Oleg Caetani interview

In the mid-1950s Igor Markevitch came to London to conduct at Covent Garden. The distinguished Ukrainian-born composer, conductor and Diaghilev-associate struck up a friendship with the late George Harewood, the Queen’s cousin, who was on the staff there and would later become one of the most influential figures in British opera. The strength of the friendship was such that, when Markevitch’s son Oleg was born in 1956, Lord Harewood became godfather.

Fast forward to the present, and Oleg Caetani, now 57 (his surname comes from his Italian mother), is about to make his debut at Covent Garden, conducting Puccini’s Tosca. Markevitch would have been proud. So would Harewood, who lived to see Caetani make his UK debut at English National Opera in 2003. Caetani made such an impact at ENO, conducting Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, that he was invited to become music director – an appointment that, due to turmoil within the company at the time, was rescinded before he could take it up.

Given such poor treatment by the ENO board, most conductors would have turned their back on London. But Caetani has a sentimental attachment to the UK, based on happy childhood holidays in Brighton. In each of the past two seasons he has returned to ENO to guest-conduct Puccini – first Madam Butterfly, then La bohème. Those performances, the fruit of a career that has taken him from St Petersburg to San Francisco, had the same inspirational effect as Khovanshchina. The Royal Opera took note, and Tosca, with a cast including Roberto Alagna, is the result.

The question is not why it has taken so long for Caetani to follow in his father’s footsteps at the UK’s leading opera house but how, given his obvious talent and vast experience, he has not had a higher-profile career. Caetani himself gives an enigmatic reply. Referring to Bright Star, Jane Campion’s 2009 film about John Keats, he recounts the scene in which the poet, lying on his deathbed, is told some of the wonderful things that have been said about him and his work.

“He asks in a very naive way: ‘Is that a success?’, as if to say it doesn’t mean anything to him. Well, I am not Keats, but I have got a lot back from my work,” says Florence-based Caetani, who studied as a teenager with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and later with leading Shostakovich interpreter Kirill Kondrashin in Soviet-era Moscow.

“It is important for an artist to evaluate the beautiful things he has. I love working in Japan. I love working in London. When things happen, I enjoy them enormously, and I also enjoy them [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 I had a bad relationship with my wife or children, that would be a tragedy.”

Philosophy apart, there are good reasons why Caetani has escaped the limelight. He has never believed in career-building, preferring to work in congenial surroundings rather than targeting ensembles that would improve his visibility. He has no agent – a state of affairs that most colleagues would regard as professional suicide. Instead he channels the business side of his life through his Italian wife Susanna, a former concert pianist.

“I see my job as a luxury,” he says. “When I hear that I should make this or that move, or conduct an orchestra or piece of music I don’t like, in order to reach the next point in the strategy, it means nothing to me. Agents need to represent many artists, and you become part of a big mechanism. I don’t believe I would have got Tosca at Covent Garden if I had had an agent.”

The same might be said of his next two engagements. In July Caetani will return to Russia at the head of a new youth orchestra made up equally of west European and Russian musicians, with piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov as soloist. The tour will take in Ekaterinburg and neighbouring cities in the Urals – “an idea born before the latest political situation [in Ukraine], but we hope it will bring a message of peace like [Daniel Barenboim’s] West-East Divan Orchestra.”

Then, at the Norwegian National Opera in September, Caetani will fulfil a long-cherished wish to conduct Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

In many ways he is an old-school conductor, neither dictator nor democrat. He says a good relationship with an orchestra depends on the conductor’s authority, “and that comes exclusively from convincing them [of your viewpoint]. The best way is to show you have the work in your mind, your blood and your hands.”

But how does that work out in practice? “It seems a banality,” he replies, “but the communication of a real conductor must begin with the gesture, and only then by explaining. Explaining is important, but some things cannot be explained. Being able to show them creates more intimacy with the orchestra and more mystery in the projection to the public. Explaining everything puts a limit on the variety of expression. If I show it and they follow, we all do the same thing, but each member of the orchestra understands it in their own way. It blossoms better than if I have explained it.”

Nevertheless, some explaining has been inevitable during rehearsals for Tosca. Caetani believes certain traditions have grown up in Puccini that directly contravene the indications in the score. “He is as precise and busy in his indications as Mahler: it’s incredible how much he writes about tempo changes. But with Puccini, like Tchaikovsky, conductors feel free to ignore his indications, under the excuse this is music one has to ‘feel’.

“I often had problems with those two composers in German opera houses [where Caetani spent his early career] by trying to respect exactly what was written. I was accused of taking away the musicians’ freedom and being cold. My experiences in London suggest people here are more open.”

‘Tosca’ opens on May 10, www.roh.org.uk/tosca

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.