In his last production as music director of Vancouver Opera, conductor Jonathan Darlington finds himself immersed in all things Russian.
For the second occasion in a decade here, he’s taking the podium for Eugene Onegin, by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky—but, this time, three of the four lead roles will be played by Russians.
“It has a different flavour. It just feels right when they start singing,” the silver-maned conductor says, interviewed at VO headquarters on a break from rehearsal. Exuding the kind of enthusiasm that’s driven the hundreds of shows he’s directed from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre pit, he continues: “It’s a way of being and a way of knowing the piece from the inside, because they’ve been brought up with it almost since from before they were born. It’s in their bloodstream—like an English person playing Elgar or something.”
As he does for every production, here or in Europe, Asia, or Australia, Darlington has immersed himself in the source material for the opera, in this case a translation of Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece by Vladimir Nabokov. And he can’t help but draw links to his own life these days, too: his eldest son married a Russian woman in February.
Vancouver Opera Festival will also be saluting the modest maestro with an evening called From Russia With Love to Jonathan Darlington. In it, he’ll play his first instrument, the piano, accompanying mezzo Caroline Sproule in some Russian arias, and taking part in a six-hand keyboard piece with Leslie Dala and Kinza Tyrrell.
After the fest, the institution’s musical leader of over 15 years will step into the role of conductor emeritus.
“I’ll have to grow a big white beard,” the British-born, Paris-based artist jokes, assuring the Straight he’ll return to conduct about one production a year (starting with next season’s Faust). “So I won’t lose contact with this company I love to bits. But, yeah, after nearly 20 years, you think, ‘Well, perhaps it would be good for everybody to have an injection of something new.’ ”
Calling up a cellphone photo of his leggy youngest son, a 15-year-old dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet shown leaping into an impressive jêté, he adds fewer trips here will allow for more time with his wife and family in the French capital.
Darlington has firmly held the baton during momentous change for both the city and the organization. His first gig here, conducting in 2001, led to an instant invitation from then general director Jim Wright for Darlington to lead the orchestra. Maintaining his home base in Paris, and juggling work with far-flung organizations, from the Duisburg Philharmonic to the Orchestre National de France and the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, he’s enjoyed his regular West Coast stints. The many highlights have ranged from conquering VO’s first punishing Der Rosenkavalier with finesse in 2004 to staging Tan Dun’s contemporary, culture-crossing Tea: A Mirror of Soul in 2013. (Hum “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, which he conducted during VO’s brief foray into musical theatre this decade, and you might detect a wince.)
Vancouver, a new city on the edge of the Pacific, is a different world from where the multilingual maestro often conducts—historic European capitals that house opera in storied monuments like the Palais Garnier and the Semperoper Dresden. But he loves it here. He even bikes to rehearsals at VO’s East Side headquarters from downtown, conducting rehearsals in his Gore-Tex jacket.
“I don’t mind whether it’s rain, sunshine, snow. I kind of like it when it’s really pouring with rain—like last night, when I came out of here, and it was just pouring. It was rather fun!”
When you’re inside a theatre or rehearsal hall, he says, “It’s the same the world over. You get international singers coming through and basically the work is the same wherever you are. But I love coming here, because where else can you get a view like this? On a good day, of course. You have the ocean, the mountains, you have wonderful people, a very committed company, talent across the board. So why wouldn’t one want to come here? And as I said, I’m very eclectic; I sort of need all this stuff.”
Reflecting on his career, Darlington admits candidly that opera wasn’t his first love. Born in Lapworth, near Birmingham, he spent much of his early career as a pianist, eventually becoming a chamber musician and répétiteur. He began accompanying opera singers regularly, and by his late 20s found himself drawn to the form. He made his conducting debut in 1984, eventually becoming deputy to the music director at the Paris Opera in the early ’90s.
Of opera, he says: “I love being in the theatre, I love the atmosphere of the theatre, I love working with singers, I love working with every side of it, the technical and everything that goes into putting this thing on-stage. And I love going into this fairy-tale world.”
Audiences here and elsewhere have long appreciated Darlington’s musical artistry and depth. For Eugene Onegin, he’s digging into Tchaikovsky’s delicate balance between the classical and the romantic.
His standards are high and his vision is clear, but his approach with his artists is consistently gentle and reassuring.
“I just want them to feel relaxed and at ease with what they’re doing—because we all know that if you’re tense and uptight about something, then you don’t give it your best,” he explains. “A singer is very exposed, very naked on-stage, and if the conductor is not helping, then you really are alone! That’s the only thing they’ve got.”
You see that approach—and his sense of humour—when Darlington returns to the VO rehearsal studio. The knockout young Bolshoi-trained baritone Konstantin Shushakov is filling the room with Eugene Onegin’s tormented final-act singing. The conductor sits on a raised chair by a grand piano, guiding the singer with his hands, creating graceful curlicues in the air as the tenor rises to a huge end note. When the scene is over, and silence falls, Darlington deadpans, “Well, I think you have a future,” and the room breaks into laughter.
Even after several decades of work for companies big and small, Darlington says he is still growing from creative processes like these. “Every rehearsal, every performance I learn something, and I think even when one is 90 years old you’re still learning how to do that,” he says with a smile. “I don’t think change is a negative thing. You have to look forward and you have to be passionate and positive.”
Vancouver Opera Festival presents Eugene Onegin at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on April 29, May 3, and May 5, and From Russia With Love to Jonathan Darlington at the Vancouver Playhouse on May 1.