As Australian conductor Daniel Carter takes up his new position in Hamburg Deborah Humble catches up with him to discuss the life in the city and the path that led him there.
Sydney born Daniel Carter began learning the piano at age 4, started composing at 11, and went to his first opera at 14. That opera was the opening night of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Opera House, and after that he knew he not only wanted to be a conductor, but an opera conductor.
It seems Daniel may be on the way to realising that dream. He talks enthusiastically about his new position at the State Opera of Hamburg. This season he began work as a repetiteur for one of Germany’s largest and most respected houses before he takes up the position of Assistant to the General Music Director. The General Music Director is Australian conductor Simone Young, who has held the position since 2004. Daniel and Simone met when the young conductor was hospitant for a concert production of Rienzi in Hamburg. He stayed in touch with her, loved her “amazing musical mind” and now finds himself calling Hamburg home.
“Yesterday I coached singers on Cosi fan Tutte, this morning I played piano for rehearsals of Fidelio and tonight I conducted the backstage music for a performance of Rigoletto. Where else in the world can a 24 year old conductor get experience like that?”
Like most young Australians who suddenly find themselves in Europe Daniel has had something of a baptism of fire. “In my first week I worked on Lohengrin with Simone and accompanied the new singers in an on stage concert. Then there was the rehearsal where the director was talking to one of the singers in Italian, the singer was talking to the conductor in English and the conductor was addressing the repetiteur in German. The volume of repertoire is huge. Performances are constant; almost every day there is an opera or a ballet on the main stage. I went straight into the deep end!”
Most people find the stress of a new job enough to cope with, but to have a new job on the other side of the world with the added challenge of embracing a new language and a new culture is a lot to come to grips with. Meeting new colleagues, making new friends, learning a new way of doing things, even enduring a first dark and cold European winter can be confronting. Daniel is not daunted, says he is loving all of it and is enjoying the hard work involved with being “the new guy” in the house.
His reception, he says, has been very welcoming. “Everyone has been told to speak to me only in German, so conversation has been slow, but warm!” Not so the winter weather, but Daniel says he has always been a lover of the cold so in that respect the move to Germany has been ideal. “There were recently some days of -12 which would have to be the first time in my life I remember thinking ‘Ok, this really IS cold.’ I went to the local outdoor swimming pool and there were icicles hanging off all the signs. At that temperature as soon as your head is out of the water your hair freezes solid, which is both bizarre and amazing. But it was glorious and dark and still. It is things like that which make me realise I actually live here now; that it’s not just a holiday.”
As for the city itself Daniel finds it beautiful but small. “It’s the second largest city in Germany,” he comments, “but it is less than half the size of Melbourne. It’s very strange.” Despite the comparatively small population there is a lot of cultural and historical interest. “It is obvious with places like the old St Nikolai Church but there are also simple things like the Stolpersteine in the sidewalk.” Stolpersteine are the small, square memorial plaques placed in the footpaths of German cities. Designed by Gunter Demnig and translated literally as “stumbling blocks” they commemorate individual Jews, both those who survived World War II and those who didn’t. “This sort of thing is very hard to conceive of when you live in Australia.”
Work wise Daniel is particularly looking forward to mastering the languages required for a career in conducting, a skill virtually impossible to gain in Australia due to it’s isolation. He also wants to build on his repertoire knowledge but says, “possibly more importantly I need to pick the musical minds around me. The standard of conductors here is very high, and I am hoping to ask as many questions as possible and learn everything I can. People like Simone are an amazing gold mine of conducting information and experience.”
He has noticed a definite variation in the way operas are rehearsed in a German repertoire house. ” The mentality is quite different. We put on Rigoletto in five days and it was just expected that everything would work because everyone here knows the repertoire so well. There is so much musical heritage in this part of the world. And the orchestras in Europe seem to really treasure the difference in the sounds they make, which is what can make performances of the same work in different places totally thrilling.”
He has noticed toothat the culture of attending performances seems to be very strong. “People have seen the repertoire operas many times but they all come back to see a new production team’s take on an old classic – although that does mean there are some wild productions out there!” Ticket prices are less expensive than in Australia and there is less reliance on private sponsorship which makes going to the theatre a generally more affordable experience. Attending musical performance is very much part of the European psyche.
Daniel is confident that his early experience in Australia, first with Richard Gill and Victorian Opera and later with Opera Australia, have helped him enormously, and that without this professional experience and guidance he would not have been ready for the next step in his career. “As well as learning a lot of the basic repertoire it was a great way to understand what the expectations are of an assistant conductor and a repetiteur and a good chance to watch the way other conductors engage with singers. Coming from an instrumental background it can be very easy to get stuck on things like ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ or ‘early’ or ‘late’ and this is often unhelpful. Singers would often like to talk in terms of modifying a vowel or where to place a consonant – a completely different way of looking at the same bar of music.”
At times Daniel says he still finds himself a little bit star-struck. ” I am currently playing the piano for Stephen Gould in Lohengrin coachings. Stephen is a Bayreuth ‘Siegfried’. At times like that I have to pinch myself and get back to work. I would love to stay in Europe and develop a career here but only time will tell.“