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
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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 downsize 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.

The Opera Questionnaire: Brent Bambury

CBC Radio journalist Brent Bambury will be known to many across Canada as the host of Day 6, but only Torontonians will know about his love of opera: Brent often MC’s opera-related events in Toronto, including one of the most successful education programs by the COC, the Opera Connect/Opera 101. (And Barihunk curators, take note. A potential honorary barihunk inductee here, non?) Here is his insightful and funny take on the Opera Questionnaire:

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Brent B

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

Pop music is structurally simple, verse-chorus or even less. And sometimes it tells a story, but often it’s a simple emotion set to music. Simplicity, quirky, bit of an attitude: oddly a scene I think might work is “Kleinzach” from Hoffmann. It’s got a narrative, some tension, sing-along potential and a hook.

And a film buff?

Hands down, Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now.

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

There are so many pieces of music that have made their way into the popular culture which most teens would recognize instantly and never know the work from which they were excerpted. I’m thinking:

-Anvil Chorus
-La Habanera
-Ride of the Valkyries
-Flower Duet
-Nessun Dorma

But I’m sure that recontextualizing these works into the complete opera is the best way to bring young people on board. A huge chorus, fast tempi, action scenes, murder and mayhem are always good bets. No shortage of these in opera.

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

Great art speaks to the present as well as the past. Just as musical interpretations allow for infinite variety so do possible productions. Tie it all to one idea and you risk making it moribund and irrelevant.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

Of course.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Not nearly. Entirely. But I was jet lagged.

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

I try to be zen about audience noise and have sat through whispering, candy unwrapping, the zipping of purses, the shushing of others. It’s usually over quickly.

I do find it rude and distracting when people are checking a phone or opening a screen during a performance. I wish conversations would end the moment the orchestra starts and not as the curtain opens. And I don’t like it when people leave the theater while performers are still onstage.

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

-Natalie Dessay – Zerbinetta Met 97
-Ben Heppner  – Tristan COC 13
-Gwyneth Jones – Turandot Met 95

Something that illustrates how well opera understands love and desire.

Mild und leise – Wagner

Your choice of segments or arias that show how political opera can be.

Nixon in China, The whole thing.

The Met in HD – good, bad, a mixed bag?

Haven’t seen but I like the fact that people are debating it. The popularity of the screenings seems to be a good thing but the argument that opera is a large scale experience, not a multi-camera offering like a Superbowl broadcast, is a fair one.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

Strauss

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

Parsifal

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

Hey Lucy – opera about how Lucille Ball became the biggest female star on TV, launched a production company and made mixed marriage acceptable to America.

Turing – Alan Turing, eccentric cryptologist, wins war for allies but is prosecuted by his government for homosexuality, dies eating poisoned apple.

Mulroney – Bigger than life flawed politician leads party to historic victory, succumbs to graft, just wants to be loved.

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Brent Bambury has always had a deep connection to radio and was still a teenager when he launched his career at CBC working in Saint John, Halifax and Montreal. He spent most of the ’80s and half of the ’90s staying up late sharing his love for obscure and emerging music hosting Radio 2’s all-night underground music show Brave New Waves. Later he worked as an entertainment reporter and co-host of Midday and and in 2000 he helped Kai Black and David Carroll re-invent the game show genre with their popular Radio 1 show, Off the Cuff. After that, he hosted All in a Day (2002) and also helped design and host the national music quiz show GrooveShinny. In 2008, he returned to television to co-host Test the Nation with Wendy Mesley. The Saturday morning playhouse GO! was created around this time; with Brent as the host, the show was broadcast nationally for eight years. Day 6, his latest creation, blends journalism, current affairs, comedy and opinion. 

The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

If there is one person who we can blame the most for the fact that I started this blog back in 2010 (David Miller was Mayor… YNS was just taking over the Philly… screamers were screaming over Tim Albery’s Aida…), it’s Cecily. I discovered her own blog All Time Coloratura while desperately looking for Toronto-area opera blogs and found out the COC had scooped her as a digital publicist that very month (Cecily has since returned to IT and feminist gaming). I emailed her about the logistics of starting an opera blog, telling her that I had no idea how to run the thing, that there were so many wonderful opera blogs already, that I didn’t know if I’d add anything, and if I’d get the tone right, eccetera, and she said “But you must start it, it’ll be great! Never you mind the details, you’ll figure them out soon enough. Just get going.” So I followed her advice. We can blame her for what ensued.

We’ve met and talked and kaffee-klatsched a number of times since, and it’s always been a pleasure. This latest edition of The Opera Questionnaire will give you a hint of how brilliant and lovely she is.

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Cecily CarverThe work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued?

As someone who became an opera addict during my teenhood, it seems to me that opera is very well-suited for teenagers already – with its romanticism and big emotions. My adolescence wasn’t particularly painful or traumatic, but I was a very inward-focused, anxious, and emotional teenager. I was half in love with most of my friends but also desperately shy.

I lived in a drab city with drab weather, I didn’t drive, and since my high school was far from my home, I spent a lot of time riding the bus. Most of my music-listening was done while riding a bus through the city streets in winter. Opera fit me like a glove back then, because I was hungry for beauty and romance. I wanted beautiful clothes and beautiful surroundings, and wanted to be beautiful myself. Opera sounded beautiful, it looked beautiful on stage, and it took all my feelings and dressed them up and painted them in bright colours. And because none of my friends listened to opera, it made me feel like I was a special person for liking it.

A lot of what I liked were things I’d be a little ashamed to admit to now in serious company, like Rachmaninov, Puccini, and operetta. But those things were absolutely perfect for a shy teenager full of feelings to listen to on long bus rides through the snow. Tales of Hoffmann was a favourite. I also really liked Mahler (Still do. When I read the TSO’s brochure every year my first thought is usually: When is the Mahler).

The trouble with trying to “intrigue a teen” in opera is that it’s usually presented in such a pandering way. “Mozart was like a rock star in his day,” or “Rigoletto is all about sex and violence, just like those movies you like,” etc. Teenagers tend to be resistant to loving things that adults try to foist on them, especially if it’s wearing “high culture” clothing. And, opera is such a strange and stylized beast that trying to present it as connected to mainstream pop culture in any way is doomed to failure. A lot of ad campaigns for opera make me cringe, for this reason.

I don’t know if I’d have loved opera as much if it didn’t feel like something I found on my own, something that belonged to me.

I did make opera mixtapes for my friends. I would still make opera mixtapes for my friends if they asked me. To actually answer your question, I remember one selection that usually went over well was the trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

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

With my own friends who are not Opera People, I’ve had the most success with John Adams and other composers who are (mostly) tonal without being old-fashioned.

And a film buff?

The “culturally elite” adults – the kind who go to art-house films and art galleries and keep up with literature, but who have never set foot in an opera house – I think they’re most likely to be intrigued by something subversive, ironic, or political. Anything by Kurt Weill is perfect, I think, as is the aforementioned John Adams, or maybe something like Anna Nicole. Usually I can convince someone to go to the cleavage-and-sequins traditional productions of romantic-era rep, and usually they have a good time, but they tend to approach it like a tourist, rather than someone engaging with a living art.

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

I try never to have those conversations, because I usually end up boiling with rage. When part of my job involved sometimes encountering angry traditionalists, I never argued, just let them talk and asked questions. It amazes me how some of them can be still so angry about a production they saw years ago. I always want to say, “It must have made a very profound impression on you, for you to still be talking about it three years later.”

If you want to be tactful and persuasive, I think the best approach is to ask them more questions about how they think it “should” look. When pressed, they usually don’t want to return to the days of painted backdrops, suitcase arias, or park-and-bark staging. Often they have fond memories of a particular production they saw decades ago, which itself would have been different from what came before, and they can be brought around to the idea that production styles have always changed.

Often they’ll say things like, “I’m not opposed to updated productions, as long as they’re done well.” That’s usually a cop-out, and usually means “nothing that might be uncomfortable or confusing,” which is why Toronto critics are always patting themselves on the back for loving the Robert Carsen productions that come through town. But at least it’s not totally reactionary.

On the other hand, if you want to be snarky, the idea of “the composer’s intent” is ripe for ribbing. Any serious Regie warrior should be able to pluck numerous examples of composers who “intended” to make a quick buck, or placate a famous diva, or capitalize on a short-lived trend. They were also constantly re-jigging their “eternal, timeless” masterpieces for different audiences and changing tastes.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

Oh, all the time. Most recently during Tristan und Isolde, which was a semi-embarrassing cry-fest for me. Tristan also marks the only time I’ve cried during a director’s concept discussion, and I know I wasn’t alone in that one.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Never dozed off as far as I can remember, but some operas I find dreadfully boring. I will never understand the appeal of Simon Boccanegra, Capriccio, or La clemenza di Tito.

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

I’m pretty tolerant of coughing these days, especially after having attended the COC’s spring run while sick and miserable myself, but any kind of whispering annoys me to no end. Also, I’m a small person and often the person sitting in front of me blocks my view of half the stage. Usually they can’t be faulted – tall people love opera too – but if they lean forward in their seat it blocks the stage out entirely and I gnash my teeth in frustration.

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

TristanI really do feel like the recent Tristan was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And the COC’s 2010 Aida looms large in my mind for many reasons, and has informed so much of how I think about opera that I love to talk about it with people who have seen it. I saw Against the Grain Theatre’s Turn of the Screw in all four performances (full disclosure: AtG is run by my close friends and I am a member of its admin team) and it really achieved a level of intimacy and involvement that is much more difficult to accomplish in a bigger, traditional venue. The most memorable operatic experience of my life might be when I saw Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung (originally a COC production) in Edmonton in 2006. I hope they revive it soon.

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

R. Strauss is it for me here, especially the end of Rosenkavalier. Opera (and probably most art forms, when I think about it) are reluctant to deal with love that is not assumed to be permanent, that ends for reasons other than all-caps BETRAYAL or MISFORTUNE or DEATH, that when an opera deals in a mature way with the fading of love, and the ways it can be transitory and changing, it is so much more interesting and sophisticated.

If you’ll permit me to quote myself, I also wrote this a while ago about Carmen, which despite the ways in which it’s gotten tired-out from overplaying I think is just a dynamite piece of music theatre:

“The love-from-first-sight-until-death-yours-forever-most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world-I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-can’t-be-with-you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a supporting character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.”

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

All operas (like all narratives) are political in some way, because they all communicate something about how the creators think the world should be. What makes for a good monarch, a good woman, a good parent? And what are the ills that, more often than not, cause things to go horribly wrong? And, of course, we live in a time of interesting productions that interrogate these messages, whatever they are.

It’s interesting to think about the ways that historical operas bend the stories of their subjects. Like Donizetti’s Tudor operas. The history they’re based on is already jam-packed with confrontation, betrayal and death, so why did the operas wind up with wildly different plots? Why, in Roberto Devereux, do we have Queen Elizabeth I going mad and dying of grief after wrongfully causing the death of her lover?

Wagner is also really interesting for this. Scholars argue a lot about what he’s trying to tell us about the world, especially in the Ring Cycle. We know that a lot of it is racist and unsavoury. At the same time, “burn the whole thing down” is certainly part of the message, and it’s a woman who does it.

The Met in HD – overall good or overall bad?

I myself don’t like it (and almost never go), but whether it’s “good” for opera is an open question. I think it’s a mixed bag, like most things.

It’s certainly made opera more accessible to people who for whatever reason can’t get into an opera house. I’m always a little tickled when I see ads for the Met playing before whatever mainstream popcorn movie I’m seeing at the Cineplex. Whether it’s “introducing opera to a new audience” is definitely debatable. From what people tell me, and from what audience statistics are showing, the audiences aren’t any younger and less white than for live opera – quite the opposite, in fact.

Also, a lot of opera companies are now competing with The Met for their audiences. I know that many people in smaller communities who used to make trips to their nearest opera company are now opting to stay put and go to the Cinecasts instead. I can’t blame them – it’s cheaper and more convenient, after all – but I think this is a real shame.

The idea of the Met as the gold standard in opera, the Best in the World, also mildly irritates me. I’ve seen a fair amount of live opera at the Met, but when I think of the most memorable opera experiences of my life, they’ve mostly been elsewhere. The Met gets away with a lot of mediocrity.

I worry that the opera world in North America will concentrate into a few massive companies doing HD broadcasts on one end, and community theatre on the other end, with all the mid-tier companies wiped out. Not that I have anything against the big players, or against community theatre, but a healthy opera ecosystem should have a number of companies of different sizes. It’s a bit like the concern about “big box” retailers gobbling up everything around them. I remember the outcry in the 90’s about giant bookstore chains destroying the independents. Now those big chains aren’t faring so well themselves.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

I’m an R. Strauss girl all the way. I try not to think too hard about it.

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

Figaro and Don Giovanni do this for me. I always hear something new.

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

I would be tickled by an opera that mimics the structure of reality television, while turning up the frightening maw of glitzy emptiness to the maximum. Big personalities, meaningless contrived conflict, consumption, glamour, camp – what could be more operatic? Let’s put Angela Gheorghiu in it.

I’d also love to see more opera as cinema – written to be filmed, Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style. That’s largely unexplored territory.

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dmg_toronto_logo_200_altCecily Carver, an opera-lover since her teens, was the Canadian Opera Company’s social media co-ordinator (and later, digital marketing manager) from 2010 to early 2013. She is also the community outreach advisor for Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre and the author of the now-dormant opera blog All Time Coloratura. Her non-operatic career involves building software and running the video game community organization Dames Making Games. You can learn more about Cecily’s work at http://cecilycarver.com.

 

Orchestra is Alchemy: a Sneak Preview of the Article on the COC Orchestra

This long article about the Canadian Opera Company orchestra is coming in the spring issue of the magazine Opera Canada. I worked a lot on it, spoke with about a dozen people, sat in on rehearsals, and had a grand old time in the process. Here’s a teaser.

the coc orchestraHow does a group of independent musicians become a band of brothers and sisters, take to a conductor, simultaneously master two as stylistically disparate operas as Tristan and La Clemenza di Tito and play them back-to-back, all the while accepting that in the opera the stage always takes precedence and that if all goes well, the audience will barely notice them? Lydia Perović follows the COC orchestra musicians and conductors in rehearsal, performance and in their less formal moments to find out.

The third act of Tristan und Isolde is starting with the dark moan of the lower strings. It’s hour four and the lights are losing some of their lustre, but the atmosphere in the COC orchestra pit is that of a party going very strong very late, with adrenalin and lucidity in abundant supply. The orchestra is in its augmented, Wagnerian version, with most sections doubled – there’s barely any room for my chair — and for this Sellars/Viola production, many of the woodwinds and brass are moving to the upper rings and returning after the solos. Soon the house and the pit will darken, and the sombre strings quiet down for the cor anglais solo.

Although impossible to tell from the audience, the sound is coming from the fifth ring staircase, behind a closed door, where Lesley Young (COC’s second oboe) is alone with her thoughts. I learn this in the weeks that follow, when I meet her and other members of the orchestra for interviews. Cor anglais belongs to the oboe family, and anglais stands for ‘angled’ rather than anything related to the English, she explains. It’s a fifth below the oboe, has a darker, lower sound, and a different reed. Why did Wagner like it so much? “It has the melancholy tone built into it. It’s the same range as the cello, another good Romantic instrument with a dark, yearning voice.” What goes through her mind while she’s playing the Tristan solo up on the fifth ring? “That is a very personal question,” she laughs. “I can tell you that I reach inside, and play straight from my heart. It’s a very sad solo, very beautiful. I play it differently each time. We are different every day, our moods are different… and the reed changes, it’s affected by humidity and temperature.”

The outsider who finds herself in the pit will inevitably be swept away by the force of the orchestral playing, but how do the musicians handle the intensity, I wondered. Do they ever become immune, do they always stay conscious of the job at hand? Lesley Young is adamant: “You don’t ever become immune to music.” Even if you’re making it? “Especially if you’re making it. You can’t help being swept up.” Permanent alertness is what distinguishes the rehearsal from the performance, explains Johannes Debus. “In performance, you have to let it go. You have to risk getting yourself into a musical high. If your awareness is in the way of music-making, then something is wrong.” Suspending observation and letting something else take over is actually the goal, argues Eric Hall, principal bassoon: “To be so engrossed that you stop consciously analyzing – being intuitive as opposed to reactive… I did experience that myself, when the performance goes so well you can’t remember to think, oh that G sharp is really sharp, I didn’t quite make that attack with the principal clarinet, seems that was a tiny bit behind the violins but I’m not sure… you’re not making all those judgment calls along the way, you’re just being involved in playing the music.”

This experience has pedagogical value, too. “When I teach, I tell my kids, when that happens, try to remember what it felt like, and try to recreate the feeling next time — you can’t really recreate sitting, breathing, fingers and all that, but you can recreate the feeling of calmness or whatever you were thinking about. That feeling brings everything into line. Also, think about what the piece is about, the emotional context of the composer. That will focus you in,” concludes Hall. Principal horn Joan Watson also emphasizes the importance of thinking beyond the technical minutiae. “Both of our conductors have been talking in rehearsals about the story and the feelings and the colours… Most of the conversation is about how you can portray a particular thing, and I love that as a musician, because that really pushes your technique. Okay, how do you play night, for example. You have to really think about articulation, and colour and balance… it’s great.” Concertmaster Marie Berard remembers Kaija Saariaho’s Amour de loin last year as an interesting case in point. “She uses all the instruments in very specific ways that are restrictive. Our role is very small—important, but reduced. We do the one pattern of things, so you end up doing very little of what you love to do. But the soundscape that she creates was incredible. I found myself during that opera thinking all kinds of bizarre things; things would pop up in my mind from the past; maybe because there was more room for that, I was not focused on having to do something difficult.”

This zone of contemplation, as both the musicians and the conductors attest, always rests on the large amount of work preceding it. After the originally contracted Tristan conductor withdrew for health reasons, Johannes Debus abandoned his Clemenza and took over the Wagner and the young Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen was asked to take Debus’s post. Neither has conducted their assigned work before, and Cohen had only ten days to prepare. “I spent ten sleepless days,” he recollects. “You learn the score, but developing an interpretation is a different thing.” The closer he got to know the score, the stranger the opera looked. “It doesn’t function like any other Mozart opera… it’s almost closer to Handel and Gluck. It’s a weird animal, it behaves as an opera seria but then it has all these elements that don’t belong to that style… it’s a style in itself.” He may have started the first rehearsal with the COC orchestra worried, but it ended up being a very happy event. “They turned out to have a very live and energetic approach to music, almost in the historically-informed or baroque way. It was the perfect orchestra for this opera: they have both lightness and agility and the heaviness and very clear characterization that you need for some of the bigger numbers. There was only the question of finding the right tone, and that can be exhausting labour, but they were completely on board the whole time, always positive, always willing to go the extra mile. And that is never taken for granted in our world.”

Johannes Debus was, meanwhile, working on his first Tristan

[Full article in Opera Canada, Spring 2013. A PDF of the scanned pages will be linked here.]

…Wehe, wehe, du Wind!

…Wehe, wehe, du Wind!

TristanTristan-Some thoughts on the Sellars/Viola Tristan about to open on Tuesday at the Mothership. This is based on the two rehearsals I sat in on: one in the orchestra pit, the other the dress rehearsal last night. I’m working on an article for Opera Canada about the COC Orchestra, therefore the visits.

— To sit in the orchestra pit while the orchestra is playing is an unparalleled musical experience. I was planted in the back, between Second Violins and Violas, which is of course more recommended than sitting next to the First Violins. A whole new world of shades and forms in the work opens when you follow the score from that position. The orchestra (dir. Johannes Debus) is in great shape and teasing the hell out of every nuance in the score.

Melanie Diener is a very  good Isolde. All the talk seems to be around Ben Heppner — how great he’s doing, what form he’s in, that he sounds as good as ever — but a good Isolde is equally tough to stumble upon. The German soprano debuts the role, and she is remarkable.

— King Marke of Cornwall (Franz-Josef Selig) and Kurwenal (Alan Held) don’t get better than this.

Bill Viola’s videos are really meaningful and work well except in one regard. This opera isn’t about a guy and a girl who fall in love eccetera. It’s about a somebody and another somebody who fall in love — the work allows for plenty cross-gender and non-gender and trans-gender identification. Any of us, man or woman, can be at any point Tristan or Isolde (or Marke, or Brangaene, etc). Hell, Auden even joked it must be about two lesbians because of the mad degree of merging between the principals. But what Viola and Sellars did was they doubled the couple by putting another man-woman couple in the videos, who do parallel things to the couple on stage, in that the slowed-down, Bill Viola-time of which a lot has been written. This unfortunately anchors the work permanently on the very straight side. Some of the videos of the couple running into the splashing sea will even bring to mind other, more stereotypical media images of the couple happiness that you don’t want seeing in the opera. There are many other video segments that get the tone just right, so there’s some consolation in that. The final fall of the woman figure from a raging fire into the water is as good an exegesis of the Liebestod as any likely to emerge.

— I don’t need to say Go, see it, because Toronto obviously is gonna: the entire run is almost sold out days before the opening night.

Video stills by Bill Viola, from the Opéra national de Paris production of Tristan und Isolde. Photo: Kira Perov © 2005

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

The Canadian Opera Company 2012/13 season highlights

No baroque this year. (On the upside, no Gluck and no Puccini either.)

Psychoanalysis, stock market crash, decadence: Christopher Alden’s new production of Die Fledermaus. Laura Tucker as Prinz Orlofsky.

Peter Sellars’s Tristan und Isolde with Bill Viola’s video screens.

More dark Victoriana: David Alden’s ENO Lucia.

Christopher Alden’s La Clemenza, first shown at Chicago Opera Theatre. Sesto will be sung by Isabel Leonard, Wallis Giunta will be Annio.

Atom Egoyan will revive and ‘re-think’ his old COC Salome.

Robert Carsen returns with Dialogues des Carmelites (the 2004 La Scala production available on DVD), with mezzo Judith Forst as Madame de Croissy and Adrianne Pieczonka debuting the role as Madame Lidoine.

There’s also a Trovatore with Elena Manistina as Azucena. Here’s Stride la vampa from Liceu 2009:

Should you read this collection of interviews: Living Opera, by Joshua Jampol

Jampol talked with Pierre Boulez, Robert Carsen, Patrice Chéreau, William Christie, James Conlon, Natalie Dessay, Joyce DiDonato, Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Waltraud Meier, Heidi Grant Murphy, Kent Nagano, Seiji Ozawa, Samuel Ramey, Esa-Pekka Salonen, José Van Dam, Rolando Villazón.

Among the highlights:

Boulez explaining why Schoenberg was a trifle deluded when he claimed that with the twelve-tone, he fixed the future of music. His explanation of moments in music that are absolutely free and those that are fully determined. Paris doesn’t have a single hall with superb acoustics. The staging of opera still needs to undergo the revolution that the spoken theatre had (and profited from). He tried writing an opera with Jean Genet and Heiner Muller, but “both died in the process.”  Among the works that influenced him hugely, The Rite of Spring.

Robert Carsen on why he placed Der Rosenkavalier (Salzburg 2004, Adrianne Pieczonka, Angelika Kirchschlager) in the pre-WW1, end-of-the Habsburgs era when Austria was arming itself, and why it didn’t go dowd too well  with the locals; why he has greatest respect for the opera singers (“awful lot of juggling” yet “all the technical sides have to be invisible”).

William Christie interview is a blast. Said in this frank chat: most large opera houses of solid international repute don’t know how to deal with the pre-Gluck music (this includes programming, staging, casting); reasons he hates the label “authentic”; the compromises a conductor has to make with the general managers of opera houses who may lobby for this or that opera star to be cast due to their name recognition.

Joyce DiDonato sharing one of the best compliments to her singing: the pregnant Anna Netrebko as Giulietta to her Romeo, saying “Don’t look at my stomach while you sing, you will laugh at how much the baby is kicking.” (In DiDonato version of the Russian accent, natch.)

How incredibly practical and full of useful advice for the emerging singers Renée Fleming was in this interview.

Ferruccio Furlanetto on why it was important to sometimes know how to say No to Karajan’s enthusiasm for you as a singer.

Kasper Bech Holten, the now-outgoing head of the Copenhagen Opera, on how opera and film could collaborate more. This is also the only interview where the question of singing fees paid in Europe was touched on. “Some European houses say their maximum is fifteen thousand euros per night,” says Jampol in a question. “We’re lower than that…” Holten.

The awesomeness of Simon Keenlyside. The picture he provided is the one of him lying in bed holding a score, with his newborn baby son next to him (feminist points through the roof). He comes across as incredibly humble and (at the same time) hugely talented. Open-minded, experimental, serious with tons of humour, quick to acknowledge his shortcomings, as only a perfectionist is. Lots of good stories on how he tried something for the first time on stage, and it turned out it didn’t work. Repeats in many varieties the phrase “I had no idea what I was doing”. But how he does.

The awesomeness of José Van Dam. He’s even more into talking about his own fallibility and the need to stay humbled than Keenlyside. His answer to the question that Jampol asks a number of his interviewees — “After a performance, and the restaurant with friends, it’s 2am, when you’re all alone in a hotel room in a foreign city. How do you feel?” — is very sincere, starts somber and ends in hilarity.

Kent Nagano coming across as boring.

Heidi Grant Murphy talking too much about her children, but I don’t blame her: she has four pieces and, by the sound of it, does most of the childcare herself, in spite a living, breathing husband.

Samuel Ramey well into his 60s, still singing (double standard, anyone?) though thinking of gradually retiring, has a young family that follows him on his travels and thus solves for him the empty hotel room in a foreign country problem [see above].

Waltraud Meier proving that Wagnerian singers too are capable of pranks. In one Bayreuth performance of Tristan und Isolde she snuck in ‘Mein Herr Marquis’ from Der Fledermaus in the section that begins with ‘Mein Herr und Ohm…’ In the same opera on another occasion, Siegfried Jerusalem (Tristan) lost himself in the long phrases of text and started singing “about spaghetti and I don’t know what else”. [No critic noticed. Hee.] At the end of the interview, and very guardedly phrased, why befriending or dating a fan never worked out for her.

Should you read this collection of interviews VERDICT:

Yes. There are few women in it, no queer content, not enough open venting and a couple of odd choices, but generally he gets substantial stuff out of his interviewees and the conversations are better researched, edited and more wide-ranging than the average deadline-rushed and news-oriented print interview.