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Conductor Sir Colin Davis dies aged 85

18 April 2013, London, UK

Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)
Sir Colin Davis (1927-2013)

Sir Colin Davis, who died on 14 April aged 85, was one of the leading lights of the British music scene in the latter half of the 20th century. Opera formed a significant part of his career, especially during the 15 years, from 1971 to 1986, which he spent as music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The son of a bank clerk, his family background was not especially musical, though his own talents emerged relatively early. He trained as a clarinettist and was barred from studying conducting at the Royal College of Music, since he had not learnt the piano – a requisite for would-be conductors at the time. Later, when he had established a successful career, he commented that ‘conducting has more to do with singing and breathing than with piano-playing.’

The frustrations of his early career did not deter him: in 1959, he stepped in to conduct a concert performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Festival Hall for an indisposed Otto Klemperer and from then on his career seemed to be on an exponential path to greatness. He was invited to become music director of Sadler’s Wells Opera in 1961, championing the operas of Stravinsky and continuing to develop his tremendous affinity for Mozart, whose music, he said, expressed ‘something that is more than human’.  

It was around this time that his 15-year marriage to the soprano April Cantelo broke down and that Sir Colin began to gain a reputation in the industry as being ‘unbalanced’ and ‘difficult’. Sir Colin himself admitted that he was apt to be ‘a bit hard and tactless’. He found himself blocked from key posts, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Opera House

His second marriage to Ashraf Naini marked a new beginning for Sir Colin, underlined by a new philosophy of life which perhaps made him less driven, but more congenial as a musical collaborator.

When the Royal Opera House eventually offered him the job of musical director in 1971, he accepted in the face of backstage whispers that some on the Opera House board considered him to be an unworthy successor to Sir Georg Solti. This was in spite of the credentials that he had already set down at Covent Garden following his conducting of Berlioz’s epic Les troyens and the world premiere of Tippett’s The Knot Garden. Sir John Tooley, the ROH’s chief executive at the time, recalls ‘Colin’s early days as music director at the Royal Opera House were not easy for him, as they had not been for his predecessor. There were some doubts that he could deliver and that he could begin to match some of the world’s greatest conductors. In all of this, the doubters were proved to be wrong.’ During this period, he famously booed back and stuck out his tongue at ROH audiences who were vocal in their disenchantment.

As Sir Colin expanded his repertoire at the ROH, his combination of wide-ranging erudition and passionate musicality came to be recongised and admired. One of his biggest challenges was a controversial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which unfolded between 1973 to 1976. Götz Friedrich’s  conceptual production was problematic for British audiences, but Sir Colin became one of its fiercest advocates once he was convinced of its artistic and intellectual integrity.

The conductor once said ‘the road to success and the road to failure are almost exactly the same. After his early difficulties, his time at the ROH marked a period where his reputation was finally established and his own equilibrium as a musician was restored after a period of instability. He was knighted in 1980, appointed Companion of Honour in 2002 and awarded the Queen's Medal for music in 2009

Following his departure from the ROH in 1986, Sir Colin’s career continued to expand internationally, entering its final and perhaps most illustrious phase when he was appointed music director of the London Symphony Orchestra. His operatic work with the LSO showed off his experience and grasp of different styles, championing contemporary work and continuing to bring new resonance to the classics: especially memorable during his time with the LSO were his Peter Grimes and Verdi’s Falstaff, both available on disc.

  • Sir Colin Davis, conductor: born 25 September 1927, died 14 April 2013


New horizons for the Hungarian State Opera

18 April 2013, Budapest, Hungary

Domonkos Héja
Domonkos Héja(Photo: Tamás Gács)

Domonkos Héja has been the acting music director at Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera since 2011, following the resignation of his predecessor Ádám Fischer. Héja talks to Opera Now about recent developments at the company and his plans for the forthcoming season.

ON: What steps have you taken to change the company's artistic direction since you took over?

DH: We have taken a number of steps designed make the company more visible internationally. Firstly, we undertook a structural reorganisation, which should have been done years ago. This eliminated the status of soloists with contracts for indefinite periods, and gave us the opportunity to find the most appropriate voices and qualities for each role. Last year auditions were held in every section of the orchestra and chorus, ensuring that only the best musicians are now employed, as well as allowing us to engage some younger artists. We now regularly hold auditions for singers, which provide opportunities not only for Hungarians but also foreign artists.

How important is music by Hungarian composers to the identity of the company? Is anything being done to develop the next generation of Hungarian composers while putting a spotlight on important figures from the past?

This is extremely important, and I am pleased to say that in Hungary the name of our great nationalist composer Ferenc Erkel is already strongly associated with my efforts to promote his music. Prior to becoming the company’s music director, I conducted a production here of Erkel’s Bánk bán, using the original version unknown by earlier generations. Our current season began with the original version of Erkel’s opera Hunyadi László, and we have made recordings of both operas.

Erkel is an emblematic composer in Hungary: while his works show the impact of bel canto and French grand opera styles, he invented a unique musical language that contains elements of Hungarian folk music in abundance.

Another reason why we want to keep the biggest possible number of Hungarian operas in the repertoire is to safeguard the development of the Hungarian language. Next year we will stage János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, which will be performed together with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. In the future, I plan to perform Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, which has already been premiered in Hungary, and to stage more operas by Peter Eötvös. We have also announced an opera competition for contemporary Hungarian composers, including a biennial prize for new children’s operas.

The company has a huge repertoire of almost 100 productions. What are you doing to refresh this current stock of repertoire with new stagings?

By the end of each season our plans for the next four years are in place. This means we can schedule new productions well in advance and ensure the availability of world-famous stars for special events – and I don’t only mean singers. We are already negotiating with some international celebrities.

The Hungarian State Opera presents 450 performances a year with 5,000 roles, so we would like to allocate a certain percentage of these to guest singers. Artists already booked for future seasons include Kurt Rydl, Rainer Trost, Leo Nucci and Ivan Magri, plus conductors such as Ion Marin, Stefan Soltesz and the newly appointed principal conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Steinberg.

We are keen to rebuild our Wagner repertoire, and plan to stage a children’s opera every year. Next season, for example, we will perform Mozart’s Magic Flute with students from Budapest’s Circus Arts School. Another area of development is our Baroque repertoire: the current season features a Rameau premiere plus stagings of Gluck and Lully.

I’m also a devout fan of Richard Strauss’ operas – the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2014 will be an appropriate occasion for us to provide audiences with a large dose of his art, performed to a high artistic standard.

What difference has the opening of the Erkel Theatre had to the company?

The Erkel Theatre provides an important platform for many artists, which in turn expands the range of work on offer for audiences. In the past, it typically attracted less wealthy opera lovers and visitors from out of town. Building on this legacy it is again becoming the home of affordable but high-quality opera for large crowds.

How does the company harnass and support singing talent within Hungary? Do you run a young artists programme?

I plan to re-establish an Opera Studio and invite directors to create two or three productions each year with young singers. Currently, a large number of talented young singers graduate from Budapest’s Academy of Music and other music colleges in Hungary, but can’t expect anything more than minor roles here, even though a presence at the HSO is indispensable for their development. It is important for them to get used to moving and acting on stage under the instructions of leading directors.
It is also crucial for young instrumental musicians to get some insight into the work of the HSO orchestra because they have not been introduced to this form of orchestral work at college. To achieve this, I think it is important to establish an ‘Orchestral Academy’ where our own excellent musicians can pass on knowledge to their younger colleagues. The newly opened Erkel Theatre could be a perfect venue for this.

Please tell us something about your artistic aims for the season ahead.

Apart from the children’s opera I’ve already mentioned, we are organising a Strauss Festival to mark the 150th anniversary of this great composer’s birth. We will dedicate thirteen nights to Strauss operas, presenting a wide range of company productions from the past 20 years. Besides Balázs Kovalik’s internationally renowned postmodern Elektra, we will stage Géza Bereményi’s Arabella, János Szikora’s Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos, Andrejs Žagars’s Der Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’ most grandiose operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten. This series will be the highlight of the season.

The presence of Hungarian composers in our repertoire has also definitely strengthened: upcoming productions include Kodály’s Háry János, Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Pongrác Kacsóh’s folk opera János vitéz, and the world premiere of György Selmeczi’s I spiritisti.

It would take years to replace our whole repertoire completely, so in addition to the premieres we will renew old productions with changes to their lighting and sets, or by adapting the movements on stage. This process has already begun with our recent Parsifal.

Our long-term objectives include staging rarely performed works and real specialties.


New York City Opera welcomes new music director Jayce Ogren

3 April 2013, New York, US

Jayce Ogren, NYCO's new music director
Jayce Ogren, NYCO's new music director(Photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Signalling the company’s return to financial health after several difficult seasons, the New York City Opera has appointed Jayce Ogren as its new music director, from 1 September 2013.

Ogren has conducted three NYCO productions over recent seasons, including Britten’s The Turn of the Screw earlier this year. From September, he will conduct at least two productions per season as well as concerts, galas and other projects.

Welcoming Ogren, NYCO’s general and artistic director George Steel said that the young maestro ‘already has an extraordinary track record with our orchestra, and will bring electricity and artistic insight to our music-making’.

This month, meanwhile, the company returns to its roots at New York City Centre, known as the ‘People’s Theatre’, where it was founded in 1943 by the then Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia. The theatre, where NYCO last performed in 1965, has been completely renovated, with more comfortable seating and improved sightlines.

The Spring Season, running from 14 to 27 April, opens with Rossini’s Biblical blockbuster, Moses in Egypt. Jayce Ogren conducts the opera with its dramatic yet refined, heavily Mozartian score. Director Michael Counts, an artist known for his fertile imagination and his ability to create extraordinary multimedia ‘happenings’, promises to match the epic sweep of Rossini’s music with the requisite visual grandeur.

In complete contrast, the second opera of NYCO’s Spring Season is Offenbach’s La Périchole, a madcap account of sexual shennigans in 18th-century Peru. Marie Lenormande, an NYCO regular, sings the title role, while the French tenor Philippe Talbot, an operetta specialist, makes his company debut. Director Christopher Alden, the David Lynch of opera, is sure to add a sardonic twist to Offenbach’s irrepressible fizz.


Win tickets to NYCO's upcoming productions of Moses in Egypt and La Périchole!

To enter, simply drop us an email with the subject ‘NYCO’ to competitions@rhinegold.co.uk. Please include your full name, address and a contact telephone number. (Deadline for entries: 11 April 2013.)

A pair of tickets will be allocated to one winner for each of the productions. Performances take place on 16 April (Moses in Egypt) and 23 April (La Périchole).


'Million dollar mezzo' dies aged 99

22 March 2013, New York, US

Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens
Mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens(Photo: Metropolitan Opera Archives)

The American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens has died in New York, aged 99.

Born in 1913 to émigré parents – her father a Norwegian Lutheran, her mother a Polish Jew – Stevens studied at the Juilliard School while supporting herself as a part-time model for fur coats. She went on to train at the Salzburg Mozarteum and was spotted in Paris by the conductor George Szell, who engaged her to play the title role in a 1935 Prague production of Ambrose Thomas’s Mignon. Over the next three years, she appeared at the Vienna State Opera, sang Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier in Buenos Aires, and made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera.

During the 1940s and 50s, Stevens became known particularly for playing two of opera’s great seductresses – Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saëns’ Dalila – both of which became her signature roles. During the Second World War she also enjoyed a brief spell as a minor film star in three films with Bing Crosby, including Going My Way (1944), which won seven Oscars. By 1945, her voice was insured for a record US$1 million by Lloyd’s of London.

Stevens retired from the stage in 1961, but continued to serve as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s administrative team for many years, supporting the development of young artists.

  • Risë Stevens, mezzo-soprano: born 11 June 1913, died 20 March 2013


Tate deputy appointed new boss at London's Royal Opera

19 March 2013, London, UK [Updated 8 April 2013]

Alex Beard, new chief executive of the Royal Opera House
Alex Beard, new chief executive of the Royal Opera House

Alex Beard, Deputy Director of Tate, has been named as the new Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, following the departure of Sir Tony Hall, who is now in his new post of director general of the BBC. 

Since 1994, Beard has been an integral part of the Tate Galleries’ management team, starting as finance director and moving into resource management and business development progressively over eight years before being appointed Tate's deputy director under Sir Nicholas Serota's leadership. 

Beard, aged 49, brings a rare mix of financial and cultural acumen to his new role at the Opera House. Before joining Tate, he was head of business assessment at the Arts Council, responsible for assessing the performance of the organisations in receipt of long-term funding. He is a trustee of Glyndebourne Productions and Global Giving UK, giving him solid insights into the commercial opera scene as well as the charitable and philanthropic arena.

Beard’s business development experience, fundraising skills and Arts Council links will be especially valuable at a time when the Royal Opera House’s annual grant has been cut by more than 6 per cent to £26m, which still represents the highest level of public subsidy in the cultural sector.

Sir Tony Hall’s management style was essentially expansive in nature, geared at exploiting the Royal Opera House brand by developing product lines, international partnerships and promoting new media initiatives. He was, however, generally ‘hands-off’ in his engagement with the Opera House’s core artistic activities. Alex Beard’s appointment, meanwhile, promises to bring the management focus at the ROH back to core business development and funding stability, along with a more acute critical eye on the quality and integrity of programming presented across the Royal Opera House’s stages.

Beard recently received a CBE for his services to the arts, and his chief executive post at the Royal Opera House brings a remuneration package of £250,000 per annum.


Meanwhile, the Royal Opera House has announced its plans for the 2013 /14 season, which looks to be its strongest, artistically speaking, in some time. There will be seven new productions featuring international casts and some of Europe’s foremost conductors and stage directors. A new staging of Wagner’s Parsifal by Stephen Langridge and the ROH premiere of Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes, directed by Norwegian Stefan Herheim, round off celebrations of both composers’ bicentenaries this year. Next year’s Richard Strauss anniversary is being marked with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten from German director Claus Guth.

The season launches in September with Puccini's Turandot, featuring the laser-bright singing of American soprano Lise Lindstrom, who takes the title role. Berg’s Wozzeck returns with Simon Keenlyside and Karita Mattila. Kasper Holten, the ROH’s director of opera, stages a new Don Giovanni with Nicola Luisotti in the pit. David McVicar's camp yet classy Faust returns to the ROH stage with an extraordinary cast of superstars including Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, Joseph Calleja and Simon Keenlyside. Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmélites unites Sir Simon Rattle in the pit with his wife Magdalena Kožená on stage.

The ROH’s music director Antonio Pappano used the occasion of the new season launch to deliver a swipe at singers who cancel performances – a perennial problem in recent years. ‘It happens more and more,’ said the maestro. ‘There’s something about this generation of singers, that they are weaker in their bodies or they just don’t care. I don't know what it is, but it's something that is very frustrating for me personally.’ Ironically, Pappano made his remarks just a few weeks after he himself had had to cancel his scheduled ROH run conducting Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur after an attack of tendonitis. The affliction, he said, was the result of a stressful workload at the end of last year.


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