/‘Don’t trip and fall on your face.’ An interview with Alexander Joel, conductor of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House (2018)

‘Don’t trip and fall on your face.’ An interview with Alexander Joel, conductor of Rigoletto at the Royal Opera House (2018)

‘Don’t trip. Don’t trip and fall on your face.’ Tonight (January 16th, 2018), the Royal Opera House shall broadcast director David McVicar’s revived production of Rigoletto live to cinemas across the UK and abroad, and its conductor Alexander Joel tells me what he hopes won’t happen on his first Live Cinema event. ‘I’m excited, but the cameras won’t be on me anyway. I don’t like cameras on my face. They’ll probably film me for those first five seconds I come into the pit… and then the orchestra will start.’

Alexander Joel has performed multiple times at the Royal Opera House since his debut in 2013, conducting La bohème. He was invited to conduct again at the Royal Opera House in 2015 and 2016 for their productions of La Traviata and Carmen. He has also performed a wide range of pieces from operas, ballets and symphonies in various countries and worked with many international orchestras including the Vlaamse Opera orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, to name a few.

Rigoletto showing at Cinemas via Royal Opera House
Rigoletto showing at Cinemas via Royal Opera House tonight

Alexander and I were backstage of the Royal Opera House in the conductor’s room while Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were being performed on the main stage. At first, the conductor’s room was quiet, but suddenly stage directors were giving instructions and announcements to stage staff, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is the interval’. We were interrupted almost every 15 minutes. Alex rolled his eyes, ‘maybe we’d been better off going to a pub!’ Nonetheless, I managed to get some insightful information from Alexander about the production, how rehearsals were going and the types of challenges he and the performers faced.

The hardest part is not about the technicality but finding the right tempo

‘It’s been fun working with [the lead cast of Rigoletto] Dimitri Platanias, Michael Fabiano, Lucy Crowe and Sofia Fomina. There has been great cooperation as the shows have gone on and we have found new ways to polish it up.’ He walked over and played the beginning notes of Ah! Veglia, o donna. ‘The hardest part is not about the technicality but finding the right tempo, [particularly] with [Platanias’s character] Rigoletto. If you go too slow, the baritone dies, and he can lose his voice. It happens a lot.’ We briefly discussed seeing this happen in 2014 to British baritone Simon Keenlyside. The public were made aware that he was ill before his performance, yet his voice suffered severely when he sang ‘Cortigiani’ at the Vienna State Opera. (My report here.) ‘If you go too fast, he won’t have time to breathe and he won’t sing the phrase organically, which is very unpleasant for the baritone. If you get that wrong, you can kill the baritone.’

Father and Daughter – Sofia Fomina and Dimitri Platanias in Rigoletto (Photo by Mark Donet)

When I inquired how he explained his music ideas and interpretations to the orchestra, he said, ‘there’s the basic playing of the piece, getting it in tune, making it precise, the right phrasing, articulation, notes, making sure they’re dynamic… but for me, I try not to talk too much especially if they know the piece very well. The Royal Opera House’s orchestra knows the standard pieces inside out. All the Verdi operas, Mozart operas, Puccini operas… they play them all the time. So I don’t need to rehearse technically with them much.’

For anyone who has a daughter, [Rigoletto] is a very special piece

Then, I hit the jackpot. Alexander had plenty to say when I asked him why he thought Rigoletto was a fascinating opera. ‘There’s the music, the brilliant tunes, the colours in the orchestra and the effects. It’s so cleverly done.’ Immediately after, I noticed a change in his voice. ‘For anyone who has a daughter, it’s a very special piece.’ Speaking as a father and considering Verdi’s own tragedy of losing his wife and children during the earlier parts of his composing career, Alexander painted a softer and sentimental picture of Rigoletto, which he considers to be ‘thee’ father-daughter opera.

‘Rigoletto – a father – is trying to save his daughter from the evils of the world. He wants her to stay pure and protect her, but she runs into the duke who is a womaniser. [Rigoletto] is alone. He has nothing. His only pleasure is his daughter, and that gets taken away, ironically enough, from wanting to kill the duke. So it’s completely terrible. I mean, it’s an extreme case, yet that’s the dramatic part and it’s a such a sad story.’

Rigoletto is a good human being

If there were ever a prize for selling Rigoletto to anyone, Alexander would win it. ‘I think that Rigoletto is a good human being. Some people seem to interpret Rigoletto to be an evil man, but I don’t agree. Back in those days, [Rigoletto] would have been considered physically handicapped. He would be a total outcast, seen as almost subhuman. And so the only work he could do was to entertain the duke, to live and survive, and he is forced to retain his job by mocking people because that’s what the duke would have wanted.’

Rigoletto performed by Dimitri Platanias (Photo by Mark Donet)
Rigoletto performed by Dimitri Platanias with the Royal Opera House Chorus (Photo by Mark Donet)

Recently lead tenor Michael Fabiano – currently performing the role of the Duke – confided in an interview (here) with WhatsOnStage reporter Mark Valencia that he rejected some directorial requests in the production. They wanted him to ‘do things with women on stage that were… strong.’ Similarly, as a conductor, Alexander told me how he has worked with some directors who had different ideas on when and where they wanted to cut the music. ‘Some want it done when it is musically impossible. They end up cutting out beautiful music. I know that some conductors swear to leave everything [as they are], but if you don’t do the cuts in opera, it just gets long winded in certain parts… in my opinion!’ He used an example in Rigoletto of Gilda, Rigoletto’s daughter, sung by Lucy Crowe and Sofia Fomina, and the duke parting ways by singing ‘addio’ to each other numerous times in the middle of the second act. ‘They’re just saying goodbye to each other. It’s not realistic and for the sake of the drama it’s much better to cut say 20 seconds of it. Otherwise, it’s just repetition.’

To be honest with you, I thought I couldn’t make it.

Alexander has an interesting background. His English mother and German musician father – also the father of singer and songwriter Billy Joel – raised him in England and Vienna. His passion for classical music started very early on. ‘I played the piano as a child and as a teenager. I did a little bit of violin as well. To be honest with you, I thought I couldn’t make it. I thought it would be difficult…’ Alexander studied Law at King’s College London. With his hands on his chest, he said, ‘it’s such a wonderful university, but studying Law wasn’t my cup of tea. So I asked my head of my department if I could take a sabbatical in Vienna and I managed to get a place at the Vienna Academy of Music.’

AUSTRIA/Vienna/Alex Joel© Julia Wesely
AUSTRIA/Vienna/Alex Joel© Julia Wesely

Alexander stressed to me how cut-throat the industry can be. For anyone that is considering a career in conducting, ‘they should be prepared’ it is not an easy road. ‘There were law firms that were coming to the university giving us brochures, asking us to “come and do an internship” and you had your job lined up, whereas pursuing a career in conducting is very different. Years ago, when I was entering competitions, if you came in second, it had no effect on your career.’ There were many law-related opportunities for him if he wanted, but close to none when it came to music. ‘Back then, you had to zigzag your way up. It was working at the opera house, being good at the piano, then becoming a staff conductor and moving onto a bigger house. It’s a catch 22. I did ballets, concerts with orchestras for people in the park… I did anything.’

It is in these little moments where you have to have luck

Alexander Joel with the Orchestra of Pamplona and tenor Juan Diego Flores, Paris, 2007
Alexander Joel with the Orchestra of Pamplona and tenor Juan Diego Flores, Paris, 2007

His big break happened when he least expected it. ‘I was conducting in Klagenfurt and someone very important saw me and thought I was good. He recommended me to the new artistic director of the Vienna Volksoper, which is a bigger house, and they hired me to conduct Wiener Blut [by Johann Strauss II].  It is in these little moments where you have to have luck.’ He advises aspiring conductors to ‘continue developing and never stand still. Keep challenging yourself by questioning things and learning from other people.’

Sacha, you must always lead them, but they must never know

As we reached the end of the interview, he opened up to me about his life outside of the orchestral pit. When he is not rehearsing, or working on his chemistry with award-winning opera singers and reminding himself of the mantra his teacher in Vienna taught him (‘Sacha, you must always lead them, but they must never know’), he enjoys spending time with his family in Hamburg, cooking Italian food and skiing. On top of that, he likes watching football, when he can. He described watching a live football match comparable to experiencing Cinema Live events, that includes tonight’s (Tuesday 16th) performance of Rigoletto. ‘It’s amazing to see a match live, just close enough to the field where you can see everything.’ It isn’t the same as watching an opera on DVD because with a live event ‘you can see everything. A DVD has been adapted and edited, so if anything goes wrong, you’ll miss it.’

‘If you can get an affordable ticket in the cinema, then you can watch, hear and experience the live performance,’ he said.

Watch Verdi's father-daughter opera Rigoletto live from the Royal Opera House at your nearest cinema
Watch Verdi’s father-daughter opera Rigoletto live from the Royal Opera House at your nearest cinema


Don’t miss out, click here for more information about the Cinema Live event of Rigoletto tonight and the production at the Royal Opera House. It starts from 7.15pm this evening, so check out your local cinema’s website and grab a ticket.


Alexander Joel:  http://www.alexanderjoel.com /   https://intermusica.co.uk/artist/Alexander-Joel

My coverage of Rigoletto on the first night – http://trendfem.com/2017/12/royal-opera-house-rigoletto-2017/

Interview with Michael Fabiano via WhatsonStage: http://www.whatsonstage.com/bath-theatre/news/the-christmas-opera-interview-fabulous-fabiano_45437.html