ after work?
LG: Look it really depends what’s coming up. For Tristan I’ve done a lot of work, for us in the Oboe section I have to make reeds. I’ve made quite a lot because I need some ‘magic’ ones. I’ve done a lot of preparation at home because it’s quite demanding of me and the concert after Tristan is another big one and there’s only one day off in between!
FW: What’s on the radio when you’re preparing for a piece? Do you listen to it on repeat?
LG: No, not at all, I listen to whatever. Sometimes I listen to what I’m working on, but never on repeat. Mainly because I don’t want to play it like I hear it, like someone else. Sometimes it’s really good to get ideas from people but then I like to stop it so I don’t just sound like someone else.
FW: And how do you bring your own voice to a part that’s historically been played by multiple people?
LG: A lot of it’s similar – there are traditions, like you slow down here or get louder here, but if you don’t listen to someone right up to the moment you have to play it you end up doing stuff and you don’t even realise it’s happening. You just interpret it the way you see it. I think it also comes with experience – to have the confidence to say, it’ll be ok to do this because of that. It’s hard to do that when you first join the orchestra but then you start to get a feeling for what’s ok and what’s not.
FW: We’ve mentioned before that this performance is a long one, so what do you do in the intervals?
LG: Well, in the first break we’re going to have our dinner. And the second break, I don’t know, because we don’t usually get a second interval! My biggest part is in the third act so for half of it I’ll probably just sit down and relax, and the second half of it I’ll be getting ready for the third act which is my big solo. I’ll be getting ready for that, I think.
FW: What do you consider to be the most important musical themes within Tristan und Isolde?
LG: Well, the motives that go with people or emotions come back time and time again and people will recognise them. They’re the cues for what’s happening here really. He’s just built this chromatic movement into it which just tears at you because it’s dissonance and it resolves, then dissonance and it resolves and it just builds and I think they’ll start to recognise the themes when each person comes or an emotion comes It’s part of the thing, I think, to start recognising it. And it begins and ends during the same thing – it’s wrenching.
FW: How much of an emotional response do you get from the audience when you do these kind of concerts?
LG: Well I’m interested to see, I can’t remember as we did Tristan so many years ago. I remember the experience for myself – it was fantastic, it was big and epic. But I’m a bit more experienced now at handling the length of time of just concentrating. So, I’ll be interested to see how I go. I’m waiting to see what the audience will do.
You can see WASO perform Tristan und Isolde at the Perth Concert Hall in August 2018.
Interview | Laura Money
WHEN: 16th August 2018 6pm | & 19th August 2018 2pm
WHERE: Perth Concert Hall | Perth
INFO: Tickets $85 – $95.50 | Duration 5 hrs | 2 intervals (20 mins each) | Suitable 12+