Tag Archives: Kasper Holten

No apologies

6 Apr

No apologiesIt is a subject I have been thinking about for a while. How the average opera fan and many people in management positions in the companies around the country have one common characteristic…being nearly apologetic every time they talk to the media and the people around them about the art form.

We seem at times embarrassed or unsure to tell the world that we love opera for all it’s faults and bastard hybridity. For years I was also one of those people when asked by colleagues about opera to throw in a joke and not challenge the stereotypes they had in their heads. Becoming essentially part of the joke perpetuated the popular view that opera is a non worthwhile pursuit and that it had nothing to offer to today’s audiences. By implication agreeing the acting was bad and that the singers resembled white whales. I would frequently catch myself lowering the volume of the car sound system when had to talk to a parking attendant or the such. You see, playing the current top 10 hits  carries very little embarrassment  but playing Cherubini’s Medea may somehow disturb the outside world…what a load of nonsense!

In today’s Observer, Kasper Holten, the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House sent a letter that resonated with me with its totally unapologetic tone. A voice I only found in the last year or so. I stopped going along with and tolerating the unfounded derision that many hold for the field. As this blog largely encourages, I want them to give it a chance and trying to see it as a living art form that can be pure escapism but also has something to say about the complexity of living in 2014 and being able to transform ideas into something tangible.

Enough with the apologies and being always on the defensive we should instead be ready to fight preconceptions and be the face of the world of opera as the people who support it with our frequent attendance and also be the ones that make others realise that it may be a night out they may enjoy. Have given out recordings and videos to many friends and colleagues to gauge reactions and to see what they thought. Have convinced some to come to recitals and their sheer astonishment at the unamplified voice is always worth the effort. They may not be at the right time in their lives to have the time to spend attending frequently but at least we owe it to all the artists and everyone behind the scenes making our favourite pursuit happen, to smash media constructs that have them believe it is a world alien to them, an exclusive milieu they can never fit in.

Look around on Twitter and all around you before a performance, for every oleaginous, thick-skinned plutocrat there are four times more people from much more unexceptional backgrounds, students, pensioners, office workers, teachers, tourists. We are a diverse, passionate crowd and we are also the ultimate weapon against preconceptions of elitism. We can combat the popular beliefs by speaking from experience and extending a friendly hand to those who may want to join us. No more apologies and self-defeatism.

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Shoot the doppelgänger / Eugene Onegin / Royal Opera House – 11 February 2013

15 Feb

ROH OneginIt was a catalogue of misfortunes that added to an overall uneven and at times unjustifiably flat performance of Yevgeny Onegin (the Royal Opera not too keen to use that title it seems). The non operational surtitles during the first half was not the best advert for the ROH but surely they have well practised tannoy apologies and they delivered it twice to the amusement of everyone occupying the cheap seats. Glad to report a pensioner’s riot and occupation of the Amphitheatre was averted at the last minute and a few photocopies of the synopsis later.

Let me start from the positives, the set and costumes were rather elegant. The set comprises a four doored frontage is turn of the century plasterwork and mouldings. All in an off white colour heavily influenced by Vilhelm Hammershøi‘s melancholic interiors and the backdrops behind were modelled on Gerhard Richter‘s painfully beautiful and trendy abstracted photorealism rendered in video animation. Visually it was a potent mix that had an equal amount of suggestion and representation. The respectively red and blue palette used for Tatyana and Yevgeny creating a stark contrast against the rest of the colour choices (pistachio for Olga, beige and powder blue for Lensky, black for the chorus) and making them pop. The set was particularly successful as a setting when the doors closed and the front of the stage became surprisingly intimate. But somehow the parallel nature of the set made it look like something designed for Holten’s previous employer, the Royal Danish Opera, where they do scene changes by moving sets sideways. Spent most of the evening expecting the set to slide sideways, but to no avail since the ROH does not have such a facility the set stayed put. With Madame Larina’s ballroom looking as wide as a goods lift it barely inspired. Things did get better in the last act when Prince Gremin’s ballroom extended to a further room doubling the space and the perspectival play was very effective coupled with some well done choreography.

Unfortunately the orchestra under Robin Ticciati did not seem to find its way through the lyrical score, with notable lack of balance at times and off pacing. Particularly the letter scene and the finale stood out too much with the orchestra playing too loudly and in total contrast to the earlier slack tempi that sent many a pensioner to sleep.

The insurmountable obstacle that stops me from loving this interpretation is Holten’s use of doppelgänger dancers of their young selves  idea for Tatyana and Yevgeny, it is both inconsistent (they only appear in a handful of scenes) and it is distracting that the singers acknowledge their presence. Had they been treated as memories and thus remained untouchable it may have worked. In this case it seemed like the director lost confidence in the singers to express emotion through their acting and needed the use of two dancers to mime instead. Another thought that passed my mind was the possibility that the Director walked into the rehearsal room and thought ‘oh my, they both look too old for the characters’ and brought in the dancers to embody them in Act One.

The doppelgänger idea falls totally flat in the letter scene where Stoyanova is left just pacing on the stage while the “young Tatyana” rithed and contorted her way, draped herself on the chair and just sucked out the oxygen from such an accomplished singer, especially when she sang with such assurance and feeling.

Another terrible example was the duel between Lensky and Yevgeny, with the dancer getting possession of the gun while Keenlyside looks on and mirrors his movements pointlessly. The apogee of this emptiness in the staging comes when the dancer actually pulls the trigger. It saps all the energy from this macho confrontation scene and renders it weak and almost incidental. You can imagine what must be going through Keenlyside’s head when he is being marginalised to such a degree during such a crucial scene. He did do his best but unfortunately I paid more attention to the branch that Breslik carried in for the duel, than the singers.

Overall the singing was from very good to excellent, Keenlyside admittedly took a while to warm up but he was absolutely wonderful in the last Act. Stoyanova was wonderfully warm and paid unique attention to the libretto, also moved with elegance and when left to act (like in the last scene, where the doppelgänger has gone) she was captivating to watch. Peter Rose’s Gremin was as imperious as one would expect but also brought a vulnerability that made him much more believable than usual. Diana Montague, always a classy singer, delivered stage charisma in spades in the largely thankless role of Madame Larina. The audience’s favourite was Pavol Breslik who did sing with vim and longing and we all felt sorry for having to endure being dead on the ground for the last forty or so minutes. A ludicrous directorial decision that again added very little to the story and just made it much more difficult for him and his colleagues, who had to avoid stepping on him on a number of occasions. To be honest none of the clutter that made the front of the stage, from Tatyana’s strewn books to the harvested bunches of wheat, to the dead body ever got cleared. It was another comment on memory, but my goodness it made for sloppy looking staging and was rather too obvious.

It is beyond me why directors find Onegin such a fertile ground for silly experiments. Tchaikovsky’s opera couldn’t be more straightforward and the fact he entrusted its première to the students of the Conservatoire in Moscow makes that evident. I presume Holten thinks he has added another layer of interpretation, with his direction focusing on the nature of memory and looking back in retrospect with regret. Unfortunately in this case all he added was a distancing device that told us surprisingly little that is not already in the score. Seeing it two days after Konwitschny’s  Traviata and after the very successful Opera Holland Park production last summer it proved to be an evening of style over substance. This production did not seem to be happy to either go avant garde and offer a different concept or to be traditional. It occupied a middle ground that was neither very interesting or to the benefit of the material.

ROH Onegin list

 

Get on the Robert Le Diable casting travelator…

3 Dec

DiableIt doesn’t happen too frequently but Robert Le Diable at the Royal Opera is one of the most unstable productions this side of the famous spat between Cecilia Bartoli and Jonathan Miller .

The original cast boasted Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau. JDF abandoned ship early on and then the delightful Diana decided motherhood was above any aspiration to sing a rare French opera.

Then Bryan Hymmel was booked to be Robert, judging on the back of his summer Énée he will delight.

Things got promising again by announcing the replacement of Diana Damrau by Jennifer Rowley, a promising young singer who had a breakthrough triumph in New York City Opera’s Orfeo early this year. She was auditioned for the part and the powers that be clearly thought she was up to the standard. It was one of those exciting occurrences that can make a young singer’s career. But it seems it was not meant to be.

Earlier today the ROH announced that J Rowley would be replaced by Patrizia Ciofi and Sofia Fomina dashing the hopes of all of us that looked forward to the debut performances by Rowley. Their release does go to lengths to point out that the management of the Royal Opera are behind the singer and indirectly pointing the finger to external forces (director and/or conductor). It seems internal politics won over and the audiences who looked forward to the production have another reason to be uneasy at curtain up on Thursday. After all we’ve already had the near farcical walkout by Marina Poplavskaya who actually returned a week later!

Despite the Royal Opera claiming to be a world opera house and Kasper Holten making too frequent references to it, still seems to be behaving in the most unprofessional manner to singers it engages and causes huge embarrassment to artists that evidently have done nothing wrong. But find themselves being replaced four days before the premiere. We can all imagine how devastating it must be to have gone through the whole rehearsal period and then to be asked not to perform. It seems ridiculous that the RO will allow external forces to alter the casting so close to the opening night and more akin to the way a village hall is run. The management for all their support they have shown to the cast, they were proven spineless against the whims of the production team. Still looking forward to seeing it, but with a much heavier heart.

Lets hope the rumoured involvement of Rowley with next season’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes alongside Erwin Schrott and Directed by Stefan Herheim, will come to fruition.

Update————————

It seems the press office of the ROH has been active disseminating vox pops by Laurent Pelly to various media outlets, exclaiming how perfect Patrizia Ciofi is as Isabelle making this sad story even worse. Arts correspondents being the usual obedient types, of course did not ask for any statement by Daniel Oren…he’s only the conductor, why should he be consulted on musical matters? Are we to believe this was a decision taken by Pelly? It is ludicrous as it is unprofessional and downright shabby the way the Royal Opera has behaved trying to calm down the furore over this affair.  

Of course I make the presumption that the casting director, music director and Jennifer Rowley’s agent did their job in the first place.  But I’ll go out on limp and say that I’d rather see a whole lot less of Daniel Oren at Covent Garden. Maybe it’s time he was told that he’s not irreplaceable either.

What did Kasper say? / In Conversation / Clore Studio, Royal Opera House – 12 October 2012

13 Oct

Usually I couldn’t care for the over-priced insight events at the Royal Opera but this time having the chance to see what the fairly interview shy new Director of Opera had to say about his first year at Covent Garden was alluring. I can happily report that it was worth it, read on if you want to know what was said.

From the outset his enthusiasm for opera and directing was evident. He talked about his childhood and how initially he got hooked on it by going to a visit with a tutor at age 9 to see Carmen. He recalled how he was blown away by the experience. A particularly funny episode was his retelling of organising a Ring cycle from the age of 13-16 in a LEGO constructed theatre, making the whole family watch it. He even managed to write a letter to the director of the opera house and the minister of culture to ask why one had to be 18 in order to take advantage of the young people discount scheme. They changed the policy so the precocious 13 year old Kasper could buy cheaper tickets with his pocket money.

The talk was indispersed with three excerpts from his productions in Copenhagen of The Ring, Nielsen’s Maskarade and Die tote Stadt.

Edward Seckerson asked him about the tension between being a creative force and having to do a lot of admin as part of his job at Covent Garden. Holten mused that his life has possibly come full circle as he comes from a family of financiers (his mother having been the Governor of the Bank of Denmark) he was expecting to go into banking but instead chose the life in the theatre. He seemed to be very pragmatic that the two productions a year that he is allowed by his contract to direct have an impact on his deputy and PA but it seems he would not want a job that would not allow him to direct in House and out.

He was asked whether he would compromise rehearsal time in order to accommodate big stars like Kaufmann.  His response was a bit roundabout, bordering on the meandering but he seemed unhappy to create a precedent by allowing big names to show up a couple of weeks before a show starts. He did make the distinction between singers that grow in rehearsal and others who do not find it as stimulating. But he mentioned that the camaraderie that develops during a full rehearsal period is an essential part of the mix for an as good a performance as possible. But he concluded that some smart administrative decisions could see them programme big names for productions that don’t need a lengthy period of rehearsals.

On the subject of commissioning new work and allowing the national composers emerge, in the mould of Poul Ruders in Copenhagen where three operas where staged (most notably A Handmaid’s Tale). He went to great lengths to point out that for him Covent Garden is not a national opera house but an international one and even though Thomas Adès is writing a new work for the main stage he wants composers from all over the world to have an equal chance to stage a major project with the Royal Opera. He did mention the great work ENO does with new music and commissions. He went to lengths to point out that the House would not be the right place for a young composer to write their first opera (he quipped that the first one is usually not very good) he wanted composers with a developed voice and some stage experience.

On the subject of modern/traditional productions he thought the distinction was redundant and that he had directed in both idioms, led by the work itself. He was warned that London audiences are too conservative and would not accept modern productions and he responded that in his experience the audience is discerning but expects good storytelling/a clear narrative. As he exclaimed this is after all the country of Shakespeare and BBC drama. He wants opera to be relevant (not in a jeans and trainers way) but to talk about life as it is. Emphasising that the companies have to believe in the greatness of the material and the extraordinary nature of the artistry required to promote the art form.  He contemned Regietheater as a creative dead and ridden with clichés (to the chagrin of the rather elderly audience). The conversation wandered to Stefan Herheim and he confirmed that his predecessor had engaged him for the 2013 season for a Verdi opera (the rumours suggest Les Vespres Siciliennes), he expressed his admiration for him and his very physical, dramatic productions. He also made a point about La Donna del Lago that he scrapped the Lluis Pasqual directed co-produced production with La Scala and the Opéra when he realised that it was not a good one. And he said that such a great cast (Didonato/Flórez/Barcellona) deserved a new production and he’d rather spend the small budget on it than spend it on promoting a production that was fundamentally unsuitable for the piece (we all remember the ludicrous chain mail costumes). Boasting that his upcoming Onegin and DDL had the smaller budgets in Royal Opera’s history but hoping they would not seem cheap to the audiences.

On the subject of the cinema broadcasts and live online relays (prompted by two audience members questions) he mentioned how he originally (when the Met HD series started) did not believe that opera in the cinema would work but was happy to be proven wrong. He said that it was imperative for the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to have a worldwide presence in cinemas and that wherever possible they would like to challenge the exclusivity on venues by the Met. As for online streaming he thought the costs involved are prohibitive due to the low levels of public subsidy (in comparison to Central Europe), but he’s hoping to work more with The Space like they did for Les Troyens.

He mentioned that a major part of his decision to move to Covent Garden was working with maestro Pappano, who he thought had the most incredible curiosity and musicality, making him possibly the best musical director in any of the major opera houses. He also made clear that for him a sense of personality in the programming was important despite the fact that is not always possible due to casting restrictions. Exclaimed how courage was very important and not playing it safe all the time, offering as an example his work on staging Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in the coming seasons. Also defended the long runs of “classics” like Traviata, Tosca and Bohème as a good way to bring new audiences in. Quoting that 30% of the audience for La Traviata were new to the House.

He kept on repeating how important it was for him to have more affordable tickets and how aware he was that the audience in the House is not as representative of London’s overall diversity and vitality. Also seemed to be keenly aware that the online presence and booking system of the ROH still needs work but he was confident the investment would pay off.

The Baroque question

Unfortunately I did not get the chance to ask my main question of their deplorable use of their young artists or about the significant lack of British talent for the juiciest parts, but instead managed to approach him after the talk to enquire about the lack of baroque opera from the main stage.

His response was that he was aware of that gap and he had conversations with the rest of the management but was worried that maybe the auditorium is too big for a satisfactory experience. Mentioning  that ENO and Glyndebourne having a great record at presenting this repertoire in the UK. When I responded with how extraordinary was Niobe Regina di Tebe and if he had the chance to see it. He responded that he hadn’t experienced it for himself but was aware it had troubles selling tickets and that any such projects will need a period instrument specialist orchestra. So in other ways it means that Covent Garden in its current state will not produce any more baroque opera for the Main Stage, which is deeply regrettable in my view. Had I  had the time I would have mentioned the obvious flaws of his thinking around baroque, as the ENO has a larger auditorium than the ROH and also they use their in house orchestra with mainly modern instruments as do the other regional companies.

Overall what came through from the talk was his vibrancy and will to succeed in the role but also a keen sense to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Royal Opera. Left me feeling positive about the future of the House and its programming despite its obvious lack of will to stage baroque, the very starting point of the illustrious art it promotes.

Some excerpts from the talk will be circulated by the Royal Opera in the coming weeks will try to link to them here so you get a more direct sense of the talk.

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