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Ermonela Jaho: “Singing Is The Language Of Our Souls”

Ermonela Jaho, soprano, performance, singer, singing, live, voice, vocal, concert, recital, Wigmore Hall, London, opera, Opera Rara

Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan

One of my last experiences of live vocal music in 2020 was hearing Ermonela Jaho perform live at Wigmore Hall as part of Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The acclaimed soprano made her recital debut, together with pianist Steven Maughan, to a packed hall, tackling an ambitious program of works consisting of French and Italian repertoire in memory of soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who originated many of the roles in the works being presented. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted, Jaho’s artistry “is rooted in a deep identification with her chosen repertoire that results in performances of unsparing veracity and tremendous emotional honesty. In recital, as on stage, her ability to expose a character’s psyche in seconds is utterly remarkable.” I came away feeling not weakened but awakened, as much entranced by Jaho’s lilting phrasing in “Sérénade” (Gounod) as stunned by her plaintive “Tristezza” (Tosti), the honesty of her emotion clear in light shades, dark tones, and everything in between.

The evening offered a tantalizing preview of Anima Rara, Jaho’s third album with Opera Rara, set for release on 25 September via Warner Classics, and recorded with Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and conductor Andrea Battistoni. The album, like the recital, is a tribute of sorts to Storchio, but is also a deeply moving showcase of the innate lyricism and emotional honesty which are so much a part of Jaho’s artistry. Known and rightly celebrated for her visceral stage performances, Jaho, who began her operatic career as a teenager in her native Albania, has appeared at a number of famous houses (The Met, Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Teatro Real, Opéra national de Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Royal Opera) in a range of dramatic and demanding roles, including the titular Anna Bolena, Suor Angelica, and Thaïs, as well as Mimi in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Liú in Turandot, Desdemona in Otello, and, perhaps most famously, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, a role she is set to reprise next month at Greek National Opera. Amidst the fourteen tracks featured on Anima Rara, Jaho seamlessly connects head and heart through a kaleidoscope of vocal colors via verismo, the late 19th/early 20th-century style of opera which uses real-life settings and characters as a means by which of attaining a greater degree of naturalism, and, I would argue, psychological familiarity.

Ermonela Jaho, soprano, performance, singer, singing, live, voice, vocal, concert, recital, Wigmore Hall, London, opera, Opera Rara

Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan

Confession: I was not the biggest fan of verismo until I heard Jaho live and subsequently on this album. Her attention to detail is so connected to emotional expression as to be indistinguishable; the transitions between notes, the considered pauses, the smart phrasings – they all allow a vivid series of pictures to be created in one’s mind. I felt I was actually seeing and starting to know, at a human level, many of the women Jaho here embodies in sound. Some of the narratives verismo favours are indeed soapy (revolving around sex, jealousy, and rather teenaged ideas about, and reactions to, the experience of love and its confusion with infatuation), but the emotions behind them are, thanks to Jaho’s endearing approach, made wholly authentic, and communicated with a graceful, smart blend of technical knowingness and soulful embrace. As Ashley wisely noted, the veracity is unsparing, which makes for not only a gripping listening experience, but one capable of changing one’s perceptions entirely. Bravo indeed.

Conductor Carlo Rizzi is the Artistic Director of Opera Rara, and has worked with Jaho on various occasions, including in 2018 in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, and in 2010 at La Monnaie on La bohème, in a production directed by Andreas Homoki. Maestro has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience leading various Italian works (Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Giordano, Cimarosa, Pizzetti, Montemezzi) at a wide variety of houses, including The  Met, the COC, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche Oper, Den Norske Opera, Oslo, his homebase of Welsh National Opera (where he is Conductor Laureate), and most recently, Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. There exists a deep appreciation for both the vocality and the unique brand of theatricality the music featured on Anima Rara demands, a blend of the familiar (Verdi’s La traviata; Massenet’s Manon; Boito’s Mefistofele; Catalani’s La Wally; Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly) and unfamiliar (Giordano’s Siberia; Massenet’s Sapho, Leoncavallo’s version of La bohème, a trinity of Mascagni works including Lodoletta, L’amico Fritz, and Iris, in which Jaho was to have made her role debut at Teatro Real de Madrid in May, prior to the COVID cancellations). The conductor is effusive in his praise of Jaho and her inherently dramatic approach, but he is also simply marvelous in explaining the reasoning behind that approach – its technical demands, its musicality, the need for watchfulness in its application within the context of verismo. Following this are the soprano’s own thoughts on the album and its tie with that famous emotional honesty, the nerves that went along with her recital debut back in February, and why thinking of every stage appearance as her first and last is such a central part of her creative approach.

Carlo Rizzi: “Music Becomes A Part Of Her Life When She’s Singing”

Ermonela’s vocal acting, live and on Anima Rara, is so effective that she made me reconsider my ideas about verismo.

Actually I think you’re absolutely on with saying “vocal acting” – it’s fantastic, this expression, because that’s exactly what she does. With the bel canto and more classical things like Mozart, of course you do things with the voice but there is something in the sound and the way you have to deliver the words in verismo that is very particular, and this, in a way, makes it or breaks it for many people, because it’s not a way we are used to expressing ourselves anymore. The verismo, the language of the verismo and in particular the Italian language, is very full on; it’s like if you have a lot of water in a rather small pipe, it’s a little bit of pressure, and some people like it and some don’t like it, but it’s definitely necessary to have. Ermonela knows not only how to use the voice but how to lead the part, and that is really necessary – you cannot do verismo otherwise, it becomes empty. When I met her she was doing lighter roles, but she has really, I think, passed through these sort of, I don’t want to say “bigger” roles, but this more mature phase of her voice, seriously, yet she has not lost the freshness which is important to keep, even if you sing with a fuller voice.

Your water-pipe/language metaphor is apt; it’s like she gives just enough to keep your thirsty but not enough to soak you through.

Well Ermonela is a very good actress – it’s that simple. When I met her and we worked together, I really got very much enamored with her way of performing the music. Now there are many singers that fall into music because they don’t have the capacity to act, but she does – it’s not fake with her. I remember we did in Brussels, some years ago now, La bohème and at the end of this performance, we were both in tears and embracing each other, because the emotion she was putting in the voice, not just tearing hair out but in the voice, was feeding me and I was giving that (energy) back to orchestra. When this happens with a singer it’s fantastic, it’s not just one doing what the other wants, but is really what vocal music should be: it should be the orchestra entering into the voice, and vice-versa. With her it’s very easy because this is what she believes in, it’s never singing just to be singing – it’s singing matched to the expression.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara

Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

That attention to text – open vowels, repetitive sounds, their placement – that level of detail… 

… this is actually what singing should be! Singing is talking at a higher level; when you talk, people talk lalala, fast, but if you really want to communicate, you need to linger on certain notes, give a shade to this or that, that is the point, the shape of the phrase and shape of the language. This happens in talking and also when one sings. For example when I work with young singers, immediately I understand how some can pronounce very well but they don’t have a clue how the thing goes, or one does a little slip as a musician but they know which place in the phrase the word occupies and this comes through even if you don’t know the language – that’s the point: if there’s a shape or a journey in the phrase, it goes to the listener, even if the people don’t know the language. Ermonela is very good at this; the music becomes, not corny, but part of her life when she’s singing, and I think she’s very honest about it, it’s not just a gesture.

That honesty complements her work with Opera Rara. There has to be an approach to presenting and performing these works as more than mere novelties or curiosities; there has to be as much intelligence for things like Lodoletta as for Traviata… 

Yes, that is the understanding of the style, because if you don’t understand the style… an allegro isn’t just an allegro; there are allegri that are sometimes slower and largi that are sometimes faster, it’s how the style goes. Sometimes the approach is only technical, like “This is what is written” rather than, ‘Let’s get into the music: what is the message and the flavour here?”, where you are looking at and understanding the vocal development of the vocal line; if you look at that, 90% of the work is done, it’s clear, this is the way the composer was writing. Of course I’m not saying every composer is the same, but when you have composers who worked in the same field and era, chances are the approach to the written note was more or less the same, and this is what is important in terms of performing the underpinning style – Ermonela understands this sort of context entirely.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara

Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

Ermonela Jaho: Speaking Through The Voice

Anima Rara is indeed transportive – listening to it, I was taken back to that night at Wigmore Hall but also very much into the worlds of these characters; they feel vivid hearing you do them.

That was my goal, because I feel some empathy, and, I can’t find the right word… the music transports me into that dimension, it feels like living in that world. Sometimes – it will sound crazy – but sometimes I think, if you believe in other lives, I’ve been a Suor Angelica, a Violetta, a Madame Butterfly, all the roles or arias I’ve sung, I can’t explain it but I enter that dimension and I believe in every single word I sing; it’s not only the singer, of course you need to have done the homework, to have the technique, the sound has to be there no matter what – but all of it is in service of what I’m singing, even with the imperfections. The vulnerability connects with people, and the imperfections too – we need to feel the fear, the joy, and I try to go to those places.

Something Pappano highlighted in your conversation this summer was the humanity in your approach, which is so noticeable hearing you live but it’s palpable on the album as well, this sense of lived humanity and visceral experience, and I’m wondering if you think that quality is reflected in the vocal writing of these verismo pieces.

Yes, absolutely, because it’s theatre. In bel canto you have long lines, these arias with cabaletta, which of course you need to put your soul and everything in, the drama is there as well, but this repertoire, verismo, it’s so direct, sometimes it’s like a dialogue, like a movie. When you need the pause to breathe, not just taking your time because you’re hitting a high note after the pause, it’s a pause of breathing the actual emotion – and sometimes the silence could be more dramatic than an explosion of certain notes. That’s theatre, but it’s tricky as well because you have to balance being believable against being ridiculous; sometimes you can go a little bit forward, like a drama queen, but you have to be believable. If you play just the pain or the joy, maybe you can make it work in two, three moments, but the whole piece is difficult to sell, if I can say that. I’m Mediterranean, and we are louder in everything – pain and joy – but there’s still a human element; sometimes we have the words and we don’t want  to say them out loud, but our soul is screaming. And you can convey that in music with the breathing, or with other little details, although with this repertoire, it’s written so straight-forward.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara, Andrea Battistoni

Rehearsing Anima Rara with conductor Andrea Battistoni in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

Your pauses and taking those breaths feel very much a part of your vocal acting; the timing and phrasings convey such an innate comprehension of the line between gripping and overwrought, because as you said, one can tip into the other easily.

Yes, and of course you can improve because it’s the kind of repertoire in my perception that is like, more, not older, but the more life experience you have, the more meaningful this repertoire is. Even to stage it is so difficult because it has to be so meaningful and you have to be … to live that story, 100%. Singing is the language of our souls. We can’t fake it. It’s something that the public will feel immediately, if you fake it. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult and interesting to go toward this repertoire and feel it’s mine. I don’t know how I can put it, but I love it, and I’m trying to improve as much as I can technically, to give that kind of liberty to my voice and express the emotions – if you don’t have a good technique, it could be only a beautiful thought, “make this phrase like this and that phrase like so” – but if you don’t give it all with your voice, your breathing, with all your body and soul onstage… they remain only beautiful notes in a score, and you fail as a singer and as an artist.

You also said to Pappano, and you have done before as well, that you always approach each performance as if it is the first and last of your life; I’m wondering if that applies to recital work. I was genuinely amazed at your pacing.

I tried to pace, believe me! It was a challenge, that recital, because I’d never had a recital on my own, not because I didn’t believe in it – I love it so much and would love to repeat it – but because I’m so shy as well, to be honest with you, and I let it go when I’m onstage (in opera). Somehow I feel protected and with some distance from the public – I want to feel the energy but I don’t want to feel judged. The costumes, the staging, they keep me a little distanced, and always I thought to myself, “Never will I be able to have success in singing in recital, opera is better” – but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves. What I chose was crazy to be frank, it was so long and so diverse, and I thought, “It’ll be the first and the last recital, but okay, let’s try it!” And I loved it so much though, because I thought, in that recital, like going back to that Pappano conversation, it’s my first and last appearance on the stage.

It was a dream for me to become an opera singer; I fought so much to reach the position I’m in now and for me, I won my dream, if I can say that. I endured a lot of difficulties, so now every time I’m on stage I appreciate how lucky I am. It’s about 26 years professionally now that I’ve been singing, and I don’t know if it will all end tomorrow – I want to live life in full, which sounds a little… stupid, but you know, at the moment especially, I don’t think about tomorrow, because you never know. In this situation with the virus, it brought to mind how I have suffered because I’m not onstage. Every time I am I’ve kissed the stage, because I think, “Maybe it’s my last time.” For sure a piece of my soul I leave that there, and with 100% honesty, but also embracing a spirit of risk.

It’s interesting you say this because it brings to mind Rosina Storchio, that embrace of honesty.

We always think verismo means using the biggest voice in the world, that you have to, not scream, it’s not nice! – but to be louder, because in that way you are more dramatic. When I had my first proposition to do Butterfly, I was scared, I thought, “no, never ever, I can’t sing this opera, because” – I’m really honest with my voice– “I’m a lyrical voice, not a dramatic voice.” It was 2009, and some people said to me then, “Please don’t accept that, you’ll lose your voice at the end of the First Act.”  I like to read when I have time of course, and so I went to read Puccini’s letters, and in those, he is talking about Butterfly, and in there it came up, Storchio’s name; I didn’t know anything about her, but the way he wanted her to sing that opera (and similarly Mascagni in Lodoletta and Zazá), he wanted her to be the first in the role, and I thought, “Okay, let me see which kind of voice she had” – and she was a lyrical leggero, as they call it from the letters and docs we have – so why did they want her? Because, I discovered, she had a kind of pathos onstage, she was giving everything in order to be expressive but believable; she was an actress with a lyrical voice. When Butterfly didn’t have success the first time and Puccini changed the whole opera, she didn’t want to sing it, and in one of the letters of Puccini he wrote, “I think that Butterfly without Storchio becomes a thing without soul.

From that moment , I thought, “Okay, my guts say Butterfly, or this kind of repertoire in that epoch, sounded different” – because you need that kind of fragility, because sometimes it doesn’t mean you have to be BIG; yes, for certain roles you do, but in this case, it’s why we get so moved, emotionally speaking, because we see this human being so fragile, and you have to convey that not only with your voice but in little movements – of course you try to improve, but that’s the connection, to do this kind of repertoire, this kind of drama, but the drama is in the whole story. It’s not because you somehow have to be dramatic; you are a human being, and we have all these colors, this palette of emotion. Even within the (context of) the drama, you honestly believe tragedy could happen to such a vulnerable soul.

I’m wondering about that stage presence and authenticity in relation to other work she was known for, some of which are on the album. You are known for roles like Butterfly too, but perform other lesser-known works; how does one inform the other, or does it?

I tried to follow the same philosophy I did with Butterfly: I don’t have expectations. So I think if I do something, like singing this little-known repertoire, if I put in soul and I believe 100% and try to work on the emotional part as I’ve done with Butterfly, I hope somehow it will help to bring to life this kind of music. For the first time ever I sung Siberia heard it, and… I can’t explain it to you. It was the only aria which we recorded in two tracks, immediately, because it came so naturally, I felt, I don’t know… this aria is about a love that only you know, no one knows about it, you can’t speak it to anyone… I really adore it, so maybe this will be interesting for certain houses, to bring back to life these kinds of masterpieces. We didn’t have so many rehearsals for these recordings you know, but I was in tears every time I had to repeat things. I mean, Lodoletta… my God!

Listening to these tracks made me think about Butterfly and Mimi in new ways in terms of the vocal writing and the line, the pacing, having a clear sense of character through those small details you mention…

Absolutely!

But of course you can’t do this unless, as you said to Pappano, you feel protected.

Because teamwork means so much! I’ve had productions of Butterfly where I swear, I felt, “oh my God, my career is done now, I won’t sing this opera anymore” because I didn’t feel free to express what I had in my mind; it’s not only the voice, it’s not just, “Oh, sing your famous aria” – that’s wrong, especially in this repertoire. You have to work together and, I hate the word “sell” but you have to deliver it, as a whole story. Unfortunately not in every production do you have that (required) teamwork.

With Pappano, I felt so protected; we were working in the same direction, and I felt like a student. When you feel that way it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if your picture is everywhere and people love and adore you and you have all kinds of applause – still, you are a student. Every day we are different, every day life experience shapes our souls and minds, and with music, you need to go in that direction (of learning). You really do with Pappano; he’s a dream to work with. Every time working with him you discover new things, even repeating the same phrase – he taught me from the first time we met, to never ever repeat a note twice the same way, because yes, you said it once and the second time it won’t be new, you have to find other colors. This is just the approach to take for this kind of repertoire.

Ermonela Jaho, recording, album, Anima Rara, Opera Rara, verismo, opera, music, singing

(via Warner Classics)

This is something I feel I’m being educated on with each listening of the album, and Opera Rara’s work as a whole; you really come back to the more known repertoire with new ears.

That’s why I love Opera Rara; they’re very important for the opera world, not because I record with them, but really, we are students, and it’s easy to appreciate something that’s well-known and already-proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audition to take a new look at a work of art lost in time, so Opera Rara’s vision is one I am passionate about. I mean, I’m harsh on myself (in terms of performance) here – every time after a recording session I would go home and think, “I could do better here, better there…”

But do you feel that’s a normal part of being an artist? That such perfectionism is a necessary part of creativity?

Especially for this repertoire, yes. What was my epiphany, if I can say that, is the period when I lost my parents, and I had to sing Suor Angelica then. I was numb completely. I’m sharing this episode because of how much art can mean, beyond technique, beyond the voice. Really, at that time, I was numb. I had some days before the premiere, where I was learning and creating with Pappano and everyone on the team, but only when I went onstage, when Principessa comes to Suor Angelica and says, “Your son is dead” – at that moment I felt the pain, the big loss that I had. The magic of the music… to have Pappano, as I said before, to read for this kind of emotion, the teamwork in London, they didn’t know about my loss but maybe they felt the energy, I was like a lost child. Before “Senza Mamma”, in the instrumental introduction, I was worried, like “oh my God, I’m going to stop here I won’t be able to sing it properly – there has to be a the pianissimo at this certain point, I can’t do it” and so on, and everything was discovered, and in that moment , I forget about the technique, I forgot, “oh this note has to be so precise” and… it was my soul singing, in tears, and it wasn’t Suor Angelica, the young mother crying for her son; I felt myself a little girl who had lost her parents.  It doesn’t matter what age we lose our parents; it’s loss.

The effect this music had on me, I changed, completely, not because I doubted before, but at that precise moment… something changed in my mind, and I thought, “I have to work not toward the sound, because no one is perfect; some will like you, and some will like someone else, you won’t make everyone happy with your voice. But if you speak through your voice, the colors of the soul that you’re singing, and you are really honest with yourself, absolutely, it will connect with the public” and from that moment, my life changed. As an artist, I do work technically but always in service to the emotion, even risking being not-perfect, because if you don’t risk and go deep, you will never connect with the public – never, ever.

Piotr Beczala: Searching For New Impulses In The Music

Piotr Beczala, portrait, tenor, opera, singer, voice

Photo: Julia Wesely

Memories of past cultural experiences have become sharper over the course of the lockdown necessitated  by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been taking stock of those experiences through the past five months or so, recalling, with a mix of delight, sadness, and wistfulness, some of the most magical moments. In light of the activities being reported at this year’s Salzburg Festival (a reduced if arguably more potent version began August 1st and runs to the end of the month), I recalled my own experience at the starry fest in 2016, where, among other events, I attended a presentation of Faust featuring tenor Piotr Beczala in the title role. Having experienced the opera numerous times live and via recordings, I was struck at the Polish singer’s responsiveness to both the music and to his co-stars, notably bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s menacing Mephistopheles; it was as if Beczala had stepped into the score himself, and was carefully, keenly analyzing every small detail, altering his pitch and tone, the shape of his vowels and consonants, his breaths and pauses and even sighs, around Gounod’s score and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s performance of it under maestro Alejo Pérez.

This musical sensitivity and attention to detail, and to drama, have expressed themselves throughout Beczala’s illustrious career, which has included turns in the well-known and well-loved (Bizet’s Carmen; Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; Puccini’s La bohéme), French opera (Faust; Werther; Romeo), dramatic (Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur; Vaudémont in Iolanta; Lensky in Eugene Onegin; Der Prinz in Rusalka), as well as purposeful dips into both bel canto (Bellini’s La Sonnambula; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and verismo (Tosca‘s Cavaradossi, des Grieux in Manon), generous helpings of Verdi (Un ballo in maschera, Luisa Miller, La traviata, Rigoletto), a taste of Wagner (Lohengrin), and delightful dashes of operetta (Die fledermaus, Das Land des Lächelns). Beczala has performed in all the major international houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, and Opéra national de Paris, to name a few. In 2014 he won the prestigious ECHO Klassik Award for Singer of the Year; in 2015, an Opera News Award; in 2019, was awarded Austria’s Kammersänger title during a run of Tosca in Vienna. In addition to French, Italian, German, and Russian repertoire, Beczala has also performed in his native Polish; he sang the pivotal role of Jontek in Stanislaw Moniuszko’s 1847 opera Halka, first at the Wiener Staatsoper late last year, and subsequently in his native Poland (at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw in February) in a production by Mariusz Trelinski. As Opera News writer Henry Stewart noted of Beczala’s performance of the aria “Straszny Dwór” (The Haunted Manor, again by Moniuszko) on his 2010 album Slavic Opera Arias (Orfeo), “(i)n eight minutes, Beczala makes a case not only for rescuing this epic aria, or even the whole opera, but for paying more attention to Polish music in general.” Beczala just did this on his recent album of songs by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz and Stanislaw Moniuszko with pianist Helmut Deutsch, Pieśni (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina) a beautiful collection of 26 short pieces recorded in Warsaw in 2018.

Piotr Beczala, portrait, tenor, opera, singer, voice

Photo: Johannes Ifkovits

Such wide variety feels natural for someone who has taken a slow, steady, and altogether smart approach to repertoire expansion. As he told Presto Classical’s Katherine Cooper earlier this year, “(m)y earlier career was much more about Mozart than Donizetti, Bellini or Rossini, but this kind of balance between bel canto singing and developing into the dramatic repertoire is so crucial. You have to guard against any signs of stress or loss of flexibility in your voice, because Wagner and verismo in particular can be very dangerous if you start singing too much of it too soon.” This deliberate pacing has paid off handsomely, and the time is nigh for a project showcasing such artistic intelligence. Vincerò! (Pentatone), released in May, features Beczala performing with conductor Marco Boemi and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia. Called “a winner of an album” by Gramophone at its release. Beczala’s vocal flexibility, silvery tones, exquisite dramatic timing, and textured line readings on full display through lush arias taken from his current repertoire (Tosca, Gianni SchicchiAdriana Lecouvreur) and likely future one(s); there are tasty verismo sounds (Mascagni, Leoncavallo) and a lot of Puccini, including the aforementioned Cavaradossi and Rinuccio respectively, here luminously joined by “Orgia, Chimera Dall’occhio Vitreo  from the composer’s first opera, Edgar, along with selections from Manon LescautMadama ButterflyLa fanciulla del West. The album closes with (as the title references) the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Throughout the selections, Beczala never resorts to crooning, blasting, or forced dramatics; he truly sings the music in a way that elucidates the meaning of the text without losing the poetry of the sound in either linguistic or sonic senses. This is a singer who listens to every single thing going on around him, and here he’s beautifully supported – complemented – by Boemi and orchestra. Beczala’s reading of the famous tenor aria from Turandot, for instance, highlights his smart musical instincts; it’s passion and precision come together in a knowing show of tonal texture and control. In a word: marvelous.

Indeed, as much as Vincerò! is a riveting display of Beczala’s meticulous musical approach and watchful brand of vocalism, it is also, as I noted, something of a preview of future roles: Calaf, for instance, is on Beczala’s future performance schedule. The tenor and I spoke back in July, just prior to his appearance at the opening night of the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál on Margaret Island (Margitsziget)’s outdoor stage. So much was still uncertain in the music world, and little has changed since then, but what with the Salzburg Festival presentation this year (albeit in altered form) and the resumption of concerts across much of continental Europe, with all the requisite safety measures in place, it’s safe to say there is some form of cultural-musical life trickling into being after a long and sometimes painful absence. Beczala performed in Salzburg recently, in a presentation of Mahler’s Das Lied von Erde with mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner and the ORF Radio Symphonieorchester Wien under the baton of Kent Nagano; the presentation will be broadcast on radio station Ö1 on August 20th at 7.30pm CET. That very evening (August 20th) sees Beczala perform live at the Grafenegg Festival, in a concert featuring the music of Mascagni, Giordano, Leoncavallo, and Puccini, together with the Tonkunstler Orchestra under the direction of conductor Sascha Goetzel; that particular appearance will be broadcast on Austrian television on August 30th. This month has, it turns out, been a happily busy one for the tenor (he began August performing at both the opening and closing evenings of a special edition of the Lech Classic Festival in Austria, before going on to Salzburg), and the autumn may well prove just as busy: in September Beczala will be giving two concerts from Spain with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and will also be giving a gala concert from the Wiener Konzerthaus, and October sees him performing in Warsaw, as the title role in Werther.

So, despite audiences being denied the opportunity to experience his Radamès (in Aida) this year at either the Festival de Peralada in Spain or at The Met respectively, there is plenty to look forward to, and for now, Beczala, together with wife Kasia, are riding out the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic as positively as possible: by baking, studying, and, rather happily as it turns out, singing for live audiences.

Piotr Beczala, Faust, tenor, Salzburg Festival, stage, opera

Faust at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Your baking posts on instagram remind me of things my own relatives make. It’s interesting how many artists in the opera world enjoy being in the kitchen.

Well, we spend so much time between performances doing nothing. You can study and practise all the time but you have to do something normal – you can play golf or sports but it’s really a good thing to spend some hours cooking, baking, trying recipes. We also do it sometimes with friends, singer friends –cooking is a good way to spend time together.

There’s also the aspect of what you make you can’t actually see and touch, whereas when you work with food it’s a directly sensual experience.

That’s absolutely right – I remember when I did Magic Flute performances, and I was always jealous of Papageno getting the chicken in the last act. The whole house smelled like barbequed chicken, and who got it? The baritone, of course.

Yes, but you tenors get to sing things like “Nessun Dorma”…

Exactly – I’m okay with that!

Throughout this pandemic time it seems like many classical artists have learned things tangible and not, things they’re bringing back to live performance as some kind of normal returns in Europe. Is this your experience too?

We still, unfortunately, are nowhere near normal at the moment – some opera houses and concert halls are starting to go back but it really doesn’t look fine for me. Singing… I have no problem to sing for ten people, but for empty or almost-empty concert halls and houses, it’s a really difficult thing. And… well, we have to survive this time. I spoke with so many colleagues of mine, and really, we have to just stay calm, not go crazy. In my case, I was two months having vacations, and we stayed here in Poland for a couple of weeks, and I was already working last week in Vienna doing a TV project, and I’m going to Zurich. You know, some concerts that were cancelled are now back on schedule, but it’s still far away from normality. And that’s my problem, we don’t know what will happen in the fall, we don’t know… I know actually I will go do an opera in November, but until then there will may be concerts and performances but … the situation is very dynamic. It changes every day and every week.

Piotr Beczala, portrait, tenor, opera, singer, voice

Photo: Julia Wesely

That’s hard to adjust to especially when you have things lined up for years in advance.

My schedule is full until 2024-2025, and this is now only … It’s fantastic to have wonderful productions in your schedule, but there’s the old wisdom, and it always rings true, that your schedule is right when you’ve actually done all the performances, not when you put it on the paper. Now I see this situation, and well, who knows what will happen? Everybody asks me, but I’m a singer! I am really extremely happy that summer concerts are back along with a few activities, but it’s really very far from normal.

Part of your own “normal” is performing operetta; I spoke to Barrie Kosky years ago about staging it, and I’m curious as a singer what operetta brings you creatively.

When I started 28 years ago I’d already sung operetta, in the house in Linz and later in Zurich and Vienna. Operetta was always present in the program – not many, but the big hits like Merry Widow and Fledermaus and I always enjoyed it a lot. I love all these tenors of the past, from the 1950s-60s-70s or before, and operetta was really a big part of their repertoire – Fritz Wunderlich and Nikolai Gedda and many very fantastic tenors. It’s just part of my repertoire. I did a concert with Thielemann on New Year’s Eve in Dresden and I recorded a tribute to Tauber for Deutsche Grammophon (in 2013) – you know, it’s always a good thing for a tenor to have this part of his repertoire in the voice, because it’s a very good combination of some nice vocal lines, some elegance in singing, some distance to yourself, because operetta you can’t take really seriously. It’s serious music, but you have to blink a little with one eye when you do this music.

It does require a lot of vocal flexibility

That’s what I mean, it’s not one style. You sing Puccini or Verdi or Wagner, it’s something very stable, everything moving in one direction; operetta is more of a pretty, nice, younger sister of opera. Of course there are exceptions, like The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns), which I did in Zurich a couple years ago; it’s really a tragic story like opera, but basically it’s about love, not going very deep into the sensibility of the people on the stage. It’s entertainment but entertainment on a very high level, and on a high level vocally as well.

So you can do operetta and verismo and Lohengrin – that flexibility feels rather rare in this age of the specialist, don’t you think?

It’s a good question. Really, I’m doing this because I like it; I know exactly the differences between verismo, Verdi, French opera, Wagner, and operetta – the funny thing is, operetta is not very far from Wagner…

Really!

Of course! But these aren’t my words  Thielemann convinced me to sing Lohengrin, and he said that after a couple of concerts we did in Dresden, he said, well, I have to think about Lohengrin as really not being very far from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles – of course the language is the same. More or less, it’s the same time of composition, the end of the 19th century, and well… when you take both seriously, you can say, it’s not very far away, but all these styles are pretty different. I also sing Slavic music, and it’s also a part of my repertoire, but it depends very much on the language. Last year I did Halka in Vienna.

I have friends who saw you in that – it’s quite special to stage a Polish opera.

Yes, it was a rare opportunity to sing in my own language, and in an opera at that, because my operatic language is French or Italian or German. It’s a good combination, but the key is to see the differences and to try and not sing everything in the same way. It’s like cooking: when you do everything in the same way, everything tastes the same. You can’t recognize whether it’s meat or fish or dessert.

I saw you live in Salzburg in Faust and noted how careful your sensitivity was to not only the words but the way they relate to the score– and that sensitivity was just as palpable in your album with Helmut Deutsch of Polish songs

Recording that album was a fantastic experience – Helmut and I have a lot of plans for the future. It’s a very funny story. We met through my former vocal coach, in-person in Vienna, and then I got the idea to ask him for some concerts. It was such a positive development. Helmut of course is one of the best interpreters of Schumann and Schubert – the big German repertoire – but in his soul and his heart, he is very Slavic. When we started work on the Karlowicz/Moniuszko album, he loved it. For me it was so important to have so many good people around me, people who I can work with, even for something that is not very popular. Nobody did Karlowicz songs before – well, maybe there was something in Poland, but in the international arena, it’s’ not really normal – but now everybody knows. I’m really happy about that.

I only got to know Halka when you were in it – increasing awareness of composers who aren’t part of the mainstream opera rep seems more important than ever.

That was the idea, to bring Halka to the international opera world. In Vienna the Theatre an Der Wien is a very important house, and it was a perfect place for staging Halka. Of course it’s hard to present the world with a new opera, an unknown opera – but with this work, the music is so beautiful, and it was a nice production. It’s good people realize there’s something like this in Poland and they say, “Okay, we welcome Halka into the world” – that was the idea. And now, I’ll be happy and extremely satisfied when it becomes part of the normal repertoire in some houses; that would be a dream.

Like at the Met?

Maybe, yes, of course! I know the difficulty to produce projects like that. I spoke with Peter Gelb about it – he has to sell tickets, that’s the thing. We get sold out in Theatre An Der Wien, but five performances there equals one performance at The Met. This is the big problem. There’s a risk also for many titles that aren’t popular, but the risk could be good in the case of Halka. Let’s see.

So it’s a chicken-or-egg sort of situation…

Yes, it is. We did it once in Vienna, and again in Warsaw, and it was twice on Austrian TV, and it’s being released now on DVD. In a couple months, someone interested can say, “Okay, time for something new!” and listen to this and watch it, and then there’s some impulse to make things happen.

Piotr Beczala, portrait, tenor, opera, singer, voice, album, Vincero!

(via Pentatone)

Speaking of impulse to make things happen, your Vincero! album seems to have that quality; I kept wondering as I listened when the world might hear your Calaf.

It was the idea behind this album, to show all these arias, the most popular being “Nessun Dorma”. When I prepared myself and all this repertoire for the recording, I discovered a lot of fine music moments, different colors, and realized there are many sensitive and beautifully soft moments in Turandot. Of course the tenor has to sing with a sound of verismo, it’s like oil painting: when you are making it, you don’t have to take a big brush and do the big strokes, you need the possibility to make many small details – and this way to sing verismo is very important. I’d sung only two or three of those roles (on the album) on stage – Cavaradossi and Lecouvreur and Rinuccio, and that was twenty-five years ago – but the rest is for me questions for the future. And you mention Calaf… yes, I will do it. Most of these roles are in my plans for the future.

I kept hearing Parsifal also.

Thank you very much…. yes, Parsifal is in the schedule too! It’s a very special role; it’s not high, it’s not long, it’s not a lot to sing, but it’s very deep in terms of the meaning. The difficulty is, going through five hours of music, maybe (the opera) should be called Gurnemanz! I think in the next seven or eight years I will develop in the Italian repertoire, as well as Wagner. I really like singing Lohengrin, and Parsifal is the next logical step, and then maybe Meistersinger. I’m curious about what happens with repeating a role in different productions.

For example, Faust, for me it’s such an interesting story, with such a rich background and emotional world. I like to repeat every year or every two years a new production with this music, just to see how my voice is changing, which parts of the character I can discover again. I never get bored singing. Someone asked me a couple years ago about Rigoletto. If I’m not tired of singing it – I had sung maybe 100 performances in my life – I said, well, compared to all my wonderful colleagues like Leo Nucci or Anna Moffo, it’s nothing; Leo sang Rigoletto over 500, and it’s still fresh and not boring, Anna Moffo sang something like 800 Traviatas in her life. To keep the freshness also, not only vocally but in your head, your attitude and sense of discovery with the role, is very important in the business.

To keep it interesting for yourself as an artist?

Absolutely. You can’t be famous for fifty roles – you can’t go in history for fifty roles. You can go into history for at least maybe five or six roles; that’s the brutal truth. What I like is to discover, again and again, the same subject and to change it for different audiences – in America, Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, because this kind of working with people, with the public, is also a big part of discovering and searching for new impulses in the music

… which is precisely what you’re missing now, that interaction with a live public.

That’s so true! That’s been the most difficult part of this lockdown. We are in contact a little bit, but nothing can replace real contact with the public; that’s something absolutely special.

Your real contact will come with opening the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál soon…

Yes, this open-air concert that had been cancelled got brought back. It’s fantastic because it’s presented as open-air on Margaret Island. I was in Budapest a couple of times but never there in that spot, but I know the the people well, the orchestra and the soprano (Andrea Rost) I’ll be singing with.

How challenging will it be to return to a live audience?

It’s like driving a bicycle: you never really forget it. When I did my last day’s recording in Vienna there was no public there of course, but there were a lot of people around, the producers and others. There are always people around in this industry, and you have to find somebody, focus on them, and sing for that one person. In the worst case, my wife is sitting twenty meters away, and I can sing to her!

Piotr Beczala, tenor, singer, voice, vocal, Opera News, Award, wife, Kasia Beczala, team, marriage, unit, support

With wife Kasia at the 2015 Opera News Awards.

You two seem like a very strong team.

We are a team, and for many years we’ve travelled together, studied together, and she knows my voice better than anyone. She is at most of my performances. Us singers need ears which are outside – we can’t really hear ourselves, and it’s so important when you have a person you can trust, to get some feedback. That’s really, really important.

As a benefit, she gets to eat your lovely cakes.

She gets the ideas for the cakes; I make them; she decorates them, and then we invite people and they have to eat it. That’s the plan, always. It’s a good arrangement. My proportions for the cake are always big, and since we are only two we can’t eat it all, so we always invite people. Normally we’d take it to the house for colleagues. It’s always a good collaboration.

That nicely underlines the significance community has gained throughout the lockdown.

Yes, precisely, we are close in our space and apartments, it’s like discovering a whole new situation. I was rather happy here in Poland when nothing happened and we couldn’t travel… actually it was a good thing. I hadn’t taken a vacation in fifteen or twenty years. When people say “I’m taking a vacation” in our industry, it’s usually only two weeks – not studying, not practising, switching off all your activities, and focusing on doing nothing. That’s what we tried to do here. But moving on, I mean, in Salzburg 50% of the programme will happen, including my concert. For a long time we didn’t know what would happen, but it was very good news when I learned it will. It’s a very important year with the anniversary, and it would be a pity to cancel it. I’ve been singing there since 1997, it’s a long-time collaboration, and I was happy to have the possibility to sing there during the anniversary year. People have struggled with the situation but we hope people will be fine. We have to just react to the situation and adjust with whatever happens.

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

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

Photo: Uwe Arens

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In suspended development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

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

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

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

Hui He: Building Connection Through The Voice

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

How old when you first heard opera?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s true!

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

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

You feel that also!

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

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

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

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Photo ©️Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera

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

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

It makes you a better artist, to keep learning.

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

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. 

stage opera music singer

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.

Conlon Pirgu singer conductor

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.

Sondra Radvanovsky in Toronto: Embracing Evolution

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto this past weekend was a firm integration of her past, present, and future. The concert, presented to a sold-out audience, also served as a good catalyst for personal reflection, since it marked my first classical event since returning to Canada after living in Europe for close to four months. Contemplations on the role of evolution — artistic, personal, creative, emotional (or textured, painterly integration of them all) — progressed amidst a program which, despite its “bel canto to verismo” title, offered its own form of evolution as well, offering tasty morsels of Baroque works by Cacchini, Scarlatti, Fluck, and Durante, as well as later (much later) Italian composers Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. The recital was a keen lesson on the importance of authenticity, grace, and generosity, qualities the American-born, Canada-dwelling soprano has in abundance. It also underlined the magic of transformative embrace, to beautiful effect. 

Radvanovsky’s plummy soprano tone and supple vocalism, combined with an instinctual stage presence, have garnered her a host of fans, particularly following her triumphant series of performances as the female lead in bel canto “Tudor trilogy” by Donizetti (in both Toronto and New York) over the past few years. Many personal stories were shared throughout the evening, ones connecting circumstances with inspiration and opportunity with growth. Much like driving by an old house after moving (and yes I inadvertently did this myself recently), there was a nostalgic flavour to the proceedings, though it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her coquettish rendition of Rossini’s boat-romance song cycle “La regata veneziana” (which she recalled performing as a young singer) was sharply contrasted by a theatrically gripping “Una macchia e qui tuttora!” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Radvanovsky subsequently revealed she will be making her role debut as the ambitious wife of Shakespeare’s doomed sovereign, though gave no indication of when. Will it be Toronto first and then New York, as was the case with her Donizetti Tudor roles? Only time will tell.  

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

After years of seeing Radvanovsky perform live, what I think makes her so powerful as an artist is her ability to meld blazing vocalism with charismatic theatricality; she physically acted out various scenes (from Roberto Devereux and Macbeth, for instance), reflecting the drama already so very present and palpable in her voice. Such a seamless fusion has won her many fans, both in her chosen country (she is American by birth but resides just outsides Toronto) and abroad.  The recital was marketed (and largely perceived by her many fans) as a homecoming, something she fully embraced, giving the enthusiastic Toronto audience a total of four encores at the concert’s close, which included recital chestnuts “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (thrilling), as well as a very charming “Over the Rainbow”, complete with melodic piano flourishes from accompanist Anthony Manoli. What Radvanovsky gave, however (in bucket-fulls), was far more subtle than that which can be easily or quickly comprehended. The rapturous cheers may have come fast and furious, but I had to sit, at the close of each piece, quietly and carefully absorbing the innate artistry of what had just unfolded; it was like watching a plant grow from a spindly, fine, eyelash-like sprout, into a lush tree full of emerald-green, merrily waving leaves, all in the space of a few hours, or even bars. Radvanovsky took listeners on the journey of her ever-expanding evolution — artistic, creative, dare I say personal — and it was wondrous to behold. 

Over the past fourteen months or so, a creative reawakening of sorts has occurred within me, and I’ve returned to the work of artists I’d once loved, and found connections to new ones who break down doors mental, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional; in the process my priorities and pursuits have evolved into something which is a far more accurate reflection of who and what I am as writer and music lover, outside of my mother’s considerable (traditional opera-loving) shadow. It has been a kind of homecoming in both personal and professional senses. Some homecomings, I realize more than ever, are more meaningful than others, and have absolutely nothing to do with geography.  Just prior to returning, I had been told that I’d become “a lot more adventurous” in my musical tastes. This observation, made by a colleague, was flattering if heartening. Evolution is an interesting thing; sometimes it can be less about dramatic change than reclamation, exploration, and integration — reclaiming those more tender, curious parts of ourselves we have left behind, neglected, hidden away from view, exploring which parts fit now and which parts don’t, and integrating those parts with a worldly (we hope) adult self in a way that allows for the meeting of responsibilities while still leaving room for beauty, wonder, and surprise.

Radvanovsky Koerner Toronto

Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Those qualities — beauty, wonder, surprise — were the ones I took away with me from Radvanovsky’s recital. Her fearless rendition of “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut, was luscious, passionate, her tone entirely unforced; she sang with a sensual zeal I have not, for all the times I’ve seen her perform live, quite heard before, and it was, in a word, breathtaking. The recital pointed at exciting new directions, a potential being realized, a new self flowering naturally from the old — not a forced transition this, but a progression, an extension, a risk into the unknown that feels utterly, bracingly right. Is one to deny evolution in favor of the familiar? Very often one does, yet another path beckons, and when taken, can yield the most beautiful of results. Radvanovsky is taking that path, as her recital in Toronto on Saturday proved, and doing it in own inimitable way. Brava.

Virtuosi

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions

Is this the year of great singers making their Canadian debuts? Perhaps.

Soprano Anna Netrebko and husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, appeared in Toronto this past April (along with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky), as part of a concert co-presented by the Canadian Opera Company and Show One Productions. This past Thursday, (8 June) soprano Hibla Gerzmava made her debut in the city, joined by conductor Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, who has led the ensemble since formation it in 1979.

Gerzmava, who hails from Abkhazia (located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), is a singer of some acclaim. I’ve been following Gerzmava’s work for a number of years, particularly her annual gala concerts (called “Hibla Gerzmava Invites”) that feature a who’s-who of great classical-world talent. She’s a singer with a laser-pointed tone and a warm, textured sound. I had the chance to see her live last fall in Don Giovanni (not shocking to those of aware of my fascination with that work) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with famous baritone Simon Keenlyside in the lead; Gerzmava’s Donna Anna was pleading, angst-filled, guilt-wracked. Her performance of “Non Mi Dir” was lovely, with Gerzmava shaping her rolled consonants and luxurious vowels into a rapturous embrace.

Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, and Simon Keenlyside in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Aside from that memorable voice, what makes Gerzmava interesting to me is that the same year she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, in 1994, she became the first singer — and the sole woman ever — to earn the prestigious Grand Prize in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. Since then, she’s appeared on some very notable opera stages, including the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna), the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich), Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris,  the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Met of course, and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, among many others. This past spring she sang the title role in Donizetti’s dramatic opera Anna Bolena (part of his Tudor trilogy) at Teatro Alla Scala Milan (opposite venerable Italian bass Carlo Columbara as Enrico / Henry), one of the most challenging of roles within the repertoire, both musically and dramatically.

(via Melodiya)

Gerzmava’s recent albums,  Hibla Gerzmava, Soprano (Melodiya), released in 2014) and Opera. Jazz. Blues. (Melodiya), from 2016, explore an array of sounds, with the latter focusing on jazzy forays into traditionally classical repertoire (with arrangements by Daniel Kramer), and the former an impressive live recording of a concert she gave in Moscow with Spivakov and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in 2013. She gives thrilling readings of many opera classics on this album, every piece full of laser clear tone and dramatic verve; it’s a highly listenable album, and I think it works really well as an introduction to opera overall, offering a nice selection of well-known favorites, wonderful interpretations (including a lively rendering, together with baritone Arsen Sogomonian, of the duet between the main female character and the charlatan-doctor character in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, another huge favorite of mine), and the sparky dynamism of live performance. Consider that a recommendation for those of you who are a bit nervous about sticking your toe into the opera ocean; trust me, this is a nice bubbly jacuzzi best enjoyed with a good cold glass of rose.

Currently on tour with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra through North America, Gerzmava made her Canadian debut Thursday night at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (the regular home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), offering a highly eclectic program featuring works by mainly French and Italian composers. After a first half that featured Spivakov leading the Ensemble in an a wide array of works (including Mozart, Shostakovich, Bruch), as well as a sparky performance by young cellist Danielle Akta, Gerzmava appeared, splendid in a grand, floor-sweeping red/blue/gold dress, with long hair neatly pinned up, and launched straight into one of the best-known arias within the operatic repertoire (also featured on her live album), “Casta Diva”, from Bellini’s Norma. It could well be suspected that Gerzmava was facing a few challenges (she appeared to be sucking on some kind of lozenge or candy at several points), what with some uneven moments vocally, and a gradually diminishing volume throughout the concert that left her with a small but very sweet tone for the evening’s encores, the famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and Strauss’ ethereal “Morgen“, also featured on her live album. Whatever vocal color she may have been lacking, Gerzmava made up for with brilliant flashes of the muscular tone for which she’s rightly celebrated, particularly in the middle portion of the program. Her renderings of the showpiece stretto aria from Verdi’s I Masnadieri (The Robbers) and “Ecco… Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble servant) from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur were standouts for their tonal clarity, light if well-considered vibrato, and the fierce dramatic heft of their delivery.

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions.

Gerzmava showed herself so deeply cocooned within the music she was performing at points as to be acting out the parts to and with various orchestra members, who gamely played to her, along with conductor Spivakov; it would have all come off unbearably corny but for the fact that Gerzmava, and her fellow musicians, were so very clearly committed to the music, and to the moments of both intimacy and grandeur within the music. Some pieces were more like duets, which made Gerzmava’s and the Virtuosi’s connection with the music that much more touching. Here’s to many more appearances by Gerzmava in Canada in the future, and fingers crossed for not only some Russian repertoire in that program, but some Mozart, too.

Danke, meine Damen!

Looking up at the Komische Oper. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Trips to Berlin always seem like a whirlwind. My first visit in January was essentially just that, part of a larger two-week European winter opera jaunt that also included explorations through Belgium and France. In the four nights I spent in Berlin this past winter, I ensured visits to the Komische Oper, Deutsche Oper, and of course, the Berlin Philharmonic, even as temperatures dropped and Siberian winds made me glad to have brought my mukluks and wooly sweaters.

Returning to Berlin in spring, visits to productions by these organizations were a foregone conclusion, but because I had the luxury of more time this particular jaunt, I included others as well (notably the Staatsoper Berlin, as well as NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, at the very end), which yielded a bouquet of thought-provoking experiences. Of the panoply of cultural riches I experienced over the course of my recent two week trip, what connected everything, and stands out in retrospect, were incredible performances by women. Longing, love, loneliness, intimacy, identity, community — all of these themes were covered, in moving, creative ways that felt all too familiar and close at times. Each performer embarked on different types of journeys that would intersect, move apart, race in parallel lines, only to twist and turn again. Looking for love, finding love, rejecting love; looking for self, finding self, reinventing self; seeking kindred spirits, finding those spirits leaving or being abandoned by them — all this, plus narratives of dedication, deception, and rejection, helped to elevate the performances I saw from mere entertainment into real (and very familiar, for me) human experience. Despite the cool and rainy Berlin spring, there was something warming about all of it. That isn’t to say everything I saw was comforting, though some of it was certainly entertaining.

The work of Komische Oper left a strong impression, visually, sonically, and theatrically. This fine company (which translates literally as “comic opera,” though the work it presents isn’t strictly comedic) impressed me during my previous visit, when I attended opening night of its whimsical double-bill production (working together with British production outfit 1927) of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Vibrancy, color, and imagination, together with a deep respect for the scores and great, rave performances, left me wanting more.

Returning to Berlin, I saw three productions at the Komische, which is located just steps from the famous Brandenburg Gate. Ball im Savoy (Ball At The Savoy) is a fun, naughty 1932 operetta by Paul Abraham,  a Jewish-Hungarian composer who enjoyed immense success in the 1930s with a string of musical hits and big screen adaptations. Originally presented by the KOB in 2013 as director Barry Kosky’s closing work to mark his first season as Chief Director for the company, this was a fantastic, uproarious production, filled with solid performances, beautiful designs, and smart commentary on the nature of human relating, particularly within the sometimes complicated sphere of sexual intimacy.

L-R Katharine Mehrling, Dagmar Manzel, and Christiane Oertel in Ball im Savoy.
Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

I especially appreciated the casting and performance of Dagmar Manzel a well-known, deeply entertaining German actor who, like many artists in Berlin, goes totally against the Hollywood aesthetic of young, cute, and Instagram-hot; Manzel is pushing sixty, broad-shouldered and large of laugh, with a raspy, sexy, low voice and a a wonderfully confident stage presence. What a treat it would be to see her live again; Manzel is an eminently watchable performer, who ably delivered a smart, nuanced performance playing Madeleine,  the just-married wife of Aristide (Christoph Späth), a man with a past, and who seemed frequently more attached to his fear than to his wife. The scenes between the two crackled with a spicy, natural chemistry and volcanic verve. As Opera News reviewer A.J. Goldmann noted in his 2013 review of Ball im Savoy, “Not only is the KOB an ideal forum for rescuing such works from obscurity; the works themselves — and the worthy productions they come packaged in — add immeasurably to the company’s luster.” No kidding.

Manzel will appear at Komische Oper next season in two productions, both of which I’m keen to see: as the lead in the 1923 musical Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra) by Oscar Straus, in a production directed by Barry Kosky (which she’s also doing this July as part of the KOB’s Summer Festival); and in another Straus work, this one from 1932, helmed again by Australia-born director, Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will! (A Woman Who Knows What She Wants!). The latter will be staged this fall, when I am planning on possibly making a return visit to Berlin, so… stay tuned.

Gunter Papendell as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

More color and entertainment at the Komische came in the form of a very surreal, commedia dell’arte-influenced staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was sung in German, a choice which I found myself initially stunned at sonically, but grew to eventually appreciate, even adore. Very purposely leaving the lyricism, romance, and poetry of the original behind, director Herbert Fritsch, together with conductor Jordan de Souza, produced a raucously entertaining spectacle that, while not offering any emotionally moving moments for me personally, did offer a bold canvas onto which Fritsch painted his garish vision.

Philipp Meierhofer’s Leporello, costumed in baggy black but clearly embodying a Pulcinella-style characterization and presentation, was the sort of wise man figure to Günter Papendell’s Don Giovanni, a lithe, foppish figure with clear visual references to the Joker and, more directly, German actor Conrad Veitch in cinema classic The Man Who Laughs. Singing a feisty, sexy, diva-tastic Donna Elvira was Nina Bernsteiner, whose steaming middle voice and glassy tones perfectly reflected both Fritsch’s opera buffa-first approach, as well as the earthy nature of the woman behind, or perhaps physically manifesting, the fabulously grand Victoria Behr-designed yellow gown; Elvira wasn’t playing at being a needy diva, she simply was a True Actual Diva (and she made sure her purple-suited Lothario knew it). From its surreal opening, featuring assorted smashings, to the indelible image — Giovanni’s outstretched hand — of its sudden close (a nod to Mozart’s alternate ending), this was a strong vision for a work that aways provokes strong opinions. Was I moved? Not especially.  Did I have a new appreciation for the characters? Yes. Was I entertained as all hell? You bet. Sometimes it’s nice to see something you thought you knew very well, to be surprised by it in new ways, and find out there is still yet more to discover; this was one of those moments.

Peter Renz, Katazyna Wlodarczyk, Talya Libermann. Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

This year being the 450th birthday of Claudio Monteverdi (an important moment for opera), I couldn’t resist seeing The Coronation of Poppea (Die Kronung der Poppea), the third Komische production I attended, and easily the one that left the strongest impression. I’m going to be exploring this work, and the KOB’s very sexy, very disturbing production in a future post which will feature the talented German baritone Dominik Köninger (who sings Nero in the show), but suffice for now to say that of the seven operas I saw in Berlin, this one has stayed with me the most. The story of the Emperor Nero, of his decadent world, and his ruthless murder of Seneca (Jens Larsen), his casual tossing-aside of wife Octavia (Karolina Gumos) and his lust for (and with) Poppea (Alma Sadé), were staged with class, intelligence, and vision. That’s not to say there weren’t some shocking scenes; Nero’s coterie includes some fully nude celebrants (male and female), and Seneca’s murder featured both frontal male nudity and a copious (/ disturbing) amount of (stage) blood.

Monteverdi’s original, stately score has been given a very creative re-working by composer Elena Kats-Chernin that features modern instrumentation (the orchestra includes a banjo!) and the transposition of not only instruments but roles (including Nero, from a counter-tenor to a baritone), bringing a new-meets-old sound that places firm emphasis on music as storytelling, and perfectly matches Director Barry Kosky’s decadent, stylish production and Music Director Matthew Toogood’s detailed approach. Presented as a remount for the KOB (Poppea is part of a Monteverdi cycle by the company, originally done in 2012), the piece kept a perfect respect for Monteverdi’s original vision while contemporizing its subtext; there was something alarmingly timely (and of course, timeless) about the ruthlessness and greedy ambition of its sordid cast of characters, and, led by Köninger’s snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance this was a coronation that felt, at times, far too close. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything so highly charged on an opera stage in a long time. More on this one soon, but for now, in a word: WOW.

Curtain calls at Staatsoper Berlin’s La Traviata. Photo: mine (via). Please do not reproduce without permission.

There were more big “wow” moments this trip, too. Verdi’s La Traviata was given a high-concept treatment that made liberal use of sand (truth: if I see another heavily symbolic, time-is-running-out-for-Violetta production, I will scream) but the singing, specifically that of Ailyn Perez in the lead, and Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont, was gorgeous. Her rendering of “Sempre Libera” (“Always Free”) specifically, was defiant, almost angry, a nice contrast to the puffy, cute, la-la-la interpretations I’ve seen over many decades now. (I kept hearing Perez’s version play, over and over, in my head on the plane ride home, in fact.) Soprano Perez’s Violetta was indeed defiant, angry, — and also, I felt, tired: tired of her life, tired of the fake people around her and the phony relationships, tired of the obsessive little boys she attracts. Her scenes with baritone Piazzola, in particular, brimmed with humanity, and highlighted an intriguing subtext, that perhaps Violetta had met her equal not with Alfredo (tenor Abdellah Lasri), but with his father. There was an emotional rawness to the charged, dramatic scene between Germont Sr. and Violetta, where he comes to beg her to break things off with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation. Piazzola (who sang the role in a circus-themed production directed by Roland Villazon in 2015) offered a poetic portrayal of a man who’d perhaps had fatherhood foisted onto him far too young, and who had little to no real relationship with the son whose reputation he wants to protect. These were wonderfully alive, complex, human performances, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Perez and Piazzola sing again soon. (Ernani at La Scala next September is certainly tempting, if a bit far off!)

Cristina Pasaroiu as Magda in Deutsche Oper’s production of La Rondine. Photo: Bettina Stöß (via)

Other performers I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing again are soprano Cristina Pasaroiu, a beautiful, bell-toned lead in Puccini’s beautiful La Rondine (The Swallow) at Deutsche Oper, and soprano Dorothea Röschmann, whose portrayal of the Countess in the Staatsoper’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) was one of the most honest portrayals I’ve ever witnessed. Both performers gave truly memorable performances, with Pasaroiu providing a lovely focal point for Rolando Villazon’s gorgeous, colorful production of Puccini’s 1916 work, and delivering a searing rendition of the famous “Chi il bel sogno di doretta” aria. Confession: I ruined my mascara at Pasaroiu’s interpretation; she captured the deep longing at the heart of this aria so, so perfectly. (Saturday night’s alright for crying, clearly.) Even standing still, watching Ruggero (Vincenzo Costanzo) in a club, or leaving him at the opera’s close, Pasaroiu said so much with such simple, elegant body language; I got the impression, in watching her, that she would have been a great silent film star. The Romanian soprano projects such rich poetry with her every gesture (and in Rondine‘s case, a beautiful sadness), which clearly translates vocally, something conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli sensed at a very intrinsic level, particularly with his careful shaping of the string section.

Another conductor with a very deep sense of relationship with his performers, Pablo Heras Casado, led a buoyant if equally thoughtful orchestra in Jurgen Flimm’s very funny (if occasionally tiresome) production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) at the Staatsoper Berlin, a remount of a production from November 2015, with the same cast intact. Heras-Casado kept all the drama and tension (particularly hierarchical ones) of the original play (by Pierre Beaumarchais) fully intact, employing a rhythmic undercurrent that powered the score while keeping players inspired to provide a true heartbeat, and some needed counterpoint, to the slapstick-like follies and shenanigans that characterized much of Flimm’s production.

Anna Prohaska and Dorothea Röschmann in Staatsoper Berlin’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Photo: Staatsoper Berlin / Clarchen and Matthias Baus (via)

Dorothea Röschmann, reprising her role as Countess Almaviva, offered the most authentic characterization I may have ever seen Hers was a woman who loves, or wants to love, deeply, who is deeply saddened at the way her position, and the ridiculous behaviour of her husband the Count (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo), by extension, has separated her from this desired intimacy. Röschmann proved her acting chops in small but powerful ways; the way she gazed at Cherubino (a fantastic Marianne Crebassa) at points, the way she squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed her words in admitting to the Count who was hiding in the closet, the way she looked at him when the great reveal finally happened — all were highly theatrical moments that offered small slices of humanity amidst a zany comic staging. Her’s “Dove sono i bei momenti“(“Where are they, the beautiful moments”) was lushly voiced and achingly human, her scenes with Susanna (a sparky Anna Prohaska) brimming with vitality. This was a smart, nuanced, adult portrayal, and even with the nearly non-stop comedy that filled Flimm’s production, Röschmann’s Countess came off as authentic, sincere, and truly, deeply heartbroken, even at the opera’s end, when all is supposedly forgiven.

Renee Fleming at the curtain call
for Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This post about my latest opera travels wouldn’t be at all complete without briefly exploring its incredible conclusion: experiencing Renée Fleming and Elina Garanča at the Metropolitan Opera in the penultimate performance of Der Rosenkavalier for the season. Seeing the two singers together in what amounted to a beautiful exploration of love, loss, aging, and acceptance felt like the apotheosis of a trip that carried with it strong undercurrents of disappointment and sadness, but also discovery and quiet renewal. I felt tears brimming listening to Fleming, especially as her character, the Marschallin moved between ponderings on the capricious nature of men (“Da geht er hin…” / “There he goes… ) and her relationship with the young Octavian (Garanča), to the inevitable (and cruel) passing of time (“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” / “Time, it is a weird thing“) at the end of the first act. She didn’t just act the role of the aging, glamorous Marschallin here, or churn out something mediocre, maudlin, or in any way predictable; she was living her soul, bearing it, live, in front of the Metropolitan Opera audience, and it was breathtaking to behold.

Tired but happy me in Berlin. (via)
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Fleming’s signature creamy soprano was lilting, spinning, soaring, twisting and arching, and joined with Garanča’s gorgeous, chocolate-toned mezzo in a seemingly effortless series of tiny tornados that spun in, around and through the audience. Both women were fiercely confident and utterly loving in their embrace of Strauss’ poetic score, and fully committed to Robert Carsen’s beautiful vision of a world about to completely vanish, in both micro and macro ways; these ladies surely vanished into their respective roles, musically, dramatically, spiritually. Bye composer, bye mascara…  by God, bravissime!

I’m saving my symphony-going experiences for a future post, but suffice (for now) to say that seeing conductors Mariss Jansons, Herbert Blomstedt, and Daniel Barenboim live was very special; I had my mind changed about Sibelius and Bruckner in ways I never thought would happen. Danke Berlin…. Danke NYC… you ladies especially made it very beautiful, very memorable, and very worth every tube of mascara. Wahrheit!

Marcelo Puente: “You Can Feel Every Word”

Tito Gobbi as Scarpia and Maria Callas as Tosca, from a 1965 production of Tosca (via)

In the early days of video recording technology, my mother would tape any and every opera production broadcast on PBS. By the end of the 1980s, we had a huge collection of VHS tapes, all carefully labelled in my mother’s tidy handwriting. Some we’d never watch again; some lived in the VCR. One that I kept going back to, from the time I was a child, was Puccini’s Tosca; I think it was the first opera I watched repeatedly (at least until we got hold of a copy of Francesco Rosi’s raunchy Carmen), and one I never got bored of, either musically or dramatically. Many a rainy summer’s day was spent in front of the TV, my friends and I with our root beer floats in hand, watching Hildegard Behrens, Placido Domingo, and Cornell MacNeil swirl, roar, sweat, and sigh through Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production. My youthful passion for the production was what inspired my mother to return to the Met after well over a decade of absence; this time she brought an excited little girl who sat pie-eyed throughout the whole thing, wearing shiny shoes, a smart little red jacket, and a giant smile.

We owned a few classic recordings of Puccini’s famous 1899 work, and even now, putting those vinyl recordings on (the Callas/Gobbi version especially), I’m struck by just how dramatically expressive the score is. Tosca a great introduction for young newcomers to the world of opera; the music clearly tells you everything you need to know. A passionate lady lead! A persecuted lover! A rip-roaring bad guy! It’s the stuff of great novels, old Hollywood, dreamy (if doomed) romances. As well as entertainment value, so many personal memories are connected to this work, including the premiere Met visit. I was simultaneously scared of and thrilled by Scarpia, and for years, I couldn’t see (much less hear) MacNeil as anything but the dastardly villain of the piece. Hearing the opening notes of his introduction still sends a shiver down my spine. Years later, my father would play the famous “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars were shining”) for me on his violin, unbidden. It was the last thing I heard him play.

It was a thrill to learn Argentinian tenor Marcelo Puente would be performing as Mario Cavaradossi (who sings that famous aria in the opera’s last act) for the Canadian Opera Company’s spring production of Toscaand opposite the great soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose work I so enjoyed last month at the Met, in Fidelio. I’ve followed Puente’s work for years, and have admired his passionate, head-first approach to dramatic material, as well as his golden, honey-toned tenor voice. He recently made his Covent Garden debut in another Puccini role, as Pinkerton in the Royal Opera’s Madame Butterfly, to rave reviews. Next season, he’ll be the dramatic role of Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Semperoper in Dresden, and will also be making his debut at Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg, in a new production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, as another doomed romantic hero. What’s up with that? I spoke with Marcelo about singing romantic leads, why he dropped out of medical school (true story), and just why audiences should care about a character like Cavaradossi.

(Photo of Marcelo Puente by Helen Bianco)

Listed, Schmisted

(L-R) Groucho Marx, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, from ‘A Night At The Opera” (via)
If you are active on social media, you may have seen the recent “musical” lists going around and being shared by contacts on Facebook, in which favorites (non-faovorites as well) are revealed. An opera version was quick to follow, and I’ve been reading the lists shared by various friends (including those working both inside and outside the industry) with much interest. 
Tempted to join the trend, I found (shock) my own version was a bit too long, and it just became easier (and more logical) to post here, for everyone, including my many lovely European readers. 
Hopefully some of these choices inspire, amuse, illuminate; some may really raise eyebrows, others may inspire smirks. Either way, I’d love to know if any of these might prod you, good reader, into either listening or watching a work in a new way, or even experiencing an opera for the first time. I hope so! Either way, enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts. 


Opera I hate: 

I find this to be such a reductive question; I don’t hate any of them. Sometimes a certain production can lead to intense dislike, even hate, and that’s a pity; sometimes, the opposite is just as true, with a smart production elevating mediocre material, illuminating and inspiring audiences (which is, of course, lovely and delightful). There are definitely a lot of mediocre works, and directors, and it’s so often a question of finding the right pairing. I don’t envy programmers at all these days, especially with the current challenges facing the art form.

Opera I think is overrated: 
There are no overrated operas; only undercooked (or over-heated) ideas in presenting them.

A scene from L’enfant et les sortileges. (Photo: Komische Oper / 1927, via)
Opera I think is underrated: 
Two, off the top of my head (though there are many):
Stitch, by Anna Chatterton (who I interviewed last summer) and Juliet Palmer; this is a very moving work about sweatshop workers, deceptively simple, but more timely than ever;
L’enfant et les sortileges, by Maurice Ravel, which I saw for the first time this past winter in Berlin, in a very beautiful production at Komische Oper. It’s a whimsical work, with a very impressionistic score, and its libretto is ripe for directorial creativity. I also think it would make a great introduction for kids, though it’s rightly been pointed out that the work is more of “a musical grotesqueness for adults rather than a children’s opera.” True, but still vastly underrated. 

Opera I love: 
There are truly too many things I love to mention. Even with works I take issue with, I almost always tend to find something I like, or even love, and sometimes, it’s a great performer who will elevate the material (or my experience of it) from meh to marvellous. 
For instance, seeing (and interviewing) Patricia Racette in the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Canadian Opera Company in 2014 really made me re-think, and thus, re-experience this work in some important ways. I still find large swaths of it troublesome, but Racette’s interpretation and understanding of the role is so great, and she so very much made it her own (and from what I’d call a refreshngly feminist place), it was like seeing the famous Puccini work for the first time. Great artists have this power. 
(L-R) Sesto Bruscantini and Luciano Pavarotti in a scene from L’elisir D’Amore (via video)
Opera I cherish: 
This feels like a personal question; the act of cherishing something implies a kind of intimacy and comfort coupled with deep gratitude. I’m grateful for every work, but things that speak to me on a personal level include Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (its tuneful score is so warm, so bright, so full of humanity), Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (such a gorgeous study of fidelity, authenticity, and the corners of the human heart), and Berlioz’s Le damnation de Faust — not strictly an opera in the traditional sense, but when it done right, can be very powerful, as my experience of it in Europe this past winter so wonderfully highlighted. 

Guilty pleasure: 
There is no such thing as guilty opera love, is there? That implies there’s a kind of snobbery within the art form about things opera fans are “supposed” to like or dislike – to hell with those rules, and that way of thinking. Pleasure is pleasure; music is music; love is love. Go listen to something you enjoy, and don’t feel ever feel guilty that it somehow isn’t cool enough for the supposed “in” crowd.

Opera I want to see revived: 
In North America, it would be nice to see more Meyerbeer put onstage; his stuff is musically dense, but has intense passages of musical wonder rich with fascinating characterizations as well as great theatrical possibilities. I’d also like to see Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Puccini’s La Rondine, and the work of Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán staged far more often on these shores. 

Opera that I first saw on DVD: 
Forget DVDs! I have fond memories of regularly watching (and taping) Met broadcasts on the PBS program, “Great Performances.”

Opera that I first saw live
Bizet’s Carmen (at age three!).

Opera that I first performed in: 
I’ve never performed in opera, but I did act in the theater many years ago, and I particularly enjoyed Shaw’s Saint Joan, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I walked away from the stage years ago, and thankfully, found just as much value, power, and profundity in comic works as I used to see solely in tragedy. Ah, the wonderful things maturity brings.  

Opera I most recently saw: 
Live, La traviata recently at the Met in New York City (rundown here); on PVR, Wagner’s epic Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. The latter is a very good example of the right production hitting the right emotional and intellectual notes in order to produce a whole new experience and understanding of the score. The production, from 2009 and done at the Bayerische Staatsoper, was a very modern, unusual staging (which provoked some strong reactions in the opera world); I’ve enjoyed it for a while now (this wasn’t my first PVR viewing), and I thought Richard Jones’ directorial ideas truly suited the work; his sometimes-risky concept was helped immeasurably by the utterly committed performances of its leads, who were heartbreaking and fantastic and… sigh

Greatest opening
A few thoughts here: 
I think Verdi had some bombastically good openings musically; you can’t beat the boom-boom-bang wonder of Rigoletto or Il trovatore or La Traviata. I remember my mother always seemed as if she was on the verge of jumping out of her chair, either at the opera house or at home, whenever the opening bars of any (/all) of these was played (and that’s after the overtures). I remember her shoulders hunching up, her eyes squeezing shut, her fingers curling into fists, as the music played, and her saying, quietly, after a few moments, ohhhhhh, Verdi….” You have to admit, he is great with the attention-getting openings. 
For myself, I think one of the most intriguing and misunderstood of openings is Don Giovanni; it’s really not at all as clear-cut as many believe it to be; I’m really not sure Donna Anna is as pure as many have made her out to be; I know how risky that is to say, but pffffft… the music whispers, at least to my ears, that we should be questioning, completely, the scene, in and of itself, and not taking its events — or characters — at face value. I deeply like (and heartily agree with) how director Sven-Eric Bechtolf staged this, along with the entire opera, last summer in Salzburg. Read on… 
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Carmelo Remigio in Don Giovanni (© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz)
Greatest ending: 
I dislike the “greatest” label – I find it insultingly reductive, and taste is such a personal thing anyway — but I will say, I enjoy the ending of Don Giovanni, because, like Austen’s great novels, it ends with people who are facing a new and uncertain kind of beginning; once the title character gets dragged off (to wherever — hell is non-existence to some), everyone has to figure out how and why to live now that he – that viral, vibrant tornado of chaos — is gone. 
To those who know me well, it’s not a grand secret that I really, really loved Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging of this opera in Salzburg last summer (a re-mount of his 2014 production); it struck chords with me in ways I still can’t quite explain – though the fact he treated the women as actual human beings with real needs went a long, long way (for me) in further appreciating and understanding this troubling work, and it all started with a very sexy opening, and closed with… more suggestion of sex, a kind of continuation of that restless, rule-breaking chaos that is both so dangerous and attractive. Mozart and Da Ponte wrote a great ending full of question marks; Bechtolf took that and ran with it. Bravo!

Worst middle of an otherwise great opera
I really don’t like this question, because it doesn’t take into account how damn hard the writing process actually is. 
Many times librettists and composers (to say nothing of writers, editors, producers, and other assorted creative types) struggle against the dreaded middle-section-sag, sometimes to no avail. This is where good directors, conductors, and performers become extra-special important (more than they already are, of course); it’s up to the creative teams (sound as well as visual) to create something special with material that develops such unfortunate (if occasionally unavoidable) sag. Find something to elevate and illuminate, for audiences, and for yourselves; I think this is the aim of many good artists past and present, to be honest, and it is worth keeping in mind when you find yourself nodding off in the middle of anything. 
Some do this at the opera. (via)
Greatest opera of all time: 
The next one I’m going to see, of course — or that you’ll suggest to me. 

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