Like it or not…

Marzelline

After reading an article in the FT´s magazine about typography fonts and how critical they are to communications between the ultra-cool (”I would never date a girl who used Times Roman” says a shocked young IT blood) I realise that from now on any blog worth its consonants simply must be written in Helvetica Neue. So, font dudes, I´ve become one of you….

Musing on other thorny issues – these somewhat more at the forefront of my mind –  it’s interesting to return the reviews for our new Fidelio production and to revisit the whole difficult issue of how we evaluate culture. In terms of the main Norwegian newspapers, we had one very thoughtful, very fine review and another which absolutely slaughtered us. One newspaper sent a writer with no specialist knowledge who was very happy, but by and large cut and paste the programme notes, and to date, the international press has been wonderful.

Measuring art and performance, though, involves of course a great deal more than media comment. It comes down to emotion, taste, intellectual reaction, excitement, context – all the things which in terms of formal evaluation simply cannot be reduced to a tick in a ’yes or no’ box. This morning I read a piece from a Tel Aviv commentator who was trying to write a report on a new dance work by Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. Exasperated, he concluded ” I’ve seen two full runs of the show, one in the studio and one onstage, and they have left me starry eyed and breathless every time.” I doubt if the report commissioners, clutching their clip-boards and eager for statistics on the increase in downtown bednights and increased economic impact will count that amongst their achievement markers.

As everyone knows, who has struggled to explain to their funders that a full hall does not necessarily mean that a performance was a success, it is extremely hard to quantify quality. Small cities – even large ones without very persistent creative pioneers – know what they like in terms of music, music theatre and opera. They´ve been comfortable with certain staple classics for decades, and each time these favourites come round they are ’even better than last year’. It´s astonishing how right-minded, intelligent city officials, working daily with international business issues, still become sheepish, and shut down their considerable powers of assessment when confronted with anything different. Take our production of Tan Dun´s Marco Polo, which opened Bergen International Festival earlier this year. The other week I was told – and with some triumph – by a senior departmental executive ”Well, I was just thinking ’what on earth is this? – then I turned to the head of an art museum next to me, and he said ’well, search me!’”. The head of an art museum, who daily looks at a vast range of contemporary art and boasts about bringing innovate young artists to his city? Shame on you.

But it is a fact. We all happily confront new abstract or surprising art works, new films, new radical novels and even new theatre without flinching. We are unembarrassed about commenting or having a strong reaction in terms of the quality or subject matter. It would be unthinkable not to be excited by new design in technology. New music or opera, though, seems to turn us into squirming children hiding in our mothers’ skirts rather than using our natural powers of discernment. Is it the etiquette of the opera house or concert hall? – that we have to sit quietly in our seat, penned in by others who seem to know far more than we do? For sure, with the new picture, tablet or book, we are in our own space, and possibly clutching a comforting cup of coffee. So why does our curiosity vanish when faced with musical ’arty stuff’?

Perhaps it´s because we are dealing with feelings – never a comfortable subject for us Northerners. It´s impossible to discuss the impact in real terms of music and opera without exploring how it makes you feel. Yes, you can count the numbers, the amount of employment the performance generated, quote the reviews, measure the diversity of the audience, but ultimately the quality of the work can only be judged by the emotional and intellectual response. Did it touch you, inspire you, provoke you, teach you, change you?

Now back to journalists – that bad Fidelio review. I really must check what font he was using. It could explain everything.

Hear Rachel Nicholls sing from Fidelio and talk about her role as Leonore

Rachel_graven_nett

Every operatic cast turns out to have an anchor – someone who never wavers, never fusses, never loses focus. It´s not usual, though, for a young singer embarking on her debut in one of opera´s most demanding roles to take on the additional role of being the ‘rock’. But when you watch and listen to Rachel Nicholls in the video which follows, where she discusses singing Beethoven´s Leonore in his opera Fidelio, you get the message loud and clear. This is an exceptional artist, down to earth, hard-working and completely clear-thinking. In a cast of very mixed personalities and highly diverse nationalities, a straight-talking Northern Brit comes as a bonus.

Don´t miss her debut live with Bergen National Opera on Saturday November 2, with a fine line-up of soloists, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton conducting and a fascinating creative team led by director Oskaras Korsunovas. Performances also on 4, 6 and 8 November.

What´s the word for…..?

Fidelio_rehearsals

We are always proud of our international cast and creative teams at Bergen National Opera. Now, however, we appear to have a small global convention downstairs in Klokkeklang, the somewhat airless little space in which we work before our productions can have access to the main Grieg Hall stage. So, for Beethoven´s Fidelio, we have a German Florestan, English Leonore, Russian Pizarro, Italian Don Fernando, Korean Rocco and two young Norwegians as Jacquino and Marzelline. Wonderful. But also a Lithuanian director who doesn´t speak English (and neither do Don Pizarro or Don Fernando). And an American conductor. And several delightful Hungarians working in costume. And a bewildered language coach of Czech/German parentage who grew up in Bergen. Hm. Will Google Translate help or hinder? One can imagine lines from the text like: ”Ich glaubte schon, wir würden den Eingang gar nicht finden” emerging as ” Я верыў, Шон, мы былі нават знайсці ўваход ноч”. It fairly trips from the tongue.

In truth, they are all coping remarkably, bonded by Beethoven´s own profound belief that his music could express a truth which soars beyond any discord of language or ideal. There´s a stillness, in this funny featureless basement room, which seems illuminated by the absolute passion of the voices.

Fidelio_Rachel_Daniel

Meanwhile, in London last Friday for meetings, I find myself brooding about the nature of performance and the curious ambiguity in word usage, as different worlds describe themselves. Take business: ”he´s a mega-performer for sure” said one be-suited city person to another, on the bus across the Thames. Then, ten minutes later, in the slightly precious tea-room next to English National Opera, I hear someone from ENO´s marketing department sighing ”such a beautiful performance”. Same language, both voices issuing compliments, both sentences entirely alien to each other. Much, of course, has been done to bring the peculiarly dislocated utterances of business and art together, and somehow to rationalise the enormous chasm between the way both worlds’ express themselves. To the artist (at any rate in Europe) business and commerce talk in an impenetrable jargon swirling with achievement markers, targets, quantifiable accountability etc. Artists, then, use terms guaranteed to infuriate any cool-headed industry leader by their sheer inexactness, lyrical descriptiveness or ’arty’ flamboyance.

More about this soon as my brooding becomes less reflective and rather more focused. Expect another, longer blog full of precise adjectives and incoherent statistics. Right now, it´s back to the basement to listen to Fidelio rehearsals. Now where did I put that Belarusian dictionary…?

Mary Miller

In the pictures: Top: Aleksej Dedov and In-Sung Sim. Middle: Daniel Kirch, Oskaras Korsunovas, Jurgita Miezelyte and Rachel Nicholls

Edward Seckerson talks Bergen Opera to Mary Miller and Andrew Litton

Podcast

What makes Beethoven’s Fidelio great – but still makes the opera the ‘problem child’ of so many directors? Mary Miller and conductor Andrew Litton talk to UK journalist Edward Seckerson about Bergen National Opera and a whole new conception for staging Beethoven’s masterpiece.

Listen to the podcast

 

A week of Opera Europa, Benjamin Britten and two exciting set models

Kostyme_Fidelio_web

I spent Sunday with Benjamin Britten. Two very different concerts, the first with the inspirational Jan Bjøranger´s marvellous 1B1 ensemble, a mix of high level conservatoire students from Kristiansand, Stavanger and Bergen, mentored by players from those cities´ symphony orchestras (and frequently by top-level European players). Now, the initiative is expanding to include 1B1 ’junior’ – younger players who are developing fast. The core group played Britten´s Lachrymae with violist Lars Anders Tomter as lyrical, sensitive soloist – the viola surely is the string instrument most like the human voice – and a beautiful, thoughtful accompaniment. What characterises 1B1 is, perhaps, the quality of the players´ listening. This music-making is not about bravura or soloistic pzazz, more about true ensemble, emulsified sound and detailed attack.

Then to Collegium Musicum´s concert of Britten choral music, with the brilliant Frank Bridge Variations thrown into the mix, and smartly played. The two Hymns – to St Cecilia, and to the Virgin – were sung with delicacy and lucid sound, followed by Britten´s early work originally written for radio, The Company of Heaven. It´s a strange piece, with somewhat over-the-top texts for speaker and two soloists, but the singing was terrific. All credit, too to conductor Håkon Matti Skrede for a really elegantly designed programme.

Last weekend and the preceding days meant the Opera Europa conference in Vienna, the principal schmoozing event for opera leaders and also a fierce marketplace for production trading. In fact, it turned out to be fun. I missed the introductory speeches – from Jose Manuel Barroso, and by the four Viennese opera house directors whose formidable temples sit decently distanced from each other round the Ringstrasse. Barroso was said to have been terrific, the others alarmingly dusty on new work, and initiatives for children – but on consequent days there were some great interventions on the conference´s weighty theme ’citizenship’. Whether we emerged committed to nobler endeavours is doubtful, but there were some splendid conversations and inspiring meetings.  Welsh National Opera/Bregenz Festival director David Pountney and I did get into somewhat of a brawl over the respective influences of Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass (Pountney was directing Glass´s new opera, which opened Linz´s new opera house last Monday) but order was restored by Musiektheater Transparant´s artistic director Guy Coolen.

Back on the plane on Tuesday night for a meeting at Lithuanian National Opera re possible co-production, and a showing of the set model for our new Fidelio by Vilnius-born director Oskaras Korsunovas, which we open at the start of November. The model is superb, a structure of bars and columns on three tiers, with the orchestra enclosed on the stage, and broad steps running down into the pit, where Florestan lies in chains. Oskaras´s concept looks at freedom in the widest sense, and it is clear that his thinking goes far beyond his own personal experience of growing up in an occupied country. It´s good, too, to meet all the LNO team in their astonishing canteen, which looks like the dining room in a small 60s cruise ship – and also to eat outrageous chocolate cake with Audra, Oskaras´s touring manager and a long-time friend and colleague.

Sjokolade

In Bergen, another director, designer and set model are waiting – the team for this September´s All about my Family. This is altogether another story. Teenage librettist Astrid Louisa Niebuhr has taken the ’perfect’ Bergen family and lifted the lid on their orderly life. The emerging chaos is both chilling and entertaining. We will work in tiny Logen, and the issues are all about placing the musical ensemble, making the set effective yet uncluttered, and clothing the family in question  – particularly the teenagers – in believable garb. How to predict what H&M will be showcasing this autumn?

Mary Miller

April 15, 3013