Le Figaro reports that Alexander Neef will be the next director of the Paris Opera

Photo by Gaetz Photography

Le Figaro reports, pretty unequivocally and quoting sources close to the current director Stéphane Lissner, that Neef is getting the job.

First, let me bask for a minute in Lokalpatriotismus. How cool is this? *Basking, with sunglasses on. Basking, basking, basking*

Congratulations to Neef on this not at all small accomplishment. We haven’t always agreed on details, but I generally agreed with his approach to programming opera, from that notorious Tim Albery Aida a decade ago on. What I think about his decade at the COC I wrote in 2017 in this piece for the Globe and Mail.

On a personal note: we are precisely the same age. Good to see a GenXer take this important position in the opera world. We’re talking about a house that was founded by Louis XIV.

Now. According to the Figaro, Neef won’t take on the role until June 2022 and Lissner is to continue in this transition period. The paper (and ForumOpera agrees) is not too happy that some of  the labour reforms announced will now have to be done by a lame-duck director, and how much authority will he have to execute those, they wonder. I’d speculate that Neef needed a sufficient withdrawal period to wrap up the COC projects – but I don’t know. A lot of drive-by-appointed CEOs in Toronto’s cultural life simply do a runner and announce they’ll be gone next season, period. This won’t be the case here, and I think that’s good. (Maybe the Santa Fe festival will also benefit from this slow shift.)

End of an era. Who will come after? Send in those bets.

Pomegranate reviewed

Aaron Durand, Teiya Kasahara, Stephanie Tritchew, Camille Rogers and Rebecca Gray in Pomegranate. Photo by Dahlia Katz

First, the good news. Pomegranate, subtitled A lesbian chamber opera, composed by Kye Marshall, written by Amanda Hale, directed by Michael Mori and conducted by Jennifer Tung, which just closed its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Theatre – works as a piece of art. It is alive and ticking – and that is the first and most important test a new opera must pass.

Kye Marshall has composed a distinct musical material for each of the two acts, though what unites them is a melancholy timbre of both eras, the Pompeii girlhood and 1980s Toronto youth. The three cellos, a keyboard, a harp, an oboe, and a flute for act one and saxophone in act two, are an unusual but perfectly sufficient mix of instrumental forces. There is a lot of harp in act one, and oboe gets good air time, but any quotations of the pastoral employment of harp and woodwinds are wrung through contemporary musical idiom, and come free of nostalgia for the melodic operatic tradition. Act One is almost consistently dissonant, with the only bit of lyrical arioso given to the representative of the brute force in the story, the Roman soldier who is about to capture one of the girls and marry her against her will. He seems genuinely in love (beware of beautiful music) and genuinely a brute, and a lot of the brutes in opera have been given pretty and memorable melodies over the centuries—and the composers have been manipulating opera lovers this way for some time.

This was something of a naughty wink in the score, and there were others.

The sex scene that builds to a climax in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier overture, for example, which was wittily directed as an interruption with one of the women stopping and sitting up and the other one trying to talk her out of dark thoughts while the music is doing its culminating. Or the unsentimental, almost unjazzy use of saxophone in Act Two – which is employed with great restraint in the bar scene that would have been in real life hopping with synth pop. There’s more. The first interaction the two Pompeii girls have is through the percussion instrument that each is holding – they harmonize their rhythms before they even have their first conversation. Marshall has also avoided cliché by giving the mezzo tessitura to the more helpless character of the two (when it’s usually the mezzos who have some agency in opera) while the soprano role in Pomegranate goes to the more self-assured and determined character. Last but not least, Marshall can write a mean vocal trio and quartet.

In short, there is much to be saluted in this score and how it works with the text.

And now, the less good news. The production itself had a host of issues. The text was frequently unintelligible, especially on high notes but not exclusively, and even I, who had read the libretto beforehand, occasionally missed what was being communicated. Surtitles were badly needed and it’s a (Pompeiian) mystery why they weren’t created as the text didn’t require paying a translator and the sets were largely made up of video projections anyway. Singers being native English speakers never guarantees that they will be expert enunciators of operatic and song verses in English, and Pomegranate confirms this.

The two young principals, soprano Rebecca Gray and mezzo Camille Rogers, were vocally the weakest pillars in the edifice when they should have been the strongest (temple, pillars, see what I did there? OK, I’ll stop now). Rogers was striking in the bel canto role of Isabella in an indie production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri some years ago, but in contemporary musical idiom with an English language libretto containing a ton of Sprechgesang the mezzo seemed reserved, ill at ease, risk averse and resigned into using that impressive voice most unimpressively. Rebecca Gray had much more to do as the narrator for the opera and the character of Cassia/Cass. Her dramatic commitment was stronger—she can definitely act and did–but her beauty of voice tended to disappear in the upper register, and that’s where the composer has her going quite frequently. The singer who has most singing to do and who effectively carries the opera should impress with her voice. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. (Gray is also a composer. I’m looking forward to hearing her work and wonder if perhaps this is where the best of her musicianship is to emerge.)

Teiya Kasahara (Priestess/Bartender) and Aaron Durand (Centurion/Suzie’s Uncle) were the two strongest voices on cast: voluminous, consistent throughout the register, with precisely controlled breath and strong grasp of the text. Stephanie Tritchew roles of the Handmaiden in the temple and Suzie’s mother in Act Two were small – dramatically important but musically modest. She has an undeniable stage presence which I hope to see properly exercised in a larger role, and which here had to remain muted.

Set and costume designer Rachel Forbes took the straightforward Roman and stylized Roman route for the costumes for the first act (though Kasahara’s Priestess had a touch of the Queen of the Night). The urge for the 1980s ‘authenticity’ in Act Two was however too keen: the deep-cut jeans, the large print blouses, the ill-fitting blazer and the red shoes were almost comic in the context and certainly distracting. A little less period costuming next time, please.

For there should be a next time: this opera should see a revival. There is a living, breathing work of operatic art under those tunics and plaid shirts.

Teiya Kasahara as the bar(wo)man in Fly-By-Night, based on an actual lesbian bar in 1980s Toronto. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Camille Rogers & Rebecca Gray in Pomegranate. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2019

There are a few things of interest at the TSMF this summer and I think the festival is going to be more exciting than the last year’s.

Rihab Chaieb is singing Das Lied von der Erde with a chamber group of musicians from the TSO in the Schoenberg-Riehn version. Gemma New conducts, Mario Bahg sings the tenor songs. Also in the program, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 “Turkish” with Jonathan Crow as the soloist. August 1, Koerner Hall. More & tickets.

By the way, I profiled Gemma New for the summer issue of the Wholenote here. She and the Hamilton Philharmonic have some excellent ideas about how to rethink the traditional concert format.

To me not particularly known, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is the lead song artist in this year’s Academy. His American-British recital program with Warren Jones at the piano however is intriguing: at least two men in the program were gay (Samuel Barber and Charles Tomlinson Griffes); another one, Frank Bridge, though hetero, was Benjamin Britten’s teacher and friend. One is a folkie (John Jacob Niles). There is also Charles Ives, Gerald Finzi and one woman, the prolific US composer Lori Laitman and her Four Dickinson Songs. Which is timely, as Emily Dickinson is having a Cultural Moment, it seems: Terence Davies’ black biopic A Dark Passion has recently had a wacky, joyful rejoinder in Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily:

In other words: I like the Crazy New Englander streak in this program. It’s promising. July 16, Walter Hall (alas).

Then there’s Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Koerner Hall. July 30. Nothing else need be added.

There are a bunch of string quartet repertoire concerts and the reGeneration recitals – and I’ll need to have a closer look and make my choices.

Opening night looks like a good pick-and-mix. Not sure why there’s a radio host in there? Anyway – beside said radio host, there are three pianists, one violin soloist, one string quartet, and soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in a program consisting of a Mozart piano sonata, Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Kreisler’s selections for violin and piano, a Chopin Ballade and Strauss Four Last Songs in the arrangement by Canadian composer John Greer. The Strauss and the Ravel are the only two vocal pieces.

Art of Time Ensemble will be performing an unspecified program with Sarah Slean, pop musician who is gradually returning to her original love (and training), classical music. Another singer-songwriter is in the show, John Southworth. The title, From Franz Schubert to Freddie Mercury, is all we have to go by for now. Koerner Hall, July 25.

 

Coming up: Pomegranate

Amanda Hale, novelist, poet and now the librettist for Pomegranate (June 5-9, Buddies in Bad Times), is a fascinating interlocutor. Watch this space for more about her work in the near future.

But first, the Summer Wholenote Art of Song – because Pomegranate started as a song cycle – HERE 

For example:

She still travels to England to visit family. “It was a good thing, leaving England, because when you leave a place, you can see it.” Her family’s story has been far from ordinary: Hale’s father was a supporter of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists during the Second World War, and died by suicide some years after the war. “That legacy has hung over me all my life,” says Hale, who has written about it in her latest novel, Mad Hatter (Guernica, Toronto), to be launched in September. “I feel absolutely liberated for having told that story. It’s been a great shame and humiliation so it was good for me to leave England and be able to see all that. But it’s taken my lifetime to process it.”

Hale’s own politics are at the opposite end of the spectrum to her father’s. She often travels to Cuba and has developed a lot of connections, personal and professional, over the last 15 years. “I went there first to paint a mural with Lynn Hutchinson in solidarity with the revolution and we made a connection with a gallery in Havana and did an installation there on colonialism and sugar, then another one about surveillance, which Cubans really understand.” Latin America was always of great interest. “I’ve had a lot of connections with Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. A big change I saw here in Toronto in the 1980s was the refugees coming from those countries who’d experienced American interference, people who enriched Toronto tremendously during the 1970s and 1980s. There were Greeks coming here after the Junta and people emigrating to Canada after the Iranian Revolution. On Hornby Island we have an Iranian man who’s taken refuge there, who is a wonderful potter.”

Pomegranate the opera
Camille Rogers (l) and Rebecca Gray as Suzie and Cass in a Toronto lesbian bar in 1980s in Pomegranate. Music by Kye Marshall, libretto Amanda Hale. Stage director Michael Mori, music director Jennifer Tung. June 5-9, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Photo by Greg Wong.

Still no news from Paris

As those who follow these things know, COC’s decade-plus General Director (and recently appointed AD of the Opera Santa Fe) Alexander Neef is one of the four candidates shortlisted for the position of the director of the Paris Opera – where he used to be the casting director during the reign of Gerard Mortier, before his appointment at the COC. Paris is arguably the biggest, busiest, and most prestigious opera house in the world today – though not the nimblest or most adventurous or most independent from political power. A number of French and Belgian media have been reporting on this hiring process steadily at least since March, and since Dominique Meyer is in the running, I expect the Austrian media have been at it too. So here are the last four standing: Peter de Caluwe (current La Monnaie director),  Meyer (Wien Staatsoper), Olivier Mantei of the Opera-Comique in Paris, and Neef.

In the March 7 paper, Ariane Bavelier of Le Figaro reported that the French culture minister Franck Riester had appointed an “audition committee” which will make recommendations to him after interviewing the long-listed candidates. There were many more at that point, including the sole woman, Christina Scheppelmann, who has since been hired as the Seattle Opera’s General Director. According to the Figaro, the candidates will have presented their respective “projects” for the opera house on 9th and 10th March — I expect this was a sort of a general vision for the house and its future, with strategies how to get there — in 20 min presentations, followed by an hour of questions from the committee. The committee itself consists of people who, while experts in their respective fields, has neither run an opera house, as the Figaro points out with some pique. President of the board of directors of Paris Opera chairs the committee: Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, CEO of the Engie, the French multinational electric utility company and Macron’s proche. Laurent Bayle, CEO of Paris Philharmonie is on the cttee (which the paper describes as homme fort du comité – perhaps the one whose voice will be decisive), as are the conductor James Conlon, choreographer Sasha Waltz, and Sylviane Tarsot-Gillery, who has the following untranslatable title: directrice générale de la création artistique du ministère de la Culture (a high civil servant or political appointee? I’m rusty on the ins and outs of French administration).

There’s been a lot of punditizing, some of it quite good, in the Francophone media on what the new director should fix and what enhance, and the place of opera in contemporary French society. Macron’s former chief speech-writer Sylvain Fort, who recently returned to his old profession of opera critic and arts journalist, wrote an editorial on the ONP hiring and argued that the plan is more important than the name, and that whoever ends up being appointed, he’ll have to work with the staff to answer the question looming before opera as an art form today: how does opera fit in our modern times, what is its purpose and function today

N’importera que son projet, qui ne saurait être qu’un projet conçu pour renouer les fils défaits et inventer des fils nouveaux qui rendront à l’institution, et donc à l’art même qu’il porte, une place dans notre modernité.

It’s been almost two months since that committee audition, and no decision has been announced. Is the Paris Opera going to have the 2021 season or not, the way things are going, asked the Figaro a couple of days ago. The paper says that Macron wants to meet the shortlisted personally, and that his schedule hasn’t allowed it so far. Belgian paper L’Echo, rooting for the home candidate, is also wondering what’s in the offing and affirming that de Caluwe is still in the running.

Now, who to bet on, that is the question…

The Liz Upchurch magic

My Liz Upchurch profile is now online and of course in physical copy wherever you pick up the Wholenote magazine.

I’d like to share here this bit that I had to leave on the cutting room floor, as the space was limited.

+ + +

What about the visual ‘packaging’ of female singers in competitions and concerts? It seems to me they’re all in prom dresses, have long locks, makeup, all are presenting in the high femme style? When somebody like Emily D’Angelo appears, who already has her own very elegant and not at all highly sexed up style, one notices.

It’s changing. The next wave of singers will reject it. You know those recordings from the 1960s where everybody’s got the same up-do, everybody’s wearing the same neckline? I think the millennials are our true leaders at this point. They are going to show us what should have happened one way or the other, and quite right too, there’s a lot of change that needs to come.

But then, there are a lot of archetypes in the opera world.

Yes… Singers kinda have to create a fantasy, or speak to a fantasy. Female singers, that is. Men get to wear a uniform, and be sexy without ever changing it.

Imagine being a high high voice playing all the fluttery silly soubrettes and being one of the most serious people in the world.

But you’re an actor. And if you’re an actor, an actor would say That’s my character, that I have to figure out and understand.

There are certain expectations, yes. But I’m not a big media fan, I don’t have enough time to follow it. All I’m interested in is, can you sing well. And that they are prepared, that they become better artist, have the opportunity to do that. And don’t show up with jeans with the great big holes – unless the piece is written like that. It’s up to them; they are their own agents, at the end of the day.

It’s interesting to think how things have changed over the years. Beginning of every rehearsal at the COC now, and I think this is a direct result of the #MeeToo awareness, somebody will get up and talk about the policies that are in place in the company, who to go to if there are issues, where the information is, etc. Two years ago that wasn’t even there.

I was happy to see that a recent run of Hadrian, which had an “intimacy coach”, also had a seriously erotic sex scene. Not an operatic love scene: a properly sexy sex scene.

Yes, good point. This new awareness won’t abolish eroticism on stage – on the contrary.