Tag: pandemic

Personal Essay: Puccini & A Red Satin Dress For Christmas

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

There is something within that always hesitates at publishing personal pieces. A Facebook post is one thing, a public post quite another. Courting judgment, creating low opinions, sacrificing credibility, reinforcing impressions of overwrought drama: 2020 is a year for many things indeed, but I am unsure which of these I dare encourage. The following piece did start out as a Facebook post, and so great was the response, so immense the encouragement, that I have decided to share it here, with revisions. It has opera (easily found on this website), it has my mother (also easily found). It has personal history, something I wince at sharing openly but which, in light of this awful year drawing to a close, feels somehow important, an act of acknowledgment and healing: Here Is A Bit Of My Self; Do As You Will.

Currently I am in the midst of editing another essay exploring the idea of being of service, inspired by a remark conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan made during our lengthy conversation back in October. Barbara essentially said she is driven to do what she does out of a need to be of service, that if she had chosen to take a more conventional opera-singer route (Verdi and not Vivier, for example), such a need would have gone unfulfilled. Other exchanges with artists I admire have led me to wonder if my writing is, in fact, just this, a way of exercising that very need – to be of service – whilst integrating, in a more fulsome way, a desire to move my work into a more creative realm, away from the world of journalism. In any case, here are some thoughts, shared Christmas Eve, and lightly edited. Happy New Year.

~

Looking at the window at the heavily falling snow, inhaling the aroma of a baking tourtière, watching the flicker of candles and feeling the acid sting of cranberry on tongue, I remember a remark my mother made to me the year before she died: “I love how you just pile your hair up and put on your strapless dress and high heels and don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks of you.” Considering she wasn’t one to offer compliments on my appearance, it was notable, and I often wonder if her words were meant to extend past the opera-going context in which they were given, specifically to the parties we would attend every Christmas Eve.

“You’re taking too long!” she’d scream as 8pm, then 9pm passed, and we weren’t yet out the door. “Why do you always have to make things so bloody difficult?!” This year, with naught but the company of the telly and a seemingly endless line of headlights out the window, I think back to those nights, how they always started with tremendous arguments, how they always ended in relative peace, with late-night cognacs and music and sweets, my mother and I smartly dressed and perched on puffy, cream-color loveseats facing one another. The sounds of La bohème floated across the dimly-lit, luxuriously appointed room. “Only one thing,” she would instruct, taking a gold-foil-wrapped package into her lap, clinking glasses and smiling at the clang of fine crystal as a myriad of Xmas tree lights swirled around the ornate, boozy orbs. “Maybe a chocolate too… “ as the Godiva box lid was popped off. “But you must turn this up…” as the voice of Pavarotti rang like a silver bell across the bronzen warmth of the room… “it’s just so… so...!” … An inevitable headshake of red curls. A sip of cognac. A broad, happy sigh.

We had no family, but we had traditions entirely our own. Every Xmas morning she would don her velvet Santa hat and buzz around with a fine china teacup in one hand and portable phone in the other, her laughing voice and “Hellloooooo soandso!” and “Merry Christmas!” cadences like little motifs through the tinsel-laden score of the morning. Her own beloved father had died on Xmas Eve when she was a girl; thus the occasion was, for her, just that, something to mark, to make merry for, to fuss over, and always, to give and give. December was a month when no one was forgotten: bank tellers, postmen, delivery people, cashiers, clients, old work colleagues, friends new and not, close and not. Her whole being, even without Xmas, revolved around giving. Indeed, her generosity was doled out in such quantities she would sometimes chide herself, realizing (as I had tried to point out in past moments) that her good nature had been taken advantage of. “I’m too generous, I’m too soft-hearted… I’m a naive bloody chump.”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

How different Christmas is now, and not only because of COVID19. I remember a glass-shelved console would be filled, from mid-November onwards, with a myriad of cards from around the world; some years they numbered in the hundreds. To quote Rilke’s “Requiem For A Friend”, “Oh, how we need customs. Oh, how we suffer from the lack of customs” – and this card-collection was but one of my mother’s. I look up at my four Christmas cards and acknowledge, of course, that such customs simply aren’t done anymore, but oh, how I miss some of the sensual ones that come with Xmas. I find myself wanting such things but largely blocked from their actualization; I can neither recreate in her fashion, nor create anew in my own. Not having a family means not having certain rituals to adhere to. And yet, this was the first time since 2017 that I have had a Christmas tree; I gave away the one I’d had with her years ago and most (not all) of the ornaments. Putting one up this year seemed like an act of love and defiance; I don’t have kids and the whole thing cost a small fortune, but oh, how fulfilling. I needed the exercise of such a custom more than I realized. “One of the only times you seem calm and happy is when you paint,” my mother used to say, “that and decorating the Christmas tree.”

My love of solitary activity was not something she always understood. My mother was Miss Popularity; she’d been a cheerleader in high school. That deep, warm generosity, a gaiety of spirit, a smiling lightness elegantly concealing a world of pain, her hands waving through the air to Musetta’s Waltz – people were drawn to her. It wasn’t magic; it was logic. And oh, she was the beauty queen, makeup in place, hair done just so, whether handing out sweets or pouring brandy into her tea Christmas morning, chatting gaily to faraway friends on the telephone, her fingers with their lacquered red nails moving between boxes of (homemade) whipped shortbreads and almond crescents and the infamous Godiva box. One year she decided to wear a red satin gown she’d initially bought for me;  I looked over the second-floor railing, bleary-eyed, and there she was, on the phone, waving up at me, her lipstick matching the fabric. Years before I emerged from a retail store changeroom wearing that dress; I still recall the swoosh-swoosh rustling across the spiky berber carpet. Its shiny redness a festive flag against the drabness of that little fluorescent-lit room.

“Ohhhhh,” was the immediate, cooing response. “that’s your birthday gift, then.”  Being broad-shouldered and tall it fit her like a glove, better than me, in fact; there was no pulling at the bust when she wore it (“You didn’t get those boobs from me; thank you father’s side of the family”) and thus it hung like it should, sans pooling around ankles, a puddle of satin where legs should be, and were, in spades, with her. I took a photo of her that morning, my beautiful, big-haired mother, in her sixties then, sitting with her signature movie-star-smile, on one of an immense pair of damask-patterned loveseats on Christmas morning. that dress in gorgeous contrast to the cream upholstery. She wanted to take a photo of me, as ever: “Come on,  smile, it’s easy… don’t be so grouchy!”

I gave those loveseats away this year, a donation to a charity — too old, too many memories, too much dust attraction. Living alone I have no need of such immense things, and having no family of my own it makes no sense — but I still have that photo of her somewhere, perched so perfectly that snowy morning, in that big house I sold two years ago. Amidst my giant downsize this year, I kept that photo, and more than a few related albums; at the time I hesitated, but in retrospect, it was the right thing. Putting the past into perspective doesn’t mean erasing it – or hiding it, being embarrassed by it, or feeling the need to apologize for it. My mother had a contentious relationship with her own troubled past; it’s something I don’t want to repeat. I gave away those loveseats – and the old Xmas tree, and some of the ornaments – because they were her things, not my things. 2020 was the year of My Things, tangible and not, good and (mostly) not. It has been a horrendous but tremendously important year; at times I have wept in ways I have not wept since her death in 2015. Loss comes in so many shapes; sadness has so many variations. The person I am now is not the person I was with her. I recall her saying I was too serious; too brooding, too critical and full of torment. Oh, if she could see me now. I’ve become a soft-hearted, over-trusting, over-generous chump. Apple, meet tree; chocolate, meet box; I inherited more than her slender figure.

woman, dress, nightgown, Christmas, Xmas, tree, festive, pretty, retro, vintage, December

This is not *the* dress (but clearly my mother loved red dresses). Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So this Christmas Eve is for tourtière, tears, and tender memories. December asks for acceptance, and offers hope. May 2021 bear the sweet fruit sewn by immense sadness; we could, all of us, use a fresh start.

Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Anticipate all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that’s now passing.
For under winters is one winter so endless,
only in overwintering can your heart overcome.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, II.13
(trans. Kinnell, Liebmann, 1999)

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

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

Photo: Rémi Thériault

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Dwayne Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was ill… 

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

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

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

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

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

… which is rather macho  to my ears… 

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Rémi Thériault

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

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

Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich: “You want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!””

Opernhaus Zurich, Zurich, flag, Switzerland, house, front, architecture, culture, performance, music, ballet

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.

Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisande at Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.

Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.

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John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.

This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

How are rehearsals going?

JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?

BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.

JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.

When I spoke to Barrie earlier this summer he referenced this production a few times – it sounds as if you don’t have a problem with the way it’s been organized with the orchestra, or… ?

JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.

BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.

Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?

JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.

It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?

JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.

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Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?

BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.

JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.

BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.

JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it  gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November  – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely…  and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.

BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.

JD It’s not an ideal situation…

BS… but it’s something.

JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.

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Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.

JD I think there are big arguments…  if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.

You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?

JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.

BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.

To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?

BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.

JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”

BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.

JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…

BS It’s a lot of money.

JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.

Brindley Sherratt, opera, bass, singer, voice, vocalist, classical

Photo: Gerard Collett

How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?

BS Well I went to a concert here recently and…  I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God…  then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.

JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…

BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.

JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?

BS Bravo, John…

JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.

BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.

JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”

So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?

BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …

JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.

BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”

JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.

BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.

So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?

BS Oh for sure.

John Daszak, opera, tenor, singer, voice, vocalist, classical

Photo: Robert Workman

How do you keep your focus?

JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.

… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious. 

JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.

B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.

JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.

This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.

JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.

BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.

JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.

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.

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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. 

Personal Essay: Curiosity In The Time Of Corona

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now).  The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.

That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types“What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”

mother child retro vintage meal memories

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.

Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person. 

Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.

Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works  impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?

Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)

Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art  itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not. 

Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with  figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, one heavy on Russian repertoire and featuring conductor Vladimir Jurowski and soprano Evelina Dobračeva. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning? 

Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring  but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.

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 .

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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. 

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

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

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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.

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