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Wagner and Mozart at the Canadian Opera Company

4 February 2013, Toronto, Canada

Peter Sellar's 'Tristan' in Toronto
Peter Sellar's 'Tristan' in Toronto

COC's 'Clemenza di Tito'
COC's 'Clemenza di Tito'(Photos: Michael Cooper)

Live reviews by Karyl Charna Lynn

Tristan und Isolde Wagner

This extraordinary production of Tristan und Isolde, conceived by director Peter Sellars and video artist  Bill Viola, was premiered at the Paris Opera in 2005. Although video projections are these days familiar in opera, few have made such an earnest attempt to express a musical score and grapple with the symbolic significance of a narrative.

The imagery is taken from aspects of Tantric philosophy, in which perfect love is expressed as an act of dissolution of the individual. In Act I, male and female archetypes begin as two spots of light in which slowly transform into a man and a woman. They are stripped, purified and then caress one another while floating underwater. Act II opens with the sun setting and ends with a new dawn. In the meantime, the man walks through burning logs, and the woman lights a sea of candles then walks through water. The most stunning image comes in Act III, as a stream of water raises the dead Tristan towards eternity.

The video was projected on a gigantic screen that literally and figuratively took center-stage; a square platform was the only ‘prop’. With the stage dimly lit and the singers hardly visible in predominately black costumes, the opera’s emotional intensity and depth were focused on the voices which, for the most part, were admirable. 
Of the original Paris cast, only Ben Heppner (Tristan) and Franz-Josef Selig (King Marke) remained. Although Heppner is past his vocal peak, his performance was heartfelt and passionate, especially in the third act.  Melanie Diener as Isolde started out with a powerful, accurate vocal performance, but lost heft as the evening progressed (perhaps because this was at the end of a long run). Selig made a solid King Marke, and Daveda Karanas was noteworthy as Brangäne. Maestro Johannes Debus, conducting this work for the first time, gave a commendable account with COC Orchestra and Chorus.   

Watching this production reminded me of Ruth Berghaus’ Tristan und Isolde at the Hamburg Staatsoper in 1988 – another avant-garde production at the time. Both were radical and innovative stagings controversial theatrical geniuses with an abundance of brilliant moments, but whose concept also distracted from the opera with its overabundance of ideas. In Sellars’ case, the non-stop video at times drew the focus away from the musical performance, relegating the opera to the role of being the soundtrack of the video.   

La Clemenza di Tito Mozart

Mozart’s penultimate opera, composed in 1791 ostensibly to flatter Leopold II on his coronation as King of Bohemia, deals with power, honour, friendship, vengeance, love, and forgiveness. It is a psychologically penetrating tale about enlightened leadership and the nature of power – topics as germane today as when the work was composed.

Director Christopher Alden infused the opera’s Roman neo-Classicism with a modern edginess, liberating it from opera seria’s stilted conventions. This gave his staging vitality but also introduced some absurd anachronistic elements: Annio jogged around the stage sporting a headband and Elvis-Presley-type hairdo; Tito strutted around in silk purple pajamas clutching a gold (security) blanket, using a 1960s-era red phone to ‘call in’ Sesto’s verdict; the chorus, outfitted in ghastly mid-20th century leisure wear, wore white commedia dell’arte masks and scarves. The remaining characters sported Roman togas, with and without helmets.

The a minimalist uni-set, consisting of a massive white marble wall crossing the stage diagonally and engraved with (Latin) words, complemented by a red carpet, red velvet rope and stanchions, marble benches, and golden trash can. All of this bore a striking resemblance to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in America’s political powerhouse, Washington DC.

The production offered uniformly flawless singing and impeccable acting that powerfully conveyed the high ethical and political stakes involved in the characters’ emotional turmoil, struggles, and passions.

Isabel Leonard’s Sesto mesmerized us with intense acting and sparkling singing. Wallis Giunta portrayal of Annio as a contemporary ‘dude’ was amusing but absurd; fortunately it didn’t detract from her impressive vocal powers. Keri Alkema made an imperious, seductive, and vengeful Vitellia with a full, rich, sound. Michael Schade, the scheduled Tito, was ill, but Owen McCausland, a young Canadian tenor who from the COC Studio Ensemble, did an admirable job all round, convincing in his acting and accomplished in his singing. Daniel Cohen drew vibrant, nuanced playing from the COC orchestra.


Naked Truths

22 January 2013

Revealing gestures: the 'Opera Naked' team
Revealing gestures: the 'Opera Naked' team(Photo: Maddy Cannon)

Opera director Lynn Binstock turned a series of personal stories gleaned from interviews with singers into a revealing show that debunks myths surrounding opera singing, exposing the real-life trials and tribulations unfolding behind the scenes.

I have worked with opera singers for many years and although I thank my lucky stars I am not one of them, I admire them hugely for their talent, industry and courage. Yet most people have little understanding of what it involves, or why anyone would choose to do it. Our vision in creating Unexpected Opera’s Opera Naked was to change that by offering an intimate perspective on opera, so I interviewed 40-odd singers of varying ages and experience. The stories I heard were fascinating and inspiring, and the comments I got were often telling: ‘Singing is very personal, very open – so performing is almost like being naked.’

To lay bare the lives of opera singers with honesty, humour and great music, we put four emerging soloists together with Unexpected Opera’s resident comic. Opera Naked includes four life-stories with operatic performances deeply rooted in personal experience, and is peppered with verbatim material from the interviews. The first act explores the journey towards becoming an opera singer. The second looks at the professional world they inhabit, sharing ‘insider knowledge’ and intimate revelations.

What did the interviews reveal? Opera singers are not necessarily ‘posh’ or ‘cultured’. For some, becoming a singer was completely unexpected. Others, even from music-loving families, found that their career choice was not welcomed. Whatever their background, most had strong memories of singing as a child. Several abandoned serious study of other instruments to dedicate themselves to the voice. Others were drawn back to singing after working in non-musical fields, even when they had achieved considerable success.

Training to sing opera isn’t easy. Whatever your natural talent, it can take a good eight years to reach the starting line. Most difficult of all is establishing a solid vocal technique: it is terribly easy to ruin a voice. The wrong repertoire or a bad habit quickly leads to trouble. Moreover, voices change over time as they develop and are as individual as their owners. Since they can’t hear themselves as others do, singers are dependent on teachers and coaches throughout their careers. Larger, ‘dramatic’ voices aren’t fully developed until the singers are in their thirties or even forties.

Most fascinating of all was how many interviewees described their need to sing opera as an addiction. They can’t give it up, and although it causes them a good deal of personal torment, it also provides their moments of greatest exhilaration and happiness. But what is the drug? Some think it is the pure physicality of singing. Others talk about the stimulating mix of rational technique and emotional engagement. Many focused on the intense pleasure of connecting with audiences. Generally, they spoke with fervour about their love for the characters, the drama, the poetry and the music itself.

The audiences at Opera Naked clearly loved hearing the personal stories – there was much hilarity at our ‘awful auditions’ sequence. A healthy portion were under thirty, and new to opera; many admitted to being surprised and delighted that they could relate to the music in the context of the singers’ lives, even when sung in different languages. There was plenty of feedback, and the following is a typical audience response: ‘What I liked best was the intimacy ... how the actors and actresses told true life stories, and the variety of different operas (a great insight for a novice opera-goer!).’

Opera creates castles of the imagination, but it requires real work. Singers struggle to earn a living while training and to cope with the lack of career-structure, but the hardest struggle seems to be with themselves. Learning about one’s voice – its strengths and weaknesses, where it truly lies, how to let it soar – is profoundly connected with learning about one’s self.

Opera Naked was born of a desire to challenge stereotypes and contribute to a better understanding of opera. It is also partly a reaction to programmes like Popstar to Operastar and to the ‘opera stars’ who use microphones and have never performed a full role onstage. Above all, however, it is my love-letter to singers, and to opera itself.

Lynn Binstock is artistic director of Unexpected Opera. While pursuing a freelance career in the UK, USA and Germany she was head of staff directors and artistic administrator of the Jerwood Young Singers Programme during her 12 years at ENO. She has also been engaged as an associate and assistant director at the ROH and Scottish Opera.


The hard sell

22 November 2012

Nice branding? Angela Gheorghiu in the Royal Opera’s ‘World Stage’ campaign
Nice branding? Angela Gheorghiu in the Royal Opera’s ‘World Stage’ campaign

Cut the hype and concentrate on satisfying the customer. That’s the advice that Yehuda Shapiro would like opera houses to take on board in their bid to attract audiences.

Writing for a magazine like Opera Now is a joyful way of feeding my opera habit. But it doesn’t give me unlimited access to press freebies and it doesn’t pay the mortgage ... so I keep my day job as a marketing consultant and commercial writer, fixating on conveying relevant messages to the right target audience.

Early in October, leaving London for a client meeting in Surrey, I was confronted by a stonking great poster at Waterloo Station. Emblazoned with a torn condom packet and the words ‘DON GIOVANNI. COMING SOON’, it was an ad for English National Opera. A fleeting schoolboy smirk probably crossed my face, but I didn’t think much more about it – apart from wondering how much public money had funded this attempt to collar Waterloo’s 350,000 travellers a day.

Then, the carefully orchestrated media scandal broke – giving ENO some kind of a bang for its many marketing bucks (and, pace the poster headline, more of a bang than Don Giovanni gets in the entirety of Mozart’s opera).
Mediawatch-UK declared that the ad ‘contributed to the hyper-sexualisation of society’. In response, ENO’s spokesperson trilled: ‘We wanted an eye-catching ad to promote the opera. We came up with this idea which we think is brilliant, funny and captures the idea of Don G in a witty way.’ Well, yes, sexual desire and its consequences drive the plot of Don Giovanni and, yes, it’s a dramma giocoso, but swathes of it are neither sexy nor comical, and ‘Non mi dir’ (even if the soprano is Katherine Broderick) can try the most committed opera-lover’s patience. In the end, any cool and funky newcomers enticed by ENO’s other autumn shock tactic – Undress for the Opera, endorsed by Damon Albarn – might feel disappointed by a show which, in the words of the Guardian’s critic Tim Ashley (usually adept at searching out juicy Freudian subtext), was ‘indifferently received when it was new’ and ‘remains an oddly chilly experience, hampered by moments of theatrical intransigence’.

Like Don Giovanni, that much-courted ‘new audience’ could remain frustrated, and thus unlikely to return, while some of the loyal operatic audience – proverbially middle-aged and middle class – would have found the marketing rumpus alienating. No doubt, as good communications professionals, the team at ENO will produce some positive follow-up research to quote at us.

Despite the Coliseum’s best efforts, that cheeky poster would never mean much to the vast majority of passengers at Waterloo – that’s known as ‘wastage’ in marketing circles. At least, though, it was leveraged for publicity purposes. But what of the posters the Royal Opera House likes to plaster around the Tube, featuring ‘surprising’ and spectacular photos of operatic luminaries? It’s all very classy (and decidedly no-expense-spared), but, last season, how many harried commuters twigged that the raven-haired lady in red on the diving board (diver/diva, geddit?) was none other than Angela Gheorghiu? I knew it, of course, but I also know that you don’t just pick up a couple of tickets for a Gheorghiu night. What, then, was the poster aiming to do? (Objectives are another marketing obsession.) It was telling us that the Royal Opera House is A World Stage. So there you are. Nice branding, as they say in Marketing Week.

When it comes to selling seats, an opera house’s website is surely now its most potent tool. Opera fans everywhere must have thanked the gods when roh.org.uk was updated earlier this year. The old site condemned you to the purgatory of a virtual ‘waiting room’ at busy periods and it was hell to check ticket availability for a show unless you already knew exactly when it was on.

While Covent Garden’s new site is considerably more user-friendly, I encountered a couple of glitches when booking for a December performance of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (notorious for its ‘Ballet of the Nuns’). For instance, it was a turn-off to be gruffly informed that 2013 performances were ‘NOT ON SALE’. Why not the more tempting ‘BOOKING OPENS ON ...’?

I wrote a polite email to the box office with some constructive suggestions. That was back in July. My follow-up email in August brought a polite response saying that my previous missive must have disappeared into a spam folder and that someone would get back to me. As I write, it's nearly November and there has been no news from Floral Street. Never mind that I'm published in Opera Now and know a little bit about how to sell things, what matters is that I am a paying customer. Even if the customer isn’t always right, real marketing is about keeping him satisfied. As far as I’m concerned, Meyerbeer’s dancing nuns have got their work cut out.

Yehuda Shapiro


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 www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/execution

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 competitions@rhinegold.co.uk 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.


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