Photo: Gaetz Photography
Canadian Opera Conductor Johannes Debus Leads Us Through His Book Collection
The German-born music man has an eccentric, passionate taste in literature, from contemporary fantasy to a children's space book / BY Shinan Govani / February 7th, 2024
Forbidden love, daddy issues, unspeakable revenge and the quest for power: it’s all part of a day’s work for Johannes Debus. As music director of the Canadian Opera Company since 2009, he will delve into matters of the human psyche this winter when he gears up to present The Cunning Little Vixen and Don Giovanni.
Debus is in demand worldwide: He conducts regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, and overseas at Oper Frankfurt, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the Berlin State Opera. He is also the co-founder of the Biglake Festival, a summer music fest in Prince Edward County, Ont. To conduct well, as we discovered, is to read well. The German-born maestro fills us in on what grabs him, reading-wise – and his picks are big and bold and soaked in passion!
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild took me by storm. The direct, uncompromising way she tells this story and depicts the heroic, unstoppable attitude of the novel’s title figure, as well as the combination of elements of the natural and supernatural and old Indigenous mythology at play, made it a gripping, spine-chilling and captivating read for me. (NB: The COC has commissioned Canadian composer Ian Cusson to write an opera based on the book, and Dimaline will write the libretto. Something to look forward to with great anticipation.)
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
By recommendation, Zadie Smith’s Grand Union landed on my desk. It has been there for a while now and I really want to find the time to finally read it and to get to know this contemporary voice. As a very different contender for the book I can’t wait to dive into: Will Gater’s The Mysteries of the Universe. You will most likely find this book in the kids section at your bookstore, yet I find it equally fascinating for any adult to look into the vastness and unlimited formations of beauty in our universe, shown in such a compelling illustrative way.
What’s your favourite book of all time?
Maybe this is the hardest question to answer, but right now I would put Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes on top of my list of all-time favourites. Don Quixote is the incarnation of all dreamers, visionaries and vagabonds, an anti-hero, an artist, fallen out of time, yet full of grace and nobility and always ready to follow his own dreams, his own imagination, standing strongly for his ideas and ideals, even if unrealistic, impractical and foolish. With Don Quixote I ask myself: What do we live for and what do we pursue in life to be able to say, at the end, it was worth it?
What book completely changed your perspective?
Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian was one of those eye-opening, perspective-changing books for me. Incredibly sharp and well written and – despite the serious, painful, dark and difficult subject matter regarding the relationship between natives and non-natives in North America over the centuries – full of humour, irony and wit, it makes for an entertaining page-turner and illuminative read, bringing the native peoples’ perspective home to us.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
I am fantasizing about an extravagant, lavish dinner with François Rabelais, the author of the absurdly comical, grotesque five-part Gargantua and Pantagruel. Given the constant presence of eating and drinking in the book, I believe Rabelais would know how to throw a “gargantuan,” absurdly comical, fun, gourmet-gourmand feast. Joie de vivre at its best!