Sydney Opera House

Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo

Allerta!: What sort of challenges does The Pearlfishers offer a conductor?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: The challenge is not so much technical, it’s getting the style right, and in French music the style is about clarity and balance. That said, The Pearlfishers is a transitional opera, so while it respects the French style, Bizet is also trying to break new ground. When the work was premiered, he was criticised for the orchestra being too loud, too symphonic, too dissonant, too Wagnerian. When conducting The Pearlfishers, it’s important to remember that this is a young composer being very progressive for his time, and to find and highlight the unconventional elements.

It’s also up to the conductor to emphasise the tension created when, through Bizet’s orchestration, the orchestra and singers are in conflict. For example, in the opening scene we have two friends meeting again after a long separation. They were in love with the same woman and had agreed that both would give her up; that friendship was more important than love. But neither is sure that the other has kept his side of the agreement. They are being very polite and formal, but an undercurrent of tension is revealed in the harmony, the orchestration and the dynamic. It’s important to capture this tension. 

Allerta!:The Pearlfishers is very popular in Australia, but less so in the Northern Hemisphere. Wherein does the opera’s appeal to Australians lie?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: We are familiar with it through the work of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland. It’s also full of great tunes. As for the Northern Hemisphere: it lasted 18 performances during Bizet’s lifetime, then disappeared from the repertoire. When Carmen became popular after Bizet’s death, The Pearlfishers was revived, and in the mid-20th century it was one of the most popular operas at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Now it’s not heard as much there – tastes change. Scholarly editions of French operas have now begun to appear however, and tastes might change again.

Allerta! Bizet wrote The Pearlfishers 10 years before Carmen. Could you tell us a little about early style elements that appear more fully developed in Carmen?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: Bizet had an amazing gift for melody, which is present in The Pearlfishers and appears in Carmen in much more developed form. He also had a keen ear for creating exotic colours – Ceylon in The Pearlfishers and gypsies in Carmen. He was a gifted orchestrator and accomplished harmonist, and in The Pearlfishers these elements already add layers to the text. Carmen is brilliantly orchestrated and its complexity of harmony is really forward-looking for the period.

There was a huge shift in society between the operas, which had a bearing on the style elements that Bizet used. The Pearlfishers was composed during the Second Empire, generally considered a shallow and superficial period – Orpheus in the Underworld was the big success of the time. But the 1870 war with Prussia, which France lost, brought about a traumatic upheaval in the French nation’s sense of identity.  The Pearlfishers deals with the struggle between duty and love and has a happy outcome. Carmen has a much darker, more pessimistic view of the world and in the end Don Jose's love for Carmen destroys them both.

Allerta!:Given that you are half-French, would you like to make French opera your specialisation?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: I’m naturally attracted to French opera – it’s part of exploring my roots – and I’d like to do some Massenet. But I’d love to do more Puccini and Verdi too, and more late 19th and  20th century repertoire – Janacek, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Britten. 

Allerta!: How do you draw the best from singers?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: Few people realise it, but singers can only hear their voices through the resonances in their heads; they really don’t hear it as other people hear it, in the same way that your voice on a tape never sounds the way you’ve imagined it. So singers have to rely on other people to tell them what they sound like. As conductor you have to gain their trust, convince them that you are listening and that you’re there to give them the best performance of which they are capable.

Allerta!: As a young conductor, do you ever feel exposed when working with older, more experienced singers?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: No, I feel privileged to be able to learn from someone else’s experience.

Allerta!: Could you tell us more about the interaction between conductor and director?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: In a recent blog, [conductor] Mark Wigglesworth writes that opera works when the director cares about the music as much as the conductor cares about the drama. That sums it up to me – if conductors can challenge directors into making choices that they had not discovered on their own, and if the director does the same in return, both will have benefited from the other’s influence. The director will have taken decisions that allow the singers to sing better and the conductor will have made choices that allow them to act better.

Allerta!: As a freelance musician, to what extent have you been influenced by the GFC?

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: I haven’t really felt it – yet – because conductors are contracted years in advance. From what I’ve heard, in the UK and Europe it’s tough at the moment. There’s not a lot of room to bring new people in.

Allerta!: How has becoming a parent impacted on your musical life?  

Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo: The joyful, life-changing experience of being a father to two young children naturally has influenced the way I experience the world, and that includes how I read a score and interact with an orchestra and musicians. And I’ve certainly had to learn to be more efficient with my time. But music is always developing at the back of your mind – just because you’re not sitting down with the score, doesn’t mean that you’re not working on it. 

Visit Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo's website at