In de serie ‘ABC van Opera Nederland’ krijgen prominente personen uit de Nederlandse operawereld carte blanche. Deze maand in deel O: tenor en artistiek leider van DNOA Alexander Oliver.

Door: Alexander Oliver

I thought long and hard when I was asked to write this article, as I was given carte blanche as to the subject and content. Easy, you may think , but I have found it quite a tricky task!! It finally sent me off on a huge and nostalgic journey filled to the brim with happy memories!!

Can it really be so, that in February/March 2015 it will be 51 years since I made my debut in Newcastle singing the title role in Gounod’s ‘Faust’????? Yes it was with a semi professional company and the exposure was not high, but I was just 20 years old – ah the folly of youth!!! The point is that no-one had actually explained to me that Faust was not exactly the easiest of the tenor roles and that I might be on the green side!!! Apparently I knew no fear on that occasion – my God, how that aspect was to change!!! That I am, however still occasionally active as a performer/verteller/director etc etc is a source of great gratitude to me (and probably considerable exasperation to others!!!) I think that this can truly be described as great good luck and I count myself very lucky on a great many levels.

Like all young and ambitious singers, I dreamt of singing the great lyric roles of the tenor repertoire (and Faust seemed like a fairly obvious place to start to me!!). Indeed, I was given many opportunities to “test these waters” with roles such as Ferrando (‘Così fan tutte’) Ottavio (‘Don Giovanni’) at the start of my career but it would be quickly proved that these roles were not to become my true calling cards. It was on the very first national tour with Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1968 that I was contracted to sing two performances of Don Ottavio a week, and two performances of Monostatos in ‘Die Zauberflöte’. When I saw the reviews from the press it was very clear indeed that my future was going to be more based around the character repertoire – there was absolutely no (or very little) disappointment in this realisation. I was always more taken by the wonderful, colourful and extreme characters that offer such marvellous opportunities to the aspiring singing-actor. Indeed, my professional life would have been infinitely less interesting had it not contained so many of those roles. I have no doubt at all that my performing career was greatly enriched by being afforded the opportunity to play Iro (‘Ulisse’), Arnalta (‘Poppea’), L’Erice etc etc! Two of those roles just mentioned were to become staple roles in my repertoire. Arnalta first came my way thanks to the vision of the unforgettable Hans de Roo who was, in 1972, the intendant of the Netherlands Opera. When I first looked at the score, I was convinced that Hans had got it wrong as I was quite sure that the role would be too high in tessitura for me – Hans was right and I was wrong!! The performances under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt and Alan Curtis and magnificently directed by Filippo Sanjust, were a big success, and the role was to take me to many of the great opera theatres of Europe – Arnalta, like many of the comic characters in Baroque repertoire is a travesty role – a close friend and colleague (herself a distinguished Arnalta – it is still sometimes sung by an Alto) observed rather acidly that I seemed to have cornered the market for portraying Baroque au pair girls (Arnalta is Poppea’s nurse!!). The same colleague was even more put out when I was asked to sing the Knusper Hex (another of her roles!!) in ‘Hänsel und Gretel’ (sadly I never did the part as it didn’t fit into my agenda). That pleased her but she did suggest to me that the day I sang Carmen our friendship would be well and truly over! I certainly never sang Carmen, so the friendship survived!

In these aspects I clearly succeeded on at least some levels – after one of the first performances (in 1972!!) I was introduced to the very “netjes” parents of a colleague. I was chatting happily away to the gentleman of the couple who informed me that he had greatly enjoyed the performance, but that his absolute favourite was the “funny fat lady” who had played the nurse. I felt it would have been ungracious to try to explain to him that it had actually been me!!

Bizarre and colourful as my repertoire was, I have always been incredibly grateful for the opportunities that it afforded me. This aspect shot sharply into focus when in 1999 (dear God, what happens to the time?) I was offered and accepted the post of Artistic Leider of the Dutch National Opera Academy (DNOA). Having spent so many years playing baroque au pair girls, psycopathic misfits (Mime, Monostatos, etc etc) I felt reasonably confident that I could help the new generations of young opera artists to be brave and bold on the stage – one of the most important qualities a young singer can have.

In my capacity at DNOA as teacher and mentor I have always tried to stress these aspects as being of major importance – it is the artist who can reach across the footlights to the audience, who can speak with an open heart (and throat!!!) and who is unafraid of the grand emotions that opera obliges us to express, who will win the day.

I have always believed this to be one of the major responsabilities of the singer – we sometimes seem to live in a world which has been emotionally blunted by the horror of so many events which surround us and this, in my very humble opinion, has led to a generation of rather bland unchallenging performers – all excellent and neat, but lacking the fire of the great singers of the past. For instance, I go to see Madame Netrebko in a live relay from the Metropolitan Opera of Donizetti’s ‘Anna Bolena’ – it is all in it’s place and tonally beautiful but I find myself missing the emotional danger of a Callas, Gencer or Caballé, or going further back, the blazing intensity of the likes of Inge Borkh or Astrid Varnay – although not necessarily in that role!! The fact remains an inescapable one, that the above mentioned ladies were, all of them, possesed of immaculate vocal technique and all enjoyed long and distinguished careers. It is (and again, this is in my humble opinion) no accident that we seem to be in the phase of the “5 year career” which starts with a great blaze of fireworks but quickly and depressingly fizzles out (much like a firework really!). The reasons for this are too complicated and indeed controversial to go into here. Although I totally understand that the world has irrevocably changed, it is nevertheless a source of great sadness to me that we have seen in our time the demise of the ensemble based companies (financial reasons – I know!!!). It was here in exactly these conditions that the likes of Sutherland, Domingo, Caballé, etc had their first important performing opportunities, giving them the chance to grow into their roles and perfect them before being given exposure on the great opera stages of the world. In today’s world, a young singer will often make his/her debut in an important role in a major house, having never actually performed the role before. Taking the stress implied by these conditions, the 5 year career should hardly come as a surprise!!

Add to this the excesses in terms of stage productions of opera, fostered by the German Expressionism which held such a strangle hold on so many of the opera stages and you have very good reasons as to why it is increasingly difficult for the beginning singer. I remember vividly a production of ‘Die Zauberflöte’ in Switzerland where the stage director seriously wanted to cut out the final scene for the Queen, the three ladies and Monostatos – it starts – “nur stille, stille, stille, stille”. On that particular occasion, I am very happy to report that the conductor – the wonderful Armin Jordan and common sense prevailed and the (kindly nameless!!) director was overruled!

Needless to say – there are signs of light as well in all this – there was a recent production of Chabrier’s ‘L’Étoile’ at the Muziektheater which was nothing short of joyous on every level – elegantly sung and acted by a wonderful cast and directed with great panache and style by Laurent Pelly. It also had a memorable appearance by six of the young Opera Academy girls as ‘Les Demoiselles d’Honneur”—-that was pure joy!!

There were only two slightly saddening aspects to that particular evening – firstly, the theatre was only half filled – woe to you, opera goers of the Netherlands – you missed out on a great treat! Secondly – it took me about 10 minutes to realise that the part of Le Roi Ouf could have been written for me (although I was filled with admiration for the wonderful artist who sang the role) and I felt actively and briefly sad that that part had never come my way – ho hum!!!!!

It is a poignant sensation to be writing this on the very last day of 2014 – the year which saw me take the decision to resign as Artistiek Leider of the DNOA. I have had 15 wonderful years in that post and have been incredibly priviledged to work with a great number of highly motivated young artists who are making their mark in today’s professional practice – it would be invidious to cite names, but sufficient to say that they have, all of them, worked their various ways round my heart and I hold each and everyone of them very close indeed.

As I write this, I begin to realise that it reads like an epitaph to my life’s work – not so at all!!! I plan to continue with coaching, directing and occasional performing. Who knows – maybe the “funny fat lady” hasn’t quite finished all her songs yet!!! I am certainly making no plans whatsoever to sit quietly behind the geraniums.

© Sandy Schoenberg