Tag: diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

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

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

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

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

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

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

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

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

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

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

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

Gatekeeping In Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling As Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

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

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

“Consistent and determined”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
Henri Vidal, Cain, Abel, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, sculpture, French, biblical, story, brothers, regret, horror, murder

Reading List: Marching Into April, Reading & Remembering

Easter weekend is finally here. Whether you plan on indulging in chocolate eggs and hot-cross buns (or not), the current moment is really an ideal time for pondering. The notions of suffering and loss seem very close at the moment. Good Friday is a particularly profound day for quiet reflection. Along with recommended listening, I suggest spending the day with hot tea, soft light, and a bit of reading.

Realities

First up: the UK Musicians’ Census reveals the extent of gender inequity in the British classical music scene. Surveying 6,000 UK musicians, the findings are not surprising but they are depressing. The acknowledgement of ageism is certainly interesting (I’d like a more extensive study focused on Europe as a whole), and the results around financial realities for women are equally pointed. As The Strad reported (March 27):

The average annual income for a female musician was found to be £19,850, compared to £21,750 for men – meaning women earn nearly a tenth less.

Women also only make up just 19 per cent of the highest income bracket of those earning £70,000 or more from music each year. […] The data on the pay gap comes despite the fact that women musicians are qualified to a higher level than men.

This lack of balance was addressed recently by bass baritone Sam Taskinen in conversation with Van Musik‘s Anna Schors (March 27), in which the singer shares her challenges within the opera world as a trans person. Along with exploring aspects of vocal technique and auditions, Taskinen states that what is really needed within the industry is “many more women in leadership positions at the opera houses. In the artistic directorate, as general music directors”, adding that “we need a much greater diversity of people who have responsibility behind the scenes. The problem is not so much that those responsible have no good will. It’s just that some of them have a lot of blind spots.” This reminds me very much of what tenor Russell Thomas said in an interview with me in 2019, that meaningful change within the industry will only happen off stage and within administration; that what is seen onstage is often mere optics, with little if any meaningful transformation powering it.

Report on Business editor Dawn Calleja added meaningful context to this idea of change-through-management in a recent feature for The Globe and Mail (March 28) in which she updated a story she’d done on retail giant Aritzia, and their own challenges in terms of diversity and leadership:

One woman succeeding at an organization does not automatically mean it is welcoming to and respectful of all women.

And that’s the problem with today’s diversity discourse. Sometimes we can get lost in the data and forget the most important part: making sure women and people of colour stick around, and are given the chance to participate fully in and contribute to the corporate culture. Hiring, in other words, is just the start of the journey.

Ruminations

Reading these items I was reminded once again of composer/writer Moritz Eggert’s recent post for NMZ’s Bad Blog Of Musick (March 13), in which he mused on the challenges of cultural presentation in 2024.  Opera/classical leadership is trying to navigate a range of pressing issues, including diversity and access, both onstage and off. Eggert uses the mythological figures of Scylla and Charybdis to explore arguments made by the political left and right around creativity and its manifestations, particularly within the operatic realm. Using various readings of the 1978 film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Eggert writes that “It is precisely this openness to interpretation and multiple readability that makes great works of art.”

I agree with much of what he writes, but I am still very unsure as to whether or not the sides to which the author refers are actually equal. Whenever I hear (or read) the phrase “artistic freedom” I also sometimes hear (see) “financial incentivization” and/or “unquestioned validation”. Imagining a work which sits outside the realm of one’s immediate knowability raises important questions as to how much of gender, race, spirituality, and nationalistic identity are individually or collectively used as exoticized costuming as opposed to actual reality. Can creators grasp lived experienced through an imagination which has been wholly shaped by their own immediate socio-cultural worldview? Should they try to? Should audiences be asked to go with them? And – crucially – should artists be officially funded for that pursuit? Should audiences pay for it? Or should there be outright denial across the board? Who decides? And in whose interests?

Natasha Tripney, International Editor of The Stage, recently published a fulsome account on various forms of censorship in theatre communities based in Hong Kong, Hungary, Slovakia, the Balkans, and Belarus; if there’s anywhere the (overheated, algorithmically-juiced) term “cancel culture” works, it might well be these places. Her examination has tremendous bearing on the opera world, especially in terms of content and context – the place in which a work is presented, its cultural norms and demographics, are inexorably tied to governing powers and their control of the purse strings. Any contemporary discussion of art and creative freedom, no matter how idealized, which doesn’t mention funding is worth questioning, at the very least.

Speaking of which: many European houses have announced their 2024-2025 seasons and from most indications it looks like Euros will be flying around – and, they clearly hope, through the front doors as well. Opera national de Paris is featuring Offenbach’s Les Brigands as its first new production of the season, led by operetta king Barrie Kosky and conducted by Michele Spotti. Paris’s Opéra Comique has its own fascinating October offering, a staging of Sir George Benjamin’s fairytale-like Picture a day like this, led by the composer himself. Opernhaus Zürich is presenting Leben mit einem Idioten, Alfred Schnittke’s satirical 1992 opera, to be staged by Kirill Serebrennikov and conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer. In November, Dutch National Opera presents Le lacrime di Eros, a very unique-sounding project which will feature both Renaissance and electronic sounds. Romeo Castellucci is director and dramaturg; the work will be led by Raphaël Pichon and include his acclaimed Ensemble & Choeur Pygmalion. Next summer Bayerische Staatsoper presents Fauré’s only opera Pénélope by Andrea Breth and conducted by Susanna Málkki; the work is making its debut with the house, and the premiere on July 18 will be broadcast live on BR Klassik (radio). Also worth noting: new Ring Cycles being set in motion in Munich, Paris (Ludovic Tézier will be their Wotan) and Milan.

Sooner than that: Opernhaus Zürich is presenting two complete Ring Cycles this May, a revival of Andres Homoki’s 2022-2023 stagings and led by house GMD Gianandrea Noseda. Wagner’s super-epic is also currently wrapping up at Berlin’s Staatsoper unter den Linden, also a 2022 presentation, this one by Dmitri Tcherniakov and conducted by Philippe Jordan.

Remembrances

The classical world has lost many greats this month, including Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, who was artistic director of Royal Swedish Opera (RSO). Cavanagh was very beloved in his home country and abroad, with the Manitoba Opera, Vancouver Opera, San Francisco Opera, and RSO all posting tributes to the unique and widely-loved artist, who died on March 13th at the age of 62 . My obituary for The Globe And Mail, featuring quotes from Cavanagh’s family as well as Edmonton Opera artistic director Joel Ivany, is here.

Composer Aribert Reimann passed away on March 13th at the age of 88. His 1978 opera Lear, based on the Shakespearean play, was commissioned by and subsequently premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper; the company posted a beautifully thoughtful tribute at the announcement of his passing. The recording of the work’s premiere, led by Gerd Albrecht and released in 1979 on Deutsche Grammophon, is a cultural touchstone; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone cuts like a knife, delivering the full measure of the work’s tragedy in every careful, anguished note. I spoke with Gerald Finley not long after he’d finished performing the role himself in Salzburg in 2017, and at the time he called it “a fiendishly difficult piece of music”, adding that Fischer-Dieskau’s recording was a real source of inspiration even before he began preparing for the role. (It was Fischer-Dieskau himself who urged the composer to write the work back in 1968). Reimann himself said the opera explores the “isolation of man in total loneliness, exposed to the brutality and questionability of life.”

Composer Peter Eötvös passed away on March 24th at the age of 80. His deep talent for dramatic writing was expressed through his fourteen operas, which include Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), based on Chekhov’s play (1998), Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s play (2004), and Love and Other Demons, based on the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2008), along with Die Tragödie des Teufels, commissioned by and premiered at Bayerische Staatsoper, who posted a remembrance. Eötvös’s 2011 Cello Concerto Grosso really caught my attention –  the conversational nature of this piece, the kinetic give-and-take rhythms between soloists and orchestra, is hypnotizing. Eötvös remarked about the work (at his website) that “My concerto is a series of short dance-acts, it well may be that the “last dance” is coming from a traditional Transylvanian culture which is doomed to a slow disappearance….” The work was most recently performed by the Bremen Philharmonic and cellist Sung-Won Yang, and led by conductor Jonathan Stockhammer.

Pianist Maurizio Pollini, who passed away on March 23rd at the age of 82, was known and rightly celebrated for his recordings of Chopin, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, and post-modernist composers Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen. His Deutsche Grammophon recordings of the Beethoven sonatas were so central to my younger, intensely-piano-playing days. I was especially drawn to his 1989 recording of numbers 17, 21, 25, and 26 – the quiet, unshowy poetry; the slow, intense drama; the easy mix of grace and control; the clear sense of line running through and connecting it all. “My feeling is exactly the opposite of controlled,” Pollini told the Chicago Tribune in 2004, in an attempt to bin an undeserved “cold intellectual” label. I returned to those Beethoven recordings (and more besides) at learning news of his passing last weekend. Pollini’s performance of the second movement (Adagio) of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 In D Minor, Op. 31, still has the power to make me drop everything and stop, breathe, listen, 35 years after first hearing it.

In closing: New York’s wonderful Rubin Museum is presenting its final exhibition, at least within its physical space on West 17th Street in Manhattan. (It’s about to go digital-only.) Reimagine: Himalayan Art Now, running now through October 6th, explores contemporary art from the region through a variety of media, including sound, sculpture, video, painting, installations, and performance. The exhibition showcases the work of 32 contemporary artists alongside a variety of items from the Rubin’s collection. New and old, engaging in fruitful dialogue; imagine that.

Happy Easter wishes to those celebrating. Remember to use the c-word in your Sunday dinner conversations. (That would be context.)

Top photo: Henri Vidal, Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, 1896; Jardin des Tuileries, Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that history feel heavy at points?

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

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


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

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

My mother did that…

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

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


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

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

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP

A Note On The Essays Section

trees, path, nature, fall, herbst, baum, bridge, tor, pathway

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Some of you will have noticed the Essays section of my website, which I had touted this summer as a new feature, has been removed.

This move was inspired by alarming behaviour which took shape in repeated harassment across several platforms; my last essay, a very personal piece indeed, inspired a myriad of ugly, unwanted attentions and again, yet more harassment. I was met with silence from the very quarters in which I sought support in this situation. Such circumstances led to a difficult mental and emotional breakdown.

After a period of reflection, along with a return to the lecture hall recently (I teach Media Studies at a University in my day job), I decided the best thing, in light of such reactions and the current design and limited user features of my website, was to take down the essays, and the links. I felt it had been a terrible mistake to be so open with my life and work, doubts and deficiencies, particularly within the constricts of a design that necessitates scrolling as opposed to easy clicking.

These writings may or may not return in some fashion; that is an evolving decision. Some have remained. There may be a newsletter to come out of this, a redesign, a subscriber-only section to come out of this (preferably all three); there may also be audio and/or visual counterparts. Again, this is an evolving decision, one greatly depending on resources, timing, and energy allowances.

Thanks to those of you who did reach out to offer support of my work and efforts recently. Your words mean a great deal. I do this as a very open labour of love, one I am privileged to be in a position to do. The classical community has been most kind to allow me to have the kinds of in-depth conversations with artists which mainstream media arts coverage generally does not engage in anymore (alas); they have miraculously have stayed with me through my many long-winded introductions and industry-related thought pieces, as have my indefatigable readers.

Is there a place amidst the chats and ponderings for more personal musings? This is a question I am still debating. A whole different website is something I don’t want to do; rethinking, redesigning, and that overused-amidst-pandemic word, reimagining may be just the thing for this point in time. We shall see. In addition to these changes, I am considering broadening my conversational umbrella to include figures from other cultural worlds – those of cinema, television, books, visual art, for instance. I have already taken small steps in this area in speaking with various media figures; perhaps now is the time to cast nets further afield? Of course I would not change the name of my website; why would I change something which has become a moniker of sorts? Is there not energy in the frisson of contrasts? My kingdom (queendom?) has plenty of room for a range of voices, and I want to make sure everyone feels welcome – I wouldn’t be a good ruler otherwise! Artists may change; my conversational style will not.

And so, please stay tuned. Fun fall things are afoot, both in and out of the opera house. Thank you again, readers, friends, artists. Andiamo!

Alexander Shelley: ” There’s Difficulty And Challenge Right Now But Also Opportunity”

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO

Photo: Rémi Thériault

Alexander Shelley marked his birthday this year in the one spot he probably wants to be more than any other: in front of an orchestra. The Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra and Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is back rehearsing live, with musicians at Ottawa’s Southam Hall, in preparation for the first in a series of live-streamed concerts starting October 17th. Shelley traveled to Ottawa from his native UK in September, having endured the lockdown, like so many in the music world, worrying, wondering, and willing the return of the live music experience in whatever way possible. He is, like his music world colleagues, cautiously optimistic but also clearly anxious to make (and mark) a Canadian return, in Ottawa and then in Quebec, before conducting duties in Luxembourg later this month. November sees more concerts in Ottawa, as well as a date in Germany with baritone Thomas Hampson and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni in a concert with the Würth Philharmoniker and featuring the music of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Richard Rodgers, and Irving Berlin.

This hopscotch of music and travel, while normal for many conductors and certainly noteworthy in the pandemic era, is also something of a strong symbol of Shelley’s wide-ranging, some might argue even daring, musical pursuits. He has led no less than 32 world premieres, a list which is ever-growing, and he is just as comfortable performing jazz and pop sounds as he is musical works firmly within the established classical canon. If anything, Shelley’s aim may well be to widen and expand that canon, and his NAC Orchestra programming for this autumn seems like a good underlining of that intent. The group’s first concert will feature works by Canadian and American composers, including Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music; the orchestra’s second concert features works by contemporary composers including Marjan Mzetich, Hannah Kendall, and Jessie Montgomery together with Violet Archer’s 1968 work Sinfonietta and Henri Tomasi’s 1956 work Concerto for trombone (the soloist is Hillary Simms, co-founder of The Canadian Trombone Quartet, the country’s first professional all-female trombone quartet). The creative curiosity which marks so much of Shelley’s artistic output did not come about in a vacuum.  Hailing from a decidedly creative lineage (his father is pianist and conductor Howard Shelley; he was taught piano by his mum and cello by his grandmother), Shelley’s resume is one that is a living embodiment of The Daily Telegraph‘s assertion of him as “a natural communicator both on and off the podium.” In 2005 Shelley thought up the idea for the 440Hz project in Germany, a concert series aimed to attract younger audiences to classical music; the series included various famous figures from the worlds of German stage and screen, including electronic music duo Blank & Jones, pop acapella group Wise Guys, and soprano Marlis Petersen. That same year he took the top prize at the 2005 Leeds Conducting Competition, which formally launched him onto the international stage and led to his leading a number of orchestras including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In 2009 Shelley was named Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, a position he held until 2017, undertaking numerous tours and recorded live performances during his tenure. His operatic conducting includes leading works by Lehár and Gounod at Royal Danish Opera, Mozart works at Opera North and Opéra national de Montpellier, Puccini at Opera Lyra (Ottawa), and the 1967 Harry Somers opera Louis Riel at both the National Arts Centre and the Canadian Opera Company. In 2014 Shelley worked with violinist Daniel Hope as part of the album Escape To Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon), together with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Quintet of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin; the album is an eclectic mix of sounds celebrating composers known for their film scores, including Miklos Rozsa, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Ennio Morricone, and also featured performances by pop star Sting and German crooner Max Raabe.

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Darlings Of The Muses was released in May 2020 by Canadian classical label Analekta.

Named Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in Ottawa in 2015, Shelley’s highly creative programming has integrated the worlds of dance, history, and contemporary music in a fun and lively if equally educational mix. The orchestra’s 2019 tour to parts of Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK featured the work of numerous Canadian composers and artists, and also encompassed localized community events and learning initiatives along the way. In November 2018 the orchestra performed Britten’s War Requiem together with members of the Bundesjugendorchester (the Germany National Youth Orchestra, with whom he has toured) to mark the end of the First World War. Shelley’s award-winning discography with the NAC Orchestra and Canadian independent classical label Analekta features many works by living Canadian composers (including Jocelyn Morlock, John Estacio, Kevin Lau, and Ana Sokolović) alongside works by Dvořák, Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shelley and the NAC Orchestra’s latest album is Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings Of The Muses (Analekta), released earlier this year. It is the first of four planned albums which aim to explore the creative and intimate connections between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. Along with Schumann’s and Brahms’s First Symphonies is Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, performed by pianist Gabriela Montero. Gramophone‘s Farach-Colton noted at its release that “there’s an improvisatory quality to Montero’s playing that highlights the music’s florid inventiveness“, which is noteworthy, as it’s a quality that flows through the whole of the album. Montero performs four related (and very beautiful indeed) improvisations based on and inspired by the work of Clara Schumann herself, and it’s these improvisations which cleverly if sensitively bridge the work of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, all three  towering figures about whom Shelley himself can speak at length and in great detail, about the smallest details in scoring to broader contemporaneous social concepts, all whilst betraying a clear delight in his subjects and their creative output.

This joyous communicativeness is something that makes Shelley such an engaging maestro and music educator; all the old-school ideas about conductors being cold and heady are swept aside in his friendly, engaging banter. Since the start of his tenure at the NAC he has hosted Shelley Notes, a regular series of engaging concert introductions which contextualize various works performed by the Orchestra. Over the course of the lockdown earlier this year he continued his hosting duties, albeit in altered form, with Musically Speaking, a chat series featuring a variety of figures in and around the classical world; his first guest was violinist James Ehnes, the incoming Artist In Residence with the NAC Orchestra. The conductor and I spoke last month about bringing live music back to a live setting and why that matters, particularly within a North American context, as well as about the wide range of programming the NACO is offering this autumn, and why he feels Gabriela Montero is precisely the right person to appear on the orchestra’s recent Schumann/Brahms album.

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO, live, performance, orchestra

Photo: Dwayne Johnson

How have you noticed differences, traveling between the UK and Canada, in attitudes toward bringing classical music performance back to the stage?

Last season I did concerts on six continents, which was quite an extraordinary experience, and I got to see how different people think and relate to culture; in each country people have a sense that the way they do it is the norm, and I find the same is true during this pandemic. Reading news from Germany and speaking to friends there, and in Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and North America, is that the way different countries are responding and thinking is very different, but everyone is doing the best thing and the most appropriate thing they feel is necessary. In mainland Europe, concertizing came back quite a few months ago. The only dates that remain in my diary apart from NAC Orchestra ones are in Luxembourg and Germany; the ones in Hong Kong and Australia and London are all gone for the fall, and no one can be sure whether they can get audiences in the hall. They’ve found a way in Germany – they have the (infection) numbers more under control – but other countries in the EU are all approaching it differently. Everybody works differently in responding to the numbers they’re seeing in different cities and towns. But in some places, yes, the performing arts are dying because there’s no performances – there’s no revenues, no turnover for audiences coming in. The Royal Philharmonic is seeping money, and the players don’t have any security or support. The things we take for granted, the great institutions we take for granted like The Royal Phil and other orchestras, may really not survive. There’s a fine line between lobbying for them and their continuance – and related to that, offering audiences that all-important catharsis and a conversation about what it means to live through art – and at the same time respecting the public health guidelines. I’m glad I don’t have to run a country and make these very, very hard choices, where you’re stuck between a wall and a hard place.

But that “hard place” seems to be very slowly softening in places; how much do you think your upcoming dates with the NAC Orchestra might be perceived as a broader symbol for the return of live classical culture in North America?

I think I feel like we have a responsibility as a national organization to be trying to serve our audiences. People need music – it is essential. People need the arts. They’re not some added extra once you have everything else sorted out. Humans have expressed the need for culture through millenia; they speak to needs that transcends language by definition, they reach those place words and even concrete thought can’t reach. It’s sometimes a pure sense of being, as all of us who are involved in the arts are well aware. So on the one hand we feel we have a responsibility to reach audiences and serve them, and at the same time, we are in a position to be able to carry on creating content. During the lockdown our musicians were at home but able to quickly pivot to putting stuff out there, and we had a team who worked with the website and social media. We had the #CanadaPerforms movement which was not just classical but featured all genres, and we had artists across the country with a platform there to perform. It was very important something was coming out, that people could hear and see music being performed live. We need to carry that forward now, and we have ambitious plans for the coming months, because we feel the National Arts Centre needs to be serving the nation in any way we can.

So primarily it’ll be streaming, at least initially, though when I say “primarily” our assumption is the largest number of people we’ll reach is through our streaming, but we will be getting the orchestra back together, we will be back rehearsing soon – we’ve made an important pivot with our work here digitally, but yes, the live experience is vital. I spoke to the Friends of NACO when I arrived back in Ottawa, on Zoom of course, and I pointed something out to them which I think every performing artists is very aware of, which is that our performance is different when there are people there, even if it’s 10 people: you perform differently, the experience is different, the sound is different, the actual product is transformed by the presence of people there, live. It is a communal experience in the deepest sense. And just as with any communal experience, the presence of people who partake in it and care about it changes the actual experience. I said flat-out that it’s not just about having people working back in the hall, which is of course nice and good in an economic sense, but it’s fundamentally important to us to not be performing to an empty space but to take music we perform to a direct and live audience and engage in live feedback from those listeners. And that is of course, one of several things that, even if we’re not aware of it, we miss in the digital realm, that immediate feedback, you can sense it even as a listener if you’re watching a concert on a TV screen or computer or cellphone, whatever, but you know you are not offering that actual feedback as part of a performance, so of course you miss it. And all people can do now is plan, but of course changing circumstances mean we may not, but our plan is to start with 50 guests in the hall and, as quickly as possible, ramp that up, so that over the coming months more and more patrons can join us in the hall, and then, fingers crossed, in the new year, we would hope to start getting back to full numbers, but let’s take it one step at a time.

How does that return to live performance blend with your work as the Music Director?

Ever since I’ve worked with this orchestra, I fell in love not only with the ensemble but this model of a national arts institution; it’s vital to keep asking one’s self not only how we can serve our community in Ottawa but to ask what role a such an organization can play in a national sort of way. You can’t have delusions of grandeur – there are so many other wonderful organizations already in Canada who also engage nationally and internationally – but I do think we can ask if there are gaps we can fill. Within the model of funding – the NAC Orchestra’s funding comes directly from the federal government – we ask, how does one respond to such a responsibility and privilege? In many ways I think of it like public broadcasters; you have, at the core of your responsibility, to do those things which are a harder sell commercially – that’s a privilege as well.

Your latest album is very ambitious – how was it conceived? Did you say, “Right, four albums, everything, all of this, off we go” or was it, “Let’s try this and see where it goes” ?

I think there are a few starting points that coalesced. There are lots of stories in music about composers, and you notice people who’ve watched Amadeus feel they have a connection to Mozart, they feel they know more about his music and life – but those of us in the industry are very aware of these stories, and how some stories are more myths than they are accurate. One particularly fascinating triumvirate for me has always been the relationship between Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and Johannes Brahms. I think many who explored their music and their lives become fascinated by it. Without a doubt, Robert Schumann and Brahms are more household names now, and one could explore the reasoning for that over the centuries; I’m sure there’s an aspect of gender politics in there, but putting that aside for a second and looking at how they were viewed and thought of in their own lifetimes, Clara was, for the majority of the time in which all of them co-existed, the most famous of the three. She was renowned across Europe as one of the great pianists and one of great improvisers; she was known for her composition as well. So she was the artistic character in that triumvirate, the one the two men looked up to and respected, the one from whom they drew inspiration, and I think that’s a lovely story to remind oneself of. It means when you engage with Schumann or Brahms symphonies you are able to connect through to the woman who inspired them, and who also gave them very important feedback and guided them in many ways on their respective journeys. Now if you bear in mind she also had how many children, and ran the household, this was an extraordinary person, the spirit and the energy and talent it took to do all those things, together with the fact her husband was a brilliant man but he was troubled…

He was ill… 

Yes, very ill, and she managed that too, and then she met this other brilliant man, Brahms, who was taken under Robert’s wings, with whom she had a deep friendship. It’s one of the mysteries of music history, whether their platonic love for one another was ever consummated; for me it’s unimportant, because their friendship was rather transcendental – how they affected one another was transcendental. After Robert passed, Clara’s musical friendship with Brahms, and the influence she had on him creatively, was fundamental to the history of music and to classical music development, so that story is at the heart of why I wanted us to create this set of albums. On the one hand, the Schumann and Brahms symphonies are core repertoire for this orchestra, it’s work that fits our instrumentation like a glove; we’re a small symphony orchestra or a large chamber orchestra if you will, so the music fits with our precise instrumentation. These two sets of symphonies mirror each other nicely as well; written twenty years apart, they are intimately connected by the two men who played off one another, particularly Brahms playing off Schumann. Both were trying to solve a problem: after Beethoven symphonies, when you had artists like Liszt and Wagner going off in one direction, which was very programmatic, how do you continue in that abstract music vein of writing symphonies? They both offered up solutions over the course of these four symphonic works. Also, between Schumann completing his four symphonies and Brahms starting and completing his one four symphonies, the entire (Wagner) Ring Cycle was written; that’s something which is so interesting for setting the scene, particularly for Brahms’s symphonies, because it helps to explain criticism at the time, that they seemed like chamber music, which is an aspect I wanted us to grab and explore in these recordings.

It’s very palpable, that chamber quality– it’s one not always apparent within other performances. The music of Brahms is often presented in this muscular, macho way… 

Two of the reviews, picked up said opening is too fast in Brahms’s First – of course this was a very deliberate choice on my part, there is a tradition of hearing the opening of that symphony as this very heavy, epic, big timpani beat…

Clara Schumann, pianist, composer, musician, German, artist

Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in 1857. Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl / Wikimedia Commons

… which is rather macho  to my ears… 

… like a behemoth! And precisely my reason for setting it in the context of Schumann symphonies and also Clara’s music, which is infused as is Robert’s, with lightness and transparency and with that sonic element of chamber music, is to create context for that intro to the first symphony by Brahms. Yes, it is epic in a sense, because it’s setting the C Minor scene, and just like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony takes us from C Minor to C Major over the course of the symphony – so it’s a big journey. I was hoping listeners would understand the point that he, Brahms, was not coming from the music that was written after him, that great late Romantic music and epic statements; he was coming from Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, he was coming from that chamber setting, from that sense of every line being equal, and of not wanting to over-egg the Romantic aspect at potentially the cost of the Classical architecture and line.

So I wrote in the notes about it, that it’s a very deliberate choice, and I hope there will be listeners who appreciate this perhaps different perspective. We have lots of recordings where it’s that big epic sound, but there’s also a take on it where it isn’t that – and, at the center of this cycle, is Clara herself. In this first album (of the series), I wanted us to present her biggest orchestral statement, which is also her Concerto statement. It’s the biggest work she wrote for orchestra; she wrote the last movement when she was thirteen years old, and in the years following she filled it out to a three-movement Concerto which she premiered with Mendelssohn conducting and the Leipzig Gewandhaus playing. The idea she was some “lost talent” isn’t true – she was highly respected in her time. Can you imagine a fifteen year-old girl performing, with Mendelsohn, her own Concerto?! That’s the level of appreciation we’re talking about in her time.

Why did you choose Gabriela Montero to play the music of Clara Schumann?

If I think of all the pianists on earth living now, who for me most embody who Clara Schumann was, it’s Gabriela Montero: she is a consummate improviser, she’ a composer, a virtuoso, a mother, she is all the things Clara was and is, and that she was able to join us and interpret this piece, is very special. This all connects back to when things were very different to what they are now in terms of concert performance – it would be completely normal when Clara performed a concert to perform a piece of her own and then do improvisations, and play a piece by Robert, and improvise, and then Mendelsohn, and so on. The same thing applied in big orchestral concerts, so I wanted us to get a sense of that philosophy. I asked Gabriela if she would improvise for us in the spirit of Clara as she feels her, and as you know, Gabriela is one of the great improvisers of our age, so she sat onstage in Southam Hall and improvised for an hour, and we selected a few of those to connect from the Concerto into Brahms’s First Symphony. It’s a proposition which, for many listeners, will be new and different, and is in keeping with the spirit of the age.

Alexander Shelley, conductor, maestro, British, culture, music, NACO

Photo: Rémi Thériault

Your contextualizing makes it approachable but still very intelligent. Speaking of contextualizing music, will you be doing more online artist chats?

Absolutely. We’ve put together what I believe is programming that speaks to the time we’re living through. I think we all watched not only COVID happening but concurrent to that, all the cultural conversations around identity and voice, and it would’ve felt very strange to us, to have come back and just done a Mozart or Beethoven concert without thinking about what responsibilities we have as a national organization. I wanted to program differently, and try to engage with audiences nationally and internationally, so each 90-minute concert will feature two next-generation Canadian artists; they’ve had hurdles put in their way and over the next season or two, it will certainly be more difficult to travel and be seen, and they need to be given opportunities to perform on a big stage and to grow, to be heard. I’ll be speaking with them, or a member of the orchestra may do, so there will be a platform to get to know them. We’re going to feature Canadian and American composers, living and not, with an emphasis on brilliant contemporary music, and still have so-called traditional names, like Mozart and Prokofiev and Chopin, but the focus will be on composers who are perhaps new names to some, but who are brilliant and deserve this platform. It’s been concerning all of us, can big cultural institutions respond to these conversations? And I don’t see why we can’t, or shouldn’t, especially right now. There’s difficulty and challenge right now but also opportunity – even those people who didn’t realize how much they needed live music now realize how important it is in life.

“I like to build things.”

Douglas McNabney / Photo by Bo Huang

Eleven years ago, the Toronto Summer Music Festival kicked off in fine style. I remember being curious if cautious in my excitement, happy to see it unfolding, if unsure a classical music festival would catch on in Toronto; this isn’t exactly an environment that would support a Tanglewood, I reasoned, and come summertime, there was already so much to do in the city. It didn’t feel like classical music would get a foothold amidst all the festivals, street parties, and other summery cultural events. How wrong I was.

The TSMF has grown to become a very big, very popular part of Toronto’s cultural calendar. This year’s edition opens July 14th (this Thursday) and runs to August 7th, with a particular focus on the music of Great Britain. it sounds like a hoary old trope, but it’s true: the festival has something for everyone. You want fancy and big? Try the big-name concerts at Koerner Hall. You want smaller? Try Heliconian Hall. There’s also student performances, talks, and a generous helping of off-the-radar work too. And, there’s the Academy, perhaps the most vital part of the Festival, which offers a training and performance space for young musicians to work with established artists. And there’s a very casual, relaxed, entirely unpretentious approach to all of it.

That’s largely because of the work of one man, musician/academic Douglas McNabney, who’s been with the festival as Artistic Director since 2010. This year he’s stepping down, and will be replaced in the job by Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, with whom he’s worked in the past. Widely considered one of Canada’s finest chamber musicians, McNabney has performed all over the world, in every festival you can think of, and is currently Professor of Chamber Music at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

For someone so accomplished within the classical realm, you might think he’d come off snobbish, uppity — all the usual tropes associates with the culture. As you’ll hear from our chat, McNabney is none of those things; conversational, funny, and wickedly smart, he’s truly a Canadian cultural treasure who will be sorely missed by the Toronto music community. But, as he tells me, he’s a builder at heart.. so, onto a new (mystery) project, then! We also discuss the issue of diversity within the classical music world, and how the Festival, and the Festival Academy, is helping to bring about change.

An Evolving Tapestry

Photo via my Flickr

Canadian company Tapestry Opera are known for being inventive. Their creative takes on presentation, production, and composition are, in many senses, helping to redefine what opera’s role is (and perhaps should be) moving into the 21st century. Next month they’ll be presenting the North American premiere of The Devil Inside, an adaptation of a scary tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that has been given a contemporary update. A co-commission and co-production by Scottish Opera & Music Theatre Wales, the show was lauded upon its premiere last month in Glasgow and is already creating something of a stir in Toronto’s music scene.

Before that, Tapestry is getting set to present Songbook VI, which continues their popular songbook series. The evenings are notable for their mix of old and new with a kind of aplomb that keeps respect of opera’s history intact while throwing its starchy pretensions out the window. Past concerts have heartily thrown together opera and electronic music, and presented the mournful with the playful in equal measure (and sometimes on the same bill). The concert, happening this Friday and Saturday (February 5th and 6th, respectively), is set in the intimate confines of the company’s studio spaces in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. The physical environment makes one feel as though dropped in the middle of a no-holds-barred rehearsal and an ever-unfolding artwork whose resolution is decidedly unknown.

No details from the evening have been released yet, but audiences are being promised snatches of works from some of Tapestry’s most popular shows, including 1992’s award-winning Nigredo Hotel, which features a libretto by acclaimed Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald. While we can’t expect any murderous wives or mid-aria heavy metal guitar solos, I’m also thinking: it’s a Tapestry show, so go with the flow. Anything could happen. That’s the great appeal of Tapestry’s approach, and, perhaps, of modern opera itself. 

Songbook VI will feature the talents of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and Tapestry Resident Conductor Jordan de Souza. Giunta, whom Toronto audiences may remember from her turn in the memorable Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Canadian Opera Company in early 2014, took some time between gigs recently to answer a few questions about singing and repertoire; Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori, who was a regular panelist on my radio show last year, adds his thoughts about diversity in opera.

Photo by Michael Edwards

Last year you performed in a recital that featured music written from both male and female perspectives; what do you get out of singing parts written for men? 

WG: It always adds a layer of interest and intrigue when a person performs in drag, whether male or female. I’m hired to perform many male roles in opera, because of my voice and body type. It’s just what I do, and I’m totally used to it. (I also love it!) Whether in opera or recital, it’s very interesting to witness a character interpreted by a performer of the opposite gender. That artist can bring something to it, perhaps a more conscious approach, that a performer of the “correct” gender would not necessarily be able to do.

How difficult is it for you as a singer to go between various ‘sounds’ – from Mozart to modern work like that of Gordon Lightfoot?

WG: Not difficult at all. In fact, it is a joy for me, and often a welcome feeling for my voice to switch between different styles of singing, either within one performance or from contract to contract. There are basic principles of my vocal production that stay consistent no matter what the style is, like how I breathe, but for the rest of it, it’s like one part of my voice get a little break, while the other takes over.

Do you think it’s important for singers to embrace genres other than opera? 

WG: I think it’s totally up to each performer, and where their interests and abilities can take them. It’s neither important, nor necessary, for all of us performers to be terribly diverse. To each their own. There are some people who can sing the bejeezus out of one particular style or role, better than anyone in the world, and then there are people like me: chameleons. As long as we have all the bases covered in this industry (and with the amount of singers on the market, that will never be an issue) I think artists can define themselves as they choose, and stray from the trodden path as much or as little as they like.

Photo by Amy Gottung

What are your thoughts around diversity in opera? 

MM: Diversity in opera is a loaded topic. The traditional repertoire is filled with works that stereotype, exoticize, villainize, parody, and/or simply exclude (perceived) “others”. Larger houses similarly face challenges in existing in the present, with diversity as one of many things that has not been dealt well with. (Name a big-house General Director, Composer, or Conductor that is either a woman or a minority.) 

Contemporary opera, on the other hand, if true to its etymological roots (con meaning “with”; tempo meaning “times,” or “with the times”) should reflect the time and place that it is created in. So if a producer / commissioner / arts council does their job, it is a welcoming, inclusive… a normal place to be for a diverse public.
There is an old rule that if you can see yourself reflected in the thing you are looking at, then it is more attractive and welcoming. (Potential “things” can include administrative leadership, performers, stories, creators, audiences, design, style, and language.) Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the world; why wouldn’t its contemporary opera embrace that? Tapestry has a history and practice of representing gender and race diversity at all levels. Inclusion is a great opportunity to take advantage of a wealth of talent and perspective that reflects and informs who we are today.

Why is contemporary opera important?

MM: For the same reason that sex is important to humankind. Without contemporary opera
collaborations and the subsequent conception and birth of works, the art form is doomed. A new generation of art builds a new generation of art goers…and when it is really good, there is nothing quite like it!

WG: It is relevant today and speaks directly to people’s experiences in life. Sure, the usual themes of opera drama will always be the same (love, revenge, and betrayal), but with modern opera, we hear stories that we know, and socio-cultural references that make sense to us, just as our classical operas did to the audiences of their time. I think this is very exciting and very important for the future of opera.

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