Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Happy Princess and a happy composer

On Friday the Garsington Opera Youth Companies are giving the world premiere of The Happy Princess, a new opera written especially for them by composer Paul Fincham and librettist me. It's based on Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince, but reimagined, updated and somewhat tweaked, and it involves around 80 young people and the soprano Lara-Marie Müller (whom you may have seen as Esmeralda in Garsington's smash-hit production of The Bartered Bride earlier in the summer). I asked Paul: "How was it for you?". We're off to the dress rehearsal shortly...




Rehearsing the factory scene...
Photo: Julian Guidera


PAUL FINCHAM WRITES:

However hard we might try to shape our lives, ultimately so much depends on random happenings. The genesis of The Happy Princess, my first opera and the most significant commission to date in my second career as a composer, is no exception.

I was introduced by Marina Abel Smith to Karen Gillingham who runs the Learning and Participation division at Garsington; she and I met and she then connected me with Jess. 

Jess and I found we had a lot in common (about life as well as music). Jess listened to some of the music I had composed over the last few years and then suggested that she put forward a pitch to Karen for us to write a youth opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There was some initial discussion about writing a 20 minute piece, everything went quiet for a while and then out of the blue, whilst I was at a wedding reception in Delhi(!), an e mail popped up confirming the commission for a performance of a 60-minute youth opera for the main stage at Garsington in summer 2019.  

Deep breath. I had never written an opera (at least not since a rock opera when I was a schoolboy). I had recently taken up composing again after a break of some 30 years, put together a CD of short, intimate pieces recorded in my home studio, delivered a film score for a successful low/micro-budget feature film and written a Christmas carol for the London Philharmonic Choir.  


But writing an opera - setting the text for around 80 singers making up three choirs and a professional soprano as well as arranging the score for an eight-piece band....How would I do that?......But what an enthralling opportunity to work with what many regard as the leading Learning and Participation division in the country.


JD: What’s been the most challenging thing(s) about the project for you?

PF: There are around half a dozen set pieces for chorus, which I would say are my comfort zone (I have sung in the London Philharmonic Choir for over 30 years and there is probably no better training for composing for choir than singing in one!). More challenging were the exchanges between the soloists, which in a Mozart opera would be recitative. These are often quite sparsely scored, but deceptively difficult to write. Quite a bit of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, in some cases more than once (my “bin” folder for the project seems quite crowded!). 

I should add that the necessary process of mastering the computer software for the vocal score and full score, almost from scratch, was quite some challenge (and a sincere thank you to the clever folk at Dorico for their patient support throughout).


What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of it?

I entirely endorse Britten’s mantra that composers should not occupy ivory towers. Ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing The Happy Princesshas been working with Jess and with the creative team at Garsington and then finally (it seemed a long time after I started writing it) witnessing it all being drawn together under the conductor, Jonathan Swinard, leading up to the premiere - which is of course the most exciting aspect of all!


Lara being fitted with a prototype 
of her Princess costume
Photo: Julian Guidera
What have you learned through writing the opera that you maybe didn’t expect to learn?

I learnt that writing an opera is (like writing a film score) as much as anything about collaboration: first and foremost, of course, with the librettist, but alongside that with the production team, which at every level provided insightful feedback throughout the process. That brought home to me the paramount importance of respecting text and narrative: every bar you write must be faithful to the drama. From start to finish virtually everything I wrote evolved. Only one set piece (the simple love duet for the Princess and the Swallow in scene 9) survives in exactly the form in which it began. By the time I penned the last notes of the opera I felt I was in a different space from where I had started.


What do you like most about working with a youth company?

Enthusiasm, excitement, energy!


What do you hope to write next? 

Whilst writing HP I kept my head down, writing a score for a short film and taking on one other small commission to compose a wedding anthem – which, unbelievably, is being performed on the same day as the premiere of HP by a choir comprising singers from the Glyndebourne Opera chorus!

What next? I will likely go wherever it takes me - I would like to write another feature film score, I certainly aim to write more choral music, possibly another Christmas carol. I finished HP feeling elated but pretty drained; it felt as though it had been in my in tray a long time (it was around 15 months from start to finish, including orchestration).   

But if someone calls me on Saturday and asks whether I’d consider writing another youth opera…I am pretty sure I know what the answer would be. And of course I would love to work with you again - though I understand you're in demand! [thanks :) jd]


THE HAPPY PRINCESS world premiere is at Garsington Opera on Friday 2 August, directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Jonathan Swinard






Tuesday, July 30, 2019

IMMORTAL: my new Beethoven novel, coming soon...





Dear friends and supporters,
If you enjoyed the historical musical mystery of Ghost Variations, you'll love - I hope - my new book currently in the works.
For the past few years I've been reading obsessively about Ludwig van Beethoven's 'Immortal Beloved' - the unnamed addressee of an impassioned love letter that he wrote in July 1812. Supposedly nobody knows exactly who she was, though there have been many theories. Yet when you start looking, you find things... 
Was this woman's identity anything but immortal? Was she deliberately wiped from history by a family terrified of scandal? Was her tragedy - and Beethoven's - perhaps even greater than we thought? I believe so.
While obscure biographies and some terrible translations lurk on dusty shelves, I wanted to present this book as a novel for its roller-coaster emotions, its vivid characters, its you-couldn't-make-it-up plot - and the mulifarious possibilities offered by an unreliable narrator.
The music is ever-present, the piano sonatas most of all: for that is how the majority of Beethoven's admirers would have known him best, through playing his works at the piano, orchestral performances being relatively rare events. The piano sonatas contain, too, some crucial clues - though you'll have to read the book to find out what they are.
I have returned to Unbound for several reasons: first, a publisher in the hand is worth ten in the Writers and Artists Yearbook, especially when there's a topical anniversary to catch, just 23 months away. Secondly, they have done a brilliant job on 'Ghost Variations' and 'Odette' and I trust them completely. And finally - it's fun! I've cooked up a range of rewards at different levels to tempt you in, starting at just £10 for the e-book and a thank-you in the patrons list. But above that you can order an early-bird discount paperback, or two, or five; come with us to hear Vladimir Jurowski conduct the Symphony No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall; attend the launch party (we love launch parties!); sponsor a character and receive a special thank-you on a separate page; or simply make a donation of any amount you like to help turn this project into reality. More rewards are on the way, too, so watch for updates.
On the IMMORTAL page you will find a synopsis, an extract from the book, the complete pledge list, and a video in which I introduce the project and, er, attempt to play Op.111. 
I do hope you will wish to become part of the IMMORTAL family. Your moral support will be crucial as I plough on with the writing. And knowing that you're waiting eagerly for the results is the best spur of them all.
Thank you so much - and here's the link. https://unbound.com/books/immortal/
Love and best wishes,
Jessica

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Eton Riverside

An old Etonian is taking over: a middle-aged white bloke with lots of charm, appointed by a tiny number of people, without any say from more than 99% of those over whom he'll wield life-changing power.

A familiar story, no? But while the newspapers are preoccupied, understandably, with the old Etonian heading into Downing Street, another alumnus of the school has scooped another head position over the Thames: Edward Gardner, who has been signed up by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to be its new chief conductor. (Told you so.) He only has school, not university, in common with Boris Johnson, as he went to Cambridge, not Oxford. Oxford produces politicians. Cambridge produces conductors, which is way preferable, depending on your point of view.

Edward Gardner
photo: Ben Ealovega

As music director of ENO, Ed wielded the baton for some glorious operatic performances - his Meistersinger, The Flying Dutchman, Rosenkavalier and more were among my most memorable trips to the Coliseum. He has proved his mettle time and again in the great choral works like the Verdi Requiem, Tippett's A Child of Our Time and, at his Bergen Philharmonic, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. Unlike the pifflepaffle exponent who has got the keys to the country, Ed can start his own new post with every expectation that he will rise to the challenge ahead with great aplomb and convince us all that he was the right person to install there.

The appointment of an English conductor at Brexit time says much. The LPO's CEO Tim Walker, from Australia, has been interviewed in the past appearing to be in favour of Brexit. Hopefully he's woken up to the mistake now, but if he hasn't, he soon will, and with Boris Johnson in No. 10 it's a bit late in any case. So, one can't help speculating on the reasons for this choice. Much as I like Ed and unfailingly enjoy his performances, I personally was still hoping they would appoint an equally deserving conductor who happened to be female - ideally Susanna Mälkki or Karina Canellakis (whom I'm told the orchestra adored and who got rave reviews for her concert with them last year). This could have sent out a positive, inclusive, adventurous, positive message and ushered in an exciting new era...

Is it a question of the changing face of orchestras? A presentation of "best of British" being perceived as requiring a British figurehead in some way? I doubt it. My hunch is that with the ACE funding priorities changing radically, and a likely crash in public finances once we've actually departed the EU (lots of jobs will be lost and tax revenues will plummet), the issue of fundraising is soon going to be even more important - at a time, too, when Britain's image internationally will be badly tarnished; they already think we're mad, and with good reason. International support is going to be absolutely vital and it's possible that a different cohort of donors will have to be magicked into the fold. This would indicate a move to a more American-style approach in which the principal conductor is a lynchpin for, essentially, schmoozing. Ed's personal charm would stand him, and them, in good stead under such circumstances.

The bottom line with any principal conductor appointment, though, has got to be musical chemistry. An orchestra is a living organism made up of a large number of expert performers and the relationship between it and its principal conductor is like a marriage (I know this is a cliché, but it happens to be true. If you want some insight into how this all works, I recommend Tom Service's book Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras.) The best conductor on the face of the planet cannot ever be the ideal person for every single orchestra that sits in front of him - just as not every Strad is the right instrument for every single violinist. Things work, or they don't. They can develop. They can change. They can grow. They can grow together. But the essential match does have to be right.

With some irony, I realise I experimented with a blind-date review format for a concert by the LPO under Ed's baton at Snape a little while ago, here.
Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"
This is an orchestra that still, in 2019, carries the pride and the sound quality that was shaped by Klaus Tennstedt's Mahler. After a long stint with Vladimir Jurowski - who by the time he leaves in 2021 will have been its longest-serving chief conductor ever - there is nothing that it cannot do or play or adapt to. There may be cliques, personality clashes and petty fights off-stage, but that's equally true in every company and every orchestra (what is the matter with our orchestras - why on earth do some of them not have HR managers?). When it comes to the concert, though, they pull together every time. The one thing they have to rely on is their artistic reputation which, aside from a teeny blip arising from a crazy political situation in the early '90s, has been an unblemished record in the top rank. The orchestra of Tennstedt, Haitink, Solti, Masur and Jurowski wants to stay international.

Orchestra politics the world over, meanwhile, are notoriously thorny and often, as I watch from a safe distance, seem more than a bit daft. There can be threats, excuses, twists, slipperiness and high dudgeon that would once have been news. But now most of the press don't give a flying f*** because they've got bigger things to worry about, and the only journalists so far who do think this appointment is a story have been very positive. But when the CBSO musicians (and chorus, audience and critics - !) are able to help choose their own music directors - and they do keep on just picking unknowns like Andris Nelsons and Mirga Grazynite-Tyla and turning them into megastars - frankly London musicians get very little say in the equivalent situation. This still puzzles me, because those are the people who have to create that chemistry. I do think that leaving them so little input can store up trouble.

Ed has a chance to win over any nay-sayers - they are bound, after all, to exist for anyone appointed to this type of position anywhere - and prove that the management has got it right. I gladly cheer him on as he takes up the post and I look forward to many fresh, exciting concerts - with sun sparkling on the water of the Thames.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Possums! It's time for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music

Wish you were here? So do I.

Hello, Possums! I have some good festival trips this summer, but they will have to be seriously incredible in order to match this time last year, when we headed off to Australia for one of the best chamber music festivals in the world. You might have followed my posts here, as I was being a sort of reporter-in-residence for them, and I've been trying to keep up with the eclectic, exploratory, delicious goings-on ever since. As it's hardly stopped raining in London this summer, Townsville in winter is an altogether brighter prospect. If you're going - lucky you!

Here's a taste of what you can expect when the action kicks off at the end of this week.



Artistic director Kathryn Stott has assembled a tremendous line-up of colleagues, ranging from fellow pianists like Charles Owen and Timothy Young to harpist Ruth Wall (interviewed here the other week), Chinese pipa player Wu Man and the amazing Roberto Carrillo-Garcia who plays the double bass, the classical guitar AND the viola da gamba. The doughty Goldner String Quartet rubs shoulders with fellow Australians of Arcadia Winds, the Ensemble Liaison and several splendid actors; musicians from America, Moldova, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and the Czech Republic are all due to swan in to Townsville; as for the repertoire, you'd be hard pressed to find a programme quite as international as this anywhere else.


Kathy Stott in Townsville

And what other festival would both begin and end with the music of Eric Coates? Mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean begins the opening night festivities with his Bird Songs at Eventide and the concert continues, in true AFCM fashion, with as many artists as possible throwing their hat into the performance ring in music by Graham Fitkin, Bright Sheng, Françaix and Fauré. Over the course of the festival the repertoire ranges from the 13th century to the present day, notably with world premieres of works by the composer-in-residence, Connor D'Netto from Brisbane. 'Baroque around the Clock' crams 400 years into one big evening. Some startling multi-piano arrangements are likely to give Kathy, Charles, Tim and Aura Go a run for their money and the final evening extravaganza closes with a special arrangement by Roderick Williams of Coates's 'Sleepy Lagoon' for all the festival artists to join in.

Concert on Orpheus Island last year

Events take place from morning til night, most days opening with Kathy Stott's Concert Conversations in which she interviews a group of musicians, each of whom then performs too. There will be chances to hear masterclasses with young people from the festival's Winterschool, which is directed again by the inspirational Pavel Fischer; an amazing day out on Orpheus Island with a special outdoor concert on the beach (last year we saw whales at dusk on the way back); Kathy choosing her Magnetic Island Discs in a special "day off" on the closest tropical island to Townsville; and there are late-night concerts in the bar...

You can find the entire programme here. And now, after combing through it all, I'm green with envy. (Actually I'm on my way to Italy - more of which very soon...).


Friday, July 19, 2019

Just how sexist is 'The Magic Flute'?

Scottish Opera asked me to write a piece for the programme of their production of The Magic Flute earlier this year. How sexist is it, really? There's been a lot of discussion about this, to put it mildly, so with SO's permission here is my article. Warning: it may not say what you think it's going to say. In either direction.



Julia Sitkovetsky as The Queen of the Night in Scottish Opera's production
All photos: Ken Dundas



Charges of sexism and prejudice flutter like outsize daddy-longlegs craneflies around the bright beacon of Mozart’s penultimate opera. Emanuel Schikaneder’s text - some of it - positively glitters with disparaging comments about women’s gossiping, weakness and pride. A woman must be led by a man, says the supposedly wise Sarastro. The villain-in-chief is a powerful woman – and she is vanquished. Why, then, would I still want to take Die Zauberflöte to my Desert Island in preference to almost any other piece of music, despite my supposedly feminist credentials? 

Our simplistic, reductive responses today tend to prove we haven’t evolved upwards from the Enlightenment era as much as we possibly should have. It’s problematic at best - and at worst, futile - to judge an 18th-century work by 21st-century values. Besides, the women in this enchanted Enlightenment singspiel merit a subtler, more nuanced and more thorough exploration. They are deeply bound up with the work’s structure, its symbolism, its balance, quirkiness and unexpectedness, to say nothing of its overall message about love, wisdom and enlightenment. 

The chief problem is that the source of that wisdom - Sarastro and his order of priests - is also the source of the sexist assumptions that furnish the script. Entering the Temple represents the getting of wisdom; part of this, Tamino learns, is not listening to women’s supposedly empty-headed chitterchatter. Worse, as the opera progresses, the feminine becomes associated with the forces of night and darkness, in opposition to the blaze of sunlight that brings enlightenment. 


Pamina in supplication to Sarastro...

Or so it seems. This is only part of the opera’s philosophic outlook – and it is continually subverted or positively contradicted by other elements of the drama. In the bigger picture of the magical, symbolic world Mozart and Schikaneder create, the duality of male/female, darkness/light is essential, because this, the implication goes, is how we and our world become complete. The one defines the other: without darkness, there can be no light. The opera’s mysterious unity in duality mirrors the priests’ evocation of Isis and Osiris, respectively the ancient Egyptian goddess and her brother-husband, who, let’s remember, are venerated in this temple together. 

This lends symmetry to the characters. Papageno must find a Papagena, as lively and earthy as he is; Tamino and Pamina, seekers both, are soulmates. The Queen of the Night and Sarastro form a third couple, only this time opposites in both philosophy and voice type. But they function as a pair because they want the same thing: each wishes to save Pamina from the other. There’s symmetry, too, between the groups of opposites: the spiritual questing of the prince and princess finds a merry counterpart in the copious wining, dining and planned large family of the Papagenos, while the Three Ladies who tempt Tamino and Papageno with chattering are offset by the Three Boys who light the way with wisdom. Monostatos, a wild card, could be the exception that proves the rule.

Moreover, there are women in the temple. Besides the solemn choruses for men alone, Mozart also provides full choruses in both acts including sopranos and altos. This poses a conceptual challenge to any director; widely differing solutions can be found. In Netia Jones’s staging for Garsington, the females scuttle around submissively in grey headdresses resembling those of The Handmaid’s Tale. In Simon McBurney’s for English National Opera, the women are in business dress, matching the men: perhaps here, too, the masculine has its feminine counterpart. 

Within this set-up, Mozart and Schikaneder overturn expectations time and again, with plot twists that would be hard to swallow if the characters did not - mostly - defy the fairytale-like setting by seeming so wonderfully real. The Three Ladies become harridans spreading fake news in Act II, but in Act I they save Tamino from the serpent, lust after the handsome stranger, bicker amongst themselves, then do the honourable thing and leave him in peace. Monostatos tries twice to rape Pamina, but even he receives a sympathetic aria, railing against the way others reject him for the colour of his skin. This opera’s racist element is even worse than its sexism, but these days Monostatos can usually be reconceptualised with imaginative staging and surtitling.

I'm not sure what's happening here, but it looks amazing

What of the Queen of the Night, the villain of the piece? She starts off as the most sympathetic of characters: a mother whose daughter has been kidnapped and who is desperate to rescue her. What’s more, it is she who provides the magic flute itself, and Papageno’s bells; and Mozart furnishes her with two of his most astonishing arias (designed for his virtuoso soprano sister-in-law, Josepha Weber). Sarastro has cruel words for Pamina about her, accusing the Queen of pride; if you think he’s calling her a “stupid woman”, you’re not wrong. Still, she does want to kill him. The blunt reversal of opinion that Tamino encounters as soon as he arrives at the temple – and the unquestionably sexist reasons for this provided first by the Speaker and then Sarastro – is therefore far from proven as correct. Today an increasing number of productions depict the Queen pardoned at the end and reunited with Pamina.

The most ardent contradiction of the opera’s sexist element is Pamina herself. Contrast her with Tamino. He can seem oddly passive. First the Ladies have to save him from the serpent; next he obeys the Queen of the Night; then he decides he got everything wrong and obeys Sarastro instead. But it is Pamina who makes the brave, independent decisions: to seek her freedom; to reject Monostatos’s advances, despite death threats; refusing to commit murder, however forceful her mother’s demand; and she would certainly have the gumption to take her own life were it not for the intervention of the Three Boys. She is supportive to Papageno - she even sings an abstracted love duet with him. And it is she who tells Tamino that his magic flute will protect them, and she who voluntarily stands by him and undergoes the life-threatening trials – not because she has to, but because she chooses to. Ultimately she is initiated into the Order alongside him. 

Now, the Masonic references in Die Zauberflöte are reputedly so lavish that theories existed that the Freemasons murdered Mozart in revenge for revealing their secrets. This notion has been debunked. But as far as I’m aware, the Freemasons still do not admit women, even in 2019. And what, in wider society, of equal pay and equal boardroom presence? Don’t get me started. Perhaps we shouldn’t judge Mozart and Schikaneder too harshly when their vision is more progressive than the organisation that inspired them, and when our world still has so much to remedy. 

This opera ultimately suggests that the path of wisdom is open to everybody, if we are willing to learn our life lessons the hard way. And in the end it is about love. A devoted couple undergoes ferocious attack by the elements; the joint powers of their love and their music see them through. Emerging, they sing together, as equals. If that isn’t the ideal partnership - for any persuasion of human relationship - then I don’t know what is. 

A few sexist priests can’t take that away from us. Yes, there is sexism aplenty in Die Zauberflöte. But that is no reason not to let this work’s heavenly music and message of love and wisdom into our lives – my Desert Island included.