LET BEAUTY AWAKE
In my opinion Thomas Allen is one of the greatest singers of the past half century. His balmy voice with its warmth, colours and nuances makes me happy every time I hear it. It even feels comforting, like a warm bath. The English have the perfect description for this: “meltingly beautiful singing.” Yes, I am a fan!
This all-around baritone, equally at home in opera, art song, oratorio, musical theatre and even movies is held in high esteem all over the world. Except in the Netherlands, where he is barely known. Small wonder: apart from a few rare visits to the Concertgebouw he never sang here. The reason is simple: he was never asked.
Recording Don Pasquale in Munich. Sir Thomas Allen, Renato Bruson, Eva Mei, Frank Lopardo © Wernard Neumeister
I first met Thomas Allen in December 1993 in London, after his recital in St James’s Church where he sang Die Schöne Müllerin. We never really talked until a few weeks later in the BMG Studios in Munich, where he was recording Malatesta in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.
I was allowed to attend the recording sessions. In a small corner I looked and listened, deeply admiring this beautiful singer. He sang the hardest coloratura passages in one long breath, and repeated them endlessly. His hands made elegant gestures. Everything about him, in fact, was acting. What a contrast with the recital in London a few weeks earlier, which had moved me to tears. There he stood motionless on stage, focused, acting only with his eyes.
How can he do that?
“How I can do that … “
“When you are recording the visual element is, of course, absent. The only thing you have is your imagination. When I think about Malatesta, I imagine an elegant man in a beautiful suit. My hands then start to move automatically, which helps me find the colours I need to sound convincing.”
“It works somewhat differently with art songs, I think. I cannot stand singers who move around too much on stage. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Art songs need to be done with a certain discipline, with restraint. I do not permit myself more than eye expressions. Now you have to understand, this is how I feel, it fits my personality, but it will not work for everybody.
You know what my secret is when I sing art songs? It starts in your heart and then it rises to the head …. it is a combination of heart and brain. Somewhere in between – through the throat – it comes out….”
“I learned to sing by looking at my older colleagues. I am like a parrot, I imitate everything. My great example was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. In fact, he was more of an idol than an example. In art song, at least. My God, how have I admired that man!”
“Over the times I have come to think a little more nuanced about him. I have more experience now, which has also influenced my thinking. I still admire his Wolf and his Pfitzner. Much more so than his romantic repertoire like Schubert and Schumann.”
“A couple of years ago I first met him, and believe me, I shook in my boots like a complete novice! That man has been an idol and an example to me for years. And not just to me! For the entire generation of singers of thirty, forty and even fifty years ago he was the ideal. So when critics compared me to him I took that as a huge compliment.”
“In opera I never had a similar role model. I learned the profession, as I said, like a parrot. You start with copying a singer, afterwards you learn to interpret a piece of music. My technique kept improving over the years. There has been a time in my life I was seriously hooked on opera. I hardly sang art songs, never gave recitals. I honestly must say that was the saddest period of my life. It was not healthy for me. Fortunately everything ended well.”
“Singing art songs has in fact helped me with operatic acting. It made me more relaxed and my acting quieter. I used to run from one end of the stage to the other, always moving. Singing art songs gave me greater focus on the opera stage.
“Yes, the director is important. How far do I go? Until it becomes ridiculous or clashes with the text. Then I stop. I am not a difficult person, more cooperative, in fact, but I cannot stand people who ignore the libretto simply because of their own ideas. Or because of what they want to see themselves. “
Thomas Allen as Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro
“I will give you an example. A few years ago, in Le Nozze di Figaro, I had to disappear through a trapdoor at the moment I sang ‘Son tutti contenti’. That was ridiculous, so I asked the director why. Almaviva is no Don Giovanni, after all. But he did not know himself. „C’est une idée“, he said. So I refused to do it. A director who cannot explain something is reason enough for me to say no.”
“What really upsets me is they believe singers have nothing to say! And that we are manipulated all the time, either by directors or by conductors. But singers are no idiots. They have learned a lot over the years. They have a lot of experience and are very good at their profession. They can contribute a lot to a production. Directors should listen to singers more often.”
Thomas Allen as Don Giovanni
Over the years Thomas Allen has built up a comprehensive repertoire. He sings Monteverdi, Purcell and Gluck, and contemporary music as well, including world premieres of pieces by Thea Musgrave and John Casken.
He has sung all the great opera roles by Mozart, Strauss, Wagner, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi and Puccini. His Billy Budd is legendary.
He still is one of the most beautiful Hamlets (Thomas) and
Evgenij Onegins: both in English and Russian.
Thomas Allen has also appeared in Mrs Henderson Presents and other movies.
In 1993 he published his autobiography ‘Foreign Parts – A Singer’s Journal.’
Allen made his professional debut in 1969 at the Welsh National Opera and in October that year he sang his first big role: Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In 2009 he celebrated his forty years on stage. For the occasion a fan made a compilation of his greatest roles until then.
English translation: Remko Jas
In Dutch: Let Beauty Awake: SIR THOMAS ALLEN
Burkhardt Söll: Kinderdinge. A requiem for an old doctor and his orphans
Korczak with the children
Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldszmit. He first used his pen name Janusz Korczak in 1898 when he participated in a literary contest organised by Ignacy Paderewski, the famous pianist and future Prime Minister of Poland.
Korczak was born in Warsaw into an assimilated Jewish family. After studying medicine he briefly practiced pediatrics until 1912 when he became director of Dom Sierot, an orphanage for Jewish children. He carried out his utopian vision of a children’s republic there: a community of children, with its own parliament, court and newspaper, all run by the children themselves. After World War I Korczak founded a second orphanage: Nasz Dom (Our House).
As well as being a doctor and director of an orphanage, Korczak was also a pedagogue, teacher, writer and Bible scholar. He worked for the Polish radio and gave lectures. His fame was immense, and not confined to Poland. He was published abroad too, to great critical acclaim, and his pedagogical methods were used all over Europe.
Korczak and children.
In November 1940 the orphanage was forced to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto. At the beginning of August 1942 the children, together with Korczak and his deputy Stefania Wilczynska, were put on a transport to Treblinka. Even the Nazis respected the famous pedagogue and offered Korczak the opportunity to save his own life. He refused and chose to die with his children instead of compromising his principles. They were all murdered in the gas chambers of Treblinka shortly after arriving there on August 7, 1942.
Monument “Janusz Korczak and the children” in Yad Vashem
In 1972 Korczak was posthumously awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Books have been written about him, and his life story has been the subject of several biographical movies. In the 1990s the German-Dutch composer Burkhardt Söll composed a piece in memory of Korczak and his children: Kinderdinge. Manuela du Bois-Reymond, a sociologist and pedagogue who is also married to the composer, wrote the lyrics to the songs.
This stunningly beautiful composition consists of short pieces (children’s scenes) flowing into each other. The first scene Canto d’amore is followed by the sound of clappers (The Only Instruments). There are quotes from Klezmer music and Yiddish songs. We hear train sounds, a grim March of Suitcase, shoes and coats and several songs.
Song I is about fear. Song II about children’s furniture that no longer inspires trust, and Song III about being locked in a dark closet. A closet so small there is only room for one leg. All three songs are filled with immense fear and darkness and death (“bei den Toten ist mein Haus und in der Finsternis is mein Bett gemacht”).
The fourth and final song (The End. What really happened) is based on the eyewitness report by Marek Rudnicki, which was published in the Polish Tygodnik Powszechny in 1988.
Kinderdinge is a concert version of Söll’s earlier piece of musical theatre Ach und Requiem from 1994/1995, which in turn was preceded by Little Requiem composed in 1991.
What interested me was why Söll wrote a piece of musical theatre on Korczak? Where did his interest in the fate of the old doctor and his children come from? Is it at all possible to tell his story in music? These questions were enough reason to visit the composer in Leiden where he has lived since 1977.
Burkhardt Söll was born in Marienberg in 1944. His mother was Jewish. During his first violin lessons, which he took from his aunts, he was allowed to play klezmer music by the one, but not by the other!
Söll studied viola with the famous Rudolf Kolisch. Already in school he composed for the school orchestra. He continued his training at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin where he studied composition with Boris Blacher and Paul Dessau and painting with Horst Antes. Afterwards, he was the assistant of Bruno Maderna and later of Otmar Suitner at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden.
Burhardt Söll self portrait
In the seventies Söll took part in a research project on children’s aesthetics. He developed a teaching strategy combining music composition with painting. In 1985 he was appointed as a teacher at the Utrecht School of the Arts. His paintings were exhibited in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, The Hague, and other places.
Söll has known Janusz Korczak and his books since his early childhood. Krol Macius I (King Matt the First) is still his favourite book. The life of the old doctor has always fascinated him: someone who put his life at the service of (orphan) children and remained faithful to his own ideals until death.
Reinhart Büttner’s designs for black and misshapen children furniture inspired Söll to write his piece of musical theatre. Ach und Requiem was performed only once in 1995, but luckily a recording exists. It is a shame the textbook, with a Jewish child playing the violin on its cover, is almost illegible. The letters are too small, and the colour combination (dark brown and light blue) makes it even harder to read.
Fragments can be listened to here:
*Taken from the Dutch novella by Karlijn Stoffels We hadden vogels kunnen zijn, inspired by a song by Itzhak Katzenelson Dos Kelbl written in the Warsaw Ghetto after the death of his wife and children. The song became a global hit in the sixties under the tile Donna, donna.
English translation: Remko Jas
Original Dutch: “ZIJ HADDEN VOGELS KUNNEN ZIJN” *
Music for Korczak and his children
Djoke Winkler Prins (soprano),
Mary Oliver (viola), Alison McRae (cello), Huub van de Velde (double-bass), Jörgen van Rijen (trombone),Wilbert Grootenboer (percussion), Dil Engelhard (flute), Jan Jansen (clarinet), Henri Bok (saxophone)
Conductor: Peter Stamm
BVHAAST CD 9703
Times have changed. Not that long ago anything in the recording industry seemed possible. The major record companies released one opera after the next. Money was not an issue. Great new stars were introduced, and just as easily dropped. Yet another Aida and Traviata, the hundredth Rigoletto, the two hundredth Tosca or Don Giovanni…..
Smaller labels targeted the niche market of classical music enthusiasts. These collectors were interested in lesser-known works by Donizetti or Bellini, in long forgotten scores and in composers like Meyerbeer, Pacini and Mayr, who enjoyed considerable renown in the past.
One of those labels – fortunately still active today – was Opera Rara. It started out as a small business run by just two men. In their pioneering years their records were issued directly to subscribers. When Opera Rara planned to record an opera, those subscribers had to pay first. After a wait that could take as long as a year, the records were distributed. Highly exclusive! Over the years, Opera Rara became what is probably the largest (and certainly the most important) opera label.
Twenty years ago I visited Opera Rara in London, where I met Patric Schmid* and conductor David Parry. Schmid was one of the founders of Opera Rara and its recording executive. Since the death of his partner Don White he also was the label’s artistic director.
It is raining quite heavily as I step out of Liverpool Street station. I have a few hours to spend and intend to visit a few bookstores. Because I get lost everywhere, it seemed a safer idea to first carefully map out my route. It turns out I am much closer by than I had thought.
Still, when I make my way there fifteen minutes before my appointment I get lost once again. The weather has turned completely, the sun shines and it is hot. Covered in sweat I enter the building on Curtain Road where Opera Rara resides.
I am received by Stephen Revell, the very friendly assistant of Patrick Schmid, who leads me into an enormous room. In the middle a grand piano, covered under a yellow sheet. On the shelves, thousands of scores, books and records.
We sit at a large wooden table. Patric Schmid enters: a handsome man in his fifties, with grey hair. He apologises David Parry has been delayed and will join us later. Coffee and tea are served, and the story behind the most adventurous opera label begins.
Patric Schmid with Nelly Miricioiu © Voix des Arts
The love for belcanto started with Chopin. Schmid, as a young pianist, came under the spell of his enthralling music and went on a search for more. A search that eventually led to belcanto. His fascination with belcanto became so big that he wanted to change the fact that this music was hardly ever performed. To achieve this, he founded an opera company in 1970 with his friend, the musicologist Don White, called Opera Rara.
The search for unknown opera’s was not easy. Schmid himself uses the expression “to dig up.” And since there were no photocopiers at the time, everything had to be produced by hand.
Pirate edition of Il Crociato in Egitto © Hans van Verseveld
In 1972 their first opera was performed: Myerbeer’s Il Crociato in Egitto. Several problems occurred. Shortly before opening night the tenor cancelled. Where on earth do you find a replacement for a highly obscure work on such short notice? Fortunately William McKinney saved the production by taking over the role two days before the premiere.
All the operas performed by Opera Rara were broadcast by the BBC. Afterwards, these performances were issued by various pirate labels. In 1977 Schmid and White decided to record the operas themselves and founded the record label Opera Rara. The money to make the recordings was collected directly from their supporters on a subscription basis. The first recording was Donizetti’s Ugo Conte di Parigi, made in July 1977. The conductor was Allun Francis, who has been one of their two regular conductors since.
Janet Price sings Bianca’s aria “No, che infelice appieno….” from the Donizetti rarity Ugo Conte di Parigi:
The other host, conductor David Parry, meanwhile has arrived and joins our conversation with much animation. This former pupil of, amongst others, Celibidache, started his career as a rehearsal pianist, something he believes to be absolutely indispensable for a conductor. His conducting career began in 1973 in Wexford. In 1975 he worked as a conductor’s assistant there in the first performance in 93 years of Orazi e Curiazi by Mercadente, an opera he would record twenty years later for Opera Rara.
Nelly Miricioiu sings ‘Di quai soavi palpiti’ from Orazi e Curiazi:
Not only conductors remain faithful to Opera Rara, singers as well. No wonder: they get the opportunity to make recordings, learn new repertory and work in a relaxed atmosphere. The greatest and most famous stars have worked (and still work) on their projects: Nelly Miriciou, Annick Massis, Jennifer Larmore, Joyce El-Khoury, Bruce Ford, Alaister Miles, Michael Spyres, Carmen Giannattassio – just to name a few.
Patric Schmid & David Parry © Basia Jaworski for Basia con fuoco
As a farewell I receive a special gift: the yellow sheet is removed from the grand piano, David Parry picks out a score and plays (and sings, helped by Patric Schmid) an aria from Margherita d’Anjou by Meyerbeer** for me.
*Patric Schmid died suddenly on November 6th, 2005. He was only 61 years old
**Margherita d’Anjou was issued in October 2003. It was one of Meyerbeer’s first operas, still from his Italian period. No complete score of the opera was preserved, so a lot was reconstructed, or “dug up” in the words of Patric Schmid. The excellent cast is headed by Annick Massis, Bruce Ford, Daniela Barcellona and Alastair Miles, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the inspired direction of David Parry (ORC25).
English traslation: Remko Jas
See also interviews (in English):
JENNIFER LARMORE interview (English translation)
Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)
CARMEN GIANNATTASSIO interview in English
and in German:
Joseph Achron in Saint Petersburg © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.
Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.
Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.
Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:
Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions, dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work. In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.
Joseph Achron as a child in Warsaw
But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.
© Milchen Archive
His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century. In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.
In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1, Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.
Joseph Achron (right) with members of the cast of The Golem. H. Leivick (center), New York.
Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.
In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.
The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:
In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.
Joseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (right). Klemperer conducted the premieres of Achron’s second and third violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection
Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.
On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.
(Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)
Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.
Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)
Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course, the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).
English translation Remko Jas
© Marco Borggreve
Barbara Hannigan is the undisputed prima donna of modern music. Her musicianship commands great respect, her technique is flawless, and her possibilities (think of those extreme high notes) are almost endless.
On a beautiful and sunny late afternoon end of September 2011 we meet for the first time. Contrary to my habit I am five minutes late, but I do have an excuse. My first question, even before I start making apologies, might be a little odd, but she responds with laughter. “Barbara, do you love cats?”
Yes, she loves cats. Living on the road, unfortunately, makes it impossible for her to have one. Her beautiful eyes sparkle, but I can see question marks forming in them as well.
© Barbara Hannigan website
I explain to her right before I wanted to leave the house, my black monster jumped on my desk, shoving all sorts of things off of it, including my phone and my voice recorder. That breaks the ice, and our meeting turns into a relaxed and cosy afternoon.
A week or so later, we meet again. This time I do carry my notebook and pen, and notes are written down.
with Pierre Boulez © Barbara Hannigan Website
After she sang Boulez’s Pli selon pli in London, the British critic Ivan Hewett (The Telegraph) wrote: ,,She does the kind of high-wire acrobatics with her voice that very few singers can manage, and she does it with a bravura that stops you dead in your tracks. All this is joined to a startling stage presence and cool blonde beauty that contrasts interestingly with the heat in her voice.”
Hannigan in Pli selon pli in Amsterdam:
According to Hewett she could have had a big career as a queen of coloratura, but instead Hannigan decided to specialize in contemporary music.
© Elmer de Haas
“I chose modern music all by myself,” Hannigan says. “I found it thrilling. It is exciting to collaborate with composers, although I do not always enjoy everything I have to sing.
The ‘non vibrato,’ for example, is absolute horror to me. It goes against the natural way of singing. Vibrato is the soul of singing, it transmits emotions. I did it on special request of a composer (no, no names), but without pleasure. ” She adds decidedly: ,,It takes away the personality of the voice.”
She thinks it is nonsense modern music should be sung differently from the classics. “Modern music, in fact, is a form of belcanto. Without technique it is impossible to do. It is my repertoire, and it is indeed hard, but it gives me a sense of intense gratification.”
“Of course I am careful. But as a rule I sing everything as if it were Mozart. I do need to protect my high notes, though. So if I sing Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol, for example, I make sure I combine it with less extreme pieces. ” Laughing: “One day, I would not mind singing Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, and if Juan Diego Flórez could be my partner….
Hannigan sings Le Rossignol:
© Marco Borggreve
She continues in a serious mood: “I would love to do so many more things! I am always hungry, I want so much, but I cannot accept everything people offer me. I used to be known as a singer who could be easily booked , but at the moment I am booked for quite a few years ahead. I sing fifty or sixty performances a year. In the last season I also conducted five or six concerts.”
Conducting is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of a soprano. “It was pointed out to me that when I sing my body language resembles conducting. In addition, I have always thought about how an orchestra should sound, also while I sing. So at a certain moment I started to take lessons, with several dear colleagues. It was all very private, so I cannot give any names.”
Hannigan conducts and sings Gershwin:
Actually, Hannigan does do many more things. At the moment she dances a lot. And like everything she does, she does it at a high level. With Sasha Waltz, with whom she did a few important projects in the past (Matsukaze by Toshio Hosokawa, for example), she will sing and dance Dusapin’s Passion. Hannigan has already performed this dance-opera several times. In 2010 she appeared in it at the Holland festival in Amsterdam, in Audi’s “mise en space.”
“It was the first time I worked with Audi, and I have fond memories of it. Imagine the entire production being done in just two days! I have worked on it with a lot of pleasure. But now I really look forward to the Sascha Waltz production. Very exciting, also because this time I really get to dance.”
Her favorite composer? “Ligeti! I admire him tremendously. His music truly brings out everything I have in me!”
György Ligeti Mysteries of the Macabre 2015 Barbara Hannigan:
BARBARA IN PRIVATE
© Barbara Hannigan website
In what sort of a family was she raised? “My family was certainly musical, but on an amateur level. My sister still plays the cello, and I had to choose at age seventeen between the piano, hobo or singing. I chose singing.”
She started her studies in Toronto and later went to London. “In 1995 I decided to move to The Hague. I had heard a lot about an outstanding teacher there. I immediately felt at home, also because of the musical climate, so I stayed.”
“Sometimes I miss my country and my family very much. I hardly ever see them. Often a year goes by before I get a chance to see them. Skype helps, but it is a surrogate.”
Does she have any time left for hobbies? “I love to cook. That is also the reason I always rent an apartment, even if it is only for a couple of days. I always bring my own knives. And my herbs. At home I always cook, although my husband is quite good at it also. But I am better, so he gets to clean up, which he happily does. Wonderful, but difficult when I am on my own, because then I have to do everything myself. The dishes as well, which I am not used to.
GEORGE BENJAMIN AND WRITTEN ON SKIN
withe George Benjamin in Aix-en-Provence © Barbara Hannigan website
Barbara Hannigan is the muse of many contemporary composers, including George Benjamin. He composed Written on Skin with her voice in mind. It was clear from the beginning she should sing Agnes. In July 2012 Hannigan sang the world premiere of Written on Skin.
During the preparations and in between the performances Hannigan kept me informed by an “e-mail diary.”
“George Benjamin and I met three years ago in his house. I was supposed to show him the possibilities of my instrument. We played a little composer-singer game without words, “composing” together. It gave me the opportunity to show him how my voice moves most comfortably.”
The first rehearsals took place in London, after which we moved to Aix-en-Provence, where the word premiere would be. The whole “making of” process was quite intense. My role is very demanding. Looking at the score you might think: finally a composer who does not take advantage of Barbara Hannigan’s high notes, or make her into a stratospheric trapeze artist. But the music still is extremely demanding.
The vocal lines lie very high and are long, spread out and loud. Rather difficult for the quick moving core of my voice. I had to approach the part very carefully. Particularly from the moment on when the tension in the opera slowly starts to increase, scene by scene, until the final climax, when I sing my big aria.
A few months before I received the score George changed a few notes for me – something he has sworn never to do for anybody! He rewrote several passages in my score by hand, which has helped me enormously.”
“I really think my role is phenomenally good. It feels like a fantastic preamble and the greatest preparation for Lulu, who I will sing in October for the first time. Agnes ends were Lulu begins. A sexually liberated woman with no problems with herself. A gift of a role!
One of the highlights for me was the “Sitzprobe” with the orchestra. It was the first time George heard his entire piece, with orchestra and singers. It was two weeks before opening night and we were all very nervous. But the entire cast stood behind him and his fabulous score. It was a very moving and emotional day.
All my colleagues (not only the singers, but the extras as well) were fantastic and we all got along marvelously. George had composed the music specifically for each one of us. A lot was demanded from us, not only vocally, but dramatically as well, but we all supported each other.”
“I think the production is unequalled and I adore Katie Mitchell, the director. It was the first time I worked with her. She pays a lot of attention to details, providing a lot of background information to the artists on stage. The public never notices that, but it had a tremendous influence on our performance. Working with Katie was a sensation, and I hope one day she will direct me in Lulu. “
“I loved the sensual scenes which were combined with violent ones. We had a special “fight director” who taught us to act as realistically as possible without hurting each other. I believe that was quite unique for an opera production. You also need a lot of trust in your colleagues.
I have to say: Agnes is a dream role, and I thought it was fantastic I got the chance to play her. All the reviews were full of praise, and the public was enthusiastic as well. It really was a dream.”
“I had been in Aix-en-Provence before, in 2008, for the first version of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. That performance was staged by Giuseppe Frigeni. In 2010 Sasha Waltz directed it. With her production we opened the season of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.“
In 2008 we performed in the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – small and very intimate. Very beautiful too. Because of the dimensions it is rather limited in its possibilities, though. For Written on Skin we were programmed in the biggest theatre of the festival, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Very unusual for a modern, ‘fresh from the pen’-opera. Opening night, as you know, was a huge success, and all the subsequent performances were sold out.
I love the city. Aix is fabulous and so easy-going. The city encourages you to relax, even while you are hard at work. The festival is truly special. No highbrow business like you see at some other festivals. There is a true mix of different styles and types of performances. Symphonic music as well as chamber music.
They also have a fabulous young artists program, and I truly appreciate their efforts to get rid of the elitist stamp art has, particularly opera. Art truly can be real, and it can appeal to anyone.
I think Katie Mitchell and her team have tried with Written on skin to not only avoid stock opera gestures, but also to create something that actually did happen and that touches you. Something many of us have experienced personally, certainly women.”
Trailer of the Aix production:
English translation Remko Jas
More Barbara Hannigan:
BARBARA HANNIGAN betovert in liederen van HENRI DUTILLEUX. Concertgebouw Amsterdam, oktober 2013
LULU van Krzysztof Warlikowski. Brussel 2012
PLI SELON PLI. Amsterdam 2011
LET ME TELL YOU ZaterdagMatinee
Satie, Hannigan en de Leeuw