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Preview - Alexander Raskatov's A Dog’s Heart at the ENO

17 November 2010, London, UK

'A Dog's Heart' at De Nederlandse Opera
'A Dog's Heart' at De Nederlandse Opera(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Alexander Raskatov's A Dog's Heart opens at English National Opera on Saturday 20 November. Opera Now correspondent, Jordi Kooiman, reports on the recent world premiere of this Anglo-Dutch co-production.

Alexander Raskatov’s first opera, A Dog´s Heart, received an enthusiastic reception at its world premiere last June, given in Amsterdam by De Nederlandse Opera.

The restless, exuberant music turned out to be a perfect springboard for Simon McBurney, artistic director of the Complicite theatre company. McBurney’s ingenious, comical staging captured the spirit of Russian satire at its best.

Raskatov (born 1953) has a penchant for writing music vocal scores, but until now has never written an opera. For his debut in the medium, he chose a work based on the famous novel, Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце), by Mikhail Bulgakov.

The work tells the story of a mongrel named Sharik, given a human form by Professor Filipp Filippovich. Sjarkov turns out to have a rather cruel and intractable character and as time passes, the situation gets out of hand and the professor changes him back into a dog.

Bulgakov used his novel to criticise the Soviet system, and this satire resonates in Raskatov´s music. His vocal writing is exuberant, sometimes to the point of absurdity in Sharik´s ‘barking’ way of singing, and in the high, hysterical screaming of Zina the maids.  The lyrics are humorous yet remain sharp. None of it is really serious – but then again, it is.

In the meantime, the orchestra evokes the rapidly shifting atmosphere of the work. The humour and pace of the story are enhanced by its constantly changing musical themes. Amid all the flamboyant colour there is a serious undertone to be heard in the nationalistic music that references the Soviet era.

The only weakness is to be found in the childish way in which the Sharik is portrayed in his human form. Rastov’s high falsetto writing makes Sharik come across like a stubborn toddler rather than a cruel anthropoid dog.

Simon McBurney’s brilliant staging was largely responsible for the world premiere’s success. The actor/writer/director tells the story straightforwardly, yet with so much action-packed inventiveness (helped by Blind Summit Theatre’s superb puppetry) that it constantly keeps you fascinated.

Seven performances of A Dog's Heart will take place at English National Opera between 20 November and 4 December 2010.


Music Theatre Wales commissions new Philip Glass opera

16 November 2010, Cardiff, Wales

Philip Glass
Philip Glass(Photo: Stewart Cohen)

Music Theatre Wales has commissioned a new chamber opera by Philip Glass to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary in 2013.

Based on Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, Glass’s adaptation promises to be every bit as dark and claustrophobic as his earlier Kafka opera, In the Penal Colony.

The UK premiere production of this brutal work, directed by Music Theatre Wales co-founder Michael McCarthy, is currently completing a 12-performance tour before being recorded for Glass’s own music label, Orange Mountain Music.

“Music Theatre Wales are wonderful to work with and they seem to like these ‘odd’ pieces of mine,” said Glass in a recent interview for BBC Radio 3. Describing the works themselves he added: “I think of my pocket operas as neutron bombs – small, but packing a terrific punch”.

Music Theatre Wales has enjoyed an association with Philip Glass since staging the European premiere of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1989.

Other recent commissions by the company include Michael Berkeley’s For You with Ian McEwan, and Lynne Plowman’s Gwyneth and the Green Knight.



15 November 2010

Shirley Verrett
Shirley Verrett(Photo: James Heffernan)

Christoph Schingensief
Christoph Schingensief(Photo: Klaus Haag)

American soprano known as ‘the Black Callas’

Shirley Verrett has died at her home in Michigan, aged 79. The American opera star, who enjoyed a worldwide reputation for her vocal prowess and electrifying performances, was known in Italy as ‘La Nera Callas’ (the Black Callas) – an epithet awarded for her triumphant portrayal of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth at La Scala in 1975. Not all critics applauded Verrett’s move into the soprano repertory, however, regarding her as better suited to the mezzo-soprano roles with which she had begun her career, such as Bizet’s Carmen and Saint-Saëns’ Delilah. Verrett herself admitted inconsistencies in her singing, but continued to take on major soprano roles such as Norma, Tosca and Aida, winning adulation from audiences at The Met and other leading international houses. In her later years, Verrett suffered from bronchial allergies caused by fungal spores and performed only rarely. From 1996 she served as a Professor of Voice at the University of Michigan and in 1999 was named as the University’s James Earl Jones Distinguished Professor.

Inspirational singing teacher dies, aged 93

Vera Rózsa lived and taught in London for nearly half a century, coaching a generation of young singers as well as established figures who sought her advice and support. She died last month, aged 93, but will be remembered through the ongoing success of her many former students, including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Anne Sofie von Otter and Karita Mattila. Rózsa herself was also a distinguished mezzo-soprano, though was forced to give up singing in the 1970s due to breathing difficulties that she later turned to her advantage: "If anyone has trouble with breathing,” she explained, “as a singer, I know what to do." She moved to Britain from Hungary in 1954 and was appointed an OBE in 1989.

  • Vera Rózsa, born 16 May 1917; died 15 October 2010

Provocative German director dies of cancer, aged 49

German director Christoph Schlingensief has died of lung cancer, aged 49. Known for his provocative stagings that tackled historical taboos such as the legacy of Nazism, Schlingensief directed an acclaimed production of Parsifal at the 2004 Bayreuth Festival. He was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, and subsequently set up an “opera village” in the West African country of Burkina Faso. His last project, Via Intolleranza II, was rehearsed in Burkina Faso and premiered at this year's Kunstenfestivaldesart in Hamburg.

  • Christoph Schlingensief, born 24 October 1960; died 21 August 2010


News round-up – 12 November 2010

12 November 2010

Baritone, Simon Keenlyside
Baritone, Simon Keenlyside(Photo: Uwe Arens)

Funding granted for one more season

Ireland’s Opera Theatre Company (OTC) has been granted public funding for an eleven-venue tour of Don Pasquale in 2011. This decision ensures the continuity of opera touring in Ireland during the development of a new national company to replace OTC. The new company – Irish National Opera – was due to be launched next year, but is now not expected to present its first production until 2012.

British baritone Simon Keenlyside

Simon Keenlyside has been named Vocalist of the Year by the US publication, Musical America. The 51-year-old British baritone will receive his award during a ceremony at Carnegie Hall on 13 December 2010. From 12 November he can also be heard performing as the Marquis of Posa in a revival of Don Pasquale at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Highest ticket sales ever ensure 6.2% increase in revenue

The Canadian Opera Company (COC) has announced a surplus of C$21,000 in 2009-10, following the highest ticket sales in the company’s history. Attendance levels of over 97% for COC’s seven productions last season also ensured a 6.2% increase in box office revenues, which totalled C$13.4 million.

Allan Naplan to take the helm in March 2011

Allan Naplan is to join Minnesota Opera as the company’s new President and General Director, effective 1 March 2011. An accomplished arts administrator, professional opera singer, radio producer/host, and award-winning composer, Naplan was formerly the general director of Madison Opera. He will replace Kevin Smith, who has led Minnesota Opera for 30 years.

Design by architect Robin Snell takes its cue from Japanese traditions

Garsington Opera has begun work on a pavilion for the company’s new home at Wormsley Estate in Buckinghamshire.  Lifted above the ground to give an appearance of ‘floating’ over the landscape, architect Robin Snell’s design will use sliding screens, extended platforms, verandas and bridges inspired by Japanese traditions.

Up to 20 staff redundancies planned in restructuring

Sydney Opera House recently announced plans to save AU$2 million through restructuring initiatives that will include the loss of up to 20 jobs by the end of the year. Two senior management team members – the head of performing arts and commercial and operations director – have already been replaced by a new executive producer, charged with the task of creating more in-house productions.

Baritone honoured by the US Library of Congress

American baritone, Thomas Hampson, has been awarded a Living Legend medal by the US Library of Congress. He was the 101st recipient of the medal, awarded since 2000 to individuals who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.

Elaine Kidd moves to new role from London’s Royal Opera House

Elaine Kidd joined Scottish Opera last week as Director of Opera Planning, succeeding Jenny Slack, who is retiring after 24 years with the company. Elaine was formerly the head of staff directors at London’s Royal Opera House.


Can the Royal Opera’s top salaries be justified?

8 November 2010, London, UK

Antonio Pappano
Antonio Pappano(Photo: Laurie Lewis)

Opera Now correspondent, Michael White, asks whether London’s Royal Opera House is justified in paying huge annual salaries to music director, Antonio Pappano, and chief executive, Tony Hall.

No one likes to have his pay-packet discussed in public. So it must have been embarrassing for Covent Garden's chief executive Tony Hall and music director Tony Pappano when they found themselves sucked into a very public (and  aggressive) debate about the acceptability of high salaries in a cash-strapped arts world.

It started with politician Don Foster digging through the Royal Opera House accounts and revealing (to anyone who hadn't done the digging for himself) that Hall earns the tidy sum of £390,000 a year while Pappano makes an even tidier £630,000. And the question then became, how could they justify these amounts?

The standard answer to such a question is market forces. But then you have to agree which market. For Pappano, as an internationally active figure, global standards apply; and you can safely say that whatever he earns at the Garden, he could earn more elsewhere. For Hall, the indicators are more local. And since the director of the Tate earns £180K and the director of the National Theatre £165K, he does seem to be doing well. If he was working in commerce it would be different. But he's not. He's in the subsidised arts.

There is, though, another factor: judgement by results. Have Hall and Pappano given the value to merit their salaries? In Pappano's case there's no denying his achievement at the House over the past eight years. Musical standards are high. Things work. With Hall it's more equivocal. There's been a lot of technological initiative to transmit productions beyond the walls of the ROH, but not much to make the performances themselves more accessible. And whatever his competence as an administrator, he won't go down in history as a dynamic one.

In the current climate of swingeing budgetary reductions – accompanied by much bad feeling – it would probably be politic if both Hall and Pappano did the decent thing and took voluntary pay cuts. Better this than risk looking like cats fattened on public subsidy.


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