Friday 15 March 2013

Classical Opera study day

Divas and Scholars
Masterclass & Co. is an admirable scheme to provide further information about opera to people who would like to know more, but have had neither the time nor opportunity to study further. As part of their Divas and Scholars programme, last year in association with the Royal Northern College of Music they ran a three-day course on Renaissance and Baroque opera, and this week I went along to their study day on Classical opera. The day took the form of three lectures followed by a lecture recital by students from the Royal Northern College of music, with a chance to interact with students and lecturers over coffee. Illness had meant that two of the planned lecturers were unable to appear, we were still provided with a lively and stimulating programme.

Norbert Meyn is a singer and a Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, his lecture was on Goethe and the German singspiel. First of all he placed the development of German opera in an international context, touching on Schutz, Keiser, Handel and Mattheson and the Hamburg opera house. Then he focused on the provincial court of Weimar, where Goethe was resident and where he experimented with the singspiel form. Meyn brought out the roles of Johann Adam Hiller and Johann Gottfried Herder in the story, with the Italian trained Hiller encouraging singing in German, and with Herder publishing influential volumes of folk-poetry which influence Goethe's singspiel lyrics.

The form developed a fluidity between spoken and sung, partly because the small troupes of actors and singers employed by the court would be involved both in the sung singspiels and the spoken plays, and plays often had music and songs. The number of musicians involved was small, the average German court theatre was not a large building and only 12 to 20 musicians would be involved.

Meyn played extracts from a DVD of a performance of Erwin und Elmira, a singspiel by Goethe with music by Weimar's Duchess Amalia which was recorded the surviving court theatre at Gotha near Weimar and performed complete with 18th century style scenery. This was highly informative as well as completely delightful, and showed just what sort of musical events we were talking about.  (You can find out more and buy the DVD from the Lieder Theatre website).

Goethe, of course, backed up his theatrical ventures with a great many theoretical writings, which is partly why his involvement was so important. Meyn's lecture was illuminating, but also entertaining and shed light on areas of German opera development that were new to most of the listeners.

Philip Headlam, who is a conductor and coach, focused on the operas of Mozart and Beethoven. He talked initially about the difference between Mozart's operas and those of earlier generations. How Mozart was keen to capture real emotions and how he incorporated influences from commedia dell'arte, with Mozart's musical development of the aria form being rather different to the more static opera seria. As an example of this he talked in detail about one of Dorabella's arias from Cosi fan tutte.

Headlam also talked about how Mozart and Beethoven's operas arose out of the artistic development of their times. Vienna had a well-educated middle-class which liked its entertainment, Goethe and Schiller were writing five-act Shakespearean dramas. And though Beethoven only wrote one opera, he was involved in writing music for the theatre.

One of the ways that Headlam helped to put in context the way composers developed opera was to talk about his experience working with contemporary composers, and how their way of working shed light on earlier times. Whatever the age, all composers must start from a blank page.

For many people, the way on opera is created is entirely mysterious. They go to the opera house and experience the finished product, without knowing quite how come it came into being. So inevitably, over lunch talk widened to include opera creation today, with talk centering on George Benjamin's new opera which a number of people were planning to see.

In the afternoon, pianist and repetiteur Harvey Davies introduced his talk by playing an early piano reduction of the overture to Mozart's Don Giovanni from a volume which had the entire opera arranged for piano solo.

Davies then talked about the 18th century mileu from which Mozart's operas sprang, saying that to understand Mozart's operas you need to understand the Enlightenment. Davies felt that the theme of Mozart's mature operas was ultimate forgiveness, that no-one was beyond redemption.

He then provided us with a list of operas which were premiered during the first 10 years of Mozart's life, a stupendous number by composers such as Traetta, Piccini, Jomelli, Philidor, Monsigny, JC Bach, Arne Hasse and Gluck. He painted in a little background, enlivening it with anecdotes about the composers (Philidor was a world-renowned chess player).

After touching on the training of singers and on Gluck's reforms, he then dwelt for some time on the Enlightenment. How if came about and what it was. How the writings of Descartes, the Glorious Revolution and Newton's Principia Mathematica can all be taking as starting points, comparing Spinosa's radical Enlightenment to the more moderate variety with the role of the enlightened despot such as Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great or Josef II. This latter being important in relation to Mozart. Finally he left us with a sobering thought, that Mozart's operas were a tiny fraction of the 1000's of operas performed in the 18th century.

Then we were joined by soprano Sarah Parkin and baritone Louis Hurst, both post-graduate students at the Royal Northern College of Music. They were accompanied by Harvey Davies in a recital of arias by Mozart and his contemporaries. 

The singers introduced each aria, placing them in context, which was very helpful for the more unusual items. They started with three numbers from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro; Figaro and Susanna's duet from act one, then each character's final aria from act four. It was a pleasure to hear them performed in such intimate surroundings.

Then Parkin sang an aria from Piccini's Alessandro nell'Indie, an opera premiered in Naples in 1774. Metastasio's libretto lauds the idea of the benign rule of an enlightened despot. The aria was highly dramatic in the sturm und drang style. There followed two arias from Gluck's La Rencontre Imprevu, a comic opera with a plot not unlike Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. Hurst sang a lyrical aria, followed by Parkin in a highly virtuosic one.

Finally, an example of the virtuoso operatic style being used in church. Parking sang the Alleluia from Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate written originally for the castrato Rauzzini who sang in Mozart's opera Lucia Silla.

Then there was a chance over coffee to talk to all the performers and develope just some of the themes that had been touched on during the day.

Further study days are planned, see the Masterclass and company website for further details

Elsewhere on this blog:

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