Carmen: a playlist

I’m delighted to say that, two weeks before opening, our season of Carmen at West Australian Opera is already sold out. And, just as I did for Janáček a few posts ago, here is a guided playlist to Carmen, as you prepare to attend a performance.

Bizet is one of my favourite composers, particularly for his dramatic instincts and wonderful orchestral writing. The most famous blast of Spanish air comes in the first seconds of Carmen, with locale, culture, passion and vivacity all in one hot little package:

Carmen: Prélude to Act One

The two halves of that prelude prefigure the two sides of the evening to come – extroversion and sunlight, set in stark contrast to dark brooding obsession. The story is all right there at the start, as in all the best overtures (think La traviataLohengrin, …).

A more tender, intimate orchestral colour comes at the start of our second half, the Entr’acte to Act Three. Lots about Carmen offended early audiences, but this Entr’acte is an unabashed masterpiece of conventional beauty – simplicity achieved with great subtlety.

It’s the arias and ensembles which dominate the evening, and the most famous of all is the Habanera of Carmen herself. This is the piece which Bizet stole from a cabaret original in the final days before the first performance, desperately trying to appease his diva with a vehicle she would be satisfied with. I think it worked! The sinuous chromatic descent of her opening line has come to stand for femmes fatale ever since. Here’s Elīna Garanča, one of our reigning Carmens.

One of the wonderful things about the opera for singers is that every major role has at least one fantastic aria to sing. For the tenor, there’s the Flower SongFor the baritone, there’s the Toreador SongFor the soprano, there’s Micaela’s aria, here sung by the wonderful Ileana Cotrubas.

And for the other roles, there is plenty to get their teeth into. The Quintet in Act Two is a fiendish challenge in threading the needle for five singers, all at once. There is so much life bursting through every note of this opera – with not a single wasted stitch. And all this from someone who, shortly after the premiere, would be dead. What would Bizet have written had he lived for another forty years? And how different would our operatic world look? Composers – Bizet and Mozart included – who produce dramatic music which satisfies both the casual pleasure-seeker and the professional, which masks incredible virtuosity under an accessible surface, don’t appear often.

I’ll finish this playlist with the great chorus of Act Four, where the crowds acclaim the appearance of the toreros. This is power in full play. The Spanish music of the first Prelude returns, with an undertow of danger and arousal. And the chorus have one of the best sings of their lives, with each voice section featured in turn. This is opera at its best – telling stories through the power of the human voice.

Until next time

 

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Carmen

Annie Patrick’s programme notes for our forthcoming production of Carmen do a superb job, setting the scene and context for why audiences in 1875 were scandalised by the portrayal of a gypsy on stage. I want to draw that thread out in this blog, and look in more detail at what Annie describes as the ‘Fate’ motif in the opera – I hope that some of the questions I raise might crack the nut of Carmen open a little wider.

It’s true that the motif is spotlit from its first appearance, in the opening Prélude. It signals a dramatic change in tone there, and wherever it appears subsequently it marks Carmen and her story. There’s something very interesting about the first four notes of the motif, though – they would have been heard by audiences in 1875 as explicitly oriental. The modal organisation of tones and semitones in the motif is neither major nor minor – it’s both at once. Similar modality occurs in the first motif of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and there it has been heard as “Jewish” in tone. A contemporary of Bizet’s, the musicologist Bourgault-Ducoudray, was exploring and writing about ‘foreign’ musical modes at exactly this time in Paris. We’ll come back to him a little later on.

Why, you may ask, would Carmen be linked to the Orient? This goes to a much larger question, which Edward Saïd addressed in his magisterial book Orientalism. He noted how European culture exoticised and glamorised the Orient, while at the same time viewing it as a source of moral decay and infection. And gypsies, in this period, were thought to have originated in Egypt (hence the name). Spain was like Vienna – both were border points, centres of conflict between the East and European culture. And in Seville, at the far reaches of Spanish exoticism, lay the gypsies and their ‘foreign’ culture.

Most of all, what Carmen is often held to represent is the Other. Not just in her ethnicity, or her femaleness, but in her rejection of social conformity and her ‘wildness’. Superficially, these views of Carmen are somewhat old-fashioned, but to ignore their continuing hold on our imagination is to weaken part of Carmen’s historical context. An interesting question for me is whether Bizet himself objectified Carmen, or whether he understands her as a subversive challenger to social norms. Actually, that is what I think he does. But as a European male composer, the suspicion is that because he writes her death, he participates in her oppression, punishing her for her challenges to the patriarchy.

I’m not so sure about this. Mainly because Bizet himself had more than a touch of subversive wildness, in his domestic and professional lives. He was definitely not a member of the Parisian establishment, but an outsider, struggling to survive. His fascination with the Other – in Pearl FishersDjamileh and even L’Arlesienne – displays an engagement with the marginalised voice which I find fascinating. And every time I conduct Carmen (possibly my favourite opera), I am struck by how Bizet composes the evening as a kind of growing fever, where the Other (chromaticism, structural disruption, narrative uncertainty) increasingly infects the ‘normality’ of the early music. Carmen can definitely be interpreted as a descent into chaos and formlessness, and that’s how I now conduct it. In this perspective, it’s the Other which wins out in the end, not the patriarchy. Carmen is fully prepared to die rather than give up her freedom.

The challenge for a contemporary director of Carmen is how much to engage with issues of power and oppression, as opposed to telling a charming Spanish tale. Lindy Hume’s production engages wholeheartedly with the issues, which I think is the only justifiable attitude to take to this piece now. The alternative is a retreat into the worst kind of exotic cliché – leaving the death of Carmen unaddressed, unless it engages with why she dies.

The most passionate aspiration in the opera comes from Carmen herself. She does not see herself as sexy, or foreign, or marginal. She is not looking for love. What she lives for is la Liberté, as she says herself – freedom.

But what of Bourgault-Ducoudray? Fourteen years after the premiere of Carmen, he was at the Paris Universal Exposition, lecturing on oriental music and oriental modes. Among the visitors to the Exhibition was Claude Debussy, one of Bourgault-Ducoudray’s protégés. Debussy’s seismic encounter with Javanese gamelan at this Exhibition really marked the beginning of what we call world music. So there is an unbroken thread between Carmen and Paul Simon’s Graceland, if you look at it from one point of view.

Until next time

 

UWA & WAO – Distinguished Artist Lecture

A very short introduction this month to a lengthy address! I recently gave a lecture as part of the UWA Distinguished Artist Lecture series, and spent the hour-long period ruminating on reputation, the responsibilities of an Artistic Director, and the power of Janáček.

The lecture attracted quite a bit of attention, and so for this month’s blog I am sharing the video recording with you, courtesy of UWA. I hope you find it interesting.

Until next time

Janáček – accessible, not difficult

As a curtain raiser to this Saturday’s premiere of The Cunning Little Vixen at WAO, I’ve put together a short Spotify playlist for you. I hope it will tune your ears to the accessible, emotional and powerful world of Janáček.

Some may have preconceptions about what a twentieth-century Moravian composer should sound like, but in Janáček’s case these assumptions are probably wrong. Listen to this, a miniature entitled “Good night!”, from the book of piano pieces On an Overgrown Path. Deeply tender and harmonic, it’s an ideal introduction to Janáček’s language. Short figures repeat, each like a kernel ripe with meaning. I feel not only spoken to, but caressed and comforted in these three minutes. But it could just as well be by Philip Glass – Janáček gets away from traditional long melodies and uses small gestures, like a minimalist, to mirror a natural world of repetition and balance.

To show how Janáček writes for voices, here’s a piece called Lavecka from a 1908 collection of Moravian folk songs. Kate Molleson, in The Guardian, describes these beautifully:

Leoš Janáček wrote thousands of rural Czech songs; he loved the twisting modal tunes, the jagged lyrics. The title of his most important published collection – Moravian Folk Poetry in Song – hints at the attention he paid to the rogue rhythm of the words as well as the melodies. His settings never over-prettify the music, keeping vocal lines direct and a strong flavour of cimbalom, organ, fiddle and stomping feet in the piano accompaniments. Mostly he believed these songs should feel like real life: “the dance song should choke in sweat, in people’s vapour and steam, while the melancholy weeping of the bride should be reflected in wedding songs.”1

Next, another piece from On an Overgrown Path, with the wonderful suggestive title They chattered like swallows. And we’re straight into another small story. There’s something definitely happening here – vivacity, some darkness, much reflection. No wonder Janáček was such a wonderful operatic composer – he can tell us a story without any words beyond the title.

The Lachian Dances come from much earlier in Janáček’s life – first performed in 1889 – and are more traditional, clearly influenced by Dvořák. It’s a useful reminder of the vast distance Janáček travelled in his development, until at the end of his life we have the transformed language of The Cunning Little Vixen. Here’s a dance called Blessed.

I’ve alluded in other writing to the great love affair of Janáček’s later life, with a much younger married woman. This may have remained unconsummated, but whatever the facts, this love was a major source of inspiration and regeneration for Janáček. His second string quartet carries the subtitle Intimate Letters, and a fragment of a letter from Janáček to Kamila says it all:

You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…

The Adagio-Vivace from Intimate Letters comes from the 1920s, the same period as Vixen, and the passionate string writing joins us to the world of the opera beautifully. This is music full of vibrant life; it bursts from the instruments and arrests our attention. The twists and turns are rapid, and yet the narrative is totally persuasive. This is a totally original voice, in full flow.

More music for voices next, this time a piece for male chorus called Mosquitoes. And the originality of Janáček’s voice, here from 1904, comes through in demanding chromatic writing, while still focussing on the cantabile power of the singing voice. These choruses were sung by many amateur regional choirs in Moravia – and Janáček’s demands in the score are impressive!

The last piece on my playlist for you is from In the Mists, written in 1912 for piano. This was a period of difficulty and obscurity for Janáček – his daughter Olga had died some years earlier, and his operas were being universally rejected for performance. But his voice still sings through, undiminished, in this movement titled Molto Adagio.

I hope this playlist gives you as much pleasure to listen to as it has been for me to compile it. The complete track list is here.

All that remains is for me to urge you to come to a performance in the coming week at His Majesty’s Theatre: April 21, 24, 26, and 28. Janáček has never been performed before in WAO’s history, so this is an unmissable opportunity to experience the power, delight and richness of his imaginative world. Come and join us!

Until next time

Vixen – why so special?

Of all the work we are producing at West Australia Opera in 2018, The Cunning Little Vixen is the opera I have highlighted as my Director’s Pick for the year, and the one I am advocating for untiringly.

Some people are slightly puzzled as to my high opinion of an lesser-known opera, by a little-known composer, with a story about a vixen’s adventures. In this post I wanted to expand a little on why I am obsessed with the power of this piece, and why in my view it is one of the greatest operas of all.

Janáček composed The Cunning Little Vixen towards the end of his life, a life spent almost entirely in the Moravian city of Brno as a teacher and performer. Recognition came late in his life as a composer; his first great success (with Jenůfa) came in his sixties. His personal story is one of the great examples of a late flowering – the operas which followed, including Káťa Kabanová and The Makropulos Case, represent a massive creative outpouring, coinciding with his love for a much younger woman. Janáček’s story gives us all hope – that our creative lives can continue to flourish, that old age need be no dampener of our passionate engagement with the world.

And this leads straight to the core of Vixen and its power. Janáček found the germ of the opera’s story in a comic strip published in a local Brno paper, about the adventures of a young vixen. Moravia is a wooded region, and every creature represented in the opera is active in the area around Luhačovice, where Janáček spent his summers (and where I also holidayed, in tribute to him, last August).

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A carved vixen in the Luhačovice park (photo: BC)

The power of Janáček’s genius lies in the transformation he makes from such simple material: the lifecycle of an animal becomes a powerful vehicle for reflections on our place in the world, the way we each move from birth to death, and the interactions of all living things. But his vision is devoid of all sentimentality, and for me that makes it even stronger. There is no cutesiness or avoidance of darkness – instead, a variety of events, including death, regret and comic mishaps, are told in a direct, unaffected style, with divine music and incredible communicative power. Janáček spent his life obsessed by the way people express song through their speech, how in speech the inflections of each one of us sing our own melodies. He notated the dying words of his daughter in song, perhaps as a way to keep her close to him. This form of ‘direct speech’ in Janáček lies for me at the heart of his power as an opera composer. He was able to reach deep into the way speech and song connect, to gain access to the universality of the human expressive voice, and then to transform this expressive power into every note he wrote.

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The harmonium in Luhačovice, where Janáček worked on Vixen (photo: BC)

At West Australian Opera our mission is to tell stories through the power of the singing human voice. Janáček, partly due to a life lived in obscurity and individuality, grew in his last years to harness the spring’s source: the connection between speech (storytelling) and song (emotion). The Cunning Little Vixen presents to us a world overflowing with abundant emotion, vitality, and richness. It affirms life, it accepts the passing of life, and it tells us about our lives through the prism of a story about woodland creatures. I love it, I love its composer, and his music has enriched my life and perspective beyond measure. For the first time in our company’s history, we present Janáček’s work to you, our audience. I am enormously proud of this new step in our history, and I urge you to come and experience its richness for yourself.

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The wooded slope above Luhačovice (photo: BC)

Until next time

Public spaces, private dreaming

At West Australian Opera we are delighted with the success of this year’s Opera in the Park. It attracted the largest attendance on record, with the first performance of La bohème in the Park since the event began twenty-six years ago. I love Opera in the Park, and since I took up the artistic directorship of the Company, I have led each year’s event. It’s not just the opportunity to flaunt our wares to a large and appreciative crowd, in Perth and throughout the State; it’s also the quality of experience which is created by the open air, the warmth of a summer evening by the Swan, the sunset and the skyscape, the noise from other events nearby, and the chance to eat, drink and move about while experiencing the full-scale emotions of music theatre.

The combination of picnicking and opera is a winner, as Glyndebourne and English country house opera have shown for some time. And, although they might appear to be an unlikely pairing, this is mainly because opera environments – over the last one hundred and fifty years – have taken on the nature of the church and the lecture hall. This is a trend I personally oppose. Not just because I spent more time in church as a child than I would wish on anyone, including current choristers! – but importantly, because I think it is a category error.

For most of opera’s history since the seventeenth century, the theatre has been a place of pleasure, raffish unrespectability and transgression. The orchestra stalls in earlier centuries were open spaces (like the Royal Albert Hall still is during the Proms), where patrons walked about and socialised. The boxes, on the other hand, were usually privately-rented (and the Albert Hall still retains this system), where patrons could entertain, play cards, eat and drink in small receiving rooms set back from public view, and indeed on occasion frolic with persons of ill-repute in the semi-dark. In the eighteenth century, diaries record that persons of status spent most evenings in the theatre. But they did not do so as if they were going to school; they would include the theatre in their social calendar, between paying social calls to their friends, eating out, and other forms of entertainment. Often patrons would come to their box in time to hear the famous aria of the opera, and leave for an hour or so before returning for the ballet. No-one was confined to the theatre for the duration; it was a part of life, not removed or made sacred.

When Wagner built his theatre in Bayreuth, he instituted a very different model for the opera experience. He reverted to a classical amphitheatre, with famously uncomfortable wooden seats, an invisible orchestra under the stage, and – most importantly – reduced lighting. The result of all these changes was to make the experience immersive; recalling perhaps both a womb and a temple. Wagner wanted to engineer continuous dreaming and, with single acts of his operas far exceeding most normal theatre evenings in length, this state of rapture/submission was a profoundly different experience of opera.

I would be fascinated to have been in Bayreuth in 1880 or so, apart from anything else to see how much people talked during the performances. Today it seems to us like sacrilege to talk during a show, but that’s just a modern fashion. The trend of imposing respectability and control became a mania at the turn of the twentieth century. House lights went dark during the performance, silence was imposed, coming and going was deterred, and the atmosphere became church-like. It’s no accident that this sacerdotalism increased in the theatre at the very time that Nietszche declared God was dead – it was as if the hunger for sacredness, submission and abnegation was transferred from the church to the theatre. Unfortunately, this served some operatic repertoire very badly. It may have been good for Wagner, but the Italian bel canto operas were composed specifically for the ebb and flow of audience attention. To sit through pages of recitative (which were never written to be listened to with rapt attention) made these operas seem ridiculous, and as someone who conducts so much of that repertoire, I regret that loss. Now we have a situation where, far from being a pleasure palace, the concert hall is a place of silent rebuke to those who have the temerity to applaud between the movements of a symphony. I want to shake those shushers by the shoulders, and show them Mozart’s letters, where he expresses his delight at the noise of appreciation from Parisian audiences; or Bellini’s letters, where he will say very specifically “the act two duet failed [i.e. was met with stony silence], but the cabaletta of the soprano in the third was demanded to be repeated twice”.

I would love to free His Majesty’s Theatre from the fashion for theatrical solemnity, at least on occasion. It’s a gorgeous space, with all the elements (a gently-angled stalls floor, boxes, foyers and rooms) in place to recapture earlier styles. Imagine performances of Rossini with promenades and seatless stalls – or Pagliacci with picnic blankets and Italian ice refreshments. There’s so much pleasure to be had, of so many different varieties. The transformation of the theatre into a church is not all bad, but it definitely affects how welcoming, inclusive and fun we can be. And for that reason Opera in the Park will continue to hold a very special place in both our hearts and, we hope, in our offering.

Until next time

Happy New Season

Welcome to 2018! I’m so happy that, for the first time, WAO Opera in the Park audiences can experience on February 3 what MAY just be the perfect opera: Puccini’s La bohème. As an introduction to opera for first-timers, Bohème is right up there with Carmen (coming later in 2018) and Madama Butterfly – heart-stopping tunes, cast-iron dramaturgy and rip-roaring emotion.

For those who want to arrive prepared, I’ve created a Q&A below. It’s a much better experience when you can come to a Opera in the Park not only with your picnic and your glad rags on, but with a bit of context.

Who wrote it?

Giacomo Puccini is the composer, and Bohème was his first great success. In fact there was a battle over the rights; the composer Leoncavallo was already writing a Bohème opera, and Puccini (slightly sneakily) jumped in with his own (and far more successful) version. Bohème was the foundation for Puccini’s further commissions and his starry success, as the most profitable opera composer of the twentieth and (so far) twenty-first centuries.

The libretto (text) has two official author credits, but in fact at least six people (including Puccini himself) wrangled it into shape, from the novella by Murger. It’s amazing that such a chaotic process resulted in such perfection. Apparently Puccini could compose at a table in the early hours, surrounded by a group of card-playing and drinking buddies. Sounds a bit like Bohème itself…

What’s the story?

A group of card-playing and drinking buddies, all pecunious young artists, scrape a meagre living in Paris. A poet and a painter meet two girls, with whom they have tempestuous affairs. They can’t live together, can’t live without each other. It ends badly.

Who are the characters?

Rodolfo – a struggling wannabe poet (Paul O’Neill, tenor)

Mimì – a piece-worker seamstress (Elena Perroni, soprano)

Marcello – a painter (James Clayton, baritone)

Musetta – a singer (Rachelle Durkin, soprano)

Schaunard – a musician (Mark Alderson, baritone)

Colline – a philosopher (Paull Anthony Keightley, bass)

What about the tunes?

Unless you are totally tone-deaf you will have heard the wonderful music of Bohème infused into popular culture, even if you’ve never seen the opera. RentMoulin Rouge and many pop songs have drawn on the music Puccini wrote. Here are some Spotify tasters for you:

The Waltz Song (Musetta)

Act One love duet (Mimì and Rodolfo)

Che gelida manina (Rodolfo)

Who are the artists for Opera in the Park?

I’ve listed the names of the principal artists above, next to their character names. Opera in the Park is our annual party, and our casting policy (WA, national and international artists, in that order where possible) is on full display this year. Alongside audience favourites Paul O’Neill, Rachelle Durkin and James Clayton, we’re delighted to welcome Elena Perroni to WA Opera for the first time. Resident in the States, Elena was born and bred in Perth, and this is her Australian début. We’re excited about presenting her to Opera in the Park audiences.

Bohème will be directed by Stuart Maunder, a long-time friend of WAO and currently General Director of New Zealand Opera. After our collaboration on last season’s Tosca, I’m delighted to welcome back Stuart as my partner in crime on this production. I will be conducting, as I have for each Opera in the Park since I began as Artistic Director. My last Bohème was ten years ago, in Sweden, with a rather famous but very difficult German director. This time I know there’ll be more sweetness and light!

A quirky fact to impress your date

Puccini savagely cut the original libretto, removing some important plot points. In the completed version, Rodolfo seems irrationally jealous in Act III; this is because in the cut section, Mimì had danced with someone else at a party. What the story loses in coherence it more than makes up for in pace and direction – something I would take over tedium any day.

I welcome you to Opera in the Park, in its place as the portal to our 2018 season. I look forward to a wonderful starry night, and to a rewarding year spent in your company.

Until next time