This should by rights have been my New Year's Eve post, a round up of all that was grand and glorious for me in 2011, just as it drew to a close. Then several things got in the way: my incompetence, which caused me inadvertently to delete said post; Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve; our own New Year's Eve celebrations; sleep; and last, but not least, a drive to Miami and a flight to Spain, with absurd behaviour from American Airlines obstructing our progress wherever possible.
We made it, however, and are now starting to settle into Oviedo. Rehearsals for Peter Grimes are in their second day and although 2012 is nearly half a week old, I'd still like to celebrate a few of last year's highlights. After all, there's no opera here until Grimes opens, in three weeks or so, so I have to find other blogging fodder, and what better than a list? I love lists.
Thus I give you, in no particular order, my Top Eleven of 2011.
Our travel for the year began here, and while it was not my first visit, it was my longest, and reinforced once again my eternal love for this city. I mean, the duck confit sandwiches at Borough Market would actually be reason enough on their own for devotion, but then you start piling on the museums, the parks, the shopping, the Indian food, the sheer sense of history, the theatre and oh my gosh the music. I don't know how people who live there permanently cope with it all: we were only there for eight weeks, and the volume and quality of live classical music on offer was already overwhelming. I saw plenty, but missed even more; and such was the concentration of brilliance that I was twice obliged to forsake my own tenor's Parsifal in favour of other, less repeatable delights. The weather was pretty rotten but if I could have stayed forever, I'd still have done so in a heartbeat.
Mecca. I finally made it there, and for the most part it lived up to my expectations. Which is to say, it was huge, quite glamorous, and offered an impressive variety of repertoire and an even more impressive line-up of star soloists. Suddenly my CD collection came to life: there were Joyce DiDonato, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, Renée Fleming, Joe Calleja, Bryn Terfel, Deborah Voigt, Karita Mattila, Peter Mattei, Natalie Dessay and and and ... the list goes on.
And because I was there in the company of another of those star soloists – whose own Met début was even more exciting than any of the star spotting – I was able to experience the backstage half of the company too. I was in the Green Room on opening night of Walküre when ill health forced the divine Eva Maria Westbroek out halfway through and Margaret Jane Wray was summoned to take over (which she did magnificently). We went and said hi to Joyce before she strutted her stuff as the Komponist in Ariadne auf Naxos. I was even hugged by Bryn Terfel. And I'm sure this all sounds like so much insufferable namedropping, but believe me, it's said with nothing but awe and disbelief. Maybe as time goes by, I'll become jaded, but right now I'm still wide-eyed as anything.
I've lost count of how many times I've raved about Michelle this year, but it's quite a few. She's so worth it. I was fortunate enough to hear Michelle three times this year, in three different countries: as Judith in Bluebeard's Castle with the New York Philharmonic, then in Das Lied von der Erde in Hong Kong and again in Sydney in Mahler 2. Believe it or not, I'm actually not stalking her; but given half a chance, I probably would. She's truly amazing: a wonderful artist, with a voice which is both heaven and earth, all at once, and also one of the coolest people I know. Michelle, you rule.
Orchestras with proper pits
Sydneysiders will understand. While I will always feel a sort of filial affection (coupled with seething frustration) for the Sydney Opera House's Opera Theatre, with its dodgy acoustic and hellish concrete pit, it has been quite a revelation to spend this year in opera houses which don't stow their orchestras under the stage, and whose auditoria are actually, you know, designed for opera. Even the Santa Fe Opera, which is effectively outside, pulls off a fuller, more convincing sound, and the Met, or in Zürich or at either of London's opera houses, well, let's just say you don't know what you're missing until it smacks you round the head. In a good way.
Let me get this out of the way first: I am stupendously grateful to whichever operatic deity ensured that Cheryl didn't cancel on me. She has been known to do so, and while I, whose devotion is unconditional, always forgive her for it, it might have been a bitterer pill to swallow this time. When I lived in Sydney, I just booked for every show so that I was covered either way. But I had to fly to Brisbane from Taiwan, and I could only stay long enough for two shows, so the potential for a shattered heart was far greater. Actually she did shatter my heart, but by showing up, not by cancelling. Her Tosca was all I could have hoped for – and I'd been hoping for a while, ever since she was announced for – and then bowed out of – Opera Australia's Tosca two years earlier. As spoilt rotten with opera as I am these days, it still stings a little that I've left the town where I could see my favouritest soprano on a remarkably regular basis – pursuing her is harder now, but my dash across the globe for her Tosca proved that it's still ridiculously worthwhile.
From the moment I was brave enough to dip my toes in Wagnerian waters, I've loved the stuff, but for many years never felt I had the fortitude to spend more than the occasional afternoon in its company. Wagner, I felt, was the antithesis of background music – it required all of my energies and attentions – and thus, because I am inherently lazy, I ended up listening to very little. Then along came a Heldentenor and I had no choice but to be immersed. Well, it's been grand. I know Parsifal almost as well now as I know Don Giovanni or Vec Makropulos – a circumstance I hardly saw coming – and can make Lohengrin jokes with the best of them. I know Walküre better than I did a year ago and by the end of 2013 I think I'll probably have it (or at least the first two acts...) down pat.
I love it still, and I still find it perfect and transcendent and all of that stuff which Wagner so patently is. Never too long, too ponderous, too slow or too loud. I've seen more Parsifals this year than your average bear – fifteen I think, in two productions – and it only gets better. I've learnt to love Wagner in rehearsal chunks and in full performance, and I look forward to the day – and it will come – when Tristan arrives.
Meaning, of course, Sir John Tomlinson. His Gurnemanz at the ENO was awe-inspiring – imposing and sonorous yet quivering with human emotion, a privilege to behold every single time. And yes, I was also lucky enough to experience Matti Salminen's Gurnemanz, and yes, he's also God, pretty much, though in a rather scarier, Old Testament-y way. Sir John's was the one that got to my heart, however. He was also the first person this year to turn me into a babbling fangrrl when I met him.
The whole Santa Fe experience was fantastic from start to finish – the food was excellent, the views mindboggling, the opera company treated us beautifully and the show we were there for, Daniel Slater's production of Wozzeck under the inspired leadership of David Robertson, was a massive success. The town itself, and its surrounds, were a revelation in themselves. But operatically speaking, the biggest revelation was the directorial genius of Ned Canty, whose production of Menotti's rarely performed The Last Savage provided one of the smartest, funniest and most captivating nights I've ever had in the theatre. The opera itself was fine, musically, and surprisingly hilarious, but I have no doubt that it was Canty's superb production – and the pitch-perfect performances he drew from a very talented cast – which really caused this rarity to scintillate. I really, really hope to have another chance to see his work, and soon.
Eva Maria Westbroek
I fell for her first in Turnage's Anna Nicole, which did her glorious talents scant justice but still couldn't hide her radiant presence or the liquid gold of her voice. I fell for her again on DVD, in a weirdo production of Fanciulla del West, where I wished she could sing forever, in every role. I missed her, would you believe, in Walküre; even being Siegmund's cover (or his consort) wasn't enough to get tickets for that sold out show. I did meet her, by happy chance, and reverted to babbling fangrrl mode once again. I've been devouring YouTube clips ever since. And this year on April 13 – o wondrous day! – I shall submit to a surfeit of delights, when the Met starts Ring-cycling again and my tenor sings Siegmund to Eva Maria's Sieglinde. I should start training my hands now for the ovations.
There have been a few, but the winner has to be the day we arrived in Zürich – and my apologies if I've told you this story before – and found that the key to our apartment didn't work. In the ensuing attempts to unlock the door, we were assisted by two of our neighbours: who turned out to be José van Dam and Peter Seiffert. José made many valiant attempts to wrestle the door open, but in the end it was to no avail, so his wife kindly drove off to collect a new key for us while Peter provided red wine and chocolates. The image of us all, clustered together on the landing and conducting trilingual conversation – while my inner voice squealed that's Lucia Popp's widower! – is not one I'm ever likely to forget. And if I were in need of an emblem of how completely different my life became in 2011, well, there it is.
The tenor in my life
Forgive me now if I get soppy and a bit more autobiographical than usual. It's only for a moment. It has to be said, however, that the facilitator of practically all of the above – the glamorous, the gorgeous, the transcendent, the surreal and the newly pervasive first person plural pronoun – has of course been Stuart, the tenor I ran off with just as 2010 was ending. 2011 has meant a completely new life for me. When I announced all the changes, almost exactly a year ago, I titled the post "Happy New Everything". Well, it's a little less new these days, I suppose, but believe me, just as happy. Happier, in fact. I'm living a life I could never have predicted, an opera fanatic's dream in many ways; but the best thing about it, when it comes down to it, is just having an awesome person to share it all with. He's got a nasty habit of murdering swans, of course, but hey – nobody's perfect.
Right, that's the soppy bit – and the list as a whole – over and done with. Here's your reward for making it this far.
It's Joyce! Because I can't quite believe I didn't give her a separate listing here.
(I want that polka dot chair.)
(And her dress.)