Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
The idea of vision over visibility is a good one in theory but is challenging in practise, as many in the classical world are realizing. Not having pushback from a team of colleagues and peers has meant longer wait times for the vaccine of varied perspectives. The recordings of Schnittke, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (my COVID trio, I call them), together with the online lectures and live streams only go so far in providing alternatives. Maybe it is as P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous, that “(t)here are a great many chemical processes that can take place only in the absence of light.” Perhaps there is value in sitting in the dark, but can be so painful, so lonely. We (I use the royal classical “we” here) are pondering our role(s) within the greater social milieu of life, loss, survival, and resilience, even as we try to survive and keep visible to someone, anyone. The notions of presence and absence are stark amidst the current socio-cultural atmosphere; more than one observer noted, for instance, the lack of classical artistry at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. At a time filled with calls for social justice (notably via the Black Lives Matter movement) and greater opportunity, what can we, as a classical community, actually do? Just who and what we are serving?
Even as there is removal, there is renewal, and that, surely, must be some form of grace. Barbara Hannigan was one of the many people I interviewed in autumn 2020, as a recipient of a 2020 Opera Canada Award., We spoke shortly after the launch of Momentum, an initiative pairing established figures in the classical world with young artists; the need for such a project is, of course, greater than ever. Hannigan decided to launch the project because as she explained, much as young artists were grateful for the guidance provided via her other initiative (Equilibrium) early on in the pandemic, what they really wanted were live opportunities to practise their craft. She said something during our nearly hour-long exchange which I find hauntingly profound:
My desire in life is to be of service, and I found the best way I could be of service is through music. I would be perfectly happy if I was really good at teaching, or really good at preaching, or whatever the case might be – I would be happy to do those things as well. I just like being of service, and it just so happens that music is my medium, but at the core of it is vocation; I have to have that. I think that’s why I was so into contemporary music, it was, or is, a vocation for me. I knew when I started out that it needed someone to be its voice, someone to advocate for it, or for them – for the composers and modern music in general – and I knew that I had this gift for modern music, that I was smart with this kind of stuff, and I thought, “Okay, that’s my calling; I have to do that. I’m good at it and not many are good, and not many like it, but I like it… I really like it!” It wouldn’t be of service for me to go sing Traviata or Bohéme and to have developed my instrument to just do those things, or Queen Of The Night; there’s enough people doing that. So looking back, I understand how my path took the curves it took.
This autumn I began a new position teaching first-year university students in a Media and Communications program; that ended in December, with a real sadness at bidding farewell to the many I felt I’d grown to know over the months, ones who emailed words of gratitude in the days that followed. I welcomed another group of students earlier this month when my seventh consecutive year teaching radio documentaries began. Though the overall tenor of this group is very different (final-term radio students tend to be boisterous than their first-term writer-colleagues), both experiences have called to mind Hannigan’s idea of service in this, the annus horribilis, and it might be said, the annus digitalis. Faces on screens, or not even that but disembodied voices, are now a norm, not an exception. My experience teaching piano, which I did for close to a decade, was carried out one-on-one, during a far more analogue era that necessitated physical presence for actual instruction. The experiential performance is missing, and one comes away feeling more alone than ever.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
That idea – performance – is, or can be, a loaded concept. To say someone is being “theatrical” (or “performative”) is a form of insult in the English language, as if the theatre is a vehicle for deception, a heightened reality that is not real in and of itself. Yet the sort of performance inherent to (good) teaching, for instance, is authentic, because it is a true presentation of self which threads together entertainment as much as enlightenment into a unique (and hopefully inspiring) blanket. In a very good interview with The Atlantic, Teller, who is the silent half of the magician duo Penn & Teller and a former high school Latin teacher, tells writer Jessica Lahey that “no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds […] That’s what affects students.” True, though some of us educators are affected as well, especially adjuncts whose teaching pursuits are but one piece of a very broad and varied mosaic. Many classical artists teach, and many feel there is no chasm between self and subject matter; one simply is – what one not only teaches, but what one performs, listens to, sings, plays, reads… hears, sees, smells, touches, tastes; to borrow from Hamlet, the awareness is all.
In that same Atlantic feature, Teller echoes my (long-held) feeling that Shakespeare’s works should be seen before they’re read, echoing Tolstoy words in What is Art?, that “one cannot judge the works of Wagner without having seen them staged.” (More on Wagner in a future post.) This immediacy of the experience of art is a crucial step on the path to service because it requires a real presence – but that presence has to be tempered in order to function at optimal capacity. Teller alludes to Francis Fergusson’s important 1949 work, The Idea of a Theater: The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective:
In the art that lasts, there’s always a balance: purpose that is action, passion that is feelings, and perception that is intellectual content. In Shakespeare, for example, there is always a level that is just action, showbiz. There is always a level that’s strongly passionate, and there’s always a level that’s got intellectual content.
Thus immediacy only happens through a balance of elements: passion and intellect, showbiz and high art, yin and yang, dark and light (rock and roll, though perhaps “roll and rock” is more appropriate; the “roll” part seems to have gone sadly missing of late). Such balance brings the most memorable and challenging (and sometimes important) art to life. Balance brings subject matter alive for students; Peter & The Wolf is followed by the music of Sigue Sigue Sputnik in my classes, and that’s precisely how it should be.
What is so frustrating, again, is the lack of live human engagement. I can’t see anyone, therefore this cannot be the performance I intended. This cannot have the effect I would wish it to have. I don’t know how much I am affecting you (or not). It’s hard to feel I am being of service right now. Why am I doing this, beyond the money, really? Humanity, for all its droplet-spewing imperfection, comes in many different shapes, forcing many different questions, prodding at our self-worth and asking us to up our game in the stakes of artistic endeavour. This COVID time has forced contemplations within the classical community which point at absence (absence of money, absence of opportunity, absence of others) – but also a new, delicate presence composed of a heretofore unseen, unheard, unrealized capacity for creativity and curiosity. Aldous Huxley writes in The Divine Within that “(t)he Order of Things is such that no one has ever got anything for nothing. All progress has to be paid for.” Along with physical work, some of that payment involves (to paraphrase Ouspensky) sitting for lengthy periods in the absence of light, and allowing all those potent chemical processes to occur the way they need to. The past ten months have revealed, personally, a path littered with notions of worth and validation, strewn with perceptions of authority and power; a great many have been slotted in to the position my mother held up to her passing in 2015, of providing (or more frequently withholding) approval, validation, acceptance. It has only been through mandated isolation that such a realization has come, that a clearer view of patterns, like Socrates’ shadows on the wall, have been seen. I’ve given myself permission to walk, carefully masked, outside at last.
Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, date unknown. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Perhaps this is where the classical community, need to go – outside. We can’t be of service if we stay inside, fretting on a return to “normal” that is months, possibly even years, away, or may never indeed return at all. Our listening has changed, our experience of music has changed; we have changed – I hope we have. Questions need asking, and require real work to cultivate, if not answer entirely: where have we failed? What can we do better? How can we be of service? COVID has taken (and continues to take) so very much; if there is something it gives us in return, let it be a new presence, forged, like a new and better Ring, in the fires of an old world that needed to be released. We are here to give a performance in which we must get our hands dirty. Time to roll up our sleeves; the readiness is all.
Beethoven was one of the first composers whose works I was determined to play on the piano. His works were butterflies I aimed to net, stare at, make my own, and release anew, knowing they were never wholly mine to keep. He asked all of me as a young player. When I felt I couldn’t give anymore, he kept asking, nay, barking, anyway, for more, ever more, to push past my perceptions of limitation. Some days I felt defeated, other days, prodded, needled, poked, as if this long-dead, stern-looking German man was wielding a little stick aimed straight at my pride, those two opening notes of his Third Symphony like sharp jabs at the ribs urging, “Weiter gehen!” (“Go further!”). It was a sentiment voiced loudly by my mother, who didn’t take kindly to sighing silences or creative keyboard noodling.
“Back to Beethoven,” she would say, as another moan of desperation rose from the Baldwin grand. “Back to your work.”
“I can’t do it!”
“You can so; work it out. Do it. You’re not finished.”
I sit at a different kind of keyboard now, still alternating between silence and silliness. The act of pushing against perceived limitations is a feature of any creative life, the act of “return” rendered a million different ways; such recognition, and the change borne from it, matters as much as the act itself. Get back to Beethoven; you’re not finished. And so I did return, investing in a Bärenreiter edition of Beethoven’s symphony scores last year, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. The music of Beethoven has been with me for so long (one of the first orchestral performances I remember attending was his Sixth Symphony), so owning them seemed like a logical step. However, the act of going through them initially kicked open doors to questions which heretofore hadn’t been so stark, so bug-eyed, so snitty and snotty and snide: what could I, sans music degree, sans formal Conservatory education, sans musicological knowledge or direct orchestra-playing experience, possibly have to say, write, or contribute? What was I hoping to prove?
The plaque outside Pasqualatihaus in Vienna marking it as one of Beethoven’s residences. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Yes, I’ve been to the Pasqualatihaus, and yes, I know so many works by heart, as it turns out; they are not monoliths to me but shards of someone’s soul – questioning, conflicted, difficult, a flickering wall of stained glass, some of it cracked – but what do I know? What value does my voice have, if any? Whose validation am I seeking, and why? Was (Is) my mother’s energy making itself felt across the decades? Studying Beethoven’s symphonies has meant wrestling with demons; like sitting at the piano years ago, some days are better than others, and some days the voices are louder, or softer, depending on just how much I choose to dampen that pedal, open that door, stick to the task at hand. Consistency has been a good way to exercise curiosity, to push against the limitations I feel so often hampered by and judged over. Perhaps I should pay more attention to the softer voice at that cracked stained-glass window whispering that even without knowing the technical names for certain aspects, I can still intuit the larger things they hope to express – and there is value in that. The language may be lacking, but the components that both anchor and surpass that language (curiosity, commitment, compassion) are not.
Pasqualatihaus. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Months of studying scores has also highlighted, however inadvertently, the extent to which Beethoven is largely misunderstood and misrepresented in popular culture. One’s perceptions of any artist will understandably alter throughout time, experience, maturation; I once thought of the composer as a true and admirable revolutionary (indeed a youthful projection), whereas I think of him lately as largely shaped and informed by a deeply religious and conservative faith, an aspect composer James MacMillan explored in a chat for The Spectator. This specific spiritual side of the composer isn’t as widely explored as perhaps it ought to be, which is a pity; it goes against the rebel-image of course, but understanding the immense role of religion greatly expands one’s appreciation – of Fidelio, some symphonies, and various choral works like Missa Solemnis, to say nothing of the many subsequent works inspired by them, MacMillan’s oeuvre included. Again, the religious Beethoven doesn’t gel with (and perhaps isn’t as easy a sell as) the Frowning Rebel Genius, which is of course so tied to the trend of ‘cancelling’ him. The clichéd version of Beethoven which tends to live in the popular imagination is one based not on knowing scores or history, but on programmatic oversaturation tied to the realities of contemporary box office sales, a reality which so rarely (if sadly) actualizes any real responsibility to intelligently and challengingly link needed contextualization with performance and modern repertoire in any enlightening way. There’s something frightening to many contemporary programmers about intelligence, about asking audiences to read, learn, grow, to be surprised and yes, to be challenged and forced to contemplate, as if such activities are a collective form of elitism; rather interestingly, that is one thing not evident (at least to this student) in Beethoven’s actual output. What with Beethoven’s 250th birthday celebrations largely called off because of COVID in 2020, perhaps his 251st will be marked by brighter pathways to more adventurous programming tying context, music, and history more closely together in a spirit of creativity, curiosity, and pushing those limitations. One can hope.
Writer Jessica Duchen is very skilled at linking such things, and doing so in ways that beguile and delight. Her latest novel, Immortal (Unbound), uses the famous “Immortal Beloved” story involving Beethoven as a jump-off to more fully explore the man, his times, his loves, and his music. Released in late 2020, the novel treats aspects of the (highly romantic) story, the world it unfolded, and Beethoven himself, with utmost care and respect, and features illuminating details as well as a sharp ear for dialogue. Jessica is known for her novels which blend music, history, character, and gripping narrative so seamlessly; her 2008 novel Hungarian Dances (Hodder & Stoughton) is one I find particularly affecting, wonderfully connecting the visceral experience of violin-playing across the ages with the search for identity, family, home, culture, contentment, love. Jessica is also a highly accomplished journalist and was classical music correspondent for The Independent from 2004 to 2016; her work has been published at The Observer, The Guardian, BBC Music Magazine, as well as The Sunday Times. In addition to five works of music-history fiction, she has authored biographies of composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Phaidon, 1996) and Gabriel Fauré (Phaidon, 2000). She has also worked with composer Roxanna Panufnik on libretti for choral works and operas, including Silver Birch, a work commissioned by Garsington Opera and, in 2018, shortlisted for an International Opera Award. Garsington’s Youth Company also commissioned two Oscar Wilde-related works from Jessica: The Happy Princess in 2019, with composer Paul Fincham; and The Selfish Giant with John Barber; it has been postponed to 2021.
Jessica and I spoke late last month, about the pangs of editing, the joys of crowdfunding, the beauty of simplicity, and just what her beloved “Luigi” might think about our COVID era.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
It still was, wasn’t it? His work is so much about compassion, or its absence.
Exactly, and if we had to have a big composer anniversary I’m glad it was him; he gives so much in his music.
You reflect much of that intensity of feeling through your work. How did this particular book come about?
It felt different partly because I was writing in the first person, it’s something I’ve not managed to do successfully before; I’ve tried with other novels those are the ones sitting at the bottom of the cupboard with no hope of completion, this is the first time it’s worked, which has made a difference. As for the research, the wonderful thing is that so many have done so much research already – there is an awful lot to read! And you can find something about whatever aspect of his life and world you want to know about; you don’t need to sift through and decipher every handwritten letter, it’s all been done.
The “Immortal Beloved” story is fairly well-known in classical circles; how daunting was it to tackle as the subject of a whole novel?
It really is a case of, hold your nose and jump, and from a great height! It was about seven years or so ago I was asked to do a talk about Beethoven and women, and I didn’t know that much about it all then, and I started reading and researching, and thought, bloody hell, amazing stuff; it gets under your skin, and I can see how people get obsessed with these stories and with different theories. I started following some of the trails where some of this stuff came from, and why certain things have been pushed and others hampered, for one reason or another, and I discovered it’s not to do with the stories but the people who have been pushing them or otherwise, in many cases; the fact that the Beethoven-Haus Bonn is very much behind the Josephine scenario made me think they probably knew something, because if anyone knows, they do! It was a Canadian musicologist, Rita Steblin, whose work was the most useful; she’d written articles about this, getting other sides to the story. Tragically she died last year; I’d been trying to find and write to her, to get in touch and ask her some things, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, then I met the director of the Beethoven Haus in January in London, and he told me she had died a few months prior. I was horrified. Anyway she’s an absolute heroine, and she was Canadian. She wrote a ton of articles about Beethoven and Schubert and lived in Vienna.
Integrating research, without it being too granular, with storytelling, is must have entailed some tough creative choices.
Any historical novelist or biographer will tell you that you use about 10% of the actual work, the groundwork, that you’ve done, and the thing is to not get so bogged down in detail that you close the thread of the narrative. I had to cut a huge amount out of the book, and it’s more than 400 pages still – it would’ve been more than 500 without those cuts. Sometimes there will be an editor who will say, “Right, get rid of this” and other times you have to be absolutely ruthless, I had one chapter, a digression about the birth of romanticism and all sorts of literary and slightly tangential things that were going on that touched on Beethoven, and Tom (my husband) read it and said “That’s great, I love this!” – and my editor went, whoosh, out with the red pen, and I thought, “Oh nooooo!!” But I can see she had a point; it was bogging down the narrative. If you go on too long (in such tangents), you’ll lose people.
… as well as the momentum of the narrative.
Yes. I’ve had comments saying, “This is a long book but it has a pace of its own.” I tried to pick up the pace as it goes along, so you squelch yourself into that world with a lot of detail and character near the beginning, and then the plot starts, but if you think about it, most really serious books about Beethoven are over 1000 pages long, and there is reason for that: he needs that much. He’s very difficult to capture.
Studying the scores underlined, for me, the role of changeability in Beethoven’s creative endeavors and life overall; what did you find as you wrote this?
Absolutely – to me the heart of Beethoven is his passion for variation, and in a way, he’s always writing variations – nothing stays the same, everything is in motion, every time a theme comes back, it’s a little bit different. Yet there is this motif which is very attached and some people think that has something to do Josephine – it may or may not be the case – but his motifs are not exactly the same. They are always a little bit different when they come back.
I’m curious what you make of the Beethoven you encountered in your research and writing, and the criticism of his work and seeming dominance of the classical music canon.
The first thing that really comes to mind is that I am all for performing a wider range of repertoire; I think it’s absolutely essential that we diversify the music being played and recognized. We have to hear more women composers, particularly because there is still this attitude that they somehow aren’t as good – we have to hear more music by them, and composers of color; I’d much rather go to a concert of music that I don’t know than music that I do know, because it’s more interesting. When you’ve been going to concerts as long as I have and sometimes reviewing them too, you get really tired of some of the stuff out there, especially the big Late Romantic symphonies. You think, “Come on, something else now!”
On the other hand, I don’t see why hearing more music by other composers means we have to kick out, wholesale, the great figures of the past. I mean, there is this attitude in some quarters of, “Clara Schumann is great and Robert Schumann is crap” – no he wasn’t, he was incredible, but they are two different artists doing two different things, who are important for two different reasons. Both need recognition, and I don’t see what’s the matter with that.
I think Beethoven would whole-heartily support contemporary composers being programmed alongside with his work, and he very much understood the pressures of market forces and money woes.
Oh, I think he was quite canny.
I think he had to be…
This is very true.
Might we , when we come out of COVID, have a more contextualized Beethoven? Or do you see a move toward entrenchment of The Hits?
I really don’t know. I have very little sense of how things will unravel or ravel-up again, and I don’t know how long this whole thing is going to take to pass, I don’t know what will happen politically. In the UK we crashed out of the EU, and the entire music scene will be badly affected; the realities of many simply haven’t been taken into account. I really have no idea; we have fantastic musical life, and we have people who are throwing it out the window, so when things get thrown out the window it tends to be the case you get an entrenchment of the surefire sellers because people are anxious and they’re desperate, and they are scared of taking risks – that’s when there’s a pulling back of the boundaries rather than a pushing out of them. So … I don’t know. I think Beethoven’s been picked on because it was his anniversary so he was the highest-profile composer around, thus he’s an easy target.
I recently watched an old performance of the Leonore overture, and I wondered if such criticisms aren’t as much related to pedestrian performance practises as to decontextualized programming…
I had to listen to a recent CD recording of Beethoven 5, related to something I was involved in weeks ago, and I could not bear this one particular recording; I thought it was brutal. Honestly, I found it unlistenable. And I was quite shocked, because there are many others who think it’s wonderful.
Do you think there’s value in having that intense a reaction and that extent of divergent thought, though? I wonder if that’s the point.
It could be, but it’s a pity it’s necessary. Here’s where we come back to the need to diversify repertoire: if we heard Beethoven 5 slightly less often there would be no need for people to tear it to pieces and trample it underfoot to make a point. I don’t think trampling Beethoven 5 underfoot has anything to do with what it’s about.
That goes back to programming. We haven’t been able to attend many things and a lot has been forcibly reprogrammed as a result; what stage were you at with the book?
I was in the middle of editing when COVID struck, in March 2020.
Did that experience change your process?
I don’t think it changed it but it made it more meaningful. It was my way of escape. It means when it was locked down it was fine, I don’t have to phone people up and say, “Sorry, I can’t make it; I have to work” – I could just… work. There were a few bits where I accentuated and honed in on certain things and did them slightly differently, for instance there’s a bit where Therese is going to stay in Vienna to hear Fidelio although Napoleon’s army is marching in; she’s pig-headed and she is not leaving town until she’s heard Fidelio! There are some descriptions of the atmosphere around Vienna at that time, about how she felt in the face of this tremendous change, when everyone else is leaving town and the place is empty and she’s on her own and doesn’t know what’s going on. There were bits like that that got in at a late stage because of what happened through 2020.
The crowdsourcing for this novel seems like a smart way to go about a creative project; do you think it points the way to a future for creative output, especially for writers? Doing it in normal times is one thing but doing it now is quite another.
It’s tricky to say. It’s the third book I’ve done with Unbound, the other two that I did first were finished before I took it to them; Ghost Variations (2016) was with them, for instance. I’d hit a rocky patch because after the financial crash in 2008, a lot of authors, if they weren’t Dan Brown or Salman Rushdie, found themselves turfed on their tails; there were a lot of us writing pretty good books but we were in the middle ranks, and we got kicked out (of publishers). I’d been taking around Ghost Variations and I was very fed up with the sort of responses I was getting to it; I knew it was a good story and I knew it was topical. Eventually I found Unbound – I filled in a form on their website and they came back and said, “We’d like to have this as one of the founding books on our list” and that was my first go on crowdsourcing; I got the money together in 12 days. I surprised everyone! I love the people, the design, the editorial standards, everything is really good; Unbound is a traditional publisher but it crowdfunds.
The Beethoven book was a little bit different, as I hadn’t written it yet, and I knew I would have to do it damn fast to get it out in time for the Beethoven anniversary. I had a drink with the guy who was my editor at the time and said, “I’ve got this amazing story, I really want to write it” and he said, “Well if you can do it by about this time next year then we can probably.” He told me what they needed, and I thought it was just about doable; I’d done all the research, I just hadn’t sat down and put anything together, I hadn’t really had the guts to take the plunge on writing a book. I thought I could do with some talks and didn’t see myself doing a whole novel, but I thought, “It’s the anniversary year and I’m going to kick myself if I don’t do this, it’s now or never” so I jumped. The crowdfunding was quick, it all came together in three months – quite fast. For something else it might take a few years.
So how much do you see crowdfunding being a model for creative endeavours in 2021 and beyond then?
I know quite a number of really interesting music projects being funded this way, so I think in a way it’s books who are the ones late to the party; musicians have been doing this for a while! I think it’s a little bit difficult – that’s probably an understatement because of the pandemic situation. There’s an awful lot of people who have no work and their finances are very stretched; people are extremely worried and won’t know if they’ll get their work back, and there are others who get government support or don’t get government support, here it’s a very capricious system and it doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.
On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have full-time jobs, they are professional people who’ve been furloughed and are still getting paid and they have nothing to spend money on; they can’t go abroad, they can’t go on holiday, they can’t go to the theatre or concerts, there’s no point going shopping since we’re all living in our jogging pants and are getting far fewer haircuts. That means people will have some cash sitting around and might have time to support books and music… so if you can target the right market, there might be something to be had through crowdfunding I don’t think of crowdfunding as ideal, and I don’t think it would become the way to do things – but it’s an alternative, and it’s quite fun. You are building a whole community around your project as you are creating it, which is something I really enjoy.
Building community is very tied to the equalizing effect of the internet; some roll their eyes at the digital world but others (like me) wouldn’t have a career without it, and the related efforts of building and engaging a virtual community…
Absolutely – and it is real work.
… although as you mentioned, it’s difficult to know what to say about online performances because they are not visceral…
It’s not the same as being there. It can’t be.
… and I am not sure of the value of doing fancy filming of performances for online broadcasts. I like the Wigmore Hall concerts because they’re simple; I can focus on the sound itself.
They are elegant and so simple, the way those are done! I suppose it’s easy to do in the Wigmore though.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
There’s something to be said for simplicity in 2020 going into 2021! What do you think he would make of our current times?
That’s a very good question, because if you think about the world he lived in, the life expectancy was something like 45, and he did well to get to 56. Loss and death were a huge part of everyday life for people in the 19th century in a way they are not today, when everything tends to be very sanitized, so (hygienic practise) would be something he would be surprised to see. Also he had the Napoleonic Wars to deal with; that was a really eye-opening side of the research I did, because for some reason, my history studies at school and university in music courses, did not touch on Napoleon at all – somehow we studied Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven (at Cambridge) but not what was going on at the time. And millions of people died because of Napoleon.
And that’s such an important thing to know when approaching Beethoven’s work…
It really is! Quite honestly, if I think about it, Beethoven in our times would say, “Get over yourselves! Do the sensible thing! Wear a mask! Do the hands-face-space thing, and be glad you have these hygienic and technical things to keep you alive and connected – you’ve got so many advantages!” And he’d say “Come on, make the most of what you can; you’ve got all of this stuff now that I didn’t have… pull yourselves together! Get on with it and be productive!” That’s what I think he’d say, but I could be wrong.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
There is something within that always hesitates at publishing personal pieces. A Facebook post is one thing, a public post quite another. Courting judgment, creating low opinions, sacrificing credibility, reinforcing impressions of overwrought drama: 2020 is a year for many things indeed, but I am unsure which of these I dare encourage. The following piece did start out as a Facebook post, and so great was the response, so immense the encouragement, that I have decided to share it here, with revisions. It has opera (easily found on this website), it has my mother (also easily found). It has personal history, something I wince at sharing openly but which, in light of this awful year drawing to a close, feels somehow important, an act of acknowledgment and healing: Here Is A Bit Of My Self; Do As You Will.
Currently I am in the midst of editing another essay exploring the idea of being of service, inspired by a remark conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan made during our lengthy conversation back in October. Barbara essentially said she is driven to do what she does out of a need to be of service, that if she had chosen to take a more conventional opera-singer route (Verdi and not Vivier, for example), such a need would have gone unfulfilled. Other exchanges with artists I admire have led me to wonder if my writing is, in fact, just this, a way of exercising that very need – to be of service – whilst integrating, in a more fulsome way, a desire to move my work into a more creative realm, away from the world of journalism. In any case, here are some thoughts, shared Christmas Eve, and lightly edited. Happy New Year.
Looking at the window at the heavily falling snow, inhaling the aroma of a baking tourtière, watching the flicker of candles and feeling the acid sting of cranberry on tongue, I remember a remark my mother made to me the year before she died: “I love how you just pile your hair up and put on your strapless dress and high heels and don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks of you.” Considering she wasn’t one to offer compliments on my appearance, it was notable, and I often wonder if her words were meant to extend past the opera-going context in which they were given, specifically to the parties we would attend every Christmas Eve.
“You’re taking too long!” she’d scream as 8pm, then 9pm passed, and we weren’t yet out the door. “Why do you always have to make things so bloody difficult?!” This year, with naught but the company of the telly and a seemingly endless line of headlights out the window, I think back to those nights, how they always started with tremendous arguments, how they always ended in relative peace, with late-night cognacs and music and sweets, my mother and I smartly dressed and perched on puffy, cream-color loveseats facing one another. The sounds of La bohème floated across the dimly-lit, luxuriously appointed room. “Only one thing,” she would instruct, taking a gold-foil-wrapped package into her lap, clinking glasses and smiling at the clang of fine crystal as a myriad of Xmas tree lights swirled around the ornate, boozy orbs. “Maybe a chocolate too… “ as the Godiva box lid was popped off. “But you must turn this up…” as the voice of Pavarotti rang like a silver bell across the bronzen warmth of the room… “it’s just so… so...!” … An inevitable headshake of red curls. A sip of cognac. A broad, happy sigh.
We had no family, but we had traditions entirely our own. Every Xmas morning she would don her velvet Santa hat and buzz around with a fine china teacup in one hand and portable phone in the other, her laughing voice and “Hellloooooo soandso!” and “Merry Christmas!” cadences like little motifs through the tinsel-laden score of the morning. Her own beloved father had died on Xmas Eve when she was a girl; thus the occasion was, for her, just that, something to mark, to make merry for, to fuss over, and always, to give and give. December was a month when no one was forgotten: bank tellers, postmen, delivery people, cashiers, clients, old work colleagues, friends new and not, close and not. Her whole being, even without Xmas, revolved around giving. Indeed, her generosity was doled out in such quantities she would sometimes chide herself, realizing (as I had tried to point out in past moments) that her good nature had been taken advantage of. “I’m too generous, I’m too soft-hearted… I’m a naive bloody chump.”
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
How different Christmas is now, and not only because of COVID19. I remember a glass-shelved console would be filled, from mid-November onwards, with a myriad of cards from around the world; some years they numbered in the hundreds. To quote Rilke’s “Requiem For A Friend”, “Oh, how we need customs. Oh, how we suffer from the lack of customs” – and this card-collection was but one of my mother’s. I look up at my four Christmas cards and acknowledge, of course, that such customs simply aren’t done anymore, but oh, how I miss some of the sensual ones that come with Xmas. I find myself wanting such things but largely blocked from their actualization; I can neither recreate in her fashion, nor create anew in my own. Not having a family means not having certain rituals to adhere to. And yet, this was the first time since 2017 that I have had a Christmas tree; I gave away the one I’d had with her years ago and most (not all) of the ornaments. Putting one up this year seemed like an act of love and defiance; I don’t have kids and the whole thing cost a small fortune, but oh, how fulfilling. I needed the exercise of such a custom more than I realized. “One of the only times you seem calm and happy is when you paint,” my mother used to say, “that and decorating the Christmas tree.”
My love of solitary activity was not something she always understood. My mother was Miss Popularity; she’d been a cheerleader in high school. That deep, warm generosity, a gaiety of spirit, a smiling lightness elegantly concealing a world of pain, her hands waving through the air to Musetta’s Waltz – people were drawn to her. It wasn’t magic; it was logic. And oh, she was the beauty queen, makeup in place, hair done just so, whether handing out sweets or pouring brandy into her tea Christmas morning, chatting gaily to faraway friends on the telephone, her fingers with their lacquered red nails moving between boxes of (homemade) whipped shortbreads and almond crescents and the infamous Godiva box. One year she decided to wear a red satin gown she’d initially bought for me; I looked over the second-floor railing, bleary-eyed, and there she was, on the phone, waving up at me, her lipstick matching the fabric. Years before I emerged from a retail store changeroom wearing that dress; I still recall the swoosh-swoosh rustling across the spiky berber carpet. Its shiny redness a festive flag against the drabness of that little fluorescent-lit room.
“Ohhhhh,” was the immediate, cooing response. “that’s your birthday gift, then.” Being broad-shouldered and tall it fit her like a glove, better than me, in fact; there was no pulling at the bust when she wore it (“You didn’t get those boobs from me; thank you father’s side of the family”) and thus it hung like it should, sans pooling around ankles, a puddle of satin where legs should be, and were, in spades, with her. I took a photo of her that morning, my beautiful, big-haired mother, in her sixties then, sitting with her signature movie-star-smile, on one of an immense pair of damask-patterned loveseats on Christmas morning. that dress in gorgeous contrast to the cream upholstery. She wanted to take a photo of me, as ever: “Come on, smile, it’s easy… don’t be so grouchy!”
I gave those loveseats away this year, a donation to a charity — too old, too many memories, too much dust attraction. Living alone I have no need of such immense things, and having no family of my own it makes no sense — but I still have that photo of her somewhere, perched so perfectly that snowy morning, in that big house I sold two years ago. Amidst my giant downsize this year, I kept that photo, and more than a few related albums; at the time I hesitated, but in retrospect, it was the right thing. Putting the past into perspective doesn’t mean erasing it – or hiding it, being embarrassed by it, or feeling the need to apologize for it. My mother had a contentious relationship with her own troubled past; it’s something I don’t want to repeat. I gave away those loveseats – and the old Xmas tree, and some of the ornaments – because they were her things, not my things. 2020 was the year of My Things, tangible and not, good and (mostly) not. It has been a horrendous but tremendously important year; at times I have wept in ways I have not wept since her death in 2015. Loss comes in so many shapes; sadness has so many variations. The person I am now is not the person I was with her. I recall her saying I was too serious; too brooding, too critical and full of torment. Oh, if she could see me now. I’ve become a soft-hearted, over-trusting, over-generous chump. Apple, meet tree; chocolate, meet box; I inherited more than her slender figure.
This is not *the* dress (but clearly my mother loved red dresses). Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
So this Christmas Eve is for tourtière, tears, and tender memories. December asks for acceptance, and offers hope. May 2021 bear the sweet fruit sewn by immense sadness; we could, all of us, use a fresh start.
Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.
Anticipate all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that’s now passing.
For under winters is one winter so endless,
only in overwintering can your heart overcome.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, II.13
(trans. Kinnell, Liebmann, 1999)
Rachael Hewer is probably rather tired of the color green. The UK-based director and theatre artist is the founder of VOPERA, the Virtual Opera Project, which premieres its first production on Monday (November 16th), Ravel’s one-act opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Conductor Lee Reynolds (Associate Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain) leads the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a re-orchestration of the score for 27 players, and the cast comprises more than 80 performers, all of whom, throughout the course of this difficult year, participated in rehearsals via Zoom and subsequent audio recordings. Hewer constructed a homemade green-screen studio out of their garden shed, using the FX technique to overlay the recorded cast’s singing faces with captured movement in a unique and imaginative operatic form of body-doubling. As it turns out, she spent a lot of time in that shed and in-costume over the past few months. The theatre artist has, in the past, worked in various creative capacities, as a director, actor, and assistant director, at Devon Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park, and the Royal College of Music, to name a few. Hewer was also a winner at the International Awards for Young Opera Directors, Moscow in 2019. VOPERA, which marks her first all-virtual production, features the work of British artist Mark Wallinger, show designer Leanne Vandenbussche and cinematographer and VFX Editor James Hall.
With help from her partner, Hewer provided the movement for the many roles within the opera, in a production chock-full of talent in vocal, design, and administrative areas. Producer Tamzin Aitken has extensive experience as an arts manager and creative consultant specializing in the classical music realm. In the past decade Aitken has worked with Glyndebourne, English National Opera, the Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre and its resident London Philharmonic Orchestra (including involvement in an imaginative semi-staging of The Rake’s Progress in late 2018); when the first lockdown struck in early 2020, she was getting set for work in Paris, on a new production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea for Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Hewer approached her at the beginning of the VOPERA journey in spring 2020 and, as you’ll read, the two women (who have yet to physically meet) enjoyed an immediate and very palpable chemistry. They were subsequently able to assemble a brilliant international cast and chorus spread across several countries and timezones. Mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds, who has appeared at Royal Opera House (ROH), Opera Philadelphia, and Opera Australia, sings the lead role (something she’s done previously on the stage of Komische Oper Berlin); soprano Karen Cargill, known for her work at The Met, the Edinburgh International Festival, Glyndebourne, the ROH, as well as the BBC Proms, sings the role of Maman; bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, who has performed with San Francisco Opera, Den Norse Opera (Oslo), Houston Grand Opera, and The Met, sings Un Arbre. The project is presented in collaboration with the Concordia Foundation, which helps support young musicians and initiates educational programs for kids from under-privileged backgrounds, while creating musical projects and presenting concerts at various London venues.
Maurice Ravel, 1925. Photo: Bibliothèque nationale de France
Ravel’s 1925 opera, his second, was written between 1917 and 1925, and features a libretto (by Collette) filled with surreal elements; it concerns a naughty child who willfully destroys various objects (a clock, a china cup a teapot), throws a tantrum, and is, in turn, visited by said objects (and characters, and animals) and is redeemed by a small act of kindness shown to an injured squirrel. The opera deals with themes of claustrophobia, isolation, connection, engagement, sincerity, and benevolence, themes with intense relevance in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has underlined the need for collaboration, community, and open-hearted goodness at a time when barriers are being erected and widespread closures are happening in ever-increasing numbers, in literal and figurative senses. The opera’s timeliness felt central to both Hewer and producer Tamzin Aitkin as well; the idea for presenting it originated with Hewer herself, who experienced her own brand of restlessness amidst the first coronavirus-related lockdown of 2020.
A vital point in the project’s creation is the extent to which Hewer and Aitken were determined to ensure payment for all involved; VOPERA was not to be a ‘charity gig’ but a fully paid one for everyone involved. Giving temporary employment to over 135 people in total – performers, musicians, technicians, administrators alike – the project is, as its release notes, “ a platform for many to practise and perform in an innovative new way” , a way that includes proper payment. Writing as an artist freelancer for a moment here, I find it very heartening to see how VOPERA’s model (a smart combination of fundraising and sponsorship) is providing an important model of a possible way forwards, underlining with no great subtlety that the “exposure as payment” model so frustratingly common to so many websites and creative endeavors is, particularly in these coronavirus times, both deeply insulting and wholly diminishing – for art and artists alike. Bravo and thank you, VOPERA.
As well as payment, the subject of mental health has been central to the project from its inception. Returning to one’s art form is, as many are learning, not a simple matter in the age of pandemic. From the start, Hewer and Aitken ensured that qualified mental health practitioners were present throughout the entire production process. “Back to normal” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when “normal” itself feels like such a distant, far-off thing, and it was refreshing (and more than a bit heartening) that, throughout the course of our lengthy conversation last month, all of us could share struggles, self-doubts, and deep-seated anxieties. One thinks of Albert Schweitzer’s quote here, that “(c)onstant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” It applies as much to the “l’enfant” of the title as it does to pandemic life itself; surely what the world needs is kindness, more than ever, and if that kindness is concomitant with creative expression, all the more the better.
VOPERA’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges makes its debut on Monday, November 16th at 8pm UK time on the LPO’s YouTube channel as well as online cultural broadcaster Marquee TV; it will be available to view for thirty days.
Conductor Lee Reynolds recording L’Enfant et les Sortilèges with members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Where did the idea to produce Les Enfant online come from?
TA It’s very much Rachael’s baby.
RH It started because I was totally miserable and felt completely lost at not being able to do what I’ve always done my whole life, and I thought, “I can’t be on my own, there must be loads of people who feel the same way as I do” and then, “What can I do about this? I’m not a spokesperson so I cannot lobby government ministers; I’m not qualified or capable of saving a building or organization… but I can make a show, and bring the best out in people, and get a group of people together to make something.” So it’s about providing a creative focus for as many people as possible, to try and give them something to focus on artistically that will help them not feel as miserable as they were. That’s it. And then I listened to (L’Enfant) and I realized, “This piece is a narrative about what life is like at the moment; it’s a child being educated at home, who reacts to an unprecedented and uncontrollable situation” and… that’s the world.
It’s interesting you chose this, an existing piece, in a year that features numerous new works.
RH It is a masterpiece; Ravel is a genius. I don’t think it’s done enough.
TA The thing that excited me about it is that it takes an established part of the opera canon and totally reimagines how we can work with that canon. And you know, it’s not that it’s a modern production, it’s that the mechanics of how we are making opera have been completely transformed by how this project is working out. I think that has to sit alongside new work and new voices, telling current stories in the first person but this does that as well and speaks to how resilient opera is but also how adaptable it can be. And it was that area which was so exciting. For me personally, and this has been true for everyone engaged in the project, it’s the potency of being able to do your job again… in a curtailed and altered fashion, but it’s extraordinary, to be able to wake up each day and say, “I’m going to engage in making something creative and in telling a story” – which is what many of us had been doing, and then it got taken away from us. That’s what’s been part of the excitement for me.
How did you get involved?
TA Rachael reached out to me through a mutual contact; she’d approached me about something else, and Rachael wrote me a note in… July? I think?
RH I feel like I’ve known you all my life!
TA We didn’t know each other before, and we haven’t yet met in-person!
RH There are so many people I’ve been working with closely on this project, and I haven’t actually met any of them! I was thinking about this the other day, how I wrote Tamzin a note, and she rang me and I thought, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to say?” being really nervous, because to me, Tamzin was and still is this big and important person who knows a lot about a lot of arts things I don’t know about, and I remember thinking in that call, “What should I say?” and putting the phone down and having this sense of, “Well, who knows what she’ll say about doing this project, but I really like her!”
It’s been interesting to note bubbles – the physical ones, the psychological ones; there’s a real sense this year of people only wanting to be or communicate only with their bubble. But the pandemic has simultaneously burst a lot of bubbles because it’s forced people to reach beyond them, especially in the arts world, which can be very cliquish indeed. I wonder how this might change how you work going forwards.
RH Oh it’s changed me completely. Before this I was really self-conscious, I had terrible self-esteem and I still do, at least to some extent, in my personal life, but I went through my professional life thinking, ‘nobody likes me, nobody wants to be my friend, everybody’s laughing at me’ – that’s what I used to wake up thinking…
This sounds familiar.
RH … right? I know I’m not on my own in this. We’re all ruled by all these irrational emotions. And now, because everybody’s experience of me (in this project) has just been who I am and what I believe in and how I choose to be around people, because I’m not working for an organization, I’m not being watched, I’m not being observed or under review or scrutiny to see if I’ll get the next job – it’s just me, and who I am and what I’m like. I have such amazing feedback from people about this whole thing, the whole process, and that’s really done me a lot of favours, and actually what happens now when I do venture out to the real world, which as only happened a few time so far, people I don’t know at all are saying, “You’re the one doing the opera film, it looks great! What an idea!” And these are people who never would’ve never said that to me before!
TA One of the other things to say about the project, and it speaks very much to Rachael’s leadership, is the exceptionally humane care that bleeds through every element of what’s going on in terms of the emotional support and the authenticity of every exchange that goes on. It feels like a very different way of working. I have worked with incredible people and incredibly supportive teams before, and projects where you feel you’re on your own and you’re asking people for help and it’s all very collaborative – but it feels like there’s a real shift to a way of working and creating art that puts peoples’ emotional well-being at the centre of the process as much as the artistic product and … I don’t think I ever want to go back to working in any way where that is not front-and-center of the agenda.
VOPERA founder and director Rachael Hewer
RH I’m really worried that some people might think of this as a weakness, actually. I am a very emotional person; I have my heart on my sleeve, and I do not believe in this us-and-them thing, even working with my assistant directors. A lot of the time I’m the assistant director, and I know the director is very much like, “You can’t share everything with everybody!” And I don’t know why you wouldn’t, but I’m aware some think of it as a weakness, that you have no self-control or that you’re not a good leader – but I think it takes more strength, I think it takes more determination, and certainly a lot more time and effort to articulate my message in this way, because I have to be completely unafraid to be myself around people I know well, around people that I admire, around people I’ve never met before – like yourself! I just have to have the confidence and the faith and freedom in my own personality – whereas in the old world, you just get into a routine of trying to be like the person next to you, because the person next you is successful, and in order to be successful, you think, “I need to be like just this person because that’s who the people in charge like.”
How much has this project allowed you to embrace the idea(s) of strength through vulnerability, credibility through emotional honesty, with less emphasis on brilliance – which is fine, hurrah learning -– and more on humanity? I admire your mental health support as such a central part of this project.
RH I can’t stop myself from saying this: I think it’s really frighteningly short-sighted to think, “Stick performers on a stage and they will automatically get on with doing what they’ve been missing doing!” – this return to performing is a really sensitive and fragile procedure, and nobody is prepared for that, because everybody will react differently, because we are all different.
TA There was a really interesting piece I read, recently something Monica Lewinsky wrote about the state of mental health right now, and the f-words, fear and fragility, and, wouldn’t it have been astonishing if there was, as well as the daily briefings on health, briefings to talk to us all about how we were responding to the current situation mentally? My experience personally and professionally has been … well, the conversations you start with, “Oh hi, how are you?” – the answers to that question now are much more honest, and people are much more willing to go, “Actually you know what, I had a massive cry; I heard my first bit of live music in ages from someone busking down the street and it made me weep.” Rachael and I have had these honest conversations; we barely knew each other at the beginning of this process but we were incredibly frank about the state of our mental health, because it informs how you are able to work that particular day. To take it out from this into something bigger, I have noticed that across the conversations I’ve been having with people outside of this organization, I work with a charity (Play For Progress) that connects music with young refugees, and everyone I’ve been speaking to, this shift in approach has been really apparent. But it feels really exemplary in terms of the structure Rachael has set up here, and I think it would be a real shame to return to a situation where we’re not being sensitive to other peoples’ well-being in the way that we’re working.
That word “fragility”, even in the arts, is perceived as a weakness; I wonder how much that’s changing and how much work is a form of therapy right now.
RH I need to be accountable, I need to have people relying on me to provide something, I have to have a purpose, even if it’s to empty the bins and put the chairs out – I have to have a purpose. Knowing you were expecting me at a certain time today made me think about this, I had a bath last night and washed my hair. When all my singers were expecting an email or responding to a form or whatever, to have a purpose and be accountable for something means that what I can give artistically has a value, because somebody is waiting for it, somebody needs it and somebody appreciates it. That’s what it is for me.
VOPERA Producer Tamzin Aitken
TA I think it’s interesting that as a culture, and in Western culture particularly, when we meet someone new the question is, “What do you do?” I desperately want to get away from that as a conversation opener, but it’s shorthand for “Who are you?”… I think so much of our sense of self and identity is tied up in our work and particularly where that work has a sense of vocation – and for a lot of creatives, it does, it goes beyond a societal-role thing, it’s identifying you as your work when you’re an artist, at least to some extent – but there are so many people who’ve lost their jobs or had contracts canceled or had no focus at all over these months, that their sense of self and identity has just been really damaged. So with this we’ve had a lot of feedback from singers who said what Rachael has said, that having a focus, something to prepare for, having music to learn and rehearsals in the schedule, having a diary, and also having a date to look forward to, when that work will be shared, has been really meaningful.
RH We had rehearsal schedules, a number of weeks that were packed with back-to-back rehearsals, whether it was French coaching on one laptop or music coaching on another laptop, and I had to generate those rehearsal schedules. And I’ve spoken to performers and they said, “It is not the curtain calls and the opening night’s applause that we miss – we miss getting the emails and the ‘Oh no, I’ve read the callsheet wrong!’ and the ‘Oh God I did that audition!’ and ‘I have to be here at such-and-such time’ – it’s all the stuff in-between. This operation is global, so we’re working with people all over the world, and we had about six weeks’ worth of rehearsal in one way or another, all spread out, and nobody was late. Never. Whatever timezone they were in, whatever problems they were having, not once was anybody late. And I think that shows how much people needed this.
And you were very clear from the beginning that people were to be paid for this. As a freelancer, that’s very meaningful! This attitude that creative work, especially online work, isn’t real wor and that “exposure is payment” are horribly diminishing, but they seem to have proliferated throughout the pandemic. Did you have a payment model from the beginning?
RH There was never any question about it. Because not paying people is wrong.
TA You’ve articulated it well, Catherine – it’s not a hobby; it’s peoples’ profession. And loving your work doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s work. I think… there have been people who’ve said to us, “Oh, don’t worry about paying me, it’s meant so much I’ve been able to do this!” and you adamantly say, “NO, that’s not acceptable.”
RH We chase those people like, “Really, you’ve earned this, you are valuable to us, we needed you!” And we spent a long time fundraising.
TA It speaks to the collaborative, ensemble nature of this project as well, that every single person gets paid and it’s a very equitable structure. I think we can be candid about this, that we have a series of budgets in terms of our fundraising structure; there was a bare minimum we knew we had to meet in terms of paying people, and singers, a lot of the people we’re working with, had their contracts cancelled for a whole year, so that’s 12 months’ worth of work down the drain. This in no way replaces that, but this feels important, that those people get paid first. It’s a very new way for me to work, and we’ve had incredible generosity from a couple individuals and foundations, and then loads of people in the community, those who’ve lost work or those who love the arts, they’ve all made small donations as we go. We’ve got this structure for each bit we fundraise so that everyone involved gets a fee increase, a percentage more as we go up. It’s been really important to say to people, “We know you’re getting hit” – and at a point in time when there’s so much uncertainty with so many people who, for whatever reason, have fallen through the cracks in terms of getting support, when there are artists outside the UK, in America and across Europe, who’ve had various levels of support or had none at all, it feels really important they are able to do professional paid work.
Is this something you could see continuing as a model?
RH The thing is, it’s the piece, this piece is structured so that there is no more than one singer in one scene, there are a lot of scenes that only have one person in them, so it lends itself very well to how we’ve managed to put this together. If somebody asked me to do a Traviata or Carmen like this it would be very different, and it would be very difficult, but by no means impossible. I had somebody the other day ask whether this is the future of opera, and no, it’s not the future of opera, but, there is certainly a very important and valid place for projects like this in the future of opera. The audience we have – before, they were a theatre-going audience, they’d go to the opera, or concert halls or the National Theatre, that’s what they loved to do, those people now watch content online; we would never have been able to convince them before this happened to sit on the sofa and log onto Youtube. They’d have said “No way i’m not watching an opera on a bloody computer monitor or TV!” – but now they do, and they are very willing to experience art in that way. We’d never have got this audience and we cannot now just say, “Oh, let them go, they’re not our audience.”
TA Being really candid, I applaud all the efforts there have been to put content online, but I struggle with work that has been designed for a live context, that has just been filmed and transplanted onto a screen; I think it’s partly because the exchange of live theatre is so specific, and so personal, that sense of being an individual and a collective in that specific space is really unique to being in a live venue, and i struggle with an art form where i ought to be able to choose where my focus is, or where the artistry of what’s onstage directs my focus but it’s still within my power to look to the right of the stage; I struggle with something that’s been edited which dictates what my focus is or where it should be.
This is precisely the issue I have with so many online broadcasts, that dictation of attention.
TA It’s a challenge. So I think what’s exciting about this is that it’s been specifically designed to be online only; you are not getting a diluted version, it’s its very own product. In terms of doing something else like this, I think we might be in this (pandemic) for some time, it will go up and down as the virus takes its course, so I think this is a way of letting this sort of work continue. I have yet to see anything that’s been made the way this has been made. I’ve seen other things that have been created as a film but i’ve not seen anything like this, and that’s quite exciting.
Whose idea was the green screen process?
RH it was the biggest idea I wish I’d never had! (laughs) The big reason is that when you perform in front of a green screen to a mobile phone, it is exhausting, far more than anything else I’ve ever done. It is so draining, your energy has to be so focused and so high. And yes, because we can only use our household bubble, my partner Mark, he’s in quite a few of the scenes, he got roped into it, but said yes straight away. He had to learn choreography and all kinds of stuff. It was rather brilliant. The last project I did in the old world was in a production of The Duchess Of Malfi – I was the Duchess. I’d just done this massive Jacobean tragedy onstage and film acting as well, so I thought (in doing this), “Being in front of a camera will be a walk in the park compared to all that” but let me tell you: twenty minutes of green screen work is just as hard as a three-and-a-half-hour Jacobean tragedy.
TA My favorite moment of each day is when Rachael sends me the raw, behind-the-scenes, unedited footage, with she and Mark in a bit of costume doing this incredibly detailed movement work. It’s brilliant, it makes my day!
RH It’s at the stage now where we’re editing it and if we see something that doesn’t work me and my editor go, “Oh no, I know what you’re going to say, go put the costume on, do it again!”
And your studio is a little shed?
RH It’s a tiny little shed! We got green paper from the stationers, stuck it with glue onto cardboard, and nailed the cardboard onto the inside of the shed. Me and Mark cannot stand side by side in there, it’s that small, but people who watch will not know any of this.
So who will watch, do you think?
RH This is always the challenge with directing an opera: you have an audience that has every recording and they’ve come for a specific aria or singer, and then you’ve got another audience who’s never been to an opera before and it all sounds like screaming in another language. It’s impossible to cater for that range of people; it is a universal sort of timeless problem and challenge.
TA It’s a conversation that comes up so often in houses and with any kind of performing company in any structure, and the answer, I think, is it’s always about authentic storytelling. I think the stories you choose to tell then become important, people need to see and hear their own stories being told in the first person but some of opera is so fantastical and weird that nobody’s story is being told, yet you can find narratives that work, which are universal. I do believe in investing in new opera for that reason, but any conversation requires you to speak authentically, and to speak transparently, and to bring yourself to the conversation. With this production, everyone was so emotionally open throughout the whole process, so it’s an emotionally open and honest work, and the production is not only a response to the opera itself, but to the situation we find ourselves in now; it will speak to whoever shows up to it. There’s a job to do in terms of making people feel empowered to show up and feeling they can participate without excluding anyone else who’s showing up. I think it’s about authenticity of communication.
Alexander Shelley marked his birthday this year in the one spot he probably wants to be more than any other: in front of an orchestra. The Music Director of Canada’s National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra and Principal Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is back rehearsing live, with musicians at Ottawa’s Southam Hall, in preparation for the first in a series of live-streamed concerts starting October 17th. Shelley traveled to Ottawa from his native UK in September, having endured the lockdown, like so many in the music world, worrying, wondering, and willing the return of the live music experience in whatever way possible. He is, like his music world colleagues, cautiously optimistic but also clearly anxious to make (and mark) a Canadian return, in Ottawa and then in Quebec, before conducting duties in Luxembourg later this month. November sees more concerts in Ottawa, as well as a date in Germany with baritone Thomas Hampson and bass baritone Luca Pisaroni in a concert with the Würth Philharmoniker and featuring the music of Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Richard Rodgers, and Irving Berlin.
This hopscotch of music and travel, while normal for many conductors and certainly noteworthy in the pandemic era, is also something of a strong symbol of Shelley’s wide-ranging, some might argue even daring, musical pursuits. He has led no less than 32 world premieres, a list which is ever-growing, and he is just as comfortable performing jazz and pop sounds as he is musical works firmly within the established classical canon. If anything, Shelley’s aim may well be to widen and expand that canon, and his NAC Orchestra programming for this autumn seems like a good underlining of that intent. The group’s first concert will feature works by Canadian and American composers, including Lyric for Strings by George Walker, the first Black American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music; the orchestra’s second concert features works by contemporary composers including Marjan Mzetich, Hannah Kendall, and Jessie Montgomery together with Violet Archer’s 1968 work Sinfonietta and Henri Tomasi’s 1956 work Concerto for trombone (the soloist is Hillary Simms, co-founder of The Canadian Trombone Quartet, the country’s first professional all-female trombone quartet). The creative curiosity which marks so much of Shelley’s artistic output did not come about in a vacuum. Hailing from a decidedly creative lineage (his father is pianist and conductor Howard Shelley; he was taught piano by his mum and cello by his grandmother), Shelley’s resume is one that is a living embodiment of The Daily Telegraph‘s assertion of him as “a natural communicator both on and off the podium.” In 2005 Shelley thought up the idea for the 440Hz project in Germany, a concert series aimed to attract younger audiences to classical music; the series included various famous figures from the worlds of German stage and screen, including electronic music duo Blank & Jones, pop acapella group Wise Guys, and soprano Marlis Petersen. That same year he took the top prize at the 2005 Leeds Conducting Competition, which formally launched him onto the international stage and led to his leading a number of orchestras including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. In 2009 Shelley was named Chief Conductor of the Nürnberger Symphoniker, a position he held until 2017, undertaking numerous tours and recorded live performances during his tenure. His operatic conducting includes leading works by Lehár and Gounod at Royal Danish Opera, Mozart works at Opera North and Opéra national de Montpellier, Puccini at Opera Lyra (Ottawa), and the 1967 Harry Somers opera Louis Riel at both the National Arts Centre and the Canadian Opera Company. In 2014 Shelley worked with violinist Daniel Hope as part of the album Escape To Paradise: The Hollywood Album (Deutsche Grammophon), together with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Quintet of the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin; the album is an eclectic mix of sounds celebrating composers known for their film scores, including Miklos Rozsa, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, and Ennio Morricone, and also featured performances by pop star Sting and German crooner Max Raabe.
Darlings Of The Muses was released in May 2020 by Canadian classical label Analekta.
Named Music Director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) in Ottawa in 2015, Shelley’s highly creative programming has integrated the worlds of dance, history, and contemporary music in a fun and lively if equally educational mix. The orchestra’s 2019 tour to parts of Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK featured the work of numerous Canadian composers and artists, and also encompassed localized community events and learning initiatives along the way. In November 2018 the orchestra performed Britten’s War Requiem together with members of the Bundesjugendorchester (the Germany National Youth Orchestra, with whom he has toured) to mark the end of the First World War. Shelley’s award-winning discography with the NAC Orchestra and Canadian independent classical label Analekta features many works by living Canadian composers (including Jocelyn Morlock, John Estacio, Kevin Lau, and Ana Sokolović) alongside works by Dvořák, Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Shelley and the NAC Orchestra’s latest album is Clara-Robert-Johannes: Darlings Of The Muses (Analekta), released earlier this year. It is the first of four planned albums which aim to explore the creative and intimate connections between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. Along with Schumann’s and Brahms’s First Symphonies is Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, performed by pianist Gabriela Montero. Gramophone‘s Farach-Colton noted at its release that “there’s an improvisatory quality to Montero’s playing that highlights the music’s florid inventiveness“, which is noteworthy, as it’s a quality that flows through the whole of the album. Montero performs four related (and very beautiful indeed) improvisations based on and inspired by the work of Clara Schumann herself, and it’s these improvisations which cleverly if sensitively bridge the work of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, all three towering figures about whom Shelley himself can speak at length and in great detail, about the smallest details in scoring to broader contemporaneous social concepts, all whilst betraying a clear delight in his subjects and their creative output.
This joyous communicativeness is something that makes Shelley such an engaging maestro and music educator; all the old-school ideas about conductors being cold and heady are swept aside in his friendly, engaging banter. Since the start of his tenure at the NAC he has hosted Shelley Notes, a regular series of engaging concert introductions which contextualize various works performed by the Orchestra. Over the course of the lockdown earlier this year he continued his hosting duties, albeit in altered form, with Musically Speaking, a chat series featuring a variety of figures in and around the classical world; his first guest was violinist James Ehnes, the incoming Artist In Residence with the NAC Orchestra. The conductor and I spoke last month about bringing live music back to a live setting and why that matters, particularly within a North American context, as well as about the wide range of programming the NACO is offering this autumn, and why he feels Gabriela Montero is precisely the right person to appear on the orchestra’s recent Schumann/Brahms album.
Photo: Dwayne Johnson
How have you noticed differences, traveling between the UK and Canada, in attitudes toward bringing classical music performance back to the stage?
Last season I did concerts on six continents, which was quite an extraordinary experience, and I got to see how different people think and relate to culture; in each country people have a sense that the way they do it is the norm, and I find the same is true during this pandemic. Reading news from Germany and speaking to friends there, and in Austria, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, and North America, is that the way different countries are responding and thinking is very different, but everyone is doing the best thing and the most appropriate thing they feel is necessary. In mainland Europe, concertizing came back quite a few months ago. The only dates that remain in my diary apart from NAC Orchestra ones are in Luxembourg and Germany; the ones in Hong Kong and Australia and London are all gone for the fall, and no one can be sure whether they can get audiences in the hall. They’ve found a way in Germany – they have the (infection) numbers more under control – but other countries in the EU are all approaching it differently. Everybody works differently in responding to the numbers they’re seeing in different cities and towns. But in some places, yes, the performing arts are dying because there’s no performances – there’s no revenues, no turnover for audiences coming in. The Royal Philharmonic is seeping money, and the players don’t have any security or support. The things we take for granted, the great institutions we take for granted like The Royal Phil and other orchestras, may really not survive. There’s a fine line between lobbying for them and their continuance – and related to that, offering audiences that all-important catharsis and a conversation about what it means to live through art – and at the same time respecting the public health guidelines. I’m glad I don’t have to run a country and make these very, very hard choices, where you’re stuck between a wall and a hard place.
But that “hard place” seems to be very slowly softening in places; how much do you think your upcoming dates with the NAC Orchestra might be perceived as a broader symbol for the return of live classical culture in North America?
I think I feel like we have a responsibility as a national organization to be trying to serve our audiences. People need music – it is essential. People need the arts. They’re not some added extra once you have everything else sorted out. Humans have expressed the need for culture through millenia; they speak to needs that transcends language by definition, they reach those place words and even concrete thought can’t reach. It’s sometimes a pure sense of being, as all of us who are involved in the arts are well aware. So on the one hand we feel we have a responsibility to reach audiences and serve them, and at the same time, we are in a position to be able to carry on creating content. During the lockdown our musicians were at home but able to quickly pivot to putting stuff out there, and we had a team who worked with the website and social media. We had the #CanadaPerforms movement which was not just classical but featured all genres, and we had artists across the country with a platform there to perform. It was very important something was coming out, that people could hear and see music being performed live. We need to carry that forward now, and we have ambitious plans for the coming months, because we feel the National Arts Centre needs to be serving the nation in any way we can.
So primarily it’ll be streaming, at least initially, though when I say “primarily” our assumption is the largest number of people we’ll reach is through our streaming, but we will be getting the orchestra back together, we will be back rehearsing soon – we’ve made an important pivot with our work here digitally, but yes, the live experience is vital. I spoke to the Friends of NACO when I arrived back in Ottawa, on Zoom of course, and I pointed something out to them which I think every performing artists is very aware of, which is that our performance is different when there are people there, even if it’s 10 people: you perform differently, the experience is different, the sound is different, the actual product is transformed by the presence of people there, live. It is a communal experience in the deepest sense. And just as with any communal experience, the presence of people who partake in it and care about it changes the actual experience. I said flat-out that it’s not just about having people working back in the hall, which is of course nice and good in an economic sense, but it’s fundamentally important to us to not be performing to an empty space but to take music we perform to a direct and live audience and engage in live feedback from those listeners. And that is of course, one of several things that, even if we’re not aware of it, we miss in the digital realm, that immediate feedback, you can sense it even as a listener if you’re watching a concert on a TV screen or computer or cellphone, whatever, but you know you are not offering that actual feedback as part of a performance, so of course you miss it. And all people can do now is plan, but of course changing circumstances mean we may not, but our plan is to start with 50 guests in the hall and, as quickly as possible, ramp that up, so that over the coming months more and more patrons can join us in the hall, and then, fingers crossed, in the new year, we would hope to start getting back to full numbers, but let’s take it one step at a time.
How does that return to live performance blend with your work as the Music Director?
Ever since I’ve worked with this orchestra, I fell in love not only with the ensemble but this model of a national arts institution; it’s vital to keep asking one’s self not only how we can serve our community in Ottawa but to ask what role a such an organization can play in a national sort of way. You can’t have delusions of grandeur – there are so many other wonderful organizations already in Canada who also engage nationally and internationally – but I do think we can ask if there are gaps we can fill. Within the model of funding – the NAC Orchestra’s funding comes directly from the federal government – we ask, how does one respond to such a responsibility and privilege? In many ways I think of it like public broadcasters; you have, at the core of your responsibility, to do those things which are a harder sell commercially – that’s a privilege as well.
Your latest album is very ambitious – how was it conceived? Did you say, “Right, four albums, everything, all of this, off we go” or was it, “Let’s try this and see where it goes” ?
I think there are a few starting points that coalesced. There are lots of stories in music about composers, and you notice people who’ve watched Amadeus feel they have a connection to Mozart, they feel they know more about his music and life – but those of us in the industry are very aware of these stories, and how some stories are more myths than they are accurate. One particularly fascinating triumvirate for me has always been the relationship between Robert Schumann, his wife Clara, and Johannes Brahms. I think many who explored their music and their lives become fascinated by it. Without a doubt, Robert Schumann and Brahms are more household names now, and one could explore the reasoning for that over the centuries; I’m sure there’s an aspect of gender politics in there, but putting that aside for a second and looking at how they were viewed and thought of in their own lifetimes, Clara was, for the majority of the time in which all of them co-existed, the most famous of the three. She was renowned across Europe as one of the great pianists and one of great improvisers; she was known for her composition as well. So she was the artistic character in that triumvirate, the one the two men looked up to and respected, the one from whom they drew inspiration, and I think that’s a lovely story to remind oneself of. It means when you engage with Schumann or Brahms symphonies you are able to connect through to the woman who inspired them, and who also gave them very important feedback and guided them in many ways on their respective journeys. Now if you bear in mind she also had how many children, and ran the household, this was an extraordinary person, the spirit and the energy and talent it took to do all those things, together with the fact her husband was a brilliant man but he was troubled…
Yes, very ill, and she managed that too, and then she met this other brilliant man, Brahms, who was taken under Robert’s wings, with whom she had a deep friendship. It’s one of the mysteries of music history, whether their platonic love for one another was ever consummated; for me it’s unimportant, because their friendship was rather transcendental – how they affected one another was transcendental. After Robert passed, Clara’s musical friendship with Brahms, and the influence she had on him creatively, was fundamental to the history of music and to classical music development, so that story is at the heart of why I wanted us to create this set of albums. On the one hand, the Schumann and Brahms symphonies are core repertoire for this orchestra, it’s work that fits our instrumentation like a glove; we’re a small symphony orchestra or a large chamber orchestra if you will, so the music fits with our precise instrumentation. These two sets of symphonies mirror each other nicely as well; written twenty years apart, they are intimately connected by the two men who played off one another, particularly Brahms playing off Schumann. Both were trying to solve a problem: after Beethoven symphonies, when you had artists like Liszt and Wagner going off in one direction, which was very programmatic, how do you continue in that abstract music vein of writing symphonies? They both offered up solutions over the course of these four symphonic works. Also, between Schumann completing his four symphonies and Brahms starting and completing his one four symphonies, the entire (Wagner) Ring Cycle was written; that’s something which is so interesting for setting the scene, particularly for Brahms’s symphonies, because it helps to explain criticism at the time, that they seemed like chamber music, which is an aspect I wanted us to grab and explore in these recordings.
It’s very palpable, that chamber quality– it’s one not always apparent within other performances. The music of Brahms is often presented in this muscular, macho way…
Two of the reviews, picked up said opening is too fast in Brahms’s First – of course this was a very deliberate choice on my part, there is a tradition of hearing the opening of that symphony as this very heavy, epic, big timpani beat…
Clara Schumann (1819-1896) in 1857. Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl / Wikimedia Commons
… which is rather macho to my ears…
… like a behemoth! And precisely my reason for setting it in the context of Schumann symphonies and also Clara’s music, which is infused as is Robert’s, with lightness and transparency and with that sonic element of chamber music, is to create context for that intro to the first symphony by Brahms. Yes, it is epic in a sense, because it’s setting the C Minor scene, and just like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony takes us from C Minor to C Major over the course of the symphony – so it’s a big journey. I was hoping listeners would understand the point that he, Brahms, was not coming from the music that was written after him, that great late Romantic music and epic statements; he was coming from Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann, he was coming from that chamber setting, from that sense of every line being equal, and of not wanting to over-egg the Romantic aspect at potentially the cost of the Classical architecture and line.
So I wrote in the notes about it, that it’s a very deliberate choice, and I hope there will be listeners who appreciate this perhaps different perspective. We have lots of recordings where it’s that big epic sound, but there’s also a take on it where it isn’t that – and, at the center of this cycle, is Clara herself. In this first album (of the series), I wanted us to present her biggest orchestral statement, which is also her Concerto statement. It’s the biggest work she wrote for orchestra; she wrote the last movement when she was thirteen years old, and in the years following she filled it out to a three-movement Concerto which she premiered with Mendelssohn conducting and the Leipzig Gewandhaus playing. The idea she was some “lost talent” isn’t true – she was highly respected in her time. Can you imagine a fifteen year-old girl performing, with Mendelsohn, her own Concerto?! That’s the level of appreciation we’re talking about in her time.
Why did you choose Gabriela Montero to play the music of Clara Schumann?
If I think of all the pianists on earth living now, who for me most embody who Clara Schumann was, it’s Gabriela Montero: she is a consummate improviser, she’ a composer, a virtuoso, a mother, she is all the things Clara was and is, and that she was able to join us and interpret this piece, is very special. This all connects back to when things were very different to what they are now in terms of concert performance – it would be completely normal when Clara performed a concert to perform a piece of her own and then do improvisations, and play a piece by Robert, and improvise, and then Mendelsohn, and so on. The same thing applied in big orchestral concerts, so I wanted us to get a sense of that philosophy. I asked Gabriela if she would improvise for us in the spirit of Clara as she feels her, and as you know, Gabriela is one of the great improvisers of our age, so she sat onstage in Southam Hall and improvised for an hour, and we selected a few of those to connect from the Concerto into Brahms’s First Symphony. It’s a proposition which, for many listeners, will be new and different, and is in keeping with the spirit of the age.
Photo: Rémi Thériault
Your contextualizing makes it approachable but still very intelligent. Speaking of contextualizing music, will you be doing more online artist chats?
Absolutely. We’ve put together what I believe is programming that speaks to the time we’re living through. I think we all watched not only COVID happening but concurrent to that, all the cultural conversations around identity and voice, and it would’ve felt very strange to us, to have come back and just done a Mozart or Beethoven concert without thinking about what responsibilities we have as a national organization. I wanted to program differently, and try to engage with audiences nationally and internationally, so each 90-minute concert will feature two next-generation Canadian artists; they’ve had hurdles put in their way and over the next season or two, it will certainly be more difficult to travel and be seen, and they need to be given opportunities to perform on a big stage and to grow, to be heard. I’ll be speaking with them, or a member of the orchestra may do, so there will be a platform to get to know them. We’re going to feature Canadian and American composers, living and not, with an emphasis on brilliant contemporary music, and still have so-called traditional names, like Mozart and Prokofiev and Chopin, but the focus will be on composers who are perhaps new names to some, but who are brilliant and deserve this platform. It’s been concerning all of us, can big cultural institutions respond to these conversations? And I don’t see why we can’t, or shouldn’t, especially right now. There’s difficulty and challenge right now but also opportunity – even those people who didn’t realize how much they needed live music now realize how important it is in life.
It behoves any writer to know something about the subject to which they profess passion, love, adoration. Far from being antithetical to the spirit of discovery, context tends to enhance appreciation, understanding, and overall enjoyment, while leaving room for questions: why is a musical phrase Beethoven’s 5th done a certain way by Carlos Kleiber, but not by Klemperer? How much should the tempo in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde be guided by text, or might there be another approach (and if so, what)? How do the alliterative sounds of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s writing inform the aural sounds of Strauss? What roads led to Wagner’s famous lack of resolution in Tristan und Isolde and what paths led out of it (what didn’t, really)? Some things have definitive answers, but in art as much as life, some things tend to be –must be – evolving conversations.
It’s good to be reminded of the importance of both definition and evolution, even while striving, amidst quotidian mundanities (the continual handwashing, the ever-growing pile of ironing, the nightly nod-off on the sofa) for something that can be felt and experienced beyond the immediate. Around the world culture lovers are largely in situ; the only travel many are able to do is through one’s own imaginings. How rich they truly can be when one has the brushes and the pigments at hand to shape the many flat, smooth surfaces of weeks and months before us, but oh, how difficult it can be to find the inspiration to start, let alone to continue. I tangle, on any given day, with threads that pull in all directions: emails, updates, cooking, correcting, battling seemingly-endless streams of dust. But something within persists, and has done to varying degrees since the pandemic began, a constant akin to Malevich’s infamous black square, which resonates, reverberates, swallows, enfolds, encompasses, and even (especially) enlightens. As I wrote at the end of April, curiosity has been the guiding light through not only the current COVID19 era, but more broadly, a music education sorely lacking in proper guidance through childhood and youth, but one which has enjoyed a lovely Renaissance in the last few years. In an editorial for Opera Canada magazine earlier this year I revealed my strong belief in studying prior to attending (or now, livestreaming) events; that belief extends to listening. I find it stressful to put on a piece of music and not know even a little bit about what I’m hearing, let alone something about the artists involved, its history of composition, and the various approaches to interpretation. The work of Edward Seckerson has been invaluable in this regard; context and curiosity join in important ways through his work, allowing for new insights, deeper questions, and ever more bundles of curiosity.
A self-described “writer, broadcaster, podcaster, and Musical Theatre obsessive,” I discovered Seckerson’s work via his regular reviews for Gramophone magazine. His smart, accessible, well-observed writing employs poetic if equally clear language; the Gramophone review of the Pentatone/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester release of Das Lied von der Erde from earlier this year, for instance, mixes the text of Mahler’s grand work and its recorded history with keen musical and vocal observations, contextualizing and poeticizing in one sublime whole. Along with working in formal media for various British papers through the years (in the role of critic), Seckerson has worked in theatre and music, appearing onstage in various forms and roles. Writer and host of the long-running BBC 3 Radio series Stage & Screen, he is and has been a regular on radio and television, and has contributed commentary for the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition regularly. As well as penning books on Mahler and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, Seckerson has also been part of stage works exploring the life and works of composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite (or perhaps owing to) such accomplishments, Seckerson does not think of himself as press these days so much as a figure who, as he puts it, wants to be (nay, is) part of a broader creative conversation. Indeed, conversation is the thing he positively excels at; Seckerson has interviewed many, many people, including, as his website says, “everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, and Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” His interviewee list is a who’s who of figures from the classical music, theatre, and musical theatre worlds, reflecting his passion for all of them, and, more broadly, his commitment to the intelligent exploration of culture in all its facets and forms. Such a gift for (and active commitment to) one-on-one conversation is truly a rarity in a world of pre-written Q&As and preening Insta-videos. I was fortunate to be able to experience this gift live earlier this year, during a talk at London’s Bishopsgate Institute featuring Sir Antonio Pappano; over the course of the evening I was struck by his casual balance of personal and profound, funny and foundational; attending a Seckerson talk means one will learn as much about humanity and artistry (and the sometime-connections therein) as about the actual figure themselves, no small thing in a world where image tends to trump authenticity.
Seckerson has put his distinct talent for conversation to work via a regular chat series produced over the course of the lockdown. Guests so far have included conductor Edward Gardner, violinist Nicola Benedetti, actor/singer Julian Ovenden, and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connelly. Conversations span from thirty to sixty minutes and, as he explains, are entirely unedited, and are inviting exchanges which nicely embrace both the macro and the micro aspects of individual artistry and creative development, particularly within the context of our current pandemic era. His casual remark to violinist Nicola Benedetti during their conversation in June, that Elgar’s Violin Concerto (the performance of which was one of the final performances he attended in London before lockdown) is “the most intimate of epics”, inspired a spontaneous and enthusiastic response from the violinist (“It’s an amalgam of the very public and the very private Elgar”, he went on to explain), the warmth of which fuelled their lively almost-30-minute exchange. In a time when one’s spirit can so easily be dragged down by a multitude of daily mundanities, when life can feel so cold, empty, and robbed of joy, such sincere exchanges feel like a needed blanket of warmth and goodness.
Writing about another writer one happens to admire is no easy task; writing about a writer who is also a gifted conversationalist and who, octopus-like, has many arms in many different and fascinating worlds and is, quite simply, so very genuine, is indeed a rare gift. Perhaps my students, when asked what the c-word is, might also now respond loudly with, “Conversation! Commitment! Curiosity!” – for these are things Seckerson’s work has encouraged in my own pursuits, particularly through these many gloomy months. We spoke in August, before much of the programming now underway in London was announced.
Photo: Edward Seckerson
How have things been for you through the lockdown?
I live in central London, and it’s disturbing that the West End, and London overall, has been so empty – so many businesses are going to close. The Chancellor introduced a supplementary package for eating out Monday to Wednesday; it’s done the trick, and a lot of people are eating out as a result – they get £10 off their meal. In terms of the arts, people here are so desperate to get things moving again – they’re being so resourceful and creative. It isn’t always successful, but the will is there, and that’s important.
Have you had time to reflect on your work during this time?
Well, one of the things I suppose I learnt over the years of reviewing – and of course I still review for Gramophone – is that I always feel, just as I did when I was writing for The Independent, there is really no point offering your subjective view. Everything is subjective! But it’s best to offer some sort of insight into the piece you’re reviewing. I wrote a review this morning for Gramophone of the new Dudamel recording of the Ives symphonies, and I spent most of the review really talking about the music, because that, to me, is more important than just registering whether we have another successful performance on our hands, or what the merits or otherwise are of this performance. I think it really is important to give some kind of guide to the piece you’re reviewing, and the same is true of when I do the comparative reviews on (BBC) Radio 3, on Record Review – I think it’s important to offer people some kind of road map to the piece as well as interpretations.
That map, for those who don’t have a formal degree in music, is very helpful; it feels like a door swinging open, which isn’t always the case with classical music writing. Is that your intention?
Yes, that’s exactly my intention, to make that map clear. I always say that it’s almost irrelevant whether Ed Seckerson thinks a performance is special or not; what is important is that I offer some kind of sense of the experience, the shared experience if you’re reviewing something live. People who weren’t there want to know what it was like to be there, so there’s that element. I used to get a lot of flak when I reviewed opera for The Independent; people would say I spend too much time discussing the production and not enough time discussing the relative merits of the cast and their performances, but since most of those reviews were about new productions to me it was important to try and express, or offer, some kind of insight into what I think the director was looking for.
I’ve received similar feedback, that I focus too much on the ideas of the director and theatre aspects overall, and not enough on the singing, but I read your review of Barrie Kosky’s infamously divisive staging of Carmen and it gave a real sense of why he chose what he did, contextualized within the history of this very famous opera.
… and that’s the point. I think there are a lot of spectators out there who simply want their opinion to be endorsed or otherwise when they go to the opera – (like) if their favorite singer is singing, they want to see a rave about them. But it is actually important to discuss how the piece is being reimagined. Opera would very quickly become a museum culture if people didn’t keep reimagining the pieces, and sometimes they do so with limited success, sometimes they do so with hugely insightful success, and I think that’s important. One of the reasons why I’m successful as a critic is because I was an actor, and I have a very real sense of what it’s like to be on a stage and be that vulnerable – but also, if a director makes a choice, I feel it’s important to be able to ask, if it’s not immediately clear, why he or she has made that choice, to be able to offer some kind of suggestion or insight as to why they might’ve made that choice. And I don’t think audiences question that side enough. One of the reasons it took so long for slightly more, shall we say, radical theatrical productions to become the norm was because audiences weren’t prepared to do some of the work themselves. And I think it’s important that audiences are not passive, even if it’s a concert. I’ve spoken to so many musicians who say they know immediately when an audience is listening in a certain way; if an audience isn’t listening in a certain way, or there isn’t that connection, they know immediately that that performance won’t succeed, or won’t succeed on the level they might’ve hoped.
Musician friends of mine have noted how the quality of the listening can change dramatically according to where they perform; geography makes a difference.
That’s because certain audiences are experiencing a different culture of music, sometimes for the first time, so they might listen more intently.
That’s true! We do take a lot for granted here; we are very spoiled in cities like London, which is surely a music capital of the world. The choice, on a daily basis, when there isn’t a pandemic, is absolutely extraordinary, and you know, this time has made me appreciate what live music really means to me.
Backstage with Dame Diana Rigg at Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2019.
What has changed in the quality of your listening as you stepped away from reviewing?
Well, one of the pleasures of giving up writing newspaper reviews was that I could actually go and sit, relax and participate as an audience member, which gave me, and still gives me, great joy. You do listen differently when you are writing about something. I still listen in great detail but I think part of your brain is already forming the sentences, is already thinking of images, for the review you’re going to write, which is an intrusion. I first wrote for The Guardian in the days when pretty much all the reviews were overnight reviews, and I was never so unhappy as I was at that time as a journalist. I did it because it was a big break for me and it was establishing my name, but I hated every minute of it, and when I joined The Independent, the first thing I said to Thomas Sutcliffe, the arts editor, was, “If you’re doing overnight reviews, I’m not in the business of writing them” and he said, “No, I want people to sleep on what they’ve experienced and get up the next morning having digested and let it sit for a while.” All this nonsense about rushing out to meet the 11pm deadline doesn’t help anybody.
A long time ago there was an arts editor I worked with, and (Placido) Domingo was in town doing a revival, yet another, of the (Franco) Zeffirelli Tosca, it was Gwyneth Jones and Domingo, and the editor said, “We want an overnight review because it’s Domingo” and I said, “The show comes down at twenty minutes to 11pm; there are two intervals in the production; your deadline is 11pm; it’s impossible” and the editor said, “Well you’re no use to me as an opera critic if you can’t deliver a review after the show.” I said, “When will I do it?” He said, “You write during the intervals.” I said, “How can I write organically about a performance when it’s only a third of the way through? Oh, but wait, I have a good idea: why don’t I write the review before the performance?” It took him a moment or two to realize what I was actually, rather savagely, saying. And I did write the review, and I basically had to cheat it and write at the intervals, so there was no coherence. That is the kind of attitude that existed in media then and it still does, but thankfully some things have changed.
Some things have changed, but some have not, that attitude has transferred over to an obsession with clicks and views; Antonio Pappano and I spoke about it earlier in the summer and he said at one point, “if that’s what we rely on, we’re lost.”
When I did my talk with Pappano – you were there – at Bishopsgate earlier this year, we spoke backstage about the new culture of journalism, actually. You know, I was in at the start of this (change) – I was a mainstream classical reviewer in the days of broadsheet papers as well as this transition online, and indeed I remember people I knew at Glyndebourne, when the online thing started to happen, saying to me, “What are we going to do about inviting people?” I said, “You have to make value judgments about the kinds of writers you’re inviting – ignore all this business about how many clicks and hits they get, and just read what they write; read the work, and decide who you think is worth inviting.” It’s that difficult, and it’s that simple. And so when we spoke in January, Pappano himself was horrified I couldn’t get arrested at the ROH these days. I said, “It’s not because I’m writing reviews; I’m honest about that. It’s because I want to be part of the argument; I want to be part of the debate about the kind of work that’s being done at the ROH.” I mean, I’d be quite happy to attend rehearsals, but the attitude is always, “Oh no, you’re a member of the press! You can’t!” and I’ve said, “But I’m not a member of the press anymore, I’m just me…!”
This sounds frustratingly familiar.
It’s so frustrating. If I go to a dress rehearsal and I want to make some constructive comments, I won’t write a review, I want to be part of the debate before or after the performance. But I can’t contribute anything if I wasn’t there.
You’ve still really crossed over from the media world. What has that process been like?
It’s been very interesting. Long before I wrote for The Guardian or The Independent I was invited to ENO, during the Sir Mark Elder/David Pountney regime, and I got invited because the Press Officer was enlightened enough to know my background. I was making in-roads as a journalist and writer but had come from the theatre, and I had a musical background as well, but I had come from the theatre directly and they had the good sense to invite me long before I was writing reviews – so I had points of reference. When I did start writing reviews, I’d been there, watching these shows, seeing this company develop, which fed into the kind of writing I produced, which fed into the things I did when I started writing for a major paper.
So you paid your dues, just not in the usual way… ?
I paid my dues, though yes, my background is very unusual for a music journalist, because although I studied music when I was young – I was saying this in the interview I did recently with Nicola Benedetti – my problem was when I started learning the piano at a young age was that my musicality had already exceeded what I was capable of doing on the instrument, and I found it hugely frustrating. Nicola completely identified with that, by the way! I said, unless I started even earlier – and that battle that goes on between technique and musicality is huge.
When I was learning piano as a child, musicality was something others tried to forcibly extricate; there was an intense focus on technique instead, which I was never very good at. Musicality was perceived as being unfocused, sloppy, pointless.
How awful! I mean, I went to a comprehensive school where they had peripatetic music teachers, and I was handed a violin one day and learned my way around that instrument without much success, but at least I knew my way around it. I took up percussion, which was a way of producing more instant results. I could read music and rhythm, and picking up the technique was relatively uncomplicated compared to learning the violin, so I was able to play with amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, and that was another way in. But this thing about musicality, coming as I do from a theatre and music background, I was brought up to believe rather as Leonard Bernstein said, to just embrace music in all its facets, in all its styles – that’s the way I was brought up. I was never directed toward “good” music or “serious” music, I was just encouraged to enjoy music, period, and lucky enough to be taken to theatre and musicals and concerts, and that’s where it all started to marinate. Many of my colleagues come from more academic backgrounds. I always say, nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re going to be a critic, and a lot of young students have often asked me about this – “What is the route in? What is the way in?” – I’ve always said, there isn’t any particular way in, it’s a case of just doing it.
This is precisely the advice I give my own students: do it, do it a lot, but be wary of doing it for parties who will exploit your talent and energies.
Precisely. I started years ago, by producing dummy reviews and sending them to people, because I was an avid record collector as a boy, and as I grew up I became more and more fascinated by interpretation, and that, to me, was where the music-making really started to happen. So I always say to people, it’s not so much what you know, it’s what you feel. And if you can’t recognize when an artist makes a beautiful phrase, then you’ve no business doing the job. It’s about having a musicality which chimes with what the artists themselves are doing. And you have to feel confidence in that. The one thing I am confident about amongst all my insecurities: I am completely confident about my musicality.
That confidence translates to your online conversations. Why did you start this series?
When lockdown happened, my partner said to me, “Why don’t you do audio?” I said, “Honestly, do I really want to do audio? And not earn a penny?! Surely I should be looking for ways to earn a bob or two during this period!” And my partner said, “It’s important you’re out there and doing what you do.” So I decided to do a series with people that I had some kind of association with, either we’ve crossed paths or I knew their work or they knew my work. Nicola was the exception – I had never met her, but one of the last concerts I went to this year was her live performance of the Elgar violin concerto at the Royal Festival Hall; I was blown away by it and thought it was a good reason to speak to her, since the related album was coming out.
But basically what I wanted to do was to talk to people that would feel comfortable relaxing on a remote audio with me, and were prepared to do so without editing. These audios are all unedited, they are completely spontaneous – this was important to me; sometimes a doorbell rings or whatever, but basically I’ve said to these artists, “I want this to be raw, as if we’re doing this live.” And I was determined we should mix classical and musical theatre, because they are my two main areas. I started with John Wilson – I bumped into him literally in the first week of lockdown, he’d moved around the Tate Modern, and I was walking down the Embankment, and there he was. We stood in socially-distance conversation for a while, and I said, “Hey do you want to this?” and he said “Sure!” What I decided now is to continue to do them. I think as a writer you have to get past … look, this is tricky, but you have to get past the idea that you do this only professionally for a living; sometimes you should do things occasionally for the hell of it. That was a difficult pill to swallow at first; I felt I was putting a lot of effort in for no return, and as a freelancer that’s a no-no. When I think back now to the kinds of jobs I would turn down routinely, I would be quite grateful for them now.
Engaging in freebie culture is something I caution my students against. When it’s you calling the shots, it’s a different energy; you have all the control. That’s different than giving everything away to an organization who will exploit your talent for their numbers.
Exactly! Several have said to me, “You should charge for these interviews” and I said, “But this is my product; I have total control over it.” It’s been quite refreshing to go to people with my reputation and history and just say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Generally speaking they’re only too pleased, especially during this time, but I think they’ll be pleased after this crisis is past, so long as I can supplement it from other paid jobs; most of my work consists of live conversation events at festivals or the like; Bishopsgate was an experiment. I lost a huge amount of work when the pandemic struck, including live interviews with Dame Janet Baker, an evening with Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and many bookings with Patricia Routledge, who I’ve been working with for years in a show called Facing The Music, about her musical theatre career. Those things are where the money for me is. Writing, broadcasting, the BBC fees have gone down and down… you have to move with the times, and reinvent yourself. I reinvented myself hugely, because as an ex-actor, I loved the buzz of being onstage and still do, albeit in a different capacity.
Backstage with Claude-Michel Schönberg at Bridge Theatre, February 2019.
I was in theatre also and I do miss it, though I find performance and authenticity now tend to meet through writing; do you find this in your pursuits?
Oh yes – and these audio interviews, I hope, are something that shows the best of what I do. I think good interviewers are few and far between; let’s focus on the people who can initiate a conversation as opposed to doing a Q&A. I hate those. People say “Will you do a Q&A?” and I say, “No, I’ll do a real conversation.”
The reciprocity of a real conversation demands sincerity, which seems like a rare commodity these days.
It is – and I’ve met and spoken with a huge cross-section of people, in various capacities. I was a mainstream presenter on (BBC) Radio 3 for some years, I used to do the breakfast show on the weekends and had a show called Stage & Screen, which ran for six years and was devoted to musical theatre. I learned a lot on that show and had a great time. We met an awful lot of luminaries from the world of musical theatre, and I learned a lot about sitting down and conversing with people.
That’s what radio teaches one: the importance of give and take.
It’s a huge thing. You know in the first few minutes of talking to someone who’s done x number of interviews with people if it’ll work. I interviewed Glenn Close for Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum; they didn’t want to put her in front of the press corps, it was done with me interviewing her rather than people shouting out questions. I did a video interview just before that for the website and I remember, it was so obvious, she sat down like, “Oh here we go, another interview” – as a film star she would have done twenty-five or more in a day to promote a film – but the first thing I wanted to talk about was the Richard Rodgers musical Rex she’d been in when she was unknown. I was just curious about that; Nicol Williamson had been in it also And she looked visibly stunned when I brought this production up. The whole interview changed direction the minute she knew that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t another hack. But I’m afraid in some quarters, in the theatre and movie world, it’s par for the course. The level of ignorance among so-called journalists is breathtaking – and yes, the sheer laziness, the total lack of research. People you talk to, they want to know that you respect the work they do, it’s only natural, you sometimes have to talk with people in rotten moods, but the minute you turn it around and say, “What I thought was interesting about your performance was this and this and this… ” – it changes everything.
Good interviews demand many things: research, listening, reciprocity – all while holding one’s own. Lately it feels as if these things have been disposed of via online culture…
… oh, this whole business of so-called “influencers” is driving me absolutely nuts! It’s about nothing at all; it’s just so much noise around people who appeal to the lowest common denominator and who generate a following. Suddenly they’re endorsing various things…
It’s worse in the musical theatre world too – it’s a different kind of celebrity. There is Instagram casting in that world; I’ve spoken to producers who have engaged in it. When I did my stage conversation last year with Patti Lupone I brought this up and she was mortified by the whole thing. It’s this whole box-ticking thing…
Backstage with Patti LuPone at Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2019.
“This person has x number of followers” – even if they bought them – “this person gets x number of views on their videos” – those are easy to fake – “this person gets lots of engagement” – how many of them are genuine? – “this person has a cool/sexy image” – which is all photo filters…
Indeed, but there’s also the basic question: can (the artist) actually do the job? Live and onstage? Are they the best person for the role? Or are they being cast because they have six million followers on Instagram? It’s a serious problem. Producers want to sell tickets obviously, and Intendants want to sell their opera houses, but if we’re not very careful, it could derail the integrity of the business. It really could. I participate in social media because I like to think of myself as savvy when it comes to online, but I don’t exploit it as much as I could; I am very suspicious of it. And I think unfortunately, the first question you’re always asked – and you probably experienced this yourself – you go to someone who doesn’t know your work, and you say, “May I do this?” and they say, “How many hits does your website get?” I mean… many of the people working in the business now are so young and they have no history or knowledge of the people or the history of people like you and me. And I’m not saying that in a boastful way; I’m saying it because it’s a fact. I get the most insane emails sometimes asking me to cover things that have absolutely nothing to do with my area of operation or expertise. I’m on a press list somewhere and so…!
Very often I get questions about my metrics too, and my response is that my numbers aren’t The New York Times, but they don’t have to be; my readership is faithful.
Exactly, and that’s the point! I mean social media is famous for endorsing things so you put something up with all your powers and people who know you in the business will like it, and click on the button, but how many listen to the interview the whole way through, or read the whole feature to the end? Of course I know people read Gramophone magazine – they read it from cover to cover, it’s the only serious record magazine left, which is why I still write for it – but I’m delighted some of my audio interviews have hit the spot for listeners. I know people who’ve listened to them and I know the pleasure they’ve got from them, which is far more important than reaching 50,000 people who don’t listen to more than a couple minutes. I will say, I didn’t want to do a series on the lockdown or the problems (of the music industry) associated with the pandemic; important though it is to talk about these things, that’s not what I’m in the business of doing. I wanted to stay talking about the music.
Speaking of music, Sarah Connolly’s relating the text of Das Lied von der Erde to Bach in your chat made me rethink that piece, but then, isn’t that the point of good conversation – to inspire one to think about things in new ways?
I agree with you entirely – but of course you’re only as good as the quality of your interviewee; this is where one has to be selective. I know why I chose the people I chose. And Sarah is a rare bird, not only a wonderful talent, but I’m probably more pleased with that one than the others so far, she’s such a great talker: engaging, amusing, smart, all those things.
Her trust in you seems palpable.
That’s where the history comes in. With some people it takes a long time to earn their trust; for instance, with Patricia Routledge, it took a long time before I earned her trust. She’s someone who’s lived on her own, who has huge integrity as an actor, but my goodness, it was worth the wait. When there is mutual trust, it frees you up, and it’s lovely for me when one’s reputation precedes one and someone is happy to do something simply because they trust you. We both know we’re going to have a reasonably stimulating exchange and I’ll not be talking about non-musical things as others might, that I’m there for the music. At the end of the day the music is what it’s all about, and that’s what I’ve adopted as my yardstick over the years.
In conversation with Patricia Routledge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, part of Seckerson’s “Facing The Music” series with the British artist. Photo: Danny With A Camera
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.
Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisandeat Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.
Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.
John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.
This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.
Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How are rehearsals going?
JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?
BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.
JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.
JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.
BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.
Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?
JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.
It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?
JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.
Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?
BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.
JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.
BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.
JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely… and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.
BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.
JD It’s not an ideal situation…
BS… but it’s something.
JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.
Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.
JD I think there are big arguments… if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.
You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?
JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.
BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.
To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?
BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.
JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”
BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.
JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…
BS It’s a lot of money.
JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.
Photo: Gerard Collett
How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?
BS Well I went to a concert here recently and… I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God… then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.
JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…
BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.
JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?
BS Bravo, John…
JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.
BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.
JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”
So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?
BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …
JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.
BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”
JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.
BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.
So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?
BS Oh for sure.
Photo: Robert Workman
How do you keep your focus?
JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.
… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious.
JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.
B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.
JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.
This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.
JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.
BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.
JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
One of my last experiences of live vocal music in 2020 was hearing Ermonela Jaho perform live at Wigmore Hall as part of Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The acclaimed soprano made her recital debut, together with pianist Steven Maughan, to a packed hall, tackling an ambitious program of works consisting of French and Italian repertoire in memory of soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who originated many of the roles in the works being presented. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted, Jaho’s artistry “is rooted in a deep identification with her chosen repertoire that results in performances of unsparing veracity and tremendous emotional honesty. In recital, as on stage, her ability to expose a character’s psyche in seconds is utterly remarkable.” I came away feeling not weakened but awakened, as much entranced by Jaho’s lilting phrasing in “Sérénade” (Gounod) as stunned by her plaintive “Tristezza” (Tosti), the honesty of her emotion clear in light shades, dark tones, and everything in between.
The evening offered a tantalizing preview of Anima Rara, Jaho’s third album with Opera Rara, set for release on 25 September via Warner Classics, and recorded with Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and conductor Andrea Battistoni. The album, like the recital, is a tribute of sorts to Storchio, but is also a deeply moving showcase of the innate lyricism and emotional honesty which are so much a part of Jaho’s artistry. Known and rightly celebrated for her visceral stage performances, Jaho, who began her operatic career as a teenager in her native Albania, has appeared at a number of famous houses (The Met, Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Teatro Real, Opéra national de Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Royal Opera) in a range of dramatic and demanding roles, including the titular Anna Bolena, Suor Angelica, and Thaïs, as well as Mimi in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Liú in Turandot, Desdemona in Otello, and, perhaps most famously, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, a role she is set to reprise next month at Greek National Opera. Amidst the fourteen tracks featured on Anima Rara, Jaho seamlessly connects head and heart through a kaleidoscope of vocal colors via verismo, the late 19th/early 20th-century style of opera which uses real-life settings and characters as a means by which of attaining a greater degree of naturalism, and, I would argue, psychological familiarity.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
Confession: I was not the biggest fan of verismo until I heard Jaho live and subsequently on this album. Her attention to detail is so connected to emotional expression as to be indistinguishable; the transitions between notes, the considered pauses, the smart phrasings – they all allow a vivid series of pictures to be created in one’s mind. I felt I was actually seeing and starting to know, at a human level, many of the women Jaho here embodies in sound. Some of the narratives verismo favours are indeed soapy (revolving around sex, jealousy, and rather teenaged ideas about, and reactions to, the experience of love and its confusion with infatuation), but the emotions behind them are, thanks to Jaho’s endearing approach, made wholly authentic, and communicated with a graceful, smart blend of technical knowingness and soulful embrace. As Ashley wisely noted, the veracity is unsparing, which makes for not only a gripping listening experience, but one capable of changing one’s perceptions entirely. Bravo indeed.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi is the Artistic Director of Opera Rara, and has worked with Jaho on various occasions, including in 2018 in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, and in 2010 at La Monnaie on La bohème, in a production directed by Andreas Homoki. Maestro has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience leading various Italian works (Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Giordano, Cimarosa, Pizzetti, Montemezzi) at a wide variety of houses, including The Met, the COC, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche Oper, Den Norske Opera, Oslo, his homebase of Welsh National Opera (where he is Conductor Laureate), and most recently, Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. There exists a deep appreciation for both the vocality and the unique brand of theatricality the music featured on Anima Rara demands, a blend of the familiar (Verdi’s La traviata; Massenet’s Manon; Boito’s Mefistofele; Catalani’s La Wally; Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly) and unfamiliar (Giordano’s Siberia; Massenet’s Sapho, Leoncavallo’s version of La bohème, a trinity of Mascagni works including Lodoletta, L’amico Fritz, and Iris, in which Jaho was to have made her role debut at Teatro Real de Madrid in May, prior to the COVID cancellations). The conductor is effusive in his praise of Jaho and her inherently dramatic approach, but he is also simply marvelous in explaining the reasoning behind that approach – its technical demands, its musicality, the need for watchfulness in its application within the context of verismo. Following this are the soprano’s own thoughts on the album and its tie with that famous emotional honesty, the nerves that went along with her recital debut back in February, and why thinking of every stage appearance as her first and last is such a central part of her creative approach.
Carlo Rizzi: “Music Becomes A Part Of Her Life When She’s Singing”
Ermonela’s vocal acting, live and on Anima Rara, is so effective that she made me reconsider my ideas about verismo.
Actually I think you’re absolutely on with saying “vocal acting” – it’s fantastic, this expression, because that’s exactly what she does. With the bel canto and more classical things like Mozart, of course you do things with the voice but there is something in the sound and the way you have to deliver the words in verismo that is very particular, and this, in a way, makes it or breaks it for many people, because it’s not a way we are used to expressing ourselves anymore. The verismo, the language of the verismo and in particular the Italian language, is very full on; it’s like if you have a lot of water in a rather small pipe, it’s a little bit of pressure, and some people like it and some don’t like it, but it’s definitely necessary to have. Ermonela knows not only how to use the voice but how to lead the part, and that is really necessary – you cannot do verismo otherwise, it becomes empty. When I met her she was doing lighter roles, but she has really, I think, passed through these sort of, I don’t want to say “bigger” roles, but this more mature phase of her voice, seriously, yet she has not lost the freshness which is important to keep, even if you sing with a fuller voice.
Your water-pipe/language metaphor is apt; it’s like she gives just enough to keep your thirsty but not enough to soak you through.
Well Ermonela is a very good actress – it’s that simple. When I met her and we worked together, I really got very much enamored with her way of performing the music. Now there are many singers that fall into music because they don’t have the capacity to act, but she does – it’s not fake with her. I remember we did in Brussels, some years ago now, La bohème and at the end of this performance, we were both in tears and embracing each other, because the emotion she was putting in the voice, not just tearing hair out but in the voice, was feeding me and I was giving that (energy) back to orchestra. When this happens with a singer it’s fantastic, it’s not just one doing what the other wants, but is really what vocal music should be: it should be the orchestra entering into the voice, and vice-versa. With her it’s very easy because this is what she believes in, it’s never singing just to be singing – it’s singing matched to the expression.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
That attention to text – open vowels, repetitive sounds, their placement – that level of detail…
… this is actually what singing should be! Singing is talking at a higher level; when you talk, people talk lalala, fast, but if you really want to communicate, you need to linger on certain notes, give a shade to this or that, that is the point, the shape of the phrase and shape of the language. This happens in talking and also when one sings. For example when I work with young singers, immediately I understand how some can pronounce very well but they don’t have a clue how the thing goes, or one does a little slip as a musician but they know which place in the phrase the word occupies and this comes through even if you don’t know the language – that’s the point: if there’s a shape or a journey in the phrase, it goes to the listener, even if the people don’t know the language. Ermonela is very good at this; the music becomes, not corny, but part of her life when she’s singing, and I think she’s very honest about it, it’s not just a gesture.
That honesty complements her work with Opera Rara. There has to be an approach to presenting and performing these works as more than mere novelties or curiosities; there has to be as much intelligence for things like Lodoletta as for Traviata…
Yes, that is the understanding of the style, because if you don’t understand the style… an allegro isn’t just an allegro; there are allegri that are sometimes slower and largi that are sometimes faster, it’s how the style goes. Sometimes the approach is only technical, like “This is what is written” rather than, ‘Let’s get into the music: what is the message and the flavour here?”, where you are looking at and understanding the vocal development of the vocal line; if you look at that, 90% of the work is done, it’s clear, this is the way the composer was writing. Of course I’m not saying every composer is the same, but when you have composers who worked in the same field and era, chances are the approach to the written note was more or less the same, and this is what is important in terms of performing the underpinning style – Ermonela understands this sort of context entirely.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Ermonela Jaho: Speaking Through The Voice
Anima Rara is indeed transportive – listening to it, I was taken back to that night at Wigmore Hall but also very much into the worlds of these characters; they feel vivid hearing you do them.
That was my goal, because I feel some empathy, and, I can’t find the right word… the music transports me into that dimension, it feels like living in that world. Sometimes – it will sound crazy – but sometimes I think, if you believe in other lives, I’ve been a Suor Angelica, a Violetta, a Madame Butterfly, all the roles or arias I’ve sung, I can’t explain it but I enter that dimension and I believe in every single word I sing; it’s not only the singer, of course you need to have done the homework, to have the technique, the sound has to be there no matter what – but all of it is in service of what I’m singing, even with the imperfections. The vulnerability connects with people, and the imperfections too – we need to feel the fear, the joy, and I try to go to those places.
Something Pappano highlighted in your conversation this summer was the humanity in your approach, which is so noticeable hearing you live but it’s palpable on the album as well, this sense of lived humanity and visceral experience, and I’m wondering if you think that quality is reflected in the vocal writing of these verismo pieces.
Yes, absolutely, because it’s theatre. In bel canto you have long lines, these arias with cabaletta, which of course you need to put your soul and everything in, the drama is there as well, but this repertoire, verismo, it’s so direct, sometimes it’s like a dialogue, like a movie. When you need the pause to breathe, not just taking your time because you’re hitting a high note after the pause, it’s a pause of breathing the actual emotion – and sometimes the silence could be more dramatic than an explosion of certain notes. That’s theatre, but it’s tricky as well because you have to balance being believable against being ridiculous; sometimes you can go a little bit forward, like a drama queen, but you have to be believable. If you play just the pain or the joy, maybe you can make it work in two, three moments, but the whole piece is difficult to sell, if I can say that. I’m Mediterranean, and we are louder in everything – pain and joy – but there’s still a human element; sometimes we have the words and we don’t want to say them out loud, but our soul is screaming. And you can convey that in music with the breathing, or with other little details, although with this repertoire, it’s written so straight-forward.
Rehearsing Anima Rara with conductor Andrea Battistoni in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Your pauses and taking those breaths feel very much a part of your vocal acting; the timing and phrasings convey such an innate comprehension of the line between gripping and overwrought, because as you said, one can tip into the other easily.
Yes, and of course you can improve because it’s the kind of repertoire in my perception that is like, more, not older, but the more life experience you have, the more meaningful this repertoire is. Even to stage it is so difficult because it has to be so meaningful and you have to be … to live that story, 100%. Singing is the language of our souls. We can’t fake it. It’s something that the public will feel immediately, if you fake it. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult and interesting to go toward this repertoire and feel it’s mine. I don’t know how I can put it, but I love it, and I’m trying to improve as much as I can technically, to give that kind of liberty to my voice and express the emotions – if you don’t have a good technique, it could be only a beautiful thought, “make this phrase like this and that phrase like so” – but if you don’t give it all with your voice, your breathing, with all your body and soul onstage… they remain only beautiful notes in a score, and you fail as a singer and as an artist.
You also said to Pappano, and you have done before as well, that you always approach each performance as if it is the first and last of your life; I’m wondering if that applies to recital work. I was genuinely amazed at your pacing.
I tried to pace, believe me! It was a challenge, that recital, because I’d never had a recital on my own, not because I didn’t believe in it – I love it so much and would love to repeat it – but because I’m so shy as well, to be honest with you, and I let it go when I’m onstage (in opera). Somehow I feel protected and with some distance from the public – I want to feel the energy but I don’t want to feel judged. The costumes, the staging, they keep me a little distanced, and always I thought to myself, “Never will I be able to have success in singing in recital, opera is better” – but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves. What I chose was crazy to be frank, it was so long and so diverse, and I thought, “It’ll be the first and the last recital, but okay, let’s try it!” And I loved it so much though, because I thought, in that recital, like going back to that Pappano conversation, it’s my first and last appearance on the stage.
It was a dream for me to become an opera singer; I fought so much to reach the position I’m in now and for me, I won my dream, if I can say that. I endured a lot of difficulties, so now every time I’m on stage I appreciate how lucky I am. It’s about 26 years professionally now that I’ve been singing, and I don’t know if it will all end tomorrow – I want to live life in full, which sounds a little… stupid, but you know, at the moment especially, I don’t think about tomorrow, because you never know. In this situation with the virus, it brought to mind how I have suffered because I’m not onstage. Every time I am I’ve kissed the stage, because I think, “Maybe it’s my last time.” For sure a piece of my soul I leave that there, and with 100% honesty, but also embracing a spirit of risk.
It’s interesting you say this because it brings to mind Rosina Storchio, that embrace of honesty.
We always think verismo means using the biggest voice in the world, that you have to, not scream, it’s not nice! – but to be louder, because in that way you are more dramatic. When I had my first proposition to do Butterfly, I was scared, I thought, “no, never ever, I can’t sing this opera, because” – I’m really honest with my voice– “I’m a lyrical voice, not a dramatic voice.” It was 2009, and some people said to me then, “Please don’t accept that, you’ll lose your voice at the end of the First Act.” I like to read when I have time of course, and so I went to read Puccini’s letters, and in those, he is talking about Butterfly, and in there it came up, Storchio’s name; I didn’t know anything about her, but the way he wanted her to sing that opera (and similarly Mascagni in Lodoletta and Zazá), he wanted her to be the first in the role, and I thought, “Okay, let me see which kind of voice she had” – and she was a lyrical leggero, as they call it from the letters and docs we have – so why did they want her? Because, I discovered, she had a kind of pathos onstage, she was giving everything in order to be expressive but believable; she was an actress with a lyrical voice. When Butterfly didn’t have success the first time and Puccini changed the whole opera, she didn’t want to sing it, and in one of the letters of Puccini he wrote, “I think that Butterfly without Storchio becomes a thing without soul.”
From that moment , I thought, “Okay, my guts say Butterfly, or this kind of repertoire in that epoch, sounded different” – because you need that kind of fragility, because sometimes it doesn’t mean you have to be BIG; yes, for certain roles you do, but in this case, it’s why we get so moved, emotionally speaking, because we see this human being so fragile, and you have to convey that not only with your voice but in little movements – of course you try to improve, but that’s the connection, to do this kind of repertoire, this kind of drama, but the drama is in the whole story. It’s not because you somehow have to be dramatic; you are a human being, and we have all these colors, this palette of emotion. Even within the (context of) the drama, you honestly believe tragedy could happen to such a vulnerable soul.
I’m wondering about that stage presence and authenticity in relation to other work she was known for, some of which are on the album. You are known for roles like Butterfly too, but perform other lesser-known works; how does one inform the other, or does it?
I tried to follow the same philosophy I did with Butterfly: I don’t have expectations. So I think if I do something, like singing this little-known repertoire, if I put in soul and I believe 100% and try to work on the emotional part as I’ve done with Butterfly, I hope somehow it will help to bring to life this kind of music. For the first time ever I sung Siberia heard it, and… I can’t explain it to you. It was the only aria which we recorded in two tracks, immediately, because it came so naturally, I felt, I don’t know… this aria is about a love that only you know, no one knows about it, you can’t speak it to anyone… I really adore it, so maybe this will be interesting for certain houses, to bring back to life these kinds of masterpieces. We didn’t have so many rehearsals for these recordings you know, but I was in tears every time I had to repeat things. I mean, Lodoletta… my God!
Listening to these tracks made me think about Butterfly and Mimi in new ways in terms of the vocal writing and the line, the pacing, having a clear sense of character through those small details you mention…
But of course you can’t do this unless, as you said to Pappano, you feel protected.
Because teamwork means so much! I’ve had productions of Butterfly where I swear, I felt, “oh my God, my career is done now, I won’t sing this opera anymore” because I didn’t feel free to express what I had in my mind; it’s not only the voice, it’s not just, “Oh, sing your famous aria” – that’s wrong, especially in this repertoire. You have to work together and, I hate the word “sell” but you have to deliver it, as a whole story. Unfortunately not in every production do you have that (required) teamwork.
With Pappano, I felt so protected; we were working in the same direction, and I felt like a student. When you feel that way it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if your picture is everywhere and people love and adore you and you have all kinds of applause – still, you are a student. Every day we are different, every day life experience shapes our souls and minds, and with music, you need to go in that direction (of learning). You really do with Pappano; he’s a dream to work with. Every time working with him you discover new things, even repeating the same phrase – he taught me from the first time we met, to never ever repeat a note twice the same way, because yes, you said it once and the second time it won’t be new, you have to find other colors. This is just the approach to take for this kind of repertoire.
(via Warner Classics)
This is something I feel I’m being educated on with each listening of the album, and Opera Rara’s work as a whole; you really come back to the more known repertoire with new ears.
That’s why I love Opera Rara; they’re very important for the opera world, not because I record with them, but really, we are students, and it’s easy to appreciate something that’s well-known and already-proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audition to take a new look at a work of art lost in time, so Opera Rara’s vision is one I am passionate about. I mean, I’m harsh on myself (in terms of performance) here – every time after a recording session I would go home and think, “I could do better here, better there…”
But do you feel that’s a normal part of being an artist? That such perfectionism is a necessary part of creativity?
Especially for this repertoire, yes. What was my epiphany, if I can say that, is the period when I lost my parents, and I had to sing Suor Angelica then. I was numb completely. I’m sharing this episode because of how much art can mean, beyond technique, beyond the voice. Really, at that time, I was numb. I had some days before the premiere, where I was learning and creating with Pappano and everyone on the team, but only when I went onstage, when Principessa comes to Suor Angelica and says, “Your son is dead” – at that moment I felt the pain, the big loss that I had. The magic of the music… to have Pappano, as I said before, to read for this kind of emotion, the teamwork in London, they didn’t know about my loss but maybe they felt the energy, I was like a lost child. Before “Senza Mamma”, in the instrumental introduction, I was worried, like “oh my God, I’m going to stop here I won’t be able to sing it properly – there has to be a the pianissimo at this certain point, I can’t do it” and so on, and everything was discovered, and in that moment , I forget about the technique, I forgot, “oh this note has to be so precise” and… it was my soul singing, in tears, and it wasn’t Suor Angelica, the young mother crying for her son; I felt myself a little girl who had lost her parents. It doesn’t matter what age we lose our parents; it’s loss.
The effect this music had on me, I changed, completely, not because I doubted before, but at that precise moment… something changed in my mind, and I thought, “I have to work not toward the sound, because no one is perfect; some will like you, and some will like someone else, you won’t make everyone happy with your voice. But if you speak through your voice, the colors of the soul that you’re singing, and you are really honest with yourself, absolutely, it will connect with the public” and from that moment, my life changed. As an artist, I do work technically but always in service to the emotion, even risking being not-perfect, because if you don’t risk and go deep, you will never connect with the public – never, ever.
Memories of past cultural experiences have become sharper over the course of the lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been taking stock of those experiences through the past five months or so, recalling, with a mix of delight, sadness, and wistfulness, some of the most magical moments. In light of the activities being reported at this year’s Salzburg Festival (a reduced if arguably more potent version began August 1st and runs to the end of the month), I recalled my own experience at the starry fest in 2016, where, among other events, I attended a presentation of Faust featuring tenor Piotr Beczala in the title role. Having experienced the opera numerous times live and via recordings, I was struck at the Polish singer’s responsiveness to both the music and to his co-stars, notably bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s menacing Mephistopheles; it was as if Beczala had stepped into the score himself, and was carefully, keenly analyzing every small detail, altering his pitch and tone, the shape of his vowels and consonants, his breaths and pauses and even sighs, around Gounod’s score and the Wiener Philharmoniker’s performance of it under maestro Alejo Pérez.
This musical sensitivity and attention to detail, and to drama, have expressed themselves throughout Beczala’s illustrious career, which has included turns in the well-known and well-loved (Bizet’s Carmen; Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte; Puccini’s La bohéme), French opera (Faust; Werther; Romeo), dramatic (Maurizio in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur; Vaudémont in Iolanta; Lensky in Eugene Onegin; Der Prinz in Rusalka), as well as purposeful dips into both bel canto (Bellini’s La Sonnambula; Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) and verismo (Tosca‘s Cavaradossi, des Grieux in Manon), generous helpings of Verdi (Un ballo in maschera, Luisa Miller, La traviata, Rigoletto), a taste of Wagner (Lohengrin), and delightful dashes of operetta (Die fledermaus, Das Land des Lächelns). Beczala has performed in all the major international houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, and Opéra national de Paris, to name a few. In 2014 he won the prestigious ECHO Klassik Award for Singer of the Year; in 2015, an Opera News Award; in 2019, was awarded Austria’s Kammersänger title during a run of Tosca in Vienna. In addition to French, Italian, German, and Russian repertoire, Beczala has also performed in his native Polish; he sang the pivotal role of Jontek in Stanislaw Moniuszko’s 1847 opera Halka, first at the Wiener Staatsoper late last year, and subsequently in his native Poland (at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw in February) in a production by Mariusz Trelinski. As Opera News writer Henry Stewart noted of Beczala’s performance of the aria “Straszny Dwór” (The Haunted Manor, again by Moniuszko) on his 2010 albumSlavic Opera Arias (Orfeo), “(i)n eight minutes, Beczala makes a case not only for rescuing this epic aria, or even the whole opera, but for paying more attention to Polish music in general.” Beczala just did this on his recent album of songs by Mieczyslaw Karlowicz and Stanislaw Moniuszko with pianist Helmut Deutsch, Pieśni (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina) a beautiful collection of 26 short pieces recorded in Warsaw in 2018.
Photo: Johannes Ifkovits
Such wide variety feels natural for someone who has taken a slow, steady, and altogether smart approach to repertoire expansion. As he told Presto Classical’s Katherine Cooper earlier this year, “(m)y earlier career was much more about Mozart than Donizetti, Bellini or Rossini, but this kind of balance between bel canto singing and developing into the dramatic repertoire is so crucial. You have to guard against any signs of stress or loss of flexibility in your voice, because Wagner and verismo in particular can be very dangerous if you start singing too much of it too soon.” This deliberate pacing has paid off handsomely, and the time is nigh for a project showcasing such artistic intelligence. Vincerò! (Pentatone), released in May, features Beczala performing with conductor Marco Boemi and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia. Called “a winner of an album” by Gramophone at its release. Beczala’s vocal flexibility, silvery tones, exquisite dramatic timing, and textured line readings on full display through lush arias taken from his current repertoire (Tosca, Gianni Schicchi, Adriana Lecouvreur) and likely future one(s); there are tasty verismo sounds (Mascagni, Leoncavallo) and a lot of Puccini, including the aforementioned Cavaradossi and Rinuccio respectively, here luminously joined by “Orgia, Chimera Dall’occhio Vitreo“ from the composer’s first opera, Edgar, along with selections from Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, La fanciulla del West. The album closes with (as the title references) the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. Throughout the selections, Beczala never resorts to crooning, blasting, or forced dramatics; he truly sings the music in a way that elucidates the meaning of the text without losing the poetry of the sound in either linguistic or sonic senses. This is a singer who listens to every single thing going on around him, and here he’s beautifully supported – complemented – by Boemi and orchestra. Beczala’s reading of the famous tenor aria from Turandot, for instance, highlights his smart musical instincts; it’s passion and precision come together in a knowing show of tonal texture and control. In a word: marvelous.
Indeed, as much as Vincerò! is a riveting display of Beczala’s meticulous musical approach and watchful brand of vocalism, it is also, as I noted, something of a preview of future roles: Calaf, for instance, is on Beczala’s future performance schedule. The tenor and I spoke back in July, just prior to his appearance at the opening night of the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál on Margaret Island (Margitsziget)’s outdoor stage. So much was still uncertain in the music world, and little has changed since then, but what with the Salzburg Festival presentation this year (albeit in altered form) and the resumption of concerts across much of continental Europe, with all the requisite safety measures in place, it’s safe to say there is some form of cultural-musical life trickling into being after a long and sometimes painful absence. Beczala performed in Salzburg recently, in a presentation of Mahler’s Das Lied von Erde with mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner and the ORF Radio Symphonieorchester Wien under the baton of Kent Nagano; the presentation will be broadcast on radio station Ö1 on August 20th at 7.30pm CET. That very evening (August 20th) sees Beczala perform live at the Grafenegg Festival, in a concert featuring the music of Mascagni, Giordano, Leoncavallo, and Puccini, together with the Tonkunstler Orchestra under the direction of conductor Sascha Goetzel; that particular appearance will be broadcast on Austrian television on August 30th. This month has, it turns out, been a happily busy one for the tenor (he began August performing at both the opening and closing evenings of a special edition of the Lech Classic Festival in Austria, before going on to Salzburg), and the autumn may well prove just as busy: in September Beczala will be giving two concerts from Spain with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and will also be giving a gala concert from the Wiener Konzerthaus, and October sees him performing in Warsaw, as the title role in Werther.
So, despite audiences being denied the opportunity to experience his Radamès (in Aida) this year at either the Festival de Peralada in Spain or at The Met respectively, there is plenty to look forward to, and for now, Beczala, together with wife Kasia, are riding out the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic as positively as possible: by baking, studying, and, rather happily as it turns out, singing for live audiences.
Faust at the Salzburg Festival. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Your baking posts on instagram remind me of things my own relatives make. It’s interesting how many artists in the opera world enjoy being in the kitchen.
Well, we spend so much time between performances doing nothing. You can study and practise all the time but you have to do something normal – you can play golf or sports but it’s really a good thing to spend some hours cooking, baking, trying recipes. We also do it sometimes with friends, singer friends –cooking is a good way to spend time together.
There’s also the aspect of what you make you can’t actually see and touch, whereas when you work with food it’s a directly sensual experience.
That’s absolutely right – I remember when I did Magic Flute performances, and I was always jealous of Papageno getting the chicken in the last act. The whole house smelled like barbequed chicken, and who got it? The baritone, of course.
Yes, but you tenors get to sing things like “Nessun Dorma”…
Exactly – I’m okay with that!
Throughout this pandemic time it seems like many classical artists have learned things tangible and not, things they’re bringing back to live performance as some kind of normal returns in Europe. Is this your experience too?
We still, unfortunately, are nowhere near normal at the moment – some opera houses and concert halls are starting to go back but it really doesn’t look fine for me. Singing… I have no problem to sing for ten people, but for empty or almost-empty concert halls and houses, it’s a really difficult thing. And… well, we have to survive this time. I spoke with so many colleagues of mine, and really, we have to just stay calm, not go crazy. In my case, I was two months having vacations, and we stayed here in Poland for a couple of weeks, and I was already working last week in Vienna doing a TV project, and I’m going to Zurich. You know, some concerts that were cancelled are now back on schedule, but it’s still far away from normality. And that’s my problem, we don’t know what will happen in the fall, we don’t know… I know actually I will go do an opera in November, but until then there will may be concerts and performances but … the situation is very dynamic. It changes every day and every week.
Photo: Julia Wesely
That’s hard to adjust to especially when you have things lined up for years in advance.
My schedule is full until 2024-2025, and this is now only … It’s fantastic to have wonderful productions in your schedule, but there’s the old wisdom, and it always rings true, that your schedule is right when you’ve actually done all the performances, not when you put it on the paper. Now I see this situation, and well, who knows what will happen? Everybody asks me, but I’m a singer! I am really extremely happy that summer concerts are back along with a few activities, but it’s really very far from normal.
Part of your own “normal” is performing operetta; I spoke to Barrie Kosky years ago about staging it, and I’m curious as a singer what operetta brings you creatively.
When I started 28 years ago I’d already sung operetta, in the house in Linz and later in Zurich and Vienna. Operetta was always present in the program – not many, but the big hits like Merry Widow and Fledermaus and I always enjoyed it a lot. I love all these tenors of the past, from the 1950s-60s-70s or before, and operetta was really a big part of their repertoire – Fritz Wunderlich and Nikolai Gedda and many very fantastic tenors. It’s just part of my repertoire. I did a concert with Thielemann on New Year’s Eve in Dresden and I recorded a tribute to Tauber for Deutsche Grammophon (in 2013) – you know, it’s always a good thing for a tenor to have this part of his repertoire in the voice, because it’s a very good combination of some nice vocal lines, some elegance in singing, some distance to yourself, because operetta you can’t take really seriously. It’s serious music, but you have to blink a little with one eye when you do this music.
It does require a lot of vocal flexibility…
That’s what I mean, it’s not one style. You sing Puccini or Verdi or Wagner, it’s something very stable, everything moving in one direction; operetta is more of a pretty, nice, younger sister of opera. Of course there are exceptions, like The Land of Smiles (Das Land des Lächelns), which I did in Zurich a couple years ago; it’s really a tragic story like opera, but basically it’s about love, not going very deep into the sensibility of the people on the stage. It’s entertainment but entertainment on a very high level, and on a high level vocally as well.
So you can do operetta and verismo and Lohengrin – that flexibility feels rather rare in this age of the specialist, don’t you think?
It’s a good question. Really, I’m doing this because I like it; I know exactly the differences between verismo, Verdi, French opera, Wagner, and operetta – the funny thing is, operetta is not very far from Wagner…
Of course! But these aren’t my words Thielemann convinced me to sing Lohengrin, and he said that after a couple of concerts we did in Dresden, he said, well, I have to think about Lohengrin as really not being very far from Lehár’s The Land of Smiles – of course the language is the same. More or less, it’s the same time of composition, the end of the 19th century, and well… when you take both seriously, you can say, it’s not very far away, but all these styles are pretty different. I also sing Slavic music, and it’s also a part of my repertoire, but it depends very much on the language. Last year I did Halka in Vienna.
I have friends who saw you in that – it’s quite special to stage a Polish opera.
Yes, it was a rare opportunity to sing in my own language, and in an opera at that, because my operatic language is French or Italian or German. It’s a good combination, but the key is to see the differences and to try and not sing everything in the same way. It’s like cooking: when you do everything in the same way, everything tastes the same. You can’t recognize whether it’s meat or fish or dessert.
I saw you live in Salzburg in Faust and noted how careful your sensitivity was to not only the words but the way they relate to the score– and that sensitivity was just as palpable in your album with Helmut Deutsch of Polish songs.
Recording that album was a fantastic experience – Helmut and I have a lot of plans for the future. It’s a very funny story. We met through my former vocal coach, in-person in Vienna, and then I got the idea to ask him for some concerts. It was such a positive development. Helmut of course is one of the best interpreters of Schumann and Schubert – the big German repertoire – but in his soul and his heart, he is very Slavic. When we started work on the Karlowicz/Moniuszko album, he loved it. For me it was so important to have so many good people around me, people who I can work with, even for something that is not very popular. Nobody did Karlowicz songs before – well, maybe there was something in Poland, but in the international arena, it’s’ not really normal – but now everybody knows. I’m really happy about that.
I only got to know Halka when you were in it – increasing awareness of composers who aren’t part of the mainstream opera rep seems more important than ever.
That was the idea, to bring Halka to the international opera world. In Vienna the Theatre an Der Wien is a very important house, and it was a perfect place for staging Halka. Of course it’s hard to present the world with a new opera, an unknown opera – but with this work, the music is so beautiful, and it was a nice production. It’s good people realize there’s something like this in Poland and they say, “Okay, we welcome Halka into the world” – that was the idea. And now, I’ll be happy and extremely satisfied when it becomes part of the normal repertoire in some houses; that would be a dream.
Like at the Met?
Maybe, yes, of course! I know the difficulty to produce projects like that. I spoke with Peter Gelb about it – he has to sell tickets, that’s the thing. We get sold out in Theatre An Der Wien, but five performances there equals one performance at The Met. This is the big problem. There’s a risk also for many titles that aren’t popular, but the risk could be good in the case of Halka. Let’s see.
So it’s a chicken-or-egg sort of situation…
Yes, it is. We did it once in Vienna, and again in Warsaw, and it was twice on Austrian TV, and it’s being released now on DVD. In a couple months, someone interested can say, “Okay, time for something new!” and listen to this and watch it, and then there’s some impulse to make things happen.
Speaking of impulse to make things happen, your Vincero! album seems to have that quality; I kept wondering as I listened when the world might hear your Calaf.
It was the idea behind this album, to show all these arias, the most popular being “Nessun Dorma”. When I prepared myself and all this repertoire for the recording, I discovered a lot of fine music moments, different colors, and realized there are many sensitive and beautifully soft moments in Turandot. Of course the tenor has to sing with a sound of verismo, it’s like oil painting: when you are making it, you don’t have to take a big brush and do the big strokes, you need the possibility to make many small details – and this way to sing verismo is very important. I’d sung only two or three of those roles (on the album) on stage – Cavaradossi and Lecouvreur and Rinuccio, and that was twenty-five years ago – but the rest is for me questions for the future. And you mention Calaf… yes, I will do it. Most of these roles are in my plans for the future.
I kept hearing Parsifal also.
Thank you very much…. yes, Parsifal is in the schedule too! It’s a very special role; it’s not high, it’s not long, it’s not a lot to sing, but it’s very deep in terms of the meaning. The difficulty is, going through five hours of music, maybe (the opera) should be called Gurnemanz! I think in the next seven or eight years I will develop in the Italian repertoire, as well as Wagner. I really like singing Lohengrin, and Parsifal is the next logical step, and then maybe Meistersinger. I’m curious about what happens with repeating a role in different productions.
For example, Faust, for me it’s such an interesting story, with such a rich background and emotional world. I like to repeat every year or every two years a new production with this music, just to see how my voice is changing, which parts of the character I can discover again. I never get bored singing. Someone asked me a couple years ago about Rigoletto. If I’m not tired of singing it – I had sung maybe 100 performances in my life – I said, well, compared to all my wonderful colleagues like Leo Nucci or Anna Moffo, it’s nothing; Leo sang Rigoletto over 500, and it’s still fresh and not boring, Anna Moffo sang something like 800 Traviatas in her life. To keep the freshness also, not only vocally but in your head, your attitude and sense of discovery with the role, is very important in the business.
To keep it interesting for yourself as an artist?
Absolutely. You can’t be famous for fifty roles – you can’t go in history for fifty roles. You can go into history for at least maybe five or six roles; that’s the brutal truth. What I like is to discover, again and again, the same subject and to change it for different audiences – in America, Vienna, Barcelona, Paris, because this kind of working with people, with the public, is also a big part of discovering and searching for new impulses in the music
… which is precisely what you’re missing now, that interaction with a live public.
That’s so true! That’s been the most difficult part of this lockdown. We are in contact a little bit, but nothing can replace real contact with the public; that’s something absolutely special.
Your real contact will come with opening the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál soon…
Yes, this open-air concert that had been cancelled got brought back. It’s fantastic because it’s presented as open-air on Margaret Island. I was in Budapest a couple of times but never there in that spot, but I know the the people well, the orchestra and the soprano (Andrea Rost) I’ll be singing with.
How challenging will it be to return to a live audience?
It’s like driving a bicycle: you never really forget it. When I did my last day’s recording in Vienna there was no public there of course, but there were a lot of people around, the producers and others. There are always people around in this industry, and you have to find somebody, focus on them, and sing for that one person. In the worst case, my wife is sitting twenty meters away, and I can sing to her!
With wife Kasia at the 2015 Opera News Awards.
You two seem like a very strong team.
We are a team, and for many years we’ve travelled together, studied together, and she knows my voice better than anyone. She is at most of my performances. Us singers need ears which are outside – we can’t really hear ourselves, and it’s so important when you have a person you can trust, to get some feedback. That’s really, really important.
As a benefit, she gets to eat your lovely cakes.
She gets the ideas for the cakes; I make them; she decorates them, and then we invite people and they have to eat it. That’s the plan, always. It’s a good arrangement. My proportions for the cake are always big, and since we are only two we can’t eat it all, so we always invite people. Normally we’d take it to the house for colleagues. It’s always a good collaboration.
That nicely underlines the significance community has gained throughout the lockdown.
Yes, precisely, we are close in our space and apartments, it’s like discovering a whole new situation. I was rather happy here in Poland when nothing happened and we couldn’t travel… actually it was a good thing. I hadn’t taken a vacation in fifteen or twenty years. When people say “I’m taking a vacation” in our industry, it’s usually only two weeks – not studying, not practising, switching off all your activities, and focusing on doing nothing. That’s what we tried to do here. But moving on, I mean, in Salzburg 50% of the programme will happen, including my concert. For a long time we didn’t know what would happen, but it was very good news when I learned it will. It’s a very important year with the anniversary, and it would be a pity to cancel it. I’ve been singing there since 1997, it’s a long-time collaboration, and I was happy to have the possibility to sing there during the anniversary year. People have struggled with the situation but we hope people will be fine. We have to just react to the situation and adjust with whatever happens.
What do you do when all the energy you’ve put into careful planning over many years is suddenly threatened? Barrie Kosky decided to wipe the board clean and start again. The new autumn programme at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic means, for the busy Intendant, a tangle of what he calls “scheduling nightmares” but also opens the door to new possibilities, for artists and audiences alike. It’s a purposeful step into the unknown, something the self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” is well used to doing after three-plus decades of working in theatre.
As head of the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, Kosky (who has been called “Europe’s hottest director“) has made it a mission to regularly stage early 20th century operettas, Baroque opera, musicals, Mozart, and 20th century works. The pervasive idea of opera being an art form designated entirely for certain classes is one that niggles Kosky; he told The Telegraph in 2019 that “it fits a cultural agenda to say it’s elitist, but it is bullshit.” The idea that a work of art is challenging, entertaining, and enlightening at once is, in Kosky’s world, good, and entirely normal; just how much the bulbs for any or all of the elements in this trinity are dimmed or brightened depends, of course, on the material, but just as equally, the context. Berlin’s history, and indeed, that of Germany, have been constant sources of inspiration and exploration, and have often provided a meaty subtext to Kosky’s stagings, notably in his 2017 Fiddler on the Roof, here called Anatevka, with its unmissable, and purposefully uncomfortable, recalling both distant and recent pasts. His 2015 staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron featured imagery which disturbingly recalled the Holocaust. This bold combination of vision, politics, and thoughtful imagination (and in many cases, reimagination) is what has largely fuelled the incredible success KOB has enjoyed over the course of Kosky’s tenure, which is set to end in 2022. Before then, the company’s re-envisioned autumn program is a concentrated symbol of all Kosky has, and hopes to still, accomplish, both within and outside of Berlin proper. The new slate of programming is ambitious: there will be minimalist stagings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe The Countess of Gerolstein, Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, Schumann’s Mondnacht, and the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii by Paul Abraham; concert performances of works by Schubert (the song cycle Winterreise will be performed by ensemble baritone Günter Papendell) and Kurt Weill (with singer/actor Katherine Mehrling); a three-concert series devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky (led by Music Director Ainārs Rubiķis); a series of salon talks combining science, creativity, and social issues; dance presentations (including choreographer Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY by Staatsballett Berlin); and a video project by Gob Squad (a British-German collective specializing in video/performance collaborations) which will use Berlin as a backdrop tot explore perceptions around the comfortably familiar.
That sense of comfort is not, as a concept, something Kosky has ever spent time or energy presenting or encouraging. In a conversation with James Clutton (Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera) earlier this year, he compared the overall position of KOB to Berlin’s other two opera houses, noting that “Deutsche Oper is Moby Dick, Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) is Jaws, and… we’re Flipper.” It’s Kosky’s smart, sassy, singular way of illustrating the vivid approach of the house and its sparky Intendant to the material they program and the artists (both ensemble and guests) they engage. The longtime director’s style – if he could be said to have one – busily combines color, movement, and drama in a vivid theatrical aesthetic, colorfully aided by the work of longtime collaborators, including choreographer Otto Pichler, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, costume designer Klaus Bruns, set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, and designer Katrin Lea Tag. Embracing strong imagery and dramatically rich theatricality, Kosky is unafraid of upsetting the apple cart of operatic expectation; in fact, it’s something of a specialty of his, to purposefully turn it over, kick the wheels, collect the apples, and go off to make something considered delicious by some and unpalatable by others. Not everything he does is easily digestible, but then, it isn’t supposed to be; Kosky’s oeuvre as an artist is to question perceptions and long-held beliefs, which sounds simple enough but is no small thing in an industry constantly pressured to hew to so-called “safe” programming and presentation. While expanding the possibilities of live presentational experience, great attention is given to small details within a larger overall narrative framework. His 2017 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for instance, contextualized the very place in which it was presented – Bayreuth – in order to question notions of identity and creativity; utilizing puppetry and a backdrop of the Nürnberg trials, Kosky put the opera’s composer on trial. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian “(a)t the heart of this Meistersinger is an imaginative, subtle and serious staging of a simple question: how far does Wagner’s antisemitism invalidate his artistic achievement? In the end, Kosky proves to be a fair judge of a question that is still necessarily debated.”
Creative probing into the nature of creation, ideas of artistry, and the role(s) of context within all of them reveal pursuits at once serious (Schoenberg’s unfinished 1932 opera Moses und Aron) and gloriously silly (Oscar Straus’ frothy 1923 operetta Die Perlen von Cleopatra), with a particular penchant for combining surreal dreamscape visions with unapologetic disruptions to socio-religious (and operatic) norms. His 2016 production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Royal Opera Covent Garden famously featured a line of tap-dancing title characters, while the 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel for Bayerische Staatsoper revealed (nay, revelled in) an even more surreal, grotesque world where the personal and political intersect. The production, which was to have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera this December (cancelled because of COVID19), features a sparring, obsessive couple, and delves into the subconscious of each to reveal a parade of decadent, deprived fantasies that strip away the eroto-goth, pseudo-romance of Valery Bryusov’s breathless 1907 novel. Fierce, ferocious, and at times suitably unfathomable, the memorable production was not only notable for its comically nightmarish vignettes (one of which featured a very sarcastically-presented penis being roasted and consumed) but for the genuine interest Kosky took in the depiction of the opera’s female character, Renata, an interest which applies more broadly to the many pivotal female characters within the works he’s helmed. Paul Abraham’s 1932 operetta Ball im Savoy, staged at KOB in 2013, featured the inimitable Dagmar Manzel (a company mainstay) as Madeleine de Faublas, who clings desperately to an elegant dignity while trying to keep her marriage afloat; Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Helena (known more for its French title La belle Hélène, and staged at KOB in 2014) offered a fascinating depiction of its title character, one touching on vampy, vapid, scary, silly, and girlish. Monteverdi’s Die Krönung der Poppea (in its original Italian, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with the Komische using a richly reimagined score by composer Elena Kats-Chernin) portrayed the title character’s ruthless and naked (sometimes literally) ambitions with zealous, bloody clarity. Franz Schreker’s 1918 work Die Gezeichneten (staged in 2018 at Oper Zürich) Kosky presented Carlotta through the disturbed, damaged perceptions of the male character obsessed with her, creating a twisted parable that hinged, like much of his work (notably his Pelleas et Melisande staging in 2017), around the dialectics of male desire, female identity, power, subservience, and beauty.
Nowhere, perhaps, were these angular explorations made more clear than in Kosky’s highly divisive staging of Carmen, first presented at Oper Frankfurt and subsequently at the Royal Opera in 2018. Kosky purposely stripped away the opera’s historical visual cliches (farewell fans and flamenco!) while mocking the audience’s expectations of them. Instead of the cliched-sexy, wide-eyed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge choreography so often (almost constantly) deployed as a central part of the character – as embodied in the famous habanera – Kosky’s Carmen was a kind of toreador herself, and during the aria itself she wasn’t swaying hips but peeling off a gorilla costume – gimmicky perhaps, but a deliberate nod at Marlene Dietrich’s similar revelation in Blonde Venus, with its balance of power, desire, and subversion of expectation, and a smirking (if highly confrontational) shove at long-held, seemingly immobile notions of what constitutes “sexy” in female operatic depiction. The moment – indeed the entire production – underlined Kosky’s love-it-or-leave-it approach. 2021 will see the Australian director helm a highly-anticipated new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Bayerische Staatsoper together with his regular team, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, with whom he has previously worked several times, including, most recently, at Komische Oper Berlin last autumn, for a visceral staging of Henze’s 1965 work The Bassarids. There is no small amount of anticipation for next year’s Rosenkavalier; it follows Otto Schenk’s widely-adored, Rococo-style production, first presented at the house in 1972. The production will also mark Jurowski’s first staging at the house since being named the company’s General Music Director Designate (formally starting in autumn 2021); soprano Marlis Petersen is set to sing the role of the Marschallin. The production is set to open in mid-March of 2021.
Before that, however, is the re-envisioned autumn season in Berlin, a brave step into what is a largely unknown world still grappling with the effects of pandemic; how much audiences will respond is anyone’s guess, though the combination of a faithful live audience, and a growing digital one (thanks to a partnership with Opera Vision) means the company will continue to grow its presence in both local and global respects. When we spoke recently, Kosky had just returned to Berlin from finalizing lighting plans for a future production at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. (“Who would say ‘no’ to a week in the South of France?” Well, especially right now… “Hello!”) This was my second conversation with Kosky, the first having been in early 2018 when we chatted about the central role of operetta in his programming. Funny, warm, blunt, and chatty, Kosky is a lively conversationalist with none of the I’m-A-Famous-Artiste characteristics that might trail from a figure of his stature. Authenticity is a theme which has emerged through the many conversations I’ve been privileged to share with various classical figures, and I can think of no better figure to embody such a quality than Kosky; he is real, earthy, wholly himself, wholly authentic, with a like-it-or-lump-it boldness that will either engage or repel. It’s not difficult to figure out which camp many opera fans sit in, myself included. Here the director shares his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of changing programming, what the pandemic hath wrought in terms of acceptance and humility, the logistics of funding, upcoming projects (including Rosenkavalier in Munich), and just how his dedication on an April episode of Hope@Home came to be.
Photo: Jan Windszus Photography
Why did you redo the schedule from September through to the end of the year?
We decided we just couldn’t mess around. Some of my colleagues are all hoping by October we’ll all be back to normal, but I think they’re living in la-la land – it’s impossible. We have a luxurious thing you don’t have in North America or Britain: the subsidized ensemble system. It enables us to be able to do things so we don’t have to spend a cent, and we don’t have to employ people – they’re all here.
I read somewhere you’d said how artists who are complaining in Germany have no idea about how bad things really are elsewhere…
Oh… yes, it’s my pet thing at the moment! It’s like, I just find that this German word, “jammern”, it’s like this, well, more than complaint, this … <whining noise>… and you know, I understand any freelance artist can do that if they’ve lost jobs. I have no problem if friends of mine, freelance friends, do it – they can complain twenty-four hours a day if they have no money. But for people within the system who are getting their full monthly payment and doing no work – like the orchestra, like the chorus, like the soloists, like the technicians – you know, shut the fuck up. Really. I don’t even want to hear about your difficulties – you have none, you’re being paid and not working. And then they say, “We miss performing!” And I say, “Go stand in front of an old folks’ home and play your violin like so many other people are doing!” When I speak to all my friends in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, they’ve just lost six months of work! Some of them fall between the funding slots so they can’t apply for financial help! So… really.
Comparatively speaking , I think many classical artists outside of Germany look in with envy because of the system being much more well- funded.
Well it is. The system is stronger, and the financial packages are bigger – Merkel announced €1 billion for the arts, but that’s on top of hundreds of millions the city gave, and on top of the billions they give to the arts anyway.
Is it true you don’t like the term “reduced” opera? That seems to be what many organizations are doing, or thinking of doing, right now.
I mean, I don’t think if something is small that it’s “reduced.” Certainly if you have a reduced Ring Cycle, like the one by Jonathan Dove, it’s a reduced orchestration, but what we’ve deliberately done is not that, even though we may be using smaller forces. Some of the best pieces of music ever written are small, and quite frankly, if we have to have a six-month pause from Mahler, well, there’s too much Mahler being played anyway – it’s lost its specialness being done so much. But more Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bach wouldn’t hurt anybody! Not everything has to be monolithic – but “reduced” is a word that implies things that I don’t want to imply. We all know what the situation is, and I feel it’s better to say, “We’re doing a version of The Countess Of Gerolstein” and not “We’re doing a reduced version” – I don’t like that word “reduced.” I’ve tried to ban it.
The needed move into these smaller versions of things highlights an intimacy within the overall experience which audiences may have been craving – this idea that opera and classical must always be so grand and monolithic, as you say, is being dismantled.
Indeed. Let me give you an example. We started rehearsals recently for a planned production of Pierrot Lunaire with Dagmar Manzel; she’s been wanting to do this for the last twenty years. We paired it with those two fabulous Beckett monologues, Not I and Rockaby. This was planned two years ago, but the idea we begin a season with that talking mouth, I mean… it couldn’t be better, that you actually begin the first season after the whole corona thing with not music but Beckett’s (style of) music and this insane talking mouth! And just to be in the room and to work on that Pierrot Lunaire score – it’s an important work written in Berlin in 1912, just before Schoenberg started to meddle in 12-tone music – but you forget what an astonishing piece of music it is. Stravinsky said Pierrot Lunaire was like the solar plexus of 20th-century music. You hear so much in these tiny twenty-one poems – they’re not even sung, there are about ten notes the speaker has to sing, but with five instruments. And it’s just as extraordinary as Tristan und Isolde, it’s just as extraordinary as Wozzeck, and it’s just as extraordinary as the chromatic worlds of Mahler 6 and 7, so you suddenly think, well, maybe forget the epic, forget the grand, forget the huge statement – there’s plenty of repertoire to use.
But I do tend to feel a bit wary of giving large philosophical or existential answers about what is art, what is culture, what is opera, what will it be, what should it be, when we’re still in the middle of a health crisis. We can have this discussion maybe next year when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because that’s going to hit. I feel my job now is to try and discover what wonderful pieces of music theatre we can perform with the resources we have available and within the constraints which are in place. It’s very pragmatic; I think the existential things can come later.
Speaking of pragmatism, KOB has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Opera Vision; the broadcasts have had a central role in shaping ideas relating to culture within the digital realm. Those working in music and theatre have said numerous times over the past four months that video can never replace the real thing, that the live experience is entirely singular and of course that’s true – but digital isn’t supposed to replace anything; it’s ancillary, complementary, an add-on, and it’s also very helpful for those who can’t make it to the actual location. You have a digital component to this new fall season, which implies an embrace of technology as part and parcel of this new way to experience culture in the so-called “new normal.” Why?
I’ve always said technology isn’t here to replace the live experience; it’s to operate through it in some way. It is a great marketing tool – we hardly print anything anymore – and it’s also a way, as you said, to share. Not everyone, outside of a few German opera critics, can jump on an airplane and come see work all the time, so what’s the choice, you can’t see this show because we don’t want to present it digitally, or we give you the opportunity to see it and… ? I think after the crisis finishes there’s a big discussion to be had about rights and royalties; people should be paid something, the time of all free-free-free should be over. I’m also not sure in future we’d have everything free online; we’d have to look at that. So I think if we do charge for viewings, the money would go toward the artists’ royalties in some way. I think it’s very important. But yes, when it comes to digital, people jump to the polarized position: when opera has a livestream, it’s “oh this is the end of the magic of opera!” and you go, “No.” I don’t make the jump from ‘making it accessible and available in another form’ to ‘it’s the end of opera’ – I don’t make that jump.
I do feel differently with the cinema stuff; I think there’s a big difference. You can sit at home and watch Moses und Aron in your house, which I like the idea of, but I’m not so wild about you going to your local cinema and buying a ticket to see that work live on the big screen. For some reason I think that competes then, it takes away from your local house, and makes it into a cinematic experience…
… which it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
Right. But I like the idea of streaming things at home – that sort of accessibility I like a lot. Digital is there as another way of exploring how we can make interesting work available to more people. We did Moses und Aron for only six performances, so only 7000 people saw it live – we sold out the run – but now already 15,000 or even more have seen it in the last few weeks. So more people saw it digitally than they did originally. I’m not going to complain about that.
Robert Hayward as Moses in Moses und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The style of filming was very specific to online streaming; it wasn’t trying to be cinematic but did provide a different perspective than if one had been sitting in the back row on the top tier of the house.
Every theatre experience is different if you watch it live or filmed, and we were very lucky when we decided during my time at KOB that we would do livestreams and we would record them. I think the other big house that has a library for livestreams is Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper), in terms of being able to just release productions during the last few months, but my job is to try and entice people to Berlin eventually, so if thousands of people have seen these productions in the last few months, maybe some are thinking, “Oooh I want to go to Berlin, what are they doing right now?” It’s all connected.
I shared the link for Die Perlen der Cleopatra to a friend who is writing a musical and although he doesn’t know the KOB’s work he loved it and was curious to see more.
That’s great! I think for non-Germans, in terms of seeing operetta or musicals done on that scale, you just don’t see it anywhere else quite like that.
We’ve spoken about operetta in the past, and it’s nice to see it as part of your autumn programming.
We do need laughter right now. What I’ve found amazing the last few months is, at the beginning, when the shock of the lockdown was dissipating – we had our lockdown so early – various things came online and people started to play, and it was terribly lamento, this self-indulgent thing of “it’s the end! I’m playing the saddest most depressing music I could imagine to share with you across the world!” And I’m thinking, you know, it’s not a requiem we’re dealing with. I think we can still assume, when we weren’t playing, and then when we do play, we want to present a spectrum of music theatre experiences, so to balance the Schoenberg and Iphigenie, (KOB) had to do an operetta with the ensemble, because by the time we get to October we’ll have to have some laughs along the line. That’s not to make any light of any situation or of the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but we’re going to have to not just sit here and think it’s the end. Because it isn’t the end.
It’s felt that way for many – there’s been a lot of despair because of the pandemic situation.
Yes but I think we’re also got to realize it’s all about perspective. The Western idea of despair is not on the scale of despair on other continents. Historical despair… you know, a lot of the sort of, German cultural scene at the moment is railing against the idea of wearing masks and think it’s hysterics and whatever, the whole discussion is about, “are my freedoms and rights being taken away by being told to wear a mask in shops and on public transport” and I think, if your definition of the loss of freedom and rights is about wearing a mask to maybe not infect someone else in society, then you need to go and live in a country when freedom and rights are really under threat. That to me is another issue of this whole thing.
I said to my house as part of an internal video that I think it’s very important we have a perspective about this, and that it’s very easy to sink into a negativity – you can sink into a frustration, but as I said at the beginning, you know, outside the Western European cultural system, it’s terrible – orchestras, dance companies, institutions that have been developing for decades are under existential threat, and I think sometimes it’s better if you’re lucky to either help people or to shut the fuck up.
… or whinge on the internet?
The internet is the great whinge forum of all time! I don’t mind people being frustrated, I can understand it, and also understand I speak from a privileged position, and I’m very careful about that. I think crises always bring out the best and worst of people. It’s interesting to run a house when you’re successful, it’s also interesting to see how stable the ship is if you’re in a storm. That’s also interesting.
You’re hoping to leave something of a stable ship at KOB in the near future, then?
I leave in two years, but I sort of don’t leave, because I’m still staying on to do my work and as an advisor. I’ll be looking after the whole renovation project for two years, my team I’ve been working with are taking over the house so there’s continuity there but it’s a chapter finishing, and the last thing I want to do is hand over an institution that isn’t strong and creative.
I feel like this whole lockdown experience has been such an exercise in humility for many.
It still is, and everyone’s in the same boat. Salzburg, it’ll be interesting this summer to see what happens there in the laboratory of Salzburg, but that’s also not quite the reality, because Salzburg is a summer festival. At the Felsenreitschule where they’re presenting Elektra, there is no pit, it’s a huge, open area, so they don’t have to deal with musicians and big orchestras in pits and big choruses and hundreds of people backstage – they don’t have to deal with any of this. So I’m skeptical of it being used as a template of how the future will be. I wish them well, but it has nothing to do with what we’re doing or the challenges we face.
… or the audiences you have.
The average age in Salzburg is 345; we are considerably younger than that.
Photo: Jan Windszus Photography
And your Der Rosenkavalier is still in the books next year in Munich.
We won’t be changing it. If we have to do social distancing, it’ll be postponed. I can’t do with it what I’m doing with Boris Godounov in Zürich – the chorus and the orchestra will be beamed into the opera house live, and the singers and extras will be doing a strange, dreamlike production live, but I can do that with Boris Godounov because it’s fragmented anyway, it’s about history and how we remember history, so conceptually, fine – that’s not how I conceived it, but it’s fine.
But with Rosenkavalier, no! The opera itself is impossible to do with any form of social distancing, and it’s impossible to play in a smaller orchestral ensemble. They’re building the sets so it’s not as if it won’t happen. But as I said, I refuse to get into a situation where it’s, “Oh no my precious Rosenkavalier, it simply must be done!” – yes, I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen in February-March, well, they’ll have to do it at some time; they’ve invested so much in costumes and sets already. I really want to do it next year, but it’s impossible to know what’ll happen, and they know that. Some of these productions we’re planning are impossible to do with restrictions, but I’m not even thinking about next year. January the 1st is not on my radar.
So it’s an exercise in non-attachment then?
It is. And the good thing about Rosenkavalier is that the work had all been done before corona – we’ve been working for three years on it, three-and-half years in fact. And it was all sort of finished in terms of the large concept – that was finished, but now it’s how it’s to be done, working it out in rehearsals, as you know. So it’s Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, and it’s Kosky’s Rosenkavalier, and in Munich: throw everything and the kitchen sink into it! And yes, there’ll be a lot of surprises in that one.
But first some surprises in the autumn in Berlin…
I think what’s happened in the German-speaking world is there are two thoughts: one thought is to bury your head in the sand and say, “It’ll all be fine and we’ll deal with it after summer; just wait and see” and… I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Some of the larger houses are doing that. But the other thought is to ask: how far ahead do we want to imagine this will have an impact on us? The Met cancelled my Fiery Angel I was meant to come for a month to New York to do – which I am sad about. I was going to go to Tel Aviv to do Magic Flute also, and it got cancelled.
So when the lockdown first happened, I thought, “I’m in Berlin, and that’s good; it’s good to be with my house” and I said, “I think we have to just scrap everything.” So we postponed the three premiers that were to happen this season: Katya Kabanova, the children’s opera Tom Sawyer, and (Rise and Fall of the City of) Mahagonny, which are going into 2021-22. We cancelled four revivals as well. For me it’s more interesting not to adapt or reduce – that terrible word – existing repertoire, but to start from scratch, to invent things, do new things, all with social distancing. The biggest thing is smaller audiences –okay, that’s one thing, but the social distancing with an orchestra and ensemble, that’s the tricky thing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do; do I want to do this in a year’s time? Or for a few months’ time next season? I’ll have to do it.” And the only way we can do this and have the luxury to do it, is because I have 105 orchestra musicians, 60 chorus members, and 24 singers, all on salary. And I said “okay, we won’t have any sets; we’ll have a bare stage but we’ll invest in lights and costumes” and I’ll be in the rehearsal room with my company creating things. The alternative is to say, “We can’t possibly present anything” and that’s not an option if you’re being paid millions and millions of Euros in taxpayer money. It’s not an option.
It’s a sharp contrast to the North American system.
It costs money, that’s the thing. We have a 90% subsidized system here and we also have ensembles, which don’t exist in North America, They can’t do anything. And they actually save money by not investing money – of course they could put on this and that but it’ll cost money, and as you know, it’s all box office, box office, box office, so it doesn’t make sense to have a few hundred people in the theatre…
Right, it still costs. I know from discussions with my colleagues in North America, yes, as you said before, they look over here with extreme jealousy. We know where the biggest costs in opera go – they go to salaries of orchestra, chorus, and singers; it’s a very different discussion being had in North America and Britain, and as I said, within the subsidized system we are even more lucky because we are a repertoire-based ensemble house; we are not having to pay a lot of guest singers.
When I spoke with (KOB Kapellmeister) Jordan de Souza near the start of the lockdown (for Opera Canada’s summer 2020 edition) he explained how rescheduling singers and guests is a tremendous jigsaw because cancellations mean constant changes.
It’s not a jigsaw; it’s a domino set, and it’s always falling! Jordan is absolutely right though, you deal with cancellations and the new plan, and then of course the longer it goes on the more problems it creates because someone is suddenly not available, they’re meant to be here, or they’ve been postponed, or “oh that’s still happening, we’re changing the version, are you free then?” It’s been a nightmare of coordination. A nightmare! And that’s why I did what I did: by sweeping everything off and concentrating on one thing, it instantly creates a new situation.
The difficulties are with next year; the more there are postponements and cancellations, the more it gets really complicated. In Berlin we decided to keep the workshops open; they’re building all the sets for all the new productions as per normal because if we don’t do that we get into a situation where you can’t just switch on a machine and build a set in two weeks. Secondly, there’s a few hundred people not working and they need to, as a purely psychological exercise in saying, “These sets have to be built.”
So you don’t really have a proper summer…
I’m rehearsing Pierrot, but I do have two weeks’ holiday in Greece. In quarantine I had seven weeks off, which is the longest I’ve had off in thirty years.
It was nice to see you accompanying various KOB ensemble members on the piano over the course of the lockdown.
That was an easy thing to do, they’re great people. It started with Katherine Mehrling doing the Kurt Weill songs, there was something like 15,000 people who saw it. We saw that number and went, “oh! Let’s do it every two weeks then, and feature people associated with the house!” I didn’t want it to be… I mean, you look at other houses, and their livestream musical presentations with no audience are treated like a funeral. That’s why we called ours celebrations, like, “here’s a little taste of something and we hope you enjoy it” – I wasn’t making any great statement about the times we live in, I just wanted to show people we’re still there and we’re thinking of them. They were fantastically successful, but after five we said “that’s enough, we have to get back to working” but also, I play the piano very rarely in public, and so I get such enjoyment out of doing it, particularly when accompanying. I’m not interested in playing solo, I just like playing with great people. I feel happy and secure when they’re in front and I’m playing away behind them – but also it’s a middle finger, to show people around the world who assume directors aren’t musical or that directors don’t know or care about music. All of that is nonsense. Sometimes it’s good to remind people of that.
You read the work of Joseph Roth as part of an early episode in Daniel Hope’s ARTE series at the start of the lockdown; that reading began with your dedication to people who were enduring the lockdown alone. I must confess when I heard you say that, I stood in my kitchen and wept with gratitude – it was very special to feel seen during that time.
I have a number of friends who are between partners, or don’t have partners or families or whatever, and were doing it alone, particularly the first part of it, and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, a few days and nights fine, but for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s quite tough” – especially in some countries that had very severe lockdowns. So I really felt for a number of my friends. And I thought about the time when I didn’t have a partner or whatever, and I have a dog too, which helps – the dog has to get out and have a pee – but I thought about those who were alone, I mean… oh, that’s quite hard. We all love being alone at various times; I love being alone in my apartment or walking my dog, but weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of it… my God.
So it just came to me, I mean, I so love Joseph Roth, and I love everything about his writing and everything about him; he was this sort of solitary journeyman going on trains through Europe and staying in hotels. Actually a few minutes before we went on, I said to Daniel, “Can I say something?: and he said, “Whatever you like!” He was playing something beautiful and melancholic just before, so it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m glad I did it.