Chanelle Tourish talks to French baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer about why opera isn’t just for the elite.
A night at the opera isn’t for everyone. Operas, goes the perception, primarily are not performed in English, tend to be quite long and the tickets can be pricey. But are many judging the dramatic, 16th century-old Italian tradition too quickly? Perhaps, says French-Irish Baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer, who says that opera is after all ‘nothing more than the old version of what we today know as musicals.’
The 32-year-old singer has played in some of the most distinguished opera houses in Europe and has numerous repertoire performances to his credit including the title role in Don Giovanni and the part of Schaunard in La Boheme. Coming to Dubai on Friday May 29 for The World Classical Musical Series at the One&Only Royal Mirage, the singer is keen to show audiences in the city the universal appeal of opera. ‘It’s musical theatre, people come to it to have fun, but because it’s an expensive business it’s regarded as snooty and for the elite, but it shouldn’t be. It’s an art form for the people to rejoice, for the simple things, the music, the orchestra and the story,’ Edwin says.
For many, the word ‘opera’ conjures up cartoon images of a commically fat lady singing, but there is, of course, a whole lot more to it. Some of the greatest operas are still relevant today, Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly tells the tale of a young Japanese Geisha in the midst of a love triangle – not an altogether unfamiliar concept – while La Boheme is a short story about young people falling in and out of love against the background of poverty.
Edwin grew up in the French town of Clermont-Ferrand, with his Northern Irish father and French mother. Although he says his parents were musical – his father plays the guitar and sings and his mother had a collection of opera records – they weren’t professional performers. ‘My mother had records of the best performers from the golden age,’ he says. ‘I’d listen to Verdi operas, Strauss and ‘The Magic Flute’ by Mozart, which was the very first opera I heard, at five years old. I remember singing along to Papageno and now I’m singing Papageno at the Paris Opera.’
Although he played piano and clarinet from the age of four, Edwin says his dream was always to be a singer and thanks to his parents, he is fluent in French, English, German and Spanish and is familiar with Italian and Russian – all the languages of opera.
The Dubai recital, ‘It’s all about love’, will take audiences from Berlin to Moscow, Paris to New York, and will feature famous love songs in German, Russian, French and English. ‘We’re mixing genres, languages and periods,’ Edwin reveals. ‘I’ll be singing things from the ’40s back to Franz Schubert and the 19th century. It’s not going to be a closed repertoire, it’s going to be very mixed. The first half is more classical while second half will be modern popular songs.’
Edwin is known in the world of opera for having a flawless technique and powerful vocal projection, which has seen him land some demanding roles. ‘At this point in my life I’m very fortunate to have a lot of demands and artistically fulfilling projects,’ he says. ‘I’m still pretty young in my field and I’m still developing vocally. Opera allows me to use theatre as a medium of expression. I get to be the actor that I would love to be, it gives me the whole package of everything I love.’
Studying at the Conservatoire Emmanuel-Chabrier in his home town, Edwin later went on to study at the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles and Hanns Eisler Hochschule fur Musik in Berlin, but he says that training in a classroom isn’t enough. ‘You have to train your voice and do exercises with a coach, attending the Conservatoire isn’t enough to perform throughout life. You need to be perpetually under control of someone who counsels you vocally.’
As a baritone, Edwin says there are specific goals of repertoire and roles that singers assume at certain stages of their life. ‘For the moment I’m doing my Mozart. I’ve done a few dramatic parts and a few more vocally demanding parts and it feels good developing your voice, getting your instrument to be technically more perfect,’ Edwin says.
So can opera singers shatter glass with their voices? ‘It’s a well-known fact that it is physically impossible,’ Edwin chuckles. ‘Unless you use a funnel and directly place it onto a small surface so the vibrations make the glass break. You can’t just sing at something and expect it to break.’
Glass shattering aside, we think the opera is an art form worth exploring, even if it’s not over when the fat lady sings.
Dhs250-550. Doors open 7pm, show starts at 8pm. Wed May 29. Royal Ballroom, One&Only Royal Mirage, Al Sufouh Road (050 870 2674).
Classical experiences to try in Dubai
Covering baroque opera music as well as popular jazz, see The Opera-Pop group – three international professional singers including Guzel Teymore from Russia, who is a skilled soprano with 15 years of experience in classical singing, and Murat Ozturk, Wim Hoste and special guest Jin-Soo Young.
Dhs495 (including seated gala dinner). 7.30pm. Fri May 29. Royal Majlis, Emirates Golf Club, Emirates Hills (04 417 9999).
Harp Healing Therapy
Enjoy a relaxing massage while listening to the melodies of harpists Lidia Stankulova and Diana Pandova.
Dhs950 (60 minutes). Ongoing. Heart & Soul Spa, Al Barari, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Road (04 320 7350).