Thursday, 28 October 2010

Arts Cuts and WNO


When I first started this blog I never imagined I would be discussing funding cuts and fiscal years, but following last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review my hair demanded I return and take a look at what has gone on. The short analysis is this – the arts, as was expected, have taken a rather large kick in their collective non-gender goolies.

The longer analysis goes something like this...

Over the following four years 29% will be cut from Arts Council England’s (ACE) budget with a (largely) blanket 6.9% decrease in funding for organisations announced this week for the 2011 – 2012 fiscal year. “So what?” I hear you say, WNO are a Welsh company.” Well, they are a Welsh company, but they also tour to many cities in England and, as such, a sizeable chunk of their funding comes from ACE. £6.29 million (2011 – 2012) to be precise, which is down from the current (2010 – 2011) £6.76 million. This is leaving a (circa) £650,000 gap in WNO’s funding for 2011 – 2012.

But this is just the beginning of the fun. The crucial decisions with regards to long-term funding will take place in spring of 2011 when ACE announces its plans for the 2012 – 2015 fiscal years. WNO could see its funding increased, decreased, or stopped altogether depending on how ACE tackles the £100 million pound budget savings it has to make.

The troubling aspect, from WNO’s point of view, could be a significant decrease in what Dame Liz Forgan (Chair of the Arts Council) described as a budget for strategic opportunities for artistic work - this will be reduced by £21m (64%) next year. This supports work such as touring…In the future we will be asking funded organisations to take on more responsibility for furthering our strategic goals, particularly in the areas of touring and audience development. As ACE describe WNO’s funding as towards core costs of 14 weeks of touring to seven cities in England it would appear that WNO’s funding may come under the budget for strategic opportunities for work, although as usual the devil, or the angel (in this case), could well be in the detail.

What ACE’s final decision will be is, of course, impossible to tell, but it would be foolish not to envisage calls from English based organisations demanding the end of WNO’s funding, despite the fact that WNO tours to cities in England that Opera North and ROH do not visit. Far be it for me to suggest such a thing but perhaps folks who take in WNO performances in Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Plymouth, Oxford and Southampton may like to voice their opinions to ACE, or their local MP’s, over the coming weeks and months...

But before ACE delivers its crucial decision on the 2012 – 2015 fiscal years focus will shift to the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) and its December funding announcements. Will they cover WNO’s ACE loss for 2011 – 2012 or will they be forced to lessen their support? With a far smaller budget than ACE (ACW records for 2008 – 2009 showed that their grants totalled £22 million, £4 million less than ROH’s ACE grant alone for the same period) ACW’s ability to help WNO will be lessened even further following last week’s CSR given that the Welsh Assembly Government (ACW’s principal sponsor) is facing a £1.8 billion fall in its budget over the next four years. It’s been previously suggested that ACW will look favourably on WNO given its proven track record and the knock on financial benefits it creates for businesses in Wales, but if ACW’s own budget is squeezed then they can only do so much to support WNO.

All of this leaves WNO, like many other organisations, holding its breath. Inevitably the financial restraints will inhibit ability to invest in new productions, and audiences may have to put up with more revivals than they would like. But given a choice between revivals or new productions I will take revivals any day of the week if it means keeping the core strength of WNO intact, the chorus and orchestra, to avoid the disturbing fate of Scottish Opera with its dismantled chorus and part-time orchestra. Not that I would want WNO to retreat into a cocoon of Italian Top Ten Hits. Lothar Koenigs' appointment has undoubtedly breathed new life into WNO and it is important that he has a strong say in the make-up of future seasons.

It seems ridiculous that in the same year WNO produced an unforgettable Meistersinger, which was received with ecstatic abandon from Cardiff to the Royal Albert Hall via Birmingham by, among others, HRH Prince Charles and an emotional Stephen Fry on BBC TV that its future might about to be drastically affected through no fault of its own. Ask audiences, those far removed from London, just what it means to have WNO tour to within reach of their villages and towns and I suspect the words grateful and happy (a simple, but enjoyable emotion) will be mentioned quite often. You need look no further than this blog for evidence of the wonders of WNO. I am, at heart, a generally very cynical person – it’s true I’m afraid. So it’s a mark of WNO’s moreish addiction that I’ve kept up with this blog.

In writing this post I may be imagining the worst for WNO (what do you expect – I’m Welsh!). The case may be that WNO emerges with greater funding. Or, who knows, maybe one of the Ryder Cup entourage who attended WNO’s special performance on the eve of the contest might like to invest in the company? What I do know is that the endgame for the CSR is only a few months away, and the reality is that many organisations will suffer. Some will sadly disappear, and I assume larger organisations will suffer as well. All I can hope is that WNO isn’t one of them. Because at the end of the day WNO is made up of people who earn their living from giving people something that money can’t buy. Joy.

Orchestra and Chorus of WNO Wach auf!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Combing…


As WNO hits the road I’ll be trimming my blogging for a while, but worry your frown lines not – I’ll add the odd post here and there with WNO related news, or anything which grabs my fancy in addition to some tweeting.

But before I don my nylon cape and stride off into the sunset with my pearl handled comb in one hand, and my Fabergé mirror in the other, I just have time to bring your attention to a few extra bits of WNO news.

The Orchestra of WNO will be performing a concert sans singers at St David’s Hall on Friday the 29th of October. The programme consists of works by Rachmaninov, Webern and Stravinsky with the orchestra being joined by pianist Jean-Philippe Collard for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. The conductor for the evening will be WNO Music Director Lothar Koenigs, and to read his thoughts on the programme just follow this link to an online flippy page brochure. You can also read ahead to check out the orchestra’s other St David’s Hall concerts taking place next year.

The last bit of news is that Welsh National Youth Opera are on the lookout for singers from the ages of 16 – 25 to join them as they work towards the 2011 world première performance of The Sleeper, a collaboration between composer Stephen Deazley and poet Michael Symmons Roberts. Interested parties can find more details, and an application form, here. But don’t dawdle; the closing date for applications is the 12th of November 2010.

Anyway, the hills are calling out to my hair and I must be away. But I’ll be taking copies of Die Fledermaus, and Il Trovatore, with me as I prepare for WNO’s Spring Season. For those of you who are catching WNO on tour this autumn I hope you have great nights out, and for those of you who aren’t – give in to the love I’m sending your way and pop along for an evening!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos - WMC 9th of October

Fggfgju iiook;;k;lkghgfgh890jddffggj, 4yullohijk.

I haven’t discovered an Icelandic volcano, or a new health drink. Not even the chemical compound of good luck. With uncanny stubbornness my monitor decided to pack it in over the weekend, so deciding not to lucky guess my typing skills I waited until the fog cleared and I could type Ariadne, and not Anadin, or Agfkyik.

Less of the gibberish – it’s time to get to the reason you’re reading this.

The last note, by now, has long echoed on WNO’s final performance of the year at the Armadillo and in a Jahr that saw a triumphant Meistersinger there can have been no finer way to say auf wiedersehen than with another stellar performance of a German language work. Saturday evening’s performance of Ariadne auf Naxos was a revival of Neil Armfield’s celebrated production and was, in the words of my neighbour on the evening, one I’ll always remember. The I’ll, of course, applies not only to my neighbour but, judging by the cheers at the end of the performance, to many others in the audience. Do I count myself as one of the I’ll? As sure as my name is Hairman Bouffant Bob Pompadour the 19th Earl of Silver Comb the answer is...what do you think?

It’s a yes.

Who is to thank for bringing Joy to my Curls? Nigh on everybody who was involved in the production. First of all there’s Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for creating the work in the first place. But specifically, for WNO’s effort, the thanks, according to guest reviewer, Armchair Critic (erm, me), go to...

Director Neil Armfield (and revival director Denni Sayers) for their pointing skills. The direction is a treat and gifts the performers with a clear sense of character and purpose. The Prologue crackles and fizzes with an energy and a fluidity that never feels forced while the Opera, working on many levels, has been approached carefully so that the potential quagmire of the commedia dell’arte scene is cannily navigated (with the aid of a wonky bratwurst and some hamper gymnastics), paving the way for an ending that is genuinely touching, and moving.

Helping the direction are Dale Ferguson’s designs, especially the Prologue set. An enjoyably detailed creation it invites the eye to roam around the backstage with props-a-plenty bedding in the authenticity. The Opera set is, at first, an intentionally wishy-washy drab affair with tattered sets. But within the course of events it houses a red curtained comedy, Bacchus’ mini-ship and aerially descending gangplank before dwindling to a darkened space illuminated by a constellation of stars.

Into this richly devised world steps an astutely cast group of singers. English mezzo, Sarah Connolly, dressed in a writerly suit, was the marquee name on the cast list and she lived up to expectations as the Composer, capturing the comedy, the passion and the hysterical naivety of the character both vocally and visually. Whether it was mournfully pouring a cup of water over her head, falling for Zerbinetta’s wiles or raging at her teacher she played the Composer with an earnestness that never felt overcooked.

Playing the role of Prima-Donna / Ariadne was Ireland’s Orla Boylan. Our first sighting of the soprano was of her in a dressing gown and playing up to her character name. Come the second act she was in second character mode and displaying a voice capable of rising over the orchestra, but which she wisely muted at times to allow a delicacy into her singing that aided Ariadne’s woes to be shown (in between glimpses of a finely tuned straight woman comic sensibility). Having never sung Ariadne on stage (or even in the shower) I’m not sure how difficult it is to switch between overblown emotion to the more honest, naked variety but Boylan, at the climax of the opera, was making me still my breath with the honesty of her singing.

Also stilling my breath was Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta). Diminutive in size, with a voice as flexible as her ballet bar stretches, Beckmesser would be frothing at the mouth with her coloratura. But as he wasn’t there I decided to take up froth duties, especially after her hugely enjoyable Grossmächtige Prinzessin. The impressive aspect to her singing though wasn’t that she could colar-t until the cows came home but that through her singing and acting she made Zerbinetta a far warmer character than I envisaged her being. Oh, and for the record she was the night’s recipient of my now fabled Golden Lock Award™ for her aforementioned Grossmächtige Prinzessin.

Rounding off the last of the main roles was Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura. Like Boylan and Keith he was making his WNO debut (forgot to add those bits earlier...and he also made his UK debut) and as debuts go it was impressive stuff. Like Boylan he had to split personality his way through the performance, with 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of his singing coming at the end. Can you have a sweet heldentenor voice? If so then Tamura has one that he used to powerful effect on Saturday evening as the dramatic heart and soul of the work built to its crescendo. In the (sort of) words of Meg Ryan, I’ll have what he’s having.

Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta) Sarah Connolly (Composer) Photo by Richard H Smith taken from The Arts Desk

Of course, you can have all the gold in the world leading your cast, but if all that’s there to support it is a heap of scrap then your display will look more like a junkyard than a Rolls Royce (I know it’s a weak analogy but ignore its lameassness). Scroll a few paragraphs upwards and you’ll remember I mentioned something about astute casting? Go on. Have a look. Well, the astute casting, apart from being directed towards the Fab Four is also targeted towards the remainder of the cast.

A wonderful trio of nymphs melded their distinctive voices beautifully in harmony, especially at Bacchus’ entrance. Joanne Boag was an elegant Echo, Mary-Jean O’Doherty a sprightly Naiad and Patricia Orr a rich Dryad.

Z’s commedia dell’arte troupe were an example of Teamwork to a T! The quality of their performances were marked by my not wanting to send for Special Agent Seeley Booth to give his critique on the clown work. Applause please for a cunning Owen Webb (Harlequin), a lithe Aled Hall (Scaramuccio), a deeeeeeep voiced Julian Close (Truffaldino) and the bratwurst wielding Wynne Evans (Brighella).

In the smaller roles the quality was no less satisfying with Stephen Rooke making a good impression as the Dance Master, Eric Roberts smug and despotic as the Major-Domo and the ample voiced Robert Poulton (Music Master) bearing an uncanny resemblance (at a distance) to former WNO Director of Music, Carlo Rizzi.

And how were things in the pit? For once I think I’m able to comment without a sense of trepidation. Lothar Koenigs coaxed some sublime playing from the orchestra, especially the cello section. And in a rare event their playing of the overture for the Opera garners the second Golden Lock Award ™ of the evening – the first time two GL’s (as they’re known in the biz) have been handed out for the same performance.

I know I tend to be quite enthusiastic about most WNO productions (apart from Madame Butterfly – we just don’t get on) but even so this was a memorable performance by anyone’s standards, and was reflected in the chatter of happy voices as I skipped out of the building. With the WMC to my back I made my way home on a high, but with one nagging downside to the whole production – it was only given two dates in Cardiff. Not enough in my books. With this melancholic thought drifting towards the back of your mind I suggest you check to see if WNO visits a town, or city, near to you, and if it does take the night off from the TV / pub crawling and treat yourself to a night you’ll genuinely remember. As for me, I’m looking forward to the November 13th broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of one of the (two) Cardiff performances.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hairman at the Opera gets to know...Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (Part 2)

Photo by Clive Barda taken from WNO

Apologies for the delay in this closing instalment, unfortunately my technical #fail is still living up to its hash mark, but I’ve enlisted some help from You Tube, so settle in for a brief delvidge into the remainder of the work.

Gone are the backstage hysterics of the Prologue with the stage now set for the Opera* within an opera – Ariadne auf Naxos. To say that little goes on in the Opera is misleading, but a straight explanation of events reads like a Saturday afternoon b&w melodrama / musical from the 1940’s...

Ariadne (Prima Donna) has been left high and dry by her lover (Theseus) on the island of Naxos. Bewailing her fate she wishes to die, despite the protestations of a trio of nymphs. Trespassing into this realm of misery (and the Composer's Ariadne auf Naxos) comes Zerbinetta and her commedia dell’arte troupe to attempt to enliven Ariadne's spirits. After her boys make little progress with Ariadne, Zerbinetta makes an attempt to sing some sense into the Queen of Mope, but she too hits the rocks and Ariadne skulks offstage to find solace with a bottle of gin and a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Zerbinetta delivers her less gloomy outlook on matters of the heart, before her boys return to do a slapstick routine. Once the slap has been sticked they make way for Mr Loverman, Bacchus (Tenor). Thinking that The Seventh Seal's most pale faced cast member has turned up Ariadne reappears. After a heart to heart, things begin look up for Ariadne as she forgets all about death and settles for being transformed into a constellation. I wonder what would have happened if a shipwrecked unicyclist from Genoa had turned up? Anyway, end of opera.

Perhaps that was a touch heavy-handed explanation, and the bit about the constellation may be slightly wrong, except that there’s more than just plot to this opera. Though I’ve come to appreciate the work as being a cut above most others I’ve come across it didn’t start out that way. Reading Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, the decision to create a behind the scenes approach in the Prologue jarred with me when the second part of the work, the Opera, took centre stage. How could I treat it seriously when it was such an artificial piece of work? These grand, yet distant, figures from Greek mythology had little in common with the earthbound creatures who had bickered throughout the Prologue. You could draw some lines of continuity between the characters played by the Prima-Donna and Zerbinetta's gang; Ariadne’s fragility with men foreshadowed by the Prima-Donna’s constant enquiries about the host’s whereabouts, and though Zerbinetta is a far more lyrical version of her earlier self, she still carries the same Woman of the World message. And it's Zerbinetta, and her gang, whose presence in the Opera is the trickiest. At times they undercut the seriousness of the plot, deflating the woe is me vibes given off by Ariadne and her Damsels in Depression.

But fret not my fretted readers – things are not as bewildering as they appear. Comedy's cheeky jowl doth sit by tragedy's furrowed brow! Thanks to the music. Reading the libretto, is one thing. Listening to it is another kettle of fish and fingers. In its own way, the work, is similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, in that it shakes up an audience's perception of what to expect. And in a way Strauss trusts that we'll buy into his musical ideas for the work. Of course the music has to be able to withstand the toing and the froing of the onstage action and it succeeds in doing this. On times the arias felt slightly generic in nature – Zerbinetta's coloratura mega marathon and the Ariadne / Bacchus Wagner-like getting to know you bit – but they are high class generic arias (and in a way most work carries echoes of other composers). More importantly the comedy sits nicely with the tragedy, deflating the self-indulgent woes and in turn allowing the honest to goodness beauty of the score to bloom at the end of the work. Because, believe me dear readers, you may want to take a tissue or two in with you for the finale. Or pretend that you've just poked yourself in the eye with a comb.

Bringing this edition of the barely thought out Hairman at the Opera gets to know... I've come to see Ariadne auf Naxos as being a beguiling work. The philosophers among you may want to point out that Strauss illustrates the school of thought that there's a narrow divide between comedy and tragedy, and there is more than a kernel of truth to that observation. Others may like to highlight the reality present in the work, in that it shows you don't need to be the loveliest of human beings to be able to create works of art. Those of you, who are so inclined, may wish to draw attention to the work's solidarity with composers / writers subjugated by commercial vultures. Then there'll be those sick and fed up of maudlin pretentiousness who will lap up the pricking of a bubble or two. Without forgetting, of course, those who find that it's less the plot, rather than what the opera has to say about love, and how it says it, that's important. As with any work of substance it defies classification. It's qualities change the more a listener encounters it. At the moment I'm a mix of all of the above and, whether or not I stumble upon further changes of heart, these thoughts will do me fine for the time being.

With a nod towards your patience it's excerpt time.

Ariadne (Jessye Norman) taking a trip down memory lane, before taking a trip down misery lane. Still, it's good stuff.

Zerbinetta (Natalie Dessay) dispensing wisdom to a disinterested Ariadne (Katarina Dalayman) - Part One.

Zerbinetta (Natalie Dessay) dispensing wisdom to a disinterested Ariadne (Katarina Dalayman) - Part Two.

Get your tissues and combs ready! It's the finale, as sung by Gundula Janowitz (Ariadne), James King (Bacchus) and co.

*When I refer to Opera it's the second part of Ariadne auf Naxos, as opposed to the opera as a whole.