Tzars don’t change that much – Aftenposten, 24th March 2014

Mary-Aftenposten-Tsar

It´s timely that right now in Bergen we are preparing an opera based on a Pushkin poem about Russian imperialist ambitions. Rimsky-Korsakov´s Gullhanen (The Golden Cockerel) – which tells the story of a mythical Tzar who invades a neighboring country, and is pecked to death by a golden bird charged with warning him of danger – was completed in 1907 as a thinly veiled satire on Tzar Nicholas II´s abortive conflict with Japan. Banned by the censors, the composer never heard the work in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, here in Bergen, we have our own international collision: a mainly Russian cast all of whom are distinctly tight-lipped on the subject of their present aspiring Tzar´s activities, and a distinguished American director (who also has an acclaimed Wozzek currently at the Metropolitan Opera, New York) who is fearless in the face of controversy, and from whose lips flip ironic asides which most certainly pay scant attention to political niceties. So, while Rimsky-Korsakov´s gleaming swirling romanticism soars around us, a certain amount of muttering goes on in corners. The price of vodka in Norway perhaps does not encourage bi-lateral conversation to flow.

All this, however, does call to mind a peculiar editorial in a recent edition of the monthly magazine Opera Now,which stated re: composers´ choice of material that “(opera is not).. a suitable vehicle for reductive political messages or social commentary.” How bizarre. One would have thought that Gullhanen´s success at its premiere in 1909 – as for today – is exactly that the opera is sharp and topical, delicately poised on the fragile axis of wit and tragedy. Rimsky-Korsakov manages all this beautifully, sliding savage, terrible comments behind the most jovial musical lines, and providing a postlude where the Astrologer – a major and sinister mischief-maker – tells the audience in silky tones, that actually all they have seen is ‘just a story…’

One wracks one´s brains to think of a successful opera which doesn´t address some kind of social or political issue, from class differences and poverty in La Boheme, sexual politics in Don Giovanni, terrorism in Klinghoffer, to the endless theatres of war in Handel. So perhaps what ON´s editor intends is to criticize regie-led productions, where Madama Butterfly is dressed in vinyl and lives in a waterfront Florida apartment, or Leporello appears as a transvestite. For that, one can hardly blame the composer.

But what is disturbing here in Bergen is the reminder of our privilege. We smirk and think how lucky we are. But as artists and as citizens surely we should be activists for our near-neighbours against the present day Tzars – be they political leaders or cultural bureaucrats – who literally and metaphorically call the tune and the words which it sets. Perhaps in presenting Gullhanen today we should be aware that behind a ‘funny’ opera lurks not satire but a shocking story about leadership and corruption in 2014. The pecking golden cockerel should be a warning to us all.

Published in Aftenposten 24th March 2014

Irrepressibly outspoken, forcing reinvention – with Gerard Mortier opera has lost a king

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There are those in arts leadership, some highly effective, of whom one could say ’his project was himself’. Of course personal ambition can be a fine thing and in its swirling wake, great things may happen. Egos dominate in most high level activities; Gerard Mortier, who died yesterday, most certainly had ego. His project, however, was not himself. Gerard Mortier, tiny, dynamic, charismatic and irrepressibly outspoken, had a mission to carry – drag if necessary – opera into the present, and to force this ancient form to reinvent itself continuously.

Meeting him, which usually involved a long wait as he whirled along corridors on two cell phones at once gesticulating with spikey fingers, smiling, mouthing apologies, talking in an articulate stream, was like experiencing the shudder of a small electric storm. Mortier was always in the moment – even if his moment was not entirely the one that you, yourself were expecting. He did not answer questions. He simply and with great charm told you what happened to be in his head at the time – or possibly a sanitised version, as he was perpetually at war with some politician, administrator, city authority, director, artist or sponsor.

He appeared to be utterly fearless. In retrospect it seems extraordinary that he stayed so long in Salzburg, running a revered festival in an immensely stuffy city twinkling with Mozart kitsch and feathered felt hats, with snorting insults levelled at his head every day of his 11-year tenure. But he had already blazed through a series of distinguished directorships in the major German houses, and renovated Brussels´s La Monnaie where he incurred an eye-watering deficit. Post-Salzburg, he swerved off to the Ruhr – an ambience less like gemütlich Austria one cannot imagine – and directed a festival of largely site-specific new work amongst the derelict factories and coal-blackened communities. He led Opera de Paris (where a Norwegian syndicate including Stavanger2008 and the company which is now Bergen National Opera co-commissioned Georg Frederik Haas/Jon Fosse´s Melancholia), flirted briefly and disastrously with the now defunct New York City Opera, and held his last post at Teatro Real, Madrid. Typically, while practically on his deathbed, he interfered roundly and imperiously with the process to appoint his successor, insisting that Spain itself had no suitable candidates.

Much has been made of his last commission from Charles Wuorinen, Brokeback Mountain from Annie Proulx´s story – a work he had originally intended for New York. Wuorinen´s dense, uncompromising musical language is just the stuff of Mortier´s artistic prescription for the audience, though it roundly bewildered the conservative Castilians. He attended the premiere despite being gaunt with illness; press pictures show him animated as ever, waving the spikey fingers, insistent, fierce.

We the audience owe him for countless new operas. He may not have treated us well – Mortier´s audience were not handled gently as humans with individual tastes and interests, more as a mass of beings lacking in courage and imagination – but for sure he taught the doubters that opening one´s mind can be exhilarating. He knew that undoubted truth – ask an audience what it wants, and it will want more of what it knows. No surprise. Few of us want what we cannot imagine. But Mortier understood that if artistic leadership is ambivalent, confused about its own taste, it will bewilder the audience. Mortier was certain: we need the new, the provocative and the startling, even if sometimes it fails.

Composers, directors, singers, artists of all kinds owe him something irreplaceable: he asked them all to take risks, and in taking that leap, he encouraged them to grow, be curious, exceed their boundaries, often by quite astonishing margins.

I don´t suppose for one moment that Mortier thought he was brave, or even assumed that he was always right. About the latter his enemies no doubt would totally disagree. His mission was absolute, and one imagines that as his life faded, his mind was still racing with plans and arguments, speeches unmade and music unsung.

Mortier´s project is now our responsibility to continue. Opera has lost a warrior of regal status. Now the king is dead. Long live the princes he has birthed and robed in pioneering spirit.

Mary Miller

Picture: SN/APA/ACHIM SCHEIDEMANN/ DPA

Plovdiv, Bulgaria: A bid for togetherness

Plovdiv

Plovdiv, two hours north of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, is a surprising small city. Late February, and spring is already here. The city smells fresh and awake, of coffee and syrupy cakes. Its footprint pre-dates both Rome and Athens by 800 years; walking up the calm, pretty pedestrian main street where elegant street cafes sit comfortably next door to casinos, the guide casually mentions that under the pavement lies a vast ancient amphitheatre. 100 metres further on, and we find the entrance excavated as the result of a Norwegian funding programme – a beautifully preserved pillared courtyard with various ornate porticos and antechambers. The tour continues – a complete and astounding Roman arena hangs carelessly over a motorway, cobbled side-streets veer off into grassy mounds with the remains of exquisite temples. Charming side streets back on to old Soviet concrete-horror blocks, and the citizens saunter. Plovdiv, apparently, is known to be a ’slow’ city – they call it ’ayliak’ – a sense of ease, living in the sunlit moment.

That afternoon, though, a less than relaxed group meets in the new, glinting and enormous culture centre. I am here with Bob Palmer, ex Culture and Heritage Chief for the Council of Europe and EU Capitals of Culture guru – a man of consumate experience and considerable diplomacy. We are to advise the city on its bid to become European Capital of Culture, to talk to their leadership, and to the city´s principal cultural operators about how they can use the opportunity to build an eventful city which engages the widest possible populus. In Plovdiv, with a 20% Roma population itself splintered into combatative factions, this is a fine ambition but a mine-loaded road to tread. The city has already been shortlisted by the EU, and its initial bid book is an intriguing read, full of self-deprecation, idealism (they have chosen the slogan Together ), good ideas, chaotic plans and bursting imagination. Bob talks very seriously about the immediate issues – a final bid is to be submitted in five months – about the deficits, managerial, artistic and financial that Bid 1 exhibits, about governance, planning, organisation, budgets. He is positive but uncompromising. Faces whiten. The deputy mayor, a young and clearly effective official, looks exhausted. My job is to talk about programming and building all-city participation. We discuss project development, how the city´s institutions can embrace genuinely new horizons and what collaboration really means. Bob is tough about the European dimension – something the EU, somewhat typically, expounds on lyrically without in any way defining what it means – and asks fierce questions which meet alarmed silence. We retire for a brief lunch (Plovdivians, it is clear, eat a lot of cheese) during which the deputy mayor stabs wearily at his phone.

In the afternoon, with a large group of culture operators present, we talk, probe, provoke and suggest. A journalist quarrels with a book publisher, and the local opera chief makes a commendable pitch for her company. The book publisher says that local standards are deplorable and is berated by a long-winded journalist. It is all depressingly familiar: European Capitals of Culture, it seems, deflate energy in everyone – partly, it must be said, because the EU itself – while describing this as their most successful programme – do so little to set clear boundaries, mentor applicants, finance appropriately to the programme´s aspirations, and support leadership.

Dinner, however, is very jolly – the book publisher tells an extraordinary story about his mother´s theft of icons from Finland – and full of cheese, we leave for Sofia. Plovdiv, best of luck. Your wish to be together is clear, and your city is a winner in its own right. And if I may, I´ll steal your slogan for Bergen, where ’together’ could be a fine aspiration for another beautiful small city with a penchant for heritage – and cheese.

The Family hits Stavanger Konserthus…

Familien

The plan smacked of hysteria. Take Alt om min Familie, an opera for and by teenagers, to Stavanger with a new main-role singer, a stand-in director, new conductor and orchestra, work in a venue which no-one knew well, and pull it together on minimal rehearsal – i.e. arriving on Friday afternoon for a show the following day.

So, a yawning group of singers and backstage team arrived by bus in the city after an early start from Bergen with a couple of ferries and a great number of hairpin bends en route. We piled into Stavanger´s spectacular waterside Konserthus with great ships seeming to sail directly from the foyer, and collectively breathed out. Spacious dressingrooms, a calm canteen, rehearsal space, a great acoustic – oh Bergen, learn and learn quickly – we need an opera house!

Within minutes, more outbreaths and dropping of shoulders. The orchestra, Jan Bjøranger´s wonderful 1B1 which mixes top students, young professionals and experienced mentors, sounded warm, secure and eloquent. A run through – remarkably fluent – then dinner. On to the stage – lots of adjustment to the larger space, a great deal of work with lights, plenty of discussion, litres of coffee, then much talk from the hard core about finding the appropriate down-town pub.

Next day, after presenting bright and shiny faces to the media, what should have been a mid-day dress rehearsal swerved into an interesting kind of group analysis of the opera itself. In Zetlitz, Stavanger´s second hall and its opera venue within the larger complex, the sense of space and super-accurate sound drove singers and director into a keen re-examination of the story´s characters: how they converse, why they collide, how they co-exist.

So the performance that night offered different things to its broad variety of listeners. Stavanger´s audience, after the city´s European Capital of Culture experience, is fierce in its opinions but thoughtful in its commentary. Yes, there were musical blips, and no, the show wasn´t dramatically perfect – but the extraordinary commitment and natural stage presence of the young singers was praised to the broad Jæren skies. For 1B1 it was a new experience – playing opera, playing in the pit, and accompanying young voices. For Stavanger Konserthus´s management, it was a new initiative – opera for a young audience and a new collaboration for the venue.

For Bergen National Orchestra, anxieties apart, the venture taught lessons, made new friends and discoveries, built shared confidence and opened doors onto new possibilities. We´ll be back there. Next time, let´s try less coffee and a few more days rehearsal…

Stavanger_trio

Issue-aware opera

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There are a couple of wonderfully self-contradicting statements in this month´s Opera Now editorial: the first states that John Adams´s Nixon in China is the most successful opera of the last 25 years in terms of total performances and exemplary box office. The second states that ” (opera is not) …a suitable vehicle for reductive political messages or social commentary. Too many new operas fail to grasp this point”. How bizarre. One would have thought that Nixon´s tremendous success was exactly that it was topical, timely, issue-aware and marvellously pointed in its social commentary. But the editorial goes on, perhaps more alarmingly, suggesting that perhaps composers themselves are not to blame for the lack of ’enduring’ new work – that publishing houses and opera houses themselves should be more involved in the curation of new works, following the example of Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner who apparently were thoroughly open to input from their patrons, audiences, critics and publishers. Opera Now´s conclusion is that new opera, if it is to survive, needs to welcome intervention from these external influences.

The latter assertion seems both to be wild talk and a dangerous proposition. Quite apart from the extreme unlikelihood that John Adams, embarking on his marvellous opera, invited round the opera aficionados of Houston – the city´s Grand Opera gave the premiere – threw open the score and asked ’whad´ya think of it so far?’, the idea that opera can be composed by a kind of committee is surely innately false. When we commission new work, it is an act of trust, of belief in the chosen composer´s skill, imagination and artistry. A brilliant doctor embarking on complex surgery does not ask the patient´s relatives their view on the placement of an organ (…the liver here? Or here, maybe?) Of course, in discussion with the composer, there may be guidelines about length, even about instrumentation – few organisations have the finances to loose a composer on a new Ring Cycle – but when a composer has been chosen, it is because we believe in his/her ability to create uniquely and in his/her own voice.

There are exceptions, of course. Bergen National Opera has just premiered an opera for teenagers with a libretto by Astrid Luisa Niebuhr, who was only 17 when she embarked on the project. Although already a published author, she had never written for opera, so it was important to develop the piece through a series of workshops where the director, the composer and indeed the teenagers who would perform the work had some input. For a young writer – and indeed for many older ones – the fact that a long line of music most often needs only a very short sequence of words is a fundamental lesson. Astrid grasped this brilliantly – and we ended up with a smart, concise text which provoked a remarkably emotional response.

And – pace Opera Now – the opera was clearly social commentary, examining the dynamics of family life, and how the pressure to be the perfect family can splinter into chaos. Brooding on this topic, it is actually quite hard to think of a successful opera which doesn´t address some kind of social issue, from class differences and poverty in La Boheme, sexual politics in Don Giovanni, terrorism in Klinghoffer, and anti-Czarist propaganda in The Golden Cockerel to the endless theatres of war in Handel.

So perhaps what ON´s editor intends is to criticise regie-led productions, where Madama Butterfly is dressed in denim and lives in a waterfront Florida apartment, or Leporello appears as a transvestite. For that, one can hardly blame the composer.

Meanwhile back in chilly Bergen we are heavily into compiling our application for next year´s funding from the Ministry. No room for opinions here, just the challenge of condensing dreams and aspirations into stark words which will fit into a remarkably small box for officialdom to tick. But rest assured, rather than avoiding any issues, we´ll be tackling them head on.

Mary Miller

Photo: GB Opera Magazine

More straight talk in 2014…

pretty-woman

Happy New Year!

Full of idealistic resolutions about gym membership and drastic dietary upheaval, last night I settled into the seasonal gloom to watch the opening episode of a boxed Blu-ray set given to me for Christmas. And I found an interesting message for anyone interested in programming. The show, written by the US team behind The West Wing, has nothing of the speed and toughness of the latter but many of the same characteristics: blondes whose decorative upper bodies conceal advanced degrees in economics; jaundiced political old-timers with bad drinking habits and a brilliant line in put-downs, back-office sex and some strong messages on power-mongering.

But this show has an interesting twist. It’s about a news channel that decides to tell the truth and to stick to the facts. No celebrities, no Sarah Palin moments (I´d forgotten her wonderful speech re immigration ’In Norwegia, those Norwegians wanna have their country to themselves…´), no unsubstantiated gossip. The channel´s ethic emerges from the following scenario: a jaded middle-aged TV news anchor of massive reputation loses his cool on a chat show when asked by a shiny young sophomore ’What makes America the greatest country in the world?´ Pressed hard for an answer, he says that actually it most certainly isn´t, that all men aren´t created equal, that the US is educationally, fiscally, politically and socially a mess – a deeply, deeply shocking utterance in God-blessed America, and a heart-stopping TV moment. Enter his ex-girlfriend, an altruistic, highly humane ex war-zone reporter turned executive producer and a new channel, based on integrity is born.

And, guess what? This fine, decent channels viewing figures are terrible. The overall network boss (Jane Fonda, no less) slides her alarming tinted glasses off her head and snarls ’I´m looking for a show with the guts to put ratings over integrity’.

The interesting message is perhaps something we all know, all recognise and, somewhat cynically, wish we didn´t: really first-rate, truthful work presented without glitz, innuendo or a good smear of voyeurism is much less likely to attract audience than the show – the opera, say – that features neon-painted counter-tenors and inflatable doll contraltos with a curious resemblance to Angela Merkel on skis.

The debate about regie opera – productions driven by the director´s vision rather than the composer´s original intentions – is nothing new of course, and at its worst has generated some ineffingly pompous defence of ’traditional values’.  New ideas and fresh interpretations are critical to any art form, otherwise we effectively put a stop to creativity. But the question of ratings, and the enormous emphasis put on the commercial viability of artistic ventures is another thing altogether. Real, truthful, profound art will never pay its own way however it is presented, unless you take Julia Roberts to La Traviata in Pretty Woman or put Mozart into the (justifiably) hit film The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins. As Morgan Freeman says (I´m paraphrasing) ’I sure don´t know what they´re singing about, but it´s the most beautiful thing I ever heard’.

But in opera we have to hang on to our best aspirations – to try to build the magical triangle which links composer, performer and audience – and which creates a new world which may not be beautiful, but which excites and provokes us enough to feel a jolt forward in our thinking.

Now back to Blu-Ray. Will the ratings increase? Will the US learn to love straight talking? Will the hero turn out to adore Puccini? Episode Two tonight. Feel free to join me.

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