In the pit at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, conductor Johannes Debus is giving the band some notes. The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra is rehearsing Richard Wagner's Die Walkure, which opens Saturday, and the music director is taking the players through the overture and first act, beginning with the renowned storm scene. He has explained that the top notes of the crescendos are not necessarily their climax; the music continues to expand slightly after that. He now resolves a question of the violins' bowing on those crescendos, discusses how the horns are to achieve clarity on certain notes and asks for more power from the Wagner tubas. He also hands the orchestra a metaphor for the storm's fury: Imagine dogs, he says, vicious dogs in full pursuit. His body supple, his movements expressive but never excessive, Debus takes up the baton again and, hounds at their heels, the players play on.
"It's a very complex act to produce sound. I always feel it starts with your imagination, you hear things with your inner ears, how you would like to hear it," Debus says in an interview. "You can have the best fingers in the world, the best technique, but if you don't have the imagination, you can't hit the notes in the right way. … You can have the chops, but it would be a waste, if your imagination wasn't there."
Debus and his orchestra need chops, imagination and then some as they revive the COC's 2004 production of Die Walkure. The opera, part of a continuing revival of three of Wagner's Ring cycle operas that will take the company until 2016-17 to complete, features 3 1/2 hours of the biggest, densest music ever composed. It's the ultimate challenge, the big muscle-stretcher, for an opera company, for its orchestra and for the conductor who must lead the singers plus 110 musicians through the score. And "it shouldn't be a struggle," adds COC general director Alexander Neef. "You should feel the joy and the drama. It should never feel like work."
This is his first Walkure, but Debus is the musician for the job. The 40-year-old German, who joined the COC as music director in 2009, has already proved himself a conductor of exemplary musicality who manages to combine efficiency with warmth. He is tackling Walkure methodically, with attention to technical detail on the one hand and emotional insight on the other.
"The score is really thick … you must find a way to structure it; otherwise, your brain goes berserk," he says. "Wagner is quite systematic, which helps you." He points to the famous leitmotifs – the repeated musical phrases associated with characters, places, ideas or objects – as traffic signs for the musicians and the audience.
"They help you navigate and they do more: They tell you things the words don't tell you. They give you context the libretto does not; they give you subtext." Perhaps the most cited example is when the Valhalla motif associated with the god Wotan is played in the first act of Walkure as the hero Siegmund explains how his father has disappeared: It indicates to the audience that, unbeknownst to Siegmund, Wotan is his father. It's a technique very familiar to contemporary movie audiences, but there are hundreds of such motifs, associated with everything from humans and gods to fire and sleep threaded through Wagner's Ring cycle.
"This fabric, this combination of music without words, but saying something very specific, and then the words themselves, that's extremely powerful," Debus says. "It's taking something that looks weird on paper, but when it comes together it creates something so powerful, people get almost addicted."
Addiction, Debus points out, is not a healthy thing. He is something of a Wagner skeptic and uses the word "toxic" to describe an emotionally manipulative aspect to the music that was recognized by the composer himself and, notoriously, embraced by the Nazis. "I have my difficulty with the forms of affirmation in it, which can be abused," he says, before quoting Leonard Bernstein's famous response on the issue: "I hate Wagner – on my knees."
Nonetheless, "there is a reason that, against all odds, against all critique, this music is still played," Debus continues. "No matter how we feel about, Wagner and his personality – I'm not sure I would have loved to meet the guy – there is a reason the music is so revered. … The combination of all elements, when it's done well, it's bigger than life."
Perhaps it's a healthy skepticism that gives Debus insight into how the scope of this music is to be relayed by the musicians. Yet, he himself is a person capable of conversion and obsession. He was studying at Germany's Hamburg Conservatory and had decided to pursue conducting as his career when he found out, to his annoyance, that the students were all required to prepare La Traviata before the course started. He was only interested in symphonic music at the time, considering opera "extremely artificial." He sat down at the piano to play the Verdi classic and experienced a conversion he compares to that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus: "What an idiot I was that I did not realize the beauty, the power. I was completely hooked."
He joined the Frankfurt Opera where he worked as a répétiteur, the pianist who accompanies and coaches singers, before he was promoted to the post of resident conductor. Famously, the COC cut short its search for a music director after Debus conducted Prokofiev's War and Peace with the orchestra in 2008, and Neef immediately offered him the job.
"We just said [to Neef]: 'Wow, do we have to do a whole search? We love this guy,'" concertmaster Marie Bérard recalls. Bérard, who feels the orchestra sounds "a little leaner and a little more accurate" under his baton, says you can read his musicality in his body language on the podium.
"The truly great moments shine a little more because there is no excess of emotionality," she says of his work on Die Walkure. "It's very well-paced. He's able to clear through that thick score, which could just become an exercise in excess."
So the question arises: How long will such a conductor, whose contract expires at the end of the 2016-2017 season, decide to stay?
"I feel settled here," says Debus, who recently bought a condo in Toronto with his partner, the Canadian freelance violinist Elissa Lee. He finds Canadians less grumpy and less pretentious than Europeans and, when they manage to match that affability with a high level of professionalism, he thinks the combination is a winning one. Still, he also keeps a home in Berlin, where Lee works. "I can't deny my European roots."
Debus compares the commitment of a music director's job to that of family or team; for a bit of variety, he does guest-conducting gigs with both opera and symphony orchestras in North America and Europe. He has no aspirations to take on the administrative load that would go with a general director's post, but he does admit that actually staging an opera might be an intriguing idea. What seems most likely is that a big European opera company in need of a new music director, or perhaps even a symphony, will come calling.
But right now, Debus has work to do; next season it's Siegfried; tonight, it's Die Walkure.
Back in the pit, the horns have quickly mastered the required articulation and Debus brings the strings home like a wave hitting a beach.
"Beautiful," he tells the orchestra and gives everybody a break.
The COC performs Die Walkure at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto from Jan. 31 to Feb. 22 (coc.ca).