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Jessica
Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
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The American tenor Michael Spyres has taken an impressive and unusual highway through the operatic world. Hailing from a musical family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's little town on the prairie, he is 38 yet has already tackled 64 different roles, from baroque to bel canto to Berlioz. He is convinced he has sung the latter's Faust more than anyone else alive. And it's not exactly that he doesn't like Puccini, but... 
In this 4 July special, I meet the US's mercurial Renaissance-man backstage at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate... 

Michael Spyres as Mitridate at the Royal Opera House. Photo ROH/Bill Cooper


JD: Michael, lovely to meet you. How are you enjoying Mitridate?
MS: The role itself is absolutely incredible. People don’t realise, simply because it’s not done enough in repertory, but it’s so difficult. As a character it’s comparable to Otello, or to any of the truly great characters in the repertoire. The real Mithridate was one of the most mythic people who ever lived. He was 72 when he died and he thwarted the Roman army for 39 years – which is 39 years more than most people ever did! He was a famous polyglot and spoke 22 languages: he owned the Black Sea and everything around it, there were 22 different regions and he made it a point to learn all the languages.
There’s also a word in French and high English – “mithridisation” and “mithridatism” – which means to take small amounts of poison in order to be immune to it. He believed that if you take small amounts of poison every day then as you get older you do become immune. One of the main dangers for kings was patricide or death by poisoning – nearly everyone died of poison! – so he grew up in a strict regimen of taking poison every day so he would be immune. But when the Romans were finally defeating him, he tried to poison himself and couldn’t die from that, so he either stabbed himself or had a friend do it so that the Romans couldn’t. He was this epic, amazing person and even if some of his story is exaggerated nowadays, it doesn’t matter; he was a real king and was able to hold off and defeat the Roman army.

(Here, a different interpretation: Save Pontus, Change Europe)

JD: Mozart’s portrayal of him is extraordinarily sophisticated.
MS: From the beginning you get to see the heart and the beauty of him, but in the recitatives you can also see this cunning, brilliant man who would pit people against each other. In his first aria, he says: “Thank God I’m back home – I thought I’d never see this place again. It’s OK to lose but I still hold my head high…” And you find out just afterwards, in the recitative, that this is totally a ruse, because he’s sent false information to his sons to test if they’re loyal or not. In the recit you hear him say he faked his own death just to see if they were traitors. Wooah!
About half way through you start to see his inner turmoil and the anger he feels because he knows he’s ageing. He died when he was 72 and usually kings died when they were about 30, killed by their brothers or their sons. But the way Mozart and Metastasio wrote the character, based on the Racine play, it shows he’s an old man used to conquering everything, but the worst thing for him is not losing the battle but losing his heart, losing his love. You see this throughout the opera. He’s scared, just like all of us, that nobody’s going to love him again… 
There’s a wonderful scene between him and the queen in which she says, “Yes, I’ll go to the alter as your slave and do whatever you want.” He's so incensed: “So I have to drag you to the altar – you don’t want to marry me, you’re just going to do it out of spite?” And you see this crazy rage and jealousy in him. But then at the end he gives his sons freedom and says that at the end of his life he wants to be again the great lion that he is. “Please marry her, and I’m sorry I’m a terrible person, but I’m showing you how to live. This is how a real person should live - no regrets…” At the end he says “I can die happy now because I’ve done what I need to” – and he just dies. I can’t think of a more complex character. You’re a god among men, a god personified. Hoffmann or Otello would be comparable, but there’s only a handful of characters who run the gamut of what a Shakespearean character is and this is definitely one of them.

JD: Mozart was only 14 when he wrote it – what an astounding thought…
MS: Mozart had three major influences: Myslivecek, JC Bach and another I only found out about because I did an obscure baroque opera in Lisbon called Antigono, by Antonio Mazzoni. I did the modern revival a few years ago and we made a recording. The only time people had ever heard it was three performances in 1755 – it’s an incredible piece, but it was lost because of the terrible fire in 1755 in Lisbon. When Mozart, aged 12, was travelling through Italy with his father, Mazzoni taught the boy counterpoint in Bologna. Antigono was almost the same kind of story as Mitridate – it’s a formulaic thing but a large character. But the fact that Mozart was able to write such touching and beautiful music was just beyond compare. To anyone who thinks it fails in comparison to his later works I’d say: no, it’s something completely different. You can’t compare it and you shouldn’t, because it’s raw, amazing emotion. Some of his duets, Aspasia’s arias and the vocal writing with the recitatives – there’s nothing like it.
At the last full rehearsal before we went on the stage, Graham Vick, who’s one of the greatest directors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, got us all round and said: I want you to realise that 26 years ago I premiered this here, and now I see this in a completely different light and I see the absolute genius of Mozart – this little boy who was shuffled around and hauled out by his father all over Europe. You can see the animosity in the letters, you can see his wish to be just a normal boy – all the angst and the problems between father and son is written into the music. He was a mature being already at that age, because he was forced to be and he had the genius to do it.



JD: Your particular type of tenor is something unusual and special. What was your path towards finding your true voice?
MS: Everyone finds their own path, but I had a different path than anybody! I started as a baritone. And I wanted to be Mel Blanc, who was the voice-over person for all the Loony Tunes cartoons. When I was young I’d imitate everything, all the time and growing up I sang with my family every kind of music there was – church music, bluegrass, folk. Then when I was in college I made money by doing commercials and I was a radio DJ and I would do commercials in different characters – and then I started getting into the idea that “Oh, you can make a living being an opera singer, that’s weird…” Obviously I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I thought “I’ll just take the recordings and start imitating the best”.
The big thing happened when I was 20 years old – and it was with this production of Mitridate. In my two years of vocal study, 18-21, we had a VHS of this production and I heard Bruce Ford for the first time. I didn’t know you could sound like this as a tenor. I’d never heard a sound like it – it’s like a baritone, but it’s obviously a tenor role, and that’s what I want to do. Low notes were the easiest things in the world – high notes, ugh, they were so hard! But this was totally different from anything I heard in Verdi and Puccini.
In the US, everyone said you can’t make a career out of this, you just cannot – and that’s still true if you’re in the sticks. So I decided that if I really wanted to learn to sing I needed to go to Europe and try to figure out this weird baritenor kind of repertoire. It took another six years of auditioning to think OK, I can do this weird trick of different mixed techniques, so I started doing a lot of Rossini roles.
 
Michael Spyres. Photo: Dax Bedell


JD: It sounds like it wasn’t an easy beginning?
MS: I was in Vienna for two years at the conservatory, and it’s a very Mozart-heavy town, so it was an invaluable experience. That was the first time I got to sing these arias in public and I crashed and burned. It was so hard! I was 26 and it just didn’t work. I went back to the drawing board and started doing lots of Rossini again. This is my third time doing Mitridate in the last year and only now is it starting to feel good and right.
This is one of the most difficult fachs of tenor, because you have to do a real mix of baritonal and tenor sounds, but you have to keep it up in the extreme highs, the same kind of colour as a baritone but not using the full voice. It’s a voix mixte and it’s really tricky to navigate and very technical, but you don’t want people to know you’re doing it! So that’s how I got into it: years and years of practice and failure and finally things started to click. And now, depending on repertoire, I change my technique. You have to, because it was written for different people with different techniques.

JD: Next up, you’re singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms?
MS: There’s a huge misconception about Berlioz! He was a big admirer of the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, he admired Rossini and you can hear it constantly in his music. Everyone thinks of Berlioz as these unimaginable, gigantic pieces that are ultimately verismo – and it’s absolutely false. In order to sing Berlioz, you have to be able to sing full voice, high, and get over the orchestra, but the majority of his writing is for a lyrical voice. He had Nourrit, who was known for doing a lot of voix mixte and had various kinds of colour-changing sounds, not full-voice high Cs. He had him in mind for Benvenuto Cellini. But Nourrit was having vocal problems and tragically then killed himself that year and Berlioz wrote it for Gilbert Duprez instead. But a work like Lélio is so lyrical and beautiful, I can’t imagine some Puccini singer trying to sing it: it’s all lightness and is based completely on the text.
There’s a great quote from Berlioz. He used to say: “Above all, resonate”. He meant that both literally and figuratively. I sang the Grande Messe des Morts in this massive cathedral that it was intended for [Les Invalides], and in there Berlioz had realised that he needed more people, it was too big a place, so the choir’s about 180-200 people and the orchestra’s 120. I had friends at the performance and they said when I opened up and started singing they could feel the sound resonating.
Berlioz was this great artist and dreamer but although he had a giant ego, it was all about the art for him and he connected everything to the text. He believed in art permeating society and being an infectious thing, but it always has to be for a reason, it’s not just superfluous. He was unlike anybody else and I love him!

JD: This isn’t entirely your Proms debut?
MS: I did the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with John Eliot Gardiner two years ago. I’ve never done solo stuff there before, though, so I’m excited. I love the Proms because it’s an awakening of classical music for ‘everyperson’. I’m not saying that opera isn’t an elitist thing – because it is, as it takes so much money to be able to put on an opera. But the coolest thing about the Proms is that for many people this is their only possibility that they might see something that’ll change their lives. So that’s why I love the Proms. And I’ll give ‘em a good show, because now I’ve done Faust more than, as far as I know, any other living person. I could conduct it with my eyes closed – but all I have to do is sing, so it’s great! I love the piece so much, mainly because I did the production with Terry Gilliam in the original French in Belgium and that changed my life.

JD: What’s it like to work with Gilliam?
MS: He’s a madman and he’s wonderful! He seriously reminds me of my uncle. We’ve kept in really good touch. We’re very much of the same kind of mind – we’d start talking and still be there four hours later. We have similar ideas and that’s also why he’s taken a liking, like me too, to Berlioz. There are so many accounts of Berlioz being a true artist – ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to do this because the art demands it’ – and I’ve done that many times in my life. Of course I’ve failed – but I’ve succeeded too!  
As Faust in Gilliam's production

JD: The production was brilliant, but quite controversial, involving a concentration camp…
MS: To me it’s one of the most poignant productions I’ve ever been a part of. I have many friends and colleagues who say ‘Oh, opera’s going in such a bad direction, all these director things that kill the production’ – but you have a choice to take that or not, and we have to do the projects we believe in. I’ve been fortunate that out of my 64 operas I’ve done, there have only been two or three that I haven’t been really thrilled about.

JD: You don’t mind ‘Regietheater’, then?
MS: It depends on the director and the ideas. I’m a director myself, I have my own opera company in the States that I run with my family. We’re basically the von Trapps – we put on the shows, my brother helps run the company and my sister’s a Broadway singer. I take it very seriously, I can see when a director is just doing something for their own ego and I choose not to be around those kinds of people.
It’s a difficult thing, being a director. Today they’re in a weird position where these are major decisions, it takes huge amounts of money to put on a project and everybody’s under pressure to do a brand-new, original idea. Many people have an idea, but it doesn’t necessarily work with the music. Many directors are not musicians to start out with – they’re dramatists, which is a great concept on paper, but if you have to listen to a piece for four hours and you don’t take into account the audience – you’re gonna die! So I’m fine with any project as long as it’s well thought out and it makes sense with the music. Because the whole reason you’re there is because of the music.
It’s gone crazy in certain places. I won’t name names, but there was one instance where L’Italiana in Algeri was being produced and the director wanted to have his name bigger on the poster than the composer’s name or the opera’s title. Fortunately the festival director said no. That’s how crazy people get!

JD: Do you see yourself moving more into directing in the future?
MS: Yes, absolutely. I’m so inspired, the more I read about the origins of opera. From Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first opera, until the late 19th century, all singers were actors and directors. Nowadays things are so specialised that people say “I’m just a singer” and some don’t even act! It’s completely the opposite of what it should be. All of us need to be acting, dancing, singing, learning as much as we can. That is why opera created this wave of art because it was the first artform where everyone came together, with the idea that we’re all part of it, we all need to be able to do a little bit of everything.
Michael Spyres
That was the great thing, growing up in my family. We built our own amphitheatre. We built the stage first and everyone sat on hay bales. I’m from a famous little town called Mansfield, Missouri – it was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House of the Prairie books. Because of the books, we have many visitors come through there. My mother wrote a musical about Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were growing up and it’s now in its 28th year. At its biggest we had about 120 people involved, which was 10 per cent of the town! So I’ve grown up around this and I’ve been so vindicated reading about the origins of opera, what got me into opera and how it split from its origins.

JD: The idea that you can do just do one thing and the world owes you a living, that’s going nowhere fast…
MS: Of course! And people are tired of that. One of my favourite futurist speakers is Michio Kaku, a fantastic theoretical physicist. A big subject now is what’s going to happen when people become obsolete in jobs. In the next 30-50 years half the people are going to be cut out because of robots, so what’s going to happen? What are the jobs that will be left? You’ve got to be an artist, a musician, someone who comes up with new ideas. For a long time everyone wanted to have a good stable job, but now people are being replaced by robots. But a robot will never be able to be an artist or a musician – that’s what’s so exciting.

JD: I hope you’re right!
MS: They can try! But we are such complex creatures in music. You can hear a piece that’s done by a robot and it doesn’t feel right, it’s just algorithms. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of music and art. I feel I came at the right time because by the time I’m in my later years more and more people will be coming to art, because that’s where the ideas come from. The same thing applies to the computer programmers – they have the technicality and the vision for what needs to be done. Opera is basically the computer of the art world.

JD: You sing, you act, you direct: are you also tempted to write an opera?
A few years ago my brother wrote a libretto, my mum helped – we took the music from The Magic Flute and created a story based on Alice in Wonderland to take to all the kids in the area who’d never seen opera before, in 32 schools that were among the poorest in the community. Yes, someday I want to write an opera – that’s what I’m leaning towards.



JD: What about future roles to sing? Any big dreams?
MS: I’ve basically done every role I wanted to do, except Verdi’s Otello. I’ll do that someday – but like Kaufmann, I’m smart and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m 50 for that, so I’ve got over a decade – but the other dream roles are Monteverdi’s Orfeo and a lot of Rameau and Gluck, great epic works on Greek stories. But modern opera for the most part is not as appealing to me as a singer.
I like Puccini. I love Puccini. But it’s like he put down pure gold on paper and if you want to do him justice you’ve got to do what he wrote – and if you live within the characters that he wrote there’s not a lot of freedom. I’ve taken a lot of flack for saying that – people say, ‘Oh you just don’t like Puccini because you can’t sing it’ – but actually I can sing it, I just don’t like it, because I believe in doing what the composer wanted you to do and for my character there’s very little in Puccini that I find interesting as an actor and singer. I love it when other people do it, but for me personally I get angry because I want to do my own thing, but I shouldn’t – he wrote it so perfectly and beautifully that it’s just right! So that’s why most of the verismo period doesn’t appeal to me – there’s not enough freedom for me,
As far as dream roles go, I’ve done most of them and I know it’s crazy to say that. But I’ve done 64 already and I’m 38: operas from modern to the earliest stuff, and a range from the lowest operas written for a tenor voice to the highest, so I’ve lived out all my major fantasies as far as roles are concerned. Now I’m just looking for true content and characterisation. I find many of the more obscure things much more rewarding. I’d love to do Die tote Stadt – that’s a dream. I love Die tote Stadt – Korngold was one of the greatest. The same with Massenet: he came on the heels of verismo and was able to marry the two, and Korngold did the same thing. Korngold is so overlooked, just because he went into film. But have you listened to his film scores? They’re better than anything! Come on, you can’t write better than that.
JD: You just made this Korngold biographer very happy! Thank you, Michael, and toitoitoi for the final Mitridate.
And – as Loony Tunes would say – that’s all, folks!
The final performance of Mitridate is on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House – booking here. Michael Spyres sings Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms on 8 August – booking here.


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7 months ago |
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As so many of you enjoyed the JDCMB Summer Cooler, here's another recipe, this time for a cheering cuppa on a less sweltering sort of day. This was given to me by the spouse of one of my recent interviewees and I am very grateful to her because it cheers me up every time I make it. And goodness knows we all need cheering influences at the moment.



JDCMB Happy Antioxidant Tea

Remove the peel from, and chop up into smallish pieces, in quantities depending on your taste for nippy ginger:
A piece of turmeric root
A piece of ginger root

Put the pieces in a saucepan with a teapotful of water. Add a pinch of black pepper. Bring to the boil, put on a lid and simmer for about ten minutes.

Strain into teapot, or straight into mugs, and sweeten as much or as little as you like with some vanilla bean paste (I use about a quarter of a teaspoon per mug) or a bit of honey.

Apparently turmeric is full of anti-oxidants and is a splendid anti-inflammatory, said to be particularly good against arthritis. It and ginger are also reputedly excellent for the digestion. The pepper is supposed to have an activating influence on them both. The deep golden colour is gorgeous and the vanilla just makes the tea taste even nicer than it does already.

After making this tea, you may need to scrub your fingers clean of the bright turmeric juice before playing your piano, or you'll have yellow patches on the keys.

I hope you find it as warming, calming and cheering as I do.



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7 months ago |
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Lise Davidsen as the Prima Donna, Nicholas Folwell as the Major Domo

Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Katharina Thoma, has taken a lot of flak for its updating to the British 1940s. But it's actually rather good. It's been tightened up since the first run in 2013, the action flowing more slickly and convincingly; the air raid that finishes the first half does not seem incongruous at all. Part 2, in which the house is transformed into a hospital with shell-shocked patients and a suicidal Ariadne, has the aspect of a concussion-dream for the Composer, who does not vanish despite having nothing to sing. He/she appears to learn, watching Ariadne and Bacchus's final duet, that it is love that saves us, not death. This message is very much all right with me.

Moreover, with Cornelius Meister's lively, affectionate conducting, leader Peter Schoemann on great form in the violin solos and a very special cast, the score seemed to take wing and fly. Given the chance to change something about the production, I personally would cut only the straightjacketing of poor Zerbinetta, simply because it's too visually busy while we're trying to listen to all the dazzle.

Yes, that cast: plaudits are more than due to Angela Brower as a heartfelt Composer, Erin Morley as a vivid Zerbinetta, AJ Glueckert as a full-throated Bacchus (an injured daredevil pilot, in case you wondered) and the three nymphs-turned-nurses, along with Björn Bürger as an adorable Harlequin, Nicholas Folwell as the bossy little Major Domo and, of course, Thomas Allen as the Music Master, a role from which he's become indivisible. But there's no way this could be termed that critical favourite, a 'uniformly strong cast' - because there was nothing uniform whatsoever about our Ariadne.

From Norway, aged 30, please welcome the winner of Plácido Domingo's Operalia 2015, the utterly astounding Lise Davidsen. She also won the Queen Sonja Music Competition 2015 and this extract from Tannhäuser was filmed there. Just have a listen...



Vocally megawatted, toweringly tall, expressively direct, Davidsen is blessed with top notes that could ping us all the way to the moon, an eloquent middle range and a dark velvety lower register that virtually says 'Isolde' the moment you hear it. (In this interview with the Observer's Fiona Maddocks, she explains that she started off as a mezzo and wanted to be Joni Mitchell...).

Thinking of the few singers who have made a similar effect on first hearing, at least on me, I can only compare the thrill of disbelief and wild joy that her voice inspires to initial, never-forgotten encounters with the sonic glories of Anja Harteros and Nina Stemme. If she can do this at 30, imagine where she could go from here. Please, dear world, take good care of her.

And I'd appreciate it if good old Autocorrect would stop changing her name to Davidson whenever I type it, because I expect to be writing about her a good deal more in the future.

Ariadne auf Naxos is on through July - find dates, times and tickets here.

A word of warning: Southern Trains is having another work-to-rule and there are many cancellations for those trying to get to Lewes. Check before you set out, and leave plenty of time.


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7 months ago |
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Glyndebourne's favourite Strauss opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, is back and open, with a strengthened revival and an intriguing new cast including Lise Davidsen, Angela Brower, Erin Morley and AJ Glueckert. When the production was first staged in 2013 I went to visit the archivist and the director to interview them for The Independent, so it seems an apposite moment to re-run a select part of that feature. Don't miss the story of Rudolf Bing and the potties.

Erin Morley as a Zerbinetta for the 1940s
All photos by Robert Workman

An English country house; a rarified ivory tower in which to explore high art; the performance of tragedy and comedy alike; dinner al fresco; and that’s just on stage... Glyndebourne is back with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and its first half concerns precisely such a situation. Nevertheless the concept dreamed up for it by the German director Katharina Thoma feels close to home for another reason. It was inspired by the World War II transformation of Glyndebourne itself into a centre for evacuees from east London.
Angela Brower as the Composer
When the floorboards of Glyndebourne’s Old Green Room – a panelled gallery in the Christie family’s manor house – were taken up for refurbishment in the early 1990s, they revealed an unexpected treasure-trove. Down the cracks between the boards had fallen layer upon layer of playing cards, greeting cards and little lead toy soldiers. This was a legacy of the time when, following the outbreak of war in 1939, Glyndebourne had hosted a hundred evacuated children aged between one and six. Archive photographs show the Old Green Room as a dormitory filled with rows of small beds; the Christie children’s nursery transformed into a sick bay, complete with uniformed nurses; and the tiny newcomers playing in the gardens, patting lambs on the farm and discovering that milk comes from cows, not bottles.
Glyndebourne’s archivist, Julia Aries, explains that the estate manager had seen which way the wind was blowing. “He didn’t want Glyndebourne to be taken over by the Ministry of Defence and trashed,” she says, “so he put it forward as an evacuee centre. Then, on the ‘false start’ of the war, they promptly shipped 300 babies and 72 carers down here.” The estate could not cope with such a massive influx and the story goes that Rudolf Bing, the opera festival’s general manager, had to rush into nearby Lewes to buy up every available potty.
Eventually the numbers settled to a third of the first rush, and country life with play-based learning and plenty of fresh air began for Glyndebourne’s new inhabitants, under the direction of a matron, who, in a somewhat unfortunate choice, termed herself the Commandant. The cook was able to amplify food rations with rabbits from the fields and eggs from the farm; and, supplied with drums of Klim powdered milk by some Canadian soldiers who were billeted in nearby Firle Place, she created makeshift ice-cream to give the little ones a treat.

Lise Davidson as Ariadne
Official photographs, mainly taken in summer, made the children’s existence look idyllic; but there is no doubt that some had been traumatised by their experiences in London or by being removed from their families. A newspaper clipping describes “one child who had refused up till then to open his mouth or make friends turned scarlet with ecstasy when he found himself clasping a lamb, and was happy and normal from that day.”
The opera and the family fared less well. The former ceased to function in 1940 and the company scattered. The music director Fritz Busch and artistic director Carl Ebert, who were both refugees from Nazi Germany, headed respectively to Buenos Aires and Turkey; Audrey Mildmay, Lady Christie, who was herself a well-known opera singer, took her two children to Canada for safety. Sir John Christie stayed behind, listening to his wife’s voice on gramophone records. He was all too aware of the irony that his house was filled with children while his own were 3000 miles away.
Katharina Thoma, who won second prize in the European Opera Competition Camerata Nuova in 2007, visited Glyndebourne for the first time in spring 2009, after the company’s general manager David Pickard and music director Vladimir Jurowski suggested that she could direct Ariadne auf Naxos there as her UK debut. The trip sowed the seeds of an idea for the production. She has updated Ariadne’s setting to – well, an English country house in the 1940s.
AJ Glueckert as Bacchus
In the story, which the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal crafted as librettist for Strauss, our hero is the Composer, a youth creating his first serious opera on the myth of the god Bacchus rescuing Ariadne from Naxos. He is desperately upset when instructed that his lofty work must be performed simultaneously with a competing comedy due to time pressures over dinner and fireworks. The second half shows us the Composer’s opera and what happens when the comedy troupe, led by the virtuoso soubrette Zerbinetta, interrupts Ariadne’s laments. But the opera transcends all its troubles, concluding with a sublime love duet for Ariadne and Bacchus.  
“The idea of setting it in wartime came about because I felt that in the music there were more existential issues to worry over than the protagonists in the Prologue actually do,” says Thoma. “If you listen to the end of the Prologue, when everything breaks down, it sounds like a major catastrophe.”
Therefore, instead of serving as an opera-within-an-opera, the second part offers a continuity of narrative. The Composer, injured, observes the depressed and suicidal Ariadne from his hospital bed, the house having been transformed not into an evacuee centre but into a hospital treating the wounded from the Battle of Britain. “Observing her, trying to help her, and seeing what happens to her and Bacchus, he experiences a maturing process that leaves him better able to cope with the real world outside his ivory tower,” Thoma suggests.
The Ariadne set designs by Julia Müer are based generically on English country houses of that time, but the closeness to Glyndebourne will probably be self-evident. Thoma arrived there in April and has been staying in the house, as the creative team usually does during rehearsals. “Every morning I wake up and think I am on the set of my opera,” she remarks.
Learning about Glyndebourne’s fortunes during the war, Thoma says she was impressed by the way that in Britain “turning a manor house into a hospital was a typical thing, because people needed each other and held together”. It might seem risky for a German director to choose a wartime theme for her first UK production, but Thoma’s generation can perhaps take a new perspective on those years. “For me it was fascinating to see how British people have dealt with the subject in the past and still do,” she says. “They seem very open and positive.” [NB This article first appeared in 2013. Events since then may now convey a rather different impression. jd.]
She viewed a documentary in which individuals who were in their twenties during the war described it as the happiest time of their lives: “That seemed astonishing to me, but I think it must in certain ways have been a great experience to go through this endurance, because they shared their hope and their strength and they overcame it together.”
...If this Ariadne auf Naxos highlights the atmosphere of changing times, perhaps that is no coincidence...
This is part of an article that first appeared in The Independent in 2013


Ariadne auf Naxos,Glyndebourne Festival Opera, on now. Box office: 01273 813813
7 months ago |
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John Adams. Photo: Vern Evans

John Adams has just turned 70. Everyone is celebrating. Everyone wants him to celebrate with them. So when is he supposed to compose? I caught him backstage during the Dr Atomic rehearsals at the Barbican a few months ago. In the resulting interview for Primephonic we talked about his forthcoming Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West, set in his home state of northern California, as well as nature versus nurture, the evolution of his style and the consistency of voice within that evolution - and why he feels like "a Soviet hack composer" compared to the music of his up-and-coming son, Samuel Adams.

.....Adams reflects that this “voice” could be determined as much by nature as nurture – a sort of musical DNA. “I suspect it’s almost genetic,” he comments. “If you look at Stravinsky, there’s such radical difference between the early music and the late music, yet there is some almost inexplicable identity that carries on. And I think certainly the rhythmic energy of my music and the particular harmonic language that I have comes through.  

“Once every couple of years I conduct Nixon in China [his opera of 1987] because I like it and it’s always a lot of fun. And I’m amazed how much of that opera is expressed in minimalist style, with these crazy, whimsical marriages with jazz and big-band music. I don’t compose in that style any more. But that sort of rhythmic impulse, which you also hear in the early piano music, is still there today.”

Evolution, he suggests, occurs thanks to the needs of the pieces. “Nixon is a much more consciously minimalist piece and I think that works for the certain ironic tone of the opera,” he says. “But starting with The Death of Klinghoffer, which I composed between 1990 and 91, I had to find a language that was more serious and not at all ironic. I think that was the big moment of expanding. 

“But I’m not a hidebound, by-the-rules kind of guy. I feel that every piece I compose needs its own special language – and that’s both the joy and the anguish, because you have to find out what and who it’s going to be.” ...

Read the whole thing here.


7 months ago |
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Kaufmann as Otello, Vratogna as Iago.
All photos by Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera House

One of the first rules of reviewing is: do not start by talking about the weather. So to start on the Royal Opera's new Otello by pointing out that it was the hottest first night of the year - Jonas Kaufmann's role debut - as well as the hottest June day since 1976 just isn't on. Nevertheless, it was both. In the auditorium one experienced Keith Warner's postmodern new production and Verdi's sizzling score through the gentle rattling of ladies' fans, the flapping of tickets and programmes mimicking their effect, and the upping and downing of light on rogue mobiles as certain people in my row checked Facebook every ten minutes. (Why couldn't they just have donated their ticket to a fan who would have fully appreciated the performance?)

If the audience was finding it difficult to settle, the same couldn't be said of the music. Tony Pappano, first of all, is in his element in this opera. His shaping and pacing of the drama is breathtaking: mercurial, clear, enormously energetic and deeply intelligent. The building up of the scene where Iago gets Cassio increasingly drunk is just one example, beginning almost as a pub song, joshing about, before spiralling through a queasy mephistophelian intensification into violence. The chorus's staging is often static and stylised, very far from naturalistic, but they sound simply glorious.




Again, canny pacing is everything in Kaufmann's characterisation of Otello: confident and tender until Iago plants the seed of doubt, but thereafter tumbling in stages from loss of faith through cool, calculating and controlled resolve, into increasing torment and ultimate dissolution. At ease taking command, but tentative with his new wife as she leads him to the bedroom, this Otello is a man of war first and foremost, perhaps unable to cope with the shock of his own emotions. His progress towards murder for once makes considerable sense.

Deeply convincing and vocally gorgeous, full of careful shading with brilliance reserved for the moments it most counted, this was singing in 3D. If some people expected more volume, one can only reiterate that Kaufmann doesn't do volume for the sake of it and has never been the biggest voice on the stage, just the most beautiful and intelligent one (hmm, this is my second time this year writing that). It is no reason to reject the most complex and satisfying interpretation of this role that I've yet experienced.

Marco Vratogna, replacing the originally announced Ludovic Tézier as Iago, was the wild card of the evening, bursting into our consciousnesses in impressive style. Warner's production makes him explicitly the puppet master, controlling not only those around him but the symbols of Venice, the carnival mask, the winged lion, setting the hideous process in motion with ice-cold, psychopathic glee and resembling nothing so much as a Shakespearean version of Dracula with shaven head and bat-like cloak. He could scarcely lean on a wall without making it move. Yet his raven-dark, demonically powerful voice made Iago more than merely a copybook villain. Meanwhile, as Desdemona Maria Agresta sounded vocally effortless and presented the hapless heroine as a straightforward, uncomplicated, loving young woman, trapped in a tragic situation beyond control.

Agresta as Desdemona, Kaufmann as Otello in the final scene

Visually the production has some seriously striking moments. The set design, by Boris Kudlicka, involves sliding panels that shift to show us blazes of light through glass, the bedroom through latticework, Otello's face highlighted in a window frame before the final scene, and Cassio's vertiginous descent into drunkenness, amid much else. The contrast between the public and the private moments is convincingly achieved, with Iago and Otello experiencing their oppressive solitary reflections in the darkest isolation. The aptly named Bruno Poet's lighting is, throughout, not only masterful, but often magical.

However, reflecting Otello as a tragic-faced lion-caricature in a mirror, smothering him with a carnival mask and bringing on a giant dismembered lion statue are gestures that seem to over-egg the Venetian pudding in a production that otherwise mixes and mismatches its eras to occasional ill effect. The tall ship rigged with beautiful sails arriving at the back in scene 1 is far indeed from the apparently contemporary hotel-style bedroom in which the murder takes place. And the costume designs by Kaspar Glarner, while offering flowing robes for Desdemona and that splendid cloak for Iago, experience occasional misjudgments. Emilia - the excellent Kai Rüütel - is encumbered by an impossibly stiff and outsize fake-Renaissance wig, and as for Otello's gigantic harem-style leather trousers (eh?) and the blue sparkly robe - think variety-act pseudo-magician - in which he arrives to kill his wife, these did few favours to either singer or character. If the point is that the story is timeless, we know that already and this doesn't help.

There's always some plonker who has to boo the production team, of course, and despite those few weaknesses they really didn't deserve it. It's a powerful, moving account of a towering masterpiece, with musical performances of a calibre that you won't find improved upon anywhere.

Otello is in cinemas next Wednesday, 28 June, so if you can't get to the ROH, do try and catch it on screen.

Details and booking here.


If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation to its development, A Year for JDCMB. Click here.




7 months ago |
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As if taking over the artistic directorship of Australian Festival of Chamber Music weren't enough, the inimitable Kathryn Stott has joined forces with Norwegian violist Lars Anders Tomter (both, left) to start a new chamber music festival a little bit further north: Fjord Classics. They have assembled a seriously impressive line-up of artists, including Leif Ove Andsnes, Ruby Hughes, the Skampa Quartet, Vikingur Ólaffson, Christian Poltera and many more, ready to awaken the town of Sandefjord to the sounds of music from Mozart to Messiaen, Rebecca Clarke to Janácek, Alma Mahler to Fauré. The festival runs from 27 June to 2 July. I asked the energetic British pianist what they're doing, and why, and how, because it has all happened rather quickly...


Kathryn Stott
JD: Kathy, what inspired you and Lars to start Fjord Classics?

KS: Originally Lars had invited me to work on a different project with him, but when that took an abrupt turn, we started to consider other options and were very determined to find a way to get our collaboration up and running. Where to begin when starting a new festival is both daunting and exciting in equal measure, but we were more than thrilled when Vestfoldfestspillene offered us the opportunity set up Fjord Classics under their larger umbrella. 

JD: You’ve pulled it together incredibly fast - what’s that been like?
KS: If you’d asked me this question just before Christmas, I’d say we were out of breath for a few months. Thats probably an understatement! Firstly we put a lot of thought into choosing the right venues, in particular the main festival town. When we looked around Sandefjord we knew that was the one. Lars had a number of musicians all on hold from his previous venture and I have to say their loyalty in following us through to Fjord Classics speaks volumes. From there we added more musicians as our programming took shape but obviously the pace was very fast and I look forward to next time when we can focus solely on artistic thoughts and not the logistics of setting up a new festival. Our theme, 'The Dance of Life’ by Edvard Munch, gave us amazing inspiration so let's say that was a major springboard for musical ideas both on the track and some off piste!

Lars Anders Tomter
JD: How is it different from the other festivals you’ve been (and are) involved with?

KS: As you know, since 1995 I’ve been an Artistic Director on many projects but they have all been one-offs or with no real thought to follow through. That changed when I was appointed AD of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music so I was already extremely excited to have that opportunity to be creative with a vision towards the future. With Fjord Classics, Lars and I share the role. Between us we have an abundance of ideas but I think more than anything else, we compliment each other in having different skills and approaches. I see that as so positive and an aspect of our working relationship which is to be treasured.

JD: What do you think is most attractive about it for the audience?
KS: Huge variety! This year we really went for the max in all respects and from this we will see how to continue in the future. However, our primary thoughts have always been about quality and so this is never compromised. We have gathered the best musicians and put them with the greatest of music, so what is there not to like? I hope our audience is excited by what we are offering and will hold onto memorable experiences long into the future. This is just the beginning.

JD: What are you most looking forward to in it?
KS: In a way its not so much the performing aspect myself, but seeing how the programmes come together in reality and most of all, the joy of bringing musicians together from around the world and seeing what they create. Apart from anything else, I love going to concerts, so it's a musical feast whichever way you look at it.

JD: How’s your Norwegian?
KS: What was the question? Pass…...
More details and booking at https://www.fjordclassics.com/welcome
7 months ago |
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I used to have a recurring dream. I was in the library, looking for a book. I knew I'd seen it once before. I couldn't find it. It was a book of Swan Lake. I would always wake up knowing there was something inside it that I wanted, or needed, but I could never remember what it was.

This isn't the cover and it probably isn't the title either,
but a kind and creative author friend came up with the image on Canva and sent it to me

I had this dream right through my childhood into my teens and beyond, in one form or another. At first it showed me Swiss Cottage Library, which was our local. On other nights I'd see myself in Foyles, looking through the ballet section for a book that wasn't there. Wherever it might be, I always knew that it was my Swan Lake book.

Then, when I was 26, I decided that as it hadn't pitched up yet, I would write it myself.

That was in 1992. Since then I have rewritten it about 200 times: differences as small as changing the names or as large as reducing the length to half its original. The first draft was, in any case, hopeless: it was full of words.

Periodically I've shown it to people. Literary agents, publishers, friends, family. The typical reaction from the professionals? "Oh darling, we love it, it's beautiful, but it's very, er, whimsical..." They didn't fancy whimsical. Magical realism, which had flourished while I was a teenager gobbling up Angela Carter's books, had gone out of fashion. Meeting Odette, as it became called, at least for the moment, didn't fit anywhere.

Yet occasionally one of those friends or family members would pop up after reading another of my novels or attending one of our concerts and say: "What happened to the one about the swan? That was actually my favourite..."

Therefore I thought, after the splendid job that Unbound did with Ghost Variations, that I'd run it past them, just in case. Unbound likes quirky. Unbound likes whimsical. They love things that don't "fit" easily. And it didn't bother them one jot that Meeting Odette has little in common with Ghost Variations other than an association with an actual piece of music or, in this case, ballet.

It isn't a "ballet book", though, and it has nothing to do with Black Swan or any of the ballet's various stage updatings. It's a fairy-tale for the 21st century. The story of what happens when Odette is blown off course and crashes through Mary's window in a university town in the east of England has begun to feel oddly "relevant".


This isn't the title or the cover either. This is just me messing around on Canva...

All the ducks - or swans - were in a row at last. And today, 21 June, Summer Solstice 2017, we launch the campaign for Meeting Odette.

If you've enjoyed Ghost Variations, you'll probably know how Unbound works now. It's like an 18th-century subscription model. Essentially you are buying the book before it's published, rather than after, and you get thanked for it in print. It's now called crowdfunding, of course, but the inspiration is really quite archaic. (I should add, because people often denigrate self-publishing, that this is not self-publishing in any way, shape or form. Unbound has a different model, for sure, but they are top-flight professionals. I wouldn't have the first clue how to publish my own book and wouldn't like to attempt it.)

You can go for various different reward packages at different levels. Prices start at £10 for the e-book and your name in the book. The paperback basic is £20, but there's an Early Swan deal for £15 on the first 50. A book club package includes five paperbacks and an author visit; a larger contribution gets you and your plus-one an invitation to a buffet lunch with me and some wonderful friends from inside the ballet world to enjoy food, drink and good conversation about books, music, ballet, Swan Lake and, no doubt, more. Ballet enthusiasts could also consider clubbing together for the biggest one, for which I'll come to your house or institution and give a lecture about Swan Lake itself (and you get 10 paperbacks too).

Later in the process I am hoping to add further rewards in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, where a new production of Swan Lake directed by Liam Scarlett is due for premiere in May. If you've already pledged by then, you can upgrade to one of these if you want to. The site makes it nice and easy.

On Meeting Odette's page at Unbound, you'll find a video welcome from me, a synopsis, an extract and the full list of pledge rewards. Please swan over and have a look. I do hope that you will consider backing this book, which after 25 years is very, very close to my heart.

HERE WE GO.
7 months ago |
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Main Title Here

The Creative Industries Federation published an important Brexit Report last autumn, looking at critical issues for the creative industries, arts and cultural education as the UK sets its course for the cliffs. Now that "negotiations" are underway, the CIF has distilled its recommendation into seven red-lines principles.

These include:

• Guarantee the rights of EU nationals currently working in the UK;
• Retain freedom of movement for EU workers, those in education and touring exhibitions, shows, musicians and support teams
• Remain part of the EU single market and the customs union - or at least find a free trade deal that replicates its frictionless travel arrangements as far as possible
• Continue to influence the shape of the EU's Digital Single Market (DSM)
• Maintain a robust and properly enforced International Property regime. [Do you have any idea how important this is? Please read about it, fast, right now.]
• Maintain reciprocal single market access for the distribution of UK and EU member state film and TV productions and audio-visual services
• Continue to participate in EU programmes such as Creative Europe, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.


A HUB FOR GLOBAL TALENT: The success of the UK’s creative industries is down to the people who work within it. Britain has a longstanding reputation as an open nation that attracts diverse global talent, and it is because of this that our creative sector is world-beating. If the UK loses easy access to people, it loses its competitive edge. If it loses its creative talent, it also loses its reputation as an attractive destination for work and play. 

Read them here.

Meanwhile there would be one very simple solution, which you can guess as well as I can, but we don't seem to have the right person at the top to do that job.




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8 months ago |
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As London lurches from one horror to another, the only place to be last night was Cardiff, or at least in front of a TV beaming it in loud and clear. The 2017 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World final proved one of those historic-to-be occasions that do occur there sometimes: five burgeoning singers take the stage and you soon realise you don't want to miss one note of any of them. 
The victor seems to have taken some viewers by surprise, but I can't imagine why, other than the fact that she was the only performer who had not actually "won" her "round". Having grouped the contestants into a series of concerts, each of which has a winner who goes through to the final, the competition also offers a "wild card" final-round place for an extra choice. This was given to her. Her name is Catriona Morison and she comes from Scotland. (Is that why people are surprised? No one is a prophet in, etc.) Before the grand final, she had already won the Song Prize together with the Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. We are very much in favour of joint awards when occasion demands - after all, the "there CAN only be ONE winner" trope beloved of TV talent contests serves TV way more than it serves the contestants.
Catriona Morison
In a grand final of astounding singing from most of the competitors, everyone displayed splendid, rock-solid technique. Most had planned their programmes well. The voices glowed and blazed and dazzled. Louise Alder, the English soprano, scooped the audience prize, as well she might: she's got it all, from top notes to absolute charisma. The men, even if ultimately outdone, were stunners too. The Australian tenor Kang Wang had a big following, was out to please and is clearly going places, though I thought he had a slight tendency (nerves perhaps?) to rush in the Lensky aria. But Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, who has already won the International Tchaikovsky Competition's singers' section, offered an account of Yeletsky's aria from The Queen of Spades, with sapphire-dark shining tone, that came so much from the heart that any Lisa in her right mind would have to drop the plot and fall straight into his arms. Anthony Clark Evans's Evening Star aria from Tannhäuser was scarcely less satisfying,  and both baritones gave us the Prologue from Pagliacci, each so superb that I for one would never have been able to choose between them. Stardom awaits the lot.
What did Catriona do that was different from the others? Well, she sang Dido's Lament by Purcell.
She also sang Octavian from the first scene of Rosenkavalier, and a few other things, but frankly those pale, given what she did with the Purcell. The Lament is close to the hearts of very many music-lovers in the UK, of course, but partly because of that, it's the sort of piece we can sometimes take too much for granted. Catriona not only wrung us out with her emotional veracity, but made us feel we were recognising this music's extraordinary power and beauty for the first time. Thanks to her, it seemed that Purcell could outshine Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini, never mind the bel canto stuff, plus Louise's beautiful extract from André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire. As Danielle de Niese commented, when the technical level is so high all round, the judges have to look beyond that... 
Where has she been all our lives? Actually, at Wuppertal Opera. A lot of surprise emerged on Twitter when the hosts for the evening mentioned in conversation that Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses and 1/3 of the world's opera takes place there, but yes, they do, and they get things right: their audiences are accustomed to attending, they do rare repertoire, they present challenging productions and their ensemble companies help to train up fabulous youngsters from all over the world. Most of the best opera singers of today have done stints as company members in Germany. Some of them don't come home, which is why a British soprano, Catherine Foster, has been singing Brünnhilde at Bayreuth to great acclaim, yet nobody here has heard her... 
End of rant. Please go and listen to all five singers on the iPlayer now, and let their artistry speak for itself. 


I hope you enjoy reading JDCMB. The site has no paywall and does not charge a subscription, but I would greatly appreciate your support at GoFundMe. https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb
8 months ago |
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