Meet the Maestro: Matthew Kofi Waldren9:00, 16th June 2017
The conductor in charge of Opera Holland Park’s La rondine spent first decade of his professional life as a singer. Interview by Toby Deller
‘We were saying yesterday, the assistant director and I: this is a good job, isn’t it?’ beams Matthew Kofi Waldren, taking a lunch break at a local Italian restaurant, early in the rehearsal run for Opera Holland Park’s production of La rondine. ‘This is a fantastic job. We come together to create. And people feel more themselves often, in a rehearsal room or making and creating this art, than they do at any other point. They are true to themselves.’
The conductor (he uses his second name to acknowledge a Ghanaian grandmother) has been involved with the company in that capacity since 2009 when he was chorus master. In a way, the idea of being true to oneself applies to him as much as anyone since he spent the first decade of his professional life as a singer before realising in his thirties that his future stood on the podium.
‘I’d started singing in churches at six, I suppose, started piano at five, flute at nine, went to junior department at music college, went to Cambridge to study music, went to Guildhall as a postgraduate. But there was a sense that I had been set off on a path but had never really asked myself: was that what I wanted to do? At the time it probably was right for me but it wasn’t what really made me tick. My piano teacher when I was at Cambridge, Raymond Fischer, he really wanted me to do my postgraduate at the Royal College. He said, “Hear me out: combine the singing, which I know you can do, with piano at the same time. Do a joint master’s because this is going to be more important than I think you realise.” ’
Waldren, however, did focus on vocal training, spending two years as a postgraduate at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama before embarking on a singing career. ‘I had almost a ten-year career working with various companies, generally in the UK. It gave me a huge number of skills, I loved being on stage, I loved acting and I loved singing. And I loved inhabiting characters, but I always felt – it’s not that singers aren’t central but I felt that I wanted to be more central to the music, that I wanted to be more immersed in the music and help facilitate it. And I felt I had the means to be able to do that. So after ten years I said no to the rest of my singing work and I just realigned my career.’
By no means were those years wasted, since they provided him with an alternative insight into the requirements of opera rather than a more conventional pathway of conducting training-assisting-répétiteur work. ‘I was constantly observing conductors as I was working, then I had private tuition with conductors. I’d been at university and then music college but I didn’t take myself back to music college. I did immerse myself in a learning process of my own and with conductors who I trusted and worked with. And the thing about conducting is you learn by doing: it’s such a necessary truth.’
Since the switch, he has conducted several productions at Holland Park in the past few years, including Will Todd’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which also had a run at the Royal Opera House). He now holds one of ENO’s two-year Mackerras fellowships and will conduct The Marriage of Figaro there in spring 2018.
‘I’m predominantly known now as an opera conductor and I love exploring the composer as dramatist, I love working with singers, understanding singers. It’s incredibly important in this job being able to breathe with them, to understand what the constraints of being on stage are. There are things that need to happen when you are on stage and you need a conductor to understand that these need to happen so that you can perform. Having been there, I understand what they are going through on stage.’
Fortified by gnocchi, Waldren heads back to the rehearsal venue for the afternoon session. ‘There was always something in me as a musician who had that desire to facilitate good music-making, the best music-making that can possibly be, under whatever circumstances. Whatever the calibre of the players, you have to have the ability to be able to bring the best out of a group of people. And in opera, to best facilitate that story. That’s the extra layer of opera which I love – which means I still get to act. In fact, the leading lady in Rondine this week said I should be understudying every part!’