Showing posts with label Rolando Villazon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rolando Villazon. Show all posts

Friday, March 15, 2013

Who needs the Ides of March when it's Red Nose Day?

For our friends overseas who might be puzzled as to why the British should suddenly start wearing red foam noses on the Ides of March and, worse still, trying to be funny, Red Nose Day is all about Comic Relief, a big charity effort that campaigns for "A just world free from poverty". As our government's policies are about to push a great many more children into poverty (it is estimated that by the time of the next general election in 2015, about half the UK's children will be living below the breadline), there's never been more need for this.

I'm all for Red Nose Day. I have a red nose. It lives on my desk lamp and twinks at me. It keeps my perspective level. And it's just a red foam ball, and if things are really rough it can sit on my nose for a minute, and it works every time. It was a present from one of my favourite interviewees ever: the adorable Rolando Villazon, who in his spare time is Dr Rolo, working with the Red Noses in Germany, clowning for children in hospices and hospitals. It's kept me sane. (Thus far, anyway.) That's one reason Comic Relief is such a great idea - because laughter is the best therapy on earth.

So now BBC Radio 3 has been putting its shoulders to the historically-informed, 18th-century wheel... The station is currently devoting a whole month to a Baroque Spring (much of which I've missed as I'm having a purple Wagner patch and it doesn't fit too well, and meanwhile it's been snowing) and five top presenters are competing to see whose choice is Top of the Baroque. Tom Service does a spot of rap to Couperin. Suzy Klein brought in the Swingle Singers to see if they could Handel a spot of Hallelujah... Click here to watch their efforts and pick your favourite.

Here's my pick of the bunch: Sara Mohr-Pietsch decided to take up the cello from, um, scratch, and learn the bassline of the Pachelbel Canon...and then she invited her friends into the studio to join in on whatever came to hand or lip...

[UPDATE, 22 March: have removed the video because it starts playing automatically whenever the blog page loads up...please follow the links above to find it instead.]


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Operalia finale - coming to a computer near you

The grand finale of Placido Domingo's Operalia competition is on Sunday 10 June. Reflect that this contest has launched the careers of Rolando Villazon, Joyce DiDonato, Nina Stemme, Jose Cura and many more in its past 19 years - this year marks its 20th anniversary - and you might well want to see what's going on. The competition is held in a different place every time and this year it will be at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, China, and will be streamed live on Medici TV. Ten young candidates will perform for an audience and jury led by Domingo himself. Remember, as a JDCMB reader you can benefit from a cut-price subscription to Medici TV: full details here. Fans can also see there a selection of films displaying some of those former winners since they've made the big-time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

JDCMB INGEFAER STRIBENDE PRISEN 2011


That's JDCMB Ginger Stripe Awards 2011 in Danish, or sort of. This year we have abandoned the usual Cyberposhplace - too many people around there to whom we don't wish to be polite - and booked instead a very special CyberScandinavian venue: a Virtual version of the Sjette Frederiks Kro, tucked away in the beech woods by the sea in Aarhus. Please come in and thaw out by the log fire. And don't miss the hot chocolate. It's the best in the whole world - even better than the Cafe Europejska in Krakow - and they bring you a goloptious full-up pot of it... Prepare to sing, too. The Danes always sing at parties.

This has been the year in which the Sleeping Beauty woke up (see choreographer Matthew Bourne's project for Christmas 2012) - and didn't much like what she saw. This year it was revealed, loud and clear, just how intensely, insidiously and pervasively big money rules the world and the music world with it, trampling on all and sundry that are left behind. This year, too, we've seen - on our own doorsteps - the danger of all ideologies that put the imposition of their dogma and the crushing of dissent before any notion of basic humanity. Heaven alone knows what 2012 will bring, but my words to you today, on the Winter Solstice 2011, are these.

Beware of anything that threatens the democratic nature of the places, societies and organisations in which you function. Never sign away your rights - someone will try to convince you it's in your own best interests, but it never is. Remember that constitutions exist for a reason, and if anyone wants to change yours, take a good, hard look at who, how, why, and who gains (case study: Hungary). To quote this article from Spiegel Online about culture in Hungary - where journalists this week have been on hunger strike against press manipulation - "to gain complete control over a country, one has to control what people think." This doesn't only apply to countries. Now that you're awake, keep your eyes wide open.

In a skewed and shaky world, it's more difficult, yet also more important, to keep up the celebration of the Ginger Stripes. Solti is back on his silken cushion today, and I've promised him a lot of fresh Danish fish.

This year's awards are taking a slightly different format from the usual. Instead of specific categories, we've just chosen specific people. Through 2011, more than ever, my interviewees have been a source of great joy and inspiration. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with an astonishing succession of individuals; with each of them there is much to learn, nuggets to nurture, jewels to treasure. I've also attended some unforgettable performances. And writing a little more about dance - which was my first love, you know - has brought a welcome new dimension and a different type of challenge. You think it's difficult to write about music? That's a piece of cake by comparison...

Now, to business! A round of applause, please, for our special guests: some of this year's top interviewees. As they approach the silken cushion to stroke the ginger stripes and claim their prize purrs from Solti, plus a VirtualSarahLundSweater, meet them, love them and thank them.

Anna Caterina Antonacci - the Italian mezzo/and/or soprano whose artistry stands out in today's operatic scene like a George Eliot novel surrounded by chicklit. Is she the nearest thing we have to Pauline Viardot? I believe so. Article from Opera News. Below: as Cassandre in Les Troyens - which she will be singing in London next summer.



Martha Argerich. Interviewing her was a challenge I never imagined I'd meet, but...somehow...did. In the words of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, who conducted the concert in Rome that I attended: "...is she still playing as well as ever? Of course she is. Why wouldn’t she? To me she is not 70, or 60, or 20. She is just Martha.”





Gustavo Dudamel. Cometh the hour, cometh the Dude. Again, it was all touch and go, but in the end we touched. What energy. What charisma. Go, Gustavo, go: be the next Bernstein. We need one. Better still, be the first Dude.



Valery Gergiev. Speaking of energy...




Andras Schiff. A great man as well as a great musician: speaking out about the rise of the racist far-right in his native Hungary has landed him with a backlash that's made him wonder if he can ever return - though that does rather prove the veracity of what he said. Meanwhile, Beethoven is eternal...



Benjamin Grosvenor. This has been his year. Let's put aside the many landmark events he's experienced - we've marked them amply on JDCMB - and simply consider this: Benjamin's playing leaves me wondering why not every pianist plays like that, and why anyone would think, for a moment, that anything less will do. Here he is having some fun with an encore at the Prom...



Eva-Maria Westbroek. Interviewed her, loved her, loved her singing. I heard her in three astounding performances. First, Anna Nicole, which threw her into a spotlight the size of the Millennium Dome but with rather more substance within - and not only silicone. Then Sieglinde in the Met's cinecast of Die Walkure, singing opposite Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmind. And finally Il Tabarro at Covent Garden, part of Richard Jones's magnificent production of Il Trittico, which I didn't actually write up, but which was a major highlight of this year's opera-going. Here she is in one of her favourite roles, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.



Sergei Polunin. The 21-year-old Royal Ballet star really does want to open a tattoo parlour. The day after the cinecast of The Sleeping Beauty last week, JDCMB was carpet-bombed by Google searches for this dark-lord-in-waiting of British ballet. In this clip, Lauren Cuthbertson as Aurora is equally poetic.


Zofia Posmysz. The author of The Passenger, a novel based on her own experiences in Auschwitz, could not be more radiant or less embittered if she tried. She came to London for the UK premiere of the opera by Weinberg based on her book. Talking to this remarkable woman was a very humbling experience. Film below in Polish with German subtitles, except the bits in English from David Pountney, and provides a taste of the opera's furious, devastating music. (It got panned in London, but I couldn't care less.)




Rolando Villazon. First I heard his marvellous Werther at Covent Garden; then, at the crucial moment in September, I went to Paris to meet him. He gave me a red foam nose. It is now on my desk lamp, where it has helped to keep me sane these past months. This song from last week's Royal Variety Performance sums it all up. Thank you, Dr Rollo.



And performances? It's a golden age. It really is Joseph Calleja at close quarters at a Decca launch in the ROH Crush Bar; Jonas Kaufmann in recital at the Royal Festival Hall. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer at the RFH (the best Beethoven Pastoral Symphony ever) and the Proms (Mahler 1 and the fun, engaging, wonderfully played Audience Choice event). The cinecast from the Met of Die Walkure, where the cast - Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde, Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde - had us all pinching ourselves to make sure it was true. Despite my reservations about the detail of cinecasting, it's a great new medium that's transforming our experience of opera, theatre and ballet; and through this medium the Met also brought us Rossini's fabulous Le Comte Ory, with Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato. At the ballet, Osipova and Vasiliev rawked Ashton's Romeo and Juliet; and, as I couldn't interview Tchaikovsky about The Nutcracker, Joby Talbot was a fascinating alternative as he told me about his new score for Alice. Another major highlight: revisiting the Dartington Summer School of Music. It's always strange going back to a place that meant so much to you so long ago - but the old magic is still alive and well.

Huge treats, too, in performances of my own stuff, some on the other side of the globe. Roxanna Panufnik's beautiful choral work Let Me In, for which I scribbled the words, was premiered by Chanticleer in San Francisco in the spring and is now out on CD. In July, Piers Lane's Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville gave the first performance of Sins of the Fathers, my words-and-music project about Liszt, Wagner and Cosima (it's not quite Lisztomania, but hey...). Hungarian Dances with Bradley Creswick and Margaret Fingerhut at Potton Hall and Old Swinford Hospital School, was huge fun - and I'm happy to say we're taking it to the Buxton Festival next year.

A reading of A Walk Through the End of Time - my Messiaen play - at East Sheen Library bore fruit: an enthusiastic impresaria was present, liked it and is currently arranging a new lease of life for it, featuring two superb actors - Susan Porrett and Patrick Drury - as well as the considerable massed talents of Viv McLean (piano), Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Matthew Hunt (clarinet) and Gemma Rosefield (cello), starting with a showcase concert at Bob Boas's central London salon on 9 January. More news soon, I hope.

And in case you wondered - yes, I am writing another novel. Slowly. It's different. It's historical. It's unbelievable. And it's all true.

Dear readers, we live in interesting times. I hope that we can make them turn out for the best. Please raise a glass as our stars of stage and page step forward and lead us in a rousing, celebratory Danish Xmas song. Now, come on, everyone - we have to dance round the tree. Did I mention that? No? Well, we do...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Meet 'Dr Rollo'



In September I went to Paris to meet Dr Rollo - that's Rolando Villazon to you - and had a whale of a time interviewing him for Opera Now. The piece was the cover feature in the November edition.

As you'll know by now, though, from the howls of fury and outrage elsewhere in the blogosphere, the Mexican tenor is committing the cardinal sin of...appearing at the Royal Variety Performance on TV tonight, singing a duet from West Side Story with Hayley Westenra.

Do we really have a problem with this? If so, isn't that...well, a bit sad? Bernstein's West Side Story is a masterpiece by any standards, and as crossover singers go, Hayley is relatively appealing. And frankly I don't see any reason why a man who can sing like that shouldn't entertain people by doing so, in whatever form is appropriate for the occasion. It wouldn't do any of us any harm to lighten up a little from time to time. Having seen Rolando's stunner of a comeback performance at Covent Garden in Werther, back in March, I reckon he has the right to sing whatever he likes. Besides, after what he has been through, with the operation and the process of returning - which he says was the scariest thing of all - he has the right to a bit of respect from those of us who haven't been through anything like it.

So I phoned him up for another chat. It was out in yesterday's Independent, but hasn't found its way to the website yet. Here's the long version 'director's cut'. Rolando talks candidly about carping the diem: the towering influence of Placido Domingo, the new golden age of singing, and what really went on in Popstar to Operastar... And first, a trailer from the Bavarian State Opera for Les contes d'Hoffmann, which is what he's been up to this autumn.





MEET DR ROLLO

Barry Manilow, Pixie Lott, Peter Kay – and a top opera star? What on earth is Rolando Villazón doing in the Royal Variety Performance?

“It’s fun,” declares the celebrated Mexican tenor, 39. “It’s different from what I normally do, but it’s an opportunity for me to have a great time.” His contribution to the annual bonanza of stage entertainment, on ITV on 14 December, is not especially operatic: he sings “Smile” from the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times (which is on his album of songs from the movies, La Strada) and “Tonight” from West Side Story. The latter is a duet with Hayley Westenra, who is better known for her appearances at rugby grounds and military occasions than for actual opera. Cue cries of horror from opera purists: oh no, Villazón is doing the dreaded “crossover” again!

Don’t sniff. Villazón says it was crossover that led him to opera, rather than vice-versa.

He might never have started singing if, aged about ten and growing up in the suburbs of Mexico City, he had not heard Plácido Domingo’s album of “crossover” love songs. “There was nobody in my home who was close to opera or classical music,” he says. “Then by accident, I ended up with this album. I would never have put on a recording of Domingo singing classical arias, but I heard these love songs and I fell in love with his voice. I bought all the crossover albums of Domingo – I was listening to them, trying to sing like them, learning the songs. It all started there. I had a crazy dream that one day I’d sing with him – something I never expected to come true.”

But come true it did. In 1999 Villazón entered Operalia, the competition for young singers that Domingo had founded; he scooped two top prizes, one for for zarzuela (traditional Spanish operetta), plus the Audience Prize. At the winners’ concert, he and Domingo sang together: “It was absolutely amazing. Afterwards we became good friends. He has been extremely important in my career: an inspiration, a friend and an example.”

Villazón, who is appearing next summer in a London gala to mark the 20th anniversary of Operalia, credits Domingo with having sparked a new golden age of operatic singing. “There has been an evolution in the way people act and sing; there was a time before Domingo and a time since. He learned everything there was to learn from Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano and that great generation of artists, but with the musicality, the intelligence and the generosity to transform it. We are all sons of that now. Many people say that past times were the greatest – but look at today! I don’t think there has ever been a more complete tenor than Jonas Kaufmann, or someone with the technique of Juan Diego Flórez. Joyce DiDonato? She’s a volcano. Diana Damrau? My goodness!”

But he himself nearly had to drop out of that roster altogether: he has recently made a triumphant comeback following an operation in 2009 to remove a cyst from inside one of his vocal cords. The condition could have cost him his career – indeed his voice – had the cord not healed successfully. After his operation, Domingo flew in to visit him at home in Paris: “We just hugged and cried,” Villazón remembers.

An onslaught of criticism dogged his recovery, ready to blame his problems on singing too much, too soon. Yet the cyst had nothing to do with singing, he emphasises: it was “genetic” and could happen to anyone, singer or not.

“I was doing a lot – but am I the only one? Of course not,” he insists. “There are unwritten rules in the world of opera that we should destroy. For instance, ‘One has to learn to say no’. We all say no to a thousand things. One has to learn to say yes! You have to be ready to take up opportunities, because this absurd system of signing four or five years in advance means that if you don’t, you could wait ten years for another chance. I came out of Operalia and jumped into La Traviata in Paris to replace someone. I had done auditions in every major theatre and they all said no. After La Traviata, everyone came back and said yes.”

It was in the romantic hero roles of 19th century opera that Villazón made his name – Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata, the eponymous poet in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann and Massenet’s Werther in which his long-awaited return took Covent Garden by storm last spring. Romantic he may be – an effusive, energetic personality who never quite stops performing – but he has also had to be tough.

Last year he made further waves by agreeing to be a judge on Pop Star to Opera Star, where his presence appeared to give the TV talent show a credibility its critics weren’t convinced it deserved. The TV world took him by surprise in many ways. “I don’t watch TV,” he explains. “I haven’t watched TV for years. They asked me about The X Factor and I didn’t know what it was. Katherine Jenkins used to laugh at me because they’d mention names of famous people and I didn’t know them.

“I remember in this programme thinking I need to say something stupid, something that stays in people’s minds. If I tried to say important things – ‘opera serves the subconscious,’ and so on – nobody cares and they don’t remember. Either you play the game, or you say no, so I came up with ‘chaca-chaca’. It’s from a 1970s Mexican commercial for soap powder. They used to put soap in a machine and say: ‘Look, this soap doesn’t move; but this one over here has chaca-chaca’. So I say: give me ‘chaca-chaca’ in your performance!”

If you thought Villazón was clowning, you wouldn’t be wrong. Clowning has become something of an obsession, one that bounces through his TV appearances, the cartoons he draws and the operas he sometimes directs (his clown-based production of Werther drew a mixed reception). He even used his months away from singing to write a novel about a clown. Maybe most significantly, he works with Red Noses Clowndoctors International, which brings clowns to perform in children’s hospitals and hospices: donning a clown costume, he turns himself into ‘Dr Rollo’. “I have been an ambassador for them for six or seven years,” he says. “The doctors love it because the children become more motivated.

“The clown figure laughs at structures and rules,” he adds. “It gets rid of the little professor inside me that keeps saying, ‘You are a serious opera singer, where is your jacket, where is your tie, you need to speak very seriously...’ The clown liberates you.”

Suitably liberated, Villazón has bounced back. He has undergone the greatest danger a singer can experience and emerged stronger than ever. “It was difficult,” he acknowledges. “But it was also a great time. If I had to live my career over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Not even the cyst.”

The Royal Variety Performance is broadcast on ITV on 14 December. La Strada is out now on Decca.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Yes, He Can

MASSENET'S WERTHER, ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, COVENT GARDEN, 11 MAY 2011

Yes, he can. Rolando Villazon, that is. Sing. "Oui - c'est moi - je reviens," says Werther to Charlotte on his entry in act III. Yup, it's him, he's back - the Rolandoness is out in force: the truest of true tenors, fervent and full of personality and relishing his high notes. If we didn't know what he'd been through for the sake of that voice, would we have guessed during this performance? I don't believe so. Just a couple of very small moments of fuzzy intonation, but of course that can also happen to singers who've not been through anything at all. The tenor has to carry this opera all the way - and he did.

If 'Rolando' sounds like the name of one of those impossibly convoluted Handel opera plots (the one about the footballer?), Werther itself is anything but. On the train into town earlier, the doughty Tomcat asked me to tell him the story. I did. "Oh," he said. "Is that it?" It is. And Massenet lets it unfold at a ploddy andante for perhaps 85% of the time, starting off with children practising Christmas carols, only to reveal that it's July. Given the utter marvel that is Goethe, it's hard to see how anyone could have made quite such a clunky libretto out of it. But perhaps we shouldn't put any degree of naffness past the French bourgeoisie of the late 19th century.


At its best, Werther glows, shudders and engulfs. At its worst, you see exactly what Faure, Debussy and co were up against when they wanted to do something a little different. This score could almost be Tchaikovsky having a seriously bad day. Massenet's most original touches are in the orchestra - reserving the harp for Werther and, for Charlotte's big act III aria, an obbligato saxophone. Naturally, 'Pourquoi me reveiller?' never fails. Tony Pappano gave the whole evening what shape, momentum and sympathy he could.

Benoit Jacquot's production doesn't do very much to help, but for Charles Edwards' gorgeous lighting, suggesting low, slanting sunlight and long, long shadows. Poor old Albert (Audun Iversen) has no personality to begin with - the director could at least have given him some. There must be some reason that Charlotte's beloved mum wanted her to marry him, surely? And with these designs, it's certainly not his dress sense. This is not Iversen's fault - he has a lovely voice. The kiddies tried, but could do better - why oh why did Massenet have to risk wrecking the tragic end with out-of-tune yells of "Noel, Noel, Noel!" offstage? (At least it really is Christmas by now.) The two drunks (Darren Jeffrey and Stuart Patterson) are good fun and as Sophie - the one excuse for some livelier, scherzoid writing from Massenet - Eri Nakamura nearly stole the show. One to watch, there.

Sophie Koch is a strong-toned, suitably priggish and trapped Charlotte; and Villazon gives his all, though his acting did not entirely convince. He stood, gesticulated and delivered - and deliver he did - yet never inhabited the character as much as I longed for him to. The same production, when it was webcast from Paris via Medici TV - also with Sophie Koch, but starring Kaufmann as Werther - reduced me to a gibbering wreck in the comfort of my own study.

A pit star, though: concertmaster Peter Manning, whose personal and charismatic 'golden age' tone in his plentiful solos was simply fabulous; it lifted the whole sound onto another level whenever he had the chance. And speaking of solo violins, a final observation - Korngold appears to have pinched one of the music's sweeter effects, the off-beat violin echo in the act I love duet. If I remember right, it's in The Sea Hawk.

Here's a trailer from the ROH in which Pappano and Villazon talk about the show. Above, one of Rolando's own cartoons off his very fun website.