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Sex, violence and Michael Jackson – it must be opening night at La Scala

7 December 2009, Milan, Italy

Carmen and Don José - Anita Rachvelishvili and Jonas Kaufmann
Carmen and Don José - Anita Rachvelishvili and Jonas Kaufmann

Today, St Ambrose Day, is perhaps the most auspicious date of the international opera calendar, since every year, it marks the opening night of the new opera season at La Scala, Milan. (Ambrose is the city’s patron saint.)

Tonight’s performance offers the usual mix of glamour, tradition and above all controversy, as La Scala’s general director Stephane Lissner has invited the iconoclastic Sicilian director, Emma Dante, to stage her first opera, a new production of Carmen.

Dante, who claims she had never stepped inside La Scala before being invited to direct there, has promised a contemporary take on the usual interplay of sultry feminine wiles and macho posturing. The director’s theatrical style tends to be hard-hitting, hyperactive and confrontational (not unlike the heroine of the opera), which is bound to provoke La Scala’s conservative first-night audience, who pay up to €2,400 for their seats and tend to treat the whole occasion as a gladiatorial sport.

Following reports of dress rehearsals last week (and news that conductor Daniel Barenboim had to insist on scenes being toned down), the Italian press has been scandalised by the promise graphic rape and violence – not to mention an already notorious ‘Michael Jackson moment’ for the toreador, Escamillo.

Dante is aided and abetted by her set designer Richard Peduzzi, whose recent designs for a new Tosca at The Met in New York drew resounding boos from the audience, unimpressed by Peduzzi’s uncompromisingly dingy minimalism.

At La Scala tonight, the young Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili is cast in the title role, with opera’s current leading dreamboats Jonas Kaufmann as Don José and Erwin Schrott as Escamillo.

Meanwhile, La Scala has announced that Lissner’s contract as general director has been extended to 2015.

With the Italian opera world in dire financial straits and a Berlusconi government that is largely unsupportive of the arts, many expected Lissner to jump ship to vacant positions at Salzburg, Berlin or Madrid. But for a Frenchman in the usually insular world of Italian opera, Lissner has done well since he arrived in Milan in 2005, negotiating La Scala’s notoriously tricky political landscape with flare and characteristic cunning.

‘One of the problems for La Scala has always been a lack of planning,’ says Lissner. ‘With another five-year mandate, I have a chance to implement some long-lasting changes. We can put together finest international casts and really plan for the future. Last season, we put on 300 performances, up from 165. Things are going well. This is one of the most famous and beautiful opera houses in the world. So, why not stay put?’

Visit the Teatro alla Scala website

The Susan Chilcott Scholarships 2009

5 December 2009

Chair, Iain Burnside, with this year's Scholars (left to right): John Pierce, Rebecca Goulden, Gerard Collett, Martha Jones, Gary Griffiths and Natalya Romaniw
Chair, Iain Burnside, with this year's Scholars (left to right): John Pierce, Rebecca Goulden, Gerard Collett, Martha Jones, Gary Griffiths and Natalya Romaniw

This year’s Susan Chilcott Scholarships, presented in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society, UK, have been awarded to six promising young singers aged between 22 and 28. The total value of the awards is more than £22,000 and will go towards the cost of the recipients’ studies.

The Board of Trustees has also appointed pianist and presenter, Iain Burnside, as Chair, replacing Jonathan Dimbleby, who will now become President. Burnside was a close friend of Susan Chilcott’s during her lifetime, and has served as a juror and trustee for the scholarships since their launch in 2004.

Iain Burnside: “This year, the awards have gone to a group of exciting young singers, and will enable some to complete conservatoire studies that might otherwise have been in jeopardy. We believe in the talent of these young artists and hope our support will give them space to grow.”

79 singers applied for the 2009 Scholarships, the strongest of whom were invited to audition before a panel that included Chair, Iain Burnside, soprano, Dame Josephine Barstow, bass-baritone, Robert Hayward, and Susan Chilcott’s teacher, Mollie Petrie.

The six Scholarship recipients are all currently studying at Conservatoires in London: baritone Gerard Collett (National Opera Studio), soprano Rebecca Goulden (Royal Academy of Music), baritone Gary Griffiths (Guildhall School), mezzo-soprano Martha Jones (Royal College of Music), tenor John Pierce (National Opera Studio), and this year’s youngest Scholar, 22-year-old soprano Natalya Romaniw (Guildhall School).

Awarded annually, the Susan Chilcott Scholarships offer financial support to emerging classical singers both within formal education or in private education, as well as to professional singers wishing to study a specific repertoire or language. Susan Chilcott, who herself came from a modest background, was one of the leading English sopranos of her generation; she died of breast cancer in 2003, aged 40.

Find out more at the website of the Royal Philharmonic Society

Washington National Opera announces cutbacks

4 December 2009, Washington DC, USA

Plácido Domingo:
Plácido Domingo:

Washington National Opera (WNO) this week announced a raft of changes aimed at averting a financial crisis in the company. These include the elimination of eight staff positions and a reduction in the number of productions next season from six to five (down from seven in the 2008/09 season).  

The changes are said to be addressing "long-term systemic expense and earned and unearned income challenges" – in other words,  overspending. According to WNO President, Kenneth R Feinberg, the opera company has “operated in an unstable economic environment in which our expenses have for several years outstripped our ability to raise funds.”    

US-based Opera Now correspondent, Karyl Charna Lynn, who has been watching developments at WNO since before Plácido Domingo became its artistic director in 1996, says that recent events have come as no surprise: “When Domingo’s artistic brief was expanded to the general directorship of WNO in 2003, many of us in the press thought it a bad idea for a globe-trotting superstar to run an opera company, since he’d never have the time to be there." 

Lynn admits that her misgivings were unfounded to begin with: “In my cover feature for Opera Now’s March/April 2007 edition, I wrote that the media had been happily proven wrong. Domingo’s ability to raise millions of dollars (clearly a factor in hiring him) and attract super-star talent enabled the Washington National Opera  – and the LA Opera, where he is also boss – to rise from the ranks of good regional companies to world-class organisations.”  

But that was in booming economic times. When the economy went bust, all this growth was shown to have been unsustainable. “Since Domingo was rarely in Washington,” explains Lynn, “no matter how much money WNO raised, it spent more in its (and Domingo’s) quest for international acclaim, and to earn its designation (by the US congress) of ‘National’ opera company – which will remain.”  

Every year, explains Lynn, a few generous Board members paid the deficit out of their own pocket until an ultimatum was given: ‘hire an executive director or we stop paying’. Enter Mark Weinstein, who has spent the past two years trying to rein in costs, balance the books and stabilise the company. But in spite of statements to the contrary, Weinstein’s restructuring has fallen short of being able to avert retrenchment.  

The Board, it seems, is fed up with lack of leadership and the bleeding of funds, so steps have finally been taken to address matters. “The previous excitement surrounding WNO’s productions and initiatives have disappeared,” says Lynn, “caused in part by the realisation that Domingo’s vision has become financially impossible to fulfil.”  

Domingo himself remains positive that, with good management, the company’s success over recent years will return as the economy begins to recover: “WNO’s board leadership has made these changes with the best interests of the company in mind. I regret the decisions, and yet I support them because they will allow WNO to produce opera of high quality, with world-class artists and productions, and maintain its award-winning education, training and outreach programs. It is my profound hope that WNO will regain solid financial ground very quickly.”

Visit the official website of Washington National Opera 


The Chicago Federation of Musicians and the committee representing the 76 members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra have said that their strike, which threatened to disrupt the opening performance of Lehar's The Merry Widow on 5 December, has been called off.

The strike was cancelled after a what is described as a "tentative" contract agreement was reached.

Visit the Chicago Lyric Opera website

News round-up - 3 December 2009

3 December 2009

New Realities | New Strategies: 9 to 12 June 2010, Los Angeles

With many opera companies across the US facing severe financial challenges in the wake of the global economic downturn, next year’s Opera Conference 2010 will explore new strategies for safeguarding the sustainability of the industry. Presented by the US national service organization for opera, OPERA America, and hosted by Los Angeles Opera, the conference will include keynote speakers Plácido Domingo, conductor James Conlon, Houston Grand Opera general director, Anthony Freud, and OPERA America president and CEO, Marc Scorca.

J Mervyn Williams, born 28 October 1935; died 29 October 2009

John Mervyn Williams, who conceived and launched the Cardiff Singer of the World competition when he was head of music and arts at BBC Cymru Wales, has died aged 74. Williams, whose tenure as head of music and arts lasted from 1980 to 1985, was also responsible for the creation, in 1983, of the symphony chorus of the BBC Welsh Orchestra (now BBC National Orchestra of Wales).

Arda Mandikian, born 1 September 1924; died 8 November 2009

A soprano of Armenian Greek ancestry, Arda Mandikian possessed a voice and personality that were the inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s ghost of Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw. Also a specialist of French song, Mandikian passed away earlier this week, aged 85. Known to friends as an exceptionally sensitive person, and to audiences as a performer of striking beauty, Mandikian’s legacy includes two classic recordings from the 1950s – Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in which she sang the role of the Sorceress, and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, conducted by the composer.  

Civil action underway against the LPO’s former Finance Director

27 November 2009, London, UK

Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at Glyndebourne
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO at Glyndebourne

This week’s classical music news columns have been dominated by allegations of fraud committed by former London Philharmonic Orchestra General Manager & Finance Director, Cameron Poole, during his five years of working with the orchestra. Poole stands accused of siphoning more than £500,000 from the LPO to fund his personal lifestyle (see full story on the Classical Music magazine news page).

The results of a routine audit revealed a major hole of around £560,000 in the LPO's finances. Following publication of the audit, the orchestra has initiated a civil action against Poole to recover the money, as well as reporting its suspicions to the police who will undertake a criminal investigation.

The seriousness of the allegations come as an accute embarassment to an organisation that prides itself on its high international profile and long-standing reputation, both as the resident orchestra of London's South Bank Centre and of Glyndebourne Festival Opera (a position it has held for over 40 years). Vladimir Jurowski, the LPO's principal conductor, is also music director at Glyndebourne.

So far, senior figures within the LPO have declined to comment on the case directly, leaving it to a spokesperson for the orchestra to indicate that an internal investigation has been launched and that ‘the civil process is on track to recover as much of the money as possible.’ The orchestra receives more than £2.1 million in public money annually, as a regularly funded organisation (RFO) of the Arts Council England.

The spokesperson also confirmed that 'The London Philharmonic Orchestra continues to operate as normal, with strong financial reserves, and The Board and Trustees remain confident of the Orchestra's continuing success in 2010.'

Next year’s Glyndebourne Festival, running from 20 May to 29 August 2010, is due to include new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, featuring the LPO conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, and - for the opening of the season - Britten’s Billy Budd, conducted by Mark Elder.

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