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John Steane remembers Elisabeth Söderström

26 November 2009

Elisabeth Söderström
Elisabeth Söderström

Elisabeth Söderström has passed away aged 82 at her home in Stockholm. The Swedish soprano, whose career spanned more than 50 years (including a stint as director of the Drottingholm Palace Theatre in the mid 1990s) will be remembered as much for her compelling personality as for her lyrical voice – attributes which she combined to powerful effect in her performances of more than 60 major operatic roles, as well as in concert and on recordings.

John Steane, author of the three-volume Singers of the Century, heard Söderström perform live on many occasions. Here he recalls his own critical observations and memories of the widely respected soprano:

'It’s the greatest compliment I can pay to say that when Elisabeth Schwarzkopf retired in 1969 there was some consolation in the thought that we still had this other Elisabeth! Their voices were similar in several respects. Söderström was radiant – what the Germans call ‘Strahl’. She had that clear, vibrant, concentrated tone. It wasn’t particularly powerful (my memory is that in Strauss’s Four Last Songs, heard in the flesh as opposed to on record, it wasn’t powerful enough). But you listened to her. It was a voice with character.'

Söderström’s autobiography, In My Own Key, captures the essence of this character, says Steane: 'The book has her personality imprinted on every page. There’s passion there, but humour too, realism, and even irony.'

While Söderström’s recording legacy is dominated by the Janáček operas that she made with Charles Mackerras for Decca in the 1980s (the Jenůfa was re-released in 2007, more than 20 years after its original release), Steane’s personal favourites are her three Rachmaninov song albums with Vladimir Ashkenazy: 'Other singers have been more overtly emotional in these, but she’s quite emotional enough for me, and the tone quality is ideal. When I heard of her death, it was a handful of these songs that I played in memoriam.'

  • Elisabeth Söderström, soprano, born 7 May 1927; died November 20 2009.

News round-up - 26th November 2009

26 November 2009

Dr Keith Howard receiving his award from HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House in London
Dr Keith Howard receiving his award from HRH The Prince of Wales at Clarence House in London

Arts & Business announces this year’s awardees

Bradford based academic publisher, Dr Keith Howard, has been awarded a Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy in recognition of his generous support for Opera North. Dr Howard has pledged more than £4 million to the company since 2003, and now chairs The Future Fund, a capital reserve designed to fund the long-term developmental work of Opera North.

Join the discussions at coc.ca on 28 November and 5 December 2009

The Canadian Opera Company’s recent productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Stravinsky’s The Nightingale & Other Short Fables are to be made available for streaming via the company’s website, coc.ca. As well as tuning in to these performances on 28 November (Puccini) and 5 December (Stravinsky), opera lovers are invited to join live online chat sessions with members of the casts and creative teams at 1pm EST (6pm GMT). Confirmed chatters for Madama Butterfly include set and costume designer, Susan Benson, and baritone James Westman, who performed the role of Sharpless.

Die tote Stadt in a new production by Danish National Opera

Korngold’s ravishingly scored early opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) will be performed in Denmark next year for the first time ever, in a new production for Danish National Opera directed and designed by Mikael Melbye.  This follows the success of Melbye’s production of Puccini’s La fancuilla del West for the company’s 2009/10 season. Korngold’s opera was rarely performed until the 1970s, but is now regarded by many as a masterpiece of late Romantic expressionism.

Scottish Opera teams up with Glasgow School of Art to promote opera

Two Graphic Design students at the Glasgow School of Art have won a competition to create a new marketing campaign for Scottish Opera. Sofia Akram and Sophie Dyer were selected from 35 graphic design, illustration and photography students who submitted competition entries. Their multi-media campaign will be launched in January 2010 in four cities where Scottish Opera regularly performs: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Campaigners claim original environmental estimates were wrong

Permission was granted by the Secretary of State in July 2008 for Glyndebourne to install a wind turbine that would supply power to the opera house and reduce its carbon emissions by an estimated 70%. Campaigners who oppose the turbine, claiming that it will spoil the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside, have suggested that this original estimate was inaccurate. They have cited new research which indicates that the amount of energy generated will be one third less than predicted. The debate continues.

US-Chinese co-commissioned opera to receive premiere in 2010

23 November 2009, Boston, USA

Librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs
Librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs

Madame White Snake, a new opera by Chinese-American composer Zhou Long, will receive its world premiere at Opera Boston in February 2010, followed by two performances at the Beijing Festival in October 2010.

This project will mark several important ‘firsts’ as far as Opera Boston and US-Chinese cultural relations are concerned. As well as Opera Boston’s first ever new commission, international collaboration and overseas tour, it will be the first visit by an American opera company to China for more than 20 years.

Librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs is also keen to point out that while the legend of the White Snake is known almost universally in China, exists in dozens of oral, written and traditional Chinese opera versions created over the past few centuries, and forms a cornerstone of Chinese cultural consciousness, it is barely known in the West. The opera is therefore also an attempt to bring this powerful mythological narrative before new audiences internationally.

‘The White Snake is a symbol of an outsider’, explains Jacobs ‘and not just any outsider but a powerful woman outsider who has triumphed because of her amazing physical and psychic transformation- a transformation wrought by love.’

Jacobs’ libretto also explores contemporary resonances within the story, which she feels have particular importance in an age of globalization, when so many people have been displaced or migrated to new countries: ‘Many expatriates today – myself included – are trying to make a new identity for themselves in a new home. In doing so, we often try to adapt the culture of our homeland, to manage our new identity it so that it contains the familiar. The same is true of Madame White Snake: the opera is based on an ancient Chinese legend, but this production will be a totally new, American re-imagining of the story.’

The tour to Beijing and other future productions of Madame White Snake internationally will be handled through a non-profit US-based organization called The Friends of Madame White Snake, established initially by Jacobs and her closest friends as a vehicle for raising funds. Jacobs has therefore been intimately involved in the entire production process from beginning to end, and has experienced first-hand the challenges posed by the project’s collaborative dimension.

‘Our connection with the Beijing Festival came about because of the reputation of Zhou Long, and because they wanted to be involved in the commissioning process for a story so that is so important to the Chinese people,'  Jacobs explains. 'Along the way we have had to reconcile different expectations because the Festival had their own concept of what they would like us to bring to China, while we had our own idea. Then of course there was the recession. After it hit Asia, lots of sources of funding dried up, which was a big problem, though I am pleased to say that we are now in discussion with a major potential supporter in China and are hoping to tour the production to several other Chinese cities after Beijing.’

The world premiere of Madame White Snake will take place at the Cultler Majestic Theatre in Boston on 26 February 2010, featuring soprano Ying Huang in the title role, Peter Tantsits as her lover, Xi Xuan, and male soprano, Michael Maniaci, as Madame White Snake’s servant, Xiao Qing. The production will be directed by Robert Woodruff and conducted by Opera Boston Music Director, Gil Rose.

Find out more

News round-up - 20th November 2009

20 November 2009

Tina Kiberg as Brunnhilde in Royal Danish Opera's Götterdammerung
Tina Kiberg as Brunnhilde in Royal Danish Opera's Götterdammerung

Dirk Becker's set for Royal Danish Opera's Die Walküre
Dirk Becker's set for Royal Danish Opera's Die Walküre

Royal Danish Opera streams an extensive excerpt from its award-winning Ring cycle DVD

The Gramophone Awards 2009 DVD Award went to the Royal Danish Opera for “The Copenhagen Ring”, the company’s complete DVD recording of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Celebrating this success, a one-hour streamed excerpt from Das Rheingold has now been made available for free via the Royal Danish Opera website.

René Pape in a new production of Das Rheingold at La Scala

Dresden-born German bass, René Pape, will make his role debut as Wotan in a new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold at the Teatro alla Scala in May 2010, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Pape, who was recently described by the Chicago Sun-Times as ‘today’s reigning bass’ following his portrayl of Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust at the Lyric Opera, performed the role of Fasolt in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Das Rheingold earlier this year.

Finals scheduled for April 25th to May 2nd 2010 in Milan, Italy

Operalia was founded in 1993 by Plácido Domingo to identify and support talented young opera singers around the world. No fee is charged for applying, and the competition is held in a different international city each year. Winners receive prize money and access to an agent for two years after the competition, plus career support from Plácido Domingo himself. The deadline for first round applications is January 15th, 2010 and the finals will take place in Milan, Italy, between April 25th and May 2nd, 2010.                   

Winners in this year’s voice section announced

Hungarian soprano, Polina Pasztircsàk, has won the first prize in this year’s Geneva International Music Competition voice section. The 27-year-old also walked away with the Audience Prize, Cercle du Grand Théâtre, and Coup de coer Breguet awards.

London opera festival all set to 'INSPIRE'

20 November 2009, London, UK

Yvonne Howard as Leonore in Opera Holland Park's 2003 production of Fidelio
Yvonne Howard as Leonore in Opera Holland Park's 2003 production of Fidelio

With five new productions slated for its 2010 summer season, London’s Opera Holland Park (OHP) is bucking the trend in UK festivals who are cutting down on their offerings next summer in light of  economic uncertainties. Six productions are planned in all next year, including the revival of the company's 2003 Fidelio.

Alongside the announcement of the new season,  the company has launched an ongoing audience development and community programme called the ‘INSPIRE Project’, featuring an extensive range of initiatives, including free and subsidised tickets to performances, free recitals in community centres, schools and hospitals, plus workshops, lectures and online learning resources. The intention, says OHP, is for INSPIRE to ‘encourage all members of the community to experience, discover and actively participate in opera and classical music’.

Opera Holland Park’s General Manger, Michael Volpe, explains: ‘We’ve already done a lot to make opera accessible to the widest possible audience, which as a public venture supported by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea is one of our core founding principles. With INSPIRE we hope to go further, to prove that opera can have a huge impact, not just from the cultural enrichment perspective, but by showing how many people there are who react positively when they experience opera. It’s about individual aspiration and expression.’

Volpe is no less enthusiastic about the company’s programme for 2010, which he describes as ‘mouthwatering’, referring in particular to OHP’s first ever production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. This rarely performed C20th Italian melodrama, regarded by many as an underrated masterpiece, will feature Australian soprano, Cheryl Barker, making her role debut as Francesca as well as her first appearance with Opera Holland Park.

Other highlights for London’s opera lovers include Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, making its  OHP debut. Meanwhile, another Australian  soprano, Yvonne Howard (pictured), returns to the role of Leonore in Olivia Fuch's much admired production, described by Opera Now correspondent Roderic Dunnet as 'wise and unpretentious'.

Quizzed as to whether OHP has been affected by the general economic downturn over the past 18 months, Volpe is typically optimistic: ‘2009 was a good year for us, and although as a local authority we are always under financial pressure, we are pressing ahead with our desired programme for 2010 because our support-base remains strong.’

Visit the Opera Holland Park website for details of the 2010 repertoire

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