The 2020 incarnation of Gertrude Opera’s annual Yarra Valley Opera Festival reflects the vision, logistical expertise, significant powers of persuasion and dedicated resolve of festival director Linda Thompson. The result of her leadership is a widely varied innovative series of performances that combine technical wizardry and the operatic talents of the many artists associated with Gertrude Opera over the years. Of the many virtual musical experiences prompted by COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, To My Distant Love would have to rate as one of the most surreal – and exciting.
Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte has been a popular performance choice this year because we celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth and because 2020 has been a year of separation from those we love for so many. My personal addiction to this celebrated 15-minute song cycle made the opportunity to hear it presented in Gertrude Opera’s intriguing format irresistible.
A creation of New York company On Site Opera’s artistic director, Eric Einhorn, it is a personal performance via telephone with audience participants being given the choice of connecting with either a soprano, tenor or baritone. Two baritones are listed, presumably because most people are familiar with performances by that voice type (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau being the most well-known interpreter of this song cycle) and the likelihood of a predominantly female “audience”. Chiefly out of interest in a more unusual approach, I chose the soprano option. I also chose German rather than English, the comfort of my living-room as the venue and a time slot late on Sunday afternoon from the many on offer. I discovered after the event that the names of the singers could be found on the Gertrude Opera website but was pleased that I hadn’t known that Bethany Hill was to be my “distant love”.
Once the initial choices had been made, the next step was an email from what may or may not have been the singer. I knew that this would be part of the deal and that I had the option of being as active or passive as my comfort zone allowed, even so, I was slightly taken aback when I read:
“My Love, I miss you terribly. Each day without you is like a day without breathing. I long to see your face, the twinkle in your eyes, your shy smile. My arms ache to hold you close once again. I take comfort in knowing that our separation is only temporary and am eager for the day we are reunited. In the meantime, I’ve written a few love songs to keep you company on these long, lonely nights. I’ve enclosed the lyrics and will sing them to you when next we speak. BTW, I finally got a new phone!” et cetera
It was like experiencing layers of parallel universes – unnervingly intimate while simultaneously being put at a remove by unexpected humour and anonymity. The English translations would have been helpful for those unfamiliar with the song cycle, however, the later assurance that “my love” had been learning German especially for the occasion was less comforting. Was my soprano a very inexperienced Lieder singer unable to do real justice to Beethoven’s masterpiece?
There was a follow-up email to remind me of our long-distance “date”. I thought it would be somewhat cowardly to resist entering into the spirit of things so replied with a few lines of doggerel that would have made Alois Isidor Jeitteles, the writer of the six original poems, cringe. In order to save you from having the same reaction, I won’t reproduce my unworthy efforts here.
The appointed time arrived and, after a few introductory greetings followed by words of longing to be together and a warning that “my love” possessed a loud singing voice, I was shocked by what came through my iPhone headset. Yes, the voice was strong and I could scarcely hear the faint, terribly distorted piano accompaniment, but it was beautiful – outstanding clarity and “ping” while having an appealing roundness and warmth. Intonation and diction were both excellent. The German sounded as though she had been an accomplished Lieder singer for years and there was admirable control of vocal technique. Although musically assured, tempi were a little on the brisk side, particularly in more yearning phrases such as the repeated “Möchte ich sein!”/“There I would like to be”, but it was an expressive interpretation that conveyed the inherent soulful yearning convincingly.
My soprano had also initially warned me that the six songs flow without a break between them, so a spoken interlude after the second song came as a surprise. I was invited to reminisce about the time that we had spent on the “boardwalk” at St Kilda, our ride on the big dipper and a tender moment as we made our way home on the tram. An adaptation of the American version, I’m in two minds as to how well this interpolation worked.
As we said our fond farewells, I did ask what was then this anonymous soprano to promise that she would let me know when I could hear her in person. I now know that Bethany Hill is based in Adelaide and is much in demand both nationally and internationally. I’m hopeful that I will not have to wait too much longer to hear her in Melbourne again – in person. I’ve now signed up to her online newsletter. A big thankyou to Gertrude Opera for bringing this outstanding Australian soprano into my home for a personal performance. I would urge Lieder lovers to join me in taking advantage of this rare opportunity.
Digital illustration for To my Distant Love by Melbourne artist Jess Reddi Coronell, commissioned by Gertrude Opera. Image supplied