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. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Fauré Requiem, up close and personal

Portrait of Gabriel Fauré by John Singer Sargent

I had an extraordinary day a few weeks ago, heading for Paris and the Bibliothèque National with the composer and conductor Bob Chilcott, the presenter Frances Fyfield and the producer Tom Alban to meet the manuscript of the Fauré Requiem. BBC Radio 4's 'Tales from the Stave' is a fascinating series which explores the hidden stories within the composer's handwritten scores, and ours will be on today at 11.30am, and repeated on Sunday.

We found, among other things:
...some coffee stains;
some intriguing corrections;
some elaborate crossings-out;
some later changes and slightly wobbly phrase marks;
a few bits where he'd started writing on the wrong line, probably because he was scribbling too fast or was completely knackered;
in general, a very practical, down-to-earth working score for this other-worldly work of genius.

I was mildly disappointed that he hadn't doodled caricatures of Saint-Saëns in the margins, but needs must.

Hope you enjoy the programme. You can hear it here.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MAGIC: Swan Lake

SWAN LAKE. What else?!
Photo: ROH 2018, by Bill Cooper

I thought I could get into the Royal Opera House's new Swan Lake on a press seat, having written a big article about it, but it turned out I couldn't, certainly not at short notice. Tickets for Liam Scarlett's production are like the proverbial gold dust and it seemed that checking back continually for returns was the only way. Therefore by chance I landed one of the best seats I've ever had: possibly not to everyone's taste, but wonderful if you like being almost on the stage, right over the French horns and harp and able to see every detail, including the evil glares of Von Rothbart, without opera glasses. Which I do.

Ballet heaven doesn't even begin to describe what followed.

John Macfarlane's designs are more than just detailed and opulent: they create a whole world that pulls you in and, however fantastical the drama, feels consistent and convincing. The lavishness of the pink marble and glowing gold ballroom scene caused a gasp and applause on curtain-up - not something I've heard at a ballet for a good while - and the parkland and palace gates of Act I similarly balance beauty and a sense of oppression. The lakeside, with lurid moon for act II and dappled clouds for act IV, is suitably gothic. The swan tutus are full of feathery loveliness - and the Hungarian princess, one of the four seductive young royals attempting to snare Siegfried's affections, seems to have half the foyer of the Franz Liszt Academy stitched into hers (quick solution to swan dilemma: go off with her instead?).

Cross Hamlet with Dracula and Giselle: the storytelling of this version leaps into focus. Rothbart is human(ish) by day, demon by night; when we first see him, in a new prologue set to the overture, he captures and transforms the unfortunate Odette, cradling her in his arms à la White Swan pas de deux, but looking as if he's about to sink his teeth into her long white neck. The pose creates resonances around that "iconic" image, normally just a passing (if wonderful) moment in act II. Several times before that when Siegfried tries to fold Odette's wings into an embrace, she resists, and that's probably why. When their cuddle is finally achieved, it has extra meaning.

Next, Rothbart is incarnated into the Queen's adviser, dressed from head to foot in black, exerting sinister control over the court - which he wants to infiltrate and destroy. Siegfried, brooding and mourning, loathes him. What happened to the King? Has the 'adviser' perhaps poured poison in his ear while he slept? Siegfried, refusing his instruction to go back to the palace at the end of act I, could witness Rothbart's twilit transformation if he bothered to turn around at that moment. Given his predatory hold over Odette and her companions, perhaps the creepiest moment of the whole production is when we see him escorting Siegfried's two little sisters into the ballroom. Will they be next?

So to choreography. Scarlett's own additions mostly integrate amid the original without jarring any sensibilities, idiomatically classical with an excellent feel for musical detail and cross-phrase imagination. The Act I Waltz and Polonaise are a huge improvement on the last production (I always felt that waltz was a mess - can't remember who choreographed it), even if I still hanker for the old Frederick Ashton ones from pre-1987. There's a beautiful solo for Siegfried set to the entr'acte - which in a way makes so much sense that one wonders why it wasn't done before. This one wins over the gorgeous Ashton solo, because frankly nobody could ever dance that one as well as Anthony Dowell. National dances are fun and full of "authentic" Czardas and Mazurka touches, though, to sound sour for a second, I found the Spanish number vaguely kitschy; and very glad that Ashton's Neapolitan Dance is still in place, as it's possible there would have been a balletomanes' rebellion had it been chopped.

Act IV is chiefly Scarlett with a centrepiece of a new pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette: it is woven out of a high-classical deconstruction of moves from the White Swan pas de deux as the pair try, hopelessly, to recapture that 'first fine careless rapture'.

Rehearsal of the new pas de deux


And the ending? Odette throws herself off the rock; the swans are saved; Rothbart dies; but Siegfried lives on, cradling the body of the drowned Odette. One can't deny that it prompts tears. But do we feel a sense of redemption? Not really - even though the music tells us it should be there. Siegfried has learned a lesson about love and loss, but he hasn't given his life for it. This matters. Perhaps they could usefully consider revising the idea in a future revival.

Our Odette/Odile on Saturday was Natalia Osipova, demonic and aflame in the Black Swan (no fouettés, mind - instead, a dizzying speedwhirl round the perimeter) and a suitably touching, dramatic Odette. Her prince was Matthew Ball, one of the company's rising stars: a perfect Hamlet-style Siegfried with  notably beautiful control of multiple spins and a meltingly lovely, blended and complementary partnership with Osipova. It's just been announced that he will join Matthew Bourne's New Adventures to dance the Swan in their next tour of that famed version. Meanwhile the mesmerising presence of Gary Avis as Count Dracula, er, Rothbart, just could not have been bettered.

The orchestra, meanwhile, was on splendid form, though Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting smoothed out some of the punchier edges at times and the slowish tempi can be a bit of an issue, but in staged ballet, that's probably inevitable. I do have a mild allergy to that thing where the tempo suddenly changes completely in the middle of a piece so that another dancer has a turn doing something different.

All I wanted to add - other than perhaps a different ending - was slightly deeper characterisation, as everybody is slightly one-dimensional except, intriguingly, Siegfried's mother, the Queen, with Elizabeth McGorian creating a whole wealth of personality and experience with a minimum of gesture. Some neater bows might help to secure the loose ends: what happens to Benno and the little-sister princesses when Rothbart takes the court into dry-ice, black swan-populated meltdown at the end of act III (or maybe something happened to them on the extreme right of the stage, which I couldn't see)? All this can be tweaked, added to, reinterpreted, etc, in due course if Scarlett and company wish to do so. For the moment, it's simply that I want to say something more constructive than merely I loved the whole thing to bits and pieces, it's total magic and I can't wait to see it again, which is also true.

Tomorrow's performance (12 June) is being beamed into cinemas worldwide. Go see.









Friday, June 08, 2018

The Invisible Opera

Composer Emily Howard's first full-length chamber opera, premiering today on the opening night of the Aldeburgh Festival this week, is based on a science fiction short story in which the crime of coldness is punished by invisibility. I could say a few things about the symbolism of this theme and how very much one wishes it could be true for certain people in public life, but you can work that out for yourselves. Instead, let's go over to Emily for her insights into the creative process. Toitoitoi for the performances! JD


The Invisible Opera
A guest post by Emily Howard




My first full-length chamber opera To See The Invisible[trailer] premieres this week on the opening night of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, and we’re nearing the end of the production period. In the next few days we’ll have stage and orchestra rehearsals followed by the dress rehearsal and I can honestly say that these last few weeks have been a real eye-opener for me. Before now, I actually had no idea that there would be so many people involved in making an opera work. I’ve enjoyed working closely with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic, director Dan Ayling and music director Richard Baker for some time now, and in addition to this, collaborating with a wonderful cast of singers, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a full opera production team as well the Aldeburgh staff over the last few weeks has been an amazing experience. That’s a lot of people and I’m delighted to have learnt a whole lot of new information.


I wonder how many other composers have had a similar experience during the production of their first opera? The feeling that in fact you are part of a giant machine and that there are many more cogs in the system than you had possibly imagined? Set Design, lighting, costume and the most amazing number of very practical considerations that in some cases can end up re-shaping your music in places. I love it. I love the collaborative nature of working as part of an opera team, and the fact that the problem solving involved has to factor in so many dimensions, with music being one of them. 

My first outing in opera was a mini-opera Zátopekcommissioned by Second Movement for New Music 20x12, part of the London Cultural Olympiad. I created this with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and we were keen to work together again. We began to discuss the idea of shunning as a central theme for an opera at least five years ago in 2013, and this was the starting point for To See The Invisible.

In 2014 Selma and I linked up with director Dan Ayling, and we all decided that it would be beneficial to approach opera development in a tripartite fashion: composer, librettist and director in discussion from the outset. In particular, we spent significant time together on artistic residencies at Snape Maltings developing materials and ideas, a period that I believe was hugely valuable for the opera. We are all very strong-minded and the three-way conversation enabled us to discuss the many layers of the opera from very different perspectives. 

In rehearsal...
To See The Invisibleis loosely based on a short sci-fi story To See The Invisible Manby American writer Robert Silverberg. The way we came to discover this wonderful short story is worth telling. Selma was working on the libretto in 2016 and staying with her brother in Croatia. One day she described the story that she was working on to him, and he said “that reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s short sci-fi story” and directed Selma to his bookshelf. Selma then realised that this was a story she had read in her childhood and that it was now resurfacing in our opera! We had been searching for the ‘crux’ of the theme of shunning, and what the crime would be – and finding the Silverberg story clarified this complete for us, as we encountered the concept of the crime of coldness around which his story hinges. 

In the opera, like in the Silverberg, our protagonist, The Invisible, is sentenced to a year of invisibility for committing a crime of coldness. The Invisible’s physical journey through the world of warmth, and emotional journey from hope to despair are also rooted in the Silverberg short story. But there are significant differences as well: the opera begins a lot earlier than the story: we see the arrest, and there is a court scene where The Invisible receives the sentence. In the opera, we also experience the toll this takes on The Invisible’s family.

In my concert music as well as my music for stage, I am always excited by the collision and union of disparate ideas from diverse sources: the subsequent translation of these hybrid ideas into sound is the crux of my creative process, and never more so than in the musical score for To See The Invisible. In the opera, it has therefore been my aim to create hugely contrasting types of music that interact with each other in unexpected ways. 

Writing concert music is deeply rewarding in a completely different way from writing music for the stage and over the last decade I’ve written a number of works using ideas from science and mathematics as creative catalysts. These include my string quartet Afference(2014-15), receiving a performance given by the Piatti Quartet in Aldeburgh, and orchestral works sphere(2017) and Magnetite(2007), both being performed in Aldeburgh by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth as part of my residency this year. 

Emily Howard, June 2018