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18.2.10

Firing Emmanuelle Haïm

French baroqueux conductor Emmanuelle Haïm was scheduled to appear in the pit of the Opéra de Paris last month for a run of Mozart's Idomeneo at the Palais Garnier (staging by Luc Bondy). We have admired her recordings with the historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée, like the recent one of Handel's La Resurrezione, but the orchestral musicians -- not the normal crew of HIP specialists used to working with her -- staged a coup that can only remind one of the headstrong, rebellious musicians in Fellini's Prova d'orchestra. Two days before opening night, Haïm was removed from the production and replaced by Philippe Hui, due to concerns expressed in an official document "that the rehearsal time necessary to make her artistic approach converge with that of the orchestra was incompatible with the constraints of the Opéra national de Paris's programming schedule." Renaud Machart wrote about it in an article (Emmanuelle Haïm divorce avec l'orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris, January 26) for Le Monde (my translation):

The same day, Emmanuelle Haïm opened the hostilities, declaring to Agence France-Presse that "the attempt to lead the orchestra to a different aesthetic failed. The challenge was certainly one that could be met, but the orchestra did not want to make the experiment work." The orchestra, "called out" by Mme Haïm, broke its customary silence -- a very rare thing -- by the means of the commission elected by the musicians, which declared on January 22: "The musicians were delighted to try a Baroque approach, [but] there was great disappointment in the lack of precision as well of musical ideas in the conducting style." In other words, the orchestra, which wanted only "to guarantee the excellence of the performances," denounced a lack of competence, for this production, of one of the few woman conductors in the world.

While it is hard to believe that the conductor "lacks musical ideas," on the other hand it is probable that Haïm, self-taught in conducting like most of her baroqueux colleagues, conducted in a way that was not as well understood as by the Baroque specialists who work regularly with her in Le Concert d'Astrée. Those whom we asked about this insisted on her "profound knowledge of the scores she conducts." According to our information, the conductor was very nervous about the situation in which this Idomeneo was prepared, with only four days of rehearsals. "There were too many problems in the difficult accompanied recitatives and in the transitions between pieces," a member of the Orchestre de l'Opéra confided to us. "It seemed impossible to us that she could handle the coordination between the stage and the orchestra."
Machart goes on to note that another HIP conductor, Thomas Hengelbrock, did already lead the orchestra in a period-style performance of Idomeneo, to great success, in the 2006-07 season. Neither Nicolas Joel, the new director of the Opéra de Paris, nor Emmanuelle Haïm commented further.

12 comments:

karlG said...

Four days for rehearsals? Is that normal?

Anonymous said...

Four days of orchestra rehearsals is a luxury at many houses.

Charles T. Downey said...

Yeah, Karl, I think this was in reference to the last few days of rehearsal, with full orchestra and cast. Because of the cost and scheduling issues, there are not that many of them in most houses.

karlG said...

Okay, four days of stage rehearsals, not total rehearsals with orchestra only -- that makes a lot more sense. Thanks for clearing it up for me.

Anonymous said...

Looking at that photo of Emmanuelle, I can certainly see why her beat might be hard to follow (for most male and possibly some female orchestra members...)

Charles T. Downey said...

"Hello? My hands are up here..."

elquetoca said...

While I am not familiar with this orchestra, I can say as an musician myself that any player who cannot follow a conductor because she is a woman, whatever she looks like, is not behaving professionally. I have seen players react negatively to female conductors before; it was immature then too. And I had hoped that other musicians were generally willing to try an unfamiliar approach; perhaps that was not the case in Paris. What a shame.

Charles T. Downey said...

Elquetoca -- absolutely agreed. To be fair, the comments about players being distracted by Haïm's prettiness were just a joke. There was no indication in the article that her being a woman was in any way part of the problem. Machart merely noted that the problem involved one of the few women who are working as conductors at the moment.

Chrisopera said...

Among the professional music fraternity in Europe, particualrly the HIP (or baroque/classical) scene, Ms Haim is greatly admired as a musician, though not always so enthusiastically received by her performers on a technical level as a conductor. Her success is partly due to her musicianship (she is an extremely accomplished musician to say the least), her skill in surrounding herself with really excellent musicians (her ensemble is very fine), and the luck she had in being in the right place at the right time to make a successful career. William Christie (who Ms. Haim worked for as a continuo harpsichordist for some years and who she has to some extent emulated) is a similar case; a fine musician who is in many respects sadly lacking in good conducting technique (he also started out as a harpsichordist).

I do not honestly think there is a sexist issue here, but probably just a genuine issue of certain lack of skills and the difficulty of communication (as well as lack of familiarity) between conductor and musicians.

Finally, just to note that it is a nightmare for any conductor to work under the constraints normally forced upon them in respect of rehearsal time for a revival in a major reperetory opera house. Due to the size of some of the major pit orchestras and the rota system operated, conductors are often lucky if they ever get the same players from one rehearsal or performance to the next. In a more specialist repertoire this system can sometimes provoke disastrous results.

Anonymous said...

As a singer who has performed at the Paris Opera and with Emmanuelle Haim, I would like to say that it is such a shame that the orchestra of the top opera house in the country could not resist acting like their sophomoric selves yet again with a French national treasure. I have sung with Emmanuelle in other countries with other orchestras, and I know for a fact that she is an excellent communicator and an excellent musician. She is, however, exacting, and is not content as are most other "baroque" conductors to do concerts with modern orchestras by just adding a few little "diddles" and trills here and there and calling it "Baroque style." That is like scrambling eggs and saying you have made a soufflé.

The entire system at the Paris Opera is not conducive to performing well - - because the orchestra is more concerned with their comfort and perks than the entire reason they are at the opera - to make music! Otherwise, how can you explain a system which has different players in the pit for every show or every rehearsal? Why bother rehearsing, if you know that only a certain PERCENTAGE will actually be in the pit when you are performing it with them? This means someone could be sight-reading the score at a performance. When a style is SO specific and you have a treasure like Haim to teach it to you (and she is an excellent and patient teacher), what a shame that the structure of the organization is such that it makes it impossible to do anything but do a vague "baroque - ISH" performance. Shame on the musicians in that lazy orchestra. The mindset that they are owed something by their job, rather than that they must first and foremost follow the goal of their job and DO their job is killing any kind of good music-making in France, except for in the smaller ensembles. How else can you explain that there is no world-class symphony in France, despite tons of money from the government? The same goes for the technical crew of the Paris Opera - who are not there to make opera, many are there are there to settle scores and show how powerful they are by striking. Ridiculous. What a shame for the earnest ones among them in the orchestra and crew who actually want to do their jobs well! Quelle honte! This sense of entitlement and lack of perspective that the purpose of work is not to give them a job but to accomplish something is going to be the end of France.

Anonymous said...

Mme Haïm may be admired as a harpsichordist, and it is certainly possible that she thoroughly knows the scores of music which she conducts; it is equally possible that she is informed and knowledgeable with regard to the so-named HIP Baroque style. However, if that is the case, she has been creating a chasm between her knowledge and the actual performances she has perpetrated. I am sorry; I cannot, cannot, cannot, CANNOT laud the so-called specialist knowledge of a conductor who completely ignores the baroque way of playing/singing grace notes, leaning into the phrase, dotting notes with correct exaggeration, allowing the music to sigh when it needs to have the space to do so... I cannot praise the conducting of anyone who allows utterly inappropriate cadenzas to be flung upwards like bad beer from heavy tankards into the balcony of sound; I cannot approve the conducting of anyone who forces the singer to be dragged along by the relentless and unsubtle orchestra rather than riding upon the music with the orchestra giving breath and tenderness and wildness as appropriate.
It is at least possible that the Paris Opera musicians were not being childish... but did not want to create a musical mess which they feared would happen under the conducting of Mme Haïm.

Anonymous said...

Haim may have some really nice musical ideas, but her actual Conducting technique is crap. She's not clear, she's hard to follow, and she's confusing. She conducts like she has tourett's syndrome.

That's not helpful when you are a guest conductor.