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