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Interview with Izhar Elias

img  Tobias

What sparked your interest in the "Semiramide"-project and how did it develop?
About 3 years ago I saw the arrangements by Giuliani in the library. This guitar composer was alive when Rossini was the king of the opera in Europe. I was amazed by the amount of arrangements, realising that hardly anybody is playing it in concerts nowadays. So I started with a few of these arrangements in concerts. From an early age on, I was already especially interested in the performance practice of the early 19th century repertoire. This repertoire that I play is very much influenced by Italian opera. In order to understand the guitar pieces you need to study singing methods as well. To get closer to the musical language of that time I always put fictitious words under the phrases, in order to interpret the characters and stress-marks in the music. The discovery of this huge work was for me a source which could give me so much more information about the interpretation of the early 19th century guitar repertoire in general. Here it was all there: the words, the story, the characters. That’s why I decided to work on all the arrangements, and to record it.

Were you surprised that your recording would, in fact, be a world premiere? It is such an obviously appealing and clever transcription!
Yes I was absolutely surprised. It’s a 116 minutes master piece! The interesting thing is that there are so many more pieces for the guitar which are still somewhere waiting for us, waiting to be re-discovered.

What makes Giuliani's transcription stand out compared to other opera arrangements from your point of view?
Giuliani was part of the opera tradition himself, which means that his arrangements are in style and very authentic. On top of that he was a brilliant virtuoso on the guitar and great composer himself. Altogether that means for instance that when a certain passage is not suitable on the guitar Giuliani is able to create something different instead without losing the style and the character of the piece.

To some, the idea of stripping down the orchestral score must seem radical. How much of the musical message is lost in the process – and what can possibly be gained?
In the purely orchestral parts you may loose something of the „grandeur“ of the show. On the other hand when you see the guitar as a subtle mini orchestra, you will be surprised by the huge repertoire of colours you can create on a guitar, which includes many colours that an orchestra could never make. It’s good that Rossini’s opera style is still light and not too heavily orchestrated (compared with later styles like Verdi’s operas for example), so that it is still suitable for the orchestral sound of a guitar. In the opera of the early 19th century the role of the orchestra was still not so important, it were the singers who were the stars. Singing on the guitar is one of the strongest points of early 19th century Italian instruments! You can make so many inflexions on that instrument that it is almost like a voice. And than again the voice of a guitar is maybe more pure and intimate than the original voice, so that’s what you gain. And voice and orchestra together when played on a guitar gives you much more flexibility in timing than with most orchestras and singers. It all depends also on the setting. You wouldn’t like to go to the opera house to see an opera spectacle performed on one guitar alone. You may think that the producer had a budget problem. On the other hand you may not like to sit at home on your couch, with a glass of wine on a romantic evening with a screaming opera diva and a huge orchestra coming out of your speakers, when at the same time you could listen to the same story in a much more subtle, intimate and personal way.

Can you maybe expound just a little on the idea of „singing“ on the Guitar?
When a good singer sings you hear so many inflexions in the voice and I don’t mean the ugly vibrato. I try to create these on the guitar. When I practise the singing lines I sing them as well, in order to find the breathing points. On the places where a singer would breath I stop the sound and create some free space in the timing in order to breath. This is something so many instrumentalists forget. I not only try to sing on my instrument, but I also want to speak on my instrument. The early 19th century guitar is extremely good in rhetoric because it has so many nuances in articulation. When you pronounce the vowels and consonants as a singer, it’s all about the quality and colour of each beginning of the syllable. The early 19th century guitar is one of the best instruments for the pronunciations of all this differences in attack.

How did you foremostly approach the transcription: As a collection of beautiful pieces or as a similarly interconnected work as the original opera, which should be heard from beginning to end?
I definitively approached the transcription as an interconnected work. As an interpretor this is very important in order to find the right character of each piece. As a listener you are of course free to listen to only one track or to the whole story at ones. Because now you can still hear that it’s a part of bigger story, when listening to only one aria. This gives each beautiful piece an extra dimension.

Which were the difficult technical aspects of your interpretation?
I like to make my live difficult. All the expressive dimensions described above give you more technical difficulties. You need much more technical finesses in order to produce many different characters, colours, inflexions and attack differences. At the end you should not hear guitar anymore but only a beautiful musical story.

From your website, it does not appear as though you are a strict ambassador of original practise. Why was it important to you on this occasion?
Actually I do try to be an ambassador of original practice „new generation“. After all the work the great pioneers have done for us, we now try not to say „this is historically correct“. But instead the young generation of ambassadors tries to play "historically" informed“,  realising the more we know the more we know that we don’t know... For the performance practise of early 19th century guitar music there are not many examples, so I sometimes feel like a pioneer myself. All the baroque music and early 19th century music I try to play „historically informed“ on an original instrument or copy of an original instrument. On the  other hand I don’t believe in playing only one style for the rest of my life. I like to do different things like working with modern composers or mixing film and theatre with music. In the old and the new stuff I am always searching for new things!

With regards to the recording process, what kind of sound were you looking for?
I was looking for a sound with a long natural reverb. One thing I learned from early instruments is that they sound so much better when their sound is being carried by a beautiful acoustic. The reason we chose for a big acoustic was to give it a bit more this bigger feeling of an opera with orchestra and singers. At the end it could be a bit too timid to hear a single guitar for 116 minutes played in a small room. I like subtle and intimate, but I don’t like timid.

Have you presented the transcribed Semiramide in its entirety live yet?
I played a 60 minute-version for a group of Italians, they where extremely enthusiastic. In other concerts I have played about 45 minutes of Semiramide arrangements. In between the arias I tell the audience the story of Semiramide. I do that in The Netherlands, but also during Festivals abroad. People love it! For 2010-2011 I am preparing a 60 minutes family performance playing arias and telling the story, with help from a stage design and video images. All to enhance the music, without losing the intimate character of this transcription. I therefore work with a stage director and a script writer.

By Tobias Fischer

Semiramide (Brilliant)
Omaggio a Guadagnini (Challenge)
Big Eye (Phenom)

Izhar Elias

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