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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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Police investigation continues at Valencia's Palau de les Arts

20 February 2015, Valencia, Spain

House of cards: Valencia’s Palau de les Arts was led by Helga Schmidt for nearly 10 years
House of cards: Valencia’s Palau de les Arts was led by Helga Schmidt for nearly 10 years(Photo: Tato Baeza)

Authorities in Valencia have come under fire for ignoring accusations regarding contractual irregularities and misappropriation of funds at the Palau de les Arts, the city’s principle opera house, first made by an employee as far back as 2008.

The former employee’s concerns were finally acted upon at the end of January this year, following the sudden arrest of general director Helga Schmidt. The 73-year-old arts doyenne has now been released on bail, but has been relieved of her duties at the Palau de les Arts. Meanwhile, the American-born stage director Davide Livermore has been appointed general director in Schmidt’s stead, promoted from his role as head of the Palau’s young artist studio, the Centre de Perfeccionament Plácido Domingo.

Schmidt is a hugely influential figure in the opera world, having held major arts posts in Vienna, Amsterdam and London, where she was the youngest ever artistic director of London’s Royal Opera House during the 1970s.

In truth, Schmidt’s tenure in Valencia has rarely been free from controversy. Her detractors have painted her as an overindulgent spendthrift, demanding ruinously excessive budgets for the Palau at the expense of Valencia’s other arts organisations; her supporters, meanwhile, say that it is through her efforts that Valencia has been able to establish itself as one of Spain’s principal cultural destinations, and that she is the scapegoat of a chaotic local government which is trying to cover its own record of mismanagement.

Also arrested as part of the police investigation is Ernesto Moreno, who was the Palau’s manager from 2007 to 2011. Both he and Schmidt are the subject of an ongoing investigation.

Dallas Opera launches new institute for women conductors

16 February 2015, Dallas, US

The Dallas Opera's principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement
The Dallas Opera's principal guest conductor Nicole Paiement(Photo: Roger Steen)

The Dallas Opera has announced the launch of a new residential programme designed to provide training and career support for talented female conductors, who are vastly under-represented in the opera field. 

Applications are invited from women aged 40 and below with experience in conducting, as well as accomplished singers, opera coaches and accompanists, and instrumentalists with established careers seeking to expand their horizons on the conducting podium.

The first instalment of the programme, The Institute for Women Conductors at the Dallas Opera, will take place from 28 November to 6 December this year, with support from the Richard and Enika Schulze Foundation.

Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny said: ‘This programme will enable more women conductors to add their talents and insights to our collective understanding of this marvellous art form.’

ENO placed under 'special funding arrangements' for two years

12 February 2015, London, UK

A bird’s-eye view of the Coliseum, home of English National Opera
A bird’s-eye view of the Coliseum, home of English National Opera

Arts Council England, the national agency for funding culture, has announced that English National Opera will no longer be part of its funding portfolio for 2015-18. The company will be subject to a special arrangement, whereby a sum of money has been earmarked for ‘transition funding’, made available over two years to help ENO address ACE’s concerns over its ‘governance and business model.

As things stand currently, ENO will receive a £12.38m direct grant from ACE, supplemented by £6.13m over two years to implement substantial changes to the way the company is run.

Though ENO has known since last summer that its subsidy would be cut by almost 30 per cent, this is the first indication that the company may not receive any public funding at all in the long run unless it complies with the ACE’s directives. This refining of the terms of ACE’s funding cuts comes in the wake of the resignations of ENO chairman Martyn Rose and executive director Henriette Götz at the start of this year.

Althea Efunshile, acting chief executive of ACE, said: ‘The Arts Council’s role is to ensure that we get the best value for the taxpayer’s money by investing in well run companies who delight audiences with brilliant work.’

Given that ENO announced it would be posting a trading surplus for last financial year and that it was ‘on course to present a balanced budget’, according to its spokesman, the exact nature of ACE’s concerns over ENO’s business affairs is unclear. What is more, the company’s artistic director, John Berry, has received the backing of the board in spite of the resignation of senior figures in the company.

Additionally, ENO has won a slew of awards for its productions in the recent past and is the only UK company to be nominated in the Company of the Year category at this year’s International Opera Awards in April, together with nominations for World Premiere and New Production awards.

Meanwhile, ENO is working with consultants McKinsey on a business plan that is said to include better commercial use of the Coliseum theatre and structural changes in the accountability of its executive staff.

Q&A: Scottish tenor Thomas Walker

4 February 2015, London, UK

Thomas Walker
Thomas Walker(Photo: Robert Workman)

Scottish tenor Thomas Walker talks to Opera Now about his forthcoming appearances in The Indian Queen at English National Opera. Interview by Owen Mortimer

You were originally a brass player before switching to study singing. Did you always hope to become a singer, or was there a watershed moment that prompted you to change direction?

I never had ambitions to be a singer. I had sung in choirs whilst studying at the Junior department of the then RSAMD in Glasgow, where I was a useful choral singer (tenors are rare, and my sight reading was good). The tuba was my instrument, however, and that's what I studied for my undergraduate degree at RSAMD. It was whilst singing in the chorus there (which was compulsory for first year undergraduates) that I realised I had a decent voice. I enjoyed singing as part of a larger group, but singing solo was a completely different matter for me.

Singing is such a naked thing: there is no instrument to hide behind, and frankly the thought of singing alone terrified me, so I put it firmly on the back burner. I still very much enjoyed the tuba, of course, but as the years passed I increasingly realised I felt more comfortable as a singer, so switched disciplines to study voice as a postgraduate in London.

I can't say it was one specific thing that made me change. Rather, it felt like a continuation of a journey which I had already started in my teens. Discovering music then had opened doors for me as a young man from an east end Glasgow housing scheme and this felt like another step on that path.

Does the fact that you've also been an instrumentalist bring an added dimension to your singing?

Being a performer means being proficient in many different musical disciplines. So yes, having had an orchestral training, I've performed many styles of music that I may never have had the chance to perform as a singer. The ensemble training, both chamber and symphonic, has also been invaluable (there isn't much else for a tuba player to do, as it's not really a solo instrument). I know how to fit into an ensemble, I can be flexible when asked by conductors to change the style or the tempo of an aria (more difficult!) and how to gel with my colleagues. That isn't to say that these aren't talents my colleagues who have been purely singers don't possess, but for me an orchestral training has helped hugely with my musicianship and career, and I am very grateful for it.

Who or what have been the most important influences on you during your years of training?

I have been given much excellent advice and help over the years, but one particular example sticks in my mind: following an audition I was advised by my agent to lose some weight. Being a tuba player, it doesn't much matter if you tip the scales at just over 20 stone, but as a light lyric tenor, it really does! So I took that on board and did something about it.

I would say that the biggest personal influence on me has been my teacher Ryland Davies.  Ryland helped me understand what I had to offer, supported my development and taught me to communicate effectively. I was blessed with a natural technique, and was lucky with my two previous teachers at RSAMD. They both had excellent techniques and taught many of the same things as Ryland. This meant my transition into being a singer wasn't a traumatic one where I had to relearn everything. Rather it was a honing and polishing of what had already been started.

Ryland understands my voice and all its idiosyncrasies, which means I get away with little to nothing when our schedules permit a lesson! That's truly invaluable as a singer: someone you trust who knows how your voice works.

You perform a lot of Baroque opera. Do you feel a particular affinity with Baroque music and is this specialisation deliberate?

Baroque music plays to my vocal strengths, so it always feels like a good fit for me. I have been also fortunate to work a lot with specialist early music conductors and ensembles, both in concert and on stage. So I would say the way in which my career has developed so far has been a combination of luck, design and fate. I truly love Baroque repertoire, but I wouldn't call myself purely a Baroque singer as I sing later repertoire too.

Turning to your forthcoming appearances at ENO, what aspects of the role of Don Pedrarias Dávila are you most looking forward to?

The character is a departure for me dramatically, in that he is an evil man. At one point, my wife Doña Isabel (sung by Lucy Crowe) describes Don Pedrarias as 'an ambitious, violent and despotic man'.

How to portray these characteristics without becoming a 'pantomime villain' is a challenge I’m finding really interesting. My last role was in a wrap dress and high heels, so this is certainly different!

This will be the first time you've been directed by Peter Sellars. He's famed for his razor-sharp intellect, compassion and creative zest so it's likely to be an exciting encounter! Are you nervous about working together? What are you hoping to take away from the experience.

Yes, this is the first time I've worked with Peter. He was, of course, present at my audition and from the outset has been very open and kind – he immediately puts you at ease. Despite the opera's serious subject matter, there has been much laughter this first week, and a real sense of collaboration in getting at the truth of what we are performing.

I am sure there is much I will learn over the coming weeks, but even in these early stages I have felt inspired by Peter's energy, enthusiasm, and unfaltering desire for the words to be alive and fresh, rather than singing a line you have honed and memorised. The idea of not knowing exactly what you will sing next, because in the context of the story it’s not taken place or occurred to you yet, is key to Peter's approach. As a performer, this is very exciting.

What other kinds of roles do you enjoy playing, and why? Does your choice reflect anything in your own personality, or do you like to go against the grain?!

Apart from the obvious vocal choices, I enjoy playing characters that offer something substantial to inhabit. We are all of us multifaceted, never just one thing, but sometimes certain roles can feel quite the opposite, so finding a way to flesh these out interests me greatly.

I always try to look for the human quality in a role. For example, a role could appear comical, but are we laughing with or at that person? And why? If it's a seemingly evil character, what life experiences and choices led them there, and is there opportunity to show their more human side?

I am drawn to characters where there is some sadness. I connect with people that are able to show weakness and vulnerability, and I believe that is present in the type of roles I have performed and would choose to perform, or indeed in the way I have portrayed those characters.

What are the challenges that you face, personally, as you make your way as an opera singer? Do you have a 'life philosophy' that motivates you?

In terms of challenges, there is the monolith of the 'life/work balance'. It isn't always easy to get right, and I have such huge respect and admiration for my colleagues with growing families. I have a compact support network that I rely on greatly. Being a singer can be lonely: it’s not all glamour or the smell of the greasepaint. There are moments of sitting alone in a hotel room with illness brewing and not knowing what to do, or just craving a little company. But the rewards are huge, and I never complain about it. I love to travel and still get excited about visiting foreign cities, new or old to me. It's a great life.

I have a few life philosophies that I dip in and out of. I think true acceptance and appreciation of what you have is the only way to be truly happy.

What are your ambitions for the future?

That's always a difficult question to answer. I'd like to continue singing music that I love, and to continue working with people that inspire me to be better at what I do – and see where that journey takes me.

Thomas Walker will appear as Don Pedrarias Dávila in ENO’s production of The Indian Queen. Performances at the Coliseum in London run from 26 February to 14 March.

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English National Opera chief executive resigns

30 January 2015, London, UK

The screw has tightened another notch around English National Opera’s beleagured board with the announcement of the resignation today of the opera company’s executive director Henriette Götz after only 9 months in the job. Her departure comes just a week after ENO’s chairman Martyn Rose said that he would be stepping down from the board on 15 February following very public and acrimonious criticism of John Berry, ENO’s artistic director.

Götz held the post of executive director for Flemish Opera, based in Antwerp and Ghent, for five years before joining ENO in May last year. Her predecessor Loretta Tomasi left the ENO in December 2013 after 10 years with the company.

In the months that intervened after Tomasi left and before Götz’s appointment, the role of executive director was changed substantially from a power-sharing arrangement with the artistic director to a more subservient role, as John Berry widened his executive powers to include ENO’s commercial as well as artistic portfolio. Some commentators saw this as pointing to megalomaniac tendencies in Berry’s leadership style.

Götz’s sudden departure (she will leave on 28 February) is another sign that ENO’s management contains serious divisions at a time when the company faces a major restructuring in the wake of the drastic reduction of its Arts Council Grant by almost 30 per cent.

Following the appointment of board member Dr Harry Brünjes as interim chairman, another ENO board member, Anthony Whitworth-Jones, will step into Götz’s shoes until a successor can be found. Whitworth-Jones brings years of experience of running international opera companies to bear in his interim role, including a recent stint as general manager of Garsington Opera.

An announcement from ENO has stated that neither Henriette Götz nor the ENO board will be commenting on the latest developments. So far, there has been no suggestion that the board is wavering from its support of John Berry, though there is now intense pressure on the artistic director and ENO’s trustees to set out a viable creative and financial plan that will restore public confidence in ENO’s future.

Arts Council England, meanwhile, will be convening next week to discuss current developments. In spite of the cuts, ENO still remains accountable to the Arts Council for £12m of public funding a year as well as a one-off transitional grant of £7.6m to help it restructure its business.

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