Ritratto, premiere of opera on Luisa Casati

This 3 May 2020 Dutch video is about Ritratto, the premiere of an opera on Luisa Casati.

A March 2020 video from the Netherlands used to say about itself:

World premiere Ritratto (Full) – Dutch National Opera

Due to the measures against the spread of the Coronavirus, Ritratto never got its world premiere. Until now. You can enjoy this extravagant and beautiful opera from the comfort of your home. We hope you enjoy it. In case you want to support our house and the artists through these uncertain times you can make a donation via this ‘Tikkie’-link.

If you have bought a ticket for one of the cancelled performances, we will contact you with more information on this as soon as possible.

The libretto has been published and is availably by mailing info@franksiera.nl

Can’t get enough of this production? Journalist Stef Visjager followed the creation process of this opera and the singers for a year and a half and made a podcast-series about it. You can find the series and more information about this production here.

Musical Director: Geoffrey Paterson
Stage Director: Marcel Sijm
Libretto: Frank Siera
Set Designer: Marc Warning
Costume Designer: Jan Taminiau
Lighting Designer: Alex Brok
Dramaturgy: Klaus Bertisch
Choreography: Zino Ainsly Schat

Luisa C.S. di Soncino: Verity Wingate – De Nationale Opera Studio
Romaine Brooks: Polly Leech – De Nationale Opera Studio
Gabriele D’Annunzio: Paride Cataldo – De Nationale Opera Studio
Garbi: Martin Mkhize – De Nationale Opera Studio
Sergei Diaghilev: Cameron Shahbazi – De Nationale Opera Studio
Man Ray: Lucas van Lierop – De Nationale Opera Studio
Jacob Epstein: Frederik Bergman – De Nationale Opera Studio
Kees van Dongen: Dominic Kraemer
Filippo Marinetti: Sam Carl – De Nationale Opera Studio

Soprano: Silvia Brizuela Meza, Stephanie Desjardins, Irene Hoogveld
Alto: Cameron Shahbazi, Joël Vuik, Maria Warenberg
Tenor: Lucas van Lierop, Zachery Vandermeulen, Milan de Korte
Bass: Frederik Bergman, Dominic Kraemer, Sam Carl

Amsterdam Sinfonietta

Ritratto – the Italian word for ‘portrait’ is the title of a new opera by Willem Jeths, first Nederlandse Componist des Vaderlands (2014-2016), who was fascinated by a painting depicting Luisa Casati.

The young orphaned and married, excessively wealthy Italian Marquesa Casati strove to be seen throughout her life. She was famous for the exuberant parties she organized. She allowed herself to be portrayed or photographed by numerous artists. With her black-rimmed eyes, her flaming red hair and eccentric behaviour she tried to gain a place in the art world.

Against the background of the war, librettist Frank Siera questions the importance of art. At a feast of Casati, Siera brings together all sorts of artists from the time of Casati. At the time, it was the Futurists who paved the way for fascism with their art. Casati does not engage with secular problems and focuses on her passion. In opera she goes even further than in real life; by not seeing, she tries to be seen herself.

This 20 March 2020 video from the Netherlands says about itself:

Verity Wingate announces online world premiere Ritratto

Soprano Verity Wingate invites you to the start of our online program: Ritratto!🎉 Tomorrow at 2pm (CET) we will stream the entire opera Ritratto, which was supposed to have its world premiere on the 13th of March, on our Youtube-channel Nationale Opera & Ballet. This way you can still enjoy all the labour, love and attention that has been put into this production by cast and crew. Will you tune in?

Animals perform opera classical music, video

This 11 October 2019 music video says about itself:

Opera performed by animals | Maestro – CG short film by Illogic collective

Deep into a forest, a gathering of wild animals starts a nocturnal opera, conducted by a squirrel.

Music: “Squilla Il Bronzo Del Dio – Guerra, guerra” [from the opera Norma]
Composed by Vincenzo Bellini
Performed by The Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, Dame Joan Sutherland, Samuel Ramey
Conducted by Richard Bonynge
Additional Voices: Marie-Ève Racine, Marc Antoine D’Aragon

Anti-nazi Till Eulenspiegel opera on stage

This 2018 classical music video says about itself:

Jan van Gilse – Thijl (1940)

Jan Pieter Hendrik van Gilse (Rotterdam, 1881 – Oegstgeest, 1944)

Thijl, dramatic legend in a prologue, three acts and an epilogue on a libretto by Hendrik Lindt (1940)

This summer (2018), a new performance of Thijl is staged in Soest, the Netherlands. For more information, see www.thijl2018.nl.


Overture (0:00)
Act I (1:27)
Act II (1:02:43)
Act III (2:00:45)
Epilogue (2:45:49)

Recording of the World Premiere on June 5, 1980 at the Circustheater, Scheveningen (as part of the Holland Festival)

After that first time, the opera would not be on stage again. Until this year. It is said to be the biggest Dutch opera ever written.


John Bröcheler – Thijl
Guus Hoekman – Lamme Goedzak
Thea van der Putten – Nele
Peter van der Bilt – De Uil [the owl, symbol of jester/freedom fighter Thijl]/ Balladezanger
Amsterdams Philharmonisch Orkest Nederlands Operakoor
Conductor: Anton Kersjes


I have included images relating to Van Gilse’s life, and the tropes that underlie this opera (aside from the story of Thijl Uilenspiegel, obviously). The first act contains photographs from the places where Van Gilse lived and worked: Berlin, Utrecht, and Leiden (Oegstgeest). The second act shows scenes from the conquest of Den Briel by the Watergeuzen, a band of marine marauders in the service of the Dutch uprising against the Spanish in the 16th Century, a motive often exploited in the name of Dutch nationalism. The third act and epilogue, finally, illustrates the German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, a strong undercurrent in Van Gilse’s final works (Thijl and the “Rotterdam” cantata).

The hero of this opera is Till Eulenspiegel, a ‘fool‘/jester known from 16th century German stories. Under the 16th century Dutch name Thyl Ulenspiegel (modern Dutch: Tijl Uilenspiegel), 19th century Belgian author Charles De Coster made him famous as a freedom fighter against 16th century Spanish absolute monarchical rule in the Low Countries, born in Damme town.

20th century Belgian author Hugo Claus wrote a theatre play based on De Coster’s Ulenspiegel book. Van Gilse’s opera is based on De Coster’s book as well.

Translated from the site about the 2018 performance of Thijl:

Thijl takes place at the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War. Thijl emerges as an enthusiastic but naive idealist. In an exuberant mood, Thijl sings on the Damme market a satirical song in which he ridicules the Spanish ruler Philip II and the pope. A collaborator betrays him, hoping to claim Thijl’s legacy share as a reward. Thijl escapes, but his father is caught instead.

The execution of his father drives Thijl towards resistance ….

The musical creator of Thijl was an idealist in heart and soul. Just like Thijl, he opposed injustice and unfreedom wherever he could. Jan van Gilse (1881-1944) started his musical career in Germany, but in the Netherlands he became conductor of the Utrechts Stedelijk Orkest and director of the Utrecht conservatory. …

Thijl’s theme can not be seen separately from Jan van Gilse’s personal struggle for free speech and against the intolerant society that the Nazis aimed at. Van Gilse left Germany in 1933, following the election victory of Hitler. When the war broke out in the Netherlands and the Germans took over the government, Van Gilse took the lead in resistance. …

Van Gilse, who had not appeared in public since the 1941 general ban on Jews visiting public places, had to go into hiding. From his hiding addresses he remained one of the leaders of the artists’ resistance, and together with his son Janric set up the resistance magazine De Vrije Kunstenaar, which appeared in a monthly edition of 3,000 copies. Both sons of Van Gilse were executed for their resistance, and Van Gilse did not survive the war either. He died in 1944. …

The opera Thijl was Van Gilse’s last work. He completed it in 1941, and dedicated it to “To the fighters for justice and freedom.” He took the handwritten score with him to all his hiding addresses. Shortly before his death, his wife Ada van Gilse added at his request: “.. and to my boys who lost their lives for this justice”.

This 2017 music video shows a performance in Utrecht city of the song from Thijl ‘Slaet op den Trommele’.

Review of Thijl: here.

New York City exhibit examines the creation of Verdi’s last two operas: here.

Dutch opera director not to USA because of Trump

This video says about itself:

21 August 2015

Take a behind the scenes look at the Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch Touring Opera) production of Orphée et Eurydice.

In just one day, the Source Four® LED Series 2 Lustr® luminaries with asymmetric Source Four LED CYC adapters were rigged and focused, lit the show, and were derigged.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Director Nicolas Mansfield of the Dutch Touring Opera company from Enschede will not travel to the United States for now. He disagrees with the Trump policies and therefore will stay as a matter of principle out of the country.

“As long as Muslims are not welcome there, I do not feel welcome,” Mansfield told RTV Oost broadcasting organisation. The artistic director had plans to visit an operatic convention in Dallas in May, but has canceled the trip. …

“I will not bring one euro of Dutch tax money to the US as long as that man will be in power,” Mansfield says.

English Glastonbury classical music festival, early 20th century

This video is about British composer Rutland Boughton. It says about itself:

Rutland Boughton, Symphony No 1, Oliver Cromwell (1905)

1. A Character Study
2. Cromwell’s letter to his wife
3. March of the Puritans
4. Death Scene

BBC Concert Orchestra
Vernon Handley, conductor

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Glasto, but not as you know it

Friday 14th October 2016

The first series of Glastonbury festivals came to a hasty end 90 years ago. PETER FROST remembers those utopian socialist musical events and believes it is time for their revival

Long before the current series of Glastonbury Festivals were established in 1970 a British communist opera composer, Rutland Boughton, ran a successful series of utopian socialist music events in the Somerset town.

These popular and well-supported opera and cultural festivals came to an unfortunate end exactly 90 years ago. Today they are almost totally forgotten.

The festivals that ran each summer between 1914 and 1926 were part of Boughton’s much grander cultural plans that included the founding of a national theatre, summer schools and music festivals.

Glastonbury was eventually chosen as the location because of its strong connections with the legend of King Arthur and its many historic and even prehistoric sites and mythology.

Among those who supported the festival were Edward Elgar and George Bernard Shaw. Financial support came from the famous shoemaking Clark family based in the nearby town of Street.

By the time the festivals ended in 1926, 350 fully staged works had been performed to packed houses, as well as comprehensive programmes of chamber music, lectures and recitals.

The festivals ended ignominiously when Boughton’s backers withdrew funds. They did not approve of the composer’s special reworking of his enormously popular nativity opera Bethlehem. His 1926 London production brought the original opera into sympathy with the struggle of the miners and the General Strike.

This version had Jesus being born in a miner’s cottage, Herod became a bloated capitalist complete with top hat, his Egyptian soldiers became truncheon-wielding British policemen.

The production caused a huge row and in many ways finished Boughton’s previously enormously successful popular career.

Today, Boughton — who died in 1960 — is far too little known and his works rarely performed but in the early 20th century he was enormously popular as a composer of opera and choral music.

He composed three symphonies, several concertos, songs, chamber music and operas. His best known work was the opera The Immortal Hour.

The 1915 composition Bethlehem was based on the Coventry Nativity Play and notable for its choral arrangements of traditional Christmas carols. It became very popular with choral societies worldwide.

To give you some idea of Boughton’s popularity, his 1922 Glastonbury Festival Players’ production of The Immortal Hour achieved the record breaking run of over 600 performances in London — it played to huge audiences.

In addition to The Immortal Hour and Bethlehem, his other operas The Queen of Cornwall (1924) based on Thomas Hardy’s play and Alkestis (1922) based on the Greek play by Euripides were also very well received.

Sadly, none of his latter works have had major public performances for half a century and certainly it is time we looked at bringing his and other communist, socialist and progressive British composers of opera, choral and classical music to a new, larger audience.

Here is my suggestion for a few other composers who should also be reintroduced to an audience that really doesn’t know what and who has been hidden from it.

Alan Bush was a British communist composer and pianist and his politics often provided central themes in his music. He composed four full-length operas, three children’s operas and many other works.

From 1925 to 1978 he taught at the Royal Academy of Music. His work in Berlin put him in contact with well-known socialist artists like Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.

Bush was a Marxist and his music, including his operas Wat Tyler and Men of Blackmoor, reflected this. He composed the music for and conducted the choir at the massive 1934 TUC organised London Pageant of Labour at London’s Crystal Palace. A fellow conductor at the pageant was a young Michael Tippett.

In 1941 when he signed the communist People’s Convention all Bush’s work was banned by the BBC. When he heard of the ban fellow socialist composer Ralph Vaughan Williams refused to let the BBC broadcast one of his new works in protest.

Today many of Bush’s works deserve wider performance including his four Symphonies and his Variations on an English Sea-song.

In 1936 he co-founded of the Workers’ Music Association and became its president from 1938 until his death in 1995.

One of Bush’s music students was Dolly Collins, sister of folk singer Shirley. The sisters came from a communist family in Hastings. Dolly was an arranger and composer producing and performing work for early unusual instruments such as the portative organ.

Collins’s 1968 Anthems of Eden Suite was commissioned by the BBC and written for a six-piece early music concert. By the late 1970s she had stopped touring and giving live concerts but continued to compose.

Just before her death in 1995 she completed a cycle of WWI poems and a new mass written with the poet Maureen Duffy.

Today much of her work lies hidden in the BBC archives.

Ethel Smyth was another important composer whose radical, Suffragette actions have been used to cast an enormous shadow to hide her wonderful and important music.

She wrote six operas and an array of chamber, orchestral and vocal works. She still remains the only women composer to have had an opera performed at the New York Met.

She threw stones through the window of the Colonial Secretary and stormed 10 Downing Street itself to hammer out her Suffragette anthem The March of Women on prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s piano while the Cabinet was still in session.

These militant activities saw her with two hundred of her sister Suffragettes sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison.

Her most famous opera, The Wreckers, has been compared with Britten’s Peter Grimes but, like most of her other work, it is rarely performed. The last recording was made over 20 years ago.

There are many more candidates for such a revival of socialist and progressive music. Williams has already been mentioned, Gustav Holst was a lifelong socialist, Benjamin Britten, Tippett and many others embraced communist or socialist ideas at various times of their musical careers.

Is it not time that one of our major concert venues or national festivals, Aldeburgh perhaps, or even the Proms unlocked this treasure chest of banned and censored left-wing and socialist- inspired music and opera and gave it back to the people for whom it was first written.

New opera on World War I butchery

This video series from Wales is about the new opera In Parenthesis.

By David Nicholson in Britain:

Superb commemoration of Somme slaughter

Thursday 19th May 2016

In Parenthesis
Millennium Centre, Cardiff

NEW operas are rare events and even rarer are ones that are as good as In Parenthesis.

Eagerly anticipated, it’s being staged both to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Welsh National Opera and mark the centenary of the slaughter at the Battle of the Somme.

Iain Bell’s moving and visceral new opera about the great war, based on Welsh poet David Jones’s epic poem, is an ambitious project, with WNO director David Pountney, Emma Jenkins and David Antrobus’s libretto combining to brilliant effect with Bell’s music.

Through the eyes of tenor Andrew Bidlack’s Private John Ball, we watch a band of Welsh soldiers embark for France, journey to the horror of the trenches and perish in the final bloody battle at Mametz Wood.

Under the assured direction of David Pountney, aided by set designer Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a brilliantly staged production that captures the terror and claustrophobic atmosphere of a troop ship and the trenches of northern France.

But, as ever with the WNO, it is the sublime choral singing that pulls all the strands together. They are a perfect match for the drama of the reckless death of young men, in which Mark Le Brocq as a convincingly gruff sergeant and George Humphreys as a sensitive and caring young lieutenant take the acting honours.

The cafe scene before the men move off to the Somme is a thrilling highlight as the brilliant Welsh song Sosban Fach is sung with all the power at the disposal of the WNO.

The mythic return to the earth of the slaughtered band of Royal Welsh Fusiliers is touchingly realised by the nymphs who haunt Mametz Wood.

It’s a superb rendition by the women’s chorus who, dressed in an abundance of foliage and twigs, return the torn and bloodied bodies of Ball’s fallen comrades to the earth. Their heavenly singing moved many of the opening night audience to tears.

In Parenthesis ticks every box when it comes to music, acting and production values, though whether Bell’s opera will still be performed in years to come is the real acid test.

But this is a production to go and see now. As a sensitive, moving and visceral portrayal of the horror of war, it is a superb evening of pure theatre.

At the Millennium Centre until June 3, then tours until July 1, box office: wno.org.uk.

English opera chorus on strike

This 2012 music video is called Philip Glass: Akhnaten (Complete) Act I (1/3).

By Margot Miller in Britain:

English National Opera chorus to strike

15 March 2016

The world renowned choir at the English National Opera (ENO) is to take industrial action, including a strike, between March 14 and 19.

On March 18, the chorus will refuse to sing in the first act of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten to protest job losses and pay cuts. Their silence for a quarter of the production will represent the 25 percent pay cut ENO management intends to impose.

The action was announced on the steps of the headquarters of ACE, the Arts Council England, where the choir delighted passersby with a rendition of “Hail, Poetry” from the Pirates of Penzance.

This music video is called The Pirates of Penzance Sing Along: Hail Poetry.

In 2015, ACE slashed its funding grant to ENO by 29 percent, from £17.2 million to £12.4 million. This was the result of government funding cuts to the Arts Council over the previous four years of 36 percent.

Since then ENO has been put into “special measures” by ACE and told to improve its “business model” and governance or face more cuts. ENO has been removed from ACE’s National Portfolio of art organizations it decides to subsidise, which threatens its continued survival.

According to ACE chief executive Darren Henley, like all opera companies ENO has “to adapt or die.”

The proposed cuts to the 44-strong chorus, which voted by 42 to take industrial action (one member being on maternity leave and the other off sick), would reduce annual pay from £32,900 to £25,000, making it impossible to live and work in London. The real reduction in pay could be even more, up to 39 percent, with the threatened removal of payment for Sunday working and overtime pay.

On top of pay cuts, four jobs are threatened, as well as the imposition of a nine-month contract.

The ENO choir has received support from the world of the theatre and the public. In a letter published in the Guardian, the attacks on ENO were condemned by, among others, composer Sir James MacMillan and American conductor Marin Alsop. ENO was described as “this beloved company that plays such a crucial role in the country’s creative life.”

A new sell-out programme of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was staged in March starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson. In April, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Sunset Boulevard will begin starring Glenn Close.

The ENO is the only one of two opera companies in a capital with a resident population of 8.6 million and 17.4 million annual visitors. Founded by theatre producer and manager Lilian Baylis, with a mission to stage opera for the masses, its origins go back to the late 19th century. It is unique in that the company always sings in English, unlike the Royal Opera House, which puts on productions in the language in which they were written.

Like all opera houses the ENO survives on government grants via ACE and box office takings. In response to the cuts, ENO has already truncated its new season, with fewer productions. Last year 50 percent of all ticket prices were reduced to encourage bigger audiences to enjoy such favourites as The Barber of Seville, The Mikado, The Magic Flute and Madam Butterfly. While the Royal Opera House has been able in the recent years of austerity to maintain its wealthier audience base, the ENO tends historically to attract the less well-off and has seen a decline in attendance.

Financial pressures on ENO have resulted in management infighting. John Berry, the artistic director of 10 years, resigned after being accused by Chairman Martin Rose of threatening the financial viability of the company with lavish productions that failed to fill the Coliseum (the ENO’s home). As a result, ENO currently does not have an artistic director. In January of last year Rose and the executive director, Henriette Gotz, both quit.

While lacking an artistic director, the ENO does have a new CEO. High-flying management consultant Cressida Pollock, previously of the US-based management consultancy firm McKinsey, was appointed as CEO last March. Lacking a background in opera, she raised eyebrows by referring to ENO as a brand and admitted she wasn’t a fan of opera.

While acknowledging that “we are a lean operation” as a result of government cuts, Pollock warned, “We have some difficult decisions to make over the coming weeks as we seek to find ways to remodel our business so that we can weather a £5 million cut from our core Arts Council grant.”

Even though ACE is at pains to say that it is ENO’s decision regarding managing its budget, there is a conflict between ACE and the ENO as to whether the opera company needs a full-time chorus and orchestra.

Actor Martin Sinclair, president of the theatre and actors’ trade union Equity, said the cuts would “damage the artistic integrity of the choir.” Assistant General Secretary Stephen Spence called the proposed attacks on the choir “cultural vandalism.”

During the Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to invest in the arts and culture, decrying the £82 million cuts imposed over the last five years by the Conservative/Liberal coalition and current Tory government. But his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has insisted, “Labour is committed to eliminating the deficit and creating an economy in which we live within our means.”

The attacks on the ENO are only one expression of the massive cuts imposed in arts and culture funding generally. As endless amounts of money are squandered to keep the parasitic banks afloat and poured into military expenditure, access to culture is increasingly becoming the preserve of the wealthy elite. The only way to realise the dreams of ENO founder Lilian Baylis of bringing art to the masses is to put an end to the profit system.

British lesbians and gays still support miners, and opera workers

This February 2014 video from Britain is called George MacKay Interview – Pride & BAFTA Awards.

By Joana Ramiro in Britain:

Miners’ strike activist heroes join Royal Opera House workers’ picket line as Pride wins Bafta

Tuesday 10th February 2014

The LGBT activists immortalised in cinema blockbuster Pride stood alongside Royal Opera House cleaners and porters demanding a living wage outside the Bafta awards yesterday as the flick won one of the main gongs.

As reported yesterday by the Star, workers at the posh venue where the Baftas were held are currently on strike over unpaid wages, sick pay and crippling conditions.

Members of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) held their original 1980s banner high on the picket in a show of solidarity, in keeping with their campaign.

The film took the award for outstanding debut for writer Stephen Beresford and producer David Livingstone.

In his acceptance speech Mr Beresford said it took 20 years to convince the industry that the story of a group of LGBT activists raising funds for striking miners could be a commercial success.

“LGSM raised money for the delighted community in south Wales for no other reason than that they saw all our struggles have common cause,” he added.

“We do incredible things when we all stand together — unite!”

Founding LGSM member Mike Jackson was on the picket line by the red carpet.

He told the Star the main hope he had for the movie was that it could be shown in places where LGBT communities were still fighting a very hard battle.

As he waited for a phone interview with the Polish press, he said: “If (Pride) can help break down prejudices and make people think about solidarity then that would be one of the best things about this movie.”

Other activists expressed their hopes that the success of Pride would also prove that there is an appetite out there for politics, comradeship and justice.

Ritzy Living Wage campaigner Rob Lugg said: “In an immediate sense, people are really responding to the issue of local grassroots campaigns and to these grassroots campaigns having real successes.”

The cinema worker giggled at the thought of the south London arthouse fight for a decent pay being one day made into film. But he added: “For us, the most important thing is the effect it has now.”

Opera about Holocaust in New York City

This video from the USA is called Houston Grand Opera’s “The Passenger“.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

The Passenger depicts the Holocaust and its aftermath in opera form

25 July 2014

Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 1968 opera The Passenger recently had its New York premiere as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival. The performances showed that this challenging work, dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath, deserves a permanent place in the operatic repertoire.

Weinberg, born in Warsaw in 1919, narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Poland, arriving in the Soviet Union before his 20th birthday. His parents and younger sister were sent to the Lodz Ghetto and later perished in a concentration camp. Weinberg, who lived the remaining 56 years of his life in the USSR, was a prolific composer of symphonies, string quartets, operas and film music. Among his film scores was that for the award-winning The Cranes Are Flying.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

(Interestingly, one of Weinberg’s cousins, following the Russian Revolution, was the secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Baku Soviet commune and was executed by counterrevolutionary forces in September 1918 along with the other 26 Baku commissars.)

In eight scenes over two acts, The Passenger tells the story of a prosperous German couple in the early 1960s, Liese and Walter, who have embarked on an ocean voyage to Brazil, where the husband, a West German diplomat, is to take up a new post.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

In the midst of what should be a time of satisfaction and happy anticipation, however, Liese observes a mysterious passenger onboard, and becomes convinced that this is in fact Marta, who as a young Polish woman was an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Liese was an Auschwitz guard, something she has tried to leave behind and suppress psychologically, and has never even spoken about to her husband.

The opera, with a libretto by Alexander Medvedev and music by Weinberg, then compellingly develops the theme of the Holocaust and its aftermath. The action takes place on two levels, both in its staging and in its time frame. The upper level is the ship itself, including Liese and Walter’s private cabin. Stairs lead to a lower level, the concentration camp barracks and the railroad tracks leading to the camp. The scenes alternate, forcefully depicting the memories that increasingly haunt Liese as the story progresses.

We are soon introduced to Marta as a young concentration camp inmate. Her fellow prisoners include Tadeusz, Marta’s beloved, whom she finds after a separation of two years. Liese is the only character that appears on both levels of the opera, with the events of nearly 20 years earlier clearly seared into her memory. In her role as a camp guard, she threatens and taunts the prisoners, and in particular tries to take advantage of Marta and Tadeusz’s relationship for her own purposes.

The work explores the issue of the aftermath of the Holocaust, for both victims and perpetrators. The Passenger is set in the early 1960s, in the midst of the postwar economic boom in Germany, and also in the shadow of the Eichmann trial in Israel, which brought the issue of the Holocaust and its architects before a new generation of Germans as well as to a global audience. A generation of young people in Germany, as elsewhere, were radicalized by the war in Vietnam in particular as the 1960s unfolded and attempted to come to terms as well with their own traumatic national history. This was the period that saw the publication of some of the best-known novels of German writers such as Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll, as well as the first films of Rainer Maria Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff and others.

The Passenger [Photo ©Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival]

The historical issues are deliberately not spelled out in The Passenger. The story is presented without even settling the issue of whether the mysterious woman is in fact Marta, or perhaps only the vivid reflection of Liese’s guilty conscience.

The opera also does not portray Liese as a kind of stand-in for Germany as a whole, a symbol of collective guilt. It does, however, show the impossibility of ignoring the past. It raises the inevitable issues of the causes of the descent into barbarism. The portrayal of both the younger and middle-aged Liese suggests the self-satisfied layer of the middle class that finds itself, under definite social and political conditions, capable of the most monstrous crimes.

The opera is based on a novel by a Polish concentration camp survivor, Zofia Posmysz. Posmysz, alive and well at the age of 90, has been involved in the belated production of the opera, and appeared at the New York premiere.

Arrested as a young girl because of an association with an anti-Nazi group, Posmysz spent three years as a prisoner. Some years later, as a journalist on assignment in Paris, she thought she saw someone who had been a guard at Auschwitz. This episode led first to a radio play, which was later turned into a novel, in which the relationship is reversed, with a conscience-stricken former guard believing she has glimpsed a former inmate.

The novel became enormously popular in Poland. This was a time of political ferment following the working class protests in Poznan in 1956. The book was turned into a film— Passenger (1963)—by the talented young Polish director Andrzej Munk (Man on the Tracks, 1956), completed by colleagues after Munk’s untimely death in an auto accident in 1961. Somewhat later, Weinberg’s close friend and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich urged him to consider a project based on the novel.

Weinberg’s music is impressive, as we have had occasion to note in the past. It reflects his lifelong association with Shostakovich, whom he first met in 1943, when he was only 23 years old and Shostakovich himself was 13 years older. Highly dissonant at times, the score remains tonal and emotionally involving. The composer is especially effective in combining and alternating several styles while still adhering to a distinctive musical language.

The influence of Shostakovich is clear, but the music is not derivative. Weinberg depicts the growing apprehension and panic of Liese, the concern of her husband for his career prospects, and above all the suffering and heroism of the prisoners. The music is at times anguished, jazz-influenced in its depiction of some of the shipboard activities, and briefly but strongly lyrical in the reunion of Marta and Tadeusz.

If there is one major weakness, it is in the vocal writing itself. In an opera, this is of course an issue that can’t be overlooked. There were times, especially in the opera’s first act, when an emphasis on orchestral writing, and an imbalance between the orchestra and performers, tended to detract from the dramatic action. The second act was more affecting, especially the exchanges between Marta, Tadeusz and Liese.

Both Marta and Tadeusz resist Liese’s attempts to enlist their cooperation, even though it will mean their deaths. A high point of this act, and the climax of the entire opera, comes when Tadeusz, a violinist, is commanded to play the camp commandant’s favorite waltz, and instead defiantly performs the famous Bach Chaconne from the Second Partita for Violin, before being led off to his death.

Weinberg’s orchestration is masterful. Strings and winds are joined by powerful writing for the brass section, and above all, a percussion section that includes almost every imaginable instrument, including timpani, triangle, tambourine, whip, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, bells and glockenspiel.

The Houston Grand Opera production was also striking. Director David Pountney was responsible for the English translation of the libretto. The opera, originally presented in Austria in 2010, was staged in Houston last winter, and it is the Houston production, including the orchestra under Patrick Summers, that was brought to New York for three performances. The opera was first presented in Moscow in concert version in 2006, nearly 40 years after it was written.

The New York performances took place in the historic Park Avenue Armory, in a building dating to 1880 and for decades the headquarters of the 7th New York Militia Regiment, which had fought in the Civil War. The huge vaulted space of the Drill Hall, at the center of this building, is a music venue unlike any other in New York. The size of the space made some amplification of the voices necessary, a rare occurrence in the opera world. In this case it was carried off in so understated and effective a fashion that some listeners would not even have been aware of it. Although the opera was sung in English, the use of supertitles was also effective, as was the unusual placement of the orchestra, to the side of the two-tiered set.

The singers were uniformly excellent, particularly soprano Melody Moore as Marta. Tadeusz was sung by Morgan Smith, Katya by Kelly Kaduce, Liese by mezzo soprano Michelle Breedt and Walter by tenor Joseph Kaiser.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg is one of the “lost composers” of the twentieth century. Strictly speaking, he is not of the generation that came of age musically between the imperialist world wars, or whose career was interrupted by the rise of fascism during those decades, including some promising composers who perished in the Holocaust. Although Weinberg was younger and had a full musical career, the environment in which he worked was shaped by the tragedies of this era.

In connection with the belated appearance of The Passenger, little has been said about why it languished in obscurity for decades. Shostakovich was enormously taken by the work, but for reasons that were not spelled out, it was not staged, although many other works of Weinberg were regularly performed in the Soviet Union.

The Stalinist regime, which still used a heavy hand in cultural matters in this period, may have decided that an opera that focused on concentration camps and dealt with Polish victims did not mesh with its own continuous efforts to build up nationalist feelings. The authorities decreed that emphasis had always to be placed on the Russian and Soviet toll in the war, which of course was massive, to the exclusion of others. It was for this reason that Shostakovich encountered such official opposition to his 13th Symphony, subtitled “Babi Yar,” dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazi extermination at this site in Kiev.

Weinberg’s life was shaped in no small part by horrific Nazi barbarism on the one hand, and the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution on the other. While he and many others found refuge in the Soviet Union, they also confronted the regime of the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy, which used anti-Semitism for its own purposes.

British composer Benjamin Britten’s centenary

This video is called Benjamin Britten – Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes“.

By Fred Mazelis in the USA:

The 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten

23 November 2013

The 100th anniversary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten was observed on November 22. Alongside the bicentennial commemorations of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi it was the third major classical musical anniversary of this year.

Like Verdi and Wagner, Britten had a particular affinity for the operatic form. While clearly not as towering a figure as these two predecessors, he was nevertheless one of the most prominent composers of the 20th century.

The development of opera reached its peak in the 19th century. By the time Britten emerged, leading 20th century opera composers such as Leos Janacek and Richard Strauss were either dead or long past their prime. Britten, who died in 1976 at the age of 63, was not only the most important British composer of opera in several centuries; he was also one of the few 20th century operatic composers whose works met with wide popular as well as critical enthusiasm. With the major exception of Shostakovich—arguably the greatest musical figure of this period—one cannot think of another composer active in the three decades after the end of the Second World War who made as significant a contribution as Britten.

A measure of the esteem in which Britten is held is the fact that more than 1,000 separate commemorative concerts and events have been scheduled around the world during the centennial year. On the weekend surrounding the centennial itself a series of concerts and events is taking place in the seaside town of Aldeburgh in East Anglia where in 1948 Britten co-founded the music and arts festival that continues to this day. Many events are planned in other parts of the UK.

Britten’s well-known War Requiem (1961) has received separate performances this week in Berlin, Sweden and Budapest. In New York a concert performance of Britten’s first great operatic success, Peter Grimes (1945), took place at Carnegie Hall. Billy Budd (1951), along with Grimes the most well-known of Britten’s operas, was staged both in Rio de Janeiro and Dusseldorf. In recent months commemorative concerts have also taken place in Spain, France, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia and elsewhere.

Britten’s operas, 13 in all, also include A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), based on Shakespeare and revived this year at the Metropolitan Opera; as well as Death in Venice (1973), his final opera, based on Thomas Mann’s novella; and several chamber operas, composed during the 1940s when wartime and immediate postwar conditions made large-scale productions difficult.

Unlike both Verdi and Wagner, Britten is also well known for work in other forms, including orchestral and chamber music. Prominent in the classical repertory are his early work A Simple Symphony, dating from 1932; the Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (1937); and the ever-popular Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1946). Also dating from Britten’s youth are his Piano Concerto, from 1938, and Violin Concerto, from 1939, both of which deserve to be heard far more frequently. These are his only works in these forms, and indeed Britten composed relatively little orchestral music in the last quarter-century of his life.

Also important among the 95 opus numbers in Britten’s catalog are his three string quartets, the last one written only shortly before his death. Between 1964 and 1971 he also composed three suites for solo cello, dedicated to the Soviet-Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

No discussion of Britten’s music would be complete without reference to his choral and vocal compositions. A list of the most well known of these works would have to include the Ceremony of Carols, from 1942, the Les Illuminations song cycle, from 1939, and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, from 1943.

Benjamin Britten was born in the town of Lowestoft, Suffolk, in East Anglia, and this region of England was to remain his home and anchor for most of his life. The future composer, the youngest of three children, grew up in a provincial middle class family. He showed unusual precocity at a very young age, being driven toward musical composition almost before he could spell.

Among Britten’s early teachers and major influences was the underappreciated English composer Frank Bridge. Britten later recalled hearing Bridge’s beautiful tone poem The Sea, conducted by the composer, and being “knocked sideways” by what he heard. At the time he was only 10 years old. About three years later the young boy became a composition pupil of Bridge’s.

Bridge was an early and important musical influence on Britten. The older composer, who bitterly opposed the First World War from a pacifist standpoint, also influenced his pupil in that respect. The theme of the sea itself always loomed large in Britten’s work—never more than in both Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.

In 1930 Britten became a scholarship student at the Royal College of Music in London. As he matured, the young composer absorbed the influences of Debussy, Mahler, Stravinsky and others. He was also exposed to more avant-garde figures, including Schoenberg, Alban Berg and the young Shostakovich. Britten was impressed by a London production of Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, the same year in which the opera and its composer were denounced in Pravda at Stalin’s behest.

During these years Britten gradually began to synthesize his own style. His musical language owed something to the music he soaked up from various sources, but it also stood apart. It was distinctive, memorable. He used dissonance but never abandoned tonality. His music powerfully evoked the natural landscape, but without the pastoral moods that characterized much of contemporary English music at that time.

Britten’s style also communicated struggle, conflict, unhappiness. It was not conventionally pretty, but neither was it simply designed to shock or to disorient the listener. Music critic Alex Ross characterizes Britten’s music as “poised perfectly between the familiar and the strange.” Leonard Bernstein called Britten “a man at odds with the world … When you hear Britten’s music, if you really hear it … you become aware of something very dark.”

At the same time, Britten’s music was not simply a personal statement. As he later explained, “I want my music to be of use to people, to please them.”

The music could not be separated from important extramusical influences in the lives of Britten and other musicians and artists during this period. He came of age in the 1930s, a decade of political and social upheaval. The young man was influenced by the growing danger of a new world war amidst the Depression, the victory of the German Nazis, and the Spanish Civil War. Britten, like others of his generation, turned to the left. He met poet W. H. Auden, a close friend for the next decade. In 1937 he met the tenor Peter Pears, who was to become his lifelong professional and personal partner.

During these years Britten, though quite naïve politically, spoke openly of his “socialistic inclinations.” Biographer Humphrey Carpenter describes a 1935 attempt by the young Britten to, in his own words, “talk communism with Mum.” During this period Britten also worked at composing incidental film music for documentary film pioneer John Grierson’s famed General Post Office Film Unit. Composing accompaniment to portray the world of work, among the films he helped produce was the remarkable documentary Night Mail (written by Auden, with narration by Grierson and sound engineering by Alberto Cavalcanti).

This video is the documentary film Night Mail.

Pears and Britten, acting on their pacifist inclinations, wound up following Auden to America in 1939, a decision that exposed the young composer, then barely 25 years old, to charges of lack of patriotism. Unlike Auden, Britten returned to Britain. He spent three years in the US before going back in 1942, where he soon obtained conscientious objector status.

Britten had become somewhat homesick while in the US, and was also disturbed by aspects of life in America. In one letter he complained about how “anything vaguely liberal is labeled as Communist and treated as such.”

This was nevertheless a time of great musical productivity on Britten’s part. His compositions included his first string quartet, in 1941. The second followed in 1945, after his return to England. Both are fascinating and moving works, with more than a passing resemblance in mood and form to the quartets of Shostakovich, who composed 15, but whose first three quartets are roughly contemporaneous with the initial two by Britten.

An interesting anecdote about Britten’s time in America concerns Albert Einstein, who in addition to being a Nobel Prize-winning scientist was also an amateur musician. During the period when Britten and Pears were living with a family on the north shore of Long Island, Einstein visited for evenings of chamber music, with the physicist on the violin and the composer on the piano.

This music video is called Britten – String Quartet No. 2 in C major for Strings, Op. 36, Mvt.1 – Escher String Quartet – CMS.

Britten’s second quartet, an understandably somber work, was written soon after a trip he made in the summer of 1945 with violinist Yehudi Menuhin to perform a series of recitals for survivors of the concentration camps.

This music video is called Mob scene from [the opera] Peter Grimes,

Just weeks before the trip with Menuhin, Peter Grimes premiered in London. The idea for the opera had originated some four years earlier, when Britten had first come across the poem of that name written in 1810 as part of a larger work entitled The Borough, by George Crabbe. Crabbe came from the town of Aldeburgh, some 30 miles from Britten’s birthplace, and it was in Aldeburgh that Britten would lay down roots in 1948 and live for the rest of his life.

The poem tells the story of a troubled English fisherman and his abusive relationships with his apprentices. In the libretto, freely adapted from the poem for the opera, Grimes is portrayed as a more contradictory figure, an outsider, unhappy and misunderstood, whose difficulties lead to tragic consequences.

The music of Peter Grimes brings together folk song, modernist influences, and more traditional forms and influences stemming from the tradition of grand opera. The opera, which was originally commissioned by the renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra Serge Koussevitsky, was an immediate success and Britten quickly became famous.

The theme of the outsider, the troubled nonconformist, is a recurring one in Britten’s work, especially in Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, which premiered about six years later. In both of these works Britten turns to important literary sources— Billy Budd is based on the famous novella of the same name by Herman Melville.

Billy Budd (with a libretto co-written by E.M. Forster) is the story of a young English sailor impressed into service in 1797, amidst the backdrop of the French Revolution. After accidentally causing the death of the abusive Master-at-arms on his ship, the young man is forced to pay with his life by Captain Edward Vere, even though the latter knows he is dooming a pure and innocent man.

Peter Grimes, with its depiction of an ignorant mob and the intimation of a witchhunt, could be said to anticipate the Red Scare of the early 1950s in the US. Billy Budd appeared at the height of the witchhunt associated with Senator Joe McCarthy. Its themes resonated at the time and continue to do so today.

Britten’s choice of themes is also bound up with his homosexuality. Much has been written on this subject, and most of it, written in the spirit of today’s identity politics, is not very edifying. Nonetheless, the homoerotic themes in both of Britten’s best-known operas, especially Billy Budd, are fairly obvious.

Of course, during this period same-sex relationships were still illegal in Britain and most of the rest of the world, although Britten’s relationship with Pears, especially considering his relatively privileged background and his growing prominence, tended to fall into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” category. Nevertheless, despite their fame, Britten’s and Pears’ names were kept on file by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and their visits to the US required a special visa application process.

This music video is called Britten – Sinfonia da Requiem (Thomas Adès conducts – BBC Proms 2013).

There is no doubt that Britten’s position, his concern over the stigmas faced by sexual minorities, was connected with a broader democratic sensibility. Humanist themes can also be seen in such works as the Sinfonia da Requiem, composed in 1939 and conceived as a statement against war; and in the War Requiem, in which the original Latin texts of the Requiem are unusually and ingeniously interspersed with poems by Wilfred Owen, the famous antiwar poet who was killed in the First World War at the age of 25.

Britten left his early and vague radicalism behind him, although he remained a man of the left in broad terms. During the postwar period, he became something of a British icon, a symbol of the country’s musical achievement, who was honored by the Queen. Tony Palmer’s 1979 film on the composer shows an obviously awkward monarch reading her lines at the dedication of the concert hall in Aldeburgh in 1967.

The partnership between Britten and Pears was a very important one on the musical plane. Britten wrote a number of well-known works for Pears himself, including the abovementioned Les Illuminations and Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Pears’ distinctive reedy timbre and high tenor voice takes some getting used to for certain listeners, but its evocative power is shown in these works, as well as with several roles written with Pears in mind—notably Peter Grimes himself, and Captain Vere in Billy Budd .

Biographers have noted the difficulties in Britten’s personal and professional relationships. There were many friendships that he broke off suddenly after slight disagreements or for reasons that were never explained. At the same time, there were many colleagues with whom he remained friendly. Among American composers, Britten had a high regard for Aaron Copland and Bernstein, and the appreciation was mutual. He met Copland in 1939, before the war, and Bernstein several years later. Although from a different background and the opposite side of the Atlantic, Britten to some extent shared a musical approach with the Americans, especially the aim of writing music for a wider audience.

The friendship between Britten and Shostakovich was especially close. They met for the first time in 1960, when the Soviet composer was in London for a performance of his Cello Concerto. Alex Ross, in his book The Rest is Noise, describes how their friendship developed over the next 15 years. They were near-contemporaries, and died within 18 months of one another. Shostakovich dedicated his 14th Symphony, a song cycle that seems to borrow both in form and sensibility from Britten, to his British colleague.

This is a big subject, but it is clear that Britten and Shostakovich shared something, both in their musical language, their approach to composing and to some extent their experiences in life. Both men had been disappointed in their political hopes for the future, Shostakovich most devastatingly, as he fought to navigate his life and career in the face of the Stalinist dictatorship. Both wrote music that said something about life that dealt, though not of course always directly, with the tragic events of their time.

This is bound up with the issue of the history of classical music throughout the 20th century, and the enormous damage done by the two world wars and the rise of fascism (See “War, fascism and the fate of music in the 20th century,” 25 September 2013).

In any case, the music of Benjamin Britten is deservedly famous and widely listened to today. His work constitutes something of a bridge between the vibrant early decades of the 20th century and the challenges faced by composers and musicians today. His legacy will undoubtedly play an important role in the development of opera and classical music in the 21st century.

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