Archive for opera

Stockhausen in Digbeth

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2012 by Robin Gosnall

(Source: Guardian)

Birmingham Opera Company has announced it is to stage one of the most challenging operas ever written, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s five-hour epic Mittwoch aus Licht (Wednesday from Light) , during the London 2012 festival.

Featuring real helicopters, two choirs, octophonic sound, numerous musicians, the Radio 1 DJ Nihal and requiring two separate performance halls, this will be the first time that all six parts of the opera have been staged together.

The “bewilderingly difficult” piece will be performed four times between 22 and 25 August, starting at 4pm each day at the Argyle Works, a former factory in Digbeth, Birmingham.

Opera North’s Queen of Spades

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Neil Bartlett’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s great opera of gambling, of secrets, of love and death opens at Opera North today. Bartlett – making his operatic debut – picks his key moments from the production:

Tchaikovsky’s score for The Queen of Spades is an extraordinary thing. At once expansive, excessive and opulent, it’s also strangely interior; the real action of the opera takes place largely inside one man’s head. As heroes go, no-one is more solitary, more at odds with his world, than Herman. At key moments in the show, I’ve chosen to sweep all the glamour of the 19th century setting aside and present him with brutal simplicity.

The second act of the show opens with a grand masked ball – a scene that could easily drown the music in frocks and glitter. The task here was to connect the disconcerting theatricality of the masquerade with the deeper themes of obsession and fatality that run through the music.

A chorus is much more than just a group of people – they’re a team who can act as one, amplifying an emotion or gesture on stage to a scale that a solitary performer can never dream of achieving. Put the simplest action – knocking back a drink, in this case – in time with music as theatrical as Tchaikovsky’s – then amplified by the number of people you’ve got in the chorus, and the gesture can acquire an extraordinary kick. The simplest tricks are the best.

Katherine Jenkins: More Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I have never met the woman nor, I suppose, am I ever likely to. I do not know how musically competent she is in practice. She may well be, in person, a very pleasant individual. She is nice enough to look at if you like that kind of thing. However, it is the public persona that does not gel with me, in that she has been manufactured and sold as some sort of classical pop star. With her, or possibly more correctly her backers, it seems to be more a case of product and money ahead of any underlying talent or artistic direction.

She seems to have a nice enough voice. However, there’s a big difference between someone who does one or two excerpts from operas reasonably well, and someone who actually performs in them for years, and makes several recordings of the best of them. She may not have acting ability either – though that might not matter on recordings.

Actually, even if she were not able to cope with large scale opera, there are other routes to a career in classical music – recitals, etc., but they’re not routes to money and I fear that money means a lot to her.

I remember hearing an interview with Julie Andrews who was honest enough to say that she knew she didn’t have the right abilities to be a classical singer.

I think it’d be really interesting if La Jenkins were to tackle something large scale or serious, but if she knows that’s not for her, then perhaps we should let her be the judge of that.

She has been successful at what she’s done, so good luck to her, although I’ll raise my hand and say that she’s not my cup of Earl Grey. If she inspires people who’ve heard her sing a couple of arias from Carmen to hear the full opera, and then maybe something else by Bizet, and then maybe another opera, then that’s great, but does this actually happen?

I’m sure people would have much more respect for Katherine Jenkins if she really did cross over and performed a full opera or gave a recital of Schubert lieder.


Katherine Jenkins: Idle Thoughts

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Posted in Blog Stats, Culture, Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

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Dear Mr. Stravinsky

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

In May 1953 Boston University proposed to commission Igor Stravinsky, by then living in Hollywood, to write an opera with Dylan Thomas, who was staying in New York, and had a few months to live. They met in Boston, and Stravinsky recalled the occasion in Robert Craft’s book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

His face and skin had the colour and swelling of too much drinking. He was a shorter man than I expected, not more than five feet five or six, with a large protuberant behind and belly. His nose was a red bulb and his eyes were glazed. He drank a glass of whisky with me which made him more at ease, though he kept worrying about his wife, saying he had to hurry home to Wales ‘or it would be too late’. I don’t know how much he knew about music, but he talked about the operas he knew and liked, and about what he wanted to do. ‘His’ opera was to be about the rediscovery of our planet following an atomic misadventure. There would be a re-creation of language, only the new one would have no abstractions; there would be only people, objects, and words. He promised to avoid poetic indulgences: ‘No conceits, I’ll knock them all on the head.’ He agreed to come to me in Hollywood as soon as he could. Returning there I had a room built for him, an extension from our dining room, as we have no guest room. I received two letters from him. I wrote him October 25th in New York and asked him for word of his arrival plans in Hollywood. I expected a telegram from him announcing the hour of his aeroplane. On November 9th the telegram came. It said he was dead. All I could do was cry.

Here’s the letter Thomas sent Stravinsky after that meeting:

The Boat House, Laugharne
Carmarthenshire, Wales
16th June 1953

Dear Mr. Stravinsky,

I was so very glad to meet you for a little time, in Boston; and you and Mrs. Stravinsky couldn’t have been kinder to me. I hope you get well very soon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the opera and have a number of ideas – good, bad, and chaotic. As soon as I can get something down on paper, I should, if I may, love to send it to you. I broke my arm just before leaving New York the week before last, and can’t write properly yet. It was only a little break, they tell me, but it cracked like a gun.

I should very much like – if you think you would still like me to work with you; and I’d be enormously honoured and excited to do that – to come to California in late September or early October. Would that be convenient? I hope so. And by that time, I hope too, to have some clearer ideas about a libretto.

Thank you again. And please give my regards to your wife and to Mr. Craft.

Yours sincerely

Dylan Thomas

1911 No. 2: W.S. Gilbert

Posted in 1911, Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

W.S. Gilbert died 100 years ago. Here is part of a letter he wrote to Sir Arthur Sullivan in May 1884, following Sullivan’s rejection of his latest plot for a Savoy opera – Richard D’Oyly Carte had given them six months to come up with another one.

They patched up their differences, however, and Gilbert, the story goes, was inspired by a Japanese sword falling off the wall of his study to come up with The Mikado.

After the lapse of a week during which I wrote three lyrics and a considerable amount of dialogue, I received a letter from you to the effect that you could not bring yourself to like the plot, and that you wished me to construct a story in which there would be no supernatural or improbable element. This specification of your wishes, expressed as it was, for the first time, some four months after the production of Princess Ida, seemed to me to be so wholly unreasonable that I had no alternative but to express my regret that it was impossible for me to agree to your suggestion. Upon this you wrote to me that you felt convinced that my decision was final, and that therefore further discussion was useless. And so ends a musical and literary association of seven years’ standing – an association of exceptional reputation – an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant element. In justification of the course that I adopted in declining to construct a new libretto, I must point out to you that your own course of action in desiring me to do so, can only be justified on the assumption that, by the terms of our agreement, I am bound to go on constructing new libretti until I hit upon one which meets your views as to what a libretto should be. That you regard my relation towards yourself as of this servile nature, I do not for one moment believe. As reasonably might I suppose that a composer of your distinction is bound to set to music any words with which I might think fit to supply him. You must remember that we are not absolutely free agents – that I am not in the position of an author who comes to a composer with a suggestion which the composer is at entire liberty to reject – this would be our relation to one another if no agreement existed. But as a matter of fact, an agreement does exist – an agreement entered into presumably on the assumption that we have sufficient confidence in each other – you to accept my plots as belief to be good enough for your purpose, I to accept your musical setting as adding an invaluable element of attraction to my libretto. That my duty is to supply you with a series of pieces ‘on approval’ I cannot for one moment admit.

If you desired to devote a year to the composition of (say) a grand opera, I should, with Carte’s consent, have been most willing to forgo, for such a period, the agreement by which we are bound. I would even have accepted the subordinate position which the librettist of such an opera must necessarily occupy, if you considered that a work of such an ambitious class would, in any way, be furthered by my co-operation. But I need hardly remind you that such a work would be wholly and ridiculously out of place at the Savoy Theatre.

So, you don’t like Wagner?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I first heard Götterdämmerung and Tristan und Isolde nearly 30 years ago, hadn’t much of a clue what was going on, but the music gripped me like nothing else has ever done. I got to know all the mature operas very well, over time, but now many moons can pass by without hearing a note. However, once I almost reluctantly, and even with resistance, put one of his great dramas in the CD player, I am swept away all over again.

It’s intoxicating, heady, almost dangerous stuff, but that feeling of being swept away is like nothing else in all music.

I don’t care about Wagner’s family, his character, his beliefs, or what he liked for breakfast. I only care about the works. For me, they’re the greatest and most intense theatre pieces that I know, fathomless, inextinguishable and indestructible. I’ve seen them done superbly well and excruciatingly badly, and I regret more than I can say all the thousands of productions that I never saw and never shall see.

Many contemporary performances of Wagner seem wilfully to flout his intentions to the point where the music and theatre are almost divorced from one another. An “historically informed” production would be an interesting idea (as long as the orchestra also made use of gut strings, etc.) but it’s also worth bearing in mind that Wagner himself was a progressive thinker (at least concerning music and drama) who probably would not have approved of the petrification of his legacy begun by Cosima and continued by their descendants.

The question is whether whatever continuing relevance Wagner’s work has to other times and places is best served by attempting to reproduce his explicit instructions or not. For example, the action of Der Ring des Nibelungen takes place in a kind of mythical primeval past where time is only measured by the events of the story. Is this “timelessness” best expressed by using the pseudo-mediaeval trappings of its early productions? Or do we now have a different idea for what “timeless” might mean? (Wieland Wagner, for example, used the model of Greek tragedy.)

I wonder how many people, on hearing any piece of music for the first time, respond to anything other than the music itself? I bet they don’t usually go around asking whether the composer had beliefs they find repugnant, beat his wife, did even worse things to other people, had his music hijacked by other people who used it for nefarious ends, was a murderer, swindler, you name it … Obviously, if you start looking into the situation further you may well find out that sort of thing, but I doubt that initially it would colour your appreciation of any artist.

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