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Rome Opera saved from the brink

24 November 2014, Rome, Italy

Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Teatro dell'Opera di Roma

The future of the Teatro dell’Opera, Rome’s principal opera company, has been secured after a deal was signed between the theatre’s management and unions which reversed an earlier decision to sack the entire orchestra and chorus of the opera.

At the beginning of October, it was announced that 182 orchestral musicians and chorus members would lose their full-time contracts in a bid bring the Teatro dell’Opera back from the brink of financial collapse. The news provoked outrage in the international opera world, with accusations of ‘cultural vandalism’ being directed at the opera’s management. A series of campaigns in the media and by prominent cultural organisations across Europe put further pressure on the city authorities in Rome to avert the crisis.

Following a month of intense negotiations, musicians and choristers have accepted a deal that makes provisions for €1.5m worth of savings across the entire payroll of the opera company, with another €1.9m of savings coming from cuts to overheads and production costs. The deal has been ratified by 97 per cent of the opera house’s employees and the Teatro dell’Opera’s general manager Carlo Fuortes announced last week that it’s ‘back to work as normal’ for the company.

The row between Rome’s musicians unions and opera management was sparked off following the embarrassment of Maestro Riccardo Muti quitting his position as honorary music director at the house, claiming that the Teatro dell’Opera was unable to offer the ‘serene conditions’ to work productively.

Ignazio Marino, the mayor of Rome, said: ‘This is a successful outcome for the whole city. The opera can now return to work with serenity … I hope maestro Muti may revise his decision.’

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La Monnaie appeals against budget cuts

20 November 2014, Brussels, Belgium

Cultural flagship: Belgium's La Monnaie/De Munt
Cultural flagship: Belgium's La Monnaie/De Munt(Photo: Johan Jacobs)

Belgium’s national opera company, La Monnaie/De Munt, has been ordered to cut its spending by €6.5m over the next five years. The dictum from Belgium’s federal government has been described by La Monnaie’s director, Peter de Caluwe, as a step in the direction of a ‘cultural blackout’.

In addition to savings of 4 per cent on staff and 20 per cent on operating costs, the government has mooted the idea of merging La Monnaie’s orchestra with the National Orchestra of Belgium (ONB). In Caluwe’s words: ‘The government will examine how synergies and efficiencies can be achieved through close collaboration with the ONB and La Monnaie.’

News of the cuts has provoked outrage and concern across the opera world, prompting an open letter from the chairman of the industry body Deutschsprachige Opernkonferenz, whose members include all the major German opera houses plus La Scala, Paris Opera and London’s Royal Opera House.

‘The facts are clear and shocking: Belgium expects La Monnaie to save almost €3m by January, rising to a total of around €6.5m by 2019. Taking into consideration cuts made over the last five years, La Monnaie's budget will be reduced by 30 per cent,’ writes Opernkonferenz chairman Bernd Loebe. ‘It is a mystery how, on top of the endless legal battles with lawyers and trade unions, a social climate in the opera house and artistic productivity can be maintained.’

Loebe now runs Frankfurt Opera, but was the director of La Monnaie from 1990 to 2002. Praising La Monnaie’s high artistic standards and culture of ‘working with less’, his letter ends with an impassioned plea: ‘A theatre of La Monnaie’s quality should not be doomed in this cynical way! I call on the people of Europe to oppose the tasteless notions of the powers that be, and to our own politicians I say: do not allow an institution that has represented Belgium so positively at home and abroad to fall into ruins.’

La Monnaie’s 2014/15 season includes 20 productions, over a third of which are new. Last month saw the company’s world premiere of Shell Shock, a new opera commemorating the centenary of World War One.

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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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