An Opera Company: Going back to one’s roots in an innovative way
An Opera Company: Going back to one’s roots in an innovative way
When I interviewed the British music critic, Norman Lebrecht, in London as far back as 2002, he was criticizing the Royal Opera House Covent Garden for having abandoned the idea of an opera company in favour of flying in international stars for specific performances. In my own humble way, I supported him by referring to my first exposure to Western opera in Manchester during the two-week visit of the Royal Opera House in 1956, when it was still operating as a company, with first-rate singers of its own, who later attained international acclaim, like the Australian soprano, Dame Joan Sutherland.
Travelling to Stuttgart yesterday, 19 May 2019, to attend a special session organized by the Stuttgart Opera, called “Konzert Exklusiv. Eine musikalische Reise durch die Konzertsaison 2019/20” (Concert exclusive. A musical journey through the concert season 2019/20), was well worth the effort. The title makes it explicit that they would not be introducing their new annual programme of operas, but would concentrate on other forms of music, (which include chamber music, symphony concerts, song recitals and special programmes for children.)
The panel that assembled on stage consisted of the Chief Dramaturg, the General Music Director, the Concert Organizer, the Director of the Hugo Wolf Academy (engaged in the promotion of singing and poetry), the Casting Director and the Artistic Director of the Opera for the Young. The panel discussion was interspersed with short musical excerpts prefiguring what is to be presented during the new season of 2019/20 in the way of symphony concerts, chamber concerts, song recitals and children’s programmes. The performers were drawn from the company, both musicians and singers, with the General Music Director acting as accompanist and solo pianist, and who, to conclude the programme, stunned the public with an excerpt from the original piano version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. (I later found out that this young GDM (Generalmusikdirektor), aged 39, won several prizes for the piano and also played the cello, which rather confirms my dogmatic belief that most of the great conductors are originally instrumentalists, who are privileged to have played for good, great [and bad] conductors from their respective desks in the orchestra or in the orchestra pit.)
The purpose of this session was more than just introducing the programme for the coming season. It also took the opportunity to make a kind of policy statement in a casual, unassuming way. One short remark from the Music Director drew a big applause: “This is the house in which singers can grow.” Looking onto the stage at the panel sitting around a small table and sipping their mineral water (yes, mineral water, and not beer!), I realized that the administrators of this Opera House must be in their thirties and forties. No wonder they put a special emphasis on the process of “growing” musically and professionally. The speakers maintained that they are an ensemble, a company working closely together and their prime commitment is to this “house”. The 35 operatic singers have to work hard to build up their repertoire, each singer having to perform 7 roles during each season. This is their responsibility they have to fulfill, and along the way, if they discover their special preferences, well and good. Several of the singers have attained international status, being invited to perform at other great opera houses around the globe. They are free to do so, while maintaining the basic commitment of singing those 7 roles in Stuttgart. So serious work keeps them together, and a broad base is regarded as a breeding ground for specializations. I congratulated myself for having made the train journey from Marbach to Stuttgart on this sunny Sunday. I now know why the Stuttgart Opera has several times already received the award of “the Opera House of the Year”. And I now understand what Norman Lebrecht was talking about.
As for the orchestra, what I heard last week in the performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide was an orchestral playing of the finest order. How did they achieve that? Was it because of the guest conductor from Italy, Stefano Montanari, who specializes in Baroque and 18th century music? That certainly would be part of the answer. But the answer I got from the panel discussion was that the orchestral musicians are always encouraged to play chamber music, grouping themselves in various forms. On this occasion, they performed the second movement of the String Quartet No. 3 by the Polish Composer, Szymon Laks (1901-1983), rearranged for a chamber ensemble consisting of a clarinet, a violin , a viola, a double bass, and last but not least, an accordion. What an ingenious combination, and it worked very well! The Music Director was quite convinced that playing chamber music induces musicians to listen to each other and to strive for a cohesive ensemble, which naturally benefits orchestral playing. Well, this is what Lord Yehudi Menuhin was propagating all his life, in the belief that training in chamber music would prepare musicians for every type of musical career, and the International Menuhin Music Academy (IMMA) in Switzerland was created in such a way as to constitute a chamber orchestra that gives public concerts regularly and goes on tour around the world. The Stuttgart Opera House has proved that Lord Yehudi Menuhin was right.
Finally, the programming of the concerts was discussed. We learned that the musicians and the singers themselves are asked to propose the compositions they would like to perform; so the democratic spirit is there to make everyone feel that the “house” is his or hers. (I am sorry that I have had to force myself to utter the word “democratic”, because being a Thai in the 21st century, that has already become a dirty word.) As for the orchestral concerts, the Music Director was really adept in explaining why this or that composition had been chosen. It looks like a very exciting, well thought-out annual programme, including the known, the less known and the unknown.
Let us not forget, those one and a half hours of presentation had to do with their non-operatic activities. We would be mistaken if we were to interpret these as their sidelines. Traditional German opera houses did engage in such multifaceted musical offerings, and this “great tradition” has survived into the 21st century. We must not forget that the world renowned “Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra” draws its musicians from the larger pool of the orchestra of the “Vienne State Opera”. (They have to have this larger pool because they operate seven days a week!) On the one hand, the Stuttgart Opera falls back on the venerated age-old tradition, but on the other hand, these young pioneers know how to innovate all the time, as I have already tried to point out.
They can do it, because they know how to put their forces together. They are in company with each other. They are a company, in the noblest sense of the word.