Christian Badea pauses during a general dress rehearsal at the Sydney Opera House


Christian Badea on Conducting

One of the world's finest conductors explains what he's doing on the podium during the opera - and what goes on behind the scenes. Christian Badea is a regular guest conductor for Opera Australia.

“Puccini, Verdi, Wagner and Mozart – they wrote these operas 100, 200 years ago and the scores are very strong, they are very clear. They are works of genius. What arrogance could lead us to say that because we love something and understand something, we could do better than what the composer wanted?”

Christian Badea is reflecting on the role of an opera conductor, and after three decades conducting on (and under) some of the world’s most prestigious stages, he ought to know a thing or two about it. From the beginning of the very first rehearsal to the last echo of the very last note, somebody has to hold an opera together, and that’s the conductor, he says.

So, what does a conductor actually do?

Christian Badea conducting the Foundation Orchestra

Christian Badea conducting the Foundation Orchestra.

An opera is a story, Badea explains – and he’s not just talking about the plot. “We’re telling the public a story and it is imperative that this story have only one voice, not a whole lot of disparate elements. To be simplistic, musicians, singers, the chorus and even directors can have different understandings of how fast or slow or loud or soft something has to go.”

These thousands of tiny details require decisions – and it is the conductor’s job to make them with the structure of the whole opera in mind. How much is lyrical? How much is dramatic? How strong is that accent? How short or how long is that note?

“In rehearsal, you have to get a unified vision,” Badea explains, “and it has to reflect the wishes of the composer as they are expressed in the score.”

In fact, understanding – and interpreting – the wishes of a composer is Badea’s biggest wish and objective as a conductor.

On the supremacy of the score

Singers, musicians and chorus members can argue over an operatic score until the sun goes down, Badea explains, but as a conductor, he has a simple resolution he employs whenever a rehearsal room gets heated. “Have you looked at the score? Can you explain to me what the composer wanted here? If you can’t, I’ll try and explain it to you, because it is my passion. God knows, I’ve done this for so many years, with so many people in so many places and the conclusion I always arrive at is go back to the score, read it, you’ll find all the answers there. The composer is the best at what he does. Verdi is the best at Verdi.”

Once you are sure you have understood what the composer wanted, Badea explains, you might have a certain amount of liberty to put in your own artistic particularities. “Because then you know that you’ve on the right path, you have the composer as a friend, you’re not betraying him.”

Things change, of course, and a conductor must be able to adapt to his circumstances. “Each voice has a different weight. People breathe differently. The acoustics of each theatre is different. If it is round and has reverberation, you can afford to do something a little bit slower, but if the acoustic is very dry, that slow note will die,” he says. “You think about these differences, you analyse them and you make conclusions. After a while, you don’t need that, you just feel it and do it and it happens instinctively.”

On getting to know composers

Christian Badea

Christian Badea. Photo by Andriy Portyanko

Over his long career, Badea has worked often with contemporary composers, experiences that have had invaluable influence over how he approaches the work of composers long dead: Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Mozart.

“Bernstein always said to me that whenever you come back to a piece, you must look at it with new eyes. Imagine you’ve never seen it before, and study it like that. You’ll always discover new things.”

As Music Director of the Spoleto festival under General Director Gian Carlo Menotti, Badea had the opportunity to study a live composer in action. “How he thinks, how he works, how he works with the singers, how he sometimes realises something he has written does not work in the theatre and is always ready to change it, his sensitivity to voice, the fact that he wrote certain words with certain notes that work together instead of other notes which may not work so well together with those words. Details, the value of silence. Silence in a theatre is very precious.”

Working with Samuel Barber on Antony and Cleopatra and with Menotti and Bernstein taught Badea how a composer’s mind works. “And then you can take that and apply it with almost forensic analysis to what Verdi or Wagner wanted when they wrote certain things.”

The great divide: working with directors

Directors and conductors, contrary to popular belief, often have a harmonious relationship, but it only works if the director takes his artistic vision from the score, Badea contends. “In theatre, you can considerably alter the text, edit it, and change the pace of how you say the text. There are all kinds of variations. In opera, that liberty does not exist. The composer has set exactly the relationship between the words, the syllables and the speed with which the story is told.”

Sometimes, directors who are not also musicians can feel they are in a straitjacket, Badea says, and they rebel against that. “Then they try to “challenge” the text and the piece, and hope that from that clash, something exciting is going to happen. I can count on one hand the experiences I’ve had where something like that has worked.”

On learning new things

It’s fascinating work, Badea says.

“You can conduct a piece for 20 years and you realise all of a sudden that you've missed something that was right there. When you look at something with new eyes and with a fresh mind, perhaps with new people in a different surrounding you’ll always find something new. You realise the composer had so many messages – some of them are very clear, and you’ve missed it, and some of them are hidden and you discover them.”

By Jennifer Williams 

Watch Christian Badea in action during Opera Australia's 2012 production of Die tote Stadt: