Händel and Humanity

 

In Grieghallen´s basement rehearsal room, figures in tattered grey sing Händel as they shuffle towards a table where soup is ladled from a vast battered pot. The scene is bleak. We are in Ireland – or it could be Norway – in some kind of timeless misery with freezing weather and famine, where the country´s distant officials have long ceased to care, and where the church is struggling between old-school hell-fire authority and its need to offer succour.

So, here at Bergen National Opera we are creating a staged version of The Messiah for Festspillene i Bergen in a special edition by Malcolm Bruno, created from the original material which Händel took to Dublin for the oratorio´s premiere. The director, Netia Jones, acclaimed for her layering of stage direction, film and live video, is talking with passion and extraordinary clarity about the circumstances in which the oratorio was first performed: about the text – its writer, Charles Jennens was a devout Anglican and unflinching believer in scriptural authenticity – and about 18th century English snootiness towards a religious work being intended for the theatre. She talks about hypocrisy, about rural communities where a fundamentalist priest thunders about divine retribution as his congregation sickens and starves, about political representatives turning their backs and returning to warm well-fed firesides, about Godly but kind folk with a belief in hope tending the needy. She muses on Händel, newly settled in London, writing music of genius at furious speed as public opinion turned against showy Italian opera towards a near-craze for English-text oratorios.

But in creating the Messiah, Händel swerved from what had become his norm. For this new work, there were to be no highly dramatic roles for the singers; no individual narrator and no quoted speech. Though Jennens didn´t intend his text to be a dramatization of Jesus´s life and teachings, he did want to present (as opposed to explore) what he described as the “Mystery of Godliness” through extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For Netia Jones, the Messiah tells a deeply human story. The four soloists can hardly be said to have theatrical roles as such, but their characters are distinctly drawn. Soprano Kateryna Kasper is an angelic voice, a figure of innocence and purity. Mezzo Renata Pokupic is a mother – a shy, little known member of the community with a very sick child for whom she is seeking help; urgent help, as he is stricken with typhus. Our tenor is a curate – a young, naïve, idealistic priest in his first parish, struggling with the seeming brutality of his Lord and the flickering questions which torture the basis of his faith. Meanwhile, fire, brimstone, Godliness and prejudice define our bass, an old fundamentalist priest with the Old Testament emblazoned on his brow, and anger surging in his heart at the sin of his parishioners who have brought such devastation upon themselves. The chorus personifies the village, a mix of kindness, lost hope, burning zeal and raw survival. We see them in church, in icy limb-freezing weather, and, at the soup kitchen.

So the atmosphere, in rehearsal, is extraordinary. It seems that we hear Händel´s music unfold for the first time. Freed from the bulging choral extravaganza of the British concert hall, the music seems at once extremely intimate and frighteningly spacious. We are working with Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene and the gut-stringed mewing sound with chittering harpsichord is acutely human. The compact chorus – a mix of our own fine Edvard Grieg Kor and Washington Cathedra´s elite Cathedra vocal ensemble – produces fantastic sounds: blazing, glowing, gasping, and what seems, at times, like an end of life breath.

There are tough questions both to Bjarte – for the singers, it´s not straightforward to follow a skittering violin bow, as opposed to a conductor´s baton – and to Cathedra´s Michael McCarthy whose beat leads the most complex, contrapuntal material. For this is chamber music on the move – hard lines to sing in ensemble while navigating all kinds of instructions on stage.

In the weeks to come, we move to Den Nationale Scene as the work takes shape for performance; from the Great Music Hall in Dublin 1742 premiere for charitable causes – prisoner debt and aid to hospitals – where because of over-crowding, the audience were requested to wear neither swords or hooped skirts – to London´s Covent Garden Theatre, where the reception was chilly (such exalted outpourings should surely be heard in a church) to a small, beautiful Norwegian theatre.

There, after weeks in a grey airless room, Handel will take the stage. And why his masterpiece has endured, through theological questioning, public adulation and disenchantment, multiple editions and orchestrations, overcharged performance and countless Christmas bawlings, will become gleamingly, movingly clear.

To Jennens´ words, Händel will spell out his own glory. In some way, we shall all be changed – by great music shown to us as humans, and by a staging of consummate humanity.

Mary Miller

5th May 2017

Straight talk

Tim_NRK

Let’s be perfectly clear: there are many, many terrific and talented Norwegian singers working all over Norway. There are a smaller number working on the world’s main stages, in addition to many excellent Norwegian early music or music theatre singers working in more intimate theatres. The current debate is fuelled in part by sound bites, and it surely makes sense to lay out the bigger picture from Bergen National Opera’s specific point of view.

The discussion is based on BNO’s perceived casting of non-Norwegian singers. As our company works with large numbers of Norwegian singers when in smaller venues, let us concentrate on our productions in Grieghallen, Norway’s largest concert hall, where we mount at most 3 fully staged shows a year, each for up to four performances. When we start to cast, our aim is simple: find the best most appropriate singers for the opera. Sometimes there are special circumstances, as when we presented an Eastern opera in Chinese, or one written for ethnic voices.

Like every opera company, our priority will always be quality. We want to give our audience the best possible experience of opera, and of the magic of the human voice combined with great theatre. So when we cast, we want to build a team where the combination of voices and personalities tells the most believable and captivating story.  It is a much more complex task than just picking a perfect soprano or a spectacular tenor – we need, every time, to build an ensemble which functions like a dynamic family. Ideally, we would like our casts to be a mix of our top national singers, and those of similar talent from overseas: the aim is a mix which is mutually inspiring, brings new talent to Norway, and shows Norwegian talent to the world.

We cannot escape from the fact that there are important practical issues when we work in Grieghallen with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall has a large fan-shaped construction, and the back row is 45 metres from the stage. So we must always find voices with the power and bloom to carry to the back. For young singers other than the exceptional – like Lise Davidsen or Elisabeth Teige (both of whom have been offered opportunities with BNO) – Grieghallen is a challenge, and as operasjef, I would not put a young gifted singer of any nationality in a position which might render them vulnerable to confidence-sapping criticism – “we were at the back and couldn’t hear her” or “she wasn’t ready for that role” etc.

As a company, BNO has made a decision to present slightly less usual main stage repertoire amongst more known operas. Because we live in a small city and have a huge hall, each opera is given only four performances. Let’s take Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which we are currently presenting, happily with great success. We offered 5 major roles to a number of Norwegians. It is understandable that to learn a new role in a complex opera with only four performances is a major undertaking. As it turns out, it’s a great pity for these singers, as the majority of the cast we have created here in Bergen will now take the opera to both Beijing and Bahrain. One of the major Norwegian names we approached was offered a top role in Dream, but then offered a long run of performances in a top American house. Which would you choose, as a young international singer building a huge career?

Bergen National Opera is a young company which has grown its reputation very fast – and has worked very hard – to become a significant player both internationally and locally. We don’t have an ensemble, which gives us considerable flexibility. We work on productions of every scale and also are committed to the development of young Norwegian singers, from children upwards. We routinely hire Norwegians for our chamber-scale creations. We accept that, in terms of our main scale productions with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Grieghallen, the balance of Norwegian to international singers is unequal for reasons expressed above. We hope that now that we are more established, the Norwegian singers to whom we make offers will begin to accept the roles we suggest. Even though we now plan up to four years ahead, our top singers have choices.

So, despite our best intentions, things don’t always work out. It is only recently that BNO has been viewed as “desirable” for Norway’s best singers. Over the last few years we have found ourselves reviewed as a matter of course in the international press; we’ve started to be approached by the “big players” like Lyon and the London houses as co-producers, and to be chased by agents offering us glamorous names. Of course the financial downturn means that everyone is searching more widely for partners, but the kind of reviews we have been receiving don’t lie. Now, too, we are selling our productions made in Bergen overseas.

But developing the reputation of opera in Norway is far more that just concentrating on main roles on the main stage. Talent development is critical. BNO is making a major effort to develop young singers. Starting with choirs for young children – 20 of whom play a major role in our current production – we have concentrated and strategic programmes for around 100 young people, including for our 9 Unge Stemmer: students from Hordaland who are studying overseas, and who we have locked into a five-year programme of mentoring so that on graduation, they return to Norway to build their careers. Every main stage opera that we present has around it a development programme for up to 700 children and young people who then come to the dress rehearsal, integrated masterclasses or lessons with cast members, our Opera Pub where chorus, students and cast soloists all perform etc. We have been midwives to Edvard Grieg Kor, now contracted singers who sing a capella, but also for both BNO and BFO.

We have countless other activities in the community, and are increasingly creating more output. We have a new relationship with Barokksolistene which will result in major projects in Norway, UK, Germany and USA. Our new festival in collaboration with Åmot Operagard already featured eight marvellous Norwegian voices. Now we are working on the beginnings of a small and larger scale touring programme which will greatly increase opportunities for our young singers. We have new collaborations with main Norwegian partners.

For us right now, it is interesting that BNO finds itself in the centre of a topical debate – don’t let’s imagine that Norway is the only land which ponders these issues. We are very happy that singers from so many countries – and in particular Norway – want to sing with us. But first of all, those of you who are commenting, come to Bergen and experience our work so that you know who we are and what we do. Then our dialogue can become even more dynamic – and further advance our common love for opera.

Mary Miller