Friday, June 22, 2018

Glyndebourne calling

Ever heard an opera at Glyndebourne written by a woman? I haven't. OK, maybe I missed one, but still. Hopefully that's about to change. Glyndebourne recently built and cultivated a gorgeous, fragrant rose garden. Now it can cultivate a special musical sphere too. Please form an orderly queue for this terrific opportunity. (We ladies are accustomed to queuing, as most opera houses will attest.)

They built a rose garden. They can build a new repertoire too.


GLYNDEBOURNE WRITES:

Glyndebourne’s commitment to nurturing musical talent and thus securing the future of opera for coming generations has long been at the heart of the organisation. Today we are announcing two new schemes to further support young artists.


Balancing the Score: supporting female composers is a new development scheme exclusively for female composers. It will offer up to four women the chance to spend two years immersed in life at Glyndebourne, attending rehearsals and meeting professional opera makers and performers. Participants will be introduced to commissioning opportunities at Glyndebourne and development opportunities with high profile partners such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra.


The announcement comes at a time of growing awareness of the under-representation of female composers in classical music. In February the BBC Proms announced that it would give half of its new commissions to women by 2022, and a new BBC series starts tonight in which presenter Danielle de Niese will shine a light on forgotten female composers from history.


Lucy Perry, Head of Education at Glyndebourne, said: ‘Glyndebourne is a proud and committed commissioner of new opera and, like many of our peers, we are concerned about the under-representation of female composers in classical music. With this new programme we can do our bit towards tackling that issue by offering practical support to female composers who aspire to write opera.’


Along with the chance to immerse themselves in the work of a world-class opera house, the successful candidates will receive an annual bursary of £2,000 to cover expenses and time spent at Glyndebourne during the part-time residency.


Applications for Balancing the Score open today at glyndebourne.com to female composers of any age. The closing date is Friday 17 August 2018 and interviews will be held on Wednesday 24 October.


Also announced today, and to mark this 50th anniversary year of the Glyndebourne Tour, is a new development scheme for young orchestral players called On the Road. Young professional instrumentalists will be invited to join the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra as it travels the country, to gain their first professional operatic experience. The players will participate on an equal footing with other members of the orchestra and will be paid for their participation.


The new scheme extends the Tour’s cornerstone commitment to nurturing young talent. Among the internationally acclaimed artists whose performances with Glyndebourne Tour helped establish their careers are Robin Ticciati, Jakub Hrůša, Ivor Bolton, Louis Langrée, John Tomlinson, Sarah Connolly, Gerald Finley, Emma Bell, Alfie Boe, Roberto Alagna, Edward Gardner and Kate Royal.


Steven Naylor, Director of Artistic Administration, said: ‘This scheme is designed to offer newly graduated players real-world professional work experience over a concentrated three-month period by putting them straight in at the deep end – the fastest way to learn!’


In its first year, the scheme will offer places to 9 players. In future years applications will be invited online for players of a selected number of instruments.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Exciting news

I'm delighted to be able to report that my next novel, provisionally entitled Meeting Odette, will be published sooner than I'd expected. Not Christmas 2019, but December 2018. Please don't buy your Christmas presents too early: this book is intended to be a good stocking-filler at the very least. You can pre-order/pledge for one copy or many at the Unbound website here.

It has taken me 26 years to reach this point with it, so you'll understand it gets top priority.

There'll be a lot of very intense work between now and publication, as it's not exactly far off in the grand scheme of things. In the meantime I have numerous existing commitments including the Australia visit, plus words for some choral works and a youth opera for Garsington 2019 with the composer Paul Fincham.

Therefore, just as news comes through that JDCMB has been ranked #6 in the Top Ten Best UK Classical Music Blogs on the Planet (yeah, I know, I know...), I have to reinforce the current point of its existence:

I write what I can, when I can, if and when I have something to say. And that's it. My intention of building it up through reader subscriptions has not proved as viable as I'd hoped under its current set-up, though I am deeply grateful to everyone who so kindly contributed to A Year for JDCMB and value your support, both emotional and moral, very much indeed.

I will be writing a diary for JDCMB while I'm at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville in July and August, because that will be fun. I won't be doing any interviews specially for the blog in the meantime, though, and I won't be accepting any pitches. I'll just try and post nice stuff when I can. If you enjoy my writing, please read my books. They are all listed in the sidebar.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Secrets, lies and Star Wars

Curious to see whether Na'ama Zisser's Mamzer Bastard actually deserved the vicious drubbing to which other critics have subjected it, I trekked off to the Hackney Empire yesterday for the final performance. The short answer is that it was pretty impressive. This is largely because it has two important qualities that no amount of editing could add and that many other, better-reviewed contemporary operas are lacking: emotional authenticity and a heart.

Edward Hyde and Collin Shay as Yoel, boy and man.
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey/ROH

Mamzer Bastard is an original story by librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton. The theme of inheritance and continuity - of names, of traditions and ultimately of traumas - is central. Set in the Hasidic Jewish community of New York, it takes places on the night of the citywide blackout in July 1977. A young man, Yoel, meets a stranger in the darkness, a familiar-looking older individual who describes himself as nothing but a ghost, and shares the name of Yoel.

It turns out that he is Yoel's mother's first husband. Esther married him in Poland. Then came the war, she escaped to America and he was thought to have died in a concentration camp. He survived, came to the US to seek her and finally discovered that, believing him dead, she had married someone else. Her new husband, Menashe, is Yoel's father - but Esther at the last moment named Yoel after her original husband (and implicitly true love) instead. Young Yoel knew nothing of this. Nobody knows, yet the trauma is there and tangible: Menashe bullies his son continually, worried that he might not be his own child; Esther is tetchy and het-up; the relationships are all under constant strain. The effect on Yoel is deep-seated insecurity and a stammer.

Now Yoel realises that the other Yoel's existence means that he, the young man, is a 'mamzer' - inadvertently illegitimate, because under Jewish law Esther's former marriage is still valid, invalidating the later one, which would convey illegitimacy on his own marriage, his children, his grandchildren. Don't tell, the other Yoel advises. No one will know. "I will know," Yoel says. But he goes home and goes through with getting married. The last thing we hear is the wedding, off stage. If this conclusion might risk looking like a cop-out to some, it is actually anything but. It is an implied devastation of the future. It means that Yoel must carry it all on himself. That the next generation will be left to uncover his secrets. The trauma will continue.

These things happened - many, many times - and the Zisser family team has conveyed them with an inner conviction that has genuine power. In so doing, Na'ama has created some fine roles: Yoel is a counter-tenor, an excellent Collin Shay, and the flashbacks to his childhood memories are portrayed wonderfully by a boy soprano, Edward Hyde. Esther is that rare creation, a big role for an older mezzo-soprano, Gundula Hintz in full Susan Bickley mode; and the bullying Menashe (Robert Burt) has his own moments of anguish as he desperately hunts for his son in the chaotic streets of the blacked-out city. The first Yoel is sung by Steven Page, heart-rending as far as the character goes - on the one hand, he is a shadowy figure whom we don't get to know well enough, but on the other hand, neither does our Yoel. And there's another character: the synagogue cantor, David, sung by the real cantor Netanel Hershtik from the Hampton Synagogue in the US, punctuating the action with existing cantorial music.

In the pit, conductor Jessica Cottis commands a tight ship with 12 players from the Aurora Orchestra. The whole is slightly amplified, which I doubt added much to the effect for me in the sixth row - I don't much like amplification in opera unless absolutely necessary - but perhaps it would have made words more immediate for those further back or higher up. The direction by Jay Scheib involves live camera: a cinematographer, Paulina Jurzec, shadows the performers close to and her filming is projected onto a huge wall so that we see the emotions up close. A technical issue, though, means that there's a small time delay between the sound of the singing and the projection, just enough to upset the mouths/words coordination and prove bothersome (though it's no worse than you often find on Youtube). No interval: good for the audience, but it sounded, by the end, as if some of the singers could have used a midway break to recuperate.

Yes, some tightening up wouldn't hurt; the staging would have been better if the filmed coordination of image and voices had been precise and if the cinematographer had worn black sleeves to make her less conspicuous. Some of the repetitions of text are overused; and a little more variety of pace in the music would be a good thing, as - like every other new opera I hear - the whole thing walks along without much changing (when writing Silver Birch Roxanna and I tried to build in lots of variety in tempo because this is a major bug-bear for us both). But Zisser's sound world is far from standard-issue modernism: it is distinctive for its keening strings in quarter-tones, off-centre effects that destabilise the scene as if from within the characters themselves; electronics are seamlessly integrated, uncompromising chunky chords measure out emotions to match, and resonant percussive effects create chilling auras of sound. Above all, there's urgent human warmth at the core of it.

Na'ama Zisser, incidentally, is 29 and has an impressive track-record of commissions in a big range of genres. Her 'doctoral composer in residence' post at the Guildhall was previously held by Philip Venables, who produced 4.48 Psychosis while there. Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton normally work together in film scripts - and Na'ama has previously written a 'horror opera' with Newton.

It's possible, of course, that Mamzer Bastard is simply too niche, too bizarre a world for some Londoners. The alienation from modern life of the Hasidic community is shown when Yoel relates his experience of attempting to go to the cinema. "Star Wars or Annie Hall?" asks the ticket girl, a recorded voice. "One's scary, the other's funny." He has never heard of Star Wars. He goes in, expecting guidance, and doesn't find any (he'd have found Annie Hall much more helpful, but there we go...). But alienation can work two ways. The ongoing impact of Holocaust traumas is by no means exclusive to the Hasidic community; it creates fault-lines in almost every Jewish family in one way or another. If you are familiar with this environment to any degree, you'll recognise elements of it all too clearly. If you're not, though, it could be a steep learning curve.

Let's say I am predisposed in some ways to be sympathetic to this opera because my ancestors shared that world. There but for the grace of God go I. And some Yiddish words I haven't heard in years jumped out and made me smile. I realise this may mean I struggled less with the setting and felt more at ease with the work than perhaps others might. The audience was mostly Jewish - that doesn't make the work 'outreach', as one commentator sniped, but it does mean that it reached an audience that other operas might not. At the same time, it would be nice if that world could also be shown to those who are not part of it, and might emerge understanding it a little bit better.

We have to face up to the fact that the music world of the UK is rooted heavily in the Anglican church. Choir, organ and early music therefore have a natural home here and the most eminent people in the business tend to have had a grounding in that sphere. I remember well that as a Jewish music student in Cambridge, I felt very much a minority; if you don't want to go into a chorus and sing about Jesus, you're on your own. The English choral tradition has produced some glorious music and musicians, but it is also, inevitably, quite limiting; and if that is your world from the start, you may not be encouraged to start looking beyond it until it is, let's say, a bit late. On the other hand, none of that has ever stopped me from loving the Fauré Requiem, the Missa Solemnis, the St Matthew Passion or hundreds of Bach cantatas. Open-mindedness could work two ways, too, given half a chance.

By the way, I have not yet seen any other reviews of Mamzer Bastard by critics who happen to be female.

Yes, Mamzer Bastard has some weaknesses and needs a few tweaks, but it's far from the unmitigated disaster that some would have us believe. You could make cuts, direct it differently and not use amplification. No amount of tweaking, though, can add a heart to a work if it doesn't have one from the start, and this opera does. Unlike many.

Friday, June 15, 2018

My holiday job...


Hello, Townsville! from Jessica Duchen on Vimeo.

I'm off to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville, Far North Queensland, in late July, where I'll be presenting my new narrated concert Being Mrs Bach, specially commissioned for the event by artistic director Kathryn Stott. My colleagues on stage will include Siobhan Stagg, Roderick Williams, Guy Johnston, the Goldner String Quartet and many more, and it's kind of thrilling. I'll also be giving a talk about women composers for the Winterschool and writing copious quantities of words about the experience of attending the festival.

The other day I spent a happy few hours in the National Theatre's costume hire warehouse, trying on 18th-century garb. I did find something in which I could actually breathe, which was a good start. I hope it'll work. No, it will not be anything like Lucy Worsley. Yes, I really hope we can do some version of it in the UK too.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Who is the Mamzer Bastard?

Had a fantastic interview with the composer Na'ama Zisser and librettists Rachel C Zisser and Samantha Newton about their new opera, Mamzer Bastard, which is opening at the Hackney Empire tonight under the auspices of the Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where Na'ama is doctoral composer in residence). Rachel and Sam are a writing team who normally do horror movies; Na'ama set out to incorporate cantorial music of the Hasidic tradition into her score. It should prove a pretty extraordinary mix. You can read the whole thing in the JC here.

Na'ama Zisser
Taster (from the middle....)
Mamzer Bastard is no horror story, but its filmic qualities are evident as Rachel describes it. The action takes place in New York on 13 July 1977, the night of one of the biggest blackouts in the city’s history. A young man from the Orthodox Jewish community is to get married the next day. Unsure that he is ready, he decides to escape and finds himself lost in the darkened streets of the city, where he is nearly murdered. A stranger saves his life, asking in recompense only that he returns to his family and the wedding. “The more the young man learns about the stranger,” says Rachel, “the more he realises how little he knows about himself.” 
“Mamzer” translates almost as “bastard”, but more precisely as a person born from a relationship forbidden within Jewish religious law. According to Rachel, the story relates, tangentially, to deep roots within the Zisser family. “My aunt had a story that she told me when I was a child, and I’ve been trying to write it in one form or another ever since,” she says. 
“At five or six years old, she was with her father when he ran into an old friend from before the Holocaust, who said ‘How nice to see you  and this is your little daughter?’ He replied, in Yiddish, thinking my aunt couldn’t understand: ‘Yes, but she’s not the original one, she’s not the first…’. My aunt was haunted afterwards: ‘Who is the original me?’ 
“When she was 17-18, her father went to testify at one of the Nuremburg trials. He came back with a document of his testimony against one of the Nazis. My grandmother didn’t want her children to know that our grandfather had had another family before the war, so she hid the document  and my aunt found it. It was the first time she learned that he had a daughter and a son before her, so she understood finally why she was not the first. I think the presence of a life that has not been lived is very much part of this opera.”
Mamzer Bastard is at the Hackney Empire tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, conducted by Jessica Cottis. Booking here.