The last time Leo Hussain stepped foot on Australian soil he was a young Cambridge undergraduate singing in the choir of Kings College Cambridge. That was 20 years ago but it wasn’t his first visit. As a young boy chorister with the same choir he did a four-week tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1987.
Next month he arrives in Australia in a very different guise – and outfit.
Leo will be conducting the WA Symphony Orchestra in a program of Mozart (Don Giovanni overture and Symphony No. 39) and a cheeky bit of Martinu in the form of the Jazz Suite and supporting solo violinist Grace Clifford, the 2014 Young Australian Performer of the Year through the sparkling Dvorak violin concerto.
It will be both the conductor’s and soloist’s WASO debut.
When Leo spoke to Medical Forum, he was in a Swiss hotel room preparing for a special outdoor opera event – a genre he not surprisingly loves given his own singing history.
What stunned was his announcement that his career conundrum was not between singing and conducting but between music and acting.
“My original musical training was singing, like a lot of people, and it was something I have always loved. But as an undergraduate at Cambridge I was very committed to acting – not the Cambridge Footlights, I tended to stick to straight theatre, but I loved it. I threw myself into both acting and conductor as a way of not doing any real work.”
“As my tutors would tell you, I spent three years wasting my time doing other things and that was the thrilling bit of the place. I would be in plays with people who are now well regarded and famous actors and performed in musical concerts with people I still work with now.”
“When it came time to choose, I found it very difficult to imagine a life without regularly performing music.”
While Leo loves symphonic work and has worked alongside luminaries such as Sir Simon Rattle and David Barenboim, he is a much sought-after opera conductor having made his Royal Opera debut in 2016 conducting Enescu’s Oedipe. Immediately after his Perth debut he heads to San Francisco Opera for his US debut.
His affinity with opera is no surprise given his theatrical leanings.
“Opera seems to be a natural mixture of music and theatre but I don’t see myself as an opera specialist. I don’t believe it is possible to be great opera conductor without being a great symphonic conductor. They influence the other.”
His life at present seems to be one lived between airport, hotel, rehearsal room, concert hall and back to the airport but he’s looking forward to returning to Australia.
“I have started to appreciate taking the time to be somewhere and experience a town because those are things that inform our work.”
He has also become something of a celebrated interpreter another inveterate traveller – Mozart.
“I know this will sound like a cliché, but I really believe it, I think Mozart, more than other composer in history, has more to say about the human condition. The fact he does it through such skilful yet completely natural methods means that it speaks to us still so directly,” he said.
“On the surface, his music is complete simplicity and yet there is a mindboggling complexity to everything he writes. His music is like chess – it takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master. However, with that challenge comes great reward for both musicians and audience alike.”