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UK opera companies rally to retain orchestras

28 January 2013, Leeds, UK

Opera North music director Richard Farnes
Opera North music director Richard Farnes(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Report by Keith Clarke

Fears that the opera orchestra could be an endangered species were raised at this year’s annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras, held in Leeds 23-25 January.

In a session chaired by Opera Now editor Ashutosh Khandekar, the challenges facing opera orchestras were outlined by Richard Farnes and Richard Mantle, music director and general director of Opera North, and Henry Little, chairman of the National Opera Co-ordinating Committee.

Little, who spent ten years as head of opera at Arts Council England, said: ‘Across the country, the whole network of opera ensembles is largely quite unacknowledged, yet it is a top-quality musical force that really drives the success of the companies.’ There had been calls to disband opera orchestras, with existing concert orchestras deployed instead. Little said he had ‘spent ages in darkened rooms drawing up models and looking at schedules … and in every case it just wasn’t practical.’

Aside from the logistics, the ensemble nature of an opera orchestra could not be overlooked, said Richard Farnes: ‘Opera companies are called opera companies for a very good reason. It’s an ensemble of people with a multitude of different crafts who are all coming together with a common aim to create a three-dimensional piece of work musically and thematically on the stage. The intrinsic quality of what you get from an ensemble is completely different.’

Arts Council England is currently reconsidering its provision of opera in England. Richard Mantle seemed unoptimistic about the outcome. ‘There is a staggering lack of understanding among our funders about the very particular nature of opera. It’s all about costs. The Arts Council is absolutely terrified of the relative costs of an opera company or a large-scale lyric company, the big employers. They see something like 39% of their grant going to nine companies and they really can’t cope with that.’


ROH announces contemporary opera series

25 January 2013, London, UK

ROH director of opera Kasper Holten
ROH director of opera Kasper Holten(Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

London’s Royal Opera House has announced plans to present more than 15 new operas between 2013 and 2020, including four commissions for the main stage in 2020.

The move follows criticism that despite receiving more public funds than any other arts organisation in the UK, the Royal Opera has veered towards safe programming over recent seasons. It is the first major programming announcement to emerge under the leadership of Kasper Holten, who became ROH director of opera in autumn 2011.

‘New work is not and should not be at the periphery of our programme’, said Holten, ‘but right at the core of who we are. And this is something we do, not because we must, but because it is something that we are passionate about’.

Several of the new works will be presented in the Linbury Studio Theatre, but audiences can also look forward to a total of eight main stage productions between 2015 and 2020, including Thomas Adès next large-scale opera, based on Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, plus scores by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Kaija Saariaho, Jörg Widmann, Luca Francesconi and Goerg Friederich Haas.

The current season features the UK premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin during March, and the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Linbury Studio Theatre during June.


ENO’s Medea has all the signs of success

25 January 2013, London, UK

Sarah Connolly as ENO's Medea
Sarah Connolly as ENO's Medea(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

For most big opera companies, Baroque repertoire involves an occasional foray into works by Handel. English National Opera is once again breaking the mould with its exploration of French baroque repertoire from the 17th century, an exceptionally fertile yet relatively untrammelled era, full of grand operatic works that have substance as well as style, packed full of thought-provoking themes.
After a theatrically daring and musically exquisite staging of Rameau’s Castor and Pollux, ENO turns to Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s masterpiece Medea, premiered in 1693. It’s a coruscating tale of suspicion, infidelity, revenge, murder and shocking infanticide, describing the tragic downfall of the sorceress Medea, mother of Jason (of Golden Fleece fame). The music is masterly and forward-looking in the way it illuminates the inner lives of the opera’s protagonists. Charpentier’s great coup is to treat the chorus and dance sequences as integral to the narrative, rather than as merely diverting ‘set pieces’. Medea’s summoning of demons as she prepares to poison her rival, is a chilling and atmospheric case in point.
ENO, meanwhile, has summoned a magical cast for David McVicar’s stylish, cinematic updating of the work to the elegant but emotionally disturbed interwar era of the 20th century. This is a chance to hear two of Britain’s very finest singers in extraordinary taxing but rewarding roles: Sarah Connolly as Medea and Roderick Williams as Orontes. The American tenor Jeffrey Francis makes his ENO debut as Jason, having established his credentials as a fine Baroque and Mozart specialist in several major opera houses in Europe.
Christian Curnyn conducts Charpentier’s powerful score, full of incident, with unexpectedly vivid bursts of orchestral colour that bring the drama to life. ENO’s Medea shows every sign of being one of the highlights of the 2012/13 opera season.

ENO's Medea runs from 15 February to 16 March 2013 at the Coliseum, London.


ENO halves reserves to pay for £2.2m deficit

16 January 2013, London, UK

Original report by Alex Stevens for Classical Music

English National Opera has filed its accounts for 2011/12, revealing an overall loss of £2.2m. This compares with losses of £55,000 in 2010/11 and £160,000 in 2009/10.

A statement from ENO said that the deficit would be covered by the company’s reserves, which now stand at less than £2.2m – down from more than £4.5m a year ago. A similar trading deficit in 2012/13 would therefore leave the company needing to borrow or requiring external investment in order to balance its books.

The results ‘reflect the cut in Arts Council England funding in 2012 and the impact of a very difficult economic environment on ticket sales, in a period of award-winning work, increased fundraising and strong international partnership contribution’, said a statement.

‘In this challenging financial environment we are also looking at the balance of work that we offer to our audiences and the ticket prices we charge.’

Despite year-on-year ticket sales falling by £1.2m, combined with a significant reduction in the company's grant from ACE (down by £1.3m to £17.2m), operational revenues actually increased by £200,000 in 2011/12.

ENO recently engaged brand agency Capitalize to develop sponsorship and corporate opportunities, including the possibility of selling naming rights to the Coliseum, the company’s home since 1968.

Compared with the Royal Opera House, situated a mile away in Covent Garden, ENO has seen year-on-year growth of 30% in sponsorship and donations, which increased from £2.7m to £3.5m last year, but still lags behind the Opera House, which brought in £18.4m in 2010/11.

Meanwhile, a report in the Guardian has revealed that ACE is conducting a review into the support it provides for opera and ballet.


Opera South presents new commission

15 January 2013

Composer William Godfree
Composer William Godfree

For many opera companies in the UK, community opera in 2013 means Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten, as part of the composer’s centenary celebrations.

However, the enterprising Opera South, is bucking this trend by commissioning a brand new work, written expressly with young people in mind and tailored to the resources of its local community as well as involving schools from neighbouring counties, based on an episode from Arthurian legend.

The Surrey-based company has asked William Godfree to write the opera, entitled Child Roland, which will be premiered in Haslemere in May this year. The opera’s forces are designed to harness as much local talent as possible: ten child soloists will join two adult professional singers, and there is a children’s and adults’ chorus, all accompanied by an ensemble of eight instrumentalists.

The music, explains Godfree, will be eclectic and packed with drama: ‘It’s something of a collage, using some traditional melodies blended with orginial material. Although some of the passages are quite challenging, shall we say, to the ear, the children’s lines tend to be very singable.’

The hour-long work unfolds in two acts that concern the exploits of Roland, son of King Arthur, sent on a quest to rescue his sister Ellen who has been snatched away by the evil King of Elfland.

Child Roland will be directed by Nigel Ramage and designed by John Braithwaite. Performances take place at Haslemere Hall, as part of the Haslemere Festival, on 18 and 19 May.


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