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Opera gets into the swim of things

19 May 2009, Manchester, UK

Juliana Snapper dives into opera

The world’s first underwater opera, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, had its premiere in one of  Manchester’s half-derelict architectural gems, the Victoria Baths. 86,000 gallons of water were pumped in for a single performance of this new ‘operella’ devised by the Los Angeles-based soprano Juliana Snapper and the Parisian composer Andrew Infanti, and presented as part of the city’s gay and lesbian festival  Queer Up North.

Adorned with swathes of white fishnet and silver sequins, Snapper impressed in the role of Blorkra – a genetically engineered aquatic ‘posthuman’ living 500,000 years in the future. She is used to challenging situations having previously worked with the extreme performance artist Ron Athey on The Judas Tree in which she hung upside down singing until her voice collapsed. But on this occasion a faulty underwater microphone rendered at least half of her underwater vocal sequences inaudible so that the unique sound of Snapper’s voice filtered through water, accompanied by percussive bubbles, was drowned out before it could surface.

What was left was a ululating warble, with snatches of intense soprano tones as Snapper glided through a sea of words by Wedekind, Wagner (Erda’s Warning) and Brecht, sung in German and the forgotten, constructed language of Volapük. Infanti’s watered-down score began promisingly enough, drawing on obscure musical systems and pitches, but ended up burbling on inconsequentially. Film footage featured some live projections of Snapper while the Sing or Swim Choir provided a suitably aqueous background to this soggy night at the ‘operella’. As a piece of performance art, You Who…  had distinct potential which was somewhat thwarted by the technical difficulties.

The experiment is not going to spawn a new genre of underwater ‘operellas’, however, and while Juliana Snapper is clearly committed to expanding the boundaries of music theatre, neither the bland pre-recorded score nor the predominantly unengaging visuals seemed to match that keen seriousness of purpose. As a work I think it is likely to sink without trace.  

Lynne Walker  

The Queer Up North festival continues in Manchester until 25 May.

Start them young on Wagner, says arts chief

13 May 2009, London, UK

Dame Liz Forgan: making no apologies for Wagner
Dame Liz Forgan: making no apologies for Wagner

 ‘Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all,’ said Dame Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England in a robust speech delivered at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards for classical music which took place at the Dorchester Hotel in London last night.

Dame Liz was recalling her own introduction, aged six, to the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde,  swiftly followed by a performance of Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Her introduction to music from her passionately motivated grandfather was, she said, the ‘equivalent of loading a baby’s bottle with Napoleon brandy’. 

In a clear broadside against 'dumbing down' delivered to the great and good of the classical music industry, Dame Liz went on to say that there was no need to apologise for classical music as a 'difficult' and advocated a policy of introducing children to 'what might appear to be entirely unsuitable masterpieces at an early age’.

She added that it was this ‘chronicle of unsuitability’ in her own childhood that culminated in an abiding love of classical music: ‘If I had been forced to start with clapping games, or tooting Frère Jacques on the recorder,' Dame Liz said, 'I fear I might have turned to crime or even netball as more exciting alternatives.’

Opera scored well at last night’s event, with English National Opera winning the ‘Opera and Music Theatre’ award from Sir Charles Mackerras, who presented trophies to winners in 13 categories. British soprano Susan Bullock received the ‘Singer’ award for her performances as Strauss’s Elektra [see video clip below from Washington National Opera]. George Benjamin’s opera Into the Little Hill took the award for ‘Large-Scale Composition’ (See Opera Now’s current issue for our review). Two leading operatic community and outreach  projects received acclaim at the awards: Hackney Music Development Trust won the ‘Education’ category for Confucius Says, a new opera that involved 3,000 schoolchildren; and Streetwise Opera took the ‘Audience Development’ award for its innovative project My Secret Heart, by composer Mira Calix and video artists Flat-e and staged by 101 people from the homeless community.

Meanwhile, the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious medal went to the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff

click here for a full report from the RPS awards on Classical Music Magazine's news pages

Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere

4 May 2009, Houston, USA

Felix Sanchez

Sir Andre Previn has composed his second opera, this time a bittersweet English romance based on Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean's Brief Encounter, drawn from Coward's one-act play Still Life. Our US-based opera critic Charles Ward gives his first impressions of the opera which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on 1 May.

Sir Andre Previn's Brief Encounter  proves to be an engaging, well-crafted and touching addition to the contemporary opera repertoire.

‘Well-crafted’ can be critics’ code for an honourable effort the writer doesn’t want to pan. Not so in this case.

In his libretto, John Caird deftly kept the movie’s story line about the ill-fated affair of the housewife Laura and the doctor Alec while compressing incidents in the film, folding in elements from the play and, crucially, expanding the character of Laura’s husband Fred.

To that, composer Andre Previn has added a cinematic score, reminiscent of Korngold. Quick-cut, chromatic shifts underline the text moment to moment. At the drama's peaks, the music swelled with seething emotion within an unfailingly tonal style.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who portrayed Stella in the San Francisco world premiere of Previn’s first opera Streetcar Named Desire, had a tour de force role in Laura. She was on stage for the entire opera as she related her experiences in flashback form. Futral was impressive for the intensity she brought to the role, displaying an astonishing range of emotions as Laura was convulsed by pleasure and guilt, all delivered in vivid sound. Baritone Nathan Gunn , meanwhile, was  vocally radiant and equally ardent as the more shallowly drawn doctor.

Brief Encounter was not an unalloyed triumph. Caird and Previn stumbled on things that bedevil opera, such as long swaths of interior dialogue or subplots that drift to an end – even though the pair devised an effective and moving conclusion to the opera as a whole.

Accustomed to a world premiere most seasons, the opening night audience in Houston responded generously, especially for Futral, and then ratcheted up its response further when a spotlight highlighted Previn in his seat near the stage.

However, without the iconic cultural hook that Streetcar Named Desire had for an American public, Brief Encounter is likely to join many recent new American operas in a state of limbo. Uncharacteristically, HGO had lined up no co-commissioning companies before opening night (though the company said it has received several inquiries since then).

See Charles Ward's complete review of Brief Encounter in Opera Now's forthcoming July/August 2009 issue

Grange Park prepares for UK Premiere of Cavalli Opera

1 May 2009


Michael White looks forward to one of the summer's most lively operatic premieres...

Scandalous misdeeds in Ancient Rome, cross-dressing, slap-and-tickle sex.... Cavalli's Eliogabolo, written for the Venice Carnival of 1668 and due for a belated UK premiere at Grange Park opera festival in Hampshire this summer,  sounds like a TV script for Frankie Howerd in the 1970s and is, as its  director David Fielding admits, 'a sort of romp’.

‘But not so much in the way of Up Pompei as I Claudius' adds Christian Curnyn who'll be conducting. ‘There’s tragedy as well as comedy in this piece: after all, the central character ends up assassinated, so it's not all laughs. And in a loose sense  it’s based on history, although the character of Heliogabolus has been cleaned up here and there in the process of turning him into opera.’

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sums up Heliogabolus’s reign as ‘inexpressible infamy, beyond that of any other place or time’. Among the many counts on Heliogabolus's charge-sheet are that he drowned his enemies in poisonous petals (a creative death, you'd have to agree), boasted that he never wore the same clothes twice or slept with the same woman, set up an all-female senate for sole purpose of molesting its members, and nonetheless pursued a robustly bi-sexual interest in transvestitism.

This may explain why the piece was apparently never performed during Cavalli's lifetime, though the reasons for its absence from the stage are obscure.  What is known is that it's one of the last Cavalli' operas, composed when Cavalli  was in his mid-60s with long experience as one of the world's first true professionals in opera.

The Grange has seen few performances of Baroque opera beyond Handel’s Rinaldo, and it's a genre that scarcely features on the radar of the company's director Wasfi Kani. ‘But she agreed to Eliogabolo largely because in many ways it isn't quite Baroque,’ says Curnyn. You don't get all those rigid conventions. But you do get very attractive, flowing arioso – though it doesn’t culminate in quite so many tragic laments as you get in earlier Cavalli. There's a lot more comedy...’

Michael White’s full account of Grange Park’s Eliogabolo will appear in the July/August issue of opera Now. Cavalli's opera will receive its UK premiere run at The Grange, Northington (near Winchester) from 4 June to 5 July.

For details of all this year's Grange Park Festival productions, visit

Opera North scores a hit with Puccini's La fanciulla del West

22 January 2014, Leeds, UK

‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson
‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson(Photo: Clive Barda)

Review by Anthony Arblaster

Of the mature Puccini's seven full-length operas, his tale of the American Gold Rush is probably the most neglected.  When you see and hear it well performed and well produced, as it is in this new staging for Opera North by Aletta Collins, you wonder why. 

Puccini’s La fanciulla del West has fewer of the self-contained arias that you find in more popular operas. It is not a work of pathos, and it is not notably sentimental, even though it does have a happy ending.  However, it abounds in an outpouring of Puccinian melody, and offers three fine singing roles as well as a host of rewarding smaller roles for men.

This is a story with plenty of topical resonances: the Gold Rush miners in the opera are working far from home seeking their fortune, like today’s migrants from eastern Europe, and their homesickness is beautifully expressed in the Act I song of travelling cowboy-minstrel Jake Wallace (baritone Gavan Ring). The threat of lawless violence is always present, and in Act III, the miners turn into a lynch mob ready to string up Ramerrez, the ‘Mexican’ bandit who arouses their racist hostility.

Aletta Collins wisely sticks with the opera's original Californian setting, which is evoked in Giles Cadle's simple but effective sets and in Gabrielle Dalton's subtly varied costumes.  Collins's handling of the ensemble scenes which open and close the action is masterly, and rich with significant detail.

Much hangs on the casting of the three principal roles, and here Opera North has come up trumps.  The Sheriff, Jack Rance (in effect the local Scarpia), is ruthless, unscrupulous and consumed with desire for feisty saloon proprietor Minnie. Robert Hayward has all the vocal power needed for the role, and invests it with spine-chilling menace.

Minnie finds the man she really wants in Ramerrez, who disguises himself by the name of Dick Johnson. Rafael Rojas – Mexican by birth – makes him an entirely credible and sympathetic character.  His Italianate tenor has really blossomed and is a treat to hear.

Soprano Alwyn Mellor takes the title role, the lone woman who rescues Ramerrrez and brings out the better side in the miners whom she tries to educate.  She fills it splendidly, and makes a believable heroine. The scenes at the heart of the opera, in which she and Ramerrez get to know each other, are beautifully sung and acted.

This show deserves to become something of a classic, especially under the dynamic yet sensitive conducting of Richard Farnes.

Opera North's The Girl of the Golden West continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 21 February. The production then tours to Nottingham, Salford Quays and Newcastle between 5 and 21 March.

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