Kenneth Montgomery (79) conducts his last opera, ‘L’isola disabitata’ by Haydn

Conductor Kenneth MontgomerySculpture Annelies van der Vegt

He has been in the business for fifty years, conducting countless concerts and opera productions around the world, yet he has never performed a Joseph Haydn opera before. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery (79) laughs and cries at the same time: ‘I have to do it before it’s too late.’ During the conversation at the dinner table, surrounded by books and three pianos, he fills in a few times; the ideas behind the music move him, he says. He also reluctantly admits that this will probably be the last opera production he conducts. From Wednesday, Haydn’s opera will be heard four times at Amare in The Hague L’isola disabitata (The Deserted Island); a production of the Dutch National Opera Academy (DNOA) with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century.

Don’t think modern!

Montgomery, Senior Lecturer in Orchestral Conducting at the Royal Conservatoire, was one of the founders of what is now DNOA; a two-year opera master’s degree from the conservatories in The Hague and Amsterdam. ‘I was a conductor in the broadcasting company, the former Radio Chamber Orchestra, when Frans de Ruiter, then director of the Royal Conservatory, asked me to come to The Hague because there were too few opportunities for development in the opera field. They had a hall with an orchestra pit for 90 musicians and 350 seats for the audience – only used once every ten years. I had to do four productions a year, each time with new sets and costumes, very luxurious and ambitious.’

“The singing teachers, some of whom are good friends of mine, were the most difficult. In Holland they are conservative and protective. They pat their students on the head and let them sing songs. Beautiful, but small, introverted’. Montgomery insisted that they sing operatic roles. ‘After a few years the teachers said: ‘They sing so much better!’

‘In the productions, they learn to project – to sing outside, to stand on the big stage and to move. What do I give them? Don’t think modern! Today we speak much more informally than a century ago, the century before that will have been different. I give the students images: think of baroque sculptures, look at that body language. The way the body moves also determines how you perform something. Of course, the music also has movements, which you learn to understand by empathizing with the time when the work was created.’

Sublime libretto

What does L’isola disabitata by Haydn so special? Montgomery: ‘First of all the libretto, ‘sublime’, thought Haydn, by the Italian poet and librettist Metastasio. It’s two love stories that take place on a tropical island. It seems a little lame, but when you work at it, it’s fascinating. Haydn has said it beautifully, he shows that it is about pain in real life. The overture, of considerable length, has ‘nasty’ sound effects.’

‘That is a special aspect of this opera recitativo accompagnato (The parts in which the story is told, in this case accompanied by the orchestra instead of just harpsichord, eg ed.). Not only chords can now be heard, but melodies from the opera. They are full of emotion and rhetoric.’

Howl and howl

Montgomery allows the singers to approach the music very precisely, but he also gives them freedom. With the understanding that one should not blindly follow a 21st century instinct with 18th century music. It is important that you know about the zeitgeist and the history of its origin. That is why he talks a lot during the tests. ‘I sometimes get complaints about it.’

The man Jan takes part in the conversation: ‘I saw that the musicians were sent the libretto, the orchestra members also want to know what it is about.’

“Oh, then I can’t talk!”

“I think that’s what they’re trying to avoid, Kenneth, all that bullshit, and then the whining all the time.”

Montgomery laughs, but is so serious: ‘It’s a lot, I’m not in good shape physically either, I’d better give up. You have to stop before you have to be wheeled onto the stage with a tube in your nose. As long as I can keep teaching’.

L’isola disabitata by the Dutch National Opera Academy in collaboration with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century will be performed on 18, 19, 21 & 22 January in Amare, The Hague.

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