Long read ahead. Get a cuppa.
The other day I went to Pembrokeshire to do a Ghost Variations concert with Viv and Dave, and came back to discover that an intriguing Twitter discussion had been taking place about what's now known as 'the canon': aka standard concert repertoire. I'd missed the chat, so have been mulling over some of the points involving the music we hear in our concert halls, the notion of greatness, the value judgments on what is worth hearing and what is not, the judgments people pass on one another over having the "wrong" personal taste in music, and how we can change these matters effectively to make the concert world more inclusive.
One of the nicer things about reaching middle age is that one can develop a healthy perspective on change. It may look as if "we" worship great composers as deities (I'm not convinced we do, actually), that great music that is performed a lot is an immovable mountain range. As if nothing can invade those mountains if it is not perceived to be as good as the 'Hammerklavier' et al, and as if it's got that way because people in charge are determined to keep out anyone who is not a dead white male. But it ain't necessarily so. It's not immovable. It's not impossible to change things. It's quite doable, actually - we just have to wake up and do it.
If I look back on the musical world of my teens and student days, the "canon" has changed - sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse - and it is all to do with changing attitudes, outlooks that morph into different states according to the world around us. Here are a few things that were definitely going on in the early 1980s when I was a teenage piano student and heading for Cambridge.
At the piano we faced paradoxes. Anything that was not "pure" was out. Transcriptions? Heaven help us! The only person I remember getting away with a Liszt transcription at the Royal Festival Hall was Daniel Barenboim, who played the 'Liebestod' as an encore sometime in the late 1970s. I tried to be suitably aghast that a great artist had devoted time to practising such a horror, until my piano teacher, who knew him, gently told me that probably he hadn't: being Barenboim, he could just look at it and know it. The point here was that I was about 13 and what the heck did I know? Nothing. I was just parroting attitudes I'd been absorbing by osmosis from people around me and, probably, Radio 3, which was on in the house from morning til night. Yet remove transcriptions, remove Liszt except the B minor Sonata which was a Serious Work In Sonata Form, and you lose a great biteful of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, learning Bach was vital. Bach holds the core of the technique a pianist needs - physical and mental - to play anything. But back then you weren't allowed to perform it. If you did, you were playing it on the Wrong Instrument. The "authenticists" would string you up by your guts if you weren't careful.
As for contemporary music - a few doughty souls played some, but thereby hung a whole sackful of problems. You could tackle Boulez, but it might take you ten years to learn the Second Sonata, or there was Stockhausen and Cage, but they were a little bit scary too, and chances were that your teachers wouldn't know what to do with them, let alone put stones and stuff inside the piano to "prepare" it, so they probably wouldn't set them; or you could play the Messiaen Vingt Regards or the bird pieces, but they just weren't enormously trendy. I learned one of the Vingt Regards, as it happens, for my BMus recital - we had to prepare a full-length programme and the examiners would ask for half of it about a week before. From my list they chose Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy. Leaving behind Bach (of course), Schumann, Fauré and the most challenging thing I'd ever learned in my life, the Messiaen 'Premier communion de la Vierge'. Ligeti hadn't yet written his Etudes, not Philip Glass his, and I had a friend who wanted to do her thesis on Steve Reich and had to fight the faculty for the right to do so. It's so long ago that I can't remember whether or not she won.
Those were the days in which the arrogant public-schoolboy first-years would stride around the faculty declaring "Prokofiev's rubbish" before photocopying their nether equipment (this was before mobile phones), and if you dared to think Rachmaninoff was any good you'd be laughed out of town (another problem back in the piano studio in London). You'd also be laughed out of town if you preferred Pablo Casals to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, or if you were a woman and you wanted to compose music. Oh yes indeed.
And historical inevitability determined that if you did want to compose music, you could only write serialism - or, once again, you'd be laughed out of town. Historical inevitability had a lot to answer for.
What everyone forgot about historical inevitability was that time moves forward. It only ever moves forward. It does not and cannot move backwards, however much certain groups would like it to, and neither does it stand still. The historical inevitability of historical inevitability is that historical inevitability as a concept was bound to become obsolete.
Things change. But they only change when we change them.
One thing that changed because people changed it was the nature of orchestral programming - and not always for the better. A large swathe of music that used to appear regularly in concert programmes has vanished. When did you last hear Mozart's Symphony No.29 in an orchestral concert? Haydn's No.102? Schumann's Second, Beethoven's First, Schubert's Third, a Bach Suite? There is a vast wealth of repertoire that is assumed to be in the "canon" - being by dead white men - that is of sterling quality but is hardly ever played because thinking has changed. Somehow the notion has got a grip on us that this music has to be played by only period-instrument specialists. It's one way to hear them, sure. But how did it ever become the only way?
It's become a problem, because it's pushed that repertoire into a ghetto, where it's in danger of gradually disappearing from view altogether. Now it needs to be brought out and given a good scrub-down for the 21st century. It may take Simon Rattle himself to change this and bring these fabulous pieces back into the concert hall where they belong. I once asked for a piano score of The Magic Flute for my birthday so that I could play it myself - I'd given up hope of ever hearing a performance of it again that was listenable. But I recently watched on the Digital Concert Hall Rattle's concert of the last three Mozart symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic and it was heaven. Now hope springs eternal.
There's nothing wrong with playing Mozart, Haydn, Schubert etc on original instruments, of course. It's an admirable thing to do, fascinating and educational at best. But it should never have happened at the expense of playing them on anything else. Why not? Because the audience misses out. Because the larger audiences plod dutifully to yet more Mahler, yet more Shostakovich, another anniversary of X, Y or Z, and they no longer know Schubert 3. Authenticity, as I recently commented in my 'Hammerklavier' piece, is in the soul. No amount of original instruments will help you if that isn't the case. And if it is, then the instrument doesn't really matter.
Today playing Bach's Goldberg Variations is a badge of honour for any pianist. Rachmaninoff is adored the world over, as he always was, but he is also appreciated as a composer of splendid technique. Liszt transcriptions pop up regularly. And nobody I run into these days could possibly consider Prokofiev rubbish, because it patently isn't. How had people ended up thinking that way? They'd been taught to. They're trying to please parents, teachers, peer groups, etc, often by trotting out opinion that they don't even realise is "received".
Change happens because people make it happen. Musicians make it happen, by having the courage of their convictions. In the case of the period-instrument movement, and the Women Can't Compose people, this did, I'm afraid, involve in the 1980s a certain amount of bullying, which is what I consider was done to me and my friends in the Cambridge music faculty in one way or another. But out in the wider world, it wasn't necessarily so. A small handful of pianists went right on playing Bach on the piano and simply ignored the critics and the handwringing. They have won. The beneficiaries are the audience and the next generation. If you've missed Beatrice Rana playing the Goldberg Variations, don't miss it any longer - you're denying yourself a whopper of a treat.
More changes. When I did my dissertation in 1987 almost nobody had heard of Korngold except my supervisor, Dr Puffett, who had a brain the size of both the Americas, and the person who introduced me to Korngold's music, Eric Wen, who did too. Today Die tote Stadt is becoming standard opera repertoire almost everywhere except Britain. And the Violin Concerto is much played because violinists hear it, love it and want to play it.
Likewise, nobody had heard of Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Hans Gál, Miklos Rozsa, Mieczyslaw Weinberg and many more. A whole generation of composers that was murdered or driven into exile by the Nazis. Devoted musicians and researchers have thrown their energy and resources into resuscitating this music and those voices are now starting to be heard in earnest. Recognising that some who turned to film music did so not out of choice but necessity, to save their own and their families' lives, has been an important part of this, because having escaped racial persecution, those exiles soon found their work buried alive because they were writing The Wrong Things. Film music? Gasp! Insupportable!! Oh please. Otherwise they'd be dead. Did anybody bother to notice?
The current wave of composers-buried-alive to emerge are women. Not only those writing today, but those appearing out of history. Francesca Caccini. Fanny Mendelssohn. Pauline Viardot. Lili Boulanger. Rebecca Clarke. Louise Farrenc - and these are the better-known names. Indeed, just the other day, I heard someone talking about Farrenc with the remark "Of course, she's known...", which was a startling but fantastic piece of news to me. But how many of us have heard the music of Grace Williams? How much do you know by Elizabeth Maconchy? Get out and hear some - it is simply wonderful. Just think about it: why should we have to go to Mahler 2 yet again, listening through the angst for new nuances, when we could be discovering all of this? People are making change happen - people like the Southbank Centre, like Radio 3, like Bangor University (the conference in September was terrific and full of all-but-unknown musical marvels). And the music will win through because it is good. And it will stay with us, with people wondering "Where has this been all my life?"
What about the issue of racial diversity? There is nothing, but nothing, to stop great violinists from learning the concerto by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the African-British composer who worked himself into an early grave in Croydon in 1912. It's an absolute beauty. Philippe Graffin recorded it ten years ago, in Johannesburg. Tasmin Little has recorded it. Others have too. It needn't be a rarity. If you don't think it's as good as the Bruch, fine, but so what? That doesn't mean we wouldn't enjoy it. And you might get a surprise. You might find that actually it is as good as the Bruch. You just didn't expect it to be.
Meanwhile, heard anything by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges? Tremendous stuff. Influenced Mozart. Today Errollyn Wallen is one of the finest composers in Britain and her music should be totally mainstream. These are just the three most obvious names - imagine the amount of music out there waiting to be played, heard and enjoyed. And this, too, is starting to change - but only because people woke up and did something about it. Chi-chi Nwanoku has created the Chineke! orchestra and Chineke for Change foundation. The Kanneh-Mason family has captured the hearts of British music-lovers - don't miss cellist Sheku's debut album, which is coming out this month.
And perhaps the thing to question is not the "greatness" of the music of "dead white men" - nobody is going to take Beethoven away from me, thanks very much - but to remember to look at things in context, with healthy perspective, with curiosity and an open mind, without blinkers. And not to remove that music, but to add to it. Not to say "No, but..." but "Yes, and...". Not to regard long-established "greatness" as a prerequisite for exploring music - I mean, Beethoven's early piano sonatas are great music, but they're almost never played in concert because people assume the late ones are greater (when did you last hear Op.31 No.3? It's amazing!).
The whole issue of expectation, of music competitions, of ambitious teachers, of commercial power, all these things have a big role to play in what becomes standard repertoire, what promoters think they can sell. That needs a piece to itself. Everything is connected, though - every level of what makes the musical world turn has a profound effect on every other level...
So the "canon" is not an immovable feast. But it does take some effort to shift it. Things can and do change, when there's the will for it. What happens now will be change for our own time. In 20 years things may look very different, and they'll be changing again, assuming humanity still exists.
Thanks very much and have a nice weekend.
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Saturday, January 06, 2018
Tuesday, October 03, 2017
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
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"
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
“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.
Tuesday, July 04, 2017
The American tenor Michael Spyres has taken an impressive and unusual highway through the operatic world. Hailing from a musical family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's little town on the prairie, he is 38 yet has already tackled 64 different roles, from baroque to bel canto to Berlioz. He is convinced he has sung the latter's Faust more than anyone else alive. And it's not exactly that he doesn't like Puccini, but...
In this 4 July special, I meet the US's mercurial Renaissance-man backstage at the Royal Opera House, where he is currently appearing in Mozart's Mitridate...
|Michael Spyres as Mitridate at the Royal Opera House. Photo ROH/Bill Cooper|
JD: Michael, lovely to meet you. How are you enjoying Mitridate?
MS: The role itself is absolutely incredible. People don’t realise, simply because it’s not done enough in repertory, but it’s so difficult. As a character it’s comparable to Otello, or to any of the truly great characters in the repertoire. The real Mithridate was one of the most mythic people who ever lived. He was 72 when he died and he thwarted the Roman army for 39 years – which is 39 years more than most people ever did! He was a famous polyglot and spoke 22 languages: he owned the Black Sea and everything around it, there were 22 different regions and he made it a point to learn all the languages.
There’s also a word in French and high English – “mithridisation” and “mithridatism” – which means to take small amounts of poison in order to be immune to it. He believed that if you take small amounts of poison every day then as you get older you do become immune. One of the main dangers for kings was patricide or death by poisoning – nearly everyone died of poison! – so he grew up in a strict regimen of taking poison every day so he would be immune. But when the Romans were finally defeating him, he tried to poison himself and couldn’t die from that, so he either stabbed himself or had a friend do it so that the Romans couldn’t. He was this epic, amazing person and even if some of his story is exaggerated nowadays, it doesn’t matter; he was a real king and was able to hold off and defeat the Roman army.
(Here, a different interpretation: Save Pontus, Change Europe)
JD: Mozart’s portrayal of him is extraordinarily sophisticated.
MS: From the beginning you get to see the heart and the beauty of him, but in the recitatives you can also see this cunning, brilliant man who would pit people against each other. In his first aria, he says: “Thank God I’m back home – I thought I’d never see this place again. It’s OK to lose but I still hold my head high…” And you find out just afterwards, in the recitative, that this is totally a ruse, because he’s sent false information to his sons to test if they’re loyal or not. In the recit you hear him say he faked his own death just to see if they were traitors. Wooah!
About half way through you start to see his inner turmoil and the anger he feels because he knows he’s ageing. He died when he was 72 and usually kings died when they were about 30, killed by their brothers or their sons. But the way Mozart and Metastasio wrote the character, based on the Racine play, it shows he’s an old man used to conquering everything, but the worst thing for him is not losing the battle but losing his heart, losing his love. You see this throughout the opera. He’s scared, just like all of us, that nobody’s going to love him again…
There’s a wonderful scene between him and the queen in which she says, “Yes, I’ll go to the alter as your slave and do whatever you want.” He's so incensed: “So I have to drag you to the altar – you don’t want to marry me, you’re just going to do it out of spite?” And you see this crazy rage and jealousy in him. But then at the end he gives his sons freedom and says that at the end of his life he wants to be again the great lion that he is. “Please marry her, and I’m sorry I’m a terrible person, but I’m showing you how to live. This is how a real person should live - no regrets…” At the end he says “I can die happy now because I’ve done what I need to” – and he just dies. I can’t think of a more complex character. You’re a god among men, a god personified. Hoffmann or Otello would be comparable, but there’s only a handful of characters who run the gamut of what a Shakespearean character is and this is definitely one of them.
JD: Mozart was only 14 when he wrote it – what an astounding thought…
MS: Mozart had three major influences: Mysliveček, JC Bach and another I only found out about because I did an obscure baroque opera in Lisbon called Antigono, by Antonio Mazzoni. I did the modern revival a few years ago and we made a recording. The only time people had ever heard it was three performances in 1755 – it’s an incredible piece, but it was lost because of the terrible fire in 1755 in Lisbon. When Mozart, aged 12, was travelling through Italy with his father, Mazzoni taught the boy counterpoint in Bologna. Antigono was almost the same kind of story as Mitridate – it’s a formulaic thing but a large character. But the fact that Mozart was able to write such touching and beautiful music was just beyond compare. To anyone who thinks it fails in comparison to his later works I’d say: no, it’s something completely different. You can’t compare it and you shouldn’t, because it’s raw, amazing emotion. Some of his duets, Aspasia’s arias and the vocal writing with the recitatives – there’s nothing like it.
At the last full rehearsal before we went on the stage, Graham Vick, who’s one of the greatest directors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, got us all round and said: I want you to realise that 26 years ago I premiered this here, and now I see this in a completely different light and I see the absolute genius of Mozart – this little boy who was shuffled around and hauled out by his father all over Europe. You can see the animosity in the letters, you can see his wish to be just a normal boy – all the angst and the problems between father and son is written into the music. He was a mature being already at that age, because he was forced to be and he had the genius to do it.
JD: Your particular type of tenor is something unusual and special. What was your path towards finding your true voice?
MS: Everyone finds their own path, but I had a different path than anybody! I started as a baritone. And I wanted to be Mel Blanc, who was the voice-over person for all the Loony Tunes cartoons. When I was young I’d imitate everything, all the time and growing up I sang with my family every kind of music there was – church music, bluegrass, folk. Then when I was in college I made money by doing commercials and I was a radio DJ and I would do commercials in different characters – and then I started getting into the idea that “Oh, you can make a living being an opera singer, that’s weird…” Obviously I couldn’t do what they were doing, so I thought “I’ll just take the recordings and start imitating the best”.
The big thing happened when I was 20 years old – and it was with this production of Mitridate. In my two years of vocal study, 18-21, we had a VHS of this production and I heard Bruce Ford for the first time. I didn’t know you could sound like this as a tenor. I’d never heard a sound like it – it’s like a baritone, but it’s obviously a tenor role, and that’s what I want to do. Low notes were the easiest things in the world – high notes, ugh, they were so hard! But this was totally different from anything I heard in Verdi and Puccini.
In the US, everyone said you can’t make a career out of this, you just cannot – and that’s still true if you’re in the sticks. So I decided that if I really wanted to learn to sing I needed to go to Europe and try to figure out this weird baritenor kind of repertoire. It took another six years of auditioning to think OK, I can do this weird trick of different mixed techniques, so I started doing a lot of Rossini roles.
JD: It sounds like it wasn’t an easy beginning?
MS: I was in Vienna for two years at the conservatory, and it’s a very Mozart-heavy town, so it was an invaluable experience. That was the first time I got to sing these arias in public and I crashed and burned. It was so hard! I was 26 and it just didn’t work. I went back to the drawing board and started doing lots of Rossini again. This is my third time doing Mitridate in the last year and only now is it starting to feel good and right.
This is one of the most difficult fachs of tenor, because you have to do a real mix of baritonal and tenor sounds, but you have to keep it up in the extreme highs, the same kind of colour as a baritone but not using the full voice. It’s a voix mixte and it’s really tricky to navigate and very technical, but you don’t want people to know you’re doing it! So that’s how I got into it: years and years of practice and failure and finally things started to click. And now, depending on repertoire, I change my technique. You have to, because it was written for different people with different techniques.
JD: Next up, you’re singing Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms?
MS: There’s a huge misconception about Berlioz! He was a big admirer of the tenor Adolphe Nourrit, he admired Rossini and you can hear it constantly in his music. Everyone thinks of Berlioz as these unimaginable, gigantic pieces that are ultimately verismo – and it’s absolutely false. In order to sing Berlioz, you have to be able to sing full voice, high, and get over the orchestra, but the majority of his writing is for a lyrical voice. He had Nourrit, who was known for doing a lot of voix mixte and had various kinds of colour-changing sounds, not full-voice high Cs. He had him in mind for Benvenuto Cellini. But Nourrit was having vocal problems and tragically then killed himself that year and Berlioz wrote it for Gilbert Duprez instead. But a work like Lélio is so lyrical and beautiful, I can’t imagine some Puccini singer trying to sing it: it’s all lightness and is based completely on the text.
There’s a great quote from Berlioz. He used to say: “Above all, resonate”. He meant that both literally and figuratively. I sang the Grande Messe des Morts in this massive cathedral that it was intended for [Les Invalides], and in there Berlioz had realised that he needed more people, it was too big a place, so the choir’s about 180-200 people and the orchestra’s 120. I had friends at the performance and they said when I opened up and started singing they could feel the sound resonating.
Berlioz was this great artist and dreamer but although he had a giant ego, it was all about the art for him and he connected everything to the text. He believed in art permeating society and being an infectious thing, but it always has to be for a reason, it’s not just superfluous. He was unlike anybody else and I love him!
JD: This isn’t entirely your Proms debut?
MS: I did the Beethoven Missa Solemnis with John Eliot Gardiner two years ago. I’ve never done solo stuff there before, though, so I’m excited. I love the Proms because it’s an awakening of classical music for ‘everyperson’. I’m not saying that opera isn’t an elitist thing – because it is, as it takes so much money to be able to put on an opera. But the coolest thing about the Proms is that for many people this is their only possibility that they might see something that’ll change their lives. So that’s why I love the Proms. And I’ll give ‘em a good show, because now I’ve done Faust more than, as far as I know, any other living person. I could conduct it with my eyes closed – but all I have to do is sing, so it’s great! I love the piece so much, mainly because I did the production with Terry Gilliam in the original French in Belgium and that changed my life.
JD: What’s it like to work with Gilliam?
MS: He’s a madman and he’s wonderful! He seriously reminds me of my uncle. We’ve kept in really good touch. We’re very much of the same kind of mind – we’d start talking and still be there four hours later. We have similar ideas and that’s also why he’s taken a liking, like me too, to Berlioz. There are so many accounts of Berlioz being a true artist – ‘I don’t care what you think of me, I’m going to do this because the art demands it’ – and I’ve done that many times in my life. Of course I’ve failed – but I’ve succeeded too!
JD: The production was brilliant, but quite controversial, involving a concentration camp…
MS: To me it’s one of the most poignant productions I’ve ever been a part of. I have many friends and colleagues who say ‘Oh, opera’s going in such a bad direction, all these director things that kill the production’ – but you have a choice to take that or not, and we have to do the projects we believe in. I’ve been fortunate that out of my 64 operas I’ve done, there have only been two or three that I haven’t been really thrilled about.
JD: You don’t mind ‘Regietheater’, then?
MS: It depends on the director and the ideas. I’m a director myself, I have my own opera company in the States that I run with my family. We’re basically the von Trapps – we put on the shows, my brother helps run the company and my sister’s a Broadway singer. I take it very seriously, I can see when a director is just doing something for their own ego and I choose not to be around those kinds of people.
It’s a difficult thing, being a director. Today they’re in a weird position where these are major decisions, it takes huge amounts of money to put on a project and everybody’s under pressure to do a brand-new, original idea. Many people have an idea, but it doesn’t necessarily work with the music. Many directors are not musicians to start out with – they’re dramatists, which is a great concept on paper, but if you have to listen to a piece for four hours and you don’t take into account the audience – you’re gonna die! So I’m fine with any project as long as it’s well thought out and it makes sense with the music. Because the whole reason you’re there is because of the music.
It’s gone crazy in certain places. I won’t name names, but there was one instance where L’Italiana in Algeri was being produced and the director wanted to have his name bigger on the poster than the composer’s name or the opera’s title. Fortunately the festival director said no. That’s how crazy people get!
JD: Do you see yourself moving more into directing in the future?
MS: Yes, absolutely. I’m so inspired, the more I read about the origins of opera. From Jacopo Peri, who wrote the first opera, until the late 19th century, all singers were actors and directors. Nowadays things are so specialised that people say “I’m just a singer” and some don’t even act! It’s completely the opposite of what it should be. All of us need to be acting, dancing, singing, learning as much as we can. That is why opera created this wave of art because it was the first artform where everyone came together, with the idea that we’re all part of it, we all need to be able to do a little bit of everything.
That was the great thing, growing up in my family. We built our own amphitheatre. We built the stage first and everyone sat on hay bales. I’m from a famous little town called Mansfield, Missouri – it was the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House of the Prairie books. Because of the books, we have many visitors come through there. My mother wrote a musical about Laura Ingalls Wilder when we were growing up and it’s now in its 28th year. At its biggest we had about 120 people involved, which was 10 per cent of the town! So I’ve grown up around this and I’ve been so vindicated reading about the origins of opera, what got me into opera and how it split from its origins.
JD: The idea that you can do just do one thing and the world owes you a living, that’s going nowhere fast…
MS: Of course! And people are tired of that. One of my favourite futurist speakers is Michio Kaku, a fantastic theoretical physicist. A big subject now is what’s going to happen when people become obsolete in jobs. In the next 30-50 years half the people are going to be cut out because of robots, so what’s going to happen? What are the jobs that will be left? You’ve got to be an artist, a musician, someone who comes up with new ideas. For a long time everyone wanted to have a good stable job, but now people are being replaced by robots. But a robot will never be able to be an artist or a musician – that’s what’s so exciting.
JD: I hope you’re right!
MS: They can try! But we are such complex creatures in music. You can hear a piece that’s done by a robot and it doesn’t feel right, it’s just algorithms. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of music and art. I feel I came at the right time because by the time I’m in my later years more and more people will be coming to art, because that’s where the ideas come from. The same thing applies to the computer programmers – they have the technicality and the vision for what needs to be done. Opera is basically the computer of the art world.
JD: You sing, you act, you direct: are you also tempted to write an opera?
A few years ago my brother wrote a libretto, my mum helped – we took the music from The Magic Flute and created a story based on Alice in Wonderland to take to all the kids in the area who’d never seen opera before, in 32 schools that were among the poorest in the community. Yes, someday I want to write an opera – that’s what I’m leaning towards.
JD: What about future roles to sing? Any big dreams?
MS: I’ve basically done every role I wanted to do, except Verdi’s Otello. I’ll do that someday – but like Kaufmann, I’m smart and I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’m 50 for that, so I’ve got over a decade – but the other dream roles are Monteverdi’s Orfeo and a lot of Rameau and Gluck, great epic works on Greek stories. But modern opera for the most part is not as appealing to me as a singer.
I like Puccini. I love Puccini. But it’s like he put down pure gold on paper and if you want to do him justice you’ve got to do what he wrote – and if you live within the characters that he wrote there’s not a lot of freedom. I’ve taken a lot of flack for saying that – people say, ‘Oh you just don’t like Puccini because you can’t sing it’ – but actually I can sing it, I just don’t like it, because I believe in doing what the composer wanted you to do and for my character there’s very little in Puccini that I find interesting as an actor and singer. I love it when other people do it, but for me personally I get angry because I want to do my own thing, but I shouldn’t – he wrote it so perfectly and beautifully that it’s just right! So that’s why most of the verismo period doesn’t appeal to me – there’s not enough freedom for me,
As far as dream roles go, I’ve done most of them and I know it’s crazy to say that. But I’ve done 64 already and I’m 38: operas from modern to the earliest stuff, and a range from the lowest operas written for a tenor voice to the highest, so I’ve lived out all my major fantasies as far as roles are concerned. Now I’m just looking for true content and characterisation. I find many of the more obscure things much more rewarding. I’d love to do Die tote Stadt – that’s a dream. I love Die tote Stadt – Korngold was one of the greatest. The same with Massenet: he came on the heels of verismo and was able to marry the two, and Korngold did the same thing. Korngold is so overlooked, just because he went into film. But have you listened to his film scores? They’re better than anything! Come on, you can’t write better than that.
JD: You just made this Korngold biographer very happy! Thank you, Michael, and toitoitoi for the final Mitridate.
And – as Loony Tunes would say – that’s all, folks!
The final performance of Mitridate is on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House – booking here. Michael Spyres sings Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust at the Proms on 8 August – booking here.
Saturday, June 18, 2016
The American academic and violist Edward Klorman, a professor at the Juilliard School in New York, has written a truly beautiful book about Mozart's chamber music, exploring the conversational exchanges the composer's writing seems to evoke and its lineage among Enlightenment ideals: Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works (just out, from Cambridge University Press). It makes me realise how very far society seems to have fallen from such things, and how wonderful they are, and how we should start aspiring to them again, right now, this minute.
I've done an e-Q&A with Edward about his book. I hope you will love these ideas as much as I do.
JD: Your book Mozart’s Music of Friends examines the interplay within chamber ensembles using the metaphor of social interplay. How did you begin exploring this topic?
EK: During my studies at Juilliard, I had some opportunities to study chamber music with violinist Pamela Frank and pianist Robert Levin at various festivals. I remember vividly some of the images they invoked in their coachings. Pam would describe a violin singing a beautiful melody when the viola pokes in to interrupt or to tease. And Bob would point out how one instrument “changes the subject” from a serious fugue to something more light-hearted, or how another instrument introduces a certain accidental that urges the others to modulate to a particular key.
This way of treating each instrument like a character seems to be so intuitive to many performers, but it’s somehow not something most musical scholars tend to write. Perhaps this is because a player literally enacts just one of the instrumental parts, whereas a music analyst adopts an omniscient, outside vantage point. This book aims to bring the scholarly and performance perspectives together. By examining the historical and theoretical underpinnings of performers’ experiences of this repertoire, I’ve united two parts of my musical life.
JD: Could you explain the title Mozart’s Music of Friends?
EK: This lovely phrase is borrowed from a 1909 lecture by Richard Henry Walthew, a British composer and chamber music aficionado. Chamber music is fundamentally a music not just for friends but of friends. Its natural habitat is the drawing room, where it was played among friends in intimate settings, but even when it is played in large halls, the music reflects its sociable ethos
through the way the musical parts interact with one another. We become friends just be playing or listening to it together.
This is a traditional idea. A German preacher, who wrote an essay about string quartets in 1810, observed: “Those who ever drank together became friends [but] the quartet table will soon replace the pub table. A person cannot hate anyone with whom he has ever made music in earnest. Those who throughout a winter have united on their own initiative to play quartets will remain good friends for life.”
JD: It was Goethe who famously described Beethoven’s quartets as resembling a conversation among four sophisticated people. Was this his original idea?
EK: That Goethe quote is an oft-cited expression of that idea, but the comparison dates back to the 1760s, around when string quartets first became popular. And it makes a certain sense, since four instruments with similar timbres resemble the sound of four conversationalists.
Parisian quartet publications dating from this period often used the title “quatuors dialogués” — literally “dialogued quartets.” To compare chamber music to conversation was quite a compliment, since the Enlightenment regarded conversation to a highly refined art form. Whether a group of friends and familiars socializes through conversation or chamber music (or perhaps both at the same time!), the interest is on the witty exchanges and liveliness of the repartee.
|A watercolour by Nicolaes Aartman showing this type of gathering|
JD: How would you compare settings for chamber music performances in Mozart’s period vs. today?
EK: This is an interesting question, but a complicated one. To begin with the words “performed” and “concert”: These words are tricky in historical documents such as Mozart’s letters. The German word “Akademie” sometimes describes a public, subscription concert in a theater, but it can also refer to a private gathering in a salon in someone’s home, possibly with some listeners (“audience”) but just as likely with no one else present. In paintings and drawings from the period, you sometimes see what looks like a soirée or party setting, with guests chatting (and half listening) as the musicians play. The musicians were often arranged in a circle, playing inward toward the other musicians rather than directing their performance outward toward attentive listeners.
In a letter to his father, Mozart describes a four-hour-long “Akademie” he played at an inn where he was staying. The gathering lasted four hours, and Mozart played with a violinist he’d only just met that morning – and who turned out to be a rather lousy sight-reader. (“He was no good friend of the rests!” wrote Mozart.) The impression you get is that the guests at the inn were basically just socializing, while music was being played, rather than listening with full attention as a formal audience. As one of my musicologist colleagues nicely put it, music could simulate artful conversation, but in salon settings it also served to stimulate it.
JD: Tell us about the companion website for Mozart’s Music of Friends?
EK: The website (www.MozartsMusicOfFriends.com) is fun to explore either together with the book or as a standalone resource. There’s a large trove of paintings and drawings that give an idea what it might have felt like to attend these musical salons. And there are videos that allow you to hear the musical examples while watching explanatory animations. Appropriate for “the music of friends,” those videos include musical performances by a number of my close friends and colleagues, so it was a real treat to play together with them as part of the project.