Opera Australia chorus member Robert Mitchell retires after 41 years in the spotlight…

Opera Australia's Don Pasquale SW13_photo Branco Gaica 89

Opera Australia chorister ROBERT MITCHELL is saying farewell to the operatic stage.

In a career that has included playing slaves to royalty, priests to devils, courtesans, tragics, comics, lyrics, ridicules, drunks, dukes and yes, even one duchess, the 66 year old baritone has literally seen and done it all in operatic terms. He retires after the curtain comes down on the final performance of Carmen at Melbourne’s State Theatre this month having participated in over an estimated 3000 performances in more than 120 different opera productions. Mitchell has not only appeared as a valued member of Opera Australia’s highly regarded full time chorus, but also as a soloist and understudy.

He remembers joining the company at 25 years of age as a tenor in the extra chorus for Prokofiev’s War and Peace which opened the newly constructed Sydney Opera House on September 28th, 1973. „There was an atmosphere of great excitement,“ reflects Mitchell. „During breaks from music calls we would go and explore the building. I will never forget the first time I walked onto the stage. There was the red-seated auditorium in all it’s glory!“

Participating in that epic opera which represented a defining moment in Australia’s cultural history was only the beginning. Mitchell received a „great present“ when he was asked to join the full-time chorus just before his 29th birthday, and is now the only remaining company member who appeared in that inaugural performance.

His many career highlights have included performing on stage alongside some of the industry’s greatest singers and under the music direction of some of the world’s best conductors. Indeed Mitchell is able to drop into the conversation some of the biggest vocal names of the 20th century. He considers himself very lucky to have sung with the likes of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa and Milnes, to name just a few.

„For a young baritone to have sat at Sherill Milnes’s feet as he sang the drinking song from Hamlet was like being in heaven,“ reflects Mitchell. He remembers that it was „after I went on as the cover of the Messenger in a performance of La Traviata with Joan Sutherland in the early 80’s that music director Richard Bonynge said I was definitley a baritone, and I moved into that section of the chorus in the next season where I have stayed ever since.“

It goes without saying that here have been a few operatic hiccups as well as highlights along the way. Mitchell recounts how in Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney there was a huge clap of thunder just as the chorus sang the line in Act 2 ‘Surely God will send us a sign.’ „The timing was perfect,“ he recalls, „but it caused much laughter on stage that had to be suppressed.“

He also recalls the 1978 David Pountney production of The Mastersingers which was sung in English. Mitchell played one of the 12 apprentices and tells that Hans Sachs was played by the well-known Wagnerian and bass baritone Norman Bailey. „Bailey only arrived in time for the final dress rehearsal,“ says Mitchell „and when he got to his monologue in the final scene of Act 3 in performance, he suddenly lapsed into German. He couldn’t make the switch into English and completed the long section in German with the whole cast’s rapt attention. After the chorus entered in English he was back on track.“

And one final story. „On the night that the tenor singing the title role in Idomeneo was ill and his cover also called in sick, the decision was made to replace the Mozart with La Traviata. This was extraordinary but the production had been mounted for Dame Joan and there was no way the company was going to cancel. Dame Joan agreed to sing Violetta at short notice because most of the cast who had appeared with her 18 months earlier were around and the chorus knew the score. When the announcement was made before the curtain, the audience were given the option of getting their money back, but there was much cheering except for a couple of Mozart lovers who made their way to the box office. Perhaps Verdi was not to their taste. But those patrons made a terrible mistake. Having not sung Violetta for 18 months, Joan was on her metal and it was perhaps the best performance I heard her sing of that role. Her Lucia was miraculous but her Norma, Lucrezia Borgia and Suor Angelica were also especially outstanding in my memory. Perhaps it was that our wonderful Joan was more at home as a mother than a consumptive courtesan or mad maiden.“

So what are the qualities required for such a long career on stage? Robert always knew he loved opera and theatre in general but remembers being realistic about the size and quality of his voice compared with those of major principals. „I asked myself if I really wanted to sing or perhaps do something else. I decided I did want to sing and I have always been happy to be part of an ensemble. I was always of the opinion that, even as part of a crowd there is always bound to be one pair of eyes on you at all times, and that one must be engaging and concentrated; listening to and participating in the action.“

Opera Australia’s ex Chorus Master Michael Black confirms Mitchell’s dedication to the chorus from his new position at Chicago Lyric Opera. „Quite simply Robbie has been one of the pillars of the OA Chorus over the past 41 years. In that time no one has been more committed to the job, whether it be learning so many operas accurately, being a mentor to those less experienced choristers around him, giving his all onstage every single performance and simply loving the art form. To work with a chorus member who, after 41 years in the job, is still as passionate about opera and his part in it now as he was when he first began is unique, and I am honoured to have been his employer, colleague and friend for some of those years.“

Mitchell goes on to say that „sharing the experience of performing with a group of like-minded artists“ has always given him great pleasure and adds that he knows he has „been lucky to work in the business full-time without the need to look for other work.“ Indeed his life’s work has given him very little to complain about although he admits that „working six nights a week for most of the year has very often cut into family and social life.“

So it is that the sprightly singer now looks forward to life after the final curtain with great pleasure and with many plans. He anticipates a slightly more „normal life,“ entertaining at home, volunteering at his niece and nephew’s school and travelling at times not dictated by his chorus schedule. And of course he wants to remain involved in theatrical life. „I will go to the theatre and to concerts,“ says Mitchell, „and organise some charity events at home to encourage younger singers to give recitals.“

Opera Australia will farewell Robert Mitchell at a function in Sydney on June 5th.

Opera Australia's The Mikado SW09_photo Branco Gaica_3

 

 

 

Venice Dreaming…

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Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy.

“Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” George Gordon Noel Byron

 

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Venice robes her for the ball;
Decked with spangles bright,
Multi-coloured Carnival
Teems with laughter light.

Harlequin with negro mask,
Tights of serpent hue,
Beateth with a note fantasque
His Cassander true.

 

 

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Flapping loose his long, white sleeve,
Like a penguin spread,
Through a subtle semibreve
Pierrot thrusts his head.

Sleek Bologna’s doctor goes
Maundering on a bass.
Punchinello finds for nose
Quaver on his face.

Hurtling Trivellino fine,
On a trill intent,
Scaramouch to Columbine
Gives the fan she lent.

 

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Gliding to the tune, I mark
One veiled figure rise,
While through satin lashes dark
Luring gleam her eyes.

Tender little edge of lace,
Heaving with her breath!
“Under is her own dear face!”
An arpeggio saith.

And beneath the mask I know
Bloom of rosy lips,
And the patch on chin of snow,
As she by me trips!

“The Carnival of Venice.” Theodore Gautier

 

 

IMG_4693“By day it is filled with boat traffic – water
buses, delivery boats, gondolas – if something floats
and it’s in Venice, it moves along the Grand Canal.
And by daylight it is one of the glories of the Earth.
But at night, especially when the moon is full
and the soft illumination reflects off the water and
onto the palaces – I don’t know how to describe
it so I won’t, but if you died and in your will you
asked for your ashes to be spread gently on the
Grand Canal at midnight with a full moon,
everyone would know this about you – you loved and understood beauty.”

“The Silent Gondoliers.” William Goldman

 

 

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This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty – this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.

“Death in Venice.” Thomas Mann

 

 

 

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The sun looks out on southern sky,
Upon a merry scene,
And gay Venetians quickly hie
With ringing laugh and sparkling eye
And stately mien.

 

 

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Ah, happier you with only flowers,
To wreathe your floating hair,
Than she, who pride and bower and hall,
Look down upon the revelry
And the merry makers of the carnival.

“The Carnival of Venice.” Florence Danworth

 

 

 

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“A pleasing episode of that world-renowned holiday, the sounds of which Paganini combined in the wonderful composition for the viola bearing it’s name. An Italian noble and his wife are walking along the arcade of the piazza of St Mark; the cicisebo of the lady, who is thrumming a guitar, whispers in her ear from behind his mask: other figures occupy the foreground, while from the upper window of the palazzo, across the open court, lords and ladies look down upon the revelry and the merry-makers of the carnival.

“The Carnival of Venice.” A painting by Carl Becker

 

 

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“There is still one of which you never speak.’
Marco Polo bowed his head.
‘Venice,’ the Khan said.
Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’
The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’
And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“Invisible Cities.” Italo Calvino

 

 

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“Venice is a city not to inspire thought but sensations. I think it is something to do with the compound of air, water, architecture and the acoustics”

Muriel Spark

 

 

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“Arriving at Venice by sea … is like seeing an invented city rise up and quiver in the air.  It is a trick of the early light to make the buildings shimmer so that they seem never still”.

“The Passion.” Jeanette Wilson

 

 

 

IMG_3926Oh Venice! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!
If I, a northern wanderer, weep for thee.

“Ode to Venice.”  George Byron

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conductor Daniel Carter takes up new position in Hamburg

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Sydney born Daniel Carter began learning the piano at age 4, started composing at 11, and went to his first opera at 14. That opera was the opening night of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the Opera House, and after that he knew he not only wanted to be a conductor, but an opera conductor.

It seems Daniel may be on the way to realising that dream. He  talks enthusiastically about his new position at the State Opera of Hamburg. This season he began work as a repetiteur for one of Germany’s largest and most respected houses before he takes up the position of Assistant to the General Music Director. The General Music Director is Australian conductor Simone Young, who has held the position since 2004. Daniel and Simone met when the young conductor was hospitant for a concert production of Rienzi in Hamburg. He stayed in touch with her, loved her “amazing musical mind” and now finds himself calling Hamburg home.

“Yesterday I coached singers on Cosi fan Tutte, this morning I played piano for rehearsals of Fidelio and tonight I conducted the backstage music for a performance of Rigoletto. Where else in the world can a 24 year old conductor get experience like that?”

Like most young Australians who suddenly find themselves in Europe Daniel has had something of a baptism of fire. “In my first week I worked on Lohengrin with Simone and accompanied the new singers in an on stage concert. Then there was the rehearsal where the director was talking to one of the singers in Italian, the singer was talking to the conductor in English and the conductor was addressing the repetiteur in German. The volume of repertoire is huge. Performances are constant; almost every day there is an opera or a ballet on the main stage. I went straight into the deep end!”

Most people find the stress of a new job enough to cope with, but to have a new job on the other side of the world with the added challenge of embracing a new language and a new culture is a lot to come to grips with. Meeting new colleagues, making new friends, learning a new way of doing things, even enduring a first dark and cold European winter can be confronting. Daniel is not daunted, says he is loving all of it and is enjoying the hard work involved with being “the new guy” in the house.

His reception, he says, has been very welcoming. “Everyone has been told to speak to me only in German, so conversation has been slow, but warm!” Not so the winter weather, but Daniel says he has always been a lover of the cold so in that respect the move to Germany has been ideal. “There were recently some days of -12 which would have to be the first time in my life I remember thinking ‘Ok, this really IS cold.’ I went to the local outdoor swimming pool and there were icicles hanging off all the signs. At that temperature as soon as your head is out of the water your hair freezes solid, which is both bizarre and amazing. But it was glorious and dark and still. It is things like that which make me realise I actually live here now; that it’s not just a holiday.”

As for the city itself Daniel finds it beautiful but small. “It’s the second largest city in Germany,” he comments, “but it is less than half the size of Melbourne. It’s very strange.” Despite the comparatively small population there is a lot of cultural and historical interest. “It is obvious with places like the old St Nikolai Church but there are also simple things like the Stolpersteine in the sidewalk.” Stolpersteine are the small, square memorial plaques placed in the footpaths of German cities. Designed by Gunter Demnig and translated literally as “stumbling blocks” they commemorate individual Jews, both those who survived World War II and those who didn’t. “This sort of thing is very hard to conceive of when you live in Australia.”

Work wise Daniel is particularly looking forward to mastering the languages required for a career in conducting, a skill virtually impossible to gain in Australia due to it’s isolation. He also wants to build on his repertoire knowledge but says, “possibly more importantly I need to pick the musical minds around me. The standard of conductors here is very high, and I am hoping to ask as many questions as possible and learn everything I can. People like Simone are an amazing gold mine of conducting information and experience.”

He has noticed a definite variation in the way operas are rehearsed in a German repertoire house. ” The mentality is quite different. We put on Rigoletto in five days and it was just expected that everything would work because everyone here knows the repertoire so well. There is so much musical heritage in this part of the world. And the orchestras in Europe seem to really treasure the difference in the sounds they make, which is what can make performances of the same work in different places totally thrilling.”

He has noticed too that the culture of attending performances seems to be very strong. “People have seen the repertoire operas many times but they all come back to see a new production team’s take on an old classic – although that does mean there are some wild productions out there!” Ticket prices are less expensive than in Australia and there is less reliance on private sponsorship which makes going to the theatre a generally more affordable experience. Attending musical performance is very much part of the European psyche.

Daniel is confident that his early experience in Australia, first with Richard Gill and Victorian Opera and later with Opera Australia, have helped him enormously, and that without this professional experience and guidance he would not have been ready for the next step in his career. “As well as learning a lot of the basic repertoire it was a great way to understand what the expectations are of an assistant conductor and a repetiteur and a good chance to watch the way other conductors engage with singers. Coming from an instrumental background it can be very easy to get stuck on things like ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ or ‘early’ or ‘late’ and this is often unhelpful. Singers would often like to talk in terms of modifying a vowel or where to place a consonant – a completely different way of looking at the same bar of music.”

At times Daniel says he still finds himself a little bit star-struck. ” I am currently playing the piano for Stephen Gould in Lohengrin coachings. Stephen is a Bayreuth ‘Siegfried’. At times like that I have to pinch myself and get back to work. I would love to stay in Europe and develop a conducting career. Only time will tell.”

This article was written for classicmelbourne.com.au and can be found on their site

Italian Food Tour…Gourmet Treasures of Emilia Romagna.

IMG_3435Alessandro Martini was born to inspire people about Italian food. From the moment his Italian Days tour begins www.italiandays.it he oozes enthusiasm about the region of Emilia Romagna and it’s artisan food products, waxing lyrical about parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto and organic wine.

It’s a very early start to get to the cheese factory in time to witness the ‘birth’ of the 40 huge rounds they produce each day. The employees have been at work since 3.30am and, unlike us, they don’t get to follow up with a copious breakfast tasting complete with local lambrusco. IMG_3525Alessandro cottons onto my enjoyment of  wine paired with 36 month old cheese very quickly and refills my glass and plate long before they are empty. “Do you Australians like wine for breakfast?” asks one curious American. I give this serious question some thought and then reply.”Well, it isn’t breakfast time in Australia.” That’s my rationale, but she doesn’t look convinced.

IMG_3403The workers are not at all phased by the fact that we observe them at very close quarters going about their business. IMG_3476It looks like backbreaking work from where we are standing.

“No need for them to take out a gym membership,” quips Alessandro. No indeed. They stir, pull, lift, turn, dip, cut and carry the 40 kg weights of cheese with remarkable ease.

IMG_3351We learn that the controlling process is very precise. Parmigiano Reggiano has a protected designation of origin (PDO) and can only be called thus if it is manufactured in a certain area of Northern Italy. Each wheel must meet strict criteria early in the aging process in order to merit the official seal.  We  take turns at a master grader’s  job by tapping the year old  products with a small metal mallet to ‘hear’ cracks and voids and categorize the rounds into various qualities.

IMG_3439As I am tapping away I am reminded of something I learnt in a history class at school; when the Great Fire of London was looming in 1666, Samuel Pepys dug a hole to bury his treasure of wine and parmesan. The huge cheeses were valuable and often used throughout history as gifts of diplomacy. Henry VIII apparently received one hundred rounds from the Pope in 1511  and in 1556 the Pope made a gift of “eight great rounds” to Queen Mary of England.

I politely ask how many rounds we will each be receiving as a souvenir of this tour. It seems that times have changed and, sadly,  Italians are gifting cheese no more. These days one pays a premium rate for the highly prized product and I leave with a more modest 500gs.

IMG_3540Next stop is Villa San Donnino  www.villasandonnino.it to see how traditional balsamic vinegar is made. This is a much quieter place. The thick syrup resulting from grape reduction  is ‘sleeping’ in the attic in open barrels for a minimum of 12 but up to 25 years and sometimes more. Originally, a batteria or battery of seven vinegar barrels was set up to celebrate the birth of a daughter in the family. Not surprisingly, Alessandro shows us the battery he set up to mark the birth of his own daughter. None of the product may be used until the 12 years has expired and even then only one litre from each battery may be used in any year. “A job for very patient families,” says Alessandro.

IMG_3552Fortunately we don’t need to wait as long for a taste test. I admit to be very surprised at the vast differences in taste, texture and even smell as we are given the entire range of vinegars, from reductions to seriously aged varieties to try on a spoon. Just when we think we have finished, Alessandro and his team produce trays of fresh ricotta cheese and vanilla gelato topped with the perfect condiment. Gelato with balsamico? It’s an unusual taste sensation.

IMG_3564The final factory stop is to see the production of local prosciutto, the well known dry-cured ham from Parma. Once again, special regulations must be adhered to regarding the production areas, the kind of pigs used, their diet (chestnuts and the whey from the making of parmigiano reggiano cheese) and the length of the curing process.

We see the large hind legs being dried, salted and hung in large rooms where they will stay for up to 24 months. “Not a great place if you are a vegetarian” says one tour member, although we don’t appear to have any among our number today. Not judging from the way we all dive into the platters of thinly cut, melt in the mouth produce anyway.

IMG_3580The final stop is for lunch at Corte d’Aibo in the hills outside of Bologna, www.cortedaibo.it a lovely, peaceful place specialising in organic food and wine. The food comes in groaning quantities and is all delicious. After four different kinds of  entree including lasagne al ragu (Bolognese sauce), pasta with wild boar and cloves, pumpkin filled tortellini served with melted butter and sage and pumpkin pies with lard we start to protest. “Come on,” encourages Alessandro as he refills the plates, “you are in Italy now, this is a light lunch for us, you need to become food athletes.” I don’t need much encouragement and am more than happy to go immediately into specialised training after I have undone a button on my trousers. Even I have to admit defeat after the roasted pork with fennel and potatoes and the cherry pies and chocolate brownies with zabaglione cream, although somehow I end up with the left overs to take home with me for “later.”

The organic wine is as free flowing as the food and we begin with spumante and pignoletto and continue with several bottles of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. A walnut digestive is the last offering along with a macchiato coffee. Needless to say there are quite a few snores from the back of the van on the way back to Bologna.

This is a great day out for everyone and my friend from Australia thought it was the highlight of her holiday to Italy. Alessandro really goes out of his way to make everything enjoyable and the factory visits are highlights in themselves. Highly recommended! Can’t wait to try a truffle tour in the autumn…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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