OPERA NEWS - FEBRUARY 2005
GRANT MENZIES talks to Collegiate Chorale music director Robert Bass and actor/director Roger Rees, the company's new artistic associate, who will celebrate Victor Herbert's 146th birthday on February 1, with an operetta evening at Alice Tully Hall.
"Our mission is really to celebrate the full dimension of the vocal arts," says Bass, "which lets us go in a lot of different directions - beyond choral classics and opera in concert." Bass says he and his newly appointed artistic associate, British actor Roger Rees, are inspired by the new direction the Chorale has taken. "One of the new areas Roger and I explored together last year was the music of Kurt Weill. That took us into theater and actors who sing. This time we're using Friml, Romberg and Herbert excerpts, showing a spectrum musically and dramatically." The programs typically feature the better part of one composer's work, then fold in other composers' voices via extended excerpts.
Rees says he relishes the opportunity to learn more about the composers' voices from the experience. "The Kurt Weill evening we did was interesting in that he himself at times rebuked opera singers, wanting a grittier experience against the music. And I'm reminded that this music, composed for America but stemming out of a European classic tradition, came at a very bleak and deprived time, allowing for fantasy to exist against that grittiness. The first World War, the Depression - that's a real musical and theatrical context."
Rees's background is anything but operatic: he has put in more than two decades with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he's an associate artist best known for his Olivier- and Tony Award-winning performance of the title role in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The musicality of words, he says, is what gives him a different perspective on the world of sung drama. "I'm a craftsman," Rees says, "and just as a carpenter can take a tree and make a cabinet, I can take words and probably assemble something resembling a human being. What we found with the Weill evening is that if you strip away the assumed theatricality of these things, you approach a truth, which makes the audience laugh or cry. And this creates a theatricality you never expected."
As he did for the Weill program, for the operetta evening Rees will direct a semi-staged program describing the composers' personal journeys through their music. Rees's connection to the Chorale began in 2002, when he narrated Weber's Oberon in concert. "It has a lot of spoken dialogue," says Bass, "and we had the libretto completely rewritten for Roger. He delivered the text - brilliantly, I would add - and that's how we got to know what he brings to singers who act and actors who sing, in the chorus as well as the principals. This was a direction I wanted to go in."
What has audience reaction been to the new collaborations? "People come expecting something along the lines of a recital," says Bass, "and are pleasantly surprised by the context Roger provides. The singers are onstage, with a little pit for the orchestra, the intention being to create the feeling of a bit of theater in Alice Tully Hall. The format is ideal for uncovering sleeping jewels, as it were - works people might not have heard before, or not in this context. And this has opened up a new audience for us, excited by a new approach. We're aiming for programs that are informative, artistically excellent and entertaining."
The next collaboration, according to Rees, is a Verdi-Shakespeare evening. "We'll use excerpts from the plays," he explains, "and bounce off into arias from Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff." This begs the question: does Bass have any more paradigm-pushing plans for teaching concert hall and theater to dance the two-step? "I don't want to give away any secrets," he smiles, "but you're on to something!"
GRANT MENZIES reviews classical music for Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon.