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The English National Opera (ENO) is rethinking how to stage productions for the current self-distancing environment. A lot depends on when driving restrictions might be lifted.

Mark Brown writes at the Guardian, “English National Opera (ENO) has announced plans for what are thought to be the world’s first drive-in opera performances.

“Planned for the first three weeks of September, the idea is to stage live performances in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, north London, with musicians and singers spaced out to conform with physical distancing guidelines. If successful, ENO hopes to roll out the ‘Drive & Live’ concept to other parts of the UK.

“Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, told the Guardian it was part of the company’s mission of ‘opera for everyone.’ He said: ‘It is a bit of an experiment and if it works it might be a way of bringing the art form to people in a totally different and authentic way.’ …

“The idea is that the audience would be in 300 cars, with the bigger vehicles at the back. People on motorbikes and pedal cycles would also be allowed. Then windows go down and the audience watches the live performance unfold on a specially constructed set.

“The audience reaction could be interesting, Murphy said. ‘Instead of clapping or shouting “bravo,” it might be that people flash their lights or honk their horn. As long as it’s authentic, we’re not going to force it.

“ ‘I think it could attract a whole new generation to opera, people who love their car, see it as an extension to themselves.’ …

“Murphy said if the concept worked, then he could see drive-in operas being staged at racecourses or historic properties. ‘We’ve also had a couple of really productive conversations with international opera houses who think we’re on to something. It is an attempt to square the circle and let people have a big collective moment while staying safe.’

“The first 12 performances will be a shortened 90-minute version of Puccini’s La Bohème and a one-hour family-friendly version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The first show will be free for National Health Service and frontline workers. …

“Murphy, who joined ENO in 2018 after a career in TV [said] all arts companies needed now to be ‘nimble and quick’ and react to circumstances, but at the moment ENO was not planning for seats being empty. …

“Some countries have allowed drive-in cinemas to remain open during the lockdown. Germany, for example, has two year-round operations, in Essen and Cologne. According to the Hollywood Reporter, both have sold out for every screening since Germany’s lockdown was declared. Makeshift drive-ins are also popping up around the country.

“In the US, the spiritual home of the drive-in, fewer than 25 of the nation’s 320 drive-ins are reportedly open for business, but that could change. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, said [in April that] he would consider allowing drive-ins to reopen. ‘Where is the public safety issue? It’s a drive-in theatre. You’re in the car with the same people,’ he said.”

Photo: Donald Cooper/Photostage
An English National Opera production of
The Magic Flute in the Good Old Days of 2019. Today ENO operas must take Covid-19 and social distancing into account.

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Photo: Jack Devant
The Perm Opera theater in Russia is getting around quarantine regulations by performing to an audience of one. At least, that’s the plan.

I have been reading a lot of articles about organizations that, although hurting badly from the pandemic, are managing to limp along. You are probably reading other such articles. Just as humans with underlying conditions are said to succumb more quickly to coronavirus, so do institutions with underlying conditions. Some weak nonprofits and businesses have already folded.

Others may come out on the other side of this with new ideas for a stronger future.

It helps to be adaptable.

Andrew Roth writes at the Guardian, “Picture the scene: The curtain rises as the orchestra strikes up the opening bars of Puccini’s La Bohème or Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

And in the 850-person auditorium of a storied Russian theatre sits just one lucky viewer, a lottery winner whose prize is the personal performance of a lifetime.

“Barred from hosting audiences due to the coronavirus outbreak, a theatre in Perm, a city near Russia’s Ural mountains, plans to host a unique experiment – private viewings of the theatre’s ballets and operas for the price of just a normal ticket.

“The project, called One on One, is the creation of Marat Gatsalov, the principle stage director of the Perm Opera and Ballet theatre. The idea, he said, predated the coronavirus pandemic. …

“When the local government in Perm, an industrial city that also has a reputation as a cultural powerhouse, declared that events with large audiences should be cancelled, he realised the time for the experiment had arrived.

“ ‘We’d been told that we can’t let viewers into the theatre hall,’ Gatsalov said. ‘But that doesn’t mean we can’t let just one viewer in.’ …

“Russia’s coronavirus outbreak has accelerated in the last week and the government has passed tougher measures to prevent its spread. One on One had been scheduled to open with Puccini at the end of March, but the theatre has said that it will begin holding shows only when the rules for the country’s theatres are clearer. …

“The lottery will work like this: 850 people will register for each show, whether it’s an opera, ballet or concert, and a winner will be selected and invited to buy a ticket at the theatre for the normal price.

“Nobody else will be charged, although the theatre could use the funds. Financially, Gatsalov said, the coronavirus crisis has been ‘catastrophic.’

“Asked about how he planned to keep performers safe, Gatsalov said he was trying to follow safety rules ‘as much as possible’ and said the theatre regularly checked people’s temperatures and disinfected the premises. But it was clear that plans were in flux. ‘Of course the theatre can’t be operating as normal at the moment,’ he said.”

More at the Guardian, here. I sure hope it works and will look for a follow-up story down the road. Meanwhile, you can watch New York’s Met opera nightly as an audience of one in your home. It’s a free service while the pandemic lasts. Check it out.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Perm, Russia, where a lucky lottery ticket will get you an opera performance for you alone.
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Photo: Kim Stevens/Cape Town Opera
Vuvu Mpofu in a production of Donizetti’s
Maria Stuarda in Cape Town last year.

Who can say why certain random things draw our lives in one direction or another? Did a Mozart aria and a DVD of La Traviata draw this young opera star into an unfamiliar career because her family loved singing? Because the music was so sad? Whatever the reason, Vuvu Mpofu overcame many obstacles because of that powerful draw.

Dalya Alberge writes at the Guardian, “Vuvu Mpofu had never heard opera until, aged 15, she was overwhelmed by a Mozart aria at a school concert. In her home town of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, there were no opera teachers, the library had only one book on the subject, and her classmates were scornful of her interest. But Mpofu overcame all these hurdles: she taught herself to sing by mimicking the singers on two opera DVDs and, several years later, her talent was spotted by a voice coach.

“Now, at 28, the soprano has mentors in the world’s foremost opera companies. … Stephen Langridge, artistic director of Glyndebourne, said Mpofu had a ‘unique’ talent. … ‘People who sing very high in the soprano range can be very impressive … She keeps a humanity and warmth in the sound.’

“Mpofu has been taken aback by such accolades. It is a long way from the two DVDs – one of La Traviata and the other of The Magic Flute – she watched repeatedly as a teenager. ‘I come from a small town in South Africa,’ she said. ‘I never dreamed of any of this.’ Recalling the first time she watched La Traviata, she said: ‘It was overwhelming. I cried while I was watching it. It took my breathe away … I kept on watching, just mimicking how they sang, how they acted. That’s how I taught myself.’

“Mpofu went on to audition successfully for the South African College of Music at Cape Town University, a remarkable feat for someone with no formal training. A voice coach there spotted her potential and helped her get a student loan – although she has yet to pay it off.

“ ‘We were not rich,’ Mpofu said of her family, who loved singing, whether it was gospel, traditional music or choral. ‘I didn’t have things that other kids did … but my mum made sure that we always ate morning, afternoon and evening. At school, people didn’t bring lunches. You had money … If [mum] didn’t have it, I would just make myself bread. I was OK.’

“As she didn’t have a formal music background, her initial studies were challenging, particularly as her mother died not long after she had started. Nevertheless, she went on to study for four years as an undergraduate and two years as a postgraduate.

“Mpofu overcame other challenges. She was mugged by a man with a knife the day before she entered the International Hans Gabor Belvedere singing competition, opera’s ‘world cup,’ when it was staged in Cape Town.

“This was so traumatic that she nearly dropped out of the competition. But, feeling that music was ‘some sort of remedy,’ she sang an aria from La Traviata that got her into the final. She also came third in the prestigious international Operalia competition. …

“Mpofu said competitions had really helped her career. The Belvedere got her noticed by Diane Zola of the Metropolitan Opera, who became one of her mentors. ‘Entering competitions is a way of getting yourself out there to be seen by important people,’ she said. ‘Also, it builds confidence.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: twitter.com
Much to her surprise, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila found a community on Twitter that helped her regain confidence after a painful divorce.

You may say that on Twitter we each live in a bubble of like-minded people and that no good can come of that. But sometimes like-minded people can support someone who is down and out. Consider the case of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who was suffering doubts after a painful divorce.

Joshua Barone writes at the New York Times, “At 58, [Karita] Mattila, who is currently onstage here at [France’s] Aix Festival in Weill and Brecht’s ‘Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,’ is having something of a late-career renaissance: a newly expanding repertoire and newfound celebrity on Twitter, where she is beloved by some of opera’s most ardent fans.

“And she loves them right back. …

“On Twitter — where few opera stars, when they’re present at all, are active beyond blandly promoting their performances — she posts, often with an abundance of emoji, about everything. She reacts to the news, never shying from being political; she participates in polls; she shares her thoughts (and horror stories) about restaurants in Aix-en-Provence. …

” ‘I’ve decided to be me. … I used to be so overprotective of myself,’ she said. ‘It’s time to start having faith. … Twitter was — maybe it’s dramatic — it was my lifesaver,’ she said. ‘It really became my rescuer.’

“Before the divorce from Tapio Kuneinen, who was also her manager, Ms. Mattila wasn’t present on social media. … A girlfriend warned her, she recalled: ‘There will be people who hate you. And if there aren’t, it means you don’t have enough followers yet.’

“But Ms. Mattila gave it a try. And as followers came, she began to interact with them, more and more — engaging with fans and music scholars from around the world who also repost many of her tweets.

“ ‘I “met” so many of these people, and I cried so much because it moved me, how they analyzed music and what I was doing. Of course I have that music-training background, but it had been so long since I have had conversations about music, what I do for a living,’ she said, waving her arms for emphasis.

“When she was in New York this spring for a production of Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’ at the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Mattila began to meet some of her Twitter followers in person and was, she said, ‘totally in awe.’ …

“Twitter has also redefined Ms. Mattila’s relationship with music. As a busy international artist, she had long thought she didn’t have the time to listen recreationally. But now, she said: ‘There are these guys that send me what they are listening to. It’s re-established my appreciation toward my own field.’ …

“Throughout her career, Ms. Mattila has been famous for her dramatic prowess and visceral physicality, ingrained, she said, since her education at the Sibelius Academy in Finland. But Esa-Pekka Salonen, her fellow student at the academy and the conductor of the Aix ‘Mahagonny,’ described her theatricality as more extraordinary than schooling alone could produce.

“ ‘She is totally committed to the material, whatever it is,’ he said. ‘Things can be raw, they can be intense, they can be funny. But she’s always in it, totally.’ …

“During rehearsals, Mr. Salonen said, she had a talent for energizing the musicians, which then showed once the audience was added to the mix. She even appeared in good spirits on the night of the dress rehearsal, as she posted selfies on Twitter.”

More here.

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Image: South Africa’s Got Talent
What are the chances for a taxi driver with a great voice to move from entertaining his passengers to the opera stage?

I wonder if someone with a tremendous talent who delights himself and a small circle of others with his singing necessarily wants an international audience. That is the question that came to my mind as I read about the fun that a taxi driver in South Africa is having as he sings for passengers.

Stephen Moss writes at the Guardian, “Are opera singers born or made? Are there wonderful natural operatic voices out there waiting to get a break on Britain’s Got Talent? Or maybe on South Africa’s Got Talent, because the reason to pose the question comes courtesy of an opera-loving South African Uber driver called Menzi Mngoma, whose impromptu performances in the front of his cab in Durban have caused a frisson of excitement among those who want to believe that great voices and instant opera stars are all around us.

“Mngoma is a self-taught tenor who likes to belt out arias for his passengers. One of his customers, Kim Davey, liked his singing so much that she posted a video on Facebook. That, in turn, attracted media attention and the 27-year-old Mngoma’s career was launched. He is said to be auditioning for Cape Town Opera. A stadium tour will no doubt follow.

“It generally pays to be suspicious of such stories. The media want to believe in fairytales because they make good copy. Being an opera singer is about more than giving a passable two-minute rendition of ‘La donna è mobile.’ It is singing and acting a role over three or more hours in an opera house twice a week; having the vocal technique to sustain a 20- or even 30-year career; performing a wide range of parts in up to five languages. It is bloody difficult.

“That said, Mngoma does have the spark of something. I played the clip to the Guardian’s opera critic Tim Ashley, and while Ashley said there was barely enough to make a judgment, he thought Mngoma ‘sang “La donna è mobile” perfectly decently and with no strain at the top [of the voice].’ Ashley says that being self-taught is ‘unusual but not completely unheard of.’ …

” ‘You have to be born with talent – that can’t be taught – but teaching will hone that talent,’ says Martha Hartman, the manager of the vocal studies department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She says that singers do not have to start studying in their teens: the Guildhall has several students in their late 20s, including one who used to be a builder. But she emphasises that natural talent is not enough. …

“If Mngoma wants to be a professional opera singer, the hard work starts now. ‘If you find a singing teacher and if you hone your skills and if you have some classes in stagecraft and movement and drama and all these things that go into being a singer,’ says Hartman, ‘then you might have some roads open to you. But most opera houses and orchestras will demand knowledge of repertoire, and that’s a very big piece of the puzzle: knowing how to learn music and learn a role.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Matt Barnes
Jeremy Dutcher is a First Nations tenor and pianist who is getting a lot of attention in Canada and beyond.

Bit by bit we’re all learning more about the people around us, people who may have very different lives and who in the past we knew nothing about. Even those we thought we knew well sometimes have lives that are veiled to us, as I learned this summer when our niece sent me her story, a heartbreaking tale of a childhood that I had only perceived on the surface. You just can’t know what is going on behind someone’s eyes.

Among the kinds of people I am learning more about are indigenous people, both in the United States and elsewhere. This story is about a young tenor who belongs to a Canadian tribe.

Jeff Kaliss writes at San Francisco Classical Voice, “Interviews with Jeremy Dutcher figure among the new demands on a Canadian First Nations (indigenous) singer-pianist who’s risen rapidly to international attention. The 28-year-old Toronto resident needs now and then to take a break from the clamor, to return to something like the pastoral pace of his raising in the Maritime province of New Brunswick, as a member of the Wolastoqiyik [pronounced Wuh-last-o-key-yik] tribe.

“I first witnessed Dutcher a year ago, at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, performing on piano and singing in his tribe’s native Wolastoq language (the word denotes ‘the beautiful river’; renamed by the colonizers of New Brunswick as the St. John), in the basement of a church, a beautiful historical landmark. He hadn’t yet won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, nor its Grammy-equivalent Juno Awards. Both of these wins would recognize his debut self-produced album, Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, translated as Songs of the People of the Beautiful River. …

“Dutcher incorporates in his live and recorded music an unusual and affecting act of legacy, playing transcribed wax recordings from 1911 by an early anthropologist of a tribal elder singing and speaking, and following the melodies with his own heldentenor voice and mellifluous keyboard compositions. The method and quality of his approach derive from his training, including classical voice with Marcia Swanston at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“Two semesters before completing his music degree, Dutcher enrolled in a class in Social Anthropology, and decided to stick around Dalhousie for an additional year, completing a second major and an honors thesis on the subject of Traditional Music in a Contemporary Moment: Musical Pan-Indigeneity as Revitalization in the Wabanaki Region. The region is a confederacy of five indigenous nations including the Wolastoq and extending across the current provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec, and the state of Maine. The thesis title took the form of a mission statement for Dutcher, who was led to the wax recordings by a living tribal elder, sweat lodge keeper, and First Nations ambassador, Maggie Paul.

“ ‘I made my way to Ottawa [the site of the Canadian Museum of History] and went down into the basement archives there and threw on some headphones and started a journey,’ Dutcher recalled for an NPR presentation last year.

“ ‘To not just hear the songs, but also to hear the background noise and to hear them laughing and telling jokes — there was a sense of entering into that space through these voices. And that was something that changed my life.’

“The Dalhousie anthropology faculty have declared in writing their admiration for where their alumnus has taken his education and his life. … ‘Dutcher honors intergenerational connections, his voice singing on with the voices of his elders … It disrupts widespread expectations of indigenous music as a thing of the past, and shows instead how it lives in the present, fully capable of working and remixing in contemporary idioms. This has a decolonizing effect, in that it unsettles public conceptions that all too often primordialize and essentialize indigenous art forms.’ ”

I love the idea of a decolonizing effect. I never thought about that — about not only promoting healthier relations between indigenous people and others going forward but actually starting to undo harm that was done in the past. How great if we could apply that idea to all kinds of wrongs the world has seen!

More at San Francisco Classical Voice, here.

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Photo: Brian Peterson
Hmong writer Kao Kalia Yang with her father, Bee Yang. The daughter’s lyrical book about Bee Yang’s unconsciously artistic storytelling,
The Song Poet, will be turned into a youth opera in Minnesota.

When I was working at a magazine that focused on the concerns of lower-income communities, I sometimes tried to get the voices of immigrant authors in there. One such author was Kao Kalia Yang, a Minnesota Hmong writer whose work I greatly admired.

Yang spent her early childhood enduring the privations of a refugee camp in Thailand but eventually moved with her family to St. Paul, where poverty and a strange new culture made life difficult in whole new ways.

One of Yang’s lyrical memoirs focuses on her father and the way he sang stories about life in the old country that brought other Hmong immigrants to tears. Now it’s being turned into an opera for young people.

Jenna Ross writes at the Star Tribune, “Author Kao Kalia Yang’s father has been a farmer, a refugee, a machinist. But in a book about his life, Yang elevated his true vocation — poet. Soon, his story will be an opera.

“The Minnesota Opera announced [in April] that it’s creating a youth opera based on ‘The Song Poet,’ Yang’s acclaimed 2017 memoir about her father, Bee Yang, who composed and sang songs about life and politics, love and family.

“It’s the first time a Hmong story will be translated to the operatic stage, Yang said. … The book follows a young boy [Yang’s father] whose father dies, who grows up in a warn-torn country, who tries to find the place his father was buried. The tale begins in Laos, moves to a refugee camp in Thailand, then makes its way to Minnesota. …

“For its Project Opera, a youth vocal training program, the Minnesota Opera is scouting for stories that connect with young audiences and reflect the Twin Cities community, said Jamie Andrews, the company’s chief learning officer. When he sat down with ‘The Song Poet,’ he knew it would make an incredible opera.

“ ‘Kalia’s writing is just so lyrical and beautiful — so singable,’ Andrews said. … ‘The Song Poet’ becomes the third opera commissioned for Project Opera, which will premiere it at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis in 2021. …

“Bee Yang has performed traditional song poetry, or kwv txhiaj, since he was 12 years old, becoming a keeper of Hmong history. ‘When I began singing song poetry, I discovered I could share our stories of hurt and sorrow, of missing and despair, of anger and betrayal,’ he said in the book.

“This daughter’s telling of his story — and how it shaped her own — won the Minnesota Book Award for memoir and creative nonfiction. The 39-year-old author and Harding High School graduate is best known for her 2008 book ‘The LateHomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,’ which nabbed two Minnesota Book Awards. After graduating from Carleton College, Yang earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia University. …

“To ensure that the cast is diverse, the opera company will reach into the Hmong-American community, Andrews said. It’s working with the Saint Paul Music Academy and talking with Theater Mu, an Asian-American troupe. ‘It’s not just a Hmong cast,’ Andrews said. ‘But we’re doing some strategies already now for 2021, to build those connections and find those kids.’ …

“When Yang was young, she took the occasional field trip to the Ordway or the Guthrie. ‘You’d go in knowing that you’d be entering into a different culture,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t have imagined, as a child, walking into a place and seeing something from the Hmong story represented.

“I hope that for those young Hmong people who get to see this, it opens up possibilities for them. Not just Hmong — but all refugee children.’ ” More.

I highly recommend Yang’s memoirs. Maybe some of you will check them out.

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