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Gerald Finley: “Lieder Is A Fountain of Artistic Joy”

Gerald Finley opera singer sing classical music performer artist vocal vocalist Canadian bass baritone

Photo: IMG Artists

Years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Finley for the first time. It was a conversation about three major role debuts he was making within the space of a year, ones which included the lead in Aribert Reimann’s King Lear at the 2017 edition of the Salzburg Festival (a process he characterized at the time as “emotionally wringing”). The interview marked the first cover story of my writing career, and the first of many subsequent conversations, on and off the record, about various aspects of theatre, music, performance style, and of course, singing.

Starting out as a chorister in Ottawa, the bass baritone went on to study at the Royal College of Music before being accepted into the prestigious UK-based National Opera Studio. Finley’s career marked by a talent for blending sharp music insights, studious vocal practise, and instinctual theatricality. With every role (be they in the operas of Mozart and Puccini or those of Adams and Turnage) Finley’s multi-hued artistry expands, his voracious creative curiosity reaching new and fascinating corners. Noted for his portrayal of Don Giovanni, Finley has performed the role in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and at the Glyndebourne Festival, opposite Luca Pisaroni as Leporello.

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Gerald Finley as Iago (opposite Jonas Kaufmann) in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello, 2018. Photo: W. Hösl

Finley has performed in many prestigious houses, with Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Wiener Staatsoper, and the famed Salzburg Festival among them. The focus on German-speaking organizations is particularly noteworthy in light of our most recent conversation; as you’ll read, Finley wasn’t always so confident in such locales, vocally or otherwise, and it took him what he admits was a long time to mature vocally. As he told Bachtrack‘s Mark Pullinger in November 2019,

At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh.

That freshness has revealed itself in some wonderfully memorable performances over the years. He did, in fact, get to Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (more than once), as well as Amfortas in Parsifal; other noted roles include the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, the tormented Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the very black Bluebeard in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Finley is also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary composers, singing in several world premieres, including Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1998, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie in 2000, and the song cycle True Fire by Kaija Saariaho (who dedicated the work to him), under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2015.

 

Finley made a comically memorable turn as Verdi’s Falstaff (complete with a costume that made him seem four times his size) with the Canadian Opera Company in 2014, and a scarily sociopathic Iago in Othello (opposite tenor Russell Thomas) as part of the COC’s 2018-2019 season. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden recently marked his 30th anniversary with the company,which coincided with his performance in the ROH production of Brittten’s Death in Venice; classical writer Alexandra Coghlan praised Finley’s “sketching character after character in deft musical lines.” Along with working with celebrated conductors (including Mariss Jansons, Sir Antonio Pappano, Kiril Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Bicket, and Bernard Haitink), Finley was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014; three years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to opera.

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Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper

As a personal aside, I have distinct and fond memories of Finley’s performance as the lead in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell; I was fortunate to see him perform it live at the Metropolitan Opera in a production from their 2016-2017 season. Finley’s robust Tell was a perfect echo of the character’s aching struggles (inner and outer), a seamless combination of great musicality, finely-crafted vocality, and a very keen, highly watchable theatricality; his was a deeply visceral portrayal, one that underlined the very real historical stakes while revelling in Rossini’s deceptively simple score. Finley is set to reprise the role this May at Bayerische Staatsoper, but before then, he can be seen on the stage of The Met (as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte), as well as in Montreal and at Carnegie and Wigmore halls, where he’ll be performing a range of beloved lieder.

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Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.

Finley’s distinct gift for German art song is beautifully expressed on a recording for Hyperion Records he and pianist Julius Drake made of Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, released in autumn 2019. The pair previously recorded Schubert’s famed Winterreise cycle (2014), songs by Samuel Barber (2007) and Maurice Ravel (2008), and did a live concert recording at Wigmore Hall (2008). Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) is a song cycle written by Franz Schubert written at the end of his life in 1828. I’ve written about Schubert’s love of the writings of Goethe, but in this particular cycle, Schubert used the poetry of three writers, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl; his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, was the one who cannily named the song cycle thusly, following the composer’s premature death in November 1828. The works deal with themes of hope, love, longing, disillusion, and disenchantment, their sounds gracefully moving between sombre, sensual, and stark. Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) in 1896, using portions of text from the Lutheran Bible. Writer Richard Wigmore observes in the album’s liner notes that the songs were “(d)esigned to comfort the living, and indeed Brahms himself” – the composer’s longtime confidante (some might say more) Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke earlier that year, and he wrote them partly in full anticipation of her passing, though he was also feeling the first effects of the cancer that would take his life a year later. Wigmore characterizes the works as “profound, unsentimental testaments to (Brahms’s) sympathy for suffering, stoical humanity, his belief in the virtue of hard work, and the enduring power of love.”

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Johannes Brahms, 1889.

Finley and Drake capture these themes with vivid clarity on the album. The opening track, “Liebesbotschaft” (or “message of love”), in which the speaker asks a little stream to send his message of love along to his beloved, sees Finley carefully modulating his chocolatey-bronze bass baritone, sensitively complementing, than contrasting, dense sonic textures amidst Julius Drake’s rippling, breath-like piano performance. On the famous “Ständchen” (“serenade”), a song in which the speakers asks his beloved to bring him happiness, Finley lovingly caresses every syllable so delicately so as to make the listener lean in, as if being told a very private secret. The meticulous attention paid to blending clarity and expression, particularly in the Brahms works, is miraculous; nothing sounds wooden and hard, but rather, silken, and fluid, with just the right amount of sensuality in phrasing and tone. Albums like this remind me why I love classical music, of its transcendent power to so often say what spoken language cannot. Finley’s deep dedication to the art of song is entrancing and he has a true and brilliant partner in the acclaimed Julius Drake. I had long wanted to discuss lieder with Finley, and the duo’s beautiful Schubert/Brahms album provided the perfect excuse to enjoy another lively conversation with a deeply dedicated and authentic artist.

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Gerald Finley as the Gondolier in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I read that you were afraid of Schubert for a long time – is that true?

Oh yeah!

Why?

Well, because he’s so simple. The thing about Schubert is that he is basically such a natural melodist and really gives the idea these songs have existed forever; I think to make them one’s own if you like, to have one’s own connection and one’s own version, and putting one’s own version into the world, takes a lot of confidence. The main thing about it is that I felt it would reveal all my technical insecurities and failings, and … I think it’s only really in the past decade really, that I’ve felt those sort of things have ironed themselves out. Put it this way; I always felt I could sing Schubert but I never felt competent enough to actually do it. I always shied away from the types of repertoire which would reveal my weaknesses rather than my strengths.

Now it seems as if, having had so much experience with the music of Schubert, his work has become a part of your artistic identity… 

Very much, but it’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the culture of the language, and of the poetry, and the culture of the German history therein. Many young singers direct their early careers into German houses because that’s where obviously lots of work is, and they have the privilege of learning German and being in a German environment for the early parts of their careers, and for various reasons I didn’t do that – I actually rejected a place at the Hamburg State Opera when I was 26, because I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t vocally prepared for that. So I kind of negated my opportunity to become immersed in the German environment and that entire musical world and experience. So my German became something I would learn on the way doing concerts, doing tours with orchestras; until my mid-30s I actually never appeared in a German opera house. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with the language. It did happen, eventually – I was invited to festivals in Austria and did Papageno in and around Germany, so that helped a lot to bolster my German confidence. 

And you know, there have been a lot of really good German lieder singers, and to be part of the lieder fraternity is really something I longed for. I learned Wolf and Brahms and I did my best at Schumann for a while, and enjoyed it all very much, but Schubert being kind of the father of those, I realized it was going to take some time to get to the core, but it did happen, where I felt could really go to that altar for the father of lieder, and say, “Here’s my humble offering of what you have written!” 

And of course Fischer-Dieskau was the main thing, my first recording was his Volume 1 of Schubert – so yes, it confronted me very much: what business did I have even attempting it?! I kind of got over it and realized, and still feel, Schubert has been my friend, he’s somebody I look to for inspiration. He demands I really think carefully about what it is to be an artist, because (the music) is so relatively clear on the page, and one this almost blank emotional canvas to treat the verse differently and to infuse the words in a way which will give meaning. There’s a feeling as soon as you record it, that the version you have in your head and heart at that moment… well, you will suddenly think, “Oh! But I could’ve done it this way!” So that’s why keeping performances scheduled in the diary is really wonderful, those versions will change and develop. And hopefully, going to other artists and seeing how they handle (the same material) – it’s really inspiring to develop. I don’t know whether painters go through the same thing, where they redo canvases all the time or decide they want to add various elements or develop a theme – but there we are, that’s why lieder is such a fountain of artistic joy now, and I feel that vocally I’ve been able to sort of finally mature into it.

Performing these pieces one has to be willing to enter into a specific place, or places, as you know, and being human, one’s not always in the mood or one’s tired, or there are other things going on – it’s not easy, but there are similar challenges in doing opera performances. What changes for you, going between your recital work and your opera work? How do you navigate those changes?

It’s a mindset, really. First and foremost, lieder is an intimate art form – it’s really thoughts which are, you know, nurtured out of a poet, and you get the feeling there’s a very personal relationship between the composer and the poetry they’re setting, that the way they’ve been inspired and reacted, or want to bring certain elements of a poem to the fore, takes quiet contemplation, it’s a very mindful thing. My very good friend and colleague (tenor) Mark Padmore says the difficulty of doing lieder recitals is that it was really meant to be sung amongst just a few people, and again, it’s really a very intimate art form, almost a private thing. What you’re asking audiences to do is give up elements of their busy lives and come into a space where they can become very quiet and very thoughtful, and think, not about what’s on the surface of their lives, but to delve a lot deeper, and a share a poetical journey, a psychological situation with a recitalist, in a way that is pretty demanding.

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Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and Gerald Finley as the Elderly Fop in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

We do put demands on audiences, and it could be the cause of decline in audiences for lieder because it takes special listening skills and patience, and a certain acceptance that, okay, particularly for non-linguists, there are a couple pieces they may feel estranged from, but at least they’re there, listening to beautiful piano playing and hopefully good singing. So we’ll keep doing it, to keep people give them that opportunity to get involved with the best parts of their soul.

There’s something healthy about having that demanded of you as a listener. I want that to be demanded of me when I go to concerts, because otherwise I don’t feel I have a very satisfying experience.

Indeed! And to your question about the differences between lieder and opera for the performer, really, opera is such a collaborative event, you, the singer, are at the top of the iceberg as it were, you appear above, on the top 10th, or more like 2%, of a wealth of creativity and musicality and theatrics and administration too, so your voice and portrayal is a culmination of a h-u-u-u-ge team effort.

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Gerald Finley as Iago in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

And yes, you have to deliver the goods and focus on your character, and give your vocal performance the absolute top level in extremes, and that’s really not what lieder is about… it’s not much teamwork, other than with your fellow musician, and it can be chamber of course, as part of a string quartet or with a guitarist or flutist as well as the piano version, so I like to think that perhaps you are your own stage manager and production team and artistic personnel (in lieder recitals).

There are people who are endeavoring to bring out the essence of the presentation of lieder in a more theatrical way, like having staged elements, and I find that a revelation – because why shouldn’t people be inspired by beautiful, fundamental music? I tell you what: pace Barbara Streisand, if a pop singer got hold of a Schubert song and did something amazing with it, you’d be finding people saying, “Well, that’s a cover version, but where’s the original?” Hopefully! Or the other way around, take a Joni Mitchell song and rewrite it as a Schubert lied or Brahms lied, and… yes, I think we just need to be a little more accepting of how people are trying to just make sure these elements of inspiration can be shared by all. 

Speaking of shared inspiration, the baldly emotional nature of lieder translates into the demands it makes on singers: you can’t hide.

That is actually one of the challenges of the technical aspects. Often the frustration about being a younger singer is that one hasn’t quite got the technical lability to be as free and honest in vocal terms. There are lots of wonderful musicians who are doing beautiful things with their voices but it means less, and that’s what we’re after, of course, is “the beautiful voice.” For me, my heroes are Fischer-Dieskau and Tom Krause and Hermann Prey, or José Van Dam doing Mahler; you’re not worried about how they sound, you’re worried about how they feel, but the reason you do that is because their voices are in such perfect shape! It’s like suddenly their instrument is serving them – that’s why it’s a rare thing, because we singers spend our whole life trying to figure out how to sing in order to be free, to be free from all that. 

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Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Angela Denoke as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo : Marty Sohl / Met Opera

It’s a fascinating pairing on this album. What was the thinking behind including the music of Brahms? The linguistic and musical poetry is so different from that of Schubert. 

Essentially, I mean, in a kind of a very facile sort of conceit, the Brahms works were among the last things he wrote. He was at a time when he was in deep mourning for Clara (Schumann), and … well, to hear that Brahms… he was always at his best when he was thinking about hard things, big challenges, and the richness of the writing is so extraordinary. So in terms of periods of life for both composers, you know, really they are the two respective “swan songs,” effectively. I always feel Brahms is somebody who thought he knew where the spiritual elements of his life lay; you get it in the Requiem, of course, and certainly in these songs, and in the late string music. It’s all very dense and full of passion, and we feel that. I mean, Schubert knew he was dying of course, Brahms a little less, even though it was late in his life; he knew his time as a composer was reaching its end. So you get this kind of creative surge from both composers, and that’s really what attracted us to doing these works.

From Brahms’s overall output came many beautiful songs, but these ones are one huge level higher –  the use of the language, the biblical texts, was very much something which encapsulated his fervor for the human potential of love and forgiveness, and relating to toil. As a socialist approach, it was, “death will comfort those who have toiled,” but also, “those who’ve lived comfortable lives is why there’s fear but there is still hope that the comfort of death will be here for you” – and that’s remarkable as a thesis. So yes, in these Brahms songs, death is treated with great… hope, and love, I’d say. The idea of being in a marvelous revelry of celebrating life – “What was it? Life was love; the greatest of all these things is love” – so I do feel Brahms was an extremely passionate person, behind all that grizzle.

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Gerald Finley as the Hotel Barber and Mark padmore as ASchenbach in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

That sense is especially noticeable in the final song, “Wenn ich mit Menschen” (When I am with people), which draws together spiritual longing and human logning, the epic and the intimate, in this great expression of acceptance and understanding.

Completely! The elemental earnestness of it – “Ernste” – I almost feel if you didn’t get it in the Requiem, then yes, you will here. One’s life can have a sense of accomplishment if you have loved – and he loved through this music, and certainly in life… 

Clara.

Yes, Clara for sure, and his mother as well, which was a big element. We know much less about Schubert’s love life and I suppose that makes him slightly more mysterious as to what his thoughts on love were, except for the fact that if you delve into the songs, for instance the Serenade, really, it’s a marvel of positive thoughts in a minor key, and negative thoughts in major keys, it’s just extraordinary how he goes against convention in thinking minor is more fulfilling than major keys. There’s lots of wonderful mysteries, shall we say, about Schubert’s music in that regard. He did struggle with the idea of being recognized too, as a composer of any worth, and from that point of view it’s also, you wonder, was he ever appreciated? Did he ever feel his music had any worth? And for me that’s the melancholy aspect of not just him but many people — Beethoven not hearing the applause, for instance – but the whole idea is that these composers are wearing their passions in their music, and thank goodness for it. 

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

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The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

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Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

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. 

Golda Schultz: “There Are No Places To Hide With Mozart”

golda schultz

Photo: Gregor Rohrig

The music of Mozart was part of my regular musical diet as a child His work, when I first heard it, had all things my young mind could grab hold of: melody, momentum, drama. One of the first operas I thoroughly enjoyed was Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), a deceptively simple opera often programmed by companies program as an audience-pleaser. Many productions emphasize its seemingly whimsical nature, with fantastical representations of various realms of reality, and of course, rich comic aspects (the latter being an aspect I genuinely enjoyed about the acclaimed silent-movie style Kosky/Komische Oper Berlin production). Die Zauberflöte is a profound examination of what is l0st and gained on the path to adulthood and features a myriad of interesting characters who are almost, without fail, portrayed as cliches; the heroic prince, the funny birdman, the wicked Queen. The character of Pamina, in particular, is rarely given any color or vibrancy. That changed when I heard Golda Schultz in the role last year. It’s one she sees as far from thankless. 

The soprano, born in South Africa but based in Germany since 2011, made her Metropolitan Opera debut singing Pamina last season. In a 2017 interview with the Times of Israel, she said she found the character “surprisingly strong. She is the one who saves herself.” Vocally beguiling, Schultz demonstrated a wonderfully flexible tone with a hearty and at times rich sound; note for note she matched the immense Met Orchestra in tone, confidence, sheer presence. A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, Schultz became a member of the Bayerische Staatsoper Opernstudio in 2011 in Munich, which exposed the young artist to a range of roles and performances; in 2012 she made her formal Bayerische Staatsoper debut in a principal role she’s since performed many times, that of the hapless Contessa Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Schultz also spent a season with Stadttheater Klagenfurt in Austria, where she was acclaimed in new productions of both Der Rosenkavalier and Giulio Cesare. In 2015, she made a splash in her debut with Staatsoper Hamburg in the world premiere of Beat Furrer’s La bianca notte. She’s also performed at Glyndebourne, the Salzburger Festspiele, Teatro Alla Scala, and, most recently, at the 2018 BBC Proms. Opera writer Fred Plotkin recently named her one of the “40 Under 40” singers to watch. More Mozart awaits this autumn, with performances of Nozze at both the Vienna State Opera and Opera Zurich.

ZDF Stars von Morgen

At the Stars of Tomorrow Concert, March 2017. Photo: Claudius Pflug.

Performing in Berlin at the Konzerthaus this weekend, Schultz’s program includes works by Mozart and Beethoven under the baton of conductor Riccardo Minasi, who leads the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin in these, as well as symphonies by Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven’s dramatic concert aria “Ah! Perfido” as well as a pair of short Mozart arias, “Vado, ma dove?” and “Misera, dove son!” / “Ah! non son io che parlo” were delivered with a genuinely magnetic mix of sensitivity and steel on Saturday evening, with Schultz showing off an exceptionally liquid-golden tone, smart modulation, and exceptional dramatic instinct. Her latter Mozart performance in particular inspired many hearty bravos and cheers. Berliners will have to wait until June to see her live again; she’ll be appearing at the Boulez Hall for an all-Schubert recital with pianist Jonathan Ware.

Just before weekend performances, Schultz and I met to talk singing, learning languages, and the special appeal of Mozart to singers, not to mention the challenges of Beethoven. We also talked about her current work with acclaimed Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, whom she’s working with as part of a tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. (She’s back with them next week for performances in Spain.) In-person, Schultz is every bit as passionate as she is when performing — you can feel her energy, a sparky, fierce glow that encompasses and encapsulates an artistry that is at once awesome and approachable. That makes for an exciting performer, and, perhaps, provides the right inspiration for many young artists and new audiences as well.

How long did it take you to learn German?

I’m still learning! I say one wrong word and they switch to English immediately. They go, “ We can speak English, it’s fine!” I’ve been here since 2011, but it took me two-and-a-half years to get up the guts to start speaking German and the only reason is that I lived in the south for a while, in Klagenfurt, where no one speaks English — it’s German or Italian only.

But I’d imagine having the language facility is hugely helpful as a singer.

It’s a tough thing, There’s the old school that says you have to learn the languages to sing in the languages, but then the IPA discovered ways for everyone to sing, which has been really helpful and opened up the industry to people who wouldn’t have access really unless you were part of the culture. So in those terms, phonetics has kind of democratized the culture of classical music — if you’re from Korea or South Africa you can sing in Italian even if you weren’t raised speaking it. But the more you stick with a piece the more the rhythm of the language filters into what you’re doing. In the beginning it’s difficult and it’s tedious, but there’s something quite profound and tactile about having to learn a language.

golda klagenfurt cleopatra

As Cleopatra in “Guilio Cesare” at Stadttheater Klagenfurt, February 2014. (Photo: Karlheinz Fessl)

What was your first experience singing in a language you didn’t know?

That was in The Marriage Of Figaro in Klagenfurt. I don’t speak Italian — I mean, I can throw some phrases around but that’s it — so I had to do the phonetics. The diction teacher said to do the basic translation first, then the poetic translation, but you still need to know what every single words means and then deconstruct how you speak it; you need to know where the verb is, where the adjective is, and learn about stresses. I’ve discovered that sometimes even people who speak the language don’t necessarily know what they do, things like phrasal doubling; if you ask the average Italian, they don’t know what that is for the most part, they just know when they hear it and someone doesn’t do it, they’ll correct it. Only now, slowly, Italian coaches are learning to talk to you about something like phrasal doubling but if you don’t know to do it, the language doesn’t sound right.

Is this something that was emphasized when you were in the Bayerische Staatsoper ensemble?

Yes, in that ensemble you have to be a jack of all trades. I’ve done Wagner, Stravinsky, Dvorak, Puccini… sometimes you do it all in the same month! My first Wagner I sang a Valkyrie in 2012, when still in the Opera Studio. That was amazing. Initially I told the German coach who was helping me, “I can’t sing Wagner!” and he said, “Yes you can, you just have to know how to sing the consonants in German. If you can do that, Wagner will never go against your legato.” And if you really notice, Wagner writes quite cleverly! When there’s a lot of singing, he kind of silences the orchestra; if you look at the score, it’s very extreme but the minute people start singing, they’re holding atmosphere. That’s where so many twentieth century composers found the idea of atmosphere, in Wagner’s writing. The “Hojotoho!happens three or four times, but the score also has things like piano and pianissimo — he wants a scene to play. The music is so exciting and the drama is so intense.

But your voice has changed too; you’re touring Mahler 4 right now with Gustavo Dudamel and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

It’s not easy to do; you have to know what you are capable of and what you are not capable of. I like to study full scores — conducting scores — and, no joke, Mahler writes “Do not overpower the singer” in the fourth movement, so if you want to sing softly, the orchestra has to help you. It’s quite interesting he wrote that; Gustavo said during rehearsals, “I want her to sing as quietly as she wants to.”

golda schultz

Photo: Gregor Rohrig

Is this your first time working with Maestro Dudamel?

Yes. It’s indescribable. When you see pictures or you see videos of him talking about things, you get the sense he’s a larger-than-life character and full of personality; when you meet and work with him, that largeness of character comes from a very quiet place of passion and joy, and it’s just because it’s so concentrated and so intensely about the work and about bringing everything together. There’s something quite lovely and almost shy about it, really fine and small and delicate — he is genuinely one of the kindest people I’ve worked with. It’s really rare for anybody to be that grounded and lovely, especially someone who’s had so much success at such a young age. At the end of every concert, he refuses to bow himself, he likes to bow with everybody. He recognizes we all did it together and his job wouldn’t exist without everybody else doing their job — he has so much respect for each person. The bowing takes almost as long as the concert! He’s like Oprah: “You get a bow and you get a bow and you get a bow!” And people go nuts. The applause in Lisbon lasted ten minutes if not more.

What’s it like to experience that kind of energy from an audience?

I’m grateful, and I’m glad my job helped people have a good evening. It can be an emotional experience, the experience of live performance and the receiving of a live performance. It’s a real relationship that happens over a space of time, but to some extent, it’s one-sided: it’s me, the performer, giving you, the audience member, an emotional experience. What I really do appreciate is people who come after shows and go, “Thank you so much, it was so amazing” — it’s a genuine exchange. Someone came up to me after a show — I was dead tired, I wanted to go home and die somewhere in a corner; it also wasn’t my best performance, and someone came up and said, “I had a really rough day today, and this helped me make sense of my day, so thank you.” And I was like, “You and me both! You had a rough day, I had a rough day! This moment between us has helped me make sense of my day too, and we’re both leaving better than when we came!” That’s profound. I try to look for that kind of profound connection, even in the banal.

golda glyndebourne

As Contessa Almaviva in “Le nozze di Figaro” at the Glyndebourne Festival, July 2016. Photo: Robbie Jack.

The concert at Konzerthaus this weekend seems anything but that — it feels like a nice display of your Mozart talents. You’ve performed The Marriage of Figaro a lot, you’ve done Clemenza, and you made your Met debut in The Magic Flute; Mozart seems to be your guy.

He’s my homey! I love singing Mozart, it sits nicely within my voice though I really don’t think there’s a voice he hasn’t written for. When people say they can’t sing him, I say it’s because you haven’t tried! What I find it he does one of two things: he either shows you everything you’re doing right with your singing, or everything you’re doing wrong with your singing. There are no places to hide with Mozart. It’s also the same with Beethoven, like “Ah, perfido!” It’s difficult to hide. He didn’t have the facility of hearing, so sometimes things are very tricky, but because he had the experience of writing for virtuosic violinists and clarinet players, he has that sense of virtuosity for other instruments. But fingers can move in a different way than a human voice! You sense that he knows, but he’s like, “Figure it out yourself!” It’s been quite an education to sing Beethoven, but I love it.

Beethoven’s vocal writing is notoriously difficult, but I whenever I hear it I always get the sense he knew and didn’t care.

No, he doesn’t care! The idea of words being connected and together and taking breaths…  for him, the phrase matters more than the text sometimes, and that’s what makes it rewarding and ecstatic, especially when you do find a way. It’s not that he writes inhuman writing, it’s deeply human! But it’s on the border of almost too much in terms of what’s doable, and that’s the genius of Beethoven; through all of his music, he’s standing on the border, daring you to go to the edge of your abilities. You feel that pressure and … I like it, I really enjoy it.

A Rich Meal With The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra

rehearsal RCO musikfest

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under conductor Manfred Honeck rehearse for their performance at the Berlin Musikfest. (Photo: © Adam Janisch)

Whether owing to or despite the recent dramas the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra has endured, their concert at this year’s edition of the Berlin Musikfest was remarkable in every sense. Even more remarkable was the number of empty seats within the Philharmonie.

“Berliners,” commented a seatmate, her eyes rolling, “only tend to come out for their own.”

Whether there’s any truth to this observation or not, it was a pity to note; this was a gorgeous, rich meal of a concert which featured a mixed program of works with an interesting commonality: initial failure. I attended with a heap of curiosity, not only to see how replacement conductor Manfred Honeck might fare, but to see how he and the artists might fit the works of Webern, Berg, and Bruckner together — works which, at their respective premieres (in 1909, 1913, and 1889) failed entirely. There was a riot at the performance of the Berg work; audiences at the premiere of Bruckner’s Third literally walked out as the music was being performed. These works were not without formidable influences; as the program notes remind us, “the composers, over the generations, found their own answers to Wagner’s challenge” —  but it’s worth noting that other sonic echoes — that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, and Second Viennese School leader Arnold Schoenberg especially — are entirely palpable (or anticipated), in both form and style. There is an immensity of intention which draws clear parallels to the elder statesmen of late romantic/early modern music, along with a palpable, grand dread. This quality is especially perceivable throughout the Webern and Berg works, as if they were somehow intuiting the immense social reset and the terrible tragedy just around the corner. It is music within whose bars you can hear empires crumbling, a call into the total void, a questing for authenticity and meaning.

Remaking old forms and probing new avenues were hallmarks of the compositional approach of the Second Viennese School, and for all the atonal explorations and aural adventuring, the works of composers like Berg, Webern, and their teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, has, at least for me, sonically luxuriant leanings, even amidst the most sparse sounds. Central tonalities or not (some have them; some don’t, and this can be initially strange for new listeners), there is a heartbeat of the real in this music, and that makes it captivating; I’m always struck, hearing the work of Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, at their immense presence, their reaching for the essential, the real, and even, to my ears, the sensuous. One simply has to have the right orchestra, and the right conductor, to draw (carefully) such features out. The Royal Concertgebouw, as led by Honeck, provided just that this past Tuesday evening.

royal concertgebouw orchestra

Photo: © Anne Doctor

Certainly, Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5, Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs , Op. 4 (also known as the Altenberg Lieder), and Bruckner’s Third Symphony have enjoyed success since their respectively disastrous premieres. The Concertgebouw Orchestra underlined the unique beauty of each in a rich, well-paced program that was a treat to experience. Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op.5 (the 1929 orchestral version), running roughly eleven minutes in total, is an exploration of color and tonality —or austere atonality, as it were.  The first movement is characterized by a conversationality between strings, with whisper-like pizzicato effects, a sinuous string tone, and virtuosic demands on the Concertmaster; in this, Vesko Eschkenazy handled the lines with aplomb. Resembling at times a film soundtrack (Jaws came to mind), Honeck highlighted the idiosyncratic bass work in the third movement, rendering chewy timbres that led to a dramatically hushed conclusion, echoed later in the rippling opening of the fifth movement, with its interplay between textures and colors. Held with a tenuous balance, Honeck ensured the ending was pointedly unstable, a close that provided the perfect foray into Berg’s Five Orchestral Songs, which featured the vocal talents of soprano Anett Fritsch.

soprano Fritsch

Soprano Anett Fritsch (Photo: © Kristin Hoebermann)

As scholar David P. Schroeder rightly notes, this work “defined Berg’s future direction as did no other of his early works.”  The cascade of sound opening the work was characterized by the Concertgebouw’s luxurious approach, with a deft mix of phrasing and tempi. Honeck emphasized the sonic resplendence with a lovely balance of strings and vocality, leading with an expansive lyricism which finds the soft edges and colors within Berg’s fascinating score. Based around a series of epigrammatic texts by writer  “Peter Altenberg” (real name Richard Engländer), with whom Berg shared a complicated friendship, the work is a densely rich collection that balances beauty and melancholy in one tension-filled package; one can clearly hear early indications of Berg’s 1935 opera Lulu within its score. As composer/violinist Jonathan Blumhofer rightly notes, “The Altenberg-Lieder feature Berg at his most direct and concise, as well as his most sumptuous.” Fritsch’s rich sonority complemented the pithy prose, with Honeck providing plush phrasing and beautifully capturing the push-pull of sounds of the Second Viennese School and its aims.

If the first half of the program featured music that aimed for pure color in and of itself, the second half, thanks to Honeck’s quilt-like approach, used all the colors, and textures, and patterns, making Bruckner’s third sound experimental, even playful, though its length (280 pages) might leave some wondering how playful it could possibly be. Conductor Herbert Blomstedt commented in an interview late last year that the lengthy didn’t mean the work took any longer to play than usual symphonies — there are just so many notes within this particular one. Honeck and the Concertgebouw made a point to distinctly emphasize all of them, whether in fast runs or sustained tones, and while this could prove aurally exhausting, the maestro shaped it into a greater listening whole, using a variety of colors and textures, and an expansive, thrilling lyricism. 

honeck conductor

Conductor Manfred Honeck. (Photo: © Felix Broede)

With a broad, Mahlerian intensity, he led the first movement through a series of glorious builds made of brass and strings, each time a trip to a precipice offering a different and unique view. A thematic underlining by a fulsome brass section showed a clear relationship to the rippling upward ascent of strings, deftly modulated and colored. The lusciousness of sound carried over, beautifully, from the evening’s first half — perhaps a sign of the clearly positive relationship Honeck has with the orchestra, who seemed to relish playing under the Austrian maestro’s baton. Honeck (named Artist of the Year by the International Classical Music Awards for 2018) could be seen smiling broadly at various moments throughout the work — surely a good sign, for the performance, the orchestra, and the audience?

More’s the pity, then, that not more Berliners and music fans made the trip to see this performance. It was a rich meal that left questions, to be sure, but the right sorts of ones that left you hungry for yet more.

Listed, Schmisted

(L-R) Groucho Marx, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, from ‘A Night At The Opera” (via)
If you are active on social media, you may have seen the recent “musical” lists going around and being shared by contacts on Facebook, in which favorites (non-faovorites as well) are revealed. An opera version was quick to follow, and I’ve been reading the lists shared by various friends (including those working both inside and outside the industry) with much interest. 
Tempted to join the trend, I found (shock) my own version was a bit too long, and it just became easier (and more logical) to post here, for everyone, including my many lovely European readers. 
Hopefully some of these choices inspire, amuse, illuminate; some may really raise eyebrows, others may inspire smirks. Either way, I’d love to know if any of these might prod you, good reader, into either listening or watching a work in a new way, or even experiencing an opera for the first time. I hope so! Either way, enjoy, and feel free to share your thoughts. 


Opera I hate: 

I find this to be such a reductive question; I don’t hate any of them. Sometimes a certain production can lead to intense dislike, even hate, and that’s a pity; sometimes, the opposite is just as true, with a smart production elevating mediocre material, illuminating and inspiring audiences (which is, of course, lovely and delightful). There are definitely a lot of mediocre works, and directors, and it’s so often a question of finding the right pairing. I don’t envy programmers at all these days, especially with the current challenges facing the art form.

Opera I think is overrated: 
There are no overrated operas; only undercooked (or over-heated) ideas in presenting them.

A scene from L’enfant et les sortileges. (Photo: Komische Oper / 1927, via)
Opera I think is underrated: 
Two, off the top of my head (though there are many):
Stitch, by Anna Chatterton (who I interviewed last summer) and Juliet Palmer; this is a very moving work about sweatshop workers, deceptively simple, but more timely than ever;
L’enfant et les sortileges, by Maurice Ravel, which I saw for the first time this past winter in Berlin, in a very beautiful production at Komische Oper. It’s a whimsical work, with a very impressionistic score, and its libretto is ripe for directorial creativity. I also think it would make a great introduction for kids, though it’s rightly been pointed out that the work is more of “a musical grotesqueness for adults rather than a children’s opera.” True, but still vastly underrated. 

Opera I love: 
There are truly too many things I love to mention. Even with works I take issue with, I almost always tend to find something I like, or even love, and sometimes, it’s a great performer who will elevate the material (or my experience of it) from meh to marvellous. 
For instance, seeing (and interviewing) Patricia Racette in the title role in Madame Butterfly at the Canadian Opera Company in 2014 really made me re-think, and thus, re-experience this work in some important ways. I still find large swaths of it troublesome, but Racette’s interpretation and understanding of the role is so great, and she so very much made it her own (and from what I’d call a refreshngly feminist place), it was like seeing the famous Puccini work for the first time. Great artists have this power. 
(L-R) Sesto Bruscantini and Luciano Pavarotti in a scene from L’elisir D’Amore (via video)
Opera I cherish: 
This feels like a personal question; the act of cherishing something implies a kind of intimacy and comfort coupled with deep gratitude. I’m grateful for every work, but things that speak to me on a personal level include Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (its tuneful score is so warm, so bright, so full of humanity), Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (such a gorgeous study of fidelity, authenticity, and the corners of the human heart), and Berlioz’s Le damnation de Faust — not strictly an opera in the traditional sense, but when it done right, can be very powerful, as my experience of it in Europe this past winter so wonderfully highlighted. 

Guilty pleasure: 
There is no such thing as guilty opera love, is there? That implies there’s a kind of snobbery within the art form about things opera fans are “supposed” to like or dislike – to hell with those rules, and that way of thinking. Pleasure is pleasure; music is music; love is love. Go listen to something you enjoy, and don’t feel ever feel guilty that it somehow isn’t cool enough for the supposed “in” crowd.

Opera I want to see revived: 
In North America, it would be nice to see more Meyerbeer put onstage; his stuff is musically dense, but has intense passages of musical wonder rich with fascinating characterizations as well as great theatrical possibilities. I’d also like to see Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, Puccini’s La Rondine, and the work of Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán staged far more often on these shores. 

Opera that I first saw on DVD: 
Forget DVDs! I have fond memories of regularly watching (and taping) Met broadcasts on the PBS program, “Great Performances.”

Opera that I first saw live
Bizet’s Carmen (at age three!).

Opera that I first performed in: 
I’ve never performed in opera, but I did act in the theater many years ago, and I particularly enjoyed Shaw’s Saint Joan, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I walked away from the stage years ago, and thankfully, found just as much value, power, and profundity in comic works as I used to see solely in tragedy. Ah, the wonderful things maturity brings.  

Opera I most recently saw: 
Live, La traviata recently at the Met in New York City (rundown here); on PVR, Wagner’s epic Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros. The latter is a very good example of the right production hitting the right emotional and intellectual notes in order to produce a whole new experience and understanding of the score. The production, from 2009 and done at the Bayerische Staatsoper, was a very modern, unusual staging (which provoked some strong reactions in the opera world); I’ve enjoyed it for a while now (this wasn’t my first PVR viewing), and I thought Richard Jones’ directorial ideas truly suited the work; his sometimes-risky concept was helped immeasurably by the utterly committed performances of its leads, who were heartbreaking and fantastic and… sigh

Greatest opening
A few thoughts here: 
I think Verdi had some bombastically good openings musically; you can’t beat the boom-boom-bang wonder of Rigoletto or Il trovatore or La Traviata. I remember my mother always seemed as if she was on the verge of jumping out of her chair, either at the opera house or at home, whenever the opening bars of any (/all) of these was played (and that’s after the overtures). I remember her shoulders hunching up, her eyes squeezing shut, her fingers curling into fists, as the music played, and her saying, quietly, after a few moments, ohhhhhh, Verdi….” You have to admit, he is great with the attention-getting openings. 
For myself, I think one of the most intriguing and misunderstood of openings is Don Giovanni; it’s really not at all as clear-cut as many believe it to be; I’m really not sure Donna Anna is as pure as many have made her out to be; I know how risky that is to say, but pffffft… the music whispers, at least to my ears, that we should be questioning, completely, the scene, in and of itself, and not taking its events — or characters — at face value. I deeply like (and heartily agree with) how director Sven-Eric Bechtolf staged this, along with the entire opera, last summer in Salzburg. Read on… 
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Carmelo Remigio in Don Giovanni (© Salzburger Festspiele | Ruth Walz)
Greatest ending: 
I dislike the “greatest” label – I find it insultingly reductive, and taste is such a personal thing anyway — but I will say, I enjoy the ending of Don Giovanni, because, like Austen’s great novels, it ends with people who are facing a new and uncertain kind of beginning; once the title character gets dragged off (to wherever — hell is non-existence to some), everyone has to figure out how and why to live now that he – that viral, vibrant tornado of chaos — is gone. 
To those who know me well, it’s not a grand secret that I really, really loved Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s staging of this opera in Salzburg last summer (a re-mount of his 2014 production); it struck chords with me in ways I still can’t quite explain – though the fact he treated the women as actual human beings with real needs went a long, long way (for me) in further appreciating and understanding this troubling work, and it all started with a very sexy opening, and closed with… more suggestion of sex, a kind of continuation of that restless, rule-breaking chaos that is both so dangerous and attractive. Mozart and Da Ponte wrote a great ending full of question marks; Bechtolf took that and ran with it. Bravo!

Worst middle of an otherwise great opera
I really don’t like this question, because it doesn’t take into account how damn hard the writing process actually is. 
Many times librettists and composers (to say nothing of writers, editors, producers, and other assorted creative types) struggle against the dreaded middle-section-sag, sometimes to no avail. This is where good directors, conductors, and performers become extra-special important (more than they already are, of course); it’s up to the creative teams (sound as well as visual) to create something special with material that develops such unfortunate (if occasionally unavoidable) sag. Find something to elevate and illuminate, for audiences, and for yourselves; I think this is the aim of many good artists past and present, to be honest, and it is worth keeping in mind when you find yourself nodding off in the middle of anything. 
Some do this at the opera. (via)
Greatest opera of all time: 
The next one I’m going to see, of course — or that you’ll suggest to me. 

Christine Goerke: “She’s Every Woman”

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Singer, mother, actor, opinionator — these are some of the titles that come to mind when I think of Christine Goerke.

The American soprano, currently in Toronto through February 25th performing the role of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s epic work Götterdämmerung (the last of the group of works known as the Ring Cycle), is as feisty a presence to chat to as she is on the stage. Having first seen her in as the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’s monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met in 2013, I’ve since throughly enjoyed the work she’s brought to the Canadian Opera Company. Each time she’s performed the Wagnerian heroine (in Die Walküre in 2015 and Siegfried in 2016), she’s brought a sparky resilience that is thoroughly modern and, particularly for Wagner newbies, highly watchable. Christine is just plain exciting to watch as a performer, which makes her an especially great figure for opera newbies; highly expressive in her physicality, she also has a powerful, dramatic soprano and crystal-clear diction. One might attend Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle thinking only of its seemingly-interminable length, its dense score, its weighty mythology… but then Christine appears, and so enters a very contemporary sensibility, one that is involved, feisty, and warmly human. Christine is one of those singers who defies the old image of the fusty / diva / out-of-touch opera singer; she’s not only down to earth, but funny, thoughtful, blunt, and a very intriguing tweeter.

Just before I left for Europe, I had the chance to chat with Christine about Brunnhilde, and singing, and tweeting — and what it means to be an opera singer in the twenty-first century. As with the prior audio interview I recently posted about (with COC General Director Alexander Neef), please pardon the intermittent beeping; recording particulars still hadn’t been quite worked out (but will be going forward). One thing: please don’t feel you need to know anything about Wagner’s world, or indeed even opera, to enjoy this chat. If all you really know about opera is an image of a woman in a horned hat shrieking… well that’s Brunnhilde; Christine will blow that image delightfully apart for you. Oh, and if you like Star Wars, she’s pretty sure you’ll like Wagner, too.

(Photo: Pierre Gautreau)

A Meaty Feast

Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. 
Until lastnight, I’d only been rendered speechless precisely once at an opera’s end — the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 production of Parsifal. But a second moment has been added to the list, thanks to the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walkure, which opened last night at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts in Toronto.
As the audience madly applauded and shouts of “Bravo!” rang through the hall, I kept my hands on my cheeks, silent, unwilling to move or talk, scared that if I did, some kind of spell would be broken that might render forth a waterfall of tears. It’s impossible to verbalize the divine, and that’s precisely what this production is. 
Wagner’s music requires the kind of patience and attention that comes with maturity, and, in my case, living through harsh, painful, and difficult things. My love of German opera seems to have blossomed once I got past a certain age, lived through some horrors, and began to realize that not all things that are hummable are necessarily good things, and not all things non-hummable are bad. Sometimes you just want cake, and that’s fine, but sometimes you want steak — and the Canadian Opera Company serves up a rare and bloody kobe with their Walkure. I relished every single bite. 
It’s not like I’ve not seen other Wagner works, by the way; past Canadian Opera Company productions of Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tristan ind Isolde were beautiful, remarkable, haunting — but I could talk at the end of them, clearly and easily express what I liked pretty much at the curtain’s close. I wasn’t terrified of running my eye makeup. But there’s something about Wagner’s Ring Cycle (and post-Ring) operas that is a thing apart — challenging, difficult even, but wholly beautiful, and… holy-gorgeous.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015.
Part of what has helped me slip into my Wagner-love has been smart productions; opera cliches are, to me, great killers of enthusiasm. There may be those who shout and scream about “traditional” productions, but what does that even mean anymore? Wagner’s works are very much about ideas and emotions, and where and how (and why) the two meets — and those are things that stand outside of any specific Norse-like, Viking references. Please keep your boring cliches. Give me something to sink my fangs into. Give me steak.
Atom Egoyan’s meaty production is deeply respectful to the Walkure score while offering the right mix of challenge and beauty to the audience. You marvel, for instance, at the beauty of the eight Valkyries calling “Hojotoho!” but you’ll pause as you see them passing white body bags, one to the other, a curious collection of nameless, faceless heroes set to adorn the halls of Valhalla. There are many moments like this in the production, where the spectacular nature of the music is tempered by the tension (and frequent tragedy) of real drama. You’re being handed a steak knife; Egoyan expects you to do your own carving — and carve you’ll want to. Die Walkure contains a myriad of delicious visual morsels just waiting to be devoured. 

Die Walkure is the originator of what is possibly the most famous and widely-known figure in opera; just in case you’re wondering where the metal-bra-and-horned-hat-lady comes from… that’s Brunnhilde. Her theme is the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” (reset for popular culture by Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now), a tune I kept mentally re-playing long after I’d left the Four Seasons Centre. The horned-lady visualization is, thankfully, not in Egoyan’s production, but has been replaced by a tight, low-cut black corset, wide flowing skirt, and long, flowing tresses. Brunnhilde (a magnificent Christine Goerke, making her role debut) is sexy, powerful, opinionated, a point very much underlined in this production, particularly in the moments between her and her father, Wotan (a deeply felt Johan Reuter), here wearing an eyepatch and layers of black. Here we see the powerful figure as less of a cliched Norse god than a Mad-Max-style pirate who’s emasculated by his wife, Fricka (a Queen Victoria-styled Janina Baechle), wracked by the guilt of abdicated parental responsibility, and haunted by questions around individual freedom. 
With a set made up of tumbled-down lighting rigs, a split tree trunk, a paneled white background, white sheets, and mounds of earth, designer Michael Levine’s post-apocalyptic designs offered a psychologically penetrating look at the world of gods and humans, a place where motivates, relationships, and desires are messy, tangled, and complicated. The shadows on the upstage walls reflected the knotted, interwoven feelings, thoughts, and inner lives of the characters, reminiscent of a beautiful Sol LeWitt style visual. There is no order amidst the chaos, Egoyan seems to imply here, the only order is what we choose to impose: we are the gods, right here, right now. We choose the wrong partners, we defy authority figures who love us, we make stupid, bad decisions, we live to regret them, and we… go on. 
Johan Reuter as Wotan and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015. 
We also experience passion, lust, obsession, and above it all, if we choose to let it in, a deep, abiding love — one rendered clearly and movingly in the opera’s final scene, with Brunnhilde lying encircled by torches of fire as her sister Valkyries turn and look back at her, sadly, and her own father who has doomed her, Wotan barely being able to acknowledge the very thing he has caused, literally and figuratively. The Ring Cycle is, once you look past the Norse mythological reference points, very much a story about family, and the dynamics and difficulties that live within any family unit.  Wotan tries to please everyone, and ends up pleasing no one — least of all himself. He does, however, decide to protect his daughter, and it’s this careful shielding that underlines the authentic love that Die Walkure revolves around. The physical expression of that love is at once devastating and marvelous.

Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus balances the piece’s fiery, intense drama of the score with slow moments that ooze poetry and deep feeling, leading the orchestra in a very precise reading of the score that propels the action forward while illuminating its tender intimacy. Egoyan’s smart direction (especially his keen blocking) gorgeously complement this score, showing the filmmaker’s deep understanding of both Wagner’s score and the value of relationships within the work. Further emphasizing this connectivity are the numerous stellar performances that seamlessly combine acting and singing into one compelling, frequently heartbreaking package. 

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Die Walküre, 2015.
This is what Wagner asks of you: to consider your choices, ideas, and perceptions, and see if they’re authentic to who and what you really are. One could argue all great art does this, but nowhere have I found that challenge more perfectly integrated of late, with an overall feeling of love and beauty, than in the current production of Die Walkure in Toronto. I loved the steak, COC, but I’m dying for more. I may come back for seconds.

Tutus and Teardrops… and More

I was expecting saccharine. It wasn’t. I was expecting soppy. It wasn’t. I was expecting cloying. It wasn’t. Billy Elliot is creative, timely, and thought-provoking, as well as being one of the best pieces of musical theater I’ve ever seen. Yes, ever.

Based on the 2000 Oscar-nominated movie, Billy Elliot is the story of a boy in a small town who dreams of being a ballet dancer. Set in northern England against the backdrop of the year-long 1984-1985 strike that saw the decimation of the British mining industry, the film was a cheering portrait of someone beating the (considerable) odds. Musical composer Elton John, book and lyric writer Lee Hall, and director Stephen Daldry saw the rich potential for staging that lay within Hall’s original material, and in the early aughties they set about to transfer the film into the theater. Shortly after its 2005 opening, the production became a major success, spawning productions in Sydney, New York, Melbourne, Chicago, Seoul, as well as a touring show. It won ten Tony Awards in 2009, and has been seen by over six million people around the world. Brought to Toronto by Mirvish Productions, the show is currently on at the Canon Theatre in Toronto through to July 10th.

Billy Elliot opens with black and white footage of British miners from the 40s and 50s, then moves into news clips from the miners’ strike, when the picture becomes decidedly more grim. This prologue sets the stage for the struggle that takes place between miners and police and workers and government, but, in a larger sense, the battle is internal, occurring within the people in a small community whose perceptions of the world around them inevitably, irrevocably alter as a result of new harsh economic realities. It’s not accidental that Billy (Cesar Corrales) starts off in boxing class; he’s going to need to how to throw punches, as well as take them, if he’s going to survive in this harsh world Daldry has painted.

There’s something heartening about the way the English theatre powerhouse portrays this world. He stages even the most basic of scenes – blue collar workers chiding their kids or hoisting signs, or finishing breakfast -with the utmost respect and love. No twee presentation of quaint small town folk, this is a show with balls; people swear (including kids), throw punches, get drunk, and get bloody. In one telling moment, Billy’s Granny (Cynthia Darlow) muses on the abusive marriage she endured. In another, dancing bobbies sing about sending their kids to private schools as they wield batons against striking workers. Maggie Thatcher’s England has never looked less rosy (or more contemporary – I couldn’t help but think of recent scenes in Wisconsin). The story of Billy and his love for dance works as a kind of metaphor for hope and regeneration against decay and inertia. It also offers the solace of arts and culture as a means of not only escape, but more importantly, connection -between people, classes, and communities. Culture isn’t the sole domain of the upper classes, either -in fact, it’s frequently what hold communities that are in flux together. Billy Elliot makes this point again and again. It remains to be seen, however, how many from the opening night audience will be buying tickets to the National Ballet‘s next season. One can only hope.

Complementing the musical’s strong choreography is its gorgeous design, which is highlighted when Billy and friend mischievous Michael (Dillon Stevens) invade the latter’s sisters’ closet, and are soon joined by gigantic dancing dresses (& a cancan-kicking pair of trousers). It’s a fantastic contrast to the bleak town sets and riot scenes and is a wonderful expression of the power of imagination. The surreal staging blended seamlessly with the upbeat pop music and the pre-Gaga theme of being true to yourself, and was a true celebration of what “play” really means, and how important it is to engage in it. The scene ended with some fantastic tap dancing from the two young boys, with Stevens especially stealing the show with his big personality and dynamic stage presence.

Kids feature largely in Billy Elliott, and I was also impressed with the gaggle of little ballerinas who dance both within their own group as well as between riot police, miners, and parents; their delicate, diaphanous, white tutu’d presence is a lovely counterbalance to the heavy textures and drab colours costume designer Nicky Gillibrand layers the adult world in. Choreographer Peter Darling is a complete genius in blending the children’s and adults’ perspectives, seamlessly integrating the two to produce something both deeply unusual and visually sumptuous. Billy Elliott doesn’t shy away from engaging in some surreal eye-play, but it’s part of its magic appeal, and it certainly makes the return to the story -the struggle for Billy to attend the Royal Ballet School – all the more vivid and engaging. As their teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, Kate Hennig brings a ton of heart, attitude, and no-bs honesty to her role; the exchange she has with Billy’s father (Armand Schultz) on a snowy Christmas Eve doorstep is shattering, and touches at the heart of the class-based issues Billy Elliot revolves around. One isn’t left with any certain answers about who’s right and who’s wrong.

What is certain is that everyone who attended the show’s opening night was leaning over or turning around to get a clear view of Elton John.. His music is stellar, shining as only the score of a true Rocket Man can: ebbing and flowing between aggressive, loud sounds, jaunty pop numbers, and quietly emotional ballads, John shows the full range of his considerable songwriting abilities. Billy Elliot’s score references everything from classical (the choral harmonies at points brought to mind Verdi’s Nabucco and Wagner’s Tannhauser) to rock (especially Queen) to sixties favorites (I swear I could hear The Ronettes hovering around the edges of certain numbers), to other musicals (chiefly Les Miserables), each time breaking and exceeding expectations around what a contemporary musical can and should sound like.

The miners’ song “Once We Were Kings” was an especially powerful moment that showed off both the male ensemble’s strong harmonics as well as John’s profound ability to write operatic, captivating music that works beautifully within set designer Ian MacNeil’s haunting stage setting. Set intentionally after Billy’s big solo number “Electricity” three quarters of the way through the musical, the song is a hymn to the fuel that once fueled a town’s fires, a solemn if proud testament to both the intense toil of a community and the extinguishing of a generation’s “electricity”. The miners’ hats provided a starry (if occasionally blinding) cascade of light into the audience, which is made especially dramatic for the shadowy darkness lighting designer Rick Fisher employs to imitate the effects of journeying deep into the pit. The effect was an eerily powerful symbol of the theme that flashes through Billy Elliott: hope.

It’s that quality, shining as a bright as a lighthouse beam by the musical’s end, that fuels an audience’s fire. Billy’s literal “flying” may be technically impressive but it’s the heart of it that really matters: witnessing his literal soaring, we recognize our own figurative capacity to open to new things, eyes wide open, arms spread wide, ready for take-off. Billy Elliot matters because it shows us the electricity for a new way of being amidst the detritus of the past. This is a Big Musical in every sense, but it never for a moment falls into the hokey theatrics that mar so many efforts of its ilk. Funny, frank, moving, and more than a little profane, Billy Elliot is one theatrical experience that wears its heart on its spit-stained sleeve -even as it tap-dances by you, feathers, blue collar, and all. Hold me closer, tiny dancer… and don’t let go.

Photo credits:
Top photo, Cesar Corrales (Billy) in BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Second photo, Cynthia Darlow (Grandma) and the cast of BILLY ELLIOT, Photo by Joan Marcus
Third photo, Kate Hennig (Mrs Wilkinson) and Alex Ko (Billy) with Ballet Girls in the Broadway Production. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
Bottom photo, Broadway Opening Night Curtain Call – Photo by Lyn Hughes

Sing & Dance & Run & Jump

Thanks to Twitter, I came across a wonderful op-ed piece in the Amherst Bulletin about the importance of arts funding. There’s certainly been no shortage of wonderful news relating to the arts this week: the appointment of Rocco Landesman to head up the National Endowment for the Arts, the White House arts evening, and even, if you can believe, the Seattle Opera advertising their position for a young person to see and report on the Wagner Ring cycle they’ll be producing in August.

But then there’s the bad news: in Canada, several important arts institutions are facing funding shortfalls. With the wonderful chaos of June approaching (Luminato, NXNE, the Toronto Jazz Festival, Pride), the issue of cultural relevance is that much more pungent. There’s also the depressing fact that Canada’s art galleries and museums are falling apart , meaning that many younger people -as well as visitors from overseas or across the border -may never be able to see the incredible cultural legacy of this country.

Would any of this happen if there was a real balance of arts and academia in childhood? I was lucky to have been educated in the arts outside of school; going to operas, symphonies, museums and galleries was plus normale for me growing up. But not every kid was blessed with an arts-loving mother. And so, it falls to schools to often provide what kids can’t or don’t get at home. That usually includes everything from proper nutrition to social interaction to basic manners.

What irks me is that whenever schools are facing funding shortfalls, the first thing to go is always, inevitably, arts programs. Yup! They’re frilly! Arrgh. I used to make a face and wonder why physical education wasn’t cut instead (spoken by a true non-athlete), but I realized, in starting to appreciate the cultural place sport has in society, and the benefits of movement, that phys-ed has every right to be taken as seriously as arts-ed. And vice-versa.

To quote Mindy Domb, in the Amherst Bulletin:

Art and music teach our children how to think critically, take risks, make and correct mistakes, “fail,” and recoup. They give our children a frame of reference for understanding not only our world, but also offer an appreciation and understanding of the different perspectives, approaches and ways of communicating each of us brings to the human endeavor… Cutting physical education while the public health community urges additional opportunities for physical activity for children seems regressive and backwards. Physical education might look like an easy mark, a target that can be tapped for funding without ill effects. This, however, dismisses the needs of our kids to be active and to learn from play. It also ignores the call of the public health community to provide more physical education for young children, not less.

These times we’re in seem like the perfect opportunity to start making investments, not pulling away in fear. The investment in a lifetime of good health and positive relationships seems like a good one.

Related: If you haven’t read Christopher Knight’s take on Landesman’s appointment to the National Endowment for the arts, you really should. It’s excellent.

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