It is said that one should focus more on the journey and less on the destination, to live in the present and smell the roses—lean in and get a really good whiff of them in all their beauty, revel in the experience. It’s all about living in the moment, and especially the ‘living’ part. And while on that journey, what if the path becomes a metamorphosis all its own? A podium becomes a stage; a stage becomes a runway; then as if we never left, we find ourselves again on the podium. Only in retrospect do we see that it has all taken place in a labyrinth, leading always back to ourselves.
It’s the most natural thing really, to come full circle, like waking up from a dream to find that we never left. Traveling, morphing, shapeshifting—all part of the thread—let’s see where this one takes us…
Kathy Geisler: What is your current job in the field of classical music and what are you currently working on?
Marc-Olivier Oetterli: As a member of the opera ensemble of the Staatstheater Kassel, some performances of La Cenerentola that were scheduled are unfortunately canceled due to covid. And while it is my job to maintain vocal fitness to prepare the Bach solo cantata Ich habe genug, it has since also been postponed to a future uncertain date. So in the meantime, I am studying the Stravinsky Concerto in D which I will conduct and record in Mannheim as soon as it is considered safe to do so. The Stravinsky is a wonderful work that was composed in Hollywood, California, in 1946 for Paul Sacher on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Kammerorchester Basel. Paul Sacher had requested a short introduction for the printed program from Stravinsky who replied to the request with:
“That the piece is composed for string orchestra — will be seen immediately: that it has three movements — you can read it in the program, that it is anything but atonal…would you not leave the pleasure to the audience to discover the piece?”
Kathy: What were some of your early lessons or experiences in classical music?
Marc-Olivier: One of my most vivid memories is the experience I had of my first contact with an orchestra. After months of preparation as a soprano in a boys choir for the Bach Christmas Oratorio, came the day for the first rehearsal with orchestra. The multifaceted sound of the instruments captured my attention deeply and forever. I could never have imagined (even from a recording) this rich and overwhelming sound surrounding my soprano voice. Ever since I have been fascinated with the sound of the orchestra. This first contact with an orchestra as an 11 year old was for me an experience beyond words. Bernstein wrote about this:
“And the most wonderful thing of all is that there’s no limit to the different kinds of feelings music can make you have. And some of those feelings are so special and so deep they can’t even be described in words. You see, we can’t always name the things we feel. Sometimes we can; we can say we feel joy, or pleasure, peacefulness, whatever, love, hate. But every once in a while we have feelings so deep and so special that we have no words for them and that’s where music is so marvelous; because music names them for us, only in notes instead of in words. It’s all in the way music moves — we must never forget that music is movement, always going somewhere, shifting and changing, and flowing, from one note to another; and that movement can tell us more about the way we feel than a million words can.”
What a wonderful way to explain that music, sound is beyond words.
Kathy: What is one of your favorite places and why?
Marc-Olivier: Scandinavia, for the vastness of landscape, endless forests, frozen lakes, and clear ice cold air in the winter. Endless space — and since I like snow and ice — best chance to find it there!
Kathy: What is one of your favorite pieces and do you have a favorite performer or experience of it?
Marc-Olivier: One of my favorite pieces is Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. It was one of the first recordings I collected, one of the first scores I tried to sightread on the piano, and the first live opera experience I had as a child. I remember how I was following show after show in a dark corner together with my piano reduction score—I felt so privileged! It was a refuge from my regular life, a timeless retreat, immersed in Mozart’s magical music.
Kathy: Is there an artist no longer living who somehow made an impression on you?
Marc-Olivier: For a voice that is perfectly in place, a carefree way of singing where you can understand every single word, and the richness of expression beyond words, my personal hero is the Italian baritone Tito Gobbi.
Kathy: What is one thing you think will be different about classical music 100 years from now?
Marc-Olivier: I do not have a magic crystal ball! But I can tell you what my wish is! I wish that we will learn to cultivate the art of listening! Performers and audience alike. Listening is the key! Listening with your ears and an open heart will make the experience of music complete. Especially as a conductor my intention is to open the door to listening — listening better, deeper, and with more attention. Listening to one another to a greater degree than playing or singing. I believe that live music will be highly appreciated and desired: we all long for the experience of live sound after a period of pandemic-induced online music experiences. We want to see, hear, feel and share the live experience. Streaming is modern, cool, and convenient. In playing music we realize music is existential. Many things will be very different after these challenging times! One of those things will be to realize how precious music and cultural life is to us. If we can achieve the simple complicated thing to forget time, environment, worries of life, and dive into the eternal present while experiencing music, we will have done our job as musicians. That is what we are looking forward to!
Kathy: What is something about your work that you think most people have no idea about?
Marc-Olivier: When I talk to people about opera, very often they are surprised about a tiny detail behind the stage which seems so normal to us working both on stage and back stage. Hundreds of people are involved in a fine-tuned process making an opera performance possible. All of the mechanisms are really fascinating — some fine tuned — some a bit more inert — all coming together in the brief time it takes to perform. Think about how many human hours are necessary from the first instant an opera production is conceived throughout the six weeks of rehearsal — hundreds of people just for that single three hour period of time that it takes to actually perform it. Sometimes I compare the theatre to a benevolent beast consisting of various things: people, spaces, actions, and all the comings and goings on stage, off stage, and in the orchestra pit—all of which working together give birth to an opera performance night after night. The beast has thereafter been trained and when it is told to “PLAY” — we play!
Kathy: Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today?
Marc-Olivier: Life changing was seeing an airplane takeoff and asking myself over and over again: how does that thing leave actually the ground ! The pilot must know! And I wanted to know!
A life changing experience was standing on the opera stage, a few meters away (a very few) from an opera singer while singing in an opera choir. I knew! I want to do that!
Life changing was listening to a symphonic orchestra and realizing how fascinating the job of that conductor must be.
Do I have the choice between those three vocations? I do, yes.
I chose all three! Exactly that. All of them!
Kathy: Is there anything else you would like to say about yourself, your work, or classical music?
Marc-Olivier: Musicians! Artists! The journey is the reward! No single note that we play should slip from our consciousness — anytime we sing and play — be it a rehearsal or a concert, the magic can happen. This is why I so enjoy rehearsing and the discovery process as much as the actual concert.
This interview originally appeared on medium.com in Humans of Classical Music. Click on the website to see more about Marc-Olivier Oetterli