Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Brindley Sherratt: “There’s A Great Intimacy When It’s Just Me And A Piano”

The classical world continues to be in a state of transformation since the shutdowns forced by the coronavirus pandemic, with varied forms of transformation rippling through an array of houses, companies, and, perhaps most especially, people. I last spoke with English bass Brindley Sherratt in August 2020, when he and English tenor John Daszak were busy rehearsing an unusual, socially-distanced production of Boris Godunov directed by Barrie Kosky in Zürich. “You want to shout, ‘Opera’s not dead!‘” Sherratt commented, a needed buoy amidst the near-universal opera world gloom at the time.

Since then, Sherratt has applied that brand of encouragement to his own work. The bass’s first album of art songs, Fear No More, was released by Delphian Records in April. Recorded in 2023 at Henry Wood Hall in London, the album takes its title from a song by 20th century composer Gerald Finzi, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”, part of the composer’s Shakespeare-connected song cycle Let Us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) and itself based on lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Along with Finzi and fellow British composers John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Michael Head, and Peter Warlock the album also features the music of Schubert, Strauss, and Mussorgsky. Booklet writer John Fallas notes in his album text that “not many singers record their first recital album two decades into a successful international career” – but one listen reveals a wealth of vocal riches underlining Sherratt’s deep musical intelligence and his innate understanding of text.

In a review of Fear No More for BBC Music magazine, writer Ashutosh Khandekar notes that “Sherratt possesses that rare gift – a genuine bass voice that carries its lyrical, expressive clarity from its ringing high notes right down to a full-toned basso profundo delivered without a trace of muddiness.” Indeed, Sherratt brings light, colour, texture, and a positively operatic splendour to the album’s smart lineup. Fear No More opens with six songs by Franz Schubert, all, with the exception of the famous “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) written for a bass voice; Sherratt’s crisp diction, oaken tone, and colourful phrasing poetically illuminate the composer’s thoughtful vocal writing. Richard Strauss’s early 20th century song “Im Spätboot” follows and is given particularly a delicious reading. Songs and Dances of Death, Mussorgsky’s mesmerizingly macabre song cycle, is performed with a touching mix of terror and humanism. Sherratt especially soars in the English-language songs; John Ireland’s 1913 song “Sea-Fever” shows Sherratt’s careful modulation and colouration of the words of poet John Masefield, offering a masterclass in the art of storytelling through song.

That instinct for storytelling has also found expression in recitals, with the singer’s former reluctance around them replaced by something approaching glee. In addition to performances at Oxford Lieder Festival and Temple Music Foundation in 2022, Sherratt made his Wigmore Hall debut this past February, and more recitals are indeed in the works. There’s also a busy 2024-2025 opera season ahead, with performances of Billy Budd in Vienna, new productions of Semele in Paris and London, and a revival of Der Rosenkavalier in Munich. Sooner than that, Sherratt is set to perform in a BBC Proms presentation this August of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Philharmonic led by incoming Royal Opera House Music Director Jakub Hrůša; he will be singing alongside soprano Corinne Winters, mezzo soprano Bella Adimova, and tenor David Butt Philip.

A conversation with Sherratt is always a true pleasure, his easy mix of intelligence, passion, and kindness  creating a natural, good-humoured exchange of ideas and experiences.

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Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

How did you choose the works on the album? You’d mentioned your love of text in a recent interview, and I wonder if that played a role. 

It was indeed that love of text, but a lot of other things as well. I felt it was an incredibly risky thing to do an album at my age, with my voice – some of that feeling was in my own mind, but there were other fears related to there not being many basses doing recordings of lieder. Also there aren’t many basses my age, with an entire operatic career, suddenly switching to song. I met Julius Drake after a performance at Covent Garden and he said, “Why don’t you come around to my house on a Saturday morning and we’ll play around with a few pieces?” I said, “I don’t know what to sing!” He said, “Come around; we’ll work through some repertoire – let’s have a go.” So we did. We spent about three hours exploring this and that.

I wanted to choose things for the album that A/ I like, and B/ I think suit my voice. As a bass, and I’ve said this before, songs and recitals are like wearing your sibling’s hand-me-downs: you have to transpose down and adjust everything. I knew from the get-go that I wanted to include Schubert. As for Strauss: there are three or four songs that wrote specifically for the guy who first sang them (Paul Knüpfer), a bass who went on to be a famous Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, so I thought “Im Spätboot” was a good start. I’d already done some other Strauss songs with an orchestra –  and I do love his writing so much.

Likewise the Mussorgsky cycle; I’d done Songs and Dances of Death with an orchestra two or three times, and I thought, gosh I’d love to do this with piano. Julius said, “Why don’t we just put them on the record?” I also thought I would like to do something in my own language and then it became a case of finding things I like.

There’s something extra special about the English songs – why these ones in particular?

When I was a student decades ago and had just started to sing – I was a trumpet player and switched to singing – I remember learning a few songs, and thinking, well, I’m a singer so of course I should sing songs. One of them was Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” – I loved it ever since, but never had the chance to sing it because I’ve never done recitals. There’s something about this work, after all these years, that I still connect with, so I knew I had to include it on the album. For other songs, I had help: Sarah Connolly introduced me to “By A Bierside” (Ivor Gurney) – she said she thought it would suit me because it’s quite dramatic; Roderick Williams was a very big help also. He really knows his repertoire! I said to him, “Please help me out? Give me pointers as to what would suit me since you know my voice.” He’s been a very big source of information with the English song material. It’s like the TV show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” with contestants using a lifeline to call a friend and help them with a question – I phoned a friend, or rather several friends, who had done this repertoire and said “Hey, hello!”

On Being Pushed

Tell me more about your creative connection with Julius Drake – to what extent was he pianist, coach, mentor, critic… ?

He played all of those roles at some point – all of them. He kept saying, “Brin, you can do this” throughout. I would say, “Oh, I can’t sing this stuff, It’s too this, it’s too that.” And he said, “Come on, let’s keep going.” He would literally push me through the songs and offer ideas for others, and I would look at them and say, “Nah, don’t want that, it’s too boring” or “Maybe?” – and he was there to urge me on.

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Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with collaborative pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

Did this form of coaching happen with your recitals as well?

Oh yes! Having not done a recital for 20-something years or more, there I was suddenly doing two recitals on two consecutive nights. Whilst we were preparing Julius would say things like “Not like that, we need more colour here.” I’d try something else and say, “Is that right?” And he’d say, “Nah, not right. Try something else.” We’d try this and that, and in that process I discovered a whole softer colour to my sound, one I didn’t know I could do. I was able to play around a lot more as a result, and Julius would push me: “Bring that sound”, “We need to bring this text out here”, “That was too slow”, “That was too fast”,“That was close to being chamber music!” The process was new to me.

With opera, it’s just such a huge scale, and sometimes you’ll have a conductor who will coach, like Tony Pappano – he gives loads of notes like “Just sing this way”, “Try it that way” and I love that approach – but opera is still this big long process. You’re on stage, you have other things and people to add and interact with. Also, I might have said this already in another interview: I prefer my audiences in the dark about 80 feet away with a symphony orchestra in-between. The kind of intimacy chamber music demands was the thing that I feared most, especially in terms of doing recitals; it also became the thing I enjoyed the most. There’s a great intimacy when it’s just me and a piano. This whole process has been a revelation.

Does that include your recital work?

Initially I was worried about those. I thought, “What if nobody comes?” Well, I went out and there were big crowds who gave big cheers and I thought, “Oh, this is great!” At Wigmore Hall in February the place was heaving with people. All the students I worked with were there along with every bass in the country, including John Tomlinson. I found it overwhelming, though it also made me think that maybe I’m okay at this stuff; I need to trust that feeling.

Do you think recitals and art songs have made you a better opera singer?

I think so, yes. I was doing Rocco in Fidelio (in Munich) this year, and Gurnemanz a year or more ago, and I found I used a lot of soft colours which I would have not have used before. Those softer colours are really important, especially to basses, as you know. I feel much more rounded as a singer, and the songs (on the album) were great for that kind of work.

Keeping The Voice “As Fresh As Possible”

What have you learned about your voice through the last decade or so?

There was a stage I went through actually about eight or ten years ago where I wanted to make a big noise. At one point I thought, “I don’t think I’m singing healthily.” Going back to Gurnemanz, when I was first learning that part years back I was listening to Gottlob Frick, who is my favourite German bassist of all. He was 68 when he recorded Parsifal; he came out of retirement to do it. Having had a long career singing the heaviest roles, the Hagens and the Hundings, over and over and over again, here he is at 68 – when really the voice should be starting to wear a bit – and my God, he sounds so good, so vulnerable – it’s just sublime, beautiful singing. When I heard it I thought: I want to be able to do that.

It was while I was singing I was singing Ochs at Glyndebourne (2018) that I found a much more, what’s the word, a more contained and less fat kind of sound; I purposely took my voice down a little bit and worked. That moment was the foundation, as it were, because when I started to learn and sing songs, I realized that I want to be able to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” and have it be beautiful – that, or Winterreise, or Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”. I want people to say, “That’s a beautiful voice” and not “That’s a ragged old voice.” So I think the combination of songs and opera is important to keep the voice as fresh as possible at my age.

What role does teaching play?

I coach a lot of young basses, bass baritones too, and for so many of them the pressure is on in their 20s in terms of making a career, and so they all want to sound as loud as possible. What happens is they go into a young artists program and they’re on stage with guys who really know what they’re doing, but they have to match it, or feel like they do, so they try to make their voice big before it’s kind of found its way. There are so few roles for young low voices – it’s a lot of Second Old Man or Third Gatekeeper – but young artists feel forced to make big sounds so early on, and I’m always saying to them now, “Learn songs, sing songs; learn a few cycles; learn Handel, and more Handel; listen to various artists.” I think you need to have that balance, and the confidence too – we definitely need to have that!

Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

A second album?

Which songs might be in the future for you, on record or live in recital?

I think everyone wants to sing Winterreise, and I admit to being one of them! It’s an incredibly intimidating cycle but I find it so enchanting; I love listening to it and I love singing it. I’d want to do it in recital a few times before I went anywhere even near a recording studio. So that’s a possibility. I’ve also been thinking I would like to do a disc of songs in my mother tongue, and at the moment I’m leaning towards an album of English song; I asked Ryan Wigglesworth if he would write me something, and he’s up for that. Robert Lloyd said to me many years ago, “Make sure you do a song recital once a year; It’s so easy to just bellow” – it’s so true.

I was amazed in the recitals to note that after I’d sung a few phrases that are quiet and soft, I could sense everyone leaning in and really listening – it was just lovely! I never would have thought of having that kind of closeness with an audience, but it’s been amazing, and I definitely look forward to more moments like that.

Top photo: Benjamin Ealovega
Opera & Democracy, series, performance, history, lecture, New York, NYC, stage, Leo Baeck Institute, opera, democracy, Kai Hinrich Müller, Thomas Mann House

Kai Hinrich Müller: “What Can Opera Do For Society?”

As opera companies look to attract new audiences and cultivate relationships with existing patrons, specific combinations of knowledge, passion, and energy are increasingly required. There’s work to be done with nitty-gritty issues like funding, management, casting, commissioning, programming, and presenting. Companies have made conspicuous efforts to expand the definition of the widely-understood canon of classical music. Opera watchers (including yours truly) live in hope that such decisions are more than mere gestures, that they are made with an eye toward evolution, not just optics. More than ever, works are being programmed which have been penned by composers off the well-beaten path of Opera Hits – composers who were often persecuted because of race, gender, religion, sexuality and who remain largely unknown because of a stubborn adherence to that path.  Broadcaster Kate Molleson wrote a whole book about this, and I have written about it as well.

So where does the idea of “democracy” fit within the world of classical music, particularly opera? What role does (or can) art play in cultivating the idea – and the reality – of democracy? How do the notions of representation, choice, voice, equity and equality relate to opera’s history, goals, old audiences, intended audiences, financial demands, and day-to-day realities? The current Thomas Mann House series Opera & Democracy has been exploring these questions over the past six months. Instigated by musicologist and 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow Kai Hinrich Müller, Opera & Democracy is a unique combination of academic investigation, discussion, and live performance, with topics including power dynamics, representation, programming and casting choices, updated formats, and what the Villa Aurora-Thomas Mann House website calls “audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.”

So far those artists have indeed included many persecuted figures: Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, Rachel Danziger van Embden and Amélie Nikisch, Rosy Geiger-Kullmann, Ernst Toch, Tania León, and Ursula Mamlok, to name a few. Launched in Los Angeles in January,  the series has gone on to see packed houses in Munich, Cologne, New York, and Dresden. More dates are set to follow in Providence (RI), Berlin, and Hamburg; most immediately is an upcoming online event June 11th with Black Opera Research Network featuring composer Philip Miller, the composer of Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera (detailing the life of  anti-apartheid gay rights activist Simon Nkoli) and its musical director, Tshegofatso Moeng. Allison Smith, Civic Engagement Coordinator of Virginia Opera will also be joining the discussion together with Müller. In a recent blog entry reflecting on the New York City-based events for Opera & Democracy this past April, the musicologist wrote that “(b)y shining a spotlight on the works of composers who were once silenced by dictatorship, the week offered a way to reclaim their voices and honor their contributions to the cultural tapestry of humanity.”

Kai Hinrich Müller, scholar, musicologist, professor, Thomas Mann fellow, Opera & Democracy

Kai Hinrich Müller

That tapestry is one Müller has sought to explore in various facets. Having studied Musicology, Business Administration and Law at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Müller has worked as an advisor and curator on a number of international research and cultural projects, including an exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum called “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling” in 2022. He has also also worked with musico-historical group Musica non grata and led its Terezín Summer School, the 2023 iteration of which featured Rachel Danziger van Ambden’s Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess), subsequently presented as part of Opera & Democracy’s presentation in Dresden. Müller’s publications explore musical life in the interwar and Nazi periods, past and present musical structures, and the functions of music within social discourse, topics which are also long-term research focuses. In addition to his teaching work at the Cologne University of Music and Dance (since 2017), Müller also works with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, German public broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) and various concert and opera houses. As Director of the Bauhaus Music Weekend, he told RBB’s Hans Ackermann:

Meine Projekte sind immer an der Nahtstelle von Wissenschaft und Praxis angesiedelt. Schön finde ich, wenn man die Forschung “in den Klang” bringt. Musikwissenschaft soll nicht trocken sein, sondern wieder zum Klang werden. / My projects are always located at the interface between science and practice. I like it when you bring research “into sound”. Musicology shouldn’t be dry, it should become sound again.
(“Die Musik war fest im Alltag am Bauhaus eingebunden“, RBB24, 9 September 2023)

Opera & Democracy is anything but dry. Along with being an important forum for timely conversation and interaction, it is a refreshingly intelligent expression of creative advocacy, coming at a time when many (including those holding the purse strings) are questioning the role of culture within contemporary life. What can (or should) art’s role be in shaping the future? Over the course of our nearly hour-long exchange, the musicologist offered a few ideas, a real willingness to listen, and an interest in engaging with different experiences and ideas. Mehr davon, bitte…

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The Goethe Institut New York hosted the opening event of the week-long New York section of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Jamie Isaacs

Where and how did the idea for a series about opera and democracy originate? Relatedly: why this series, now?

The idea came out of my fellowship at the Thomas Mann House. The theme for the 2023 season of the Thomas Mann House programme was the political mandate of the arts, examining the question of the arts having a kind of political mandate, and what that means in a broader sense. I’m a musicologist; my habilitation was on Richard Wagner and Richard Wagner’s afterlife, a bit like Alex Ross in his last book, Wagnerism, so it was totally clear for me when I got to the Thomas Mann House that I would focus on opera.

Also there is one very important centenary in 2024, and it’s related to the Krolloper, which was this very important opera house in Berlin that hosted a lot of avant-garde works. But then it became the Nazi assembly hall of the Reichstag between 1933 and 1942. So on the one hand it’s a very important place for European history, and on the other it’s a very important place for international opera history; this was such a great coincidence that I wanted to use the centenary to think about the place of opera in society and politics, especially since the United States and the EU both have very big elections this year, and Germany is struggling with the rise of right-wing parties. In organizing the series I was in touch with many colleagues in the US and Germany – directors, singers, musicologists – and initially they all said, “Hey Kai, are you joking? ‘Opera and democracy’, this is a kind of contradiction!” – sure, but sometimes the tension is much more interesting with such pursuits. So we started, and so far it’s a real success for the Thomas Mann House and the broader academic world.

How did you choose the lineup of guests and events?

Some of it was interest from my side, and it was also a lot of magnetism from my research over the last few years, which has focused on the musical life in Theresienstadt, one of the big camps during the Nazi period. I also worked for Musica non grata, and that is why I’m very deep in this whole discourse on persecuted artists and artists in exile. This history, of course, brings up the question of democracy, because if you have a dictatorship, like the one during the Nazi period, you see what happens to artistic freedom. We thought about a kind of overall programme for the series, and everybody was very interested in unearthing unknown music, especially music by women composers. In Dresden we did a kind of Theresienstadt-influenced programme of opera and operetta by women. I can’t stand the fuss over the differences between opera and operetta, this idea of supposedly “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art forms; it’s music theatre, period.

Related to that, we also decided to present several works of Ernst Krenek – they will be focused in an event presented at Staatsoper Hamburg in January. He was living in exile in Los Angeles when he composed a very moving work called Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athena Wept), which was also written during the McCarthy era in the US. Nobody knows it, but it’s fantastic! This opera actually reopened the house in Hamburg after the Second World War. It’s atonal, and presents a dystopic situation exploring the struggle between Athens and Sparta; Athens is the city of democracy and Sparta stands for dictatorship, but Sparta wins. There are these amazing correspondences which exist from that time between Krenek, Thomas Mann, and all the artists living in exile on the West Coast, all of them examining the question of the role of arts and politics. It was also during this time that German emigres were being accused of being communists. I think the history around Krenek’s work is very much tied to the ideas we’re exploring in the series.

Connecting the past & the present

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At Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten in May as part of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Clara Becker

To what extent is this series intended to expand opera’s breadth, especially in an intercontinental sense?

This is a very important question because it highlights two key questions in the Opera & Democracy series: what can opera do for society? And, how can opera itself become a more democratic art form via the means of plurality, diversity, accessibility?. I think it’s very important to bring both sides into a dialogue, particularly with a view to the two opera systems in North America and Germany, which have massive differences. The biggest intercontinental difference is the question of funding, because in the United States, opera is privately funded, and in Germany, it’s state funded. And this is why I think North American opera sometimes  seems to be much more aware of the ideas and wishes of the audience. At the Met there is a total change in repertoire, a shift to works which are much more focused on questions of diversity and black culture and history.

For me, one of the most influential experiences so far in the series was my panel discussion with Kira Thurman, an African American musicologist teaching in Wisconsin. She wrote her last book on black opera singers in Germany. She was in our opening session at the Thomas Mann House with Alex Ross and Daniela Levy, a researcher in Los Angeles. Kira’s perspectives were certainly eye-opening for me because discussed the last 100 years of opera from a racial history perspective.

Some opera companies have started installing a wider variety of language selections for seat-back translations – what do you make of that? 

The interesting point here is that you really can learn from history. At our opera week in New York City recently, I presented the case of Paul Aron. He was a very successful contemporary composer during the wars, and then the Nazis came and he had to flee to the United States. When he came to New York City in the 1950s he founded an avant-garde opera company and he brought all of the music of the other émigrés – works which had originally been composed in German – with new English versions for American stages, because he was aware of the question of language. It is a barrier; you have to be able to understand the language to participate in the story and the plot. It’s really good to see companies installing these technologies – it’s totally in line with the history of opera.

Invest in education

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Kai Hinrich Mülller at the inaugural event of Opera & Democracy at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles in January 2024. Photo: Aaron Perez

To what extent does a series like this act as an educational aid?

Well I hope it helps because I’m a teacher myself; I teach professionally here in Cologne. All of my programs are built around students. They are the next generation, and they are much better-placed than I am to do this work, because, well, I’m 39 years old, I have maybe 20 or 30 years in the opera system, but these students have at least 50 more years. So it absolutely doesn’t make any sense to stop education; you have to invest in education because this is the next generation, and if we want to change the system, we have to empower young people and invite them to become part of everything in the first place.

What are you bringing back to the classroom then?

The most important point is that I open a kind of dialogue between their interests and my interests. Very often I am told things relating to casting processes, about not feeling heard in current discourses, that nobody is interested in questions of their generation. We had very intense discussions after October 7th about Israel and Gaza. Sometimes it’s important to listen and to give them the sense that, “Yes, you are welcome, give me your speech, give me your opinion; I don’t have to agree, but I think you have the right to an open and safe space for discussion” – and this is especially applicable to an opera system that is largely not democratic.

Where do unknown composers fit in with the series?

They are very important! One of my most favourite composers right now is Rosy Geiger-Kullmann. We premiered three of her operas during our New York festival. She was a very successful woman composer in Germany, then the Nazis came to power, and it’s the same story as so many others – she fled, first to New York, then to Monterey; her son Herman Geiger-Torel, went to Canada and became a very important figure in opera in Canada through the 1950s to 1970s. Rosie herself composed five big operas. It was hard to believe that we were the first person to perform excerpts from her work during the festival. The 20th century is so full of rarely-heard or played operas.

I think this is another thing I learned from the series: that we really don’t have to be afraid of bringing unknown music back to the stage. Every event in this series so far has been totally sold out. We often play unknown composers, so clearly there is openness in the audience to learning more about new music.

“Opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other”

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(L-R) Composer/conductor Carl Christian Bettendorf, composer Alyssa Regent, and choreographer Miro Magloire in a discussion at 1014 – space for ideas as part of an April event in New York for Opera & Democracy. Photo: Sarah Blesener

What sort of an approach do you take in introducing new works?

We use the opera to open the discussion. For example, in the Thomas Mann House at the launch in Los Angeles, we started with Kurt Weill’s The Yes-Sayer, which is a 30-minute opera about belonging and the power of tradition. Directly after it was when we opened the discourse, first in a panel discussion, then for the audience. My first question was, “If this is a story essentially about saying yes or no, what would you have said?” People in the audience looked at me like, “Why is he talking with us?” but then more and more people engaged, and then we had a great discussion on the question of saying yes or no to traditions, and saying yes or no to opera. In Dresden it was, I think, probably quite simple but very effective storytelling as well.

What effect do you see this series having on the opera world?

Since I started it in January, more and more people are taking notice. Opera companies will knock at my door and say, “Hey Kai, this is interesting. Maybe we can do something together? Let’s think about it.” I see more and more institutions that would love to join us in thinking about the democratic potential of the art form. I think opera is very good for opening eyes, opening emotions, opening the brain, and opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other – and that is more important than ever right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photo: Students from the Manhattan School of Music perform in April 2024 at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute as part of the Opera & Democracy series. Photo: Jamie Isaacs
Chanticleer, early music, vocal ensemble

Chanticleer: On Music, Modernity, Social Media, & Singing Machaut

When most people hear the words “classical religious music” they might immediately think of Requiems by Verdi and Mozart or sprawling Masses by Bach and Beethoven. The work of Guillaume de Machaut may not be top of mind, yet the 14th century French composer is a central figure within Western musical expression and development. He was also a survivor: Machaut endured the disastrous Black Death that killed a third of the European population.

Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) was composed in 1365 for the Cathedral at Reims where Machaut was serving as a canon; the work marks the earliest complete setting of the Catholic Church’s Ordinary of the Mass (the part of a mass which is constant) traceable to a single composer. As music writer Davis Smith noted at their website A Taste of the Divine Specific in 2022, Machaut’s Messe (written in Old French) is notable because “it is the first large work of Western music to showcase an individual voice […] perhaps the first truly major musical statement.” More precisely:

Machaut’s music serves the purpose of worship and brings the listener closer to the source—and sound—of his faith through the mastery of poetic idioms, translating the established text into abstract sonic patterns, exploring the potentials of the human voice in combination with others, painting the diction and meaning of the Mass text with meticulous strokes, playing with sonorities and their relationships, testing the boundaries of what poetry and music alike can do. In so doing, he paved the way for all composers within the following 400-year period.
(Davis Smith, “The Poetry of Sound and the All-Wellness of Faith“, June 23, 2022)

Various recordings of the Messe have been made through the years, all of them utilizing a variety of vocal styles specific (or in some cases not entirely tied) to early music performance; the Taverner Consort and Taverner Choir (1984), the Oxford Camerata (1996), and Antwerp-based Graindelavoix (2016) are just a few of the groups to have put their individual stamp on the work. Machaut also composed a wide variety of songs, many of them written in first-person and exploring terrestrial concerns like courtship, longing, and heartbreak; his ironically-titled Le voir dit (“A True Story”) is a meta-fictional narrative which mocks contemporaneous tales of courtly love even as it seduces the listener with its flowing poetry and intriguingly modern-sounding vocal writing.

That paradigm of new and old sounds is something Chanticleer specialize in. The ensemble will be performing the work of Machaut in a series of concerts in California between June 2nd and 9th, with each one featuring the Messe de Nostre Dame interspersed with selection of his secular works and those by medieval contemporaries. This musical curiosity comes naturally to Chanticleer. Known as “an orchestra of voices”, the group was formed in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who cleverly named it after the singing rooster in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Initially exploring the music of the Renaissance, their musical palette has expanded to include a host of sounds from a variety of eras, thanks in no small part to Music Director Emeritus Joseph Jennings, who joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983. Assuming the position of Music Director a year later, he remained with the ensemble in that position until 2008 when he stepped down and assumed the title of Artistic Advisor; during his tenure the ensemble released a tremendously diverse and often Grammy Award-winning array of recordings showcasing the ensemble’s vocal flexibility, from early music (Josquin, Palestrina, Byrd, Desprez) to spirituals and traditional gospel music to jazz.

Current Music Director and countertenor Tim Keeler has continued this tradition of expanding the ensemble’s oeuvre while happily embracing a 21st century approach. Recent ecologically-themed programs have included tje song cycle The Rivers are our Brothers (which includes “I Am A Tree“, a live performance of which was recently captured during a tour stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall) by neoclassical-electronic composer Majel Connery, as well as “I miss you like I miss the trees” by electro-acoustic composer Ayanna Woods, who is also Chanticleer’s composer-in-residence. Their social media platforms feature the group performing contemporary and nostalgic pop hits, gospel, and a sample of chant from the video game “Halo: Combat Evolved”. A busy summer is in store for the group, with German dates to include a premiere appearance in Dresden (at the city’s storied Frauenkirche) and another in Ludwigsburg, performing for the first time with British vocal ensemble Voces8 – but before all that, there’s Machaut and his unique Messe. Is it really a work only for the religious and/or early-music-loving ears?

Keeler (TK) and countertenor and Assistant Music Director Gerrord Pagenkopf (GP) think otherwise. “It’s early music,” Keeler recently told San Francisco Classical Voice writer Jeff Kaliss, “but you almost have to approach it with a new-music sensibility.” He and Pagenkopf recently shared their thoughts on the Messe and a variety of Chanticleer initiatives, many of which offer a unique integration of entertainment and education, with any enlightenment for audiences a natural and happy side-effect of smart, approachable musical presentation.

Chanticleer, vocal group, early music, ensemble, singing, voice, music

Photo: Stephen K. Mack

What’s it been like to explore the music of Guillaume Machaut?

TK It’s been a bit of a switch. We do so many different styles of music in Chanticleer. We started as an early music group back in 1978, singing Renaissance music mostly, and we still do a lot of Renaissance music in our programs and on tour; last year was our William Byrd anniversary program, the year before that was another Franco-Flemish program. But rarely do we go so far back as medieval music, which is a genre in and of itself, very unique and very specific. The way you sing it, and the harmonies involved, it almost feels modern in some ways.

How so?

TK Well, in a sense, it’s very unpredictable. As I said we do a lot of Renaissance music, and when you do a lot of Renaissance music, you start to understand the patterns. You can kind of assume what’s going to come next and there’s definitely a tonal soundscape that you get used to. But with medieval music, those conventions are not set up yet. The composers then were experimenting a lot – many musical conventions were being set down for the first time, things as simple as bar lines and time signatures. You think, “Well, how was there ever music before that?”– but there was. These medieval composers like Machaut were really establishing what music looked like, and they were experimenting a lot. Musical lines go where you might not expect them to go; harmonies are up against each other; sometimes you’re completely unprepared for the sounds and you think, “Wait, is that real? Did they really mean to write that?” And you go back to the source material and yes, those in fact are the notes that were written. There was a lot of experimentation, and in a sense, that’s how you have to think about modern music also: you have to forget everything you know about singing and take it for what it is.

Beautiful vs. “beautiful”

How have you adjusted vocally?

TK Gerrord’s been doing more singing than I have, so he’ll have more to say. But I do think there’s really no actual way to know how Machaut would have wanted his music to be sung. We have some small bits of writing from contemporary sources that are mostly just complaining about how things shouldn’t be sung, not telling you exactly how it should be sung. So we don’t really know! There are a few recordings of the mass out there, and they all take wildly different approaches – because nobody really knows. There are Renaissance-inflected approaches that are sort of straight tones, beautiful beautiful sounds, then there’s some that are much more nasal and much more aggressive – for lack of a better term – that take their inspiration from improvisational modern Corsican polyphony and things like that, where it’s a much more visceral sound. And there’s a lot to be said in this regard about modern music as well, because a lot of times we have composers asking us to make a certain kind of timbres with our voices or to go for a certain kinds of sounds. So we get to experiment in the same way with the super early music – because we don’t really know the “should” – so we get to have some fun with it and try things out. What do you think, Gerrord?

Gerrord Pagenkopf Chanticleer, Assistant Music Director, countertenor, singer, musician

Chanticleer’s Gerrord Pagenkopf. Photo: Stephen K. Mack

GP Yeah, that’s pretty much it! In the bel canto era everything was all about beautiful singing and about making the tones as beautiful as possible, and that singing technique was superimposed, for a long time in the 20th century anyway, onto all genres of all time periods of vocal music. I feel like in the 1980s and ’90s, we started to try and perform music in what we think is a more authentic way, pre this bel canto kind of style –so not every single tone has to be quote-unquote beautiful; it can be a little bit nasty, snarly, a bright kind of nasally. And we think that that’s okay. When you hear some of these very dissonant chords, you understand that if you try and do a nice beautiful operatic vibrato, it really obscures the tonality, so maybe a more laser-pointed, bright tone is actually necessary to make those chords ring, we would say, or, have their effect.

“The sounds feel new”

How does this translate to your live presentation? Is there any intentionality in your blend of education, enlightenment, and entertainment with these concerts?

Tim Keeler, Chanticleer, Music Director, countertenor, singer, musician

Chanticleer’s Tim Keeler. Photo: Stephen K. Mack

TK All of the above! Really, that’s a great question. My first thought is that with Machaut, the sounds feel new – actually the time period is called Ars Nova, or the new art, which is fascinating. It was new back then, and it feels new today. It is pretty remarkable how these sound worlds are still a little bit a part of everybody’s subconscious, like everybody knows them if you grew up in the Western world. And so you underline that and all of a sudden people are transported in a way that maybe they didn’t quite understand they could be. One of our videos online is us singing the Halo theme song; it’s a video game which is essentially a Gregorian chant that is just put into this video game to give it a sense of time and space; that sound world is not dissimilar to the Machaut world. The piece is a mass, right? And within the mass there would have been chant as well as polyphony. In the upcoming concerts we’re going to start with a chant in the 10th century style to get everyone into that mystical religious world, which is a very unique space – but one everybody has a little bit of familiarity with already. It’s a tricky business to program an entire religious work of such length in a concert and make it feel like something that people want to sit through.

GP But there’s a wide variety of audiences for Chanticleer: we have people who love Kansas’ music and people who love early music. So our goal is to find a way to do a medieval music concert in a way that feels accessible to all of those people. I’m sure we’re not going to be entirely successful with that, but we’ll do our best. The way the program is structured is that we split the mass into the beginning and the end of the program so it’s not all in your face, all at once.

TK Obviously we’re not going to perform it as part of a religious service, which it would have been done. Our concerts will be more of an exploration of the sound and its world, and the effect of that sound, as opposed to an exploration its religious aspects – that being said, most of the places we’re performing in are churches because that’s where the acoustics are best, and quite frankly, there aren’t very many spaces in America that act as gathering places that also have good acoustics other than churches! In the middle of the program, in between the two halves of the mass, we’re going to explore a lot of Machaut’s secular music, a lot of his chansons. These works feel very modern, very personable, very intimate and relatable. They are also reminders that people in the 1300s had a lot of similar emotions, desires, and fears – so if we can relay those same things, even though we’re singing in old French, the hope is that the audience will come along for the ride and be a part of that journey.

You normally have little explanations between songs in your concerts, correct?

GP That’s right. In our regular programs we would sing every single genre, and in those situations it is helpful to explain and speak between songs, like, “This 1500s piece is paired with this 1800s piece, and is also paired with this completely new piece, and they all relate like this.” And I think it’s good to help the audience make those connections because we do have program notes usually for our regular program – but during the concert people generally aren’t reading them or they might read them beforehand and then forget all about them, so it’s good to just sort of keep them with us during the performance and be like, “Okay, here’s where we are, and here’s where we’re heading, and this is how this all relates together.” But as Tim said for this Machaut presentation, we want it to be more of a journey.

Happiness = Many Sounds

Chanticleer was founded on Renaissance music, but I am curious how your varied musical choices relate to your mandate and how they have helped to expand it and your audiences.

TK When Chanticleer was founded, Renaissance music was still very much a niche market, and it still is to some extent today, but there was really a need for exploring this repertoire at that time, because not a lot of people were singing music from that time. Over time we realized that there were people who wanted to hear more of what Chanticleer was able to give so we started to expand our repertoire. We decided early on that we wanted to tour and in order to make ourselves more marketable we needed to incorporate more styles and genres into our music and repertoire. Our mandate is to perform all music at its highest level. So that if you do hear a Renaissance piece, you’re going to hopefully hear it at the highest level you can possibly hear it; likewise Max Reger, you’re going to hear it at the highest level. That’s really what we lean into now.

GP We have this amazing opportunity to do all these different genres and to bring people together. If you visit the Chanticleer Instagram account you might click on something and think, “Wow, this Kirk Franklin piece is awesome. What else is on here? Oh, William Byrd, who is that? I like that, it’s awesome!” – and vice versa. It’s often the case that the people who love Renaissance music are maybe the least exposed to other kinds of music, so we have this way to give them exposure to old music or a gospel song – or both. Also, I don’t think any of us in Chanticleer would be happy just performing one genre of music.

How important has social media been to this expansion?

TK Pre-pandemic we really didn’t have much of a social media presence but with the turnover in our administration and even some singers it was interesting seeing several of our musical colleagues leaning into their social media presences. We saw then just how vital it is. It’s been amazing to see how much of an impact it has had, to have exposure to people all over the world who engage with us and write things like, “When are you coming back to Sweden?” and “When are you coming back to Japan?” It’s been really amazing to see our appeal not just locally nationally but internationally and it serves as a reminder that what we’re doing is important.

Do you feel like ambassadors for vocal music?

TK Absolutely – ambassadors for early music, and ambassadors for all other genres of music also. You know, our Music Director Emeritus Joe Jennings has arranged so many gospel quartets and African-American spirituals for the ensemble, and that aspect is now very much part of our identity. It’s an aspect we try to carry forward as respectfully as possible.

GP We have a responsibility not only to early music but to all these other musical genres that are so much a part of what we do, and of us.

Top photo: Stephen K. Mack
close up, orchids, detail, floral

Reading List: May Flowers, Rain, Sounds, & A Memory

May traditionally brings flowers, rain, more flowers… more rain, as well as abrupt temperature shifts. Those shifts might be a good metaphor for today (May 9th), a day fraught with many things, or possibly nothing, depending on where you happen to be. The whole month feels like a deep inhale before the intense demands which come with many summer music festivals. The following reading list includes oodles of opera, bundles of Beethoven, and little bites of chewy foods for thoughts when it comes to memory, live presentation, and seelenökologie; it also includes (I hope) a little bit of room to breathe.

In a personal sense, today marks 4o days since the passing of my godfather, who experienced his first opera at the age of 87. (More on that below.)

Spring has sprung – inhale, exhale, slowly; repeat.

Live Live Live (& Read)

My review of Medea (the Cherubini version), currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, can be found here. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who had been scheduled to sing the title role, was forced to cancel the remainder of her performances during the run. Italian soprano Chiara Isotton is taking over. TL;DR: See if you can; Isotton is truly great.

Médée (the Charpentier version) is currently running at Opéra de Paris (Palais Garnier), with mezzo soprano Lea Desandre receiving much acclaim for her titular performance, together with conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the pit. The production is, like Medea, directed by Sir David McVicar, and was first created for English National Opera in 2013 before receiving a staging in Geneva in 2019. The presentation marks the first time Charpentier’s opera has been presented at Opéra national de Paris since 1693. It closes on Saturday (11 May); allons-y!

An opera that made its premiere at the Opéra Garnier: Guercœur by Albéric Magnard, in 1931. The work, which has a tragic real-life backstory, is enjoying a renaissance with Opéra national du Rhin having just finished a run in Strasbourg; the Christof Loy-directed production will be subsequently be presented in Mulhouse, on the 26th and 28th of this month, with baritone Stéphane Degout in the lead. The 2024-2025 season sees another presentation of the work, by Oper Frankfurt and featuring baritone Domen Križaj; the production will be directed by David Hermann with Marie Jacquot (and later Lukas Rommelspacher) on the podium.

Among the many offerings at this year’s edition of The Dresdner Musikfestspiele is the event “Silent Voices In A Noisy World” which features the music of Amélie Nikisch (wife of conductor Arthur Nikisch) and Rachel Danziger van Embden (a student of Wagner biographer Jacques Hartog). Condensed piano versions of Nikisch’s 1911 operetta Meine Tante, deine Tante (My Aunt, Your Aunt) and Danziger van Embden’s operetta Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess) from 1910 will be performed at Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten, with arrangements, curation, and moderation by Dr. Kai Hinrich Müller, who, as I wrote last month, is spearheading a series of events this year for The Thomas Mann House connected to the formal theme of Opera & Democracy. The Dresden concert is part of this initiative, and is also part of the Musica non grata program, both which I will be writing about in more detail as part of my upcoming conversation with Müller. The interview will be posted later this month; stay tuned!

Also on Sunday: a performance from Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the city’s Konzerthaus featuring soprano Camilla Nylund (singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs) and led by Finnish conductor Tarno Peltokoski. In a recent exchange with Helge Berkelbach at Concerti, Peltokoski discusses his debut album with Deutsche Grammophon (Mozart symphonies), his passion for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the importance of clarity over emotions when standing before an orchestra: “Wenn ich beim Dirigieren von Wagner in meinen Wagner-Gefühlen schwimme, macht das überhaupt keinen Sinn. Ich meine, das Orchester wüsste nicht, was es tun soll, und das Publikum hätte auch keine Freude daran.” (“If I’m swimming in my Wagnerian feelings when I conduct Wagner, it makes no sense at all. I think the orchestra wouldn’t know what to do and the audience wouldn’t enjoy it either.”) Peltokoski’s responses belie his youth (he turned 24 last month), and I am curious to follow him on what may well be a very interesting journey involving Wagner, Strauss, and… ? We shall see.

Speaking of Wagner journeys: Wagner In Context (Cambridge University Press, 2024) has recently been released and it is a delectable slow read. Divided into clear themes (places, people, performances, politics), the book, edited by Cambridge Professor David Trippett, offers an assortment of thoughtful takes on varied aspects of the composer’s work and his impact on modern classical culture. Featuring essays from a wide range of contributors – including Barry Millington, Mark Berry, Katharine Ellis, Leon Botstein, and Gundula Kreutzer (whose  book Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera has been on my wish list since its release in 2018) – this is a book which quietly demands slow digestion. I hope to speak with Trippett in the coming weeks about the book and Wagner’s enduring socio-cultural footprint; stay tuned.

Progressive…ish?

Bode-Museum, Berlin, statue, sculpture, man, woman, assault

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

In the new and not-so-new realm: a recent article published at The Stage provides food for thought on serious issues which reach well past the immediate British opera landscape. Quoting analyses released in March by Arts Council England, writer Katie Chambers includes thoughts from a variety of figures including Opera North general director and chief executive Laura Canning, Musicians’ Union general secretary Naomi Pohl, and stage director Adele Thomas, who offers a valuable insight: “The critical response to the way that any feminist interpretation gets greeted with has forced [opera] to give us a flatter representation of what women are.

At a time when many houses engage in self-congratulatory gestures on what they perceive as a wonderful form of progressivism (the examples are really not difficult to find), it’s interesting to note how many tow a traditional line at heart, particularly in the years since the worst of the covid pandemic. Approaches promoted as “progressive” often employ straight-male gaze wrapped in the coat of creative inquiry (italics mine); question it and you are deemed stupid or uptight, or (gasp) woke. I’m not sure what will change within industry except for the way productions are dressed (more accurately, undressed) via publicity teams and traditional media, an element Thomas rightly acknowledges: 

We are at the tail end of a generation of opera critics who don’t question how much of their opinions are internalised misogyny rather than a genuine reaction to what is in front of them. No criticism to them – it wasn’t what they were asked to do at the time of learning their trade. But it has to change. (“Opera in crisis: leaders warn sector issues go beyond funding woesThe Stage, 7 May 2024)

I hope to speak with various critics in the future about this issue, and explore their ideas on risk and live presentation; it would be good to have their takes on the role of criticism in 2024. I want to have faith that there’s value in its continued practice –even as arts criticism quickly vanishes, everywhere – so again: stay tuned.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken!”

Beethoven, classical, bust, music, decor, composer

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Speaking of expressions of faith: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony celebrated the 200th anniversary of its premiere on 7 May 1824. An assortment of German music publishers posted fascinating histories, including photos of the original score. The birthday of the symphony has also inspired various documentaries – one by German broadcaster DW (in English), and another by Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein (Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity), recently screened at the Toronto-based Hot Docs film festival. A recreation of the first concert in which the Ninth Symphony was performed took place in Wuppertal (with period instruments), and there are more concerts on the horizon including performances by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in London and Paris, with a performance of the Ninth Symphony on the 29th of this month at St Martin-in-the-Fields, where they’ll be joined by the Monteverdi Choir & Chorus.

Amongst the many essays and articles which have appeared recently is one from Gramophone magazine (“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the greatest recordings“, Richard Osborne, 7 May) outlining important aspects of the work, including Schiller’s famous text, and (hurrah) giving equal attention to all four of its movements. Osborne examines interpretations of the symphony by a range of conductors including Otto Klemperer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and includes concomitant sound clips for each. Like many articles, Osborne also mentions Leonard Bernstein famously replacing the word “freedom” (Freiheit) for “joy” (Freude) in Friedrich Schiller’s text at a concert in Berlin in late 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether or not one agrees with that replacement, Bernstein’s gesture was entirely in keeping with the mood of the times, a symbol of the way in which the work has been presented throughout various epochs.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski references Bernstein  in a recent written feature for BR Klassik, exploring the work’s links to historic events as well as personal memories, some of which are tied, quite touchingly, to portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He also shares his thoughts on initially tackling Beethoven’s Ninth as an artist (“der Mythos um diese Symphonie herum kann einen auch erzittern lassen” – “the myth surrounding this symphony can also make you tremble”) and his decision to program the works of 20th and 21st century composers prior and sometimes even between movements. This approach to such a famous work brings to mind something he said to Hamburger Abendblatt journalist Joachim Mischke (in a podcast from earlier this month) about “Ökologie des akustischen Raums und seine emotionale und geistige Wirkung auf auf die Menschen” (“the ecology of acoustic space and its emotional and spiritual impact on people”). The idea of “seelenökologie” (soul ecology), especially within programming and live presentation in 2024, is one well worth considering, because of course it requires embracing experiences which move past the expected pushing of little emotional buttons – an experience that might be uncomfortable to some.

The first symphony concert I ever attended was a performance of a Beethoven’s Fifth led by Sir Andrew Davis. Roughly a decade after that, I experienced my very first live Beethoven’s Ninth, and by that point, I had formed opinions on how things should sound, and which emotional buttons I expected to be pushed. The performance happened to coincide with the night of my high school prom, but being a perennial outsider, I had no one to go with and I wasn’t too terribly interested anyway (or at least I told myself that at the time). Aside from the discomfort of a heavy velvet dress unsuited to a warm June evening, the most powerful memory from that time is of my hot teenaged fury at the tempos taken through a good portion of the performance; they were faster than what I was expecting, and they came as a total shock. How dare the orchestra not push my little emotional buttons! The whole experience was highly uncomfortable… but: my hate eventually withered and bloomed into real appreciation, dare I say love of this approach, though it took study, maturity, patience. Thank goodness for the local library in aiding with the bloom.

Big Reach

My first formal job, in fact, was at a library –retrieving, sorting, and reshelving books. Library services have expanded considerably since then, but essential purposes remain: the exercise of curiosity, and easy access to the results of that exercise. Cue those elements within a classical-viewing context now, thanks to a partnership between broadcaster Medici TV (who specialize in classical content and stream more than 150 live events annually) and Hoopla (an online borrowing system not dissimilar to Kanopy). Medici’s collection is now accessible to libraries in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. You just need a library card – and yes, the medici.tv/hoopla borrowing system works in Canada.

Another form of easy access comes courtesy of Wigmore Hall in London, which has a long history of presenting livestream broadcasts. Soprano Ermonela Jaho is set to perform live from Wigmore Hall on May 23rd as part of Opera Rara’s second ‘Donizetti & Friends‘ recital. Jaho, who is Artist Ambassador for the organization (dedicated to presenting little-heard operatic works from the 19th and 20th centuries), will be joined by its Artistic Director, conductor Carlo Rizzi, and his brother, violinist Marco Rizzi. The concert will be livestreamed on Opera Rara’s Youtube Channel and will be available for viewing for 30 days.

Space & Time

Speaking of viewing: the work of Alexander Calder is enjoying a special exhibition in Switzerland. Calder: Sculpting Time includes over thirty works which were made between 1930 and 1960 and explores what host MASI Lugano calls “the fourth dimension of time into art with his legendary mobiles.” Many of the pieces on display include items from the artist’s Constellations series, which he began in 1943. Calder won the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale and went on to be awarded the Legion of Honor in France and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US; he worked across a variety of media, creating not only sculpture and mobiles but set and costumes designs, jewelry, and immense public installations. The MASI show seems a little more intimate, but the imagery at the website also conveys Calder’s signature knack for spatial integration: the epic and the intimate; the intellectual and the sensuous. There is a certain joy (Schiller’s Freude, maybe) in all of it, and particularly through the live experience.

woman, man, opera, performing arts, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

Referencing that live experience, and as promised: my godfather enjoyed his very first opera just after his 87th birthday. He passed away at the end of March. Lately I’ve been thinking back on our times together, that 2017 visit to the opera very much included. Those who knew about our connection (and that opera visit) have asked me what we saw (Tosca) and more specifically what he thought of it all (he liked but didn’t love it, though did express interest in German-language works, specifically Die Fledermaus). He was mostly happy to finally be experiencing the thing my mother (with whom he had been very close) possessed such a passion for, and he was grateful for my initiative in taking him.

At his passing my godfather had been in Canada for seven decades but he never forgot his Swiss roots, and made a point of playing folk music (complete with yodels) on his stereo system during our visits. “It isn’t opera,” he would say, sipping brandy, “but it’s a little bit of home.”

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, designer, director, dramaturg, opera, production, artists, performing arts, culture

Barbe & Doucet: “Opera Is Entirely About Collaboration”

“Powerhouse” is a term often used within the opera world, applicable to the artists performing on the stage as to much as to those creating off of it. In the case of André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, the term not only multiplies but broadens considerably. The creators of over forty new opera productions,  the busy duo (and real-life couple) meticulously plan, design, direct, dramaturg, and offer their own precise, all-encompassing vision for works from French, Italian, German operatic and operetta repertoires. Their highly imaginative if deeply studious approach over the past two-plus decades has won them critical praise as well as legions of international fans.

Director and choreographer Renaud Doucet and set and costume designer André Barbe began their creative journeys in Quebec in the worlds of theatre, opera, dance, and television, before becoming a formal brand (‘Barbe and Doucet’) in 2000 and working as a team. Puccini, Rossini, Mozart, Massenet, Donizetti, Debussy, Offenbach, Berlioz, Bizet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, and Dvořák – all composers whose works have enjoyed the Barbe and Doucet treatment, with stagings across famed houses including Staatsoper Hamburg, Opera de Toulouse, l’Opéra National du Rhin, l’Opéra de Marseille, Teatro La Fenice (Venice), Teatro Regio di Parma, Oper Köln, Volksoper Wien, Kungliga Operan (Stockholm), Opera Philadelphia, Seattle Opera, Vancouver Opera, and L’Opéra de Montréal, to name a few. In 2013 Barbe and Doucet staged critically-acclaimed production of Wagner’s first opera, Die Feen (The Faeries), for Oper Leipzig, a co-production with the Bayreuther Festspiel, marking the composer’s 200th birthday. Their colourful 2018 production of Saverio Mercadante’s Il Bravo for Wexford Festival Opera went on to win The Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Opera Production.

What’s especially notable about Barbe and Doucet is their ability to combine what might be termed the fun and the smart; their presentations  offer a very complete vision of a very specific, occasionally identifiable world, or more often, multiple worlds. One’s imagination is engaged, often delighted, together with intellect; there is a seamless dance at work, and one barely notices until later contemplations – a head tilt; a bend of the collar; a slight pause between words. Nothing in the world of Barbe and Doucet is accidental. Both Die Feen and Il Bravo played with various levels of reality and perception, utilizing metadramatic situations and time shifts to highlight subtexts within respective librettos and scores, resulting in thoughtful if highly entertaining avenues of entry for newcomers. That instinct is especially noticeable in their 2019 production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) for Glyndebourne Festival Opera wherein the historical figure of hotelier Anna Sacher was used as a foundation for a fascinating exploration of family, opportunity, independence, and intergenerational rifts – elements that were brought out with a zesty mix of whimsy and intelligence.

Those elements are equally noticeable in their 2014 staging of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale currently running now through May 18th in Toronto. First staged by Scottish Opera and presented earlier this year by Vancouver Opera, the presentation marks the duo’s company debut with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). The action of Donizetti’s 1843 opera is here presented in a vibrant and colourful 1960s Rome complete with leopard prints, a bold colour palette, and big bouffant hairdos. Pasquale runs a shabby terracotta-toned pensione overstuffed with knick-knacks, including a litany of lime-green, feline-shaped tchotchkes; the title character, in Barbe and Doucet’s staging, loves cats but can’t have any owing to pesky allergies. The opera’s plot-rich story – involving comical machinations by others who hope to gain control of his fortune – is presented with humour, pathos, and even tenderness, its designs a thoughtful reflection of Pasquale’s wartime-influenced ideas of abundance, and the inevitable ways those ideas bump up against a rapidly changing world.

Money was the very thing that opened our recent exchange, which took place in the pair’s dressing room a few days prior to Pasquale‘s official COC opening.

Misha Kiria, Don Pasquale, Canadian Opera Company, Donizetti, COC, opera, performance, Barbe, Doucet, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, music, live, ensemble, Simone Osborne

Misha Kiria as Don Pasquale (sitting) and Simone Osborne as Norina in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Don Pasquale, 2024. Photo: Michael Cooper

Do budget cuts to opera mean changes to your work?

RD No it’s not that – companies will just cut new productions. There’s fewer of them that will actually be done.

AB When you look at big companies, it’s not that their budgets were always so enormous; it’s just that they had, and often do have, their own workshops. They can do their own thing. The companies have the manpower, yes, but it’s the supplies that have gone up: the price of lumber, the heating costs, the electricity costs; the war in Ukraine is a factor as well.

RD My first concern for the two of us is that we are working for the audience; we are working to reach an audience and making sure that when they leave the theatre they want to come back. I’m not not working for five critics; I’m not working for egos. When you have a theatre where the public come, where people are happy and they want to come back, this is the best publicity. But we’ve been through years of seeing performances where there were just 40 people in the audience, and oh my God, it was so fantastic – of course the opposite is also nice! When we did Die Feen in Leipzig – we were asked to do this production as a gift for Richard Wagner’s 200th anniversary; it was co-produced with Bayreuth – they said, “You know guys don’t be afraid and don’t be worried if there’s nobody.” And so we said, “Okay, well, we’ll do our best.” They were so surprised because the show wound up selling incredibly well – it was very popular. The same thing happened when we had shows in Hamburg – our shows there tend to sell out. There’s a reason for that.

Which is… ?

RD We work for the audience. This is the most important thing. It’s not so much about money as it is about time – people who dedicate themselves to what they do. The decision makers of the art form very often do not have a clue what the art form is about; boards don’t have a real clue about what we do; politicians certainly don’t have a clue about what we do and they never have. Companies hire most of the time, not all the time, but most of the time, people who are sometimes good with numbers and technology, but those are… objects. It’s about the audience.

Tall Poppies?

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, auditorium, orchestra pit, stage, seating, opera house, Diamond Schmitt, tiers, COC, Canadian Opera Company

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. Photo: Lucia Graca

Why did it take so long for you to work with the Canadian Opera Company – especially since you’re Canadian?

RD I think a lot of people in the opera business do not know where to put us; we do not fit in a box.

AB Also we don’t live in Montreal now, and really, we’re not very social people. We are not the type of people who go spend their days schmoozing and trying to seduce. We’re mostly two like those two grumpy old guys (Statler and Waldorf) on The Muppet Show. Really, we are just two grumpy old guys who just want to do one thing: work.

RD Put me in a studio with singers; put André working on designs. We are both people who love to work. And we can be difficult people as well because we don’t take crap. Absolutely not.

So maybe a little bit of Tall Poppy Syndrome?

RD Yes, maybe. There is definitely a lot of that kind of thing in the opera world. I think also… I love something Speight Jenkins at Seattle Opera told us when we worked on Turandot: “For years I never wanted to hire you because everybody was telling me how problematic you are – you are not problematic, but you show instantly what the problems are and people who can and cannot solve them.” The issue – and he said this also – is that we need to work with people who know what they do well and are confident, which is why we work with the same companies, like Staatsoper Hamburg, for example Then there are companies who look at us like, “Oh my God, there are the two monsters.” But if I don’t direct things in a specific way people will say they cannot understand, so I’d rather be clear. When I create a new production that I create a (staging) score indicating every entrance, every intention, all the light cues, the exact placement of props – I give companies this information more than one year in advance, and they look at me and they say, “No, that can never happen with so many people.” And then they discover that, “Yes it can.” When we did a new Cenerentola at the Latvian National Opera, the company made a copy of our score for their National Library and said at the time, “We had never seen anything like this.”

AB We’re not doing all this for ourselves; everything we do, we do for the sake of the show.

RD If a singer arrives extremely prepared, there’s not going to be any improvisation because when the staging is known, it’s known. Sometimes colleagues will arrive at a house for rehearsals and say, “Okay, we’re doing this new production, let’s improvise and see what I want to take out of it.” If it works for them, that’s fine and bravo, but we’re not like this.

AB Every detail you see onstage has been discussed at home, every costume; every movement. We talk a lot about it beforehand.

RD Also we are hired to have a point of view on the production – mostly in Europe, that’s what they tell us: “If you do The Magic Flute, you have to have a point of view.” When we did it at Glyndebourne – Sebastian Schwarz was the Artistic Director at the time – we asked, “What do you want to do?” Because we’ve been asked many times to do this opera, and we always said no. We couldn’t say no to Glyndebourne of course, but we said, “What do you expect?” He said, “I would like to create a production where the grandparents come with their grandchildren and build memories.” Well, that’s a good start, isn’t it?

That production, with its references to Anna Sacher, Rosa Lewis, and the exclusive world of chefs, was staged in the early 20th century but felt incredibly current.

RD Well as you know from when we spoke about it before, some aspects of its score are problematic. When they asked us to do it, I said “Oh God, we’re going to have to deal with these things” and then they were telling us. “You know if you want to change the text or cut it out…” and I said no way, I would never dare to cut the text; I need to find solutions, not compromise. And this is a thing in this business which happens too often; that kind of compromise is a point when everybody loses. You give up a little, you give up a little more; we give up a little, then even more. That kind of compromise is not a good solution. We need to find creative solutions that work best within the parameters. And so we did.

AB Something similar happened when we worked with Scottish Opera. The budget was small, there were difficulties, and we offered the director, Alex Reedijk, the idea to build the costumes in Budapest, because we knew a shop over there that would save on costs. And he said, “No – the funding for this is from Scotland; I need to provide workers with jobs.” So again, we needed to find solutions within the existing parameters. We understood what was needed to build the production and we worked to make it happen.

RD He was, and still is, there to serve the people of Scotland – he knows that when the money is coming from the government, he needs to give jobs back to the people. It was a parameter that made me so willing to find solutions with them. It’s the teamwork that is so important. Opera is entirely about collaboration. We need to work together.

Precision & Freedom

André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, designer, director, dramaturg, opera, production, artists, performing arts, culture

Photo via IMG Artists

Is this why you place such importance on the rehearsal time?

RD Yes. When I work with (conductor) Jacques (Lacombe) it’s so fun; he’ll be the one giving the notes on the staging and I’ll be giving the musical notes. There’s a feeling we’re all working together.That’s why it’s very frustrating when you arrive in some rehearsals on the first day and you learn a singer has decided that they will come in three days or whatever, and releases are given to them. Some companies say, “Well, they know the role; they sang it before.” Yes, they know the music, but they don’t know the staging or maybe even the actual stage; they don’t know the intentions; they don’t know this exact world, in all senses. And you need to know these things in order to feel them.

We were doing Cenerentola in Toulouse (2024) and one of the singers had seen our staging of La bohème (2022) – she saw how precisely we were working, how every little thing is so detailed, and she said, “Oh my God, now I understand the amount of work that Bohème took! It looked so easy, so flawless” – but that’s the whole point, you work in rehearsals so that everything seems effortless. We rehearse breath, body, even a little movement of the finger – everything. So when that singer then arrives in front of the orchestra in the house they don’t have to worry about the staging because it is within their body, their muscle memory – they know precisely what to do, and they can concentrate on the music and on the conductor. They need to feel confident in the people around them, confident in the staging, confident in the maestro, confident in the monitors, confident in their dressers; confident that they can do their job to the best of their abilities.

Do you sense a sharpening divide in understandings with regards to the role theatre in opera presentation?

RD We have a problem now because many companies don’t want to hire opera directors; they want people from film, from television, from circus presentations. They don’t want to hire a real set designer who designs and knows about sets for the actual theatre either; they want to hire artists who don’t know about things like vanishing lines or scale. That’s okay if you want to try something new once in a while, but it’s a problem if you only rely on people who don’t know and understand theatre, and don’t read music and work mostly in film. When I’m staging a show, I read the orchestra score, I look at where the clarinet is placed, because then what is the sound compared to the voice? What is happening here? Then what is the space in which we hear this? We have four people here in this particular set piece so what is that about with this particular passage of music? Then you need to think, “Okay monitor here, monitor there” and “Be careful on this line, the soprano needs to take a support here” and “How do I bring her to do this difficult passage in the best condition?” and “How do I motivate that singer dramatically so that she doesn’t have to think about the special effect?” The thing I say to every singer, and I ask them not to crucify me before the end of my sentence, is, opera music does not exist in the production; you create the music. The music comes from you. I’m not sure all film directors understand this.

So would you say a more theatrical approach is needed now?

RD Yes. Singers will say, “Oh, here I’m singing legato here, and there I’m singing another way; that way it all gives a good effect.” And I say, think in terms of cause: what is the dramatic cause that creates the effect? And if you think in terms of cause and in terms of character, the effect comes naturally. That’s theatre. You can create specific sounds that creates specific emotions, but you take a point of view. Then after, you know, people like it or do not like it. It’s like food; I don’t want anybody to say it was not well cooked; you can say it’s not to your taste, but you can still know it’s been done well.

The Subtle Art Of Being Funny

Misha Kiria, Don Pasquale, Canadian Opera Company, Donizetti, COC, opera, performance, Barbe, Doucet, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, music, live, ensemble, Simone Osborne

Simone Osborne as Norina and Misha Kiria as Don Pasquale in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Don Pasquale, 2024. Photo: Michael Cooper

So how does your approach differ between operas like Don Pasquale and Pelléas et Mélisande, for instance – is it always the same process?

AB It’s always the same. Whatever the piece is we need to give it our full dedication – and comedies are sometimes much more difficult than drama; they demand an even greater level of precision.

RD Always be serious in comedy. Always. Some people arrive to rehearsals and say, “Oh, I’m playing a comedy so I’ll be funny now” And you know what? That’s not funny! You just have to be very sincere. And if you’re very true to the text and very sincere, the comic situation will happen by itself. To be sincere on stage means to be open, and that is difficult – it’s scary, but opening yourself is much easier if you can use a mask. When you have to be sincere in things like Pasquale, it’s very different, because there are moments where it’s really dramatic.

I’ve always felt Don Pasquale was this look into the lives of these four rather awful but very familiar people… 

RD I don’t think they’re awful; I think they’re lovable!

Really?

RD For me it’s a conflict of generations; I think they don’t understand each other. The first thing I said to our Norina here (Simone Osborne) in rehearsals was, “Don’t be a bitch – you are not that; you have a goal and yes, things happen, but you need to know why they happen.”

So would you call it an opera buffa?

RD No, it’s not an opera buffa – Donizetti wrote it as a dramma giocoso; it’s written in the original score. There are some moments where you go, “Oh sh*t!” as well – it can be quite dramatic, and the people are sincere and lovable. You can understand, sometimes, why they do things and why sometimes they regret having done those things.

AB Also, you know, when you’re young and you see old people and you say,”Oh, they don’t understand anything.” And when you become old and you see young people and you say, “Oh, that’s not the way it used to be in my good old days” – this is something everybody experiences.

RD We all have an uncle who’s a Don Pasquale. He’s supposed to be a wealthy guy, but there’s different ways of being wealthy. What does it mean to have worth? To be rich? We set our production in Rome in the early 1960s and imagined that Pasquale (Misha Kiria) probably made money during WW2 on the black market. And he bought this little pensione and along the way got these odd jobs for people – the porter who was one of his friends; for the cook; for the maid – and they’ve been together for roughly 30 years. As a background story we also imagined that Pasquale is absolutely in love with cats – as you know there are cats everywhere in Rome – but he’s allergic to them, so this is why Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) comes to treat him, although Pasquale is also a hoarder.

Misha Kiria, Don Pasquale, Canadian Opera Company, Donizetti, COC, opera, performance, Barbe, Doucet, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, music, live

Misha Kiria as Don Pasquale in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Don Pasquale, 2024. Photo: Michael Cooper

That’s a very clever subversion of the old “old single lady cat lady” cliché…

RD Yes, Pasquale is the cat gentleman! He’s also a hoarder, and he has money, but you’d never know from the way he lives. So when Sofronia spends his money, he’s panicking because she changed the furniture – but of course she did. What is actually really terrible for him is the change, that he’s being forced to break out of his old habits.

AB He’s an old guy and he wants to be in front of his TV, drinking coffee, and looking through his old issues of Cat Fancy magazine; he’s very happy that way. He likes the familiar comforts, it’s the familiarity, the predictability. But that’s what’s funny about this – we love to be in bed by nine o’clock too!

Early nights are wonderful… 

RD They are wonderful. I’m not going to blame Pasquale, really – I don’t need anyone to come and change my habits either.

AB As I said, we’re the old guys from The Muppets!

Top photo via IMG Artists
New Zealand Opera, NZ Opera, (m)orpheus, co-production, Black Grace, dance, ASB Waterfront Theatre, Samson Setu, arts, performance, performing arts, stage, opera, reimagined, Gluck, Gareth Farr, Neil Ieremia

New Zealand Opera: “We Want Stories That Are About Us, Now, Here In This Place”

Is opera in crisis? It depends on who you ask. Directors, programmers, musicians, dramaturgs, academics, and music writers alike have been grappling with what exactly opera’s place can or should be in contemporary society. Shrinking interest; dying audiences; lack of funding sources; layoffs; closures; relocations; charges of abuse; increasingly desperate marketing and juiced-up data – outside of the small silo in which opera produced, presented, shared, and discussed the signs aren’t exactly encouraging. These issues highlight a bigger problem: the perception that opera, for all of its beauty and benefits, is simply irrelevant to a great many people.

It’s an idea – or reality, depending on your viewpoint – which has come about through decades of dramatic economic, cultural, and technological shifts, not least of which has been the precipitous cuts to arts journalism. Those cuts are frequently not acknowledged by the opera cognoscenti, though such lack of awareness (or interest) is possibly symptomatic of a larger issue facing opera, one related to community. The extent to which opera companies (and their leaders) meaningfully engage with the community, and in what spirit that engagement is conducted, are hard if important questions right now; is local engagement done for marketing and optics, or does it mean something more, something outside of affirming positional privilege?  Should opera reflect the place it’s presented, and if so, how? Opera is inherently linked to context; the cultures and histories of one locale can’t (and shouldn’t) be grafted onto another one. So how should opera acknowledge context? In which formats? And what role might commissions play in all of this?

One might look to New Zealand. A new report from Arts Council New Zealand Toi Aotearoa released this past Tuesday (“New Zealanders and the Arts – Ko Aotearoa me ōna Toi“, Creative New Zealand, 23 April 2024), shows public engagement, participation, and attendance in arts events all impressively up, with increased support for Ngā Toi Māori (Māori arts) as a way of connecting with culture/identity and encouraging language skills and usage. Various aspects of accessibility stand out, however; in identifying elements that would make a difference to their regular attendance, 53% of respondents cited cheaper tickets, and 30% said feeling confident they would be welcome. Might these respondents feel welcome at the opera? New Zealand Opera (NZ Opera) certainly hopes so. The company is dedicated to presenting work which reflects the people and history of Aotearoa; that focus means the country’s rich heritage and history sits at its core – and clearly manifests in the company’s bilingual website, which acknowledges a range of cultural consultants. Among the four values on its Mission & Values page is, rather notably, “Mahitahi | Collaboration“. Presenting works in a number of cities including Wellington, Christchurch, and Auckland’s Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre (named after the famed Kiwi soprano), the company partnered with the acclaimed dance ensemble Black Grace and its founder, choreographer Neil Ieremia last September. Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice was presented in reimagined form, as (m)Orpheus, with reorchestration of Gluck’s score by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr for a ten-piece ensemble that included a string quartet, marimbas,  guitar, woodwind, and brass. The production was a hit with critics and audiences alike. As well as live presentation the company has a clear commitment to education – hosting a student ambassador programme; school presentations and tours; and Tū Tamariki, characterized as “a space for Māori driven works, created specifically for tamariki and rangatahi” (children and youth).  Its first opera, Te Hui Paroro by music theatre artist Rutene Spooner, incorporates various theatrical elements including text, movement, and waiata. Upcoming presentations include Rossini’s Le comte Ory (opening the end of May) and a concert version of Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde in August with the Auckland Philharmonia led by Giordano Bellincampi.

This past week the company hosted its inaugural New Opera Forum, or wānanga, at Waikato University, located roughly 90 minutes south of Auckland. The Māori Dictionary defines a wānanga as a “seminar, conference, forum, educational seminar” as well as “tribal knowledge, lore, learning – important traditional cultural, religious, historical, genealogical and philosophical knowledge” – a definition which complements the company’s interest in music-based and text-based storytellers. Featuring composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone and reo Māori expert Kawiti Waetford (Ngāti Hine, Ngātiwai, Ngāti Rangi, and Ngāpuhi), the wānanga is described on the NZ Opera website as “a space for story-telling creatives in Aotearoa to gather together and consider the essential steps required before starting new opera projects.” The company’s General Director, Brad Cohen, told local arts website The Big Idea in February that the idea for the forum sprang from two questions, ones relating to support for new works’ “success and longevity“, and best ways to welcome storytellers to an art form they may perceive to be one of “exclusivity and entitlement.” (“New Forum Eager To Smash Creative Stereotypes”, The Big Idea, 15 February 2024)

Cohen has a lifelong history in music – as a conductor, administrator, and founder of the immersive music platform Tido. Raised in Australia, he began playing violin at the age of four before becoming a chorister in Sydney; as a teenager Cohen won scholarships (organ and academic) to The Kings School, Canterbury (UK) and went on to St John’s College, Oxford. Studying conducting with Sergiu Celibidache in Munich and Leonard Bernstein in Strasbourg, he eventually was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. In 1994 he won the Leeds Conductors Competition. (Other winners include Martyn Brabbins, Paul Watkins, and Alexander Shelley.) From 2015 to 2018, Cohen was Artistic Director of West Australian Opera. A fan of French and Italian repertoire, his track record with contemporary works is equally formidable; along with collaborations with composers Thomas Ades, Jonathan Dove, Georges Lentz and Ross Edwards, Cohen has directed ensemble works by Frank Zappa and worked closely with the celebrated Almeida Opera Festival in the 1990s. He has led the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Orchestras, the Philharmonia, the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to name a few, as well as conducting operas at English National Opera, New York City Opera, and Opera Australia, and recorded on the Naxos, Chandos, and Deutsche Grammophon labels.

Named as General Director of NZ Opera in April 2023, Cohen outlined his belief in opera to national broadcaster RNZ:

For me, opera is a universal resource. It uses one very simple element, the human singing voice, and it does one very simple thing with that, and that is tell stories through the power of that singing voice. This is a resource that is the first thing we as infants hear…we hear our mothers singing to us…it’s what we grow up with, it’s the only instrument everyone is born with…and it belongs to us all.

(“The new NZ Opera: progressive rather than radical“, 14 November 2023, RNZ)

In January Cohen took part in a panel called “Conversations About Opera” and admitted he was part of what he called the “apprentice and master model” and that the current opera landscape requires “more consideration in how we collaborate.” (“New Zealand Opera boss hails changing culture”, New Zealand Herald, 21 January 2024). Collaboration has a recurrent theme throughout Cohen’s work; in a 2018 blog post closing his tenure with West Australian Opera, Cohen outlined the centrality of what might be termed the three c-s of 21st century opera: community, curiosity, and confidence. Ties to my own favourite c-word (context) are obvious; they jump out of the opera silo by simply acknowledging there’s a reality (or rather, several) outside of it.

Our recent conversation took place the week before the start of the wānanga. Cohen and I began by discussing the origins of the forum before exploring the role companies might play in cultivating new commissions, a role that goes well beyond workshops and acknowledges collaboration and related community. At a time when there are calls to “burn it all down” – “it” being the opera world – Cohen takes what has he himself has termed a progressive (as opposed to radical) approach; the opera-is-fancy clichés can go; the stories and the music remain.

Brad Cohen, New Zealand Opera, General Director, conductor, opera, arts, culture, leadership

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

The idea really began 35 years ago; I started out my career working at the Almeida Opera Festival in London in the 1990s – that was where I did the premiere of Ades’s Powder Her Face and a lot of other major work. We also developed many new commissions. The 1990s was probably the last decade of real confidence around new opera. There was a vision of a way forward then, that (new opera writing) was part of a tradition and that it was going to continue. My perception is that that confidence has really deteriorated and lessened over the last couple of decades. When I came into the role here as General Director, there were some commissions in progress and discussions around future commissions. I thought we needed an overhaul and that sent me to thinking: what would the preconditions be for new works? The forum is about exploring the best means of ensuring success for new work that we can – and by “success” I don’t mean first performance or run; I mean sustainability and revivability.

How does the forum aim to counteract the one-time-only issue for new opera works?

It goes back to process. My experience of working with experienced and less-experienced composers and librettists is that the historic pattern for many houses seems to be, “Here’s a chunk of money, we’ll see you in three years with a masterpiece.” At that stage, abject terror normally sets in for the music and/or text creators, because they don’t normally have experience in writing opera. They have no idea what the rules of the game are, if you like. They may not even be experienced in writing text or music for voices. There are basic things: how many words do you think a singer can sing a minute and be comprehensible? Do we really want a libretto that’s longer than Tristan when the brief has been for a 90 minute one-act? There’s a real potpourri of experience coming in, but also, from the opera companies, there’s often a real lack of shepherding. Companies will decide on the big name to give the commission to, and then they’ll step in with their direction in the six months before the premiere, in the form of workshops. In my view, and from my experience at the Almeida, that’s far, far too late. It’s the holding of creatives through the entire process that we are proposing as a better model.

NZ Opera, New Zealand Opera, Jonathan Dove, Kawiti Waetford, Frances Moore

The New Opera Forum  (L-R) included NZ Opera Participation Manager Frances Moore, baritone Kawiti Waetford, and (bottom) composer Jonathan Dove. Photos supplied by NZ Opera.

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

However, it does encounter a few obstacles because I think opera composition is one of the last citadels of the ivory tower. That is, there is an expectation amongst lots of creatives that they’re going to be given a chunk of money and that the success of the project is in simply getting the commission. Now for me, that emphasis is all wrong. The success of the project is the revivability of the piece. It’s not the getting of the commission. If everything’s inflated towards, “Okay, I’ve got this commission” and then “What the hell am I going to do?!” – that’s the wrong emphasis. How are we going to make these works revivable and sustainable? It’s about how the opera company, with all of our practical and pragmatic experience in putting work on, supports and educates where needed, but does not interfere with the creative process of these people who are writing these works.

What is the role of workshops? What should come before them?

Sometimes workshops have become little more than a PR exercise: “Hey, this piece is coming and here are some bits from it!” But by the time you get to that, it’s way, way too late. What about the robustness of the libretto? What about the dramaturgy? What about the structure? Is this going to work? Is this going to work on stage? Do we think this has a reasonable chance of working? Because a lot of the pieces that I get, you know, I mean, there’s some obvious question – like who wants to see this piece? Who wants to actually see this story? Do you have the authority and the knowledge to tell this story? Is it really your story? Is it your kind of story? Or are is this another form of appropriation? These are really big questions. One of the days of the forum we’ll have one hour focusing on story sovereignty. Some composers and librettists don’t even know what story sovereignty is, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.

There’s a strong element of didacticism within various new works, and it’s sometimes tied to grants and funding schemes. Where does that element fit in with your notions of new opera creation?

That’s a complex issue. I just want to consider your question of whether the existence of grants, to some degree, actually distorts the choices that are made downstream of that. If didacticism is becoming a part of this, is this because in some sense, the grants have a stipulation or a vision mission statement somewhere that suggests that didacticism would actually be welcome? I think I, like you, don’t really feel that didacticism is germane to opera, necessarily. I don’t think historically it’s played that well or successfully and I think if you want to teach and to create teachable moments there are probably far better media to do that.

Gatekeeping In Opera

In terms of our commissioning there’s a lot of dishonesty. I think a lot of people say, “Oh we’re not gatekeepers!” – but actually, I am. I’m pretty much the only gatekeeper in this little corner of the world. I am leading the only opera company here with national reach. I am pretty much the path through which all decisions about commissioning or not commissioning go – and not just commissioning work, but who directs, who produces, who sings, who is cast, all of that. I am ultimately responsible for those decisions. So it doesn’t behove me to say “Oh, you know, we don’t like to think like a gatekeeper.” You know what? We as companies are the gatekeepers; there’s no getting away from it. Someone has to say yes or no. And the biggest part of my job normally is saying no. That’s just the way it is, and I accept the responsibility, but I’m not going to be dishonest about that. Someone has to press go or no-go on all of these projects.

We are not a grant giving body; we source commissioning funds from trusts, foundations and other institutions, but we are still the conduit through which those funds come to creators. The question is, how can NZ Opera support artists better? And by “support creators better” I do not mean, “how can we give you more commissioning money?” – that’s not the point of the question. The question is, what do you expect from a national opera company in terms of their responsibility towards you? Because opera commissioning is an unavoidably expensive process. There’s some sense of adult responsibility here that we’re really keen to discuss on that final forum day; we’re adults, let’s all act like adults and have a serious discussion about what our responsibility is as the national opera company towards creatives, but also what responsibility do creatives have towards the National Opera Company, towards our narrative, towards our journey. It’s a sense of mutual obligation, ideally, and that contract, if you like, is very rarely explicitly stated.

That mutual obligation is made extremely clear on your website – how does that work in terms of the company’s diversity?

I don’t frame it around Māori and non -Māori; we frame it as, we are here to serve our community or, alternatively, communities in a multiple sense. There’s a lot of complexity here around Māori hiring, our bicultural journey going forward, and there’s a lot of complexity politically, with the new, more right-wing government. I won’t use the phrase “cultural war” but there’s an aspect of a culture war developing here right now and as the national opera company, we are right in the middle of that. We feel that we have been given a responsibility, but it’s not like we’re inside and the others are outside. In fact, in many ways, we are outside. We’re outside the main thrust of culture as opera people; we’re outside the main way that people spend their time and what they want to go and see. It’s a very parochial if very common thing to think, “We are at the seat of power and we will open our doors to these lovely creatives from various communities and let them have a chance to play” – for me, the model is exactly the reverse of that. The opera industry as a whole is holding on by our fingertips – we are on the verge of irrelevance – and everything else is either deception or self-deception. I don’t have any time for it.

rehearsal, repetiteur, Brad Cohen, David Kelly, NZ Opera, Mansfield Park, performing arts, culture, music, arts

Cohen (centre) in rehearsals for NZ Opera’s 2024 presentation of Mansfield Park, speaking with Principal repetiteur David Kelly (right). Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Storytelling As Foundation

So if we’re going to serve our communities, what is necessary? What I do is simplify everything to the pithiest possible message, and the only way that I really approach new work, is to see who is the best storyteller and who feels that they both have to tell them and that they have the competence to be able to articulate them. That is really where it stops and starts for me.

If you’re a composer – whether a white male composer or a female of colour – and you’re not interested in storytelling, you’re not a good match for our organisation here, because storytelling – we’ve made it very explicit – is what we believe in and we are about. We want to tell stories not only about our communities, but ones with historical awareness of this nation’s narrative. What part do we play in the narrative going forward? That’s a really big responsibility, but we try and wear it as lightly as possible, not by saying that we are The Chosen Ones and we’re going to occasionally allow a chink of light in so a diverse someone can slip through and become anointed by us – no! It’s about who has great stories to tell and if those who do have any interest in working within the operatic art form. If not, is it because they’re genuinely not interested? Or because there might be some misunderstanding about what opera is – i.e. “It’s not for me because it’s elitist, it’s exclusive” or “They wouldn’t want me anyway”? What we’re saying, really strongly, is that we want great stories – stories that are about us, now, here in this place. We have advocacy and persuasion to do; the way that opera has sold itself for the last hundred years is not the core of what it actually is.

You’ve said in many interviews that the whole “elite” cliché around opera has to go.

Yes, you’ll hear me say it again and again: opera is not about the champagne; it’s not about the black tie. Those things can be part of it, sure, but that’s not what opera is. Opera is storytelling through the human singing voice. Period. I just say that ad nauseam, because that is the most condensed form of definition of what opera is. What’s the quality of the storytelling? Does it reach the heart? Does it speak to audiences? Is it something that people want to come and see?

Brad Cohen, New Zealand Opera, General Director, conductor, opera, arts, culture, leadership

Photo: Andi Crown

Who decides what’s great or not then? Who decides on that definition as applied to the art form?

It’s a pretty intractable problem. You can abdicate from your responsibilities as gatekeeper and you can say, right, we’re throwing it entirely open, no one’s going to make a decision about this! Then what’s left to you? You could mount competitions too, but at the end of the day someone is always saying “go” or “no-go. ” Always. It doesn’t matter who. It could be the board; it could be the funding body; it could be the GD; there is no world in which work is entirely self -generated and rises to the surface and gains performances without someone at some stage going, “Yes, we’re going to go with this” or “No, this is not for us.” There’s no way around that. The longer-term solution is that my successor is a Māori person – that’s the obvious result of everything I’m doing, and it is my own thinking about succession. I’m not on my way out yet, but it behoves every leader to start thinking about succession immediately. The logical next step for a country who is engaging with these narratives and taking its responsibility to the whole community seriously is that it shouldn’t probably be a white, Oxford-educated male who replaces me. That’s what I am, right? It doesn’t matter how liberal I am.

“Consistent and determined”

Cosi fan tutte, New Zealand Opera, NZ Opera, Mozart, Cosi fan tutte, Lindy Hume, Tracey Grant Lord, performing arts, culture, classical music, opera

A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, directed by Lindy Hume. Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Is it fair, then, to say the Forum is aimed at both creators and a larger classical ecosystem?

It’s absolutely aimed at the ecosystem – we hope that it is going to be a nourishing activity that will send tributaries out into the ecosystem – but that’s not our intent; I hope that it’s going to be a consequence. And for clarity, we are being very explicit that we are not aiming for outcomes from this one; this is a space for reflection, for safe discussion, and for erecting an intellectual superstructure around the space in which we can create new work. We’re not going to have workshops in this one; that’s not what this is about. This is really pushing the walls out to create a safe space and a way to say to people, “Hey, you might have an interesting story we want to hear.” And one of my hopes is that some of the more marginalized voices who may be attending the wānanga will go back to their networks and say, “You know, they might not be full of shit; they might actually have a little bit of understanding.” That’s the best we can hope for. We are very consistent and determined at NZ Opera about the journey we’re on, and our messaging and our communication reflects that.

“Oh, they actually mean it; this isn’t just optics.”

Yes we do mean it! I’m very passionate about it because… my big stick is, I feel like I’m a slight subversive within the establishment, and I’ve watched opera alienate its audiences for my entire life, and I love it too much to let that continue. So I’m doing what I can and encouraging subversion, not merely for subversion’s sake, but in order to refresh this art form and make it purposable going forwards –  that’s my mission in life. I think it’s what the art form needs so desperately.

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor, Dario Acosta, classical music

Remembrance: Sir Andrew Davis

To say “I grew up with Sir Andrew Davis” isn’t quite accurate.

Davis was a regular a sight growing up in southern Ontario in the 1970s and 80s. As Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 1988, Davis led a varied and fascinating series of programmes, helping to cultivate new ideas on sound and its live iteration. He felt as familiar as the green carpet in the little house where I grew up – as familiar as the fruit trees in the front yard and the glass Pop Shoppe bottles in the refrigerator. It was normal to climb into a rumbling old station wagon with my music-loving mother twice a month (sometimes more) and see Davis stand on the podium in front of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the then-new Roy Thomson Hall. He didn’t make classical cool – I didn’t care about any of that; to me it existed outside of such labels – but he did help to make that world less daunting.

No one smiled at the creaky Royal Conservatory building where I took my yearly piano exams. No one smiled at the opera, either; very few smiled at recitals or chamber concerts. Davis was different. Vaguely resembling a large teddy bear, Davis had a discernible warmth that you could feel, whether seated near or (for us more often the case) far. I felt that warmth, especially when we sat in the hall’s choir loft behind or to the side of the stage and observing Davis made me want to listen more to everything with more care and attention, to make mental notes of things I heard and saw, to think about relationships between pieces within one programme. Davis also made me want to learn more about conductors and their mysterious art: a flick of the wrist, a raise of the shoulders, a big swoosh of the arms; what did it all mean? I began, slowly, to try and understand.

Trips to the hall were not limited to ones with my mother; those arranged through school, though far less frequent, were nonetheless welcome variations to the drudgery of boring gym and daily bullying. They were happy journeys to a second home – green carpet replaced by grey carpet; fruit trees by labyrinthine halls and escalators. They were also opportunities to finally become an authority, however briefly. I would lead my fellow students to the loos and show them the drinking fountains, and tell them to shut up when Davis (and Gunther Herbig after him) inhaled and raised baton.

“Just listen… ”

And then I would listen too, open-mouthed and pie-eyed. It was one thing to hear this music on the radio and records; it was quite another to hear it live. I started to hear counterpoint, instrumentation, texture, colour. Davis, perhaps more than any other musician at that time, made classical music real for me – me, an art-loving nerdy, oddball girl from a small suburban town who began to desperately want to pursue a musician’s life, who eventually skipped classes in grades 6-7-8 to sit at home and play the piano, who would pause from Beethoven-Handel-Liszt-Kabalevsky and ponder the memory of Davis’s arms as they moved through a space that hardly seemed empty. “How would he play this passage?” I wondered. “What would he tell me?”

News of Davis’s passing today at the age of 80 was met with immense outpourings of grief – from singers (including Sarah Connelly, Christine Goerke, Alice Coote), conductors (Sakari Oramo, Dalia Stasevska, John Andrews) and a number of classical organizations, including those with whom he’d held longtime positions including Glyndebourne (Music Director, 1989-2000), Lyric Opera Chicago (Music Director and Principal Conductor, 2000-2021) the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Conductor Emeritus), and BBC Symphony Orchestra (1989-2000; Conductor Laureate). Norman Lebrecht praised Davis’s wide repertoire, noting that “Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Britten, Elgar and everyone else were treated with respect and meticulous attention.” He led 700 performances of over 60 operas by 22 different composers, including Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. One of my favorites is his recording of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Singers, released via NMC in 2021; I’m not sure I would have considered the work of Birtwistle were it not for Davis.

In early 2020 Davis commented in a video for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a preview of a concert he was leading) on the connections between Beethoven and 20th century composer Michael Tippett. “In their different periods, they were both kind of looking to show us the same thing: a way forward that would enrich us.” Beethoven’s Third Symphony may well have been the very first thing I experienced Davis leading live; the sound was riveting to my young ears – thrilling, poetic, profoundly moving. Today I re-listened to the acclaimed 1991 Teldec recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6, (a longtime favorite) with Davis leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and I experienced precisely the same feelings as a child, along with that now-deeply-planted desire to simply, quietly… listen. Davis was so much a part of my musical life and it seems strange and sad to now have to contemplate life without his presence. I am so grateful for having grown up, in my own way, with Sir Andrew Davis. Thank you, maestro.

Top photo: Dario Acosta

Update:

My feature with New Zealand Opera’s Brad Cohen, announced last Thursday, will be publishing this week. Sincere apologies for the delay.

tulips, flowers, spring, orange, colour, petals, vibrant

Reading List: Movies, Music, Media, & … Butchers?

Another university term has wrapped and I am still busy, largely with self-initiated things including interviews, chases, planning, and (as ever) copious amounts of study. Herein, a few things that have caught the attention, inflamed the imagination, cocked my head and furrowed my brow; I may have smiled once or twice also. Voila, news, views, musings, questions, reprimands, and previews… April showers bring what? We shall see.

This week: A series called “Opera and Democracy” has been unfolding in an assortment of locales throughout Manhattan. Presented by The Thomas Mann House and musicologist Kai Hinrich Müller (also a 2023 Fellow of the organization), the series hopes to explore “how the opera can contribute to diverse and inclusive societies” and uses Berlin’s Krolloper as a symbol of both art and politics. (Built in 1844, the facility became an opera house in 1851 and eventually served as the assembly hall of the Reichstag from 1933 to 1942; it was demolished in 1951.) The topics of  the series, according to the website, include “aspects of the democratization of opera, to questions of power and representation, new formats, casting and programming policies, audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.” The series has already hosted themed conversations in Los Angeles and Munich. Its next events happen next month in Dresden, with June’s week-long online series exploring involving the Black Opera Research Network (BORN). I’ve put out a request to speak with Müller about this – fingers and toes crossed for a future feature on a timely topic.

Later this month: Dame Felicity Lott will be performing at London’s Institut Français on April 30th as part of a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, the 1930 avant-garde work The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète). Considered a masterpiece by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is the first installment in The Orphic Trilogy (subsequently followed by Orphée in 1950 and Testament of Orpheus in 1960), which explores themes of identity, creativity, fame, and the unconscious. Lott’s performance (happening after the screening) will be accompanied by composer Jason Carr, with whom she has worked extensively; the appearance  is part of the Institut’s broader series celebrating the work of French composer Georges Auric (1899-1983). Cocteau’s film includes a rather perfect line for classical watchers: “Those who smash statues should beware of becoming one.”

Next month: If you don’t know the music of Maria Herz (1878-1950), you might – soon. Born in Köln to a music-loving family, Herz and her family eventually moved to England in 1901 because of the rising tide of antisemitism in her homeland, though they would return in 1914 and be forced to stay. After her husband’s premature death in 1920, she would use his first name in her compositions, in order to, as website Music And The Holocaust puts it, “gain a foothold in her male-dominated profession.” By 1934 she had produced over 30 works, though only five of her songs (as well as her arrangement of a Bach Chaconne) were published during her lifetime. She died in New York City at the age of 72. Much of her music sat forgotten in drawers until grandson Albert Herz’s heroic efforts in Switzerland; he would go on to donate it to the Zurich Central Library. In 2015 Herz’s music became a permanent part of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s music department. As publisher Boosey & Hawkes recently announced, a new recording is on the horizon. Set for release in May via Capriccio Records, the album will feature Herz’s Concerto for cello and orchestra Op. 10 (soloist Konstanze von Gutzeit), Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 4 (soloist Oliver Triendl) and various orchestral works, all performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the baton of Christiane Silber.

Carving up space

London’s Southbank Centre recently announced a new festival based on Kate Molleson’s book Sound Within Sound (Faber & Faber, 2022). I interviewed Molleson not long after the book’s release with relation to a feature I was writing for The Globe & Mail on changing ideas of the classical canon.  The festival, named after the book, runs 4 to 7 July and places its spotlight on the ten composers Molleson identifies in her book, ten artists whose work has, for various reasons, flown well under the radar – until now. The festival will include concerts, installations, stories, DJ sets, and recitals, including pianist Siwan Rhys performing Galina Ustvolskaya’s harrowing and extremely timely Piano Sonata No. 4 in 4 parts (1957), Piano Sonata No. 5 in 10 movements (1986), and Piano Sonata No.6 in 1 part (1988). You might feel yourself walking out of the Purcell Room in pieces following the performance, but then, it’s up to you to put them back together again in a way that makes sense with every other musical morsel – and maybe that’s the whole point of the festival.

Speaking of pieces and morsels: butchers have been on my mind, thanks to a thoughtful essay at Longreads. Along with a fascinating history, author Olivia Potts gets meaty (pun intended) input from a variety of people in the industry, many of whom left careers in other areas. This element has a special personal significance – I considered this very path over a decade ago; my opera-loving mother said I would probably make a good butcher indeed but for my small stature, not – as the author points out – that this is an entirely insurmountable thing. The feature immediately brought to mind other industries, ones with overwhelmingly male leadership and/or overwhelmingly clubby, insular attitudes. (I’ve mused on this theme frequently in the past, most recently in last month’s reading list.) Among the many brilliant observations and direct quotes, one section particularly stands out to me:

“It feels axiomatic to say that those who come from outside an established or “validated community of knowers” will find it significantly harder to both acquire knowledge and have that knowledge recognized than someone whose path is a well-trodden one. One of the most common ways of excluding non-traditional entrants to an industry is to be dismissive of them. This idea of being “taken seriously”—often those exact words—comes up again and again in the butchers I speak to about women in the trade.” (“The Women at the Cutting Edge of Butchery“, Olivia Potts, Longreads, 15 February 2024)

Shut your (my) filthy (rich) mouth…

Still in the non-conformist (or is it?) category: Theatre writer Lyn Gardner has written a chewy column for The Stage explores the rise of self-censorship in both organizational and individual aspects. I long for something to be added here around the normalization of false equivalence – how and why some views are given equal weight when they are not clearly not equal – and on the proliferation of hate speech, particularly within the realm Gardner points at as being the most problematic (social media), and how that proliferation has leaked into current cultural discourse. She does touch on an important aspect to all of this – money – and the role of funding bodies, but I wonder to what extent so-called “cancel culture” (whose popularization has made a tiny handful of tech people very rich) actually informs real programming decisions. After all, the moral authority to which she alludes doesn’t come cheap, and it largely flies out the window to keep the money rolling in; ever has it been thus. That tendency is more pronounced now that revenue sources are becoming increasingly scarce. Gardner’s mention of her students not knowing about Britain’s history of theatre censorship is somehow both depressing and unsurprising. (“Self-censorship doesn’t only silence voices but erodes moral authority“, Lyn Gardner, The Stage, 8 April 2024)

… but do speak up

The GVL (Gesellschaft zur Verwertung von Leistungsschutzrechten) is conducting a survey on the state of the German music industry. The survey is intended for artists who are either self-employed or active in the music industry and based in the country. Responses are due by no later than 19 May 2024. Co-founded in 1959 by the German Orchestra Association and the German wing of the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the GVL represents the interests of both producers and performing artists related to audio recordings, as well as ancillary rights through different forms of media. Machen Sie mit!

Hallo Medien

Amidst recent German media speculations regarding the current situation at Bayerische Staatsoper, its multi-award-winning in-house record label (BSOrec) is not mentioned once. Am I the only one who finds this strange? The label, founded in 2021, has so far released ten acclaimed audio and visual works, the most recent being last autumn’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Elias led by former company leader Wolfgang Sawallisch and captured live in 1984. Does media (local and international, equally) not consider BSOrec part of the musical ecosystem of the house (or city)? The exclusion is particularly galling if one considers the excitement such releases tend to generate globally; as well as being good for ears and eyes, they further the branding of the organization, and, more broadly, that of Bavaria overall – something Markus Blume must surely be aware of (we hope). Furthermore: why is the label’s work so under-promoted by the house? Why are there no related online updates – ones that might impress Herr Blume and demonstrate an interest in engaging with the wider public? Does Guido Gärtner need to come back from Bremen?

Lebeswohl, Scheiße

Writer Anne Midgette has penned an open letter to the musicians and administrators of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, and what she terms “other classical music organizations and orchestra musicians’ collectives.” The letter is a response to their posted expressions of solidarity with relation to an article by Sammy Sussman in New York Magazine detailing the 2010 rape of New York Philharmonic horn player Cara Kizer by two fellow musicians and its horrific aftermath; since the article’s publishing, the two are, as of 16 April, are no longer rehearsing or performing with the orchestra. Midgette takes aim at the statements of support posted by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute (along with those unnamed others) for their rampant hypocrisy, something I’m not sure she would have been able to do with such clarity in her former position as classical critic with The Washington Post. Along with the force of her prose, Midgette provides stellar links and digital trails. I have met many people who intensely dislike Midgettes reporting, the #MeToo movement, what they feel she represents and supports – dislike these things as much as you wish, but you cannot deny Midgette excels at bringing the damn receipts.

Coming soon:

This weekend you can read my recent conversation with New Zealand Opera General Director Brad Cohen. The company’s first-ever New Opera Forum takes place next week (22-26 April) with composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone Kawiti Waetford. The company recently opened their production of Dove’s 2011 chamber opera Mansfield Park – the work’s libretto is by Middleton and based on the 1814 novel of the same name by Jane Austen. Cohen and I had a fulsome discussion in which he offered thoughts on what opera can and should be in 2024, for artists as much as for audiences.

This sense of possibility is one of the things I’ll be exploring in an upcoming exchange with Renaud Doucet and André Barbe. The busy director-designer duo have two productions on the go right now, in Liège (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) and Toronto (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale); their 2019 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in Glyndebourne  (which I previewed in Opera Canada magazine) incorporated aspects of real-life hotelier Anna Sacher into its dramaturgy. The last time was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the pair had made a dramatic escape from Venice; this time will (we hope) be a bit less dramatic.

In the meantime, remember the c-word– and use it. 🙂

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
sketch, drawing, ink, quick, study, motion, figure, movement

Essay: Hype, Money, Music

Everyone in the classical world seems to have an opinion on news of Klaus Mäkelä being named as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The Finnish conductor will end his respective directorships in Paris and Oslo in 2027, and begin prestigious tenures with the CSO and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. He will be 31 years old by then, hopping between continents and, one may assume, making guest appearances with various orchestras as well. Since news of the Chicago appointment last week, reactions have been extreme; either Mäkelä (or his agent; or both) are out of depth, out of touch, out for money and in it for the glory; he isn’t serious; jetting in and out implies a lack of commitment! – or he is the lord and saviour of classical, he is especially brilliant live, he is beloved by musicians and audiences alike, he is talented and how dare everyone be so mean!

I am not a fan of hopping on bandwagons of any kind; they’re hot, they’re noisy, they’re airless – but sometimes such rides are required to ascertain the nature of a journey, its sites and stops, instead of looking to one final, ultimate destination. Money is not the final stop here but every bump along the road, with marketing teams and board members steaming up the windows. The people organizations choose as leaders have always been reflections of aspirations related to the artistic, intellectual, organizational, social, communal, as much as to an organization’s history with and around those elements. Leadership must be in a package incorporating all of these things, and be appealing to boards, donors, ticket-buyers, CEOs. Being good at smalltalk is every bit as important as studying scores – it greases the financial wheels, related parts of which are rather squeaky these days.  Attendance in Chicago is on the rise, but so is the cost of everything else, with Chicago’s rents roughly 20% above the national average – a fact worth considering; even the CSO’s lowest-price ticket of $35 is well beyond the means of a great many.

Recent upheavals within the city’s theatre scene are, as The Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Jones noted last year, symbolic of a wider problem involving the performing arts sector:

Companies run the gamut from nonprofit, community-oriented, avowedly anti-capitalist organizations with fundamentally social missions focused on political change, to high-cost commercial operations in the very capitalist business of producing profitable live entertainment. Often, their needs are divergent. And the former typically is contemptuous of the latter. (August 17, 2023)

One can make a face that classical music should never bow to commercial considerations, that it ought to be properly (however that is defined) funded by government at all levels – that classical music is so holy it must never bow to such a vulgar consideration, in which case the names Esterházy, Belyayev, von Meck, van Swieten, Coolidge, and various members of European royalty may not mean much. Flap arms about the nature of non-profits as much as you like; organizations need to feel they have secure futures, and they need a suitable figure in which to place those hopes. The cries of “Welcome!” that greeted Mäkelä’s recent appearances in Chicago following the news were obviously sincere, but also likely infused with a needed optimism for the art form as much as the organization and its illustrious history.

Feeling one is a part of that history, and a part of making that history, is attractive to audiences, even if they are largely unaware of the realities that are inherently part of working within the classical industry. Conductors, especially General Music Directors (GMDs), have never had only one job. Coach, counsellor, educator, initiator, glad-hander, poster boy/girl, diplomat, ambassador, peacemaker, activist, attractor of money, pseudo-guarantor of financial health and organizational stability – a few of the roles GMDs must play, in addition to that of leader, interpreter, and scholar of scores. Between the three-letter word “art” and the five-letter word “music” is the real four-letter word: work. Audiences want to feel the GMD is working for them even if they don’t know (or don’t want to know) the nitty-gritty, usually-unglamorous details. Those details involve shaking hands with strangers for hours on end, being agreeable to disagreeable if potentially useful people, coddling insecure players and soloists, courting CEOs of corporations who may know little about music, making appearances at various events, preparing for and partaking in of any number of meetings, creating programs that will be friendly to the box office, and negotiating those programs with a board and any number of administrators who may well think they know better (perhaps they do); the process of recording (and post-production) is a huge beast unto itself.

Such duties must also be negotiated around and within an immediacy digital culture demands, one specifically younger generations understand and (hopefully) respond to. Actual attendance at cultural things may be down but digital engagement is up, and boards are paying attention, relying on marketing personnel to manifest that digital engagement in real ways. As Los Angeles  Times music critic Mark Swed recently noted:

Boards! We can’t live with them, and we certainly can’t live without them. By their very nature, they are about money. They keep the institution running. They raise funds. When boards are excellent, they recognize the artistic vision and make miracles happen. But that can take some doing, because by their very nature, they operate by committee. (March 20, 2024)

Committees by their nature tend to have varying degrees of groupthink, an approach which rarely if ever (as Swed wisely notes) courts risk within the musical realm; that, in turn, leads to a perceived need to play to the masses, en masse, and in 2024, that’s social media. So in addition to all their usual duties, MDs of the 21st century are also expected to be online influencers of sorts; cue portraits of said leader in designer turtleneck or crisp shirt, in a well-lit locale, with score open, brow furrowed, wielding a pencil with carefully-manicured fingers, all of it Photoshopped to wipe away bumps, wrinkles, sags, and jowls. The face of the organization, so carefully edited to match digital ideals, is barely human; classical people are, you see, beyond the masses. (This is probably not the consciously intended message but such adherence to unrealistic and ageist beauty standards entrenches popular ideas that tie classical music to a perceived elitism;  I may write about this further at some point.) There is a kind of robbery at work when it comes to simply showing the actual people who work in classical, including (or especially) its leaders, the ones who must be the face of the organization, for good or bad.

Sometimes organizations demonstrate a great trust in their leaders, and they, in turn, opt for a touching (and refreshingly untouched) public authenticity. The social media presences of non-digital natives Paavo Järvi and Gianandrea Noseda (GMDs, respectively, of Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and Opernhaus Zürich) are good examples, as is the Tonhalle’s “Tram For Two” episode featuring the two maestros musing on their shared passions and ideas. Whether the CSO or Concertgebouw will emulate this kind of thing is a mystery. Two people who love and work in music, talking about music and music-making, in all its various angles, unscripted; would groupthink allow it? Will we see Mäkelä in conversation with, say, Enrique Mazzola or Lorenzo Viotti?

Paris, Philharmonie, orchestra, classical music, L'Orchestre de Paris, live, performing arts, Klaus Mäkelä, conductor, musicians, stage

Klaus Mäkelä and the L’Orchestre de Paris taking bows at the Philharmonie de Paris, March 6, 2024. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

To what extent Mäkelä will be the face of classical music in both Chicago and Amsterdam, and just how that image might be shaped, curated and spun back out to the public, remains to be seen. The open and hotly-debated question of his music choices – whether he will program things that reflect places and related histories, epochs, and demographics while offering a forward-thinking approach –  is one that only time will answer. (He would be wise to ask Esa-Pekka Salonen for a few pointers.) Will it be possible to do anything meaningful at either locale, given travel schedules? Is youth an impediment or an opportunity?

I want to stay curious, if also mindful of what I heard at the Philharmonie de Paris last month. Mäkelä led the L’Orchestre de Paris in a programme consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (The Year 1905); I came away with highly mixed feelings. The conductor did have a palpable chemistry with soloist Yunchan Lim, and it was special to see the effect that had on the orchestra – but there is nothing wrong with not following the crowd in other aspects (in this case Shostakovich). And as my former music professor Rob Bowman once said, energy goes where attention goes; extending energy to the work of  other conductors who are less firmly in the heat of a spotlight seems like a logical choice, one I hope classical music watchers will consider.

In the meantime, it’s time to leave the bandwagon and jump into the clear, cool evening. Remember the c-word.

Top image: original sketch, mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Henri Vidal, Cain, Abel, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, sculpture, French, biblical, story, brothers, regret, horror, murder

Reading List: Marching Into April, Reading & Remembering

Easter weekend is finally here. Whether you plan on indulging in chocolate eggs and hot-cross buns (or not), the current moment is really an ideal time for pondering. The notions of suffering and loss seem very close at the moment. Good Friday is a particularly profound day for quiet reflection. Along with recommended listening, I suggest spending the day with hot tea, soft light, and a bit of reading.

Realities

First up: the UK Musicians’ Census reveals the extent of gender inequity in the British classical music scene. Surveying 6,000 UK musicians, the findings are not surprising but they are depressing. The acknowledgement of ageism is certainly interesting (I’d like a more extensive study focused on Europe as a whole), and the results around financial realities for women are equally pointed. As The Strad reported (March 27):

The average annual income for a female musician was found to be £19,850, compared to £21,750 for men – meaning women earn nearly a tenth less.

Women also only make up just 19 per cent of the highest income bracket of those earning £70,000 or more from music each year. […] The data on the pay gap comes despite the fact that women musicians are qualified to a higher level than men.

This lack of balance was addressed recently by bass baritone Sam Taskinen in conversation with Van Musik‘s Anna Schors (March 27), in which the singer shares her challenges within the opera world as a trans person. Along with exploring aspects of vocal technique and auditions, Taskinen states that what is really needed within the industry is “many more women in leadership positions at the opera houses. In the artistic directorate, as general music directors”, adding that “we need a much greater diversity of people who have responsibility behind the scenes. The problem is not so much that those responsible have no good will. It’s just that some of them have a lot of blind spots.” This reminds me very much of what tenor Russell Thomas said in an interview with me in 2019, that meaningful change within the industry will only happen off stage and within administration; that what is seen onstage is often mere optics, with little if any meaningful transformation powering it.

Report on Business editor Dawn Calleja added meaningful context to this idea of change-through-management in a recent feature for The Globe and Mail (March 28) in which she updated a story she’d done on retail giant Aritzia, and their own challenges in terms of diversity and leadership:

One woman succeeding at an organization does not automatically mean it is welcoming to and respectful of all women.

And that’s the problem with today’s diversity discourse. Sometimes we can get lost in the data and forget the most important part: making sure women and people of colour stick around, and are given the chance to participate fully in and contribute to the corporate culture. Hiring, in other words, is just the start of the journey.

Ruminations

Reading these items I was reminded once again of composer/writer Moritz Eggert’s recent post for NMZ’s Bad Blog Of Musick (March 13), in which he mused on the challenges of cultural presentation in 2024.  Opera/classical leadership is trying to navigate a range of pressing issues, including diversity and access, both onstage and off. Eggert uses the mythological figures of Scylla and Charybdis to explore arguments made by the political left and right around creativity and its manifestations, particularly within the operatic realm. Using various readings of the 1978 film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Eggert writes that “It is precisely this openness to interpretation and multiple readability that makes great works of art.”

I agree with much of what he writes, but I am still very unsure as to whether or not the sides to which the author refers are actually equal. Whenever I hear (or read) the phrase “artistic freedom” I also sometimes hear (see) “financial incentivization” and/or “unquestioned validation”. Imagining a work which sits outside the realm of one’s immediate knowability raises important questions as to how much of gender, race, spirituality, and nationalistic identity are individually or collectively used as exoticized costuming as opposed to actual reality. Can creators grasp lived experienced through an imagination which has been wholly shaped by their own immediate socio-cultural worldview? Should they try to? Should audiences be asked to go with them? And – crucially – should artists be officially funded for that pursuit? Should audiences pay for it? Or should there be outright denial across the board? Who decides? And in whose interests?

Natasha Tripney, International Editor of The Stage, recently published a fulsome account on various forms of censorship in theatre communities based in Hong Kong, Hungary, Slovakia, the Balkans, and Belarus; if there’s anywhere the (overheated, algorithmically-juiced) term “cancel culture” works, it might well be these places. Her examination has tremendous bearing on the opera world, especially in terms of content and context – the place in which a work is presented, its cultural norms and demographics, are inexorably tied to governing powers and their control of the purse strings. Any contemporary discussion of art and creative freedom, no matter how idealized, which doesn’t mention funding is worth questioning, at the very least.

Speaking of which: many European houses have announced their 2024-2025 seasons and from most indications it looks like Euros will be flying around – and, they clearly hope, through the front doors as well. Opera national de Paris is featuring Offenbach’s Les Brigands as its first new production of the season, led by operetta king Barrie Kosky and conducted by Michele Spotti. Paris’s Opéra Comique has its own fascinating October offering, a staging of Sir George Benjamin’s fairytale-like Picture a day like this, led by the composer himself. Opernhaus Zürich is presenting Leben mit einem Idioten, Alfred Schnittke’s satirical 1992 opera, to be staged by Kirill Serebrennikov and conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer. In November, Dutch National Opera presents Le lacrime di Eros, a very unique-sounding project which will feature both Renaissance and electronic sounds. Romeo Castellucci is director and dramaturg; the work will be led by Raphaël Pichon and include his acclaimed Ensemble & Choeur Pygmalion. Next summer Bayerische Staatsoper presents Fauré’s only opera Pénélope by Andrea Breth and conducted by Susanna Málkki; the work is making its debut with the house, and the premiere on July 18 will be broadcast live on BR Klassik (radio). Also worth noting: new Ring Cycles being set in motion in Munich, Paris (Ludovic Tézier will be their Wotan) and Milan.

Sooner than that: Opernhaus Zürich is presenting two complete Ring Cycles this May, a revival of Andres Homoki’s 2022-2023 stagings and led by house GMD Gianandrea Noseda. Wagner’s super-epic is also currently wrapping up at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden, also a 2022 presentation, this one by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by Philippe Jordan.

Remembrances

The classical world has lost many greats this month, including Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, who was artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera (RSO). Cavanagh was very beloved in his home country and abroad, with the Manitoba Opera, Vancouver Opera, San Francisco Opera, and RSO all posting tributes to the unique and widely-loved artist, who died on March 13th at the age of 62 . My obituary for The Globe And Mail, featuring quotes from Cavanagh’s family as well as Edmonton Opera artistic director Joel Ivany, is here.

Composer Aribert Reimann passed away on March 13th at the age of 88. His 1978 opera Lear, based on the Shakespearean play, was commissioned by and subsequently premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper; the company posted a beautifully thoughtful tribute at the announcement of his passing. The recording of the work’s premiere, led by Gerd Albrecht and released in 1979 on Deutsche Grammophon, is a cultural touchstone; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone cuts like a knife, delivering the full measure of the work’s tragedy in every careful, anguished note. I spoke with Gerald Finley not long after he’d finished performing the role himself in Salzburg in 2017, and at the time he called it “a fiendishly difficult piece of music”, adding that Fischer-Dieskau’s recording was a real source of inspiration even before he began preparing for the role. (It was Fischer-Dieskau himself who urged the composer to write the work back in 1968). Reimann himself said the opera explores the “isolation of man in total loneliness, exposed to the brutality and questionability of life.”

Composer Peter Eötvös passed away on March 24th at the age of 80. His deep talent for dramatic writing was expressed through his fourteen operas, which include Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), based on Chekhov’s play (1998), Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play (2004), and Love and Other Demons, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2008), along with Die Tragödie des Teufels, commissioned by and premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper, who posted a remembrance. Eötvös’s 2011 Cello Concerto Grosso really caught my attention –  the conversational nature of this piece, the kinetic give-and-take rhythms between soloists and orchestra, is hypnotizing. Eötvös remarked about the work (at his website) that “My concerto is a series of short dance-acts, it well may be that the “last dance” is coming from a traditional Transylvanian culture which is doomed to a slow disappearance….” The work was most recently performed by the Bremen Philharmonic and cellist Sung-Won Yang, and led by conductor Jonathan Stockhammer.

Pianist Maurizio Pollini, who passed away on March 23rd at the age of 82, was known and rightly celebrated for his recordings of Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, and post-modernist composers Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen. His Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the Beethoven sonatas were so central to my younger, intensely-piano-playing days. I was especially drawn to his 1989 recording of numbers 17, 21, 25, and 26 – the quiet, unshowy poetry; the slow, intense drama; the easy mix of grace and control; the clear sense of line running through and connecting it all. “My feeling is exactly the opposite of controlled,” Pollini told the Chicago Tribune in 2004, in an attempt to bin an undeserved “cold intellectual” label. I returned to those Beethoven recordings (and more besides) at learning news of his passing last weekend. Pollini’s performance of the second movement (Adagio) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 In D Minor, Op. 31, still has the power to make me drop everything and stop, breathe, listen, 35 years after first hearing it.

In closing: New York’s wonderful Rubin Museum is presenting its final exhibition, at least within its physical space on West 17th Street in Manhattan. (It’s about to go digital-only.) Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now, running now through October 6th, explores contemporary art from the region through a variety of media, including sound, sculpture, video, painting, installations, and performance. The exhibition showcases the work of 32 contemporary artists alongside a variety of items from the Rubin’s collection. New and old, engaging in fruitful dialogue; imagine that.

Happy Easter wishes to those celebrating. Remember to use the c-word in your Sunday dinner conversations. (That would be context.)

Top photo: Henri Vidal, Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, 1896; Jardin des Tuileries, Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

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