„The Diamond of the Opera” : In conversation with Dr. Bassem AKIKI, opera and symphony conductor
“You do not become a conductor; you can only be born one”
Bassem Akiki. Foto: Kama Bork
A holder of dual citizenship, Lebanese and Polish. Musically versatile, Bassem Akiki studied at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music in Beirut, simultaneously in the oboe and vocal classes (baritone). In 2003 he commenced Master’s studies at the Composition, Interpretation and Musical Education Faculty of the Cracow Music Academy (choral conducting), graduating with honours. In 2012 he graduated from the Karol Lipiński Academy of Music in Wrocław with yet another Master’s degree (conducting class). Aside from his background in musical education, Bassem Akiki is also a philosophy graduate with a Master’s degree from the Lebanese International University in Beirut. In 2013, Akiki earned his PhD title from the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw. Aged 32, he is considered one of the most outstanding young opera and symphony conductors working today. He cooperates on a regular basis with many Polish and foreign opera houses, including Teatr Wielki w Łodzi, Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa in Warsaw, Cracow Opera, Wrocław Opera, as well as Lebanese, French, Italian, American and Canadian opera companies. His agenda is filled to the brim up until 2017. Next season, he will be working on four productions for the La Monnaie Opera in Brussels. Recently he has been nominated artistic director of the Viennese Festival held at the National Forum of Music in Wrocław. His path in the opera world shines bright with promise and opportunity.
– Rumour has it that as a young boy you would sit at the piano and start to play, without as yet any formal knowledge of the notes.
– Indeed, I was seven years old and I would just sit at the piano and play what I heard on the radio. When my mom saw that she decided to hire a piano teacher for me, and this is how my musical education started, though my parents treated this as but an extracurricular activity, a hobby, because they had already envisaged me as a medicine student, specialising in cardiology. My mother’s family are all doctors; she herself works in special needs education for people with disabilities, often very severe cases. It’s not just a profession for her, it’s a calling. She works as Department Manager in that huge institution. My dad is a construction engineer, just as other members of his family. My younger brother was also supposed to become an engineer but he chose physiotherapy. For my part, I passed my medical school admission exams but then I went on a concert tour with a choir to France and understood that I should be a musician. In Lebanon there is a shared agreement that you cannot live off music, at least not in this country, but when I heard Dvorak’s cello and orchestra concerto I knew this is exactly what I wanted to do in my life.
– I guess, then, that your parents must have been concerned on learning that you’d rather exchange a future in medicine for a career in music?
– Yes, especially my mother. My dad approved of my decision but told me I had to pursue a second line of study, as a provision for the future, fearing whether I could make a living from music. So I chose philosophy – reading philosophical works has always given me immense satisfaction and pleasure. At the conservatory, in turn, I had enough time for practice and self-improvement.
– And what if a musical career had not been an option?
– I was interested in biology, so I’d probably end up as a geneticist. I could feel that medicine was not for me.
– Is the system of musical education in Lebanon similar to the one in Poland?
– In Lebanon, there are no musical schools of the first and second degree. High school students cannot choose any musical subject for their matriculation exams, the only options being natural sciences or humanities. Musical education is not compulsory at any school. There is only one conservatory, with different faculties in several cities. In order to build a substantial background in musical education I had to leave the country and venture abroad. Nowhere in Lebanon is there even a single conducting class; there are no professors who could teach music classes. That is why I started my education from the oboe class – the oboe is a very high-profile orchestral instrument, and a very demanding one, at that, in many senses.
– So do you still have an oboe at home and play it?
– Yes, whenever I have some spare time I take up the oboe and start playing. The instrument you play becomes your own child, as it were. My relationship to the oboe is very emotional, even though I do not do concerts. Being a full-time conductor makes it virtually impossible to maintain one’s full potential as an instrumentalist.
– So far you have lived in Cracow and Wrocław, currently you’re staying in Warsaw and next season it’s going to be Brussels. How do you cope with so much travelling and being constantly on the move?
– My home is in Warsaw, this is my ‘headquarters.’ Wherever I may be I always return to Warsaw, it is the true centre of my life. In Brussels I will only be staying for the duration of my contract for three confirmed productions, the fourth one is still being negotiated. For three months I will be working on two openings, one more month will be devoted to the revival of Bjork’s opera Medulla which premiered in February. Travel fascinates me; I love to meet new people, to discover new places. I could never remain in the strict confines of my own environment, I am far too thrilled to know what is happening in music throughout the world.
– Your private life, then, must be far from stable.
– Quite the contrary. It’s just a matter of management and organizational skills. I always do what I can to spend whatever free time I get at home, nurturing my private life and taking care to remain good at what I do professionally. Balance between the two is crucial.
– Your name in Polish translation means “smiling.” I assume you must be a very happy person. What are the sources of your happiness?
– Indeed I am a happy person because I am satisfied with my life and I accept it in its entirety, even the downsides and upsetting things which sometimes happen. I subscribe to Nietzsche’s amor fati, believing that even the worst that could happen in the long run will turn to my advantage. I always try to be honest with the people I work with. I never yell at anyone, never raise my voice. I take pains not to be reckless with people which helps me live in harmony both with myself and my environment. Music is the most important element in my life. It holds a metaphysical significance for me.
– It is impossible not to see how absorbed in music you are, how immensely devoted to it…
– For me, music always comes first. Apart from preparing for each conducting session and learning the scores, I have to explore, to delve into what the composer and the artists I work with would wish to express through music. Artists should always have something important to say, they’re far more than mere entertainers. I attempt to ‘speak’ with the language of music and the means it provides me with. You, as an editor and journalist, perform a similar job with words; we do it with sounds.
Bassem Akiki. Foto: Kama Bork
– A conductor works not only with the baton, but with his/her entire body. Your “body melody” seems to go way beyond the humble expression “I am musical” that you often use…
– Music emerges from the inside, it flows from the heart, the mind, the soul; there are a million ways to describe it. For me, music constitutes the core of existence because it resides in my body and speaks from its depths. Every single body part lives on music during conducting. I aim at reaching the ideal form of conducting so that each of my movements could be clear to everyone. At the same time, I always try to fully illustrate the meaning of every sound which should be extricated from the orchestra and the singers. A conductor does not live only in the particular moment which he/she conducts but has to plan ahead, has to be aware of where he/she is headed to so as to skilfully solve some dramaturgical and harmonic issues. He/she has to constantly bear in mind that what he/she does must be internally coherent. If the music does not flow from the inside, both with regards to the musicians and the conductor, it simply loses sense.
– Have you been taught all this by professor Marek Pijarowski?
– Oh yes, I’ve learned a lot from my professor. He is an exceptional musician, and he’s helped me a great deal technique-wise. It is with him that I analysed all works I was working on; it is to him I turn whenever I encounter any problems. He’s taught me to understand the sense of music and to respect it.
– When, would you say, does the orchestra realize what the conductor’s intentions are?
– When the conductor knows what he/she wants, and his/her message is transparent to all. The same orchestra, playing under the baton of two conductors, presents two different interpretations. Similarly a conductor, working with two orchestras, presents the same but different nonetheless pieces of music… A conductor is an important artist, though by no means the most important, because he/she always works with other artists, each of whom has something to say. It is the conductor’s duty to facilitate that sort of exchange because only then can a shared interpretation be created.
– You have also studied classical singing. Do you still sing today?
– I like to sing very much but I don’t do it on stage. When there’s a singer missing during rehearsals I eagerly substitute and sing his part. I know all parts from the operas that I conduct. The score is in my head, too. I sometimes give the singers vocal clues so as to help them perform their part. At the conservatory in Lebanon I was learning singing for three years, then during my studies of choral conducting I was also taking vocal classes.
– You simultaneously studied philosophy, although it was French literature that fascinated you more…
– I read a lot of French literature in Polish translation, this is actually how I learnt Polish. I chose philosophy, though, because it greatly interested me. Now I am extremely happy to have made that choice because knowledge of philosophy has many a time proved very helpful in my job as a conductor. Take Richard Strauss’s music, for instance. You need to be familiar with volumes of Nietzsche’s works if you want to really get to its essence. My MA thesis was also on the influence of Nietzsche’s philosophy on Strauss’s music.
– What was it that fascinated you most in philosophy?
– Logic and metaphysic. One of my favourite philosophers is Aristotle. Actually, I draw something for myself from every philosopher. It is their way of thinking that captivates me.
– Conducting is more of a calling than an occupation?
– Definitely a calling. In one interview, Georges Pretre, an outstanding conductor, said that “you do not become a conductor; you can only be born one.” 90% of conducting has to with interpersonal relations and problem-solving skills. A conductor never goes on tour alone, always with the orchestra. The ability to work with teams stems from observation.
– So there’s more to conducting than just the technique?
– Of course. It’s a range of intertwined elements. When but one is missing, the overall effect is far from desired.
– Are symphonic music and opera two separate worlds?
– Yes and no. In symphonic conducting music is the sole component, thus we focus exclusively on its interpretation. In opera, there is a whole lot of other vital elements, such as theatrical acting, lighting etc. Every single element has an impact on musical interpretation which, though of course it remains the most significant to me, is not the single most crucial aspect in opera. Also the staging plays a vital role here.
– Which opera work has proved the most challenging for you to conduct?
– Right now I am working on such an immensely demanding work. The score is one of the most difficult I’ve worked on so far. It is Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face, a beautiful contemporary piece which appears easy to sing and conduct at first glance, but actually turns out to be immensely complex. Though I must say I’ve been expecting this – a conductor frequently has to anticipate potential problems.
– Is it true that while conducting the Hungarian opera Bluebeard’s Castle you knew the entire lyrics in the original language?
– Yes, it is. At first, Hungarian struck me as very difficult and strange but once I got to know its melody and the meaning of particular words I actually started to enjoy it a lot. I even entertained the idea of learning Hungarian properly, so that I could speak the language. Bartok wrote his opera for the Hungarians who simply know how to sing it. As outsiders, we do not know this because we’re not familiar with the language’s tone and melody. That’s why I needed to take some Hungarian language classes so that I could properly stress each word and build sentences which would be natural-sounding in terms of the peculiar Hungarian rhythm.
– So how many languages do you know?
– I am fluent in five: Lebanese, Arabic, French, English, and Polish. I also have a basic knowledge of Italian and German so as to understand the libretti and communicate with the natives of these countries.
– When you’re listening to a CD, can you do something else at the same time?
– No. When I’m listening to music, I am entering its world, and that’s why I do not listen to music while driving because it could be dangerous. Moreover, when you’ve been communing with music for some eight hours a day you begin to greatly appreciate silence.
– Is the baton a part of your body?
– Yes. I always take great care when choosing batons so that I know that I am comfortable with each of them and do not feel in any way constricted. Actually, each of my batons fits me like a glove – I barely realize it’s there in my hand. They’re nicely balanced, made of exotic wood, very light.
– When does the score seem to be leading the orchestra and the conductor out of its own accord?
– When it is precisely written and explains everything meticulously.
– And what if scores are not so painstaking and thorough?
– It often happens with modern opera, with the newest pieces. Then I usually talk to the composer and ask him/her what he/she wanted to express, suggesting some changes for the sake of the entire work. Sometimes I manage to convince the composer, sometimes the composer manages to persuade me of his/her right.
– Are there operas which make you want to cry?
– Yes, for instance Puccini’s La Boheme. Once when I was working on that opera I was going through a rough patch in my private life, and now every time the opera reminds me of that. But when I am conducting, I never cry. I need to maintain proper distance towards the piece I am working on.
Interview: BOHDAN GADOMSKI
“ANGORA” 17/2015 , 26.04.2015
(Translation: Julia Szołtysek)