Tag: vocal writing

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Photo: Bertie Watson

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of new ones for The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production and under the baton of Martyn Brabbins.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big sexy opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow, of using a combination of social media know-how, star power, and superpower vocals to impress, charm, and scale ever-higher music mountains. The difference with Spence, who grew up in rural Scotland, is that his particular brand of so-called “star power” is integrated with a very keen, very mature musicality, a sincere personality, and that immense, magical voice, one possessing a clean, balanced tone and knowing expressivity. Spence is well aware of timing, texture, technique, but is pro enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (usually theatrical) reason, that is. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence started young; as a teenager, he received a scholarship to the Guildhall School (at that time he was their youngest singer, at 17) and a record contract with Decca Records, before going on to the National Opera Studio and the English National Opera as one of the company’s inaugural Harewood Artists. The tenor has gone on to perform extensively (on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne) and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Martyn Brabbins, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few.

To say Spence “specializes” in darker, more supposedly “difficult” repertoire, is to miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (and sometimes downright dirty and bloody) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t imply the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven, whose works can be every bit as chewy (and whose works Spence has also performed), more that taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the experiences of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), which The New York Times labelled an “intellectual autobiography” upon its release, George Steiner ponders this equation of rare matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

For all the hectic schedule that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) to the opera world, Spence continues to retain an appealing earthiness, a quality he mused, in his conversation with Cooper two years ago, is related to his experience growing up on a farm. The sights, sounds, smells, and overall feel of real, unfiltered life are entrenched in his art, his voice, the pauses as much as the tones, dynamic choices, textural feel; the smell of hay, grass, and sea permeate Spence’s sound, and it’s such sensual and direct authenticity that makes his performances so special, elevating the “nice guy tenor” (which he is) into something else entirely.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epicness of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling, they are epic tales, The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day. And that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Chen Reiss: “The Breath Carries The Soul”

chen reiss soprano

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

The first time I saw Chen Reiss was as Zerlina in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2018. Some readers know how fascinated I am by this opera; I’ve seen and heard it so many ways, by so many different people. But Reiss’s performance was something entirely apart; she was a million miles away from the numerous other presentations I’d experienced, vocally, dramatically, even, dare I say, spiritually.

Over the following weeks following that performance (one which marked her ROH debut), I absorbed everything I could, finding myself moved, inspired, and delighted by her work in everything from sacred to classical to operetta. Based in Vienna, the Israeli soprano has a wide range and deep appreciation of the role process plays in career. She’s performed with the Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Teatro alla Scala, Semperoper Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, and De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam (to name a few), and made concert appearances with the Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Berlin, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, and Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, plus enjoyed appearances with an assortment of summer events including the London Proms, the Lucerne Festival, Schleswig Holstein, and the Enescu Festival. In 2014 she sang at the Vatican for the Pope (and a rather large worldwide audience) as part of a televised Christmas Mass,and her discography reveals a wide and adventurous musical curiosity.

Reiss has performed a myriad of roles with Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) over the past eight years, with an ever-expanding repertoire, notably the music of Richard Strauss; as you will hear, the German composer’s work matches her lusciously gleaming tone just beautifully. March 21st (2019) sees Wiener Staatsoper celebrating its 1,000th performance of his 1911 opera Die Rosenkavalier, with Reiss performing the pivotal role of Sophie in a much-loved Otto Schenk production led by conductor Adam Fischer. She’ll also be singing the role of Marzelline in Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, again under the baton of Fischer. From Vienna, she goes on to perform concert dates in Belgium, Austria, and Germany, and in the summer months tours Spain (plus a date in Munich) with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra.

chen reiss freischutz

As Ännchen in Weber’s Der Freischütz. (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Reiss and I first spoke last year when I was writing a story about the relationship between Instagram and opera. This time we chatted during the short break she had between gigs at her home base in Vienna, just after she’d put her two young daughters to bed. What’s so refreshing about Reiss is her authenticity; she is simply herself, whether onstage or off, with no predilections toward haughtiness, self-dramatizing, or cutesy artificiality. That doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of showmanship for the stage, however; witness her sparky Ännchen in Weber’s Die Freischütz, which oozes equal parts sass and smarts but escapes the cliched confines of both by embracing an essential humanity can sometimes go missing on the opera stage. Vocally Reiss exudes control, range, and innate lyricism, and theatrically she is a force of authentic expressivity. When harmoniously combined with easy elegance and graceful poise, a beguiling and very human artist emerges. As Reiss notes, that artistry is a work-in-progress, as it should be; she is fiercely dedicated to honing her craft. Committed to exercising her craft on the stage and in the concert hall, Reiss is also enthusiastic about passing down what she knows to the next generation, and keeping herself busy and inspired with projects, one of which involves embracing the vocal writing of a composer who is not entirely beloved by singers. A special jewel in the music world, she’s one of the most down-to-earth artists I’ve ever spoken with. Fingers crossed to see her live in 2019.

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

How have you enjoyed your time off ?

It’s been great — I’ve been focusing on my own projects, and I got so much writing done. So many ideas come to your head when you’re not just doing, when you take time off… but you’re a writer, you know that!

It’s true: if you don’t give yourself that breathing space as an artist, you are running on fumes. You have to shut the door on everything…  

… including the phone! That’s the most difficult thing. It’s amazing how much noise there is in the background, whether it’s WhatsApp or Instagram or Facebook or email.

And you’re a busy singer, so you have to be easily reachable.

The fall was busy – there were a lot of new roles and traveling, and it was really one thing after another, but it’s good. I’ve been in Vienna the past two months now, singing and rehearsing and also learning new roles, but being in one place is so much better than going around all the time.

All that travel is exhausting.

But you travel a lot too!

I did in the summer and autumn, yes. Ultimately I want to be in Europe permanently — it’s important to be able to hop on an airplane or a train and see people like you in places like Liège.

I’ve never been to Liège — I’m looking forward to it! I’ve sung very little in Belgium. The last time I sang there I was really young; it’s been a long time! I sing quite a lot in Amsterdam. And of course I’ll be in Germany in June.

Chorin has a long history of vocal performances. It’s a good spot for vocal music with the way it’s designed, visually and acoustically.

I’m looking forward! And The Seasons is one of my favorite pieces. For me Haydn is one of the underestimated vocal composers;  he wrote some incredible things. The Seasons is not done often but it’s a masterpiece, it’s so brilliant. I read that Haydn wrote The Creation for the angels and The Seasons for the people, and it’s true — it’s so down to earth and so moving, and it really should be done much more often.

What’s it like going between the works of Haydn and Strauss and Beethoven? How do you navigate those changes vocally and otherwise?

I started more in Haydn, Mozart, Handel, then the voice grew into the heavier stuff like Strauss and Humperdink; I consider Gretel really something I sing with my full voice, and Zdenka (from Strauss’s Arabella), where I feel I need my entire vocal power to do it. And actually, speaking about Beethoven, he’s a composer that I got into fairly late. I started when I was fourteen, with Baroque and Mozart, that music always felt very natural in the voice. I had very easy coloraturas, not just the high but in the middle voice. The runs were always easy for me when my voice was very light in my early twenties.  What I had to learn is to sing the long lines, and to use more of the voice. It’s a very big orchestra here in Vienna, and they’re sitting high up in the pit, so the volume is tremendous. Singing in Vienna taught me how to lean more into the body.

I still take voice lessons regularly. And when young singers write me, I always say: find a good teacher, and practise good habits. Once you find a teacher you trust, you really need to continue taking lessons. Athletes have their coach and they train with that coach, even those who win the World Cup — they still go for regular check-ups on their technique, and we have to do it as well. I think I am careful too; I was offered, years ago, roles that were heavier and required more middle voice and I didn’t do them. I really stayed within my fach. Of course it’s also important to be versatile; I don’t just sing opera — luckily I sing a lot of concert music too, which really keeps the voice in very good shape, because you can concentrate on staying in the body, on the music, on the vocal lines.

That’s the thing about performing concert repertoire: you aren’t necessarily worrying about blocking.

But in concert you can also be too static. Opera has the movement that releases you. So every discipline has its advantages and disadvantages.

I watched the Master Class you did through the Israel Philharmonic last year. What does teaching give you as an artist?

You learn a lot from the students! First of all, you learn how to listen. And, I think that there are certain, I don’t like the word “rules,” but guidelines that I strongly believe in. For instance, I believe 80% of the work sits in the breath. If you hear something which is maybe a sound that is not, I don’t like to say “ideal” but maybe not the ultimate sound, you can hear the singer can do better, then I think mostly there is some kind of blockage in either the posture, or the flow of air. That’s really almost always the case, and I know for me, it’s either the jaw or the tongue or solar plexus or lower back, so you just have to see where it is, or to give yourself the order to let go. And it’s really hard.

And frightening, I would imagine.

I find it’s much easier to do on your own than when you’re in front of other people. To me, singing in a way is a high level of meditation, in front of thousands of people.

That’s a good way of putting it!

Ha, yes! It’s easy to say and hard to do. It requires immense focus. It’s a balance. You also have to be very energized, and to find the balance.

ROH chen reiss soprano don giovanni

With Mariusz Kwiecien in the Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni by Kasper Holten, 2018. (Photo: Royal Opera House / Bill Cooper)

“Poise” is the precise word that came to mind when I saw your Zerlina in the Royal Opera House production of Don Giovanni last year. It was so much more than the soubrette, which is an unfortunate norm with regards to performances of that role. I had to rethink parts of an opera I assumed I knew very well.

I don’t like the categories they put us in: “soubrette,” “dramatic soprano” and so on. This isn’t what the composer meant. You have to be true to the character. You have to be in the moment in every sense, because the breath is really… in Hebrew there is only one letter difference between the word for “breath” and the word for “soul,” and that letter is the word for God. So the difference between breath and soul is God, or the way I interpret it is, the breath carries the soul, and to me, this is singing. But this is the philosophical explanation — it takes years of physical training. We are using our bodies; our body is our  instrument. You can have great ideas in your head but if you don’t practise and develop muscle memory, a very exact muscle memory, then you not will be able to execute it onstage, because there’s so much going on, especially in opera.

… and in the rehearsals leading up to the actual presentation, too.

I love working with directors. If it’s a good director, they push your limits, to places you didn’t think you could go, to places you didn’t think you’d have the courage to go, and it’s amazing what comes out of it. I love rehearsing. It’s not just about the final product, it’s about trying new things, which is why, to me, it’s much more interesting to create something, a whole role, than to do a competition. I never found competitions very enjoyable in the sense of, I didn’t feel like I made a journey, like the character developed. I never felt that I achieved any musical or dramatic development.

As a pianist I was forced into competitions kicking and screaming. The entire process felt reductive — of music, of me as an individual player, and as a thinking, feeling person.

chen reiss zdenka

As Zdenka in Strauss’s Arabella (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn)

Yes! It’s not my character to compete. The reason I sing is not to be better than anybody else, and also not to prove myself to anybody. It’s because I love creating in the moment, and I never felt a competition was a creative environment. When you work on a production you’re in a creative environment, and you have time to develop things, and you learn things about yourself. And sometimes it goes great, and sometimes not, it depends on who your partners are, which is why it’s important to combine opera with other artforms, and important for me to do my own projects. It’s more interesting to me to create things like my Beethoven CD, from the beginning. I feel like I have much more control and artistic freedom.

You’re doing a Beethoven album?

I’m really gotten into his music. As I said, I discovered it quite late — late in the sense of, even after Strauss! I sang a lot of Strauss before I sang Beethoven! The first one I sang was Christus am Ölberge (Christ on the Mount of Olives), which is a fantastic aria for soprano, one of the best, and after I sang it I asked myself, why am I not singing more Beethoven? Everybody kept telling me, “He didn’t know how to write for voice! He’s difficult for singing!” I don’t understand why people think that. I really don’t think it’s the case.

That’s a common feeling among singers toward Beethoven’s music: it isn’t vocally friendly.

What made me say “I have to do a CD of Beethoven!” is that I got to sing Fidelio. The first one I did was in concert with Mehta in Israel, which was fantastic, then I had the big privilege to sing it in Vienna, in a gorgeous old production by Otto Schenk. I said to myself: this is really amazing music.And it didn’t feel difficult.  When I learned Zdenka, I found it much more difficult — the line in Strauss is up and down and… I don’t know, people say he was a fantastic composer for the voice. I love Strauss, and I sing a lot of Strauss, but I find I have to work technically more to get it to sound right than I do with Beethoven. I got interested in arias by him that aren’t done very often; everybody knows Ah! perfidoand Fidelio and the Ninth, and I agree, (the latter) doesn’t sit in the most common places for the voice, but it’s not also terrible! I got into these (lesser-known) arias and said to myself, “This is beautiful writing.” Of course you need a vocal plan and a dramatic plan but I think you need it for any concert aria, whether it’s Mozart or Haydn, and Beethoven is no different; there is beautiful dramatic development, lots of colors, it’s really a showcase for a singer. Of course it requires a lot of thinking also, which singers do not always like to do, because we are more doers.

And you’re emotive.

Yes, and we are very instinctive, and also, in a way, spontaneous too — there’s something spontaneous about singing. Of course you have to practise, but at the end of the day you have to let it go; you can’t think too much. So with Beethoven’s music, parts of it at sound a bit, not as natural, but I think they are just as valuable, and the same way he was an amazing composer for piano and chamber music and symphonies, he was also an amazing composer for the voice. There are relatively far fewer recordings of his vocal music in comparison with other composers of his time, so I feel those arias deserve to be heard more often. It was appealing to me. I said I’d do a CD and I’m sure it will be a interesting journey! I’m getting more familiar with his language and his style, and I think it will be easier for me once I feel more fluent in his language. But I have quite a lot of experience, having sung Egmont and Marzelline.

chen reiss soprano

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Beyond Beethoven, what other works are you thinking about right now?

A role I’d love to do soon is the Contessa in The Marriage Of Figaro. For me it feels like a natural next step. The interesting thing is that i’ve just done Susanna in Vienna, and that’s not a role I’ve sung a lot. The first time I sung the entire role was now — I’ve sung a lot of Paminas and Zerlinas, as well as and Servilia and Blonde, but somehow Susanna just happened now, and it’s a great role. You sing a lot, and really a lot in the middle voice. It’s a great character, but I think the Contessa has the better music.

It’s more soulful.

Definitely! It talks to my soul. I feel closer to her than Susanna in who I am. So that’s definitely a role I’d love to do. And I’d love to do Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. I sung Liu in concert with Mehta but I’d love to do a production. Or Melisande, or Leila in The Pearl Fishers. It’s not done a lot, and I’ve not sung a lot in French, but I feel like my voice suits it, because you need this transparency. I also love religious music in French — Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, for instance — so I have those places I want to go.

Your current projects seem like the right assortment of contents to put in the luggage to take to that destination.

I hope so! I like to think about long-term planning, because I’ve done a lot and I’m in a position where I can choose what to do and what to concentrate on, which is a great place to be. And I’m still young and the voice is in a good place to try new things. The most important thing is the people around you: your managers, your PR people, your vocal coach, your web designer, your photographer. You have to make sure to surround yourself with the right advisors, and not let anyone push you or present you in a way that isn’t who you really are. A lot of people now are trying to imitate the career path of other singers. I think they need to remember that what feels natural and correct for one won’t work for someone else; each one of us is a different person and performer. It’s really important to stay true to yourself.

Sir George Benjamin Wows With the Berlin Philharmonic

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Attending the Berlin Musikfest is quickly becoming something of a habit. Since my first experience with the event last year, I’ve become captivated by its varied and very rich programming, which features local organizations (including the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester, the Konzerthaus Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester), plus a number of important chamber groups, vocal outfits, and an assortment of stellar visiting orchestras (including the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam and Boston Symphony Orchestra recently). What I love about Musikfest is that it is so unapologetically varied; there is no sense of needing to appeal to a so-called “mainstream” base, because the term simply doesn’t apply. Thus the programming is what one might term adventurous, exploratory, just plain smart — and features many modern and/or living composers, like the concert given by the Berlin Phil this past weekend, led by conductor/composer (and Composer in Residence for the 2018-2019 season) Sir George Benjamin. Saturday’s performance was a chewy, thoughtful presentation that examined notions of time, impermanence, and various states of perception. Like so much of the programming at Musikfest, the concert was a thought-provoking examination of how we experience music, in time and space, according to personal and historical perceptions, and how we live in, around, and outside of sound itself. 

The program opened with the work of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez. Though he passed away in early 2016, Boulez was easily one of the most influential artists in twentieth century music. His experimental, and frequently ground-breaking approach helped to shape so very many  composers and artists (Benjamin included) who followed. “Cummings ist der Dichter” (“Cummings is the poet”) is a 1970 work that imitates through sound what the poet ee cummings attempted to achieve in text.  As Anselm Cybinski’s fine program notes remind us, “(p)erception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase.” While the work can be jagged, there is a majestic beauty at work, an undeniable forward momentum despite “its gestures seem(ing) discontinuous and spontaneous.” Benjamin thoughtfully emphasized these multiple perspectives through careful (indeed, loving) emphasis on the relationship between harps, strings, and voices (especially female) via ChorWerk Ruhr. Their melismatic vocalizing was hugely complemented by the tremulous bass work of Janne Saksala, which made for a gorgeous fluidity that nicely contrasted the many crunchy chords and dissonant jolts. Benjamin himself has a gentle approach that is simultaneously intuitive and narrative-driven, equal parts heart and head, perhaps reflecting his own operatic considerable (and rightly celebrated) history. This gentle force would shape and define the program overall, becoming especially discernible in the final work of the evening by Benjamin himself.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker; Georges Benjamin

Cédric Tiberghien performs with the Berlin Philharmonic as part of Musikfest Berlin 2018 (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

Before then, the audience was treated to a ravishing performance of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D major for the left hand, with French pianist Cédric Tiberghien. The piece, written between 1929 and 1930, was commissioned by concert pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had suffered grave injury in the First World War, losing his right arm as a result. The concerto is a fiercely virtuosic work which Ravel himself described as being in “only one movement” though its slow-fast-slow structure and allusions to various other works (some by the composer himself) make it far more thoughtful than its title might suggest. The opening, as sonically luxuriant as any from Ravel’s 1912 “symphonie chorégraphique” Daphnis et Chloé, featured beautiful bass and bassoon work, with Benjamin emphasizing sensuous tone and phrasing. The build to Tiberghien’s virtuosic entrance dripped with drama; Benjamin pulled a sparkling ebullience from the orchestra, with ringing strings and boisterous if well-modulated brass and woodwinds. A syncopated section featuring violas, cellos, and bassoons could so easily have been played cartoonishly (and in fact, frequently is), but the maestro avoided any easy sonic trappings, focusing on the probing heart beneath the plucky lines, with the piano as a blended and equal partner. 

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner PhilharmonikerGeorges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin with Cédric Tiberghien (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

In this he and the orchestra were matched by Tiberghien’s energetic playing, his laser focus never obscuring or erasing his highly poetic approach. The young pianist seemed less concerned with showing off his (clear) virtuosic talent than with coaxing color, modulation, a refined texture (clarified to a remarkable degree in his encore, “Oiseaux tristes”, the second movement of Ravel’s piano cycle Miroirs). The clear sonic references contained within the Concerto to Ravel’s famous “Boléro” (premiere in 1928), as well as to Gershwin works (especially “Rhapsody in Blue”, premiered in 1924) were made clear enough without belaboring the obvious; Benjamin emphasized percussion (as he did throughout the evening), with an insistent pacing echoed by cellos and bass, making the sound more akin to a grinding war machine than flamenco or jazz, a clear reference to the history of the piece’s commissioner and first performer. 

The contemplative nature of the performance also underlined the temporal nature of the sound experience in and of itself, and how it might be altered with the use of only one limb; such contemplations around temporality, perception, and one’s direct experience of sound would emerge as a dominant theme of the evening, highlighted in Ligeti’s Clocks and Clouds for 12-part female choir and orchestra, written in 1972-73, and a reference to a lecture given by Karl Popper in 1972 in which the Viennese philosopher juxtaposes (as Ligeti himself wrote) “exactly determined (“clocks”) versus global, statistically measurable (“clouds”) occurrences of nature. In my piece, however, the clocks and clouds are poetic images. The periodic, polyrhythmic sound-complexes melt into diffuse, liquid states and vice versa.”

Like much of the vocal writing done by Claude Vivier (whose traces here will be noticeable for fans of the Quebecois composer’s work) the twelve voices sing, according to the program notes, “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function.” And so spindly strings contrasted with the sheet-like vocals of ChorWerk Ruhr members, before roles reversed and chirping vocal lines were set against (and yet poetically with) steely-smooth strings.  Benjamin held the tension between the worlds of voice and instrument with operatic grace, creating and recreating a sort of narrative with every passing note fading in and out as naturally as breathing. Interloping woodwinds and clarinets brought to mind the image of an Impressionist painting being projected in a darkened planetarium, against a backdrop of slow-moving galaxies. This was immensely moving performance, at once as emotional as it was intellectual.

Musikfest Berlin 2018: Berliner Philharmoniker Georges Benjamin

Sir George Benjamin leads the Berlin Philharmonic at Musikfest Berlin (Photo: (c) Kai Bienert)

The audience was given a good chance to reset heart, mind, and ears between the Ligeti work and the final piece of the evening, Benjamin’s “Palimpsests”, written in 2002 and dedicated to Pierre Boulez (who also led its premiere). Another stage rearrangement (many were needed this evening) allowed for numerous basses at one side, a line of violinists at the front, and good numbers of brass, woodwinds, plus three percussionists directly in front of Benjamin. The set-up, compact but equally expansive, allowed Benjamin’s titular layers (and their related, possibility-ladden connotations) to come in waves around and outwards and around once again, with clear references to the works of both Boulez as well as Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin’s former teacher. Expressive violin lines here act as a quasi-choir; at Saturday’s performance, there was a small but lovely moment between Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa and violinist Luiz Filipe Coelho, in an almost-dancing lyrical duet which brought to mind Benjamin’s own edict that he wanted the piece to be “anti-romantic and yet passionate.”

Despite the sheer muscularity of sound particular to the Berlin Philharmonic violin section, Benjamin carefully controlled and shaped for maximum dramatic (and vocal) effect, placing just as much care on their twisting lines with harp, a highly cinematic and charged series of moments which recalled the sounds of film composer Bernard Herrmann. Impressively angry horn sounds were the loudest volume heard all night, complementing a stellar percussion section, whom Benjamin made sure to recognize during bows at the close. The gentle force which had opened the program now closed it, with thoughtful grace and a heartfelt elegance. In a current interview in New Yorker magazine, Benjamin says of his childhood that “I loved playing the piano, but it was the orchestra I went to see […] I loved the variety of instruments, the energy, and the source of drama through sound.” That drama was realized in this thought-provoking Musikfest program.

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