Totally Mozart: A London Company Takes on All of His Operas

Monday, December 09, 2013 - 01:00 PM

Classical Opera is a small, London-based opera company, founded in 1997 by Ian Page to perform all of the music of Mozart and, occasionally, works by his contemporaries. After devoting much of their initial efforts to fundraising, they’ve begun a projected two-decade cycle to perform and record all of Mozart’s operas and other vocal works, in addition to many of his instrumental pieces. The concert and semi-staged opera performances feature a mix of young and mid-career singers. I got in touch with Page to learn more.

What prompted you to create Classical Opera?

Only about a third of Mozart’s operas enjoy a regular place in the repertory. I felt there needed to be a company which does for Mozart what the Royal Shakespeare Company does for Shakespeare. This is not just a question of repertory but also of style and communication, and of bringing these pieces to life. 

Mozart and Shakespeare are my two gods. They tap into something universal and eternal and, even in their lesser works, are capable of suddenly doing something that no one else could have thought of. Mozart’s music is important in a way that transcends music history. His operas are consumed with themes of love, compassion, vulnerability and forgiveness and, in his life as in his work, he was an eternal optimist who believed in the power of love, in all its guises, to make the world a better place. 


How do you approach these operas?

The Da Ponte operas and The Magic Flute are so universal as to be almost indestructible but the difference between a good and a bad performance of even La Clemenza di Tito or Idomeneo is immense. And operas like La finta semplice or Mitridate almost need approaching like problem children; if you love and nurture them and make every effort to understand them, they can really flourish.

Mozart’s operas have been performed so often in the past couple of centuries that there probably aren’t any good ideas left that haven’t already been thought of and done before by someone else. Any performance that sets out to be different for the sake of it is obviously doomed. What you can do, though, is to fortify yourself with a knowledge of how these pieces were originally conceived and performed, and a detailed understanding of the libretto and the score. Once you’ve done this, you realize that there are literally dozens of valuable questions to be asked about every line of text and every bar of music. If you ask yourself all these questions, then your performance will necessarily be unique, without trying to be.      

This is a never-ending journey, and each time I return to one of the Da Ponte operas it is with a sobering sense of “How did I miss this, or not understand that, when I last conducted it?” This is actually rather a positive feeling, for it protects us against becoming too self-satisfied or over-confident. To perform Mozart’s music well you have to tap into the core of your own compassion and vulnerability. Otherwise – rather miraculously – it just doesn’t work.

What are your goals?

It’s interesting how my priorities have shifted. When we set out, my main focus was the repertoire I wanted to explore. Second was the development of young singers – by and large Mozart’s operas provide an ideal grounding for singers in the first few years of their careers. Third was the way we develop and interact with our audiences. 

Now, though, I’d almost say that the order of these priorities has reversed. Mozart remains, and will continue to remain, at the center of our work. The discovery and nurturing of outstanding young singers has became one of our biggest calling cards – many of the singers who started their careers working with Classical Opera now appear in the world’s leading opera houses. But my programming is driven by a desire to share an exciting journey with our audience, and the loyalty and friendship that we have received from our supporters is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work.

The vast majority of our work takes place in London, and our other main goal now is to increase our touring activity overseas. Many of our followers view us as a “best kept secret” and, although our recordings have done a certain amount to develop our profile internationally, we would love to bring our live performances to more people.

 

How do you choose singers? 

Initially, we could only afford singers at the outset of their careers. It helped that I worked as an opera coach at the Royal College of Music in London and as assistant conductor at the Glyndebourne Festival, so I already had some very good contacts and colleagues. We are now an ever-growing family, and many of the leading singers to have emerged in recent years have come through our ranks, including Lawrence Zazzo, Lucy Crowe, Matthew Rose and Sophie Bevan. 

 

You favor period instruments...

The use of period instruments transforms the sound world of Mozart’s music, and this is nowhere more evident than in the operas and vocal works. With modern instruments the orchestra can too easily drown the singers, so they have to back off the sound. This leads to the notion of Mozart’s music being, for all its inherent greatness, effete, over-refined and emotionally distanced. 

With period instruments, the colors are much more vibrant, and the [sound] decay is much quicker. This has two crucial consequences for the performance of Mozart’s operas – firstly, there are very rarely balance problems with the orchestra being too loud for the singers, and secondly, the orchestra can commit wholeheartedly to exploring the extremes of which the instruments are capable, thereby imbuing them with much more emotional connection to the drama; their individual and collective voices become actors, painters, poets and commentators on the unfolding drama, and they become story tellers in the same way that the singers are.

 

You have ambitious plans...

We began a long-term project two years ago to record all of Mozart’s operas – Apollo et Hyacinthus and Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots have already been released, and Mitridate, re di Ponto will follow next October. It will take us the best part of twenty years to complete this project! Even more long-term is an extremely ambitious project called ‘Mozart 250’, in which we seek to follow the trajectory of Mozart’s life and career 250 years later. This will begin in 2015 with a major retrospective of Mozart’s childhood visit to London in 1764-5, and will run until the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death in 2041. Each opera will be presented in the year of its 250th anniversary, as will most if not all of his symphonies, concertos and concert arias and many of his other works, as well as significant works by his contemporaries. 

You will turn 50 on December 10. You have a lot of work in front of you!

The Mozart Opera recording cycle should be completed by 2030, but 'Mozart 250' is due to run until 2041 (the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s death), by which time I’ll be 78. I have three children under the age of five to keep me feeling young, so hopefully it’s doable – 78 certainly feels more achievable than 83. I decided, at the age of 12, that I wanted to be a footballer first, because they always retired in their 30s, and then become a conductor, because all the famous conductors seemed to be in their 80s (although all that’s changed now!). The football thing didn’t quite happen though...

If you are in London: Classical Opera has four concerts of Mozart music, much of it vocal, upcoming at the prestigious Wigmore Hall: New Year’s Eve, Jan. 30, May 8 and Nov. 26 with soprano Miah Persson. In addition, they will present La Clemenza di Tito at Cadogan Hall on March 13; and a program of Schubert, Cherubini and the Mozart Requiem on October 8 at the Barbican Center.

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Comments [3]

Nikhil Goyal from Łódź

Dear Fred,
I was under the impression that the Warsaw Chamber Opera was the only institution of it's kind to have all of the Mozart operas in it's repertoire.
The opera's of Mozart are beautiful. I'm very glad to read this article!
Best wishes, N

Dec. 11 2013 03:33 AM
Priscilla Alexander from New York, NY

I adore Mozart's operas, as I do most of his music. The ensemble singing in Figaro (the first set, at the end of what is now usually the first act) absolutely floors me every time I hear it. My favorites are the Da Ponte operas, and I only wished Mozart had lived long enough to write many more with him.

Dec. 10 2013 10:03 PM
John Yohalem from Greenwich Village

The two operas I haven't ever seen are Ascanio in Alba and La Finta Semplice. I hope you will produce them in tandem so I can occupy just one trip across the water to add them to my lifelong list!

Dec. 10 2013 01:39 AM

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