The career of many a conductor has begun in front of the mirror. When Johannes Debus was a child, he liked to wave his arms along with Beethoven‘s “Eroica.” His siblings were nonplussed: “At least play the air guitar,” they’d say. But by age 14, Debus was starting to make the connection between those aerial motions and music. One night, at the family home in Speyer, Germany, the TV was tuned to a Bruckner concert with Günter Wand conducting. “I started to understand the mystic synergy between hand movements, gestures, body language, and facial expression, how they combine to form a single musical thought,” Debus recalls. “It was magnetic.”
Magnetism results from the tension between two opposing poles. For Debus, conducting is something more collaborative: An alternating dialogue between conductor and orchestra. “As a conductor, I have the first move. I need a clear idea of how I want the music to sound and how to communicate my idea,” he explains. “At the same time, I need to listen to the sound which this group of highly qualified musicians is offering; accept it; and try to integrate it with my conception.”
Making music together requires trust in the process, a security that leads to unforced results. Debus sees it as the conductor’s job to give this process space and boundaries. Rather than the maestro isolated in his ivory tower, Debus works from the ground up, slowly structuring an interplay between playing and listening. “Once the connection is there, the musicians can and will function as a collective,” he says. “Then anything is possible. There’s nothing better than an orchestra that gets on stage with fire in its eyes and lifeblood in its playing.”
„COC music director Johannes Debus keeps his 100-plus orchestra on a tight leash, rarely, as so often occurs with Elektra, allowing their enthusiasm to drown out the singers. And, while Strauss’s score may have come as a shock in 1909, it is a wondrous marvel for today’s ears when so expertly elucidated by Debus.”The Toronto Star
Over the years, Debus has continued to strip his movements down to their essentials. “At the beginning, your focus is on the choreography and technique,” he explains. “But it’s not the case that the more you put in, the more you get back.” His ideal of the art of conducting? Pure music, communicated by gesture.
Born in 1974, Debus learned his craft at the Frankfurt Opera, where he took a post as a repetiteur in 1998 after finishing his conducting studies in Hamburg. Later promoted to Kapellmeister, he internalized a broad repertoire that came to encompass everything from Mozart and Verdi to Thomas Adès. “I was lucky to be able to continually grow at such an innovate company for nearly ten years,” he says. He also met the composer Hans Werner Henze during his time in Frankfurt; the two remained close friends until Henze’s death.
Debus has been music director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto since 2009. The diversity and openness of the city appeal to him. Debus is also stimulated artistically by the house’s curiosity and willingness to take risks, qualities which have allowed him to expand his repertoire still further. Under his leadership, the international reputation and visibility of the company—the largest Canadian opera house—have grown continuously. Debus has increasingly dedicated himself to teaching: He is the director of North America’s only orchestral academy specialized in opera, in Toronto, and regularly conducts concerts with students of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra. He also gives masterclasses at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado.
The conductor considers himself a transatlantic hybrid. “It’s very enriching to have one foot on each continent,” he says. “I have access to the best of both worlds and try to connect them.” In North America, Debus guest conducts renowned ensembles such as the Cleveland Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 2016, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera leading a performance of “Salome.” Meanwhile, in Europe, Debus has conducted orchestras such as the ORF Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna, the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, and the Hallé Orchestra. His work in opera has brought him to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the Berlin State Opera, the Frankfurt Opera, the English National Opera, and the Opéra National de Lyon. In 2014, Debus gave his debut at the BBC Proms with the Britten Sinfonia; in 2015 he led a new production of “The Tales of Hoffmann” at the Bregenz Festival. As a guest conductor, he has performed at international festivals such as the Biennale du Venezia, Schwetzinger Festspiele, Festival d’Automne, Lincoln Center Festival, Ruhrtriennale, Suntory Summer Festival, and the Spoleto Festival.
Debus sees himself as a universalist, equally at home in Monteverdi, the Viennese School, Janáček, and the 20th-century repertoire. Another important aspect of his work is his collaborations with prestigious new-music ensembles such as Klangforum Wien, Ensemble intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, and Musikfabrik. “I wouldn’t give up any of this musical variety,” Debus says. “If the boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world, then every new piece is a passage to somewhere new. The works give us the chance to enter new dimensions, ones less limited than what we encounter in our daily lives.”
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