Forbidden Music in World Word II: PAUL HERMANN

For English translation scroll down


Hermann cd

De exacte datum en de plaats van zijn dood zullen voor altijd onbekend blijven. Het laatste wat we van Paul Hermann (1902 – 1944) hebben vernomen is dat hij opgepakt werd tijdens een grote straatrazzia in Toulouse in april 1944 en via het doorgangskamp Drancy overgebracht werd naar Auschwitz en verder naar Litouwen. Sindsdien werd er niets meer van hem vernomen.


Hermann en Székely

Paul Hermann en Zoltán Székely

De Joodse Hermann werd geboren in Boedapest, waar hij aan de Franz Liszt Academie studeerde bij o.a. Adolf Schiffer (cello), Zoltán Kodály (compositie) en Léo Weiner (kamermuziek). Sinds die tijd dateert ook zijn innige vriendschap met violist Zoltán Székely en pianist Géza Frid.


Hermann cello

Tijdens een optreden in Nederland maakte hij kennis met de Nederlandse Ada Weevers met wie hij trouwde en met wie hij tot 1933 in Berlijn woonde. Toen Hitler aan de macht kwam, vestigde het gezin zich in Oudorp in Nederland (leuk weetje: Hermann sprak en schreef voortreffelijk Nederlands). Na de tragische dood van zijn vrouw verhuisde Hermann eerst naar Brussel en later naar Parijs.


Hermann vrouw

Hermann met vrouw en dochter

Hermann was voornamelijk beroemd als cellist (hij werd de ‘Hongaarse Casals’ genoemd), zo speelde hij de wereldpremière van solocellosonate van Kodály en eind jaren dertig trad hij vaak op in het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; maar hij was ook een begenadigd componist. Na de oorlog raakte hij – net als zovele van zijn lotgenoten – in de vergetelheid.

Portretten van componisten die vervolgd en verboden zijn in Nederland tijdens Wereldoorlog 2:

Het is dankzij de Leo Smit Stichting dat wij nu kennis kunnen maken met zijn muziek, waarvoor DANK! Zijn Grand Duo uit 1930, oorspronkelijk gecomponeerd voor en uitgevoerd met Zoltan Szekely, krijgt nu een uitstekende vertolking van Burkhard Maiss en Bogdan Jianu. Wat een ongekend prachtig werk het toch is!

De Strijktrio en de Pianotrio stammen uit het begin jaren twintig, toen Hermann nog aan het Liszt-Academie studeerde. Dat er in beide, zeer prettig in het oor klinkende werken een prominente rol aan de cello is toebedeeld is nogal wiedes.

De droevige liederen die Hermann in impressionistische stijl na de dood van zijn vrouw componeerde worden zeer ontroerend gezongen door Irene Maessen.



Hermann lowres.medium

The exact date and place of his death still remain unknown. The last that was heard of Paul (Pál) Hermann (1902-1944) was that he got arrested during a big street razzia in Toulouse in April 1944 and was deported from the Drancy transit camp to Auschwitz, and from there on to Lithuania.  After that, no trace of Hermann was ever found.

The Jewish Hermann was born in Budapest, where he studied at the Franz Liszt Academy with, amongst others, Adolf Schiffer (cello), Zoltán Kodály (composition) and Leó Weiner (chamber music). His close friendships with violinist Zoltán Székely and pianist Géza Frid originated during these years.

Hermann Szekely Trio


After a concert in the Netherlands Hermann met the Dutch Ada Weevers whom he married, and with whom he lived in Berlin until 1933. After Hitler’s rise to power, the family moved to Ouddorp in the Netherlands (interesting fact: Hermann spoke and wrote excellent Dutch). After the tragic death of Hermann’s wife he first moved to Brussels, then to Paris.


Hermann klein

Although Hermann was most widely known as a cellist he was a talented composer as well. He made his international breakthrough with Kodály’s Sonata for solo cello. Dutch newspapers would call him the “Hungarian Casals” when he regularly performed at the Concertgebouw in the late 1930’s.

After the war, as so many of his fellow victims,  he was forgotten.

Portraits of persecuted composers in Netherlands during World War II:

Thanks to the Leo Smit Foundation it is now possible to listen to his music again, for which I would like to say a big thank you!

His Grand Duo from 1930, originally composed for and performed by Zoltan Szekely, now gets an outstanding performance by Burkhard Maiss and Bogdan Jianu, What an unbelievably beautiful work this is!


Hermann Thibaud trio

Burkhard Maiß, Bogdan Jianu and Andrei Banciu © 2018 The Jacques Thibaud Trio

The String Trio and the Piano Trio date from the early 1920’s when Hermann still was a student at the Liszt-Academy. It comes as no surprise that both works, which fall easy on the ears, have a prominent role for the cello.

The sad songs Hermann composed in an impressionistic style after his wife’s death are sung very movingly by Irene Maessen.

English translation Remko Jas

All photos:  © courtesy Leo Smit Foundation

More about Hermann:

Grand Duo for violin and Cello, String Trio, Piano Trio, Cello Concerto, Songs, Quatre Épigrammes, Allegro for Piano, Tocata for Piano, Suite for Piano
Burkhard Maiss (violin); Hannah Strijdbos viola), Bogdan Jianu, Clive Greensmith (cello); Andrei Banciu, Beth Nam (piano); Irene Maessen (soprano)
Et’cetera KTC 1590 (2 cd’s)

DONIZETTI: LES MARTYRS (English translation)




Les Martyrs, an almost forgotten grand opera by Donizetti started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.


Martyrs Polyeuctus_of_Meletine_in_Armenia_(Menologion_of_Basil_II)

Polyeuctus of Melitene in 10th-century Byzantine miniature from the Menologion of Basil II

Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.

After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.

He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.

In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”

Despite its early successes the Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).

Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960,  a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.


In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.



Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres

Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé.

In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable,  moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.

Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”

The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.

Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).

English translation: Remko Jas

Les Martyrs
Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, Wynne Evans a.o.
Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Mark Elder
Opera Rara ORC52

Interview with Joyce El-Khoury: Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

See also: POLIUTO

Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)


Joyce Behamou

Joyce El-Khoury © Julien Benhamou


The first time I met Joyce El-Khoury was by coincidence. We happened to sit next to each other during opening night of Gounod’s Faust at the National Opera and started an animated conversation, which continued during intermission and after the opera had ended. We got along so well, in fact, that we soon made an appointment to continue our conversation elsewhere.

Joyce Michael

Joyce El-Khoury with Michael Fabiano in Amsterdam

A few days afterwards we meet at an almost deserted outdoor café on Rembrandt Square. The weather is gorgeous – the sun reflecting itself in our wine glasses. El-Khoury loves Amsterdam, and cannot get enough of the city.

In November 2014 El-Khoury will return to Amsterdam for Musetta (La Bohème) and the prospect to spend six entire weeks there already makes her happy. She immediately discards my remarks on the weather in November and December.

“I simply love the city, regardless the weather. The atmosphere is unique and the people are so friendly! I love Amsterdam.  Everyone is free here, or at least seems to be. The city is a huge inspiration to me. The only problem are the bikers, they scare me a little!”

The Canadian soprano, born in Beirut, is a star in the making. Opera News wrote about her: “Canadian Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it”.

Joyce Violetta

As Violetta (La Traviata) at the Dutch National Opera

The Dutch public can attest to this. In May 2013 El-Khoury made an unexpected and overwhelming debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the National Opera. In May 2014 she stole the hearts of the NTR Saturday Matinee audience with a deeply moving performance of Rusalka in Dvorak’s opera of the same name.

“The Matinee is even better than sinking into a warm bath. The public is so incredibly sympathetic and kind, you can feel their love, which really makes you feel good, feel loved.  You feel like … no, this feeling cannot be described. Also the organisers, the rehearsal assistants … The most beautiful moment to me came when the orchestra started to play and our voices blended with the sound of the orchestra for the first time.”

“And then we had James Gaffigan to conduct us …. I have no words for him. He breathed along with us. He was one of us, and stood above us at the same time. But also next to us. This Rusalka has been the highlight of my life thus far. Singing is a privilege, but singing at the Matinee in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life…”

Beirut and Canada

Joyce El-Khoury was born in Beirut and moved to Canada when she was six years old.

“I am a Canadian and I feel at home in Canada, but my soul, my heart, my everything stayed behind in Lebanon. Most of my family, for example, lives there. If my grandparents would not spend half of their time here, and half the time in Lebanon, I would miss them terribly. My heart is Lebanese, and I hope to spend some more time there one day.

“My father had a beautiful voice, but it was my grandfather George who was the famous singer. Well, famous, when he walked down the street people yelled Kyrie Eleison at him. I sang in the chorus as well, it helped me a lot when we first settled in Ottawa. Everything was new there, and I missed Beirut terribly, but singing comforted me.”

“I never thought about making singing my profession, I wanted to be a doctor. Or a nurse. I even worked in a children’s hospital for a while. My parents did not think that was a very good idea, though. “You have such a perfect and beautiful voice, you really need to do something with it” they said. They not only stimulated me, but also helped me to find my path in the manner that suited me. Unconditional love, indeed.”

“I function best under stress, I need to be challenged. I am sort of a workaholic: even on vacation I always take my score with me.”

El-Khoury’s current repertoire includes many classical and less famous roles by composers like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Language does not seem to play a role for her.

“I have been very lucky: languages, to me, come quite easily. Learning a language almost goes by itself, it is all very natural for me. Maybe because I was raised bilingual (Arabic and French), with English added later.

I have an affinity with languages, and I love to sing in Czech or in Russian. “



Rusalka in Amsterdam © Lieneke Effern

“Rusalka is in love, like someone who is in love for the first time. She dreams and believes her dreams are the truth. She is invisible to the prince, nothing more than a wave. She can only be united with him in the foam on the waves, but she wants to be seen too!”

“I am not sure whether the prince loves her…. I think he is fascinated by her. She is a great unknown, a beauty, a mystery. But she does not speak, so he does not know what to think anymore. You may think that is horrible, but you can hardly blame him. She is weird, which scares him a little.”

“Rusalka becomes truly human the moment she forgives. By forgiving she transforms into a human being. I think the opera enables us to study human emotions.”

Finale third act Rusalka from Amsterdam:


La Boheme


Musetta (La Boheme) in Amsterdam ©Lieneke Effern

“There is not a lot of difference between Musetta and Mimi, I think. I have sung both parts, and I love them equally. Musetta may appear more superficial, but she is not. She is just better at hiding her emotions and feelings. To the world she is happy and strong, and a big flirt as well, but inside she is a little bird. She genuinely loves Marcello, and is afraid of being hurt. It all shows in the final scene.”

With Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for La Boheme in Ottawa, El-Khoury sings Mimi

“The most emotional moment in the opera, to me, comes in  the second act, when Mimi says: “”Io támo tanto.”  My voice always breaks there for a moment.”

“I need to feel something. I need to have a connection with a role, and understand the character. I have to be challenged emotionally. When I do not feel anything, it  becomes too mechanical and detached. I also think you need to keep your emotions in check, though, however hard that may be. Otherwise your throat blocks, and you cannot sing.”

Trailer of the Amsterdam production, El-Khoury sings Musetta:

Suor Angelica

When I am banned to the moon and can only take one opera with me that would be Suor Angelica! For the drama, but also for the music. The music comforts me, and gives me a warm and good feeling. And then there is that beautiful ending,  the wonder that everything ends well!”

“This role also brought me where I am now. I was hired to sing Loretta in Gianni Schicchi during the Castleton Festival in 2010, but I was also the understudy for the singer who sang Angelica. She fell ill during opening night, and very gladly I took over. Under the circumstances they reversed the order: first Schicchi and then Angelica. Maestro Lorin Maazel was most helpful.”

“Later Maazel took me to Munich and even to China! I will miss him terribly: he was my mentor, teacher, supporter and friend.”

Final scene from Angelica, Castleton:

La Traviata

“I have learned a lot from Renata Scotto, mainly about body language: the things you do when you not sing. We have worked together in Palm Beach on a Traviata she directed in which I sang the lead. “

“I sang my very first Violetta in 2012 in Wales, then Amsterdam followed. I thought the Amsterdam production was very beautiful.  I had watched the DVD many times, and understood the clock straight away, but the business with the couch had to be explained to me. I thought it was a tremendous experience.”

La Traviata from Palm Beach directed by Renata Scotto:

What is your dream role?

“Thaïs! Preferably with the gorgeous costumes they had in Los Angeles. I also love Butterfly. The part lies slightly higher than other Puccini roles, but I think it suits me. I also want to sing all three Tudor queens.”

Joyce Maria S

As Maria Stuarda in Seattle

“I am not sure it will ever happen, but I would love to sing Salome” she adds with hesitation. “Actually, I would love to be a conductor, I love being in charge!”

English translation: Remko Jas

Interview in Dutch: JOYCE EL-KHOURY



Chen Reis

© Paul Marc Mitchell

In march 2015 Chen Reiss appeared on the stage of the National Opera in Amsterdam. She kindly took some time off from her heavy rehearsal schedule to answer my questions.

The evening we meet in the canteen of the National Opera, Chen Reiss is tired, very tired. It was a long day of rehearsals, from 10:30 until 18:00!!! With a break, but nonetheless…

She had arrived in Amsterdam six weeks earlier to study Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Simon McBurney’s staging requires great physical efforts of the entire cast.

Not easy, especially not if you happen to be a mother as well, travelling with a daughter who is almost two years old. It is impossible to keep up with the daily news this way, which is a blessing, in a way, because most of that news does not exactly cheer Reiss up.



© Paul Marc Mitchell

“I am extremely pessimistic and scared. As a Jewish and an Israeli woman I feel less and less at home in Europe. I am deeply worried, and fear everything will go awry. Not a very nice perspective, certainly not for a parent. Fortunately enough I am too busy to listen to the news. I have breakfast at eight, with my daughter, after which rehearsals start. In the evening, when I get home, it is simply too late. I am tired, and often I need to study…”

“I love Mozart with all of my heart: his sacred music perhaps even more than his operas. Those works I love singing above everything else, the music is so beautiful! Full of passion, but stylish and elegant at the same time. Which Mozart roles I love the most? Ilia (Idomeneo), I think, but in fact I love them all equally!”

Chen Reiss reveales her Top 5 Mozart soprano arias:

“Pamina passive? I don’t believe so, on the contrary! She is extremely brave and full of initiative. So much is happening to her. First she is kidnapped, then almost raped. Then her mother tells her to kill her own father. When she refuses she is scorned and cursed. She then escapes rape for a second time…  Just when you think not much else could happen to her the man she loves no longer wants to speak to her! She goes to hell and back and gets so desperate she can only think of suicide. The decision to undergo the trials and follow the man she loves to the end was made entirely by herself.  She is a hard act to follow!”

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Bogaard 

Is it eternal love, I ask?
My question makes her laugh out loud. In opera, which love is not eternal, after all?

Reiss finds the Amsterdam production by Simon McBurney truly charming. “It all looks very exciting and beautiful, and in addition I work with fantastic colleagues. And this is the third time I get to fly!

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Boogaard


In Vienna I was a very high flying Waldvogel in Siegfried, which not only gave me high anxiety quite a bit but made it hard for me to follow the conductor as well ….  In my last Idomeneo production I was lifted into the air for a moment, which was rather fun.

Trailer of the Viennese Idomeneo:

“Do I ever refuse a role? Yes, surely, but only when it does not suit my voice. It is harder to decide which productions you should avoid. Often you do not know the concept until a week before rehearsals start. Then it is too late to refuse. Refusing anyhow is difficult, because you no longer will be booked, especially if you are a young singer.

This also happens to great stars, by the way. Anna Netrebko recently left a production because she could not agree with the director. Apparently it is easier to replace a world famous singer than a director. The director is felt to be the most important figure, and everything revolves around him or her.”

“I was once made to wear a very heavy hat, which physically I could not do. Not even a letter from my doctor helped: I was fired, and the concept remained. Will this ever change? Who knows. Perhaps if people would stop buying tickets?”



JOSEPH CALLEJA. January 2013 interview in English




© Simon Fowler /Decca

Joseph, finalmente mio!

An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.


Calleja Malta Simon Flowler

© Simon Fowler/Decca

Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.

“January is an outstanding month for tenors,”  he laughed.  “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”

To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.

Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time;  his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.

Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:

In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.

He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),

He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!”  He has always remembered the phrase since.

Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival)  accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:

Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?

“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”

Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?

“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”

I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.

“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”

Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?

Calleja ballo

As Gustavo in Ballo in Maschera at ROH © Catherine Ashmore

“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”

“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”

Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.

“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”

What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?

“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”


In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?

“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”

“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”

“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”

I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?

“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”

Calleja op Malta

© Simon Fowler/Decca

Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”

What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”

Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”

Calleja sings

© Michele Agius

Why do you sing, actually?

“Why do I sing?”  He ponders for a moment, apparently the question is harder than it seems. “I sing because I can express all great emotions through it: love, sadness, anger…. everything!”

English translation: Remko Jas

Het interview in het Nederlands:

LE PROPHÈTE from Essen: English translation.

le Prophete Anna Osborn

Le Prophète in Essen. Drawing by Anna Osborn

As Heinrich Heine supposedly once said: “When the end of the world comes make your way to the Netherlands. Everything happens fifty years later there.” Probably nothing more than a (witty) bon mot, but “se non è vero, è ben trovato”……

Fact is we do tend to remain on the sidelines waiting to see what happens in foreign opera houses. These houses have programmed many forgotten or rarely performed operas like Król Roger long before we did. Now Giacomo Meyerbeer finally has been (re)discovered abroad, we can cherish the hope the Master of Grand Opéra will soon frequent our opera houses as well. France, Great Britain, Belgium and Germany have preceded us. In  Germany one can even speak of a genuine ‘Meyerbeer revival.’

Hopefully the wait will not be as long as in Paris, where fans of the composer had to wait for twelve years for their next ‘Meyerbeer’ after Les Huguenots. If it does take that long, trips abroad will be the only option, something Meyerbeer enthousiasts have been doing for years.

Personally, I jumped at the first opportunity, and travelled to the Aalto-Theater in Essen, where in April and May 2017 an unforgettable production of Le Prophète took place.



After Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots, Le Prophète was the third Meyerbeer setting of a libretto by Eugène Scribe. Scribe based his story of (religious) fanaticism, sectarianism and abuse of power loosely on the life story of the Dutch Anabaptist John of Leiden, adding the necessary romantic entanglements and  amorous adventures.

Le Prophete Jan_van_Leiden_by_Aldegrever

Le Prophete Jan_van_Leiden_by_Aldegrever

Scribe got his inspiration from two novels by Carl Franz van der Velde, ‘Die Wiedertäufer’ and ‘Die Lichtensteiner’. From the latter stems the character of Fidés, Jean’s mother.  This role, created by the famous mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot,  made the mother-son relationship one of the most important themes of the opera.

In the opera Fidés is depicted as a strong woman, who counterbalances Jean’s megalomania very well. She was brought to life superbly by Marianne Cornetti.


Jean (John Osborn) and Fidés (Marianne Cornetti © Matthias Jung

The American mezzo has a big, booming voice, able to move from low to high notes and back down again without problems. With her immense involvement she conveys her deepest feelings to the audience. I don’t know how Pauline Viardot sounded, but I have little doubt Cornetti approaches that ideal as close as possible.


‘Ô prêtres de Baal’ . John Osborn & Marianne Cornetti © Matthias Jung

Cornetti moved me to tears in “Ah, mon fils, sois béni!”, the scene in the second act where she finds out her son spares her life by handing over his beloved to Oberthal.  Her “Ô prêtres de Baal” did not leave me unmoved either.

We know John Osborne mainly from his belcanto roles, but his voice has developed a lot in the direction of French heroic roles. Who does not remember his formidable Benvenuto Cellini in Amsterdam?


Til Faveyts ( Zacharie), John Osborn (Jean) & Pierre Doyen (Mathisen) © Matthias Jung

Meyerbeer is not new to Osborn. In 2011 he sang an outstanding Raoul (Les Huguenots) in Brussels. I thought he sang incredibly well then, but it was nothing compared to this Jean.


John Osborn © Matthias Jung

I have heard singers like Gedda and Domingo sing Jean, both fantastic in different ways, but Osborn outdid both of them. He combined his wonderful and pure height with the intensity of Domingo, and sang with the musicality and the intelligence his two predecessors were so famous for. To give the final performance a little extra oomph, Osborn treated his audience to a couple of added high notes, which were received with much gratitude.


Lynette Tapia (Berthe) © Matthias Jung

This was the first time I heard Lynette Tapia live, and I must admit she impressed me a lot. Her voice is not exactly big, which might cause problems in larger opera houses, but in Essen she could give the role of Berthe everything it needs.


‘Voici le souterraine’. Lynette Tapi, Marianne Cornetti & John Osborn


The way Tapia coloured her voice in order to project all her different moods was just as beautiful as her coloratura. She was so courageous in “Voici le souterraine” that it was hard to believe this was the same woman who at the start of the opera was all joy because she was going to marry her beloved. Or how firm she sounded when she realised her beloved Jean and the hated prophet were one and the same person!


Tijl Faveyts, Karel Ludvik, Albrecht Kludszuweit © Matthias Jung

Karel Ludvik was an outstanding Count Oberthal. The Canadian bass-baritone, who lives in the Netherlands possesses a beautiful, even voice that is begging for more belcanto roles.


Tijl Faveyts, Albrecht Kludszuweit & Pierre Doyen © Matthias Jung

The three Anabaptists were excellently cast with Albrecht Kludszuweit, Pierre Doyen and Tijl Faveyts. I am amazed a bass with the exceptional qualities of Faveyts does not sing in all the big opera houses.


Til Faveyts (Zacharie) © Mathias Jung

Giuliano Carella conducted with love, and gave the singers the room to sing out.


John Osborn © Matthias Jung

The staging by Vincent Boussard did not bother me. No psychologizing, no multiple layers or difficult to understand symbols. With this topic, moving the opera to a caliphate would have been an easy way out, saving Boussard a lot of trouble, but luckily he stayed faithful to the libretto. The ballet was a drag, but at least it was well integrated into the total. The lighting designed by Guido Levi was simply breathtaking, with images that looked like paintings. The videos in the background formed a (at times very moving) background that did not distract from the music.


John Osborn © Matthias Jung

The bad news: if you were not there you have missed an unforgettable performance.

The good news: the German firm Oehms has recorded the performance live for a future release on cd: Bravo Oehms!

A trailer of the production can be found on the website of the Aalto Theater Essen:


Photos of the final curtain (© Lieneke Effern):

Performance reviewed: May 14th, 2017 in the Aalto-Musiktheater, Essen

English translation: Remko Jas

Original Dutch: MEYERBEER: LE PROPHÈTE. Essen 2017

Giacomo Meyerbeer
Le Prophète
John Osborn, Lynette Tapia, Marianne Cornetti, Karel Ludvik, Albrecht Kludszuweit, Pierre Doyen, Tijl Faveyts
Opernchor, Extrachor und Kinderchor des Aalto-Theaters
Essener Philharmoniker under the direction of Giuliano Carella
Staging: Vincent Boussard

JENNIFER LARMORE interview (English translation)

Jenny in Geneva

Jennifer Larmore © Audra Melton

Summer in Amsterdam seemed to have taken a vacation, but the afternoon we met in the canteen of the National Opera it was terribly stuffy. That did not seem to bother Jennifer Larmore in the least: the warmer the better!

She had come to our capital to sing Gräfin Geschwitz in Alban Berg’s Lulu, a role she has sung previously in London and Madrid, in a production by Christof Loy that I greatly admired.


Jennifer Larmore & Mojca Erdmann in Amsterdam

The opera is brutal, and her role is heavy, but she had little time to recover. In between performances she was studying the part of Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. The extremely complex part of the rather unsympathetic and radical nun was new to her, and she was totally immersing herself in it, even though there was only one performance scheduled.


“That is a bit of a shame, because I think the music is gorgeous, and the opera truly moves me”, she says. “I have absolutely no problems with learning a role for only one performance. I have done that before, when I was recording for the Opera Rara label.  I studied many unknown operas knowing I would never sing them again afterwards. But I was young and curious, and highly ambitious.”

The rehearsals were long, and the recording sessions always ended with a one-off concert performance. What pleasure they gave me! Besides, without those recordings, I probably would have never gotten the chance to get to know operas such as Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra or Pacini’s Carlo di Borgogna, let alone sing them! And the music is gorgeous!”

“Di Gioia Sorse Il Di,” aria from Carlo di Borgogna. When Opera rara brought out this  recording opera connoisseurs called it the ‘belcanto recording of the millennium.’

“Quant’e grato all’alma mia,”  from Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra.

In the meantime, Larmore has left the period of singing (unknown) belcanto roles behind her. “It was time to close that chapter. Once you are over forty, you are no longer a young girl. Simple as that! Even though your voice still sounds youthful, and you still sing very well: it no longer works, you need to be credible as well, and remain credible.”

Larmore as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Amsterdam

It has always been my biggest dream to sing Marschallin in Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. I think the music is incredibly beautiful – Sometimes I secretly think it is the most beautiful opera in the world. It’s a role I definitely would love to sing. So… who knows?
For Octavian it is simply too late.  That is the same story as with the Rosina’s and all the other belcanto heroines: I no longer have the proper age for them.

“Does this perhaps have something to do with the visualisation of opera?”   “Most certainly! The new media and the live movie-theater transmissions have given an extra dimension to the brand opera: credibility. It is no longer possible to sing Mimi when you are 65 like Mirella Freni did, even though your voice is still fresh. Looks are important too, especially with all those close-ups all the time.