Giving a sense to the relationship
Tom Seligman started his engagement as conductor of the Bayerischen Staatsoper and the Bayerisches Staatsballett with the beginning of the 2018/19 season. He has already worked worldwide with renowned ensembles such as the Royal Ballet in London, the New York City Ballet or the National Ballet of Canada. He made his debut with the Bayerisches Staatsballett with the conducting of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now he conducted the revival of Swan Lake.
The interview was done at the beginning of 2020 prior the planned revival of Swan Lake in March 2020. Due to the current circumstances, the revival was rescheduled for 9 September 2020.
You will conduct the revival of Swan Lake – business as usual or something special?
Tom Seligman: Of course Swan Lake is a ballet that is done a lot around the world. Actually for me it’s special because it’s been a while since I last conducted the piece. And I know it’s also been a while since the classic version of Swan Lake was done here at Bayerisches Staatsballett. So I think it’s a good feeling that it is something a little bit different, that we are revisiting the piece, even though it’s such an iconic ballet. Certainly for the dancers it is exciting to get back into the world of Swan Lake: for any dancer it’s a way of proving yourself. This piece its hugely difficult and everybody knows it so well. So it is a real test and it’s very motivating for everyone involved.
Your favourite moment in Swan Lake?
TS: For me the moment, musically, which I love most is when the Prince and Odette first meet and she tells him her story. The music is urgent and full of energy. Tchaikovsky creates this long stretch of storytelling. In fact, Odette is not dancing very much. She uses mime to explain what’s happened to her, why she is in the situation she is in. But the music just has this amazing kind of drive and it’s wonderful to see how the dancers respond to that storytelling element in Tchaikovsky’s music. You have to remember that for him this was the first time he had written a full-length ballet and he was really fascinated by what it involved. He had to overcome a lot of prejudice from his musical colleagues, who thought of ballet as being a rather ‘low-brow’ pursuit for a proper symphonic composer. But he was determined to do something special with it. The first production of Swan Lake was not a great success. It was only after Tchaikovsky’s death that it was revived by Petipa and Ivanov and eventually became this iconic ballet. Nonetheless it’s wonderful to see how he is putting his fullest musical energy into the piece and discovering, as he writes it, the best way to convey the drama.
You conducted Alice's Adventures in Wonderland both in London and with us; did you notice any differences?
TS: It’s always interesting doing a piece in two different situations. In this case it’s the same production, but of course every company brings different qualities to a piece. Certainly it helps me a lot having worked on the ballet with the choreographer Chris Wheeldon and composer Joby Talbot. I try to bring that experience to bear when I do the piece here. The way the orchestra plays here at the Staatsoper is wonderfully extrovert and in the big moments in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland they make a thrilling sound. I It makes a difference that the orchestra pit here is bigger and is raised higher than in London. I It means that the orchestra has a very direct connection to the auditorium and to the audience. And they really enjoy that connection, they really play out, with a lot of personality. There are other things which are very hard: there is a lot of rhythmic ensemble that is hard to make work here at the Nationaltheater, where some elements of the orchestra are placed very far apart. I think there are challenges and there are excitements. You just have to make the most of what the situation offers you and enjoy that. I always try to enjoy myself, to be relaxed and to allow the players and then of course the dancers to express themselves and to perform in a way that is natural.
Opera or ballet, what do you prefer to conduct? How does your work as a ballet conductor differ from that of an opera or concert conductor?
TS: I feel very lucky that I have a very varied conducting career: I do a lot of ballet, but I also do opera, I do symphonic work, I work with choirs. For me that variety really is what makes life interesting. I try to bring the experience of each aspect into everything that I do. There is much more in common between ballet and opera conducting than people think. In the end you are accompanying: in this case dancers, in opera it’s singers. Especially in a classic ballet, we have to adapt to what the dancers need and also the views of the coaches and répétiteurs. Sometimes you have more control over what is happening musically, sometimes you have a little bit less. You have to be ready to work as a team, to work collaboratively; to make sure that what you’re giving the dancers is really possible, and suits their own artistry. There are some compromises in that process, while nonetheless staying as true as you can to the original conception of the composer But you often have to do the same in opera, adapting to singers – especially in the bel canto repertoire. I was saying to the orchestra, as we rehearsed one of the solos from Swan Lake, that the tempo has to be incredibly flexible: just like bel canto. One of the players joked that it’s ‘bel tanzo’, and he’s not wrong! The big difference is that the orchestra can’t accompany directly, as they would with singers. They can’t feel what the dancers are doing. My job is to bring the orchestra and the dancers together and to make that relationship make sense. In the end, whether we do a concerto, opera or ballet, we’re working together, to create the right musical support for what is happening on stage.
How important is the conductor for the ballet performance?
TS: Obviously I like to think that he or she is quite important (laughs). We carry a large responsibility in the moment of performance. I work a lot with the dancers in the studio to make sure I understand not only the choreography but also how each individual dancer and each individual couple feel about what they are doing. Every couple is different. For instance, in Swan Lake there are several different principal couples. They are all slightly different. My job is first of all to understand the way they dance, and why, and see if I can support that. In the performance the only person who can control what is happening, in terms of the tempo of the music, the feeling of the music, is the conductor. To be the link between what is happening on stage and the orchestra, that is really important. When it works well, there is a kind of symbiosis between the stage and the orchestra where each is responding to the other. The conductor is taking the lead and at the same time accompanying. That’s a very interesting balance to maintain and it’s the great challenge of doing the job.
Can you describe the communication that goes on between the conductor and the dancers during the performance?
TS I think the relationship between the stage and the orchestra and the conductor is different in every show. Some dancers are extremely aware of the music, some dancers may be incredibly beautiful dancers, technically brilliant, but a little bit less connected directly to the music. And then you have to adapt to that. For me the greatest pleasure is when everything’s working together, so that you know what will make the dancers comfortable, what will make the performance exciting and at the same time you know that they are responding to what the orchestra is playing. If they are able to actually adapt what they do, just as we are able to adapt what we do, then we can work together ‘in the moment’. It’s just like a great performance of La Traviata or of a violin concerto: that relationship has to happen in real time, in conjunction, so that each knows and understands what the other is doing and you work together to create something special.
What do you love about ballet here in Munich and in this day and age? Especially from the orchestra’s and conductor’s point of view?
TS I It’s something that the audience here can be very proud of, that they have the opportunity to see some of the great ballets - as well as many unusual ones - with full orchestra, the full production values: it’s something we must never take for granted. It’s not like just having a soundtrack. It really is a complete work of art and we’re all working together to make it possible. It’s something that keeps the art form very much alive. When you have a great orchestra like the Bayerisches Staatsorchester accompanying ballets, it means that the music is a living entity and it also means that the dancers are responding to something in real time. That changes the quality of what they do, it gives it a spontaneity. Sometimes we have to fight for that, because it’s expensive, but it’s very important. It’s an essential part of the tradition of ballet and of the future of ballet, that we have this sense of a whole work of art that is really coming together, with all these different elements, these wonderful musicians, these wonderful dancers, live in the moment.
Which ballet would you like to conduct here in Munich?
TS: The ballet that I would really love to do here is the next in the series from the team that did Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a version of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale: the same choreographer, composer, designer, lightning designer as did Alice, but a very different world. Alice is much more a succession of vivid scenes, whereas The Winter’s Tale has this long story arch of many, many years and that is very satisfying to do. It’s a very beautiful and imaginative ballet, it’s got great poetry, huge tragedy, wonderful high spirits and then finally it has this redemptive quality, which works so well as a ballet. It’s quite a problematic play, but I think the ballet unravels the difficulties of the play very cleverly. It’s a ballet that I’ve done a lot in London, in Canada and in Brisbane as well. And I would love to have the opportunity, if one day it comes to Munich, to do it here. It’s like a sort of sibling to the Alice production but very different, really magical and moving.