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Opera Now provides a unique and all-encompassing perspective on the international opera scene through its lively and colourful mix of news, reviews, interviews, travel articles and commentary.

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Armed robber takes €11k from Greek National Opera

13 July 2015, Katy Wright

The Olympia Theatre, home to Greek National Opera
The Olympia Theatre, home to Greek National Opera

The extended bank holiday in Greece has seen individuals and businesses to hoard cash rather than deposit it in a bank – and led to a parallel increase in robberies. On the morning of Wednesday last week (8 July), the Greek National Opera’s accounts office was held up by an armed robber who made off with €11,000 (£7,800). The cashier present at the time was slightly injured but released from hospital later that day.

The incident was kept under wraps until the weekend when a report leaked to the press and the company’s administration was forced to release the details.

It is not known whether the incident was directly related to the postponement, announced on 9 July, of the GNO’s production of Carmen at the outdoor Odeon of Herodes Atticus amphitheatre, original scheduled for 26 to 31 July. It is clear, however, that the ongoing uncertainty and lack of functioning services in Greece is severely affecting its companies’ ability to operate.

Greek National Opera

ENO artistic director announces departure

10 July 2015, Katy Wright

John Berry
John BerryENO

English National Opera has announced that its artistic director, John Berry, is to relinquish his post on 17 July after 20 years with the company. 

Berry said of the decision: 'My work is now done and ENO is today regarded as one of the most creative forces in opera. The decision feels right to leave at the end of a hugely successful season both from an artistic perspective and in terms of audience numbers. ENO is an institution that has an international reputation for producing important new work, recognised by opera awards won at the Oliviers earlier this year and the recent Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Opera and Music Theatre. We played to packed houses for Sweeney Todd – over half the audience had never visited the London Coliseum before – and we welcomed record numbers to see The Pirates of Penzance on stage and in cinemas across the UK.

'After eight seasons leading the Company artistically and as the award winning 14/15 season comes to a close, I am looking forward to spending the summer deciding on my next role. I look forward to remaining involved with ENO in the future, as an audience member and supporter.'

Acting chairman Harry Brunjes described Berry's contribution as 'phenomenal', saying: 'Under his leadership, the artistic programme at ENO has been unrivalled in its quality, ability to entertain and to innovate. He has helped build ENO a UK-wide and international reputation for excellent dramatic opera that makes us unique – introducing directors from other art forms to the world of opera. He has driven the use of international collaborations bringing in significant financial contributions to our productions and has been instrumental in forging a future for the London Coliseum with a partnership with Benugo.'

Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley said: 'John Berry’s track record for innovative and challenging work is well established and warmly welcomed across the global opera fraternity. Throughout his time at ENO he has demonstrated a strong commitment to keeping opera at the cutting edge of cultural production in the UK. We wish him all the best for the future.'

Berry's departure is the latest in a number of administrative changes at ENO. In March 2015, Cressida Pollock was appointed interim chief executive, while Harry Brunjes stepped in as acting board chair in January. The artistic director leaves at the same time as Edward Gardner, who will be replaced by Mark Wigglesworth in September.

The board of ENO will be undertaking a full evaluation of the artistic leadership of the company before appointing a successor, and will instigate a global search process in due course.

English National Opera

Winners announced at the Belvedere Singing Competition

6 July 2015, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Triumphant trio (left to right): Lise Davidsen, Levy Sekgapane andKi Hun Park
Triumphant trio (left to right): Lise Davidsen, Levy Sekgapane andKi Hun Park(Photo: Paul van Wijngaarden)

The finals of the 34th Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition took place last week in Amsterdam. From a field of around 2,000 applicants in 63 countries, 160 finalists were selected to participate in a week of elimination rounds held at the Amsterdam’s Kleine Komedie theatre and at the Musiektheater, home of Dutch National Opera.

The final round took place before a public audience on 4 July, featuring 15 singers from 10 countries, including four South African hopefuls and the first ever participant from Kenya.

Though the levels of experience and training were varied, the overall standard of this year’s finalists was extremely high. As for the choice of repertoire, there was a preponderance of Mozart arias, with plenty of bel canto favourites and surprisingly little Verdi and Puccini. One notable feature among all the finalists was that they showed solid technique and a good grasp of style in their chosen repertoire, and none of them resorted to ‘shouting’ or over-projecting, which can be the bane of young singers in competitions.

The finals had many highlights, including the Korean-American countertenor Kanming Justin Kim’s touching and understated  ‘Ombra mai fu’ from Handel’s Serse, and the Kenyan baritone Zachariah Njorge Karithi in an elegant rendition of ‘Bella siccome un angelo’ from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Four singers stood out in particular in the finals for their outstanding musicianship, distinctive voices and their powerful ability to communicate to an audience. At just 20, the Korean tenor Ki Hun Park, the youngest of this year’s finalists, sang ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ with youthfully intense, heartfelt fervour and a real feeling for the French language.

The 27-year-old Finnish soprano Tuuli Takala is already establishing herself on the international stage. In the Belvedere finals, she showed exceptional poise and control in her  beautifully phrased and nuanced performance of  the Queen of the Night’s ‘O zittre nicht’ from The Magic Flute.

South African tenor Levy Sekgapane, aged 24, gave the star turn of the final round, with an accomplished performance of ‘Languir per una bella’ from Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, full of fresh, focused beauty and confident coloratura. He has something of the bravura and brilliance of Juan Diego Flóres, without the brassiness. He gauged the swell of emotion perfectly, capturing the excitement and the pain of youthful infatuation.

Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, 28, is an extraordinary, distinctive dramatic soprano with a brilliant Wagnerian career ahead of her if her ‘Dich Teure Halle’ from Tannhäuser in this final is anything to go by.  She has tremendous stature and presence, singing with a radiant tone that has an attractive, fluty purity and a laser’s edge that cuts through an orchestra playing at full tilt.

The, the jury, headed by John Mordler, with representatives from major opera houses in Russia, Germany, UK, Holland, Ireland and the US, had a tough job to place the three winning finalists. After uncharacteristically long deliberation, the following results were announced: in third place was Ki Hun Park; Lise Davidsen was placed second, and she also received the Media Jury prize and the Audience Prize. The overall competition winner, and a worthy one by any standards, was Levy Sekgapane who received his €7,000 prize donated in memory of the soprano Teresa Stich-Randall.

All the singers in the final were supported by the outstanding contribution of Het  Gelders Orkest under conductor Ed Spanjaard.

The International Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition alternates annually between Amsterdam and a roving location. Next year’s event will take place in Cape Town, South Africa, for the first time.

The real shame of the Royal Opera House’s Guillaume Tell

3 July 2015, London, UK

Gerald Finley as William Tell at London's Royal Opera House
Gerald Finley as William Tell at London's Royal Opera House(Photo: Clive Barda)

‘The offending scene in Guillaume Tell did not "remind" us of the horrors of war. What it did, through its sheer and obvious fakeness, was to cheapen those horrors, and to use them for self-serving ends.’

By Robert Thicknesse

Most cultural organisations love to be on the front pages of the newspapers. The exception is the Royal Opera, which usually winds up there for the wrong reasons. Because of this, the organisation has developed a media policy beadily devoted to treating the press like an enemy – and to be fair, it has a lot to hide. Imagine the storm if the popular press ever chose to publicise the true extent to which normal, opera-adverse working people’s taxes go to subside the stalls seats of millionaires; or the fact that the associate director of opera, John Fulljames – whose track record at the ROH so far isn’t anything to write home about – gets paid a handsome salary, well above industry norms.

At least on this latest occasion the ROH was joined in ignominy by all other parties to the flap: the director, the audience, the critics and the commentators. All for a ‘gang-rape’ scene that a) was nothing of the sort and b) would hardly have raised an eyebrow at English National Opera or in the straight theatre.

So what really happened? I’ll tell you: a young woman sitting in my row took noisy exception to a lengthy episode of molestation wherein a group of military officers indulge in conduct unbecoming with an unwilling female. This takes place to the jolly Tyrolean tunes Rossini provided for the forced merrymaking of Act III – one of those ballet divertissements composers were obliged to insert in Paris operas. Quite quickly a lot of other people joined in until the end of the scene was quite drowned in booing.

Extraneous scenes of violation, rape, GBH, child molestation and similar violence, sexual and otherwise, are extremely commonplace in current opera direction. Indeed I recall a particularly cack-handed instance in Fulljames’s own production of La donna del lago at Covent Garden in 2013, which passed without audience comment, other than deserved titters.
So why the big fuss? The definite impression was that it was a reaction to the imaginative poverty and lameness of the whole production: the audience, fed up with yet another ROH show performed in grimy vests, set in a tray of mud, without a pretty mountain or lake in sight and apparently determined to ignore just about everything the composer had made it clear he was interested in, happily latched onto what started as a lone protest to let the management know what they thought. Don’t get me wrong: certainly the scene had gone on far too long and was in any case gratuitous, distasteful, exploitative, bad art done in bad faith. But most of all it was just lazy – and this is the nub of the issue.

The truth is that directors do these things because it is much less effort than engaging with the matters that actually concerned the authors: six-part ballet featuring Tyrolean dances; or a bit of titillation masquerading as social comment? Hm, tricky one. Then they award themselves brownie points for the relevance of what they are doing. Who do they think they are fooling?

‘Kasper Holten!’ – I hear you cry. And yes, it does seem that the ROH’s affable director of opera has actually come to believe the astonishing drivel he has absorbed from the Arts Council’s Lexicon of Weasel Words, poor chap. As he was bound to, he hurried to the defence of Guillaume Tell’s director Damiano Michieletto, lecturing us with furrowed brow about how very bad the problem of rape in war is and how therefore all the kerfuffle was actually good. He came out with much the same line after La donna del lago, saying: ‘Part of our audience clearly do not like to be challenged.’ Ah yes! Not bored, insulted, fobbed off, cheated, sold shoddy goods or treated with contempt. Oh no. The trouble with you cowards is that you can’t face up to the world’s horrors. You were challenged, and you just couldn’t take it.

Where to start in combating this pathetic charade, if not with a public pillorying of the clowns and knaves involved? Opera has chosen to respond to its widely-perceived irrelevance by pretending to believe it is the obvious forum for examining such weighty matters as the rise of ISIS, FGM, homelessness, the banking crisis and God knows what else, in spite of how very clearly unsuitable most operas are for these purposes; and has been engaged in this for so long that it has come to believe it: so even the most gestural onstage reference to any buzz-issue generates a glow of righteous self-satisfaction inside opera houses.

However, glibly referencing an evil does not equal combating or even examining it. In short, it is vilely exploitative to depict sexual violence in order to shore up one’s own moral credentials, and that is what happened here. The scene in Guillaume Tell did not ‘remind’ us of the horrors of war. What it did, through its sheer and obvious fakeness, was to cheapen those horrors, and to use them for self-serving ends.

This is not a review: for that, you will have to buy September’s issue of Opera Now, where I shall detail the production’s other failings, such as its avoidance of any of the compelling issues Rossini actually raises, its taking of the easy option at every turn, its superficiality, its reliance on cliché, its musical shortcomings, its tawdry cheapness, and its uniformly excellent singing. Oh yes, and I should say this – some people do actually come out of the farrago well: Rossini, and the singers.

Damiano Michieletto's new production of Guillaume Tell runs at Covent Garden until 17 July 2015.

July/August issue out now

2 July 2015

We are honoured to welcome Plácido Domingo, one of opera’s most iconic figures, as guest editor of this special edition of Opera Now! Here Domingo gives us a snapshot of the issues that interest him the most in the opera world, from providing opportunities for young talent to celebrating the legacy of his background and using his considerable influence to the good. Leading ladies including Nina Stemme, Ana María Martínez and Angel Blue recount their experiences of performing with the maestro; Domingo offers some personal reflections on how the music of his homeland has provided inspiration throughout his career; and we visit LA Opera, an important springboard for Domingo’s artistic development and vision for the future of the art form. Plus Uruguayan soprano Maria José Siri looks forward to a summer singing Mozart and Verdi in Verona; Michael White on coping with performance anxiety; Opera Now’s guide to singing ‘Che gelida manina’ from La bohème; and your chance to WIN tickets to Domingo’s Operalia at the Royal Opera House.


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