You have sung in world premieres of operas by a range of composers, including Ginastera, Menotti, Garc‹a Abril, Torroba, and Drattell.
We have enough traditional works to please the public, but I think we should give possibilities to composers of our time. One of my sons is a composer. I know how important it is for them to have new things presented. For Washington I commissioned Democracy by Scott Wheeler. Los Angeles will premiere The Fly by Howard Shore, which I will also conduct. Then, Il Postino by Daniel Catšn, a Mexican composer. Rolando Villaz‹n will do the title part, and I will be Neruda. And with contemporary operas, it's important to give the possibility of a second time. We are happy to be co-producing The First Emperor for Los Angeles. If anybody presents me with something I consider to be of value, I'm ready. So I am naturally very, very happy to participate in this important occasion with Tan Dun. I have always had a place for new works. I sang the chaplain in Dialogues of the Carmelites in my debut season in 1959 — in those days, an almost-new work.
I've read that you feel it's your duty as General Director of the Washington National Opera to present American works.
Since Washington is the capital of the country, it's important that the public hear American operas and know that they have great value. In fact, the public loves it so much that I have been doing many different things — The Ballad of Baby Doe, Susannah, Of Mice and Men, A Streetcar Named Desire, Dangerous Liaisons, Sophie's Choice, and we are going to do Bolcom's A View from the Bridge.
Why did you take on The First Emperor?
I have done everything at the Met but a world premiere. And for me it was important. I developed a friendship with Tan Dun, and I saw the open door.
Have you been talking to Tan Dun about the music he's writing for you?
We've been talking. I know that we are going to probably take some things out and put in some new things. You never get these operas under your skin until you start rehearsing. And it's wonderful that Tan Dun is conducting. He knows what he has in mind, what he wants to create with the orchestra and to do with us.
What do you think about The First Emperor going into movie theaters?
It's fantastic for opera. We live in a very disadvantaged world for classical music. You need to get introduced properly. There is nothing more beautiful than opera, because all the art forms are involved. The Met having their best performances in the cinema is a brilliant idea, and I'm convinced it will bring a lot of new people.
What would you say to audiences who want to see Bohme but are afraid to try The First Emperor?
As a matter of fact, I know some that go to a world premiere or American opera and say, "I love this the most," because of the drama or being able to understand their own language. We need people to know it is something they can love. Music should be mandatory in every school. They don't even have to know it's classical music. They can learn the tunes — get it in their spirit, in their soul, just like they get pop music every day at home.
What do you listen to at home?
My life is so full of music, either learning a new score to conduct or memorizing a new opera. Just to sit down and listen to music, that's really difficult. I would really like to have some free time, but at this speed of career ... Who knows? Maybe in a few years.