Michael Hersch: Poppaea

, composer / , librettist


A nominee for the 2023 Austrian Music Theater Prize for Best Contemporary Music Theater, Michael Hersch's epic setting of Poppaea turns the classic tale of Nero inside out, examining it from multiple angles and unearthing the powerful lessons it holds for contemporary society. Hersch, along with vocalists Ah Young Hong, Steve Davislim, Silke Gäng, with Ensemble Phoenix Basel and Ensemble SoloVoices, delivers a wrenching version of the tale, challenging assumptions and forcing the listener to ask difficult questions about history and the inherent biases that are ingrained into its mainstream understanding.


# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 101:03


03Scene I - New Life
Scene I - New Life
04Scene II - The Wedding
Scene II - The Wedding
05Scene III - Adultery
Scene III - Adultery
06Scene IV - Octavia is Innocent
Scene IV - Octavia is Innocent
07Interlude I
Interlude I
08Scene V - Octavia
Scene V - Octavia
09Scene VI - Poppaea Witnesses Octavia’s Death
Scene VI - Poppaea Witnesses Octavia’s Death
10Scene VII - Milk Bath
Scene VII - Milk Bath
11Interlude II
Interlude II
12Scene VIII - Claudia Augusta
Scene VIII - Claudia Augusta
13Scene IX - Nero’s Lament
Scene IX - Nero’s Lament
14Scene X - The Great Fire
Scene X - The Great Fire
15Scene XI - After the Fire
Scene XI - After the Fire
16Scene XII - This World
Scene XII - This World

Michael Hersch’s arresting new one-act opera Poppaea begins and ends with a shocking act of violence. The first, the Prologue, feels like a punch, throwing us back in our seats, stunning us with its audacity. The last we see coming from the start, the tragic conclusion to a tale of transgression perpetrated against women caught up in a depraved, misogynistic world.

Poppaea Sabina (approx. 30 AD – 65 AD) is usually portrayed in history as a conniver, a striver of middling birth who orchestrated the death of Octavia (daughter of Claudius, approx. 42 AD – 62 AD) so that she could take her place as the wife of Nero, Emperor of Rome. Hersch’s opera, with a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann, seeks to explore this story from a woman's perspective, seeing both Octavia and Poppaea as victims of men’s fury and appetites. Like much of Hersch’s work, it foregrounds the psychological effects of trauma, confronting the audience with music that is emotionally searing and deeply profound.

Scene I – New Life opens with Poppaea in prayer to her mother. She wishes her mother could be there to witness the birth of Nero’s child, who can “rewrite the story” of her mother’s death. She tells of her dreams of how her mother committed suicide after a baseless claim of adultery. (“Just sixteen, / I watched you slice yourself open / like a melon / in penance for a crime you didn’t commit.”)

Poppaea and Nero sing of how the birth of their child will erase all the bad omens since Nero killed his mother. Their marriage and the birth of their child will be a fresh start, legitimizing their relationship and leaving past sins behind. However, foreboding tension is held in close dissonances in the orchestra, creating unstable beating and difference tones which are illusory but nonetheless powerful.

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Poppaea is portrayed by soprano Ah Young Hong, for whom many of Hersch’s vocal works were written. Hong’s dramatic range is exceptional, and she and the orchestra entwine each other like a single stream, both human and ethereal. The instruments, against a dark ground, follow her every word with slashes of color and light.

In Scene V – Octavia we find Octavia in her cell, awaiting her death. She tells how Nero murdered her brother, Britannicus, when she was nine. She grieves that the philosopher Seneca, who could advise Nero to some degree (“He was—a kind of gate. / Kept me safe enough”), has been sent to Spain, and there is no one left to protect her or the city from Nero. By Scene VI – Poppaea Witnesses Octavia’s Death she's bleeding out, but not fast enough. Poppaea, asking her what pain and death are like, and saying her heart is too true, has Octavia moved to a warm bath to speed up the process.

Octavia is portrayed by German mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng, whose sweet tone and fragile vibrato show us she is blameless. Both Octavia and Poppaea express pain by singing soaring, sustained tones near the top of their register; it is as if terror has destroyed language itself. Then their voices drop down low to express what words they have, in hoarse tones that portray their emotional exhaustion.

Nero is richly sung by the Australian tenor Steve Davislim, with an affect that befits a mad king, ranging from cool indifference to crazed fury. Nero is not just a character but also a catalyst: he doesn’t change, but in his presence, women die.

Hersch’s orchestral gestures flash second by second, creating a constantly roiling soundscape, like the endless treachery and violence of ancient Rome. There are individual scenes, but they are all caught in a nightmare from which they can’t awaken.

The libretto was written by Stephanie Fleischmann, one of the most acclaimed librettists in contemporary music. She portrays the characters through spare, myth-like scenes and evocative images (one of the ill omens Nero and Poppaea witness is “a horde of frozen elephants”).

The listener will hear extra-musical sounds through this live recording, mostly in the second half. In the Wien Modern/ZeitRäume Basel production of the opera, to portray the sparkling imperial palace, thousands of clear plastic bottles were strung up as curtains on the stage (the excellent CD booklet has photos of this). As the story descends into greater violence and depravity, these curtains gradually fall, leaving the palace in ruins. Ultimately what the listener hears is the sound of the singers walking through huge piles of worthless detritus, a deft commentary on ancient Rome’s toxic world of power and lust.

– Kyle Bartlett

Recorded live at Don Bosco Basel on September 10, 2021 in Basel, Switzerland

Recording producer, editing and mastering by Andreas Werner, Silencium Music Production
Recording engineer: Stefan Haechler
Additional editing and mastering by Andrew Bohman

A production of Wien Modern and ZeitRäume Basel - Biennale für neue Musik und Architektur
A co-production with Netzwerk zur Entwicklung formatübergreifender Musiktheaterformen and Gare du Nord Basel

With the kind support of Stadt Wien Kultur, Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung, Johns Hopkins University, Blair School of Music/ Vanderbilt University, Pro Helvetia and the U.S. Embassy Vienna

In cooperation with BAFF! Internationales Basler Figurentheater Festival

Essays by Markus Bothe, Bernhard Günther, Heinrich Toews and Ioannis Piertzovanis translated into English by Ada Günther

Proofreader: Nancy Sorkin

Design, layout & typography: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com

Ah Young Hong

A “transfixing” (New Yorker) soprano of “fearlessness and consummate artistry” (Opera News), Ah Young Hong has interpreted a vast array of repertoire, ranging from the music of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, and Poulenc, to works of Shostakovich, Babbitt, Kurtág, and Haas. The New York Times praised Ms. Hong as “the opera’s blaz- ing, lone star,” The Chicago Tribune called her “absolutely riveting,” and the Kronen Zeitung wrote “her stage presence, her soprano voice ... Breathtaking.” In high de- mand as a concert and chamber soloist, Ms. Hong has performed with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Ensemble Phoenix Basel, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Camerata Bern, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, FLUX Quartet, the Netherland-based contemporary music group Ensemble Klang, Konzerthaus Ber- lin’s ensemble-in-residence Ensemble unitedberlin, Ensemble Dal Niente, The Daedalus Quartet, Wiener KammerOrchester, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, and Tempesta di Mare, amongst oth- ers. She has also appeared as soloist at the Aldeburgh Music Festival, CalPerformances series, Seattle Symphony recital series, and the Ojai Festival. In opera, Ms. Hong premiered Michael Hersch’s On the Threshold of Winter, a one woman opera, and his Poppaea in the title role. Other roles include the title role in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Morgana in Handel’s Alcina, Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Fortuna and Minerva in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and Asteria in Handel’s Tamerlano. She has also appeared with Opera Lafayette in Rebel and Francoeur’s Zélindor, roi des Sylphes at the Rose Theater in Lincoln Center and as La Musique in Charpentier’s Les Arts Florissants at the Kennedy Center. A prolific recording artist, Ms. Hong recorded the American premiere of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn, BWV 1127, for National Public Radio’s Performance Today. Other recordings include the world premiere of Rebel and Francoeur’s Zélindor, roi des Sylphes (Naxos), Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, and Sentirete una Canzonetta with Harmonious Blacksmith. Ms. Hong is a featured soloist in Ensemble Klang’s recording of Michael Hersch’s cortex and ankle. Early 2018 saw the commercial release of her debut solo CD on Innova Recordings featuring Milton Babbitt’s Philomel and Michael Hersch’s a breath upwards, and was hailed as “an important new soprano undaunted by difficult contemporary challenges’’ (The WholeNote), who gives “landmark performances of two land- mark works” (Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review). Fall 2022 saw the release of Michael Hersch’s the script of storms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on the New Focus label. Recent performances include those with Ensemble Phoenix Basel in the world premiere of Hersch’s one step to the next, worlds ending and with the Talea Ensemble in Georg Friedrich Haas’s ... wie stille brannte das Licht. Ms. Hong currently serves as Associate Professor in the Vocal Studies Department at the Peabody Conservatory of The Johns Hopkins University.

Steve Davislim

Steve Davislim has performed with leading ensembles around the world, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Cleveland and Royal Danish Orchestras, and the symphony orchestras of San Francisco, Chicago, London, Zurich, Vienna, Turin, Madrid, Dresden, Paris, Rome (Santa Cecilia), and Brussels; he has appeared at the Lincoln Center, Mostly Mozart, Salzburg, and Lucerne festivals. He recently performed Haydn’s Creation with William Christie on tour, Tippett’s A Child of Our Time with Sir Colin Davis at London’s Barbican Centre, J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Munich and Boston with Bernard Haitink, Handel’s Messiah with the New York Philharmonic, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Melbourne Symphony, London Symphony, and Radio France orchestras; Chausson’s Poème de l’amour et de la mer with the Queensland Symphony; Schubert’s Lazarus with the Deutsche Symphony Berlin and Vicente Martín y Soler’s L’Arbore di Diana at the Montpellier Festival. Mr. Davislim has appeared at the State Opera Berlin, State Opera Vienna, Hamburg Opera, Dresden Semperoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, The Australian Opera in Sydney, Châtelet Paris, Liceu Barcelona and at the Montpellier Festival, Zurich Opera, Lyric Opera Chicago, the MET, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Other appearances include those in Schnittke’s Faust Cantata at the Musikverein Vienna and Gasteig Munich, Die Winterreise with Teodor Currentzis in Perm and Moscow in the Hanz Zender orchestration, Liederabende in Vienna, Adelaide Festival, and Bruckner’s Te Deum under Riccardo Muti in Chicago. He has worked with other conductors such as Claudio Abbado, Lorin Maazel, Simone Young, Christian Thielemann, Simon Rattle, Riccardo Chailly, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Adam Fischer, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Valery Gergiev, Michael Gielen, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Thomas Hengelbrock, Philippe Herreweghe, René Jacobs, Armin and Philippe Jordan, Marc Minkowski, Andris Nelsons, Myung-Whun Chung, Sir Roger Norrington, William Christie, Antonio Pappano, Michel Plasson, Sir Georg Solti, Jeffrey Tate, Marcello Viotti, Franz Welser-Möst, and David Zinman.

Silke Gäng

Mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng has performed around the world. She toured Europe and the U.S. with the Venice Baroque Orchestra under the direction of Andrea Marcon, singing Abra in Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans, with concerts in New York (Carnegie Hall), Urbana (Krannert Center), London (Barbican) and Brussels (Palais de Beaux Arts). Further engagements have included the role of Annio in La clemenza di Tito and the recording of Parnasso in Festa by Handel, together with La Cetra Basel and Andrea Marcon with concerts in Amsterdam (Concertgebouw) and Basel. In season 2017/18 she was part of a new production of L’Orfeo by Monteverdi as Messagiera and Proserpina. She was also a guest at Festival Wissembourg/France, giving her debut with Kammerorchester Basel. She has given song recitals at the Lucerne Festival, Lavaux Festival and at Heidelberger Frühling alongside Thomas Hampson, among others. She has recorded several CDs, including the role of Imilee in a world premiere of J.D. Heinichen’s forgotten Baroque opera Flavio Crispo with the Il Gusto Barocco Stuttgart Baroque Orchestra under the Baton of Jürg Halubek, and debuted in Venice/Italy with Gloria by Vivaldi. In 2015, Gäng returned to Theater Basel, including Juditha in Juditha Triumphans, as Nérine in Charpentier’s Médée, and was a guest as singer and speaker in various concerts at the Davos Festival — young artists in concert. In 2013/14 she took part in Wagner’s Parsifal as Klingsor’s Flowermaid (II/3), Voice from Above and 2nd Esquire at Theatre Freiburg and Royal Theatre of Norwich. 2011/12 she sang the role of Susette Gontard in G.F. Haas’ Hölderlin Opera Nacht at the Lucerne Festival and Gare du Nord Basel. She has worked with directors including Frank Hilbrich, Sebastian Nübling and Nicolas Brieger, and conductors including Andrea Marcon, Ton Koopman, Jürg Halubek and Fabrice Bollon. Other highlights from recent years include appearances at the Salzburg Festival and Staatstheater Stuttgart, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Handel Festival in Halle, Schwetzingen Festival, Liederhalle Stuttgart, Theater Basel, Theater Freiburg and the Royal Theatre of Norwich, among others. She was a Heidelberger Frühling scholarship holder in 2012 and had the honor to work with artists like Graham Johnson, Thomas Hampson, Brigitte Fassbaender, Anne Sofie von Otter and Wolfram Rieger. Silke Gäng grew up in Freiburg, Germany and studied singing at the Hochschule für Musik in Basel, Swit- zerland. She has won various international awards, including at the V. International Ernst Haefliger Competition 2014.

Ensemble SoloVoices

Ensemble SoloVoices is committed overarchingly to the performance of contemporary music. The core of the ensemble is comprised of vocalists Svea Schildknecht, Francisca Näf, Jean J. Knutti and Jean-Christophe Groffe, and the ensemble can be extended to larger formations of up to 20 musicians. SoloVoices regularly performs challenging literature and premieres of works for solo voice, music which incorporates other instruments, music in dialogue with visual media, scenic concepts, electronics, and the ensemble often explores the juxtapositions of newer with older vocal music. SoloVoices develops its own projects, collaborates with composers, and actively commissions. In collaboration with the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology ICST of the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) and Professor Germán Toro-Pérez, SoloVoices is dedicated to the re-performance of works for voices and electronics composed between 1980 and 2000. SoloVoices has gained international recognition through performances of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work Stimmung for six singers with the support of the Stockhausen Foundation for Music in many countries. Among the numerous world premieres SoloVoices has given, are works by Matthias Heep, Hans-Peter Frehner, Hans-Jürg Meier, Lukas Langlotz, Daniel Ott, Darija Andovska, Mike Svoboda, Hans-Martin Linde, Thomas Kessler, Roland Moser, Kevin Juillerat, Isabel Mundry, Marc Garcia Vitoria, Karin Wetzel, Nicolas Buzzi, Rudolf Kelterborn, Verena Weinmann, Balz Trümpy, Mischa Käser, Urs Peter Schneider, and Micha Seidenberg. SoloVoices has been invited by major festivals and events including Culturescapes (Basel), Contrapunkt St. Gallen, musica aperta (Winterthur), KlangBasel, Festival Rümlingen, IGNM Basel, Imago Dei (Krems, A), Lucerne Festival, Société de Musique Contemporaine Lausanne (SMC), Stockhausen Foundation for Music, Festival Ensems (Valencia, E), Bayerischer Rundfunk, and Wien Modern.

Ensemble Phoenix Basel

In 1998, the Ensemble Phoenix Basel first appeared on the cultural landscape in Basel. The conductor and pianist Jürg Henneberger, the flutist Christoph Bösch, and the percussionist Daniel Buess came together and founded the ensemble that has since advanced to become one of the most important of its kind in Switzerland, and one with increasing international renown. While Daniel Buess died tragically in 2016, his vision continues to carry Ensemble Phoenix Basel into the future. From its inception, the ensemble has helped shape the cultural life of its home base of Basel. With variable and flexible instrumentation – from a trio to a constellation of thirty musicians – ideal performance forms and framings are cultivated for contemporary music. The ensemble’s work is characterized by a high degree of initiative on the part of the players. Impulses, ideas, and preferences of the group’s individual musical personalities are woven into planning and execution. The group’s programs are primarily presented in Basel’s Gare du Nord, and with evermore frequency also performed in other Swiss cities and further abroad. For additional productions, the International Society for New Music, Theater Basel, Zeiträume Basel, the Wien Modern Festival, the Wiener Festwochen and the Berliner Festspiele have been partners. The commissioning of works is central to the ensemble’s mission. Additionally, individual pieces and complete programs are developed in collaboration with artists from the fields of noise, sound art, free improv and electronica. Ensemble Phoenix Basel continues to examine its place in contemporary society and its role in setting new standards both nationally and internationally.

Jürg Henneberger

The conductor and pianist Jürg Henneberger was born in Lucerne in 1957. He studied in Basel with Jürg Wyttenbach and in Hamburg with Klauspeter Seibel and Christoph von Dohnànyi. He taught at the Hochschule für Musik Basel from 1989 to 2022. He is the Artistic Director of Ensemble Phoenix Basel which he founded in 1998 and which specializes in contemporary music. From 1998- 2014 he was president of the International Society for New Music (IGNM) Basel. Mr. Henneberger is also a widely sought-after musical director of major ballet and opera productions. Since 2009, he was professor and, together with Mike Svoboda and Marcus Weiss, Artistic Director of a newly founded Master’s program in Musical Performance of Contemporary Music.

Michael Hersch

A composer of “uncompromising brilliance” (The Washington Post) whose work has been described by The New York Times as “viscerally gripping and emotionally transformative music ... claustrophobic and exhilarating at once, with moments of sublime beauty nestled inside thickets of dark virtuosity,” Michael Hersch is widely considered among the most gifted composers of his generation. Recent events and premieres include his Violin Concerto at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland and the Avanti Festival in Helsinki; new productions of his monodrama, On the Threshold of Winter, in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C., and his I hope we get a chance to visit soon at the Ojai and Aldeburgh Festivals, where Mr. Hersch was a 2018 featured composer. Recent premieres include his 11-hour chamber cycle, sew me into a shroud of leaves, a work which occupied the composer for fifteen years, at the 2019 Wien Modern Festival. 2020/21 will see the premiere of his new opera, Poppaea, in Vienna and Basel as part of the Wien Modern Festival in a co-production with ZeitRäume Basel and Gare du Nord Basel / Netzwerk zur Entwicklung formatübergreifende Musiktheaterformen. During the 2019/20 season, Mr. Hersch has been named Composer-in-Residence with the Camerata Bern. In February 2020, his recent work Agatha saw performances in both Bern and Geneva.

Over the past several years, Hersch has written new works for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Ensemble Klang, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Alban Berg Ensemble Wien, and the Library of Congress. Other notable recent events include European performances by the Kreutzer Quartet of Images from a Closed Ward in the U.K. and Sweden, a recording of the work by the acclaimed FLUX Quartet, a work for solo violin commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, premiered at the orchestra’s Biennial in 2014.

Recently Hersch has worked closely with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the violinist commissioning both his Violin Concerto, which premiered in 2015, and his chamber work ... das Rückgrat berstend, which premiered at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory during the autumn of 2017. She recently recorded the concerto with the International Contemporary Ensemble (I.C.E.), and the duo with cellist Jay Campbell. Most recently, Kopatchinskaja performed one of the solo roles in the world premiere of Agatha in Bern.

Notable past performances include Night Pieces, commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, and a song cycle for baritone and piano, Domicilium, commissioned and premiered by Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Rieger on San Francisco Performances. Hersch’s second piano concerto, along the ravines, was given performances with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and as part of the George Enescu International Festival in Romania. Mr. Hersch’s end stages was commissioned and premiered by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, his Zwischen Leben und Tod recently received it’s European premiere, and A Forest of Attics, commissioned for the Network for New Music’s 25th anniversary season, was selected as one of the year’s most important classical music events by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The paper said of the work, “A Forest of Attics threw a Molotov cocktail into the concert: Everything before it paled in comparison ... Hersch has written some towering works in recent years; this is yet another.”

Also a pianist, noted for his “astounding facility at the keyboard” (International Piano), Mr. Hersch has appeared around the world including appearances at the Ojai Festival, Aldeburgh Festival, the Festival Dag in de Branding in the Netherlands, the Warhol Museum, the Romaeuropa Festival, the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Cleveland’s Reinberger Chamber Hall, the Festival of Contemporary Music Nuova Consonanza, the Network for New Music Concert Series, the Left Bank Concert Society, Festa Europea della Musica, St. Louis’ Sheldon Concert Hall, and in New York City at Merkin Concert Hall, the 92nd St. Y - Tisch Center for the Performing Arts, and Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, among others.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1971, Michael Hersch came to international attention at age twenty-five, when he was awarded First Prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards. The award resulted in a performance of his Elegy, conducted by Marin Alsop in New York’s Alice Tully Hall. Later that year he became one of the youngest recipients ever of a Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition. Mr. Hersch has also been the recipient of the Rome Prize, the Berlin Prize, the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship and Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the President’s Frontier Award from the Johns Hopkins University, among other honors.


Stephanie Fleischmann

The recipient of Opera America’s 2022 Campbell Librettist Prize, Stephanie Fleischmann is a librettist and playwright whose texts serve as blueprints for intricate three-dimensional sonic and visual worlds. She has been called a “neo Emily Dickinson” (Backstage) and “a writer who can conjure something between a dreamy road movie and a theatrical coming-of-age tale, and who can piece these elements together in the style of a jagged ballad for guitar” (Chicago Sun Times). Her “lyrical monologues” (The New York Times), “finely tuned” opera libretti (Opera News), plays and music-theater works have been performed internationally and across the U.S. Opera libretti include: In a Grove (music by Christopher Cerrone), Dido (music by Melinda Wagner), After the Storm (music by David Hanlon), The Long Walk (music by Jeremy Howard Beck), The Property (commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2015). Upcoming: Another City (music by Jeremy Howard Beck, for Houston Grand Opera, 2023), The Pigeon Keeper (music by David Hanlon, for Santa Fe Opera’s Opera for All Voices, Santa Fe, 2023), Arkhipov (music by Peter Knell, developed c/o Seattle Opera; Jacaranda, 2022, directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, conducted by Daniela Candillari). Current opera collaborations include 3 projects with Opera America Female Discovery grant composers—The Visitation, with Christina Campanella; Seven Sisters, with Justine F. Chen (workshop: Manhattan School of Music); Barrel of Laughs, Vale of Tears, with Julia Adolphe (National Sawdust/ Brooklyn Youth Chorus)—and L’Autre Moi, with Matthew Recio (West Edge’s Aperture; Chicago Opera Theater). Fleischmann recently completed a Medea, which premiered in 2023, with music by Michael Hersch, performed by Sarah Maria Sun, Schola Heidelberg and Ensemble MusikFabrik in Cologne. Her texts and songs have been set by composers Anna Clyne (The Years, for Scottish National Chamber Orchestra and Choir), Olga Neuwirth (Aldeburgh, Basel, Berlin, Vienna), Christopher Cerrone (Last Message Received, for Northwestern, and Wind Phone, Goleta, CA, April 22, for Conspirare), Gity Razaz (She Sings, for Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Bang on a Can Longplay), Sxip Shirey, Jorge Sosa, Elspeth Brooke, and others. Fleischmann’s rendition of Carnival of the Animals has been seen at the Ojai Festival and the Hollywood Bowl.



Opera Ramblings

Michael Hersch is a very distinct musical voice. His subject matter tends to be disturbing and his musical style is abrasive. One of his most recent works is the one act opera Poppaea which is based on the life of historical Poppaea after the point at which the Monteverdi opera leaves off. Strictly, it’s not set in Nero’s Rome but rather in a time and place inspired by it. The very effective libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann includes a distinctly non-classical take on space and time. It’s an exploration of overweaning ambition and where it leads which is about as relevant to today’s world as any theme could be.

The story arc is basically Nero marries Poppaea who produces a daughter. Octavia (Nero’s former wife) is forced to commit suicide. The child dies. Poppaea becomes increasingly disenchanted with Nero’s debauched behaviour but becomes pregnant again anyway. Most of what’s left of the old senatorial order is forced to commit suicide following the so-called “Pisonian plot”. In the aftermath of the famous fire Nero and Poppaea row furiously and Nero beats the pregnant Poppaea to death. Still obsessed with her, he has a pretty boy who looks like the dead woman castrated and marries him. This is staged in a series of scenes that aren’t strictly linear and sometimes involve characters in separate spaces being aware of what another is doing. Hence my earlier comment about space and time.

It’s violent musically as well as dramatically. Both Ah Young Hong, as Poppaea, and Silke Gäng, as Octavia, have extremely difficult parts which demand some stratospherically high singing (usually extended, vibrato-less phrases) combined with speech, whispering and much more. In contrast, Steve Davislim’s Nero merely combines much more conventional, and quite conversational, tenor singing with a fair bit of speech. There are also three Handmaidens; Svea Schildknecht, Vera Hiltbrunner and Francisca Näf, who also have some extremely challenging ensemble singing. There’s also a small chorus; Ensemble Solovoices, who also have some very demanding work to do.

The orchestral writing is atonal and abrasive. It’s scored for eighteen players including piano and it’s heavy on the wind section. There’s a lot of use of percussion and extended technique for winds and strings. It gets a fully committed performance from Ensemble Phoenix Basel and their music director Jürg Henneberger.

The recording is of a live performance at Don Bosco Basel in September 2021. It’s quite a busy staging so one notices a lot of stage noise. That aside though it’s very well recorded. I listened to a 48kHz/24 bit digital version and it’s excellent in every way. There’s also a very comprehensive booklet with the full text (very necessary as a lot of it is sung so high it’s impossible to make out) and essays on the background, the music, the drama and the dramaturgy.

It’s an interesting and disturbing work that I would love to see on stage (which is hardly likely to happen in Toronto!). Audio only, it’s still a pretty good way to experience a kind of music theatre that just doesn’t really get any play in North America and there are enough photographs in the booklet to get an idea of what the theatre experience was like.

Poppaea will be released on February 23rd 2024 in physical CD (two disks), MP3 and CD quality and hi-res FLAC.

— John Gilks, 1.04.2024


Avant Music News

The early Roman empire, known for its power and affluence, its arrogance and violence, has for centuries been a source of ongoing attraction – often horrified attraction — to Western historians and artists. The doings and indiscretions of the leading figures of the time – the emperors and aristocrats, particularly as they’ve come down to us through Suetonius’ scandalous storytelling – are a natural source of material for opera. Suetonius is one of the sources behind composer Michael Hersch’s Poppaea (2019), a one-act opera with a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann.

Hersch and Fleischmann present us with a wrenching work about Poppaea Sabina, second wife of the emperor Nero, who in turn was her third husband. Hersch’s isn’t the first opera to have Poppaea as a focal character; Monteverdi’s last opera was The Coronation of Poppaea, and she is given a central role in Handel’s opera Agrippina. The Poppaeas in these two earlier operas are quite different, the first being portrayed as a cynical manipulator – as she had been in Suetonius’s and Tacitus’ histories — and the second as an innocent caught up in vicious court politics. Hersch and Flesichmann’s Poppaea is more ambiguous and takes her place in a tragedy that, being shaped for contemporary sensibilities, puts the psychological lives of its two main female characters at its center.

Hersch’s music is appropriate to the complex and often traumatic events depicted. As he remarks in the accompanying booklet, “violence and cruelty becom[e] characters” in themselves, governing the relationships at the heart of the opera. His writing, accordingly, consists of a kind of neo-expressionism played out in acerbic and aggressive dissonance as well as in an ample use of extended techniques. With them, he is able to create large effects with relatively small resources. The orchestra on this recording, the Ensemble Phoenix Basel, comprises only eighteen pieces but thanks to Hersch’s orchestration and dynamics, for sheer force it often sounds like a full modern orchestra. A full orchestra held in a prolonged state of high tension: the composer effectively parallels the characters’ emotional extremes with his dramatic use of discordant, stentorian brass and harshly fused timbres of strings and winds. Similarly, his writing for the vocal parts keys up the tension by putting them in the outer reaches of their upper registers. Like the orchestra the cast is quite small, consisting of Poppaea, sung by soprano Ah Young Hong for whom the part was written; Nero, sung by tenor Steve Davislim; and Nero’s former wife Octavia, sung by mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng. These three are joined by a small female chorus and three handmaidens.

In the end, with Poppaea Hersch and Fleischmann give us a complicated and ultimately tragic character capable of being, in Ah Young Hong’s words, both monster and victim.

— Dan Barbiero, 2.22.2024



Nero, the megalomaniac, the monster – this is how the Roman biographer Suetonius paints the picture of the emperor. This image of Nero still dominates historiography to this day, even though current research offers a more nuanced picture of the emperor.

In Michael Hersch’s one-act play Poppaea – commissioned by the Wien Modern 2021 festival – Nero plays an important role as the string-puller, but is not the center of attention. The focus is on his mistress and later second wife, Poppaea, who is no less power-hungry and has her fiercest rival Octavia removed from her path.

Is Poppaea happy now? No, because shortly after her birth, the daughter she conceived with Nero dies, and Nero has nothing else to do but play the theater and strum the lyre.

Michael Hersch and his librettist Stephanie Fleischmann have succeeded in illuminating the torn characters of Poppaea and Octavia as if through a burning glass. The music is highly atmospheric, full of tension, and its agitation reflects the constant restlessness of the two protagonists: Poppaea in the spotlight, Octavia after her execution as her constant shadow. In the end, there are only losers in this intrigue: Poppaea cannot force Nero’s love, cannot control him, and ends up joining his list of victims, while Nero himself becomes the last direct descendant of the great Julius Caesar.

Ah Young Hong embodies Poppaea in the truest sense of the word. Her strong stage presence can even be heard in the recording. Scene 9 is particularly impressive – the slow death of Octavia, which Poppaea observes at close range and dialogues with the dying woman. Does she want to humiliate Octavia to the bitter end? Does she feel pity for her rival or is it the satisfaction of victory? Ah Young Hong expresses this irritating, frightening mixture of emotions with wonderful inner strength. With Silke Gäng (Octavia) as the scheming ghost and guilty conscience and Steve Davislim as the ruthless, heartless emperor, she has equally strong stage partners who turn this one-act play into a gripping personal drama.

— Guy Engels, 2.25.2024


Relevant Tones Interview


— Matthew Dosland, 3.15.2024


Blog Critics

Apparently, many men are “still” thinking about ancient Rome – on TikTok, at least. Psychology professor Ronald Levant suggests that one reason may be increased loneliness, making boys and men “gravitate to a society that glorified male strength.”

But the Roman Empire is far from an exclusively male preoccupation. Librettist Stephanie Fleischmann teamed with composer Michael Hersch a few years ago to create Poppaea, an opera that premiered in Basel and Vienna in 2021. New Focus Recordings has now released a recording of the production. It reveals the opera as a howl of pain.

The Roman Women

Insecure 21st-century males may see ancient Rome as an ideal of masculine hegemony. But in Poppaea Hersch and Fleishmann turn the bloody story of Nero’s wife Poppaea inside out to look at these eventful years of the first century C.E. from the point of view of the women – Poppaea foremost, and her predecessor Octavia.

Without visual cues, the melodies read as abstract. They often leap up or down the scale, then settle on one note for the duration of a phrase. Half-note intervals abound, creating a tense, flattened affect. Still, within these strictures, or perhaps because of them, the primary voices – Ah Young Hong in the title role, Steve Davislim as Nero, and Silke Gäng as Octavia – capture emotions at their rawest.

Putting meat on these dry vocal bones is the instrumental score. Growling, crashing, dissonant, it breathes hoarsely, mutters, stabs – a harsh musical pneumonia.

As a pure listen, Poppaea is not a pleasant experience. But then why have I returned to it three times (so far), and why do I feel an urge to write about it? “Urge” is the right word, I think, as in “urgency.” In this conception, Nero’s wives have something urgent to say – about family, history, and myth, and above all about their place in the world as women.

Case in point: Nero and Poppaea’s wedding scene, far from being a celebration, devolves into a nightmarish mob scene. The crowd, loyal to the popular Octavia, smashes the new empress’s statue.

Octavia Agonistes

Octavia’s aria in Scene V recounting a series of murders is emblematic of Hersch’s approach. About Nero’s assassination of her beloved brother Britannicus, she sings “I was gutted then” in an angular flatted-fifth interval. Then a simple fifth chord, which amid all the dissonance has the effect of a major chord, settles in for just a moment, before Octavia resumes the melody on a completely unrelated note. She closes out the aria in a breathless speaking voice: “There is no one, nothing for me here but death.”

And that’s how Act I ends, with Poppaea witnessing Octavia die by bleeding out in a bathtub.

In Act II, Poppaea in a bath of milk gives birth to a daughter, but only after “Watching myself retch, heaving – disgorging an ancient, wasted crone out of my mouth.” When the Chorus celebrates the birth, they do so “even as the earth quakes, boding ill.”

Indeed baby Claudia Augusta lives only a few months. As Nero mourns, his wife and the ghost of his ex chime in, a dissonant half-step apart. “I have died with her,” wails Nero. “The truth,” Octavia’s ghost sings with the gravitas of personal experience, “is nothing but death.”

Often the opera itself seems to deal in “nothing but death.” Nero plays his lyre as Rome burns, but we hear not harmonious strains but chilling shrieks from the Chorus and violent tone clusters from piano and winds with descending flute-flutters as of ash raining down. Trombone and percussion lead a kind of staggered dirge. The penultimate scene shows Poppaea finally confronting Nero, accusing him of responsibility for the fire, not to mention general debauchery and degeneracy. Yet they make love again, and our heroine conceives.

Poppaea and Nero: The Brutal End

Even when husband and wife sing together of their new hope, they cannot do so in harmony. And of course, the hope the new pregnancy represents is dashed. In a dramatic climactic scene, what sounds like a distorted bassoon announces Poppaea’s imminent expiration. She sings to her unborn child in one of the score’s rare passages of handsome melody: “Now sleep, a tender, unsullied sleep.”

Poppaea’s brutal death at her husband’s hands may be factual – we don’t know for sure what killed her. But “the truth is” indeed “nothing but death.” The opera ends with the Chorus, in a whispery gasp unaccompanied by any music, recounting a sorry dénouement.

Much as their heroine turns herself inside out in that milky tub, Hersch and Fleischmann turn the ultimate Roman tale of masculine hubris inside out. If the result is a shriek of pain, we can make of that what we will. The disturbingly compelling Poppaea is available now on a two-CD set and digitally.

— Jon Sobel, 3.17.2024



At the end of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, a woman who had become the mistress of the Emperor Nero achieves the ultimate power grab by displacing the Empress Octavia and being jubilantly crowned queen. The stain of venality and murder is minimal compared with the wholesale vilification of Nero by Roman historians. As a postlude to the events in Monteverdi’s opera, the noted American composer Michael Hersch’s one-act opera, Poppaea, rounds out the story, highlighting incidents in the lurid, violent career of Poppaea, ending with her death. The cavalcade on stage of torture, murder, debauchery, and the lust for power roughly conforms to the worst that history has to say about Nero and his conniving second wife.

The twists introduced by Hersch and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann leave Roman history behind to grapple with contemporary issues—the suggestion is made that the setting of the opera doesn’t even need to be ancient Rome. We are presented with an allegory of corrupt, authoritarian villainy across the board. Rubrics like “patriarchy” and “sexual politics” hang in the air. At the beginning and end of the opera Nero savagely beats a pregnant Poppaea to death, an invention that is excusable, given that much of the obloquy heaped on Nero’s head by Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars, the chief source for Nero’s satanic image, is based on rumor and legend.

The underlying aim, politically speaking, that Poppaea represents is feminist. Poppaea is displayed as a powerful woman who held the reins of empire. Saddled with an incompetent, depraved husband, it is she who orders the execution of the aristocratic conspirators against him. That history doesn’t acknowledge her (conjectured) power is evidence of patriarchal blindness and its denigration of women. As soprano Ah Young Hong says in a booklet interview, “Ultimately, I believe Poppaea was a victim. A monster, too. But, a victim nevertheless. She was so blinded by what she wanted in life. I believe she just wanted to be loved.”

Such a claim verges on inanity if it refers to the historical Poppaea, who was as unpopular with Romans as Nero’s first wife, Octavia, was popular—there were riots in the streets when at the news that Nero wanted to divorce Octavia in favor of Poppaea. He did the expedient thing, first sending Octavia into exile, then having her murdered. But as a description of the woman created for the purposes of an opera, Hong’s merging of a monster and a woman who only wanted to be loved is appropriate. (Monteverdi ended his opera with an ecstatic love duet between Nero and Poppaea.)

You can put much of this behind you to appreciate the triangle between Nero, Octavia, and Poppaea for what it is, a juicy story. A lot has happened musically since the time of L’incoronazione di Poppea, but the same is true of two violent, bloody operas, Elektra and Tosca. The era of Expressionism and the avant-garde gave free rein to shock values on a more savage scale. But as I commented reviewing an earlier Hersch work, “Shock decreases with repetition, and it takes real imagination to combine satisfying musical values with an unquiet mood that shakes the listener.”

Hersch goes all out to make this happen, beginning with the extended anguished cries of Poppaea as she suffers Nero’s beating. Hersch has reduced the narrative to the three main characters, enveloping them in a harsh Expressionist idiom. Strauss’s taste for screaming dissonance as a theatrical device in Elektra and Salome becomes a generalized part of Hersch’s score, and he isn’t shy about injecting lurid horror-movie chords. The orchestra is a chamber ensemble with only five strings but a full complement of woodwinds, brass, and percussion, whose sound predominates.

Over a hundred minutes of post-avant garde eeriness and violence asks a lot of the listener, and I’m sorry that this live performance from Basel wasn’t released on video—the photos of the staging are riveting. Moreover, it really takes the physical presence of Hong’s Poppaea to convey the sympathetic and victimized side of the character. Even so, if you are attuned to New Music, or if you admire the extreme vocal techniques in a contemporary opera like Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, Hersch’s musical language will impress you. His ability to create atmosphere is endlessly inventive, and like Adès he is a master orchestrator.

The title role was tailored to Hong’s voice, a coloratura soprano with a high range (not incidentally, although a specialist in contemporary music, Hong has also sung the lead in Monteverdi’s opera). Vocally, the role is a tour de force for her, but there is excellent singing by mezzo Silke Gäng as Octavia and the veteran Australian tenor Steve Davislim—they successfully meet the considerable demands of their roles.

Following along with the libretto is necessary, given that the extremes of vocal technique in New Music render clear enunciation nearly impossible. This brings up the one major drawback of this recording. The staging was in the round, which makes it difficult for the recording engineers, and they haven’t succeeded well enough—the singers are always distant and sometimes too far away to be heard except faintly over the orchestra. Unless you can tolerate this deficit, Poppaea is crippled as a recording.

That’s a shame, because a great deal of talent is on display here, in a major New Music opera that is grippingly dramatic and musically remarkable. I can’t refrain from commenting that the booklet contains thousands of words, most of them devoted to explaining the issues of gender politics that Poppaea revolves around. Except for the initiated and truly committed, the program notes are well worth skipping.

— Huntley Dent, 5.26.2024


An Earful

Past and present collide in Hersch’s devastating one-act opera, which looks at the Ancient Roman tale of Nero and the women caught up in his world of violence, corruption, and absolute power. Typically for Hersch, he zeroes in without hesitation on very modern themes of trauma, resilience, and self-actualization. His longtime collaborator, the genius soprano Ah Young Han, puts in her finest, most concentrated performance, which is saying something. Support is too strong a word for the spellbinding work of Steve Davislim (Nero) and Silke Gang (Octavia), Ensemble Solovoices, and Ensemble Phoenix Basel, conducted by Jürg Henneberger, who all surround Hong with commitment and complexity. Poppaea is a landmark piece and this is a recording to match it.

— Jeremy Shatan, 6.10.2024


Classical Music Daily

Poppaea is the recent release from New Focus Recordings of a one-act opera in twelve scenes composed by Michael Hersch on a libretto by Stephanie Fleischmann. The 2019 opera, commissioned by Wien Modern and ZeitRäume Basel, is heard here in a live recording of a 10 September 2021 performance at Don Bosco Basel in Basel, Switzerland. The performance features the Ensemble Phoenix Basel under the baton of Jürg Henneberger with direction by Markus Bothe. The opera examines the quasi-historical tale of the Roman emperor Nero and his ill-fated relationship with his two wives, Octavia and Poppaea, portrayed respectively by tenor Steve Davislim, mezzo-soprano Silke Gäng and soprano Ah Young Hong. Three additional characters - the Handmaidens - are portrayed by Svea Schildknecht, Vera Hiltbrunner and Francisca Näf, and the opera features the Ensemble SoloVoices in the role of the Chorus. The release is available in a two-disc CD format as well as a digital album, and the substantial booklet includes an essay by Neronian history scholar Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, essays by various members of the production team (Hersch, Fleischmann, Bothe, dramaturge Bernhard Günther and set designers Heinrich Toews and Ioannis Piertzovanis), an interview with Ah Young Hong, a timeline of historical events informing the libretto, the English-language libretto itself and numerous photos from the production.

The Poppaea story is one which has been part of the Western operatic tradition for nearly its entire four-century history, a fact to which the Fleischmann-Hersch work consciously aims to respond. The new opera takes the action beyond where the plot of Monteverdi's influential 1642 opera left off, depicting how Poppaea ultimately meets a similar fate to that of her predecessor Octavia, despite Nero's promises. In addition, it attempts to retell the story from the perspectives of both Octavia and Poppaea. In so doing, as the various essays and interviews in the booklet attest, this project is meant to do more than simply revisit and stylistically modernize a classic story. It is an act of centering the perspectives of women in an artistic-historical narrative which has not traditionally centered those perspectives. By addressing both the relative lack of information about these women in the relevant Roman sources and the 'triumphant' Neronian treatment of the story in Monteverdi's setting, the collaborative team hopes to put the audience in a novel perspective of feeling systemically disempowered through whimsically cruel means - as Octavia and Poppaea themselves were.

The resulting opera, sonically speaking, is a one-hundred-minute continuous experience of violent explosiveness whose only respites are moments of quiet anxiety that the onslaught will soon resume again. Hersch achieves this sustained effect through the judicious use of a completely atonal - and frequently microtonal - sound world which remains at all times rhythmically, timbrally and dynamically unpredictable. The compositional material seems to be deliberately athematic, such that the audience is never given any sonic 'footing' upon which to make sense of what has happened or what might happen next. This, however, seems highly appropriate for the subject matter of the libretto, which constantly shifts between scenes of murder, torture, assault, traumatic flashbacks and vindictive public rage with no moments of peace or resolution in between.

As Poppaea herself sings in the final scene, 'This world - You are released'. In other words, death itself is taken as the only release from the endless and powerless torment of her world. Likewise, the silence after the opera's conclusion is the audience's only release from its meticulously cacophonous musical expression.

Nonetheless, despite this sustained brutal emotional effect of the sonic composition, Hersch shows a remarkable sensitivity to the variety and freshness of detailed sonic parameters along the way. He makes full use of the timbral palette available within the chamber orchestra, including strings, piano, brass, woodwinds and percussion. Complex sound masses, for example, alternate with pointillistic textures, single sustained tones and various combinations thereof. From a harmonic standpoint, chromatic passages alternate with quarter-tone harmony, unpitched sounds and overtone-conscious sound masses bordering on the spectralistic. In short, this is perhaps just about as rich and varied a timbral palette as one could imagine using the given instrumentation through purely acoustical (non-electronic) means.

All of this compositional care on Hersch's part serves to help deliver a dramatic message which is at once confrontational and illuminating. It is also one which seems to successfully fulfill the goals expressed for the opera in all of the interviews and essays in the booklet. More than simply conveying the colossal degree to which the women in this Neronian world are subjugated, tormented and silenced, the opera arguably offers a keen and crucial insight into the nature of rage itself. The emperor, his wives, the handmaidens and the Roman mob all possess different degrees of social power. Nonetheless, they are united in being somehow impacted by the feral, impersonal and contagious force of rage, a force to which all of humanity is susceptible regardless of station or circumstance. The tragedy of rage is, perhaps, that it naturally tends to explode beyond the bounds of reason, even when the initial grievances that trigger it are completely reasonable. The enraged responses of the subjugated are thus all too often taken as convenient evidence of their supposedly 'unreasonable' perspectives, a vicious propagandistic cycle by which an unjust status quo is easily reinforced. Such is the state of affairs in Poppaea's world and, indeed, in many corners of our own.

In summary, Fleischmann and Hersch's Poppaea is an extremely ambitious, difficult and necessary opera that forces humanity to confront the way it mythologizes the dynamics of power and justice. This is by no definition an opera that is easy to experience, which makes the extraordinary care that went into its conceptualization, realization and album curation all the more impressive as a testament to the dedication of the entire team involved. This truly is a story of relentless ugliness, beautifully conveyed in high fidelity. Yet it is also an opera which I believe has the genuine power to transform the outlooks of receptive audiences. When experienced within the context of the crucial booklet materials, Poppaea reveals itself to be a mirror unto humanity and the mechanisms by which some of its darkness traits operate. It is, for this reason, an opera which I am very grateful to see in the contemporary repertoire.

— John Dante Prevedini, 6.12.2024

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