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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Dragons take over Covent Garden

The powerful and uncompromising Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones sings Walther von Stolzing in the Royal Opera House’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, alongside his fellow countryman Sir Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. I went backstage to meet him…


Hughes Jones (left) and Terfel (right) in the rehearsal room
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

Jessica Duchen: Gwyn, can you tell us about Kasper Holten’s new production, without giving the game away?

Gwyn Hughes Jones: No! Haha… I think people already know that it’s set in a club, a sort of music club. It reflects that idea of the application of rules to art and expression and how, if they’re not applied conscientiously, they hamstring the expressive sense of spontaneity, that creative evolution in art. We have to have rules in art because human beings have to have structure. Two plus two has to make four: we do need some kind of balance in nature and in the world. We can’t help ourselves. But it’s when rules take over and exist for their own sake that there’s trouble. I think this works for the piece: it doesn’t compromise it in any way. It’s always interesting to see the path directors take in their concepts of how to make a piece relevant to today. I’m sure that, as always, some people will like it and some people will not. We’ll see…




JD: You sang Walther at English National Opera not so long ago, in English, so this is your second Walther, but your first in German. What’s it like to make that change?

GHJ:  In a way, you start all over again. You can’t take anything for granted. The structure of the language is different, the inflection of the stresses are different, the way the language is used is slightly different too, so you have to be mindful of those things in preparation and delivery. I think singing these pieces in English is incredibly useful because you end up with a really broad palette of colour choice. Instead of having maybe one to three colours for a word, you have six or seven. Of course you still have to choose the right ones. But as someone who works in, if you like, the discipline of sound-painting, to have that choice of palette is always a very important weapon.

JD: Walther is a notoriously difficult role. What are the biggest challenges?

GHJ: It’s long. It’s high in some places. It’s not written in a friendly way. Nevertheless, you can look at some works of Puccini and Verdi and you see they, too, are writing for the kind of singer they have a right to expect. They don’t think we arrive without having had any kind of vocal education. These pieces play a part in stretching singers and not compromising them. I think the bel canto style was a hugely important influence on Wagner and this is reflected in all his works to some extent, but particularly in this piece. So it’s about having that elegance, it’s having the youthfulness – and one of the biggest challenges is remaining fresh to the very end.

One difficulty is this paradox that characters like Walther are young, but in real life you have to wait until you’re a fair bit older, a mature singer and a very physically strong and sophisticated singer, to be able to sing these roles to their potential. There is no other way. You will not find a 20-year old-who will sing Walther to its potential. So one of the challenges in this kind of repertoire is to keep the voice young, fresh and vibrant, so that when you come to your potential you can fulfil it for as long as possible. That’s why singers like Gigli, Björling and Pavarotti could keep that youthfulness and vibrancy in their voices for a very long time and that’s what made them convincing exponents.

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther with Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Eva in the new Meistersinger.
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda

JD: Do you have a regime for looking after your voice?

GHJ: It’s a lot to do with choosing the right kind of repertoire and I think the root of it goes to the beginning of my learning about singing. You have to be fortunate enough to work with good teachers, you need to work with people who know what they’re talking about and you need to be incredibly patient in your development. By all means, have targets along the way, have a long journey, but also work hard within a sense of context. You need to be sensible about repertoire choices and understand that if you do aspire to sing Wagner, if you aspire to sing the Verdi and Puccini spinto roles, then in the same way Wagner was inspired by Bellini, you have to sing that repertoire too: you have to immerse yourself in the bel canto style. You have to sing everything, but it is a process of building by small bricks. You build a very solid foundation, then build on that. You don’t just wake up one morning and find you’re a Heldentenor. It doesn’t work like that – and if people do do that, they don’t last very long.

JD: So it takes 30 years to be an overnight success…

GHJ: Yes, and to remain an overnight success, that’s the thing. It’s not about that initial splash. Spotting potential is the easiest thing in the world; allowing it to develop is something totally different. The onus is on us as individuals, but on the people we work with as well. So it is very challenging and you have to be incredibly patient too.

JD: How did you start to sing?

GHJ: My parents were not academically musical, but they loved opera, my father loved singing and there was always plenty of music in the house. Also coming from Wales there was always plenty of great culture around, so I was never far away from great literature and great poetry in English and in Welsh, and great music too. It was a very common thing for me to hear operatic arias when I was very young, sung by schoolteachers or farmers. In Eisteddfods these are competition arias, so you’d turn up to an Eisteddfod competition and there’d be people singing the ‘Prize Song’ and ‘Vissi d’arte'... So there’s a sense that, yes, they’re great, great art, but also that it wasn’t an elitist thing by any means: they were extremely reachable. You saw people who were having a singing lesson once a week or once a month, singing these arias as well as they’d be sung at some of the greatest opera houses in the world. That always for me was an example to say, ‘Yes, why not?’. 

As someone who comes from Anglesey, whose father is an engineer, whose mother is a housewife, some people would say I have no business whatsoever doing this. And yet all these influences I had in my upbringing gave me the privilege and the opportunity to be able to pick these things, experience them, enjoy them and find a path.

JD: People always think there’s a mystique about the Welsh and singing, but is it perhaps more down to this musical tradition that is very egalitarian?

GHJ: I think it’s a big part of it. Our historical, cultural tradition involves hundreds of thousands of years of storytelling. In this culture before the Romans came to Britain, we didn’t write. And that oral tradition has always been incredibly strong – the old tales in Welsh are thousands of years old and he oldest piece of poetry in the Welsh language comes from the 6th century. As a nation that struggled for its existence, you keep these things very close to you and they’re the things that keep you believing, keep you defending your culture and your language. They are incredbily important to us along with the sense of struggle and telling the story of the struggle. We love our heroes, yet we’re extremely melancholic too. There is that range of expressive colour in our culture that all goes to arm this huge weapon we have, called singing or storytelling.

As Walther in the new production.
(c) Royal Opera House, photo by Clive Barda

JD: This is quite a Welsh dominated Meistersinger: you are Walther and the freshly-knighted Sir Bryn Terfel is Hans Sachs…

GHJ: I think it’s a great achievement for the background we come from: the Eistefodd tradition, the amateur tradition. It shows how incredibly rich that was. We both were given a kind of unofficial education outside school: we were being taught some of the most amazing ideas and shown some of the most amazing art and weren’t really aware that it was happening. That’s the most wonderful thing and it’s easy to take it for granted. But it’s not just the musical aspect, it’s the literary aspect too, it’s the poetry, the understanding of how people use words and why people choose certain words to describe something. Being immersed in that – this is the consequence! I think it’s something worth reinvesting in: not just keeping it alive but allowing it to go from strength to strength. And it’s difficult, because Wales is economically poor. So it needs as much support as it can get.

JD: Have you worked with Bryn much before?

GHJ: We did some concerts together in Wales years ago, and we did Falstaff together in Chicago, which was my American debut in 1999. But we haven’t sung together for a very long time. I could have had the chance to sing Walther with him as Sachs when Welsh National Opera did Meistersinger, but it so happened with that season that I was debuting two big Verdi operas and one Puccini within the six months previously and I didn’t think it was wise to take on the part. But then ENO asked me to take on the role and it came at just the right time. It’s about having the longer journey, seeing the bigger picture – you don’t compromise yourself. For every Meistersinger, you need to do a Tosca, a Butterfly, pieces that don’t put you out there to the same extent. It’s good sense.

JD: Do you see yourself doing more Wagner soon?

GHJ: I think so... Ironically, the first opera I ever saw was the Patrice Chéreau production of the Ring cycle on TV, when I was nine or ten years old. It was Dame Gwyneth Jones and it was something amazing. Even on TV, you could tell how amazing it was. Those costumes! Those giants! It made a huge impression. Also, the first classical music tape I bought was 'Ten Tenors sing 20 Arias', which included plenty of Wagner. I enjoyed listening to it, but it didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much as the Italian repertoire, Verdi and Puccini – that was what I really wanted to do and the kind of singer I wanted to be. So I didn’t really entertain the idea of being a Wagnerian singer. I started out as a baritone and when I became a tenor there’s an idea of the kind of colour you carry through from being a baritone: people immediately say, “Oh, you’ll sing Florestan, you’ll do Walther and Lohengrin…” But I was thinking about Rodolfo, Cavaradossi, Chénier, all these pieces, and I didn’t see myself as being a Wagnerian singer.

As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly
I listened to snippets of Wagner over the years and it didn’t appeal to me. Also the way it was performed didn’t appeal to me, because it seemed that everything I believed in was being compromised. There’s no point working to make the voice as expressive and beautiful a communicative instrument as possible when you’re battling against an orchestra and a conductor who don’t acknowledge that actually they’re accompanying, And in some instances, too, you find that not necessarily the actual decibel volume, but the colour of the volume can be overwhelming to voices, so you have to be incredibly careful with the way that you accompany. Even when they’re expressing emotions that are not beautiful, there still has to be a sense of continuity in that character and that expression. You mustn’t compromise that in order to be heard, because then it totally defeats the purpose. You miss the potential of the work in the first place. So I was reluctant, from hearing the way people were singing Wagner’s music, to entertain the idea of doing that.

But then I found people were saying, “Well, Walther is a lyric part, it’s an Italianate part,” and your ears prick up because you realise it can be done that way and actually it should be done that way. If you go back and listen to people at the beginning of the 20th century, they sing this music in a lyrical, Italiante way – Walther, Lohengrin, they have line, beauty, harmony. You realise that somehow, in the last 50 years of performing this music, something has been allowed to fall into the shadows. And the idea that it can be, needs to be beautiful, it needs to be expressive in the right way, that made me incredibly interested in doing it. So when Welsh National Opera did put on Meistersinger in Cardiff, I went to see it and finally thought that, yes, I could see myself singing it. When the offer did come to sing Walther, I jumped at it, because it had come at the right time.

Now I’m going to be doing Lohengrin in about three years in the US. Parsifal and Siegmund are certainly roles I’d do as well. I do regard myself as an Italianate singer, though, so they’re not my main mission. There is so much to do... I’m not really interested in saying I have done 200 roles. I don’t think you achieve anything except marks on the post that way. The more you do a piece, the more you realise that you actually don’t know it and the more you discover about it. To do the iconic roles that are the mainstream in every opera house in the world, to work those pieces to their potential – not just getting through them but producing work that is significant – that interests me a lot more than tallying the numbers. I’m far more interested in doing 350-400 performances of Tosca than having 200 roles under my belt.

JD: How did you turn into a tenor from being a baritone?

GHJ: I think it’s about the colours you have in your voice. It’s funny – learning how to sing is like forgetting everything you learned between infancy and adulthood. You have to go back to that point where you find the voice works at its most efficient. One of the biggest traps that young singers fall into is that they try to create a voice colour well beyond their years. You have to allow the voice to develop into these colours. It’s OK to sound young, it’s OK to sound not ready – it’s part of that long journey. So in the pursuit of that idea, I sang as a baritone because baritone music was what suited my voice.

I wanted to sing Verdi and verismo baritones, but I always suspected I didn’t have that baritonal colour of all the singers I admired – people like Piero Cappuccilli, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill had this beautiful round colour. Even at that age I wasn’t interested in being a lighter baritone singing Verdi’s music because I didn’t think it was honest. It wouldn’t have the gravitas, that noble colour, that these lines demanded.

I came to study in London at the Guildhall when I was 18, with David Pollard. He said to me, “I won’t tell you you’re a tenor or you’re a baritone, I have my suspicions of where you’ll go but what we have to do is work to the potential. We have to get you singing, we have to find out where your voice is most comfortable.” So I started singing as a baritone, because that was the music that fitted my voice. I sang a lot of song repertoire, so even though I didn’t have to make any cast-iron decisions about the kind of voice I was going to be, I was getting an incredibly rich and intense education in repertoire. I sang everything from the beginning, Verdi from the beginning, to get the vocal culture in place.

Then I won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1992, as a baritone, and people started asking if I was interested in working on contract at various companies. The repertoire I was offered, though, was far too challenging. It was understudy work, but it’s one thing to learn a role and quite another to go on stage and perform it, which as an understudy you would have to do, and it wasn’t a good idea.

Meanwhile with my teacher we were starting to look at excerpts of very iconic tenor music – the third act of La Bohème, the first duet between Cavaradossi and Tosca, part of Manon Lescaut, parts that could show unequivocally whether I was a tenor for that sort of repertoire. One day David sent me to William McAlpine down the corridor, a very brilliant Scottish tenor who was also a teacher at Guildhall, to see what he would say. I sang him one aria and he said: “Yep, no doubt!”

But as I’d won the Ferrier as a baritone, a lot of people refused to accept that it was a good idea. I’d also won a lot of scholarships to allow me to study and those were as a baritone as well. But the way I saw it, I was awarded them because of the singer I was, not because of the voice type I was. That’s the point: you have to be allowed to discover and develop. People will always have opinions about the kind of singer you are, but in the end you have to decide where you want to go. And David said, “You have to make a decision: you can be a very, very good baritone, or you can be a better tenor. It’s up to you.” For me there was no question: this was the time to study, to make those decisions, as opposed to waiting another ten years when I might be already established in my career. 

As Cavaradossi in WNO's Tosca. Photo: Robert Workman

JD: And you’ve never looked back...

GHJ: No – there’s too much to look forward to! But you do look back, of course, because this is a career that requires absolute discipline: it requires you to be able to work right at the coalface, work in detail at things and not shirk those challenges. It’s correcting those weaknesses that allow you to build. You don’t want to take a step forward and then realise that the very thing your house is built on isn’t sturdy. So you have to work in that way, while at the same tine being able to step back and see how far you’ve come, and never lose sight of that. It’s difficult to strike that balance. We’re trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s always exciting.

JD: Is Wales still home?

GHJ: Yes indeed. It is my home and I’m obligated as a Welsh professional to work for Welsh National Opera. It’s a fantastic company. You have the potential to produce world-class opera there – you have a great orchestra, world class technical staff, a fantastic 2000 seat theatre, the opportunity to work with Carlo Rizzi, you have the opportunity to work with people who are at the best opera houses in the world and are regarded as the best in their field in the world.

JD: What’s next after Walther?

GHJ: Next I have some concerts between now and the summer at the National Eisteddfod – there are some works I’ve commissioned and as a Welsh artist I think it’s incredibly important to stimulate new compositions in Wales. In the autumn I do my first Radames in Aida and then the new year brings Forza. Next year is heavy on the Verdi and the Puccini, and then I come back to Lohengrin. You have to find a balance between the stuff that stretches and stimulates you and the stuff that stimulates you, but allows you to rest.

JD: I should let you rest too... Thank you very much for talking to us, Gwyn, and we’re looking forward to opening night. 


Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 11 March. Kasper Holten directs, Sir Antonio Pappano conducts and besides Hughes Jones and Terfel the cast includes Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser, Rachel Willis-Søresnsen as Eva and Allan Clayton as David. Details and booking here.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Rosenkavalier rising: an opera for our times too



Farewell? Renée Fleming as the Marschallin.
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore

When Der Rosenkavalier turns into a piece for our own times, you know two things: first, the director has a classic production in the making; secondly, we ourselves are in a lot of trouble.

Robert Carsen's staging at the Royal Opera House sets the action in the year Strauss composed the work, 1911. The empire is imploding in slow motion. Arms dealers are the moneyed arrivistes. Violence simmers under the surface, sometimes explodes. The Field Marshall's palace boasts crimson walls and giant, imperial-era paintings. Outwardly, all is elegance, beauty and shiny show, the Marschallin choosing Klimtesque gowns from a fashion parade and a troupe of "house-trained dogs" drawing oohs and ahhs (especially the bulldog and the borzois); and the silver rose is massive, not only a ton of silver but full of crystal sparkles. It's an artificial rose of the future, set against the living, delicate but doomed red ones the Marschallin cradles and sniffs. For underneath there lurks "degeneracy": a brothel-load of prostitutes in Schiele-like revelations, an Octavian who knows a lot more than he lets on, and sexual danger looming around Sophie from Ochs's troops (Sophie nevertheless startles her father and the importunate Ochs with new-found defiance). The palace reveals doors within doors within doors; every level conceals another.


Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs and Sophie Bevan as Sophie
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore


But this is a world on the brink. As the Marschallin delivers her reflections on the passage of time, a shudder of recognition goes through us. She is talking not only about ageing, but about the world itself, about everything that surrounds her. Yes, this is Renée Fleming's likely farewell to London's operatic stage, and yes, the Marschallin is no spring chicken, however fabulous she looks and sounds. The implications are much wider, though. At the end the place disintegrates, showing us the battlefield horrors of World War I - and soldiers aim a gun at a drunken child named Mohammed. The veracity of this imagery hits home so hard that one becomes fearful in earnest for where we are all going now. Remember, historical fiction isn't only about the past; its task is to be about today.

Fleming: glamour itself
Photo: ROH Catherine Ashmore
Big plaudits, then, to Carsen and his designers Paul Steinberg (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes). The lighting is by Carsen and Peter von Praet.  Musically, too, this performance couldn't be much more memorable if it tried; even if not every singer precisely matches every listener's ideal, the quality of insight, the excellence of the singers and the chemistry between them could scarcely be bettered.

Fleming's Marschallin is the incarnation of olde-worlde glamour. Her voice still has its amber-mellow beauty, if perhaps scaled down from its full glory, and her singing communicates with profundity accentuated by its directness and poise. As Octavian, Alice Coote brings oodles of character to her tone as well as her acting; this lad is awkward and stiff in army uniform, yet abrupt liberation follows in Act III when, dazzling in drag in a brothel, he/she displays a startling understanding of how to tantalise and torment the justifiably muddled Ochs - and whether Octavian has learned all this from the Marschallin or acquired it elsewhere is perhaps a moot point. Sophie Bevan as her namesake sounds warm and golden rather than cool and silver, yet her high notes at the presentation of the rose seem to reach heaven itself.

Matthew Rose's Ochs is no mere bumpkiny boor, but a powerful man out for a good time that doesn't please those around him and tramples - Trumples? - over societal norms with disruptive relish. It's almost impossible not to feel vaguely sorry for him as "Mariandel" delivers him her nasty dose of over-worldly Viennoiserie. Luxury casting for Annina and Valzacchi in the shape of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Helene Schneiderman, as well as Faninal - the many-dimensional voice of Jochen Schmeckenbecher.

The greatest magic of all: Andris Nelsons, red-shirted, open-armed and open-hearted, unleashing the music and letting it fly out of the orchestra's players, hushing the levels for Fleming and allowing  the visual marvels to be cradled in a sensual richesse of sound.

It's hard to believe that this could be Fleming's farewell - but then, there's a lot that's hard to comprehend right now. She may be departing together with our golden age of opera. That's a topic for another time, but reinforces an important message: let's never forget we were lucky enough to have and hear this.

On a lighter note, a special little plaudit for a startling appearance in the onstage band of two characters that apparently reference "Geraldine" and "Josephine" from Some Like It Hot. A very endearing anachronism.

Meanwhile I may get up in the night and stop the clocks.

If you can find a ticket, go and see it. 


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Everything's coming up Matthew Rose's...

I am running a new occasional series of exclusive star interviews on JDCMB. Here is the first...

Matthew Rose takes centre stage, appropriately enough, in the Royal Opera's new production of Der Rosenkavalier - and it's not going to be a pink, fluffy one. The British bass talks to me about Baron Ochs, Bottom and Brexit...


Matthew Rose rehearsing for Der Rosenkavalier, with Helene Schneiderman as Annina. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

If I’ve arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door expecting the kindly, bearded presence of a King Marke, I’m in for a surprise. The new version of Matthew Rose instead boasts sideburns, a hefty moustache and a military demeanour. The British bass may be as imposing as the Wagnerian monarch he sang last summer at ENO, but today he is still virtually in character from ongoing intense rehearsals for Covent Garden's new Der Rosenkavalier. Singing Baron Ochs, he remarks, settling into the tallest chair we can find, is “like doing seven operas at once”.

“Robert Carsen, our director, said just now that Baron Ochs is probably the most brilliant character ever invented in opera, with such bravado and such belief in himself,” Rose declares. People often see Ochs as a bit of a buffoon, he adds, but it’s not necessarily so: “He speaks French and Italian, he knows about the world, he’s very educated – but he happens to act in a way that is very different from everyone else in Vienna. He’s from a house in the middle of nowhere where he can behave as he wants, so that’s what he does and he comes to Vienna thinking he can get away with it there too: meeting his bride-to-be, with the Marschallin, who’s his cousin, he just says exactly what he wants to say. This staging has him as a soldier as well, though, so there must be some kind of discipline there. And he’s very entertained by himself. He’s a very entertaining character.”

Matthew Rose, with the former look
Entertaining the opera may be, and Ochs with it, but this time we can expect something a little edgier on stage. “I’ve done the role just once before, in Chicago, so I was trying to get all the words into my head,” Rose says. “That was a very traditional Rosenkavalier, very fluffy. Many of the productions you see are fluffy, very pink and lovely. This isn’t like that. This is definitely not fluffy.”

Carsen has set the production in 1911, the year of the opera’s composition, rather than the Mozartian era envisaged by Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. “It’s pre World War I, pre change of everything, Austria before everything went tits-up there: a very important time both historically and artistically,” says Rose. “It fits in very well with how things are here.”

Indeed, the primary purpose of historical fiction is arguably not only to explore a bygone era, but to reflect back crucial elements of our own through its prism – and this opera is no exception. Rose has little doubt that “things here” are about to go very tits-up indeed. On the morning the Brexit decision was announced, he made for Westminster with a takeaway coffee, expecting a demonstration in protest to materialise. He was astonished when it didn’t. “Why are we allowing this to happen?” he growls. “Brexit is going to ruin this country in a way I think people don’t understand. I don’t see how anybody could think any good could come out of it.”

Rose as Sparafucile in the ROH's Rigoletto
Photo: Johan Persson/ROH
At a recent press event Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House, explained that Brexit has already hit the organisation hard because of the fall in value of the pound: the cost of paying many people in other currencies has risen 20 per cent. “It’s obvious how it’s going to affect us in the arts – it puts everything in peril that we do,” says Rose. “Our industry is in a terrible situation. This opera house thrives on people coming in and out internationally, very freely and easily, and doing things often on a very ad-hoc basis. Who knows what’s going to happen to that, and who knows what the pound is going to do? All these knock-on effects… In the US Trump can be voted out after four years, but I think the UK is in worse shape, as we’re stuck with the referendum result forever.”


Rose has a foot in both countries: he has been living more or less in mid-Atlantic, between New York and Blackheath, south-east London, for some years. Though he grew up in Seaford, five miles down the road from Glyndebourne, he came to the idea of professional singing relatively late.

“Singing has always been part of my life, though I didn’t take it seriously at first,” he says. “In my last year at school I was singing in the choir, but there were lots of other people doing things seriously and I wasn’t one of them. A new music teacher arrived at the school and he was the first person who suggested to me that I might consider becoming a professional opera singer. I’d never even thought about it before. Then I went to university at Canterbury and Benjamin Luxon and his wife were there and they took me to the next step.”

As Bottom in Glyndebourne's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo: Robert Workman
Attending a summer course in Italy, he met Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theatre at the Curtis Institute, who invited him to Philadelphia to audition. He spent five years there, though at first, he remarks, “it was quite embarrassing. I think I went in the same year as Lang Lang. He went in being already this world-class star and I was starting from scratch, so it was quite an intimidating situation.”

The department was relatively small, with around 25 singers, yet put on five operas a year, Rose recounts – a preparation for stage life more hands-on and intensive than most. His teacher was Marlena Malas, who was based at the Juilliard School in New York, and whom he still consults. “I had my lessons every Monday at five o’clock, looking straight across to the Met,” he remembers, “and whenever I did something wrong, she’d say: ‘Do you wanna sing there or not?’

He certainly did, especially after he started attending performances every week after his lesson. “The Met has always been a shrine to me,” he remarks. “Now I do two or three operas there a season and it’s a wonderful family to be part of. There are lots of friends around, people in the orchestra with whom I went to college, and I feel very at home there.”

His most recent Met stint was as Leporello in Don Giovanni: “Leporello is my favourite role in the world,” he declares. “He’s an amazing character. Da Ponte wrote some of the greatest librettos in history – as did Hofmannsthal – and Leporello’s journey through the opera, especially the second half, is just miraculous.”

After five years at Curtis, Rose felt “ready to go out and have a career”. Back in London he auditioned, and was accepted, for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. Next thing he knew, he was on stage with Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Bryn Terfel in David McVicar’s production of Faust. “At that point you have to up your game,” he considers, “and there’s no better way to do it than standing on stage with these people.”

Rehearsing the ROH's La Bohème. Photo: Yuri Vorobiev
Coming back to Covent Garden some 14 years later, he notes, it is hard to shake off the association – “up to a point I’m still ‘Matthew Rose who was on the Young Artists’ Programme…’” But now he has travelled full circle and himself coaches the young singers on the scheme: “It’s a nice role reversal. I feel so grateful for things that have been passed to me. We all absorb these things that we distill within ourselves and hopefully can pass them on again. I’ve done lots of teaching these past few years and I really enjoy that.”

To various teaching activities, Rose adds a strong commitment to the Blackheath Concert Halls near his London home: “I’ve been heavily involved in activities there for ten years – we’ve done wonderful community projects, started a children’s choir and have a new children’s opera commissioned for next year from Kate Whitley. I’d love to be part of making it into a really wonderful centre for the arts in south-east London, though of course it’s easier said than done…”

Another favourite London location is the Wigmore Hall: here he sings Schubert’s Winterreise in February 2017. And then there’s Schwanengesang a few months later at Carnegie Hall, New York. “How lucky am I to do that!” he remarks. “Schubert was my first great passion that really got me into singing, when I went to a Schubert Day at the Royal College of Music in his bicentenary year, 1997.


“I love Lieder, making music with one pianist, being in control of what one wants to do – whereas in opera one is told by many people what to do. And I love orchestral concerts. Of course I also love being on stage, but you’re compromising so much when you sing opera: you’re trying to do 17 different things at once and you’re rarely going to be satisfied. But I love standing there with an orchestra, making music. At the end of the day, I’m a musician and I love to make music. And if there’s a bit of acting or being a bit silly involved,” he adds, “that’s OK.”

Rose certainly has risen to fame with in roles that are comic, yet with an undertow of complexity: “I’m quite a silly person, so being on stage being silly comes quite naturally,” he suggests. Besides Leporello, he has been particularly lauded as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at Glyndebourne and beyond; he will be singing the role at a new Aldeburgh Festival staging by Netia Jones in summer 2017. He is a long-standing devotee of Aldeburgh, having attended many courses there as a student and nursing a passion for the musicality and dramatic excellence of Britten’s operas. “Bottom in particular has been very good to me,” he notes.


One does sense, though, that underneath there is little about this perceptive and down-to-earth artist that is remotely silly. Even golf is a serious matter for him: “It’s not for unwinding,” he says. “It’s something I love to do well and in many ways it is like singing: concentrating hard, switching that concentration on and off.”

As for his dream roles that remain, those aren’t so silly either. “I’d love to have a crack at Philip II,” he says. “Gurnemanz in Parsifal will hopefully happen next year, and certain other Wagnery things would be nice… But I’m having the most incredible year at the moment, doing Leporello, Bottom and Baron Ochs, and the song recitals. I probably ought to retire after it! What I’ve done so far has far surpassed everything I ever dreamed of and I’m so lucky to have done what I’ve done. If I stop now, I’ve had a very nice time and a very nice career and maybe it’s time to go and have a very nice sleep.”

Now he really is being silly, or so one hopes. There is the whole of Der Rosenkavalier to look forward to, with a dream cast and Andris Nelsons in the pit: “There’s no one classier in the world than Renée Fleming,” Rose enthuses. “Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan I know very well, and it’s nice to be reunited with Jochen Schmeckenbecher [singing Faninal], who was in the first opera I ever did as a student in Philadelphia – it was The Magic Flute, I was a priest and he was Papageno.” As for Nelsons, “The orchestra sounds unbelievable with him. He’s got it all. This is the hardest role I’ll ever do,” he adds, “and everyone’s being so nice to me. It’s a huge honour and I’m very grateful for this situation.”

Curtain up is this Saturday at 6pm: and the appropriately-named Rose is set to be a cavalier of a whole new kind. Beg, borrow, or ninja a ticket.


Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, from 17 December. Book here.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Roll over, Riverdance: this is Rhinal Tap

In case you haven't yet seen this extract from The Nose, courtesy of the Royal Opera House and director Barry Kosky, here it is.



And here's my review of this gleefully nuts early Shostakovich opera, at the Critics' Circle website (I forgot to post it when it first came out, but hope it's still reasonably entertaining).

For Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera debut you could only expect the unexpected. The Australian director, head of Berlin’s Komische Oper, picked a work that has never before been staged at Covent Garden. It’s an extravagant, radical and often very loud take on Gogol’s surreal story in which Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov wakes up to find his nose has gone walkabout and is living the high life in St Petersburg. Premiered in 1930, but dreamed up three years earlier when the composer was 21, it’s so off-the-wall and tonally anarchic that it could almost have been written three decades later...

...Not for nothing has Kosky (going against his own policy at the Komische Oper, where he prefers opera in its original language) plumped for English rather than Russian; the earthy and up-to-date new translation is by David Pountney. It’s helpful to understand it in real time as it careers by with reference piling on reference: Cabaret, Yiddish theatre, Freudian association, Jewish jokes, Russian legend, this Nose knows it all. “Oy gevalt! The 8.23 to Kitezh has been cancelled – they couldn’t find it...”
If you want to read symbolism into it, help yourself. Is The Nose about keeping people in their hierarchical place, or about losing another person who’s part of you, or a euphemism for fear of losing another body part, with everything that implies? Or is it just pre-Python surreal nonsense? Maybe all, possibly none: Kosky lets the options flit by in front of our, er, noses, and leaves the decision to us....

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Meet Barrie Kosky: a kangaroo with a nose for opera

I'm off to see Shostakovich's The Nose at the Royal Opera House tonight. It's directed by Barrie Kosky, the wonder-worker behind (among much else) Glyndebourne's award-winning Saul, an internationally sought-after Magic Flute and, imminently, Bayreuth's new Meistersinger, for next summer. All this added up to a perfect excuse to interview him, and the context of the JC adds certain extra fascinations, especially where Bayreuth is concerned. The piece appeared there in last week's issue, which you can read here.

Incidentally, he also has some interesting words re opera in translation, what's happened at his Komische Oper in Berlin, and why ENO could take a leaf out of its book.

Here's a trailer and the article is below.




Looking out at Covent Garden Piazza from the Royal Opera House, it’s easy to forget that this site, teeming with tourists, was once home to London’s most famous fruit and vegetable market. By marvellous coincidence, the opera director Barrie Kosky’s grandfather from the East End used to have a stall there. Now Kosky, 49, is inside the Royal Opera House’s rehearsal studios for the first time, staging his ROH debut production: Shostakovich's youthful masterpiece The Nose.
The Australian opera director, recently named Director of the Year by the International Opera Awards, has come a long way, and not only geographically. Having termed himself a “gay, Jewish kangaroo”, he is bounding through the world’s great lyric theatres, his fresh and original productions trailing accolades galore. 
His staging of Handel’s oratorio Saul for Glyndebourne in 2015 won a Royal Philharmonic Award and was nominated for a South Bank Show Award; Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he directed in historic-cartoon style, has been snapped up by opera houses and festivals around the globe. Next summer he heads for Bayreuth to tackle that ultimate paean to German art, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 
The Nose. Photo: Bill Cooper
If his maternal grandfather in Covent Garden would be happy to see him ensconced in the Royal Opera House, so would his paternal grandmother, who came from Hungary; it was she who introduced him to opera as a child. “I was bombarded in a wonderful way from the age of seven onwards,” he says, “and by the time I left school I’d seen around 200 operas, not only the popular ones.” When he was 15 a teacher encouraged him to try directing a play at his school; browsing for one in the library he chose no smaller challenge than Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. 
His family was a melting pot of different Jewish traditions. “My paternal grandfather and his siblings left their shtetl just outside Vitebsk, in what’s now Belarus, after a terrible pogrom around 1903,” he says. “They came to London, via Hamburg, but weren’t allowed to stay in Britain and had to go to Canada or Australia. They chose Australia, where they started a fur business.” This grew eventually to be the country’s largest fur retailer. On a business trip to central Europe his grandfather met his grandmother, “who was from a typical, assimilated, upper middle-class Budapest Jewish family.” On his mother’s side, his English-born grandparents had family members who were involved with the Yiddish Theatre in the East End; Kosky’s father, sent to Britain on business as a young man, married their daughter and took her home to Australia. 
Kosky, having come to terms with the “cities of my grandmothers”, Vienna and Budapest, has settled in Berlin, “which I love”. Yet he also remarks, “I felt I didn’t belong in Australia and would be more at home in Europe, but I still feel an outsider here. I don’t quite know where I fit. But,” he adds, “it doesn’t worry me any more!” Jewish history and culture remain a fervent passion for him, although he describes himself as a “spiritual atheist” who dislikes organised religion. 
His fascination with the inter-influence of Yiddish literature and culture, Russian avant-garde theatre and German Expressionism is feeding his work on Shostakovich’s The Nose. The choice of piece is unusual, deliberately so: “I wanted to do an opera that had not been staged here before,” he says. “It’s difficult to make your debut here, and in Mozart, Verdi and Wagner there’s too much tradition, history and opinion! I’ve wanted to do The Nose ever since I first heard the score while I was at university, but you rarely get to see a production because it’s huge and expensive to put on.”
The Nose. Photo: Bill Cooper
It is based on a surreal short story by Gogol: a man awakens to find that his nose has gone missing and is at large in St Petersburg, living a life of its own. “Gogol combines Russian folklore, superstition, the grotesque, dreams, symbolism, humour and this incredible fantasy,” says Kosky. “I also feel there’s a connection in it with my favourite Yiddish writers like Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, who I think were heavily influenced by Gogol. 
“I find the story so weird and wonderful. It has almost the logic of a dream; you never quite know what’s happening, and he never explains. But I think it’s dangerous to say that The Nose is a metaphor for this or that. I think it is a delicious piece of nonsense, much more connected with Dada and Surrealism, and with the logic of dreams, like Alice in Wonderland. It’s part parable, part Kafka, part Marx Brothers. 
“We wanted to create this weird and wonderful world of St Petersburg without being literal and without saying what the nose is or represents. That’s for the audience to decide, as in any great fairy story or myth. I think a director’s work has to leave room for those associations and interpretations from the public. That’s not to say that I don’t have a strong interpretation, but I hope that the production allows another set of them to take place.”
It sounds almost as much fun as his Magic Flute production, created originally for the Komische Oper in Berlin, where he became intendant and chief director in 2012. Since he took over, the theatre’s audience figures have shot up — in his first two years they jumped by some 20 per cent — and, intriguingly, he has now ditched the company’s policy of performing in the vernacular translation, favouring the original language whenever possible. 
“There was a time for translated opera, but with surtitles that has passed. It can sound provincial,” he declares. “Nobody wants to hear Italian opera in anything but Italian — and it sounds even worse in English than it does in German, which is pretty bad!” Wasn’t there an outcry? “Not one letter of complaint — but much celebration,” he says proudly, adding that English National Opera could profitably consider following suit.
He is meanwhile preparing his first staging for the Wagner Festival in the composer’s own theatre at Bayreuth. Wagner’s famous anti-Semitism still makes the operas a difficult prospect for many Jewish music-lovers and Kosky admits he is no exception. He recounts that Katharina Wagner, the festival’s current director and Wagner’s great-granddaughter, persuaded him to stage Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which he had previously refused to approach. 
“Meistersinger is a piece of German ideology and German music about German ideas about music, community and nationhood and culture, written by someone who was obsessed with ideas about what being German meant. It’s the only one of his operas that is not a universal story,” he says. 
“I told Katharina I didn’t think I’d have much to say about it, being an Australian Jew. She said she thought I’d have a great deal to say about it, being an Australian Jew!”
As what he terms a “cleansing” exercise after the Wagner, he plans to tackle Debussy’s Pélléas et Mélisande and, by way of extreme contrast, Fiddler on the Roof back at the Komische Oper. 
“Fiddler on the Roof is the Jewish Meistersinger,” he declares. “I think there’s a very interesting link between Tevye and Wagner’s Hans Sachs and I’m making a point of it. Though I’m probably the first director in the history of opera to say ‘Tevye’ and ‘Hans Sachs’ in the same sentence…”
The Nose, Royal Opera House, from 20 October. Booking: 020 7304 4000