Conducting the Aida | Tjalling Wijnstra

Ahead of staging Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera Aida at Pjazza Teatru Rjal, Valletta, conductor Tjalling Wijnstra speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about what makes this timeless performance still relevant to this day, and why it’s a “pity” that opera is considered to be an elitist medium

Tjalling Wijnstra
Tjalling Wijnstra

Could you tell us a little bit about your trajectory as a musician and conductor? What would you say have been some of your most significant achievements so far, and how these have led to you performing timeless classics like Verdi’s Aida?

I started my musical career at the Groningen and Kopenhagen Conservatory  as an accordionist and did lots of projects in modern music and musical theatre. I was attracted to the theatre ever since I was just a child, and I quickly became fascinated by what we could describe as the ultimate example of musical theatre: opera.

At the Conservatory of Amsterdam I studied orchestral conducting. After this study I conducted many operas with the Filharmonie Noord in the Netherlands, the orchestra for which I’m now artistic leader.

We focused especially on bel canto operas like Bellini’s La Sonnambula and I Puritani, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Verdi’s Nabucco, I Lombardi, Giovanna d’Arco and Macbeth. I worked for six years at Opera Zuid in the Netherlands and there I conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Sevilla, Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, Bizet’s Pêcheurs de perles and Carmen. At the summeropera in Belgium I conducted Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and Puccini’s Tosca.

During these years, my love for the operas of Verdi grew because of the beauty, depth and compassion of his music, and it was such a delight to do La Traviata last year and Aida this summer in Malta, together with director Corina van Eijk at Opera Spanga.

Opera retains a particular prestige in the music world – even its depictions in popular cinema and other forms of popular culture often use it to signify the pinnacle of culture, opulence, luxury and yes, elitism. What do you make of this preconception of the genre, and do you think it deserves to be seen as something more raw and immediate?

The first operas which appeared in 1608 were done with the intention of creating a form that would have collated and made accessible both the text and the music of the piece. In effect, it was an attempt to create an art form that would be understood and embraced by all – not only the rich. Its ultimate purpose was, in fact, to widen the spread of its audience, which is precisely the opposite of an elitist approach towards art and culture.

However, given how it involves a wide array of artistic elements and logistical concerns, opera remains by necessity quite expensive to put up.

As a consequence, ticket prices end up reflecting this as well, the upshot being that a lot of people end up economically excluded from the experience. Which is a real pity, because at its core the art form did not change all that much over the centuries – at least, its prevailing ethos to encompass various strata of society certainly remains a key principle for many operas worldwide.

This is also why conductors and directors should do their utmost to honestly reflect the work of the composer and librettist, and their score.

Almost every opera tells the story of recognisable characters... of people; in other words – of us. The characters are very often a mirror of the audience. This is what makes opera interesting: that we are able to take in the beauty of the music, to consider the story and become a part of it in some way. This is why I think it’s sad that concerns about luxury and elitism still exist, since they create a distance between the art form and the audience... and also, in some way, between the art form and the performers themselves.

Pjazza Teatru Rjal was bombed in WWII... precisely during a staging of the Aida

Verdi’s Aida, which you will be conducting at Pjazza Teatru Rjal in a few weeks, is one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide. Does your production strive to infuse it with something new, and perhaps even politically relevant?

There are several layers in there which Verdi painstakingly put together and which showcase his mastery – both on the technical level as a composer, but also as a perceptive observer of the human mind.

Our intention is not to add something new, as such, but we certainly want to go as deep as possible into the score.

Verdi had a very precise idea of what he wanted to say, and it’s our aim to make sure that this comes across, in its totality, to the audience – through sound and performance.

Verdi was very much concerned with the political developments which characterised the French-German war of the 1870s. Nowadays, sadly, we find more than enough geo-political situations which demonstrate that in war, there can only ever be losers. The last word of the opera is “pace”, which reveals Verdi’s most deep-seated wish.

What does performing in Malta mean to you, and what kind of atmosphere are you hoping to experience at Pjazza Teatru Rjal?

I’m very much looking forward to working with the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which I know to be a great orchestra with an excellent track record when it comes to the staging of opera performances.

It is very exciting for us to be able to perform the Aida, which we’ve also staged in Spanga (the Netherlands), in an entirely new location, which will have its own particular atmosphere.

I’ve also learned that Pjazza Teatru Rjal was bombed in WWII... precisely during a staging of the Aida. So performing Verdi’s masterpiece at this venue once again is a special privilege.