There was a two part session with Barbara Hannigan at UoT yesterday. The first part consisted of an open rehearsal/masterclass for the Contemporary Ensemble conducted by Wallace Halladay with Maeve Palmer as soloist of Ligeti’s Mysteries of the Macabre. The piece is a mash up of three areas for the character Gepopo from the opera Le Grand Macabre. The basic premise is that Gepopo, the head of the secret police, is trying to warn her boss that the Earth is about to be hit by a comet. Unfortunately Gepopo has spent so long in the underworld of spooks and spies that she’s utterly paranoid and can only speak in broken fragments and secret codes. It’s weird and surreal and often funny in a disturbing way. It’s a piece very much associated with Hannigan who has sung it many times and worked on it with the composer.
The format was an initial run through followed by about 90 minutes of Hannigan going through the piece with the performers, followed by a final run through. Here’s my best summary of what Hannigan got across:
- The piece needs to be fast. Insanely fast even at the expense of some precision.
- The ensemble are characters in the drama. If the acting is left to the soloist it falls flat. They have to be Gepopo’s secret police goons and act.
- There are many places where the instruments need to sound really, really ugly; especially the low instruments like bassoon and trombone.
- The vocal part needs very forward articulation and mustn’t sound “beautiful”. This is not bel canto.
- Did I mention it needs to be insanely fast?
The effect of Barbara’s coaching was pretty magical. The final run through had a rawness and a dramatic energy that was quite different from the first time through. The real performance is as part of a concert by the Ensemble on Halloween so they have a month to get it even better. I’m quite excited by the thought.
Maeve Palmer, as Gepopo, was really impressive. I’ve been watching her progress over the last three years or so and something very good is happening. She’s always come across as an excellent musician as witnessed by her ability to perform difficult contemporary pieces but I’ve often asked myself whether the voice was big enough for a major stage. I think we are beginning to see the answer to that which is great.
There was time for a brief Q&A with Barbara at the end where, besides learning where she got the dominatrix outfit for the first version of Mysteries that I saw we also got the story behind iteration two; the slutty schoolgirl in pigtails and glasses. Apparently it’s a riff on Boko Haram using schoolgirls as suicide bombers. There you go.
The second half of the afternoon was a conversation and Q&A with Brett Dean, Matthew Jocelyn and Barbara about the opera Hamlet that premiered at Glyndebourne a couple of years ago and the related And Once I Played Ophelia which Barbara sang with the TSO on Thursday and will sing again tonight. There was quite a lot of interesting material on the collaborative process involved in bringing a new work to the stage. I was also intrigued by Brett’s statement that after setting a “poetic” text like Hamlet he didn’t think he could go back to setting a prosier libretto (his first opera Bliss was based on a contemporary novel). This really resonated with me. I see quite a lot of contemporary opera and the more I see I come to three conclusions:
- The big stories that have resonated down the centuries still make the best operas.
- Poetry trumps prose every time. Operas are not movies.
- Two hours of recitative is deadly. There need to be arias and other numbers.
Fortunately Hamlet meets all three criteria!
We also got to see Ophelia’s mad scene from the opera on the big screen. Very impressive.