Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The other Prokofiev

I had a lovely interview a few weeks ago with Gabriel Prokofiev: composer, grandson of Sergei, founder of Nonclassical and composer of a Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra which is now on the new secondary school Ten Pieces list compiled as a music resource for schools by the BBC. It was in the Independent while I was away in Turkey. Here is a longer version with a good few chunks of bonus material.

Gabriel Prokofiev is pondering, over a Turkish lunch in Bethnal Green, a surprise development in his career as composer. The BBC has picked a movement from one of his most famous compositions to date, the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra, to feature in its new Ten Pieces list for schoolchildren aged 11 to 14. The list is second stage in an initiative that began with a nationwide project to help schools introduce younger pupils to ten pieces of classical music.

This concerto’s mix of a contemporary invention – the scratching and sampling of a DJ on turntables – with a traditional classical format exemplifies Gabriel  Prokofiev’s musical inventiveness and looks like a perfect choice to introduce secondary school pupils to the sometimes mysterious spheres of contemporary classical music.

“I’m thrilled about this – I couldn’t believe it,” Prokofiev says. “I’d heard about Ten Pieces and I’m a big fan of the project. It’s worrying that music education doesn’t seem to be thorough enough – there could be a lot more – and this is a very efficient way of introducing children to some key repertoire. It’s exciting to see a contemporary piece in there and hopefully it’s a chance to encourage young people at the age when you’re developing your taste in music and deciding which genres you’re into. I’m hoping that this will help to bring contemporary classical into their list of choices.”

If you see the name ‘Prokofiev’ on a musical list, you might well assume that it indicates Sergei Prokofiev, one of the best-loved composers of the last century. Gabriel, who turns 40 this year, is his grandson – and in many ways he is a chip off the old block, sharing with Sergei an intent gaze, high cheekbones and a quiet, concentrated demeanour.

In other ways, of course, they are very different. Although he says he feels a strong affinity with his Russian heritage, Gabriel Prokofiev seems a Londoner through and through, living in Hackney Downs with his partner, a French-Congolese academic and author, and their three children whom he ferries to primary school in a cargo box attached to his bicycle. His studio in Bethnal Green is in a crumbling 1960s block that, he says, is facing potential demolition. The urban flavour of his music remains powerful: a mix of driving rhythms, gritty timbres and outlines, and a lyrical thread lurking under the surface that sometimes recalls the sardonic irony and fantastical textures of his grandfather’s works. His Violin Concerto, premiered last year at the Proms by Daniel Hope, evokes a narrative about the outbreak of the First World War and included marches with an unmistakably Prokofiev-like bite.

It’s entirely deliberate, he says: “I grew up listening to my grandfather’s music. My siblings and I were aware as children that we were getting some extra attention because of him – and I think it made me a bit self-conscious. I love his music, he is my grandfather and there are so many fans that it’s natural people get excited about it. But I’m quite relieved that there hasn’t been too much comparison.”

Grandpa Prokofiev
The fear of comparison, he says, made him at first over-hesitant to become a composer. “As a teenager and in my twenties I was definitely intimidated,” he admits. “Any creative process is hard graft and though you can have wonderful moments of inspiration, finishing a piece requires a lot of work. I think I was intimidated to do that. So I focused a lot more on popular music, making electronic and dance music and playing in bands. I found another way of making music. But as I got more confident and ultimately had a strong enough drive to want to do classical music, I realised I’ve just got to get on with it. As I was writing my first string quartet I planned that I was going to use a different surname - and the thought that I’d be presenting the piece not as ‘Gabriel Prokofiev’ actually freed me up a bit.”

Was he not tempted to stick with popular music – bigger sales, more income? “Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuck longer at it,” he admits. “But I was trying to juggle everything and sometimes when I was involved in a project and should have been going to record industry parties and networking, instead I was in my studio writing a string quartet. Ultimately I couldn’t help myself: I really wanted to write classical pieces and eventually I got some orchestral commissions and decided it was an unmissable opportunity.

“In pop, although you can earn more money, it’s a much more thankless world. I had run-ins with record labels because suddenly you had this weird feeling that your creative control is slipping away – they’d wanted you to make it sound more like the track that had just been no.1 last week, you had to make sure your music fitted in with certain DJs’ playlists – this whole side holds you back. For a classical commission, they never give you strict creative criteria; maybe they’ll specify the duration and the instruments, but there’s more emphasis on being original and doing your own thing. With pop music, when I started to get into the more commercial area, that started to bring with it more restrictions and requirements to conform, and that was creatively frustrating. I’d find that sometimes I’d made stuff I was really pleased with, but it turned out it was a bit too original or too quirky, and people would say ‘it’s a bit far-out, what about something like this?’, and play me something I found mundane and unimaginative. Often I felt people were making judgments just because something had been successful – it wasn’t always about the quality of the music.”

Prokofiev’s father, Oleg Prokofiev (Sergei’s younger son) was a painter and sculptor, a prominent figure in the movement known as the Nonconformists – Russian artists whose abstract work did not meet the criteria of state-approved socialist realism. His second wife was a British art historian who was allowed to travel to the USSR to research; after she died tragically young; Oleg was permitted to come to her funeral in the UK, and defected to the West while here. Gabriel’s mother was Oleg’s third wife, Frances, and he grew up in Greenwich where the family settled,

Echoes of nonconformity pepper the composer’s musical life too. Not least, a decade ago he started a record label called Nonclassical, which has evolved into a veritable movement in its own right. He says the name was largely coincidence as it derived from a pop label he had been running, entitled Nonstop – “Originally it was going to be Nonstop Classical, but that was too much of a mouthful,” he remarks. “Then the penny dropped...” Launching Nonclassical, he was among the first to devise classical club nights – presenting classical music in a nightclub setting that would feel normal and everyday to younger people and help to create a new audience. The organisation now runs a monthly event in east London.

“I’m always surprised how many young musicians and composers don’t question a status quo that gives them so few performances and reaches such limited audiences,” Prokofiev remarks. “It’s natural that we need to find ways of getting our music out there more and reaching our own peer group. A lot of different things motivate me; one is that there’s a lot of great contemporary music and it feels unfair that it’s not made accessible to many people. You can sit back and blame radio and TV, but the other option is to get out and do something about it.

“Having played in bands, I was used to this idea that you write a piece, then you gig it and your friends come and hear it. I felt strongly with my classical stuff that it would appeal to my peer group, but when it was performed in the traditional classical setting most of the audience would be twice my age – there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seemed a real shame that my friends weren’t there. That was a big motivator in getting Nonclassical going – just thinking you’ve got to present classical music like other music, in a more day to day approach, and for me that seemed pretty obvious. If you’ve put a lot of work into composing a piece and rehearsing it, then to have only one performance is criminal.”

His Concerto for Turntables is likely to have a great many more performances now that it is on the Ten Pieces list; and Prokofiev has his work cut out with a string of commissions, including more concertos – a favourite medium, he says – and more works involving dance and drama. He has also been asked to add some new musical creatures to the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns and is trying to decide which to pick. I’m about to suggest a cat – when I remember that possibly the most famous cat in musical history is grandpa Prokofiev’s, in his perennial childhood favourite, Peter and the Wolf. “Probably a no-go area,” Gabriel smiles.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Congratulations, Tchaikovsky Competition. You have an all-male piano final.

We are not amused. Can it REALLY be the case that no women, not even Maria Mazo, were considered good enough to have a try for the final? Or is it same-old same-old yet again?

The piano jury is all male too.

The cello jury includes one woman. The cello final also includes one woman.

The violin jury includes three women. The violin final also includes three women.

Make of this what you will, because it all seems so wonderfully coincidental that I am stumped.

You can watch the final live, and catch up on earlier rounds, on Medici.tv, here.

Good luck to them all and may the best, er, man win.

Blown away by Chopin in Istanbul

Here's one of my talks from Istanbul. They're now all on Youtube. This one was dedicated to the topic of the young Chopin and preceded a mesmerising account of the E minor Piano Concerto by Daniil Trifonov, no less. If any of us hadn't been blown away by the weather, he blew away anything that remained. Enjoy.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My visit to Istanbul this week...

Here's where I'm going tomorrow...

...and here's what I'm doing, for the Istanbul Music Festival, in a series of pre-concert talks in the gardens of the Hagia Eirene Museum, Topkapi Palace.

22 June The Young Chopin. This evening Daniil Trifonov performs Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 as part of a programme of varied concertos with different soloists, with the Moscow Soloists. In the talk, I'll be looking at the influences that fed into the formation of the young Chopin's distinctive style.

23 June The Fantastical World of the French Baroque. Preceding a concert featuring Magdalena Kožena (mezzo) and Emmanuelle Haïm (conductor). An introduction to the extraordinary relationship between Louis XIV and his composer in chief, Lully; the enduring influence of French Baroque music; and the splendour of the world into which it emerged.

24 June Brahms, Schumann, Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim: The Indivisibles. Brahms galore: Christian Tetzlaff performs the Violin Concerto and the concert also includes the Symphony No.1. What a wonderful chance to explore the way these vital relationships are preserved in Brahms's music. 

26 June Mozart and the Violin. Arabella Steinbacher (violin) and Maxim Rysanov (viola) feature with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in two of Mozart’s violin concertos and the Sinfonia Concertante. A perfect opportunity to explore Mozart's somewhat chequered relationship with the violin, and with his violinist father. 

It's a great festival. Explore the website for the complete programme, here.

Please join us if you're there, and come and say hello.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pianist soldiers on with broken shoulder...

Last Friday I was up in Ulverston for the music festival. I did a pre-concert talk with Tasmin Little and Martin Roscoe. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, the town and its countryside almost too pretty to be true and there's gluten-free food galore. And on the train on the way up you go through Carnforth, where Brief Encounter was filmed. This is a good trip for old-film buffs, especially with Stan Laurel being Ulverston's biggest local celeb.

Anthony Hewitt (left) and me with local celeb Stan Laurel
& his pal outside Ulverston's Coronation Hall
Other than Anthony Hewitt, that is. He's the director of the Ulverston Festival and a very fine pianist indeed. But about six weeks ago disaster struck. He had a cycling accident in which he suffered a broken collar-bone and dislocated right shoulder.

You may remember that back in 2012 he was The Olympianist, cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats and giving a recital wherever he stopped each night, to raise money for musical and sports charities.

Still, it took a shoulder injury for the TV news to go and film him...playing music for left hand alone, written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War.

Better late than never: here he is on ITV.

Excuse me, but why isn't this man conducting Wagner at Covent Garden and Bayreuth?

Here's my review for The Independent of Tristan und Isolde at Longborough Festival Opera the other day. GO. NOW. Only two more performances, one of which is today.

I'm seeing Tristan again at Bayreuth in August, incidentally, and I challenge their very, very, very celebrated Wagner conductor to do anything with it that is even slightly more powerful, devastating, thrilling, detailed, loving, intelligent, wise and glorious - more downright Wagnery in the very best sense - than Anthony Negus (left)  did the other night. So there. Why isn't this man conducting there, and at the ROH and at ENO and all the rest? Their loss is Longborough's gain - but they are missing out.

Here is his article about his life with Wagner, from Longborough.


Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, Gloucestershire
16 June 2015

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s vast paen to love and loss, has reached the intimate setting of Longborough Festival Opera in a thoughtful new staging. But its ultimate marvel is on the podium.

One weird conundrum in the world of classical music is that some conductors who wield enormous power are not especially inspiring musicians, while a few masters of their art, equipped with peerless understanding, remain tucked away working in unlikely corners such as the Cotswolds. Longborough’s music director, Anthony Negus – a disciple of the now legendary Wagner conductor Reginald Goodall – is a Wagnerian maestro of a calibre that should rightfully be heard and lauded at the likes of Covent Garden and Bayreuth. Meanwhile, it is Longborough’s wisdom and good fortune to have him.

Presiding over a reduced-scale orchestra, Negus offers exceptional, profound knowledge of and empathy for this music, letting it fly by building the aerodynamics of its structure – whether streamlining to perfection the lengthy build-ups of tension in Act I, sustaining the hushed ecstasy of the love scene or bringing to life the raw agony of the wounded Tristan in Act III. His placement of details – for instance, homing in on a light-shaft of harp here or a deep-set heartbeat rhythm there – bring continual insights. And he inspires everybody, from Isolde to the bass clarinet, to excel themselves. The musical results are deeply human and emotionally shattering.

Carmen Jakobi directs a staging based in suitable strength and simplicity, set within clean-edged designs by Kimie Nakano and pleasing, rich-coloured lighting by Ben Ormerod. Two dancers – Katie Lusby and Mbulelo Ndabeni – portray Tristan and Isolde’s inner emotions at key moments. This device is overused in opera productions today, yet here they contribute just enough, without interfering – and they are superb dancers. Isolde’s hapless husband, King Marke, is shadowed on stage by the bass clarinet in his monologue. The opera would not suffer without such tricks, but they are judiciously managed.

Rachel Nicholls, singing her first run as Isolde following her triumph as Brünnhilde in the Ring, offers a calm, centred, imperious interpretation; vocally she embraces all of the role’s challenges, from volume and precision through tonal colour to unflagging stamina. With time her performance is bound to deepen, but she sets her own bar high from the start.

As her Tristan, the dark, steely-centred and extrovert tenor tone of Peter Wedd proves an ideal match – indeed, he offers far more convincing acting and more beautiful singing than some one encounters in higher-profile venues. Presenting the anguish of Act III with such devastating intensity is no small feat.

The Norwegian bass Frode Olsen as King Marke is a further highlight; his artistry (including perhaps the evening’s finest diction) as Tristan’s betrayal cuts him deep makes this scene just as heart-breaking as Tristan and Isolde’s own.

Catherine Carby as Brangäne is a warm-toned foil to Nicholls’ bright Isolde; Stuart Pendred is a sympathetic Kurwenal; and the chorus of sailors pulls its weight. Some ragged edges around the actual playing of the orchestra and its off-stage horns are audible, but forgivable.

Two performances remain. Go.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Who?

The other day, into my in-box popped one of those press releases emblazoned with the portentous word EMBARGOED. This indicates something Very Important Is Happening, only we're not allowed to say - or such is the implication.

Turns out that the reason is that the recently released orchestral recording of The Who's Quadrophenia has been denied its rightful spot in the classical chart (at the very top) because it isn't actually classical music. The press release quotes composer Pete Townshend's fury at the snobbism of the classical world, as expressed on Twitter: “So musical snobbery in the “classical” elite is still alive & kicking then? F**k ’em. There’s a huge team behind this album, entirely rooted in the practical world of recorded classical music, who deserve better than this petty slap-down. I know I'm a rock dinosaur and I'm happy to be one, but the team on Classic Quadrophenia are all young, creative and brilliant.” – Pete Townshend  

So is a 'rock opera' a 'classical' opera or not? I once had a look at this issue for The Independent. It was ten years ago and the website has been revamped since then, unfortunately making it impossible to open the article. Therefore I'm re-running it below. My feelings about the negative impact of insisting on putting things in boxes haven't changed.

Incidentally, in the Olden Days, "music" in a newspaper review section meant what we now call "classical music", while other stuff was called "pop music". At some point - in the eighties? the nineties? not sure - the situation was reversed. This was the doing of the media, not of the art form. Recently Julian Lloyd Webber suggested that we should get rid of these labels once and for all, and I think he's right. As Korngold once said, music is music.

Meanwhile, the implications of not classifying orchestral Quadrophenia as classical music are potentially quite positive - depending on who has suggested this and why.

Let me explain. The Musicians Union pays different rates to orchestral players for classical recordings and for non-classical recordings.

If you are a rank-and-file member of an orchestra, the MU rate for a classical session of three hours' duration is £71.76.

For a non-classical recording of the same length, the same player would be paid £120.

It would therefore be a lot more expensive to record a big orchestra playing something that is not classified as classical music. And no doubt this contributes to certain classifications of certain stuff as classical when it is actually...something else.

The reverse might potentially apply in this case - which would be an admirable contrast.

Among my biggest regrets is having missed the 1960s. Not the fashions or the drugs, I hasten to add, but the music. Creative things were happening then that just didn’t apply during my teens in the unfortunate Eighties. When The Who released its double album Tommy in 1969, it coined a new concept of ‘rock opera’, following it up with Quadrophenia in 1973. Both were later made into feature films, but by then I was busy practising piano, violin, oboe and ballet, so I missed the lot. Therefore a new DVD set of The Who performing live – Tommy from 1989 and Quadrophenia from a 1996 tour of a specially adapted revival – is my first taste of Peter Townshend’s ‘rock operas’. They’re original, stirring, peculiarly irresistible. They’re certainly ‘rock’. But are they remotely ‘operatic’?

The New Grove Dictionary, musical academia’s Bible, gives the following definition of opera: “The generic term for musical dramatic works in which the actors sing some or all of their parts. Opera is a union of music, drama and spectacle …” Its most extreme manifestation is Wagner’s ideal, the gesamtkunstwerk – ‘complete art work’, combining music, drama and spectacle to the highest degree. More generally, when you go to an opera, you expect to see a good story and believable characters in, hopefully, a halfway decent production, with music that is appropriate, inspired, sophisticated and well performed. You hope to come out moved and uplifted.

A ‘purist’, of course, would have plenty of objections to calling Tommy and Quadrophenia ‘operas’. For a start, in most operas worth their salt, you find a variety of musical structures: dramatic scenas, choruses, love duets, reflective solo arias and ensembles where characters simultaneously express different viewpoints. The singers have to act, staying in their roles for the duration. But the majority of the songs in Tommy and Quadrophenia are simply songs. They progress, in Tommy, one after the other without speech; telling a story, but without the wide variety you’d expect in a ‘real’ opera.  In these staged versions, unlike the feature films, the members of the band aren’t in costume (given Roger Daltrey’s muscular good looks in 1996, that’s fine with me) and they convey a variety of different viewpoints as the stories unfold. The guest artists do adopt characters and costumes: in Tommy, Patti Labelle sings The Acid Queen, Billy Idol the bullying Cousin Kevin, and there are guest spots for Phil Collins and Elton John; Quadrophenia features Billy Idol as the Ace Face.

On the other hand, Townshend – who’d penned operas and studied orchestration, but didn’t expect The Who to perform such things – lets rip when opportunity allows. Tommy’s recurring plaint, “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”, is as raw and vulnerable as anything you’ll hear in Covent Garden, though probably not every singer could bring it off as convincingly as Daltrey. And Tommy’s overture is as fizzy and galvanising as any Rossini.

Opera traditionally deals with emotion on a grand scale – from Monteverdi’s chilling 16th-century vision of a Roman emperor and his mistress murdering their enemies in L’Incoronazione di Poppea, through Wagner’s depiction of the end of the world in Götterdammerung, and Verdi’s musical transformations of stories by Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. More operas flounder because of lousy libretti than for any other reason – huge chunks of Italian bel canto, French Romanticism and German Expressionism, not to mention works from the later 20th century, are rendered third-rate because of their hopeless stories. Timelessness, humanity and a well-constructed plot can count for much in an opera’s longevity.

Tommy and Quadrophenia both involve powerful emotions, springing from a shared underlying theme: the legacy of a generation’s wartime traumas upon its children. Unlike many operas other than Wagner’s, words and music originate (mainly) with the same creator. Tommy’s plot lets it down a bit, requiring major suspension of disbelief: a child witnesses the murder of his father by his mother’s lover, turns blind, deaf and dumb in consequence, becomes a pinball champion, then is cured by a smashed mirror and turns into a pseudo-Messiah who nonetheless remains alienated by the severity of his experience. Hmm.

Quadrophenia is more internalised: most of it takes place inside Jimmy’s muddled head. Yet this adolescent anti-hero’s spiritual journey involves emotions that run so high, with imagery so strong and archetypal, that Townshend borrows directly from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to depict a boat journey. Wagner writes about gods building Valhalla, Townshend about an alienated teenager running away to Brighton; yet their protagonists are tormented to the limits of their experience, whether through godhood or through drink and drugs. Wagner’s monumental power matches the myths behind his stories; Townshend’s rock soundworld fits Jimmy’s angry internal agony to perfection.

It’s in Quadrophenia that Townshend really crosses the great divide. The four different aspects of Jimmy’s mind are each represented by a leitmotif, a Wagnerian association of idea with musical theme, which join together at the climax when Jimmy is stranded alone on a rock in the sea and experiences his spiritual epiphany (“It’s difficult to make four leitmotifs work together,” comments Townshend on the DVD. “It’s easy if you’re Bach, or that bloke from Coldplay…”). In the original album, each member of the band represented a different part of the four-fold personality. Meanwhile, there’s a gesamtkunstwerk idea too: in this version, Jimmy’s narration is portrayed on film, images of the sea return constantly, and near the start a lengthy instrumental interlude accompanies a montage of newsreel footage, tracing the evolution of teenagers against a background of the Blitz, Churchill, Hiroshima, rationing and the Beatles. What’s more, Quadrophenia’s subject matter – growing up – is timeless.

In some ways, Quadrophenia is more successfully operatic than many ‘official’ operas of the same time, not least because it’s a sophisticated fusion of artforms, primarily well-wrought music, with something powerful to communicate. Townshend reached his audience by writing about alienation; but in the Seventies his classical contemporaries, experiencing alienation themselves, frequently forgot their audience altogether. Stockhausen’s operas (like Donnerstag aus Licht, 1978) are too naval-gazingly bizarre to expect much uptake. Michael Tippett, who wrote his own libretti, sometimes created psychological stories so convoluted that they can remain baffling even if you like the music. As for Harrison Birtwistle, there can be few figures in contemporary culture so showered with critical awards yet so unwelcomed by the general public. One could argue that opera is opera whether or not anyone goes to see it, and that the mere presence of an audience is certainly no assurance of artistic quality. But if the audience is alienated by both story and sounds, no opera, rock or otherwise, is likely to live for long.

The Who’s rock operas connect with a public wide enough to include classical music journalists. We were all teenagers once. We’ve been there too, even if we were practising three instruments at the time. And we love good music, well performed, whatever its genre. Tommy and Quadrophenia are as characteristic of their era as any opera by Mozart or Wagner; now, with our feet planted firmly in a new century, it seems they can also stand the test of time.

Labels can be deceptive; at worst, they stifle creative thought. Quadrophenia may not be a traditional opera, but it’s a bloody marvellous band performing terrific music that tells a strong story, blending song, drama and spectacle in a manner of its own. Moved? Exhilarated? Uplifted? You bet. Rock opera? Yeah. Why not?

Monday, June 08, 2015

Isolde rising

I just interviewed Rachel Nicholls, who's about to sing her first Isolde at the wonderful Longborough Festival Opera. Piece is in the Independent today. Director's cut below. She tells me how her local comprehensive school helped her rise to the top; why sheer persistence was the key to embracing the Wagner that's now her home territory after she started out in Baroque; and that she's actually married to Kurwenal.

The shining sonic arc of a soprano voice in full flight cuts through the air in a Tower Hamlets backstreet. The Cotswold-based Longborough Festival Opera team has come here to rehearse its new production of Tristan und Isolde, which opens on 12 June. Anthony Negus, Longborough’s expert Wagnerian music director, is conducting, ratcheting up the intensity; and in a sunny studio with seated cast and piano accompaniment, the sound is overwhelming as Isolde – Rachel Nicholls – lets rip. 

The British dramatic soprano is performing this marathon role for the first time, and it’s fitting that it should be at Longborough, where her rise to fame in Wagnerian spheres began. The country house opera, its theatre a converted former chicken shed, offered a complete, staged Ring cycle during the composer’s bicentenary year, 2013; Nicholls starred as Brünnhilde. Turning 40 this year, she is blessed with a bright-edged, flexible and voluminous voice that has an uplifting sense of release and freedom, combined with precision and control – a near-ideal mix. 

But Isolde, as Nicholls points out, is a huge challenge, with more music to sing than Brünnhilde has in all of her Ring operas put together. Isolde – the Irish princess who comes to Cornwall to marry King Marke, only to fall in love en route with his emissary, Tristan – experiences deep inner conflicts, which are often expressed intimately. “While bits of the role are as muscular as Brünnhilde, there’s more quiet singing, more passages of light and shade, which makes it more interesting to sing,” Nicholls says. “Probably there’s nothing in it that’s quite so much fun as the Ring, charging about with a spear – as Brünnhilde I got very good at swords, spears and battles. But Isolde’s language is subtler; it is all about feelings, rather than action.” 

Nicholls, a down-to-earth personality with ready sense of humour, cropped hair and sensible shoes, hails originally from Bedford. She attended a local comprehensive school whose excellent music department, together with the county’s free music provision, offered her ample opportunities to test her wings. “My school happened to be fabulous for music,” she says. “Quite a few of us have made fantastic careers in the music world thanks to our teacher there.” On Saturdays she attended Trinity College of Music’s junior department, learning the piano and the violin: “The county paid for me to go there and paid for my travel too.” Bedfordshire offered not only a county youth choir, in which she sang, but also a youth opera group for the 15-25s: “Every year it would put on a fully staged opera with orchestra. I joined it when I was 15 – and I knew straight away that that’s what I wanted to do.” 

But after taking a degree in languages, plus postgraduate study at the Royal College of Music, it was in baroque music that she began her singing career. Changing from its light, somewhat constrained purity of tone to the full-blooded dramatic soprano repertoire did follow the needs of her voice, she says, but it also required immense determination.

It all began at Longborough. She first arrived there to sing Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. “I loved it,” she says, “but at that point Wagner wasn’t really on my radar.” Longborough was planning its Ring cycle at the time, and Nicholls’s agent persuaded her to audition for a small role in Die Walküre. 

“I was totally seduced by the music,” says Nicholls. “My friend Lee Bisset was singing Sieglinde. I listened to her and thought: I want to be able to sing like that. And I listened to the role of Brünnhilde and realised that that was what I wanted to sing. I knew I had the necessary weight in the middle range of my voice, and that the soprano Alwyn Mellor wasn’t available for the role at that time, so I volunteered to do Götterdämmerung.” It was a huge leap – both of repertoire and of faith – but she would not be dissuaded. “People told me not to do it, but I persisted and nagged until eventually they gave in and let me.”

“I did wonder if I’d bitten off more than I could chew,” she admits, “but I prepared it thoroughly – and I had the chance to study with Anne Evans. That’s the thing that’s made the biggest difference to my life.” Evans was one of the preeminent sopranos of her day, especially celebrated for Wagner: “She can take me through every note and word and suggest different ways to think about it and the emotion behind it.” 

Taking the time to retrain her voice, Nicholls says, was a big risk – “My income went down by about 50 per cent” – and she needed both inner strength and moral support. Fortunately she had them. She and her husband, the baritone Andrew Slater – who sings Tristan’s friend Kurwenal at Longborough – live in the Peak District and, she says, help one another maintain a healthy perspective. “As a baritone, Andrew usually has to play a king, a murderer, or somebody’s dad – often mine!” she remarks. 

“Singing’s very important to us both, but it’s not the whole story. If you put all of yourself into whether or not people like you and your singing on stage – which is entirely subjective – it’s a recipe for disaster. Sometimes you’ll get horrible reviews, or maybe someone’s going to decide you look fat in your costume and they’ll say something mean. And if everything about you is poured into that little public space, you could end up a very unhappy person. 

“I’m lucky to live in Derbyshire,” she adds. “The job is stressful, the travelling is too, and the pressure is immense. My release is getting out for a run or a hike in the hills. Being outside keeps me sane.”

Tristan und Isolde, Longborough Festival Opera, from 12 June. Box office: 01451 830 292

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tchaikovsky, spades and stalkers...

I had a chat with director David Alden about The Queen of Spades at ENO for The Independent (opening night was yesterday). He revealed that Tchaikovsky was no stranger himself to the sort of stalking that Lisa experiences from Hermann...

Few operas can boast a libretto based on a literary masterpiece that is also a psychological thriller. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story, is the exception – and its gripping tale, focusing on a crazed anti-hero, presents a peach of a challenge for any opera company. English National Opera is about to stage its first production of the work in some 20 years with the American director David Alden at its helm. After his enduring success for ENO with Britten’s Peter Grimes, expectations run high.

The opera’s protagonist, Hermann, believes that if he can discover the secret of the “three cards” it will transform his life. He courts the unfortunate Lisa to gain access to her grandmother, an elderly Countess who guards the crucial gambling formula; tragedy ensues as his obsession spirals out of control.

“It’s not easy to stage,” Alden confirms. “It’s a very big piece, it’s quite a monstrous, gigantic panorama, and to keep refocusing it requires a difficult balance between its elements.”

Despite its scale and depth, The Queen of Spades is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, also based on Pushkin, which preceded it by a decade. No less compelling, though, are the driven, haunted qualities of his music for Hermann and Lisa and the care and delight with which he created Mozartian pastiche to evoke the Countess’s memories of the court of Catherine the Great.

The score’s special intensity, Alden points out, may have been turbo-charged by a frightening situation that would have led Tchaikovsky to identify with the confused and increasingly desperate Lisa. Some years earlier, the composer had married, most ill-advisedly, a young woman named Antonina Milyukova who had pursued him by letter. He was gay; she was mentally unstable; disaster ensued. “He had got her out of his life, but she returned and started to make trouble for him,” Alden says. “She flipped over something petty and started threatening to expose him. He fled to Italy in order to write this piece.”

Hermann is in love, at a distance, with Lisa; he pursues her like a stalker, uses her blatantly to access the Countess, and finally drives her to suicide. His obsession transfers to the old Countess and her secret of the three cards. “It’s very Freudian,” Alden suggests. “There’s a triangle of him and the two women, and it turns out the real erotic zinger of the opera is between him and the Countess: his horror of her, his desire for her and the cards.” The setting of St Petersburg becomes virtually a character in its own right, “an aristocratic milieu with decadence and corruption only just under the surface”.

It sounds all too contemporary – but the psychological element remains timeless and universal. “It is very non-literal,” Alden says, of his new production. “It’s a weird, beautiful, dreamy thing.”

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, from 6 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300