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5 July 2012, London, UK

Watching the sparks fly: Jay Hunter Morris in the Met’s 'Ring'
Watching the sparks fly: Jay Hunter Morris in the Met’s 'Ring'(Photo: Ken Howard)

Ashutosh Khandekar considers the fallout from recent trouble down at the Met...

It’s not the sort of behaviour you’d expect of Peter Gelb: the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera normally exudes a cool, unruffled air of competence and calm. Recent events, however, have revealed a surprising strand of paranoia in a man who is charged with steering America’s largest performing arts institution through tough economic times, while presiding over some of the most ambitious expansion in the company’s history.

The problem began with Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle, stuffed with expensive technical wizardry but, most commentators have agreed, lacking in any attempt to grapple with the deeper meaning of one of opera’s most epic and enduring masterpieces: a  classic case of style (all US$16 million of it) over substance.

The critics hated it; the public, initially wowed by Lepage’s dazzling hydraulics, finally got irritated with all the creaking and banging, not to mention the palpable discomfiture of the singers as they ducked and dodged their way around the treacherous machinery on stage.

Reviewing the Met’s Ring in the New Yorker magazine, the highly respected journalist and author Alex Ross roundly damned the whole enterprise as ‘the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history’. To add to the humiliation, Opera News magazine, funded by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, summed up the situation by saying ‘we are in the midst of a very bad period’.

Jitters were in the air: Gelb had already wrapped the knuckles of WQXR radio for publishing a blog that criticised him for his lack of artistic judgement. In his view, Opera News was biting the very hand that fed it, and his response was to bar the magazine from publishing reviews of any of the Met’s productions. It was a curious move from a man with impeccably liberal credentials, who has made a point of democratising opera through new media, and whose father, Arthur Gelb, was managing editor of the New York Times, a beacon of independent reporting.

The media and opera’s chat-rooms were swift to condemn Gelb for his act of censorship. Realising that his stance was untenable, it only took the general manager one day to change his mind and reverse the ban, admitting that he had ‘made a mistake’.

You have to sympathise with Gelb. He is, at heart, a reformer and a revolutionary who has taken huge risks at the Met, which had a reputation as a bastion of conservatism when he became its boss in 2006. Here is a major artistic institution in one of the most creative and progressive cities in the world, and yet just a few years ago, programming the works of Berg, Stravinsky or Britten (core repertoire for most international opera companies these days) would have been considered risqué for New York audiences. Gelb has put his reputation on the line by bringing contemporary productions with modern design aesthetics to the Lincoln Center stage, as well as pushing for technological innovation across the board.
Gelb is seen, however, as an empire builder who is trying to corner the market for opera in the US in an unhealthy way. His inability to engage in any debate about the artistic quality of what he presents has made people question his role at the Met.
The Opera News episode has been something of a personal PR disaster for Gelb. He has put a message out that the Met should get special treatment when it comes to criticism of its productions. This comes at a time when Opera News has been trying to shake off the perception of a Met bias in its coverage of the American opera scene as a whole. Gelb's pronouncement will only fuel the suspicions of many in the US opera world that the magazine is uneven in its treatment of the nation's opera companies.

Today, the Met's influence in the way opera is presented and perceived around the world is greater than ever, broadcasting opera to millions through its radio and cinema relays. All this is testament to the scale of Gelb’s ambition. In view of this influence, however, the Met, more than any international opera company, should be encouraging healthy, vigorous debate around opera, not gagging the very people who are best placed to give a considered and mature critique of its work.

Ashutosh Khandekar is the Editor of Opera Now.


Damon Albarn's Dr Dee

16 May 2012, Manchester, UK

Scene from the world premiere of 'Dr Dee' at Manchester International Festival
Scene from the world premiere of 'Dr Dee' at Manchester International Festival(Photo: Howard Barlow)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

I caught the world premiere of Dr Dee in Manchester last year, but I imagine it will have changed a bit by the time it comes to English National Opera later this month. It’s worth considering the strengths and weaknesses of a new work that naturally creates a buzz, with a popular celebrity at its heart.

It hardly matters that this ‘English Opera’ is no particular opera at all, nor that Damon Albarn’s meditation on bits of the life of John Dee – astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I  – is as fractured as a broken mirror and tells us little except that Dee kindly lent his wife to a freak called Edward Kelley.

It doesn’t much matter that the instruments – theorbo, viols, shawm, Malian kora and African drums – were underwhelmingly used, nor that the orchestra sounded like a synthesiser. It doesn’t matter that Albarn’s own songs lapsed into the sort of mystical whimsy that befalls old rockers when they start thinking about England, viz Marc Bolan and Led Zep’s forays into 12-string elf-ballads, nobly satirised by Spinal Tap (‘Stowne’enge: children dancin’ to the Pipes of Pan…’).

The real question is only whether the result is musically and theatrically worthwhile, to which the ringingly positive answer is: ish.

Most of the work in Manchester was done by director Rufus Norris, imposing a shape and story onto the text and decorating it in the sumptuous manner of an Elizabethan masque. André de Ridder (the musical arranger) and a gang of designers and movement directors came up with brilliant, tireless, imaginative work.

It’s ceaselessly visually inventive, from the parade of ‘English stereotypes’ at the beginning (Morris Man, silly-walks minister, punk), through the big concertina’d screens that shoot across the stage like mad caterpillars to shut off one scene and magically reveal another, to Queen Bess floating above the stage and canopying the world in her golden train. As intended, this distracts the attention from what is actually happening dramatically and musically.

Dee has one big scene (doing a maths problem set to a thunderous drum set) but is overshadowed by Kelley, sung by a countertenor: the writing recalls Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is quite effective. The dramatic core of Dee’s Faust destroyed by Kelley’s cut-price Mephisto could be a strong one, though all was too diffuse in Manchester.

It’s more than acceptable musically, aiming to induce that hypnotised state where critical faculties are suspended. There’s some nice polyphony pastiche too. However, it doesn’t add up to a great deal. The I-can-do-minimalism! climax was a misjudgement, and some of the words hardly withstand analysis: ‘Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries’? Whatevz.

English National Opera’s production of Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee runs from 25 June to 7 July as part of this year's London 2012 Festival.


Win a copy of Decca’s Opera Series: 40 operas on 99 discs!

16 May 2012

Win a copy of Decca’s Opera Series:
40 operas on 99 discs!

To enter, simply drop us an email with the subject DECCA OPERA to, or send a postcard to Rhinegold Competitions, 20 Rugby Street, London WC1N 3QZ. Please include your full name, address and a contact number. (Deadline for entries: 29 June 2012.)

With 40 releases already availble, Decca’s Opera Series is building into a historic collection of definitive recordings that capture an extraordinary operatic legacy from the latter part of the 20th century.

Let’s face it, we live in a post-recording era when it comes to opera. Yes, there has been some sterling work done in recent years to cover the missing highlights of the Baroque period – René Jacobs’ Handel, Christophe Rousset’s Lully and Jean-Christophe Spinosi’s Vivaldi spring to mind. But the core repertoire – Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini – has been pretty much done and dusted, and record companies are increasingly reaching back into their vast archives to refresh, rather than renew, their operatic legacy.

You have to ask, why not? The economics of making new opera recordings just don’t make sense these days, so it’s hardly surprising that many labels are now reaping the rewards of the investments they made during the ‘golden age’ of opera recording in the 1960s and ’70s.

The last word in the legacy of opera on record has to go to one label: Decca. In the postwar years of the 20th century, it notched up at least a hundred superb – you could even call them definitive – recordings of complete operas, ranging from the usual suspects (Le nozze di Figaro, Aida, Tosca) to rarities such as Massenet’s Esclarmonde, a virtuoso showcase for Joan Sutherland at the height of her powers in the 1970s, and Krenek’s jazz-inspired Johnny spielt auf, a re-release from Decca’s landmark 'Entartete Musik' series that featured music banned by the Nazis (the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra give this raucous score their all, under music director Lothar Zagrosek). Another offbeat highlight is Mussorgsky’s masterpiece Kovanshchina, recorded at the Kirov in 1994 with Valery Gergiev sounding fresh and dynamic. Charles Dutoit’s Troyens also makes a substantial splash.

It is, of course, Decca’s legendary stable of artists that make the label’s legacy so compelling.  Among the conductors, you’ll find Karl Böhm at Bayreuth in 1967; Herbert von Karajan conducting Mozart with the Vienna Philharmonic; Sir Georg Solti, unsurpassed in Verdi (the series features the 1977 recording of Otello with  the amazing but curiously under-celebrated Carlo Cossutta in the title role and a ravishing Margaret Price as his Desdemona). Alongside these, you’ll find Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Chailly, Sir Colin Davis...most of the great luminaries of opera are represented.

The range of singers is no less illustrious, from Birgit Nilsson in Wagner to Pavarotti in Verdi and Puccini,  Sutherland in Donizetti, Te Kanawa singing Strauss and Mozart, Freni, Bartoli, Fleming, Terfel – there’s hardly a single singer of any international standing that’s missing from the list, with one notable exception so far: Plácido Domingo. His myriad fans must be eagerly awaiting the 1998 Carmen with the American mezzo Tatiana Troyanos, among a host of other superb releases made for the Decca Records stable over the past 30 years.

So far, 40 operas have been released in the series, in two batches. In all, there are plans for the series to continue mining Decca's extensive archive, which will be welcome news for opera fans around the world.

There’s nothing really new in these recordings, and the cover for each release makes no attempt to pretend otherwise, with an image of the original pack-shot dropped against a colourful backdrop. What is new is the engagement with technology:  each CD features a digital insert which unlocks online content including a multi-language libretto that can be read on a Kindle, iPad, or home computer. There’s also a chance to browse all other titles in the series and an opportunity to review titles and publish the reviews online. The actual booklets, meanwhile, contain full tracklists, production information and a detailed synopsis.

The series is essentially an exercise in repackaging rather than remastering, so the sound quality will vary on CD, depending on the original masters and their analogue/digital status. There’s nothing revelatory, but it’s all very affordably priced and provides a chance for those of us who are long in the tooth to look afresh at old friends. Meanwhile, a new generation of opera lovers can only wonder at the riches of an age of recording that has all but disappeared.

Franz Wulf


Vox pop

8 May 2012

'Popstar to Operastar' adjudicators Rolando Villazón and Katherine Jenkins
'Popstar to Operastar' adjudicators Rolando Villazón and Katherine Jenkins(Photo: Courtesy of ITV)

From the May 2012 issue of Opera Now

When opera novice Lee Connolly was making Popstar to Operastar, he was taken aback by the vitriol heaped on the reality TV show by some quarters of the opera establishment. Nevertheless, he came away from the series with a fascination for opera that has continued to grow.

Opera – I hadn’t given it much thought until a paper TV format dropped on my desk in 2009. It posed the question: can a pop star learn to sing in an operatic or classical style in a relatively short amount of time and then perform live in front of millions of people watching at home?

My objective though, along with my colleagues, was not to try to create opera stars out of pop stars. That’s far too literal a translation of the title. Rather, it was to make a fun and entertaining show that a mass audience hopefully would like to watch. ITV viewers had recently experienced, to general amazement, Paul Potts, a mobile phone salesman, singing ‘Nessun dorma’ on Britain’s Got Talent. This episode of the show was watched by more than 13 million viewers. Moreover, if you watch Paul today on YouTube you’d be adding to the 90 million plus views the clip has had so far.

Paul, of course, is no opera singer, in fact if you listen to him alongside Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun dorma’ you’d realise straight away the huge, inescapable difference. That’s not to take anything away from Paul’s achievement, but he simply can’t be compared to a great opera singer, and more to the point, shouldn’t be.

This is why we were taken by surprise at the furore Popstar to Operastar caused among some members of the opera fraternity when we aired the first series in January 2010. After all, we’d made an entertainment programme, not an opera. One such critic, Rupert Christiansen writing in the Daily Telegraph, was most upset. The show made him feel sick apparently, and Rolando Villazón was a ‘disgrace’ by involving himself in such ‘ghastly vulgar trash’.

Katherine Jenkins and the other members of the panel, as well as the pop stars themselves, received similar treatment from Christiansen, but it was Rolando, the only real connection to opera in the first series, that seemed to incense him in particular. Villazón echoed what we all thought in his reply to Christiansen when he asked, ‘why are the critics so angry?’ and ‘what do they fear?’

Regardless of Christiansen’s hopes for the show to be doomed, the series became the most watched entertainment programme on Friday nights on ITV1 in 2010. It was such a success that a second series was commissioned and was subsequently aired last year, drawing an even bigger audience than the first.

Recently, I was asked if I’d like to write a piece for Opera Now. I accepted, not because I wanted to defend why we made Popstar to Operastar:  the figures speak for themselves. Rather, I wanted to express why, since the making of the TV show, I have become a bit of an opera fan.

As part of my research I went to see La bohème at the Royal Opera House. It simply blew me away. Similarly, working with Rolando on the TV show, with his sheer love and enthusiasm for opera, made me want to experience more, to find out more. Since then I have been to many operas and will continue to go, not least for the performances but also for the innovative design and amazing creativity employed.

My job at ITV involves a constant quest for inspiration, especially from unexpected places, and opera is one such place I have found it in abundance. It’s not just about that though. I truly love to go. Most recently I went to see Terry Gilliam’s Damnation of Faust, which was just fantastic. I also saw The Tales of Hoffmann at the ENO, which was wonderfully inventive in its staging and I’m particularly looking forward to Damon Albarn’s Doctor Dee.

I once thought opera wasn’t for the likes of me, that it would be too highbrow or too hard to understand – but I was wrong. When I’m asked now why I like opera I find myself urging those who have never been before to go and see for themselves, because there’s nothing quite like it.

Although I’ll perhaps be warning them to steer clear of Mark Glanville, who when writing in this very magazine about the second series of Popstar to Operastar, and in particular Simon Callow and Rolando Villazón, felt as though he had been ‘abandoned by senior officers in the war to preserve high culture against a numerically far superior army of barbarians’.

Oh dear, I think he might be talking about me there.

Lee Connolly is a Creative Director at ITV Studios and Executive Producer of Popstar to Operastar


World premiere: Samual Coleridge-Taylor's Thelma

14 February 2012, Croydon, UK

Bidding for Thelma’s hand: Alberto Sousa (Eric) and Tim Baldwin (King Olaf)
Bidding for Thelma’s hand: Alberto Sousa (Eric) and Tim Baldwin (King Olaf)(Photo: Peter Marr)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

I don’t know if this world première, as with so many, will also be the world dernière, but Thelma comes close to being treasurably bad, and perhaps should be wheeled out every so often for that reason alone.

This is not a whimsical comedy set among retired folk in the Yorkshire Dales, as you might be misled into thinking by its title. Actually, Thelma is chock-a-block with the most promising elements: it’s got a Viking hero called Eric, a much-stolen amulet and an elfin guardian. It’s got a battle in the Maelstrom. There’s a guy selling his soul to the devil, and a chorus of sea-sprites, the legendary cup of Olaf Trygvasson, a princess promised to a man she loathes, and a woman who Dies For Love. It’s even got a Neck-King. What could possibly go wrong?

The regrettable answer is that it could fall into the hands of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Croydon’s most famous son. This moderately gifted composer wrote the Song of Hiawatha, which was an inexplicably enormous hit with the Edwardians. He died young in 1912. Thelma, finished in 1909, never reached the stage in his lifetime. It was turned down by the Carl Rosa Opera Company and was subsequently lost, until its chance rediscovery in the British Library in 2003.

This sort of stuff requires nerves of steel, and Surrey Opera took it on manfully. The handwritten score was deciphered by Stephen Anthony Brown, who produced the performing edition; director Christopher Cowell rewrote the dreadful libretto, probably made by the composer himself; Jonathan Butcher, SO’s enthusiastic artistic director for 36 years, conducted a brass-heavy orchestra with considerable conviction. Soloists Joanna Weeks, Rhonda Browne, Håkan Vramsmo and Alberto Sousa committed themselves wholeheartedly.

Frankly, it’s a lot of effort for a piece that displays a cavalier scorn for the dramatic opportunities its scenario begs for. The soul-selling bit, for example, passes without your noticing it. The amulet changes hands in ways too dull to recount. On the plus side, the baddie winds up being chucked into the cauldron which has been rather gratuitously prominent on stage until that point.

Sadly, the composer’s cloth-ear for words and drama seems rather to have extended to his music. There are certainly things that appeal: little curly ‘exotic’ tunes, reminiscent of Peer Gynt and the occasional pingy spot of orchestration with shimmery strings, a wormy cello accompaniment and sinuous oboe lines. The writing for voice involves mildly engaging ballads and choruses in three-time, pitched somewhere between Victorian hymns and Arthur Sullivan. There are a few cute minutes at the end of Act II, where soprano and chorus reach a level of musical delight with some uplifting modulations. But there’s also far too much heavy-footed chordal plod and uninspired sequences, and too little vocal charm.

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