The year in review

Some of the good things about 2017:

In Concert

Sarah Connolly with Chicago SO. Photo by Kristin Jensen.

Sarah Connolly sings Das Lied von der Erde with Chicago Symphony Orchestra, c. James Conlon. I went to Chicago for this; sadly the TSO’s own Erde was a wreck this year.

Adrianne Pieczonka sings Winterreise, Rachel Andrist @ piano

Soundstreams presents R. Murray Schafer’s Odditorium

Canadian Art Song Project + 21C Music Festival: the all-Ana Sokolovic recital with Danika Loren, Emily d’Angelo, etc

Mozart’s Piano – Kristian Bezuidenhout & Tafelmusik.

Opera

Vivier’s Kopernikus in Banff, Against the Grain & Banff Centre

Met in HD: Der Rosenkavalier (dir Carsen, with Fleming, Garanca, etc)

Arabella at the COC

Toronto Consort’s Helen of Troy (aka Cavalli’s Elena) – in concert.

Theatre

The Youth-Elders Project @ Buddies in Bad Times. Much of this was unscripted: half participants in their twenties, half past their sixties, all bent, some homosexual, some queer (and there is a generational divide with terminology too), talk about their lives and experiences.

What Linda Said by Priscila Uppal @ Factory Theatre. Late Linda Griffiths appears to her friend (based on Uppal) who is now herself sick and undergoing treatment for cancer. They talk about life, love, writing, dying.

Kiinalik: These Sharp Tools by Evalyn Parry & Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory @ Buddies. Second half was as close as I ever came to witnessing a shamanic ritual. Laakkuluk donned an animist persona/mask and went straight into the audience. Crawled over and between the rows, ground against people, grabbed, handled, dry-humped. All kinds of boundaries got crossed. It was fantastic.

Unholy by Diane Flacks, Buddies & Nightwood Theatre. A panel of four women (an Orthodox Jew, a Muslim, an atheist and a Catholic nun) debate whether women should abandon religion altogether. Further complications ensue after the atheist and the Muslim fall for each other.

Young Marx via National Theatre Live (Yonge-Bloor Cineplex). Young Marx lives in London, throws (and throws off) communist meetings, has no money, has a wealthy loyal friend in Engels, one wife, one servant-lover, many children, police always on his tail for one reason or another. A laugh out loud farce and the best piece of left propaganda (I mean this as a compliment) I’ve seen in performing arts in a long time.

The Bakkhai at Stratford Festival on the other hand disappointed – chiefly due to music which was sugary musical theatre fare.

Media arts

Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary about the locals of the southernmost Italian island Lampedusa and the African migrants making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean into the EU.

Angry Inuk, a Canadian documentary about a handful of seal hunters in Nunavut who are barely making ends meet vs. the PR-savvy, big budget environmentalist organizations campaigning against seal hunting.

The Lives of Thérèse, a French doc about feminist activist Thérèse Clerc. Here’s a clip in which she tries to explain to her granddaughter that lesbianism is the sexual arm of feminist politics, and that heterosexuality is like sleeping with the occupier.

Dish: Women, Waitressing and the Art of Service, a Maya Gallus doc about women around the world who wait tables.

Agnes Varda & DJ: Faces, Places. Outstanding docu-fiction reminding us that there is no such thing as insignificant lives.

Sieranevada, a Romanian feature film about a Bucharest family preparing for the wake for its deceased patriarch. From the director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

Those Who Make Revolution Halfway Only Dig Their Own Graves, a Quebec feature film which walks the esthetic and political avant garde side of the street. It imagines a radical left splinter group coming out of the Quebec anti-tuition fee protests from a couple of years ago which continues the fight in a more direct action mode (destruction of property, theft, and some violence against humans too). Refreshing, bizarre, Godard-ian, frustrating, but provocative and smart for its entire three hours. The movie that shifts the treatment of politics in Quebec’s engaged art – after this film, Robert Lepage’s play-pic 887 at CanStage, which still circles around the October unrest and the Quiet Revolution, seems dated.

Advertisements

Podcast Episode the First

So I went and created a podcast.

It’s called Alto, it’ll cover music and literature and occasionally other stuff too and it’ll drop last Thursday of every month. The first episode is right here and on the Soundcloud, & can be streamed or downloaded. Guests Jenna Douglas Simeonov of Schmopera, John Gilks of Opera Ramblings, Joseph So of Ludvig Van and Opera Canada, and Sara Constant of The WholeNote and I talk about the good, the bad and the WTF of the year that was.

I’m still getting the hang of the technical side of things so don’t judge my sound equalization, clip quality or my anti-radio voice too harshly. For now.

I also realized while I was editing the audio file that there’s not a lot from my own list in the mix, but that’s just fine, there was so much to talk about that I never got around to going down my own list. I did point out my Greatest Disappointment, so there’s that. Here’s the run-down of some of the Best of… choices but for the Worst of… (and we were all much naughtier than our writing voices) you’ll have to listen in.

John of Opera Ramblings, Best Shows:

Neema Bickersteth’s Century Song at The Crow’s Theatre

Toronto Symphony with Against the Grain: Seven Deadly Sins, staged for concert

The Ana Sokolovic Dawn Begins in the Bones recital 21C Festival at Koerner Hall

The Vivier show, Musik fur das Ende, by the Soundstreams

Category: Reconciliation : COC Louis Riel, the symphony putting on shows with First Nations content; Brian Current & Marie Clements’ opera Missing which opened in BC; land acknowledgements in the arts world.

Sara Constant, Digital Media at the WholeNote:

The Soundstreams Vivier show

Intersections Festival hosted by Contact Contemporary Music (Jerry Pergolesi’s ensemble) – immersive event at Allan Gardens

My own addendum to this:

Soundstreams doing R Murray Schafer Odditorium

PLUS Judy Loman in anything

Joseph So, a long-time opera critic (Opera, Ludvig Van, Opera Canada):

Category: Event – the Trio Magnifico concert at the Four Seasons Centre (Netrebko, Hvorostovsky, Eyvazov)

Toronto’s best operatic performance: COC’s Gotterdammerung

COC’s Arabella (even though he describes it as a “German Harlequin novel” – or maybe because of that exactly?)

Best recital: Barbara Hannigan & Reinbert de Leeuw recital: “Like Melisande is singing Berg, Schonberg, Webern and Zemlinsky”

Best  singing performance in an opera: Andrew Haji singing Nemorino in COC’s Elixir d’amore

Best opera seen abroad: Goetz Friedrich’s Ring in Deutsche Oper Berlin – the farewell performance.

Jenna Simeonov (Schmopera):

Absolute top of the chart: ROH Rosenkavalier directed by Robert Carsen with Renee Fleming, Alice Coote and Sophie Bevan.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – an opera with puppets by Wattle and Daub at Wilton’s Music Hall in London.

Katie Mitchell’s production of Written on Skin at ROH with the original cast

A Schmopera interview highlight of the yer: Dr. Paul E. Kwak on vocal health of singers.

+ + +

For detailed info on the musical tidbits in the podcast, head here.

My own Best of 2017 coming out before end of year.

 

My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

Sapphic February

There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.

Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.

Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.

Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.

The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…

Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.

gustave_courbet_-_le_sommeil_1866_paris_petit_palais
Painter Gustave Courbet was one of the many French lesbophile artists from the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. This painting is called Le Sommeil (1866).

COC16/17 announced

Keri-Lynn-WilsonThe Hurrahs:

The podium sausage fest spell broooooo-ken! Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct the Tosca revival. The production is underwhelming, Ramón Vargas is an unusual choice for Cavaradossi, but on the upside, Adrianne Pieczonka returns in the role, and KLW makes her COC debut. I hear she is one of the best Puccini conductors around, male or female. Can’t wait.

Bernard Labadie’s COC conducting debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (albeit in the YA-tailored Diane Paulus production).

The Dutch-Aix-COC co-pro Ariodante by Richard Jones is a-coming this side of the Atlantic.

The phenomenal Varduhi Abrahamyan will role-debut Polinesso in the same opera and make her Canadian debut.

Die Goerke returns for Götterdämmerung

Sondra Radvanovsky and Isabel Leonard will sing together “Mira, o Norma” and be a hot pair in the SFO-Liceu-LOC-COC Norma by Kevin Newbury that incorporates, we are told, elements of sci-fi.

Harry SomersRiel in a spanking new production by Peter Hinton. I am not too familiar with Hinton’s work, but I liked what he said in the video (too bad he wasn’t on stage to talk about the production–I suppose it’s still too early?). To the effect that the production won’t be of the “preserved in aspic” kind but will directly engage with the state of Canadian polity, AD 2017. I can’t wait for this one. Allyson McHardy is in it, Russell Braun takes the title role. Note: for a crash course on Riel, you could do worse than Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. A few random panels from it:

ChesterBrownStrip1

ChesterBrownStrip3

ChesterBrownStrip2

The Okay, That’s Enough of That:

Nationalist rhetoric. It’s getting a bit much. Who still needs to be appeased? Who needs to be convinced? Certain journalists who raised the same question about “the lack of Canadian content at the COC” over and over at press conferences? (Meaning, only and always, the composers–as if, say, a Mozart or a Verdi put together by cast and creative that are 95 percent Canadian isn’t a Canadian piece in every conceivable way.) Certain clueless musicians who did the same through the social media? It looks like the pearl-clutching nationalists finally shut up and found other things to pearl-clutch about, a couple of seasons ago. So, can the brags like “the cast in such-and-such a production is entirely Canadian”(!?) be dropped? Can I come out of the closet and say that I don’t care what ethnicity or citizenship papers my opera artists have?

The One Big Nooooooooooo:

Alice Coote takes the title role in Ariodante. She has a considerable chunk of ardent fans, and she’s done some really interesting programs (the trouser role-themed program with Ali Smith in the UK, for example), but all I see and hear in Alice Coote is effort…effort, strain, discomfort, with singing, acting, and even being in a body. It’ll be tough without Sarah Connolly in this role. (Or Allyson McHardy, whom I dream-cast the other day. Naughty, naughty COC clues.)

The Yeah That’s A Good Idea

Instead of presenting an Ensemble Studio production, this year the young talent will be showcased in a concert of as yet to be determined scenes from operas alongside the full COC orchestra.

But there’s much of COC15/16 left to go. More on that soon.

 

Pieczonka the Golden

Pieczonka the Golden

Never look at the brass encouragingly, goes the conducting advice one-liner attributed to Richard Strauss, but Gianandrea Noseda must have had the eye permanently on the brass while rehearsing with the TSO for the last night’s performance of Casella/Strauss/Wagner/Beethoven. The loudness of the brass and winds required the rest of the orchestra to be at their most brash too. For some of the program, this worked fine—Casella and Beethoven—but the vocal pieces suffered from this imbalance, even while showcasing such a powerhouse soprano as Adrianne Pieczonka.

Noseda is an advocate for the revaluation of the Italian composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) and this is the reason we got to hear Casella’s “Italia” in the program. The rhapsody plays with two folk melodies in its two movements, and I found the first part more intriguing musically—perhaps because I couldn’t recognize any of its Sicilian folk roots, perhaps because it’s a movement of an appealingly dark mood. The second, Neapolitan part varies the “Funiculì, Funiculà” through various instrumental section and dynamics and has more of a big band in a summer festival quality.

Strauss’s Four Last Songs followed. The orchestra was flat-out too loud in “Frühling” and “September”, and even though the imbalance was slightly redressed for the last two songs, the asymmetry was there to stay. If you came to enjoy Pieczonka’s savoury ways with the German text, you left for the interval unsatisfied, ears ringing with brass. There was no withholding, no teasing, no sensuality in the orchestral tapestry in the Four Last Songs; it gave its all immediately and continued in that vein.

Surprisingly, this also happened in “Mild und Leise” and the Liebestod. The instrumental Prelude itself was subtle and there was plenty of douceur; as soon as the singing started, however, the imbalance was back. In her soaring resplendent highs, Pieczonka easily took over, but for the lower notes the orchestra was hogging the sound again. Still, it was a special occasion: one of the best young-dramatic sopranos in the world today trying out a major role ahead of her. We were the first to have a taste, we can say years from now. (There’s been talk about a future Bayreuth Isolde… In my profile of Pieczonka [PDF] for Opera Canada, for example.)

Finally, Beethoven and his mad Seventh. I’ve been listening a lot of Beethoven on period instruments lately and was worried I’d be biased against the all-out luxury Beethoven of a modern orchestra under Noseda, but turns out I had no reason to be. The Seventh really could be done as a spectacle, and as a series of explosions, and it’ll work just spiffingly. Not everything was in order last night—the extremely fast Presto movement, for example, had a number of late entries, and even though split-second, they were noticeable. But overall it was a tremendously fun performance, with all the connotations positive and negative of the term. Actually, scratch that. There can’t be any negative connotations of having child-like, bouncing off a trampoline type fun at a symphonic concert.

A note for the TSO program editors: please credit the translators.

Photos by Malcolm Cook / TSO

Noseda with the TSO
Gianandrea Noseda with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

ROH opera screenings return to Bloor Cinema

andrea_chenier_1aAaaaaaaaand opera is finally back at the Bloor Cinema: this Sunday Feb 22 at noon they’re screening a repeat of ROH’s Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar with Jonas Kaufman in the title role.

The rest of the schedule looks like this:

March 22 – Tim Albery’s Der fliegende Holländer with Adrienne Pieczonka and Bryn Terfel.

June 28 (no idea why the long break) – a new production of Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with Anne Sofie von Otter (the production that I plan to see live in London on March 24)

July 26 – a traditional La Bohème by John Copley

August 30 – a new prod of Guillaume Tell with Antonio Pappano conducting.

Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

Un ballo in maschera (Giuseppe Verdi-Antonio Somma, 1859). A Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, revival director Samantha Seymour. Conductor Stephen Lord. Seen at the Canadian Opera Company on February 5. My intro to Il Ballo HERE.

MaskedBall-COC1The setting is American of indeterminate age, closer to the Civil Rights era American South than perhaps today’s South. Riccardo (Dimitri Pittas) is a progressive and popular but philandering governor or President who is, unlike the libretto Riccardo, married—to a lady aware of his peccadilloes but willing to turn the blind eye. (This is a silent role, costumed in Jacky O-like ensembles with gloves and hats.)

We are in a wedding/dance hall on the ground floor of a hotel. One look at the first crowd scene, and there is an obvious racial divide between the guests and the serving staff. We are in the middle of what could be a political party retreat—the hotel has been booked for a few days and the operators, the handlers, the staff will all work and play in the same building. The wives are there too, but women make fewer outings. The tutti chorus scenes are the occasions for expressing American nationalism, so for the martial  “O figlio d’Inghilterra” everybody is solemnly putting their hands to their hearts as they would for the Star-Spangled Banner. The final scene of the opera also unfolds as the national coming together in a joint destiny.

Oscar is the only woman among the inner circle, and according to the program notes, she is a performance artist hired by the free-thinking politician to inspire, stir up, and tell the truth during their decision-making sessions. I would not have known this without the notes, but the girl called Oscar (Simone Osborne, in the best role I’ve seen her in) could easily work here as a mysterious jester figure who just happens to join the suits at some of the key moments to mock or propel action. It’s a really well thought-out role—Oscar runs around (entire stage is her playground), toys with the microphone, wears the Bjork swan dress at the ball, mocks the dramatic scenes as they’re happening, and does macabre pranks. (The first shot heard in the production is Oscar’s doing. It is a glitter gun shot-cum-champagne cork explosion, at the end of Act 1, making fun of everybody’s protectiveness around the politician, and of his own fear of assassination. Needless to say, we’ll hear another, proper shot in the final act.)

Ulrica (Elena Manistina) is likely the member of the staff, since one of her layers of clothing is the light blue staff uniform, over which she’s thrown a knitted sweater. I couldn’t figure out what the object levitating while she’s telling fortune is, but it looks much like one of those public washroom keys that have enormous key chains. She might as well be washroom cleaning staff, or one of those old ladies who collect coins at the toilette entrances. For her prophesy scene, the female chorus wearing staff uniforms settles down to listen. It’s the end of the work day.

The big do around Ulrica’s expulsion that Riccardo prevents could be either the firing from the hotel, or deportation due to her immigration status. Either would make sense.

Riccardo and Amelia have their big private courting scene in the empty hall after everybody else has gone to bed. (Except his wife, who after walking in on them, discreetly leaves unnoticed.) The two hanged figures incongruously dangling from the ceiling—the lovers are, after all, supposed to be meeting near the gallows—could be a wink-and-nudge in the direction of the letter of the libretto, or, and I prefer this interpretation, an illustration that we’re still in an era of the acceptance of the death penalty.

The scene of the masked ball is equally well executed, with most of the people ending in a sleepy drunken stupor, and Oscar lying down over the laps of the equally inebriated conspirators seated front stage. Renato seems to be the only one left sober.

Musically, no fault was to be found in the Stephen Lord-conducted Verdi that night. I was in row N (about eight or nine rows from the pit) and the orchestra never overpowered. The volume stayed under control, and Lord kept the pit finely attuned to the sometimes rather intimate and other times properly rowdy goings-on on stage. Bryan Epperson Alastair Eng‘s cello provided a sweetly dark accompaniment to Amelia’s remarkable “Morro, ma prima in grazia”. Adrianne Pieczonka’s Amelia equally shone in her other solo number, “Ma dell’arido stelo divulsa” (English horn obbligato from the pit by Lesley Young). There were some show-stopping highass pianissimi out of silent pauses that were sheer magic.

Pittas sang Riccardo well, although he is and looked much too young for the role of a charismatic middle-age Lothario. Roland Wood’s baritone is brightly coloured and supple, but his Renato was more in a comic than sinister mode. I somewhat missed the drama of the vengeful husband with Wood’s Renato as a genial John Goodman sort.

Osborne’s bouncy Oscar added necessary spice of ironic & fabulous & sometimes even camp to the proceedings.

Remaining performances: 8, 11, 14, 16, 20, 22 February.

Photos by Michael Cooper / COC

MaskedBall-COC2

Interview: Samantha Seymour, revival director of Wieler-Morabito’s Un Ballo in Maschera

Samantha Seymour 2012-bwA British ex-pat in Munich, Samantha Seymour was well-set on an engineering career when she first caught the opera fever. It came to her fairly late in life, and thanks to an opera-loving friend who shared the tickets to the Bayerische Staatsoper. A Xerxes with Ann Murray particularly stands out as an early favourite. Many operas later, Seymour found herself downsized and out of a job in an industry of seemingly stable employment and steady career paths. She used the opportunity to turn to what she loved even more than maths and sciences: opera directing. A return to school followed, and a period of retraining. At one of the workshops she met the directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, and it all started from there.

You were also the associate and revival director on another project by W & M, and that is the Rusalka in Salzburg. Do they usually rely on you for the revivals, how does this collaboration work?

We all think it’s best to have someone who knows the production from the beginning rather than getting someone who’s seen the video. And the Ballo was actually the first production I worked on with the two of them in Berlin, so I have a lot of happy memories of our time there.

Is there anything left for the associate director to decide when she’s working on the revival?

That’s the great thing about Jossi and Sergio—they give me and the artists a lot of flexibility. Which is great: artists aren’t marionettes and you don’t get them to do exactly the same thing that their predecessors in the role did. It’s my job to bring in their personality and their creativity and allow them to adapt the role in the spirit of the staging to their own personality. If they invent something that’s really nice, we keep that in. That’s great for me too because I get to make the artistic decisions with them.

Every singer already comes with an idea of the character because they learn the role and think about the words they are saying and the situation they’re in, what the character’s progression is. If there are any issues with the staging, the cast would discuss their take on the character. All that can be very useful. And I learned from Jossi and Sergio’s way of working with the singers, and then adapt that to working with the revival cast.

Do singers come with a notion of what the production is like? This one is not your typical Ballo; did singers watch a recording of it or some excerpts beforehand?

I don’t think they’ve seen the DVD this time. Sometimes they do, sometimes we say it would be good if the cast could get a DVD before they come to rehearsals, they can look at it if they want to; sometimes in a revival we work from the DVD; but here with didn’t work with the DVD at all. So it’s all – walk and talk. Sometimes it can be quite difficult [if you see the role on DVD and it looks very different from your own idea] and your reaction is Oh my god, seeing it from the outside. But with this production I found mostly when you actually walk and talk them through what they’re living and why, then it actually does make sense by the time you get through to the end.

I had a really lovely singer in Rusalka when we did it in Geneva and he was very upset by how his character in that staging. (He is Czech and the work is Czech and he grew up with the work…) He kind of freaked. For about five minutes. Then he came back, “Right, we have a job to do.” And he had hundreds of questions and by the time we got through them all, he was fine.

What is the idea behind this production? Set in 50s-60s? It looks American.

It is sort of American – it’s the Boston version, not the Swedish version of Ballo. It’s about finding the time period that is conservative enough and prejudiced enough to fit what’s happening in the opera. Riccardo is not JFK and not Bill Clinton and not Obama but he could be all of them.

If you put it in present time, it maybe too glib; you need a certain distance. For Verdi since this opera got moved its location so many times, that obviously wasn’t the most important thing, where it was set. More important was to find a setting that will show that this was social and political mechanism at work in this situation. So we have a synthetic America that looks like the 60s America but has some elements which aren’t necessarily congruent with the Sixties. (The “Bjork dress” that Oscar has in the third act, for example, which is here instantly recognizable). So it’s a composite time and place; picking up on what Verdi himself said, to copy the truth is good, but to invent the truth is better. We play with that a little bit. You’ll see with this young cast that we have, the dance style is slightly less traditional than it has been. They all got their moves and they’re showing them.

How is it to direct the chorus in a chorus-heavy opera?

Chorus staging is usually the most strenuous because you have loads of people running around – you need, like, five pairs of eyes to watch them all. But the stage management in the Anglo-American system really helps a lot. To have stage managers who know what they’re doing… and help coordinate the entrances, that’s a big help.

There’s a difference between the Continent and the rest in this regard?

The European system is slightly different. Stage managers here have many more duties and more responsibilities from the Inspizient in Europe. Part of the Assistant Director’s work in Europe is part of the Stage Manager’s work here. And obviously they look after health and safety and those kinds of things… When I first worked in Covent Garden and had proper stage management, I loved it.

Ballo1There are many crowd scenes in this opera, I take it.

Yeah, we have a lot, particularly with the gentlemen’s chorus; I know most of the men’s names but not all the ladies’ names. The ladies are in two of the scenes and the gentlemen in a lot of the scenes, and I spend a lot more time with them. I actually mixed up two of the guys and they swapped their name tags on the next rehearsal as a test, but I managed to remember! “You haven’t fooled me with your name tags! I know I need you and not him.”

And you probably know who’s baritone, who’s tenor…

To be honest: I don’t.

Then you probably don’t have to know.

We discussed it with the chorus master about who is being cast in which parts. They have the conspirators who are bass roles, and she divided up the chorus, and then we just said, this is how we’re gonna position them, is that fine, do you have the acoustic, do you want them more mixed, more grouped, she said No, mixed is good, and that’s how it went.

We put them in position, let them sing, check with the Maestro if it’s fine with him. It’s important to make sure that music is happy as well. And check at the beginning, because it’s much easier to change something at the beginning than is once you got on stage when you’re further down the line.

So the blocking… is it also called blocking when you’re directing the chorus?

Yeah, things you have to sort out, that everyone is in the right place at the right time, and that the principals aren’t obscured by the chorus and that kind of stuff. You have some blocking, you set it up, but then you let it run. I really encourage them to be inventive and to go with their instinct. There’s the scene with Riccardo where Ulrica is reading his palm and we got them set up in a semi-circle of chairs. If they feel like standing up and moving in to see what’s going on, then I’m encouraging them to go with that instinct. It makes it much more lively; they’re engaged with what’s going on and the audience is engaged with what’s going on. If they’re on the edge of their seats watching the palm being read, then the audience will be too. Or we have the scene when Riccardo says to all the gentlemen, Right, we’re gonna go to Ulrica, we’re gonna dress up. And they have this amazing energy—like, football game kind of energy—where they’re getting undressed and getting changed and disguised as sailors, and they really get into that. Throwing the sweaters like they’re footballs and that kind of thing.

I see, there’s a lot of room for them to invent their own characters.

Yeah. That’s what we want to see. There are some productions where you would want to have chorus as a uniform mass, you don’t want individuals – I don’t know, if you want to show a dictatorship or something, and you want them all to look the same and act the same, and there’d be an artistic reason for that. But here we want a group of individuals. Who maybe have a common purpose or common background but all do their own thing within the staging.

Does it ever get too lively for you, does it ever get anarchic?

Not yet! Up to now, it’s more encouraging them to actually experiment. It’s much easier to have too much and remove bits than is to want more from them and to not be getting it.

Where are you usually, do you watch from the distance, or are you among the singers?

Both. Particularly the first few times we did the scene because we have a huge set. When we’re doing the ball scene, for example, they’re in couples and dancing and then falling asleep and going down to the floor and making out. So in order to see all that properly, I would take a tour right through and check what people are doing – for the first couple of times. Then I’d pull back a bit and watch from out front but obviously in the rehearsal room it’s quite close. Now we’re on stage, I’ll be further away and getting the big picture.

The pit will be between you and the stage now?

Yes. I could go up if I wanted to, but I feel I have to be further away now – don’t know if it’s in the tenth row exactly, the desk – and pull back. And maybe also watch for the sight lines.

I have to ask you about women and the positions of artistic responsibility in the opera world. Conducting is obviously very closed to women, but I have the impression that stage direction is somewhat more open. Comparatively.

That is my impression as well. There are an increasing number of female directors, certainly in German-speaking Europe, which is the area I know. An increasing number who are becoming prominent. But still there are a lot more men doing the job. And there are more women assistants than directors, put it that way.

That was my next question. The assistant tier has probably more women.

Yeah, my impression is that there are a lot of assistant directors who are female. And I guess some of them don’t want to become directors. And some of them do.

Is that the way for a woman to become a director? By being the assistant first? I mean, I know there is no typical career, but maybe we can find some regularities.

I guess that’s what a lot of people do. Even those who studied directing, basically their first jobs are usually assistant or associate directors, there are very few who get the chance to do their own staging early on in their career. And some people—men too!—stay as associate directors and are more or less frustrated by it. Depending on what their goals are.

Maybe working on revivals gives more freedom than working together with the directors on a new production would?

Yeah… I tend to hold back although with Jossi and Sergio maybe now I would say more because of having revived several of their productions and maybe make more of a contribution. Some directors don’t want it. But with them—I sometimes find myself up on stage if one of the artists is not available for whatever reason and I would go up there. I “played” most of the cast of this production at some point in Berlin. My first one was Silvano, the drunken veteran marine. The first chorus rehearsal we had in Berlin—and I hadn’t acted since school, and hardly in school—I was asked, Oh can you go and give us your Silvano. (WHAT!?) But I went and did it and they really liked it. Basically every time after that when a role needed to be subbed, I was there. When we were doing scenes that require the chorus but the chorus wasn’t there yet, only the principals, I was asked to play the chorus. So there are several things that I introduced that way, and they’d go “We’re buying that!” and they would give it as a direction to the principal or to the chorus members later in the rehearsals.

They’re very open to suggestions. Like, jokey stuff too… I remember at one of the ORCAs for this production with the original cast, Piotr Beczala was singing Riccardo, and when he came into the ball, he just had a little dance with his first lady, just as a joke, and they said, “That’s it! We’re keeping it.”

Ballo2Can you tell me a bit about your other collaborations?

I’ve done workshops with young singers during their training programs with Peter Konwitschny and with Martin Kušej. But not a full-blown production with them yet. There are loads of people out there that it would be great  to work with, to see how they do things, people like Claus Guth, or Christof Loy. May come, we’ll see.

Stefan Herheim?

Yeah, I got to not work with him because I’m working on the revival of this.

That would have been Les vêpres in London?

I would have been in London, but I was in Berlin doing this.

Do you have to have an agent, as an associate director?

I don’t have one, no.

Do directors have to have an agent, even?

I think it’s a personal choice. Some people do, some people don’t. I guess it depends how tight your schedule is getting. If you’re booking 3, 4 years in advance, you need somebody to manage that.

What’s next for you, after this Ballo?

I get to have a holiday! And this summer I’ll be back with Jossi and Sergio in Stuttgart doing Tristan und Isolde. It’s a new production; we already had some pre-rehearsals in November, which was really great. Both our principals said that it was lovely for them, to have time to rehearse and think about things without the pressure of having to sing. The principal singers are Erin Caves, young American tenor and Chistiane Iven, member of the Stuttgart ensemble, who did Kundry and Ariadne. They’re both great, at singing and acting both. Erin was playing about with his Tristan doing jazz hands etc. He can move. We spent a lot of time reading the text and talking about what the text means and how to interpret it. I always like doing the spoken theatre rehearsal, so we can discus the text.

Is that how the three of you usually begin working on a new opera?

Not usually, but in the case of Tristan, we did. Especially with the second act duet, and Christiane was very keen, and kept asking, “So what does this actually mean!” Even as a German speaker, it’s really quite abstruse.

And they’re talking non-stop, the characters.

I saw a production by Claus Guth once which was the first time I actually realized that in the first act they tell the story of Isolde looking after Tristan when he was sick three times. Which they played out every single time. They told it, and they got two people to play Tristan and Isolde for each occasion.

He dramatized the monologues, essentially?

Yeah. Which is interesting, because when you listen, you don’t necessarily realize they’re telling the same scene over and over again. Then they tell it again in second act.

So it’s good to have time to read and discuss the text, and we did. It’s difficult especially because, as everyone says, “nothing happens” in this opera. This inner journey that they go through, it’s important to find a way to put that into a staging.

We do have a ship. We have a proper ship.  That’s all I can say.

This will be in Stuttgart in summer?

In July, yes.

I take it you speak fluent German.

Yes.

Other opera languages probably too?

French and Italian, yeah. I’m learning Russian. Having had this experience in Czech with Rusalka, where I had no knowledge of the language, I thought, okay, if I have to do a production in Russian, I have to at least be able to read it and pronounce it.

But you are not learning it in Cyrillic letters?

I am, actually.

Impressive!

I started learning it just to read and pronounce, but I got into it, got interested in the language. But it’s not like I can speak it or anything.

Allow me a snarky observation: there are many opera directors who don’t speak any language other than their own.

I just love the languages. But German I would know, since I lived there for twenty years.

So that explains your German accent! On top of the British one.

I lived there for too long, and just seem to keep the German accent. When I was in London, I did a lot of the rehearsals still in German, and when I spoke in English people weren’t sure where I was from. I got asked if I was from the north of England a lot. Here in Toronto, I haven’t spoken any German. We’re all speaking English.

Un Ballo in Maschera opens at the Canadian Opera Company on February 2nd at 2PM. More info.

Photos by Ruth Walz show two scenes from the Berlin Staatsoper Un Ballo in Maschera, 2008.