Sound in and of itself is neither good or bad; it simply is. But more than ever, sound, and the way it is delivered and experienced, is tied up in commerce. The various sources of revenue and concomitant connections to money within the classical world often provides silent framing of a vast and under-discussed reality. Recently The Metropolitan Opera announced they would be performing 10% fewer works next season, drawing on their endowment, and focusing on new works for next season. This year’s new works – Kevin Puts’ The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – drew near-capacity audiences, while old chestnuts (like the Italian version of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos) barely filled the immense auditorium by half. Similar challenges with audiences in post-pandemic life resound internationally, and organizations need to rethink their over-reliance on both starry names and ossified presentational styles. The challenges are less related to “rubbing people’s noses” in current issues (as a famous tenor recently mused) than to organizations attenuating to ever-unfolding realities (including pandemic) within a media ecosystem ever more reliant on the machinery of hype and ad tech which polarizes audience experience (/ inexperience) and expectation, often screwing in unconsciously-held cliches around opera in the process in a breathless bid to please sponsors and conservative board members. Whither sound? Does it matter when there are no camels in Aida?
Exposure, education, and cultural curiosity have everything to do with receptivity of sounds, and in building the critical thinking structures needed for reception of their live realization. More than once this year I have written about (and linked to) the precipitous drops in educational standards, particularly across North America. If Europeans groan at hearing the word “privilege” and roll eyes at the mention of culture wars, it is worth remembering the basic cost of things across the ocean. (Various American contacts of mine living in Europe are aghast at the sheer cost of groceries in visits home for the holidays, as one immediate example.) This seems an issue worth shouting about, repeatedly, even if people want to stick fingers in ears and continue rolling eyes. The Met is not The Royal Opera Covent Garden is not Bayerische Staatsoper is not Oper Zurich is not Opera de Paris is not the COC is not ENO (alas…). Different strokes; different horses. As I discussed with Mark Williams (the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony) this autumn, one city cannot simply be grafted onto another. One culture cannot be grafted onto another. One educational system cannot be grafted onto another; one set of ideas and living experiences cannot be grafted onto another. We cannot wish x was like more y; x may be devolving back to m but it is its own m, in its own place, and this is worth remembering. Blithely accepting what various levels of government cut or mete out or hype without a peep of protest, pause, or media scrutiny does not make for a healthy arts ecosystem, or for healthy artists.
Thus do the educational systems in various locales – along with social safety nets, levels of (non-corporate) funding, culture, history, infrastructure – contribute to respective classical atmospheres and moreover to the perceptions of sounds, and their direct experience within specific environments. In classical within a North American idiom, some of those sounds are treated as a decimal in the equation of style, performance, and digital bragging rights. Marketing departments often dictate programming choices; risky sounds are placed straight in the bin unless those departments are very sure they can create an online buzz that directly translates to ticket sales – the unicorn goal of classical marketing rarely achieved with any reliable consistency. Of course sound is, at its core, represented by dots on a page, but sound is much more than dots, symbols many people can’t read, let alone hear in their heads. It matters how/where/when/within what circumstance one experiences them, or does not experience them, where and how one learns them, from whom, in what atmosphere. Absence is as importance as presence, something musicians of all genres know. Contributor Tori Wanzama experienced Bizet’s Carmen for the first time this past autumn – in a highly individualized way and certainly different to those who grew up hearing the music throughout childhood. Context is everything, and it ought not – especially now in a war that so affects cultural arenas – to be ignored in favour of romantic notions which do not contextualize (let alone acknowledge) the role of privilege in the listening/live/learning-about experience.
Sounds are, or can be, loaded; they often carry the heavy ammunition of intertwined histories – personal, professional, political, and beyond. Recently I came upon a unique performance of a German-language version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin led by Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year. Recorded at Semperoper Dresden in 1991, this Onegin demonstrates clearly, how sound is not only sound but can be much more. Yes, this is recognizably Tchaikovsky; no, it is not the recognizable Onegin, at least not for those who are solely familiar with the opera in its original language. The famous “Letter Scene”, for instance, features Czech soprano Zora Jehličková performing Tatyana’s passionate declaration in an excited if highly knowing manner – she sounds worldly, as if she is about to set Valhalla on fire. The reading of the score has transformed to reflect the vagaries of the language in which it is being sung. Use all the Teutonic-music cliches you wish (see above) – they apply to Jurowski’s reading, but they don’t quite capture the singularity of this particular sound at this particular juncture. How could they? Think about what was happening in Germany at the time, and you hear it in this reading; the swift tempi, the jaunty phrasing, the acid tone of the strings against the excitable blares of the horns, the way in which the orchestra swells around certain syllables – and how much it all contrasts with various Russian recordings. These divides in sonorities aren’t solely down to the differences between maestros (though that’s a factor) – but time, place, language, people – context.
Sound embodies so many things, if only we would listen. Semperoper is not The Met is not La Scala is not Mariinsky is not Kyiv Opera is not… we are not you; you are not me; one but not the same, and sounds are bigger than both of us, together or apart –the biggest question, the smallest decimal; the hard sell, the soft touch; sound draws in the most tiny details and simultaneously reveals a far broader picture. It is difficult to define because its experience differs so greatly between people and changes through time, privilege, history, locale, and family. This website has tried to reflect such concerns since its founding in 2017, and the past twelve months in particular have brought a reassessment of its purpose. I always resisted definitions for what this website is, or could be, though I was always quite sure of what it was not. I always wanted my work to be more than hyperbolic PR – to be a meaningful (and yes, critical) engagement with an art form I love in all its facets. I aimed to share authentic, unedited (mostly) conversations with people whose work genuinely inspires curiosity, and in so doing provide a forum for the sorts of exchanges mainstream media has neither the bucks nor the bandwidth for. I aimed to float somewhere between the heady and the populist, the intellectual and the everyday, and to firmly keep my own voice intact, as someone who floats in that netherworld herself, and probably always will. This is, at least, what I had hoped. Have I achieved these aims? Have I contributed anything of worth to conversations around classical music? Should I worry about legacy brand media, and which writers and artists love, hate, or share my work?
2022 has been a year of learning to live with and accept open questions that may never have answers, and to stop worrying about the ones that really don’t matter. This website will exist in the short term; there will be occasional feature interviews – as ever, with people and things not being given the attention or quality of time and detail, let alone the uniqueness of perspective, in mainstream media coverage. But just as practical priorities (paid writing opportunities; teaching) call, so does the living of life, remade from what it was in March 2020. Returning is different, which is just as it should be; it is not returning at all, but remaking. Just as locales cannot be grafted onto one another, neither can experiences, ideas, or notions of normal. I want to have meaningful real-life conversations that won’t be shared online, and I want to experience sounds, live, with people I call friends, and note how those sounds are different now that everything else – that magical context – is too. There are voices, and sights, and (thank goodness) sounds, and all they carry – quietly, loudly, beautifully; the readiness, to quote Hamlet, is all.
Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Lately the idea of rejuvenation intrigues. As I wrote in the introduction to a recent post detailing a newcomer’s thoughts on Bizet’s Carmen and the opera-going experience itself, ideas related to perception, exposure, cynicism, approach, and re-approach have been more active than usual. There is a certain value to seeing something so famous with new eyes (and ears), particularly given the grim realities pandemic continues to present. To make the effort to re-appreciate opera anew is to confront old questions with a new awareness. What is opera – is it only singing? Is it also scoring? Is it theatre? Is it design? Is it sitting in the dark, in silence, with strangers? Is it some alchemical combination of these things? Rediscovery demands return – and not only in a literal sense – and return demands simplicity. To return to an art form one once loved experiencing live is to take off the over-tight bustier and flesh-gouging garters, to peel off eyelashes and unpin hair, to throw dress, fan, and shoes across the room and not worry what anyone thinks; it is to see and feel opera naked, unadorned, free from pretense, bare-faced. There is a freedom in that – for voice, score and theatre, as much as for the curiosity which must fuel them all.
Indeed regular reassessments are needed, for audiences and industry – to search for and find the freedom such curiosity might grant; to embrace the responsibility which is inherent to that (and all) freedom; to constantly bring the clarity such freedom grants to an art form which can (does) often fall into the traps of obfuscation, disorder, decay, and intransigence. Thus is the work of some artists who work with and around houses all the more important; often their work is what opens the door – to freedom, return, simplicity. They aren’t so much working on the peripheries as within the very essence, keeping that sense of curiosity ever alive. I have admired the work of Monika Rittershaus for many years; her stage photography graces many a program book and web page. She has shot productions for Los Angeles Opera, Staatsoper Hamburg, Bayerische Staatsoper, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Real Madrid, and Opernhaus Zürich, to name just a few. Her work is a quietly powerful integration of dramaturgical and humanistic, revealing opera as an art form comprised of sounds, sights, and souls. Born in Wuppertal, the busy stage photographer first studied philosophy, German language and literature, and art history. Finding inspiration in the works of choreographer Pina Bausch, she went on to study photography in Dortmund, which led to commissions in Vienna, Basel, Bregenz, Hamburg and Stuttgart. Rittershaus has been a freelance theatre and concert photographer since 1992.
The scene and the unseen: Oper in Bildern – Fotografien von Monika Rittershaus (arnoldsche) is a new book filled with imagery shot between a variety of locales between 2006 and 2022. The work, edited by Iris Maria vom Hof, demonstrates a breadth of modern directorial vision, with shots of the stagings of Christof Loy, Claus Guth, Christoph Marthaler, Patrice Chéreau, Hans Neuenfels, Calixto Bieito, Silvia Costa, Romeo Castellucci, Andreas Homoki, Nadja Loschky, Mariame Clément, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Kirill Serebrennikov, and Tobias Kratzer, among many more. Stagings by Achim Freyer, whom Rittershaus names in our exchange (below) and Barrie Kosky, who writes an introduction, are also featured. The many hours spent pouring through the book’s thick pages bring memories and a feeling that perhaps operatic rejuvenation is not as far as one may think; I’ve seen some of the productions featured in this book, and these photos don’t make me nostalgic so much as clear-eyed. Kosky writes that Rittershaus “seems to sense the inner world of a moment and to know at exactly the right moment when to click her camera. There is an extraordinary intuition at work here. Perceptive, refined, and sophisticated.[…] She doesn’t document the moment. She x-rays the moment.”
How much of a prior working relationship do you have (or require) with a director in order to photograph their production?
There is an initial collaboration with each directing team. Before I go to the rehearsal, I read or listen to the piece to be photographed. For world premieres, I ask for any materials that are already accessible. I watch the first rehearsals without a camera to understand, as much as possible, how a production is ‘built’ and what the specific concern of the team might be with this work. If I can work with a team more often, understanding becomes greater and mutual trust stronger. So an intensive working relationship is very nice for me in any case, even if it doesn’t basically result in a shorthand language, because I engage with each production anew. Barrie Kosky in particular is constantly inventing new languages for his productions. With him, there is a kind of intuitive and playful agreement for me.
How easy (or challenging) is it to integrate your own artistry with that which is being presented visually and sonically?
When I photograph a production, I try to translate the artistic template into my images as sensitively and accurately as possible. If successful, it does not remain an objective image. My desire is to show the sensitive structure on stage, in its complexity, to capture a moment that, in the best moments, flashes something that escapes the eye. What I mean by “sensitive structure” is this: in an opera performance, very many processes and aspects intertwine and depend on each other. Singers, conductor, orchestra, stage, stage management, props, lighting, costumes, transformations… everything should ‘breathe’ with each other; then a special magic is created, which is very sensitive, and fleeting, because it is in constant movement.
Eric Cutler as Peter Grimes in a scene from Theater an der Wien’s staging of Britten’s opera, by director Christoph Loy, 2021. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
What is the role of the voice in your work? Is there one?
The voice in the literal sense, does not really play a role in my work. I listen very carefully to every voice on stage and am touched by what singing people can tell through their voices. However, I tend not to try to show the physical act of singing.
How has your idea of visual expression changed through all the operas you have photographed?
There are productions that reach me particularly deeply and teams that expand my perspective and visual approach through their work – this doesn’t necessarily have to do with a specific work, although there have been incisive experiences in this regard as well.
I began my path in opera with Achim Freyer. He is a strongly image-based artist from whom I have learned a great deal and may still learn. He has been very supportive of my particular preference for compositions of people in space and the amplification of content that comes with it.
Bo Skovhus (L), Vera-Lotte Boecker (R). A scene from Bayerische Staatsoper’s Bluthaus, by Georg Friedrich Haas, staging by Claus Guth; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Which productions have been noteworthy for you?
A work by Romeo Castellucci this year at the festival in Aix en Provence, Résurrection by Gustav Mahler, particularly struck me and once again stimulated me to think anew about what photography in the theatre is, and can be, for me. Described in very brief terms, Romeo Castellucci had an artificial mass grave dug at the Stadium de Vitrolles to Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony. For me, this ‘theatrical installation’ was of incredible power and utmost relevance in our time. My question was: how can I bear to see this process and how can I translate it pictorially? It was extremely important for me to exchange ideas about this with Romeo Castellucci and his dramaturg Piersandra Di Matteo, and to look for a way to photograph.
The work on Bluthaus at the Bavarian State Opera with Claus Guth and his team, and the conversations with the wonderful leading actress Vera-Lotte Böcker, were significant for me also, because the crass subject matter of the piece was illuminated very sensitively, in all its facets. It is very nice to experience that a singer feels at ease in the awareness of my view of her during intensive rehearsals.
(ed. – The opera, by Georg Friedrich Haas, details the trauma of sexual abuse within one family; it was staged as part of Bayerische Staatsoper’s inaugural “Ja, Mai” festival in May 2022.)
And: I would like to emphasize the continuous work at the Salzburg Festival – this year with three of “my” most important directors, Christof Loy (who staged Puccini’s Il Trittico), Barrie Kosky (Janáček’s Katja Kabanova) and Romeo Castellucci (a double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle by Bela Bartók and De temporum fine comoedia (Play on the End of Time) by Carl Orff) – and three very strong singers: Asmik Grigorian (Trittico), Corinne Winters (Kabanova) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bluebeard/De Temporum).
Right now I’m having a very intense time with the Ring des Nibelungen with Dmitri Tcherniakov in Berlin. The four large pieces, in a very short time, were extremely challenging for all involved. Almost at the same time I photographed Die Walküre in Zürich, directed by Andreas Homoki. Photographing the same work in two completely different interpretations was a great pleasure for me.
Christopher Maltman (c) as Oedipe in a scene from the Salzburg Festival staging of Enescu opera, by director Achim Freyer, 2019. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche).
How did you choose the images in the book?
The scene and the unseen shows a selection of my favourite images of the productions most important to me. The sequence is purely pictorial, with the directors’ productions following one another because they are related in content and aesthetics. My desire was to celebrate the art form of opera.
As a stage photographer, my job is to translate the fleeting and complex three-dimensionality of a performance into a two-dimensional image. A photograph has its own time. It is through the calculated use of blur or blurring, or the unusual focus on minute details or peripheral events that I try to capture the mystery of a production.
To what extent do you think the public’s understanding of a production (or opera as an art form overall) has been expanded because of your work?
Whether the understanding of the public changes through my work, I cannot estimate – that would be presumptuous. I wish, of course, that I can bring to the spectators and viewers of my pictures the special qualities of opera performances, but whether this succeeds, I can not judge – only the others can do that.
Andreas Schager as Siegfried in a scene from Staatsoper Unter den Linden staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen: Götterdämmerung, by director Dmitri Tcherniakov; 2022. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Top photo: Markus Brück as Macbeth in a scene from Opernhaus Zurich’s staging of Verdi’s opera, by director Barrie Kosky, 2016. Photo: Monika Rittershaus, part of The scene and the unseen (arnoldsche, 2022).
Being a fan of opera is not always a love/hate affair, though it can be. Love might turn to hate over months, years, and decades, with such feelings becoming entrenched, normalized, difficult to undo. Hate is active and hot, with pointed edges – but worse, and perhaps more insidious, is bitterness, with its dulled sides and deadening stare. Bitterness leads to cynicism, which is so easy (too easy) to engage in unconsciously, and creeps in like a headache from too much Amarone drunk over a rich meal. Seeing and hearing much, traveling far and wide, speaking with those involved, reading lengthy tomes; thinking, writing; more listening, always that. Eventually the stereo is turned off, the books close, and one is housebound, limited to one’s small quadrant; the slightest hint of such sounds – specific sounds, of specific works – provoke an immediate, firm, inner no.
Such cynicism takes on an acid tone given the realities of taste, upbringing, exposure – over-exposure may well be a more appropriate term. Do opera people hate a work because it’s popular? Or is it because that work is over-programmed? Over-relied upon at the expense of other more things that ought to be given a fair chance? Such reliance seems especially relevant amidst post (or whatever this is) pandemic realities for arts organizations, and even more potently true for North American companies, who don’t enjoy anywhere near the financial support and cultural positioning as many counterparts in Europe do. The programming of Carmen this season across many companies may have been done prior to March 2020, or not; it hardly matters, because staging what is one of the most famous operas of all time, at any time, usually guarantees tidy returns, and for organizations struggling, as they are now, that is a good thing. There’s also the not-small fact that people – lots of people – really love it, and have done, since its scandalous premiere in 1875. As Opera Canada‘s Wayne Gooding wisely wrote recently, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called Carmen the opera in which “one bids farewell to the damp north and to all the fog of the Wagnerian ideal.” Perhaps opera, as a whole, is not meant to be approached with such serious, poe-faced joylessness. Maybe one ought to choose an Aperol Spritz over Amarone. Maybe the little self-created quadrant ought to be widened, or even abandoned. On World Opera Day, perhaps the doors, as is hinted below, are swinging open a little wider, letting out the cynicism, and letting in something else – something brighter, better.
Tori Wanzama is a new contributor. Her first opera was, in fact, my own introduction to the art form, at the age of four in what was then called the O’Keefe Centre in Toronto. It’s a bit too easy to close ears and heart to something that’s sat in one’s consciousness for so very long, and which is also a tremendous part of the cultural milieu; it is just as much of a challenge to re-open one’s mind to such a relentlessly (brilliantly) melodic work when one is constantly surrounded (by choice as much as necessity) by things so unlike it. And yet, Tori’s enthusiasm and creative insight all work together here to provide fresh, new ground – for me, as much as for those who feel too deeply rooted in classical cynicism. What can possibly grow in such highly acidified soil, after all? Tori’s writing gives opera newbies a bit of needed encouragement toward exploring an art form they (as she rightly outlines) might have their own preconceptions about, and also gives old cynics (alas) a new breath of the curiosity that felt so important to these pursuits in the first place. Reading her words was akin to seeing an old friend after many decades; all the old animosities simply departed. Tori is a second-year Communications student and has, as you will read, an incredible talent for the observation of stagecraft, as well as the nature of opera fandom itself. I look forward to publishing more of her work here in future.
Seeing Carmen For The First Time
Until a couple of months ago, I only ever encountered opera in the form of cartoons. As a kid, I watched Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd feud over the sounds of Richard Wagner in What’s Opera, Doc? (1957). I also saw the rabbit torment an opera singer in “Long-Haired Hare” (1949). These shorts, among other comical representations, would shape my understanding of opera and unfortunately spawn a disinterest in the genre as a whole. The portrayals I had been exposed to made me see opera, and consequently its fans, as serious to the point of silliness. While I’m not so dismissive now, part of me still saw attending an opera as an aristocratic activity, an art form that is just barely being kept alive. This was, of course, before Carmen.
Illustration of Bizet’s opera Carmen, published in Journal Amusant, 1875. Via Bibliothèque nationale de France.
I attended the Canadian Opera Company (COC) production on October 20th, 2022, one of two dates in which COC Ensemble alumni mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb takes the stage in the title role. Flirty and free-spirited, Carmen captures the attention of many men – especially soldier Don José, sung by tenor Marcelo Puente. The love-stricken soldier abandons his position as an officer and his fiancé Michaela (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) in pursuit of her. But Carmen’s feelings are fickle; she soon becomes bored with Don José before abandoning him for the bullfighter Escamillo, sung by baritone Lucas Meachem. Unable to handle her rejection, Don José is driven mad, leading him to take her life. What is widely considered one of the most famous operas was a mystery to me, but I believe this ignorance was ultimately to my benefit. Every part of the show was new and though more than a century old, the story (based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée) certainly doesn’t show its age. The production (based on Mark Lamos’s 2005 presentation) is here presented by visionary Against the Grain Theatre director Joel Ivany, who first staged it with the COC in 2016 – and it never once feels static. Carmen, it turns out, was the ideal opera introduction.
While the Bizet work was my first opera, I’m no stranger to live shows. The atmosphere at the Four Seasons was not much different than the rock shows to which I am accustomed. As I entered the lobby from the subway the evening of October 22nd, I was thrust immediately into the action: the whole house was alive with an excitement I wouldn’t have expected. There was a tangible giddiness amongst the crowd as we piled in, and when the five-minute warning bell beckoned, the audience carried its enthusiasm to the auditorium. It is only the orchestra that silences us with a short tune signalling the start of the show. The appearance of conductor, Jacques Lacombe, prompted boisterous applause from the audience. and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the screams emitted from fans of rock bands as they witness their heroes enter the stage. Opera fans are politely rowdy.
Everyone is welcomed into the world of Carmen with an ominous prelude. The strings anticipate the tragedy; the eeriness of the orchestral writing is palpable. As the curtains rise, the tone shifts, and the start of Act I is deceptively cheery. We see a set of guards standing outside a cigar factory, and immediately, I am into the music, to the point of it being a challenge not to tap along. The buoyancy of the playing is infectious, making a song about just waiting around incredibly entertaining. The title character is irresistible right from the moment she makes her entrance. Carmen’s charisma speaks before she does. With her walk alone she is a force to be reckoned with, and when she starts to sing … the sound is bewitching.” Habanera” is a siren song that lures you in and has you hanging on every word and note. Rather like the men who hang around Carmen, I cannot be immune to this music – I’ve had “Habanera” on repeat since hearing it live. Chaieb’s portrayal assigns a sensuality to every movement, even as she throws fruit at her obsessed admirers. There was also an immediate familiarity: I discovered a commercial from 2003 in which singer Beyoncé performs the same song and uses the same style of seduction, only this time to sell Pepsi. The spirit of Carmen, it would seem, is alive in unlikely places.
The staging here entirely complements the nature of Bizet’s hypnotic score. Ivany’s company, Against the Grain Theatre, typically stages smaller, more immersive productions and though Carmen is the opposite in the vast space of the Four Seasons Centre, the production benefits by this more close-knit approach that so marks his theatrical background. Ivany makes great use of the ensemble and sets up each scene in a way that suggests constant activity, whether in the background, midground or foreground, and on different levels. The stage itself allows for one angle, but there is so much to see and observe. Each environment is given a considered depth, creating a quiet realism amidst the boisterous melodrama and overall activity of the opera. This quiet aspect is often employed to emphasize Carmen’s charisma. As she appears, men in the background can be seen clamouring to get a closer look at her, a staging choice which is perhaps the most effectively used in the final act.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper
So when the stage is set for Escamillo’s bullfight, the audience is truly allowed into the action. Ivany makes sure the audience has a feeling of direct investment and here his experience with intimate theatre stagings perhaps shows itself best; we are encouraged to join in with the festivities in a way I would not expect to see at the opera. Such techniques also intensify the tragedy. In the final scene, the crowd sees the fight from only a partial view;. the spectators are shown as silhouettes, as Carmen, completely alone, struggles against a deranged Don José. A crowd that would have once adored her is restricted to shadows unknowingly cheering along as she is murdered behind them. The ending is powerful, and, even with foreknowledge, I’m grateful for experiencing its magic.
How could Looney Tunes have led me so far astray? Opera is much more than horned helmets and longhair! Beyond the obvious talents of the performers and the creative visual designs, opera has heart, beauty, and yes, humour too; Carmen convinced me of that. It has an ability to laugh at itself – and even amidst the tragedy, that humour is what perhaps impressed me the most. The show laughs at itself more than once, often using the expected conventions of opera to deliver a joke. Take the bullfighter Escamillo: the Elvis-esque matador enters every scene with a dramatic theme song. Of course my seatmates and I cannot help but chuckle. The difference now is, I’m laughing along with the genre instead of at it, enjoying the melodrama for both its brilliance and its ridiculousness. Before my experience with Carmen, I held onto a cartoonish idea of what opera was, without considering what it could be. A musical door has been opened for me, and I hope there is more of everything on the other side.
Top Photo: A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Carmen, 2022. Photo: Michael Cooper
Time, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote in the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier, is a strange thing. It is an observation perhaps most applicable to the world of opera, an industry which continues to endure its fair share of slow-downs, speed-ups, and stand-stills since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. It’s on; it’s off; it’s on; people are sick, the show must go on; it’s half-on, it’s half-off; it’s reduced, it’s streamed; it’s full capacity but “gosh, where is the audience?” is combined with “why aren’t we moving tickets when we made such cool instagram videos?” and “let’s invite some influencers because they’ll bring the sexy young audience we really want!” Questions, queries, and marketing tactics aside, it is risk which is arguably foremost in audience minds: the risk of attending, but also the risk of experiencing something new, or something familiar, but in new ways. Literal risk may well scare some off (or simultaneously attract others), but figurative risk – creative risk – has the power to tempt long-time audiences back in the house, and bring a much-coveted demographic: newcomers. This positive outcome of risk calculation is one some houses are willing to dare, especially as a long, challenging winter draws closer.
Just how the element of risk manifests now is worth considering, especially given the bundles of new works being presented as part of the 2022-2023 season across various houses in North America and Europe. The Royal Opera is presenting a new opera by Oliver Leith about rock singer Kurt Cobain next month, and its entire run is already sold out. Some works, especially those with less of a direct reference to mainstream popular culture, may not be as much in the public consciousness (yet), but do have existing audiences, and do possess the kind of appeal which expands a work’s fanbase, especially to literature and theatre lovers. Case in point: Medea, by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), opens The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season on September 27th. The 1797 opera is most famous, or at least has a fair measure of fame among opera aficionados, for its live recording featuring conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas from 1957. It has never been presented in The Met’s history – not for lack of trying; in an essay at The Met’s website, Associate Editor Jonathan Minnick details former General Manager Rudolf Bing’s efforts to bring the opera, and Callas, to New York in the 1960s. The Met may well be hoping to make its own kind of history with the new production, directed by David McVicar and featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead. A soprano known for her passionate work with bel canto roles (including Donizetti’s Three Queens – Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux), Medea offers a very different set of shoes indeed, vocally and musically, though it may well be somewhat familiar territory for the level of dramatic intensity it demands. Radvanovsky will be joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani as the faithless Giasone, Janai Brugger as Glauce, Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris, and Michele Pertusi as Creonte. Historically, the Euripidean tragedy (431 BC) has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and has been an object of considerable study with relation to its themes of betrayal, obsession, family, feminism, and murder – and rather interestingly, the work itself (the opera as much as the ancient Greek play) has a keen relationship to time, and the ways in which it speeds up, and/or slows down, at pivotal moments in one woman’s life. Cherubini’s score masterfully captures the drama inherent in such temporal shifts, using a deft combination of voices, strings, and woodwinds, as well as hectic passages and highly considered silences, to bring listeners into Medea’s inner world; it is a world where time, its passing, and all that implies, stretches, stops, and twists amidst a tumult of conflicting emotions. Beethoven, who was a fan, called Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer”
An 1898 poster for Euripides’ Medée from Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris. Artwork by Alphonse Mucha.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who leads Medea performances at The Met, has been studying the score for well over a year. The drama of Cherubini’s Medea, as he explains in our chat below, is sewn within Cherubini’s orchestration and is a full partner with the vocal writing. Rizzi and I last spoke in September 2019, as the Italian conductor prepared to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019-2020 season with Turandot, an opera he knows so well, he has (like other Puccini operas) conducted it from memory. Medea, of course, is a different thing as much for him as for the cast, including Radvanovsky, with whom he has previously worked. Originally written and presented in French and subsequently translated into German and Italian (frequently; The Met is using the 1909 Italian translation by writer Carlo Zangarini), Cherubini’s version of the mythological vengeance story touches on a myriad of musical styles without entirely conforming to any of them: it isn’t Classical; it isn’t Romantic; it has elements of both. Medea is notable for not only its ferocious lead but for the unique musical language it utilizes to convey drama.
As Rizzi explains in our exchange, the orchestration of Medea is a key factor in conveying that drama. Getting the balance just right demands things you might expect, but multiplied several times over: patience; study; discussion; rehearsals; edits; more edits. The qualities needed for such responsibility – a passionate involvement and a forensic attention to detail – are ones Rizzi has meticulously developed across multiple projects, not least of which has been his work as Artistic Director of Opera Rara. With its mission on the restoration, recording, and performance of lost 19th and early 20th century works, the group not only gives an opportunity for opera history to be perceived and understood in broader ways, but allows for a far richer contextualizing of the “new” and “old” labels as applied to it, particularly within the realm of performance practices. One of their most celebrated released in recent memory was Ermonela Jaho’s immense Anima Rara from 2020, which beautifully showcased little-known verismo arias, and won the vocal category at the 2021 International Classical Music Awards. Opera Rara’s most recent recording is the one-act opera Zingari by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), out 23 September via Warner Music. Based on a poem by Pushkin from 1827, Zingari premiered in London in 1912 to great success, although Leoncavallo made extensive cuts and revisions to the work throughout its various revivals in Europe and North America. Rizzi noted during a recent Opera Rara release event that Zingari and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo’s famous 1892 work) share some structural differences, but Zingari, which Leoncavallo started writing in the early 1900s, is truly a thing apart, something the new recording emphasizes. He leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with palpable verve, carefully colouring its gloriously rich passages with a warmth of tone and precision in phrasing.
The recording is a symbol of the extent to which opera has shaped Rizzi’s career, as someone who has led rarities by a range of composers (including Giordano, Cimarosa, Bellini, Donizetti, Pizzetti, and Montemezzi) alongside well-loved works by Puccini and Verdi. Rizzi has served as Welsh National Opera’s Music Director twice (1992 to 2001, and 2004 to 2008) and is its Conductor Laureate; he regularly appears on the podiums of Teatro alla Scala Milan, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Oslo), and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led over 200 performances. This coming season sees him conduct two more works at famed the NYC house – revivals of Puccini’s Tosca (starting 4 October), and Verdi’s Don Carlo (starting 3 November), before moving on to Paris, where he will lead works by Verdi (Il trovatore) and Gounod (Romeo et Juliet), and, in May, give an Opera Rara performance of Donizetti’s 1828 opera L’esule di Roma (The Exile From Rome) at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Britten Sinfonia. Rizzi and I spoke just prior to the release of Zingari, and, more immediately, the morning of a recent Medea rehearsal – about new works, old works, and the need to embrace risk, now more than ever.
What was the process for recording Zingari amidst pandemic?
We did it in December 2021, at the end of the serious lockdown but still the world was mostly wearing masks and distancing. I’ve since done Il proscritto by Saverio Mercadante with Opera Rara; which we did in June. That was much easier, but still, some got covid, thankfully none in the cast, and here in New York now we are rehearsing with masks. Some of the singers are allowed not to wear the masks for stage rehearsals – some do, some don’t – but the orchestra is all with masks.
While things are still so uncertain in the opera world, The Met’s decision to open their season with Medea seems unique.
It’s a situation I’ve never been in. Nobody has ever done it at The Met – nobody! So for the orchestra, chorus, me, singers, production, everybody, it’s a new discovery – even though this opera is very well known, particularly for the Callas phenomenon – it’s like there is a vacuum to fill, in a certain way. I sent some corrections to the Met Opera Library for the orchestra parts, something I have never had happen in opera before – it’s a discovery for everybody. Saturday we did it for the first time with the singers, which was great – I discovered a couple things I wanted to modify in the orchestra, and so.
This is a good thing and also a great responsibility – because in a way, there is the freedom to do things, but then again, in this case there is this recording, this Callas thing, and of course many people will have only heard that, so “oh this is Medea ” – well, actually no, this is Medea as she did it. Callas was Callas; now it’s 50 years later, and there is all this sense of anticipation and responsibility. It’s a big responsibility. I have to let the score speak to me, and in this particular opera it’s been very different from the others because his is a language, Cherubini’s, that is not very easy to classify. When you speak about Rossini, there is a certain way of writing to the voices with the support of the orchestra that you can identify – the same is true when you speak of Puccini or Verdi; if you think about an Traviata, okay, you can remember the Brindisi, the aria of the First Act, the duet in the Second Act. But here, in Medea of course there are those big arias and duets, but actually there is also a great interconnection in the drama between the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra is never a mere companion beside the voice, but a full partner. The orchestra players were talking about this recently – they feel in the middle of the drama with this opera. If there is a dramatic moment or a particular emotion a composer wants to express, of course it’s in the singing but with Medea it’s also fully in the orchestra.
There are some moments which I think are very clever; the character spends half ot the performance trying to get what she wants – to get revenge, of course – but she also wants to see her children. So there’s the line of Medea and the first violin, which is expressive of the latter, but if you look at the viola part, there’s something much more dark in it. When she says, “One day more” – the drama is in the scoring of the orchestra – Medea is, so to speak, in the orchestra. And I think that’s very interesting, because it allows the decisions you make with the orchestra and singers to be much more unified. For me that’s rewarding.
Cherubini’s work sonically anticipates much future work…
That is a huge question! The translation, per se, is not for me the most difficult thing, but there is some quirkiness to it. It’s for the simple reason that in Italian, always, basically, the accent is on the penultimate syllable, and in French the accent is on the last syllable. We do the (sung, in this version) Italian recitatives in this production. Now, one could say, “Why don’t you do them spoken in French?” – and sure, we could, but it’s the Italian version, and the recitatives are where the drama happens. The drama is never in an aria alone – what happened before and what happens after matter as much. The recitatives enhance the drama, beginning to end. Medea is so dramatic in her minimalism. She doesn’t come in flaming on a dragon – there is just a simple sound and simple chord: “where is the traitor?” It’s amazing, this moment, it’s so anti-operatic in a way, but totally, utterly dramatic. So taking the lead from what Cherubini wrote in these passages, I think, personally, that these recitative sections hold the drama of the piece; it all hangs on how those are performed.
You’re right regarding the translation – another opera I’m doing here later, Don Carlo, has the French version and Italian version – and there are differences in the ways that text is approached although written by the same composer. I grew up with Don Carlo in Italian, it’s what I’ve heard forever. When I did it in French at one point, or rather at certain points, things made more sense. The Italian (version) again, is not terrible – but in French, you can hear the meaning. We can discuss until the cows come home if we should do this only in French now, but I believe we can do both.
So the translation isn’t so central as to change the core meaning?
Sort of. What I’ve noticed, in studying both the French text and the Italian text, is yes, there are some differences. Sometimes you get translations of operas where, in the original language a character says one thing, and that comes out totally another thing in the translation – that is not the case with this opera! I think sometimes the (textual) quirks are there because (Carlo) Zangarini, as an Italian, was trying to keep the French line, the French text. The important thing to remember is that composers tend to think of certain words to give the apex of a phrase, it’s not just a question of translating it straight over. For example, if you take Rodolfo’s famous aria in Bohème, the word “speranza” is important, it’s everything Rodolfo hopes for, it’s why it’s a top C right there – but if you translate that word into another language, it changes the way everything lands. For Cherubini the drama isn’t on one note; the technical writing is less involving this apex which was common to Romantic aria writing, and is more focused around the development of the aria by the different orchestral sections. It’s instrumentation which brings characters to say certain things, including the moments with Medea and Giasone. You can hear it one way, or in another way, with the voice or with the orchestra, or both, so it’s like circles of relating.
Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s “Medea.” Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera
You have worked with Sondra Radvanovsky a few times, including a lot of work in bel canto repertoire; what’s been your experience now?
I do find working with her so rewarding. The past times we’ve worked together, like in 2017 with Norma among many other performances, she would know those roles in her body, not only in the notes. This isn’t the bel canto she’s used to doing, and as I said before, it’s a discovery for everybody. Yesterday after rehearsal she and I were still discussing and exchanging ideas of how to more clearly project a certain kind of personality at a certain point rather than another kind at other moments – and all this energy comes together at a certain point: through the next rehearsals; with some technical things like portamento; where she goes into chest for a certain phrase, or if it’s more legato, or more a conversational sort of style; all these things are things we constantly discuss. It’s a project that is a work-in-progress, because again, it is the first time everybody has done it. We’d be foolish to come in and say, “This is the way we have to do this” when there are different and better ways.
How do you see Medea fitting within your overall opera oeuvre?
It’s interesting because Medea is something that never happened in my life – well, maybe when I was very young – but this is my fifth new opera in a row this year. It’s been bloody hard work – it’s not just opening the score and doing it! I started with Cendrillon (Massenet), then I did Il Proscritto (Mercadante) then I due Foscari (Verdi), then Rossini’s La gazzetta, and now Medea. For me personally it’s been a period of a lot of study, I can tell you, but also challenging in a positive way, especially after the covid lockdowns. It’s been very welcome. Now I’m happy doing something I’ve done before too. So often people think, “What do conductors do? What do they really do?” And, fine, if you have a good technique you can read and conduct something within three days – but truly, it requires more. Being a conductor requires a real maturation, and only time gives that. You have to know to start studying early – I started on Medea more than a year-and-a-half ago. You think about it; you read; you mark it up; you go away; you come back; it’s been a great period, but it’s been very busy also.
That’s very true. A related silver lining of this era is that we had the time to sit and study these things. Also, it has to be said, that even if everybody did the Zoom performances, the distanced performances, it comes out at the end that nothing can compare to, nothing can overtake the feeling of being at a live performance. That means there is a desire to have new things, to do new things, to not just do the same old things, and not to do them in such a comfortable way as before. We don’t take it for granted – because now we know: nothing is guaranteed anymore. So fine, let’s take it as a positive from the situation, and keep doing things this way, and hope the public will come back and not be fearful, and start to enjoy it again, and abandon one’s self not only to the music but visual art, to dance, to cinema, and so on. It’s why we’re making art.
Top photo: Carlo Rizzi rehearsing Zingari with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2021. Photo: Simon Weir / Opera Rara.
Throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, the month of September heralds the idea of return: to schools and universities; to work projects; to extracurricular events and some form of cultural life in locales where summer festivals are scant if even extant. There is a hunger for routine, perhaps now more than ever, given the added impetus that the notion of “return” carries with it an end to the disruption wrought by years of pandemic. The urgency toward a “return to normal”, however one defines it, feels more tenuous than ever, given a tightening of budgets, of strikes, of continued sacrifice for some, of a winter that threatens cold and expense. Amidst all of this: whither music? Is it now firmly slotted as an extra? As temperatures drop and bills rise, priorities, especially for those on limited incomes, would seem to become plain. How, then, ought live classical culture to respond? How should it be encountered, engaged with, and supported?
Perhaps there is an answer in simple things – things like singing, and most especially singing with others. If the notion of ‘return’ engenders a thirst for community, what better way to slake it? Singing may be off the plate for most, but it need not be; there is no reason to feel daunted by any perceived lack of talent. Choral life in many parts of Europe and the UK is active, evidenced not only in a huge variety of live offerings but in audience response; attending performances of various Passions, it was lovely to note the extent to which respective audiences knew the words of various sections (and sang or hummed along, or mouthed the texts). There are many active choral communities across North America as well (Canada’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale is but one example), some secular, some not. Choral singing is, as practitioners might say, made up of far more than the annual Xmas ritual of Handel’s Messiah. The act of singing together within a confined space was one of the first things unfortunately lost in the pandemic lockdowns of early 2020; it was also one of the things fought hardest over in some places, with certain groups utilizing distancing techniques to try and continue their activities. Togetherness matters; making sounds together, certainly matters, as much an individual as a collective good.
The Merton College Choir is embarking on an American tour next week, one that seems as much about showcasing the talents of its members as serving to remind audiences of the centrality of communal cultural experience. The tour is a good reminder that singing need not be as formal as what the talented troupe present, but can be an act of recognition, of support, of active imagination and empathy. Made up of a rotating group of 30 members taken from Oxford University’s student body (via annual auditions), the choir (who has its own Youtube channel) is dedicated mainly to liturgical works, but also has (as their upcoming tour attests) a history of commissioning and presenting the work of living composers. Merton’s Choral Foundation was established in 2008, and since then, has acquired an international reputation for stellar performances and recordings. Awarded Best Choral Album at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards for their 2019 recording of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (Delphian) by Bermuda-born composer Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962) (a work Gramophone writer Alexandra Coghlan hailed for both its textural as well as meditative qualities) the troupe has also enjoyed collaborations with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (Elgar’s The Apostles, 2018), Instruments of Time and Truth (Bach’s St Matthew Passion, 2017) and Oxford Baroque (Bach’s Mass in B minor, 2018). Previous tours include visits to Hong Kong and Singapore, France, Italy, Sweden, and the United States. The upcoming tour to the latter is the first the choir has undertaken since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
With dates in Cambridge, New Haven, New York, and Princeton, the programme is an inspiring mix of new and old works by a range of celebrated composers, including William Byrd (1543-1623), Henry Purcell (1659-1695), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986), Lionel Rogg (1936), Judith Weir (1954), and Nico Muhly (1981), among others. I spoke with Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas recently, and we discussed some timely topics: the choice of touring repertoire; what audiences might glean from the experiences of seeing, and being in, a choir; and what singing means in a post-(or whatever this is)-coronavirus world.
Photo (c) John Cairns
Your American tour is an interesting balance of contemporary and traditional works; why these works, and why include them on a tour?
Well, I think what we’re doing on tour is pretty typical of what we do most of the time. I do try and think about the concert programmes – the art of putting together a programme is a really exciting thing to do. It’s tough to get it right, and I’m aware we’re going to be singing in places that have great choral music already, and so I think it was a question of bringing something with us that might be unique in the sense that one piece is written specifically for us, other contemporary pieces are perhaps not performance so often – so I’m quite keen to put together a programme that contrasts the old with the new, which as I say is pretty typical of our repertoire.
During the university term we sing three services a week in the chapel at Merton and I would say that we include a lot of Renaissance music, obviously some romantic music, and 20th-21st century music, and so the tour programme is an extension of what we do in those services.
Do you program with themes in mind, or is it more instinctual, i.e. “I like how this sounds with that” ?
It’s a bit of both if I’m honest. I have gone for some contrasts, where we put two pieces next to each other. One of those pairings is the Byrd Motet “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth” running straight into Judith Weir’s “Ave Regina caelorum” – one connection is simply that they are in the same key, so it makes for a very neat segue way, but also I think that it’s interesting that William Byrd wrote for Elizabeth I – he was indeed part of the Royal household – and Judith Weir is the current Master of the Queen’s Music, and obviously writes for the greater state occasions in the UK. So that was one thing, to put them together. The Judith Weir piece is also a bit of a personal piece, because it was written for us – it is particularly special. And then there’s the Purcell piece (“Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei”) moving directly into David Lang (“again”) – there’s no great link there, apart from the fact that I felt the contrast after the Purcell would be, hopefully, really arresting for the audience.
The act of communal singing, of this programme in particular, seems especially pregnant with symbolism. Singing was the first thing we lost in the pandemic.
What has the return been like for you and your members?
The very obvious practical change, when we came back to the university after the first lockdown, related to the basic guidance: yes we could sing, but only at a certain distance from one another. Merton Chapel is a good size and we were able to resume singing straight away, but all distanced. There’s no doubt that distancing honed everyone’s listening skills; everyone was so much more attuned, and they knew they had to have amazing antennae – the ears of an elephant – to hear everyone else, to make the performance whole. We did record a CD under those circumstances; it seems mad on one hand, but on the other I think all the work paid off. The choir has moved back together now, and are standing at a normal distance, but their listening skills have been enhanced by the distancing over the course of the pandemic. But whilst the pandemic is fresh in everyone’s minds and people missed being in university and missed touring and did miss singing three times a week in the chapel, I think people have got used to (the old routine) again very quickly; we’re basically back to normal and have been for about a year.
Now it’s been quite a striking difference at the BBC Proms concerts – what I found really staggering as an attendee is to hear all the great choral works in the Royal Albert Hall with hundreds of performers, because that didn’t come back last summer; it has taken much longer for that kind of music-making to resume. For all of us who’ve been at the Proms or heard things on the radio in the last couple weeks, things like Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or The Dream Of Gerontius and so on, I think that’s been a very powerful reminder of what we lost. But I think when it comes to chamber music – and Merton Choir is, I suppose, the size of a chamber choir – I think we’ve now gotten used to being back together, and one of the great things of working with students is aht they move on pretty quickly. I think as far as they’re concerned we’ve been back to normal for some time, and normal is what they expect now. From my point of view I’ve used it as an opportunity to think about our repertoire a little bit. I hope it’s increasingly diverse, that it’s more interesting; I dropped some pieces which were not that great but which we did because they were in repertoire, so (this pandemic time) has been a chance to rebuild.
The pandemic time has many in classical thinking about that word “rebuild” – why organizations and artists do it ; how they do it; just who they are doing it for. This relates, I think, to the growing awareness around the need for diversity. What’s your feeling?
I completely agree. The interesting thing is that in terms of who we perform for back in the UK, our work is largely about enhancing the liturgy in medieval chapel, so that’s quite different from just being a concert-giving outfit. There are already these parameters in what we’re doing; the liturgy of the day dictates a lot of the music. So that means that there are certain texts that need to be sung and so on. Now, you then have a vast library of music from the last 500 years with the settings of those texts and so on and of course, a lot of the time we’re singing that music, however, we’ve always tried to commission new music at Merton, because it’s a choir of students, and part of the educational process is to introduce them to new music, some written by them or their peers, but other music is written by a cross-section of composers from all over the world. I’ve commissioned Nico Muhly in the US; Dobrinka Tabakova (1980), born in Bulgaria although she’s in London at the moment; Eriks Esenvalds (b. 1977), who is Latvian; Kerry Andrew (b. 1978) and Hannah Kendall (b. 1984); and obviously Judith Weir and James Macmillan (1959), both Scottish. The composers come from all over, because I want our repertoire to be as broad as it possibly can. Each of these composers brings a unique musical language and that enhances what we do in the chapel.
In terms of the membership of our choir, we want it to be as representative of the UK as possible, and, in terms of who we are singing for, I want audiences to come along, hear an English choir, and I just want them to experience something of what we do. So (on this tour) I’ve included two American composers, and that was because over the last few years we’ve explored a lot of contemporary composers – Libby Larsen (1950); Stephen Paulus (1949-2014) before he died; Glass (1937), Lang (1957), and Muhly. We recorded an album of American music just before the pandemic which we never had a chance to take to concerts. In a way this is a snapshot of the repertoire we sing, and you know, we hope audiences enjoy such varied kinds of music.
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
A choir seems like a symbol of community, reciprocity, support – things that went missing during the pandemic, and continue to be largely absent. What role do you see for choir membership in a post (or whatever this is) covid world?
The first thing to say is that the act of being in a choir brings people together. That whole thing whereby people have been separated – well, a choir immediately offers a reason for people to come together. Then there is the fact they have come together to make music; the active breathing in sync, the fact they’ve got to respond to one another in terms of pitch within an ensemble, these things make the connections between people all the stronger. So for the people who sing, getting back into a choir is a really important thing.
In this country we’ve found it’s been slow-going – yes, we’re lucky that at the university we’ve not been hugely impacted by that, but I’m aware a lot of the large choruses are down in numbers and it’s taken time for all these things to build back up. I do recognize it hasn’t just gone back straight away, and that people need to be reminded, particularly now, of the benefits of being in a choir and making music together.
It’s like the difference between playing team sports versuss things like skiing, tennis, or swimming; I was a pianist and sometime-band/orchestra member, but the experience of singing St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 2018 was very much a thing apart from any individual experience. Singing is intimate, and singing with others, even more so.
It is exactly that. In terms of musical education I can understand there was a time when one of the conservatoires, the Royal College Of Music, insisted that first-year students be part of a chorus, and the students at the time didn’t understand why they had to do this, but it was, simply, all the skills one can take for granted are so enhanced and developed by being in a choir: pitch, rhythm, placing one’s voice, text, languages…
… awareness of others.
Yes, absolutely – the skills you might learn in general musicianship, you might do them in a class, but go into a choir and you are putting the repertoire study into real practice. So I can only think it’s a really good thing for all musicians to sing in a choir for a bit, and I would say in Merton College Choir we’re essentially a choir of 30 students, some of whom read music as their degree but many are scientists and lawyers and historians…
I love that kind of professional variety in your membership.
I love that too, and I love the fact plenty of people who will not be professional singers have wonderful musical skills regardless of their formal study routes. So we have good pianists, and good horn players singing with us, and as far as I’m concerned, as a director, you need all these ingredients. Yes, you need stellar voices, but you also need a lot of very good musicians, people who just want to enhance those musical skills they happen to have. You need those different elements to make a choir.
Top Photo: The Choir of Merton College, Oxford. Photo: Hugh Warwick
There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.
The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states” […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.
The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.
Emil Jannings as Mephisto in a famous scene from Murnau’s 1926 film “Faust”.
Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.
Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”
Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will. “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”
Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, right) speaks with The General (Rolf Hoppe) as supporter Lotte von Lindenthal (Christine Harbort) looks on. From István Szabó’s “Mephisto”, 1981. Photo: imago images/Mary Evans
This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyonewill cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.
But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”
Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.
Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
One of the most moving episodes in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) occurred in 1960 upon his first visit to the health resort of Gohrisch, a mountainside town located forty kilometres south-east of Dresden, where he had gone to write the music for Lev Armshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights”. The String Quartet No. 8 was famously composed instead, the sole piece he wrote outside the Soviet Union, done over three days in mid-July in the green, scenic spot near the River Elbe. Tortured by questions of identity, integrity, history, creativity and the tenuous links therein, having been heavily coerced into joining the Communist Party just prior, Shostakovich dedicated the work to victims of fascism and war, offering a mourning of the past, a dirge for the present, a worried sigh at the future. The composer returned to Gohrisch in summer 1972 following the premiere of his Symphony No. 15, where he visited with conductor Kurt Sanderling. Little could he have known that the site would host a celebrated festival bearing his name, featuring a range of his own works as well as those by his colleagues and contemporaries.
The International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, founded in 2010 with the help of the Staatskapelle Dresden, has been a fount of musical exploration in the decades since its titular composer paid his visits. This year’s edition, which opened on Thursday (30 June), features the music of Shostakovich, of course, as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Yuri Povolotsky (b. 1962), and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who is this year’s recipient of the International Shostakovich Prize. It’s fair to say that there are several spectres hanging over this year’s edition of the festival, but they are encapsulated in the figure of one person who is no longer present, but whose history, with both Shostakovich and Gohrisch, remains vital. Conductor Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year, helped in the formation of the Festival and indeed led the Sächsische Staatskapelle in the concert barn (or the concert marquee) in Gohrisch from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation in 2012. An award-winning album of live festival recordings, released in 2017 (Berlin Classics), features the music of Arvo Pärt (1935), Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), and Shostakovich, including the 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, op. 79, which was composed following Shostakovich’s denunciation of the Zhdanov Decree; it had to wait until 1955 to receive its premiere performance. Jurowski championed such repressed works, making it something of his life’s mission to uncover and present the pieces which an insidious combination of politics, history, nationalistic fervour, and ideological intransigence forced longtime silence, ignorance, misperception upon. Born in Moscow in 1945 but with Ukrainian roots, the conductor was a champion of bringing rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded) works to the fore, as much out of a sense of civic duty as artistic curiosity, something that stayed with him and was inherited by his children, pianist/vocal coach Maria; conductors Vladimir, and Dmitri. It is a family rich in artistic lineage as much as intellectual probing, as concerned with present exploration as much embracing the past, and looking to the future not with a worried sigh, but a defiant, direct stare.
This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Michail Jurowski, whose memory will be most poignantly marked on Sunday (3 July), when youngest son Dmitri Jurowski leads the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden in a programme of works by Silvestrov and Shostakovich, including the world premieres of Michail Jurowski’s arrangement of the latter composer’s The Human Comedy op.37 (1934) for concert orchestra, and Dmitri Jurowski’s arrangement of Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva opera.143a (1973) with soprano Evelina Dobračeva and chamber orchestra. The transposition of voice feels somehow very right for an artist like Dmitri Jurowski, a cellist with an innate feeling for vocal expression, both human and instrumental. Over the past two decades, he has led over one hundred different opera productions for a range of celebrated houses, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro La Fenice, Grand Théâtre Geneva, Lyric Opera Chicago, Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. From 2011 to 2016 he was was General Music Director of the Flemish Opera Antwerp / Ghent. Jurowski’s history with opera does not obscure his deep sensitivity to (and with) orchestral scores – he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic Manchester, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Shanghai Philharmonic, to name a few. One of my own favourite recordings features the works of Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) with Jurowski leading the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal (Cybele, 2018). With iron-hand-in-velvet-glove confidence, the conductor coaxes a luscious lyricism from the string section in Symphonic Minutes for orchestra op.36 (1933), a lyricism that is carried through into conversational woodwind exchange so lovingly conveyed in the piece’s second movement Rapsodia: Andante, and manifest in an energetic final Rondo: Presto, which is resplendent with busy strings and Jurowski’s repeated emphasis on cross-sectional conversation, allowing the drama which arises naturally from and within it to direct, turn a corner, then another; balance is thoughtfully maintained, but not at the expense of spirit; seriousness is equally present, but not without an equal dose of play.
Theatre, like music, would seem to be a part of the Jurowski family’s creative legacy, which, given the actual as well as artistic ties, only makes sense, given their long connection with many celebrated theatre artists, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich himself. The Human Comedy, composed for a 1934 stage adaptation of Balzac’s immense 19th century work by Russian writer Pavel Sukhotin (1884-1935), the mix of lightness and uncertainty of Balzac’s Paris, its surface charm hiding an anxious underbelly. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva possess their own form of drama, its power imparted via the fulsomeness of the poet’s vowels and consonants and the ways Shostakovich writes in, through, and around them. In listening to recordings, one is constantly confronted with the question of inner and outer ‘voices’, both vocal and instrumental, by experiences as much spoken as not; the third poem in the cycle (“Hamlet’s Dialogue With His Conscience”) with its ponderings on guilt, responsibility, notions of love and romance, and micro/macro ideas of place, speaks directly to the fourth (“The Poet And The Tsar”) and fifth (“No, The Drum Beat”) with its meditations on private-public faces and paradigms of power within various spheres of influence. The composer’s ever-present internal debates are reflected in this cycle, as much through the words of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) as through its chewy score, which was recorded by contralto Ortrun Wenkel under the baton of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest, released by Decca in 1993. Placing the Six Poems cycle on the same bill as The Human Comedy, written four decades earlier, feels ballsy and somehow, important, particularly in light of ongoing debates related to the various uses and teachings of music, the role of canon, the expectations of audiences, whether music ought to have an “identity” (and if so, what it should be), as well as perceptions of Music As Entertainment (“Unterhaltsmusik”) and (or, more tiresomely, versus) Music As Serious Art (“ernste Musik”). Can Balzac and Tsvetaeva (and Silvestrov, and Shostakovich) share a creative universe? Well, why shouldn’t they? Moreover, how could they not?
The concert barn at the International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, 2016. Photo: Oliver Killig
The lives and feelings these artists explored in their respective works, the words and sounds they choose for describing those lives and sharing inner thoughts, ask for the very quality Shostakovich himself seemed quite interested in (consciously or not), the thing which is in short supply as much in life as in art, especially at the moment: empathy. I am not a believer in music magically melting barriers; specific contexts (socio-economic, racial, religious) must be taken into account whenever one experiences new sounds – contexts as much as atmospheres, inner and outer, controllable and not. These things exist. Sounds don’t magically ping them away. The ways in which one experiences the work of Silvestrov and Shostakovich (and/or writers and poets) are as relevant as one possessing a background in either’s work, or both, or none. These things are as much related to context as the environment in which one experiences such works, environments filled with all manner of human comedy, tragedy, mediocrity, diversion, novelty, affliction, agenda, and (one hopes) opportunities for contemplation. Ugly circumstances, harsh realities, human life in all its variance, must be recognized. Lived realities, and the inevitable lines they (mostly unconsciously) create do not magically melt; they simply are. It’s up to you to acknowledge them. Thus is art’s role as a vehicle of empathy vital; If we are unwilling to do the actual, real work of feeling another’s experience (much less acknowledging it as real), particularly those who have not had the privilege we have enjoyed (and perhaps do not even recognize), if we do not conscientiously direct imagination toward those foreign experiences which are beyond our direct experience and knowledge (and thus may be unpleasant, unfamiliar, dull, wearying), then what use is theatre, art, music, culture? Leo Tolstoy grappled with this very question in What Is Art? (1897):
The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena. (trans. Aylmer Maude, 1899)
Painter Mark Rothko would later say that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” While such strength and visibility of reaction is personal, and may or may not be warranted (in the age of social media reaction can be more performative than authentic), that doesn’t cancel its validity within a real, lived framework. Empathy is needed in times of strife – in times of war, in times of pandemic, in times of division, separation, hostility, horror, anger, intransigence; it is work, indeed. Empathy is the energetic opposite of whataboutism that so heavily (alas) dominates contemporary discourse, and it is the hardest thing to keep alive, let alone cultivate, when algorithms inspire (and profit from) strong reaction, not slow thought. Consider slow thought, the festival in Gohrisch seems to whisper; slow thought is, very possibly, the very thing that best cultivates empathy. Somehow I can hear Silvestrov, Shostakovich, Balzac, Tsvetaeva, and Michail Jurowski whispering such a suggestion a bit more loudly right now.
And so, amidst such consideration, and one hopes, a related cultivation of empathy within creative realms, is a conversation in which family, culture, creation, grief, poetry, and that sticky, marvellous word “transposition” are all carefully, slowly considered. It was a true privilege and pleasure to speak with Dmitri Jurowski, and to hear, over the course of nearly an hour, his observations and ideas on music, writing, sound, performance, and his father’s influence. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Why did you choose the Tsvetaeva song cycle – why arrange it it for chamber orchestra?
This work of Dmitri Shostakovich was one of my father’s favourite compositions. The whole concert is dedicated to him – actually the concert, and the whole festival, which he had planned one year ago, was one he was supposed to conduct. So when everything happened of course we decided not to make any changes in the programme – the only thing we did was put in the Tsvetaeva cycle. That was not foreseen; originally it was a Shostakovich violin concerto with the bigger orchestra, but since the pandemic is still going on, the orchestra actually asked to have a work in the programme which is for chamber, not a big group. That was the first thing they asked, and the (the song cycle) was one of his favourite pieces. During his funeral his recording of it was played many times during the day – so we decided to do this. Also there was one little change (to the work itself). It was written for mezzo soprano, but we wanted to do this together with (soprano) Evelina Dobračeva; I know her, we studied together, she was working more with my father than with me, and during all these years they made many projects together. He was like a teacher for her, and it was very important to have her on board for this project, so the only thing we had to do was change the tonalities for the cycle, because for a soprano it’s really too low. That was the only thing we did. The programme’s second half, The Human Comedy, will be a very special thing; it’s a world premiere. The work has been performed in the past of course, but it’ll be the first time the whole music, music for theatre, is done, the way it was played in Moscow in the theatre of Vakhtangov in 1934. That was the only year it was performed in the theatre, so that’s why we had to go and find it all; it was a real adventure to find that material. I spent a lot of time in different archives in Moscow, in the Vakhtangov Theatre, searching for it – I have good friend who is an actor who helped me, and it was a real thrill to find all the notes of the director from that time, his writing on when exactly which part of music was supposed to be played. Luckily they were very bureaucratic in the 1930s, so I could find everything I needed, but it’s still interesting. I’m really thrilled – again, yes, it will be the first time it’s performed.
The Human Comedy has been dismissed in the past as something Shostakovich simply did for the money, but having it in a chamber arrangement also means it forces a reconsideration…
You’re right, it’s becomes very transparent because of that. As to my opinion on its inception, the same thing you can say about Mozart: a lot of music and composers wrote for money. It was normal, they did it for a living, but even what Shostakovich did for the money was great. I think he had a lot of humour, sometimes very black humour, cynical humour, so even with the music he was writing for entertainment, it still becomes, somehow, very biting. And it’s interesting that the problems in the society they were facing in the 1920s and 1930s, I have the feeling many of these things we are facing again. Shostakovich was saying the music, there is actually a great quote of his, that music is the only thing which should survive any wars and any illnesses. I have the feeling now in the beginning of the 21st century we are back in the same situation somehow. We have to somehow prove that art, that music, has the power and the possibility to survive and bring, a little bit, people back together, that’s actually the only thing you can do in this really difficult situation.
Conductor Michail Jurowski leads the Staatskapelle Dresden and cellist Isang Enders at the inaugural International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in 2010. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
The context in which it is presented is important, your father’s history with the festival being very much part of that context. I’m curious what you think attracted him to this work. I recall him telling me years ago that conducting in America was like a dream for him – something that really wouldn’t be expressed now – and I can only theorize that such an experience, and the related feelings of curiosity and wonder, play into Balzac’s explorations about the variance of human experience, and Shostakovich’s also.
Yes, I’m thinking a lot in the last few months about his relationship to Shostakovich as well. It’s a strange thing, my father had such a close relationship to (the composer) in a human sense, as well as professionally. It was such that I always had the feeling I knew Shostakovich myself, even though it’s not possible. We spoke a lot about Shostakovich from my childhood and now since my father is no longer here I think about this energy he was creating, because you are right, I feel strongly his presence is still here. Even though I’m not able to ask him in real life for advice, I feel it, and it has been like that before when I was in touch with the music of Shostakovich – I was doing a lot of his music throughout my life and always feel an energetic support from him myself, although I didn’t know him. My father would speak about a genetic memory, and I think it’s valuable; he himself had strong genetic memory because of his father and grandfather. The period of The Human Comedy, or when we speak about Balzac and the 19th century, or the first thirty years of 20th century when this piece was written for theatre, those are all periods my father couldn’t know himself, but still a very strong connection existed. And I have the feeling it’s not an accident that history sometimes makes these repetitions – that is also a little bit related to this Human Comedy, to this exchange of tragedy and comedy, this continuance; it never stops.
So the idea of Shostakovich, as with other artists, is that there is no end of the story – there might be the end of somebody’s life, but the whole story will continue with other characters, like a play. So when you feel part of the huge theatrical play, that’s also what people like Shakespeare imagined, then you… have to also create a distance to everything, which is not bad, especially in our days, because it is very difficult to continue and to go on when you are facing really very strong negative things, like war, like illness –so you need a distance to all that.
But you also need immediacy, a sense of relationship to what you watch, what you listen to, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, whatever you consume in whatever forms, and I feel Shostakovich really understood that – your father understood that also. That sense of connection is powerfully manifest in chamber arrangements. How, to your mind, does changing the tonality for voice, and within a chamber configuration, affect understandings of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, and Shostakovich’s music?
The word “transposition” is a great word; it has so much inside of it! I am always curious why we call it, in musical language, a transposition from one tonality or modulation to another one – of course it will be another piece, so I am very curious how this particular piece will sound. Every tonality has a colour; every tonality has a character, so when you change tonalities you change a lot of things – that’s clear. But we have to take into account that every piece of music we hear, from Baroque times or from Classical times, that all the tonalities – all the G Minors and whatnot – from that period are not the same as now because of the tuning, so when you start to play this music in the way it was done at the time it was written, then you understand it’s really another feeling. But it doesn’t mean you have to do that – you can play it also in the modern tonalities, with modern instruments. The times are changing and the acoustics are changing. What I can say about the Tsvetaeva work is, I have a feeling for now anyway, that the music itself remains dark, the cycles of Shostakovich remain dark, even if we put everything one tone higher, but the transference of the text now means it might be even stronger because of that. When you take the very high voices with the very high notes you can barely understand them.
For example, I’m talking now a little bit lower, because there is also microphone so I don’t have to raise my voice so much, but if I’m talking to somebody, the minute I speak a little bit higher, the attention, the whole energy, changes – it’s like a string pulled tighter, the whole connection is stronger, right at this moment. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different kind of energy, so I’m really curious how (the song cycle) will be, but it’s my feeling that the darkness becomes more transparent there. Also the number of musicians onstage is really not big, you can do it with a bigger group, but for me, I’m not a pianist, I’m a cellist – I was doing a lot of chamber music and a lot of soloistic music, especially, so it’s a different feeling. My best memories were the cycles of Shostakovich with the Blok poetry which is written for piano trio and voice, and there were movements where you had just cello and voice together, and this type of intimacy where you have this one voice and one instrument, for me is something I always try to aim for even when I have a big symphony to perform. I’m always searching for these intimate moments when you can really produce this kind of tension. It’s like when you have a crowd of people and everyone is talking and then suddenly everyone is silent and you have two people looking at each and talking to each other – that’s powerful. This silence is extremely strong. And for somebody like Tsvetaeva, her work really asks for silence, even if she’s screaming or crying, it’s not for mainstream television, let’s say.
Some translations capture that relationship between silence and music better than others; the repetitions in her writing are staccato in some ways – so deliberate, so rhythmic, so musical.
They really are…
I wonder if people miss that musicality because of the drama, but she’s asking as much for a subconscious understanding through that musicality as a conscious one through the words themselves, and I think Shostakovich captures both in this song cycle…
Yes that’s true!
.. now I wanted to ask you, these chamber sounds, vocal sounds, ensemble sounds – the ways you perceive sound, and write, conduct, and transpose, are they informed by the cello?
Yes, you’re right; they are. I have to say, my biggest learning, one of my best schooling in working with singers was by playing cello, because it is the instrument which has the biggest connection to the human voice. It includes the whole range of all possible sounds, from bass to soprano, in one instrument. I remember I had an ensemble, a chamber group, we performed with a baritone, me as a cellist, and a pianist, we were doing many arrangements, not only opera arias but we were also playing, lots of duets for example, of Schumann and Schubert, where one voice was played by cello and one was singing, and there was always a moment where you consciously lost this – like “where is the voice and where is the cello?” This is also what Shostakovich really did great, his understanding of sounds, of the voice as an instrument, was really central. So when vocalists deal with Shostakovich, they have to really think like an instrument, especially for performing his music, it’s a great need. Of course it helps when you have, generally, great poetry. In Italian opera you sometimes have a kind of text which is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but of course you have it sometimes where the words are really not important but the vocal line is, and that’s something else – but when you deal with Russian or German or also sometimes Italian, but another type of style, like something from Petrarch or Dante, something where the text is leading, it’s obvious how the music has to be.
That’s why it’s so great with Shostakovich: the music has to be leading and carrying at the same time. And especially when you see the amazing last movement of the cycle, when it’s about Akhmatova, so Tsvetaeva is writing about Akhmatova, through Shostakovich’s musical line, it’s just… you have so many incredible people in one little musical bar… it’s immense. For a conductor, a musician, a listener, it doesn’t matter – you have to show it to others, you don’t have to show yourself, you don’t have to pretend your art is higher or mightier than anything those people were creating. It’s not about you. That’s why it’s so important to be a little bit aside, and to be a little bit under this, let’s say, sound, still controlling everything, still producing your language, and with your capacities, but! This is too fragile, all this music and chamber music generally is very fragile, and in combination with poetry of Tsvetaeva and music of Shostakovich, you can’t just throw it somewhere; you have to touch it as if it’s crystal. That’s the best possibility, for everyone … to hear, to listen, to inhale it. That’s why I am always looking forward, so much, to all these sorts of concerts, but energetically they take… it’s a much bigger challenge than a huge symphony or opera. It’s sometimes much more difficult to produce something like that.
Your use of the word “fragility” brings Silvestrov’s work to mind. He is on the programme with Shostakovich on Sunday. How do you see the connection?
The interesting thing is I performed Silvestrov in my time as a cellist many years ago. His work is always very much related to beauty, and it’s very honest music; he was never trying to pretend that he was the big modernist of the 20th century. Somebody like Arvo Pärt is also not a modernist but is very much about the spirit of music. I know Pärt very well, we spoke a lot about music, and you can feel how important the spiritual energy has always been for him in his life, and not only in his music – but with Silvestrov, it’s different; it’s so simple with him. Of course now the situation has changed. He’s not the only existing Ukrainian composer but he’s the big one being performed. He’s the oldest, for sure – luckily it’s still alive, and he will be present on Sunday. For musicians performing his music now, you can imagine it’s even more a responsibility now than it was twenty years ago, and still, I am absolutely sure it is so important for him as a composer, and for us as interpreters, to play music, to make music, to show the artistic side of Silvestrov. Shostakovich was much more political than Silvestrov, of course, they were much different times in which Shostakovich lived. But he was somebody who was a fighter; he was always fighting crises. Somehow, luckily for him, he didn’t need to invent anything; it was already present in reality. Shostakovich generally works very well in combination with other composers of the Soviet Union of the 20th century, but with a little bit different way of energy.
It’s interesting that Silvestrov is being honoured at the festival this year, and that his work is on this programme with the Shostakovich chamber arrangements.
Especially the Tsvetaeva work, which comes directly after the Silvestrov piece. His work is chamber music, and it’s about feeling, about atmosphere. With Shostakovich there is a script, always, there is a clear storyline, even if it’s not… even if you play Shostakovich’s chamber music without words, still, yes, he is the narrator of the story. Silvestrov, it was always my feeling, he’s a witness of atmosphere, and he’s sharing that atmosphere. So that’s why I think there is a good link between them.
He’s an observer of atmosphere and putting it out there has its own kind of interpretation of script…
… it’s one that is being written as it’s being played, and it changes all the time. That’s what I hear in Silvestrov, not a narrative but a sort of Beckett play where there’s a very pervasive mood that is inherent to overall understanding. I wonder if that’s another connection with the work of Shostakovich, that development of feeling with inner and outer worlds.
That’s about performing, though. Performing must include a script – whatever you are doing, it must have a certain sense. Sometimes you have a kind of clear help from the composer who is writing everything already, so you have just to comment; in other cases you have to create a script for yourself, and with the music of Silvestrov it’s not difficult. Especially in the 21st century – and the 20th they had it as well – you have movies, when you know how a movie can work, and you know what the perfect music is for it. That’s essentially what Shostakovich said about Silvestrov – they knew each other of course. Silvestrov is 84 years old now, he knew Shostakovich, who was always very polite to his colleagues, and had a lot of respect for people like Schnittke and Kancheli. I remember hearing from the widow of Shostakovich, from Irina, I spoke to her two weeks ago about this concert, and she said, “Yes, he always respected Silvestrov, he said (Silvestrov’s) music is amazing especially when somebody knows how to paint.” So somehow it’s an interesting way to describe his music.
So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?
Good point, yes.
Experiencing all these “paintings” in a live setting on Sunday, one which is so historically loaded, and especially with you doing it, feels profound, though it must be a little daunting for you?
What do you mean?
Parental figures who give their children deep connections to art can cast large shadows, as my own mother did; after she passed and I had to go do things in public with some kind of connection to her, it was like walking into a room naked; I learned that one has to draw a line between what one gives the public and saves for one’s self.
Well, you know Catherine, when I chose this profession and started to conduct, having my father and my brother, these important and successful conductors already, I knew I would be kind of naked my entire life. So that’s nothing new to me. I’ve done this job for seventeen years now. The only thing which is kind of changing for myself, not for other people, is that I feel my… responsibility, first of all, for this profession since he passed away, is now bigger than it was before. Because now I have not only to be just to be on a certain professional level, we all have to achieve this for all our lives, but I have also to respect and show respect to his memory, you know? And respect to memory, responsibility for somebody who is not there anymore, physically at least, for me it’s now an experience to say that somehow it’s even bigger, but it gives you more energy.
I remember the day he passed away, on the 19th of March, this day I was in my theatre in Novosibirsk and the next day I had Traviata to conduct, not the easiest opera to do, especially… but the thing is… whatever piece I would conduct, whatever I would take, my father had such a huge repertoire and had done so many things in his life, so there is always a kind of link to him. And I have to be honest, I didn’t have so much energy to go onstage of course at that time, but I did it, because I knew he would really appreciate it at this precise moment. And I mean I always have, it’s one of the main reasons I do this profession, is that I have very special feelings for singers – that’s the most fragile and most sensitive thing because you have an instrument here, inside. I always trying to treat the singers with a necessary sensitivity, but now I have the feeling it’s even more, because I know they have to produce out their emotions they have inside, you know? So this experience is something, and it’s the thing that will stay with me forever. I know of course there is always a period of grief you have to go through and some of your parents or the people close to you die, and somehow it’s over, you’re over this hill, and you still have the memories but there’s a distance…
… I can tell you the grief comes back, but in a different form.
Yes, I have the feeling when we talk about him, it will never be completely distant to me. We are doing the same profession and my life and profession are the same thing. There will be, always, a strong connection, and probably through the years, it will become even stronger.
Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
For many in the classical world, summer means one thing: festivals. In continental Europe, the UK, and North America, outdoor festivals celebrating both opera and orchestral works, not to mention chamber music, are unfolding, with a certain joy more palpable this year than others. After so many experimental iterations (especially in Salzburg, where the festival powered through the worst of the pandemic in 2020), there is a firm, fond embrace of the familiar, and one hopes, a bit of a face toward the future in terms of programming, casting, productions, and (one hopes) safety protocols.
Fans of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) will have already long planned a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, founded by Wagner himself in 1876 and built expressly to manifest his groundbreaking concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Getting there takes a bit of planning; the town can be reached by train (from Munich it’s roughly a two-hour journey through Nuremberg) and tickets to performances require completing an early application, though online purchases were made available at the end of May. Local hotels are booked months in advance – usually; a quick check shows they aren’t all quite full this year, owing, perhaps more than anything to lingering effects of covid/omicron. Just how the classical world continues to navigate this challenge depends on who you ask; many are soldiering on, but there are also many cancellations and fill-ins, onstage and in the pit. Audiences are somewhat skittish about returning to indoor spaces – and again, the level of skittishness depends on who you ask, and where they’re travelling. The Festspielhaus, (in)famous for its uncomfortable seats and lack of air circulation, is mostly wood, as per Wagner’s wishes – as such, the nature of the house’s architecture simply doesn’t allow for modern interventions à la AC, a challenge given Germany’s increasingly steamy summers. You will experience Wagner’s works the way he intended; if you have to endure physical discomfort to do so, well, so be it. With the opening of the festival on 27 June with Tristan and Isolde (featuring tenor Stephen Gould opposite soprano Catherine Foster), there occurs the kind of sonic immersion Wagner aimed for; Wagner’s magnificent score has this odd (oddly discomfiting, for me) way of utterly erasing… time, circumstance, the edgeless, blunt forms of sameness that have been a hallmark of pandemic life thus far, the immediacy of mediocrity (and arguably the immediate realities of a hot, airless auditorium). As I’ve written in the past, my ears have lately developed teeth, a reaction to the prevailing attitude of safe-and-boring programming that colours far too much of post-pandemic classical life; Wagner offers up a chewy, delicious eight-course feast, then demanding even further capacity and appetite.
Something strangely similar in terms of sonic experience occurred in Weimar in August 2018, when I attended the world premiere of the first act of Franz Liszt’s Sardanapalo, a presentation which had been 170 years in the making. Liszt (1811-1886), a composer known far more for his piano work (compositions as much as his famous performances), never completed a full opera. Sardanapalo was based on the tragedy by Lord Byron, (published in 1821) and began life in sketch-form in 1849, with Liszt using abbreviations and creating alternative versions, eventually coming to a 115-page manuscript. The project fell by the wayside when the composer was unable to find a proper libretto for the second and third acts. Catalogued in 1910, the work was considered too incomplete for performance – until British musicologist David Trippett came across it at the at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar in the early 2000s, and subsequently spent years painstakingly piecing it together. Presented by Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar with soloists soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández, and bass baritone Oleksandr Pushniak all under the baton of Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the work has sonic connections with Wagner’s 1845 operaera Tannhaüser (something Karabits had noted prior to the premiere) and an equally clear nod in orchestration to Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) though its insistent melodicism and pungent scoring also recall Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) and SimonBoccanegra (1857). Sardanapalo demands much of its listener (one indeed needs toothsome ears here), but it offers compelling characterization through its orchestration, scoring, and mix of creative influences – indeed, hearing it inspires many thoughts around possible live presentations that go beyond in-concert formats. A recording of the work was released via Audite in February 2019 (done in Weimar), and a performing edition of the score released by Schott in summer 2019.
Trippett and I spoke briefly after the 2018 performance, but unfortunately we didn’t have the kind of extended, chewy exchange I would have liked. Thank goodness for an email that landed in my inbox this past April from Europe-based classical writer Dejan Vukosavljevic, asking if I would be interested in just this exchange, one which he and Trippett, who is Professor of Music at Cambridge University, had happily conducted earlier this year. Vukosavljevic explores not only Liszt’s work but the complicated artist behind it, his very complex relationship with Wagner, the possibilities for a work long thought lost, and, more immediately, inquires as to how the pandemic impacted academic pursuits. Trippett himself is a formidable interview subject, knowledgeable but never stuffy, excited to share discoveries, his joy of the material (and their various social, cultural, political, and historical contexts) palpable and infectious. This exchange was a fortuitous and good bit of timing personally – I have long considered bringing on new contributors to my website. The advantages of new voices are myriad, their wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion immense – you don’t always want one voice or viewpoint on any given topic, but a multiplicity of voices and related experiences in order to make the meal that much richer. This seems especially important in classical, which can very often feel like a small, airless bubble. Vukosavljevic has a natural curiosity (he mentioned in recent exchange that his hobbies include “stargazing, reading, playing chess, socializing”) and his knowledge of (and obvious enthusiasm for) the classical world makes one hope for further contributions, and further journeys up in music history, composition, and performance. Thank you Dejan, and thank you Professor Trippett – if I can’t go up the hill to Bayreuth this year, I am happy to go up the hill of music history and learn something new along the way; I hope readers will join us.
DV: How did COVID-19 pandemic influence your work as a musicologist and a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge? Where did you feel the biggest pressure?
DT: The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye, didn’t it? We instantly become online avatars, and adapted courses to keep all paths of study on track. But no online medium can replace the vibrant atmosphere of the seminar room. Looking back, lockdown feels like stolen time. Oddly, though, there were also benefits – like a lot of reading and exploring new repertoire, along with innovations in mediatized performance and testing the limits of multitrack performance. Digital resources are excellent for 19th-century studies, where many manuscripts are available online. This is the case for the Richard Wagner Museum and the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, both of which I use often in my work. So, if anything, the pandemic increased my reliance on these resources. Where was the biggest pressure? I would say the lack of contact, which was strangely alienating even as so much music went online. In concert, music touches you – literally so. Touch is the sense that unifies all other sense modalities. A singer’s voice or the vibrating reed sets in motion a pressure wave that physically touches your middle ear. Not experiencing that proximity to real acoustic sound, collectively as part of an audience – with its capacity for beauty, curiosity, and catharsis – was difficult.
DV: Your work encompasses many areas of classical music. What was your motive to begin to study the life and works of Richard Wagner?
DT: Originally I intended to do my doctoral research on Franz Liszt. I’d played so much of his piano music as a child that it had become a point of orientation for me, and I often felt it refracted in the music of others, from Debussy to Ligeti. In the end I defected to Wagner. I had listened to the Ring cycle three times when I was 14 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink), the third time with libretto in hand, and I began playing all the vocal scores. As a student, I remember travelling to Helsinki just to hear Leif Segerstam conduct the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual reach is unparalleled in 19th century music and philosophy, and, aside from the sheer richness and power of the music, the range and quantity of his ideas and commentaries, and the copious evidence of the manuscript sources proved irresistible. There is still so much work to do.
DV: Would you label yourself as a Wagnerian? What do you see in Wagner’s music that makes him so special?
DT: The history of ‘Wagnerians’ makes any such label tricky. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of the Wagner historiography. On the one hand, few would want to align today with the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain or Winifred Wagner, both of whose curation of Wagner’s legacy was intertwined with bad politics; on the other hand, his works are continually reimagined for our time by directors, as when Siegfried’s body was draped in the Ukrainian flag in Madrid last month, or when (director) Peter Konwitschny situated Lohengrin in a German school. What remains constant is the powerful nature of the music, its continual colouristic and harmonic flux, and the ongoing psychological resonance of the drama.
Early on, leitmotifs were wryly dismissed as dotty ‘calling cards’ or ‘an address book’, but beyond simple signs, they convey the way that memories change, and the different experiences of time passing. When Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, its significance reverberates backwards and forward throughout the entire cycle. The Greek model of an orchestral commentary, too, offers a dynamic structure in continually re-evaluating the significance of events. That said, Wagner’s sophisticated orchestration and motivic techniques change significantly across his oeuvre – so there isn’t simply the leitmotif technique. Listening before and after the Act III Prelude to Siegfried (the densest compression of motifs to date) makes this particularly stark.
Beyond this, Wagner absorbed the values and learning of his age, so his works faithfully and fatefully refract these interests, from anti-vivisectionism to purification by holy fire. The director Michael Hampe once put it to me that Wagner’s works are ‘miracles of humanity’, and that opera directors might begin by asking ‘how do I present this so that others will understand this immense value?’ I think it’s a wonderful question.
DV: Your first monograph Wagner’s Melodies, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, examines the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. How did it start?
DT: I became fascinated with the paradox that Wagner placed ‘melody’ at the centre of his aesthetic theories (‘music’s only form’), yet he was consistently ridiculed by critics for being unable to compose a melody. The book uses this basic incongruity to re-examine Wagner’s central aesthetic claims, and places his ideas about melody into the context of the scientific discourse of the age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music’s stimulation of the body and inventions for ‘automatic’ composition. Researching and writing it at Harvard and Cambridge was a fascinating experience. It led me to explore all manner of sources, from Wagner’s insertion aria for Bellini’s Norma, to a device called the psychograph for transcribing your unconscious musical thoughts… it gave me a chance to ask why it had become so difficult for German writers even to define melody (and—for most—quite impossible to teach it), and why melody simultaneously occupied the centre-ground of expression in opera, yet sat at the apex of artistic self-consciousness for German composers. Thinking about melodic intensity without actual, Italianate melody changed the way I listened to certain music – yes, I think it did.
DV: Wagner composed thirteen operas in total, but was also his own librettist; how would you describe his approach to literary writing?
DT: Wagner’s alliteration, coordinated speech roots, and creatively antique forms of language often raise a smile. Unlike, say, his orchestration, it was an area of his work that was openly questioned by contemporaries. For me, the opera poems after 1850 reflect his theories about language and of how language communicates, and these change, of course – which is why you find a diatribe against rhyming, metrical verse in his essay “Opera and Drama” (iambic pentameter as ‘five-footed little monsters’), yet a return to precisely such verse in Meistersinger fifteen years later. Ever pragmatic, his underlying goal in what he called ‘verse melody’ was to uncover a musically infected form of communication that couldn’t fail to be understood, even (especially) by those with no training.
There are various librettos that he completed but never set to music, including a quasi-Buddhist drama (The Victors), and a vaudeville about a cross-dressing bear (The Happy Bear Family). He held all of these poems dear, and suggested to other composers, including Liszt, that they set them instead. So fiercely did he feel that the Ring poem was a work of world literature, that he published it in 1853, as a book, though he came to regret that decision! Even accepting the importance of his theory of speech roots that rhyme and concatenate sounds, we now tend to use Wagner’s language more as an artistic means, for music, rather than celebrate it as literature.
DT: Much has been written about Bayreuth as a proto-cinema, but I think the desire to control an audience’s sensorium was only part of the story. Since his time in Dresden during the early 1840s, Wagner had been advocating practical innovations to his theatre (like enabling sight lines, updating the instruments, pensioning off the weakest performers), and his friendship with the brilliant architect Gottfried Semper — who designed the barricades Wagner defended during the uprising in May 1849 — shaped his ambitions for what a theatre could be. Add to this the explosion of contemporary research into sense physiology under figures like Johannes Müller and Helmholtz, and Wagner’s own belief that audiences had to physically experience music, first-hand, in order to ‘get it’, and it is not hard to see why the Festspielhaus project came about. Nor why it has become a focal point for the history of a specifically Wagnerian culture in all its stripes. Wagner sought to do away with mediating explanations, where ideally the entire role of music criticism would become redundant – in many ways Bayreuth was conceived as a monument to that ideal.
DV: Franz Liszt was the composer who helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert while he was in Weimar. How would you describe the relationship between the two composers?
DT: In a word: asymmetrical. They first met in 1841. Initially, Wagner pursued Liszt more for career advancement than artistic kinship, sending him the scores for Rienzi and Tannhäuser (‘I proceed quite openly to rouse you up in my favour’). By 1848, he began requesting financial help from Liszt, initially selling the copyright to his extant operas and accepting commissions, but thereafter simply requesting a series of bailouts, often in uncomfortably obsequious, manipulative prose. 1849 marked a sea change: Liszt was enormously impressed by Wagner’s latest works, which he felt were at the vanguard of progress. He conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, making sets of piano transcriptions of both (a supreme endorsement), he sought to conduct Siegfrieds Tod (had Wagner finished it), and even asked to premiere Tristan und Isolde in Weimar. During the 1850s, Liszt had the fame, influence, resources, and financing to rescue Wagner from critical and political ignominy as a composer-criminal, ingloriously expelled from Germany in 1849. Perhaps most significantly, he was a key figure in securing Wagner’s eventual amnesty and in promoting the first fledgling Bayreuth festivals.
But by the end, he referred to himself as ‘Bayreuth’s poodle’ after being wheeled out as a celebrity to endorse the second festival, after Wagner’s death (in February 1883). Wagner had questioned the comprehensibility of symphonic poetry in 1857, and would (privately) dismiss Liszt’s late works as ‘budding insanity’. There were two rifts in 1859 and 1864, the first over a misreading of tone in Liszt’s remarks about Tristan, the second more serious – about the Cosima affair (Wagner to Cosima: ‘Your father is repugnant to me’). So despite an early period of genuine, intense artistic friendship on both sides, the relationship was always lopsided. There is much more to say, of course, and I’ve written about this in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013; Editor Nicholas Vazsonyi).
DV: Liszt was a prolific composer, but spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s play. How did Sardanapalo come about, and why do you think it became such a challenge for him?
DT: By his mid 20s, Liszt’s ambitions for the ‘social mission’ of art exceeded mere pianism. By his early 30s, he saw how Rossini and Meyerbeer towered above other composers in Paris. Their medium? Opera. In his eyes, the spectacle, size, expense and public appeal of Franco-Italian opera ensured that this was the privileged route to such power, to entering ‘the musical guild’, as he later put it. Schumann had written publicly of a ‘disconnect’ between Liszt’s two identities, as a great pianist but less developed composer, and it must have hurt. The opera Sardanapalo was born of ambition (‘to cross my dramatic Rubicon’) – and it sounds like that. Liszt was intimately familiar with French and Italian opera scores of the age (that is, transcriptions and paraphrases), so composition of his mature opera was remarkably fluent; the libretto was his Achilles heel. He had searched widely for the right topic, eventually settling on Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus in 1845. Sadly, he wasted several years waiting for the playwright Félician Mallefille (1813-1868) to fulfil the libretto commission. He finally accepted a text procured by his close friend the Italian Princess Belgiojoso, a well-connected writer and salonnière exiled in Paris. We don’t know who this poet was – he was reportedly imprisoned for agitating towards Italian independence, and in need of funds! Liszt worried that he was no Byron or Metastasio, and implored Belgiojoso to work on the text herself so that it would emerge under her authority (‘Permit me simply to place my entire musical destiny in your beautiful hands’).
When the versified text for Act 1 finally came through, Liszt set it to music in a detailed, continuous short score (a particell). It took many letters, follow-ups and prompts, including the threat of commissioning a new poet, to extract the versified libretto for Acts 2-3, but Liszt never set them. He questioned aspects of the libretto to Belgiojoso, and evidently wanted changes made before setting anything further. As far as we know, no revised libretto was ever sent, and by this time (c. 1852), Liszt was so deeply involved in other compositional projects, not least the symphonic poems, that the zeal and original reason for completing an Italian opera a decade ago had faded.
DV: The score for Sardanapalo was thought to be almost impossible to read, and its music irretrievable. What was your approach in its reevaluation and eventual presentation in 2018?
DT: I was puzzled by the idea that a musician as intelligent as Liszt would have notated musical materials that were full of errors or made little sense, as some had suggested. The problem was more likely to be that we were reading his manuscript incorrectly. When I began studying the manuscript in detail, parts of it were legible, but at first glance it looked incomplete; Liszt used many abbreviations and forms of shorthand – like mini-codes to himself – to get everything on paper at pace. I made about 15 transcriptions of the full manuscript. With each new transcription, the contents became clearer. It was a bit like a very pixelated image gradually coming into focus, in ever-higher resolution with each transcription. Liszt was writing for his eyes only, so a lot of accidentals, signatures, rests etc. were missing. Fortunately, the vocal parts were complete and continuous – fully notated with text underlay. In three places, the accompaniment appeared to drop out, creating odd gaps with continuous vocal parts above. The solution was that Liszt in fact sets up clear, formulaic accompanimental patterns that would continue; in an age before cut & paste, he simply didn’t feel the need to write them out in full.
DV: How did the research process for Sardanapalo unfold for you?
DT: It was a genuine leap of faith. I had no idea what the manuscript would contain when I began, but as the project progressed, I felt a growing responsibility to bring the remarkable material he wrote to light in a way that was both scholarly and historically sensitive. There is a very detailed commentary in the critical edition (Neue Liszt Ausgabe), and a major question that remained was whether or not to orchestrate the work. As written, the short score is often unplayable on the piano, and Liszt left a few cues for instrumentation, even specifying orchestral textures in detail here and there. (Following normal practice, his assistant Joachim Raff was due to produce a provisional orchestration in 1852, which Liszt would then have revised.) It was clear, then, he was thinking in orchestral colours. For that reason, I felt the music should be presented in fully orchestrated form as well as in a critical edition.
Beyond this, it was enormously valuable working with several young singers from the Jette Parker Programme at the Royal Opera House, and later, with (conductor) Kirill Karabits and the three singers (Joyce El-Khoury, Airam Hernández, Oleksandr Pushniak) who performed the full world premiere. Although Liszt notated the vocal parts in full – for instance, with all ornaments, phrase markings – many details for performance still had to be discovered by trying out the music, and seeing how it fits in the voice: tempo, transitions, articulation, shape. All of this could only be explored by making the leap into sound.
Oleksandr Pushniak, Airam Hernández, Joyce El-Khoury and David Trippett at Staatskapelle Weimar on August 19. Photo: Candy Welz
DV: What were your impressions from hearing the world premiere in Weimar?
DT: It was a revelation. The performers were so committed and inspired in bringing this to an audience, and the orchestra – Liszt’s own orchestra, in his adopted city – was magnificent under Kirill. It had the feel not only of creating history, but of history folding back on itself, as though in an alternative reality the opera had finally materialized in all its splendour. That first performance was released as a CD, and it was such an achievement for all concerned, topping the UK Classical charts, ICMA finalist, making the Guardian’s Top 10 discs of 2019. I have such admiration for all the performers.
DV: The opera had concert performances lined up this year in Budapest, Edinburgh and London, but things got frozen due to COVID-19 pandemic. What are your plans for the future?
The pandemic froze many exciting artistic projects, and Sardanapalo was no exception. There are some discussions ongoing for future performances in Hungary and America, but it is sad to think that the music waited 170 years to be heard, had a moment of glory and began spreading with momentum, only for it to be silenced again by the cruel effects of the pandemic. I would hope that Liszt’s ingenuity in creating a modern, through-composed bel canto opera will continue to be enjoyed by audiences. And, it’s crucial to note here that following detailed work on the critical edition, the final, fully corrected score has yet to actually be performed – there is a striking difference at the end of Mirra’s cabaletta, for example.
DV: Do you believe that Sardanapalo could find its way into the repertoire of the opera houses in the near future in some staged production?
DT: It would be a creative opportunity for the right director. Could it be staged? Yes. Without doubt. The action is largely psychological – interior – but that is no different to Tristan (Wagner) or Bluebeard (Bartók). The challenge would be how to couple it with another one-act opera that complements Byron’s drama. Liszt frames the act with a concubine chorus and the royal army marching off to war; in between we have the adulterous couple learning about each other’s passions, insecurities and power, and on stage is the silent wife.
In today’s world of conflict, King Sardanapalo’s firmly anti-war stance resonates (‘Every glory is a lie, / if it must be bought with the weeping / of afflicted humankind.’), and the outer action pivots on Mirra’s plea that the he overcome this aversion to violent conflict, that he stand up and defend the realm. He listens and is finally persuaded by her lyricism – so off they go to war. It certainly offers plenty of creative material, from the opulence of ancient Assyria to the irony of a brutal Byronic hero who loves peace – 2024 is the 200th anniversary of Byron’s death, so who knows?
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Top: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale), Eugène Delacroix, 1827. Source: Musée du Louvre.
Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.
And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.
Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?
Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.
The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.
Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:
It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.
Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.
After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.
And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
You’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?
I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.
Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?
That’s my hope.
Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.
I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.
These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.
You are your own brand in that sense.
Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.
And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...
That’s very true…
… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.
I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.
The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…
… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?
I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources. So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?
I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.
That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.
That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”
I hate that…
I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.
By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?
People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.
I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…
The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.
The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?
I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…
Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.
That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…
It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.
It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.
Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.
Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.
That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.
That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.
That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.
Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?
That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.
Because you haven’t done it yet…
I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.
I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…
I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.
Like literary Ur-Text?
There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.
I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.
A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.
Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.
Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.
But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists?
I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.
Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
The extent to which concert and opera-going habits have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming known. Recent announcements suggest that many organizations are playing it safe (or what they perceive as safe) in offering reams of favored classical chestnuts for 2022-2023 seasons in order to entice audiences, both old and new, back into the concert halls and opera houses. Any semblance of challenge is being left largely within the parameters of individual approaches – an interesting twist on “make your own fun”, perhaps – but one might still wish such notions (challenge, individual thought, critical thinking) hold some form of value in the post-pandemic classical landscape. I would like to believe that the idea of challenge – and its first cousin, curiosity – do indeed matter, and that whatever choices are (or be perceived as) over-cautious within future programming might be somehow reconfigured in order to open the door to more careful, contextualized listening / live experiences. As someone fascinated by how sounds transmit both verbal and non-verbal meaning, it has become a natural, near-unconscious habit to listen not passively but passionately. My ears, as I remarked to someone recently, have grown teeth; everything is evaluated with an intense energy and attention to detail. Developing incisive listening (and seeing, and evaluating) skill, however unconsciously, does not, despite being a music writer, always bring benefits; such habit is now perceived in some quarters as churlishness, over-criticism, over-analysis, even (heaven forbid), ingratitude (“You should be grateful live music is back at all!”). Yet this aural and visual approach, one now so useful amidst so many programming announcements, is not to be turned off or hidden, but rather, used in the interests of feeding curiosity, furthering inquiry, broadening the field of discovery.
So what a treat it was, to come across the album Mélodies (Audax, 2020) by soprano Adriana González and Basque pianist/conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón earlier this year. Featuring the largely-unknown songs of French composers Robert Dussaut (1896-1969) and Hélène Covatti (1910-2005), the album is a stellar showcase of González’s immense vocal talents, conveying a strong sense of the Guatemala-born soprano’s immense gift in integrating sensitive interpretation and smart technical approach; comparisons to the late Welsh soprano Margaret Price (1941-2011) come to mind, and have been rightly noted. The natural chemistry between González and Oyón share is evident through album’s 22 tracks, with the soprano’s coloration, phrasing, and textures matched by the pianist’s poetic tempos, touch, and dynamism, creating a luscious showcase of the hauntingly beautiful writing of each of the respective composers. “Adieux à l’étranger“ (1922) is a wistful work, Dussaut’s writing recalling the lyrical qualities of Massenet, while Covatti’s “Berceuse” shows clear connections to Ravel and De Falla; in each, González’s skillfully modulates voice and dynamics with and around Oyón’s delicate, intuitive playing. Mélodies is a very rewarding, very captivating listen, one that provides a wonderful introduction to both the composers and to Gonzalez’s larger talents, tantalizingly hinting at the explosive intensity which she so ably channels in live performance.
Winner of the First and Zarzuela Prizes at the Operalia competition in 2019, González has performed with Oper Frankfurt, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opéra de Toulon, Opéra national de Lorraine, Opera Naţională Română Timişoara. Most recently she made her American debut with Houston Grand Opera, singing the role of Juliette in Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette opposite tenor Michael Spyres. This month sees Gonzalez perform Verdi’s Requiem in Portugal, a work she will perform again later this year with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; other roles next season include Michaela in Carmen (with Dutch National Opera, Paris Opera, and with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège) and as Echo in Gluck’s Écho et Narcisse with Opéra Royal, Versailles. Having become a member of the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opera in 2014, González has developed a wide repertoire, one that hews to her rich if highly flexible lyric soprano style, with an emphasis on Mozart, Rossini, and Puccini so far. That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to expand her fach, but she does it with maximum awareness of her instrument – its demands, its realities, the stamina required and the ways it can be fostered with grace and sensitivity, all whilst simultaneously exercising a clear artistic curiosity. González’s recital with Oyón earlier this year in Dijon featured music from her Dussaut/Covatti album, as well as music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), as well as songs from her recent album, Albéniz: Complete Songs (Audax), a 30-track exploration of the Spanish composer’s varied vocal oeuvre. Released last October and rightly nominated for an 2022 International Classical Music Award (ICMA), the album is a seamless integration of chemistry, technique, and artistry with González again delivering a stunning display of her immense vocality and feeling for the art of song.
As I learned when we spoke recently, González, while highly aware of her powerful, affecting sound, is also aware of her desire to stretch, explore, and cultivate her talent creatively, with a firm hold of context at every step. We started off discussing what it was like to quickly step into the role of Liù for a performance of Turandot in Houston, as she was concurrently performing Juliette. Stress, what stress? González seems too focused a performer to let nerves ever get the best of her, and her recollection of the experience was coloured more by a mix off excitement, disbelief, and gratitude than any dregs of self-doubt. González is as much earthy as she is studious, and that intensity I referenced earlier is, as ever, always in the service of a knowing approach to craft. Such a combination of ingredients makes for a meal that satisfies toothsome ears, and for a very rewarding form of listening amidst post-pandemic times.
When I learned about your quickly stepping into the role of Liù I reviewed my 2019 conversation with conductor Carlo Rizzi about Turandot, who called that character the heart of the opera. What was it like to step into that world so quickly?
Musically it was quite something – but I didn’t do the staging. They had me singing from the side and had an actor doing the staging tagging because Robert Wilson’s Turandot is very precise in terms of movements. The actress didn’t know the music really well, so (the production team) were talking to her through an earpiece and she had someone telling her, “Walk here, do this, do that, step left, one step back – no you stepped too far” – for her I can’t imagine what it was like. For me of course Liù is such a different vocality from Juliette, it was like, “Okay, go for it!” In Roméo et Juliette I thought, “Keep it proper, it’s French” and with Puccini, well, it’s home very much for me vocally, but I hadn’t sung Liù since 2019 and in doing it recently I thought, “Oh my voice has really grown, it’s changed, this feels different” – so that was wonderful. And the conductor, Eun Sun Kim, is amazing; every entrance was so clear, she would be waiting attentively at other moments; she knows the text of everything. She was there every step. It was like, “I know my part but I’m glad you do too!”
You said in a past interview that in preparing for a role you go over the vowel sounds and various details of vocalizing. What has it been like for you to examine the sounds within the text – has your process changed? I’m thinking here specifically of your doing Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Paris in 2019.
Iolanta was difficult because I don’t speak Russian and it was a secondary role – it was Brigitta, one of her nurses, and it was one of the contracts I did from the studio years in Paris. I had to do it but otherwise, I would be very skeptical to choose a role in an opera which is written in a language I don’t speak, because I find you really need to learn the language, you need to understand the cultural context and background from which the words originate. French is great for me: I know all the expressions; I find humour. When you see the phrases in opera, used in day to day, you can react better, just from an acting point of view –you can react better and propose things knowing the meaning of the text, from a technical and vocal technique point of view. You need to know the meaning of the word to know what kind of colour and what kind of nuance works also. For example, if you’re saying “I’m hesitating” then you don’t want to say “hesitating” or the feeling it implies so beautifully, it’s a feeling that doesn’t reflect something good – maybe it can be a good thing in the long run, but in the moment hesitation is doubt, it’s a feeling of unbalanced things. This is a lot of the thought process – you need to find a way of expressing that feeling clearly. And then of course we singers, we do these sounds and feelings through vowels, not through consonants specifically, so if you have vowel sounds, you need to make them a bit more acid if you are expressing a certain feeling, and you need to do it in a way so the whole experience of the word comes through. That’s the background we singers need to do even years before we start, just looking at the role and singing the role, because it’s muscular training you have to do to find those colours, and so you don’t get in trouble. You can’t do colours and really go for it with just your acting instinct. You have to take care of yourself, so that when you do those colours you’re not hurting your instruments. It’s a balance.
When I spoke with Etienne Dupuis earlier this year, he said how doing Don Carlos opened the door to many new things he hadn’t experienced singing it prior in Italian, but I wonder about the “acid sounds” – how much might such a vocal choice disturb perceptions of beauty in opera? If you’re concerned about making the expected “beautiful” sound you risk flattening the drama into this heterogeneous sonic mass, but committing to the sounds you describe means risking the way you – and your voice – are perceived by those who hold fast to notions of ‘the beautiful’ as paramount.
Tamara Wilson, who is amazing Turandot, dares to go piano, and it’s in those moments where you can really see Turandot’s vulnerability – and hearing that approach changes absolutely everything. It’s no longer this sort of scream-and-fight cliché– her performance has this power and this contrast, but also has length: the role is long enough that she can showcase all the colours she has. For some singers it is sometimes difficult. I did four years of young artist programs, and it was through that experience that I learned short roles can be just as hard; in a long role you have to pace yourself –when to do what –you have this amazing amount of time to showcase your whole palette. But with a short role, it’s just that little bit of time – I did a small role in Rigoletto, for instance – in which you can’t show a lot, but definitely when you have a longer role you make decisions on how to showcase the beauty but also the anguish, because opera is very much about real life. There are sad moments –you want to make people cry and think about beauty – but it also has to be real emotion. It can’t be beautiful all the time; there has to be a balance between the elements. There has to be a balance between where and how you choose the moments to really go for pain, and all else.
This speaks to theatre, does it not? To the power of theatre?
Theatre is firmly part of what opera is, and indeed these operas – Turandot is Carlo Gozzi via Friedrich Schiller, by way of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni; Roméo et Juliette is Shakespeare by way of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Do you, alongside opera recordings, examine the plays and/or performances of plays as part of your preparation?
I did read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I also heard an audio book performance of it, to hear the inflections of the language, and to hear how the pain of certain scenes was expressed through the words – some of those inflections of text were so powerful. I also listened because of (curiosity around) the stage movement; the Houston production has specific stage movement; we had to train to do and we rehearsed, but I find if the emotion and intention are clear, then that helps you, no matter how you move, no matter the specifics. The intention of the action is there in the background. I definitely went through that process and got a good feeling: “Okay this is a painful moment” Also it was good to compare Shakespeare to what Gounod took for his final libretto – it’s very different. There are varying characters who are emphasized or not emphasized, and the family feud (in Gounod) is in the background compared to what Shakespeare presents. Also I couldn’t help but notice Juliet’s cheekiness – she’s very cheeky in Shakespeare; Gounod’s Juliette is more fragile and sentimental.
How much was working with Michael Spyres (as Roméo) an aid to the process?
From the first day Michael and I clicked really well. I’m a World Youth Choir baby – I did that really young, that’s what sort of got me to Europe – and I had always heard about Michael Spyres, as he was also in that choir as a kid. We’d heard of each other too – all of our friends know each other but we hadn’t actually met ourselves, but then we did and it was like, “You! Yes, you!” We clicked immediately – it was a wonderful meeting. Working with him was fabulous. He’s such a professional, he knows how to manage his instrument and be expressive, and he’s so much about the text also. It was a beautiful and natural collaboration. Even outside of the duos, he’s someone who really listens to what you’re doing – I listen to what he’s doing also. The first time we did a run-through, we did it one way; the second time was comp different because we were listening to each other so intently, so we felt good to make changes already. He’s a wonderful colleague. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful Roméo. Even without verbal language, it is so clear we are so much on the same page.
Michael Spyres and Adriana González in Romeo and Juliet at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Lynn Lane.
Singers often emphasize chemistry – either it’s there or it isn’t. That’s important in a romantic opera, I should think… ?
It is important! It’s also a thing connected to life experiences. Talking with Michael, we’ve shared a lot of life experience, him and the countries he’d lived in, and me from Guatemala. Certain experiences create a certain way of thinking. Even if we grew up in different countries, he’ll say something about what he saw and I’ll say, “Hey, that happens in my country too!” So the life experiences are shared and create the way you behave and interact. That was also something that added to our work relationship.
And somehow the details, as you say, fall away. When you are doing this kind of project you can still come from your different places with all the related cultural backgrounds, but the meeting point somehow still exists, and that meeting happens in opera, and on record. Your album of Dussaut-Covatti is a good example, though I confess I hadn’t heard of the composers before hearing it…
That’s totally normal!
I don’t feel so bad now…
Don’t feel bad, seriously!
When you refer to chemistry, that is something definitely evident with your pianist, Iñaki Encina Oyón, through these songs; why make an album of their work?
I’m glad the complicity Iñaki and I have comes through. Now why do I say it’s normal not to know these composers? Because they are very unknown! The project came out of a very personal project for Iñaki and myself; the two composers, Dussaut and Covatti, are the parents of Iñaki’s piano teacher from Toulouse. When he left Spain he studied piano and conducting in Toulouse, and his piano teacher was the pianist Thérèse Dussaut (b. 1939), daughter of Hélène Covatti and Robert Dussaut. Thérèse doesn’t have children and she is getting older, and at the time she said to him, “Hey you know a lot of singers, why don’t you take my parents’ music and see what you can do with it?” Iñaki has such a curious brain, he loves to read and discover old composers, he digs for music all day, and one day he said, “Adriana let’s sight-read this.” The songs fit my voice so perfectly – the way it’s written was perfect with the tessitura and with the French. We went on to have a lot of fun performing them in recital. One day we decided to record them because otherwise, we worried they’d be lost to history – most were manuscripts, so we made a new edition of the scores, and recorded the album. The composers have so many other works – and Robert Dussaut was awarded the Grand Prix De Rome, the biggest composition prize you can win in France, he got it back in 1924 – it’s a prize Gounod won also; although Gounod only got it the second time he applied (in 1839, for the cantata Fernand), and Dussaut won it the first time around. It was music that had also not been done, and so it was wonderful to not be compared to anyone else and do something not done ten-thousand times already. The record label, Audax, is also independent, and their slogan is “Stay Curious” – they basically do unknown works, mainly Baroque and instrumental things, but are slowly taking on voice also.
As to Iñaki, that starts World Youth Choir also, like Michael. In 2012 Iñaki was the Assistant Conductor of the project and I was a choir person who did a solo, which I auditioned for. He heard me and said, “Where do you come from? What is this voice? Where did you train?” I said, “I want to sing Mimi!” I was 18 or 19 years old, and he said, “You know there’s the opera studios…” He informed me of all of these programs and how things work in Europe. I’d never left Guatemala – and a year later he invited me to Paris to do a production with him and invited the director of the Paris opera studio with whom he’s very good friends – Christian Schirm – and they got me the audition for the Paris casting people. It turns out they needed a Zerlina for the studio and took me in and asked me subsequently to stay in the program. And, all of that happened because of Iñaki, and his selflessness in wanting to help young talent. So I really owe him everything, he’s a wonderful friend and travels where I am singing – he came from Paris to Houston to see my Juliette debut, for instance. He’s really a close friend. So when you say the chemistry comes through on the album, that is really a wonderful compliment! We worked so hard on that album, and to express what’s written in the scores.
And now you’re shifting gears entirely, to Verdi’s Requiem. How do you prepare for something like this, especially something you’ll be performing across different continents?
When I accepted I thought, wait, should I have taken a longer pause between things? But it’s definitely something I did not want to turn down – the first one in Portugal at the end of May came as a proposal from Lorenzo Viotti. His sister Marina Viotti is doing the mezzo solo and she is one of my best friends. I thought, I’m not missing this opportunity to perform with my friend, and especially when it’s a first time for both of us! And also with her brother, I thought, really I can’t say no to this – so I will try to pace myself.
For singers, as a bit of context here, we are athletes, so we have to train vocally how we’ll use our muscles for the different types of writing from different types of composers. Gounod is different, specifically Juliette, to Verdi anything, of course. The wonderful thing is that the Verdi Requiem, if you look at the score, has many piani written and you have to keep a more slim position, a certain sort of throat opening, let’s say it that way – you can’t go full throttle, and doing a role like Juliette has helped keep that youth in the voice. Also having done a rebel kind of a Juliette has helped build the stamina for doing the Verdi Requiem, even with such different writing styles. I’ve learned the whole of the music and I’ll have a week to switch over from the Gounod to the Verdi – it’ll be a lot of training over that week. I’m slowly adapting my muscles and stretching them in a different way so I’ll be prepared to do Verdi. It’s such an iconic piece, and there’s been lots of reading, lots of analyzing, considering how to phrase the music – how to place this or that vowel; how to breathe in this place or that; how to make the larynx go into position so I can get a specific colour at a certain point –and how to get there fresh, so I can achieve that sound needed at the end of the Requiem but still have this sound of youth for the beautiful phrases at the very beginning.
Stamina is the right word – but it’s a different kind of stamina required for Verdi’s work rather than Gounod’s. How might this experience and the preparation for it carry over into future roles?
It takes a lot – but you do think about it: what decisions to make when; what roles to take on; what do I want to do in the next five years. My voice will go into Verdi repertoire. I want to still enjoy the roles I’m doing now – Mimi, Liù, the Contessa, Fiordiligi. A Desdemona in the middle would be wonderful too…
That’s a role I’d love to hear you do.
It’s one I’m really looking forward to doing – and I am going in that direction, slowly. It is where my voice is headed – but you need to know how to pace yourself. In past times singers would do 60 shows a year for one role; now it’s like, we do 4 shows… and, can we do more, please? It takes so much time and effort and knowledge and, again, time… to prepare a role and then you do 4 shows, and you think, well, I hope I get to do this more!
That’s why the covid era was so devastating; singers trained five years out for roles in operas that were cancelled or moved. I want to believe the industry learned something from that time, but I’m not so sure… what’s your take?
It’s definitely been a time that’s made us think slower, so we were not just jumping around from one thing to another without a thought. It’s been a reminder of the importance of taking the time to do your things with dedication – dedicating time to the music, time and energy the music deserves, not jumping from one thing to another, but just focusing on one thing. Do that one thing wonderfully, then close the book, turn the page, go to the next thing. It’s very important to be this deliberate, and it’s the key for a long career also, to do one thing at a time, and to focus on it, and give yourself time and space also. I mean, God knows before in the opera world, in the Golden Age as it’s called, travel wasn’t that fast, it took how long to get to the American continent from Europe –you had days to recover from your performances, and you would travel on the boat, and then have a production in the US. Rehearsals were different also, so much was at a slower pace. There’s a lot to remember and to think about from that era in terms of taking time to enjoy things, and to enjoy the music itself.