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Lucas Debargue: “You Are A Human First; Then You May Be A Musician”

Debargue pianist piano French Scarlatti artist musician performer

Photo: Felix Broede

The famous sonatas of 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti are daunting, not only for their sheer number but for their demands. As Gramophone‘s Patrick Rucker observed, “pianists do well to think twice before recording this enticing but treacherous repertory.

Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in all, though many were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. As well as utilizing unique modulations and dischords, some of the sonatas were clearly influenced by Iberian folk music. Along with the sontas, Scarlatti composed operas, cantatas, and liturgical pieces, and counted fans among composers (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich,  Messiaen, and Poulenc) as well as pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, and Schiff). The late American harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all of the sonatas (across 34 CDs for Erato/Radio France) in 1988.

French pianist Debargue acknowledges Ross in the liner notes to Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical), and also notes Ross’s influence on his own playing, but in releasing the work (in October 2019), Debargue must’ve known the challenges he would face. As Music Web International’s Richard Masters notes, “every piano-fancier has their champion of choice” for the sonatas.” Playing against preset favorites is always a risk, as any classical artist well knows, and yet Debargue is an artist who embraces such risk, and always has. The album is a continuation of a risk-taking drive that has been present ever since he burst onto the classical scene in 2015, his playing a deep and discernibly personal expression of an ever-evolving authenticity, to craft and to self.

His entrance into the classical music world is not the story you might expect, but it’s one that has directly influenced his approach. With no family or background in the industry, Debargue only took his first piano lessons at the age of eleven. As he told the Seattle Times in 2016,

I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano. She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.

Piano playing ceased in his teens, and Debargue instead went on to play in a rock band and work in a grocery store. He studied art and literature before returning to the piano at the age of twenty, attending the École Normale de Musique de Paris “Alfred Cortot”, a top French conservatory, and studying with famed Russian pianist and professor Rena Shereshevskaya, which he still does. Shereshevskaya’s opinion is one he very much defers to for her being “an authentic listener.”

In 2015 Debargue placed a controversial fourth place at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition; many felt he deserved a higher placement, and that snobbery (related to his background, which included being self-taught) prevented his being awarded top honors. In any case, it hardly mattered; Debargue was invited by Competition Chairman Valery Gergiev to perform in the winner’s gala – in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less. The French pianist has since attained much success, with non-stop rounds of touring, recording, and yet more awards, including an Echo Klassik (Germany’s major classical music award) in 2017. He’s played an assortment of great halls (including Wigmore, Carnegie, the Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie Berlin, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Munich’s Prinzregententheater, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall) and has worked with top artists including conductors (including Andrey Boreyko, Mikhail Pletnev, Yutaka Sado, and Tugan Sokhiev) and musicians (Gidon Kremer, Martin Fröst, and Janine Jansen). His discography includes recordings of the work of piano greats, including Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, and Medtner; he recorded a stunning album of the music of Schubert and Szymanowski in 2017. His most recent recording, of the carefully-selected Scarlatti sonatas, offers a very unconventional if highly inspiring listening experience, one which finds intellectual, emotional, and spiritual coherence through its various pedal-less ascents to grand harmonic vistas and gentle descents into valleys of varied tonal melody. Debargue’s rubato-infused playing is hypnotizing, heartfelt, intelligent, and intuitive.

I’ve written in the past about how certain pianists inspire my desire to return to the keyboard myself, and this disc is perhaps the most supreme encapsulation to date of that urge; Debargue’s gorgeously delicate if quietly confident Sonata in A Minor  K. 109 (the 13th track on the first disc), for instance, is devastating in awful, awesome beauty, a whispering grandeur rustling through his delicious phrasing and touch. More than once I’ve hissed a happy “yassssss” listening to this, and to other tracks on this grand, sometimes overwhelming album. Richard Masters rightly notes in his review that this is not an album to be experienced all at once, but rather, savoured, “like a box of expensive chocolates,” with each of the three discs making up the album existing as their own sort of recital – its own little species of plant, which is possibly an appropriate reaction, as my conversation with Debargue revealed.

It wasn’t a surprise to learn that NPR rated Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas as one of their top classical picks in terms of albums that might best usher in a new decade, with writer Tom Huizenga noting Debargue’s “great self-assurance” and his ability to find “clarity, texture, and color” in order to coax “the mercurial personality in each of these miniatures, whether it’s the spirit of flamenco strumming, a tender aria or a boisterous march.” Currently on a tour that takes him to Toronto (on January 16th), Montreal January 19th) and New York (January 22nd in Brooklyn and January 31st at Carnegie Hall), Debargue and I chatted in the midst of a bustling festive season, in December 2019.

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Photo: Xiomara Bender

You have said in the past you feel Scarlatti’s music is very psychological – what did you mean?

It’s because he plays with our consciousness. Music is language, and it’s playing with the connections you can make, not only between elements but surprising you, or confirming something you were expecting. He plays with the mind.

Fragments of the scores indicate Scarlatti didn’t write them himself… 

Yes, the thing is that we only have so much information about Scarlatti, it’s hard to figure out how he managed to write those pieces, the copies are not in his hand, so someone copied this. We don’t have the draft from his hand directly, so it’s hard to figure out how it was originally made. 

… but there’s a suggestion others copied down his improvisations. To me that echoes how your album sounds: very natural, very improvised.

It’s is one of my biggest interests – and this is part of the point of my approach also, an important part of my approach. Improvisation is probably the highest side of musical practice, and every piece I play I try to aim for improvisation – it has to sound that way. You can really be driven by the playing, because so often (these works) sound not like improvisation, and if you play them this way, you lose the energy of the music. And the energy of the music gives the presence, and the presence is expressed through the improvisation; it all goes together, especially for Scarlatti.

How does that translate into larger works? You worked with Tugan Sokhiev in December, for instance; how does this connection with energy and improvisation translate into an orchestral situation?

It’s not the same thing when there’s an orchestra; it’s less possible to improvise. The first thing is that it has to be very clear; for this reason you cannot really be free in time. For the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, I allowed myself to be free when I played alone – so during the Adagio, playing alone I just did what I wanted. But when it was with the orchestra, and you don’t play with this orchestra very often – I played only once before with the Orchestre National Du Capitole de Toulouse – this makes it more…  for me the priority is to be attentive to the elements, to find some common points. It’s better to be more simple at the start.

If you collaborate again and again with an orchestra there are natural things that appear and it can be more flexible, but it requires time, and a lot of listeners and music lovers are not concerned about the time to takes. Even speaking about recital programs, a lot of people ask me, “What will you play in your next concert?” They don’t realize that a recital program takes at least one year to prepare. It’s not a question of being slow at memorizing – I’m fast at that, I can learn big pieces in one day or one week, but this doesn’t matter, there is nothing to admire here – what is important is the time it takes to actually raise it, as if you were growing vegetables or flowers. It takes time to make an interpretation exist, because it’s not only memorizing a score and playing the notes, it has to be like a living being, and the cultivation of a living being takes time.

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Photo still: Bel Air Media

The recital you’re doing at Koerner Hall features the music of Scarlatti as well as that of Medtner and Liszt; what was the thinking to feature these three composers on the same bill?

It’s not so easy to explain, but there is a connection. It’s very personal. I would not try to put a bridge between these pieces and explain intellectually why, but within these works there is a kind of energy in terms of how they’re crafted. Scarlatti and Liszt have a lot in common in terms of the ability to transcend the techniques of the keyboard in order to express their musicality – Scarlatti with harpsichord and Liszt with piano, but it’s the same thing, to use all possibilities of the instrument to go beyond, spiritually. And you will hear, between the Liszt and Medtner pieces, that there are lots of connections, speaking about the form, the theme…  I think the two pieces go well together, like some kind of Faustian inspiration, these romantic, Gothic, cosmic dreams I would say, fantasies. They go very well together and are good with the Scarlatti. With recital programs I like to use the possibility of having two parts, so there is a big contrast between the first part and the second part; then the people can have the sensation having attended two concerts instead of one concert.

You’re also forcing audiences to listen.

For me, yes, because I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think the audience has the ability to listen, to be moved and participate in what is happening, so I play as if my audience will not be passive but active, and participating with me.

This idea of transcendence is interesting in terms of your background, which is not musical.

My little brother is a musician but there are none before – parents, grandparents, no one was involved in music.

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Photo: Felix Broede / Sony Music Entertainment

So you transcended your own background being a classical pianist.

Yes, but I take things simply. For a lot of people it’s special to be a musician, but for me it’s normal. I try to live with it as if it was just my job and my vocation – I take it seriously, and I do it with all my heart, but it’s not this prestigious, elite thing that people should admire. For me it can stay very simple. I see myself… I don’t have the desire to transcend normal life with what I do, but for speaking this language, and for sharing this kind of spirit with others. 

What do you think that desire has given you? Especially since you don’t hail from a background where you had parents involved and conservatory training from a very young age?

Of course everyone has a mental picture of child prodigies but most of the big masters of the piano, if we talk about the piano and masters like Gilels and Rachmaninoff, they were not child prodigies not at all, they took their time,  and they were doing other things and had other interests. What I see nowadays with children is that they are just obeying teachers and parents, and I’m not interested in this way of practising and this vision of music. For me I cannot be inspired by such musicians, they cannot have something to say; they are living like in a jail. And it’s very important for an artist to get inspired by a lot of things, to have other outside interests – to see movies, to read books – to manage to have a human life. So many musicians allow themselves to have a special life because of being in music, but I don’t think being a musician is special, and I don’t think one can allow one’s self to live with a special regime just because he or she is a musician. You are a human first; then you may be a musician. But it can never replace being a human first.

There’s a tendency for many in this industry to ensconce themselves within the classical-world bubble, which seems obvious but also bad for art.

Of course it’s bad for art – but it’s the same for all the other fields. We live in an era of specialization; everyone is a specialist in his or her own field. And that’s a problem because then people don’t really know what others are doing outside of their own channel. We all should manage at least to have the real life of a man or a woman, and not be overwhelmed by the job, or by the need for an audience, or for fame, or money. Those things take so much of the space of the spirit … and it’s crazy, actually. 

It kills the spirit of taking risks also, a spirit which is discernible on your recordings. 

I do it because I have no choice – it’s my only way, the only one I can consider sincere and honest, and where I am doing my best. That’s why I follow this path – otherwise I’d do something else. To not be true to one’s self in the field of arts… for me it is like a betrayal, really, because where you have such a gift of being able to understand a language like music, you don’t have the right to betray this, or to put yourself or your ego ahead of that. No! You need to cultivate humility. I wonder what one can communicate if he’s not putting his ego aside and thinking about being humble and having music be a tool to being more open and human.

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Photo still: Bel Air Media

Few things make an artist more humble than doing recitals.

Yes, the recital is special — the solo recital is so special! There is something psychologically that is a bit insane, though; there are one thousand people attending the show, it’s a one-man or one-woman show, you are there for two hours, and you are the master of the time and the silence. It’s crazy if you think about it – it’s like a dictatorship, in a way! The people pay for being submissive to the atmosphere of one man or one woman for two hours; there is something not normal there, and it’s very important for me to feel it’s not normal. Before every recital I have these strong thoughts in mind: “What am I doing here? It’s not normal at all! This is insane! It’s crap!” And then the whole energy is to transform this crap situation into something nice, in which people are involved in a creative process, an expressive process. The aim is to feel better, for me and the people. And that’s a spiritual process. 

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

Gerald Finley opera singer sing classical music performer artist vocal vocalist Canadian bass baritone

Photo: IMG Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

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

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

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

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

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

Oh yeah!

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clara.

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

Gautier Capuçon: “When You Trust Someone Onstage, You Can Go So Far”

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

It’s one thing to hear an album by two widely admired artists; it’s quite another to have been present during its recording.

Such was the case with Franck-Chopin (Warner Classics) from pianist Yuja Wang and cellist Gautier Capuçon. Recorded at Koerner Hall in Toronto this past April at the very end of a busy spring recital tour, the album features two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), Franck’s Sonata in A Major (in a famed transcription by Jules Delsart), and Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango.” Reviewing the concert, Canadian media outlet The Star said the recital “showcased the very best in collaborative music-making.” To say the air was electric that particular evening is to engage in a cliche lovingly corseted in truth; there was a special sort of energy in the hall indeed, but it was not the firecracker variety. The connection between Wang and Capuçon is akin to a warm, friendly fire, one that’s been steadily cultivated since the duo first worked together in Verbier in 2013 where they performed the works of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. The duo worked together again in 2015; Chopin-Franck marks their first formally recorded collaboration.

With any partnership between busy, high-profile artists comes a certain amount of hype, of course, but it’s one both Capuçon and Wang sail past smoothly, displaying a quietly fierce commitment to the repertoire and a natural, unforced camaraderie. From the moment the first note sounded in the hall back in April, it was clear we were witnessing were two artists utterly dedicated to a journey, one that is audible on the album, from the tender moments in the first movement of the Franck work (given a slower, pensive quality that forces a refreshing rethink of the work) to the sparky expressivity of the Scherzo in the Chopin Sonata (moving confidently between sonorous, staccato, and the very-playful nature of its namesake). The concert was exciting to experience, and it’s been moving to re-experience it in its recorded version, offering new angles on various musical choices, deeper insights into the nature of creative collaboration, and hope for further future projects. As you’ll read here, and in the interview coming up with Yuja Wang this Friday (to coincide with the album’s release), there are many plans afoot, including more tour dates together in Europe in January, and beyond that, tackling more chamber music.

Capucon cellist French classical music suit portrait

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

Capuçon has already recorded the work of a variety of composers, but, like any artist worth his or her salt, has a voracious artistic zeal for further exploration and collaboration. Learning the cello in his native France as a child, Capuçon went on to study in Paris and Vienna before becoming a member of both the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester  (GMJO) and the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra, or EUYO), playing under conductors Pierre Boulez and Claudio Abbado. In 2001, he was named New Talent of the Year by Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy Award), and has gone on to garner a myriad of rave reviews and give stellar performances with numerous prestigious orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchester National de France, among others. He tours regularly with his former band, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (his performance of Shostakovich’s Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden in 2018 was so very affecting) and he sits happily in with the orchestra’s cello section in the second half of concerts as part of their performances. (He doesn’t just do that with the GMJO, either.) This past summer, Capuçon gave a delightfully lyrical reading of “Song To The Moon” (from Dvořák,’s opera Rusalka) at the 2019 Bastille Day celebrations, which featured conductor Alain Altinoglu and soprano Chen Reiss, among many greats.

As well as working with noted conductors (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel, and Paavo Järvi among them), Capuçon enjoys rich collaborations with a range of artists, including pianists Danil Trifonov and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, violinists Leonidas Kavakos and Lisa Batiashvili, and composers Lera Auerbach and Krzysztof Penderecki, to name just a few. He’s also performed and recorded with brother Renaud Capuçon (violinist) and sister Aude Capuçon (pianist). Intuition (Warner Classics), released in 2018, is a work filled with personal memories and inspirations, and features short, encore-style pieces by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Fauré, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, Piazzolla, Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima and pianist and longtime friend Jérôme Ducros (who also performs on the album). The album is part of a vast discography comprised of both orchestral and chamber works, all filled with a palpable intensity of approach which is given richly dramatic expression in a live setting.

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At the 2019 Enescu Festival. Photo: Catalina Filip

Capuçon drew widespread attention earlier this year when he gave an impromptu performance on a kerb near the smouldering remains of Notre Dame Cathedral; days later he was part of a benefit concert in aid of the building’s reconstruction, saying at the time that through his cello he expresses “what I can not always say with words. […] The music allows me to translate the sadness.” This past autumn, he was in Bucharest, performing with the Orchestre Philharmonique Monte Carlo at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest, his laser-sharp focus and keen passion for the musical moment unwavering amidst the numerous television cameras and warm lights beaming his performance live across the country. When I interviewed him in 2018, he spoke of the importance of transcending perfectionist tendencies:

… there is no one way to play something. It’s not only about technique. Technical things are there to serve the music, so you have to find the mixture, the good balance between extreme precision of course, and … leaving a huge space for that intuition, that inspiration, and that creativity. You really have to let go in another way.

The “huge space” that combines intuition, inspiration, and creativity has found beautiful expression his partnership with Yuja Wang. It’s one which, as you’ll read, has added an immense richness to both their creative lives, and, I think it’s fair to say, that of the audiences blessed to see and hear them live. They do go “another way” on Chopin-Franck, and what’s so magical is just how much they allow their listeners to join them on that journey.

What is your first memory of Yuja?

What I remember is that of course I was totally amazed straight away by her being such an amazing musician. This I found out very fast, because we started to play and immediately, at the first reading, there was something very natural about it – breathing together. Then we started to work and it was just going so fast, we were just… it’s like you can oversee what’s going to happen in the future. I could picture already that we would make a long journey together with the music and I was absolutely so excited. Within the first minutes I could feel she was an amazing musician and a musical partner for many years – which she is.

That chemistry is very noticeable.

It’s true, it’s something very special and very strong, powerful and emotional. There is so much energy. It’s like feeling the really all the different elements – the ground, the fire, the air, the water – it’s something really incredible between us two, always circulating. I think it’s getting, every time, stronger and stronger, which is amazing. Since the first time, yes, it was there, but in our last tour, every concert, it’s getting stronger. It comes with trust, like in any relationship. You can feel the base of the relationship, but there is something which is allowed to grow when you feel safe. Something also grows when you feel you can experiment together, which is exactly what we’re doing: we’re trying colors and different tempi. When you trust someone onstage you can go so far. You can try incredible things and you’ll know the other will react and sometimes surprise you, and sometimes shock you with something different – it’s really extraordinary, because that’s what music is about, it’s about communication and sharing – of course with the audience, but also onstage. When you have this way of communicating together the purpose is always to go further, beyond, and yet closer to the feelings of the composer. That’s the thing – it’s not about us, it’s about the composer – but when you know you can trust each other, then you can do incredible things. I can’t wait for this next tour in January, because I think it will be very strong.

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Photo: Michael Sharkey © Parlophone Records Ltd.

How did you decide on the repertoire for this tour and album? Why Chopin and Franck?

Different things — there’s repertoire that we have already done separately, and of course I have done some recordings of things with piano, but some I haven’t done, including the Chopin and the Franck. It is also something I wanted to do with Yuja. The Chopin – I was talking about this piece with Martha Argerich a few weeks ago! – is an extremely difficult piece. Pianists feel very close to Chopin of course, not like us cellists, but musically speaking it is a very difficult piece, to make it sound really as easy as we want to be listening to it. I don’t know if that’s clear enough.. 

It’s deceptively simple.

Yes, and it’s one I’ve not played a lot. I only played it a few times before with Yuja, which I also love, because this is something we worked on together, so we’re going down this road together, and we’re just at the beginning of the road, of course. As to the Franck, I played it a few times when I was much younger, in my twenties, and I’ve not played it in a while. This is a much more famous piece, it’s one almost everybody knows. We always think cellists are stealing this piece from violinists, but there is this story cellists like to say – that the first two movements were written for the cello, and the two last ones for the violin. Of course the piece sounds different on the violin than the cello; the question is not to copy or to make it sound like the violin because it’s two different instruments, it’s a different energy. The story with (violinist Eugène) Ysaÿe goes that when he got into Franck’s apartment and he saw this manuscript on the table, and read those first two movements, he said, “Wow, how great!” – and Franck was writing a cello sonata. But Ysaÿe asked for a violin sonata, and Franck then used those first two movements to make a violin sonata… 

There’s a lot of speculation that it was originally written for cello.

Yes! And I haven’t played it a lot in the past few years; it requires a very orchestral approach in the way of playing and developing it, and think Yuja, with her sounds and her expression and her depth, does it incredibly – the way she did the colors in the first movement of that performance (at Koerner Hall) was unbelievable!

I think it’s such an incredible program, but I’ve seen a ridiculous comments online about how the pieces don’t belong together, and “I don’t understand why there’s a Piazzolla at the end” – well, that Piazzolla was the encore and we just wanted to include it on the recording as a bonus for the people! Honestly, some people write such stupid things! Anyway, to come back to this choice of repertoire, I think the Chopin and Franck work well together; they are nice to place as mirrors for one another. The Chopin is not an unknown piece but it’s not often played, and it’s great to put with the Franck, which is of course a very famous work. And the Polonaise is a little jewel, with all these Polish folkloric dances and this beautiful introduction. It is something so typical of Chopin and in there we can find all those pianistic things – this piece is more pianistic of course, in a way – and musically speaking, is much easier to read into than the Cello Sonata.

Gautier Capucon Yuja Wang cello piano classical music performance recording artists album Warner Classics Koerner Hall Chopin Franck

Warner Classics

It’s funny you say “pianistic” – that is the precise word I would use! It seems like a healthy stretch creatively… 

Yes, it’s a real dialogue there. Actually, I had been playing also more cellistic versions, more virtuoso versions, on the cello. Some cellists arranged it and basically stole a bit of that to play; I did those versions when I was younger. When you’re younger, you know, you want to prove you can play fast! I came back to this first version, however, because you know, I think it’s meant to be the piano and the cello singing.  So that’s why this original version is the one we wanted to do with Yuja. 

How did it happen to get recorded at Koerner Hall?

In life I really believe in opportunities. You can say, “Okay, I want to record in that hall and let’s make these dates around it.” But in this case we arranged ourselves according to the touring schedule, and we had both been playing in this beautiful Koerner Hall ourselves in past years. It was the end of our tour this year after something like ten concerts, with Carnegie in the middle, and it was just perfect for the timing. (Koerner) a fantastic hall with great acoustics, not too small, not too big, great sound quality and it was open at the end of the tour. So it was just a dream for us. It couldn’t have been better – absolutely perfect timing.  And we already have many other plans for the next program!

Lisette Oropesa: “Context Is Everything As A Singer”

Oropesa soprano singer woman vocal portrait

Photo: Jason Homa

Lisette Oropesa is a woman with opinions. Over the course of a lengthy recent conversation, the Cuban-American soprano mused on everything from the challenges and joys of directors and conductors, to the pressures of being a woman in the opera and online worlds. She is every bit as bold and vivacious off the stage as she is on it.

The New Orleans native was a winner of the 2005 Met Opera National Council Auditions and joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, graduating in 2008. She made her Met stage debut in 2006 with Idomeneo (as Woman of Crete) and the following year, made her professional debut in a principal role, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Since then, Oropesa has appeared on the Met stage in over one hundred performances in a wide array of roles, including Amore in Orfeo ed Euridice, Sophie in Werther, the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, Gilda in Rigoletto, Woglinde in Das Rheingold, and as her namesake in La Rondine. She has also sung with an array of North American and European companies, including Opera Philadelphia, Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Welsh National Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, and La Monnaie/De Munt, Bruxelles, as well as a numerous festivals including Glyndebourne, Arena di Verona, Savonlinna, Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Rossini Opera Festival.

soprano singer vocal opera Lisette Oropesa Glyndebourne Norina bel canto stage performance

As Norina in Don Pasquale at Glyndebourne, 2017. Photo: Bill Cooper

She’s worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Sir Anthony Pappano, Carlo Rizzi) and equally celebrated directors (David McVicar, David Alden, Damiano Michieletto, Claus Guth, Andreas Kriegenburg), and has performed most of the great bel canto roles (Donizetti’s Lucia, Adina, Norina) along with French (Meyerbeer, Massenet, assenet,  Thomas), Baroque (Handel, Gluck) and Verdian (Traviata, Rigoletto, Masnadieri) repertoire, as well as oratorio, recital, and concert work. Oropesa has also performed the role of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction From The Seraglio), in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2017 and 2018) and will be appearing in the Mozart work again, at Glyndebourne next summer opposite Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala as Blonde. Next year sees Oropesa sings the role of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia (at Opera Bastille) and will be giving a number of recitals and concerts across Europe, including an appearance at the Wexford Festival Opera. 

Amidst all of this (or perhaps to because of it), Oropesa is a devoted runner and an advocate of healthy eating; she has completed numerous marathons, even as she has also been vocal about the ongoing issue of body shaming in the opera industry. A recipient of both the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 Beverly Sills Artist Award and the 2019 Richard Tucker Award, her supple soprano is marked by an easy flexibility and incredible core of warm vibrancy that seems like a perfection reflection of her vivid personality. Those qualities were on full and lush display this past autumn when Oropesa appeared as the title role in Massenet’s Manon, in a revived production by Laurent Pelly. Opera writer Patrick Dillon wrote of her performance that “(t)he voice, with its seductive silvery glimmer, has enough colour to give it texture and depth and enough power to make Massenet’s musical points without straining.[…] She’s the finest Manon I’ve heard since the glory days of Beverly Sills.”

That isn’t to say Oropesa has been changed by fame – if anything, she’s one of the most upfront artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of conversing with. It’s rare and entirely refreshing to speak with someone so entirely, authentically themselves. Witty, original, passionate, with a ferocious intelligence and keen insight, it will be interesting to see where Oropesa goes in her career. This weekend (November 24th) she’s set to appear as Ophelia in an in-concert presentation of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet in Washington, before a return to the Met in February for Violetta in La traviata. We spoke just before the Tucker Awards ceremony in New York City last month.

Oropesa soprano singer woman vocal stage Tucker awards gala

At the Richard Tucker Awards gala at Carnegie Hall, October 2019. Photo: Dario Acosta

What did you think when you learned of the Richard Tucker Award?

It’s pretty awesome, although it was a total surprise, like, “Really? are you guys sure?!” I always saw as a gift to somebody about to really take off, and I felt like I took off and never got the award – so I figured I was past it. They can only pick one year and there are so many singers having wonderful careers, I mean, they just have to get the right person at the right time. I’d already made debuts at the Royal Opera, La Scala, Paris, I’d been signing at the Met, and thought, “I’m too far in my career now.” Some said they felt I should’ve been given it before, but really, who’s to say it’s more overdue for me than for anyone else? Tons of brilliant artists deserve it – I wish they’d give ten awards instead of one, but it’s hard to raise the money.

What’s the benefit of receiving the award for you? 

Whenever I’m at home in the States, I teach and go to universities and I always talk about the business as it is right now, because (the students) get a perspective they don’t always get from their teachers or a traveling coach. Maybe eventually, when I exit performance, I will become a teacher because I really enjoy it. I was thinking about how to use the grant in the best way; it’s easy to say, “I’ll spend it on myself” but I’d really like to set up a scholarship at my school. I haven’t made any promises yet; I don’t want to anticipate something that isn’t necessarily going to work. I have all these ideas but $50,000 doesn’t go very far. 

The investment in a classical career is immense and long-term and doesn’t guarantee a payoff

Yes, and it’s very disheartening. You get to the point where you literally run out of money and you have to figure out what you’re going to do, and hope your parents or a rich patron will help you for those years of your career. In the middle you could have a slump too, initially doing well but then someone else comes along who has a whirlwind around them so you may lose work to another artist, or you may get pregnant and have to cancel a year and a half’s worth of engagements. I’ve never been pregnant, but I’d imagine deciding what to do in that situation is hard. I don’t have kids because it was never my calling to be a mother; I thought about it for five minutes. I thought, “If I want to do this and have a child, I can’t do both.” It’s an investment in my part. It may take away a certain aspect of my life, but I say “no” to this so I can say “yes” to that.

Women – especially female artists – can be held to a different standard, especially if they’re in the public eye in whatever capacity.

Right now, in the heat of the #MeToo movement, everyone thinks it’s just about harassment – that’s a big part of any industry and there’s no reason ours should be any different – but there’s more to it. We struggle with objectification, and yes, being held to a different standard. When you’re at a rehearsal and tossing out ideas to a basically all-male cast, you’re almost always in the minority as a female; the director is almost always male, the conductor almost always male, and you, as a female, have to assert yourself or completely do the “Yes sir, whatever you like” thing. It’s very tough, because when you want to say something or have an idea, you are perceived as a diva or a bitch; you’re considered “difficult.”

… because you’re not genuflecting. It takes a lot of confidence to pipe up; you feel very alone in a very entrenched culture that isn’t entirely conscious of its own architecture, and sometimes doesn’t want to be. 

Totally agree. I’ve never been harassed in the sense of, “if you don’t do this, you won’t get that” – the quid pro quo situation is not that common. But it’s the subtle things; they are real and happen all the time – the winks, the compliments, the “Sweetie, I love that dress on you” and “Damn, you look great in that low-cut blouse” and “You have such nice legs”… I’ve never thought of it as harassment in the sense of it making me feel miserable or bad about myself, but as women we get to the point of tolerance, so our threshold for that kind of thing is much higher.

I think it often has to be in order for us to function. The system has been set up so that a woman often can’t (or won’t) adjust that threshold of tolerance because of the related cost being too high.

Exactly. When you’re’ desperate and hungry, it’s different. And hey, I’ve seen and been in situations where I felt women were taking advantage – that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. I’ve also seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary. And it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s old feminine power. We have new feminine power now that is intelligent, perceptive, open, emotional, clear – instead of this boring, age-old adage of, “I have big tits and a nice ass and that makes me powerful” – no, it means you have a certain body type, but that’s not your power. 

It’s power tied to male gaze. 

Yes, for sure.

It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that power greatly depends on the culture you’re operating in, and the ways an artist can sometimes be boxed in by old cultural definitions. Have you ever felt you were put on the spot in terms of being a cultural spokesperson? 

I think people have a need to label. They just do. I had this question the other day: “If you had to define your voice type, can you give me a word?” And I thought, hmmmm. People have a need to label, as with race and ethnicity and sexual orientation, everything has to be defined. Mine’s simple: both my parents are from Cuba. I spoke Spanish growing up. I’ve always said I was Cuban-American. It’s honorable. If they say, where are you from? I don’t take offense. I speak Spanish and have a Cuban accent when I do; I listened to Latin music and watched Latin TV growing up. People will go, “Oropesa, what is that?” It’s an honor to my parents and grandparents with whom I spoke only Spanish and I’m proud of it, but at the same time, does it make me a spokesperson for Latin-American singers? I don’t think of it as a negative thing. People have asked me if I think being Latin in the U.S. has helped me in some way, and yeah, actually I do think it helps, but it also helps that I look white! You can’t look too Latin. 

Jemaine Clement has said something similar, that “(a)s a pale-skinned Māori person, I felt like a spy as a kid.”

Yes, we “pass for white,” so to speak. Not all my family is like this; there’s a brown side. My grandmother is beige. My father was quite dark. I have one side very Barcelona European, so I have that look, but have another side with more beige, but I don’t care. I think it’s beautiful. we come in all colors of the rainbow, and can be whatever we choose to represent and put out there. 

People want to see a Hollywood representation of exactly the setting given by the composer, but the problem is, these operas have to be sung – they’re not paintings, they have to be performed by singers. And while it would be lovely as close to a racial dial as possible, sometimes it simply doesn’t exist at the time. When you think about how often people are putting on Aida… it’s put on everywhere, and there are not enough black Aidas in the world to go around! And it’s a problem for black singers; if you’re black, should you only sing black roles? If certain stories have race as an important aspect of the drama, then yes, either you get a black Aida, or you paint someone to look black, because if you make a white Aida then you’re not helping black singers, and you are making excuses for black singers not to get hired.

Russell Thomas said something very similar to me when he was in Toronto for Otello last winter. He said the character “just can’t be white—it doesn’t work dramaturgically” and if that does happen, then “minority artists will lose out every time.” 

It’s true. I have friends who have talked about this at length and I’ve spent time reading thousands of the threads about this, and they said, basically, that if you don’t paint Aida black, you’re painting the way for no more Aidas, and paving the way for fewer opportunities, because you’re cutting out a big piece of the pie. It would be like not making Porgy and Bess all-black. I wish there was blind casting. That’s how it was when I played the flute – it was behind a curtain, no one could see!

When I spoke with Lucia Lucas earlier this year, she said the same thing about blind auditions. But some people say they need to see how a performer moves, their expressions, if they have a certain presence.

That’s what opera has that other art forms don’t have: the musical aspect and the dramatic aspect. It’s that combination, and it’s why singers have to look a certain way. Either you live in it or you don’t. It’s complicated, because we want to say these issues exist but we don’t get to the point where we’re censoring opera and ignoring race and acting like its not important or not valid; we don’t want to get the point where we’re rewriting operas and censoring them. We want these pieces to stand as representations of what was happening at the time. Yes it’s hard to see some of these works, but this is why theatre is exciting. We want to be part of it, but if we go too far in one direction, the backlash is a swing to the other direction, and that’s a problem.

Good directors can sometimes inspire a reconsideration of a piece within the broader context of the issues you mention. What’s been your experience?

I’ve done two productions with Claus Guth – for the first, I jumped in at the last minute for his Rigoletto-in-a-cardboard-box, which I thought was brilliant. I learned it in one day! His assistant was incredible; she answered all these questions I had, and was great to work with. I did his production of Rodelinda in Barcelona as well, and he came toward the end and shared a lot of things. For one character, he’d envisioned and staged him to have a limp and an eyepatch and to walk with a cane; he was the bad guy. When Claus came to rehearsals, he saw the guy singing that role (bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri) was gorgeous and buff, and just was not believable as this hunched-over, weak, bad guy with a chip on his shoulder, so Claus re-staged the entire role. I thought, wow, it takes a lot for a director to do that! Not all of them will – they’ll say, “Sorry, you don’t fit my vision!” and make you feel like shit, or fire people. Sometimes they’ll say, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you fit?!” and it almost never ends well.

The super-successful directors are so busy and they can’t be everywhere, and Claus is a good example of that. For this Met production of Manon, I never got to meet (its director) Laurent Pelly, but I worked with his assistants. If Laurent had been there, he might’ve made changes – the original singer (for the production) was Netrebko, and we couldn’t be more different, but assistants aren’t authorized to change costuming or stage traffic What do directors do? Everything, from ruining things you want to do, to bringing out the best in you to make you think or sit back and let you stage yourself. Everyone is different.

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As Rodelinda (with Gianluca Margheri as Garibaldo) at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, 2019. Photo: A. Bofill

That echoes a singer’s relationship with a conductor, which can be even more intense.

It certainly helps to have a good first few rehearsals. If they rip into you initially, they’re asserting their authority and I’ve learned to sniff that out and not take it personally, but a conductor who is willing to listen to your ideas without you having to spell them out all the time is nice; a conductor who is willing to lead when they have to lead, and follow when they have to follow is even better. Some only lead, some only follow, and there’s a valid place for both.

I like being led by a conductor when I’m doing something I really know well. When I could roll out of bed sick and sing it no matter what, I’m happy to have them lead and do what they want; if I’m doing a role I need help with, to ease me in some places and push me in others, then I like to lead, and that’s there’s lots of subtle things with that. There are also the ones who don’t listen, or don’t follow, or know when to follow, or they insist on leading even though they know you’re not following them, or they don’t perceive you are struggling; there are some who aren’t perceptive, and that only comes with musical sensitivity. 

I’ve had experiences where I’ve thought the conductor hated me for weeks, and then the production turns out to be a huge success, but it’s usually because I’m on my toes and scared to do anything wrong, and in the end it meshes together. And the audience doesn’t know what happens before – they don’t care if you’ve been through six months or hell with this guy, and they go, “Oh wow, so beautiful! What a wonderful collaboration!” and you think, my God, you have no idea.

Opera is an art of true collaboration – do you find the nature of those collaborations change over time? I would imagine the nature of  collaboration changes depending on the context in which it unfolds.

Context is everything as a singer; it’s probably more important than anything else. The next biggest thing is your preparation. You can bring all the preparation in the world: you will get there, and the conductor will be difficult, the director will be challenging, your colleagues you may not mesh with, you might have a theatre that does not support your rehearsal process, you might have a coach who make you do different things than you want, you may find your costumes uncomfortable… this is all the stuff audiences don’t know or understand. They’re at the end of the marathon waiting for you to finish; they don’t see when you fell and what it took to get there. It’s why you have to be a very strong person.  Your audience may start shooting bullets and they may feel entitled to like what they saw – they paid a lot to see it – and they’ll throw a lot at you, and you have to process that. Most of us try to improve and keep going through the run. Your heart has to be protected.

Part of that is context involves social media. You have said you try to minimize technological interaction; how do you balance an authentic portrait as an artist and keeping up engagement?

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Backstage at Concertgebouw Amsterdam during a 2015 in-concert performance of Rigoletto. Photo: Steven Harris

I control all of my social media – it is completely organic and controlled by me and my husband. Steven’s a web developer so I’m lucky, and he’s smart about the right kind of posts, making sure the information is on there, and the cast is there too, so you’re getting information and the right content, and he’ll run things by me first. If I want to write a message, he’ll come to me, and then we’ll share ideas. I try to engage everyone and respond to comments. I don’t get to all of them, but try to say “thank you.” I get a lot of sweet messages on social media and I don’t want people to feel they’re not being heard.

As far as Instagram goes; it has a stupid algorithm. If you want to get on the feed you have to post a lot, and always post those thirsty photos, but there’s also a psychological element. If Stephen and I go to pick a photo for Instagram, he’ll look through my pictures and say, “Well, people tend to stop on photos of faces, so if you have one of your face, let’s use that.” So even if I feel like I want to post a great photo of a flower or a sunset, I know it won’t get as much traction – I mean, sure, you can do it for yourself, but if you want to reach more people, you have to find things the algorithm supports. It’s artificial but the platform wants you to be somehow authentic.

A pastiche of authenticity…

Right, “authentic”… then it becomes that old idea of power we discussed. I feel sorry for girls who have that look because they learn early on in life, “Here’s my currency; this is my only currency” and they market themselves as that, and then in opera, it’s almost an afterthought: “Oh, and I just happen to have a voice.” I’m the girl who always grew up overweight and never popular, so I see it from a distance; it must be so hard to keep up. What happens when it fades? In ten years or less another one will take the place of this girl; it’s so short-lived. You may make a crap ton of money, retire early – who knows? – I feel like it’s a shame, that age-old trope of “beauty = value” because it pressures who who aren’t so beautiful and sends a message of, “you’re secondary in importance because you don’t have that one thing.”

It also entrenches old definitions of beauty, because “beautiful” … according to whose rules? There are many people who don’t fit that old definition, and so what? Opera is well-positioned to challenge precepts, as Kathryn Lewek did. It can’t exist to entrench old ones; it needs to destroy and rebuild them into something more accurately revealing and reflecting our world, or so I want to believe.

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As Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, 2019. Photo: Marty Sohl

“Beautiful” is so much about perception. Some people think Claus’s productions are beautiful, some think they’re ugly and dark. I have learned so much doing Manon in terms of all this. After we opened, I read the reviews and feedback, and a lot of the things I read were negative, the gist being that I am not sexy enough to play her, I’m not beautiful enough to play her, I’m not convincing as the object of every man’s desire – I read pretty much that exact quote. And that really hurt. 

Yes, there is a world in which Manon is just a man-eater, but there’s also a world in which Manon has something about her, like, it’s not that she’s the most obviously gorgeous woman physically, but the fact she’s mysterious, she’s fun, she has something about her. It’s hard for some to accept that. There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!” I used to think of myself as very ugly, and that child is still inside. When I think I’ve gone to all this trouble to be confident in my appearance so my body and voice could finally match, and people are still going, “Oh even at a size 4 she’s not hot enough” I think, fuck this, I’m going back to eating ice cream! 

It’s vital those definitions be remade, especially in an art form notoriously adverse to change.

I never tell young singers they need to lose weight. Never. That person may go do it and still not be hot enough for somebody – if you’re going to do it, do it for your health, but do not do it for your career. It won’t change anybody’s perspective of you. You can be cute in a size 16 or a size 2. If you want to force yourself into sexiness, fine, but accept who you are. Some people don’t think I’m a sexy Manon and I just feel like…  that’s not who I am. 

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As Hébé in Les Indes Galantes at Bayerische Staatsoper, 2016. Photo: W. Hösl

Again, “sexy” according to whom? There are these very conventional ideas that Carmen has to be hot, Manon has to he hot, Violetta has to be hot – who gets to decide what is “hot”?  I want to believe some will feel a woman being her authentic self is more attractive and desirable, onstage or off.

Carmen is a perfect example! It is the most stereotypical concept to approach it as,  “she has to be this hot woman, it’s the only way she’s believable!” – and the same with Manon, this attitude of, “she has to be the woman des Grieux would give up his life for.” So she has to look like Kim Kardashian?” It makes him look stupid. It makes him look shallow. Then you make her shallow, and people hate her even more. I mean, yes, Manon is an opera about a selfish bitch, and people can’t handle that, they want to see a victim, someone pliable,a woman who’s willing to please. But it’s also why people argue about opera – I’ve never seen more polarizing perspectives than in doing this opera.

I think of Natalie Dessay, who I love and who is not conventionally beautiful but my God, you couldn’t take your eyes off her! And she didn’t pose her way through a role, ever; she wasn’t standing on stage posing this way and that. That’s the example that needs to be out there, because that’s the kind of artistry I want to see in the world, for women and men alike.

Saimir Pirgu: “Don’t Forget That You’re A Human Being”

Photo: Paul Scala

If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.

Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.

The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

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As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano

Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to. 

Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.

We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.

It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.

But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design. 

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.

Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today. 

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?

It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.

Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.

Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared. 

That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?

I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?

Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more? 

I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.

But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.

Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.

And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.

It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.

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With conductor James Conlon.

Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor? 

I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.

Krisztina Szabó: Singing Is “A Lifelong Process”

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Photo: Bo Huang

Krisztina Szabó is a busy lady.

A recent whirlwind trip between her home city of Toronto and Berlin left the mezzo soprano jet-lagged but, one might suspect, quite happy; within the space of a few days, she’d made her German debut at the annual Musikfest with the acclaimed Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing the work of Sir George Benjamin under his very baton. Considering the number of engagements she’s had over the last few years, it’s probably fair to say she’s used to the pace.

Since postgraduate studies at Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she’s had a busy career with incredible highlights, including working with celebrated Russian baritone with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Don Giovanni Revealed: Leporello’s Revenge, as soloist with Plural Ensemble in Madrid under the baton of composer-conductor Peter Eötvös, and having a part composed by Benjamin specifically for her voice (more on that below). She’s worked with a number of celebrated institutions including Wexford Festival Opera, the Mostly Mozart Festival, L’Opéra National du Rhin, and the Colorado Music Festival (just to name a few), as well as Canadian companies including Vancouver Opera, L’Opéra de Québec, and Calgary Opera. Her passion (and talent) for new work is clear in her bio, having worked with a number of organizations specializing in contemporary repertoire, including Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, Soundstreams, and Tapestry Opera, and living composers including Anna Sokolovic, James Rolfe, and Aaron Gervais, as well as the aforementioned Eötvös and Benjamin.

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Phillip Addis and Krisztina Szabó in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2015 production of “Pyramus and Thisbe / Lamento d’Arianna / Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

In 2015, Szabó sang no less than three leading roles one show production, a triumvirate vision that combined Claudio Monteverdi’s 17th century Lamento D’Arianna and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with Barbara Monk Feldman’s 2009 Pyramus and Thisbe, directed by Christopher Alden. In my review I referenced Szabó’s compelling stage presence, admiring her range, projection, chemistry with co-star Phillip Addis, and amazing versatility, both vocally and physically (at one point she was required to sing lying flat on the stage floor), though what has really stayed with me since has been her innate sense of theatre; the haunted look she would give Addis at points (the production was a fascinating look at the battle of the sexes), her loose physicality, the keen, cool balance of control and vulnerability, combined with a lovely mahogany-meets-cognac vocal tone, are qualities that give her a special place in the opera world.

That was reiterated in her recent performance with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, in Benjamin’s 2006 chamber opera Into the Little Hill: that same haunted look, an immense energy, a fierce vocal prowess. Szabó, who also speaks fluent Hungarian and is a member of the voice faculty at the University of Toronto, has drama running through her veins, and her work with the MCO (who matched her intensity with ferocious intelligence and quiet elegance) was a highlight of this year’s Musikfest. She has, she admits, done “a ton of Benjamin”, including performances of his celebrated 2012 opera Written on Skin (twice in concert and once in an Opera Philadelphia production), as well as his new work, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (where it made its world premiere in April) and at Netherlands Opera, where she worked alongside fellow Canadian singer  (and contemporary repertoire virtuoso) Barbara Hannigan, who has a close relationship with the work of Benjamin herself.  The same goes for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, the celebrated troupe whose repertoire ranges from baroque to contemporary compositions. Founded in 1997, the orchestra premiered Written on Skin in 2012 (the composer/conductor has said he had heir specific sound in mind when he wrote it) and they’ve also toured the work internationally, in both opera and semi-staged concert versions. Into the Little Hill, though presented in concert at Musikfest, lost none of its dramatic power (the work is based on the fairytale of the pied piper), with Szabó and soprano Susanna Andersson making a fine, fierce duet onstage, their delivery crisp and careful, their characterizations gripping. 

Prior to the performance, Szabó made time to chat about Benjamin, working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and what she takes away from here whirlwind trip to Berlin. (It doesn’t include beer, I don’t think.)

What is it you find so rewarding about Benjamin’s work as an artist?

I find the colors he gets from the orchestra one of the most striking things about his scores, and you’ll find that again in Into the Little Hill — it’s just remarkable. It’s so delicate and yet it can be so full and impactful as well. It’s quite striking. This one is scored for contralto, which I am not, so for me it’s a on the low side but the low stuff is lightly scored, so it’s doable. Written on Skin has some remarkable passages — some are quite low, some are quite high; it’s a large range. It’s rhythmically really, really detailed, just like his scores. I love that kind of stuff — I love rhythmic complexity, it’s like a sudoku puzzle I have yet to figure out. That’s my anal-retentive nature coming out, maybe.

Some of his scores also feature a cimbalom.

Yes, Written On Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence both have the cimbalom. The first time I was looking up the score for Skin, I was like, “Hey! That’s the instrument of my people!”

What does that add?

It’s an exotic color, it’s that twangyness. Into the Little Hill has a banjo too, but the cimbalom has this cut-through sound; the violins, when bowed, have this lyrical sound, and plucked they have another certain sound, but the cimbalom has a certain cut to it, which gives it this exotic flavor.

Benjamin Lloyd

Photo: Matthew Lloyd

What is Benjamin like to work with?

I have worked with a lot of living composers, not at his level obviously, but working with him is a particular adventure because that man likes to rehearse! And if you look at his score it’s incredibly detailed. You have to be on your toes and be super-prepared, but he always appreciates musicianship and preparation and detail; if you give that to him, then it’s great. He’s such a sweet man, actually. But at my first rehearsal for Written on Skin, I thought, “Oh, I don’t have as much to sing” — we had a two-hour call — “we won’t use all the time up.” But I was sweating by the end; we used every bit of it and I thought, “This guy likes to rehearse!” He doesn’t smile necessarily, he’s very serious, very focused, very British. After a few rehearsals he starts to loosen up, and it’s like, “Okay, he doesn’t hate me!”

And you’ve developed something of a relationship now because you have worked together a few times and he knows how he can push you.

Yes he does, for sure. I mean, the part in Lessons in Love and Violence was composed specifically for my voice, which was kind of cool — it was written particularly to my strengths, which was fun. That’s not going to get old!

How has working on Into the Little Hill stretched you creatively?

Vocally it’s stretched me for sure! It’s scored for contralto, so I am trying to find my inner contralto. I live higher — I’m a high mezzo, I straddle soprano repertoire as well, so making friends with my middle-low register has been interesting – a little scary, but a welcome challenge. In terms of the drama, I play several characters. Both soprano and mezzo have to switch and make quick changes (between various characters) and (Benjamin) wants those changes really sharp, to make it clear for the audience.

And you’re doing this as part of your Musikfest debut…

Yes, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I am thrilled to be here, but for me the biggest hurdle is making sure that George likes it. When you have the composer standing two feet in front of you, he’s the audience I am trying to impress the most.

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mahler Chamber Orchestra (Photo: © Manu Agah)

What’s it been like working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra? They have such a celebrated history with Benjamin.

The quality of the musicianship is extraordinary — Susanna Andersson (soprano) was saying during rehearsals, “They are playing things I cannot believe they are playing!’” As detailed as George is with the singers, he is super-detailed with the instrumentalists, picking them apart, so it’s very clear what they’re doing. Some parts of the score have extremely complicated passages for them to play. He’s not a showman conductor; he’s clear and detailed and precise and delicate.

That delicacy was what I found so amazing when I saw him lead the Berlin Philharmonic recently; it was so very noticeable and gave the music so much more depth and color. 

Yes, and we haven’t had a hell of a lot of rehearsal for this, but… that man has bionic ears! When someone plays a wrong note somewhere: “Was it you?” He can pick it out. I know conductors can have that ability, but to take the most delicate chord and pick out, immediately, what needs to be worked on… he’s very organized and detailed about what he wants, and how to get something.

… whether it’s the Berlin Philharmonic or the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

He said, “Oh they’re reading this for the first time” today and I went “WHAT?!” It was already at a level… it did not seem they had just cracked the score.

szabo mezzo

Photo: Bo Huang

What kinds of things are you already taking from this experience in Berlin, especially in your role as a teacher?

I think about my students more often when I perform now. I think I take away the idea of stamina for sure. You hear students complain a lot: “I don’t have time to do that” and “I’m tired!” Well, I haven’t slept, I’m jet-lagged, I’ve worked six-hour days the last two days straight on a piece that is stretching me vocally, balance the stamina vocally while giving the composer/conductor what he wants. These are the things they have to learn. There’s vocal technique, but there’s all the other stuff, and it’s still an ongoing process. What I tell them is, learning singing is a lifelong thing, because it will change daily: how you feel, how you’ve slept, what you’ve eaten, if you’re well, if you’re unwell, if you’re upset, if you’re happy. All these things factor into how you sing on that day and it is a lifelong process of how to deal with that in any given moment. You don’t know what you’ll wake up with but you have to get the job done, and I am all about getting the job done. It’s about managing what’s important.

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

rehearsal RCO musikfest

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Manfred Honeck rehearse for their performance at the Berlin Musikfest. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

Whether owing to or despite the recent dramas the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has endured, their concert at this year’s edition of the Berlin Musikfest was remarkable in every sense. Even more remarkable was the number of empty seats within the Philharmonie.

“Berliners,” commented a seatmate, her eyes rolling, “only tend to come out for their own.”

Whether there’s any truth to this observation or not, it was a pity to note; this was a gorgeous, rich meal of a concert which featured a mixed program of works with an interesting commonality: initial failure. I attended with a heap of curiosity, not only to see how replacement conductor Manfred Honeck might fare, but to see how he and the artists might fit the works of Webern, Berg, and Bruckner together — works which, at their respective premieres (in 1909, 1913, and 1889) failed entirely. There was a riot at the performance of the Berg work; audiences at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third literally walked out as the music was being performed. These works were not without formidable influences; as the program notes remind us, “the composers, over the generations, found their own answers to Wagner’s challenge” —  but it’s worth noting that other sonic echoes — that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Second Viennese School leader Arnold Schoenberg especially — are entirely palpable (or anticipated), in both form and style. There is an immensity of intention which draws clear parallels to the elder statesmen of late romantic/early modern music, along with a palpable, grand dread. This quality is especially perceivable throughout the Webern and Berg works, as if they were somehow intuiting the immense social reset and the terrible tragedy just around the corner. It is music within whose bars you can hear empires crumbling, a call into the total void, a questing for authenticity and meaning.

Remaking old forms and probing new avenues were hallmarks of the compositional approach of the Second Viennese School, and for all the atonal explorations and aural adventuring, the works of composers like Berg, Webern, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, has, at least for me, sonically luxuriant leanings, even amidst the most sparse sounds. Central tonalities or not (some have them; some don’t, and this can be initially strange for new listeners), there is a heartbeat of the real in this music, and that makes it captivating; I’m always struck, hearing the work of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, at their immense presence, their reaching for the essential, the real, and even, to my ears, the sensuous. One simply has to have the right orchestra, and the right conductor, to draw (carefully) such features out. The Royal Concertgebouw, as led by Honeck, provided just that this past Tuesday evening.

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

Certainly, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs , Op. 4 (also known as the Altenberg Lieder), and Bruckner’s Third Symphony have enjoyed success since their respectively disastrous premieres. The Concertgebouw Orchestra underlined the unique beauty of each in a rich, well-paced program that was a treat to experience. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (the 1929 orchestral version), running roughly eleven minutes in total, is an exploration of color and tonality —or austere atonality, as it were.  The first movement is characterized by a conversationality between strings, with whisper-like pizzicato effects, a sinuous string tone, and virtuosic demands on the Concertmaster; in this, Vesko Eschkenazy handled the lines with aplomb. Resembling at times a film soundtrack (Jaws came to mind), Honeck highlighted the idiosyncratic bass work in the third movement, rendering chewy timbres that led to a dramatically hushed conclusion, echoed later in the rippling opening of the fifth movement, with its interplay between textures and colors. Held with a tenuous balance, Honeck ensured the ending was pointedly unstable, a close that provided the perfect foray into Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs, which featured the vocal talents of soprano Anett Fritsch.

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

As scholar David P. Schroeder rightly notes, this work “defined Berg’s future direction as did no other of his early works.”  The cascade of sound opening the work was characterized by the Concertgebouw’s luxurious approach, with a deft mix of phrasing and tempi. Honeck emphasized the sonic resplendence with a lovely balance of strings and vocality, leading with an expansive lyricism which finds the soft edges and colors within Berg’s fascinating score. Based around a series of epigrammatic texts by writer  “Peter Altenberg” (real name Richard Engländer), with whom Berg shared a complicated friendship, the work is a densely rich collection that balances beauty and melancholy in one tension-filled package; one can clearly hear early indications of Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu within its score. As composer/violinist Jonathan Blumhofer rightly notes, “The Altenberg-Lieder feature Berg at his most direct and concise, as well as his most sumptuous.” Fritsch’s rich sonority complemented the pithy prose, with Honeck providing plush phrasing and beautifully capturing the push-pull of sounds of the Second Viennese School and its aims.

If the first half of the program featured music that aimed for pure color in and of itself, the second half, thanks to Honeck’s quilt-like approach, used all the colors, and textures, and patterns, making Bruckner’s third sound experimental, even playful, though its length (280 pages) might leave some wondering how playful it could possibly be. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt commented in an interview late last year that the lengthy didn’t mean the work took any longer to play than usual symphonies — there are just so many notes within this particular one. Honeck and the Concertgebouw made a point to distinctly emphasize all of them, whether in fast runs or sustained tones, and while this could prove aurally exhausting, the maestro shaped it into a greater listening whole, using a variety of colors and textures, and an expansive, thrilling lyricism. 

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

With a broad, Mahlerian intensity, he led the first movement through a series of glorious builds made of brass and strings, each time a trip to a precipice offering a different and unique view. A thematic underlining by a fulsome brass section showed a clear relationship to the rippling upward ascent of strings, deftly modulated and colored. The lusciousness of sound carried over, beautifully, from the evening’s first half — perhaps a sign of the clearly positive relationship Honeck has with the orchestra, who seemed to relish playing under the Austrian maestro’s baton. Honeck (named Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards for 2018) could be seen smiling broadly at various moments throughout the work — surely a good sign, for the performance, the orchestra, and the audience?

More’s the pity, then, that not more Berliners and music fans made the trip to see this performance. It was a rich meal that left questions, to be sure, but the right sorts of ones that left you hungry for yet more.

Capuçon’s Breathtaking Shostakovich in Dresden

capucon viotti gmjo dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The music of Shostakovich is not thought of by many people as an easy listen. Frequently characterized as discordant, atonal, and difficult, the work of the twentieth century Russian composer is at once epic, intimate, explosive, emotional, and very frequently uncompromising. It’s also one of my absolute favorites; when done well, it is one of the most rewarding of musical experiences.

And so it was an easy decision to see it live in Dresden this past weekend, especially since this particular performance featured one of my favorite artists. French cellist Gautier Capuçon (who I interviewed earlier this year) was on tour with the acclaimed Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Youth Orchestra, or GMJO), and would be performing the Concerto No.1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op.107 in Dresden, the day (make that morning) after the opera. The timing was ideal, though it was, admittedly, very jarring to go, a mere twelve hours or so, from the melodic sweep of Giuseppe Verdi and into the busy, cacophonous world of Dmitri Shostakovich, with a brief (if very lovingly performed) stop off with Anton Webern’s swirling tone poem,  Im Sommerwind (“In the Summer Wind”). The four-movement cello concerto, dedicated to and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1959, moves, with equal parts grace and awkwardness, between bracingly modern and folkishly traditional. It’s this high-wire act, of desperately seeking a balance between the two, some pyrotechnics on the part of the soloist, and the composer’s frequent couching of his inner rebellious tendencies within a larger framework (fascinating on its own, and no less honest), that makes this work such a very rewarding listen, and one of my big favorites.

Understanding the work through the lens of history is useful. Shostakovich had already faced incredibly political pressure by authorities in Soviet-era Russia by the time of the concerto’s composition, most notably over his opera Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. An editorial (the infamously titled “Muddle Instead of Music“) in 1936, two years after its premiere (notably after Stalin had seen the work), heralded a dramatic turning point in Shostakovich’s creative life, with the composer seeing commissions and income dwindle away in the aftermath. He became far more cautious in his output, understandably — though it must be noted that the subtexts of his subsequent works are frequently littered with a zesty, hardly-contained fury, a quality I think finds its best and most shattering expression in his monumental 11th Symphony from 1957, ostensibly about the past but so much rooted in the composer’s deep struggles, internal and external. While it’s true that the worldwide fame he went on to enjoy eased many of the earlier pressures, there is still a special bite to this particular concerto (composed during a particularly successful period), one which is notable and very satisfying.

So while the program notes for the GMJO tour (by Hartmut Krones) note that “(a)s compared to other compositions by Shostakovich, the character of (the cello concerto) is relatively cheerful” — I’ve always found the piece to be restless, biting, its “relative” cheerfulness a sort of papery ruse, a sarcastic smirk, an eyebrow-cocking question which repeatedly asks the soloist for definitions that fit them, and the music, and the passing moments in time, best. It’s a sort of Rorschach Test for its soloist, moreso than many other concerti I would argue, and Capuçon’s performance this past Saturday with the GMJO underlined his deep artistry while seamlessly capturing his conversationally rich relationship with orchestra and conductor Lorenzo Viotti.

gmjo dresden capucon viotti

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

So what did he bring, then? What did the “test” reveal? Some of that zesty, under-the-hood-yet-not anger, as well as a relentless and at times, fiersome questing for those ever-liquid definitions. Together with Viotti’s instinctual conducting (the two share a very palpable aural understanding that nicely brought to mind the friendship between Shostakovich and Rostropovich), this was a performance that probed the depths of musical definitions — it didn’t merely dance at its edges.  The initial motif of the first movement (Allegretto) was performed with a beguiling mix of angularity and sensuality, with instrumental juxtapositions and tempi, never settled on a staid set of sonic cliches, but with tones both clipped and rounded, and phrasing at once sour and sweet. This suitably unsettled energy continued through the second movement (Moderato), with its unmistakable lyricism — construction, destruction, reconstruction — reaching (racing at?) an apotheosis of sorts in the lengthy solo cadenza. Here Capuçon displayed a heady mix of  virtuosity and great warmth, confidently fusing Shostakovich’s arch geometric chromaticism with the luscious central themes at start and finish, resulting in something at once thrilling and thoughtful.

And it’s those twin qualities that make Capuçon exciting to watch; he is so fiercely, and rightly, communicative — with audience, instrument, fellow musicians, and most especially the music itself. It’s one thing to hear the recording, or watch a digital broadcast, but it is, of course, entirely another to experience such a work live.  When done well, this work, like so many within Shostakovich’s canon, is one whose sonic vibrations you feel within, in a real, tangible way; you don’t come out of a good performance the same way you went in. (And you shouldn’t.) Focusing on encores becomes something of a challenge in such cases — and so it went, that a loving performance of Pablo Casals “Song of the Birds”, done with the GMJO’s talented cello section, was initially difficult to fall into sonically, but again, Capuçon’s inherent communicativeness eased the transition. Of particular note was the way in which he aligned himself amongst the young cellists (not so surprising when one remembers he once played in the GMJO himself), allowing the spiralling, lilting sounds of Casals’ gentle lines to rise, then fall, then rise once more as one, allowing a long-awaited and necessary exhalation to properly conclude the unrelenting intensity heard earlier.

dresden dome

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

My recent visit to Dresden may have been far too brief, but it was filled with the sort of musical magic that reminded me that things discordant and difficult need not be daunting; when done so well, they lead to a wordless joy one feels resonating within, an embrace of authenticity, a homecoming.

Drama In Dresden With Verdi’s “La forza del destino”

semperoper dresden

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Dresden, with its fascinating history and ornate Old Town, has always been a city I’ve long wanted to visit. Two recent events, scheduled within a mere sixteen hours of one another, gave me the opportunity for a brief if fruitful and very music-filled visit. The first, of course, was opera.

It was something of a treat to be present for the official start of the Semperoper Dresden season, which kicked off with a revival production of Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power Of Fate). Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a bold, cinematic reading of the score, underlining its epic nature with bold brass sounds and exuberantly lush strings. Suitably subtitled “A Melodrama In Four Acts,” I half-expected Errol Flynn to pop out of designer Julia Müer’s angular scenery — not entirely an exaggeration, considering the episodic and highly sentimental nature of the work.

semperoper interior

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave used two sources as basis for the opera: an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (Don Alvaro, or The Force of Fate) by Spanish dramatist and politician Ángel de Saavedra; and a scene from Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), the first part of the German poet/philosopher’s famous literary trilogy. Forza premiered at the Bolshoi in Saint Petersburg in 1862 before undergoing extensive revisions (including additions to the libretto by Italian writer Antonio Ghislanzoni) and being presented in 1869 at Teatro Alla Scala Milan. Its overture is one of the most performed and popular of orchestral works, and with good reason; it accurately reflects the unfolding drama with memorable melodic lines and some very grand orchestration. 

The story, with its themes of vengeance and redemption, seem made for a 1930s Hollywood caper, one of its two central male roles, Don Alvaro, a swashbuckling bad boy who murders the father of his beloved before going on the run for decades, and winding up in a monastery, where he later kills the brother (Don Carlo) of his beloved. So much for penance! But as director Keith Warner rightly notes in the program, the narrative also very much is a study in contrasts, chiefly that between haves and have-nots; this divide underlines a broader social “kaleidoscope,” as he terms it, that went on to be explored and examined in all forms of art, including the literary works of Dickens and Balzac. Warner made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this past summer, with the equally intense Vanessa by Samuel Barber. “We are spectators in a big arena of life, in which all events influence each other,” Warner says in the notes for Forza. Such connectivity that drives so much great art, and I think, sustains it over decades, even centuries.

forza dresden

The curtain call for “La forza del destino” at Semperoper Dresden August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Certainly a well-known facet of Forza for some time now has been its superstitious connections; it could well be considered the Macbeth of the opera world. Baritone Leonard Warren famously, tragically collapsed and died during a 1960 performance, having just sung an aria which begins, “Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”) no less; tenor Franco Corelli, well aware of the work’s unlucky reputation, was meticulous in exercising various rituals during performances; superstar tenor Pavarotti never performed it at all. Despite its spooky history, the opera was one of my mother’s favorites, with a 1969 recording (featuring Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Thomas Schippers) being given regular plays on her grand old cabinet-style stereo system.

I kept thinking of what she might’ve thought at Friday evening’s performance in Dresden. I am confident in stating she would have been absolutely delighted that the first full opera I happened to experience here, in my period of temporary relocation in Europe, is one by her very favorite composer. Considering Verdi’s work was the first opera I heard and knew as a child, it felt like the force of fate indeed. I’m also confident that, like me, she would have been thrilled by the singing, which was, in a word, stellar, and were amply aided by the wonderful acoustics of the gorgeous Semperoper Dresden house. As the vengeful Don Carlo, Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a sparky, dynamic presence, his vocal flexibility and great stage presence expanding the character’s range beyond one-dimensional-angry cliches; I would love to hear his (oft-performed) Eugene Onegin at some point. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina presented her Leonora as so much more than a simpering victim, but a multi-faceted, deeply feeling woman whose hungry search for her own unique identity leads to leads to some dark, desolate (literally) places. Stikhina’s vocal richness was balanced by a resplendent tone; she channelled steely, soft, sensuous, and strong with ease, confidence, and charm, and deserved every “bravo!” directed at her at the curtain call.

marcelo puente dresden

Tenor Marcelo Puente at the curtain call for “La forza del destino” in Dresden on August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Tenor Marcelo Puente, who I interviewed when he appeared in Toronto last spring as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, has the right mix of macho physicality and leading-man-charm for Alvaro — and that voice! With a thickly virile sound, Puente’s bright top notes are nicely balanced by a very impressive oaken bottom. Many of Alvaro’s musical lines require thrilling flexibility and smart modulation, and Puente was more than up to the task in each. Since hearing him in Toronto, his voice has taken on a greater variety of tonal color; it’s become broader, more sensuous, lush. The Argentinian demonstrated ample drama in both runs as well as sustained tones. It was a performance that made me hungry to hear more of his Verdi repertoire. Fingers crossed.

So La forza del destino was the perfect start to my opera season; it was also an ideal introduction to the Semperoper Dresden, though it was not the only time I experienced the gorgeous house during my whirlwind visit — Shostakovich, Gautier Capuçon, and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra awaited the very next morning.

Gautier Capuçon: “When You’re Onstage, It’s As If You Are Naked.”

Capucon Millot

French cellist Gautier Capuçon. Photo ®Jean-Baptiste-Millot.

What to do when you’re ready to speak with one of the world’s foremost cellists, and you have the world’s wonkiest phone/internet connection?

This was the conundrum I faced recently in London, when preparing to speak with Gautier Capuçon. All had been fine in my apartment up to the very minute, and then… le chaos a éclaté. Thanks to some last-minute manoeuvring and buckets of wonderful flexibility and good humor from Monsieur, we were finally able to connect. It was a pointed, passionate conversation, a bright and vivid exchange reflecting Capuçon’s extreme passion for his art — and if that sounds cliched, it’s one of those rare moments when the cliche is, in fact, true.

Described as “a true 21st century ambassador for the cello,” Capuçon, who began playing cello at the age of four, got his start in his hometown, where he was a student at the École Nationale de Musique de Chambéry. After graduating with first prizes in cello and in piano, he went on to study in Paris, and then Vienna, and before long, was a member of both the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) and the European Community Youth Orchestra (now called the European Union Youth Orchestra), where he was led by a variety of illustrious conductors including Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez.

Along with a raft of prestigious awards and prizes, and a hefty discography (comprised of both orchestral and chamber works), he’s worked with an array of celebrated orchestras (including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchester National de France) and conductors (including Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Paavo Järvi) and collaborators, including, at points, brother Renaud, a celebrated violinist in his own right. The pair have performed together on various occasions, including Bastille Day celebrations at the Eiffel Tower.

The cellist’s latest albumIntuition (Warner Classics), was released in early February and features short pieces by Fauré, Elgar, Massenet, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, and Astor Piazzolla, as well as work by Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima and pianist Jérôme Ducros, who performs on the album. Harrowing tale on photographing the cover art aside, the album is a deeply emotional journey through both familiar and unfamiliar terrains — you may recognize some of the pieces (the meditation from Massenet’s Thais, or Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” — “The Swan” — from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) , but at times you’re not quite sure what to feel experiencing them bunged beside other works, let alone how to perceive their varying subtexts when performed with such gripping (and largely unrelenting) drama and intensity. 

It’s a triumph for Capuçon on artistic, and I suspect, personal levels. This album is a deeply telling expression of an artist consistently in touch with both the earthy and the ethereal, in equal measure, and sees no tension between either. A relentless touring musician with a roster of high-profile appearances to his name, he recently performed with celebrated Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, and tomorrow night (28 April) performs with French pianist Jérôme Ducros at Koerner Hall in Toronto, in a program featuring the works of Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and others. From there, it’s off to California, before jumping between appearances in Europe and North America — and that’s just in May.

In our chat here, he offers insights on the deeply synergistic relationship between soloist and audience, the importance of balancing technique and passion, and why intuition told him now was the right time for an album of dense, rewarding works. 

cello Capuçon Verbier

In Verbier for “Intuition” (Warner Classics). Photo: © Sébastien Méténier Fournet-Fayard

Where did the title for the album originate?

There are many different reasons, the first one is that intuition is something we all have, we are born with it. When you see kids — even without before knowing how to talk, they already feel everything. Of course you lose this intuition; we have an extraordinary brain and we use it to explain everything, and sometimes to connect more or less to our first experiences. Then of course, we all are lucky to say maybe we get closer to intuition again — you can call it that, or inspiration, or many different things, but basically it’s what we have inside ourselves, and for me, the way I express music on the cello. I wanted to call it “intuition” because all the (musical) choices around this album were so intuitive;  every new project should come from something you believe in, from your feeling it’s the right time to do it. I wanted to do an album of short pieces quite a few times but wanted to wait for the right moment — and this is the right moment. It’s almost like, how do you call it, a picture album?

It definitely creates a lot of mental images, especially because your style of playing is strongly romantic. How much do you think soloists’ personalities should be infused in the work they perform? And how much work does it takes to shape and mould that passion accordingly? It can’t be all passion, or all technique, or all intuition.

That’s the big difficulty. I’m fighting with myself a lot because I am so much a perfectionist — I’m always questioning myself, knowing I can always do better or at least always go further, always searching more, never satisfied in a way, so that’s why i keep being curious — but even though I’m a perfectionist, I know that quality in music doesn’t exist, because there is no one way to play something. It’s not only about technique. Technical things are there to serve the music, so you have to find the mixture, the good balance between extreme precision of course, and … leaving a huge space for that intuition, that inspiration, and that creativity. You really have to let go in another way. You have to find the right balance. And that is what is not easy to achieve.

It’s the work of a lifetime.

Absolutely, and I am trying to get closer to it, but there is no school for it — the only school is being onstage. Some days you realize maybe you’re too focused on the technical aspect, and maybe too emotional other days because you’ve experienced something personal, and this is what makes music so fascinating. Every concert is different, every situation is different, even though you’re playing the same piece. The connection with the audience is so special too — sometimes they don’t realize how much so. When you experience a concert, it’s really a team: you have the crew, the acoustics people, musicians, and of course the audience. The big thing is making this musical journey together.

Capucon Batardon

Photo: Gregory Batardon

In that musical journey you’ve said that this album reflects the story of your life and stages of emotional development — how personal do you think art has to be to be meaningful? And how does that art change within the context of audience engagement and personal experience?

I think it’s always the same thing: when you’re onstage, it’s as if you are naked. It’s the same for any artist. Onstage, the audience sees you exactly as you are; you can’t lie. Of course there’s music written by Brahms or Mozart or these other big geniuses, but we show our soul and our passion, and that’s what is magical: seeing how far can you go… that’s always the question. You have to respect the composer, and respect, of course, your own way of seeing or reading the story of the composer. It’s like reading a book to kids; the words are the author’s, but the sound is the expressions in your own voice. The sound is the DNA of an artist; it is the first thing you will hear, a perfect thing, and the most important. When you’re live, you give yourself — it’s your passion, and maybe what you also receive from the audience. In certain halls the sound is going right through, but sometimes, with the design of some acoustics it happens as an artist when you don’t feel that energy coming back from the audience. It hits you hard.

You’re touring many of the works on Intuition, including works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, among others  — some of those works are heavy, soul-baring pieces. What’s it like to tour this kind of material?

It’s exactly the same as what we were saying earlier: it’s all about balance. How much do you allow yourself to be really taken by the music? If you have one or two magical moments in concert, it’s a great concert. It’s that moment when you lose it. How far can you go? Can you allow yourself to be carried away and get tears in your eyes if something magical happens? Yes, it happens to me, but it doesn’t mean it will happen to you in the hall. There is no way to explain it. I love the moment where I’m really taken by the music, when there’s energy onstage and also a connection with the audience, when you have the feeling you’re really together. That’s really magical. It’s why I make music; I want to share that, experience that… it’s such a miracle! Even if you experience it just once in a concert, it is extraordinary.

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