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Personal Essay: Curiosity In The Time Of Corona

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now).  The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.

That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types“What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.

Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person. 

Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.

Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works  impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?

Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)

Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art  itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not. 

Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with  figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, one heavy on Russian repertoire and featuring conductor Vladimir Jurowski and soprano Evelina Dobračeva. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning? 

Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring  but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production early design S. Katy Tucker stage culture theatre opera

Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

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Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production culture theatre opera rehearsal director music Ivany Debus McIsaac

Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production early design S. Katy Tucker stage culture theatre opera

Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

Vasily Petrenko: Paying Attention To Details

Vasily Petrenko conductor culture classical music Russian Met opera debut

Photo: CF Wesenberg

The last time Vasily Petrenko and I spoke was in a windowless room full of whirling fans. There’s still a feeling of summer in September in Bucharest, and this year’s heat was particularly intense; I was worried conditions in the Sala Palatului conference room would prove a bit too warm for a conversation about the music of Enescu, Bartók, and Torvund.

The busy conductor, a native of Saint Petersburg, was in town for two concerts as part of the hectic Enescu Festival with his Oslo Philharmonic, of which he is Chief Conductor. (My report on the festival featuring said interview is publishing in the upcoming winter edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Despite the heat, Petrenko was his lovely, chatty self, full of insights, observations, and charming stories. His concerts, with soloists Leif Ove Andsnes and Johannes Moser, respectively, were met with outpourings of loud cheers and happy shrieks, to which he jovially responded with a broad smile, playfully encouraging gestures (one hand, then another, on ears with matching eyebrow waggles and forward-leans), and energetically performed encores.

Vasily Petrenko conductor stage podium music classical orchestra Oslo Philharmonic Bucharest Enescu Festival culture Romania

At the Enescu Festival, September 2019. Photo: Andrei Gindac

That joviality was revealed again in a more recent conversation, this time over the telephone, with a bit of tags-and-snags at the start. “It’s a big building!” Petrenko exclaimed about the Metropolitan Opera, where he’s making his company debut leading a revival of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (also known as The Queen of Spades), featuring Yusif Ayvazov as the tormented Hermann and Lise Davidsen (also making her Met debut) as Lisa, in a 1995 production by Elijah Moshinsky. Based on the Pushkin novel, the work is set in Saint Petersburg and is a haunting love-gone-awry tale with strong elements of the supernatural, the sadistic, and the spiritual. The production opens tonight (November 29th) and will be broadcast live on Met Opera Radio on SiriusXM as well as streamed at the Met Opera’s website.

Petrenko is making his Metropolitan Opera debut amidst a raft of conducting duties. As well as being Chief Conductor with the Oslo Philharmonic, he is also Chief Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and European Union Youth Orchestras, and Principal Guest Conductor, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”). As of 2021, he becomes Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and has big plans for presenting the work of Mahler. His latest albums including a beautiful, sensitive recording of Beethoven’s First and Second Piano Concertos with pianist Boris Giltburg and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Naxos), and another (again with the RLPO) featuring the music of Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, Shchedrin, Mussorgsky, and Rachmaninoff (Onyx).

These are part of a vast discography comprised of  Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Strauss, Liszt, Szymanowski, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and more; when I interviewed Petrenko this past spring following the announcement of his Royal Philharmonic appointment, I swooned over the awesome beauty of his Elgar interpretation, writing the recordings “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.” That humanity is so palpable experiencing Petrenko live. It’s hard to overstate the warmth he brings to even the most brutal of scores, an innate beauty which allows the listener to experience deeper, more vivid shades and textures. Much of that comes down to a detailed approach, something Petrenko emphasized in this, our latest conversation, with him happily chatting for thirty minutes between rehearsal sessions at the Met.

Petrenko’s current experience in the Big Apple has not been without surprises. The Queen of Spades, meant to have been his New York debut, was temporarily placed to the side when Petrenko stepped in at the very last moment earlier this month to replace Mariss Jansons on the podium on what turned out to be the final stop on the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (BRSO) tour. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise, timing, and as it turns out, knowing Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 very, very well. Critics were effusive in their praise of the concert, with Musical America hailing Petrenko’s “palpable sense of musical storytelling” and noting his “hard-driven approach… added a welcome edge of hysteria to the suspiciously sugary main theme. A willingness throughout his reading to explore ambiguities often hiding in plain sight gave the rush to the finish a quality that was both exhilarating and appropriately double-faced.” The praise, however, doesn’t feed in to pressure, because as Petrenko explains, that feeling comes from a different and far more personal place. I’ll let him explain.

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Mariss Jansons. Photo: Martin Walz (via Berliner Philharmoniker)

Update: Maestro Mariss Jansons passed away on November 30th, 2019, one day after this feature was posted. On his Facebook page, Petrenko wrote about his experience with the famed Latvian conductor:

I have always felt like I am walking a little in some of the footsteps of Mariss Jansons: most tangibly in the personal and artistic footprints he left with his long and illustrious tenure at the Oslo-Filharmonien, where it is such an honour to be his successor, but he has been a defining and deeply beloved presence from my earliest days, attending his rehearsals and masterclasses in St Petersburg, and through his legacy of concerts, recordings, lessons and advice, that have always been a touchstone for me. Thank you, dear Maestro, for all you’ve given to us, for your smile, generosity and warmth, and for simply bringing all of your heart into our musical world. It was a joy to be able to make music last week with your wonderful colleagues in the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, although those circumstances are now framed with such sadness. You will always be alive in our memories, in our souls and in our performances.

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Larissa Diadkova as the Countess in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

How are rehearsals for The Queen Of Spades going?

We just finished one rehearsal and ready for another in forty-five minutes. It’s a lot of work as always and especially for the last ten days for so before the first night, so we’re all working hard at the moment.

And you were at Carnegie Hall too!

(Laughs) I was there yesterday just to listen… 

How did it happen that you stepped in for Mariss Jansons? You studied under him at one point, yes?

I grew up attending his rehearsals and concerts with the Leningrad Philharmonic, and later in the Conservatory I had Master Classes with him. I wouldn’t say we’re friends – there’s a big age gap between us and he’s from a different generation – but we spoke with each other several times and in some ways I’m following his path in Oslo, with the Philharmonic there.

What happened here is that after rehearsals here at the Met one day I came home, and had a phone call about midnight actually, asking if I could be available for the next day’s concert at Carnegie Hall. I said it would be my greatest honour to save the concert and to help with Mariss if he will not be able to conduct for the next day. They didn’t change the program, and luckily I know all the pieces very well – I had performed them many, many times – so it was a case of, let’s see what tomorrow brings and in the morning we’ll have a decision. So the next day I went to the Pique Dame rehearsals at the Met in the morning, and during that time I was brought the scores for the BRSO concert, and after that there was a forty-five-minute rehearsal with the (BRSO) in the evening, and then the concert. They are a great band, an incredible orchestra with a lot of incredible soloists – one of the top bands in the world – and, to their credit, they are also very flexible. I haven’t heard how Mariss interprets Shostakovich 10 with them so I guess I was doing it slightly different than he had done it on tour, but for orchestra to be able to follow with different interpretation almost without any rehearsal…  huge kudos to them. The chemistry happened very quickly between me and the orchestra. I think part of it is because there was no other option! It was a great pleasure to be stage and it was a good concert, and it was a good party after the concert! They’d had the last concert on their autumn tour and were departing back home.

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At Carnegie Hall, November 2019. Photo: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

So you got a direct taste of New York audiences through this.

It was a very warm audience, with a lot of cheering and applause. I visited Geffen Hall for a concert with the New York Philharmonic, in which Esa Pekka (Salonen) was conducting the other week, and I’ve seen things here in the Met too, and you always sense a lot of excitement with audiences and a lot of openness and cheering, which is always very nice for the artists.

How much of that creates pressure creatively?

I think talking about pressure… to me honestly, the pressure is always only about myself, it’s only about doing better than the last performance. It’s a sort of perfectionist pressure which I always have in my veins, and which I always feel in that sense.

So how does that translate into a house like the Met? 

It’s one of the largest opera houses in the world, and we are trying to do our best, listening to several performances of operas over the past few weeks. I’m also figuring out how to do things in the pit while balancing onstage action to allow the soloists and music to sound natural in such a big place.

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A scene from Act II of The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

You have an interesting personal history with this opera.

I was in it as a boy in the 1980s, as a member of the famous production at the Kirov Opera, because I studied at this special boys school, and several students from there were usually in this production as a choir, so I was one of the boys singing. There are a lot of memories. Later I did a production at the Maly, one of my first revivals was actually was at the Maly Opera Theatre, now the Mikhailovsky in Saint Petersburg, when I was working there; then I did a revival in Hamburg, so (Pique Dame) has been with me throughout my life. I think it’s one of the greatest operas ever written. It has so much meaning and passion, so much philosophical subtext. If you read the Pushkin novel, that’s one of the most incredibly written, equilibristic pieces of literature; it’s compact, it has all these E.T.A Hoffman-meets-Mephistopheles elements in it, and the history and the language, as well as the symbolic things, are absolutely incredible. Very few pieces of Russian literature within the short novel genre surpass this one by Pushkin.

How do you express all that in a production that is so well-known?

There’s always a place for some mystery and symbolism – the Countess breaking through the floor in the scene with Hermann, that’s a moment! Is it his vision? Is it real? When she appears at the end with the gambling scene, is it his vision? What happened with Lisa? There’s plenty of questions you have to answer for yourself. What is the main intention of Hermann? Is it cards alone or related to self-establishment? He’s a German person who lives in Russia in a very different society and deliberately decided to live there, even though it’s not the most happy life in the beginning, and where it leads him… there’s plenty of angles in this opera, and working with soloists and talking about all of this, with sections, and trying to find the right colors in the orchestration and the right balance in the orchestra itself, it’s one of the processes we’re in now.

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Photo: CF Wesenberg

How has your understanding changed, especially in light of your symphonic work?

Quite often people ask me what’s different between orchestral and opera conducting, and I think a while ago I found a good image, which is quite true: when you conduct an orchestra it’s driving a car; when you conduct opera, it’s driving a truck or big van. On one hand, driving a car is more manoeuvrable, also you all enjoy company of yourself and you’re not caring so much about certain aspects – you can do what you want, and quickly. When you drive a truck you should be aware of all the movements – the time and response of this big vehicle are paramount – but on the other hand, you can bring many more goods to the people. 

But you have to be more careful about delivering them.

It’s different, because opera has many more people involved, rather than in symphonic concerts. However, the principles are the same. Even in very loud moments, you have to be aware of the transparency of what the composer has written, and you must pay very big attention to all the details the composer put in the score, either in a symphony or opera, and then there is also that something which is beyond the notes: what is most important? What is this music written for? What are the emotions? The philosophic concepts? What is the impact on the audience? It’s not just quavers and semiquavers and quarter notes, it’s moving beyond that. We’re going this direction in both opera and symphony. And of course, when you work in opera, you aim to be careful of the balance between orchestra and soloists and choir. This production has such an incredible cast, each one is outstanding. I’m very lucky to have all of them onstage, and a great chorus too – they’re doing a very good job. I think we have one live broadcast too!

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Lise Davidsen as Lisa and Yusif Eyvazov as Hermann in The Queen of Spades. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So perhaps just a bit of pressure for that live broadcast… ?

I don’t feel pressure about that, really. Again, I’m more thinking about how musically it will all go together, and how I can deliver, how things can gel together – all the soloists, all the orchestra, and all the technicians. There’s a number of scenic effects, some moments when you have to wait or slow down the pace just to achieve the synchronicity between staging and music. It’s a classy production, I’d say. Saint Petersburg is one of the classiest cities in the world for its architecture, especially the Winter Palace – there’s no comparison to it around the world, it’s a unique creation of Peter The Great – so it’s the same feeling in a classy production. There are plenty of details but none of them is not necessary, all of them are very logical and in exactly the right places. 

Do you match that or build on it?

Both. In some places you have to match that, especially in a place where there’s big moving pieces onstage, you have to pace the music so it synchronizes with closings or openings of certain things at some points, on top of all the classical details. I’m adding articulations, for example in the Pastoral, which is written in the way going back into, not Baroque music, but earlier than Mozart; at the same time it’s music-making by Lisa and Pauline, who are playing these Mozart-type arias at home, so for that, there has to be, from the orchestra, this way of playing “a la Mozart” in some ways in terms of style. On the other hand, you still need the feeling they’re trying hard but not professional musicians, as they are not in the libretto; they are, in the tradition of aristocracy, learning music for entertainment, so on top of this classical scene, it’s figuring out how to enrich and give to the audience this understanding of a whole type of music-making within the scene.

How much is your approach influenced by your recordings?

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 is one of the most close to Mendelssohn and his territory – Pique Dame has this, a little bit lighter approach into the orchestration in general. During the recording cycle of the (Tchaikovsky symphonies) 4, 5, and 6 a few years ago I said to the orchestra, “Please, let’s not think of him only as this emotional, hysterical type – think about him as a man who spent actually at least three to four months outside of Russia, mainly in Italy, but also Austria, Germany, France – he opened Carnegie Hall!” He was a man traveling a lot and absorbing a lot of principles of other composers. And also there’s a lot of a German way of orchestrating in the symphonies and in Pique Dame. He used all the principles of orchestration of the time, he attended Wagner operas, he was a man who knew so much about the world tradition and that’s what makes him so unique; he had a pure Russian soul and a German way of orchestration, and that’s what I’m trying for in the symphonies, and in some places in Pique Dame

Too often Tchaikovsky’s music is presented in just one way. 

I think you can always find something new, even in the most played and performed score. I’m always trying to find the details, and get from the orchestra and singers something written in the score but probably obscured during tradition, because it is there you get to be very authentic. The devil is in the details, as they say. 

Especially in this opera!

So true!

Will this lead to more opera for you then? 

I hope to do more opera in the future than I was doing recently; I hadn’t done it simply because I was so busy with so many orchestras, but I hope for more productions in more houses.

And in-concert presentations also?

In-concert yes, we are planning a few things for 2020-2021… there are a few things, even some less-frequently performed operas but still great operas which are cooking at the moment. Stay tuned! 

Matthew Jocelyn: Interpretation Over Illustration

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Scene from the 2019 Oper Köln production of Hamlet. Photo: Paul Leclaire

Many people have mixed memories about studying Shakespeare. One of my strongest is coming to the famous tale of the gloomy Dane in high school, and an English teacher expressing shock at being able to spout lengthy scenes from memory. That awe quickly morphed into annoyance when my impatience with what I perceived to be a reductive approach made itself known in a typically boisterous teenaged way. “Would you like to explain this passage then?” my teacher asked testily. I took her up on that offer. Passion for the play would subsequently manifest in numerous essays, reviews, poems, and theatre experiences, including playing the lead myself in an abridged university production that seemed key to my calling as a theatre artist at the time.

Owing to an equal love of opera, it has always been a source of disappointment that I’d never heard a version that satisfied, or, to my mind (and heart), fully expressed Hamlet‘s beautiful, potent mystery – not until, that is, I experienced the work of composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn. Their Hamlet, with its nods to works like Berg’s Wozzeck and Strauss’s Elektra, is as much about the journey of the artist as it is about a gloomy Prince, and captures human connection (familial, romantic, inner) with every ounce of fraught complexity; the awful, awesome beauty of Hamlet‘s humanistic psychology pairing is very much a quiet, palpable force that creates momentum every ounce as much as it inspires contemplation. The theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone. I was (and remain) as much in awe of Jocelyn’s libretto as of Dean’s score; it’s a rare if precious experience to find both exerting such equal power, in such memorable and affecting ways.

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Photo: Tony Hauser

Canada-born Jocelyn is a well-known theatre figure in Europe. He’s directed numerous works, including the French-language premieres of Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel (Théâtre de l’Ecrou, Fribourg), The Love of the Nightingale and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (both Atelier du Rhin, Colmar), The Liar by Corneille (Stratford Festival), Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Atelier du Rhin) Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter by Tankred Dorst from his own translation, and Heisenberg by Simon Stephens (both Canadian Stage Company), as well as opera productions including Martinù’s Larmes de couteau and Alexandre Bis, Piccinni’s La Cecchina ossia la buona figliola, Boesmans’s Reigen,  Gluck’s La Clemenza di Tito, Chabrier’s l’Étoile (all for Opéra National du Rhin), Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus and Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten  (for Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Bruxelles), and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (for Oper Frankfurt). He wrote the libretto for La bal by composer Oscar Strasnoy, based on a story by Russian writer Irène Némirovsky; the opera was part of Die Trilogie der Frauen for Staatsoper Hamburg in 2010, which he directed and which also featured Schönberg’s Erwartung and Rihm’s Das Gehege. Jocelyn also wrote the libretto for Requiem, again with Strasnoy, and based on William Faulkner’s 1951 novel Requiem for a Nun; that work was presented in 2014 at Teatro Colón in Strasnoy’s native Argentina.

As well as being known for his directing and writing work, Jocelyn has also worked extensively behind the scenes. In 1995, he joined the Centre de Formation Lyrique of the Opéra National de Paris, where he developed and presented programming of semi-staged operas in the amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille. In 1998, he became Artistic and General Director of the Atelier du Rhin (Centre Dramatique) in Colmar, a position he would hold for a decade until being named as head of the Canadian Stage Company (2009-2018). In a 2017 interview with theatre writer Robert Cushman, Jocelyn was asked him about the style of theatre he’d hoped to encourage; one which “gives preponderance to the human body as a holder of expression“, he responded, adding that “(d)espite appearances, I’m a classicist.”

That classicist side was given wonderful expression with Hamlet, which had its premiere at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2017, in a production directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by former Glyndebourne head honcho Vladimir Jurowski. At the time, I wrote in my review for the national Canadian newspaper The Star that Jocelyn’s reordering the narrative added a dramatic immediacy; there’s a psychological closeness that was achieved within and through his smart, insightful writing, one that blended seamlessly with Dean’s varied, beautifully complex score.

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Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

It’s an integration I suspect has deepened with Jocelyn’s own production of the opera, currently on in Cologne. Together with conductor (and composer) Duncan Ward and the Gurzenich-Orchester Köln , Oper Köln’s production (which opened on November 24th) marks Hamlet‘s German premiere. The cast includes bass Joshua Bloom in the duel role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, baritone Andrew Schroeder as Claudius, mezzo-soprano Dalia Schaechter as Gertrude, soprano Gloria Rehm as Ophelia, and, in the title role, tenor David Butt Philip, who sang the role of Laertes at the work’s 2017 premiere and has since performed Hamlet as well. Jocelyn and I chatted as he was in the midst of rehearsals just before opening.

How is your production of Hamlet going?

It’s going well! It’s a big opera, a huge piece in terms of its concept and in terms of its requirements. It really stretches to the limit the resources of any moderately large opera house that takes it on. So we’re stretching to the limit the resources of Oper Köln, but it’s going for the most part really well. It’s been special to see it all come together.

How much are you thinking back to the production at Glyndebourne, not just stylistically but overall? How much has that influenced what you’re doing now?

From a stylistic point of view, not at all; it was a really beautiful production and a wonderful way to discover the work in the context of opera — it went on to Australia, and it’ll be at a few more places in the coming years too, but this is a very different reading. There’s a very different series of priorities of things to bring to the fore in this production. It’s funny, I sent a note to (original director) Neil (Armfield) the day before rehearsals began here, thanking him for having created such a beautiful narrative production, because it enabled and forced me to not do that. That’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to test the resilience of the work to a more metaphorical reading, to a parable of some kind. 

So this will be more abstract?

Yes, more abstract.

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Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

You’ve written libretti for other things but this feels different on a few levels; what’s it been like to direct Hamlet, and in Germany?

It’s interesting, I’ve always separated the works — the ones I did, La Paz, or Requiem for Cologne – when I wrote those, I wasn’t saying how I’m going to stage it; I was really trying to write a text that was going to inspire the composer and give the material needed for them, but this time even more so. Because it was Shakespeare and because it was Hamlet, and because I was not going to be directing it, I had a different kind of liberty in thinking things through and then offering them to Brett as material in which to work.

Doing it in Germany now… what’s marvelous about Germany is that they do, insofar as possible… there are resources that are made available. And there is a deep understanding of conceptual – more conceptual and more abstract – work. The audiences are looking for interpretation rather than illustration. And they’re looking for a clear perspective and a clear take, rather than a kind of more illustrative thing. So one feels a liberty working in Germany, in that it is perhaps more elastic than working for audiences that have a lesser habit of experiencing conceptual work. 

And a famous play like Hamlet doesn’t have the same cultural baggage in Germany as it might for English-language audiences.

Definitely, the play is well-known, and for an English audience, it’s very different than for a German audience because a German audience will know a half dozen lines or so, but an English audience will know, for the most part, a hundred different lines from Hamlet – even if you don’t realize they come from Hamlet! The story will be known more or less clearly, so the way in which the libretto twists the story and rethinks things at times, that’s going to be much clearer for an Anglo-Saxon audience than for a German audience, but the objective of the libretto is not to have the audience say, “Oh look! He took that line here and put it there!” or “Oh what a funny twist there!” It’s very much its own thing as a story.

So in a way, working for a German audience is wonderful because either they get it or they don’t, whereas an Anglo-Saxon audience is often thinking, “Oh, isn’t that funny, that scene goes here in opera whereas it goes there in the play!” It can become a bit of a treasure hunt for English audiences, which is not the goal, but it can have that effect on audience members who know the text extremely well.

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Photo: Paul Leclaire

So there’s a freedom working in Germany… 

Yes, it’s a huge freedom to work on it here – and also a good way of making sure that the story works on its own without being compared to anything. 

It’s not like you’re presenting Goethe!

That’s right!

What’s been your process working with the cast? 

This is a very actor-heavy – or acting-heavy – opera and production. It really is like acting Shakespeare. You have maybe a quarter or a fifth of the text, but every singer has the full text in their minds – they’ve obviously all read Hamlet before coming into rehearsal. It does require huge dexterity with text. It’s not a text from a Bellini opera, it’s Shakespeare, and every word in the libretto comes from Hamlet except for a couple of chorus passages, so there’s a need for total versatility with language, that tasting, that love of language – the French say “dégustation” – that absolute enjoyment of the language on the tongue and in the mouth.

And because we’re working on a very bare stage, relationships are key, because there’s nothing to hide behind, so the veracity of what the singers are experiencing and communicating to each other and receiving from each other is absolutely essential. We also don’t have huge amounts of time, but before hitting the set itself we had four weeks of time in the rehearsal room to really massage out the essential elements of the opera, the essentially elements of the text, and really explore the spatial relationships and dynamics between characters. And again, time is always the most precious ally one can have when trying to deepen the relationships which will work, whether musically or textually or dramatically.

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Photo: Alan Kerr

I would imagine Duncan Ward has been key to that also. 

Duncan is one of those conductors of his generation who is most adept at contemporary music. He’s extraordinarily well-read musically and extremely sophisticated and nuanced in his understanding of the score. He was in the rehearsal room from the second week onwards, and he’s been not only a terrific ally but partner and collaborator, and he is really going to be the one to bring the show to life every evening, because he’s got a wonderful relationship with the orchestra and a wonderful relationship with the singers. He is amazing at holding all these musical textures and musical fabrics together.

The libretto and the score are very intimately linked in this work; how has that intimacy changed in terms of your approach in directing? 

I think that we were very blessed, Brett and I, to come together over a piece such as Hamlet, and to have such similar tastes and such similar desires with regards to this work. There were some quite radical decisions I made as a librettist. I’d say the more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it; he could hear it. When you’re working with a composer, your chief goal is to write things that make him or her hear music and want to create a musical universe around it – so we were blessed in that sense.

In this production I’d say there are a few things that have changed: Brett has added a few bars of music – a few passages here and there, a little bit of chorus to a couple moments – and I added maybe two lines to the text. But I did this a year ago now so it’s in the new score, but there are things I felt had been missing in the original version, and I wanted to draw special attention to them in this version. I wouldn’t say things have changed; it’s more just the joy of rediscovering and taking full advantage of this marriage of text and music you were talking about.

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Scene from the Oper Köln production of Hamlet, 2019. Photo: Paul Leclaire

So not change so much as evolution… 

Yes, a good evolution. This piece is now out there, and hopefully what you’ve heard in terms of an integration of text and music is also heard by other opera houses and it gets produced around the world. Hopefully now it will be part of the 21st century repertory. We’ve been very lucky and very blessed; it went from Glyndebourne to Australia, and it will also be presented by a few organizations in the coming years. For a contemporary opera to have been done with so many houses within a few years of its creation is a pretty lucky thing! Obviously there is an appetite for cracking open this old chestnut and experiencing it in a new and hopefully pertinent way for the 21st century.

Andreas Homoki: Expanding The Language of Theatre

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Photo: Frank Blaser

There’s a certain logic to particular careers beginning in particular ways, especially ones that anticipate future pathways.

Oper Zürich Intendant and director Andreas Homoki is known for his strong creative vision, so it’s fitting that his own opera career didn’t begin in an quiet way, but with a work featuring big ideas and sounds, with Strauss’ monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten in Geneva in 1992; it went on to win the French Critics’ Prize upon its transfer to Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in 1994. As a freelancer, the German-Hungarian director went on to stage a myriad of works (by Gluck, Verdi, Mozart, Humperdinck, Puccini, Lortzing, Bizet, Strauss, Berg, and Aribert Reimann) for houses across Europe (Cologna, Hamburg, Hanover, Leipzig, Munich, Berlin, Basel, Lyon, and Amsterdam), before becoming Principal Director of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) in 2002; he ascended to General Director (Intendant) in 2004. Over the next eight years, Homoki, who hails from a family of musicians, helmed productions of Eugene Onegin, La bohème, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Rosenkavalier, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Bartered Bride, and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as giving the world premieres of two works on the KOB stage: the children’s opera Robin Hood by composer and singer Frank Schwemmer, and Hamlet by composer-conductor-pianist Christian Jost.

Homoki went on to became Intendant at Opernhaus Zürich in 2012, replacing Alexander Pereira (currently the outgoing sovrintendente of Teatro alla Scala), who had been in the role for over two decades, and who’d been responsible for bringing some much-needed pizzazz to the Swiss opera scene. Pereira also famously insisted on a myriad of new productions each every season. The company grew considerably under his leadership in terms of the ambitiousness of its stagings as well as its clout within the broader international opera scene. But as I wrote in my feature on Zürich’s classical scene for Opera Canada magazine last year, “if Pereira brought a cosmopolitan energy, Andreas Homoki brings a highly eclectic one.” Such eclecticism is frequently expressed in his choice of repertoire. Homoki has made a very conscious decision for the company to heartily embrace its past, fortifying ties with the city’s artistic roots and reminding audiences of the contemporary (and in many cases, theatrical) nature of the art form. Oper Zürich is where, after all, several important twentieth century works enjoyed their world premieres, among them Berg’s Lulu (1937), Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (1938), and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1957).  Der Kirschgarten, by Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn (based on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard) was presented in 1984 to inaugurate the newly-renovated house.

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Opernhaus Zürich. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Since his arrival in 2012, Homoki has staged numerous productions (Lady Macbeth of MtenskFidelio, Médée, Wozzeck, I puritani, and Juliette by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů), and helmed the premiere of Lunea by the celebrated Heinz Holliger, about the life and work of 19th century polymath poet Nikolaus Lenau. (One reviewer noted the production was “one of the season’s most unforgettable, if pointedly cerebral, musical encounters. Indeed, Lunea may well set the stage for the next generation of opera.”) In May 2020, Oper Zürich presents another world premiere, Girl With The Pearl Earring by composer Stefan Wirth, which will feature baritone Thomas Hampson as painter Jan Vermeer. In addition to creative programming, Homoki has introduced pre-performance chats as well as “Opera for all” live broadcasts at Sechseläutenplatz (the largest town square in the city), an initiative he began at the start of his tenure. Homoki doesn’t so much court risk as embrace expansion. “In the arts, everything less than the maximum is ultimately insufficient,” he noted last year, adding:

We as artists are increasingly caught in a balancing act between the demands of parts of the audience always wanting to see what they cherish and parts of the specialist press and opera world calling for new interpretations. We are sometimes pulverised by the conflicting expectations. My aim is to overwhelm the audience so much with the overall experience of opera that it actually forgets it’s even at the opera. This is admittedly a maximum aspiration but nonetheless achievable.

Such aspiration has manifest not only in terms of his repertoire choices, but within the approach he takes to stagings. Homoki’s wonderfully absurdist production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (conducted by Teodor Currentzis) was a million miles away from the bleakness that so often characterize the work’s presentation, offering a vividly surreal vision while simultaneously offering poignant insights about the fraught nature of human relating. Strong reaction doesn’t seem to bother him; Homoki’s unconventional if highly fascinating take on Verdi’s La forza del destino last spring was met with criticism, to which he said that booing “is often part and parcel of an innovative production. Particularly for productions that collide with traditional views. You have to live with it.” By contrast, Homoki’s commedia dell’arte-meets-puppet-theatre vision of Wozzeck (first staged in 2015) was met with high praise, one review observing “a finely honed production that follows its premise to an absurdist conclusion with slick theatricality and dispassionate zeal.” It will enjoy a revival at the house in February 2020.

This force of his vision extends far beyond his own projects. “I don’t hire directors who are not able to surprise me,” he commented in 2018. Zürich audiences were certainly treated to surprise or two last autumn, with highly unconventional productions by Barrie Kosky and Kirill Serebrennikov. Kosky, the current Intendant of KOB, brought a highly unique and psychologically unsettling staging of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten to the stage. Together with conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the production offered a decidedly different vision to the ones previously presented in Munich and Berlin; whole scenes, characters, and large swaths of the score were entirely excised, with the results sharply divided audiences and critics alike. Serebrennikov, the recently-freed Artistic Director of the Gogol Centre in Moscow,  presented Cosi fan tutte (led by conductor Cornelius Meister) not as a romantic comedy but as a dark drama, with the male leads having been killed in battle when the production opens. Homoki hired Serebrennikov after seeing the Russian director’s staging of Salome for Oper Stuttgart in 2015 and his The Barber of Seville for KOB a year later. Last fall, Homoki strongly stood by the Russian director as he tried to helm Cosi in Zürich while still under house arrest in Moscow, telling a Swiss media outlet, “I could not let down this man I consider innocent.

Last month Homoki and his efforts were recognized when Zürich won Best Opera House at the inaugural Oper Awards in Berlin, with the eight-member jury commenting that “(t)he director’s intuition for new, innovative directors, the commitment of the best of the established and the consistently top-class cast of singers with exciting debuts make the Zürich Opera House under Andreas Homoki a most worthy address.” The Intendant himself commented that the award was “an incentive to live up to one’s own expectations” in future. It remains to be seen if he’ll live up to those expectations this season, which promises to be a busy one, but the director seems determined to give his all. His older productions of Hänsel und Gretel, Rigoletto, and La traviata are to be staged this season at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Hamburg, and Oper Leipzig, respectively, and his new production of Gluck’s Iphigenia en Tauride will be presented in Zürich in early February. The house will also host a raft of his revived productions, including Nabucco, Fidelio, and Lohengrin, and Wozzeck. In addition, Homoki returns to the Komische Oper Berlin, where he’s set to direct Jaromír Weinberger’s 1926 romantic comedy Schwanda der Dudelsackpfeifer (Schwanda The Bagpiper) – a so-called “ode to Bohemia” – which opens in March.

A quick note for clarity: owing to flight mishaps, Homoki and I weren’t able to actually speak on the telephone but Homoki did kindly offer thoughts via email.

A question for many leaders in the opera world has been balancing new work with old favourites. How much of a challenge have you faced in presenting contemporary works at Opernhaus Zürich? 

The Zürich Opera has the great advantage of being able to produce nine new productions on the main stage per season — and entirely on its own. This allows us to offer a broad programme, which includes all periods from early Baroque to the contemporary. We therefore present at least one contemporary opera, if not a commissioned world premiere, plus usually one piece of the twentieth century. We are actually obliged by the government to commission at least one new opera for our main stage every second year, which we are happy to do!

However, we have to be aware that contemporary operas do not attract the same audience figures as major repertoire titles. We therefore program contemporary titles a little more carefully with less performances and special marketing.

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At the inaugural Oper Awards in Berlin, September 2019. (Photo: © Kathrin Heller)

How closely do you work with conductors? Does it differ between individuals? I find the dynamic fascinating because so much of the energy of that relationship is felt onstage. What’s your approach?

It is during the rehearsal process when the collaboration between conductor and director gets important as it affects the detailed work with the singers who have to merge both musical and dramatic aspects to shape their stage character. It’s therefore important to verify beforehand that both tend to a similar point of view with regards to the staging. This also refers to possible changes in the musical shape, such as cuts or special versions of certain operas. However, the conceptual work of the director is much more time-consuming. Another important partner for a director at the very beginning of his considerations are his designers, since the stage design is part of the overall production concept, which is created at least one year before the start of rehearsals.

I work with Dmitri Tcherniakov (Oper Zürich: Jenůfa, 2012; Pelléas et Mélisande, 2016; The Makropulos Affair, 2019) because I like good directors who are not only able to develop their own strong vision of a piece but are also capable of creating lively characters that interact on stage in a credible way. This may sound simple, but there are few directors who put emphasis on both.

How important has been it for you to put  your own stamp on things? At Komische post-Kupfer, and Zürich post-Pereira, audiences & company personnel tend to have strong opinions about “the new person” and what they perceive he/she will bring.

I had the advantage that my two predecessors had been in office for over twenty years. The situations were due for change, which was also noticed by the media. In the case of Komische Oper, however, it was a difficult task, since the necessary changes were not only related to the aesthetics of the productions, but above all, to changes in management, such as the establishment of reliable controlling structures, modern marketing and much more. The introduction of such new structures always causes fear and resistance in a company, especially if one regards the Komische Oper as the former flagship of East German music theatre. Keeping the project on track was much more difficult than expected, but in the end, our efforts paid off and when I left I was able to hand over a much more efficient Komische Oper to my successor.

Artistically, my main goal (at KOB) was to improve the musical quality and expand the actual theatrical language of the theatre, which was previously more like a showroom of the responsible director. My approach was to form a group together with strong colleagues who all followed a similar philosophy, which, in turn, would shape a new aesthetic of the house on a larger scale. We were fortunate to have the young and promising Kirill Petrenko as chief conductor and — perhaps even more fortunate for the house — I found Barrie Kosky, who had previously only worked in Australia, as one of our regular guest directors. I was glad that, nine years later, he took over the company as my successor.

In Zürich it was more a question of restructuring production processes by reducing the number of new productions from twelve to a much more reasonable, but still quite high, number of nine productions per season. My predecessor focused more on conductors than on directors. So I was able to introduce a new and interesting group of exciting directors who had never worked here before. The directors were surprisingly well received by an audience that proved to be very curious and enthusiastic.

What’s the role of politics in art for you? Your production of David et Jonathas, for instance, has a very affecting subtext which seamlessly blends the personal & the political.

The theatre has always been concerned with conflicts between the individual and society. Even though our societies have developed strongly towards individual freedom, certain conflicts remain timeless and return with each generation.

As a director, when you try to transform the original scenery into something new and contemporary, you have to be very careful and consider every possible aspect that might lead to contradiction in your own concept. If you make a wrong decision, the work will resist. So every production is a new adventure.

Fellow Hungarian cooking question: to cook goulash in the oven or not? I do this, to very nice results.

Goulash in the oven? Never thought or heard of it, but it sounds intriguing though. I have to try it next time.

Lera Auerbach: “It Only Matters If The Connection Happens”

composer conductor artist poet Auerbach Russian

Photo: N. Feller

Lera Auerbach is inspiring, and at first glance, more than a little intimidating.

A multi-talented artist, the Russian-born, US-based artist has a range of creative talents: she paints, she writes poetry, she conducts, she is a pianist and a composer. Auerbach’s relentless creative expression is epic in its scope but equally intimate in its manifestation. Gramophone’s Stephen Mudge has rightly observed that “(h)er texts have a universal dimension, rejecting religious dogma in favour of global spirituality” and though written in relation to Auerbach’s awesome, overwhelming Requiem (Dresden: An Ode to Peace), premiered in February 2012 (on the occasion of remembrance of Dresden’s destruction on February 13, 1945), it’s a feeling well applicable to large swaths of her oeuvre. Her works feel incredibly personal, as if one is peaking into a diary, and yet call to mind a very cosmic, broad sense of universal human experience. Her output includes chamber music, symphonies, requiems, concertos, solo piano work, and operas, and she’s worked with a range of gifted artists, including violinists Leonidas Kavakos, Hilary Hahn, Daniel Hope, Julian Rachlin, cellists Alisa Weilerstein, Gautier Capuçon, choreographer John Neumeier (with whom she has created three ballets), and organizations like Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Staatsoper Hamburg, Lincoln Center, Nuremberg State Theater, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, the Netherlands Dance Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, and the National Ballet of Canada.

The aforementioned Ode to Peace, written when she was composer-in-residence with the Staatskapelle Dresden, incorporates forty language and integrates elements of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Its final movement is based on the famous “Dresden Amen” (a sequence of six notes sung by choirs during religious services in  since the early 1800s), a pattern used by Bruckner and Wagner as well, which the composer herself sets in six prayers within the framework of a large fugue. She told Opera News in 2014 that “when you face the abyss, that’s when your true self emerges.” Along with Dresden, Auerbach has been composer-in-residence with São Paulo Symphony, Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa, Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra, MusikFest Bremen, and Norway’s Trondheim Chamber Music Festival, which, as you’ll read, hosted a deeply memorable experience of her acapella opera, The Blind. Written in 1994 when Auerbach was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, it received its premiere in 2011 in Berlin, and was subsequently staged in New York in 2013 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck (the man behind Pelléas et Mélisande), Auerbach’s opera necessitates its audience members being blindfolded for its one-hour duration. The work is a good example of the kind of fearlessness with which Auerbach approaches her work, and the fearlessness she hopes audiences bring, or at least, a quality she, as a creator, hopes to inspire.

The all-piano album Preludes And Dreams (2006, BIS Records) is equally fearless in terms of scope, virtuosity and emotional weight, and is a particular favorite of mine. With its haunting blend of classical (snatches of Beethoven’s Fifth are clearly discernible in some passages), Russian (Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, and Shostakovich), and early 20th century sounds (notably Kurt Weill as well as Schoenberg), it is at once melodic, dissonant, lyrical, and jarring, Auerbach writes (and performs) gripping combinations of eerie chords and sweeping, symphonic runs. The album is a good example of her approach: take her or leave her, but you cannot forget the forcefulness of her expressivity. As has been rightly noted, she “isn’t trying to do a backflip in order to please an audience.”

Exploring the sheer volume of her work the last few months left me feeling a little daunted at the prospect of meeting her at this year’s edition of the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, where she led a concert of her works with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra. As it turns out, I had little to fear. In person, Auerbach is engaging, charming, and very intense conversationally; she looks right into one’s eyes as she comfortably offers waterfalls of personal insights and thoughtful observations. With strong opinions on audiences, expectations, and engagement, Auerbach’s combination of committed artistry and earthy personality mean she’s constantly in demand: she’s currently in the U.S. with stops in California, Iowa, and New York, returns to Europe mid-month for performances in Germany and Belgium, then returns again to the US, and then again back to Europe. It was a blessing to catch her between gigs in her busy, buzzy creative life, and certainly offered a whole new way into the art of an immensely fascinating figure in contemporary music and art. Confident, yes; intimidating, no. Excelsior, Lera.

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Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestrat at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

What’s been your experience working with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time?

We have had a great time together. I really enjoy this orchestra – they’re very serious, committed musicians, very creative. It’s been good music-making, with a good attitude. I really enjoyed it.  And it’s special for me, because normally when I come to conduct, it’s usually standard repertoire – sometimes, depending on the program and presenter – but at the Enescu Festival it’s an entire concert of only my music, which is very special.

What does that feel like? Are you overwhelmed, excited, nervous?

It depends on the particular circumstance. Here, when you meet musicians who are focused and serious and want to do their best, it makes everything very easy, actually. I get up on the podium and I feel at home, even though I’ve only just met them. You can tell from the first rehearsal, the attitude, the quality. In some ways, it’s weird to say it’s been easy, because making music is always complicated and challenging in many ways, but as long as life doesn’t get in the way – things that are not musical don’t get in the way – then it’s good, and that’s the case here. In the first half of the program there are soloists from the Boulanger Trio, which is also wonderful, and in the symphony there’s a part for the solo theremin with Carolina Eyck, one of the greatest theremin players in the world. It’s been a very fruitful time, but yes, it’s been intense – we only had a few days to prepare the program, but it felt creative and immediately with the right chemistry.

That’s a blessing, especially when the timing is pressed.

And it’s usually pressed, it’s a question of how it’s passed.

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Lera Auerbach leads the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2019 George Enescu Festival. Photo: Andrada Pavel

But so often chemistry is something you can’t totally create – either it’s there or it’s not.

Yes and no. There are times when you walk in front of an orchestra and the moment you walk in you see people looking at you like… you are the last person they want to conduct. And there is still a lot of prejudice against women conductors and composers, and against contemporary music. They’d rather do a Beethoven symphony for the zillionth time and couldn’t care less about doing anything creative. But, what I believe is, in every musician, there is always some inner magic which led this person to become a musician in the first place. Orchestral jobs can be frustrating; sometimes it becomes a routine for some people unfortunately, but you can always connect to this magical place which led this person into creativity and being in music. You can break the walls. So when they realize that you’re there not for some ego boost, you’re not there to tell them what to do or how to play their instruments, you’re there actually for music, and that your only wish is to create the best performance together – they connect to this. You can overcome the most skeptical players, you can really unite them into and bring music-making together and forwards.

The experience of music also – the way it’s experienced – is something you directly examine in many of your works. You force people to rethink things they take for granted, like how they experience sound.

Yes and why we do, and the reason for going to concerts.

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Photo: N. Feller

You really seem to understand and appreciate the role of theatre. Is that consciously something you’re thinking about when you create, or does it naturally seep in?

I think any performance, whether it’s purely concert music, abstract, or actual theatre work, any act of performing has a certain quality of being a ritual. There is a certain theatricality. The moment you walk onstage, we can say, “Oh this is pure music… ” but the moment you’re onstage, it’s theatre. And by “theatre” I mean, it’s a reality that can transport the audience somewhere else. The moment you’re onstage, you’re communicating something to the audience, whether it’s a concrete message or an abstract idea, but you need to tell a story –even though the story may not be in normal sentences. It’s a story of emotion, of connection, of memories, it’s something that goes into the subconsciousness. Any type of art is a form of storytelling; one way or another, we cannot escape it. So even the most abstract forms of art, such as music ,are forms of storytelling, because they need associations and audience members. There is no way to avoid it, but there is a way to increase it. And I think that’s what going to concerts is about: connecting to something within yourself, your own story you still don’t know or remember or need to discover, and this is why it can bring tears or joy or whatever. If you think about it, it’s somewhat absurd: you go to the hall and hear these vibrations in the air which is music. All it is is vibrations in the air! And all of sudden you start crying or you’re so moved, or maybe you’re disturbed, or questioning reality, but it’s all happening because of this connection.

The live experience is so intimate that way – I find I sometimes literally feel those vibrations from the floor, the seat, all around me. There is something transcendent about that, but at the same time, very personal.

That’s true.

It’s interesting what you said about storytelling too. I teach radio documentaries every winter, and I always remind my students to tell a story in sound, don’t just use talking to do it. Some audiences just want a straight oratorio, opera, to be told how they should feel and when. 

I think audiences are audiences; they’re a group of humans who come for different reasons. Some come because maybe they want to be seen in the theater. Some come because they love music. Some come because they’re curious or because somebody gave them tickets. The reasons that bring them can be very different, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because you can create this transcendental experience or maybe something that opens doors, I would say, because ultimately it’s up to the person who’s experiencing it, what sort of a journey it will become. Maybe somebody who isn’t prepared but has curiosity and has done some research can appreciate certain qualities on a different level, but again, it almost doesn’t matter; it only matters if the connection happens or not. If it’s a boring concert or maybe not the most generous performance, if it is not really connecting the audience, then it can maybe do more harm than good. It’s individual.

I hate to say this audience is better than audience. First of all, one never knows  who is in the audience. Secondly, I had an experience with The Blind – we had an experience in Norway, it was done during the Trondheim Chamber Music Festival; there were different dates for different audiences, and one concert was specifically for teenagers. It was high school students, regular high school, and the stage director, he kept saying, “It’s going to be a total disaster! How do you make room full of tenagers not to peek through a blindfold for one whole hour?” Because the moment you remove it you lose the experience of it, but I tell you, they were the best audience of all! Not only did they keep the blindfold on, they didn’t want to leave afterwards. They stayed for another hour after it ended; they had so many questions about the production. They were so excited, and they were regular teenagers – not music students, not artsy – just normal, and they were the best they were completely quiet, mesmerized. I think it’s an act of arrogance to look down at any audience; it’s up to us to transport them into this realm.

When I interviewed Vladimir Jurowski last year, he had this smart phrase, “expectation of ecstasy.”

One of the most memorable premieres in my life was one he conducted, which was of my requiem, “Ode To Peace” in Dresden. After this performance, at the Semperoper, there was no applause. It was absolutely… it was so magical. You had this complete auditorium, silent. Everyone stood up and held a minute of silence – it was the entire audience. They felt it and did it, and it was really incredible. And I think, really, applause would just destroy this magic. I had goosebumps when it happened.

For certain works and artists – including your work – I want to sit with it and contemplate; I think it’s important to not be reactive, even in for things that are joyous.

With The Blind, everything happens around you; you don’t really know if it’s ended, there is no visual cue, of course. It ends in silence. When we started (the premiere was at Lincoln Center), we measured the length of time between the piece ending and the audience taking their blindfolds off and applauding, and I think the shortest was a minute-and-a-half, which is already a long time; the longest were the teens in Norway. That was seven minutes. Actually the person who broke the silence then was the stage director – he got nervous, because when you take the blindfold off, you’re in the fog with the dry ice, and they were running out of the dry ice! So he started applauding to cue them, but again, it was this moment of incredibly powerful silence after the performance. 

Sometimes that powerful silence defies description, though it’s interesting the New York Times characterized your work’s themes as largely revolving around loneliness and isolation.

I think it’s what this particular opera was facing, it addressed the themes of loneliness and isolation in our modern times; on one hand, we are more connected than ever. With our gadgets we are always busy; there is a sense of being constantly surrounded by noise and communication and technology, but at the same time we are lonelier than ever and we struggle with understanding each other on a personal level, face to face, where people actually have a conversation, not through gadgets but with real people, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling and connecting with one another. That’s what this opera was addressing. We’re not blind in a physical sense but blind emotionally; we have trouble connecting and understanding each other. I mean, loneliness is one of eternal humanity’s questions, and of course, how the outside decorations are influencing things, whether it’s technology or whatever –if it changes this, or if it’s helping, hurting – it’s all questionable.

Dominik Köninger: “You Grow With Every Challenge”

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Photo: Tom Schweigert

Baritone Dominik Köninger has been busy since our last conversation. That isn’t surprising, considering he’s a member of the Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) ensemble, where he’s sung a variety of roles, from a myriad of eras —Baroque, classical, bel canto, operetta, modern — since starting there in 2012.

Any artist who’s experienced the ensemble system is aware of the need to balance wildly different material in very short amounts of time. Scheduling and repertoire means a careful adherence to vocal sensitivities and recuperative demands, to say nothing of the challenges that can be presented in working with a sometimes revolving set of artistic personnel. During my chat with Wilhelm Schwinghammer this past January, the German bass baritone spoke of his own time as a member of the Staatsoper Hamburg ensemble, estimating he performed over seventy roles during his decade-plus time there. Ensemble work can also be an incredibly important and useful experience in developing skills, getting to know repertoire (well) and cultivating specific and sometimes entirely unknown talents. One might enter into one with the belief of being suited to doing x type of repertoire, only to learn (through time, experience, and exposure) that in fact, y type of repertoire is probably a better match vocally (and that z repertoire, which had never before been even vaguely considered, is suddenly looking interesting too). Ensembles have their ups and downs, but for some, they give needed grounding, requisite exposure (to audiences, repertoire, directors, conductors, and potential future houses), oh-so-vital  flexibility (vocally and otherwise), and a  broadening of perspective — all of which are so important to a burgeoning career.

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As Pelléas in the Komische Oper Berlin production of ‘Pelléas et Melisande’ in October 2017. (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

And so Köninger has done much since we last spoke close to two years ago. As well as making a much-awaited role debut as Pelléas in a brilliant and bold, brilliant production of Pelléas et Melisande directed by KOB Intendant Barrie Kosky, he reprised his role as Silvius in the frothy Oscar Straus operetta Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra), appeared as Agamemnon in a colorful production of Offenbach’s Die schöne Helena (The Beautiful Helena), sang Papageno (something of a signature role) in the much-vaunted KOB/1927 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), and gave a recital (one I found very moving) full of dark works by Mahler, Grieg, Mendelssohn, and Schubert. Along with more Silvius and Papageno performances this season, he’s also singing (/has sung) Maximilian in Bernstein’s Candide (with KOB), and Pantalone in Prokofiev’s Die Liebe zu drei Orangen (The Love for Three Oranges). A well-received recital of Schubert’s celebrated Winterreise closed out 2018.  This spring Köninger will be on a mini-tour with RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, in a presentation of Bach’s St. John Passion. For those of you assuming you may have to travel to Europe to hear him live, fear not: Köninger is set to make his North American debut next spring with Opera de Montreal, as Papageno, in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), which he lovingly refers to as “my baby,” a nod to his history with the presentation.

This coming Saturday sees another first for the baritone: he’ll be making his debut in the title role of Handel’s rarely-staged opera Poro, Re dell’Indie (Porus, King of India), called simply Poro here (Poros auf Deutsch), which made my Things To See 2019 list. The story revolves around Alexander the Great’s time in India, and the love triangle which arises between him, King Porus, and Cleofide (aka Cleophis), Queen of a neighbouring realm. Handel’s opera is based Alessandro nell’Indie by celebrated Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, a work that inspired more than sixty other operas throughout the 18th century. The Komische Oper Berlin production opening this coming Saturday (March 16th) is led by conductor and early music specialist Jörg Halubek, but is may not strictly Baroque in that frilly-cuffed, big-wigged way; its celebrated director, Harry Kupfer (who was trained by KOB founder Walter Felsenstein), has, as you will read, made a few updates. The leap from Pelléas to Poros for Köninger isn’t as wide as you may think; his intense focus comes from a place of commitment and utter humility. So no matter the variety of plant, the ground beneath it is rich and sure, and is being continually cultivated with the utmost care and consideration; you can hear it in his voice with every performance, at the Komische and not. Köninger, quite simply, is one to watch.

The role of Poro was originally written for the famed castrato Senesino and is usually cast with a counter-tenor; in this production, it’s a baritone (you!) — what’s that like?

The whole thing is a bit of an adaption. It is Kupfer’s wish to have baritone in the lead role. In the 1950s, he was an assistant director in Halle, which was then East Germany, and they did this opera, but in German, with a baritone in the lead role — that was his intention. So putting it on now, it’s kind of the circle closes. He wanted the opera to be in German now as well, so we got a German translation — it’s more like an adaptation than a translation. Our production is set in British colonial India, a very specific and political time and context.

So Mayamaha in this production was originally Cleofide?

Yes! These are Indian names in the production: Gandaharta (Philipp Meierhöfer), Mahamaya (Ruzan Mantashyan), Poro’s sister Nimbavati (Idunnu Münch). That’s what Kupfer intended. Also, the role of Alexander, which was originally a tenor, is now a counter-tenor (Eric Jurenas). It’s all been adapted, but it all makes sense.

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As Poro in Komische Oper Berlin’s ‘Poro’ (Photo: Monika Rittershaus), opening on March 16th, 2019.

What’s it like to sing? Poro seems quite different to Handel’s other operas musically.

This opera is not so full of the fast coloratura arias and the demands of being perfect stylistically, but the challenge this time is that it brings much more out emotionally. Handel wrote these arias in a different way; he didn’t write them with fireworks, although there are some like that (like with the counter-tenor). Kupfer is keen on having us not doing too much when musical things change, but to have it more clear, more simple. It’s like, he doesn’t like a singer to show off. He wants real feelings, and to hear not what they can do with their voice, but to bring out the emotional colors of the voice, with the text and body, and the heart.

Is this your first time working with Harry Kupfer?

No, actually not, we did a production of  The Merry Widow in Hamburg years ago. I was just starting out then, and it’s different now. I’m much more experienced. The match is really nice. We had a good long rehearsal period and Kupfer was really detailed and really precise with what he wanted. First he broke down — and that’s what I like about his detailed approach — he broke down every recitative to its core, at the very beginning of rehearsals. If you would’ve heard this, you would’ve thought, “How will this all work?!” All the recits were so long and there were so many pauses, and it went so slow, because he wanted us to have the thoughts first and then sing the lines, or use the pauses while showing that we are thinking about something else and we go in a different direction, so it would make sense. That’s what I really liked about this project; this is a totally different style of theatre, and very different if you compare it to Candide or Cleopatra, but this is the fun part for me, doing various things.

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Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Like St. John Passion… 

Yes, of course. It’s a small tour: one day in Italy, then Munich, then the third day we’re in Berlin. I’m only singing Jesus, so for me it’s just a few recits, but it’s a good way to connect back with the RIAS Kammerchor and with the Akademie für Alte Musik. My schedule is a mixture of heaven and hell, black and white, yin and yang.

Is that good for you as a singer? 

Yes, it keeps me really flexible, and I like that. Working on the Handel, I think I have six or seven arias in total but two are quite fast, so it’s really nice. Keeps me flexible — in the head, in the voice.

What repertoire would you still like to do?

If you talk about the next five years, it’s just the usual suspects like Giovanni or Marcello, but if we talk ten or fifteen years, there’s Onegin to discover, maybe there’s a little bit of Wagner, but I’m not sure about it because I have to see how the voice develops. The French stuff has of course a lot to discover — like Hamlet from Thomas, which would be great, but houses rarely do this sort of repertoire.

And there’s the Lieder works as well.

Of course yes, there are plans for making a CD, but you need time and preparation so I’m not sure when that will happen, but we’ll see. It is a difficult business; you’re always touring around, you have so many appointments and there isn’t always time to give everything to this one concert. There is a lot of responsibility every time you do a recital. People come to hear you and you need to be prepared, and learn the music by heart — that’s the very basic work, yes? Then you have to dive deeper into this new world, and it’s a responsibility, every time. And sometimes it’s hard to fulfill. It’s why I’m careful; I still have my opera engagements and my contract here in Berlin. Having recitals scheduled between, for instance, a Candide here and a Poros there and few days later a Pelléas… you know, it has to be well-chosen. Mentally, strength-wise, everything; it’s hard. I’ve been constantly working now since September — I just went from one thing to another. But I’ve really enjoyed focusing only on the Handel for the last six weeks. Once this is done I’ll prepare for my next recitals. When it gets calmer, it gets easier to let everything sink in.

What’s been the most surprising thing so far?

This Handel opera is much easier than the past ones I’ve done! I did Giulio Cesare in Egitto a few years ago; it had much more in terms of coloratura and furioso arias. I was younger. You grow with every challenge and every single thing you have to deal with. Maybe if I hadn’t had that experience four years ago, Poros would be that sort of thing now, and I would be a little bit struggling and lost and more fighting — but this time, it’s good, I’m super-relaxed, even though we open soon. When I’m relaxed I’m more on top of my game than when I’m closing in on myself and wanting something. If you really want something specific, it’s the wrong approach. That’s the surprising thing I discovered doing this. And of course the relaxed and productive way of working with Kupfer and Halubek, and Ruzan and Eric — it’s been a really nice, really positive experience.

2019: Looking Forward

Andreas Schlüter kopf einer gottin

Andreas Schlüter, Kopf einer Göttin (Head of a Goddess); Bode Museum Berlin, 1704. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

A new year is a good time for assessments and remembrances, for reflecting on moments good, bad, and otherwise. As well as a desire to keep more cultural experiences within the personal realm, I’d prefer look ahead, to things that spark my imagination and inspire expansion, challenge, and evolution.

Earlier this year a friend observed that my tastes have become (his words) “more adventurous” over the past eighteen months or so. Flattering as this is, it’s also a reminder of the extent to which I have layered over my past, one largely spent wandering through the vast, lusciously dark forests of curiosity and wonder. Decades of weighty responsibility cut that forest down and gave me a deep trunk, into which all the unfinished canvases of a fragrant, lush wonder were stored; I came to believe, somehow, such a trunk had no place in the busy crowded living room I’d been busily filling with the safe, acceptable predictability of other peoples’ stuff. My mother’s passing in 2015 initially created a worship of ornate things from her trunk — perhaps my attempt to raise her with a chorus of sounds, as if I was Orpheus, an instinct based more in the exercise of sentiment than in the embrace and extension of soul.

Contending with a tremendous purge of items from the near and distant past has created a personal distaste for the insistent grasping and romanticizing of history (though I do allow myself to enjoy some of its recorded splendor, and its visual arts, as the photos on this feature attest). Such romanticizing utterly defines various segments of the opera world, resulting in various factions marking themselves gatekeepers of a supposedly fabled legacy which, by its nature, is meant to shape-shift, twist, curl, open, and change. It’s fun to swim in the warm, frothy seas of nostalgia every now and again, but mistaking those waves for (or much less preferring them to) the clear, sharp coldness of fresh water seems a bit absurd to me. À chacun son goût, perhaps. 

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František Kupka, Plans par couleurs, grand nu; 1909-1910, on loan to Grande Palais Paris; permanent collection, Guggenheim NYC. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Rediscovering the contents of my own trunk, pulling each item out, examining it in the sunlight, looking at what it means now (if anything) and deciding whether to keep or bin, has been a slow if meaningful process; it has been a homecoming to myself, one groaning and gloriously stretching with every breath. Refreshingly, such a process has not been defined by the rather narrow tastes of a somewhat culturally dictatorial mother, but by things I like, things I miss, things have no need to feel validated for liking.

“You’re so serious,” I was once told, “serious and critical and intellectual.”

I don’t know if any of these things are (or were) true, but making a point of experiencing the work of artists who reveal and inspire (and challenge and move) has become the single-biggest motivating factor in my life. “Adventurous” is less a new fascinator than an old (and beloved) hat. Here’s to taking it out of the trunk, and wearing it often and well in 2019. 

Verdi, Messa da Requiem; Staatsoper Hamburg, January

The year opens with an old chestnut, reimagined by director Calixto Bieito into a new, bright bud. Bieito’s productions are always theatrical, divisive and deeply thought-provoking. Doing a formal staging Verdi’s famous requiem, instead of presenting it in traditional concert (/ park-and-bark) mode, feels like something of a coup. Paolo Arrivabeni conducts this production, which premiered in Hamburg last year, which features a stellar cast, including the sonorous bass of Gabor Bretz.

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Jean-Joseph Perraud, Le Désespoir; 1869, Paris; Musée d’Orsay. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Tchaikovsky/Bartok, Iolanta Bluebeard’s Castle, NYC, January

A double-bill exploring the various (and frequently darker) facets of human relating, this Marius Treliński production (from the 2014-2015 season) features soprano Sonya Yoncheva and tenor Matthew Polenzani in Tchaikovsky’s one-act work; baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Angela Denoke perform in Bartók’s dark tale of black secrets, last staged at the Met in early 2015. The orchestra could well be considered a third character in the work, so rich is it in coloration and textures.  No small feat to sing either, as music writer Andrew McGregor has noted that “the music is so closely tied to the rhythms and colours of the Hungarian language.” Henrik Nánási, former music director at Komische Oper Berlin, conducts.

Vivier, Kopernikus; Staatsoper Berlin, January

Spoiler: I am working on a feature (another one) about the Quebec-born composer’s influence and the recent rise in attention his work have enjoyed. Kopernikus (subtitle: Rituel de Mort) is an unusual work on a number of levels; composed of a series of tableaux, there’s no real narrative, but an integration of a number of mythological figures as well as real and imagined languages that match the tonal colors of the score.  This production (helmed by director Wouter van Looy, who is Artistic Co-Director of Flemish theatre company Muziektheater Transparant) comes prior ahead of a production the Canadian troupe Against the Grain (led by Joel Ivany) are doing in Toronto this coming April.

Vustin, The Devil in LoveStanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, February

It was while investigating the work of Russian composer and pianist Rodion Shchedrin that I learned about the work of contemporary composer Alexander Vustin — and became utterly smitten with it. A composer who previously worked in both broadcasting and publishing, Vustin’s opera is based on the 1772 Jacques Cazotte novel Le Diable amoureux, which revolves around a demon who falls in love with a human. Vustin wrote his opera between 1975 and 1989, but The Devil in Love will only now enjoy its world premiere, in a staging by Alexander Titel (Artistic Director of the Stanislavsky Opera) and with music direction/conducting by future Bayerische Staatsoper General Music Director Vladimir Jurowski.

zurich opera

Inside Opernhaus Zurich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Ligeti, Le Grand Macabre; Opernhaus Zurich, February

The Opernhaus Zurich website describes this work, which is based on a play by Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, as “one of the 20th century’s most potent works of musical theatre.” It is also one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen; anyone who’s experienced it comes away changed. Directed by Tatjana Gürbaca (who’s directed many times in Zurich now), the work is, by turns, coarse, shocking, cryptic, and deliciously absurd. General Music Director Fabio Luisi (who I am more used to seeing conduct Mozart and Verdi at the Met) was to lead what Ligeti himself has called an “anti-anti-opera”; he’s been forced to cancel for health reasons. Tito Ceccherini will be on the podium in his place.

Zemlinsky, Der Zwerg; Deutsche Oper Berlin, February

Another wonderfully disturbing work, this time by early 20th century composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, whose “Die Seejungfrau” (The Mermaid) fantasy for orchestra is an all-time favorite of mine. Der Zwerg, or The Dwarf, is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s disturbing short story “The Birthday of the Infanta” and is infused with the sounds of Strauss and Mahler, but with Zemlinsky’s own unique sonic richness. Donald Runnicles (General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper ) conducts, with powerhouse tenor David Butt Philip in the title role, in a staging by Tobias Kratzer, who makes his DO debut.

lucke grimace

Johann Christian Ludwig Lücke , Bust of a Grimacing Man with a Slouch Hat; 1740, Elfenbein; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Kurtág, Fin de Partie; Dutch National Opera, March

Among the many music happenings of late which could be called an event with a capital “e”, this one has to rank near the top. Ninety-one year-old composer György Kurtág has based his first opera on Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame. Premiering at Teatro Alla Scala in November, music writer Alex Ross noted that “(n)ot since Debussy’s  “Pelléas et Mélisande” has there been vocal writing of such radical transparency: every wounded word strikes home.” Director Pierre Audi and conductor Markus Stenz (chief conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) bring Kurtág’s painfully-birthed opera to Amsterdam for three (nearly sold-out) dates.

Handel, Poros, Komische Oper Berlin, March

A new staging of a rarely-heard work by legendary opera director Harry Kupker, Handel’s 1731 opera based around Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign features the deep-hued soprano of Ruzan Mantashyan as Mahamaya and the gorgeously lush baritone of KOB ensemble member Dominik Köninger in the title role. Conductor Jörg Halubek, co-founder of the Stuttgart baroque orchestra Il Gusto Barocco (which specializes in forgotten works) makes his KOB debut. The combination of Kupfer, Handel, and Komische Oper is, to my mind, very exciting indeed.

woman bode

Southern Netherlands, Screaming Woman; late 16th century; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Shostakovich, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Opera National de Paris, April  

A new production of Shostakovich’s passionate, brutal, and darkly funny opera from innovative director Krzysztof Warlikowski, whose creative and thoughtful presentations have appeared on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, the Royal Opera, Teatro Real (Madrid), and La Monnaie (Brussels), to name a few. He also staged The Rake’s Progress in Berlin at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. Here he’ll be directing soprano Ausrine Stundyte in the lead as the sexy, restless Lady, alongside tenor John Daszak as Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov (I really enjoyed his performance in this very role at the Royal Opera last year), bass (and Stanislavsky Opera regular) Dmitry Ulyanov as pushy father Boris, and tenor Pavel Černoch as the crafty Sergei. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher is on the podium.

Berlioz, La damnation de Faust; Glyndebourne, May

Glyndebourne Festival Music Director Robin Ticciati leads the London Philharmonic and tenor Allan Clayton (so impressive in Brett Dean’s Hamlet, which debuted at Glyndebourne in 2017) as the doomed title character, with baritone Christopher Purves as the deliciously diabolical Mephistopheles, and French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Marguerite. I love this score, a lot, and quite enjoyed a 2017 staging at Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Likewise the work of director Richard Jones, whose Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Royal Opera last year afforded some very creative choices and character insights; I’m very curious how he might approach Berlioz’s dreamy, surreal work, together with Ticciati’s signature lyrical approach.

hands neues museen

Pair of Hands from a group statue of Akhenaten and Nefertiti or two princesses; Neues Reich 18 Dynastie. At the Neues Museen, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Gluck, Alceste; Bayerische Staatsoper, May

A new production of Gluck’s opera about self-sacrificing love with a fascinating backstory: after its publishing in 1769, a preface was added to the score by Gluck and his librettist which outlined ideas for operatic reform. The list included things like making the overture more closely linked with the ensuing action, no improvisation, and less repetition within arias. Alceste came to be known as one of Gluck’s “reform” operas (after Orfeo ed Euridice). Two decades later, Mozart used the same chord progressions from a section of the opera for a scene in his Don Giovanni, which Berlioz called “heavily in-inspired or rather plagiarized.” The Bavarian State Opera production will feature a solid cast which includes tenor Charles Castronovo, soprano Dorothea Röschmann,  and baritone Michael Nagy, under the baton of Antonello Manacorda.

Handel, Belshazzar; The Grange Festival, June 

Described on The Grange’s website as “an early Aida,” this rare staging of the biblical oratorio sees a cast of baroque specialists (including tenor Robert Murray in the title role and luminous soprano Rosemary Joshua as his mother, Nitocris) tackling the epic work about the fall of Babylon, and the freeing of the of the Jewish nation. Musicologist Winton Dean has noted the work was composed during “the peak of Handel’s creative life.” Presented in collaboration with The Sixteen, a UK-based choir and period instrument orchestra, the work will be directed by Daniel Slater (known for his unique takes on well-known material) and will be led by The Sixteen founder Harry Christophers.

Festival Aix-en-Provence, July

The final collaboration between Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (and the source of the famous “Alabama Song”), Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny will be presented in a new production featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Director Ivo van Hove (whose Boris Godounov at the Opera de Paris this past summer I was so shocked and moved by) helms the work; casting has yet to be announced. Music writer Rupert Christiansen has noted that it “remains very hard to perform […] with the right balance between its slick charm and its cutting edge.” Also noteworthy: the French premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s one-act chamber opera Jakob Lenz, based on Georg Büchner’s novella about the German poet. (Büchner is perhaps best-known for his unfinished play Woyzeck, later adapted by Alban Berg.) Presented by Ensemble Modern, the work will be helmed by award-winning director Andrea Breth and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. This summer’s edition of the festival marks Pierre Audi’s first term as its new Director, and all five productions being staged are firsts for the fest as well.

sphinx altes

Sphinx of Shepenupet II, god’s wife of Amon; late period 25th Dynasty, around 660 B.C.; Altes Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enescu,Œdipe; Salzburger Festspiele, August

The Romanian composer’s 1931 opera based on the mythological tale of Oedipus is presented in a new production at the Salzburg Festival and features a stellar cast which includes bass John Tomlinson as the prophet Tirésias, mezzo-soprano  as Jocasta, mezzo soprano Clémentine Margaine (known for her numerous turns as Bizet’s Carmen) as The Sphinx, baritone Boris Pinkhasovich as Thésée, and baritone Christopher Maltman in the title role. In writing about Enescu’s score, French music critic Emile Vuillermoz noted that “(t)he instruments speak here a strange language, direct, frank and grave, which does not owe anything to the traditional polyphonies.” Staging is by Achim Freyer (who helmed a whimsical production of Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Berlin), with Ingo Metzmacher on the podium.

Schoenberg, Moses und Aron; Enescu Festival, September

In April 1923, Schoenberg would write to Wassily Kandinsky: “I have at last learnt the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew.” The ugly incident that inspired this would result in his mid-1920s agitprop play Der biblische Weg (The Biblical Way), from which Moses und Aron would ultimately spring. Essentially a mystical plunge into the connections between community, identity, and divinity, this sonically dense and very rewarding work will be presented at the biennial George Enescu Festival, in an in-concert presentation featuring Robert Hayward as Moses and tenor John Daszak as Aron (a repeat pairing from when they appeared in a 2015 Komische Oper Berlin production), with Lothar Zagrosek on the podium.

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Post-opera strolling in Wexford. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Wexford Festival Opera, October

It’s hard to choose just one work when Wexford is really a broader integrative experience; my visit this past autumn underlined the intertwined relationship between onstage offerings and local charms. The operas being presented at the 2019 edition include Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet (which I saw, rather memorably, with Ferruccio Furlanetto in the lead), and the little-performed (and rather forgotten) Adina by Gioacchino Rossini, a co-production with Rossini Opera Festival. The latter will be paired with a new work, La Cucina, by Irish composer Andrew Synnott.

Strauss, Die ägyptische Helena; Teatro Alla Scala, November

A reimagining the myth of Helen of Troy (courtesy of Euripides) sees Paris seduce a phantom Helen created by the goddess Hera, while the real thing is held captive in Egypt until a long-awaited reunion with her husband Menelas. In a 2007 feature for the New York Times (published concurrent to a then-running production at the Met), music critic Anthony Tommasini characterized Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto as “verbose and philosophical,” and posed questions relating to Strauss’s score thusly: “Is a passage heroic or mock-heroic? Opulently lyrical or intentionally over the top?” I suspect those are precisely the questions the composer wanted to be raised; he questions not just the tough questions around intimate relating, but ones connected with audience and artist. The piece features some breathtaking vocal writing as well. Sven-Eric Bechtolf (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed at Salzburg in 2016) directs, and Franz Welser-Möst leads a powerhouse cast that includes tenor Andreas Schager, baritone Thomas Hampson, and soprano Ricarda Merbeth as the titular Helena. This production marks the first time Die ägyptische Helena has been presented at La Scala.

Oskar Kallis, Sous le soleil d’été; 1917, on loan to Musée d’Orsay; permanent collection, Eesti Kunstimuuseum, Tallinn.

Messager, FortunioOpéra-Comique, December

I freely admit to loving comédie lyrique; the genre is a lovely, poetic  cousin to operetta. Fortunio, which was premiered in 1907 by the Opéra-Comique at the Salle Favart in Paris, is based on the 1835 play Le Chandelier by Alfred de Musset and concerns a young clerk (the Fortunio of the title) caught in a web of deceit with the wife of an old notary, with whom he is enamored. Gabriel Fauré, who was in the opening night audience (along with fellow composers Claude Debussy and Gabriel Pierné) noted of André Messager (in a review for Le Figaro) that he possessed “the gifts of elegance and clarity, of wit, of playful grace, united to the most perfect knowledge of the technique of his art.” This production, from 2009, reunites original director Denis Podalydès with original conductor Louis Langrée. Paris en décembre? Peut-être!

herbin composition

Auguste Herbin, Composition; 1928, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This list may seem extensive, but there’s so much I’ve left out — festivals like Verbier and Les Chorégies d’Orangehouses like Wiener Staatsoper and Teatro Real, outlets in Scandinavia (Den Norske, Royal Swedish Opera, Savonlinna) and Italy (Pesaro, Parma) and the UK (Aldeburgh, Garsington, ENO, and of course the Royal Opera). It’s still too early for many organizations to be announcing their upcoming (September and beyond) seasons; I’m awaiting those releases, shivering, to quote Dr. Frank-n-furter, with antici…pation.

And, just in the interests of clarifying an obvious and quite intentional omission: symphonic events were not included in this compilation. The sheer scale, volume, and variance would’ve diffused my purposeful opera focus. I feel somewhat odd about this exclusion; attending symphonies does occupy a deeply central place for me on a number of levels, as it did throughout my teenaged years. Experiencing concerts live is really one of my most dear and supreme joys. I may address this in a future post, which, as with everything, won’t be limited by geography, genre, range or repertoire. In these days of tumbling definitions and liquid tastes , it feels right (and good) to mash organizations and sounds against one another, in words, sounds, and spirit.

For now, I raise a glass to 2019, embracing adventure — in music, in the theatre, in life, and beyond. So should you. Santé!

Review: ‘Wozzeck’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin Misses The Mark

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Which came first, the concept or the opera?

This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.

Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper  Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.

Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary; even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice, the technique, in its insistent repetition, draws attention to itself and becomes a frustrating distraction that kills the much-needed integration of drama, characters, and music; Berg’s score becomes a backdrop to an aesthetic, or series of aesthetics, that creates a disconnect between score, story, and an integrated experience of each.

It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against Tandberg’s over-enthusiastic use of curtain/video. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have attempted to bring to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The surreal tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience and understanding of the opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.

Review: Pichon & the DSO Reveal The Steel in Berlin

DSO Berlin

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with conductor Raphaël Pichon, February 28, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

French Baroque music is a thing apart for many, whether or not they’re in the classical space. Just the phrase itself conjures up images of high wigs, corsets, buckle shoes, a coterie of nobility sitting by candlelight, heavily festooned and occasionally nodding off.

Raphaël Pichon stripped that image away, gently, with careful detail, in his concert with the Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin (DSO) last night. The native Frenchman, who is also an established countertenor and the founder of the Ensemble Pygmalion (a group specializing in historical performance) brought a sinuous approach to the material, which retained a delicate quality that nevertheless became more and more fulsome as the evening progressed. Admire this lovely fine glass, Pichon seemed to whisper, but remember it’s as strong as steel.

Raphaël Pichon

Raphaël Pichon. (Photo: (c) Jean-Baptiste Millot)

With a program modelled on Baroque music theatre and featuring period-specific pasticcio (or pastiche), the evening was a lovely treat which featured some stellar and, occasionally very robust playing from the DSO. Pichon moved the orchestra beyond the merely ornamental, drawing phrases and sounds out that clearly anticipated the future opera sounds of composers like Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi.  This was not a concert about bold sounds and choices; it was, rather, a fascinating exploration of the pasticcio format highlighting the connective nature of inspiration, in both creation and presentation. Composers, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, freely used, absorbed, and interpolated the work of each other into their own, mixing portions of both original and non-original composition freely; Handel, Gluck, and Johann Christian Bach used this technique in various operas, as did Mozart in his first four piano concertos. What we might think of as “stealing” today was merely artistic reinvention then. Add a layer of Baroque opéra-ballet theatre, with its format of prologue, three entrées, and epilogue, and you have the makings of a very satisfying evening.

While it may seem structurally daunting, nay even deadening, Pichon and the buoyant DSO ensured the evening was clear, involving, and musically concise. The program, which consisted of works by two French 17th-18th century French composers, Rameau in the first half, and Gluck in the second (with a Rameau piece to close), was dramatic and fiercely engaging. The orchestra brought a loving energy to the tambourine-tinged prologue to Rameau’s 1739/1744 opera Dardanus, extending that sense of careful control to Gluck’s “Danse des furies” (“The dance of the furies”) from his 1774 opera Orphée et Eurydice. Never one to luxuriate over phrases or lean too far into one section, Pichon teased out the undulating brass and woodwinds sections, perpetually in a dance; this suited the many ballet (/ ballet-influenced) works on the program, but it was also sonically satisfying to note the interplay between instruments, people, and conductor. This program wasn’t “pretty music” simply for the sake of it, but conveyed character, mood, and drama, without hitting its listener over the head or lulling them into passive listening.

DSO Fuchs Janiczek

The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester Berlin with guest Concertmaster Alexander Janiczek and soprano Julie Fuchs. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

The clean lines of the strings section were especially refreshing and were led with charismatic aplomb by guest Concertmaster (and Baroque music specialist) Alexander Janiczek, who shared a special, convivial chemistry with guest soloist, soprano Julie Fuchs, a very last-minute replacement for the ailing Sabine Devielhe. Fuchs, making her DSO debut, soared in her delivery, but smartly paced herself with the material; opening with the prologue “Feuillages verts, naissez” (“Green leaves are born”), Fuchs worked gently around the softly luxurious flute work of Gergely Bodoky, wrapping phrases and gorgeously shaped vowels into sounds that introduced the evening with quiet grace. Her performance of “Viens, hymen” from Rameau’s 1735 opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (The Amorous Indies) was shot through with both a suitably palpable sadness (which suits the character) as well as a steely clarity. By the evening’s close, Fuchs was in high-flying spirits, bringing a range of vivid colors to “Aux langueurs D’Apollon” (“The languor of Apollo”), from Rameau’s 1745 opera Platée, an innovation for its time in that it was a comic work. Fuchs playfully danced around both conductor Pichon (replacing him at one point on the podium) and Janiczek, modulating texture and bending vowels to create a memorable, comic, deeply felt performance that inspired smiles both on and off the stage. Merci and Vielen Dank, Raphaël, Julie, Alexander, and DSO!

 

 

 

 

 

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