Lately the idea of rejuvenation intrigues. As I wrote in the introduction to a recent post detailing a newcomer’s thoughts on Bizet’s Carmen and the opera-going experience itself, ideas related to perception, exposure, cynicism, approach, and re-approach have been more active than usual. There is a certain value to seeing something so famous with new eyes (and ears), particularly given the grim realities pandemic continues to present. To make the effort to re-appreciate opera anew is to confront old questions with a new awareness. What is opera – is it only singing? Is it also scoring? Is it theatre? Is it design? Is it sitting in the dark, in silence, with strangers? Is it some alchemical combination of these things? Rediscovery demands return – and not only in a literal sense – and return demands simplicity. To return to an art form one once loved experiencing live is to take off the over-tight bustier and flesh-gouging garters, to peel off eyelashes and unpin hair, to throw dress, fan, and shoes across the room and not worry what anyone thinks; it is to see and feel opera naked, unadorned, free from pretense, bare-faced. There is a freedom in that – for voice, score and theatre, as much as for the curiosity which must fuel them all.
Indeed regular reassessments are needed, for audiences and industry – to search for and find the freedom such curiosity might grant; to embrace the responsibility which is inherent to that (and all) freedom; to constantly bring the clarity such freedom grants to an art form which can (does) often fall into the traps of obfuscation, disorder, decay, and intransigence. Thus is the work of some artists who work with and around houses all the more important; often their work is what opens the door – to freedom, return, simplicity. They aren’t so much working on the peripheries as within the very essence, keeping that sense of curiosity ever alive. I have admired the work of Monika Rittershaus for many years; her stage photography graces many a program book and web page. She has shot productions for Los Angeles Opera, Staatsoper Hamburg, Bayerische Staatsoper, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Real Madrid, and Opernhaus Zürich, to name just a few. Her work is a quietly powerful integration of dramaturgical and humanistic, revealing opera as an art form comprised of sounds, sights, and souls. Born in Wuppertal, the busy stage photographer first studied philosophy, German language and literature, and art history. Finding inspiration in the works of choreographer Pina Bausch, she went on to study photography in Dortmund, which led to commissions in Vienna, Basel, Bregenz, Hamburg and Stuttgart. Rittershaus has been a freelance theatre and concert photographer since 1992.
The scene and the unseen: Oper in Bildern – Fotografien von Monika Rittershaus (arnoldsche) is a new book filled with imagery shot between a variety of locales between 2006 and 2022. The work, edited by Iris Maria vom Hof, demonstrates a breadth of modern directorial vision, with shots of the stagings of Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Christoph Marthaler, Patrice Chéreau, Hans Neuenfels, Calixto Bieito, Silvia Costa, Romeo Castellucci, Andreas Homoki, Nadja Loschky, Mariame Clément, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Tobias Kratzer, among many more. Stagings by Achim Freyer, whom Rittershaus names in our exchange (below) and Barrie Kosky, who writes an introduction, are also featured. The many hours spent pouring through the book’s thick pages bring memories and a feeling that perhaps operatic rejuvenation is not as far as one may think; I’ve seen some of the productions featured in this book, and these photos don’t make me nostalgic so much as clear-eyed. Kosky writes that Rittershaus “seems to sense the inner world of a moment and to know at exactly the right moment when to click her camera. There is an extraordinary intuition at work here. Perceptive, refined, and sophisticated.[…] She doesn’t document the moment. She x-rays the moment.”
How much of a prior working relationship do you have (or require) with a director in order to photograph their production?
There is an initial collaboration with each directing team. Before I go to the rehearsal, I read or listen to the piece to be photographed. For world premieres, I ask for any materials that are already accessible. I watch the first rehearsals without a camera to understand, as much as possible, how a production is ‘built’ and what the specific concern of the team might be with this work. If I can work with a team more often, understanding becomes greater and mutual trust stronger. So an intensive working relationship is very nice for me in any case, even if it doesn’t basically result in a shorthand language, because I engage with each production anew. Barrie Kosky in particular is constantly inventing new languages for his productions. With him, there is a kind of intuitive and playful agreement for me.
How easy (or challenging) is it to integrate your own artistry with that which is being presented visually and sonically?
When I photograph a production, I try to translate the artistic template into my images as sensitively and accurately as possible. If successful, it does not remain an objective image. My desire is to show the sensitive structure on stage, in its complexity, to capture a moment that, in the best moments, flashes something that escapes the eye. What I mean by “sensitive structure” is this: in an opera performance, very many processes and aspects intertwine and depend on each other. Singers, conductor, orchestra, stage, stage management, props, lighting, costumes, transformations… everything should ‘breathe’ with each other; then a special magic is created, which is very sensitive, and fleeting, because it is in constant movement.
Eric Cutler as Peter Grimes in a scene from Theater an der Wien’s staging of Britten’s opera, by director Christoph Loy, 2021. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
What is the role of the voice in your work? Is there one?
The voice in the literal sense, does not really play a role in my work. I listen very carefully to every voice on stage and am touched by what singing people can tell through their voices. However, I tend not to try to show the physical act of singing.
How has your idea of visual expression changed through all the operas you have photographed?
There are productions that reach me particularly deeply and teams that expand my perspective and visual approach through their work – this doesn’t necessarily have to do with a specific work, although there have been incisive experiences in this regard as well.
I began my path in opera with Achim Freyer. He is a strongly image-based artist from whom I have learned a great deal and may still learn. He has been very supportive of my particular preference for compositions of people in space and the amplification of content that comes with it.
Bo Skovhus (L), Vera-Lotte Boecker (R). A scene from Bayerische Staatsoper’s Bluthaus, by Georg Friedrich Haas, staging by Claus Guth; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Which productions have been noteworthy for you?
A work by Romeo Castellucci this year at the festival in Aix en Provence, Résurrection by Gustav Mahler, particularly struck me and once again stimulated me to think anew about what photography in the theatre is, and can be, for me. Described in very brief terms, Romeo Castellucci had an artificial mass grave dug at the Stadium de Vitrolles to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. For me, this ‘theatrical installation’ was of incredible power and utmost relevance in our time. My question was: how can I bear to see this process and how can I translate it pictorially? It was extremely important for me to exchange ideas about this with Romeo Castellucci and his dramaturg Piersandra Di Matteo, and to look for a way to photograph.
The work on Bluthaus at the Bavarian State Opera with Claus Guth and his team, and the conversations with the wonderful leading actress Vera-Lotte Böcker, were significant for me also, because the crass subject matter of the piece was illuminated very sensitively, in all its facets. It is very nice to experience that a singer feels at ease in the awareness of my view of her during intensive rehearsals.
(ed. – The opera, by Georg Friedrich Haas, details the trauma of sexual abuse within one family; it was staged as part of Bayerische Staatsoper’s inaugural “Ja, Mai” festival in May 2022.)
And: I would like to emphasize the continuous work at the Salzburg Festival – this year with three of “my” most important directors, Christof Loy (who staged Puccini’s Il Trittico), Barrie Kosky (Janáček’s Katja Kabanova) and Romeo Castellucci (a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartók and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Time) by Carl Orff) – and three very strong singers: Asmik Grigorian (Trittico), Corinne Winters (Kabanova) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bluebeard/De Temporum).
Right now I’m having a very intense time with the Ring des Nibelungen with Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin. The four large pieces, in a very short time, were extremely challenging for all involved. Almost at the same time I photographed Die Walküre in Zürich, directed by Andreas Homoki. Photographing the same work in two completely different interpretations was a great pleasure for me.
Christopher Maltman (c) as Oedipe in a scene from the Salzburg Festival staging of Enescu opera, by director Achim Freyer, 2019. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche).
How did you choose the images in the book?
The scene and the unseen shows a selection of my favourite images of the productions most important to me. The sequence is purely pictorial, with the directors’ productions following one another because they are related in content and aesthetics. My desire was to celebrate the art form of opera.
As a stage photographer, my job is to translate the fleeting and complex three-dimensionality of a performance into a two-dimensional image. A photograph has its own time. It is through the calculated use of blur or blurring, or the unusual focus on minute details or peripheral events that I try to capture the mystery of a production.
To what extent do you think the public’s understanding of a production (or opera as an art form overall) has been expanded because of your work?
Whether the understanding of the public changes through my work, I cannot estimate – that would be presumptuous. I wish, of course, that I can bring to the spectators and viewers of my pictures the special qualities of opera performances, but whether this succeeds, I can not judge – only the others can do that.
Andreas Schager as Siegfried in a scene from Staatsoper Unter den Linden staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung, by director Dmitri Tcherniakov; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Top photo: Markus Brück as Macbeth in a scene from Opernhaus Zurich’s staging of Verdi’s opera, by director Barrie Kosky, 2016. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche, 2022).
Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”
Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:
The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”
The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.
Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.
This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.
Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.
The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.
Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.
The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.
This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.
Speaking with someone before a global pandemic and again after (or more accurately during) it is a very interesting experience. All the formalities drop away; the predictable edges of topics become rounded, blending into one another. The optimism and hope, gleaming like jewels in sunlight, have, over the past three weeks or so, been burnt into ugly despair, that gleaming dulled into desperate, leaden sadness. Everyone is hoping for a swift resumption to normal activity, but of course, the question right now, more obvious than ever, is what “normal” might look like then – indeed, one wonders now, in the thick of it, what “normal” is and what it means for life both in and outside the classical realm. We are all adjusting ideas, expressions and experiences, as creative pursuits, social activities, and bank accounts yawn steadily open.
Allan Clayton had been set to make his role debut as the angry Laca Klemeň in a new production of Leoš Janáček’s most famous opera, Jenufa, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (ROH) earlier this week; roughly ten days before opening, the production (and all ROH activity) was shut down. The tenor’s next engagements – in London, New York, Madrid – are still on the books, but as with everything in the classical world right now, giant question marks hang like immense, heavy clouds over everyone. On March 30th, Wigmore Hall cancelled the rest of its season; Aldeburgh, for which Clayton was to serve as Artist-In-Residence this year, is likewise shuttered. It remains to be seen if Clayton will get to sing a role he’s become associated with, that of Hamlet. in Brett Dean’s 2017 opera of the same name; performance is still set for June with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under the baton of Markus Stenz. “To be or not to be” indeed.
Clayton has a CV that leans toward the dramatic, as befits his equal gifts within the realms of music and theatre, with experience in Baroque (Handel), French (Berlioz), German (Wagner), and twentieth-century work (Britten), alongside an admirable and consistent commitment to concert and recital repertoire. His varied discography includes works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and of course, his beloved Britten, with his album Where ‘Er You Walk (Hyperion), recorded with Ian Page and The Orchestra of Classical Opera, released in 2016. It is a beautiful and uplifting listen. A collection of Handel works originally written by the composer for tenor John Beard, Clayton’s voice carries equal parts drama and delicacy. As well as the music of Handel, the album features lively, lovingly performed selections from the mid 18th-century, including William Boyce’s serenata Solomon, John Christopher Smith’s opera The Fairies, and Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes.
On the album’s first track, “Tune Your Hearts To Cheerful Strains” (from the second scene of Handel’s oratorio, Esther), the scoring features voice and oboe gently weaving their way in, around, and through one another in beads of polyphonic perambulation. Clayton’s timing, pushing sound here, pulling it back there, moving into blooming tenorial splendor before trickling watchfully away like a slow exhale, is artistry worth enjoying over several listens. Equally so the aria “As Steals the Morn”, taken from Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man), which is based on the poetry of John Milton. The graceful call and response of the instruments is echoed in the gentle if knowing exchange between vocalists, in this case Clayton and soprano Mary Bevan, their poetic, deeply sensitive vocal blending underlining the bittersweet truth of the text, with its tacit acknowledgement of the illusory nature of romance. The work is set within a wider contextual framework extolling the virtues of moderation, but Clayton and Bevan inject the right amount of wistful sadness the whispering kind, with Clayton a burnished bronze tonal partner to Bevan’s delicate glass. Theirs is a beautiful pairing, and one hopes for further collaborations in the not-too-distant future.
As well as early music, Clayton’s talents have found a home with twentieth century repertoire, and he’s been able to exercise both at the Komische Oper Berlin, a house he openly (as you’ll read) proclaims his affection for. In spring 2018 Clayton performed as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele, and later that same year, made his role debut as Candide in Leonard Bernstein’s work of the same name, with Barrie Kosky at the helm. Clayton returns to the house for its 2020-2021 season, as Jim Mahoney in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny) by Kurt Weill, another role debut. Clayton has also appeared in Rameau’s Castor and Pollux at English National Opera (his performance was described by The Arts Desk as “astounding, his piercingly ornamented aria, “Séjour de l’éternelle paix”, one of the highlights of the evening”) as well as Miranda, a work based on the music of Purcell, at Opéra Comique, under the baton of Raphaël Pichon and helmed by Katie Mitchell. And, lest you wonder if he works only at opposite musical poles of old and new, consider that Clayton, who started out as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral, has also given numerous stage performances as David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, both at the ROH, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, and at Bayerische Staatsoper, with Kirill Petrenko. November 2018 saw the release of his album of Liszt songs, recorded with renowned pianist Julius Drake.
And yet, as mentioned earlier, Hamlet is still arguably what Clayton is best known for. The opera, by Brett Dean, with libretto (based on Shakespeare) by Matthew Jocelyn and presented at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival, featured a stellar cast including Sarah Connolly (as Gertrude), Rod Gilfry (as Claudius), Barbara Hannigan (as Ophelia), Kim Begley (as Polonius), and Sir John Tomlinson (as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father). Clayton,who made his debut at the Festival in 2008 (as the title role in Albert Herring), gave us a Hamlet that was the veritable eye of the hurricane as well as a tornado of energy himself. There was no perceptible line between the worlds of vocalism and drama in the slightest; the performance, matching the opera as a whole, was a perfect fusion of the varying art forms opera encompasses. Dean’s hotly dramatic scoring and Jocelyn’s musically rhythmic libretto provided a whole new window into the world of the gloomy Danish Prince, one divorced from the arch world of hollow-eyed, sad-faced, skull-holding clichés, but sincerely connected to truly felt, deeply experienced aspects of human life: what it is to love, to lose, to grapple with notions of shifting identity and an unknowable present. The work carries extra poignancy in these times and remains a strong personal favorite.
In 2018 Clayton was the recipient of both the Royal Philharmonic Society Singer Award as well as the Whatsonstage Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. 2019 proved just as busy and inspiring, with, among many musical pursuits, including much time with the music of Berlioz – at Glyndebourne, as the lead in La damnation de Faust, and then as part of the oratorio L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), presented first at the BBC Proms with conductor Maxime Pascal, and later at Teatro Alla Scala, with conductor John Eliot Gardner ). In September Clayton travelled to Bucharest to premiere a new song cycle by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Enescu Festival before presenting it shortly thereafter in London, where the work was performed along with related pieces by Benjamin Britten, Oliver Knussen, and Michael Tippett; The Guardian’s Andrew Clements later wrote of the concert that Clayton’s voice “wrapped around all of (the compositions) like a glove, with perfect weight and range of colour and dynamics.” Clayton and Turnage are two of four Artists in Residence (the others being soprano Julia Bullock and composer Cassandra Miller) at this year’s edition of the Aldeburgh Festival, set to run June 12th to 28th. Founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier and spread across various locales in Suffolk (with the converted brewery-turned-arts-complex Snape Maltings being its hub), Aldeburgh offers performances of everything from early music to contemporary sounds, and attracts a heady mix of audiences just as keen to take in the gorgeous landscape as to experience the wonders of the festival. Clayton is presenting two concerts which will feature the music of Britten Turnage, Ivy Priaulx Rainier, and Michael Berkeley (a world premiere, that) as well as perform as part in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. It all remains to be seen, of course. As pianist Stephen Hough wrote in The Guardian, “it’s impossible at this point to say where this will end” – it is equally impossible at this point to say where things will begin, too.
I’ve presented this interview in two parts, as you’ll see, which act as a sort of yin and yang to one another for perspectives and insights into an oft mentioned, rarely-explored world that makes up opera, that of the rehearsal. As you’ll see, Clayton speaks eloquently about its various moving parts (particularly, in this case, linguistically-related) and the weeks of preparation that go into a new production, the fruits of which, like so many in the oprea world right now, will not be enjoyed by any. It’s tempting to write such effort off, to say it was in vain, but my feeling is that the best artists, of which Clayton certainly is, have taken their bitter disappointment and turned in inside-out, finding new energy for forging creative new paths; they are roads which, however unexpected, are yielding their own sort of special fruit in some surprising ways. Clayton’s mix of playfulness, curiosity, and earthiness seem to be propelling him along a route showcasing his innate individualism and artistry. I am looking forward to the results, to say nothing of the cross stitch projects promised herewith.
I’d not done any Czech opera at all and this has completely opened my eyes to the whole music I knew was there. I’d heard some things and seen the opera before at the Coliseum in that famous production in English, but the richness of the score and the music, it’s so emotionally present, there’s no artifice – hopefully it’ll be the same live.
… so how are you finding learning not only Czech, but, as a singer, matching it to the sounds in score?
Something our director Claus Guth said on our first day, with the rehearsal that afternoon, is that this something we have to create, with our own stage language, to deal with the repetition of text in a short space of time. It’s not a Baroque opera where you have extended passages of five or six words stretched out; you have very important information delivered rapid-fire. (Conductor) Vladimir Jurowski said, “you have to remember this is how, coming from that region, people would talk to one another, you bark . I’ve been in places in Eastern Europe” – and he’s speaking as a polyglot who rattled through seven languages in rehearsal – “and when you listen to them, it’s like they’re shouting at each other, but they’re not; they’re communicating in a staccato, loud, repetitive manner, so just embrace it as part of normal day life, because the piece is about routine and everyday life, and the threat from the outside to that.”
And the character is tough as well. Opera has lots of characters with chips on shoulders…
… but Laca has one of the biggest and chippiest chips.
Completely, and he cannot stop it. He hates Steva. We’ve rehearsed the scene where the infamous cut happens to Jenufa’s cheek, which is the beginning of the end of the story and we have talked about it: does he mean it? Is it intentional? In his very first scene, from the very start, he’s raging at people, and he has a furious temper, which is something else we talked about, that this was Janacek’s character, he could fly off the handle at any time and took badly to things, and he was tempestuous in relationships. This is something I try and embrace but not let it affect me vocally and move into shouting, because that’s not nice to listen to!
It’s not vocally healthy either.
You also did Candide in Berlin, which is totally different. Finding your way through extremely complex scores when it comes to new roles – what’s that like?
For Candide, it was a chance to work with Barrie Kosky again, who I get on really well with – I think his approach to directing and to life is a pretty solid one, and I agree with a lot of what he says. It was also a chance to work at the Komische Oper again; I’ve done quite a few shows there now, it’s a positive space to work in, even though it’s a busy house, but it’s also the chance to do something different. He said, “we’re going to do it in German” and I thought, right, thanks a lot! I only speak a little German but not near enough, so learning dialogue was a challenge, but I also thought: it’s a chance to do something a bit more theatrical. That was certainly what I enjoyed. The creative input I had on it was the most I’ve ever had, because we had a completely blank stage, and Barrie would go, “okay, we need to get from this locale to that locale in the next page-and-a-half of music; we have no set, so what do we do?” We had fun with that. I could say, “Well why don’t we kick a globe around, or do a silly number with Monty Python-style soldiers?” The challenge, and the great thing with him, is always, this creative side of things.
And Barrie is so open to artistic collaboration.
He is! I‘ve often said the best directors – and he is one of them – make you think you’ve come up with a great idea, which is probably what they wanted all along, but they make it feel like it’s a collaboration, that you are not just a cog in a machine. Again, like Claus was saying in rehearsal he had some plans for certain scenes but the natural circumstances means the scene will go in a completely different direction – and he loves that. It’s about embracing that flexibility. If you just go in there and think of yourself like a moving statue, it makes for a very long six weeks.
Some performers enjoy the predictable – it’s comfortable and they say they can concentrate on their voice more that way – but for you that doesn’t feel like the case; it feels like comfort is the antithesis of who you are as an artist.
Yes, and the most fun I have is in rehearsal room. The pressure is on when you do a show, in that you want the audience to be happy, you’re trying to be faithful to the score and remember your words and blocking and all else, but actually being in a rehearsal room for five or six weeks with brilliant colleagues and creative minds makes it interesting, and for me that’s the part of the job I enjoy. When people say, “you must be so lucky to do what you love” that’s the bit I think of, because if I didn’t do that, I’d be trudging out the same couple of roles and it would be boring as hell. How do you bring something different each time doing that? You fall into one production or role, like “this is my Ferando, this is my… whatever”, which is so less interesting.
But it takes a lot of confidence to go into those rehearsal for the length of time you do, with the people you do, and say, openly, “I have these ideas and I want to try them.”
I guess, but it doesn’t always feel so, though that’s also why, for me, whenever I’m speaking to casting people or my agent about future projects, my first question is always, “who’s the director?” Because it’s massively important – the conductor is always the second question, but if I don’t feel the director is going to trust me or if I can’t trust them, then I won’t have the confidence to put those ideas out there and try some things. Like, this role, it’s about offering things when i can and not holding up rehearsal when it’s not my turn. That’s part of being a team. That’s part of working collaboratively.
Humility is so vital, especially in the world of classical music, where egos can get out of control so quickly.
Exactly! It’s something I’ve not had to deal with a lot, but (that egotism) is so alien to me, I think there’s less of it maybe than there used to be, or maybe the level at which I work, but it can be difficult.
Your Hamlet was very ego-free, and very beautiful.
Yes absolutely, I can’t imagine a more perfect storm. The way Matthew and Brett got on, even if they didn’t share ideas, was always dealt with in a creative and good way, and it was the same with (director) Neil Armfield and Vladimir Jurowski, and with Glyndebourne as a company as well. I can’t imagine that piece working anywhere else. There was an incredible amount of people who gave above and beyond what you’d expect; it was extraordinary, and was given without a question. I don’t know what it was, but 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.
If I didn’t keep a mix of things I’d go even more insane than I am!
Is that why you do it? Staving off restlessness?
Completely. I can’t imagine that part shutting off. If I didn’t do concerts or recitals, I’d be shutting off two-thirds of what can be done with this amazing, weird world we live in. I think of the music I’d be depriving myself of, so it’s also a selfish thing, with recitals but also with concert work. You get to be more involved in how you present things, you have a more immediate connection to the orchestra or pianist or chamber group, which you don’t get in opera because you are separated by the floor, so it’s slightly more engaging for me.
You also bring an operatic approach to those formats, though, as with the Britten, you live right inside those words.
You have to with a lot of Britten – if you don’t engage, you’re lost. It’s so dramatic, and he writes so well for the stage because he has a natural sense of drama throughout his writing, and you know, if you are just trotting it out without really going for it, it doesn’t make for a good experience for the audience
It’s true, you explore so many different colors than you would in opera. It’s hard, hard work to keep that concentration that long and stamina-wise. In terms of preparations you put in for the output, you might do each recital once, so it’s weeks, hours, months of work to inhabit each song and try to say something fresh with it since the three-hundred-or-so odd years since it was written, but that’s what makes it fun.
I would imagine you come into Jenufa rehearsals, having done your recital at Wigmore not long before, for instance, with a new awareness of what you can do with your voice.
Absolutely, yes, and it makes you more interesting for directors and conductors, because if you can offer these interesting colors they’re like oh cool!” Just the other day, I was rehearsing and Vlad said to me, “Don’t come off the voice there, it doesn’t work” – so (responsive versatility) is an option I can offer, it’s not just full-frontal sound, or one color, and that’s again, about confidence. The more (varied) stuff you do, the more options you can present.
And you are Artist in Residence at Aldeburgh this year too.
It’ll be great – I love that place. When I was in my first year of music college (at St. John’s College and later the Royal Academy of Music) I did Albert Herring there as part of a student program, and it was seven weeks in October living in Aldeburgh, learning about the region and all the weird people from that place. It couldn’t have been a better introduction to the place and what it means to not only British music but internationally as well. The residendency, well I’m so chuffed, and especially happy with the other people doing it too.
Their ten-quid-tickets-for-newcomers scheme also fights the idea that opera is elite.
It’s crap, that view – but you feel like you’re speaking to the wind sometimes. I was in a taxi going to the Barbican doing Elijah a few weeks ago and the driver said, “oh, big place is it, that hall?” I said, fairly big, he said, “like 300?” I said, no it’s about 2000 or something, he said, “oh gosh!” I said, you should give it a go someday. He said, “I can’t, it’s 200 quid a ticket”, and I said, no, it’s five quid, and you can see lots of culture all over for that price, for any booking. I mean, it’s infuriating – I took my sister and kids to see a football match recently and it cost me the best part of two grand. I mean, talk about classical being “elite”!
Baroque is a good introduction for newcomers I find, it’s musically generous and its structures are discernible. You’ve done a good bit of that music too.
If I’m free, I say yes to doing it. That music is really cool to do, things like Rameau, which I really didn’t know about, and Castor and Pollux, which blew my mind, and as you say, the music is so beautiful, it’s not too strange or contemporary, so people can engage with it easily.
My youngest niece had the same thing this morning – a mum arranged a big Zoom class phone call and my sister said exactly the same thing: they just loved seeing each other.
I think everyone misses that community.
Yes, and especially given how close we got to opening Jenufa; tonight (March 24, 2020) would’ve been the opening.
I’m so sorry.
Well, thanks, but certain people are in much worse situations, so it’s not the most important thing. It is a shame, though; everyone had worked so hard and put so much into a show that was going to be so good. I was chatting last night with Asmik Grigorian (who would have sung the title role), and she was saying how opera houses plan so far ahead and it’s difficult to know how they’ll cope with these loss of projects, whether they’ll put them on in five years’ time or move things back a year, but you do that and then you’re messing with people’s diaries in a big way. Fingers crossed people will get to see what we worked on anyway, at some point.
Some of those diaries are now big question marks.
Absolutely. I’d’ written off Jenufa until Easter, and then after that I was supposed to go to London – Wigmore Hall – and then New York, then Faust in Madrid and Hamlet in Amsterdam. I’ve written all of them off, because I can’t see things being back to normal the beginning of May, or even the end of May, when Hamlet is supposed to happen. And I’ve got the opera festival… I’m hoping it’ll be able to go ahead, but the brain says it won’t happen either, so suddenly my next job isn’t until August. We’ll see if things have calmed down by then.
It’s so tough being freelance, there’s this whole ecosystem of singers, conductors, musicians, writers, and others that audiences usually just don’t see.
My sister is a baker, she has her own business; she’s self-employed. And obviously all the weddings have been cancelled, and birthday parties, and all the related stuff, like cakes, musicians, planners, all these people – all cancelled. So yes, it isn’t just singers in opera but people like yourself, the writers too – we’re all in the same boat. We are together under the same banner of freelance and self-employed, but at the same time, at least in this country, we’ve been abandoned under that same banner by the government.
I don’t know whether it’s because us freelancers spend a lot of time working on our own and are not part of a bigger company, but it’s why Brexit felt so silly, because to become more isolated at a time when the world becomes less so, just doesn’t seem to make any sense. You’ve got the rest of Europe, although it’s closing its borders, it’s maintaining as much community and spirit as it can, whereas little Brexit Britain is just sort of shutting down.
I have a couple of projects – I did a Mozart Requiem of sorts, with Joelle Harvey and Sascha Cook, the American mezzo. She was in Texas, Joelle was in Washington I think it was, and I was in Lewes, and we did this arrangement where I did the soprano part, and Joelle sung tenor, which was pretty special. I’m doing something with the French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton as well – I sent her the Canadian folk song “She’s Like The Swallow” recently. We’ll record some Purcell later today. She’s going to try to put her cello to my singing. So, little things like that going on. Otherwise, we’ll see what happens really. I’ve got my laptop and a microphone and a little keyboard with me, so hopefully I’ll do something, maybe a bit of teaching and singing as well to keep the pipes going.
A lot of people are turning to teaching now.
I wouldn’t do anything seriously, I just think it’s nice to be able to use what is the day job in other ways. A friend put on Facebook yesterday, “is anyone else finding the silence deafening?” I think that’s apropos at the moment. We’re so used to hearing music all day, to having it be part of our regular lives, six or seven hours (or more) a day, in rehearsals and at concerts, that feeling of making music together and hearing music live – it’s just not the same at the moment .
Performing at the 2019 George Enescu Festival with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Andrew Gourlay. Photo: Catalina Filip
The performative aspect too – there’s no live audience. It’s nice to feel somebody is out there in a tangible way.
That’s the thing, it’s only times like this you realize what a two-way process it is. It’s so easy to think, without experiences like this, that we’re on stage, people listen to us, and that’s it. And it’s not like that at all. The atmosphere is only created by the audience. When things were heading south at the opera house and we weren’t sure what would happen, there was talk of trying to livestream a performance without any audience in Covent Garden, and we were considering that, and thinking, like, how would that work? The energy wouldn’t be at all the same. It’s completely intangible, but it’s a vital part of the process, of what we do.
Having that energetic feedback…
Absolutely, the buzz in the room. People stop talking when the house when lights go down – it creates adrenaline for us, it creates a sense of anticipation, in us, and with the audience, of “what will we see, what are we going to hear, are we going to enjoy it and engage with it and get out of the 9 to 5 routine?” And it’s the same for us: will we be able to get out of our daily commute when we step onstage and see smiling faces (or not)? All of those little interactions that we took for granted – I certainly did – well, we don’t have the option anymore.
And now you have to try to adjust yourself to a different reality, like the Zoom meetings, and there is that weird community sense being together and alone at once.
Exactly, because we’re all stuck in the same boat. We have to accept things like Zoom, Skype, Facetime are the only ways we’ll cope, otherwise we’ll all go mad. It’s very well hearing one another’s voices but seeing – the things we get from humans, from facial tics – that reaction is another level, and without it we’ll start to go insane. I’ve got a Zoom pub date lined up later this week with a couple musician friends, we’re going to sit and have a beer together and chat, just as a way of keeping in touch.
It makes things feel semi-normal too.
Exactly, because you know, you put yourself in their spaces, their homes, you see their living room, and given that we’re all stuck in our own environments at the moment, it’s very important to have as much escapism as possible.
We’re getting peeks into homes, and there’s a weird sort of familiarity with that because everyone’s in the same boat.
I find it interesting! My sister was saying at lunchtime, remarking how interesting it is seeing journalists’ living rooms, because they’re broadcasting from there now, it’s a peek behind the curtain, which is really quite nice.
And everyone has the same anxious expression…
… because we don’t know where this is going.
Hopefully things will be clear by the time you start work on Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny at Komische Oper Berlin next season.
I love Barrie Kosky, and I’ve not sung Mahagonny before, so I’m looking forward, though it’s a weird piece. I said to Barrie when he first offered it to me, that scene whilst Jimmy’s waiting, the night before he dies, when he’s praying for the sun not to come up, it’s like a (Peter) Grimes monologue, it’s like Billy Budd through the porthole, this really, really operatic bit of introspection.
I wonder if Weill was aware of that when he wrote it.
I hadn’t made that connection at all but you’re absolutely right! It’ll be fascinating to see what Barrie does with it.
You have lots of time to prepare now.
That, and all the other projects next year. We’ll see what happens, but it’ll be great to focus on those. That’s what I’m having to do at the moment: focus on next year and hope what we live with now goes past us. I’m still going to prep for concerts that were set to happen, even if they don’t, in New York and at Wigmore Hall. I put a lot of time into the programming, especially atWigmorethisseason, and off the back of those programs I’m hoping to do some recordings, and later maybe tour the same programs, or an amalgam of them, but certainly it makes sense to keep doing it, and to satisfy the creative part of my brain. I have to be doing something like that. If I don’t see any printed music, I’ll go crazy; it’s been my life since the age of eight, so I need it. I don’t know what to do with my days if they don’t have music in them. I’ve also taken up cross stitch, but I can only allow myself to buy cross stitch with swear words in it, so that’s my next project.
Will you be sharing the fruits of these labours?
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Lisette Oropesa is a woman with opinions. Over the course of a lengthy recent conversation, the Cuban-American soprano mused on everything from the challenges and joys of directors and conductors, to the pressures of being a woman in the opera and online worlds. She is every bit as bold and vivacious off the stage as she is on it.
The New Orleans native was a winner of the 2005 Met Opera National Council Auditions and joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, graduating in 2008. She made her Met stage debut in 2006 with Idomeneo (as Woman of Crete) and the following year, made her professional debut in a principal role, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Since then, Oropesa has appeared on the Met stage in over one hundred performances in a wide array of roles, including Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, Sophie in Werther, the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Woglinde in Das Rheingold, and as her namesake in La Rondine. She has also sung with an array of North American and European companies, including Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and La Monnaie/De Munt, Bruxelles, as well as a numerous festivals including Glyndebourne, Arena di Verona, Savonlinna, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Rossini Opera Festival.
As Norina in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper
She’s worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Sir Anthony Pappano, Carlo Rizzi) and equally celebrated directors (David McVicar, David Alden, Damiano Michieletto, Claus Guth, Andreas Kriegenburg), and has performed most of the great bel canto roles (Donizetti’s Lucia, Adina, Norina) along with French (Meyerbeer, Massenet, assenet, Thomas), Baroque (Handel, Gluck) and Verdian (Traviata, Rigoletto, Masnadieri) repertoire, as well as oratorio, recital, and concert work. Oropesa has also performed the role of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction From The Seraglio), in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2017 and 2018) and will be appearing in the Mozart work again, at Glyndebourne next summer opposite Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala as Blonde. Next year sees Oropesa sings the role of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia (at Opera Bastille) and will be giving a number of recitals and concerts across Europe, including an appearance at the Wexford Festival Opera.
Amidst all of this (or perhaps to because of it), Oropesa is a devoted runner and an advocate of healthy eating; she has completed numerous marathons, even as she has also been vocal about the ongoing issue of body shaming in the opera industry. A recipient of both the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2019 Richard Tucker Award, her supple soprano is marked by an easy flexibility and incredible core of warm vibrancy that seems like a perfection reflection of her vivid personality. Those qualities were on full and lush display this past autumn when Oropesa appeared as the title role in Massenet’s Manon, in a revived production by Laurent Pelly. Opera writer Patrick Dillon wrote of her performance that “(t)he voice, with its seductive silvery glimmer, has enough colour to give it texture and depth and enough power to make Massenet’s musical points without straining.[…] She’s the finest Manon I’ve heard since the glory days of Beverly Sills.”
That isn’t to say Oropesa has been changed by fame – if anything, she’s one of the most upfront artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with. It’s rare and entirely refreshing to speak with someone so entirely, authentically themselves. Witty, original, passionate, with a ferocious intelligence and keen insight, it will be interesting to see where Oropesa goes in her career. This weekend (November 24th) she’s set to appear as Ophelia in an in-concert presentation of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet in Washington, before a return to the Met in February for Violetta in La traviata. We spoke just before the Tucker Awards ceremony in New York City last month.
At the Richard Tucker Awards gala at Carnegie Hall, October 2019. Photo: Dario Acosta
It’s pretty awesome, although it was a total surprise, like, “Really? are you guys sure?!” I always saw as a gift to somebody about to really take off, and I felt like I took off and never got the award – so I figured I was past it. They can only pick one year and there are so many singers having wonderful careers, I mean, they just have to get the right person at the right time. I’d already made debuts at the Royal Opera, La Scala, Paris, I’d been signing at the Met, and thought, “I’m too far in my career now.” Some said they felt I should’ve been given it before, but really, who’s to say it’s more overdue for me than for anyone else? Tons of brilliant artists deserve it – I wish they’d give ten awards instead of one, but it’s hard to raise the money.
What’s the benefit of receiving the award for you?
Whenever I’m at home in the States, I teach and go to universities and I always talk about the business as it is right now, because (the students) get a perspective they don’t always get from their teachers or a traveling coach. Maybe eventually, when I exit performance, I will become a teacher because I really enjoy it. I was thinking about how to use the grant in the best way; it’s easy to say, “I’ll spend it on myself” but I’d really like to set up a scholarship at my school. I haven’t made any promises yet; I don’t want to anticipate something that isn’t necessarily going to work. I have all these ideas but $50,000 doesn’t go very far.
Yes, and it’s very disheartening. You get to the point where you literally run out of money and you have to figure out what you’re going to do, and hope your parents or a rich patron will help you for those years of your career. In the middle you could have a slump too, initially doing well but then someone else comes along who has a whirlwind around them so you may lose work to another artist, or you may get pregnant and have to cancel a year and a half’s worth of engagements. I’ve never been pregnant, but I’d imagine deciding what to do in that situation is hard. I don’t have kids because it was never my calling to be a mother; I thought about it for five minutes. I thought, “If I want to do this and have a child, I can’t do both.” It’s an investment in my part. It may take away a certain aspect of my life, but I say “no” to this so I can say “yes” to that.
Women – especially female artists – can be held to a different standard, especially if they’re in the public eye in whatever capacity.
Right now, in the heat of the #MeToo movement, everyone thinks it’s just about harassment – that’s a big part of any industry and there’s no reason ours should be any different – but there’s more to it. We struggle with objectification, and yes, being held to a different standard. When you’re at a rehearsal and tossing out ideas to a basically all-male cast, you’re almost always in the minority as a female; the director is almost always male, the conductor almost always male, and you, as a female, have to assert yourself or completely do the “Yes sir, whatever you like” thing. It’s very tough, because when you want to say something or have an idea, you are perceived as a diva or a bitch; you’re considered “difficult.”
Totally agree. I’ve never been harassed in the sense of, “if you don’t do this, you won’t get that” – the quid pro quo situation is not that common. But it’s the subtle things; they are real and happen all the time – the winks, the compliments, the “Sweetie, I love that dress on you” and “Damn, you look great in that low-cut blouse” and “You have such nice legs”… I’ve never thought of it as harassment in the sense of it making me feel miserable or bad about myself, but as women we get to the point of tolerance, so our threshold for that kind of thing is much higher.
I think it often has to be in order for us to function. The system has been set up so that a woman often can’t (or won’t) adjust that threshold of tolerance because of the related cost being too high.
Exactly. When you’re’ desperate and hungry, it’s different. And hey, I’ve seen and been in situations where I felt women were taking advantage – that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. I’ve also seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary. And it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s old feminine power. We have new feminine power now that is intelligent, perceptive, open, emotional, clear – instead of this boring, age-old adage of, “I have big tits and a nice ass and that makes me powerful” – no, it means you have a certain body type, but that’s not your power.
It’s power tied to male gaze.
Yes, for sure.
It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that power greatly depends on the culture you’re operating in, and the ways an artist can sometimes be boxed in by old cultural definitions. Have you ever felt you were put on the spot in terms of being a cultural spokesperson?
I think people have a need to label. They just do. I had this question the other day: “If you had to define your voice type, can you give me a word?” And I thought, hmmmm. People have a need to label, as with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, everything has to be defined. Mine’s simple: both my parents are from Cuba. I spoke Spanish growing up. I’ve always said I was Cuban-American. It’s honorable. If they say, where are you from? I don’t take offense. I speak Spanish and have a Cuban accent when I do; I listened to Latin music and watched Latin TV growing up. People will go, “Oropesa, what is that?” It’s an honor to my parents and grandparents with whom I spoke only Spanish and I’m proud of it, but at the same time, does it make me a spokesperson for Latin-American singers? I don’t think of it as a negative thing. People have asked me if I think being Latin in the U.S. has helped me in some way, and yeah, actually I do think it helps, but it also helps that I look white! You can’t look too Latin.
Yes, we “pass for white,” so to speak. Not all my family is like this; there’s a brown side. My grandmother is beige. My father was quite dark. I have one side very Barcelona European, so I have that look, but have another side with more beige, but I don’t care. I think it’s beautiful. we come in all colors of the rainbow, and can be whatever we choose to represent and put out there.
People want to see a Hollywood representation of exactly the setting given by the composer, but the problem is, these operas have to be sung – they’re not paintings, they have to be performed by singers. And while it would be lovely as close to a racial dial as possible, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist at the time. When you think about how often people are putting on Aida… it’s put on everywhere, and there are not enough black Aidas in the world to go around! And it’s a problem for black singers; if you’re black, should you only sing black roles? If certain stories have race as an important aspect of the drama, then yes, either you get a black Aida, or you paint someone to look black, because if you make a white Aida then you’re not helping black singers, and you are making excuses for black singers not to get hired.
Russell Thomas said something very similar to me when he was in Toronto for Otello last winter. He said the character “just can’t be white—it doesn’t work dramaturgically” and if that does happen, then “minority artists will lose out every time.”
It’s true. I have friends who have talked about this at length and I’ve spent time reading thousands of the threads about this, and they said, basically, that if you don’t paint Aida black, you’re painting the way for no more Aidas, and paving the way for fewer opportunities, because you’re cutting out a big piece of the pie. It would be like not making Porgy and Bess all-black. I wish there was blind casting. That’s how it was when I played the flute – it was behind a curtain, no one could see!
That’s what opera has that other art forms don’t have: the musical aspect and the dramatic aspect. It’s that combination, and it’s why singers have to look a certain way. Either you live in it or you don’t. It’s complicated, because we want to say these issues exist but we don’t get to the point where we’re censoring opera and ignoring race and acting like its not important or not valid; we don’t want to get the point where we’re rewriting operas and censoring them. We want these pieces to stand as representations of what was happening at the time. Yes it’s hard to see some of these works, but this is why theatre is exciting. We want to be part of it, but if we go too far in one direction, the backlash is a swing to the other direction, and that’s a problem.
Good directors can sometimes inspire a reconsideration of a piece within the broader context of the issues you mention. What’s been your experience?
I’ve done two productions with Claus Guth – for the first, I jumped in at the last minute for his Rigoletto-in-a-cardboard-box, which I thought was brilliant. I learned it in one day! His assistant was incredible; she answered all these questions I had, and was great to work with. I did his production of Rodelinda in Barcelona as well, and he came toward the end and shared a lot of things. For one character, he’d envisioned and staged him to have a limp and an eyepatch and to walk with a cane; he was the bad guy. When Claus came to rehearsals, he saw the guy singing that role (bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri) was gorgeous and buff, and just was not believable as this hunched-over, weak, bad guy with a chip on his shoulder, so Claus re-staged the entire role. I thought, wow, it takes a lot for a director to do that! Not all of them will – they’ll say, “Sorry, you don’t fit my vision!” and make you feel like shit, or fire people. Sometimes they’ll say, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you fit?!” and it almost never ends well.
The super-successful directors are so busy and they can’t be everywhere, and Claus is a good example of that. For this Met production of Manon, I never got to meet (its director) Laurent Pelly, but I worked with his assistants. If Laurent had been there, he might’ve made changes – the original singer (for the production) was Netrebko, and we couldn’t be more different, but assistants aren’t authorized to change costuming or stage traffic What do directors do? Everything, from ruining things you want to do, to bringing out the best in you to make you think or sit back and let you stage yourself. Everyone is different.
As Rodelinda (with Gianluca Margheri as Garibaldo) at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2019. Photo: A. Bofill
That echoes a singer’s relationship with a conductor, which can be even more intense.
It certainly helps to have a good first few rehearsals. If they rip into you initially, they’re asserting their authority and I’ve learned to sniff that out and not take it personally, but a conductor who is willing to listen to your ideas without you having to spell them out all the time is nice; a conductor who is willing to lead when they have to lead, and follow when they have to follow is even better. Some only lead, some only follow, and there’s a valid place for both.
I like being led by a conductor when I’m doing something I really know well. When I could roll out of bed sick and sing it no matter what, I’m happy to have them lead and do what they want; if I’m doing a role I need help with, to ease me in some places and push me in others, then I like to lead, and that’s there’s lots of subtle things with that. There are also the ones who don’t listen, or don’t follow, or know when to follow, or they insist on leading even though they know you’re not following them, or they don’t perceive you are struggling; there are some who aren’t perceptive, and that only comes with musical sensitivity.
I’ve had experiences where I’ve thought the conductor hated me for weeks, and then the production turns out to be a huge success, but it’s usually because I’m on my toes and scared to do anything wrong, and in the end it meshes together. And the audience doesn’t know what happens before – they don’t care if you’ve been through six months or hell with this guy, and they go, “Oh wow, so beautiful! What a wonderful collaboration!” and you think, my God, you have no idea.
Opera is an art of true collaboration – do you find the nature of those collaborations change over time? I would imagine the nature of collaboration changes depending on the context in which it unfolds.
Context is everything as a singer; it’s probably more important than anything else. The next biggest thing is your preparation. You can bring all the preparation in the world: you will get there, and the conductor will be difficult, the director will be challenging, your colleagues you may not mesh with, you might have a theatre that does not support your rehearsal process, you might have a coach who make you do different things than you want, you may find your costumes uncomfortable… this is all the stuff audiences don’t know or understand. They’re at the end of the marathon waiting for you to finish; they don’t see when you fell and what it took to get there. It’s why you have to be a very strong person. Your audience may start shooting bullets and they may feel entitled to like what they saw – they paid a lot to see it – and they’ll throw a lot at you, and you have to process that. Most of us try to improve and keep going through the run. Your heart has to be protected.
Part of that is context involves social media. You have said you try to minimize technological interaction; how do you balance an authentic portrait as an artist and keeping up engagement?
Backstage at Concertgebouw Amsterdam during a 2015 in-concert performance of Rigoletto. Photo: Steven Harris
I control all of my social media – it is completely organic and controlled by me and my husband. Steven’s a web developer so I’m lucky, and he’s smart about the right kind of posts, making sure the information is on there, and the cast is there too, so you’re getting information and the right content, and he’ll run things by me first. If I want to write a message, he’ll come to me, and then we’ll share ideas. I try to engage everyone and respond to comments. I don’t get to all of them, but try to say “thank you.” I get a lot of sweet messages on social media and I don’t want people to feel they’re not being heard.
As far as Instagram goes; it has a stupid algorithm. If you want to get on the feed you have to post a lot, and always post those thirsty photos, but there’s also a psychological element. If Stephen and I go to pick a photo for Instagram, he’ll look through my pictures and say, “Well, people tend to stop on photos of faces, so if you have one of your face, let’s use that.” So even if I feel like I want to post a great photo of a flower or a sunset, I know it won’t get as much traction – I mean, sure, you can do it for yourself, but if you want to reach more people, you have to find things the algorithm supports. It’s artificial but the platform wants you to be somehow authentic.
A pastiche of authenticity…
Right, “authentic”… then it becomes that old idea of power we discussed. I feel sorry for girls who have that look because they learn early on in life, “Here’s my currency; this is my only currency” and they market themselves as that, and then in opera, it’s almost an afterthought: “Oh, and I just happen to have a voice.” I’m the girl who always grew up overweight and never popular, so I see it from a distance; it must be so hard to keep up. What happens when it fades? In ten years or less another one will take the place of this girl; it’s so short-lived. You may make a crap ton of money, retire early – who knows? – I feel like it’s a shame, that age-old trope of “beauty = value” because it pressures who who aren’t so beautiful and sends a message of, “you’re secondary in importance because you don’t have that one thing.”
It also entrenches old definitions of beauty, because “beautiful” … according to whose rules? There are many people who don’t fit that old definition, and so what? Opera is well-positioned to challenge precepts, as Kathryn Lewek did. It can’t exist to entrench old ones; it needs to destroy and rebuild them into something more accurately revealing and reflecting our world, or so I want to believe.
As Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, 2019. Photo: Marty Sohl
“Beautiful” is so much about perception. Some people think Claus’s productions are beautiful, some think they’re ugly and dark. I have learned so much doing Manon in terms of all this. After we opened, I read the reviews and feedback, and a lot of the things I read were negative, the gist being that I am not sexy enough to play her, I’m not beautiful enough to play her, I’m not convincing as the object of every man’s desire – I read pretty much that exact quote. And that really hurt.
Yes, there is a world in which Manon is just a man-eater, but there’s also a world in which Manon has something about her, like, it’s not that she’s the most obviously gorgeous woman physically, but the fact she’s mysterious, she’s fun, she has something about her. It’s hard for some to accept that. There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!” I used to think of myself as very ugly, and that child is still inside. When I think I’ve gone to all this trouble to be confident in my appearance so my body and voice could finally match, and people are still going, “Oh even at a size 4 she’s not hot enough” I think, fuck this, I’m going back to eating ice cream!
It’s vital those definitions be remade, especially in an art form notoriously adverse to change.
I never tell young singers they need to lose weight. Never. That person may go do it and still not be hot enough for somebody – if you’re going to do it, do it for your health, but do not do it for your career. It won’t change anybody’s perspective of you. You can be cute in a size 16 or a size 2. If you want to force yourself into sexiness, fine, but accept who you are. Some people don’t think I’m a sexy Manon and I just feel like… that’s not who I am.
As Hébé in Les Indes Galantes at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016. Photo: W. Hösl
Again, “sexy” according to whom? There are these very conventional ideas that Carmen has to be hot, Manon has to he hot, Violetta has to be hot – who gets to decide what is “hot”? I want to believe some will feel a woman being her authentic self is more attractive and desirable, onstage or off.
Carmen is a perfect example! It is the most stereotypical concept to approach it as, “she has to be this hot woman, it’s the only way she’s believable!” – and the same with Manon, this attitude of, “she has to be the woman des Grieux would give up his life for.” So she has to look like Kim Kardashian?” It makes him look stupid. It makes him look shallow. Then you make her shallow, and people hate her even more. I mean, yes, Manon is an opera about a selfish bitch, and people can’t handle that, they want to see a victim, someone pliable,a woman who’s willing to please. But it’s also why people argue about opera – I’ve never seen more polarizing perspectives than in doing this opera.
I think of Natalie Dessay, who I love and who is not conventionally beautiful but my God, you couldn’t take your eyes off her! And she didn’t pose her way through a role, ever; she wasn’t standing on stage posing this way and that. That’s the example that needs to be out there, because that’s the kind of artistry I want to see in the world, for women and men alike.
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Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?
These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?
Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship. The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.
The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.
Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”
Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.
Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles, symbols of her own self as realized in the way in which she and her husband first met: she was the delicate creature he hunted, but who became trapped himself in a web of spindly uxoriousness, a web whose holes grew bigger with the absence of a perceived symbol of love (perhaps the ultimate symbol), children.
Guth’s placing the opera within the realm of dreams (and thus the subconscious) forces one to consider not only not only the holes in own lives but the shadows that occupy them. Might we turn to stone without recognizing, nay, embracing them? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.