Over the next few months you can expect to read many interviews with some of today’s most influential and highly respected singers, composers, conductors, directors, writers and other key individuals in the world of opera. If you have any suggestions for someone who ought to be included in our interviews section, then please do email in with your ideas.
Tenor Alan Oke is having a memorable Britten centenary. Having performed his first Peter Grimes this year, both at Snape and on the beach in Aldeburgh, he returns to the role of Gustav von Aschenbach in Opera North’s Death in Venice before he reprises the role of Ghandi in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha at English National Opera. Recent engagements have included Chairman Mao (Nixon in China) for the BBC Proms Caliban (The Tempest) for the Metropolitan Opera and Hiereus/ the Translator (The Minotaur) for the Royal Opera. I was particularly interested to discover Alan’s thoughts on performing such contrasting tenor roles as Grimes and Aschenbach and the different challenges they pose.
Australian tenor Stuart Skelton isn’t one to let the grass grow under his feet. Last week saw him open in Calixto Bieito’s controversial production of Fidelio at English National Opera on Wednesday, swiftly followed by a concert performance (semi-staged) of Peter Grimes in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, the very next night. As if that wasn’t enough, a second Florestan back at ENO on Friday and a trip across the Thames for another Grimes on Saturday completed a marathon four day stint, before which I caught up with him to talk about his career, a forthcoming gala and life on the operatic circuit. He is a tenor in tremendous demand. Skelton sang another key role – Siegmund – in the Seattle Opera Ring this summer and Wagner features prominently in his schedules; the day after our interview, he flew to Bilbao for concerts of Act I of Die Walküre and excerpts from Lohengrin. How does he manage it?
Soprano Sophie Bevan, recipient of the Young Singer of the Year at the inaugural International Opera Awards this spring, is a rising star on the British operatic scene. The past season has seen her make her Royal Opera debut, as well as her role debut as Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen for Welsh National Opera, which I reviewed on tour in Southampton. Song recitals are an important part of her work, with a high profile Wigmore Hall concert last spring and a recital at Hampstead Arts Festival ahead in the autumn. Sophie’s operatic work is increasingly taking her abroad and during a recent run of Siegfried Woodbirds in Lucerne, she reflected on the past season, as well as on the art of recital performances.
Israeli born mezzo-soprano Rinat Shaham has received accolades for her operatic and concert performances throughout the world. Born in Haifa, Ms Shaham completed her musical studies in the United States at the Curtis Instute of Music. While still a student she was invited to make her professional operatic debut as Zerlina with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. A versatile artist equally at home on both concert and opera stages, Rinat has been praised in roles including Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, Blanche in Dialogues des Carmélites, Charlotte in Werther and the title role in Cendrillon. She has performed the title role in Carmen all over the world, a role she recently performed on the floating stage of Sydney Harbour to great acclaim. A relay of this Handa Opera production will be beamed to cinemas across the globe later this month. Opera Britannia caught up with her ahead of this relay, whilst she is back in Sydney with Opera Australia as she takes on the challenge of her first Verdi role.
Last week, baritone Michel de Souza performed with his Jette Parker Young Artist colleagues in their end of year performance on the main stage. Michel is just finishing his first year on the Programme, during which he has made his Royal Opera debut and understudied some main roles. Performing Papageno on the main stage is a long way from singing in a boys’ choir in Brazil, a journey which included a spell at Scottish Opera, trying out big roles like Prince Andrei in War and Peace, so I was keen to discover more about his background and what he has learnt in his time in London.
The silvery strains of Portuguese soprano Susana Gaspar have recently been heard emanating from on high in the Royal Opera House’s auditorium as the (suitably angelic) Voice of Heaven in a starrily-cast revival of Don Carlo. When we met last week, we mused that the final performance on Saturday would be her last role at Covent Garden as a Jette Parker Young Artist, aside from their matinee summer showcase on the main stage. “I’m singing First Lady in Die Zauberflöte, Adina and Magda in Act II of La Rondine,” she reveals. We discussed her progression as an artist and what she has learnt from colleagues with whom she has worked (and whom she has covered), as well as how she is preparing for the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in which she is appearing next month.
NL: Let’s start from the very beginning. I know you were born in the U.K. and grew up in Australia. Could you tell us something about your background?
JP: I was born in Bristol. My father was a tenor and changed professions when my mother was expecting me. He was offered a position as a director of music at a local school, and decided to accept it because it was a more stable position, and we lived in England until I was 11. I enjoyed watching his lessons. He would only teach me and my brother solfeggio and musical games, and we liked to compete, such as who could pick the most difficult note in a chord
Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanovais currently performing the role of Tatyana in Kasper Holten’s much-anticipated new Royal Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. It is her second time performing the role, having previously sung in Stefan Herheim’s production for Netherlands Opera. Both productions make use of flashback techniques, so I was keen to seek her views on how she felt they compared, as well as to find out which roles she was preparing, both for stage and for disc. Krassimira made her role debut here in 2002, singing Mimì, but is seen far too infrequently in London, being more often found in Vienna, New York or Germany’s opera houses. I caught up with her in her dressing room at the Royal Opera House. We began by talking about her musical roots.
Mark Pullinger & Antony Lias
Regarded as one of Australia’s foremost sopranos, Emma Matthews is Principal Artist with Opera Australia, for which she made her debut as Damigella in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1993. She is renowned as a bel canto soprano but her repertoire extends beyond 19th century operas to Berg’s Lulu and Richard Mills’ The Love of the Nightingale, the role of the Nightingale having been written for her. In 2010, she made her Covent Garden debut and Deutsche Grammophon issued her first solo disc ‘Emma Matthews in Monte Carlo’. Emma has just finished a run in Lucia di Lammermoor for West Australian Opera. Earlier this year, she made her role debut as Violetta in La traviata, a performance being beamed to UK cinemas. Opera Britannia caught up with her last weekend, ahead of the broadcast.
A year ago, soprano Anna Leese was juggling the role of Suzel in L’amico Fritz at Opera Holland Park with representing New Zealand in the BBC Cardiff Singer competition. Now she returns to OHP to sing the role of Tatyana in their eagerly anticipated new production of Yevgeny Onegin, directed by Daniel Slater. The last time I met Anna was at the opening night of ENO’s new Onegin production. After chewing over Deborah Warner’s staging there and discussing aspects of English Touring Opera’s revival, both of which were performed in English translation, we turned to the current production and how rehearsals were going.
English Touring Opera’s new production of The Barber of Seville opens on 8thMarch at the Hackney Empire. It is directed by Thomas Guthrie, whose second production this is for the company following his well-received Fairy Queenlast year. A former ROH Young Artist, he may be unique in that he enjoys successful parallel careers as both a singer and a director. Acknowledging that he was not originally enamoured with Rossini’s opera buffa, considering it to be a piece of froth often weighed down with extraneous business, his opinion changed when he had the opportunity to work on the Royal Opera House’s current staging. He worked alongside the production’s creators, Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, during its original run, and subsequently assistant directed a revival.
Opera doesn't get much closer to the bone than Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Die Passagierin (The Passenger). Written in 1968 to a libretto based on death-camp survivor Zofia Posmysz's eponymous novel, it not only addresses issues arising from the Holocaust (in which Weinberg's own family was murdered), but actually sets large parts of the action in Auschwitz itself, unflinchingly interleaving harrowing details of inmate life there with the plush setting of a cruise liner, on which a former guard at the camp is sailing with her husband to Brazil.
Polish bass Lukas Jakobski began his music training as a bassoonist, then studied singing at Poznan Academy of Music and with Graeme Broadbent at the RCM. Awards include the Kathleen Ferrier Bursary and Concordia Serena Nevill Award. He has participated in masterclasses with Michael Chance, Alessandro Corbelli and John Tomlinson
Royal Opera premières are relatively rare events. Anna Nicole may have caused a stir at Covent Garden recently, but a lesser-trumpeted event was the first performance – admittedly over a century after its composition – of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride. Singing the role of Marfa was former Jette Parker Young Artist Marina Poplavskaya, with whom I caught up this week to discuss the production. Our conversation also discussed all things Verdi and her development as an artist.
Daniele Rustioni studied at the “G.Verdi” Conservatoire in Milan and took part in conducting postgraduate courses at the Accademia Musicale Pescarese, at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana and the Royal Academy of Music. In addition, he attended masterclasses with Sir Colin Davis, Kurt Masur and Gianandrea Noseda. In 2007, Daniele made his debut with the Teatro Regio Orchestra in Turin, where he returned in 2008 to make his operatic debut in Italy with La bohème. He conducted the Verdi Requiem at the Great Hall of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Society upon invitation of Yuri Temirkanov in addition to new productions of L’elisir d’amore and Pagliacci at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. In 2008 he won his place on theJette Parker Young Artists’ Programmemaking him assistant to Music director Antonio Pappano.
I managed to catch Rustioni before his penultimate performance of Aida at the Royal Opera House:“Let’s go” said Rustioni in his youthful eagerness.
Stephen Jay Taylor
There can’t be many opera singers, least of all non-Italians, who have already made their debuts at La Scala in a principal role – Rinuccio, in Gianni Schicchi – whilst under the age of 25 and technically still only a student. Indeed, when Michael Fabiano finished his two-and-a-half months’ long stint of both covering, and singing scheduled performances, in Milan in the Winter of 2008, the day after he returned to Philadelphia he was back at the Academy of Vocal Arts rehearsing La traviata on the Friday; slept soundly through the Saturday; and at the crack of dawn the following day was back singing at his local church where he was still employed as a chorister. The remarkable surrealism of such a scenario is not lost on the tenor, who chuckles heartily at the very memory. But then, Michael Fabiano is remarkable in a number of different ways, of which his youth is only the most visibly obvious.
Many critics are now beginning to seriously refer to you as the greatest soprano before the public today. The combination of a great actress, with a wonderfully supple and full lyric soprano, capable of thrilling intensity with a unique and immediately recognisable timbre, makes you a rare and distinguished artist. What impact has this had on you as a singer?
Well, I strive to do my best in each and every performance, and to always fulfil the role as well as I possibly can. I am happy when my achievements are recognised and acknowledged, and I hope that I can give pleasure to people through my work.
Starring as Clearte in Steffani’s ultra rare Niobe, regina di Tebe at The Royal Opera, countertenor Tim Mead spoke to me about the burgeoning interest in the countertenor voice and how his career took off after standing in for David Daniels in a performance of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne.
Over the past few years the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee has been establishing himself as one of the brightest hopes in the supremely challenging field of bel canto opera. Making a name for himself singing bravura roles like Arturo in I Puritani, Tonio in La fille du Régiment and Conte Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, the opera world has warmly embraced a rare and distinguished voice, which undoubtedly will continue to thrill its listeners for decades to come.
Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers comes to the English National Opera in an exciting new production by Penny Woolcock, featuring British tenor Alfie Boe as Nadir. At the Coliseum I had the opportunity to discuss Bizet’s early masterpiece with the American lyric coloratura soprano Hanan Alattar, who is singing the role of Leila.
An interview with the Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, Jeremy Hunt MP and Don Foster MP
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Bradshaw MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, as well as his shadow opposites Jeremy Hunt MP (Conservative Party) and Don Foster MP (Liberal Democrats). With a brief which includes public subsidies for cultural institutions, I wanted to take the opportunity to find out a little bit more about their policies for arts funding following the general election, with a special emphasis being placed on those companies which stage opera.
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to secure an interview with the up and coming British soprano Elisabeth Meister, who is currently in her first year on the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at The Royal Opera, a programme noted for providing solid artistic support and experience for some of the very best emerging opera singers in the world. Having seen many of them perform over the years, some of whom have gone on to highly successful careers, including Marina Poplavskaya, Andrew Kennedy and Matthew Rose, Meister is unquestionably the most exciting and talented I have yet seen.
Acclaimed for his powerful voice, musicianship and dramatic conviction, Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton is proving himself to be one of the leading heroic tenors of his generation. Following on from a sensational Peter Grimes at the English National Opera in 2009, Skelton is back once again at the Coliseum to sing the role of Boris in Janacek’s Katya Kabanova. Catching up with him last week I asked about how his voice has developed over the years, what it was like to sing in a production as successful as the Peter Grimes, and whether Boris is anything more than a one-dimensional character.
Recently I caught up with the celebrated conductor Ivor Bolton at The Royal Opera ahead of their first staging of Handel’s Tamerlano, which allowed me to ask him about his passion for Handel, his time in Salzburg and Munich and his views on performance style within the baroque repertory.
The 4th of February sees the opening of the first revival of David Alden’s acclaimed production of Donizetti’s bel canto masterpiece, Lucia di Lammermoor at the English National Opera. Reprising her role as the ill-fated heroine is the American soprano Anna Christy. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Miss Christy at the Coliseum recently, giving me the opportunity find out a little bit more about her career, as well as to obtain some insight into her interpretation of the celebrated and supremely challenging title role, one associated with many of the greatest singers in operatic history. She is the sort of singer who clearly values both the musical and dramatic aspects of the work, but recognises that in order to elevate this role from the province of canary-fanciers, all of its virtuosic arsenal (which ranges from exquisite trills to laser-like acuti) must be invested with meaning and dramatic purpose, thereby achieving a genuinely moving theatrical experience.
Very few musicians today can claim the distinction of having worked with Benjamin Britten, but the eminent conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, is certainly one of the few who have not only worked with Britten, but also knew him on a personal level. Sir Charles will be conducting five of the six performances of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, at the English National Opera from the 22nd of October. This will be the first revival of David McVicar’s celebrated production, first brought to the London Coliseum back in 2007. But this time it will be Sir Charles’s insightful conducting of Britten’s supernatural chiller, which for many will be the principal draw.
Since the Young Artists Programme was set up back in 2001 (partly funded by arts patron and internet billionaire, Alberto Vilar), The Royal Opera has been busy nurturing and developing emerging talent, whether singers, conductors, répétiteurs or directors. Following the financial collapse of Mr Vilar, the Programme was transformed into the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, headed by its artistic director, David Gowland and administrator, Siri Fischer Hansen. The alumni include Marina Poplavskaya, Matthew Rose, Kostas Smorginias, Ailish Tynan , Katie van Kooten and Edgaras Montvidas, to name but a few of the artists who have successfully carved out operatic careers for themselves. Developing opera's future talent is clearly a very important aspect of the work of The Royal Opera, so there has been heavy investment in these young artists, both in terms of finance and education.
The ultimate tribute to the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death is being undertaken by English Touring Opera this October, who are also celebrating their not inconsiderable 30th anniversary. Founded in 1980, and initially known as Opera 80, English Touring Opera has played an important role not only in bringing operas, both popular and less well known to the regions, but also in developing the careers of young artists, who have gone on to achieve great success in their own right. Some of the singers who have benefited from the spirited work of this company include Sarah Connolly, Susan Bickley, Mary Plazas and Christopher Purvis, to name but a few.
In 2006 a unique ensemble was founded by male soprano Calvin Wells with the aim of bringing neglected baroque works to the public, complete with the inventive and often florid ornamentation invariably utilized by the great singers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Ensemble Serse provides a startling contrast to the numerous Handel inspired foundations, bands and competitions which have become synonymous with the baroque revival. The reality is that Handel was but one of many composers who excelled during this extraordinarily creative period, often sharing the limelight with composers whom today are considered to be anything but his equal. However, contemporary criticism has conclusively shown that many of these other composers were at least as popular as Handel, and in some cases, decidedly more so. So why did Handel’s music emerge first within the baroque revival, whilst others languished in obscurity? Well Handel’s extraordinary gift for melody is one reason, but perhaps the primary reason is that Handel never really disappeared from the UK music scene, his oratorios, engorged and swelled by Victorian tastes for sombre, biblically inspired music, were often performed on a vast scale, and were incredibly popular. His music was, despite his roots, quintessentially English; he was our Orpheus Britannicus.
It has been almost a year since Nicholas Hytner’s production of Don Carlo was premiered at The Royal Opera. Whilst the staging came in for a mixed critical reception, there was much praise heaped on Marina Poplavskaya’s debut performance as Elisabeth. Michael Church of The Independent described her as “transcendent”, whilst Rupert Christiansen of The Daily Telegraph said that she “was rich in timbre, subtle in phrasing and lovely to look at, floating gorgeously above the stave and easily dominating the ensembles.” This is considerable praise for a debut in a role, which has been sung by such luminaries as Caballé, Brouwenstijn and Tebaldi. But then Poplavskaya’s meteoric rise to fame since her lauded interpretation of Rachel in Halevy’s La juive back in 2006, is underscored by a rare and intense artistry, which marks her out as one of the great hopes of opera. Her commitment to her art is unequivocally absolute.
Today there are many coloratura sopranos all benefitting from the renaissance in bel canto operas, but most still fall within the category of small, white or silvery sopranos, buzzing around the vocal summits like maniacally possessed bees. Fortuitously, a soprano has at long last arrived on the world stage, who possesses a rich, warm, radiantly lyric soprano, that is capable of the most extraordinary excursions into the tonal stratosphere. Her name is Eglise Gutiérrez, a Cuban-born soprano who has been busy over the past few years wowing audiences in the United States and Europe with her mesmerizing interpretations of the heroines of Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Massenet and Delibes. On Monday the 7th of September she makes her debut at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, in the first of two concert performances of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix. The anticipation for vocal connoisseurs is positively palpable!
Recently labeled “Britain’s best baritone” by Andrew Porter in Opera magazine, Roderick Williams has emerged as one of today’s most distinguished singers, both in opera and in recital. He is the possessor of a rich and handsome baritone that is warm, flexible and used with intelligence. The artistry with which it is deployed is one of complete commitment, with articulation of text and drama given centre stage. His recording output verges on the prodigious, whilst his appearances both on stage and in concert generate enormous enthusiasm from both public and critics alike. Yet in many ways he is the antithesis of the star-seeking baritones with whom we are all too familiar.
Since 2008 the Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura has been wowing London audiences at The Royal Opera with her committed stage presence and gleaming voice. As a member of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme, Ms Nakamura has consistently made her presence felt whether in smaller roles such as the 5th Maid in Elektra, or as she did when she sensationally stepped in at the last hour for an indisposed Anna Netrebko in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The possessor of a rich warm lyric soprano that can cleave through an orchestra with such precision and body, audiences and critics alike have proclaimed Ms Nakamura as a new major talent on the opera scene.