Amphitheatre Olivier Messiaen, Opera Bastille, Paris, auditorium, performance, space

Review: Ligeti, Crumb, and Gelin in Paris

György Ligeti is not a name one associates with fables – unless one knows his oeuvre, and his broader life story. The composer, who died in 2006 in Vienna, spent a long and illustrious career in Germany and Austria perfecting his angular, detail-driven work. Perhaps best-known for his  Atmosphères (1961), which utilized a micro-polyphonic technique, and his so-called “anti-anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre (1977), he was a master of atmospheric, dense textures which combined elements of 20th century absurdism with polyrhythmic layering. Born in Transylvania in 1923 to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti was often prevented from pursuing his passions in his native Hungary because of his Jewish background as well as his passion for the avant-garde. He fled to Austria following the 1956 Soviet invasion. A recent chamber concert by musicians of the l’Orchestre de L’Opéra national de Paris, specifically named after a movement from one of his works, effectively evoked a strange, otherworldly, fable-like world of which the composer would have surely approved.

A tribute to the composer to mark his musical centenary, the concert also featured the music of American composer George Crumb (1929-2022) and a new work by French composer Françoise Gelin (b. 1980). Heavy on percussion, the well-attended evening at the Amphithéâtre Olivier Messiaen (located in the Opéra Bastille) was a showcase of skill, musicality, and innate communication between artists, particularly orchestra percussionists Christophe Vella, Sylvie Dukaez, Jérémie Cresta, and Charles Gillet, Mezzo soprano Hilary Summers, fresh off the opening of The Exterminating Angel on the mainstage, opened the evening with Ligeti’s Három Weöres-dal (Three Weöres songs) for voice and piano (1946-1947). Based on the poetry of celebrated Hungarian writer Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) whose work Ligeti set throughout various projects, the songs blend the casual and the classy in a way that can be difficult to translate into other languages. Weöres’ writing is notable for employing what musicologist Amy Bauer characterized in a 2008 paper as “an exploration of sound symbolism, novel metric structures and absurd juxtapositions”, qualities Ligeti sought to reflect and expand on. Three Songs blends descriptions of nature with fairytale-like tableaux settings that contain hints of menace, particularly in the third setting, ““Kalmár jött nagy madarakka” (A merchant has come with giant birds), with its closing lines, “The princess is pale, and as quiet as always In her heart great birds are shrieking.” Summers captured this suggestiveness perfectly, hanging on certain syllables, with shapely phrasing and pointed consonants. Crumb’s “The Sleeper” (based on the 1831 poem by Edgar Allan Poe) has its own creepy poetry which ponders the deceased subject’s “length of tress / And this all-solemn silentness!”. Summers’ delivery softened but was no less gripping. her maple syrup tones winding around the work’s lyrical leaps and moody melodic line to create a unique transcultural bridge between mythologies.

That connection was especially present in Bolliakis’ performances, which included three extracts from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (1951-1953) and two from Etudes (1985-2001). The former, according to musicologist Donald Gislason, has a double meaning inherent within its title, saluting the formal compositional style known as the ricercare (a work with one or more melodic lines) while simultaneously embracing the Italian meaning (wanted; sought). Boliakis performed the first three movements of the work, each building from the last, with the first movement (consisting of just the note A), performed with genuine conviction, underlining the “seeking” quality of the composer himself, a ‘seeking’ which was echoed in Gelin’s (… texte manquant”) pour quatre percussionnistes. Dedicated to Jérémie Cresta, one of the work’s interpreters, Gelin also used the poetry of Weöres as inspiration, though one might be forgiven for thinking of Claude Vivier in the theatrical mix of percussive lines and talky textures and the gamelan-like sounds evoked within and through their interplay.

The notion of ‘the fable’ expanded with George Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985) for amplified flute and percussion. The composer himself wrote of the work that “flute and percussion are the instruments that most powerfully evoke the voice of nature. Ideally (if impractically), my Idyll should be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.” A rainy March evening in Paris wasn’t quite the setting Crumb had envisioned, and yet flautist Sabrina Maaroufi’s performance captured the work’s startling purity. Her performance of lines by eighth-century Chinese poet Su-K’ung Shu, spoken while simultaneously breathing into her instrument (“The moon goes down; there are shivering birds and withering grasses”) was a keen reminder of the ways innocence and experience are often grimly joined within the world of fables and fairytales.

The closing work, Ligeti’s song cycle Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With bagpipes, drums, violin) for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists (2000), expanded on this uncomfortable paradox, though the performance was shot through with wit and intense visual communication between the musicians, who were arranged around and behind Summers. Comprised largely of whimsical, often nonsensical language, the work is a fusion of Ligeti’s interest in the folk sounds of his homeland and the avant-garde sound world he helped develop. The cycle’s first song, “Fabula” (“Fable”) depicts a pack of wolves terrified of two unmovable mountains, and is a gripping call-and-response between voice and percussion section. The work uses a huge array of percussion instruments (marimba, tam-tam, log drum, bass drum, gong, vibraphone, tubular bells, to name just a few) which work in dialogue with the soloist. Its seven movements shifts between dance rhythms and meditative poetry, though the encore was less meditative – it was a repeat of the final, bouncy seventh movement – than brave, with Summers heartily tackling its fiendish rhythms one more time and thus proving that fables, while seemingly easy on the surface, can be difficult, knotty things, if also loads of fun.

Top photo: Simon Chaput
opera, Ades, performance, Paris, The Exterminating Angel, cast

Review: The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris

Independence is as important to art as it is to life. In adapting from screen to stage, that autonomy takes on special significance. Audiences often expect a familiarity which has been molded by filmic elements and reinforced in the digital era by quick, easy access. Many works become little more than 2-D images made three-dimensional; designs serve to imitate cinema, not live apart from it. The expectation attached to adaptation, is a clear and present danger, if also a ripe creative possibility; x-ray vision is needed for 3D presentation. It helps to have a good partner.

Composer Thomas Ades and director Calixto Bieito use their combined powers to bring Ades’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel to startling, autonomous life. Based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film classic, the new production at Opéra national de Paris is an unapologetic stage beast that takes aim at everything from religion to family to art to opera itself. It is bawdy, bold, and brilliant. Bieito skillfully navigates the imprecise nature of the plot by plumbing the depths of its various scenes and character relationships. The work depicts a group of aristocrats who gather for a late dinner party and can’t seem to (or won’t, possibly) depart from it. Rich in symbolic possibility, the opera’s Salzburg premiere was directed by the opera’s librettist, Tom Cairns, and went on to be staged in London and New York. Cairns’ staging hewed close to Buñuel’s visual palette of mid-20th century aristocratic Europe, a world of crepe dresses, statement jewelry, roller-set hair, as well as a thick wall between that high society and the outside world, which includes members of an inquisitive media, police, and a curious crowd. Bieito’s production is a different, and far more visceral vision. There are no live sheep here, and no thick wall either. Instead, members of the chorus (that raucous public on the other side of the earlier wall, here led by chorus master Ching-Lien Wu) are in the top tier of the Opéra Bastille, their voices floating out across the auditorium, a heavenly-hellish host of would-be angels, set to exterminate all within earshot.

The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, Paris, opera, Yoli

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The production opens with a small boy holding sheep-shaped balloons wandering onstage and offering halting bleats before being joined by a priest (Régis Mengus) who whispers something close (too close) to his ear; this, we later learn, is Yoli, the son of a dinner party guest, Silvia (Claudia Boyle), who may or may not be aware of the priest’s abuses but seems determined to ignore them. Her twisted love-hate relationship with brother Francisco (Anthony Roth Costanzo) reveals a vein of wider familial abuse and reinforced silence, recurring themes within Bieito’s oeuvre. Scenes from the film are clarified with varying degrees of tension: the arrival; the ragout; the musical performances; the sister-brother fight(s); eating the sheep; the double suicide; finding water. These chapters are punctuated by highly memorable images, including the performers directly facing the audience at the arrival (echoed at the close); the ragoût consisting of two large bags of blood; the servants ducking under the table; the sheep being the guests wrapped in sheepskin rugs. Opera singer Leticia Meynar (Gloria Tronel) stands on the long wooden dining table at one point, arms aloft, holding cutlery in each hand. The table is carried by the male members of the cast around in a circle, Easter-procession style, as Ades’ score blazes out from the pit, deliciously eerie ondes Martenot included, a smouldering requiem with clear traces of Berg, Britten, Stravinsky.

Ades has tread the damnation-salvation waters previously, notably in the chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995), which explores the salacious life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Music writer Alex Ross noted in a 1998 review that the work bears “a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments.” These fragments have been enlarged within the writing of The Exterminating Angel. With the Paris iteration, they’ve also become technicolour. The depictions of not only religious ritual, but masturbation, voyeurism, defecation, self-harm, and suggested cannibalism have clear dramaturgical intent and theatrical urgency. The upright doctor of the film becomes a shambolic mess live, with a shirtless Clive Bayley joining the other cast members in shambolic disarray. Sexually voracious Lucia di Nobile (Jacquelyn Stucker) is initially elegant in a low-cut red satin dress and wavy hair; by evening’s end she is in naught but underthings, with wet hair, messy red lipstick and manic grin, looking less socialite than avenging Joker. Starlet soprano Meynar is one of the last to remove her dress (a sparkling sea-foam design) but the first to recognize the importance of the ritual that will end the group’s self-imposed situation. Performing, it turns out, is the double mirror revealing the waving man at the very back – it might be an illusion, but it’s an illusion to indulge. Indulgence also comes with a repeat of the crucifixion imagery, when the dinner party guests turn on their host, Edmundo de Nobile (Nicky Spence), blaming him for their entrapment; Nobile, as with Meynar earlier, becomes Christ-like, but the question remains: is this conviction, sacrifice, selfishness, or (quite literally) performance? What do we want as an audience – deliverance or diversion?

opera, The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, staging, crucifixion, Paris

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

In presenting the group in a range of vivid colours (costume design by Ingo Krügler) set against an all-white backdrop (set design by Anna-Sofia Kirsch), the work’s relationships as well as individual foibles are both clarified and scrutinized. This clarification of structure has a direct effect on the delivery of the work’s score and performances, which are uniformly strong. The cast handles the pitchy nature of the score with dramatic aplomb and Ades’ conducting is equally precise, whether he’s leading the work’s doomed lovers, Beatriz (Amina Edris) and Eduardo (Filipe Manu) in one of the few lyrical moments of the opera, a lewd pseudo-baptism, or the work’s haunting final call, “libera de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat”. The lines are a fusion of a responsory sung in the Catholic Office of the Dead and Requiem Mass, respectively, with the final lines of the Libera Me particularly applicable to Bieito’s staging:

That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness,
When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.

The work ends with the cast standing as they began, assembled in a row downstage, staring at the audience in silence. Are they us? Are we them? The Exterminating Angel asks opera-goers to consider what we want, and expect – from entertainment, art, faith – and where and how they all meet. Let the light shine, suggests Bieito, but always remember the darkness. That’s where the ugly truth lies.

opera, Ades, performance, Paris, The Exterminating Angel, cast

The cast of The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris, 2024. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Top photo: Agathe Poupeney
tree, winter, sky, branches, moody, field

February: Links, Gratitude, Daring Fairytale Stagings

There’s plenty going on in both the orchestral and opera worlds right now. Everyone is busy – including yours truly – and feeling somewhat worn-down, but it seems important, amidst the chaos and concomitant tiredness, to keep interested, inspired, and reminded of the existence of good things and people, and to make the effort to recognize accordingly. It matters more than ever.

Thank you Ozawa!

The Japanese conductor, whose passing was announced this past Friday, was truly a powerhouse of passion for music, in all its expressions. My formal obituary for The Globe and Mail is here (paywall).

Ozawa truly changed the centre of classical gravity and the way it was perceived more broadly, by the public and aspiring musicians. “It’s hard to be a pioneer, but he did it with grace,” noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a moving video clip released by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Ozawa was the organization’s very long-serving Music Director (1973-2002) and was known as much for his dynamic performances as for his love of the Red Sox. He was also committed to music education, particularly in his later years. Well before his time in Boston, Ozawa was Music Director of the Toronto Symphony orchestra, and led the orchestra in the opening of City Hall in 1965. My music-mad mother recalled seeing Ozawa and the TSO at their then-regular digs (Massey Hall) many times and I clearly remember how she praised the maestro’s attention to detail and expressive physicality; she also noted the famous mop of hair, like so many.

Hair aside, Ozawa had a sizeable live performance track record and an immense  discography, although he wasn’t quite so well-known for his opera as for orchestral renderings, coming late (as he admitted) to the opera world. Still, everyone has favourites, and some of my own Ozawa treasures include opera, among them Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise, which Ozawa premiered at Opéra national de Paris in 1983 (at the composer’s personal request); Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, presented at Wiener Staatsoper in 2002 (when Ozawa was their Music Director); and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus, from the Saito Kinen Festival in 1992, the same year Ozawa co-created the festival and related orchestra. The poetic production featured Philip Langridge and Jessye Norman in a Japanese-influenced staging by Julie Taymor.

Speaking of Oedipus…

Update 18 February: The planned production of Jocasta’s Line (information below) has changed. Director/choreographer Wayne McGregor and actor Ben Whishaw have had to withdraw from the project. Now called Oedipus Rex/Antigone, the work will be directed by Mart van Berckel and Nanine Linning, respectively. Moussa’s Antigone is a co-commission with the annual Québécois Festival de Lanaudière.

Original: Actor Ben Whishaw is set to appear as the Speaker in an intriguing new presentation of the work to be presented next month at Dutch National Opera. Called Jocasta’s Line, Stravinsky is here being paired with 2023’s Antigone by Canadian composer Samy Moussa. With direction and choreography by Wayne McGregor, the work features tenor Sean Panikkar as Oedipus and mezzo soprano Dame Sarah Connolly as his doomed mother, as well as dancers from the Dutch National Ballet. Fascinerend!

Still in The Netherlands: the Dutch National Opera Academy recently finished a run of Conrad Susa’s spicy chamber opera Transformations. The 1973 work features texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton and subverts the archetype of the fairytale in a very unique, sometimes even disturbing (hurrah!) ways. The two-act work is a very adult re-telling of ten famous Grimm stories, including Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White. Susa’s work was widely performed in the US following its premiere, but only had its continental European premiere in 2006 in Lausanne and was later presented at the 2006 Wexford Festival Opera. I do wish this work was done more, especially since fairytales seems to play such a large if unconscious role within modern aesthetics and design.

… and Rusalka

Indeed, the timeliness of presentations that contrast long-cherished fairytale-related art is noteworthy, what with their unmissable corollary to contemporary digital imagery and its over-Photoshopped Insta-friendly narratives. But hostility to such cliché-breaking is abundant, and that hostility been underlined in the opera world with angry reactions to the new production of Rusalka at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Dvořák 1901 work, which shares various elements with The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, is here stripped of its familiar long-haired-doe-eyed-fair-slim-water-maiden imagery. Director Kornél Mundruczó, together with designer Monika Pormale, presents something far more provocative –though to my mind, it shouldn’t be provocative at all. Such presentations are sorely needed, especially within the current cultural landscape.

Mundruczó isn’t the first to dare to strip the opera of its traditional aesthetic. Sergio Morabito, who staged the opera with Jossi Wieler in 2008, described Rusalka to Jessica Duchen in 2012 as a “really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope.” Part of this bleakness is linked to the main character’s muteness, though that narrative device has been presented in a variety of ways through the years. From a personal standpoint, robbing a girl of her voice for the sake of some idea of humanity connected to “romance” (and soft-focus tragedy) is nightmarish – dress it up any way you want; it’s still horrific. Reading comments about the Berlin production lately I was reminded of past Rusalkas, especially unconventional ones like those by Morabito/Wieler as well as the grimy (if great) 2012 Stefan Hernheim production; both kicked against the soft-focus aesthetic but in so doing attracted incredible vitriol. That a Rusalka might go against some set-in-stone image is bad enough (Kosky’s infamous Carmen arguably did the same), but that it should dare to present a title character who, likewise, doesn’t conform to a deeply conservative image of “the mythical (or mysterious) feminine” is unforgivable.

Is there value in upsetting the traditional aesthetic connected to certain operas? To paraphrase a recent conversation with a friend on just this topic: even if you don’t agree with every little choice in a production (especially the presentation of the main character), you can at least recognize the work’s place more broadly within the sphere of modern presentation. For reference: I have reservations about various aspects of  the updated productions of both Strauss’s Daphne at Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at Bayerische Staatsoper, but I wholly support them being done. It’s important to try these things! As Morabito also noted in his interview with Duchen in 2012: “We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations.”

Classical writer Gianmarco Segato recently saw the very first presentation of Rusalka by the Hungarian State Opera and staged by director János Szikora. In his review for La Scena Musicale Segato cleverly notes the extent to which its designs were influenced by early 20th century Czech artist Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau more broadly, especially with relation to the opera’s titular character and her cohorts. In Berlin, reactions to Mundruczó’s far less imagistically romantic production have been divisive. Albrecht Selge covered the opening for Van Magazine (auf Deutsch) recently, describing soprano Christiane Karg in the titular role and arguably capturing its whole essence: “Denn Karg gestaltet ihre Nixe agil, zornig, aufbegehrend gegen die vorgegebene Opferrolle.” (“Karg makes her mermaid agile, angry and rebellious against the predetermined role of victim.”) It’s important to try these things – especially, I would argue in the age of Instagram!

Professor Pfefferkorn auf Insta

Speaking of the ubiquitous, ever-evolving, image-obsessed platform: music publisher Breitkopf and Hartel has an entertaining, intelligent weekly Insta-series that dives into the nitty-gritty of their work and broader realities for the industry. The format is simple, along with the aesthetic: head honcho Nick Pfefferkorn addresses viewer questions in quick if informative talks from his desk. (Special thanks to whoever thought to include the English subtitles.) Pfefferkorn, who founded his own independent publishing house in 1996, became publishing director of the Wiesbaden-based Breitkopf and Hartel in 2015. His narration style is equal parts tweedy professor and watchful butcher; he’s detailed in discussing the finer points of just how the music-score-sausage is made at this particular publisher.

These videos are helpful in demystifying what can be an intimidating part of deeper music engagement. I feel a bit less daunted at re-examining the various ingredients of scores in my own collection through watching Pfefferkorn’s detailed if direct explanations. Last week’s episode focuses on how the publisher indicates page turns, for which section, and why some indications differ from others; he starts with something more fashion-oriented. Vielen dank, B&H!

On Emigré

Deutsche Grammophon recently announced the upcoming release of Emigré, a 90-minute new oratorio by Emmy Award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh. The work details a  little-known piece of 20th century history, when the people of Shanghai welcomed Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Emigré examines this history through the lense of a story about two brothers and their respective journeys. Premiered in Shanghai last November, the work will receive its North American premiere in a semi-staged production at Lincoln Center at the end of this month, and is scheduled to be presented by the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester in Berlin at an as-yet-unannounced future date.

Emigré was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony, as well as its Music Director and conductor Long Yu, who was called “the real hero” of the project in a recent panel discussion hosted by classical NPR station WQXR. The upcoming New York staging will feature tenors Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis in the lead roles, together with sopranos Meigui Zhang and Diana White, mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu, and bass-baritone Shenyang, a former BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

The project comes at a time when the classical world is realizing that it’s good to express a greater cultural awareness; my cynical (read: observant) self says this is also good marketing and optics for an industry that still has such a long way to go. But it is equally true that classical organizations and labels are being silently expected to step in and offer the history lessons that many educational systems sorely lack. So if Emigré aids in raising awareness and opening conversations, so much the better. It is disheartening to note the lack of Canadian dates for performances of Emigré, but hopefully that will change.

Finally, who says Beethoven and belly-dancing can’t be combined? Here’s “Für Elise” like you’ve probably never heard it:

Like music journalist Axel Brüggemann says, “halten Sie die Ohren steif” and remember: the c-word is context. 😀

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Stéphane Degout: On Text, Teaching, Language, & Voice

The end of January may be grey and cold, but online the time is considerably enriched by various classical artists and organizations marking Schubert’s birthday. The German composer (1797-1828) is known for his beloved song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823), Winterreise (1827) and Schwanengesang (1828), all of which use texts by German writers and poets to explore deeply human experiences – wonder, longing, love, sadness, loss.

Opéra Comique is offering their own thoughtful salute to the composer with L’Autre Voyage (The Other Journey), opening on 1 February. Combining selections of Schubert’s music with fragments of poetry (by Heine, Goethe, and others) the work features the central figure of a forensic doctor whose recognition of his dead doppelganger catalyzes important personal explorations. With direction and libretto by theatre artist Silvia Costa and musical direction by Raphaël Pichon, the work offers a fascinating insight into the lasting impact of Schubert’s oeuvre as well as the text that fuelled his creative inspiration and continues to inspire its interpreters, including Voyage lead Stéphane Degout.

The French baritone’s passion for text and music has translated into an immensely engaging approach over baroque, classical, romantic, modern, and contemporary repertoires. Degout has sung title roles in a number of famous works including Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Conti’s Don Chisciotte, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, and Thomas’ Hamlet. He has graced the stages of Opéra de Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Berlin Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, Teatro alla Scala, De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, Opernhaus Zurich, Lyric Opera Chicago, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York. Festival appearances include Salzburg, Saint Denis, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, and Aix-en-Provence. In 2022 Degout won the Male Singer of the Year at the International Opera Awards, and the following year became Master-in-Residence of the vocal section at Belgium’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, having been recommended to the role by baritone José van Dam, the organization’s then-Master-in-Residence. The two baritones share a long history, having first appeared onstage together in a 2003 production of Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise at the RuhrTriennale.

Degout has also worked extensively with conductor Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion ensemble, onstage, on tours, and across a range of lauded recordings. The 2018 album Enfers (harmonia mundi) features a deliciously  dark selection of works by French composers (Gluck, Rebel, Rameau), while 2022’s Mein Traum (harmonia mundi) explores dreams via pieces by Schubert, Weber, Schumann, and Liszt. This past December Pichon led his Pygmalion on a European tour of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah with Degout as a soloist alongside Siobhan Stagg, Ema Nikolovska, Thomas Atkins, and Julie Roset. But famed historic works are not, as was mentioned, Degout’s sole territory; the baritone has performed and often been directly involved with the creation numerous contemporary operas, including Benoît Mernier’s La Dispute (2013), Philippe Boesmans’ Au Monde (2014; both La Monnaie), and Pinocchio (2017) also by Boesmans and commissioned by the annual Aix-en-Provence Festival. British composer George Benjamin wrote the role of The King in his intense 2018 opera Lessons in Love and Violence (premiered at at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden) specifically for Degout’s voice.

That voice is as much at home in intimate settings as opera stages. His 2021 performance as the title character in Berg’s Wozzeck with Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse garnered high praise from French media, with music magazine Diapason praising the singer’s mix of power and delicacy and proclaiming “Victoire absolue pour Stéphane Degout”. Such a special combination of intensity and lyricism was shown to full effect in 2022 with chamber orchestra recording of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (b.records) with French ensemble Le Balcon, and in 2023, via Brahms’ song cycle La Belle Maguelone (b.records) in a recording captured live at Théâtre de l’Athénée Louis-Jouvet and featuring pianist Alain Planès, mezzo soprano Marielou Jacquard, and speaker Roger Germser. This spring Degout will be using his magical blend of power and sensitivity in the little-known opera Guercœur with Opera national du Rhin. The work, penned by French composer Albéric Magnard between 1897 and 1901 but only presented live in 1931, wears its Wagnerian influences on its sleeve while deftly distilling both the grandeur of late Romanticism and the immediacy of European song craft.

Such a blend of music and narrative seems central to the more immediate L’Autre Voyage, described by Opéra Comique’s Agnès Terrier as “Ni reconstitution, ni nouvel opéra” (neither reconstruction nor new opera). Instead, Voyage positions itself as a wholly original theatrical piece showcasing the very things that so informed Schubert’s creativity, not to mention the public’s continuing fascinating with him: “le doute, la fantaisie, la solitude, l’élan spirituel” (doubt, fantasy, solitude, spiritual impulse). Voyage runs through mid-February and will be recorded by French public broadcaster France Musique for March broadcast on Samedi à l’opéra. Degout will also be presenting a recital of Schubert’s famed Winterreise with pianist Alain Planès at Opéra Comique on February 14th.

Earlier this month the busy baritone took time out of his rehearsal schedule to share thoughts on the importance of text, not taking one’s mother tongue for granted, and the important reminders teaching offers.

Stéphane Degout, singer, baritone, French, opera, lieder, stage, culture, arts

Photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot

How extensively do you study the immediate text as well as contemporaneous writing and music?

I always do this for every part I sing. I like to know the contextual things – poetry, literature, history, everything – it’s very interesting how it just puts me in, I wouldn’t say the mood, but offers clues and connections with the time of the music. This particular period of Schubert’s is very rich in opera works of course, but every country and every culture has a specificity and I study that accordingly. I will sing Onegin in June, and though it’s later in the 19th century than Schubert, it also has a great connection with Romanticism of the 19th century. So yes, I do read a lot!

To what extent do you think mood in music shifts according to the language, especially for something like L’Autre Voyage?

I’m not sure if you’ve seen the series of conversations between Daniel Barenboim and Christoph Waltz, but in one of them Barenboim says it’s obvious in the music of some composers what their mother tongue is. So it’s obvious with Beethoven that he’s a German speaker from the way he writes music and puts harmonies together and places weight on certain elements within bars – that thinking extends to works in German, French, Russian. I don’t know Russian well enough to be aware, but such an idea is obvious to me in French and German. (Barenboim) also deals with the tempo, that you can’t do the music faster than the maximum you can speak or sing the language – sometimes the centre gives. It’s a sort of technical point, but the mood is given by the language, by the construction of the phrase – and as you know, German has a specific grammar where you have to wait for the end of the phrase to really know the whole thing.

When the language itself is used within a poetic construction, it’s beautiful for sure but it’s also more difficult; you have to be able to get everything at the same time in order to really get it. With L’Autre Voyage sometimes there are altered phrases and words to make connections between these different works more logical – Silvia Costa changed the text, but she worked very carefully on being as close as she could to the original linguistic specificity.

Stéphane Degout, Siobhan Stagg, Chœur Pygmalion, Opéra Comique, Schubert, L'Autre Voyage, Stefan Brion, stage, performing arts, opera, drama, theatre, singing, classical

Stéphane Degout (L) and Siobhan Stagg (R) with Chœur Pygmalion in L’Autre Voyage at Opéra Comique. Photo: Stefan Brion

“I’m very close to the text”

How have these working relationships influenced your approach to different material, whether it’s new material or historical material?

Maybe it’s because I’m a baritone, it makes me more, let’s say… on the spoken side of the music. I’m very close to the text, it’s something I also happen to love – poetry and the languages , talking, conversation. I’ve been lucky because almost all of my repertoire is really based on the language. If we stay with French repertoire, Rameau and the Baroque stuff I did with Raphaël, it’s singing on the notes, it’s declamation, it’s clarity. With German lieder and composers like Wolf and Schubert and Schumann, they all have such respect for the primary material they have – the text and the poetry – so you can’t forget the music, but it’s not the music that drives you through the text; it’s the text that drives you through the music. It’s even more obvious to me because I’m a native French speaker – these things come immediately to my ear. With works by composers like Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, it’s clear they all have first read the respective texts and fallen in love with them, and thought they could make something with the music. But the text – it’s not an excuse to make music; it is the central point of all things. Perhaps I notice this more because when I was a teenager I did theatre and so more talking than singing on stage, I don’t know! (laughs)

As a native French speaker, what’s it like to return to singing in your own language?

The difficulty when we sing in our own language is that we don’t care so much. It is this feeling of, ‘well it’s my language so I don’t need to make an effort’ – but I know I do need to make extra effort. I speak German, I have studied it, so it gives me a sort of extra comfort in singing it; I know the structure and pronunciation but occasionally there I also need a bit of an extra hand, someone to say, ‘it’s right but it doesn’t sound German, it sounds like a foreigner talking in German.’ These language explorations are really fascinating. I have been working with young singers for a few years now and we talk a lot about this issue, and it’s great to see that they have the same comforts and difficulties that I had 25 years ago when I started. It’s a common thing.

What has teaching given you as a singer? What are its challenges?

The difficulty of teaching is putting words on things I do naturally. I’ve been singing professionally for almost three decades now; I don’t need to think very technically or consider what I’m doing physically – it’s just here. But when I have to help a young singer who is struggling with some technical things, breathing issues or whatever, I need to explain exactly, because I hear what’s wrong but need to help to correct it clearly, and this is the difficulty. So, I’m learning to teach, let’s say. It’s sort of a mirror of my own experience, and sometimes hearing a young singer struggling makes me think of the way I’ve done things myself when I was struggling with those same issues.

“Every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory”

Has teaching created a deeper awareness of your own approach?

Yes, very much! We did a concert in Belgium in November, I was one of the singers, and during the concert I realized I didn’t do what I said to the others in the days before when we were rehearsing. Basically I joke about things like that and say: do as I say, not as I do!

There’s also value in being honest with students and saying, “Look, I can teach you the basics, but with some things, my system works for me and it might not work for you.”

Yes, there are basics – breathing, using muscles, pronunciations – but everyone eventually has their own technique, because every body is different, every voice is different; it’s not an instrument made in a factory. Every instrument maker will tell you every instrument is unique…

… and different experiences and backgrounds – context – which will influence what comes out. How does that influence your work with living composers?

It’s been interesting. With George Benjamin, for instance, the work was very specific. He was extremely precise with his own work and what he wanted. It’s exactly what I said before, the text and respect for it, George is really into writing music where the text is very clear and natural. He used virtuosity in his writing for Barbara (Hannigan) because she has this big range she can use, but for me and my character, he used the spoken side of my voice. When he and I first met, I was still in my Pelléas time, with this very clear, high sound; he gave me the score and I saw the part wasn’t written that high – it was surprising – but in working on it and learning the music, I realized that he there was no need to write something that was more important than the text. That’s the way I understood it.

How collaborative was the atmosphere?

I felt very comfortable and confident with him as a conductor, because of course he knew his work well, so he could help us in the meanings as well as the performing. He changed maybe three things with me, things which were more related to the length of notes and breathing; the changes were more naturally aligned to my own way of singing than what he’d written for me.

I don’t know if you know, we met about two years before the presentation, and spent an afternoon together; he was measuring my voice in every direction, how high, how low, how big, how soft. It was quite intimidating and impressive at the same time. He remembered every aspect of my voice from that day, so the part was perfectly written. Also Martin (Crimp, librettist) and other poets had their own music which sat within the material, I can’t quite say what it is because English isn’t my first language – but I knew it was specific, that it was text which involved not merely giving information on the situation. It also helped that (director) Katie Mitchell was observant of our specifics around how we move and speak.

You’re doing another new-ish opera, Guercœur, in the spring. There are so many operas which are only now coming into the public consciousness… 

… yes, it’s true. Guercœur was the idea of (Opéra national du Rhin General Director) Alain Perroux, who has wanted to do it for a long time. I didn’t know about this opera before he told me about its story. The work has, as you probably know, a very unusual history. The composer died before he ever heard this music done live, two-thirds of the original score was lost in a fire, but (composer/conductor) Guy Ropartz saved some and reconstructed the orchestration. It was recorded in 1951 and again in 1986 with a cast that included José Van Dam, and only presented live once, in Germany in 2019 – and this is an opera written more than 100 years ago! The presentation in the spring feels as if it will be a new creation itself, in a way.

“When he sang, I could feel the vibrations”

You mentioned Van Dam, who indeed is part of the recording of Guercœur  – can you describe his influence? 

When I was in the Conservatoire we listened to a lot of his CDs and everyone liked his voice very much. And though we don’t have the same repertoire really, he was the type of artist I wanted to become when I was young. I first met him over twenty years ago when we did Saint François d’Assise in Germany – I was so impressed to be onstage with him. At that time I was singing the role of Frère Léon, the novice of St. François. There’s a moment in the first scene of the opera where François talks with Léon about different things; in the staging Van Dam was next to me, with his arm around me, so our bodies were basically in contact from shoulders to the knee. When he sang I could feel the vibrations – from shoulder to the knee. That was a non-talking lesson, maybe the best one I ever had, and I thought, okay, this is singing; singing is not only involving the mouth – it’s the whole body. That was such an emotional moment. I’ve worked with him since, and we have a great confidence with each other.

I’m very lucky and happy he asked me to replace him at the Chapel. We don’t really talk about this but I can feel we have the same sort of way of doing things, of approaching the music, of being onstage. I’ve seen him teaching there; he doesn’t say much, but does speak about text, diction, language, and that one should be right about the vowels – those small but important details. They’re the key, and I totally agree with him. I’ve always perceived Van Dam as a very calm person, with his feet planted on the earth, that it all comes naturally. I’m also this kind of person, I think – earthy – so yes, it is a special connection indeed.

Top photo: Jean-Baptiste Millot
Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

Alexander Neef: “The Essence Of Theatre Is To Engage In A Dialogue”

History can be many things, but mostly, and especially within the classical arts, it is heavy. Alexander Neef, General Director of the Opéra national de Paris (OnP), is aware of this weight, yet he views it as a rich inspiration. The German administrator, who was the company’s Casting Director from 2004 to 2008 before becoming General Director of the Canadian Opera Company for twelve years, came to his current position in autumn 2020, much earlier than planned and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It proved the first of many adversities managing one of the opera world’s most celebrated and storied institutions, one which has been known as much for its variety of names as for its trials and tribulations in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Those challenges, particularly since 2020, are very real: financial pressures, strikes, accusations of racism, the sudden resignation of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Where there is strife, however, there is also hope. This past March saw French-Senegalese OnP ballet dancer Guillaume Diop join the company’s coveted “Etoile” (star) category; he is the first Black artist to achieve the top rank. In 2020 Diop had co-authored a manifesto (“On The Racial Question in Opera”) which criticized discrimination within the organization. Neef, as you’ll read, took these concerns seriously, and met them with his own initiatives. A report commissioned by the company in February 2021 stated that diversity was seriously lacking, with Diversity Referent Myriam Mazouzi (who is also Director of the OnP Academy, a training ground for young artists) underlining the need for the company to “get out of our walls” and “open up our recruitment channels, otherwise we always have the same profiles and we become poorer.” To facilitate this opening, the company embarked on an ambitious initiative in French Guyana in 2022 to encourage and promote local talent. L’Opéra en Guyane works in close collaboration with Guyanese cultural institutions and includes all training in voice and dance as well as set design and makeup. The program ran this past October and November, and will return to Guyana again in March 2024, with its development being chronicled in a documentary series on POP (Paris Opera Play), the company’s dedicated streaming platform.

POP itself is impressive, hosting an immense and ever-updated archive of anytime-is-a-good-time (read: audience-friendly) viewing which includes all aspects of OnP’s considerable output: ballet, orchestral concerts, and opera (with subtitles available in English and French), as well as backstage documentaries, masterclasses, and artist interviews. The platform is the realization of the company’s earlier foray into video streaming, l’Opéra chez soi, launched just after Neef’s arrival in December 2020, and elegantly demonstrates a commitment to something beyond sexy opera branding, an overused aspect within the current classical-marketing landscape which mostly involves substance-free clickbait and/or posts (whether on social media or websites proper) with plenty of seemingly intellectual finery but ultimately bereft of the humanity and depth their subjects demand. POP runs counter to this trend; a thoughtful and accessible platform, its user-friendly design and wide range of subject matter implies a trust to let its users decide for themselves what is sexy – or intriguing, provocative, challenging, entertaining, engaging.

The platform’s launch happened almost concurrently to news of OnP joining forces with behemothic streaming giant Apple Music Classical. Along with playlists and previews, the channel features two special sections, curated by José Martinez, Director of Dance, and Neef, respectively. As noted in Van Magazine this past August, OnP has proven remarkably adept at attracting the ever-important young audiences, with all of these initiatives demonstrating a deeply intelligent stance in attracting younger people (although €10 tickets can’t hurt either). ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre) takes things one step further. The company’s first French young lyric orchestra works in direct partnership with eleven different French conservatoires and provides opportunities for apprenticeships and performances on the main stage of the Bastille, the more modern of the company’s two spaces, the other being the famed Garnier. Each space comes, of course, with its own particular set of heavy histories.

Amidst all this – whither music? Gluck, Lully, Rameau, Cherubini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Thomas, Halévy, Stravinsky, Messiaen: a partial list of composers who have enjoyed historic premieres with the Opéra and a veritable who’s who of classical music history, albeit a lineup some may perceive as creaky in 2023. Those names, however, sit comfortably beside contemporary ones including Adams, Adés, Saariaho, Kurtág, as well as acclaimed modern directors like Lydia Steier, Kirill Serebrennikov, Wajdi Mouawad, and Barrie Kosky. Ballet is an equally intriguing mix of traditional (Nureyev, Ashton) and modern (Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián). Navigating the shifting classical landscape of the 21st century, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape, is scary business for any house, requiring a good deal of confidence in both institution and audiences, and a willingness to push the expectations and boundaries of both. The ambitiousness of Neef’s plans combined with an ever-smart approach to programming and production means audiences can expect slightly more than polite visions of familiar (or even unfamiliar) territory.

In our last exchange in 2020, conducted when he was still in Toronto, Neef emphasized a need for the new; in 2023 Paris, there is a broader if no less compelling view. Nothing quite new, as Roman statesman Cicero noted in Brutus, is perfect. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, particularly at a time when the opera world feels more divided than ever, as much by geographies and money as by ideologies and history. But history is, like the future, only heavy without the muscles  – and the brains – to bear it; Alexander Neef has both, and then some.

When we last spoke you mused on the role of so-called “safe” repertoire and audience fatigue; has time in Paris altered your views?

I don’t think so. One of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is to consider the thinking process around what do we do here. We are called the Paris National Opera; we have an obligation for specificity in the planning and programming, but also we have to ask what is our identity and how do we express via our programming? I think there are some very simple principles that have come from that question, and they are referenced in our programming now. First we have to take care of our own repertoire , which is a very large repertoire and includes all the pieces created at the Paris Opera and predecessor organizations over the centuries. That’s why you’ll find one or two productions which represent our house repertoire , if you want – Charpentier’s Médée, for instance. There’s a very rich variety to choose from. The other aspect is pieces which we have not premiered here specifically but which are part of French repertoire – works which are not in our repertoire currently which we are bringing back, like what we’ve done with Cendrillon, Faust, Romeo et Juliet, also Massenet’s Don Quichotte which we are presenting later this season. We are one of the biggest companies in the world, so yes, there is a standard repertoire.

The last part of this, which is also important for identity, is 20th and 21st century repertoire. The priority is not necessarily commissioning – as you know it takes time for those pieces to be developed – but to look at successful pieces of the very recent past and bring them to the Paris Opera, like Kurtág’s Fin de partie in the 21-22 season, or The Exterminating Angel, which we’ll do later this season. With Angel it’s also the first new production after the world premiere that we’ll be doing. All that is a very deliberate attempt to bring those pieces to the repertoire by presenting them often, which means if someone has created something great and we think it’s great, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t present it here just because we haven’t commissioned it. We have a couple co-commissions coming up; one we did with Festival D’Aix is coming to us soon; another, a substantial piece at La Scala, will be presented in Italian there and then come here later in French.

So to circle back to your original question, when we do the revivals of the standard or even the new productions, we try to bring people to the company who hadn’t sung here before and create a relationship of trust with the audience; even though they might not know all the names on the playbill, they can expect it will be a quality proposal. We just had Tamara Wilson onstage here – she had sung Turandot in Toronto in 2019. It was highlighted (in Paris) because Sondra (Radvanovsky) had to cancel the run and Tammy was slotted into the opening. People were like, “Who is this Turandot I’ve never heard of?” – but now everybody knows who Tamara Wilson is. Sometimes we have to have the confidence and trust to just do the things we feel are right.

House identity is something I’ve considered a lot this year. You told the New York Times in 2021 that when you were hiring a diversity officer that you wanted to put on “opera and ballet by 21st century artists for 21st century audiences” – what role has that diversity initiative played in house identity?

We’re lucky in Paris, the debate around diversity is much less charged than in North America. I say that without criticism of what’s going on in America, but it does create an opportunity here to get things done more quickly because we’re not in conflict but in a spirit of working together. One of the things that happened concurrent to BLM (Black Lives Matter), I was still in Toronto, confined in my kitchen then, but already appointed to take over in Paris, was that we decided to commission a diversity report for my arrival. At the same time a group of artists and other employees of colour in the company reached out and said, “We want to talk to you, we want to know how you feel about this issue.” They wrote a manifesto which was published in August 2020, when I was almost there – though I wasn’t supposed to be, I was supposed to arrive a year later – but at that time we had an initiative coming from the incoming leadership and the employees. There was a base of discussion which was almost immediate because we did not need to get over a steep mountain of conflict. We now have an advisory committee who meet regularly with staff but also with people from outside the opera, where we discuss all issues related to our repertoire and performances, as well as recruitment practices and so on. The discussions are all evolving.

We also started a big education outreach project in French Guyana with two main purposes, one of them to just run one of our established outreach programs for young people there but also to find talent, mostly for dance, but also for singing and instruments in the long run, people can be trained to reach the levels of excellence we would have to expect of the artists who perform here.

“If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it.”


What role does the newly-created ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre – Learning the Orchestra) play in all this?

It’s too early to say yet, it’s just started; we’ve had two or three weekends when they’ve been together so far. But I think it’s in the same spirit. Today in France most musicians are the sons and daughters of other musicians – they get into the field or some form of arts environment early on and there are few obstacles if they want to learn to sing or play an instrument. Our challenge is to open up the pipeline, to create a larger pipeline, different pipelines, because one of the crucial issues of recruitment is that if you always look in the same spots and at the same people you’ll always find the same thing. The moment you open up and look at things a bit more broadly, there will be different talent. And all of this is not part of any ideology, but it’s more if I can say, the perennial nature of our art form: yes, what we do is opera and ballet for 21st century artists by 21st century artists. If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it. The imminent challenge for the repertoire is obviously finding people who are trained to perform it at our level, and who may also say, “We still want to sing Don Giovanni or Don Carlo, or dance Swan Lake or Giselle.” It’s for everybody to find themselves in what we do, on the performers’ side just as much as the audience’s side.

Alexandra Wilson recently wrote at The Critic that “It is not opera’s job to do social work.” I wonder what you make of that with relation to your various initiatives.

I think what we benefit from and use to our advantage, since we have a strong critical mass for culture in France but especially in Paris, is that we use our cultural weight to be heard, to be seen. What I’ve discovered being here is that whatever we do there is a lot of attention; when I commissioned the diversity report it was like a signal. We can put the subject on the map. So we try to do that quite deliberately now, to choose the subjects we want to talk about in order to get them the visibility we can, in our position, provide.

La Vestale, with Lydia Steier directing, may or may not make the world a better place, but it does seem like an interesting symbol of where the company is at now.

That’s fair, but like I said before: if we want to do the repertoire which has a reputation of being difficult to realize onstage, then we will tell it our way. La Vestale has certain formalisms the audiences of today are not quite familiar with today, so it’s vital to find not only one artist but a group of artists to say, “We want to defend this repertoire for an audience of today and we actually want to tell a story.” Whatever we do, whether it’s more or less traditional – even though one doesn’t know what that exactly is – or completely out-there avant-garde, it’s a reading of a piece, because we cannot not offer readings of pieces. We have to hire a cast, a director, and a conductor to read the piece for us; it’s not all there in the score and they just have to do what’s written. It would be an oversimplification to think that. We need people who actually do it. Otherwise we can sit with the score and read it, which is a more personal and private thing, but there is no unalterable truth that will always be the same. That’s why we still keep working on repertoire both recent and old – things like Médée, which we’re doing since the first time we created it in 1693.

Does that history feel heavy at points?

I find it rather exhilarating, I have to say, because there is a richness and also a high responsibility for this repertoire – but also an incredible richness. I find it really quite wonderful there’s that depth to draw from.

“The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one.”


There were very polarized reactions to Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot in Paris recently; do you find yourself having to explain or justify your choices to your audience?

First of all there’s no such thing as The Audience, anywhere. Secondly, and I said it at the COC that we had 2000 people every night; here at the Bastille we have 2700, and a different audience. The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one. You are part of the collective who sits there but you also experience it all for yourself. So of course there will always be audiences who are more conservative and others who are more avant-garde, and then everything in-between. And in the end it’s very simply, “I like / don’t like what I see onstage” – that’s fine. But if we maintain there is not solely one truth in the pieces we present, then there can’t be one opinion, no matter how we present them. Ultimately it’s not about liking or not-liking something but being able to talk about it. The essence of theatre is to engage in a dialogue about what we’ve experienced together onstage. That dialogue is something that’s big in everyday life here, and it can be made richer because of people having a deep cultural routine. I found it was more restricted in Toronto – there I found that even with the variety of choices, people stick to the offers of one cultural organization. I would meet people at cocktail parties and they’d say, “I’m a ballet person” – fine, good, there’s no discrimination – but in Paris there’s a much stronger overall cultural routine which has been in place since early childhood. People don’t feel the need to choose between the ballet or the opera or the museum or the symphony. What keeps fascinating me, and it’s so different culturally, is that they bring kids to the theatre, young kids, on weekdays when there’s school the next day…

My mother did that…

Exactly! People do it because they feel it’s important their child sees this or that. It’s not the last thing you do, but the first thing you do. And I think that regularity with culture changes a person, it sets up a cultural routine. And if it’s diverse it can bring a lot to audiences and people in general. So to go back to your quote about opera’s job, we are not making the world a better place – but maybe through our work we can get people to think about how to make the world a better place.

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


Finally: I have to ask you about your GMD search.

It’s going slowly but surely. Since Gustavo left earlier than he was supposed to, I decided not to jump to fast conclusions because I thought it would be better to use the time, mostly with the musicians of the orchestra, to engage in a real dialogue. That’s something that had been done the last few years but which had been quite disturbed because of the pandemic. Who are the conductors we really like? Who are the people who debuted during covid, maybe not under ideal conditions? Who are people who’ve come once that we want to see again? Who are people we’ve never met but want to meet? So over time let’s say maybe over the course of the season, we come to, or by default, a small list of people we’re interested in – it’s not going to be a list of 25 – between the people who have declared themselves candidates and the people we want to be candidates. Without necessarily formalizing that or having it in the public sphere, I think between the musicians and us, we will have more in-depth discussions about what we want, for the company, for the orchestra; what kind of profile does that person have, the one who comes closest to the ideal? All of which is to say: it’s an ongoing process.

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP
Gavin Friday, catholic, artist, Dublin, artist, musician, The Virgin Prunes

Gavin Friday: “I’m Interested In Telling Stories”

Everyone comes to Peter And The Wolf in their own way, but there’s a good chance many may now be introduced to the Prokofiev classic through a new animated short. Reimagining a beloved Russian classic is no small thing, but such bold creativity seems par for the course if one considers the man behind its realization.

Musician, actor, painter, performer, producer, poet, muse; it’s impossible to put Gavin Friday in a box, and one suspects that’s just how he likes things. The Irish artist, a founder of avant-garde band The Virgin Prunes and an accomplished solo musician, spent the better part of the 2020 pandemic lockdown thinking about wolves, family, one little boy – and how the drawings of a longtime childhood friend could work with all of it. That friend is, as many know, Bono, someone with whom he has maintained a decades-long connection which began in North Dublin in the mid 1970s. Born Fionan Hanvey, he met Bono (Paul Hewson) and future Virgin Prunes colleague Guggi (Derek Rowen) at a house party in his teens. The Virgin Prunes (active between 1977 and 1986) were a thing apart in Dublin – and elsewhere, really– with The Irish Times describing the band in 2022 as  “right in the middle of grand guignol performance art, melodic lucidity, and hard-as-nails post-punk“; their daringly theatrical presentations and fusion of genres set Friday up for an assortment of future creative pursuits. Following his time with the band Friday released four solo albums, with many respective tracks strongly influenced by the work of Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg: Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves (1989); Adam ‘n’ Eve (1992); Shag Tobacco (1995), and catholic (2011). He’s held art exhibitions, sound installations, and contributed to numerous film scores and soundtracks, including Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father (1993), The Boxer (1997), and In America (2003). In 2005 Friday acted opposite Cillian Murphy in Breakfast On Pluto, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s 1998 novel of the same name, and in 2007 contributed music to McCabe’s theatre piece The Revenant, which opened that year’s Galway Arts Festival.

2007 also saw Friday also work with English composer Gavin Bryars on a new version of Shakespeare’s Sonnets together with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North, a project he referenced more than once through the course of a recent conversation. Other collaborators have included Quincy Jones, Hal Willner (the latter produced Friday’s first two solo albums), post-punk artists Mark E. Smith, Dave Ball, and members of The Talking Heads, electronic music artists Howie B. and Atonalist, as well as Sinead O’Connor, whom he recently eulogized in a year-end special for The Observer (sister paper to The Guardian). Perhaps most famously, Friday has acted as longtime creative consultant to U2 (he calls himself their “midwife“), notably within the realm of their ambitious live presentations.

And then there is Peter And The Wolf, the legendary Prokofiev work of which Friday is a longtime fan. Originally commissioned in early 1936 by Natalya Sats, director of the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow, the story revolves around a boy who lives with his grandfather and eventually traps a wolf with the help of forest-dwelling friends. The work premiered in the Large Hall of the Moscow Conservatory that same year, with its American premiere presented in 1938. Friday had narrated a formal orchestral presentation in Dublin in the early 2000s; that performance morphed into a book-and-CD project (published by Bloomsbury) in aid of the Irish Hospice Foundation in 2003, with musical rearrangement by Friday and longtime collaborator Maurice Seezer and artwork by Bono. Resemblances between the fairytale world of Peter and the Hewson clan were not, as Friday shared recently, accidental, and are most pronounced via the character of Grandfather, sketched in the book and the new animated short as Bono’s own father, Bob Hewson, who had been under the hospice’s care until his passing from cancer in 2001.

The new project, produced by BMG and animation studio Blink Industries, brings the drawings to poetic life with thoughtful narrative expansions and moments of true, unfiltered joy. There’s a sometimes fine but important difference between cute and contemplative, childish and childlike, and the thirty-minute work, directed by Stephen McNally and Elliot Dear, gets the balance just right. The musical rearrangement recalls the angular sounds of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Krzysztof Penderecki; it is an intelligent fusion of spiky textures, careful momentum, and Prokofiev’s folkloric melodicism. Connecting it all is Friday’s warm narration, injected with alternating doses of tension and tenderness. His accompanying song for the project, “There’s Nothing To Be Afraid Of“, is a touching (and very earworm-worthy) epilogue. This new Peter And The Wolf is as much a band-aid to sorrow as a pure hymn to happiness, a tribute to Prokofiev’s original and an ambitious broadening of the parameters binding its long-known universe. It is also a testament to the incredible breadth of Friday’s ambitions and talents. Released in October on the streaming platform MAX in North America and comes with a new book as well as a soundtrack in CD and vinyl formats. Peter And The Wolf airs on Irish national broadcaster RTE One on December 25th.

Between promoting the new Peter And The Wolf short, mixing his much-anticipated new album (working title: Ecce Homo), and overseeing the remastering and re-release of works by The Virgin Prunes, Friday is a busy man who seems more inspired and curious than ever. Might opera – in some form or fashion – be in Friday’s future? He isn’t talking, but Peter And The Wolf certainly cements his position as a go-to man for all things musicodramatitheatre. One can hardly wait for Friday’s next act.

wolf, forest, drawing, sketch, Peter And The Wolf, Max, Blink Industries, BMG, Gavin Friday, Bono

A frame from Peter And the Wolf. Photo: Blink Industries

How did this version of Peter And The Wolf come about?

The piece it’s based on celebrated its 20th anniversary this past autumn – that book-and-CD project did really well and we put it to bed, though there was a suggestion of animating it at some stage. About five years ago we got the rights to the recording back and I thought, “Wow, we should re-release this, stream it, look after it.” At the same time, (BMG’s UK President, Repertoire & Marketing) Alistair Norbury rang me up asking, “Is there a new Gavin Friday album coming? Or would you be interested in doing some re-releases?” We met in London and I mentioned getting the music rights back, and he said, “Why don’t we look at animating it?” We set up a few meetings and the animators we embraced the most belonged to a British company called Blink Industries. Then we went back to the Irish Hospice Foundation; since it was created for them originally, it would be so again.

What was the biggest challenge?

To try and animate Bono’s drawings was really the big conundrum; I didn’t want them to be overly nice or homogenized. I wanted them to have a punky aesthetic, that same scratched-up look as the book. Bono said, “Look, you curate them, and once it’s to your taste, I’ll give it my blessing.” So we started developing characters and came up with a little five-minute trailer, like a demo, and we went around to a few companies, and HBO fell in love with it. And we started meetings with them – but just around then, as we started getting going, lockdown came in and the whole world went into quietness. HBO said, “We can still start development via Zoom, so why don’t we?” Also we had a great team at HBO – which since became MAX – but they did remind us that twenty years ago was a different world so we’d have to edit the words in the old text, since it has Dublinese nuances and influences.

Going back to the early 2000s: how did the very first project transpire?

I had been working with the Irish Hospice Foundation for the last 25 years – they came and asked me for innovative stuff for charity rather than simply, “Here’s a daffodil; here’s a calendar” – we have done various projects together including cards and books and so on. At one stage they told me about a children’s orchestra in the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts and how they’d love to do something with me for charity, and I said, “Why don’t we do Peter And The Wolf?” That’s how it started. As you know Prokofiev wrote this in 1936 for children; the instruments of the orchestra are meant to be characters. And everyone knows the story…

I’ve introduced students to it through the years and nearly all of them have never heard of it.

Really?! Maybe it’s because I’m European so I know it – it’s a Russian fairytale but everyone I know is aware of and loves it!

Peter And The Wolf, Prokofiev, HBO, Max, BMG, Blink Industries, Gavin Friday, animation, Bono, short, forest

A frame from Peter And the Wolf. Photo: Blink Industries

What’s your very first memory of Peter And The Wolf? 

I heard Danny Kaye’s version – it was one of my aunt’s vinyls. But I’d heard it being played on the radio and things like the Proms and other specials; the BBC are quite good at classical. But I really woke up to it with David Bowie’s version, though I didn’t actually like that one! But the overall idea, yes, I love the gothic-ness of the story, the wolf and all that. So when it came to me performing it with this orchestra, it was a straightforward, live presentation with student musicians. We did it at the concert hall and it was a success. After that I wondered about doing our own arrangement. You know how, when you jump into something that’s new, or not-entirely new to you, you really really go for it? Whether it’s Stravinsky or whatever, you just go, “Oh Jesus, so much to learn! So much to listen to! So much to read!” – maybe too much! It happened when I was working with Gavin Bryars for the first time on the sonnets. With Shakespeare I had done this (gives middle finger) all my life – I think that’s an Irish thing – but when you read the sonnets you go, “Oh my Jesus, this guy’s a genius! Why haven’t I been reading this all my life?! Oh but wait, it’s so bloody much to learn…!”

So that obsessive streak happened with Peter And The Wolf?

… yes, I got very obsessive. I got hold of every version I possibly could. I think I have about 40 different recordings of it now; the Dame Edna one is brilliant, but one of my big favourites is by Sean Connery – what a gorgeous voice. When I did it with the orchestra in Dublin I did notice that the kids weren’t terribly interested, though – well, they were interested in my story, and how I was going into the wolf voice, but the music didn’t entirely engage them, so I thought, “Okay, it’s no longer an interesting thing on its own for kids, it has to be something they want to hear.” So when we went to do the 2003 version I said, “Let’s treat it was a movie score, let’s imagine we’re orchestrating and arranging this for a Tim Burton movie.” We had just started a big Kurt Weill show in Dublin and we were using banjos and horns; I thought maybe we could use them for the rearrangement – like, go punky on it, and so we did. We recorded it in two days in Dublin with some wonderful musicians. We had to send it to Prokofiev’s son for approval – he absolutely loved it – and we met (grandson) Gabriel Prokofiev for drinks as well; he thought it was punky, dangerous, and said, “It’ll get kids listening.” We embraced that; it’s what we wanted. Rather than saying, ‘The bird is the flute, the clarinet is the cat’ we say: this is what music and theatre are. We got the sign-off from the Prokofiev family again for the new animation.

How was that 2003 version realized in 2023?

HBO said they wanted the project and they had no problems with the music. They did want Bono’s voice and I said no, but since he had done the original drawings, I wondered, “How do I get him into this without speaking?” – which is a hard thing, I have to say! (laughs) There’s this old video of Picasso painting in front of a piece of glass, so we used that idea as a prologue; you see Bono painting the wolf and it morphs into Peter in the car, and then he does a little reprise at the end. It makes everyone happy that he’s in it, but without him actually speaking. We also had to change certain points of the story, particularly the ending. There’s a bit of ambiguousness in the original; the wolf is carted off, but where’s he going? Kids especially want to know: did they hurt the wolf? Is he dead? But wait, is the wolf really a “he” or is it a “she” or what? The HBO/Max team asked me and I thought, hmmm…

I reread the 2003 book recently and thought certain phrases probably wouldn’t work today – especially how you describe the wolf going “mental” when he’s caught.

Yes, and that’s a real Dublinism – but it had to be removed. The real thing that tipped my head was the question of why Peter lives with his grandfather. I thought, “Okay, this is for the hospice: his mother died, he’s dealing with loss. He’s coming from his mum’s funeral; you see pictures of her at some point – these are little symbols that say everything.” As to the wolf, well, what is it? Really, it is fear, at its essence. When horrible shit happens, like a parent dying – which is your whole world if you’re a kid – that’s the wolf. So we made Bono’s chalky drawing outside the box; the real wolf is in there, but you only see this white shape, which makes it otherworldly and surreal. It’s how Peter sees the world. We went through the whole process of rewriting and animating for basically a year. I am not a fan of digital animation personally, so all the sets were built, they’re handmade – so small trees, the car is a small car, they made little chairs, and it all mixes with 2D. The result is, I think, very beautiful.

It keeps the theme of the journey to adulthood intact also.

Yes, along this journey Peter befriends his grandfather; the wolf brings them together. It’s making what was an old piece of Russian folklore that Prokofiev put to music into this balm on how to deal with fear and loss. There was a question in terms of the narration; at the start the animators wisely said to me, “You’re taking the persona of the duck and the wolf and speaking the parts, but what about you as a narrator? What are you, exactly?” And they came up with a new character, a fly who hops around and sits on Peter’s shoulder and buzzes around as the wolf is being caught. The fly-narrator is me, this dandy version of Jiminy Cricket.

That inclusion facilitates narrative clarity, but it made me wonder if you’d be open to doing more classical-theatre-type work – I think you’d be perfect for Stravinsky’s L’Histoire Soldat, and Henze’s Aristaeus, for instance.

Well there’s a lot coming from me yet! When lockdown happened this landed on my plate – I was going to mix my album that I am finally mixing now. Peter And The Wolf did become a focus during lockdown, and I just fell in love with it. Building the story and working on the sets, the scripting going on – it was my first really big venture into narrative performance in a public way, and in retrospect it was a beautiful way to get through lockdown. The biggest thing I’ve done other than this is Nothing Like The Sun with Gavin Bryars, who picks it up and tours it every now and again. When I first did it I worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a month, which was hard-going. But people still ask me, why be so theatrical in all of your work? Well, because I’m interested in telling stories – it’s taking a character, it’s acting, having fun. I’m in my 60s, and I think, for f**k’s sakes, I still have a lot of stuff I want to do – when I’m 75 I might not be able to, so now’s the time!

Top photo: Barry McCall
snow, lights, winter, tree, pretty, illumination, nature

An Update & An Inspiration (or two)

First things first: I will be teaching in January 2024 after all.

More specifically, I will be leading a class at the University of Guelph Humber on freelancing and small business development for third-year Media & Communications students. Huzzah!

Secondly, calling attention to an article by Alexandra Wilson published recently in The Critic. Wilson is Professor of Music and Cultural History at Oxford Brookes University, and has published extensively on various aspects of opera. (Her 2021 book on Puccini’s La bohème is on my wish-list.) These lines near the end of the article caught me:

Yes, classical music does help mind, body, and soul. But if we make the point of opera its capacity to improve “wellbeing”, or if we sell classical music on its ability to make you better at maths, or indeed if we campaign for the arts on the basis of their contribution to GDP, we have succumbed to a utilitarian mentality. And the problem is that this makes it very much harder to advocate for the arts on their own merits.

This utilitarian mentality greatly (if not solely) contributes to North American perceptions around classical being an “elite” world, an idea I’ve covered here in the past, but hope to write about in more detail soon. It’s inspiring to see Wilson’s words at this point in time – more please!

More seasonally: Journalist Uwe Friedrich recently did a fascinating and detailed comparative of recordings of The Nutcracker for Bavarian broadcaster BR Klassik. It made me especially happy to hear my own personal favorite (by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky) made the list. Very often I explore the idea of ‘evocative sounds’ with my students, what that means, and why to use it; Rozhdestvensky’s 1961 recording with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Bolshoi Theatre Children’s Choir is a perfect example. The conductor beautifully conjures Tchaikovsky’s various sonic landscapes with an alert, alive eye to every fine, delicate detail, and carefully avoids the far-too-easy showiness of the score while leaning into the vibrant textures inherent within its hypnotic melodicism.

Finally: thanks to everyone far and wide for the kind wishes for my birthday yesterday (the 14th). When people ask me my age now, this is the exact face I’m going to pull:

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

My interview with Gavin Friday about the new version of Peter And The Wolf is coming next week; stay tuned and stay warm.

snow, winter, branches, cold, trees, twisting, scene, snowy

Essay: Ch-ch-ch-changes

Update 15 December: I have a January position, but not at Seneca Polytechnic.

This announcement was made on Facebook recently, but for the sake of  clarity I am announcing it here also: I will not be teaching at Seneca Polytechnic Institute in January (For further clarification: I was not fired but it was also not my decision.)

I graduated from Seneca’s Radio Broadcasting program in 2005, with the teaching offer coming a decade later. It was the first time I’d taught in a formal classroom, the first time I’d stood in front of a group, having only taught piano one-on-one for many years prior. I’d been an Associate Producer at CBC Radio but I wasn’t sure how to transfer that knowledge, or indeed, anything I’d gained from working so long in the worlds of writing, chasing, interviewing, recording, and producing. I remember the stomach-churning nerves of that first class, repeatedly losing my train of thought and looking down to my notes for reassurance. What am I doing here? Who do I think I am?! Fraudster syndrome is not a new experience for me, but I remember how sharp its edges felt that day in January 2015. It was a sign of things to come, particularly when I returned to writing within the classical world.

Despite the nervousness that day, I’d made my mother proud. It felt good to have the approval of the person who had been my most ferocious critic. The praise came with an addendum  (“I told you you should have gone to teacher’s college all along…”) – and was short-lived. I became ill (there were suspicions of Crohn’s disease, not ultimately found) and I couldn’t finish teaching the term. This was the time before Zoom classes. I couldn’t do a requested opera review for The Globe & Mail during that time either, and I remember crying over everything one grey early-spring afternoon, bemoaning the inertia of an existence that couldn’t – wouldn’t, refused – to move forwards, despite every hard push and expensive effort. Living abroad, graduate school, New York (twice!), tutoring, teaching, workshopping, networking, writing – so much writing – balanced with looking after my mother, and just when it seemed things were finally, at last, moving… kaboom, by accident or design, the wheels stopped turning. Sometimes I wonder if my illness was a reaction to her obvious decline. I remember her tiny frame perched just outside the doorway of my bedroom after one of my surgeries, her saucer eyes peering in. She would be dead four months later. I remained, barely, and the school term was over.

branches, trees, green, nature, trunks, paths, leaf, leaves, bloom, park, forest

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

I would go on to teach at Seneca every winter thereafter, and subsequently instruct Media And Communications students at the University of Guelph Humber every autumn. All those things I pushed for and lived through I now use, in one form or another; everything had a purpose, and continues to. The stress of teaching can be intense at points, but what job comes without that? Creativity, logic, and process are partners in the classroom. To borrow Byron’s line from Don Juan (written in a highly different context), “explaining my explanation” is something I think about a lot, as much as for teaching as for writing. But such educational basics (including standing in front of a group) don’t scare me anymore. Communicating, after all, is what musicians (actors, writers, painters, playwrights) also do, and like an artist I try to be both creative and chewy in my delivery, a mix of the blunt, the bizarre, the theatrical, a kind of Bernsteinian flight of ideas and history, approach and practice. (I don’t think Lenny would mind my taking inspiration from his speaking/lecturing style.) Encouraging young people to explore their own talents, demonstrate a capacity to meet real-world demands and exercise their curiosity has been a special blessing for someone who never had children of her own. I like students; I like their energy. Seeing (and sometimes hearing) the lights go on – formulating unique thoughts and ideas, planning and dreaming, standing outside (creatively, intellectually, mentally) the influence and validation of the known – communication!

At the moment I am in the midst of term-end grading. It is odd to think that in a few days, there will be no classroom to go to, no externally-imposed schedule to keep, no student things to grade, no new slate of new faces to greet. January will be a big empty slate for the first time since 2014. “Turn and face the strange” indeed. Exacerbating this surreal feeling is a (big) birthday on Thursday. Maybe pushing for the things society tells us we “should” have by a certain age isn’t as effective a recipe for contentment as acceptance of and gratitude for present circumstances. True,  there is no castle in the sky, no Prince Charming, no sharing the washing-up or small joys or exasperated sighs. I am my own roommate, and it’s not a question of “strange” or “fail” or even “like”; it simply is.

Recently I had a conversation with someone working in the European classical industry who noted that while I seem “split down the middle” in terms of my professional life, I really should give serious thought to pursuing the things related to the classical self, the self who must try to stay quiet amidst the focus, that side I can barely silence, even (or especially) in lectures. Of course my readers may have noticed there’s been little published here the last few months – there’s been so little energy to do so. But I am called The Opera Queen, FFS! I should have written about Callas’s birthday! I should have written about Turandot(s) and Don Carlo! I should have written tributes to Marlena Malas and Pauline Tambling! I should have asked for interviews with x-y-z! Alas, time and energy are finite at this point (this is where nightly cooking/washing-up help would come in handy) and lately it’s gone to my students, and I don’t really mind, but I worry my readers do.

torso, sculpture, Glyptothek, Munich, Apollo, physique, chest, ancient, antiquity

Torso of Apollo; copy, probably after a statue of Onatas from Aegina (ca. 460 BC). Taken at the Glyptothek Munich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Rilke’s 1908 poem “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (Torso of an Archaic Apollo), with its striking paradox of the complete and the incomplete, comes to mind often, and not solely for its famous last line. Lately I am less statuesque and immobile, more messy and unsettled, as if I’m being shoved onto an empty dance floor in naught but socks, sweats, and dishevelled hair; all I can do is dance with myself – figure out next steps, tiptoe through financial terror, pirouette around expected hardship, kick at the doubts and do jazz hands to the doubters. Maybe I know the steps better than I think, else I am a good improviser. It’s nice to move in winter anyway; something about the season’s stillness makes things easier, its cold temperatures offering a brisk clarity. I am looking forward to long walks in the snow (if it ever comes) and listening to Sibelius, Strauss, Shostakovich… and silence.

In the meantime, I’ve an interview posting soon featuring Irish artist Gavin Friday, the driving force behind a new animated version of Peter And The Wolf done with childhood friend Bono – an update to their 2003 project for the Irish Hospice Foundation. Culture and rebellion, change, theatre, performance; creativity; shifting identities: Mr. Friday is every bit opera. The feature is posting prior to the short’s broadcast on Irish television December 25th.

Until then, enjoy the eierpunsch, dance with yourselves, and most importantly: remember the c-word. My students, I think, already know it by heart.

Essay: If You Go Into The Woods Today…

tree, look up, green, wood, leaves, beauty, nature, Munich, branches

Photo: mine. Please do not use without written permission.

Prologue: The new section of this website, a non-classical cultural-writing category to which the following essay belongs, will be up in early 2024. In the meantime, enjoy!

Gennady Gladkov, whose works provided the soundtrack to a variety of movies, series, and animated works, died in Moscow last month at the age of 88. Among the many projects scored by the Russian composer was the 1978 film An Ordinary Miracle, directed by Mark Zakharov and based on the 1954 play by Evgeny Schwartz. A compelling allegory on the nature of creativity and its relationship to human connection, the Mosfilm movie is also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of human relating. At a time when division between people feels so sharp, its examination of connection, as much as power, offer powerful food for thought.

Gladkov’s unique melding of pop-Baroque-romantic sounds underscores the work’s meta-theatricalism, but in no way does that lessen its impact or dilute the sincerity 0f its core. The use of the Bear archetype, with its pungent Jungian and mythological ties, brought to mind obvious opera (Siegfried) and theatre (The Winter’s Tale) references but also examples from popular culture. “Wake Up Call“, an episode from the third season of American television series Northern Exposure (aired on CBS in 1992), written by John Falsey, Joshua Brand, and Diane Frolov. The episode depicts Alaska-based pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) meeting a mysterious man in the woods (Andreas Wisniewski) near the start of spring. The man is gentle, handsome, handy; he catches fish with his bare hands. Is he Prince Charming come to life? Maggie accepts his invitation to visit his abode, a decorated cave, complete with candles and dinnerware. Spring begins to blossom; Maggie’s new flame vanishes, or rather, doesn’t, or rather… because he’s a bear, probably, though he could also be imagined; the writers quite intelligently don’t answer this conundrum. Rather than framing the premise in a patronizing manner (“Poor woman, she’s so desperate for a man she fantasizes about a wild animal…”) Maggie, and by extension the audience, is left to make individual conclusions. Such anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily cutesy or whimsical either; that categorizing crumbles against the very real framework of death (Maggie’s past romantic partners have all died tragically). The bear-man could be a coping mechanism, or he could indeed be real, or he could have a connection with First Nations mythologies (also suggested) – he could be everything, or something, or nothing. Again, viewers are trusted to decide: maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe imagination is every bit as powerful as reality.

This is the idea which largely powers An Ordinary Miracle. The act of imagining things and people into a real, lived plane of existence is symbolized by a young man, simply called the Bear (Aleksandr Abdulov) who, created and controlled by his writer-creator (Oleg Yankovsky), was turned into a human, and will revert to his original state upon kissing the one person he truly loves, the Princess  (Yevgeniya Simonova). The narrative includes some very pointed critiques of power and the ways in which it is wielded (no small thing in Soviet culture) while simultaneously teasing out the ways in which power, love, responsibility, expectation, and free will intersect. Within its premise  is the possibility of violence toward female partners and the beast’s eventual demise. Men as “wild beasts” is hardly a new idea, and as such the responsibility of “taming” is assumed to be the responsibility of female partners, again following cliched notions of gender and heteronormative romance. Such clichés are upended, as Maggie’s “Bear” is already pretty domesticated himself (he makes her dinner in his fancy cave) and the Bear in Zakharov’s film seems too gentle and wide-eyed to ever want to inflict harm on his beloved. (Corrupt politicians are a whole other story.) The Princess certainly acts the part of caretaker, even as she dons men’s clothes to disguise herself and engineer an escape, at one point wielding a sword and even deceiving her beloved.

Miracle brought to mind other cinema works with pseudo-anthropomorphic elements, including the 1987 film Moonstruck. Lorna Castorini (Cher) is asked by her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Vincent Gardenia) to facilitate a  truce with his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who cut his hand in an accident years before and has sworn off love as a result. Following their introduction in the sweaty basement of his bakery (trial by fire indeed) the one-handed “beast” sits with Loretta in his pin-tidy apartment and begrudgingly admits he enjoys the steak she made him before sharing details of his almost-marriage. “That woman didn’t leave you okay,” Lorna observes pointedly, “you can’t see what you are, and I see everything. You’re a wolf (… ) You’re scared to death of what the wolf will do if you make that mistake again.” Ronny angrily retorts that on the day of his intended marriage, Johnny “made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand; he could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head!” Later on, as the two walk home after a poignant night at the opera, he tells Loretta, “You call me a wolf, you run to the wolf in me – that don’t make you no lamb. You’re gonna marry my brother; why you wanna sell your life short?”

Writer John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, The Bride and the Wolf, had floated around for years before director Norman Jewison took it on. The idea of men as essentially beasts is, as noted earlier, not new; the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood has existed at least since the 17th century, although earlier versions exist in classical Greece and Rome, as well as East Asia, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Its various adaptations into music, TV, animation, games, a musical, and indeed pornography underline the story’s enduring appeal. There is something of the mythology at work in An Ordinary Miracle and Moonstruck, and Northern Exposure too– but something beyond it: gentle if insistent; hopeful if sad; fantastical if recognizably human. The works are less concerned with the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and more concerned with the real challenges of relating – less about ‘taming’ than acknowledging the perceived importance of conformity within socio-cultural ties. The beasts here are not obvious, and they are not clichés, or even archetypes; they are human. Bear is delicate, thoughtful, scared; Ronny is a plain-spoken, music-loving neat-freak; Maggie is insecure and nursing a broken heart; Loretta is skittish and fearful, as much a creation of her Italian upbringing as The Bear is of The Wizard. Aware of with their own feelings and controlled by perceived limitations and heavy expectations within their respective words, they remain, for a time, locked in patterns of behaviour and reaction – until granted permission (of sorts) to exercise a self-determination that leads to a risky if richer path. Each film uses the form of the fairytale to disrupt expectations around that form, and that includes the respective happy endings, which would not have occurred without discord, loss, heated exchanges and grim silences. Robbing such tales of their uncomfortable moments robs them of their emotional weight.

In exercising imagination thusly we have to ask that the exercise includes such difficulties, because life often presents them unbidden. Horror, as it turns out, comes in many forms. The Wizard says to the Bear, “Men of wisdom rise to the sky and plunge into hell out of love for the truth; what have you done out of love for a woman?” to which the Bear responds (to Gladkov’s keen scoring), “I gave her up.” “Once in your lifetime there comes a day when the impossible is possible,” The Wizard says, admonishing no one but himself. “You missed your chance. I won’t help you anymore.” Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala, 2002)  that “(o)nly when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” An Ordinary Miracle might have easily not had any miracle at all, ordinary or otherwise, without the counterpoint of tragedy – vulnerability, loss, risk, the possibility of change itself – ever-ready and perched at the door. There may or may not a rougher nature to bears, wolves, and brides, but it’s up to us as audiences (readers, viewers; humans) to decide on the danger they present, and to engage, to show up, and share that ” wild” side ourselves – to dare to fall in the snow, to be shot, to die, to live; to look at the moon, to climb in bed with the beast. Vulnerability is an inherent part of creativity. The Wizard stands alone amidst fire at the close of An Ordinary Miracle for a reason; he knows they are explosive partners.

Standing outside of Schwartz’s narrative, Gladkov’s music is  a genuine “miracle” within Miracle. Touchingly sentimental one moment, cutting and dark the next, his style is a roadmap of character, emotion, memory, magic. A light in deepest darkness, Gladkov was an outstanding talent and will be missed. As the dark cold of winter cocoons much of the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend a pot of hot brandied tea, a viewing, and quiet moments away from the chatter of technology. Spring, when it does come, may look very different; until then, we can imagine.

Something New, Soon(ish)

leaf, hand, tree, nature, autumn, colours, green, nature

At the Villa Verdi in October 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without written permission.

Update 30 October 2023: Since posting this two weeks ago, it’s come to my attention that there is, in some quarters, a very incorrect takeaway. To be clear: I am not stopping my classical coverage – I am simply broadening my scope as a writer. Classical coverage will continue parallel to other cultural pursuits. FYI.

Time off is a very good thing. Much as there’s a certain joy in the stability of habit and structure, there’s just as much happiness in the temporary absence of those things, and the varied responsibilities accompanying them.

Having spent the last week reading, cooking, reconnecting with friends, grading student papers, and staring out the window at a red-purple-gold forest, I realized that my computer-time the last few months has been very taken up with other people – this is not a bad thing, but it can be exhausting. “Writer” – the thing in my online biographies, the title that perhaps most closely captures who and what I am; what have I written lately that’s matched that in any satisfying way? Hand-written scribbles outlining various ideas for opera libretti notwithstanding, what have I done, or not done, or not had the energy to do, until, unless…?

Space, that elastic thing Bachelard wrote of; time, that other (highly) elastic thing Borges (and Arendt, and many others) turned over many times; I’ve had lots of both this last week. That allowance provided an important reacquaintance with a beloved old television program; watching something I enjoyed thirty (!) years ago served as a good reminder of my early writerly instincts, and of  the importance of having space and time as a basis for authentic creative expression. I don’t know if Northern Exposure is responsible for a kind of reawakening of the spirit (yet) but I do feel closer to a kind of artist-self (dare I write that) than I have in ages.

I’ll be writing more about the show and its continuing influence in a new category which will be appearing at my website soon. Non-Classical Writing will be for all the work that doesn’t hew to the classical/opera area to which this site owes its principle existence. There are already examples of that work in the Essays section. (Those things will be moved accordingly.) I love that classical world, but I love lots of other cultural things also. I don’t want to be confined to writing about only one area (as some of you may have already guessed from last summer’s post about the Faust myth and The Boys) – it feels limiting, especially to someone (me) who started out wanting to be a screenwriter, with loads of loopy ideas and interests. I’ve found the only way to keep my joy as a writer these days is to exercise a natural and longstanding cultural curiosity.

Vielen dank, Cicely, Alaska? Stay tuned.

 

 

Page 1 of 57

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén