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Gerald Finley: “Lieder Is A Fountain of Artistic Joy”

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Photo: IMG Artists

Years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Finley for the first time. It was a conversation about three major role debuts he was making within the space of a year, ones which included the lead in Aribert Reimann’s King Lear at the 2017 edition of the Salzburg Festival (a process he characterized at the time as “emotionally wringing”). The interview marked the first cover story of my writing career, and the first of many subsequent conversations, on and off the record, about various aspects of theatre, music, performance style, and of course, singing.

Starting out as a chorister in Ottawa, the bass baritone went on to study at the Royal College of Music before being accepted into the prestigious UK-based National Opera Studio. Finley’s career marked by a talent for blending sharp music insights, studious vocal practise, and instinctual theatricality. With every role (be they in the operas of Mozart and Puccini or those of Adams and Turnage) Finley’s multi-hued artistry expands, his voracious creative curiosity reaching new and fascinating corners. Noted for his portrayal of Don Giovanni, Finley has performed the role in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and at the Glyndebourne Festival, opposite Luca Pisaroni as Leporello.

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Gerald Finley as Iago (opposite Jonas Kaufmann) in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello, 2018. Photo: W. Hösl

Finley has performed in many prestigious houses, with Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Wiener Staatsoper, and the famed Salzburg Festival among them. The focus on German-speaking organizations is particularly noteworthy in light of our most recent conversation; as you’ll read, Finley wasn’t always so confident in such locales, vocally or otherwise, and it took him what he admits was a long time to mature vocally. As he told Bachtrack‘s Mark Pullinger in November 2019,

At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh.

That freshness has revealed itself in some wonderfully memorable performances over the years. He did, in fact, get to Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (more than once), as well as Amfortas in Parsifal; other noted roles include the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, the tormented Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the very black Bluebeard in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Finley is also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary composers, singing in several world premieres, including Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1998, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie in 2000, and the song cycle True Fire by Kaija Saariaho (who dedicated the work to him), under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2015.

 

Finley made a comically memorable turn as Verdi’s Falstaff (complete with a costume that made him seem four times his size) with the Canadian Opera Company in 2014, and a scarily sociopathic Iago in Othello (opposite tenor Russell Thomas) as part of the COC’s 2018-2019 season. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden recently marked his 30th anniversary with the company,which coincided with his performance in the ROH production of Brittten’s Death in Venice; classical writer Alexandra Coghlan praised Finley’s “sketching character after character in deft musical lines.” Along with working with celebrated conductors (including Mariss Jansons, Sir Antonio Pappano, Kiril Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Bicket, and Bernard Haitink), Finley was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014; three years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to opera.

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Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

As a personal aside, I have distinct and fond memories of Finley’s performance as the lead in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell; I was fortunate to see him perform it live at the Metropolitan Opera in a production from their 2016-2017 season. Finley’s robust Tell was a perfect echo of the character’s aching struggles (inner and outer), a seamless combination of great musicality, finely-crafted vocality, and a very keen, highly watchable theatricality; his was a deeply visceral portrayal, one that underlined the very real historical stakes while revelling in Rossini’s deceptively simple score. Finley is set to reprise the role this May at Bayerische Staatsoper, but before then, he can be seen on the stage of The Met (as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte), as well as in Montreal and at Carnegie and Wigmore halls, where he’ll be performing a range of beloved lieder.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

Finley’s distinct gift for German art song is beautifully expressed on a recording for Hyperion Records he and pianist Julius Drake made of Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, released in autumn 2019. The pair previously recorded Schubert’s famed Winterreise cycle (2014), songs by Samuel Barber (2007) and Maurice Ravel (2008), and did a live concert recording at Wigmore Hall (2008). Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) is a song cycle written by Franz Schubert written at the end of his life in 1828. I’ve written about Schubert’s love of the writings of Goethe, but in this particular cycle, Schubert used the poetry of three writers, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl; his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, was the one who cannily named the song cycle thusly, following the composer’s premature death in November 1828. The works deal with themes of hope, love, longing, disillusion, and disenchantment, their sounds gracefully moving between sombre, sensual, and stark. Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) in 1896, using portions of text from the Lutheran Bible. Writer Richard Wigmore observes in the album’s liner notes that the songs were “(d)esigned to comfort the living, and indeed Brahms himself” – the composer’s longtime confidante (some might say more) Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke earlier that year, and he wrote them partly in full anticipation of her passing, though he was also feeling the first effects of the cancer that would take his life a year later. Wigmore characterizes the works as “profound, unsentimental testaments to (Brahms’s) sympathy for suffering, stoical humanity, his belief in the virtue of hard work, and the enduring power of love.”

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

Finley and Drake capture these themes with vivid clarity on the album. The opening track, “Liebesbotschaft” (or “message of love”), in which the speaker asks a little stream to send his message of love along to his beloved, sees Finley carefully modulating his chocolatey-bronze bass baritone, sensitively complementing, than contrasting, dense sonic textures amidst Julius Drake’s rippling, breath-like piano performance. On the famous “Ständchen” (“serenade”), a song in which the speakers asks his beloved to bring him happiness, Finley lovingly caresses every syllable so delicately so as to make the listener lean in, as if being told a very private secret. The meticulous attention paid to blending clarity and expression, particularly in the Brahms works, is miraculous; nothing sounds wooden and hard, but rather, silken, and fluid, with just the right amount of sensuality in phrasing and tone. Albums like this remind me why I love classical music, of its transcendent power to so often say what spoken language cannot. Finley’s deep dedication to the art of song is entrancing and he has a true and brilliant partner in the acclaimed Julius Drake. I had long wanted to discuss lieder with Finley, and the duo’s beautiful Schubert/Brahms album provided the perfect excuse to enjoy another lively conversation with a deeply dedicated and authentic artist.

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Gerald Finley as the Gondolier in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I read that you were afraid of Schubert for a long time – is that true?

Oh yeah!

Why?

Well, because he’s so simple. The thing about Schubert is that he is basically such a natural melodist and really gives the idea these songs have existed forever; I think to make them one’s own if you like, to have one’s own connection and one’s own version, and putting one’s own version into the world, takes a lot of confidence. The main thing about it is that I felt it would reveal all my technical insecurities and failings, and … I think it’s only really in the past decade really, that I’ve felt those sort of things have ironed themselves out. Put it this way; I always felt I could sing Schubert but I never felt competent enough to actually do it. I always shied away from the types of repertoire which would reveal my weaknesses rather than my strengths.

Now it seems as if, having had so much experience with the music of Schubert, his work has become a part of your artistic identity… 

Very much, but it’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the culture of the language, and of the poetry, and the culture of the German history therein. Many young singers direct their early careers into German houses because that’s where obviously lots of work is, and they have the privilege of learning German and being in a German environment for the early parts of their careers, and for various reasons I didn’t do that – I actually rejected a place at the Hamburg State Opera when I was 26, because I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t vocally prepared for that. So I kind of negated my opportunity to become immersed in the German environment and that entire musical world and experience. So my German became something I would learn on the way doing concerts, doing tours with orchestras; until my mid-30s I actually never appeared in a German opera house. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with the language. It did happen, eventually – I was invited to festivals in Austria and did Papageno in and around Germany, so that helped a lot to bolster my German confidence. 

And you know, there have been a lot of really good German lieder singers, and to be part of the lieder fraternity is really something I longed for. I learned Wolf and Brahms and I did my best at Schumann for a while, and enjoyed it all very much, but Schubert being kind of the father of those, I realized it was going to take some time to get to the core, but it did happen, where I felt could really go to that altar for the father of lieder, and say, “Here’s my humble offering of what you have written!” 

And of course Fischer-Dieskau was the main thing, my first recording was his Volume 1 of Schubert – so yes, it confronted me very much: what business did I have even attempting it?! I kind of got over it and realized, and still feel, Schubert has been my friend, he’s somebody I look to for inspiration. He demands I really think carefully about what it is to be an artist, because (the music) is so relatively clear on the page, and one this almost blank emotional canvas to treat the verse differently and to infuse the words in a way which will give meaning. There’s a feeling as soon as you record it, that the version you have in your head and heart at that moment… well, you will suddenly think, “Oh! But I could’ve done it this way!” So that’s why keeping performances scheduled in the diary is really wonderful, those versions will change and develop. And hopefully, going to other artists and seeing how they handle (the same material) – it’s really inspiring to develop. I don’t know whether painters go through the same thing, where they redo canvases all the time or decide they want to add various elements or develop a theme – but there we are, that’s why lieder is such a fountain of artistic joy now, and I feel that vocally I’ve been able to sort of finally mature into it.

Performing these pieces one has to be willing to enter into a specific place, or places, as you know, and being human, one’s not always in the mood or one’s tired, or there are other things going on – it’s not easy, but there are similar challenges in doing opera performances. What changes for you, going between your recital work and your opera work? How do you navigate those changes?

It’s a mindset, really. First and foremost, lieder is an intimate art form – it’s really thoughts which are, you know, nurtured out of a poet, and you get the feeling there’s a very personal relationship between the composer and the poetry they’re setting, that the way they’ve been inspired and reacted, or want to bring certain elements of a poem to the fore, takes quiet contemplation, it’s a very mindful thing. My very good friend and colleague (tenor) Mark Padmore says the difficulty of doing lieder recitals is that it was really meant to be sung amongst just a few people, and again, it’s really a very intimate art form, almost a private thing. What you’re asking audiences to do is give up elements of their busy lives and come into a space where they can become very quiet and very thoughtful, and think, not about what’s on the surface of their lives, but to delve a lot deeper, and a share a poetical journey, a psychological situation with a recitalist, in a way that is pretty demanding.

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Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and Gerald Finley as the Elderly Fop in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We do put demands on audiences, and it could be the cause of decline in audiences for lieder because it takes special listening skills and patience, and a certain acceptance that, okay, particularly for non-linguists, there are a couple pieces they may feel estranged from, but at least they’re there, listening to beautiful piano playing and hopefully good singing. So we’ll keep doing it, to keep people give them that opportunity to get involved with the best parts of their soul.

There’s something healthy about having that demanded of you as a listener. I want that to be demanded of me when I go to concerts, because otherwise I don’t feel I have a very satisfying experience.

Indeed! And to your question about the differences between lieder and opera for the performer, really, opera is such a collaborative event, you, the singer, are at the top of the iceberg as it were, you appear above, on the top 10th, or more like 2%, of a wealth of creativity and musicality and theatrics and administration too, so your voice and portrayal is a culmination of a h-u-u-u-ge team effort.

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Gerald Finley as Iago in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

And yes, you have to deliver the goods and focus on your character, and give your vocal performance the absolute top level in extremes, and that’s really not what lieder is about… it’s not much teamwork, other than with your fellow musician, and it can be chamber of course, as part of a string quartet or with a guitarist or flutist as well as the piano version, so I like to think that perhaps you are your own stage manager and production team and artistic personnel (in lieder recitals).

There are people who are endeavoring to bring out the essence of the presentation of lieder in a more theatrical way, like having staged elements, and I find that a revelation – because why shouldn’t people be inspired by beautiful, fundamental music? I tell you what: pace Barbara Streisand, if a pop singer got hold of a Schubert song and did something amazing with it, you’d be finding people saying, “Well, that’s a cover version, but where’s the original?” Hopefully! Or the other way around, take a Joni Mitchell song and rewrite it as a Schubert lied or Brahms lied, and… yes, I think we just need to be a little more accepting of how people are trying to just make sure these elements of inspiration can be shared by all. 

Speaking of shared inspiration, the baldly emotional nature of lieder translates into the demands it makes on singers: you can’t hide.

That is actually one of the challenges of the technical aspects. Often the frustration about being a younger singer is that one hasn’t quite got the technical lability to be as free and honest in vocal terms. There are lots of wonderful musicians who are doing beautiful things with their voices but it means less, and that’s what we’re after, of course, is “the beautiful voice.” For me, my heroes are Fischer-Dieskau and Tom Krause and Hermann Prey, or José Van Dam doing Mahler; you’re not worried about how they sound, you’re worried about how they feel, but the reason you do that is because their voices are in such perfect shape! It’s like suddenly their instrument is serving them – that’s why it’s a rare thing, because we singers spend our whole life trying to figure out how to sing in order to be free, to be free from all that. 

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Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Angela Denoke as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo : Marty Sohl / Met Opera

It’s a fascinating pairing on this album. What was the thinking behind including the music of Brahms? The linguistic and musical poetry is so different from that of Schubert. 

Essentially, I mean, in a kind of a very facile sort of conceit, the Brahms works were among the last things he wrote. He was at a time when he was in deep mourning for Clara (Schumann), and … well, to hear that Brahms… he was always at his best when he was thinking about hard things, big challenges, and the richness of the writing is so extraordinary. So in terms of periods of life for both composers, you know, really they are the two respective “swan songs,” effectively. I always feel Brahms is somebody who thought he knew where the spiritual elements of his life lay; you get it in the Requiem, of course, and certainly in these songs, and in the late string music. It’s all very dense and full of passion, and we feel that. I mean, Schubert knew he was dying of course, Brahms a little less, even though it was late in his life; he knew his time as a composer was reaching its end. So you get this kind of creative surge from both composers, and that’s really what attracted us to doing these works.

From Brahms’s overall output came many beautiful songs, but these ones are one huge level higher –  the use of the language, the biblical texts, was very much something which encapsulated his fervor for the human potential of love and forgiveness, and relating to toil. As a socialist approach, it was, “death will comfort those who have toiled,” but also, “those who’ve lived comfortable lives is why there’s fear but there is still hope that the comfort of death will be here for you” – and that’s remarkable as a thesis. So yes, in these Brahms songs, death is treated with great… hope, and love, I’d say. The idea of being in a marvelous revelry of celebrating life – “What was it? Life was love; the greatest of all these things is love” – so I do feel Brahms was an extremely passionate person, behind all that grizzle.

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Gerald Finley as the Hotel Barber and Mark padmore as ASchenbach in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

That sense is especially noticeable in the final song, “Wenn ich mit Menschen” (When I am with people), which draws together spiritual longing and human logning, the epic and the intimate, in this great expression of acceptance and understanding.

Completely! The elemental earnestness of it – “Ernste” – I almost feel if you didn’t get it in the Requiem, then yes, you will here. One’s life can have a sense of accomplishment if you have loved – and he loved through this music, and certainly in life… 

Clara.

Yes, Clara for sure, and his mother as well, which was a big element. We know much less about Schubert’s love life and I suppose that makes him slightly more mysterious as to what his thoughts on love were, except for the fact that if you delve into the songs, for instance the Serenade, really, it’s a marvel of positive thoughts in a minor key, and negative thoughts in major keys, it’s just extraordinary how he goes against convention in thinking minor is more fulfilling than major keys. There’s lots of wonderful mysteries, shall we say, about Schubert’s music in that regard. He did struggle with the idea of being recognized too, as a composer of any worth, and from that point of view it’s also, you wonder, was he ever appreciated? Did he ever feel his music had any worth? And for me that’s the melancholy aspect of not just him but many people — Beethoven not hearing the applause, for instance – but the whole idea is that these composers are wearing their passions in their music, and thank goodness for it. 

Alexander Neef: “I Believe In The Resilience Of The Art Form”

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

Update 22 June 2020: The Canadian Opera Company has cancelled its 2020 autumn season. The conversation with COC General Director Alexander Neef, below, took place in May 2020, prior to the official announcement.

Cancellation, closure, calibration: these are the elements at work within an arts industry trying desperately to stay afloat in the middle of a pandemic. What to cancel? What to postpone? What to calibrate – or recalibrate – as the situation warrants? Which companies will be around in year, and which will close? Some organizations are busily preparing for presentations of old favorites within the context of a new normal dictated by the coronavirus, acting, consciously or not, as beacons of an industry facing an immense and undeniable transformation.

The annual Salzburg Festival, for instance, will be going forwards in a modified form as of August 1st. On the slate is Elektra (with Aušrine Stundyte in the lead and Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski) and a revival of Così fan tutte, as well as four theatre works (including the world premiere of Zdeněk Adamec by Peter Handke) and numerous concerts, including a Beethoven cycle by pianist Igor Levit. In Germany, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) has also made adjustments. The company recently announced a 90-minute chamber presentation of Das Rheingold in its very own car park, running for five performances starting this Friday (12 June), and featuring twenty-two musicians and twelve singers. The production, by Jonathan Dove (who also did orchestration) and director Graham Vick for the Birmingham Opera Company, is not the first presentation by DOB in such an environment; in 2014 the company presented Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia in the very same parking deck. Wagner’s first opera in his epic Ring Cycle had been originally planned as a fully staged work from director Stefan Herheim, a premiere which has since been postponed. The upcoming version, adhering to the guidelines set out by the Senate of Berlin, has a €5 entry fee and a pay-what-you-can structure, with audience member contact information being recorded and a 1.5 metre distance enforced; moreover, masks will be required when entering and exiting, toilets will be accessible, and (rather crucially) small bottles of “beverages” will be made available to visitors.

Such an ambitious undertaking underlines the very thin lines that currently exist between possibilities and probabilities. Those who can are doing their best, in the most creative and safe methods presently allowable; others are bending and flexing in ways heretofore unimaginable six months ago. The Metropolitan Opera cancelled its autumn season and will be reopening (ostensibly) on December 31st, although it continues to offer a revolving slate of productions online. Looking over their latest release, it’s hard to not think of the artists who were set to make their debuts at the house this autumn, either in a role or with the company itself: soprano Christine Goerke was set to sing her first fully-staged Isolde in a revival of Marius Treliński’s production of Tristan und Isolde; 74-year-old conductor Michail Jurowski was to have made his Met Opera debut leading Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. On the other side of the ocean, the Royal Opera House, itself in dire straits, is getting set to launch a new series, Live From Covent Garden, on Saturday (June 13), which will complement its extant online offerings of opera and ballet. Curated by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, and Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, the event (set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 15th) will feature performances by baritone Gerald Finley, tenor Toby Spence, soprano Louise Alder, and the premiere of a new ballet choreographed by Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. The following two presentations of the program, on the 20th and 27th of June respectively, will be available on a pay-per-view basis. Like every company, a prominent “Donate Now” button is displayed on the ROH homepage, one whose request will no doubt grow in urgency  as the autumn season inches ever closer.

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Rosario La Spina as Radames (background) and Sondra Radvanovsky (foreground) as Aida in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Aida, 2010. Photo: Michael Cooper

For Canadian Opera Company (COC) audiences, the fall season is just as fraught with uncertainty. In late March the company made the difficult if necessary decision to cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season, which was to include revivals of The Flying Dutchman and a wildly divisive staging of Aida by Tim Albery. Bereft of the gilded visuals so frequently attached to presentations of the famed Verdi work, the production had been anticipated for the reactions it might have provoked a full decade after its premiere. Would Toronto audiences have grown to accept Albery’s arresting vision? Would it have been so upsetting in 2020? Will it even be staged again, now that COVID seems, for some, to have put a damper on even perceivably risque productions and programming? The opportunity to discover the elasticity of the COC audience was, alas, lost this spring but another chance, possibly, awaits in the fall. The company is set to present Wagner’s Parsifal – the first presentation of the opera in the COC’s history. A co-production with Opéra de Lyon, The Metropolitan Opera, and the COC, the highly abstract (and at times, very bloody) François Girard-helmed work was presented in February 2013 at The Met, to widespread acclaim. Owing to the monumental nature of the production, the company launched a fundraising campaign with various levels of support named after elements of the opera. Tenors Christopher Ventris and Viktor Antipenko share the title role in the COC production, with Johan Reuter as Amfortas, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Kundry, and Robert Pomakov as Klingsor; COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Opening night is scheduled for September 25th.

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A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

According to Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef, those plans are still intact. Neef, who is also Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Festival, had been set to leave the COC at the end of the 2020-2021 season and become General Director of the Opéra national de Paris. The company is facing €40 million in losses this year alone, from both the pandemic as well as numerous strikes which occurred before the lockdown. The Opéra’s current Director, Stéphane Lissner, announced in an interview with Le Monde on June 11th, 2020 that he’s ending his mandate at the end of 2020, emphasizing the extreme nature of the situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: “nous ne sommes pas dans une situation de passation normale.” (“we are not in a normal handover situation.”) Neef confirmed in a COC release the following day that he “certainly did not anticipate Lissner’s early departure and that also confirmed not leaving Canada just yet. Neef says he “has not yet had any formal discussions – either with the Paris Opera or members of our Board of Directors – about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris. Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated.”

Back in May, Lissner spoke to the unfeasible economics around presenting opera at the Garnier and Bastille theatres within prescribed social distancing mandates. France, like most other locales, requires audience members to be two meters (6.5 feet) apart. “Le protocole [proposé pour reprendre les spectacles] est impraticable : impraticable pour le public, pour les artistes et pour les salariés. Suppression des entractes, c’est impossible, faire entrer 2700 personnes en respectant les distances, c’est impossible, la distance dans l’orchestre, dans les chœurs, c’est impossible,” he noted in early May (“The protocol [proposed to take over the shows] is impractical: impractical for the public, for the artists and for the employees. Eliminating intermissions is impossible, bringing in 2700 people while respecting distances is impossible, the distance in the orchestra, in the choirs, is impossible.”). Will there even be a 2020-2021 season for Opéra national de Paris? The report in Le Monde indicates, if not an outright cancellation, then a greatly altered one, with an emphasis on revivals, including La traviata (led by James Gaffigan, in a production by Simone Stone), the ballet La Bayadère, and the ever-popular Carmen, with Domingo Hindoyan on the podium, in an acclaimed staging by Calixto Bieito. The Bastille is not set to reopen until November 24th, and the Garnier in late December. A planned new Ring Cycle staging is off the books. “Fin 2020, il est probable que l’Opéra de Paris n’aura plus de fonds de roulement” (By the end of 2020, it is likely that the Paris Opera will no longer have working capital”), Lissner told Le Monde. “C’est pourquoi, à partir de janvier 2021, j’ai choisi de m’effacer afin qu’il n’y ait plus qu’un seul patron à bord.” (“That’s why, from January 2021, I chose to step aside so that there would only be one boss on board.”)

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The interior of the Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That “seul patron” is shouldering a lot of responsibility right now. Notwithstanding this unfolding and weighty situation, plus the cancellation of the COC’s spring season and the uncertainty of its 2020-2021 season, Neef was also very recently heavily involved in negotiations to obtain recorded COC performances for online broadcast during the quarantine – hardly a simple task, as music writer Lydia Perovic ably outlined in her smart investigation into the paucity of online Canadian opera content for Opera Canada magazine in 2018. Yet in our conversation last month, before the Paris news, Neef was his characteristically cool, unflappable self. The COC head honcho and I have spoken many times over the years, most recently last summer following the announcement of his Paris appointment. The German-born Neef has always been direct if highly diplomatic, eloquent but possessing an undeniable edge of steel. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of history (not surprising, given he graduated from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen with a Master of Arts in Latin Philology and Modern History) and a solid if wholly unsurprising knack for thoughtful casting (honed during his time as casting director at the Paris Opera from 2004 to 2008), Neef is as much passionate as level-headed; that passion shows itself in strong, well-observed opinions and observations, and then translates itself into elegantly understated wisdom. Having started at the Salzburg Festival with famed opera administrator Gerard Mortier, Neef went on to work at the Ruhrtriennale, New York City Opera, and later, Opéra nationale de Paris, before arriving in Toronto in 2008. In the decade-plus of his directorship with the COC, Neef has brought a number of celebrated international opera figures to the Four Seasons Centre stage: singers (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anita Rachvellishvilli, Patricia Racette, Stefan Vinke, Luca Pisaroni, conductors (Carlo Rizzi, Speranza Scapucci, Paolo Carignani, Harry Bicket, Patrick Lange), directors (Peter Sellars, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Claus Guth, Robert Wilson, Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants). He has consistently championed the work of tenor Russell Thomas, who has appeared on multiple occasions on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (The Tales of Hoffman in 2012, Carmen in 2016 Norma in 2016, Otello in 2019, and was to have performed in Aida this spring), along with that of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as well as Norma), bass baritone Gerald Finley (Falstaff, 2014, Otello, 2019) and soprano Christine Goerke, whose Brunnhilde in the company’s year-by-year presentations unfolding Wagner’s Ring Cycle won her acclaim and, like Radvanovsky, Finley, and Thomas, bolstered a fierce following.

In mid-May, Neef took part in an online chat hosted by the Toronto-based International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) in which he was asked about how he perceived the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the opera community, singers in particular; I was keen to hear more from Neef and was grateful when, not a week later, he and I had a lengthy discussion – about pandemic, Parsifal, Paris, and, to start, the question of risk and its place in the industry moving forwards.

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

In light of the damage the pandemic is doing in the arts world, some believe that opera programming and presentation will become more conservative, that any perceived risk in either is off the table for the foreseeable future. What’s your take – can opera afford to break eggs in a pandemic/post-pandemic environment?

To stick with your analogy: I think there is no art if you don’t break the eggs. And I think since we don’t have any live art in our lives right now, breaking eggs becomes even more important in the future. I got this really interesting manifesto in my mailbox this morning – and it’s easier to say this when you run a little company rather than when you have X number of employees you want to keep feeding – but, it says, “time to commission new works from young composers; time to ally with other theatre, cinema, dance, performing arts centres; time to follow the example of cinema, the storytelling medium that came after opera and was predicted by great opera composers” and so on. When you’re a small, flexible structure, then yes, those boats are easy to turn around; you can be much more reactive. The bigger your apparatus becomes, the harder it is to change because there are a lot of people who need to make that change with you, but in general, I’ve never believed and still don’t believe it, that going back to more traditional approaches, to what we consider “safe” repertoire, will do anything for the future sector – the only thing it will do is make people get more tired of you. Or, to say it another way, how many times will you need to see the same production of La bohème, even though it might be with different people? At some point you may say, “I’ve seen this five times over the last ten years; give me one reason why I should go again?” I think what we’ve been trying to do is to space things out enough, or to hold off with programming, so there’s still for us a reason to do (a certain opera), other than the reason that it’s popular repertoire…

Or it’s nostalgia… 

… or it’s nostalgia, yes. Also, our audience is not eternal. Like everybody who deals with an audience, we are always interested in refreshing – we want a relationship with our public where we don’t always confirm what they think opera is.

That’s a big hurdle, especially for companies who play into clichés. How do you counter it?

It is a hurdle, but I continue to believe, and this crisis hasn’t changed my opinion so far, that what’s really important is people know what kind of company they’re coming to; you need to have a spine. And again, I always say, and have said: indifference is our biggest enemy. If people think, “Oh, this is the same old thing” or they leave a show and can’t remember, ten minutes later, what it was all about…  well, obviously we want people to like what we do, but I prefer they hate (a production) with a passion than be indifferent to it. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that revival of Aida that people were itching to see, for very different reasons!

I distinctly recall someone saying to me at the opening in 2010 that “it’s actually just fine if you close your eyes.”

Think what you want about that production but ten years later people still talk about it. That’s what I mean when I say indifference is our biggest enemy. Obviously there was a lot of rejection at the time but also a lot of people came to it and said, “Wow, I had no clue opera could be so current, and about me, and not just stuffy and purely representational.” 

There were also younger people I know who went and later said, “That was my first opera experience and I wanted grandeur and camels!”

… and other people walked away from it thinking, “Where has this art form been all my life?!” So it’s hard to say what’s interesting to one and not to the other. People think about young audiences that, very often, those are the ones who want the avant-garde, but I think it’s not necessarily true; sometimes they’re way more conservative than someone who’s been subscribing for twenty-five years. It’s a complicated thing! But just because you are older does not mean your taste in art is more conservative – that’s not how it works.

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Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

There’s been so much effort on the part of classical organizations to try and get this mythical young audience, but I feel as if the pandemic has forced them to realize the importance of a far wider cultivation.

In the end you can’t afford to ignore any part of your audience. Right now there’s an issue with at-risk populations; a young audience is not seen as so much at-risk (for COVID), but I think that shouldn’t mean we totally abandon our older audiences. The whole discussion for me is kind of moot anyway, because you cannot separate the discussion of keeping an audience safe from keeping the performers and staff safe, and while that might not be exactly the precisely same measures, if you can’t combine both, then it’s going to be very hard to have a show. Right now the pit is a very dangerous work environment. We’re in a lucky position in Canada and the COC – we won’t be going back into rehearsals before two-and-a-half months from now, so we will have better information in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that will allow us to make better decisions. The big hiatus we have now, I’m rather grateful for that.

Some in the Toronto opera world are wondering what will happen to Parsifal – it’s been a long road to having it staged at the Four Seasons Centre.

What I say is: I simply don’t want to make that decision right now. And I don’t feel I have to. Right now we’re living in an equation with too many variables and those variables make it hard to solve that equation. There’s already some measures falling in place in terms of public health advisories, and some of the variables are starting to be eliminated. Today I read something stating that essentially the virus is mostly circulating in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the rest of Ontario is under control – which is not great news for the GTA, but it’s true in all urban centres – Montréal, Paris, all those places – it’s true that it hangs on (in those locales) for longer because there’s more movement of people, but it also means it can get contained. We need to have a better idea of the public health measures.

Obviously we won’t be able to perform Parsifal if we have to have limited numbers in the audience, it’s an economic nightmare and it wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t even accommodate all of our subscribers (in that scenario), but we have to be prepared, and we are taking the time to be prepared, and when we have to make a  decision, we will gather all the elements to make the best decision for our staff and performers, and the house, and everyone.

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The interior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s a strange new equation to accept, that we are now in a world where there’s a question mark over both Parsifal and Paris’s opera season.

It is a strange new equation, and with strange new variables – and I think one needs to take this a week at a time. There are supposed to be additional announcements of openings in Europe…  

… under strict conditions. Returning to the theatre-going experience people are familiar with will take much longer. 

Yes, and it’s a two-way street, or more than a two-way street. A part of it is medical progress as well – I think even more effective and widely-available testing will do a lot to reassure the public about the situation. That is big! Everybody knows the vaccine will take a little while but also we’re working on all kinds of things in terms of an effective antiviral, because the truth is, if we didn’t have a flu vaccine we would be having a terrible situation every winter. But because we have a flu vaccine there’s no discussions of masks or additional hygiene measures during flu season… so we need to find a way through additional safety measures, through progress in medicine, all of that, to kind of normalize this situation in a way that is…  I mean, there’s always a risk: you leave your house and you can catch something on the subway, right? That happens to a lot of people. I am not a scientist and indeed COVID is very contagious – if you get sick you can get very sick, but we need to take time to really learn more about it and then calibrate all the available information and input it back into a form where people can gain a certain amount of comfort in leaving their homes, in order to assess different levels of risk.

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View from the orchestra pit of R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Lucia Graca

How do you see the current recalibrating in the opera world influencing not only companies but artists?

Again, for everything that’s on the performer’s side, regular testing is going to be the key so that you can be certain the people working together in confined spaces, people touching each other in rehearsals and so on, they can have a reasonable level of confidence that everybody is up to date on their health. Now it’s the case that you wake up in the morning and you feel a little bit off and take your temperature; three months ago you would have thought, “Oh I’ll see how I feel in the afternoon” but today you get the thermometer out and look at the reading and say, “It’s not normal.”  People will be more sensitive to their own symptoms and more responsible, I think. I was reading something interesting, about how work culture will change, especially in North America, where coming to work sick was like a badge of honor, not letting the company down, now it’s, “You’re not feeling well, we don’t want to see you” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! That’s the performer’s side. 

On the audience side, if people feel safe again if wearing a gloves and a mask when they go somewhere and feel okay to sit next to someone they don’t know, if we can reach that level of confidence, I think nobody will care about people wearing a mask in the foreseeable future in a theatre, even if it’s not a requirement. It will be part of the new normal, and frankly, it’s normal already in certain parts of the world. It’s funny that in Canada, which was so haunted by SARS, mask-wearing didn’t become a norm, so maybe now it will. If that’s the worst thing that can happen to us, that people put on a mask before walking into the Four Seasons Centre, we can do that. There’s so much cultural change about masks that’s already happened – people felt, “Oh you can’t speak with a mask” – well, people do it all the time.  I was at the supermarket the other day and ran into someone I know, and we didn’t take our masks off, we just spoke with our masks on at a safe distance. Places are going to normalize these kinds of protocols, and it’ll make it all less scary, I believe. And of course, if you are part of a risk group, you would think twice about where you go and what you do; we might be able to accommodate you somewhere in the theatre. We’re more than happy to do that with patrons; it’s our business to accommodate their needs. Frankly, every theatre would be willing to do that to get their patrons back. But then again it’s not something we haven’t done already in making all reasonable accommodations for people with needs.

Russell Thomas, tenor, rehearsal, Otello, COC, Canadian Opera Company, singer, vocal, Verdi, rehearsal, opera

Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

And casting?

That’s actually one of the bigger problems we’re discussing. Zoom doesn’t give you a lot of information about the size of the voice but it does give you information about the personality you’re dealing with, about pitch, about rhythm. We were talking about this in relation to the ensemble, for example; they were Zoom coaching before they went off contract for the summer. Everybody hated the idea initially, and then came away saying it was better than not doing anything at all, so that is obviously also a part of that new normal, as you say. There’s also the situation of stage auditions and having a pianist and nobody in the hall except for two or three casting people; that seems less complicated than a full stage performance in this environment, if you can get them safely in through the stage door and onstage. All these things are being worked out. 

I’m curious if you think digital platforms like Instagram will become a big factor in casting the post-coronavirus opera world. 

It probably will… but…  I look at it more as an added tool to what we’re already doing than anything else. We have more and more tools at our disposable, yes, but there’s a lot of the old stuff that still works and we can’t abandon it, that’s been true for our marketing and communications as much as for casting – we still send postcards to people (for marketing) because there’s people who really like postcards, maybe not as many as twenty years ago, but it’s still a valuable part of our audience, so why would we abandon that practise?

Alexander Neef, General Director, COC, Canadian Opera Company, event, live, stage, announcement, administration, opera, arts, culture, Toronto, German

Alexander Neef at the COC’s 2020-2021 Season Reveal event, 2020. Photo © Gaetz Photography

So the same holds true for singers then? I see a lot of imitation online. 

As I said in the IRCPA talk, people who do casting are really not very interested in generic products… 

… you mean in terms of singers pushing an homogenous image?

Yes – going back to your breaking-the-eggs metaphor at the beginning of our conversation, if you don’t have that appetite for risk-taking there’s not going to be a lot of art in what you do.

Strange to think that being yourself is perceived as a risk.

We all know it’s the hardest to be yourself – but as an artist you have the opportunity to not be yourself, and to figure that out, and to live it out, in a way a lot of people cannot, but I think it’s very important to have that self-assessment skill and to figure out, clearly, “What can I do better than other people?” If you have better high Fs than anybody, then all I want to know is, can you sing Queen Of The Night? That’s the thing, and there’s nothing bad about it, and you must acknowledge that as you get older, your high Fs won’t be as great, and you’d better figure out what you can do then.

Or have figured it out already… 

Yes. It comes back to having a lot of courage. Sometimes I feel the courage, especially for a young artist, will always come before the self-assurance, but it’s kind of a bit of – I really like this egg thing you started with! – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t put in the courage it might just never happen, but you will not know if there’s a reward before you’ve done it, and I think doing it for the first time, and seeing if it works, will give you more courage for the second time, and so on.

The benefit of digital is it’s creating a vital form of community a lot of people miss right now – are the recent COC opera broadcasts a sign of things to come?

Right now it’s a concession to the times we’re in; we wouldn’t want to necessarily put archival recordings out as a standard, but what’s important for me is – and some don’t see it this way but that’s fine – that it’s about creating a presence for all those artists who can’t work right now. Putting this kind of work out – work that was done in a good environment, where (artists) are performing good roles with a good company, with a high level of quality – reminds the world that is what artists do. And having such material released also reminds the world that this is just a video, and if you want the real thing, you will have to come back to the theatre and get a real-life experience.

So you see video as a complement, not a replacement?

Absolutely.

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The exterior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I asked you this in our conversation last year, but of course so much has changed, and I want to ask again: what are you taking with you now from Toronto to Paris? 

I’m not leaving just yet! 

Something you’d noted before is your desire at Opéra national de Paris to highlight various historical aspects within a contemporary context.

That hasn’t changed, of course – putting historical opera within the larger context of what happens today, for 21st century artists and for a 21st century audience – that won’t change, but we’ll have to see as we emerge from this crisis, what has actually changed, and when we can go back. That (plan for return) will determine a lot. The longer this goes, the more we will have to think about smaller things we can do for limited groups of people. The goal is to go back to fully staged opera as quickly as possible, but if we can’t do that, we better get inventive. Ultimately I believe in the resilience of the art form. 

Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

Petrova soprano Russian portrait head shot singer art opera

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.

Petrova soprano Russian portrait head shot singer art opera

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 he wanted or not to do but mainly he left it all  to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sung before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – blin is 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, Vladimir’s and every person who listens. 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 at Zaryadye Hall?

Yes, most definitely, and with another phenomenal pianist, Rem Urasin.

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

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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 questions asked – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, without those little songs. I missed not sharing that side of me with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to sing more songs 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 very 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. But of course I don’t want anybody to hear “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it!

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 becoming a part of it.

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 singing, 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 our album with Feltsman there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of – and it’s Tchaikovsky, of all people! It’s the 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 in harmony (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!! But also for a musician it takes time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel now I have something special and unique to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown in music and into the music and have learned enough in order to do it.  So I can offer my vision and feel of it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very personal and 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 I look up to, and the fact that I had a chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge! Also the trust she put in me 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 with the people your gift!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life, she IS 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; Elena 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?!” And she was brilliant! But the main thing is 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 never 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 her competition. She never put any chains on 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, and I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am trying to enjoy every minute of 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.

Personal Essay: “Flowers, Meadows, Hills”… And Walls

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Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Tischbein

Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.

This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.

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Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?

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Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler

Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)

I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with pianist Julius Drake. To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.

Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.

Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:

How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.

Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.

Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.

As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””

The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:

Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.

After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.

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In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat  across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise. 

Marlis Petersen: “Music Triggers Your Own Inner World”

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Photo © Yiorgos Mavropoulos

Trying to get a handle of the scope of Petersen’s creative activities is close to impossible.

Yes, the celebrated German soprano does the so-called “classic” opera repertoire (Verdi, Massenet, Handel, Donizetti), operetta (Lehar), contemporary (Widmann, Reimann, Henze), and has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious houses, including the Wiener Staatsoper, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Opera de Paris, and Bayerische Staatsoper. She is one of the most celebrated interpreters of twentieth century works, with Berg’s Lulu being arguably her most famous role; she’s performed in ten different productions, in a variety of locales (Munich, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Vienna, Athens, New York), and retired the role in 2015, telling The New Yorker:

This character leaves a shadow on your soul. It is not that I play her. I have to be her, and that is a very demanding thing. I thought, after all these years it is time for me, as a woman, to let go. She rules me in a way. It is not that I am Lulu, but she is demanding. And how you act with men sometimes—is a little bit influenced by this. I have decided to let this go, and to see who, actually, Marlis Petersen is.

Petersen started out studying piano and won several competitions; from there she moved on to flute, and, as a teenager, found her voice, quite literally, in the church choir. She was given a solo by the choir director at seventeen, and the rest, as they say, is history. Along with music, Petersen made a point of studying dance, and brings a loose-limbed if varied gestural style to both her vocal style and her stage performances.  This awareness of movement, in literal and figurative senses, and its seamless integration within a live setting has highlighted her agile vocality, one that can flip from warm wool to cold steel in an instant.

But Petersen is also what might be called a restless spirit, greatly interested in the peaks and valleys beyond the limits of traditional presentation, whether on the opera stage, in recital, or on recordings. Her vocal range has been highlighted through her impressive discography, with recordings of operas and oratorios by Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn,  and Haydn (including a gorgeous rendering of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten from 2004, featuring the Freiburger Barockorchester and RIAS Kammerchor and led by René Jacobs), as well as a range of  albums devoted to lieder, featuring works by Schumann, Brahms, and Walter Braunfel. She’s also done an album of works inspired by the writings of Goethe. (His writings, and their connection to music, is part of a broader topic I’ll be exploring in a future post.) it’s hardly a revelation to state that creative exploration sits at the heart of Petersen’s identity as an artist.

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via Solo Musica

That exploratory spirit is given clear expression in her series of Dimensionen albums (Solo Musica). Welt (World, 2o17), Anders Welt (Other World, 2018), and Innen Welt (Inner World, 2019). The trilogy showcases the soprano’s incredible gift for the art of song;, her range and dynamism underline a deep and captivating theatricality which runs, vein-like, throughout her considerable body of work. The songs featured on the albums move between well-known works and lesser-known pieces by composers including Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Max Reger, Carl Loewe, Sigurd von Koch and Hans Sommer and show Petersen’s appreciation of the nature of text, sound, performance, and atmosphere, and the spiritual (dare I say mystical) ties that bind them. Last month, following a recital of works from Innen Welt, the Berliner Morgenpost observed that the singer had “kidnapped her audience into the world of elves and mermaids.” The album redirects one’s attentions (perhaps energies is a better world) to an entirely different realm; if elves and mermaids happen to be there, then so too, do a host of other, mythical creatures – and correspondingly, some very real feelings – conjured by the audience’s unique imaginings and experiences. Petersen has a unique gift for speaking to listeners on a very individual and sometimes quite personal level, using her voice and interactions with her accompanists (Stephan Matthias Lademann and Camillo Radicke) to create aural tapestries of the most beautiful and beguiling designs. The trilogy, and Innen Welt in particular, is a sumptuous, intriguing showcase of that rare gift.

The soprano is currently in Munich in a revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s eye-catching production of Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, with whom she’s worked many times – including, notably, last fall, when, as Artist in Residence for the current season of Berlin Philharmonic, she was part of the orchestra’s opening concerts which marked Petrenko’s start as their chief conductor. Within the position, Petersen performs a variety of concerts, including ones next year, with the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic (in May), and with members of the orchestra (in June). She’s also scheduled to perform with the New York-based experimental chamber group Sirius Quartet, with whom she has previously collaborated and will be part of concert performances (in Munich and then Tokyo) of Jörg Widmann’s Arche, a work which was premiered as part of the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg in early 2017, in which Petersen also performed. She is giving recitals of Inner Welt in Germany and Spain in June.

Far sooner, however, is Petersen’s continued work with Kirill Petrenko. The two are set to work together again next month for Die Tote Stadt, the first new production of the Bayerische Staatsoper season. We shared a wide-ranging chat recently as she prepared for her autumn engagements.

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Salome, Bayerische Staatsoper. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. (Photo: © Wilfried Hösl)

What inspired the Dimensionen trilogy project?

Out of the many things that get recorded, like Winterreise, which is recorded so often, it was important  to do something else. I wanted to connect to the human being and to human problems — the joys, the sorrows —  and to have a closer look at what we are, and who we are and where we’re going. I was so surprised to discover how many things are written and what treasures they are. It was so inspiring to mix it all: the things we know, the things not so known. They are connected; they’re not so far away. There are some hidden treasures in the repertoire of lied.

It’s been written that you have “a weakness for the metaphysical.” Do you think that’s true?

I think so, yes.

How does that inform what you do onstage and in recordings?

Let me call it the “strength” of the metaphysical and not the “weakness”! When you are on the opera stage and you slip into character, the interesting thing about that process coming to understand this person’s psychology; for example, with Salome, how does this girl come to want a head on a silver platter? How does this happen? Or with Medea, how can this happen that she’s ready to kill her children? I love to explore these things. How can people come to want something like that? It’s a dark part of us, a disappointed side of us. We are all longing for appreciation and when you don’t get it over a certain time you get depression or you become a criminal, and it’s so interesting to explore these ideas. In lied of course you don’t have that to the same extent; you can follow the character in the story or the person who has a certain emotion and go with your authentic feeling into the song.

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As Maria Stuarda at Theater an der Wien in 2018. Production: Christoph Loy. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Something that’s always struck me about your artistry is this total authenticity in whatever capacity you happen to be performing in.

Let’s put it like this: when I started off doing this, it was, I think, just for the pure, unguilty pleasure of doing music. The older you get and the more mature you are, the more you think about things. So it’s a mixture of a certain natural approach I have, and a joy of music, and variety of music. You melt into something, and for me that’s a very authentic process. How can I put it? I can’t fake myself. I can’t betray myself. I have to present 100% of what and who I am.

How does that sense of self relate to your dance training?

The dancing thing helps a lot for staying very flexible and agile in this profession, not only body-wise but also, I think when you move and you dance, there’s a spirit connected to this. It keeps the brain and the whole attitude very flexible.

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In Berg’s Lulu at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2015. Production: Dmitri Tcherniakov. (Photo: W. Hösl)

That flexibility is very noticeable onstage; how much does it extend to your work with conductors like Kirill Petrenko and René Jacobs?

I think chemistry has to be present from the beginning. You realize there’s a common goal in music; it’s very important. Sometimes you don’t have that, and it’s more compromising during the period you work together, but with René, for example, he’s very unique – a very complex, sensitive person. (Chemistry) is something you have to find — you have to resonate with that, and when you find the common energy then, you are on a very good track for the work together. But again, it’s always surprising how things happen. You meet people you’ve never seen before and you feel like you’ve known them a long time, especially in music.

Does that apply to directors as well, that sense of familiarity?

Maybe it’s even more so with directors, because when you do opera, you have a relationship over six weeks together — you see each other every day for six hours and you deal with very intimate psychological things, when you try to form a character. The conductor very often comes in late —not with Rene or Kirill, and maybe that’s the reason why we get along: they’re there from the beginning. But generally then you build up everything. With a director, you go into the point, to the very centre of everything, and this is maybe an even stronger connection —for this reason sometimes you have beautiful relationships, really inspiring exchanges, or it can happen, if you don’t understand each other, you will have a distance, and you can do your work professionally but it will never have this very strong pull.

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As Medea in Aribert Reimann’s Medea (world premiere), Wiener Staatsoper, 2010. Production: Marco Arturo Marelli. (Photo: Axel Zeininger)

How does that relate to premiering a new work?

A world premiere is interesting because you are the one that kind of excavates the music really — you bring it to life. There’s no one who’s done it before, so you can’t listen to anybody. You have to be the one to create it, which is very exciting. And what is of course amazing and never happens otherwise, is that you can talk to the composer and discuss what do they mean in places, how do the want it?  And maybe if there are difficult things you can ask for a change or adjustment. That is something very special, to have a person like Henze or Reimann to speak with, face to face, to talk about music — that is very touching.

You have a real dedication to lieder; how does this intimacy with stage artists relate to accompanists?

It’s very important that you have a person at your side that has the same musical approach. With lieder, you know, it’s very often the case of, ‘Here’s the singer and the guy who accompanies’ and it sounds like a 70% to 30% or 80% to 20% relationship, but for me it’s an equal force. To make music work, you must meet somebody that you really trust, that you understand as a human being also, that you have an easy exchange and also fascination with, about how they play the music. I think when a pianist plays in a way that I love, it opens a door inside me; then the music can go through that. That’s the closest work one can have.

That sounds like a rather metaphysical experience.

Yes, it is. The two pianists I have within the trilogy, they’re very different — Stephan Mattias (Lademann), who did the first (Welt) and the last (Inner Welt), is a very sensitive and fine pianist, and he is very, I think, into it with the knowledge of music. Camillo Radicke, who did the other album (Anderswelt), is a very sensitive, and I would say, even ethereal person, who comes more from the emotional side, in his approach to the music. There’s no question he’d play on Anderswelt, because (that album) for me has more crazy ungraspable little things, which I saw with Camillo immediately. And Mattias is more for the concrete and fine work in terms of musical approach.

Does your understanding of the work evolve through performance?

Yes, it moves on. Usually it’s the case that you have a theme, and then you perform, and then in the later stage, you record. With this, it was the other way around: we created an idea, we recorded it, then we performed it. That was a bit more difficult for the recordings, because you have no experience with the songs really, but, when the baby is born, it’s then a great process that can unfold, because every time you perform it, it grows a bit more, and you find new things. I think if I recorded it again now after three years, Welt, it would have some different tempi, some different moments of pianissimo. It moves on.

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Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Phaedra and Marlis Petersen as Aphrodite within Ensemble Modern in reflection, in Henze’s Phaedra (world premiere) at Staatsoper Berlin in 2007. Production: Peter Mussbach. (Photo: Ruth Walz)

And I would imagine it’s influenced by what you’re doing on the opera stage as well…

Yes, for sure.

… because it seems like such organic material can lend itself to a certain theatricality.

Can you describe that?

Theatrical in the visceral sense — there’s a lot of strong imagery on your trilogy, not just with the words but the way you phrase things, the way you use your voice in terms of color and dynamics.

So does it create inner pictures for you?

Very much.

That’s fantastic — that’s great! That’s the best that can happen. The inner world is something we only know to a certain extent. The older we get the more we open doors. We have met our moments in our lives and understand them better and better, but some things we will never understand. When you look at the scientists who say we are only using 10% of our brain capacity, well, what does the other 90% do? I think it’s somewhere ungraspable —  but becomes graspable through unconscious and subconscious worlds, and this is why I like you saying you have pictures mentally when you hear it. It means the music triggers your own inner world, and that’s the best compliment.

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via Solo Musica

It feels like a journey in which sensuality plays a very important role.

My intent was to take listeners on a journey, to go through dreams and feelings we have inside, things like anger or despair. And the French part was something where I thought, “This is a very unique color that points to the love emotions.”  There’s an aspect of…  this is something that we all go through, something eternal, some heaven, or some kind of redemption. This is a big topic we all have in our core. And for our world, with all the busy schedules and the crazy things that happen, it’s so important for each of us to have these moments of intimacy, and as you said, sensuality. For me it was important to do this trilogy for my inner growth; it was such a lesson.

How so?

There is a technical aspect to collecting songs, to searching; you never know, really, where the journey will go. On the first album it happened that by sorting the songs; the chapters came out on their own. I didn’t plan any chapter, I just suddenly found out, “Oh! This goes together with this one!” and “Oh, this group makes another topic!” — it was a direction, a gift given to me, and it was so beautiful, this idea of chapters, I wanted to keep it for The Other World and The Inner World too. Then you have to think, how do I do it this time? But, when you go into something with your full heart, there are always gifts coming in, surprises from heaven, and suddenly you have these discoveries, and you feel you’re on the right track. And this feeling of being on the right track, and doing something essential for yourself and the world, is so rewarding.

It’s often a question of being open to that happening. Sometimes people don’t open doors but build more walls which become fortified with age.

i think it’s very important that we keep ourselves open to wonder. I have many friends who are musicians, and when I talk to them about this, they are very open to trying new directions and to listening and getting lost in the journey — but the thing is, who in our age has the time to sit with a glass of wine and just listen to the album, and look at the booklet and get lost in the little trip we’re offering? If you can find the time, yes, it might make you rich in a way that you can understand something more. This was my aim, really, but maybe it’s a big aim; it needs time for people to be ready for it.

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With baritone Iurii Samoilov in Lehar’s Die Lustige Witwe at Oper Frankfurt, 2018. Production: Claus Guth. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Sometimes artists are far ahead of ideas of their time.

Oh yes, and the whole business today, it has to move fast, you have to be good, you have to bring your very best quality all the time, the business is rotating very quickly in every way. So these albums are there to tell us not to hurry, to take our time. Give time for everything you want to reach; if something’s coming and you have to move quickly, more so than you can, then maybe it’s not the right time to move. Give yourself the time you need; that thing will find you.

Saimir Pirgu: “Don’t Forget That You’re A Human Being”

Photo: Paul Scala

If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.

Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.

The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

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As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano

Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to. 

Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.

We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.

It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.

But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design. 

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.

Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today. 

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?

It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.

Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.

Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared. 

That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?

I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?

Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more? 

I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.

But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.

Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.

And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.

It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.

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With conductor James Conlon.

Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor? 

I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.

ensemble unitedberlin: Between Past And Future

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The Goethe-Schiller-Denkmal (Monument) by Ernst Rietschel in Weimar. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Lately I’ve found myself re-evaluating the past within the context of the present. It’s been an important and sometimes painful journey, for a variety of reasons both personal (disposing of photo albums, many of which were my mother’s) and professional (my slow if sure transition away from journalism). Through travels, research, readings, and various creative ruminations, I’ve come to appreciate just how deeply recontextualizing materials of the past can help us understand and appreciate new ways of being fully and completely present, however uncomfortable that may sometimes be; evolution is not, after all, supposed to be a comfortable process.

I suspect this is something Georg Katzer understood. The award-winning German composer, born in what is now Poland in 1935, was a pioneer of electronic new music in the German Democratic Republic. He founded the Studio for Electroacoustic Music in the 1980s, and made a career of redefining past to understand present, setting the stakes high for future modes of expression. The weight and influence of Europe’s shifting history through the decades lent him a ravenous curiosity for exploration of the past mixed with an enthusiasm for for redefining the present; he did so much with a twinkle in his eye as well rather than the furrowed brow of a serious artiste, which gives his work a discernible humanism, even amidst the plaintive bleeps and sighing bloops of works like “Steinelied I” (1984) and “Steinelied II” (2010). Listen to his wide-ranging oeuvre, which moves easily between lyrical brutality and brutal lyricism, and you’ll hear Bartok, Stravinsky, Lutowslawski and Zimmerman, as well as bits of Kraftwerk and Einstürzende Neubauten. Sounds brush, bump, groan, and grind against each other in ways that are, even many decades after their creation, gripping, contemporary, and theatrical.

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Georg Katzer (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

That theatricality is readily apparent in “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), premiered in Leipzig in 1975. A smart work that embraces various meta aspects of music-making, Szene was, at its inception, a meditation (and, it must be said, a sarcastic commentary) on the bureaucratic nature of the GDR and its uneasy relationship to cultural life and artistic expression. The work was presented by German chamber group ensemble unitedberlin last month at the Konzerthaus Berlin for their 30th anniversary concert; the group first performed it in 1994, on the premiere appearance of conductor (and eub Artistic Advisor) Vladimir Jurowski leading. As the program notes state, the piece is “one of the representatives of “Scenic Chamber Music” or “Instrumental Theatre,” in which performative aspects of music production and linguistic elements came to the fore.” 

I’ve written about ensemble unitedberlin in the past (specifically in relation to composer Claude Vivier), and this concert was special in terms of its being a symbol of remembrance as well as anticipation; never did the word “present” feel so apt. Katzer has taken lines from Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations With Goethe and placed them directly within the piece. Delivered by the conductor to the audience, the lines relate specifically to the nature of new composition, and concern a new piece written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn. As recorded by Eckermann:

Conversation from Sunday evening, January 14 1827:

I found a musical evening entertainment with Goethe, which was granted to him by the Eberwein family together with some members of the orchestra. Among the few listeners were: General Superintendent Röhr, Hofrat Vogel and some ladies. Goethe had wished to hear the quartet of a famous young composer, which was first performed. The twelve-year-old Karl Eberwein played the grand piano to Goethe’s great satisfaction, and indeed excellently, so that the quartet passed in every respect well executed.

“It is strange,” said Goethe, “where the most highly enhanced technique and mechanics lead the newest composers; their works are no longer music, they go beyond the level of human feelings, and one can no longer infer such things from one’s own mind and heart. How do you feel? It all sticks in my ears.” I said that I am not better in this case. “But the Allegro,” Goethe continued, “had character. This eternal whirling and turning showed me the witch dances of the Blockberg, and I found a view, which I could suppose to the strange music.”

It’s interesting to note that Mendelssohn and Goethe enjoyed a great friendship thereafter.

Katzer noted in the program notes for a 2016 presentation with the Dresden Sinfonietta that his inclusion of Goethe within “Szene” should “not be interpreted as malice towards the genius. Lack of understanding of new music is a widespread phenomenon and, as we see, not a new one.” His essential point is clear, driven home by the work’s closing scene: the musicians gathered around a spinning top, silently observing. Our perception of change and its inevitable nature is coloured by a near-unconscious wiring of a past we don’t want to remember, yet cannot forget, much less look away from.

Katzer passed away earlier this year — on May 7th, to be precise, which is the date Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony made its world premiere, in 1824. The two composers shared a program last December thanks to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, when Katzer’s “discorso” for orchestra was given its world premiere just prior to the orchestra’s annual New Year’s presentation of Beethoven’s famous symphony (led by RSB Chief Conductor and Artistic Director Jurowski). I thought about this strange confluence experiencing “Szene”, and of Beethoven’s reported meeting with the very man Katzer quotes. The composer created incidental music for Goethe’s 1788 drama Egmont, as well as lieder incorporating his texts. The two came from utterly different worlds — Goethe being Privy Counsellor at the Weimar court, Beethoven, decidedly revolutionary — but despite such vastly different experiences and worldviews, the composer was effusive in his praise of the writer, and Goethe may have enjoyed the new sounds Beethoven created, however much he would complain about his sticky ears to Eckermann just four years later. According to an account in Romain Rolland’s famous book Goethe and Beethoven (1931):

On October 27th (1823) a Beethoven trio was played at Goethe’s house. On November 4th, in the great concert given at the Stadthaus in honour of Szymanowska, Beethoven figures twice on the program. The concert opened with the Fourth Symphony in B Flat, and after the interval his quintet, op. 16 for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon, was played. Thus Beethoven had the lion’s share, and without mentioning his name, Goethe confessed to Knebel that he was again “completely carried away by the whirlwind of sounds (da bin ich nun wieder in den Strudel der Tone hineingerissen).” Thus there had been opened to him a new world, the world of modern music which he had hitherto refused to accept — “durch Vermittelung eines Wesens, das Geniisse, die man immer ahndet und immer entbehrt, zu verwirklichen geschaffen ist (through the medium of one who has the gift of endowing with life those delights which we resent and of which we deprive ourselves).”

Classical music lovers tend to enjoy —nay, expect —the so-called canon to never change, let alone the ways it’s presented (something Washington Post classical writer Anne Midgette addresses in a recent piece).  However, contemporary composers have mostly embraced change and risk, frequently at the cost of widespread popularity and acceptance; they, and the artists who perform and program them, stand at the vanguard of creative evolution, come hell or highwater, fully present of time, place, space, and relationships. The ensemble unitedberlin was formed at the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; like many German cultural institutions, it’s using 2019 to mark the changes wrought over three decades — how past merges with present, in sculpting possibilities for the future. As the program states, the group’s aim has been to explore “areas of tension, between the past and the future,” presenting works that incorporate and inspire a “joy of musical discovery.” Experiencing many works live that I’d not been given an opportunity to hear live before was not only a discovery, but a revelation; it’s been akin to squeezing out a tube of a color never seen before and then experimenting with its application on different surfaces. There are certain works I’m happy to take a (lengthy) break from, but contemporary works I heartily want to explore; I have ensemble unitedberlin, in part, to thank for stoking that long-suppressed curiosity.

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Hans-Jürgen Wenzel (from ensemble unitedberlin program)

Hans Jürgen Wenzel is one of those composers whose work I hope to know better. Along with “Szene”, his intriguing “Eröffnungsmusik” (opening music, 1978) was performed as part of their birthday celebrations; the program charmingly describes the composer (who passed away in 2009) as the “the initiator of the formation of the ensemble.” Wenzel was dedicated to introducing young people to contemporary music, and many of his students went on to become composers in their own right. It was a perfect opening to the evening, and enjoyed a perfect follow-up: the world premiere of young composer Stefan Beyer’s “зaukalt und windig” (cold and windy). Katzer’s “Szene” was followed by Vinko Globokar’s “Les Soliloques décortiqués”, premiered in 2016 by Ensemble Musikfabrik. The France-born Globokar, whose creative process involves writing music based around stories he’s written first, told The Globe & Mail in 2011:

“I was part of a group of friends, an avant-garde that was based on risk. The idea, collectively, was to find something new. But even if you didn’t find this end result, it was still okay, because you were exploring ideas. That kind of collective thinking we did has disappeared.”

Based on cultural experiences over the past few years, I’m not so sure that spirit has entirely disappeared — it’s just become more of an effort to find and subsequently commit to. It was a decidedly stirring experience, to observe Katzer’s widow interacting with Globokar (elegant in a suit), the young Beyer, Jurowski, and ensemble co-founder Andreas Brautigam casually interacting post-concert — generations of past and present, all moving into the future, in their own ways and methods. Here’s to the unbound joys of new discoveries, sonic and otherwise; may we never deprive ourselves of them, but welcome them, with open arms, clear ears, and brave hearts.

Thomas Hampson: “We Make The Human Experience Audible”

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Photo: Jimmy Donelan

Midway through our recent conversation, Thomas Hampson paused, trying to find the right word relating to a musical concept.

“You speak German, don’t you?”

He couldn’t see me, but I wanted to crawl under my desk with shame. Here I was speaking to one of the most celebrated living opera singers in history and my wall of Anglo-Canadian linguistic ignorance was as glaringly solid as ever. Hampson, ever the gentleman, patiently (dare I say enthusiastically) explained, expanded, and engaged, as is his custom in both life and in art.

The American-born, Austria-living baritone is currently in Houston, having just opened The Phoenix by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, playing the role of the elder Lorenzo Da Ponte to bass baritone (and real-life son-in-law) Luca Pisaroni’s junior. The project marks the second world premiere Hampson has been part of this season alone, having performed as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s new work of the same name (by Rufus Wainwright) in October. With four decades of singing under his belt and engagements with every major house (Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, the Met, Wiener Staatsoper, Lyric Opera Chicago, Opéra National de Paris, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Salzburg), you’d think he’d be content to rest on his laurels — but as you’ll read, that isn’t who Thomas Hampson is. His voracious artistic curiosity often makes itself known, through keenly dramatic approach to his various roles (and they’ve included all the goodies: Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Amfortas, Macbeth, Boccanegra, Figaro) as well as through his extensive recital work, albums dedicated to song, and intense teaching time. Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he met during his student days at Merola, once called him “the best singer in Europe.”

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Thomas Hampson and director Peter Hinton in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Gaetz Photography

It was at a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 when I fully understood and appreciated the true depth of Hampson’s artistry. Verdi being an absolute mainstay composer in my childhood household, I knew is works inside and out musically, and had heard many different version of many different roles, among them Giorgio Germont in La traviata. Despite the vocal grandeur of many performances, the reading of the role always, without fail, left me cold, whether on vinyl, compact disc, or live; the character seemed little more than a stiff cliche, barking on about honor and family. Hampson’s interpretation of the role in Willy Decker’s production, however, changed all that. Similar to my experience of Pisaroni’s Leporello in Salzburg in 2016, it was a  bold, beautiful opening that made me rethink not only the opera and the composer, but my relationship with each, as with music and art. Hampson’s Germont was, by turns, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed, a deeply moving portrayal of a man in full awareness of his obsessive, possibly ill son, trying to balance his own sense of guilt with a seething fury echoing that of Alfredo (apple, meet tree). Hampson’s portrayal was just as much vocal as it was physical; his watchful, smart modulation and timbre were not meant to be pretty, graceful, smooth — all the things I’d grown up hearing. His Germont was, put simply, beautifully human, and it remains one of my all-time favorite performances on the stage to this day.

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As Germont in La traviata, Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo: Marty Sohl

There’s a true and highly committed work ethic behind such performances, and it’s one Hampson has been recognized for often throughout his career. He has a load of honors to his credit: they include a Grammy for his role as Wolfram in a 2003 recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (done with Daniel Barenboim); six Grammy nominations; Male Singer of the Year at the 1994 International Classical Music Awards; five Dutch Edison Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement); four Echo prizes; a Grand Prix du Disque, and many, many more. He has worked with so many great conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Antonio Pappano, Maris Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Fabio Luisi, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Franz Welser-Möst) and always has kept firm commitments to both to the art of song as well as to contemporary works; next season he performs the role of Jan Vermeer in Girl With The Pearl Earring (Stefan Wirth, 1975) at Opernhaus Zürich but before that, next month, he sings with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski, in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, a work Hampson is known (and rightly celebrated) for.

Another famous thing Hampson does is concert tours with Pisaroni, playfully called No Tenors Allowed, which makes a stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this Tuesday (30 April). A mix of opera, operetta, and showtunes, the evening is a showcase of the baritone’s flexible vocality, theatrical vividness, and serious approach to his work. Even if he’s singing a Broadway number, it’s easily discernible just how much Hampson means every single word — and that applies just as much in conversation, in teaching, in rehearsal, in life, as it does in voice. Art and life fuse in a beautiful, passionate co-mingling with an artist such as he, and it’s that integration which, for me, powers his charisma, his artistic commitment, and that insatiable curiosity, which, as you will see, is such a palpable cornerstone to who he is, as artist and man.

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Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper

You have an immense artistic curiosity — what fuels that?

I’m just like that! How can I say this? In what I do, I’m a musician; my life and my mind as a musician is, every day, every hour, I’m exploring ways we express ourselves in a language we call music, and when that is coupled, especially in the song world, with the metaphor of our imagination through words, I find that it’s an incredible adventure into why we do what we do, who we are, how different people think of different things. That’s a grandiose answer to your question!

Something was written two years ago, or two hundred years ago, or twenty minutes ago, can, in some ways, not be the determining factor — it simply has been attempted. Of course, we to try and capture how people do what they do in a musical language. The story of Hadrian is fascinating, the story of Da Ponte is fascinating, the story of Scarpia is fascinating, the story of Boccanegra is fascinating, just to name some big characters; why do they do what they do and who are they? Some have a bit more to do with the value of humanity and the value of life, but to know a Scarpia is to understand how desperate and tyrannical humans can be to one another — and how dangerous humans can be. Tosca is just as contemporary today as the day it was written. These are things that fascinate me.

In terms of specifically new music, I feel very strongly that new opera must be supported — that sounds like more of a drudge that I mean it, but we have to give our composers the chance to become great. Verdi’s first three or four operas were not exactly amazing but they showed an amazing potential, and they’re probably all worth some kind of performance. There’s an awful lot of pressure on new opera productions today because people come, sit there and fold their arms and say, “Okay, am I going to experience greatness?” But I think that’s missing the point completely. Are we engaged in human beings? That’s my question and certainly, we were with Hadrian and certainly we are here with The Phoenix.

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Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane

What does that give you then, as an artist?

Everything.

A lot of people in your position would be content to rest on their considerable laurels.

That’s not who I am or who we are as musicians. Bernard Haitink doesn’t keep conducting at 90 because he is trying to stay employed and wants to remember who he is. This what we do in the morning, this is what we live for, it’s our lifeblood, whether we play for three or 3000 is not the point — it’s what gets us motivated, what motivates us in terms of being musicians. It’s not about a gold watch and 30 years service.

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Teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. Photo: Brian Hatton

Does that feed into your teaching work? Chen Reiss said in a recent conversation that teaching gives her a lot as an artist.

Yes, and It gives me a great deal too. I’ve taught a lot in the last 25 years — I’ve learned a lot about it over the years and I’m thankful. When I teach for a couple days, or walk into a masterclass, just having to articulate the fundamentals or rearticulate the whys and wherefores to young colleagues, somehow reinforces your own; it’s like giving yourself a voice lesson. I thank my colleagues for letting me take the time to give myself a voice lesson! Now that I’m more extensively involved in pedagogical activities, and planning them, I see it as a wonderfully healthy way to pass it on. I’ve had some wonderful instruction since the heydey of my career — I was very fortunate; they gave me inroads into how to study and how to prepare that have stood me well.  I’m confident that, at the very least, I can be a help to my younger colleagues in an experiential way, so I can say, for instance, “That’s not a path you want to go down.” In the last five or seven years, in my more concentrated studies, I’m very active in keeping abreast to pedagogical thought and to keeping it simple, and helping young colleagues truly mature into young professionals. It’s a passing-it-on situation, and it gives me a great deal of energy. To be part of someone else’s “a-ha!” moment is very intoxicating.

Keeping that “a-ha!” moment in mind, you’ve worked with some great conductors, and continue to. How much do you still find yourself surprised at learning from them? Everybody has a different style, different personality, different ways of adjusting.

That’s a good question. When I was singing a great deal of Mozart, bouncing between Harnoncourt, Muti and Levine, that was, talk about different styles and personalities! Everyone is on the same mountain, the mountain is the clarity of human emotion in musical language, and the different glaciers you might be on have different challenges. Yes, you do not sing, in a phraseology sense, the same with a Muti as with a Harnoncourt, but those are not absolutes. Both of those men are deeply dedicated, experienced musicians, and great conductors don’t happen by accident — they’re some of the greatest musicians musical minds. The best conductors have a direct and kind of uncanny ability to initiate other peoples’ making of music in a collective way, and that’s an extremely important talent. To learn from these really wonderful musicians is a privilege; having someone like Jansons feel you are the one he needs to make that musical decision or choice of repertoire viable at that particular concert, it’s a great validation. For him to want to do that with you is great — I don’t feel so engaged by him as invited to participate because we can go to this or that level with this or that piece, and that’s very important. Michael Tilson Thomas — I’ve learned so much from him, he’s so damn smart. I don’t have the musical training these people do, or the musical talent; I have a musicality and an instinct that can keep up! Bruno Walter said that about Lotte Lehmann; she was an amazing singer, she moved people enormously and was a great pedagogue, but he wrote the forward to her book, “Lotte’s curiosity has always informed her instinctual knowledge.” I think that’s a wonderful thing.

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Photo: Mark McDonald

That relates to your dedication to lieder and the art of song — it seems like another symbol for your artistic curiosity. Why song, why now?

That’s a wonderful question. I’m not into a particular fach, or niche repertoire. I’m not trying to help keep the song alive because I think it’s a “cool” thing. As humans with have two options to express ourselves: we can either verbally articulate it, or we can write it. Whether that’s in a hieroglyphic or a scratch on a cave wall, or a fine use of the language any one person would call their own language, it doesn’t matter — the point is to get the experience, the emotional and intellectual experience out of your head and leave it like a footprint in the sand, and say, “Okay, this is what I thought.” Poetry has a little bit more focus to that in that someone is deciding in a particular linguistic structure to express thought and emotion at the same time. This is a wonderful source of inspiration for people whose antenna is essentially musical; these two antennae are somehow trying to figure out a way to articulate what Copland said, the moment of being alive now. And the composer fleshes out, in a musical language, more the emotional context of what that poem is about as well as participating in the intellectual side of the narrative, and that’s to think about what this or that chord represents, this or that harmonic structure or harmonic rhythm, whatever the tools of that musical composer are which indicate they’re fleshing out what they perceive that poem was about.

That’s what I feel is the alpha-omega of singing. This is what we do: we make the human experience audible, in a language called music, inspired by words, which is for the purpose of us as a community experiencing that particular moment of humanness, if you will. And I don’t think that’s a hobby, I don’t think that’s a fach, I don’t think that’s genre; I think that’s the beginning and the end of everything we do as singers, period. The idea there’s a concert fach and a lieder fach and an oper fach, “he’s this or that type of baritone” — I just think that’s a very dangerous and un-useful thing to think for singers within their own particular development.

Also, it’s not an idea to give our audiences, that we are jobbing. I think the arts and humanities is far more important than the idea that “Oh, it’s a job.” It is more than that. What we provide in the evening, what a classical concert is about, if you will, is the privilege and pleasure of any human to stop the clock just for a second. It might be three minutes or a forty-minute movement; we stop the clock for the privilege of going inside and asking ourselves, as listeners and performers, who are we? Why are we here? What does this all mean? How can we make a way forwards from this experience ? If that’s not the thrust of the classical music industry, the privilege and pleasure and the inroads of audiences we provide for their own human living development and experience, we’re in a lot of trouble. You can’t market or brand that. It has to be understood as part of the process of us asking, how can we be better human beings?

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Operetta gala in Baden-Baden with Annette Dasch, Piotr Beczala, and Pavel Baleff conducting the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Michael Bode

Stopping the clock doesn’t have to be limited to serious music, either. As Barrie Kosky and I discussed last year, it can happen in operettas, a genre you perform in and make part of your concerts.

It’s like making fun of opera plots — talk about low-hanging fruit! But I don’t think opera is about plot; I think opera is about dilemma. Whether the door was opened or the sun went up or five years passed or whatever, it all gets condensed —the point is that a trio of people might come together to explore who they are. When the composers are gifted and the language of character is so apparent in their music — i.e. Verdi, i.e. Mozart – then I think we all go home happy. If you take that in another way, to the operetta world, yes they’re simpler but why not? The thing about operetta that fascinates me, as well as musical theatre, is that the distance between emotional language and the language of the music so much closer. And the believability factor is instantaneous with an operetta; If they don’t believe every word, you’re dead, forget about it. If you feel for a minute it’s about you and your voice, they’ll walk away. That’s not quite true in opera. It’s an experiential dimension, a wonder of what’s happening as much as why. It’s all healthy, and part of the enriching human experience of the theatre and the power of the musical language.

But we have a completely different sensibility to the language of music than the era from which a lot of these pieces were written; Bellini is not Mozart, Verdi is not Mozart, Puccini is not Verdi. I think these questions are important. As an example, Verdi, as great as he was, was vociferously criticized for the vulgarity of the beginning of Otello when he wrote it. I don’t know any conductor, esp Italian, who don’t feel the mantle of Verdi’s spirit on their shoulders. Yet all of the instruments are different — the strings are steel, the clarinets are plastic — the decibel possible out of an orchestra pit in a house now is something people in Verdi’s time would have never experienced, let alone the sheer size of the houses now. What am I trying to say? I’m saying when we do these performances, we need to be sensitive to the context in which they were performed; a forte piano in Schubert is different than a forte piano in Stravinsky  I don’t care who wants to disagree with me — it’s just different. As musicians. it’s our job to flesh out the reality, to make it audible, so that the experience is contemporary, regardless of when the piece was written.

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As Scarpia in Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper / Wilfried Hösl

Part of what makes your performances so visceral is that you are such a believable stage presence. Luca and I spoke about how he prefers being known as a singing actor over being known for just his voice alone.

I know he’s said that before, and he’s right. What I would like is to be remembered as somebody you believed when you saw or heard him in the theatre. “Whether a Winterreise or in an opera or in recital, Hampson always made audible that which he was singing.” Luca’s right — in the theatre context, in an opera context, I certainly want to be thought of as a thoroughly professional singer; I don’t think that’s different than being believable in an acting sense. I think what makes Luca special is that his believability factor is so high. He searches for that dimension of understanding of why the music is saying that, and incorporates making it physical as well as audible.

A lot of my colleagues are extremely preoccupied with being remembered as a special or unique or great voice. I mean, Callas was unique in her generation, unique in several generations, with records that are still selling — people want to listen. Why? It’s not just the amazing agility and color and timbre. It’s the believability factor, giving it up to music — I believe what I do on stage has, this is going to sound incongruous, but it ain’t about Tom Hampson, it’s about what Tom Hampson can do to make that which he’s singing audible, believable, inhabitable, for the people who are experiencing that performance. Now, does that mean it’s not about me? Of course not. It’s my abilities to do that, but my whole effort is about the Schubert moment ,the Mahler moment, the Verdi moment, the Wainwright moment, the O’Regan moment.

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In concert at Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music. Photo: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)

Those moments have to be infused with authenticity.

Yes, you have to do your homework. You have to work to do that. it’s a tremendous amount of study and detailed sensitivity. People who talk about the spontaneousness of this or that performer onstage simply don’t understand the dimensions of performing. Of course we want to be thought of as spontaneous, there’s nothing more miraculous than someone saying, “It sounded as if he was composing it as he sang it!” That’s one of the greatest compliments, but that is only possible with the minutest, most detailed sensitivity and homework.

And sometimes it’s nice to experience artists where you can see the gears turning, you can feel them, you can smell them. I love that.

Yes! I must say, I am not preoccupied with what people think about me. I’m preoccupied what what I think about me. It’s one of the things I talk about with my young colleagues: if you go onstage like a golden retriever, wanting people to like you and think you’re the cutest dog ever, you’re going to be a nervous wreck. I am not concerned with what people think about the Winterreise when I sing it; I am concerned that I achieve what I believe Schubert was trying to achieve in that cycle. I cannot convince anybody of anything from the stage. The energy in a concert hall or opera house is not from the stage to the audience, it is from the audience to the stage. And if you embrace that, and you know your technique and you know why you’re standing there and go into your zone as quickly as you can in that public context, as a performer your nerves will be more controllable. If you go out thinking the applause-o-meter is important, or “Oh God, there’s blank faces in the first few rows” … I mean, I don’t know who’s in front of me; I don’t want to know. That’s not why I’m there.

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Photo: Catherine Pisaroni

There’s a real intimacy with singing — you don’t have an instrument; it’s just you, your body, the space, and sometimes conductor or accompanists, and the music. There’s something vulnerable about that.

Yes, for sure.

It’s a real pity when you see singers who’ve lost that vulnerability.

Yes, that’s so true — and their sense of wonder. I do this piece called Letters from Lincoln by Michael Daugherty, and it ends with him signing a letter,”Yours very sincerely, Abraham Lincoln.” I mean… wow. You have to sing it a few times not to get emotional.

The German phrase “stehen für” means “represent” but it doesn’t quite grasp things— it means someone who stands in place of someone else. That’s what I feel like when I sing the great music I’m allowed to sing; I am there at their service. The only megastars are the composers and poets, in my opinion. I know Pavarotti felt the same way. We all come and go. You do the best you can. My responsibility is a final link to the greatness of thought and captured in a language called music.

hampson pisaroni no tenors

Photo: Jiyang Chen

And that includes fun music.

Yes, there’s different constellations. With the concert performances, yes it’s clever, we’re family, “no tenors allowed” — that’s a total tongue-in-cheek joke, it has no validity to our tenor colleagues or anybody else, it’s just a smirk and a hahaha. What is in these programs is Mozart. Bellini, Verdi, Massenet, then we get into Lehar, Kalman, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and our last encore is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which is the precursor to Verdi. This is great music, these are great moments — admittedly some are lighter, but audiences will take this roller coaster ride, from a Don Giovanni duet, which is brief but white-heat kind of stuff, to this enormous contemplation of freedom and self-determination with that Don Carlo duet, to ending with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. I defy you to put a brand on that evening. It is interesting, some of the reactions we get, but audiences get it completely, they go with us. Most people respect who we are but some have had to chew on this: what is it? A vanity evening?

“That isn’t real opera!”

Yes, and I think that’s missing the point of a duet evening, this bouquet of great musical moments of human experience. Is it the Winterreise? No. Is it Don Carlo? No.

hampson pisaroni live no tenors

Wolfsburg concert. Photo: Andreas Greiner-Nap / Soli Deo Gloria

But it doesn’t have to be.

Exactly! Something in the back of ours minds is, maybe it’s the first time some of our public is introduced to some of this great work. We could’ve programmed nothing but duets — I did a record with Sam, I love duet evenings, I’ll do one with Opolais and another Gheorghiu this year. I think it’s a big evening, it demands everything from Luca and I — it is not a walk in the park. We are out there on the line, but we believe the program is very user-friendly and has a lot of value as well a big enjoyment factor for all of us. I want to believe some of that snobbery is because I’ve not had a chance to talk to the naysayers and offer a different perspective.

Maybe No Tenors Allowed in itself already offers that perspective?

That’s what our hope is!

Dominik Köninger: “You Grow With Every Challenge”

dominik koninger

Photo: Tom Schweigert

Baritone Dominik Köninger has been busy since our last conversation. That isn’t surprising, considering he’s a member of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) ensemble, where he’s sung a variety of roles, from a myriad of eras —Baroque, classical, bel canto, operetta, modern — since starting there in 2012.

Any artist who’s experienced the ensemble system is aware of the need to balance wildly different material in very short amounts of time. Scheduling and repertoire means a careful adherence to vocal sensitivities and recuperative demands, to say nothing of the challenges that can be presented in working with a sometimes revolving set of artistic personnel. During my chat with Wilhelm Schwinghammer this past January, the German bass baritone spoke of his own time as a member of the Staatsoper Hamburg ensemble, estimating he performed over seventy roles during his decade-plus time there. Ensemble work can also be an incredibly important and useful experience in developing skills, getting to know repertoire (well) and cultivating specific and sometimes entirely unknown talents. One might enter into one with the belief of being suited to doing x type of repertoire, only to learn (through time, experience, and exposure) that in fact, y type of repertoire is probably a better match vocally (and that z repertoire, which had never before been even vaguely considered, is suddenly looking interesting too). Ensembles have their ups and downs, but for some, they give needed grounding, requisite exposure (to audiences, repertoire, directors, conductors, and potential future houses), oh-so-vital  flexibility (vocally and otherwise), and a  broadening of perspective — all of which are so important to a burgeoning career.

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As Pelléas in the Komische Oper Berlin production of ‘Pelléas et Melisande’ in October 2017. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

And so Köninger has done much since we last spoke close to two years ago. As well as making a much-awaited role debut as Pelléas in a brilliant and bold, brilliant production of Pelléas et Melisande directed by KOB Intendant Barrie Kosky, he reprised his role as Silvius in the frothy Oscar Straus operetta Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra), appeared as Agamemnon in a colorful production of Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (The Beautiful Helena), sang Papageno (something of a signature role) in the much-vaunted KOB/1927 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and gave a recital (one I found very moving) full of dark works by Mahler, Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Along with more Silvius and Papageno performances this season, he’s also singing (/has sung) Maximilian in Bernstein’s Candide (with KOB), and Pantalone in Prokofiev’s Die Liebe zu drei Orangen (The Love for Three Oranges). A well-received recital of Schubert’s celebrated Winterreise closed out 2018.  This spring Köninger will be on a mini-tour with RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, in a presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. For those of you assuming you may have to travel to Europe to hear him live, fear not: Köninger is set to make his North American debut next spring with Opera de Montreal, as Papageno, in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which he lovingly refers to as “my baby,” a nod to his history with the presentation.

This coming Saturday sees another first for the baritone: he’ll be making his debut in the title role of Handel’s rarely-staged opera Poro, Re dell’Indie (Porus, King of India), called simply Poro here (Poros auf Deutsch), which made my Things To See 2019 list. The story revolves around Alexander the Great’s time in India, and the love triangle which arises between him, King Porus, and Cleofide (aka Cleophis), Queen of a neighbouring realm. Handel’s opera is based Alessandro nell’Indie by celebrated Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, a work that inspired more than sixty other operas throughout the 18th century. The Komische Oper Berlin production opening this coming Saturday (March 16th) is led by conductor and early music specialist Jörg Halubek, but is may not strictly Baroque in that frilly-cuffed, big-wigged way; its celebrated director, Harry Kupfer (who was trained by KOB founder Walter Felsenstein), has, as you will read, made a few updates. The leap from Pelléas to Poros for Köninger isn’t as wide as you may think; his intense focus comes from a place of commitment and utter humility. So no matter the variety of plant, the ground beneath it is rich and sure, and is being continually cultivated with the utmost care and consideration; you can hear it in his voice with every performance, at the Komische and not. Köninger, quite simply, is one to watch.

The role of Poro was originally written for the famed castrato Senesino and is usually cast with a counter-tenor; in this production, it’s a baritone (you!) — what’s that like?

The whole thing is a bit of an adaption. It is Kupfer’s wish to have baritone in the lead role. In the 1950s, he was an assistant director in Halle, which was then East Germany, and they did this opera, but in German, with a baritone in the lead role — that was his intention. So putting it on now, it’s kind of the circle closes. He wanted the opera to be in German now as well, so we got a German translation — it’s more like an adaptation than a translation. Our production is set in British colonial India, a very specific and political time and context.

So Mayamaha in this production was originally Cleofide?

Yes! These are Indian names in the production: Gandaharta (Philipp Meierhöfer), Mahamaya (Ruzan Mantashyan), Poro’s sister Nimbavati (Idunnu Münch). That’s what Kupfer intended. Also, the role of Alexander, which was originally a tenor, is now a counter-tenor (Eric Jurenas). It’s all been adapted, but it all makes sense.

poros komische oper berlin

As Poro in Komische Oper Berlin’s ‘Poro’ (Photo: Monika Rittershaus), opening on March 16th, 2019.

What’s it like to sing? Poro seems quite different to Handel’s other operas musically.

This opera is not so full of the fast coloratura arias and the demands of being perfect stylistically, but the challenge this time is that it brings much more out emotionally. Handel wrote these arias in a different way; he didn’t write them with fireworks, although there are some like that (like with the counter-tenor). Kupfer is keen on having us not doing too much when musical things change, but to have it more clear, more simple. It’s like, he doesn’t like a singer to show off. He wants real feelings, and to hear not what they can do with their voice, but to bring out the emotional colors of the voice, with the text and body, and the heart.

Is this your first time working with Harry Kupfer?

No, actually not, we did a production of  The Merry Widow in Hamburg years ago. I was just starting out then, and it’s different now. I’m much more experienced. The match is really nice. We had a good long rehearsal period and Kupfer was really detailed and really precise with what he wanted. First he broke down — and that’s what I like about his detailed approach — he broke down every recitative to its core, at the very beginning of rehearsals. If you would’ve heard this, you would’ve thought, “How will this all work?!” All the recits were so long and there were so many pauses, and it went so slow, because he wanted us to have the thoughts first and then sing the lines, or use the pauses while showing that we are thinking about something else and we go in a different direction, so it would make sense. That’s what I really liked about this project; this is a totally different style of theatre, and very different if you compare it to Candide or Cleopatra, but this is the fun part for me, doing various things.

dominik koninger kob presse

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Like St. John Passion… 

Yes, of course. It’s a small tour: one day in Italy, then Munich, then the third day we’re in Berlin. I’m only singing Jesus, so for me it’s just a few recits, but it’s a good way to connect back with the RIAS Kammerchor and with the Akademie für Alte Musik. My schedule is a mixture of heaven and hell, black and white, yin and yang.

Is that good for you as a singer? 

Yes, it keeps me really flexible, and I like that. Working on the Handel, I think I have six or seven arias in total but two are quite fast, so it’s really nice. Keeps me flexible — in the head, in the voice.

What repertoire would you still like to do?

If you talk about the next five years, it’s just the usual suspects like Giovanni or Marcello, but if we talk ten or fifteen years, there’s Onegin to discover, maybe there’s a little bit of Wagner, but I’m not sure about it because I have to see how the voice develops. The French stuff has of course a lot to discover — like Hamlet from Thomas, which would be great, but houses rarely do this sort of repertoire.

And there’s the Lieder works as well.

Of course yes, there are plans for making a CD, but you need time and preparation so I’m not sure when that will happen, but we’ll see. It is a difficult business; you’re always touring around, you have so many appointments and there isn’t always time to give everything to this one concert. There is a lot of responsibility every time you do a recital. People come to hear you and you need to be prepared, and learn the music by heart — that’s the very basic work, yes? Then you have to dive deeper into this new world, and it’s a responsibility, every time. And sometimes it’s hard to fulfill. It’s why I’m careful; I still have my opera engagements and my contract here in Berlin. Having recitals scheduled between, for instance, a Candide here and a Poros there and few days later a Pelléas… you know, it has to be well-chosen. Mentally, strength-wise, everything; it’s hard. I’ve been constantly working now since September — I just went from one thing to another. But I’ve really enjoyed focusing only on the Handel for the last six weeks. Once this is done I’ll prepare for my next recitals. When it gets calmer, it gets easier to let everything sink in.

What’s been the most surprising thing so far?

This Handel opera is much easier than the past ones I’ve done! I did Giulio Cesare in Egitto a few years ago; it had much more in terms of coloratura and furioso arias. I was younger. You grow with every challenge and every single thing you have to deal with. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience four years ago, Poros would be that sort of thing now, and I would be a little bit struggling and lost and more fighting — but this time, it’s good, I’m super-relaxed, even though we open soon. When I’m relaxed I’m more on top of my game than when I’m closing in on myself and wanting something. If you really want something specific, it’s the wrong approach. That’s the surprising thing I discovered doing this. And of course the relaxed and productive way of working with Kupfer and Halubek, and Ruzan and Eric — it’s been a really nice, really positive experience.

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