Interview: Professional conduct

  • 22 November 2006
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Oscars, Grammys, national honours. All in a day's work for André Previn. With his opera version of A Streetcar Named Desire now playing at the Gaiety, the German-born conductor, composer and pianist finds time in his hectic schedule to talk to Colin Murphy 

André Previn doesn't suffer fools gladly. He has just been interviewed on Radio 1's Today programme by Tom McGurk. McGurk saw an opportunity to bring opera to the masses, to render the elite accessible, to tackle a great on the subject of his art. André Previn didn't see it that way.

"He was asking me questions that don't exist," he stutters. McGurk had asked him was opera still relevant and suggested that most people would be "frightened by the notion of going to an opera".

"I just can't comprehend this kind of question," says Previn, aghast at such idiocy – whether that of McGurk, or of most people who don't go to operas, is not quite clear. Probably both.

McGurk, though, is onto something: the division between "high" and "low" art. Between striving for popular success and striving for excellence. Elitism in the arts. Accessibility. Does André Previn ever think about these things?


And then, exasperated, an attempt to elaborate.

"There are certain things I like and certain things I can't stand but, in terms of my composing, I can't think like that or else I would have to write in a different way.

"Look, if you were a writer and you were writing a novel and somebody asked you, 'Do you really like novels, because most people don't like them?' you really don't know what to say."

André Previn's opera of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire is being staged by Opera Ireland at the Gaiety theatre in Dublin. Was he apprehensive tackling Streetcar?

"Yes, but only because it's such a very great play. Tennessee Williams is such a phenomenal writer. It was an irresistible challenge. I really jumped at it."

(Another moment from his conversation with Tom McGurk: McGurk asks him how he came to write a "musical" of the play. "Well, I would never have made a 'musical' out of it – it's hardly 'musical' material..." He gives a curt laugh. "But an opera is something else...")

Previn wrote the Streetcar opera in 1998 and has just finished composing his second opera, based on the 1945 David Lean film Brief Encounter, written by Noel Coward.

"I saw the film again a year ago and I went mad for it and I tried to get the rights and they sold them to me."

He doesn't sell himself short when it comes to choosing material to adapt.

"I suppose if I'd been overcome with modesty, I would have said, 'I can't do that', but I wasn't and I said, 'Okay, I'll have a shot.'"

Has he even been overcome with modesty?

He laughs, and pauses. "Yeah," he says, doubtfully.

Has he plans for the next project?

"Hey come on, I finished this one last week, give us a break."

What is it like to finish an opera?

"It's a wonderful feeling. More than two hours of music... To put the final little black dot down on score paper is quite a feeling. At that point, you don't even care how good it is, you just know it's finished."

When writing, he works "very rapidly" in concentrated stretches of a few months, often over the summer. Brief Encounter took "about six months".

"The only discipline I give myself is that I write every day. It may not be all day, it may only be a couple of hours, and I may very likely the following day throw out what I wrote, but I find it a very good thing to write every single day without exception."

So he has just finished an opera, is doing interviews about a new production of his previous opera and is speaking from a hotel room in Germany where he is currently conducting. Is it difficult to juggle so much work?

"If you really want an honest answer, I get confused sometimes. I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm not absolutely sure where I am.

"It's a challenge, first of all, because it's an awful lot of work... Every year I say I've decided I'm going to do less, but it never works out because people make offers that I find fascinating and I accept and I'm right back where I started."

He has won numerous awards for his work: Oscars and Grammys, 'lifetime achievement' and 'musician of the year' awards, the Glenn Gould Prize, national honours.Sir Previn performing

"At the time you win them, they're wonderful. When I was working in the film industry, I won the Academy Award four times. Okay, at the time I was terribly pleased by that. But now, relatively, it's not that interesting for me."

He is still playing jazz, most recently a gig at the Blue Note club in New York.

"It's so absolutely different that you don't have to be conscious of it. I like the idea of spending a whole night improvising without anything written down."

Previn has been married five times, most recently to violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (divorced 2006), most famously to actress Mia Farrow (divorced 1979). He interrupts a half-formed question. His careful Queen's English is gone.

"I'll tell you what, I'm gonna say something that you might misinterpret as arrogance, but I never, never, NEVER discuss my private life." (Pause, a little laugh.) "Okay? Alright..."

On the subject of fame, then. In England, he's still most famous...

"For Morecambe and Wise. I knew you were going to do this." He laughs properly.

Thirty five years ago, Morecambe and Wise invited him on to their show to conduct Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto, with Eric Morecambe as the soloist. He was introduced as "Mr Preview". After an initial fiasco, Previn confronted Morecambe: "You're playing all the wrong notes." Morecambe took him by the lapels. "I'm playing all the right notes. But not necessarily in the right order."

Previn marvels at the way the sketch became ingrained in the popular memory. Any time he walks in London it comes back to him: "Taxi drivers lean out and yell at me, 'Hey, Mr Preview!'"

And the future: what ambitions remain?

"I'd like to do what I do, except a lot better.

"I don't know how long I can keep this up. But this is not a job where you retire, where somebody says, 'Listen, you're 65, forget it.' So I can keep going until I decide 'no'."

Does he keep up with new music, seek new influences?

"I listen to a lot of new music. I also like to study a lot of new music, so I'm always open to the suggestion of new things."

Popular music, the charts?

"I don't understand that kind of music. I can't see anything wise about it."

Outside classical, opera, jazz, then – what about world music?

"Not really. Once in while when I hear it, when it just comes upon me. I like Brazilian music very much but I can't pretend that I know anything about it."

Brazilian music is sensual and rhythmic, all about dancing. Does he dance?

"Listen, you have to forgive me, I have to conduct a concert tonight and I've got to get going."

Just before he gets going: "Do you ever put on a bit of music and dance around the room?"

"Heh heh." A little uncomfortable. Short pause. "No."

And André Previn is gone.

Opera Ireland's production of A Streetcar Named Desire is on 23 and 25 November at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin