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Opera in Amsterdam

9 October 2020

With more museums per square mile than any other city, 60 miles of canals (more than Venice and Birmingham combined) and a lively red light district, opera might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Amsterdam. In a country that gave us celebrated Dutch Masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh, the art legacy is enormous, but the Netherlands has not produced composers of the stature of some of its neighbouring countries.

The Netherlands’ first national composer from 2014 to 2016 was Willem Jeths. His new opera Ritratto tells the story of extravagant Italian art muse and patron Luisa Casati. Having had its premiere delayed from March, the opera was first performed online, before receiving its official world premiere on 7 October 2020 at Amsterdam’s remarkable Stopera complex. The Dutch National Opera and Ballet in Amsterdam is home to three institutions: Dutch National Opera, Dutch National Ballet, and the Ballet Orchestra. Dutch National Opera’s yearly Opera Forward Festival features the newest crop of young composers, singers and instrumentalists in opera performances and seminars.

Another of Amsterdam’s festival highlights is the Grachtenfestival, where classical musicians pop up in canal-side parks and hidden gardens over 10 days in August. The presentation and development of young musicians has an important place within the festival. Established in 2003, the Grachtenfestival Conservatorium Concours gives the most talented students at Dutch conservatoires the opportunity to present themselves to a larger audience and a chance to perform in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw.

Six violinists in the WNO orchestra.

Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg was born 28 March 1871 in Utrecht. Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was developed into one of the world’s finest orchestras during his tenure (1895-1945). Renowned as an interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Richard Strauss, Mengelberg also founded the Concertgebouw’s long-standing Mahler tradition. Mahler was first invited to Amsterdam in 1903 to conduct his Third Symphony, and subsequently the First. When Mahler returned home to Vienna after the performance, he wrote to Mengelberg ‘I feel like I have found a second musical homeland in Amsterdam.’ He returned to Amsterdam several times before his death in 1911. The Mahler Festival was first held in Amsterdam in 1920, during which Mengelberg conducted Mahler’s nine completed symphonies in fifteen days.

One of the participants in the first Mahler festival was a young Willem Pijper, who accompanied cellist Judith Bokor as part of the chamber music programme. Pijper’s early compositions were greatly influenced by German late Romanticism, in particular Gustav Mahler. He became one of greatest Dutch composers of the 20th century and had a considerable influence on modern Dutch music, teaching many prominent Dutch composers of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. His only opera Halewijn was premiered on 13 June 1933 at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam, the former home of the National Ballet and Opera.

Swiss composer Frank Martin moved to the Netherlands in 1946 and lived in Amsterdam for 10 years before finally settling in Naarden (20 minutes away). His house is now a museum, the ground floor unchanged since he died in 1974. His only full-scale opera Der Sturm is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest and was premiered on 17 June 1956 at the Vienna State Opera. You can watch WNO’s 2017 production of Frank Martin’s Le Vin herbé streamed until December 2020.