One of my strongest childhood summer memories involves the great indoors. The intense humidity and rain of one Southern Ontario July forced in-house activities, so my mother decided to enjoy the fruits of still-new VCR technology and watch some of the items within an immensely arts-leaning library. It used to be such an occasion to pop a tape in and watch something one had recorded weeks or even months before; the act of rewatching a program, of having easy access to that piece of news or entertainment, of being able to fast-forward through commercials, or rewind and re-view something, or pause on a favorite spot – it was all a big deal, and a unique form of techno-social adhesion.
Many of the tapes in my mother’s growing collection were recordings of Metropolitan Opera productions, broadcast regularly on PBS. I imagine this is how more than a few people (kids included) came to opera, through such broadcasts and through the use of VCRs. The rainy summers became more bearable, and introduced a host of young friends to what, for me, was just a normal part of everyday life. Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca was a favorite; the characters, the setting, the music – it was all very intriguing to a young mind. I wore out the videotape of the celebrated 1985 Franco Zeffirelli production with Hildegard Behrens in the lead, Placido Domingo as her devoted lover Cavaradossi, and Cornell MacNeil as a very scary Scarpia. One rainy afternoon the mother of one of my friends who had been visiting came by to collect her child, and then stood, open-mouthed, in our doorway. I had turned around, between bites of an ice cream float, and looked at Mrs. So-and-so. How was this so weird? What was she stunned over? My friend was as taken as I was over this intense, passionate, violent, crazy work with amazing music; why the surprise? My mother offered her most elegant smile.
“It’s almost over; can you wait a few minutes?”
“Sure,” said shocked mum. “I just never expected my daughter to be so interested in… opera!”
My mother laughed over dinner later in our tiny, dimly-lit kitchen.
“She just couldn’t believe her eyes…”
I made a face.
“Not everyone likes classical music, you know. Especially opera.”
Well they should, I said, leaning over and scooping up the cat, humming the Dah-DAH! notes of Scarpia’s scary musical motif.
“Put the cat down when you’re at the table.”
My mother rolled her eyes.
“Let’s watch something else tonight, okay?”
It’s easy (and certainly fashionable) to make faces and roll eyes and pronounce Puccini’s work too vulgar, too loud, too big, too (heaven forbid) emotional; to write off Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” (musicologist Joseph Kerman’s infamous 1952 pronouncement) and to wave it off as not-serious art and not-real opera. I’m not sure how to feel about this line of thinking; indeed, it isn’t The Ring, but so what? Should all opera be precisely the same? What’s so wrong with emotion? Intelligence is elevated but empathy is far more rare, and Tosca reminds me of its importance, in art and in life. Yes, the opera is clearly a part of my childhood nostalgia, but I hear bits of the score and still get chills at how evocative it is, in terms of conveying both outer and inner realities, and the ways it deftly combines art, sex, religion, and politics. Scarpia’s attempted rape of the title character in the Second Act lands very differently as an adult; there is a stomach-churning familiarity. It is uncomfortable but the scene renders his murder by the would-be victim that much more powerful, and his ultimate revenge on her that much more horrific. Such immediacy matters in art and gains more meaning as the years go by.
This close-to-the-bone quality is one writer Tori Wanzama picks up on beautifully in her essay below. The Communications student, who previously contributed to this website with an excellent essay on her first opera experience at Carmen this past autumn, recently attended the current Canadian Opera Company staging (a remount of its 2008 production) and offers some wonderfully singular insights involving theatre, drama, and… heavy metal? Read on.
Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage left) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023.
Tosca: Love, Hate, And A Twisted Triangle
Last October I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Opera Company’s presentation of Carmen at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, and to detail the excitement of my first opera experience. I enjoyed the show thoroughly, though it didn’t spark the classical-leaning revolution in my musical taste the way I had anticipated.
Admittedly I do return to the famous “Habanera” from time to time, and it, like Bizet’s opera, remains just as hypnotic as the first time I heard it. But metal has dominated my listening habits lately, making screaming and “shredding” the standard for me. While I consider my music taste eclectic and all-encompassing, my affinity for metal has given me a critical ear toward other genres. I enjoy them all, but still feel most lack a vital ingredient: drama. I find myself longing for the ferocity of intense instrumentals and booming vocals that demand virtuosity from artists. It is the same quality which is alive and nurtured at the opera, and that I found especially present in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which I was fortunate enough to attend in Toronto last week.
In Rome, 1800, a twisted love triangle begins amidst the French Revolutionary Wars. The union of opera singer Tosca (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace) and painter Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) is challenged when the latter hides escaped political prisoner Angelotti (Christian Pursell). The painter’s crime is discovered by the cruel chief of police Scarpia (Roland Wood) who plans to execute both men; the chief’s enthusiasm for execution is matched only by his lust for Tosca whom he propositions, offering her lover’s freedom in exchange for her submission to him. Tosca seemingly concedes, but once Scarpia signs a letter of safe conduct she is quick to kill him. Victoriously, Tosca reunites with Cavaradossi to deliver her good news, but the couple’s happiness is short-lived when Cavaradossi’s execution is still carried out; in despair Tosca ends her life. This third act betrayal is played as a shock but the tragic end reveals itself far earlier, in Act 1, when the three leads reveal their true natures; with every passing aria their terrible trajectory becomes plain to see.
In the Toronto presentation (running to May 27th), La Colla’s Cavaradossi is sung with pure conviction. When he sings of his love for Tosca in “Dammi i colori” his passion for her is tangible, with a vocal tenderness difficult to describe. I can only stress to see it live it if you can; I quite literally swooned in my seat as he sang his admiration of Tosca’s brown eyes, and I find I am yet haunted by his delivery, even several days after experiencing it; his commitment is clear, as is his loyalty to Angelotti, the friend he helps to hide. “E’buona la mia” is delivered with genuine urgency as he promises his help, and curses Scarpia with a hypnotic cadence that is reminiscent of a priest delivering blessings to ward off evil. Cavaradossi is dedicated to those whom he cares for, but it is this devotion that is his demise when faced with cruel competition.
The same can be said of Tosca, whose love for Cavaradossi is demonstrated in her possessiveness. Despite her jealous ways, it is clear why the role is so famous as Campbell-Wallace takes the stage to offer a Tosca who is both cunning and cute. Campbell-Wallace brings such charisma to the character that even Tosca’s jealousy is endearing, especially in the scenes with her bickering back and forth with Cavaradossi in their love duet. Campbell-Wallace and La Colla’s vocals are heavenly in harmony, and there is a seamless chemistry between the performers that makes the exchange especially charming; I could see the years behind this couple, just as clearly as I could see the end of their days. Their devastating love for one another creates a malaise that lingers and peaks in act two with “Vissi d’arte”. Your heart breaks as Tosca mourns her tragic circumstance and sings with beautiful horror at Scarpia’s advances. Her audible desperation underscores her determination to protect Cavaradossi no matter the cost.
Roland Wood as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper
This ruthless resolve is matched by Cavaradossi’s competition, Scarpia, who is driven by lust rather than love. Roland Wood embodies Scarpia perfectly, with a booming baritone befitting of such a cruel character. The “Te Deum” is an absolutely chilling number conveying the chief of police’s corruption to superb effect. Scarpia is explicit about his evil intentions as he revels in his manipulation of Tosca with the Cardinal’s procession as his chorus. The chief explains the pleasures of romantic conquest with such perverted pride that makes his performance both uncomfortable and enticing to watch.
The First Act sets a foreboding tone with each performer conveying emotions which make individual motivations clear, and with such conviction coming from each character that there is no other end but disaster. We can only await the sequential calamity as the loyalty of the lovers is tested against Scarpia’s ruthlessness. The small cast creates a palpable intimacy, bringing the audience closer to each character, surely an aim of the verismo tradition; the operatic genre contrasts contained, realistic story writing with a florid and declamatory vocal style that emphasizes emotion. This cast delivers with awe-inspiring vocals that soar above even the bombastic orchestra led by conductor Giuliano Carella.
I left Tosca both impressed and unsettled; the show is unmistakably “metal” in its presentation of beautiful brutality. In his director’s note, Paul Curran noted that “opera is about sex, religion, and politics” and immediately I thought metal is much the same. The two genres also share an unflinching gaze, not only at death, but at human anguish. Researching this shared affinity for agony led me to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in which the ancient philosopher states in observing tragedy that evokes fear and pity, “the human soul…is purged of its excessive passions”. Across both genres, artists explore the aforementioned ideas to their extremes, creating a unique release for respective audiences; despair becomes delight amidst the throes of musical virtuosos, and metal and opera alike offer an essence that cannot be found anywhere else.
Top photo: Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper
Sound in and of itself is neither good or bad; it simply is. But more than ever, sound, and the way it is delivered and experienced, is tied up in commerce. The various sources of revenue and concomitant connections to money within the classical world often provides silent framing of a vast and under-discussed reality. Recently The Metropolitan Opera announced they would be performing 10% fewer works next season, drawing on their endowment, and focusing on new works for next season. This year’s new works – Kevin Puts’ The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – drew near-capacity audiences, while old chestnuts (like the Italian version of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos) barely filled the immense auditorium by half. Similar challenges with audiences in post-pandemic life resound internationally, and organizations need to rethink their over-reliance on both starry names and ossified presentational styles. The challenges are less related to “rubbing people’s noses” in current issues (as a famous tenor recently mused) than to organizations attenuating to ever-unfolding realities (including pandemic) within a media ecosystem ever more reliant on the machinery of hype and ad tech which polarizes audience experience (/ inexperience) and expectation, often screwing in unconsciously-held cliches around opera in the process in a breathless bid to please sponsors and conservative board members. Whither sound? Does it matter when there are no camels in Aida?
Exposure, education, and cultural curiosity have everything to do with receptivity of sounds, and in building the critical thinking structures needed for reception of their live realization. More than once this year I have written about (and linked to) the precipitous drops in educational standards, particularly across North America. If Europeans groan at hearing the word “privilege” and roll eyes at the mention of culture wars, it is worth remembering the basic cost of things across the ocean. (Various American contacts of mine living in Europe are aghast at the sheer cost of groceries in visits home for the holidays, as one immediate example.) This seems an issue worth shouting about, repeatedly, even if people want to stick fingers in ears and continue rolling eyes. The Met is not The Royal Opera Covent Garden is not Bayerische Staatsoper is not Oper Zurich is not Opera de Paris is not the COC is not ENO (alas…). Different strokes; different horses. As I discussed with Mark Williams (the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony) this autumn, one city cannot simply be grafted onto another. One culture cannot be grafted onto another. One educational system cannot be grafted onto another; one set of ideas and living experiences cannot be grafted onto another. We cannot wish x was like more y; x may be devolving back to m but it is its own m, in its own place, and this is worth remembering. Blithely accepting what various levels of government cut or mete out or hype without a peep of protest, pause, or media scrutiny does not make for a healthy arts ecosystem, or for healthy artists.
Thus do the educational systems in various locales – along with social safety nets, levels of (non-corporate) funding, culture, history, infrastructure – contribute to respective classical atmospheres and moreover to the perceptions of sounds, and their direct experience within specific environments. In classical within a North American idiom, some of those sounds are treated as a decimal in the equation of style, performance, and digital bragging rights. Marketing departments often dictate programming choices; risky sounds are placed straight in the bin unless those departments are very sure they can create an online buzz that directly translates to ticket sales – the unicorn goal of classical marketing rarely achieved with any reliable consistency. Of course sound is, at its core, represented by dots on a page, but sound is much more than dots, symbols many people can’t read, let alone hear in their heads. It matters how/where/when/within what circumstance one experiences them, or does not experience them, where and how one learns them, from whom, in what atmosphere. Absence is as importance as presence, something musicians of all genres know. Contributor Tori Wanzama experienced Bizet’s Carmen for the first time this past autumn – in a highly individualized way and certainly different to those who grew up hearing the music throughout childhood. Context is everything, and it ought not – especially now in a war that so affects cultural arenas – to be ignored in favour of romantic notions which do not contextualize (let alone acknowledge) the role of privilege in the listening/live/learning-about experience.
Sounds are, or can be, loaded; they often carry the heavy ammunition of intertwined histories – personal, professional, political, and beyond. Recently I came upon a unique performance of a German-language version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin led by Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year. Recorded at Semperoper Dresden in 1991, this Onegin demonstrates clearly, how sound is not only sound but can be much more. Yes, this is recognizably Tchaikovsky; no, it is not the recognizable Onegin, at least not for those who are solely familiar with the opera in its original language. The famous “Letter Scene”, for instance, features Czech soprano Zora Jehličková performing Tatyana’s passionate declaration in an excited if highly knowing manner – she sounds worldly, as if she is about to set Valhalla on fire. The reading of the score has transformed to reflect the vagaries of the language in which it is being sung. Use all the Teutonic-music cliches you wish (see above) – they apply to Jurowski’s reading, but they don’t quite capture the singularity of this particular sound at this particular juncture. How could they? Think about what was happening in Germany at the time, and you hear it in this reading; the swift tempi, the jaunty phrasing, the acid tone of the strings against the excitable blares of the horns, the way in which the orchestra swells around certain syllables – and how much it all contrasts with various Russian recordings. These divides in sonorities aren’t solely down to the differences between maestros (though that’s a factor) – but time, place, language, people – context.
Sound embodies so many things, if only we would listen. Semperoper is not The Met is not La Scala is not Mariinsky is not Kyiv Opera is not… we are not you; you are not me; one but not the same, and sounds are bigger than both of us, together or apart –the biggest question, the smallest decimal; the hard sell, the soft touch; sound draws in the most tiny details and simultaneously reveals a far broader picture. It is difficult to define because its experience differs so greatly between people and changes through time, privilege, history, locale, and family. This website has tried to reflect such concerns since its founding in 2017, and the past twelve months in particular have brought a reassessment of its purpose. I always resisted definitions for what this website is, or could be, though I was always quite sure of what it was not. I always wanted my work to be more than hyperbolic PR – to be a meaningful (and yes, critical) engagement with an art form I love in all its facets. I aimed to share authentic, unedited (mostly) conversations with people whose work genuinely inspires curiosity, and in so doing provide a forum for the sorts of exchanges mainstream media has neither the bucks nor the bandwidth for. I aimed to float somewhere between the heady and the populist, the intellectual and the everyday, and to firmly keep my own voice intact, as someone who floats in that netherworld herself, and probably always will. This is, at least, what I had hoped. Have I achieved these aims? Have I contributed anything of worth to conversations around classical music? Should I worry about legacy brand media, and which writers and artists love, hate, or share my work?
2022 has been a year of learning to live with and accept open questions that may never have answers, and to stop worrying about the ones that really don’t matter. This website will exist in the short term; there will be occasional feature interviews – as ever, with people and things not being given the attention or quality of time and detail, let alone the uniqueness of perspective, in mainstream media coverage. But just as practical priorities (paid writing opportunities; teaching) call, so does the living of life, remade from what it was in March 2020. Returning is different, which is just as it should be; it is not returning at all, but remaking. Just as locales cannot be grafted onto one another, neither can experiences, ideas, or notions of normal. I want to have meaningful real-life conversations that won’t be shared online, and I want to experience sounds, live, with people I call friends, and note how those sounds are different now that everything else – that magical context – is too. There are voices, and sights, and (thank goodness) sounds, and all they carry – quietly, loudly, beautifully; the readiness, to quote Hamlet, is all.
Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Time, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote in the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier, is a strange thing. It is an observation perhaps most applicable to the world of opera, an industry which continues to endure its fair share of slow-downs, speed-ups, and stand-stills since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. It’s on; it’s off; it’s on; people are sick, the show must go on; it’s half-on, it’s half-off; it’s reduced, it’s streamed; it’s full capacity but “gosh, where is the audience?” is combined with “why aren’t we moving tickets when we made such cool instagram videos?” and “let’s invite some influencers because they’ll bring the sexy young audience we really want!” Questions, queries, and marketing tactics aside, it is risk which is arguably foremost in audience minds: the risk of attending, but also the risk of experiencing something new, or something familiar, but in new ways. Literal risk may well scare some off (or simultaneously attract others), but figurative risk – creative risk – has the power to tempt long-time audiences back in the house, and bring a much-coveted demographic: newcomers. This positive outcome of risk calculation is one some houses are willing to dare, especially as a long, challenging winter draws closer.
Just how the element of risk manifests now is worth considering, especially given the bundles of new works being presented as part of the 2022-2023 season across various houses in North America and Europe. The Royal Opera is presenting a new opera by Oliver Leith about rock singer Kurt Cobain next month, and its entire run is already sold out. Some works, especially those with less of a direct reference to mainstream popular culture, may not be as much in the public consciousness (yet), but do have existing audiences, and do possess the kind of appeal which expands a work’s fanbase, especially to literature and theatre lovers. Case in point: Medea, by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), opens The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season on September 27th. The 1797 opera is most famous, or at least has a fair measure of fame among opera aficionados, for its live recording featuring conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas from 1957. It has never been presented in The Met’s history – not for lack of trying; in an essay at The Met’s website, Associate Editor Jonathan Minnick details former General Manager Rudolf Bing’s efforts to bring the opera, and Callas, to New York in the 1960s. The Met may well be hoping to make its own kind of history with the new production, directed by David McVicar and featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead. A soprano known for her passionate work with bel canto roles (including Donizetti’s Three Queens – Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux), Medea offers a very different set of shoes indeed, vocally and musically, though it may well be somewhat familiar territory for the level of dramatic intensity it demands. Radvanovsky will be joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani as the faithless Giasone, Janai Brugger as Glauce, Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris, and Michele Pertusi as Creonte. Historically, the Euripidean tragedy (431 BC) has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and has been an object of considerable study with relation to its themes of betrayal, obsession, family, feminism, and murder – and rather interestingly, the work itself (the opera as much as the ancient Greek play) has a keen relationship to time, and the ways in which it speeds up, and/or slows down, at pivotal moments in one woman’s life. Cherubini’s score masterfully captures the drama inherent in such temporal shifts, using a deft combination of voices, strings, and woodwinds, as well as hectic passages and highly considered silences, to bring listeners into Medea’s inner world; it is a world where time, its passing, and all that implies, stretches, stops, and twists amidst a tumult of conflicting emotions. Beethoven, who was a fan, called Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer”
An 1898 poster for Euripides’ Medée from Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris. Artwork by Alphonse Mucha.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who leads Medea performances at The Met, has been studying the score for well over a year. The drama of Cherubini’s Medea, as he explains in our chat below, is sewn within Cherubini’s orchestration and is a full partner with the vocal writing. Rizzi and I last spoke in September 2019, as the Italian conductor prepared to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019-2020 season with Turandot, an opera he knows so well, he has (like other Puccini operas) conducted it from memory. Medea, of course, is a different thing as much for him as for the cast, including Radvanovsky, with whom he has previously worked. Originally written and presented in French and subsequently translated into German and Italian (frequently; The Met is using the 1909 Italian translation by writer Carlo Zangarini), Cherubini’s version of the mythological vengeance story touches on a myriad of musical styles without entirely conforming to any of them: it isn’t Classical; it isn’t Romantic; it has elements of both. Medea is notable for not only its ferocious lead but for the unique musical language it utilizes to convey drama.
As Rizzi explains in our exchange, the orchestration of Medea is a key factor in conveying that drama. Getting the balance just right demands things you might expect, but multiplied several times over: patience; study; discussion; rehearsals; edits; more edits. The qualities needed for such responsibility – a passionate involvement and a forensic attention to detail – are ones Rizzi has meticulously developed across multiple projects, not least of which has been his work as Artistic Director of Opera Rara. With its mission on the restoration, recording, and performance of lost 19th and early 20th century works, the group not only gives an opportunity for opera history to be perceived and understood in broader ways, but allows for a far richer contextualizing of the “new” and “old” labels as applied to it, particularly within the realm of performance practices. One of their most celebrated released in recent memory was Ermonela Jaho’s immense Anima Rara from 2020, which beautifully showcased little-known verismo arias, and won the vocal category at the 2021 International Classical Music Awards. Opera Rara’s most recent recording is the one-act opera Zingari by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), out 23 September via Warner Music. Based on a poem by Pushkin from 1827, Zingari premiered in London in 1912 to great success, although Leoncavallo made extensive cuts and revisions to the work throughout its various revivals in Europe and North America. Rizzi noted during a recent Opera Rara release event that Zingari and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo’s famous 1892 work) share some structural differences, but Zingari, which Leoncavallo started writing in the early 1900s, is truly a thing apart, something the new recording emphasizes. He leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with palpable verve, carefully colouring its gloriously rich passages with a warmth of tone and precision in phrasing.
The recording is a symbol of the extent to which opera has shaped Rizzi’s career, as someone who has led rarities by a range of composers (including Giordano, Cimarosa, Bellini, Donizetti, Pizzetti, and Montemezzi) alongside well-loved works by Puccini and Verdi. Rizzi has served as Welsh National Opera’s Music Director twice (1992 to 2001, and 2004 to 2008) and is its Conductor Laureate; he regularly appears on the podiums of Teatro alla Scala Milan, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Oslo), and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led over 200 performances. This coming season sees him conduct two more works at famed the NYC house – revivals of Puccini’s Tosca (starting 4 October), and Verdi’s Don Carlo (starting 3 November), before moving on to Paris, where he will lead works by Verdi (Il trovatore) and Gounod (Romeo et Juliet), and, in May, give an Opera Rara performance of Donizetti’s 1828 opera L’esule di Roma (The Exile From Rome) at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Britten Sinfonia. Rizzi and I spoke just prior to the release of Zingari, and, more immediately, the morning of a recent Medea rehearsal – about new works, old works, and the need to embrace risk, now more than ever.
What was the process for recording Zingari amidst pandemic?
We did it in December 2021, at the end of the serious lockdown but still the world was mostly wearing masks and distancing. I’ve since done Il proscritto by Saverio Mercadante with Opera Rara; which we did in June. That was much easier, but still, some got covid, thankfully none in the cast, and here in New York now we are rehearsing with masks. Some of the singers are allowed not to wear the masks for stage rehearsals – some do, some don’t – but the orchestra is all with masks.
While things are still so uncertain in the opera world, The Met’s decision to open their season with Medea seems unique.
It’s a situation I’ve never been in. Nobody has ever done it at The Met – nobody! So for the orchestra, chorus, me, singers, production, everybody, it’s a new discovery – even though this opera is very well known, particularly for the Callas phenomenon – it’s like there is a vacuum to fill, in a certain way. I sent some corrections to the Met Opera Library for the orchestra parts, something I have never had happen in opera before – it’s a discovery for everybody. Saturday we did it for the first time with the singers, which was great – I discovered a couple things I wanted to modify in the orchestra, and so.
This is a good thing and also a great responsibility – because in a way, there is the freedom to do things, but then again, in this case there is this recording, this Callas thing, and of course many people will have only heard that, so “oh this is Medea ” – well, actually no, this is Medea as she did it. Callas was Callas; now it’s 50 years later, and there is all this sense of anticipation and responsibility. It’s a big responsibility. I have to let the score speak to me, and in this particular opera it’s been very different from the others because his is a language, Cherubini’s, that is not very easy to classify. When you speak about Rossini, there is a certain way of writing to the voices with the support of the orchestra that you can identify – the same is true when you speak of Puccini or Verdi; if you think about an Traviata, okay, you can remember the Brindisi, the aria of the First Act, the duet in the Second Act. But here, in Medea of course there are those big arias and duets, but actually there is also a great interconnection in the drama between the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra is never a mere companion beside the voice, but a full partner. The orchestra players were talking about this recently – they feel in the middle of the drama with this opera. If there is a dramatic moment or a particular emotion a composer wants to express, of course it’s in the singing but with Medea it’s also fully in the orchestra.
There are some moments which I think are very clever; the character spends half ot the performance trying to get what she wants – to get revenge, of course – but she also wants to see her children. So there’s the line of Medea and the first violin, which is expressive of the latter, but if you look at the viola part, there’s something much more dark in it. When she says, “One day more” – the drama is in the scoring of the orchestra – Medea is, so to speak, in the orchestra. And I think that’s very interesting, because it allows the decisions you make with the orchestra and singers to be much more unified. For me that’s rewarding.
Cherubini’s work sonically anticipates much future work…
That is a huge question! The translation, per se, is not for me the most difficult thing, but there is some quirkiness to it. It’s for the simple reason that in Italian, always, basically, the accent is on the penultimate syllable, and in French the accent is on the last syllable. We do the (sung, in this version) Italian recitatives in this production. Now, one could say, “Why don’t you do them spoken in French?” – and sure, we could, but it’s the Italian version, and the recitatives are where the drama happens. The drama is never in an aria alone – what happened before and what happens after matter as much. The recitatives enhance the drama, beginning to end. Medea is so dramatic in her minimalism. She doesn’t come in flaming on a dragon – there is just a simple sound and simple chord: “where is the traitor?” It’s amazing, this moment, it’s so anti-operatic in a way, but totally, utterly dramatic. So taking the lead from what Cherubini wrote in these passages, I think, personally, that these recitative sections hold the drama of the piece; it all hangs on how those are performed.
You’re right regarding the translation – another opera I’m doing here later, Don Carlo, has the French version and Italian version – and there are differences in the ways that text is approached although written by the same composer. I grew up with Don Carlo in Italian, it’s what I’ve heard forever. When I did it in French at one point, or rather at certain points, things made more sense. The Italian (version) again, is not terrible – but in French, you can hear the meaning. We can discuss until the cows come home if we should do this only in French now, but I believe we can do both.
So the translation isn’t so central as to change the core meaning?
Sort of. What I’ve noticed, in studying both the French text and the Italian text, is yes, there are some differences. Sometimes you get translations of operas where, in the original language a character says one thing, and that comes out totally another thing in the translation – that is not the case with this opera! I think sometimes the (textual) quirks are there because (Carlo) Zangarini, as an Italian, was trying to keep the French line, the French text. The important thing to remember is that composers tend to think of certain words to give the apex of a phrase, it’s not just a question of translating it straight over. For example, if you take Rodolfo’s famous aria in Bohème, the word “speranza” is important, it’s everything Rodolfo hopes for, it’s why it’s a top C right there – but if you translate that word into another language, it changes the way everything lands. For Cherubini the drama isn’t on one note; the technical writing is less involving this apex which was common to Romantic aria writing, and is more focused around the development of the aria by the different orchestral sections. It’s instrumentation which brings characters to say certain things, including the moments with Medea and Giasone. You can hear it one way, or in another way, with the voice or with the orchestra, or both, so it’s like circles of relating.
Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s “Medea.” Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
You have worked with Sondra Radvanovsky a few times, including a lot of work in bel canto repertoire; what’s been your experience now?
I do find working with her so rewarding. The past times we’ve worked together, like in 2017 with Norma among many other performances, she would know those roles in her body, not only in the notes. This isn’t the bel canto she’s used to doing, and as I said before, it’s a discovery for everybody. Yesterday after rehearsal she and I were still discussing and exchanging ideas of how to more clearly project a certain kind of personality at a certain point rather than another kind at other moments – and all this energy comes together at a certain point: through the next rehearsals; with some technical things like portamento; where she goes into chest for a certain phrase, or if it’s more legato, or more a conversational sort of style; all these things are things we constantly discuss. It’s a project that is a work-in-progress, because again, it is the first time everybody has done it. We’d be foolish to come in and say, “This is the way we have to do this” when there are different and better ways.
How do you see Medea fitting within your overall opera oeuvre?
It’s interesting because Medea is something that never happened in my life – well, maybe when I was very young – but this is my fifth new opera in a row this year. It’s been bloody hard work – it’s not just opening the score and doing it! I started with Cendrillon (Massenet), then I did Il Proscritto (Mercadante) then I due Foscari (Verdi), then Rossini’s La gazzetta, and now Medea. For me personally it’s been a period of a lot of study, I can tell you, but also challenging in a positive way, especially after the covid lockdowns. It’s been very welcome. Now I’m happy doing something I’ve done before too. So often people think, “What do conductors do? What do they really do?” And, fine, if you have a good technique you can read and conduct something within three days – but truly, it requires more. Being a conductor requires a real maturation, and only time gives that. You have to know to start studying early – I started on Medea more than a year-and-a-half ago. You think about it; you read; you mark it up; you go away; you come back; it’s been a great period, but it’s been very busy also.
That’s very true. A related silver lining of this era is that we had the time to sit and study these things. Also, it has to be said, that even if everybody did the Zoom performances, the distanced performances, it comes out at the end that nothing can compare to, nothing can overtake the feeling of being at a live performance. That means there is a desire to have new things, to do new things, to not just do the same old things, and not to do them in such a comfortable way as before. We don’t take it for granted – because now we know: nothing is guaranteed anymore. So fine, let’s take it as a positive from the situation, and keep doing things this way, and hope the public will come back and not be fearful, and start to enjoy it again, and abandon one’s self not only to the music but visual art, to dance, to cinema, and so on. It’s why we’re making art.
Top photo: Carlo Rizzi rehearsing Zingari with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2021. Photo: Simon Weir / Opera Rara.
In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.
The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.
On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.
The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.
Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his now-wife, soprano Nicole Car, and the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera). Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.
Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.
Congratulations on Don Carlos…
It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….
… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?
It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.
Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?
There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head
Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…
Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”
Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?
Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.
I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.
Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…
Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.
So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…
In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.
There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.
There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”
It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?
Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.
Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.
You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.
It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther– I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…
… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…
Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.
Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?
With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.
Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”
It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.
How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?
Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!
You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?
We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.
You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.
For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…
But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…
No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…
… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.
Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…
Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.
You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.
That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.
Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.
It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.
Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
December is a glum month. The cozy, communal nature of this time, reinforced by a combination of weather, occasion, social ritual, the marking of time and season, plus the digital signifiers that Surely Everyone Is Having A Better Time Than You, means, for those lacking family and/or firm social network, a keen feeling of being forgotten, whether it is true or not.
Oh, but the very many will (and do) say, we’re all so busy. Never has a word been more overused, and December is a good reminder of the ease with which avoidance is casually wielded – for fun, for comfort, and yes, for an understandable want of calm. Sometimes people, even the most popular, actually-busy, super-hyper-social ones, simply want to pull a Garbo. I appreciate that, as someone who often, pre-pandemic, felt the desire to leave hot, crowded rooms, the feeling that I was being smothered made smile-laden socializing difficult and stressful; usually I’d continue smiling and guzzle down a gallon or two of water. Such smothering feels more pronounced now, intro/extrovert labels be damned; one falls between, around, over, and under such easy categorizations, in this, the Age Of Omicron. I want to spend time… but are you boosted? Let’s have dinner… but can we get a negative test first? I’d love for you to kiss me but… ? Having viewed casual contacts with some suspicion over the years, lately I feel a deep gratitude for any miniscule crumb of kindness; amidst pandemic, little things become big things.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I received close to one thousand well wishes for my birthday. While I would have loved to have thrown a big party, or travelled (or ideally done both, as I had done in years past), reality dictates otherwise. Living alone as a freelance writer and adjunct Professor means being ever-conscious of illness and its effects, financial and social, as much as physical. Thus does staying in and alone become less a choice than an exercise in logic. Choosing solitude, when one has the absolute privilege of people around them at any given moment (and never let it be forgotten that having people around – partners, family, associates, work colleagues, friendly neighbours, pets – is a very under-recognized form of privilege), is far and away a different thing from solitude as a lived, actual norm. The few in-person conversations I’ve had lately are accompanied by a counterpoint of constant anxiety, wondering and worrying if I’m talking too much, too loudly, too quickly, pontificating and pondering, desperate to be heard, and desperately happy for this one (poor) individual to really be sitting across from me. I am, I fear, turning into the Crazy Old Woman cliche, minus (so far) the cats.
“You’re different, that’s for sure,” my mother used to say, furrowing her eyebrows and judging, for the thousandth time, how it was she, one of those hyper-social, popular, widely-loved, togethery-with-all-sorts, could have possibly birthed… me. The thing she perhaps didn’t see, or more directly refused to admit until the very end, was her culpability: a single, beautiful, cultured woman in a grey, artless, firmly conformist environment could not possibly be anything other than an outsider. The most powerful lessons are those done through osmosis, and her position as a divorced (and again, gorgeous, glamorous, artsy, social) parent in a bleak Canadian suburban had an effect – how could it have been otherwise? Such an upbringing screws in a keen sense of individuality, of the pain of being an outsider, and its strange, strangely-experienced joys. If, her reasoning went, everyone was to settle for being “dowdy” (her word), well… she’d be the precise opposite, and damn them if they hated her for it (they did). To hell with the cost to her daughter. Those costs were indeed great but sometimes there were benefits. I could show up most everyone who’d mocked me/pushed me over in the playground/thrown snowballs at my head with ribbons of intricate piano playing sounds that always impressed adults, namely teachers. It was a talent which sometimes got me out of boring classes and into the cool, quiet environment of a tiny teacher’s lounge that happened to have a piano; it was always a treat to be plucked out of class and be told I could, for an hour or sometimes two, practise to my heart’s content. I can still remember my shop teacher’s face when he heard me one afternoon, the way he stopped and stared, dumbfounded.
“Has your mother talked to anyone about putting you in the gifted program?”
They said no. I already tried.
His eyes widened, but he was silent. Years later I ran into other teachers from that elementary era, and all of them, oddly enough (or not), said: “You really should have been in the gifted program, you know. I mean, we all said that.”
It was at my mother’s insistence that I took some classes with the gifted group and felt that I was being ferociously judged, fiercely rejected, in a more brutal manner than usual. You’re not one of us you plain-spoken, poorly-dressed imbecile. I remember the silent stares, the quiet eyerolls whenever I spoke (which wasn’t often; I was terrified). I wasn’t smart enough for them (or something), I wasn’t unique enough (or something), my work was (apparently) unoriginal; thus it was back to the land of the super-normals (or something) where I clearly didn’t fit in either. I could not possibly be a part of their club, or so their behaviour implied, repeatedly. I recognized that same anxiety in speaking with various academics, authors, managers and musicians over the years, and I can clearly count the times I didn’t feel I was being similarly judged. Not smart enough; not unique enough; stupid, unoriginal. Back to the land of normals; rinse, repeat.
Snippets of overheard conversations my mother had with close friends arrived with the sound of her sighs. She just didn’t know what to do with me. What I loved was considered “too” weird, “too” outside, “too” daring, even for the woman who had, once upon a time, tried so hard to fit in with a world that wasn’t going to accept her either; I think it hurt her to see me making the same sorts of efforts, and with the same sort of results. Her efforts to gain acceptance within the teensy-tiny bubble of small-town Canada were never going to be successful; so too, for her artsy, anti-social, book-and-music-loving daughter who had a predilection for doing things in her very own way, who’d been told by the “special” folk she wasn’t “special” enough, who learned how to hide everything behind masks of makeup, dresses, heels, who became adept at distraction and diversion, who contented herself to be the entertainment, to inspire desire and derision, envy and confusion, and of course, ostracization, exclusion, isolation. To clench jaw and smile at rejection. To give a middle finger with a bat of the eyelashes. It became second-nature; it still is.
There were eyerolls when I’d exit my high school history class early on Fridays; I was off to then-dingy New York. My mother had a subscription to the Met Opera; it wasn’t as fancy as everyone thought – we had seats in the gods – but no one in our little town knew or cared about such details. We were being fancy, snooty, pretentious; I was perceived as uppity, absurd, self-important.
“Have fun at the opera,” they’d sneer.
“Have fun at the mall,” I’d reply, slipping on my faux-fur coat over my ugly grey uniform.
Really, it wasn’t a question of my believing opera was somehow “elite” – I never thought it was; looking around at the Met on any given night, I’d see all sorts, dressed in all ways, and it was nice to feel part of a community where we could all come together and talk about this thing we all loved. How many excited conversations did my mother and I enjoy at intermission and post-performance, with people whose fashions mattered so much less to us than that they could speak about x singer in y performance with z conductor; that, to us, was every bit as magical as what we had just experienced. How could any of my fellow students, in my crappy little town, possibly understand? I didn’t try to fit in with them; I used their cliched, outmoded perceptions of the art form I loved in a way that protected my own passions, musical ambitions included. Thus my teenage weekends weren’t filled with parties and dancing and snogs with boys I barely knew, but with the sounds of Tebaldi and Domingo and Pavarotti, dinners at little Manhattan restaurants (long since gone), trying on a much-needed new coat at Century 21, cocktails mixed in our hotel room before and after performances (my mother didn’t believe in mystifying alcohol), and oh, the happy expressions during and after every performance – the sighs, the exchanged looks, my mother’s quiet “aaach!” at hearing, or remembering various musical moments, sung or played. I hated coming back after such excursions; Monday morning became tearful. I did not want to face them.
“But we’ll be back in two months!” my mother would shout over her cassette of Maria Callas arias. “Put on some lipstick – you’ll feel better!”
Rejection and defiance are close bedfellows, as recent history attests; the constant feeling of being outside the perceived (usually strict) circles of perceived norms and related social interaction mean that head-tilting haughtiness, protective thought it may be, screws in the nails of an innate, proud different-ness which led, in some cases, to a terrible if perhaps predictable isolation. “If you send out the signals you don’t want to fit in,” pronounces the school principal in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink, “people will make sure you don’t.”
“That’s a beautiful theory,” retorts Andie (Molly Ringwald), maligned for her low socio-economic status as much as the unique fashion sense inspired by it. I loved that movie when it came out, not only for its style (I had wanted to be a fashion designer for years and still find myself sketching ideas for outfits to events I’ll probably never attend) but for its poor-girl-wins-for-being-weird theme. It’s one that is proven more and more within the realm of pure fantasy as a woman moves through life without hitting the predictable marks, rendering her invisible (or close to it), a position which not all of us have quite made peace with. The rise of digital media has created an algorithmically-dictated hierarchy of worth and attractiveness based on a youth that can only be conveyed through the erasure of physical indications of living – of experience, of endurance, possible wisdom. Difference comes with even sharper edges (deeper wrinkles, as it were) when one hits a certain age and is without family or close community; thus is one thrown into the bins of fetishistic sex fantasy or angry frump, with little if any room for (or interest in) nuance and all the fascinations such variance can (or should) afford. I am sure many perceive there to be something quite wrong, that my too-haughty shell has led me here, that this is “the price” of such attitudes– a simple-minded calculation to smirk at. I didn’t expect my mother to die so young; neither did she. One of the last things she said to me six years ago (when she still had the strength to do so), was, “I’m sorry” – and it wasn’t just about that morning’s snappish behaviour, I knew; it was the same apology (the same words) uttered by my father at our final meeting eight years prior, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that manifests on the face and in the eyes. I knew precisely what she meant, and she knew I knew.
“It’s okay,” I said, choking back tears. It had to be; she was dead three weeks later.
More than once I have written to close contacts that I don’t miss my mother, and it’s true, I don’t; that feeling changes in December, the most glum month, as I wrote, a month when being an outsider hurts in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Geography, and the cultural differences that such geography brings, can (does, in my case) make an immense difference, but of course there are a whole new set of circles and a far more knowable kind of separateness to be navigated, which is easier and more difficult, all at once. The feeling of being different never leaves, no matter the setting; it isn’t something to be celebrated, or indeed, something that should inspire any form of reaction at all. Different-ness, and its unmissable expression in life, can only be accepted, along with all of its itinerant branches, reaching like octopus arms across various facets of living, the one facet, which shows itself every December, is painful, for it is a reminder of lack. But so too is there reason to remember abundance.
The pandemic brought the worst of childish habits to the fore and social media gave such instincts a stage for amplification; recently I looked back on old postings (since deleted) with a mix of horror and fascination. Oh, the ways we continue to seek a validation we felt was always missing since childhood; oh, the means we have at our disposal to receive and encourage it. The performative aspects of social media have led to aspects of our private lives taking on the appearance of a shadow-play, stripped of the blood-and-guts messiness of real, authentic living. But oh, that real living is what is most missed; my mother made a fuss in December, the month of my birth, the month of her father and brother’s birth, the same month of their respective deaths. How to navigate such sadness with the miracle of giving birth (something I am told she never expected to do, which she did late in life, and amidst a hideous separation) – December was a loaded month for her, and it still is for me. Lately I walk around my tiny abode wishing for little more than the aroma of her annual baking: the almond crescents, the raspberry bars, the whipped shortbreads. Her frenzied gift-giving, not just to close contacts but to everyone in quotidian life – postal people, bank tellers, hairdressers, delivery drivers– was perhaps her own way to seek (and find) validation, to fill the perceived hole of her own outsider-ness, feel her presence was somehow, despite everything, valuable.
For every individual who took time to wish me a happy birthday this past Tuesday – to write on my wall, to send a kind note, to offer good wishes: thank you. Small things are big things – now, more than ever.
Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)
Like many in Europe right now, Brindley Sherratt is trying to stay cool. I chatted with the English bass in the middle of a brutal (and record-breaking) heatwave, where he spoke to me from his residence in Sussex, a two-hour drive south of London. “It’s not so bad… but it’s still 35C!” he said. “I have a huge fan on my desk here.”
Sherratt came to singing relatively late – his mid-late 30s – and, as he told The Times last year, missed out on the young artist training programs and thus “I consider myself about 50 years behind my colleagues in some respects.” This later start might work against some singers, but with Sherratt, it’s quite the opposite; the circumstances offer a gravitas that’s hard to miss onstage. His is an even-keeled, confident presence; he doesn’t make a big show of things vocally or physically, because he doesn’t have to. I experienced his darkly brooding Hunding earlier this year as part of a partial in-concert presentation of Die Walküre with the Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (the opera’s first half was performed) during which he sung alongside Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde, in a rich display of vocal dramatism shot through with relentless drive. At the time, I wrote about Sherratt’s performance as being “less outwardly murderous than inwardly brewing, an avuncular if charismatic figure of quiet intensity” and I think that’s a good way to describe him artistically; Sherratt is possessed of a quiet intensity, in both manner and – especially – in voice. (It’s a quality that also makes him a great villain.) His is one of those warm, enveloping sounds that does so much more than merely honk or bellow, but offers sonorous drama and clear delivery. Quite the combination.
Photo: Sussie Ahlburg
Despite the late start, Sherratt has enjoyed a busy career with appearances on both sides of the Atlantic (Metropolitan Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lyric Opera Chicago; Teatro Real de Madrid, Opernhaus Zürich, Wiener Staatsoper), with a concentration of work in the U.K. (Garsington Opera, BBC Proms, Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North), performing a diverse array of repertoire, including the villainous Claggart in Billy Budd, Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Geronte di Ravoir in Manon Lescaut, Trulove in The Rake’s Progress, Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Fafner in Siegfried, a role he’s set to reprise in concert with the London Philharmonic in 2020.
Currently Sherratt is performing as Sarastro, in a Barbe & Doucet production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Glyndebourne Festival, a venue in which he’s performed frequently over the years; he appeared in both Der Rosenkavalier (as Baron Ochs) and Pelléas et Mélisande (as Arkel) there last summer. In the autumn, he’s scheduled to sing the role of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni at Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In our recent wide-ranging chat, he shared fascinating insights on the distinct joys of Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Strauss, the differences performing in big and small houses, and the ways he’s kept his in voice in tip-top shape. Sherratt is also, it must be noted, one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with, which makes his brewing onstage presence all the more fascinating.
How are things in Glyndebourne?
It’s fifteen minutes away from my house, so it’s a local gig for me. We’ve only lived down here five years, even before then it was always my favorite place to work, because it feels like family. The setting is amazing, and I’ve been in good productions. The house is the perfect size; it’s not too big. You don’t feel you need to shout your head off the whole time. The acoustic is great. And, I know everybody. It feels like home.
You recently marked your 100th performance as Sarastro. A lot of singers I talk to say Mozart is like a massage for the voice.
It is. Precisely. If I can sing Sarastro well, with legato and simply – not signing loud – if I can do this, then I know I’m in good shape. Because at my age and everything, you can just end up doing loud all the time.
It’s what a lot of basses do.
Yes but Mozart is really a balm for my voice, and good discipline too. People might think, “Oh, it’s just another Sarastro” – no. If you want to do it well, with really good line, and make it beautiful, then you have to offer something else. It can take me a couple weeks just to pare things down a bit – you don’t have to bellow; it’s just brushing through voice. We’ve done a few shows now. I haven’t really sang anything lately; after Billy Budd (as John Claggart) I took a month off for holidays, and then I did (Die Zauberflöte),. Now my voice feels in the best shape it’s felt for ages, fresh and bubbly. I keep thinking, “Oh, this is nice!”
The 2019 Glyndebourne production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)
You know my career started late – I started when I was about 36, 37, so I had to squeeze an awful lot in the last ten or fifteen years, and I did my first Sarastro at the ENO in 2004, and I learned that translation, but what was distressing and surprising was the fact it was a whole new translation this time, and I couldn’t get this new one in my head. I kept coming out with great chunks of the old one, which was funny and a bit alarming for everybody in the cast. I’d done that production, by (Simon) McBurney, twice before. I remember him saying in rehearsals, “Remember, Mozart was a genius, but Schikaneder wasn’t!” Sarastro is so difficult to play – there’s no journey. Whatever production (of Die Zauberflöte) I’m in, I bring my own human approach to the role.
Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting his final concert in Japan, 2017. (via)
I’ve sung (the role) three times now. It’s amazing music, I love it; Mussorgsky gives you lots of time and space as a singer. The first time I did it years ago was in English, in a new production with Ed Gardner at the ENO. In a way it was good for me; I got to know the measure of the part, and in my own language. The next time I did it in Russian, and it was with an entire cast of Russians, with Rozhdestvensky conducting, and that was terrifying. Oh my God! It was sheer luck I did my first one in Russian with him – honestly, just terrifying! At the end of the first week, he said, “Can I say to you, Pimen has 888 words and 868 of yours are really great.” And he also said, “I love you as an artist.” That was the first positive thing anybody had said to me all week, and I thought, “Well! I’m okay then!”
I was scheduled to sing (Pimen) in Munich back in 2014; after about day four of rehearsal, my throat started to feel strange, and I thought, “What’s this?!” Then my voice went… boom. The day before the sitzprobe I really could barely speak and I thought, “Oh, not now!” – and that was to be my debut in Munich. And the next day I couldn’t sing a note – not a note. I went to see the voice guy and he said, “I think you’re coming down with something. You won’t be singing it first night, everything is congested.” So I went home, because the next show was five days or so later. I never went back. I had such terrible bronchitis, and I couldn’t sing a note. So that was an abortive debut. They asked me to do it again in 2017 and I was busy, so this is the third time lucky – I get to do Pimen in Munich, finally!
Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflote. (Photo: Bill Cooper)
I was speaking with a singer recently who noted the differences between big and small houses, and the aspects of singing in each of them. There is this assumption that because you’re a bass you can just sing loud.
I sort of feel Glyndebourne is wonderful that way – because, for instance, I did Billy Budd about five or six years ago in there, and I don’t like doing loud roles in a house that size. If I’m going to do big music, I like a big house; you can just chuck your voice out there. There is always a feeling in a smaller house that it’s a bit much. But with the big house, for me it’s about clarity, not the amount of muscle you put on it. I’ve been in rehearsal with voices and thought, “Wow, the room is shaking here,” but onstage it’s a different ball game because it’s just the clarity that makes you carry over in the big house. I’m slowly learning.
When I started to do bigger roles in the opera house the feedback was, “Oh, your voice isn’t big enough for the house,” so I tried singing everything really, really loud, and my voice got too heavy, too thick, and I lost the top, so I went back to the drawing board and thought, “No, I don’t want to go this route, I’ll have a short career,” so I reworked, things, kept the vocalise going, and tried to keep as much sound in the head as I can. If I listen to people I admire, like Furlanetto. At 69 his voice has so much ring on it. He sings huge, but it’s beautiful, and that’s my goal: I want to make it clear, and so that it means something rather than just standing there like, “Listen to me!”
You’ll be going back to The Met – a very big house indeed – a few times next season, doing Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro.
They said, “Come do Bartolo” and I thought, it’s nine performances in a month – yes, I’ll do that, and I do like being in NYC. When you go onstage and see the space, you think, “Oh I’ve really got to honk!” Now I realize it’s more about the ping on your voice than anything else. You’ve got to keep it clear, then you’re fine.
Like we said, Mozart is a good massage for the voice. But you mentioned something a while ago about the importance of coaching…
I was chatting to Gerry Finley at the time, saying, “I’m not singing right, I’m not happy with this” and he said, “Go see Gary (Coward) for a few sessions.” Gary was a singer in the chorus in the ENO for years. I sang a few things for him and he said, “There’s nothing wrong at all, you just got a bit thick and heavy,” so he prescribed some vocalise – singing just over the middle of the voice, never singing loud, and I just worked that into my routine, and I got it back, and I sang the St. Matthew Passion arias, and a lot of Handel. I still do, just to keep the flexibility going and the voice moving. I’ve noticed it, certainly with basses: there’s this assumption you don’t need to warm up that much. But I do quite a bit – I can’t abide going out there and just “AHHH!” I want to still be able to sing the Matthew Passion arias. That’s what I did to get my voice back on track. Just to keep the head voice going, and the flexibility.
Yours is a very flexible voice; it’s one of the things I noticed first in hearing you.
My voice just gets into this “uhhhhh” rut if i don’t do it. I did Ochs (from Der Rosenkavalier) at Glyndebourne, and that was a role where people said, “You’re not an Ochs! You’re the wrong voice; you’re the wrong shape” – but you know that (role) really helped my voice hugely, because it’s all moving around, it goes up to F-sharp and down to C. That was a period when I was singing the best I’ve ever sung; everything had to be there every night and it was, vocally. It was almost like Mozart, really. I said to my agent, “I want to do this a lot, while I still can.” It’s nice to have that fun on stage. John Tomlinson said to me, “Do as many Ochs as you can – do the happy roles, the fun roles; that way you can sing them all again when you get old, because you won’t be stuck with low stuff, stuck in one position. ” Use the whole voice, up and down; that’s really important to me.
What about lied?
Tomorrow I’ve got an afternoon with Julius Drake. He came, bizarrely, to Billy Budd and the Ring I did, and Alice Coote – she’s an old friend – had said to him, “Hey, work with Brindley” so he said to me recently, “Come to my house and we’ll spend an afternoon going through stuff.” I said, “I was a choral singer for fifteen years, then went straight into opera, so lied is not that much of my knowledge and experience.” He said, “For two hours we’ll try a load of stuff.” I did do “Songs And Dances Of Death” with orchestra a few years ago, and I did Strauss songs with orchestra. If I can find the right color and the right song, then I would love to do more of it. To sing in a more intimate setting I need somebody skilled at it, who knows me, then we can work out what’s best for my color. It’s like going back to school, like, “Let’s start with a blank page.” And I have a dream: I want to do Winterreise. I’m not known as a recital singer, but I’d like to get that going.
Vasily Petrenko was between sessions when we spoke recently, juggling recording all the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Boris Giltburg (for future release on Naxos Records), with new season announcements, an upcoming London performance, and recent news of his Met Opera debut this autumn.
The chatty Saint Petersburg native is indeed busy. He has many titles: Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra; Chief Conductor of the European Union Youth Orchestra; Principal Guest Conductor of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia. In 2020 he steps down as music director of the Oslo orchestra (a position to which he was appointed in 2013-14); a year later, he leaves his position with Liverpool as well, though his long-standing relationship with the RLPO (he will have been with then fifteen years by then) will continue with Petrenko becoming Conductor Laureate. All of this movement is very much done with purpose: at the start of the 2021-2022 season, Petrenko becomes Music Director of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He’s set to lead his first concert with them since the announcement was made of his appointment last July; a highly-anticipated program featuring the music of Brahms and Strauss unfolds next month at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
With numerous accolades, awards, and a sizeable array of acclaimed recordings and appearances, Petrenko is, and has been, a man on the move since his early days in Russia, studying at the St Petersburg Conservatoire and participating in masterclasses with conductors Mariss Jansons and Yuri Temirkanov. The winner of numerous international conducting competitions (including First Prize in the Shostakovich Choral Conducting Competition in 1997), Petrenko received the prestigious Young Artist of the Year Award from Gramophone in 2007; a full decade later he was awarded their Artist of the Year (voted on by the public). He won the Male Artist of the Year at the Classical Brit Awards in 2010, and has appeared with a range of prestigious orchestras (including the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, NHK Symphony Tokyo, to name just a few), and festivals, including the BBC Proms, Edinburgh, Aspen, and Ravinia. Tomorrow and Sunday evenings (May 16 / 19), he leads his Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra (RLPO) in a series of concerts with cellist Alban Gerhardt featuring Russian repertoire (Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Kabalevsky), before jetting off to Norway for concerts with soprano Veronique Gens and the Oslo Philharmonic featuring the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, and Respighi.
Photo: Svetlana Tarlova
Lest you think Petrenko’s output is limited to symphonic work, think again. He has over thirty operas in his repertoire; in 2010, he appeared at both Glyndebourne (Verdi’s Macbeth) and Opéra National de Paris (Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), but more recently conducted staged productions of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Bayerische Staatsoper (2016) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at Opernhaus Zürich (2016-17). Concert performances have also been plentiful — of Verdi’s Falstaff with the RLPO (in conjunction with the European Opera Centre) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel (with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; both 2017). In November, Petrenko will make his Metropolitan opera debut conducting Tchaikovsky’sThe Queen of Spades, with a stellar cast which includes soprano (and 2015 Operalia winner) Lise Davidsen, with whom Petrenko has previously worked.
The maestro’s warmth and dynamism are palpable whether onstage, in recordings, or indeed, in conversation. His reading of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 with the Berlin Philharmonic in 2018 glowed with bold strings and ripe, round phrasing that warmly captured the work’s dancelike underpinnings; likewise his appearance last October at Cadogan Hall with the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”), where he led energetic if densely-woven performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the latter’s Symphony No. 2 being, as Bachtrack’s Mark Pullinger rightly notes, “as brooding, as melancholic, as passionate an account as you’d wish to hear.” Elgar’s Chanson de matin was the encore that evening, which was perfectly fitting, considering Petrenko’s recordings of the English composer with the RLPO (in 2015, 2017, and 2019; Onyx) are genuinely excellent. Petrenko’s reading of Elgar works gave me a whole new insight into a sound world I had always felt closed off from; there was something about the composer’s output that always seemed cold, distant, impenetrable. How wrong I was, and how deeply grateful I am for Petrenko’s readings; they brim a lively, warm energy, a keen forward momentum, effervescent textures and poetic nuance, underlining the joy, drama and humanity so central to Elgar’s canon.
Released in March of this year, Petrenko and the RLPO’s recording of the Serenade For String Orchestra, Op. 20 (together with the famous Enigma Variations) boasts gorgeous modulations, with an intriguing emphasis on the lyricism of the sparky cello and bass lines in the first movement (Allegro piacevole); the interplays and contrasts with a silken violin section that swells with operatic grandeur in the piece’s Larghetto, delicately swirling and swooping around a songlike cello section. It’s all so conversational and engaging, so dynamic and thoughtful, so casual and smart, all at once… rather like the conductor himself.
Between recording Beethoven Concertos, Petrenko recently offered a waterfall of insights on everything from the new seasons in both Oslo and Liverpool and the importance of new works within orchestral programming, to growing up in Saint Petersburg and thoughts on his Met debut later this year.
We do have a lot — in Oslo it’s the orchestra’s centenary year, so we have a lot of projects related to the anniversary, including outdoor concerts for 20,000 people and tours to mainland Europe and other places. We also have concerts which reflect the past, so there will be one exactly mirroring the orchestra’s first concert – we’ll perform what was performed in 1919. And there’s plenty there with Liverpool too, like with the Mahler cycle starting from January 2020. So that’s a lot of symphonies!
Oslo Philharmonic CEO Ingrid Røynesdal said the the centenary season had been built around the theme of “Yesterday / Today / Tomorrow” and will feature fifteen new commissions; what role do you see new works playing within future programming?
I think for audiences it’s a matter of trust for conductor and orchestra, that even if the public does not know the name of the composer on the poster, they are still coming because they trust it’ll be great music. Here in Liverpool when I started to perform Hindemith for the very first time, people didn’t know the composer and didn’t turn out. Some asked, “Who or what is a Hindemith — is it a skin disease?” Later I was insisting he be performed — I really admire his works, and think he deserves much wider recognition. It isn’t contemporary music but it’s music of the 20th century. And later the audiences started to pack the house, even for contemporary works, including his pieces. We did a few different things — chamber works, choral works. It’s a matter of trust. I tried to put other names back on the map, and did so, quite successfully.
Photo: Mark McNulty
It is, for a conductor and an orchestra, a duty; it’s a must. I feel really obliged to perform as much contemporary music as I can, especially contemporary music of the local place where the orchestra is based, so in Liverpool English composers, and in Oslo, regional composers of Scandinavia; if we won’t give them a chance, who will? If the piece is not performed, nobody knows if it’s good or bad, it stays virtual — but time and the public will tell which will be a masterpiece, which will be neglected or forgotten. I think the vox populi will decide over the years which pieces of music become masterpieces, but to give them a chance to decide, we have to perform them, so I’m always up to do new commissions and also to perform a piece a second or third time. Contemporary music is so often performed once and under-rehearsed at that — and then of course it’s not given a second chance, a second look; it can just go to the trash bin, which is not what it deserves. So for me I’m trying to find a way where you’re not performing a new piece for 200 people who think they’re gurus of contemporary music, but for a full house. To program that you have to be very careful; it’s just one item of programming which will also include a famous work, so the main and general public will come and then they can discover something new and be moved.
This is not even in the very contemporary vein, but this past January I did Sibelius Four, which is one of the less performed symphonies by him. It’s very dark and very profound and much more difficult to absorb rather than the First, the Second, or the Fifth; it was the main piece, and we were expecting that it would not be full, but a lot of people came, and they said it was the best concert of the season! So you have to be very brave, and believe in contemporary music, and in yourself, and do it as much as you can.
If you look into the history of many pieces which are now considered as masterpieces, their first (presentations) were not big successes. It’s only after the second or third run, when the orchestra is more familiar with a new piece, and it feels more musical and less technical for them, that they can they recognize it as good. I should confess to the marketing department that I’d like to perform a contemporary piece twice in same concert: once at the beginning; then whatever music in the middle; then again at the very end. That may give quite a different perspective for the public. It’s challenging because of the general strategy but maybe that’s how you can program (contemporary music) better than how it is done now.
Cadogan Hall. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
That brings to mind something you’d said to The Scotsman last year in relation to your new role with the Royal Philharmonic about using various London venues for various types of repertoire; that seems important within the broader context of shaping public perceptions of certain works.
With the Royal Philharmonic, we will be quite lucky, performing quite extensively at Royal Albert Hall, Royal Festival Hall, and Cadogan Hall. London does not have an ideal, let’s say, concert hall, but those three venues, they can cover different pieces. Royal Albert Hall, of course, is perfect for big symphonies — Strauss and the Don Juans, big Bruckner works, Elgar, Mahler, oratorios, and various potentially semi-staged operas — it’s a coliseum, it’s made for that. Then Royal Festival Hall is probably for the main romantic and post-romantic things, like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Britten, that kind of thing can be done there. And then Cadogan Hall is for pieces written earlier, like the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, ideally, or after, like neo-classical, contemporary music, with relatively small orchestras — that can work there very well also. So I think the variety of different pieces of music is related to the size and abilities of each hall.
And performing at a variety of venues is good for community-building, something you’ve been incredibly committed to throughout your time in both Oslo and Liverpool. For the RLPO, you told The Guardian in 2015 that you wanted to see the kids in the youth program become full-fledged members of the RLPO.
Yes in five or ten years — ideally, yes. I think for any orchestra to go into the society of the place they’re based and to be part of that community is very, very important. It’s a thing I’ve done here in Liverpool and I’ve done it in Oslo too — the orchestra and I are coming much more frequently into universities and such, sometimes I’ve done things like lectures, which they appreciate, and also I do all the pre-concert talks there before every single concert, either offstage or onstage, which brings people an understanding. It’s something which we always need to remember with any orchestra: we are there for the public; the public is not there for us.
Photo: Mark McNulty
Where did that come from, that urge to connect with community? Was it your background in Russia, and the way culture seems to be so woven into everyday life there?
I guess part of it came from Saint Petersburg, or Leningrad, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, growing up there was this sense of living in a very big village. It’s a huge city, five million inhabitants, it’s a city where every citizen used to know at least, how to get to a certain street, they knew the city extremely well and were ready to help each other, and literally were ready to talk to each other on the streets or wherever else, and that was also reflected in Philharmonic programs and at the Mariinsky and Kirov Ballet programs. Culture is a big part of Russian and Soviet society, and I’m quite glad that nowadays it’s sort of returned back, slowly, to the level of how it was in Soviet times.
With the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia and pianist Barry Douglas at Cadogan Hall in October 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)
You know, you can say a lot of bad things about the Communists, but the attention they directed toward culture was huge — in a good and in a bad way — but the profession of musician in the Soviet Union was one of the most prestigious professions of all, for many reasons — huge competitions, relatively good salaries by Soviet standards; it was highly prestigious. People were respecting a lot of the artists, the singers and the musicians; all the people of art. That had been neglected (after the fall of Communism) partly because it was much more business-oriented, but now it seems to me this way is being brought back slowly, so the Moscow Philharmonic, as an umbrella of organizations, they sell an incredible amount of tickets, something like 500,000 subscriptions or something. Those in Moscow and Saint Petersburg are very active in culture; it is a part of the common life to go to the theatre or the Philharmonic Hall and to other concert halls, to the opera — literally almost every citizen tries to go at least every other week, and it is a very knowledgeable public, a public who understands the values and the essence (of art), and I’m really glad that it’s continued.
So yes, probably, (the awareness of community) came from that point, the understanding that culture itself can improve the quality of life of everyone, of every individual — there’s a message that we are there to improve your quality of life, mentally, emotionally, physically, all sorts of things.
I’m not sure opera is perceived that way in some places, though. You’re in NYC in the fall, making your Met Opera debut with Pique Dame(The Queen OfSpades) — what ideas or approaches do you bring with you from Oslo, Liverpool, Petersburg…?
People quite often ask me, “What’s the difference between conducting an opera and conducting a conducting symphonic orchestra?” and I say: when you conduct an orchestra, you’re driving a car; when you conduct an opera, you’re driving a truck. You have to think about the size and your responsibility when you’re conducting opera, and how it’s different. Your ability is obviously different when you have just a small car; the maneuverability is bigger, of course you can turn and twist immediately. With a big truck, you have to think about where it will move, and you also have to think about others; however, with a big truck you can bring more goods. And so of course the difference is that you are in charge, probably, if not indirectly in opera, of many other people — not just singers, not just dancers, but for instance light engineers, curtain makers, you have to acknowledge and know many more things than just the music. It’s also about physics — where the choir is, how they’re moving — everything can affect the performance. On the other hand, with the music plus the visual aspects, you can have a huge emotional impact on the public, all of the visual details are much more direct than just the sounds, to your mind and to the minds of the listeners, or the viewers.
Inside the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
The Met is a very big house too.
It is a big house, and I’ve heard from many people — and this is what I’m saying to singers and to orchestras in other places which are big —that even if the house is big, quite naturally you start to play or sing louder, which is not necessary, because it leads to too-loud performances. So for me I want to find the balance and delicacy of the score, and in Pique Dame there are many delicate, quiet moments; probably the main climaxes happen in the quiet moments rather than the loud moments — the psychological climaxes — and so, we’ll work on those moments. If there is coherence between what’s going on visually onstage and what it says in the music, that can make an incredible effect.
In Salzburg last August, I was spoiled in seeing operas and concerts every day and night of my visit; I generally avoid this, as it not only hurts the brain, but robs the soul of some meaningful (and usually much-needed, in my case) contemplation, as well as necessary human connection and company. I like to sit between things and drink, write, and live: go to dinner, go to galleries, take long walks — but mostly, think, feel, absorb. Good music, well sung and presented, offers me big meal needing a slow digestion, which is best done in silence and sunshine, over wine or cocktails, with friends in lively talks, on walks through the woods with birdsong and breezes.
Alas, I didn’t get much time for any of that on a recent trip to New York City, where I saw four operas over a three-day visit, with various work-related things to complete two of the three day times. New York in winter is challenging enough; being exposed to so music, and so many ideas, presented a wholly unique level of emotional and intellectual heartburn. Then again, it was its own kind of binge, and I can’t say I’m sorry for indulging. All the operas I saw (Fidelio, Idomeneo, Romeo et Juliette, and La Traviata) left strong impressions in different ways, but what linked them all was the tremendously high quality of singing, and, in some cases, the intriguing smart approach to directing.
The Met’s revival of Fidelio, for instance (which closes tomorrow, Saturday, April 8th), was so good that I still recall (and am stopped in my tracks by) various images it presented. Beethoven’s sole opera revolves around a woman, Leonore, who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband Florestan, who is being held prisoner by a ruthless state governor, Don Pizarro. Many people not familiar with opera will be familiar with the famous “Leonore” overture, the third in a series of pieces Beethoven wrote in his frenzy to perfect the work. I have clear memories of seeing this opera at the Canadian Opera Company decades ago with my mother, and her writing an angry letter to the company after the production did not include this overture; to her, it was sacrilege, but of course, it was difficult to convey, in a diplomatic matter, that the habit of playing it as part of an opera production (usually just before the finale) had fallen out of fashion, for logistical as well as dramatic reasons. I still think of her, and in fact, did again this trip. Jurgen Flimm’s production, however, is so smart, and the performances so very engaging (particularly sopranos Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and Adrienne Pieczonka, who I am very much looking forward to seeing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Tosca), that I honestly didn’t miss that bit of nostalgia at all. Sorry, mom.
Fidelio bows (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Flimm, who is Director of the Staatsoper Berlin Unter den Linden since 2010 (and whose work you’ll be reading more about in a post later this spring) has placed the action of the work —traditionally set in late 18th-century Seville after the French Revolution — in immediately-post-WW2 Europe. In doing this, he uses imagery that some (especially those of us familiar with Holocaust photo documents) may find familiar; piles of shoes, for instance, along with other personal belongings, are piled into corners in the underground dungeon where Florestan is being held, the only signs of the vanished, the ranks of which Don Pizarro firmly plans his prisoner to join. Director Flimm gives a poignant commentary on the nature of power here, and how its abuse creates political discord which is expressed as a deep social malaise. Thus, relationships are given a distinct emphasis: those between employer and employee, prisoner and guard, father and daughter, husband and wife — and, more broadly, men and women. Everything is poisoned, and thus, everyone.
Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the way Flimm staged the interactions between Leonore (Adrienne Pieczonka), the prison warden Rocco (Falk Struckmann), Marzellina (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller) and Jaquino (David Portillo), an assistant to Rocco at the prison where Leonore’s husband Florestan (Klaus Florian Vogt) is being held illegally by Don Pizarro (Greer Grimsley). The stark contrast between the Marzellina/Jaquino and Leonore/Florestan relationships was highlighted at the ending of the opera, which, for all its raucous joy, had a satisfyingly bitter edge, with Flimm showing the corrupt Pizarro being led to the gallows by celebrating freed prisoners, and Marzellina’s look of horror as she realizes the “boy” she’d been infatuated with was really a woman; Jaquino is intent on harassing (or rather, bullying, in the manner of his old boss) the poor girl into submission, as she drops blood-red roses across the celebratory scene. Leonore and Florestan are hoisted in joy by the happy onlookers as Robert Israel’s stark set, with its unmistakeable gallows, looms over the proceedings, a grim reminder that the happiness on display is not only fleeting, but mixed with violence, the sort that its purer form (in the form of Leonore) sought to eradicate. It is a caustic ending that offers a fantastically smart and very timely non-conclusion to what many consider to be one of the most difficult works in the operatic repertoire.
Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo / Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera (via)
Less about production and far, far more about the singing in and of itself providing the drama, Mozart’s 1781 opera Idomeneo, featured a stellar cast that included soprano Elza van den Heever (whose work I so enjoyed last fall, when she performed the lead in Norma with the Canadian Opera Company) and tenor Matthew Polenzani, who is the recipient of a 2017 Opera News Award (which are being handed out in NYC this coming Sunday, April 9th). More than once during that Friday evening performance I found myself shutting eyes and throwing head back in sheer wonder at Polenzani’s marvelously emotive voice, his “Fuor del mar” in the second act a particularly heartfelt interpretation. (Sidenote: I am greatly looking forward to the revival of his Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore next season; expect a post about that.) Lindemann Young Artist Development Program graduate Yin Fang, who sang the role of Ilia, has a gorgeous, crystalline soprano, as well as a gracious stage presence that made her scenes with mezzo soprano Alice Coote (in a pants role, as Idamante, son of the title character) a joy to listen to. The 35 year-old production, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, was tasteful if homogenous — which was useful, because it allowed a pure experience of Mozart’s music, in and of itself. Maestro James Levine conducted a lustrous Met Orchestra that allowed for the score’s youthful vivacity to shine through, something the singers took full and glorious advantage of.
In the parterre. (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
Equally compelling was American theatre director Bartlett Sher‘s Romeo et Juliette, French composer Charles Gounod’s tuneful 1867 interpretation of the Shakespearean tale of the star-crossed lovers. The house was, I think, nearly sold out for this special closing show, which featured star turns from soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Stephen Costello in the leads. Yende is a highly watchable performer, her lilting voice as responsive and graceful as the fluters of her gorgeous Catherine Zuber-designed costumes; she shared an exceptional chemistry with Costello, whose wholly romantic rendering of “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil!” made more than a few of the ladies around me happily sigh. Making his mark in a small but pivotal role as Frère Laurent as English bass Matthew Rose (who I interviewed recently); his authoritative bass voice expressed a wonderfully nuanced range of emotions, and that, together with the way he cleverly used his physicality (Rose is very tall), suggested a touching paternal protectiveness of the young lovers.
Last but not least on my NYC opera whirlwind trip was Verdi’s La Traviata, perhaps one of the best-known of all works, though this staging was easily one of the most modern I’ve attended. The story, about a popular, if secretly ill, courtesan who finds real love and ultimately gives it up when pressured, only to tragically die (come on, you knew that was coming), is one of the most popular works in opera, with a very famous drinking song that everyone (yes, even you) knows and has hummed to once or twice. Directed by German theater artist Willy Decker from a 2005 production at the Salzburg Festival, the set principally consisted of a massive curved wall, with an overall design aesthetic containing strong German expressionist influences. Violetta’s place as an isolated woman who craves (and survives on) male attention was confirmed and re-confirmed throughout the evening, as was director Decker’s belief that Traviata is (as he notes in the program notes) “a piece about death”; by the end I felt as if I’d been continually hit with a large frying pan labelled Big Artistic Ideas. If it all seemed dramatic and theatrical, I suppose it was meant to, wiping away any lingering memories of traditional productions involving big dresses and fans, and I was actually quite pleased the performers put their whole passion into this endeavour, offering vocal interpretations that precisely matched the strong directorial vision. Its leads —soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta, tenor Michael Fabiano as Alfredo, and baritone Thomas Hampson as Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father) — delivered searing performances that were entirely modern and watchable, even, dare I say, cinematic, with Fabiano, especially, easily delivering, one of the most memorable (and applauded) interpretations of Alfredo I’ve ever seen; he wasn’t merely passionate about Violetta, but dangerously obsessive. The fact I found myself so impressed is, in retrospect, notable; this was one of my mother’s very favorite works, and I suspect I have seen it now many hundreds of times. I also suspect she would have, in her infinite Verdi wisdom, been as gaga over the performances as I was.
The set of La Traviata (Photo: mine, link / Please do not reproduce without permission)
La Traviata continues at the Met to April 14th, with Carmen Giannattasio as Violetta, Atalla Ayan as Alfredo, and, starting tomorrow night (Saturday, April 8th), Placido Domingo as Giorgio Germont. Go! Andiamo! You may not agree with all of Decker’s creative choices, but I guarantee you will come out with at least one strong image from this production seared into your brain (never a bad thing, ultimately), and with the brindisi — as vibrant a piece of music as ever — still ringing in your ears.
I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience — and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.
As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”
Russell Thomas and Anita Rachvelishvili in the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen. Photo via
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages — sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.
So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.
Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera’s Elektra. Photo via
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto; Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.
So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.
Days after seeing the Met Opera’s luscious production, I’m still mulling its beautiful marriage of images, design, music, and performance. Though there’s nothing wrong with pure delight and pure entertainment — they make so much of the world go round — seeing the Borodin work did much more than provide an escape from every day mundanities. Thoughts of Ukraine filled my mind, along with more personal reflections on events this past fall; I found myself questioning my relationship with power, both personal and professional, and the role of ego in compromise and defeat. Prince Igor isn’t just beautiful to look at; it’s simultaneously intimate and epic, with resonance in both the inner and outer aspects of existence.
A large part of the opera’s power (as directed and re-imagined by its talented director/designer Dmitri Tcherniakov) is derived through its depiction of war. Though the opera is based on a medieval Russian folk tale involving Igor going off to fight (and he believes, conquer) the Polovtsians, and subsequently suffering a horrific defeat, Tcherniakov was very selective (make that laser-pointed-strategic) in his use of on and offstage bloodletting. He used a combination of contemporary black-and-white video (using many fast edits and long pans), as well as grand set pieces, costuming, and striking makeup to depict the horrors of war — the loss of life, and the loss of self too. In this Prince Igor, they are very much the same thing.
What I found myself mulling over into the wee hours this past Saturday evening was Igor’s sense of himself, his relationship with other people, and the ways his identity are forced to shift after enduring cataclysmic hardship. Lead bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov is a thoroughly moving singer, and a very fine actor too; his expressive face, soft brown eyes, and bear-like physique reveal a man moving between identities, letting go of old ideas and comforts, shifting into far less safe, comfortable, places within himself. These changes aren’t fun or nice or the stuff of easy cliches; this is an Igor who is fallible, failing, heartbreakingly vulnerable, a man struggling with the chimera of ego that kept showing itself in various forms and fashions. He has to relinquish it entirely in order to rebuild, both literally and figuratively.
This transformation is hinted at through the wonder that is the Polovtsian dances, whose staging, in Tcherniakov’s assured hands, is nothing short of miraculous. Igor whirls around an immense, lush poppy field as human figures dance and undulate around him; it’s dreamy and poetic and earthy yet unearthly. The Met chorus are positioned in boxes close to the stage, allowing dancers to move about freely to the writhing, hypnotic, East-meets-West choreography of Itzik Galili and associate choreographer Elisabeth Gibiat. Igor’s face is one of delight and joy, as if he’s found refuge from the horrors of war and grandiose ambition. Yet we know it’s all an illusion; he’s hallucinating everything. It’s this knowledge that fuels the extraordinary power of the scene. How can something so beautiful be so far removed from reality? And why is reality so much harder and more hideous? Why can’t we stay in the poppy fields forever? Why can’t we whirl, Dervish-like, to the beautiful sounds and visions, forever and ever? It was fascinating to observe Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyka) being included in this scene, as if she represents a kind of authenticity and grounding he so desperately lacks. There’s a knowingness to her inclusion here, as if Tcherniakov wants to remind us of the power balances within intimate relationships, and to note how those balances translate in the wider world. To see a man of Abdrazakov’s physicality rendered so vulnerable before the wife whose advice he had earlier eschewed, is deeply moving and wildly important; even amidst the hallucination — or especially because of it — we see a more honest version of Igor that needs to show itself in the real world.
And it does, eventually show. You sense a deep transformation as Igor wanders, shell-shocked, through what was once his elegant, pristine palace in the final act, when it is a literal shell of its former self. He turns his back on the worshipful masses who herald his return, realizing worship isn’t what’s needed. He woke up, and in so doing, so did we. It’s precisely what his hubris hath wrought, this destruction. The very centrality of Igor’s mission — charging off to some distant victory you are so sure will be yours — has been destroyed; as such, so has Igor’s sense of identity. You can’t find yourself in something so far outside yourself, the production whispers, amidst its gloriously crashing choruses and pounding percussion; you can’t be inauthentic when the chips are down. It won’t work. Hell breaks loose. People die. A part of you dies. And somehow, in some horrifying way, that’s precisely how it should be.
If you get the chance to see Prince Igor either in-person at the Met or through its Live In HD series, go. You’ll mull relationships to power, ego, sacrifice and compromise. You’ll hear beautiful music. You’ll see some gorgeous/disturbing things. You won’t look at the news/your rulers/your lovers/your life the same way again. You will be haunted.