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Latest News

Birmingham Conservatoire to mount opera world premiere

28 January 2010

Matthew Cooper and Lucie Louvrier as Mr & Mrs Jedemann
Matthew Cooper and Lucie Louvrier as Mr & Mrs Jedemann

An opera written in 1999 by British composer, David Blake, will finally receive its world premiere at Birmingham’s Crescent Theatre this coming March.

Students from Birmingham Conservatoire will give four performances of Blake’s Scoring A Century, which traces the fictional story of a married couple through the historical trials and tribulations of the 20th century.  The work’s unusual score promises to take audiences on a parallel musical journey that mixes opera, cabaret, dialogue and musical theatre.

Two earlier productions – in Oregon, USA and Dublin, Ireland – were cancelled in the wake of the September 11 tragedy

Birmingham’s core artistic team includes international opera director Keith Warner, who also wrote the opera’s libretto, and Lionel Friend, the Conservatoire’s Conductor in Residence. Their production will feature a cast of 47 plus a mixed ensemble of 32 instrumentalists – all from Birmingham Conservatoire.

The two leads – Mr and Mrs Jedermann (‘everyman’) – will be played by postgraduate students Matthew Cooper and Lucie Louvrier.

Michael Barry, Director of Theatre Studies at the Conservatoire: “[Keith Warner] is paying [our] singers the compliment of treating them as just another opera company and so they are learning what is expected at the highest level of the profession. Students are also picking up technical advice and audition techniques to take forward in their careers…opportunities don’t get much better, or bigger, than this.”

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.”

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