Baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (JVM) and pianist Dylan Perez (DP), co-curators of the Opera in Song recital series, talk to Anna Picard (AP) about this year’s programmes, the versatility of art songs, and how it feels to work with the Opera Holland Park Young Artists.
AP: Julien and Dylan, Opera in Song started in 2021 as a response to the pandemic. What has changed since then and what have you learned?
JVM: We are thrilled to have made it to our third birthday this year. Opera in Song has grown to include more world-class artists and has given performance opportunities to outstanding singers and pianists. It has changed and evolved but at the core it is still about bringing art song to opera audiences through innovative programmes inspired by the operas in the season.
DP: I’m so happy that the arts are waking up after the pandemic. This is a slow process as audiences have become accustomed to livestream and pre-recorded performances but I strongly believe in the engaging atmosphere of live in-person performance. The return of audiences has been so exciting for performers. There is nothing that can replace the immediacy found in an intimate recital.
AP: Many people have expressed surprise at how well the theatre lends itself to an intimate art form. How important is it to you to take art songs to different venues?
JVM: The theatre is really fantastic for these recitals, which surprised us too! The beauty of art song is that is can be performed anywhere and different venues always bring something to the experience. At Opera Holland Park, with the peacocks and cricket, it creates a unique vibe and for us it is incredibly exciting to perform there.
DP: Different venues offer different experiences for audiences but I think what is so interesting is no matter how big or small a space is, the journeys that each song can carry you on are the same. Maybe you equate big spaces with large spectacles and huge orchestral forces but the ability of art song to bring an audience in to focus on the text is very special and it can work in so many different environments. It is extremely important that artists and promoters explore all kinds of venues.
AP: Leeds Lieder has had its Arts Council funding cut. Oxford Lieder has rebranded as the Oxford International Song Festival. Is the song recital under threat?
DP: I don’t believe it’s under threat but it is forcing us to rethink the experience of a song recital. Location, repertoire and presentation are all ideas that need to be expanded upon to cope with the changing landscape of the arts in the UK. Lack of government funding does not help, of course, but being problem-solvers right now is essential. I think writing off art song as inaccessible and unworthy just because of money issues is catastrophic. Songs have the ability to explore intense emotions – something the whole country needs right now.
JVM: We are at a crossroads with government funding, there is no doubt, and it is difficult for us all to stay positive in the face of these cuts. But the art form is so personal and special that we should all fight for it. The UK has a fantastic history and support of singing, in particular, and song is the most intimate way to experience that. Rebranding and reaching out to new audiences is something all art forms face around the world. Art needs to be supported, experienced and encouraged. Get to all these festivals, they are truly stunning and world-class!
AP: What were your considerations when choosing who to invite to sing and play this year?
JVM: We always start with the operas. Then we come up with themes around these stories, composers and librettists and put together some ideas. We love to include familiar faces at Opera Holland Park as well as the Young Artists and our beloved friends and colleagues. We are super excited to have several OHP debuts in our season with Sophie Bevan, Laurence Kilsby, Anna Tilbrook all gracing the stage for their debuts, as well as a return for Nardus Williams and Simon Lepper, and Eleanor Dennis fresh from her jaunt as the Witch in Hansel and Gretel.
AP: Julien, you’ve just returned from a production of Così fan tutte in New Zealand. How do you shake off your operatic self and return to your recital self? Or are they the same thing?
JVM: I think of them very similarly. I remember Thomas Hampson would always say they are exactly the same but with different dynamic scales, and I think that’s right. The best opera singers are also song singers and vice versa, I think. What opera doesn’t always allow you is to use the range of colours and dynamics that we have at our disposal when it is just a voice and piano. That is what continually excites me about song: the honesty of emotion and intimacy, the directness of delivery, with an enormous colour palate.
AP: Several people were in tears at the close of Die schöne Müllerin last year. Which feels better on stage, making people cry or making them laugh?
DP: I’m not sure either feels better or worse, but the goal is to tap into the emotion of the text so you can be a vessel for the audience.
JVM: We want people to feel things. Our job is to communicate and tell stories, and however you respond is the right feeling. If it is funny or moving, I don’t mind! We are designed to feel and respond to others. In Te reo Māori there is a proverb that says “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!”, which translates to “What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people!” We are here to connect with one another, and I find my way of doing that is through singing and song.
AP: The Opera Holland Park Young Artists feature again this year, appearing with Eleanor Dennis and Simon Lepper in Through the Woods. It’s a lovely recognition of how important the scheme is to the company but, be honest, do they make you feel like old artists?
JVM: Haha, yes and no! I still feel like we are young artists but it is hugely rewarding to work with these incredibly talented artists and we learn so much from them. Also, when we were just starting out, we were so thankful for any opportunity to perform. Now it’s our turn to make sure we are doing the same for the next generation!
AP: Dylan, creating a career as a collaborative pianist must be the hard when the same handful of names dominate the field for decades. What advice would you give to someone like our Young Artist répétiteur, Avishka Edirisinghe, who is just starting out?
DP: This is a big question. In the generation before me, the collaborative piano world was smaller than it is now, so it was easier to spread the workload around. Today it is oversaturated, which is both good and bad. It is so fabulous to see young pianists view accompaniment not as ‘second best’ but as another aspect of piano, one that involves the marriage of text to music. I am still taking advice and learning from my fellow pianists and I don’t think that ever ends. But I will say it is important to be flexible for a while. Try everything out and find the area of accompaniment that you love the most, then find your lane and build your career around what you love. I tried to do everything for years and it always ended in burnout. I am learning to stick to my artistic intuition and to play with my own musical voice. Everyone has something special to bring to the table.
AP: All the Future Days and Through the Woods have a clear agenda, respectively to celebrate and contextualise the music of Jonathan Dove and to retell the story of Hansel and Gretel from the perspective of the Witch. Vissi d’arte, your recital with Sophie Bevan, is quite different. How do you select miniatures from different composers to create a coherent programme? Is it like hanging paintings in a gallery?
DP: That’s a great way to think about it. Vissi d’arte is a recital exploring the legacy of Puccini and the changes that were happening in the world around his lifetime. It can be easy to overlook the fact that while Puccini was writing incredible verismo music, Schoenberg was about to dip his toes into twelve tone serialism, and Debussy was deeply influenced by Wagner, who had been a visionary decades earlier. So exploring all of the musical events in the world during Puccini’s time becomes a real whirlwind of songs. I always think it’s good to keep the audience on their toes!
JVM: Vissi d’arte is deliberately different, yes. Inspired by La bohème and Rigoletto, we wanted to explore the art song around the same time these works were written. When you see who was alive at that time, it is remarkable just how much they have informed all the music we listen to today. With this programme we wanted to celebrate that, so we have included songs by Verdi and Puccini, as well as Schoenberg, Strauss, Debussy and Gershwin. All the songs fit into the theme of the opening line of the famous aria by Puccini, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore” – I lived for art, I lived for love.
Book for Opera in Song below
‘All the Future Days: A celebration of British art song’
Special feature on Jonathan Dove’s music to celebrate the world premiere of Itch
29 July 1pm
Nardus Williams, soprano
Laurence Kilsby, tenor
Anna Tilbrook, piano
‘Vissi d’arte: Life for art’
Songs by Puccini, Verdi, Debussy, Strauss and Schoenberg
30 July 7.30pm
Sophie Bevan, soprano
Julien Van Mellaerts, baritone
Dylan Perez, piano
‘Through the woods: From the Witch’s perspective’
Hansel and Gretel, as retold by the Witch
31 July 7.30pm
Eleanor Dennis, soprano
Simon Lepper, piano
OHP Young Artists