Thursday, January 31, 2013

Five ahems about coughing

So it seems they do it on purpose. Coughing in concerts. Report on latest research is here.

But here are a few points that appear not to have been taken into consideration.

1. Pre-emptive coughing. You cough when you can, in the breaks between movements, because you can. And because you know you that in another moment won't be able to and if you're afraid you might need to then you get it out of the way first, just in case.

2. Nervous coughing. There's nothing like being unable to do something to make you feel a terrible urge to do it. This can manifest itself quite physically, in the form of a truly ghastly scratch at the back of the throat that makes your eyes water and your hands sweat and you feel you can't breathe, and you really do have to cough. Believe me, I've experienced this - about ten years ago I had a phase of a few months in which it happened to me every time I went into the RFH. It started, and later stopped, for no particular reason.

3. No drinks in very dry concert halls coughing. I'm not thinking of beer. I'm thinking of nice, fresh, cough-cooling WATER. The air inside concert halls can become very, very dry, which sets off coughing because your throat dries out. The concretey Barbican is a case in point, but it can happen anywhere. Daring members of an audience will often smuggle in a small bottle of spring water in case of coughing. But I'm sure plenty others don't dare, because we're not supposed to take drinks into a classical concert. Nuff and stonsense. Water should be mandatory.

4. I'm not too happy about the idea that we cough because we're bored. But the fact remains that people cough less if they're really focused on what is going on. The more exciting a performance is, the less coughing there tends to be.

5. Why do people cough more in the quiet bits? I'm not convinced they do. It's just that in the loud bits, you can't hear them!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Welcome, Culture Kicks

Many of us were a bit unhappy, to put it mildly, when The Spectator Arts Blog shut up shop last year. The good news is that now its editors, Pete Hoskin and Simon Mason, have started a new arts webzine called Culture Kicks. You'll find it at 

Mission statement? "What we want to do is share our enthusiasms, and we hope to do so with articles that read like magazine features. Sometimes they’ll be topical, sometimes they won’t, but we hope you’ll always find them well-written, informative and—crucially—unpretentious." Glad to see they also have an archive made up of the old Speccy Arts Blog pieces, mine included.

They asked me for a new piece about The Rest is Noise festival. I reckoned that as most of us have twigged what it's doing, it was time to look at why it works, why it matters and why I love it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Viva Lutoslawski

The Witold Lutoslawski centenary festival, Woven Words, is about to get underway, opening on Wednesday evening at the Royal Festival Hall and named after the composer's 1965 work Paroles tissees. A look at the Philharmonia's designated website reveals that it's a fabulous resource. Hooray for the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which is pumping support into this essential celebration of one of the century's towering musical figures.

The site includes a series of films exploring Lutoslawski's turbulent life history, tracing World War II and the Stalinist years in Poland with archive footage, musical extracts and fascinating insights from Steven Stucky (the series advisor) and other leading academics, as well as conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. And Mrs Spilman is interviewed, explaining that her husband Wladislaw (whose memoirs, The Pianist, I'm sure you know about) as head of music in Polish Radio, encouraged Lutoslawski to compose popular music under a pseudonym to keep body and soul together in the traumatised world of post-war and Stalinist era Warsaw.

During the Nazi occupation Lutoslawski and Panufnik worked together, playing piano duos in coffee houses in the Polish capital: normal musical life had been snuffed out and Chopin's music - as a symbol of Polish national pride - had been banned. (Music/politics/mix...). Essentially, the story of Lutoslawski is the story of Poland in the 20th century.

As the festival's slogan reminds us, "Music begins where words end." I've often started lectures, essays, commentary et al with that phrase and I knew I'd borrowed it from someone... How pleasing to discover that that someone was Lutoslawski. [UPDATE: oops - apparently Debussy got there first.] If you missed it the other day, here is my one and only interview with Lutoslawski, from a meeting in 1992, now available to read for the first time in all those years, courtesy of Sinfini.

There's a complete list of concerts in the Woven Words festival here.
And a set of essays and programme notes that should keep us all busy, learning and fascinated here.
Please click through and do some exploring.

Then please also explore the wonderful new Andrzej Panufnik website and start thinking about next year.

To kick us off, listen to the Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos, which he and Panufnik used to play together in those cafes. Tragically, most of their other manuscripts from the war years went up in flames. Here the performers are Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another 2 1/2p on the ENO issue

My interview with English National Opera's artistic director, John Berry, attempted to address a few tough questions. The company has won every award in town. It has also turned out to have a £2.2m deficit for the 2011-12 financial year. The piece is in The Independent, here.

Time to reflect a little...

Reactions to my article via Twitter were intriguing. I have the impression that some read in it only what they wanted to read, which is normal enough, but means that false impressions may have circulated. Right at the start I ask whether ENO has been flying too close to the sun - all those awards, all those new, risky productions. Obviously, the answer is yes. John Berry does acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made, admitting that with hindsight perhaps they should not have done Weinberg's The Passenger or Glanert's Caligula. He doesn't "blame the audience", as one or two people muttered; he says, of The Passenger, "...but I couldn't sell it." He does acknowledge that there is a price-tag in taking risks, saying that he has no choice now but to "rebalance" the programme; and he also makes the point that the international co-productions that are the chief focus of this article enable the staging of work that ENO could never have afforded on its own.

Naturally the economic climate is nasty and the combination of that with the £1.3m cut in ENO's ACE grant accounts for a large proportion of the problem, but that isn't all there is to it. Some question why ENO has such a big a deficit when other artistic institutions don't. Clearly, a strategy of artistic risk that's then whacked with a massive grant cut is a kind of "perfect storm". But also, sadly, it's only a matter of time - and probably not all that much of it - until other institutions find themselves in the same boat. ENO is merely the first. (I lived through the '80s: been there, seen it all before, bought the t-shirt, now using it as a mop.)

Perhaps ENO is in a kind of double-bind with its international co-productions. Ingrained tastes in audiences vary a great deal from country to country, even from city to city. So, if you're going to produce an opera in collaboration with a place that is used to pushing the boat out in terms of directorial concept, it may not go down especially well with UK audiences, and you can probably forget it in America. (ENO is not the only place that's come up against this: think of "that" Rusalka last year at Covent Garden.) Perhaps that is why the Met is the most frequent of ENO's co-producers; a beautiful Satyagraha; a Klinghoffer that was sensitive and visually striking; but a comparatively dreary Gounod Faust that was not very interesting at all.

I put the question of varying audience tastes to Berry. He defended his decisions, as you'd expect, and it's only fair that he should have the chance to do so. He pointed out that British creative work, this way, is exported and showcased all over the world. Yesterday someone asked where the singers are in all this. They don't usually do the travelling... In that Faust, we had the very fine Toby Spence. At the Met, they had Jonas Kaufmann.

Without those partnerships, and without a strong artistic vision, we might risk being reduced to wall-to-wall Gubbay-style Butterflies and Carmens, because there wouldn't be enough money for anything else. But the fact remains that "Eurotrash" productions have never been favourites with British audiences, yet houses in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere want them, expect them, encourage them. Essentially: you could be stuffed if you do them and stuffed if you don't.

On the other hand, even an old favourite like Nicholas Hytner's perennial production of The Magic Flute was not particularly full when I attended a few months ago; it's beautiful, but has been very thoroughly seen. A new one by a top director (there are rumours of Simon McBurney) with performance to match might draw the audience much more.

But here's another thought: as one canny "tweep" mentioned, it's the music that sells opera. Last year's ENO Rosenkavalier, in the staging by David McVicar, was as glorious a performance vocally and musically as anyone could have wished, with Ed Gardner going great guns in the pit and a cast consisting of Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly and Sophie Bevan, with John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs [left: Tomlinson & Connolly]. It was outstanding. It was unforgettable. I've been stirred, shaken and overjoyed by many, many performances I heard there last year. Gardner's conducting in The Flying Dutchman; Peter Hoare singing in Martinu's amazing Julietta; the list could go on and on. Under Gardner's music directorship, the standard has shot up to a whole new level, and there have been some terrific decisions in the casting department.

Are there solutions to the financial woes? As Berry is the first to admit, there will have to be a "rebalancing" of the programme, and one suspects that various structures in the company's operation will need a long, hard look: ticket pricing, website, marketing, message. ENO runs on minimal staff already and it neither likes nor could afford cinecasting. But most of the clangers, to my view, have been in the question of how they get the message across, or don't.

Round the corner from the Coliseum is the Royal Opera House, with its Tosca, its Trittico, its, er, La Sonnambula and its, ooh, Robert le Diable (if you're grumbling about turkeys, I've seen more of them there in the past couple of years than at ENO)... Christmas dinner aside, Covent Garden gets the Great Big Whopping International Names. It's the place you go to see Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Calleja, Terfel, Stemme, DiDonato, Florez, Beczala, Pappano, Bychkov...

ENO can't compete with that - or so we'd think. Yet ENO has its fair share of stars too: Toby Spence and Sarah Connolly are regulars, Stuart Skelton's rise and rise has happened largely on the boards of the Coli, Sophie Bevan has become a meteor under their auspices, Gerald Finlay brought the house down in Adams's Doctor Atomic [right] - these people are among the best in the world. And of course they pop up frequently at Covent Garden too. As for Gardner, I find him one of the most exciting conductors in the country at the moment. The standard seems to be so high now that that is almost taken for granted. Should we not be told about this a little more often?

But with Covent Garden doing the big traditional productions - Copley's perennial Boheme, Zambello's Carmen - and pulling in the grandest names, ENO needs a different, distinct identity, a defined and individual brand. Now it has one, and it is in these adventurous, internationally-minded productions.The new audience Berry seems to want to reach is not necessarily the one for fabulous star singers, but the one for experimental theatre.

Now, if it is going to keep doing cutting-edge, European-style directors' opera, which people may not "like", and it doesn't mind if not everyone likes them, it has to do a better job of convincing its public that it is OK to go to something and be provoked or stimulated or disturbed by it, rather than necessarily liking every moment This isn't "blaming the public". It's a question of how to speak to them. That will be up to marketing, box office strategy, et al, and will mean cutting out misfiring or patronising schemes like the "Undressed" venture. It's quite a few years since the incident of Aida and the cut-out-and-colour paper dolls, but these things stick in the mind. 

I sympathise with ENO's aims, their integrity, their courage and their musical standards [left: Ed Gardner, who works a lot of magic]. I don't "like" everything they do, but I'd rather be surprised, startled and stirred than bored silly. And if they're boxed into a no-risks, please-the-crowds corner, all that creativity might go down the drain. They deserve support for their vision and their ambition and their achievements. (I mean, that's a lot of awards they've got. Really. It's not just me that's cheering for all this.) That doesn't mean failing to acknowledge that there'll have to be some changes.

In a way, ENO is a little hobbled by its original mission statement. It's gone beyond English or National. It could be better described as British International Opera. That in turn might raise and slightly shift our expectations of what they're about - if it's weren't for the likelihood of such a name being shortened to BIO. And opera in English? That's a topic for another time... 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Trifonov plays 'Widmung'

Here's a little something to remind us what it's all about: Daniil Trifonov, live at the Wigmore Hall in 2011, playing Liszt's transcription of Schumann's 'Widmung' ('Dedication').

Inside Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

In just three and a half minutes, this inspiring video proves to us that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is more than just an orchestra, that Daniel Barenboim is more than just a conductor and that music really can build deep bridges when given the chance. Here, some of the musicians tell us their own story.

The film was made for the Wall Street Journal by Clemency Burton-Hill, who has also written an article on the new Barenboim-Said Academy that's about be founded in Berlin:
A new project that unites conductor Daniel Barenboim, architect Frank Gehry and Brown University will test whether music really is the universal language—by bringing together students from the Middle East in an ambitious curriculum.
The Barenboim-Said Academy, to be based in Berlin beginning in 2015, won't only offer a standard two-year music diploma. It will also be a "world awareness" academy: Up to 100 music students, aged 17 to 20 and hailing from Israel and its neighbors, will study world affairs, politics and the humanities, as well as Arabic and Hebrew. The German government has pledged almost $27 million over the next four years for the project.
"Music is often taught as if it exists in an ivory tower" and is seen as a distraction, a beautiful place to hide, Mr. Barenboim said. He added, "I want to fight that." ...
Read the whole thing in the WSJ here.

Friday, January 25, 2013


Today is Witold Lutoslawski's centenary. Back in 1992 I met him for the first, and sadly only, time - and talked to him about his Piano Concerto and working with Krystian Zimerman. This interview was never published, though, and I'm lucky that the cassette tape just about survived the intervening 20 years. I played it through my old Walkman; it emerged a bit slow and a bit low, but with words entirely clear. I've now made an article out of it for Sinfini.

I can't help finding the great composer's comment about this concerto being "playable" slightly amusing - to me it looks 500% impossible.

As Krystian is playing it on Wednesday with the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen at the RFH, the interview is out just in time. Read it here:

And book for the concert here:

Seeing 'The Minotaur'

A revival at Covent Garden of Birtwistle's most recent opera, The Minotaur? Time to take the bull by the horns and see it.

I'm still reeling.

The Minotaur seems to spring from a very deep, dark place and takes us back there with it. The power it packs perhaps concerns the primal nature of the myth and the archetypal imagery that it dramatises, but there is more to it than that. Whatever it says to us, whatever it does to us - from the moment the first notes growl and surge from the pit, with the film of endless swelling sea to match - it hits us at such a profound gut level that it is flummoxing to attempt quantifying it. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, is that this is an evening of gore, ferocity and claustrophobia, yet at its core is an almost superhuman compassion and empathy.

There have been some complaints in other quarters about David Harsent's libretto, but that seems a bizarre response. It's not only sterling-quality poetry, full of images that would flare at high voltage even without the music, but it also has indubitable advantages of strong structure, absolute clarity, concentration and concision that many libretti lack, and that the genre absolutely needs. Every word carries the weight of a hundred, and that's as it should be. It is light years away from the verbose pretentiousness of The Death of Klinghoffer, the extended tracts of book that weighed down Sophie's Choice, the mundane cosy prose of Miss Fortune.

It's loud. Very loud. The percussion spills over on both sides of the stalls circle. The orchestration is remarkable - despite the volume and depth of the music, its is so well written that there is never any problem of balance between singers and instrumentalists. Birtwistle's sonic imagination was what stayed with me most strongly after seeing The Second Mrs Kong about 20 years ago and in this quality The Minotaur doesn't disappoint, however different it is. One of the most inspired touches is the use of the cimbalom, its hard-edged fury jangling the nerves and cutting into the monolithic textures.

This performance was one of those rare occasions when music, text, design and performance fuse into one: it's hard to imagine it staged any differently, or sung any better. John Tomlinson, Christine Rice and Johann Reiter are the original trio of Asterios, Ariadne and Theseus, each a masterful interpretation with a timbre that encapsulates his/her character and offsets the others. Elizabeth Meister is a terrifying coloratura Ker, the steely-winged vulture. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, taking over a very tall order from Tony Pappano, who's off with tendonitis, did a magnificent job with it. Grand plaudits to the whole team - director Stephen Langridge, designer Alison Chitty, video company 59 Productions, movement director Philippe Giraudeau, lighting designer Paul Pyant.

I've spent much time in the past few days writing about The Rite of Spring (watch this space). Seeing The Minotaur with The Rite in my ears and mind was intriguing in itself. It seems to me that they share a certain wellspring, dragging us through something subconscious, something mesmerising concerning ritual, mortality, cruelty and that crucial compassion.

It's tempting to wonder what makes someone create an opera like this. Why would anyone attempt to write the last scene of the first half, death after sacrificial death in the bullring, the Keres descending to devour the flesh? I can just imagine asking Sir Harry about it, though, and receiving a response not unlike that of Jerome Kern when someone asked him what made him write 'Ol' Man River', which was originally in Showboat. He's supposed to have said: "I needed something to end Act 1 Scene 3."

Twelve hours after curtain-down I need serious coffee and I need it now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fauré programme to download

My 'Building a Library' on the Fauré Cello Sonata No.2 is now available to download from Radio 3's website (I suspect this is UK only). You can find it here.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pappano: "We should celebrate culture"

In today's Independent Rosie Millard asks why we never see politicians at arts events. Are the arts really that difficult? No - it's a matter of image. Read it here...

The reality is a little more complex. The fact is that some politicians do like the arts. But woe betide them if they're spotted there by a tabloid newspaper.

I got  Sir Antonio Pappano going on this subject not long ago. It is one of the issues we discussed for an in-depth interview for Opera News in New York - the article is the cover feature for the February issue and subscribers should have their copy by now. UK readers need to know what he said, so here is a small extract.

At one performance in Pappano’s Ring Cycle, several cabinet ministers were spotted in the audience, notably the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, a committed Wagnerphile. The tabloid newspapers pounced. “The paparazzi got to them and suddenly they’re not coming near the opera house because they were accused of taking time off from running the country!” Pappano fumes. “This is absolutely ridiculous.
“Recently I went to my orchestra in Italy to open the season. On the first night the President of the Republic was there; he came to shake my hand while I was on stage, and applauded the orchestra and the chorus. On the second night Mario Monti, the Prime Minister, did the same thing and came to the dinner afterwards – so I was able to talk to the Prime Minister. In Italy politicians are celebrated for coming to a cultural event. But in Britain, if you do so you’re considered an elitist, highbrow snob. These two things occurred within a week of each other. I think we should celebrate culture and I was really annoyed about what happened in London.”
There’s a danger, he adds, that the popular press’s anti-intellectual agenda could deter the government from supporting the arts: “In the end it’s going to threaten the existence of institutions that are supposed to be there for the duration.”
Read the whole thing here.

It does strike me that the arts, and opera in particular, are perhaps missing out on a vital chance to engage in a dialogue with this slash-happy administration. There is an enthusiasm there; it must surely be possible to tap in to this to encourage a bit of positive thinking all round?

Friday, January 18, 2013

JD on R3 talking FAURÉ tomorrow


On Saturday morning - ie, tomorrow - I'm on BBC Radio 3's CD Review, discussing various recordings of Fauré's miraculously beautiful Cello Sonata No.2. Start time is about 9.30am. A bit more info here:

Friday historical: Gigli sings 'Non ti scordar di me'

It's been a tenory week, so why break the habit? Listen to this...a voice to melt all that forecast snow.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reflecting on the Rite

It won't have escaped the notice of canny JDCMB fans that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky's seismic ballet score, Le sacre du printemps, or The Rite of Spring.

A special website has been set up for the occasion by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: One section is 'Spring Encounters: Reflections on the Rite', and for this Will Robin asked me to contribute a post about my own relationship with the music.

It so happens that the ballet score inadvertently inspired my first novel, which was called, er, Rites of Spring. (Book plug: paperback here, Kindle edition here.) So I wrote about how and why, and what it tells us about the ballet, the music and life today. Here's the link to the piece.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sicilian Star Saves the Day

[Attenzione! Tenor rave alert. Yes, another one...but please don't look away this time. You want to know about this guy.]

Yesterday our dear Fabio Armiliato was in hotter water than I'd thought. He was ill and didn't make it to the Wigmore after all. Cue a Rosenblatt Recitals call to a particular favourite of theirs who's done two of these very special concerts before, but isn't a household name among British opera buffs, never having sung in a British opera house (to the best of our knowledge) and certainly not at the Royal Opera House. He's a Sicilian bel canto tenor with no hair and an earring and his name is Antonino Siragusa.  Above, in L'Elisir d'amore with Patrizia Ciofi...

He zipped over from Italy sometime around midday and is off to Japan this morning. And, wowing the hall with Italian songs in the first half and a range of magnificent virtuoso arias in the second, he won himself a standing ovation.

We thought about going backstage to spirit him off to Covent Garden, where we would have him sing "Ah, mes amis" from the rooftops, and we'd chain ourselves to the railings and wave placards until someone there books him. He sings pretty much everywhere else - the Met, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, La Scala, Barcelona, Vienna, Tokyo (here's his current schedule). But not here. This is very odd.

He isn't your typical Wigmore performer. Unfazed by the last-minute gig, the hallowed space or anyone in it, he worked the hall with sunny mien, jokes, poise and evident delight. The little "Wiggy" is an interesting acoustic for big operatic voices - at first you think it's going to be way too loud - but once you've acclimatised, it's a treat to be at close quarters with the knock-em-dead high notes and the pianissimo serenades alike.

This voice is at the higher, stronger end of bel canto. He may not have the honeyed heavenliness of Florez, but his vivid, bright personality owns a sound to match, with an edge of stainless steel about it. He is a Rigoletto Duke, a Count Almaviva and a Guillaume Tell Arnoldo, to say nothing of Tonio from La fille du regiment - after keeping up the thrill for a whole evening, it then takes a special confidence and security in technique to wander on and ring out those nine  jackpots as your final encore.

The programme in some ways could have looked topsy-turvy - the Tosti Neapolitan-type songs, de Curtis's 'Non ti scordar di me', 'Granada' and so forth took up the first half, while 'Una furtiva lagrima' opened part 2 the way he meant to go on. It worked, though; and maybe it makes sense to warm everyone up with the seductive stuff before moving on to the operatic numbers.

'Firenze' from Gianni Schicchi suited him from shiny crown to toe, as did the one French number of the evening, 'Ah! leve toi soleil' from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. (And how nice to learn that Flotow's Martha involves a heroine in disguise going to, er, Richmond - my neck of the woods.) Lovely, convincing characterisation; communicative diction - the programme notes contained short synopses but no translations, given the shortness of notice, and you don't need them if you can hear the words and all their emotions; it was all well chosen and wonderfully performed.

The pianist, the doughty Marco Boemi, who played brilliantly at short notice and received much grinning praise from his singer along the way, announced he was taking a break for the penultimate aria, 'Se il mio nome saper voi bramate' from Il barbiere di Siviglia - Siragusa strolled back in carrying a guitar and accompanied himself through Almaviva's serenade. 'Asile hereditaire' from Guillaume Tell finished the programme, but we didn't want to let him go, and along came the encores...

My Italophile pal was so overcome that she asked to be introduced to Ian Rosenblatt and gave him a very big hug.You've brought us so much joy by putting on this concert, she declared. She's right. This series is what enlightened philanthropy is really all about. And fortunately, with Sky Arts now on board to broadcast the Rosenblatt Recitals, there'll be a chance for many, many more to sample the joy of great singing close to.

Let's hope that Covent Garden wakes up sometime soon and brings Siragusa in from the cold.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fabio Armiliato gets into hot water

Fabio Armiliato is the tenor in Woody Allen's shower - in To Rome with Love. UPDATE, 10.30am: Tonight he should have been in the Rosenblatt Recital Series, singing Italian verismo and more, though this time minus the soap bubbles, but we've just heard he's off sick. Antonino Siragusa will replace him.

In today's Independent, Fabio Armiliato tells me what it was like to work with Woody...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Orfeo goes to Docklands, wearing headphones

Yesterday morning I was still so high on the aftermath of the Calleja concert that I forgot to check the Independent for my own work. They ran my piece about Silent Opera, the go-ahead young company that is determined to bring opera to the iPod generation and is busy doing just that with a brand-new version of Monteverdi's L'Orfeo

Why shouldn't this work receive radical treatment? It is radical: it was pretty much the first opera ever written. And incidentally, if opera is Gesamtkunstwerk, just imagine what could have happened if Wagner had had a computer. 

A short version of the article was printed, and below is the director's cut. Get yourself over to Trinity Buoy Wharf and try a 21st-century route to JD's favourite Green Mountain.

First, here's a video about what they do...

We’re in uncharted territory, staring at a crystal ball. This glass globe adorns a table at Trinity Buoy Wharf  – the Docklands river peninsula devoted to the arts and creative industries where anything can happen and often does. But am I really looking into the future of opera? 

The team behind Silent Opera thinks so. This young company, spearheaded by artistic director Daisy Evans, has made it its mission to bring an art form often misunderstood as stuffy and inaccessible to the cutting edge of adventurous, technologically-enhanced theatre. Later this month they open a new production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in a converted warehouse.

“Silent” in this context means “digital”. Taking their cue from theatre companies like Punchdrunk and dreamthinkspeak, they aim to create a brand-new, individual and completely immersive experience out of opera, combining technological potential with live performance. “The opera world will never look back,” declares the mission statement. 

Isn’t it rather a grandiose claim? Think “opera” and you probably imagine a plush seat, a dark theatre, a stage many metres away and exorbitantly priced gin and tonic. Here none of those apply, according to Tim Wilson, Silent Opera’s executive producer. “Opera used to be the big thing, didn’t it?” he says. “Today, why is it not? Because it’s behind a wall. But turn it into zeros and ones and you can send it down a fibreoptic cable. Then the sky is the limit.” 

Buy a ticket for L’Orfeo – an operatic snip at £25, or £35 to attend performances featuring arrival by a chartered boat – and your experience begins when you are handed a pair of wireless earphones at the door. At once, you’re in Orfeo’s world. You don’t have to wear the headphones if you want only to hear the live performance taking place around you: the choice is yours at all times. And the performance is around you, not in front of you: in this intimate setting, the singers will be no more than five metres away, and you may find yourself being directly addressed when not being shepherded through a sonic tunnel to hell and back.

The live performance is fed into the headphones and mixed with a pre-recorded soundtrack. The composer Louis d’Heudieres has produced a soundscape in which Monteverdi is filtered through his imagination and also our own: an ambient world including everything from the rest of Monteverdi’s orchestration to suggested spoken thoughts and sampled sounds from the music and elsewhere – plus a whole new ending. 

Each night, one unsuspecting member of the audience will receive a “golden ticket”, which bestows the right to choose which ending the company should perform: Monteverdi’s or d’Heudieres’. The performers won’t know in advance. In the 17th-century opera, the demigod Orpheus is forgiven for his failure when trying to lead his beloved Euridice out of hell and is allowed to live as god. But the new ambient ending goes back to the original myth: Orpheus is torn to pieces by the Furies.

“It’s a very immediate way of experiencing the story,” says Silent Opera’s artistic director, Daisy Evans. “It grabs you and makes you part of it.” Evans, in her mid-twenties, has been cutting her directorial teeth with English National Opera and Glyndebourne, where she was an assistant director for Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2011, and has won crucial support for her Silent Opera project from Sky Arts Ignition: Futures Fund and Blitz Communications. The company’s first production, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, quickly showed that an appetite exists for a radical rethink of what opera can be in the 21st century. Now it seems that the only way is up.

The proof is in the ticket sales. When Silent Opera staged La Bohème last year in the Vault Festival underneath Waterloo Station, they sold around 3000 tickets without producing any printed material to advertise the event. “Everything happened online,” says Wilson. “Every one of our shows sold out.” Sixty per cent of the audience, he adds, were under 30. Fifty per cent had never attended a live classical music performance before. 

L’Orfeo is the first production in Silent Opera’s ongoing project to perform all of Monteverdi’s three great stage works. It is an ideal choice for this treatment, not least because it is inherently edgy, being one of the first operas ever written. The composer unveiled it at the court of the Gonzagas in Mantua in 1607. Additionally, it was intended for a performance space that in no way resembled today’s vast opera houses, where sometimes you can feel you need a telescope to see the action. 

Experiencing live operatic performance at close quarters is both true to Monteverdi’s vision and also a rare treat for audience and performers. “You can change the emotions in a few seconds, because you can ‘read’ them so much more easily when you’re close to people,” says Evans. “The audience will be a huge part of this concept and no two performances will be the same.”

And for those who might protest that opera with headphones, pre-recorded elements, extra noises and a warehouse setting isn’t opera at all, Wilson has a simple message: “Bullshit! If people are so monolithic about an art form, no wonder it has been backed into a corner. Here it’s coming out fighting.” 

“It’s about the iPod generation,” says Evans. “We all have an entire orchestra in our pockets a lot of the time. You can sit on the Tube and listen to Stravinsky or Wagner, yet a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily think ‘I’m enjoying that, I’ll go and listen to it live’. Either they don’t make that jump for financial reasons, or it’s not there for them to attend. We’re shifting this concept into the performance sphere.” 

But the company insists there is no compromise on standards: with a project like this, the musical and dramatic end result has to be top notch to justify the experimental means. “We’re pitching well above our age and experience in terms of the singers and musicians with whom we’re working,” Wilson admits.

And why ever not? Opera, according to Wagner, was the complete art form (Gesamtkunstwerk) in which music, drama, design and more joined forces to provide an all-encompassing artistic experience. Of course, neither he nor Monteverdi had computer technology. Imagine what might have happened if they had. In today’s world, there’s no excuse for leaving such art-enhancing capabilities to one side any longer. “Where technology will be in five years time we don’t know,” says Wilson. “But wherever it is, we’ll bloody well be there.”

L’Orfeo with Silent Opera, Trinity Buoy Wharf, 23 January – 10 February. Book online:

Saturday, January 12, 2013


[NB: Tenor rave alert. If you don't like tenor raves, look away now.]


If Pavarotti had been making his Royal Festival Hall recital debut, you'd want to be there, and later you'd want to know you had been there, even if it was one of those multi-lollipop Gubbay gigs, and you'd go. And it might have sounded a bit like Joseph Calleja did last night. I've heard of great voices, but this is ridiculous.

A friend wrote to me afterwards wanting to know whether he projected OK in the RFH, which can be a tricky acoustic for voices. Projected? If they'd opened the doors, you'd have heard him all the way from Crystal Palace to Kenwood.

Take several thousand volts of personality, a tone so focused and powerful that it can flatten you in two notes, a technique so strong that you'd like to make musical instrument cases out of it, and the effortless confidence to convey passion for music and singing in a truly universal way - and that might just be the biggest opera star of the next few decades grinning at you off the platform.

You know how much I love Jonas Kaufmann and Juan Diego Florez, of course, and to think that we're lucky enough to have all these guys around to hear at the moment is gratitude-inspiring. Different types of voice, different kinds of personality, different purposes, different fates, all miraculous to hear. For a few minutes in the first half, with the Puccini arias from Tosca and the Flower Song from Carmen, I nearly dared to miss Kaufmann's subtlety, the emotional darkness, the variety of colour. Calleja is 50-degree Maltese sunshine all the way.

Yet the shadows were soon gone. Do we love him? Oh boy, do we love him. A bit of Mascagni, a spot of Verdi and some delicious Mario Lanza numbers by Brodszky, and the Golden Age of Singing is alive and well and sipping the conductor's bubbly for the 'Brindisi' final encore.

Spare a thought for the guest soprano, Indra Thomas - fortunate to share a platform with him, but unfortunate in that her vocal technique is nowhere near as strong as his, despite a lovely tone quality at its best in "Pace, pace mio dio" from La forza del destino (as usual, "the best is the enemy of the vaguely OK"). She seemed thoroughly caught up in the enchantment of Calleja's stagecraft, though, as he led her purposefully out of sight for the last phrase of 'O Soave Fanciulla', and who can blame her? The Philharmonia fizzed away happily under the baton of Andrew Greenwood and the evening flew by in a whirl of heady delights and Italianate winter sparkle.

You can follow Calleja on Twitter, where he is @MalteseTenor and describes himself as
"Maltaholic, opera singer, father to a princess and terminator, fly fishing enthusiast and St Emilion fanatic." And he blogs about life on the singing superhighway, here.

Above, hear "Joe" singing the title track from his Mario Lanza tribute album, Be my Love. Be warned, though, that listening to Calleja on disc is a little like watching a Wimbledon final on TV. You appreciate some of the marvels - but to grasp the full power of it, you need to be there...  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ever wondered what musicians think of critics?

Now's your chance to find out.

Peter Donohoe has written a substantial piece on the topic - a jolly brave thing for a pianist to do, if I may say so - and it is admirably honest. For instance, if you want to believe the good reviews, he says, then you also have to believe the less pleasing ones. And he doesn't hesitate to present examples of the type of stories that give us all a bad name, while also acknowledging that some of us say useful things now and then. Read the whole thing here.

(PS - I think this is the first time I've been mentioned in a "good guys" list alongside Hans Keller, and it may be the last, but it's better than never.) [above: portrait of Peter by Sussie Ahlburg.]

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Hatto, football and how to cheat, or not

Was the Joyce Hatto affair the biggest cheat in the history of classical music? Yesterday I finally saw Loving Miss Hatto, Victoria Wood's BBC drama about the unfortunate pianist and her husband, William Barrington-Coupe ('Barrie'). Mixed reports have been circulating in the music biz since the film was first screened over Christmas, with many feeling that the pair were given too easy a time and came over as too sympathetic - after all, they had perpetrated the biggest con trick the classical music business has ever seen. At least, as far as we know.

Quite apart from some fantastic acting by Francesca Annis and Alfred Molina as the couple in their advancing years, the film was rather more interesting than that. It is tricky indeed to produce a good drama about unsympathetic people - but if you can make the audience empathise with her/him (different from 'sympathise'), then you're halfway home. Here Loving Miss Hatto accomplished the nearly impossible, constructing a convincing plot around a central pair who are total losers - fantasists, no-hopers, convincing themselves that they aren't cheating when they are: "We flew too close to the sun..." is how they romanticise their failures. There's some canny script-writing, too, and superb characterisation - for example, Joyce's vile mother (make a character more sympathetic by surrounding her with characters even less sympathetic than she is) and the self-deluding Barrie, going to jail for tax fraud yet still insisting that he hasn't really done anything wrong.

The furore when the story broke in 2007 was intense to the point of scariness. JDCMB grabbed the news the minute it was out and I lost some sleep over the nuclear fallout that followed. What was so frightening? It was desperately out of proportion. The conspiracy theories, the trolls (back then, a relatively new phenomenon), the fanatics, the hysteria, the accusations of - well, of what? God knows! And over what? A rather sad and pathetic situation.

It was Robert von Bahr, the director of BIS Records (the label whose recording by Laszlo Simon of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes was ripped off in the scandal), who talked the most sense. When I phoned him at the time for my Independent article, he said this:

“I’ve given the matter a lot of thought and I think it will turn out to have been a desperate attempt to build a shrine to a dying wife. If this is indeed the case, I don’t think I will be pressing charges. Concert Artist is a tiny label with very limited distribution, and in some ways quite amateurish; this exercise was never a matter of making money. But it is likely now that William Barrington-Coupe will be ruined, one way or another, and that his beloved wife’s name will be forever associated with this incident. That in itself is punishment enough.”

Here, the film hit the nail on the head. It was a pathetic love story - yet it was no less disturbing an incident for all that. Because at the centre of it is an easy-to-slip-into amorality and self-delusion that permeates our world. Just have a look at this football piece from today's Indy, about Luis Suarez's alleged handling of the ball:

It isn't cheating if you don't think it is. So, back in the classical music sphere, some so-called live recordings are extensively edited but still labelled 'live', because it isn't cheating if you don't think it is. Neither is the promotion of third-rate musicians who can pay for the privilege of telling an underinformed public that they are geniuses, or bizarre results at certain international competitions, or the use in the 1980s, a time of intense financial cutbacks, of much-reduced ensembles in baroque/classical music because they were "authentic" (as opposed to "cheaper") - today, stand by for similar arty excuses about the benefits of using pre-recorded music in theatres... We all know, deep down, that the business is chock-full of con tricks, and none of them are cheating if you don't think they are. What's disturbing is the shard of human weakness at the heart of it all. We don't like being reminded of it, but there's a ring of truth. Everyone can be gullible when they want to be. 

I reckon far worse things than l'affaire Hatto go on all the time. Now let her rest in peace.


Sunday, January 06, 2013

OK, let's get Britten year off to a flying start


Here's a big Britten favourite of mine. It's the Piano Concerto, written when the composer was all of 25 years old. He had just met Peter Pears and not yet sloped off to the States. Britten, who was a very brilliant pianist when he wanted to be, was the soloist in the world premiere at the Proms and apparently finished the piece just in time for the first rehearsal. It's a wonderfully 1930s sound, full of an Art Deco glitz akin to Poulenc, Ravel or Prokofiev, and I've never understood why it isn't played more often. The most recognisably Britteny movement, of course, is the Intermezzo, which was a late replacement by way of slow movement and dates from 1945, hence contemporaneous with Peter Grimes.

Here's a performance of it to brighten a gloomy January Sunday: another Benjamin - Grosvenor, this time - at the Proms 2011, with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. Benjamin G was 19. Incidentally, if you're wondering where he is at the moment, he's just been wowing Seattle with a spot of Rachmaninov.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Friday Historical: Vladimir Horowitz out-takes

"Listen, you wanted Moszkowski, maybe?..."

Just stumbled on this little selection of out-takes from Vladimir Horowitz - The Last Romantic. Wow.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

New Year Fireworks!


As a disembodied voice said over the firework display by the Thames, "London 2012: we did it right". Wonder if we can keep that up in 2013? 

Here are a few handy points for starting the year with best foot forward.

1. Feel free to enjoy the New Year's Day Concert from Vienna. Whatever those self-righteous moaners say about the Vienna Philharmonic, I love it and New Year's Day would feel all wrong without it...
UPDATE, 11.55am: woops. This year's, conducted by Franz Welser-Most, really is "frankly worse than most" and I have SWITCHED IT OFF for the first time in living memory. There's no point grumbling about the number of women in the orchestra if there is an elephant on the podium.

Solution? Make Your Own New Year's Day Concert. Here's Willi Boskowsky, leading a Csardas with violin, smile and real pizzazz in 1967. This, dear friends, is more like it...

2. Make some fun resolutions. Yesterday the Royal Opera House asked us on Twitter for our best operatic ones. Mine include recognising that gold rings are overrated, especially when sourced in the Rhine - stick to platinum in future. And do not write unsolicited love-letters to handsome visitors, even if they can sing in Russian.

3. Then there are non-operatic resolutions, such as practising the piano, going back to ballet class, finishing the new novel, and other things that are probably doomed if you have to make a resolution about doing them.

4. Invest in some good carpet shampoo. Handy for cleaning up others' mess. (I think Solti must have overindulged at the cat party last night.)

5. Ring out the old, ring in the new. What's past is past.

6. Speaking of the Ring, this year there will be so much Verdi, Wagner and Britten around that it's tempting to board up the windows and say GONE SOMEWHERE SUNNY, SEE YOU IN 2014. Which of the three birthday boys will you still want to hear in 366 days' time?

7. While V, W and B are carpet-bombing us (or should that be BWV? is it all a plot by Bach?), please don't forget Lutoslawski. Luckily the Philharmonia is celebrating his centenary. Krystian Zimerman is performing the Piano Concerto that Lutoslawski wrote for him - RFH, 30 January.

8. I have a new concert-of-the-novel in the works, this time based on Alicia's Gift, with the lovely pianist Viv McLean. The story of a child prodigy trying to grow up, it includes piano music by Chopin, Ravel, Granados and others. I read, Viv plays and we'll launch it in the autumn. Ideal as a coffee-concert with a difference. Book us!

9. The Hungarian Dances concert and A Walk through the End of Time are expecting more airings - watch this space. I'm also looking forward to some seriously exciting interviews and various things that are currently queuing up in the ether, waiting to be written and performed.

10. It's tough out there. We'll all have to be positive and ingenious to navigate through '13. But if we have music, love and laughter in our hearts, we can do that. We need to invent, communicate, inspire and do good things. And you know something? We intend to. Please join us.