Review by Tony Watts
The relationship of totalitarian regimes to the arts is malign, politicos wanting to neuter them, fearing freedom of expression as a direct threat to their control of the populace and its communal thought process. Censorship of work, persecution of its creators and campaigns branding it as degenerate are as common in contemporary dictatorships as they had been previously in the dark days of Nazi Germany. The cabaret scene in the Weimar Republic was anathema to the German reactionaries of the time, as Stefan Zweig observed: ‘amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order.’ Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.’ A 1938 exhibition, Entartate Musik, was mounted by propagandist Hans Severus Ziegler to demonstrate how necessary it was to ban this music, describing it as ‘Un-German’ as it was Jazz-influenced and written by Jewish and black composers: ‘Effigies of wickedness’. It was in this atmosphere of repression that a body of work was created which is explored in a lively collaboration between English National Opera (ENO) and the Gate Theatre, currently enjoying a run at the tiny West London venue until June 9.
Following from George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s marvelous production, Written on Skin – which was performed at the Royal Opera House in 2017 – their third opera, Lessons in Love and Violence carries the duo’s (composer and librettist) signature trademark: transcending compelling storytelling with exquisite sound worlds.
Working together, again, with director, Katie Mitchell and set designer, Vicki Mortimer Lessons in Love and Violence conveys a contemporary adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s harrowing play on the reign of Edward II. Written on Skin (see my 2017 review here) has a rich landowner who forces his wife to eat the heart of her secret lover without knowing it. Here the cruelty and abuse ensue when the King’s cold-blooded wife, Isabel (outstandingly performed by Barbara Hannigan) drops a priceless pearl in a glass of vinegar and dangles it, like a carrot, in front of a group of impoverished people.
John Savournin, artistic director of Charles Court Opera (CCO) and professional opera singer, met me at Rosemary Branch Theatre in the middle of rehearsals (on a chilly Saturday) to discuss CCO’s new and fresh production of The Mikado, which opens this week at the King’s Head Theatre. John talked to me about Gilbert & Sullivan’s inspiration behind the comic work and his optimistic outlook of the opera landscape for Off-West End companies and productions.
Opera wouldn’t be influential if it wasn’t for the role of the ‘diva’ (Italian for ‘goddess’) or ‘prima donna’. Its voices, the magnificent sopranos, tender contraltos, and mellifluous mezzo-sopranos are huge driving forces that foster our love for opera.
Opera is the one of the few artistic genres that elevates the status of women. Since the time of Handel and Mozart, opera’s trouser-roles have also played an influential part. They were specifically made for women to cross-dress as men, manly fighters and despairing boy-like lovers.
To celebrate Women’s Day, I want to share my favourite women in opera from voice to characterisation.
Bampton Classical Opera’s 25th anniversary season opens with a concert this week (Wednesday 7th) to mark the bicentenary of Anglo-Italian soprano Nancy Storace (1765–1817). The concert includes significant works composed by Mozart, Haydn, Stephen Storace, Sarti and Salieri, which were associated with her, and arias that will be sung by American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker. Here, Jaquelyn, a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, shares her insight and admiration for Nancy Storace and the works she shall be performing at the concert, as well as her love for cooking a hearty Sunday roast.
Carmen as you’ve never seen before
Apologises. This one is a long report because there was plenty to cover on Barrie Kosky’s production. Enjoy!
For those of you who are new to Bizet’s opera, you’ve heard the music before. Without knowing it, you’ve heard the music of Carmen in a perfume, insurance or car advert. It is the second most performed opera at the Royal Opera House (ROH), and many would recommend Carmen as an opera for first-timers to see, yet I’m unsure if I’d say the same for the opening night I attended on Monday.
Welcome! Here’s a roundup of news, posts, bits and pieces I’ve been sharing on Social Media since Day 1 of 2018.
The Globe has announced that they will be showing a new production of Othello this summer. Claire van Kampen shall direct the production with Andre Holland and Mark Rylance who take on the role of Othello and Iago. Tickets are on sale from January 29th, 2018, so get your index finger ready as they will definitely sell out fast. (Click here for the Globe website.)
Ever read a great review of a show and wanted to see the show for yourself, but didn’t know where the theatre was? No worries. Blogger and theatre writer Liz Dyer has pre-made a theatre map for your location needs. If you are a theatre that isn’t listed on the map, let Liz know and she will update the map for you. (Check out the map on her blog.)
Happy News from Alice Jones on Twitter, reporting from Soho Theatre:
Well that’s a first. Someone just proposed to their girlfriend on stage at Soho Theatre! (she said yes)
— Alice Jones (@alicevjones) January 5, 2018
With the upcoming production of Constella OperaBallet‘s award-winning production Sideshows – which is showing at Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells – I managed to get a few words from the composer and conductor behind the work.
Where did the inspiration behind Sideshows come from?
What’s the best way for opera to gain new audiences? The most obvious answer is to encourage new audiences to see an opera and hope that they will enjoy the story, music and singing all at once. Then we have to ask ourselves another question: what are the best operas to show someone who is completely new to the art form? I can see the serious dramas such as La Traviata, Madame Butterfly and Carmen, or even the silly comedies like The Barber of Seville and The Pirates of Penzance being on the top of the list. The narratives are easy enough to follow, depending on the direction and staging, and the music is regularly recycled on commercial adverts (often on radio and TV) which, probably, anyone can recognise.
The Victoria and Albert Museum has taken on the responsibility of introducing opera to newer audiences using an entirely different technique. A brand new exhibition with the collaboration of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House (and Societe Genrale) has opened at the Sainsbury Gallery. It is the first time the Sainsbury Gallery has exhibited work and artifacts to this scale – the largest in Europe of its kind.
— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) March 5, 2016
There seems to be two misconceptions about opera tickets. Firstly – a point which has been argued to death – that ‘opera tickets are expensive’ and secondly, once a show, or production, has sold out there is no way you can see it, ever!
As a reviewer and blogger, I have the advantage of seeing many operas in London through press tickets, however, this is not ALWAYS the case. With the amount of theatre and opera I see per week (which can range between two to five shows in a week), there are occasions where opera and theatre companies do not provide me with that complimentary ticket. This has encouraged me to seek alternative ways of gaining access to sold out shows and finding the cheapest tickets, which might not always offer the best view but still provides me with a means to view 90% of the opera, and hearing beautiful music and amazing voices.
Opera, theatre, even ballets and classical music concerts, are not only composed and written for the rich and affluent. Keen culture vultures can go and enjoy shows without breaking the bank! Alongside discounted theatre websites and (believe it or not) newspaper, magazine and online publications, actual opera companies offer reduced tickets and special offers as well!