At the top of his game
Asher Fisch earned the privilege of conducting just about any production he chooses. As he prepares to conduct 'Forza' here, he reflects on the power of his baton.
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La Forza del Destino or The Power of Fate by Guiseppe Verdi has "the most idiotic plot in opera," says conductor Asher Fisch cheerfully as he folds himself into an armchair and swigs thirstily from a bottle of soda.
Small wonder he's cheerful. Over the last two years there has been a shower of prizes and accolades that started in 2005 with the Helpmann Award for Best Musical Direction of Wagner's Ring Cycle in Adelaide. Last year he won the Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year for Rosenkavalier, this year he was made Seattle's principal guest conductor and the critics have been lavishing praise on the recently issued Adelaide Ring Cycle recordings.
Before heading off to debut at Italy's La Scala with The Merry Widow in November, Fisch will be stationed here, conducting the Israel Opera production of Forza that opens January 4 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.
Musically the opera belongs to Verdi's middle period, from Rigoletto (1851) to Forza (1862), and is characterized by "gorgeous melodies and beautiful musical construction."
"The music is the narrator here," Fisch says. "It's like an additional character interpreting the action. The orchestra expresses the cruel fate that is predestined for each of the characters."
And cruel fate it surely is. Don Alvaro loves Leonora, but Papa, the Marquis of Calatrava, disapproves. He discovers the couple about to elope, then gets himself accidentally killed. He dies cursing his daughter, and the couple flees. Naturally Leonora's brother, Don Carlo, swears vengeance. After this fairly straightforward beginning, some very improbable coincidences gallop gustily along with Leonora, Alvaro and Carlo dying operatically at the end.
For every production Fisch works not only with the orchestra but with each of the singers, "and the more I work with opera, the more I realize it's my job to coach the singers in style, language, vocal nuances; the more experienced I get, the more I find singers eager to benefit from that. But you can't really change people's way of singing, so casting is very important to get the interpretation you want."
When the Israel Opera was revived 20 years ago, the lead singers were mostly imported, and Fisch explains, while local singers do now get leading roles, they are still in the minority.
"Even after 20 years we still don't have a cadre of Israeli singers that can carry the leading roles," he says, "and believe me, when casting the first thing we ask ourselves is whether we have a local that can do it, and is available."
There's a comfortable assurance to Fisch these days. He's still easygoing, still very approachable, but he's not on the way up any more. He occupies the rarified atmosphere of the conductor who can just about choose his next podium.
His signature stubbornness is less in evidence "because I don't need it. I need it more inside the work to get the result I want, but not to get work."
He inherited his obstinacy, he says, from his mother "who wouldn't let me quit piano when I was 14. I'd started at age 10, which is pretty late for piano."
His parents were German Jews who'd fled Nazi Germany and settled in Jerusalem where Fisch, now 48, grew up. Late start or not, his prowess on the piano, then and now, makes him a sought after accompanist and chamber musician. But young Fisch had his eye on conducting and got his chance in 1987 when he conducted a performance of La Boheme for the Israel Opera. He was made in-house conductor and that set the ball rolling for his opera career, but he wanted the world of the symphony as well.
In 1990, on the eve of the first Gulf War, he conducted the Israel Philharmonic in place of an ailing Daniel Barenboim, which led to a four year stint as his assistant at the Berlin Opera. That was the start of his international career, and Fisch spent most of the next decade in Europe, coming home at intervals to conduct at the Israel Opera, whose music director he became in 1996 (a post he held concurrently with that of music director for the Vienna Folk Opera).
In 2000 Fisch moved to New York. He and his wife, singer Linda Pavelka and their daughter Koko live in a renovated brownstone on 139th Street in the middle of Harlem.
The move was triggered by his first invitation to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera "because I felt that if I wanted to do opera and orchestra in the US, I needed to be there."
Yet the move "was more than physical, because music in America works very differently from that in Europe," not least because of the high professional level of orchestral players. Additionally, Europe works on the repertory system, whereby a different work is given each night of the week. In the US, one work is performed for a given period.
"At the end of the European period I had a tendency to be superficial," he says with characteristic honesty. "The American orchestra taught me to be more rigorous, to dig deeper and now I feel I'm ready for both worlds."
Fisch knows his schedule for the next four years. It includes Rosenkavalier (R.Strauss) in Berlin, Munich ('09) and Vienna ('10) mixed with work in the US, such as the Wagner Competition for singers in Seattle, Magic Flute at the Met next year and A Masked Ball at the Chicago Lyric Opera in '09.
Meanwhile, from here he's going to Dresden to conduct the Opera Ball concert, and then to do Beethoven and Wagner with the Belgrade Philharmonic - combining opera and symphony, just the way he likes it.