Leipzig and Damascus Meet Again

Tale of Two Cities, Toronto 2019 – Photo by Bruce Zinger. Front: Christopher Verrette, Maryem Tollar, Demetri Petsalakis and Naghmeh Farahmand

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, one of Alison Mackay’s most popular and talked about programs for Tafelmusik, is about to travel to the US and I wonder what Americans will take from it. ISIL came out of the wreckage of Iraq after the US-led war on Iraq, and proceeded to, among other kinds of destruction, flare up the Syrian civil war resulting in millions of displaced people. More directly, the US history in the region has been er let’s say colourful with respect to literally every country there. This includes being a staunch ally to one of the worst regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Yes, Canada is still trading with the Saudis, thanks for that reminder, but maybe the recent welcome change in rhetoric will result in a more substantial change in foreign policy?

The country that stopped trading with Saudis tout court is Germany, which also holds a distinction of being the EU country that accepted the greatest number of Syrian and other refugees when the wave of arrivals started in 2015. And German states have, deservedly, the most prominent place in the Leipzig-Damascus program. I expect the idea for the L-D program came out of the EU refugee crisis headlines though the L-D stays mostly in the past and looks at trade, scholarship and coffee drinking as just some of the many things that Leipzig and Damascus shared in the course of their respective histories.

Actor Alon Nashman narrates in between the musical numbers, and Marshall Pynkoski’s direction has him enacting Don Quixote — during Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte — and falling and rolling on the floor in one of the fights. None of this is weird, and the musicians move around quite a bit, with no traffic accidents. Nashman is a key to getting the whole production to gel: his tone is fairly neutral, occasionally cheeky, and there’s no overacting or self-importance. Trio Arabica consists of Maryem Tollar (voice and quanun – a flat plucked-string instrument), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud, a magnificent cousin to lute). They mostly performed traditional Arabic songs from the region and occasionally joined a western baroque piece for an east-west arrangement. The Arabic music in part one of the show wasn’t as exciting as in the second part, where each member of the trio performed a thrilling solo and we got treated to an ecstatic finale with a trad Arabic song mixed in with a Telemann Ritornello. Oud being not as flashy as the voice or as visceral as the percussion, Petsalakis did not get the applause on finishing his remarkable solo so let me use this opportunity: applause. It’s too bad we get to hear virtuoso oud players so infrequently in Toronto.

Apart from the short appearances by Monteverdi, Lully and an allegro movement from a Torelli violin concerto (which was spectacular to watch as it requires a lot of elbow grease from the soloist, in this case Elisa Citterio), it was a German show, by the composers who had lived in Leipzig, Telemann and Bach primarily. Telemann’s Concerto for 4 violins in G Major got the musicians moving, with each of the four soloists coming forward and returning to the background. Viola concertos are not that frequently programmed, but this time we got to enjoy the instrument’s velvety tone in the Presto movement from Telemann’s viola concerto in G major. The allegro chorus “Ehre sei dir, Gott” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was performed in a version without the singing, with the bassoon and the oboes to the front.

Tale of Two Cities goes to State College, Boulder, Denver and Stanford (university concert halls), Santa Barbara (Lobero Theatre) and L.A (the Walt Disney), then to NAC in Ottawa with potential May dates still in the works. More info here.


In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.


How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.


End of year highlights: performing arts

George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

50 ways to misread your lover

Monteverdi: Lamento d’Arianna/Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda; Barbara Monk Feldman: Pyramus and Thisbe, world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company, October 20, 2015. Director Christoper Alden, conductor Johannes Debus, singers Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland and the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Tickets & calendar.

Pyramus1How to describe Barbara Monk Feldman’s music? (For *it* is absolutely the centrepiece of the COC’s production of the triple bill Pyramus & Thisbe that opened at the FSC on Tuesday.) I have been seeking words to do it justice for two days now, while listening to her recent recording Soft Horizons (New World Records, February 2015) on Rdio and this piece on YT, The Northern Shore. Have a listen:

When it’s tonal, it’s not tunefully, but complicatedly so. If it’s minimalist, it does not rely on repetition and rudimentary formulas. When it’s Feldman, it is Feldman with a human face. (Let me explain this flippancy. I’ve heard Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus” performed by Marc-André Hamelin last year and was struggling to stay interested. Any of Barbara Monk Feldman’s pieces, by contrast, keep me involved and deepen the focus. Never a dull moment—and this includes the silences.) If it’s atmospheric à la Saariaho, it’s generous to the listener, never blanketing with a single colour, always engaging you with unexpected turns, instrumental accents, extended techniques, micro-tones and slides down the pitch akin to electronic music. In short, although we can compare it to this or that style or composer, BMF’s is a musical language apart, with a personality all of its own.

Add to this the layer of human voices, treated (especially the chorus) much in the same way, as a palette for nonfigurative, nonlinear expression—BFM acknowledges visual arts among her main influences–and you’ll get closer to what Pyramus and Thisbe sounds like. She composed the libretto too—out of very disparate bits of text by different authors from different eras. The story of forbidden love, first told in Ovid and reworked over the centuries, involves two lovers who communicate through a crack in the wall that divides the households. When they finally have a chance to meet, Thisbe arrives early to the agreed spot where, instead of Pyramus, she comes across a roaring lioness. Her veil gets caught in lioness’ teeth, but the beast spares her. Pyramus also crosses paths with the lioness and presumes Thisbe was murdered by the animal. He dies by his own hand, and Thisbe follows suit after she finds him dead.

It would be a thoroughly absurd story if followed literally, and BMF doesn’t; she chops it up and re-creates it rather cubistically, as a collage of psychological intensities shared among the two singers and the silent observer/narrator/reader. She is particularly interested in the figure of the lioness—is it desire itself? what is it?—and the wall of miscommunication.

Director Christopher Alden even more so, since he made the Wall the alpha and omega of the production. The panels here are painted in the Rothko style and they are gorgeous to look at and produce a calming effect, but my favourite Chris Alden is the busy Chris Alden, and I kept wondering what a busier, more daring production of this piece would have looked like. (Compare, for example, the static L’Amour de loin by Peter Sellars with the very busy, theatrical production of the same work by Daniele Finzi-Pasca.) In this pared-down, Alden-going-Bob-Wilson-on-us version, the three soloists interact only musically, never physically, with each other and with the chorus that is permanently positioned at the foot of the Rothko panel behind them.

It would also have been very useful to have the libretto handy somewhere in the printed program. Surtitles are not conducive to deep reading, let alone re-reading, and although they were mostly in English, switching to German poetry only in latter parts, they are from several different sources and it would have been fascinating to study how, say, Faulkner as opposed to St. John of the Cross as opposed to Rilke, interacted with particular musical material. The words “Pyramus” and “Thisbe” never appear, as far as I can tell, and * The work could have been given a completely different title, no great loss.

The orchestra was precise and committed under Johannes Debus, breathing as one. Debus himself played the harpsichord in the Monteverdi, and as part of the continuo that included a cello, a bass and a period instrument, theorbo (strummed by the La Nef, Les Violons du Roy and Apollo’s Fire regular, Sylvain Bergeron). The aria “Ariadne’s Lament” opens the proceedings, with a tremendous amount of stillness. It’s minutes of nothing happening while Krisztina Szabó, stage left, sings of betrayed love. The second part, “The battle between Tancredi and Clorinda” is a little more dynamic, with Szabo and Phillip Addis getting into a gentle lovers’ tussle while the narrator (the outrageously good recent Ensemble Studio graduate, tenor Owen McCausland) tells of sword fights and blood spilling, here only metaphorical. Monteverdi’s music is visceral enough, but more could have been done with the staging. It’s not entirely clear why Monteverdi’s shorts were paired with Monk Feldman here—and it could have been any number of one-acters or song cycles or quasi-oratorios by people like Schubert, Schumann or even Strauss or Mahler. Yes, Monteverdi is always good news. However, for this particular pairing, there are other composers who would have been equally good news and would have communicated with BMF’s work in interesting ways.

Would a smaller theatre have been a better setting for an intimate production full of subtle cinematic, non-operatic acting? Very likely. And as the Monteverdi parts were coming to conclusion, I was ready to accept the fact that I would end up appreciating the ideas behind the triple bill without actually being moved by it in any memorable way. But then BMF’s music took over and changed everything–it is the absolute star of the production. The triple bill brought BMF’s music to the COC stage and—fingers crossed—into the classical music-listening mainstream. For that, I am grateful. For that, mission more than accomplished. May this production travel widely, so many others too can find themselves under the spell of BMF’s gossamer magic.

* Correction: They are uttered twice, I’m told by a more careful listener. Pyramus and Thisbe are the first two lines of the libretto, sung by the chorus. In one other line, Thisbe addresses Pyramus by his name.

Photos by Gary Beechey, Canadian Opera Company. Top: Krisztina Szabo, Phillip Addis, Owen McCausland. Bottom: Szabo, Addis and the COC Chorus.


COC announces the 15/16 season

COC announces the 15/16 season

One doesn’t usually return from season announcements cheerful like a loonie, but there you go: I am cheerful. The seasons are usually planned according to the customary Neef Balance: some bold stuff on one side, some stuff for the conservabores* (term I’m borrowing off Michelle E) on the other, ratio at about 50-50. Tonight, though, the interesting and the bold tipped ever so slightly. A harbinger?

So: the good stuff:

A new work, composer Barbara Feldman Monk‘s Pyramus and Thisbe (2010, but never performed) to be paired up with Monteverdi’s rarely staged shorts Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Lamento di Arianna, in a brand new (is it ever) production by Christopher Alden. The P&T libretto is engaging with Rilke, Faulkner, St John of the Cross, according to this page. I can’t wait to see how Alden interweaves the three elements.

Claus Guth’s Nozze sounds good. It’s a rental from Salzburg, apparently a dark and non-comedic take on the piece. This review and this review both emphasize its intimist, non-political, psycho-sexual-drama approach. Picture me intrigued. Available on DVD, so I’ll probably get hold of it beforehand.

Neef also announced from the stage a series of new commissions for the next few years. In 2016, they’ll be taking James Rolfe + Anna Chatterton’s Donna to Banff for workshopping; Harry Somers’ Louis Riel will get a new production in 2017 (the old made-for-TV one is available on DVD and still fairly watchable), 2018 is the time for Rufus Wainwright’s opera on the Emperor Hadrian and his, er, favourite, and by 2020 Ana Sokolovic will have composed an opera on Michel Marc Bouchard’s libretto to be based on his play Christina, La Reine-Garçon. The strong representation of women in these productions is highly commendable, starting from Barbara Monk next year, or even starting from Kaija Saariaho a couple of seasons back.

And speaking of women, there is will be one stage director of female persuasion next year: Arin Arbus. Her CV sounds intriguing–she’s sometimes described as an off-Broadway luminary and an innovative Shakespearean. She’s also done theatre in correctional facilities. Her Traviata looks fairly traditional and pretty, though.

Which already introduced us to:

The mixed blessings stuff:

The Divo/a Vehicle this time isn’t as conservaborish as last year’s Don Quichotte: Rossini’s Maometto II with and for Luca Pisaroni will be directed by David Alden. It’s a Santa Fe production. I dunno. Rossini doesn’t lift any of my skirts, but it’s David Alden, and apparently Pisaroni is a rare coloratura basso, so… we’ll see. Also in that production, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, who is always good news.

Siegfried. My least favourite bit of the Ring. BUT. It’s François Girard so there’s bound to be something of interest there. Also, Christopher Purves house-debuts as Alberich. Oh and, hello Maria Radner, the Erda of the production.

A Carmen revival. Title role to be sung by Anita Rachvelshvili and Clementine Margaine. An old production, which looks like this, but some money will be put into reinventing it. Knowing Joel Ivany of the AtG, who is given the task, good things may happen.

Some final bits of the good stuff:

– FINALLY. Two of the three new Ensemble Studio members are not Caucasian: tenor Charles Sy and pianist Hyejin Kwon. HEAR ME OUT NOW. These Young Singers programs across North America tend to be awfully white, and not only that, the women increasingly tend to be of a certain (thin) body type. Would be nice to begin to buck the trend and kinda rock? The cherriest of the cherries on the cake tonight, soprano Aviva Fortunata (aka Ensemble Studio’s Adele) sang a gorgeously somber Rossini aria while sounding like Marilyn Horne. Plus, there was Andrew Haji.

– The opera house was full for the event. It’s an invitation-only (subscribers, donors, the media, singers’ families eccetera) but due to the number of people and the mix, it felt like an almost open to the public event. Ideally, you’d want to have the unticketed open-door ‘outreach’ and education events and concerts inside the R. Fraser Elliott too, not only on the uncomfortable steps of the Richard Bradshaw. That’s the hope, anyway. Opera is an opportunity for a community, a society, to gather round, and take a good look at itself. (Totally agree with Gérard Mortier on this one.) A public forum, in many ways. There was a hint of that in the air last night. Don’t know how long this feeling will last, but it’s nice to experience it.

We interrupt regular programming

We interrupt regular programming

My interview with the great Margaret Drabble now online over on The Believer web exclusives:

The Believer: The golden baby of your novel has a mother who decided to give up a lot. The mother in The Ice Age also, and they both do it quite happily. Before I read the book, I wondered if it was in any way like The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing.

Margaret Drabble: To tell you the truth, I couldn’t really read The Fifth Child. I knew Doris Lessing quite well and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I know one or two people with children with problems who were cross with her about that book. They thought she’d shown a very bad side of care. She had not been without her own problems and they felt she shouldn’t perhaps be describing other people’s problems in this harsh tone.

BLVR: And the book is almost more about motherhood than about a child with special needs.

MD: Well, Doris was a problematic mother.

BLVR: I didn’t know this before reading it in Gold Baby, but she also had a son with special needs.

MD: From what I’ve learned about The Fifth Child through the grapevine, I imagine she was reflecting on the experience she had had with him. I think it’s lucky that he died before she did.

BLVR: A bit surprised to hear you say that Lessing was a problematic mother.

MD: But she would know that. She left two children behind and brought one with her and clung on to him very close. It’s a strange pattern of mothering. She has also said on the record that she hated her mother. I think the whole area of mothering is to her extremely problematic. She really loved the boy who stayed with her but it was not a calm relationship.

BLVR: And as many of your other novels, this one isn’t just about our own time. It’s also about the period of the British colonization of Africa, and goes back much further, into the archaeological history of the continent. The Seven Sisters hasThe Aeneid in its basis. The Peppered Moth has the matrilinear genetic history of the species and Hellenistic Egypt.

MD: For me, that’s entirely natural, to interpret what’s happening now in terms of the mythology. We get new insights. Some of what we read in classical literature is not relative to our condition, but then many women novelists and poets have turned it upside down and told the stories from the other point of view. I find that fascinating. But it seems natural to put women’s lives today in the context of what went before—either as a contrast or as a development.

I remember I had a lot of fun looking at various translations of the Aeneid. I enjoyed having a sort of background structure that is so far removed from the characters’ lives. In their real lives, a lot of them are quite washed up, really. And then they go off on this heroic journey. And yes, they’re all women.

BLVR: And in your novel A Natural Curiosity it is said that “when we meet our Gorgon, we die”—one character wonders if her sister, who had run away, “had met her Gorgon”. The ancient stuff comes to life in our otherwise mundane present.

MD: It’s very common in poetry, but in the novel you’re being a bit more adventurous when you do it. But it’s just that—I see symbols all around me. And apropos that trilogy I got very interested in things about the severed head and confronting the fate.

For MD’s musical choices, head over to Desert Island Discs, where of course she chose all the right people (i.e. Monteverdi, Bach and Handel; surprisingly no Mozart but bigup for Kurt Weill in the earlier DID).

Marenzio-Primo Libro di Madrigali: La Compagnia del Madrigale CD review

Marenzio-Primo Libro di Madrigali: La Compagnia del Madrigale CD review

Luca Marenzio: Primo Libro di Madrigali, 1580. La Compagnia del Madrigale. Glossa, GCD 922802, 2013. Available on Glossa /ClassicsOnline (MP3) / Amazon.com


By Joëlle Morton, guest reviewer

Ask the average classical listener what they know about Italian madrigals and if you’re lucky, the names of two seventeenth century composers, Claudio Monteverdi and Carlo Gesualdo will be pulled out of the hat. These guys were among the very last of many generations of composers who wrote in this distinct genre, and their works incorporate extreme chromaticism in the service of drama. However, Luca Marenzio was an exact contemporary of theirs, and though his name is much less well known to us today and his biography is not nearly as florid as Gesualdo’s or Monteverdi’s, he was extremely famous in his own time and his madrigals were widely transmitted, imitated and generally cited as pinnacles of the form. Spending 68 minutes to get to know Marenzio’s music as presented on this excellent recording will be highly worth your time.

Before getting into details, let me start by giving a wee bit of background. The Italian madrigal was without question the most important secular genre of the sixteenth century and at its most fundamental level, can be described as “music in service of a text.” (Indeed yes, opera lovers, you can already see where this headed…) The very first madrigals were penned in Florence and Rome in the 1520s and 30s and from the beginning, madrigal composers drew on the sonnets (sophisticated rhyming poetry) of the fourteenth century poet, Petrarch, and then later to living authors who imitated Petrarch’s style. Many of the texts speak about love and the struggle to gain affection of the object of one’s desire. Love is almost always openly professed and eternal fidelity promised, but generally the lover suffers tremendously because of an inability to consummate the affair: the person is of a different social status, already married, or simply love is not reciprocated. So these texts tend to have a melancholic nature, full of words like “anguish” and “pain” as the author rails about the vagaries of fortune, and when consummation proves ever elusive, then a readiness for death. There are all manner of clever puns and hidden names and words and meanings buried within the poetry, so you have to pay close attention (to the original Italian wording) in order to catch the jokes. However, many of these texts were not intended to be taken at their simplistic, melodramatic face value. They often served as double entendres describing sex (otherwise known as the “little death”) where of course, one would logically “wish to die a thousand times.” Track 5 “Tirsi morir volea” on this recording is one such example. The text is an erotic dialogue by Battista Guarini and was a favourite of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century composers. The poem begins: “Looking into the eyes of the one he adored, Tirsi wanted to die. She, who burned for him with equal ardour said: “Alas, my beloved, oh, do not die yet, for I wish to die with you.”“ And so on… you get the idea. Sixteenth century society found these musical settings (presented in polite society, no less) to be extremely risqué and titillating.

During the sixteenth century as music, sophisticated conversation, and the appreciation of good poetry became important social attributes, the madrigal provided a perfect medium to exercise and display all of those skills. Madrigals were generally performed as a pastime in social gatherings at peoples’ homes. The musical settings were usually for four or five voices, all meant to be sung with one on a part, and were through-composed without significant repetitions of any section of music. Composers followed the precise nuances of the text finding ways to illuminate individual words and images; we refer to this kind of writing as “word painting” or even “madrigalism.” For example, when faced with a text about heaven, the music would soar upwards; if the text speaks of hell, the line plunges down. Mentions of pain and suffering brought dissonances, a garland could be depicted by notes that go down and then back up making a circle, and a description of bird song or flight elicited long, florid melodic lines, etc. etc.

La compagnia del madrigale-Primo Libro di Madrigali-MarenzioAged just 26 years old, Luca Marenzio burst onto the Roman scene and achieved astonishing success with the 1580 publication of his Primo libro di madrigali, the contents of which were proclaimed as some of the most refined and elegant madrigals of the entire century. He went on to become almost ridiculously prolific; his first book was reprinted no less than 9 times and he published another 23 volumes of music in a mere 20 years before his untimely death in 1699. Several of his madrigals were translated and used as models when the English took up the madrigal genre in their own right. Never mind Monteverdi and Gesualdo, it is not an exaggeration that in the last decades leading up to 1600 Marenzio was the golden boy, or flavour du jour.

Marenzio’s early works are both the ones on which he built his career, and the ones for which he is still best known. His compositional style is tricky to generalize since every technique is utilized in service of a particular word or phrase or poem. Perhaps we could say that he is identifiable by his brevity/conciseness, that he has a penchant for graphically depicting as many concrete details of the text as possible and that each literary conceit is illustrated by telling and vivid motives that instantly characterize a mood and meaning. Each of his pieces is divided into small segments of text and word painting is carried to its height, with graphic illustration of individual words or phrases. This recording presents fourteen of the eighteen madrigals from his Primo libro and all but one are for five voices. Also included are two slightly later works by Marenzio, as well as the very first piece that is known by him; these are noticeably different to the ear than his pieces from Primo libro. The rest of the recording is filled out with a sestina (6-stanza poem) with each stanza set by different composers who were Marenzio’s colleagues and contemporaries (Giovanni Maria Nanino, Giovanni Battista Moscaglia, Giovanni de Macque, Francesco Soriano, Annibale Zoilo). By the end of the disc, the listener is not only familiar with a broad sampling of Marenzio’s finest work, but also has a sense of context for it. I don’t want to give too elaborate a description of pieces – that would be like giving away all the punch lines. But because they spoke strongly to me, let me single out a couple of my more favourite tracks to give you a bit of an idea what to expect.

Dolorosi martir, fieri tormenti (“Bitter agonies, fierce torments”) is one of the most stunning settings and can be said to use extravagant pictorialism in the service of extraordinarily subtle and refined poetry. Marenzio uses the Phrygian mode, which has a built-in tension since the second degree of its scale is only a half step higher than the first. This interval, called a ‘minor second,’ is very poignant in and of itself and can be used to great affect and effect to create dissonance. The text opens by describing ‘agonies and torments, as well as harsh traps, cruel snares and rasping chains’ and these things provide ample opportunity for visual illustration in musical terms. The first theme (repeated by all five voices in turn) is jarring because it presents the phyrygian modality but then immediately departs to a pitch that is outside the mode. We are ‘tormented’ through these opening lines with music that is greatly drawn out and gives no sense of arriving in the place/tonality that the ear expects. ‘Chains’ are depicted through an inordinately long string of suspensions (dissonances created by one line moving and another staying still). ‘Sad voices, complaints, howlings and wailings’ are graphically brought to life in a variety of ways, with the lamenting figure being gentle and sung together as a group, and then the top line leaping to a very high note to complain and howl and wail. In an example of a visual pun intended to be appreciated solely by those reading/singing the music, the word ‘night’ is set using blacked notes. And if you thought the chains in the beginning were long, the words ‘never-ending misery’ are even more drawn out and dissonant before the pace picks up in depiction of the “bitter tasting nourishment” that closes the work. It’s a little gem of a piece and one in which new details will come to light on each listening.

Track #6:

Dolorosi martir, fieri tormenti                       Bitter agonies, fierce torments,
Duri ceppi, empi lacci, aspre catene,                         harsh traps, cruel snares, rasping chains,
Ov’io la notte, i giorni, ore e momenti,            through night and day, at all hours and every moment
Misero piango il mio perduto bene                          I lament my lost love wretchedly
Triste voci, querele, urli e lamenti,                        Sad voices, complaints, howlings and wailings,
Lagrime spesse e sempiterne pene                            tears frequently-shed and never-ending misery
Son il mio cibo e la quite cara                                   nourish me, and the serene tranquility
Della mia vita oltr’ogni assenzio amara.                   of my life is bitter tasting.

The Dialogo a otto in riposta d’eco (“Dialogue for 8 voices with response in echo”) is a little different, but equally noteworthy. In this case, we begin with a text attributed to the renowned poet Torquato Tasso. The poem itself is genius. Our narrator goes into the woods where he/she wonders aloud what has become of the object of his/her affection. Each time our narrator pauses, the woods ‘reply’ with an echo of the last syllable that was spoken. Oh so cleverly chosen, that last syllable of text has a different meaning from when it was attached to its original word. As a result, our narrator gets a less than favourable ‘response’ to his lamenting, and by the end he/she is in a worse state than at the beginning (dumb ass – that’s what happens when you go off to the woods and talk to yourself…) So, Marenzio set this text using an ensemble of two separate ‘choirs,’ each with four voices and one sings the parts of the narrator while the others respond as the echo. And of course, the more the narrator speaks and the more heated he/she becomes, the greater the response and build up of replies from the echo. The piece is all of four and a half minutes long, but Marenzio’s treatment is almost like a symphonic structure in service of the text. I challenge you not to laugh out loud as you listen to this.

Track 14:

Dialogo a otto in riposta d’eco:                         Dialogue à 8, with response in echo:

O tu che fra le selve occulta vivi,                                 O you, who dwell hidden in the forest,

Ch’è della vita mia, ch’è del mio Amore?            what has become of my life, what has become of my Love?

More                                                                               Death

Dunque, Ninfa gentil, se lei si more,                           So, sweet nymph, if she dies,

Non vedrò le sue luci a fé giammai?                           will I never gaze on her eyes again?

Mai                                                                              Ever

Che faró dunque in sì noiosa vita?                         What to do then, in a life so full of troubles?

Chi mi consolerà nel stato mio?                                  Who will comfort me in this state?

Io                                                                                 Me

E tu, come ti chiami, miserella,                             And you, what is your name, poor little one,

che consolarmi voi in questo speco?                         who is wishing to console me amongst these ruins?

Eco                                                                              Echo

Eco gentil che ne gl’ultimi accenti                              Sweet Echo, who to those last words

Mi risponde, non son d’amante esempio?              replies to me, “am I not the embodiment of a lover?”

Empio                                                                          Wicked!

E perché mi risponde ch’io son emio?                   And why reply to me by saying that I am undeserving?

Non ho avuto pieta di suoi lamenti?     Did I not feel compassion when she was bemoaning her fate?

Menti                                                                           You lie!

Mentir non posso che’l ciel e le stelle                I cannot lie, the heavens and stars can bear witness

Ponno far fede s’io gl’ho dato guai!                         to the fact I have never caused her any harm!

Hai                                                                              But you have!

Or sia come si voglia, a Dio, ti lasso,                         Whatever it is, farewell, I leave you,

Spirto c’hai voce e fra gli boschi vivi,                 spirit which has a voice and dwells in the woods,

Or quanto ho detto fra gli tronchi scrivi.  now that I have spoken amongst these trees, it is written.

La Compagnia del Madrigale bills itself as a recently founded group, and the group would seem to be comprised of talented young Italian singers who are individually active all over Europe. As an ensemble they are terrific, and achieve an impressive result interpreting these works. The fact that they are so sensitive to the subtleties of the language is one of the biggest assets of this recording. Successfully presenting this music for an ‘external audience’ requires an intimate understanding and exaggerating of the text. So that also means that a listener’s experience will be greatly enhanced by burying one’s nose in the liner booklet and following not just the storyline in translation, but each word and image and gesture of the original poetry. (**Be forewarned: digital downloads do not come with texts and translations! This is a situation where ‘old school’ is not just better, but genuinely the only option, if you ask me.**) Anyone who enjoys the subtleties and cleverness that language can offer will greatly enjoy this recording, and this kind of music.



Joëlle Morton is a widely sought performer on violas da gamba and historical double basses and directs the Scaramella chamber music series in Toronto, in addition to having a large studio of private students and teaching viola da gamba at the University of Toronto. She is the official Viol Consultant for the Hart House collection of antique viols, and is the author of a number of scholarly articles and performing editions.

Amore e morte dell’amore CD

Amore e morte dell’amore CD

Amore e morte d'amore CD cover

AMORE E MORTE DELL’AMORE Roberta Invernizzi, Sonia Prina Ensemble Claudiana Dir. Luca Pianca. Naïve, fall 2013. Sample it here

So here is the recording of the early baroque duetti for mezzo and soprano. Whereas several good recent CDs of the Handel duets exist, this is not exactly the case with the Monteverdi & comp era duetti. (One that I recently bumped into really enthralled me. I was resistant to the idea of having a countertenor part of the singing couple, but Rene Jacobs and my oldest mezzo crush Helga Mueller-Molinari are absolutely magical together.)

As I’ve never before heard Monteverdi’s “Mentre vada Angioletta”, this number is probably for me the biggest revelation. The text describes what kinds of sounds the fair Angioletta makes while singing—bends, pushes the harmonies, breaks accents, twists, goes slow, fast, murmurs, the shifting tones then the resting ones, pressing, pouring, eccetera—and the music onomatopoeically mirrors the text at every stage. I knew that madrigals are carnal this way a lot of the time, but this is a whole new level. Multiply all that by two and intertwine the voices, and you’ll get the picture of Angioletta.

The other Monteverdi numbers do not disappoint either. The recording opens with the pleading, chromatic “Interotte speranze” in which the two timbres establish how well they get along, even while beseeching. Maybe a third woman? Or each other? Or is it that one abandoned lover’s voice doubles in suffering? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

The musicians dared to include yet another edition of “Pur ti miro”, but as you’re listening you’re realizing that the two singers do add to this remarkable tradition some new twists. The orchestral segments stand out. Luca Pianca does some particularly fine theorbo fingerwork, after which Riccardo Minasi at the violin (or is it lira da braccio?) impresses with the melodic lines that are an imaginative rearrangement of what one usually hears in the accompaniment for this duetto.

“Vorrei baciarti” may remind you of the famous duet between Nerone with his bestie Lucano from L’Incoronazione di Poppea. This one reads equally sexual (and that’s saying something!), but of course via the usual codes of the fountains of sweetness, weeping eyes, welcoming mouths, pearls and rubies.

Other composers on the disc are less known: Benedetto Marcello, Antonio Lotti, Francesco Durante, in addition to some obscure geezer called Handel. (There had to be some Handel, I suppose… but the musicians steered clear of his Greatest Hits bag and explored two little known pieces from the Italian stage of il Sassone). My second biggest revelation of the disc was the incredible “Son io barbara donna” by Durante. It’s a long, complex and very sensuous lament that goes from stage to glorious stage. Anybody who loves Strozzi’s “Udite amanti” will really appreciate this one.

Ensemble Claudiana shows us what it’s got with an instrumental sonata by Scarlatti at the mid-way point in the recording. It’s a beautifully rendered piece with some unexpected colouring and what sounds like a lot of well-placed rubato and improvised embellishments. (It was probably all rehearsed down to a T—but I can never tell these things and the playing kept me curious.)

The only thing missing in the liner notes is the information on who wrote the poetry. Not all of the texts are anonymous, surely?

Definitely one for the collection, though.

The Opera Questionnaire: Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg

The Opera Questionnaire: Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg

I first met Holger by chance, at one of the intersections of the opera blogosphere, where we struck up a conversation about ornamenting in da capos. Soon after, we connected on Facebook, and it turned out that he happens to be married to one of the best mezzos of today, Ann Hallenberg. I rarely use the word ‘community’ because very few groupings deserve the title, but there is no better way to describe what formed around Holger and Ann on Facebook: something of an international community, and much more than virtual, of music lovers, musicologists, singers, instrument players, opera buffs, YouTubers, curtain-callers, CD nerds, and just general art- and conversation-loving good people. Its benevolent COO is Holger, who with his knowledge and good humour keeps the many conversations going. Scores are being sleuthed and mailed, recordings compared, stuff dug out from musical archaeology, curtain call photos shared, stories traded, composers gotten to respond to questions within minutes. (Truly. Once Holger posted a Hillborg thing sung by von Otter with some questions, and within minutes the composer himself responded in the comments.)

What I admire in him and Ann is the disregard of the idea of ‘branding’ in art. Many of the singers and musicians today, when they use the social media, are extremely branding-conscious. They see themselves as brands, and they communicate with people as brands would. The Hallenbergs are exactly the opposite. They are both being themselves on Facebook. A breath of fresh air, that. Here’s to many more years of the inter-continental music friendships, and of the non-branded communication among people! Which might as well start with Holger’s take on the Opera Questionnaire.


Holger1The work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued by opera?

It must be something which is close to the culture they are usually surrounded by: Loud, violent, fast and explicit. (Teenagers who don’t consume such stuff ARE most likely already intrigued by opera.) So the answer is Salome, isn’t it?  Or Rossini.

The opera (or the scene) with which to intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

None! It’s a lost cause. Unless something dramatic happens to them. I’d be happy if I got some of them to see South Pacific.

And a film buff?

That would probably depend on what kind of films this person likes. A lover of romantic comedy: La Cenerentola; unrealistic action movies: any Verdi will do; historical drama: La clemenza di Tito; horror films: Zandonai’s I Cavalieri di Ekebu; artfilm-fans: Parsifal.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

Liz Taylor and Richard  Burton filmed Cleopatra in a faithful way and everything about it screams the sixties. Faithfulness is a fabrication. I recently watched a Zeffirelli video, which was very faithful, but unbearably boring! On the other hand side are too “fanciful” (and powerful) stage directors a dangerous tendency in today’s opera business. Generally I think there are too many bad productions around. We need auditions for stage directors.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

No. I’m very hardened. I always see the story as a vehicle for the music, not vice versa. But strangely, I am moved by perfection.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Not often. But I remember I slept through large parts of Das Rheingold once. No intermission to revive the spirits. But that doesn’t say much against Wagner, I also slept through an Aerosmith concert.

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

I tolerate silent listening. Nothing else. Apart from the obvious distractions, I don’t like the routine clapping after each aria in baroque opera. (Btw: The singers hate that too!)

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

Il Trovatore in Hannover, staged by Calixto Bieito

Il trionfo del tempo in Zurich, the magical jump-in evening that was my wife’s international breakthrough

Zimmermann’s megalomaniac Die Soldaten in Amsterdam. You see something like that probably once in a lifetime.

Your choice of arias or segments that illustrate how well opera understands love and desire.

Baroque opera in general! Why has it had such an amazing renaissance during the last decades? Because it understands so well the whole human being. While Classical and Romantic operas have rather predefined roles (the villain, the innocent, victimized girl, the honourable cavalier, etc.) the characters in baroque opera are much more “modern”, and much closer to how we see relationships and life in general. Nothing is simply good or bad. The whole complex being is there, with love and hate, jealousy, despair, hope, disdain, irony. And everything is neatly packed into arias not much longer than an average pop song. There’s real life in those artificial characters, heightened by some stunning music.

Your choice of segments or arias that show that in effect opera is as political as art gets.

Holger2I must admit that I am not entirely at ease in this one. You know I take opera very seriously. So seriously that I have dedicated my life to it. So seriously as a professional soccer-player takes his job. Yet there are millions of people who think that both soccer and opera are the most ridiculous things on earth. And in a way they are right. We are talking essentially about entertainment, and not about the NATO peace forces. While we are discussing if we like the latest “Ring” at the Met, students are risking their lives in the streets of Istanbul; politicians in Washington or Berlin are discussing how to save Greece. Or Detroit. Most certainly I agree that there have been operas (both individual performances and libretti) which have been a catalyst for various political developments, as there have been soccer matches. (In general, sport is much more politically charged than opera). And one could argue that it is impossible to write anything that hasn’t political aspects. If you decide to write a novel about lesbians in Toronto you are making political and sociological statements. If you decide to write a lovestory set in Berlin 1960, it will automatically be political. When Verdi describes the suffering of Violetta he describes a society that forces her to her death and thus makes a political statement. But the point I would like to make is that political issues are not an a priori part of opera. They are there, no doubt, sometimes by purpose and sometimes through our interpretations. However I would argue that literature and plays have been much more appropriate tools to transport a political message than opera, and I think they have historically had the function that has cinema today: they reach the masses. Opera, on the contrary, has from the beginning been an elitist art form. Initiated by some Florentine noblemen who wanted to recreate the way ancient Greek drama was recited, and getting it all wrong. From there it made its way to the courts in Italy and France. And we must not forget that the even the public operas in London at Handel’s time were nothing more than playgrounds for the members of the Royal family and crucially dependent on their funding, despite ticket sales. And the famous public baroque opera in Hamburg existed as a proof that the wealthy merchants could accomplish the same as all the Counts and Dukes around them. It’s the same today: opera is an art form which has never been able to sustain itself only from ticket sales. It has always needed the goodwill of sponsors and politicians. Opera is way too expensive to maintain, so it needs a public and political will to thrive. That in itself is the most powerful political statement I can find in opera. Opera is in my opinion an anachronism that is still there because it is so spectacularly removed from realism (people sing!), modesty (it’s so expensive) and actuality (we are still watching works 300 years old). If an opera was simply political we would ignore it as soon as the political system it represents has outlived itself, as is the case with thousands of “revolutionary” plays and novels. But we are still interested in opera from 1800. And that is because opera generally is focused inward (toward the personal), instead of outward (toward the sociological). We are not watching it as a museum piece, but we get involved emotionally. If Wittgenstein said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, the opera’s answer is “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must sing”: opera’s ability to transcend individual feelings (bound to the fictitious situation) to universal and timeless emotions through the magic of music is the reason that we are and will always be fascinated by this, the most extravagant, most wonderful and most magnificent form of art.

The Met in HD – overall good or overall bad?

Bad. I don’t want to see if Netrebko had brushed her teeth before the show. Singers are looking their most unflattering when they are singing, and I don’t want a close-up during a top C, not even on Jonas Kaufmann. Plus, the Met in HD making worse our society’s unhealthy focus on looks. And I couldn’t bear if the person next to me started munching popcorn during the show.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

Handel. For me he is the most human, the wisest and most compassionate composer. And the most cunning, and the cruelest. I was assistant to the stage director Michael Hampe for a while (a very “faithful” stage director, by the way), and in one rehearsal he leaned over to me and whispered: “Handel, this bastard! He is looking for your heart, and when he has found it he puts a knife in it. And then he turns it slowly.” Yes, he does that.

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

Usually, I don’t care so much for the new layers and meanings. For me it’s sufficient that it sounds good. That will be the reason why I listen to it again and again. It is more a singer’s interpretation that makes me discover new things each time I listen. But to answer the question dutifully: I would say Monteverdi’s operas.

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch to me three new opera commissions.

I’d suggest a play, a long poem and a novel:

Anders Hillborg sets Sarah Kane’s disturbing play Blasted.

James MacMillan sets – if he dares – Charles Algernon Swinburnes’s erotic masterpiece, the long poem Anactoria, adapted into a staged dialogue for two women. His sensual, charged music should be perfect.

-The old Finish master Einojuhani Rautavaara crowns his fantastic career with a monumental opera on Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I couldn’t think of a better composer for that.

Born in South-Western Germany, Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg studied musicology, literature and philosophy at the University in Karlsruhe. He worked as a dramaturge at several German opera houses, and after that as an agent to singers in a large German agency, but after nine months threw in the towel. Married to mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg and currently living in a large house in the Swedish countryside where he is running a small but ambitious music publishing house, Edition Gran Tonante, which edits only previously unpublished large-scale vocal works, often commissioned by baroque ensembles. Manic collector of CDs. Interested in poetry, 20th century literature, gender issues in art, soccer. Find him on Facebook here.