Month: October 2017

A Trip For My Mother: Experiencing Opera in Italy

Eterior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last evening was the last of two performances of Verdi’s magnificent Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Featuring the talents of soloists Veronica Simeoni (soprano), Anna Pirozzi (mezzo soprano), Antonio Poli (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass baritone), and led with intense passion by conductor Daniele Callegari, the occasion was dedicated to the memory of tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the tenth year of his passing. The Requiem was the first classical experience I had in Italy, and it was more emotional than I was anticipating.

Coming to Italy has meant facing the lingering grief associated with losing my mother, who introduced me to opera and who passed away in 2015 after living more than a decade with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was her caregiver during that time, and I miss her in ways expected and unexpected. I knew this would be an emotional trip, but it also felt like an important one for me to take. Turning away from the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists live in places I know and love (like London) or places I’ve yet to see opera (like Paris, Munich, and Vienna), I chose Festival Verdi because it was, once it had been suggested to me, the sentimental journey I realized I needed to take.

Interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Carmen may have been my first opera as a small child (I was kitted out in long gown and rabbit coat, and taken to a production at Toronto’s then-named O’Keefe Centre), but Verdi was the composer whose work I was essentially raised to. It is not an exaggeration to say his music was the soundtrack of my life. Yes, there was Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, and ABBA, and Dean Martin, and Patsy Cline, and many others besides (my mother loved them all), but Giuseppe Verdi’s position in our little house was central and over-arching. I was a suburban ten-year-old who could sing along with “La donna è mobile” even if I didn’t know exact pronunciations of the words, let alone their meaning. I felt an electric thrill ripple from ears to legs to toes and back again the first time I hear “Di quella pira” (and I still do now). Watching a performance of La traviata‘s famous Brindisi on PBS inspired me to hoist a juice glass and sway around the room; I didn’t really know what they were saying (something about a good time?) but it felt good inside. This music still has the same effect for me; I feel good inside hearing it, whether it’s sad, happy, celebratory, or vengeful. The socio-political subtext of many of Verdi’s works, which I learned about growing older, only made me appreciate them even more, and never stopped me from swaying inside to that Brindisi.

My mother in opera-going gear. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Italophile though she was, my mother never learned the language, despite her love of opera and the many Italian friends we had through the years, and she didn’t travel as much as she would’ve liked for opera. Being a single mother in the 70s and 80s in Canada meant that going to the O’Keefe was all she could manage — that is, until we finally went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the late 1980s. She’d already been of course, many years before, and prior to that, had seen many performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s original house. If motherhood (especially single motherhood) had dimmed her ability to see live performances, it had also made her go ever more deeply into her ever-growing music collection, and, at that time, record every single PBS special. I only recently cleaned out those (literally) hundreds of VHS cassettes, unplayable not just because of technological advances, but through sheer wear and tear; we watched the hell out of that stuff, and more than one happy evening was spent staring and listening, sipping on root beer floats.

Returning to the Met was, looking back on it, a kind of a homecoming for her. We sat up in the Family Circle and it was there, in the darkness, surrounded by well-dressed matrons and comfy-casual students, locals, travellers, newbies, old hands, the old, the young, everyone in-between, with the music coming in waves up to us, that I finally truly understood the depth of my mother’s passion. Not the swaying and verklempt expressions the many times she’d go up and down supermarket aisles, Sony Walkman firmly in place, listening to Saturday Afternoon At the Opera. Not the coy smile when we met Placido Domingo during his Toronto visit (a smile returned, by the way, with a wink). Not even the occasional breathy “ahh” between sections during live performances at the O’Keefe. No, nothing underlined my mother’s passion for the art form until we went to the Met, and especially, saw Luciano Pavarotti (her very favorite singer) perform, and the music of Verdi at that. If it’s possible to experience a person’s spirit leaving their body, I did in those times, and it’s a big reason I wish she was here with me in Italy.

My mother and I in 2000. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Still, there were challenges. Get two willful females living together and you may guess the rest; this trip she’d be chiding me to get a move on, stop burying myself in work, and “you don’t need that second glass of wine!” We’d argue about music as much as the mundanities of every life. I could not, as a teenager, understand her love of Wagner, whose work is, perhaps, the anchovies of opera, or was for me at least; only time, maturity, and experience allowed me to experience and appreciate the richness and complexity. While I adore his work now, in my younger days I had less than friendly feelings. My mother, by contrast, attended nearly an entire weekend of Wagner operas one trip to NYC; she wasn’t so deeply into the mythology as just the sheer, grand sound of it all, and if anyone could parse the threads between the two, it was her.

“You go for the music,” she would say. “If you don’t appreciate this stuff (meaning Verdi and Wagner, both), you can’t say you love opera.”

Not long after she passed away in 2015, an opera-loving friend active in the classical music world wrote to me. “She had the most pure appreciation for the music of anyone I’ve ever met,” he stated. “There was really nothing like it.”

Some may roll their eyes at this, and her perceived ignorance — the fact she couldn’t name all the international singers, didn’t know a lot of various directors’ works, didn’t closely follow very many careers outside of a famous few, couldn’t tell you about tessitura, cabalettas, or fach, didn’t (could’t) travel, didn’t have urban opera friends — and many more yet will say I parallel that ignorance in all kinds of ways, that I’m a twit, an amateur, a poseur, that I am pretentious and snobbish and full of hot air … to which I can only say, I admit ignorance to many things, I acknowledge the many holes that need filling, I try to educate myself in all sorts of ways, but also: I never, ever want to lose the purity of my mother’s appreciation. The day that purity is gone is the day I stop traveling, and the day I stop writing also.

Verdi’s Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 19 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last night I was reminded of my mother’s pure appreciation, and just how much it’s been passed on. There are plenty of reasons why Verdi’s Requiem is important in terms of historical and political contexts (and NPR is right to call it “an opera in disguise“); none of those relate to what I found striking and moving experiencing its magnificent performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma, though. There was such a directness conveyed by and through Maestro Callegari, whose body language and responsiveness conveyed such a truly personal connection with the score. I’ve seen this work many times — with my mother and without — and while I have my favorite performances, none rank with this one; the immense chorus and orchestra transmitted balls-out grief and anger, and were wonderfully contrasted and complemented by thoughtfully modulated performances of the performers, who carefully wielded vocal texture and volume to create a wonderfully satisfying unity of sound. The house itself created so much immediacy of sound, and I can’t wait to hear more in it throughout the coming week.

At the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

My mother attended the opera in both Rome and Florence during her lifetime, but she returned from that particular trip full of remorse, as she told me, that she’d gone to Florence and not had time to go further north, to Parma and especially Busseto, where all things Verdi are located. Her absolute dream trips were to go to Milan for La Scala, and Verdi’s birthplace and home. I’m nearby in Parma, and I am thinking of her constantly.

I smiled lastnight, my critic’s ear ever focused, thinking, “that brass section is a bit loud” only to hear my mother chide me, as she did so often in such cases, as she’d shake her mane of red tresses and furrow her brow: “Don’t be so critical all the time, just enjoy… listen and enjoy!”

Good advice. Mille grazie, mamma. Questo viaggio è per te.

Dominik Köninger: “Everything comes in its time”

Baritone Dominik Köninger / Photo: Tom Schweigert

So many things struck me the first time I saw Dominik Köninger perform live. Watching him, one senses an innate musicality combined with a natural confidence and stage presence. No wonder he’s a rising star in opera.

A native of Heidelberg, Dominik was a member of the International Opera Studios at Hamburg State Opera in 2007; from 2010-2011 he was a member of the Bavarian State Opera. In 2011 he won First Prize in the Wigmore Hall / Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and was also a Recipient of the Wigmore Hall / Independent Opera Voice Fellowship. He has performed at the Stuttgart State Opera, the Theater an der Wien, the Volksoper Wien (Vienna), the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the New National Theater Tokyo, to name a few. In 2012, he became a member of the ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin (or KOB; I’m a fan of their work), and has performed works by Offenbach, Gluck, HandelMonteverdi, Rossini, Puccini, Mozart, as well as Oscar Straus. He’s also done extensive festival work, tours, recitals, orchestral appearances, and recordings. This season sees him in five KOB productions, as well as performances at the Opéra-Comique, Paris and a tour to Japan in the spring. “Hektisch” seems too mild a word to describe it all.

Dominik Köninger (Nero) and Alma Sadé (Poppea). Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

We spoke this past spring just after I’d seen his riveting performance in Die krönung der Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) as the corrupt Emperor Nero. Not only did composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s creative reworking complement the beauty and majesty of Monteverdi’s original (elements of folk, tango, and jazz were perfect), the performances, together with Kosky’s sexy direction, made it into something for the 21st century. Poppea‘s portrait of a rotting, decadent world was presented with every bit of panache, beauty, and flair one would expect from the company, but ugliness was not avoided. (The deaths of both Seneca and Octavia inspired audible gasps from the audience.) Nero, while written for a much higher voice type, perfectly suited Dominik’s baritone; he shaped the words beautifully, layered vowels with beautiful textures, modulating his coppery baritone to handle the score’s difficult runs and recitatives (recits) with complete confidence.

Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) and Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Debussy’s Pelléas is a perfect vocal fit, having been written for what’s known as a baryton-martin, a range that falls between the traditional tenor and baritone. Considerably more modern than Monteverdi but no less difficult (some argue it is one of the most challenging roles in the baritone repertoire), the 1902 opera, based on Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, revolves around a troubling love triangle and has been described by Sir Simon Rattle as “one of the saddest and most upsetting operas ever written.”

This Sunday (October 15th) Dominik makes his role debut as the ill-fated character in Pelléas et Mélisande, in a debut production for KOB (a co-production with Nationaltheater Mannheim), conducted by Jordan de Souza and directed by Barry Kosky, who recently noted that the psychological landscape of the work reminds him of Edgar Allen Poe. The production also features soprano Nadja Mchantaf as  Mélisande and baritone Günter Papendell (whose Don Giovanni I so enjoyed this past spring) as the jealous Golaud. Along with Debussy, Dominik will also be performing at the end of this month with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin at the Chamber Hall of the Philharmonie Berlin in a special Halloween-flavoured program that includes works by Schubert, Purcell, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns.

Photo: Jan Windzus Photography

A beautiful voice alone is enough for some, but blending the art forms integral to opera in a way that fits score and production, and connects with the audience, while casually carrying an innate, sparkling star presence — that’s the stuff I find truly exciting, and what makes me run to the opera house, over and over. As you’ll see, this is one direct singer; he likes to be challenged by new material but has no time for social media. (Don’t expect a Facebook page anytime soon.) He likes old work but has every curiosity for new stuff. He’s fine with the “barihunk” label but refuses the pressure that comes with technology. Dominik Köninger is, quite simply, his own man.

What’s it like to prepare for concerts versus opera?

That’s a good question. It depends on the role. A full recital is much more demanding than an opera. Let’s take Le nozze di Figaro: you’re on stage half of it or even less, and so it’s demanding of course, because you have to keep up the energy and all that. But to do a recital, I would say, the longer the better for preparation — a year at least. Sometimes it goes faster. You only have this one shot, this one-and-a-half hour block of time and you want to present everything you have in your mind, and the better you rehearse it, the better you can get it out there.

… and it’s just you. It’s just a series of solos.

All eyes just on you. All ears just on you.

Just people carefully listening.

That’s why I love it. You really can communicate much better with the people, you can look at them, smile at them — or not — and you can see how they react.

It’s a more intimate relationship with your audience.

Yes, and I really miss that, and I’m happy to be coming back to it.

Günter Papendell (Golaud) and Dominik Köninger (Pelléas) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

And you’re singing Pelléas as well.

This is my absolute dream role since I was 21.

What’s that like to prepare for something that’s been your dream for so long?

Difficult, to be honest. On the one hand I’m already familiar with it, because I sung parts of it in university but … on the other hand you have so many expectations of yourself, and this means pressure. So you have to release the pressure a little bit. It’s actually not so much a vocal issue, it’s more of a brain issue. I just need to stay relaxed. I’m really looking forward to it.

Is French opera something you enjoy?

I think it fits quite well to my type of voice. You know the lighter, higher-placed baritone, not the deep booming sound, that’s not me. French music is beautiful. I love it and I love the language. It’s my favorite language to sing in. I would love to sing Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette . This sounds cocky to say, but sometimes you discover that your soul —this means the combination of your soul and voice and all that — is predisposed to certain composers. Like, when I start a new Mahler song for example, I feel like I am already there. There’s still lots to improve of course, but it’s just… there, and it’s the same for Debussy songs and Fauré songs, it’s just there. That music goes into my voice so much quicker.

Dominik Köninger with Dagmar Manzel in “Die Perlen der Cleopatra” (The Pearls of Cleopatra) / Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

Owing to live streaming and the Live in HD series, many singers feel they have to look perfect — what is that like to deal with?

That’s the reality today. That’s the thing. The better you look, the better you sing, the better you sell.

And you are on Barihunks.

This is really flattering, I have to say.  I was and am always flattered when I read things about me. Those guys are ripped!

Keeping in shape is important for singers, though.

I feel better singing when I’m fitter, of course. I have great respect for older singers who can still produce all that sound and stay through a whole Tristan, or whatever they sing. I need to do just a little bit of sports to sing better.

What about after a performance?

I want to go home and watch “House of Cards”!

Do you ever see other productions?

When I was in Amsterdam this past spring, what I did was a bit crazy. I had a day off and nobody was there with me, so I enjoyed my time and went, on the first nice spring day — it was the end of March, really nice weather, at 2pm in the afternoon — I went to see Wozzeck at the opera. Really dark, really depressing, but good singers… great singers.

So many things are live-streamed these days. Does being filmed ever make you self-conscious?

If I started to think about all that onstage, I would be even more tense, so no. Somehow I manage to make myself free of it. I don’t think about how many people are watching and “Can they see into my mouth?” or whatever.

L-R: Günter Papendell (Golaud) Dominik Köninger (Pelléas), Nadja Mchantaf (Mélisande) / Photo: Monika Rittershaus

Is this why you’re not on social media?

I’m not interested. I have my family, I have my friends — there’s enough going on in my life. I’m always loyal to my friends, I write them on Whatsapp or message or call, but it’s enough. Sometimes people say to me, “If you were on Facebook, maybe your career would’ve been much better!” I’m like, “Or not!” It’s not my thing.

But being part of the Komische ensemble is pretty good, isn’t it?

This is how you see it, it’s how I see it, some people see it differently, and some need to sing in Vienna and LA and Moscow.

And you might do that anyway.

Yes, everything comes in its time.

Spirei Stages Falstaff In Parma

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Every time I hear about an opera based on a play, my antenna goes up.

I was a theatre writer before I was an opera writer, and a theatre performer and aficionado before all of that. In my youth I spent countless hours pouring over journals, books, and audio recordings of works by (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) Pinter, Beckett, Miller, Pirandello, Artaud, O’Casey, Orton, Moliere, and of course, Shakespeare. When my mother would take me to operas based on plays, I would always wince, thinking, “surely this won’t be as good as the original.” Ah, youth.

Living in Dublin and London allowed for many fantastic nights of theatre, with some of my favorite moments unfolding at (or being connected with) the Almeida Theatre in Islington, north London. When Jonathan Kent, whose work I had long admired, moved into opera, I was immediately intrigued. The flow between the worlds of theatre and opera has always been a natural one, of course, but owing to youthful arrogance (and more than a bit of romance around the world of theatre), I couldn’t see or appreciate it clearly. I still love theatre but whenever I go now, I find myself missing the music.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff and Sonia Prina as Mrs. Quickly (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Opera is, of course, a fluid art form rich in drama and rife with possibilities for presentation, something various head honchos in opera know and riff on, to frequently wondrous effect. (See: Barry Kosky’s work, especially with Komische Oper Berlin; the work of Pierre Audi and Robert Carsen;  the recent 017 Festival, courtesy Opera Phildelphia, for just a few examples.) Making opera theatrically gripping isn’t always easy, however much creativity, talent, and goodwill is extant.

When it comes to staging the work of Giuseppe Verdi, who adored the work of Shakespeare, things can get even more sticky. A director is faced with certain choices: do the stodgy Shakespeare thing, involving various shades of grey and frilly collars? Or do super-high-concept, involving surreal set pieces and bizarre effects? Listening to the music and text, together, as one unit, is of course, the director’s job. Italian director Jacopo Spirei excels in integrating drama, visuals, theatricality and music into one satisfying whole. He gets opera, he gets theatre, he gets why you might be resistant to combining them  — and he thinks you should come anyway.

I first spoke with Jacopo earlier this year when he directed Don Giovanni at the San Francisco Opera, in a remount of a work originally done by Gabriel Lavia in 2011. He’s just opened his entirely-own production of Falstaff at the Festival Verdi in Parma, Italy. Having gotten his start working with British director Graham Vick (who has a production of Stiffelio at this year’s Festival Verdi involving the audience standing and moving), I thought Spirei’s thoughts around the theatre-meets-opera issue would be very valuable.

Falstaff is based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and involves the jocular title character, Sir John Falstaff, in various misadventures with a variety of ladies and angry husbands. Basically, Sir John’s giant ego gets him in trouble. Frequently played as a jolly big man with a beard and a rolling laugh, this famous literary character is often presented as the stuff of stage comedy, a figure we laugh with and laugh at, a bon vivant whose lust for life knows no bounds. This is fun, but I wondered if Jacopo saw something more; the photos of the production (which I will be seeing the end of this month) seem to suggest so, with a dirty Union Jack flag being used at various points, to say nothing of baritone Roberto de Candia’s dishevelled appearance and modern dress. What was Jacopo thinking as he directed this in one of Italy’s most notoriously fussy houses for opera? Find out.

How is directing an opera based on Shakespeare different?

We could say that Verdi and Shakespeare is a very happy match; whenever the two have met great art has been produced.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Who is Sir John Falstaff? What does he have to say to us in 2017?

It’s easier to say what Falstaff is not: he’s not a moral creature, he’s not young, he’s not thin, but he has been in the past all of these things. Falstaff is a man who has known glory, wealth, poverty, defeat and survived through it all with a smile and a philosophy. He tells us how morals and honor are just words created but mankind. He’s a man who survives, who values a good glass of wine more than many words; at the same time he’s a man who represents old values in a changing society, so he’s a character that, like every human being, lives in a constant contradiction. He does not understand the modern world but also wants to participate in it, does not want to let go, wants to show that he still “has it.” I can’t think of anything more actual than that — we live in a “like” obsessed society where youth and beauty is the only value. It’s not easy being old today!!!

There is a tendency with many productions of Falstaff to emphasize the comic aspects; your production seems more serious and thoughtful. Why this approach?

The opera is funny, but not comic. It’s an opera about different stages of life, and has a strong dose of cynicism; it’s a comedy with teeth! I have approached the opera from the text, like Verdi did, so I’ve developed what’s on the page, I have researched with the cast and what we’ve discovered is what we are presenting to the audience today.

The cast of ‘Falstaff’ (Photo Roberto Ricci)

The design sense of this production is very unique: contemporary, somewhat expressionist, familiar. What were your visual influences? What was your process with designer Nikolaus Webern?

With Nikolaus we always start from the text and we discuss a lot before even starting to design. One big element  that inspired us is the weight of the protagonist that creates an imbalance in the perfect lives of Windsor’s bourgeois world, so we have worked on this loss of balance in life.

A great visual influence for me came from all the years working at Glyndebourne, so the village, the house, the pub — they’re somewhat related to those years where I was assisting Graham Vick and reviving his shows in this magical festival. You can see in the show the village of Lewes, the house of the owners of the festival and in fact. almost every single pub in the neighbourhood.

Giorgio Caoduro (Ford) in a scene from ‘Falstaff’ (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

How much did Brexit influence your direction with this work?

Funny you ask — whenever I presented the production to the cast and the theatre I said, “Falstaff at the time of Brexit.” In a way there is a relationship to what’s happening to England now, but I’ve treated it more as an example than anything else. I believe we have a lot to learn from what England is going through politically and socially. I don’t and never believed that division is the answer. In a bizarre way England is behaving like Falstaff, still thinking an Empire is possible and not accepting reality and how the world has changed. Brexit has been a very divisive subject within England and Great Britain in general.

What’s it like to direct at Festival Verdi in Parma, a city known for its strong opera opinions?

It’s an honor to be directing at this prestigious festival next to names like Vick and (Hugo) De Ana (directing Jerusalem at the Festival Verdi this year); I was thrilled at the idea of working in Verdi’s land for an audience that loves and deeply knows Verdi. I enjoyed the process, never fearing any good or bad reaction from the audience. As long as you are loyal to your vision, there’s nothing to fear.

Tomasz Konieczny: Acting Before Singing Was Hard!

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Hearing Tomasz Konieczny speak, you can’t help but think “well of course he’s a singer.” But he didn’t start out as one.

In a recent chat I had with the Polish bass baritone, who’s currently in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening production of Strauss’ romantic comedy Arabella (running October 5th to 28th), Konieczny admitted that being an actor first was a hindrance, not a help. As you’ll hear, re-learning everything anew was not an easy task. While there is a greater focus on acting in opera these days (especially since the advent of the Met’s Live In HD series, where gesture is writ large on cinema screens around the world), sometimes knowing the acting part first makes things harder, not easier.

I first heard Konieczny as Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a compelling 2014 Salzburg Festival production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. (I liked the production on DVD so much I had to go see it live for myself at its revival in Salzburg in 2016, though Canadian bass Alain Coulombe sang the role). What strikes me about Konieczny is how he modulates authority; his Commendatore, for instance, was commanding (as the name may imply), but it was also restrained, which is something not always conveyed when performing the role of a ghostly, avenging father. His performance oozed a quiet kind of power that was hypnotizing, creepy, and very memorable. Konieczny performed the role again this past spring, in a production by the famed director Robert Carsen, at Teatro alla Scala Milan, opposite Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello and Thomas Hampson’s Don.

Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli, Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka, John Fanning as Count Waldner and Gundula Hintz as Adelaide in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Along with discussing the challenges that come with moving between various roles (Konieczny has a long and impressive resume that includes a lot of Wagner roles), he and I also discuss voice types, a debated area in the singer world; while some are comfortable with the ‘bass baritone’ label, some are very much not. Konieczny provide a helpful template for how to think about these voice types. We also talk about the romantic Mandryka, in Arabella, a role he’s well familiar with (having performed it a numerous occasions with the Vienna State Opera), and the influence (or not) of aristocracy and money on his character in Strauss’ 1933 comic opera.

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