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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.

Savonlinna Opera Festival 2011

1 January 2012, Savonlinna, Finland

'Lohengrin' at Savonlinna Opera Festival
'Lohengrin' at Savonlinna Opera Festival(Photo: Timo Seppalainen)

'Tosca' at Savonlinna Opera Festival
'Tosca' at Savonlinna Opera Festival(Photo: Timo Seppalainen)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Reachable only by crossing two bridges, one of which opens occasionally to allow ships to pass through, Finland's 15th century Olavinlinna Castle, built by the Swedes as a defense against the Russians, is a unique and magical setting for opera.

The annual Savonlinna Opera Festival, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2012, presents both staged and concert performances in the Castle’s courtyard. Seating 2,260 and covered by a wave-like plastic roof, the surrounding stone walls of this space create an ideal acoustic, particularly for voices. The very wide and shallow stage, with steep stone side staircases, is a challenge for some directors, producers, and designers, but for those with a creative bent, there is a world of opportunities. Last year I attended five productions, two of which were from the visiting opera company, Hungarian State Opera.

Before the first chords of Lohengrin were played, 'Gottfried' appeared, playing with a toy swan in a pond. The opera ended in a similar fashion. In between, director Roman Hovenbitzer created a multifaceted, symbolically laden production that mostly kept true to Wagner’s intent: Lohengrin as the misunderstood, lonely artist made superhuman, who later becomes very human after his marriage to Elsa – making videos of his bride and painting a stylized red and white swan figure on her white gown.

Mirroring today’s politics, Telramund was a contemporary military dictator symbolizing the evil of Totalitarian governments, while Lohengrin, founder and leader of the 'Swan party', bore a stick-like swan symbol inspired by the prehistoric rock paintings of swans around Savolinna. Like many directors with creative ideas, however, Hovenbitzer carried the symbolism too far.  His excessive use of swan iconography included a gigantic swan statue carried by solidiers to announce Lohengrin’s entrance. Having revealed his identity, Lohengrin then climbed up a high aluminum scaffold, fastened the swan’s wings to his arms and spread them wide while the remains of the broken effigy blazed below.

Nevertheless, Hovenbitzer succeeded in making the long opera dramatically riveting and grippingly effective. Set simultaneously in three different time periods (Medieval, late 1800s, and contemporary) the production had some jarring juxtapositions and anachronistic actions.

Richard Crawley’s Lohengrin was a narcissistic and charismatic leader with divine deportment, who also displayed humanizing characteristics after his wedding. He sang with a clear and supple voice. Amber Wagner as Elsa displayed a voice of ethereal beauty, commanding the role with her powerful instrument, filled with feeling and sensibility. Jordanka Milkova exuded piercing evil and wickedness as Ortrud while Telramund’s transition from absolute dictator to henpecked husband was credible. Although his sound was harsh, it was, perhaps, suitable for his character. Maestro Philippe Auguin had Wagner in his blood, coaxing thrilling playing and spine-chilling power from the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra, making the long evening fly by.

I’ve seen Don Giovannis where sex (Festival de México), death wish (Teatro Colón) or fear to commit (Washington National Opera) were the overriding themes. Here, director Paul-Emile Fourny emphasised the disintegration of class society so brilliantly expressed through Mozart's use of different genres – a minuet for Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, a folksy German tune for Leporello and Masetto, and a contradance for Giovanni and Zerlina – along with the rebellion against the droit du seigneur (or droit de cuissage) at the wedding celebration.

Set against the backdrop of the castle’s ancient stone wall with steep stone stairs at either end of the very long but narrow stage, the opera unfolded amidst three moveable fragments of palatial facades that were twisted, turned and occasionally joined to suggest the different locations. The production was straightforward with a couple of exceptions: at the final supper, a defiant Giovannni instead of eating at the dining table had intercourse with a nude woman on the table in response to Donna Elvira’s pleas, and the Commendatore did not become a stone statue but instead was dressed in a white suit, appearing at the top of the stairs amidst a smoky background. Giovanni’s hell is the 'ghosts' of his conquests (women in diaphanous black dresses) chasing him up the stairs. 

Carlo Colombara made a defiant and dissolute Don Giovanni, capturing the opposing aspects of his character while properly nuancing his expansive voice, from powerful to smooth to cunning, allowing him to deceive, command, persuade, and seduce with equal believability. Carlo Lepore’s Leporello was the ideal foil to Colombara, singing with well-balanced intensity. Jennifer Rowley captured Donna Anna’s anguish and conflicting emotions with a magnificently vibrant voice. Alyson Cambridge as Donna Elvira was convincing as wronged woman, singing with ardent concentration. Michele Angelini’s Don Ottavio displayed some forceful singing and good high notes, though occasionally strained. Will Humburg drew admirable playing from the orchestra.

The high point of Tosca was the mesmerizing singing, which carried the evening despite an unusual heatwave plaguing Savolinna. Keith Warner’s naturalistic production (opening with Angelotti shimmying down the side of the castle wall on a rope and ending with a video of Tosca jumping into the Castle's surrounding lake) had, however, some bizarre and incongruous moments, such as Scarpia’s dining table opening to be his casket, and Mario climbing a steep staircase to exit after being tortured. Tiffany Abban showed depth and breadth as Tosca, beautifully floating her high notes. Massimo Giordano possessed the role of Cavaradossi, fervently singing with a voice of pure Italianate lyrical sound. Juha Uusitalo was convincingly evil as Scarpia and under the baton of Srboljub Dinic, there was finely nuanced orchestral playing. 

The Hungarian State Opera’s Don Carlo was a conventional production, the stage set with only a large iron gate and basic props. After Attila Fekete in the title role overcame some initial nervousness and note fishing, he was very intense and believable. Eszter Sümegi assayed Elisabeth with a regal voice and deportment.

Although Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was presented in concert form, the psychological implications of dark gloom and horror were painted in the music and hauntingly melodic vocal line of Judith, which Andrea Meláth captured with her soaring voice. Changing colored lights reflected the horrors behind the different doors.


Colour-blind casting "should not play havoc with narrative"

18 June 2010

Ronald Samm as Othello in Birmingham Opera Company’s recent production
Ronald Samm as Othello in Birmingham Opera Company’s recent production

Adrian Mourby thinks that implausible casting simple confuses the issue for modern audiences who are trying to make sense of opera.

Words are interesting things. In recent years I’ve noticed a semantic sea-change. People are talking less of going to ‘hear’ an opera and more about going to ‘see’. We see a play, we see a movie. Given that operas have always been visual spectacles why should we not talk about going to see them too?
A crisis at Covent Garden in 2004 highlighted this shift in consciousness.  When the Royal Opera House parted company with the soprano Deborah Voigt, it did so not because she did not sound right in the role of Ariadne, but because she did not look right. The director considered her too big. The pattern was repeated at the opera in Rome earlier this year when another soprano, Daniela Dessì, stormed out a production of La traviata after veteran director Franco Zeffirelli made disparaging remarks about her size (see ‘Director deems soprano's physique unsuitable for role’).

Once singers such as the gamine Natalie Dessay or the svelte Canadian Kathleen Broderick proved that you can be tiny and still belt out the top notes, the lie was given to the special pleading that only fat people are capable of opera’s most demanding roles.
We live in a visually obsessed society in which singers get criticised not only for being the wrong size for their roles but the wrong age too. Sarah Bernhardt may have got away with playing Hamlet aged 55 in 1899, but no modern audience would tolerate a Butterfly the wrong side of 40. I must admit I’ve cavilled at several Traviatas in which Alfredo is demonstrably older than his father.
But there is one area of opera where we are increasingly being called upon to suspend our visual disbelief and that is over colour-blind casting.

In Britain Welsh National Opera (WNO) has championed this idea for some time with the occasional black chorus member who is not given a black role to enact, but is a peasant/noble/gypsy/soldier like the rest of them. The company’s view is admirable: if a singer is good enough s/he should be cast regardless of race. Black singers should not have to wait for Otello to come around or a production of The Magic Flute that is set outside the real world. Problems can arise, however, when a production is set vividly in a specific time and place.

WNO recently revived Joachim Herz’s excellent Madama Butterfly. Herz had carefully researched both Puccini’s original 1904 score and the Nagasaki of that time. The production, however, used non-Oriental singers – but that is a convention that we’ve come to accept. What we haven’t had time to get used to is a black Pinkerton as sung by American Russell Thomas. Musically I had no problem with Thomas but, like most 21st-century audience members, I had gone along to ‘see’ Madama Butterfly, not just hear it.

The result was confusing. Had all Puccini’s Americans been black, this production would have made dramaturgical sense, but here we had a black American officer (something impossible in the period setting of 1904) who in Act IV has married a blonde Caucasian wife (something actually illegal in many states at that time) and who has sired a blonde Caucasian son by his Japanese wife. When one starts to extrapolate the narrative implications of such casting, nothing makes sense.

The only way I could enjoy this otherwise excellent revival was to assume that we were not supposed to notice that Pinkerton was black. In an opera that is about clashes between the races is very, very difficult.
Colour-blind casting has its merits but it should not play havoc with the narrative. At the very same time as WNO was touring its Butterfly, the director Graham Vick presented an Otello in Birmingham with, for the first time in the UK, a black singer, Ronald Samm, taking on the role of Shakespeare’s Moor. While it was high time this role was claimed by a black tenor, Mr Vick seemed so keen not to appear to be pigeon-holing Samm as only castable in black roles that he cast another black singer, Keel Watson, as Iago.

To me this negated a very important element of the narrative: Otello is manipulated by Iago because Otello is an outsider and Iago isn’t. To make both roles black leaves us either struggling to make sense of lines like Iago’s  explicitly racist boast to Roderigo that Desdemona,‘Presto in uggia verranno i foschi baci/ Di quel selvaggio dalle gonfie labbra’ (Will soon come to dislike the dark kisses of that savage with swollen lips) – or having to conclude that perhaps we just weren’t supposed to notice.
If a white Italian woman can get away with pretending she is a 15-year-old Japanese bride or a Chinese princess, then there is no reason why a black singer should not be able to sing those roles too, but we cannot throw out dramaturgy in the cause of opening up all roles in the operatic canon to black singers.

Some operas do not require any reflection of social reality. The Magic Flute is the perfect example. It deals with human emotion and big themes like redemption in a world outside social reality. I would argue the same is true of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. But there are operas which do need to make sense in sociological terms and both Butterfly and Otello are prime examples.

Dramaturgy is the art of making sense of what happens on stage and a socially admirable concept like colour-blind casting should not be pitched at odds against dramaturgy. Audiences are there to be entertained and, hopefully, encouraged to think. They should not spend the interval debating whether they were supposed to notice what they’ve just seen. Or worse, closing their eyes and just listening.

This article was originally published on p126 of the March/April 2010 issue of Opera Now.

Ferrier Competition winners announced

29 April 2009, London, UK

The winner of this year’s Ferrier Competition, held at the Wigmore Hall in London, is soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon (25) from South Africa. Brandon is currently studying with Janis Kelly at the Royal College of Music and is managed by Askonas Holt.

The second prize was awarded to soprano Monica Bancos (26) from Romania who is also studying at the RCM where she is a Pidem Scholar.

German Soprano Angela Bic (28) won this year’s Ferrier Song Prize. She recently made her professional debut in Wagner’s Die Walküre with Freiburg Opera and studies with Lillian Watson at the Royal Academy of Music. Her accompanist Robin Davis (26) was awarded the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund Accompanist’s Prize.

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