Monday, August 21, 2017

Silver Birch roundup

Curtain calls...in front, Roxanna (right) and me, with Jay Wheeler in the middle

I've been away since just after the last night of Silver Birch, so I've only posted one of the reviews here so far. Here's a little selection from among the others. Silver Birch has been without a doubt the most wonderful experience of my professional life to date, so it is kind of nice to know it's gone over OK... Below, some extracts that appear on the Garsington website.

(Since I'm abandoning one's habitual English self-effacement and modesty here, I wouldn't mind adding that The Times review also called my libretto "powerful and poetic" and Roxanna's music "busy and imaginative", while the Financial Times said that the piece "should be a useful stepping-stone to something bigger"...)

Silver Birch
★★★★
"It's the terrific panache of Karen Gillingham's staging that really socks you between the eyes and ears. It was all superbly played by the Garsington Opera Orchestra, augmented by student instrumentalists and expertly conducted by Douglas Boyd."
Richard Morrison, The Times, 31 July 2017
★★★★
"...this was a real achievement."
Richard Fairman, Financial Times, 1 August 2017
★★★★
"A remarkable event with a vast community cast. There is a real sense of vision in this coming together, as clear in the unstoppable energy of the performers as it is in the excellence of the stagecraft displayed in Karen Gillingham's complex production."
George Hall, The Stage, 31 July 2017
★★★★★
"Panufnik and Duchen's achievement is to synthesise personal and poetic experiences, often harrowing and disturbing, into a work of beauty and hope."
Amanda-Jane Doran, Classical Source, 30 July 2017
★★★★★
"A work that is having an impact on performers and audiences alike, and which stands as one of the very best examples of this type of opera."
Sam Smith, Music OMH, 31 July 2017
★★★
"A chorus of roof-raising passion and purpose...directed with commanding skill by Karen Gillingham."
Helen Wallace, Arts Desk, 31 July 2017
"This was undoubtedly the most uplifting and moving evening I've spent in the theatre this year. It deserves many more outings - soon."
Susan Elkin, Sardines Magazine, 31 July 2017
Please also read this very moving piece by the mum of one of the participating schoolgirls, explaining how the experience has changed her life: https://rhapsodyinwords.com/tag/garsington-opera/

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Die Meistersinger von Bayreuth

Yes, they did this.
The last scene of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg's second act is usually stirring, but doesn't often make the pit of your stomach drop as if you're in the London Underground's oldest lift. But this is Barrie Kosky's new production for the Bayreuth Festival. While white supremacists were marching and murdering in Charlottesville, we were in the Festspielhaus watching as Kosky unleashed across the entire giant plain of a stage an inflatable cartoon head, akin to the vile Nazi-era caricatures of supposedly typical Jewish appearance (as in the picture, but magnified a few hundred times). The riot in the town square here is fermenting an incipient pogrom against the Jewish Beckmesser. And, horrifying to admit, as an interpretation it makes sense.

That probably looks as if Kosky (the Australian director who has sometimes described himself as a "gay, Jewish kangaroo" - see my interview with him in the JC here) is bashing us over the head. Believe it or not, he isn't - or not solely. This masterful production poses many, many questions, but offers no easy answers. Kosky's laser-like imagination deftly clinches the linking image as one of judgment: the 'marker' is judging Walther, and Sachs judging Beckmesser, in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials were held. Ultimately Sachs delivers his speech on great German art alone in the witness stand, before turning to conduct a newly visible orchestra to prove his point. At this moment, the audience must become the judges. We are saved by art alone... Or are we? That is up to us.

Saved by art alone?

We are not only judging Sachs, though - because this Sachs is Wagner. The overture shows us the interior of the composer's nearby house, Wahnfried, and as the first chords blaze out, the doors fly open and in strides the maestro, complete with his two Newfoundland dogs. We soon meet Cosima, who's been upstairs with a migraine; her father, Franz Liszt; a guest, the conductor Hermann Levi (who was the son of a rabbi, but was Wagner's choice to conduct the premiere of Parsifal). There's the spectacle of Wagner and Liszt playing this music to their captive audience as a piano duet, and the mercurial Wagner becomes puppet-master, directing everybody, while Levi is shown up as an outsider, reluctant to kneel for prayer - he's Jewish, but also he has gammy knees. A portrait of Cosima wins a central role, and soon from inside the piano emerge the mastersingers in 16th-century costume...

Wagner is transformed into Sachs; and his younger self, Walther; and his younger self still, David the apprentice; and two young boys in similar costume, perhaps Siegfried, or Wolfgang and Wieland. Cosima becomes Eva, if without such properties of recreated youth, and Liszt is her dad, Pogner. And Levi is coerced by the Master into becoming Beckmesser.

One can, of course, pick holes in the concept if one wants to - Eva/Cosima's hoppity-skippity ways in her dignified older-woman black crinoline don't always work convincingly. Yet the whole is carried out with the kind of flair, wealth of detail and technical brilliance that reduces such matters to relatively minor caveats. The crowd-scenes' Bosch-like ferments are punctuated by startling moments of stillness. Grass matting rises to fly skywards; Wahnfried wheels away, in its entirety, into the distance. (And how do those characters get into the piano to climb out of it? From row 24, the illusion of magic seemed complete.)

But the audacity of unfurling that giant antisemitic caricature is something that probably would only be acceptable in Bayreuth, a festival fated always to seek atonement for its historical disgrace. Today many scholars assert that Beckmesser was never intended as a Jewish caricature, while others declare it's obvious that he is one. Some productions hint at the issue genteelly - David McVicar's Glyndebourne production is a case in point - while others appear to by-pass it, notably the Bayerische Staatsoper's fascinating 1960s-set staging. Kosky grabs the issue and faces it, head on. That takes quite some guts. Besides, dramaturgically, historically, in terms of Wagner and Cosima's relationship, personalities and attitudes, the production seems watertight.

Kränzle & Volle as Beckmesser & Sachs
Musically things were not always as even as one might wish, although the best was the best of all the best. The peerless Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle was cherishable, with subtle, beautiful singing and detailed characterisation, carrying off both humour and humiliation with convincing aplomb. Michael Volle as Sachs/Wagner matched him in magnificence: a huge, charismatic personality with vast velvety voice, Volle seems effortlessly to hold stage and audience in the proverbial palm of his hand. The relationship between the two characters proved, as it should, the lynchpin of the entire edifice.

As Walther, Klaus Florian Vogt had virtually everything, including the requisite metallic cut-through tone to carry off the rigours of the role and the power to soar over the textures, and in this context it's hard to ignore the way that blond "Aryan" look contrasts with the bearded Beckmesser when vying for Eva's affection. Günther Groissböck presented an exceptionally colourful and beautiful-toned Pogner, while Daniel Behle was a warm and mercurial David, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl a mellifluous Magdalena despite the flighty character assigned to her (as an aside, one couldn't help feeling that the female characters didn't fare too well in this staging). And the chorus was an utter glory. Less happy, sadly, was the Eva of Anne Schwanewilms, who seemed at times to be struggling vocally. Philippe Jordan's conducting slid towards some ponderous tempi; indeed, a couple of times one feared things were about to grind to a halt. Some of the soloists appeared to do their level best to chivvy the pace along.

A mixed evening, then, but one that has provided endless food for thought well beyond the Festival Bratwurst. I'd love to see it several more times.

Photo credits: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele


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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

HAPPY AUGUST

Now that the Silver Birch excitement is behind us, it's time for a bit of a break. Back in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, you could...

...read some of the reviews: http://www.garsingtonopera.org/news/latest-reviews-0

...make a pledge to MEETING ODETTE, my new novel based (in a slightly off-the-wall way) on Swan Lakehttps://unbound.com/books/meeting-odette

...book tickets for one of our GHOST VARIATIONS concerts with David Le Page and Viv McLean:
• 23 October: Brasserie Zédel, just off Piccadilly Circus - 0207 734 4888
• 3 November: Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove
• 19 November: Burgh House, Hampstead
• 2 January: Lampeter House, Pembrokeshire
• 22 February: Leicester Lunchtime Concerts
(more booking details on the posters, left - click to enlarge)

...and/or ALICIA'S GIFT with Viv:
• 20 November: Barnes Music Society, The Old Sorting Office, London SW13 - email barnesmusicsoc@aol.com

...and support JDCMB's Year of Development, here: https://www.gofundme.com/jdcmb 

THANK YOU SO MUCH AND HAVE A WONDERFUL SUMMER!


Friday, July 28, 2017

Meet our composer: ROXANNA PANUFNIK SPEAKS OUT


And here she is: our SILVER BIRCH composer, the fabulous Roxanna Panufnik. You've heard a lot from me already about the words and the background, so I asked Rox some questions about how she wrote the music.

JD: How does Silver Birch differ from anything you’ve written before? 
RP: The sheer size and range of vocal forces involved is amazing - such a lot to hold at the front of my brain whilst composing! 
JD: How did you go about connecting with the subject and the story? I know I was way out of my comfort zone at first and wondered if you were too?  
RP: Completely. I first wondered how I could empathise with a young man going to war, but the more Sassoon I read and meeting our inspiration Jay Wheeler helped me hugely to relate to our subject. 

Rehearsing the battle scene...

JD: What have been a) the most challenging, b) the most rewarding things about writing it?  
RP: I’ve never been very hot on unpitched percussion and this piece has required a huge amount of it! But with the help of my ex-drummer brother Jem and Garsginton percussionist Cameron Sinclair I’ve conquered my fear! I think the most rewarding thing would be the wonderfully positive reactions to the piece from those taking part in it - professional and non-professional.

JD: You met most of the singers and worked with them in your shed - how did that affect what you wrote for them to sing?  
RP: For instance with Darren Jeffrey (estranged angry father, Simon) we looked at ways of injecting anger into the timbre of his voice without damaging it. With Sammy Furness (our hero, Jack), again, I needed his guidance with writing high up, at the peak of his range, when his brother Davey gets shot in battle. With the other singers it was a case of making sure that I wrote something that was comfortable enough in their voice that they could emote dramatically without worrying about the technical. 
JD: The vast majority of our performers are adult amateurs, young people and schoolchildren. How difficult is it to write the music you want to write while keeping the technical level appropriate for them?  
RP: It’s not at all difficult - I’m a terrible singer so I went by whether I could sing their parts or not! I also had a lot of support and guidance from Suzi Zumpe, who is responsible for training the non-professionals, and learnt hugely form her as I went along.

JD: I based some of the story on what really happened to Jay Wheeler, and he has been wonderfully helpful to me - I even used some of his words in the libretto, especially the “One chance” chorus and Jack’s “Got to look after my brother". Was it helpful for you to work with him too, and in what way?  
RP: It was fantastically helpful to be able to ring him up and ask him what kind of things he heard in the midst of battle (more shouting and screaming than anything else) and running across the desert at night (his own heartbeat). I was also hugely inspired (and moved) by the photos he showed us of him in Iraq with his soldier friends, the place where they slept and also of him and his brother as little boys.

JD: I’ve got the bug for writing operas now. How about you? Shall we do another? :)  
RP: Yes PLEASE!! 
And now, if you'll excuse us, we're off to our premiere!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A few things you need to know about Silver Birch before tomorrow

Sam Furness as Jack, in Iraq shirt; Bradley Travis as Siegfried in WWI uniform

We had the dress rehearsal yesterday. Today everybody gets a rest before tomorrow's opening night. (UPDATE: EXCEPT FOR ROXANNA PANUFNIK, WHO'S ON RADIO 3'S 'IN TUNE' LIVE THIS AFTERNOON.)

So, in no particular order...

1. Here is a beautiful article by Joanna Moorhead for The Guardian about Sister Jessica Gatty, Siegfried Sassoon's niece and god-daughter. I went to see Sister Jess thanks to her nephew in our chorus and her insights into Sassoon's personality and motivations were more than fascinating. They are not directly referenced in Silver Birch, but have informed both the story and Bradley Travis's portrayal of his spiritual presence at a deep level. Very pleased that Sister Jess's story has come to light too.
"I remember his hat was held together with safety pins,” says Sister Jessica Gatty. “And his movements were rather jerky. His driving was most erratic – if you went out in the car with him, it was perfectly possible to end up in a cornfield.” These are Sister Jessica’s memories of Siegfried Sassoon, the war poet with whom she had an intense friendship in the last decade of his life. She describes their relationship as “spiritual”.
Read the rest here.

2. BBC Arts has been filming us for a documentary that will be posted online on their website, plus some interviews for Facebook Live. Here's the first of the films:




UPDATE, 3.30pm: And here's another film. This time it's me and Roxanna.



3. The word "opera" means "work". Oh yes. If you've never seen an opera company rehearsing, you mightn't realise quite how appropriate that term is. That's partly the idea, of course.

4. Siegfried Sassoon's presence in a contemporary war story not only integrates some of his poetry, but makes the point that the impact of war is as devastating in human terms today as it was a hundred years ago. Jack, our hero, is inspired by Sassoon's poems and turns to his words for guidance.

5. Jay Wheeler, the Iraq war veteran whose story has fed strongly into Jack's, has given Sam Furness his army dog-tags and shirt to wear on stage. He has also lent the youth opera company some of his own army "blueys" (air letters) which they receive in the "Letters from home" chorus. We are very touched that he has embraced the opera with such enthusiasm. He says it has been therapeutic and he'll be with us at the performances.

A number of our performers also have military backgrounds, families or other connections. Here is an interview on the Garsington website with some of them about what Silver Birch means to them.


Roxanna at rehearsal, checking her score

6. A few things that a composer and librettist team need:
• Sympathy
• Empathy
• Chocolate

7. "Never work with children or animals..." This is nonsense. They are wonderful. Here are some thoughts from the Primary company, our youngest performers. 

8. The dog is called Poppy and she belongs to our lead tenor, Sam. This is her stage debut. Someone in our military company remarked that on a desert patrol they would always have a dog, often a black labrador; and another member of the chorus used to be an animal trainer for films and theatre, so she gave Poppy a quick coaching session. Still, resident canine often wags her tail when her owner starts to sing.

9. In the pit, alongside members of Garsington's usual orchestra, are 13 excellent young musicians chosen from local youth orchestras. Each has a professional mentor in the orchestra and plays alongside her/him. Roxanna has written simplified parts especially for them.

10. Our two boy trebles, alternating in the role of Leo, have never sung solo on stage before. They are adorable. Here is an interview with one of them, William Saint, on the Garsington website.

11. The beautiful animation of the moon is by VJ Mischa Ying. Watch out for snippets of Siegfried Sassoon's handwriting and also for what happens when Jack and Chloe say the password. Here is an interview with Mischa on the Garsington website.

12. The Foley team comes from Pinewood Studios and they, too, are working with some students. Look out for their contribution to the battle scene (you can't miss it, really...).

13. PRACTICALITIES for audience members:
• If you want to picnic, come early (the estate opens at 5pm) and eat before the opera. It starts at 7.30pm and there's no interval.
• Dress informal.
• If you're driving please leave PLENTY of time because it's the last weekend of July, it will be busy, and there are road closures in London because of a bicycle race, plus roadworks and speed restrictions on the various motorways. Garsington is very close to exit 5 of the M40.
• If you have sensitive ears, bring ear protectors for the battle scene. It's short, but loud.
• It can get chilly at Garsington Opera, so wrap up warm and bring a brolly.

14. It's totally sold out.

15. (UPDATE, 1.10pm) - Here are some thoughts from various participants in the company, available to read on the Garsington website at the links:
The Primary company 





Sunday, July 23, 2017

Silver Birch: sneak preview

Here's Garsington's introduction to Silver Birch, with director Karen Gillingham, conductor Douglas Boyd and choreographer Natasha Khamjani...

Five days until opening night!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Pride and prejudices: Tchaikowsky's The Merchant of Venice, WNO, ROH


'In sooth, I know not why I am so sad...' Antonio goes to the shrink.
All photos by Johan Persson, courtesy of WNO

When I was 14 I went to a piano recital I've never forgotten. It was by a Polish pianist who had escaped the Soviet bloc and settled in Oxfordshire. He was a friend of my piano teacher, who said I simply had to go and hear this astonishing musician. A gentle figure, bearded and sympathetic, he played with a soft, persuasive tone, filled above all with love for the music, especially Chopin - I can still hear its atmosphere now. We went backstage, shook his hand, thanked him; he was kind to the music-mad schoolgirl I was at the time. About two years later he died of cancer, aged only 42. His name was André Tchaikowsky.



Unknown to me at the time, Tchaikowsky (or Czajkowski, assumed instead of his real name, which was Krauthammer) was a composer as well. His magnum opus, a piece that obsessed him for the last 25 years or so of his life, was an opera based on The Merchant of Venice. Having endured a traumatic wartime childhood that entailed escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and more (Anastasia Belina-Johnson's hair-raising account of his story in the opera programme is well worth a read if you can get hold of it - see also the trailer for the documentary above), Tchaikowsky had more than a vested interest in Shakespeare's story of prejudice and revenge on the Rialto.

The opera was almost finished at the time he died, but had been rejected - to his immense disappointment - by ENO. It was one of the team for whom he had played it, director David Pountney, who homed in on it a few years back and finally put on the world premiere at the Bregenz Festival in 2013; he then programmed it also at Welsh National Opera. The other day, WNO brought it to the Royal Opera House for a London premiere and last night I went to see it.

Lester Lynch as Shylock
The reality is that it's a mixed bag. It contains seriously strong moments. It also possibly needed more editing (I suspect one could lose at least 15 minutes without damaging the fabric) - and a more straightforward staging than Keith Warner presents, a little truer to the spirit of the original Shakespeare, perhaps would not hurt it either. The best music and drama emerges after the interval in the courtroom scene, when Shylock and Portia's speeches provide the opportunity for some heartfelt, probing exploration and genuinely emotional expression - which culminates in Portia's demolition of Shylock. He eventually collapses to lie insensible at the front of the stage; and the anguished orchestral interlude which follows seemed to enter more deeply into his state of mind than most of the word setting in the rest.

The overarching musical style is of its time, with very busy orchestral writing mostly in atonal, bubbling, chattering, occasionally bumbling strands that make life interesting in the wind section, but rarely, in the first half, settle into anything clearly shaped. The coalescence and concentration of the string writing after the interval helps to lift act 3 to another level - and the orchestra was in splendid form, cogently conducted by Lionel Friend.

A strong cast delivered the piece with enormous commitment and often relish. Lester Lynch's warm and eloquent baritone was a fine fit for Shylock and the soprano Sarah Castle made much of Portia as an imperious, exceptionally cruel character, precise in tone and able to cut splendidly across the sometimes frenetic orchestra. Mark Le Brocq was outstanding as Bassanio, but his friend Antonio, in the person of the counter-tenor Martin Wölfel, had a more challenging time with a role that does not sound sympathetically written for its voice type. Lauren Michelle and Bruce Sledge did all they could with the ungrateful roles of the ungrateful Jessica [not really my namesake - JD] and the more than vaguely unpleasant Lorenzo: plenty of hard-driven singing, but little character development.

Keith Warner's production accentuates the fact that the play is about prejudice on every level: the anti-Semitism that has followed Shylock all his life and drives him to seek an unconscionable revenge; the failure of anybody to recognise in the accomplished "doctor of law" the figure of Portia, an actual woman (plus Nerissa as her clerk); and the racial digs at Portia's unfortunate first two suitors, with whom Warner seeks temporarily to lighten the mood in the Belmont maze, if with a bit of a sledgehammer.

Martin Wölfel (Antonio) and Mark Le Brocq (Bassanio)
Tchaikowsky has homed in, furthermore, on a gay understrand between Antonio and Bassanio. Warner amplifies this by hinting at a parallel scenario for Portia and Nerissa, but also confuses things by introducing some rambunctious humping for Portia and Bassanio almost the moment he has picked the lead casket - something not only out of character for them in the play but also for the opera, which is costumed and set (with designs by Ashley Martin-Davis) in the fin-de-siècle era. That setting extends to opening and closing tableaux in which Antonio is on a couch talking to Dr Freud. The issue of racial prejudice is taken even further by having the Jewish characters portrayed by black singers.

It's tempting to feel that Warner has used that sledgehammer a bit too often to crack this complex walnut of a work. But there is good sense as well. Although it is the anti-Semitic victimisation of Shylock that emerges as agonising front-runner in this battle of the prejudices, Tchaikowsky and Warner alike wisely avoid adding or subtracting from Shakespeare's approach to it. Hideousness is present on both sides; judgment is not passed. These attacks each feed the other's poison. This is how it is. And was. And probably ever shall be.

So - it's not perfect. It's true, at heart, to the play and its complexities. It's also a lifetime's work that needed its creator's existence not to be cut short in the process. But it's good, extremely good, to have it on the stage at all. Plaudits to all who have made it live at last.


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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"Siegfried Sassoon was my great-uncle"

Baritone Bradley Travis in rehearsal as Siegfried Sassoon

What are the chances of this? You turn up to an adult community chorus workshop to do a session on the work of a particular poet, and someone steps forward and explains he is that poet's great-nephew. That's what happened at the Silver Birch devising workshops, and the said great-nephew of Siegfried Sassoon, Stephen Bucknill, is in the chorus for the run at Garsington next week. I took the opportunity to ask him about his links with Sassoon and what it's like to be in the opera.

(Photos are all from a rehearsal the other day.)

JD: Please could you explain in what way you’re related to Siegfried Sassoon? What awareness of his poetry and his significance did you have when growing up? And what does he mean to you today?

SB: My grandfather, Richard Gatty had a sister called Hester. She married Siegfried Sassoon in 1933, 15 years after the end of WW1. Unfortunately I never met Siegfried as he died in 1967, just before my second birthday. So I have no memories of him but can recall a family photograph of him in my grandparents house in North Yorkshire. Before she died, my grandmother, who had known Siegfried from the 1930s onwards, assisted the author Max Egremont with his Sassoon biography. My mother and aunt (who are both coming to Silver Birch) knew Siegfried in his later life and remember him vividly.


Bradley Travis (Siegfried) and Sam Furness (Jack)
When I was growing up I had surprisingly little awareness of his poetry. I just knew that he was one of the war poets, and that I was related to him. We never studied his works at school. It only really dawned on me how famous he was when my sister Gemma contacted me in some excitement to say that she had seen one of his poems on the Underground. When I was next in London I saw the poem 'Everyone Sang' and it deeply moved me. Today, for me, he still provides a link with the past and an insight into the meaning, and effects, of war.


JD: How long have you been singing in the Garsington Adult Community Chorus? What attracted you to join it and what do you enjoy about it?  

SB: My wife Amanda is the Accommodation Co-Ordinator for Garsington and when she heard that Garsington were going to put on a Community Opera in 2013 she encouraged me to take part in it, as she thought they may need an extra tenor. Fortunately they did. The whole experience was amazing - hard work with many long rehearsals and often taking you well out of your comfort zone! The feeling of achievement, with relief and adrenaline after the performances of Road Rage is something I will never forget - and the main reason I had no hesitation in auditioning for Silver Birch.


Sam Furness as Jack, with "Chloe" and "Leo"

JD: What does it mean to you to be in Silver Birch? 

SB: Just very pleased to be involved again. I can't speak highly enough of the people involved at all levels in bringing the production together.



JD: What are its chief challenges and rewards for you as a member of the chorus? 

SB: For me, the chief challenges are getting the music right technically (it's not easy) and then being able to deliver it on the stage along with everyone else. The reward is the feeling of satisfaction when it all goes as it's supposed to!


Composer Roxanna Panufnik talks to the company

JD: Our hero, Jack, takes inspiration from Sassoon in terms of his daring, his disillusionment and in the end his decision that he must help those whose suffering he shares. Do you think the opera and the production is capturing - if tangentially, perhaps - anything of the spirit and/or journey that Sassoon underwent? 

SB: Yes I would say it does - in a very moving way.

JD: We chose several poems by Sassoon for inclusion. What do you think of those choices and do you like the way they have been used?  

SB: The poems seem to fit seamlessly into the opera. 'Everyone Sang' was the first Sassoon poem to deeply affect me, so I am delighted it has been given a special place at the end of the opera.

JD: Are you looking forward to opening night?? 

SB: Yes!

SILVER BIRCH IS AT GARSINGTON OPERA, 28-30 JULY. RETURNS ONLY!

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Monday, July 17, 2017

Barenboim for Prime Minister

Barenboim raises a hand with his Berlin Staatskapelle. (Photo: bbc.co.uk)

Three days into the Proms and it's already clear that the world's leading musicians are more clued in to the folly of the flat-earth idiocy in Brexit Island than our own politicians are. Igor Levit played the Ode to Joy as an encore after his performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3 on opening night. Yesterday Daniel Barenboim followed the questing, Schumannesque lament for a vanishing world that Elgar's Second Symphony evokes with a speech about the dangers of isolationism, identifying the overarching problem that causes religious and political fundamentalism as a failure in education. The usual howls that politics and music don't mix have been curiously quiet - perhaps because Levit didn't say a word, but let Beethoven do all the speaking; and perhaps because Barenboim is, quite simply, right. [Update, 3.30pm: they've now stopped being quiet, but it was only a matter of time... and Barenboim is still right.]



(You can also read the transcribed text of his speech at Jon Jacobs' blog, Thoroughly Good, here.)

Watching and listening links for the Barenboim Prom here.

In the interests of our unfortunate country, I think it's time we kicked out the government and replaced them with people who know what they're talking about through music. It can't be any worse, after all. Following the Proms Coup (as opposed to the more usual Queue), here is the new cabinet.

PRESIDENT:
Ludwig van Beethoven. The greatest ideals and the biggest vision. Also, given his hearing disability, a fantastic symbol for inclusion and equality.

PRIME MINISTER:
Daniel Barenboim, one of the world's few true statesmen, working together with Beethoven.

FIRST SECRETARY OF STATE:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for a balancing human touch at the top of the power tree.

CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER:
Giacomo Meyerbeer, who made a great deal of money - and used it magnanimously.

FOREIGN SECRETARY:
Felix Mendelssohn, who could charm and befriend anyone and everyone, including royalty.

HOME SECRETARY:
Sir Edward Elgar, who works closely with Beethoven and Barenboim. A "home-grown" composer whose influences were chiefly European, including Schumann, Brahms and Strauss.

EDUCATION SECRETARY:
Zoltán Kodály, music's arch-educator with an outlook for both inclusiveness and expertise.

WORK AND PENSIONS SECRETARY:
Johann Sebastian Bach, who knew a thing or two about hard work and should have left Anna Magdalena a proper pension. (She ended her life destitute. Bach should fix this before it happens.)

DEFENCE MINISTER:
Franz Schubert, who had pacifist leanings.

ENVIRONMENT SECRETARY:
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, whose Scottish island landscape and terrifically powerful personality would be a valuable asset.

EQUALITIES MINISTER:
Dame Ethel Smyth. Cross her at your peril.

HEALTH SECRETARY:
Frédéric Chopin, who would evince a profound interest in making sure antibiotics remain effective and available to all.

TRANSPORT SECRETARY:
Antonin Dvorák, who'd enjoy sorting out our trains and would also ensure that everything ran smoothly on the transatlantic front.

SPORTS MINISTER:
Frederick Septimus Kelly, who was not only a fine composer, but also an Olympic gold medallist in 1908, for rowing.

BREXIT SECRETARY:
This department is abolished, because we ain't leaving.



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Friday, July 14, 2017

Silver Birch: 2 weeks to go

SILVER BIRCH IS SOLD OUT! The first night is two weeks from today, up at Garsington Opera, Wormsley, near High Wycombe. Keep trying for returns...

Here, then, is how it all happened.


The cast of Silver Birch take a leap into the unknown...

HOW WE MADE SILVER BIRCH


Roxanna Panufnik and I first met in 1994 or 1995, thanks to our mutual friend Tasmin Little, who introduced us one day at the Purcell Room. We had an unusual thing in common: in our twenties we were each dealing with the death of a parent. My mother died in February 1994 and Rox's father, the great composer Andrzej Panufnik, had been gone since October 1991. At that age most of your friends have not been through that experience, and it can be a lonely matter: some people stand by you, others run for their lives. The bond, therefore, was special from the start.

We've written several pieces together in the last few years. I adapted the words of the Padre Pio Prayer for a choral piece that the Genesis Foundation commissioned from Rox, and later created a sort of narrative poem for a commission from Chanticleer in San Francisco. This piece is called Let Me In and is a story derived from the Gnostic Somethingorothers in which the young boy Jesus restores a dead baby to life. I wrote part of the poem in iambic pentameter and focused on the images of mourning traditions in the ancient Jewish community in which the tale was set. Next came the Dance of Life: Tallinn Mass, for which Rox devoted months of care, effort and sensitivity to getting to grips with the Estonian language and setting it like a native - only to find that they wanted to do the recording in English. My job was to take the existing music, words and rough translation and make a singable English adaptation. (In two weeks.)

But the peach project would, of course, be an opera. First we latched onto a famous novel we both loved, made an outline...and found someone else had already nabbed the stage rights. Then we picked another classic book that would make a still more amazing opera, one that would attract punters from all over place. Could we get a commission? "Oh darlings, we love it, but our commissioning schedule is full up with [delete as appropriate] Famous Bloke, More Famous Bloke and Humongously Famous Bloke..." Worse still: "Yes! We adore it! We're going to commission it. ...We are going to commission it... We are definitely going to commission it... well, we'd love to commission it, maybe in three years if.....er...." [the rest is silence].

One day the phone rings and there's Rox. "You're not going to believe this," she says, "but Garsington just called."

Siegfried Sassoon.
Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy Stock Photo/Poetry Foundation 
This wasn't to be any usual opera, though. Nor was it precisely a community opera. It had to be more than that: it had to be for everyone, with everyone - from a professional cast of rising opera stars to a group of primary school children, and for an audience of both seasoned opera-goers and complete newbies, aged 8 to 108. It needed to have a connection to World War I - but with 2017 a more practical choice of year than 2016, we wondered if perhaps everyone would be fed up to the back teeth with World War I pieces by then. That shifted the focus to the present day, yet the Siegfried Sassoon connection needed to be there, as Sassoon spent a lot of time at the original Garsington in Oxfordshire.

I came up with a story, but our doughty director Karen Gillingham came round and spent a gentle hour explaining to me, over tea and a purring kitten, why it wasn't going to work in the proverbial month of Sundays. So I threw it out and went back to the writing board. There was only one way to approach this new and demanding project: with a completely open mind. To go with the flow of collaborative energy. To see where it took us.

First it took us into schools to work on the Siegfried Sassoon poems and ideas about war, separation and challenge with teenagers and primary school children. Karen is an expert at getting huge groups of rowdy youngsters working together, listening to her and carrying out instructions. I watched it all, with writer-antennae at the ready. We wanted to find out what mattered most to them. What would they want in an opera? What would they miss if they went away to war? What might induce them to join up?

It was clear, very quickly, that they didn't want loads of soppy love duets. They wanted action. I also asked my nephew Luca, who was about 9, what he'd want to see in an opera about World War I, and he said, "Dog-fights in the air", which of course is easier said than done - but he is coming to the show on the Sunday and I hope he won't be disappointed with the battle scene, brought to life not least by the team of Foley artists - sound-effects - from Pinewood Studios.

The professional cast in rehearsal: Sarah Redgwick sings Mrs Morrell, Jack's former teacher

Most of all, though, all these young people said that their families were everything to them. What we needed was a family-based story. And one little boy in the primary school team said he would miss the silver birch tree outside his family's home, because his parents had planted it as a sapling and watched it grow up. The antennae began to buzz.

We spent an evening with the adult community chorus, again with our chosen poems. At this point a gentleman from Henley-on-Thames quietly explained that he is Siegfried Sassoon's great-nephew and offered to introduce me to his mother and aunt, who remembered Uncle Siegfried extremely well.  I spent a fascinating morning with them, listening to reminiscences of Sassoon himself: how he spoke, how he dressed, how he drove, why he was withdrawn and remote by the time they knew him, and how he had found spiritual peace at last in his conversion to Catholicism. We read some of his poems together - there, he had said, one would find the best of him. And we discussed why he went back into World War I - having survived crazy exploits at first that saw him nicknamed 'Mad Jack', then speaking out in the Declaration Against War about how the campaign was being conducted. He was confined to a mental asylum in Scotland for his pains. Yet then he returned to the war, because his men were suffering and dying and he felt the need to go back and help them through it. He belonged with those whose suffering he shared.

The adult community chorus in rehearsal. (Photo: Luke Delahunty)
But that wasn't enough. We have a present-day story. We need present-day soldiers. We found some.

I found one at Barnes station. We were waiting for a train late one night and he was on the platform. Weaving around, appearing semi-deranged. Wearing dark glasses, in the dark. He'd been in Iraq, and come back. His chief aid in readjusting, if you can call it that, was clearly alcohol. No help from anyone, he said. He took off his glasses. His eyes were red with blood, and I can still see now their wild, disconnected gaze. Sand, he said. You can't get all the sand out of your eyes. But he was proud, he said, of what he'd done to serve his country. He'd do it all again.

When we went on holiday in January 2015, a former armed forces guy was in the next hotel room. He was retired, but he'd been in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, driving army vans. He told me his story: a broken and bereaved family, a hopeless town where he was expected simply to spend his life working in the carpet factory, the longing for something more, to get away and see the world and do something bigger and better. The armed forces offered him both a salary and that opportunity. He saw plenty of terrifying things in Northern Ireland. What would be his advice to young people considering joining up, I asked. "Remember, there's no turning back," he said. "It's not a video game - you can't just press a reset button. There's no reset button on your life."

Then I met Jay Wheeler.

Jay is married to a friend of Karen's. He lives in Birmingham and now runs a military fitness company. But in 2003 he was a lance corporal during the invasion of Iraq. We got in touch and explained what we were doing. I went up to Birmingham to visit him and across one extraordinary afternoon he told me his story from start to present. Much of it has fed into Jack's story in Silver Birch. Again, there was the difficult family situation, the young people's dreams of escape and adventure, the need to prove yourself, to push yourself, to aim higher than life seemed to want you to.  His brother had joined up too. Neither of them expected to see action, but it was the luck of the draw: their division was the one whose turn it was to be primed and ready to go if occasion demanded. And occasion did.

There was much in Jay's story that we couldn't possibly include in a family-oriented piece: unfolding in front of my ears was an X-rated, Oscar-winning movie, structure and all. What he had been through, what he had endured, what he had had to do, the decisions he had had to make, the violence and horror of the taking of Basra, the aftermath that so many soldiers endured of PTSD, all of this is unimaginable to most of us. Many elements of his history have gone into Silver Birch: the motivating needs to prove himself to his father, to look after his younger brother ("Got to look after my brother. Always look after my brother," says Jack. That's Jay) and then the all-but-impossible matter of returning and adjusting to civilian life: all this came from our talk. Moreover, Jay, receiving the post intended for his brother, who was in another camp, used to run across the desert by night to deliver it quietly. That became a scene in the opera too.

Rehearsing the homecoming

Jay has been to hell - and come back. He has turned his life around. He has a successful business and a young family. He told me that everything he is today has been made possible by the experiences he had in the army. He's proved his own strength, not only to his father but to himself. Many are not as strong as he is mentally. Many of them fall apart after the horrors they've been in, become addicted to drink or drugs, end up on the streets or in jail. Despite everything, Jay has turned all the grit, all the determination, into a force for good. I have no greater respect for anybody I have ever met than I have for him. It is with more than merely enormous gratitude that we took him up on his offer of using his own army number for Jack in the drill scene.

Our two Chloes. Jack's little sister is the voice of hope,
and gets to sing duets with Sam Furness
I don't believe that people are built for war. Human minds and bodies are not designed to withstand attacking, destruction, chemicals, psychological breaking, fear at every moment. And we cannot solve our problems with weapons. To have been through all this physical and mental shattering and come through to the other side is something almost miraculous. Jack and his brother Davey return to their family needing to make sense of what has happened to them. It is only love that can save them in the end, not war. It's their connection to their family - especially their indomitable mother Anna and little sister Chloe - that sustains them. And it's their connection to their "brothers" in arms, whom they decide they must learn to help, that stands some chance of keeping them on the rails.

The other day I saw another Jack. I was walking to the Barbican past one of those little City public gardens, on a sunny July afternoon. A tall bloke in camouflage trousers with cropped hair and a can of beer. He was sitting on a bench, staring into space. And I wondered what he had seen, could still see and may be seeing forever.


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nureyev's giant leap to the West...of London

(photo: Nureyev.org)

In the latest of the BBC's excellent series of short documentaries entitled Witness, the impresario Victor Hochhauser reminisces about the extraordinary personality and artistry of Rudolf Nureyev. UK readers can watch the film here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/magazine-40569517/rudolf-nureyev-s-great-leap-to-freedom

It's astonishing, watching Nureyev, to note that however fast the steps he is performing must presumably be, they always look slow. His technical mastery is such that he is never in a hurry. And his charisma is so intense that I'd challenge any viewer to attempt removing their gaze from him for even a couple of seconds.

But for a while, Nureyev lived up the road.

That was long before I even knew where East Sheen was, of course, but now I often go jogging past the house that once belonged to him. It's just outside Richmond Park and is set back from the road beyond a wooden farm-style gate and curving gravel drive. It was chosen for him, possibly because this leafy location in south-west London was reasonably convenient for the Royal Ballet's rehearsal space in Baron's Court - but it did prove rather too far from Covent Garden. The story goes that on one occasion he was late for a performance, so grabbed a taxi to East Putney station to take the District Line into town - but he was in such a hurry that he went the wrong way on the tube and nearly ended up in Wimbledon.

The biography by Julie Kavanagh also includes a story that haunts me particularly on my run route, which takes me through Sheen Common to Bog Gate into Richmond Park itself. This path was frequented, too, by the great dancer in his time, but he was haunted by something else: the potential presence of KGB agents whom he feared might be after him. Apparently he would walk that way, anxious that one such being might jump out from behind the bushes. Sometimes, trotting along there first thing in the morning, I think I hear a step behind me in the leaves...but it's usually someone walking five other people's dogs, or a flock of the green parakeets that have colonised the place (both phenomena are new since Nureyev was there).

Nureyev was an emblem of his times - the Russian artist escaping the Soviet Union to seek artistic freedom - and a firebrand who transformed the nature of his art. Later, his death of AIDS-related illness aged only 53 made him an emblem, too, of the first generation blighted by the HIV virus. But for many among British audiences, a special defining moment was his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, which rejuvenated the career and indeed the spirit of that equally legendary ballerina. In her life history, as related on film by Tony Palmer, Nureyev is one of the few people who emerge as a true friend and support to her.

I was just too young to see them dance together. I remember my parents putting in an application for tickets the last time they performed Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s. Seats were scarce and we didn't succeed. When notification arrived, I, already a small balletomane, shut myself in the bathroom and howled. Thank goodness for film. Here they are in Act IV of Swan Lake.



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Monday, July 10, 2017

Golden sounds from a painful world



This is a big Erich Wolfgang Korngold year, marking both the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 60th of his death. Not that you'd know it from anyone's programming around here. But Michael Haas, director of research at the Jewish Music Institute's International Centre of Suppressed Music at Royal Holloway College, has just written a valuable article about Das Wunder der Heliane, the composer's fourth, largest and most controversial opera. (Read it here.)

Premiered in 1927, Heliane is a strange, mystical, dystopian tale of redemption through love. Our hero is a nameless Stranger who has been jailed for attempting to bring love to a loveless realm. Our heroine is Queen Heliane, the sole named character, wife of the cruel and apparently impotent Ruler. Heliane and the Stranger fall in love...

Ten years ago the opera received its only UK performance to date, in concert. It didn't go well. The Royal Festival Hall platform was too small to accommodate both the vast orchestra and all the vocal soloists, so the singers were placed in the choir above and behind the orchestra, but the less-than-ideal demands this created seemed challenging for all concerned. It was a pity, to say the least, because I was at the rehearsals and it sounded a great deal better. Those at the performance weren't to know that, though. The opera celebrates the sanctity of sexual consummation between people who really love one another, something you'd think would scarcely raise hackles. Yet one critic condemned the work for being blasphemous (yes, really) and dismissed it as "Entartete Musik": a nefarious Nazi-coined term that Korngold himself would have known all too well.



It's slightly sad to observe that the British, in tribal musical-taste terms, appear to have problems with Korngold that don't apply quite as universally elsewhere. In other countries his third opera, Die tote Stadt has become standard repertoire. In the UK, it has once more vanished into obscurity after one short run at Covent Garden. As for Heliane, it basically doesn't stand a chance in Brexit Island. Yet with wonderful irony, Haas points out some strong similarities between the scenarios of this opera and a recent UK smash hit: George Benjamin's Written on Skin.

I became interested in Korngold so long ago that I didn't know you weren't meant to like him. Back then, indeed, hardly anyone in this country had heard of him. One of my teachers - American - played me part of Die tote Stadt when I was about 19. I was hooked at once. A year later, deciding on a dissertation topic at Cambridge, I came across the LP of the Erich Leinsdorf recording on a table in Dr Derrick Puffett's rooms and mentioned my enthusiasm to him. Dr Puffett - who was one of the most acute and positively terrifying musical intellectuals in the faculty - encouraged me to go ahead with a study of the piece and offered to be my supervisor for it.

Some years later I had the chance to write a short biography of a 20th-century composer and suggested Korngold because I was fascinated by his life story. A child prodigy in Mahler's Vienna. His appalling relationship with his father - what composer could be unlucky enough to be the son of a powerful critic? The rise of the Nazis; the controversies his father caused; the split in musical style of the times. The escape to Hollywood; Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis; and the attempted, but hopeless, return to Vienna. What a life. What an emblem of the 20th century.

One didn't imagine things could get worse still for Korngold's reputation after all that. But I can't begin to tell you about the quantity of flak I've taken over the years simply for liking this composer's generous-spirited and lavishly beautiful music and finding his story worth telling.

Not all music is for everyone. Composers' voices speak to us, or don't. There are some unfortunate souls who don't like Brahms. There are a few very popular composers to whose music I'm fairly allergic; some whose language I have grown into and come to love with the years (notably Bartók and Boulez); others, like Monteverdi, who stand out like Mount Ararat amid flatlands of other stuff that possibly is considered more interesting than it really is. It isn't a matter of life or death if you don't happen to get along with a particular compositional personality.

But I do think you need to pause for thought, now and then, and look at where our cultural conditioning comes from and, to some degree, how our tastes might be formed.

Another example: I'm still struck by the ease with which some dismiss Mendelssohn as glib, shallow and too happy. His apparent ease of style came from obsessive hard work and continual revision; as for too happy, he worked himself first into the ground and then into a premature grave. Those criticisms were actually deliberate anti-Semitic slurs promulgated against him as the Nazis attempted to poison public opinion over the most popular violin concerto in Germany, prior to banning it. Yet their "arguments" can still sometimes be heard in concert hall foyers, repeated almost as if by rote. Evidence of Mendelssohn's working patterns, his life and intellectual breadth of knowledge, his emotional state, and so forth, all go against such a judgement. But few stop to consider what they're saying and why.

Korngold had the luck to find himself exiled in Hollywood, rather than being murdered in a concentration camp after Hitler's Anschluss, which would almost certainly have befallen him had he been in Vienna on 12 March 1938. Nevertheless, his world was destroyed, his colleagues killed or ruined and his career in Europe torn to shreds; and his family and friends who survived did so by the skin of their teeth. Because he did survive, because he was therefore one of the "lucky" ones, his story is generally portrayed as one of good fortune. But having your life, livelihood and reputation shattered by racism, dictatorship and war is, if you think about it enough, not very "lucky" at all. Korngold died too young - 60 - and it's clear that his death was hastened by the stress resulting from his historical fate.

The hideous situation faced by those in such a position - any refugees and oppressed peoples, born in the wrong place at the wrong time - is still brushed aside by the millions of more fortunate majority-population individuals who have no clue what others have been through, yet who are themselves no different except by virtue of luck.

It appears that even today we can't cope with the fact that Korngold landed up in Hollywood, even though that was the only way he and his family could survive the destruction of their own world and make ends meet in a new one. The ugly fashion of today's ugly world is to bash refugees. It's still happening to Korngold.

Fortunately, though, there are people who love his music. Many are actual musicians. Many of them are violinists who fall in love with the concerto and related pieces. Here's Nicky Benedetti and friends:



Heliane is being performed several times in Europe this year and next. The Volksoper in Vienna has already done it, about six months ago, and now those eager to see it can go to:

Freiburg, concert performance on 22 July
Flanders Opera, Antwerp and Ghent, 15 September - 10 October;
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, March 2018 (starring Sara Jakubiak and Brian Jagde)

Maybe see you there.


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Thursday, July 06, 2017

Opera Holland Park pays tribute to Grenfell Tower victims



In case you haven't yet seen it, this is the beautiful tribute from Opera Holland Park in memory of the victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which one of their staff members, Debbie Lamprell, was among those who lost their lives. It's an encore from Puccini's La Rondine, 'Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso' and the singers are Elizabeth Llewellyn, Matteo Lippi, Tereza Gevorgyan and Stephen Aviss, with the company.

Opera Holland Park has announced that it will give a memorial performance of Verdi's Requiem on 1 August in aid of the Rugby Portobello Trust to help the community in the aftermath of the fire, which took place less than a mile from OHP's base. Please book tickets (hurry - they're going fast) or make a donation here: http://www.operahollandpark.com/memorial-concert-verdi-requiem/

The best way we know to commemorate and help the victims of this disaster is to make music and so that is what we will do. There has been a lot of emotion in the company since the events of that day, and our friend and colleague is mourned deeply. RPT deserve respect and admiration for everything they have been doing in the aftermath and we hope this event will provide the funds to help them continue their work in supporting the community.’ – Director of Opera, James Clutton and General Director, Michael Volpe

Addendum: I'm told that the Verdi Requiem is now sold out, but you can a) still donate - please! - and b) sit in Holland Park with a picnic and still hear the performance because, as one of the singers promises us, "We'll be loud!"

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Michael Spyres: A tenor who resonates

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.

 
Michael Spyres. Photo: Dax Bedell


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!
 
As Faust in Gilliam's production

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.

Michael Spyres
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.