Tag: singing Page 1 of 5

tulips, flowers, spring, orange, colour, petals, vibrant

Reading List: Movies, Music, Media, & … Butchers?

Another university term has wrapped and I am still busy, largely with self-initiated things including interviews, chases, planning, and (as ever) copious amounts of study. Herein, a few things that have caught the attention, inflamed the imagination, cocked my head and furrowed my brow; I may have smiled once or twice also. Voila, news, views, musings, questions, reprimands, and previews… April showers bring what? We shall see.

This week: A series called “Opera and Democracy” has been unfolding in an assortment of locales throughout Manhattan. Presented by The Thomas Mann House and musicologist Kai Hinrich Müller (also a 2023 Fellow of the organization), the series hopes to explore “how the opera can contribute to diverse and inclusive societies” and uses Berlin’s Krolloper as a symbol of both art and politics. (Built in 1844, the facility became an opera house in 1851 and eventually served as the assembly hall of the Reichstag from 1933 to 1942; it was demolished in 1951.) The topics of  the series, according to the website, include “aspects of the democratization of opera, to questions of power and representation, new formats, casting and programming policies, audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.” The series has already hosted themed conversations in Los Angeles and Munich. Its next events happen next month in Dresden, with June’s week-long online series exploring involving the Black Opera Research Network (BORN). I’ve put out a request to speak with Müller about this – fingers and toes crossed for a future feature on a timely topic.

Later this month: Dame Felicity Lott will be performing at London’s Institut Français on April 30th as part of a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, the 1930 avant-garde work The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète). Considered a masterpiece by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is the first installment in The Orphic Trilogy (subsequently followed by Orphée in 1950 and Testament of Orpheus in 1960), which explores themes of identity, creativity, fame, and the unconscious. Lott’s performance (happening after the screening) will be accompanied by composer Jason Carr, with whom she has worked extensively; the appearance  is part of the Institut’s broader series celebrating the work of French composer Georges Auric (1899-1983). Cocteau’s film includes a rather perfect line for classical watchers: “Those who smash statues should beware of becoming one.”

Next month: If you don’t know the music of Maria Herz (1878-1950), you might – soon. Born in Köln to a music-loving family, Herz and her family eventually moved to England in 1901 because of the rising tide of antisemitism in her homeland, though they would return in 1914 and be forced to stay. After her husband’s premature death in 1920, she would use his first name in her compositions, in order to, as website Music And The Holocaust puts it, “gain a foothold in her male-dominated profession.” By 1934 she had produced over 30 works, though only five of her songs (as well as her arrangement of a Bach Chaconne) were published during her lifetime. She died in New York City at the age of 72. Much of her music sat forgotten in drawers until grandson Albert Herz’s heroic efforts in Switzerland; he would go on to donate it to the Zurich Central Library. In 2015 Herz’s music became a permanent part of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s music department. As publisher Boosey & Hawkes recently announced, a new recording is on the horizon. Set for release in May via Capriccio Records, the album will feature Herz’s Concerto for cello and orchestra Op. 10 (soloist Konstanze von Gutzeit), Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 4 (soloist Oliver Triendl) and various orchestral works, all performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the baton of Christiane Silber.

Carving up space

London’s Southbank Centre recently announced a new festival based on Kate Molleson’s book Sound Within Sound (Faber & Faber, 2022). I interviewed Molleson not long after the book’s release with relation to a feature I was writing for The Globe & Mail on changing ideas of the classical canon.  The festival, named after the book, runs 4 to 7 July and places its spotlight on the ten composers Molleson identifies in her book, ten artists whose work has, for various reasons, flown well under the radar – until now. The festival will include concerts, installations, stories, DJ sets, and recitals, including pianist Siwan Rhys performing Galina Ustvolskaya’s harrowing and extremely timely Piano Sonata No. 4 in 4 parts (1957), Piano Sonata No. 5 in 10 movements (1986), and Piano Sonata No.6 in 1 part (1988). You might feel yourself walking out of the Purcell Room in pieces following the performance, but then, it’s up to you to put them back together again in a way that makes sense with every other musical morsel – and maybe that’s the whole point of the festival.

Speaking of pieces and morsels: butchers have been on my mind, thanks to a thoughtful essay at Longreads. Along with a fascinating history, author Olivia Potts gets meaty (pun intended) input from a variety of people in the industry, many of whom left careers in other areas. This element has a special personal significance – I considered this very path over a decade ago; my opera-loving mother said I would probably make a good butcher indeed but for my small stature, not – as the author points out – that this is an entirely insurmountable thing. The feature immediately brought to mind other industries, ones with overwhelmingly male leadership and/or overwhelmingly clubby, insular attitudes. (I’ve mused on this theme frequently in the past, most recently in last month’s reading list.) Among the many brilliant observations and direct quotes, one section particularly stands out to me:

“It feels axiomatic to say that those who come from outside an established or “validated community of knowers” will find it significantly harder to both acquire knowledge and have that knowledge recognized than someone whose path is a well-trodden one. One of the most common ways of excluding non-traditional entrants to an industry is to be dismissive of them. This idea of being “taken seriously”—often those exact words—comes up again and again in the butchers I speak to about women in the trade.” (“The Women at the Cutting Edge of Butchery“, Olivia Potts, Longreads, 15 February 2024)

Shut your (my) filthy (rich) mouth…

Still in the non-conformist (or is it?) category: Theatre writer Lyn Gardner has written a chewy column for The Stage explores the rise of self-censorship in both organizational and individual aspects. I long for something to be added here around the normalization of false equivalence – how and why some views are given equal weight when they are not clearly not equal – and on the proliferation of hate speech, particularly within the realm Gardner points at as being the most problematic (social media), and how that proliferation has leaked into current cultural discourse. She does touch on an important aspect to all of this – money – and the role of funding bodies, but I wonder to what extent so-called “cancel culture” (whose popularization has made a tiny handful of tech people very rich) actually informs real programming decisions. After all, the moral authority to which she alludes doesn’t come cheap, and it largely flies out the window to keep the money rolling in; ever has it been thus. That tendency is more pronounced now that revenue sources are becoming increasingly scarce. Gardner’s mention of her students not knowing about Britain’s history of theatre censorship is somehow both depressing and unsurprising. (“Self-censorship doesn’t only silence voices but erodes moral authority“, Lyn Gardner, The Stage, 8 April 2024)

… but do speak up

The GVL (Gesellschaft zur Verwertung von Leistungsschutzrechten) is conducting a survey on the state of the German music industry. The survey is intended for artists who are either self-employed or active in the music industry and based in the country. Responses are due by no later than 19 May 2024. Co-founded in 1959 by the German Orchestra Association and the German wing of the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the GVL represents the interests of both producers and performing artists related to audio recordings, as well as ancillary rights through different forms of media. Machen Sie mit!

Hallo Medien

Amidst recent German media speculations regarding the current situation at Bayerische Staatsoper, its multi-award-winning in-house record label (BSOrec) is not mentioned once. Am I the only one who finds this strange? The label, founded in 2021, has so far released ten acclaimed audio and visual works, the most recent being last autumn’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Elias led by former company leader Wolfgang Sawallisch and captured live in 1984. Does media (local and international, equally) not consider BSOrec part of the musical ecosystem of the house (or city)? The exclusion is particularly galling if one considers the excitement such releases tend to generate globally; as well as being good for ears and eyes, they further the branding of the organization, and, more broadly, that of Bavaria overall – something Markus Blume must surely be aware of (we hope). Furthermore: why is the label’s work so under-promoted by the house? Why are there no related online updates – ones that might impress Herr Blume and demonstrate an interest in engaging with the wider public? Does Guido Gärtner need to come back from Bremen?

Lebeswohl, Scheiße

Writer Anne Midgette has penned an open letter to the musicians and administrators of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, and what she terms “other classical music organizations and orchestra musicians’ collectives.” The letter is a response to their posted expressions of solidarity with relation to an article by Sammy Sussman in New York Magazine detailing the 2010 rape of New York Philharmonic horn player Cara Kizer by two fellow musicians and its horrific aftermath; since the article’s publishing, the two are, as of 16 April, are no longer rehearsing or performing with the orchestra. Midgette takes aim at the statements of support posted by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute (along with those unnamed others) for their rampant hypocrisy, something I’m not sure she would have been able to do with such clarity in her former position as classical critic with The Washington Post. Along with the force of her prose, Midgette provides stellar links and digital trails. I have met many people who intensely dislike Midgettes reporting, the #MeToo movement, what they feel she represents and supports – dislike these things as much as you wish, but you cannot deny Midgette excels at bringing the damn receipts.

Coming soon:

This weekend you can read my recent conversation with New Zealand Opera General Director Brad Cohen. The company’s first-ever New Opera Forum takes place next week (22-26 April) with composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone Kawiti Waetford. The company recently opened its new season with Dove’s 2011 chamber opera Mansfield Park, with libretto by Middleton and based on the 1814 novel of the same name by Jane Austen. Cohen and I had a fulsome discussion in which he offered thoughts on what opera can and should be in 2024, for artists as much as for audiences.

This sense of possibility is one of the things I’ll be exploring in an upcoming exchange with Renaud Doucet and André Barbe. The busy director-designer duo have two productions on the go right now, in Liège (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) and Toronto (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale); their 2019 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in Glyndebourne  (which I previewed in Opera Canada magazine) incorporated aspects of real-life hotelier Anna Sacher into its dramaturgy. The last time was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the pair had made a dramatic escape from Venice; this time will (we hope) be a bit less dramatic.

In the meantime, remember the c-word– and use it. 🙂

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Ludovic Tezier, baritone, opera, singer, classical, French

Ludovic Tézier On Singing Verdi, Working With Jonas Kaufmann, & Why ‘Okay’ Is “Not Enough.”

To be called “the leading Verdi baritone on the global stage for the best part of a decade” (by Gramophone Magazine’s Hugo Shirley) is one thing; to be an earthy, energetic conversationalist is quite another. Ludovic Tézier manages both, and then some. To state he is a committed Verdi singer is putting things mildly. Currently performing at Paris’s Opéra Bastille in the title role of Simon Boccanegra, the French baritone has sung a who’s who of roles by the Italian master; Rigoletto, Macbeth, Posa (Don Carlo), Ford (Falstaff), Don Carlo di Varga (La forza del destino), Renato (Un ballo in maschera) , and Giorgio Germont (La traviata) are all part of his regular repertoire. Tézier’s 2021 solo album of Verdi arias, recorded with Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and conductor Frédéric Chaslin and released by Sony Classical, won a Gramophone Award for Best Voice & Ensemble Recording. Gramophone’s Shirley called it “surely the finest Verdi recital – from any voice type – to have appeared for several years, if not a decade.”

As well as being a regular at Opéra National de Paris, Tézier has appeared on the stages of Teatro Alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real (Madrid), Liceu Barcelona, Royal Opera Opera Covent Garden, and The Metropolitan Opera (New York), to name a few. He has also performed at a variety of festivals including those in Verona, Savonlinna, Aix-en-Provence, the Chorégies d’Orange, Glyndebourne, and Baden-Baden as well as both the Easter and summer festivals in Salzburg. He has sung the titles roles in in Hamlet, Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni, as well as Yeletsky (Pique Dame), Count Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Athanaël (Thaïs), and Wagner roles Amfortas (Parsifal) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (Tannhäuser), and given both recitals and masterclasses. Later this year he’ll be a soloist in a performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem alongside soprano Pretty Yende in a concert featuring the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Aziz Shokhakimov as part of the annual Festival de Saint-Denis. In May he will perform another signature role, Baron Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, in a new production by Kornél Mundruczó at Bayerische Staatsoper.

Set to join him for part of that run is tenor Jonas Kaufmann (as Mario Cavaradossi), a colleague with whom Tézier shares a warm and lively association, live onstage and through a number of recordings. Their 2022 Sony Classical album Insieme: Opera Duets, with Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under conductor Antonio Pappano, features the music of Puccini, Ponchielli, and Verdi, and garnered widespread praise, with The Financial Times‘ Richard Fairman calling it “a recital of distinction.” The pair will be performing selections from the album this October in Naples in a concert with Orchestra of Teatro di San Carlo and conductor Jochen Rieder.

Simon Boccanegra, Ludovic Teziér, baritone, Verdi, opera, performance, Opéra national de Paris, Calixto Bieito, classical, music, arts, culture, France, Paris

Ludovic Tézier as Simon Boccanegra at Opéra Bastille, 2018. Photo: Agathe Poupeney / Opéra national de Paris

More immediate is Simon Boccanegra at Opéra Bastille. Its heavy three acts (plus prologue) explore the vagaries of political intrigue, romantic jealousy, and ultimately, forgiveness in friendships and families alike. Calixto Bieito’s production, premiered in late 2018 and currently enjoying a revival, uses sharply contrasting textures and equally striking video projections to convey the tormented psychology of its titular hero. Tézier is simultaneously authoritative and sensitive, making smart use of small gestures and facial expressions to offer a complex portrayal of a damaged man navigating painful inner and outer realities.  The character’s reunion with his long-lost daughter Maria (Nicole Car) is especially moving, with the baritone wide-eyed if awkward, his Simon clearly yearning to embrace but utterly incapacitated. A physicality that might be used for care is made into more of a cave, yawning, empty, alone. Vocally he is broad one moment, intimate the next; colourful and textured, with just the right amount of shading, thickly applied or gossamer-delicate; flexible but not showy; legato but not engulfing; emotion expressed not via volume but through careful, considered control. Tézier possesses an artistry of the very highest calibre –immediate, human, utterly unforgettable.

Our exchange one recent rainy afternoon in Paris was conducted amidst intermittent announcements on the loudspeakers laced throughout Opéra Bastille’s labyrinthine backstage area. Tézier offered equal parts attentiveness, intelligence, passion, and sensitivity, a mirror of the qualities he brings to his performances, whether live or recorded.  We began by discussing one of his most memorable roles, as the seemingly-villainous brother in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he has been rightly praised for and remains burned into the memory of those who experienced his performance at The Met in 2011.

How do you see a character like Donizetti’s Enrico – is he a villain to you, or something more?

He isn’t really a villain – he feels like he’s doing his duty, keeping things around the family and its preservation. He wants to save his family – if you think about (Verdi’s) Germont it’s the same thing: he’s on duty; he’s protecting his son; he has to do a job to preserve his family and name.

You commented in an interview about Germont and Rigoletto and how singing them relates to age, experience and wisdom, which brought to mind the industry casting younger and younger.

I think of age as fruit. You have to pick it at a certain age, and not take the fruit that’s still green – you have to wait to pick those pieces. When you do a character too early you might have the voice to do it, but will you … give it the way you could give it ten years later? Plus knowing there are plenty of different parts, why do the biggest, deepest, most complex parts from the early beginning? Just because you sound more or less as you should sound for it? Opera is much more about telling the story in a certain way. Of course it’s about singing too. But if you’re not able to be the character and actually be believed within that character you’re better to do another one – there are plenty to choose.

Most of the characters you should begin with are lightweight, they are young and corresponding to what you are going through when you’re 28-30. In my case being a father made me really understand these Verdi roles. To make an image of fatherhood is one thing, but being one is different, I can tell you. I’d rather be number one in Mozart than number ten in Verdi. Doing those other roles helps you to be good at singing Verdi. Every colour you pick up in Mozart and Donizetti you will use later in Verdi – and in dramatic singing. It’s not just decibels, it’s about preserving your instrument, developing those colours and accents you may expect for Verdi, and having the freshness to give the good high notes and beautiful legato. That’s, in a nutshell, where you put a life story. And you can’t fake it; it isn’t rewarding for you in any way. You can’t give what you should be giving within the part.

You mentioned in a past interview that you’d love to do more Mozart, which reminded me of something Luca Pisaroni said years ago, that Mozart is a massage for the voice…

He is one of my rare brothers in the job. Luca is one of the best artists onstage I’ve ever met – there are only a few that still impress me, and he is one of them, because he is living the music, living the opera. He’s giving the music 100%. Some of the times Luca and I have worked together – not enough for my taste – we’ve done Don Giovanni and Leporello, and it is fresh like a new flower every time, growing all along and renewed every night – because we are growing together. You never know what may come right after you deliver your line, but you can be sure it is true, it isn’t a xerox at every performance…

It shouldn’t be a xerox!

No! That’s not opera! We are building on the stage a beautiful picture, like paintings, except we are life. We are not in the Louvre or the Met Museum – I love them both, by the way – but the paintings we create are moving so they are not the same, not the same at all every performance…

… and the light will change on those ‘paintings’ so the picture will change…

Yes, and that’s the beauty of it.

So which Mozart roles do you want to do now?

Every role!

I really want to see your Almaviva live.

Ah yes! I’ve done it – that a role needs either a young baritone, and I’ve done it at that time in my life, or a man of my age now, because after 40 men are kind of set in their habits…

There’s also the aspect of authority, and people questioning it…

That’s right.

… which really points up the subversive nature of the Beaumarchais play.

Precisely.

But the Verdi roles, like Simon Boccanegra?

I love this role so, so much. Oh my goodness, I can’t even tell you how much.

How has it changed for you, since you’ve done it a lot now?

Once you begin a part like I did here, in the same production six years ago already, the part is like every part, it is growing into your brain and your soul in a private way – it is there, developing. When you put the score on the table again to really examine it, it is different because you are different, because the part has developed independently and of course the voice has changed in six years. I have to find another way to express what’s in the part now. I don’t know quite what the connection is between the voice, the development of the voice, and the part itself – I am not sure what nourishes what. It might be the part that asks you for more colour or the voice that has more possibility. Somehow it’s all a dialogue.

So you internalize the part in your body, and  it returns, like muscle memory?

Yes, that’s true.

… but it changes at the same time?

Yes, because the body is changing. It’s like you remember and think back, “How did I do that mountain-climb when I was young?” The body remembers that you completed that activity. Sometimes you have to jump into a part you’ve not done for years – and voila, you know it, and the body knows it like an instinctual animal knows how to handle a dangerous situation, which is amazing. When you have more time to learn it, then you can take what your body remembers and try to make it in another way, into something finer, polished, deep.

Something you can translate into the outer world?

Yes, but to control the effect that you have on the public … that is so independent of everything. You try to give your best; sometimes it works, sometimes not. Sometimes it was great, sometimes not. You try to not do the same thing twice but to put yourself in the same state of mind, and it may not work… c’est la vie. Of course we are working with great passion on our voice but remember to be able to sing these beautiful parts is a present. So somehow we have to give it back to somebody and to the public for sure. It’s sort of a duty, because all truly great singers want to be able to get into this intimacy with composers like Verdi and Wagner. It is good to try to make people… sense what the composer wanted to tell or express, and when it works, it’s one of the greatest moments.

How much of this translates into your masterclasses? Conveying all of this to students must be a challenge.

Oh definitely. It’s a case of, if you want to express what I’m aiming at and what I wish you to aim for, then the basis is to have a very good technique and flexibility. You have to build that technique and have that ground on which you can find the emotion and voice. If you don’t have this sort of grounding… I don’t want to be in a room where I see people sweating to be loud. It’s why we have to build a very solid foundation, to be able to give the impression that we are actually doing what we do, easily. That makes the public much more comfortable and open-minded – open-souled, if I can say that. They can receive what you have to give. And never forget what we are doing makes a direct connection with the old form of Greek theatre. I think we should always aim for that kind of authenticity, and not forget it, and not be a narcissist thinking, ‘Am I good-sounding?’ Sure, it’s a good voice, but the expression isn’t there.

I remember once an artist was singing one night when I was in a hotel. This old guy was so skillful, he was giving the text and theatrics, but that was it. It was a nice voice, but … especially with Verdi, when you sing it nicely, it’s not nice. It must be beautiful, it must be deep – and the beauty is not always defined as vocal perfection. The beauty of a “perfect” face is not nice! Listen to “My Way” with Sinatra and another singer and you will know the difference. Sinatra has a beautiful voice but most of all he’s a great singer, a complete singer – the greatest tenor for me. You understand every word, on every level. Then you hear people just singing the words, not the music. They know the melody, but what makes it an international standard? Not the nice melody. Some may sing the nice melodies and say, “okay, it’s enough” – no. ‘Okay’ is not enough.

It seems like this is a big part of what informs your work with Jonas Kaufmann.

Very much so. When Jonas is entering the stage, he isn’t entering because it is written or because the director has called him on; he’s entering because he has something to do as an artist. That makes a hell of a difference. He isn’t only a singer; he’s an everything.

… which encapsulates what opera is about: voice, theatre, visuals.

That’s why we love it. I never could choose between the visual, the sound, the theatre.

Alexander Neef once remarked to me that he thinks opera is the most complete art form because of its integrating these elements. 

I can’t really say, it might be quite arrogant of me, but… maybe?

Do you think there’s a dwindling audience for this kind of artistic understanding?

I think there are still sensing it, and people who want this, and that’s what we need. I don’t ask people to understand why one emotion is there; I want them to listen, to feel, to say, “Wow, this is special to me.” And that’s it. Our job is to understand, to find the keys, but the public? I don’t ask them to understand – on the contrary. They don’t need to know all the tricks; knowing every single thing can kill the magic. Just listen; feel the emotion. It’s the best way to spend three hours.

Top photo: Cassandra Berthon
Louis Langrée, conductor, France, Paris, Opéra Comique, director, opera, classical

Louis Langrée’s “Larger View” At Opéra Comique

Most people know Opéra Comique in connection with Carmen, but there’s so much more to the famed Paris house than Bizet’s famous opera. Conductor and General Director Louis Langrée is clearly in love with the “jewel of a theatre” that has hosted premieres by a who’s-who of French classical greats, including Debussy, Delibes, Massenet, Méhul, Offenbach, Poulenc, Lalo, Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Thomas, as well as Italian Gaetano Donizetti; the theatre also hosted the French premiere of Puccini’s Tosca in 1903.

Appointed director of the Opéra Comique in November 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, Langrée came with ideas – lots of them – though it’s clear he also possesses a wider awareness of the practicalities required to bring them to fruition. Langrée’s name is known on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his work in New York and Cincinnati as well as his native France. Beginning his studies at Strasbourg Conservatory, Langrée went on to becoming vocal coach and assistant at the Opéra National de Lyon in the mid 1980s. From there he worked as assistant conductor at Aix-en-Provence Festival and music director with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. He made his North American debut at the Spoleto Festival in 1991. But it was his time in New York that so many North Americans may know him for, as Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Centre, a position he began in 2003 and would hold for the next two decades. In 2011 led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for the first time in a guest capacity; he became its Music Director in 2013. He’ll be concluding his time there at the end of this season.

An award-winning discography comes naturally with so many varied experiences. It includes work with the Camerata Salzburg, l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège, and Baroque ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée, covering an array of composers (Liszt, Franck, Chausson, Ravel, Schulhoff, Mozart, Weber, Rossini). In Cincinnati  Langrée has recorded commissions by Sebastian Currier, Thierry Escaich, and Zhou Tian. The 2020 recording Transatlantic (Fanfare Cincinnati) with the CSO illustrates what could be an artistic ethos for the conductor in its intelligent transcending of borders and strict definitions. Langrée’s third album with the orchestra features shimmering, gorgeously vibrant readings of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1938-1940), the original 1922 version of Varèse’s Amériques, and the world premiere recording of original unabridged version of Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Music writer Jari Kallio wrote at its release that “Be it the ravishing colours, the ever-enchanting melodies or those uplifting rhythms, these performances of American in Paris are nothing short of an epiphany” and called the Grammy-nominated album “one of the most important releases of the year.” Yet opera isn’t a side-job for Langrée, but close to a raison d’être; the conductor has been involved in numerous opera productions across Europe – at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala (Milan), Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Opéra national de Paris, as well as the Glyndebourne and Aix, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led stagings of Iphigenia in Tauris, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Carmen and Hamlet, one of his favorite works.

Notably open about the siloed nature of conducting and the classical world in general, the Alsatian artist made it clear in a recent conversation that his administrative demands have actually strengthened his artistic output. Notes, phrasing, orchestration – any conductor can talk about those things; Langrée is just as interested in pondering resources, labour costs, world realities. The role of education is just as paramount, and the conductor is keen to strengthen and expand the connection between artistic institutions and learning for young people who may have only cliched ideas about the opera. Offering tantalizing morsels relating to a new work (an intriguing-sounding multilingual commission), Langrée enthused on his more immediate project, the upcoming double-bill of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which opens at Opéra Comique on March 9th.

The pairing feels like a highly symbolic choice for an artist who seems perfectly at ease with his audience, whether near or far. We began by discussing why he chose these works, and what French actor/director/writer Guillaume Gallienne brings to the stage of the Opéra Comique.

Why pair L’Heure Espagnole and Pulcinella as one programme?

There’s an amazing repertoire of works which were commissioned and premiered by the Opéra Comique, of course the most famous is Carmen, but there’s also Pelléas et Melisande (1902), La voix humaine (1959), Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), La damnation de Faust (1846), Manon (1884), Cendrillon (1899), Lakmé (1883), all of them were premiered here, along with L’Heure Espagnole (1911). Pulcinella was not premiered at Opéra Comique and it isn’t an opera but a ballet. L’Heure Espagnole is short, it’s one-act opera, or as Ravel said, a comédie-musicale; at the time it was premiered, it was paired with Thérèse from Massenet, which is a very moral story in which a lady abandons her lover to go to the guillotine with her husband. It could have been possible to show the contrast between the two pieces, but generally L’Heure Espagnole is presented with Ravel’s other operatic work, L’enfant et les sortilèges. They are two lyrical pieces that Ravel wrote but they have nothing to do with each other.

So I wondered, what could we present? I thought of an evening with contrasting subjects and arts; when you come to the foyer of the house here, you see les quartiers allégories (the four allegories) de Opéra Comique: la comédie, le chant, la musique, et le ballet (play-acting, singing, music, ballet). I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose ballet and opera. But which subjects? With these two works we have two contrasting subjects: Pulcinella is this man who is so attractive, an irresistible sex symbol for women, and the woman in L’Heure Espagnole can’t be satisfied by any of her men.

What’s the connection in terms of musical language?

It’s a case of contrasts. Stravinsky said he had an epiphany in discovering the music of Pergolesi, it was a way for him to go further; with Ravel, we have the sound of his beginning with L’Heure Espagnole. It is just amazing, these sounds that mix music and effects: a metronome, the sound of a rooster crowing, the soldier, with sounds that are very militaristic. The orchestration Stravinsky uses in Pulcinella, however, is like black-and-white: there is no clarinet, for instance, or any kind of a sound that might give some shimmering effect. It’s oboes, horns, trumpets, trombones, this concerto grosso-type orchestration with soloists and the tutti, whereas L’Heure Espagnole is much closer to The Nightingale or The Firebird in terms of its orchestration.

Does this reflect the connection between composers?

Ravel and Stravinsky were friends – they met at the premiere of The Firebird. Diaghilev had asked them to orchestrate bits of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. They were using “vous” and not “tu”, but then they began letter-writing, and would open with “mon vieux” or ‘you old guy’ – it was a term of affection. (Conductor) Manuel Rosenthal told this story that on the day Ravel died (December 28, 1937) Rosenthal was conducting L’Enfant Sortileges; at the end of the evening he saw Stravinsky looking really upset, because he had lost his friend. Stravinsky went to Ravel’s funeral along with Poulenc and Milhaud – there were not many people, but Stravinsky was there.

How did Guillaume Gallienne become part of this project?

Guillaume is an immense French actor, stage director, and film director. I don’t know if you saw his film, Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table – it was so successful in France and rightly so. He has his own language, his own world, and he knows how to transmit it. He’s also gifted in how he inspires singers. The characters in both pieces here are not romantic, but they do want to be loved. Even the muscle-man in L’Heure – one is touched by his naivete. You need to accept them for what they are. It’s very difficult for singers with these works because normally they want to interpret a personage, to incarnate a person as a person, but there is none of that here, otherwise it would become a cheap piece. It’s amazing to see how Guillaume works, with his precision. Funny, because Stravinsky called Ravel “l’horloger suisse” (the Swiss watchmaker) there is this perfection in the details, as Ravel was fascinated by mechanical objects. With his opera, you don’t need to incarnate a person, you just have to sing and allow yourself to be placed in situations which are nonsense, a nonsense that makes you laugh, cry, smile, think, feel – that’s something special. Guillaume understands this perfectly. Every rehearsal with him is a masterclass.

What’s it like to return to Paris and lead a theatre so rich in cultural history?

I have a double life, the life of a conductor and life of a General Manager. When you’re in the pit, you don’t think, “My God, this place!” or “So much history!” but rather, “I should not take this phrase too fast” or “I should help the singer move on here.” You’re with very practical things. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you’re not doing your job.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to that history in terms of programming?

I do feel the DNA of this theatre, and everything that comes with presenting both new productions as well as works that everybody knows. You can have traditional houses, or houses where there is innovation, experimentation, trying to find new ways to do things, and generally the two are opposed, but actually the tradition of the Opéra Comique – our history – is to create, to innovate, to experiment. So even with old pieces like Pulcinella and L’Heure, juxtaposing an opera, comédie-musicale, and a ballet is a very unusual thing, but it is also symbolic of my mission. And of course we are going to continue to premiere new pieces, to give world premieres, to give Paris premieres also. But it’s one thing to create and to do the world premiere, and another to be confronted with different audiences, and have the work be interpreted by different singers, directors, conductors, orchestras.

Where do you see Opéra Comique being part of the ecosystem in the post-pandemic landscape then?

Today in the new economic situation we must have corporate users, which means that when you present a piece, either a new production or a new work, you have to find partners. For instance, after Paris L’Heure/Pulcinella is going to Dijon. When L’Autre Voyage opened here earlier this year, there were several festivals and opera managers and house directors who came to see it, and of course we hope that the piece will be presented in different places. We have also commissioned works with various outlets in Germany – and those commissions take into account traditions the Opéra Comique have always embraced in terms of languages. Gluck composed Orfeo ed Euridice in an Italian version (1762) and a French version (1774); Cherubini’s Medée had multiple translations from the French into German and Italian. So we are planning to do a new work with Matthias Pintscher now, in both German and French.

Also, and this is quite important, and maybe the main reason I wanted to come and lead the Opéra Comique, is the production and the transmission sides. We have the Maîtrise Populaire, which involves young people from 8 to 25 years old, they have part of a scholarship, morning is general studies and afternoon is for dance, singing, staging, acting. Many of these kids come from places in the suburbs of Paris where there is absolutely no contact with opera at all. Their dream might only be to become a soccer star, not an opera singer or any kind of an artist, and through this program they discover a new world – and it changes their lives. They learn that when you sing together, you must have concentration and discipline; you have to know that your partner counts on you and you can count on them, and that’s something wonderful. We are a theatre nationale, de la republique, so this is all part of our message: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Where does this mandate toward education and development fit within your greater vision?

I arrived at an age where I feel that I must transit, I must help the new generation, I must pass the baton, and develop the image and the identity of this house and its public perception. This title, “opéra comique”, what does the “comique” part mean? People think it means operetta, but no, it’s from the same etymology as “comédie” or speaking; in opera you sing, in comedy you speak. It’s much clearer in German: “singspiel”. Opera, as an art form in the old sense, was a representation of royal power, onstage; at Opéra Comique it is the opposite, it’s the representation of ourselves as ourselves…

Volksoper”…

Genau! That’s why The Magic Flute is a singspiel, it’s an opéra comique! And Carmen is not a princess, Manon is not a princess, Melisande – well, we don’t really know…

Your quote to the New York Times last year comes to mind:“When you have to read these Excel things and have to balance budgets and work with subsidies from the government — now, I feel like I’ve been plunged into real life. And that’s hard” – but from what you’ve said it seems as if these real-life details have made you a better artist.

Absolutely. I realize now as a conductor I was really in a silo. I used to feel an opera was the score, the dream of the composer together with voices and visuals – but now that I’m the General Manager of the house, there are so many things to think about: props, stagehands, electricians, costume designers, seamstresses. You have a larger view of the entire thing. And that awareness makes you think differently.

To what extent does that translate to your audiences?

What matters now is to understand the importance and role of philanthropy and sponsorship in relation to audiences – something I learned in the US – which is developing in its own way very quickly here in France and all of Europe. It’s especially relevant with inflation and the raising of electricity rates, in building sets and understanding raised wood prices because of the war in Ukraine. You can’t ignore all of that. And of course being on a constant budget, when you have inflation, you’re hyper-aware of salaries too. So what is reduced is the production budget, which is quite difficult, therefore we need to continue searching in terms of partners, corporate users, sponsors, philanthropists, and doing so with a lot of determination and energy.

So that’s where creativity comes in?

Entirely. I mean, a set that costs ten times more will not necessarily be ten times better. The realities force us to be imaginative. In terms of programming, there are at least three other houses in Paris – Châtelet, Champs-Elysées, Opéra national de Paris – and it wouldn’t make sense if we presented Tosca here, even though that opera did premiere in France at the Opéra Comique, and that’s only because the General Director at the time was a friend of Puccini’s. But when we present Carmen here,  for instance, we present it with the dialogues, not the recits. We’ll do the same for various presentations next season. That way we don’t compete with other houses. Also a small theatre is a great advantage; there’s an intimacy here, you can whisper and have it be heard, it gives a different relationship to the stage and the music. I remember conducting Hamlet (in 2o22) and (soprano) Sabine Devieilhe was whispering during parts of the mad aria – you could hear every word. It was incredible.

Is it right to say that intimacy is part of the Opéra Comique brand?

Yes, this place is a hidden gem. My office here, the office of the General Director, is close to everything. It’s often the case that the offices of house directors are on top floors, with beautiful and impressive view of their cities, but here, I have people above me, below me, next to me, and if I leave my office… <carries laptop> in three seconds, I am on stage…. voila! <shows auditorium on camera> This proximity really says everything.

Top photo: Chris Lee
Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m very close to the text”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

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

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

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

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

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

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

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

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

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

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

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

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

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

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

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot
Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

Alexander Neef: “The Essence Of Theatre Is To Engage In A Dialogue”

History can be many things, but mostly, and especially within the classical arts, it is heavy. Alexander Neef, General Director of the Opéra national de Paris (OnP), is aware of this weight, yet he views it as a rich inspiration. The German administrator, who was the company’s Casting Director from 2004 to 2008 before becoming General Director of the Canadian Opera Company for twelve years, came to his current position in autumn 2020, much earlier than planned and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It proved the first of many adversities managing one of the opera world’s most celebrated and storied institutions, one which has been known as much for its variety of names as for its trials and tribulations in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Those challenges, particularly since 2020, are very real: financial pressures, strikes, accusations of racism, the sudden resignation of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Where there is strife, however, there is also hope. This past March saw French-Senegalese OnP ballet dancer Guillaume Diop join the company’s coveted “Etoile” (star) category; he is the first Black artist to achieve the top rank. In 2020 Diop had co-authored a manifesto (“On The Racial Question in Opera”) which criticized discrimination within the organization. Neef, as you’ll read, took these concerns seriously, and met them with his own initiatives. A report commissioned by the company in February 2021 stated that diversity was seriously lacking, with Diversity Referent Myriam Mazouzi (who is also Director of the OnP Academy, a training ground for young artists) underlining the need for the company to “get out of our walls” and “open up our recruitment channels, otherwise we always have the same profiles and we become poorer.” To facilitate this opening, the company embarked on an ambitious initiative in French Guyana in 2022 to encourage and promote local talent. L’Opéra en Guyane works in close collaboration with Guyanese cultural institutions and includes all training in voice and dance as well as set design and makeup. The program ran this past October and November, and will return to Guyana again in March 2024, with its development being chronicled in a documentary series on POP (Paris Opera Play), the company’s dedicated streaming platform.

POP itself is impressive, hosting an immense and ever-updated archive of anytime-is-a-good-time (read: audience-friendly) viewing which includes all aspects of OnP’s considerable output: ballet, orchestral concerts, and opera (with subtitles available in English and French), as well as backstage documentaries, masterclasses, and artist interviews. The platform is the realization of the company’s earlier foray into video streaming, l’Opéra chez soi, launched just after Neef’s arrival in December 2020, and elegantly demonstrates a commitment to something beyond sexy opera branding, an overused aspect within the current classical-marketing landscape which mostly involves substance-free clickbait and/or posts (whether on social media or websites proper) with plenty of seemingly intellectual finery but ultimately bereft of the humanity and depth their subjects demand. POP runs counter to this trend; a thoughtful and accessible platform, its user-friendly design and wide range of subject matter implies a trust to let its users decide for themselves what is sexy – or intriguing, provocative, challenging, entertaining, engaging.

The platform’s launch happened almost concurrently to news of OnP joining forces with behemothic streaming giant Apple Music Classical. Along with playlists and previews, the channel features two special sections, curated by José Martinez, Director of Dance, and Neef, respectively. As noted in Van Magazine this past August, OnP has proven remarkably adept at attracting the ever-important young audiences, with all of these initiatives demonstrating a deeply intelligent stance in attracting younger people (although €10 tickets can’t hurt either). ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre) takes things one step further. The company’s first French young lyric orchestra works in direct partnership with eleven different French conservatoires and provides opportunities for apprenticeships and performances on the main stage of the Bastille, the more modern of the company’s two spaces, the other being the famed Garnier. Each space comes, of course, with its own particular set of heavy histories.

Amidst all this – whither music? Gluck, Lully, Rameau, Cherubini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Thomas, Halévy, Stravinsky, Messiaen: a partial list of composers who have enjoyed historic premieres with the Opéra and a veritable who’s who of classical music history, albeit a lineup some may perceive as creaky in 2023. Those names, however, sit comfortably beside contemporary ones including Adams, Adés, Saariaho, Kurtág, as well as acclaimed modern directors like Lydia Steier, Kirill Serebrennikov, Wajdi Mouawad, and Barrie Kosky. Ballet is an equally intriguing mix of traditional (Nureyev, Ashton) and modern (Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián). Navigating the shifting classical landscape of the 21st century, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape, is scary business for any house, requiring a good deal of confidence in both institution and audiences, and a willingness to push the expectations and boundaries of both. The ambitiousness of Neef’s plans combined with an ever-smart approach to programming and production means audiences can expect slightly more than polite visions of familiar (or even unfamiliar) territory.

In our last exchange in 2020, conducted when he was still in Toronto, Neef emphasized a need for the new; in 2023 Paris, there is a broader if no less compelling view. Nothing quite new, as Roman statesman Cicero noted in Brutus, is perfect. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, particularly at a time when the opera world feels more divided than ever, as much by geographies and money as by ideologies and history. But history is, like the future, only heavy without the muscles  – and the brains – to bear it; Alexander Neef has both, and then some.

When we last spoke you mused on the role of so-called “safe” repertoire and audience fatigue; has time in Paris altered your views?

I don’t think so. One of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is to consider the thinking process around what do we do here. We are called the Paris National Opera; we have an obligation for specificity in the planning and programming, but also we have to ask what is our identity and how do we express via our programming? I think there are some very simple principles that have come from that question, and they are referenced in our programming now. First we have to take care of our own repertoire , which is a very large repertoire and includes all the pieces created at the Paris Opera and predecessor organizations over the centuries. That’s why you’ll find one or two productions which represent our house repertoire , if you want – Charpentier’s Médée, for instance. There’s a very rich variety to choose from. The other aspect is pieces which we have not premiered here specifically but which are part of French repertoire – works which are not in our repertoire currently which we are bringing back, like what we’ve done with Cendrillon, Faust, Romeo et Juliet, also Massenet’s Don Quichotte which we are presenting later this season. We are one of the biggest companies in the world, so yes, there is a standard repertoire.

The last part of this, which is also important for identity, is 20th and 21st century repertoire. The priority is not necessarily commissioning – as you know it takes time for those pieces to be developed – but to look at successful pieces of the very recent past and bring them to the Paris Opera, like Kurtág’s Fin de partie in the 21-22 season, or The Exterminating Angel, which we’ll do later this season. With Angel it’s also the first new production after the world premiere that we’ll be doing. All that is a very deliberate attempt to bring those pieces to the repertoire by presenting them often, which means if someone has created something great and we think it’s great, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t present it here just because we haven’t commissioned it. We have a couple co-commissions coming up; one we did with Festival D’Aix is coming to us soon; another, a substantial piece at La Scala, will be presented in Italian there and then come here later in French.

So to circle back to your original question, when we do the revivals of the standard or even the new productions, we try to bring people to the company who hadn’t sung here before and create a relationship of trust with the audience; even though they might not know all the names on the playbill, they can expect it will be a quality proposal. We just had Tamara Wilson onstage here – she had sung Turandot in Toronto in 2019. It was highlighted (in Paris) because Sondra (Radvanovsky) had to cancel the run and Tammy was slotted into the opening. People were like, “Who is this Turandot I’ve never heard of?” – but now everybody knows who Tamara Wilson is. Sometimes we have to have the confidence and trust to just do the things we feel are right.

House identity is something I’ve considered a lot this year. You told the New York Times in 2021 that when you were hiring a diversity officer that you wanted to put on “opera and ballet by 21st century artists for 21st century audiences” – what role has that diversity initiative played in house identity?

We’re lucky in Paris, the debate around diversity is much less charged than in North America. I say that without criticism of what’s going on in America, but it does create an opportunity here to get things done more quickly because we’re not in conflict but in a spirit of working together. One of the things that happened concurrent to BLM (Black Lives Matter), I was still in Toronto, confined in my kitchen then, but already appointed to take over in Paris, was that we decided to commission a diversity report for my arrival. At the same time a group of artists and other employees of colour in the company reached out and said, “We want to talk to you, we want to know how you feel about this issue.” They wrote a manifesto which was published in August 2020, when I was almost there – though I wasn’t supposed to be, I was supposed to arrive a year later – but at that time we had an initiative coming from the incoming leadership and the employees. There was a base of discussion which was almost immediate because we did not need to get over a steep mountain of conflict. We now have an advisory committee who meet regularly with staff but also with people from outside the opera, where we discuss all issues related to our repertoire and performances, as well as recruitment practices and so on. The discussions are all evolving.

We also started a big education outreach project in French Guyana with two main purposes, one of them to just run one of our established outreach programs for young people there but also to find talent, mostly for dance, but also for singing and instruments in the long run, people can be trained to reach the levels of excellence we would have to expect of the artists who perform here.

“If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it.”


What role does the newly-created ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre – Learning the Orchestra) play in all this?

It’s too early to say yet, it’s just started; we’ve had two or three weekends when they’ve been together so far. But I think it’s in the same spirit. Today in France most musicians are the sons and daughters of other musicians – they get into the field or some form of arts environment early on and there are few obstacles if they want to learn to sing or play an instrument. Our challenge is to open up the pipeline, to create a larger pipeline, different pipelines, because one of the crucial issues of recruitment is that if you always look in the same spots and at the same people you’ll always find the same thing. The moment you open up and look at things a bit more broadly, there will be different talent. And all of this is not part of any ideology, but it’s more if I can say, the perennial nature of our art form: yes, what we do is opera and ballet for 21st century artists by 21st century artists. If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it. The imminent challenge for the repertoire is obviously finding people who are trained to perform it at our level, and who may also say, “We still want to sing Don Giovanni or Don Carlo, or dance Swan Lake or Giselle.” It’s for everybody to find themselves in what we do, on the performers’ side just as much as the audience’s side.

Alexandra Wilson recently wrote at The Critic that “It is not opera’s job to do social work.” I wonder what you make of that with relation to your various initiatives.

I think what we benefit from and use to our advantage, since we have a strong critical mass for culture in France but especially in Paris, is that we use our cultural weight to be heard, to be seen. What I’ve discovered being here is that whatever we do there is a lot of attention; when I commissioned the diversity report it was like a signal. We can put the subject on the map. So we try to do that quite deliberately now, to choose the subjects we want to talk about in order to get them the visibility we can, in our position, provide.

La Vestale, with Lydia Steier directing, may or may not make the world a better place, but it does seem like an interesting symbol of where the company is at now.

That’s fair, but like I said before: if we want to do the repertoire which has a reputation of being difficult to realize onstage, then we will tell it our way. La Vestale has certain formalisms the audiences of today are not quite familiar with today, so it’s vital to find not only one artist but a group of artists to say, “We want to defend this repertoire for an audience of today and we actually want to tell a story.” Whatever we do, whether it’s more or less traditional – even though one doesn’t know what that exactly is – or completely out-there avant-garde, it’s a reading of a piece, because we cannot not offer readings of pieces. We have to hire a cast, a director, and a conductor to read the piece for us; it’s not all there in the score and they just have to do what’s written. It would be an oversimplification to think that. We need people who actually do it. Otherwise we can sit with the score and read it, which is a more personal and private thing, but there is no unalterable truth that will always be the same. That’s why we still keep working on repertoire both recent and old – things like Médée, which we’re doing since the first time we created it in 1693.

Does that history feel heavy at points?

I find it rather exhilarating, I have to say, because there is a richness and also a high responsibility for this repertoire – but also an incredible richness. I find it really quite wonderful there’s that depth to draw from.

“The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one.”


There were very polarized reactions to Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot in Paris recently; do you find yourself having to explain or justify your choices to your audience?

First of all there’s no such thing as The Audience, anywhere. Secondly, and I said it at the COC that we had 2000 people every night; here at the Bastille we have 2700, and a different audience. The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one. You are part of the collective who sits there but you also experience it all for yourself. So of course there will always be audiences who are more conservative and others who are more avant-garde, and then everything in-between. And in the end it’s very simply, “I like / don’t like what I see onstage” – that’s fine. But if we maintain there is not solely one truth in the pieces we present, then there can’t be one opinion, no matter how we present them. Ultimately it’s not about liking or not-liking something but being able to talk about it. The essence of theatre is to engage in a dialogue about what we’ve experienced together onstage. That dialogue is something that’s big in everyday life here, and it can be made richer because of people having a deep cultural routine. I found it was more restricted in Toronto – there I found that even with the variety of choices, people stick to the offers of one cultural organization. I would meet people at cocktail parties and they’d say, “I’m a ballet person” – fine, good, there’s no discrimination – but in Paris there’s a much stronger overall cultural routine which has been in place since early childhood. People don’t feel the need to choose between the ballet or the opera or the museum or the symphony. What keeps fascinating me, and it’s so different culturally, is that they bring kids to the theatre, young kids, on weekdays when there’s school the next day…

My mother did that…

Exactly! People do it because they feel it’s important their child sees this or that. It’s not the last thing you do, but the first thing you do. And I think that regularity with culture changes a person, it sets up a cultural routine. And if it’s diverse it can bring a lot to audiences and people in general. So to go back to your quote about opera’s job, we are not making the world a better place – but maybe through our work we can get people to think about how to make the world a better place.

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


Finally: I have to ask you about your GMD search.

It’s going slowly but surely. Since Gustavo left earlier than he was supposed to, I decided not to jump to fast conclusions because I thought it would be better to use the time, mostly with the musicians of the orchestra, to engage in a real dialogue. That’s something that had been done the last few years but which had been quite disturbed because of the pandemic. Who are the conductors we really like? Who are the people who debuted during covid, maybe not under ideal conditions? Who are people who’ve come once that we want to see again? Who are people we’ve never met but want to meet? So over time let’s say maybe over the course of the season, we come to, or by default, a small list of people we’re interested in – it’s not going to be a list of 25 – between the people who have declared themselves candidates and the people we want to be candidates. Without necessarily formalizing that or having it in the public sphere, I think between the musicians and us, we will have more in-depth discussions about what we want, for the company, for the orchestra; what kind of profile does that person have, the one who comes closest to the ideal? All of which is to say: it’s an ongoing process.

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP
sky, autumn, September, colours, himmel, farben, natur

September Songs: Change, Relevance, Artistry, Loss

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

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

In Berlin

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

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

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

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

Also in Berlin

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

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

In London

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

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

Remembering…

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: Mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
field, grass, daisies, green, nature, wild, summer

Endings, Beginnings, August

August is a month of abundance, but also, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, a time of acknowledging the inevitability of endings, and preparing for the uncertainty of new beginnings. A distinctly Augustian mix occurred within the opera world this year: many premieres, and many conclusions.

The end of June saw an announcement from Tulsa Opera of the cancellation of its two mainstage productions for the 2023-2024 season, and the resignation of its General Director. Earlier this week The Metropolitan Opera Guild announced it will be streamlining operations; its educational initiatives (which include programs allowing roughly 12,000 students to attend dress rehearsals every season) will fall under the auspices of The Met itself. Related publication Opera News, which had been a monthly glossy since 2008 and had a circulation of 43,000 (I was an occasional freelance contributor) will be incorporated into British magazine Opera following its final print edition in November. In related news, Takt1, the Dortmund-based classical streaming portal who operate in cooperation with a number of classical organizations (including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester and the Wiener Konzerthaus), announced that as of September 1, 2023, they will be discontinuing their subscription platform.

I have lately been asked for my opinion about this spate of bad news, with many making those requests quite aware of what I’ll say: education; media; resources; will. The long-term solutions related to social policy usually require a resilience which is anathema to the ROI and sexy (if very easy to fake) analytics espoused within digital circles and by their (mysteriously) heralded personalities. There is no guaranteed Land of Oz at the end of the rainbow – that isn’t how opera (or culture, or investment in culture, cultural education, and a broader non-utilitarian approach to learning) works, least of all in a capitalist-led consumer culture where generous government support for either arts or education is nearly non-existent. Opera is also an expensive art form with a (mostly, not entirely) limited appeal; its cost means that long-term investment in the things that make it actually work are unsettling for any organization (public or private) to support, and triply so when that art form is not, as in some locales, embedded within socio-cultural norms and traditions, and sewn into the daily fabric of living, learning, and regular live-experiencing – at cheap prices, in casual wear, outside or in large halls at that.

There has been a lot of bad news, but a lot of inspiring work as well. Rather than contradiction, I do see balance –however tenuous it may be – in the form of bold programming, choices from which I hope some organizations will draw inspiration. Of course there are vast differences between the North American and European classical worlds (it is a topic I have explored more than once) but there are ideas related to education, access, and awareness which cross borders and demand non-nationalistic airtime. In her final column for Takt1, music writer Charlotte Gardner notes that ever-entrenching perceptions of classical (along the lines of: it’s fancy-irrelevant-elitist) are being exacerbated “by classical music getting less and less print space and airtime from our national journalism providers. Essentially, classical music is currently engaged in an almighty fight for “establishment” acceptance (the irony…), and it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be over any time soon.” That goes triple for North America; anyone in the arts who has studied and contemplated the precipitous drops in education and media funding (i.e. me; I work in both) couldn’t have been terribly surprised by the Opera News update. Terrible, yes, and terribly inevitable, given the state of… everything. Thankfully, Gardner pinpoints the needed hope: “(I)f you talk about classical music with love, knowledge, and a clear desire to communicate, and if you offer a variety of formats in which to experience it, you will earn respect and curiosity, and people will give you a go.”

Salzburg, moon, spire, Osterreich, night, dark

Moon over Salzburg. (Photo: mine; please obtain written permission for reuse.)

And so in that spirit: I will try to continue to communicate my own love of the classical world as best I can at this website, for as long as I am able, and sharing a variety of formats in which to experience it. One thing which is relevant to this, and inseparable from my own love of the art form really, is the role of new (or more precisely, newish) things. The role of new work within the classical ecosystem is paramount; it is a truth, if not quite universally acknowledged, then perhaps on its way to a wider embrace. The first Salzburg Festival presentation of Bohuslav Martinů’s 1957 opera The Greek Passion happened last Sunday (13 August). A new production helmed by Simon Stone featured a host of vocal talent (Sebastian Kohlhepp, Sara Jakubiak, Gábor Bretz) under the baton of Maxime Pascal. Based on the 1954 novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Greek Passion is, as Opera North described it in their own 2019 production, “a passion play within a passion play” and concerns a group of villagers suddenly faced with taking in a group of refugees – or not. In his review for Merkur Online, critic Markus Thiel described the production as “Eine knapp zweistündige Gratwanderung ist das zwischen realer Brutalität und surrealem Spiel” (“This is a tightrope walk of almost two hours between real brutality and surreal play.”) Medici.tv will broadcast the The Greek Passion from Salzburg this Wednesday (22 August) at 8pm CET / 2pm EST.

The British premiere of György Kurtág’s’s Fin de partie also took place this week in London, with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting a razor-responsive BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall, part of this year’s edition of the BBC Proms. The opera, based on Samuel Beckett’s surreal 1957 comically macabre play Endgame, opened in 2018 at Teatro alla Scala, and has been presented in Amsterdam and Paris. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted in his recent review, “This is not, in essence, the bleak comedy we often find, but a work of pervasive sadness that continues to haunt us after its final notes have died away.” I found myself contemplating that sadness (so much my habit lately) at the opera’s close when the words of Brindley Sherratt came floating to mind; I had interviewed the bass together with tenor John Daszak in autumn 2020, when the pair were in a high-tech production of Boris Godunov in Zurich. Sherratt had said at one point, amidst pandemic bleakness, that “you want to shout, ‘Opera’s not dead!’” Kurtág’s opera is a brilliant and very needed reminder of just that sentiment at this time and place in classical history. BBC Sounds features the Proms performance until 9 October.

A fascinating Q&A with acclaimed psychotherapist Esther Perel at Vanity Fair (published at the end of June) has implications relevant to the classical industry and its current challenges. Perel says that owing to the widespread mainstreaming of the language of psychotherapy and its concomitant divorce from contextualized study and practice, there has occurred a distinct shift from “we” to “me”, a trend only exacerbated by echo chamber-like nature of social media. Added to this, she says, is self-diagnosis and related self-labelling:

[…] On one hand, there is an importance in gaining clarity when you name certain things. On the other hand, there is a danger that you lose all nuance, that you’re basically trying to elevate your personal comments and personal experience by invoking the higher authority of psychobabble. What you call therapy-speak, we used to call psychobabble—it’s a new word for an old concept.

In the past, you could have said, “I think this, and so does the rest of the community.” So does the family, so does the church. Today you say, “I think this, and so does the DSM-5.” I don’t like what you do, so I say you’re gaslighting me. You have a different opinion, and I bring in a term that makes it impossible for you to even enter into a conversation with me. Labeling enables me to not have to deal with you.

But in the end, it creates more and more isolation and fragmentation. That is not necessarily a good thing for the community and for the social good. (Vanity Fair, June 26, 2023)

Fragmentation is something I think many classical programmers are contemplating, along with notions around language and the perceived impenetrability (for Anglophone audiences) of anything that isn’t in English. Interviewer Delia Cai asks the multilingual Perel about working in English. “Every language makes you think differently,” she says, citing the myriad of words and phrases for “friend” in French. Experiencing the nuanced realities within those different languages allows  for different understandings – of self, relationships, and community.

Opera has a concentration of Eurocentric languages indeed, but that doesn’t close the possibility of enjoying it in a host of other languages, so long as the will exists, and the funding to match it. Canadian company Against the Grain exercised that will with a very unique vision of Handel’s famous Messiah in 2020, directed by Joel Ivany. Called Messiah/Complex, a project was sung in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone. There is possibility to expand horizons, but the will has to exist before any click-friendly digital strategizing – not the other way around. Perel’s final thought speaks to just this: “Expertise has very little to do with experience sometimes, and a lot to do with marketing. That’s capitalism with therapy-speak combined.” Or in this case, opera-speak. Ay, there’s the rub.

Finally: Renata Scotto never held back her passions – or her intelligence, wit, studiousness, and deep understanding of the art form. The soprano passed away earlier this week at the age of 89.

Her influence as much as her ideas and glorious recordings live on, and it’s been heartening to re-experience her work across so many media– at such moments the internet is a blessing. The above clip, from a 1980 television special (I have foggy memories of watching this as a small child), is a perfect demonstration of what made Scotto so special: the control; the drama; the attention to detail… magic. Since the announcement of her passing there have been outpourings of tributes by colleagues who worked with her as well as those she taught and mentored. Her influence across generations was (is) immense, her passion as palpable off the stage as much as on it. In a 2017 interview with Classic Talk TV the soprano discusses her training and the relationship between composer and libretto, and also shares her suspicions around contemporary opera-business casting practises:

 Today they look at the figure – it’s how you look. I don’t like that, because it’s not the looking, it’s what you give me. You communicate with your body to me, and not, ‘You have a beautiful face, you’re tall, you’re slender’ […] This is not the way to begin. (Classic Talk: Renata Scotto Part 1, February 24, 2017)

Vocal talent does have to be extant in the first place, she explains, but once that talent is acknowledged, it must be shaped: “I’m not interested in a big voice, I’m interested in a beautiful sound that gives some special colour.” That notion of vocal colour in the opera world is highly overused but re-listening to so much of Scotto’s work this week was a good reminder of its essence. Scotto’s artistic approach, combined with her sharp-eyed observations, speak firmly to the present, and help give shape to an abundance which can hopefully be part of opera’s future.

A quick reminder: my interview with Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings Managing Director Guido Gärtner is posting soon. For now, here’s to the end of almost-end of August, and to endings, beginnings, and whatever possible abundance might be in store. Opera is not dead – but does require and demand will, a commitment to education, media resources, money (as ever), and many breaths of fresh air. Let’s hope for a cool breeze or two as autumn draws closer.

Top photo: mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler: Balancing New Projects & Old Favorites

Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.

In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.

Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”

Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.

Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?

It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is  – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”

What has your process been so far?

Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.

Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.

A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.

That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers. 

It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an aversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..

… and yet!

… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.

The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?

I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.

To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?

It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.

How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?

Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.

For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.

But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.

That seems more rooted in reality. 

Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.

That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…

It’s not odd!

Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?

It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…

How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?

In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”

Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?

I would say no …

So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?

It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with René Jacobs, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.

So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.

Top Photo: Marco Borggreve
Merton College, Oxford, choir, music, choral, university, history, England, United Kingdom, song, British

The Choir of Merton College, Oxford: Listening, Singing, Making Music Together

Throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the month of September heralds the idea of return: to schools and universities; to work projects; to extracurricular events and some form of cultural life in locales where summer festivals are scant if even extant. There is a hunger for routine, perhaps now more than ever, given the added impetus that the notion of “return” carries with it an end to the disruption wrought by years of pandemic. The urgency toward a “return to normal”, however one defines it, feels more tenuous than ever, given a tightening of budgets, of strikes, of continued sacrifice for some, of a winter that threatens cold and expense. Amidst all of this: whither music? Is it now firmly slotted as an extra? As temperatures drop and bills rise, priorities, especially for those on limited incomes, would seem to become plain. How, then, ought live classical culture to respond? How should it be encountered, engaged with, and supported?

Perhaps there is an answer in simple things – things like singing, and most especially singing with others. If the notion of ‘return’ engenders a thirst for community, what better way to slake it? Singing may be off the plate for most, but it need not be; there is no reason to feel daunted by any perceived lack of talent. Choral life in many parts of Europe and the UK is active, evidenced not only in a huge variety of live offerings but in audience response; attending performances of various Passions, it was lovely to note the extent to which respective audiences knew the words of various sections (and sang or hummed along, or mouthed the texts). There are many active choral communities across North America as well (Canada’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale is but one example), some secular, some not. Choral singing is, as practitioners might say, made up of far more than the annual Xmas ritual of Handel’s Messiah. The act of singing together within a confined space was one of the first things unfortunately lost in the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020; it was also one of the things fought hardest over in some places, with certain groups utilizing distancing techniques to try and continue their activities. Togetherness matters; making sounds together, certainly matters, as much an individual as a collective good.

The Merton College Choir is embarking on an American tour next week, one that seems as much about showcasing the talents of its members as serving to remind  audiences of the centrality of communal cultural experience. The tour is a good reminder that singing need not be as formal as what the talented troupe present, but can be an act of recognition, of support, of active imagination and empathy. Made up of a rotating group of 30 members taken from Oxford University’s student body (via annual auditions), the choir (who has its own Youtube channel) is dedicated mainly to liturgical works, but also has (as their upcoming tour attests) a history of commissioning and presenting the work of living composers. Merton’s Choral Foundation was established in 2008, and since then, has acquired an international reputation for stellar performances and recordings. Awarded Best Choral Album at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for their 2019 recording of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (Delphian) by Bermuda-born composer Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) (a work Gramophone writer Alexandra Coghlan hailed for both its textural as well as meditative qualities) the troupe has also enjoyed collaborations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar’s The Apostles, 2018), Instruments of Time and Truth (Bach’s St Matthew Passion, 2017) and Oxford Baroque (Bach’s Mass in B minor, 2018). Previous tours include visits to Hong Kong and Singapore, France, Italy, Sweden, and the United States. The upcoming tour to the latter is the first the choir has undertaken since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

With dates in Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Princeton, the programme is an inspiring mix of new and old works by a range of celebrated composers, including William Byrd (1543-1623), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), Lionel Rogg (1936), Judith Weir (1954), and Nico Muhly (1981), among others. I spoke with Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas recently, and we discussed some timely topics: the choice of touring repertoire; what audiences might glean from the experiences of seeing, and being in, a choir; and what singing means in a post-(or whatever this is)-coronavirus world.

Benjamin Nicholas, choir, Merton College, Oxford, director, music, classical, choral

Photo (c) John Cairns

Your American tour is an interesting balance of contemporary and traditional works; why these works, and why include them on a tour?

Well, I think what we’re doing on tour is pretty typical of what we do most of the time. I do try and think about the concert programmes – the art of putting together a programme is a really exciting thing to do. It’s tough to get it right, and I’m aware we’re going to be singing in places that have great choral music already, and so I think it was a question of bringing something with us that might be unique in the sense that one piece is written specifically for us, other contemporary pieces are perhaps not performance so often – so I’m quite keen to put together a programme that contrasts the old with the new, which as I say is pretty typical of our repertoire.

During the university term we sing three services a week in the chapel at Merton and I would say that we include a lot of Renaissance music, obviously some romantic music, and 20th-21st century music, and so the tour programme is an extension of what we do in those services.

Do you program with themes in mind, or is it more instinctual, i.e. “I like how this sounds with that” ?

It’s a bit of both if I’m honest. I have gone for some contrasts, where we put two pieces next to each other. One of those pairings is the Byrd Motet “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth” running straight into Judith Weir’s “Ave Regina caelorum” – one connection is simply that they are in the same key, so it makes for a very neat segue way, but also I think that it’s interesting that William Byrd wrote for Elizabeth I – he was indeed part of the Royal household – and Judith Weir is the current Master of the Queen’s Music, and obviously writes for the greater state occasions in the UK. So that was one thing, to put them together. The Judith Weir piece is also a bit of a personal piece, because it was written for us – it is particularly special. And then there’s the Purcell piece (“Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei”) moving directly into David Lang (“again”) – there’s no great link there, apart from the fact that I felt the contrast after the Purcell would be, hopefully, really arresting for the audience.

The act of communal singing, of this programme in particular, seems especially pregnant with symbolism. Singing was the first thing we lost in the pandemic.

That’s true.

What has the return been like for you and your members? 

The very obvious practical change, when we came back to the university after the first lockdown, related to the basic guidance: yes we could sing, but only at a certain distance from one another. Merton Chapel is a good size and we were able to resume singing straight away, but all distanced. There’s no doubt that distancing honed everyone’s listening skills; everyone was so much more attuned, and they knew they had to have amazing antennae – the ears of an elephant – to hear everyone else, to make the performance whole. We did record a CD under those circumstances; it seems mad on one hand, but on the other I think all the work paid off. The choir has moved back together now, and are standing at a normal distance, but their listening skills have been enhanced by the distancing over the course of the pandemic. But whilst the pandemic is fresh in everyone’s minds and people missed being in university and missed touring and did miss singing three times a week in the chapel, I think people have got used to (the old routine) again very quickly; we’re basically back to normal and have been for about a year.

Now it’s been quite a striking difference at the BBC Proms concerts – what I found really staggering as an attendee is to hear all the great choral works in the Royal Albert Hall with hundreds of performers, because that didn’t come back last summer; it has taken much longer for that kind of music-making to resume. For all of us who’ve been at the Proms or heard things on the radio in the last couple weeks, things like Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or The Dream Of Gerontius and so on, I think that’s been a very powerful reminder of what we lost. But I think when it comes to chamber music – and Merton Choir is, I suppose, the size of a chamber choir – I think we’ve now gotten used to being back together, and one of the great things of working with students is aht they move on pretty quickly. I think as far as they’re concerned we’ve been back to normal for some time, and normal is what they expect now. From my point of view I’ve used it as an opportunity to think about our repertoire a little bit. I hope it’s increasingly diverse, that it’s more interesting; I dropped some pieces which were not that great but which we did because they were in repertoire, so (this pandemic time) has been a chance to rebuild.

The pandemic time has many in classical thinking about that word “rebuild” – why organizations and artists do it ; how they do it; just who they are doing it for. This relates, I think, to the growing awareness around the need for diversity. What’s your feeling?

I completely agree. The interesting thing is that in terms of who we perform for back in the UK, our work is largely about enhancing the liturgy in medieval chapel, so that’s quite different from just being a concert-giving outfit. There are already these parameters in what we’re doing; the liturgy of the day dictates a lot of the music. So that means that there are certain texts that need to be sung and so on. Now, you then have a vast library of music from the last 500 years with the settings of those texts and so on and of course, a lot of the time we’re singing that music, however, we’ve always tried to commission new music at Merton, because it’s a choir of students, and part of the educational process is to introduce them to new music, some written by them or their peers, but other music is written by a cross-section of composers from all over the world. I’ve commissioned Nico Muhly in the US; Dobrinka Tabakova (1980), born in Bulgaria although she’s in London at the moment; Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977), who is Latvian; Kerry Andrew (b. 1978) and Hannah Kendall (b. 1984); and obviously Judith Weir and James Macmillan (1959), both Scottish. The composers come from all over, because I want our repertoire to be as broad as it possibly can. Each of these composers brings a unique musical language and that enhances what we do in the chapel.

In terms of the membership of our choir, we want it to be as representative of the UK as possible, and, in terms of who we are singing for, I want audiences to come along, hear an English choir, and I just want them to experience something of what we do. So (on this tour) I’ve included two American composers, and that was because over the last few years we’ve explored a lot of contemporary composers – Libby Larsen (1950); Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) before he died; Glass (1937), Lang (1957), and Muhly. We recorded an album of American music just before the pandemic which we never had a chance to take to concerts. In a way this is a snapshot of the repertoire we sing, and you know, we hope audiences enjoy such varied kinds of music.

Merton College, Oxford, choir, music, choral, university, history, England, United Kingdom, song, British

The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick

A choir seems like a symbol of community, reciprocity, support – things that went missing during the pandemic, and continue to be largely absent. What role do you see for choir membership in a post (or whatever this is) covid world?

The first thing to say is that the act of being in a choir brings people together. That whole thing whereby people have been separated – well, a choir immediately offers a reason for people to come together. Then there is the fact they have come together to make music; the active breathing in sync, the fact they’ve got to respond to one another in terms of pitch within an ensemble, these things make the connections between people all the stronger. So for the people who sing, getting back into a choir is a really important thing.

In this country we’ve found it’s been slow-going – yes, we’re lucky that at the university we’ve not been hugely impacted by that, but I’m aware a lot of the large choruses are down in numbers and it’s taken time for all these things to build back up. I do recognize it hasn’t just gone back straight away, and that people need to be reminded, particularly now, of the benefits of being in a choir and making music together.

It’s like the difference between playing team sports versuss things like skiing, tennis, or swimming; I was a pianist and sometime-band/orchestra member, but the experience of singing St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 2018 was very much a thing apart from any individual experience. Singing is intimate, and singing with others, even more so.

It is exactly that. In terms of musical education I can understand there was a time when one of the conservatoires, the Royal College Of Music, insisted that first-year students be part of a chorus, and the students at the time didn’t understand why they had to do this, but it was, simply, all the skills one can take for granted are so enhanced and developed by being in a choir: pitch, rhythm, placing one’s voice, text, languages…

… awareness of others.

Yes, absolutely – the skills you might learn in general musicianship, you might do them in a class, but go into a choir and you are putting the repertoire study into real practice. So I can only think it’s a really good thing for all musicians to sing in a choir for a bit, and I would say in Merton College Choir we’re essentially a choir of 30 students, some of whom read music as their degree but many are scientists and lawyers and historians…

I love that kind of professional variety in your membership.

I love that too, and I love the fact plenty of people who will not be professional singers have wonderful musical skills regardless of their formal study routes. So we have good pianists, and good horn players singing with us, and as far as I’m concerned, as a director, you need all these ingredients. Yes, you need stellar voices, but you also need a lot of very good musicians, people who just want to enhance those musical skills they happen to have. You need those different elements to make a choir.

Top Photo: The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn, Chen Reiss, composer, singer, music, portrait, classical, Onyx, album

Shining A Light On The Music Of Fanny Hensel

A bright spot amidst a sea of gloom lately has been the learning more about the music of Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), especially through the voice of a favorite soprano.

Hensel was the noted sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and the granddaughter of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Her position, as the musical daughter in an assimilated family (from Judaism to Lutheranism), allowed her both the freedom to write and the restriction of never enjoying a career. In 2012’s Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (Cambridge University Press), author David Conway shares an observation from English writer Henry Chorley (1808-1872), who was also a friend to Felix Mendelssohn, in which he notes the profound connection between class and creativity: “Had Madame Hensel been a poor man’s daughter, she must have become known to the world by the side of Madame Schumann and Madame Pleyel as a female pianist of the highest class.” There are contrasting views in the musicology world around the extent to which Hensel might have pursued a professional music career were it not for the limitations of her social class and the times in which she lived.

Through such debates, one is bound to consider a broad range of circumstances, some of which was paid for by the privilege her social class allowed: the challenges in wanting to marry Catholic painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861); a poem Goethe himself dedicated expressly to her (“Wenn ich mir in stiller Seele”) in 1827 (which she subsequently set to music in 1828); of the trip to Italy with husband and son (1839-40) which allowed her to meet young prizewinner musicians (including Charles Gounod) and thus spurred her creative confidence; of her friendship with the German diplomat and music enthusiast Robert von Keudell (1824-1903) who was so supportive of her work; of her first experience having her music published (a collection of songs) in 1846 and her nervousness around her brother’s reaction to said publication thereafter. Hensel had not consulted Felix prior to the undertaking, but he did extend congratulations to her later, writing in a letter that “may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand”. She later wrote in her own journal that “Felix has written, and given me his professional blessing in the kindest manner. I know that he is not quite satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it.” She and her brother worked closely exchanging creative ideas through an active correspondence, with Felix regularly reworking his own compositions based on her suggestions. The pair had made tentative plans for an opera based on Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), a 13th century German epic. In 1847 Hensel and Clara Schumann met a number of times as well, but a mere two months later, Hensel died of complications from a stroke. She was 41.

Though Hensel published in her own name (in 1846 technically listed as “Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”), through time she has often been referred to solely in hyphenated form (Hensel-Mendelssohn, or vice-versa). Her own work comprises 450 works of music in total (including four cantatas, an orchestral overture, over 125 pieces for piano and in excess of 250 songs), and only became more recognized through the 1980s, through various recordings of her songs. In 2012, Hensel’s Easter Sonata for piano, lost for 150 years, was, at its discovery initially attributed to Felix Mendelssohn; the work was premiered in her name by Andrea Lam at Duke University, and later performed on BBC Radio 3 by Leeds Competition winner Sofya Gulyak.  Duke Arts & Sciences Professor of Music R. Larry Todd noted the range of influences in the 1828 sonata, and that “we usually think of 19th-century European music as familiar enough terrain. Occasionally, though, a forgotten or lost composition comes to light, and the circumstances of its history prompt a reappraisal of the conventional wisdom about the century we thought we knew all too well.” In 2018, the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum opened in the Neustadt district of Hamburg, and more recently, November 2021, Google featured Hensel in a Doodle to mark her 216th birthday.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, classical, music, klassische, musik, sangerin, Mendelssohn, Hensel, album, OnyxAcknowledging the various roles Hensel fulfilled in life allows one to more fully engage in her art, and to contemplate the whys, wherefores, and hows inherent to her creative process. Thus might one build an understanding, of not only her body of works, but the uniquely creative elements at play within them. Elements of the past (Bach, Beethoven, Schubert), contemporaneous (Schumann, Liszt), and future (Brahms, Liszt) intermingle in some thoughtful ways, and one senses, especially in her later works, a through-compositional style that would’ve found fulsome expression on the opera stage, a medium for which she would have been eminently suited. Soprano Chen Reiss agrees on this point, and brings her own beguiling brand of elegant, operatic flair to a new album. Fanny Hensel & Felix Mendelssohn: Arias, Lieder & Overtures (Onyx Classics) features two works by Mendelssohn himself (including concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Rome version, and the first version (1834) of the concert aria “Infelice!”, and, centrally, a number of Hensel’s own works. The Lobgesang cantata, orchestrations of eight of her songs (done by composer/pianist Tal-Haim Samnon), and the rarely-heard concert aria Hero und Leander round out an engaging and aurally luscious listen. Reiss is especially moving in her performance of “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben“, with its opening, a lonely oboe, flitting in and out in beautiful counterpoint to Reiss’s silky soprano. Her delivery of Goethe’s text is beautiful, a seamless integration of head as much as heart; the line “Alles schwankt ins Ungewisse” (“Everything shakes with uncertainty”) is sung with such immediacy, and moments later modulated into an achingly sad sort of acceptance, as “schwarzvertiefte Finsternisse widerspiegelnd ruht der See.” (Darkness steeped in black is reflected calmly in the sea.) The spell is cast; this is performance of the very highest order, and one cannot help but feel in hearing it, as with all the album’s thirteen tracks, that Hensel herself would be well-pleased.

The release, initiated by the joint efforts of soprano Chen Reiss and Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich (JCOM) Music Director Daniel Grossmann, releases in physical form today (digital release was earlier this month), and showcases the range of colours and theatricality which are deeply woven within Hensel’s writing. I recently had the chance to speak with Reiss and Grossmann, about how the project came about, what the orchestrations add to pieces that started out life as piano arrangements, and thoughts on Hensel’s work as a female Jewish composer in the 19th century. They will be presenting a live programme, called “Die Familie Mendelssohn”, at Munich’s Cuvilliés Theater on April 6th.

Chen Reiss, Daniel Grossman, performance, live, singing, culture, music, klassische, musik, Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, singer, conductor.

Chen Reiss and Daniel Grossman, with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, in July 2021, performing as part of the celebrations marking 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany. (Photo: Stefan Randlkofer)

How did this project come about, and why did you decide to orchestrate some of Hensel’s pieces?

CR It started in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown. I was in Berlin and got a call when I was there from Daniel, asking if I would join his orchestra in a special concert being held in Munich in July 2021, to celebrate 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. Daniel suggested that I sing a piece by Fanny from the Faust Cantata which I didn’t know – I knew her art songs, but didn’t know she wrote any music for orchestra, or larger-scale pieces for orchestra and singers. So I heard it and completely fell in love with her music, and I asked Daniel later, do you know if she composed anything else for soprano and orchestra? And he came up with Hero und Leander, and the Lobgesang (“Meine Seele ist stille”), the two arias orchestrated by Fanny, and I told him, listen we have so little time to rehearse for the concert, let’s rehearse and record everything, and it’ll be ready! Daniel was fine with that, and on it went…

DG … I think it was a great idea to do it that way. We chose the songs because, of course, there’s not enough pieces by Fanny for orchestra and soprano – the problem with the Faust Cantata is that it requires a choir, and with corona restrictions at the time we couldn’t integrate a choir into the live concert. It was not possible to make a recording with a choir at that time either, and so we had the idea to perform her songs instead, and to orchestrate some of those songs. Chen knew Tal in Israel and he orchestrated those songs we chose, and I think it’s a very nice combination – the songs and some of these very dramatic cantatas, both Infelice and Hero und Leander.

What do you think the orchestration adds?

DG I think the interesting thing with orchestrating piano songs is that you get many more colours. Orchestral song, as a form, was not really known at that time (mid 19th-century) – of course there are some, but very few. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, this genre of orchestral song came up with Mahler and Strauss. Today we are much more used to the sound of songs done with an orchestra and these songs get so much more colour and much more meaning through the orchestration. The way these pieces (on the album) were done, the way Tal uses the orchestra, it’s in a very … it’s not a big orchestra sound, it’s very chamber-sounding, and I like that.

CR What Tal did, he orchestrated these songs in a very delicate way, and in a very transparent way, and very often the strophenlieder, the strophe songs, they normally are with the piano, and each verse would sound the same. In “Der Rosenkranz“, for example, Hensel wrote sections one after the other, one page with all four of them, with a completely identical piano part, but when Tal orchestrated them, he used a different instrumentation for each of the strophes, and that to me, gives each one a uniquely different colour. It’s like a story that develops not just in words and in poetry but also musically, in colour.

To my ears, the arrangements highlight a narrative element, which is exemplified in the song where you’re doing a call-response with a flute…

CR That’s “Gondellied“, yes I love that!

… it’s so striking, you think, ‘Ah, yes, evocative sounds, there’s a narrative, there’s a story.’ And the timbre of a flute is so interesting with that of your voice…

CR Well what gave us the courage there, and to orchestrate overall, was the expression. For instance, with Hero und Leander, Hensel orchestrated that herself, and it is a very dramatic piece! She uses a very broad range of expression there – a recitativo, then an aria, then a sort of cabaletta, so to say. It’s true of Infelice, by Mendelssohn too, that there are three parts in that, all three are orchestrated in a different way – and that gave me courage. Her thinking – Fanny’s thinking – was dramatic, theatrical, even, and I personally think that had she been a man, she would have written an opera.

After hearing this album – I agree with you!

CR Hero und Leander is even more advanced in its language, its harmonic language, than Felix’s. I don’t know if you agree, Daniel…

DG Yes!

CR… but it’s dramatic and sounds like Wagner in places, whose music of course came later – so I felt very good about these songs with orchestration and I think Tal did a great job with them. They come to life almost like theatre pieces.

How did you go about choosing these works specifically? Was there any sense that you were creating a broader story?

DG I chose the songs I liked most; I chose them by musical material. It’s not meant to be a story. Of course there are many more songs by her, all of which are beautiful, but these are the pieces I liked the most.

CR I had the fortune of meeting a very interesting lady in London who is a direct descendant of Fanny Hensel, and I actually learned from her about the character of this composer. She said if Felix was composed and well-behaved, like the facade of the family, everything proper, then Fanny was much more fiery and passionate, and so no wonder she wrote something like Hero und Leander, and also something like “Italien”, this song Felix published in his name – today we know that Fanny is the one who composed it. You probably saw me say this in another interview too: this song “Italien” was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and she asked Felix to play and sing it for her, when he visited Buckingham Palace, and it was then that he admitted to the Queen that his sister wrote it: “It’s not mine.” In the orchestration Tal added, especially with the extra bars it gives this evocative sound like you are in Tuscany somewhere. That’s one of my favourite songs, it shows she had a great sense of humour to choose that text and to orchestrate it.

You said in another interview that if her brother was more classical-leaning in terms of his sound, she was closer to Brahms…

CR Yes, Brahms came after her own time, as you know, but her harmonic language sounds a little bit more advanced than her own time. When I met her descendant and she told me how Fanny was very, very fiery and passionate and Felix, something she told me I didn’t know, he felt he had to kind of protect her from the public opinion – (the family) were worried if she were to have a (music) career in the open, that she might say something inappropriate, or do something which didn’t quite maybe sit well with her social class.

I like what you said on BBC Radio recently, about suspecting she would want us to use her name “Hensel” when referring to her compositions. Her brother had ‘ brand recognition’ as we call it now – but another contemporary issue pertains to ‘identity politics’, or more properly, contextualized understanding. How to think of Hensel – as a Jewish composer, a female composer, a Jewish female composer? Someone who came from a privileged family? Who had a famous brother? Can her work, should her work, be separated from those identities? Should we ignore them entirely? Or is it important we as listeners acknowledge those identities in order to appreciate her work more deeply?

DG This is a very delicate question – about being Jewish, and about being a Jewish composer. They had a third sister and the two sisters were really Christian; there are a lot of quotes where you can see Felix felt very Jewish, and … I read a lot about the Mendelssohn family because I’m really into this question of ‘how Jewish is this family?’ and I think they are much more Jewish than people think today. But: Fanny felt very Christian. Their parents raised them in a Christian environment. So it’s really interesting: Felix refers to himself quite often as Jewish, but she does not. And I think it’s much more about being a woman – their father, and also Felix, said it’s not allowed for her to be a professional composer, she’s a woman so she should be at home with her family, a woman shouldn’t work. But I think it was another time, and she was, as Chen said before, very happily married, so being a wife and mother was not a problem for her, or being at home with her husband, this famous painter. So I’m not sure we should speak of her as a specifically Jewish composer.

CR Speaking for Daniel and myself, we didn’t do the album because she’s a female Jewish composer – we did it because it’s really great music. And yes, I think because it’s been done with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, it’s nice that we have a project where we have two Jewish composers (together with Tal), but I don’t think it‘s a must. People ask me, what is Jewish music? I say, it’s a very big question, because there are also non-Jewish composers who wrote music which is much more Jewish than that of Felix and Fanny. I don’t know if you agree with me, Daniel…

DG For sure.

CR … so in that sense, I always say, Jewish music developed in so many ways, because the Jews didn’t have one country. It’s not like Czech music, for instance, which is connected to people who were in that territory specifically; Jewish music developed obviously from the liturgy, from prayers. But the same prayer done on Yom Kippur in Berlin sounds completely different than the same done in Baghdad – it’s the same words but they use completely different keys. So if a guy from Berlin would go sing what he usually does in Baghdad they would throw tomatoes at him because it will sound so different. We can make a whole interesting topic just on what exactly is Jewish music! Later on in the 19th century much more music developed in synagogues in Germany and in Austria, and in my opinion they were influenced by Schubert, Schumann, and classical keys, but in a way Jewish music itself has been developing the most now in the past 70 years, since the formation of israel, with the Jews having their own land. It’s very interesting to see the progress of composers like Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984) who was born in Germany; at the beginning of his career he wrote very German-like works, he wrote in this Straussian kind of way, but when he moved to Israel his style changed completely, and he began using different keys and Yemeni styles of music and these different rhythms. Jewish music is a big thing – Daniel can elaborate much more on that.

DG I have worked with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich now for 16 years and the idea when we started was never to play Jewish music; the idea was to find different Jewish cultural or religious elements and to speak about these elements through music. It’s the same with the Mendelssohns – they spoke through music. It’s interesting, this family: their grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the most important Jewish philosophers – he was really Jewish – and his sons founded this bank, they were businessmen, they wanted to make business, and they knew as Jews: “We can’t make business as we are.” So assimilation was important for them, for their business, for continuing their business. I think this is the interesting thing behind the Mendelssohn family; it’s not about how Jewish they were, or how Jewish their music is – I don’t know. In terms of someone like Zemlinsky, I recorded a CD with his music, and he was raised in a very Jewish household, but his music is, I think, not Jewish at all…

CR I agree, there’s nothing Jewish about Zemlinsky!

DG …but he was raised Orthodox-Sephardic Jewish.

A cornerstone of the Jewish Chamber Orchestra of Munich is education – where does this album fit within those initiatives?

DG I always say there is the singer projects, like this, I can’t say where it exactly fits, but all the work we are doing, all the concerts we are doing, is telling something about Jewish culture and Jewish religion, and yes, I would answer your question, it’s this story of assimilation in Germany and Jewish life in Germany. People don’t know anything about Jewish history and culture and religion, they only know about the Holocaust. In Munich there is a community centre right in the centre of the city but it’s closed, the synagogue is not an open place like a church, you can’t go in, so people don’t meet Jews, and that’s what I try to break down, through this orchestra, so people have an easier way; they attend our concerts and find differing aspects of Jewish life here. Now that we are about to perform these pieces in a concert in two weeks in Munich, I will speak about all of this, and about the Mendelssohn family, as part of a short intro before the concert. Again, it’s an aspect I enjoy speaking about and telling the audience about, and I think that’s the work. It’s like little mosaics: there’s always a new piece, so to say, to explain to an audience.

How do the songs change live, and your understanding of them?

CR We were very fortunate when we performed the songs initially, we already had an audience. It wasn’t full because we were allowed 50% back then, but we had an audience, so we tested some of these songs on the public. Musically, when I prepare for a concert or the recording I prepare the same way, and I always think how can I serve with my voice, with my imagination, to serve the music the best way, so it’s not like I prepare any differently, whether the audience is there or not. But magic happens when the audience is there and I have my favourite songs, but there are other songs the audience likes more, so it’s always a surprise in that sense, but I can’t say I prepare differently.

To elaborate on the question before and what Daniel said about assimilation, there was a lot of intermarriage and conversion in Germany, and this is so interesting. In reading about Mahler and Mendelssohn, they felt they couldn’t keep their religion to be successful in business – or in the case of Mahler he felt he couldn’t keep it if he wanted to get a certain post – so both of them felt they had to convert. It’s important for us today to realize how much we advanced in human rights, in rights of women, in the right to keep your own religion and to feel safe in to say, “I am a Jew, I am a Muslim, I can do what I want” – or, we aim for this situation. I live in England, and my kids go to school here, and they don’t hide that they are Jewish. For the generation of my grandparents in Hungary, they could not openly talk about their Judaism – back then, Jews could not hold certain posts, only because they were Jews. And it’s important not to forget that. But this is what I love about the orchestra and our project: it shows how much Jews contributed to culture in Germany, and in Europe overall, and the extent to which Jewish people played a key role in cultural life in Germany.

Chen Reiss, soprano, live, classical, singer, singing, sangerin, klassische, musik, performance, Muenchen, JCOM

Photo: Stefan Randlkofer

So there’s a personal relationship of sorts with Hensel’s work?

CR Yes, I feel so committed to promote her music, because it’s great music but also, the fact she was a woman. You know, my daughter plays the piano, she uses those graded exam books, and right now she’s in book 2; I looked at the composers they put in, and at least 50% of these little pcs are written by female composers. I bet you even ten years ago it was not like that. So I think there is much more awareness today to giving female composers a voice – and maybe we are helping with that a bit.

Top photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

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