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

Barbe & Doucet: “Opera Is Entirely About Collaboration”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do budget cuts to opera mean changes to your work?

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

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

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

Which is… ?

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

Tall Poppies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe a little bit of Tall Poppy Syndrome?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precision & Freedom

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

Photo via IMG Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subtle Art Of Being Funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

So would you call it an opera buffa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early nights are wonderful… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

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

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

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

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

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

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

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

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

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

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

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

Gatekeeping In Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling As Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

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

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

“Consistent and determined”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
Louis Langrée, conductor, France, Paris, Opéra Comique, director, opera, classical

Louis Langrée’s “Larger View” At Opéra Comique

Most people know Opéra Comique in connection with Carmen, but there’s so much more to the famed Paris house than Bizet’s famous opera. Conductor and General Director Louis Langrée is clearly in love with the “jewel of a theatre” that has hosted premieres by a who’s-who of French classical greats, including Debussy, Delibes, Massenet, Méhul, Offenbach, Poulenc, Lalo, Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Thomas, as well as Italian Gaetano Donizetti; the theatre also hosted the French premiere of Puccini’s Tosca in 1903.

Appointed director of the Opéra Comique in November 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, Langrée came with ideas – lots of them – though it’s clear he also possesses a wider awareness of the practicalities required to bring them to fruition. Langrée’s name is known on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his work in New York and Cincinnati as well as his native France. Beginning his studies at Strasbourg Conservatory, Langrée went on to becoming vocal coach and assistant at the Opéra National de Lyon in the mid 1980s. From there he worked as assistant conductor at Aix-en-Provence Festival and music director with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. He made his North American debut at the Spoleto Festival in 1991. But it was his time in New York that so many North Americans may know him for, as Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Centre, a position he began in 2003 and would hold for the next two decades. In 2011 led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for the first time in a guest capacity; he became its Music Director in 2013. He’ll be concluding his time there at the end of this season.

An award-winning discography comes naturally with so many varied experiences. It includes work with the Camerata Salzburg, l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège, and Baroque ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée, covering an array of composers (Liszt, Franck, Chausson, Ravel, Schulhoff, Mozart, Weber, Rossini). In Cincinnati  Langrée has recorded commissions by Sebastian Currier, Thierry Escaich, and Zhou Tian. The 2020 recording Transatlantic (Fanfare Cincinnati) with the CSO illustrates what could be an artistic ethos for the conductor in its intelligent transcending of borders and strict definitions. Langrée’s third album with the orchestra features shimmering, gorgeously vibrant readings of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1938-1940), the original 1922 version of Varèse’s Amériques, and the world premiere recording of original unabridged version of Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Music writer Jari Kallio wrote at its release that “Be it the ravishing colours, the ever-enchanting melodies or those uplifting rhythms, these performances of American in Paris are nothing short of an epiphany” and called the Grammy-nominated album “one of the most important releases of the year.” Yet opera isn’t a side-job for Langrée, but close to a raison d’être; the conductor has been involved in numerous opera productions across Europe – at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala (Milan), Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Opéra national de Paris, as well as the Glyndebourne and Aix, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led stagings of Iphigenia in Tauris, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Carmen and Hamlet, one of his favorite works.

Notably open about the siloed nature of conducting and the classical world in general, the Alsatian artist made it clear in a recent conversation that his administrative demands have actually strengthened his artistic output. Notes, phrasing, orchestration – any conductor can talk about those things; Langrée is just as interested in pondering resources, labour costs, world realities. The role of education is just as paramount, and the conductor is keen to strengthen and expand the connection between artistic institutions and learning for young people who may have only cliched ideas about the opera. Offering tantalizing morsels relating to a new work (an intriguing-sounding multilingual commission), Langrée enthused on his more immediate project, the upcoming double-bill of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which opens at Opéra Comique on March 9th.

The pairing feels like a highly symbolic choice for an artist who seems perfectly at ease with his audience, whether near or far. We began by discussing why he chose these works, and what French actor/director/writer Guillaume Gallienne brings to the stage of the Opéra Comique.

Why pair L’Heure Espagnole and Pulcinella as one programme?

There’s an amazing repertoire of works which were commissioned and premiered by the Opéra Comique, of course the most famous is Carmen, but there’s also Pelléas et Melisande (1902), La voix humaine (1959), Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), La damnation de Faust (1846), Manon (1884), Cendrillon (1899), Lakmé (1883), all of them were premiered here, along with L’Heure Espagnole (1911). Pulcinella was not premiered at Opéra Comique and it isn’t an opera but a ballet. L’Heure Espagnole is short, it’s one-act opera, or as Ravel said, a comédie-musicale; at the time it was premiered, it was paired with Thérèse from Massenet, which is a very moral story in which a lady abandons her lover to go to the guillotine with her husband. It could have been possible to show the contrast between the two pieces, but generally L’Heure Espagnole is presented with Ravel’s other operatic work, L’enfant et les sortilèges. They are two lyrical pieces that Ravel wrote but they have nothing to do with each other.

So I wondered, what could we present? I thought of an evening with contrasting subjects and arts; when you come to the foyer of the house here, you see les quartiers allégories (the four allegories) de Opéra Comique: la comédie, le chant, la musique, et le ballet (play-acting, singing, music, ballet). I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose ballet and opera. But which subjects? With these two works we have two contrasting subjects: Pulcinella is this man who is so attractive, an irresistible sex symbol for women, and the woman in L’Heure Espagnole can’t be satisfied by any of her men.

What’s the connection in terms of musical language?

It’s a case of contrasts. Stravinsky said he had an epiphany in discovering the music of Pergolesi, it was a way for him to go further; with Ravel, we have the sound of his beginning with L’Heure Espagnole. It is just amazing, these sounds that mix music and effects: a metronome, the sound of a rooster crowing, the soldier, with sounds that are very militaristic. The orchestration Stravinsky uses in Pulcinella, however, is like black-and-white: there is no clarinet, for instance, or any kind of a sound that might give some shimmering effect. It’s oboes, horns, trumpets, trombones, this concerto grosso-type orchestration with soloists and the tutti, whereas L’Heure Espagnole is much closer to The Nightingale or The Firebird in terms of its orchestration.

Does this reflect the connection between composers?

Ravel and Stravinsky were friends – they met at the premiere of The Firebird. Diaghilev had asked them to orchestrate bits of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. They were using “vous” and not “tu”, but then they began letter-writing, and would open with “mon vieux” or ‘you old guy’ – it was a term of affection. (Conductor) Manuel Rosenthal told this story that on the day Ravel died (December 28, 1937) Rosenthal was conducting L’Enfant Sortileges; at the end of the evening he saw Stravinsky looking really upset, because he had lost his friend. Stravinsky went to Ravel’s funeral along with Poulenc and Milhaud – there were not many people, but Stravinsky was there.

How did Guillaume Gallienne become part of this project?

Guillaume is an immense French actor, stage director, and film director. I don’t know if you saw his film, Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table – it was so successful in France and rightly so. He has his own language, his own world, and he knows how to transmit it. He’s also gifted in how he inspires singers. The characters in both pieces here are not romantic, but they do want to be loved. Even the muscle-man in L’Heure – one is touched by his naivete. You need to accept them for what they are. It’s very difficult for singers with these works because normally they want to interpret a personage, to incarnate a person as a person, but there is none of that here, otherwise it would become a cheap piece. It’s amazing to see how Guillaume works, with his precision. Funny, because Stravinsky called Ravel “l’horloger suisse” (the Swiss watchmaker) there is this perfection in the details, as Ravel was fascinated by mechanical objects. With his opera, you don’t need to incarnate a person, you just have to sing and allow yourself to be placed in situations which are nonsense, a nonsense that makes you laugh, cry, smile, think, feel – that’s something special. Guillaume understands this perfectly. Every rehearsal with him is a masterclass.

What’s it like to return to Paris and lead a theatre so rich in cultural history?

I have a double life, the life of a conductor and life of a General Manager. When you’re in the pit, you don’t think, “My God, this place!” or “So much history!” but rather, “I should not take this phrase too fast” or “I should help the singer move on here.” You’re with very practical things. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you’re not doing your job.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to that history in terms of programming?

I do feel the DNA of this theatre, and everything that comes with presenting both new productions as well as works that everybody knows. You can have traditional houses, or houses where there is innovation, experimentation, trying to find new ways to do things, and generally the two are opposed, but actually the tradition of the Opéra Comique – our history – is to create, to innovate, to experiment. So even with old pieces like Pulcinella and L’Heure, juxtaposing an opera, comédie-musicale, and a ballet is a very unusual thing, but it is also symbolic of my mission. And of course we are going to continue to premiere new pieces, to give world premieres, to give Paris premieres also. But it’s one thing to create and to do the world premiere, and another to be confronted with different audiences, and have the work be interpreted by different singers, directors, conductors, orchestras.

Where do you see Opéra Comique being part of the ecosystem in the post-pandemic landscape then?

Today in the new economic situation we must have corporate users, which means that when you present a piece, either a new production or a new work, you have to find partners. For instance, after Paris L’Heure/Pulcinella is going to Dijon. When L’Autre Voyage opened here earlier this year, there were several festivals and opera managers and house directors who came to see it, and of course we hope that the piece will be presented in different places. We have also commissioned works with various outlets in Germany – and those commissions take into account traditions the Opéra Comique have always embraced in terms of languages. Gluck composed Orfeo ed Euridice in an Italian version (1762) and a French version (1774); Cherubini’s Medée had multiple translations from the French into German and Italian. So we are planning to do a new work with Matthias Pintscher now, in both German and French.

Also, and this is quite important, and maybe the main reason I wanted to come and lead the Opéra Comique, is the production and the transmission sides. We have the Maîtrise Populaire, which involves young people from 8 to 25 years old, they have part of a scholarship, morning is general studies and afternoon is for dance, singing, staging, acting. Many of these kids come from places in the suburbs of Paris where there is absolutely no contact with opera at all. Their dream might only be to become a soccer star, not an opera singer or any kind of an artist, and through this program they discover a new world – and it changes their lives. They learn that when you sing together, you must have concentration and discipline; you have to know that your partner counts on you and you can count on them, and that’s something wonderful. We are a theatre nationale, de la republique, so this is all part of our message: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Where does this mandate toward education and development fit within your greater vision?

I arrived at an age where I feel that I must transit, I must help the new generation, I must pass the baton, and develop the image and the identity of this house and its public perception. This title, “opéra comique”, what does the “comique” part mean? People think it means operetta, but no, it’s from the same etymology as “comédie” or speaking; in opera you sing, in comedy you speak. It’s much clearer in German: “singspiel”. Opera, as an art form in the old sense, was a representation of royal power, onstage; at Opéra Comique it is the opposite, it’s the representation of ourselves as ourselves…

Volksoper”…

Genau! That’s why The Magic Flute is a singspiel, it’s an opéra comique! And Carmen is not a princess, Manon is not a princess, Melisande – well, we don’t really know…

Your quote to the New York Times last year comes to mind:“When you have to read these Excel things and have to balance budgets and work with subsidies from the government — now, I feel like I’ve been plunged into real life. And that’s hard” – but from what you’ve said it seems as if these real-life details have made you a better artist.

Absolutely. I realize now as a conductor I was really in a silo. I used to feel an opera was the score, the dream of the composer together with voices and visuals – but now that I’m the General Manager of the house, there are so many things to think about: props, stagehands, electricians, costume designers, seamstresses. You have a larger view of the entire thing. And that awareness makes you think differently.

To what extent does that translate to your audiences?

What matters now is to understand the importance and role of philanthropy and sponsorship in relation to audiences – something I learned in the US – which is developing in its own way very quickly here in France and all of Europe. It’s especially relevant with inflation and the raising of electricity rates, in building sets and understanding raised wood prices because of the war in Ukraine. You can’t ignore all of that. And of course being on a constant budget, when you have inflation, you’re hyper-aware of salaries too. So what is reduced is the production budget, which is quite difficult, therefore we need to continue searching in terms of partners, corporate users, sponsors, philanthropists, and doing so with a lot of determination and energy.

So that’s where creativity comes in?

Entirely. I mean, a set that costs ten times more will not necessarily be ten times better. The realities force us to be imaginative. In terms of programming, there are at least three other houses in Paris – Châtelet, Champs-Elysées, Opéra national de Paris – and it wouldn’t make sense if we presented Tosca here, even though that opera did premiere in France at the Opéra Comique, and that’s only because the General Director at the time was a friend of Puccini’s. But when we present Carmen here,  for instance, we present it with the dialogues, not the recits. We’ll do the same for various presentations next season. That way we don’t compete with other houses. Also a small theatre is a great advantage; there’s an intimacy here, you can whisper and have it be heard, it gives a different relationship to the stage and the music. I remember conducting Hamlet (in 2o22) and (soprano) Sabine Devieilhe was whispering during parts of the mad aria – you could hear every word. It was incredible.

Is it right to say that intimacy is part of the Opéra Comique brand?

Yes, this place is a hidden gem. My office here, the office of the General Director, is close to everything. It’s often the case that the offices of house directors are on top floors, with beautiful and impressive view of their cities, but here, I have people above me, below me, next to me, and if I leave my office… <carries laptop> in three seconds, I am on stage…. voila! <shows auditorium on camera> This proximity really says everything.

Top photo: Chris Lee
opera, Ades, performance, Paris, The Exterminating Angel, cast

Review: The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris

Independence is as important to art as it is to life. In adapting from screen to stage, that autonomy takes on special significance. Audiences often expect a familiarity which has been molded by filmic elements and reinforced in the digital era by quick, easy access. Many works become little more than 2-D images made three-dimensional; designs serve to imitate cinema, not live apart from it. The expectation attached to adaptation, is a clear and present danger, if also a ripe creative possibility; x-ray vision is needed for 3D presentation. It helps to have a good partner.

Composer Thomas Ades and director Calixto Bieito use their combined powers to bring Ades’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel to startling, autonomous life. Based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film classic, the new production at Opéra national de Paris is an unapologetic stage beast that takes aim at everything from religion to family to art to opera itself. It is bawdy, bold, and brilliant. Bieito skillfully navigates the imprecise nature of the plot by plumbing the depths of its various scenes and character relationships. The work depicts a group of aristocrats who gather for a late dinner party and can’t seem to (or won’t, possibly) depart from it. Rich in symbolic possibility, the opera’s Salzburg premiere was directed by the opera’s librettist, Tom Cairns, and went on to be staged in London and New York. Cairns’ staging hewed close to Buñuel’s visual palette of mid-20th century aristocratic Europe, a world of crepe dresses, statement jewelry, roller-set hair, as well as a thick wall between that high society and the outside world, which includes members of an inquisitive media, police, and a curious crowd. Bieito’s production is a different, and far more visceral vision. There are no live sheep here, and no thick wall either. Instead, members of the chorus (that raucous public on the other side of the earlier wall, here led by chorus master Ching-Lien Wu) are in the top tier of the Opéra Bastille, their voices floating out across the auditorium, a heavenly-hellish host of would-be angels, set to exterminate all within earshot.

The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, Paris, opera, Yoli

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The production opens with a small boy holding sheep-shaped balloons wandering onstage and offering halting bleats before being joined by a priest (Régis Mengus) who whispers something close (too close) to his ear; this, we later learn, is Yoli, the son of a dinner party guest, Silvia (Claudia Boyle), who may or may not be aware of the priest’s abuses but seems determined to ignore them. Her twisted love-hate relationship with brother Francisco (Anthony Roth Costanzo) reveals a vein of wider familial abuse and reinforced silence, recurring themes within Bieito’s oeuvre. Scenes from the film are clarified with varying degrees of tension: the arrival; the ragout; the musical performances; the sister-brother fight(s); eating the sheep; the double suicide; finding water. These chapters are punctuated by highly memorable images, including the performers directly facing the audience at the arrival (echoed at the close); the ragoût consisting of two large bags of blood; the servants ducking under the table; the sheep being the guests wrapped in sheepskin rugs. Opera singer Leticia Meynar (Gloria Tronel) stands on the long wooden dining table at one point, arms aloft, holding cutlery in each hand. The table is carried by the male members of the cast around in a circle, Easter-procession style, as Ades’ score blazes out from the pit, deliciously eerie ondes Martenot included, a smouldering requiem with clear traces of Berg, Britten, Stravinsky.

Ades has tread the damnation-salvation waters previously, notably in the chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995), which explores the salacious life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Music writer Alex Ross noted in a 1998 review that the work bears “a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments.” These fragments have been enlarged within the writing of The Exterminating Angel. With the Paris iteration, they’ve also become technicolour. The depictions of not only religious ritual, but masturbation, voyeurism, defecation, self-harm, and suggested cannibalism have clear dramaturgical intent and theatrical urgency. The upright doctor of the film becomes a shambolic mess live, with a shirtless Clive Bayley joining the other cast members in shambolic disarray. Sexually voracious Lucia di Nobile (Jacquelyn Stucker) is initially elegant in a low-cut red satin dress and wavy hair; by evening’s end she is in naught but underthings, with wet hair, messy red lipstick and manic grin, looking less socialite than avenging Joker. Starlet soprano Meynar is one of the last to remove her dress (a sparkling sea-foam design) but the first to recognize the importance of the ritual that will end the group’s self-imposed situation. Performing, it turns out, is the double mirror revealing the waving man at the very back – it might be an illusion, but it’s an illusion to indulge. Indulgence also comes with a repeat of the crucifixion imagery, when the dinner party guests turn on their host, Edmundo de Nobile (Nicky Spence), blaming him for their entrapment; Nobile, as with Meynar earlier, becomes Christ-like, but the question remains: is this conviction, sacrifice, selfishness, or (quite literally) performance? What do we want as an audience – deliverance or diversion?

opera, The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, staging, crucifixion, Paris

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

In presenting the group in a range of vivid colours (costume design by Ingo Krügler) set against an all-white backdrop (set design by Anna-Sofia Kirsch), the work’s relationships as well as individual foibles are both clarified and scrutinized. This clarification of structure has a direct effect on the delivery of the work’s score and performances, which are uniformly strong. The cast handles the pitchy nature of the score with dramatic aplomb and Ades’ conducting is equally precise, whether he’s leading the work’s doomed lovers, Beatriz (Amina Edris) and Eduardo (Filipe Manu) in one of the few lyrical moments of the opera, a lewd pseudo-baptism, or the work’s haunting final call, “libera de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat”. The lines are a fusion of a responsory sung in the Catholic Office of the Dead and Requiem Mass, respectively, with the final lines of the Libera Me particularly applicable to Bieito’s staging:

That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness,
When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.

The work ends with the cast standing as they began, assembled in a row downstage, staring at the audience in silence. Are they us? Are we them? The Exterminating Angel asks opera-goers to consider what we want, and expect – from entertainment, art, faith – and where and how they all meet. Let the light shine, suggests Bieito, but always remember the darkness. That’s where the ugly truth lies.

opera, Ades, performance, Paris, The Exterminating Angel, cast

The cast of The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris, 2024. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Top photo: Agathe Poupeney
Giordano Bellincampi, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, APO, music, classical, opera, performing arts, culture, New Zealand, Auckland Town Hall

Giordano Bellincampi: “We Have A Lot Of Operas About Death But We Don’t Have Many About Grief”

Negotiating the realities of a pandemic, war, and continuing loss of life, grief can become impersonal. One develops callouses to horror; quick reaction followed by indifference keeps the algorithms humming. Recent cultural examinations of grief and loss (in its various aspects) feel more needed than ever. Korngold’s early 20th century opera Die tote Stadt occupies a very real, very warmly human place for some of us opera fans; it feels like so much more than a disembodied stage work from a century ago, but functions as an extension of the grieving self, a phantom limb that still aches on rainy days. The work will be receiving its New Zealand premier July 8th, with an in-concert performance by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) led by conductor and APO Music Director Giordano Bellincampi. For the Italian-Danish conductor, the work is an important expression of a topic too rarely explored onstage.

The timing of its world premiere seems especially profound. Die tote Stadt was first presented in December 1920, opening simultaneously at Stadttheater Hamburg and Oper Köln. Based on the 1892 symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, Korngold began composition in 1916, but had to leave off his work for a year while participating in World War One military service. The plot revolves around a man (Paul) who has spent years mourning his dead wife (Marie), and keeps a room of keepsakes related to her; he subsequently meets a woman (Marietta) who bears a strong resemblance to his wife; this inspires a series of horrendous hallucinations which eventually resolve into a quietly powerful conclusion. The opera was a huge hit, its themes resonating strongly within post-war Europe – though the Nazis would go on to ban it in 1938 on account of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The composer had moved to Hollywood by that time, and would go on to compose numerous film scores, and the opera fell into a decades-long obscurity within the post-war cultural landscape, although there were revivals in Vienna, London, San Francisco, and Bonn. The opera’s French premiere, an in-concert performance, took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1982, with a fully-staged performance taking place in Strasbourg in 2001. More premieres, in the U.K. (1996 in-concert; 2009 staged), Latin America (1999), and Australia (2012), took place, along with a highly-acclaimed 2019 production at Bayerische Staatsoper featuring Jonas Kaufmann (as Paul) and Marlis Petersen (Marie/Marietta) and conducted by Kirill Petrenko.

In my recent exchange with conductor Giordano Bellincampi I got the real sense, in hearing him speak about his experiences in Aarhus and more recently his negotiating of pandemic realities, that he views Korngold’s opera as less a study in obsession (specifically male obsession) and more as a metaphorical process examining the delicate and often difficult stages of grief. In June 2020 Bellincampi led a concert in commemoration of the victims of covid, but clearly, notions of loss have occupied his thoughts for much longer. His ideas relating to Korngold’s work are (as you’ll read) sensitive and insightful, and reveal an approach which is just as attuned to the spheres of human feeling as to the details of scoring.

Music Director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) since 2016, the Rome-born, Copenhagen-educated Bellincampi began his musical career as a trombonist before moving on to conducting. He has held a number of esteemed positions – Chief Conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra (2000-2006); General Music Director of the Duisburg Philharmonic (2012-2017); Chief Conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra (2013-2018 – and has been a guest conductor with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, I Pomeriggi Musicali (Milan), KBS Symphony Orchestra (Seoul) the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and Canada’s Victoria Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

With a particular gift for Central European, Italian and Scandinavian symphonic repertoire, one might be led to believe opera is a faraway world for the conductor – but nothing could be further from the truth. Bellincampi was General Music Director of the Danish National Opera in Aarhus for almost a decade (2005-2013), and during that time led performances of numerous Puccini and Verdi works, plus those by Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), Wagner (Der Fliegende Holländer, Tristan und Isolde), and Mozart (Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte). Aarhus also allowed for collaborations with a range of singers (Angela Gheorghiu; Joseph Calleja; Bryn Terfel) and soloists (Sarah Chang and Grigory Sokolov). In Germany Bellincampi worked with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, leading performances of Luisa Miller, Norma, Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci, and La bohème (to name a few), and led numerous Italian works at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, including a new production of Aida in 2005 which opened the company’s new theatre.

This focus on opera has continued in New Zealand. Bellincampi has led the Auckland Philharmonia through in-concert performances of Aida (2018), Don Giovanni (2019), Fidelio (2021), and Il trovatore (2022) But Die tote Stadt is, as you may guess, a thing apart, not only for its complex orchestration and very demanding vocal lines, but for a personal connection related to Bellincampi’s Aarhus days. In August 2023 he leads the APO in a programme featuring the music of Mahler, Brahms, and the world premiere of Symphony No.7 by celebrated Kiwi composer Ross Harris, and with that in mind, we began our conversation discussing the role of  New Zealand artists within APO’s programming, and how Bellincampi finds balance between old and new sounds.

Did the pandemic affect your plans and programming choices with the APO?

Honestly we were really lucky in New Zealand because what happened was they closed the country down completely for most of 2020 – so while everyone else in the world was distancing and wearing face masks and shut down, we were playing as normal and there was no covid, though of course we couldn’t fly in guest soloists or guest conductors. But we did continue!

How has the relationship with the orchestra developed since 2016?

I’ve had orchestras in Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, in the Essen area too, which are all more traditionally you could say, classical – especially in Germany, because there it was very easy: we had 95% of the hall filled with subscribers; the basic culture of the symphonic concert idea was strong. Of course New Zealand is slightly different and rightly so; it’s much more diverse and there are many cultural opportunities, all of which I find to be great. And when I started with the APO, they already had a very loyal and good audience in the Town Hall, so I think I just built on what already was there. There’s a good loyalty toward the orchestra. Continuing that is important, even as I sometimes offer something challenging once in a while, but also giving them what they like. Personally I do love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms – all that kind of repertoire – which helps, because it’s the repertoire the audience loves also, so it makes the connection very easy.

I’m curious how you tie that to respective socio-cultural values; there are a lot of questions around the role of European classical culture in 21st century presentation, particularly in places with colonial histories. How do you find balance at the APO?

This is a really good question, and I’m glad you asked it. First of all in a way I’m very idealistic, because I do believe every person can sense if what is transmitted from the stage has a strong emotional and intellectual depth – for instance, even if people don’t know Beethoven’s music at all, they can sense the power, just as when I go to a concert or a Maori event, although you don’t really understand the specific cultural codes, you sense the meaning and the depth. The idea of really performing music with conviction and great passion is paramount.

There is a need for balance as well, and that’s why we do New Zealand-commissioned music, some of it with original folkloric instruments. But I also have to be honest and say, we are a symphony orchestra – and a symphonic orchestra plays symphonies. We will never be a Maori orchestra; that isn’t possible. I do think it’s important the government and city support Maori music, 100%, and of course we can connect with the audience for those sounds, and with that community in every way we can, but it’s important we are loyal to what our core music is. That’s a difficult balance, but I think we’re handling it quite well. Honestly, we have good audiences and they are curious and they like the big classical hits, but they also are curious for new things.

In a 2017 interview you noted that “programs that challenge us and our audience is an important part of being a Music Director” – but classical organizations seem averse to anything new and/or pushing their audiences right now.

I would say we’ve approached it differently by making a conscious effort to keep the level of ambition up, consistently. During lockdowns we could sit at home and enjoy streaming of really good concerts, sure, but what people have actually missed is the live experience, and that’s something driven by our urge to perform and share music. If we want to survive as artists we need to keep on going; if we are just defensive in our programming choices, the audience will sense that, and it won’t work on any level, especially musically.

In 2021 we were planning opera where the country was completely shut down; what I said at the time was, “Okay, which New Zealand opera singers do we have here?” And we found the best singers we had and found the titles we could play with them, like Simon O’Neill who lives in Auckland. He was available, so I said, “Okay let’s do Fidelio; we have a Florestan.” That way we kept the artistic vision up, and it was so much better than doing some opera gala or what-have-you. We are taking the same approach for the first New Zealand performance of Die tote Stadt – it is extremely risky, on a few levels, and yet!

When was Die tote Stadt planned?

The decision came probably about two years ago. We are not that far ahead in planning as many other organizations, who normally plan four to five years out. I remember being in Germany, where things were always planned extremely far ahead, which meant you could secure the best artists and you know what you’re going to do, but it’s not a very agile as a system – you can’t change things easily. But New Zealand organizations are extremely dependent on the commitment of the people who want to travel and perform with us. We’re planning a bit differently these days, and very much together with the Australian orchestras, so we can share artists as much and as often as possible.

How much does that force you to strengthen community ties with local artists?

I believe very much that every institution – it was the same when I ran the opera company in Denmark – every institution has its place in the habitat we work in. And I also think that if you are a relatively big organization you have an obligation not to kill the things underneath you. So we kind of try to find our place. We do support the best local artists, both the ones that are in New Zealand and many Kiwi artists who live in the UK, Germany, and the US, but basically we are part of the international orchestra world, and that’s where we try to stay. There’s space for other organizations, like chamber organizations, and they can have their own seasons – we shouldn’t kill them just because we are bigger. That’s my ambition really, to keep all the various organizations, there has to be space for everyone.

So an ecosystem… ?

Exactly.

On the APO website Alastair McKean’s essay explores Korngold’s time in Hollywood and how that may have impacted how he’s perceived; it ends with a call to “ignore the snobs” and quotes Korngold himself.  Where does his work fit in terms of your opera rep?

I’ve loved this opera for twenty-odd years. When I was running the opera company in Aarhus, I decided to program this opera. It was the first performance in Denmark ever, but I didn’t conduct it. At the time I was extremely busy with a lot of other projects and running the company, and I knew it was a difficult score and I just didn’t have the four to five months needed to be secluded with the score and to properly study it. We did the first performance in Denmark with a colleague leading it who had done it in Prague previously, and it was beautiful, although I remember my marketing department at the time saying, “We will never be able to sell tickets for something called THE DEAD CITY! People won’t like it!” – but it was an enormous success. I’ve loved it for so long, and waited for a new opportunity to program it, and now I have finally found an outlet! The big issue with this opera is the tenor role, which is so absolutely super-challenging, but we have a great Paul (Aleš Briscein) who’s done it many times before, and I’m looking forward to the experience.

What is it you love about Die tote Stadt?

Most of my opera work has been Puccini and Wagner, although I’ve also done Der Rosenkavalier and other Strauss, but I think that this extremely modern way of approaching musical theatre (in Die tote Stadt) is very close to what Puccini explores in for instance, La fanciulla del West and Turandot – his later operas are film-score-esque. Now when we talk about the music of Korngold it seems like a cliché to call his work ‘cinematic’ but there is very much, in this opera, a very strong way of communicating in that way, via the music. And of course the orchestra colours are absolutely incredible, the instrumentation is beyond… it’s just immense.

But what I also like is the drama itself: we have a lot of operas about death – in the sense of revenge and power – but we don’t have many about grief, how it is when people actually die. I think Korngold’s way of dealing with the feelings of this person, and his way of coping with the nightmare and the visions and the feelings that overwhelm him in this situation, is very strong and very modern, and it appeals to me because it’s something we’re not very good at expressing in the theatre. And I think this is quite a unique work as a result.

I had an incredible experience with it in Aarhus – there were a lot of fantastic reviews, great singers. A few months after its presentation, an older gentleman came to the opera office with a bottle of wine, knocked on the door, and introduced himself. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that I lost my wife five years ago, and after seeing that opera, I went back home and was thinking and thinking – and I decided to start living again.” And… that’s what we make opera for. He knew nothing about this work. But seeing this kind of… incredible grief, like what Paul experiences, is something I think a lot of people who have lost someone can relate to, and again, I think we don’t see it very often in the theatre. So I hope that (the APO performance) will touch someone.

Giordano Bellincampi, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, APO, music, classical, opera, performing arts, culture, New Zealand, Auckland Town Hall

Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch

What do you think might be good sonic preparation?

New Zealand audiences will know Korngold because we play his work, including his great violin concerto, regularly; we played several other pieces of his last season. There’s nothing strange about the sound in and of itself – it’s not like doing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre or something! – people can definitely recognize the Korngold sound. But I’m curious as to how this will be received. We do have a semi-staged concept for Die tote Stadt, so there are no sets but we do have some action and surtitles.

Operas presented in-concert are becoming real staples within orchestral programming in some areas; how do these presentations differ from a full production for you creatively?

For many years (APO) have done one every year – we’ve done Don Giovanni and Il trovatore in past seasons, for instance – and though I think those are great, overall I’m very ambiguous, because basically I’m a theatre person. I love being in the pit and I do think opera ultimately belongs in a theatre; that said, there is also something incredibly beautiful about being able to perform these works in an acoustically ideal room for sound. Most theatres are super-dry, so being in a concert hall gives a completely different impression of the sounds. That’s one aesthetic thing.

The other is that some operas, like Die tote Stadt, have a lot of interludes, and so the activity within the orchestra itself is enormous. I think it’s very exciting for the audience to see all of what happens right there, not hidden in a pit. We’ll be performing, hopefully, the complete score which is almost never done nowadays. It’s going to be fully all three acts we do, with two intermissions, and there are long interludes when the orchestra plays. Nothing happens onstage at those times, and in most stagings you have to invent something as a result, but here it will be a very strong experience for the audience to simply to listen. There will be a livestream – my mother in Italy always says, ‘I have to get up so early to watch them!’ – but I really think this will be something unique for both musicians and audiences alike.

Top photo: Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch
Macbeth, Opernhaus Zurich, Verdi, Barrie Kosky, Markus Brück, Monika Rittershaus, classical, staging, performance, opera, Switzerland, production

Monika Rittershaus: Photographing Opera’s “Scene And Unseen”

Lately the idea of rejuvenation intrigues. As I wrote in the introduction to a recent post detailing a newcomer’s thoughts on Bizet’s Carmen and the opera-going experience itself, ideas related to perception, exposure, cynicism, approach, and re-approach have been more active than usual. There is a certain value to seeing something so famous with new eyes (and ears), particularly given the grim realities pandemic continues to present. To make the effort to re-appreciate opera anew is to confront old questions with a new awareness. What is opera – is it only singing? Is it also scoring? Is it theatre? Is it design? Is it sitting in the dark, in silence, with strangers? Is it some alchemical combination of these things? Rediscovery demands return – and not only in a literal sense – and return demands simplicity. To return to an art form one once loved experiencing live is to take off the over-tight bustier and flesh-gouging garters, to peel off eyelashes and unpin hair, to throw dress, fan, and shoes across the room and not worry what anyone thinks; it is to see and feel opera naked, unadorned, free from pretense, bare-faced. There is a freedom in that – for voice, score and theatre, as much as for the curiosity which must fuel them all.

Indeed regular reassessments are needed, for audiences and industry – to search for and find the freedom such curiosity might grant; to embrace the responsibility which is inherent to that (and all) freedom; to constantly bring the clarity such freedom grants to an art form which can (does) often fall into the traps of obfuscation, disorder, decay, and intransigence. Thus is the work of some artists who work with and around houses all the more important; often their work is what opens the door – to freedom, return, simplicity. They aren’t so much working on the peripheries as within the very essence, keeping that sense of curiosity ever alive. I have admired the work of Monika Rittershaus for many years; her stage photography graces many a program book and web page. She has shot productions for Los Angeles Opera, Staatsoper Hamburg, Bayerische Staatsoper, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Real Madrid, and Opernhaus Zürich, to name just a few. Her work is a quietly powerful integration of dramaturgical and humanistic, revealing opera as an art form comprised of sounds, sights, and souls. Born in Wuppertal, the busy stage photographer first studied philosophy, German language and literature, and art history. Finding inspiration in the works of choreographer Pina Bausch, she went on to study photography in Dortmund, which led to commissions in Vienna, Basel, Bregenz, Hamburg and Stuttgart. Rittershaus has been a freelance theatre and concert photographer since 1992.

Monika Rittershaus, stage, photography, opera, classical, arnoldsche, fotografien The scene and the unseen: Oper in Bildern – Fotografien von Monika Rittershaus (arnoldsche) is a new book filled with imagery shot between  a variety of locales between 2006 and 2022. The work, edited by Iris Maria vom Hof, demonstrates a breadth of modern directorial vision, with shots of the stagings of Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Christoph Marthaler, Patrice Chéreau, Hans Neuenfels, Calixto Bieito, Silvia Costa, Romeo Castellucci, Andreas Homoki, Nadja Loschky, Mariame Clément, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Tobias Kratzer, among many more. Stagings by Achim Freyer, whom Rittershaus names in our exchange (below) and Barrie Kosky, who writes an introduction, are also featured. The many hours spent pouring through the book’s thick pages bring memories and a feeling that perhaps operatic rejuvenation is not as far as one may think; I’ve seen some of the productions featured in this book, and these photos don’t make me nostalgic so much as clear-eyed. Kosky writes that Rittershaus “seems to sense the inner world of a moment and to know at exactly the right moment when to click her camera. There is an extraordinary intuition at work here. Perceptive, refined, and sophisticated.[…] She doesn’t document the moment. She x-rays the moment.”

Rittershaus and I recently enjoyed an email exchange following an autumn in which she photographed the new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by Dmitri Tcherniakov for Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin).

Monika Rittershaus

How much of a prior working relationship do you have (or require) with a director in order to photograph their production?

There is an initial collaboration with each directing team. Before I go to the rehearsal, I read or listen to the piece to be photographed. For world premieres, I ask for any materials that are already accessible. I watch the first rehearsals without a camera to understand, as much as possible, how a production is ‘built’ and what the specific concern of the team might be with this work. If I can work with a team more often, understanding becomes greater and mutual trust stronger. So an intensive working relationship is very nice for me in any case, even if it doesn’t basically result in a shorthand language, because I engage with each production anew. Barrie Kosky in particular is constantly inventing new languages for his productions. With him, there is a kind of intuitive and playful agreement for me.

How easy (or challenging) is it to integrate your own artistry with that which is being presented visually and sonically?

When I photograph a production, I try to translate the artistic template into my images as sensitively and accurately as possible. If successful, it does not remain an objective image. My desire is to show the sensitive structure on stage, in its complexity, to capture a moment that, in the best moments, flashes something that escapes the eye. What I mean by “sensitive structure” is this: in an opera performance, very many processes and aspects intertwine and depend on each other. Singers, conductor, orchestra, stage, stage management, props, lighting, costumes, transformations… everything should ‘breathe’ with each other; then a special magic is created, which is very sensitive, and fleeting, because it is in constant movement.

Peter Grimes, Britten, Eric Cutler, Theatre an der Wien, staging, Christoph Loy, stage, performance, classical, opera, Wien, Osterreich, production

Eric Cutler as Peter Grimes in a scene from Theater an der Wien’s staging of Britten’s opera, by director Christoph Loy, 2021. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

What is the role of the voice in your work? Is there one?

The voice in the literal sense, does not really play a role in my work. I listen very carefully to every voice on stage and am touched by what singing people can tell through their voices. However, I tend not to try to show the physical act of singing.

How has your idea of visual expression changed through all the operas you have photographed?

There are productions that reach me particularly deeply and teams that expand my perspective and visual approach through their work – this doesn’t necessarily have to do with a specific work, although there have been incisive experiences in this regard as well.

I began my path in opera with Achim Freyer. He is a strongly image-based artist from whom I have learned a great deal and may still learn. He has been very supportive of my particular preference for compositions of people in space and the amplification of content that comes with it.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Bavarian State Opera, Bluthaus, staging, Claus Guth, Vera-Lotte Boecker, staging, lighting, design, photography, opera, Monika Rittershaus, Bo Skovus

Bo Skovhus (L), Vera-Lotte Boecker (R). A scene from Bayerische Staatsoper’s Bluthaus, by Georg Friedrich Haas, staging by Claus Guth; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Which productions have been noteworthy for you?

A work by Romeo Castellucci this year at the festival in Aix en Provence, Résurrection by Gustav Mahler, particularly struck me and once again stimulated me to think anew about what photography in the theatre is, and can be, for me. Described in very brief terms, Romeo Castellucci had an artificial mass grave dug at the Stadium de Vitrolles to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. For me, this ‘theatrical installation’ was of incredible power and utmost relevance in our time. My question was: how can I bear to see this process and how can I translate it pictorially? It was extremely important for me to exchange ideas about this with Romeo Castellucci and his dramaturg Piersandra Di Matteo, and to look for a way to photograph.

The work on Bluthaus at the Bavarian State Opera with Claus Guth and his team, and the conversations with the wonderful leading actress Vera-Lotte Böcker, were significant for me also, because the crass subject matter of the piece was illuminated very sensitively, in all its facets.  It is very nice to experience that a singer feels at ease in the awareness of my view of her during intensive rehearsals.

(ed. – The opera, by Georg Friedrich Haas, details the trauma of sexual abuse within one family; it was staged as part of Bayerische Staatsoper’s inaugural “Ja, Mai” festival in May 2022.)

And: I would like to emphasize the continuous work at the Salzburg Festival – this year with three of “my” most important directors, Christof Loy (who staged Puccini’s Il Trittico), Barrie Kosky (Janáček’s Katja Kabanova) and Romeo Castellucci (a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartók and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Time) by Carl Orff) – and three very strong singers: Asmik Grigorian (Trittico), Corinne Winters (Kabanova) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bluebeard/De Temporum).

Right now I’m having a very intense time with the Ring des Nibelungen with Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin. The four large pieces, in a very short time, were extremely challenging for all involved. Almost at the same time I photographed Die Walküre in Zürich, directed by Andreas Homoki. Photographing the same work in two completely different interpretations was a great pleasure for me.

Achim Freyer, staging, performance, production, Salzburg Festival, Oedipe, Monika Rittershaus, Christopher Maltman, culture, Osterreich

Christopher Maltman (c) as Oedipe in a scene from the Salzburg Festival staging of Enescu opera, by director Achim Freyer, 2019. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche).

How did you choose the images in the book?

The scene and the unseen shows a selection of my favourite images of the productions most important to me. The sequence is purely pictorial, with the directors’ productions following one another because they are related in content and aesthetics. My desire was to celebrate the art form of opera.

As a stage photographer, my job is to translate the fleeting and complex three-dimensionality of a performance into a two-dimensional image. A photograph has its own time. It is through the calculated use of blur or blurring, or the unusual focus on minute details or peripheral events that I try to capture the mystery of a production.

To what extent do you think the public’s understanding of a production (or opera as an art form overall) has been expanded because of your work?

Whether the understanding of the public changes through my work, I cannot estimate – that would be presumptuous. I wish, of course, that I can bring to the spectators and viewers of my pictures the special qualities of opera performances, but whether this succeeds, I can not judge – only the others can do that.

Götterdämmerung, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Ring, Wagner, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, staging, production, Der Ring des Nibelungen, opera, classical, Monika Rittershaus

Andreas Schager as Siegfried in a scene from Staatsoper Unter den Linden staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung, by director Dmitri Tcherniakov; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Top photo: Markus Brück as Macbeth in a scene from Opernhaus Zurich’s staging of Verdi’s opera, by director Barrie Kosky, 2016. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche, 2022).
Carmen, staging, Joel Ivany, Against The Grain, Canadian Opera Company, opera, Bizet, Four Seasons Centre

Carmen: Rethinking An Old Favorite On World Opera Day

Being a fan of opera is not always a love/hate affair, though it can be. Love might turn to hate over months, years, and decades, with such feelings becoming entrenched, normalized, difficult to undo. Hate is active and hot, with pointed edges – but worse, and perhaps more insidious, is bitterness, with its dulled sides and deadening stare. Bitterness leads to cynicism, which is so easy (too easy) to engage in unconsciously, and creeps in like a headache from too much Amarone drunk over a rich meal. Seeing and hearing much, traveling far and wide, speaking with those involved, reading lengthy tomes; thinking, writing; more listening, always that. Eventually the stereo is turned off, the books close, and one is housebound, limited to one’s small quadrant; the slightest hint of such sounds – specific sounds, of specific works – provoke an immediate, firm, inner no.

Such cynicism takes on an acid tone given the realities of taste, upbringing, exposure – over-exposure may well be a more appropriate term. Do opera people hate a work because it’s popular? Or is it because that work is over-programmed? Over-relied upon at the expense of other more things that ought to be given a fair chance? Such reliance seems especially relevant amidst post (or whatever this is) pandemic realities for arts organizations, and even more potently true for North American companies, who don’t enjoy anywhere near the financial support and cultural positioning as many counterparts in Europe do. The programming of Carmen this season across many companies may have been done prior to March 2020, or not; it hardly matters, because staging what is one of the most famous operas of all time, at any time, usually guarantees tidy returns, and for organizations struggling, as they are now, that is a good thing. There’s also the not-small fact that people – lots of people – really love it, and have done, since its scandalous premiere in 1875. As Opera Canada‘s Wayne Gooding wisely wrote recently, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Carmen the opera in which “one bids farewell to the damp north and to all the fog of the Wagnerian ideal.” Perhaps opera, as a whole, is not meant to be approached with such serious, poe-faced joylessness. Maybe one ought to choose an Aperol Spritz over Amarone. Maybe the little self-created quadrant ought to be widened, or even abandoned. On World Opera Day, perhaps the doors, as is hinted below, are swinging open a little wider, letting out the cynicism, and letting in something else – something brighter, better.

Tori Wanzama is a new contributor. Her first opera was, in fact, my own introduction to the art form, at the age of four in what was then called the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. It’s a bit too easy to close ears and heart to something that’s sat in one’s consciousness for so very long, and which is also a tremendous part of the cultural milieu; it is just as much of a challenge to re-open one’s mind to such a relentlessly (brilliantly) melodic work when one is constantly surrounded (by choice as much as necessity) by things so unlike it. And yet, Tori’s enthusiasm and creative insight all work together here to provide fresh, new ground – for me, as much as for those who feel too deeply rooted in classical cynicism. What can possibly grow in such highly acidified soil, after all? Tori’s writing gives opera newbies a bit of needed encouragement toward exploring an art form they (as she rightly outlines) might have their own preconceptions about, and also gives old cynics (alas) a new breath of the curiosity that felt so important to these pursuits in the first place. Reading her words was akin to seeing an old friend after many decades; all the old animosities simply departed. Tori is a second-year Communications student and has, as you will read, an incredible talent for the observation of stagecraft, as well as the nature of opera fandom itself. I look forward to publishing more of her work here in future.

Seeing Carmen For The First Time

Until a couple of months ago, I only ever encountered opera in the form of cartoons. As a kid, I watched Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd feud over the sounds of Richard Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). I also saw the rabbit torment an opera singer in “Long-Haired Hare” (1949). These shorts, among other comical representations, would shape my understanding of opera and unfortunately spawn a disinterest in the genre as a whole. The portrayals I had been exposed to made me see opera, and consequently its fans, as serious to the point of silliness. While I’m not so dismissive now, part of me still saw attending an opera as an aristocratic activity, an art form that is just barely being kept alive. This was, of course, before Carmen.

Carmen, Bizet, illustration, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Journal Amusant, opera

Illustration of Bizet’s opera Carmen, published in Journal Amusant, 1875. Via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

I attended the Canadian Opera Company (COC) production on October 20th, 2022, one of two dates in which COC Ensemble alumni mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb takes the stage in the title role. Flirty and free-spirited, Carmen captures the attention of many men – especially soldier Don José, sung by tenor Marcelo Puente. The love-stricken soldier abandons his position as an officer and his fiancé Michaela (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) in pursuit of her. But Carmen’s feelings are fickle; she soon becomes bored with Don José before abandoning him for the bullfighter Escamillo, sung by baritone Lucas Meachem. Unable to handle her rejection, Don José is driven mad, leading him to take her life. What is widely considered one of the most famous operas was a mystery to me, but I believe this ignorance was ultimately to my benefit. Every part of the show was new and though more than a century old, the story (based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée) certainly doesn’t show its age. The production (based on Mark Lamos’s 2005 presentation) is here presented by visionary Against the Grain Theatre director Joel Ivany, who first staged it with the COC in 2016 – and it never once feels static. Carmen, it turns out, was the ideal opera introduction.

While the Bizet work was my first opera, I’m no stranger to live shows. The atmosphere at the Four Seasons was not much different than the rock shows to which I am accustomed. As I entered the lobby from the subway the evening of October 22nd, I was thrust immediately into the action: the whole house was alive with an excitement I wouldn’t have expected. There was a tangible giddiness amongst the crowd as we piled in, and when the five-minute warning bell beckoned, the audience carried its enthusiasm to the auditorium. It is only the orchestra that silences us with a short tune signalling the start of the show. The appearance of conductor, Jacques Lacombe, prompted boisterous applause from the audience. and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the screams emitted from fans of rock bands as they witness their heroes enter the stage. Opera fans are politely rowdy.

Everyone is welcomed into the world of Carmen with an ominous prelude. The strings anticipate the tragedy; the eeriness of the orchestral writing is palpable. As the curtains rise, the tone shifts, and the start of Act I is deceptively cheery. We see a set of guards standing outside a cigar factory, and immediately, I am into the music, to the point of it being a challenge not to tap along. The buoyancy of the playing is infectious, making a song about just waiting around incredibly entertaining. The title character is irresistible right from the moment she makes her entrance. Carmen’s charisma speaks before she does. With her walk alone she is a force to be reckoned with, and when she starts to sing … the sound is bewitching.” Habanera” is a siren song that lures you in and has you hanging on every word and note. Rather like the men who hang around Carmen, I cannot be immune to this music – I’ve had “Habanera” on repeat since hearing it live. Chaieb’s portrayal assigns a sensuality to every movement, even as she throws fruit at her obsessed admirers. There was also an immediate familiarity: I discovered a commercial from 2003 in which singer Beyoncé performs the same song and uses the same style of seduction, only this time to sell Pepsi. The spirit of Carmen, it would seem, is alive in unlikely places.

The staging here entirely complements the nature of Bizet’s hypnotic score. Ivany’s company, Against the Grain Theatre, typically stages smaller, more immersive productions and though Carmen is the opposite in the vast space of the Four Seasons Centre, the production benefits by this more close-knit approach that so marks his theatrical background. Ivany makes great use of the ensemble and sets up each scene in a way that suggests constant activity, whether in the background, midground or foreground, and on different levels. The stage itself allows for one angle, but there is so much to see and observe. Each environment is given a considered depth, creating a quiet realism amidst the boisterous melodrama and overall activity of the opera. This quiet aspect is often employed to emphasize Carmen’s charisma. As she appears, men in the background can be seen clamouring to get a closer look at her, a staging choice which is perhaps the most effectively used in the final act.

Carmen, Canadian Opera Company, Joel Ivany, Escamillo, Lucas Meachem, entrance, aria, opera, classical, singing, voice, singer

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper

So when the stage is set for Escamillo’s bullfight, the audience is truly allowed into the action. Ivany makes sure the audience has a feeling of direct investment and here his experience with intimate theatre stagings perhaps shows itself best; we are encouraged to join in with the festivities in a way I would not expect to see at the opera. Such techniques also intensify the tragedy. In the final scene, the crowd sees the fight from only a partial view;. the spectators are shown as silhouettes, as Carmen, completely alone, struggles against a deranged Don José. A crowd that would have once adored her is restricted to shadows unknowingly cheering along as she is murdered behind them. The ending is powerful, and, even with foreknowledge, I’m grateful for experiencing its magic.

How could Looney Tunes have led me so far astray? Opera is much more than horned helmets and longhair! Beyond the obvious talents of the performers and the creative visual designs, opera has heart, beauty, and yes, humour too; Carmen convinced me of that. It has an ability to laugh at itself – and even amidst the tragedy, that humour is what perhaps impressed me the most. The show laughs at itself more than once, often using the expected conventions of opera to deliver a joke. Take the bullfighter Escamillo: the Elvis-esque matador enters every scene with a dramatic theme song. Of course my seatmates and I cannot help but chuckle. The difference now is, I’m laughing along with the genre instead of at it, enjoying the melodrama for both its brilliance and its ridiculousness. Before my experience with Carmen, I held onto a cartoonish idea of what opera was, without considering what it could be. A musical door has been opened for me, and I hope there is more of everything on the other side.

Top Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper
Met Opera, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Rodrigue, baritone, opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, culture, performance, Verdi

Etienne Dupuis: “Opera Can Affect Your Everyday Life”

In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.

The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.

On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera  opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.

The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.

Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his wife, soprano Nicole Car; the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera).  Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.

Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.

 Congratulations on Don Carlos

It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….

… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?

It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.

Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?

There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head

Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…

Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”

Jamie Barton, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Met Opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, opera, culture, Verdi, classical, Eboli, Rodrigue, live

Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?

Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.

I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.

Met Opera, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Rodrigue, baritone, opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, culture, performance, Verdi, Sonya Yoncheva

Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…

Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.

So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…

In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.

There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.

There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”

It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?

Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.

Really!

Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.

You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.

It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther – I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…

… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…

Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.

Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?

With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.

Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”

It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.

How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?

Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!

You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?

We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.

You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.

For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…

But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…

No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…

… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.

Ha, yes!

Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…

Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.

You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.

That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.

Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.

It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.

Met Opera, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Rodrigue, baritone, opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, culture, performance, Verdi, Matthew Polenzani

Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Paris, Palais Garnier, Chagall, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe

Essay: On The “Relatable” – In Opera, And Beyond

Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”

Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:

The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”

The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.

Parma, Teatro Regio di Parma, opera, opera house, Italy, Nuovo Teatro Ducale, music, culture, history, Europe, interior

Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.

This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.

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Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words  (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.

The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.

Parma, Italy, Teatro Farnese, opera, production, Graham Vick, music, culture, history

Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues  – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.

The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need  some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.

This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.

Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.

Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often.  Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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