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Alain Altinoglu, the Conductor the Rest of the World Would Like to Nab

Portrait – He’s the conductor the rest of the world is imploring us to hand over. Alain Altinoglu revives Don Giovanni at the Opéra de Paris, where it all began.

“I know this place like the back of my hand,” Alain Altinoglu smiles, speaking of the Opéra Bastille. The French conductor knows the Opéra de Paris well, its prestige and its corridors: in his time he’s been there as prompter, in charge of surtitles, accompanying pianist, and chorus director.

And it’s where he first raised a baton, in extraordinary circumstances: “I was the assistant for a conductor who had to leave because his wife had gone into labour,” Alain Altinoglu tells us. “I found myself in front of the Opéra’s orchestra without ever having taken a conducting class. The first minute was stressful, but the musicians played along… Without that, no doubt I’d have remaining a pianist.”

A similar story launched Leonard Bernstein’s career in 1943 New York – a parallel that doubtless amused the Americans. They adore our ‘French baguette’: at 39, Alain Altinoglu regularly conducts at New York’s Metropolitan Opera as well as in the world’s great concert halls. In June he’ll make his debut at London’s Covent Garden, and this summer he’ll be in Bayreuth, the most selective of opera festivals.

Don Giovanni at La Défense.
In Paris, he’s conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a score he knows well. “I used to only see the thirst for pleasure in this character, the quest for orgasm. As I get older, what strikes me more is his fear of death. His sexual appetite is a way for him to cover up this anguish. Musically, I’ll therefore be looking for greater subtlety in the graveyard scene, where he laughs at death.” The Parisian staging is by filmmaker Michael Haneke. “He’s turned the aristocrat into a business owner in order to better criticise the drunkenness of power,” the conductor explains. “Mozart’s peasant girls, like Zerlina, are cleaning staff in the towers of La Défense [Paris’s business district].”

Even if he’s solicited by the whole world, Alain Altinoglu carefully keeps Paris as his home port. “I really am a Parisian. I live in the 15th Arrondissement with my wife [mezzo-soprano Nora Gubisch] and my son. I grew up in the suburbs, between Créteil and Maison Alfort. I know what a high school with a bad reputation is! The teens in my estate made fun of me and my piano: ‘What is that chick thing?’ I was fourteen. One day I made them come up and I played a Chopin ballade. They were gobsmacked and left me alone!”

Article published in Le Parisien on 23rd January 2015. Translated by J. A. Macfarlane

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