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Henze Opera Launches Barbican’s Present Voices

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A Hans Werner Henze premiere will kick off the Barbican’s 2010 Present Voices season. Beginning with the German composer’s 2007 Phaedra in January, the biennial series will also feature works by Peter Eötvös and Michel Van der Aa.

I spoke to Angela Dixon, the Barbican’s Programming Consultant responsible for putting the series together and she told me Present Voices is intended as “a snapshot of the current contemporary opera scene, reflecting the diversity of what’s now being written.”

The last programme, in 2008, comprised works by Golijov, Glass and Saariaho but this time concentrates on all European composers. “It’s staggering how much of European opera isn’t known in this country,” she says, “we tend to be very American-facing (not many John Adams operas are not known here) but we miss a lot of what Europe has to offer.”


Henze must be the world’s most prolific living opera composer, with some 15 stage works written since 1951. Dixon describes him as “the Grandfather of European opera” and, while productions of his stage works have been far and few between in the UK, next year will see an early work (Elegy for Young Lovers) mounted by ENO, as well as this, his latest completed opera, at the Barbican.

Announcing in 2006 that he would end his career with L'Upupa, und der Triumph der Sohnesliebe, Henze went on to recover from a debilitating stroke to write a “concert opera” on the subject of Phaedra’s illicit love for her son-in-law Hippolyt. With a libretto by poet Christian Lehnert, it diverts from the more familiar versions of the Greek legend by Euripides and Racine to explore a strand drawn from Ovid in which Hippolyt is brought back to life.

What a coincidence that The Minotaur, so memorably realised by Harrison Birtwistle in his latest major opera last year, also plays a key role in Henze’s recent work. Defeated by Hipployt’s father Theseus, the half-man, half-monster is revivified too, having the last word in Phaedra. 'We are all born naked. We press towards mortality and dance,' he intones in his final hymn.

The opera, here receiving its UK premiere and retaining the cast of its 2007 Berlin performances, concludes the Henze Total Immersion weekend, at the same time launching the Present Voices series. British tenor John Mark Ainsley is Hippolyt, with Maria Riccarda Wesseling repeating her Phaedra and Marlis Petersen as Aphrodite. Michael Boder conducts Ensemble Modern.

A hearing of the tape of the original Berlin production indicates that this will be a thrilling evening – surprising sounds range from buzz saws, trains and telephones - from one of the world’s great masters of music theatre. Phaedra plays in Barbican Hall on 17 January 2010.

Angels in America

Tony Kushner’s 1990 epic play was a worldwide hit and Pulitzer prizewinner. Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös, whose previous operas have included an all-male Three Sisters based on Chekov, is maybe the perfect person to turn the curious mix of hallucination and reality into musical form. His opera began life in Paris in 2004 and is also receiving its UK premiere during the 2010 Present Voices.

Angels in America is an operatic setting of Kushner’s play, which has also been seen as a television series. It explores the lives of those living with AIDs in 1980's New York City. The seven hour drama has been re-worked by Mari Mezei, cutting it down to just two and a half hours.

Dixon tells me that the composer was very insistent that there be some staging, as the work is so dramatic and acting is all important. The three operas will have varying degrees of “semi-staging”.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by David Robertson and the performance takes place on 26 March 2010.

After Life

A third UK premiere will complete the series in May, with another work by a challenging European composer. Michel van der Aa is a young Dutchman rapidly making a reputation for himself throughout Europe. Dixon describes the 39 year old as “multi-talented. He’s a film director, he directs the opera himself and he’s very technologically-literate.” But is the music any good? “Of course,” she laughs, and excerpts of the forthcoming opera indicate a sound world not dissimilar to that of his older countryman Louis Andriessen.

After Life, based on the film of the same name by Hirokazu Kore-Eda (who also wrote the libretto) is his second opera. The central question it poses is “What was the most decisive moment in your life?”, as characters finding themselves at a station between Heaven and Earth relive key moments of their lives. The opera combines live performance, film and electronic sounds. Interesting preview videos of both After Life and Angels in America can be seen at the Barbican’s website .

Performed at the Barbican by ASKO/Schoenberg Ensemble, it will be conducted by Otto Tausk, who also premiered the work in Amsterdam in 2006. The cast includes Claron McFadden, Richard Suart and Roderick Williams.

Summarising the season, Angela Dixon tells me: “There’s a very different atmosphere for contemporary music generally now. Composers can create a real event and it’s now one of the most important parts of the programme, with opera the jewel in the crown.” Present Voices gives us the perfect chance to sample some of the best currently on offer.

Details of all three operas in the Present Voices season can be found at www.barbican.org.uk., where tickets can also be booked.


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