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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m very close to the text”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

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

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

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

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

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

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

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

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

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

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

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

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

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

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

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot
sky, autumn, September, colours, himmel, farben, natur

September Songs: Change, Relevance, Artistry, Loss

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

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

In Berlin

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

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

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

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

Also in Berlin

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

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

In London

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

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

Remembering…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importantly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo by Wilfried Hösl.
vinyl, record, album, Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, Klemperer, Ludwig, Wunderlich, Philharmonia, Warner

Essay: Coming Back To Live, Maybe

“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.

Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine”) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music are perceived colors large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, simultaneously solidifying and blurring our relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as its visual counterpart – become far more immediate and distant, heightening consciousness of directed attention and specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):

Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)

Rather ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov with Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live experience in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy of live art is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against earphones or speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.

Intention is what seems to be guiding many of us now, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to broadcast. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving –  a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair within a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, a bit of comical suburban self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t fancy.

“That’s stupid,” she once observed of the propensity to label classical music as something solely for elite tastes. “Just sit there and listen.”

It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler which was floating through the brain, or rather, heart, that day of my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:

Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde!
Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt

Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen!

Ewig… ewig… 

A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.

I do not recall the first time I ever heard  Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde (featuring Ludwig together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer) that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” The nuance Midgette pinpoints to extends to Ludwig’s performances of  formal lieder. Ludwig’s phrasing, pauses, careful breaths, coloring, that tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work – but there is also a total understanding of the material and its layered subtexts. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.

In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (especially digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.

The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in the direction  of energy. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways than in early 2020, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats.

And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture; fortitude for colouring outside the same old lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.

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branches, tree, sky, nature

Essay: Absence, Presence, & Teaching Amidst Pandemic

The idea of vision over visibility is a good one in theory but is challenging in practise, as many in the classical world are realizing. Not having pushback from a team of colleagues and peers has meant longer wait times for the vaccine of varied perspectives. The recordings of Schnittke, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (my COVID trio, I call them), together with the online lectures and live streams only go so far in providing alternatives. Maybe it is as P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous (Mariner Books, 2001), that “there are a great many chemical processes that can take place only in the absence of light.” Perhaps there is value in sitting in the dark, but can be so painful, so lonely. We (I use the royal classical “we” here) are pondering our role(s) within the greater social milieu of life, loss, survival, and resilience, even as we try to survive and keep visible to someone, anyone. The notions of presence and absence are stark amidst the current socio-cultural atmosphere; more than one observer noted, for instance, the lack of classical artistry at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. At a time filled with calls for social justice (notably via the Black Lives Matter movement) and greater opportunity, what can we, as a classical community, actually do? Just who and what we are serving?

Even as there is removal, there is renewal, and that, surely, must be some form of grace. Barbara Hannigan was one of the many people I interviewed in autumn 2020, as a recipient of a 2020 Opera Canada Award., We spoke shortly after the launch of Momentum, an initiative pairing established figures in the classical world with young artists; the need for such a project is, of course, greater than ever. Hannigan decided to launch the project because as she explained, much as young artists were grateful for the guidance provided via her other initiative (Equilibrium) early on in the pandemic, what they really wanted were live opportunities to practise their craft. She said something during our nearly hour-long exchange which I find hauntingly profound:

My desire in life is to be of service, and I found the best way I could be of service is through music. I would be perfectly happy if I was really good at teaching, or really good at preaching, or whatever the case might be – I would be happy to do those things as well. I just like being of service, and it just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation; I have to have that. I think that’s why I was so into contemporary music, it was, or is, a vocation for me. I knew when I started out that it needed someone to be its voice, someone to advocate for it, or for them – for the composers and modern music in general – and I knew that I had this gift for modern music, that I was smart with this kind of stuff, and I thought, “Okay, that’s my calling; I have to do that. I’m good at it and not many are good, and not many like it, but I like it… I really like it!” It wouldn’t be of service for me to go sing Traviata or Bohéme and to have developed my instrument to just do those things, or Queen Of The Night; there’s enough people doing that. So looking back, I understand how my path took the curves it took.

This autumn I began a position as Professor of first-year university students in a Media and Communications program; the end (or middle) of December brought a real sadness at bidding farewell to the many I felt I’d grown to know over the months, ones who emailed words of gratitude in the days that followed. I welcomed another group of students earlier this month when my seventh consecutive year teaching radio documentaries began. Though the overall tenor of this group is very different (final-term radio students tend to be boisterous than their first-term writer-colleagues), both experiences have called to mind Hannigan’s idea of service in this, the annus horribilis, and it might be said, the annus digitalis. Faces on screens, or not even that but disembodied voices, are now a norm, not an exception. My experience teaching piano, which I did for close to a decade, was carried out one-on-one, during a far more analogue era that necessitated physical presence for actual instruction. The experiential performance is missing, and one comes away feeling more alone than ever.

sculpture, art, Europe, wall, still life

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That idea – performance – is, or can be, a loaded concept. To say someone is being “theatrical” (or “performative”) is a form of insult in the English language, as if the theatre is a vehicle for deception, a heightened reality that is not real in and of itself. Yet the sort of performance inherent to (good) teaching, for instance, is authentic, because it is a true presentation of self which threads together entertainment as much as enlightenment into a unique (and hopefully inspiring) blanket. In a very good interview with The Atlantic, Teller, who is the silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller and a former high school Latin teacher, tells writer Jessica Lahey that “no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds […] That’s what affects students.” True, though some of us educators are affected as well, especially adjuncts whose teaching pursuits are but one piece of a very broad and varied mosaic. Many classical artists teach, and many feel there is no chasm between self and subject matter; one simply is – what one not only teaches, but what one performs, listens to, sings, plays, reads… hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes; to borrow from Hamlet, the awareness is all.

In that same Atlantic feature, Teller echoes my (long-held) feeling that Shakespeare’s works should be seen before they’re read, echoing Tolstoy words in What is Art?, that “one cannot judge the works of Wagner without having seen them staged.” (More on Wagner in a future post.) This immediacy of the experience of art is a crucial step on the path to  service because it requires a real presence – but that presence has to be tempered in order to function at optimal capacity. Teller alludes to Francis Fergusson’s important 1949 work,  The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective:

In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.

Thus immediacy only happens through a balance of elements: passion and intellect, showbiz and high art, yin and yang, dark and light (rock and roll, though perhaps “roll and rock” is more appropriate; the “roll” part seems to have gone sadly missing of late). Such balance brings the most memorable and challenging (and sometimes important) art to life. Balance brings subject matter alive for students; Peter & The Wolf is followed by the music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik in my classes, and that’s precisely how it should be.

What is so frustrating, again, is the lack of live human engagement. I can’t see anyone, therefore this cannot be the performance I intended. This cannot have the effect I would wish it to have. I don’t know how much I am affecting you (or not). It’s hard to feel I am being of service right now. Why am I doing this, beyond the money, really? Humanity, for all its droplet-spewing imperfection, comes in many different shapes, forcing many different questions, prodding at our self-worth and asking us to up our game in the stakes of artistic endeavour. This COVID time has forced contemplations within the classical community which point at absence (absence of money, absence of opportunity, absence of others)  – but also a new, delicate presence composed of a heretofore unseen, unheard, unrealized capacity for creativity and curiosity. Aldous Huxley writes in The Divine Within that “(t)he Order of Things is such that no one has ever got anything for nothing. All progress has to be paid for.” Along with physical work, some of that payment involves (to paraphrase Ouspensky) sitting for lengthy periods in the absence of light, and allowing all those potent chemical processes to occur the way they need to. The past ten months have revealed, personally, a path littered with notions of worth and validation, strewn with perceptions of authority and power; a great many have been slotted in to the position my mother held up to her passing in 2015, of providing (or more frequently withholding) approval, validation, acceptance. It has only been through mandated isolation  that such a realization has come, that a clearer view of patterns, like Socrates’ shadows on the wall, have been seen. I’ve given myself permission to walk, carefully masked, outside at last.

sculpture silence finger mouth face no words secret meditation Preault figure human

Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, date unknown. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Perhaps this is where the classical community, need to go – outside. We can’t be of service if we stay inside, fretting on a return to “normal” that is months, possibly even years, away, or may never indeed return at all. Our listening has changed, our experience of music has changed; we have changed – I hope we have. Questions need asking, and require real work to cultivate, if not answer entirely: where have we failed? What can we do better? How can we be of service? COVID has taken (and continues to take) so very much; if there is something it gives us in return, let it be a new presence, forged, like a new and better Ring, in the fires of an old world that needed to be released. We are here to give a performance in which we must get our hands dirty. We must be awake. We must be aware.  Time to roll up our sleeves; the readiness is all.

Allan Clayton: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Days If They Don’t Have Music In Them”

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

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.

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Before Jenufa‘s Cancellation

How are rehearsals for Jenufa going?

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.

It’s written phonetically, an approximation to match the inflections of the language

Exactly.

… 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…

Yes indeed.

… 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.

No!

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.

It was such a special opera, wasn’t it?

I spoke to Matthew Jocelyn when he directed Hamlet in Köln in November 2019, and he was also clear about the role of collaboration in its genesis. 

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. 

That generosity of spirit bleeds into the concert work I’ve seen you do, your 2018 performance of Spring Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, for instance… 

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 

But you can’t do that in recitals; artists say it’s like standing there naked, although Thomas Hampson said he thinks all singers should do them.

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.

And it’s a good massage vocally.

Yes, not crazy Brett Dean vocal Olympics! 

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

After Jenufa‘s Cancellation

Sorry for the delay, I was just doing an online task with my family, it wasn’t working and I was swearing and throwing things at the computer. How are you?

Trying to figure things out.

It’s such a change, isn’t it… 

I teach as well and had my first Zoom session with my students recently.  

How did it go?

Nobody wanted to hang up at the end – they were so happy to see each other. I wrote about that moment recently.

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. 

It was notable how loud freelancers were through Brexit about the implications to its various ecosystems.

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. 

And in the current circumstances, literally doing so rather late. The scenes of the crowded parks this past weekend were… 

It was absolutely insane. 

So how are you keeping your vocals humming along? 

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 .

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British Enescu Festival 2019 Britten Sinfonia Turnage premiere

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.

It’s also kind of like Madame Butterfly turned inside out…  

Quite!

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 at Wigmore this season, 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?

Absolutely. 

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Matthew Jocelyn: Interpretation Over Illustration

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire

Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.

Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.

Matthew Jocelyn theatre Hamlet director writer artist

Photo: Tony Hauser

Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen,  Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten  (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.

As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”

That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marks Hamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.

How is your production of Hamlet going?

It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.

How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?

From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind. 

So this will be more abstract?

Yes, more abstract.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?

It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.

Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work. 

And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.

Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.

So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Photo: Paul Leclaire

So there’s a freedom working in Germany… 

Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything. 

It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!

That’s right!

What’s been your process working with the cast? 

This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.

And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.

Duncan Ward conductor music artist baton podium

Photo: Alan Kerr

I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also. 

Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.

The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing? 

I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.

In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.

Oper Köln Hamlet Brett Dean Matthew Jocelyn Germany stage Shakespeare opera music live performance culture

Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

So not change so much as evolution… 

Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.

Susan Coyne: Her Own Peer

There are some plays I’m absolutely drawn to, Hamlet being a notable example. I love the haunted nature of the title character, the complicated nature of his relationships, and the ways he deals with (or avoids) various elements thrown up at him. Like Hamlet, Henrik Ibsen‘s Peer Gynt has a compelling main character and a complex set of relationships -but the big difference is the sprawling, massively ambitious storyline. Most people associate Ibsen with serious, hard-edged reality-based works like Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Yet before these works, Ibsen wrote his five-act play in verse, and, to quote one critic, “in deliberate, liberating disregard of the limitations that the conventional stagecraft of the 19th century imposed on drama.” Wow. Ambitious? Yes. Brave? Yes. A little bit crazy? Perhaps.

Indeed, Peer Gynt has presented its fair share of challenges in live production; many versions are long, or else condensed so thoroughly that they risk losing their original Norwegian folk flavour. Ingmar Bergman helmed a five-hour version in 1957 (and didn’t use the famous Grieg music named after the work), while Christopher Plummer presented a radically-reduced concert version in 1993 (and did use the Grieg music, natch). There’s a myriad of reasons the work is so challenging: numerous location chances, an enormous cast of characters, and fantastical elements that reference fairy tales, religion, and the nature of time itself. Like I wrote, Peer Gynt was, and remains, ambitious, brave, and a little bit crazy.

So it was with much intrigue that I recently looked over a press release for a new, streamlined production of the work, staged by The Thistle Project; adapted for two actors by director Erika Batdorf and the company, the production features playwright, actor, and author Susan Coyne alongside Thistle’s co-founder Matthew Romantini. I wanted to find out Coyne’s ideas about this unique work, perhaps in the hope that she’d be able to furnish me with a little more clarity in trying to understand the nature of Peer. I soon learned she brings not only an actor‘s dedication and commitment to the role, but a writer‘s intuitive understanding of the language, and how it informs the visual elements within the work. The Thistle Project’s production of Peer Gynt promises to be one of the most memorable experiences of the Toronto theatre season this year.

How do you approach the role? You’re playing what some might characterize as a “typically male” role. What is it about Ibsen’s hero that ultimately renders him genderless?

The character is very male in the traditional sense and we aren’t changing that. However, I”m not playing him in drag. I like to think it’s similar to what actresses quite often did in the nineteenth century- playing the “breeches part” without having to explain why. The play reveals new facets when you can get away from some of the off-putting surface elements of Ibsen’s original script (which was probably not written to be performed at first)- like the character of Solveig, who seems a kind of caricature on the page. (She is) the maiden pure who waits her whole life in a castle tower for her hero to return to her. What attracts me to Peer is his energy and his imagination. He’s a dreamer and a doer, though he lacks the capacity to look at himself and his actions.

By producing it in a church, there is a lot of spiritual background brought in. Intentional?

We wanted to do the play in a non-traditional space. Again, this is a way of looking the play from another angle. The play has a very spiritual core and we wanted a space that would provide it with a kind of resonance- as it happens we found one in the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is a beautiful space with a very progressive history and deep roots in the downtown community where it sits.

How does the movement-based, experiential nature of the piece complement Ibsen’s writing?

Peer Gynt is very unlike the plays by Ibsen that most of us are familiar with: A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabbler, Ghosts. It is a kind of folk tale, very earthy and wildly inventive and mixing all kinds of styles of theatre. So we are doing the play with only two actors, me and the brilliant Matthew Romantini, who plays every other character.

How much of your own writing background helped in the streamlining of the work?

Erika Batdorf is the real force behind this adaptation, which involves cutting a play down from about four hours to something like ninety minutes. She knows the play intimately, and has been involved with several productions, and lived with it inside her for many years. The rest of us have had a hand in reworking bits and pieces as we’ve found some stumbling blocks in the text.

What does Peer Gynt have to say to us in the 21st century?

First of all it’s a very entertaining story, and surprisingly funny. It is the story of Everyman‘s journey through life- the struggle between our flawed, selfish, human desires and the part of us that might be called our higher self- the self we seldom allow to have the upper hand. I think it’s an old, old tale, and one that never goes out of style.

Peer Gynt runs to February 21st at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity. More information is at the Facebook Event Page.

Photos by Lindsay Anne Black

Reason #2 I need to go to New York

 

I love the Tonys -or rather, the theatre scene the Tonys represent.

Nominations were announced today and they include a slew for the Elton John-penned Billy Elliott.

I remember watching the awards year after year, from the time in 1995 when a nervous-looking Ralph Fiennes won for Hamlet (which I saw at the Belasco that summer, and was indeed magnificent) to Alan Cumming slinking across the stage to the opening strains of Cabaret (best production ever, bar none -and at Studio 54, no less), to when entirely very-very Australian actor Hugh Jackman hosted (charmingly, but you knew that).

This year, I was a bit surprised there were no nominations for The Seagull, or its lead, Kristin Scott Thomas. Though I didn’t get to see it (sadly), I heard a lot of good things. Apparently I wasn’t the only one surprised by its overlooking. Hmm.

Still, the Tonys makes me long for a chunk of the Big Apple. A big singing, dancing chunk.

Drama Is…

There’s certainly plenty of great drama out there lately.

If you’re in London, there’s the Tony Award-winning August: Osage County. New York has the recently extended one-man show Taking Over, while Chicago has Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. If you’re in Toronto, there’s no shortage of goodness either, with the disturbingly brilliant Festen running into next week, and Frank McGuinness’ timely (timeless?) Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me opening this Saturday.

But oh, the best drama for us Canucks right now is in our own Parliament. The drama! The speeches! The fist-shaking fury! It would all be very entertaining, if it weren’t also real. Ouch. The best part is the level of engagement it’s provoked among average Canadians; considering our last election saw some of the worst voter turnout rates in electoral history, being a part of something so starkly different in terms of mood and passion is… refreshing. The downside is the deep cracks in unity the Ottawa drama is revealing to all of us. Forget the “one” part; we’re just simply “not the same.” Or so we’re being told.

Objectively interesting as it all may be, the cause of national unity isn’t helped by our politicians giving deeply dramatic, occasionally hysterical Bernhard-meets-Kean performances. Makes the fuss over the use of a real skull in an RSC version of Hamlet seem tame by comparison. Then again, I can think of a few people who feel as if their own skulls have been bashed around, watching the frantic arm-flapping of Canadian politicians over the last week. I can only hope there’s a great playwright (or two) watching, listening, and writing. We’re going to need someone to make sense of this for us, and I can’t think of any other way to see it, other than a dramatic presentation in the theatre. If Frost/Nixon taught me anything, it’s that human behaviour is often at its most desperate and revealing when put through the fire of politics. Stay tuned for it: Harper Hears A Hoard, on tour soon.

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