Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

This man will take your life



His name is Richard Wagner, and if you let him, that's what he'll do. Of course, you mightn't show him in through the door in the first place, but otherwise, what's likely to happen is set out below. The things to remember are that a) the work is not the man, and vice-versa, and b) the more effort you put into something, the more rewarding it will be. One suspects he knew that – and knew exactly what he was doing in demanding such commitment from his fans. I just went to the whole Ring, in a manner of speaking, mostly by mistake, and the Ring leaves you wrung. But I'd go all over again tomorrow if I could. How, then, does this happen?

First of all, you realise that Wagner was probably the most influential composer of any born in the 19th century, with the biggest, most lasting impact on musical history ever since – a quality he shares only with Bach, Beethoven and Stravinsky's 'The Rite of Spring'. So you start investigating. What on earth is so special about Richard Wagner?

HELP! It's Die Walküre at Covent Garden...John Lundgren as Wotan
 © 2012 Royal Opera House / Clive Barda
Then you go and hear some. And you get it. If it's Die Walküre, in particular, you get it completely. Wagner doesn't just write music. He manipulates your entire consciousness of time, of intensity, of more. He leaves you wandering through your world wondering where the heck you are and what just happened to you. Twenty years later, you still have no idea how he does it.

So you go and hear some more. This stuff costs and it doesn't come around all that often, so when it's there, you raid your savings and go running. But so does everyone else, so you have to be quick and organised and you might spend a long time in an online box-office queue or 'ninja-ing' returns by hitting the 'refresh' button on the right page every hour for a week.

There might be one opera with which you have a bad experience early on. Perhaps you once went to a third-rate performance with indifferent singers and a oboe with a cold in a very uncomfortable theatre with no surtitles and it left you loath to try it again. Then, finally, you do try again and you realise it's actually the greatest thing in the history of the world [btw, it is called Parsifal] and you have to go and hear it every single time it is on, because everything is good after that first one.

By now you're getting the hang of who the top Wagner singers are and you want to hear them, or you find there are directors who are doing particularly interesting work whose productions you want to see, or conductors who have a special way with the scores - so you might start travelling. You find out where they are and what they're doing, then fork out for opera tickets overseas (which may be more reasonably priced than your local), but then you also have to fork out for the plane, somewhere to stay and things to eat. It'll be worth it, you tell yourself. It will be an experience I'll never forget. Possibly it is - so you do it all over again.

And then you start spotting the rising stars: you get to recognise a voice that's going places and you want to hear him/her on the up, having the 'Sternestunde', so you book ahead to catch them in their first really big Wagner role, and then you realise it's going to mean travelling through Heathrow on 30 March 2019, the day after f***ing Brexit. (Seriously. I have just got into this situation.)

Bayreuth Festival Theatre
Speaking of travelling, there's one big problem with Wagner and it's called Bayreuth. The man built his own theatre for his own music, and if you have serious intentions of becoming a Wagnerite, you need to go and experience it. Bayreuth is a hike. Either you get Ryanair to Nuremberg (Ryanair is a demand too far for many of us) or you fly to Munich and take a few trains, and this is assuming you are able to get tickets by hook or crook in the first place. Again, air tickets, hotel, food...it all adds up. There you sit in the theatre and soak up the sound and you realise what it's all about, and then you probably have to keep your eyes closed because of the frightful productions, unless you're seeing Barrie Kosky's Meistersinger which is totally brilliant.

But once you've done that, you have to do it again, because it really is special, and then you realise there's one thing you haven't yet done. You haven't seen The Ring at Bayreuth.

You might think you don't need the whole Ring. It might come to your own town and you don't even bother booking, because it's a massive commitment of time and energy and is it really worth it? But then it comes around and a friend unexpectedly invites you to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold and it is bloody wonderful, so you try to get into Walküre and you can't, so you go to the cinema relay and it is so bloody wonderful that you spend the next two days ninja-ing returns for Siegfried and, because you've got into that one, you have to try to get into Götterdämmerung too, and the only seat that comes up that's affordable is in the lower slips, so you spend its six and a half hours craning forward from the hips with your neck on a 45-degree twist and you spend the rest of the week untwisting again, while glorying in the fact that actually you experienced the best sound in the entire opera house, and the question "who would ever design a theatre where such a large number of seats have a lousy view?" fades into irrelevance while you look up books and websites at which you can swot exactly which leitmotif means what, because you've twigged many of them, but there are plenty more...

The theatre at Bayreuth is not like that. There isn't a lousy view in the house. It's basically designed by a composer, not a socialite, so he wants you to look at the opera, not the people in the box opposite. So now you have to have the ultimate Wagner experience: you have to see The Ring at Bayreuth.

That's 4 operas, about €300 per ticket, and there are possibly two of you, and you have to be there for at least a week, and you need somewhere to stay, and they no longer let you take cushions into the auditorium (oy!) and there is no guarantee whatsoever that the production will be bearable, or that the singers you're hoping to hear will show up, but you want to go anyway. You spot a big birthday a few years down the line and you circle it in mental red pen. This shall be the year you do it...

Except goodness knows what the tickets will cost and what our hopeless pound will be worth by then. We might be trapped on Brexit island unable ever to leave. We might be dead, either because they can't get medicine into the country any more, or because we've been killed in the resulting civil war.

And you know something? That only makes the acquisition of tickets for Bayreuth even more urgent! We have to do this while we're alive and while we have the opportunity. Whatever it takes.

And that is how Wagner will take your life. Over and out.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ten things to learn from Das Rheingold in Brexit Island


The Ring cycle is about to begin at Covent Garden, and yesterday a friend kindly invited me to the dress rehearsal of Das Rheingold. Operas that feel pertinent to the world at large are rare animals in this stressed-out era, but the timeless issues that percolate through Wagner's two-hours-40-mins-no-break prelude couldn't be more relevant if they tried, despite concerning gods, giants, Nibelungs, Rhinemaidens, shape-shifting and a cursed ring, and Keith Warner's production makes much of this. So here are ten things our Brexity politicians (some of whom are known to adore Wagner) can learn from it.

Bloodied, worried and clinging to power: Bryn Terfel as Wotan in 2012
Photo: Clive Barda/ROH
1. Do not piss off giants. They are bigger than you and they can take hostages. You are overestimating your own power.

2. Do not break your promises. It's called cheating. Giants don't appreciate it, especially when they've given you a massive contribution to your world in good faith, building you a nice new palace and all.

3. So (see 2), don't go into an agreement with the express intention of reneging on the deal afterwards.

4. We are who we are through treaties and agreements. (This line is in the libretto and appears in large letters on the subtitle screen.) Don't ever forget it. Everything in our lives is underpinned by legal documents, treaties and agreements - from certificates for birth, marriage and even death to, er, who runs the railways. Lose the treaties and agreements and nothing works any more.

5. When diplomacy isn't working, because you're not a very good diplomat (see 1-4), you need to think creatively. Say a Nibelung has the ring of power and is causing havoc and sadism in the underworld: how are you going to outwit him? You might need help. Be careful who you choose for this exercise: make sure it is the cleverest person in your gang (not the bloody joker) and one whom everyone knows not to mess with, because it would be playing with fire.

6. Never under-write the roles of your under-goddesses. You may find that your very best contributor to your project only has a bit-part. If all you do with her is put her up for kidnap by the giants, you are guilty of sexist negligence. Think of everything she could do if given the chance.

7. What the heck are you doing putting your wife's sister up for ransom anyway? Especially when none of you can survive without the food she grows. Think things through properly before making rash moves.

8. Beware of the dragon. It's a humdinger. You need a real Heldentenor to deal with it, and you don't currently have one. So don't provoke it.

9. Love is more important than power. If you stop caring about people for the sake of building up your own wealth, it's going to end badly. Never forget: today's dragon is tomorrow's kidnapped toad.

10. A giant will not balk at killing his brother for the ring of power. And the one doing the murdering will probably be the one in the top hat.

Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. 

The first cycle opens on Monday 24 September and for Das Rheingold the cast includes John Lundgren as Wotan, Johannes Martin Kränzle as Alberich, Sarah Connolly as Fricka, Alan Oke as Loge, Lise Davidsen as Freya, Günther Groissböck as Fasolt and Brindley Sherrratt as Fafner. Tony Pappano conducts. http://www.roh.org.uk/about/the-ring

Monday, June 18, 2018

Secrets, lies and Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Who is the Mamzer Bastard?

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

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

Friday, May 25, 2018

Some real lessons in love and violence


Barbara Hannigan as Isabel, Stéphane Degout as The King, Gyula Orendt as Gaveston
Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

There has been a great deal of fuss this week, courtesy of questionable decisions at the Philadelphia Orchestra, about 'respecting the sanctity of the concert hall' (Read Philip Gentry's piece here.) Just the tired old standard defence against anyone objecting to decisions made by performers/managers that are...questionable – designed simply to silence those who disagree. It's saddening to see Yannick say 'Musicians are not men and women of words', as most of the ones I know bloody well are.

My latest evening at the Royal Opera House has left me wondering why anyone would consider there's anything resembling 'sanctity' in any performance house – I won't say 'any more' because it probably was never there.

Last night I went with a friend to see the new George Benjamin opera Lessons in Love and Violence. We sat in the amphitheatre - clear overview, great sound. It's also rather hot and airless and the seats, though 20th-century, are designed for 19th rather than 21st-century people, so you're very up-close-and-personal with your neighbours. None of this encourages an atmosphere of 'sanctity'.

Five minutes before curtain up, we were reading Martin Crimp's synopsis, wondering how far the opera relates to Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, when the couple to my right started having a massive row, fighting over some conversation that must have taken place just beforehand. When one voice was raised, the other shushed, which was a pity because it was getting interesting. He was demanding that she take something back and that they never discuss it again. She wasn't having any. Eventually he said, "We should just go". She didn't want to just go. She wanted to hear the opera. Then the lights went down, at which point the man shoved the woman's cardigan - which he'd gallantly been holding - back onto her lap, then went clambering over everyone's knees to the exit, just as the music began. What followed on stage was not exactly the thing to see or hear when you're having a bust-up of this magnitude, so one could hardly blame her for following suit at the halfway pause. At such moments, one can well understand, a house of performance is not a place of sanctity. It's a trap.

Then, about half an hour in, the couple on my companion's left started having a massive row too. She was checking her phone. He was telling her she shouldn't. He was right. She responded by becoming awfully upset. Tissues were produced. Maybe she didn't realise the performance house was a place of sanctity where you shouldn't get out your mobile. Did you know: If your light goes on, the whole theatre can see you and point, including the people performing, if they're so minded? This, of course, is nothing new. Most performances these days are liberally sprinkled with the tears of those who can't stay off their phones for two minutes, let alone 85.

Sanctity shmanctity.

What of the opera? It is wonderfully written: imaginative, concise, focused, clear. You could hear every word. The orchestration is magical, lit with fresh and inventive percussive effects and flickers of woodwind and brass. The pacing is varied, surprising, masterly: the most memorable section possibly the death scene, in which the King "experiences death" in absolute stillness and rapt quiet. There is no red-hot poker. The performers - Stéphane Degout as The King, Barbara Hannigan as Isabel and a magnificent line-up supporting - could not have been better. And yet there was startlingly little about the action that could make us begin to be interested in what was going on, and the staging, directed by Katie Mitchell (whom I usually admire) with designs by Vicki Mortimer, seemed stylised and confusing: a giant bed faced by rows of empty chairs, people trooping in and out even without much to do, and some soothing tanks of tropical fish.

If someone decides to create an opera out of Marlowe's Edward II, fine - but this adaptation fell somewhat short. Isabel becomes a one-dimensional figure despite Hannigan's best efforts: pure opera-woman cliché, a devious being with frustrated sexual appetite and characterless children. Contemporary sideswipes - issues over playing music while the country falls apart, or Trumpy-style references to "Dead Man Mortimer" which called to mind "Crooked Hillary" - feel slightly incongruous and unnecessary, especially as there wasn't one lead character anyone could reasonably relate to. Except I do want to know what happened to Felicity the Cat (brought in in a scarily familiar-looking carrier-box), whose deluded owner is brutally murdered: perhaps she got to eat some of the fish later... On the whole, admirable though the score is, I regret to say I'm with the critic who remarked that he was quite pleased to exit at the end in search of a burrito.

The true drama was in the audience – along with the real lessons in love and violence. All the world's a stage.


Saturday, December 02, 2017

Doing Papageno, Prospero, Pelléas and Pagliacci proud

I've spent part of this week on tenterhooks, chasing one of the best-loved of all British baritones for an urgent interview deadline. He's appearing as Tonio in I Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House, opening tonight - and something had happened to his arm. But finally 9am Thursday arrived and there on the line was...


Simon Keenlyside
Photo from classical-music.com

...and we had the most fascinating chat. Most of the interview will appear in the magazine of the Musikverein in Vienna, auf Deutsch, but some of it is for right here, right now.


JD: Simon, thank you so much for making time to talk. I heard you've had an arm operation. What happened?


Simon Keenlyside: I fell through a trap door 12 years ago and shattered both arms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The ligaments that hold the bones on had gone. It’s only been the muscles holding it on and one by one they got tired and snapped off - left arm triceps, left arm biceps and I’m sure this is the last one. It usually takes a year to get it back, and in that time I’ve overcompensated with the right arm and it just snaps. 


But you know, in the light of lovely Dima Hvorostovsky passing away, I keep things in perspective. It’s very annoying, I can’t sleep and the pain is big, but it’s just an arm injury, it’s just mechanics. 


Something about people, not just singers: as Dima got older, he got nicer and nicer. He was such a nice man, such a kind man, never mind his wonderful talent. And he had two young children...


JD: Now that the operation's done, how are you enjoying Pagliacci?


SK: Oh, I love it! That aria’s my favourite in the whole baritone repertoire. I think it’s wonderful and beautiful - and actually I love this opera deeply. I used to feel quite offended that wonderful maestri like Muti and Abbado used to consider it "cheap" music. I don’t agree at all, I think it’s a great, great piece. The baritone aria, if you peruse the words, couldn’t be more of a credo for any of us. I just love it. And right now, when my arm is so painful, it upsets me quite a lot because it’s so in keeping with what I’m singing about. Life reflecting art reflecting life reflecting art, chicken and egg in a nutshell. 








JD: You're extraordinarily versatile - you seem to have done everything from Papageno to Pagliacci to Prospero - and that must mean being versatile about productions too. [The ROH's 1950s-realism Cav and Pag production by Damiano Michieletto won an Olivier Award, but hasn't been universally adored - the revival, starting tonight, gives us a chance for another look...] Do you have a preference for modern productions or traditional ones?

SK: Well, I think it would be a mistake to set Pelléas et Mélisande in the baroque period - and I don’t like Figaro set after 1930 - because by and large you lose the whole discussion about rights, responsibility and class. The points that are made are about general humanity, but are made through issues of class, and that is lost. If there’s no distinction in class between the Count and Figaro or Don Giovanni, Don Ottavio and Leporello, or what they consider the ordinary people, the servants, Susanna and Figaro, then you can’t make the point. I think that makes it very difficult. It just becomes a toe-tapping evening with nice tunes. 


On the other hand, I’m thrilled to bits when we dispense with the need for Masonic symbolism in The Magic Flute. It’s a distraction. The closed world of the Masons can just as easily be represented, to my mind, by the closed world of, say, banking, or anything that shows a world or society that one man, Papageno, doesn’t want and his friend, Tamino, does want. It represents something - if you get hung up on what a set of compasses represents I think you’ve missed the point. 


Sometimes getting into a diffeernt time period can make it more difficult, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that if you dislike something so much that it makes you miserable, then resign and go home! And if you are going to stay, then please don’t stay and moan the whole time. Help, as far as possible, the director to realise what he/she wants to do. The piece, guess what, will live to fight another day and you’ll get to do your thing another time. And occasionally a little nugget of interest will present itself to you and you can add it to your toy-box of your life’s experience in that role. It’s really interesting. Sometimes it comes from the most unexpected of quarters.


JD: Could you give us an example, please?


SK: Truths for performing artists often reveal themselves viscerally rather than intellectually. For instance, in Flutewe know "in vino veritas" and we know that when the young man [Papageno] is told by the Priest that he’s failed, he’s failed in everything, and he rounds on the Priest and says "But I don’t want anything, I never asked you for anything, all I wanted was a glass of wine and maybe a nice girl. That’s all I wanted!’ and the Priest says ‘That’s really all you ever wanted?’ - in frustration the young man says, "Well, yes, actually." Then he gets his wine, he drinks it and says "wow, wonderful, beautiful, fantastic..." And he says "I wish…I want…what is it that I want?" 


And if you get the timing right as the singer, you will see in the audience a lot of shiny bums on seats shuffling uncomfortably. You will see elbows being nudged into, usually, old men’s sides; you can see the winks and nudges and looks to one another; and as if that wasn’t already rather lovely, you then get ten notes from a man who could have written any melody under the sun, ten notes that are as close to the Marseillaise as we know it now as any notes could be. And if you look at the original scores, which I have, there aren’t even the embellishments. The Marseillaise itself would not have been embellished with its syncopation as it is now, and it was written only shortly before Flute anyway as the European anthem for freedom. 


So I think what Mozart is saying, and I’m certain in this belief in my little truth, he’s saying ‘What is it you want?’. Given Mozart and da Ponte’s whole operatic discourse on freedoms and liberties in Figaro, Giovanni and Così, I think Flute you’d put in the same boat. What is it you want? And there comes the melody from the least threatening instrument imaginable, the glockenspiel, saying again and again: freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom. But not the freedoms of the da Ponte operas. The freedom to be that which you want to be, but at nobody else’s expense. That’s a long-winded answer to your question - but that’s the truth I believe was revealed to me through hundreds of outings. 


The Royal Opera House's Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci opens tonight. Booking here. 



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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Michael Volle: How to keep your head in opera


Even if his characters sometimes lose their heads, the powerhouse German baritone Michael Volle has no intention of imitating them. You'll find he has strong shoulders, feet firmly on the ground and a velvet-lined juggernaut of a voice. I was lucky enough to hear him sing Hans Sachs in Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer, and this season he is back at the Royal Opera House to sing Guy de Montfort in Verdi's Les vêpres sicilienne and, later, Jokanaan in Strauss's Salome. My interview with him earlier this year originally appeared in the Royal Opera House Magazine and I'm rerunning it below with their kind permission.



Volle as Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Michael Volle is very proud of his head. The one in the cupboard, that is. “Since 2008 in each Salome performance here, my head is used,” he declares, “because I did the first run with David McVicar.” When Strauss’s searing masterpiece is revived at the Royal Opera House later this season, Volle can reclaim his model cranium: he returns as Jokanaan, aka St John the Baptist, whose decapitation is the febrile princess’s revenge for her failure to seduce him.

For the leonine German baritone, 57, Jokanaan offers a challenge through sheer intensity. “In Strauss’s big, big lines, everything must be perfect. And you must be a prophet,” he says. “I would never have been able in the early years to sing Jokanaan, or the big Wagner roles: you need the experience, you need the breadth, you need to have been on stage playing a very strange character. He is in his madness, he is confronted with this strange young lady and her demands and he loses his security. It’s not a long role, but a very strong: you stay like a rock, but then it takes your energy, the fight with the unknown planet of this young woman.”

Jokanaan, the Flying Dutchman, Hans Sachs, Wotan: the roles that Volle sings are often larger than life, each in its own way, and Volle himself is a gigantic personality, somewhat resembling an imposing yet genial German version of Jack Nicholson. His voice, with its vast capabilities in both quality and magnitude, reflects that strength of presence, yet can also be as meltingly beautiful as it is dramatic. Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini could eat up all his time. Yet his lasting inspiration is something very different: Bach and Mozart.

BACH TO THE FUTURE

The youngest of eight children of a priest, Volle grew up in Baden-Württemberg, near Stuttgart, steeped in first-rate church music. “In Stuttgart you could visit on one day six or seven church services with six or seven Bach cantatas, because it was part of religious life,” he recalls.

Because of that background, he insists, he cannot do without Mozart and Bach: “But the crazy thing is, nobody offers me Bach any more.” The expectation, he grumbles, is that a Wagner and Strauss voice cannot possibly suit those composers. “It’s ridiculous!” he expostulates. “I’m so fortunate that I did recently with the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin the three bass solo cantatas of Bach and we recorded them in concert. I do a lot of Bach because I need it. No Christmas time without a Christmas Oratorio; no Easter without a Passion.”

As for Mozart, he remarks with satisfaction that following a Wagner rescheduling last winter, he found he had the chance to sing one of his favourite roles, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, in Paris, with his wife, Gabriela Scherer, also in the cast as the First Lady. “What could be better than that?” he beams.


Perhaps having half a million Youtube views could run a close second? Last year Volle was invited by an ear, nose and throat specialist in Stuttgart to be filmed singing inside an MRI scanner, which duly captured astounding images of the physical mechanism of singing. The video went viral (see above). “I don’t do social media, so I knew nothing about it,” he says. “Then my wife told me I’d become an internet sensation.” Wasn’t that a little alarming? “I would not get a job from the way I sang in that video,” he laughs, “but it was fun.”

It’s often said that Volle has had a “slow burn” career, a phrase which also makes him laugh, but is not far off the mark. “Boys always develop more slowly than girls!” he quips. “I only started to study aged 25 and in 1990 I had my first opera contract. I was on fire, wondering why some other people got roles... But 27 years later, I’m very happy it took all that time, because I had the chance to develop and grow up. I believe somehow in a ‘plan’ for your life – fate, if you like. For me it was perfect, because I was never forced to do anything that could have killed my voice. I was able to grow with the right parts at the right time, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As Montfort, with Bryan Hymel as Henri
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Covent Garden audiences might be forgiven for thinking, though, that Volle specialises in characters whose fate is distinctly darker: not least, he is reprising the role of Guy de Montfort in the forthcoming revival of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes. The opera begins with Montfort as a soldier raping a dancer, who then bears his child – the opera’s hero, Henri. Later, as governor of Sicily, Montfort longs for his grown-up son to accept him, but ultimately he, along with the French occupiers of the island, comes to a sticky end.

"THIS IS AN INCREDIBLE PROFESSION"

As Montfort
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Montfort might not seem the easiest character to identify with, but one vital element of the role was uppermost in Volle’s mind when Stefan Herheim’s production was premiered in 2013. “My fourth child was born in 2012,” he says, “so I was very involved in being a father. This is a central conflict in Vêpres, between Montfort the elder statesman and Montfort the father. He wants to be a good father and he meets his child, who rejects him: this big scene at the end of the first act is very intense.

“I am happy that for the past 20-25 years opera singers have had to be actors too,” Volle adds. It so happens that his brother is an actor: “He says often that if you feel close to a role, it must touch you in some inward way. This is the gift of being an acting singer, or a singing actor: you can try to be somebody else, something quite different from your private life you are paid for it, and you can sing!” Volle gives a giant bellow of laughter: “This is an incredible profession – I love it.”

FIVE AT ONE BLOW

This summer one summit of Volle’s repertoire approached in a special form: he sang Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Barrie Kosky’s new production for Bayreuth [our interview took place before this, in the spring]. “For me Sachs is the one and only role that is above everything,” he says. “The singing is so difficult – but it is so wonderful, because you have not only to sing five characters, but to act them too. Sachs is the wise man, the jealous man, the artist, the shoemaker, the mastersinger, and this is incredible.” He was looking forward to working with Barrie Kosky for the first time, too: “He has incredibly good ideas and I think we will have a great time.” [Author's note: looked good to me.]

And having a good time, he reflects,  is vital. “I am glad to be at a level now at which I can say no to offerings,” Volle reflects. “This can be the least family-friendly job in the world, because if you do an opera you are away for weeks at a time. Family is everything, so I do sometimes say no. Singing so important to me, it is a part of me, but it could be over tomorrow. Then what do you have?”

Les Vêpres siciliennes opens at the Royal Opera House on 12 October. Michael Volle sings Montfort, Bryan Hymel reprises the role of Henri, Malin Byström and later in the run Rachele Stanisci perform Hélène, Erwin Schrott sings Procida and Maurizio Benini conducts. Booking here.