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Shooting from the HIP

17 September 2012, London, UK

‘Are you sure this is authentic?’ Perm State Opera’s ‘historically informed’ Così fan tutte
‘Are you sure this is authentic?’ Perm State Opera’s ‘historically informed’ Così fan tutte(Photo: Anton Zavyalov)

Historically informed performance (HIP) and the quest for so-called authenticity in music are often just an excuse for bloodless singing, badly tuned strings – and at worst, indicative of a cultural crisis in modern society. Robert Thicknesse calls the Early Music zealots to account.

Interviewing people can be pretty dull, but I remember with intense pleasure speaking a few years ago to a well-known maestro and exponent of ‘historically informed performance’ who reserved all his venom, not for the old-timers whose criminal ways with ancient music he had been sent by heaven to correct, but with his immediate contemporaries and Early Music competitors – a ‘failed choirmaster’ here, an ‘incompetent flautist’ there (names provided on request). It turns out that ‘HIPworld’ is as riven as the liberation movements of Iron Age Judea, with internecine hatreds way stronger than anything directed at the supposed common enemy.

What does ‘authentic performance practice’ really mean? On examination, it’s a literalist, dogmatic view of unknowable facts, what might have happened in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries, espoused with fundamentalist intolerance and fervour (and of course in several mutually exclusive versions). Certainly, some by-products of this pursuit have been worthwhile (who could regret the rebirth of lutes and harpsichords?) and we must admit the wholesale rediscovery of Handel’s operas could hardly have happened without the HIP gang.  It’s cute, though, that the movement has provided a home for many a singer without a voice and fiddler without a tone.

The downsides of historical performances of opera are pernicious, from the regiments of hooting pantymen countertenors and pre-sexual white-voiced sopranos to the general campery of the whole thing. In Russia recently – a place until lately happily free of this curse – the current HIP superstar,Theodoros Currentzis, took time out from turning Mozart’s Così fan tutte into a freakshow to explain gravely to me how he and his band would down tools in rehearsal to dance a candlelit sarabande, ‘to get them in the mood’. Very possibly they are stitched into their 18th-century knickers with bone needles too, like the thesps at the Globe Theatre.

The justification for all this – the loving recreations of old instruments, the wilfully over-literal interpretation of manuscript markings, the vicious Wars of Religion about the correct articulation and placing of the cadential appoggiatura and trill, the peculiar postures adopted by Baroque violinists – is that (as maestro opined) ‘it sounds bloody good’. But does it really? It is a badly kept secret, of course, that anyone who plays on period instruments has a well-used copy of Thomas Beecham’s 1959 Messiah on their shelves, the full-fat delight their souls crave as antidote to the knit-your-own yoghurt sounds they produce. You only have to listen to Jon Vickers singing ‘Comfort ye’, and Jennifer Vyvyan’s ‘How beautiful are the feet’ to realise what HIP has lost. Of course Handel would have loaded on these harps, triangles and whatnot if he could; of course he would have used the most muscular singers of the day, not etiolated specimens who would blow away in a moderate breeze.

The main objection to this neurotic hunt for ‘authenticity’ is deeper and more serious. When Mozart rescored Messiah in 1789 he did it to remake Handel in the taste of his time. A huge shift in sensibility had occurred in a few decades, and Mozart incarnated it: he didn’t insist on beating people up with messianic views on ‘what it was supposed to sound like’ – and you can bet he was happy to use modern instruments too, not the moth-eaten old things poor Handel had to make do with.

Beecham, Boult, Stokowski and Dorati were all following Mozart’s lead: they were performing old music (and newer music too for that matter) within the aesthetic of their own time. The greatest indictment of HIP (and its relations in other artforms, which basically amount to over-restoration: directors’ cuts, sandblasted buildings, overscrubbed paintings) is that in the name of ‘good taste’, it actually points to a void at the heart of our culture: lacking our own taste, lacking our own aesthetic, lacking the confidence to make comparative value judgments, spiritually emasculated by moral relativism, we fall back on factitious reconstructions of the past and fantasies of purity. Cowardice is the enemy of art, and this is the purest form of artistic cowardice.

From the October 2012 issue of Opera Now magazine. Click here to order your copy today!


Win a pair of tickets to Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre!

12 September 2012, London, UK

Fiona Shaw takes the role of artist Galactia in Howard Barker’s darkly humorous and provocative play.

Commissioned to paint a vast canvas celebrating the triumphant Battle of Lepanto, the free-spirited Galactia creates instead a breathtaking scene of war-torn carnage. In her fierce determination to stay true to herself, she alienates the authorities and faces incarceration...

Set in sixteenth-century Venice, Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker is a fearless exploration of sexual politics and the timeless tension between personal ambition and moral responsibility, the patron's demands and the artist's autonomy.

Opens 27 September. Tickets from just £12.
For bookings, call 020 7452 3000 or visit

To WIN a pair of tickets to see Scenes from an Execution at the National Theatre just email your name, postal address and contact telephone number to with the subject line 'SCENE'.

Terms & Conditions
Tickets valid for all performances until 24 October (excluding 4 October); Subject to availability; Travel and accommodation not included; Additional expenses are the responsibility of the prize winner; No cash alternative; Non transferable; Promoter reserves the right to exchange all or part of the prize to that of equal or greater value.


Festival Focus | Opéra de Québec

7 September 2012, Quebec, Canada

Visually stunning: Robert Lepage's new 'Tempest' in Quebec
Visually stunning: Robert Lepage's new 'Tempest' in Quebec(Photo: Louise Leblanc)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Only in its second year, the Festival d’opéra de Québec showed itself to be a world-class event with its primary draw, British composer Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest.

The Festival is conceived and run by the visionary director of Opéra de Québec, Grégoire Legendre and Quebec native Robert Lepage, best known for directing the Met’s controversial Ring cycle. It was Lepage who managed to convince the Met’s general director Peter Gelb not only to co-produce The Tempest but to allow Quebec to premiere his radical new staging.

The production relocates Caliban’s island to the 18th-century stage of La Scala. (The theatre as a quintessential place of allegory and magic is a key theme in Shakespeare’s play.) The sense of fantasy and transformation was reinforced as the audience’s perspective changed through each act of the opera, starting backstage at La Scala, moving into the auditorium and then to a cross-section of both.

Although the melodic lines are few and climaxes scarce, Adès’ music maintains a narrative flow by conjuring very precise ‘sound worlds’, brilliantly explored by Lepage with spectacular effects and acrobatic movements. The striking production was organically united with the music, allowing the atmosphere of the island to emerge very naturally on stage.
The Tempest opens with one of opera’s great storm scenes: fiery, tempestuous music to which Lepage conjured up brilliant visuals – the focal point of which was an enormous, wildly spinning chandelier, onto which Ariel climbed and to which some shipwrecked souls frantically clung, trying to escape the violent and turbulent seas beneath.

Once on the island (La Scala’s backstage), the opera turned static as Prospero stood Wotan-like  with flowing, native robes, elaborate headdress and staff (which shattered at the end), narrating his life story to his daughter, Miranda. His treacherous brother Antonio (Roger Honeywell) and the King of Naples (Gregory Schmidt) in royal dress were spotlighted in La Scala’s royal box.

The action moves on in Act II, set in a fantastical forest of diaphanous trees where Ariel flies around, executing Prospero’s commands. The monstrous Caliban, whose island Prospero has usurped, enters under the stage floorboards, crawling like a beast.

Act III has a dynamic opening: scaffolds filled with a disorderly ‘shipwrecked’ chorus, showing the magnitude of the power struggle at hand.

The cast was top-notch, and Audrey Luna as Ariel was quite amazing. Aside from her extraordinary acrobatic feats, she aced the stratospheric shrills, shrieks, and exceptionally high vocal line. Rod Gilfry made a majestic Prospero both vocally and visually, and Frédéric Antoun brought a believable human side to Caliban. Julie Boulianne sang Miranda with a beautiful delicacy, laced with power; Antonio Fugueora as her lover Ferdinand displayed a fine tenor voice. The biggest applause went to Lepage for his extraordinary vision and to Adès for his impeccable musical direction.

Although The Tempest was the primary attraction, the Festival also offered a broad spectrum of opera-related events, from a clever recreation of a late 13th-century pastoral, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, to a late 20th-century piece of profoundly moving musical theatre, Nelligan, about the tragic life of Quebec’s greatest poet. Less successful were Tangopéra and Mozart à l’opéra, a disappointing concert of Mozart arias by soprano Karina Gauvin and Les violins du Roy. Opera was even taken into the community with the Brigade Lyrique, a group of young singers who sang outdoors at various public places during the Festival. It was, however, the flawless execution of The Tempest that has set the standard so incredibly high: the challenge for Legendre will be to maintain it.

Robert Lepage’s new production of The Tempest opens at the New York Metropolitan Opera on 23 October, conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Audrey Luna as Ariel and Alan Oke as Caliban.


Join English National Opera this autumn...

7 September 2012, London, UK

ENO's 'The Magic Flute'
ENO's 'The Magic Flute'(Photo: Richard Smith)

English National Opera has just opened their 2012/13 Season with Nicholas Hytner’s ever popular imagining of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In 2012 the company won every UK opera award, including an Olivier in recognition of the diversity and breadth of their artistic programming. 

ENO's commitment to creating the future of opera by staging more new, distinctive and exciting opera productions than any other UK opera company continues with future season highlights including Carmen with Ruxandra Donose in the title role; Julius Caesar directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan; and the first professionally staged production of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in sixty years. Visit to book your tickets.

Why not get involved and support the work of this award-winning company by joining the ENO Friends from just £50 a year? Friends enjoy many exclusive privileges including access to dress rehearsal tickets from just £7, priority booking for ENO performances and invitations to attend special events with company artists, as well as regular mailings and the Friends magazine Inside ENO.  ENO Friends membership also makes the ideal Christmas present for any opera lover.  Visit or call +44 (0)20 7845 9420 for more information and to join.

A miracle at the grass roots

15 August 2012, London, UK

The Jette Parker Young Artists in concert at London's Royal Opera House
The Jette Parker Young Artists in concert at London's Royal Opera House(Photo: Clive Barda)

Tom Sutcliffe laments the behind-the-scenes voyeurism that passes for talent-spotting in today’s opera world, and calls for more live performances of opera at a local level, where fresh talent can emerge unforced.

Of course Britain’s got talent. Music is universal, and you can be a fabulous singer without any training at all – at least that is what today’s media, and especially television, tells us.

Competitions and prizes have become a substitute in Britain for what always used to be the path taken by new talent to train and develop voices, namely the experience of working in small-scale, provincial opera companies. Nowadays it seems that the less real work we have around to help young artists grow, the more we want to hand out prizes and hold competitions that denote ‘instant’ success.

The opportunities for developing talent within British opera companies are diminishing. At the Royal Opera House, for instance, instead of having an in-house ensemble of experienced comprimario singers, there is the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme, operating as a ‘finishing school’ for international artists who are awarded scholarships on a competitive basis. The Programme provides the ROH with a steady supply of singers in small roles, who then move on to bigger things.

Meanwhile, most British singers and conductors have a dreadful time getting started in an opera career. We lack opera companies with positions for gifted youngsters to start learning the repertory, such as I have seen and heard in the German-speaking world. There, the norm is for an aspiring opera conductor, for instance, to start as a repetiteur, become a second Kapellmeister, and often to have the chance of conducting a certain number of performances during a season. I would argue that even extremely gifted conductors such as Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding would have developed their talents in a more valuable way, and, yes, matured better, if they had not got a rocket to fame but instead had been required to work for some years within an opera company in this way.

Performers at all stages need a public who are listening and looking seriously at what they do – not in the ‘quick-fix’ context of a rehearsal, a competition or a masterclass, but in live performances on a professional stage, preferably at a local level and over time. After all, it’s through going to performances that audiences learn their job too, developing their imaginative powers and a taste for great artistry as well as building local loyalties with young talent that will continue for years to come.

Meanwhile, most aspects of behind-the-scenes preparation are a private grief and should remain so. Everybody loves young artists who have not yet acquired the patina of professional ease, or been laminated by experience. Watching singers being rehearsed and listening to voices being coached in a masterclass environment can be very interesting; but the voyeuristic appetite stimulated by the likes of Britain's Got Talent and the overpaid dictators who make sweeping judgements about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is not healthy.

What builds a good opera business is providing audiences and singers with the 'Full Monty': namely, performances of opera on stage and concerts that stick in the memory and nourish the soul. Artists need to work with real directors and conductors in a proper, well-equipped theatre – not just some lovely country house environment without a backstage, which is more or less all that Britain can offer as a nursery for its young talent these days.

You only have to look, as I frequently do, at the fantastic quality of work in Germany, Austria and Switzerland to see what can be achieved by maintaining a range of opera ensembles operating professionally at a local level. Singers from all over the world – Ukrainians, Brazilians, Koreans as well as Brits and Aussies – are there learning the trade, and seeing how old hands do it.

It’s not about tricks of the trade. It’s about nurturing skills in the presence of a supportive audience that recognises that miraculous moment when greatness suddenly shines bright in the backstreet. It’s the miracle of opera at the grassroots. The German world has it. We in Britain need it too.


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