Caetani returns to ENO to conduct
Madam Butterfly this month
No, says Oleg Caetani, he does not feel he suffered an injustice in the fact or manner of his removal as music director-designate of English National Opera in December 2005, barely ten months after the appointment had been made. And yes, he is delighted to be back at the Coliseum to conduct Madam Butterfly. ‘ENO did everything to please me,’ he says of this month’s revival, ‘granting me the cast I wanted and the right quantity of rehearsals. I love this orchestra and chorus. They are very special.’
Given the way Martin Smith’s board of directors treated him in 2005, most conductors would have vowed never to return. Caetani took no umbrage and moved on. As many opera houses and orchestras around the world have discovered, he is a law unto himself, which has its good side—manifested in his ‘no-hard-feelings’ regard for the company with which he made his UK debut. As his two ENO appearances, Khovanshchina (2003) and Sir John in Love (2006), demonstrated, Caetani is one of the finest theatre conductors today, with a flawless technique, an eclectic repertoire (65 operas) and a quality of musicianship that, at its graceful and expressive best, raises the spectre of Carlos Kleiber. As ENO music director, he would have been a massive gain for London.
But like Kleiber, Caetani has paid a price for his gifts. He shows no interest in a conventional career and has been known to make artistic demands that suggest unrealistic expectations. That is probably why in 2009 he abruptly parted company with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, of which he was chief conductor, just as it was about to release an excellent cycle of Tchaikovsky symphony recordings they had made together. It may also explain why Caetani regularly works in the Far East but has no American engagements. Prior to this month’s Butterfly, he had not conducted any opera for a year, and he has no other plans for theatre work in the foreseeable future. By most standards of evaluation, that must rank as a tragedy.
Perhaps Caetani’s standards are too high for the rough-and-tumble of everyday musical life. Perhaps he has been badly advised. He has no agent, preferring to channel the business side of his life through his Italian wife, Susanna, a former concert pianist. The most likely explanation for Caetani’s hit-and-miss career is that he lacks the burning ambition to conduct the sort of top-notch, career-defining ensembles that his talents would justify.
Asked to explain himself, he refers to Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 film about John Keats, in which the poet, lying on his deathbed, is told some of the wonderful things
Opera, May 2012 that have been written about him and his work. ‘And he asks in a very naïve way: “Is that a success?”, as if to say it doesn’t mean anything to him,’ says Caetani, 55. ‘Well, I am not Keats, but I have got a lot back from my work. The fact that I have not had more does not make me sad. It is important for an artist to evaluate the beautiful things he has. I love working in Japan. I love working at ENO. When things happen, I enjoy them enormously, and I also enjoy them afterwards [in recollection] for the experience they gave me. So I can’t say it is a tragedy that I didn’t conduct the leading orchestras of Berlin, Chicago and Boston. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Music gives you so much. If I had a bad relationship with my wife or children, that would be a tragedy.’
Caetani, who lives in Florence with his wife and seven-year-old daughter (he has two older daughters by a previous marriage), was born in the Swiss city of Lausanne on 5 October 1956. His father was the Russian-born conductor, composer and teacher Igor Markevitch (1912-83), who grew up in Paris, worked with Serge Diaghilev, Leonid Massine and Serge Lifar in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and later counted Wolfgang Sawallisch and Alexander Gibson among his conducting pupils. Caetani’s mother (Markevitch’s second wife) was Donna Topazia Caetani, a Florentine with whom Markevitch had settled in Switzerland, and who had family connections in Brighton— the source of Caetani’s lifelong love affair with England. At the age of five, when his parents departed on a long tour, he was sent to the Brighton family for three months. Several subsequent summers were spent there—‘among the happiest times of my life. That’s when I learned to speak English.’
French is his mother tongue, but he is equally fluent in Italian, Russian and German— all of which cultures played an important part in his education and the development of his repertoire. By his own admission Caetani’s boyhood was a ‘gypsy life’. He grew up in the Swiss Alpine resort of Villars. When Donna Topazia separated from Markevitch
■ An early and lasting influence: Nadia Boulanger with the future conductor
Opera, May 2012