Singing conductor: Nathalie Stutzmann
Meet the Maestro: Nathalie Stutzmann8:00, 3rd March 2017
The newly appointed principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra talks to Toby Deller about her dual career
‘I am never happy if I work with people who have no really instinctive reactions,’ says Nathalie Stutzmann. ‘If I do a rubato, the kind of people who say: “You’re going faster here and slower there”. I know immediately it’s impossible.’ She does so cheerfully, however, even though it is after a day’s rehearsing at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo where she is preparing to conduct Tannhäuser. But then, as she goes on to add, ‘You need a lot of humour in rehearsals – in the world, in music. I love to work very hard and I’m very disciplined but some people take themselves so seriously that it’s very boring.’
The observation comes after some 30 years as a contralto with an international career and now more than 50 recordings to her name. But she also says it as one of the rare singers of that kind of calibre to have made an undeniably successful diversion into orchestral conducting. The move first came to fruition in 2009 when she set up the period and modern instrument chamber orchestra Orfeo 55, taking on a hybrid role of conductor and singer that allowed her a greater freedom to develop interpretations closely with instrumentalists. ‘Everybody said it’s impossible, you can’t sing and conduct at the same time; I said it’s possible and I did it. And now many people copy [the idea] and I’m very happy!’
In fact, Stutzmann’s dreams of conducting go back further, when she also played the bassoon and piano and before her singing took her in another direction. ‘I was always fascinated by the conductor’s work, and when I was a teenager I wanted to conduct. But when I was a teenager, being a woman was a big issue and it was very clear when I was attending the conducting class that the teacher was very unfriendly and wouldn’t give me any chance to get on the podium. I quickly understood that I couldn’t make it as a woman, so I left it and I was so lucky with the voice. But I guess I always had a little hope in my brain that things would change a little bit and evolution would allow me to go on with that passion.’
She credits two conductor friends with helping her make the initial transition: Seiji Ozawa, who invited her to test the water by conducting his orchestra in Japan; and Sir Simon Rattle, who pointed her in the direction of the conducting teacher Jorma Panula. After an incognito audition with this ‘maestro of maestros’, as she calls him, she was accepted into his class, fitting sessions into her singing career. She also began working on a mentor basis with Rattle (who she still consults) and invitations to conduct started to come from outside of her own ensemble: her freelance engagements outside France have included Japan, the USA, Sweden, Norway, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK – she will be with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in late March.
‘Now the future is pushing me a little bit more to conducting than singing. But in the meantime it’s, let’s say, a luxurious position because as a singer I take only the things I really want to do, in terms of repertoire, partners, places. The idea for me from next season is basically I will have 70% of my year as a conductor and 30% shared mainly with my own orchestra in baroque repertoire and recitals that I also love to do – this year I’ll do about 12, which is quite a lot but it’s also very healthy for my voice. And sometimes it’s nice not to have to explain anything and just to sing, just to produce a sound, you know.’
Two recent appointments are pushing her still further down the conducting route. First came a three-year contract, beginning in 2016, as associate artist with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, a position created especially for her in which she comes for two weeks a year to conduct and one week to sing. And more recently still comes another three-year appointment, this time for five weeks a year, as principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Ireland from September.
Although that one is a non-singing role, it seems that her work on the podium will be heavily influenced by her singer’s instincts. ‘It’s quite clear that for me I work most on the phrasing, on the organic form, on expressivity. I really believe in the role of the interpreter – the kind of conductor who says you just need to do what is in the score, that is not me. We have much more to do than this: we have to have an idea of how we feel, we have to put all our emotions, our experience of life in this music. And try of course to respect what the composer wants, but you need an interpreter, otherwise you can just use a computer.’
1965 Born in Suresnes
1983-87 Studies at the Ecole d’Art Lyrique in Paris
2009 Founds Orfeo 55
2015 Appointed associate artist, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra
2015 Made Officier des Arts et Lettres
2017 Appointed principal guest conductor, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra