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1. Last December you presented, for Divas & Scholars, a special soirée entirely dedicated to Mozart and his masterpiece opera, Le Nozze di Figaro 1786, a soirée in company of rising star soprano Sky Ingram and ENO repetiteur Richard Peirson. Can you give a detailed account of that very special all Mozart soirée to our readers?
Divas & Scholars’ evening in December at the elegant Club at The Ivy was dedicated to Mozart’s great opera buffa Le nozze di Figaro. We began the session with a recording of the overture while everyone took their seats. I featured the soprano Sky Ingram and paired her with the English National Opera repetiteur Richard Peirson. Richard has worked on Mozart’s operas during his career at the ENO and Scottish Opera, so I felt he was well qualified to impart some interesting insights as well as successfully accompany our singer. Sky is described in her Royal Opera House biography as a rising star and she has performed with them several times to critical acclaim in both an early opera and a new work. Her repertoire includes La Contessa Almaviva in Le nozze and this event was a great opportunity for her to sing Countess’ two exquisite arias and to talk about her experiences playing this intriguing role. She captivated the audience with her performances.
Richard gave some interesting background information on Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s adaptation of the Beaumarchais source. The story contains an incendiary concept, of servants standing up to their masters and being impertinent and familiar. With revolutionary ideas abounding in Europe before the French revolution, this was a daring theme for performances largely attended by the wealthy and the aristocracy. Sky brought out in her singing and contextual commentary that the Countess is the most serious character in the farce. Her longing for the true love and fidelity of her errant husband is evident in her lovelorn Porgi amor and plaintive Dove sono i bei momenti (Sky’s favourite aria by Mozart!). Sky talked about her character being crushed by the lecherous activities of the Count. She pointed out that the excited young Rosina of Beaumarchais’ previous play about The Barber of Seville is now almost unrecognisable, although she recovers some of her old joie de vivre plotting with the servants to expose and ridicule the Count.
As the evening progressed Richard covered the twists and turns of the complicated plot while playing on the piano snippets from the score of interesting moments to listen out for. We discussed productions values, how directors bring out the comedy and develop characters. We then presented a very interesting session where Richard coached Sky as in a rehearsal. They worked on some recitative which she knew well in the original Italian but if she was cast at the ENO would have to learn anew in English. The Countess’ recitative reveals her fluttering emotional state in addition to moving the story forward.
I thought it would be interesting to play a recording of Sull’aria and to mention how Mozart crops up in contemporary culture. This beautiful duet was used movingly in the popular film The Shawshank Redemption.
In all our events we also focus on our singer. So we learnt about Sky’s vocal technique, how she approaches the singing of a Mozart role and other aspects of the demands of her life as an opera singer. Then as a grande finale she sang Susanna’s aria Deh vieni, non tardar written for a soubrette soprano and not therefore ordinarily a role that Sky, a lyric soprano, would be cast for.
After the fascinating talk and recital members of the audience were able to continue the conversation about Le nozze di Figaro with our performers over dinner.
December 2018 Divas & Scholars’ Soirée dedicated to Mozart’s
Nozze di Figaro with rising star soprano Sky Ingram
2. Can you tell us about the origin of Divas & Scholars? And what the mission and the achievements of Divas & Scholars through the years since its birth? Can you tell us about some marvellous moments during the various soirées and events organized by Divas & Scholars?
Divas & Scholars started like many good ideas with a conversation at a party. I was telling a Royal College of Music professor Jean-Philippe Calvin about the passion I had developed for opera when I lived in Vienna. We thought it would be fun to hold soirees in my home and Jean-Philippe suggested an acquaintance of his who might enjoy performing. Later that year in 2011 the soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn and accompanist Alice Turner came to my house and gave a wonderful performance of opera arias to an invited audience of around thirty people. She performed some Mozart of course – Fiordiligi’s aria Come scoglio from Così fan tutte. It was some time ago but I still remember everyone who attended was very impressed. I think I may have charged a small entry fee and served champagne. It was a success and Alice Turner asked another of her colleagues, soprano Natalia Romaniw to do another recital in my house. This time we included some contextual information about the operas and some Q&A and it was clear that the guests very much enjoyed talking to the performers over drinks. I continued organising more events like these and introduced a speaker into the mix. Our first speaker was Mel Cooper the former Classic FM presenter and founder. He was extremely knowledgeable, and we worked together for some time in this format and Jean-Philippe also gave a few lectures. After a while it became clear I needed to find a more professional venue with some catering, so I moved D&S to the prestigious Cadogan Hall and started offering both lecture-recitals and also masterclasses for young performers with some very established opera singers such as Nelly Miricioiu with David Gowland from the Jette Parker ROH Young Artists programme and with Rosalind Plowright. Thanks to my personal connection with Nick Prettejohn (Chairman of the RNCM) I teamed up with the Royal Northern College of Music and we took to the main stage with a three-day course focusing on early opera and in particular Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse.
Young artists from the conservatoire sang and Lynne Dawson (famous for singing at the funeral of Princess Diana), director Stefan Janski and others gave an interesting commentary about performing early Baroque opera. Subsequently I offered many performance opportunities in a prestigious London venue for Manchester-based young singers on the RNCM opera course.
Without sounding too pompous I suppose the mission of Divas & Scholars is to promote the art form, opera, to a wider audience but in intimate surroundings. People love meeting and interacting with the singers who ordinarily they would only see at a distance on stage. The events offer a platform for established opera-insiders, whether they be directors, conductors, repetiteurs or opera singers to talk about what they do. And I team up young as well as rising star singers with more well-known artists. Divas & Scholars is a network and so many useful connections have been made at the events. One important part of what we do is give some useful publicity for up-and-coming opera singers too. Another exciting element of the events is the intimacy and proximity to the performers, and feeling the vibrations of these powerful voices is a visceral thing. It is fascinating to observe their vocal technique close-up.
3. How your many cultural activities (i.e. Thailand, the University of London, recitals and masterclasses at Cadogan Hall) led you to develop the project of Divas & Scholars?
My background in the arts and interest in culture of all kinds lead me to this project. Operas are stories taken from ancient mythology, bible stories, Shakespeare and other playwrights, history and contemporary issues. I studied both Classical Civilisation and History of Art at the University of London and these subjects are so linked to opera. Visual arts are very important in my life and operatic productions use elements of material culture combined with some of the greatest music. Singing has always been a feature of my life from an early age. I have always sung in choirs, from my school days until now and singing lessons have given me an insight into the voice. Although I might not be good enough to be a soloist myself, I have an informed appreciation of really good singers. Thanks to my husband’s career in Finance I lived in Thailand for a few years and studied South East Asian art while I was there. This culminated in my doing a Master’s degree at SOAS. I was subsequently invited to lecture on some of the short courses they run for external students. This was something I enjoyed and inspired me to someday run a similar programme for people interested in learning about opera!
4. Divas & Scholars has collaborations with many important groups and associations, in particular Opera Rara, The Grange Festival and the National Opera Studio. Can you tell us about your work with such institutions? And what your projects for the future?
Divas & Scholars is delighted to be associated with various important institutions and companies.
A) National Opera Studio
I was very excited when the renowned National Opera Studio agreed to collaborate on an Opera Studies course throughout 2018. They gave quasi-academic accreditation to the course and their Young Artists performed at each of the sessions. We did this series of ten evening sessions in the glamorous ballroom at the Lansdowne Club, Mayfair. Our lecturers included the star soprano and Glyndebourne chatelaine Daniel De Niese who we teamed up with a young mezzo-soprano and they talked about Singing Handel and the trouser roles. Another amusing evening was spent in the company of the veteran baritone Donald Maxwell who talked about Acting in Opera and directed performances by Angela Simkin. Angela has since made a successful debut with the Royal Opera House. Perhaps of most interest to your readers would have been the lecture given by the opera writer and Telegraph critic Rupert Christiansen on A personal journey through Mozart’s operas. Illustrating this talk with a lovely recital of Mozart’s arias was the Chinese soprano He Wu who recently performed with Joseph Calleja at the Royal Festival Hall. Marianne Cornetti, the spectacular American mezzo gave the most wonderful talk on her roles: Witches, bitches and queens!. She also generously sang an aria from almost all of them! We teamed her with the heldentenor Neal Cooper who on the night after had to step in at the last minute at the Royal Opera House to sing Tannhauser. He has since debuted at the Met. Nadine Benjamin also sang with Marianne Cornetti and recently she has been enjoying great reviews for her role in the ENO Porgy and Bess. The conductor and former music director of ENO Edward Gardner talked about Conducting Tchaikovsky and rehearsed with a talented young baritone who recently told me it had been a most useful connection for him. It was hugely touching when at the end of the series, an elderly retired dentist and opera fan wrote to me that the series had given him the most enjoyment of his opera-going life, especially when I sat him next to Nelly Miriciou at dinner!
B) Opera Rara
A collaboration with the recording company Opera Rara involved an evening with conductor Sir Mark Elder and the American tenor Michael Spyres, with musicologist Professor Roger Parker. They talked about the exciting work of Opera Rara, reviving lost and forgotten operas, especially in the bel canto repertoire. Michael Spyres has an extraordinary range and phenomenal top notes. He had only just flown in from the USA on his way to perform in Paris, but nonetheless gave an impressive recital of arias by Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and Leoncavallo. They discussed the forensic process by which they reconstruct lost operas from extant fragments. The top singers and musicians they work with then learn this rediscovered music under the guidance of the Artistic Director Sir Mark Elder. It is then performed in concert and recordings are made and CDs produced. Recently I watched the World Premiere of Opera Rara‘s reconstruction of Donizetti’s L’Ange de Nisida at the Royal Opera House and then their new version of Puccini’s Le Villi at the Royal Festival Hall starring Ermonela Jaho. I am hoping we will be able to do a Divas & Scholars event soon with the fabulous Ermonela.
C) The Grange Festival
The aim of the collaboration with Grange Festival was to promote the newly launched country house opera company at Grange Park, Hampshire after the original incumbents left the premises. I organised three evenings at the Club at The Ivy on which we focused on the operas in their future programme. Singers, conductors and directors including the renowned former Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House, John Copley appeared to talk about and perform highlights from Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Carmen and Albert Herring on separate evenings. The audience enjoyed our series and ticket sales for the new festival were considerably boosted. I introduced the famous West End theatre director Christopher Luscombe to counter-tenor Michael Chance, Artistic Director of Grange Festival and they will be working together on a production of Falstaff. We will hopefully do an insights and highlights event at the Club at The Ivy with Christopher and a singer from the production in advance of their summer season.
5. Your favourite work by Mozart and your favourite work by J. Haydn.
My favourite work by Mozart is Don Giovanni, and by Haydn, The Creation.
Don Giovanni was one of the first operas I encountered as a young person through the atmospheric 1979 Joseph Losey film starring Ruggiero Raimondi and Kiri Te Kanawa filmed in Vicenza and Venice. I adore the music, the darkness, the comedy.
Thanks to my choral background, I loved singing The Creation. It’s true to say the more you work on a piece the more you grow to love and understand it.
Losey’s Don Giovanni (Official Trailer)
6. Do you have in mind the name of some neglected composer of the 18th century you’d like to see re-evaluated?
Domenico Cimarosa (Aversa, Naples, 17 December 1749 – Venice, 11 January 1801). And this year is the 270th Anniversary of his birth: 1749-2019. This Neapolitan composer is not as celebrated today as his contemporary Mozart. However, in the 18th century he was one of the most popular and internationally famous composers, and for this reason maybe his work deserves more attention. He was prolific and composed 60 opera buffe and 20 opera serie many of which were in the repertoire of the great European opera houses in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Copenhagen, Stockholm, St Petersburg and all the main Italian cities during his lifetime. His opera Il Matrimonio Segreto was premiered in Vienna in February 1792, two months after Mozart’s death to an ecstatic public. Mozart never enjoyed such success in Vienna. Apparently his work was respected by his peers and Haydn conducted performances of many of Cimarosa’s operas at Schloss Esterhazy. His first opera was Le stravaganze del conte which premiered in Naples with instant success and recognition for the composer. He lived and worked all over Europe, in Naples, Rome, St Petersburg at the invitation of Catherine II, Warsaw, Vienna and Venice. The composer’s favourite opera was his Artemisia, regina di Caria, and his comic opera La ballerina amante was the inaugural work at the Teatro Nacional in Lisbon. Other titles were L’italiana in Londra and I due baroni, Le astuzie femminilli, Penelope and Gli Orazi ed I Curiazi. Although lacking the true genius of Mozart his style certainly resembles Mozart’s and may have even borrowed from Mozart whose opera audiences he would have shared.
7. Name a neglected piece of music of the 18th century you’d like to see performed in concert with more frequency.
Remaining with the theme of Cimarosa, perhaps his best known opera Il Matrimonio Segreto isn’t produced much. Often compared unfavourably by modern critics with Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro it is nevertheless a work full of sparkling charm with an amusing story and well defined characters:
Paolino a clerk to Geronimo a snobbish Bolognese businessman has been secretly married for two months to his employer’s daughter Carolina. Hoping to placate his boss, Paolino has been trying to arrange a marriage between Carolina’s sister Elisetta and his acquaintance Count Robinson. Unfortunately the count arrives and is attracted instead to the already married Carolina. Geronimo’s wealthy widowed sister announces she would like to marry Paolino.
Musically there are moments reminiscent of Mozart’s Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro, but this is unsurprising as composers of Italian opera of the period wrote in a similar style. Even if it lacks the inventiveness, the complexity and psychological depth of a Mozart opera it is full of vibrant and engaging melodies. The opening duet for Paolino and Carolina is lyrically beguiling and Geronimo’s Che saltino i dinari stopped the show at its premiere. The work was commissioned by the emperor Leopold II who had appointed him Kapellmeister to the court in Vienna. The humorous libretto by Giovanni Bertati was based on the English play of 1766 The Clandestine Marriage by George Colman and David Garrick who in turn may have loosely based the story on Hogarth’s series of engravings Marriage a la Mode. The opera was first performed at the Burgtheater and was said to have had the longest encore of any opera. Also the recent film The Cladestine Marriage is based on the same work by George Colman and David Garrick.
8. The whole story behind the music and the creation of Il matrimonio segreto (February 1792) is really very interesting. In the first months of 1792 (just a few months after the death of Mozart in December 1791: see, as you said, the quotations from Mozart’s works) Cimarosa had a sort of confrontation with Salieri himself (after the sudden death of Leopold II… and, as many said, poisoned) and had to leave his Vienna Imperial Court music position to Salieri immediately. In this way, Salieri became the master of Vienna music until Autumn 1823 (!), when he completed the music instruction of young Franz Liszt (celebrated as the newly reborn Mozart) and lost his mental health. Also Cimarosa was said to have been poisoned in Venice (1801; most probably not true!)… but this time by agents of the Bourbons of Naples and for well known political reasons… since he openly supported the revolutionary French Republic…
Have you read a particular book on Mozart Era you consider important for the comprehension of the music of this period?
When invited to write about literature which I think illuminates the era of Mozart I was hoping to be able to talk about some of my favourite eighteenth century books and plays. Those that first sprung to my mind were by Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, Sheridan, Henry Fielding or maybe Samuel Richardson. However, on further consideration, none of these precisely fit the time when Mozart was active, being either a decade or two earlier or later, and also they are more commentaries on English society and mores and none of them discuss the music of the time in any detail.
Mozart himself was fortunately a prolific letter writer and he wrote to family and friends throughout his life. He reveals much about his composing and life as a musician. His youthful letters written when travelling abroad present to us a hard-working musician, a dutiful boy, sensitive and devoted to his mother and sister left behind in Salzburg as well as to his father who travelled with him and promoted his musical career. The early letters are touchingly full of energy, observations of places he travelled to and people he knew, complaints about sore hands from endless composing and tiredness from the uncomfortable travel he had to endure, particularly through Italy in the intense summer heat. The impression is that he was a sweet and thoughtful boy with an adorable sense of humour sending messages and prayers to his loved ones and friends as well as his family pets. A teenage Mozart wrote the following from Milan:
«Address your letters direct to us, for it is not the custom here, as in Germany, to carry the letters round; we are obliged to go ourselves to fetch them on post-days. There is nothing new here; we expect news from Salzburg. Not having a word more to say, I must conclude. Our kind regards to all our friends. We kiss mamma 1,000,000,000 times (I have no room for more noughts); and as for my sister, I would rather embrace her in persona than in imagination.» (Milan, 7 November 1772)
He compares the crowded streets of London and Naples, comments on a hanging he observed in Milan and gives us so much interesting detail on the life of musicians and behind the scenes glimpses at the opera houses. He writes enthusiastically of the successful performances of his works. As he did from Munich (14 January 1775) for La finta giardiniera:
«GOD be praised! My opera was given yesterday, the 13th, and proved so successful that I cannot possibly describe all the tumult. In the first place, the whole theatre was so crammed that many people were obliged to go away. After each aria there was invariably a tremendous uproar and clapping of hands, and cries of Viva Maestro! Her Serene Highness the Electress and the Dowager (who were opposite me) also called out Bravo! When the opera was over, during the interval when all is usually quiet till the ballet begins, the applause and shouts of Bravo! were renewed; sometimes there was a lull, but only to recommence afresh, and so forth. I afterwards went with papa to a room through which the Elector and the whole court were to pass. I kissed the hands of the Elector and the Electress and the other royalties, who were all very gracious.»
9. Name a movie or a documentary that can improve the comprehension of the music of this period.
Two films which enhance one’s understanding of Mozart’s life and times are the documentary In Search of Mozart and Interlude in Prague. The former addresses the questions, who was Mozart, where did he come from and what made his music? And the charming film Interlude in Prague, a semi-fictionalised account of events in Mozart’s life during the creation of Don Giovanni, gives a wonderful flavour of the era. It stars actors James Purefoy, Aneurin Barnard and Samantha Barks.
After two years spent following in Mozart’s footsteps round Europe, the film maker Grabsky presented his answers in the feature-length documentary. Leading Mozart historians and performers – from René Jacobs to Renée Fleming – are interviewed. The two-hour film tells Mozart’s life story from beginning to end. It features live performance excerpts from his works, plus readings from his correspondence, and it dispels the popular myths such as those fostered in the Hollywood film Amadeus, that surround his life and death in an attempt to reveal his true identity. Grabsky claims, for example, that Mozart’s father Leopold, far from being money-driven, took his son on tour across Europe to ensure his prodigious talents were properly recognised. Wolfgang’s scatological humour was in keeping with typical speech of his time. And his communal grave was not necessarily that of a pauper, but in keeping with tradition. What sets Mozart apart from the rest is his more than 600 sublimely crafted works. For Grabsky, the transcendental quality of Mozart’s music makes him an intriguing and elusive subject, raising the question of whether events in his life are even relevant to our understanding of his brilliance.
10. Do you think there’s a special place to be visited that proved crucial to the evolution of the 18th century music?
I was very fortunate to live in Vienna for three and a half years in the late 1990s. It is one of my favourite cities and the place where I really developed my interest in opera. Although Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, he spent much of his short life in Vienna and parts of the city still have something of the atmosphere and look of his day. It has been very well preserved. Even if the premiere of Don Giovanni was in Prague and other triumphs were in Italy, Germany and England, Vienna was his hometown for his last ten years, and around 20 Viennese locations are closely associated with his story. Many of these locations are places I loved to visit.
In 1762 when Mozart was six years old and a prodigy from Salzburg he was invited to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of Empress Maria Theresia to play for the imperial family. They were charmed and impressed and he jumped into the Empress’ lap. Schönbrunn is a magnificent Baroque building painted yellow with green woodwork, just as was my house in the wine village of Grinzing. Architecturally it is similar in style to Versailles with wonderful gardens adorned with statues, fountains and grottoes. I very much enjoyed walking up to the beautiful Gloriette where there is now a café and from which there is a lovely view of the palace.
Mozart had audiences with the Empress Maria Theresia at the Hofburg Palace and later with Emperor Joseph II. Parts of the rambling Hofburg dates from the 13th century and one can imagine Mozart walking through it along cobbled streets on his way to the Burgtheater.
The Mozarthaus as it is now known was one of the houses he lived in on Domgasse 5. It was here that he wrote The Marriage of Figaro in 1786.
A place with an important association for the Mozart family was the Stephansdom where he married his beloved Constanze in 1782 and where his body was blessed after his death in 1791. St Stephen’s is a wonderful Gothic cathedral and an important landmark in Vienna. I remember it being rather dark and candle lit even in the 20th century.
www.michaelerkirche.at: Mozart Memorial Service Documents
His memorial service was held at the Michaelerkirche another important church and where most probably his Requiem was heard for the first time already in December 1791.
There are monuments to Mozart throughout Vienna including the Mozart memorial in the Burggarten and there is a Café Mozart behind the Staatsoper. However a café which Mozart knew was Café Frauenhuber and you can still visit it and eat Wiener schnitzel there.
I used to enjoy Mozartkugeln, the marzipan chocolates which bear his portrait.
State Opera House
A favourite place of mine in Vienna is the State Opera House which was built long after Mozart’s time in 1869 but it opened with a performance of Don Giovanni.
Thank you very much for having taken the time to answer our questions!
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