Virginia Woolf as ballet

picture1On February 25th you can watch the acclaimed ROH production of Woolf Works in Toronto, thanks to the good people of the Hot Docs Cinema and the ROH screening series. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor to the music by Max Richter, the piece adapts Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves into three consecutive but unified ballets.

Here’s one of the videos that the ROH made on how the work came to be. The dramaturge Uzma Hameed, Wayne McGregor, Max Richter and principal dancers explain:

The Hot Docs Cinema is not showing much opera over the last two months. The sole screening, taking place tomorrow, is of the first revival of David Bösch’s recent production of Il Trovatore set in present day. Casting is stellar and includes Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde and Lianna Haroutounian.

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Ambur Braid sings Verdi

Believe it or not, there’s a summer concert series at Casa Loma May 31-August 30. It’s called Symphony in the Gardens and this year it opens with Ambur Braid singing a program of Puccini, Gershwin and Verdi (Violetta’s entire “Che strano…Sempre libera” and Leonora’s “Tacea la notte placida”, rumour has it.).  I wanted to hear Ambur in Verdi since CASP’s The Living Spectacles, so this is exciting.

Concerts are every Tuesday, and the program is general populist fare with a few gems and curiosities. Single tickets are around $30, judging by the cost of the passes and include admission to Casa Loma, I expect. I’ve never been, so I may decide to play tourist in my own town on May 31.

(Click photo to magnify)
CasaLomaConcertSeries

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

End of year highlights: performing arts

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

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

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

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

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

Best Concerts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

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

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

Best Operas

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

The most er unusual performance in an opera

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

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

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

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

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

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

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

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

Best Theatre

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

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

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

The most regretful miss-outs

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

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

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

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

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

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

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

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

Palpito dell’universo

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I might as well come out: La Traviata is—together with Don Carlos—the best thing Verdi ever did. Even though it’s an opera in which the Fallen Woman is tortured, accepts greatest self-sacrifice, and dies so that we the audience, and her torturers on stage, can realize that her moral behaviour is superior to those of the more widely accepted bourgeois pater familias’. Even so. Taken line by line, the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave has poetry, truth-telling and intelligence to burn, and that’s 160 years later. Acts 1 and 3 especially are doing well, the middle act likelier to show its age and melodramatic roots. The “E strano…Sempre libera” in Act 1, in which Violetta probes, rejects, embraces love in turns is a mini-act in itself, every line meaningful, and equally of our time as of Verdi’s. Every line, too, married to music just about perfectly. There are some cadenzas that singers who don’t give it their all can leave appearing illogical but that in the hands of great singers make perfect emotional rollercoaster sense.

In her house debut, Ekaterina Siurina was a fine and correct Violetta, if not entirely commanding or emotionally shattering. I had the impression she was somewhat reserved, keeping quite a bit of herself to herself. The production could not have helped: Arin Arbus’s reduced-traditionalist approach alas did not reduce the volume of the hoop skirts nor the elaborateness of the wigs and the headwear. In “E strano”, Siurina needs to go through the slew of conflicting emotions and criss-cross the stage while wearing a big wig chignon and a tiara, an unnatural constraint to her head in a scene of emotional directness calling for naturalism. She is—and so are we—luckier in the final act where she wears a nightgown and is much freer in her movement and much more expressive. Conductor Marco Guidarini with the COC Orchestra struck a perfect tempo for “Addio del passato”, drawn out, but not too drawn out; melancholy, while still serene; acquiescent, with a tragic tinge of hopefulness.  Considering the opera as a whole, Siurina’s voice had the odd moment of unevenness and disappearance under the orchestra, but was reliable and pretty overall. Joyce El-Khoury is sharing the role and it’ll certainly be worthwhile going again to see what she makes of Violetta.

Act 2 in many ways belongs to the two male protagonists, the tenor and his baritone father, excepting the brief “Amami, Alfredo” farewell by Violetta. Germont the Father visits the two love-doves in their country house, and skilfully blackmails Violetta while seeming to appeal to her compassion. She decides to comply and leave Alfredo upon his request, so Alfredo’s younger sister, “an angel”, could marry her suitor, reportedly reluctant to have anything to do with the family in which the son lives in sin with a former courtesan. As is his wont, Quinn Kelsey was excellent as Giorgio Germont, making the case for the old patriarch by showing his soft spots—Verdi is to blame here, as he gives him some fairly lyrical music amidst the predominantly solemn and menacing colours.

Tenors are the most clueless characters of any nineteenth-century opera, and Alfredo is not only slow on the uptake but bloodless, too—or let’s say, underwritten. There isn’t much to him, but the voice can save the character, and Charles Castronovo does exactly that with his ample and generous tenor, beautiful of tone, consistent, burnished in timbre. Both male protagonists sounded a size bigger than the leading soprano, but they are also not the ones singing practically non-stop for two hours, and don’t have to pace themselves.

Sets (Ricardo Hernandez) and costumes (Cait O’Connor) do the job, and rather well and inoffensively. There is some witty macabre bull puppetry at the party at Flora’s, and some gender-switching in the chorus-led story of the matador. The revelry in Act 1 and Act 2 has subtle accents of Tim Burton around the edges, but the protagonists remain traditionally clad. The final act set is particularly effective, as it lays bare the depth of Violetta’s solitude and her diminished means.

It’s a good production to take an opera novice to, faithful to the letter of the libretto, and probably the crowd-pleaser of the season. Unlike the Rossinis and Bellinis of yesterseasons, however, this crowd-pleaser has Verdi and Piave at the top of their game, and Arin Arbus’s production that, if not exactly adventurous, never for a moment gets tedious or lazy. We should count our blessings wherever we can.

15-16-01-MC-D-1052Photos, both by Michael Cooper, show Charles Castronovo and Ekaterina Siurina. La Traviata continues until November 6: tickets, dates and alternating casts here.

Verdi Requiem at the TSO with Wagner, Barton, Lopardo and Owens

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Wagner, Barton, Davis, Lopardo and Owens with the TSO in Verdi’s Requiem. Photo by Malcolm Cook

Verdi’s Requiem is a huge spectacle: an opera in search of a staging—and preferably by Cirque de Soleil.

Those who like their Mass for the Dead showy and grand will think of Verdi’s Req as the default Req. There is an in-built mise-en-scène to the work. The dramatic Dies Irae (the Judgment Day) unleashes its force at the beginning of the Sequence, but then reappears half hour later between Confutatis and Lacrymosa, and then later, in the concluding Libera me. It is used as a melodic ‘hit’, and to add dramatic accents. Tuba mirum has brass on and off stage, which create a theatrical space in the music with a sort of call-and-response. The Recordare, usually one of the softest movements in any Requiem, with the dying narrator begging Jesus (the one who sits to the right of the Father, not the earth-roaming, merciful one) not to judge her too harshly, is here of course soft too but also a virtuoso soprano-mezzo exercise reminiscent of Norma and Adalgisa. The Libera me at the end is a mini-scena, given to the soprano who soars and amazes—more ostentation than supplication, more aria than a prayer.

There *are* some contemplative movements too, not all is over-excitement–Hostias, or the tenor’s Ingemisco and the bass’s Confutatis, and the very opening which begins with a pianissimo chorus particularly stand out. But this Requiem won’t get you thinking about death, put it that way. There are too many resplendent things in it that entertain and comfort. If to study philosophy is to learn to die (Cicero via Montaigne), to listen to a Requiem is also something of the sort—a reminder, a reckoning. Not so with Verdi’s Requiem.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was its usual competent self on Thursday night, under the baton of its very very very frequent guest conductor and former music director Andrew Davis. TSO is good at honouring its history—in fact, I wish it was less good at that, and have more guest conductor debuts. There seem to be a number of conductors who appear in just about every season brochure. Maybe skip your all-time favourites sometimes, dear TSO? What’s with the MSO’s seasons getting more and more unpredictable and diverse, how come they are beating us at that? Mariss Jansons’ one Canadian stop next year will be the MSO, par example.

On the good news front, the four soloists of the Requiem are all making their TSO debut with this concert. And they were uniformly good. I will begin by singling out the lyric tenor who among the three big-voiced soloists more than held his own. Frank Lopardo’s appealing timbre and evenly beautiful tone impressed in the Ingemisco solo, and all the trios and quartets, particularly in Hostias, arguably the contemplative peak of the entire musical score. As he’s no stranger to Toronto—he already sang at the COC—let’s hope we hear him again on concert stage.

The bass goes solo twice and Eric Owens struck the right tone with his interpretation: the considerable power of his voice in check, an almost humble, understated approach, without any overly dramatic flourishes. In contrast, the soprano is often asked to soar above the entire orchestra and the soloists and Amber Wagner gave a performance full of joy and zeal, never neglecting the technical precision. The score asks of the soprano some atypical jumps into the lower register, but Wagner handled them well.

Jamie Barton is such a distinctive voice and such a big personality, it’s almost too bad that we didn’t get to see her in a piece that gives the mezzo more to do. Still, her presence was notable. She particularly shone in the Lux aeterna (shared with the tenor and the bass) and the duos/vocal dances with the soprano—Recordare and Agnus Dei.

This was a fine performance by the Symphony and the TMC of a work that is likely to make you think of anything but the dead and the finitude.

As Achim Freyer well knows. Here’s the trailer for his (circus-y!) staging of Verdi’s Requiem at the Deutsche Oper.

COC announces the 15/16 season

COC announces the 15/16 season

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

So: the good stuff:

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

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

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

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

Which already introduced us to:

The mixed blessings stuff:

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

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

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

Some final bits of the good stuff:

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

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

What makes a chorus tick

What makes a chorus tick

Just this Friday I completed a near-3000-word article about the Canadian Opera Company Chorus that will come out in the Spring issue of Opera Canada. For it, I interviewed eight singers, one stage director and Sandra Horst, the COC chorus master. It was a hugely interesting assignment. The article follows the making of the season from the perspective of the chorus:

– the chorus master receives the program two years in advance

– runs the annual audition six months in advance of the start of the season, selects the singers

– singers working on their scores in advance of the rehearsals

– choral rehearsals with the chorus master only

– rehearsals with the director and the conductor

– music direction continues after the performances start (the chorus gets 15-min notes from the chorus master before every performance)

– how the choristers work with various stage directors; what productions stand out for them

– the choristers’ other life (some have full-time jobs in unrelated professions, others teach privately or within the school system, freelance as instrumentalists, or are working towards building a solo career).

The article will soon go through the copy-editing stage, so I can’t share more at this point, but I sure plan to once we’re close to publication. And I can’t wait to see what the design wizards of Opera Canada will do with the spread for this one.

Meanwhile, my thanks go to: bass Ken Baker, baritone (and violinist) Michael Sproule, tenor James Leatch, mezzos Lilian Kilianski, Erica Iris Huang and Karen Olinyk, sopranos Ingrid Martin and Alexandra Lennox-Pomeroy, director Samantha Seymour and natch the chorus master Sandra Horst. The singers are currently working on the three (to them completely new) scores, Hercules, Roberto Devereux and Don Quixote, all to be sung this spring.

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Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

Un ballo in maschera by Wieler-Morabito at the COC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Michael Cooper / COC

MaskedBall-COC2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be honest: I don’t.

Then you probably don’t have to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pit will be between you and the stage now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ballo2Can you tell me a bit about your other collaborations?

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

Stefan Herheim?

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

That would have been Les vêpres in London?

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

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

I don’t have one, no.

Do directors have to have an agent, even?

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

What’s next for you, after this Ballo?

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

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

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

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

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

He dramatized the monologues, essentially?

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

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

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

This will be in Stuttgart in summer?

In July, yes.

I take it you speak fluent German.

Yes.

Other opera languages probably too?

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

But you are not learning it in Cyrillic letters?

I am, actually.

Impressive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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