Archive | July, 2012

An old fashioned, plush affair / Otello / Royal Opera House – 21 July 2012

26 Jul

This production maybe be inspired by old master paintings with its lush palette of Venetian reds and greens to make Tintoretto envious, but the dodgy costumes are more in the Blackadder league and the “blackening” of our leading man a throwback to the 1950s. The aspirations are there but the execution is showing its age rather obviously. Cue in crowd scenes, fire torches, tenors arriving on a  Helepolis, painted backdrops inspired by old masters and naturalistic lighting (for the most part).
This is billed as a uber traditional production, but in all honesty it is just conventional and largely predictable. It is the 21st century and we have all moved on from expecting a close simulation of reality to make staged opera exciting. A lighter touch and more ideas are appreciated, but unfortunately Moshinsky shows all the arrogance of today’s most extreme directors but without any ideas informing his embroidered brocade and pillar heavy production. One can only go beyond such a set up with an excellent cast that can reanimate this fossilised relic, which is only useful as memento of the legendary original cast and conductor (Domingo+Ricciarelli+Díaz+Kleiber).

Antonenko has an enviable capacity to sing forward and with incredible propulsion. I could hear some sharp intakes of breath in the audience when he made his big entrance with a rock steady A that must have peeled off some paint from the ceiling. His acting was on par with his vocal production, creating a butch, heavily chiselled masculinity. The only negative was that his voice seems to have a big break in the passaggio,  that was particularly disappointing when he was in conversation with Iago and Desdemona creating a raspy, almost hushed, covered tone.

Gallo is and remains more of a buffo baritone, he does lack the vocal heft and darkness to pull off Iago. It was truly unimaginative of the Royal Opera to book him again for this production five years on. He is a fine singer but dramatic roles are totally beyond his camp stage presence and lighter, brighter voice.

Anja Harteros was the absolute highlight of the evening. With immense stage charisma and poise. Her sound was seamless and beautifully propelled across the auditorium. Her delivery at the more lyrical passages was like crushing waves of soft, slow vibrato allowing her to utter the sweetest phrases and the most dramatic passages with equal success. The attention to text and her intense, forceful acting created a much less soft and victimised Desdemona. She was a woman in the middle of a maelstrom but very much with her dignity intact. For any dramatic soprano the final scena containing The Willow Song is a dream come true. A great way to deploy limpid phrasing with shapely melodic flourishes and great acting. I can happily say that Harteros gave us true golden age singing with sincere acting and sinuous vocal production from the top of her range to the very lowest passages. She was dreamy and vulnerable, beautiful and insightful. A mesmerising presence that will remain unforgettable.

Antonio Poli fresh from winning Operalia gave a sweet-voiced and nuanced performance as Cassio. A young artist to watch out for.

Hanna Hipp moved on from her beautiful contribution to Les Troyens and a bubbly addition to Il viaggio a Reims and gave us a very earthy Emilia that added the right amount of alarm during Act Four. A brilliant counterbalance to Harteros and her much more internalised approach for the final scene. Her versatility and stage presence give us great hopes for what she may do in the future, when bigger roles are entrusted to her.

The conducting was of a very high standard, with the drama and the tenderness coming through. The opening storm being augmented with pyrotechnic thuds high above the flytower. Also the dispersed brass, creating an enticing soundscape of the Venetian fleet arriving in Act Three which was very elegant and involving. Unfortunately the sound from the back of the Balcony is not exactly the best but the orchestra and chorus have to be commented for being so professional and alternatively performing Otello with Les Troyens with vitality and gusto. A mention has to be made for the audience on the night which was the quietest I’ve heard there in a long while. Maybe having a rare appearance by Harteros and Antonenko’s super loud Otello took their mind away from munching sweets and having chats with their friends…result!

It was an amazing evening, sadly  spoiled by a dull and unimaginative production from the 80s that barely deserves a revival. There are rumours that this was the last hurrah to this production which is a relief.  The performance was recorded for later broadcast on BBC Radio 3, so look out for it around September and hopefully the sound will convey some of the magic of the evening.

Onegin in the park / Yevgeny Onegin / Opera Holland Park – 17 July 2012

21 Jul

This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.

The production directed by Daniel Slater has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of the directing to start emerging.

The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of warmth and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the subtle and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness.  A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is exactly at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three.  Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element, Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short flippant conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the telling look she gave Leese.

After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise  stark palette. The dance takes place and gradual inflammation of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.

One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.

The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with choristers dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.

Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.

Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.

George Benjamin: Written on Skin / Aix-en-Provence Festival – Live relay at Ciné Lumière – 14 July 2012

17 Jul

There has been a lot of commenting and high hopes for  George Benjamin’s new opera (co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence with the Nederlandse Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino) and I was compelled to pop into the Institut Français to check out the live broadcast from Aix.

The story is based on a medieval Occitan legend from the 12th century. It encompasses the arrival of a manuscript illuminator and how the domestic balance gets upturned via amorous approaches and finally murder. Structured in three parts, it lasts around 100 minutes without interval.

The cast have taken on a mammoth challenge, especially Barbara Hannigan who has the very physical and vocally demanding role of Agnès.  She is matched by Christopher Purves’ macho presence and rock solid singing. Bejun Mehta’s presence and singing did not excite me as much . The work has a series of duets amongst the three main protagonists which become the central spine of the dramatic development. The all pervading darkness in both subject matter, interpretation and musical language may put off some people, but it is ultimately a very challenging, accomplished piece of work. The writing is very singer friendly and there are some stunning final tutti where the soloist and the orchestra become one. Part of the excitement of the piece is the sheer physical nature of the singing required and the amount of committed acting. The directing by Katie Mitchell may not be to everyone’s taste, as the ambiguities of flashbacks and past/present interrelationships become too frequently blurred, and also requiring a lot of awkward on stage costume swaps.  The boy may be the pivotal character, but Hannigan is the centre of attention, with her fragile appearance she seems to live in this world of feudal power and intense, internalised passion that looks for an outlet. Her frequent outbursts are powerful and affecting.

The three central characters are ushered/attended by Marie and John who take on a role of the peripheral action that adds more depth/detail and help with the scene transitions. Sang with great gusto by Rebecca Jo Loeb and  Allan Clayton.

Overall it is an intense, dystopian world full of anxieties and co-dependencies. An intriguing mix of the medieval and the contemporary. Potentially some of the most darkly sexy opera this side of Lulu. Do go and see it at any of the touring venues or watch the archived stream on Medici.tv  (annoyingly not available in the UK). I will most definitely book for it’s Royal Opera staging on 8 | 11 | 16 | 18 | 22 Mar 2013.

No, Andrew Mellor I’m not privately educated and I’m not dreading concert halls and opera houses

16 Jul

 

Andrew Mellor wrote this scrappy piece for the New Statesman  clutching at straws on how to substantiate his own prejudices of what classical/opera audiences are like. The main thrust of his argument is the adverts in a BBC Proms programme advertising private tuition etc. He seems to go on some semiotic reading of the adverts and awarding the crown of elitism and high snobbery to the audience. His views are so far apart from my experience that I feel compelled to shortly write about them.

I grew up in Athens and was schooled there, the only fancy paid for tuition I received being my rather good English language school (for two hours after school, three times a week). Went to a few opera and ballet performances with my best friend to the disapproval of my parents. That was mainly due to the beautifully appointed Athens Concert Hall (Megaron) and its very cheap student standby scheme which we took advantage of to see some wonderful shows. It was a way in to a world I had very little contact with through my parents or my school (which had only rudimentary music classes, mainly dealing in history).

When I moved to the UK fifteen years ago I went to pop concerts, ballet and theatre. Never felt that any venue was out of reach or that the audience was unfriendly. Eventually I went to some classical and opera performances and again never felt patronised or awkward. When I took on a summer job at the Royal Albert Hall as a Steward for the 2000 Proms, it was a great opportunity to be exposed to a huge variety of events and more importantly the love of the musicians and the Hall’s staff for music.  This was an eye opener, being part of what felt like a big family, one night being lucky enough to see Tasmin Little with Simon Rattle and the next Petra Lang and Kurt Masur. Never for a second did the adverts in all the programmes that I read felt as a coded cry of the upper echelons of society telling me I was not welcome. What I felt being around all the other Stewards at the RAH and the audience was a great love and respect for the art form and the chance to be exposed to greatness, it had nothing to do with social rank or how I pronounced my vowels. In fact the only time I was exposed to unpleasantness was during a concert by Oasis and their horrible audience.

In the last five years I have been taking my partner to lots of performances of music, dance and opera and he possibly would be the one to confirm that we have never felt unwelcome to any venue. Even if some contemporary opera doesn’t totally rock his boat, he takes a lot of pleasure from the sojourns and deepening his knowledge of repertoire and musicians.

Additionally the advances in social media, the exchanges with orchestras, venues and artists have created a much tighter, warmer bond. We all know that opera and classical will remain in the fringes of mainstream culture, but orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra and many more are using their resources to promote their work and to make appreciation of it as wide as possible. The fact that the LSO will not be as popular as any given pop/rock act doesn’t make them a failure.

Most of the time the concept of exclusivity and high cost is foisted on those venues, but it’s far from the truth. Tickets for the LSO at the Barbican can be had from £8 and that is to listen to one of the most accomplished orchestras in the world with some very illustrious conductors and guest artists. I have been to many concerts where the food consumed at the cafe was more expensive than the tickets for this apparent elitist pursuit.

Equally there is no buzz like it when a favourite opera singer has a great night. No matter if I’m occupying a top price seat at Stalls or a £15 one at the gods of the Royal Opera House or ENO the deep sense of pleasure and satisfaction is the same.
Last week when I was watching Les Troyens from the cheapest seat in the House I was flanked by two people in the polar opposites of the audience. The lady on my right was wonderfully chatty and telling me about performances she had seen and what she was going to next. The gentleman on my left was clutching his opera companion with religious fervour while emanating the unpleasant smell of someone that hadn’t had a wash in a few days and refusing to engage with anyone around him. Was it the Royal Opera’s fault that this chap goes to performances and that he may put off some newcomers? Are newcomers to opera such scared, fragile little things that can’t fend for themselves? Those 5hours 22minutes spent in the company of those two people either side of me it was a metaphor for the larger world surrounding live performance.
There are the sweet, obliging, polite, warm hearted, generous people and then there are the less giving, passive aggressive, unpleasant individuals and anything in between the two. As in every other walk of life we learn to co-exist and trying to get on. When the calling of the great music is strong, nothing can mar the experience not even a very smelly, passive aggressive chap on my immediate left. So let’s stop victimizing the classical/opera circuit which is much more democratic and egalitarian than many other sections of British society. I am happy not to be part of an exclusive reception for the sponsors of a concert and I don’t feel excluded or let down, after all they subsidise my hobby. Live and let live.

PS The ultimate satisfaction I derive from my blogging and Tweeting activity is when one of my readers/followers decides to give opera or orchestral music a go. Sometimes it just takes that one visit and a love affair that lasts a lifetime begins. That is the very reason why I refuse to be negative for the future of “serious music” and opera, as long as there’s curiosity there will be audiences.

Courses for horses / Les Troyens / Royal Opera House, Covent Garden – 5 + 11 July 2012

14 Jul

The most anticipated opera production of this summer in London (aside tenuous connections to the dreadful 2012 Festival) a new production of this operatic behemoth. The signs were bad when the stalwart tenor Jonas Kaufmann had to withdraw and Brian Hymel took on the role of Enée. A lot of concerns were voiced and predictions of doom and gloom. Of course what opera fans should have worried about was the dead hand of David McVicar who proved once more to lack both a revelatory insight or even an unshakable overarching vision. The production is patchy and doesn’t really serve the material well.

In a work with considerable longueurs courtesy of Berlioz a bad production can make it from uncomfortable in length to unbearable. McVicar seems to only care for the first two Acts who were crowd managed to perfection and the set by Devlin was handsome and sleek. The problem of course is why would anyone think moving the action to the 1850s was a good idea. This looks more like a bourgeois gathering at the Cafe Royal than the desperate inhabitants of Troy under a ten-year siege. Why the mechanistic look dripping with rusty metal? Why the by the meter long flowing dresses and lace and trims everywhere one looks? Making Anna Caterina Antonacci look like the mad woman on the scrapheap of twisted metal is such a mindless degradation of the intentions of Berlioz and the gravitas of the persona, making the viewer instantly weary of what’s up next. The arrival of the horse is indeed impressive and its movement as sleek  as we would demand. The vivid image of its fiery presence dominating the floored Cassandre is a wonderful moment of almost cinematic power. Of course one has to wonder why did the horse need to go up in flames? It seems pyrotechnics are the last refuge of desperate directors trying to capture the attention of indifferent audiences…ahem let’s not recall the disastrous Don Giovanni (that has thankfully been scrapped for ever).

Unfortunately his Carthage Acts look so disconnected and romanticised, there is no obvious timeline connection to Troy. The stepped “apartment block made of mud” set attracted applause on the first night I saw it, which made a lot of us present cringe.  More obvious this failing is when Enée and his soldiers walk in, disrupting the entertainment and love in of Didon and her subjects. Eva-Maria Westbroek is dressed in full on odalisque costume, matt gold dress and a relaxed off white robe, a Bedouin meets Parisian fashion look in total contrast to the 1850s military uniform of the Troyans. Their appearance makes both Didon and her setting look even more shabby.  She also sits on a model of the town which later on becomes airborne in the manner more appropriate to Star Wars: A New Hope than a Berlioz opera. If McVicar wanted to say anything through the set costumes and the truly dreadful dancing is beyond me. The programme may dismissively informing us that audiences can’t accept men in skirts any more but somehow ignores that a more classical approach serves the material better, but of course is less of an ego boost for the director.

This production managed to go through the motions professionally and kept stage interest active but lost on the way to crowd pleasing the dramatic core of Berlioz’s complicated and multifaceted epic. It is a tragédie lyrique after all and any flippant choices for relocation of the action to another time period take a toll on the effective staging of the work. The current cult of the director being imposed on a tricky work like Les Troyens creates a hollow construct that does much of the sublime music and singing no justice. A particularly ridiculous example was Ed Lyon being pulled up in the flytower like a housewife would collect her washing in Napoli…dragged up on a rope, after singing a most sublime aria of longing. Why not go for a more conventional rope ladder to come down from the mast? It was just complication for the sake of complication with no apparent thinking behind it.

Had the chance to see it twice and the most diametrically opposite parts of the auditorium, a third row Orchestra Stalls seat at a cost of £183 and an Upper Slips bench seat for £15. The experience was thoroughly illuminating and very, very different. At Stalls one can be tantalizingly close to the singers and orchestra but the sound can suffer at times, while at the extremities of the gods the sound is surprisingly warm and immediate but a pair of binoculars comes handy!

The cast was uneven but with some great rewards to be had.

Eva-Maria Westbroek was a resplendent Didon, solemn sexuality paired with self-confidence, sense of purpose and demure deportment. Her singing started a big unsteady on the 5th but grew in confidence and dramatic power through the evening. Her final aria was truly fantastic, her Ah! Je vais mourir was so committed and forceful creating a compulsive atmosphere of empathy for the character. She sang the middle part of it straight at me, it was one of those unforgettable moments looking eye to eye with such a wonderful performer while she is on the final strait of the tragic trajectory of this most demanding role. The only constraint through the performance was the fairly stiff direction of McVicar who had her sitting a lot on top of toytown Carthage and on random cushions, creating a look of a dull odalisque in the Ingres mould. Westbroek is a physical performer that thrives in being able to engage more with the set and colleagues. So it was a relief to have her final scene played out against an off-black curtain instead of the set, thus liberated and being able to focus on the drama.

Brian Hymel may have lacked the stage charisma and the variety of colouring in his voice to be an ideal Enée but he surely made up in enthusiasm and eagerness to please with his technically accomplished and very well projected voice. On the two performances you could see him growing in confidence and the chemistry between him and Westbroek was there. Especially during the dire dancing in Act Four where she was getting very friendly with Aenee on a large pile of floor cushions (sounds downright dirty but wasn’t really). His stronger showing was during Act Five where he sang with great propulsion if not Gallic flair. He surely offered an impressive C at the conclusion of his Inutiles regrets which made for an exciting addition to the night.

The stand out performance of both evenings was Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre, she was both stylistically appropriate with an intense stage presence and a vivid embodiment of the character. Also the only cast member that looked totally independent of the particular holds of this production, almost a mini production inside McVicar’s simplistic mush. Her very entrance on both nights sent shivers down my spine. Her total conviction and stylised acting may looked out of date to many, but had that been replaced with what nowadays? She deeply felt the drama and relayed it in her great dark voice and charismatic presence, isn’t that what opera is all about? She brought a touch of the golden age to this production that was worth the price of admission alone, she was exceptional in all her perturbed glory and archetypal painted eyes in her palms. Cassandre has some of the most individualistic music in Troyens and Antonacci managed to not just fulfill the requirements but to go far and beyond and make us all drank with her charisma and dramatic personification of a vibrant figure from Greek mythology. Her two big arias in Act One were such intense theatre and her attention to every word gave depth and stripped back all the clutter and junk this production acquired courtesy of director and set designer. A triumph by a great singer/actress.

Unfortunately she had to duet with Fabio Capitanucci, who just belted out his part clearly not being told this was Berlioz he was singing and not some verismo shocker. I am afraid his gifts were wasted on a bad fit with the material.

Brintley Sherratt offered a vocally solid Narbal with impeccable taste and good sense for the rest of the ensemble.

Hanna Hipp one of the young artists of the Royal Opera was a wonderful sister to Westbroek’s Didon, sang with power and conviction, one can imagine what a great experience it must have been partnering one of the greatest singers of our times. Looking forward in seeing her in the revived Otello in a week’s time.

Ji-min Park as Iopas was a lovely light presence in the middle of the Carthaginian section, he sang his song of the fields with laser like projection, if a bit too sharp on the first night I saw him.

Ed Lyon sang Hylas’ aria that kicks off Act Five with such great beauty, gleam, wistfulness and melancholy. He surely made a big impression on both nights adding a much needed and thoroughly enjoyable punctuation to a long evening at the opera. He did caress the words with such flair and understanding for the style that won us over near instantly.

The chorus of the Royal Opera was in good form on both nights and worked exemplary well with the soloists and orchestra, which played with verve on both nights, despite the too quick tempi adopted by Pappano for the first two Acts. On the last night the balance between speed and dramatic development was much more settled and particularly the hunt and storm scenes at the beginning of Act Four seemed much speedier and alive.

The performance of the Thurs 5 July was relayed live and available to view on demand for the coming months at The Space, they also recorded the performances on 1st and 8th of July, so expect a full blown Blu-Ray and DVD release come 2013 with all the best bits of the three nights spliced together. Lets hope some of the silly extravagances indulged in this outing will be more subdued/rethought for the upcoming presentations in Vienna, Milan and San Francisco before it returns to the stage at Covent Garden in the future.

The BBC does it again! / Update, what the Controller says…

5 Jul

On a previous blog post I lamented the lack of opera performances on TV and in particular on BBC Four, the Beeb’s flagship cultural destination. At the end of that post I urged any readers that felt compelled to write to Richard Klein, the Controller of the channel. I did too and he was gracious enough to respond to my criticisms of the all too rare appearance of opera performances on his channel.

His main point is the lack of funding: ‘Unfortunately given the nature of both the funding for BBC Four and the remit that the channel has it is inevitable that there are opera events and performances that the channel simply cannot take. Under my current funding I have space for two or three new opera recordings and performances a year,and I can acquire at slightly lower prices a couple more.’

And we get (possibly what is the identity problem of BBC Four) a rundown of the channel’s spectrum: ‘But there is a bigger issue at heart here and that is that BBC Four’s remit is to cover all the arts and all culture, as much as it can, from the contemporary and pop music world, jazz, folk and classical symphony etc, to dance, the visual arts, sculpture and applied arts, through to interesting new comedy, drama, history, science and documentaries, the best of world televison like The Killing, and Storyville’ sinternational documentary, and feature films from the world.’

And finally we get a distict impression that BBC’s Radio 3 is the answer to the complaints for more opera on TV: ‘I am genuinely sorry you feel under-served but would point you to Radio Three as a place where there seems to be an abundance of specialist attention to opera amongst other classical music forms, as befits a specialist radio station.’

I do not want to be one of the usual moaners that must deluge the electronic or physical mailbag of any TV executive, and will not pursue him with follow up emails etc. But his very pragmatic response opens up a totally new chapter. The overall responsibility of the BBC to make “high culture” accessible to all corners of the UK and as far away from the capital as possible.
It seems that BBC Four’s remit is as wide as the Atlantic and clearly not focused enough on the performing and visual arts. A large number of programmes aired on it (most of them just cheap imports e.g. Nordic dramas and documentaries) have no connection to artistic production in the UK, but clearly are there to plump up viewing figures. Is the BBC a public service broadcaster or just another branch of commercial media, with the distinct advantage of a huge cushion of public funding? The fact that (as stated by the Controller in his email) Anna Nicole and Faust only attracted ‘modest’ audiences makes them less valuable as a broadcasting commodity? I am expecting the BBC to step up to its responsibility to entertain, to enlighten and to educate not to just chase after viewing figures.

There is a whole generation of amazing breakthrough opera talent in this country that goes unnoticed by mainstream media. And the BBC to relegate that coverage to the niche radio station for the “classical ghetto” is indicative of how marginal is opera and classical music in the wider cultural life as depicted by the media as a whole.
If Sky can have two HD channels that have a large proportion of opera and classical music in its line-up, why can’t the BBC offer a bit more than the promise of three opera productions a year? We pay our TV License tax for them to cover a broad spectrum and also to reflect the wealth of production in all the different sectors of the blossoming creative industries around Britain. And currently they are offering us underwhelming quantity and quality.

Guest blogger @Mirto_P / The night Evelyn Lear looked right at me

3 Jul

I can never see or hear the name Evelyn Lear without flashing back to a night in 1967 when I humiliated my mother at a recital by the soprano and her husband, the late baritone Thomas Stewart.

So when I first saw Lear’s death, at the age of 86, reported this weekend, I was immediately transported back 45 years to a front-row seat in the auditorium of a Bergen County, New Jersey, vocational high school, the unlikely home of a local classical music series. That was the venue for a recital with piano (John Wustman, the go-to accompanist of the time) by the then-recent Metropolitan Opera sensation — she had debuted earlier that year at the “new” Met as Lavinia in “Mourning Becomes Electra” — and her husband, soon to star in a highly touted new production of Wagner’s “Ring.” (Sound familiar?)
By this time, despite my youth, I was a veteran of two years of opera-going, and this was my second vocal recital. So it’s not like I didn’t know how to behave at these things. But I was still, after all, a kid.

The opening set of the recital’s second half consisted of four songs sung by Lear, the fourth being Villa-Lobos’ “Canção do carreiro (Song of the Ox-Cart Driver).” The refrain includes a funny little high-pitched shriek that instantly struck me as hilarious. As it repeated, with Lear making a “cute” face each time, well, I totally lost it.As I felt persistent jabs at my left arm from my mortified mom, I shook harder and harder, sank lower and lower in my seat, and turned redder and redder as tears streamed down my face — all as I vainly tried to suppress my attack of the giggles. And all the while there was Lear, standing onstage maybe 20 feet directly in front of me and staring straight at me as she sang, looking, well, ready to run me over with her very own ox cart.

And at the end of the song, what did I do but stand straight up and applaud as my mother tried to hide her face with her hands. “Sit down! She was looking right at you!” Mom said over and over again, trying to pull me back into my seat. But that to me meant, “Cool! Evelyn Lear looked at me, wow!” But she wasn’t looking “right at” me as I stood and clapped. I recovered from my laugh attack, and the recital continued, concluding with two encores: “Bess, you is my woman now” and “La ci darem la mano,” which ended with them leaving the stage together. We got it, time to call it a night.

Of course I insisted on going backstage to see them in what passed for a green room. My mother was horrified at the very idea (“She was looking right at you!”) and refused to go with me. But: I. Would. Not. Be. Stopped. There was more of a group crush than a line per se to see them, and it puzzled me that Lear, who was more the center of attention than Stewart, seemed to be urging everyone in my general direction over to her one by one but me — and noticeably avoiding my eager glance. Was I just too short for her to see among the grown-ups? (Hm, don’t think that was it …) As the crowd thinned and I became unavoidable, she kind of looked through me as she greeted me, icily, and half-smiled, wearily, while I told her how wonderful she was, etc. Thank goodness for Stewart.

I’m not sure who he was rescuing more, his wife or me, but suddenly this big (huge, to me at the time), dashing international opera star pulled me over to his corner of the room and, after hearing me out about how much I enjoyed the recital, spent many uninterrupted minutes with me, asking who I was, how old I was, why I was there, how long I had been listening to opera, etc. He treated me with patience and kindness, but did see to have a genuine curiosity about how the youngest member (clearly) of the audience had come to be there — to, among other things, laugh at his wife. I left smitten — by both of them.

Of course I later saw Lear and Stewart sing many, many times at the Met. But to this day, whenever I come across either of their names, I’m right backstage at that vocational high school, full of wide-eyed, youthful enthusiasm for this pair of remarkable and much-loved artists. And Mom’s hiding out in the car.

This is the first time I am hosting a guest blogger on here, so please show some love and follow him on Twitter: @Mirto_P . Evelyn Lear passed away on 2 July 2012,  have a read at the obituary published by The Washington Post

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