Elaine Douvas has been principal oboist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 1977. Met second violinist Sarah Vonsattel asks her a few questions about her path in music, life at the Met, and her outside interests.
Sarah Vonsattel: I understand that you grew up in Michigan. How did you come to study the oboe, and what drew you to the instrument?
Elaine Douvas: I was first attracted to classical music itself. I tried to find a way to get in it! I started on piano in 3rd grade, then violin in 5th. In 6th grade, I wanted to play oboe because it was rare and exotic, but I had to pass a seriousness test before the band would give me their last remaining oboe. I played French horn all summer, and then I was given an oboe. This was the one for me!
SV: When did you decide that you wanted to become a professional musician?
ED: I was determined to make music my life from the age of 10; I just had to figure out how to get in it.
SV: You studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music, which also happens to be my alma mater. Could you tell us a bit about your experiences living and studying in Cleveland? And what was it like studying with John Mack?
ED: Cleveland was a great place to study, and we all worshipped the Cleveland Orchestra, but the Institute of 1970 was very different from today. Miraculously, James Levine conducted the school orchestra, but there were only about 210 students in the school; not enough in some sections to make an orchestra! My oboe teacher John Mack was a “human buzz saw”, to use his expression! His energy informed my life. He thought teaching was “a sacred trust”, and he put so much into it. Following his example, so do I. He was always questing for a better way, and he was so generous with all he discovered, especially about reed making, which was his particular genius.
SV: As principal oboe of the Met since 1977, you have participated in thousands of performances at the Metropolitan Opera House. Are there performances or moments that stand out in your memory for their significance? Could you tell us what made these performances particularly special for you?
ED: Among the many highlights, I treasure the memory of playing the DVD performance of Die Meistersinger with Levine. This is heaven, playing Wagner with Levine; Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tannhauser, the Ring. I love the social aspects of playing in an orchestra, being on a team, and as such I loved the famous 8-hour gala we gave for Levine’s 25th anniversary in 1996, 6pm-2am! I played in the 1st and last of three segments, and in between we were having a caviar party in the Musician’s Lounge! It is great to be a part of the Met’s glorious history!
SV: In addition to an extensive performing schedule, you also are one of the most influential teachers in the U.S., maintaining a teaching studio at the Juilliard School and also giving frequent master classes and seminars at conservatories and summer festivals around the country. What are some of the most important lessons you seek to pass on to your students?
ED: Students should stop trying to cut to the finish line and stop drilling audition excerpts all the time. This will not be good for music in the long run. First, train yourself to become a fine interpreter and learn as much music as possible. Study full orchestral works, not excerpts, and use a score to develop a view more like the conductor’s. If the piece has words, you should know what they are talking about. Listen to recordings from many decades to understand the taste of bygone eras. When the age of literalism has gone as far as it can, the pendulum will swing back to something more personal (I hope!) Learn to think for yourself by hearing many things and making choices; don’t just copy somebody.
SV: How do you feel the musical landscape has changed since you were a student? Do your students face different challenges today?
ED: We who love classical music are horrified to observe there are fewer and fewer people who have any knowledge, understanding, or sensitivity to the power of music. To quote my favorite play, “The Merchant of Venice”, “The man that hath no music in himself… is fit for treason, stratagems and spoils. The motions of his spirit are dull as night….Let no such man be trusted.” What can we do to save the life of our art? It is no longer possible to just go practice; we will all have to think of ways to instill the love of music in others, or there will be no orchestras to join.
SV: What are the qualities that make a student successful?
ED: The same as anything: the ability to work, intelligence, and then of course musical insight, the essence of which cannot be taught. Some people just know how it goes, but they must understand what they know intuitively, or it may go away.
SV: What do you find to be the most challenging part of being a musician?
ED: The people skills needed to function well on a team. I suppose it is the same in a business office. No matter how good you are, you won’t be effective without collaboration. It took me a few decades to learn this.
SV: What, for you, is the most fulfilling aspect of your life as a musician?
ED: To sit in the middle of the glorious sound, and to do this with a group of others striving to create something of beauty.
SV: Who have been some of the most influential people in your life?
ED: James Levine, my conductor for 40 years. My oboe teacher, John Mack. The French flutist Marcel Moyse, whose workshops I attended for 8 years. My fellow oboe teacher, Linda Strommen, professor at IU. My husband, Bob Sirinek, is a very good influence!
SV: I know that outside of music, you have a passion for figure skating! Could you talk a bit about this? How do you combine the demands of your career as a musician with the rigorous physical demands of the sport? Are there any parallels between figure skating and playing the oboe? How do these two activities complement each other in your life?
ED: My passion has been in force for 20 years! I just love it: the flight, the buoyancy, the travel, the glide, the wind in your hair! It is a great feeling. It is good to stop worrying about reed making for a while and do something completely different. As in music, you balance detail and discipline with abandon, and all sorts of analogies carry over. If you’re tracing a figure 8, it’s just like playing a long tone; you need a perfect attack/push-off and total symmetry. It is a balancing act; you use opposition of different body parts, the same as “support” on the oboe. The difficulty of learning a skill like figure skating gives me a lot more sympathy for people who are trying to learn the oboe and doing things they’ve never tried before.
SV: Could you tell us a bit about upcoming musical projects outside of the Met that you are looking forward to?
ED: I have just completed a fun project with my quartet called ”Pleasure is the Law”. We performed Messiaen’s Quadruple Concerto for flute, oboe, cello, and piano with the NY Youth Symphony in Carnegie Hall. It is an exotic, mystical work with a 109-piece orchestra, including wind machine, many percussion instruments, and a chorus of bells. We are looking for more places to present it! We are available!
SV: What opera are you most looking forward to right now, either this spring or during the 2014-15 season?
ED: I want to be in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta next year. After 38 years, there are few operas I have not played; this is one. I love Tchaikovsky and all things Russian!