Philip White, Head of Opera, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland @Julie Howden

This interview is a record of the  conversation between the two members of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who trained the students for the premiere of Prokofiev’s “Fiery Angel” in Glasgow in December 2017. Musicologist and Russianist Svetlana Zvereva who worked with the student vocalists on Russian pronunciation talks with the Head of Opera at the Conservatoire Philip White.


SZ: It is understandable why Prokofiev’s émigré masterpiece, shrouded in religious mysticism, for such a long time has not been performed in the USSR. The main reason is that the opera did not ‘fit’ into the ideological policies of the authority. Why is it that in the West, where on the whole the development of musical art went without ideological restrictions, where in opera theatres one could find works even more complex in their musical language, The Fiery Angel took so long to be discovered?

PW: The short answer is I don’t know. I suspect it’s nothing to do with the difficulty of the music; I just think it’s more to do with the fact that the piece itself wasn’t performed until 1954. Prokofiev had great difficulty himself in getting the piece performed. There were a couple of attempts; Bruno Walter was due to conduct a performance of it, but it all fell through and Prokofiev himself never heard it in his lifetime. Then, what happens is two things; one, Prokofiev’s own death was overshadowed by the fact that he unfortunately died on exactly the same day as Stalin, so Stalin got the coverage and Prokofiev didn’t.

The other issue is that because it was only given a concert performance in Paris in 1954 it just wasn’t very well known. By that time musical tastes in the West had changed quite a lot. It was more into complete atonality, 12-tone music, Pierre Boulez and that school. To mount something like The Fiery Angel immediately post-war was probably considered as not a very wise option. It does require a very strong cast, Renata in particular. If it wasn’t even being produced in the Soviet Union, it meant there were effectively no Russian singers singing it. There was a wariness of anything that was Soviet related, although Prokofiev didn’t write it when he was in the Soviet Union. I suspect the same thing happened with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. That was first performed in the UK when I was a student, in about 1987. That was an ENO [English National Opera] production and it was a huge musical event because it was the first time. The original version had never been performed until the late ‘80s in the UK.

Of course, Shostakovich didn’t die until 1975. He was a figure of this ‘Soviet Composer’ that composed these supposedly anti-Soviet pieces but remained in the Soviet Union, whereas Prokofiev unfortunately died on the same day as Stalin back in the ‘50s. The world was a different place in the ‘50s, so it was looking to new stuff. I suspect that’s the reason.


SZ: Earlier in your career you took part in the preparation of this opera for its performance in the opera theatre of Lyon. As far as I have understood during rehearsals, you know the music of the opera virtually off by heart – and not only the music, but also the Russian text. When a musician internalises a composition, then at times he discovers what the listener sitting in the hall does not see or feel. In this regard, I would like to ask you a question that is frequently asked in connection with Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel: What do you think Prokofiev wanted to say in this opera?


PW: I honestly don’t know. It’s one of the most fantastical operas, one of the weirdest stories of any opera. It’s not mainstream, it’s the most bizarre story.

If you look at Russian culture, Russian fairy tales and to a degree Russian operas they tend to go for fantastical subjects. The Love of Three Oranges is totally fantastical, some of the Tchaikovsky ones, Cherevichki. There’s part of the Russian psyche that goes with these slightly weird, fantastical takes on life.


SZ: When I try to see analogies between the The Fiery Angel and other operas of the 20th century, I manage to do so only in certain aspects. For example, the expression and power of the music brings to mind the Salomé and Elektra by Richard Strauss. With which other twentieth-century operas do you think The Fiery Angel can be compared?


PW: I don’t think it does remind me of anything else. It’s unmistakably Prokofiev, but whether it reminds me of anything else I’m not entirely sure. You could argue it would be like Salomé in terms of physical obsession with somebody. I don’t think I’d go much further than that, though. In terms of musical language, it’s quite different. A number of people I met at the end, their reaction was that they’d been hammered. It was a physical and quite a rough experience. I’m not entirely sure that would be the case if you came out of a concert performance of Salomé. There’s an underlying violence to The Fiery Angel.

I suppose you do get that in Salomé, but it’s not the same because it’s just Salomé herself. What you get with The Fiery Angel is that everybody onstage, except for the Inquisitor, is completely possessed at the end, the Inquisitor announces his verdict, and that’s the end of Renata. It’s all over in two pages of the vocal score with those screaming trumpets, but it’s a complete assault on the aural senses from the word go.


SZ: If we continue to draw analogies, then the grandiose symphonic canvas with the involvement of the chorus in The Fiery Angel also makes us remember Prokofiev’s War and Peace.

An analogy with Shostakovich’s Katerina Izmaylova is also striking. It was created in Leningrad in the early 1930s. The musical nerve is no less acute there than in The Fiery Angel. The main character in the Shostakovich’s opera, by the way, is also a woman who eventually dies.


PW: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk [Katerina Izmaylova] is very different. There is a hard, sexual side to it, and again some of the music is so overpowering, but the whole nature of the story is different. In Lady Macbeth there is the question as to whether she’s really guilty or not because she’s caught in this awful loveless marriage. In some ways [Renata] is not a particularly sympathetic character.

SZ: What about the musical links?

PW: There are some moments of sheer bombast in both scores, but the Shostakovich has periods of really beautiful, gorgeous lyricism which don’t really exist in The Fiery Angel. Katerina herself [in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk] has that gorgeous aria about half way through and at the end of the whole piece you get that beautiful Russian chorus when they’re all in the prison camp. You get huge, monumental choral writing in the Shostakovich which has nothing to do with what there is in the Prokofiev – the musical language is quite different. Also, the Prokofiev is dense, often atonal. On the whole, it’s more removed from tonality than Lady Macbeth. The nearest Shostakovich got to that was his 4th Symphony, that he left behind.

SZ: As far as I know, it was the first time in the performing history of the The Fiery Angel that a conservatoire was involved. What was the Conservatoire’s task? How did RCS help the performance?

PW: There were two elements to our collaboration with Scottish Opera; it’s a large cast and all the small roles were taken by students from the opera school. Scottish Opera made a list of the roles that they wanted to cast, and we cast all of them bar one. That wasn’t because there wasn’t anybody good enough, it was because we had used all the singers up.

The other aspect was the chorus of 40 women and 20 men. Those students were drawn from the Masters in Performance course and also from the undergraduates. To be a second year undergraduate vocal student and be asked to sing this was quite something.

SZ: As you know, the chorus and the female vocal ensemble are used in the fifth, final act, where the tragic denouement takes place. This choral finale is one of the most difficult from the performance point of view in operatic literature. It involves a large number of performers, who often sing asynchronously, expressing a collision of good and evil. The chorus standing on the balcony, the soloists and the orchestra had to cooperate in this acoustic bacchanalia. And, it must be said, all the performers, including the conservatoire students, coped with the task perfectly – the chorus and ensemble were flawless.

  • How were you able to achieve such a brilliant result? How was the work done by the chorus and RCS soloists?


PW: Part of it is straightforward, but a lot of it is technically quite demanding. It’s very complex writing in that the chorus is often divided. And of course, the other aspect is simply that there is loads of text. When the music is relatively easy then they have loads of text, which is horrendous for an English-speaking chorus to have to learn. It was quite heavily rehearsed; we needed it in order for it just to run.

We were very lucky in that one of our student repetiteurs, Marianna Abrahamyan, is Armenian, so she had a good grasp of Russian and she worked with the small roles, along with you, coaching Russian.

For the Conservatoire is a huge project in terms of the number of roles. It’s a huge project for Scottish Opera – it’s very rare these days that Scottish Opera fields a chorus of 60. And then on top of that there’s the small roles and the principal roles, so it was quite a panoply of people on the stage. The orchestra’s vast as well. It’s a huge undertaking.

The only reason I was able to achieve any result at all was because of the engagement of the chorus and the [singers of the] small roles to do it. We were lucky enough to have the voices that could pull it off very well.


SZ: Indeed, the quality of the chorus and ensemble singing was exemplary – and this despite the fact that the singers sang in Russian, which was not their native language. The task of the students was complicated by the fact that the music in the 5th act was going at a very fast pace. For many, this was the first experience of singing in Russian at all. I would like to note that the soloists and the women’s ensemble sang the parts by heart. After the performance, some Russian listeners who were present in the hall told me that they were amazed at how accurately the students were singing in Russian.

How was preparing the choir and ensemble in Glasgow different from the process at the opera in Lyon, where you were involved in a production of this opera recently?


PW: Well, the main difference was that the requirements were different because the chorus in Lyon had to learn it off by heart. And we had two weeks, ten sessions, I think a session was two hours, so basically we had two weeks to learn it and get it off by heart. So the main difference was that it was much more intense and it was slightly nerve-wracking because we didn’t really have enough time.



SZ: Apart from preparing the singers as well as possible, what goal did you set yourself in working with students?  That is, what over-riding aim did you set yourself, bearing in mind that preparing the show was part of an educational process?


PW: The goal was that, you know, aside from the fact that they are young singers, that they absolutely pull it off as professionally as they possibly could, which I think they did. There is definitely a difference in sound between what I had here and what I had in Lyon; here it sounded like young voices and in Lyon they’re much more mature. The youngest lady in Lyon was definitely older than the oldest person in the chorus here. But once you accept that, the goal was simply that it was going to be at a professional standard.

I said to them they had to have individual responsibility because they were working in a chorus, so they couldn’t just rely on their colleagues to support them. And what I did with them, which would have made their life much more difficult in fact, was to have them basically set out in an E shape, if you can imagine a capital E lying down without the middle section, so they were basically in a long line with sides, and that is the most difficult way of singing in a choir.

Because it forces them, they cannot rely on surround sound, they can only hear the people at the side. But it also means, because I didn’t know them, that I could more easily judge what each individual was doing. You can’t hide like that, so that’s why I did it like that.

I think it’s difficult; I think it’s particularly difficult, probably, because somebody that’s been in the Conservatoire as an undergraduate, and then you’ve gone through four years of being an undergraduate, then you do two years of being a Master of Performance, and then you just automatically fall in to being in the opera school, it’s more difficult, possibly, to realise how close you are to actually coming to the profession, you see. And, you know, it’s a big difference being between 18 and 24 when you come in here, if that’s your trajectory your nearest experience is doing your A Levels in school. But there’s quite a journey, so it’s mentally making that switchover about what I’m now doing is being responsibly for myself and I have to act as though I’m out in the big wide world, because once you get out in the big wide world you don’t have the support in the same way as you do in the Conservatoire, and that, I think, is a change of attitude that the chorus made at some point and which the soloists need to make as well. It’s a matter of not saying, ‘Well, I become a professional when I leave here, but I actually start behaving like a professional now in terms of my musical preparation,’ because you don’t get that luxury of coaching and time when you’re out in the real world.


SZ: What did performing this opera in Glasgow mean for you personally?


PW: Well, I suppose what it means for me personally is two things. One, it’s the first performance of anything which I’ve had any responsibility for in my new role as Head of Opera. The second thing is that it hopefully marks the beginning of a more formal and clear collaboration between the Conservatoire and Scottish Opera.


SZ: I cannot fail to note the truly outstanding result, which, under the direction of the conductor Mikhail Agrest, was achieved in a relatively short time by the orchestra. As far as I know, at first the rehearsals were not easy. I heard from the members of the orchestra, that they initially had a hard time surrounded by young musicians. Nevertheless, the result was impressive. Due to the fact that the orchestra was on the stage, the symphonic element of the opera seemed to come to the fore. The audience could appreciate the tremendous wealth, beauty and power of this truly symphonic opera. However, the orchestra overpowered the performers: even strong and sonorous voices sometimes were overwhelmed by its sound.

  • Do you see a solution to the problem of a concert performance where there is the risk that the singers will be overwhelmed by an enlarged orchestra on the stage?

PW: It is a problem. The trouble is that you get a line-up of soloists on the stage singing, and it’s rather boring. I think it depends on the repertoire. Some operas are more difficult to do, The Fiery Angel being one of them as the orchestra is so vast. I don’t think there is a very easy solution but I think one of the reasons it was so impressive in performance was because you could see the orchestra.

SZ: If you have a favourite Russian opera, what is it?  In an ideal world, which Russian opera would you like to perform either in collaboration with a professional company or using exclusively Conservatoire forces?


 PW: Oh, crumbs! I love Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, I really, really think it’s brilliant. Going back to what we were saying earlier, I went to see that when I was a student at university. Me and some of my musical friends who were as crazy about Shostakovich as I was, piled into a car and drove down the M1 to see that show at the ENO. I’ve never forgotten it. It was one of the strongest impressions of any opera, let alone Russia Opera. Totally brilliant.

On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Tchaikovsky and I’ve never worked on The Queen of Spades. I remember that the Kirov came to London when it was still Soviet Union. They did it at Covent Garden and I thought it was just amazing. I think it was the first time I’d heard Russian voices like that onstage and a Russian chorus. It was stunning, but I think I’d have to go with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk as my favorite Russian opera.


The material was translated by Ivan Tudorov and the interview was edited by Ashley Holdsworth