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

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are rehearsals going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JD It’s not an ideal situation…

BS… but it’s something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BS It’s a lot of money.

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

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

Photo: Gerard Collett

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

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

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

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

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

BS Bravo, John…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BS Oh for sure.

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

Photo: Robert Workman

How do you keep your focus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piotr Beczala: Searching For New Impulses In The Music

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

Photo: Julia Wesely

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

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

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

Photo: Johannes Ifkovits

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

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

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

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

Faust at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly – I’m okay with that!

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

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

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

Photo: Julia Wesely

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

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

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

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

It does require a lot of vocal flexibility

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

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

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

Really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like at the Met?

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

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

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

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

(via Pentatone)

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

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

I kept hearing Parsifal also.

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

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

To keep it interesting for yourself as an artist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With wife Kasia at the 2015 Opera News Awards.

You two seem like a very strong team.

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

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

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

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

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

Chen Reiss: “You Come Back To The Basics And You See What Is Really Important”

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, opera, album, classical

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

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.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, portrait, opera, classical

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 a truly divine performance in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski, 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!

Beethoven, portrait, composer, young, German, Riedel, painting

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.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

With Rene Pape in Fidelio at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

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. 

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

As Marzelline in Fidelio at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

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.

That’s true.

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.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, portrait, opera, classical

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. 

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Handel, Ariodante, performance,, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

Ariodante at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

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. 

Allan Clayton: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Days If They Don’t Have Music In Them”

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Speaking with someone before a global pandemic and again after (or more accurately during) it is a very interesting experience. All the formalities drop away; the predictable edges of topics become rounded, blending into one another. The optimism and hope, gleaming like jewels in sunlight, have, over the past three weeks or so, been burnt into ugly despair, that gleaming dulled into desperate, leaden sadness.  Everyone is hoping for a swift resumption to normal activity, but of course, the question right now, more obvious than ever, is what “normal” might look like then – indeed, one wonders now, in the thick of it, what “normal” is and what it means for life both in and outside the classical realm. We are all adjusting ideas, expressions and experiences, as creative pursuits, social activities, and bank accounts yawn steadily open.

Allan Clayton had been set to make his role debut as the angry Laca Klemeň in a new production of Leoš Janáček’s most famous opera, Jenufa, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (ROH) earlier this week; roughly ten days before opening, the production (and all ROH activity) was shut down. The tenor’s next engagements – in London, New York, Madrid – are still on the books, but as with everything in the classical world right now, giant question marks hang like immense, heavy clouds over everyone. On March 30th, Wigmore Hall cancelled the rest of its season; Aldeburgh, for which Clayton was to serve as Artist-In-Residence this year, is likewise shuttered. It remains to be seen if Clayton will get to sing a role he’s become associated with, that of Hamlet. in Brett Dean’s 2017 opera of the same name;  performance is still set for June with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under the baton of Markus Stenz. “To be or not to be” indeed.

Clayton has a CV that leans toward the dramatic, as befits his equal gifts within the realms of music and theatre, with experience in Baroque (Handel), French (Berlioz), German (Wagner), and twentieth-century work (Britten), alongside an admirable and consistent commitment to concert and recital repertoire. His varied discography includes works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and of course, his beloved Britten, with his album Where ‘Er You Walk (Hyperion), recorded with Ian Page and  The Orchestra of Classical Opera, released in 2016. It is a beautiful and uplifting listen. A collection of Handel works originally written by the composer for tenor John Beard, Clayton’s voice carries equal parts drama and delicacy. As well as the music of Handel, the album features lively, lovingly performed selections from the mid 18th-century, including William Boyce’s serenata Solomon, John Christopher Smith’s opera The Fairies, and Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes.

On the album’s first track, “Tune Your Hearts To Cheerful Strains” (from the second scene of Handel’s oratorio, Esther), the scoring features voice and oboe gently weaving their way in, around, and through one another in beads of polyphonic perambulation. Clayton’s timing, pushing sound here, pulling it back there, moving into blooming tenorial splendor before trickling watchfully away like a slow exhale, is artistry worth enjoying over several listens. Equally so the aria “As Steals the Morn”, taken from Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man), which is based on the poetry of John Milton. The graceful call and response of the instruments is echoed in the gentle if knowing exchange between vocalists, in this case Clayton and soprano Mary Bevan, their poetic, deeply sensitive vocal blending underlining the bittersweet truth of the text, with its tacit acknowledgement of the illusory nature of romance. The work is set within a wider contextual framework extolling the virtues of moderation, but Clayton and Bevan inject the right amount of wistful sadness the whispering kind, with Clayton a burnished bronze tonal partner to Bevan’s delicate glass. Theirs is a beautiful pairing, and one hopes for further collaborations in the not-too-distant future.

 

As well as early music, Clayton’s talents have found a home with twentieth century repertoire, and he’s been able to exercise both at the Komische Oper Berlin, a house he openly (as you’ll read) proclaims his affection for. In spring 2018 Clayton performed as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele, and later that same year, made his role debut as Candide in Leonard Bernstein’s work of the same name, with Barrie Kosky at the helm. Clayton returns to the house for its 2020-2021 season, as Jim Mahoney in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny) by Kurt Weill, another role debut. Clayton has also appeared in Rameau’s Castor and Pollux at English National Opera (his performance was described by The Arts Desk as “astounding, his piercingly ornamented aria, “Séjour de l’éternelle paix”, one of the highlights of the evening”) as well as Miranda, a work based on the music of Purcell, at Opéra Comique, under the baton of Raphaël Pichon and helmed by Katie Mitchell. And, lest you wonder if he works only at opposite musical poles of old and new, consider that Clayton, who started out as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral, has also given numerous stage performances as David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, both at the ROH, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, and at Bayerische Staatsoper, with Kirill Petrenko. November 2018 saw the release of his album of Liszt songs, recorded with renowned pianist Julius Drake.

And yet, as mentioned earlier, Hamlet is still arguably what Clayton is best known for. The opera, by Brett Dean, with libretto (based on Shakespeare) by Matthew Jocelyn and presented at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival, featured a stellar cast including Sarah Connolly (as Gertrude), Rod Gilfry (as Claudius), Barbara Hannigan (as Ophelia), Kim Begley (as Polonius), and Sir John Tomlinson (as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father). Clayton,who made his debut at the Festival in 2008 (as the title role in Albert Herring), gave us a Hamlet that was the veritable eye of the hurricane as well as a tornado of energy himself. There was no perceptible line between the worlds of vocalism and drama in the slightest; the performance, matching the opera as a whole, was a perfect fusion of the varying art forms opera encompasses. Dean’s hotly dramatic scoring and Jocelyn’s musically rhythmic libretto provided a whole new window into the world of the gloomy Danish Prince, one divorced from the arch world of hollow-eyed, sad-faced, skull-holding clichés, but sincerely connected to truly felt, deeply experienced aspects of human life: what it is to love, to lose, to grapple with notions of shifting identity and an unknowable present. The work carries extra poignancy in these times and remains a strong personal favorite.

In 2018 Clayton was the recipient of both the Royal Philharmonic Society Singer Award as well as the Whatsonstage Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. 2019 proved just as busy and inspiring, with, among many musical pursuits, including much time with the music of Berlioz – at Glyndebourne, as the lead in La damnation de Faust, and then as part of the oratorio L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), presented first at the BBC Proms with conductor Maxime Pascal, and later at Teatro Alla Scala, with conductor John Eliot Gardner ). In September Clayton travelled to Bucharest to premiere a new song cycle by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Enescu Festival before presenting it shortly thereafter in London, where the work was performed along with related pieces by Benjamin Britten, Oliver Knussen, and Michael Tippett; The Guardian’s Andrew Clements later wrote of the concert that Clayton’s voice “wrapped around all of (the compositions) like a glove, with perfect weight and range of colour and dynamics.” Clayton and Turnage are two of four Artists in Residence (the others being soprano Julia Bullock and composer Cassandra Miller) at this year’s edition of the Aldeburgh Festival, set to run June 12th to 28th. Founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier and spread across various locales in Suffolk (with the converted brewery-turned-arts-complex Snape Maltings being its hub), Aldeburgh offers performances of everything from early music to contemporary sounds, and attracts a heady mix of audiences just as keen to take in the gorgeous landscape as to experience the wonders of the festival. Clayton is presenting two concerts which will feature the music of Britten Turnage, Ivy Priaulx Rainier, and Michael Berkeley (a world premiere, that) as well as perform as part in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. It all remains to be seen, of course. As pianist Stephen Hough wrote in The Guardian, “it’s impossible at this point to say where this will end” – it is equally impossible at this point to say where things will begin, too.

I’ve presented this interview in two parts, as you’ll see, which act as a sort of yin and yang to one another for perspectives and insights into an oft mentioned, rarely-explored world that makes up opera, that of the rehearsal. As you’ll see, Clayton speaks eloquently about its various moving parts (particularly, in this case, linguistically-related) and the weeks of preparation that go into a new production, the fruits of which, like so many in the oprea world right now, will not be enjoyed by any. It’s tempting to write such effort off, to say it was in vain, but my feeling is that the best artists, of which Clayton certainly is, have taken their bitter disappointment and turned in inside-out, finding new energy for forging creative new paths; they are roads which, however unexpected, are yielding their own sort of special fruit in some surprising ways. Clayton’s mix of playfulness, curiosity, and earthiness seem to be propelling him along a route showcasing his innate individualism and artistry. I am looking forward to the results, to say nothing of the cross stitch projects promised herewith.

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Before Jenufa‘s Cancellation

How are rehearsals for Jenufa going?

I’d not done any Czech opera at all and this has completely opened my eyes to the whole music I knew was there. I’d heard some things and seen the opera before at the Coliseum in that famous production in English, but the richness of the score and the music, it’s so emotionally present, there’s no artifice – hopefully it’ll be the same live.

It’s written phonetically, an approximation to match the inflections of the language

Exactly.

… so how are you finding learning not only Czech, but, as a singer, matching it to the sounds in score?

Something our director Claus Guth said on our first day, with the rehearsal that afternoon, is that this something we have to create, with our own stage language, to deal with the repetition of text in a short space of time. It’s not a Baroque opera where you have extended passages of five or six words stretched out; you have very important information delivered rapid-fire. (Conductor) Vladimir Jurowski said, “you have to remember this is how, coming from that region, people would talk to one another, you bark . I’ve been in places in Eastern Europe” – and he’s speaking as a polyglot who rattled through seven languages in rehearsal – “and when you listen to them, it’s like they’re shouting at each other, but they’re not; they’re communicating in a staccato, loud, repetitive manner, so just embrace it as part of normal day life, because the piece is about routine and everyday life, and the threat from the outside to that.”

And the character is tough as well. Opera has lots of characters with chips on shoulders…

Yes indeed.

… but Laca has one of the biggest and chippiest chips.

Completely, and he cannot stop it. He hates Steva. We’ve rehearsed the scene where the infamous cut happens to Jenufa’s cheek, which is the beginning of the end of the story and we have talked about it: does he mean it? Is it intentional? In his very first scene, from the very start, he’s raging at people, and he has a furious temper, which is something else we talked about, that this was Janacek’s character, he could fly off the handle at any time and took badly to things, and he was tempestuous in relationships. This is something I try and embrace but not let it affect me vocally and move into shouting, because that’s not nice to listen to!

It’s not vocally healthy either.

No!

You also did Candide in Berlin, which is totally different. Finding your way through extremely complex scores when it comes to new roles – what’s that like?

For Candide, it was a chance to work with Barrie Kosky again, who I get on really well with – I think his approach to directing and to life is a pretty solid one, and I agree with a lot of what he says. It was also a chance to work at the Komische Oper again; I’ve done quite a few shows there now, it’s a positive space to work in, even though it’s a busy house, but it’s also the chance to do something different. He said, “we’re going to do it in German” and I thought, right, thanks a lot! I only speak a little German but not near enough, so learning dialogue was a challenge, but I also thought: it’s a chance to do something a bit more theatrical. That was certainly what I enjoyed. The creative input I had on it was the most I’ve ever had, because we had a completely blank stage, and Barrie would go, “okay, we need to get from this locale to that locale in the next page-and-a-half of music; we have no set, so what do we do?” We had fun with that. I could say, “Well why don’t we kick a globe around, or do a silly number with Monty Python-style soldiers?” The challenge, and the great thing with him, is always, this creative side of things. 

And Barrie is so open to artistic collaboration.

He is! I‘ve often said the best directors – and he is one of them – make you think you’ve come up with a great idea, which is probably what they wanted all along, but they make it feel like it’s a collaboration, that you are not just a cog in a machine. Again, like Claus was saying in rehearsal he had some plans for certain scenes but the natural circumstances means the scene will go in a completely different direction – and he loves that. It’s about embracing that flexibility. If you just go in there and think of yourself like a moving statue, it makes for a very long six weeks.

Some performers enjoy the predictable – it’s comfortable and they say they can concentrate on their voice more that way – but for you that doesn’t feel like the case; it feels like comfort is the antithesis of who you are as an artist.

Yes, and the most fun I have is in rehearsal room. The pressure is on when you do a show, in that you want the audience to be happy, you’re trying to be faithful to the score and remember your words and blocking and all else, but actually being in a rehearsal room for five or six weeks with brilliant colleagues and creative minds makes it interesting, and for me that’s the part of the job I enjoy. When people say, “you must be so lucky to do what you love” that’s the bit I think of, because if I didn’t do that, I’d be trudging out the same couple of roles and it would be boring as hell. How do you bring something different each time doing that? You fall into one production or role, like “this is my Ferando, this is my… whatever”, which is so less interesting.

But it takes a lot of confidence to go into those rehearsal for the length of time you do, with the people you do, and say, openly, “I have these ideas and I want to try them.”

I guess, but it doesn’t always feel so, though that’s also why, for me, whenever I’m speaking to casting people or my agent about future projects, my first question is always, “who’s the director?” Because it’s massively important – the conductor is always the second question, but if I don’t feel the director is going to trust me or if I can’t trust them, then I won’t have the confidence to put those ideas out there and try some things. Like, this role, it’s about offering things when i can and not holding up rehearsal when it’s not my turn. That’s part of being a team. That’s part of working collaboratively.

Humility is so vital, especially in the world of classical music, where egos can get out of control so quickly.

Exactly! It’s something I’ve not had to deal with a lot, but (that egotism) is so alien to me, I think there’s less of it maybe than there used to be, or maybe the level at which I work, but it can be difficult.

Your Hamlet was very ego-free, and very beautiful.

It was such a special opera, wasn’t it?

I spoke to Matthew Jocelyn when he directed Hamlet in Köln in November 2019, and he was also clear about the role of collaboration in its genesis. 

Yes absolutely, I can’t imagine a more perfect storm. The way Matthew and Brett got on, even if they didn’t share ideas, was always dealt with in a creative and good way, and it was the same with (director) Neil Armfield and Vladimir Jurowski, and with Glyndebourne as a company as well. I can’t imagine that piece working anywhere else. There was an incredible amount of people who gave above and beyond what you’d expect; it was extraordinary, and was given without a question. I don’t know what it was, but every department was being collaborative, from Matthew and Brett’s first jotting down which scenes they wanted to include, to the first night. Everybody was giving everything. 

That generosity of spirit bleeds into the concert work I’ve seen you do, your 2018 performance of Spring Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, for instance… 

If I didn’t keep a mix of things I’d go even more insane than I am!

Is that why you do it? Staving off restlessness?

Completely. I can’t imagine that part shutting off. If I didn’t do concerts or recitals, I’d be shutting off two-thirds of what can be done with this amazing, weird world we live in. I think of the music I’d be depriving myself of, so it’s also a selfish thing, with recitals but also with concert work. You get to be more involved in how you present things, you have a more immediate connection to the orchestra or pianist or chamber group, which you don’t get in opera because you are separated by the floor, so it’s slightly more engaging for me.

You also bring an operatic approach to those formats, though, as with the Britten, you live right inside those words.

You have to with a lot of Britten – if you don’t engage, you’re lost. It’s so dramatic, and he writes so well for the stage because he has a natural sense of drama throughout his writing, and you know, if you are just trotting it out without really going for it, it doesn’t make for a good experience for the audience 

But you can’t do that in recitals; artists say it’s like standing there naked, although Thomas Hampson said he thinks all singers should do them.

It’s true, you explore so many different colors than you would in opera. It’s hard, hard work to keep that concentration that long and stamina-wise. In terms of preparations you put in for the output, you might do each recital once, so it’s weeks, hours, months of work to inhabit each song and try to say something fresh with it since the three-hundred-or-so odd years since it was written, but that’s what makes it fun.

I would imagine you come into Jenufa rehearsals, having done your recital at Wigmore not long before, for instance, with a new awareness of what you can do with your voice.

Absolutely, yes, and it makes you more interesting for directors and conductors, because if you can offer these interesting colors they’re like oh cool!” Just the other day, I was rehearsing and Vlad said to me, “Don’t come off the voice there, it doesn’t work” – so (responsive versatility) is an option I can offer, it’s not just full-frontal sound, or one color, and that’s again, about confidence. The more (varied) stuff you do, the more options you can present.

And you are Artist in Residence at Aldeburgh this year too. 

It’ll be great – I love that place. When I was in my first year of music college (at St. John’s College and later the Royal Academy of Music) I did Albert Herring there as part of a student program, and it was seven weeks in October living in Aldeburgh, learning about the region and all the weird people from that place. It couldn’t have been a better introduction to the place and what it means to not only British music but internationally as well. The residendency, well I’m so chuffed, and especially happy with the other people doing it too.

Their ten-quid-tickets-for-newcomers scheme also fights the idea that opera is elite.

It’s crap, that view – but you feel like you’re speaking to the wind sometimes. I was in a taxi going to the Barbican doing Elijah a few weeks ago and the driver said, “oh, big place is it, that hall?” I said, fairly big, he said, “like 300?” I said, no it’s about 2000 or something, he said, “oh gosh!” I said, you should give it a go someday. He said, “I can’t, it’s 200 quid a ticket”, and I said, no, it’s five quid, and you can see lots of culture all over for that price, for any booking. I mean, it’s infuriating – I took my sister and kids to see a football match recently and it cost me the best part of two grand. I mean, talk about classical being “elite”!

Baroque is a good introduction for newcomers I find, it’s musically generous and its structures are discernible. You’ve done a good bit of that music too.

If I’m free, I say yes to doing it. That music is really cool to do, things like Rameau, which I really didn’t know about, and Castor and Pollux, which blew my mind, and as you say, the music is so beautiful, it’s not too strange or contemporary, so people can engage with it easily.

And it’s a good massage vocally.

Yes, not crazy Brett Dean vocal Olympics! 

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

After Jenufa‘s Cancellation

Sorry for the delay, I was just doing an online task with my family, it wasn’t working and I was swearing and throwing things at the computer. How are you?

Trying to figure things out.

It’s such a change, isn’t it… 

I teach as well and had my first Zoom session with my students recently.  

How did it go?

Nobody wanted to hang up at the end – they were so happy to see each other. I wrote about that moment recently.

My youngest niece had the same thing this morning – a mum arranged a big Zoom class phone call and my sister said exactly the same thing: they just loved seeing each other.

I think everyone misses that community.

Yes, and especially given how close we got to opening Jenufa; tonight (March 24, 2020) would’ve been the opening.

I’m so sorry.

Well, thanks, but certain people are in much worse situations, so it’s not the most important thing. It is a shame, though; everyone had worked so hard and put so much into a show that was going to be so good. I was chatting last night with Asmik Grigorian (who would have sung the title role), and she was saying how opera houses plan so far ahead and it’s difficult to know how they’ll cope with these loss of projects, whether they’ll put them on in five years’ time or move things back a year, but you do that and then you’re messing with people’s diaries in a big way. Fingers crossed people will get to see what we worked on anyway, at some point.

Some of those diaries are now big question marks.

Absolutely. I’d’ written off Jenufa until Easter, and then after that I was supposed to go to London – Wigmore Hall – and then New York, then Faust in Madrid and Hamlet in Amsterdam. I’ve written all of them off, because I can’t see things being back to normal the beginning of May, or even the end of May, when Hamlet is supposed to happen. And I’ve got the opera festival… I’m hoping it’ll be able to go ahead, but the brain says it won’t happen either, so suddenly my next job isn’t until August. We’ll see if things have calmed down by then.

It’s so tough being freelance, there’s this whole ecosystem of singers, conductors, musicians, writers, and others that audiences usually just don’t see.

My sister is a baker, she has her own business; she’s self-employed. And obviously all the weddings have been cancelled, and birthday parties, and all the related stuff, like cakes, musicians, planners, all these people – all cancelled. So yes, it isn’t just singers in opera but people like yourself, the writers too – we’re all in the same boat. We are together under the same banner of freelance and self-employed, but at the same time, at least in this country, we’ve been abandoned under that same banner by the government. 

It was notable how loud freelancers were through Brexit about the implications to its various ecosystems.

I don’t know whether it’s because us freelancers spend a lot of time working on our own and are not part of a bigger company, but it’s why Brexit felt so silly, because to become more isolated at a time when the world becomes less so, just doesn’t seem to make any sense. You’ve got the rest of Europe, although it’s closing its borders, it’s maintaining as much community and spirit as it can, whereas little Brexit Britain is just sort of shutting down. 

And in the current circumstances, literally doing so rather late. The scenes of the crowded parks this past weekend were… 

It was absolutely insane. 

So how are you keeping your vocals humming along? 

I have a couple of projects – I did a Mozart Requiem of sorts, with Joelle Harvey and Sascha Cook, the American mezzo. She was in Texas, Joelle was in Washington I think it was, and I was in Lewes, and we did this arrangement where I did the soprano part, and Joelle sung tenor, which was pretty special. I’m doing something with the French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton as well – I sent her the Canadian folk song “She’s Like The Swallow” recently. We’ll record some Purcell later today. She’s going to try to put her cello to my singing. So, little things like that going on. Otherwise, we’ll see what happens really. I’ve got my laptop and a microphone and a little keyboard with me, so hopefully I’ll do something, maybe a bit of teaching and singing as well to keep the pipes going. 

A lot of people are turning to teaching now.

I wouldn’t do anything seriously, I just think it’s nice to be able to use what is the day job in other ways. A friend put on Facebook yesterday, “is anyone else finding the silence deafening?” I think that’s apropos at the moment. We’re so used to hearing music all day, to having it be part of our regular lives, six or seven hours (or more) a day, in rehearsals and at concerts, that feeling of making music together and hearing music live – it’s just not the same at the moment .

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British Enescu Festival 2019 Britten Sinfonia Turnage premiere

Performing at the 2019 George Enescu Festival with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Andrew Gourlay. Photo: Catalina Filip

The performative aspect too – there’s no live audience. It’s nice to feel somebody is out there in a tangible way.

That’s the thing, it’s only times like this you realize what a two-way process it is. It’s so easy to think, without experiences like this, that we’re on stage, people listen to us, and that’s it. And it’s not like that at all. The atmosphere is only created by the audience. When things were heading south at the opera house and we weren’t sure what would happen, there was talk of trying to livestream a performance without any audience in Covent Garden, and we were considering that, and thinking, like, how would that work? The energy wouldn’t be at all the same. It’s completely intangible, but it’s a vital part of the process, of what we do. 

Having that energetic feedback… 

Absolutely, the buzz in the room. People stop talking when the house when lights go down – it creates adrenaline for us, it creates a sense of anticipation, in us, and with the audience, of “what will we see, what are we going to hear, are we going to enjoy it and engage with it and get out of the 9 to 5 routine?” And it’s the same for us: will we be able to get out of our daily commute when we step onstage and see smiling faces (or not)? All of those little interactions that we took for granted – I certainly did – well, we don’t have the option anymore. 

And now you have to try to adjust yourself to a different reality, like the Zoom meetings, and there is that weird community sense being together and alone at once. 

Exactly, because we’re all stuck in the same boat. We have to accept things like Zoom, Skype, Facetime are the only ways we’ll cope, otherwise we’ll all go mad. It’s very well hearing one another’s voices but seeing – the things we get from humans, from facial tics – that reaction is another level, and without it we’ll start to go insane. I’ve got a Zoom pub date lined up later this week with a couple musician friends, we’re going to sit and have a beer together and chat, just as a way of keeping in touch.

It makes things feel semi-normal too.

Exactly, because you know, you put yourself in their spaces, their homes, you see their living room, and given that we’re all stuck in our own environments at the moment, it’s very important to have as much escapism as possible.

We’re getting peeks into homes, and there’s a weird sort of familiarity with that because everyone’s in the same boat.

I find it interesting! My sister was saying at lunchtime, remarking how interesting it is seeing journalists’ living rooms, because they’re broadcasting from there now, it’s a peek behind the curtain, which is really quite nice.

And everyone has the same anxious expression…  

… because we don’t know where this is going.

Hopefully things will be clear by the time you start work on Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny at Komische Oper Berlin next season

I love Barrie Kosky, and I’ve not sung Mahagonny before, so I’m looking forward, though it’s a weird piece. I said to Barrie when he first offered it to me, that scene whilst Jimmy’s waiting, the night before he dies, when he’s praying for the sun not to come up, it’s like a (Peter) Grimes monologue, it’s like Billy Budd through the porthole, this really, really operatic bit of introspection.

It’s also kind of like Madame Butterfly turned inside out…  

Quite!

I wonder if Weill was aware of that when he wrote it.

I hadn’t made that connection at all but you’re absolutely right! It’ll be fascinating to see what Barrie does with it. 

You have lots of time to prepare now.

That, and all the other projects next year. We’ll see what happens, but it’ll be great to focus on those. That’s what I’m having to do at the moment: focus on next year and hope what we live with now goes past us. I’m still going to prep for concerts that were set to happen, even if they don’t, in New York and at Wigmore Hall. I put a lot of time into the programming, especially at Wigmore this season, and off the back of those programs I’m hoping to do some recordings, and later maybe tour the same programs, or an amalgam of them, but certainly it makes sense to keep doing it, and to satisfy the creative part of my brain. I have to be doing something like that. If I don’t see any printed music, I’ll go crazy; it’s been my life since the age of eight, so I need it. I don’t know what to do with my days if they don’t have music in them. I’ve also taken up cross stitch, but I can only allow myself to buy cross stitch with swear words in it, so that’s my next project. 

Will you be sharing the fruits of these labours?

Absolutely. 

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

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

Photo: Uwe Arens

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In suspended development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

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

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

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

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

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Photo: IMG Artists

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

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

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

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

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

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

Oh yeah!

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clara.

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

Lisette Oropesa: “Context Is Everything As A Singer”

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Photo: Jason Homa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s power tied to male gaze. 

Yes, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A pastiche of authenticity…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hui He: Building Connection Through The Voice

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

How old when you first heard opera?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s true!

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

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

You feel that also!

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

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

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

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Photo ©️Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera

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

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

It makes you a better artist, to keep learning.

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

Marlis Petersen: “Music Triggers Your Own Inner World”

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Photo © Yiorgos Mavropoulos

Trying to get a handle of the scope of Petersen’s creative activities is close to impossible.

Yes, the celebrated German soprano does the so-called “classic” opera repertoire (Verdi, Massenet, Handel, Donizetti), operetta (Lehar), contemporary (Widmann, Reimann, Henze), and has performed at some of the world’s most prestigious houses, including the Wiener Staatsoper, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Opera de Paris, and Bayerische Staatsoper. She is one of the most celebrated interpreters of twentieth century works, with Berg’s Lulu being arguably her most famous role; she’s performed in ten different productions, in a variety of locales (Munich, Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Vienna, Athens, New York), and retired the role in 2015, telling The New Yorker:

This character leaves a shadow on your soul. It is not that I play her. I have to be her, and that is a very demanding thing. I thought, after all these years it is time for me, as a woman, to let go. She rules me in a way. It is not that I am Lulu, but she is demanding. And how you act with men sometimes—is a little bit influenced by this. I have decided to let this go, and to see who, actually, Marlis Petersen is.

Petersen started out studying piano and won several competitions; from there she moved on to flute, and, as a teenager, found her voice, quite literally, in the church choir. She was given a solo by the choir director at seventeen, and the rest, as they say, is history. Along with music, Petersen made a point of studying dance, and brings a loose-limbed if varied gestural style to both her vocal style and her stage performances.  This awareness of movement, in literal and figurative senses, and its seamless integration within a live setting has highlighted her agile vocality, one that can flip from warm wool to cold steel in an instant.

But Petersen is also what might be called a restless spirit, greatly interested in the peaks and valleys beyond the limits of traditional presentation, whether on the opera stage, in recital, or on recordings. Her vocal range has been highlighted through her impressive discography, with recordings of operas and oratorios by Mozart, Bach, Mendelssohn,  and Haydn (including a gorgeous rendering of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten from 2004, featuring the Freiburger Barockorchester and RIAS Kammerchor and led by René Jacobs), as well as a range of  albums devoted to lieder, featuring works by Schumann, Brahms, and Walter Braunfel. She’s also done an album of works inspired by the writings of Goethe. (His writings, and their connection to music, is part of a broader topic I’ll be exploring in a future post.) it’s hardly a revelation to state that creative exploration sits at the heart of Petersen’s identity as an artist.

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via Solo Musica

That exploratory spirit is given clear expression in her series of Dimensionen albums (Solo Musica). Welt (World, 2o17), Anders Welt (Other World, 2018), and Innen Welt (Inner World, 2019). The trilogy showcases the soprano’s incredible gift for the art of song;, her range and dynamism underline a deep and captivating theatricality which runs, vein-like, throughout her considerable body of work. The songs featured on the albums move between well-known works and lesser-known pieces by composers including Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Wagner, Max Reger, Carl Loewe, Sigurd von Koch and Hans Sommer and show Petersen’s appreciation of the nature of text, sound, performance, and atmosphere, and the spiritual (dare I say mystical) ties that bind them. Last month, following a recital of works from Innen Welt, the Berliner Morgenpost observed that the singer had “kidnapped her audience into the world of elves and mermaids.” The album redirects one’s attentions (perhaps energies is a better world) to an entirely different realm; if elves and mermaids happen to be there, then so too, do a host of other, mythical creatures – and correspondingly, some very real feelings – conjured by the audience’s unique imaginings and experiences. Petersen has a unique gift for speaking to listeners on a very individual and sometimes quite personal level, using her voice and interactions with her accompanists (Stephan Matthias Lademann and Camillo Radicke) to create aural tapestries of the most beautiful and beguiling designs. The trilogy, and Innen Welt in particular, is a sumptuous, intriguing showcase of that rare gift.

The soprano is currently in Munich in a revival of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s eye-catching production of Strauss’s Salome, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, with whom she’s worked many times – including, notably, last fall, when, as Artist in Residence for the current season of Berlin Philharmonic, she was part of the orchestra’s opening concerts which marked Petrenko’s start as their chief conductor. Within the position, Petersen performs a variety of concerts, including ones next year, with the Karajan Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic (in May), and with members of the orchestra (in June). She’s also scheduled to perform with the New York-based experimental chamber group Sirius Quartet, with whom she has previously collaborated and will be part of concert performances (in Munich and then Tokyo) of Jörg Widmann’s Arche, a work which was premiered as part of the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg in early 2017, in which Petersen also performed. She is giving recitals of Inner Welt in Germany and Spain in June.

Far sooner, however, is Petersen’s continued work with Kirill Petrenko. The two are set to work together again next month for Die Tote Stadt, the first new production of the Bayerische Staatsoper season. We shared a wide-ranging chat recently as she prepared for her autumn engagements.

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Salome, Bayerische Staatsoper. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. (Photo: © Wilfried Hösl)

What inspired the Dimensionen trilogy project?

Out of the many things that get recorded, like Winterreise, which is recorded so often, it was important  to do something else. I wanted to connect to the human being and to human problems — the joys, the sorrows —  and to have a closer look at what we are, and who we are and where we’re going. I was so surprised to discover how many things are written and what treasures they are. It was so inspiring to mix it all: the things we know, the things not so known. They are connected; they’re not so far away. There are some hidden treasures in the repertoire of lied.

It’s been written that you have “a weakness for the metaphysical.” Do you think that’s true?

I think so, yes.

How does that inform what you do onstage and in recordings?

Let me call it the “strength” of the metaphysical and not the “weakness”! When you are on the opera stage and you slip into character, the interesting thing about that process coming to understand this person’s psychology; for example, with Salome, how does this girl come to want a head on a silver platter? How does this happen? Or with Medea, how can this happen that she’s ready to kill her children? I love to explore these things. How can people come to want something like that? It’s a dark part of us, a disappointed side of us. We are all longing for appreciation and when you don’t get it over a certain time you get depression or you become a criminal, and it’s so interesting to explore these ideas. In lied of course you don’t have that to the same extent; you can follow the character in the story or the person who has a certain emotion and go with your authentic feeling into the song.

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As Maria Stuarda at Theater an der Wien in 2018. Production: Christoph Loy. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Something that’s always struck me about your artistry is this total authenticity in whatever capacity you happen to be performing in.

Let’s put it like this: when I started off doing this, it was, I think, just for the pure, unguilty pleasure of doing music. The older you get and the more mature you are, the more you think about things. So it’s a mixture of a certain natural approach I have, and a joy of music, and variety of music. You melt into something, and for me that’s a very authentic process. How can I put it? I can’t fake myself. I can’t betray myself. I have to present 100% of what and who I am.

How does that sense of self relate to your dance training?

The dancing thing helps a lot for staying very flexible and agile in this profession, not only body-wise but also, I think when you move and you dance, there’s a spirit connected to this. It keeps the brain and the whole attitude very flexible.

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In Berg’s Lulu at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2015. Production: Dmitri Tcherniakov. (Photo: W. Hösl)

That flexibility is very noticeable onstage; how much does it extend to your work with conductors like Kirill Petrenko and René Jacobs?

I think chemistry has to be present from the beginning. You realize there’s a common goal in music; it’s very important. Sometimes you don’t have that, and it’s more compromising during the period you work together, but with René, for example, he’s very unique – a very complex, sensitive person. (Chemistry) is something you have to find — you have to resonate with that, and when you find the common energy then, you are on a very good track for the work together. But again, it’s always surprising how things happen. You meet people you’ve never seen before and you feel like you’ve known them a long time, especially in music.

Does that apply to directors as well, that sense of familiarity?

Maybe it’s even more so with directors, because when you do opera, you have a relationship over six weeks together — you see each other every day for six hours and you deal with very intimate psychological things, when you try to form a character. The conductor very often comes in late —not with Rene or Kirill, and maybe that’s the reason why we get along: they’re there from the beginning. But generally then you build up everything. With a director, you go into the point, to the very centre of everything, and this is maybe an even stronger connection —for this reason sometimes you have beautiful relationships, really inspiring exchanges, or it can happen, if you don’t understand each other, you will have a distance, and you can do your work professionally but it will never have this very strong pull.

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As Medea in Aribert Reimann’s Medea (world premiere), Wiener Staatsoper, 2010. Production: Marco Arturo Marelli. (Photo: Axel Zeininger)

How does that relate to premiering a new work?

A world premiere is interesting because you are the one that kind of excavates the music really — you bring it to life. There’s no one who’s done it before, so you can’t listen to anybody. You have to be the one to create it, which is very exciting. And what is of course amazing and never happens otherwise, is that you can talk to the composer and discuss what do they mean in places, how do the want it?  And maybe if there are difficult things you can ask for a change or adjustment. That is something very special, to have a person like Henze or Reimann to speak with, face to face, to talk about music — that is very touching.

You have a real dedication to lieder; how does this intimacy with stage artists relate to accompanists?

It’s very important that you have a person at your side that has the same musical approach. With lieder, you know, it’s very often the case of, ‘Here’s the singer and the guy who accompanies’ and it sounds like a 70% to 30% or 80% to 20% relationship, but for me it’s an equal force. To make music work, you must meet somebody that you really trust, that you understand as a human being also, that you have an easy exchange and also fascination with, about how they play the music. I think when a pianist plays in a way that I love, it opens a door inside me; then the music can go through that. That’s the closest work one can have.

That sounds like a rather metaphysical experience.

Yes, it is. The two pianists I have within the trilogy, they’re very different — Stephan Mattias (Lademann), who did the first (Welt) and the last (Inner Welt), is a very sensitive and fine pianist, and he is very, I think, into it with the knowledge of music. Camillo Radicke, who did the other album (Anderswelt), is a very sensitive, and I would say, even ethereal person, who comes more from the emotional side, in his approach to the music. There’s no question he’d play on Anderswelt, because (that album) for me has more crazy ungraspable little things, which I saw with Camillo immediately. And Mattias is more for the concrete and fine work in terms of musical approach.

Does your understanding of the work evolve through performance?

Yes, it moves on. Usually it’s the case that you have a theme, and then you perform, and then in the later stage, you record. With this, it was the other way around: we created an idea, we recorded it, then we performed it. That was a bit more difficult for the recordings, because you have no experience with the songs really, but, when the baby is born, it’s then a great process that can unfold, because every time you perform it, it grows a bit more, and you find new things. I think if I recorded it again now after three years, Welt, it would have some different tempi, some different moments of pianissimo. It moves on.

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Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Phaedra and Marlis Petersen as Aphrodite within Ensemble Modern in reflection, in Henze’s Phaedra (world premiere) at Staatsoper Berlin in 2007. Production: Peter Mussbach. (Photo: Ruth Walz)

And I would imagine it’s influenced by what you’re doing on the opera stage as well…

Yes, for sure.

… because it seems like such organic material can lend itself to a certain theatricality.

Can you describe that?

Theatrical in the visceral sense — there’s a lot of strong imagery on your trilogy, not just with the words but the way you phrase things, the way you use your voice in terms of color and dynamics.

So does it create inner pictures for you?

Very much.

That’s fantastic — that’s great! That’s the best that can happen. The inner world is something we only know to a certain extent. The older we get the more we open doors. We have met our moments in our lives and understand them better and better, but some things we will never understand. When you look at the scientists who say we are only using 10% of our brain capacity, well, what does the other 90% do? I think it’s somewhere ungraspable —  but becomes graspable through unconscious and subconscious worlds, and this is why I like you saying you have pictures mentally when you hear it. It means the music triggers your own inner world, and that’s the best compliment.

album recording lied inner welt German marlis petersen solo musica soprano clasical

via Solo Musica

It feels like a journey in which sensuality plays a very important role.

My intent was to take listeners on a journey, to go through dreams and feelings we have inside, things like anger or despair. And the French part was something where I thought, “This is a very unique color that points to the love emotions.”  There’s an aspect of…  this is something that we all go through, something eternal, some heaven, or some kind of redemption. This is a big topic we all have in our core. And for our world, with all the busy schedules and the crazy things that happen, it’s so important for each of us to have these moments of intimacy, and as you said, sensuality. For me it was important to do this trilogy for my inner growth; it was such a lesson.

How so?

There is a technical aspect to collecting songs, to searching; you never know, really, where the journey will go. On the first album it happened that by sorting the songs; the chapters came out on their own. I didn’t plan any chapter, I just suddenly found out, “Oh! This goes together with this one!” and “Oh, this group makes another topic!” — it was a direction, a gift given to me, and it was so beautiful, this idea of chapters, I wanted to keep it for The Other World and The Inner World too. Then you have to think, how do I do it this time? But, when you go into something with your full heart, there are always gifts coming in, surprises from heaven, and suddenly you have these discoveries, and you feel you’re on the right track. And this feeling of being on the right track, and doing something essential for yourself and the world, is so rewarding.

It’s often a question of being open to that happening. Sometimes people don’t open doors but build more walls which become fortified with age.

i think it’s very important that we keep ourselves open to wonder. I have many friends who are musicians, and when I talk to them about this, they are very open to trying new directions and to listening and getting lost in the journey — but the thing is, who in our age has the time to sit with a glass of wine and just listen to the album, and look at the booklet and get lost in the little trip we’re offering? If you can find the time, yes, it might make you rich in a way that you can understand something more. This was my aim, really, but maybe it’s a big aim; it needs time for people to be ready for it.

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With baritone Iurii Samoilov in Lehar’s Die Lustige Witwe at Oper Frankfurt, 2018. Production: Claus Guth. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Sometimes artists are far ahead of ideas of their time.

Oh yes, and the whole business today, it has to move fast, you have to be good, you have to bring your very best quality all the time, the business is rotating very quickly in every way. So these albums are there to tell us not to hurry, to take our time. Give time for everything you want to reach; if something’s coming and you have to move quickly, more so than you can, then maybe it’s not the right time to move. Give yourself the time you need; that thing will find you.

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

Photo: Paul Scala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

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

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

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

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

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

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

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With conductor James Conlon.

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

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

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