Goran Jurić: All about that bass

Goran Juric in the COC production of The Abduction from the Seraglio, 2018. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

Bass Goran Jurić (Osmin in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio until February 24) is finishing his six year stint as the ensemble member at the Bavarian Opera and heading to Stuttgart next season. We met at the COC offices for a chat.

Tell me about your trajectory, Munich-based Croatian bass Goran Jurić.

I graduated from the University of Zagreb – I did opera studies there, and also Italian studies and general phonetics. My first operatic experiences were at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, where I sang Sarastro, among others…

When did you discover you’re a bass?

My low notes were immediately evident. When I was sixteen, seventeen, I developed my top notes in the course of my studies, but my base was clear early on.

And you knew immediately you wanted to sing – no instrument tempted you?

Music education at all levels is funded by the state in Croatia, and classical musician gets to go to a music-focused high school first and then on to university – what we call the Music Academy. So I went to music high school, where my primary subject was singing, but I had a minor too, the flute. I played the flute for a few years.

Completely different sound from the bass voice?

Yes, but there’s overlap – breathing technique has some similarities, it’s interesting. Then at university, I added Italian and phonetics to my studies. I’m really interested in linguistics, and Italian language and literature, even though I’ve always known I’d never work in the field of language. By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.

Do you come from a musical family?

Not at all. I come from a working class family, my dad is an electrician, my mom was a clerk. I don’t come from a family where you take private lessons in French or piano… I had “private lessons” in how to chop wood and stuff like that. If I was to become a musician at all, it was likelier I’d become a folk musician, because I grew up in a village. But somehow, through my education, primary school and high school, in my music classes, I discovered all these composers—and plus the TV probably helped and the occasional concert—and realized I have this great love of classical music. I started to sing in choirs, and my voice was being noticed etc. It’s thanks to our education system that I discovered I could be an opera singer. As it’s usually the case with children who come from rural backgrounds: what you don’t find at home, you’ll find thanks to a good public education system. One of the good things about the old Yugoslav socialist system was the free public schools with music education at every level.

And after the university?

After Croatia, I went to (what we call in our respective countries) “Europe” for singing competitions and I won a few. And that’s how I found my manager. The agency was then called Caecilia, out of Zurich, but now its former lyric section is its own agency, the Amman-Horak Agency for Opera Artists, and it’s remained Swiss. One of the first auditions that they sent me to was the Munich opera house. I had no idea what if anything I’ll get out of it. A chorus position, an opera studio job, an ensemble contract, a one-off role, nothing at all? I just wanted to work. I knew I wanted to move out from Croatia to a bigger operatic centre. And they offered me immediately to come on as an ensemble member. That was my big break. Munich is, well, probably the best opera house in Germany.

I hear Munich loves its opera.

Not only do they have a full season, but a summer festival too, and there’s a different opera on every day, and every day it’s packed. Ticket prices can hit substantial three digit numbers, due to demand. And Munich is the centre of southern Germany, with a really strong economy. BMW is there, Siemens, Bayers. It’s a wealthy city and its budget for culture is equally big, and Munich audiences love opera. There are two operatic theatres in town in addition to the Bayerische and they’re also doing well.

You’ll be in Munich a while longer?

I actually just finished my fest contract there. Learned a lot, sang a lot of roles, and they were careful of Fach. I was never forced to try anything that wasn’t good for my voice; and how they saw me matched exactly how I understood my own voice. They saw me more in Italian, with a little bit of German and Russian rep, and I appreciated that. I sang Banquo in Macbeth, Timur in Turandot, Colline in La Boheme, Ferrando in Trovatore, Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma… Rarely baroque, but I did Plutone in L’Orfeo, and we did Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, where I did…

Wait, Rameau has bass roles?

Not only that, it was a female role, written for a bass, and the character is goddess of war by the name of Bellona.

Now I have to get that DVD.

It’s available! I rarely sing baroque these days, though I used to sing some baroque oratorio rep. After six years in Munich, next season I am starting an artist in residence contract at the Stuttgart Opera. It’s similar to being an ensemble member, but you sing much less and have much more available time to guest in other opera houses.

Where do you see your voice going in the next, say, five years?

I will try to keep my voice where it is now. This is my first Osmin at the COC, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m not a typical Mozart singer, I don’t do Figaro, Leporello, Don Giovanni. The three Mozart roles I’ve done are Il Commendatore, Sarastro and this one. And I did a Sarastro at the COC last year, and am glad to do Osmin in a house that I know well.

What are your composers now?

So, when it comes to bel canto. I’m not a Rossini singer, but I did sing Moses in Rossini’s Moses in Egypt in Bregenz this summer. I’m returning to Moses right after the Abduction, I’ll sing it in Naples. Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma. That’s for bel canto. Then, Verdi. I would still wait for Filippo, but the Inquisitor I would do now. It’s quite short, it’s a big and important scene, but not as demanding as Filippo. For Filippo, you have to have the vocal maturity and also be mature as a person. Otherwise it’s just… not complete. In Don Carlo, I did already the Monk, and my next rank in that church would be the Inquisitor. Other Verdi, I do Sparafucile, Banquo, Ferrando, and happy with how that’s going. I’d like to do Ramphis as well. But I’ll wait out Filippo, Zaccharia, Attila. There’s still time.

What about the Russians?

I adore Russian composers. Last season here at the COC I did an all-Russian recital, with songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Sviridov. I would still wait for Boris a while. I will first do Pimen, which I will sing in Stuttgart in the near future. Pimen has some beautiful monologues. I would like to do King Rene in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. And Susanin in Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. But for now—I’m 34, and that’s still young for a bass—I’d like to keep my voice between Mozart, bel canto and Verdi. I’ve been saying no to offers from the heavier rep. I’m often offered Wagner and most of those I decline. I will take Heinrich from Lohengrin – it’s written in an oratorio manner, the orchestra is not too thick, I don’t have to sing too dramatically. Let’s say King Mark from Tristan would be like like Filippo from Don Carlo for me; something I will wait for. That’s the role that I’d really like to do in the future. People tell me they can see me as Gurnemanz. I’ve sung Titurel, and there you can hear if someone would be good as Gurnemanz or not. But – there’s time.

I wanted to ask you about the Slavs in opera. I’ve read an interview with the Bulgarian singer Vesselina Kasarova in which, well, she put it like this: she encountered racism in the opera world around Slavic voices. Who are booming, unsophisticated, the “Russian School” etc. Does this sound familiar?

Yes! I’ve heard that before. There’s even some truth in what’s otherwise a crass stereotype. But this is how. What we think when we say “Slavs in opera”, it’s the Russian school of singing and the Bulgarian school of singing. Sometimes we add to that the ex-Yugoslav singers. Our languages probably affect our singing cultures. Our Slavic languages are kind of more guttural, throaty… and our folk music is written in a more virtuosic way than the folk music from the west. One of my Profs in Zagreb once told me that the nations that have long and complex tradition of folk music don’t have long and complex traditions of classical music, and vice versa. Perhaps the Slavic singing does come with and require bigger voices and differently coloured voices due to our folk traditions and religious singing, especially the Orthodox influence?

And maybe it’s our way of speaking as well. Perhaps the difference between the European east and the European west is like the difference between south America and north America. There’s a different kind of… expressivity.

Russian operas are full of basses. More of them there than anywhere else.

That’s probably due to their sacred music. Bass is a major voice in Russian Orthodox music. Different from Italian operas, where tenor tends to be the leading voice.

And women’s voices have not exactly been dominating Orthodox chants and liturgies; it’s the male voices, and low ones, in choirs that are the more familiar colour.

Yes, though they also have some really awesome nuns’ choirs. I wish there was an extensive study on this, I’d love to read it. On these differences.

When you listen to a western European choir do Rachmaninov Vespers, like the French choir Accentus, for example, which recorded the Vespers with Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, it’s a very different piece. Gossamer light in comparison to some Russian recordings.

I can believe it.

And then the Balkans are similar but also apart. I grew up in Croatia and Croatia is at a crossroads between the Mediterranean, Central European and Balkan cultures. That’s why the Croatian singers are part of the so-called “Slavic school” but we also have the Mediterranean touch and the Germanic touch via Austria. Croatia, Montenegro too, at a crossroads between larger countries and the empires that occupied us. But we made use of these cultural influences.

Croatia, within and without Yugoslavia, gave quite a few opera singers to the world. Was Sena Jurinac Croatian?

Yes. Also Dunja Vejzović. And Ruža Pospiš-Baldani.

I remember reading about Dunja in my adolescence, in Svijet magazine. Fast forward to much later, I last watched her in a DVD of Il trittico a few years back.

She is now in her 70s and she’s training as a conductor. She went back to school and she’s going to add that to her degrees.

Then there’s Renata Pokupić.

That’s right, she’s a baroque and Rossini singer. And let’s not forget Vlatka Oršanić. She’s my voice teacher and she’s sung in all of Europe really and now teaches at the opera studies department in Zagreb. And if we broaden our search to the entire ex-Yu territory, there’s of course Željko Lučić (b. in Serbia), really one of the best Verdi baritones around.

And Marijana Mijanović, also from Serbia, but she kind of retired.

Oh yes, Marijana! A real baroque contralto. I’ve never met her, but I remember when I was a student watching clips of her on Youtube, she is incredible.

And her former partner, Krešimir Špicer, who is often in Toronto thanks to Opera Atelier.

Krešimir is from Slavonski Brod, in Croatia. Actually, my very first opera, when I was in my second year at university, was Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and Krešimir was Orfeo in it.

There’s a lot of Slavs in German and Austrian opera. There’s the gruff Croatian count in Arabella and who knows, maybe you’ll end up singing the role eventually… or is it too high for a bass?

I’m not touching Strauss yet! In due course, I’ll take a peek.

But Haydn, too, was inspired by folk songs from Croatia. There were times when the Balkans were inspiring to the west European musicians. Nowadays, the word balkanization is a pejorative… And the stereotyping of Slav singers, yes, it’s a thing.

But this stereotyping maybe works in Slav basses’ favour?

Well let’s be honest, a huge chunk of basses come from Slavic countries. Come on. I’ve met Croatian basses, and Russian ones, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian especially. It is something that’s ours. Provided that this we exists in the first place, of course.

OMG that’s right. Of course it doesn’t.

A friend from Croatia recently asked me: so when you’re away and you miss home, what do you miss: Croatia as Croatia, or Karlovac, your hometown, or Zagreb where you studied, or Munich where you live? My answer is, I never feel complete. From every city I live in or work in, I get something. But I leave a bit of myself there as well.

Goran Jurić continues as Osmin at the COC.

Goran Jurić as Osmin and Owen McCausland as Pedrillo in the Abduction from the Seraglio. Photo: Michael Cooper

Othalie Graham in Opera Canada

I wanted to share my conversation with the Ontario-born, US-based dramatic soprano Othalie Graham that just came out in Winter 2015-16 issue of Opera Canada. Some highlights:

Is operatic career only attainable to the well-off:

The cost of ongoing lessons, coaching, language instruction, travel to auditions, the accompanists, the formalwear, the hotel stays during rehearsals and runs—all require deep pockets as soon the singer leaves school or a young-artist program. “It’s very difficult, but it’s certainly attainable,” says Graham. “I’m not sure how a lot of us do it. You can afford to prepare new roles only if in between the coaching and studying you’re continuing to perform in other engagements.” The number of capable singers coming out of schools is also growing each year and auditions are getting more competitive. Most singers cross borders in search of work, but visa regulations remain inflexible. This Canadian in the U.S. moved from student visa to work visas until she acquired dual citizenship.

Graham confirms that the period after school is the most difficult. “You still don’t have a team in place, you have to do all on your own, and that is the time when a lot of people give up. They see how emotionally and financially difficult it is, and they don’t see a way to make it work for them. But sometimes, it’s the people who don’t give up who end up having a career, even if they’re not as talented as some others.”

On the lovability of Turandot

“I like to keep her young,” she says of her Turandot. “I don’t play her as this screamy, icy princess because you lose something in your voice if you do that. I like to keep her as youthful and beautiful as possible. Which is why I still sing Verdi Requiems, Aidas, things that require pianissimos, which for a big voice is difficult. You can’t hide in that kind of rep.”

There is humanity in Turandot, Graham continues, she is not a mythical figure or a caricature. “When she’s begging her father not to give her away, there are moments where you can float and use pianissimos to show some of her softness and vulnerability. She has to be seductive… even if it’s just underlined. This beauty is the soft underbelly of Turandot.”

Wagner the tender?

Graham is already singing quite a lot of Wagner in concert, and projecting in front of a Wagner orchestra rather than above it on stage presents its own set of challenges. “I just remind myself to sing with my own voice, and again to find the beauty—and Wagner, too, wrote some beautiful, tender things.”

Or even better, read the whole thing here [downloads the PDF file].

Othalie Graham - Turandot - Photo by Reed Hummel
Othalie Graham as Turandot at Nashville Opera. Photo by Reed Hummel

Brook, Meet Doundou Tchil: Schubert and Messiaen as a couple

2295I was skeptical about the Schubert-Messiaen mashup going in, but the latest AtG offering Death & Desire turned out to be excellent. The closer you look at how Topher MokrzewskiJoel Ivany and comp. shaped it, the more stirring and intelligent the work shows itself.

Schubert’s 1823 song cycle Die schöne Müllerin and Messiaen’s 1945 Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort kinda copulate (a highly technical musicological term) here: instead of stand-alone two one-acters, as it were, the songs from each are interwoven and mixed to form a new Gestalt. The structure of the Schubert cycle is almost untouched, while the Harawi deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled, and added onto the Schubert.

The mezzo (Krisztina Szabó, in what’s now my favourite role I’ve ever seen her in) voices Harawi, and the baritone (the very good Stephen Hegedus) the Müllerin, with Mokrzewski at the piano for each. The basic set-up is a woman and a man (feel free to fill in the  genders applicable to you) talking—and loving each other—at cross-purposes. One speaks Romanticism, the other the twentieth-century, surrealism, and psychoanalysis; one German, the other French with a smattering of more or less invented words in the vein of the ancient Peruvian language of Quechua, not to mention the onomatopoeic bird-language . The woman gets the music that is more complex and interesting in every imaginable way, but on the downside her emotional expressivity is also off the (Schubertian) charts. While the Schubert has a fairly linear narrative of a young man arriving at a mill, being hired there, falling for the miller’s daughter, ending up broken-hearted and throwing himself into the river, Harawi is Messiaen’s reworking of the Tristan & Isolde myth through the Andean cultures and myths, beheadings and all. It also has something of a narrative in the original lineup, of lovers coming together and entering the otherworld. With his deceptively plain material and simple motives, the man is at the beginning the easiest one to understand and to psychologise. But things get complicated.

The woman opens with “La ville qui dormait”, and later “Bonjour toi, colombe verte”. The two people are already on divergent clocks, because after her melancholy “La ville”, he starts off his cycle with that aimless wander-about, “Das Wandern”, followed by the (c’mon, admit it) silly “Wohin?” enumerating the many restless things he sees that match his own restlessness. He must go down to the brook, where he spots the mill and its house (in “Halt!”).

Hegedus plays him just you may expect, as a bit overeager, sweet chap who likes the tone of his own voice. The woman takes over with “Bonjour toi, colombe verte” in a very different tone against an astonishing canvass of sound coming from the piano, and the man responds with his address to the alter-ego (alter-body?), the brook in “Danksagung an den Bach” and an expression of bravado and his need to impress the millermaid in “Am Feierabend”. A couple of blocks in similar vein later, the woman sings one of her numbers that are veritable mini-operas, “Répétition planétaire” which *also* happens to be about the creation of the world. The chap’s answer? A cheerful, sunny “Morgengruß” (think “Good morning” from Singing in the rain) and “Des Müllerss Blumen” (he’ll plant some flowers for her and hope she’ll notice them). But hey, another one of these numbers in HD coming from the woman, the remarkable “L’escalier redit, gestes du soleil”. The man answers with the song “Mein!” in which we find out that in some way he got his millermaid, she is his (he thinks), and he is celebrating. Act 1 finishes with the woman’s riposte: “Doundou tchil”, performed by Szabó engulfed in anger, puzzlement, disappointment, lyrics largely incomprehensible even after they switch to French.

The blocking so far is extremely simple, with two singers singing to or past each other, walking around the table or sitting down. The lighting changes sometimes, and that is pretty much it. And it’s enough.

The dance of clever juxtaposition continues in Act 2, with the souring on the part of the man and a certain sweetening and resignation in the woman. The “Hunter” song is excised from the man’s songbook, possibly because it would require introducing another character to the stage, but the stuff that follows is there, the man’s sulking and the feeling of betrayal at the millermaid’s real or perceived flirting with the hunter. Near the end, there’s quite a bit of respect to the literal text in both song cycles, and somehow, intriguingly, they converge to a joint ending. “Syllabes” contains the plucking of flowers and removing of petals, and that is also performed before us. The man follows with “Die liebe Farbe” in which the green, previously the colour of their love, is now the colour of his sadness, and of the grass that will cover his grave. “L’amour de Piroutcha” is even sadder, a Liebestod of sorts, operating in the chthonic folk mythology register. Near the very end, the dialogical “Der Müller und der Back”, in which the brook answers to the dying miller, the woman joins the German song as the Brook. (Dastardly smart, guys. A surprise, a relief, a feeling of it being an illusion, a feeling of it being too-late: all this and more provided by those few sung lines.) After the man is laid down and covered in what remains of the flowers, last word given to the woman for “Dans le noir”, the actual ending of “Harawi”.

Remaining performances: June 4 and 5, 8pm, Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery.

A word of warning about the performance space. It is—no other way to put it—terrible. Please, AtG: don’t do this to us again. Seriously. Don’t.

In the photos: Krisztina Szabó, Stephen Hegedus and Topher Mokrzewski. Photos by Darryl Block.

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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

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.