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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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Photo: Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer
Composer Andrea Clearfield sought new sounds when composing her Buddhist-enlightenment opera. Here she is pictured with Tibetan instruments from her personal collection.

A Philadelphia composer who was writing an opera decided that, much as she loved Western classical instruments, they wouldn’t be enough to capture “enlightenment.” So she ordered new sounds.

David Patrick Stearns had a report at the Inquirer in January.

“Philadelphia composer Andrea Clearfield knows to warn her downstairs neighbors when her opera is scheduled to erupt. ‘I’m writing a destruction scene. Beware!’ …

“The commotion-causing opera is Mila, Great Sorcerer: It will have a semi-staged presentation Jan. 12-13 [2019] in New York City’s Prototype Festival and dramatizes a Tibetan Buddhist parable of annihilation and enlightenment. The more demonic sections have music she describes as ‘macabre circus … dark tango … a nod to the Mummers strut,’ played by Western orchestra augmented with horns, bowls, and bells from Nepal.

“Yet the story — about a young man who acquires dark powers for revenge and is later transformed into one of the most venerated teachers in Tibetan Buddhism — still asked for something more.

Clearfield wanted sounds she had never heard, from an ethereal tricked-out music box to a drone that suggests something primeval welling up from the center of the Earth. Instrument maker David Kontak created seven new instruments to produce them.

” ‘I was looking for a third world,’ Clearfield said in her Philadelphia studio, ‘a world that is not electronic, not acoustic, blends the voices and instruments, is East and West, and is capable of transmitting this story of ultimate transformation.’ …

“Clearfield had been thinking about the subject matter for a while when by chance she met playwright Jean-Claude Van Itallie, who had adapted The Tibetan Book of the Dead for the stage and who had already written a libretto about Mila with Lois Walden. …

“Even better, the libretto was commissioned by a pair of producers who originally considered a film about Mila but concluded opera would be a better way to tell the story.

“ ‘I’m a composer who met the writer who had written the libretto to the opera I wanted to write,’ Clearfield said. ‘How often does that conversation happen?’ …

“[Says] Gene Kaufman, ‘and some moments choose you.’ Kaufman, who is producing the opera with his wife, Terry Eder, finds that ancient religious mythology contains ‘the accumulated wisdom of centuries to which modern life is only a retelling. We just need to listen. …

“Interestingly, much Mila iconography shows him with hand cupped to his ear: Listening was a major element of his enlightenment. …

“During Clearfield’s residency at the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she often asked other Yaddo artists what enlightenment sounds like to them. The artist/author/musician/documentarian Laurie Anderson replied, ‘The resonance [that is] left in the room.’ …

“As much as Clearfield and her collaborators have immersed themselves in Tibetan culture, the greatest impact on the opera itself may not be religious or even philosophical, but elemental.

” ‘You feel the aliveness of everything [in Nepal]. Even in the rocks,’ she said.”

More here.

Bhutanese painting thanka of Milarepa [Mila]. Here Mila is listening, “reminding you to stay awake. Stay awake to your life — and move forward,” says Inquirer reporter David Patrick Stearns.

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Photo: English National Opera
Young people have fun participating in the English National Opera’s Opera Squad.

Anything that engages young people in the arts — and helps them to start on a lifetime devotion — has my vote. As arts organizations struggle to increase their base of enthusiasts and bring in a new demographic, they might look at the idea of “free.”

Mark Brown writes at the Guardian that as of last December the English National Opera will “offer under-18s free Saturday night tickets in what it has called a ‘seismic’ initiative to attract the next generation of fans. …

“Stuart Murphy, the former channel controller of the youth channel BBC Three who joined ENO as CEO in March, said the initiative stemmed from the company’s core values.

“ ‘We were founded on the belief that opera is for everyone,’ he said. ‘Removing cost as a barrier to entry for under-18s is a seismic leap forward for ENO and for opera as a whole. … We want young audiences to feel alternately passionate, excited and transfixed. We can’t wait to welcome them to the London Coliseum.’

“All the free tickets will be for what might be called the cheap seats in the balcony. But ENO contends the balcony ‘is widely regarded as having acoustically the best seats in the house.’ There will also be no peering round columns as, uniquely, all seats at the Coliseum have unrestricted views of the stage.

“Anyone who is under 16 will need to be accompanied by an adult. But any adult who purchases a full-price ticket in the balcony … will be able to take up to four children for free. Teachers bringing a school group can be accompanied by 10 children for free. Young people aged 16-17 can book one ticket each.

“The tickets will be available for all of the 11 Saturday performances in the spring 2019 season, which includes productions of La Bohème, Akhnaten, The Merry Widow, The Magic Flute, and the new opera Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel. …

“The ENO initiative will be welcomed by those who argue that the best way to get young people hooked is for them to experience the art form itself.

“Graham Vick, the artistic director of Birmingham Opera Company, has described conventional outreach and education work as a ‘barrier’ to reaching new audiences. ‘You do not need to be educated to be touched, to be moved and excited by opera,’ he said. ‘You only need to experience it directly at first hand with nothing getting in the way.’ ”

Not sure I agree with that last comment. I was 14 at my first opera, La Bohème, and it meant nothing to me. At the very least, I think it would help if kids heard the music in the background at home or school for some days before attending a performance. I could be wrong. No doubt they will all get into Jack the Ripper without help!

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Cory Weaver
Wexford Festival Opera:
Dinner at Eight, by William Bolcom, got its European premiere at last fall’s event.

Back in the 1990s, I worked with a woman whose father was an opera buff. He loved opera so much that, although he had no real connections in the field, he managed to organize a high-quality company in the part of New York State where he lived. Westchester, if I remember correctly.

It wasn’t his day job: it was what he did for love. In another example of opera lovers who go out of their way to lend support, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has taken small, non-singing parts on stage, attracting some new audiences.

At the Irish Times, David McLoughlin has another example of what some folks will do for opera.

“Never intimidated by the weight of cultural heritage, each new generation of Irish artists continues to reimagine, reinvent and reinvigorate. The arts are constantly changing, finding new forms of expression and igniting new flames. …

“Wexford Festival Opera was founded on an idea and ethos which still remains at its core today, 67 years later – to present rarely performed operas, to unearth and shine a light on hidden gems.

“I was once told by the then chairman of a leading American opera company that the reason Wexford has rightly survived is because from the outset its rationale was plain wrong.

“He was right: the dream by a small group of local people, including a GP, a hotelier and a postman, in the early 1950s, of bringing international singers to a remote corner of Ireland to present rarely performed operas, wouldn’t even get past the first page of a modern-day feasibility study.

“But they weren’t dissuaded, and the minor detail of no real financial underpinning was from the outset not even considered a hindrance. The dream they were determined to see become a reality was enthusiastically shared and championed by the local community, who volunteered their time and skills. …

“The festival opened up not just Wexford itself, but Ireland and its arts sector, to the international performing world in a way no other cultural venture had done up until then – nor, I would argue, since. The spin-off has been enormous – artistically, culturally, and economically, generating [$14 million] annually. …

“Wexford is often defined as what it is not: a national opera company. It isn’t. Wexford is an annual festival, an international event, proudly Irish, presenting Irish and international audiences with a distinctly international repertoire, featuring Irish and international performers and attracting an audience that stretches well beyond these shores. It makes a vital contribution to the profile, development and reputation of the Irish opera sector. It may be niche but it’s broad enough to accommodate new audiences.”

More at the Irish Times, here. It will be interesting to see how this festival fares after Brexit, when Ireland will still be part of the European Union and its closest neighbors won’t.

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