Looking To The Future At The Royal Opera House

01/04/2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Jim Pritchard Previews the New 2014-15 Season

The great and the good in opera and dance journalism gathered at a very early hour at Covent Garden for news of the 2014-15 season … and I was there too for my first time! It was a very laidback, genteel hour, full of self-deprecating humour and surprisingly little interrogation of the speakers, including Alex Beard (Chief Executive), Kevin O’Hare (Director of The Royal Ballet)), Kasper Holten (Director of The Royal Opera) and Sir Antonio Pappano (Music Director).

It appears not the time for questioning of – amongst other things – the sky-high ticket prices (especially for opera) for often modest casts; the lack of sufficient star dancers in the Royal Ballet company; that it must be appreciated that time is coming soon for a change in the music director as Pappano will have been there for 13 seasons in 2014-15 … and why the Royal Opera – apart for solely ticket sales reasons – is continuing to support Plácido Domingo’s vocal descent (decline?) into baritone roles that seems to be one of the longest farewells to the stage in entertainment history! (A couple of decades ago I was at a concert by the singer, Elkie Brooks, when she announced it was part of her ‘last-ever tour’ … and she is still gigging. Domingo seems determined to hang on just as long!)

Perhaps this time next year there can be more pointed questions asked because, at last, Kevin O’Hare at The Royal Ballet and Kasper Holten at The Royal Opera are starting to have their own plans realised. Evidence for this came from Holten revealing that when he took the job he asked Pappano: ‘What is the first project we are going to do?’ and so it will be Szymanowski’s Król Roger next May. This is a work that Holten says has an ‘incredible score … just as epic as any Wagner opera but is only an hour and a half!’ So maybe next year we will get more answers, for example, about the choice of opera directors. For instance, Katharina Thoma is coming to the Royal Opera to direct the new Un ballo in maschera and Holten admitted that her Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne was ‘not universally liked but we believe Katharina is a first-rate director’. And finally a new La bohème production will replace the famous John Copley one that will get a last outing after 41 years next season. Richard Jones’s new one will open the 2017-18 season and as Holten said – with tongue firmly in cheek – ‘That might very well be the end of me’ if it is not liked and how they will probably hide the Copley sets ‘in a corner somewhere’ … just in case!’

Alex Beard said that for him ‘It’s been a wonderful six months … this is a season that has been firing on all cylinders and the public has responded with something like 96% houses so far.’ He praised the opera house’s hub in Thurrock saying how there is ‘in the Eastern Thames Gateway – one of the UK most deprived areas – an extraordinary hive of creative endeavour.’ He praised his organisation’s ‘commitment to engagement and openness’ how they were ‘reaching more than 400 cinemas across the UK … something like 100,000 people-plus saw Giselle’ and how ‘this is an institution the breadth of whose activity and commitment to audience engagement – and increasingly its reach across this country and beyond – is properly exceptional.’

Kevin O’Hare began by admitting it was ‘Quite a challenge now putting a season together’ because there was so much to choose from. He was looking for a contrast in ‘the range of repertory we have, the range of choreography, either our heritage choreography or new choreographers we work with.’ Also the versatility of the dancers was important and how ‘we really want to show the range of work they can tackle’ as that is what ‘excites our audiences.’ It was important for the dancers to do the ‘classics one day and to be (then) working with the newest, most exciting choreographers around.’ An important announcement was of the new Aud Jepsen Young Dancer Programme and how – after their graduate year – participants will spend a year with the Royal Ballet company having coaching and mentoring and working with some of their young choreographers: in O’Hare’s opinion ‘Some young dancers need that.’ Wayne McGregor will present his first full-length ballet – ‘narrative, but non-linear’- that is inspired by the writings of Virginia Woolf and a former Royal Ballet Principal, Alessandra Ferri, will return to appear in it. Also of interest is the commissioning from Hofesh Shechter, of a work as part of a March Triple Bill because he has not worked with a classical company before. Elsewhere, apart from the return of Manon, Onegin, Don Quixote, La Fille mal gardée and Swan Lake, there will be Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, other Ashton masterpieces, including Symphonic Variations and MacMillan’s Song of the Earth. Whilst O’Hare promised several significant debuts he will undoubtedly be trying to showcase the company’s recent new arrivals, Vadim Muntagirov and Natalia Osipova.

‘Breadth’ was the buzzword of the morning and Kasper Holten picked up on this for the Royal Opera by saying that there is ‘Quite a breadth of things going on next year … no doubt talking about the breadth, we are unique among the world’s big opera houses.’ He continued by considering how all the collaborations, especially with The Roundhouse, will mean their reach is ‘going to be big next season.’ He reminded those listening how it was one of the things he set out to do when he arrived that there should be more new productions – and next season there will be seven on the main stage – whilst admitting ‘long runs of Traviata and Bohème is the bread and butter of the opera house.’ Indeed, over half of its performance next season is Puccini, Verdi and Rossini alone. The new Andrea Chénier will be David McVicar’s first new production at Covent Garden for three years and with Jonas Kaufmann ‘taking on a new major part like Andrea Chénier is something that will be noticed around the world’ and it will be (29 January) one of seven live cinema opera transmissions. He also spoke about The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (to be conducted by the ENO’s new music director Mark Wigglesworth) that will be sung in English, something the Danish-born Holten suggests will be better to tell ‘the story of a bunch of crooks together setting out a city of sin’ that he considered was ‘quite appropriate to London at the moment!’ Again, outreach was important to the Royal Opera and he emphasised how ‘exposing as many people to joys of opera is something quite central to us, and we are proud of the work we do.’

Another new production is Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (that Pappano also spoke about) and importantly a revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s much-admired Anna Nicole will open the new season with a performance exclusive to students with prices ranging from £1 to £25. Many famous names – other than Domingo and Kaufmann – will return including Nina Stemme in Christof Loy’s much-derided Tristan und Isolde (Holten announced ‘Yes we have improved the sightlines in this production’), Bryn Terfel (as Dulcamara and the Dutchman), the much-cancelling Anna Netrebko as Mimì, Anne Sofie Von Otter (Leokadja Begbick in Mahagonny) and Gerard Finley (Guillaume Tell).

It was Antonio Pappano who explained his decision not to be going just yet when he said it was a ‘no-brainer that I have extended my participation and collaboration with the company. It is my home, it’s where I belong and as I go out from this opera house – and see how the other half lives – I prefer to live here!’ It is a compliment to the current administration and all who work at Covent Garden that he feels this way and reflected the enthusiasm everyone had for the new season and what a ‘happy ship’ it all now seems to be.

Apart from all the offerings in the main house there will be lots of new works by both companies in the Linbury Studio Theatre. Those popular cinema screenings (that Alex Beard describes as a ‘virtuous relationship’) will include besides Andrea Chénier, I Due Foscari, Der fliegende Holländer, Guillaume Tell, (that) La bohème, Swan Lake, Manon,, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and others. There will also be several BBC Radio 3 opera broadcasts. Schemes such as the student Anna Nicole evening, Family Sundays, Big Sing Fridays and the Youth Opera Company show the Royal Opera House’s determination to involve the broader community through Alex Beard’s ‘commitment to engagement and openness’.

It would churlish to look at 2014-15 anything less than optimistically … but time will tell!

For more details visit http://www.roh.org.uk/news/ballet-and-dance-201415

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