Opera North Blog

Finding light and space: Gweneth-Ann Rand on Messiaen's Harawi


One of the foremost Messiaen singers of her generation, soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand will be joined by pianist Simon Lepper for a rare performance of the French composer’s 1945 song cycle Harawi in the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 26 October.

Here Gweneth-Ann explains how Harawi became central to their long-term musical partnership, and describes the considerable challenges involved in performing the piece.

"Simon and I met at music college. He wasn't a Guildhall student but appeared religiously at every Lieder class, taking copious notes. After becoming friends and talking about repertoire, we overheard a professor saying that Messiaen's Harawi was the biggest vocal and pianistic challenge and was rarely performed because of this. We hadn't even seen the music but decided that this was something we must perform (ah… the arrogance of youth!)

"What followed were months of rehearsal, sometimes slow, sometimes frustrating but always worthwhile.

"Our first performance was at the Aldeburgh Festival, something I'll never forget, after which we both felt the need to lie down in a darkened room...

"I could quote Wikipedia and talk about it being the first part of Messiaen's Tristan Trilogy, or mention that the title itself was derived from a type of Andean love song which often ends in death, which gave Messiaen the perfect vehicle to incorporate the Tristan and Isolde myth. I could talk about his surrealist text and the use of Quechua words, not for their meaning but as percussive and natural sounds that fire the imagination.

"For us, this song cycle was an epic mountain to climb. Over the years we have made our own comfortable paths for performance. The sheer virtuosic and dense piano writing would defeat many, but finding light and space through this texture is a key to performance. It's possibly the most demanding that a singer could encounter, both technically and emotionally. The aim shouldn't be to battle with the density of colour, but to ride and enjoy the rollercoaster that follows.

"Simon and I wanted to create a moment in time that an audience would feel safe to participate in but at the same time, feel those moments of danger and passion. Harawi for us is love, death and nature at its most passionate, lightest and darkest moments."

Gweneth-Ann Rand and Simon Lepper perform Olivier Messiaen's Harawi in the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 26 October, against a backdrop of imagery evoking the composer's varied inspirations.

Gweneth-Ann Rand as Santuzza in
Cavalleria Rusticana, Opera Holland Park, 2013. Credit Robert Workman.
St John the Baptist in the Wilderness (detail) by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1489. Museo Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid
The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail) by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1490-1510. Prado, Madrid. 

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