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Video Interview: Me, Talking Bel Canto, Opera’s Relevance, And More

Voila, here’s my first public chat about opera.

John Price of Canadian publication Exclaim! Magazine and I discuss all things Donizetti, especially as related to L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love); the Metropolitan Opera production was re-broadcast (in its Live in HD format, through Cineplex Events) to a VIP audience last week. Alas, the microphones stopped working early on, and I apologize to those opera-goers who couldn’t properly hear in the auditorium. Fingers crossed if and when there’s another event, the technology will cooperate! It was, nonetheless, a very fun event, and it was really lovely to meet and chat with audience members of all ages at intermission and after the screening. Mille grazie!

Elisir_Yende

Pretty Yende as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Opera experts will kindly note I was speaking to a non- classical-loving audience. No, I didn’t mention the big aria in this work — everybody should like what they like without the pressure (and possible distraction) of “waiting” for The Big Song; yes, I mentioned the importance of supporting new and contemporary opera works alongside old chestnuts. (Related: I referenced the Staatsoper Berlin’s new season, which had just been announced, within this context.) No, I didn’t mention Rossini; yes, I mentioned Ligeti. (Why not?) No, I didn’t remember (oddly) that baritone Davide Luciano is Italian; yes, I’m still mortified.  No, I didn’t go with a form-fitting dress; yes, I made a grave fashion error (or perhaps several).

Many thanks to the Toronto friends and supporters who came out to this; your encouragement honestly means more than you know. Cheers to more of these types of events, and fingers crossed on being able to do them in a few different languages as well. Weiter

 

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

L'elisir Met Opera

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

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

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

Polenzani Nemorino

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

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

A Trip For My Mother: Experiencing Opera in Italy

Last evening was the last of two performances of Verdi’s magnificent Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Featuring the talents of soloists Veronica Simeoni (soprano), Anna Pirozzi (mezzo soprano), Antonio Poli (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass baritone), and led with intense passion by conductor Daniele Callegari, the occasion was dedicated to the memory of tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the tenth year of his passing. The Requiem was the first classical experience I had in Italy, and it was more emotional than I was anticipating.

Coming to Italy has meant facing the lingering grief associated with losing my mother, who introduced me to opera and who passed away in 2015 after living more than a decade with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was her caregiver during that time, and I miss her in ways expected and unexpected. I knew this would be an emotional trip, but it also felt like an important one for me to take. Turning away from the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists live in places I know and love (like London) or places I’ve yet to see opera (like Paris, Munich, and Vienna), I chose Festival Verdi because it was, once it had been suggested to me, the sentimental journey I realized I needed to take.

Interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Carmen may have been my first opera as a small child (I was kitted out in long gown and rabbit coat, and taken to a production at Toronto’s then-named O’Keefe Centre), but Verdi was the composer whose work I was essentially raised to. It is not an exaggeration to say his music was the soundtrack of my life. Yes, there was Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, and ABBA, and Dean Martin, and Patsy Cline, and many others besides (my mother loved them all), but Giuseppe Verdi’s position in our little house was central and over-arching. I was a suburban ten-year-old who could sing along with “La donna è mobile” even if I didn’t know exact pronunciations of the words, let alone their meaning. I felt an electric thrill ripple from ears to legs to toes and back again the first time I hear “Di quella pira” (and I still do now). Watching a performance of La traviata‘s famous Brindisi on PBS inspired me to hoist a juice glass and sway around the room; I didn’t really know what they were saying (something about a good time?) but it felt good inside. This music still has the same effect for me; I feel good inside hearing it, whether it’s sad, happy, celebratory, or vengeful. The socio-political subtext of many of Verdi’s works, which I learned about growing older, only made me appreciate them even more, and never stopped me from swaying inside to that Brindisi.

My mother in opera-going gear. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Italophile though she was, my mother never learned the language, despite her love of opera and the many Italian friends we had through the years, and she didn’t travel as much as she would’ve liked for opera. Being a single mother in the 70s and 80s in Canada meant that going to the O’Keefe was all she could manage — that is, until we finally went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the late 1980s. She’d already been of course, many years before, and prior to that, had seen many performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s original house. If motherhood (especially single motherhood) had dimmed her ability to see live performances, it had also made her go ever more deeply into her ever-growing music collection, and, at that time, record every single PBS special. I only recently cleaned out those (literally) hundreds of VHS cassettes, unplayable not just because of technological advances, but through sheer wear and tear; we watched the hell out of that stuff, and more than one happy evening was spent staring and listening, sipping on root beer floats.

Returning to the Met was, looking back on it, a kind of a homecoming for her. We sat up in the Family Circle and it was there, in the darkness, surrounded by well-dressed matrons and comfy-casual students, locals, travellers, newbies, old hands, the old, the young, everyone in-between, with the music coming in waves up to us, that I finally truly understood the depth of my mother’s passion. Not the swaying and verklempt expressions the many times she’d go up and down supermarket aisles, Sony Walkman firmly in place, listening to Saturday Afternoon At the Opera. Not the coy smile when we met Placido Domingo during his Toronto visit (a smile returned, by the way, with a wink). Not even the occasional breathy “ahh” between sections during live performances at the O’Keefe. No, nothing underlined my mother’s passion for the art form until we went to the Met, and especially, saw Luciano Pavarotti (her very favorite singer) perform, and the music of Verdi at that. If it’s possible to experience a person’s spirit leaving their body, I did in those times, and it’s a big reason I wish she was here with me in Italy.

My mother and I in 2000. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Still, there were challenges. Get two willful females living together and you may guess the rest; this trip she’d be chiding me to get a move on, stop burying myself in work, and “you don’t need that second glass of wine!” We’d argue about music as much as the mundanities of every life. I could not, as a teenager, understand her love of Wagner, whose work is, perhaps, the anchovies of opera, or was for me at least; only time, maturity, and experience allowed me to experience and appreciate the richness and complexity. While I adore his work now, in my younger days I had less than friendly feelings. My mother, by contrast, attended nearly an entire weekend of Wagner operas one trip to NYC; she wasn’t so deeply into the mythology as just the sheer, grand sound of it all, and if anyone could parse the threads between the two, it was her.

“You go for the music,” she would say. “If you don’t appreciate this stuff (meaning Verdi and Wagner, both), you can’t say you love opera.”

Not long after she passed away in 2015, an opera-loving friend active in the classical music world wrote to me. “She had the most pure appreciation for the music of anyone I’ve ever met,” he stated. “There was really nothing like it.”

Some may roll their eyes at this, and her perceived ignorance — the fact she couldn’t name all the international singers, didn’t know a lot of various directors’ works, didn’t closely follow very many careers outside of a famous few, couldn’t tell you about tessitura, cabalettas, or fach, didn’t (could’t) travel, didn’t have urban opera friends — and many more yet will say I parallel that ignorance in all kinds of ways, that I’m a twit, an amateur, a poseur, that I am pretentious and snobbish and full of hot air … to which I can only say, I admit ignorance to many things, I acknowledge the many holes that need filling, I try to educate myself in all sorts of ways, but also: I never, ever want to lose the purity of my mother’s appreciation. The day that purity is gone is the day I stop traveling, and the day I stop writing also.

Verdi’s Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 19 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last night I was reminded of my mother’s pure appreciation, and just how much it’s been passed on. There are plenty of reasons why Verdi’s Requiem is important in terms of historical and political contexts (and NPR is right to call it “an opera in disguise“); none of those relate to what I found striking and moving experiencing its magnificent performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma, though. There was such a directness conveyed by and through Maestro Callegari, whose body language and responsiveness conveyed such a truly personal connection with the score. I’ve seen this work many times — with my mother and without — and while I have my favorite performances, none rank with this one; the immense chorus and orchestra transmitted balls-out grief and anger, and were wonderfully contrasted and complemented by thoughtfully modulated performances of the performers, who carefully wielded vocal texture and volume to create a wonderfully satisfying unity of sound. The house itself created so much immediacy of sound, and I can’t wait to hear more in it throughout the coming week.

At the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

My mother attended the opera in both Rome and Florence during her lifetime, but she returned from that particular trip full of remorse, as she told me, that she’d gone to Florence and not had time to go further north, to Parma and especially Busseto, where all things Verdi are located. Her absolute dream trips were to go to Milan for La Scala, and Verdi’s birthplace and home. I’m nearby in Parma, and I am thinking of her constantly.

I smiled lastnight, my critic’s ear ever focused, thinking, “that brass section is a bit loud” only to hear my mother chide me, as she did so often in such cases, as she’d shake her mane of red tresses and furrow her brow: “Don’t be so critical all the time, just enjoy… listen and enjoy!”

Good advice. Mille grazie, mamma. Questo viaggio è per te.

David Devan: Old World, Brand New, at Opera Philadelphia

Welcome to The Opera Queen.

The name, as you will learn in the “About Me” section, is firmly done with tongue in cheek, and in no way implies this site is about one art form alone. How could it be? Opera itself incorporates so many disciplines — music, theatre, visual art, dance, literature — and my tastes and passion are too wide to ever focus on one art form. The name actually comes from a friend who teasingly called me “the opera queen” in 2015, when I decided to more fully immerse myself in reporting on the art form following the passing of my opera-loving mother in 2015. (There’s also the fact my first and last names are frequently misspelled; theoperaqueen.com eliminates the possibility of any confusion, I hope.) The name was chosen with a playful spirit (and in the interests of clarity), though hopefully you’ll find a variety of things here, both playful and serious, vivacious and thought-provoking, joyous and contemplative.

This premiere post integrates so many of the things I believe in when it comes to culture; it is being done from Berlin, a city I seem to be visiting frequently. I was here in both January and May, each time for opera-heavy visits; this time I’m attending the Musikfest portion of annual Berliner Festspiele, (which is considerably, and wonderfully, heavy on symphonic work. (Look for a full report in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Tonight I am seeing Riccardo Chailly conduct the Filarmonica della Scala, whom I saw at last year’s Salzburg Festival, with a program chalk-full of Verdi works. “It is an orchestra which is living daily with opera,” Chailly said recently.

Lots of people live that way, I think, including David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. A fellow Canadian who’s been with OP since the mid 2000s, Devan is the driving force behind the company’s visionary new 017 Festival, which focuses solely on contemporary work. You won’t find any Verdi at 017 — but you will find Mozart, specifically The Magic Flute, and more specifically yet, the famous Komische Oper Berlin production. Also being presented during the 017 Festival is the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, by an incredible team of people: composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones. The work explores a painful episode in Philadelphia’s history, and speaks to very timely issues of race, politics, and power. The Wake World, another world premiere (by Opera Philly’s composer-in-residence, David Hertzberg), is being presented in the famous galleries of The Barnes Foundation, and brings together the work of physician and collector Dr. Albert Barnes, and British magician and occultist Aleister Crowley, for what OP terms “a mystical world of hallucinatory vividness.”

Devan’s vision is, as you will hear, wide-ranging and very inclusive; he’s worked to make an old art form, in an old and very historic city, into something entirely for and of the 21st century, while still firmly retaining all the flavour, beauty, drama, and originality of opera, in and of itself. Devan’s ideas about audiences, art, and engagement are so thoughtful, and so worth considering, not for purely administrators — but for artists, creators, and yes, arts media as well.

The Opera Queen is officially here — to entertain and delight, yes, but to make you think as well. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Opera ≠ Church

Simon Schnorr as Don Giovanni in Jacopo Spirei’s 2016 production
for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

People come to opera with many opinions and ideas. If they’ve never seen a production, or have only caught tidbits online or the television, have gone at the behest of a significant other for a special occasion, or, they’ve worked in the industry their entire lives in some capacity, everyone has an opinion: It’s the greatest art form there is. It’s stagnant. It sucks.

In speaking with director Jacopo Spirei recently, it seemed as if he was highly aware of all of these opinions, and moreover, had spent considerable time with groups who held a diversity of ideas around the art form. It’s this awareness, I suspect, that powers so much of his directing work; the Florence-based director has a powerful desire to reach through all the baggage a person carries (whether artist or audience member), to present something new and very immediate. Spirei, as I outlined in part 1 of our chat recently, spent the early part of his career working with British director Graham Vick, whose own stagings of operatic works have attracted their fair share of fans and critics. Vick is a figure who firmly believes in community involvement, and in reinforcing the art form as an intrinsic part of society.

Spirei has a similar approach. He has a number of acclaimed productions under his belt, including Rossini’s comic La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) for Theater an der Wien (Vienna) in 2012; another Rossini opera,  the beloved La Cenerentola (Cinderella), for Festival Internacional de Musica (Cartagena) in 2014. He’s also worked with the renowned Co-Opera Co., helming productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) for the London-based organization. Spirei’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte won the audience prize for best production of the 2012/2013 season at the Salzburger Landestheatre, and he also helmed Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca (La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque) there in 2013. Spirei’s resume is long and impressive, and extremely varied.

As he mentioned in part one of my interview with him, the busy director has been behind a few versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, including a popular, acclaimed version of the work staged at the Landestheater in 2011, and remounted in 2016. He’s set to direct Verdi’s Falstaff in Parma at the Festival Verdi in October.

With his recent San Francisco Opera debut,  Spirei was tasked with re-envisoning Gabriele Lavia’s 2011 production of Don Giovanni. The director and I spoke just on the cusp of the production’s opening (on now through June 30th); thoughts about the dastardly deeds of the Don, as well as the centrality of women in Mozart’s famous 1787 opera, led to a broader discussion on opera attracting new audiences, the vital role of education, and the particulars of opera fashion. To go casual or not to go casual? Read on.

You recently told Newsweek that in Italy, opera is more about “pretty pictures”; I was reminded of the ongoing debate between new and old productions. Some people love the contemporary take on works; others feel there should be a return to beauty.

Yeah the problem is, what is beauty? It’s such a wide concept. When something you put onstage doesn’t help the story or doesn’t tell us anything, it hasn’t got a thing to say, then it has no place on our stages — it’s very simple. In a way you have to tell the story that is in the piece, that is written down; that’s where you start from. Of course you do it through your own intellect and creativity, but you cannot start decorating it; it doesn’t need that. The art form is absolutely fine on its own. What it needs is to be alive. It needs absolute essence, which is the live performance.

The joint work the director does with the conductor and the singers is to lift the opera from the page, to take it away from what’s written and recreate it, reinvent it. There’s no such a thing as pretty show or an ugly show; there’s a good show or a bad show. That doesn’t mean in-period not-in-period; somehow it’s a fake problem. If the work is good and relevant and done with honesty, then it’ll get through. Some work is provocative, some not, sometimes it want to be thought-provoking and hit something; each (production) has its own definition of beauty and of art, which makes us grow and develop.

… and some productions aim to be purposely unpleasant.

If you think about Caravaggio and a lot of his stuff, they’re beautiful paintings with incredibly morbid subjects: people without teeth, rotting away; fruit disintegrating. There’s a reason it’s rough, with that very harsh lighting. Beauty is, first of all, a completely subjective thing — I like purple maybe you like red, you see what I mean — in those terms it’s one thing. There are different styles, there’s brutalism, there’s a more decorative style. What I said about Italy and opera is not the fact that beauty is wrong, it’s just, instead of it being the obsession it used to be for this country — I mean, even Pasolini his own own version of beauty! — the theater has stopped developing, and become just a showcase of pretty costumes and nice scenery.

You mean museum pieces?

Right. So then you don’t need to do new productions — (old ones) were beautiful and had a lot of money (put toward them), a fantastic costume designer, what more do you need in life?

Gillian Ramm, Laura Nicorescu & Tamara Gura in Cosi fan tutte from Spirei’s production for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

The Met is grappling with this right now; the tension between those who enjoy what is called traditional stagings, and the group who say that’s boring and doesn’t move opera forwards.

First of all I think theater should be a leader, not a follower. The theater should lead an audience, teach an audience, make an audience grow, otherwise you end up with what TV has become, which is an endless number of reality shows, with no imagination, no creativity. In that sense the theater has to lead, in a way that works at every level; you have to show your audience a path and take them down that path. That’s one element of it, of course; the other element is the constant discussion about tradition. I find that very entertaining!

When we refer to “tradition” we’re basically referring to operas in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a really narrow frame of time for almost 500 years of opera history. If you go and look at the operas written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s, the sets were different; if you look at some of the sets from the early music festivals, they did the most abstract, extreme productions that today would get completely trashed. We’re only referring to the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and little bit of the 1970s; what does it mean? Composers like Verdi cared so deeply about a piece, he would do anything to bring it to life. This debate on tradition, it means nothing!

What it is, is, it’s comfortable — and comfort is laziness. The comfort of it, it’s everything. Nowadays we live in a political world that is only looking backwards, thinking back at the supposed good old times, because we think we know what good old times were — but we never had good old times. Like, “oh remember the 1980s!”

Ines Reinhardt and Sergey Romanovsky in Spirei’s 2013 production of Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

People romanticizing the past…

Yes! So we have to move forward; we have no choice. As human beings, there’s no going back.

Where does art and accessibility to newcomers, fit in? A lot of people have said to me that they find opera intimidating, they don’t know where to start, they think they won’t understand.

You’re absolutely right when you say “intimidated” — we just need to take the aura off it. It’s not a church, it doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you come and watch it. The San Francisco Opera is doing this thing where they’re showing the opera at the baseball stadium. It’s fantastic! I’ve been taking Uber cars around, the drivers all ask me where you from what you do, and when I tell them, they say, “Oh how cool, I’m curious!” And I say, listen if you want to see it, go to the baseball stadium, on thirtieth of June, you can see it, and they all say, this is great, cool!

The opening of the 2013-2014 Met Opera season; Eugene Onegin (with Anna Netrebko), broadcast live in Times Square.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s like the Met broadcasting its opening night in Times Square — I’ve gone to that more than once, and it’s fun. People bring thermoses and sandwiches. 

Wonderful! Really, there’s nothing wrong with the art form, it’s fine, it just needs to be taken to the people. Of course, if the people don’t come to the theater, the theater has to go to the people, and find a way to go to the people, maybe not via the big institutions — you need the big institutions to keep the art form alive — but you also need the new world of young companies to bring the artform to the people and even take the people into the theater, or not, at least then it’s an educated choice. People can then reasonably say, “I’ve seen it and I don’t like it” or “Wow, that’s great!”

At least plant the idea…

Yes.

My attitude is, if you do want to come with me to the opera house, please make an effort to look smart; I like doing something special, and it’s nice to see people having the desire to do that. That doesn’t mean opera is snotty or elitist —dressing up doesn’t mean those things. I feel like we have to demystify the opera house as an overall experience, and that extends to fashion.

Absolutely. If a person says, “I’m not wearing a suit but I’m still going,” in a way, from my point of view, that’s the priority (getting them in). It’s like going out on a Saturday night: you dress up, but it shouldn’t feel like, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PUT ON MY BEST TUX!”

Simon Schnorr und Sergey Romanovskys in Spirei’s 2013 production of Cosi fan tutti for Salzburger Landestheatre. Photo: Photo: © Christina Canaval

But seeing jeans and sneakers sometimes frustrates me; I feel like we’ve coddled everybody, especially in North America, to constantly feel the need for comfort, throughout every single experience. It seems as you say, lazy. You can look smart casual, but that’s not the same thing.

Ah, sneakers and jeans, you see them everywhere. You can spend more on jeans than an actual tuxedo, D&G and Cavalli make some very fancy jeans! Times change, and all that develops, it’s absolutely fine, and again, one can like it or not like it. You have all the right to say, “If you come with me, look decent” — I don’t have a problem. What I think is crucial is to bring opera to the people, as well as people to the opera.

Nowadays, unless you live in Germany or Austria or a few other countries, you don’t grow up with music, it’s not taught in schools, the opera house is not a place where you go. I worked a lot in Germany and Austria, and it’s completely part of the culture. You take your kids to it, they grow up watching music and go to the opera and they are completely unfazed by it. They are not shocked, they have a relationship to culture; they know what they’re talking about when they discuss it.

It’s woven into the fabric of society there.

Yes, moreso than in Italy. I’ve worked so little in Italy; life has brought me outside. There’s a lot one has to say “no” to; it also has to do with the funding, (Italian companies) can’t really plan ahead because they don’t know if they will have money next year or how much money they might have. Italy has been cutting things regularly, every year, sometimes mid-season. So theaters are trying. It’s harder for sure — but Italy has also mismanaged money for a really long time.

And now it’s catching up with them?

Of course.

Hannah Bradbury, Raimundas Juzuits, Florian Plock, Kristofer Lundin und Lavinia Bini in Spirei’s 2016 production of Don Giovanni for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

It’s always the arts that gets cut first…

Always, and it’s the biggest mistake a society can make.

Education and arts are essential; theater is essential; if you study it, if you go, if you do it, you learn to be in somebody else’s clothes, somebody else’s problems, you start to empathize with those problems and become more tolerant and less judgemental, you are a better person. And being an audience in a theater makes you a better person also. It teaches you to be in a room packed with other people, and to really listen to something, not interfering with it or with others, but sharing an experience.

Opera: Relevant.

I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience — and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.
As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages —  sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.
So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto;  Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.
So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.

Playful Punk Opera

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo in Tap:Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Amidst the many serious features and interviews I’ve done lately, it came as something of a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the very real importance of play  — even when the notion comes wrapped in some challenging dressing.

The occasion was a creative collaboration between Canadian punk band Fucked Up and Toronto-based opera company Tapestry, which specializes in new works. Following previous collaborations involving electronics and Maria Callas, as well as a daring re-envisioning of the Medea myth this past summer, Tapestry have demonstrated they aren’t exactly shy when it comes to pushing the boundaries of opera as an artistic form. Artistic Director Michael Mori has ably, creatively demonstrated his commitment to moving opera into the 21st century, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways; a recent fundraiser for the company featured a mix of Mozart and contemporary composers, while their latest work, which paired members of Fucked Up with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and tenor David Pomeroy, conveyed a clear desire to challenge audiences in big ways.

Tap: Ex Metallurgy, as the evening was called, was staged at the company’s homebase for operations, located in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. Amidst the rumble of not-so-distant commuter trains and the din of highway traffic, the evening’s first half unfolded as a kind of meditation on loss, with Szabo and Pomeroy singing the roles of two parents grieving the recent loss of a child. A deeply theatrical work staged with elegant economy, Jonah Falco’s music and a libretto by Mike Haliechuk and David Hames Brock offered a heart-full take on a painful subject. Production designer David DeGrow’s lighting, a panoply of strong, changing colors, conveyed more than mere mood, but painted a psychological portrait of suffering, in all its myriad forms, while Mori’s simple, powerful staging featured musicians assembled onstage leaving, one by one, until the only two figures left, Szabo and violinist Yoobin Ahn, performed a kind of conversational duet that ended in quiet grace.

Fucked Up’s Mike Haliechuk in Tap: Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz

It was hardly the stuff one associates with the bald aggression of punk, but the contrast between the actual experience and the perceived cliche was powerful, and the experimentation behind it was a thoughtful sort of playfulness that forced one to re-think boundaries between musical genres. Haliechuk’s guitar effects had a kind of loud if soothing effect that was both ethereal and grounding at once — kind of like the best-sung opera arias.

The meditative nature of Metallurgy‘s first half contrasted nicely with the evening’s altogether lighter second half, which featured Szabo and Pomeroy playing out the various stages of a relationship. At one point the tenor even offered his own unique take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, complete with impressive solo on a flying V guitar placed nearby. There was something so refreshing, so powerful, so gorgeously alive about the simple if highly effective (and entertaining) portrayal of the work’s “love-at-first-sight-over-a-lifetime” theme, one that lent itself nicely to operatic expression. The work, by librettist David James Brock and music by Ivan Barbotin, neatly captured the intense ups, depressive lows, and inevitable mediocrities of a long-term relationship with grace, power, and a stylish staging that made nice use of the electric chemistry between Pomeroy and Szabo. The maniacal grin on Pomeroy’s face as he wailed on guitar offered a hilariously bald contrast to Szabo’s patient, amused/unamused expression, and the air was deliciously electric with a crackling audience excitement feeding off this interaction. Between this moment and the big. bold very punk-like sounds of Fucked Up members Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk and Josh Zucker, one could almost hear audience thoughts: this is opera? YESSSS! 

As a disco ball spun overhead and the small, packed space filled with a million little shiny beads of light, I couldn’t help but marvel at the importance of play in opera; maybe the medium needs more of it, more than ever. opera really isn’t as poe-faced as everyone thinks it is — especially to those who work closely within or beside it. Sometimes it takes a punk band to bring that playfulness out, but the willingness has to already exist. The joyous moments of musical playfulness, whether actualized by kicking down musical boundaries or offering moments of audio abandon, feel too few and far-between, and really, that doesn’t need to be the norm in an artform as inherently theatrical and dynamic as opera. Thanks to Tapestry for pressing “play” — and really, really meaning it, maaaan.

Cinemoperatic

Watching opera in a cinema is strange. Are you supposed to clap? Would it be weird? Can you talk? Can you eat popcorn? Would it be wrong to unwrap candies?

I got a mini-schooling in the un-fine art of opera-cinema-going recently when I attended a showing of Lucia Di Lammermoor, broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as part of their popular The Met: Live In HD Series. Candy-wrapping and cellphone talking aside (both are frowned on with equal displeasure -though I wasn’t guilty of either, honest), it was a mainly positive experience, marred only by poor directorial choices within the broadcast and incredibly dull color that washed out the set and beautiful costumes, making it a less rich visual experience that it should’ve been.

The story of Donizetti’s 1835 opera is based on Scottish writer Walter Scott’s eighteenth century novel The Bride of the Lammermoor, and focuses on the warring clans of Ravenswood and Ashton. Passionate, strong-willed Lucy becomes enamored of the penniless chief of a rival clan, but is forced to marry someone who’ll be good for the waning family fortunes, and subsequently goes insane, killing her groom and dying of grief. The novel is a long, drawn-out portrait of ancient tribalism set within a nasty, dark world of family and money; Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano found rich, ripe stuff in translating Scott’s words to the stage.

In Mary Zimmerman‘s haunting production set in the mid-to-late 19th century, we find a world where everyone harbors a secret and is guilty of something, through their own actions or those of their ancient clans. Though the title character (the Italian-ized “Lucia”) secretly loves the worn family enemy, there is still a true innocence about her, a quality that was laid especially bare in soprano Natalie Dessay‘s emotional portrayal. Her delicate, bird-like frame was used to incredible effect, especially since she was cast with the tall, broad likes of tenor Joseph Calleja, as her lover Edgardo, and imposing baritone Ludovic Tezia as her brother, Enrico.

As might be expected from a Met production, the singing, along with Patrick Summers‘ authoritative conducting, were top-notch. It was, however, difficult to fully appreciate Mara Blumenfeld’s gorgeous costuming or Daniel Ostling’s deliciously creepy set design, owing to a woeful lack of brightness and clarity in the transmission itself. Whether a signal problem or a projection technicality, the lack of clarity and brightness greatly diminished the grandeur of the spectacle; colors were, for the most part, dull and dark. “High Definition”? Not quite. The scene in which Lucia is first introduced to her family-approved groom-to-be, Arturo (Matthew Plenk) found her wearing a detailed lace/brocade red dress -the only red in the entire color scheme of the production (not counting the bloodied wedding gown later on) -and instead of blazing out from the screen, it merely yawned in a dusty fuschia. We know the Scottish moors are muddy… but not that muddy. Hopefully the folks in Egypt, Spain, and Portugal got a clearer picture.

Equally, Canadian director Barbara Willis Sweete, who helmed the live broadcast (shown across 1500 cinemas in 46 countries, no less) focused too much by… focusing too much. It’s deeply unfortunate that the grand, creepy majesty of Zimmerman’s production was lost because of an over-emphasis on close-ups, weird angles, zooms, and fast (/nausea-inducing) cross-stage pans. (And apparently, I’m not the only one who’s noticed that tendency in Sweete’s filmed-opera work.) There were a myriad of poor and even bizarre choices, indicating complete over-excitement and/or absolute unfamiliarity with the material. It’s hard to say which, but in any case, it made watching Lucia di Lammermoor in a cinema a very taxing (and occasionally confusing) endeavor.

During the dramatic second-act showdown in which the desperate brother forces his grieved sister to sign a marriage certificate, Sweete jumped between close-ups of the faces of performers Dessay and Tezier; we had to guess at their emotional states, which, especially in opera, tend to make the most sense in a wholly physical (not merely facial) sense. Were they mad? Conflicted? Same with vital details: did the ring Edgardo gave Lucia get thrown? Where? Did Enrico step on it? Body language would tellingly indicate such vital subtleties and shifts, but we weren’t given shots that would indicate either communication (unsung) or clarity (contextually), just close-ups of scrunched-up faces. Wouldn’t a wide shot to show their (clearly symbolic) distance, with the occasional close-up for emotional effect, be a better choice? It would also render their disquieting, tender-passionate physical interactions more all the more visceral.

The emotional resonance of the scene, like many, became as muddied as the color, and it was an unfortunate distillation of the problem of bridging opera and cinema: keeping the idea of staging alive. Zimmerman offered an incredible vision of the opera’s famous Sextet, by having the fancily-attired guests assembled for Lucia’s engagement party (a gathering the nearly-broke Enrico has staged to re-enter society) fan around her as she sits, surrounded entirely by men, and readying their pose for a waiting photographer. An oddly-angled wide shot used in the Live HD Broadcast completely diffused the visual power of that moment -one that (probably) worked perfectly in a live setting. The staging was excellent, thought-provoking union of sight and sound that underlined Zimmerman’s themes of family, responsibility, femininity, and notions of success. It was a pity that high-point was diminished through poor cinematographic choices.

Watching Lucia di Lammermoor on the big screen, the word “staging” never seemed more apt. It’s unwise and perhaps even foolhardy to shoot something as a movie if it’s already been laid out for the stage. It winds up looking hokey and induces some unwelcome dizziness, particularly when coupled with poor picture quality. In the famous Mad Scene in the third act, the audience was treated to a close-up of a doctor readying a sedative to give to poor, raving Lucia. Having been mesmerized by Dessay’s deliciously delirious, and awesomely beautiful handling of one of the most difficult passages in the history of vocal music, our suspension of disbelief (and lovely musical hypnosis) was cut egregiously short, as we noted, in said close-up, the lack of actual syringe, or liquid, going into the needle, breaking the magic of the scene and the audience’s trust in what was being depicted. There are so many other cinematographic choices that would’ve better served the stage presentation and further accentuated the themes of Zimmerman’s production, but they were either not taken enough, or completely ignored in favour of a more “cinematic” experience. Alas.

The plus side to those litany of close-ups (and for theater-loving me, it was a big plus) was the opportunity to see operatic acting at work. Most performers I’ve interviewed have told me it’s dangerously easy to fall into the notorious “park and bark” mode; you simply stand and …well, deliver. Sweete’s over-direction, if anything, offered a rare opportunity to view those frequently taken-for-granted acting chops. When it came to the title role, I found Dessay’s absolute love of the part and history with the opera obvious in every single scene she was in. The French soprano lived the role, sometimes to Sarah-Bernhardt-eque heights, but kept intact an innate sense of “fragility” -a word she used frequently in her intermission interviews with soprano/host Renee Flemming. Her tiny frame and expressive face gave her the look of a wounded sparrow surrounded by hungry wolves -or in tenor Calleja’s case, a gentle bear with a very bad temper.

The Malta-born singer used his considerable physicality to display an awesome, terrible violence in the scene where his character learns Lucia has married another, clearing rows of chairs in one scary *thwap* of the arm -but he also displayed incredible vulnerability and despair in his final, famous death scene. Calleja has a Valentino-like range of emotional expressions that are perfectly suited to stage work; he plays joy, grief, anger, rage, and anguish large, entering one scene with a scary scowl, another with bright eyes and a broad smile. It looked silly close-up, and it wasn’t at all suited to film, but it fit the demands of the stage beautifully. And really, it was his voice that kept my attention, for it is, quite simply, astonishing. I’ve not heard that quality of tone since I sat in the Met and watched Luciano Pavarotti perform many years ago. Calleja certainly stands on his own as an opera star on the rise, but with a voice like that, comparisons to the Pav are inevitable -and right.

In the acting sphere however, French baritone Ludovic Tezia stood in direct opposition to Calleja, and, in my humble, non-opera-expert opinion, quietly stole the show. His was a nuanced, layered performance, displaying the kind of brewing rage you might experience before a huge, violent calamity. Tezia perfectly tempered his performance to the demands of filming, and while the audience at the Met may’ve suffered (you can’t see that kind of subtlety from the Family Circle), he was absolutely magnetic, his rich, caramel voice showing a remarkable range of color and feeling, his acting displaying a man at odds with his life’s choices. With a raised eyebrow, a cock of the head, widening eyes, or a slow raise of shoulders, the honoured French singer displayed a remarkably menacing subtlety that left a deeply disturbing, if sad impression of a man who, to quote Tezia (again chatting with Flemming backstage), was forced to bear too much weight on his clearly-incapable shoulders.I didn’t perceive him as an out-and-out villain, but as a deeply layered, conflicted man whose complex personality was perfectly reflected in Zimmerman’s grey-hued world.

I’m tempted to attend the re-broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor (April 6th in the US; April 2nd in Canada), to enjoy these fine performances, and perhaps re-think my dislike of Sweete’s work. I totally loved her filmed version of the Timothy Findley play Elizabeth Rex, and I wonder if the distractions -people fumbling with candies, a man talking loudly on his cell phone, my own probably-too-close seat -added to my intense reaction to her avant-garde approach to cinematography. I also want to hear those beautiful opera voices again, and more closely observe the creepy Lucia/Enrico interactions. Mind you, I’ll be sure to take a Gravol before the Scottish tale unfolds. Maybe even two.

tree, winter, sky, branches, moody, field

February: Links, Gratitude, Daring Fairytale Stagings

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

Thank you Ozawa!

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

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

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

Speaking of Oedipus…

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

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

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

… and Rusalka

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

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

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

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

Professor Pfefferkorn auf Insta

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

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

On Emigré

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m very close to the text”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

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

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

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

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

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

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

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

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

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

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

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

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

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

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

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

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