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Cornelius Meister: On Curiosity, Collaboration, And What His Father Taught Him

conductor Meister German baton hands music culture expression maestro

Photo: Marco Borggreve

Looking at Cornelius Meister’s calendar inspires a mix of wonder and exhaustion.

The German conductor, who is Music Director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart, is currently in New York City, leading performances of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera until February 22nd. From there, he jets off to Tokyo to lead the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (of which he is Principal Guest Conductor) before playing with various orchestras in France, Germany, and Austria. A return to Stuttgart comes the end of April; Meister will conduct a series of concerts and also conduct a revival of Tristan und Isolde, where he’ll be leading soprano Catherine Naglestad in her role debut as the doomed Irish princess. May brings a production of Strauss’s Arabella in Vienna, and the summer features a busy mix of concerts and opera back in Stuttgart. All this activity doesn’t even touch Meister’s extensive discography, many of them done when he was Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien (ORF) between 2010 and 2018.

Meister, whose father was a professor at Musikhochschule Hannover and whose mother is a piano teacher, started out in 2003 as Second Kappellmeister with Staatsoper Hannover (his hometown), before becoming Music Director of the Theatre and Philharmonic Orchestra of Heidelberg, where he stayed for seven years, until 2012. His recordings (of Brahms, Haydn, Dvořák, Mozart, Wagner, Bartók, Zemlinsky, and particularly Bruckner) and live work (a comprehensive A to Z listing on his website includes, among the very many, Beethoven, Lehár, Gershwin, Mahler, Boulez, Nono, Stravinsky, Webern, and Zender) reflect an insatiable musical appetite, one that seems to grow with each new orchestra and experience, whether orchestral or operatic. Meister’s tenure at Oper Stuttgart began in 2018, having already conducted at numerous prestigious houses, including Oper Zürich, Teatro Alla Scala Milan, Semperoper Dresden, and Wiener Staatsoper, and festivals including those at Glyndebourne, Salzburg, and in Bucharest, at the biennial Enescu Festival.

All this activity isn’t exactly unusual for a successful artist within the classical sphere, but the breadth and range of Meister’s musical curiosity is as enlightening as it is exhilarating. I became much better acquainted with the symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů thanks to a truly brilliant 2017 recording (Capriccio Records) of the Czech composer’s complete symphonies. Recorded with the ORF between 2011 and 2017, the mammoth album (spread across three CDs) is a gorgeous lesson for both newbies and Martinů connoisseurs alike, revealing Meister’s focus on maintaining keen balances between individual voices within the rich orchestral tapestries, while emphasizing their unique tonal and structural paths and underpinnings. At its release, music writer Michael Cookson noted that “Meister palpably generates considerable tension in his readings and the playing, full of rhythmic energy, is never less than steadfast, whilst shaping phrases that give consideration to every nuance.”

His 2014 album of the music of Wagner (Capriccio Records), again with the ORF and featuring soprano Anne Schwanewilms, performing the beloved Wesendonck Lieder and and Elisabeth’s Aria from Tannhäuser, is a sumptuous mix of big and small; Wagner’s sweepingly broad overture to Tannhäuser is here given loving pockets of quietude, with rippling strings that glint softly, shimmering against woodwinds and brass, Meister’s watchful tempi and textural swells throughout the album underline the music’s connection to a broader scope of musical history, both backward-looking (Beethoven) and anticipatory (again, Martinů, which would make sense given the album’s timing). Meister and I recently spoke amidst performances of Nozze at The Met; I asked the busy father of three how he kept up such a hectic pace, before moving into musical, and, as you’ll read, dramatic (and even balletic) matters.

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Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Nozze.” Photo: Marty Sohl/The Metropolitan Opera

You have a lot of diversified engagements – how do you keep your energy and inspiration?

I have a family, and I must say, I love music and opera of course but it is not everything in my life. And without my family, I think I couldn’t do everything.

Many artists say that family provides the balance amidst the chaos.

Yes. I’m very happy to be born not ten or twenty years earlier, because nowadays it is so much easier to call each other from another continent or city, and to take fast trains and such. We didn’t have these things even fifty years ago; now it’s much easier to keep in touch.

The houses that you perform in (Stuttgart, Zürich, Vienna, New York) are all so different; how do you create intimacy within each space?

When I’m conducting, let’s say an opera by Mozart, it matters a lot which room I’m performing it in regarding the acoustics. In Germany there are a lot of ensembles, so between thirty and forty singers who work regularly; that means sometimes we prepare role debuts together, one year ahead or even more. Last season in Stuttgart, we did Ariadne Auf Naxos and we had a wonderful mezzo soprano who is now in our ensemble, and she prepared it more than one year in advance – this is only possible in houses with an ensemble. 

On the other hand, here at The Met I have the privilege to work with many singers who have done their roles in various productions at several great opera houses, so this makes it easier in another aspect, I would say – their acoustic awareness could start on the highest level, and the beauty for me, as a conductor, is then to bring all these different experiences together to create a production ensemble.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

You said in a 2019 interview that conducting is about making music together – how does that relate to the inherent power dynamics of being a conductor? How do you balance the power aspect with the collaborative aspect?

On the one hand, of course it is true that a conductor can decide a lot, but on the other hand, I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t play any tune or make the music by himself, so I can’t do anything without having everybody on the same side. I would say my job is to encourage everybody to be brilliant, and confident, and bring together all the different possibilities and traditions and experiences everybody has. And in houses like the Metropolitan Opera, where everybody in the orchestra has played these operas a lot, with many different conductors, it’s not a question of, “How we do it?”, it’s more a question of how we all can do it in the same style, and how we can bring it all together. This is a task I like very much. I also like to be flexible when I conduct the same opera in Vienna and New York – the result is, of course, very different; it’s still my Mozart, for example, but there is not just one Mozart which is my Mozart.

Would you say that flexibility is the key to authority in your position?

In a way, yes, but I would also say that it is really necessary to have some strong ideas of what I want – having something I really like and really want with music, and being flexible to bring everybody to that result. 

That must be especially true when you move between so many different orchestras as you are about to do, post-Nozze. Where does flexibility fit within your experiences between different ensembles, especially ones you have such a short amount of time with?

I always try to use the tradition an orchestra has – so the Viennese tradition, or maybe the Dresden Staatskapelle tradition, for example – those traditions are really old, and I adore them, and I always make a point to ask members of the orchestra how are they used to playing this or that. When I’m in Vienna I spend hours and hours in the library to research information which is hand-written into the orchestra parts, hand-written from the time when Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler conducted there. I wouldn’t think that us younger conductors should always start at point zero; we should use that tradition, we can learn from it. In Stuttgart we are using the original harmonium used at the Ariadne world premiere – the first version of the opera was performed in Stuttgart in 1912, just two months after the opening of the opera house, with this very harmonium. 

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Oper Zürich’s 2018 production of Così fan tutte. Photo © Monika Rittershaus

Where does that sense of tradition fit when you are working on a new production? You had an special situation in Zürich in 2018 with a new production of Così fan tutte, and you also led a new work, The Snow Queen, in Munich in 2019. 

in Zürich the situation was that we didn’t have the director face-to-face – we were in close contact. So every morning we got a new video message from Kirill Serebrennikov; there was contact and he had brilliant assistants in Zürich, but for me as a conductor, the face-to face exchange is really important when preparing a new opera production. When I’m conducting opera, I’m not only a musician; I try to be a theatre person also, and I need a sense of every aspect of the drama. The first and most important question, always, is not, “how can we play the music?” but “how can we create that emotion, that dramatic situation?’ In order to create that situation you have several possibilities; there are scenic possibilities and musical possibilities, but these are, for me, totally secondary. The first question has to relate to the drama. And if I don’t have a partner to whom I can say something and to which he can react – not only by email or whatever – then it isn’t so easy! In the end (for Così fan tutte) of course I was very happy we did it, and it was very important, I think, to do that in Zürich.

In Munich the situation was completely different because there the piece (directed by Andreas Kriegenburg) had already been performed in Copenhagen some months before, so it was already set, on a certain level. Rachel Wilson, who is from Texas and is in the ensemble in Stuttgart now, sang the main mezzo role (Kay) in The Snow Queen, and she was really well-prepared coming in, so it was quite easy. 

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The Snow Queen at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2019. Photo © Wilfried Hösl

When you perform symphonic works by the likes of Martinů and Bruckner, and then go back to the opera house and do Wagner and Mozart, what things do you take with you between the two worlds?

I always appreciate it when orchestras who play symphonic music are also experienced in accompanying singers. In my opinion, a violin group who is used to listening to a singer in the opera is also very flexible and fast in listening to a solo oboe, for example, in a symphony. On the other hand, I appreciate it a lot when orchestras which are playing normally a lot of opera are also used to, in some situations, sitting on the stage and creating something unique for one or two or three performances. From one world I try to take the best and then bring it to the other world, and of course, some composers, like Mahler and Schumann and Brahms, wrote very opera-type things, and it’s good to have those works be performed also, because for me there is not such a big difference between theatrical music and other music.

When we have the Third Symphony of Bruckner, for example, with its quotations of Wagner in its first edition, this is a good example for that close relationship between those worlds, but I know there are many conductors who are conducting either operas or symphonic music. Others do mostly oratorios and choir music. I respect that, because I think (the music) needs different techniques, conducting techniques, and people to conduct different styles, but I always try to learn as much as I can from all these works. I have also conducted oratorios and ballets during my Kapellmeister time years ago, and sometimes I would conduct silent movies too.

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Photo: Marco Borggreve

What did you learn conducting ballet?

A ballet dancer needs certain tempos as a singer would need. I, as a musician, hopefully can sense if a singer needs a certain tempo. When is started to conduct ballets, it was much more difficult for me to feel that sense of which was the right tempo for him or her, and sometimes we had different ballet dancers on stage who needed different tempi. After some experiences it was easier for me to see and to feel how movement onstage is related to music tempi, and this helps now, a lot, when I’m conducting operas – not only to listen, but also to watch which is the right tempo for an action or movement onstage.

This relates to what I said earlier, that for me, music is a part of a larger theatrical performance. I had an experience eleven years ago when I conducted The Abduction From The Seraglio at the San Francisco Opera, my first opera experience in the United States (in 2009). I had conducted it before in Germany. I took approximately the same tempo which I had taken before, but with this production in San Francisco, it didn’t work. I had to take a different musical tempo and then it worked within a scenic sense, not only for the action but for the atmosphere onstage. I changed my musical approach, quite happily.

You took lessons with your father – how much do you think this quality of openness relate to that time?

He and I spent so many hours playing piano together, four hands style. We would go through and play all the Beethoven works, and all the Bruckner symphonies. He was never a conductor, but he was really interested in everything, not only piano music, but also he had a great knowledge about history and culture in general. So through this approach I learned to always be open to the world, and to be interested in different sounds, and in people from different nations and people with different ideas of the world. This was my education, and I am really glad for that.

That curiosity is apparent from the wide repertoire list at your website, which includes the work of Claude Vivier. 

For me there has never been a difference between old and contemporary music, because this is the music I’m interested in, and there’s music I may be, at the moment, not so much interested in, but it doesn’t matter which year it’s from. When I was with the ORF it was totally normal to play all different types of music. When we started to rehearse a piece which none of us had performed before, we didn’t ask if this is a good piece or not, because we always started, and after some days, then maybe we started to think something, not as a absolute judgement, but  maybe we allowed ourselves to say, “Okay, I like this or that” but never on the first day. We would never be so self-confident to judge music on the first look of it. 

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Tristan und Isolde, Oper Stuttgart. The production, from the team of Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, was first presented in 2014. Photo © A.T. Schaefer

Do you think that approach could apply to audiences hearing things for the first time?

I’m not in the position, or I would not like to be in the position, to give advice to audiences, because I respect there are many, many different reasons why a person likes to go to a concert or opera. I respect that the reason could be just to have a wonderful evening, enjoy a glass of champagne at intermission and to relax, not to think too much. This is a good reason. There’s another good reason for people who maybe prepare their opera visits a week before, and they read many books about it, and then they really want to have a strong production, strong Regie, so that they can think about it for the next week, and maybe they wouldn’t understand everything and they like not to understand everything but want to come back three times to get it. Once again, I wouldn’t think I should give advice on how an audience should deal with a performance visit, but I respect that there are different reasons, good reasons.

So just come with an open mind….?

Being open-minded, always, is not a bad idea! What I really ask everybody is not to open the mouth before having thought something out – this is the general advice, for music and for life.

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

Hui He: Building Connection Through The Voice

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Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

How old when you first heard opera?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hui He verismo soprano Puccini Met opera Butterfly Minghella stage performance classical singing culture

Photo © 2019 Richard Termine / Met Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s true!

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

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

You feel that also!

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

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

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

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Photo ©️Erik Berg/Den Norske Opera

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

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

It makes you a better artist, to keep learning.

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

Marlis Petersen: “Music Triggers Your Own Inner World”

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Photo © Yiorgos Mavropoulos

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

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

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

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

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

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via Solo Musica

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

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

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

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

What inspired the Dimensionen trilogy project?

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

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

I think so, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does that relate to premiering a new work?

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

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

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

That sounds like a rather metaphysical experience.

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

Does your understanding of the work evolve through performance?

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

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

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

Yes, for sure.

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

Can you describe that?

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

So does it create inner pictures for you?

Very much.

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

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

via Solo Musica

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

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

How so?

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

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

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

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

Sometimes artists are far ahead of ideas of their time.

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

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.

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

Photo: Paul Scala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)

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

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

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

It underlines the human drama.

Yes. 

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

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

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In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With conductor James Conlon.

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

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

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

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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.

Thomas Hampson: “We Make The Human Experience Audible”

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Photo: Jimmy Donelan

Midway through our recent conversation, Thomas Hampson paused, trying to find the right word relating to a musical concept.

“You speak German, don’t you?”

He couldn’t see me, but I wanted to crawl under my desk with shame. Here I was speaking to one of the most celebrated living opera singers in history and my wall of Anglo-Canadian linguistic ignorance was as glaringly solid as ever. Hampson, ever the gentleman, patiently (dare I say enthusiastically) explained, expanded, and engaged, as is his custom in both life and in art.

The American-born, Austria-living baritone is currently in Houston, having just opened The Phoenix by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, playing the role of the elder Lorenzo Da Ponte to bass baritone (and real-life son-in-law) Luca Pisaroni’s junior. The project marks the second world premiere Hampson has been part of this season alone, having performed as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s new work of the same name (by Rufus Wainwright) in October. With four decades of singing under his belt and engagements with every major house (Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, the Met, Wiener Staatsoper, Lyric Opera Chicago, Opéra National de Paris, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Salzburg), you’d think he’d be content to rest on his laurels — but as you’ll read, that isn’t who Thomas Hampson is. His voracious artistic curiosity often makes itself known, through keenly dramatic approach to his various roles (and they’ve included all the goodies: Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Amfortas, Macbeth, Boccanegra, Figaro) as well as through his extensive recital work, albums dedicated to song, and intense teaching time. Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he met during his student days at Merola, once called him “the best singer in Europe.”

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Thomas Hampson and director Peter Hinton in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Gaetz Photography

It was at a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 when I fully understood and appreciated the true depth of Hampson’s artistry. Verdi being an absolute mainstay composer in my childhood household, I knew is works inside and out musically, and had heard many different version of many different roles, among them Giorgio Germont in La traviata. Despite the vocal grandeur of many performances, the reading of the role always, without fail, left me cold, whether on vinyl, compact disc, or live; the character seemed little more than a stiff cliche, barking on about honor and family. Hampson’s interpretation of the role in Willy Decker’s production, however, changed all that. Similar to my experience of Pisaroni’s Leporello in Salzburg in 2016, it was a  bold, beautiful opening that made me rethink not only the opera and the composer, but my relationship with each, as with music and art. Hampson’s Germont was, by turns, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed, a deeply moving portrayal of a man in full awareness of his obsessive, possibly ill son, trying to balance his own sense of guilt with a seething fury echoing that of Alfredo (apple, meet tree). Hampson’s portrayal was just as much vocal as it was physical; his watchful, smart modulation and timbre were not meant to be pretty, graceful, smooth — all the things I’d grown up hearing. His Germont was, put simply, beautifully human, and it remains one of my all-time favorite performances on the stage to this day.

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As Germont in La traviata, Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo: Marty Sohl

There’s a true and highly committed work ethic behind such performances, and it’s one Hampson has been recognized for often throughout his career. He has a load of honors to his credit: they include a Grammy for his role as Wolfram in a 2003 recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (done with Daniel Barenboim); six Grammy nominations; Male Singer of the Year at the 1994 International Classical Music Awards; five Dutch Edison Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement); four Echo prizes; a Grand Prix du Disque, and many, many more. He has worked with so many great conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Antonio Pappano, Maris Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Fabio Luisi, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Franz Welser-Möst) and always has kept firm commitments to both to the art of song as well as to contemporary works; next season he performs the role of Jan Vermeer in Girl With The Pearl Earring (Stefan Wirth, 1975) at Opernhaus Zürich but before that, next month, he sings with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski, in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, a work Hampson is known (and rightly celebrated) for.

Another famous thing Hampson does is concert tours with Pisaroni, playfully called No Tenors Allowed, which makes a stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this Tuesday (30 April). A mix of opera, operetta, and showtunes, the evening is a showcase of the baritone’s flexible vocality, theatrical vividness, and serious approach to his work. Even if he’s singing a Broadway number, it’s easily discernible just how much Hampson means every single word — and that applies just as much in conversation, in teaching, in rehearsal, in life, as it does in voice. Art and life fuse in a beautiful, passionate co-mingling with an artist such as he, and it’s that integration which, for me, powers his charisma, his artistic commitment, and that insatiable curiosity, which, as you will see, is such a palpable cornerstone to who he is, as artist and man.

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Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper

You have an immense artistic curiosity — what fuels that?

I’m just like that! How can I say this? In what I do, I’m a musician; my life and my mind as a musician is, every day, every hour, I’m exploring ways we express ourselves in a language we call music, and when that is coupled, especially in the song world, with the metaphor of our imagination through words, I find that it’s an incredible adventure into why we do what we do, who we are, how different people think of different things. That’s a grandiose answer to your question!

Something was written two years ago, or two hundred years ago, or twenty minutes ago, can, in some ways, not be the determining factor — it simply has been attempted. Of course, we to try and capture how people do what they do in a musical language. The story of Hadrian is fascinating, the story of Da Ponte is fascinating, the story of Scarpia is fascinating, the story of Boccanegra is fascinating, just to name some big characters; why do they do what they do and who are they? Some have a bit more to do with the value of humanity and the value of life, but to know a Scarpia is to understand how desperate and tyrannical humans can be to one another — and how dangerous humans can be. Tosca is just as contemporary today as the day it was written. These are things that fascinate me.

In terms of specifically new music, I feel very strongly that new opera must be supported — that sounds like more of a drudge that I mean it, but we have to give our composers the chance to become great. Verdi’s first three or four operas were not exactly amazing but they showed an amazing potential, and they’re probably all worth some kind of performance. There’s an awful lot of pressure on new opera productions today because people come, sit there and fold their arms and say, “Okay, am I going to experience greatness?” But I think that’s missing the point completely. Are we engaged in human beings? That’s my question and certainly, we were with Hadrian and certainly we are here with The Phoenix.

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Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane

What does that give you then, as an artist?

Everything.

A lot of people in your position would be content to rest on their considerable laurels.

That’s not who I am or who we are as musicians. Bernard Haitink doesn’t keep conducting at 90 because he is trying to stay employed and wants to remember who he is. This what we do in the morning, this is what we live for, it’s our lifeblood, whether we play for three or 3000 is not the point — it’s what gets us motivated, what motivates us in terms of being musicians. It’s not about a gold watch and 30 years service.

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Teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. Photo: Brian Hatton

Does that feed into your teaching work? Chen Reiss said in a recent conversation that teaching gives her a lot as an artist.

Yes, and It gives me a great deal too. I’ve taught a lot in the last 25 years — I’ve learned a lot about it over the years and I’m thankful. When I teach for a couple days, or walk into a masterclass, just having to articulate the fundamentals or rearticulate the whys and wherefores to young colleagues, somehow reinforces your own; it’s like giving yourself a voice lesson. I thank my colleagues for letting me take the time to give myself a voice lesson! Now that I’m more extensively involved in pedagogical activities, and planning them, I see it as a wonderfully healthy way to pass it on. I’ve had some wonderful instruction since the heydey of my career — I was very fortunate; they gave me inroads into how to study and how to prepare that have stood me well.  I’m confident that, at the very least, I can be a help to my younger colleagues in an experiential way, so I can say, for instance, “That’s not a path you want to go down.” In the last five or seven years, in my more concentrated studies, I’m very active in keeping abreast to pedagogical thought and to keeping it simple, and helping young colleagues truly mature into young professionals. It’s a passing-it-on situation, and it gives me a great deal of energy. To be part of someone else’s “a-ha!” moment is very intoxicating.

Keeping that “a-ha!” moment in mind, you’ve worked with some great conductors, and continue to. How much do you still find yourself surprised at learning from them? Everybody has a different style, different personality, different ways of adjusting.

That’s a good question. When I was singing a great deal of Mozart, bouncing between Harnoncourt, Muti and Levine, that was, talk about different styles and personalities! Everyone is on the same mountain, the mountain is the clarity of human emotion in musical language, and the different glaciers you might be on have different challenges. Yes, you do not sing, in a phraseology sense, the same with a Muti as with a Harnoncourt, but those are not absolutes. Both of those men are deeply dedicated, experienced musicians, and great conductors don’t happen by accident — they’re some of the greatest musicians musical minds. The best conductors have a direct and kind of uncanny ability to initiate other peoples’ making of music in a collective way, and that’s an extremely important talent. To learn from these really wonderful musicians is a privilege; having someone like Jansons feel you are the one he needs to make that musical decision or choice of repertoire viable at that particular concert, it’s a great validation. For him to want to do that with you is great — I don’t feel so engaged by him as invited to participate because we can go to this or that level with this or that piece, and that’s very important. Michael Tilson Thomas — I’ve learned so much from him, he’s so damn smart. I don’t have the musical training these people do, or the musical talent; I have a musicality and an instinct that can keep up! Bruno Walter said that about Lotte Lehmann; she was an amazing singer, she moved people enormously and was a great pedagogue, but he wrote the forward to her book, “Lotte’s curiosity has always informed her instinctual knowledge.” I think that’s a wonderful thing.

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Photo: Mark McDonald

That relates to your dedication to lieder and the art of song — it seems like another symbol for your artistic curiosity. Why song, why now?

That’s a wonderful question. I’m not into a particular fach, or niche repertoire. I’m not trying to help keep the song alive because I think it’s a “cool” thing. As humans with have two options to express ourselves: we can either verbally articulate it, or we can write it. Whether that’s in a hieroglyphic or a scratch on a cave wall, or a fine use of the language any one person would call their own language, it doesn’t matter — the point is to get the experience, the emotional and intellectual experience out of your head and leave it like a footprint in the sand, and say, “Okay, this is what I thought.” Poetry has a little bit more focus to that in that someone is deciding in a particular linguistic structure to express thought and emotion at the same time. This is a wonderful source of inspiration for people whose antenna is essentially musical; these two antennae are somehow trying to figure out a way to articulate what Copland said, the moment of being alive now. And the composer fleshes out, in a musical language, more the emotional context of what that poem is about as well as participating in the intellectual side of the narrative, and that’s to think about what this or that chord represents, this or that harmonic structure or harmonic rhythm, whatever the tools of that musical composer are which indicate they’re fleshing out what they perceive that poem was about.

That’s what I feel is the alpha-omega of singing. This is what we do: we make the human experience audible, in a language called music, inspired by words, which is for the purpose of us as a community experiencing that particular moment of humanness, if you will. And I don’t think that’s a hobby, I don’t think that’s a fach, I don’t think that’s genre; I think that’s the beginning and the end of everything we do as singers, period. The idea there’s a concert fach and a lieder fach and an oper fach, “he’s this or that type of baritone” — I just think that’s a very dangerous and un-useful thing to think for singers within their own particular development.

Also, it’s not an idea to give our audiences, that we are jobbing. I think the arts and humanities is far more important than the idea that “Oh, it’s a job.” It is more than that. What we provide in the evening, what a classical concert is about, if you will, is the privilege and pleasure of any human to stop the clock just for a second. It might be three minutes or a forty-minute movement; we stop the clock for the privilege of going inside and asking ourselves, as listeners and performers, who are we? Why are we here? What does this all mean? How can we make a way forwards from this experience ? If that’s not the thrust of the classical music industry, the privilege and pleasure and the inroads of audiences we provide for their own human living development and experience, we’re in a lot of trouble. You can’t market or brand that. It has to be understood as part of the process of us asking, how can we be better human beings?

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Operetta gala in Baden-Baden with Annette Dasch, Piotr Beczala, and Pavel Baleff conducting the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Michael Bode

Stopping the clock doesn’t have to be limited to serious music, either. As Barrie Kosky and I discussed last year, it can happen in operettas, a genre you perform in and make part of your concerts.

It’s like making fun of opera plots — talk about low-hanging fruit! But I don’t think opera is about plot; I think opera is about dilemma. Whether the door was opened or the sun went up or five years passed or whatever, it all gets condensed —the point is that a trio of people might come together to explore who they are. When the composers are gifted and the language of character is so apparent in their music — i.e. Verdi, i.e. Mozart – then I think we all go home happy. If you take that in another way, to the operetta world, yes they’re simpler but why not? The thing about operetta that fascinates me, as well as musical theatre, is that the distance between emotional language and the language of the music so much closer. And the believability factor is instantaneous with an operetta; If they don’t believe every word, you’re dead, forget about it. If you feel for a minute it’s about you and your voice, they’ll walk away. That’s not quite true in opera. It’s an experiential dimension, a wonder of what’s happening as much as why. It’s all healthy, and part of the enriching human experience of the theatre and the power of the musical language.

But we have a completely different sensibility to the language of music than the era from which a lot of these pieces were written; Bellini is not Mozart, Verdi is not Mozart, Puccini is not Verdi. I think these questions are important. As an example, Verdi, as great as he was, was vociferously criticized for the vulgarity of the beginning of Otello when he wrote it. I don’t know any conductor, esp Italian, who don’t feel the mantle of Verdi’s spirit on their shoulders. Yet all of the instruments are different — the strings are steel, the clarinets are plastic — the decibel possible out of an orchestra pit in a house now is something people in Verdi’s time would have never experienced, let alone the sheer size of the houses now. What am I trying to say? I’m saying when we do these performances, we need to be sensitive to the context in which they were performed; a forte piano in Schubert is different than a forte piano in Stravinsky  I don’t care who wants to disagree with me — it’s just different. As musicians. it’s our job to flesh out the reality, to make it audible, so that the experience is contemporary, regardless of when the piece was written.

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As Scarpia in Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper / Wilfried Hösl

Part of what makes your performances so visceral is that you are such a believable stage presence. Luca and I spoke about how he prefers being known as a singing actor over being known for just his voice alone.

I know he’s said that before, and he’s right. What I would like is to be remembered as somebody you believed when you saw or heard him in the theatre. “Whether a Winterreise or in an opera or in recital, Hampson always made audible that which he was singing.” Luca’s right — in the theatre context, in an opera context, I certainly want to be thought of as a thoroughly professional singer; I don’t think that’s different than being believable in an acting sense. I think what makes Luca special is that his believability factor is so high. He searches for that dimension of understanding of why the music is saying that, and incorporates making it physical as well as audible.

A lot of my colleagues are extremely preoccupied with being remembered as a special or unique or great voice. I mean, Callas was unique in her generation, unique in several generations, with records that are still selling — people want to listen. Why? It’s not just the amazing agility and color and timbre. It’s the believability factor, giving it up to music — I believe what I do on stage has, this is going to sound incongruous, but it ain’t about Tom Hampson, it’s about what Tom Hampson can do to make that which he’s singing audible, believable, inhabitable, for the people who are experiencing that performance. Now, does that mean it’s not about me? Of course not. It’s my abilities to do that, but my whole effort is about the Schubert moment ,the Mahler moment, the Verdi moment, the Wainwright moment, the O’Regan moment.

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In concert at Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music. Photo: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)

Those moments have to be infused with authenticity.

Yes, you have to do your homework. You have to work to do that. it’s a tremendous amount of study and detailed sensitivity. People who talk about the spontaneousness of this or that performer onstage simply don’t understand the dimensions of performing. Of course we want to be thought of as spontaneous, there’s nothing more miraculous than someone saying, “It sounded as if he was composing it as he sang it!” That’s one of the greatest compliments, but that is only possible with the minutest, most detailed sensitivity and homework.

And sometimes it’s nice to experience artists where you can see the gears turning, you can feel them, you can smell them. I love that.

Yes! I must say, I am not preoccupied with what people think about me. I’m preoccupied what what I think about me. It’s one of the things I talk about with my young colleagues: if you go onstage like a golden retriever, wanting people to like you and think you’re the cutest dog ever, you’re going to be a nervous wreck. I am not concerned with what people think about the Winterreise when I sing it; I am concerned that I achieve what I believe Schubert was trying to achieve in that cycle. I cannot convince anybody of anything from the stage. The energy in a concert hall or opera house is not from the stage to the audience, it is from the audience to the stage. And if you embrace that, and you know your technique and you know why you’re standing there and go into your zone as quickly as you can in that public context, as a performer your nerves will be more controllable. If you go out thinking the applause-o-meter is important, or “Oh God, there’s blank faces in the first few rows” … I mean, I don’t know who’s in front of me; I don’t want to know. That’s not why I’m there.

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Photo: Catherine Pisaroni

There’s a real intimacy with singing — you don’t have an instrument; it’s just you, your body, the space, and sometimes conductor or accompanists, and the music. There’s something vulnerable about that.

Yes, for sure.

It’s a real pity when you see singers who’ve lost that vulnerability.

Yes, that’s so true — and their sense of wonder. I do this piece called Letters from Lincoln by Michael Daugherty, and it ends with him signing a letter,”Yours very sincerely, Abraham Lincoln.” I mean… wow. You have to sing it a few times not to get emotional.

The German phrase “stehen für” means “represent” but it doesn’t quite grasp things— it means someone who stands in place of someone else. That’s what I feel like when I sing the great music I’m allowed to sing; I am there at their service. The only megastars are the composers and poets, in my opinion. I know Pavarotti felt the same way. We all come and go. You do the best you can. My responsibility is a final link to the greatness of thought and captured in a language called music.

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Photo: Jiyang Chen

And that includes fun music.

Yes, there’s different constellations. With the concert performances, yes it’s clever, we’re family, “no tenors allowed” — that’s a total tongue-in-cheek joke, it has no validity to our tenor colleagues or anybody else, it’s just a smirk and a hahaha. What is in these programs is Mozart. Bellini, Verdi, Massenet, then we get into Lehar, Kalman, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and our last encore is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which is the precursor to Verdi. This is great music, these are great moments — admittedly some are lighter, but audiences will take this roller coaster ride, from a Don Giovanni duet, which is brief but white-heat kind of stuff, to this enormous contemplation of freedom and self-determination with that Don Carlo duet, to ending with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. I defy you to put a brand on that evening. It is interesting, some of the reactions we get, but audiences get it completely, they go with us. Most people respect who we are but some have had to chew on this: what is it? A vanity evening?

“That isn’t real opera!”

Yes, and I think that’s missing the point of a duet evening, this bouquet of great musical moments of human experience. Is it the Winterreise? No. Is it Don Carlo? No.

hampson pisaroni live no tenors

Wolfsburg concert. Photo: Andreas Greiner-Nap / Soli Deo Gloria

But it doesn’t have to be.

Exactly! Something in the back of ours minds is, maybe it’s the first time some of our public is introduced to some of this great work. We could’ve programmed nothing but duets — I did a record with Sam, I love duet evenings, I’ll do one with Opolais and another Gheorghiu this year. I think it’s a big evening, it demands everything from Luca and I — it is not a walk in the park. We are out there on the line, but we believe the program is very user-friendly and has a lot of value as well a big enjoyment factor for all of us. I want to believe some of that snobbery is because I’ve not had a chance to talk to the naysayers and offer a different perspective.

Maybe No Tenors Allowed in itself already offers that perspective?

That’s what our hope is!

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