When Aleksandar Markovic was told he had been appointed Opera North’s new music director, a few things ran through his mind. There was the logistics of the move – for years Serbian-born Markovic had been based in Austria – and then there was the obvious question of how he was going to make his mark on the Leeds company which had just completed an ambitious staging of Wagner’s 15-hour Ring Cycle.
On the latter, Markovic, who is something of a specialist in the German composer, says he felt a little bit like Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
“I told them, they’d stolen my ring,” he says laughing. “Although I couldn’t be too put out as they had done it so well. What I thought was really good was that they didn’t just unleash the whole thing. Instead, over a number of years they had performed the various sections so by the time they came to stage it in its entirety there was an audience who already had a taste for it.”
Markovic arrived in Leeds last month and he was almost straight into rehearsals for season opener Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss’s comic masterpiece about an aristocratic love rectangle might not have the epic proportions of The Ring Cycle, but it has brought its own challenges.
“I’ve been getting up, coming into rehearsals, walking back to the flat and grabbing some sleep,” says Markovic, who when we speak is entering the final stage of rehearsals. “There has not been much time to explore, but that will come. Rosenkavalier is a mammoth opera. It is a piece which is so full of detail and the structure is very complex. There are times when you feel like you are fighting it, but it feels like we have just about tamed the beast.”
Markovic, who has a way with words as well as music, describes the rest of the autumn/winter season, which includes the Puccini’s double bill Il tabarro and Suor Angelica and Britten’s maritime tragedy Billy Budd as a “20th century death cocktail”. Had he arrived a little earlier, it’s a tagline which would have done well on the cover of the new brochure and while he can’t reveal them just yet, he clearly has plans for the direction he would like Opera North to take next. Markovic replaced Richard Farnes and he had already had a taste of how the company worked, last year conducting the orchestra for a performance at Huddersfield Town Hall and Janáček’s Jenůfa to rave reviews.
“The orchestra respond with such great enthusiasm. They are nothing short of amazing – even on the first run through of a piece you can tell there is something magical there. It doesn’t feel like there are any boundaries to what can be achieved because each section is at the top of their game and they are so willing to try different things.
“In an opera company there is always room for egos, but here there are no bad vibes. There is a feeling that everyone wants to pull together in the same direction and when that happens you can achieve something magical. It feels very collaborative. We were talking only the other idea about future seasons and it seems to me that everyone feels able to put their ideas on the table. I may be the new boy, but already I feel that I can influence what happens next.
“It’s a tricky thing putting together a season. It has to be affordable, it has to sell, but if you are going to keep audiences coming back it also has to be inventive. Opera North seems to understand that.”
Markovic was born in Serbia, but moved to Austria to study music as a teenager and from an early age he says he knew that was where his future lay.
“When I was very small my parents would read to me from this huge book of sagas which had also inspired Wagner. I hadn’t heard his music until I went to a recital as a teenager and suddenly everything clicked into place. I thought, ‘I know this world’. There was an instant connection for me between the words and the music.
“My father is a musician, so I guess that’s where I get the genes from, but he plays jazz and while I am open to all different kinds of music and I try to move on a broad scale there is just something about the repertoire of opera which I’ve always been drawn to.”
He’s also pretty evangelical about the power of a live performance and while he has raised his baton hundreds of times he still gets the hair on the back of the neck moment.
“When you think intensely you produce a lot of energy. If you have 50 musicians all thinking intensely that’s very powerful. There comes a point in any piece when there is the first pause and if the audience reacts you know that you have got them hooked to the end. If they don’t, well that’s when you have a huge problem, but let’s not talk about those moments.
“When the atmosphere is electric it is unbeatable. It’s not something you can recreate by listening to a live recording, no matter how good it is.
“The problem is that we live so quickly now, people haven’t got the time to get to know the music. In the past, and I’m talking a hundred years ago, audiences would go to hear a new work and they would discuss each part. It was something to be savoured and devoured, not rushed. I know we can’t wind back the clock, but I would like to think that we can maybe help people to slow down a little, even just for a few hours.”
It will no doubt please Opera North’s loyal regulars that Markovic has no intention of upending the season simply for the sake of it. Instead he sees the role of music director very much as a guardian of the company.
“I’m really not concerned about ticking off a wishlist of productions,” he says. “But rather while I’m here I want to do work which makes sense for Opera North and its audience. From the time I spent in Yorkshire last year it became very clear that this is a place where there are people who are keen on hearing music and who are very aware of what a first class company they have in Opera North. Maybe people from elsewhere don’t realise that, but Leeds is hardly provincial. It is the size of any big German city and what is produced here is world class.”
After Leeds, Der Rosenkavalier will tour to Nottingham and Salford and after that Markovic might just be able to catch his breath.
“A few friends from the orchestra took me to Malham Cove the other day, which was beautiful, but I’ll admit I am not good at winding down and I never sleep well after a performance. I remember when I was doing my first Salome I would be awake until about 6am, then I would grab a few hours sleep before going back to the venue. A conductor can’t be detached from the piece, they have to be connected to it, but it’s a fine balance. It’s dangerous to be so absorbed by it that you don’t see the detail. You have to be a bit like a leopard, ready to pounce. It’s exhausting, but there is no other job I would want to do. It makes me so happy.”
The orchestra of Opera North it seems is in safe hands.
Der Rosenkavalier, Leeds Grand Theatre, tonight, September 30, October 22 and 28. operanorth.co.uk