Category: voice (Page 1 of 2)

Interview: Singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion In Berlin

Passion Cantus Domus

Performers at the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Easter Weekend inspires reflections on awakenings, growth, a sense of the new and fresh emerging at last. There are a number of works within classical music that deal directly with Easter, Handel’s Messiah being perhaps the most famous (programming it over the Christmas season is forever a pet peeve), but just as equally Bach’s Passions, which are widely presented and performed in halls across Europe in the weeks and months leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.

During a trip to Berlin earlier this month, I attended a very special performance of St. Matthew Passion, one which asked something more than solitary contemplation; rather, the Baroque work conjured unique meditations on the convergence of heaven and earth, sound and silence, spirit and flesh, through the act of actually singing it. Cantus Domus, a choral group based in Berlin who specialize in conceptual presentations, have a number of illustrious performances under their belts, performing an array of repertoire that spans from the Renaissance to today.  Formed in 1996, the group has performed works by Bizet, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Bach, and have also enjoyed numerous appearances at the annual German open-air music fest Haldern Pop Festival. Lets you think they only work within the classical idiom, think again: Cantus Domus have collaborated with a good number of contemporary music artists including Bon Iver, The Slow Show, and most famously, Damien Rice. For the recent presentation of St. Matthew Passion, they worked with renowned period instrument troupe Capella Vitalis Berlin, creating a community event in which the act of singing became a salute to its original presentation, as well as a beautiful way of fusing theatricality with spirituality.

Bach portrait

Johann Sebastian Bach, aged 61, in a famous portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann. (Photo via)

The Passion, written in 1727, was, as conductor and musicologist  Joshua Rifkin rightly notes, “the longest and most elaborate work that (Bach) ever composed. It would appear that he saw significant phase of his life drawing to a close and took the occasion to produce a work that would synthesise and surpass all that he had previously done in the realm of liturgical music.” It only began to gain in popularity a full eight decades after Bach’s death (in 1750), thanks to the efforts of a young Felix Mendelssohn, who presented the work in Berlin in 1829. It is one of numerous sacred pieces Bach wrote during his lengthy tenure as director of religious music at Thomaskirsche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. Based on the Gospel of Matthew, Bach worked with poet Christian Friedrich Henrici (known as Picander) for the libretto, which explores the final days of Jesus, ending with Christ’s burial. It features a fascinating interplay of musical writing between four soloists (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass) and orchestra which features, among many creative  musical choices, two lead violins in the string section. “The St. Matthew Passion, the final glory of one of the most productive periods in Bach’s life,” writes Rifkin, “holds a special place in his artistic legacy.”

At the end of February, Cantus Domus held a public rehearsal before the main event, which I attended one cold, bright Saturday morning. This was, I quickly realized, more than a jovial sing-a-long; these were serious music-lovers from every walk of life engaging in what was clearly perceived as an act of commitment and consecration. The act of singing, with a roomful of strangers, in a language I don’t speak, reading music — an act I had long believed to be a thing I wasn’t smart enough to do with any real talent — was a deeply moving one. The formal performance one week later magnified this feeling; sitting in Wisniewski’s wonderfully intimate chamber hall,  encircled by ever-mobile performers and an enthralled public, the music was a communal prayer; the voices of those beside, behind, and around me created transcendence which defies easy description. The strong vibrations of breaths and voices through seats, floors, hands, paper… was strange, shocking, beautiful, and the overall experience was and remains one of the most precious and profound ones of my life.

score St. Matthew Passion

The cover to a special edition of the score to St. Matthew Passion. (Score / photo: Bärenreiter)

I spoke with two people from Cantus Domus earlier this month in Berlin. Ralf Sochaczewsky is conductor and Artistic Director of Cantus Domus; he has a long list of credits to his name in both the classical and contemporary music worlds, including gigs with the Komische Oper, the Bolshoi Theater, the London Philharmonic, and the Konzerthaus Berlin Orchestra. Carolin Rindfleisch is a member of the Cantus Domus board and a singer herself; she came up with the presentation concept for St. Matthew Passion here and was its dramaturge. We had a wide-ranging chat just before rehearsals about the work, its influences, and why presenting it, with a full score but without tricks or gimmicks, opens the door to something very special.

Where did the idea come from to do an interactive performance of  the St. Matthew Passion?

Caroline: We’ve done something like this before, with the St. John Passion in 2014. When Bach wrote the Passions, people knew the chorales very, very well — they were part of daily life; people knew the texts by heart, the melodies by heart. They were musical elements that brought everyone together. Even though people didn’t sing it, they were involved immediately because they knew it so well, and it’s something which is hard to recreate nowadays because most people don’t have this kind of religious involvement or knowledge of texts or melodies with such immediacy anymore. So if you invite them to rehearse with you, and to sing them during the concert, we hope to create the same kind of involvement, which was the original purpose of the chorales.

St. Matthew Passion Bach

A page from the score of St. Matthew Passion in Bach’s own hand. (Photo: via)

This music is associated with a very sacred time on the Christian calendar. What’s it like to bring it into secular world now?

Carolin: I think the focus might shift a bit. Our lives are not focused so much on religion, it’s not part of our daily lives that much — but the story behind (this work) has so many different levels and dimensions, and so many different things people can relate to, even if they can’t relate to the religious aspect of it. It’s also a story of how groups and individuals relate to each other, how people treat each other, how relationships between individuals develop, and what problems there may be. There are so many levels people can relate to. If you ask people to sing the chorales with you, then they have to relate in a different way to the piece — they have to position themselves. If you say something out loud, you can’t distance yourself from it that much anymore, you have to think, “How does this relate to me? What am I singing here?” If you only listen, it’s much easier to cut yourself off from a part that doesn’t agree with your worldview — but if you say it loud yourself, you have to think, “What is my position within this piece?”

Singing is such an intimate act that makes some people self-conscious — they think, “I can’t sing!” and moreover, “I can’t possibly sing Bach!”

Ralf: You will!

What do you think the audience gets out of these kinds of experiences? 

Ralf: We did a similar (singing) project four years ago with the St. John Passion, and what the audience told us after the concert was that they were deeply involved. One woman told me that her relationship to her religion changed because of the reflection and the meditation while singing — it touched her so deeply in a way she couldn’t believe. So I think maybe many people will experience this at a deep level of feeling and believing.

Carolin: It’s not “Look at me singing!” — and even if you don’t want to sing yourself, if people are sitting all around you participating it creates an atmosphere where you can’t but relate to it in a way.

St. Matthew's Passion score

A portion of the program from the Cantus Domus presentation of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

How do you keep the drama within the score? Is it important?

Ralf: Absolutely. I think the person of Judas is maybe the most interesting part in this Passion. When you perform it you have to find a position about the guilt of Judas: is he maybe a hero? Is he maybe the Edward Snowden of this? What the music says and what the libretto says is a bit ambivalent. So we will try to find a solution to make later what Judas means to us, but…

Carolin: The Passions have a lot of changing places, between intimacy and public life. You can make the public experience those different atmospheres by how close you get to them or how much you concentrate the action into one corner, or spread it into all over, especially in the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall — it’s such a nice room. You have the stage and the places where the audience sits, but you also have places you can position soloists at different corners of the room, and make visible how close or how far they are, and how they relate to each other, and what’s really powerful about working with a choir scenically onstage is that if even thirty or, say, sixty people do a very tiny little thing at the same time, it’s incredibly powerful but still subtle. You don’t have to have someone tearing his heart out…

Declaiming?

Carolin: Exactly, but you have sixty people that maybe do a specific gesture at the same time, and the whole focus shifts into another direction, and this is giving little guiding posts to where the action moves in the room, so we move very little, but the action shifts and the focus shifts in the room, and this can be a really interesting way of preserving the drama while not really acting.

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The Philharmonie Chamber Hall is encircled by performers at the close of Cantus Domus’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Ralf: We just have small hints! Also you find interesting things in the music. For example, the opening of the second part is text from the Song of Solomon, sung by the choir: “Where has my Jesus gone?” The outer part is relating to Petrus, so you have a quite direct connotation it’s Petrus who’s talking. But in the earlier version (of the work) it was sung by the bass soloist, the aria section that is, which is related to Judas, which is interesting. I think it was meant by Bach, in the early version, that it’s Judas who sings, “Where has my Jesus gone?” And the chorus sings the Song of Solomon, it’s a very intimate and like … a love song. In many places in the bible, it’s said Judas was the most beloved of Jesus, and I think this is something which is really interesting in the relationship between Jesus and Judas, which gives a different color to this man, who in our perception is a very bad man.

Song of Solomon Passion

A portion of St. Matthew Passion. (Text via)

We even have the term “the Judas kiss” because of it.

Ralf: Yes but even this kiss, it’s still a kiss!

… which some believe is the ultimate betrayal of intimacy.

Ralf: I’m not sure that this is the only way of interpreting this kiss. Bernard of Clairvaux, a very important clerical figure and one of the most important mystics, preached about the Song of Solomon, especially the symbol of the kiss, and many texts in the Passion from the chorales go back to Clairvaux. There’s a close net of mysticism in (the Song of Solomon). So the Judas kiss, in a way, when you look at it from the point of view of Clairvaux and directly after that, within this Solomonic love song, it means something different.

Caravaggio Christ painting

“The Taking of Christ”, Caravaggio, 1602. (Photo: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)

I’ve always found inclusion of portions of the Song of Solomon sends a message about the links between spirituality, sensuality, intimacy, and meditation — things that can get lost because of the tendency to present spiritual experience within a strictly defined religious framework.

Ralf: If you look deeper into (St. Matthew Passion) you will find real human beings who existed in the 18th century, and who exist in the same way today. And Judas needs to betray him, otherwise the story couldn’t work: no cross, no Christianity. It’s clear Judas has to do it, in a way, it’s fate. But on the other hand, you have the people and they do not understand, they condemn him, many people condemn. It’s a really interesting relationship. Also, Petrus is a very modern person, he’s very strong, a powerful man, but in the important moment, he’s very weak and he has fear, and he does not know how to behave. He’s uncertain what to do, which we all recognize. So this is the aim of our performance, that you understand while singing and reflecting, reflecting while singing, that you are Petrus… maybe you are also Judas…  maybe you are also Pilatus, who washes his hands like, ”I have nothing to do with this.”

Through singing, you taking these human dimensions and complexities into your own body. Do you think you ask a lot of your audiences?

Carolin: Yes, we know we do, but I think it’s a really good thing to do. You don’t have to do it all the time, there are performances that are more relaxed and have a more loose connection to the audience, but it’s refreshing to ask an audience to commit.

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The interior of the Philharmonie Chamber Music Hall, Berlin. (Photo: Heribert Schindler, via)

 

It’s unique to find a presentation of a Baroque work that asks its audience to have a direct relationship with both the score and its spiritual subtext without feeling the need to use tricks or gimmicks.

Caroline: There’s a point which is really important for us as a choir: we have the feeling that with every project we do we grow a little, because we demand something we haven’t done before or haven’t done in this exact way. And this is something you can offer to audience as well in this fashion: you demand a lot of them. But if you, as an audience member, are willing to commit to it, it gives you something you hadn’t experienced before.

Event: Come See Me Talk Opera In Toronto March 15th

L'elisir Met Opera

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Pretty Yende as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.”
Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

Longtime readers of mine will know I was raised on a steady diet of Italian opera. Alongside Puccini, Bellini, and the household favorite, Giuseppe Verdi (whose dwellings I visited last fall, an account of which you can discover in an upcoming issue of Opera Canada magazine), there was also the music of Donizetti. What to say about the man who wrote one of the most famous bel canto works in history, one based not on any Mediterranean story but on a novel by Scotsman Walter Scott? While Lucia di Lammermoor was, alongside La boheme, Norma, and Rigoletto, one of the mainstays of my youth, it wasn’t the Donizetti work I immediately responded to; that honor belonged, rather, to L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), a sitcom-like comedy brimming with warmth and humanity.

The opera, written hastily over a six-week period and premiered in Milan in 1832, is one of the popular and beloved of works in the opera world. Some very famous singers have been performed in it, including Nicolai Gedda, Tito Gobbi, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazon … the list goes on. The opera offers an array of vocal fireworks which are deceptive for their elegant, hummable simplicity. Luciano Pavarotti is widely known (and rightly loved) for his sparkling performance of Nemorino, the hapless, lovelorn male lead; I was fortunate enough to see him sing it live (along with another great Italian singer, Enzo Dara, who sang the role of the potion-peddlar, Dr. Dulcamara). The venerable tenor seemed lit from within in the role, and it’s no wonder; he confessed in interviews that his favorite stage role was, in fact, Nemorino, the role he felt closest to, out of everything he’d done. As well as having one of the most famous arias in all of opera, Nemorino is brimming with neither intellectualism or thoughtful reflection (or even that much witty repartee, unless he’s dead drunk on the potion Dulcamara gave him), but, rather, steadfastly tied to a beautiful, earnest position full of love and longing. Nemorino loves Adina, the popular girl, who doesn’t give him (initially) the time of day; it’s a familiar story, a simple story, and one that, when couched in such splendid music, makes for a great introduction to the art form.

Polenzani Nemorino

Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera

And so it is that I’ll be hosting a special Cineplex event featuring the opera this coming Thursday (15 March) in Toronto, a Live in HD re-broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore, featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani and soprano Pretty Yende (both of whom I saw last season in various Met productions) in the lead roles. I was recently part of a panel on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 with broadcaster Richard Crouse discussing this, and mentioned Pavarotti, melodic music, and how I got into opera — but really, it’s much more fun to come see — and hear! — for yourself. Details on the screening are here — and you can win tickets here. I may or may not wear my crown (likely not), but I would love to see and meet (and chat with!) opera lovers old and new. Will it change your mind about opera? Maybe. Will you love the music? I would bet the response, post-broadcast, will be a resounding “si” — hopefully see you there!

Joseph Calleja On Verdi, Cilea, And How Voices Are Like Wine

Calleja Sicilia Deutsche Oper

Mariengela Sicilia and Joseph Calleja in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß.)

The first time I heard the voice of Joseph Calleja isn’t, alas, entirely clear; my mother, being a great lover of fast-vibrato tenor voices, had any number of beautiful sounds playing throughout the house at any given moment. However, I remember seeing a stunning production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011, and both of us being bowled over. Surely we’ve heard this man’s voice before? Surely we need to hear more of it. Surely.

Shortly thereafter we got hold of The Maltese Tenor (Decca), a stellar album showcasing Calleja’s powerfully gorgeous, silvery-hued voice, and suddenly, my mother had a living tenor to swoon over. Calleja, who was inspired to start singing after watching The Great Caruso (with Mario Lanza) as a kid, has what one might called a “throwback” voice, as NPR’s Tom Huizenga has observed.

The ability to control dynamic levels and expressively shade notes and phrases were once techniques in nearly every singer’s toolbox. But we don’t hear as much subtlety these days, and that makes Calleja an especially refreshing throwback to pre-World War II singers such as the suave Tito Schipa and the magical Alessandro Bonci. It’s a reason Calleja is in such demand from all of the world’s top opera houses.

 

As befits those experiences, Calleja has sung a number of famous opera roles in works by Donizetti, Gounod, Offenbach, and many from Puccini (including Madama Butterfly‘s Pinkerton, La bohème‘s Rodolfo, and Tosca‘s Mario Cavardossi). He’s also sung his fair share of Verdi works (including the famous Duke of Mantua from Rigoletto), but he gets more into the meaty side of Verdi repertoire on his latest album, simply titled Verdi (Decca), released earlier this year. As well as recordings, he keeps a hectic live schedule. After leapfrogging across the Atlantic late last year for performances at the Met in New York (in Bellini’s Norma) and Bayerische Staatsoper Munich (in Puccini’s Tosca), he opened 2018 at the Royal Opera Covent Garden London (again in Tosca) and has gigs coming up in both Monte Carlo and Munich, as well as numerous concert and recital appearances, as well as performances at the Met for their 2018-2019 season.

Deutsche Oper Berlin Cilea

“L’Arlesiana” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

We recently spoke in Berlin, between a pair of concert performances of the rarely-performed opera L’Arlesiana, an 1897 opera by Francesco Cilea, in which he sang the role of the lovelorn Federico. As well as being a debut for the presenting Deutche Oper Berlin, it was also a role debut for Calleja, who soared in his robust approach to the fiendishly challenging score, his reading of the famed ariaÈ la solita storia del pastore” (also known as “Lamento di Federico”) a mix of disgust, sadness, and deeply felt passion; the unique sweet qualities of Calleja’s voice were used to marvellously dramatic effect, and he demonstrated the utmost control through the soaring vocal passages, pushing, pulling back, coloring and intuitively shading every note with deeply felt emotion. This was singing of the very highest order. In this, Calleja was joined by a truly stellar cast which included famed mezzo Dolora Zajick, soprano Mariengela Sicilia, bass baritones Seth Carico and Byung Gil Kim, and baritone Markus Brück (look for an interview with the German singer here soon!). Maestro Paolo Arrivabeni confidently led the Deutsche Oper Orchestra through a thrilling reading of the musically dense, dramatically intense score.

As you’ll read, Calleja is a man with opinions, on music, comparisons to other singers, and the cost of success. He knows his talent, he knows his voice — and he knows his wine. A throwback to another time, or maybe a singer for the 21st century, Calleja is a special figure who lives firmly within the world of culture.

Calleja Verdi

Joseph Calleja’s latest album. (Decca)

Why do a Verdi album?

There was a discussion between myself, my label and my manager. I signed and recorded when I was like 21 years old, and did a lot of repertoire with all the consequences of that; on The Maltese Tenor album, I did roles from Ballo (Un ballo in maschera / The Masked Ball) and Foscari (I due FoscariThe Two Foscari), so then we looked at the repertoire, and the question of Otello came, and “shall we do it?” They weren’t worried, I was worried! Like, “will the public think I have delusions of grandeur?!” It’s a nice calling card, to see where the voice is today and to revisit this repertoire when I sing it onstage, the Otello especially – that’s in a decade or so. It is a very long-term project.

Yes, a lot of singers will say, “I want to sing this or that, but not right now, I’m not ready, vocally or otherwise.”

Only because with the voice, you have one, and once you have vocal damage, you can’t come back — if you’re lucky and have proper medical care, okay, but I never have, touch wood, In twenty years of singing — I started when I was 19 years old — I never had any serious vocal trauma or operations. I want to keep it that way. I have avoided it by not singing too much, not singing when sick and by not pushing the voice into the wrong repertoire. So I try as much as possible to keep my instrument intact. Of course I have ups and downs, some performances are better or worse than others. The Chinese vase can get a bit dirty but if it’s cracked, it’s a problem!

How did you choose the selections on the album?

We went to pieces I’d never done before and ones I’ll be doing in ten years. I will do Trovatore (Il TrovatoreThe Troubador) in five or six years and then move on to Otello, in my early 50s, if the voice does the evolution, and all pointers are that it will. It’s like a great French wine, a St. Emilion for example; certain vintages have the potential to age for twenty-five, thirty-five, even forty-five years, which is exactly similar to the lifespan of a human voice, a classical voice. You can tell with accuracy how the wine will evolve, and how it will end up tasting eventually — it is not 100% but you can do a forecast, and with voice it’s the same. So my forecast is it will make that evolution, but I’ll be singing that repertoire only if the evolution happens and I’m lucky with health and all life throws at you.

So the album is a sort of preview?

Exactly, yes. Some roles I will sing for sure — Verdi said in letters the tenor for Trovatore, Rigoletto, and traviata (La traviata) are the same one, the same type of voice, that’s Verdi himself saying it, so that’s for sure. Aida I think as well.

My mother and I saw you in Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met years ago, and she kept saying, “I want to see Joseph in Aida.” She was no great intellectual musically, and people say that about me also, but…

You don’t have to be. Not at all.

… I know what I like, and some of that is French repertoire for sure. Is that something you’ll move more into? You’ve done some French opera already.

I speak French, quite fluently, and I love the repertoire, and yes, I have things like Faust coming up, Manon coming up, Werther in the future… in the long-term future, there are roles I’d love to sing, the voice is nicely in the French repertoire as well. Sometimes I pronounce vowels in Italian, I don’t know why, it’s the vocal placement — I do them perfectly when I speak, but when I sing, sometimes I open certain vowels that should be closed.

Calleja Deutsche Oper Cilea

Joseph Calleja in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

And now you’re doing Cilea as well. What was attraction to L’Arlesiana?

I like sometimes obscure repertoire, I like discovering these gems. I’m not sure how many in the audience here in Berlin knew it save for the recordings, and there aren’t many of those either; on iTunes can only find one, so it’s a nice opportunity to discover it. It’s very fiendishly difficult music! Heavy on the voice, but it’s nice, it’s a gem. Everyone knows the aria of the tenor, but it’s also my 38th role onstage — I’m missing two, one for each year of my life!

You’re young, though. And still there have been many comparisons between you and Pavarotti; how do you feel about those?

They’re flattering for like, three seconds, but I don’t pay heed anymore, because every new singer is “the new Pavarotti” or the new whatever. I take it with a pinch of salt. I would be a liar if I didn’t say it isn’t flattering, it is, of course it is, it’s like telling a young male actor, “You’re like Brad Pitt” — it’s always nice to have comparisons, but it’s taken with a big pinch of salt, and knowing that the more you rise, the more your reputation is held in high regard, the more you have to work to live up to it every single performance, and sometimes you can’t in full because we’re only human, and you can’t be top-quality all the time. In the past it was easier, (singers) didn’t have to deal with Youtube, phones, recorders… 

L'Arlesiana Deutsche oper

Markus Bruck, Seth Carico, Joseph Calleja, and Dolora Zajick in “L’Arlesiana” at Deutsche Oper Berlin, February 2018. (Photo: Bettina Stöß)

Other singers have brought up that there’s a new level of scrutiny now.

Everybody can record a performance now. I made it a point with my manager not to accept too much work so we do our best to honor every single contract. It is a gift. Some of my colleagues are negative — “oh so many months away from family, all alone!” — yes, but this is what we work for. It’s like an actor, or anyone at a high level: it comes with a lot of privileges but you have to take the bad baggage with the good.

But being a traveling singer with a family has to be a lot easier than it used to be, what with Facetime, Facebook, G-chat, texting…

Exactly my point. It makes it so much easier. This is a privilege, to be able to do this job-slash-vocation, but it is not for everyone. Some people do find… I have to admit, maybe I’m spoiled, the one thing I miss is not going home kiss my kids goodnight, to see their homework, to sleep in my bed and cuddle my dogs. But then again, the diplomat abroad misses that, the soldier misses that — the journalist, the agent, the manager, financial people… success, and the good life, there is always a price to pay.

Frédéric Antoun: From Verdi To Adès, And Beyond

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A scene from Act III of Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

(A quick note: I posted my thoughts about the Met Opera in a separate post.)

Composers like Philip Glass, John Adams, Nico Muhly, Brett Dean, and Thomas Adès, to name a few, have been instrumental in blowing the doors open on preconceived notions of opera.

The work of British composer Adès has been particularly in the news the last little while, what with his opera adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1962 film The Exterminating Angel recently making waves at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The film, which revolves around a post-opera dinner party during which guests find themselves unable to leave, has accurately been described as a “a surreal, black comedic-horror film.” Film critic Roger Ebert called it a “macabre comedy.” The heavily symbolic work notable for several reasons, among them, as Vulture’s Justin Davidson writes, it “resurrected the surrealism of the 1920s and anticipated the psychedelia of the ’60s.” Having seen it in film school years ago, I remember it being, by turns, hilarious, bizarre, and very unsettling.

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A scene from the 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel” by Luis Buñuel. (Photo via)

The opera translation is no less effective. Having premiered at the Salzburg Festival last year, the opera (with a libretto in English) went on to be staged at the Royal Opera in London this past spring and, when presented in New York last month, inspired waves of strong reactions, from high praise to brutal dismissal. As classical writer Joseph So rightly noted, “(a)udiences do appreciate contemporary operas when given fine singing and thoughtful staging.” Love it or hate it, The Exterminating Angel is a work that can’t be ignored. A work based on a movie that goes back to being filmed is interesting in and of itself; what would Buñuel make of it? I wondered this at news of the Live In HD Broadcast of The Exterminating Angel. The Spanish director might, I suspect, have been very amused to have noted his film had been translated to the stage, only to be translated back to film again. The meta nature of it all is enough to make one run to the work of French theorist Roland Barthes (almost).

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Frédéric Antoun as Raúl Yebenes in Adès’ “The Exterminating Angel.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Exterminating Angel (the opera) repeats in cinemas throughout December and January (and in Canada too) in case your saccharine silly season needs spicing up. The broadcast is not the first time Frédéric Antoun has been on the screen this year. The Quebec-born tenor appeared earlier this summer as Cassio in the Royal Opera House production of Othello, which was broadcast live (and in various repeats) internationally from Covent Garden in London.

A graduate of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, Frédéric has an impressive resume that includes performances at Opéra de Paris, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), La Monnaie Brussels, the aforementioned Royal Opera House Covent Garden, a number of regional French houses, as well as Opernhaus Zurich, where he’ll be returning to perform early next year in Ravel’s lovely work L’Heure espagnole. Before that, he’ll be in Toronto, performing as part of the Toronto Symphony’s annual presentation of Handel’s Messiah. He has performed in works by Massenet, Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Verdi, and Handel; I particularly love this clip of him from a modern production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, directed by Pierre Audi from 2011. Concert repertoire includes work by Berlioz, Handel, Schumann, and Bach, to name a few.

As you’ll hear, Frédéric is extremely familiar with the work of Thomas Adès, having already been in his operatic adaptation of The Tempest. With movie-star looks, rich-hued tenor, crisp diction, and a complete magnetism in both modern and not-so-modern productions, Frédéric is a singer to watch, both live and on the screen — either way, it’s a memorable experience.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Memories, Magic, And “Significant Presence”

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Trovatore

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky didn’t shock me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The experience of living with a loved one with cancer for over a decade has made me cynical about happy outcomes, but, my reaction yesterday was less related to cynicism than to the direct experience of seeing the baritone this past April, recalling the last time my mother saw him, and accepting, with a heavy sigh, the finite nature of humans living with terminal illness.

Dima, as he was known by friends and fans alike, sounded magnificent on that cool April evening. Part of a concert event called Trio Magnifiico which marked the Canadian debuts of fellow Russian opera singers Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, it was, I later realized, powerful for not only the chosen repertoire (largely by Hvorostovsky himself, as Netrebko had told me in an earlier interview), but for the inherent power of a man clawing at his own fate through his art. The appearance marked Hvorostovsky’s first public performance in several months, following the announcement of brain cancer in 2015. If ever there was an occasion when one could say a man was raging against the dying of the light, April was it. Hvorostovsky didn’t seem sad, but his performance (consisting mostly of Russian repertoire) had the fiery edge of anger, an impulse I remember thinking my mother would have recognized and wholly understood. His body language, especially in one aria (from Rigoletto, an opera about a man struggling against his own dying light, embodied in Gilda, the character’s daughter), expressed rage, sorrow, an intensity of flesh and spirit — of their collision, and the chaos that created. I remember clenching my jaw toward the end of the aria in a vain attempt to prevent tears. (It didn’t work.)

When I learned of Hvorostovsky’s appearance at the 50th Anniversary Met Gala shortly thereafter, I had to smile; I was in Berlin at the time, and I had wondered, with every deep-voiced performance I had heard, “how would Dima have done this?” I wasn’t comparing so much as curious: where would he have taken a breath? How would he have finished that phrase? How would he have approached this role? Why would he have made x or y choice? I equally realized, with many heavy sighs, that I would never see Dima onstage in Berlin, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, again. There’s a bittersweet fatalism that develops when you’ve lived with death for so long, sat across from it at every forced meal, driven with it humming in the backseat to doctor’s appointments, dragged it around shopping malls at the holidays. When it forces you to its logical endpoint, somehow the goodbye feels too soon — too mean, too heartless, and you realize the unfair bargain you were forced to make and live with. It makes perfect sense, and no sense at all. Cancer is grotesque that way, and no amount of fighting language popularly attached to it will ever remove the sting of sudden loss, much less the slow, dull ache of a long one.

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Boccanegra

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

And so yesterday, as I attempted some degree of work productivity, I found myself listening to his voice blazing out of my radio, watching clips of him from 1989 (when he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and being plunged into a deep well of memories, recent and far, fond and bittersweet. In trips to New York, my mother and I saw him in a variety of works, including The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Don CarloRigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. One didn’t merely hear his voice or watch him move; one experienced him and the force of his artistry, his confidence, his je ne sais quoi as a whole. It wasn’t just his considerable physical beauty — there are lots of good-looking people in opera, and always have been — but a kind of magic he conjured, contoured, and conveyed in waves. Few and far-between are the times in my life when I’ve sat in an opera house and been thoroughly, utterly thunderstruck by a perfect combination of vocal power, theatricality, confidence, ease, and … what? It isn’t easy to name. Call it star power, call it magnetism, call it presence; Hvorostovsky had it in jar-fulls, but carried it so lightly, like any star should. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, he commented that “(t)he sex appeal is part of the package. My voice is sensual, too, and it is part of my image and my character and my personality. It has something to do with a little magic called the “significant presence,” or whatever.”

Saint Cecilia

“Saint Cecilia”, Circle of Simon Vouet, 1613-1627

The velvet-smoke sound of his baritone was every bit as ubiquitous in my house growing up as the silvery tones of a certain famous Italian tenor; if Pav was the soundtrack of my childhood, Dima’s filled the role for my youth. I felt what virility was before I understood it. That sound would make everything stop: thinking, activities, hearts, breath. It commanded attention. He existed firmly within the world of opera, but also without, in an entirely different category, one I think he carried inside of him, guided by his homeland, by family, by the responsibility he felt toward the composers whose work he performed as well as the spirit behind those works There’s a bitter irony to Hvorostovsky passing away on November 22nd, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians; it’s the day before Pavarotti made his Metropolitan Opera debut (in Puccini’s La bohème), in 1968. The sad realization that two of my mother’s very favorite singers, both of whom I saw live on multiple occasions, were taken by the same disease that took her, has forced some painful contemplations, though she’d remind me not to be so morbid, to simply “think of the music!”

The last time my mother and I saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky live together was at a 2014 recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto. My mother was suffering the horrendous effects of her umpteenth round of chemotherapy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to use the (great) tickets I’d hastily bought the day they went on sale months before. But something — her music passion, love of his work, curiosity, happiness to escape the house, worry at letting me down (or a mix of everything) — propelled her. I remember dropping her off along a bustling Bloor Street; she waited on a shady bench as I parked and ran back to meet her, trying to hide how rotten she felt, how tired she was, how fragile and thin she’d become. We slowly made our way through the venue, and she clutched her program as she carefully lowered herself into her seat. Trying to describe her face as Hvorostovsky stepped onstage is still impossible; I only remember her being lit from within. Over the next two hours, something happened: suffering stopped, disease stopped, the horrible daily details of illness stopped. There was purely sound, presence, pull — of being with Hvorostovsky through every breath, pause, roar, turn, smile. closing of eyes. We were with him.

Trio Magnifico Hvorostovsky

Hvorostovsky at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts for Trio Magnifico, April 24, 2017. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

I felt this once again in April, and I remember it now. Watching Hvorostovsky, I am in that world where everything stops; death gets out of the car, steps away from the table, is rendered powerless. It’s what magic does, and what music does, and it is pure magic.

Paul Appleby, Music Fan

Paul Appleby tenor

Tenor Paul Appleby (Photo: Jonathan Tichler)

What do you think of when you read the words “new opera” ?

Some may think it’s a contradiction in terms, that opera is and must be, by definition, something old, irrelevant, and fusty, full of big wigs, big dresses, buckle shoes, and powdered faces. There’s a feeling by that opera cannot possibly, with its array of seemingly outré storylines, deal with anything approaching a timely reality.

Yet new opera has taken its seat at the opera table in many different ways. A slew of companies devoted to new works, to say nothing of the many established companies and festivals presenting modern compositions, proves there is not only an interest in such work, but a deep passion that is re-shaping the ways in which audiences are experiencing the art form. Composers have long worked to create work that is not only a reflection of the times but a commentary on them, with productions that are aimed as much to provoke as to entertain. A number of organizations have regularly featured such works, including (but hardly limited to) Santa Fe Opera, Opera Philadelphia, the Canadian Opera Company, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, and yes, the Metropolitan Opera.

Muhly Appleby Met opera

Paul Appleby in Two Boys (Photo: Ken Howard)

Contemporary composer Nico Muhly, whose latest work (an opera adaptation of Marnie) recently opened at English National Opera, had his Two Boys produced at the Metropolitan Opera (who commissioned it) in 2013; the work was far from the company’s first new work, of course, but it created a buzz that made me very curious to attend.

(Another buzzy new work is on this season at the Met; The Exterminating Angel, by Thomas Adès, is based on the surrealist Buñuel film of the same name, and will be covered in a future feature at this website. Stay tuned.)

Based on a true story that unfolds in the early days of the internet, Two Boys revolves around a teenager becoming entangled in a web of obsession and murder; the work was especially notable for its integration of music and technology both within the score as well as in a carefully controlled production by director Bartlett Sher. The work offered a dramatic exploration of modern life, sexuality, and the entangled relationship between each. I came away from it bowled over by the lead performance of tenor Paul Appleby, who played Brian, a lonely figure who gets sucked into a nasty catfishing scheme with a very surprising source. Vulture’s Justin Davidson described him here as “a marvel: an intelligent young singer equipped with the elegance and expressivity of an old pro, impersonating a lost soul of a kid.”

Paul Appleby Meistersinger Wagner Met

Paul Appleby in Die Meistersinger. (Photo: Ken Howard)

For contrast, I recently turned on a 2014 Met remount of Otto Schenk’s traditional production of  Wagner’s epic 1868 work Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in which Paul performs the role of David, apprentice to Hans Sachs, one of the titular Master Singers. Re-watching the lengthy work (which is more timely than one might initially think) reminded me, hoary as it may sound, of the extreme versatility demanded of singers in this day and age; nothing could be further from Two Boys in content or in staging or style, but Paul’s ease with the score, his loving embrace of the diction, the sparkle in his eyes singing — it was all magic, and reignited my excitement for the possibilities of the art form.

Adams SFO rehearsal

Girls of the Golden West music rehearsal with (L-R) Davóne Tines, Paul Appleby, and Hye Jung Lee. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

It’s inspiring to think of Paul’s latest role, in another new work, this one by American composer John Adams, with a decidedly female-forward viewpoint. Called Girls Of The Golden West, it has its world premiere this coming Tuesday (21 November) at San Francisco Opera. As New York Times classical writer Michael Cooper rightly notes of Adams, “(t)his onetime enfant terrible has grown into an elder statesman.” An Adams premiere is an event, not just for opera, but for culture as a whole. Does opera have anything to say? Should it? Can it? These questions are, perhaps, most clearly confronted at premieres like the one happening in San Francisco this coming week.

They’re also questions singers contemplate, even as they dissect scores, learn marks, and explore characters. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Paul made his Met Opera debut in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and his San Francisco Opera debut in 2016 in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute); he’s acclaimed for his Tamino in that opera, as well as other Mozart works (including Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte), as well as those by Berlioz, Handel, Britten, and Stravinsky. Paul recently took time out of his busy rehearsal schedule to chat; along with being a classical lover, he’s also a keen Bob Dylan fan, a dedicated recitalist, and, as you’ll hear, a performer with strong opinions on why new opera matters.

(Sidenote: Paul is known — and rightly celebrated — for his Tamino, not his Papageno (both characters in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte) as I say here. Please pardon the silly / mortifying mix-up.)

Dominik Köninger: “Everything comes in its time”

Baritone Dominik Köninger / Photo: Tom Schweigert

So many things struck me the first time I saw Dominik Köninger perform live. Watching him, one senses an innate musicality combined with a natural confidence and stage presence. No wonder he’s a rising star in opera.

A native of Heidelberg, Dominik was a member of the International Opera Studios at Hamburg State Opera in 2007; from 2010-2011 he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera. In 2011 he won First Prize in the Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and was also a Recipient of the Wigmore Hall / Independent Opera Voice Fellowship. He has performed at the Stuttgart State Opera, the Theater an der Wien, the Volksoper Wien (Vienna), the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the New National Theater Tokyo, to name a few. In 2012, he became a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin (or KOB; I’m a fan of their work), and has performed works by Offenbach, Gluck, HandelMonteverdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart, as well as Oscar Straus. He’s also done extensive festival work, tours, recitals, orchestral appearances, and recordings. This season sees him in five KOB productions, as well as performances at the Opéra-Comique, Paris and a tour to Japan in the spring. “Hektisch” seems too mild a word to describe it all.

Dominik Köninger (Nero) and Alma Sadé (Poppea). Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

We spoke this past spring just after I’d seen his riveting performance in Die krönung der Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) as the corrupt Emperor Nero. Not only did composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s creative reworking complement the beauty and majesty of Monteverdi’s original (elements of folk, tango, and jazz were perfect), the performances, together with Kosky’s sexy direction, made it into something for the 21st century. Poppea‘s portrait of a rotting, decadent world was presented with every bit of panache, beauty, and flair one would expect from the company, but ugliness was not avoided. (The deaths of both Seneca and Octavia inspired audible gasps from the audience.) Nero, while written for a much higher voice type, perfectly suited Dominik’s baritone; he shaped the words beautifully, layered vowels with beautiful textures, modulating his coppery baritone to handle the score’s difficult runs and recitatives (recits) with complete confidence.

Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Debussy’s Pelléas is a perfect vocal fit, having been written for what’s known as a baryton-martin, a range that falls between the traditional tenor and baritone. Considerably more modern than Monteverdi but no less difficult (some argue it is one of the most challenging roles in the baritone repertoire), the 1902 opera, based on Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, revolves around a troubling love triangle and has been described by Sir Simon Rattle as “one of the saddest and most upsetting operas ever written.”

This Sunday (October 15th) Dominik makes his role debut as the ill-fated character in Pelléas et Mélisande, in a debut production for KOB (a co-production with Nationaltheater Mannheim), conducted by Jordan de Souza and directed by Barry Kosky, who recently noted that the psychological landscape of the work reminds him of Edgar Allen Poe. The production also features soprano Nadja Mchantaf as  Mélisande and baritone Günter Papendell (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed this past spring) as the jealous Golaud. Along with Debussy, Dominik will also be performing at the end of this month with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin at the Chamber Hall of the Philharmonie Berlin in a special Halloween-flavoured program that includes works by Schubert, Purcell, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns.

Photo: Jan Windzus Photography

A beautiful voice alone is enough for some, but blending the art forms integral to opera in a way that fits score and production, and connects with the audience, while casually carrying an innate, sparkling star presence — that’s the stuff I find truly exciting, and what makes me run to the opera house, over and over. As you’ll see, this is one direct singer; he likes to be challenged by new material but has no time for social media. (Don’t expect a Facebook page anytime soon.) He likes old work but has every curiosity for new stuff. He’s fine with the “barihunk” label but refuses the pressure that comes with technology. Dominik Köninger is, quite simply, his own man.

What’s it like to prepare for concerts versus opera?

That’s a good question. It depends on the role. A full recital is much more demanding than an opera. Let’s take Le nozze di Figaro: you’re on stage half of it or even less, and so it’s demanding of course, because you have to keep up the energy and all that. But to do a recital, I would say, the longer the better for preparation — a year at least. Sometimes it goes faster. You only have this one shot, this one-and-a-half hour block of time and you want to present everything you have in your mind, and the better you rehearse it, the better you can get it out there.

… and it’s just you. It’s just a series of solos.

All eyes just on you. All ears just on you.

Just people carefully listening.

That’s why I love it. You really can communicate much better with the people, you can look at them, smile at them — or not — and you can see how they react.

It’s a more intimate relationship with your audience.

Yes, and I really miss that, and I’m happy to be coming back to it.

Günter Papendell (Golaud) and Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

And you’re singing Pelléas as well.

This is my absolute dream role since I was 21.

What’s that like to prepare for something that’s been your dream for so long?

Difficult, to be honest. On the one hand I’m already familiar with it, because I sung parts of it in university but … on the other hand you have so many expectations of yourself, and this means pressure. So you have to release the pressure a little bit. It’s actually not so much a vocal issue, it’s more of a brain issue. I just need to stay relaxed. I’m really looking forward to it.

Is French opera something you enjoy?

I think it fits quite well to my type of voice. You know the lighter, higher-placed baritone, not the deep booming sound, that’s not me. French music is beautiful. I love it and I love the language. It’s my favorite language to sing in. I would love to sing Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette . This sounds cocky to say, but sometimes you discover that your soul —this means the combination of your soul and voice and all that — is predisposed to certain composers. Like, when I start a new Mahler song for example, I feel like I am already there. There’s still lots to improve of course, but it’s just… there, and it’s the same for Debussy songs and Fauré songs, it’s just there. That music goes into my voice so much quicker.

Dominik Köninger with Dagmar Manzel in “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” (The Pearls of Cleopatra) / Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

Owing to live streaming and the Live in HD series, many singers feel they have to look perfect — what is that like to deal with?

That’s the reality today. That’s the thing. The better you look, the better you sing, the better you sell.

And you are on Barihunks.

This is really flattering, I have to say.  I was and am always flattered when I read things about me. Those guys are ripped!

Keeping in shape is important for singers, though.

I feel better singing when I’m fitter, of course. I have great respect for older singers who can still produce all that sound and stay through a whole Tristan, or whatever they sing. I need to do just a little bit of sports to sing better.

What about after a performance?

I want to go home and watch “House of Cards”!

Do you ever see other productions?

When I was in Amsterdam this past spring, what I did was a bit crazy. I had a day off and nobody was there with me, so I enjoyed my time and went, on the first nice spring day — it was the end of March, really nice weather, at 2pm in the afternoon — I went to see Wozzeck at the opera. Really dark, really depressing, but good singers… great singers.

So many things are live-streamed these days. Does being filmed ever make you self-conscious?

If I started to think about all that onstage, I would be even more tense, so no. Somehow I manage to make myself free of it. I don’t think about how many people are watching and “Can they see into my mouth?” or whatever.

L-R: Günter Papendell (Golaud) Dominik Köninger (Pelléas), Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Is this why you’re not on social media?

I’m not interested. I have my family, I have my friends — there’s enough going on in my life. I’m always loyal to my friends, I write them on Whatsapp or message or call, but it’s enough. Sometimes people say to me, “If you were on Facebook, maybe your career would’ve been much better!” I’m like, “Or not!” It’s not my thing.

But being part of the Komische ensemble is pretty good, isn’t it?

This is how you see it, it’s how I see it, some people see it differently, and some need to sing in Vienna and LA and Moscow.

And you might do that anyway.

Yes, everything comes in its time.

Marveling at Monteverdi With The RIAS Kammerchor

Looking up at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

At any time of year, Berlin is a treasure trove of cultural riches, especially for music lovers. One is spoiled for choice with numerous symphony orchestras, opera outfits, quartets, quintets, and chamber groups. Being in the city for the final week of the annual MusikFest (which you’ll be able to read all about in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine) however, it became extremely clear that Berliners take their music very seriously; the annual event (part of the larger Festspiele) is an expression of a culture that is firmly part of every day life, not an accessory to it.

One of the most unique events was the Monteverdi program programmed and presented by the RIAS Kammerchor (or chamber choir) of Berlin. Who was Monteverdi, and why should you care? He’s the father of opera, and, in a broader sense, a very important guy in the history of vocal music as a whole. The composer, who links the Renaissance and Baroque eras, even has a whole box set of his works called “The Innovator.” 2017 marks Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, so many groups are marking the occasion with performances.  Though I didn’t get to hear a lot of vocal music this time in Berlin, I did experience some very special music moments, and Monteverdi as presented by the RIAS Kammerchor had a lot to do with it.

RIAS Chamber Choir 2017-18 © Matthias Heyde

The group, which dates back to 1948, were named after the US-run radio station “Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (or “American-sector broadcasting”) and participated in the opening concert of the Berliner Philharmonie in 1963. What started as a post-war regional group grew into a highly respected ensemble with an international reputation. With an original founding principal to promote new music, the choir has premiered works by, among others, Aribert Reimann, Paul Hindesmith, and Pierre Boulez. (A gorgeous new concert hall in Berlin was named after the latter, which hosts a variety of concerts and recitals; it was one of the locales for the Kammerchor’s MusikFest concerts.) In the early 2000s, the Kammerchor’s mandate was extended to include early and Baroque works, in collaboration with a number of prestigious conductors who excel in that repertoire, John Eliot Gardiner among them. English-born Gardiner got his start in the music world conducting Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine” (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) which was one of the works presented by the Kammerchor at MusikFest, and one which I’m hoping to see performed again when I visit Italy next month. (Gardiner is currently touring Monteverdi’s three surviving full-length operas with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists.)

Claudio Monteverdi; portrait by Bernardo Strozzi.

So why do we still care about Monteverdi? Well, to paraphrase what Justin Doyle (Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of Kammerchor, who is also a permanent conductor at Opera North in Leeds) says in my interview with him (below), the Cremona native invented a lot of the musical concepts we take for granted today — things like instrumentation, vocal exchanges, balance, phrasing, melody, harmony. Kammerchor performed two of his works as part of this year’s MusikFest in Berlin, the Vespers and another religious piece, the shorter “Missa in illo tempore” I heard the latter performed first, in the middle of a chilly, bright Saturday afternoon at the round, grandly austere St. Hedwig’s Cathedral; the Vespers was presented at the modern, elliptically-shaped Pierre Boulez Saal (Hall), where various soloists (vocal and instrumental) were choreographed to move around in the space, delivering lines from all angles within the hall . Both presented some very different experiences of some very old music, in ways that made it sound very new, and very alive.

The RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, 16 September 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

While the wide, open spaces of St. Hedwig’s allowed the sound to swirl, and occasionally submerge the audience in graceful (if sometimes challenging) harmonies, the Boulez warmly enveloped listeners, forcing a simultaneously careful listening experience and a thoughtful spiritual exercise. The poetic sounds of the Capella de la Torre (an incredible ensemble who play authentic Renaissance instruments) were so wonderfully attuned to Doyle’s directions, and the beautifully contrasting tenors of Andrew Staples and Thomas Hobbes, calling as if from dreams at points, collected, merged, and contrasted with the ethereal sopranos of Dorothee Mields and Hannah Morrison. What made the concerts particularly profound was hearing how completely conversational Monteverdi’s work is, vocally and instrumentally, and just how much drama has been naturally woven into the sonic framework. Forget bland, unchanging religious music; this was dramatically gripping and spiritually moving on every level.

The RIAS Kammerchor at the Pierre Boulez Saal, 16 September 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

They were also intriguing for their sonic intricacy. One word Justin Doyle uses a lot in this conversation is “polyphonic,” which relates, of course, to polyphony. Merriam-Webster defines this as “a style of musical composition employing two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines.” Think of singing “Frere Jacques” and “Row Your Boat” at the same time. Got it? You can thank yer man Claudio for this, and many, many other bits of musical wonder. A music website focused on early music (especially Baroque) usefully describes the role of polyphony and church music thusly:

During the Renaissance, it was common for composers to set the Ordinary to music, the first large–scale form in western music. The texture was polyphonic, at first based on the underlying plainsong melodies of each section. Such was the paraphrase mass, in which an existing melody, albeit in a usually embellished form, was used as the basis for one or more movements.

As you’ll hear, Doyle is passionate about this music — and why not? You don’t have to belong to a specific faith to enjoy the riches it offers, or to hear how unusual, innovative, complex, and enlightening it is. Monteverdi may be 450 years old, but he’s still as fresh as a daisy, thanks to ensembles like the RIAS Kammerchor.

“The True Sound Of The Human Voice”

Photo via Opera Royal de Wallonie

Being in Europe again is a special sort of a treat; there’s an overwhelming number of cultural options at any given moment, and it can be easy to choose one thing, only to find out later there’s something else at the exact same moment that you just can’t miss.

One place I’d really love to be right now is San Francisco, specifically because of Berlioz, and more specifically, because of who is singing it. Thursday (that’s tonight), Friday, and Saturday (May 4, 5, 6), Maestro extraordinaire Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Berlioz’s magnificent Requiem, which features none other than American tenor Paul Groves, whose work I so thoroughly enjoyed on my last opera trip to Europe in February, when I heard him sing another work by the great French composer, his immense La damnation de Faust at Opera Royal de Wallonie.

I’ve always loved French opera, but Groves’ performance as Faust (which he stepped into at the eleventh hour, after the scheduled lead was ill) brought a whole new level to my appreciation, with his incisive phrasing, beautiful diction, and warm tone not only complementing the intricacies of Berlioz’s challenging score, but highlighting its power and poetry. It was exquisite, divine.

A proud New Orleans native, Paul was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 1991, and is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. He has an impressive roster of performances to his credit, and has appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opéra National de Paris, and the San Francisco Opera, among many others. He returns to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC this December, as Danilo in the very fun, apologetically frothy The Merry Widow.

I had the chance to catch up with Paul as he prepared for his next Berlioz in San Francisco. Just like the man in person, Paul is forthcoming in his opinions, unpretentious, funny, generous, and warm, and like I said, he has a knock-your-socks-off voice, too. Bien sur!

What do you think the big differences are between French opera and other forms, like Italian, and German opera?

There are a few big differences between French opera and other forms, but the biggest has to be the language itself. French operas are built around the language more than any other forms. This is why it’s is so difficult to translate into other languages; I’ve never heard or sung a convincing translation of a French opera — whereas I have sung many wonderful translations of German, Italian and Russian works.

Therefore, it is particularly important to pay close attention to diction and vocal production when studying, and finally performing, French opera.



What kinds of demands does French opera place on you vocally?

I feel the language is very helpful for vocal technique — the closed vowels tend to keep the voice gathered when pronounced correctly. The demand comes from the extended tenor range of many French operas. A majority tend to be at least a step higher than most Italian or German romantic operas.

One of the reasons for this is the tenor technique was completely different at the time these operas were written. The tenors these roles were written for approached the high notes in a supported head voice, and the modern tenor technique is more of a chesty, manly sound in the high register. Now, this makes singing the role more difficult, but it’s also much more thrilling.

Why is Berlioz so special for you?

Berlioz was many years ahead of his time when you consider what was coming out of France and Italy at the time. His music wasn’t well-accepted until later in his life, and still today, many musicians have their doubts about what he intended with his orchestration. I’m doing one of his pieces at the moment which has a bass trombone-and-flute duet. Strange, but amazing when performed correctly.

In his operas, the drama is written into the orchestration and text is not necessary to feel the full power of the drama. An example is “The Ride to Hell” in the last part of La damnation de Faust.



Describe your first powerful opera memory.

Well, my first powerful opera memory is Pavarotti’s recording of Canio’s aria. My father, who was a conductor, brought home a Pavarotti album and after hearing it a few times, I conveniently added his album to my collection of records, which was mostly a Led Zeppelin and Beatles collection. 

I was completely blown away, but had no idea that all opera singers (tenors) didn’t sound the same. I found this out when a traveling opera company came to my town a year later to perform the complete opera. I was so disappointed in the tenor’s performance. Looking back now, he was probably fine. Who could live up to my expectations at the time? Only one guy!!!!!

Photo: Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times (via)

You’re going to be at the Met next season in The Merry Widow; how do you approach performing comedy versus tragedy? Do you have a preference? 

I don’t have a preference between comedy and tragic opera, but I get to do comic opera so infrequently that I really look forward to the fun and laughs, not only from the audience, but in the fun we’ll have in the rehearsal room. I’m playing opposite one of my best friends and opera soulmates, the lovely Susan Graham.

The challenging part for me and most singers is always the dialogue — how to make it real and heartfelt. We’re so used to relying on the music to help, but when the music is missing, it feels like we’re standing up there with our pants down!!

The one thing all newcomers to opera should know is…

… be prepared for the power of the unamplified human voice! This is the one thing that newcomers are so shocked about.

It is my life and art form, but I still get goose bumps when I hear a powerful, beautiful, natural voice. This is what separates opera and classical singing from all other art forms. Amplified performances can be enhanced, tuned and sometimes lip-synced. That’s not the case in classical singing; what you hear is the true sound of the human voice with all its flaws and gloriousness.

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

(gif via)

The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)

Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)

And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



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