Category: classical Page 1 of 14

sketch, drawing, ink, quick, study, motion, figure, movement

Essay: Hype, Money, Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marching Into April, Reading & Remembering

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

Realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruminations

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludovic Tezier, baritone, opera, singer, classical, French

Ludovic Tézier On Singing Verdi, Working With Jonas Kaufmann, & Why ‘Okay’ Is “Not Enough.”

To be called “the leading Verdi baritone on the global stage for the best part of a decade” (by Gramophone Magazine’s Hugo Shirley) is one thing; to be an earthy, energetic conversationalist is quite another. Ludovic Tézier manages both, and then some. To state he is a committed Verdi singer is putting things mildly. Currently performing at Paris’s Opéra Bastille in the title role of Simon Boccanegra, the French baritone has sung a who’s who of roles by the Italian master; Rigoletto, Macbeth, Posa (Don Carlo), Ford (Falstaff), Don Carlo di Varga (La forza del destino), Renato (Un ballo in maschera) , and Giorgio Germont (La traviata) are all part of his regular repertoire. Tézier’s 2021 solo album of Verdi arias, recorded with Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and conductor Frédéric Chaslin and released by Sony Classical, won a Gramophone Award for Best Voice & Ensemble Recording. Gramophone’s Shirley called it “surely the finest Verdi recital – from any voice type – to have appeared for several years, if not a decade.”

As well as being a regular at Opéra National de Paris, Tézier has appeared on the stages of Teatro Alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real (Madrid), Liceu Barcelona, Royal Opera Opera Covent Garden, and The Metropolitan Opera (New York), to name a few. He has also performed at a variety of festivals including those in Verona, Savonlinna, Aix-en-Provence, the Chorégies d’Orange, Glyndebourne, and Baden-Baden as well as both the Easter and summer festivals in Salzburg. He has sung the titles roles in in Hamlet, Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni, as well as Yeletsky (Pique Dame), Count Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Athanaël (Thaïs), and Wagner roles Amfortas (Parsifal) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (Tannhäuser), and given both recitals and masterclasses. Later this year he’ll be a soloist in a performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem alongside soprano Pretty Yende in a concert featuring the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Aziz Shokhakimov as part of the annual Festival de Saint-Denis. In May he will perform another signature role, Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, in a new production by Kornél Mundruczó at Bayerische Staatsoper.

Set to join him for part of that run is tenor Jonas Kaufmann (as Mario Cavaradossi), a colleague with whom Tézier shares a warm and lively association, live onstage and through a number of recordings. Their 2022 Sony Classical album Insieme: Opera Duets, with Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under conductor Antonio Pappano, features the music of Puccini, Ponchielli, and Verdi, and garnered widespread praise, with The Financial Times‘ Richard Fairman calling it “a recital of distinction.” The pair will be performing selections from the album this October in Naples in a concert with Orchestra of Teatro di San Carlo and conductor Jochen Rieder.

Simon Boccanegra, Ludovic Teziér, baritone, Verdi, opera, performance, Opéra national de Paris, Calixto Bieito, classical, music, arts, culture, France, Paris

Ludovic Tézier as Simon Boccanegra at Opéra Bastille, 2018. Photo: Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

More immediate is Simon Boccanegra at Opéra Bastille. Its heavy three acts (plus prologue) explore the vagaries of political intrigue, romantic jealousy, and ultimately, forgiveness in friendships and families alike. Calixto Bieito’s production, premiered in late 2018 and currently enjoying a revival, uses sharply contrasting textures and equally striking video projections to convey the tormented psychology of its titular hero. Tézier is simultaneously authoritative and sensitive, making smart use of small gestures and facial expressions to offer a complex portrayal of a damaged man navigating painful inner and outer realities.  The character’s reunion with his long-lost daughter Maria (Nicole Car) is especially moving, with the baritone wide-eyed if awkward, his Simon clearly yearning to embrace but utterly incapacitated. A physicality that might be used for care is made into more of a cave, yawning, empty, alone. Vocally he is broad one moment, intimate the next; colourful and textured, with just the right amount of shading, thickly applied or gossamer-delicate; flexible but not showy; legato but not engulfing; emotion expressed not via volume but through careful, considered control. Tézier possesses an artistry of the very highest calibre –immediate, human, utterly unforgettable.

Our exchange one recent rainy afternoon in Paris was conducted amidst intermittent announcements on the loudspeakers laced throughout Opéra Bastille’s labyrinthine backstage area. Tézier offered equal parts attentiveness, intelligence, passion, and sensitivity, a mirror of the qualities he brings to his performances, whether live or recorded.  We began by discussing one of his most memorable roles, as the seemingly-villainous brother in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he has been rightly praised for and remains burned into the memory of those who experienced his performance at The Met in 2011.

How do you see a character like Donizetti’s Enrico – is he a villain to you, or something more?

He isn’t really a villain – he feels like he’s doing his duty, keeping things around the family and its preservation. He wants to save his family – if you think about (Verdi’s) Germont it’s the same thing: he’s on duty; he’s protecting his son; he has to do a job to preserve his family and name.

You commented in an interview about Germont and Rigoletto and how singing them relates to age, experience and wisdom, which brought to mind the industry casting younger and younger.

I think of age as fruit. You have to pick it at a certain age, and not take the fruit that’s still green – you have to wait to pick those pieces. When you do a character too early you might have the voice to do it, but will you … give it the way you could give it ten years later? Plus knowing there are plenty of different parts, why do the biggest, deepest, most complex parts from the early beginning? Just because you sound more or less as you should sound for it? Opera is much more about telling the story in a certain way. Of course it’s about singing too. But if you’re not able to be the character and actually be believed within that character you’re better to do another one – there are plenty to choose.

Most of the characters you should begin with are lightweight, they are young and corresponding to what you are going through when you’re 28-30. In my case being a father made me really understand these Verdi roles. To make an image of fatherhood is one thing, but being one is different, I can tell you. I’d rather be number one in Mozart than number ten in Verdi. Doing those other roles helps you to be good at singing Verdi. Every colour you pick up in Mozart and Donizetti you will use later in Verdi – and in dramatic singing. It’s not just decibels, it’s about preserving your instrument, developing those colours and accents you may expect for Verdi, and having the freshness to give the good high notes and beautiful legato. That’s, in a nutshell, where you put a life story. And you can’t fake it; it isn’t rewarding for you in any way. You can’t give what you should be giving within the part.

You mentioned in a past interview that you’d love to do more Mozart, which reminded me of something Luca Pisaroni said years ago, that Mozart is a massage for the voice…

He is one of my rare brothers in the job. Luca is one of the best artists onstage I’ve ever met – there are only a few that still impress me, and he is one of them, because he is living the music, living the opera. He’s giving the music 100%. Some of the times Luca and I have worked together – not enough for my taste – we’ve done Don Giovanni and Leporello, and it is fresh like a new flower every time, growing all along and renewed every night – because we are growing together. You never know what may come right after you deliver your line, but you can be sure it is true, it isn’t a xerox at every performance…

It shouldn’t be a xerox!

No! That’s not opera! We are building on the stage a beautiful picture, like paintings, except we are life. We are not in the Louvre or the Met Museum – I love them both, by the way – but the paintings we create are moving so they are not the same, not the same at all every performance…

… and the light will change on those ‘paintings’ so the picture will change…

Yes, and that’s the beauty of it.

So which Mozart roles do you want to do now?

Every role!

I really want to see your Almaviva live.

Ah yes! I’ve done it – that a role needs either a young baritone, and I’ve done it at that time in my life, or a man of my age now, because after 40 men are kind of set in their habits…

There’s also the aspect of authority, and people questioning it…

That’s right.

… which really points up the subversive nature of the Beaumarchais play.

Precisely.

But the Verdi roles, like Simon Boccanegra?

I love this role so, so much. Oh my goodness, I can’t even tell you how much.

How has it changed for you, since you’ve done it a lot now?

Once you begin a part like I did here, in the same production six years ago already, the part is like every part, it is growing into your brain and your soul in a private way – it is there, developing. When you put the score on the table again to really examine it, it is different because you are different, because the part has developed independently and of course the voice has changed in six years. I have to find another way to express what’s in the part now. I don’t know quite what the connection is between the voice, the development of the voice, and the part itself – I am not sure what nourishes what. It might be the part that asks you for more colour or the voice that has more possibility. Somehow it’s all a dialogue.

So you internalize the part in your body, and  it returns, like muscle memory?

Yes, that’s true.

… but it changes at the same time?

Yes, because the body is changing. It’s like you remember and think back, “How did I do that mountain-climb when I was young?” The body remembers that you completed that activity. Sometimes you have to jump into a part you’ve not done for years – and voila, you know it, and the body knows it like an instinctual animal knows how to handle a dangerous situation, which is amazing. When you have more time to learn it, then you can take what your body remembers and try to make it in another way, into something finer, polished, deep.

Something you can translate into the outer world?

Yes, but to control the effect that you have on the public … that is so independent of everything. You try to give your best; sometimes it works, sometimes not. Sometimes it was great, sometimes not. You try to not do the same thing twice but to put yourself in the same state of mind, and it may not work… c’est la vie. Of course we are working with great passion on our voice but remember to be able to sing these beautiful parts is a present. So somehow we have to give it back to somebody and to the public for sure. It’s sort of a duty, because all truly great singers want to be able to get into this intimacy with composers like Verdi and Wagner. It is good to try to make people… sense what the composer wanted to tell or express, and when it works, it’s one of the greatest moments.

How much of this translates into your masterclasses? Conveying all of this to students must be a challenge.

Oh definitely. It’s a case of, if you want to express what I’m aiming at and what I wish you to aim for, then the basis is to have a very good technique and flexibility. You have to build that technique and have that ground on which you can find the emotion and voice. If you don’t have this sort of grounding… I don’t want to be in a room where I see people sweating to be loud. It’s why we have to build a very solid foundation, to be able to give the impression that we are actually doing what we do, easily. That makes the public much more comfortable and open-minded – open-souled, if I can say that. They can receive what you have to give. And never forget what we are doing makes a direct connection with the old form of Greek theatre. I think we should always aim for that kind of authenticity, and not forget it, and not be a narcissist thinking, ‘Am I good-sounding?’ Sure, it’s a good voice, but the expression isn’t there.

I remember once an artist was singing one night when I was in a hotel. This old guy was so skillful, he was giving the text and theatrics, but that was it. It was a nice voice, but … especially with Verdi, when you sing it nicely, it’s not nice. It must be beautiful, it must be deep – and the beauty is not always defined as vocal perfection. The beauty of a “perfect” face is not nice! Listen to “My Way” with Sinatra and another singer and you will know the difference. Sinatra has a beautiful voice but most of all he’s a great singer, a complete singer – the greatest tenor for me. You understand every word, on every level. Then you hear people just singing the words, not the music. They know the melody, but what makes it an international standard? Not the nice melody. Some may sing the nice melodies and say, “okay, it’s enough” – no. ‘Okay’ is not enough.

It seems like this is a big part of what informs your work with Jonas Kaufmann.

Very much so. When Jonas is entering the stage, he isn’t entering because it is written or because the director has called him on; he’s entering because he has something to do as an artist. That makes a hell of a difference. He isn’t only a singer; he’s an everything.

… which encapsulates what opera is about: voice, theatre, visuals.

That’s why we love it. I never could choose between the visual, the sound, the theatre.

Alexander Neef once remarked to me that he thinks opera is the most complete art form because of its integrating these elements. 

I can’t really say, it might be quite arrogant of me, but… maybe?

Do you think there’s a dwindling audience for this kind of artistic understanding?

I think there are still sensing it, and people who want this, and that’s what we need. I don’t ask people to understand why one emotion is there; I want them to listen, to feel, to say, “Wow, this is special to me.” And that’s it. Our job is to understand, to find the keys, but the public? I don’t ask them to understand – on the contrary. They don’t need to know all the tricks; knowing every single thing can kill the magic. Just listen; feel the emotion. It’s the best way to spend three hours.

Top photo: Cassandra Berthon
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
Amphitheatre Olivier Messiaen, Opera Bastille, Paris, auditorium, performance, space

Review: Ligeti, Crumb, and Gelin in Paris

György Ligeti is not a name one associates with fables – unless one knows his oeuvre, and his broader life story. The composer, who died in 2006 in Vienna, spent a long and illustrious career in Germany and Austria perfecting his angular, detail-driven work. Perhaps best-known for his  Atmosphères (1961), which utilized a micro-polyphonic technique, and his so-called “anti-anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre (1977), he was a master of atmospheric, dense textures which combined elements of 20th century absurdism with polyrhythmic layering. Born in Transylvania in 1923 to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti was often prevented from pursuing his passions in his native Hungary because of his Jewish background as well as his passion for the avant-garde. He fled to Austria following the 1956 Soviet invasion. A recent chamber concert by musicians of the l’Orchestre de L’Opéra national de Paris, specifically named after a movement from one of his works, effectively evoked a strange, otherworldly, fable-like world of which the composer would have surely approved.

A tribute to the composer to mark his musical centenary, the concert also featured the music of American composer George Crumb (1929-2022) and a new work by French composer Françoise Gelin (b. 1980). Heavy on percussion, the well-attended evening at the Amphithéâtre Olivier Messiaen (located in the Opéra Bastille) was a showcase of skill, musicality, and innate communication between artists, particularly orchestra percussionists Christophe Vella, Sylvie Dukaez, Jérémie Cresta, and Charles Gillet, Mezzo soprano Hilary Summers, fresh off the opening of The Exterminating Angel on the mainstage, opened the evening with Ligeti’s Három Weöres-dal (Three Weöres songs) for voice and piano (1946-1947). Based on the poetry of celebrated Hungarian writer Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) whose work Ligeti set throughout various projects, the songs blend the casual and the classy in a way that can be difficult to translate into other languages. Weöres’ writing is notable for employing what musicologist Amy Bauer characterized in a 2008 paper as “an exploration of sound symbolism, novel metric structures and absurd juxtapositions”, qualities Ligeti sought to reflect and expand on. Three Songs blends descriptions of nature with fairytale-like tableaux settings that contain hints of menace, particularly in the third setting, ““Kalmár jött nagy madarakka” (A merchant has come with giant birds), with its closing lines, “The princess is pale, and as quiet as always In her heart great birds are shrieking.” Summers captured this suggestiveness perfectly, hanging on certain syllables, with shapely phrasing and pointed consonants. Crumb’s “The Sleeper” (based on the 1831 poem by Edgar Allan Poe) has its own creepy poetry which ponders the deceased subject’s “length of tress / And this all-solemn silentness!”. Summers’ delivery softened but was no less gripping. her maple syrup tones winding around the work’s lyrical leaps and moody melodic line to create a unique transcultural bridge between mythologies.

That connection was especially present in Bolliakis’ performances, which included three extracts from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (1951-1953) and two from Etudes (1985-2001). The former, according to musicologist Donald Gislason, has a double meaning inherent within its title, saluting the formal compositional style known as the ricercare (a work with one or more melodic lines) while simultaneously embracing the Italian meaning (wanted; sought). Boliakis performed the first three movements of the work, each building from the last, with the first movement (consisting of just the note A), performed with genuine conviction, underlining the “seeking” quality of the composer himself, a ‘seeking’ which was echoed in Gelin’s (… texte manquant”) pour quatre percussionnistes. Dedicated to Jérémie Cresta, one of the work’s interpreters, Gelin also used the poetry of Weöres as inspiration, though one might be forgiven for thinking of Claude Vivier in the theatrical mix of percussive lines and talky textures and the gamelan-like sounds evoked within and through their interplay.

The notion of ‘the fable’ expanded with George Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985) for amplified flute and percussion. The composer himself wrote of the work that “flute and percussion are the instruments that most powerfully evoke the voice of nature. Ideally (if impractically), my Idyll should be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.” A rainy March evening in Paris wasn’t quite the setting Crumb had envisioned, and yet flautist Sabrina Maaroufi’s performance captured the work’s startling purity. Her performance of lines by eighth-century Chinese poet Su-K’ung Shu, spoken while simultaneously breathing into her instrument (“The moon goes down; there are shivering birds and withering grasses”) was a keen reminder of the ways innocence and experience are often grimly joined within the world of fables and fairytales.

The closing work, Ligeti’s song cycle Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With bagpipes, drums, violin) for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists (2000), expanded on this uncomfortable paradox, though the performance was shot through with wit and intense visual communication between the musicians, who were arranged around and behind Summers. Comprised largely of whimsical, often nonsensical language, the work is a fusion of Ligeti’s interest in the folk sounds of his homeland and the avant-garde sound world he helped develop. The cycle’s first song, “Fabula” (“Fable”) depicts a pack of wolves terrified of two unmovable mountains, and is a gripping call-and-response between voice and percussion section. The work uses a huge array of percussion instruments (marimba, tam-tam, log drum, bass drum, gong, vibraphone, tubular bells, to name just a few) which work in dialogue with the soloist. Its seven movements shifts between dance rhythms and meditative poetry, though the encore was less meditative – it was a repeat of the final, bouncy seventh movement – than brave, with Summers heartily tackling its fiendish rhythms one more time and thus proving that fables, while seemingly easy on the surface, can be difficult, knotty things, if also loads of fun.

Top photo: Simon Chaput
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
tree, winter, sky, branches, moody, field

February: Links, Gratitude, Daring Fairytale Stagings

There’s plenty going on in both the orchestral and opera worlds right now. Everyone is busy – including yours truly – and feeling somewhat worn-down, but it seems important, amidst the chaos and concomitant tiredness, to keep interested, inspired, and reminded of the existence of good things and people, and to make the effort to recognize accordingly. It matters more than ever.

Thank you Ozawa!

The Japanese conductor, whose passing was announced this past Friday, was truly a powerhouse of passion for music, in all its expressions. My formal obituary for The Globe and Mail is here (paywall).

Ozawa truly changed the centre of classical gravity and the way it was perceived more broadly, by the public and aspiring musicians. “It’s hard to be a pioneer, but he did it with grace,” noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a moving video clip released by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Ozawa was the organization’s very long-serving Music Director (1973-2002) and was known as much for his dynamic performances as for his love of the Red Sox. He was also committed to music education, particularly in his later years. Well before his time in Boston, Ozawa was Music Director of the Toronto Symphony orchestra, and led the orchestra in the opening of City Hall in 1965. My music-mad mother recalled seeing Ozawa and the TSO at their then-regular digs (Massey Hall) many times and I clearly remember how she praised the maestro’s attention to detail and expressive physicality; she also noted the famous mop of hair, like so many.

Hair aside, Ozawa had a sizeable live performance track record and an immense  discography, although he wasn’t quite so well-known for his opera as for orchestral renderings, coming late (as he admitted) to the opera world. Still, everyone has favourites, and some of my own Ozawa treasures include opera, among them Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise, which Ozawa premiered at Opéra national de Paris in 1983 (at the composer’s personal request); Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, presented at Wiener Staatsoper in 2002 (when Ozawa was their Music Director); and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus, from the Saito Kinen Festival in 1992, the same year Ozawa co-created the festival and related orchestra. The poetic production featured Philip Langridge and Jessye Norman in a Japanese-influenced staging by Julie Taymor.

Speaking of Oedipus…

Update 18 February: The planned production of Jocasta’s Line (information below) has changed. Director/choreographer Wayne McGregor and actor Ben Whishaw have had to withdraw from the project. Now called Oedipus Rex/Antigone, the work will be directed by Mart van Berckel and Nanine Linning, respectively. Moussa’s Antigone is a co-commission with the annual Québécois Festival de Lanaudière.

Original: Actor Ben Whishaw is set to appear as the Speaker in an intriguing new presentation of the work to be presented next month at Dutch National Opera. Called Jocasta’s Line, Stravinsky is here being paired with 2023’s Antigone by Canadian composer Samy Moussa. With direction and choreography by Wayne McGregor, the work features tenor Sean Panikkar as Oedipus and mezzo soprano Dame Sarah Connolly as his doomed mother, as well as dancers from the Dutch National Ballet. Fascinerend!

Still in The Netherlands: the Dutch National Opera Academy recently finished a run of Conrad Susa’s spicy chamber opera Transformations. The 1973 work features texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton and subverts the archetype of the fairytale in a very unique, sometimes even disturbing (hurrah!) ways. The two-act work is a very adult re-telling of ten famous Grimm stories, including Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White. Susa’s work was widely performed in the US following its premiere, but only had its continental European premiere in 2006 in Lausanne and was later presented at the 2006 Wexford Festival Opera. I do wish this work was done more, especially since fairytales seems to play such a large if unconscious role within modern aesthetics and design.

… and Rusalka

Indeed, the timeliness of presentations that contrast long-cherished fairytale-related art is noteworthy, what with their unmissable corollary to contemporary digital imagery and its over-Photoshopped Insta-friendly narratives. But hostility to such cliché-breaking is abundant, and that hostility been underlined in the opera world with angry reactions to the new production of Rusalka at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Dvořák 1901 work, which shares various elements with The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, is here stripped of its familiar long-haired-doe-eyed-fair-slim-water-maiden imagery. Director Kornél Mundruczó, together with designer Monika Pormale, presents something far more provocative –though to my mind, it shouldn’t be provocative at all. Such presentations are sorely needed, especially within the current cultural landscape.

Mundruczó isn’t the first to dare to strip the opera of its traditional aesthetic. Sergio Morabito, who staged the opera with Jossi Wieler in 2008, described Rusalka to Jessica Duchen in 2012 as a “really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope.” Part of this bleakness is linked to the main character’s muteness, though that narrative device has been presented in a variety of ways through the years. From a personal standpoint, robbing a girl of her voice for the sake of some idea of humanity connected to “romance” (and soft-focus tragedy) is nightmarish – dress it up any way you want; it’s still horrific. Reading comments about the Berlin production lately I was reminded of past Rusalkas, especially unconventional ones like those by Morabito/Wieler as well as the grimy (if great) 2012 Stefan Hernheim production; both kicked against the soft-focus aesthetic but in so doing attracted incredible vitriol. That a Rusalka might go against some set-in-stone image is bad enough (Kosky’s infamous Carmen arguably did the same), but that it should dare to present a title character who, likewise, doesn’t conform to a deeply conservative image of “the mythical (or mysterious) feminine” is unforgivable.

Is there value in upsetting the traditional aesthetic connected to certain operas? To paraphrase a recent conversation with a friend on just this topic: even if you don’t agree with every little choice in a production (especially the presentation of the main character), you can at least recognize the work’s place more broadly within the sphere of modern presentation. For reference: I have reservations about various aspects of  the updated productions of both Strauss’s Daphne at Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at Bayerische Staatsoper, but I wholly support them being done. It’s important to try these things! As Morabito also noted in his interview with Duchen in 2012: “We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations.”

Classical writer Gianmarco Segato recently saw the very first presentation of Rusalka by the Hungarian State Opera and staged by director János Szikora. In his review for La Scena Musicale Segato cleverly notes the extent to which its designs were influenced by early 20th century Czech artist Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau more broadly, especially with relation to the opera’s titular character and her cohorts. In Berlin, reactions to Mundruczó’s far less imagistically romantic production have been divisive. Albrecht Selge covered the opening for Van Magazine (auf Deutsch) recently, describing soprano Christiane Karg in the titular role and arguably capturing its whole essence: “Denn Karg gestaltet ihre Nixe agil, zornig, aufbegehrend gegen die vorgegebene Opferrolle.” (“Karg makes her mermaid agile, angry and rebellious against the predetermined role of victim.”) It’s important to try these things – especially, I would argue in the age of Instagram!

Professor Pfefferkorn auf Insta

Speaking of the ubiquitous, ever-evolving, image-obsessed platform: music publisher Breitkopf and Hartel has an entertaining, intelligent weekly Insta-series that dives into the nitty-gritty of their work and broader realities for the industry. The format is simple, along with the aesthetic: head honcho Nick Pfefferkorn addresses viewer questions in quick if informative talks from his desk. (Special thanks to whoever thought to include the English subtitles.) Pfefferkorn, who founded his own independent publishing house in 1996, became publishing director of the Wiesbaden-based Breitkopf and Hartel in 2015. His narration style is equal parts tweedy professor and watchful butcher; he’s detailed in discussing the finer points of just how the music-score-sausage is made at this particular publisher.

These videos are helpful in demystifying what can be an intimidating part of deeper music engagement. I feel a bit less daunted at re-examining the various ingredients of scores in my own collection through watching Pfefferkorn’s detailed if direct explanations. Last week’s episode focuses on how the publisher indicates page turns, for which section, and why some indications differ from others; he starts with something more fashion-oriented. Vielen dank, B&H!

On Emigré

Deutsche Grammophon recently announced the upcoming release of Emigré, a 90-minute new oratorio by Emmy Award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh. The work details a  little-known piece of 20th century history, when the people of Shanghai welcomed Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Emigré examines this history through the lense of a story about two brothers and their respective journeys. Premiered in Shanghai last November, the work will receive its North American premiere in a semi-staged production at Lincoln Center at the end of this month, and is scheduled to be presented by the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester in Berlin at an as-yet-unannounced future date.

Emigré was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony, as well as its Music Director and conductor Long Yu, who was called “the real hero” of the project in a recent panel discussion hosted by classical NPR station WQXR. The upcoming New York staging will feature tenors Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis in the lead roles, together with sopranos Meigui Zhang and Diana White, mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu, and bass-baritone Shenyang, a former BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

The project comes at a time when the classical world is realizing that it’s good to express a greater cultural awareness; my cynical (read: observant) self says this is also good marketing and optics for an industry that still has such a long way to go. But it is equally true that classical organizations and labels are being silently expected to step in and offer the history lessons that many educational systems sorely lack. So if Emigré aids in raising awareness and opening conversations, so much the better. It is disheartening to note the lack of Canadian dates for performances of Emigré, but hopefully that will change.

Finally, who says Beethoven and belly-dancing can’t be combined? Here’s “Für Elise” like you’ve probably never heard it:

Like music journalist Axel Brüggemann says, “halten Sie die Ohren steif” and remember: the c-word is context. 😀

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Stéphane Degout: On Text, Teaching, Language, & Voice

The end of January may be grey and cold, but online the time is considerably enriched by various classical artists and organizations marking Schubert’s birthday. The German composer (1797-1828) is known for his beloved song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1827) and Schwanengesang (1828), all of which use texts by German writers and poets to explore deeply human experiences – wonder, longing, love, sadness, loss.

Opéra Comique is offering their own thoughtful salute to the composer with L’Autre Voyage (The Other Journey), opening on 1 February. Combining selections of Schubert’s music with fragments of poetry (by Heine, Goethe, and others) the work features the central figure of a forensic doctor whose recognition of his dead doppelganger catalyzes important personal explorations. With direction and libretto by theatre artist Silvia Costa and musical direction by Raphaël Pichon, the work offers a fascinating insight into the lasting impact of Schubert’s oeuvre as well as the text that fuelled his creative inspiration and continues to inspire its interpreters, including Voyage lead Stéphane Degout.

The French baritone’s passion for text and music has translated into an immensely engaging approach over baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and contemporary repertoires. Degout has sung title roles in a number of famous works including Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Conti’s Don Chisciotte, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Thomas’ Hamlet. He has graced the stages of Opéra de Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Berlin Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, Teatro alla Scala, De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, Opernhaus Zurich, Lyric Opera Chicago, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Festival appearances include Salzburg, Saint Denis, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, and Aix-en-Provence. In 2022 Degout won the Male Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards, and the following year became Master-in-Residence of the vocal section at Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, having been recommended to the role by baritone José van Dam, the organization’s then-Master-in-Residence. The two baritones share a long history, having first appeared onstage together in a 2003 production of Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise at the RuhrTriennale.

Degout has also worked extensively with conductor Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion ensemble, onstage, on tours, and across a range of lauded recordings. The 2018 album Enfers (harmonia mundi) features a deliciously  dark selection of works by French composers (Gluck, Rebel, Rameau), while 2022’s Mein Traum (harmonia mundi) explores dreams via pieces by Schubert, Weber, Schumann, and Liszt. This past December Pichon led his Pygmalion on a European tour of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah with Degout as a soloist alongside Siobhan Stagg, Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Atkins, and Julie Roset. But famed historic works are not, as was mentioned, Degout’s sole territory; the baritone has performed and often been directly involved with the creation numerous contemporary operas, including Benoît Mernier’s La Dispute (2013), Philippe Boesmans’ Au Monde (2014; both La Monnaie), and Pinocchio (2017) also by Boesmans and commissioned by the annual Aix-en-Provence Festival. British composer George Benjamin wrote the role of The King in his intense 2018 opera Lessons in Love and Violence (premiered at at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden) specifically for Degout’s voice.

That voice is as much at home in intimate settings as opera stages. His 2021 performance as the title character in Berg’s Wozzeck with Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse garnered high praise from French media, with music magazine Diapason praising the singer’s mix of power and delicacy and proclaiming “Victoire absolue pour Stéphane Degout”. Such a special combination of intensity and lyricism was shown to full effect in 2022 with chamber orchestra recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (b.records) with French ensemble Le Balcon, and in 2023, via Brahms’ song cycle La Belle Maguelone (b.records) in a recording captured live at Théâtre de l’Athénée Louis-Jouvet and featuring pianist Alain Planès, mezzo soprano Marielou Jacquard, and speaker Roger Germser. This spring Degout will be using his magical blend of power and sensitivity in the little-known opera Guercœur with Opera national du Rhin. The work, penned by French composer Albéric Magnard between 1897 and 1901 but only presented live in 1931, wears its Wagnerian influences on its sleeve while deftly distilling both the grandeur of late Romanticism and the immediacy of European song craft.

Such a blend of music and narrative seems central to the more immediate L’Autre Voyage, described by Opéra Comique’s Agnès Terrier as “Ni reconstitution, ni nouvel opéra” (neither reconstruction nor new opera). Instead, Voyage positions itself as a wholly original theatrical piece showcasing the very things that so informed Schubert’s creativity, not to mention the public’s continuing fascinating with him: “le doute, la fantaisie, la solitude, l’élan spirituel” (doubt, fantasy, solitude, spiritual impulse). Voyage runs through mid-February and will be recorded by French public broadcaster France Musique for March broadcast on Samedi à l’opéra. Degout will also be presenting a recital of Schubert’s famed Winterreise with pianist Alain Planès at Opéra Comique on February 14th.

Earlier this month the busy baritone took time out of his rehearsal schedule to share thoughts on the importance of text, not taking one’s mother tongue for granted, and the important reminders teaching offers.

Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

How extensively do you study the immediate text as well as contemporaneous writing and music?

I always do this for every part I sing. I like to know the contextual things – poetry, literature, history, everything – it’s very interesting how it just puts me in, I wouldn’t say the mood, but offers clues and connections with the time of the music. This particular period of Schubert’s is very rich in opera works of course, but every country and every culture has a specificity and I study that accordingly. I will sing Onegin in June, and though it’s later in the 19th century than Schubert, it also has a great connection with Romanticism of the 19th century. So yes, I do read a lot!

To what extent do you think mood in music shifts according to the language, especially for something like L’Autre Voyage?

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the series of conversations between Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Waltz, but in one of them Barenboim says it’s obvious in the music of some composers what their mother tongue is. So it’s obvious with Beethoven that he’s a German speaker from the way he writes music and puts harmonies together and places weight on certain elements within bars – that thinking extends to works in German, French, Russian. I don’t know Russian well enough to be aware, but such an idea is obvious to me in French and German. (Barenboim) also deals with the tempo, that you can’t do the music faster than the maximum you can speak or sing the language – sometimes the centre gives. It’s a sort of technical point, but the mood is given by the language, by the construction of the phrase – and as you know, German has a specific grammar where you have to wait for the end of the phrase to really know the whole thing.

When the language itself is used within a poetic construction, it’s beautiful for sure but it’s also more difficult; you have to be able to get everything at the same time in order to really get it. With L’Autre Voyage sometimes there are altered phrases and words to make connections between these different works more logical – Silvia Costa changed the text, but she worked very carefully on being as close as she could to the original linguistic specificity.

Stéphane Degout, Siobhan Stagg, Chœur Pygmalion, Opéra Comique, Schubert, L'Autre Voyage, Stefan Brion, stage, performing arts, opera, drama, theatre, singing, classical

Stéphane Degout (L) and Siobhan Stagg (R) with Chœur Pygmalion in L’Autre Voyage at Opéra Comique. Photo: Stefan Brion

“I’m very close to the text”

How have these working relationships influenced your approach to different material, whether it’s new material or historical material?

Maybe it’s because I’m a baritone, it makes me more, let’s say… on the spoken side of the music. I’m very close to the text, it’s something I also happen to love – poetry and the languages , talking, conversation. I’ve been lucky because almost all of my repertoire is really based on the language. If we stay with French repertoire, Rameau and the Baroque stuff I did with Raphaël, it’s singing on the notes, it’s declamation, it’s clarity. With German lieder and composers like Wolf and Schubert and Schumann, they all have such respect for the primary material they have – the text and the poetry – so you can’t forget the music, but it’s not the music that drives you through the text; it’s the text that drives you through the music. It’s even more obvious to me because I’m a native French speaker – these things come immediately to my ear. With works by composers like Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, it’s clear they all have first read the respective texts and fallen in love with them, and thought they could make something with the music. But the text – it’s not an excuse to make music; it is the central point of all things. Perhaps I notice this more because when I was a teenager I did theatre and so more talking than singing on stage, I don’t know! (laughs)

As a native French speaker, what’s it like to return to singing in your own language?

The difficulty when we sing in our own language is that we don’t care so much. It is this feeling of, ‘well it’s my language so I don’t need to make an effort’ – but I know I do need to make extra effort. I speak German, I have studied it, so it gives me a sort of extra comfort in singing it; I know the structure and pronunciation but occasionally there I also need a bit of an extra hand, someone to say, ‘it’s right but it doesn’t sound German, it sounds like a foreigner talking in German.’ These language explorations are really fascinating. I have been working with young singers for a few years now and we talk a lot about this issue, and it’s great to see that they have the same comforts and difficulties that I had 25 years ago when I started. It’s a common thing.

What has teaching given you as a singer? What are its challenges?

The difficulty of teaching is putting words on things I do naturally. I’ve been singing professionally for almost three decades now; I don’t need to think very technically or consider what I’m doing physically – it’s just here. But when I have to help a young singer who is struggling with some technical things, breathing issues or whatever, I need to explain exactly, because I hear what’s wrong but need to help to correct it clearly, and this is the difficulty. So, I’m learning to teach, let’s say. It’s sort of a mirror of my own experience, and sometimes hearing a young singer struggling makes me think of the way I’ve done things myself when I was struggling with those same issues.

“Every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory”

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

Yes, very much! We did a concert in Belgium in November, I was one of the singers, and during the concert I realized I didn’t do what I said to the others in the days before when we were rehearsing. Basically I joke about things like that and say: do as I say, not as I do!

There’s also value in being honest with students and saying, “Look, I can teach you the basics, but with some things, my system works for me and it might not work for you.”

Yes, there are basics – breathing, using muscles, pronunciations – but everyone eventually has their own technique, because every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory. Every instrument maker will tell you every instrument is unique…

… and different experiences and backgrounds – context – which will influence what comes out. How does that influence your work with living composers?

It’s been interesting. With George Benjamin, for instance, the work was very specific. He was extremely precise with his own work and what he wanted. It’s exactly what I said before, the text and respect for it, George is really into writing music where the text is very clear and natural. He used virtuosity in his writing for Barbara (Hannigan) because she has this big range she can use, but for me and my character, he used the spoken side of my voice. When he and I first met, I was still in my Pelléas time, with this very clear, high sound; he gave me the score and I saw the part wasn’t written that high – it was surprising – but in working on it and learning the music, I realized that he there was no need to write something that was more important than the text. That’s the way I understood it.

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

I felt very comfortable and confident with him as a conductor, because of course he knew his work well, so he could help us in the meanings as well as the performing. He changed maybe three things with me, things which were more related to the length of notes and breathing; the changes were more naturally aligned to my own way of singing than what he’d written for me.

I don’t know if you know, we met about two years before the presentation, and spent an afternoon together; he was measuring my voice in every direction, how high, how low, how big, how soft. It was quite intimidating and impressive at the same time. He remembered every aspect of my voice from that day, so the part was perfectly written. Also Martin (Crimp, librettist) and other poets had their own music which sat within the material, I can’t quite say what it is because English isn’t my first language – but I knew it was specific, that it was text which involved not merely giving information on the situation. It also helped that (director) Katie Mitchell was observant of our specifics around how we move and speak.

You’re doing another new-ish opera, Guercœur, in the spring. There are so many operas which are only now coming into the public consciousness… 

… yes, it’s true. Guercœur was the idea of (Opéra national du Rhin General Director) Alain Perroux, who has wanted to do it for a long time. I didn’t know about this opera before he told me about its story. The work has, as you probably know, a very unusual history. The composer died before he ever heard this music done live, two-thirds of the original score was lost in a fire, but (composer/conductor) Guy Ropartz saved some and reconstructed the orchestration. It was recorded in 1951 and again in 1986 with a cast that included José Van Dam, and only presented live once, in Germany in 2019 – and this is an opera written more than 100 years ago! The presentation in the spring feels as if it will be a new creation itself, in a way.

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

You mentioned Van Dam, who indeed is part of the recording of Guercœur  – can you describe his influence? 

When I was in the Conservatoire we listened to a lot of his CDs and everyone liked his voice very much. And though we don’t have the same repertoire really, he was the type of artist I wanted to become when I was young. I first met him over twenty years ago when we did Saint François d’Assise in Germany – I was so impressed to be onstage with him. At that time I was singing the role of Frère Léon, the novice of St. François. There’s a moment in the first scene of the opera where François talks with Léon about different things; in the staging Van Dam was next to me, with his arm around me, so our bodies were basically in contact from shoulders to the knee. When he sang I could feel the vibrations – from shoulder to the knee. That was a non-talking lesson, maybe the best one I ever had, and I thought, okay, this is singing; singing is not only involving the mouth – it’s the whole body. That was such an emotional moment. I’ve worked with him since, and we have a great confidence with each other.

I’m very lucky and happy he asked me to replace him at the Chapel. We don’t really talk about this but I can feel we have the same sort of way of doing things, of approaching the music, of being onstage. I’ve seen him teaching there; he doesn’t say much, but does speak about text, diction, language, and that one should be right about the vowels – those small but important details. They’re the key, and I totally agree with him. I’ve always perceived Van Dam as a very calm person, with his feet planted on the earth, that it all comes naturally. I’m also this kind of person, I think – earthy – so yes, it is a special connection indeed.

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot
Gavin Friday, catholic, artist, Dublin, artist, musician, The Virgin Prunes

Gavin Friday: “I’m Interested In Telling Stories”

Everyone comes to Peter And The Wolf in their own way, but there’s a good chance many may now be introduced to the Prokofiev classic through a new animated short. Reimagining a beloved Russian classic is no small thing, but such bold creativity seems par for the course if one considers the man behind its realization.

Musician, actor, painter, performer, producer, poet, muse; it’s impossible to put Gavin Friday in a box, and one suspects that’s just how he likes things. The Irish artist, a founder of avant-garde band The Virgin Prunes and an accomplished solo musician, spent the better part of the 2020 pandemic lockdown thinking about wolves, family, one little boy – and how the drawings of a longtime childhood friend could work with all of it. That friend is, as many know, Bono, someone with whom he has maintained a decades-long connection which began in North Dublin in the mid 1970s. Born Fionan Hanvey, he met Bono (Paul Hewson) and future Virgin Prunes colleague Guggi (Derek Rowen) at a house party in his teens. The Virgin Prunes (active between 1977 and 1986) were a thing apart in Dublin – and elsewhere, really– with The Irish Times describing the band in 2022 as  “right in the middle of grand guignol performance art, melodic lucidity, and hard-as-nails post-punk“; their daringly theatrical presentations and fusion of genres set Friday up for an assortment of future creative pursuits. Following his time with the band Friday released four solo albums, with many respective tracks strongly influenced by the work of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg: Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves (1989); Adam ‘n’ Eve (1992); Shag Tobacco (1995), and catholic (2011). He’s held art exhibitions, sound installations, and contributed to numerous film scores and soundtracks, including Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father (1993), The Boxer (1997), and In America (2003). In 2005 Friday acted opposite Cillian Murphy in Breakfast On Pluto, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s 1998 novel of the same name, and in 2007 contributed music to McCabe’s theatre piece The Revenant, which opened that year’s Galway Arts Festival.

2007 also saw Friday also work with English composer Gavin Bryars on a new version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets together with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North, a project he referenced more than once through the course of a recent conversation. Other collaborators have included Quincy Jones, Hal Willner (the latter produced Friday’s first two solo albums), post-punk artists Mark E. Smith, Dave Ball, and members of The Talking Heads, electronic music artists Howie B. and Atonalist, as well as Sinead O’Connor, whom he recently eulogized in a year-end special for The Observer (sister paper to The Guardian). Perhaps most famously, Friday has acted as longtime creative consultant to U2 (he calls himself their “midwife“), notably within the realm of their ambitious live presentations.

And then there is Peter And The Wolf, the legendary Prokofiev work of which Friday is a longtime fan. Originally commissioned in early 1936 by Natalya Sats, director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow, the story revolves around a boy who lives with his grandfather and eventually traps a wolf with the help of forest-dwelling friends. The work premiered in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory that same year, with its American premiere presented in 1938. Friday had narrated a formal orchestral presentation in Dublin in the early 2000s; that performance morphed into a book-and-CD project (published by Bloomsbury) in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation in 2003, with musical rearrangement by Friday and longtime collaborator Maurice Seezer and artwork by Bono. Resemblances between the fairytale world of Peter and the Hewson clan were not, as Friday shared recently, accidental, and are most pronounced via the character of Grandfather, sketched in the book and the new animated short as Bono’s own father, Bob Hewson, who had been under the hospice’s care until his passing from cancer in 2001.

The new project, produced by BMG and animation studio Blink Industries, brings the drawings to poetic life with thoughtful narrative expansions and moments of true, unfiltered joy. There’s a sometimes fine but important difference between cute and contemplative, childish and childlike, and the thirty-minute work, directed by Stephen McNally and Elliot Dear, gets the balance just right. The musical rearrangement recalls the angular sounds of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Krzysztof Penderecki; it is an intelligent fusion of spiky textures, careful momentum, and Prokofiev’s folkloric melodicism. Connecting it all is Friday’s warm narration, injected with alternating doses of tension and tenderness. His accompanying song for the project, “There’s Nothing To Be Afraid Of“, is a touching (and very earworm-worthy) epilogue. This new Peter And The Wolf is as much a band-aid to sorrow as a pure hymn to happiness, a tribute to Prokofiev’s original and an ambitious broadening of the parameters binding its long-known universe. It is also a testament to the incredible breadth of Friday’s ambitions and talents. Released in October on the streaming platform MAX in North America and comes with a new book as well as a soundtrack in CD and vinyl formats. Peter And The Wolf airs on Irish national broadcaster RTE One on December 25th.

Between promoting the new Peter And The Wolf short, mixing his much-anticipated new album (working title: Ecce Homo), and overseeing the remastering and re-release of works by The Virgin Prunes, Friday is a busy man who seems more inspired and curious than ever. Might opera – in some form or fashion – be in Friday’s future? He isn’t talking, but Peter And The Wolf certainly cements his position as a go-to man for all things musicodramatitheatre. One can hardly wait for Friday’s next act.

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A frame from Peter And the Wolf. Photo: Blink Industries

How did this version of Peter And The Wolf come about?

The piece it’s based on celebrated its 20th anniversary this past autumn – that book-and-CD project did really well and we put it to bed, though there was a suggestion of animating it at some stage. About five years ago we got the rights to the recording back and I thought, “Wow, we should re-release this, stream it, look after it.” At the same time, (BMG’s UK President, Repertoire & Marketing) Alistair Norbury rang me up asking, “Is there a new Gavin Friday album coming? Or would you be interested in doing some re-releases?” We met in London and I mentioned getting the music rights back, and he said, “Why don’t we look at animating it?” We set up a few meetings and the animators we embraced the most belonged to a British company called Blink Industries. Then we went back to the Irish Hospice Foundation; since it was created for them originally, it would be so again.

What was the biggest challenge?

To try and animate Bono’s drawings was really the big conundrum; I didn’t want them to be overly nice or homogenized. I wanted them to have a punky aesthetic, that same scratched-up look as the book. Bono said, “Look, you curate them, and once it’s to your taste, I’ll give it my blessing.” So we started developing characters and came up with a little five-minute trailer, like a demo, and we went around to a few companies, and HBO fell in love with it. And we started meetings with them – but just around then, as we started getting going, lockdown came in and the whole world went into quietness. HBO said, “We can still start development via Zoom, so why don’t we?” Also we had a great team at HBO – which since became MAX – but they did remind us that twenty years ago was a different world so we’d have to edit the words in the old text, since it has Dublinese nuances and influences.

Going back to the early 2000s: how did the very first project transpire?

I had been working with the Irish Hospice Foundation for the last 25 years – they came and asked me for innovative stuff for charity rather than simply, “Here’s a daffodil; here’s a calendar” – we have done various projects together including cards and books and so on. At one stage they told me about a children’s orchestra in the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts and how they’d love to do something with me for charity, and I said, “Why don’t we do Peter And The Wolf?” That’s how it started. As you know Prokofiev wrote this in 1936 for children; the instruments of the orchestra are meant to be characters. And everyone knows the story…

I’ve introduced students to it through the years and nearly all of them have never heard of it.

Really?! Maybe it’s because I’m European so I know it – it’s a Russian fairytale but everyone I know is aware of and loves it!

Peter And The Wolf, Prokofiev, HBO, Max, BMG, Blink Industries, Gavin Friday, animation, Bono, short, forest

A frame from Peter And the Wolf. Photo: Blink Industries

What’s your very first memory of Peter And The Wolf? 

I heard Danny Kaye’s version – it was one of my aunt’s vinyls. But I’d heard it being played on the radio and things like the Proms and other specials; the BBC are quite good at classical. But I really woke up to it with David Bowie’s version, though I didn’t actually like that one! But the overall idea, yes, I love the gothic-ness of the story, the wolf and all that. So when it came to me performing it with this orchestra, it was a straightforward, live presentation with student musicians. We did it at the concert hall and it was a success. After that I wondered about doing our own arrangement. You know how, when you jump into something that’s new, or not-entirely new to you, you really really go for it? Whether it’s Stravinsky or whatever, you just go, “Oh Jesus, so much to learn! So much to listen to! So much to read!” – maybe too much! It happened when I was working with Gavin Bryars for the first time on the sonnets. With Shakespeare I had done this (gives middle finger) all my life – I think that’s an Irish thing – but when you read the sonnets you go, “Oh my Jesus, this guy’s a genius! Why haven’t I been reading this all my life?! Oh but wait, it’s so bloody much to learn…!”

So that obsessive streak happened with Peter And The Wolf?

… yes, I got very obsessive. I got hold of every version I possibly could. I think I have about 40 different recordings of it now; the Dame Edna one is brilliant, but one of my big favourites is by Sean Connery – what a gorgeous voice. When I did it with the orchestra in Dublin I did notice that the kids weren’t terribly interested, though – well, they were interested in my story, and how I was going into the wolf voice, but the music didn’t entirely engage them, so I thought, “Okay, it’s no longer an interesting thing on its own for kids, it has to be something they want to hear.” So when we went to do the 2003 version I said, “Let’s treat it was a movie score, let’s imagine we’re orchestrating and arranging this for a Tim Burton movie.” We had just started a big Kurt Weill show in Dublin and we were using banjos and horns; I thought maybe we could use them for the rearrangement – like, go punky on it, and so we did. We recorded it in two days in Dublin with some wonderful musicians. We had to send it to Prokofiev’s son for approval – he absolutely loved it – and we met (grandson) Gabriel Prokofiev for drinks as well; he thought it was punky, dangerous, and said, “It’ll get kids listening.” We embraced that; it’s what we wanted. Rather than saying, ‘The bird is the flute, the clarinet is the cat’ we say: this is what music and theatre are. We got the sign-off from the Prokofiev family again for the new animation.

How was that 2003 version realized in 2023?

HBO said they wanted the project and they had no problems with the music. They did want Bono’s voice and I said no, but since he had done the original drawings, I wondered, “How do I get him into this without speaking?” – which is a hard thing, I have to say! (laughs) There’s this old video of Picasso painting in front of a piece of glass, so we used that idea as a prologue; you see Bono painting the wolf and it morphs into Peter in the car, and then he does a little reprise at the end. It makes everyone happy that he’s in it, but without him actually speaking. We also had to change certain points of the story, particularly the ending. There’s a bit of ambiguousness in the original; the wolf is carted off, but where’s he going? Kids especially want to know: did they hurt the wolf? Is he dead? But wait, is the wolf really a “he” or is it a “she” or what? The HBO/Max team asked me and I thought, hmmm…

I reread the 2003 book recently and thought certain phrases probably wouldn’t work today – especially how you describe the wolf going “mental” when he’s caught.

Yes, and that’s a real Dublinism – but it had to be removed. The real thing that tipped my head was the question of why Peter lives with his grandfather. I thought, “Okay, this is for the hospice: his mother died, he’s dealing with loss. He’s coming from his mum’s funeral; you see pictures of her at some point – these are little symbols that say everything.” As to the wolf, well, what is it? Really, it is fear, at its essence. When horrible shit happens, like a parent dying – which is your whole world if you’re a kid – that’s the wolf. So we made Bono’s chalky drawing outside the box; the real wolf is in there, but you only see this white shape, which makes it otherworldly and surreal. It’s how Peter sees the world. We went through the whole process of rewriting and animating for basically a year. I am not a fan of digital animation personally, so all the sets were built, they’re handmade – so small trees, the car is a small car, they made little chairs, and it all mixes with 2D. The result is, I think, very beautiful.

It keeps the theme of the journey to adulthood intact also.

Yes, along this journey Peter befriends his grandfather; the wolf brings them together. It’s making what was an old piece of Russian folklore that Prokofiev put to music into this balm on how to deal with fear and loss. There was a question in terms of the narration; at the start the animators wisely said to me, “You’re taking the persona of the duck and the wolf and speaking the parts, but what about you as a narrator? What are you, exactly?” And they came up with a new character, a fly who hops around and sits on Peter’s shoulder and buzzes around as the wolf is being caught. The fly-narrator is me, this dandy version of Jiminy Cricket.

That inclusion facilitates narrative clarity, but it made me wonder if you’d be open to doing more classical-theatre-type work – I think you’d be perfect for Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Soldat, and Henze’s Aristaeus, for instance.

Well there’s a lot coming from me yet! When lockdown happened this landed on my plate – I was going to mix my album that I am finally mixing now. Peter And The Wolf did become a focus during lockdown, and I just fell in love with it. Building the story and working on the sets, the scripting going on – it was my first really big venture into narrative performance in a public way, and in retrospect it was a beautiful way to get through lockdown. The biggest thing I’ve done other than this is Nothing Like The Sun with Gavin Bryars, who picks it up and tours it every now and again. When I first did it I worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a month, which was hard-going. But people still ask me, why be so theatrical in all of your work? Well, because I’m interested in telling stories – it’s taking a character, it’s acting, having fun. I’m in my 60s, and I think, for f**k’s sakes, I still have a lot of stuff I want to do – when I’m 75 I might not be able to, so now’s the time!

Top photo: Barry McCall
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An Update & An Inspiration (or two)

First things first: I will be teaching in January 2024 after all.

More specifically, I will be leading a class at the University of Guelph Humber on freelancing and small business development for third-year Media & Communications students. Huzzah!

Secondly, calling attention to an article by Alexandra Wilson published recently in The Critic. Wilson is Professor of Music and Cultural History at Oxford Brookes University, and has published extensively on various aspects of opera. (Her 2021 book on Puccini’s La bohème is on my wish-list.) These lines near the end of the article caught me:

Yes, classical music does help mind, body, and soul. But if we make the point of opera its capacity to improve “wellbeing”, or if we sell classical music on its ability to make you better at maths, or indeed if we campaign for the arts on the basis of their contribution to GDP, we have succumbed to a utilitarian mentality. And the problem is that this makes it very much harder to advocate for the arts on their own merits.

This utilitarian mentality greatly (if not solely) contributes to North American perceptions around classical being an “elite” world, an idea I’ve covered here in the past, but hope to write about in more detail soon. It’s inspiring to see Wilson’s words at this point in time – more please!

More seasonally: Journalist Uwe Friedrich recently did a fascinating and detailed comparative of recordings of The Nutcracker for Bavarian broadcaster BR Klassik. It made me especially happy to hear my own personal favorite (by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky) made the list. Very often I explore the idea of ‘evocative sounds’ with my students, what that means, and why to use it; Rozhdestvensky’s 1961 recording with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Bolshoi Theatre Children’s Choir is a perfect example. The conductor beautifully conjures Tchaikovsky’s various sonic landscapes with an alert, alive eye to every fine, delicate detail, and carefully avoids the far-too-easy showiness of the score while leaning into the vibrant textures inherent within its hypnotic melodicism.

Finally: thanks to everyone far and wide for the kind wishes for my birthday yesterday (the 14th). When people ask me my age now, this is the exact face I’m going to pull:

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

My interview with Gavin Friday about the new version of Peter And The Wolf is coming next week; stay tuned and stay warm.

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