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Assaf Leibowitz directs Roméo et Juliette in Cuba

Interview with the young Orchestra Conductor that this May 11th premieres Romeo y Julieta at the National Theatre of Cuba with the Soloists of the National Lyrical Theatre of Cuba

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Leibowitz studied conducting with Adrián Mcdonnel, winning the “First Prize” at the Conservatory of the XV Arrondissement in Paris and entered directly into the second year of the Normal School of Music in Paris. In 2007 he was appointed Associate Director in the Peace Orchestra, conducting numerous tours in France. He was the Conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Provins, France between 2008 and 2011. Since his arrival in Chile, he was hired as director of the National Youth Symphony Orchestra after winning the first prize of the FOJI Conductor Contest, and as guest conductor of the most important orchestras in Chile such as the Chamber Orchestra of Valdivia, the National Symphony Orchestra of Chile and the Solístico de Santiago ensemble.

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He has participated in master classes with maestro Leonid Grin and has worked with renowned musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Valery Gergeiev, Daniele Gatti, Yo Yo Ma, Barbara Hendrix and Jaap von Zweden; as well as in ensembles such as the National Orchestra of France, Orchestra of Peace, International Symphony Orchestra under the musical direction of Lorin Maazel and the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra of Israel.

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How does this great proposal to set up such an acknowledged opera in Cuba comes about, and what are the main motivations that lead it to accept?
Last year, the General Director of the National Lyrical Theatre of Cuba, Roberto Chorens, was looking for a specialist in French music. Through his Artistic Director, Helson Hernández, he made contact with me, since I was living in France most of my adult life and I liked the project.

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For my part, it was a combination of elements that made it impossible to say no to such a project. First the cast, which includes singers of international level, such as Bárbara Llanes, one of the most famous Cuban sopranos of our time, in the role of Julieta. The French Mezzo Juliette Vialle as Estefano And the baritone Ulises Karl as Fray Lorenzo. Then, as Director, I have a wide experience in symphonic music but my great love is in the lyrical art, in large part because of my work as clarinet soloist in the “Municipal de Santiago, Opera Nacional de Chile”, and the experience that I’ve been working for years in this theater. Finally, the romantic French music, is a style a little unknown by the public and the musicians but for me, it is very dear and needs a very particular style work.

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When they talk about Gounod, everyone thinks of Faust. And when you say Romeo and Juliet think of Prokofiev … Roméo et Juliette (C. Gounod) is a beautiful opera, mainly because of Shakespeare’s strong plot that tells the tragedy of impossible love. Although it is of the medieval time, it is strongly current in our time where the identity is in the center of the debate. In addition, some have surely lived impossible love stories and can empathize with the protagonists …

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Then for the beautiful music of Gounod, composed in just one month of the year 1865 in the south of France. The success was immediate with more than 100 performances in its first year!

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One can find in this opera moments that make Bach think sometimes (the escape in the introduction) and Berlioz and Wagner at the same time for the use of the orchestra.

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With your international experience, what do you think is the greatest contrast between the training of professionals between Europe and Latin America?
The biggest contrast from my point of view and after several years in Chile, is mostly cultural. When you play Latin music in Europe, you immediately hear a weakness in the rhythmic sensation and styles, often derived from the different dances of the continent. Here in Chile I have noted above all that you could work the classic styles that are the basis of any style of music that happens. One can not deeply understand the phrasing of Richard Strauss without knowing the rules of Mozart’s phrasing. In the different orchestras they play with a high technical level, but sometimes with a lack of delicacy, no doubt due to ignorance of some styles. The positive point of all this is that nowadays, with access to technologies and media, one can learn a lot without leaving their own home. it just takes a little curiosity and encouragement!

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According to the latest survey on cultural consumption in Chile, most people have never attended an opera because it bores them, do you think that artists can collaborate to reverse this trend? How?
I have read this news with great sadness. It seems a pity that in a country like Chile, which has a theater as fabulous as the Municipal de Santiago, one of the best in Latin America but the best … that brings productions and artists of the most important opera houses of the world. In addition it has theaters in regions such as Rancagua and Temuco to name a few.

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There are very cheap tickets to all the functions without mentioning the features of the star cast that are at half the price. True, one will not be in the lower stalls, but can absolutely attend a beautiful opera and ballet production in another location. The municipal administration does everything to be reachable to all, so, I think it is a prejudice.
To reverse this trend, the key is education and more education. Fortunately we have some people in key positions who take it very seriously. For example, the formidable work that OLA has done under the new direction, taking new methods to conquer new audiences; creating alliances so crucial of our times to reduce costs and share knowledge; using marketing methods to reach audiences that previously had no exposure to art.

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On the other hand Municipality of Santiago, open the general rehearsals to the school public, the Pequeño Municipal giving short and playful versions of the operas, ensures that we do not cross our arms and hopes that the solution arrives from heaven.

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Where we enter, the artists in the game, it is precisely because of the human contact that is so necessary in our times. If the public feels the contact with artists who consider themselves to be far away and at times ironically disconnected from their own audience, and learn live from their own experience or vision of the works, we will re-establish this vital link to both parties.

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Finally, I take as an example Daniel Barenboim, the famous Director with whom I have had the good fortune to work in the Divan orchestra. He does not need fame, therefore, he takes the time to integrate new media platforms and makes a series of basic musical explanations and even answers the questions of his auditors via YouTube. It should be an example for all of us!

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Art in general and music in particular is a bridge between people. When I played in the Divan orchestra, my rowmates were, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians. All of them who were always “the enemy”. Finally, we were able to work and laugh together. If it is possible between people who should hate each other so much, it could work as an example for the rest of the world. Many complain about the rise of nationalism in several countries of the world. Each one of us can make a difference.

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What value would you assign to the work of organizations such as OLA in the circulation and future of the classical arts?
As I said before, the sacred work that the new OLA administration has done is vital for us. They think with the vision of the businessmen how to take the product with less costs to the maximum public possible. The idea of ​​creating a network and expanding it in this way, necessarily leads the art to more people and contributes to improving society to achieve a more cultivated life and more open to others. The concrete work that includes conferences and meetings of various actors of this world, helps us all in an era where art loses its value in the vision of politicians and the budget that continues to fall. When there is a crisis, and today there is not much left for that, in any country, the first thing that is taken out of the budget is art. It is also the last to return when the situation is restored …

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Several people in important positions in art today are doing an MBA in order to bring the efficiency of the business world and knowledge to culture. Do not reject it. On the contrary, you have to play the game. It may seem alarmist, but I really believe that the survival of art depends on these people …

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In my last stay in Costa Rica I took advantage of my contacts there to help this beautiful country enter OLA. Today they participate in all the meetings and share from their experience. It’s just that I think we have to promote.
I also believe that a country like Cuba could benefit from being part of an organization as strong as OLA. Cuba has two national theaters, the beautiful Gran Teatro de la Habana and the National Lyric Theater where we premiered “Romeo y Julieta”. The latter has 2500 seats!

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To finish, the opera is a cosmopolitan art, accessible to all. The only thing that matters is the musical and vocal quality. This art can thrill even people who have never heard it before because it is a less abstract, more accessible art. It can help people to forget a little the problems of every day and in today’s society there are more and more people with difficulties like this. We must support it in every way we can, for a better future of society.

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