A privilege to lead

'Tales of Hoffman' conductor Frederic Chaslin refuses to get swept up by the power of the baton.

Chaslin 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Chaslin 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
French conductor/pianist/composer (and amateur pilot) Frederic Chaslin, is back in town to lead a new production at the Tel Aviv opera - Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann" (Sipurei Hoffman). But despite his many talents, Chaslin doesn't think of himself as a "Renaissance man", per se. "I am a musician...the one thing that I do just takes on different shapes," he tells The Jerusalem Post in his swift French-accented English as he rests in the conductor's room after a long day's rehearsal. Chaslin, who is familiar local audiences mostly as a conductor (he conducted several orchestras and opera productions, and even served as artistic director of the Jerusalem Symphony), reveals that it took him about 20 years to develop his personal style as a composer. "For many years, I wrote for my [personal] drawer. But now my pieces are good enough to be performed." Chaslin was a student of the great avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez, and says he recently went through a minor revolution in his life. "I completely changed and decided that I wanted [my music] to communicate. I want to write for as many people as possible, and not for a group of 10 specialists. I want to find a way to be both sophisticated and understandable - to open people's eyes and souls to the beauty of music." This new mindset is well suited to this particular opera. "Tales of Hoffman" is being sponsored by Opera Europe for European Opera Day, a project whose aim is to make the world of opera more accessible to the general public. Paris National Opera head Nicholas Joel has been recruited to direct the opera, which consists of three stories told in a tavern by Hoffman, a drunken poet who suffers from writer's block and bad luck with women. The aforementioned women include the consumptive Antonia, who dies in Hoffman's arms, the courtesan Giulietta, who abandons him, and a doll named Olympia, who breaks down in the middle of her song. Chaslin explains that the original opera was actually never completed: "The original score was never found and many things in the opera are not written by Offenbach, and [some of what he did write] was not intended for this opera. With ['Tales of Hoffman'] one has to decide to either stay very close to the original, and then perform a small score with a lot of holes, or be more creative and add spice which was not originally there, but is consistent with the opera." Chaslin is not responsible for this current production - it was first created for the Madrid Opera - but he defines it as a "nice compromise between what we have in the original score and what is added." In choosing his operas, Chaslin looks for exciting stories. "If the subject is boring, it's difficult to create an interesting opera." One of his operas is based on Vampire Junction, a bestselling science fiction novel by S.P. Somtow, while another is about Napoleon. Offenbach's opera, however, gave Chaslin the idea to write a piece with many optional scenes. "'Tales of Hoffmann' is an example of an opera of the future, one which should be built differently according to where it is performed and what orchestra and singers are available. I like it, and this is how my 'Napoleon' will be built." Chaslin also boasts a very unique self-training method - he practices conducting movements in his swimming pool. "Water is denser than air, so the movements become more intense," he explains. "This translates to the sound of the strings in the orchestra, because what they read is my body language." Chaslin conducts at top operatic venues around the world, such as the Staatsoper in Vienna and New York's Metropolitan Opera. Most artists can only dream of performing at such venues. But star struck he is not. "It's all a matter of time. People who [get swept up in the limelight] are those who rose to fame too quickly. I developed slowly in my career and had enough time to realize that we are all only human. The power of the baton makes some people think that the conductor is king, but this is wrong. It doesn't give you power, like that of a president. It simply grants you the privilege to lead your fellow musicians. The conductor has a very clear idea of the sound inside him and has to convince the musicians to produce this sound. It's a mysterious process, and I cannot explain how it works, but it works." The art of conducting has not always be prone to this generous spirit - many famous conductors of the past were well-known for their dictatorial attitudes. According to Chaslin, the orchestra, like society, has evolved over time. Just as humanity needed tyrants at one time to enforce civility and finally build democracy, so too did the orchestra. At one time, orchestras needed strong leaders to guide them into doing what they had never done before. "Don't forget that a big symphonic orchestra emerged less than 200 years ago," says Chaslin. "Now orchestras have developed a very good technique, and need a soft, but clear leader." It appears they've found one in Chaslin. "Tales of Hoffmann" opens at the Israel Opera on February 16.