Monday, 24 December 2012

La Boheme, Royal Opera

All the Messiahs in central London were sold out on Saturday night - well, the one I wanted to go to anyway - so I wandered into the Royal Opera Box Office foyer making speculative queries about standing tickets to that evening's La Boheme. Clearly, this works occasionally. £8 gave me a standing position in the upper slips with a reasonable view (pictured) of the stage and an excellent one of the pit where Sir Mark Elder was in charge.

John Copley's production is one of the wonders of the West End, a show that has lasted more than 25 years (and the mixed blessing of being the backdrop to the BBC's recent reality-type competition show for aspiring conductors, Maestro). I had come primarily to see friends and colleagues in the cast, not least after having read an entertaining blog post about the shenanigans that go on in the background of ensemble scenes in such a well-worn production. Indeed that celebrated second act was a marvel of the orchestrated stage-scrum, with great detail and sub-narratives that always give way to - indeed point towards - the more important foreground story.

Now that I have taken the opportunity to sing in a concert production of La Boheme myself, I appreciate the difficulties of the score, especially one that demands such flexibility, so to see and hear a high-calibre live performance was a joy. And the perfect Christmas apéritif.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Silver Swan, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

The Clod Ensemble is a somewhat unlikely company moniker for a group that, last night, appeared in the centre of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall like a quorum of angels. This event, tailored nicely to the character of the huge space, saw the seven female singers of the ensemble perform music by Paul Clark after motets by John Smith and William Lawes. The latter adaptation was  embellished with a troupe of dancers in the East half of the hall. We the audience stood at the top of the hall's rake, moving down during the first piece and then splitting into above and below groups to watch the second.

The singing from the ensemble was excellent and the music itself is a pleasant, imitative swirl of melody, a synaesthetic light in the sepulchral darkness of the hall. At first though the acoustic multi-facet of the space creates a disjunct between the performers, the music and the space which is entirely in keeping with the separation of experience and meaning in abstraction in general (similar of course to many art works held in the galleries of the museum itself). To experience this constellation of sensation and symbol in the space at such a strange time (after closing, in the dark) was very special. I also loved the stasis of the singers compared to the ant-like scurrying of the dancers, apparently caught in some sort of modern, post-lapsarian brainlessness as the angelic chorus sympathise but suggest the possibility of comfort and even direction.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Pilgrim's Progress, ENO

Ralph Vaughan-Williams' own Bühnenweihfestspiel, A Pilgrim's Progress is more oratorio than opera. The Passions of Bach -the St. John Passion been fully staged by the company - are evident in the dialogue and the aesthetic bulwark of Nicholas Lehnhoff's tremendous production of Parsifal also hang in the Coliseum in spectral solidarity. Solidarity is what this ascetic (though not necessarily economical) production of Yoshi Oida is about. Set in an anonymous jail the eponymous Pilgrim seems to have been set in isolation from the other inmates. Seems, as his first words prepare us for the extemporal nature of his experience, of the story: 'So I awoke and behold it was a dream'. He recalls the nature of his experiences, whether in the jail or outside in life, prior to his incarceration and these expand - with the help of jail walls constructed of moving set-trucks - to take in the other inmates, who play out the characters in his recollections, or the tropes of Everyman's experience.

One of Oida's fine decisions is to keep the on stage action steady and minimal. The quality of the production is reliant on its singing. Roland Wood in the title role may offer the finest baritone singing I've heard (in patchy attendance!) since Roderick Williams breathed life into Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin three years ago. The almost mandatory production paraphernalia that both big houses in London employ do make a showing here, in the rags that become a megaphoned-monster, which is highly effective. Sue Wilmington's costume designs are similarly pared down and effective... notwithstanding the riotously gaudy Vanity Fair scene, recalling the orgy of the recent Flying Dutchman (or indeed Turandot) on the same stage. This struck me as excessive, given that the production was working on the credibility elastic of the inmates assuming roles - would they really have been able to conjure such an inventory of colour and costume?

Restraint never failed the pit though. Martin Brabbins triumphed with the house orchestra keeping the swollen orchestration held back. The powerfully English sonorities, pastoral-mystic modality and tidal unendlische melodie once again recalls Parsifal but with the conviction and post-war decorousness that sets it apart from Wagner's drama of itinerant faith - or indeed Britten's contemporaneous oratorio on 'the pity of war', the War Requiem, another meditation on the transmigration of souls.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tobias and the Angel, Highbury Opera Theatre

The converted church of the Union Chapel in Highbury is a super setting for a theatre work which is essentially a parable. With its glowering Victorian brickwork and polygonally arranged raked seating all but in the round, the drama of the space is natural. Into this space Highbury Opera Theatre have committed their first major undertaking, a production of Jonathan Dove's opera Tobias And The Angel, a piece specifically organised to incorporate local amateurs as well as the professionals needed for its principal roles and orchestral score. Highbury Opera Theatre under their director Scott Stroman have a clear committment to community involvement with substantial numbers of non-professional performers on stage, in the gallery, and several dozen children in the pews beside the pit. No doubt a substantial proportion of the audience were out in support of friends and family ahead of coming to see the piece itself, but no audience is the poorer for the premise, as long as the performance is honest and strong.

Honest and strong. This was certainly the temperament of the show. In the best sense this was an artless evening where storytelling and communication were paramount. Principally here was the modest but clear voice of Tobias himself, Nicholas Allen, a charming Tom Rakewell-like figure in reverse. His guiding Angel, Michael Harper was one of a number of triumphant stage presences of the evening, a compsed trope of lore who knows how to stand on stage with great authority and calm, and showing a functioning tenor to support his lower countertenor voice.

The eponymous duo are supported by a fairly extensive cast. Tobias' parents were Denver Martin Smith and Kathy Taylor Jones, essaying woe in a tone not of shrieking neurosis but of rocking, troubled water. At the other extreme Julian Alexander Smith's frustrated but loving father Raguel and Cathatrine Rogers as his wife Edna are at the mercy of more present drama - possible murder, suicide, and all its attendant paranoia. Punchy singing reaching to the back of the space, especially when Rogers' high soprano spoke across the ensemble, marked high points in the vocal writing and execution for me.

Tobias' journey takes him to Raguel and Edna's daughter - his cousin - who is apparently cursed with the inability preserve the life of any of her previous husbands. Siobhan Gibson's Sara was arguably the most affecting of the evening's protagonists and it was just a pity that a throat infection had seized the baritone Robert Gildon, who preys on her mind from the spectral periphery. If his voice (sung in from the wings as he walked the role) were in fit shape then, on the basis of his acting alone, the drama would have really thrown us about.

However, just as this piece is not a simple vehicle for a conventional opera company, so the drama is not exclusive to the score. There is a great deal of choreography, from an early wild party t and execution o a samller ensemble acting out the hazards of Tobias and the Angel's journey (I love this sort of crisp, economical staging). A well-drilled corps de ballet danced themselves into credibility as a river with a crucial solo (sequin-scaled!) fish. Above all I loved the little band of 'Raguel's Men', grave diggers chuckling their way through burying yet another of the boss' sons-in-law - a show stopping quartet, not least as their's is difficult music negotiated with a keen eye for Stroman's beat and much back slapping. Couldn't get enough of it. The children's chorus did their bit too with significant support from Sarah Wilkinson's embedded direction, all of them putting energy into the light of Dove's familiar augmented modal writing.

Louise Radinger's staging made great use of the space and available lighting - nothing overdone, a nice coup at the end for the pulpit in the centre of the stage - and the band were beyond reproach... and game, with a trio getting up on stage to become the Shofar dance band. There was a special feeling in the hall, with everyone looking past the imperfections and muddled conventions of an evening's theatre to get at the heart of the piece and to take something from performance and performers alike. One hopes that such a positive project continues to draw such support from either side of the footlights.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Die Walküre, Royal Opera

Susan Bullock as Brunnhilde and Bryn Terfel as Wotan in Die Walküre © Clive Barda/ROH 2012
I saw this Walküre as part of the first cycle of Ring operas staged by the Royal Opera this autumn. I'll get straight to it. I've never heard such good singing on the stage of the Royal Opera before. Bryn Terfel's Wotan swept aside a lifetime's accumulated prejudices and easy, lazy nit-picking accrued from tinny broadcasts on car radios, CDs being played in a room next door or hagiographic TV shows more in love with his totemic, masculine Welshness. Stripped back in this most demanding of operatic roles, I was pummeled and caressed, confided in and spat at and I can barely remember whether it was his sound or his bearing that was the agent. For Terfel is not just a fine singer but an actor as well, as required by his calling. His gestures happen within the ribbon of the music, never bouncing out of it. It was complete.

Trying to eye a performance objectively under these circumstances is a difficult proposition. All the parameters are out of whack. Luckily there were others on stage (and off) who were in the same league. Eva-Maria Westbroek's Seglinde was as good a vocal performance as Terfel's. Singing in her prime, phrase climaxes are glorious vistas of sound rather than great blitzkriegs. I also liked Simon O'Neill's nickel-plated Siegmund whose vocal seemed appropriate for his character's sense of purpose, if not the bear-like masculinity of others' portrayals.

Susan Bullock was hindered from the off by a safety cable malfunction on her entry. It's notable as Brünnhilde's arrival is an energetic affair and anything putting the breaks on will affect the impetus behind the singing too. By the all-important third act though (masterfully and minimally staged in Keith Warner's revival of his production) she was well in control with easy top notes. John Tomlinson's Hunding and Sarah Connolly's Fricka were both highly polished, professional characterisations. A special impression was made by the team of Valkyries in a feral staging of the third act with Sarah Castle's Siegrune with a contralto projection every bit as powerful as her 'sisters' in alt and Elisabeth Meister's precision in that higher reach, as a baying, horse-skull wielding Helwmige reaching but not rasping right through to the back seats.

I have since heard that the orchestra has taken a curtain call from the stage following the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. This is probably right, as the score is a mountain range not only to scale but to render with beauty. Alas, I felt that it was surprisingly untidy for this fine orchestra. The physical violence of the opening forte-pianos just could not be sustained. Perhaps there was a lack of pacing. However my disaffection was redeemed by some truly exquisite woodwind playing in the third act.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Mittwoch aus Licht, Birmingham Opera Company

For the past three months I have been preparing for and participating in a short run of performances of Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht with the Birmingham Opera Company. For all our insider knowledge of the staging, and the information we were offered in order to help us make sense of it, this is still a bewildering art-work in which to find oneself and I thought I'd try to record the experience in order to get a grip on it.

This production of Mittwoch is a first as the technical demands (principally, logistics and cost) have scuppered any previous attempts at a contiguous staging. In addition to the infamous, unconventional helicopters and the usual paraphernalia of producing conventional operatic staging, there's also the apparatus necessary to suspend a dozen or so orchestral players from the ceiling and the intricacies of wiring every performer for sound, mixed live and projected octophonically in two auditoria. That and hogging all Birmingham's available yellow paint (the colour assigned to the opera).

It's a relief then that a production that might reasonably sustain accusations of profligacy exhibits just as much lo-fi, real-time theatrical graft with which to present Stockhausen's conceit. Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company co-opted the Argyle industrial estate, a plot between a canal and a ring road providing a two-hall factory and a now-familiar temporary home for the company. However this familiarity in no way compromised its appropriation for Mittwoch as its size and anonymity (and faintly dystopian resonance) makes a suitably vast, blank space for this alien piece.

Crucially, labouring underneath all the high-end electronics and ambition were not only traditional singers, instrumentalists and dancers but also a large number of enthusiastic, amateur locals. The community corps of the company were present throughout the production, embedded either with the 'professionals', or the audience or performing in their own right. In this more than any other piece they seem to carry the philosophical-aesthetic kernel of Stockhausen's vision; that the boundaries between the world and the performing space are fluid and that the sound and theatre of the event within should envelop and permeate. True Gesamtkunstwerk. Incidentally, Wagner, whose own music dramas were responsible for this term created his final piece in this mould as a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or 'stage-consecrating festival play', which is just as good a way of describing Mittwoch.

The opera opens with this body of actors in a tableaux of visions, Greeting, picked out in a blackened hall with sharp lighting. These move across the diegesis offered by the factory building, with characters climbing pipes on the walls in nimble parkour routines or a child's face at an interior window, moving into more confusing images; pregnant women moving between impassive men, a naked woman washing in a child's paddling pool, a woman knitting or weaving like a Norn aboard a massive dais on casters. A man with a model of a commercial airliner picked out in the centre is particularly startling (but more of that later). The effect of the whole, underpinned by a slowly shifting synthesized backing is very strong, a nicely calibrated theatrical acclimatiser, warming up the audience's imagination.

The next scene (the first of the opera proper) is in the adjacent hall. World Parliament is an exclusively choral piece performed (by Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra) atop fifty or so yellow step ladders (in place of the Fritz Lang or Ayn Randian like vision of their straddling skyscrapers). Dressed as politicians whose national flags are painted on their faces, the undulating discussion makes sense through the waves of gestures coming from different sections of the choir and the lines of (consistently well-sung) individual solos. Any risk of pomposity, or that the symbolism of the costuming, nationalist make-up or the elevation of the performers may be drying the drama is punctuated by a prosaic interruption from a traffic warden. This is one of a number of a number of boyish interpolations - prescribed by Stockhausen, rather than Vick - which help the audience keep a grip on the reality of the performance amidst the psychedelia. The smearing of the make-up at the conclusion to uni-form their appearance is a nice simple touch in keeping with the rather earthy, sexualised acting.

The subsequent scenes are at the heart of the piece. Orchestral Finalists has a dozen instrumentals suspended from the ceiling, bobbing, cavorting, misbehaving and occasionally playing, whilst the acting company rush in and out, taking on their own bestial characters or in reaction to the instrumentalists. It's a theatrical menagerie, and the most explicit statement in Stockhausen's drama to the evolutionary continuum that formed the centre of his philosophy. This is the vision of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, above), where the split-second transition from apes to space travel is midwived by Johann Strauss - and catalysed by strange electronic transmissions.

Photo: Intermezzo.typepad.com
Indeed, there is also a spaceman in Orchestral Finalists. Flight in general is becoming important, with origami birds and paper aeroplanes introduced among the musicians 'flying' above the ground. It's into this situation that the commercial airliner from the opening is introduced once again. Strong for being a unique, repeated trope, I suddenly found myself associatively confronted with 9/11, and not least as the tableau concludes as the actor bearing the model meets a mimed London underground train carriage (the scene dissolves into white-rabbit watch-checking). In a possibly anachronistic work of art (the original conception for Licht dates from the early 1970s) with its warm but nebulous messages of mysterious psychological associations and international unity through (sexual) love, this token seems hard, dark and up-to-date. Stockhausen's reputation suffered after he made comments about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of the themes of Licht. Though there isn't an immediate suggestion that this symbol is intended to refer to either his comments or the event itself, it does serve to open that pocket of the imagination. With the possible exception of the final scene, Mittwoch appears to have little story and so little in-built tension with which to propel the drama. The introduction of such a symbol as a commercial airliner (Lufthansa, not United Airlines-liveried, it should be said) is a bold move to stretch the envelope of the experience at hand without manipulating or commenting on Stockhausen's intentions. I suspect it's also a characteristic sleight of hand on the part of Vick, focusing the experience without skewing its meaning. What the director couldn't have foreseen (one assumes!) is that during the first run-through, a fire in an adjacent tyre factory would provide a smoke-cloud backdrop to the images being broadcast from the helicopter cameras, which might recall airborne TV cameras during 9/11, even if only in the fiction of memory.

Whatever the production symbolism, the opera's meditation on flight is most explicit in that Helicopter String Quartet, the next scene. Impeccably - and informally - rendered by the Elysian Quartet, pilots, technicians and the 'Essex boy of Sri Lankan descent' Radio 1 DJ Nihal, the piece itself cannot quite sustain its own profuse ideas. However, it is extraordinary that such violent sound can be organised to provide a potentially tantric experience for the audience and I did find myself mesmerised after the manner of Messiaen or even Steve Reich's Different Trains.

After a break (curry in the car park!) came Michaelion, the final scene, that in which I was participating as part of London Voices. The flight thematics have now dispersed in, once again, a Kubrickian-psychedelic flight into the universe, with Brahmin regeneration at its end. The most conventionally operatic staging, this is a dark, dynamic piece for a choir of soloists and four virtuosic guiding instrumentalists. Characters rush into one end of the hall, stained with nuclear-bright effluent as if caught in an explosion, and attempt communication with some alien music of the spheres. If World Parliament was the Pontificate, then this is the Catholic proletariat looking for guidance, if not salvation. As in the menagerie of Orchestral Finalists, this scene reminded me of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility Of An Island, a dystopian sci-fi work where futuristic humans at different stages of their evolution are reduced to bestial communication. And bestial it is, as the company is visited by a camel, greeted in ecstasy but once again moderated with the bizarre, prosaic episode of having its hooves shined and then being fed alcohol.

It is almost impossible to tell what is being communicated - a fact built in to the dramatic approach of this staging - with the lo-fi approach extending the the use of hand held instruments (literally bells and whistles). Additionally the singers act out stymied interaction with a soloist with a radio set, Vedically transformed from the camel who has keeled over. With no conclusion to these transactions, there is a sense of wonder and sorrow at the close. A laconic trio of instruments, the Basset-Horn Trio, orbit the soloist like planets before the chorus move out into the hall to sing an epilogue in the form of a sextet echoing the closing of a Bach passion. With the company's actors embedded in the audience in yogic poses, it's impossible to know where to ground one's sense. My experience was one of expansion, dizzyness: too remarkable for a modern post-industrial disaster, too dark for spiritual ecstasy.

Perhaps in an attempt to address this, the production ends with drinks in the first hall, an artistic decision to incorporate the Farewell, a chance to meet the performers and discuss the piece. I was grateful for the reality check, which came under yet more solar system symbolism, a large yellow light after the opera's colour, a replica of the sun such as in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) or even Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2003) for Tate Modern (above). I felt as if I was a passive party in some Mayan benediction.

In rehearsals with our Musical Director Kathinka Pasveer I had asked about the text and meaning of the close of the opera proper. It was important to learn that the influence of The Urantia Book, Stockhausen's source text for the characters referred to in the opera had little influence on its content. The more important texts are those intoned by the tenors at the close of Michaelion, Stockhausen's self-penned lines of the principles applied to his 1968 work Aus dem sieben tagen (after he had read the teachings of Sri Aurobindo) - the need for being receptive to and relaying music already abroad. Equally, the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, intended as a guide for the Bardo (the end of one life and the beginning of the next) and a text with which Stockhausen did spend a lot of time, undoubtedly finds its own mystic, serious and alien inflection at the close. The enemy of this is the rationalising Lucifer, fruitlessly trying to impose order throughout with the persistent counting down from thirteen.

At the curtain call it was as if I were applauding everyone, including myself and those not present. I learned nothing - but here at my desk, a day later, I feel freshly sensitive to things both concrete and imaginary.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Voice Of One Delight, Tete A Tete Opera Festival

Photo: Claire Shovelton
This evening I saw an opera being staged as part of the now familiar Tête à Tête Opera Festival, a fortnight-long showcase for new work no less intriguing, confounding and entertaining for its now being rather well established. I had come to see A Voice Of One Delight, a half-hour monodrama for solo mezzo-soprano in a production by McCaldin Arts. Such small-scale lyric dramas are the essential works of the festival, providing a coherent platform not only for composer and performer but for all involved in their production. A Voice Of One Delight was a high-calibre working example of this, a triplo espresso of poetry in music, staging and text, the title and content drawn from both the work and life's-end of the poet Shelley. As a friend of the production (full disclosure!) I would be inclined to see the best in the work. However it's always a pleasure to see one's expectations exceeded and for a multi-disciplinary project to come together with such consistency and quality.

Naturally, the unusually flamboyant coda to the life of one of the 19th century's most celebrated poets carries plenty of charge to fill out the 35 minute drama. The piece was born from a single image, Louis Edouard Fournier's The Burial Of Shelley, showing his open cremation on the beach in La Spezia where his body had been washed ashore following a naval accident. Originally a concert work by Stephen McNeff for the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin, this staged version has been adapted by the performer and the director Joe Austin.

The solo performer plays at least two roles, explicitly Shelley's widow Mary and his likely lover Jane Williams. Other voices, those of Williams' husband Edward, who perished with Shelley, and Byron splash into the narrative like waves. Words from all four and Shelley himself are both sung and spoken, the drama linked through in Stephen McNeff's music, the staging and video projection.

A Voice Of One Delight is not a conventional 'murder mystery'. There is a sense of cataloguing, of investigation with the stage dominated by a desk covered in scraps of paper studied and annotated by the performer. Yet this pursuit of understanding frequently dissipates. Other voices (literally, through live-mixed and pre-recorded sound design by Steve Mayo) distract, or a fragment of poetry or a journal becomes expanded in song. Throughout the opera - and this was key to my appreciation of the event - the more straightforward experience is emotional. The dry, archaeological pursuit of facts is continually dissolved. In A Voice of One Delight clarity is achieved through expression not explanation.

Photo: Claire Shovelton
For example, storage boxes line the back of the set, the archive inviting the investigation but they are more alive as symbols. Looking as if they might equally be a stack of coffins, they are most effective as a screen for Adam Young's video montage. This might be the elusive code of Linear B as a work of Shelley's. Either way, still or animated, it looks rather like the tongues of flame coiled around the beachside pyre. The papers already out and on the desk seem more like ash then letters; reading their contents into a microphone-as-a-dictaphone is instantly subsumed by the echoes of other voices and simply asserts the imperfection of memory.

The fateful voyage in the bay is replicated in a simple coup from designer Simon Kenny: a teal tablecloth (blending with the graphite grey of Clare McCaldin's dress) is pulled up and down to recreate the peaks and eddies of the sea for a toy boat (one is reminded of the Breton fisherman's prayer that JFK sat on his Oval Office desk - 'O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small'). A fan starts up to recreate the storm. If the sturm und drang of the paper being blown off the table weren't enough one has the mental image of the white peaks of the waves themselves.

For all the richness of the symbolism, A Voice Of One Delight relies on its performer to give life and coherence to the words, space and drama. Studio 2 at The Riverside favoured Clare McCaldin's strong recital pedigree and the chamber concert origins of Stephen McNeff's music with a dry-but-not-dead acoustic (not to mention the silent, absorbed audience). A carefully controlled sung line worked well with spoken dialogue (in two languages, English and Italian). Crucially, the staging had been worked out in conjunction with the choreographer Petra Söör. Careful, seamless transition emerges as key to the piece both from one part of the space to another and between characters. Clare McCaldin's gesture and movement is supple and measured with clear distinction in character between episodes. In this she was helped by the dramatically aware accompaniment of Elizabeth Burgess (playing a piano reduction of the score). The music requires as much care in its transition, moving in and out of focus, as the staging.

I went to see A Voice Of One Delight on consecutive nights, its two well-attended performances at the festival. I was struck that I had an identical experience on the second night to that of the first. Naturally, on a professional level this is testament to the consistency of the performance.

More to the point it gives an indication of what the work is trying to achieve. There is no revelation or catharsis in this work. Instead we are invited into the natural swell of the experience of Shelley's 'Pisian circle' of friends, but with the twin buoys of the poets' metaphors and the bare contemporaneous facts left intact, unexplained. It's a rare sort of work that presents a mystery that opens itself yet retains its mystique.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Recording Performance Digitally

This is an extract from a previous blogpost. It concerns issues surrounding ensemble artists collecting and using digital media and the wider understanding of its availability and use. It also touches on its disposability.

'The New Pact'

The one unmentioned issue here is the sensitive one concerning copyright. By this I mean discussion about both capturing an artist's work and, a wider point, whether a necessarily ephemeral, acoustic art can bear digital recording and dissemination. My view, always contingent on the state of the technology, is similarly twofold: that the ubiquity of devices and platforms for its dissemination makes it difficult to resist; and, consequently, that that ubiquity changes the manner in which people talk to and about one another, increasingly incorporating digital media as part of the vernacular.
Live performance is precious, unique, and should be protected. The law dictates that recorded performances are the property of the artist and this should be respected (in particular, artists should be able to rehearse without having to worry that errors, experimentation or necessarily half-formed performing is being captured). However, the embattled rigour with which performers go about defence of this right labours in the face not only of the overwhelming ease of recording and the common informality of its exchange but also the usefulness for the artists themselves. My professional website is peppered with useful pictures, sound and video clips found freely across the internet which give a much more substantial example of the sort of work that I do. Very little of it actually reproduces my voice itself, in isolation. I can pick and choose what I show. Most of the material is of such little interest to anyone that it might as well not be there at all - like I mentioned, it has likely been uploaded for storage or archive rather than active sharing. I'm not advocating the blanket acceptance of recording. Artists should always be consulted about the capture of their work and image, not only as a legal necessity but also as a courtesy. What artists would do well to recognise is the changing attitude not only of the audience but also of the public. Talent shows, like The Voice, may seem irrelevant artistically or professionally but it does provide clues as to the sea change in both the market and the way art is discussed: the audience for digital media is vast but the content is as disposable as the conversation that surrounds it. The artist remains distinct and intact.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Singing Entrepreneur Forum Day 2

This Saturday I attended The Singing Entrepreneur Forum's second day of conference, under the umbrella of the Tete-A-Tete Opera Festival. The forum had been convened by working singers Darren Abrahams and Arlene Rolph with the intention of opening a discussion about the business of being a singer. The first day (I did not attend) was given over to singers discussing their work and how they define their success. This second day gave the (predominantly singing) audience the opportunity to meet administrative figures of the industry.


In the above photo, Darren is introducing the panel. The discussion chaired by former Royal Opera supremo Genista McIntosh addressed a number of issues: what's really being looked for in an audition; does blacklisting happen following audition; do you need a manager. Perhaps wary of professional indiscretion in a public arena, there wasn't quite the anecdotal exchange that would have informed the audience and humanised the panel most effectively. However they did make it explicit that their role is to employ singers rather than exclude them - a positive distinction.

After lunch Darren and Arlene led an open discussion about four stages of the career path: Training; Starting as a professional; Maintaining the career path; and Diversifying the career. The format allowed us to meet up and speak with one another. Apart from airing our concerns and offering our own opinions and solutions, it also gave us a chance to meet one another, clearly an issue that Darren feels strongly about.

Indeed, one of the great virtues of this experimental, unprecedented conference was discovering that we - a group of self-employed, necessarily (if possibly in-denial) entrepreneurs - need not work in isolation from one another. There is clearly a bit of a patchwork of information about working as a singer - an opera singer, in fact - starting with an industry-benighted approach in the conservatoires. Yet the wealth of individual experience is a huge resource of information and support. Furthermore, the ongoing conversation is necessitated by the need to disperse myths that aggregate because of the disparate nature of singers and singing.

The very fact that such an event is happening is heartening. It recognises the insecurity that even the best among us experience and offers the reassurance that not only are we not alone but that there are practical steps and solutions to issues both imagined and real. Anyone who attended the conference and who might have forgotten are encouraged to download the post-forum questionnaire and provide Darren and Arlene with the feedback which will give future events greater focus.

UPDATE: One of the speakers of day 1, tenor Christopher Gillett, has published his talk on his blog.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Spiritual Spacemen

Struggling with the whole concept of Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht, a review of a new Bowie biography in this weekend's Observer has really captured my imagination. The book concerns the 6 July 1972 Top Of The Pops broadcast in which David Bowie appeared in his spaceman-from-Mars alter ego, Ziggy Stardust to perform Starman. It looked like this:



Space travel seems to have been a powerful metaphor during counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. Star Trek's glossy fiction came off the air in 1969, the year that, photographed in grainy fact, man first set foot on the moon. Fiction gave way to fact.

This change in perspective (looking out into space becomes looking down from space) is mirrored in a pair of spacebound films meditating on man's relationship with one another, made either side of the landing. 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, takes off into space like a mind-expanding trip. By contrast, 1972's Silent Running soberly pines for a lost earth, as Bruce Dern's desperate astronaut refuses to destroy the last scraps of vegetation aboard his dystopian raft of a ship.



You can even watch the whole film via YouTube here.

Silent Running was released in the same year, 1972, that Bowie released Starman. The ambiguity of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust persona and how the singer used it to investigate a new tranche of cultural consciousness may seem different from Bruce Dern's rather more politicised, if visionary astronaut. Yet both characters are clearly making use of the new consciousness and acceptance of space travel to re-examine the nature of their place in society.

Indeed, Bowie famously abandoned his Ziggy alter-ego the following year but went on to make a film about the vulnerability of a visiting alien in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1976. Roeg had already made a film, Walkabout (1971), using excerpts from Stockhausen's Hymnen in the soundtrack.

Twenty years on, the vulnerable alien highlighting the moral inadequacies of earth was reworked by electronic-dance outfit Orbital in a celebrated video starring Tilda Swinton to accompany their 1996 single The Box, released at the same time as the actual composition of Mittwoch (1995-1997).



This is all intriguing, pertinent stuff. Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht is part of an operatic cycle involving the usual human drama of personal and political conflict but set within intergalactic context. Though the piece was completed more than a quarter of a century later, Stockhausen actually conceived of the opera's composition in the early 1970s (the story in which he was handed a copy of the theosophical text The Urantia Book, the Scientology-like opus on which the opera cycle became based, can be read in this New York Times piece).

For all this toe-dipping in to the material reality of the cosmos in the early 1970s, the usual questions concerning existence and purpose remained. One can see how a text that combines the familiar thematic narratives of Christianity with an account of a now more fixed intergalacticism might have an appeal to a lapsed Catholic composer pioneering electronic music.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Billy Budd, ENO



It's difficult to know what ENO's new Billy Budd is really trying to achieve. This confusion - perhaps 'mist' is a more apposite word - is not helped by a good, solid, clean reading from a company working well under a newly honoured music director (Edward Gardner's OBE was announced at the weekend).

David Alden's production is a large-scale curiosity, notably through his designer Paul Steinberg. A non-specific updating might be taking us to the high-watermark of industrial merchant sea-going. Certainly the officers' costuming suggests early twentieth century. Yet the interior of the ship despite being dutifully holy-stoned at the curtain to the opera proper bears no overt suggestion of sea-going. It might as well be the Nostromo, Ridley Scott's merchant space-ship from Alien. The aesthetic may be focused on class divison - until we finally get to Vere's cabin, a half-pipe of 2001: A Space Odyssey cleanliness. I think one of this production's aims is to explore moral division, although it doesn't seem necessary to superimpose that on an opera whose principal purpose is to explore a moral drama in the first place.

Talking of doubling-up on reading, one of my out-and-out criticisms of this production would be the subversion of many key dramatic moments. Billy's first stammer, Claggart tripping over a cabin boy after having praised Billy's tackling of the feckless Sqeak all both concealed in a swirl of stage crossing. Such incidents cannot possibly be mistakes. I wonder whether they are the director's 'added-value' versions of formal dramatic interventions, coitus interruptions such as Claggart's first approach to Vere or the attempted shot failing to reach the French ship. Self-evidently this is unnecessary, so I'm left confused.

Billy Budd has the potential to be a good opera, since about many things without being anything in particular. It might be about war but it's more about the general pity of the moral traps through which all men wade during conflict. It's a well-balanced piece about the relationships between men, but not composed in order to investigate homosexuality - rather the honesty of the relationships between the men allow clear articulation of the moral problems. The vernacular is quite well-rendered, all the more confusing then for a non-specific updating.

At the centre of this production is a truly revelatory creation from Matthew Rose. This Claggart is not the Stygian, oak-voiced thug that imposing himself on the ship but an exquistely sung cipher of both the castrated Klingsor and the conflicted Kundry. Bringing him up out of a trapdoor in the centre of the ship is a commendably consistent coup in the production design. Having Dan Norman's brilliant-if-brief Sqeak as a perverted Ariel to this Prospero and some of the best singing coming from the already downtrodden (Nicky Spence's Novice and Marcus Farnsworth's Novice's Friend) is also consistent with the idea of Vere's internal monologue. Kim Begley is less well-served by the his rather didactic designs but the dessication of the prologue and epilogue are deeply affecting.

There's a lot to think about, I just wish I didn't have to do it because I felt something wasn't right. This may be a fault of the opera which, between moments of brilliance, is formally a little pre-packed but would benefit from support in a production rather than further conceptual stratification.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono, Stockhausen and Light

Tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Serpentine Gallery. To The Light is part of the series of events that constitute the London 2012 Festival. As it happens, the exhibition's inclusion in that portfolio of events was not the reason I had been thinking about Yoko Ono's work in the same synapse-span as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose opera Mittwoch aus Licht is being performed in Birmingham under the same umbrella. Neither had I twigged that Yoko Ono's exhibition bears the same name, Light, as Stockhausen's cycle of operas.

Instead, as a musician involved in the performances of Stockhausen's opera, I was trying to think about how one approaches the piece. For me personally - this is a blog and as such reflects my own opinion alone - the greatest challenge in performing this music by one of the previous century's most celebrated modernists is not to do with reproducing the notes of the printed music, difficult though it is. Rather, the challenge is one of understanding the aesthetic of the work: what it means and how the music tries to achieve that. That Yoko Ono is both a contemporary of a similar aesthetic stable and, in passing, a former collaborator of Stockhausen makes her history and work of particular interest.

My route to a better understanding of Mittwoch's position has been to try to learn something about Stockhausen's approach to composition and, consequently, his philosophy - the two are integrated. I have also tried to find out about the circumstances of the conception of Licht. All roads lead to a significant week in May 1968, when, during a personal crisis, Stockhausen turned to texts on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. The immediate compositional consequence was Aus dem sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). The relevance of this work is both in the philosophy of the Brahmin which permeates the Vedic-Christian concepts at play in Licht as well as the symbolic parallel of seven days (Licht is comprised of seven operas, one for each day of the week). This and the use of material from The Urantia Book which Stockhausen acquired in 1971 and which triggered the impulse to write the cycle, demand further investigation but probably in a separate blog post.

Above all, Aus dem sieben Tagen is a composition that is rendered entirely in text instructions. In pursuit of getting the performers to act purely on impulse, the score doesn't prescribe an object in notation. This approach is similar to that of the Event Scores of the Fluxus movement, of which Yoko Ono is probably the most famous practitioner. A post-Dada (or neo-Dada) import from Germany, Fluxus initially coincided with the chance compositional aesthetic of John Cage - a figure whom Stockhausen seems to have had a sketchy, equivocal relationship - before really establishing itself as a literary, visual and performance art movement, convened in New York in the early 1960s. Stockhausen joined the movement for various performances during this period, where he would have met Yoko Ono.

The basic idea concerned emancipating art from the formal straight-jacket of performance convention, space and prescription - i.e. notation. Interestingly, one of the more notable events in the history of the Fluxus movement saw the picketing of a performance of a work by Stockhausen, Originale, in September 1964. This performance, in fact:



Remarkably, hardline Fluxus members saw Stockhausen's intermittently careful scoring of the otherwise random events of Originale as contrary to the basic philosophy of Fluxus. One can identify certain technical consistencies extending from such a piece right through to Mittwoch; our music (Michaelion, the fourth scene of the opera) oscillates between being meticulously scored to being marked 'IRR', or irregular, demanding aleatoricism. Where the Fluxus with which Yoko Ono is associated is totally open to the circumstances of location and the involvement of others, the composition of a work like Mittwoch would seem to have an overarching formality.

Ultimately, both Mittwoch and the work of Yoko Ono (especially in the Smile project with which the Serpentine exhibition is concerned) have the same thematic umbrella, that of peace. The opera's narrative is one of conciliation and Yoko Ono's association and work with peace movements both formal and informal is well known, probably the chief reason for her high profile. Of course this was a powerful idea for change in the mid 1960s. The challenge is whether, for all the perennial value of wishing for universal peace and harmony, the counter-cultural message and artistic medium have any similar currency today. I'm sure a visit to the Serpentine exhibition may offer some answers to that.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Daisy Chain, Gestalt Arts, LSO Soundhub Showcase


Ahead of a full-length production at this year's Tete-A-Tete: The Opera Festival, I had an opportunity to hear an excerpt of The Daisy Chain at one of the LSO's intermittent Soundhub Showcases. This is a similar sort of event to the Panufnik Young Composers workshop I attended earlier in the year, also with members of the LSO. Then as now, I should mention first that there were two other interesting pieces on the programme: Darren Bloom's experimental Chaconne for Violin, Piano and sampled sounds (including Gamelan) and Elo Masing's Planes for string quartet and dancer, both works making conspicuous use of dynamic extremity. The Cagean opening of Elo's quartet (the loudest sound in the room were arms being crossed or the squeak of the dancer's foot on the floor) was probably not intentional although the (consequent?) demands on the audience to acclimatise to the unusual string sounds, there being much sul pont, harmonics, etc. meticulously indicated in graphic score, certainly were.

Toby Young's opera The Daisy Chain (to a text by Thomas Conroy) is a reworking of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin. The postmodern adaptation involves a counsellor trying to help characters from the original as the action oscillates between these meetings and a version of the fable itself. It's not really possible to say much about the drama of the opera at this stage. much like ROH2's Exposure evenings, we only get a snapshot of an aesthetic rather than a cogent dramatic stretch. However, in the rudimentary staging offered at this concert it's clear that the conceit is intended to be as fun as it is serious.

The music is also a mix. Toby was given a ten piece orchestra for which to prepare this segment of the score, string quintet with wind and keyboards. The opening, a short self-contained overture, has the pianist on a celesta, adding fairytale chimes to a sound that is at once neo-classical and American-folksy. The faint modality and open intervals of Anglo-American folk are the consistently identifiable constituents of the score. The music is mobile with internal rhythms - and snatches of nursery rhyme quotation - around which it is wound. This one in fact, albeit not on a space ship.

The singing lines play to the strength of the voice parts (not always the case with new operatic writing). We heard mezzo-soprano Clara Kanter as the marriage counsellor, also speaking an introduction to the scenario after the overture, an effective decision for the piece's texture. The three 'fictional' characters were sung with clarity and character by Christina Sampson (Daisy), Nicholas Scott (Miller) and Roderick Morris (Prince) of whom, as I understand it, only the latter is likely to perform in the complete production in August. The LSO ensemble played quite brilliantly for Mark Gotham, an ongoing highlight of these events.

postscript - this is an interesting adjunct about what the LSO Soundhub offers composers

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Salome, Royal Opera



Played out in a 1920s upstairs-downstairs establishment, David McVicar's Salome for the Royal Opera amplifies all the moral polarities in Wilde's play and Strauss equally schizophrenic score. The cistern in which John the Baptist is kept is a truly deep-n-dark pit, given that the main stage is the basement of Herod's house. The bizarre characters that populate the main area range from the expected soldiers and lackeys to whores and a remarkable, solid character with a machete - the executioner. The side of pork hanging in the background is not a fact of the kitchen but more Bacon-like decoration. This is not just a foul place but a dangerous one, not only to inhabit but look upon. The big coup of the evening (for me) was the treatment of the formal dance, which takes place in an almost 2-d plane after the permanent set has been exploded. Salome dances through a sequence of rooms in which she is seen to grow up in body but little else. It's a fine, economical conceit, in keeping with the opera and benefiting from well-worked transition.

It takes some doing then to relate that the big impact of the evening is from Andris Nelsons in the pit. It's a glorious score, whirling to face the exotic, the horrible and the elysian and we get it all from the company's Orchestra. I found myself so tuned into the music that I realised I hadn't heard the texture of the pre-Psycho cello notes as the executioner goes to find the condemned prophet. Not so much stabs as dull glints of the sword in the gloom (Salome hears the sword clatter to the floor after the act, which is not reflected in the score - such is the imaginary half-consciousness of the music at this stage) it's music that has some sort of realism in its horror.

The only drawback is that, partly due to the singers and partly because of the nature of the work, the balance just didn't quite work. Nelsons was forced to hold the band back from the all-out hammer blow at climaxes so that characters on stage could be heard. Angela Denoke produced her best singing in still, intimate soliloquy, the best reflection of the child-woman contradiction that the show has to offer and the band faithfully tried to ally with that. Rosalind Plowright's Herodias was flawlessly executed, Will Hartmann's Narraboth a beautiful, lyric start to the opera and the Jewish lobby well sung and acted.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Caligula, ENO

In the end I'd really no idea exactly to whom I was listening. Was it Camus? Was it Detlev Glanert's librettist, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, or the translator for this production in English, Amanda Holden? Was it even the ghost of Tinto Brass, director of the notorious 1979 film? Certainly there were cinematic elements in the staging, recalling anything from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) to the apocalyptic scenes of Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976) and even an allusion to Baron Saha Cohen's current film The Dictator.

The voice matters because it might have made sense of the fragmented spray of buzzwords and unfinished dialogue snippets that constituted the narrative. One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was trying to catch a wave, to find and join the dramatic impetus. It was just too elusive. A put-upon looking populace (the excellent, and one might add, game ENO chorus) is no drama in itself, neither the ruling collective of cowed ministers who oscillate between whinging and sycophancy. Hope blossomed every time Carolyn Dobbin came to the front of the stage, not only for the consistently fine quality of her singing as Scipio but also as she seemed to have the most developed character both on the page and in the playing of it. The young patrician's poetic sensibility would lead him into a false sense of intimacy with the mad despot despite hating him for killing his father. Similarly Caligula's obsession with the dead Drusilla (a courageous Zoe Hunn, naked throughout the show) showed a weak underbelly to the maniacal emperor.

The frustration is in a failure of making these things pertain to one another. Just because it's terrifying for the characters on the stage to be confronted by an absolute ruler who can't connect his thoughts doesn't mean that this should be visited on the audience. It would appear that this was being justified by its timelessness, by its particular relevance to the current privations in society caused by financial turbulence at home and conflict abroad. As satire though this was a dead production, with lukewarm humour, and recognisable phrases spat out to mollify the audience struggling to grasp the longer thread: 'we're all in this together!' says Caligula and everyone laughs at the contemporary reference, at the emptiness  of the tableau, the regeneration-plan stadium in half-light (the Olympics legacy!), populated with characters from big capitalism to vapid game shows. But that, like many, was a laugh because the audience is in it together with the performers and needs to contribute to try and get the thing moving, to cohere. When it didn't silence reigned once again.

Detlev Glanert's music is a thick force of modernism. The consistency is that of Birtwistle, thick and murky of palette - but with the occasional break in the cloud cover for a beautiful trio (Scipio, Cesario and Caligula in Act 2) or a dark, covered chorus offstage in Act 3 (4?). Yes, the opera was at its most affecting when quiet, intimate, rather than when playing to the crowds with slogan-sized text bites. The orchestra played precisely for Ryan Wigglesworth and I needed a drink afterwards.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Performing Difficult Music

An interesting piece on the modern performance of difficult music in Orpheus Complex's blog, speaking up for performers whose technical accomplishment can often be taken for granted. It's not just recently written music that's the issue either - all manner of classical music written over the past four hundred years has remarkable demands inside it.

A view from the stalls then. Does the audience really want to see the difficulty at the same aesthetic surface of the music? In other words, is the struggle as interesting as the beauty of the music?

The Wagner and Bach that Gavin brings up is really all about the music (in fact the Wagner is less about the music than the drama, burying the technical challenges even deeper). Yet there is music written in order to showcase the technical abilities of the soloist. Certainly the 19th century saw the rise and rise of the tenor voice as a vehicle for courage in the face of perilous (usually meaning high) music. Here is Rolando Villazon (and Mark Elder) talking about the dramatic tenor at the height of the bel canto era in a BBC 4 documentary:



Part of the appeal of this is that the demands made on the singer come in music that is highly melodic and appealing. The height, or tessitura of the music is its own sort of coloratura, the singer's version of the complexity that would have been the great appeal of artists such as Paganini or Liszt, as much a draw for their own variations on simple, familiar music as the music itself.

It's when the music itself begins to become tricky to understand that the issue of difficult music starts to become a clouded. Just to continue the singing line, as it were, for a moment, for me the watershed period is that of the post-2nd Viennese School, where melody is dispersed in the face of new compositional techniques. Nonetheless, a composer like Alban Berg was capable of writing lyric, singable lines into his music (not to mention snatches of melody recognisable as such in the previous century) if only the singers have the technique to make them shine out of the music's aesthetic, let alone technical complexity. This is a reversal of the situation in the 19th century where the audience count on a singer to be subordinate to the music, simply so that it can be understood - once again the technical difficulties become hidden. Modernism follows in the 20th century, where music and the musicians are persistently required to perform music that reflects the constituency of the world.

All this is of considerable interest to me as I prepare to take part in a production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's penultimate opera Mittwoch aus Licht. Completed in 1998 but first conceived back in the mid 1970s, the score - that is to say the written music - is marked in great detail and demands that the singers perform in all sorts of ways that would be considered alien to the normal practise of singing. This 'extended' technique, as it is commonly known, involves all sorts of other vocal noises, as well as isolating elements of the vocal sound which are usually combined in its day-to-day delivery.

All this comes from the sort of work that Stockhausen and others (most notably John Cage in America and Pierre Boulez in France) were doing during a period now referred to as the avant garde (avant garde is of course a term that describes something just ahead of the state of the art at any given moment, although in classical music it has come to refer to a fixed period in the 1950s). It was exploratory as much as designed to achieve premeditated results and extended its reach past the remit of technical musicianship to all sort of other aesthetic and cultural areas. In other words the technical challenges of the music had some passing investment in the culture of apprehending the music. Whether or not it is seen as difficult, it is meant to be noticed by the audience.

However, the cultural experimentation and fermentation of the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, in which much of this music was born is, simply, an anachronism nowadays. In a postmodern world in which we are all, if not enlightened, then part of a culture that recognises that things be accounted for, objectified, I wonder whether or not the abandon and experimentation in which an avant garde audience would be prepared to indulge (in itself, let alone in the performers) simply isn't current. It is going to be very interesting for me as a performer to see how we prepare the music of this extraordinary (and, incidentally, no doubt sincere) piece of music - and also how it is prepared mindful of performing it for a contemporary audience.

Opera Star to Film Star

The news from Cannes yesterday morning was that Michale Haneke's new film Amour has taken the 2012 Palme d'Or, the Oscar of the Croisette. Inamongst all the adulation for another reportedly fine film for the arthouse master director and his cinema-name stars one might note the second high profile film appearance of an accomplished performer on the international opera stage.

William Shimell is rather more buried in the ensemble in Amour than in his breakout appearance in Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy opposite Juliette Binoche (right). However it is clear that his profile of tall, lean good looks - imagine a slimmer, silver-foxier version of Sex In The City and The Good Wife actor Chris North - allied to a speaking voice that bears witness to his stage profession has captured the imagination of the more respected directors working in Europe today.

Shimell is still working as an opera singer, with his last major role in London around the time of the release of Certified Copy two years ago, as De Brétigny in Massanet's Manon (right, photo intermezzo.typed.com). The only comparable singer-to-screen-star transition is in the Sokurov film Aleksandra (2007), a big-hearted but bleak meditation on the Chechen conflict with the legendary Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya in the title role. Even the use of Sir Thomas Allen in Stephen Frears' wartime caper Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) was little more than a cameo in the character of a singer. This Washington Post article is an interesting overview of the phenomenon and has an interview with Shimell to coincide with Certified Copy's release.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Die Walküre, Fulham Opera

As hot on the heels of their Rheingold as a such a company can make it, here is the second instalment of the Fulham Opera Ring Cycle. Die Walküre is the high water-mark of Wagner's first compositional maturity and so demands equal respect towards both music and drama. Fulham Opera necessarily have their own compromises to make irrespective of the material - music director Ben Woodward is the orchestra at the piano and the space is a working church dominated by an immovable stone altar in the middle of the stage. The glass-half-full upshot is that both music and drama, having the same privations, are indeed accorded mutual respect.


Once again the altar has been easily absorbed into the production, this time by Fiona Williams, which continues the contemporary American themes and styling. The above view shows the altar in the centre of the staging area and also the projected surtitles, a welcome addition for Rheingold (though not offered for the Il Trittico productions*). Once again Ben Woodward's piano reduction is heroic not only for the stamina required for a one-man-band but also for the faithfulness towards thematic highlighting and general voice-leading. Certainly, the heft of the orchestra cannot be recreated but the other end of the dynamic spectrum is also tricky to replicate, the telescoping effect of individual instruments pulling an audience into tiny intimate cracks in the drama.

What Woodward and his cast did manage were moments of lieder-like clarity. As one tends to be familiar with orchestral performances and recordings, the experience of the more tender passages is akin to listening to a series of songs by Hugo Wolf. Instrumental in that effect was the fine German singing from the two principals of this leg of the tetralogy, Ian Wilson-Pope's Wotan and Zoe South's Brünnhilde. Clear German and their clear understanding of the German allied to a dynamic range beyond that which the piano offered focused the performance. Nordic hammer-blows were available when necessary, and with some control. The dangerous corner of Brünnhilde's commitment to save Siegmund, a top A# on a closed vowel that's also the crucial major third of a new statement of F# major, was a thrillingly executed moment of epiphany and joy - a genuine highlight.

The rest of the cast brought the usual palette of different, sizeable voices to the performance: Jon Morrell's classic Siegmund was clearest and strongest in alt, with Laura Hudson's absorbingly committed Seglinde acted through the voice but still adhering to the score. Oliver Hunt's lean, present bass was a fresh-lumber Hunding to match his logger's shirt with Elizabeth Russo's Fricka every inch the fabulous alimony-drain the conceit demanded. I was particularly impressed, if not surprised, by the casting of the Valkyries themselves. An ensemble of fine individual voices truly justifying the collective undertone of the opera's title, it speaks well for the company's culture that they can secure professionals of the same calibre as the principals - and then count on them to help out in the menial front of house duties that make the theatrical experience go smoothly.

It will be interesting to see how the basic conceit that has moved west from oil fields to Hollywood matures in the final two operas. There's pragmatism at work in adhering to the ongoing scheme and reasonably so. However casting has proved very sure thusfar and it's clear that there is a strong pool of singers prepared to take on the challenge of Wagner's cycle with solid technique, musicianship and commitment to the drama.

* Director Ben Woodward has asserted that surtitles were given for Suor Angelica, the Il Trittico production given in Italian

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Working With Great Musicians

This week I have been involved in performances of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, Babi Yar, a terrific, robust, heart-rending and occasionally comic piece reflecting the social climate of 1960s Russia. On this occasion I have been working with Philharmonia Voices, providing the chorus of low men's voices that the piece demands and working alongside the phenomenal Philharmonia Orchestra and their Conductor Laureate Vladimir Ashkenazy.



Working with musicians of Ashkenazy's stature is a considerable perk of my job. One of the indisputably great pianists of the twentieth century, Ashkenazy was also caught up in the difficulties of living and working in cold war Soviet Russia. During rehearsals he told us that he was 'almost' at the first performance of this overtly anti-establishment symphony and that, when he did get to hear the second performance of the piece in 1962, they had 'changed the words'. These words (we are giving the original version) include unvarnished descriptions of people queuing for food in the cold, something that he told us he had seen.

The early 1960s must have been a decisive period for Ashkenazy, who married, shared first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition and then finally left Russia. The music cannot fail to carry indelible and highly emotional associations for the artist, for the man. I wondered as I was singing in the first of two performances at the Brighton Festival (notable in itself, as this year's Festival, curated by Vanessa Redgrave, is a celebration grouped loosely around art 'that speaks for those who do not or who cannot speak for themselves') whether the audience could still find something recognisable in it, let alone useful or comforting. It occurred to me that the piece was fulfilling its purpose rather like a record of what had happened, that the music and its text carries - largely through its own emotional weight - some authentic snapshot of the time.

This is the value of having a great musician directing. Not only that the audience get an aesthetic experience of the highest order. Not only that the younger musicians involved have direct experience of elite and obscure technical tid bits in the process. Even more than that, what becomes available is a window to the crucible whence the music comes, its genesis, its importance. On this occasion we have had a double gift of that authenticity in both artist and man - and, crucially, via the professionalism of the former and the selflessness of the latter. The message is there to be heard but only via the humility of great musicianship is the music is able to do the speaking.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Opera On Film: The Florentine Connection

It's like some sort of algorithm. There I was, doing the accounts in front on BBC2's Maestro At The Opera last night and less than five minutes in the two contestants ('Maths' and 'Dancer') got whisked off to Florence.

I imagine that this is largely because Florence happens to be the location for that soporific 'opera' montage in Ridley Scott's Hannibal, where slo-mo and Patrick Cassidy's nuclear strength earworm Vide Cor Meum come together to pervert an entire generation's idea of what an opera is:



Hey, maybe the meandering musak is what drives Hannibal himself over the edge. But then Florence is all a bit mixed up: Maths and Dancer found themselves in an Italian operatic conservatoire being taught by a couple of British conducting experts. It's like Merchant Ivory had produced the show.

Perhaps the real reason why any of this ties together comes from about 33 seconds into the clip from Hannibal, above. Who is the opera star performing in Ridley Scott's be-toga'd montage? None other than Danielle de Niese, one of the judges from the TV show and the woman referred to by the New York Times as 'the world's coolest soprano'. Clunky TV or contrived cinema notwithstanding then, it seems that Florence really is the go to home for opera glamour old and new.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Opera - The Sell



The five 'myths' in a recently produced WNO video infomercial - that opera is overpriced, dress-prescriptive, overlong, incomprehensible, and irrelevant - are issues seen as sufficiently entrenched and widespread that Opera Holland Park's Michael Volpe has also revisited them in a blog for the Huffington Post UK. These are 'myths' perceived from the outside rather than formed inside the theatre, suggesting the barrier to enagagment with opera is based on some idea of eligibility or entitlement - wealth, style, social mobility. A barrier that is about being there rather than what opera actually is.

There have been two revolutions in the fortunes of opera in the past quarter century. The first was in 1990, when an operatic aria was used to underscore the BBC's coverage of the world cup in Italy. The Damascene revelation of Pavarotti, Puccini and Paul Gascoigne was that the emotional core of the opera could escape its obscurity and pertain to something commonly recognisable.

The second, most recent revolution has come as a climax to the increasing convenience, quality and ubiquity of audio-visual technology. The immediacy and reliability of digital streaming has really gripped the art form, as it preserves a semblance of the frisson of being live, especially in the cinema.

A quick look at these two events may be instructive as to the current perception and future promotion of opera.

Given that the glass partition of awareness between opera and the popular market was broken in 1990, twenty years ago, it seems remarkable that opera is not more popular, not more a natural part of the common cultural diet. Clearly the 'myths' of perception have persevered.

Selling opera as a product is tricky. A drama that aggregates over long periods, a half hour act, say, means that conventional, shop-window extracts in picture or sound may just seem rather random. At the Italia '90 revelation, even the inherent beauty of Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma was presented on the back of an aggregated emotional narrative, the football matches leading up to and during the World Cup.

Divorced from the narrative drama of a sporting tournament, opera required other narratives to support its shop-window-sized arias. The Three Tenors, the first global act, had novelty but one forgets they also had Jose Carreras' leukaemia recovery, for which charitable benefit the initial concert was convened. So the narrative transferred from the song to the singer, from the 'opera' to the 'artist'.

Since then, familiar names performing operatically - i.e. either performing operatic arias or singing in a manner recognisable as classical singing - have always had some sort of interesting personal narrative. Lesley Garrett, Russell Watson, Alfie Boe and Paul Potts are seen as working class-made-good, dare I say it, Northern (i.e. non-cosmopolitan) types. Andrea Bocelli is blind. Finally, the perennial poster girl for popular operatics Katherine Jenkins was and is simply a beautiful woman, beautifully marketed. Belated attempts to build a back-story of Welsh parochial beginnings, struggles with drugs and familial bereavement have proved unnecessary in the long run, as the brand has taken.

The point in digesting and reproducing this history is that the trajectory of marketing opera almost immediately separated itself from the opera. The aria may be a poetic gem representing the opera aphoristically but it is formally separate from the drama. As is often the case this reduction has continued over time to the point where the content of opera has evaporated. Opera is now identified by a sound, a manner of singing. Its substance has been replaced by associated symbols, a sparkling, desirable periphery. The packaging is more desirable than the gift.

This is astonishing for a long-form art form, that something so large and rich should be rendered so small and simple. Opera requires an investment of time, a commitment. Commitment is a difficult thing to market.

This is where the WNO infomercial at the top of this post becomes rather fascinating. Listen to it again and note how often Tim Rhys Evans compares the experience to the cinema.
Expensive? '...some tickets are cheaper than a trip to the cinema'
Overlong? 'Well, it's a bit like films to be honest...'
Incomprehensible? '... you'll get surtitles, a bit like a foreign language film'
The invocation of the cinema experience is a useful one (primarily, of course, as cinema-going is as popular as opera-going is not). Not just similar, the experiences are actually so close they begin to overlap. Of course, cinema, a multi-disciplinary art form, is a natural aesthetic sibling to opera. Using the former to further disseminate the latter, recording operatic performance for reproduction in a cinema theatre (or on television), is not a new idea. Yet with the live relay comes an even closer eliding of the experiences, to an authentic operatic experience within the cinema auditorium - the second of the two identifiable operatic revolutions.

The key to this is the experience 'as live'. An audience in a cinema, aware that the performance is occurring in real time, albeit remotely, can commit to following the performance as an authentic experience, knowing that anything could happen. The physicality between performers and audience is impossible across the screen. However the audience must surrender to the infinite possibilities of the outcome of the performance, held to the narrative by that tension. Furthermore, this surrendering extends to being in tension with others in the room, all having the same real-time experience.

The advantage that the cinema has here is that it negates the idea of prescriptions of behvaiour or expectation. All the perceived nonsense about eligibility for attending an opera performance is correctly identified by Michael Volpe as coming from popular marketing, maintaining exclusivity and benightedness to create and control demand. Rather than purchasing a product to satisfy identifiable expectation, the dynamic is reversed. The screening demands that the the consumer respond to the performance. At a stroke all prescriptions of behaviour in an opera theatre are dispelled: if the audience is responding to the performance then they cannot be responding to the behaviour of others around them. Something even more wonderful also happens. The individual gets immersed in the collective, becomes part of the audience. This is as cathartic - and unique - an experience as any other the theatre has to offer.

What this deduction infers is that opera is not a product to be bought but a relationship with which to be engaged: being there emerging from what opera can offer, not what it is dictated by being there. Volpe's piece is accurate in suggesting that the best marketing tool for opera is education. Even better than cinema, this is because the nature of opera is discursive - it presents itself in live performance to involve its audience in collective, heightened, aesthetic argument.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Opera in the Cinema - more debate

photo: intermezzo.typepad.com
There has been a minor flare-up in the ongoing appraisal of opera being streamed live in cinemas, with ENO's artistic director John Berry trying to maintain his company's focus on in-house production in the face of some big numbers from other institutions (New York's Metropolitan Opera relays to cinema account for eight figure income bumps), the increasing popularity of Glyndebourne's web-streaming pioneering and the Royal Opera's perennial Big Screen events (not to mention their own inroads into cinema relays).

The argument seems to revolve about prioritising and protecting the live event weighed against the outreach and access afforded by the cinema experience.

In respect of the aesthetic, my own experience has been largely positive. When I saw the Royal Opera Macbeth last year, I appreciated the opportunity to see the production close-up and to have an experience (relayed live, with an audience in a darkened auditorium) akin to that of being in the opera theatre.

Naturally, I missed the physical connection with the performers (although that's not a privation in the other direction, i.e. the performers do have a live audience to whom they are performing) and one is also aware of having one's attention drawn in the direction of the relay director, rather than that of the stage show director.

As for the access and outreach issue, I regularly attend opera productions in and around London, so this event as an advertisement for the artform is not relevant to me (preaching to the converted, if you like). I was attending largely to assess the experience of opera in this relay form.

It so happened that on this occasion I spotted someone in the cinema audience related to one of the performers who lives quite close to me and the cinema we both found ourselves. This seems to me to suggest that a cinema relay provides convenience for those who are interested in seeing the production for whatever reason but are prevented by distance or timing.

At £25 for a ticket, the cost issue is a complicated issue, if not an outright red herring. You know you will get a good view in the cinema for this premium and this 'premium' is also the bottom end of what one would pay for the live experience. It's still not the live experience though. Central to the functioning aesthetic of opera is the physicality of live singing and no mediated access will succeed in replicating that.

In short, the cinema relay provides yet another facet to the way in which one can discuss opera circumstantially, yet it still remains outside the experience and so a tool for experiencing it rather than a representative substitute.

Audience Conduct and Photography

Following a spat between a critic and a celebrity at a performance of an opera at the Barbican Theatre this week, the Guardian opened up a conversation about conduct at performance events. It's a wide-ranging debate, taking in both pop gigs and stand-up comedy, as well as opera, theatre and concerts. Consequently there's a wide range of opinion: discussing the appropriateness of throwing drinks during an opera is the most extreme example of how this particular discussion doesn't always meet in the middle. Perhaps.

My attitude is fairly simple: that one should expect an audience to pay attention to the show and behave accordingly.

This formulation contains a number of things, namely
  • 'one' means performers, other audience members and the house administration alike. When the lights go down everyone is equally responsibile for the show
  • 'behave accordingly' means behave appropriately. This means (risking the tautology) watch and listen to the show. If one is doing this, then there leaves little room for unwrapping sweets, clearing one's throat, using a phone to record or snap clips of the show, rustling excessive jewellery or talking
  • 'should expect'. Anyone who tells an audience how to behave in a show is negating the show
The whole issue came about as someone is alleged to have been taking photos with a flash during the show. Clearly, doing this is wrong for three clear reasons: the individual has to disengage from the show to fiddle with the camera; the flash can be disruptive to others in the audience and the performers; taking a photo infringes on the artist's rights.

However, some audience members take photos after the performance during curtain calls. Equally, those associated with the performance in some way are (increasingly) taking photos during rehearsals immediately prior to performance in order to promote the show. Both actions look to preserve a souvenir of the performance without disrupting the performance itself. I see no issue with this.

This is still a grey area - English National Opera staff come down heavily on curtain call photography, though it seems less of a problem at the Royal Opera or the main concert halls (Southbank concert halls, Barbican, Royal Albert Hall). The fact is that the photography is not interfering with the performance itself. It's also unlikely to give away plot details (i.e. constitute a 'spoiler') given that theatre performances are often advertised with a number of production photographs anyway. It's also the case that performers are quietly grateful for some sort of media record of their participation, especially one that can be referred to indirectly, i.e. via a web link.

Behaviour whether it be a old issue of not talking or a new one of not Tweeting all rests on the same issue. Live performance works because of the direct connection between the performer and the audience. Anything that mediates that, let alone breaks it, whether introduced by production or audience interrupts that direct link and devalues the performance as a direct result*.

*Hence the Proms-broadcast picture at the top of this piece and, presumably, the starting point for John Berry's recent involvement with the discussion about cinema streaming ENO productions, though that's a separate issue really.