Category: voice Page 1 of 6

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

Review: The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris

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

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

The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, Paris, opera, Yoli

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

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

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

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

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: Agathe Poupeney
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
sky, autumn, September, colours, himmel, farben, natur

September Songs: Change, Relevance, Artistry, Loss

September has arrived though, at least in my part of the world, related cooler temperatures have yet to appear. Still, there is a marked change when it comes to the formal end of summer holidays. The “most wonderful time of the year” for parents is also the big inhalation for those of us working in the education system; the feelings I remember as a child at this time (dread; excitement; anxiety) have, in adulthood, whittled down to something leaner if no less energetic (anticipation; impatience). The return of structure and its first cousin, predictability, are pluses, though they’re hardly immobile; schedules, due dates, and outlines bump against individual and collective needs, abilities, and personalities, as well they must. Being an Adjunct Professor means not so much juggling as knitting – in new patterns, constantly, never quite sure what you’re making or to what end, at least until the conclusion of term. Here’s hoping the blanket (or whatever it is) proves useful to more than a few.

September also marks the start of the arts season, a time when the choices announced many months ago are realized and suddenly take on harder, thicker edges. Programming and concomitant production are more interlinked than ever, but understanding that link is proving more and more difficult. Just weeks after American magazine Opera News announced its imminent closure, prestigious German classical publication Fono Forum sent a note to its contributors indicating its final edition will be in January 2024. As I wrote with regards to ON last month: I am not surprised, particularly given the current state of media, and arts-dedicated media in particular. Publishing is pricy, audiences are splintered; algorithms and related ROI lead many away from niche publishing and toward the sort of output that tends to clash with the things culture (at least some of it) might perhaps inspire: slowing down; abstract thought; careful evaluation. Finding people willing to pay to read things at all is the toughest task for media in the 21st century; finding people willing to pay for things which might further inspire such focus is even harder; finding people willing to pay for coverage of a very niche interest is triply difficult. Classical does not (for the most part) inspire sexy clicks; the question is, should it, and can it? Are there people who don’t mind? Can those who make faces afford to keep making faces? I do think there are, and will be, other means and methods; whether they will have any quick and sexy ROI is another matter. It’s going to take time and that thing Axl sang about; to quote Hamlet (again), ’tis true ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true.

In Berlin

Also true: Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) is opening its new season with a very coverage-worthy event. The company’s first production away from its usual Behrenstraße locale is being done with a big (possibly literal) splash. Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio Das Floß der Medusa is being staged in an old airport hangar at Templehof, with seating located around a huge body of water designed especially for the production. Director Tobias Kratzer, notable for his work at a range of houses, including Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayreuth , and Opéra de Paris, here leads a cast featuring Gloria Rehm, Idunnu Münch, Günter Papendell, 83 musicians, and over 100 choristers, all under the baton of conductor Titus Engel.

The work is based on real history: the wreck of French naval ship Méduse ran off the coast of western African in 1816. While the ship’s captains saved themselves and escaped, over 150 others took to a raft, which they stayed on (or tried to stay on when they weren’t gouging each others’ eyes out or committing suicide) for thirteen days; only fifteen people would survive the disaster. Théodore Géricault famously depicted the wreck in his monumental painting a scant three years after the event, interviewing Méduse’s survivors and examining the flesh of cadavers as he worked. Henze’s 1968 oratorio is a kind of veiled (or not-so-veiled) political statement on the issues which sit foremost within the tragedy. Its premiere inspired clashes between protestors (some pro-communist; some anarchist), the RIAS choir, and police who had come to break up the scuffles; Ernst Schnabel, who wrote the text, was among those arrested. Henze revised  the score in 1990, and the work has been presented, in concert and full production formats many times since. Its relevance, particularly for this time in history, is unmissable. As Opera Today’s Anne Ozorio wrote in her masterful review of a 2018 presentation by Dutch National Opera:

… Géricault was painting when the wreck of the Medusa was still raw political scandal. The rich had left the poor to die. What Géricault depicted was not lost on audiences at the time. The real horror is that modern audiences refuse to connect, even though we’re surrounded by images or war, destruction and refugees drowning at sea. Even if the press don’t know Henze, which is bad enough, surely some might have the humanity to think ?

The new KOB production was slated for five performances but a sixth was added out of sheer demand. Get thee to Templehof.

Also in Berlin

The European premiere of Chief Hijangua – A Namibian Opera in Four Acts by composer/conductor/baritone Eslon Hindundu takes place this month. The work features a libretto by Nikolaus Frei and will enjoy a semi-staged presentation by Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB). The multitalented Hindundu has performed and conducted in numerous events and festivals (including Swakopmunder Musikwoche, an annual music event held in Swakopmund, Namibia, and Germany’s annual autumn Immling Festival), and led the Namibian National Symphony Orchestra (as the organization’s Music Director) in the opera’s world premiere at the National Theatre of Namibia, Windhoek in 2022. The upcoming Berlin presentation will be directed by Kim Mira Meyer (who often works with Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater) and will feature the vocal talents of Berlin-based Cantus Domus and Vox Vitae Musica (a choral group founded by Hindundu); the opera utilizes both German and Otjiherero, one of the languages spoken by Namibians. The work is a clear reference to Germany’s brutal colonization of Namibia in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, in which (according to a report from DW) roughly 100,000 people were killed and numerous atrocities committed. The opera itself tells a personal story, with its theme (the search for identity) sewn into its depiction detailing the quest of a young prince.

Chief Hijangua is being presented at a pivotal point within the classical world, as calls rise for greater social relevance in an art form frequently derided for being out of touch with real-world concerns and lived experiences. Opera warhorses (and related old productions) are frequently programmed now to get covid-scared audiences back into the auditorium; in places where government funding is scant, that is a reality that can’t be ignored. But as The Met itself noted, box office (at least in New York) is being made with precisely with, and not despite, new works. Maybe classical organizations need to be slightly braver with their choices? Maybe a little more trust in audiences would be a good thing? Might this be more than a mere trend? Perhaps Chief Hijangua will receive further productions in international venues? It seems the RSB, along with showcasing Hindundu’s considerable talents, is celebrating their 100th birthday with a powerful symbol of creativity whilst simultaneously throwing down a gauntlet to the greater opera world. Chief Hijuanga runs for three performances at Berlin’s Haus des Rundfunks, and is being done in partnership with Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

In London

History, literature, music, and theatre all mix at the Barbican Centre in London this month with King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. Based on the popular 1964 novel by Belarusian writer Uladzimir Karatkievich, the work mixes folk mythology and pointed social commentary related to ongoing political repression in Belarus. Co-director Nicolai Khalezin calls it a story that “combines mysticism and reality, love and hatred, nobility and cowardice, history and modernity.” The work is being presented by Belarus Free Theatre (BFT),  an underground theatre group who were forced into exile in 2021, and who count actors Kim Cattrall and Jeremy Irons, rock musician David Gilmour, and playwright Tom stoppard among their supporters. King Stakh features a score by Olga Podgaiskaya, a composer and active member of Belarusian avant-garde chamber group Five-Storey Ensemble, who will be performing as part of the production.

Conductor Vitali Alekseenok, who leads the musical side, is currently Artistic Director of the annual Kharkiv Music Fest in Ukraine, and wrote about his experience there earlier this summer. In London he leads a troupe which will feature Ukrainian singers Andrei Bondarenko and Tamara Kalinkina, and is being helmed by co-founding BFT Artistic Directors Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. The latter’s own father recorded the novel in 2009 for an audio book (portions of which will be used in the production). She notes that her father had urged her to stage the novel for years, “not just because it’s one of the greatest Belarusian novels of the last century, but because he deeply understood its relevance.” The work, she continues, “reminds us that the past is not dead, it’s here in Europe today”. Kaliada’s father is unfortunately no longer alive to see the fruits of his daughter’s labour, but its realization is a strong sign of hope, and needed ongoing resistance to Belarusian repressions. King Stakh has its world premiere at the Barbican and will run for four performances.

Remembering…

Loss seems like a subtext through many upcoming presentations, and indeed it felt much closer this weekend. On Saturday it was announced that Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama has passed away at the age of 93. The Japanese artist, who survived a horrendous wartime internment on the west coast of Canada, was responsible for many famous landmarks in the country, including the Canadian War Museum, the Japanese-Canadian Centre (now called the Noor Cultural Centre), Science North, the Ontario Science Centre, as well as the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. In 2003 Moriyama was made a member of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun (4th class), an award conferred in recognition of his services to Japanese culture in Canada. In 2009 he was the recipient of a Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2009. The awards were just two of the numerous honors the architect collected during his lifetime. I’ve always found Moriyama’s work to be musical, possessing its own distinct resonance; as a child I used to visit the Scarborough Civic Centre and look up and around in awe.

Growing older I visited other locales (mentioned above), and would silently wonder at his use of texture, shape, light, and structure. He created a smart, daringly (for the time and place) spiritual balance of notable contrasts (rich/stark; old/new; dark/light), providing a full experience of form that reaches well past the visual. I hear Stravinsky’s 1930 work Symphony of Psalms whenever I look at his work now. This 2020 documentary by Ontario public broadcaster TVO clearly shows why Moriyama and his work will always be a treasure. (Note: some may need a VPN to view this, but it’s definitely worth it).

Finally: I learned of the untimely passing of Maxim Paster yesterday morning, and spend a good chunk of the day (and night) listening to and watching a range of performances by the Kharkiv-born tenor. His repertoire was immensely wide (Puccini; Tchaikovsky; Bizet; Berg; Prokofiev; Strauss –Richard and Johann; Rimsky-Korsakov; Donizetti; Verdi; Mussorgsky) but barely captured his talent. Making his Bolshoi debut in 2003, Paster would perform with many prestigious institutions indeed – Opéra de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, The Metropolitan Opera, Semperoper Dresden, Teatro Alla Scala, the Salzburg Festival. He was rightly famous for his Shuisky in Boris Godunov, performing in a variety productions on an assortment of stages, including the Bolshoi, Opéra Bastille (Paris), The Met, and Teatro Comunale (Bologna). Paster’s commitment to music possessed an innate humility; this was an artist who very clearly humbled himself before whatever was in front of him, placing his entire self into the service of the text and music, and of rendering them as one. In so doing he gave us something personal, not performative – emotional, not sentimental – thus making the music immediate and very real. Witness his care with the words of Sergei Yesenin in this 2019 performance of Rostislav Boyko’s “Moon Above The Window”:

That voice, flinty and flexible, went hand-in-hand with a deep theatrical understanding. Paster understood, so well, the large value of small gestures. A turn of a torso; a cock of a head; the lift of a hand; slow, deliberate inhalations and exhalations, visible for all to see – such combinations, when done with such elegant economy as what Paster employed, quietly opened doors of perception and understanding, and made one hungry for more. There are very few artists who are so knowing in their creative choices, and whose vocal expression is so utterly attuned with a composer’s imagination – and that of an audience. Paster embodied an artistic authenticity as rare as it is remarkable. He died at the age of 47, still with so much left to offer to music, art, the world.

News of Paster’s passing made for a grim start to September, a month of change, and perhaps some needed reflection on that imminent change. “One hasn’t got time for the waiting game,” to quote Weill’s famous song, with words by Maxwell Anderson. “September Song”, interestingly, made its entry into the world on September 26, 1938 as part of the trial run of the musical Knickerbocker Holiday in Hartford, Connecticut. The “waiting game” need only be played out a few more days before my much-promised feature interview with BSO Recordings Managing Director Guido Gärtner is published. Until then, watch, listen, read, attend… think, rethink, evaluate… slowly.

Top photo: Mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
Gabriele Schnaut, Klytämnestra, Elektra, Bayerische Staatsoper, opera, classical, live, performance, arts, culture, stage

Things to watch, listen to, read (and a lot of Hamlet)

First things first: the Substack newsletter I’d planned is on hold, for many reasons, including technological. If and when things change, I will make an announcement here. Secondly (and related to first): I’ve been busy with professional work, which includes numerous reviews for The Globe & Mail.

Importantly:

Thank you, readers new and old, for standing by me and supporting my work, especially through these last three-plus years, which has been a largely difficult and painful time. I confess that I am slowly winding down my work here, though I may post a few occasional interviews related to artists and events in the future – things that catch my interest and equally speak to our current socio-political epoch with regards to creativity, geography, and ambition.

In that vein: my next interview is with conductor Giordano Bellincampi, who next month leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) in the New Zealand premiere of Die Tote Stadt. Bellincampi, who is also the Music Director of the APO, shares his thoughts around music-making with the orchestra through the pandemic, the necessity of risk, and why Korngold’s opera is so important, especially right now. (There’s also a very moving story that comes with that.) Look out for it next weekend.

A few things have caught my attention the last little while, one of them being the immense traffic my 2022 essay on war and cancel culture continues to garner. I still believe the co-opting of algorithmically-driven language by sectors within the arts community (and arts journalism) is fascinating if frustrating. Nuance, complexity, context, whatever; they don’t generate ad-friendly clicks fomented by white-hot outrage. Pffft. Patience, time, attention, intelligence – very unsexy indeed. To hell with nuance! (I can’t do it; maybe you can.)

All of which is to say: I was very happy to note the Kharkiv Music Festival went ahead this year. Conductor Vitali Alekseenok, who has been the Festival’s Artistic Director since 2021, led a closing-night gala which featured an inspiring mix of opera arias, Ukrainian music, and symphonic works, including Alekseenok’s own arrangement of “Hymn” by Valentin Silvetrov. The conductor, who published a book in 2021 chronicling the protest movement in his native Belarus and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 drove van-fulls of aid supplies from Berlin to the Polish-Ukrainian border, was named this week as Chief Conductor of Deutsche Oper am Rhein starting in the 2024-2025 season. In March 2022 he told Van Musik’s Hartmut Welscher about what he had observed with regards to his Russian contacts:

 I realize how hard it is to do anything in Russia, especially with the new laws that passed (…). But you have to do everything you can. You don’t necessarily need to take to the streets, but you must find some way of taking a stand and speaking out. Better small actions than no action at all. Silence is the most dangerous thing, but of course most people opt for that; or they keep their eyes closed.

Keeping in that vein: this is a very good documentary.

https://youtu.be/gep4147pJrQ

Much (not all) of the footage in this nearly hour-long work was filmed covertly. It is especially useful in illuminating the rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, and his/their recent “march for justice.”

Alekseenok’s work, together with recent events, and a re-examination of various texts, had me thinking a lot about opera, specifically Russian opera, and the ways in which various works have depicted and dealt with power, on stage as much as off of it. I worried this initial quote-tweet yesterday, based off of European Resilience Initiative Center founder Sergej Sumlenny, came off too glib, especially considering the gravity of the then-unfolding drama, so, to paraphrase Byron, I suddenly felt anxious to explain my explanation. Maybe I am context-obsessed, or maybe, as my mother often used to tell me, I’m being too sensitive.

tweet, opera, Russian, coup, Wagner Group, Mussorgsky, power

In this thread I also highlighted Staatstheater Nürnberg’s excellent in-concert presentation of Anton Rubinstein’s rarely-performed 1875 opera The Demon, a work which largely revolves around notions of nuance, balance, perceptions, faith, and ultimately, redemption. Baritone Jochen Kupfer gave a deeply moving portrait of the titular character, with a beautiful burnished tone and crystalline diction. The Demon gets one more outing this season, on July 8th, with the recent performance broadcast (and accessible) via BR Klassik.

Tomorrow (Monday, 26 June) the Bavarian broadcaster will be busy simulcasting the opening of Hamlet by composer Brett Dean at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The presentation follows on Dean’s new piece”Nocturnes and Night Rides” written for the 500th anniversary of the Bayerische Staatsorchester, which was presented by the organization earlier this year.

I reviewed Hamlet the opera when it made its world premiere in 2017 – my observation that it’s an important addition to the opera canon made the headline, which is amusing in retrospect, considering the extent to which that’s indeed become true! To say this work had a big effect is putting things mildly.

In the introduction to my interview with Hamlet librettist Matthew Jocelyn in 2019, I wrote that his and Dean’s work, “(t)he theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone.” At the time Jocelyn was directing the opera’s German premiere at Oper Köln. He discussed the differences between English and German-speaking audiences, his work with conductor Duncan Ward, the uses of language (“the French say “dégustation”) and his collaboration with Dean in the work’s creation (“he more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it”).

Allan Clayton, John Tomlinson, Bayerische Staatsoper, Hamlet, Brett Dean, Matthew Jocelyn, Bayerische Staatsorchester, Neil Armfield, Bavarian State Opera, Shakespeare

John Tomlinson and Allan Clayton in a scene from the 2023 Bayerische Staatsoper presentation of Hamlet. Photographer: Wilfried Hösl.

That collaborative spirit was echoed by tenor Allan Clayton when we spoke in early 2020. Clayton sang the lead in the world premiere of Hamlet in 2017, and performed the Met’s production of the opera last year; he’ll rejoin some of the original cast (including Rod Gilfry and Sir John Tomlinson) and crew (director Neil Armfield and conductor Vladimir Jurowski) for the presentation in Munich.  Clayton recalled working on the first Hamlet production in Glyndebourne and how “every department was being collaborative, from Matthew and Brett’s first jotting down which scenes they wanted to include, to the first night. Everybody was giving everything.”

Speaking of giving: Gabriele Schnaut (pictured in the top photo) knew a thing or two about giving all onstage, and through all kinds of projects. The soprano passed away this week at the age of 72. As well as being one of the great singers of dramatic opera repertoire (Wagner, Strauss, Janáček), Schnaut was also open to working with contemporary composers, including Wolfgang Rihm. In 1987 she performed as Ophelia in Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a work based on Heiner Müller’s 1977 play of the same name and a highly abstract reading of Shakespeare’s play. Throughout her career Schnaut was hailed for her forceful stage performances and visceral interpretations; she made her Bayreuth debut in 1977, and in the coming two-plus decades, gave more than 100 performances there. This, in addition to singing at major houses (New York, London, Milan, Paris, Vienna, to name a brief few), and, from 2005 to 2014, a professor of voice at the University of Performing Arts in Berlin.

Schnaut was especially associated with her work at Bayerische Staatsoper, and in 1997 she graced its stage as the lead in Herbert Wernicke’s then-new (and still-revived) production of Elektra. Almost two decades later, she was in the opera again, this time as Klytämnestra. Her bows from that time, caught on video here, are particularly moving, as were the many tributes and expressions of grief at the news of her death.

Until next time… keep your cultural antennae out, and remember the c-word (it’s context).

Top photo by Wilfried Hösl.
Stefano La Colla, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Tosca, Paul Curran, Canadian Opera Company, Puccini, Cavaradossi

What Tosca And Metal Share (More Than You Think)

One of my strongest childhood summer memories involves the great indoors. The intense humidity and rain of one Southern Ontario July forced in-house activities, so my mother decided to enjoy the fruits of still-new VCR technology and watch some of the items within an immensely arts-leaning library. It used to be such an occasion to pop a tape in and watch something one had recorded weeks or even months before; the act of rewatching a program, of having easy access to that piece of news or entertainment, of being able to fast-forward through commercials, or rewind and re-view something, or pause on a favorite spot – it was all a big deal, and a unique form of techno-social adhesion.

Many of the tapes in my mother’s growing collection were recordings of Metropolitan Opera productions, broadcast regularly on PBS. I imagine this is how more than a few people (kids included) came to opera, through such broadcasts and through the use of VCRs. The rainy summers became more bearable, and introduced a host of young friends to what, for me, was just a normal part of everyday life.  Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca was a favorite; the characters, the setting, the music – it was all very intriguing to a young mind. I wore out the videotape of the celebrated 1985 Franco Zeffirelli production with Hildegard Behrens in the lead, Placido Domingo as her devoted lover Cavaradossi, and Cornell MacNeil as a very scary Scarpia. One rainy afternoon the mother of one of my friends who had been visiting came by to collect her child, and then stood, open-mouthed, in our doorway. I had turned around, between bites of an ice cream float, and looked at Mrs. So-and-so. How was this so weird? What was she stunned over? My friend was as taken as I was over this intense, passionate, violent, crazy work with amazing music; why the surprise? My mother offered her most elegant smile.

“It’s almost over; can you wait a few minutes?”

“Sure,” said shocked mum. “I just never expected my daughter to be so interested in… opera!”

My mother laughed over dinner later in our tiny, dimly-lit kitchen.

“She just couldn’t believe her eyes…”

I made a face.

“Not everyone likes classical music, you know. Especially opera.”

Well they should, I said, leaning over and scooping up the cat, humming the Dah-DAH! notes of Scarpia’s scary musical motif.

“Put the cat down when you’re at the table.”

DahDAAAHHHH!

My mother rolled her eyes.

“Let’s watch something else tonight, okay?”

It’s easy (and certainly fashionable) to make faces and roll eyes and pronounce Puccini’s work too vulgar, too loud, too big, too (heaven forbid) emotional; to write off Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” (musicologist Joseph Kerman’s infamous 1952 pronouncement) and to wave it off as not-serious art and not-real opera. I’m not sure how to feel about this line of thinking; indeed, it isn’t The Ring, but so what? Should all opera be precisely the same? What’s so wrong with emotion? Intelligence is elevated but empathy is far more rare, and Tosca reminds me of its importance, in art and in life. Yes, the opera is clearly a part of my childhood nostalgia, but I hear bits of the score and still get chills at how evocative it is, in terms of conveying both outer and inner realities, and the ways it deftly combines art, sex, religion, and politics. Scarpia’s attempted rape of the title character in the Second Act lands very differently as an adult; there is a stomach-churning familiarity. It is uncomfortable but the scene renders his murder by the would-be victim that much more powerful, and his ultimate revenge on her that much more horrific. Such immediacy matters in art and gains more meaning as the years go by.

This close-to-the-bone quality is one writer Tori Wanzama picks up on beautifully in her essay below. The Communications student, who previously contributed to this website with an excellent essay on her first opera experience at Carmen this past autumn, recently attended the current Canadian Opera Company staging (a remount of its 2008 production) and offers some wonderfully singular insights involving theatre, drama, and… heavy metal? Read on.

Canadian Opera Company, Paul Curran, Tosca, Roland Wood, Puccini, Scarpia, cross, Te Deum, scene

Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage left) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023.

Tosca: Love, Hate, And A Twisted Triangle

Last October I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Opera Company’s presentation of Carmen at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, and to detail the excitement of my first opera experience. I enjoyed the show thoroughly, though it didn’t spark the classical-leaning revolution in my musical taste the way I had anticipated.

Admittedly I do return to the famous “Habanera” from time to time, and it, like Bizet’s opera, remains just as hypnotic as the first time I heard it. But metal has dominated my listening habits lately, making screaming and “shredding” the standard for me. While I consider my music taste eclectic and all-encompassing, my affinity for metal has given me a critical ear toward other genres. I enjoy them all, but still feel most lack a vital ingredient: drama. I find myself longing for the ferocity of intense instrumentals and booming vocals that demand virtuosity from artists. It is the same quality which is alive and nurtured at the opera, and that I found especially present in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which I was fortunate enough to attend in Toronto last week.

In Rome, 1800, a twisted love triangle begins amidst the French Revolutionary Wars. The union of opera singer Tosca (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace) and painter Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) is challenged when the latter hides escaped political prisoner Angelotti (Christian Pursell). The painter’s crime is discovered by the cruel chief of police Scarpia (Roland Wood) who plans to execute both men; the chief’s enthusiasm for execution is matched only by his lust for Tosca whom he propositions, offering her lover’s freedom in exchange for her submission to him. Tosca seemingly concedes, but once Scarpia signs a letter of safe conduct she is quick to kill him. Victoriously, Tosca reunites with Cavaradossi to deliver her good news, but the couple’s happiness is short-lived when Cavaradossi’s execution is still carried out; in despair Tosca ends her life. This third act betrayal is played as a shock but the tragic end reveals itself far earlier, in Act 1, when the three leads reveal their true natures; with every passing aria their terrible trajectory becomes plain to see.

In the Toronto presentation (running to May 27th), La Colla’s Cavaradossi is sung with pure conviction. When he sings of his love for Tosca in “Dammi i colori” his passion for her is tangible, with a vocal tenderness difficult to describe. I can only stress to see it live it if you can; I quite literally swooned in my seat as he sang his admiration of Tosca’s brown eyes, and I find I am yet haunted by his delivery, even several days after experiencing it; his commitment is clear, as is his loyalty to Angelotti, the friend he helps to hide. “E’buona la mia” is delivered with genuine urgency as he promises his help, and curses Scarpia with a hypnotic cadence that is reminiscent of a priest delivering blessings to ward off evil. Cavaradossi is dedicated to those whom he cares for, but it is this devotion that is his demise when faced with cruel competition.

The same can be said of Tosca, whose love for Cavaradossi is demonstrated in her possessiveness. Despite her jealous ways, it is clear why the role is so famous as Campbell-Wallace takes the stage to offer a Tosca who is both cunning and cute. Campbell-Wallace brings such charisma to the character that even Tosca’s jealousy is endearing, especially in the scenes with her bickering back and forth with Cavaradossi in their love duet. Campbell-Wallace and La Colla’s vocals are heavenly in harmony, and there is a seamless chemistry between the performers that makes the exchange especially charming; I could see the years behind this couple, just as clearly as I could see the end of their days. Their devastating love for one another creates a malaise that lingers and peaks in act two with “Vissi d’arte”. Your heart breaks as Tosca mourns her tragic circumstance and sings with beautiful horror at Scarpia’s advances. Her audible desperation underscores her determination to protect Cavaradossi no matter the cost.

Roland Wood, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Tosca, Canadian Opera Company, Paul Curran, Puccini

Roland Wood as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper

This ruthless resolve is matched by Cavaradossi’s competition, Scarpia, who is driven by lust rather than love. Roland Wood embodies Scarpia perfectly, with a booming baritone befitting of such a cruel character. The “Te Deum” is an absolutely chilling number conveying the chief of police’s corruption to superb effect. Scarpia is explicit about his evil intentions as he revels in his manipulation of Tosca with the Cardinal’s procession as his chorus. The chief explains the pleasures of romantic conquest with such perverted pride that makes his performance both uncomfortable and enticing to watch.

The First Act sets a foreboding tone with each performer conveying emotions which make individual motivations clear, and with such conviction coming from each character that there is no other end but disaster. We can only await the sequential calamity as the loyalty of the lovers is tested against Scarpia’s ruthlessness. The small cast creates a palpable intimacy, bringing the audience closer to each character, surely an aim of the verismo tradition; the operatic genre contrasts contained, realistic story writing with a florid and declamatory vocal style that emphasizes emotion. This cast delivers with awe-inspiring vocals that soar above even the bombastic orchestra led by conductor Giuliano Carella.

I left Tosca both impressed and unsettled; the show is unmistakably “metal” in its presentation of beautiful brutality. In his director’s note, Paul Curran noted that “opera is about sex, religion, and politics” and immediately I thought metal is much the same. The two genres also share an unflinching gaze, not only at death, but at human anguish. Researching this shared affinity for agony led me to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in which the ancient philosopher states in observing tragedy that evokes fear and pity, “the human soul…is purged of its excessive passions”. Across both genres, artists explore the aforementioned ideas to their extremes, creating a unique release for respective audiences; despair becomes delight amidst the throes of musical virtuosos, and metal and opera alike offer an essence that cannot be found anywhere else.

Top photo: Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper
Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler: Balancing New Projects & Old Favorites

Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.

In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.

Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”

Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.

Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?

It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is  – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”

What has your process been so far?

Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.

Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.

A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.

That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers. 

It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an aversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..

… and yet!

… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.

The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?

I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.

To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?

It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.

How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?

Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.

For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.

But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.

That seems more rooted in reality. 

Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.

That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…

It’s not odd!

Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?

It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…

How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?

In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”

Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?

I would say no …

So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?

It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with René Jacobs, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.

So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.

Top Photo: Marco Borggreve

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