Category: interviews Page 1 of 13

Jonathan Tetelman, tenor, singer, opera, classical, vocalist, music

Jonathan Tetelman: Controlling The Intensity

Never mind how to get to Carnegie Hall; how do you get to The Met?

Jonathan Tetelman might give the traditional answer (practice) before adding that knowing how to work a crowd helps. The tenor, who spent time as a DJ in New York City’s busy club scene, was known for dropping beats before he dropped his turntables to devote himself to opera full-time. Critical acclaim, a multi-album deal with classical super-label Deutsche Grammophon, and oodles of love from besotted fans posting in opera groups on both sides of the Atlantic – Tetelman balances them all with flair, care, and a very clear nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic.

Born in Chile and raised in New Jersey, the tenor began his opera journey joining his grandparents on trips to numerous live cultural events in and around the Tri-state area. In 2011 he got his undergraduate degree at The Manhattan School of Music and began a graduate program at The New School of Music, Mannes College – believing he was a baritone. The move to New York nightlife at the time was the result of sheer frustration with having to move his vocal register up to where he was told it belonged. This past April Tetelman told AP’s Ronald Blum that telling people about his opera side was also a way of reminding himself it was still there. “I kept saying to people, ‘You know, I’m a DJ, but I’m actually an opera singer.’ And the more I said it, the more I was like: ’Am I really an opera singer?’”

The DJ work at a variety of celebrated NYC venues (including Webster Hall and the much-missed Pacha) taught him the all-important skill of taking an audience’s temperature at any given moment. Amidst the club mayhem, Tetelman gave himself six months to return to opera; it proved to be a wise choice. Cultivating his vocal technique as a tenor led to an opportunity to sing the role of Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème at Fujian Grand Theatre in China, a role he would come to become known for. A performance in the opera at English National Opera followed, and then a succession of engagements. He made his Covent Garden debut with both Puccini (as Rodolfo) and Verdi (Alfredo in La traviata). In Italy he performed as Cavaradossi in Tosca and Canio in Pagliacci with Teatro Regio Torino; in France, Puccini’s Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly with Opéra national de Montpellier and Cavaradossi with Opéra de Lille. Tetelman has also sung the lead in Massenet’s Werther with both the Gran Teatro Nacional de Lima (Peru) and Opera del Teatro Solis (Montevideo), and performed in Germany at the Komische Oper Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Dresden Semperoper. He sang lead in Verdi’s Stiffelio with Opéra national du Rhin in 2021, with Opera-Online’s Thibault Vicq noting that “(c)e n’est pas tous les jours qu’une telle sculpture de chant se devine et se dévoile en des émotions si justes, constructives et dévastatrices.” / “It’s not every day that such a sculpture of song is revealed and expressed in such accurate, constructive and devastating emotions.”

Tetelman’s concert appearances include performances in Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and, as well as giving a number of international recitals, has worked with celebrated conductors including Michael Tilson Thomas, Andris Nelsons, Dan Ettinger, and Speranza Scappucci. His first album, Arias (Deutsche Grammophon, 2022), showed the breadth of his talent in terms of Italian and French repertoire; it won the Oper Magazine Awards for Best Solo Album of the Year, 2023, the same year he was honoured with an Opus Klassik Award as Break-out Artist of the Year. Tetelman’s second album, The Great Puccini (Deutsche Grammophon, 2023) features selections from nine different Puccini works, with the Prague Philharmonie and conductor Carlo Rizzi also joined, on various tracks, by sopranos Federica Lombardi, Marina Monzó, and Vida Miknevičiūtė; mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb; baritone Theodore Platt; and bass Önay Köse. The album underlines Tetelman’s reputation as a singer of considerable intensity and lyricism. In her review for BBC’s Classical Music magazine, Puccini scholar Alexandra Wilson praises Tetelman’s “nuanced approach to characterisation”, singling out album opener “Donna non vidi mai” (from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut) as “ardent and expansive, vowels strikingly warm and open, strings effectively foregrounded.”

Tetelman made his much-anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut this past spring, as Ruggero in La rondine (opposite soprano Angel Blue) and Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly (opposite soprano Asmik Grigorian), and more Puccini is in store next season, starting with Madame Butterfly at Los Angeles Opera. From there, Tetelman will be performing in a concert presentation of Tosca with the acclaimed Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Spring 2025 sees the tenor performing with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Music Director Kirill Petrenko; the orchestra’s annual residency at Baden Baden (followed by performances on home turf at the Philharmonie) sees Tetelman singing Pinkerton opposite soprano Eleonora Buratto’s Butterfly in a production by Davide Livermore. Next season also sees performances of works by Bizet, Mascagni, and Verdi, as well as the concert version of Werther at Deutsche Oper Berlin, with Tetelman in the title role opposite soprano Aigul Akhmetshina’s Charlotte.

When he spoke recently the tenor was taking a brief if deserved break. No divo this, he happily shared his thoughts on everything from future opera goals to his many past club-life lessons. The earthy combination of talent, confidence, intelligence, ambition, humility, humour, and obvious music love make Tetelman a figure worth watching. Of course he knows how to drop the beat – and raise the bar, at once, with great style.

Jonathan Tetelman, tenor, singer, opera, classical, vocalist, music

Photo: Ben Wolf

What was the very first opera you attended?

I think it was Carmen, at the old New York City Opera. I also saw Porgy and Bess when I was very young, but Carmen was the first opera that inspired me to be a singer. I was maybe 10 years old. I used to see a lot of musicals too – my grandparents would take me all the time. We saw Guys and Dolls, Smokey Joe’s Café, Annie Get Your Gun, The Lion King, Annie – dozens of things.

What initially drew you to Puccini’s music? 

I would say the initial draw was not that I necessarily liked Puccini, but that it was what I performed in my very first experience in singing a full-length opera as a professional tenor. Learning the role was the way I was hooked in – that’s what Puccini does if you pay a little bit of attention; he gives you such a lot to work with. I really think that it was luck that I had this opportunity. I actually didn’t really enjoy Puccini when I saw his operas at The Met in my younger days – I preferred Mozart. I think Puccini is really kind of a specialized type of opera; everything is happening quickly in many of his works, and you can grab onto the music easily but at the same time it’s not as flexible as other operas. I want to say also: I think the situations in his operas are very adult.

Carlo Rizzi was instrumental in expanding my own Puccini appreciation; have your colleagues provided similar “aha!” moments with his music?

Oh yes… I think probably countless times! I think every time I do his operas now, even revisiting them, I find something I missed before. You know, the opera industry now is so quick; you don’t have the time, like singers once did, to really find your way through a characterization, or to find the musical meaning that you want to put into the opera, at least until after you’re given the opportunity to do it a few times. We are on this kind of rush to everything these days, but Puccini really requires a lot of attention – and it’s not just about knowing your part, but really knowing the orchestration, the other characters, the other situations that are happening alongside your own situation. It takes a long time to develop the character, and then to develop a characterization vocally which supports that idea, and then to find the different vocal colours.

Moving Between Operas & Recitals

You noted in a past interview that vocal colour can’t be manufactured; what role do recitals play in your vocal development?

I was just talking to my wife about this the other day, and noting the difference between Jon the Recitalist versus Jon the Opera Singer, how the flexibility you have in a recital, whether with a pianist or orchestra, is really based upon what you’re doing with your voice and how you’re really transmitting the text. In a recital you don’t have a set, you don’t have costumes, you don’t have these other things; I feel like I can be so deeply connected to the music in that kind of space. Opera is about creating and exploring various situations, and to be honest, it’s a lot louder! There’s this very heavy-volume aspect of the opera versus the realities of a recital. Also, you’re really singing to the audience in a concert or recital, rather than in the opera, where you’re supposed to be singing to the ensemble because you’re telling a story and you’re projecting and conveying that particular story; you’re not singing specifically to the audience. That’s a big difference.

What kinds of things do you bring from one world to the other?

I think in opera, if you have a collaborative conductor who really knows the score and understands your interpretation and perspective, and respects your interpretation and wants to build that interpretation, then you have flexibility to bring things from your recital work. However, I don’t know if there’s so many of these types of maestros around; everybody has their own thoughts and approaches, and everyone has things that they want to get across. If you’re in a situation where you don’t have a lot of rehearsals or a lot of time to prepare with a specific conductor, then the experience is a sort of crapshoot, though a very highly calculated one. It takes time to really figure out the important parts that you really want to highlight in order to serve the characterization and the vocalization. Focus on those specific things in that moment.

Aside from Puccini you have also done (and will be doing more) Verdi – what’s the attraction for you?

I haven’t done many Verdi roles, but the ones that I’ve done, what I like is that you’re not really confined to a moment in time; you’re kind of suspending that moment with the voice. It’s a very different approach than with someone like Puccini where everything is moving forwards. Verdi is much more letting the music kind of propel the things that happen dramatically, even as his music digs into character a little deeper. I like that.

How does that love of character inform your recital work, and what kind of repertoire are you exploring – especially composers whose works you may want to do on the opera stage?

That’s a very good question! I’m in search of answers for that right now; I certainly would like to do something like Schubert’s Winterreise, as well as works by various German romantic composers, including some Brahms songs. Right now I think I have a very substantial volume to my voice, so for me to hold back is actually harder than to give more. Right now I’m figuring out how – and this is actually for Verdi too – how to control the intensity that I have naturally. I think with time and a little bit more experience those (composers) will definitely become possible.

Big Beats, Big Broadcasts

That awareness of pacing is important and I wonder how much your work as a DJ helped to develop it… 

Whether DJing or in recitals you’re making setlists and figuring out whether the crowd is into you or not – you’re listening for which tracks are the hot tracks; what introductory things you can offer to set a mood; what gets people going or cools them off. There are things that I have to do – and I know that – so in a recital, I sing some hits, and along with those I offer a few things most of the crowd may not have heard. Then I also show the progression in my own skills, and try to present things that I hope are coming in the future. There are certainly a lot of similarities (between DJing and recitals), because they’re both performance-based; one of them is just your voice and that’s a little more challenging! Singing is definitely harder than doing DJ work, but at the end of the day… the point is that you want to move people, and you want people to come out of the hall feeling something, whether they liked it or not. You want them to have some sort of emotional reaction to what you’re doing.

The Met Live in HD series brings a different kind of a challenge there; you can’t see audience reaction at all. What’s your view?

Doing these HD things, I really don’t even think about it as, like, a performance for broadcast. I’m an opera singer: I’m going to sing for the theatre; I’m going to act for the theatre. If you want to capture it on video and critique the video part of the opera, then you’re missing the point of what opera really is. Opera is really for the people that bought a ticket and sat in that seat and came for that expression on that day. There are things about The Met Live In HD that are positive, of course, but overall I think that if you want to hear an opera, you have to go to the opera house, end of story. That’s the only way that opera is going to retain its value as a live art form. Otherwise, we could just call Netflix and say, “Hey, you know, can we get some studio time for Madame Butterfly?” I mean, yeah, right – but in that case you’re not doing an opera anymore; you’re doing a movie. People don’t necessarily have to pick a lane here, but you have to know which lane is more important than the other, especially as an artist.

The Future(s)?

Jonathan Tetelman, tenor, singer, opera, classical, vocalist, music, seaside

Photo: Ben Wolf

You have named various Strauss roles as roles you’d like to do in future; why Strauss? 

I think Strauss would suit my voice very well. The writing for the tenor is an extreme challenge – it’s very demanding – but I think that my voice has a lot of the positive intensity in the tessitura that Strauss writes for. Puccini is wonderful, but I think Puccini is a lot of conversational singing. It’s a lot of “Let’s get through this and then finally there’s an aria.”

My mother used to say just that!

It’s true! There’s a lot of conversation with Puccini. With Strauss, some of the roles I’d like to do – like Apollo (from Strauss’s Daphne), I mean that’s a very intense role; you really have to be on for it. That’s just the kind of music I really like to do and hope to do. I don’t want to waste my voice; I want to be out there in the sweet vocal spot the whole time, and (Apollo) is a role that I’m really looking forward to doing, hopefully sooner than later.

I keep hearing you as The Tenor in Rosenkavalier as well…

That’s a good one too!

Returning to theatre: I’m curious what you think live art, including opera, can offer people in 2024, a moment in time when so many are staring at little screens.

Opera is really a safe haven for your mind, I think. You might be stuck in this difficult world facing really difficult things, and you can go to an opera or a symphony, and just listen and escape it all for a while, and then find your own world inside the music. That’s what’s so wonderful about going to live music and theatre: you fall into a world that doesn’t exist, but one that can exist in your mind. I think the whole experience is special.

Top photo: Ben Wolf
Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brindley Sherratt, Julius Drake, singer, piano, voice, recording, Henry Wood Hall, singing, Fear No More, performing arts, opera, classical, song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being Pushed

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

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

Brindley Sherratt, Julius Drake, singer, piano, voice, recording, Henry Wood Hall, singing, Fear No More, performing arts, opera, classical, song

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

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

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

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

Does that include your recital work?

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

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

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

Keeping The Voice “As Fresh As Possible”

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

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

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

What role does teaching play?

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

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

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

A second album?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kai Hinrich Müller

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

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

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

Goethe Institut, New York, Opera & Democracy, series, arts, music, culture, history, audience, opera, performing arts, ideas

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

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

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

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

How did you choose the lineup of guests and events?

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

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

Connecting the past & the present

Opera & Democracy, performance, stage, music, opera, arts, culture, Dresden, live

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invest in education

Kai Hinrich Müller, Thomas Mann House, Opera & Democracy, scholar, series, Los Angeles, music, opera, performance, theatre, lecture, ideas

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

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

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

What are you bringing back to the classroom then?

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

Where do unknown composers fit in with the series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Stephen K. Mack

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

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

How so?

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

Beautiful vs. “beautiful”

How have you adjusted vocally?

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

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

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

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

“The sounds feel new”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happiness = Many Sounds

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

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

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

How important has social media been to this expansion?

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

Do you feel like ambassadors for vocal music?

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

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

Top photo: Stephen K. Mack
André Barbe, Renaud Doucet, designer, director, dramaturg, opera, production, artists, performing arts, culture

Barbe & Doucet: “Opera Is Entirely About Collaboration”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do budget cuts to opera mean changes to your work?

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

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

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

Which is… ?

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

Tall Poppies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So maybe a little bit of Tall Poppy Syndrome?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precision & Freedom

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

Photo via IMG Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subtle Art Of Being Funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

So would you call it an opera buffa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early nights are wonderful… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

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

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

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

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

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

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

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

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

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

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

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

Gatekeeping In Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling As Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

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

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

“Consistent and determined”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
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
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
Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

Alexander Neef: “The Essence Of Theatre Is To Engage In A Dialogue”

History can be many things, but mostly, and especially within the classical arts, it is heavy. Alexander Neef, General Director of the Opéra national de Paris (OnP), is aware of this weight, yet he views it as a rich inspiration. The German administrator, who was the company’s Casting Director from 2004 to 2008 before becoming General Director of the Canadian Opera Company for twelve years, came to his current position in autumn 2020, much earlier than planned and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It proved the first of many adversities managing one of the opera world’s most celebrated and storied institutions, one which has been known as much for its variety of names as for its trials and tribulations in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Those challenges, particularly since 2020, are very real: financial pressures, strikes, accusations of racism, the sudden resignation of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Where there is strife, however, there is also hope. This past March saw French-Senegalese OnP ballet dancer Guillaume Diop join the company’s coveted “Etoile” (star) category; he is the first Black artist to achieve the top rank. In 2020 Diop had co-authored a manifesto (“On The Racial Question in Opera”) which criticized discrimination within the organization. Neef, as you’ll read, took these concerns seriously, and met them with his own initiatives. A report commissioned by the company in February 2021 stated that diversity was seriously lacking, with Diversity Referent Myriam Mazouzi (who is also Director of the OnP Academy, a training ground for young artists) underlining the need for the company to “get out of our walls” and “open up our recruitment channels, otherwise we always have the same profiles and we become poorer.” To facilitate this opening, the company embarked on an ambitious initiative in French Guyana in 2022 to encourage and promote local talent. L’Opéra en Guyane works in close collaboration with Guyanese cultural institutions and includes all training in voice and dance as well as set design and makeup. The program ran this past October and November, and will return to Guyana again in March 2024, with its development being chronicled in a documentary series on POP (Paris Opera Play), the company’s dedicated streaming platform.

POP itself is impressive, hosting an immense and ever-updated archive of anytime-is-a-good-time (read: audience-friendly) viewing which includes all aspects of OnP’s considerable output: ballet, orchestral concerts, and opera (with subtitles available in English and French), as well as backstage documentaries, masterclasses, and artist interviews. The platform is the realization of the company’s earlier foray into video streaming, l’Opéra chez soi, launched just after Neef’s arrival in December 2020, and elegantly demonstrates a commitment to something beyond sexy opera branding, an overused aspect within the current classical-marketing landscape which mostly involves substance-free clickbait and/or posts (whether on social media or websites proper) with plenty of seemingly intellectual finery but ultimately bereft of the humanity and depth their subjects demand. POP runs counter to this trend; a thoughtful and accessible platform, its user-friendly design and wide range of subject matter implies a trust to let its users decide for themselves what is sexy – or intriguing, provocative, challenging, entertaining, engaging.

The platform’s launch happened almost concurrently to news of OnP joining forces with behemothic streaming giant Apple Music Classical. Along with playlists and previews, the channel features two special sections, curated by José Martinez, Director of Dance, and Neef, respectively. As noted in Van Magazine this past August, OnP has proven remarkably adept at attracting the ever-important young audiences, with all of these initiatives demonstrating a deeply intelligent stance in attracting younger people (although €10 tickets can’t hurt either). ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre) takes things one step further. The company’s first French young lyric orchestra works in direct partnership with eleven different French conservatoires and provides opportunities for apprenticeships and performances on the main stage of the Bastille, the more modern of the company’s two spaces, the other being the famed Garnier. Each space comes, of course, with its own particular set of heavy histories.

Amidst all this – whither music? Gluck, Lully, Rameau, Cherubini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Thomas, Halévy, Stravinsky, Messiaen: a partial list of composers who have enjoyed historic premieres with the Opéra and a veritable who’s who of classical music history, albeit a lineup some may perceive as creaky in 2023. Those names, however, sit comfortably beside contemporary ones including Adams, Adés, Saariaho, Kurtág, as well as acclaimed modern directors like Lydia Steier, Kirill Serebrennikov, Wajdi Mouawad, and Barrie Kosky. Ballet is an equally intriguing mix of traditional (Nureyev, Ashton) and modern (Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián). Navigating the shifting classical landscape of the 21st century, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape, is scary business for any house, requiring a good deal of confidence in both institution and audiences, and a willingness to push the expectations and boundaries of both. The ambitiousness of Neef’s plans combined with an ever-smart approach to programming and production means audiences can expect slightly more than polite visions of familiar (or even unfamiliar) territory.

In our last exchange in 2020, conducted when he was still in Toronto, Neef emphasized a need for the new; in 2023 Paris, there is a broader if no less compelling view. Nothing quite new, as Roman statesman Cicero noted in Brutus, is perfect. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, particularly at a time when the opera world feels more divided than ever, as much by geographies and money as by ideologies and history. But history is, like the future, only heavy without the muscles  – and the brains – to bear it; Alexander Neef has both, and then some.

When we last spoke you mused on the role of so-called “safe” repertoire and audience fatigue; has time in Paris altered your views?

I don’t think so. One of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is to consider the thinking process around what do we do here. We are called the Paris National Opera; we have an obligation for specificity in the planning and programming, but also we have to ask what is our identity and how do we express via our programming? I think there are some very simple principles that have come from that question, and they are referenced in our programming now. First we have to take care of our own repertoire , which is a very large repertoire and includes all the pieces created at the Paris Opera and predecessor organizations over the centuries. That’s why you’ll find one or two productions which represent our house repertoire , if you want – Charpentier’s Médée, for instance. There’s a very rich variety to choose from. The other aspect is pieces which we have not premiered here specifically but which are part of French repertoire – works which are not in our repertoire currently which we are bringing back, like what we’ve done with Cendrillon, Faust, Romeo et Juliet, also Massenet’s Don Quichotte which we are presenting later this season. We are one of the biggest companies in the world, so yes, there is a standard repertoire.

The last part of this, which is also important for identity, is 20th and 21st century repertoire. The priority is not necessarily commissioning – as you know it takes time for those pieces to be developed – but to look at successful pieces of the very recent past and bring them to the Paris Opera, like Kurtág’s Fin de partie in the 21-22 season, or The Exterminating Angel, which we’ll do later this season. With Angel it’s also the first new production after the world premiere that we’ll be doing. All that is a very deliberate attempt to bring those pieces to the repertoire by presenting them often, which means if someone has created something great and we think it’s great, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t present it here just because we haven’t commissioned it. We have a couple co-commissions coming up; one we did with Festival D’Aix is coming to us soon; another, a substantial piece at La Scala, will be presented in Italian there and then come here later in French.

So to circle back to your original question, when we do the revivals of the standard or even the new productions, we try to bring people to the company who hadn’t sung here before and create a relationship of trust with the audience; even though they might not know all the names on the playbill, they can expect it will be a quality proposal. We just had Tamara Wilson onstage here – she had sung Turandot in Toronto in 2019. It was highlighted (in Paris) because Sondra (Radvanovsky) had to cancel the run and Tammy was slotted into the opening. People were like, “Who is this Turandot I’ve never heard of?” – but now everybody knows who Tamara Wilson is. Sometimes we have to have the confidence and trust to just do the things we feel are right.

House identity is something I’ve considered a lot this year. You told the New York Times in 2021 that when you were hiring a diversity officer that you wanted to put on “opera and ballet by 21st century artists for 21st century audiences” – what role has that diversity initiative played in house identity?

We’re lucky in Paris, the debate around diversity is much less charged than in North America. I say that without criticism of what’s going on in America, but it does create an opportunity here to get things done more quickly because we’re not in conflict but in a spirit of working together. One of the things that happened concurrent to BLM (Black Lives Matter), I was still in Toronto, confined in my kitchen then, but already appointed to take over in Paris, was that we decided to commission a diversity report for my arrival. At the same time a group of artists and other employees of colour in the company reached out and said, “We want to talk to you, we want to know how you feel about this issue.” They wrote a manifesto which was published in August 2020, when I was almost there – though I wasn’t supposed to be, I was supposed to arrive a year later – but at that time we had an initiative coming from the incoming leadership and the employees. There was a base of discussion which was almost immediate because we did not need to get over a steep mountain of conflict. We now have an advisory committee who meet regularly with staff but also with people from outside the opera, where we discuss all issues related to our repertoire and performances, as well as recruitment practices and so on. The discussions are all evolving.

We also started a big education outreach project in French Guyana with two main purposes, one of them to just run one of our established outreach programs for young people there but also to find talent, mostly for dance, but also for singing and instruments in the long run, people can be trained to reach the levels of excellence we would have to expect of the artists who perform here.

“If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it.”


What role does the newly-created ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre – Learning the Orchestra) play in all this?

It’s too early to say yet, it’s just started; we’ve had two or three weekends when they’ve been together so far. But I think it’s in the same spirit. Today in France most musicians are the sons and daughters of other musicians – they get into the field or some form of arts environment early on and there are few obstacles if they want to learn to sing or play an instrument. Our challenge is to open up the pipeline, to create a larger pipeline, different pipelines, because one of the crucial issues of recruitment is that if you always look in the same spots and at the same people you’ll always find the same thing. The moment you open up and look at things a bit more broadly, there will be different talent. And all of this is not part of any ideology, but it’s more if I can say, the perennial nature of our art form: yes, what we do is opera and ballet for 21st century artists by 21st century artists. If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it. The imminent challenge for the repertoire is obviously finding people who are trained to perform it at our level, and who may also say, “We still want to sing Don Giovanni or Don Carlo, or dance Swan Lake or Giselle.” It’s for everybody to find themselves in what we do, on the performers’ side just as much as the audience’s side.

Alexandra Wilson recently wrote at The Critic that “It is not opera’s job to do social work.” I wonder what you make of that with relation to your various initiatives.

I think what we benefit from and use to our advantage, since we have a strong critical mass for culture in France but especially in Paris, is that we use our cultural weight to be heard, to be seen. What I’ve discovered being here is that whatever we do there is a lot of attention; when I commissioned the diversity report it was like a signal. We can put the subject on the map. So we try to do that quite deliberately now, to choose the subjects we want to talk about in order to get them the visibility we can, in our position, provide.

La Vestale, with Lydia Steier directing, may or may not make the world a better place, but it does seem like an interesting symbol of where the company is at now.

That’s fair, but like I said before: if we want to do the repertoire which has a reputation of being difficult to realize onstage, then we will tell it our way. La Vestale has certain formalisms the audiences of today are not quite familiar with today, so it’s vital to find not only one artist but a group of artists to say, “We want to defend this repertoire for an audience of today and we actually want to tell a story.” Whatever we do, whether it’s more or less traditional – even though one doesn’t know what that exactly is – or completely out-there avant-garde, it’s a reading of a piece, because we cannot not offer readings of pieces. We have to hire a cast, a director, and a conductor to read the piece for us; it’s not all there in the score and they just have to do what’s written. It would be an oversimplification to think that. We need people who actually do it. Otherwise we can sit with the score and read it, which is a more personal and private thing, but there is no unalterable truth that will always be the same. That’s why we still keep working on repertoire both recent and old – things like Médée, which we’re doing since the first time we created it in 1693.

Does that history feel heavy at points?

I find it rather exhilarating, I have to say, because there is a richness and also a high responsibility for this repertoire – but also an incredible richness. I find it really quite wonderful there’s that depth to draw from.

“The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one.”


There were very polarized reactions to Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot in Paris recently; do you find yourself having to explain or justify your choices to your audience?

First of all there’s no such thing as The Audience, anywhere. Secondly, and I said it at the COC that we had 2000 people every night; here at the Bastille we have 2700, and a different audience. The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one. You are part of the collective who sits there but you also experience it all for yourself. So of course there will always be audiences who are more conservative and others who are more avant-garde, and then everything in-between. And in the end it’s very simply, “I like / don’t like what I see onstage” – that’s fine. But if we maintain there is not solely one truth in the pieces we present, then there can’t be one opinion, no matter how we present them. Ultimately it’s not about liking or not-liking something but being able to talk about it. The essence of theatre is to engage in a dialogue about what we’ve experienced together onstage. That dialogue is something that’s big in everyday life here, and it can be made richer because of people having a deep cultural routine. I found it was more restricted in Toronto – there I found that even with the variety of choices, people stick to the offers of one cultural organization. I would meet people at cocktail parties and they’d say, “I’m a ballet person” – fine, good, there’s no discrimination – but in Paris there’s a much stronger overall cultural routine which has been in place since early childhood. People don’t feel the need to choose between the ballet or the opera or the museum or the symphony. What keeps fascinating me, and it’s so different culturally, is that they bring kids to the theatre, young kids, on weekdays when there’s school the next day…

My mother did that…

Exactly! People do it because they feel it’s important their child sees this or that. It’s not the last thing you do, but the first thing you do. And I think that regularity with culture changes a person, it sets up a cultural routine. And if it’s diverse it can bring a lot to audiences and people in general. So to go back to your quote about opera’s job, we are not making the world a better place – but maybe through our work we can get people to think about how to make the world a better place.

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


Finally: I have to ask you about your GMD search.

It’s going slowly but surely. Since Gustavo left earlier than he was supposed to, I decided not to jump to fast conclusions because I thought it would be better to use the time, mostly with the musicians of the orchestra, to engage in a real dialogue. That’s something that had been done the last few years but which had been quite disturbed because of the pandemic. Who are the conductors we really like? Who are the people who debuted during covid, maybe not under ideal conditions? Who are people who’ve come once that we want to see again? Who are people we’ve never met but want to meet? So over time let’s say maybe over the course of the season, we come to, or by default, a small list of people we’re interested in – it’s not going to be a list of 25 – between the people who have declared themselves candidates and the people we want to be candidates. Without necessarily formalizing that or having it in the public sphere, I think between the musicians and us, we will have more in-depth discussions about what we want, for the company, for the orchestra; what kind of profile does that person have, the one who comes closest to the ideal? All of which is to say: it’s an ongoing process.

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP

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