Ivan van Kalmthout: Music has always played an important role in my life

The 52nd edition of the International Vocalists in 2018 was the last competition for director Annett Andriesen. After twelve years of incredible dedication and fantastic leadership (something for which she was honoured with speeches, a standing ovation, a wealth of flowers and a ‘modest’ bouquet of twelve roses), she handed over the baton to Ivan van Kalmthout.

Ivan van Kalmthout and Annett Andriessen

Van Kalmthout had previously worked as interim director of the Liceu Opera House in Barcelona and as director of the Berliner Staatsoper in Berlin, and in 2017 he joined the IVC board. Time for an interview.

Van Kalmhout is a true Brabander. He was born in Etten in 1968. His father’s family comes from Zegge and his mother, who comes from a Moluccan KNIL family, grew up in Zundert.

Ivan van Kalmhout with his mother

“About my family… My grandmother was Moluccan. You can’t see it in me, but my grandmother was very dark. My grandfather came from Tilburg. He was stationed in Tjimahi and that is where they met. My mother and my sister are really exotic looking. When I saw all the portraits of regents in the Rijksmuseum for the first time, it became clear to me that my appearance has nothing to do with Indonesia. I might have been born in the Netherlands in the 17th century! “

And what about the music?

Ivan Kalmhout: “Music has always played an important role in my life. My grandfather played the piston in the local brass band and he could also sight-read the music. My mother would probably have become a successful soprano if she had had the chance. She certainly has the voice and the temperament for it! I myself was fascinated by the violin as a child and studied it for quite a while.”

“Through a LP record with a piece by Wieniawski played by Emmy Verhey, I first heard a solo aria, sung by Hebe Dijkstra. ‘Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson et Dalila. I already knew some symphonic music with vocals and also the ‘Ride of the Valkyries ‘ but this was a new experience. I remember that I could not quite place it. But I found it fascinating. And after listening to it for a few times, I was ‘sold’ on the genre. I think that’s why it’s so important for children and young people to have the opportunity to come into contact with classical vocal music. We’re also trying to emphasise this aspect in the new Opera3Daagse.”

“A bit later I discovered Maria Callas and that was like a bolt of lightning to me. What I’ve inherited from that passion is a great fondness for the combination of text and music. When a singer is able to express the deeper truth of a text, it really touches me. Opera is not a literary genre, of course, but when the poetic truth is grasped by an interpreter, it has more impact than any other top-level theatrical text. When a singer sings technically perfectly but has clearly only looked at the notes, I can often do little with it. But sensing what is going on with sometimes very banal texts and being able to give the same word, repeated three times, a different meaning three times (‘amour’ in Carmen, for example) is for me one of the greatest gifts an interpreter can bring.”

Ivan van Kalmhout with Eva-Maria Westbroek

After secondary school, van Kalmhout studied business administration and management at Nyenrode Business University in Breukelen, after which he joined Pieter Alferink and his Artists Management. In 1991, he was asked by Marc Clémeur to join the Flemish Opera in Antwerp (and Ghent). There he worked as assistant artistic planning, together with Hein Mulders.

The next step was the Staatsoper in Hamburg and the Liceu in Barcelona. In 2011, van Kalmthout was appointed opera director and artistic director of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. Here he joined forces with the conductor Daniel Barenboim and the intendant Jürgen Flimm.

Van Kalmthout: “It was a privilege to be able to work in Berlin at the Staatsoper im Schillertheater. For three years I was back in the repertory theatre system with an enormous amount of productions and a very interesting opera studio, where I was allowed to work with new young talents in the first year. The concert programme of the Staatskapelle was also a parade of musical highlights with first-class instrumentalists. Daniel Barenboim’s inexhaustible curiosity and work ethic amazes everyone around him.”

“When the opportunity came to temporarily fill in for Joan Matabosch in Barcelona after Gerard Mortier had to leave Madrid prematurely due to illness, I gladly returned to the theatre and the city where I had had such a good time. I was able to successfully whip into shape a very difficult year (both organisationally and artistically) for the Liceu. It was a privilege to be there for another year but it was also clear that the direction that the Liceu was headed to was a completely different one from that of the ten golden years before my Berlin time.”

© Swinkels en van Hees

When it became known that Annett Andriessen was leaving, Van Kalmthout immediately applied. He knew the competition and its atmosphere well, after all, he himself had participated twice as a member of the jury. He is therefore sure that he will be very well able to continue its tradition. I think so too. TTT Ivan van Kalmthout!

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