Review: Mark-Anthony Turnage — Coraline

Whatever happened to arias? That’s what I was thinking all the way through Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera Coraline. It was essentially a play with a soundtrack (and some warbling). Sure, the music is clever and at times delightful. Turnage gives it a quirky swing which makes one more forgiving of its relentless dissonance. But the music never goes much beyond recitative — and in a story brimming with opportunities for song. At times I sensed we might finally get an aria, a moment to let the heart soar, to make us despair, to chill us to the bone, but it never came. The music is agitated with flickers of promise, rather like a candle struggling to stay alight.

Coraline was originally a superb children’s story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline and her parents are moving into a new house, she finds a passageway to another reality where her ‘other mother’ lives, who seems affectionate at first, but her affection is revealed to be rather sinister. Oh, and in this other reality everyone has buttons as eyes.


Turnage has not compromised his music for the sake of children. A chap behind me went on boringly about how ‘sophisticated’ the music was for a children’s opera. Why do we conflate sophistication with weirdness? Is Berg more sophisticated than Mozart? What this chap meant was that, to enjoy this music, one needs to develop that refined middle class ability whereby, through an arcane process of intellectual alchemy, one transforms crap into gold.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The music is not that bad. As a piece of theatre it works, and the many kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. I doubt anyone remembers any of the music though, and I am certain that very few would have enjoyed a concert performance. But staged it was enjoyably spooky. Turnage is a good composer, and even though I’m not fond of his work there’s no doubting his talent. I just wish composers like him would relent on the jumbles of wrong notes, the faux-chord splodges and the unmelodic melodies. No one coming out of Coraline was thinking about the music. They were thinking about the production — in particular, the astonishing decapitated hand at the end — or the acting or the story. The music was incidental.

The one thing I loved about Coraline (and which almost redeemed it for me) was the fact that every word — nay, every syllable — was perfectly understandable. There were no surtitles, and we didn’t them. I am far too ignorant to even guess how Turnage did it, but he did, and any opera composers should surely study the score for this reason. Never did the orchestra overwhelm or obscure the words. It was a model of clarity.


Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant myth that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.

Mille Regretz

Mille Regretz (‘A Thousand Regrets’) is a gorgeous and once popular song thought to be written by the Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. Its fame is invariably linked to King Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, who was said to be very fond of it, so much so that a good handful of contemporary composers wrote versions for him. This is the original Josquin version (well, some dispute its authorship, but for the sake of this blog post I’ll refer to it as his).

Luys de Narváez was a Spanish vihuelist during this time and intabulated the song for his instrument. The vihuela was a small guitar-like instrument particular to Spain, of which Charles was king, and was for all intents and purposes very similar to the lute. Narváez, who wrote one of the few extant books of vihuela music, gave the subtitle ‘la cancion del Emperador’ (‘the emperor’s song’) for his intabulation of Mille Regretz, the most explicit evidence we have of Charles’ fondness for the song. Unlike the Josquin version, there is more ornamentation as the vihuela, like the lute, cannot possibly hold a note for as long as a singer. This is a fantastic piece to play on the guitar too, and not at all difficult. Just tune the G string to F#, and maybe capo at the third fret, and you can play it from the original score. Here’s Julian Bream playing it on the vihuela:

Cristóbal de Morales was another Spanish composer who used the song in order to gain the king’s favour. Missa Mille Regretz is a parody mass — that is, not work of comedy but rather one that steals material, often from secular songs — and contrary to modern values this wasn’t looked down upon. The Kyrie from Morales’ mass setting:

Nicolas Gombert’s is the only other contemporary arrangement I’m aware of, and like Morales’ it is expanded to six-parts. I was not familiar with it until today, but it is very beautiful and seems to be the most intricate arrangement:

We can assume that there were also plenty of non-scored arrangements of this popular song, and if you browse on YouTube you will find plenty of modern ones. This is a particularly attractive version by the American early music group Voices of Music for organ and cornett:

King Charles V is perhaps better known to music lovers by his strange appearance in Verdi’s opera Don Carlo. Just at the end, he emerges from his tomb Commendatore-style as King Philip II and the Grand Inquisitor are chasing after Don Carlos, proclaiming

‘The sorrows of the world
follow us into the cloister.
The struggle in our hearts
will find peace only in heaven!’

At which point he rescues Don Carlos.

Below is the final scene of Don Carlos. Charles emerges exactly 10 minutes in — he’s the one holding the enormous, ornate cross. It is a total what-on-earth-just-happened moment that suddenly comes in the last minute of this grand three hour opera.

What an ending!

The Secret Life of Opera Prompters

‘The opening of San Francisco’s opera season was an hour away when disaster struck. The lead tenor, about to sing the demanding role in Verdi’s Othello, lost his voice. A worldwide search began to see if one of a half dozen tenors knowing the role could come and save opening night.

Curtain time was delayed three hours. Rumors were rampant that none other than Placido Domingo was being flown in from New York by private jet. They proved true, and Domingo sang, without rehearsal, an opera he hadn’t sung for a year.

When asked how he did it, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without the help of the prompter.” [source]

I’d never heard of opera prompters before reading this entertaining article on the ROH website. These unsung heroes reside in a cramped little box at the front of the stage with only their heads poking up to the surface. One San Francisco Opera prompter describes it:

‘The prompter’s box is 34 inches from front to back and 45 inches from side to side. I enter from the floor below the stage. The first ladder I climb is 51/2 feet, and from that level, on which the hydraulic lift sits, it’s another 6 feet up to the stage.

I sit in my chair. I put my music on my adjustable music stand. I’ve got two video monitors of the conductor and an audio monitor that’s piped sound from the (orchestra) pit. I have a fan, because it gets hot in here. There’s a lot of dust that comes in. If you’re lucky, there are no props that come in. When people throw swords, I get nervous.’

Here he is at his workplace:


What do prompters do, you ask? Well, they conduct, especially when the singers have a less than perfect view of the conductor himself, and more importantly they cue the text or whatever musical prompt the signers might need. In the olden days they used what were essentially rear-view mirrors so they could see and follow the conductor, but now they a tiny television screen to aid them. Timing is crucial, as their prompts have to precede the conductor, and moreover the orchestra, by a second or so. The prompters will speak lines in a kind of shouted whisper, audible to the singers but not the audience, if all goes to plan. They’ll gesture and give other cues to the singers, with whom they’ve usually built up quite a rapport and know how to communicate with effectively.

The prompter has to be acutely aware and in total control of their every movement so as not to throw singer’s off. One prompter relates such advice:

‘Flaviano Labo once screamed at me,” Miss Dornemann [the opera prompter interviewed] said. ” ‘Sit still! Look happy! Don’t scratch your head, I’ll think it’s a cue. Don’t wiggle!’ I got the idea. Never look disapproving. Singers need all the encouragement they can get.’

The prompter’s job has fallen out of use in the UK apparently. Plus some director’s don’t want a prompters box ruining their set. But it’s still commonly using at the Met, for example. Met prompter Jane Klaviter has amusingly said that being a prompter is like being an air-traffic controller.

Naturally, there are some wonderful stories. In a performance of The Merry Widow the singers forget their lines and the prompter, Frau Knuzel, was so captivated by the performance that she had forgotten her duties. She was instead just sitting there, her arms folded over the score, transfixed by the spectacle. The singers began to improvise text. Eventually, they moved themselves down to the prompter’s box and, continuing to improvise, one of them sang, ‘by the way, have you heard anything lately from Frau Knuzel?’ To which the other responded, ‘No. I wonder how she is.’ Well, this prompted a loud screech from the box and Knuzel frantically recomposed herself and got back to the task at hand.

For all the undoubted stress and poor working conditions the prompter has to endure, I still can’t help but envy them. They have the best seat in the house.


Ted Puffer: An Unsung Hero

Ted Puffer is someone who achieved incredible things, but who always lay on the outskirts of public recognition. He was an American classical singer, the founder of a small but prolific opera company, Nevada Opera, as well as a university professor and even a translator. Yet I doubt the name Ted Puffer is at all familiar to anyone reading this.

85293634_132987596931Born in 1928, Merle E. ‘Ted’ Puffer was a man clearly phenomenal in his musical talents, but also evangelical in his belief in classical music’s universal accessibility. Under his leadership Nevada Opera performed many operas with English translations, adamantly opposing the cultural elitism he thought too prevalent. Indeed, opera companies throughout the Untied States have used the English translations Puffer and his wife made. I think he was onto something, understanding that opera’s roots were not in elitism but in populism. ‘For too long, opera has been a status event where patrons could sleep’, he said. ‘I want people to come to the opera because they like it’. He apparently liked to tell his audiences this: ‘Leave the costumes to us. You don’t have to dress up.’ Puffer exemplified the best of egalitarianism.

His legacy lives on through the Nevada Opera, which is still active, as well as through those he mentored, notably Dolora Zajick. She is a mezzo famed for her Verdi performances and as someone who has sung many times for the Metropolitan Opera. She described him as ‘a quirky influence’, but ‘an excellent voice teacher ‘who proved crucial in her learning’. He taught me how to sing’, she said in 1991, while Puffer was still alive. ‘I’m still working with him. The more I got out in the wide world, the more I’ve learned and have to compare with, the more I appreciate what he has to offer. I had no concept in the beginning the level he was at.’

On 23 October 2003 Puffer died after a year-long fight with cancer. He is survived by his daughter Monica Harte, a successful musician in her own right. News of his death spread fast, she recalls. ‘[From] all over the world we’re getting calls … A couple of different people have said, “You know, I have the life I have because of your parents and because of the opera or because your dad taught me how to sing”.’

There is one other area through which Puffer is immortalised, and this is how I discovered him. In 1965 he recorded two volumes of Charles Ives’ songs. These are the only two recordings he ever made, and they are astonishingly unique. They sound ‘American’ — authentically down-to-earth and sung without European affectations. Of all those who have recorded Ives’ songs, Puffer is the one who comes closest to understanding that Ivesian blend of a free, humble, but proud America combined with the artistic complexity and expressiveness of classical music. Unusually for those singing Ives, he is a tenor, and his voice has clarity and a character you’ll find nowhere else.

Included below is Puffer’s version of Ives’ song West London, the first Ives piece I ever heard. Originally a sonnet by Matthew Arnold, West London depicts a tramp with her baby and young daughter begging on the streets of London. Ives sets this to music in ingenious ways. The song travels from the musical anxiety of the young daughter begging for money, to more confident chords when she comes back satisfied, money in hand. But then there’s a frosty chromatic descent sung by Puffer as the tramp follows the rich passers-by with a ‘frozen stare’; she knows that the rich men will not give her money as they do not empathise with her the way that working men do. ‘She will not ask of aliens [the rich], but of friends [the working men], Of sharers in a common human fate.’ Though not too long after, the song passes back into optimism, with these majestic chords  — almost anthemic — while the vocalist sings triumphantly, ‘And points us to a better time than ours’. That same chord sequence is then repeated at a whisper, and in a higher key, until ending on a plagal half-cadence — the opposite of the ‘Amen’ cadence, as it’s more commonly known. I’m not exactly sure what Ives meant in this musical addendum to the text, but it’s certainly evocative.

And Ted Puffer’s version is masterly — dare I say the definitive version. Please do listen (underneath are the words):

Crouch’d on the pavement close by Belgrave Square
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.
Some labouring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Pass’d opposite; she touch’d her girl, who hied
Across, and begg’d and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.
Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.
She turns from that cold succour, which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.