I wanted to do this opera

Conductor Koen Kessels about The convert

Thu, May 5, 2022

Composer Wim Henderickx and conductor Koen Kessels have known each other since school days at the Antwerp Conservatoire. Since then, they have had a good friendship and professional relationship, and Wim did not hesitate for a second to ask Koen to conduct his new opera The Convert. Koen was also excited, he tells us why he did not want to miss out on this project.

Koen Kessels began his career as assistant conductor at Opera Ballet Flanders more than thirty years ago, and now conducts productions in the most prestigious opera houses all over the world. He is music director of The Royal Ballet in London and rarely stays in Belgium, but for The Convert he likes to go to where it all started: the opera in Antwerp. It feels like coming home', he says. "I have had many opportunities here and know the place well. For the project with Wim, I had to reschedule my schedule, but I really wanted to do it. It has been a very emotional choice."

Conducting a new composition is not an obvious task, but Koen has often taken the musical lead in contemporary creations. "I have always been fascinated by the creative process of composers," says Koen. "As a musician, you get a score with bullet points, but that is only a code in which the musical ideas of a composer are translated. I also want to know why a work is ultimately written down in that way. With new compositions, you can experience this process at close quarters. If I want to understand the great repertoire, I want to be able to follow contemporary composition processes, to get a feel for how a composer experiments, discovers and pushes the boundaries.

It is therefore no surprise that Koen was burning with curiosity when his friend Wim's brand new score arrived in the mail. I immediately started to organise the music. It strikes me that Wim has written very freely, he embraces the musical language he likes to use and he has followed his heart. You can hear and see that Wim is connected to jazz and Motown, he uses without hesitation elements from the world he knows as a musician and percussionist. His opera is meticulously structured, yet feels very organic and intuitive. Wim is not concerned with the framework in which he is expected to compose', says Koen.

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Foto De Bekeerlinge
It will be exciting to get all the pieces of the puzzle laid in time; my job is to keep calm.

Koen Kessels

It is therefore no surprise that Koen was burning with curiosity when his friend Wim's brand new score arrived in the mail. I immediately started organising the music. It strikes me that Wim has written very freely, he embraces the musical language he likes to use and he has followed his heart. You can hear and see that Wim is connected to jazz and Motown, he uses without hesitation elements from the world he knows as a musician and percussionist. His opera is meticulously structured, yet feels very organic and intuitive. Wim is not concerned with the framework in which he is expected to compose', says Koen.

Wim's score must now be translated into something that can be heard, with Koen as the conductor giving the musicians the space to make the new music their own. Fortunately, the composer is never far away. "It's great that we have Wim with us during rehearsals," says Koen. "He knows how everything should sound, it's all in his head after all. Wim knows the score better than anyone and thinks along in the process from black dots to sound that a performer has to undergo." During rehearsals, Koen often acts as crisis manager: "The orchestration and the vocal parts are very complex. On top of that come soundscapes, choir and children's choir. It gets pretty exciting to get all the pieces of the puzzle laid in time, my job is to keep calm."

Despite the challenges, it is clear that Koen Kessels would not pass up this production for anything: he knows the house, has a good relationship with Wim Henderickx, is fascinated by creation processes and lives for the new classical repertoire. But there is another reason: Stefan Hertmans' story. "When I read the book, I was immediately hooked. For me, The Convert is about tolerance, and is above all an indictment of dogmatic thinking - a message that is close to my heart", he concludes.

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