Saturday 1 September 2018

Language, Catalan culture & audience engagement: I chat to mezzo Marta Fontanals Simmons

Mozart: Die Zaubertflote - Marta Fontanals Simmons, Katie Stevenson, Katherine Crompton. Jonathan Mcgovern - Garsington Opera 2018 (Photo Johan Persson)
Mozart: Die Zaubertflote - Marta Fontanals Simmons, Katie Stevenson, Katherine Crompton. Jonathan McGovern
Garsington Opera 2018 (Photo Johan Persson)
The mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons has been on my radar for some time. Whilst at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama she was Kate Julian in Britten's Owen Wingrave (2013) and sang the title role in Jonathan Dove's Pinocchio (2014), going on to be joint winner of the Guildhall School's Gold Medal in 2015, and our subsequent sightings of her have included Nigel Foster's London Song Festival. Other performances have included Kate Pinkerton in Puccini's Madama Butterfly for Glyndebourne on Tour and for Grange Park Opera, Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne and her Teatro Real, Madrid debut in Weill's Street Scene. At Garsington Opera this year she was of the Three Ladies in Mozart's Die Zauberflote.

Marta Fontanals-Simmons
Marta Fontanals-Simmons
This Autumn Marta is devoting to song, she will be performing Dvorak and Mahler with Libby Burgess at the Beverley Chamber Music Festival, and exploring her Spanish and Catalan heritage when she joins Lorena Paz Nieto (soprano) and Sholto Kynoch (piano) for a Spanish themed concert as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival 2018.

Marta's father is from a small region near Barcelona, so she is half Catalan, and speaks Spanish and some Catalan. Her recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival represents an opportunity to sing in both Spanish and Catalan, but the recital also explores the influence of Spain on other composers with songs by Hugo Wolf, Niels Gade, Emil Sjögren, Gounod, Delibes and Debussy. Spanish and Catalan composers represented will include Obradors, Rodrigo, Granados and Toldrá. Wolf's Spanish Liederbuch crops up more than once, not just in Wolf's settings but in Gade and Sjögren's settings of the same text, and in a sidelong glance with Judith Weir's Spanish Lieder Booklet.

Marta will be singing Shostakovich's Spanish Songs, Op. 100 which are based on a collection of Spanish folk-songs which a friend gave to Shostakovich, hoping for something flamboyant. But Marta describes the settings as simple, very word based and not fireworks but extremely beautiful. She adds that she is looking forward to exploring the songs, which are settings of Russian translations of the original Spanish texts. Later in our conversation Mart comments on the Spanish influence in Russia, which evidently arose because Russians fighting in the Spanish civil war took Spanish orphans home with them.

Marta finds that Spanish music has a very deep connection to the heart, often simple and beautiful, and she feels this is something that Shostakovich captures so the song cycle promises to be interestingly multilayered.

Marta is relishing the chance to sing in Spanish (and in Catalan) and she tries to include Spanish song in her recitals, as she finds it important to keep the tradition alive. Her father's family were strongly Catalan but during the Franco era Catalan language and culture were stripped away, in fact her father was so anti-Franco that he ultimately left Spain.  It was only after Franco died that Marta's father felt able to go back, and her mother said that they found it incredible that you are now able to buy children's books in Catalan.

Marta adds that Catalan musical culture was essentially and oral one and she finds the Catalan music very human, and not elaborate. One of the joys of her job, for Marta, is the way she gets to look into different cultures, and it it makes history very personal.

Marta is keen to develop alongside her song-recitals alongside her opera performances, which is why she is spending time this Autumn in song recitals. And there will be more language and culture to explore as she is performing Dvorak's Four Songs in Folk Style Op. 73 (alongside Mahler's Rückert Lieder) with Libby Burgess at the Beverley Chamber Music Festival. There is also Sibelius's Six Songs Op.90 with the Quantum Ensemble as part of its residency at the Auditorio de Tenerife. What with Shostakovich (in Russian), Dvorak (in Czech) and Sibelius (in Swedish) planned, Marta comments that she is certainly exercising a different side of her brain.

Thanks to her family connections Mart is fluent in Spanish and French whilst she describes her German as 'a work in progress'. Not only is she keen to use her Spanish in recital, but she has been developing good connections with Spanish opera houses (she will be making a return to the Teatro Real, Madrid next season) and pianists. And Catalan is of course and intriguing mix of French and Spanish.

During her childhood Mart and family went to Spain every Summer, driving through France and so Marta feels comfortable with French culture and language. Though fluent in French, she feels she wants to get to the position of being able to sing in French as well as native speakers. She recently recorded Berlioz' La captive with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and French conductor Pascal Rophé. French song of this period is very much about inflecting the text so Marta was gratified that Rophé complimented her on her French.

Regarding Czech, I was curious about what it was like to sing in and Marta explained that the vowels are clean and Italianate so it is lovely to sing in despite the clusters of consonants. When she sang in Jancek's The Cunning Little Vixen at Glyndebourne, the conductor was Czech, Jakub Hrusa (who conducted Samuel Barber's Vanessa there this year), and he made sure that everything was right.

When it comes to languages, Marta feels that the English are sometimes too much afraid of sounding like an idiot and so we don't ourselves out there.

As a child Marta always loved music and singing, she started learning the piano at six and the violin two years later. Of singing she says that in her mid teens she wanted to learn how to do it, by her mid 20s she had decided she could do it. In the meantime she had done a music degree at Birmingham University, before moving to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama were she concentrated on voice, though she feels she is still learning. Working with the Welsh National Youth Opera and British Youth Opera (where she covered Lucretia in Britten's Rape of Lucretia and sang in Stephen Oliver's Euridice) opened her eyes to the operatic world. But she is still glad she did her academic B.Mus, with its hours of piano practice (her final electives also included voice). She feels that it has given her discipline, whilst the Guildhall School showed her a massive new world of preparation and discipline, training both voice and body with rigour, not an easy job to do.

Now, as a young freelance singers she has learned that the idea of a weekend is an odd conception, yet she has had to also learn to take days off. She feels that you have to have a life (she lives in the South coast with a husband who is a designer and not a musician), otherwise what will you sing about. As a young singer there is a tendency to presume you have to do everything, never saying no, so there is a danger that you burn out and become a robot.

Whilst performing is both a gift and a responsibility, Marta is also keenly aware of the importance of listening to the audience, learning to communicate with people. She enjoys the collaborative nature of recitals, where the programme may includes repertoire she has never heard of making the process very much a voyage of discovery. Whilst thinking long an hard about the them, it is also necessary to think about what you are trying to say.

She and pianist Lana Bode have a year-long residency at the Red House in Aldeburgh (home of the Britten-Pears Foundation) entitled Listen Again, this includes three recitals where they are working with the audience. They talk to the audience about song recitals and about what audience members want, and devise programmes with that in mind. The idea is to challenge convention a bit, asking themselves 'do we need that?', 'is it relevant to an audience in 2018?'. They are trying to create journeys for the audience, whilst at the same time pushing boundaries and seeing how far they can take them.

Kurt Weill:Street Scene - Marta Fontanals-Simmons & ensemble - Teatro Real, Madrid  2018 (Photo Javier del Real)
Kurt Weill:Street Scene - Marta Fontanals-Simmons & ensemble - Teatro Real, Madrid  2018 (Photo Javier del Real)
The first concert in the series was in March and the last one is in November. In March, they workshopped ideas with the audience a few days before the concert. Taking twice as much repertoire into the workshop as was needed enabled them to ask the audience to help programme it. This was an intense session, and the audience gave them such interesting ideas. As well as programming, they talked about how much eye contact audience members wanted, how close the singers should be and how translations were delivered. So that the audience became very much part of the journey, and at the recital itself there was a strong connection indeed between performers and audience members.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion (★★★★) - CD review
  • A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra (★★★★) - CD review
  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
  • A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius (★★★★) - CD review
  •  In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri (★★★★) - CD review
  • Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane (★★★★) - CD review
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review 
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Home

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