Saturday 18 August 2018

As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera

Rossini Semiramide at the BBC Proms - Susana Gaspar, Daniela Barcellona,  Albina Shagimuratova, Barry Banks, Gianluca Buratto, Mirco Palazzi,  Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder - photo Chris Christodoulou
Rossini Semiramide at the BBC Proms in 2016 - Susana Gaspar, Daniela Barcellona,  Albina Shagimuratova, Barry Banks, Gianluca Buratto, Mirco Palazzi,  Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder - photo Chris Christodoulou
Opera Rara is having a busy Summer, as well as presenting its 2018/19 season the company announced a new partnership with Warner Classics, not to mention the premiere of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida at the Royal Opera House in July and the release of their new recording of Rossini's Semiramide in September 2018. I met up with Opera Rara's Chief Executive, Henry Little, to find out more.

Albina Shagimuratova in rehearsal at Opera Rara's studio (Photo Russell Duncan)
Albina Shagimuratova in rehearsal at Opera Rara's studio
(Photo Russell Duncan)
We talked at Opera Rara's studio in Shoreditch, a handsome space where operas are rehearsed and the company's archive is housed, including over 1000 bel canto scores, manuscripts, prints and more. The company was formed nearly 50 years ago (founded by Patric Schmid and Don White, it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020). Henry Little is a relative new boy, he joined the company in year 45 (2015).

Despite this long and illustrious history, Henry sees the company's mission as remaining the same, to rediscover, record and perform rare opera, and this is as important as ever. Henry refers to their work as live operatic archeology. Opera Rara takes a piece which needs to be heard by 21st century audiences and which it sees as deserving of a place in the repertoire. It is a complex and arduous journey to take a piece from relative obscurity to the highest standards of performance. Little of the material is in print, and what is available is in unreliable editions. The company thus needs to source material, the composers manuscripts, a new edition needs creating and the performing material generated. All before the performers can start work learning the piece.

Henry sees their work as important because the standard operatic repertoire is shrinking. In order to sustain audiences and investment companies choose from a narrowing list of operas and the challenges are the same all the world over. Opera Rara is at the vanguard of encouraging the opera community to look more widely. Whilst new opera is undoubtedly important, and Henry mentions George Benjamin's recent operas at Covent Garden and the work of Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival (on at the moment). It is equally important, though, to refresh and renew the historic repertoire. And Henry sees Opera Rara's role as being to encourage companies to be braver. The fact that Opera Rara makes a recording of an opera can have world wide impact, recording to the highest standards.

David Stout, Nicky Spence, Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra (Photo Russell Duncan)
Leoncavallo: Zaza - David Stout, Nicky Spence, Riccardo Massi, Ermonela Jaho & BBC Symphony Orchestra
presented by Opera Rara & the BBC at the Barbican in 2015(Photo Russell Duncan)
Henry cites the example of Offenbach's Fantasio, an opera which he describes as being about power politics and how the common man can have a voice in society, yet refracted through a comic lens. Opera Rara made a recording of the opera in 2014 [see my review], and it was favourably received. The first CD pressing of 5000 copies ran out and the second run of 5000 has nearly done so. Gratifyingly there have been two productions of the opera so far, with a third planned by Garsington Opera in 2019. In 2014 Opera Rara recorded Leoncavallo's Zaza [see my review], and performed it live (see image above), and this seems to have given Opera Holland Park the confidence to present its extremely successful new staging in 2017 [see my review]. In fact, Opera Holland Park has a great track record of being experimental in the repertoire, this year the season included Mascagni's Isabeau [see my review].

Daniela Barcellona & Albina Shagimuratova rehearsing at Opera Rara's studio (photo Russell Duncan)
Daniela Barcellona & Albina Shagimuratova rehearsing at
Opera Rara's studio (photo Russell Duncan)
The company's new recording of Rossini's Semiramide, which was also performed at the 2016 BBC Proms [see my review], was the most expensive recording that the company has ever done. (Recorded uncut the opera lasts a whopping three hours 50 minutes). In fact, it seems to have captured something of the zeitgeist, the Metropolitan Opera revived their production of Semiramide and Robert Carsen's new production has been performed at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and at the Royal Opera House [see my review] and will travel elsewhere.

Once an edition has been created for Opera Rara the performing materials remain available for companies to use thanks to a partnership with Edition Peters, so the music is marketed world wide. It does not provide a huge income stream, but it is important that the editions are there. And having just performed Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida [see my review], the parts and the score are all about to be updated with the changes and corrections arising out of the rehearsal process. so that the new edition will be ready for opera companies to investigate.

Whilst Henry's previous position was as chief executive of Orchestras Live [see my previous interview with him], he started out as a staff director and spent seven years working at English National Opera, overlapping with Sir Mark Elder's period as music director there. Henry had interesting conversations with Stephen Revell, Opera Rara's previous managing director, about the company (it was Revell who really transformed the company during his time there). Henry was aware of the role of the company and how it nurtured careers, for instance soprano Renee Fleming made her first commercial recording with Opera Rara. The guiding force behind Opera Rara today is artistic director Sir Mark Elder, whom Henry knew from his days at ENO. So the prospect of a role at Opera Rara for Henry was a compelling adventure, though of course not without its risks.

Sir Mark Elder rehearsing Offenbach's Fantasio at Opera Rara's studio (Photo Russell Duncan)
Sir Mark Elder rehearsing Offenbach's Fantasio at Opera Rara's studio (Photo Russell Duncan)
One of the biggest challenges is funding, how to survive? Henry feels that opera generally struggles to make its impact as it should, but he likes a challenge and with Sir Mark Elder at the helm he knew that standards would be high.

Patric Schmid, co-founder of Opera Rara with soprano Nelly Miricioiu  © Voix des Arts
Patric Schmid, co-founder of Opera Rara with
soprano Nelly Miricioiu  © Voix des Arts
The new partnership with Warner Classics, giving Opera Rara worldwide distribution with a single company for the first time, is one that Henry sees as a game changer and one which hopefully will have an impact in the important income stream from recording sales. Whilst the company has always sold recordings world wide (and of course, will continue to do so via the website), the partnership with Warner Classics replaces around 15 relationships which meant it was difficult to get a handle on how sales were going.

For the best part of thirty years, the company was largely funded by The Peter Moores Foundation, whose enlightened, long-term investment made the company what it is today. Whilst Opera Rara has received Arts Council England funding for particular projects in the past, it receives no regular funding and is highly dependent on individual donors. They have had some success in this area, but funding is a constant challenge. Henry is currently working on a five-year plan, and to fund it they will need to raise a significant amount of money. A real challenge! Luckily the company has a family of Opera Rara supporters who give core support to the company.

Brenda Rae & Sarah Connolly in rehearsal for Offenbach's Fantasio at Opera Rara's studio (Photo Russell Duncan)
Brenda Rae & Sarah Connolly in rehearsal for
Offenbach's Fantasio at Opera Rara's studio
(Photo Russell Duncan)
Projects like the recent performances of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida generate a lot of interest and press coverage and give the company a profile, showing it at its best and thus helpful in attracting supporters and donors. L'ange de Nisida was performed in partnership with the Royal Opera House, and these partnerships are important to Opera Rara's work.

Going forward Donizetti remains a core part of the repertoire, forthcoming in 2019 are recording sessions for Il paria, another opera which deserves a more prominent place in the repertoire. But also in the pipeline is the first version of Puccini's Le vili. So whilst Italian bel canto remains core to the company's repertoire, Henry sees the company moving towards a wider definition of what rarer repoire is, whilst remaining true to the company's core principals. We started to see this with operas like Offenbach's Fantasio and Leoncavallo's Zaza, and Henry raises the tantalising prospect of the company exploring unjustly neglected operas from further afield deserving the Opera Rara treatment.

Not every opera that Opera Rara records is performed live, but many are, and always in concert performances. Henry cites the BBC Proms performance of Rossini's Semiramide, given virtually uncut, as making him realise how thrillingly theatrical the work is.

Henry studied drama at university, receiving a basic musical training, and his way into opera was through theatre. Yet he finds concert performances of opera fascinating and engaging, and he feels that this type of performance enables us to see the piece as it is without the intervention of designers and directors. He feels that same with Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida, commenting that despite the rather loopy plot there is a theatrical richness to the piece, especially in the final two acts. This is n attitude which he admits might seem a bit perverse from someone with his directing background. But he sees concert performances as encouraging audiences imaginations, in the theatre he feels that contemporary audiences are not encouraged to imagine enough, too often they are told what to think at a particular moment.

His first experience of Wagner's Ring Cycle was the series of concert performances that Paul Daniel and English National Opera gave before staging the work. Henry was glad that he was introduced to The Ring that way as it gave him a direct relationship to the music. When he did see it staged, he feels the experience was richer because he was familiar with the piece on its own terms.

Roger Parker giving a talk 'How to Rescue a Lost Opera' at Opera Rara's studio in 2017 (Photo Opera Rara)
Opera Rara's repertoire consultant, Roger Parker giving a talk 'How to Rescue a Lost Opera'
at Opera Rara's studio in 2017 (Photo Opera Rara)
So he finds it important that Opera Rara presents pieces as they really are. No-one has heard a piece for years (or centuries), Opera Rara is saying that it thinks the work is worth hearing, here it is with the best forces possible, do you agree with us, does it fire your imagination?

Opera Rara on disc:

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera at Tête à Tête (★★½)  - Opera review
  • Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution - interview
  • Small scale challenge: studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera (★★★½)  - opera review
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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