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 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.
The last known photograph of Franz Kafka, most likely taken in 1923. Source: Klaus Wagenbach Archiv, Berlin.
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 Rene Jacob, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Acknowledging 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 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…
… 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…
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.
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.
Portrait of Fanny Hensel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim; 1842, oil on canvas. Jewish Museum of New York.
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.
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.
In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.
The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.
On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.
The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.
Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his now-wife, soprano Nicole Car, and the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera). Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.
Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.
Congratulations on Don Carlos…
It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….
… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?
It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.
Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?
There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head
Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…
Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”
Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?
Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.
I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.
Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…
Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.
So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…
In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.
There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.
There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”
It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?
Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.
Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.
You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.
It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther– I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…
… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…
Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.
Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?
With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.
Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”
It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.
How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?
Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!
You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?
We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.
You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.
For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…
But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…
No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…
… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.
Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…
Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.
You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.
That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.
Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.
It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.
Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
It is difficult, if not impossible, to express anything meaningful in relation to the death of director Sir Graham Vick. Tributes are filling social media, many written by artists with whom the 67-year-old CBE-honoree worked throughout his illustrious four-decade-plus career, and amidst them, palpable veins of grief and anger, cries of “too soon” (Vick died of complications from coronavirus) and heartbreaking expressions of bewilderment. Imagining the opera landscape without Vick’s voice, literally and figuratively, is a very strange endeavour. To say he changed the centre of opera-theatrical gravity is putting things too mildly; he changed the entire universe, and many would argue, for the better.
Vick was a strident believer in opera being an art form for everyone, and was a champion of experimentation, risk, and diversity. Named director of productions for Scottish Opera in 1984, Vick went on to Glyndebourne, where he was director of productions from 1994 to 2000. He founded Birmingham Opera in 1987 and remained its artistic director. He helmed the works of Shostakovich, Britten, Wagner, Mozart, Monteverdi, Mussorgsky, Schoenberg, Rossini, and Prokofiev; he collaborated with a number of contemporary composers including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Ravi Shankar, Jonathan Dove, Stephen Oliver, and Georg Friedrich Haas, and had several projects planned (including production of new commissions) across the U.K. and Europe. To say he was modern is too cliched; to say he will be forgotten is impossible. The recollection of seeing – nay, experiencing – his work live now, at a time when so much of the live experience has been shuttered and is dictated by perceptions deeming opera elite, irrelevant, a frill, a fringe, a frippery, is to recall the work of a man who not only knew better, but proved it.
In 2017 I had intended to interview Vick about his award-winning production of Stiffelio at the Festival Verdi in Parma. That conversation unfortunately never took place (alas, poor timing), but I will always remember walking slowly away from the Teatro Farnese one warm night in October feeling as if I was seeing the world with entirely new eyes; the dim street lights that outlined the jumbles of boys gathered on street corners, the shouting, the darts back and forth to groups of girls, the hand-holding couples, the older woman stopping and starting along one wall, catching her breath… everything was familiar, strange, distant, immediate. Good theatre is meant to have this effect, of genuinely changing one’s perceptions and experiences of life outside of the theatre proper (I think), of cultivating curiosity and encouraging some form of empathy (or maybe “observation” is a more appropriate term here, considering Vick’s staging) – my experience of such art, of such direct and unfiltered theatrical approach, had been rather limited up to that point, and in the case of opera, I’d become inured to blithely sitting and gawking in silky finery, my senses more attuned to the orchestra and the voices; my expectations had, with very few exceptions, been unconsciously lowered around visuals and visceral understanding, an experience I only became aware of through the direct immersion (quite literally) in Vick’s production. His vision, as with so much of his oeuvre, demanded immediacy, contemplation, interaction, even (sometimes) direct engagement – with words, music, sounds, action… feelings. His stagings weren’t lessons (nor were they meant as such) but were very often challenges – to whatever baggage we may have brought, consciously and not. Stiffelio forced me to throw out that baggage, to set it alight; as the daughter of a confirmed Verdi lover, Vick’s intentionally confrontational production was not the medicine I necessarily wanted at the time, but was precisely the dosing rather desperately needed, and at some unconscious level, deeply desired.
This year’s edition of Festival Verdi will be dedicated to Vick’s memory; it opens on September 24th with a production of Un Ballo in Maschera, helmed by director Jacopo Spirei and based on an original project by Vick. The administrative and artistic teams at the Teatro Regio di Parma and Festival Verdi (including General Director/Artistic Director Ana Maria Meo and Music Director Roberto Abbado) stated in a formal release that “(t)he world of music and theatre loses an artist with a sharp eye, extraordinary sensitivity, attention to young talent, the ability to bring to light the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of our lives on the notes of scores written centuries ago, the ability to discover opera and make it loved by the broadest communities far from the world of culture, highlighting the values, feelings, and themes that bind it so closely to our contemporary world, our everyday life.”
Mille grazie, Graham, per tutto. x
Graham Vick rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma
“The aim is to have people not be prejudiced about the word (“opera”), to not change the word… isn’t that the job, really? I mean, Luciano Berio, he called the first one I did, Un re in ascolto (A King Listening), he called it a “musical action”… (and) in the late 20th century, everybody was trying to find a new label, (everybody) was experimenting with non-narrative opera […] but there’s nothing wrong with opera. Opera has this incredibly rich, 400-year history, and the only thing wrong with the word is the prejudice.”
“I believe that opera is its own art form, and it’s a huge art form, but it’s based on singing; that’s where its expressive heart is, is in singing. And the sung word, the human voice, is the most natural. When someone is singing good and open and in touch with themselves, (it) is the most immediate conduit to the human soul.”
“Everybody wants the star delivering the material… and that is fundamentally anti-theatric. It means, in fact, they perform their brand – in modern parlance – […] and so you might begin – here I’m being very rude, but I’ll say it anyway – you might begin by thinking The New Tenor is really interesting and fascinating, then by his fourth or fifth role you’re beginning to say, “It’s a little bit stuck and mannered” and eventually you’ll think, “That’s all he’s got to offer”… but it’s saleable, it’s packageable, because it’s a groove that sells recordings, that goes with someone who’s found his public. Many people fall into this rather disappointingly narrow track. The liberation of singing, the fact it should go all the way through the whole of your persona, the whole of your physical and psychic persona… the sound should resonate through it all… the people who are capable of living and communicating through that sound are the true high priests and priestesses of the art form.”
“There’s no substitute for understanding the words.” (referring to the English translation of operas)
“You can get the chorus of La Scala to do the most phenomenal mezzo-voce/mezzo-piano in the middle register – magic, like you’ve never heard. And that’s utterly beautiful. But if you want to hear the voice of the Russian people crying in despair and anger about religion and about politics, if you hear what we do in Birmingham, it speaks an entirely different way: devoid of polish, devoid of sophistication, devoid of training, but direct from the soul, direct from the heart, and meaning being 100% what they’re doing, not meaning via technique, via beauty, via sound, via keeping-everybody-else-happy. It’s unique. And that is a different way to deliver art. Prosciutto crudo, not prosciutto cotto.”
“The mess of opera and this pandemic is, of course, enormous, because not only the pandemic but with, of course, Black Lives Matter, and what’s happened this year, and so really for the first time a lot of people are finally taking diversity as a serious issue… but not really, of course, because they’re not really doing their proper work at the moment, they’re doing small projects, (with) small audiences. So it’s quite easy to change the apparent face very quickly. The truth is, when we come out (of the pandemic), we’ve now discovered – I believe everybody has now discovered, what we’ve always known in Birmingham – which is, we should be performing for the whole city; that’s what our work is and for, but our tickets cost £17.50, for everybody […] that gives us a completely different audience. I read statements on the websites of theatres, policies about equal opportunity and so on, but I don’t think we can fool ourselves that there is any possibility of any kind of equality, any kind of cultural democracy, unless people can afford to buy a ticket. And I think that is going to be an enormous problem, because the money is tight.”
“We have to include a much broader community in what we produce, in how we produce it, in how we communicate its truths, and in who we put on our stages, in our pits, in our choruses, in who you see around you in the audience – all of this has to change in order (for opera) to have any validity. But I don’t see, at the moment, any artists leading that charge. And I think it has to be an artistic charge.”
“What happens is, gifted, talented people start(ing) off initially as angry as me get sucked into this amazing thing that is opera – this big, soupy glorious, glamorous, thrilling world – and they lose their judgement. They lose their social and political judgement, and turn their back on where they came from. So that’s the message for you all, and what I want to say: be true to yourselves. Because the world has to be changed.”
“There are many, many ways of defining the word “excellence”.”
Top photo: Graham Vick at Festival Verdi rehearsing Stiffelio in 2017. Photo: Roberto Ricci / Teatro Regio di Parma
Certain sounds inspire one to sit up a little straighter, look away from the monitor, pull up the blinds, gaze out the window, and then remove the pandemic uniform of fleece loungewear and replace it with something more elegant and beautiful. Thus it is that those sounds – singers, operas, concerts, arias, and oratorios – have worked in tandem to provide a much-needed uplift over the course of the past fifteen months, aiding in a more focused, thoughtful, and elevated quality of energy than much of the classical internet, and its overdue if very often over/underwhelming digital pivot, tends to demand at any given moment in the age of Covid. Lisette Oropesa’s debut album, Ombra Compagna: Mozart Concert Arias, released via Pentatone earlier this month, provides such uplift, along with a hefty dollop of inspiration.
Recorded in August 2020 with conductor Antonello Manacorda and orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, the album’s ten tracks showcase Oropesa’s poetic musical sense, as well as her talent for balancing the whirlwind spirals of drama with the straight-arrow trajectories of technique. Hearing such luscious sounds, one immediately adjusts one’s spine, fixes one’s hair, puts on a nice dress; it feels as if the artists, and composer too, would request nothing less, or more, in the era in which the album was recorded and released. Three tracks feature the words of Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782): “Misera, dove son!”, (composed in 1781) “Alcandro, lo confesso – Non so d’onde viene” (1778) and the album’s closer, “Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle” (started 1778; completed 1788). The latter two arias were composed for Aloysia Weber (1760-1839), an accomplished singer whom the composer had taught and been enamoured with prior to his marrying her sister, Constanze (in 1782); the works are notable for the poignant musical ideas which fully anticipate more fulsome creative expression in Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and La clemenza di Tito (1791) . Oropesa’s handling of the aural and textual aspects of the respective arias expresses a touching emotional honesty; the knowing way in which the soprano delicately modulates her tone and breath, her studied phrasing and vivid coloration, imply a comprehension of things beneath, around, between, and beyond the words. “Alcandro, lo confesso”, for instance, is from Metastasio’s libretto for L’olimpiade (Olympiad), and was originally set to music by Antonio Caldara, who was court composer to Empress Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (the work was originally meant to celebrate her birthday). As John A. Rice’s fine album notes remind us, “(t)he concert aria gave composers and performers flexibility in regard to the gender of the singer vis-a-vis the gender of the character portrayed. To be more specific: a female singer could freely portray a male character.” Such fluidity is conveyed with quiet elegance through Oropesa’s controlled if unquestionably heartfelt delivery, complemented by Manacorda’s stately tempo and dynamics:
Alcandro, lo confesso,
stupisca di me stesso. II volto, il ciglio,
la voce di costui nel cor mi desta
un palpito improvviso,
che lo risente in ogni fibra il sangue.
Fra tutti i miei pensieri
la cagion ne ricerco, e non la trovo.
Che sarà, giusti Dei, questo ch’io provo?
Non so d’onde viene
quel tenero affetto,
quel moto che ignoto
mi nasce nel petto,
quel gel, che le vene
scorrendo mi va.
Nel seno a destarmi
sì fieri contrasti
non parmi che basti
la sola pietà.
Alcandro, I confess it,
astonished by myself. His face, his
expression, his voice—they awaken
a sudden tremble in my heart
which the blood repulses through my veins.
I try to find the reason in all my thoughts,
but I can’t find it.
Good Gods, what is it that I feel?
I don’t know where this tender
feeling comes from,
this unknown emotion
that is born in my breast,
this chill that runs
through my veins.
is not sufficient to cause
those strongly opposed feelings
in my breast.
(English translation by Christina Gembaczka & Kate Rockett)
With a rich vocality displayed in the frequently challenging, wide-ranging works, Oropesa’s flexibility and confidence, together with her calculated blend of sass, class, and deep sensitivity, show an artist flowering in a range of colors and styles. The concert arias demand, as Oropesa writes in the album notes, “extremes of range, breath control, dynamics, and stamina” and the soprano’s versatile technique (well explored through her history with Italian repertoire, especially bel canto) is keenly studied, if easily received.
That’s the point, Lisette said when we chatted recently – the music should sound effortless, even if it’s anything but – in content, as much as in style. Having such multi-faceted awareness is, for the singer, central to understanding and expressing the depths of real, lived emotional experience within the music; even if the topics are mythological, the subtext is far more familiar.The album’s title (which translates as “companion spirit”), originates in the aria “Ah, lo previdi” (“Ah, I foresaw it”), used in a scene from Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi’s libretto for Andromeda (1755); it uses the recitative form for maximal dramatic impact whilst offering a careful musical scoring that highlights aural power to convey the speaker’s grief over what she believes is her beloved’s passing. As Oropesa writes, “the most sublime music accompanies the journey between life and death, as the spirit of a loved one slips away.Though we may wish to follow them into the next life, we must stay behind. So to be an “Ombra compagna,” to be with someone in spirit”, when we say that, it is a comforting yet heartbreaking testament of love.”
Known for her work on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, Opéra national de Paris, and the Met, Oropesa is acclaimed for her performances of Italian, French, and German repertoire; she is especially known for her performances as Verdi’s Violetta (Latraviata) and Donizetti’s Lucia (Lucia diLammermoor). Zooming recently from Arizona, Oropesa was warm, funny, real, moving with ease and humour between discussing music approaches and dishing life lessons, with the same warmth and honesty as I remembered in our previous chat in 2019. Despite the challenges of the past year-plus, Oropesa’s upcoming schedule is busy, and, along with recordings and performances in Paris, Zurich, and Vienna, features concerts in California, Italy, and, in March 2022, a much-anticipated concert appearance at Teatro Real Madrid. January 2022 sees the soprano perform the title role in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, after being unable to perform at the season opener for the fabled house in December 2020 because of coronavirus-forced closure.
We began by discussing Ombra Compagna and how the project came to fruition amidst the numerous restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.
How did you choose material – why Mozart?
I didn’t actually pick that material! I am a big Mozart fan and I sing a couple of the concert arias; I studied them, but Pomo d’Oro wanted to record this material and they wanted me to sing it –they were the ones who reached out originally. I didn’t have a label at the time, so while I said yes to them and “it sounds great, send me a list of which arias you mean, there are so many and some are out of my realm of possibility but some are doable, I’d have to study them” – shortly thereafter Pentatone reached out. We had a meeting, and they said, “We want to offer you a package deal for six albums: three recital discs and three opera discs, and I said, would you consider this Mozart project? They said, “Yes, that would be a great first disc!” – so that’s how it happened. From there, Pomo d’Oro sent me a list of arias they were originally thinking of me doing. I chose which ones I wanted, and went on a journey; I got all this sheet music and spent a long time studying and listening to stuff, trying to find what arias were more well-known, ones that had and hadn’t been done. I did pick the arias but didn’t plan the project. In our business so much is given to you, and you either take it or you don’t; very few artists are capable of manifesting their own dreams into any reality. I had wanted a record deal for years, so I’m happy. To produce an album is akin to buying a house: to get an orchestra together, hire a conductor, order scores, find the space for recording, get in the right sound engineers… it’s a lot. So this was great, because someone else produced it. Pentatone is a label that very much cares about sound quality and specifics, and their producers have a lot of experience with orchestra and voices.
And artistically, if you offer me a Mozart project, I’ll never say no! In recording this, I had to find ways I could sing and interpret these works, because they’re all written for different individuals and that means, in a lot of ways, they’re tailored to specific voices: some might have amazing jumps, some might have great coloratura, some might have dramatic capabilities. Every aria has its own personal stamp, so I had to find my way of interpreting all of that, with the best of what I can do. I’m not a master of every single technical thing but I can do a lot of things okay enough that, I can probably pull from my experience – I can pull my flute experience here, I can pull my band experience there, I have my experience with recitative – and the fact I feel comfortable in Italian was very helpful too. The conductor (Antonello Manacorda) was a concertmaster and leads a lot of Mozart so we got on really well, and the orchestra are a great Baroque ensemble. They tuned down to 432Hz for some things; because I am not the highest-sitting a soprano right now, that made my life easy. It was fun, the whole thing. I loved it!
You really personalized the material in your approach.
You have to – really, you have to! I was telling someone the other day, with a lot of people singing Mozart, it’s like watching a gymnastics routine or an ice skating routine; we’re waiting for the jumps and flips and landings. And that’s fine, but those routines in particular, even though they’re sports, they’re also artistic: you’re looking for elegance and beauty and seamlessness of one move to the next, and the power of the gymnast who has their own way they move. In that respect, it’s like singing Mozart: you can’t just look at the technical demands and not go past that into what he is really about, which is depth of emotion. And you can’t do the emotion without the technical stuff – that’s a doorway into the realm of what I think Mozart really is, but you can’t start from that side of the door, you have to go through the technical door first. The problem is a lot of people – artists, industry people, listeners even – get very hung up on the door, but we have to get past it. It’s a tough thing to do, so I try to make the easiest-sounding door possible. Whatever technical demands there are, I try to make them sound easy, even though they’re not. But if I make it seem hard you won’t get past it.
Then all we’d hear is a door.
With Artur Rucinski in Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Real, 2018. Photo; Javier del Real
Your bel canto experience must have been good preparation too…
Tremendous. Bel canto helps you with learning to use recitative in a way that is emotionally effective. Mozart is a beautiful writer of recitative so I never had an issue. These arias are all accompagnati; the orchestra is playing, it’s not with just a harpsichord, which you get in his operas – so because these are concert pieces, the entire orchestra is involved, even doing recit, and you might be doing it for four pages before the aria starts. It’s odd to sing it in a way, but it’s also a dramatic part of the piece: you’re setting up the story and that’s very nice as a singer! The other thing is that being a former instrumentalist is really helpful; I learned to express music that didn’t have words, I learned how to express a musical intention, a phrase, without text. With text, sometimes it’s all singers obsess over, this “What about this consonant? What about this vowel? How should I put across all the immense poetry?” – and yes, all of that is important, but with Mozart, the text and the musical phrase are joined; the musical phrase is as vital as the text. Ideally, you marry those two things together when you perform.
Would you say they’re lieder-esque in a sense… ?
Yes, they are.
I hear a lot of Schubert and Beethoven being anticipated in these works, and especially in how you perform them, which made me consider how much I’d like to hear you doing these works in recital.
Thank you, that means a lot. I love lieder, especially the Viennese school and the German stuff; it’s some of the best rep in the world. One of the good things about the pandemic, one of the few silver linings, is that solo-singer-with-piano configurement has become much more popular; I have a massive book full of recital rep that I’m preparing for next year. It’s months’ worth of recitals – the bookers all want lieder, so honestly? Yay! I’m ready, I’m bringing it!
Well yes, recording was the only thing people could do for so long, because orchestras were free and you could record, as long as you were distanced and the room was aired out, and you tested throughout the process. It was one of the only things still allowed to happen. I did three albums myself since this whole thing has happened, and realistically, I’d never be able to book them otherwise; most singers are never free, they need a week at least of just recording, and normally no one can spare the time, so (setting time aside to record) is a scheduling issue (in relation to opera houses). But this past year everybody’s been recording or rehearsing, or learning new roles.
What’s that like for you as a singer, to be taken away from audience energy but to get closer to your voice and to other musicians?
It is a chance to navel-gaze at our larynx, haha! And, not having the audience when you’re doing an album is not a problem because you’re focusing on just recording; you can rehearse, worry about the singing, you don’t have to please a director, you don’t have to wear a costume, you can wear the flat shoes, no makeup and do your thing. I never recorded with an orchestra before – this was my first taste of doing that, and even though we were distanced (so it was slightly less intimate than it would normally be), I was maskless and I could sing into the mic, start, then stop; repeat.
Now, doing performances like an opera or a concert, without an audience… that sucks. We can do it, but. What happens in rehearsal is, you’re basically rehearsing and then you run the whole show with an audience of your castmates, which is intimate and beautiful, but the next level is presenting it to the public; that is what you are preparing to do. And then to do that presentation with no public present, except on the internet – we can’t hear them, or see them – it almost feels like you’re still rehearsing somehow, like you painted something but didn’t hang it on the wall. There’s no finished feeling, and that’s odd; there is no energy back, and that’s odd. So you can sing your balls off and then you don’t hear any applause or reaction – you can’t feel what the audience’s energy is toward you – and that’s awful.
But lately I feel I have to wave my arms about this; yes, you do it to fulfill an innate creative urge, but related to that, at least to my mind, is the desire for energetic feedback.
Exactly right. I mean the thing is, we, and this is what’s been hard, the public comes to us for escape in some ways. We are entertainment for many people; they come to the theatre to dream, and that’s been taken away from them, but, we as artists are expected to still perform at the same level, or a more high level, because everything is so hard now, so it’s “Please come perform on the internet for an audience you can’t see or hear!” You’re doing it for less money and for much more stress and much more risk, and the stakes are 100 times higher; as artists we’re stressed beyond belief doing this, and we still have to put that aside, and put emotions to the side. It’s hard enough when things are functioning normally – there’s enough difficulty in the business as it is – but now there’s far more; there’s world stress, there’s financial stress, there’s various forms of personal stress, and there’s still this attitude, like, “Sing for us! Entertain us! Sing under these circumstances!”
In La traviata at Teatro Real, 2020. Photo: Javier del Real
Your work as a singer is being filtered through the choices of a director as well; it must create a weird self-consciousness not only about how you sound, but how you look.
I’ve talked about this with regards to opera in HD – you don’t get to direct what frame is on the screen at any given moment, so you might be on camera or not, doing all this great work, but no one will see it if the director doesn’t choose you. And then there will be these snap judgements – “He’s a bad actor!” – but in theatre you can pick where you want to look. The energy and electricity of performers reaches audiences in a different way live than through a camera. Cinematic awareness is something we are having to deal with more and more, yes – I made a movie in Rome of Traviata, and we did so many takes of every scene, live-sung, with the orchestra piped into a speaker. We had to follow as best we could, and I had no idea which take they ultimately took. My mother saw rough cut and said, “That director likes your back!” and a friend in film said, “Oh that’s a specific directorial thing, seeing what (Violetta) is seeing rather than presenting an outside perspective” but I was doing all these things with my face, because I have experience in theatre, and theatre is much more immediate.
It’s surprising how many don’t understand or appreciate that immediacy, implying the big digital pivot is somehow going to “save” opera and how it needs re-defining; I wonder if the real issue is better cultural education.
It is, because the art form does not need redefining – I 100% agree with you. Opera does not need redefining; it does not need watering down, it does not need censorship. It is actually more progressive than people have interpreted it as being, even though it isn’t always presented that way, but it can and should be presented in different and new ways. Opera also provides one of the very best opportunities for women to work: as a prima donna, as a lead character, as a very central if not entirely pivotal character on the stage. I mean, I’m lucky I don’t have to compete with men for my job.
The pandemic era has shown that a lot of companies definitely needed to up their digital game, but lately it feels like music is the last thing to be considered.
You’re right; it doesn’t seem like the music is that important sometimes. I feel at the moment that the focus is more on, “how many people can we reach”, “what are the numbers”, “what social message can we put out”. Some companies are trying to do innovative things, like performing in a parking garage, a racetrack, an airport… but I think, look, we’re not cars. We don’t belong in cement buildings. I know we’re trying to do the distance thing and I get the whys and wherefores of that, but an opera voice is meant to resonate in a concert hall that’s designed in a very specific way to showcase this very specific thing. It’s the same thinking as, ‘let’s put a ballerina on a cliff and make her dance’ and sure, she could, but her shoes aren’t made for that, her training isn’t made for that, it’s taking this very particular craft and sticking it in another medium it isn’t made for, and as a result it doesn’t come across the same way.
And it isn’t perceived the same way as a result; there’s pluses and minuses to that. But to me the central issue is still one of education, or lack thereof.
Yes, I mean, where does the music go when these sorts of construction things happen? You lose a lot of the intimacy in those giant settings…
… sure, but it’s not a new thing; Arena di Verona exists, and other spectacles have come and gone. I remember attending Aida at the local stadium as a kid, and that was really not about the music. The sound was horrendous but it looked impressive.
Some things don’t work outdoors, and some do. The problem is that (outside stages) force singers to adopt a whole different way of interpreting the music, and Aida has a lot of intimate moments. How would you expect a soprano to sing “O patria mia” in a stadium? That’s a very internal moment, that aria, she isn’t barking it – and sure, The Triumphal March works great, it’s 800 people and the orchestral scoring is very exciting right then – but for much of the opera, it’s just two people or one person singing on the stage. It’s a story about relationships, and you can so easily lose sight of that. It’s the same for any of these operas about individuals going through intimate experiences – in Aida or Traviata or Rigoletto. Actually, Rigoletto was staged at Circus Maximus – the stadium where the chariot race in Ben Hur was filmed – last summer; now, Rigoletto is about a father and a daughter, and a very complicated, close relationship, and … you know, in such a big space… I don’t know, it’s unusual. But somewhere like Arena di Verona, it’s an amphitheatre, it’s good acoustics, the stagings are done at night; there’s a special sort of vibe there.
Singing for the internet is a whole different thing, I’d imagine…
Oh yes – for broadcasts shown in a cinema or for the internet, you have to deal with a crappy little microphone hidden in your bosom or wig, and then try not to think about the fact that you’re singing for somebody’s crappy computer speakers. And: the majority are judging your voice. You are totally aware that the online audience are often critical and anonymous. Everybody’s a critic and has a platform to bitch and moan about not sounding good, but look, it’s not fair to watch and judge a singer’s voice on this platform; overtones don’t get picked up, color largely do not translate, subtle things you do with your voice do not translate, and there are these weird resonances. Now, a real hall has acoustics which are designed to promote those things in a proper way; at La Scala a voice bounces, as it should, and you can’t get that in speakers. I don’t know how else to explain it. When you train as a singer in school and take lessons you are not training to sing into a microphone; you are trained to sing over an orchestra and/or another instrument, playing loudly, in a hall. That is our training. If you tell me to take my training and do something else and expect me to be brilliant and get everything perfectly, there’s a problem.
And, we are not trained to act for a camera; we are trained for the theatre, our faces are meant to be open and expressive, and we are taught a certain level of exaggeration in ways that underline enunciation and presentation. You stick that on camera and it looks unflattering, over-exaggerated, not believable, silly. Then you get told, “Well tone it down for the camera” and you think, I’m supposed to be singing for 3000 people here, but apparently I should… be subtle? It becomes this whole issue, and then it goes into, “This person doesn’t look good on camera because they are old.” And they’re not old at all, they’re at a perfect age, they’re good-looking, and, yes, they sound amazing! But it’s become this new “normal” for singers, that they look “old” somehow.
Ombra Compagna was released via Pentatone in May 2021.
… exactly, “People love her, she has lots of followers, she looks hot in a bikini…”
“… and we have to attract a younger, hip audience, so…”
… “we have to attract a younger audience” is dog whistle for, “We have to get the heavy, unattractive, older people off.” Why are we trying to attract them? In Europe there are tons of young people going to classical events; if you make it cheap enough, the younger patrons will attend, and, if you don’t try to water it down into these headlines, like, “Passion! Jealousy! Opera!” That sounds like a telenovela, come on, they see through that. But the marketing to young people involves us singers now, too, so any singer with a decent following – organizations tend to use us to advertise, and that’s fine, they can do it; that’s the reality.
So much marketing adds insult to injury by implying knowledge is somehow bad, that it’s elite to educate your potential audiences.
If people think they don’t like classical music, or that it’s elite, then ask them to turn on any movie/series/TV show, and tell me what it is they’re hearing and responding to. I’ll tell you: it’s classical instrumentation and writing. 90% of the time people are responding emotionally to a theme while something is happening. Classical is an art that deals in human emotion; it happens naturally. You can play a video game and the music is gorgeous, epic, classical music, most of the time, it’s otherworldly – so if people don’t think they’ll like it, well, they might. It shocks me sometimes, the ignorance, but classical is absolutely mainstream. And so I don’t think it’s any more elite than the Olympics. People think classical is so hoyty-toytoy – but it’s like going to a nice restaurant or a special dinner; you have certain protocols you follow. That should be something you look forward to doing, like going on a date. Do you really want to go in your PJs?
Ah, but that’s the uniform this year!
Right? Lounge-office wear is the fashion in 2021 now!
I actually took off the lounge-wear and put on a dress to listen to your album; I still do.
Oh thank you!
It felt elevating and inclusive at once, and that is an integration Mozart seems especially good at.
Mozart is not a composer who leaves people out – he’s one of the more easy-to-listen-to composers. It’s why so many of his works are known by so many people, in and out of the realm of classical music. It’s melodic, harmonic, theatrical, entertaining, not too much chromaticism, nothing people wouldn’t get, but so human. His work is a great introduction to classical music overall.
Various singers have told me they love returning to the music of Mozart because his music is a massage for the voice – is that true for you too?
It is, yes, and it can be a really great thing to get you in line vocally. If you are everywhere with your voice, Mozart is a very challenging composer. He demands you understand the door, to go back to our image from earlier; all the hinges have to be lined up, everything has to be right, and just so. Only then, yes – walk through that door; Mozart wants you to.
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Throughout the pandemic era the experience, or more precisely, lack of experience, in relation to human connection has been repeatedly underlined, in both large and small ways. How might that be attained through the glare of a monitor, the click of a mouse, the sound of a faraway voice resonating through tinny speakers? As life restarts and returns to some form of normal in certain areas, an unusual if somewhat predictable paradox reveals itself, for while the understanding of human connection has risen, its evolved expression has not; indeed, there are far fewer expressions of empathy than one might’ve hoped. The compassion deficit borne of the coronavirus experience is an issue yet to be worked out and in many cases acknowledged at all, particularly within the realm of culture, where new and old ways of being have collided (and occasionally enmeshed) with mixed results. People power culture, and this is a point worth remembering as the “new normal” unfolds. Such is it that the experience of chamber music, and particularly the art of song, comes into focus for some, for it is within such a realm where one might experience, however intangibly for now, the lifeblood of those people, and the sense of connection with them which is still very much missing in so many lives.
Tenor Ilker Arcayürek radiates this quality of warmth in bundles, whether on stage, in recordings, or through various online performances. His beautiful album of Schubert songs, The Path Of Life (Prospero Classical), recorded with pianist Simon Lepper, nicely conveys Arcayürek’s deft talent in handling difficult material, rendering the sometimes cold and over-intellectualized lied form with grace, intelligence, and genuine human warmth. The album, released earlier this year, is a showcase of vocal and interpretive gifts, the tenor’s rendering of “Dass sie hier gewesen” (“That She Has Been Here”) colored with the pungent longing so clearly expressed in both Friedrich Rückert’s poem and the mournful lines Schubert wove in and around them. The way he lingers on specific syllables, modulates volume between and around vowels, the careful coloration and phrasing, the watchful breath control and achingly sensitive delivery – all this, combined with Lepper’s sure-footed playing, makes for a rewarding, deeply enriching listening experience which highlights the humanity so central to the best lieder experience.
This human approach might have been influenced by a decidedly unconventional path for a classical singer. Born in Turkey but raised in Austria, singing figured prominently in Alcayürek’s youth, but conservatory training did not. In his youth Alcayürek worked a variety of odd jobs (not unlike pianist Lucas Debargue), and, as he told Turkish news site TRT World in 2018, “(o)ver time the singing got more and more, and I decided to try and live from (it)“, a decision that led to him being spotted by a casting director from Oper Zürich; he became a member of the company’s prestigious International Opera Studio, and remained, from 2009 to 2013. From there Alcayürek joined the respective ensembles at Stadttheater Klagenfurt (2013-2015) and Staatstheater Nürnberg (2015-18), performing a variety of roles, including famous Mozart-penned ones like Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), and the title role Idomeneo, as well as Puccini’s celebrated Rodolfo in La bohème. Since then, he has performed at Teatro Real Madrid, the Salzburg Festival, Volksoper Wien, and the Munich Opera Festival, among many others. In 2015 Alcayürek was finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World; the same year saw him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist; in 2016, he won the International Art Song Competition of Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy. Summer 2019 saw him make his American opera debut, with Santa Fe Opera, as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. His concert repertoire includes Bruckner (Alcayürek performed the composer’s Mass in F minor with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Liszt (Faust Symphony, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National de Belgique), and Bach (both the St Matthew and St. John’s Passions; the former with Orchestre national de Lyon and Kenneth Montgomery, the latter with the Academy of Ancient Music and Riccardo Minasi). Arcayürek has also performed the immensely challenging vocal portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and more than once: with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, under the baton of David Parry, and on a Naxos recording with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Danish Chamber Orchestra, part of a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, released in 2019.
Balancing such grand orchestral sounds is the devotion Alcayürek has shown toward the decidedly more intimate world of lieder. The Edinburgh International Festival, the Innsbruck Festwochen, the Schubertiada Vilabertran (Spain), and the deSingel Antwerp, are just a few of the venues in which he has given recitals; in 2018 he told writer Frances Wilson that the celebrated Wigmore Hall, where he has also notably performed and recorded, is a place in which he feels “very well linked to the audience.” The distinctly larger Park Avenue Armory in NYC was the location of the tenor’s American recital debut in 2019 alongside pianist Simon Lepper, with whom he also recorded his debut disc in 2017, Der Einsame (Champs Hill Records). The title references not only the contents of Karl Lappe’s poem, but the idea of solitude as a state of being, one Arcayürek explores in various facets throughout the album’s 23 tracks. As he writes in the album notes, “(w)e can find ourselves alone as the result of many different circumstances in life – unhappiness in love, a bereavement, or simply moving to another country. For me, however, being alone has never meant being ‘lonely’. As in Schubert’s song Der Einsame, I try to enjoy the small things in life, and, especially in those times when I am alone, to consciously take time out of everyday life and reflect on my own experiences.” At the time of the album’s release, Alcayürek was praised by The Guardian’s Erica Jeal for his “airy, easily ringing tenor that puts across words beautifully, with power in reserve yet a hint of vulnerability too.”
It’s that very vulnerability, and the willingness to explore it through careful musical means and smart creative choices, which makes Alcayürek’s artistry so special, particularly now in the time of pandemic; perhaps the classical music world needs the sort of sensitivity and compassion which are so inherently a part of his approach. We started off our chat by discussing the ways in which perceptions of solitude have shifted as a result of the “new normal” and how this “new” aspect led him to perform the music of Benjamin Britten, which he performed back in March in a livestream with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
As Rodolfo in Staatstheater Nürnberg’s production of La bohème, 2015. (Photo: Jutta Missbach)
What has your experience been through this time?
It’s been an opportunity I would say; every challenge has good parts and also negative parts. But I see (this era) as a call to use my time for another approach, another way. I get the chance to spend more time with my daughter, which is great, and I have the chance to explore my barista qualities, and to work on my latte art! You also recognize the small successes of life, and realize every day has new challenges – this became my motto, actually: you realize that singing is very important – it’s nice, making music, it’s essential – but on the other hand, you realize how much you have missed in the last couple of years by spending time on different things.
Those “different things” took in new meanings in the pandemic; has this been the case for you?
Definitely. But it’s strange to talk about! It’s like talking to a psychotherapist, because on the one side I do miss being in a hotel, I miss being on my own sometimes, because I used to be lonely and it became part of my life, to be lonely and on my own a lot, and have time to think about things, and now suddenly, you are responsible for the dishes, you are responsible for the cooking, you are responsible for all these things you missed out on in not being home – and also you are very involved in raising your child. It’s things like that you think about now. And it can be difficult to balance everything.
And I’d imagine having an album out now too, and seeing things slowly reopen in some places, underlines that divide.
Yes, for sure.
How much has your approach to singing has changed? Is there any stress at moving between the various-sized venues which are so much a part of any singer’s career?
Not very much, because every performance is a live performance and I react to the reaction of the audience. That’s especially important when you come from the chamber music world. It’s easier to get in contact with the audience in that world, and to react, and to get their reactions, than what happens on the opera stage, because on the opera stage you just see a dark room usually – you don’t have the faces you can rely on. When I sing Schubert and I see somebody crying, I am touched and I know I am in real contact with that person, and so then I try to bring the audience to me, somehow. I do the same in opera, or try to, but it doesn’t matter the size (of the venue); you have to just be connected with the music and then not act – you know, like “act” – something (which could be construed as) sincere but be as honest as possible in that moment.
But is that honesty easier to access now, because of the pandemic? You along with many musicians have been forced to examine your own approach to your work, and that related sense of honesty, in relation to music-making for over a year now.
It’s like this: when you make this music, when you perform, it’s all about honesty. And for me, I try to find a relationship between each song and my life. There are some funny songs like, “I wish I were a fish” (“Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Fisch“) – so it’s happy, and if you read this music, and read these kinds of poems, it has nothing to do with our time, but the honesty and the message within those songs has everything to do with our time. You could make a tweet instead of writing this type of poem now. The message and the honesty within a work like this will always survive, so this is what I try to do, to convey the honesty of this music to our reality now, because we all know the pain of love, and the nice moments too, and also the moments of reflection, or the moments of acceptance, and this human desire, these deep wishes – I try to bring out all of that during music-making. Yes, these are also the topics which people from the 18th and 19th centuries were working with, and they are still up-to-date.
How much do you think there is more of a place now for lieder, and chamber music – these smaller more intimate musical experiences? In my chat with Helmut Deutsch earlier this year, he seemed to think the pandemic had opened a new door for the art form.
I think lieder, and the way people think of it, is changing a bit.
You have to see it from an historical perspective. Lied was quite popular after the Second World War, but it was performed with a different approach, and in a different way than it is now. Lied was like, how can I say this, like a theatre piece, performed as a piece of art but maybe not with the same view, like I personally bring now, because emotions were kind of forbidden in that period, so it was more to bring people joy after this time of suffering.
As artsy escapism?
Yes, it was more like singing nice melodies, like a form of escapism, as you say, and I think now it is about time to break that, and say, “I am a musician, reading my own poem, and bringing this to you, and trying to explain my own personal story.” I think this is the next level we have to achieve. Also it’s vital to make lieder, the art of lied, interesting for a broader audience – the big difference between lied in the 1950s and nowadays is that people were educated about it in school, and they knew the poems which make up the text of these works. But nowadays people don’t know the poems. So getting to know these written works and their authors is another way to explain it, and to bring the audience into this music, and into the poetry, into this artwork overall, like the understand which existed before.
Maybe one small story: the first time I sang in New York was at the Park Avenue Armoury, and there was a young couple sitting in the first row and they were quite fashionably attired, the guy in the couple looked like a rock star; we met afterwards in a bar by chance, this place where we all went for a drink, and he said that he’s also a musician, and although he didn’t understand a word I sang and didn’t know the music either, he felt the emotions inside. So he understood on this other level. That was a very interesting experience for me, to hear that – I really liked it! And I think this is exactly what it’s about, to transport emotions, and not play them falsely but to live them. Singing this music needs a lot of life experience. For certain pieces I sing I think of various aspects in my own life, and these things make me emotional, and I try to express myself in a way that touches on those things.
Good lieder should connect to real life experience – and some of us can’t applaud at the end because we’re processing everything…
I prefer when people don’t applaud immediately after my singing.
Yes! For me, pauses, within the music but also after the music, are really important, so I really try to also have a moment of silence. I really enjoy that, especially after signing a cycle like Winterreise; I think it’s important to digest the music for a while, and then applaud, or not.
How does that translate to a venue like Santa Fe? What was that experience like?
Scary! I loved it a lot, but it’s scary, because the winds can be a challenge. It’s open-air, so you are affected by the weather, and it can be very cold, very hot, very windy, and suddenly there’s lightning; you see the clouds moving around and you think, “Oh no my aria is coming! If the winds come in on this side, will people hear me if I stand there?”” But oh, it was a very nice, very special experience, and I’m so glad I did it.
And it’s quite large, isn’t it?
It’s huge, I think it’s more than a 2000-seat capacity.
The other houses you’ve sung at are such a contrast – Zürich is very jewel box, for instance.
… especially in Zürich, yes. And it has a really good acoustic, and the seating, the way that’s built, was done with an angle, so the acoustic lifts up, which makes it easy to sing in. It also gives the singer the opportunity to step back and not sing at 100%, so you can create more colors, you can be very musical. Because of that (design), you are not using your full capacity, so you always have 20% left. My teacher said that in such a spot you are singing with your, how do you say it in English, it’s like with a bank account, you don’t sing with your capital, you sing with your…
Yes, the word I was looking for, interest! (Jewel box-sized spaces) give you the freedom of playing around and not going to the very, very edge, and then if you do go to that edge once or twice, it’s to build up a climax.
Interior, Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Indeed, one is able to hear so many colors in that house. You were part of the opera studio program in Zürich, yes?
I was in the opera studio at Zürich – most of the time I sang smaller parts during my years there. I used Zürich as my study spot actually, and I got some stage experience from singing in choir before, so (working at) Zürich was useful to get some confidence and security onstage, to find one’s self.
It seemed like a good place for that, and not only because of the singer-friendly acoustic.
I must say, it’s still one of the best houses. During the time of Alexander Pereira, the former opera director (Intendant of Oper Zürich, 1991-2012), it was filled with all the stars of the business – Netrebko, Nucci, Hampson, Bartoli, Camarena, and Kaufmann as well, to name a few – so it was just great for me to observe those artists, to be around them, to work onstage with them; you get so much input by seeing these people and getting the chance to be close to them. You also get to know in which places they save their voice, where there is the possibility to do that, when they go on their edge and how – things like that. I was amazed at being part of the whole thing. Later when I came to Klagenfurt, the first time maybe, of course, it was clear the orchestra was different, and there were challenges, but you find new ways to deal with those challenges, and ways to grow through them. Nürnberg was my first state opera experience, so it was a bigger orchestra again, and my debut there was La bohème of course – and I can tell you, the first time, with a German orchestra playing Puccini, is also not so easy! And in comparison to Zürich the acoustic in Nürnberg is, again, not the same either. So you have to adapt to each room, to each space, each orchestra, and you have to find your strategy in how to manage the whole situation, and your role within that situation.
That’s a good education is it not?
It is definitely good! As a singer you will always learn new things and adapt to situations, so after the pandemic I’m really curious what will happen with artists; I’m sure some singers will struggle, at least for a while, until they get back to shape. You can sing as much as you want at home, but it isn’t the same as singing on a stage, and you won’t have the same feeling of adrenaline and excitement. It’s another level of singing, like for a basketball player, the difference between the training and then the game. When you have people in front of you, it’s difficult to make that throw the same way.
Some singers have expressed those kinds of concerns; how much have your pandemic activities helped set the stage, to whatever extent, to going back to the actual stage?
I haven’t been singing recently so much. My last project was in March, so not so long ago, but it was during that experience that I sang, for the first time, the Serenade (Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings) by Benjamin Britten with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and it was in a hall which is not so big. It was like a normal concert venue size – and it was different to sing not for an audience who’d normally be there, but for the microphone, because it was a broadcast concert, so.
That’s a whole new skill, one many are learning: how to sing for the internet.
Exactly! I mean, I have had some background in recording and singing for radio or for CD, but this project was still a new experience for me because I was singing for an audience without having an audience, so it was a mix between live performance, where you sing for the audience, and a CD recording, where you don’t. It was something in-between.
So was that Britten piece back in March a sign of things to come?
I wish I would sing more of it, actually, because the music is, for me, it was… musical love at second sight. Can I say that?!
Yes, that’s precisely my experience of Britten’s music too.
Really, it just happens sometimes with some composers!
Well I wasn’t raised to his work…
… me either! I was raised more to the music of Schubert and Mozart and so on, because I sang at the age of 9 in a boys’ choir, and we never got in touch with the music of Britten, we weren’t raised with it, like in the UK for example, when you sing Britten in choir, so it’s a totally new world for me and a new language, not the English language, but the musical language – the harmonies, for instance – but I really, really enjoyed singing this piece, I must say! I was surprised at how much I liked it.
It suits the timbral quality of your voice, and you bring a warmth to music which is not always perceived as warm (rightly or wrongly!) – but your approach is very sensitive.
Whatever you sing, you have to sing it with your voice. And yet there is always the sound of Peter Pears in one’s ear, or head, when singing this music. People know these pieces through Pears’ recordings. Friends in the UK said, “It’s hard to imagine you singing this because we have it in our ear with Peter Pears”, so I really tried not to adapt or imitate at all, but to sing it my way. Also, these pieces are a fit for me, I think, because they’re like singing lied but with some moments more operatic – it can be difficult to find the right balance, to find colors, which you need, which are connections with that world of lied, but also with the technique which requires operatic singing. It’s interesting, his music is right on the edge for me, and singing his work is a balancing game.
I want to hear you sing more Britten.
I hope I do more of it! We shall see what the future holds.
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Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.
Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisandeat Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.
Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.
John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.
This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.
Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How are rehearsals going?
JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?
BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.
JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.
JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.
BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.
Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?
JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.
It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?
JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.
Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?
BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.
JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.
BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.
JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely… and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.
BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.
JD It’s not an ideal situation…
BS… but it’s something.
JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.
Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.
JD I think there are big arguments… if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.
You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?
JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.
BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.
To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?
BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.
JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”
BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.
JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…
BS It’s a lot of money.
JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.
Photo: Gerard Collett
How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?
BS Well I went to a concert here recently and… I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God… then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.
JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…
BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.
JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?
BS Bravo, John…
JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.
BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.
JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”
So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?
BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …
JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.
BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”
JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.
BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.
So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?
BS Oh for sure.
Photo: Robert Workman
How do you keep your focus?
JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.
… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious.
JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.
B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.
JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.
This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.
JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.
BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.
JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.
Memories of past cultural experiences have become sharper over the course of the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been taking stock of those experiences through the past five months or so, recalling, with a mix of delight, sadness, and wistfulness, some of the most magical moments. In light of the activities being reported at this year’s Salzburg Festival (a reduced if arguably more potent version began August 1st and runs to the end of the month), I recalled my own experience at the starry fest in 2016, where, among other events, I attended a presentation of Faust featuring tenor Piotr Beczala in the title role. Having experienced the opera numerous times live and via recordings, I was struck at the Polish singer’s responsiveness to both the music and to his co-stars, notably bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s menacing Mephistopheles; it was as if Beczala had stepped into the score himself, and was carefully, keenly analyzing every small detail, altering his pitch and tone, the shape of his vowels and consonants, his breaths and pauses and even sighs, around Gounod’s score and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s performance of it under maestro Alejo Pérez.
This musical sensitivity and attention to detail, and to drama, have expressed themselves throughout Beczala’s illustrious career, which has included turns in the well-known and well-loved (Bizet’s Carmen; Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; Puccini’s La bohéme), French opera (Faust; Werther; Romeo), dramatic (Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur; Vaudémont in Iolanta; Lensky in Eugene Onegin; Der Prinz in Rusalka), as well as purposeful dips into both bel canto (Bellini’s La Sonnambula; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and verismo (Tosca‘s Cavaradossi, des Grieux in Manon), generous helpings of Verdi (Un ballo in maschera, Luisa Miller, La traviata, Rigoletto), a taste of Wagner (Lohengrin), and delightful dashes of operetta (Die fledermaus, Das Land des Lächelns). Beczala has performed in all the major international houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, and Opéra national de Paris, to name a few. In 2014 he won the prestigious ECHO Klassik Award for Singer of the Year; in 2015, an Opera News Award; in 2019, was awarded Austria’s Kammersänger title during a run of Tosca in Vienna. In addition to French, Italian, German, and Russian repertoire, Beczala has also performed in his native Polish; he sang the pivotal role of Jontek in Stanislaw Moniuszko’s 1847 opera Halka, first at the Wiener Staatsoper late last year, and subsequently in his native Poland (at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw in February) in a production by Mariusz Trelinski. As Opera News writer Henry Stewart noted of Beczala’s performance of the aria “Straszny Dwór” (The Haunted Manor, again by Moniuszko) on his 2010 albumSlavic Opera Arias (Orfeo), “(i)n eight minutes, Beczala makes a case not only for rescuing this epic aria, or even the whole opera, but for paying more attention to Polish music in general.” Beczala just did this on his recent album of songs by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz and Stanislaw Moniuszko with pianist Helmut Deutsch, Pieśni (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina) a beautiful collection of 26 short pieces recorded in Warsaw in 2018.
Photo: Johannes Ifkovits
Such wide variety feels natural for someone who has taken a slow, steady, and altogether smart approach to repertoire expansion. As he told Presto Classical’s Katherine Cooper earlier this year, “(m)y earlier career was much more about Mozart than Donizetti, Bellini or Rossini, but this kind of balance between bel canto singing and developing into the dramatic repertoire is so crucial. You have to guard against any signs of stress or loss of flexibility in your voice, because Wagner and verismo in particular can be very dangerous if you start singing too much of it too soon.” This deliberate pacing has paid off handsomely, and the time is nigh for a project showcasing such artistic intelligence. Vincerò! (Pentatone), released in May, features Beczala performing with conductor Marco Boemi and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia. Called “a winner of an album” by Gramophone at its release. Beczala’s vocal flexibility, silvery tones, exquisite dramatic timing, and textured line readings on full display through lush arias taken from his current repertoire (Tosca, Gianni Schicchi, Adriana Lecouvreur) and likely future one(s); there are tasty verismo sounds (Mascagni, Leoncavallo) and a lot of Puccini, including the aforementioned Cavaradossi and Rinuccio respectively, here luminously joined by “Orgia, Chimera Dall’occhio Vitreo“ from the composer’s first opera, Edgar, along with selections from Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, La fanciulla del West. The album closes with (as the title references) the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Throughout the selections, Beczala never resorts to crooning, blasting, or forced dramatics; he truly sings the music in a way that elucidates the meaning of the text without losing the poetry of the sound in either linguistic or sonic senses. This is a singer who listens to every single thing going on around him, and here he’s beautifully supported – complemented – by Boemi and orchestra. Beczala’s reading of the famous tenor aria from Turandot, for instance, highlights his smart musical instincts; it’s passion and precision come together in a knowing show of tonal texture and control. In a word: marvelous.
Indeed, as much as Vincerò! is a riveting display of Beczala’s meticulous musical approach and watchful brand of vocalism, it is also, as I noted, something of a preview of future roles: Calaf, for instance, is on Beczala’s future performance schedule. The tenor and I spoke back in July, just prior to his appearance at the opening night of the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál on Margaret Island (Margitsziget)’s outdoor stage. So much was still uncertain in the music world, and little has changed since then, but what with the Salzburg Festival presentation this year (albeit in altered form) and the resumption of concerts across much of continental Europe, with all the requisite safety measures in place, it’s safe to say there is some form of cultural-musical life trickling into being after a long and sometimes painful absence. Beczala performed in Salzburg recently, in a presentation of Mahler’s Das Lied von Erde with mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner and the ORF Radio Symphonieorchester Wien under the baton of Kent Nagano; the presentation will be broadcast on radio station Ö1 on August 20th at 7.30pm CET. That very evening (August 20th) sees Beczala perform live at the Grafenegg Festival, in a concert featuring the music of Mascagni, Giordano, Leoncavallo, and Puccini, together with the Tonkunstler Orchestra under the direction of conductor Sascha Goetzel; that particular appearance will be broadcast on Austrian television on August 30th. This month has, it turns out, been a happily busy one for the tenor (he began August performing at both the opening and closing evenings of a special edition of the Lech Classic Festival in Austria, before going on to Salzburg), and the autumn may well prove just as busy: in September Beczala will be giving two concerts from Spain with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and will also be giving a gala concert from the Wiener Konzerthaus, and October sees him performing in Warsaw, as the title role in Werther.
So, despite audiences being denied the opportunity to experience his Radamès (in Aida) this year at either the Festival de Peralada in Spain or at The Met respectively, there is plenty to look forward to, and for now, Beczala, together with wife Kasia, are riding out the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic as positively as possible: by baking, studying, and, rather happily as it turns out, singing for live audiences.
Faust at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Your baking posts on instagram remind me of things my own relatives make. It’s interesting how many artists in the opera world enjoy being in the kitchen.
Well, we spend so much time between performances doing nothing. You can study and practise all the time but you have to do something normal – you can play golf or sports but it’s really a good thing to spend some hours cooking, baking, trying recipes. We also do it sometimes with friends, singer friends –cooking is a good way to spend time together.
There’s also the aspect of what you make you can’t actually see and touch, whereas when you work with food it’s a directly sensual experience.
That’s absolutely right – I remember when I did Magic Flute performances, and I was always jealous of Papageno getting the chicken in the last act. The whole house smelled like barbequed chicken, and who got it? The baritone, of course.
Yes, but you tenors get to sing things like “Nessun Dorma”…
Exactly – I’m okay with that!
Throughout this pandemic time it seems like many classical artists have learned things tangible and not, things they’re bringing back to live performance as some kind of normal returns in Europe. Is this your experience too?
We still, unfortunately, are nowhere near normal at the moment – some opera houses and concert halls are starting to go back but it really doesn’t look fine for me. Singing… I have no problem to sing for ten people, but for empty or almost-empty concert halls and houses, it’s a really difficult thing. And… well, we have to survive this time. I spoke with so many colleagues of mine, and really, we have to just stay calm, not go crazy. In my case, I was two months having vacations, and we stayed here in Poland for a couple of weeks, and I was already working last week in Vienna doing a TV project, and I’m going to Zurich. You know, some concerts that were cancelled are now back on schedule, but it’s still far away from normality. And that’s my problem, we don’t know what will happen in the fall, we don’t know… I know actually I will go do an opera in November, but until then there will may be concerts and performances but … the situation is very dynamic. It changes every day and every week.
Photo: Julia Wesely
That’s hard to adjust to especially when you have things lined up for years in advance.
My schedule is full until 2024-2025, and this is now only … It’s fantastic to have wonderful productions in your schedule, but there’s the old wisdom, and it always rings true, that your schedule is right when you’ve actually done all the performances, not when you put it on the paper. Now I see this situation, and well, who knows what will happen? Everybody asks me, but I’m a singer! I am really extremely happy that summer concerts are back along with a few activities, but it’s really very far from normal.
Part of your own “normal” is performing operetta; I spoke to Barrie Kosky years ago about staging it, and I’m curious as a singer what operetta brings you creatively.
When I started 28 years ago I’d already sung operetta, in the house in Linz and later in Zurich and Vienna. Operetta was always present in the program – not many, but the big hits like Merry Widow and Fledermaus and I always enjoyed it a lot. I love all these tenors of the past, from the 1950s-60s-70s or before, and operetta was really a big part of their repertoire – Fritz Wunderlich and Nikolai Gedda and many very fantastic tenors. It’s just part of my repertoire. I did a concert with Thielemann on New Year’s Eve in Dresden and I recorded a tribute to Tauber for Deutsche Grammophon (in 2013) – you know, it’s always a good thing for a tenor to have this part of his repertoire in the voice, because it’s a very good combination of some nice vocal lines, some elegance in singing, some distance to yourself, because operetta you can’t take really seriously. It’s serious music, but you have to blink a little with one eye when you do this music.
It does require a lot of vocal flexibility…
That’s what I mean, it’s not one style. You sing Puccini or Verdi or Wagner, it’s something very stable, everything moving in one direction; operetta is more of a pretty, nice, younger sister of opera. Of course there are exceptions, like The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns), which I did in Zurich a couple years ago; it’s really a tragic story like opera, but basically it’s about love, not going very deep into the sensibility of the people on the stage. It’s entertainment but entertainment on a very high level, and on a high level vocally as well.
So you can do operetta and verismo and Lohengrin – that flexibility feels rather rare in this age of the specialist, don’t you think?
It’s a good question. Really, I’m doing this because I like it; I know exactly the differences between verismo, Verdi, French opera, Wagner, and operetta – the funny thing is, operetta is not very far from Wagner…
Of course! But these aren’t my words Thielemann convinced me to sing Lohengrin, and he said that after a couple of concerts we did in Dresden, he said, well, I have to think about Lohengrin as really not being very far from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles – of course the language is the same. More or less, it’s the same time of composition, the end of the 19th century, and well… when you take both seriously, you can say, it’s not very far away, but all these styles are pretty different. I also sing Slavic music, and it’s also a part of my repertoire, but it depends very much on the language. Last year I did Halka in Vienna.
I have friends who saw you in that – it’s quite special to stage a Polish opera.
Yes, it was a rare opportunity to sing in my own language, and in an opera at that, because my operatic language is French or Italian or German. It’s a good combination, but the key is to see the differences and to try and not sing everything in the same way. It’s like cooking: when you do everything in the same way, everything tastes the same. You can’t recognize whether it’s meat or fish or dessert.
I saw you live in Salzburg in Faust and noted how careful your sensitivity was to not only the words but the way they relate to the score– and that sensitivity was just as palpable in your album with Helmut Deutsch of Polish songs.
Recording that album was a fantastic experience – Helmut and I have a lot of plans for the future. It’s a very funny story. We met through my former vocal coach, in-person in Vienna, and then I got the idea to ask him for some concerts. It was such a positive development. Helmut of course is one of the best interpreters of Schumann and Schubert – the big German repertoire – but in his soul and his heart, he is very Slavic. When we started work on the Karlowicz/Moniuszko album, he loved it. For me it was so important to have so many good people around me, people who I can work with, even for something that is not very popular. Nobody did Karlowicz songs before – well, maybe there was something in Poland, but in the international arena, it’s’ not really normal – but now everybody knows. I’m really happy about that.
I only got to know Halka when you were in it – increasing awareness of composers who aren’t part of the mainstream opera rep seems more important than ever.
That was the idea, to bring Halka to the international opera world. In Vienna the Theatre an Der Wien is a very important house, and it was a perfect place for staging Halka. Of course it’s hard to present the world with a new opera, an unknown opera – but with this work, the music is so beautiful, and it was a nice production. It’s good people realize there’s something like this in Poland and they say, “Okay, we welcome Halka into the world” – that was the idea. And now, I’ll be happy and extremely satisfied when it becomes part of the normal repertoire in some houses; that would be a dream.
Like at the Met?
Maybe, yes, of course! I know the difficulty to produce projects like that. I spoke with Peter Gelb about it – he has to sell tickets, that’s the thing. We get sold out in Theatre An Der Wien, but five performances there equals one performance at The Met. This is the big problem. There’s a risk also for many titles that aren’t popular, but the risk could be good in the case of Halka. Let’s see.
So it’s a chicken-or-egg sort of situation…
Yes, it is. We did it once in Vienna, and again in Warsaw, and it was twice on Austrian TV, and it’s being released now on DVD. In a couple months, someone interested can say, “Okay, time for something new!” and listen to this and watch it, and then there’s some impulse to make things happen.
Speaking of impulse to make things happen, your Vincero! album seems to have that quality; I kept wondering as I listened when the world might hear your Calaf.
It was the idea behind this album, to show all these arias, the most popular being “Nessun Dorma”. When I prepared myself and all this repertoire for the recording, I discovered a lot of fine music moments, different colors, and realized there are many sensitive and beautifully soft moments in Turandot. Of course the tenor has to sing with a sound of verismo, it’s like oil painting: when you are making it, you don’t have to take a big brush and do the big strokes, you need the possibility to make many small details – and this way to sing verismo is very important. I’d sung only two or three of those roles (on the album) on stage – Cavaradossi and Lecouvreur and Rinuccio, and that was twenty-five years ago – but the rest is for me questions for the future. And you mention Calaf… yes, I will do it. Most of these roles are in my plans for the future.
I kept hearing Parsifal also.
Thank you very much…. yes, Parsifal is in the schedule too! It’s a very special role; it’s not high, it’s not long, it’s not a lot to sing, but it’s very deep in terms of the meaning. The difficulty is, going through five hours of music, maybe (the opera) should be called Gurnemanz! I think in the next seven or eight years I will develop in the Italian repertoire, as well as Wagner. I really like singing Lohengrin, and Parsifal is the next logical step, and then maybe Meistersinger. I’m curious about what happens with repeating a role in different productions.
For example, Faust, for me it’s such an interesting story, with such a rich background and emotional world. I like to repeat every year or every two years a new production with this music, just to see how my voice is changing, which parts of the character I can discover again. I never get bored singing. Someone asked me a couple years ago about Rigoletto. If I’m not tired of singing it – I had sung maybe 100 performances in my life – I said, well, compared to all my wonderful colleagues like Leo Nucci or Anna Moffo, it’s nothing; Leo sang Rigoletto over 500, and it’s still fresh and not boring, Anna Moffo sang something like 800 Traviatas in her life. To keep the freshness also, not only vocally but in your head, your attitude and sense of discovery with the role, is very important in the business.
To keep it interesting for yourself as an artist?
Absolutely. You can’t be famous for fifty roles – you can’t go in history for fifty roles. You can go into history for at least maybe five or six roles; that’s the brutal truth. What I like is to discover, again and again, the same subject and to change it for different audiences – in America, Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, because this kind of working with people, with the public, is also a big part of discovering and searching for new impulses in the music
… which is precisely what you’re missing now, that interaction with a live public.
That’s so true! That’s been the most difficult part of this lockdown. We are in contact a little bit, but nothing can replace real contact with the public; that’s something absolutely special.
Your real contact will come with opening the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál soon…
Yes, this open-air concert that had been cancelled got brought back. It’s fantastic because it’s presented as open-air on Margaret Island. I was in Budapest a couple of times but never there in that spot, but I know the the people well, the orchestra and the soprano (Andrea Rost) I’ll be singing with.
How challenging will it be to return to a live audience?
It’s like driving a bicycle: you never really forget it. When I did my last day’s recording in Vienna there was no public there of course, but there were a lot of people around, the producers and others. There are always people around in this industry, and you have to find somebody, focus on them, and sing for that one person. In the worst case, my wife is sitting twenty meters away, and I can sing to her!
With wife Kasia at the 2015 Opera News Awards.
You two seem like a very strong team.
We are a team, and for many years we’ve travelled together, studied together, and she knows my voice better than anyone. She is at most of my performances. Us singers need ears which are outside – we can’t really hear ourselves, and it’s so important when you have a person you can trust, to get some feedback. That’s really, really important.
As a benefit, she gets to eat your lovely cakes.
She gets the ideas for the cakes; I make them; she decorates them, and then we invite people and they have to eat it. That’s the plan, always. It’s a good arrangement. My proportions for the cake are always big, and since we are only two we can’t eat it all, so we always invite people. Normally we’d take it to the house for colleagues. It’s always a good collaboration.
That nicely underlines the significance community has gained throughout the lockdown.
Yes, precisely, we are close in our space and apartments, it’s like discovering a whole new situation. I was rather happy here in Poland when nothing happened and we couldn’t travel… actually it was a good thing. I hadn’t taken a vacation in fifteen or twenty years. When people say “I’m taking a vacation” in our industry, it’s usually only two weeks – not studying, not practising, switching off all your activities, and focusing on doing nothing. That’s what we tried to do here. But moving on, I mean, in Salzburg 50% of the programme will happen, including my concert. For a long time we didn’t know what would happen, but it was very good news when I learned it will. It’s a very important year with the anniversary, and it would be a pity to cancel it. I’ve been singing there since 1997, it’s a long-time collaboration, and I was happy to have the possibility to sing there during the anniversary year. People have struggled with the situation but we hope people will be fine. We have to just react to the situation and adjust with whatever happens.
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When I last spoke with soprano Chen Reiss, she was in the middle of planning a Beethoven album. At the time, she spoke excitedly about possible selections, and happily shared a few morsels of insight her research had yielded. The fruit of that study is Immortal Beloved (Onyx Classics) a delicious collection delivered with Reiss’s signature mix of lyricism and authority, accompanied with sparky gusto by the Academy Of Ancient Music and conductor Richard Egarr. Released in March, the album is the latest in Reiss’s very ambitious discography featuring the music of Mozart, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Lehar, Schubert, Donizetti, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many others besides. The title of this latest album is an intentional reference to the name Beethoven gave to a mysterious woman in his life (the identity of the “immortal beloved” has long been a source of speculation), and showcases of the breadth of complexity pulsating within Beethoven’s early writing style. Far from fantastical, flights-of-fancy lovey-dovey ditties (the composer didn’t do those), these are sounds rooted in a very earthy sensibility. Reiss’s performance of these notoriously difficult works is a heartfelt embrace of the human experience and the myriad of emotions within. What was a thoughtful listen in former, so-called normal times takes on an even more contemplative shade in the current one.
Like many in the classical industry, the usually-busy soprano has been affected by cancellations stemming from the corona virus pandemic. Just two days into rehearsals at Semperoper Dresden last month (as Morgana in a planned production of Handel’s Alcina) the production, following others in Europe, was shut down. Thankfully, Reiss did get to record a sumptuous concert with the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Alstaedt in early March, at Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, one featuring a selection of tracks presented on Immortal Beloved, as well as orchestral pieces honouring this, the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. But, as with everything at present, the future is a giant question mark. Reiss’s scheduled appearances on the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper (as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Marzelline in Fidelio), with the Rotterdam Philharmonic (Mahler Symphony No. 2), and at Zaryadye Hall in Moscow have been cancelled; her scheduled performances in June (at the Rudolfinum Prague with the Czech Philharmonic; as part of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch with Bamberger Symphoniker; a return to Wiener Staatsoper in Falstaff) have not. It’s so difficult to say what could happen now; the fingers, toes, and figurative tines of tuning forks everywhere are being crossed throughout the classical world, for a return, if not to normal (an idea that seems to bear redefining hourly), than to something that might still allow for that magical energetic exchange between artists and audiences.
Photo: Claudia Prieler
Such an exchange is one Reiss is well-acquainted with. She has performed at numerous houses, including Teatro alla Scala, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, and, of course, at her home base in Vienna with Wiener Staatsoper, where she has appeared over many seasons. As well as opera, Reiss has made concert appearances with the Israel Philharmonic, Wiener Akademie, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, as well as with festivals like Schleswig Holstein, Lucerne, the BBC London Proms, the Enescu Festival, and the Liszt Festival Raiding. Last spring the soprano was in Belgium as part of a sweeping performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liège led by Christian Arming; not long after, she jetted off to Berlin, giving divine performances in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) at Chorin and the Philharmonie, before embarking on a multi-city tour of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Munich Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Reiss also uses her considerable teaching skills in Master Classes at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute.
The notable cultivation of a wider array of repertoire over the past while reveals an artist who is firmly determined to be her own woman – on stage, in music, and through life. Such fortitude is reflected in the selections on Immortal Beloved, not easy works, in either musical or dramatic senses, but chosen, clearly, for the arc they provide for an holistic listening experience – a theatre of the mind indeed, with intuitive heart-and-head moments. The songs reveal not only Beethoven’s approach to vocal writing, but the types of texts he was attracted to (which, as you’ll see, she expands on in our chat). Many were written in the hot intensity of youth (Beethoven was mostly in his twenties), so it follows that the texts the composer set are equally dramatic, with Big Emotions and Big Feelings, instincts that only grew in shape and complexity with time. There is a definite dramatic arc to their arrangement on the album, with the Mozartian opening aria, “Fliesse,Wonnezähre, fliesse!” (“Flow, tears of joy, flow!”), taken from Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II, composed in 1790. A young Beethoven was clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve here, an instinct which weaves its way throughout Immortal Beloved, where discernible threads of not only Mozart and Haydn, but contemporaries like Johann Baptist Wanhal, Fran Ignaz Beck, François-André Danican Philidor, and notably Étienne Nicolas Méhul can plainly be heard; the bricks laid by these classical composers along the path of composition – melodic development, instrumentation, counterpoint, thematic exposition – were absolutely central to Beethoven’s own creative development, and can plainly be heard on Immortal Beloved, both in the smart vocal delivery and the knowing, quiet confidence of Egarr and the Academy.
The emotionally turbulent “No, non turbarti” (“No, do not be troubled”), scena and aria for soprano & orchestra, features Reiss carefully modulating tone, stretching vowels this way and that with just enough oomph to quietly underline the vital schlau, a quality she feels is central to understanding the piece. “Prime Amore” (“First Love”), which follows, is characterized by Reiss in the liner notes, “a startlingly mature way of looking at love’s complexities” and is conveyed with piercing tonal purity and tremendous modulation. The melodic grace of Fidelio, Egmont, and the incidental music for Leonore Prohaska (for a play by Johann Friedrich Duncker about the military heroine) highlight the soprano’s elegant phrasing, easy flexibility, and sparkling aptitude for injecting drama at just the right time, with just the right phrasing and vocal coloration; even if one doesn’t understand each word within their broader tapestry, one nonetheless feels the threads of multi-hued emotion running through and between them. Delivered with controlled passion and a watchful eye for storytelling, the selection of songs clearly convey a keen sensitivity to both the complexity of the writing and the complicated histories of their creation. As the liner notes remind us, the circumstances in which these works were written (and only sometimes performed) were less than ideal, and were frequently the source of sadness and frustration for their composer.
However, not all the material on Immortal Beloved is steeped in poe-faced seriousness; “Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken” (“If a shoe is not to pinch”) is a jovial little number, performed with a wink and a definite smile in the voice. Written in 1795 and taken from the singspiel Die schöne Schusterin (The Shoemaker’s Wife) by Ignaz Umlauf (second kapellmeister to Vienna’s Hofkapelle, or Court Chapel), its jovial lyrics, reflected in the lilting music, fit within the overall playful nature of the work (the wife’s husband is named Sock, because of course), providing the album with some needed softness amidst its many sharper edges, ones which are displayed to perfect effect with the elegant ferocity of “Ah! perfido” (“Ah! Deceiver”). The famous two-scene aria, composed in 1796 and based on the work of Metastasio, has its roots in the mythological figures of Deidamia and Achilles. The song is an extended and emotionally varied lament over the antique hero’s abandonment and rejection of the narrator; it moves rapidly between fury, despair, confusion, and longing, feelings which inextricably fuse text and music. As has been noted, Beethoven’s Deidamia could be “a younger sister of (Mozart heroines) Donna Elvira, Fiordiligia or Vitella. Yet “Ah! perfido” contains elements that can act as premonitions of Beethoven’s later vocal style, where the mosaic of changing emotions is replaced by consistent and deepened psychology.” With “Ah! perfido” Reiss has chosen to close the album on a deliberately, and quite deliciously, thoughtful note. Indeed, there is something reassuring about Reiss’s sound across the whole of Immortal Beloved, one that blends strength, beauty, and wisdom, while showcasing an inherently intelligent approach to narrative and to creating a deeply satisfying listening experience, one which, in our current times, is more needed than ever.
Like many in the music world right now, the soprano has turned to the online world for sharing her talent, and for showcasing that of others. On her Instagram account, she hosts exchanges with fellow artists as part of collaborative digital project Check The Gate. One recent exchange featured cellist Gautier Capuçon, with whom she performed in Paris as part of Bastille Day celebrations in 2019; another featured director Kasper Holten. Her virtual performance with guitarist Lukasz Kuropaczewski, of Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” (“Faith In Spring”, with its encouraging text, “Nun, armes Herz, vergiss der Qual! Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden” / Now, poor heart, forget your torment! Now all must change”), is particularly stirring. Reiss has also been featured in broadcasts of productions streamed through the Wiener Staatsoper website. Most recently she can be seen as an elegant Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, as well as a very cheeky Bystrouška (the Vixen) in Das schlaue Füchslein (The Cunning Little Vixen) by Leoš Janáček. Here the soprano conveyed a ferociously charismatic stage presence that alternated smoothly between thoughtful notions of innocence, experience, and everything in-between. Blake’s lines that “Mercy has a human heart / Pity a human face; / And Love, the human form divine; / And Peace, the human dress” never felt more immediate than when experiencing (however virtually) her elegant intonation and lyrical vocal prowess in handling the complexities of Janáček’s delightful and truly tricky score. One positively thirsts to experience her broader explorations into the composer’s world, and fingers are crossed for things to manifest in what is currently, as for so many, an uncertain future.
More livestreams are, however guaranteed, in the interim. On May 2nd Wiener Staatsoper is set to broadcast Fidelio, which will feature Reiss as Marzelline, a role she is well familiar with, and there are sure to be more interviews and performances on her Instagram page as well. Over the course of our conversation in mid-March, just as Reiss was preparing to leave Dresden for home in Vienna, we chatted about a wide array of topics, including Immortal Beloved, as well as the impact of the cancellations, and the possible meaning Reiss is taking from the current situation.
What was the motivation to do these not-so-well-known pieces?
Actually that was just it: these pieces aren’t well-known. There isn’t any one album that has collected all these pearls for sopranos under one roof – you have to buy an entire Beethoven edition. There are so few recordings of these works, and I thought, why not? They’re so good, they should be standard repertoire, they should be recorded as often as Mozart concert arias and performed onstage. Most are early Beethoven, taken from the time he was living in Bonn and before he came to Vienna.
With “Primo Amore” for instance, for many years everybody thought it was written during his time with Salieri in Vienna; researchers found out recently, in comparing ink and paper, that it was actually written in Bonn before he came to Vienna, and to German text, and it was never published. Most of the pieces (on Immortal Beloved) were not published in his lifetime; he did revise them and had the intention of publishing them but didn’t come to do it because he was so particular and such a perfectionist. I think that he just didn’t trust himself with (writing for) the voice – it didn’t come to him as naturally or organically as writing for piano or orchestra – so (his vocal works) were just left in the drawer. Magdalena Willmann was a neighbour’s daughter in Bonn, and he was possibly in love with her, and we known he wrote (“Primo Amore”) for her. And the shoe aria (“Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken”) is an unusual piece for Beethoven; it’s a buffa aria, written a very Haydn-like style. It’s a humouristic aria, he wrote it for her also; we know that because (Willman) was soprano and had a very good lower range, and in those pieces there are a lot of passages where he’s using the lower range for an effect, either a comic effect or to express very extreme feelings. (Willman held a position as first soprano at the Bonn National Theater.) So it is very challenging because almost in every piece there are two octaves at least!
Portrait of Beethoven as a young man, c. 1800, by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769-1832)
What’s that like for you as a singer? How do you approach it?
I put in ornaments – I built them in, because it’s early Beethoven and because I (recorded) it with an early music ensemble. Some of the (works) were written in 1791, 1795, around there – Haydn was still alive, Salieri was still writing, so they’re very much classical. The pitch we used to record is A=438 and not A=443 or A=442, which was used more in the Romantic time later on. It’s a very classical period (for these works) and I wanted to use ornaments, since some passages (of the songs) over two octaves. This is why I think it’s great for sopranos – you can show a very big talent of expression, of colors, of virtuosity. And with Beethoven, the virtuosity is not virtuosity for the sense of showing off the voice, but of showing big emotions: everything is bigger than life; we are pushing boundaries in every possible way, rhythmically, dynamically, harmonically. The length of the pieces is noteworthy too – “Ah! perfido” is fourteen minutes, “Primo Amore” is around fourteen minutes; no one wrote, at that time, such long songs. Mozart’s concert arias are between seven and ten minutes! Beethoven was using a bigger orchestra too. So clearly he liked to do everything big for his time.
For me it was pushing my boundaries, like “Ah! perfido”, a work which is so identified with bigger voices, like Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe and Cheryl Studer – these are big voices but I think today more and more lighter voices are singing it, and I believe this is the kind of voice that sang it in his time.
Over the last few years, that undercurrent of very dramatic, authoritative sound has been developing in your voice, though The Times described your sound as “soubrette”…
I don’t think I was ever a soubrette. I know some people say this but my voice never had this edginess, it was a light voice, a pure voice. Of course I sang roles that are soubrette-ish, like Adele (from Die Fledermaus) or Blonde (from Die Entführung aus dem Serail), but I no longer sing them – not that I can’t but I don’t find them as interesting. And I think the color of the voice… it was always an elegant voice, and in this sense I don’t know why people say it’s soubrette, I would not say it, but again, I’m very happy that they chose it as CD of the week! Everyone has a different view of voices; it’s quite individual.
You’d said when we spoke before that you don’t like being slotted into one style, a view that’s been echoed by singers I’ve spoken with since, and I wonder if that is the result of a need to be flexible now in the opera world, or of wanting to be more artistically curious.
I think it’s happening because more and more singers are taking their careers into their own hands – well, “career” is the wrong word, but singers are taking charge, yes. I think we’re tired of being told all the time what to do. When you start as a young singer, yes, you have to obey everything, you have to take every job that is being thrown at you, but when you get a little bit older, there are benefits to that, one being that you can also make your own choices and you can say, “no, I actually don’t feel like singing this role anymore, I want to do something else” and also, “I want to do my own projects” – meaning, “I no longer want to be just a team player, it’s great to be that and I love doing it when I do opera, but I also want to do my own projects where I am choosing the repertoire, where I am choosing the partners I will work with, where I choose what will written in the booklet and what will be the order of the pieces and what will be the title of the CD.” So basically, I think that it’s coming because we singers feel a need to be more, not more in control, but we want to have more responsibility over our artistic choices. And we want to present a complete product from beginning to end where we can say: this is me, this is mine, this is what I want to share with the world.
And this is why I took this (Beethoven) project. It was huge – it took me two years to realize it, to come up with the idea, the research, learning the pieces, learning the circumstances in which the pieces were written, finding the titles, choosing the photos, writing the booklet – it took a lot of time. I’m very proud of it and very, very happy because I feel that every tone that comes out of my mouth on the CD is 100% me, and no one is telling me how to sing and how to present myself, which is often the case when you do opera – they tell you everything: they choose your clothes, they choose your hairstyle, they tell you what to do on stage; how to move, how to breathe, how the lighting will be, the conductor is dictating the tempo whether it’s comfortable or not – usually you can’t say anything about it – the orchestra is playing as loud as they want to so… you’re kind of left out there … when you really have very little control of the end result, but when you do a CD and you are the soloist, you have much more control of the end result.
Some do albums because they want a broader appeal, but the songs on this album are musically complex – how were they to prepare?
They required a lot of practise and stamina – they’re long, and written… not in the most singable way, I would say. Some of them are very instrumental, some of the coloratura was composed, not for the voice but as if he wrote for violin – there are all kinds of weird intervals and sequences, and the voice doesn’t want to go there. Also dramatically they are not easy; to keep the tension, one has to have a very clear plan dramatically and vocally. “Ah! perfido” is the exception – that is an exceptionally well-written scene, dramatically and vocally, but it’s one that came later. Others, like “Primo Amore”… it is so difficult to make sense of the character, it’s like a big salad, Beethoven is throwing in every possible compositional idea that he had in there, and in certain ways, in terms of form, it’s not the best written aria! So to make sense of it was not easy. Some of these works just require you to spend more time with them – they’re not as organic as say, Lucia’s mad scene, which is pure bel canto. But I think they are very interesting!
The text is so interesting, as are the characters – strong women, independent women, women with ideals of a different world, women who want to change the world, to take charge, to take things to their hands – these are the kind women he admired, and this I why I called the album Immortal Beloved; we don’t know who she really was… maybe an ideal in his mind.
In the booklet you contrast Mozart’s female characters with Beethoven’s, which is such a smart way to contextualize the world in which Beethoven was living and writing; he would’ve known all these Mozart heroines but he went for something entirely different.
Yes, I think he appreciated Mozart very much musically but I think he was much more advanced in the ideas of the world and society as related in that specific sense, but for me, Mozart is beyond a composer, it’s musica assoluta, it’s really… the truth, like, God has spoken! It’s music itself; there can’t be anything better than that. But it’s something not human, and Beethoven is very human – he’s perhaps the most human composer. It’s wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve music in the most direct way, although not at all in a Puccini way!
What was your experience of working with the Academy of Ancient Music?
I was debating whether I should use a Viennese orchestra, and I knew I wanted an original-instrument one. The English period instruments are really so fabulous, so quick, they have a great tradition, and in recording you need people who are really “on” there. I was doing the Egmont concerts with them last summer, so I thought, why not extend it and do the whole CD with them? Egmont was the starting point, the catalyst, and the performances were around the time I wanted to record, so it just made sense. I’m very happy we did it; they sound fabulous and I really enjoyed working with Richard, his energy is wonderful.
Your vocal work has become more varied over the last two years or so. I wonder if making this album has made you approach other work differently.
Marzelline as a character is really difficult – there is a lot of text in a very uncomfortable zone of the voice; it’s parking her in the passaggio, with lots of text. I’m trying to sing her as round and delicate as I can. Strauss is a completely different story! He’s a composer I think is so wonderful for sopranos, and I’m so happy to sing Sophie (from Der Rosenkavalier) because it’s so comfortable in the voice. I love singing Zdenka (from Arabella) too – it’s more challenging rhythmically and very chromatic, so one has to be more careful and really look at the conductor, otherwise you lose it! Sophie is a more fun role but Zdenka is a very interesting character.
In Beethoven, I like singing some things. I love “Ah! perfido” – it’s a great piece. It sits so well in my voice, especially in terms of the range – surprisingly. This was the piece I was most afraid of, but it just feels very good! I love singing the shoe aria too – I think it’s fabulous and so funny and really well-written. And I really love the aria with the harp (“Es blüht eine Blume im Garten mein” /”In my garden blooms a flower”, from Leonore Prohaska). I think it’s a jewel…
It’s a favourite of mine too, although it really goes against what many think Beethoven “sounds” like…
Yes! It reminds me so very much of Schubert; you can hear him going off in that (musical) direction throughout this one. I also like “No, non turbarti” because of the text. It’s an aria of deception: (the narrator) has deceived (the female subject), and in such a masterful way… he’s really a master of deception, and it’s very interesting to see how Beethoven fits the music and the text so perfectly. Every sentence has two parts, the parts when he’s carrying her, and the parts when he’s calming her down. He’s schlau, as we say in German, very cunning… there is no storm coming at all! He’s talking about the storm inside him, the storm of his soul, not about a real storm, but a storm of emotions, and she’s not in real-life danger – the only danger for her is him! Then in the continuation –”Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro!” (“But you tremble, oh my treasure!”) – he tells her, “I’ll be here at your side, I’ll save you, and when the storm is over you will go away, you will abandon me, you ungrateful woman!”
So this narrator is a bit of a drama king, then?
Oh yes… but (the words of the songs) are like a strange prophecy in terms of Beethoven’s misfortunes in love. It’s amazing that even at such a young age he was attracted to those types of texts.
In youth, every emotion is writ large, whether joy or sadness.
Speaking of the latter, you were going to do Morgana… ?
I’ve worked on it, yes – I learned it, though I sang it before, four years ago. So I approached it like new now – I wrote new ornaments – but we stopped rehearsal in Dresden. We rehearsed two days, with two rehearsals, and tomorrow, I’m going home.
You know, this whole virus… it makes you put things in proportion. I don’t know where the future is going, even now. The fact I’m unemployed for this month and I don’t know next month… if they’ll open the (Wiener Staatsoper) house, who knows? Thinking about the future of our profession… public finding has to go to the hospitals… it just shows the priorities, of where things go, so what’s the situation with us, the freelance artists? I’m sure orchestras in the UK are worried about that as well; a lot of the players are freelance, and it means that if concerts are cancelled, they’re not being paid.
Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Do you feel there Is there might be any value – as you say, you learned the role, you did the prep – is there some good you still might take away from the experience?
Every time I learn a role or re-learn a role I have new ideas, new insights, and then in the future I share it with my students. But yes, you always learn about the voice, about different styles and different approaches to a role. You never know, maybe I can jump in again (to Alcina). The prep is never for nothing, it’s just… you kind of feel that it’s not complete. You have not completed the process; you complete it only when you go onstage and share it with the public.
But I think maybe this virus is there to teach us a lot of things; maybe it’s not bad to just stop. Everything just stops for a few weeks… everybody is thinking, everybody will reinvent themselves, hopefully. The one thing I’m happy about is that it’s really good for our planet; there are no airplanes flying, the factories in China were closed so the air above China is much cleaner. So maybe it’s a way for our planet to refresh itself and maybe we need to use this time wisely. Spring is a time of rebirth, so maybe we all need to clean our closets and throw out the rubbish that we don’t need and concentrate on the important things – to understand the whole world is one community and we are a small village and we need to stick together, to help each other.
Look, I’m very sad the performances are cancelled – I was very stressed this week. The worst thing for me is the unknown; you make plans, and what gives me confidence is that I know exactly where I am at on any given day for the next two years, and I know who takes care of my kids and… there’s a plan for everything. And suddenly, the whole plan falls apart. I don’t know where I am, the kids are not in school, my mother is stuck in quarantine in Israel. You come back to the basics and you see what is really important: we are healthy, we are together as a family, we have food, we have music – and thank God we can share it. I can share the CD with my friends, with all my fans, with social media. Even with all the bad things about social media in these times, it’s giving us a feeling of being together. And, I really hope this Beethoven album will give hope, comfort, and joy to people now that they cannot hear live music.
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