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

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are rehearsals going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JD It’s not an ideal situation…

BS… but it’s something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BS It’s a lot of money.

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

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

Photo: Gerard Collett

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

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

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

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

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

BS Bravo, John…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BS Oh for sure.

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

Photo: Robert Workman

How do you keep your focus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ermonela Jaho: “Singing Is The Language Of Our Souls”

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Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan

One of my last experiences of live vocal music in 2020 was hearing Ermonela Jaho perform live at Wigmore Hall as part of Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The acclaimed soprano made her recital debut, together with pianist Steven Maughan, to a packed hall, tackling an ambitious program of works consisting of French and Italian repertoire in memory of soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who originated many of the roles in the works being presented. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted, Jaho’s artistry “is rooted in a deep identification with her chosen repertoire that results in performances of unsparing veracity and tremendous emotional honesty. In recital, as on stage, her ability to expose a character’s psyche in seconds is utterly remarkable.” I came away feeling not weakened but awakened, as much entranced by Jaho’s lilting phrasing in “Sérénade” (Gounod) as stunned by her plaintive “Tristezza” (Tosti), the honesty of her emotion clear in light shades, dark tones, and everything in between.

The evening offered a tantalizing preview of Anima Rara, Jaho’s third album with Opera Rara, set for release on 25 September via Warner Classics, and recorded with Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and conductor Andrea Battistoni. The album, like the recital, is a tribute of sorts to Storchio, but is also a deeply moving showcase of the innate lyricism and emotional honesty which are so much a part of Jaho’s artistry. Known and rightly celebrated for her visceral stage performances, Jaho, who began her operatic career as a teenager in her native Albania, has appeared at a number of famous houses (The Met, Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Teatro Real, Opéra national de Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Royal Opera) in a range of dramatic and demanding roles, including the titular Anna Bolena, Suor Angelica, and Thaïs, as well as Mimi in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Liú in Turandot, Desdemona in Otello, and, perhaps most famously, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, a role she is set to reprise next month at Greek National Opera. Amidst the fourteen tracks featured on Anima Rara, Jaho seamlessly connects head and heart through a kaleidoscope of vocal colors via verismo, the late 19th/early 20th-century style of opera which uses real-life settings and characters as a means by which of attaining a greater degree of naturalism, and, I would argue, psychological familiarity.

Ermonela Jaho, soprano, performance, singer, singing, live, voice, vocal, concert, recital, Wigmore Hall, London, opera, Opera Rara

Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan

Confession: I was not the biggest fan of verismo until I heard Jaho live and subsequently on this album. Her attention to detail is so connected to emotional expression as to be indistinguishable; the transitions between notes, the considered pauses, the smart phrasings – they all allow a vivid series of pictures to be created in one’s mind. I felt I was actually seeing and starting to know, at a human level, many of the women Jaho here embodies in sound. Some of the narratives verismo favours are indeed soapy (revolving around sex, jealousy, and rather teenaged ideas about, and reactions to, the experience of love and its confusion with infatuation), but the emotions behind them are, thanks to Jaho’s endearing approach, made wholly authentic, and communicated with a graceful, smart blend of technical knowingness and soulful embrace. As Ashley wisely noted, the veracity is unsparing, which makes for not only a gripping listening experience, but one capable of changing one’s perceptions entirely. Bravo indeed.

Conductor Carlo Rizzi is the Artistic Director of Opera Rara, and has worked with Jaho on various occasions, including in 2018 in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, and in 2010 at La Monnaie on La bohème, in a production directed by Andreas Homoki. Maestro has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience leading various Italian works (Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Giordano, Cimarosa, Pizzetti, Montemezzi) at a wide variety of houses, including The  Met, the COC, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche Oper, Den Norske Opera, Oslo, his homebase of Welsh National Opera (where he is Conductor Laureate), and most recently, Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. There exists a deep appreciation for both the vocality and the unique brand of theatricality the music featured on Anima Rara demands, a blend of the familiar (Verdi’s La traviata; Massenet’s Manon; Boito’s Mefistofele; Catalani’s La Wally; Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly) and unfamiliar (Giordano’s Siberia; Massenet’s Sapho, Leoncavallo’s version of La bohème, a trinity of Mascagni works including Lodoletta, L’amico Fritz, and Iris, in which Jaho was to have made her role debut at Teatro Real de Madrid in May, prior to the COVID cancellations). The conductor is effusive in his praise of Jaho and her inherently dramatic approach, but he is also simply marvelous in explaining the reasoning behind that approach – its technical demands, its musicality, the need for watchfulness in its application within the context of verismo. Following this are the soprano’s own thoughts on the album and its tie with that famous emotional honesty, the nerves that went along with her recital debut back in February, and why thinking of every stage appearance as her first and last is such a central part of her creative approach.

Carlo Rizzi: “Music Becomes A Part Of Her Life When She’s Singing”

Ermonela’s vocal acting, live and on Anima Rara, is so effective that she made me reconsider my ideas about verismo.

Actually I think you’re absolutely on with saying “vocal acting” – it’s fantastic, this expression, because that’s exactly what she does. With the bel canto and more classical things like Mozart, of course you do things with the voice but there is something in the sound and the way you have to deliver the words in verismo that is very particular, and this, in a way, makes it or breaks it for many people, because it’s not a way we are used to expressing ourselves anymore. The verismo, the language of the verismo and in particular the Italian language, is very full on; it’s like if you have a lot of water in a rather small pipe, it’s a little bit of pressure, and some people like it and some don’t like it, but it’s definitely necessary to have. Ermonela knows not only how to use the voice but how to lead the part, and that is really necessary – you cannot do verismo otherwise, it becomes empty. When I met her she was doing lighter roles, but she has really, I think, passed through these sort of, I don’t want to say “bigger” roles, but this more mature phase of her voice, seriously, yet she has not lost the freshness which is important to keep, even if you sing with a fuller voice.

Your water-pipe/language metaphor is apt; it’s like she gives just enough to keep your thirsty but not enough to soak you through.

Well Ermonela is a very good actress – it’s that simple. When I met her and we worked together, I really got very much enamored with her way of performing the music. Now there are many singers that fall into music because they don’t have the capacity to act, but she does – it’s not fake with her. I remember we did in Brussels, some years ago now, La bohème and at the end of this performance, we were both in tears and embracing each other, because the emotion she was putting in the voice, not just tearing hair out but in the voice, was feeding me and I was giving that (energy) back to orchestra. When this happens with a singer it’s fantastic, it’s not just one doing what the other wants, but is really what vocal music should be: it should be the orchestra entering into the voice, and vice-versa. With her it’s very easy because this is what she believes in, it’s never singing just to be singing – it’s singing matched to the expression.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara

Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

That attention to text – open vowels, repetitive sounds, their placement – that level of detail… 

… this is actually what singing should be! Singing is talking at a higher level; when you talk, people talk lalala, fast, but if you really want to communicate, you need to linger on certain notes, give a shade to this or that, that is the point, the shape of the phrase and shape of the language. This happens in talking and also when one sings. For example when I work with young singers, immediately I understand how some can pronounce very well but they don’t have a clue how the thing goes, or one does a little slip as a musician but they know which place in the phrase the word occupies and this comes through even if you don’t know the language – that’s the point: if there’s a shape or a journey in the phrase, it goes to the listener, even if the people don’t know the language. Ermonela is very good at this; the music becomes, not corny, but part of her life when she’s singing, and I think she’s very honest about it, it’s not just a gesture.

That honesty complements her work with Opera Rara. There has to be an approach to presenting and performing these works as more than mere novelties or curiosities; there has to be as much intelligence for things like Lodoletta as for Traviata… 

Yes, that is the understanding of the style, because if you don’t understand the style… an allegro isn’t just an allegro; there are allegri that are sometimes slower and largi that are sometimes faster, it’s how the style goes. Sometimes the approach is only technical, like “This is what is written” rather than, ‘Let’s get into the music: what is the message and the flavour here?”, where you are looking at and understanding the vocal development of the vocal line; if you look at that, 90% of the work is done, it’s clear, this is the way the composer was writing. Of course I’m not saying every composer is the same, but when you have composers who worked in the same field and era, chances are the approach to the written note was more or less the same, and this is what is important in terms of performing the underpinning style – Ermonela understands this sort of context entirely.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara

Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

Ermonela Jaho: Speaking Through The Voice

Anima Rara is indeed transportive – listening to it, I was taken back to that night at Wigmore Hall but also very much into the worlds of these characters; they feel vivid hearing you do them.

That was my goal, because I feel some empathy, and, I can’t find the right word… the music transports me into that dimension, it feels like living in that world. Sometimes – it will sound crazy – but sometimes I think, if you believe in other lives, I’ve been a Suor Angelica, a Violetta, a Madame Butterfly, all the roles or arias I’ve sung, I can’t explain it but I enter that dimension and I believe in every single word I sing; it’s not only the singer, of course you need to have done the homework, to have the technique, the sound has to be there no matter what – but all of it is in service of what I’m singing, even with the imperfections. The vulnerability connects with people, and the imperfections too – we need to feel the fear, the joy, and I try to go to those places.

Something Pappano highlighted in your conversation this summer was the humanity in your approach, which is so noticeable hearing you live but it’s palpable on the album as well, this sense of lived humanity and visceral experience, and I’m wondering if you think that quality is reflected in the vocal writing of these verismo pieces.

Yes, absolutely, because it’s theatre. In bel canto you have long lines, these arias with cabaletta, which of course you need to put your soul and everything in, the drama is there as well, but this repertoire, verismo, it’s so direct, sometimes it’s like a dialogue, like a movie. When you need the pause to breathe, not just taking your time because you’re hitting a high note after the pause, it’s a pause of breathing the actual emotion – and sometimes the silence could be more dramatic than an explosion of certain notes. That’s theatre, but it’s tricky as well because you have to balance being believable against being ridiculous; sometimes you can go a little bit forward, like a drama queen, but you have to be believable. If you play just the pain or the joy, maybe you can make it work in two, three moments, but the whole piece is difficult to sell, if I can say that. I’m Mediterranean, and we are louder in everything – pain and joy – but there’s still a human element; sometimes we have the words and we don’t want  to say them out loud, but our soul is screaming. And you can convey that in music with the breathing, or with other little details, although with this repertoire, it’s written so straight-forward.

Ermonela Jaho, singer, singing, opera, performance, recording, Opera Rara, soprano, Anima Rara, Andrea Battistoni

Rehearsing Anima Rara with conductor Andrea Battistoni in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir

Your pauses and taking those breaths feel very much a part of your vocal acting; the timing and phrasings convey such an innate comprehension of the line between gripping and overwrought, because as you said, one can tip into the other easily.

Yes, and of course you can improve because it’s the kind of repertoire in my perception that is like, more, not older, but the more life experience you have, the more meaningful this repertoire is. Even to stage it is so difficult because it has to be so meaningful and you have to be … to live that story, 100%. Singing is the language of our souls. We can’t fake it. It’s something that the public will feel immediately, if you fake it. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult and interesting to go toward this repertoire and feel it’s mine. I don’t know how I can put it, but I love it, and I’m trying to improve as much as I can technically, to give that kind of liberty to my voice and express the emotions – if you don’t have a good technique, it could be only a beautiful thought, “make this phrase like this and that phrase like so” – but if you don’t give it all with your voice, your breathing, with all your body and soul onstage… they remain only beautiful notes in a score, and you fail as a singer and as an artist.

You also said to Pappano, and you have done before as well, that you always approach each performance as if it is the first and last of your life; I’m wondering if that applies to recital work. I was genuinely amazed at your pacing.

I tried to pace, believe me! It was a challenge, that recital, because I’d never had a recital on my own, not because I didn’t believe in it – I love it so much and would love to repeat it – but because I’m so shy as well, to be honest with you, and I let it go when I’m onstage (in opera). Somehow I feel protected and with some distance from the public – I want to feel the energy but I don’t want to feel judged. The costumes, the staging, they keep me a little distanced, and always I thought to myself, “Never will I be able to have success in singing in recital, opera is better” – but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves. What I chose was crazy to be frank, it was so long and so diverse, and I thought, “It’ll be the first and the last recital, but okay, let’s try it!” And I loved it so much though, because I thought, in that recital, like going back to that Pappano conversation, it’s my first and last appearance on the stage.

It was a dream for me to become an opera singer; I fought so much to reach the position I’m in now and for me, I won my dream, if I can say that. I endured a lot of difficulties, so now every time I’m on stage I appreciate how lucky I am. It’s about 26 years professionally now that I’ve been singing, and I don’t know if it will all end tomorrow – I want to live life in full, which sounds a little… stupid, but you know, at the moment especially, I don’t think about tomorrow, because you never know. In this situation with the virus, it brought to mind how I have suffered because I’m not onstage. Every time I am I’ve kissed the stage, because I think, “Maybe it’s my last time.” For sure a piece of my soul I leave that there, and with 100% honesty, but also embracing a spirit of risk.

It’s interesting you say this because it brings to mind Rosina Storchio, that embrace of honesty.

We always think verismo means using the biggest voice in the world, that you have to, not scream, it’s not nice! – but to be louder, because in that way you are more dramatic. When I had my first proposition to do Butterfly, I was scared, I thought, “no, never ever, I can’t sing this opera, because” – I’m really honest with my voice– “I’m a lyrical voice, not a dramatic voice.” It was 2009, and some people said to me then, “Please don’t accept that, you’ll lose your voice at the end of the First Act.”  I like to read when I have time of course, and so I went to read Puccini’s letters, and in those, he is talking about Butterfly, and in there it came up, Storchio’s name; I didn’t know anything about her, but the way he wanted her to sing that opera (and similarly Mascagni in Lodoletta and Zazá), he wanted her to be the first in the role, and I thought, “Okay, let me see which kind of voice she had” – and she was a lyrical leggero, as they call it from the letters and docs we have – so why did they want her? Because, I discovered, she had a kind of pathos onstage, she was giving everything in order to be expressive but believable; she was an actress with a lyrical voice. When Butterfly didn’t have success the first time and Puccini changed the whole opera, she didn’t want to sing it, and in one of the letters of Puccini he wrote, “I think that Butterfly without Storchio becomes a thing without soul.

From that moment , I thought, “Okay, my guts say Butterfly, or this kind of repertoire in that epoch, sounded different” – because you need that kind of fragility, because sometimes it doesn’t mean you have to be BIG; yes, for certain roles you do, but in this case, it’s why we get so moved, emotionally speaking, because we see this human being so fragile, and you have to convey that not only with your voice but in little movements – of course you try to improve, but that’s the connection, to do this kind of repertoire, this kind of drama, but the drama is in the whole story. It’s not because you somehow have to be dramatic; you are a human being, and we have all these colors, this palette of emotion. Even within the (context of) the drama, you honestly believe tragedy could happen to such a vulnerable soul.

I’m wondering about that stage presence and authenticity in relation to other work she was known for, some of which are on the album. You are known for roles like Butterfly too, but perform other lesser-known works; how does one inform the other, or does it?

I tried to follow the same philosophy I did with Butterfly: I don’t have expectations. So I think if I do something, like singing this little-known repertoire, if I put in soul and I believe 100% and try to work on the emotional part as I’ve done with Butterfly, I hope somehow it will help to bring to life this kind of music. For the first time ever I sung Siberia heard it, and… I can’t explain it to you. It was the only aria which we recorded in two tracks, immediately, because it came so naturally, I felt, I don’t know… this aria is about a love that only you know, no one knows about it, you can’t speak it to anyone… I really adore it, so maybe this will be interesting for certain houses, to bring back to life these kinds of masterpieces. We didn’t have so many rehearsals for these recordings you know, but I was in tears every time I had to repeat things. I mean, Lodoletta… my God!

Listening to these tracks made me think about Butterfly and Mimi in new ways in terms of the vocal writing and the line, the pacing, having a clear sense of character through those small details you mention…

Absolutely!

But of course you can’t do this unless, as you said to Pappano, you feel protected.

Because teamwork means so much! I’ve had productions of Butterfly where I swear, I felt, “oh my God, my career is done now, I won’t sing this opera anymore” because I didn’t feel free to express what I had in my mind; it’s not only the voice, it’s not just, “Oh, sing your famous aria” – that’s wrong, especially in this repertoire. You have to work together and, I hate the word “sell” but you have to deliver it, as a whole story. Unfortunately not in every production do you have that (required) teamwork.

With Pappano, I felt so protected; we were working in the same direction, and I felt like a student. When you feel that way it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if your picture is everywhere and people love and adore you and you have all kinds of applause – still, you are a student. Every day we are different, every day life experience shapes our souls and minds, and with music, you need to go in that direction (of learning). You really do with Pappano; he’s a dream to work with. Every time working with him you discover new things, even repeating the same phrase – he taught me from the first time we met, to never ever repeat a note twice the same way, because yes, you said it once and the second time it won’t be new, you have to find other colors. This is just the approach to take for this kind of repertoire.

Ermonela Jaho, recording, album, Anima Rara, Opera Rara, verismo, opera, music, singing

(via Warner Classics)

This is something I feel I’m being educated on with each listening of the album, and Opera Rara’s work as a whole; you really come back to the more known repertoire with new ears.

That’s why I love Opera Rara; they’re very important for the opera world, not because I record with them, but really, we are students, and it’s easy to appreciate something that’s well-known and already-proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audition to take a new look at a work of art lost in time, so Opera Rara’s vision is one I am passionate about. I mean, I’m harsh on myself (in terms of performance) here – every time after a recording session I would go home and think, “I could do better here, better there…”

But do you feel that’s a normal part of being an artist? That such perfectionism is a necessary part of creativity?

Especially for this repertoire, yes. What was my epiphany, if I can say that, is the period when I lost my parents, and I had to sing Suor Angelica then. I was numb completely. I’m sharing this episode because of how much art can mean, beyond technique, beyond the voice. Really, at that time, I was numb. I had some days before the premiere, where I was learning and creating with Pappano and everyone on the team, but only when I went onstage, when Principessa comes to Suor Angelica and says, “Your son is dead” – at that moment I felt the pain, the big loss that I had. The magic of the music… to have Pappano, as I said before, to read for this kind of emotion, the teamwork in London, they didn’t know about my loss but maybe they felt the energy, I was like a lost child. Before “Senza Mamma”, in the instrumental introduction, I was worried, like “oh my God, I’m going to stop here I won’t be able to sing it properly – there has to be a the pianissimo at this certain point, I can’t do it” and so on, and everything was discovered, and in that moment , I forget about the technique, I forgot, “oh this note has to be so precise” and… it was my soul singing, in tears, and it wasn’t Suor Angelica, the young mother crying for her son; I felt myself a little girl who had lost her parents.  It doesn’t matter what age we lose our parents; it’s loss.

The effect this music had on me, I changed, completely, not because I doubted before, but at that precise moment… something changed in my mind, and I thought, “I have to work not toward the sound, because no one is perfect; some will like you, and some will like someone else, you won’t make everyone happy with your voice. But if you speak through your voice, the colors of the soul that you’re singing, and you are really honest with yourself, absolutely, it will connect with the public” and from that moment, my life changed. As an artist, I do work technically but always in service to the emotion, even risking being not-perfect, because if you don’t risk and go deep, you will never connect with the public – never, ever.

Piotr Beczala: Searching For New Impulses In The Music

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

Photo: Julia Wesely

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

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

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

Photo: Johannes Ifkovits

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

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

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

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

Faust at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly – I’m okay with that!

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

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

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

Photo: Julia Wesely

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

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

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

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

It does require a lot of vocal flexibility

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

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

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

Really!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like at the Met?

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

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

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

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(via Pentatone)

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

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

I kept hearing Parsifal also.

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

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

To keep it interesting for yourself as an artist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With wife Kasia at the 2015 Opera News Awards.

You two seem like a very strong team.

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

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

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

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

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

Alexander Neef: “I Believe In The Resilience Of The Art Form”

Alexander Neef, portrait, Canadian Opera Company, General Director, leader, director, executive, administration, opera, Canada, German

Photo © Gaetz Photography

Update 22 June 2020: The Canadian Opera Company has cancelled its 2020 autumn season. The conversation with COC General Director Alexander Neef, below, took place in May 2020, prior to the official announcement.

Cancellation, closure, calibration: these are the elements at work within an arts industry trying desperately to stay afloat in the middle of a pandemic. What to cancel? What to postpone? What to calibrate – or recalibrate – as the situation warrants? Which companies will be around in year, and which will close? Some organizations are busily preparing for presentations of old favorites within the context of a new normal dictated by the coronavirus, acting, consciously or not, as beacons of an industry facing an immense and undeniable transformation.

The annual Salzburg Festival, for instance, will be going forwards in a modified form as of August 1st. On the slate is Elektra (with Aušrine Stundyte in the lead and Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski) and a revival of Così fan tutte, as well as four theatre works (including the world premiere of Zdeněk Adamec by Peter Handke) and numerous concerts, including a Beethoven cycle by pianist Igor Levit. In Germany, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) has also made adjustments. The company recently announced a 90-minute chamber presentation of Das Rheingold in its very own car park, running for five performances starting this Friday (12 June), and featuring twenty-two musicians and twelve singers. The production, by Jonathan Dove (who also did orchestration) and director Graham Vick for the Birmingham Opera Company, is not the first presentation by DOB in such an environment; in 2014 the company presented Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia in the very same parking deck. Wagner’s first opera in his epic Ring Cycle had been originally planned as a fully staged work from director Stefan Herheim, a premiere which has since been postponed. The upcoming version, adhering to the guidelines set out by the Senate of Berlin, has a €5 entry fee and a pay-what-you-can structure, with audience member contact information being recorded and a 1.5 metre distance enforced; moreover, masks will be required when entering and exiting, toilets will be accessible, and (rather crucially) small bottles of “beverages” will be made available to visitors.

Such an ambitious undertaking underlines the very thin lines that currently exist between possibilities and probabilities. Those who can are doing their best, in the most creative and safe methods presently allowable; others are bending and flexing in ways heretofore unimaginable six months ago. The Metropolitan Opera cancelled its autumn season and will be reopening (ostensibly) on December 31st, although it continues to offer a revolving slate of productions online. Looking over their latest release, it’s hard to not think of the artists who were set to make their debuts at the house this autumn, either in a role or with the company itself: soprano Christine Goerke was set to sing her first fully-staged Isolde in a revival of Marius Treliński’s production of Tristan und Isolde; 74-year-old conductor Michail Jurowski was to have made his Met Opera debut leading Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. On the other side of the ocean, the Royal Opera House, itself in dire straits, is getting set to launch a new series, Live From Covent Garden, on Saturday (June 13), which will complement its extant online offerings of opera and ballet. Curated by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, and Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, the event (set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 15th) will feature performances by baritone Gerald Finley, tenor Toby Spence, soprano Louise Alder, and the premiere of a new ballet choreographed by Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. The following two presentations of the program, on the 20th and 27th of June respectively, will be available on a pay-per-view basis. Like every company, a prominent “Donate Now” button is displayed on the ROH homepage, one whose request will no doubt grow in urgency  as the autumn season inches ever closer.

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Rosario La Spina as Radames (background) and Sondra Radvanovsky (foreground) as Aida in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Aida, 2010. Photo: Michael Cooper

For Canadian Opera Company (COC) audiences, the fall season is just as fraught with uncertainty. In late March the company made the difficult if necessary decision to cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season, which was to include revivals of The Flying Dutchman and a wildly divisive staging of Aida by Tim Albery. Bereft of the gilded visuals so frequently attached to presentations of the famed Verdi work, the production had been anticipated for the reactions it might have provoked a full decade after its premiere. Would Toronto audiences have grown to accept Albery’s arresting vision? Would it have been so upsetting in 2020? Will it even be staged again, now that COVID seems, for some, to have put a damper on even perceivably risque productions and programming? The opportunity to discover the elasticity of the COC audience was, alas, lost this spring but another chance, possibly, awaits in the fall. The company is set to present Wagner’s Parsifal – the first presentation of the opera in the COC’s history. A co-production with Opéra de Lyon, The Metropolitan Opera, and the COC, the highly abstract (and at times, very bloody) François Girard-helmed work was presented in February 2013 at The Met, to widespread acclaim. Owing to the monumental nature of the production, the company launched a fundraising campaign with various levels of support named after elements of the opera. Tenors Christopher Ventris and Viktor Antipenko share the title role in the COC production, with Johan Reuter as Amfortas, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Kundry, and Robert Pomakov as Klingsor; COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Opening night is scheduled for September 25th.

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A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

According to Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef, those plans are still intact. Neef, who is also Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Festival, had been set to leave the COC at the end of the 2020-2021 season and become General Director of the Opéra national de Paris. The company is facing €40 million in losses this year alone, from both the pandemic as well as numerous strikes which occurred before the lockdown. The Opéra’s current Director, Stéphane Lissner, announced in an interview with Le Monde on June 11th, 2020 that he’s ending his mandate at the end of 2020, emphasizing the extreme nature of the situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: “nous ne sommes pas dans une situation de passation normale.” (“we are not in a normal handover situation.”) Neef confirmed in a COC release the following day that he “certainly did not anticipate Lissner’s early departure and that also confirmed not leaving Canada just yet. Neef says he “has not yet had any formal discussions – either with the Paris Opera or members of our Board of Directors – about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris. Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated.”

Back in May, Lissner spoke to the unfeasible economics around presenting opera at the Garnier and Bastille theatres within prescribed social distancing mandates. France, like most other locales, requires audience members to be two meters (6.5 feet) apart. “Le protocole [proposé pour reprendre les spectacles] est impraticable : impraticable pour le public, pour les artistes et pour les salariés. Suppression des entractes, c’est impossible, faire entrer 2700 personnes en respectant les distances, c’est impossible, la distance dans l’orchestre, dans les chœurs, c’est impossible,” he noted in early May (“The protocol [proposed to take over the shows] is impractical: impractical for the public, for the artists and for the employees. Eliminating intermissions is impossible, bringing in 2700 people while respecting distances is impossible, the distance in the orchestra, in the choirs, is impossible.”). Will there even be a 2020-2021 season for Opéra national de Paris? The report in Le Monde indicates, if not an outright cancellation, then a greatly altered one, with an emphasis on revivals, including La traviata (led by James Gaffigan, in a production by Simone Stone), the ballet La Bayadère, and the ever-popular Carmen, with Domingo Hindoyan on the podium, in an acclaimed staging by Calixto Bieito. The Bastille is not set to reopen until November 24th, and the Garnier in late December. A planned new Ring Cycle staging is off the books. “Fin 2020, il est probable que l’Opéra de Paris n’aura plus de fonds de roulement” (By the end of 2020, it is likely that the Paris Opera will no longer have working capital”), Lissner told Le Monde. “C’est pourquoi, à partir de janvier 2021, j’ai choisi de m’effacer afin qu’il n’y ait plus qu’un seul patron à bord.” (“That’s why, from January 2021, I chose to step aside so that there would only be one boss on board.”)

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The interior of the Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That “seul patron” is shouldering a lot of responsibility right now. Notwithstanding this unfolding and weighty situation, plus the cancellation of the COC’s spring season and the uncertainty of its 2020-2021 season, Neef was also very recently heavily involved in negotiations to obtain recorded COC performances for online broadcast during the quarantine – hardly a simple task, as music writer Lydia Perovic ably outlined in her smart investigation into the paucity of online Canadian opera content for Opera Canada magazine in 2018. Yet in our conversation last month, before the Paris news, Neef was his characteristically cool, unflappable self. The COC head honcho and I have spoken many times over the years, most recently last summer following the announcement of his Paris appointment. The German-born Neef has always been direct if highly diplomatic, eloquent but possessing an undeniable edge of steel. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of history (not surprising, given he graduated from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen with a Master of Arts in Latin Philology and Modern History) and a solid if wholly unsurprising knack for thoughtful casting (honed during his time as casting director at the Paris Opera from 2004 to 2008), Neef is as much passionate as level-headed; that passion shows itself in strong, well-observed opinions and observations, and then translates itself into elegantly understated wisdom. Having started at the Salzburg Festival with famed opera administrator Gerard Mortier, Neef went on to work at the Ruhrtriennale, New York City Opera, and later, Opéra nationale de Paris, before arriving in Toronto in 2008. In the decade-plus of his directorship with the COC, Neef has brought a number of celebrated international opera figures to the Four Seasons Centre stage: singers (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anita Rachvellishvilli, Patricia Racette, Stefan Vinke, Luca Pisaroni, conductors (Carlo Rizzi, Speranza Scapucci, Paolo Carignani, Harry Bicket, Patrick Lange), directors (Peter Sellars, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Claus Guth, Robert Wilson, Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants). He has consistently championed the work of tenor Russell Thomas, who has appeared on multiple occasions on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (The Tales of Hoffman in 2012, Carmen in 2016 Norma in 2016, Otello in 2019, and was to have performed in Aida this spring), along with that of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as well as Norma), bass baritone Gerald Finley (Falstaff, 2014, Otello, 2019) and soprano Christine Goerke, whose Brunnhilde in the company’s year-by-year presentations unfolding Wagner’s Ring Cycle won her acclaim and, like Radvanovsky, Finley, and Thomas, bolstered a fierce following.

In mid-May, Neef took part in an online chat hosted by the Toronto-based International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) in which he was asked about how he perceived the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the opera community, singers in particular; I was keen to hear more from Neef and was grateful when, not a week later, he and I had a lengthy discussion – about pandemic, Parsifal, Paris, and, to start, the question of risk and its place in the industry moving forwards.

Alexander Neef, portrait, Canadian Opera Company, General Director, leader, director, executive, administration, opera, Canada, German

Photo © Gaetz Photography

In light of the damage the pandemic is doing in the arts world, some believe that opera programming and presentation will become more conservative, that any perceived risk in either is off the table for the foreseeable future. What’s your take – can opera afford to break eggs in a pandemic/post-pandemic environment?

To stick with your analogy: I think there is no art if you don’t break the eggs. And I think since we don’t have any live art in our lives right now, breaking eggs becomes even more important in the future. I got this really interesting manifesto in my mailbox this morning – and it’s easier to say this when you run a little company rather than when you have X number of employees you want to keep feeding – but, it says, “time to commission new works from young composers; time to ally with other theatre, cinema, dance, performing arts centres; time to follow the example of cinema, the storytelling medium that came after opera and was predicted by great opera composers” and so on. When you’re a small, flexible structure, then yes, those boats are easy to turn around; you can be much more reactive. The bigger your apparatus becomes, the harder it is to change because there are a lot of people who need to make that change with you, but in general, I’ve never believed and still don’t believe it, that going back to more traditional approaches, to what we consider “safe” repertoire, will do anything for the future sector – the only thing it will do is make people get more tired of you. Or, to say it another way, how many times will you need to see the same production of La bohème, even though it might be with different people? At some point you may say, “I’ve seen this five times over the last ten years; give me one reason why I should go again?” I think what we’ve been trying to do is to space things out enough, or to hold off with programming, so there’s still for us a reason to do (a certain opera), other than the reason that it’s popular repertoire…

Or it’s nostalgia… 

… or it’s nostalgia, yes. Also, our audience is not eternal. Like everybody who deals with an audience, we are always interested in refreshing – we want a relationship with our public where we don’t always confirm what they think opera is.

That’s a big hurdle, especially for companies who play into clichés. How do you counter it?

It is a hurdle, but I continue to believe, and this crisis hasn’t changed my opinion so far, that what’s really important is people know what kind of company they’re coming to; you need to have a spine. And again, I always say, and have said: indifference is our biggest enemy. If people think, “Oh, this is the same old thing” or they leave a show and can’t remember, ten minutes later, what it was all about…  well, obviously we want people to like what we do, but I prefer they hate (a production) with a passion than be indifferent to it. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that revival of Aida that people were itching to see, for very different reasons!

I distinctly recall someone saying to me at the opening in 2010 that “it’s actually just fine if you close your eyes.”

Think what you want about that production but ten years later people still talk about it. That’s what I mean when I say indifference is our biggest enemy. Obviously there was a lot of rejection at the time but also a lot of people came to it and said, “Wow, I had no clue opera could be so current, and about me, and not just stuffy and purely representational.” 

There were also younger people I know who went and later said, “That was my first opera experience and I wanted grandeur and camels!”

… and other people walked away from it thinking, “Where has this art form been all my life?!” So it’s hard to say what’s interesting to one and not to the other. People think about young audiences that, very often, those are the ones who want the avant-garde, but I think it’s not necessarily true; sometimes they’re way more conservative than someone who’s been subscribing for twenty-five years. It’s a complicated thing! But just because you are older does not mean your taste in art is more conservative – that’s not how it works.

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Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

There’s been so much effort on the part of classical organizations to try and get this mythical young audience, but I feel as if the pandemic has forced them to realize the importance of a far wider cultivation.

In the end you can’t afford to ignore any part of your audience. Right now there’s an issue with at-risk populations; a young audience is not seen as so much at-risk (for COVID), but I think that shouldn’t mean we totally abandon our older audiences. The whole discussion for me is kind of moot anyway, because you cannot separate the discussion of keeping an audience safe from keeping the performers and staff safe, and while that might not be exactly the precisely same measures, if you can’t combine both, then it’s going to be very hard to have a show. Right now the pit is a very dangerous work environment. We’re in a lucky position in Canada and the COC – we won’t be going back into rehearsals before two-and-a-half months from now, so we will have better information in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that will allow us to make better decisions. The big hiatus we have now, I’m rather grateful for that.

Some in the Toronto opera world are wondering what will happen to Parsifal – it’s been a long road to having it staged at the Four Seasons Centre.

What I say is: I simply don’t want to make that decision right now. And I don’t feel I have to. Right now we’re living in an equation with too many variables and those variables make it hard to solve that equation. There’s already some measures falling in place in terms of public health advisories, and some of the variables are starting to be eliminated. Today I read something stating that essentially the virus is mostly circulating in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the rest of Ontario is under control – which is not great news for the GTA, but it’s true in all urban centres – Montréal, Paris, all those places – it’s true that it hangs on (in those locales) for longer because there’s more movement of people, but it also means it can get contained. We need to have a better idea of the public health measures.

Obviously we won’t be able to perform Parsifal if we have to have limited numbers in the audience, it’s an economic nightmare and it wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t even accommodate all of our subscribers (in that scenario), but we have to be prepared, and we are taking the time to be prepared, and when we have to make a  decision, we will gather all the elements to make the best decision for our staff and performers, and the house, and everyone.

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The interior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s a strange new equation to accept, that we are now in a world where there’s a question mark over both Parsifal and Paris’s opera season.

It is a strange new equation, and with strange new variables – and I think one needs to take this a week at a time. There are supposed to be additional announcements of openings in Europe…  

… under strict conditions. Returning to the theatre-going experience people are familiar with will take much longer. 

Yes, and it’s a two-way street, or more than a two-way street. A part of it is medical progress as well – I think even more effective and widely-available testing will do a lot to reassure the public about the situation. That is big! Everybody knows the vaccine will take a little while but also we’re working on all kinds of things in terms of an effective antiviral, because the truth is, if we didn’t have a flu vaccine we would be having a terrible situation every winter. But because we have a flu vaccine there’s no discussions of masks or additional hygiene measures during flu season… so we need to find a way through additional safety measures, through progress in medicine, all of that, to kind of normalize this situation in a way that is…  I mean, there’s always a risk: you leave your house and you can catch something on the subway, right? That happens to a lot of people. I am not a scientist and indeed COVID is very contagious – if you get sick you can get very sick, but we need to take time to really learn more about it and then calibrate all the available information and input it back into a form where people can gain a certain amount of comfort in leaving their homes, in order to assess different levels of risk.

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View from the orchestra pit of R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Lucia Graca

How do you see the current recalibrating in the opera world influencing not only companies but artists?

Again, for everything that’s on the performer’s side, regular testing is going to be the key so that you can be certain the people working together in confined spaces, people touching each other in rehearsals and so on, they can have a reasonable level of confidence that everybody is up to date on their health. Now it’s the case that you wake up in the morning and you feel a little bit off and take your temperature; three months ago you would have thought, “Oh I’ll see how I feel in the afternoon” but today you get the thermometer out and look at the reading and say, “It’s not normal.”  People will be more sensitive to their own symptoms and more responsible, I think. I was reading something interesting, about how work culture will change, especially in North America, where coming to work sick was like a badge of honor, not letting the company down, now it’s, “You’re not feeling well, we don’t want to see you” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! That’s the performer’s side. 

On the audience side, if people feel safe again if wearing a gloves and a mask when they go somewhere and feel okay to sit next to someone they don’t know, if we can reach that level of confidence, I think nobody will care about people wearing a mask in the foreseeable future in a theatre, even if it’s not a requirement. It will be part of the new normal, and frankly, it’s normal already in certain parts of the world. It’s funny that in Canada, which was so haunted by SARS, mask-wearing didn’t become a norm, so maybe now it will. If that’s the worst thing that can happen to us, that people put on a mask before walking into the Four Seasons Centre, we can do that. There’s so much cultural change about masks that’s already happened – people felt, “Oh you can’t speak with a mask” – well, people do it all the time.  I was at the supermarket the other day and ran into someone I know, and we didn’t take our masks off, we just spoke with our masks on at a safe distance. Places are going to normalize these kinds of protocols, and it’ll make it all less scary, I believe. And of course, if you are part of a risk group, you would think twice about where you go and what you do; we might be able to accommodate you somewhere in the theatre. We’re more than happy to do that with patrons; it’s our business to accommodate their needs. Frankly, every theatre would be willing to do that to get their patrons back. But then again it’s not something we haven’t done already in making all reasonable accommodations for people with needs.

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Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

And casting?

That’s actually one of the bigger problems we’re discussing. Zoom doesn’t give you a lot of information about the size of the voice but it does give you information about the personality you’re dealing with, about pitch, about rhythm. We were talking about this in relation to the ensemble, for example; they were Zoom coaching before they went off contract for the summer. Everybody hated the idea initially, and then came away saying it was better than not doing anything at all, so that is obviously also a part of that new normal, as you say. There’s also the situation of stage auditions and having a pianist and nobody in the hall except for two or three casting people; that seems less complicated than a full stage performance in this environment, if you can get them safely in through the stage door and onstage. All these things are being worked out. 

I’m curious if you think digital platforms like Instagram will become a big factor in casting the post-coronavirus opera world. 

It probably will… but…  I look at it more as an added tool to what we’re already doing than anything else. We have more and more tools at our disposable, yes, but there’s a lot of the old stuff that still works and we can’t abandon it, that’s been true for our marketing and communications as much as for casting – we still send postcards to people (for marketing) because there’s people who really like postcards, maybe not as many as twenty years ago, but it’s still a valuable part of our audience, so why would we abandon that practise?

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Alexander Neef at the COC’s 2020-2021 Season Reveal event, 2020. Photo © Gaetz Photography

So the same holds true for singers then? I see a lot of imitation online. 

As I said in the IRCPA talk, people who do casting are really not very interested in generic products… 

… you mean in terms of singers pushing an homogenous image?

Yes – going back to your breaking-the-eggs metaphor at the beginning of our conversation, if you don’t have that appetite for risk-taking there’s not going to be a lot of art in what you do.

Strange to think that being yourself is perceived as a risk.

We all know it’s the hardest to be yourself – but as an artist you have the opportunity to not be yourself, and to figure that out, and to live it out, in a way a lot of people cannot, but I think it’s very important to have that self-assessment skill and to figure out, clearly, “What can I do better than other people?” If you have better high Fs than anybody, then all I want to know is, can you sing Queen Of The Night? That’s the thing, and there’s nothing bad about it, and you must acknowledge that as you get older, your high Fs won’t be as great, and you’d better figure out what you can do then.

Or have figured it out already… 

Yes. It comes back to having a lot of courage. Sometimes I feel the courage, especially for a young artist, will always come before the self-assurance, but it’s kind of a bit of – I really like this egg thing you started with! – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t put in the courage it might just never happen, but you will not know if there’s a reward before you’ve done it, and I think doing it for the first time, and seeing if it works, will give you more courage for the second time, and so on.

The benefit of digital is it’s creating a vital form of community a lot of people miss right now – are the recent COC opera broadcasts a sign of things to come?

Right now it’s a concession to the times we’re in; we wouldn’t want to necessarily put archival recordings out as a standard, but what’s important for me is – and some don’t see it this way but that’s fine – that it’s about creating a presence for all those artists who can’t work right now. Putting this kind of work out – work that was done in a good environment, where (artists) are performing good roles with a good company, with a high level of quality – reminds the world that is what artists do. And having such material released also reminds the world that this is just a video, and if you want the real thing, you will have to come back to the theatre and get a real-life experience.

So you see video as a complement, not a replacement?

Absolutely.

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The exterior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I asked you this in our conversation last year, but of course so much has changed, and I want to ask again: what are you taking with you now from Toronto to Paris? 

I’m not leaving just yet! 

Something you’d noted before is your desire at Opéra national de Paris to highlight various historical aspects within a contemporary context.

That hasn’t changed, of course – putting historical opera within the larger context of what happens today, for 21st century artists and for a 21st century audience – that won’t change, but we’ll have to see as we emerge from this crisis, what has actually changed, and when we can go back. That (plan for return) will determine a lot. The longer this goes, the more we will have to think about smaller things we can do for limited groups of people. The goal is to go back to fully staged opera as quickly as possible, but if we can’t do that, we better get inventive. Ultimately I believe in the resilience of the art form. 

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

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Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

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

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

Photo: Uwe Arens

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In suspended development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

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

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

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

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

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

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

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

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

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

Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

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Photo courtesy IMG Artists

Lyubov Petrova is an artist impossible to put in a box; as you’ll read, that’s just the way she likes it. An immensely gifted soprano with a knack for infusing her singing with a keen sense of storytelling, Petrova has an immensely varied opera history, from a smart, note-perfect Adele in Stephen Lawless’s 2003 production of Die Fledermaus at the Glyndebourne Festival to a raging Queen Of The Night in Kenneth Branagh’s fascinatingly recontextualized cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (2006). She’s also ace at epic concert repertoire (including Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), as well as more intimate work, a talent she poetically showcases on her 2017 album of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs.

A winner of the 1998 International Rimsky-Korsakov Competition and 1999 International Elena Obraztsova Competition, Petrova trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Programme, and has enjoyed numerous Met appearances, including as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (her Met debut), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Werther, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Woglinde in Das Rheingold, to name a brief few. The New York-based soprano has performed with numerous other North American outlets too, including Dallas Opera, LA Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, and has performed at various festivals worldwide, including ones Glimmerglass, Glyndebourne, and Spoleto, at the Bellini Festival in Catania, the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi, Italy, and the BBC Proms.

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Photo: Ronnie Nelson

Petrova has appeared with numerous prominent international houses including Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Dutch National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Korean National Opera, the Bolshoi, the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and the Teatro Colón (Argentina). She’s also done a range of symphonic and concert work (music of Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Bizet, to name a few) with an assortment of orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Orchester Pressburger Philharmoniker, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra. One look at such a varied history reveals an impressive and entirely consistent development into vocally heavier repertoire, while still keeping a firm foot in Petrova’s place of origin (figuratively and literally) – a tuneful and fleet-footed spot with an ever-present edge of laser-like authority.

Petrova first caught my attention through her remarkable, gleaming, in-concert performance in Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in 2016, where she brought a thoughtful lyricism to Prokofiev’s angular, driving score, making the fraught nature of the work  – and its deceptively simple characters – warmly, recognizably human. During the opera’s composition, the opera’s would be producer, Russian theatre artist  Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and later murdered as part of the Great Purge; at the time of its 1940 premiere its perceived importance was strongly connected to a “Soviet opera” aesthetic (despite the frisson between its obvious melodramatic and moralistic scheme of social realism), a perception strengthened for its being based on Valentin Kataev’s 1937 novel, I, Son Of The Working People. The complicated nature of the work, combined with its even more complicated (and tragic) composition history (involving the sudden disappearance of Meyerhold as well as a political pact that necessitated changing the bad guys from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists), plus its (predictably) myopic reception (celebrating its ideology while ignoring the music) meant the opera wasn’t performed anywhere between 1941 and 1958, and only entered the repertory of the Bolshoi in 1970; Prokofiev would later compose an orchestral suite based on the opera. It is notable when singers can integrate this sort of charged history into the very seams of sound, so that performances become much greater than the sum of their individual parts; such visceral interpretative artistry is what Petrova – and indeed the entire cast – did with such affecting results in Amsterdam in late 2016.

Petrova’s vocal warmth is something of a signature. Her tonally shimmering, golden-hued turn as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold was truly memorable, part of an in-concert presentation in early 2018 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Michelle de Young, Matthias Goerne, Matthew Rose, and Brindley Sherratt, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski; she performed the role again the role later that same year with the Odense Symfoniorkester (Denmark) with conductor Alexander Vedernikov. 2018 also saw Petrova sing the role of Marfa in Bard Music Festival‘s presentation of The Tsar’s Bride and perform works from Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry as part of Music@Menlo. 2019 opened with the music of Mozart, with Petrova taking on Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Florida Grand Opera. Freia returned with an October 2019 in-concert presentation of Das Rheingold in Moscow, again with Jurowski but this time with the State Academic Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov.

Petrova’s 2017 album Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff: Songs (Nimbus Records), recorded with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, showcases this vocal excellence, and nicely displays another side of the multi-faceted artist, a silken, soft suppleness that delights the ear. Her caressing of the text, careful phrasing, and thoughtful tonal intonations betray a deeply sensitive artistic sensibility able to quickly adjust itself according to both the tangible and intangible elements of music-making. In 2017 music writer Ken Herman noted of Petrova, in relation to her performance at that year’s edition of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, that “(w)hether she sings of love, death, sorrow, […] she never merely sings about these states—she incarnates them and forces her listeners to confront them.” It’s an observation that feels very apt to not only the works on her album, but her artistic approach overall, one that combines a deep musicality and love of text with a natural affinity for theatre and drama. Listening to Petrova isn’t a mere exercise in passive hearing but an active experience of the visceral power of her art, and her skill in expressing it with such a vivid force of conviction. Indeed, David Patrick Stearns’ observation in Gramophone that “when she sings of ‘magic stillness’ in ‘A Dream’, you hear it in her voice” applies far past the final album track to which he alludes.

Petrova is currently preparing for her premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, happening at Moscow’s Zardadye Concert Hall on February 22, with Tchaikovsky’s own “Ode To Joy” Cantata also on the bill. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and chorus master Lukáš Vasilek, together with fellow soloists Daria Khozieva (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Dmitruk (tenor) and Nikolay Didenko (bass). A more intimate appearance takes place at Zaryadye (in the small hall) on March 6, when Petrova will be giving a recital with pianist Rem Urasin. Together, the appearances encapsulate Petrova’s refusal to be easily classified or boxed in by sounds or experiences. We spoke recently when the soprano was recently back in Russia and busily preparing for her upcoming Zaryadye performances.

How did you choose the songs on your album?

I went through the whole of two Tchaikovsky volumes of song, and one big book of Rachmaninoff songs. I went through all of them, and chose what I liked, basically. Vladimir (Feltsman) also had ideas of what he wanted or not to do but mainly he left it all  to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sung before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – blin is like a Russian pancake – “always goes badly” – but I don’t think it’s the case here, so I’m happy!

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Photo: Vladimir Feltsman / Nimbus Records

I feel like your interpretations offer understanding on a deeper level that goes past language.

It’s like souls talking – mine, Vladimir’s and every person who listens. And it’s very universal. That’s the key to music: it communicates beyond words, heart to heart.

So are some of these going to be part of your recital in March at Zaryadye Hall?

Yes, most definitely, and with another phenomenal pianist, Rem Urasin.

Many singers I’ve spoken with emphasize the importance of doing recitals. What does that experience give you creatively?

It’s very true; recitals give a completely different connection with music, and a different connection with the audience, actually. The songs are rather short so you have to create a whole world in two to seven minutes, and it has to be the story, the complete story, so one recital in two sections gives us ten to twelve different worlds in each half, twenty to twenty-four songs all together – so basically I create twenty-four different worlds in one evening. And then I also love how it’s me, and the pianist, who is part of me – we are together; I always try to become one person with the pianist, and the audience. On stage we are very exposed, much more than in opera where we have costumes and sets and a director; it’s a completely different interaction. In recitals, I’m basically just sharing who I am and what I’ve learned; it’s much more intimate and in a way we are completely naked.

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Photo: Nimbus Records

When you emerge on the other side, what things do you take back into the world of opera?

Absolutely I come out different. I know myself much better through this experience, as a musician and a person; I can create more defined characters and go, on a much, much deep level, into the characters I play onstage. I love drama, and I love theatre, and I love opera. I’m a singing actress, no questions asked – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, without those little songs. I missed not sharing that side of me with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to sing more songs nowadays.

And you’re doing your first performance of Beethoven’s 9th soon. His vocal writing is known for being difficult; what’s your experience as someone new to singing his music?

You know, as short as (the vocal part in Symphony No. 9) is – compared to any opera it’s very short – I have to agree, it’s difficult and rather demanding, and from a soprano point of view, it’s very high; he keeps the vocal line up there and we have to soar above the orchestra, and yet keep it graceful and also be “full of joy! full of joy!” but I’m very excited and am working hard on it. But of course I don’t want anybody to hear “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it!

Sir Antonio Pappano recently said that Beethoven’s writing for voice is entirely analogous to his instrumental writing, minus the consideration that people actually have to breathe.

Yes, I know what he means. Basically you use everything you’ve ever gathered as an artist, and try to enjoy it and pray it comes out well! There are some brilliant moments – it’s phenomenal music.

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With Matthew Rose (L) and Brindley Sherratt (R) in the 2018 London Philharmonic Orchestra presentation of Das Rheingold. Photo: Simon Jay Price

You’ve done Wagner too, which is also demanding vocally, though in an entirely different way.

I’m starting to do Wagner, and I have to say … it’s, well, Wagner is a genius but only when I started singing his music did I really embrace it, and now I’m feeling , like, “Wow, what a phenomenal experience for any musician to sing his music!” There’s a lot to discover in his work, it’s true – but I was surprised. I surprised myself at how much I love it.

It’s not music that is commonly done in Russia either.

Not that much, only in St. Petersburg – it’s done almost exclusively there. A few pieces are performed here and there, outside, but not really. I have to say it’s a whole universe, and I’m excited about becoming a part of it.

There’s no end of learning when it comes to Wagner’s work.

That goes with my whole philosophy about singing and stage and my profession: I never stop learning. Since I started singing, it’s always, to my mind, been a process; I’m always learning something and trying to make my instrument better, and finding new ways and colours. It’s non-stop. Wagner fits in perfectly in with how I see myself as a singer and my job.

You’re featured on The Compassion Project (Innova, 2018) as well – your work on the album features some new sounds for you, writing which I think suits you well vocally. What does performing contemporary work give you artistically?

I am searching for the not-well-known stuff, for things forgotten or for things fallen out of the limelight. I think it’s exciting for us as musicians to find those gems and open them and bring them to people. On our album with Feltsman there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of – and it’s Tchaikovsky, of all people! It’s the same with contemporary music, but you see, it’s, how can I say, it’s challenging most of the time for singers if they don’t have a musical background, because you need to have a very attuned ear. You have to hear, really well, the intervals and all of the changes in harmony (within the composition) – it’s just a skill. As long as a young singer is willing to learn and challenge him or herself, they’ll find it exciting and fascinating, but if they are not secure enough, then of course it’s easier to stay with Mozart, because it’s universally harmonic and easy and something they’ll hear again and again.

and it’s something audiences will have heard a lot as well. There’s something to be said for classical artists purposely – and purposefully – doing things outside the mainstream, on mainstream stages.

Yes, and I have say unfortunately it’s not that easy, because some people who organize concerts and programming at concert halls – not all but some – are afraid of new pieces, even if it’s not contemporary music. Recently I did a beautiful cycle by Bartók; it’s not contemporary – I mean, it isn’t Mozart but it’s not contemporary – but it’s glorious music, and I had to push for it. I had to use my name and all that, to just say, “Hey , don’t ignore this just because people haven’t heard it!” And later (audience members) came up and said, “That was phenomenal – thank you for introducing that to me!” People who organize for venues are scared, I guess because there are problems with financing – maybe difficulties related to the financial end of things – but hopefully again, if we keep doing what we love and what we feel is important, then we will push through these tough times.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Yes.

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As Contessa Almaviva in the _ production of Le nozze di Figaro at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Chris Kakol

Classical organizations in North America are facing similar issues, if in a more concentrated way. For instance, if Stravinsky is programmed, it’s always The Rite Of Spring, which is considered daring; it’s never lesser-known works that are just as interesting, if not more so. Organizations are scared tickets won’t move, but if you never program it, people won’t know, and they won’t have a chance to decide for themselves.

Thank you very much, yes!! But also for a musician it takes time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel now I have something special and unique to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown in music and into the music and have learned enough in order to do it.  So I can offer my vision and feel of it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very personal and human. But again, it is constant work, and it all depends on if we’re willing to work and make ourselves better, and if we’re willing to push other things, and make concerted, constant pushes toward… what’s the word…

Evolution?

That’s a good one, yes. Never stopping. Trying new things will always teach you something!

Evolution is two-pronged; it’s work, as you said to do this – evolving is work– but it’s also allowing yourself to evolve, which means being open to all sorts of things, including discomfort, which takes courage to face. How much did your time with mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova helped to cultivate that quality?

She has always been one of those people I look up to, and the fact that I had a chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge! Also the trust she put in me and, you know, she was such a generous and kind person, and the things she told me when I was still young gave me so much confidence, you know what I mean? She believed in me so much, and that belief gave me wings, like, “Go baby, fly! Enjoy the singing and share with the people your gift!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life, she IS in my life. I have, as we say, a ticket and a blessing from her for this career, and for this world of singing.

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At the Opera Ball at the Bolshoi in November 2019. The concert was in memory of mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

How much did she help to instil your sense of exploration?

It’s just how she was herself; Elena was never afraid to take a risk. For example, at some point she went into theatre; she was doing a lot of things with various organizations – recitals and working with contemporary composers, and being onstage doing big opera things and going to recital halls and doing small pieces – and when she was older she went into theatre, and people said “Are you crazy? What are you doing?!” And she was brilliant! But the main thing is she enjoyed it, and that was one of the biggest inspirations. (Obratzsova was artistic director of the Opera Company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2007-2008, and appeared as The Countess in their production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades in 2011, the same year she created a charitable foundation to promote music education; she passed away in 2015.)

There are so many languages an artist can speak in terms of different ways and different approaches, and (Obratzsova) showed all of us there is never one way, that we don’t have to lock ourselves in one box: “I’m doing opera” or “I’m a recitalist” or whatever. She was free herself, and she inspired us in that way, those who were her students or the winners of her competition. She never put any chains on anybody; she never put anyone in a box. And that was a very big inspiration, no question.

That’s how it seems with you, that you’re not in a box of doing one style or sound, which reflects your life between the United States and Russia.

I feel like it’s a blessing and a gift; every way is different. Everybody has a right to choose the way they’re living and approach careers, and I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am trying to enjoy every minute of it. When I sing Wagner that doesn’t mean I don’t love singing Handel, or that I can’t; if I sing Handel that doesn’t mean I can’t sing my heart out in other modern pieces, or do the most intimate, almost whispering things in a recital. I love it all.

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! 

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.

Brindley Sherratt: “Use The Whole Voice”

Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

Like many in Europe right now, Brindley Sherratt is trying to stay cool. I chatted with the English bass in the middle of a brutal (and record-breaking) heatwave, where he spoke to me from his residence in Sussex, a two-hour drive south of London. “It’s not so bad…  but it’s still 35C!” he said. “I have a huge fan on my desk here.”

Sherratt came to singing relatively late – his mid-late 30s – and, as he told The Times last year, missed out on the young artist training programs and thus “I consider myself about 50 years behind my colleagues in some respects.” This later start might work against some singers, but with Sherratt, it’s quite the opposite; the circumstances offer a gravitas that’s hard to miss onstage. His is an even-keeled, confident presence; he doesn’t make a big show of things vocally or physically, because he doesn’t have to. I experienced his darkly brooding Hunding earlier this year as part of a partial in-concert presentation of Die Walküre with the Sir Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (the opera’s first half was performed) during which he sung alongside Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund and Lise Davidsen’s Sieglinde, in a rich display of vocal dramatism shot through with relentless drive. At the time, I wrote about Sherratt’s performance as being “less outwardly murderous than inwardly brewing, an avuncular if charismatic figure of quiet intensity” and I think that’s a good way to describe him artistically; Sherratt is possessed of a quiet intensity, in both manner and – especially – in voice. (It’s a quality that also makes him a great villain.) His is one of those warm, enveloping sounds that does so much more than merely honk or bellow, but offers sonorous drama and clear delivery. Quite the combination.

Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

Despite the late start, Sherratt has enjoyed a busy career with appearances on both sides of the Atlantic (Metropolitan Opera, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lyric Opera Chicago; Teatro Real de Madrid, Opernhaus Zürich, Wiener Staatsoper), with a concentration of work in the U.K. (Garsington Opera, BBC Proms, Royal Opera House, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera North), performing a diverse array of repertoire, including the villainous Claggart in Billy Budd, Arkel in Pelléas et Mélisande, Judge Turpin in Sweeney Todd, Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra, Gremin in Eugene Onegin, Geronte di Ravoir in Manon Lescaut, Trulove in The Rake’s Progress, Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Fafner in Siegfried, a role he’s set to reprise in concert with the London Philharmonic in 2020.

Currently Sherratt is performing as Sarastro, in a Barbe & Doucet production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at the Glyndebourne Festival, a venue in which he’s performed frequently over the years; he appeared in both Der Rosenkavalier (as Baron Ochs) and Pelléas et Mélisande (as Arkel) there last summer. In the autumn, he’s scheduled to sing the role of the ghostly Commendatore in Don Giovanni at Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In our recent wide-ranging chat, he shared fascinating insights on the distinct joys of Mozart, Mussorgsky, and Strauss, the differences performing in big and small houses, and the ways he’s kept his in voice in tip-top shape. Sherratt is also, it must be noted, one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with, which makes his brewing onstage presence all the more fascinating.

How are things in Glyndebourne?

It’s fifteen minutes away from my house, so it’s a local gig for me. We’ve only lived down here five years, even before then it was always my favorite place to work, because it feels like family. The setting is amazing, and I’ve been in good productions. The house is the perfect size; it’s not too big. You don’t feel you need to shout your head off the whole time. The acoustic is great. And, I know everybody. It feels like home. 

You recently marked your 100th performance as Sarastro. A lot of singers I talk to say Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

It is. Precisely. If I can sing Sarastro well, with legato and simply – not signing loud – if I can do this, then I know I’m in good shape. Because at my age and everything, you can just end up doing loud all the time.

It’s what a lot of basses do. 

Yes but Mozart is really a balm for my voice, and good discipline too. People might think, “Oh, it’s just another Sarastro” – no. If you want to do it well, with really good line, and make it beautiful, then you have to offer something else. It can take me a couple weeks just to pare things down a bit – you don’t have to bellow; it’s just brushing through voice. We’ve done a few shows now.  I haven’t really sang anything lately; after Billy Budd (as John Claggart) I took a month off for holidays, and then I did (Die Zauberflöte),. Now my voice feels in the best shape it’s felt for ages, fresh and bubbly. I keep thinking, “Oh, this is nice!”

The 2019 Glyndebourne production of Die Zauberflöte. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

I spoke with Barbe and Doucet about the production, and they agreed there’s a fun element to the opera, but they were keen to bring this interesting feminist history into it, which is interesting. Have you worked with them before?

No never, but you know it’s really interesting how they superimpose this story about the Sacher Hotel and Escoffier and such. It’s clever what they’ve done. 

You had done this role earlier this year, in English, with the English National Opera.

You know my career started late – I started when I was about 36, 37, so I had to squeeze an awful lot in the last ten or fifteen years, and I did my first Sarastro at the ENO in 2004, and I learned that translation, but what was distressing and surprising was the fact it was a whole new translation this time, and I couldn’t get this new one in my head. I kept coming out with great chunks of the old one, which was funny and a bit alarming for everybody in the cast. I’d done that production, by (Simon) McBurney, twice before. I remember him saying in rehearsals, “Remember, Mozart was a genius, but Schikaneder wasn’t!” Sarastro is so difficult to play – there’s no journey. Whatever production (of Die Zauberflöte) I’m in, I bring my own human approach to the role. 

Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting his final concert in Japan, 2017. (via)

You’re also set to perform as Pimen (in Boris Godunov) at Bayerisches Staatsoper next year

I’ve sung (the role) three times now. It’s amazing music, I love it; Mussorgsky gives you lots of time and space as a singer. The first time I did it years ago was in English, in a new production with Ed Gardner at the ENO. In a way it was good for me; I got to know the measure of the part, and in my own language. The next time I did it in Russian, and it was with an entire cast of Russians, with Rozhdestvensky conducting, and that was terrifying. Oh my God! It was sheer luck I did my first one in Russian with him – honestly, just terrifying! At the end of the first week, he said, “Can I say to you, Pimen has 888 words and 868 of yours are really great.” And he also said, “I love you as an artist.” That was the first positive thing anybody had said to me all week, and I thought, “Well! I’m okay then!”

I was scheduled to sing (Pimen) in Munich back in 2014; after about day four of rehearsal, my throat started to feel strange, and I thought, “What’s this?!” Then my voice went… boom. The day before the sitzprobe I really could barely speak and I thought, “Oh, not now!” – and that was to be my debut in Munich. And the next day I couldn’t sing a note – not a note. I went to see the voice guy and he said, “I think you’re coming down with something. You won’t be singing it first night, everything is congested.” So I went home, because the next show was five days or so later. I never went back. I had such terrible bronchitis, and I couldn’t sing a note. So that was an abortive debut. They asked me to do it again in 2017 and I was busy, so this is the third time lucky – I get to do Pimen in Munich, finally! 

Brindley Sherratt as Sarastro in the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflote. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

I was speaking with a singer recently who noted the differences between big and small houses, and the aspects of singing in each of them. There is this assumption that because you’re a bass you can just sing loud.

I sort of feel Glyndebourne is wonderful that way – because, for instance, I did Billy Budd about five or six years ago in there, and I don’t like doing loud roles in a house that size. If I’m going to do big music, I like a big house; you can just chuck your voice out there. There is always a feeling in a smaller house that it’s a bit much. But with the big house, for me it’s about clarity, not the amount of muscle you put on it. I’ve been in rehearsal with voices and thought, “Wow, the room is shaking here,” but onstage it’s a different ball game because it’s just the clarity that makes you carry over in the big house. I’m slowly learning.

When I started to do bigger roles in the opera house the feedback was,  “Oh, your voice isn’t big enough for the house,” so I tried singing everything really, really loud, and my voice got too heavy, too thick, and I lost the top, so I went back to the drawing board and thought, “No, I don’t want to go this route, I’ll have a short career,” so I reworked, things, kept the vocalise going, and tried to keep as much sound in the head as I can. If I listen to people I admire, like Furlanetto. At 69 his voice has so much ring on it. He sings huge, but it’s beautiful, and that’s my goal: I want to make it clear, and so that it means something rather than just standing there like, “Listen to me!”

You’ll be going back to The Met – a very big house indeed – a few times next season, doing Bartolo in Le nozze di Figaro.

They said, “Come do Bartolo” and I thought, it’s nine performances in a month – yes, I’ll do that, and I do like being in NYC. When you go onstage and see the space, you think, “Oh I’ve really got to honk!” Now I realize it’s more about the ping on your voice than anything else. You’ve got to keep it clear, then you’re fine.

Brindley Sherratt in rehearsal for the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival production of Die Zauberflöte. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

Like we said, Mozart is a good massage for the voice. But you mentioned something a while ago about the importance of coaching… 

I was chatting to Gerry Finley at the time, saying, “I’m not singing right, I’m not happy with this” and he said, “Go see Gary (Coward) for a few sessions.” Gary was a singer in the chorus in the ENO for years. I sang a few things for him and he said, “There’s nothing wrong at all, you just got a bit thick and heavy,” so he prescribed some vocalise – singing just over the middle of the voice, never singing loud, and I just worked that into my routine, and I got it back, and I sang the St. Matthew Passion arias, and a lot of Handel. I still do, just to keep the flexibility going and the voice moving. I’ve noticed it, certainly with basses: there’s this assumption you don’t need to warm up that much. But I do quite a bit – I can’t abide going out there and just “AHHH!” I want to still be able to sing the Matthew Passion arias. That’s what I did to get my voice back on track. Just to keep the head voice going, and the flexibility.

Yours is a very flexible voice; it’s one of the things I noticed first in hearing you.

My voice just gets into this “uhhhhh” rut if i don’t do it. I did Ochs (from Der Rosenkavalier) at Glyndebourne, and that was a role where people said, “You’re not an Ochs! You’re the wrong voice; you’re the wrong shape” – but you know that (role) really helped my voice hugely, because it’s all moving around, it goes up to F-sharp and down to C. That was a period when I was singing the best I’ve ever sung; everything had to be there every night and it was, vocally. It was almost like Mozart, really. I said to my agent, “I want to do this a lot, while I still can.” It’s nice to have that fun on stage. John Tomlinson said to me, “Do as many Ochs as you can – do the happy roles, the fun roles; that way you can sing them all again when you get old, because you won’t be stuck with low stuff, stuck in one position. ” Use the whole voice, up and down; that’s really important to me.

What about lied?

Tomorrow I’ve got an afternoon with Julius Drake. He came, bizarrely, to Billy Budd and the Ring I did, and Alice Coote – she’s an old friend – had said to him, “Hey, work with Brindley” so he said to me recently, “Come to my house and we’ll spend an afternoon going through stuff.” I said, “I was a choral singer for fifteen years, then went straight into opera, so lied is not that much of my knowledge and experience.” He said, “For two hours we’ll try a load of stuff.” I did do “Songs And Dances Of Death” with orchestra a few years ago, and I did Strauss songs with orchestra. If I can find the right color and the right song, then I would love to do more of it. To sing in a more intimate setting I need somebody skilled at it, who knows me, then we can work out what’s best for my color. It’s like going back to school, like, “Let’s start with a blank page.” And I have a dream: I want to do Winterreise. I’m not known as a recital singer, but I’d like to get that going. 

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