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Portland Opera at 50 – becoming a summer festival

17 November 2014, Portland US

Portland Opera's 'Die Fledermaus'
Portland Opera's 'Die Fledermaus'(Photo: Karen Almond)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Earlier this month Portland Opera launched its fiftieth anniversary season with a sparkling production of Die Fledermaus, the same opera which inaugurated the company half a century ago.

It's a milestone that has prompted Portland Opera to take a close look at its strategy for the future. The result is a new summer opera festival that will replace the current season from 2016. It's a transformation designed to guarantee the survival of the company for the next half century. 

In recent years, while many opera companies have either folded or been forced to make severe budget cuts to survive, Portland Opera has weathered the storm with a balanced budget, full schedule and staff. PO general director Christopher Mattaliano puts this success down to 'thinking outside the box', including a long-running Broadway Series that nets the company more than half a million dollars annually, and the purchase of its own building, Hampton Opera Center, in 2003.

Yet the company has not been completely immune to the effects of the financial crisis, changing tastes and operagoers' changing habits, so to stay financially sound Mattaliano has decided to move to the spring/summer opera festival model.

'One of the primary reasons for this transformation is to make the 900-seat Newmark Theater our primary home,' explains Mattaliano. 'Our patrons prefer the intimate setting and we are excited about doing operas in a smaller space. It will offer a better experience and save us money by reducing the company’s operating expense by 8 per cent.'

Portland Opera's 2016 season includes four productions at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. Two of these will take place in the intimate Newmark Theatre, the company's new preferred stage for bel canto repertoire, Mozart (except The Magic Flute) and less familiar repertoire.  The remaining two prodcutions will be staged in the company's current home, the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium.

'The festival will last three months,' says Mattaliano, 'with a series of auxiliary events presented in conjunction with Portland’s other cultural organisations.' The Hampton Opera Center will also play a prominent role in hosting workshops, recitals, chamber opera and post-performance receptions.

Portland experiences an enormous influx of tourists during the summer, a fact on which the company hopes to capitalise by turning Portland Opera Festival into a summer destination like Santa Fe Opera.

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English National Opera pulls out of Orfeo in Bristol

15 November 2014, London, UK

John Berry: 'We must reassess our artistic ambitions and align them with the funds available.'
John Berry: 'We must reassess our artistic ambitions and align them with the funds available.'

English National Opera’s co-production with the Bristol Old Vic of Monteverdi’s Orfeo has been cancelled, with ENO artistic director John Berry blaming ‘the challenging funding situation from April 2015’.

‘The decision to withdraw from the production was made in the interests of achieving a balanced budget for the 2015/16 financial year,’ said Berry. ‘Maintaining a stable financial position is crucial to the company’s future and the ENO Board and management agreed that we must reassess our artistic ambitions and align them with the funds available.’

ENO was the biggest casualty in Arts Council England’s 2015-18 funding round announced over the summer, with its annual grant to drop from £17.2m in 2014/15 to £12.4m per year in 2015-18.

A statement released by ENO suggested that the Bristol Old Vic would not abandon the project entirely but instead postpone while it ‘seeks new partners’. The production was to be directed by BOV artistic director Tom Morris, featuring Anthony Gregory and Mary Bevan in the roles of Orfeo and Euridice.

‘We are very sorry not to be working with Bristol Old Vic next year on what would have been ENO’s first UK project outside London in 15 years,’ said Berry. He described Tom Morris as 'a valued collaborator of ENO’s', referring to Morris’s 2012 production of The Death of Klinghoffer that was recently restaged at the Met.

Morris said: ‘Obviously the decision ENO has had to take is deeply regrettable, given the level of excitement in the city about a partnership combining Bristol Old Vic’s vision for a production of Orfeo and the resources and expertise of ENO. We are deeply sympathetic to ENO in their current situation and share their frustration in having to postpone their ambition to perform further throughout the UK.’

Berry added: ‘There are no hard feelings on either side. We’re just all very sad about it’.

Any customers who have bought tickets through the Bristol Old Vic box office will be able to transfer them to other shows within Bristol Old Vic’s programme, hold them as credit against a future production of Orfeo at Bristol Old Vic, or receive a full refund.

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Artist of the month: British soprano Mary Bevan

7 November 2014, London, UK

Mary Bevan
Mary Bevan(Photo: Victoria Cadisch)

Interview by Owen Mortimer

The Bevan family are every music marketeer’s dream. A musical dynasty with their own family choir, at least three members of the current generation are already pursuing successful careers in opera. Elder sister Sophie was the Young Artist category winner at the first ever International Opera Awards and now Mary, who received this year’s Critics’ Circle Exceptional Young Talent Award, is enjoying her own meteoric rise.

With so much talent going around, it’s surprising to learn that singing wasn’t always part of Mary’s career plan. ‘I suppose I can be a little bit contrary: I don’t like to be put in a box and necessarily do what’s expected,’ she explains. ‘So I decided to study mediaeval history because it was a subject I was passionate about, and it was nice to have a passion that wasn’t music. At the back of my mind was also the thought that I might become a singer but not like it, or not be good enough, or lose my voice: then what? I decided that doing a degree would give me another string to my bow.’

The turning point for Mary came during her final year at Cambridge, when she played Susanna in a student production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Up until then, she admits to having spent more time having fun than focusing on music, ‘but when I got the role of Susanna I had to stop partying for a couple of months to learn the role and perform it well – and suddenly my voice improved’. The experience of performing live for an audience also thrilled her: ‘I felt completely at home: my brain was at full capacity, which it had never been while I was studying, though I was interested in my subject. Being on stage made me feel excited and so full of life.’ Laughing, she adds: ‘Maybe that’s just a posh way of saying I’m an attention-seeker!’

At Cambridge, Mary’s operatic ‘wobble’ had marked her out as different from her peers who cultivated a straighter, more choral sound. During her postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music, she continued to be something of a misfit: ‘There was a feeling at college that if you had a big voice then you were bound for opera, whereas I wasn’t big-voiced.’ People would ask her whether she really intended to be an opera singer. ‘I thought, why not? Just because my voice isn’t massive it doesn’t mean I can’t do opera. In fact it did me a favour, because when I left college my voice was ideal for smaller roles like Barbarina and Papagena, which has now led to me doing Despina and Susanna, whereas if you come out of college with a big voice it’s hard to land major roles when nobody knows who you are.’ Mary is currently singing Susanna at English National Opera (performances run until 23 November), using the same translation by Jeremy Sams that she learnt at Cambridge.

Away from the operatic stage, Mary is also passionate about song, and it’s in this guise that she’ll be performing as part of our next Rhinegold LIVE recital series on 10 November. Her programme – ‘The Stages of Love’ – explores different facets of this universal human experience through songs in English, French and German, accompanied by ENO répétiteur Richard Peirson. Their programme includes the world premiere of Peirson’s own ‘Echo’, a setting of the poem by Christina Georgina Rossetti. ‘Richard’s song was already half-written, but he’s finished it for me,’ explains Mary. ‘It’s beautiful and fits in brilliantly with the theme of “Parting and Death” that forms the fourth and last part of the recital.’

One of the things Mary loves about giving recitals is the focus on the singer, stripped bare of the support structures that opera offers. ‘Every song has a completely different character, so it’s quite similar to opera in that way,’ says the soprano. ‘On the other hand, it’s such an intimate setting so you’ve got to bring people into your world rather than relying on the staging and production to do some of that work for you.’

For most young singers, recital opportunities tend to be rarer than roles in opera, and for Mary this will be one of the first recitals that she’s given since graduating. Many of the songs have been in her repertoire for a long time, however, and all of them have been included because she wants to share them with the audience. ‘This programme is so accessible. You only have to have been in love, or been married or had a child or anything that most human beings have experienced for any of these songs to touch you in some kind of way. And even if you haven’t, the music is just so beautiful.’

It’s a project that seems to have fired Mary’s imagination, who says she’s already thinking about her next programme on the theme of madness, as well as trying to find a label to make her first recital disc. ‘The song repertoire is huge and there’s so much to discover,’ she says. ‘It’s an intellectual pursuit that’s exciting because it’s got to come from you.’

Catch Mary Bevan's Rhinegold LIVE recital at Conway Hall in London on Monday 10 November (6.15pm for 7pm concert). Bevan is joined by pianist Richard Peirson for a programme of songs and arias exploring ‘The Stages of Love’ – from infatuation to parting. Register online to reserve your free tickets: www.rhinegold.co.uk/live

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Iconic British Wagnerians revisit Bayreuth legend

5 November 2014, London, UK

Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle
Anne Evans and John Tomlinson in Bayreuth's legendary 1988 'Ring' cycle

‘It was the highlight of my working life.’ That, simply put, was how Sir John Tomlinson described his experience of singing Wotan in a production of Wagner’s Ring that has become an operatic legend.

Sir John was speaking at ‘Bayreuth Revisited’ presented by the International Opera Awards at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London on Wednesday night (4 November). He was joined by Dame Anne Evans who sang Brünnhilde in the same production.  Sunday Times opera critic Hugh Canning chaired the after-dinner conversation, as two of Britain’s most distinguished operatic luminaries reminisced about their experience of working in Bayreuth.

In 1988, East German director Harry Kupfer launched a new cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayreuth Festival. Its stark sets pierced by laser beams, depicting a road stretching away into an endless horizon, together with the unprecedented energy of the music and drama, marked this Ring as a landmark event that received the highest critical praise. The production was filmed over two seasons in 1991 and 1992 and was among the first operas to be captured in High Definition on video.

‘The timing and political backdrop made Kupfer’s Ring especially significant,’ said Dame Anne. Its ideas came together just as Europe emerged from the Cold War on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘It was a time of incredible change and uncertainty, a mixture of hope and anxiety, which had a huge impact on Kupfer as an East German.’

Sir John recalled that Kupfer had a surprising take on the role of Wotan, king of the gods. ‘I was used to thinking of him as a noble figure, rather solid and venerable; but Kupfer had quite another view of him. This Wotan was a bundle of energy, athletic, youthful and roguish, which made his scenes with Brünnhilde especially urgent and exciting.’

The early 1990s film footage accompanied the discussion, so that the audience could get a sense of the white-hot excitement of the production for themselves, with Wotan and Brünnhilde, each with a shock of unruly red hair, locked in the father-daughter struggle that drives Die Walküre. The magnificent acting and singing of Tomlinson and Evans was underpinned by the whirlwind dynamism of Daniel Barenboim’s conducting.

Hugh Canning pointed out that Kupfer’s was probably the last great and enduring production of the Ring to be staged in Bayreuth. Recent productions have proved far less successful, and last year’s Wagner anniversary staging by the controversial Rank Castorf was widely judged to be a fiasco.

Kupfer’s production, Dame Anne recalled, was dubbed the ‘English Ring’ in Germany. She explained that Britain was able to field so many great Wagnerians because of the extraordinary influence of the English conductor Sir Reginald Goodall, who had nurtured the art of great Wagnerian singing among a generation of British singers. Sir John added that the Germans were, to start with, suspicious of what appeared to be a British invasion of Bayreuth. ‘As soon as they saw the quality of what we could do, they were won over,’ he said.

‘Bayreuth Revisited’ was presented by the International Opera Awards as part of their ongoing bid to raise awareness of opera and promote excellence in the field. This was a fundraising event where proceeds were given to the Opera Awards Foundation which nurtures great talent for the future.

The 2015 International Opera Awards will take place at the Savoy Theatre & Hotel on 26 April next year. For details and reservations visit www.operaawards.org

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Virginia Opera’s 40th anniversary season opens with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

29 September 2014, Norfolk, US

Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)
Stephen Powell (Sweeney Todd) and Phyllis Pancella (Nellie Lovett)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

The Virginia Opera has chosen an eclectic programme to celebrate its 40th anniversary season: Sondheim’s chilling thriller Sweeney Todd and Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, highlighting the company’s strong commitment to musical theatre, plus Salome and La traviata.
  
Director Ron Daniels’ production of Sweeney Todd showed the tragic results of all-consuming revenge. Set in gritty 19th-century London, Todd had just returned from a penal colony in Australia, where he had been interred on fabricated charges by Judge Turpin. To add insult to injury, Turpin lusted after and abducted Todd’s beautiful wife Lucy and their young daughter Johanna. Obsessed with revenge for this injustice, Todd became a serial killer, murdering almost everyone who visited his barber shop for a shave, in addition to his planned killings of those who wronged him. Whomever sat in his elaborately set-up barber’s chair, efficiently arranged to dispose of the victims whose throats he proficiently slit, were then shoved into an oven (reminiscent of those used in the Nazi concentration camps), and subsequently used as ingredients in pies sold in a shop upstairs.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set designs featured a dark, minimalistic backdrop of what looked like soot-covered corrugated aluminum and a translucent blood-spattered curtain, which intermittently bisected the stage giving characters behind it a ghostly appearance. This dramatic and macabre setting, bathed in blood-red light, proved an ideal platform for the work. Its essence and message came across through good singing and acting, especially by Stephen Powell and Phyllis Pancella whose nuanced portrayals of Sweeney Todd and Nellie Lovett captured both the darkness and humour of their characters.

Other standout portrayals included Andre Chiang whose lustrous voice combined with innocent simplicity created an ideal Anthony Hope; Amanda Opuszynskui who assayed Johanna with sweet innocence; Jake Gardner who made an evil and sexually obsessed Judge Turpin; and Diana DiMarzio as the Beggar women (in reality Todd’s demented wife) whose state and tragic murder vividly demonstrated the heartbreaking consequences of unbridled hate. Maestro Adam Turner, despite occasionally covering the singers, did a commendable job with the Virginia Opera Orchestra.

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