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News round-up - 21 January 2010

21 January 2010

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen at La Scala (Marco Brescia / Teatro alla Scala)
Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen at La Scala (Marco Brescia / Teatro alla Scala)

Audience critical of dressed-down tactic

No beginning of any season at La Scala would be complete without controversy. Although the hugely successful opening of Carmen in December passed undisrupted, the final night of this production was recently marred when some performers and musicians donned casual street clothes instead of costumes. Their protest was an attempt to put pressure on the company to clarify its policy for pay and working conditions abroad. Shouts of “Shame” were heard from audience members critical of the dressed-down tactic.

Dietmar Schwarz to take over from Kirsten Harms in 2012

Dietmar Schwarz, the director of opera at Theater Basel, has been appointed to run Berlin’s Deutsche Oper from 2012, succeeding Kirsten Harms. His appointment follows Harms announcement in September that she will leave Deutsche Oper in 2011, and won’t seek an extension of her contract. Schwarz said in the statement that he hopes to bring “new and fresh ideas” to Deutsche Oper. Under his leadership, Theater Basel was Basel was chosen last year as “Opera House of the Year” by the German opera magazine, Opernwelt. 

John Musto’s Volpone makes Best Opera Recording category

The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Washington, US, has received a Grammy Award nomination in the category ‘Best Opera Recording’ for John Musto’s Volpone. Described as ‘a comic opera unfaithfully based on Ben Johnson’s 17th century comedy’, Volpone was commissioned by the Foundation and recorded by the Wolf Trap Opera Company with a cast including members from the company’s 2007 summer residency programme. The 52nd Annual Grammy Awards ceremony will take place in Los Angeles on 31 January 2010.

Risk-averse productions dominate due to financial constraints

Washington National Opera has announced a 2010-11 season comprising five productions judiciously selected to ensure box office success, including Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Strauss’ Salome and fourteen performances of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The fifth opera – Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – will be a company premiere featuring Plácido Domingo as Oreste. Domingo will also perform as part of a new celebrity concert series named after himself.

Joanna Lumley to host Valentine’s Day performance

The Royal Opera House in London has become the first UK arts organisation to support Tickets for Troops, a charity that gives free event tickets to members of the British armed forces. Joanna Lumley will host a special evening of opera and ballet at Covent Garden on 14 February, marking the contribution of those who have served or are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. A total of 2,000 tickets will be available to serving military personnel and those medically discharged through injury since 2001.

Seiji Ozawa announces six months leave following cancer diagnosis

74-year-old Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, has cancelled all his engagements for the next six months following a positive diagnosis for esophageal cancer. Ozawa has been music director at the Vienna State Opera since 2002. His contract is due to expire later this year, but he is confident of returning in July “in time to fulfil my summer schedule.”  

New York City Opera yields performance dates to the ballet

20 January 2010, New York, USA

NYCO General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steel, with Julia Koch at the inauguration of the David H. Koch Theater (April 2009)
NYCO General Manager and Artistic Director, George Steel, with Julia Koch at the inauguration of the David H. Koch Theater (April 2009)

New York City Opera has ceded four weeks of its autumn season to New York City Ballet in return for US$9 million from a capital campaign fund shared by the two companies.

The move substantially reduces the amount of opera on offer at the newly refurbished David H. Koch Theatre (formerly the New York State Theater), where both opera and ballet companies have been resident since 1964. The venue recently reopened after renovations costing US$107 million, paid for by oil billionaire and philanthropist, David H. Koch.

Some reports, including highly critical commentary by Bloomberg, have implied that the benefactor – known to be an avid dance fan – may have influenced the decision to change the season dates, which tips the balance number of performances at the David H. Koch Theatre substantially in favour of ballet.

NYCO’s Director of Public Relations, Pascal Nadon, speaking to Opera Now, strongly countered this suggestion: “David Koch has not sought and does not have any influence on the programming in the Theater or on the scheduling balance between New York City Opera and New York City Ballet.”

Nadon is keen to point out that “our recent autumn season was a great success, including the gala opening, which raised a record-breaking US$2.3 million for the company.” Opera Now critic Robert Levine described NYCO's recent Don Giovanni as "active, clever and never dull", adding that the theatre's new acoustics are "clean, clear and with plenty of ping" – perfect for opera.  Despite this success, Nadon concedes that NYCO still needs “to work towards a ‘right-size’ operation” that entails “reducing our fixed operating costs and producing a more compact and manageable number of productions than in the past.”

US-based Opera Now correspondent, Heidi Waleson, concurs with this view, dismissing David Koch’s possible influence as a “red herring”. The real reason for the shift, she says, is purely financial:

“In addition to the US$ 9 million in funds that NYCO will receive from this move, giving up the autumn season to the ballet will also help them to lower their fixed costs.” The latter, says Waleson “are enormous, given that NYCO still has union contracts which obligate them to pay their orchestra and chorus for many more dates than they can actually afford to perform, as well as their costs for the building.”

The collapse of the global economy goes some way towards explaining these challenges, but the key turning-point in the fortunes of NYCO seems to have been the decision by Gerard Mortier’s (during his 21-month tenure as general manager and artistic director of the company) to give very few performances at other venues during the renovation of the New York State Theater. New York City Ballet meanwhile continued to give performances throughout the closure.

“The ballet has had the upper hand all along,” explains Waleson. “When the Theater was closed for the renovation, they gave up no performance weeks, since it was Mortier who wanted the work done on behalf of the opera. I'm not surprised that the ballet has now taken advantage of NYCO's financial peril to secure the autumn season.”

Director deems soprano's physique unsuitable for role

20 January 2010

Daniela Dessì performs Francesca da Rimini
Daniela Dessì performs Francesca da Rimini

Italian soprano, Daniela Dessì, has walked out of rehearsals for a new production of Verdi’s La traviata at the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome following comments by director Franco Zeffirelli about her physique.

Criticising the decision to cast Dessì as Violetta, Zeffirelli said at a press conference in December that “A woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character”. He added, with reference to the fate of the opera’s heroine, that “[Dessì] is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis.”

Dessì’s husband, Fabio Armiliato, who was due to sing the role of Alfredo, has also withdrawn from the production.

Meanwhile, Dessì has staunchly defended her suitability for the role of Violetta, stating that “I believe a lot in the physical appearance of the singer. I have always taken care of myself.” She also told the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, “You don’t sing with your body, you sing with your voice.”

Zeffirelli’s comments reflect a growing trend in the world of opera to cast singers based on their looks as much as their voices, a trend influenced by the growing importance of broadcasting and recording to the coffers of major opera houses.  

“Cinema is already leaving its mark on the way operas are produced in the opera house,” says Opera Now Editor, Ashutosh Khandekar. “The scrutiny of the camera means that the days of wooden acting and improbable casting have had to be addressed.”

Arguably, female opera singers tend to come under even greater scrutiny for their looks than male artists. But in some cases, warns Khandekar, this emphasis on visual impact “can be to the detriment of the music.”

Dessì is now said to be exploring possible legal action against Zeffirelli, but given that she decided to quit the likelihood of any action being brought is slim. Opera Now commentator, Robert Thicknesse, has suggested that “any subsequent posturing probably has more to do with whether she gets paid or not, which I imagine she will.”

Puccini's Torre del Lago villa threatened by flooding

11 January 2010

A view over Lake Massaciuccoli
A view over Lake Massaciuccoli

The Festival Pucciniano stage at Torre del Lago
The Festival Pucciniano stage at Torre del Lago

Puccini’s villa at Torre del Lago in Tuscany was threatened by flooding last month when the Sechio river burst its banks.

Emergency workers laid thousands of sandbags to protect the villa, which sits close to the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli, just south of Viareggio.

Torre del Lago is a mecca for opera lovers, who flock to the small town's Festival Pucciniano in July and August every year. Performances take place on a lakeside stage that offers views of stunning natural beauty.

Once described by Puccini as “Paradise”, it was at Torre del Lago that the composer penned Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.

Puccini’s granddaughter, Simonetta Puccini, now runs the villa as a public museum, together with a shrine that contains the composer’s remains. During the flood warnings, she worked with volunteers to move all original furniture, paintings and documents to safety.

Speaking to The Times, Simonetta Puccini said: “[My grandfather] loved this lake and was inspired by it to write immortal melodies. He could never have imagined it would become a danger.”

New Year news round-up - 10 January 2010

10 January 2010

Sarah Connolly CBE
Sarah Connolly CBE

Rolando Villazón (© Felix Broede / DG)
Rolando Villazón (© Felix Broede / DG)

Grace Bumbry
Grace Bumbry

Sarah Connolly recognised in the 2010 New Year Honours List

British mezzo-soprano, Sarah Connolly, has been named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to classical music in the 2010 New Year Honours List. Connolly’s calendar for 2010 includes the role of the Composer in two productions of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos (New York Metropolitan Opera in February and Welsh National Opera in Oct/Nov) plus the lead role in a new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda with Opera North (4 to 30 June 2010).

Rolando Villazón and Katherine Jenkins to mentor celebrity contestants

Britain’s ITV has announced the launch of Popstar to Opera Star, a new reality TV show featuring popstars performing world-famous opera arias. Mexican tenor, Rolando Villazón, will mentor the show’s celebrity contestants with best-selling Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins. The results will be judged by rock legend Meat Loaf and Classic FM DJ Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Weekly Friday night screenings begin on 15 January 2010.

Mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry receives prestigious tribute

73-year-old mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, was recently included in the 32nd Kennedy Center Honors 2009 for her lifetime contribution to American culture. She sat with President and Mrs. Barack Obama in the Presidential Box of the Kennedy Center Opera House during a TV broadcast of the Honors event on 29 December 2009. Bumbry’s tribute was introduced by Aretha Franklin, followed by a live performance of ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca by Angela Gheorghiu.

Seattle Opera and Spoleto Festival announce their forthcoming seasons

Seattle Opera and Spoleto Festival have begun the New Year by announcing their forthcoming season programmes. Seattle’s offering includes new productions of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor plus the Seattle premiere of Massanet’s last opera, Don Quixote. Spoleto’s 2010 programme comprises a more recherche triptych of Haydn, Wolfgang Rihm and – to mark the reopening of Charleston’s Dock Street Theatre following three years of renovations – the 18th century English ballad opera, Flora.

The Maria Callas Experience – from £1,500 per night per person

Christina O – the luxury yacht where Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis once entertained the world’s most famous and powerful celebrities – will be used to host an exclusive week of Mediterranean opera cruises later this year. Named after Maria Callas, with whom Onassis conducted a notorious affair for nearly 10 years in the 1950s and 1960s, the cruise packages will feature live performances by sopranos Nelly Miricioiu, Clare Rutter and Mary Plazas. Prices start at £1,500 ($2,400) per person for a State Room.

Antonio Pappano directs Opfergang at the Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia

The world premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Opfergang will take place tonight at the Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia in Rome, directed by Antonio Pappano and featuring soloists Ian Bostridge and John Tomlinson. This marks the beginning of an important year of Henze performances, including a new production of Phaedre at Duisburg Theatre for RUHR.2010 European Capital of Culture.

Adolphe Adam’s Si j'etais Roi to receive three performances in New Delhi

The Neemrana Music Foundation in New Delhi will present three performances this month of Adolphe Adam’s orientalist opera Si j’etais Roi (If I Were King). The new production, which involves 200 performers from India, France and Sri Lanka, has been inspired by Bollywood and includes dances and action sequences modelled on epic Hindi movies.

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