For many years, early music was a small, revolutionary, breakaway republic stripping away performance traditions in search of a new understanding of Baroque music. But by the 1990s, change was in the wind and “historically-informed performance practice” began to go mainstream. Conductor Harry Bicket was at the center of this momentous change, almost, as he tells us, by sheer luck.
Bicket’s first conducting assignment was a 1990 production of Handel’s opera Ariodante at English National Opera, as he tells SFCV. That production and a subsequent production of Theodora at Glyndebourne Festival launched full, uncut productions of the Handel operas as a thing that major companies might actually do. Bicket became the go-to guy for many of these companies, even as Nicholas McGegan was heading up Handel operas at the Göttingen Festival and other places.
It was Bicket who worked with the orchestras at the Metropolitan Opera and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich to bring them round to a sense of period style, even as they play modern instruments. And in so doing, he’s played an important role in bringing this great operatic repertory to mainstream ears. “I will have done 40 or 50 years of this stuff before I’m done, but I fully expect [historically informed performance] to go a lot further,” he says.
Bicket has also been the music director of The English Concert since 2007, a well-known, small ensemble which, under Trevor Pinnock and then, for two years, Andrew Manze, had specialized in instrumental music. “I thought that to be a period orchestra and to actually have avoided opera and vocal music seemed like quite a big gap," he says. "And I came from having done this music in the modern houses and you know, I had a good little black book of singers who, I thought, would be happy to come and help us.” His championing of Handel operas with this group has brought them an eight-year returning gig at Carnegie Hall, and a series of recordings of the Handel operas (the latest release, recorded during the pandemic year of 2020 is Rodelinda, the opera that was his debut helming a Metropolitan Opera production.)
Bicket has had a healthy career in American opera houses beyond the Met, as well. He introduced himself to Santa Fe Opera audiences with a production of Agrippina in 2004 and was named music director of the whole festival in 2013, where he still serves. This week and next, Bicket and his English Concert perform Alcina in Los Angeles and Berkeley, at the invitation of L.A. Opera and Cal Performances. In an interview with SFCV, Bicket reveals an underlying dramatic grasp of both the arc of the Handel operas, and the individual situations that goes a long way to explain his success on opera house podiums worldwide. We began, however, by talking, as one must, about the recent lockdown.
What was lockdown like for you?
We did two recordings and the first one was in the really bad lockdown and that was difficult because it was prevaccine and so we all had to be distanced and wear masks, which meant, for a little orchestra like ours — a chamber group really — suddenly not being able to hear your stand partner or not having a stand partner to hear, not hearing any of the singers, being spaced miles apart from each other, it was a little ambitious I thought. It came out fine, but it wasn’t a pleasure, I have to say. It was very hard work.
The second one was about six months later and by then we’d worked out what the best way of doing it was and we had a better time with that. But that was the only work that I had in almost two years. I was with my wife and two kids. My wife carried on working — she’s an academic so she was OK — and I was home-schooling an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old and looking after them. So that was a pleasure, but I wasn’t really being a musician, I was just being a dad.
I had been on the road for 30 years really, ever since I started and I felt that it would be very easy for me to give up the career, the kind of career I have. And it was interesting to me that I think I do need it. A bit of my brain needs it.
I’ve heard a lot about people retiring and jobs being lost because of the combined effects of Brexit and the pandemic and it not being easy for musicians to get to Europe for gigs and so on. Have you seen musicians you know experience that?
A few members of our orchestra decided to retire, I mean they were of an age, but I think the pandemic made them refocus a bit. One of them decided that she was going to retrain as a teacher. I mean, all of our orchestra are freelance so they’re not salaried or tenured. If we get a gig, they get the work, simple as that. So I think some of them felt, particularly those with children that it was already a fragile enough career.
And as for Brexit, yeah, it’s a complete mess. I mean, no one actually thought it was going to happen, least of all the politicians who were selling it. It was meant to be a futile, patriotic gesture. So there’s been no real planning — I mean there has been for some industries but not for orchestras. The only way we survive is to do European tours and come to America and even that doesn’t make us any money but it doesn’t lose us money in the same way that English work does. And so, it’s complicated.
And with COVID and quarantining, we have a lot of players from Germany, from Spain, from Italy, from Finland, and of course they all have different rules about quarantine. And so the player who was going to come over to do the week’s work, when they go back they have to quarantine for two weeks and they say, “Well I can’t do your gig, because otherwise I’d have to lose out on the work that I was due to do when I went back home.” We still have to get a visa to go to Spain [because Brexit means there’s no longer frictionless travel to the European continent.] Well, our orchestra only has three people in the office, and we have to get a visa for every one of the players, and that costs money. Going to the States, we’re leaving on Saturday, two days’ time, and we only just got our last visa today.
And with the NIE, the national interest exemption [to get U.S. visas], well every single person in our orchestra had to go to the embassy to be interviewed and then you have to wait, and you don’t know if you’re going to get permission or not [to enter the country] … And one of the simplest reasons that it’s a mess is that there still are not ambassadors appointed. In Santa Fe, we lost our director and our design team for Figaro, who were French, we lost Tatiana and Onegin for Eugene Onegin because they both live in Paris … but an ambassador can fast-track these things. But during the pandemic and the election, of course, there just weren’t the staff to even deal with half the stuff.
You and I probably both ended up reading Winton Dean’s Handel’s Operas (1987, sequel to the 1959 Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios and Masques). when we were first getting into Handel’s dramatic works and he was always like, “Oh this one won’t ever be able to be performed, that one is not practicable for the stage …” He couldn’t envisage what that would mean, to put these works on stage.
He did a great service in all the work that he did [on the topic]. My only quarrel is that he was very opinionated. And he was of his time. I remember when I did Handel’s Hercules, which is a fascinating piece. And the music for Hercules is very straightforward because he’s a warrior and he’s come back from this long war and you know, for me, it’s like someone desperately trying to hang on to real life out of uniform, which is what happens to so many soldiers when they come back from war. And two reviews said something like, “well, Mr. Bicket didn’t allow Hercules’s music to have the requisite joviality." Both used this word “joviality,” and I was thinking, “what a weird word to use, why’d they both come up with it?” And then, by chance, I looked at Winton Dean for another [reason], and there it says, “Hercules’s music, for the most part, is jovial.”
Over our lifetimes, that has changed so rapidly. You’ve been a huge part of that. How did it strike you when you were first doing the Handel music dramas?
It was, for me, an amazing opportunity because it wasn’t my music, really. I mean I was a pianist at the Royal College of Music and then I was an organist for four years at Westminster Abbey, doing church music, but also played Messiaen, Bach. And then when I went into international opera, I just wanted a change and I went to English National Opera, which was this extraordinary company that at the time was doing repertory that no one else was touching, in a way that no one else had ever dared do and all these young lion directors, you know — the Alden brothers, Graham Vick, Jonathan Miller — and it was hugely exciting.
And they decided, I think in 1990, to do Ariodante. So the music director came to me and said, “Do you want to conduct this Ariodante?” And I said, “well no, I’m not really a conductor. What is this piece, Ariodante, anyway?” And he said, “It’s by Handel, it’s got a good cast, David Alden’s directing it.” And I said, “But I don’t really know anything about this music,” and he said, “but you know more than most.” Because at that time I had been playing harpsichord freelance for Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood, and John Eliot Gardiner in the early 80s.
Anyway, I thought, “well if I just do one conducting gig in my life, that’s fine.” Well suddenly this was the hit of the season. And as a result of that, Glyndebourne decided “Oh, well maybe we should look at Handel operas” and they decided to do an even more obscure Handel piece, Theodora, but directed by Peter Sellars with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Dawn Upshaw, David Daniels, and Richard Croft. And so I thought, “well, OK, I’ll give that a go.” And of course, that was a monster hit and from that I got work in Munich because they started doing a Handel opera every year, and then I got to go to the Met. I went to work for [James] Levine for six months, in ’97, I think, and then the Met’s [general director] Joe Volpe said, “I think it’s time we did a proper, full-length Handel opera; I don’t want any cuts. Renée Fleming’s going to star, will you conduct it?” And that was a traditional production, by Stephen Wadsworth, that actually comes back next year.
When people say that Handel is all da capo arias, that’s not quite right; I mean he does mix it up some, here and there.
And there’s actually a very good argument to be made that the very rigidity of the form allows much more leeway with very small alterations. So you don’t have to change something very much to make a big impact. For instance, something as simple as, we expect an opening ritornello [orchestral intro] to an aria, and by and large he does that. Then suddenly, an aria will start with someone singing a line and then the orchestra comes in after. Which we go, “OK, that’s a little bit weird.” But at the time, that was, like, scandalous. It was such an amazing idea, but it’s such a tiny thing he’s done.
I’ve always been struck by how fluid and dramatically on point Alcina is. There’s not a lot of “swanning about.”
It’s one of the leanest of his pieces. I don’t mean that in terms of length, but in the distillation of all his skills. The second act of Alcina is so draining because when you think you’ve heard enough beauty, he just shoves another one, straight after. In other operas, he mixes it up a bit. So, in the second act of Ariodante, you’ve got “Scherza, infida” [Ariodante’s famous, huge aria], so on either side, he’s sensible, he doesn’t try to knock you out. But in Alcina, it’s completely ruthless. You’re like, “Please, stop!” Just give me an aria that’s ordinary.
Let’s talk about what we might call your dual career. You do Handel operas in the Met, Covent Garden, and then you also do them small with the English Concert. There’s a difference in scale there that requires you to be flexible in your approach. What are the pros and cons of doing Handel operas in a house that’s four times larger than what Handel would have had?
Obviously, American houses are American houses, and they’re huge. I think that there are some pieces that are small and private in scale, like Partenope (although I did that in Chicago Lyric, which is, like, 4,000 seats.) But that is a little drawing room comedy. But Julius Caesar and the magic operas, they’re pretty big in concept. So, although you’ve got the cast of just five people and a small orchestra [they’re large shows].
But for me, I’m just really thrilled that this repertoire has been embraced by the bigger companies and mainstream audiences. Because I grew up in the early music movement, and like all these movements, they had to be very radical at the beginning and strip away everything. And I think now, to be able to do these pieces also with singers who are not necessarily early music singers: In my day it was all Emma Kirkby, David Thomas, Paul Elliott, and that was the way Handel should have been sung. I don’t denigrate any of them, they’re all fine artists, but I mean you look at who Handel was actually writing for: he was writing for the biggest stars of the day. Well, who are the biggest stars of the day now? We did Rodelinda with Renée Fleming, absolutely. I do stuff with Joyce DiDonato, and they also sing, as you say, Donizetti, Strauss, Massenet. There’s nothing wrong with that. This authentic thing can be a bit of a stone around one’s neck, sometimes.
Having said that, I really believe that modern orchestras can and should play Handel in a way that’s different from the way they play Wagner. It’s very hard for me and it’s very hard for them. It doesn’t come naturally; the instruments don’t respond in the way that the 18th-century versions would have done. A lot of things I ask [musicians] to do on a Baroque violin with gut strings and a Baroque bow, those things just happen. And then you’re asking these people with these sort of pimped-up Ferrari-type violins and massive modern bows to suddenly drive around these little country lanes at high speed. And it’s hard.
The English Concert couldn’t be further from that opera-house experience. It’s a chamber group that you conduct from the harpsichord.
We’re a tiny group. And when we started [working on the Handel operas], they hadn’t really got how to make the orchestra an equal partner to the singers. And this applies particularly in Baroque music where we try and be the other character in a way that we don’t just sing a pitch, but we speak it. I work very hard on rhetoric with them. They can play and phrase beautifully, but I talk mainly about what the dramatic situation is and the kind of color and affect that we need for every number and also try and put it in its context. I always make sure we do the links going into and coming out of the aria. That’s absolutely crucial. We always try and find the next moment so that we earn an aria: you know, the recitative that builds up to it, you have to get to the point where the only thing that can possibly happen is an aria.
The other thing is that all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.
The most important thing to me is what is actually being said, dramatically. When Ruggiero sings “Verdi prati” [Verdant meadows], it’s not just a beautiful song, it’s about someone saying goodbye, on the surface, to a place where they’ve been very happy, but also, in this case, to a person that they’ve been completely besotted with but know that it’s not doing them any good and they need to go. It’s like the acceptance of leaving a relationship. And to me, that suddenly brings a whole different sound world and color to what is almost a little folk tune. In Giulio Cesare, “Piangerò la sorte mia” [I will lament my fate] is so often sung as this beautiful, pathetic, self-pitying aria, and it’s an aria of defiance in the context of the piece. The beauty of it is undercut by the danger of the situation and that is so much more interesting to me than just singing it ravishingly.