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

Il turco in Norwegia

Ilturco_nySelim_nett

“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller

11/03/2017

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

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

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

A week of great moments – and an absurd piece on Scotland in The New Yorker

Oscaras_Mary

Last week was a characteristic mix of travel, frustrations, meetings, political intrigue and great moments. It was wonderful to have composer Orlando Gough here to discuss a possible – and enormous – project for the 2014 Norwegian bi-centenial independence celebrations. Meetings with Festspillene i Bergen, animateur Ole Hamre, Den Nasjonale Scene, the Bergen Philharmonic and Grieghallen´s Eli Versto were exciting – the occasion became more sober when we looked at Grieghallen, and wondered realistically how we could accomodate a vast and diverse tribe of performers, along with the audience.

More excellent discussions in Stavanger, with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra´s dynamic CEO, Trude Marit Risnes – although a veil of sadness hangs over the city after the sudden death of Morten Mølster, the SSO´s chairman and a great and generous light in culture overall.

On a different tack, as a proud Scot, I´m still composing a fierce response to an extraordinary piece in The New Yorker – who surely should know better – on the relationship of the Southern US states to the mainstream political North. Such states, the writer claims, have waning influence, comparable to Scotland´s. He writes  “As its political power declines, the South might occupy a place like Scotland’s in the United Kingdom, as a cultural draw for the rest of the country, with a hint of the theme park.“

Statements like these really are as infuriating in their ignorance as in they are in their patronizing arrogance. To compare Scotland to, say, Louisiana, is to compare Norway to Southern Taiwan. Absurd – especially as Scotland´s autonomy, confidence and fiscal stability increases daily. Much discussion on this topic at the Bergen/Scottish Robert Burns Supper on Saturday night, where I met a young man from Skye whose Norwegian job is vaccinating fish, and a highly competent Belgian bagpipe player….

Meanwhile, back in Bergen, as frost and sun give way to grimly familiar rain and gloom, our days are brightened by racks of glorious costumes for Cunning Little Vixen which goes into production next week, and exciting news from Vilnius re co-production of our new Fidelio in November 2013, directed by Oskaras Korsunovas.

Mary Miller