Masterclasses from Mrs Slater

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None of us have ever been in doubt about the great young British Wagnerian soprano, Rachel Nicholls’ ability to sing. From Bergen to Longborough to Tokyo she has rocked the halls with thrilling sound – rich, silvered, skin-prickling. Some of us knew that she also loves to teach. Here at Bergen National Opera we had taken that on board in principal – but confronted for the first time by the reality, we were (there is no other word) awestruck.

This summer, our Unge Stemmer, young artists from the Hordaland region who have left to study overseas and are mentored by BNO throughout their degrees’ duration, came with a couple of Edvard Grieg Kor’s younger voices to be runners, performers and general assistants at our Mimi goes Glamping Festival at Åmot Operagard. Their reward was a class with Rachel, who with her bass-baritone husband Andrew, was artist-in-residence. The young singers assembled in Åmot’s charming barn, jittery, smiley and variously clutching scores, strong coffee and sheets of music.

They began – each had a 20 minute slot – and we sat in the audience listening to phrases stretch from strained to serene, breathing slow, sounds beautify, barking bass notes change to bronze and nerves vanish. Marvellous, everyone said, watching the young faces grow thoughtful, and notebooks fill with essential exercises and advice. ”Do not” said Rachel, observing ”change anything because of me. Your teachers know you and have a plan. It’s all very well for me to come in and make suggestions……” So no ego here. No diva sweeping in to bestow tiny fixes before flying off with a queenly wave and a phrase from Tosca.

Then Andrew came to Bergen to sing in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, our wonderful production from Robert Carsen, which finished in a blaze of glory last week, in part thanks to Andrew’s brilliant portrayal of Peter Quince. Happily, Mrs Slater aka Rachel came to visit him. And because of the generosity of Unge Stemmer’s sponsor, the Kavli Foundation, we were able to bring home to Bergen seven Unge Stemmer to sing to Rachel, with Andrew as additional mentor.

It was an extraordinary day. The Åmot sessions, it turned out, had caused a minor revolution. Voices had doubled, confidence had tripled, and music poured from singer after singer. Each young artist had a full lesson. Some were encountering the Nicholls treatment – a fierce mix of common sense and magic – for the first time. Andrew and Rachel squabbled happily over methods, everyone giggled. They encouraged all manner of noises, from gorgeous to grotesque. Shoulders dropped, diaphrams swelled, mouths which had been semi-opened yawned to form perfect figures of eight. We heard Mozart, Bach, Wolf, Schumann. And a series of small miracles.

Leaving, close to tears, I began to drive home, then pulled into the roadside to think. We forget the role of the teacher, the life-changer, the force that delivers what Seamus Heaney described as “the jolt that sets steady the fibrillating heart”. I had one such old lady who taught me not only to play the violin but that the instrument was my life-connection to music, to art and to love.

Lucky Unge Stemmer. Mrs Slater will be back.

Mary Miller, November 2015

Unge Stemmer: Martina Starr-Lassen, Ingvild Schultze-Florey, Susanna Yttri Solsrud, Kristin Frivold, Marita Lervik, Sondre Landvik and Elizaveta Agrafenina

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Two co-production premieres in one week

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It´s a mystery to me why Opera Vlaanderen use the strange Hotel Lindner in Antwerp as its go-to accommodation for guests. It’s one of those hotels where you are jolted awake at dawn by over-zealous housekeeping hoovering the corridor, with no clues about what city you are in and your chin mildly chafed by super-scrubbed sheets. Emerging into Antwerp´s diamond quarter, elderly Jewish men in huge hats are poking each other in the chest and squabbling gently in the street while smiling police are silently removing a protesting drunk.

Premiere 1: Private View – an opera born in Bergen

The opera house is hosting the world premiere of composer Annelies Van Parys and poet Jen Hadfield´s first collaboration Private View – an opera which began when the two were introduced by Bergen National Opera at one of the development academies which the organisation runs for Norway´s AdOpera network, aimed at enhancing all aspects of creation and production.

Based on Hitchcock´s Rear Window, the work has made a considerable journey. Irish director Tom Creed came on board early, followed by the Dutch video collective 33 1/3. With Hadfield, a T. S. Eliot prizewinner, based in the Shetland Isles and Van Parys in Belgium, the video team in Amsterdam and the ’midwives’ BNO and Musiektheater Transparant in Bergen and Antwerp respectively, nothing was simple.

But the premiere, attended by the great and good from Opera Europa and all six co-producing cities including Berlin and Luxembourg, was a startling success. Three singers manipulate three large boxes, each of which presents an individual video screen. These then periodically combine to create one large surface. The film shows clips of Rear Window, but also multiple voyeuristic images of scenes framed in New York windows: couples arguing, a solitary anxious figure; a frustrated wife.

The music is exquisitely scored, with wonderful sounds from the ensemble (the pristine Asko Schönberg ensemble) and marvellous characterful singing from three singers from Stuttgart´s Neue Vocalsolisten. It is mysterious, dark, funny and elegant.

At the reception, as champagne circulates, Opera Europa´s Nicholas Payne tells me a terrible story about a well-known singer who has just had to murder her children onstage in a performance of Cherubini´s Medea. What, he had asked her, did she think about when having to enact such a scene? She had replied, looking at him icily, ”I think about my children´s father”.

Premiere 2: Beethoven´s Fidelio in Vilnius

Leaving these various murders behind, I head to Vilnius, where the production which Oskaras Korsunovas created for Bergen National Opera in 2013 is to premiere with our co-producers at Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. It’s a formidable occasion. Black ties and ball gowns in the crowded auditorium. Vicious green and pink cocktails on the bar, along with tiny cups of thick hot chocolate – the kind which guarantees long nights of insomnia.

I sit next to the Prime Minister, who has a smile of dazed brilliance. Behind sit two armed bodyguards and the Culture Minister. Oskaras has worked intensely on the production adding video and tightening the dramaturgy. Our Leonore from Bergen, English soprano Rachel Nicholls sings astoundingly. The Prisoners´ Chorus is heartbreaking, and the finale, where it seems that the whole world has erupted onto the stage in all its myriad diversity, is made profoundly moving by the addition of monochrome film of Vilnius´s all too recent liberation from Russian oppression. The audience is silent and stunned. Then exultant.

Mozart and the Eurovision Song Contest

On then to Vienna, for auditions and to listen to Theater an der Wien´s accomplished young ensemble. At the airport, there appears to be an infestation of strange green elves, before I clock that the Eurovision Song Contest opens next weekend. The hoppy-skippy elves are distributing information and seem mildly embarrassed and (correctly) are not entirely convinced that those stumbling off dawn flights will appreciate the intended irony. A group of jolly students is gurgling through Thank you for the Music at the baggage carousel.

But I´m off to listen to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Massenet and to talk to much respected colleagues. Vienna, most songful of cities, is bathed in sunshine and ready to sing. Coffee, then I´m more than happy to listen.

Mary Miller

18th May, 2015

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

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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…..?

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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.

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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