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Glyndebourne's presiding spirit George Christie dies aged 79

12 May 2014, Lewes, UK

George and Mary Christie during construction of the new Glyndebourne opera house that opened in 1994
George and Mary Christie during construction of the new Glyndebourne opera house that opened in 1994(Photo: Gus Christie)

Some children of privilege are said to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth: in the case of Sir George Christie, who died on 7 May, it was an entire opera house that dictated his destiny, even before he was born. Sir George experienced the joys of opera at an unconscionably early age: his mother, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, sang Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro while pregnant with him, during the first ever Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, which she and her husband, John Christie, had just founded.

Sir George’s death has robbed Glyndebourne of its guiding hand and its presiding spirit. His long tenure in the ‘family firm’ proved him to be a shrewd businessman and an innovator. Early on, he attracted major directors such as John Cox and Peter Hall to establish a new dramatic identity for Glyndebourne productions. He tolerated the contemporary, even if he didn’t especially like it, commissioning world premieres from the likes of Michael Tippett, Oliver Knussen, John Osborne, Harrison Birtwistle and Jonathan Dove. Even after handing over the running of the Festival to his son Gus, he continued to take a keen interest in artistic matters.

Over four decades, from inheriting the Festival from his parents 1958 to his retirement in 1999, Sir George turned a piece of English summer musical eccentricity into an acclaimed international artistic tour de force, nurturing operatic stars in the early days of their careers (Margaret Price and Kiri Te Kanawa, to name but two) and staging iconic productions, some of which (including The Rake’s Progress in 1975, designed by David Hockney) remain classics to this day. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be the new opera house which he commissioned, with breath-taking daring, from Michael and Patty Hopkins.

Sir George’s death comes in the very month that the Festival will be marking its 80th anniversary. The show will go on, just as he would have wanted, but his loss will be deeply felt.

George William Langham Christie, opera festival director, born 31 December 1934; died 7 May 2014

Incoming director causes a stir at La Scala

6 May 2014, Milan, Italy

Alexander Pereira
Alexander Pereira(Photo: Luigi Caputo)

Six months before taking up his new position as general director of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, Alexander Pereira has found himself at the centre of a controversy. He currently runs the Salzburg Festival and has been accused by Milan’s mayor of buying four Salzburg productions for La Scala without seeking approval from the Italian authorities.

Pereira presented his 2015-17 plans to the board of La Scala in late March; the purchase of the four productions was announced in the Austrian media on 1 April. ‘I learned about this affair from the papers, and immediately asked for a written report from Mr Pereira on what happened,’ explained Giuliano Pisapia, Milan’s mayor and the chairman of La Scala’s foundation. He added: ‘Should incorrect behaviors emerge, I will take the proper and due measures.’

Defending his position in an interview with the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa, Pereira said that the Salzburg Festival had spent €4.1m on the four productions, while La Scala will pay only €660,000. He said that he has chosen Salzburg’s best productions – Falstaff, Don Carlo, Die Meistersinger and Mozart’s Lucio Silla – and that they would be distributed over four years.

Elsewhere, Pereira has indicated that he wants to curtail the influence of La Scala’s loggionisti – a powerful minority of die-hard opera fans famed for their loud cat-calling, whose opinions can make or break the fortunes of artists appearing at the house. In mid-March he met the Friends of the Loggione association and is reported as telling them: ‘I have at my disposal the best [singers], but many do not want to perform on the stage at La Scala because they are intimidated, if not frightened to death. We can no longer allow this. Other opera houses are emerging and attacking our supremacy.’

San Diego Opera on the brink of closure

28 April 2014

Ian Campbell has been relieved of his duties at San Diego Opera
Ian Campbell has been relieved of his duties at San Diego Opera(Photo courtesy of San Diego Opera)

Financial strains affecting music organisations across the US have brought a surprise closure announcement from the San Diego Opera.

Less than a month before the end of its 2013-14 season on 13 April, the Southern California company, which has an annual budget of US$50m, announced it had succumbed to a dearth of sponsors and grants.

The SDO, which once attracted stars such as Plácido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills, announced it would bring down the final curtain just short of its 50th anniversary with a one-week run of Massenet’s Don Quixote.

‘After nearly 50 years as a San Diego cultural cornerstone providing world-class performances, we saw we faced an insurmountable financial hurdle going forward,’ said Ian D Campbell, the company’s general and artistic director. ‘We had a choice of winding down with dignity and grace, making every effort to fulfil our financial obligations, or inevitably entering bankruptcy, as have several other opera companies. Our board voted to take the first choice.’

The response from supporters of the company has been swift, including an online petition that has attracted over 21,000 signatories. SDO company members are also exploring the possibility of seeking an injunction to halt the closure, and board member Carol Lazier has donated US$1m to buy more time while another solution is sought.

Further signs of deep division within the company are continuing to emerge: the exodus of 13 board members two weeks ago was followed last Friday by the suspension of Ian Campbell and his ex-wife Ann Spira Campbell, SDO’s deputy director general. In 2010 and 2011 their combined salaries totalled more than $1m – a fact that critics of the closure have been quick to seize upon.

According to former SDO donor and advisory board member Don Bauder, however, the company’s plight reflects wider problems of ageing opera fans not being replaced by younger ones. He said SDO ticket sales fell from 41,353 in 2010 to an estimated 31,500 this season.

Prior to his removal last week, Campbell had been at the helm of SDO since 1983. The company achieved a balanced budget for the first 28 years of his tenure, but has posted significant deficits since 2010. San Diego Opera has been ranked among the country’s top 10 opera companies by Opera America and one of 13 ‘Cornerstone Arts Organizations’ by the James Irving Foundation.

The company is currently seeking $1m through crowdsourcing to support a proposed 2015 season. Board member Carol Lazier said: 'We are now very focused on reshaping the San Diego Opera and following a fiscally responsible path'. The crowdsourcing campaign deadline is 19 May.

Canadian tenor Ben Heppner retires from the stage

28 April 2014

Ben Heppner
Ben Heppner(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

The Canadian tenor Ben Heppner has announced his retirement from singing, telling fans via a message on his website that 'I've decided the time has come for a new era in my life'.

The 58-year-old singer is best known for his Wagner roles, including Lohengrin, Siegfried, Tristan and Walther in Die Meisteringer von Nürnburg, but has also championed major roles from the French and Italian repertoire such as Berlioz's Aeneas and Verdi's Otello. In 2010 he played Captain Ahab in the triumphant world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, and went on to repeat this success in San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary. Other major opera houses at which Heppner has been a regular visitor include Covent Garden, La Scala, Vienna State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Paris Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Heppner paid tribute to 'the countless people who inspired me, supported me and encouraged me to embark on a fantastic journey over the past 35 years'. He explained, however, that he has 'been experiencing a little bit of unreliability in my voice - and that causes some anxieties - [so] I decided it was time.'

Heppner has recorded widely and is currently signed as an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophon. His DG discography includes DVDs of Tristan und Isolde, Die Meisteringer von Nürnburg and Beethoven's Fidelio from the Metropolitan Opera.

A big personality away from the stage as well as on it, Heppner became a radio broadcaster with Canada's CBC network last year, taking on the job of presenting the long-running programme Saturday Afternoon at the Opera as well a his own new show Backstage With Ben Heppner.

Alongside his broadcasting roles, Heppner plan to continue hosting masterclasses, coaching singers for roles and appearing on voice competition juries.

Penderecki’s Ubu Rex at Opera Bałtycka

28 April 2014, Gdansk, Poland

Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka
Theatre of the Absurd: 'Ubu Rex' at Gdansk's Opera Bałtycka(Photo: Sebastian Ćwikła)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

This grim comedy of murder, greed, betrayal and lust for power by the lowest rung of social order is a political allegory played out as the Theater of the Absurd. Based on Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the uncanny prophecy of the evil perpetrated by Europe’s 20th-century dictators, whose plot was inspired by Macbeth, Ubu Rex parodies theatrical masterpieces and mocks the musical language of classical opera and avant-garde music.

Pere Ubu, the grotesque protagonist, at the instigation of his wife, Mere Ubu, has killed the king of an imaginary Poland and usurped the throne. He murdered the nobility and stole their property, slaughtering the bankers so as to collect and keep the taxes for himself. The people rose against him and Ubu escaped. In this work which satirises the artistic and cultural ideals of both past and present, director Janusz Wiśniewski filled the stage with caricatures. Opening and closing the opera was a chorus of misfits, some from the Addams Family (Mere appeared as Morticia), others with debilitating diseases and the walking dead. Ubu was a hunchback in a court jester outfit à la Rigoletto, wearing a tall rounded cone. His ‘friends’ were a dandy, a Moor, two transvestites, a noblewoman and a soldier in battle dress. A crude, mischievous midget couple followed him. The stage was reduced to a claustrophobic room, the sparse set consisting of a large table covered with white tablecloth and a number of wooden-slat chairs, rearranged to designate different locations. Two armoires topped with suitcases flanked either side, with escape routes through their doors.

Penderecki’s music juxtaposes tonal and atonal among its contrapuntal outbursts, fusing diverse, animated sounds and screeches with smatterings of jazz and pop, military fanfares, repetitive mantras, and direct and indirect musical quotations ranging from Bach, Mozart and Rossini to Verdi, Wagner and Mussorgsky, including the famous Clock Scene from Boris Godunov. Rossini arias are particularly mocked, sounding more like musical hiccups than bel canto. Ubu Rex is a quintessential pasticcio.

The large cast, especially Karolina Sikora and Jacek Laszczkowski as Mere and Pere Ubu, executed their roles with aplomb, and maestro Wojciech Michniewski deserves praise for his precise execution of this musically complex work. But it was the director, Wiśniewski, who offered the ultimate political commentary: it’s the ‘little people’ both literally and figuratively who rule the world, as the midget couple claimed the throne usurped by Pere and Mere Ubu.

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