Month: February 2020

Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

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Photo courtesy IMG Artists

Lyubov Petrova is an artist impossible to put in a box; as you’ll read, that’s just the way she likes it. An immensely gifted soprano with a knack for infusing her singing with a keen sense of storytelling, Petrova has an immensely varied opera history, from a smart, note-perfect Adele in Stephen Lawless’s 2003 production of Die Fledermaus at the Glyndebourne Festival to a raging Queen Of The Night in Kenneth Branagh’s fascinatingly recontextualized cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (2006). She’s also ace at epic concert repertoire (including Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), as well as more intimate work, a talent she poetically showcases on her 2017 album of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs.

A winner of the 1998 International Rimsky-Korsakov Competition and 1999 International Elena Obraztsova Competition, Petrova trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Programme, and has enjoyed numerous Met appearances, including as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (her Met debut), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Werther, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Woglinde in Das Rheingold, to name a brief few. The New York-based soprano has performed with numerous other North American outlets too, including Dallas Opera, LA Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, and has performed at various festivals worldwide, including ones Glimmerglass, Glyndebourne, and Spoleto, at the Bellini Festival in Catania, the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi, Italy, and the BBC Proms.

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Photo: Ronnie Nelson

Petrova has appeared with numerous prominent international houses including Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Dutch National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Korean National Opera, the Bolshoi, the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and the Teatro Colón (Argentina). She’s also done a range of symphonic and concert work (music of Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Bizet, to name a few) with an assortment of orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Orchester Pressburger Philharmoniker, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra. One look at such a varied history reveals an impressive and entirely consistent development into vocally heavier repertoire, while still keeping a firm foot in Petrova’s place of origin (figuratively and literally) – a tuneful and fleet-footed spot with an ever-present edge of laser-like authority.

Petrova first caught my attention through her remarkable, gleaming, in-concert performance in Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in 2016, where she brought a thoughtful lyricism to Prokofiev’s angular, driving score, making the fraught nature of the work  – and its deceptively simple characters – warmly, recognizably human. During the opera’s composition, the opera’s would be producer, Russian theatre artist  Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and later murdered as part of the Great Purge; at the time of its 1940 premiere its perceived importance was strongly connected to a “Soviet opera” aesthetic (despite the frisson between its obvious melodramatic and moralistic scheme of social realism), a perception strengthened for its being based on Valentin Kataev’s 1937 novel, I, Son Of The Working People. The complicated nature of the work, combined with its even more complicated (and tragic) composition history (involving the sudden disappearance of Meyerhold as well as a political pact that necessitated changing the bad guys from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists), plus its (predictably) myopic reception (celebrating its ideology while ignoring the music) meant the opera wasn’t performed anywhere between 1941 and 1958, and only entered the repertory of the Bolshoi in 1970; Prokofiev would later compose an orchestral suite based on the opera. It is notable when singers can integrate this sort of charged history into the very seams of sound, so that performances become much greater than the sum of their individual parts; such visceral interpretative artistry is what Petrova – and indeed the entire cast – did with such affecting results in Amsterdam in late 2016.

Petrova’s vocal warmth is something of a signature. Her tonally shimmering, golden-hued turn as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold was truly memorable, part of an in-concert presentation in early 2018 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Michelle de Young, Matthias Goerne, Matthew Rose, and Brindley Sherratt, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski; she performed the role again the role later that same year with the Odense Symfoniorkester (Denmark) with conductor Alexander Vedernikov. 2018 also saw Petrova sing the role of Marfa in Bard Music Festival‘s presentation of The Tsar’s Bride and perform works from Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry as part of Music@Menlo. 2019 opened with the music of Mozart, with Petrova taking on Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Florida Grand Opera. Freia returned with an October 2019 in-concert presentation of Das Rheingold in Moscow, again with Jurowski but this time with the State Academic Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov.

Petrova’s 2017 album Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff: Songs (Nimbus Records), recorded with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, showcases this vocal excellence, and nicely displays another side of the multi-faceted artist, a silken, soft suppleness that delights the ear. Her caressing of the text, careful phrasing, and thoughtful tonal intonations betray a deeply sensitive artistic sensibility able to quickly adjust itself according to both the tangible and intangible elements of music-making. In 2017 music writer Ken Herman noted of Petrova, in relation to her performance at that year’s edition of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, that “(w)hether she sings of love, death, sorrow, […] she never merely sings about these states—she incarnates them and forces her listeners to confront them.” It’s an observation that feels very apt to not only the works on her album, but her artistic approach overall, one that combines a deep musicality and love of text with a natural affinity for theatre and drama. Listening to Petrova isn’t a mere exercise in passive hearing but an active experience of the visceral power of her art, and her skill in expressing it with such a vivid force of conviction. Indeed, David Patrick Stearns’ observation in Gramophone that “when she sings of ‘magic stillness’ in ‘A Dream’, you hear it in her voice” applies far past the final album track to which he alludes.

Petrova is currently preparing for her premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, happening at Moscow’s Zardadye Concert Hall on February 22, with Tchaikovsky’s own “Ode To Joy” Cantata also on the bill. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and chorus master Lukáš Vasilek, together with fellow soloists Daria Khozieva (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Dmitruk (tenor) and Nikolay Didenko (bass). A more intimate appearance takes place at Zaryadye (in the small hall) on March 6, when Petrova will be giving a recital with pianist Rem Urasin. Together, the appearances encapsulate Petrova’s refusal to be easily classified or boxed in by sounds or experiences. We spoke recently when the soprano was recently back in Russia and busily preparing for her upcoming Zaryadye performances.

How did you choose the songs on your album?

I went through the whole of two Tchaikovsky volumes of song, and one big book of Rachmaninoff songs – I went through all of them, and chose what I liked, basically. Vladimir (Feltsman) also had ideas of what to do but he basically left it to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sang before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – like a Russian pancake – “always goes badly”, but I don’t think it’s the case here, so I’m happy!

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Photo: Vladimir Feltsman / Nimbus Records

I feel like your interpretations offer understanding on a deeper level that goes past language.

It’s like souls talking, mine and Vladimir’s, and it’s very universal – that’s the key to music: it communicates beyond words, heart to heart.

So are some of these going to be part of your recital in March?

Yes, most definitely.

Many singers I’ve spoken with emphasize the importance of doing recitals. What does that experience give you creatively?

It’s very true; recitals give a completely different connection with the pieces of music, and a different connection with the audience, actually. The songs are rather short so you have to create a whole world in three to seven minutes, and it has to be the story, the complete story, and it’s like, two sections, so twelve different worlds each half, so then it’s twenty to twenty-four songs – so basically I create twenty-four different worlds. And then I also consider how it’s me, and the pianist, who is part of me – we are together; I try to become one person with the pianist, and the audience. And in a way we are completely naked. We are very exposed, much more than in opera, because we have costumes and sets and a director; it’s a completely different interaction. In recitals, I’m basically just sharing what I am and what I’ve learned; it’s much more intimate.

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Photo: Nimbus Records

When you emerge on the other side, what things do you take back into the world of opera?

Absolutely I come out different. I know myself much better through this experience, as a musician and a person; I can create more defined characters and go, on a much, much deep level, into the characters I play onstage. I love drama, and I love theatre, and I love opera – I’m a singing actress, no question – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, those little songs. I missed not sharing that side with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to get more in nowadays.

And you’re doing your first performance of Beethoven’s 9th soon. His vocal writing is known for being difficult; what’s your experience as someone new to singing his music?

You know, as short as (the vocal part in Symphony No. 9) is – compared to any opera it’s rather short – I have to agree, it’s difficult and rather demanding, and from a soprano point of view, it’s very high; he keeps the vocal line up there and we have to soar above the orchestra, and yet keep it graceful and also be “full of joy! full of joy!” but I’m very excited and am working hard on it. Of course I don’t want anybody to hear, “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it, though.

Sir Antonio Pappano recently said that Beethoven’s writing for voice is entirely analogous to his instrumental writing, minus the consideration that people actually have to breathe.

Yes, I know what he means. Basically you use everything you’ve ever gathered as an artist, and try to enjoy it and pray it comes out well! There are some brilliant moments – it’s phenomenal music.

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With Matthew Rose (L) and Brindley Sherratt (R) in the 2018 London Philharmonic Orchestra presentation of Das Rheingold. Photo: Simon Jay Price

You’ve done Wagner too, which is also demanding vocally, though in an entirely different way.

I’m starting to do Wagner, and I have to say … it’s, well, Wagner is a genius but only when I started singing his music did I really embrace it, and now I’m feeling , like, “Wow, what a phenomenal experience for any musician to sing his music!” There’s a lot to discover in his work, it’s true – but I was surprised. I surprised myself at how much I love it.

It’s not music that is commonly done in Russia either.

Not that much, only in St. Petersburg – it’s done almost exclusively there. A few pieces are performed here and there, outside, but not really. I have to say it’s a whole universe, and I’m excited about that.

There’s no end of learning when it comes to Wagner’s work.

That goes with my whole philosophy about singing and stage and my profession: I never stop learning. Since I started this, it’s always, to my mind, been a process; I’m always learning something and trying to make my instrument better, and finding new ways and colours. It’s non-stop. Wagner fits in perfectly in with how I see myself as a singer and my job.

You’re featured on The Compassion Project (Innova, 2018) as well – your work on the album features some new sounds for you, writing which I think suits you well vocally. What does performing contemporary work give you artistically?

I am searching for the not-well-known stuff, for things forgotten or for things fallen out of the limelight. I think it’s exciting for us as musicians to find those gems and open them and bring them to people. On that album there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of… and it’s Tchaikovsky of all people! Same with contemporary music, but you see, it’s, how can I say, it’s challenging most of the time for singers if they don’t have a musical background, because you need to have a very attuned ear. You have to hear, really well, the intervals and all of the changes (within the composition) – it’s just a skill. As long as a young singer is willing to learn and challenge him or herself, they’ll find it exciting and fascinating, but if they are not secure enough, then of course it’s easier to stay with Mozart, because it’s universally harmonic and easy and something they’ll hear again and again.

and it’s something audiences will have heard a lot as well. There’s something to be said for classical artists purposely – and purposefully – doing things outside the mainstream, on mainstream stages.

Yes, and I have say unfortunately it’s not that easy, because some people who organize concerts and programming at concert halls – not all but some – are afraid of new pieces, even if it’s not contemporary music. Recently I did a beautiful cycle by Bartók; it’s not contemporary – I mean, it isn’t Mozart but it’s not contemporary – but it’s glorious music, and I had to push for it. I had to use my name and all that, to just say, “Hey , don’t ignore this just because people haven’t heard it!” And later (audience members) came up and said, “That was phenomenal – thank you for introducing that to me!” People who organize for venues are scared, I guess because there are problems with financing – maybe difficulties related to the financial end of things – but hopefully again, if we keep doing what we love and what we feel is important, then we will push through these tough times.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Yes.

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As Contessa Almaviva in the _ production of Le nozze di Figaro at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Chris Kakol

Classical organizations in North America are facing similar issues, if in a more concentrated way. For instance, if Stravinsky is programmed, it’s always The Rite Of Spring, which is considered daring; it’s never lesser-known works that are just as interesting, if not more so. Organizations are scared tickets won’t move, but if you never program it, people won’t know, and they won’t have a chance to decide for themselves.

Thank you very much, yes!! It also takes, as a musician, time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel I have something to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown things inside in order to do it. I’ve grown into the music, so I have all that I’ve learned put into this music and I offer it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very human – but again, it is constant work, and it all depends on if we’re willing to work and make ourselves better, and if we’re willing to push other things, and make concerted, constant pushes toward… what’s the word…

Evolution?

That’s a good one, yes. Never stopping. Trying new things will always teach you something!

Evolution is two-pronged; it’s work, as you said to do this – evolving is work– but it’s also allowing yourself to evolve, which means being open to all sorts of things, including discomfort, which takes courage to face. How much did your time with mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova helped to cultivate that quality?

She has always been one of those people you look up to, and the fact that I had chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge. Also the trust and… you know, she was such a generous and kind person, and the things she told me when I was still young gave me so much confidence, you know what I mean? She believed in me so much, and that belief gave me wings, like, “Go baby, fly! Enjoy the singing and share it!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life. I have, as we say, a ticket and a blessing from her for this career, and for this world of singing.

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At the Opera Ball at the Bolshoi in November 2019. The concert was in memory of mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

How much did she help to instil your sense of exploration?

It’s just how she was herself; she was never afraid to take a risk. For example, at some point she went into theatre; she was doing a lot of things with various organizations – recitals and working with contemporary composers, and being onstage doing big opera things and going to recital halls and doing small pieces – and when she was older she went into theatre, and people said “Are you crazy? What are you doing?!” The main thing was, she enjoyed it, and that was one of the biggest inspirations. (Obratzsova was artistic director of the Opera Company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2007-2008, and appeared as The Countess in their production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades in 2011, the same year she created a charitable foundation to promote music education; she passed away in 2015.)

There are so many languages an artist can speak in terms of different ways and different approaches, and (Obratzsova) showed all of us there is not one way, that we don’t have to lock ourselves in one box: “I’m doing opera” or “I’m a recitalist” or whatever. She was free herself, and she inspired us in that way, those who were her students or the winners of the competition. She never put any chains or anybody; she never put anyone in a box. And that was a very big inspiration, no question.

That’s how it seems with you, that you’re not in a box of doing one style or sound, which reflects your life between the United States and Russia.

I feel like it’s a blessing and a gift; every way is different. Everybody has a right to choose the way they’re living and approach careers, but I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am enjoying it. When I sing Wagner that doesn’t mean I don’t love singing Handel, or that I can’t; if I sing Handel that doesn’t mean I can’t sing my heart out in other modern pieces, or do the most intimate, almost whispering things in a recital. I love it all.

Cornelius Meister: On Curiosity, Collaboration, And What His Father Taught Him

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

Looking at Cornelius Meister’s calendar inspires a mix of wonder and exhaustion.

The German conductor, who is Music Director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart, is currently in New York City, leading performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera until February 22nd. From there, he jets off to Tokyo to lead the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (of which he is Principal Guest Conductor) before playing with various orchestras in France, Germany, and Austria. A return to Stuttgart comes the end of April; Meister will conduct a series of concerts and also conduct a revival of Tristan und Isolde, where he’ll be leading soprano Catherine Naglestad in her role debut as the doomed Irish princess. May brings a production of Strauss’s Arabella in Vienna, and the summer features a busy mix of concerts and opera back in Stuttgart. All this activity doesn’t even touch Meister’s extensive discography, many of them done when he was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (ORF) between 2010 and 2018.

Meister, whose father was a professor at Musikhochschule Hannover and whose mother is a piano teacher, started out in 2003 as Second Kappellmeister with Staatsoper Hannover (his hometown), before becoming Music Director of the Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra of Heidelberg, where he stayed for seven years, until 2012. His recordings (of Brahms, Haydn, Dvořák, Mozart, Wagner, Bartók, Zemlinsky, and particularly Bruckner) and live work (a comprehensive A to Z listing on his website includes, among the very many, Beethoven, Lehár, Gershwin, Mahler, Boulez, Nono, Stravinsky, Webern, and Zender) reflect an insatiable musical appetite, one that seems to grow with each new orchestra and experience, whether orchestral or operatic. Meister’s tenure at Oper Stuttgart began in 2018, having already conducted at numerous prestigious houses, including Oper Zürich, Teatro Alla Scala Milan, Semperoper Dresden, and Wiener Staatsoper, and festivals including those at Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and in Bucharest, at the biennial Enescu Festival.

All this activity isn’t exactly unusual for a successful artist within the classical sphere, but the breadth and range of Meister’s musical curiosity is as enlightening as it is exhilarating. I became much better acquainted with the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů thanks to a truly brilliant 2017 recording (Capriccio Records) of the Czech composer’s complete symphonies. Recorded with the ORF between 2011 and 2017, the mammoth album (spread across three CDs) is a gorgeous lesson for both newbies and Martinů connoisseurs alike, revealing Meister’s focus on maintaining keen balances between individual voices within the rich orchestral tapestries, while emphasizing their unique tonal and structural paths and underpinnings. At its release, music writer Michael Cookson noted that “Meister palpably generates considerable tension in his readings and the playing, full of rhythmic energy, is never less than steadfast, whilst shaping phrases that give consideration to every nuance.”

His 2014 album of the music of Wagner (Capriccio Records), again with the ORF and featuring soprano Anne Schwanewilms, performing the beloved Wesendonck Lieder and and Elisabeth’s Aria from Tannhäuser, is a sumptuous mix of big and small; Wagner’s sweepingly broad overture to Tannhäuser is here given loving pockets of quietude, with rippling strings that glint softly, shimmering against woodwinds and brass, Meister’s watchful tempi and textural swells throughout the album underline the music’s connection to a broader scope of musical history, both backward-looking (Beethoven) and anticipatory (again, Martinů, which would make sense given the album’s timing). Meister and I recently spoke amidst performances of Nozze at The Met; I asked the busy father of three how he kept up such a hectic pace, before moving into musical, and, as you’ll read, dramatic (and even balletic) matters.

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Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Nozze.” Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera

You have a lot of diversified engagements – how do you keep your energy and inspiration?

I have a family, and I must say, I love music and opera of course but it is not everything in my life. And without my family, I think I couldn’t do everything.

Many artists say that family provides the balance amidst the chaos.

Yes. I’m very happy to be born not ten or twenty years earlier, because nowadays it is so much easier to call each other from another continent or city, and to take fast trains and such. We didn’t have these things even fifty years ago; now it’s much easier to keep in touch.

The houses that you perform in (Stuttgart, Zürich, Vienna, New York) are all so different; how do you create intimacy within each space?

When I’m conducting, let’s say an opera by Mozart, it matters a lot which room I’m performing it in regarding the acoustics. In Germany there are a lot of ensembles, so between thirty and forty singers who work regularly; that means sometimes we prepare role debuts together, one year ahead or even more. Last season in Stuttgart, we did Ariadne Auf Naxos and we had a wonderful mezzo soprano who is now in our ensemble, and she prepared it more than one year in advance – this is only possible in houses with an ensemble. 

On the other hand, here at The Met I have the privilege to work with many singers who have done their roles in various productions at several great opera houses, so this makes it easier in another aspect, I would say – their acoustic awareness could start on the highest level, and the beauty for me, as a conductor, is then to bring all these different experiences together to create a production ensemble.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

You said in a 2019 interview that conducting is about making music together – how does that relate to the inherent power dynamics of being a conductor? How do you balance the power aspect with the collaborative aspect?

On the one hand, of course it is true that a conductor can decide a lot, but on the other hand, I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t play any tune or make the music by himself, so I can’t do anything without having everybody on the same side. I would say my job is to encourage everybody to be brilliant, and confident, and bring together all the different possibilities and traditions and experiences everybody has. And in houses like the Metropolitan Opera, where everybody in the orchestra has played these operas a lot, with many different conductors, it’s not a question of, “How we do it?”, it’s more a question of how we all can do it in the same style, and how we can bring it all together. This is a task I like very much. I also like to be flexible when I conduct the same opera in Vienna and New York – the result is, of course, very different; it’s still my Mozart, for example, but there is not just one Mozart which is my Mozart.

Would you say that flexibility is the key to authority in your position?

In a way, yes, but I would also say that it is really necessary to have some strong ideas of what I want – having something I really like and really want with music, and being flexible to bring everybody to that result. 

That must be especially true when you move between so many different orchestras as you are about to do, post-Nozze. Where does flexibility fit within your experiences between different ensembles, especially ones you have such a short amount of time with?

I always try to use the tradition an orchestra has – so the Viennese tradition, or maybe the Dresden Staatskapelle tradition, for example – those traditions are really old, and I adore them, and I always make a point to ask members of the orchestra how are they used to playing this or that. When I’m in Vienna I spend hours and hours in the library to research information which is hand-written into the orchestra parts, hand-written from the time when Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler conducted there. I wouldn’t think that us younger conductors should always start at point zero; we should use that tradition, we can learn from it. In Stuttgart we are using the original harmonium used at the Ariadne world premiere – the first version of the opera was performed in Stuttgart in 1912, just two months after the opening of the opera house, with this very harmonium. 

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Oper Zürich’s 2018 production of Così fan tutte. Photo © Monika Rittershaus

Where does that sense of tradition fit when you are working on a new production? You had an special situation in Zürich in 2018 with a new production of Così fan tutte, and you also led a new work, The Snow Queen, in Munich in 2019. 

in Zürich the situation was that we didn’t have the director face-to-face – we were in close contact. So every morning we got a new video message from Kirill Serebrennikov; there was contact and he had brilliant assistants in Zürich, but for me as a conductor, the face-to face exchange is really important when preparing a new opera production. When I’m conducting opera, I’m not only a musician; I try to be a theatre person also, and I need a sense of every aspect of the drama. The first and most important question, always, is not, “how can we play the music?” but “how can we create that emotion, that dramatic situation?’ In order to create that situation you have several possibilities; there are scenic possibilities and musical possibilities, but these are, for me, totally secondary. The first question has to relate to the drama. And if I don’t have a partner to whom I can say something and to which he can react – not only by email or whatever – then it isn’t so easy! In the end (for Così fan tutte) of course I was very happy we did it, and it was very important, I think, to do that in Zürich.

In Munich the situation was completely different because there the piece (directed by Andreas Kriegenburg) had already been performed in Copenhagen some months before, so it was already set, on a certain level. Rachel Wilson, who is from Texas and is in the ensemble in Stuttgart now, sang the main mezzo role (Kay) in The Snow Queen, and she was really well-prepared coming in, so it was quite easy. 

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The Snow Queen at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2019. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

When you perform symphonic works by the likes of Martinů and Bruckner, and then go back to the opera house and do Wagner and Mozart, what things do you take with you between the two worlds?

I always appreciate it when orchestras who play symphonic music are also experienced in accompanying singers. In my opinion, a violin group who is used to listening to a singer in the opera is also very flexible and fast in listening to a solo oboe, for example, in a symphony. On the other hand, I appreciate it a lot when orchestras which are playing normally a lot of opera are also used to, in some situations, sitting on the stage and creating something unique for one or two or three performances. From one world I try to take the best and then bring it to the other world, and of course, some composers, like Mahler and Schumann and Brahms, wrote very opera-type things, and it’s good to have those works be performed also, because for me there is not such a big difference between theatrical music and other music.

When we have the Third Symphony of Bruckner, for example, with its quotations of Wagner in its first edition, this is a good example for that close relationship between those worlds, but I know there are many conductors who are conducting either operas or symphonic music. Others do mostly oratorios and choir music. I respect that, because I think (the music) needs different techniques, conducting techniques, and people to conduct different styles, but I always try to learn as much as I can from all these works. I have also conducted oratorios and ballets during my Kapellmeister time years ago, and sometimes I would conduct silent movies too.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

What did you learn conducting ballet?

A ballet dancer needs certain tempos as a singer would need. I, as a musician, hopefully can sense if a singer needs a certain tempo. When is started to conduct ballets, it was much more difficult for me to feel that sense of which was the right tempo for him or her, and sometimes we had different ballet dancers on stage who needed different tempi. After some experiences it was easier for me to see and to feel how movement onstage is related to music tempi, and this helps now, a lot, when I’m conducting operas – not only to listen, but also to watch which is the right tempo for an action or movement onstage.

This relates to what I said earlier, that for me, music is a part of a larger theatrical performance. I had an experience eleven years ago when I conducted The Abduction From The Seraglio at the San Francisco Opera, my first opera experience in the United States (in 2009). I had conducted it before in Germany. I took approximately the same tempo which I had taken before, but with this production in San Francisco, it didn’t work. I had to take a different musical tempo and then it worked within a scenic sense, not only for the action but for the atmosphere onstage. I changed my musical approach, quite happily.

You took lessons with your father – how much do you think this quality of openness relate to that time?

He and I spent so many hours playing piano together, four hands style. We would go through and play all the Beethoven works, and all the Bruckner symphonies. He was never a conductor, but he was really interested in everything, not only piano music, but also he had a great knowledge about history and culture in general. So through this approach I learned to always be open to the world, and to be interested in different sounds, and in people from different nations and people with different ideas of the world. This was my education, and I am really glad for that.

That curiosity is apparent from the wide repertoire list at your website, which includes the work of Claude Vivier. 

For me there has never been a difference between old and contemporary music, because this is the music I’m interested in, and there’s music I may be, at the moment, not so much interested in, but it doesn’t matter which year it’s from. When I was with the ORF it was totally normal to play all different types of music. When we started to rehearse a piece which none of us had performed before, we didn’t ask if this is a good piece or not, because we always started, and after some days, then maybe we started to think something, not as a absolute judgement, but  maybe we allowed ourselves to say, “Okay, I like this or that” but never on the first day. We would never be so self-confident to judge music on the first look of it. 

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Tristan und Isolde, Oper Stuttgart. The production, from the team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, was first presented in 2014. Photo © A.T. Schaefer

Do you think that approach could apply to audiences hearing things for the first time?

I’m not in the position, or I would not like to be in the position, to give advice to audiences, because I respect there are many, many different reasons why a person likes to go to a concert or opera. I respect that the reason could be just to have a wonderful evening, enjoy a glass of champagne at intermission and to relax, not to think too much. This is a good reason. There’s another good reason for people who maybe prepare their opera visits a week before, and they read many books about it, and then they really want to have a strong production, strong Regie, so that they can think about it for the next week, and maybe they wouldn’t understand everything and they like not to understand everything but want to come back three times to get it. Once again, I wouldn’t think I should give advice on how an audience should deal with a performance visit, but I respect that there are different reasons, good reasons.

So just come with an open mind….?

Being open-minded, always, is not a bad idea! What I really ask everybody is not to open the mouth before having thought something out – this is the general advice, for music and for life.

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

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Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

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L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

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Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

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Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

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