Interview with Tobias Ringborg who conducts The Magic Flute at Scottish Opera next month
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
Tobias, so this production is a revival of a much-acclaimed 2012 production, directed by Sir Thomas Allen. It transports The Magic Flute to a steam-punky world inspired by Glasgow itself, the industry of the city, the enlightenment period and Victorian futurism. What do you think is the value of these contemporary re-imaginings of classic operas?
I think - and I'm going to be really honest in saying this - that as long as I go to see a production which I deem to be good theatre, I see drama on stage and I am moved and engaged by it,
that's all I care about really. Whether it's updated or whether it's traditional, that is always secondary for me. That being said, when I see an updated production and everything is completely incomprehensible, for example people are in scenes when they're not supposed to be and I don't understand anything, that makes me completely furious! The same applies when I see a more traditional production too, say for example the Tosca I saw in Vienna a few years ago. The theatre and the chemistry between characters was completely dead, and it probably hasn't been properly rehearsed since the 80s or something! That makes me just as furious, it just has to be good theatre. As long as what I see on stage doesn't get in the way of or work against the music, I'm happy!
So this steam-punky industrial production we have here, do you feel that lends itself in any way to The Magic Flute?
The director certainly has a strong concept and I think it works. It's a beautiful production! We just had a run today as you know and it's fun, it's humorously made. You can see the opera from another angle and with this piece being so inherently universal, you can look at it from so many. This is the thing, the more universal a piece is, the more you can do with it. Other Mozart operas, for example The Marriage of Figaro say, are much harder to update. For example in Figaro with the count having the right to the first bride! Thank God we don't live in a society like this anymore but if we change these social rules within the opera we lose the whole essence of the piece. To name another example, I've never really understood this idea of updating Puccini's Tosca because as a piece it is so connected to it's date in history - the 14th of June 1800. They talk about Bonaparte and even a specific battle that happened in Marengo that day, so how for example can we have a Tosca which is set in the Nazi era? You can't change the text! With The Magic Flute, these changes, like in this production, are more feasible.
What do you think it is then about The Magic Flute which makes it such an enduring masterpiece?
From my perspective as a musician, it's got to be the music. Of course the drama is also strong itself because it's about very important and universal things between people, that's all good, but this piece also contains an unimaginable amount of first class music, one piece after another. Just the thought of him sitting there, most likely composing in a short time, is just mind-blowing to me. I'm not afraid to admit that I find myself with tears in my eyes not only in the really profound ordeals of the opera but also when I hear simply: bom bom bom bom bom bommm-bom bom... These are incredibly simple tunes but they're just aghhhhhh - where did it come from?!
And yet you couldn't change a note, it's seemingly perfect!
Yes it is perfect! I have played the violin since I was three years old and so long before I started conducting, I had spent time with Mozart. For me it's so profound to think of this kind of Messiah-like figure who burnt himself out completely, dying at 35 leaving his wife and two kids, almost like a sacrifice. He must of known he was working himself to death, he gave everything... six hundred and twenty-six works of music like a gift to humanity - "Here take it, this is what I have given you and now I will die". Of course he didn't think of it this way but this is how I see it! The Magic Flute is a gift to the human race!
As a conductor, as well as Mozart you also specialise in Italian Opera. What is it exactly that draws you to these more romantic and passionate operas?
Italian Opera came into my life when I was ten years old in the children's chorus of the Royal Swedish Opera for three years before my voice broke. I sang in all the operas with the chorus, some weeks I was there every night either singing or watching a performance. I sang in all the main operas; Tosca, La Boheme, Carmen, Wozzeck even! Getting into the world of opera was like a poison, I became completely obsessed by it. Rather naturally the first thing which appealed to me was the Italian opera. Sweden is a very Germanic country and culture so there are many Wagnerians there and though I love Wagner and find a performance of his work incredibly exciting, it just doesn't do it for me in the same that Puccini for example does. My first operatic love was Tosca (because I was singing it in of course) and it became the first LP I ever bought in 1985 with my own money. I've often been thinking about what exactly it is about this music which appealed to a ten year boy who knew nothing about life, love, hate, sex, jealousy, murder... Over time I have come to the conclusion that because Puccini's music goes straight to your soul, the most private rooms within ourselves, it doesn't have to go through the brain. It's visceral. It's not that he's manipulating us at all but he knows actually which buttons to push! In that respect, with Puccini's music, I feel it doesn't really matter if you're a ten year old boy or an eighty year old woman with lots of life experience, it affects us all the same.
How do you feel your role as a conductor changes from Puccini to Mozart?
Oh it's completely different, just in terms of style and me in front of the orchestra, my manner radically changes. Many other aspects are of course the same but for example with Mozart I spend a great deal of time preparing the orchestral parts. With an opera like The Magic Flute I sit down with the score and go through every number writing in phrasing, tempos and bowings etc. It's an essential but also a very fun and creative phase for me. Marking the parts helps in rehearsal too since in the world of opera rehearsal time is often very limited, though it is always important to not overdo it and to trust the musicians a little! I don't have to do this kind of detailed work on the parts so much with Puccini though since there are already so many more articulations in the score. Instead, my time is much more invested in studying the technical aspects of tackling the rubato, constant tempo fluctuations and all the other technicalities. It's in no doubt that Puccini is incredibly difficult to conduct for this very reason! Puccini has to be in your spine I suppose... you have to have the piece inside your body! To give you an example when I did Manon Lescaut in 2006 and then when I conducted La Fanciulla del West later, I found it immensely difficult because I simply did not know these pieces as back to front as I knew the more famous ones I'd known since I was young. To conduct Puccini with ease, you have to know it back to front!
Finally, what of your own unique fingerprint are you looking to bring to this production of The Magic Flute?
It's hard for me to say, other people should really answer that question! However, one thing I can mention is that I think when I was young I was extremely influenced by the early music movement. I was born in 73' and so just as I was beginning to show an interest in the 80s, the whole movement exploded in London with Baroque orchestras and an abundance of recordings popping up everywhere, it was literally like an explosion! At the same time I was also playing a lot of baroque fiddle and so the influence of the movement on my development was undeniable.
Although now I often work with singers and modern orchestras who do not specialise in early music, so there is a limit to what you can achieve in that respect, I feel I bring all of these experiences whenever I conduct Mozart. For example, I feel I handle the early music trope of tempi that are very quick rather well, recognising the importance of also leaving room for relaxation and finding a balance. This is a trademark for me perhaps!
Here's some exclusive rehearsal photographs Credit © James Glossop: