Facing the music: Aleksandar Marković

Opera North’s music director on wishing he was a fly on the wall to see Wagner compose, why MP3 players are spoiling us for live music and his would-be career as a sci-fi author

How do you mostly listen to music?

Most of the time I make music in rehearsal, concert and opera performance. When I study, I think music – I reconstruct it from a printed page, or play it on the piano. I prefer to listen to recordings in my study with large speakers, not headphones. In the car, I like to listen to audiobooks, sometimes jazz or carefully selected pop – mostly older stuff such as Queen or Tears for Fears.

The Beatles in 1967.
Ceaselessly fascinating … the Beatles in 1967. Photograph: David Magnus/Rex Shutterstock

What was the first ever record or CD you bought?

I was seven years old when I purchased my first audio tape: a Beatles compilation from their middle-late period, which included everything from Strawberry Fields Forever to I Am the Walrus. The Beatles never cease to fascinate me. I think Abbey Road is the best and most inspired record of popular music ever made.

Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?

As a schoolboy I consumed large quantities of epic and science fiction, from Tolkien, Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, to Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick and Frank Herbert. Around that time, I attempted to write a horror and a science fiction novel, and completed about 12 chapters of each. From my 20s onwards, I eagerly absorbed Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera and Sándor Márai, but I never seriously considered any other profession than music. Literature always remained a passion that complemented music-making.

What single thing would improve the format of the classical concert?

If people would stop listening to music throughout a day – on their phones, in shops and restaurants, at the gym – they would probably sooner feel the need to attend live performances in the evening. Overindulgence leads to indifference, simplicity waters down taste. Better to leave your MP3 player at home and come to the theatre with fresh, eager ears!

‘Mind-blowing intensity’ ... Richard Strauss’s Salome, in a Royal Opera House production.
‘Mind-blowing intensity’ ... Richard Strauss’s Salome, in a Royal Opera House production. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

If you had to pick one work to introduce someone to the wonders of classical music, what would it be?

Richard Strauss’ Salome is what young people should see, in order to experience all the aggression, passion, eroticism and emotional rush they might seek elsewhere. Any notion of classical music being boring evaporates after a few bars, and we are drawn into a cosmos of mind-blowing intensity. We roam dark places of human desire, fear and religious ecstasy. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s flaming, sensual words and coated in Strauss’s opulent sonorities, it is an immortal piece of art – music theatre at its most incredible.

What’s the most unusual place or venue you’ve performed?

The opening concert of the Vienna festival in 2008, with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in front of the city hall, performed to an audience of 30,000 and live broadcast by Eurovision. Spectacular!

What was your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

I once heard pianist Ivo Pogorelić play Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. As an emotional and sensitive 17-year-old chap, I was so overwhelmed that I cried in the car all the way back home.

We’re giving you a time machine. What period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?

I wish I could have been present when Wagner was introducing parts of the Ring to his friends, and singing some of it himself with Franz Liszt on the piano. Two geniuses in one room, taking musical expression to the next level, feverish about every single phrase, building the language of the future. Wagner was known for his relentless drive. He was uncompromising and utterly convincing. To hear him interpret his heldentenor roles would have been truly remarkable.

If you’d give me a second ride, I’d love to hear a rehearsal of the Vienna State Opera under Gustav Mahler, and to witness the soirees and discussions with the most influential artists and intellectuals of the fin de siècle at his home.

A true bard... Sting.
A true bard... Sting. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Which non-classical musician would you like to work with?

Sting. He is a true bard of modern culture.

If you were a festival director in London with unlimited resources, what would you programme – or commission – for your opening event?

I would select a team of visual artists, choreographers and dancers to deliver Scriabin’s exceptional Prefatory Action to the Mysterium, a work reconstructed from the composer’s sketches into a three-hour-long ritual for orchestra and chorus. Scriabin wanted to collapse the present order and create a “better one”. He is a gravely underrated composer whose striking originality produced some of the most brilliant, revolutionary music, a sonorous world beyond convention and trend. His music is ecstatic, violent, transcendental and incredibly sensual, it deserves to find wider audiences which would benefit from its visionary qualities.

What do you sing in the shower?

“Lala-la-lala, wie ich dein Alles werde sein …” This is a line which the character Baron Ochs sings in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which we are in rehearsals for at Opera North. The whole opera is currently swimming around my head!

It’s late, you’ve had a few beers, you’re in a karaoke bar. What do you choose to sing?

Been there, done that. Several years ago I conducted in Korea. After the first concert, the musicians invited me to a restaurant in Seoul, we had a few beers and before I knew it we landed in a Karaoke bar. I remember losing my T-shirt to the crowd and singing Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now and Touch Me by The Doors!

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