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News round-up - 26 August 2010

26 August 2010

Neil Armfield
Neil Armfield

Vassily Sinaisky
Vassily Sinaisky

Opera Australia announces 2013 production

Opera Australia has announced plans to present Melbourne’s first ever staging of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Created in collaboration with Houston Grand Opera and the Victorian Government, this new production will be led by Australian director, Neil Armfield, and Australian conductor, Richard Mills. Three complete cycles at Melbourne’s State Theatre are being planned to mark the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth in 2013. The same production will then be staged in Houston over four seasons, beginning in 2014.

Vassily Sinaisky to replace Leonid Dessiatnikov

Vassily Sinaisky has been named as the new music director at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The 63-year-old Russian conductor will replace avant-garde composer Leonid Dessiatnikov, who has held the position since September 2009. Sinaisky will also hold the post of chief conductor, while Dessiatnikov is expected to continue composing a new ballet for the theatre based on Balzac’s novel Lost Illusions.

Tickets worth US$2.6m sold on box office opening day

The Metropolitan Opera in New York has set a new record for its box office opening day, selling more than US$2.6m (£1.6m) worth of single tickets for the new season. More than 24,000 tickets were sold, beating last year’s total of US$2.5m. This promising start follows the announcement in June that US$144m had been wiped off the net value of the company’s assets over the past year due to investment portfolio losses coupled with rising expenses. The season will open on 27 September with a new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold, directed by Robert Lepage and starring Bryn Terfel and Stephanie Blythe.

Conductor turns 60 with concert performances in Buenos Aires

Argentine-born pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim, will celebrate his 60th birthday at the Teatro Colón on 31 August, conducting a series of programmes including Aida and Verdi’s Requiem. The spectacular 2,478-seat theatre in Buenos Aires was recently re-opened following extensive refurbishments that cost US$100m and took four years to complete.

Streamed version available until 5 September 2010

Tankred Dorst’s production of Die Walküre from this year’s Bayreuth Festival is now available to view online via the Siemens Festival Night 2010 website. Opera lovers from 40 countries across the world can log in any time until 5 September to watch a streamed version of the production, which was transmitted live from the Festspielhaus on 21 August.

Company budget balanced for the eighth year in a row

Minnesota Opera has announced that the company finished its 2010 fiscal year on 30 June with a balanced budget. A modest surplus on the company’s operational budget of US$9m was also achieved through sales amounting to 90.5% capacity across the season. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Opera New Works Initiative, launched in 2008-09 to support productions of new operas, has already attracted US$5m towards its goal of US$7m.

Vendors and contract workers still not paid months after production

The New Jersey State Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess in May this year was hailed as a success by critics but has left the company with bills amounting to US$230,000. A variety of vendors and contract workers are still waiting for payment, including the 52 members of the orchestra and conductor Jason Tramm. Their union has now filed a suit demanding fees totalling US$56,000 plus pension benefits

Conductor Donald Nally leaving company to run his own choir

Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus Master, Donald Nally, has decided to leave his post in 2011 to concentrate on running his own choir in Philadelphia. He will also  continue as music director of the Vocal Arts Ensemble of Cincinnati.


Welsh National Opera General Director to step down

25 August 2010, Cardiff, Wales

John Fisher
John Fisher

John Fisher, the Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Welsh National Opera (WNO), has announced that he will step down from his post next summer. The 60-year-old Scotsman has been at the helm of WNO since 2006, following ten years as the Director of Music Administration at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

In a statement to the media, Fisher said: “It has been a privilege to lead WNO over the last five years, and I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve. It is a wonderful company that is a great asset for Wales and the world of opera. In the next few years WNO will face very significant challenges, but I am confident that when I leave next summer the company will be in the hands of a very strong and accomplished team.”

WNO Chairman, Geraint Talfan Davies, praised Fisher’s “enormous contribution to the development of the company through raising its musical and vocal standards to the highest level, and attracting to WNO the very best talent.” He added: “We are hugely grateful to him for all that he has achieved.”

Fisher’s decision comes in the wake of funding cuts for Welsh arts organisations by the Arts Council of Wales (ACW).

Although ACW has signalled a continuing commitment to supporting WNO, the company was recently criticised after holding a lavish first night reception for Die Meistersinger in the same week that funding to 32 organisations was stopped.

Last year, WNO received £4.5 million from ACW’s total budget of £24 million, but further cuts are predicted when the Welsh assembly meets in December to determine ACW's budget for 2011.

Reflecting this uncertainty, WNO Chairman Davies urged the company “to do everything we can in the challenging climate ahead to sustain the standards that [John] has set.”

Joyce DiDonato leaves IMG Artists for rival agency Intermusica

24 August 2010, London, UK

Joyce DiDonato
Joyce DiDonato(Photo: Sheila Rock)

IMG Artists has been further destabilised with the news that international mezzo soprano, Joyce DiDonato, and her agent, Simon Goldstone, have left the company.

The news will add insult to injury for IMG, whose owner Barrett Wissman stepped down after pleading guilty to securities fraud in a New York state prosecution last April. This revelation not only shook the global reputation of the company but may also have sparked a string of departures of high-profile artists. Among those who left last year were the stellar sopranos Karita Mattila and Anna Netrebko, tenor Rolando Villazón and baritone Thomas Hampson.

Despite claims that Wissman’s actions are directly linked to the most recent departures, the circumstances under which DiDonato and Goldstone left the agency are currently unclear.

Goldstone, who worked at IMG as an artist manager in the vocal division for fourteen years, has now signed with London firm Intermusica, taking with him 21 artists, including sopranos Amanda Echalaz and Soile Isokoski and director Stephen Barlow.

These artists will join the Intermusica roster with immediate effect, while Goldstone will begin on Monday 20 September 2010 taking on the role as director, Vocal and Opera.

“I am delighted to be joining Intermusica” commented Goldstone in an official statement to the media. “In these challenging times, I feel that the combination of the company’s very experienced senior management team, spearheaded by Stephen Lumsden, and its vibrant and enthusiastic younger members strike just the right balance. I am very happy to be working once again with my esteemed former colleague, Julia Maynard, and together we look forward to adding to an already well-established roster of talented singers, stage directors and opera conductors.”

Stephen Lumsden, founder and managing director of Intermusica, said: "It is tremendously exciting that a manager of Simon’s calibre and reputation has decided to join Intermusica. His arrival represents a major development for both our Vocal & Opera department and for the company as a whole.”

Peter Cowdrey's The Lovely Ladies

16 August 2010, London, UK

Lilly Papaioannou (Côtes du Rhône) and Richard Suart (Bordeaux)
Lilly Papaioannou (Côtes du Rhône) and Richard Suart (Bordeaux)

Toby Stafford-Allen (Champagne)
Toby Stafford-Allen (Champagne)

Warwick Thompson reports on the premiere of Peter Cowdrey’s The Lovely Ladies at Christie’s in London. 

Wine and opera have always been happy bedfellows - think of all those brindisis and Champagne choruses - but now the relationship has become even more intimate. In Peter Cowdrey and Hamish Robinson’s charming forty-minute divertissement, The Lovely Ladies, it’s the wines themselves who do the singing.

A rumour reaches a cellar that Michael Broadbent, the Christie’s auctioneer and noted wine critic, may be retiring. The wines get into a flap, and compete to see which of them should lure Broadbent into celebrating their virtues once more. Should it be Champagne (Toby Stafford-Allen), a jazzy playboy with a neat line in 12-bar blues? Or the full-bodied Côtes du Rhône (the hugely enjoyable Lilly Papaioannou), a seductive Carmen-like temptress in a clinging red dress? Or the conservative Bordeaux (Richard Suart), a delightfully crusty military type? The problem is resolved when the ghost of legendary wine connoisseur George Saintsbury (Michael Chance, accompanied by a Handelian violin obbligato and sounding suitably heavenly) reassures them that the retirement rumour is false.

Cowdrey’s amusing chamber score mixes pastiche and direct quotes with a light hand, and Rosie Johnston’s production, set on a simple raised dais with a translucent scrim at the back, choreographs the action with impressive clarity. The libretto doesn’t contain quite enough dramatic bouffe to motor the plot, and it’s never made clear what the characters want to achieve or why they should be so worried about a critic retiring. But the score is so pleasing and the vocal writing so graceful that, with a bit more tension injected into the plot, Cowdrey’s enjoyable Premier Cru work could easily step up to Grand Cru Millesime.

This performance was in given in aid of the charity Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres.


Anthony Rolfe Johnson remembered

8 August 2010

Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Peter Grimes in the 1993 production by Scottish Opera
Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Peter Grimes in the 1993 production by Scottish Opera(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Anthony Rolfe Johnson was a founding member of Graham Johnson’s Songmakers’ Almanac alongside Felicity Lott, Ann Murray and Richard Jackson. In this exclusive interview with Opera Now, Graham Johnson shares his memories of Tony and speaks in detail about the qualities that defined him as a singer.

I first met Anthony Rolfe Johnson in 1972 when he and I were both still students. He was just finishing his studies at the Guildhall, and I was coming to the end of mine at the Royal Academy of Music.

Tony explained to me at our first meeting how a completely new life as a singer had suddenly blossomed for him after he had expected to spend the rest of his life working as a farmer.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm of someone who had heard his choral singing, he had come to the Guildhall as a mature student, completely inexperienced and unschooled. For four years he was there virtually day and night: his dedication must have been almost frightening – but it paid huge musical dividends.

What I heard at our first rehearsal was something so beautiful and breathtakingly musical that one did not ask how it had come about, one simply gave thanks that it existed.

A little later I heard him at the British Institute of Recorded Sound in South Kensington where Pierre Bernac, Poulenc’s great baritone, made yearly visits to give classes. Tony sang Poulenc’s Bleuet, an unbearably moving Apollinaire setting about a young soldier during the First World War preparing to go over the top from the trenches. Bernac was known for being a real taskmaster, but on that occasion all he had to say was “My God, what a singer you are!” I can still hear the heart-stopping way Tony sang the closing lines of Bleuet: “O douceur d’autrefois/ Lenteur immémoriale.” We recorded the song for Hyperion some years later.

One gave thanks for Tony’s singing because he himself seemed to be giving thanks simply for being alive when he sang. He came from a strong Methodist background and had been a singer of hymns from childhood. Perhaps this accounts for the stable, calm and yet fervent quality that was part of the magic of his singing. I always felt that he must have been loved by his cows as much as he loved them and that his kindness to all God’s creatures accounted for an almost Franciscan aura of goodness about him – without any trace of holier-than-thou.

The mellifluous fluidity of Tony’s sound, seemingly produced without effort, was the result of an extraordinary combination: an easy head-voice underpinned by, and launched from, an equally easy baritonal register. Tony’s floated tops notes had roots in the soil, as it were, which was what made them so beguiling. As the years went on he developed greater punch and fiery incisiveness for some of his bigger roles, but he was never a typical tenor. He wasn’t one of those singers who achieved their effects through bluster and testosterone. He preferred to be persuasive and golden rather than hectoring and brassy.

It is terribly sad that we should have to bid farewell to two such great English tenors as Philip Langridge and Anthony Rolfe Johnson within a few months of each other. They each had their very different strengths and they were both great artists.

Unlike Philip, the gritty challenges of composers such as Harrison Birtwhistle never appealed to Tony. While I think of Philip as essentially an heroic musical figure, Tony took another route – he was quietly seductive. It is not that Tony lacked stentorian and manly colours and possibilities (when I first met him he excelled in the sport of archery) but with him every note was a serenade to the absent lover, “an die ferne Geliebte”, and there were always ladies in the audience who were enraptured by his music-making.

Tony was a true chevalier, and I think the lack of ‘coercion’ in his voice (the forcefulness of a command was veiled by the plea of an invitation) made him very special. There was so much repertoire in which he excelled: Monteverdi (a composer whose Orfeo he later conducted), Handel, Bach, and Mozart. In Schubert his own personality seemed effortlessly to chime with that of the composer, and in Britten he was successful in such disparate roles as Albert Herring and Aschenbach at the different ends of his career.

A full version of this interview will be published in the September/October 2010 issue of Opera Now – click here to subscribe now.


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