Talent hunting and a bit of Ibsen in magnificent Florence

Flying into Florence is a strange experience after years of approaching by road – in past violin-playing years, usually in a coach full of travel-weary musicians. The airport sits in an industrial suburb, the glowing rust coloured towers and turrets of the city just visible in the distance. I´m visiting for the NYIOP final auditions, two days of fairly spectacular voices from many of the central European countries, a few Americans, lots of Koreans and a couple of Norwegians. The Casting Director for the Metropolitan Opera is there along with representatives of many of the US houses, along with many Europeans and a scattering of agents. What is chilling is how many of the singers, particularly those from Asia or from the edges of mainstream Europe have no representation at all. ”Why is he not working much?” someone asked of a superb Chinese baritone. ”Hell, he lives in New Jersey” replied a weary Brooklyn promoter. So, it´s clear. Get to Berlin or Manhattan or Stockholm if you want work.

So, many singers, but also so many mosquitoes humming along. We sat and listened, slapping intermittently at brows and knees, took copious notes, and startled at not just the sounds, but at the astonishing variety of dress. A Greek soprano in full evening gown was followed by a Russian bass in trainers. A Norwegian in a very tight short cotton dress sang beautifully, before a black-clad tenor appeared with gleaming white patent brogues.

But all is far from well at Teatro Comunale, the centre of magesterial Maggio Musicale´s work, where the soloist guest list still announces classical music´s royalty – Muti, Harnoncourt, Conlon, Zubin Mehta et all.  Florence´s iconic, historically glorious cultural monument is threatened with closure. A final decision rests with the mayor, and the whispering around the city is shocked and tense. Backstage conditions at the various theatres are grim – at Teatro Pergola, where Graham Vick´s new production of Verdi´s Macbeth is finishing a run – conductor James Conlon´s dressing room is cupboard sized, airless and almost bare. Rusting metal stairs twist up to dressing rooms and lighting is minimal. (On the door, there is a grubby plaque dedicating the small space to Ibsen, a sun-seeking past resident.)The atmosphere at the interval is strained, lightened momentarily by the sudden arrival of a flood of blue-shirted teenagers, the Los Angeles Opera´s boys´chorus, on tour in Europe, and come to pay respects to Conlon, LA Opera´s Music Director.

In fact, it´s the brightest moment in the production´s duration. Granted, it´s interesting that Vick has chosen the highly unusual 1847 edition, which gives us a chance to hear music rarely heard, but the show is grim, with quantities of blood, children gunned down on stage and witches on crystal meth and a variety of unlovely substances. Why do this? Surely an opera house in crisis needs a new production to bring it allure, co-producers, rich critical acclaim? This is upsetting, ugly and curiously unprovocative. Instead of inspiring loud and polemic discussion at dinner that night with various Florentines and the Conlon family, not even the teenagers bothered to comment.

Back in Bergen, missing authentic pizza and still dabbing pathetically at weals on my ankles, wonderful pianist Freddy Kempf is finishing Prokofiev recordings with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, restoration work on Grieghallen is causing havoc, and composer Orlando Gough is with us for meetings about the Stemmer (Voices and Votes) project which Bergen National Opera is creating to open next year´s international festival. We discuss the great Palestinian singer Reem Kelani´s role and that of young opera singers Hanna Husahr and Njabulo Madlala, and talk at length to the culture team at Hordaland Fylke about schools involvement and international touring.

In the city centre, the streets are transforming. Stalls spill with reindeer skins, coloured jumpers, knitted hats and fish glitter in the market. The cruise ships are in, the Japanese are taking photos of the old white houses where geraniums spill from balconies, and the Brits are gasping at the shop prices. Meanwhile the Norwegians are off, packing cars and heading to the station. The mountains and summer house are calling, paradise with no electricity, wood fires, and the sound of summer wind. And, most probably, mosquitos.

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