The following interview was published in Issue #21 (Winter/Spring 1998) of “The Barricade” – the international newsletter of Les Misérables.
DAVID CHARLES ABELL
The Maestro Behind Les Misérables
by Michael Oh
In addition to his work with the stage productions, David Charles Abell also has extensive recording experience. He has served as musical director, musical supervisor and co-producer of numerous Les Mis cast albums, as well as conductor of the Complete Symphonic Recording of Miss Saigon and the original musical director of Martin Guerre.
“Recording a cast album is a very different experience from conducting a live performance,” he says. “It’s a [more] technical process [than] performing, which is more about being inspirational. You have to create the impression for the listener at home that you’re flowing with the drama of what’s going on, so you have to use a technical means to reach a theatrical ends.”
Without audience response and musical staging, a conductor must recreate the atmosphere of a live performance in a recording studio. “The ideal way of recording each track for a cast album is to have all instruments in the orchestra at once so that you get a better performance,” he says. “But if you need to add or change any of the instruments later, you can do so, to some extent. An experienced producer will know what can be fixed during the mixing process and what can’t.
“First, the orchestral tracks without singers are recorded, usually in several sessions. Sometimes you have the singers in the recording booth for a guide track, but they generally won’t give their best performances then because the environment is so unfamiliar to them. They are in a booth, they have headphones on, they are trying to watch the conductor, they are not hearing the orchestra and each other as they normally do, so these tracks are generally almost never used for the album.
“The singers will return to the studio and, at their leisure, listen to the pre-recorded tracks a couple of times, practice singing with the tracks until they are used to them, and then they get the chance to do a few takes. Sometimes they get it right on the first take, but generally they need two, three or four takes. After the fourth take, you generally won’t get the best results because they will be tired. As a producer, your job is to have them peak on their second or third take, and you make comments between takes. For instance, you might make a technical comment, like ‘You’re early or late on that note,’ or express an artistic viewpoint, like ‘I’m not getting the sense that Valjean really cares about what happens to Fantine.’ It depends on which singer you’re working with, and you use a different approach with every singer.”
How do the different members of the creative team collaborate during the recording process? “As a musical director,” he says, “you conduct the orchestra during the recording sessions, but you might also be present during the singers’ recording sessions and help them through their numbers if they’re having trouble staying with the track. You may need to draw the emotion out from them. Some singers need that; others don’t. You also go back to the booth between takes, listen to them, and try to determine which aspects could be further improved on the next take.
“As a musical supervisor, you listen to the orchestra to get the sound balance right, and you make suggestions and keep doing a track again and again until you get a take that can be used for the recording. You also determine in advance which excerpts and musical numbers will be included in the album, and you decide in consultation with the musical director, producer and composer which takes will be used for the recording.”
Abell is particularly satisfied with his first cast album, for which he was both musical supervisor and musical director: the 1991 Paris Revival Cast album (TREMA 710369/370). This recording offers vocally stunning performances by Robert Marien, Louise Pitre, Stephanie Martin and Jérome Pradon and brilliantly recreates the atmosphere of a live performance. Abell also served as musical supervisor of the Prague cast recording (BONTON 71 0096-2 311), which he co-produced with Zdenek Merta.
Abell’s multilingual skills have helped him tremendously with his Les Mis engagements. “I made it a point to learn French, German and Italian in college because I knew that I would need these languages as a conductor,” he says, “but I never expected to need them in Les Mis and Miss Saigon. I also never expected to need Czech – which I didn’t learn, but I asked for a word-by-word translation of the libretto. I wanted to know what every word meant. I went through the English-Czech translation carefully, and I noticed that they changed a lot of the lyrics.”
One change was the phrase “I love him, I love him” from ‘On My Own.’ Abell says, “There is no way of saying that in three syllables in Czech, so the translator used an approximation – something like ‘I really like him’ or ‘He’s really a sweetheart.’ I objected strongly to that phrase, because the whole point of the number is to show that Eponine is admitting that not only does she admire Marius, but she loves him deeply, and she would die for him – which she does. The audience has to know that. We finally came up with another phrase, something like ‘My love,’ which gets the message across to the audience, but it’s not exactly the same as the English phrase.”
The lyrics are not the only aspect of a production affected when Les Mis is staged in a different language. The conductor also faces changes in the tempo and phrasing of the music. “What might have been a stretched note in English may not be so in a different language, depending on the lyrics,” he says. “If the translator has done his job well, then the translated version will be very close to the English musical structure, but it will never be exactly the same, so sometimes Claude-Michel will change the length of the notes because it’s worth the compromise. If you can get a more exact or poetic meaning to the lyrics by having one syllable extra or less, then it’s usually more desirable to do so.”
There are certain restrictions to the adaptations, however. “If the tune has to have a certain melodic shape, then you have to translate the lyrics to the exact number of syllables that are required,” he says.
Each of Abell’s companies has left a distinctive mark in Les Mis history. “The Montreal company was the first bilingual production,” he points out. “The Paris company was the only other French production, and it was staged in the birthplace of Hugo’s novel. The Czech company was the first commercial theater production in that country, and the Tenth Anniversary Concert in London is the highest-profile engagement that any Les Mis conductor could ever hope for.”
The US Third National Tour gave Abell a feel for the road show experience and allowed him brief sojourns in many cities across the United States. “It was exciting but also physically and mentally demanding – not to mention the fact that at the end of every week you pack your suitcase and move to a new hotel, and you’re away from family and friends,” Abell says.
Despite numerous Les Mis engagements and his commitments to other Boublil-Schönberg musicals, Abell has successfully maintained a career in classical music. His achievements in the orchestral and operatic realms may have been overshadowed by his significant contributions to musical theater, but his work has not gone unnoticed. In the Prince George’s Civic Opera production of Tosca, The Washington Post observed that “Musical Director David Charles Abell inflected and balanced the phrases with great sensitivity and supported the voices superbly. The orchestral sound was rich but transparent; the words could be heard, and the theatrical effect of this highly theatrical work was greatly enhanced.” The Birmingham News summed up his musical abilities in the Western Opera Theater production of Carmen: “Conductor David Charles Abell has the right concept, the right communication and the right discipline.”
Abell was born and raised in Winnetka, Illinois. He studied with the acclaimed French composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger at Chicago’s Conservatoire American. He was one of the youngest conductors to make his American debut with the Washington Opera in 1982, replacing John Mauceri in The Turn of the Screw on 16 hours’ notice. He debuted with the New York City Opera three years later.
The 38-year-old maestro has worked with many leading figures in classical music, including the late Leonard Bernstein. He assisted the great conductor and composer in A Quiet Place at La Scala and conducted his composition Mass in Berlin. The latter engagement marked Abell’s professional conducting debut. Even a cursory glance at his career highlights confirms that Abell has firmly established himself in the opera world – yet such credentials are hardly surprising, given his educational background and his natural musical talent.
Abell graduated from Yale College with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, then earned his Master of Music in Conducting (Orchestral) at Juilliard. He received the prestigious Julius Rudel Award, an accolade bestowed upon a promising young conductor in the New York City Opera, and was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award in 1993 for his musical leadership of Miss Saigon in Toronto.
Despite his accomplishments, Abell remains modest and unassuming, preferring to let his musical achievements speak for themselves. He insists in a self-deprecating manner that “as a conductor, you’re only as good as your last performance.” He admits, however, that he has work hard to build a successful career.
Abell strongly believes in playing an active part in the creative process and making a significant contribution to each artistic project. This axiom probably explains why he has never taken over from another musical director in any musical and why he has yet to make his West End or Broadway debut in Les Mis.
This policy also extends into the world of classical music. Abell served as musical director of the Prince George’s Civic Opera in Maryland from 1983 to 1988, and under his leadership, the relatively young company grew to local prominence. Every production was met with critical acclaim. When the opera company staged Don Giovanni, The Washington Post commented that “the ingredient that made the difference for this production (besides the genius of Mozart) was undoubtedly the work of conductor David Charles Abell ... This was his first opportunity to conduct one of the great classics (perhaps the greatest of them all), and he rose to the occasion magnificently ... Prince George’s County should enjoy him while it can; he is probably destined to move quickly out of its economic reach.”
Pausing to take a retrospective look at his career, Abell reflects on his major influences. “I’m very thankful to Cameron, Claude-Michel and Alain for giving me the opportunity to develop as conductor,” he says. “They believed in me, they gave me work, and it has enabled me to survive financially as well, which is not an easy thing for a young musician to do. I’ve grown so much since I conducted my first Les Mis production, and the experience and knowledge that I have gained will serve me in good stead when I conduct operas.”
Abell also attributed his success to the contribution of Seann Alderking, his partner for 14 years. Abell and Alderking met at Juilliard. They have worked together in various Les Mis productions, Miss Saigon in Toronto and London’s Martin Guerre.
“Seann and I work well together, and we’re very much a team,” Abell says. “I’m very grateful to Cameron and Claude-Michel because they recognize the value of our partnership, and they have is working together often.”
Alderking also served as Abell’s assistant and rehearsal pianist for the Tenth Anniversary Concert. “David has one of the best stick techniques I’ve seen,” Alderking says. “Orchestras love him because he doesn’t have to waste a lot of time talking. He can show it in his beat instead. Actors seem to get along very well with David, as the theatrical elements of a production are as important to him as the musical elements. I’ve always had a great time working with David, as our musical sensibilities are so similar.”
And what effects do Abell’s musical abilities have on his work? “I think David’s interpretive skills have brought a larger sweep to his Les Mis productions, as well as an emotional depth which isn’t always heard in Broadway or West End musicals,” Alderking replies.
With the West End production of Martin Guerre winding down at the Prince Edward Theatre and the Tenth Anniversary Concert fading into a distant memory, Abell looks set to soar to even greater heights in his conquest of the opera world. In the hearts of Les Mis enthusiasts, however, he remains the most prominent conductor of the world’s most popular musical.
Meanwhile, the opera world is holding its collective breath, waiting to be enthralled by an orchestra at the whim of his baton. Maestro ...