Sunday, September 22, 2002

CCM opera chief ends 'adventurous journey'

For 16 years, peers have been singing his praises

By Janelle Gelfand,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “ Legacies are very difficult things,” says Malcolm Fraser. “I would hope it would be that CCM continue to produce singers, who, while technically assured and knowledgeable, have a freedom and a lack of inhibition in approaching their developing craft.”

        Mr. Fraser, 63, was reminiscing about his 16 years as chairman of the opera department at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he holds the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair of Opera. He is retiring early for health reasons, and a search will begin for his successor next month.

        His achievements are staggering: Since 1987, CCM has won 26 awards from the National Opera Association for the best college opera productions in North America.

        For 16 years, he has staged six operas annually, including two main-stage operas, casting an average of 66 singers in significant roles each year.

        He is especially proud of the singers he has nurtured, who are now working all over North America and Europe — a legacy that includes singers in major houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Santa Fe Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Vienna State Opera, Stuttgart Opera and many more.

        He has tried to encourage them to take risks and to experiment, he says.

        “When I arrived at CCM I was absolutely amazed at the talent,” he says, recalling his first opera, Prokofiev's Love of Three Oranges, a great kickoff to his tenure. More recently,he was taken with staging Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims in 2000, an opera with 14 virtuoso roles in two casts — “I loved the fact that we could stage that, and tailor it to (former dean) Bob Werner's last year,” he says.

        He was thrilled to mount Handel's Julius Caesar in 1997, using both a baritone (Philip Horst) and a mezzo (Stacey Rishoi) in the castrato role. And he especially enjoyed taking opera around the city, such as a Barber of Seville he presented at the YMCA.

        “We had great fun with that. But then, what opera don't you have great fun with?” Mr. Fraser says, laughing. “Every project has its own thrill.”

        His taste has been wide-ranging, from Harold Blumenfeld's Seasons in Hell (a 1996 world premiere, later issued on CD) and Zemlinsky's The Chalk Circle (1988) to Monteverdi's The Madrigals of Love and War (1993).

        His work gave the school international exposure. The composer Sir Michael Tippett attended the American premiere of his opera, The Knot Garden, which received a lengthy review in The New Yorker.

        A production of Mozart's singspiel Zaide, performed at New York's Lincoln Center during the Mozart Bicentennial, was praised by the New York Times as “one of the more compelling theatrical experiences.”

        A number of important innovations put CCM's opera department on the map, such as establishing a course of study for opera coaches and stage directors, a rarity. “We have the comprehensive course for training opera stage directors in the world,” he says. “It's a great accomplishment, because we're providing a unique training ground.”

        In 1996, inspired by a long-ago family vacation in Tuscany, Mr. Fraser and former CCM faculty member Lorenzo Malfatti established a summer opera program in Lucca, Italy.

        Mr. Fraser transported almost an entire school — singers, instrumentalists, conductors, designers and production crew — to mount four productions there each summer. The widely hailed program continues to flourish.

        “We just descended on the place,” Mr. Fraser says with a laugh, recalling a “tremendously powerful” staging of Respighi's Lucretia in Lucca. “Even in the first year we took 120 students. ... I enjoyed it enormously.”

        His international work, as a stage director for numerous British opera companies, festivals, television and theater, is equally impressive. From 1978 to 1990 he was artistic director of the Buxton (England) International Festival, which provided another platform for exploring unusual works: the first British performance in this century of Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, the first complete performance of Cherubini's Medee this century, the first mounting in England of Kodaly's Hary Janos, a masterpiece of Hungarian national opera, which won him Hungary's Kodaly Medal. For Welsh National Opera, he staged the first Dramatic Madrigals by Adriano Banchieri in modern times, of which he is enormously proud.

        “I just got fascinated in the fact that throughout the history of opera since about 1600 there have been about 100 significant operas written every year — every year! — and how few of them are performed,” he says.

        Mr. Fraser, who grew up in Kingston Upon Thames, near London, is moving back to England with his wife, the designer Fay Conway. There he plans to write a Manual for the Dramatic Training of the Singer, covering his work of the past 33 years.

        As for leaving CCM, Mr. Fraser says, “I'm just absolutely amazed I got the job. (He laughs.) I was astonished at the colleagues I met at CCM. It was sort of a dream place, where there were highly talented people, who were willing to go on an adventurous journey, and there were highly talented and motivated students. It was a place where zany ideas, if I kept them in check, were supported and tolerated. It's just been such a gift, really.”

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