Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Keep calm and...listen to Barenboim

This is probably the most astonishing performance of Beethoven's 'Appassionata' Sonata that I've ever heard.

Barenboim writes about Brexit on the Journal page of his website:

"The vote in favor of Brexit is, in my view, a very sad decision for Great Britain and Europe. It is, however, senseless to bathe in pessimism and desperation as Brexit is now an unchangeable historical fact.
The best thing to do now is to analyze both the extremist and populist motivations behind the vote to leave, and the serious issues requiring improvement.
The construction of the EU is far from ideal. Europe consists of so many different peoples, cultures, and languages that the EU requires a much more substantial unifying idea than simply joint trade and a single currency.There are now two possible reactions:
To lament Brexit and watch extremist movements in other countries such as France and the Netherlands seeking to follow the example of Great Britain.
Or, to think about necessary improvements for the EU and to work together towards a true spirit of unity and collaboration, especially in finding a global solution for the refugee crisis and not an exclusively European one.
Nationalism is the opposite of true patriotism, and the further fostering of nationalist sentiment would be the worst case-scenario for us all. Instead, we need a unifying, European patriotism. In the spirit of Kennedy’s words, we need to ask not what Europe can do for us, but we can do to fortify, solidify and unify Europe."
Those words will probably be cold comfort for UK readers. It shows just how relevant we are to the big picture as seen the rest of the continent, i.e., not at all, except as a lesson to others.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Cold light

Absorbing what's just happened to my home country takes some doing. Remember, against the nearly 52 per cent of people who voted to leave the EU - many of them, tragically, on the basis of outright lies and deceptions peddled to them by the Leave camp, supported by the tabloids (and I don't know how this is even legal) - 48 per cent of us voted to stay. The gap was fewer than two million, in a country of some 60 million plus, many of whom didn't vote at all.

Anyway, in the cold light of day, what are the implications for the music industry? Well, where shall we start??

Several artists' management companies and opera houses have put out statements. Here is a hard-hitting one from Jasper Parrott, head of HarrisonParrott and one of the most strong-minded and experienced people in the business:

‘The result of the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union makes this a sombre and disheartening day for all of us.
‘Forged out of the bloodiest war in history after centuries of conflict and division, the European Union – however flawed it may be – has been at the heart of an international movement to share an enriching diversity of languages, cultures and aspirations, and celebrate the good of humanity.
‘The United Kingdom, one of the most active and successful laboratories for artistic and cultural pluralism, should remain true to this – one of history’s greatest projects.
‘We at HarrisonParrott are deeply committed to the idea that our business and our lives benefit immensely from the fact that our artists and our staff share such a diverse range of nationalities, languages and cultures, and we take great pride in the success of our open and internationally inclusive recruitment policy.
‘The referendum, in the considered opinion of many leading figures and commentators, was never really necessary – it was promised largely for party political purposes.
‘I believe government, in its it reckless decision to hold it, has failed us all in its primary duties of keeping us safe, protecting our welfare, and honouring our alliances and commitments. I fear this will go down in history as one of the great follies of vanity and opportunism.
‘The power of music and the arts is universal. It brings us all closer together in a creative and non-discriminatory way, which can only benefit society as a whole.
‘All of us involved in the Arts and Creative Industries must now do whatever is possible to heal these self-inflicted wounds.’

The classical music and opera world is incredibly international. Indeed, one of the weirdest things for me, watching all this unfold, is that it's barely two months ago that I went to the WIPO conference in Geneva when the contrast between territorially-based copyright laws and non-territorial, galloping technology that crosses all boundaries in a twink became abundantly clear - this is part of what is screwing the livelihoods of creatives, to put it bluntly. In such a globalised world, for the UK (or what's left of it, if Scotland goes independent) to imagine it can isolate itself and flourish by doing so is the silliest, least realistic idea imaginable.

Here are some of the most concerning issues. First:

• Money. 

The pound's value fell sharply and will probably be worth much less long-term.
-- This makes it more expensive for those in the UK to travel. So British artists earning fees on "the continent" will find their pay is worth more, but goes less far.
-- It could make it very difficult for UK promoters to afford to bring in foreign orchestras.
-- It's possible that our UK orchestras will be cheaper for the promoters overseas, so that may be a benefit. But the costs of transport and work permits/visas that currently aren't needed (assuming it turns out they do impose these) will be high and there'll be more admin involved so more costs associated with that.
-- Low pound and higher costs for imports will probably result in significant inflation, while possibly there'll be higher interest rates appearing too. Low pound is better for our exports, but we don't export very much, and of what we do, 40% goes to Europe... Inflation is a nightmare for anyone who's scratching around trying to make a living, which has already become more difficult for musicians and writers for other reasons.

So that means...
-- It may be harder to persuade people to sponsor orchestras, operas and concert series - and if the big City firms move to Frankfurt or Madrid, as they're already starting to consider, there will be fewer moneyed companies and high-earning individuals around to contribute to "Development".
-- Therefore, probably higher costs of tickets on an already squeezed audience.
-- We can manage on our own, the Leave camp assured us - ignoring the fact that the EU gives us hundreds of millions to spend on deprived areas (Cornwall and Yorkshire are already jittery about this, despite having voted to leave - pity they didn't think about that first) and on scientific research (which depends heavily on EU grants to fund crucial medical developments) and indeed on the Arts (try the Creative Europe programme, for a start). All that will simply evaporate, and the idea that our own government can replace it pound for pound is frankly laughable.
-- But also, because EU funds will not be there to help us, there will be more pressure on government funds. These will be hard hit because if the financial whizzes leave the country and so do all the hard-working, tax-paying EU immigrants, tax revenues will be seriously down. I've seen figures quoted today in significant billions.
-- So taxes will have to go up, hitting us all where it hurts. I can't imagine any alternative.
-- Austerity, austerity and more austerity, and more cuts and more cuts and more cuts, and the arts will be high in the firing line - not that they give the arts all that much now, but I won't be remotely surprised if government support for the arts simply vanishes, especially if we get a hard-right populist government led by some of the goons who have got us into this mess. Remember, Boris Johnson supported the skateboarders against the Southbank Centre redevelopment, which was a) nuts and b) fatal. Government funding has depended on the good will and appreciation of the arts among those in power. Say farewell to them, and London may also have to kiss goodbye to that dream of a new concert hall (all a bit quiet now about that, isn't it?).

Mark Pemberton of the Association of British Orchestras has warned of "challenges ahead" and writes:
‘Following the Referendum decision to leave the EU, the ABO is deeply concerned at the potential impact on its members.
‘The prospects for the nation’s public finances are worrying, and may affect the implementation of Orchestra Tax Relief, which has not as yet received Royal Assent, and lead to further reductions in public funding for the arts and local authorities.
‘We will need the new leadership of this country to give us guarantees as to continued freedom of movement across Europe’s borders for our orchestras, artists and orchestral musicians, and whether the many pan-European regulations that currently affect our sector, from VAT Cultural Exemption to harmonisation of radio spectrum, Noise at Work to the Digital Single Market, will still apply.
‘The worst outcome for our members will be additional uncertainty, bureaucracy and expense, allied to a worsening of their financial viability. The ABO’s next step is to work with whichever Ministers take responsibility from here on, to ensure the best possible outcome for our members.’

• Xenophobia

-- Our musical life is fabulously enriched by its internationalism. Musicians from the EU and beyond help to bring our orchestras, our chamber ensembles, our conservatories where they teach and study, to the level of the world's finest. London has the richest musical life of any city in Europe. All this will be in peril.
-- As part of the EU, UK nationals have the right to live, study and work in any European country. By leaving the EU, because part of the population thinks our problems are down to "foreigners" and want them not to come here any more, we are also shooting ourselves and especially our young people in the foot because we are forfeiting our own right to go to 27 other countries to live and work without being caught up in astronomical costs and a tangle of red tape. Conservatoire fees for Europeans here will be the same as they are for non-EU nationals, about £20k a year, and paying at the rates of non-EU students will most likely apply also to our youngsters wanting to study abroad.
-- It will be harder for European orchestras to justify employing British musicians, and a regulation headache for British ones to employ Europeans. This will affect, frightfully, career opportunities for the UK nationals and possibly the standards for our own orchestras.
-- I don't believe there is any reason to assume that EU musicians currently employed in British musical institutions will be chucked out, because all that will depend on the terms that are finally arranged; nothing is certain yet and currently we are still very much part of the EU, Cameron having not triggered Article 50, which starts the exit process; he has decided to leave it to his successor. We have to keep an eye on how negotiations pan out in due course. Things that happen there will do so several years down the line at the earliest; but the effects may begin sooner because some musicians will begin looking for opportunities elsewhere instead and may well not apply for UK courses and jobs for fear of what will transpire.
-- Did you know? Before the First World War foreign artists started to be banned in the UK. And before the Second World War regulations were brought in against foreign performers too, mainly targeting American dance bands.

-- All this comes from fear. But what frightens me is that the Out voters have fallen for what's probably the biggest con-trick in the history of Britain, pulled upon them by some of the most loathed politicians of today's administration including one who isn't even part of the government (Farage). Brexiting the EU will not solve any of the problems that frighten them. It will only make things more difficult for everybody (see "Money"). And when they realise that they've been had, and dragged the rest of us down with them, they'll be even angrier than they are now. The EU was the scapegoat, but it was the wrong scapegoat. It brought us innumerable advantages and all we have done is to throw them away for the sake of some kind of fictional notion of "sovereignty". When people realise the extent to which they've been duped, where will that anger go? Already there are reports of the British National Party bullying and harrassing Poles and Muslims in the east of England.

I've been writing a novel set in the 1930s and I'm beginning to feel I've stepped into it.


-- Music is a profound artistic force that crosses all boundaries and speaks from a place of universal human experience.

-- Whatever happens, we have to find a way to make the best of it. We mustn't let Britain descend into fascism - the one thing it has never, ever done. We're better than that, we're better than this rubbish that's being foisted on us and, as Hans Sachs suggests in Meistersinger, we have to hold fast to our arts as the one bastion of positive identity and strength that can hold fast through everything.

And finally:

Yesterday, my musical encounters saved me in the midst of all the horror. I spent the morning interviewing one of London's greatest musician residents, virtually sitting at his feet while he talked about music and demonstrated on the instrument. Then in the evening I went to hear Benjamin Grosvenor's recital at the Wigmore Hall. The programme included the Chopin Funeral March Sonata, appropriately enough - and his interpretation seemed to articulate for all of us the emotions and anguishes we were going through. The final movement was very fast, a daring evocation of a terrifying madness. Yet at the close of the concert, his Liszt Venezia e Napoli was huge and dazzling fun. Music can still bring us together and offer us catharsis and spiritual solace - if only for a while. We can rely on music when we can rely on nothing else.

Friday, June 24, 2016



Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn! Wohin ich forschend blick’ in Stadt und Weltchronik, den Grund mir aufzufinden, warum gar bis auf’s Blut,
die Leut’ sich quälen und schinden in unnütz toller Wuth?
Hat keiner Lohn noch Dank davon: in Flucht geschlagen,

wähnt er zu jagen:
hört nicht sien eigen Schmerzegekreisch, wenn er sich wühlt im eig’ne Fleisch, wähnt Lust sich zu erzeigen!
Wer giebt den Namen an?
‘Sist halt der alte Wahn,
ohn’ den nichts mag geschehen,
s’mag gehen oder stehen!
Stet’s wo im Lauf. Er schläft nur neue Kaft sich ah: gleich wacht er auf,
dann schaut, wer ihn bemeistern kann!...

Madness! Madness! Everywhere, madness! Whenever I look in the archives of the
city and of the world,
to look for the reason behind

why people strive to argue in useless results for this insanity?
What are they to gain from this:
in fits of struggle

they hunt for it
and do not hear their own pain
especially when it rips into their own flesh, joy’s own embrace!
Who can name it?
It’s simply the same old craziness,
without it ever happening
in spite of itself!
It pauses. And then with sleep acquires a new strength:
suddenly awakens
then who can become master of it?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


REMAIN is the only sane choice for anybody in today's ever-more-international arts world.

Don't forget to place your vote for the UK to REMAIN in the EU. Otherwise on Friday we become nothing more than a sunk island. (Reminder of some of the reasoning.)

Two Walks through the End of Time...

I've been rewriting A Walk through the End of Time, my two-hander play introducing the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time. It's needed doing for a while. Forever, really. But it is now nine years since I first wrote it and one thing that happens in real life that doesn't happen in books is that people get older; and sometimes that needs to be reflected in theatre pieces that are happening, supposedly, now.

The couple, Christine and Paul, are consequently nearly ten years older than they were, and if we're to accept that her father was of Messiaen's generation and she has grown-up kids, a few things needed a rethink. It's not only where Christine and Paul are in their own lives and those of her children that changes; one's priorities and attitudes do start to shift with the passing years. Things that seemed of all-consuming importance when you were in your twenties can start to look laughable with the benefit of hindsight. And of course, a little tightening up never did any script any harm.

So now A Walk is leaner, clearer, sharper (I hope). It's about six minutes shorter, depending on how the performers pace it. There are more jokes, but also more sense of the threat of loneliness in age. Old rituals are recalled, hair is shorter or gone, tastes have evolved. And some things haven't changed at all - but we can deal with them in new ways.

Tonight A Walk is at the Crossing Borders Festival in Brighton. 8pm at The Latest Bar, Manchester Street, Brighton BN2 1 TF, performed in a rehearsed reading by the excellent Brighton-based actors Beth Fitzgerald (Christine) and Michael Sheldon (Paul). The Messiaen Quartet will be heard in a concert tomorrow; the second half of tonight will be tunes from Best Foot Music. My immense thanks to festival director Siriol Hugh-Jones for including the play in a programme of artistic events of many hues that seek to cross borders, physical and mental, in every possible way.

On 24 July, A Walk goes to the Ryedale Festival in gorgeous Yorkshire, where words&music events are a big part of the programme. Here it will be at the Helmsley Arts Centre at 5pm and the Messiaen is in a concert the same night played by members of the Chilingirian Quartet with Ian Fountain (piano) and Andrew Marriner (clarinet). This time the reading of the play will be given by Dame Janet Suzman and Michael Pennington, two actors I have admired all my life. I'm deeply grateful to them for being able to take this on.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Civilisation is...Mozart's chamber music

The American academic and violist Edward Klorman, a professor at the Juilliard School in New York, has written a truly beautiful book about Mozart's chamber music, exploring the conversational exchanges the composer's writing seems to evoke and its lineage among Enlightenment ideals: Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (just out, from Cambridge University Press). It makes me realise how very far society seems to have fallen from such things, and how wonderful they are, and how we should start aspiring to them again, right now, this minute.

I've done an e-Q&A with Edward about his book. I hope you will love these ideas as much as I do.

JD: Your book Mozart’s Music of Friends examines the interplay within chamber ensembles using the metaphor of social interplay. How did you begin exploring this topic?

EK: During my studies at Juilliard, I had some opportunities to study chamber music with violinist Pamela Frank and pianist Robert Levin at various festivals. I remember vividly some of the images they invoked in their coachings. Pam would describe a violin singing a beautiful melody when the viola pokes in to interrupt or to tease. And Bob would point out how one instrument “changes the subject” from a serious fugue to something more light-hearted, or how another instrument introduces a certain accidental that urges the others to modulate to a particular key.

This way of treating each instrument like a character seems to be so intuitive to many performers, but it’s somehow not something most musical scholars tend to write. Perhaps this is because a player literally enacts just one of the instrumental parts, whereas a music analyst adopts an omniscient, outside vantage point. This book aims to bring the scholarly and performance perspectives together. By examining the historical and theoretical underpinnings of performers’ experiences of this repertoire, I’ve united two parts of my musical life.

JD: Could you explain the title Mozart’s Music of Friends?

EK: This lovely phrase is borrowed from a 1909 lecture by Richard Henry Walthew, a British composer and chamber music aficionado. Chamber music is fundamentally a music not just for friends but of friends. Its natural habitat is the drawing room, where it was played among friends in intimate settings, but even when it is played in large halls, the music reflects its sociable ethos
through the way the musical parts interact with one another. We become friends just be playing or listening to it together.

This is a traditional idea. A German preacher, who wrote an essay about string quartets in 1810, observed: “Those who ever drank together became friends [but] the quartet table will soon replace the pub table. A person cannot hate anyone with whom he has ever made music in earnest. Those who throughout a winter have united on their own initiative to play quartets will remain good friends for life.”

JD: It was Goethe who famously described Beethoven’s quartets as resembling a conversation among four sophisticated people. Was this his original idea?

EK: That Goethe quote is an oft-cited expression of that idea, but the comparison dates back to the 1760s, around when string quartets first became popular. And it makes a certain sense, since four instruments with similar timbres resemble the sound of four conversationalists.

Parisian quartet publications dating from this period often used the title “quatuors dialogués” — literally “dialogued quartets.” To compare chamber music to conversation was quite a compliment, since the Enlightenment regarded conversation to a highly refined art form. Whether a group of friends and familiars socializes through conversation or chamber music (or perhaps both at the same time!), the interest is on the witty exchanges and liveliness of the repartee.

A watercolour by Nicolaes Aartman showing this type of gathering

JD: How would you compare settings for chamber music performances in Mozart’s period vs. today?

EK: This is an interesting question, but a complicated one. To begin with the words “performed” and “concert”: These words are tricky in historical documents such as Mozart’s letters. The German word “Akademie” sometimes describes a public, subscription concert in a theater, but it can also refer to a private gathering in a salon in someone’s home, possibly with some listeners (“audience”) but just as likely with no one else present. In paintings and drawings from the period, you sometimes see what looks like a soirée or party setting, with guests chatting (and half listening) as the musicians play. The musicians were often arranged in a circle, playing inward toward the other musicians rather than directing their performance outward toward attentive listeners.

In a letter to his father, Mozart describes a four-hour-long “Akademie” he played at an inn where he was staying. The gathering lasted four hours, and Mozart played with a violinist he’d only just met that morning – and who turned out to be a rather lousy sight-reader. (“He was no good friend of the rests!” wrote Mozart.) The impression you get is that the guests at the inn were basically just socializing, while music was being played, rather than listening with full attention as a formal audience. As one of my musicologist colleagues nicely put it, music could simulate artful conversation, but in salon settings it also served to stimulate it.

JD: Tell us about the companion website for Mozart’s Music of Friends?

EK: The website (www.MozartsMusicOfFriends.com) is fun to explore either together with the book or as a standalone resource. There’s a large trove of paintings and drawings that give an idea what it might have felt like to attend these musical salons. And there are videos that allow you to hear the musical examples while watching explanatory animations. Appropriate for “the music of friends,” those videos include musical performances by a number of my close friends and colleagues, so it was a real treat to play together with them as part of the project.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Tumble points

I'm just back from a few days away for much-needed crashout. Before I left on Tuesday, I wrote this post for the Ghost Variations "shed", headed "Why this, why now?". It's about the relevance of the 1933-38 setting of the book to today; and how it brings together three matters poised together on the brink, tipping over from something that was fine if troubled to something tumbling towards illness, insanity and fascism, whether that is our heroine, or Schumann, or the world.

Forty-eight hours later, it was even more relevant than I'd thought. These are grim times in Britain, with the EU referendum having opened a Pandora's Box and unleashed monstrosities that run contrary to everything humanity at its best can and should stand for. Yesterday a Labour MP was shot and killed outside her constituency office by, allegedly, a mentally ill man with far-right associations. And next week's referendum could still be part of the beginning, not the end.

Monday, June 13, 2016

They can't take that away from us...

...to misquote Ira Gershwin.

I'm puzzled beyond puzzlement about the toxic idea that the EU is somehow putting British culture under threat and that we should gamble our economy, complete with everyone's livelihoods and kids' futures, in order to protect this oddly nebulous idea. As we've been in the EU for around four decades, perhaps we should have a look at those things that nobody has ever taken away from us, nor ever will (unless our currency plunges, our pay and pensions disappear and we can't afford anything more...which will only happen if we leave...).

Roses. Best of British, growing happily within the EU

Here's my Top 100 of British Culture, in no particular order other than putting Shakespeare first.

1. William Shakespeare
2. John Donne
3. Jane Austen
4. George Eliot
5. Henry Purcell
6. Orlando Gibbons
7. Ralph Vaughan Williams
8. Edward Elgar
9. Frederick Delius
10. The Wigmore Hall
11. Symphony Hall, Birmingham
12. Simon Rattle
13. Dame Myra Hess
14. Monty Python
15. Wimbledon
16. Lindisfarne
17. The Sage, Gateshead
18. The Peak District
19. John Keats
20. Charlotte Bronte
21. Emily Bronte
22. Glyndebourne
23. Hilary Mantel
24. Rose Tremain
25. Henry Moore
26. Turner
27. Gainsborough
28. The Beatles
29. Benjamin Britten
30. Aldeburgh
31. Kent apples
32. Scones & jam & cream
33. Sunday roast
34. Gilbert & Sullivan
35. The Isle of Eigg (well, they could take that away if we leave Europe & then Scotland leaves England as a result. But the Western Isles are among the most beautiful spots on this planet...)
36. DH Lawrence
37. Laurence Olivier
38. Mark Rylance
39. Dame Judi Dench
40. Helen Mirren
41. Colin Firth
42. The Goons
43. Just A Minute (sort of)
44. English spellings
45. Rose gardens like Regent's Park and Mottisfont Abbey
46. The boat race
47. Dartington
48. Tintagel
49. Tristan & Isolde being set in Cornwall
50. Fish & chips, which I used to like
51. The Southbank Centre
52. Trafalgar Square
53. The Kindertransport
54. Richmond Park
55. Roxanna Panufnik
56. Lincoln Cathedral
57. Errollyn Wallen
58. Stratford-upon-Avon
59. The RSC
60. The Royal Opera House
61. English National Opera...
62. Thomas Hardy
63. Pimms
64. The Two Ronnies
65. Dad's Army
66. Victoria Wood
67. Edward Gardner
68. Tasmin Little
69. Chandos Records
70. Hyperion Records
71. Wendy Cope
72. JK Rowling & Harry Potter
73. Lewis Carroll
74. AA Milne & Winnie-the-Pooh
75. Dodie Smith
76. Imogen Cooper
77. Paul Lewis
78. Hay-on-Wye
79. Salman Rushdie
80. Ian McEwan
81. Vikram Seth
82. The walk to Kingston along the river from Richmond
83. Edinburgh (+ see Isle of Eigg)
84. Anish Kapoor
85. Matthew Bourne's New Adventures
86. Judith Weir
87. The South Downs
88. York Minster
89. Durham Cathedral
90. Hampstead Heath
91. Thomas Adès
92. Michael Tippett
93. Jacqueline du Pré
94. Elderflower cordial
95. David Beckham
96. The Royal Ballet
97. Mary Shelley
98. Bram Stoker
99. Tough gun laws
100. The Channel Tunnel.

A reminder: NONE of this is "under threat" from the EU, nor ever has been, nor ever will be. British culture is flourishing quite happily within it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

A counter-tenor with a few big differences

Yaniv d'Or
Even now it's not every day that I fall lock stock and barrel-organ for something that can be broadly categorised as "early music" and isn't by Monteverdi or Bach. But Yaniv d'Or is a counter-tenor with a difference, and his new project Latino-Ladino, with his Ensemble NAYA and Barrocade, is based around traditional Sephardic songs and their legacy, extending forward as far as an incredibly beautiful new number by d'Or himself. It's got straight under my skin and I can't stop listening to the disc.

I had a wonderful interview with Yaniv the other day about how he got started, what a fight he had with various educational establishments in order to be able to sing the way he wanted to, and how he evolved this heartfelt project. Part of its driving force is about bringing people together – bridging cultural, religious and ethnic differences by finding our shared musical roots and transcending the lot.

Here's the piece (lead feature in this week's JC, out today) and below, an introduction from Yaniv himself about the project and a taster of the music. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

It's the first night of ENO's Tristan

[FRIDAY MORNING, 10 JUNE: OH DEAR. The trouble with writing previews is that sometimes the reality does not deliver. Warning: the value of investments can go down as well as up....

I'm leaving my original preview up here, but after seeing the performance I have to report that though it was many things, Gesamtkunstwerk it ain't.]

The last Tristan und Isolde I saw was Katherina Wagner's production at Bayreuth 2015. Interesting moments, striking designs, but by and large it was a disappointment. Firstly because there seemed no coherence between the three acts - the style of each was so different that a massive disconnect ensued. Secondly, and more importantly, it imposed on the opera a heap of stuff that simply isn't in it and ultimately subverted the whole point. King Marke is not a vicious dictator. It's not in his music or his words or the drama. And in this miserable vision's finale, he simply dragged Isolde away from the dead Tristan's bed and marched her off. Liebestod schmiebestod.

Having just seen a Manon Lescaut in Munich that didn't make much sense either until the final Kaufmann-Opolais act (which was stupendous), I started to wonder if I was going off Regietheater.

I love radical reinterpretations when they bring us new insights and "relevance" that is actually relevant to the opera as well as the supposed audience. Hats off to Calixto Bieito's The Force of Destiny at ENO, which just days ago won a South Bank Sky Arts Award. But when I talked to Iván Fischer a couple of months ago, I did begin to wonder if he was right: we need to start exploring a "third way" to present opera that does not alienate newcomers and fans alike, yet that also isn't stuck in some imaginary golden age of pretty dresses, painted backdrops and park-and-bark. Something, instead, that brings the music and the drama into one "integrated" whole.

So with Tristan and Isolde opening tonight at ENO - Daniel Kramer directing, Ed Gardner conducting, designs by Anish Kapoor and singers including Stuart Skelton, Heidi Melton, Karen Cargill and Matthew Rose - I wrote this little think-piece for the Indy about whether a refreshed take on Wagner's notion of Gesamtkunstwerk can help to save ENO. First, a foretaste of the love duet from rehearsals...

Tonight English National Opera opens a new production of Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner’s gigantic, groundbreaking hymn to love and Schopenhauerian philosophy. With designs by the artist Anish Kapoor, ENO’s ex-music director Edward Gardner conducting, direction by Daniel Kramer – the company’s artistic director elect – and a starry cast featuring the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan, it promises much. ENO, strapped for cash and mired in controversy, badly needs a smash hit, other than Sunset Boulevard; hopes ride high that this could be it.

Kramer has described the production as “a very poetical, mythical, simple world that Anish Kapoor and I have created to let the music and the singers just become gods”. This feels unusually close to Wagner’s own ideal. In 1849, the composer wrote a series of essays entitled The Artwork of the Future, expounding the idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk”: a complete art work, fusing together music, drama, design, dance and more, in which a fellowship of artists would work together towards one shared goal.

Today, though, this is radical in its own way. And here’s why.

ENO's image for Tristan
There’s a Facebook group called “Against Modern Opera Productions”. No, really, there is. It loves “beauty” and often pours vitriol upon “Regietheater”, the director-led concepts that have dominated European lyric stages for the past several decades. Some critics, academics and opera professionals watch its hatred with a fascination of horror. It feels reactionary; as if operas’ blood-and-guts tales of sex and violence can only succeed if prettified for some imagined 1950s golden age. Yet this group currently boasts well over 35,500 “likes”. That’s enough people to fill the beleagured London Coliseum for nearly a fortnight.

Is the operatic audience really in revolt against Regietheater? Recently the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer told me in an interview here that he was seeking ways to develop “organic, integrated opera performances”. In his view, the disconnect between staging and music that can result from focus on supposed originality in the former and on historical accuracy in the latter has run its course. It’s become a cliché and it’s time for a change.

When Regietheater is inspired and coherent, when it truly casts valuable new light on a familiar masterwork, there is nothing better. I admire and enjoy the finest of it. Yet reluctantly I’m starting to agree that the operatic sphere needs to find new types of approach less likely to put off newcomers and frustrate fans. Success stories seem to be thinner on the ground than duds and in certain territories audiences have started to vote with their feet. As for the singers, I once asked the tenor Joseph Calleja what the most outrageous thing is that a director has asked him to do on stage. His answer: “Singing the Duke of Mantua [in Verdi’s Rigoletto] wearing a monkey suit.” The production was set on the Planet of the Apes.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth Enrico Nawrath/© Bayreuther Festspiele
A couple of years ago I attended Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, the festival founded by the composer himself. It was staged as an opera-within-an-opera: a supposedly futuristic society putting on a show. The set was dominated by a huge processing machine glooping away throughout; the concept must have cost a pretty penny to design and produce, yet added to the opera…precisely nothing. Last year the same festival’s new Tristan und Isolde imposed a vicious, dictatorial character on King Marke that simply isn’t in the music or the drama. And the lovers had to sing their heavenly duet with their backs to the audience.

That festival appears still to be able to afford controversy, indeed to court it. But in the UK cash for opera companies is ever more difficult to come by and increasingly requires justification. If a new staging of a popular piece goes clunking to an early death, there’s a sense of tragic waste. Yes, artists and companies need space to fail. But that space is getting smaller every year.

Still, the Metropolitan Opera in New York has not been enjoying much success of late with supposedly safe, traditional productions. The current season is projected to reach only 66 per cent of potential box office revenue, its lowest ever. Some punters, and even some critics, would like ENO to stay safe and traditional too: middle-of-road productions of popular repertoire for middle-class audiences. But that’s not how London works these days, or New York. These audiences can mingle eager newbies with knowledgeable, cosmopolitan types; and none like to feel they’re being fobbed off with something predictable and second-rate any more than with something pretentious or incoherent. If opera houses want audiences, they have to find out how that audience functions now and what its needs are. These are not the same as the 1950s. They’re not even the same as the 2000s.

And so a radical readoption of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk principles might hold some answers, along with Fischer’s “integrated” approach. It’s possible to be wonderfully imaginative, sophisticated and stylish while working in harmony, rather than in a seeming struggle between inherently opposed ideals.

If Kramer can indeed bring ENO a strong, simple, transcendental Tristan, perhaps he can signal a way forward for the troubled company. Can Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk save ENO? It’s time to find out.

Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, London Coliseum, from 9 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Opera North's treasurable Ring: a guest review by Timothy Fancourt QC

Regrettably I haven't been able to attend Opera North's much-lauded Ring cycle myself, but a great friend and passionate Wagnerian Timothy Fancourt QC has, and he's offered us a guest review. Below, delighted to run it. JD
Orchestra of Opera North and conductor Richard Farnes in Leeds Town Hall. Photo: Clive Barda


 Following Ring cycles at the Proms (2014) and at Bayreuth (2015), this reviewer headed to Leeds Town Hall last week with no sense that anything inferior was about to be served up by Opera North. Indeed, after the egregious nonsense of the Bayreuth production, the simple, semi-staged and beautifully lit production of Peter Mumford was a revelation of how effective the drama in the Ring can be when the music is allowed to speak largely for itself. Wieland Wagner would have approved heartily.

The four operas have been built up by Opera North over the last four years and have received hugely commendatory reviews in the process. This year the Ring is presented as a full cycle, in the traditional format of a week with days off in between. It is of course a totally different experience: the musical language develops and mutates over three nights, so that by Götterdämmerung every note derives dramatic and musical resonance from the events in the 11 hours that have preceded it.  The same themes permeate the whole, but take on different colours and nuances as the story develops.  The demands made of the audience are considerable, but so are the rewards. 
The first word must go to the orchestra of Opera North and the conductor, Richard Farnes. The orchestral playing was of a very high quality, one or two minor lapses of concentration excepted. It is clear that the orchestra has benefited greatly from the incremental building up of the Ring over years, and the considerable technical demands of the music were met with aplomb throughout. What is also clear is that there is a huge commitment and level of enthusiasm about the project and the music. It is easy to see this when the orchestra is on stage, exposed to full view, but also in the corridors and on the steps of the Town Hall in the intervals, where cast, musicians and audience happily exchange thoughts and compliments. The majority of the orchestra was on stage 15 minutes before each opera started, and numerous players remained on stage after each lengthy act, practising for the one to follow.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge. Photo: Clive Barda
Mr Farnes’ conducting is a revelation too (to those who have not enjoyed it previously). In London it is easy to forget that other parts of the country boast conductors who really do understand Wagner’s music and have it in their blood. His conducting style is calm and his beat clear: no histrionics; no heaving and subsiding with the musical flow. In Das Rheingold, which overall was the least convincing performance, the music was sometimes a bit one-paced, without time to breathe on occasions, and without bite and zip when needed to lend colour to the black comedy being enacted on stage. The ensemble went awry for a while at the start of Scene 4, where the vocal lines and the orchestral commentary are at their most complex. But the difficulty of conducting with one’s back to the actors/singers must be considerable, and overall Mr Farnes achieved a wonderful sound and cohesion. A special mention for Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, whose Loge was beautifully judged and acted, a personification of flickering fire, volatility, insecurity and cunning.

In Die Walküre, the orchestral sound blossomed fully and the effect was powerful and beautiful in equal measure. Some lovely moments in the woodwind in the middle section of Act 2 (and later in Act 2 of Siegfried) will stay long in the memory. Leeds had a Siegmund (Michael Weinius) and Sieglinde (Lee Bisset) to relish, and each acted with great delicacy of expression and movement and sang to a very high standard. Indeed, one had to pinch oneself to remember that all this was being presented in Leeds Town Hall and not in the Metropolitan Opera. Reginald Goodall used to say, with only a hint of irony, that he was not sure that he had really mastered the end of Act 3 of Die Walküre.  I have never heard it more perfectly judged and played than here: the beauty and colour of the music deliciously set off by the shocking personal tragedy happening on stage, for which equal credit is due to Kelly Cae Hogan (Brünnhilde) and Robert Hayward (Wotan). Ms Hogan sang wonderfully well: she is confident, technically secure, acts well, and produces a beautiful but well structured sound. 

Siegfried is sometimes regarded as the weak link in the cycle. Not here. The orchestral playing was nothing short of superb throughout, with Mr Farnes finding space and colour for all the subtleties of the music. A great deal depends on the eponymous hero, of course, and Leeds was very lucky to have a recently-engaged Lars Cleveman, who sang to a very high standard, with lovely bright tones, clear diction, faultless intonation and considerable reserves of energy. His voice was well contrasted by the character tenor of Richard Roberts (Mime), whose acting skills were deployed to memorable effect as the evil, scheming dwarf. The musical high at the start of Act 3, with Wotan, Erda and Siegfried, suffered something of a fall when a different Brünnhilde was kissed awake. Ms Broderick unfortunately fell short of the very high standards of the rest of the cast and the musical intensity was lost, which was a great shame. (Ms Hogan will sing throughout in London.)

Götterdämmerung is and was the pinnacle of the cycle. A different Siegfried was with us, Mati Turi, who, while not reaching that heights that Mr Cleveman reached, let no one down, despite some dryness and lack of colour at the top of his range. The show was once again stolen by the orchestral playing and by Ms Hogan, whose scene with Waltraute (Susan Bickley) in Act 1 was exquisitely performed, a telling portrayal of human characters who were once godlike and close but who now live in different worlds and no longer speak the same language. A very well sung Gunther (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Gutrune (Giselle Allen) contributed to the awful denouement, manipulated almost to the point of success by the Hagen of Mats Almgren. Mr Almgren, with resonant deep bass voice and German pronunciation that seems to emanate from some primordial middle earth, had been a fearsome Fafner and was no less fearsome in this opera, bringing off a superbly chilling Rhine watch scene in Act 1 and the Siegfried’s Ende trio with Gunther and Brünnhilde at the end of Act 2. No one doubted that Ms Hogan would steal the show at the end, which she did, unforgettably.

So palmes d’or for the orchestra, Mr Farnes and Ms Hogan, and one other character who I have not mentioned so far, but who appears throughout the cycle. The anti-hero Alberich, who is cruelly abused by the gods and then disdained and dismissed by his son, who for the merely human misjudgement of preferring wealth to love sets the whole disaster in motion and is condemned to misery. It is a wonderfully ambiguous part, and in Das Rheingold has some of the best musical lines; here it was sung to perfection by Jo Pohlheim, whose lovely bass-baritone easily captured the true character of the villain-victim.

For those who missed it in Leeds, it is touring Nottingham, Salford, London and Gateshead. London sold out its cycle in May last year, within days of going on sale, such is the renown of this Opera North production and the dearth of Ring productions in the capital. For those lucky enough to have a ticket, this really is a Ring to treasure. 
Timothy Fancourt