An immediate connection
Julien Van Mellaerts and Dylan Perez talk to Opera Holland Park about the second edition of the Opera in Song series and reveal their favourite works in the programme
What was the inspiration for starting Opera in Song?
Julien: During the pandemic Dylan and I met up to discuss performance opportunities after having lost so much work in the first lockdown. We decided to start a song series and approached Opera Holland Park to partner with us. The idea was to use the operas in the OHP season as the springboard, employing singers from the productions and creating programmes that would retell the operatic stories. Our aim was to bridge the traditional gap between opera and song.
Dylan: The inspiration for me was twofold: to bring the drama of song to an opera audience and to give singers more opportunities coming out of the pandemic. I think song is considered opera’s less successful cousin but I believe opera audiences will find similarities between the two: the connection between drama, text, and vocal expression can be found in both.
Julien, you’ve sung several roles at Opera Holland Park. How different was it to sing a recital here?
Julien: I was really surprised how well the theatre lends itself to song recital. The new layout is ideal for this intimacy. With the piano in front of the stage, the audience are all around you, so it is an immediate connection. With all the wood panelling and the concrete floor, there is also a lovely live acoustic for voice and piano. I love performing opera on stage, but I also love the immediacy between performer and audience in a recital. Any chance to sing at OHP is good for me!
How did you select the themes and repertoire for this series?
Dylan: We wanted to illuminate the operas on stage and show different sides to them. Whether it is retelling a story, like Carmen in Song, or bringing music from another culture to the stage in the American song recital, these recitals aim to help audiences put the music and characters they are about to experience into context.
Julien: This year we have taken a bit more liberty with the themes. There are so many powerful female characters in the season: Micaëla, Carmen, Tatyana, Margot and Anna in the double bill, and the whole cast of Little Women. We wanted to celebrate that with a focus on female composers and librettists. And with the UK premiere of Little Women, what better way to celebrate than with a recital showcasing the variety of American song.
The OHP Young Artists have a showcase in the series, as well as some younger pianists. Was it a deliberate choice to feature artists at the start of their careers as well as those who are well established?
Julien: Absolutely. In the early stages of the pandemic the artists who suffered most were the younger ones. We wanted to make sure that we could give them performance opportunities, not only in isolation, but alongside more established artists. You learn so much from performing alongside world class artists.
Dylan: There are a lot of wonderful young artist programmes for collaborative pianists but what sets Opera in Song apart is our excitement at pairing younger pianists with more established singers. This is how pianists got jobs decades ago!
How do you select music from different eras and composers to create a coherent recital?
Dylan: It involves a lot of research. We want to bring something special to each programme and also make it digestible for an audience. It’s a big mix of marrying repertoire we think the audience might know with new songs that will expand their already broad horizons.
Julien: We are used to recitals being grouped together by composer, which works well of course, but when we think more of an overarching story or theme, it is interesting and exciting to explore a theme in a more unorthodox way. Dylan and I come up with the themes, then we discuss the specific song choices with the artists for each recital. It is a collaborative process.
There’s a huge variety in the composers who are featured this year. Did you feel it was important to highlight more music by female and Black composers?
Dylan: Yes! There are wonderful songs by cis white male composers but only recently has the spotlight been put on more marginalised composers. I think with the variety of composers we get a melange of stories told from all different angles and therefore a truer view of humanity and the human condition.
Julien: I am particularly excited about Errollyn Wallen’s new work The Lake. We made sure that we are including stunning music by underrepresented composers but we have also used our platform this year to commission a new work to be performed alongside one of the most famous song sets ever, Schubert’s Schwanengesang.
Julien, how does performing something like a Schubert song cycle compare to performing a role in an opera?
Julien: They are very different beasts to prepare, I have to say. Preparing a song cycle is much more personal. It is just you and a pianist with the score and poetry and it is 100% your version of it. Unlike an opera where there is staging, sets, props, costumes etc, and you are part of a much larger team to bring a vision to life. They are both incredibly satisfying artistically and musically, but they do require different skills. A Schubert song cycle is essentially a monodrama for 70-75 minutes, so it is the job of the singer and the pianist to transport the audience to your world, your imagination, and take them on a journey with just the poetry and music. In performance, the intimacy and immediacy of just voice and piano allows every member of the audience to have their own drama playing out in their own imagination, and that’s what I love about song.
Lastly, if you had to choose just one song from the series, which song would it be and why?
Dylan: I find the text of ‘To What You Said’ from Leonard Bernstein’s Songfest to be very moving. Whitman’s text of repressed love was found as a scribble, as though it wasn’t meant to be read. Bernstein may have been drawn to this poem because of his own struggle with his sexual identity, just as Whitman’s sexuality has been an argument of many historians and biographers.
Julien: For me it would be Don Quichotte à Dulcinée by Ravel, not technically one song but a set of three. I love this work. We get the character of Don Quixote singing about his love for Dulcinea and we see three very different sides of him in the space of 8 minutes – the charmer and seducer in the first song, the devout and adoring in the second, and the drunk in the third!
Interview by Lucy Hicks Beach and Anna Picard