Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.







Recently in Commentary

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Kirsten Flagstad Born This Day 125 Years Ago

On this day, the great Kirsten Flagstad was born 125 years ago.

New titles announced for Glyndebourne Open House

Glyndebourne has announced the next two opera titles in its virtual festival, Glyndebourne Open House - Britten’s Billy Budd and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Les Talens Lyriques announces 2020-21 season with first modern performances of Salieri's Armida

Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques announce their 2020-21 season championing heroines, with the first modern performances of Salieri's breakthrough success Armida, 250 years after the work's premiere. A recording of Armida to be made during the season is complemented by the release of Mozart's Betulia liberate on Aparté this autumn. In June 2021, Les Talens Lyriques join the centennial Mozartfest Würzburg with performances of Idomeneo.

BBC Proms Announce 2020 Programme

From Bernstein to Benedetti, Haitink to Hvorostovsky, Mackerras to Kanneh-Masons, musical greats, from the past and the present, will be brought together in one extraordinary Proms season, 17 July - 12 September 2020.

Garsington Opera announces 2021 season

Next summer we return to celebrate our 10th Anniversary at Wormsley, in true Garsington style, using our distinctive indoor / outdoor theatre that offers so many opportunities for us to create wonderful performances in a safe environment for all.

UNMUTE: A Musical Reunion - Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Together with members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Douglas Boyd conducts a programme of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Strauss with six soloists and readings by Samuel West.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

Live from London: first-ever global online vocal festival announced

Live from London is a new, paid-for online festival from the VOCES8 Foundation, featuring some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles including VOCES8, I Fagiolini, Stile Antico, The Swingles, The Sixteen, Chanticleer and more.

Eboracum Baroque - Heroic Handel

Eboracum Baroque is a flexible period instrument ensemble, comprising singers and instrumentalists, which was founded in York - as its name suggests, Eboracum being the name of the Roman fort on the site of present-day York - while artistic director Chris Parsons was at York University.

Opera Rara at 50: Anniversary talk and Live Q&A

Artistic Dramaturge Roger Parker will be in conversation with musicologist Ditlev Rindom, introduced by Artistic Director Carlo Rizzi, on Thursday 25th June 2020 at 7pm BST.

Longborough Festival Opera launches opera podcast

Longborough Festival Opera is delighted to launch a new podcast, featuring today’s brightest stars for a series of conversations about the world of opera.

100 artists across 14 countries and 4 continents stage Guildhall School of Music & Drama digital opera double bill

This summer, Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s opera double bill has been transformed from the physical to the digital stage, with the creative team and artists from across the School bringing the productions to life from their homes using digital technology. It is now available to stream for free until Wednesday 1 July 2020.

Wexford Festival Opera: Waiting for Shakespeare…The Festival in the air

The 69th Wexford Festival Opera further develops its digital presence for 2020 to present a reimagined Festival: Waiting for Shakespeare…The Festival in the air, from Sunday, 11 October - Sunday, 18 October 2020.

First recipient of Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship to start at the Royal College of Music

Today the Royal College of Music (RCM) has announced that French soprano Clara Barbier Serrano will become the first recipient of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship. The scholarship means Clara will join the world-renowned RCM Opera Studio this September on the Artist Diploma (ArtDip) in Performance course at one of the world’s greatest conservatoires, ranked the top institution for Performing Arts in the UK for five consecutive years (QS World University Rankings).

English Touring Opera: In Conversation with Themba Mvula

English Touring Opera are starting a live series of conversations with the company's Artistic Director, James Conway. Each week James will be joined by a special guest and ETO Associate Artist Bradley Travis, and they hope listeners can join us and be part of the conversation.

Tête à Tête Airs Programme for a Real Opera Festival in an Imaginary World

Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival 2020 is rooted in themes of unreal and fictional worlds, impending political doom and apocalyptic futures, reflecting a real world in a state of unease.

A Celebration of Aldeburgh Festivals, 12-28 June 2020

12 - 28 June 2020 would have been the 73rd Aldeburgh Festival and this is the first time in its history that it will not go ahead. During the period that the Festival would have taken place, Britten Pears Arts presents a celebration of the Festival’s unique programming over more than 70 years, in collaboration with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, part of BBC Arts' Culture in Quarantine, keeping the arts and culture in the homes of the public despite the impact of lockdown which has seen festivals and performance venues unable to open.

English Touring Opera: Autumn 2020 Season Update

At English Touring Opera we are working to produce a live season of lyric theatre this Autumn, touring in October and November. This programme is being designed to observe social distancing guidelines in the interest of the safety of our artists and audience.

Opera Holland Park: Un ballo in maschera streaming postponed until Wednesday 3 June, 7.30pm

Opera Holland Park is aware of the #BlackOutTuesday movement among parts of the music industry that began to gather pace yesterday. For several weeks, we have planned to mark what would have been the opening night of the 2020 season with a streaming of our production from 2019 of Un ballo in maschera on our website and YouTube channel.



30 Apr 2020

Schubert 200 : in conversation with Tom Guthrie

‘There could be no happier existence. Each morning he composed something beautiful and each evening he found the most enthusiastic admirers. We gathered in his room - he played and sang to us - we were enthusiastic and afterwards we went to the tavern. We hadn’t a penny but were blissfully happy.’

Schubert 200: Tom Guthrie and Music Theatre for All celebrate the 200th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s song cycles

An interview by Claire Seymour

Above: 'A Schubertiade' (1868), a drawing by Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871)

(c) Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz


So recalled Franz Schubert’s friend, the painter Moritz von Schwind (1804-71) - with, no doubt a liberal dash of nostalgia - when describing to the composer Ferdinand Hiller (1811-85) the convivial evenings during which Schubert’s fellow artists, friends and patrons had gathered to hear the composer and his musical companions perform his new songs and instrumental works. Forty years after Schubert’s death, Schwind began a sepia representation of a grand party of regular ‘Schubertiad’ attendees, writing in 1868 to the poet Eduard Mörike: ‘I have begun to work at something which I feel I owe the intellectual part of Germany - my admirable friend Schubert at the piano, surrounded by his circle of listeners. I know all of the people by heart.’

In this drawing, Schwind and his fellow artists, Wilhelm August Rieder and Leopold Kupelwieser, stand side by side behind the seated ladies. Literary circles are represented by Franz Grillparzer, Johann Senn, Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, Ignaz Castelli and Eduard von Bauernfeld, positioned on the extreme right. The host, Austrian nobleman Joseph von Spaun, is seated to the left of Schubert who, at the piano, accompanies baritone Johann Michael Vogl. The latter, chest somewhat pompously puffed out, extends one hand towards the music. The poet Franz Adolf Friedrich Schober, in the second row on the far right, flirts with Justina von Bruchmann (sister of the poet Franz von Bruchmann). Over-looking all, the portrait of Countess Caroline von Esterházy, the former student for whom Schubert nurtured an unrequited passion, peers down on the lively gathering. [1]

Schwind’s representation is undoubtedly idealised rather than documentary. But, the vivacity of the scene matches that in Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s sketch of 1827, which depicts soprano Josephine Fröhlich, Vogl and Schubert engaged in active, social and spontaneous music-making. Both images present performance contexts that are quite different from those familiar today and pose interesting questions. Who are the audience and who the performers? How do the performers and audience relate to each other?

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller .pngA pencil drawing of soprano Josephine Fröhlich, barítone Johann Vogl and Franz Schubert (1827) by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller.

Such questions are of great interest to director and musician Thomas Guthrie, who will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Schubert’s three great song cycles - Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1827) and Schwanengesang (1828) - with new arrangements of each cycle, using period instruments and puppetry to bring the cycles’ narratives to life:

“I have always thought that the genesis of the songs - and particularly the cycle - came about in a much more creative, spontaneous and relatable storytelling atmosphere than we’ve become used to. The sense you get from contemporary reports and paintings conjures a world where friends dressed up, recited and sang poetry, played different parts, brought different instruments. This Music and Theatre for All project will celebrate this historical approach, take it further, and help these songs to reach a wider audience.”

Vienna c1815.pngVienna, c.1815

Working with the historically informed performance ensemble Barokksolistene, Guthrie will record these new arrangements for Rubicon Classics during 2020 to 2022. Tours will then follow to coincide with the 200th anniversary of each cycle. The Schubert 200 project is supported by Music and Theatre for All , a charity founded by Guthrie in 2013 which aims to connect performers and public through transformative music and theatrical projects.

Discussing the Schubert 200 project with Tom, I ask him about its genesis and what he hopes to achieve. He explains that Schubert’s song cycles, especially Die schöne Müllerin, were works that he encountered and sang as a teenager, and that, as his own work has developed over the years since, so has his understanding of and response to these songs.

Tom first worked with puppets in 2001 when performing in a production of Purcell’s The Indian Queen. Schubert 200 was, in a sense, born three years later when Tom was asked to preparer =and direct a performance of Winterreise for New Kent Opera - for singer, puppet, guitar and piano - with animated drawings by Peter Bailey and puppetry by Mandarava. New Kent Opera’s 2004 Winterreise was presented at the Theatre Royal Margate, a Grade II listed theatre dating from 1787. Since then it has become well-travelled and internationally admired, a recent revival, in a new arrangement, taking place at Princeton in 2017.

Tom Guthrie.jpgTom Guthrie

Tom suggests that working in new contexts, with attendant practical and budget constraints, can excite the imagination in fresh ways. He also emphasises the opportunities afforded by preview performances which enable one to evaluate what ‘works’ and what doesn’t, and to amend and develop in response to audience reactions. “What do they hold on to? What doesn’t translate?” The notion of involving the audience in the act of creation is clearly an important aspect of Tom’s creative process and storytelling is paramount.

Performing with puppets, he believes, can change a performer’s perception of a piece, encouraging them to find new ways of telling stories and thus forge fresh dialogues with audiences. In 2014, MTFA supported a performance of Die schöne Müllerin at the Spitalfields Festival , arranged for two guitars, percussion, tree branch, double bass, violins and viola, directed by Tom and performed by Barokksolistene and tenor Robert Murray, with a puppet designed and made by Mandarava. At a Q&A session following a performance of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at the York Early Music Festival last year, Tom was asked why he had added things that ‘got in the way’ of the musicians? An ‘answer’ was provided by a blind audience member who declared that their awareness of new dynamics between the performers onstage - the ‘swish’ of the puppets’ costumes, for example - had made this the most enjoyable performance of Schubert’s cycle that they had experienced. Tom adds, “For puppets to work, the performance must compel the audience to imagine and thereby invite them into the work.”

Orfeo I fagiolini Ben Pugh.jpgMonteverdi's Orfeo, at the York Early Music Festival 2019. Photo credit: Ben Pugh.

Just as using puppets can make stories accessible in news ways, so creating new arrangements of these song cycles can create new opportunities for musicians to connect with each other and audiences. The orthodox formality of a singer standing beside a modern grand piano in the concert hall might be challenged in productive ways which facilitate new channels of communication and creativity. Tom describes how the Barokksolistene soloists gather to explore themes and colours, and that improvisation is an important element of the creative process. The forthcoming Rubicon recordings of Schubert’s song cycles will be similarly organic, built layer by layer as the performers respond to each other, and Tom emphasises that the value of working with musicians who are well-versed participants in such musical conversations cannot be overstated. Similarly, although the puppetry will be incorporated in the later stages of the project, Tom explains that the performers’ prior involvement with puppetry, in the context of these cycles, has undoubtedly shaped and changed their perception of the works. Moreover, live performances with workshops are planned as part of the creative process.

I wonder, though, about the problems that might arise when arranging Schubert’s setting of Wilhelm Müller’s Die Winterreise and creating new sounds, sequences and stories. Is our knowledge of, and familiarity with, the musical and psychological narrative of Schubert’s cycle too entrenched to be easily relinquished? Tom reminds me that there is an inherent creative flexibility in Schubert’s settings of Müller’s twenty-four poems one which invites re-consideration and recreation. Indeed, Müller’s Die Winterreise was first published as group of twelve poems in the journal Urania in 1823. Schubert came across and set these twelve poems in 1827, dropping Müller’s ‘Die’ in his Winterreise. Müller subsequently published a longer version, in the second volume of his poetry, interweaving twelve new poems into his original sequence, though the former were not scattered evenly. When he came across these new poems, Schubert was reluctant - presumably for reasons relating to the musical relationships between the songs - to change the order of the songs in his cycle, so his settings of the new texts were simply added onto the original sequence.

Much has been written about the relationship between the song cycle and the poem sequence, not least the altered order of the final songs in Schubert’s Winterreise: Müller’s ‘Die Nebensonnen’ is the twentieth poem and ‘Mut!’ and ‘Der Leiermann’ bring the sequence to a close; Schubert’s final three songs are ‘Mut!’, ‘Die Nebensonnen’, ‘Der Leiermann’ - something that pianist Graham Johnson has argued was ‘one of the greatest examples of necessity being the mother of sublime invention’. Others disagree, but such debates certainly seem to imply inherent tensions and energies which might invite and inspire creative reinterpretation.

Barokksolistene Tatjana Dachsel.jpgBarokksolistene. Photo credit: Tatjana Dachsel.

I ask Tom if Schwanengesang presents particular problems, given that it is not a ‘cycle’ in a conventional sense, rather a compilation of two different sets of songs - to seven texts by Ludwig Rellstab and six by Heinrich Heine - gathered together by the publisher Tobias Haslinger (who added a further song, ‘Die Taubenpost’, to a text by Johann Gabriel Seidl) three months after Schubert’s death. Did Schubert himself intend to combine these songs and if so, how? The songs don’t tell a story as such, though there are unifying poetic themes - nature and love’s trials being the concern of Rellstab’s poems, loss and despair the focus of those by Heine. Tom relishes the creative potential of the questions posed by Schwanengesang, and notes that if one places Schubert’s Heine settings in the order in which the poems were written, a narrative does emerge. Moreover, it is complemented by a compelling musical narrative, for this re-ordering reveals an extraordinary key sequence formed of semi-tonal shifts between the songs which culminates in ‘Atlas’ with a dramatic harmonic fall of a minor third. I can see that, for Tom, a story is forming! One perhaps founded, he allows, on coincidences; but, such coincidences can enable one to learn new things, see works differently and create new dialogues with audiences.

After my conversation with Tom, I reflect on my own CD collection - seven recordings of Winterreise by different singers, all accompanied by a modern concert grand - or of the countless performances I have enjoyed of Schubert’s songs cycles in the intimacy of Wigmore Hall during the past thirty years. Perhaps it is time to reimagine such modern orthodoxies. There has never been, and there is not, just one way of interpreting and performing ‘canonical’ classical repertory. Listening online to some early 20th-century recordings of Schubert’s lieder - German-born baritone and composer Sir George Henschel (1850-1934) accompanying himself in 1928, Irish baritone Harry Plunket Greene (1865-1936) singing ‘Der Leiermann’ at the age of 69 - I am struck by the way that the informal, conversational tone of these performances makes one feel closer somehow to the 19th-century song traditions of Schubert.

In his book Schubert: A Biographical Study of His Songs (1971), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau asks, ‘Should one perform Die Winterreise in public at all? Should one offer such an intimate diary of a human soul to an audience whose interests are so varied?’, adding that the songs are ‘not for that section of the audience which expects only a refined, aesthetic experience’ from an evening of lieder. Communicating to and connecting with audiences, involving them in the process of creation and performance, lies at the heart of the Schubert 200 project. And, I remember the words of Ferdinand Hiller describing the time when, at the age of sixteen, he first heard Schubert sing: ‘One song followed another - the donors were tireless, the receivers were tireless. Schubert had little technique, Vogl had little voice, but both had so much life and feeling, were so absorbed in their delivery, that it would have been impossible to perform these wonderful compositions with greater clarity or with greater sincerity. We thought neither of the piano playing, nor of the song: it was as though the music had no need of any material sound, as though the melodies were revealing themselves like visions to ethereal ears.’

Claire Seymour

[1] See Christopher Gibbs, The Life of Schubert (CUP, 2000)

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):