Opera Scotland

Ian Ryan

Posted 23 Aug

Stephen Fraser of OperaScotland recently interviewed Ian Ryan at Glasgow's 2015 West End Festival. Ian conducted the first performance in Scotland of Erik Chisholm's opera Simoon.

What was your first memory of opera?

My father used to listen to a lot of records and he had a big opera collection – if I'm honest I never took much of an interest, as I was more interested in piano music and other lots of other forms of music. It was only as a teenager, seeing some opera and then later working with opera singers that I really discovered my love of the voice. When I was at university I started paying for lots of singing lessons with teachers and singers in London. It was the best training I ever had - it completely changed me as a musician and ever since then I've been addicted.

Any particular forms of opera?

Nowadays I'd say I often find myself working on repertoire from the late 19th and 20th centuries, especially contemporary opera... One of the reasons I'm conducting Chisholm's Simoon is because it fits right into the contemporary repertory. I love classical operas but people tend to get me to work on later pieces nowadays.

Which composers do you enjoy at present?

Wagner and Strauss of course but I also love Janacek...he is one of the great composers. We're so lucky that he has been brought out from relative obscurity. As for the mid-20th-century, Britten with operas such as The Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes, Death in Venice. I do also enjoy American composers. I've worked on quite a few works by John Adams (The Death of Klinghoffer, Nixon in China and El Niño) and recently I played in Philip Glass' new chamber opera The Trial, based on the Kafka story. I love new music. Simoon is a strange one, because it's the first time anyone's ever had the opportunity to perform it yet it is not a new piece. It feels very avant-garde. I think perhaps one of the reasons why it hasn't been done, and why some of the later Chisholm works are not so well known, is because he was very much of the European avant-garde, influenced by Berg, Schoenberg, Bartok and Messiaen - not so much in the mould of Britten who he would consider somewhat conservative in his writing.

A few years ago you took the Highlands and Islands tour of Katya Kabanova with your piano reduction...

With a piano reduction, the vocal score is just the start. It's someone's attempt to realise what's in the full score. I find it very hard to play the piano score until I've learnt the full score. It just doesn't make any sense; you need to imagine the sound and then you can work out what to play. One needs to try to find the sounds on the piano to replicate what is going to occur in the orchestra. I would sit down with the full score even though it was a tour. I would change a lot of things - add octaves, take away things and make things thinner just depending on the thrust of the piece.

You're going off to join the music staff at the Royal Opera in Denmark. What is your role going to be?

As a member of the music staff, there will be a lot of playing for rehearsals, but also coaching singers, playing with the orchestra and hopefully assisting opportunities. The lines always become quite blurred with many duties and a variety of different pieces. My first piece is Die Frau ohne Schatten, so something small to get me started! I'm going to do Boulevard Solitude next.

What future does opera have?

Whether you consider contemporary or traditional opera it certainly has a future. Essentially opera will communicate the human experience, from social situations to the very small human interactions. As long as it has those relevancies and those connections within it, opera will always have a future, because it's a universal truth... Operatic music is a defining force which brings all the elements drama, movement and words together. The music communicates the indescribable thing that words can't - it covers all the subtext behind the words. And since it goes beyond words, it has the ability to affect such a wide audience and that will always be true. It's one of the deepest human instincts, to make a noise and to make music before we speak. New opera continues to challenge things in society and it continues to reflect on events which happen in everyday lives.

[Now it has been performed] do you think Simoon has much of a future?

I hope so. We've had an amazing experience. The sound world is fabulous and with what the singers have brought to it, and the film too, I really hope it has a future. It certainly hasn't been performed because it's not a good piece - it certainly is. That is because of other practical reasons, and I hope that once people hear it, they will see all its virtues and take it further.

Do you have interests outside music?

Of course, but I've been quite busy lately. I love going to theatre, going to concerts, art galleries. My friends will laugh at this, but I occasionally play tennis for fun. I also like eating out - most definitely and now I will enjoy exploring Copenhagen. 

Thanks, Ian, and all the best in Copenhagen.

Listen to Ian talking about Chisholm's Simoon in the video.

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