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Zhang Yimou directs Turandot in Beijing's 'Bird's Nest' stadium

14 September 2010, Beijing, China

Nancy Pellegrini reports on Zhang Yimou's production of Turandot in Beijing's 80,000-seat Beijing National Stadium.

With Zhang Yimou’s US$17.5 million production of Turandot in Beijing’s National Stadium, China is staking their claim on Puccini’s final work, planning a movie, books, comics, musicals, a beauty pageant and even a theme park; the performance itself will tour former Olympic cities and end in London in 2012. But how’s the show?

Film director Zhang Yimou’s production of Turandot in Beijing’s National Stadium (the Bird’s Nest) raises a philosophical question: should opera ever be done in an 80,000-seat venue?  The answer is probably not.

Touting the event as the biggest thing since Zhang’s Olympic Opening Ceremony set the bar too high; seeing even the massive stage tucked neatly into a corner created audible disappointment before the overture even began. The 1000 performers, 4000 costumes, and hundreds of musicians were impressive, but the sound bounced around trailing audio mud, while microphones smothered nearly all traces of timbre or vocal nuance. 

Dai Yuqiang (Calaf) is known as China’s Pavarotti, partly because his honeyed tones bear a striking resemblance to the late, great Luciano. Miked, however, he hovered between loud and harsh. Raffaella Angeletti (Turandot) has a lovely dynamic range, but here her forte notes were shrill. Perennial Liu (Yao Hong) and Timur (Tian Haojiang) fared better, but overall there was a vocal uniformity that only technology can bring. Certainly Turandot was written with spectacle in mind; after all, the story is ludicrous, and – setting aside the Chinese folk tunes and pentatonic scales – musically everyone is killing time until ‘Nessun Dorma’. But without being able to enjoy (or indeed, revile) individual voices, opera has little point.

Having said that, there was plenty to see. The bi-level stage was set against a “largest movie screen in the world” backdrop shaped like a Chinese palace that broadcast mood-setting video: a slow-motion cavalry, a blooming peony and an exploding gong, among others. Yao is an outstanding actress; her evocative arias, and Timur’s passionate reaction to her death were the evening’s most powerful moments. However, while Dai Is well-suited for the arrogant Calaf, he struggled with emotion. Concluding his ‘Nessun Dorma’ by throwing his hands up in triumph brought to mind an aria competition winner rather than a lovesick prince on the brink of death. And although the climaxes were visually stunning, dancers or lantern bearers parading through the more intimate scenes seemed merely a desperate attempt to fill the space.

This Turandot has its strengths, however: a strong cast and orchestra, gorgeous costumes, some breathtaking staging and a blend of old and new. It brought thousands to their first opera, and anyone sitting in the central VIP seats or scanning the TV screens got a spectacular view. For everyone else, it was too big for a stage, too small for a stadium. Some music lovers feel that stadium staging is the way to make opera accessible to the masses. Whether those same audiences will later come to a theatre where they can’t enter during Act II arguing about their seats while balancing popcorn and ice cream, only time will tell.

Zhang Yimou's Turandot will be staged in London as part as of the 2012 Olympic Games cultural programme


News round-up - 10 September 2010

10 September 2010

Dominique Meyer
Dominique Meyer

Cork Opera House
Cork Opera House

New director vows to expand company repertoire

The new director of Vienna State Opera, Frenchman Dominique Meyer, began his tenure last week with an announcement that the company’s repertoire will expand under his leadership. As well as bringing “Mozart back to the forefront” and re-introducing Baroque repertoire banished under former director, Ioan Holender, Meyer indicated that more modern and contemporary works would be added to Vienna’s roster – in particular the “beautiful operas” of Janáček. The number of new productions each season will also increase from four to six.

Discrepancies worth €63,000 uncovered

Fraud squad detectives have been called in by Cork Opera House to investigate the alleged misappropriation of company funds totalling €63,000. The discrepancy was uncovered during an internal audit led by executive director, Padriac Liston. A member of staff has since been interviewed and dismissed. Liston, who is an accountant and former boss of Heineken Ireland, was appointed in June after the company reported losses of €83,000 for the past financial year.

Opera category shortlist announced

Three recordings have been shortlisted in the opera category for this year’s Gramophone Awards: Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (BBC SO / Oliver Knussen), based on the life of the 16th century English composer, John Taverner; Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s tale of mediaeval courtly love, L’amour de loin (Deutches SO Berlin / Kent Nagano); and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (The Hallé / Mark Elder). The winner will be announced at next month’s Awards ceremony in London.

Shuna Scott Sendall to perform at Proms In The Park

Scottish soprano, Shuna Scott Sendall, has been selected as the winner of the first BBC Radio 2 Kiri Prize. She was one of five singers who took part in the final, following a series of masterclasses in London with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Sendall’s prize includes an appearance at BBC Proms In The Park on 11 September, where she will join Dame Kiri to perform live for an audience of 40,000 people.

René Jacobs’ Mozart series continues with The Magic Flute

Harmonia Mundi has launched a special blog site to accompany their latest opera release – Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Weekly updates until 26 October will focus on different aspects of the opera and its production. The initiative continues René Jacobs’s series of Mozart recordings for the label, which already includes Le nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito.

Heinz Fricke retires after a recent bout of ill health

Heinz Fricke, who has held the post of music director at Washington National Opera since 1992, has announced his retirement following a recent bout of ill health. The company plans to announce his successor during the forthcoming season. Meanwhile, Fricke will continue to bear the title of Music Director Emeritus.

Extra room needed for sell-out shows

The Canadian Opera Company is adding 60 standing room only spaces to its venue in Toronto, following a number of sell-out shows in recent years. The tickets, priced at $12 each, will be available on the day of performances.


The Pasadena Playhouse in California has appointed its first ever resident opera company after emerging from bankruptcy earlier this year. The Intimate Opera Company will launch its residency in December with a production of Gian Carlo Menotti's seasonal favourite, Amahl and the Night Visitors.


The Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland has launched a new online ticketing service that allows opera-goers to choose their own seats and print out their tickets.


Indo-Norwegian partnership brings Puccini to Mumbai

9 September 2010, Mumbai, India

Anne Randine Øverby
Anne Randine Øverby(Photo: Magne Turøy)

Khushroo Suntook
Khushroo Suntook(Photo: Natasha Hemrajani)

Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA
Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA(Photo: Fram Petit)

India’s first fully-staged professional production of Tosca will receive two performances in Mumbai on 28 and 30 September. Opera Now Editor, Ashutosh Khandekar, reports on a unique collaboration between Bergen Opera and India’s National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA).

Following a triumphant production Madama Butterfly at the NCPA in February 2008, international opera returns to Mumbai this September as the NCPA teams up with Opera Bergen to present another Puccini masterpiece, Tosca.

The Norwegian link has been in the pipeline for two years – a typical timeline, given the sheer complexity and financial logistics of opera. On this occasion, the catalyst was a meeting between Khushroo Suntook, the NCPA’s operaphile Chairman, and Anne Randine Øverby, the  founder and director of Opera Bergen.

Øverby i established Norway’s second opera company (after the National Opera in Oslo) in the city of Bergen on the west coast. She has produced and conducted more than 80 operas in her long career, which has included conducting tours to China, Egypt and the USA.

 Øverby has relished an opportunity to work in India, in part because of her strong personal connections with the country: “Actually, I was born in India and lived here until I was 18,” she says. “‘My parents were missionaries in Bangladesh and then in South India, so the country is really in my blood. Bringing opera here is like a dream come true – a real personal voyage of re-connecting and re-discovery for me.”

Øverby has assembled a 90-strong cast to come to Mumbai, ranging from international soloists to instrumentalists and choristers. “I have to emphasize that this is a full-scale production created especially for Mumbai,” says Øverby. “We’re bringing a professional organist, rehearsal pianists, even six children who sing at the beginning of the great ‘Te Deum’ scene set in the church at the end of Act I. I was determined from the start not to cut any corners. If we’re going to do grand opera in India, it must be the real thing so that audiences are not short-changed.”

There are many local elements in the mix, however. The production will also feature 40 members of Mumbai’s Paranjoti Academy Chorus. And the entire production has been built in Mumbai, using local craftspeople and designers. “One of the great joys about a production like this has been co-operating with a local people and getting to know the spirit of Mumbai through its creative life,” says Øverby, who has visited the city five times this year in preparation for the opera.

With this level of resources and detail comes considerable financial commitment, but Øverby points out, “Opera Bergen is a small company that is used to having little money. We give our artists a lot of freedom in the way we work, so it’s not just a factory churning out productions.  As a result, I think people are more willing to give their time and energy to us at a rate that we can afford. In return, they can work in an interesting, more creative way than might be possible with other companies.”

Mumbai’s Tosca will be staged by Øverby’s long-time collaborator, the stage director Bruno Berger. What sort of approach has the production team taken for staging the opera? “We are presenting the opera in a very classical way,” Øverby says. “The drama will be presented in a clean, stylistic way and not at all exaggerated. The music is so powerful that it needs to come across very directly for the audience to feel its full force, so we’re trying to keep a clear focus in the staging.”

The hope is that Tosca will be the start of a series of ongoing collaborations involving opera co-productions with overseas companies. As the NCPA’s Chairman points out, the way forward for opera in India is to set up joint ventures that allow expertise and finance to be shared: “My love for opera is enormous, but it’s also enormously expensive!” says Khushroo Suntook. “One of the nice things that we got from this particular partnership is that Opera Bergen has brought a lot to the table, not least in the experience, integrity, and devotion that Anne has lent to our venture.”

“As for the future,” Suntook explains, “we are talking to people in continental Europe to do co-productions. We have a lot to offer to the opera world here in Mumbai. We have an economical orchestra and we have the facilities to build excellent sets and make wonderful costumes. The next step is to build up our singing talent and produce some good-quality homegrown singers. This takes time, but the Mumbai-born, internationally renowned soprano, Patricia Rozario, has been visiting India and holding masterclasses at the NCPA.  She has found some promising voices, who could have a future if the right opportunities are given.  So I’m looking ahead to February 2012/13 with a view to doing a short opera season based on the co-production model.”

Meanwhile for the forthcoming Tosca, Suntook, a great aficionado of the singing voice, is pinning his hopes on an international cast that is well-regarded and highly experienced: “We have a wonderful Georgian soprano, Iano Tamar, in the title role who has sung major roles at La Scala and Covent Garden. She comes to Mumbai after appearing Bregenz Festival. And I’m told that the Scarpia of Anooshah Golesorkhi is especially powerful. It transpires that he is a Zoroastrian by birth, so should be particularly popular with Mumbai's strong contingent of Parsi opera lovers!”

A version of this article originally appeared in the September issue of On Stage, the monthly magazine of Mumbai's National Centre for the Performing Arts.


Negotiations underway for part-time orchestra at Scottish Opera

9 September 2010, [Originally posted on 31 August]

General director, Alex Reedijk
General director, Alex Reedijk

Scottish Opera may be planning to halve the working hours and salaries of its orchestra, a report in Glasgow’s The Herald revealed last week.

According to the report, “The management of the opera company, led by general director Alex Reedijk, believe the expense of a full-time orchestra cannot be sustained.”

The alleged proposal to put all 54 orchestra members on part-time contracts for 26 weeks’ work per year has been met with “anger, concern and dismay” by the musicians.

They have responded by writing an internal letter to the company’s board members stating that “We are the last remaining performing artists on full-time contracts, and if we were to continue in the direction that these proposals take us, Scottish Opera would no longer be a performing arts company at all, merely an administration, and indeed would no longer be a ‘national’ company worthy of the name.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Scottish Opera has told Opera Now that “we are currently in negotiations with the players representatives and the Musician's Union about new employment contracts and do not have anything further to add.”

The orchestra of Scottish Opera is due to celebrate its 30th birthday this year, having survived a previous financial restructuring of the company in 2004 that led to the loss of nearly 100 jobs, including all 34 members of the Opera’s chorus.

Union says proposals will damage the company "irretrievably"

The UK's Musicians' Union has declared that "the artistic integrity of [Scottish Opera] will be compromised and damaged irretrievably" if proposed cuts to the contracts and pay of the company's orchestra go ahead.

The Union's comments were published in an open letter sent to all 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament last week, including Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop MSP.

Referring to recent media coverage about the proposed cuts, the Union's letter continued: "We understand that in today’s economic climate there are difficult decisions to be made about public spending...however, we believe that the company is one of Scotland’s most important cultural institutions and should be preserved for future generations.

“We believe that Scotland deserves a first-class opera company...using its public investment imaginatively and wisely to deliver excellent performances: small, medium and large, to the widest range of audiences.”

While Scotland's Culture Minister has so far not commented publicly on the debate, the Labour party's culture spokeswoman, Pauline McNeill MSP, said:

“I share the concerns that the Musicians’ Union have on the future of Scottish Opera. I urge Scottish Opera to consider all options and to discuss those with members in case there is a suitable alternative."

She added: "The reduction to working time for musicians is a drastic measure and those responsible, including the Scottish Government, must safeguard the integrity of our national company.”


Registration now open for Italy's "Benvenuto Franci" Vocal Competition 

9 September 2010, Pienza, Italy

Benvenuto Franci (1891-1985)
Benvenuto Franci (1891-1985)

Registration for the 2nd International “Benvenuto Franci” Vocal Competition in Pienza, Tuscany is now open. Singers are invited to apply online via Pienza’s local government website.

This year’s registration deadline is 6 October 2010.

Named in honour of Pienza-born baritone, Benvenuto Franci, the Competition was launched in 2008 by Artistic Director, Monica Faralli. It takes place biannually and attracted more than 100 applicants in 2008.

The 2010 Competition will feature a jury led by Pavarotti’s ex-wife and former business manager, Adua Veroni. Two days of rounds held at Pienza’s Conservatory of San Carlo Borromeo will culminate in a Final concert at the historic Church of San Francesco on 16 October.

The Competition is open to all singers born after 31 December 1974. There is also a special ‘Seniors’ section for singers born before 1 January 1975. Each applicant is expected to prepare five arias in their original language, accompanied by piano.

Cash prizes worth a total of 6,500 Euros are on offer, together with opportunities for the winners to take part in concerts and auditions.

All elimination rounds as well as the Final will be open to the public.

The 2nd International “Benvenuto Franci” Vocal Competition will be linked with the Amici per la Pelle association, which provides information and assistance for the prevention, study and treatment of skin cancer.


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