Opera: Carmen at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Opening night at the beautifully restored Isaac Theatre Royal. The talk of the excited crowd dies down to murmurs as the lights dim. Light glitters from gilded panels. The open stage begins to fill with the cast, who stare heroically at the audience, then walk off to leave the lead character exposed.

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is an Opera in four acts. It’s a passionate story, centred around Gypsy Siren come Revolutionary, Carmen. Her wily seduction of the Soldier Don Jose and the love triangle created when she spurns him for the compelling Toreador, Escamillo, raises passions that run out of control.

Carmen with chorus members
Carmen with chorus members. Image credit: Marty Melville

Directed by Opera Queensland’s Artistic Director Lindy Hume, (Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto and La cenerentola), the themes of immorality and the murder of the main character broke new ground in theatre, making the Opera controversial after its release in 1875.

The cast of Carmen are incredible. Relaxed and natural in their roles, they deliver a heartfelt and convincing performance. Don Jose (Tom Randle) has a powerful voice with which to express his pain (like a knife in the heart). His duets with Michaela (Emma Pearson) are exquisite.

Micaela (Emma Pearson)’s pleas with Don Jose to save his life from ruin are delivered with such feeling that I was moved by her performance. Her voice brought the role to life with powerful strength.

Escamillo (James Clayton) has a beautiful voice. It flows naturally, like honey. I would have heard him more (he performs in Handel’s Messiah later in the year).

And Carmen (Nina Surguladze). Wow. She gave an incredible performance. Her voice filled the theatre, as did her personality. Nina has performed on the most famous stages in the world. Her Carmen was cheeky, strong heroic; her movements around the stage as graceful as her control over her voice, teasing us with soft notes, and inflaming us with her passionate mezzo soprano.

The supporting cast must not be forgotten. All great actors, their wonderful voices swelled the theatre with rousing performances of Amour and Toreador. Special mention to Kiwis Amelia Perry (Frasquita) and Kristin Darragh (Mercedes), Carmen’s companions. I loved their voices, and they brought more character to the stage.

Carmen
Clever staging at the Isaac Theatre Royal

Production Designer Dan Potra’s staging is clever and innovative. Moving panels create or take away space, ultimately leaving the lead characters, Carmen and Don Jose trapped.

The chorus and Escamillo take performances beyond the stage, singing shadowed behind the stage wall. Lights appear in a strangely jagged wall to create a mountain hillside, clever lighting (Matthew Marshall) creates swirling clouds from dry ice.

Lastly a hat’s off to the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Francesco Pasqualletti and Oliver von Dohnanyi. and It was thrilling to hear Toreador played live. Great job.

Favourite scenes? The whole cast singing ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle‘ in Act I. The dancing scene in Act II:  Carmen is completely in control; the women creating a whirlwind around the circle of sheepish, lustful men.

Gypsies
Gypsies. Image credit: Marty Melville.

And the Death Scene. Best Death Ever! The crowd gasped as Don Jose fired his gun (filled with very loud blanks), then gasped again as Carmen slid down the wall, leaving a trail of blood. Especially entertaining as we all knew it was coming.

Footnote: My library colleague Rose O’Neill asked one of the Isaac’s friendly staff about The Ghost. It was thought that he had gone after the Quakes. Then after restoration he was seen behind the stage…

Ceiling dome, Isaac Theatre Royal.

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Chatting with a Poo-Bah

A NZ Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular comic opera, The Mikado, opens this week in Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal.

Australian bass-baritone Andrew Collis has performed all over the world and appears in this production in the role of Poo-Bah. I chatted with him last week about the world of The Mikado, humour, and the family link to W. S. Gilbert that fostered his interest in opera.

How would you describe The Mikado to someone who has never been to see the show before?

The thing about The Mikado is that it is first and foremost a comic piece of musical theatre. It is a piece that has a lot of energy. It’s melodic. It’s a nineteenth century piece so it’s not modern in that sense. It’s an acoustic piece so we have no microphones, we just perform on stage.  I think the proof of the pudding is in the eating – so far audiences have laughed a lot, which is great because it means that the jokes still work and that audiences can still get something out of it 130 years after the event.

It may be a nineteenth century work but many people still go and see Shakespeare plays which are much older so jokes can have a long life span…

You get someone like Oscar Wilde who was also writing at that sort of time – The importance of being Earnest – that sort of humour still works as well, and the Mikado is not a thousand miles away from that. It’s the same sort of witty banter that Wilde was so good at that that Gilbert also did well, so it’s a similar sort of thing to that, I think.

Tell me a little bit about the character that you play.

Without going into the story too much, he is “The Lord High Everything Else”. The main part, Ko-Ko, sung by Byron Coll, has been appointed to the title “Lord High Executioner” and Poo-Bah, in his government, has become “Lord High Everything Else”… Poo-Bah lists all the jobs that he has and basically he has become the encapsulation of a kind of overly pompous, titled bureaucrat who’s also on the take…It’s actually become a term in the language for that sort of character. He’s a real Poobah, he’s got his finger in every pie and is on the make and is somewhat corrupt.

I think that’s a concept that modern audiences can relate to, definitely. Do you have a favourite part of The Mikado that you particularly enjoy?

I love the role that I do. I think the best song on the night is The Mikado song – the emperor of Japan comes in and joins the show about half way through the second act. That’s a great number and …I listen to it every night from the wings. It’s sung by a fine baritone, Wellington resident, James Clayton.

And Byron Coll, the Christchurch born Ko-Ko in the piece, he has some wonderful numbers particularly a duet that he does with Helen Medlyn, who sings Katisha, is tremendous.

Tell me a little bit about the costumes. They seem to be a break with the traditional in a lot of ways.

Andrew Collis as Poo-Bah
Andrew Collis in costume as Poo-Bah. Image credit: David Rowland.

Mine is a kind of fusion. An oriental, nineteenth century fusion complete with top hat. They’re very inventive costumes. I think they’re trying to bring in various different references and influences. The school girls are all dressed in a Harajuku style costuming. And a lot of the men are sort of half Japanese, half not which I think is trying to encapsulate something about the piece that, although it is set in Japan, it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with Japan. It’s really a piece about the mores and functionings of nineteenth century English life set in the context of Japan, which was very fashionable at the time. In the 1880s it was a very fashionable part of London life. [Note: A Japanese Village exhibition opened in Knightsbridge, London in 1885]

It’s a reference to its time, really. And the Harajuku thing is a way of breaking a connection of it being particularly nineteenth century in that obviously [Harajuku] is of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – and there’s a reference to modern technology in there too.

It’s essentially a modernised version of a traditional piece which still, I think, hopefully takes the piece seriously and doesn’t ridicule it too much and that just tries to make it a bit bouncier and more fun for a modern audience.

I hear that you are descended from the Gilbert half of Gilbert and Sullivan…

My maternal great grandfather was Gilbert’s first cousin and he and his brother and sister came out to New South Wales and Sydney in the mid 1850s, I think, and in the family (although I didn’t join the family until some time after that) it was always part of the folklore that Gilbert had been a cousin with whom they kept in some touch but they didn’t see much of him after that period of course because they were living in Australia. So it was very much a part of growing up – my family was not particularly musical or theatrical but Gilbert & Sullivan always played a role in our lives because of this connection.

It’s a bit sad to think of a fifteen year old boy being into Gilbert and Sullivan but nevertheless I was, and that’s why I got into music theatre and opera as my career because that’s what opened the door to it for me and from that I started to listen to other sorts of classical music and opera….

If you hadn’t become an opera singer what direction to you think you would have gone in your career?

I did a law degree when I finished school because lower voiced males, well they usually take a bit longer for their voices to mature before you can start trying to work. So I did a history/law degree… and then worked for a couple of years as a legal bureaucrat which is quite Gilbertian in lots of ways… And then decided that I would have a crack at seeing how I would go and that was in 1990 and I’m still going…

So I’m very grateful for the whole Gilbert connection because it’s given me a sort of direction in my life which has been a lot of fun and very interesting.

Have you performed in Christchurch or at the Isaac Theatre Royal before?

No. My first time. I’ve done a bit on the North Island in Wellington and Auckland but not in Christchurch yet so I’m looking forward to that very much… but I hear great things about [the Isaac Theatre Royal] so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

I haven’t been to Christchurch since the earthquakes so it’s going to be fascinating to see it but I’m sure also quite moving and disturbing to see what’s happened. I’m certainly looking forward to doing the shows and I hope that it brings the citizens of Christchurch a bit of enjoyment, I hope anyway.

…We’ve noticed in our audiences that there’s been a good presence of young kids and that they’ve actually enjoyed it and there’s been a lot of laughter — it is, at the end of the day, a family entertainment and families so far have enjoyed it and I hope they will in Christchurch as well.

Further information

The Gig Guide: March 2017

Planning on attending a concert, show, or gig in Christchurch? Then why not take a look at what we’ve got of that artist’s back catalogue?

Comedy

Kids

Music

What gigs are you looking forward to in the near future? Anything we’ve missed? Do let us know in the comments.

La Traviata

Last night I had my first ever opera experience. Although I generally enjoy live music and performance I wasn’t 100% if I would like opera, even with the excellent introduction to the operatic world I got from a bonafide opera singer. I mean, all that warbling and melodrama. Maybe it would be a bit OTT for me?

Violetta and Alfredo
Violetta and Alfredo, Photo by Neil MacKenzie.

But then I remembered that I love stuff that’s OTT. And opera, or at least this one, has it all. Gorgeous ladies in gorgeous costumes, an impressive set bedecked with chandeliers, protestations of love, sacrifice, longing, mortality, familial squabbles… there’s even a guy dressed as a matador at one point. And amazing voices joined together in song. Wow.

And even with the “please don’t leave me!” and “oh, I’m dying of consumption!” histrionics, it was still very moving. I was surprised by that, but shouldn’t have been, because in addition to the singing there is actual acting that goes on too, and I got rather pleasantly swept up in it all.

La Traviata means “The fallen woman” and the plot revolves around Violetta, a French courtesan, a party girl who after resisting for a time, realises that actually the party can’t go on forever. She moves with her lover, Alfredo, to the country and everything’s rosy (literally, the set was covered in roses at this point)…until it’s not. There is heartbreak and anger, shame, and remorse – basically every terrible break-up you’ve ever had.

Verdi’s opera is based on the play The Lady of the Camellias which was itself adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers). Also known as Camille in the English speaking world, it has been adapted numerous times on stage and film, including a 1984 movie starring Greta Scacchi, Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth. It’s certainly a story that has legs (and some rather annoying gender politics but sometimes you just have to note these things, wish they were otherwise, and move on).

My takeaways from the evening were –

  • I’m a sucker for love stories
  • I didn’t fully appreciate just what a properly trained human voice was capable of. Crikey!
  • I really need a spangled gold bolero jacket
Incredible costumes
Incredible costumes, Photo by Neil MacKenzie

More for fans of La Traviata

 

Everything you wanted to know about opera but were afraid to ask

Confession time. I have never been to an opera.

I’ve seen Shihad play more times than I can remember. I’ve been to performances of “experimental music” that I’d rather not recall. Kapa haka? Count me in. But never opera. Which seems like a bit of an oversight on my part.

La Traviata
NZ Opera’s La Traviata. Image supplied

Luckily NZ Opera are performing Verdi’s La Traviata in Christchurch starting this week and a combination of factors have led to me taking up the challenge of my first ever operatic experience –  namely that I love big, loud live music, getting to dress up, and being inside the restored Isaac Theatre Royal.

But not wanting to dive in without some idea of what to expect I sat down with Christchurch opera singer and member of the “Trav” cast, Amanda Atlas who answered all my silly questions and made me think this opera lark might be quite fun, actually. This is some of what I learned*.

The top 6 things you need to know about opera

  1. It’s not amplified. The singers don’t have any microphone assistance, unlike what you might get with musical theatre, for instance. Opera singers have to be powerful enough to sing over the top of a full orchestra and still be heard. This is why operatic training takes a long time and why the top singers are usually a little older. However…
  2. Opera singers are not all fat. That’s not really a thing. As evidence I offer the cast line-up of La Traviata. Who would have guessed a cartoonish stereotype wasn’t actually realistic?
  3. It’s just like watching a foreign language film, but live. Everything is sung in Italian (depending on the opera – there are operas in German, for instance), but there’s a screen above the stage with “surtitles” so you can follow what’s happening.
  4. There’s an intermission (and there’s a bar). I may have expressed mild concern that the performance is scheduled to start at 7.30pm and doesn’t end until 10pm but Amanda assured me that there would be a break, if for no other reason than the orchestra needs one. Fair enough! Happy to enjoy a mid-opera wine while they rest their talented fingers.
  5. You can wear jeans! Yes, opening night is a bit more glamorous and folk tend to dress up a bit more, but people can and do go to opera in normal street clothes (and nobody boos or throws rotten fruit at them).
  6. It’s not super expensive. Well, some seats are but opera tickets cost about the same as other concerts you might go to (I checked, and indeed, our Weird Al Yankovic tickets from last year cost about the same as those for La Traviata).
Amanda Atlas
Professional opera singer, Amanda Atlas. Image supplied.

Amanda Atlas’ passion for opera is clear whenever she speaks about it… she also completely spoiled the plot of La Traviata by telling me the ending but I’m hoping that won’t matter too much. I will only say that it’s about a French courtesan named Violetta who has consumption and falls in love…

This production of La Traviata is a traditional one – think beautiful costumes and chandaliers. The word Amanda uses is “sumptuous”.

Opera is timeless

…opera doesn’t necessarily have to be reinterpreted because the stories are timeless, it’s all love and relationships generally, and power and sex and betrayal and they’re just great stories, and interpreted by great composers. I’ve always been extremely moved by it and there are some operas that I find difficult to sing because I get so emotional.

It’s full of emotion

It turns out emotion is a big part of the appeal of opera, for both performers and audience.

We want to make the audience feel that emotion and cry…and the music is just glorious and heart-breaking.

The music just captures human feeling and emotion with the naked human voice. Like when you hear a Māori waiata or someone singing at a funeral, there’s this inherent emotion in the human throat when it’s not interfered with and for me, I think that’s what opera can really access in a way that some other things can’t necessarily.

Sometimes it’s like…Game of Thrones?

When it comes to picking favourites, it turns out that emotion also has its part to play, as Amanda explained the difference (for her, at least) between Italian operas and those in German.

Cover of The New Grove Guide to Wagner and His OperasI particularly love Wagner, which is the big, heavy German, crazy “brother-sister incest, and Gods striking down dwarves, and crazy over-the-topness” – it’s Game of Thrones basically… and that’s where my voice sits the most, so that’s my favourite thing to sing.

Also because for me personally when I sing Italian repertoire there’s something about it that actually does really make me emotional and so I sometimes find it more difficult to sing well because I’m…. not staying cold enough to just keep my technique solid. So when I sing Wagner, because it doesn’t get into my soul quite so much as Italian stuff, there’s a slight remove therefore I find it much easier to sing.

The Isaac Theatre Royal has great acoustics

It made me so happy when it reopened and it is wonderful to sing in. We’re really lucky to have it. It’s probably my second favourite theatre in New Zealand. My favourite one, funnily enough, is the Civic Theatre in Invercargill. The Civic Theatre in Invercargill has the best acoustic of any theatre I’ve ever sung in. It’s a very similar looking theatre, same style with the three tiers, but this one’s second.

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In our catalogue

 

*Added opera vocabulary word for fun, “sitzprobe”, literally a “sitting rehearsal”.

The Gig Guide: May to July 2016

Planning on attending a concert, show, or gig in Christchurch? Then why not take a look at what we’ve got of that artist’s back catalogue?

Music

Kidscover of Mister Maker Let's make more

Comedy

Dance

What gigs are you looking forward to in the near future? Anything we’ve missed? Do let us know in the comments.

The bedside table blog

Cover of The Other HandWhat’s on your bedside table right now?

I ask because bedside tables and their offerings are the new profiling tool, their little worlds in microcosm giving us copious info about who we are, who we want to be and who we should be dating.

In Enough Said, the last film ever made by James Gandolfini and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus,  Albert’s marriage breaks up partly because he has no bedside tables. When his ex discovers this she says:

Metaphorically speaking, he’s not
building a life for himself.
I mean, who would date
a person like that?

Cover of The Tao of PoohIn The End of Your Life Bookclub, when Will Schwalbe looks round the bedroom of his dying mother, whose bedside table and the floor (every surface actually) is covered with books, he asks himself how much bleaker the room would look had his mother’s night table supported a lone Kindle.

And in the September/October edition of the ever trendy Frankie magazine, five young artists have been commissioned to draw their bedside tables. Way to go, Frankie!

What about my bedside tables at home? My little bedside world currently has  three books stacked on it:

  • The Other Hand by Chris Cleave – this book is also sold under the title Little Bee and has been very popular in my Book Club. I love this book, it makes me want to speak in Jamaican patois. If you click on the link you will get the idea of the storyline.
  • Cover of The Sound of a Snail Eating There’s also The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. This is an unusual, quietly meditative book in which you will learn a lot (more than may be desirable, to be frank) about a little forest snail.
  • And The Tao of Pooh, which is my go-to book on those mornings when I can barely face the cone infested drive to a far-flung outpost of Library Land to get to a library that may or may not have stocked up on the full cream milk I require for my first cup of coffee.

In the parallel universe on the other side of the bed, my husband’s bedside table sports:

Italian Grammar for Dummies – bedtime discourse on the use of the subjunctive in Italian has entirely replaced any need for sedatives in our little world.

There’s also A History of Opera and a lone fiction work, The Panther, which he started reading seventeen months ago and hopes to complete when we travel again at the end of this year. I have to dust that book – often, and each time I wonder how on earth he is managing to remember the storyline.

How about you? Got any bedside books worth sharing?

A night at the opera

cover of Imagining Don GiovanniI’m off to the opera! I haven’t been to a live opera for a long time so it will be a special occasion. The bonus is that it is my favourite opera Don Giovanni.

Rather to my surprise my daughter expressed an interest in going. Somehow these days I think of opera as a grey hairs preserve. It is often expensive to go to and doesn’t get much exposure to younger people. This is a shame as the music is beautiful and the stagings are often spectacular. Also the days of “messy sopranos” of large size are well gone. Opera stars are pretty glamorous – think Teddy Tahu Rhodes (sigh). Kiri Te Kanawa was stunning in the Joseph Losey movie of Don Giovanni  and continued to fly the flag for glamorous divas. Who can forget that outfit at the royal wedding as she warbled Let the bright seraphim. Now she is about to star as Dame Nellie Melba in Downton Abbey.

Kiwis have made a strong contribution to international opera over the years – we  have many recordings. Here are just a few:

Don Giovanni is a fabulous opera. I was seduced by Joseph Losey’s film version. I’d recommend watching that if you can get it. Since then I have listened to the music many times and watched the film over as well. That is one of the joys of opera – there are many DVDs of different stage performances and we have a large selection at our libraries.

The venue this time is the CBS Canterbury Arena, not the most sympathetic perhaps but the time is not that far away when the Theatre Royal will again be available for performances.

Of all the beautiful operatic arias do you have a favourite? Is there one opera which stands out for you?

Can’t go, won’t go – try listening at home!

MOZART: Don Giovanni (excerpts) (arr. for wind ensemble) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Barenboim) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (arr. for string quartet) (Franz Joseph String Quartet)
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Berlin Philharmonic, Barenboim) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (arr. for wind ensemble) (Linos Ensemble) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Harding)
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Giulini) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Giulini) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni (Norrington)
MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni, Act I [Opera](Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vol. 6) (Krips) (1955) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni [Opera] (Bohm) MOZART, W.A.: Don Giovanni [Opera] (Giulini) (1959)

Listen to the Don, at home with Naxos Music Library.

Music – When it Hits You, You Feel No Pain – Bob Marley

There are few people who don’t have some kind of relationship with music. I have always been quite passionate cover of The Man Called Cashabout all types of music. I’ll listen to pretty much anything, except for thrash metal, most hip hop (but some I like), trance and, as I am a heathen, most classical music. I’ll also sing like no-one’s listening. Sadly for some, they actually are.

Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Berhold Auerbach

My particular passions at present would have to be Appalachian music (part of the Bluegrass genre), Johnny Cash, those with interesting voices such as Iris Dement, Gillian Welch and Tom Waits and many New Zealand artists. I’m a sucker for a sad song or a good love song, and it has to take me on a journey, just like a good book.

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent – Victor Hugo

Luckily for me, Christchurch City Libraries caters to just about musical taste and not just in the traditional CD format.

Cover of Clawing at the Limits of Cool

Online resources available to library members range from downloadable songs from the latest artists through to obscure academic tomes for the study of even more obscure genres and artists in Classical or Jazz.  Below is just a taste of what you can find online through our web site.

  • Freegal: lets you legally download and keep  MP3s from the Sony Music Catalogue. You can download up to three each week.
  • Naxos: The largest online streaming of classical music. Anything from libretti and synopses of over 700 operas to 164 full length videos.
  • Smithsonian Global Sound: A virtual encyclopedia of the world’s musical and aural tradition, including spoken word, natural and human made sounds. Here you’ll find anything from Calypso to the sound of a frog being eaten by a snake.
  • Fine Arts and Music Collection: Magazines, academic journal, audio, images and news for music as well as drama, art, history and film making.
  • Music Online: Contemporary World Music from every continent, you can find everything from Bollywood to Arab Swing and Gospel.
  • Oxford Music Online:  A gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple musical references.
  • American Song: A history database that allows people to hear an feel the music from America’s past

Add to these online resources our catalogue of CDs from Opera, through to Jazz and World music,  Pop, Blues, Musicals and Country. We have concerts, operas and classical music on DVD to watch as well.

There are musical scores, biographies about well known artists, and books on the history of music.

So come searching through our catalogues, or pop into your local library and find some treasures.

Who do you love to listen to? Which artists from which genres and time periods? How do you choose to listen to music?