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Alexander Neef: “I Believe In The Resilience Of The Art Form”

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

Update 22 June 2020: The Canadian Opera Company has cancelled its 2020 autumn season. The conversation with COC General Director Alexander Neef, below, took place in May 2020, prior to the official announcement.

Cancellation, closure, calibration: these are the elements at work within an arts industry trying desperately to stay afloat in the middle of a pandemic. What to cancel? What to postpone? What to calibrate – or recalibrate – as the situation warrants? Which companies will be around in year, and which will close? Some organizations are busily preparing for presentations of old favorites within the context of a new normal dictated by the coronavirus, acting, consciously or not, as beacons of an industry facing an immense and undeniable transformation.

The annual Salzburg Festival, for instance, will be going forwards in a modified form as of August 1st. On the slate is Elektra (with Aušrine Stundyte in the lead and Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski) and a revival of Così fan tutte, as well as four theatre works (including the world premiere of Zdeněk Adamec by Peter Handke) and numerous concerts, including a Beethoven cycle by pianist Igor Levit. In Germany, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) has also made adjustments. The company recently announced a 90-minute chamber presentation of Das Rheingold in its very own car park, running for five performances starting this Friday (12 June), and featuring twenty-two musicians and twelve singers. The production, by Jonathan Dove (who also did orchestration) and director Graham Vick for the Birmingham Opera Company, is not the first presentation by DOB in such an environment; in 2014 the company presented Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia in the very same parking deck. Wagner’s first opera in his epic Ring Cycle had been originally planned as a fully staged work from director Stefan Herheim, a premiere which has since been postponed. The upcoming version, adhering to the guidelines set out by the Senate of Berlin, has a €5 entry fee and a pay-what-you-can structure, with audience member contact information being recorded and a 1.5 metre distance enforced; moreover, masks will be required when entering and exiting, toilets will be accessible, and (rather crucially) small bottles of “beverages” will be made available to visitors.

Such an ambitious undertaking underlines the very thin lines that currently exist between possibilities and probabilities. Those who can are doing their best, in the most creative and safe methods presently allowable; others are bending and flexing in ways heretofore unimaginable six months ago. The Metropolitan Opera cancelled its autumn season and will be reopening (ostensibly) on December 31st, although it continues to offer a revolving slate of productions online. Looking over their latest release, it’s hard to not think of the artists who were set to make their debuts at the house this autumn, either in a role or with the company itself: soprano Christine Goerke was set to sing her first fully-staged Isolde in a revival of Marius Treliński’s production of Tristan und Isolde; 74-year-old conductor Michail Jurowski was to have made his Met Opera debut leading Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. On the other side of the ocean, the Royal Opera House, itself in dire straits, is getting set to launch a new series, Live From Covent Garden, on Saturday (June 13), which will complement its extant online offerings of opera and ballet. Curated by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, and Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, the event (set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 15th) will feature performances by baritone Gerald Finley, tenor Toby Spence, soprano Louise Alder, and the premiere of a new ballet choreographed by Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. The following two presentations of the program, on the 20th and 27th of June respectively, will be available on a pay-per-view basis. Like every company, a prominent “Donate Now” button is displayed on the ROH homepage, one whose request will no doubt grow in urgency  as the autumn season inches ever closer.

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Rosario La Spina as Radames (background) and Sondra Radvanovsky (foreground) as Aida in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Aida, 2010. Photo: Michael Cooper

For Canadian Opera Company (COC) audiences, the fall season is just as fraught with uncertainty. In late March the company made the difficult if necessary decision to cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season, which was to include revivals of The Flying Dutchman and a wildly divisive staging of Aida by Tim Albery. Bereft of the gilded visuals so frequently attached to presentations of the famed Verdi work, the production had been anticipated for the reactions it might have provoked a full decade after its premiere. Would Toronto audiences have grown to accept Albery’s arresting vision? Would it have been so upsetting in 2020? Will it even be staged again, now that COVID seems, for some, to have put a damper on even perceivably risque productions and programming? The opportunity to discover the elasticity of the COC audience was, alas, lost this spring but another chance, possibly, awaits in the fall. The company is set to present Wagner’s Parsifal – the first presentation of the opera in the COC’s history. A co-production with Opéra de Lyon, The Metropolitan Opera, and the COC, the highly abstract (and at times, very bloody) François Girard-helmed work was presented in February 2013 at The Met, to widespread acclaim. Owing to the monumental nature of the production, the company launched a fundraising campaign with various levels of support named after elements of the opera. Tenors Christopher Ventris and Viktor Antipenko share the title role in the COC production, with Johan Reuter as Amfortas, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Kundry, and Robert Pomakov as Klingsor; COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Opening night is scheduled for September 25th.

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A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

According to Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef, those plans are still intact. Neef, who is also Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Festival, had been set to leave the COC at the end of the 2020-2021 season and become General Director of the Opéra national de Paris. The company is facing €40 million in losses this year alone, from both the pandemic as well as numerous strikes which occurred before the lockdown. The Opéra’s current Director, Stéphane Lissner, announced in an interview with Le Monde on June 11th, 2020 that he’s ending his mandate at the end of 2020, emphasizing the extreme nature of the situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: “nous ne sommes pas dans une situation de passation normale.” (“we are not in a normal handover situation.”) Neef confirmed in a COC release the following day that he “certainly did not anticipate Lissner’s early departure and that also confirmed not leaving Canada just yet. Neef says he “has not yet had any formal discussions – either with the Paris Opera or members of our Board of Directors – about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris. Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated.”

Back in May, Lissner spoke to the unfeasible economics around presenting opera at the Garnier and Bastille theatres within prescribed social distancing mandates. France, like most other locales, requires audience members to be two meters (6.5 feet) apart. “Le protocole [proposé pour reprendre les spectacles] est impraticable : impraticable pour le public, pour les artistes et pour les salariés. Suppression des entractes, c’est impossible, faire entrer 2700 personnes en respectant les distances, c’est impossible, la distance dans l’orchestre, dans les chœurs, c’est impossible,” he noted in early May (“The protocol [proposed to take over the shows] is impractical: impractical for the public, for the artists and for the employees. Eliminating intermissions is impossible, bringing in 2700 people while respecting distances is impossible, the distance in the orchestra, in the choirs, is impossible.”). Will there even be a 2020-2021 season for Opéra national de Paris? The report in Le Monde indicates, if not an outright cancellation, then a greatly altered one, with an emphasis on revivals, including La traviata (led by James Gaffigan, in a production by Simone Stone), the ballet La Bayadère, and the ever-popular Carmen, with Domingo Hindoyan on the podium, in an acclaimed staging by Calixto Bieito. The Bastille is not set to reopen until November 24th, and the Garnier in late December. A planned new Ring Cycle staging is off the books. “Fin 2020, il est probable que l’Opéra de Paris n’aura plus de fonds de roulement” (By the end of 2020, it is likely that the Paris Opera will no longer have working capital”), Lissner told Le Monde. “C’est pourquoi, à partir de janvier 2021, j’ai choisi de m’effacer afin qu’il n’y ait plus qu’un seul patron à bord.” (“That’s why, from January 2021, I chose to step aside so that there would only be one boss on board.”)

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The interior of the Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That “seul patron” is shouldering a lot of responsibility right now. Notwithstanding this unfolding and weighty situation, plus the cancellation of the COC’s spring season and the uncertainty of its 2020-2021 season, Neef was also very recently heavily involved in negotiations to obtain recorded COC performances for online broadcast during the quarantine – hardly a simple task, as music writer Lydia Perovic ably outlined in her smart investigation into the paucity of online Canadian opera content for Opera Canada magazine in 2018. Yet in our conversation last month, before the Paris news, Neef was his characteristically cool, unflappable self. The COC head honcho and I have spoken many times over the years, most recently last summer following the announcement of his Paris appointment. The German-born Neef has always been direct if highly diplomatic, eloquent but possessing an undeniable edge of steel. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of history (not surprising, given he graduated from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen with a Master of Arts in Latin Philology and Modern History) and a solid if wholly unsurprising knack for thoughtful casting (honed during his time as casting director at the Paris Opera from 2004 to 2008), Neef is as much passionate as level-headed; that passion shows itself in strong, well-observed opinions and observations, and then translates itself into elegantly understated wisdom. Having started at the Salzburg Festival with famed opera administrator Gerard Mortier, Neef went on to work at the Ruhrtriennale, New York City Opera, and later, Opéra nationale de Paris, before arriving in Toronto in 2008. In the decade-plus of his directorship with the COC, Neef has brought a number of celebrated international opera figures to the Four Seasons Centre stage: singers (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anita Rachvellishvilli, Patricia Racette, Stefan Vinke, Luca Pisaroni, conductors (Carlo Rizzi, Speranza Scapucci, Paolo Carignani, Harry Bicket, Patrick Lange), directors (Peter Sellars, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Claus Guth, Robert Wilson, Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants). He has consistently championed the work of tenor Russell Thomas, who has appeared on multiple occasions on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (The Tales of Hoffman in 2012, Carmen in 2016 Norma in 2016, Otello in 2019, and was to have performed in Aida this spring), along with that of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as well as Norma), bass baritone Gerald Finley (Falstaff, 2014, Otello, 2019) and soprano Christine Goerke, whose Brunnhilde in the company’s year-by-year presentations unfolding Wagner’s Ring Cycle won her acclaim and, like Radvanovsky, Finley, and Thomas, bolstered a fierce following.

In mid-May, Neef took part in an online chat hosted by the Toronto-based International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) in which he was asked about how he perceived the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the opera community, singers in particular; I was keen to hear more from Neef and was grateful when, not a week later, he and I had a lengthy discussion – about pandemic, Parsifal, Paris, and, to start, the question of risk and its place in the industry moving forwards.

Alexander Neef, portrait, Canadian Opera Company, General Director, leader, director, executive, administration, opera, Canada, German

Photo © Gaetz Photography

In light of the damage the pandemic is doing in the arts world, some believe that opera programming and presentation will become more conservative, that any perceived risk in either is off the table for the foreseeable future. What’s your take – can opera afford to break eggs in a pandemic/post-pandemic environment?

To stick with your analogy: I think there is no art if you don’t break the eggs. And I think since we don’t have any live art in our lives right now, breaking eggs becomes even more important in the future. I got this really interesting manifesto in my mailbox this morning – and it’s easier to say this when you run a little company rather than when you have X number of employees you want to keep feeding – but, it says, “time to commission new works from young composers; time to ally with other theatre, cinema, dance, performing arts centres; time to follow the example of cinema, the storytelling medium that came after opera and was predicted by great opera composers” and so on. When you’re a small, flexible structure, then yes, those boats are easy to turn around; you can be much more reactive. The bigger your apparatus becomes, the harder it is to change because there are a lot of people who need to make that change with you, but in general, I’ve never believed and still don’t believe it, that going back to more traditional approaches, to what we consider “safe” repertoire, will do anything for the future sector – the only thing it will do is make people get more tired of you. Or, to say it another way, how many times will you need to see the same production of La bohème, even though it might be with different people? At some point you may say, “I’ve seen this five times over the last ten years; give me one reason why I should go again?” I think what we’ve been trying to do is to space things out enough, or to hold off with programming, so there’s still for us a reason to do (a certain opera), other than the reason that it’s popular repertoire…

Or it’s nostalgia… 

… or it’s nostalgia, yes. Also, our audience is not eternal. Like everybody who deals with an audience, we are always interested in refreshing – we want a relationship with our public where we don’t always confirm what they think opera is.

That’s a big hurdle, especially for companies who play into clichés. How do you counter it?

It is a hurdle, but I continue to believe, and this crisis hasn’t changed my opinion so far, that what’s really important is people know what kind of company they’re coming to; you need to have a spine. And again, I always say, and have said: indifference is our biggest enemy. If people think, “Oh, this is the same old thing” or they leave a show and can’t remember, ten minutes later, what it was all about…  well, obviously we want people to like what we do, but I prefer they hate (a production) with a passion than be indifferent to it. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that revival of Aida that people were itching to see, for very different reasons!

I distinctly recall someone saying to me at the opening in 2010 that “it’s actually just fine if you close your eyes.”

Think what you want about that production but ten years later people still talk about it. That’s what I mean when I say indifference is our biggest enemy. Obviously there was a lot of rejection at the time but also a lot of people came to it and said, “Wow, I had no clue opera could be so current, and about me, and not just stuffy and purely representational.” 

There were also younger people I know who went and later said, “That was my first opera experience and I wanted grandeur and camels!”

… and other people walked away from it thinking, “Where has this art form been all my life?!” So it’s hard to say what’s interesting to one and not to the other. People think about young audiences that, very often, those are the ones who want the avant-garde, but I think it’s not necessarily true; sometimes they’re way more conservative than someone who’s been subscribing for twenty-five years. It’s a complicated thing! But just because you are older does not mean your taste in art is more conservative – that’s not how it works.

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Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

There’s been so much effort on the part of classical organizations to try and get this mythical young audience, but I feel as if the pandemic has forced them to realize the importance of a far wider cultivation.

In the end you can’t afford to ignore any part of your audience. Right now there’s an issue with at-risk populations; a young audience is not seen as so much at-risk (for COVID), but I think that shouldn’t mean we totally abandon our older audiences. The whole discussion for me is kind of moot anyway, because you cannot separate the discussion of keeping an audience safe from keeping the performers and staff safe, and while that might not be exactly the precisely same measures, if you can’t combine both, then it’s going to be very hard to have a show. Right now the pit is a very dangerous work environment. We’re in a lucky position in Canada and the COC – we won’t be going back into rehearsals before two-and-a-half months from now, so we will have better information in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that will allow us to make better decisions. The big hiatus we have now, I’m rather grateful for that.

Some in the Toronto opera world are wondering what will happen to Parsifal – it’s been a long road to having it staged at the Four Seasons Centre.

What I say is: I simply don’t want to make that decision right now. And I don’t feel I have to. Right now we’re living in an equation with too many variables and those variables make it hard to solve that equation. There’s already some measures falling in place in terms of public health advisories, and some of the variables are starting to be eliminated. Today I read something stating that essentially the virus is mostly circulating in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the rest of Ontario is under control – which is not great news for the GTA, but it’s true in all urban centres – Montréal, Paris, all those places – it’s true that it hangs on (in those locales) for longer because there’s more movement of people, but it also means it can get contained. We need to have a better idea of the public health measures.

Obviously we won’t be able to perform Parsifal if we have to have limited numbers in the audience, it’s an economic nightmare and it wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t even accommodate all of our subscribers (in that scenario), but we have to be prepared, and we are taking the time to be prepared, and when we have to make a  decision, we will gather all the elements to make the best decision for our staff and performers, and the house, and everyone.

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The interior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s a strange new equation to accept, that we are now in a world where there’s a question mark over both Parsifal and Paris’s opera season.

It is a strange new equation, and with strange new variables – and I think one needs to take this a week at a time. There are supposed to be additional announcements of openings in Europe…  

… under strict conditions. Returning to the theatre-going experience people are familiar with will take much longer. 

Yes, and it’s a two-way street, or more than a two-way street. A part of it is medical progress as well – I think even more effective and widely-available testing will do a lot to reassure the public about the situation. That is big! Everybody knows the vaccine will take a little while but also we’re working on all kinds of things in terms of an effective antiviral, because the truth is, if we didn’t have a flu vaccine we would be having a terrible situation every winter. But because we have a flu vaccine there’s no discussions of masks or additional hygiene measures during flu season… so we need to find a way through additional safety measures, through progress in medicine, all of that, to kind of normalize this situation in a way that is…  I mean, there’s always a risk: you leave your house and you can catch something on the subway, right? That happens to a lot of people. I am not a scientist and indeed COVID is very contagious – if you get sick you can get very sick, but we need to take time to really learn more about it and then calibrate all the available information and input it back into a form where people can gain a certain amount of comfort in leaving their homes, in order to assess different levels of risk.

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View from the orchestra pit of R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Lucia Graca

How do you see the current recalibrating in the opera world influencing not only companies but artists?

Again, for everything that’s on the performer’s side, regular testing is going to be the key so that you can be certain the people working together in confined spaces, people touching each other in rehearsals and so on, they can have a reasonable level of confidence that everybody is up to date on their health. Now it’s the case that you wake up in the morning and you feel a little bit off and take your temperature; three months ago you would have thought, “Oh I’ll see how I feel in the afternoon” but today you get the thermometer out and look at the reading and say, “It’s not normal.”  People will be more sensitive to their own symptoms and more responsible, I think. I was reading something interesting, about how work culture will change, especially in North America, where coming to work sick was like a badge of honor, not letting the company down, now it’s, “You’re not feeling well, we don’t want to see you” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! That’s the performer’s side. 

On the audience side, if people feel safe again if wearing a gloves and a mask when they go somewhere and feel okay to sit next to someone they don’t know, if we can reach that level of confidence, I think nobody will care about people wearing a mask in the foreseeable future in a theatre, even if it’s not a requirement. It will be part of the new normal, and frankly, it’s normal already in certain parts of the world. It’s funny that in Canada, which was so haunted by SARS, mask-wearing didn’t become a norm, so maybe now it will. If that’s the worst thing that can happen to us, that people put on a mask before walking into the Four Seasons Centre, we can do that. There’s so much cultural change about masks that’s already happened – people felt, “Oh you can’t speak with a mask” – well, people do it all the time.  I was at the supermarket the other day and ran into someone I know, and we didn’t take our masks off, we just spoke with our masks on at a safe distance. Places are going to normalize these kinds of protocols, and it’ll make it all less scary, I believe. And of course, if you are part of a risk group, you would think twice about where you go and what you do; we might be able to accommodate you somewhere in the theatre. We’re more than happy to do that with patrons; it’s our business to accommodate their needs. Frankly, every theatre would be willing to do that to get their patrons back. But then again it’s not something we haven’t done already in making all reasonable accommodations for people with needs.

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Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

And casting?

That’s actually one of the bigger problems we’re discussing. Zoom doesn’t give you a lot of information about the size of the voice but it does give you information about the personality you’re dealing with, about pitch, about rhythm. We were talking about this in relation to the ensemble, for example; they were Zoom coaching before they went off contract for the summer. Everybody hated the idea initially, and then came away saying it was better than not doing anything at all, so that is obviously also a part of that new normal, as you say. There’s also the situation of stage auditions and having a pianist and nobody in the hall except for two or three casting people; that seems less complicated than a full stage performance in this environment, if you can get them safely in through the stage door and onstage. All these things are being worked out. 

I’m curious if you think digital platforms like Instagram will become a big factor in casting the post-coronavirus opera world. 

It probably will… but…  I look at it more as an added tool to what we’re already doing than anything else. We have more and more tools at our disposable, yes, but there’s a lot of the old stuff that still works and we can’t abandon it, that’s been true for our marketing and communications as much as for casting – we still send postcards to people (for marketing) because there’s people who really like postcards, maybe not as many as twenty years ago, but it’s still a valuable part of our audience, so why would we abandon that practise?

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Alexander Neef at the COC’s 2020-2021 Season Reveal event, 2020. Photo © Gaetz Photography

So the same holds true for singers then? I see a lot of imitation online. 

As I said in the IRCPA talk, people who do casting are really not very interested in generic products… 

… you mean in terms of singers pushing an homogenous image?

Yes – going back to your breaking-the-eggs metaphor at the beginning of our conversation, if you don’t have that appetite for risk-taking there’s not going to be a lot of art in what you do.

Strange to think that being yourself is perceived as a risk.

We all know it’s the hardest to be yourself – but as an artist you have the opportunity to not be yourself, and to figure that out, and to live it out, in a way a lot of people cannot, but I think it’s very important to have that self-assessment skill and to figure out, clearly, “What can I do better than other people?” If you have better high Fs than anybody, then all I want to know is, can you sing Queen Of The Night? That’s the thing, and there’s nothing bad about it, and you must acknowledge that as you get older, your high Fs won’t be as great, and you’d better figure out what you can do then.

Or have figured it out already… 

Yes. It comes back to having a lot of courage. Sometimes I feel the courage, especially for a young artist, will always come before the self-assurance, but it’s kind of a bit of – I really like this egg thing you started with! – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t put in the courage it might just never happen, but you will not know if there’s a reward before you’ve done it, and I think doing it for the first time, and seeing if it works, will give you more courage for the second time, and so on.

The benefit of digital is it’s creating a vital form of community a lot of people miss right now – are the recent COC opera broadcasts a sign of things to come?

Right now it’s a concession to the times we’re in; we wouldn’t want to necessarily put archival recordings out as a standard, but what’s important for me is – and some don’t see it this way but that’s fine – that it’s about creating a presence for all those artists who can’t work right now. Putting this kind of work out – work that was done in a good environment, where (artists) are performing good roles with a good company, with a high level of quality – reminds the world that is what artists do. And having such material released also reminds the world that this is just a video, and if you want the real thing, you will have to come back to the theatre and get a real-life experience.

So you see video as a complement, not a replacement?

Absolutely.

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The exterior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I asked you this in our conversation last year, but of course so much has changed, and I want to ask again: what are you taking with you now from Toronto to Paris? 

I’m not leaving just yet! 

Something you’d noted before is your desire at Opéra national de Paris to highlight various historical aspects within a contemporary context.

That hasn’t changed, of course – putting historical opera within the larger context of what happens today, for 21st century artists and for a 21st century audience – that won’t change, but we’ll have to see as we emerge from this crisis, what has actually changed, and when we can go back. That (plan for return) will determine a lot. The longer this goes, the more we will have to think about smaller things we can do for limited groups of people. The goal is to go back to fully staged opera as quickly as possible, but if we can’t do that, we better get inventive. Ultimately I believe in the resilience of the art form. 

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. 

Catherine Foster: “Having Something Taken Away Spurs You Into Another Place”

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

Photo: Uwe Arens

Lately I’ve been gravitating toward the work of artists who possess an air of authority, ones who strengthen my resolve to weather the current, rather frightening storms of unprecedented global pandemic. Those artists include sopranos Lyubov Petrova (that conversation posted recently), Chen Reiss (who I spoke with in March 2019; expect a new conversation soon), and Catherine Foster, an artist who didn’t start out in the opera world, but in healthcare. That former life still provides the Midlands-born soprano with a steady stream of onstage inspiration.

Foster is known for dramatic repertoire, and has built a career performing the music of Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, and most especially Wagner. She recently made debuts as Leonora di Vargas in Verdi’s La Forza del destino (at Oper Köln) and Eglantine in Weber’s Euryanthe with conductor Marek Janowski, as well as Die Färberin (the Dyer’s Wife) in Die Frau ohne Schatten at Nationaltheater Mannheim in 2019-2020. Cultural review site Die Neue Marker proclaimed in its review (translated from its original German) that throughout the sumptuous Strauss work, Foster “increased her modulation-rich soprano, always present in all registers, to stratospheric heights, combining soft colouration with persistently powerful yet always round vocal attacks. Her phenomenal ability to span large dramatic arches with unbroken intensity, without any technical losses in the constant focus of the harmony of her expressive soprano timbre, is spectacular.”

Until today (Tuesday March 17), Foster had been set to make a highly anticipated return to her native UK for the first time in two decades, for an in-concert performance of Elektra on Wednesday (March 18th); because of the corona virus, those dates, like almost if not all of the events in the classical world, have now been canceled. Elektra was to have reunited Foster with conductor Kiril Karabits (who she previously worked with touring Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) and she was to have performed with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), having been hailed as “the world’s best Elektra.” Prior to the cancellation, Foster had been upfront on her Facebook page about her feelings performing amidst the current corona virus pandemic, writing that “Elektra is a tumultuous journey at the best of times but this has added a new dimension.”

Listening to her robustly elegant soprano, one is struck by a sound that possesses shades of authority, delicacy, strength, and vulnerability, warmth and expansiveness, in ever-shifting varieties like reanimated bronzen shards threaded into an El-Anatsui work; glinting, shimmering, shifting, ruffling and revolving, it is a timbre, which, no matter the repertoire, allows a dramatically complete picture. Her path to music was formed early. As soon as I could talk I was singing, according to my mother!” she said in 2009, and indeed, Foster went on to sing in the local choir in her youth, becoming lead chorister at 15. Another vocation beckoned however, that of nursing, and Foster’s training eventually led her to become a midwife. Singing in her spare time in an amateur choir, inspiration to return to music came via a conversation in a delivery room, which then led to singing teacher Pamela Cook, the co-founder of Cantamus, a celebrated all-girls choir based in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Cook recommended the budding singer for an audition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where Foster studied for two years before graduating. During her studies she was awarded the Dame Eva Turner Award, which allowed for a year of post-graduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music.

In the late 1990s, Foster worked with the Welsh National Opera, Opera Northern Ireland, and English National Opera, before being faced with the tough decision as to whether or not to relocate abroad. Foster was a newlywed but also determined to keep going as a singer; moving to continental Europe was done of necessity, as is so often the reality with life in the classical world. Recalling the decision in a 2018 interview with The Standard, she said the situation in the UK was “like a closed door, I’m too tall, I’m too blonde, I’m too this, I’m too that…”. Moving to Germany, Foster  found the gruelling-if-necessary experience that formed the path for a natural expression and expansion of her creative abilities while integrating all the wisdom and experience (not to mention work ethic) from her nursing days. Through her time with the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar (from 2001 to 2011), she sang a variety of roles and styles, including Mimi in La bohème, Turandot, Elizabeth in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Leonore in Il trovatore, Sente in Der fliegende Holländer, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Fidelio, and of course, Elektra. “I was working with an A-class orchestra and ensemble on a daily basis” she told The Times in 2013.

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

It was amidst such varied creative experiences that she first encountered Brünnhilde, Wagner’s irrepressible heroine, in 2007 at Nationaltheater Weimar (released on DVD). Since then, Foster has become associated with the role and has appeared in a myriad of Ring Cycles – in Weimar, but also with Oper Köln, Aalto Theater Essen, Staatsoper Hamburg (where she recorded it with conductor Simone Young), Washington National Opera, Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin), and Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona, to name just a few. Of her 2013 performance as Brünnhilde with De Nederlandse Opera in Götterdämmerung (under the baton of conductor Hartmut Haenchen) it was noted that “it isn’t difficult to understand why Catherine Foster has become a much sought-after Brünnhilde in opera houses around Europe. Her voice is well-projected with beautiful high notes that easily cut through the orchestra.”

For Wagnerites – practitioners and fans alike – few places are more special than Bayreuth. The composer founded the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1876, conceiving and designing the house expressly for his own works’ presentation, most especially for the immense Ring Cycle. Foster’s first opportunity to perform at famed festival came when the festival’s co-director, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, having previously seen Foster perform Brünnhilde in Riga. The 2013 Ring Cycle production that marked Foster’s premiere Bayreuth appearance was directed by Frank Castorf and led in the pit by Kiril Petrenko, in a modern (and not entirely popular) staging. Foster went on to appear at the famous festival for five more consecutive seasons and took Brünnhilde took Hungary as well, where she performed with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Symphony Choir, and Budapest Studio Choir at Budapest’s Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. In a review of Götterdämmerung from June 2019, Bachtrack’s David Karlin noted that the soprano “can hit a high note with laser precision from a starting point anywhere in the stave below, sustain it as long as she wants and do so without ever going shrill. In the Act 3 immolation scene, she made good use of all that power, but also projected pianissimo clearly, fixing the audience with such a piercing stare that it felt as if she was singing to each listener directly.” Foster received the London Wagner Society’s Reginald Goodall award in 2018. With any luck, she’ll be returning to Budapest in June for a full Ring Cycle, part of a full 2020 slate including TurandotTristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, a Verdi opera gala, and a return to Deutsche Oper next season, as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer.

Much sooner however, was to have been a return to native soil, March 18th at Lighthouse, Poole, and March 21st at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; those dates hae been canceled. Along with Foster, Elektra in concert was set to feature Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra and Allison Oakes as Chrysothemis; students from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity Laban Conservatoire were to form the chorus. The performances, and the planning and preparation around them, were two years in the making. We had the opportunity to chat in late February, before the pandemic was a real threat in the classical world and beyond. Foster was at home in Weimar, corralling her dogs (“Come in sweethearts, it’s getting cold out there!”) and eagerly preparing for Elektra. We enjoyed a lively conversation in which the jovial soprano mused on everything from learning German to real-life inspirations from her nursing days. Despite the cancellations, there’s tremendous value in sharing her ever-evolving thoughts around the Ring, new and not-so-new roles, and her evolving relationships with conductors and directors. Foster also discusses why she has no bitterness toward having to leave her home country, and why tough circumstances can sometimes provide unexpected pathways – telling and oddly prescient words for our current tough times. As you’ll read, Foster, while heartily embracing the high-art aspects of the job, keeps her feet planted firmly in an earthy authenticity, one that elevates her artistry while underlining her warm humanity – a balm for our times indeed.

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

When you moved to Germany in 2001, is it true that you didn’t know the language?

I could ask for a cup of coffee and that was it.

“But please don’t respond because I don’t know what you’re saying!” I can relate.

Yes, entirely! I remember coming here and no one spoke English back then. It was only in 2006-2007 that I first heard English on the street, but it was the best (environment) for me. My husband bought me a TV for Christmas, this really old-fashioned, huge thing, and I put Teletubbies on, and watched a bunch of very American series dubbed in German, and I had this book — the internet wasn’t out yet you couldn’t Google anything — that sat at the side, and I’d look up phrases: “Don’t shoot!” and “Don’t move!” It was an experience.

I never wanted to sing in the German fach; I just fell into it when I started having singing lessons. I never wanted to do opera or especially Wagner — I thought it was way too long! But now I absolutely adore the German language and adore singing in in German. I’m studying Elektra, and doing it of course in Britain, uncut, and what (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal does in the text is unbelievable; the nuances you can get out when you know the language, the colours you can put into the voice because you’ve not parrot-fashioned the words on top of what it means. You know precisely how things sit within the structures of a sentence.

Speaking of knowing structure, you’ve sung Elektra a few times… 

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

… and you’ve frequently performed the role of Isolde as well, including earlier this year in Bologna. When you start a new production is it a blank slate creatively, or do you think, “I can use this from here and that from there” and re-contextualize accordingly? What is the process for you?

The thing is, if you work with a Schauspiel director, for plays and things like that, then it is traditional that the actors and actresses don’t come having memorized their role, they memorize it during the rehearsal period. You can’t do that with an opera; it isn’t just words you’re memorizing, it’s music as well, and you have to be prepared, so of course you have your own ideas. But what I do find is that they mature, these pieces and roles mature like a good wine; you need to let them lie a bit. No matter how much you try with the first run, there’s no way you can actually know everything about the role, or know everything about a character.

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As Elektra in Wiesbaden, 2016. Photo © Sven-Helge Czichy

For example, I’m doing Elektra uncut this time, and there’s six pages that I’ve never performed on the stage; I was going through it with my pianist yesterday, and I can tell vocally when I get to the point where I finish the bit I’ve already done on stage, then I do the uncut bit and go back into the (existing bit) — the body knows where it’s going and it’s a lot more comfortable. It’s like driving a car; when you change cars you have to think, “Where is this part going? The gears feel different…” but after a while it becomes second nature. When you’ve got that part done – all the nitty-gritty bits – and you know where you’re going and how, then you can start putting other layers on top. 

For a new production, it’s the singer, the conductor, and there’s a director; those are three people who come together. The conductor has his idea of the music; the director has his concept; the singer comes with their ability to sing the role and some ideas. But if you don’t want a different concept there’s no point in employing a director – it’s our responsibility to listen, and to try and make that concept work on the stage, which, nine times out of ten, you can. The odd one you think, “Hmmm” but that’s very rare. I can count on one hand productions I’ve done that I just don’t get it from the inception, but I think the more mature you are with these roles, the better it is, and it’s a lot more comfortable for the audience and you can start to play with it even more.

My Elektra is based on three patients I used to look after when I was a student nurse in training; I had to do six months in the psychiatric unit, and I remember three wonderful patients who never went away out of my mind, so I use those memories. And if you look at Hofmannsthal when he wrote Elektra, he studied women in these asylums and how they were, and that’s his way of writing what these three ladies are all about. I find it very clever. 

It’s fascinating that you directly relate your work on Elektra to your work as a nurse – there’s an air of authenticity that seems discernible throughout your work.

For me that’s what acting is. I’ve never had acting lessons, so I do take my previous experiences and use them. There’s a part when I go onstage where I have to find it in me. But… what does that really say, when I love Elektra?! 

It means you combine imagination with experiences in the real world; the connection with the quotidian is clear.

If you think about a character like Brünnhilde, that role has been with me almost as long as my daughter has, and to me it’s (the story of) a young girl growing up. If you look at Wagner’s heroine, they are the ones that save the world; the men don’t save the world, the women save the world. So Walküre is very much based on a young teenager whose daddy is everything – whatever daddy says goes – and she’s probably been in that state for thousands of years…  

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With Johan Reuter as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo © Szilvia Csibi, Müpa Budapest

In suspended development.

That’s right. Then she starts to question things, and that’s when he gets angry, and that (reaction) also happens to be real. It makes me recall a relationship of mine in the past, and how, when I started to question what this person was doing, things got violent and angry. I always say Wotan gave Brünnhilde the power of love, but he himself has the love of power, and that’s the difference between the two; she can grow and mature because she’s learned to use power through her love, but he can’t change because he’s only in love with power. So therefore he’s unable to move on but she can move on, and therefore sacrifice. Siegfried is a testosterone-driven boy; it’s all about him, and about them getting together. It’s a prenuptial wakeup call.

I’ve think of Siegfried as the vehicle through which Brünnhilde achieves an actual sensual experience of the real, human world; she needs to have that experience, with all its interconnected pleasures and pains, so one world can end and another can begin.

You could also say he really can’t come into existence without her.

True! The awakening applies to both of them but the way it manifests is so different for each.

And I believe Brünnhilde, much as she was born of both Wotan and Erda… well, fate decided she had to be born; everything has its own time, everything has a beginning and an end, and this is Wotan’s end, so she was born, but of course she saved Siegmund and Sieglinde, and how much did she fall in love with Siegmund (in anticipation of) Siegfried – is that why she did what she did? It’s like Siegfried had to happen and he is the vehicle for her realizing what she has to do. 

Yes, Götterdämmerung doesn’t abruptly end when Siegfried dies; we have to see her through her journey.

Brünnhilde says it herself: “I had to betray the person I loved the most to realize what I had to do.” The thing is, the Ring is cursed, everyone who touches it has to pay a price, even if you didn’t take it voluntarily; Brünnhilde took it out of love, Siegfried didn’t have a clue what it was about, Wotan did sacrifice something but not his life. The curse is ever-transferring, and essentially Brünnhilde says to Wotan, “I know what you did: you gave me the curse. So I will follow this through now; I will do what you should have done, and so goodbye, father! Valhalla is going to burn as it should have done already. You asked me to finish this and I will finish this” – and she does.

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

You have a history with Brünnhilde, and with Turandot, though her self-realization at the close is far less clear. 

Oh, she doesn’t change! She is psychotic as far as I’m concerned! I don’t know what’s happened in her past to make her like she is, but I’ve done the Lydia Steier production – I’m going back this year to do it again – for me it’s fantastic, one of the best. We developed it together. When we did it, Lydia had this great idea that it’s all set like Big Brother if you like: they’re on an island, they don’t have a lot of money but have found a way of making money by advertising that someone can marry this Princess if they can solve three riddles, then it’s the sidekick who comes on and does all the organizing, and then on comes Calaf.

Now, every Calaf always wants you to believe he’s a nice guy; he is not a nice guy, otherwise he would not stand there and let Liu get tortured. He’d say his name and then, “Please, don’t torture her, don’t cut her hands off!” But because he’s also the son of a king, he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, and this is what Turandot sees in his eyes, this “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me” attitude, which really unsettles her. You have the Third Act which I don’t think is about love or anything about that; it’s all about power, and I think he has had such a rush, if you like, that he’s won that he plays with fire again, but he doesn’t come to Liu’s rescue. This is what I like about Lydia’s production – there is no sympathy, this character doesn’t know how to give that. She doesn’t really change; it’s a question of whether she’ll carry on or not.

You’ve been in some contemporary productions, including a staging of The Ring by Frank Castorf at Bayreuth. What’s it like to be part of Regie presentations?

The thing I always ask is, does it tell a story? Or do you have to have a book of notes to tell you why you’re doing certain things? There was a lot of controversy over the Castorf ring and I was asked why the public didn’t like it; I said that’s not for me as a singer to answer, the direction is personal taste. My husband came every year for six years and he saw the Castorf staging, and it grew on him, he said because there was so much on the stage you had to pick one thing you looked at and just watch it. I also met a lot of young people, in their late teens to early 20s, who absolutely adored Castorf and they said something very interesting: he makes you discuss it, and whether you love it or hate it, he makes you discuss it, so therefore, he’s won. It’s relevant whether you like or dislike it; you need to think about it. and I thought, that’s an interesting point of view. 

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

So the contemplation is what matters, not the knee-jerk reactivity… 

Yes, that’s what matters; he makes you think. It doesn’t matter that he made the gold oil – what is it that people want today? It’s oil, so he made the gold oil, but you know, if you can stay true to the music and the character then you can take The Ring and put it anywhere in the world, at any time, in any period. You can make it a family saga, a country saga, a world saga; it’s basically love, hate, money, power, it’s who is in charge. Castorf had a lot of symbols in his (production), which came from growing up in the DDR. People not from the DDR didn’t get, but anybody I invited to come along who’d grown up in that said, “Oh my God, that is so clever!”

Applying your car metaphor to conductors, I would think some maestros provide different styles of roads and gear shifts and signposts; sometimes you know the route but others want you to use a whole new highway. 

Yes, you start again! I’ve experienced The Ring on the whole with about 32 conductors, and they fall into two categories: either they’re extraordinary experienced, or it’s a first time, so there’s a desire to always try to find something different. The experienced know how to let an experienced Wagner singer go. I’ve just been to Budapest last summer with Ádám Fischer and he came off stage and said, “You know, the more I leave you alone, the better you get!” He didn’t try to make me do anything and said he was really inspired after this last Ring. Working with certain singers gives (conductors) different colours. But why does opera still draw people today after centuries of singing and hearing the same roles? The only thing that changes is the people who sing and perform it. (Live performance) has to have something magical, otherwise, if you wanted it exact, go buy a CD, but where’s the magic in that? Every time I’ve ever done a Ring cycle, you have the stage, the singers, and the public, and they come with you, and by the time you finish Götterdämmerung you’ve done a huge journey together of sixteen hours.

How does that translate into new roles? You had your role debut as Die Färberin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Mannheim, for instance. Do you have an idea where you want to go with new parts, or is it more of a journey?

Part of my studying and getting to know (Die Färberin) and finding her was having two years to learn the opera. If you do Fest you don’t get two years, you get six months, if you’re lucky, to learn a role. The fact is, I had two years to really investigate (Frau) and do some research. I hadn’t realized it was essentially Strauss’s Zauberflöte, which was a gift with the way the direction was going; the only person I could connect to was Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances, which was fabulous – you know, the table had  to be set down exactly right, and she catches herself, and tries to be this lady with the hair and everything. Especially in the second act all I could think was, “Mrs. Bucket!!” I’ve been asked to do another production this autumn, so I’m very happy to be able to do it again so quickly. I’ve got to check if it’s cut or uncut.

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

What are your feelings going back to sing in England for Elektra? Is there any sense of lingering resentment that you had to leave?

No, the complete opposite – if I hadn’t have left, I wouldn’t be where I am now and certainly wouldn’t be  speaking German. Things happen for a reason. To me it’s a resolution; I’m coming full circle. I was looking to get on the stage, I wanted to sing, I didn’t even know that Germany existed when I first finished college, it was my singing teacher who said, “Oh, I’ve a pupil who’s just gone to do a Fest contact” and I said, “What’s that?!” and she told me Germany has opera houses in every city – I had assumed it was like Britain.

In 1999 when, literally, I was too tall, too blonde, too this too that, and everybody else was getting work, I thought, “My God, I can’t keep going like this.” I wrote 200 letters, I printed 200 CDs, and I sent them out; I got three auditions, and I got one job offer, and that’s all I needed. You just need one, and that’s what I got, which was in Weimar. I started here in May 2001, and by autumn 2006 I was studying Brünnhilde, literally, and truly, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do it. It’s all in how you look at things — what’s the point of resentment? I’m having a very good career. One could argue I have this good career because I didn’t get the work in England, I know several singers who never got the courage to leave the UK because they have just enough work to not actually push them that extra distance away. Sometimes having something taken away or being denied the possibility to do something spurs you into another place – sometimes it makes another door open.

Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

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Photo courtesy IMG Artists

Lyubov Petrova is an artist impossible to put in a box; as you’ll read, that’s just the way she likes it. An immensely gifted soprano with a knack for infusing her singing with a keen sense of storytelling, Petrova has an immensely varied opera history, from a smart, note-perfect Adele in Stephen Lawless’s 2003 production of Die Fledermaus at the Glyndebourne Festival to a raging Queen Of The Night in Kenneth Branagh’s fascinatingly recontextualized cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (2006). She’s also ace at epic concert repertoire (including Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), as well as more intimate work, a talent she poetically showcases on her 2017 album of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs.

A winner of the 1998 International Rimsky-Korsakov Competition and 1999 International Elena Obraztsova Competition, Petrova trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Programme, and has enjoyed numerous Met appearances, including as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (her Met debut), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Werther, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Woglinde in Das Rheingold, to name a brief few. The New York-based soprano has performed with numerous other North American outlets too, including Dallas Opera, LA Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, and has performed at various festivals worldwide, including ones Glimmerglass, Glyndebourne, and Spoleto, at the Bellini Festival in Catania, the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi, Italy, and the BBC Proms.

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Photo: Ronnie Nelson

Petrova has appeared with numerous prominent international houses including Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Dutch National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Korean National Opera, the Bolshoi, the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and the Teatro Colón (Argentina). She’s also done a range of symphonic and concert work (music of Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Bizet, to name a few) with an assortment of orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Orchester Pressburger Philharmoniker, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra. One look at such a varied history reveals an impressive and entirely consistent development into vocally heavier repertoire, while still keeping a firm foot in Petrova’s place of origin (figuratively and literally) – a tuneful and fleet-footed spot with an ever-present edge of laser-like authority.

Petrova first caught my attention through her remarkable, gleaming, in-concert performance in Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in 2016, where she brought a thoughtful lyricism to Prokofiev’s angular, driving score, making the fraught nature of the work  – and its deceptively simple characters – warmly, recognizably human. During the opera’s composition, the opera’s would be producer, Russian theatre artist  Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and later murdered as part of the Great Purge; at the time of its 1940 premiere its perceived importance was strongly connected to a “Soviet opera” aesthetic (despite the frisson between its obvious melodramatic and moralistic scheme of social realism), a perception strengthened for its being based on Valentin Kataev’s 1937 novel, I, Son Of The Working People. The complicated nature of the work, combined with its even more complicated (and tragic) composition history (involving the sudden disappearance of Meyerhold as well as a political pact that necessitated changing the bad guys from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists), plus its (predictably) myopic reception (celebrating its ideology while ignoring the music) meant the opera wasn’t performed anywhere between 1941 and 1958, and only entered the repertory of the Bolshoi in 1970; Prokofiev would later compose an orchestral suite based on the opera. It is notable when singers can integrate this sort of charged history into the very seams of sound, so that performances become much greater than the sum of their individual parts; such visceral interpretative artistry is what Petrova – and indeed the entire cast – did with such affecting results in Amsterdam in late 2016.

Petrova’s vocal warmth is something of a signature. Her tonally shimmering, golden-hued turn as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold was truly memorable, part of an in-concert presentation in early 2018 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Michelle de Young, Matthias Goerne, Matthew Rose, and Brindley Sherratt, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski; she performed the role again the role later that same year with the Odense Symfoniorkester (Denmark) with conductor Alexander Vedernikov. 2018 also saw Petrova sing the role of Marfa in Bard Music Festival‘s presentation of The Tsar’s Bride and perform works from Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry as part of Music@Menlo. 2019 opened with the music of Mozart, with Petrova taking on Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Florida Grand Opera. Freia returned with an October 2019 in-concert presentation of Das Rheingold in Moscow, again with Jurowski but this time with the State Academic Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov.

Petrova’s 2017 album Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff: Songs (Nimbus Records), recorded with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, showcases this vocal excellence, and nicely displays another side of the multi-faceted artist, a silken, soft suppleness that delights the ear. Her caressing of the text, careful phrasing, and thoughtful tonal intonations betray a deeply sensitive artistic sensibility able to quickly adjust itself according to both the tangible and intangible elements of music-making. In 2017 music writer Ken Herman noted of Petrova, in relation to her performance at that year’s edition of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, that “(w)hether she sings of love, death, sorrow, […] she never merely sings about these states—she incarnates them and forces her listeners to confront them.” It’s an observation that feels very apt to not only the works on her album, but her artistic approach overall, one that combines a deep musicality and love of text with a natural affinity for theatre and drama. Listening to Petrova isn’t a mere exercise in passive hearing but an active experience of the visceral power of her art, and her skill in expressing it with such a vivid force of conviction. Indeed, David Patrick Stearns’ observation in Gramophone that “when she sings of ‘magic stillness’ in ‘A Dream’, you hear it in her voice” applies far past the final album track to which he alludes.

Petrova is currently preparing for her premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, happening at Moscow’s Zardadye Concert Hall on February 22, with Tchaikovsky’s own “Ode To Joy” Cantata also on the bill. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and chorus master Lukáš Vasilek, together with fellow soloists Daria Khozieva (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Dmitruk (tenor) and Nikolay Didenko (bass). A more intimate appearance takes place at Zaryadye (in the small hall) on March 6, when Petrova will be giving a recital with pianist Rem Urasin. Together, the appearances encapsulate Petrova’s refusal to be easily classified or boxed in by sounds or experiences. We spoke recently when the soprano was recently back in Russia and busily preparing for her upcoming Zaryadye performances.

How did you choose the songs on your album?

I went through the whole of two Tchaikovsky volumes of song, and one big book of Rachmaninoff songs. I went through all of them, and chose what I liked, basically. Vladimir (Feltsman) also had ideas of what he wanted or not to do but mainly he left it all  to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sung before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – blin is like a Russian pancake – “always goes badly” – but I don’t think it’s the case here, so I’m happy!

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Photo: Vladimir Feltsman / Nimbus Records

I feel like your interpretations offer understanding on a deeper level that goes past language.

It’s like souls talking – mine, Vladimir’s and every person who listens. And it’s very universal. That’s the key to music: it communicates beyond words, heart to heart.

So are some of these going to be part of your recital in March at Zaryadye Hall?

Yes, most definitely, and with another phenomenal pianist, Rem Urasin.

Many singers I’ve spoken with emphasize the importance of doing recitals. What does that experience give you creatively?

It’s very true; recitals give a completely different connection with music, and a different connection with the audience, actually. The songs are rather short so you have to create a whole world in two to seven minutes, and it has to be the story, the complete story, so one recital in two sections gives us ten to twelve different worlds in each half, twenty to twenty-four songs all together – so basically I create twenty-four different worlds in one evening. And then I also love how it’s me, and the pianist, who is part of me – we are together; I always try to become one person with the pianist, and the audience. On stage we are very exposed, much more than in opera where we have costumes and sets and a director; it’s a completely different interaction. In recitals, I’m basically just sharing who I am and what I’ve learned; it’s much more intimate and in a way we are completely naked.

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Photo: Nimbus Records

When you emerge on the other side, what things do you take back into the world of opera?

Absolutely I come out different. I know myself much better through this experience, as a musician and a person; I can create more defined characters and go, on a much, much deep level, into the characters I play onstage. I love drama, and I love theatre, and I love opera. I’m a singing actress, no questions asked – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, without those little songs. I missed not sharing that side of me with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to sing more songs nowadays.

And you’re doing your first performance of Beethoven’s 9th soon. His vocal writing is known for being difficult; what’s your experience as someone new to singing his music?

You know, as short as (the vocal part in Symphony No. 9) is – compared to any opera it’s very short – I have to agree, it’s difficult and rather demanding, and from a soprano point of view, it’s very high; he keeps the vocal line up there and we have to soar above the orchestra, and yet keep it graceful and also be “full of joy! full of joy!” but I’m very excited and am working hard on it. But of course I don’t want anybody to hear “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it!

Sir Antonio Pappano recently said that Beethoven’s writing for voice is entirely analogous to his instrumental writing, minus the consideration that people actually have to breathe.

Yes, I know what he means. Basically you use everything you’ve ever gathered as an artist, and try to enjoy it and pray it comes out well! There are some brilliant moments – it’s phenomenal music.

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With Matthew Rose (L) and Brindley Sherratt (R) in the 2018 London Philharmonic Orchestra presentation of Das Rheingold. Photo: Simon Jay Price

You’ve done Wagner too, which is also demanding vocally, though in an entirely different way.

I’m starting to do Wagner, and I have to say … it’s, well, Wagner is a genius but only when I started singing his music did I really embrace it, and now I’m feeling , like, “Wow, what a phenomenal experience for any musician to sing his music!” There’s a lot to discover in his work, it’s true – but I was surprised. I surprised myself at how much I love it.

It’s not music that is commonly done in Russia either.

Not that much, only in St. Petersburg – it’s done almost exclusively there. A few pieces are performed here and there, outside, but not really. I have to say it’s a whole universe, and I’m excited about becoming a part of it.

There’s no end of learning when it comes to Wagner’s work.

That goes with my whole philosophy about singing and stage and my profession: I never stop learning. Since I started singing, it’s always, to my mind, been a process; I’m always learning something and trying to make my instrument better, and finding new ways and colours. It’s non-stop. Wagner fits in perfectly in with how I see myself as a singer and my job.

You’re featured on The Compassion Project (Innova, 2018) as well – your work on the album features some new sounds for you, writing which I think suits you well vocally. What does performing contemporary work give you artistically?

I am searching for the not-well-known stuff, for things forgotten or for things fallen out of the limelight. I think it’s exciting for us as musicians to find those gems and open them and bring them to people. On our album with Feltsman there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of – and it’s Tchaikovsky, of all people! It’s the same with contemporary music, but you see, it’s, how can I say, it’s challenging most of the time for singers if they don’t have a musical background, because you need to have a very attuned ear. You have to hear, really well, the intervals and all of the changes in harmony (within the composition) – it’s just a skill. As long as a young singer is willing to learn and challenge him or herself, they’ll find it exciting and fascinating, but if they are not secure enough, then of course it’s easier to stay with Mozart, because it’s universally harmonic and easy and something they’ll hear again and again.

and it’s something audiences will have heard a lot as well. There’s something to be said for classical artists purposely – and purposefully – doing things outside the mainstream, on mainstream stages.

Yes, and I have say unfortunately it’s not that easy, because some people who organize concerts and programming at concert halls – not all but some – are afraid of new pieces, even if it’s not contemporary music. Recently I did a beautiful cycle by Bartók; it’s not contemporary – I mean, it isn’t Mozart but it’s not contemporary – but it’s glorious music, and I had to push for it. I had to use my name and all that, to just say, “Hey , don’t ignore this just because people haven’t heard it!” And later (audience members) came up and said, “That was phenomenal – thank you for introducing that to me!” People who organize for venues are scared, I guess because there are problems with financing – maybe difficulties related to the financial end of things – but hopefully again, if we keep doing what we love and what we feel is important, then we will push through these tough times.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Yes.

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As Contessa Almaviva in the _ production of Le nozze di Figaro at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Chris Kakol

Classical organizations in North America are facing similar issues, if in a more concentrated way. For instance, if Stravinsky is programmed, it’s always The Rite Of Spring, which is considered daring; it’s never lesser-known works that are just as interesting, if not more so. Organizations are scared tickets won’t move, but if you never program it, people won’t know, and they won’t have a chance to decide for themselves.

Thank you very much, yes!! But also for a musician it takes time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel now I have something special and unique to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown in music and into the music and have learned enough in order to do it.  So I can offer my vision and feel of it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very personal and human. But again, it is constant work, and it all depends on if we’re willing to work and make ourselves better, and if we’re willing to push other things, and make concerted, constant pushes toward… what’s the word…

Evolution?

That’s a good one, yes. Never stopping. Trying new things will always teach you something!

Evolution is two-pronged; it’s work, as you said to do this – evolving is work– but it’s also allowing yourself to evolve, which means being open to all sorts of things, including discomfort, which takes courage to face. How much did your time with mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova helped to cultivate that quality?

She has always been one of those people I look up to, and the fact that I had a chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge! Also the trust she put in me and, you know, she was such a generous and kind person, and the things she told me when I was still young gave me so much confidence, you know what I mean? She believed in me so much, and that belief gave me wings, like, “Go baby, fly! Enjoy the singing and share with the people your gift!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life, she IS in my life. I have, as we say, a ticket and a blessing from her for this career, and for this world of singing.

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At the Opera Ball at the Bolshoi in November 2019. The concert was in memory of mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

How much did she help to instil your sense of exploration?

It’s just how she was herself; Elena was never afraid to take a risk. For example, at some point she went into theatre; she was doing a lot of things with various organizations – recitals and working with contemporary composers, and being onstage doing big opera things and going to recital halls and doing small pieces – and when she was older she went into theatre, and people said “Are you crazy? What are you doing?!” And she was brilliant! But the main thing is she enjoyed it, and that was one of the biggest inspirations. (Obratzsova was artistic director of the Opera Company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2007-2008, and appeared as The Countess in their production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades in 2011, the same year she created a charitable foundation to promote music education; she passed away in 2015.)

There are so many languages an artist can speak in terms of different ways and different approaches, and (Obratzsova) showed all of us there is never one way, that we don’t have to lock ourselves in one box: “I’m doing opera” or “I’m a recitalist” or whatever. She was free herself, and she inspired us in that way, those who were her students or the winners of her competition. She never put any chains on anybody; she never put anyone in a box. And that was a very big inspiration, no question.

That’s how it seems with you, that you’re not in a box of doing one style or sound, which reflects your life between the United States and Russia.

I feel like it’s a blessing and a gift; every way is different. Everybody has a right to choose the way they’re living and approach careers, and I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am trying to enjoy every minute of it. When I sing Wagner that doesn’t mean I don’t love singing Handel, or that I can’t; if I sing Handel that doesn’t mean I can’t sing my heart out in other modern pieces, or do the most intimate, almost whispering things in a recital. I love it all.

Cornelius Meister: On Curiosity, Collaboration, And What His Father Taught Him

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

Looking at Cornelius Meister’s calendar inspires a mix of wonder and exhaustion.

The German conductor, who is Music Director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart, is currently in New York City, leading performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera until February 22nd. From there, he jets off to Tokyo to lead the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (of which he is Principal Guest Conductor) before playing with various orchestras in France, Germany, and Austria. A return to Stuttgart comes the end of April; Meister will conduct a series of concerts and also conduct a revival of Tristan und Isolde, where he’ll be leading soprano Catherine Naglestad in her role debut as the doomed Irish princess. May brings a production of Strauss’s Arabella in Vienna, and the summer features a busy mix of concerts and opera back in Stuttgart. All this activity doesn’t even touch Meister’s extensive discography, many of them done when he was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (ORF) between 2010 and 2018.

Meister, whose father was a professor at Musikhochschule Hannover and whose mother is a piano teacher, started out in 2003 as Second Kappellmeister with Staatsoper Hannover (his hometown), before becoming Music Director of the Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra of Heidelberg, where he stayed for seven years, until 2012. His recordings (of Brahms, Haydn, Dvořák, Mozart, Wagner, Bartók, Zemlinsky, and particularly Bruckner) and live work (a comprehensive A to Z listing on his website includes, among the very many, Beethoven, Lehár, Gershwin, Mahler, Boulez, Nono, Stravinsky, Webern, and Zender) reflect an insatiable musical appetite, one that seems to grow with each new orchestra and experience, whether orchestral or operatic. Meister’s tenure at Oper Stuttgart began in 2018, having already conducted at numerous prestigious houses, including Oper Zürich, Teatro Alla Scala Milan, Semperoper Dresden, and Wiener Staatsoper, and festivals including those at Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and in Bucharest, at the biennial Enescu Festival.

All this activity isn’t exactly unusual for a successful artist within the classical sphere, but the breadth and range of Meister’s musical curiosity is as enlightening as it is exhilarating. I became much better acquainted with the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů thanks to a truly brilliant 2017 recording (Capriccio Records) of the Czech composer’s complete symphonies. Recorded with the ORF between 2011 and 2017, the mammoth album (spread across three CDs) is a gorgeous lesson for both newbies and Martinů connoisseurs alike, revealing Meister’s focus on maintaining keen balances between individual voices within the rich orchestral tapestries, while emphasizing their unique tonal and structural paths and underpinnings. At its release, music writer Michael Cookson noted that “Meister palpably generates considerable tension in his readings and the playing, full of rhythmic energy, is never less than steadfast, whilst shaping phrases that give consideration to every nuance.”

His 2014 album of the music of Wagner (Capriccio Records), again with the ORF and featuring soprano Anne Schwanewilms, performing the beloved Wesendonck Lieder and and Elisabeth’s Aria from Tannhäuser, is a sumptuous mix of big and small; Wagner’s sweepingly broad overture to Tannhäuser is here given loving pockets of quietude, with rippling strings that glint softly, shimmering against woodwinds and brass, Meister’s watchful tempi and textural swells throughout the album underline the music’s connection to a broader scope of musical history, both backward-looking (Beethoven) and anticipatory (again, Martinů, which would make sense given the album’s timing). Meister and I recently spoke amidst performances of Nozze at The Met; I asked the busy father of three how he kept up such a hectic pace, before moving into musical, and, as you’ll read, dramatic (and even balletic) matters.

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Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Nozze.” Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera

You have a lot of diversified engagements – how do you keep your energy and inspiration?

I have a family, and I must say, I love music and opera of course but it is not everything in my life. And without my family, I think I couldn’t do everything.

Many artists say that family provides the balance amidst the chaos.

Yes. I’m very happy to be born not ten or twenty years earlier, because nowadays it is so much easier to call each other from another continent or city, and to take fast trains and such. We didn’t have these things even fifty years ago; now it’s much easier to keep in touch.

The houses that you perform in (Stuttgart, Zürich, Vienna, New York) are all so different; how do you create intimacy within each space?

When I’m conducting, let’s say an opera by Mozart, it matters a lot which room I’m performing it in regarding the acoustics. In Germany there are a lot of ensembles, so between thirty and forty singers who work regularly; that means sometimes we prepare role debuts together, one year ahead or even more. Last season in Stuttgart, we did Ariadne Auf Naxos and we had a wonderful mezzo soprano who is now in our ensemble, and she prepared it more than one year in advance – this is only possible in houses with an ensemble. 

On the other hand, here at The Met I have the privilege to work with many singers who have done their roles in various productions at several great opera houses, so this makes it easier in another aspect, I would say – their acoustic awareness could start on the highest level, and the beauty for me, as a conductor, is then to bring all these different experiences together to create a production ensemble.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

You said in a 2019 interview that conducting is about making music together – how does that relate to the inherent power dynamics of being a conductor? How do you balance the power aspect with the collaborative aspect?

On the one hand, of course it is true that a conductor can decide a lot, but on the other hand, I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t play any tune or make the music by himself, so I can’t do anything without having everybody on the same side. I would say my job is to encourage everybody to be brilliant, and confident, and bring together all the different possibilities and traditions and experiences everybody has. And in houses like the Metropolitan Opera, where everybody in the orchestra has played these operas a lot, with many different conductors, it’s not a question of, “How we do it?”, it’s more a question of how we all can do it in the same style, and how we can bring it all together. This is a task I like very much. I also like to be flexible when I conduct the same opera in Vienna and New York – the result is, of course, very different; it’s still my Mozart, for example, but there is not just one Mozart which is my Mozart.

Would you say that flexibility is the key to authority in your position?

In a way, yes, but I would also say that it is really necessary to have some strong ideas of what I want – having something I really like and really want with music, and being flexible to bring everybody to that result. 

That must be especially true when you move between so many different orchestras as you are about to do, post-Nozze. Where does flexibility fit within your experiences between different ensembles, especially ones you have such a short amount of time with?

I always try to use the tradition an orchestra has – so the Viennese tradition, or maybe the Dresden Staatskapelle tradition, for example – those traditions are really old, and I adore them, and I always make a point to ask members of the orchestra how are they used to playing this or that. When I’m in Vienna I spend hours and hours in the library to research information which is hand-written into the orchestra parts, hand-written from the time when Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler conducted there. I wouldn’t think that us younger conductors should always start at point zero; we should use that tradition, we can learn from it. In Stuttgart we are using the original harmonium used at the Ariadne world premiere – the first version of the opera was performed in Stuttgart in 1912, just two months after the opening of the opera house, with this very harmonium. 

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Oper Zürich’s 2018 production of Così fan tutte. Photo © Monika Rittershaus

Where does that sense of tradition fit when you are working on a new production? You had an special situation in Zürich in 2018 with a new production of Così fan tutte, and you also led a new work, The Snow Queen, in Munich in 2019. 

in Zürich the situation was that we didn’t have the director face-to-face – we were in close contact. So every morning we got a new video message from Kirill Serebrennikov; there was contact and he had brilliant assistants in Zürich, but for me as a conductor, the face-to face exchange is really important when preparing a new opera production. When I’m conducting opera, I’m not only a musician; I try to be a theatre person also, and I need a sense of every aspect of the drama. The first and most important question, always, is not, “how can we play the music?” but “how can we create that emotion, that dramatic situation?’ In order to create that situation you have several possibilities; there are scenic possibilities and musical possibilities, but these are, for me, totally secondary. The first question has to relate to the drama. And if I don’t have a partner to whom I can say something and to which he can react – not only by email or whatever – then it isn’t so easy! In the end (for Così fan tutte) of course I was very happy we did it, and it was very important, I think, to do that in Zürich.

In Munich the situation was completely different because there the piece (directed by Andreas Kriegenburg) had already been performed in Copenhagen some months before, so it was already set, on a certain level. Rachel Wilson, who is from Texas and is in the ensemble in Stuttgart now, sang the main mezzo role (Kay) in The Snow Queen, and she was really well-prepared coming in, so it was quite easy. 

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The Snow Queen at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2019. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

When you perform symphonic works by the likes of Martinů and Bruckner, and then go back to the opera house and do Wagner and Mozart, what things do you take with you between the two worlds?

I always appreciate it when orchestras who play symphonic music are also experienced in accompanying singers. In my opinion, a violin group who is used to listening to a singer in the opera is also very flexible and fast in listening to a solo oboe, for example, in a symphony. On the other hand, I appreciate it a lot when orchestras which are playing normally a lot of opera are also used to, in some situations, sitting on the stage and creating something unique for one or two or three performances. From one world I try to take the best and then bring it to the other world, and of course, some composers, like Mahler and Schumann and Brahms, wrote very opera-type things, and it’s good to have those works be performed also, because for me there is not such a big difference between theatrical music and other music.

When we have the Third Symphony of Bruckner, for example, with its quotations of Wagner in its first edition, this is a good example for that close relationship between those worlds, but I know there are many conductors who are conducting either operas or symphonic music. Others do mostly oratorios and choir music. I respect that, because I think (the music) needs different techniques, conducting techniques, and people to conduct different styles, but I always try to learn as much as I can from all these works. I have also conducted oratorios and ballets during my Kapellmeister time years ago, and sometimes I would conduct silent movies too.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

What did you learn conducting ballet?

A ballet dancer needs certain tempos as a singer would need. I, as a musician, hopefully can sense if a singer needs a certain tempo. When is started to conduct ballets, it was much more difficult for me to feel that sense of which was the right tempo for him or her, and sometimes we had different ballet dancers on stage who needed different tempi. After some experiences it was easier for me to see and to feel how movement onstage is related to music tempi, and this helps now, a lot, when I’m conducting operas – not only to listen, but also to watch which is the right tempo for an action or movement onstage.

This relates to what I said earlier, that for me, music is a part of a larger theatrical performance. I had an experience eleven years ago when I conducted The Abduction From The Seraglio at the San Francisco Opera, my first opera experience in the United States (in 2009). I had conducted it before in Germany. I took approximately the same tempo which I had taken before, but with this production in San Francisco, it didn’t work. I had to take a different musical tempo and then it worked within a scenic sense, not only for the action but for the atmosphere onstage. I changed my musical approach, quite happily.

You took lessons with your father – how much do you think this quality of openness relate to that time?

He and I spent so many hours playing piano together, four hands style. We would go through and play all the Beethoven works, and all the Bruckner symphonies. He was never a conductor, but he was really interested in everything, not only piano music, but also he had a great knowledge about history and culture in general. So through this approach I learned to always be open to the world, and to be interested in different sounds, and in people from different nations and people with different ideas of the world. This was my education, and I am really glad for that.

That curiosity is apparent from the wide repertoire list at your website, which includes the work of Claude Vivier. 

For me there has never been a difference between old and contemporary music, because this is the music I’m interested in, and there’s music I may be, at the moment, not so much interested in, but it doesn’t matter which year it’s from. When I was with the ORF it was totally normal to play all different types of music. When we started to rehearse a piece which none of us had performed before, we didn’t ask if this is a good piece or not, because we always started, and after some days, then maybe we started to think something, not as a absolute judgement, but  maybe we allowed ourselves to say, “Okay, I like this or that” but never on the first day. We would never be so self-confident to judge music on the first look of it. 

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Tristan und Isolde, Oper Stuttgart. The production, from the team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, was first presented in 2014. Photo © A.T. Schaefer

Do you think that approach could apply to audiences hearing things for the first time?

I’m not in the position, or I would not like to be in the position, to give advice to audiences, because I respect there are many, many different reasons why a person likes to go to a concert or opera. I respect that the reason could be just to have a wonderful evening, enjoy a glass of champagne at intermission and to relax, not to think too much. This is a good reason. There’s another good reason for people who maybe prepare their opera visits a week before, and they read many books about it, and then they really want to have a strong production, strong Regie, so that they can think about it for the next week, and maybe they wouldn’t understand everything and they like not to understand everything but want to come back three times to get it. Once again, I wouldn’t think I should give advice on how an audience should deal with a performance visit, but I respect that there are different reasons, good reasons.

So just come with an open mind….?

Being open-minded, always, is not a bad idea! What I really ask everybody is not to open the mouth before having thought something out – this is the general advice, for music and for life.

Gerald Finley: “Lieder Is A Fountain of Artistic Joy”

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Photo: IMG Artists

Years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Finley for the first time. It was a conversation about three major role debuts he was making within the space of a year, ones which included the lead in Aribert Reimann’s King Lear at the 2017 edition of the Salzburg Festival (a process he characterized at the time as “emotionally wringing”). The interview marked the first cover story of my writing career, and the first of many subsequent conversations, on and off the record, about various aspects of theatre, music, performance style, and of course, singing.

Starting out as a chorister in Ottawa, the bass baritone went on to study at the Royal College of Music before being accepted into the prestigious UK-based National Opera Studio. Finley’s career marked by a talent for blending sharp music insights, studious vocal practise, and instinctual theatricality. With every role (be they in the operas of Mozart and Puccini or those of Adams and Turnage) Finley’s multi-hued artistry expands, his voracious creative curiosity reaching new and fascinating corners. Noted for his portrayal of Don Giovanni, Finley has performed the role in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and at the Glyndebourne Festival, opposite Luca Pisaroni as Leporello.

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Gerald Finley as Iago (opposite Jonas Kaufmann) in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello, 2018. Photo: W. Hösl

Finley has performed in many prestigious houses, with Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Wiener Staatsoper, and the famed Salzburg Festival among them. The focus on German-speaking organizations is particularly noteworthy in light of our most recent conversation; as you’ll read, Finley wasn’t always so confident in such locales, vocally or otherwise, and it took him what he admits was a long time to mature vocally. As he told Bachtrack‘s Mark Pullinger in November 2019,

At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh.

That freshness has revealed itself in some wonderfully memorable performances over the years. He did, in fact, get to Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (more than once), as well as Amfortas in Parsifal; other noted roles include the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, the tormented Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the very black Bluebeard in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Finley is also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary composers, singing in several world premieres, including Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1998, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie in 2000, and the song cycle True Fire by Kaija Saariaho (who dedicated the work to him), under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2015.

 

Finley made a comically memorable turn as Verdi’s Falstaff (complete with a costume that made him seem four times his size) with the Canadian Opera Company in 2014, and a scarily sociopathic Iago in Othello (opposite tenor Russell Thomas) as part of the COC’s 2018-2019 season. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden recently marked his 30th anniversary with the company,which coincided with his performance in the ROH production of Brittten’s Death in Venice; classical writer Alexandra Coghlan praised Finley’s “sketching character after character in deft musical lines.” Along with working with celebrated conductors (including Mariss Jansons, Sir Antonio Pappano, Kiril Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Bicket, and Bernard Haitink), Finley was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014; three years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to opera.

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Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

As a personal aside, I have distinct and fond memories of Finley’s performance as the lead in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell; I was fortunate to see him perform it live at the Metropolitan Opera in a production from their 2016-2017 season. Finley’s robust Tell was a perfect echo of the character’s aching struggles (inner and outer), a seamless combination of great musicality, finely-crafted vocality, and a very keen, highly watchable theatricality; his was a deeply visceral portrayal, one that underlined the very real historical stakes while revelling in Rossini’s deceptively simple score. Finley is set to reprise the role this May at Bayerische Staatsoper, but before then, he can be seen on the stage of The Met (as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte), as well as in Montreal and at Carnegie and Wigmore halls, where he’ll be performing a range of beloved lieder.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

Finley’s distinct gift for German art song is beautifully expressed on a recording for Hyperion Records he and pianist Julius Drake made of Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, released in autumn 2019. The pair previously recorded Schubert’s famed Winterreise cycle (2014), songs by Samuel Barber (2007) and Maurice Ravel (2008), and did a live concert recording at Wigmore Hall (2008). Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) is a song cycle written by Franz Schubert written at the end of his life in 1828. I’ve written about Schubert’s love of the writings of Goethe, but in this particular cycle, Schubert used the poetry of three writers, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl; his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, was the one who cannily named the song cycle thusly, following the composer’s premature death in November 1828. The works deal with themes of hope, love, longing, disillusion, and disenchantment, their sounds gracefully moving between sombre, sensual, and stark. Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) in 1896, using portions of text from the Lutheran Bible. Writer Richard Wigmore observes in the album’s liner notes that the songs were “(d)esigned to comfort the living, and indeed Brahms himself” – the composer’s longtime confidante (some might say more) Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke earlier that year, and he wrote them partly in full anticipation of her passing, though he was also feeling the first effects of the cancer that would take his life a year later. Wigmore characterizes the works as “profound, unsentimental testaments to (Brahms’s) sympathy for suffering, stoical humanity, his belief in the virtue of hard work, and the enduring power of love.”

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

Finley and Drake capture these themes with vivid clarity on the album. The opening track, “Liebesbotschaft” (or “message of love”), in which the speaker asks a little stream to send his message of love along to his beloved, sees Finley carefully modulating his chocolatey-bronze bass baritone, sensitively complementing, than contrasting, dense sonic textures amidst Julius Drake’s rippling, breath-like piano performance. On the famous “Ständchen” (“serenade”), a song in which the speakers asks his beloved to bring him happiness, Finley lovingly caresses every syllable so delicately so as to make the listener lean in, as if being told a very private secret. The meticulous attention paid to blending clarity and expression, particularly in the Brahms works, is miraculous; nothing sounds wooden and hard, but rather, silken, and fluid, with just the right amount of sensuality in phrasing and tone. Albums like this remind me why I love classical music, of its transcendent power to so often say what spoken language cannot. Finley’s deep dedication to the art of song is entrancing and he has a true and brilliant partner in the acclaimed Julius Drake. I had long wanted to discuss lieder with Finley, and the duo’s beautiful Schubert/Brahms album provided the perfect excuse to enjoy another lively conversation with a deeply dedicated and authentic artist.

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Gerald Finley as the Gondolier in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I read that you were afraid of Schubert for a long time – is that true?

Oh yeah!

Why?

Well, because he’s so simple. The thing about Schubert is that he is basically such a natural melodist and really gives the idea these songs have existed forever; I think to make them one’s own if you like, to have one’s own connection and one’s own version, and putting one’s own version into the world, takes a lot of confidence. The main thing about it is that I felt it would reveal all my technical insecurities and failings, and … I think it’s only really in the past decade really, that I’ve felt those sort of things have ironed themselves out. Put it this way; I always felt I could sing Schubert but I never felt competent enough to actually do it. I always shied away from the types of repertoire which would reveal my weaknesses rather than my strengths.

Now it seems as if, having had so much experience with the music of Schubert, his work has become a part of your artistic identity… 

Very much, but it’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the culture of the language, and of the poetry, and the culture of the German history therein. Many young singers direct their early careers into German houses because that’s where obviously lots of work is, and they have the privilege of learning German and being in a German environment for the early parts of their careers, and for various reasons I didn’t do that – I actually rejected a place at the Hamburg State Opera when I was 26, because I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t vocally prepared for that. So I kind of negated my opportunity to become immersed in the German environment and that entire musical world and experience. So my German became something I would learn on the way doing concerts, doing tours with orchestras; until my mid-30s I actually never appeared in a German opera house. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with the language. It did happen, eventually – I was invited to festivals in Austria and did Papageno in and around Germany, so that helped a lot to bolster my German confidence. 

And you know, there have been a lot of really good German lieder singers, and to be part of the lieder fraternity is really something I longed for. I learned Wolf and Brahms and I did my best at Schumann for a while, and enjoyed it all very much, but Schubert being kind of the father of those, I realized it was going to take some time to get to the core, but it did happen, where I felt could really go to that altar for the father of lieder, and say, “Here’s my humble offering of what you have written!” 

And of course Fischer-Dieskau was the main thing, my first recording was his Volume 1 of Schubert – so yes, it confronted me very much: what business did I have even attempting it?! I kind of got over it and realized, and still feel, Schubert has been my friend, he’s somebody I look to for inspiration. He demands I really think carefully about what it is to be an artist, because (the music) is so relatively clear on the page, and one this almost blank emotional canvas to treat the verse differently and to infuse the words in a way which will give meaning. There’s a feeling as soon as you record it, that the version you have in your head and heart at that moment… well, you will suddenly think, “Oh! But I could’ve done it this way!” So that’s why keeping performances scheduled in the diary is really wonderful, those versions will change and develop. And hopefully, going to other artists and seeing how they handle (the same material) – it’s really inspiring to develop. I don’t know whether painters go through the same thing, where they redo canvases all the time or decide they want to add various elements or develop a theme – but there we are, that’s why lieder is such a fountain of artistic joy now, and I feel that vocally I’ve been able to sort of finally mature into it.

Performing these pieces one has to be willing to enter into a specific place, or places, as you know, and being human, one’s not always in the mood or one’s tired, or there are other things going on – it’s not easy, but there are similar challenges in doing opera performances. What changes for you, going between your recital work and your opera work? How do you navigate those changes?

It’s a mindset, really. First and foremost, lieder is an intimate art form – it’s really thoughts which are, you know, nurtured out of a poet, and you get the feeling there’s a very personal relationship between the composer and the poetry they’re setting, that the way they’ve been inspired and reacted, or want to bring certain elements of a poem to the fore, takes quiet contemplation, it’s a very mindful thing. My very good friend and colleague (tenor) Mark Padmore says the difficulty of doing lieder recitals is that it was really meant to be sung amongst just a few people, and again, it’s really a very intimate art form, almost a private thing. What you’re asking audiences to do is give up elements of their busy lives and come into a space where they can become very quiet and very thoughtful, and think, not about what’s on the surface of their lives, but to delve a lot deeper, and a share a poetical journey, a psychological situation with a recitalist, in a way that is pretty demanding.

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Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and Gerald Finley as the Elderly Fop in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We do put demands on audiences, and it could be the cause of decline in audiences for lieder because it takes special listening skills and patience, and a certain acceptance that, okay, particularly for non-linguists, there are a couple pieces they may feel estranged from, but at least they’re there, listening to beautiful piano playing and hopefully good singing. So we’ll keep doing it, to keep people give them that opportunity to get involved with the best parts of their soul.

There’s something healthy about having that demanded of you as a listener. I want that to be demanded of me when I go to concerts, because otherwise I don’t feel I have a very satisfying experience.

Indeed! And to your question about the differences between lieder and opera for the performer, really, opera is such a collaborative event, you, the singer, are at the top of the iceberg as it were, you appear above, on the top 10th, or more like 2%, of a wealth of creativity and musicality and theatrics and administration too, so your voice and portrayal is a culmination of a h-u-u-u-ge team effort.

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Gerald Finley as Iago in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

And yes, you have to deliver the goods and focus on your character, and give your vocal performance the absolute top level in extremes, and that’s really not what lieder is about… it’s not much teamwork, other than with your fellow musician, and it can be chamber of course, as part of a string quartet or with a guitarist or flutist as well as the piano version, so I like to think that perhaps you are your own stage manager and production team and artistic personnel (in lieder recitals).

There are people who are endeavoring to bring out the essence of the presentation of lieder in a more theatrical way, like having staged elements, and I find that a revelation – because why shouldn’t people be inspired by beautiful, fundamental music? I tell you what: pace Barbara Streisand, if a pop singer got hold of a Schubert song and did something amazing with it, you’d be finding people saying, “Well, that’s a cover version, but where’s the original?” Hopefully! Or the other way around, take a Joni Mitchell song and rewrite it as a Schubert lied or Brahms lied, and… yes, I think we just need to be a little more accepting of how people are trying to just make sure these elements of inspiration can be shared by all. 

Speaking of shared inspiration, the baldly emotional nature of lieder translates into the demands it makes on singers: you can’t hide.

That is actually one of the challenges of the technical aspects. Often the frustration about being a younger singer is that one hasn’t quite got the technical lability to be as free and honest in vocal terms. There are lots of wonderful musicians who are doing beautiful things with their voices but it means less, and that’s what we’re after, of course, is “the beautiful voice.” For me, my heroes are Fischer-Dieskau and Tom Krause and Hermann Prey, or José Van Dam doing Mahler; you’re not worried about how they sound, you’re worried about how they feel, but the reason you do that is because their voices are in such perfect shape! It’s like suddenly their instrument is serving them – that’s why it’s a rare thing, because we singers spend our whole life trying to figure out how to sing in order to be free, to be free from all that. 

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Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Angela Denoke as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo : Marty Sohl / Met Opera

It’s a fascinating pairing on this album. What was the thinking behind including the music of Brahms? The linguistic and musical poetry is so different from that of Schubert. 

Essentially, I mean, in a kind of a very facile sort of conceit, the Brahms works were among the last things he wrote. He was at a time when he was in deep mourning for Clara (Schumann), and … well, to hear that Brahms… he was always at his best when he was thinking about hard things, big challenges, and the richness of the writing is so extraordinary. So in terms of periods of life for both composers, you know, really they are the two respective “swan songs,” effectively. I always feel Brahms is somebody who thought he knew where the spiritual elements of his life lay; you get it in the Requiem, of course, and certainly in these songs, and in the late string music. It’s all very dense and full of passion, and we feel that. I mean, Schubert knew he was dying of course, Brahms a little less, even though it was late in his life; he knew his time as a composer was reaching its end. So you get this kind of creative surge from both composers, and that’s really what attracted us to doing these works.

From Brahms’s overall output came many beautiful songs, but these ones are one huge level higher –  the use of the language, the biblical texts, was very much something which encapsulated his fervor for the human potential of love and forgiveness, and relating to toil. As a socialist approach, it was, “death will comfort those who have toiled,” but also, “those who’ve lived comfortable lives is why there’s fear but there is still hope that the comfort of death will be here for you” – and that’s remarkable as a thesis. So yes, in these Brahms songs, death is treated with great… hope, and love, I’d say. The idea of being in a marvelous revelry of celebrating life – “What was it? Life was love; the greatest of all these things is love” – so I do feel Brahms was an extremely passionate person, behind all that grizzle.

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Gerald Finley as the Hotel Barber and Mark padmore as ASchenbach in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

That sense is especially noticeable in the final song, “Wenn ich mit Menschen” (When I am with people), which draws together spiritual longing and human logning, the epic and the intimate, in this great expression of acceptance and understanding.

Completely! The elemental earnestness of it – “Ernste” – I almost feel if you didn’t get it in the Requiem, then yes, you will here. One’s life can have a sense of accomplishment if you have loved – and he loved through this music, and certainly in life… 

Clara.

Yes, Clara for sure, and his mother as well, which was a big element. We know much less about Schubert’s love life and I suppose that makes him slightly more mysterious as to what his thoughts on love were, except for the fact that if you delve into the songs, for instance the Serenade, really, it’s a marvel of positive thoughts in a minor key, and negative thoughts in major keys, it’s just extraordinary how he goes against convention in thinking minor is more fulfilling than major keys. There’s lots of wonderful mysteries, shall we say, about Schubert’s music in that regard. He did struggle with the idea of being recognized too, as a composer of any worth, and from that point of view it’s also, you wonder, was he ever appreciated? Did he ever feel his music had any worth? And for me that’s the melancholy aspect of not just him but many people — Beethoven not hearing the applause, for instance – but the whole idea is that these composers are wearing their passions in their music, and thank goodness for it. 

Vasily Petrenko: Paying Attention To Details

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Photo: CF Wesenberg

The last time Vasily Petrenko and I spoke was in a windowless room full of whirling fans. There’s still a feeling of summer in September in Bucharest, and this year’s heat was particularly intense; I was worried conditions in the Sala Palatului conference room would prove a bit too warm for a conversation about the music of Enescu, Bartók, and Torvund.

The busy conductor, a native of Saint Petersburg, was in town for two concerts as part of the hectic Enescu Festival with his Oslo Philharmonic, of which he is Chief Conductor. (My report on the festival featuring said interview is publishing in the upcoming winter edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Despite the heat, Petrenko was his lovely, chatty self, full of insights, observations, and charming stories. His concerts, with soloists Leif Ove Andsnes and Johannes Moser, respectively, were met with outpourings of loud cheers and happy shrieks, to which he jovially responded with a broad smile, playfully encouraging gestures (one hand, then another, on ears with matching eyebrow waggles and forward-leans), and energetically performed encores.

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At the Enescu Festival, September 2019. Photo: Andrei Gindac

That joviality was revealed again in a more recent conversation, this time over the telephone, with a bit of tags-and-snags at the start. “It’s a big building!” Petrenko exclaimed about the Metropolitan Opera, where he’s making his company debut leading a revival of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (also known as The Queen of Spades), featuring Yusif Ayvazov as the tormented Hermann and Lise Davidsen (also making her Met debut) as Lisa, in a 1995 production by Elijah Moshinsky. Based on the Pushkin novel, the work is set in Saint Petersburg and is a haunting love-gone-awry tale with strong elements of the supernatural, the sadistic, and the spiritual. The production opens tonight (November 29th) and will be broadcast live on Met Opera Radio on SiriusXM as well as streamed at the Met Opera’s website.

Petrenko is making his Metropolitan Opera debut amidst a raft of conducting duties. As well as being Chief Conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic, he is also Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and European Union Youth Orchestras, and Principal Guest Conductor, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”). As of 2021, he becomes Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and has big plans for presenting the work of Mahler. His latest albums including a beautiful, sensitive recording of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos with pianist Boris Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos), and another (again with the RLPO) featuring the music of Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shchedrin, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff (Onyx).

These are part of a vast discography comprised of  Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Strauss, Liszt, Szymanowski, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and more; when I interviewed Petrenko this past spring following the announcement of his Royal Philharmonic appointment, I swooned over the awesome beauty of his Elgar interpretation, writing the recordings “brim a lively, warm energy, a keen forward momentum, effervescent textures and poetic nuance, underlining the joy, drama and humanity so central to Elgar’s canon.” That humanity is so palpable experiencing Petrenko live. It’s hard to overstate the warmth he brings to even the most brutal of scores, an innate beauty which allows the listener to experience deeper, more vivid shades and textures. Much of that comes down to a detailed approach, something Petrenko emphasized in this, our latest conversation, with him happily chatting for thirty minutes between rehearsal sessions at the Met.

Petrenko’s current experience in the Big Apple has not been without surprises. The Queen of Spades, meant to have been his New York debut, was temporarily placed to the side when Petrenko stepped in at the very last moment earlier this month to replace Mariss Jansons on the podium on what turned out to be the final stop on the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) tour. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise, timing, and as it turns out, knowing Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 very, very well. Critics were effusive in their praise of the concert, with Musical America hailing Petrenko’s “palpable sense of musical storytelling” and noting his “hard-driven approach… added a welcome edge of hysteria to the suspiciously sugary main theme. A willingness throughout his reading to explore ambiguities often hiding in plain sight gave the rush to the finish a quality that was both exhilarating and appropriately double-faced.” The praise, however, doesn’t feed in to pressure, because as Petrenko explains, that feeling comes from a different and far more personal place. I’ll let him explain.

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Mariss Jansons. Photo: Martin Walz (via Berliner Philharmoniker)

Update: Maestro Mariss Jansons passed away on November 30th, 2019, one day after this feature was posted. On his Facebook page, Petrenko wrote about his experience with the famed Latvian conductor:

I have always felt like I am walking a little in some of the footsteps of Mariss Jansons: most tangibly in the personal and artistic footprints he left with his long and illustrious tenure at the Oslo-Filharmonien, where it is such an honour to be his successor, but he has been a defining and deeply beloved presence from my earliest days, attending his rehearsals and masterclasses in St Petersburg, and through his legacy of concerts, recordings, lessons and advice, that have always been a touchstone for me. Thank you, dear Maestro, for all you’ve given to us, for your smile, generosity and warmth, and for simply bringing all of your heart into our musical world. It was a joy to be able to make music last week with your wonderful colleagues in the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, although those circumstances are now framed with such sadness. You will always be alive in our memories, in our souls and in our performances.

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Larissa Diadkova as the Countess in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

How are rehearsals for The Queen Of Spades going?

We just finished one rehearsal and ready for another in forty-five minutes. It’s a lot of work as always and especially for the last ten days for so before the first night, so we’re all working hard at the moment.

And you were at Carnegie Hall too!

(Laughs) I was there yesterday just to listen… 

How did it happen that you stepped in for Mariss Jansons? You studied under him at one point, yes?

I grew up attending his rehearsals and concerts with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and later in the Conservatory I had Master Classes with him. I wouldn’t say we’re friends – there’s a big age gap between us and he’s from a different generation – but we spoke with each other several times and in some ways I’m following his path in Oslo, with the Philharmonic there.

What happened here is that after rehearsals here at the Met one day I came home, and had a phone call about midnight actually, asking if I could be available for the next day’s concert at Carnegie Hall. I said it would be my greatest honour to save the concert and to help with Mariss if he will not be able to conduct for the next day. They didn’t change the program, and luckily I know all the pieces very well – I had performed them many, many times – so it was a case of, let’s see what tomorrow brings and in the morning we’ll have a decision. So the next day I went to the Pique Dame rehearsals at the Met in the morning, and during that time I was brought the scores for the BRSO concert, and after that there was a forty-five-minute rehearsal with the (BRSO) in the evening, and then the concert. They are a great band, an incredible orchestra with a lot of incredible soloists – one of the top bands in the world – and, to their credit, they are also very flexible. I haven’t heard how Mariss interprets Shostakovich 10 with them so I guess I was doing it slightly different than he had done it on tour, but for orchestra to be able to follow with different interpretation almost without any rehearsal…  huge kudos to them. The chemistry happened very quickly between me and the orchestra. I think part of it is because there was no other option! It was a great pleasure to be stage and it was a good concert, and it was a good party after the concert! They’d had the last concert on their autumn tour and were departing back home.

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At Carnegie Hall, November 2019. Photo: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

So you got a direct taste of New York audiences through this.

It was a very warm audience, with a lot of cheering and applause. I visited Geffen Hall for a concert with the New York Philharmonic, in which Esa Pekka (Salonen) was conducting the other week, and I’ve seen things here in the Met too, and you always sense a lot of excitement with audiences and a lot of openness and cheering, which is always very nice for the artists.

How much of that creates pressure creatively?

I think talking about pressure… to me honestly, the pressure is always only about myself, it’s only about doing better than the last performance. It’s a sort of perfectionist pressure which I always have in my veins, and which I always feel in that sense.

So how does that translate into a house like the Met? 

It’s one of the largest opera houses in the world, and we are trying to do our best, listening to several performances of operas over the past few weeks. I’m also figuring out how to do things in the pit while balancing onstage action to allow the soloists and music to sound natural in such a big place.

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A scene from Act II of The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

You have an interesting personal history with this opera.

I was in it as a boy in the 1980s, as a member of the famous production at the Kirov Opera, because I studied at this special boys school, and several students from there were usually in this production as a choir, so I was one of the boys singing. There are a lot of memories. Later I did a production at the Maly, one of my first revivals was actually was at the Maly Opera Theatre, now the Mikhailovsky in Saint Petersburg, when I was working there; then I did a revival in Hamburg, so (Pique Dame) has been with me throughout my life. I think it’s one of the greatest operas ever written. It has so much meaning and passion, so much philosophical subtext. If you read the Pushkin novel, that’s one of the most incredibly written, equilibristic pieces of literature; it’s compact, it has all these E.T.A Hoffman-meets-Mephistopheles elements in it, and the history and the language, as well as the symbolic things, are absolutely incredible. Very few pieces of Russian literature within the short novel genre surpass this one by Pushkin.

How do you express all that in a production that is so well-known?

There’s always a place for some mystery and symbolism – the Countess breaking through the floor in the scene with Hermann, that’s a moment! Is it his vision? Is it real? When she appears at the end with the gambling scene, is it his vision? What happened with Lisa? There’s plenty of questions you have to answer for yourself. What is the main intention of Hermann? Is it cards alone or related to self-establishment? He’s a German person who lives in Russia in a very different society and deliberately decided to live there, even though it’s not the most happy life in the beginning, and where it leads him… there’s plenty of angles in this opera, and working with soloists and talking about all of this, with sections, and trying to find the right colors in the orchestration and the right balance in the orchestra itself, it’s one of the processes we’re in now.

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Photo: CF Wesenberg

How has your understanding changed, especially in light of your symphonic work?

Quite often people ask me what’s different between orchestral and opera conducting, and I think a while ago I found a good image, which is quite true: when you conduct an orchestra it’s driving a car; when you conduct opera, it’s driving a truck or big van. On one hand, driving a car is more manoeuvrable, also you all enjoy company of yourself and you’re not caring so much about certain aspects – you can do what you want, and quickly. When you drive a truck you should be aware of all the movements – the time and response of this big vehicle are paramount – but on the other hand, you can bring many more goods to the people. 

But you have to be more careful about delivering them.

It’s different, because opera has many more people involved, rather than in symphonic concerts. However, the principles are the same. Even in very loud moments, you have to be aware of the transparency of what the composer has written, and you must pay very big attention to all the details the composer put in the score, either in a symphony or opera, and then there is also that something which is beyond the notes: what is most important? What is this music written for? What are the emotions? The philosophic concepts? What is the impact on the audience? It’s not just quavers and semiquavers and quarter notes, it’s moving beyond that. We’re going this direction in both opera and symphony. And of course, when you work in opera, you aim to be careful of the balance between orchestra and soloists and choir. This production has such an incredible cast, each one is outstanding. I’m very lucky to have all of them onstage, and a great chorus too – they’re doing a very good job. I think we have one live broadcast too!

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Lise Davidsen as Lisa and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So perhaps just a bit of pressure for that live broadcast… ?

I don’t feel pressure about that, really. Again, I’m more thinking about how musically it will all go together, and how I can deliver, how things can gel together – all the soloists, all the orchestra, and all the technicians. There’s a number of scenic effects, some moments when you have to wait or slow down the pace just to achieve the synchronicity between staging and music. It’s a classy production, I’d say. Saint Petersburg is one of the classiest cities in the world for its architecture, especially the Winter Palace – there’s no comparison to it around the world, it’s a unique creation of Peter The Great – so it’s the same feeling in a classy production. There are plenty of details but none of them is not necessary, all of them are very logical and in exactly the right places. 

Do you match that or build on it?

Both. In some places you have to match that, especially in a place where there’s big moving pieces onstage, you have to pace the music so it synchronizes with closings or openings of certain things at some points, on top of all the classical details. I’m adding articulations, for example in the Pastoral, which is written in the way going back into, not Baroque music, but earlier than Mozart; at the same time it’s music-making by Lisa and Pauline, who are playing these Mozart-type arias at home, so for that, there has to be, from the orchestra, this way of playing “a la Mozart” in some ways in terms of style. On the other hand, you still need the feeling they’re trying hard but not professional musicians, as they are not in the libretto; they are, in the tradition of aristocracy, learning music for entertainment, so on top of this classical scene, it’s figuring out how to enrich and give to the audience this understanding of a whole type of music-making within the scene.

How much is your approach influenced by your recordings?

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 is one of the most close to Mendelssohn and his territory – Pique Dame has this, a little bit lighter approach into the orchestration in general. During the recording cycle of the (Tchaikovsky symphonies) 4, 5, and 6 a few years ago I said to the orchestra, “Please, let’s not think of him only as this emotional, hysterical type – think about him as a man who spent actually at least three to four months outside of Russia, mainly in Italy, but also Austria, Germany, France – he opened Carnegie Hall!” He was a man traveling a lot and absorbing a lot of principles of other composers. And also there’s a lot of a German way of orchestrating in the symphonies and in Pique Dame. He used all the principles of orchestration of the time, he attended Wagner operas, he was a man who knew so much about the world tradition and that’s what makes him so unique; he had a pure Russian soul and a German way of orchestration, and that’s what I’m trying for in the symphonies, and in some places in Pique Dame

Too often Tchaikovsky’s music is presented in just one way. 

I think you can always find something new, even in the most played and performed score. I’m always trying to find the details, and get from the orchestra and singers something written in the score but probably obscured during tradition, because it is there you get to be very authentic. The devil is in the details, as they say. 

Especially in this opera!

So true!

Will this lead to more opera for you then? 

I hope to do more opera in the future than I was doing recently; I hadn’t done it simply because I was so busy with so many orchestras, but I hope for more productions in more houses.

And in-concert presentations also?

In-concert yes, we are planning a few things for 2020-2021… there are a few things, even some less-frequently performed operas but still great operas which are cooking at the moment. Stay tuned! 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hibla Gerzmava: “I’m With The Audience”

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Hibla Gerzmava as Desdemona in the 2015-2016 Met Opera production of Otello. Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera.

Hibla Gerzmava has been a busy lady since her last appearance in Toronto.

In the time since that acclaimed 2017 concert at Roy Thomson Hall, the Russian soprano has graced the stages of Opéra National de Paris (Opéra Bastille),  Teatro Real de Madrid, The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden, Opernhaus Zürich, as well as appeared at her home theatre, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, where she’s performed for over two decades now.

As well as a multitude of opera roles, Gerzmava has a particular gift for performing oratorio-style works, and it’s an area I hope she decides to further explore, because it allows her a perfect avenue in which she can showcase her incredibly rich tone and exciting flexibility. Her performance as part of Janáček’s immense Glagolitic Mass is a particular treat. The recording, released last year on Decca Classics and made at the Rudolfinum, Prague with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 2013 under the baton of conductor Jiri Bělohlávek, is shining and exuberant, Gerzmava’s voice shimmering and yet laser-pointed.

A native of Abkhazia (located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), Gerzmava graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1994 and went on to win the Grand Prize in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. Since then, she’s appeared on the stages of Wiener Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and Teatro Alla Scala Milan, among many others. Her annual gala concerts (called “Hibla Gerzmava Invites”), which she started in 2001, feature a who’s-who of opera; this year’s edition included bass Ildar Abdrazakov and Alexander Sladkovsky, chief conductor and artistic director of the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra.

At the end of 2017, I included Gerzmava’s Toronto appearance as being a highlight of my classical music year, writing then that she “melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.” Gerzmava’s appearance at the intimate, acoustically gorgeous Koerner Hall this coming Sunday (3 November) features pianist Ekaterina Ganelina; it’s part of a tour that sees her play Carnegie Hall tonight (1 November), before jetting off to give concerts in Rio de Janeiro and Paris. On the bill are works by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Donizetti, Verdi, and Fauré. Gerzmava returns to New York later this season to reprise the role of Liu in Turandot, a role she’s done there, and at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, to acclaim; she also reprises Otello‘s Desdemona in Moscow later this year.

While I hope to someday interview her in-person (hopefully my Russian will be improved), the soprano and I recently had a translated email exchange in which she shared her thoughts on audiences, conductors, and the importance of recitals.

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A scene from the 2017 Royal Opera House production of Puccini’s Turandot. Photo @ Royal Opera House / Tristram Kenton

What have your experiences in Moscow given you artistically?

The Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre  has been my home for twenty-five years; my roots are there. Yet it is a pleasure to come to all the other opera houses as a guest. I only take on roles I have fully prepared for, and personally comprehend and embrace, whether a new or existing production. I would credit this approach to so-called directorial theatre and its long-standing history. And this is the Stanislavsky-Nemirovitch-Danchenko Theatre where I grew up and have been progressing as a singer and an actress. Many performances were put on for me, and I really appreciate and am proud of it.

When I interviewed Yusif Eyvazov years ago he said he found singing in Russian challenging, despite his using it in daily life. What’s your sense?

The music is the first and the most important for me. Text and language go after the musical material. I take very seriously any new material and seek out professional language coaches to get prepared. I mainly sing in the Italian operas and love to sing in French. As for the Russian repertoire, I do not have difficulties but a lot of responsibility. These days there are not so many singers undertaking the chamber programs.

It’s a privilege and I’m thrilled to sing Russian romances by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Glinka, and Prokofiev – it matters to me to introduce the international audience to these great works, to this part of Russian culture. This is the reason why all my recitals of this world tour throughout New York, Toronto, Paris and London start with the Russian romances. I’ll be singing arias in French and Italian in the second part of my concerts.

You’ve done Medea a few times now; where do you see this role fitting within your overall repertoire? Will you be doing more German opera?

For me Medea is a very special character. She is a Colchean Princess from the ancient Greek myth about the Argonauts – and Colchis is the ancient name of Abkhazia, so all these Greek mythical events occurred in my motherland but many years ago.

That production (of Medea) was made with me as a singer and artist in mind, and it was highly acclaimed. As the prima of this production I got awarded with the Russian theatre’s “Golden Mask”. Award. That was an incredibly complicated role; I cannot forget about it easily, it drives me to the utmost!

As for German opera, I hope I may do it in the future. Today I’m singing the bel canto repertoire. At the same time I do have the Four Last Songs by Strauss as well as works by Schumann and Schubert. Every time I sing in German I think of my father and dedicate it to him as he was fluent in German.

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With Marcelo Puente in La forza del destino. Photo © Monika Rittershaus / Opernhaus Zürich

You have appeared in a variety of production styles, including a very modern production of La forza del destino, directed by Andreas Homoki, which was a role debut for you; how do you find these styles affect your performance? 

I do recall my stay in the Zürich Opera House and collaboration with such an interesting and unusual Stage Director as Andreas Homoki – it was curious to learn and understand his ideas; he is a very deep artist and his approach is not standard. 

When working with any director, even one with the most contemporary vision, I take everything with respect and do my best to get into these ideas. However, if there is some critical discrepancy with my concept or in case it doesn’t correspond to my principles, I’m not going to cope and adjust myself. It is always up to me to find a compromise with any director, and for that I would credit my home theatre, the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danchenko Opera; it’s a directorial theatre and it did bring us up as good actors. I always come to any other theatre and production completely understanding my heroine, her character, her personality.   

Thomas Hampson told me he wouldn’t be the singer he is today without doing recitals, that they are so important for the cultivation of both vocal abilities as well as artistry; what’s your feeling? 

Thomas is absolutely right when he says that we need it to develop our vocal growth. One cannot imagine my schedule and my career without concerts and recitals. Voice presentation and concert style are very different from operatic performances; it is a very elite part of our art, which allows a singer to progress and enrich his or her experience. There is nobody else on stage except the vocalist; there is neither decoration, nor choir. There is only my voice, my energy and artistry. I am happy to perform solo both with a pianist and with an orchestra. It brings me, as an artist, closer to the spectators. I’m with the audience and more real, more like myself than in an opera.

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Hibla Gerzmava as Liù in the 2015-2016 Met Opera production of Puccini’s Turandot. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

How have you found audiences across the various places you’ve performed? it seems as if the quality of listening differs across regions. 

I do love all my spectators anywhere in the world. Every time I’m entering the stage in any country it is very important for me to engage the audience, to deliver my message, to earn their affection. Geography does not mean anything to me. Each continent has its own very profound, responsive listeners and those that are coming to meet me for just the first time. Believe me, I know how to approach everybody. To some extent I may say that I am even spoiled by love and admirers in the most demanding theatres like La Scala, ones that are used to booing a singer that they do not like. I love the Metropolitan Opera audience, the power of the applause is literally devouring you, and nobody is withholding their emotions. I found the audience in Toronto to be absolutely great too, they are warm and understanding. We performed there together with the Moscow Virtuosi and Maestro Spivakov in 2017. I cannot wait to see and sing for them again.

What are your thoughts on the role of conductors in relation to performance? A number of artists have told me they believe chemistry has to exist between singer and conductor from the beginning, although some have also said it’s something that can be cultivated. What is your sense? 

Chemistry, sympathy and mutual understanding between the conductor and a singer are very important. The highest level of a conductor’s art is to feel the singer. I do not like dictators who are trying to impact the singer. If a conductor cannot find common ground with the cast, it can affect the directorial idea and the entire production in general. But if there is a harmony and some invisible musical link between singer and conductor, then they turn into magic on the stage. Thank God, I have been always very lucky to meet and work only with extremely good and professional conductors.

Hui He: Building Connection Through The Voice

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

Hui he has a voice one can’t help but notice, a big, juicy, Italianate sound, the sort of sound I grew up with, the sort of sound my Italian-opera-loving mother loved so much. If there’s a nostalgia in enjoying He’s voice so much, so be it; hers is a voice that very much puts the “grand” in grand opera.

He started out her studies in China at the Xi’an Conservatory of Music, and made her debut as Aida (yes, really) in a 1998 production marking the opening of Shanghai Grand Theater. In 2000 she won second place at the prestigious Operalia competition, and a year later, first prize at the Concorso Internazionale Voci Verdiane in Verdi’s hometown of Busseto. Since then, she’s become a mainstay on European stages and has appeared at a number of prestigious houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala di Milano, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Semperoper Dresden, Bayerische Staatsoper, and Oper Zürich; last season she made her debut at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels) as the title role in a new production of La Gioconda. He made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010, as the title character in Aida, a signature role she has recorded twice on DVD, in 2011 with Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and conductor Zubin Mehta, and again in 2012, at the immense Arena di Verona under conductor Daniel Oren. What with 2013 marking the 200th year of Verdi’s birth, He returned to Aida (at La Scala Milan), and also took part in a performance of the composer’s Requiem in Verona, where she is based.

It’s probably fair to state that the soprano is something of a specialist when it comes to performing the Italian composer’s music; she’s appeared in productions of Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore, La forza del destino, Ernani, and Stiffelio, as well as the famous Aida. She’s also known for her passionate approach to verismo roles, and has appeared in productions of Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, and Tosca (the latter being a role that greatly aided in her breakthrough in Europe, starting with her performance at Teatro Regio di Parma in 2002). He ably demonstrates her immense vocal gifts (not wrongly described as “wine dark“) on her 2007 album of Verdi and Puccini arias (Oehms Classics), which is filled with a myriad of well-known gems from both composers, including heartfelt renditions of beloved arias from Aida, Butterfly, and Tosca, and imbuing each note with pungent, visceral drama. A personal favorite is her deeply expressive performance of “Liberamente or piangi” from Attila, lovingly phrased, with rich intonation and watchful dynamic control; it’s a showcase of beautiful vocal artistry. At her Lyric Opera debut in 2012 (in Aida), the Chicago Tribune noted He “possesses a healthy, flexible, warmly beautiful spinto voice backed by solid technique and fine musical intelligence. Her big voice opened up easily in the big climaxes […] and brought out the melting lyricism in Aida’s many tender phrases.”

“Melting lyricism” is a good way to describe her approach to the album’s two tracks from Turandot, performances which, over a decade ago now, offered a preview of a role she debuted earlier this year at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. She explained her slowness in taking on the part of Turandot in an interview during rehearsals for the production, noting that, outside of her vocal technique not being ready until this year, she “didn’t want to play this character so early, especially because being Chinese, I would risk that companies would only want me for this role.” (He will be performing it again at the Shanghai Opera House this December.) Another role debut earlier this year was Mimi in La bohème at the Festival Puccini Torre del Lago. The new year brings yet another role debut, as the title character in early Verdi opera Alzira at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

He is currently performing the role of Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly at the Met through the end of November. It’s a role she’s frequently performed in Europe (Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Den Norske Opera Oslo, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Real de Madrid, and Gran Teatre del Liceu, to name a few), at Los Angeles Opera, and in New York too; her appearance in the current Anthony Minghella production marks her third time singing the role with the house. He and I recently had the chance to chat on a quiet Sunday afternoon, even as the sounds of ever-busy Manhattan buzzed in the background.

How old when you first heard opera?

When I was 18 years old I heard La bohème for the first time. the first time I listened I didn’t understand Italian or anything, but I fell in love with the voices and the music. I decided to be a singer very late — I like singing very much but I didn’t have a musical family. The  first opera I saw live was Turandot, in 1996, in Beijing. I didn’t understand it very well —or really understand what opera would come to mean for me — but really, seeing it was this amazing world. I never thought I’d be a professional opera singer at that time, but seeing Turandot… I still remember the beautiful staging.

At that time, China would only present opera a few times a year, not like now! Now it’s a completely different thing; in a very short time China grew to have a lot of theatre. But at that time, China only had classical opera, I mean, Western opera, about once or twice a year. You could see it in Beijing or Shanghai — I’m from Xi’An, the ancient capital of China. It’s a very beautiful city, and very old. I got my start singing the music of Verdi very young.  

How has your understanding of Verdi’s music changed? You’ve been  singing it for a long time now.

Starting out in China I had a very good feeling with my voice for Aida, that my voice was very suited to it. Of course the first time I sang it was different than it is now; my voice, my body, everything changed. My experience changed, especially when I went to Italy — now I speak very good Italian! — but it’s very different, singing it now from twenty years ago. Everything became more mature. It’s a very natural and logical progression.

Do you notice differences in audiences? That the ones in the U.S. are different to the ones in Austria and Germany and England and China?

For me audience difference is not a problem, because I think what i need to do is, just do my best for every stage, in every city. I should show what is my best, give good quality, a maximum possibility for every performance. I think the music, the language, is a very special language, it’s connects with some very special part of life. The language of music through the voice can connect people, even those who have very far-apart cultures. In twenty-one years of career, I’ve seen many different cities and countries, in the West and the East. My main stages are in Europe and America. I think the most important thing is when I am onstage, I must show the best of what I feel that day. Yes, every audience is a different feeling, but if I do my best, and if I’m enjoying the show, then the audience will enjoy the show also.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

It’s been observed that Italy is very concerned with voice, and that in England and Europe there’s more focus on the theatrical aspect. What have you found?

I think this is a special thing, because Italy, yes — if you don’t have a voice, even if you’re a great actor, it won’t work — but also in Germany and England and some other places, there’s more concentration on drama. But I think as an opera singer, there are two important things: one is music, and one is acting. The audience can hear you and they can see you. You can’t say, “I’m very good vocal person and I’m a very bad actor —  but I can still give a maximum performance” — no. It is always together.

You have to be a good actor, and have a beautiful voice, and have very good musicians. It’s many things together. I sing a lot of Puccini, and Puccini roles demand good acting — of course the voice is important, because if you don’t have the voice you can’t finish the opera. If you don’t have the technical basis, you can’t finish the opera. Also I’m a Verdi soprano, and when I sing Verdi, the most important thing is having good technique to sing every note musically — but acting is important too. If both things work, then you get success; if it’s only one thing, there’s no success.

Has that idea evolved in relation to the growth of Live in HD broadcasts?

I think it’s important as an actor to be aware of the theatrical aspect, but the singing is still very important. Singing well needs a lot of things: your vocal technique, your intonation, your musicality, your ability and balance, everything. This is the way we work and study every day, to be a good singer. I think for HD it’s important to be a good actor, but if the audience doesn’t hear a good sound from the voice, if there’s a problem with intonation or whatever musical problem, then they can’t accept it, even in the cinema.

The drama is very much written into the music — with Tosca and Butterfly, for instance, the drama is so palpably within the notes.

That’s true!

Often it takes the right conductor to bring it out in just the right way.

The conductor is really very important for the opera because the conductor, if they can understand singers and their sense of approach, and learn about the drama and the music during the drama, how to bridge it between singer and orchestra — yes, that’s helpful! I’ve met many great conductors, like Pier Giorgio Morandi — he’s a great conductor and he is very understanding of singers. Not many always understand the singer’s challenges. Sometimes everything has a different musical feeling or make different demands on the breath, so the conductor should be very understanding and comprehend those demands, and that leads to chemistry, being able to work together. That’s very important, because if the conductor can sing with the singer inside, and has the feeling of the music the same way, then it will be a great overall result and you will feel the chemistry in the performance. When we are together, the audience can feel that. When the conductor is not with the singer…

You feel that also!

… yes, there are problems! I have to say, there are a lot of conductors who don’t understand singers. I think really good opera conductors help singers — they should first, be a great musician, secondly, have the sensibility of the singer, and third, a person who has a big enough heart to understand and deal with a lot of different situations with everybody — good at forming and cultivating relationships.

You will be doing a role debut of Alzira next year. What’s that like to prepare? It’s expanding your repertoire.

I’m very excited to do Alzira, and now I’ve been preparing at the Met with a pianist while doing Butterfly. I feel like it’s a new world. Alzira is like an exam of technique. Earlier Verdi music is really very difficult, it’s a bel canto type thing, there’s a lot of coloratura — it’s not like singing Puccini or verismo, it’s a really technical situation — so I’m very glad my studies are going well. I’ve never sung this kind of music, or anything in a bel canto style; in italy, I immediately started with Aida, Butterfly, Tosca, Trovatore, and a little bit of later Verdi repertoire, but now I can do earlier Verdi. I’ve done Attila and Stiffelio but Alzira is really a very good opera for me right now, to help me for technique. I remember my coach told me, “Singing Verdi is like a medicine for singers, because Verdi extends the technique.” So if you’re singing Verdi well you can improve your technical situation. Butterfly is a little bit heavy, but it’s also a long role; it has a lot of various demands on the voice. I don’t want it to be low, so this is why during Butterfly I’m learning Alzira —it helps my Butterfly, it helps keep my voice in a high position, which is good.

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Den Norske Oslo Opera stage performance classical singing culture

Photo ©️Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera

Does this mean you’ll be doing more bel canto? I’m curious what other roles might be in your future.

I haven’t done French repertoire, but I think my voice is more for Italian repertoire. I hope to debut Don Carlo, Elisabetta, and I hope I can, in the future, sing Norma, Frau Angelica, a lot of roles that would fit me. I already did Manon Lescaut — I love it very much, it’s one of my favourites — and I did Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but I hope one day to sing Wagner. I think my voice is good for Tannhauser, Die Fliegende Hollander, and Tristan und Isolde. I hope I can enlarge my repertoire a little bit to sing different roles. I love to learn new roles, and I love learning new opera.

It makes you a better artist, to keep learning.

Of course — I like to work on different things at the same time. It’s why during this period I’m doing Butterfly but I’m learning Alzira, and I’m preparing a concert too. I’m enjoying it all!

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