As Johannes Debus stands at the conductor’s podium, the sound emanating from the orchestra hits him with the power of a great ocean wave. Yet his inner ear discerns the intricacies — like a surfer marvelling at individual drops of water even as he rides a massive wave.
“One of the most shocking things is to experience the physicality of an orchestra’s sound,” says Debus, music director at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). “It really can feel as if you would ride a wave, one of those big waves, on a surfboard. It can be overwhelming.”
Debus feels the essence of the music, the emotion and the drama of it, and he conveys that to the orchestra in a way even he doesn’t fully understand.
Communicating with an orchestra is almost a kind of magic, Debus says. “It’s a form of symbiosis.”
The movement of his arms and his baton are like the words we use to communicate in daily life; they are a language, there is a conscious understanding of what each gesture means. But all the subtle cues we use unconsciously — the mysteries of body language — are also at work between conductor and orchestra, Debus says.
He gives the example of what it’s like to conduct Wolfgang Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, a piece performed in February at the COC. It has an exotic, Turkish style, carrying the audience from modern-day Toronto to the heart of the Ottoman Empire.
“How do I use those instruments, how do I ask the players to play those instruments? Do I want to have a slightly tame version? Or do I want to have a version where those instruments are really coming in with all the noise they can make — in a mix of joy and almost threat, or surprise?” Debus says. “Those things I think I can show with my hands, if I use a beat that’s sort of harder, or if I use a gesture that’s a bit more soft, more delicate, more elegant.”
Debus says he became a conductor because he was fascinated with how he could shape the sounds coming from so many individual instruments into one unified, powerful sound.
“You can actually play an orchestra as you could play an instrument,” Debus says.
As a child in Speyer, Germany, he took piano, violin, and voice lessons. His love of music was sparked when he became a choirboy in an 800-year-old cathedral in his hometown. But nothing could compare to playing the grand, living instrument that is an orchestra.
Debus established his career as a conductor in many of the great opera houses in Europe before his COC debut in 2008, for which he conducted Sergei Prokofiev’s War and Peace. At the time, Alexander Neef had just become COC’s general director. Impressed with Debus’s mastery of the complex War and Peace, one of Neef’s first orders of business was to hire Debus as music director.
Debus and Neef — both from Germany and both exactly 34 years old at the time — started a partnership that has lasted about a decade and counting. They have helped turn the COC into one of the best opera houses in the world, drawing top opera singers to perform there, including Jane Archibald, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Christine Goerke.
“It’s a phenomenal company,” says Debus. “We have a first-class opera house in Toronto, a city where I feel our civilization is intact, where people from so many different countries and backgrounds live together, share their lives and their interests.”
Each orchestra has its unique characteristics, it’s “DNA,” Debus says. While he sees the orchestra as an instrument, he also thinks of it as a “breathing being.” His job is to engage in a symbiotic relationship with each orchestral being, finding the right approach to draw out its richest sounds.
His job is also to ignite the flame of life in a piece of music. The notes written by great composers are but markings on paper until Debus captures their essence and brings them alive.
Debus lists what he loves about various compositions to illustrate the search for the essence of a piece of music. He starts off speaking slowly, thoughtfully: “The hammer strokes in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony; the impact of the first quarter of [Mozart’s] Jupiter Symphony; the sweetness, tenderness and depth of one of those slow movements in Mozart’s late symphonies.”
As Debus continues, he speaks with greater speed. His enthusiasm for the topic seems to swell within him and sweep him along. “The fun, the wit you experience in Haydn’s symphonies; Beethoven’s radicality, his universality, that kind of makes you feel as if you would grasp the world to embrace it.”
He concludes, “To get the gift as the conductor to, in a certain way, ignite it, to energize it, to live in it — it’s like living in music, and music comes alive.”
Though many of the pieces Debus conducts were written centuries ago, they are as vital today as the timeless feelings and thoughts they evoke. “I don’t feel that I’m unmodern and antiquated,” Debus says. “Whenever I hear something like Beethoven’s Ninth or the Violin Concerto — or many other pieces — I feel that this piece could have been written just now.”
In today’s society, where the arts are often experienced in solitude and through electronic screens, says Debus, the sheer physicality of sound and the communal experience at the opera is jarring in the best possible way.
In ancient Greece, he says, performances were meant to bring the whole community together. They presented a metaphorical way to discuss the essential questions of human life. The arts don’t directly answer those questions with the clarity of an instruction manual, Debus says, “because that would be too easy, that would be boring.”
Yet music can help elevate the mind and inspire “Erkenntnis,” he says. Erkenntnis is a German word that literally translates as “knowledge,” but contains richer meanings that suggest “awareness” or a more profound understanding.
Debus says of music: “Since mankind has existed, we have had this tool of expression that is beyond words. You could describe it as ‘higher words.’”
When he listens to Johann Sebastian Bach, he feels a perfect combination of the earthy and physical with the metaphysical. At the opera, music “just hits you and goes directly to your heart,” he says. “It really can change your molecules. Great music is transformative.”