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Essay: On Community, Culture, Vanishing, And The Usefulness Of Shells

The bonds formed and broken over the course of the past twenty-two months has led to reevaluations around relationships, and the kinds we want, and don’t want, in our lives. Complex equations relating to time and energy, volume and content, content and quality are being weighted against sheer exhaustion; many are just so tired and often feeling so much older than our years. If age is most accurately measured in moments than time, as Lord Byron implied, there are a good few of us in the arts who have been rendered ancient between March 2020 and now. That sense of aging has played a significant role in why and how relationships have shifted and changed. Sarah Miller’s “On Not Talking To Someone Anymore” (at her website) and Katharine Smyth’s “Why Making Friends In Midlife Is So Hard(The Atlantic) are documents of people reaching a certain pandemic point and realizing things have irrevocably shifted, for good and bad. The corona era has made those positive/negative lines sharper, and blurrier, at once; has what’s been lost, especially in middle age – outside of the physical – may or may not be worth mourning.

That loss seems more pronounced in some spheres than in others; the high-wire act of balancing solitude and community, isolation and relating, very much powers cultural expression. Vanishing and being vanished on, the sorts of people we spend time with or move away from (literally and figuratively), the nature of our relating, alone and otherwise – these notions hold particular relevance in an age where community matters less and more, at once. Such presence is more fraught (again, literally and figuratively) than at any other point in recent memory. In her piece, Miller points out that the reasons behind silences can, at least sometimes (and if you ask), be reduced to the petty, the mundane, the cutting truth (or untruth) of seeing yourself and your behavioural choices through another’s eyes (whether you have vanished, or been vanished on), and of the painful divides when experiences, time, and nostalgia for the passing of both are mismatched to the onerous realities of the present. Smyth explores the strangeness of connecting in a strange place, inwardly and outwardly, in engaging in a practice one less considered than simply enjoyed, and the various nuances of experiential difference that adhere to the digital pursuance of such. The profound loss to which articles both allude has been magnified by the relentless ephemerality of digital platforms carrying the ironic title of “social”, outlets which encourage anything but phones-away, non-posting, simple, human relating. Social media platforms, as many know, play to pandemic times: avoid safely, connect comfortably. Observing endless streams of photos posted by high school/elementary school friends/exes/co-workers/colleagues/casual contacts, one tends to automatically engage in the algorithmically-calculated behavioural compunction toward comparison-making. It is a human urge which technology has become adept at identifying and exploiting. The urge toward comparison becomes all the more pronounced when some places have live performance, and some places don’t – where some places have full houses (and antecedent requirements for that to happen), and some places outright cancel events. Such contrasts have a sometimes acidic effect for those of us in the arts, who have lost work or are still looking, who are looking to bump up CVs and pay bills. Not being a part of regular crowds these last almost-two-years (and thus not working, for the most part) encourages an insularity whereby anything good that happens to someone else, and thusly advertised, is now suspect. Envy, most especially within the cultural realm, has been writ large; those who have are in such sharp contrast with those who have not. What should be unvarnished joys – a new job, a trip, an excursion, a concert, a conversation – are flashpoints for lack, reminders of non-abundance and ultimate separation.

So much of what gets shared now seems mundane, overwrought, calculated, or a strange combination therein. People have largely burrowed into the, to quote Jim Morrison, “woolly cotton brains” of the familiar, following or leading lessons online whilst baking bread, with dusty blinds, gritty floors, and rattling furnaces intact. Ah yes, we say, seeing such familiar elements of the quotidian to which we’ve been reduced, I recognize that, yes. The yeast/flour scarcity in early 2020 has morphed into current supply-chain issues; baking shortages led to furniture shortages, and now, apparently grocery shortages, the very place the money once spent on cultural excursions, now doth flow. The familiar has become a safe bubble to love and resent, a strange new counterpoint of the era. Rising economic uncertainty, coupled with financial realities, mean community, as a lived reality, grows more distant under the weight of such mundanities, only slightly flecked these days by random twinkling lights of diversion, originating from strings of lights, rows of candles, and more often than not, a panoply glowing screens that keep us apart, talking (typing, tapping) about the same mundane things we all watched or saw or tweeted. Opening up to 50% capacity in Bavaria is a big deal – to hell with the screens, hurrah!

snail, garden, mollusk, shell

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

But Mein Gott, who would go? Should I? Will I die going to see a concert or an opera? Or wanting to keep writing about such things? Will I get sick going backstage to interview, to chat, to greet, to hug and handshake? Drinks later? Oder? Was ist noch “normal”? Not being around people, or more importantly, being only around the same tightly-controlled group of people, aggravates such anxieties, leading to a reinforcement of experiential bubbles, and that is, obviously, bad for art, but it is what many are being forced to do, if not through their own choice now, than through guidelines that dictate external conditions. Thus do silence and its hurtful counterpart (vanishing) become as normal as overcrowding and cacophony, as alternating rhythms of zen and anxiety; somehow pandemic has underlined such extremes of living, and creating. I have come to understand, at a deep level, that people with families/partners/networks/busy jobs/illness are juggling heavier balls than I, a family-free freelancer. This isn’t to diminish the sharp and painful realities of solo creative life; lack of regular benefits, precipitous drops in income, whole months of work washed away, to say nothing of continuous days and weeks of isolation, makes those uniquely spiky freelancer balls difficult to keep aloft, and more than once I have dropped them all at once along with the concomitant connections meant to make them feeling lighter and less burdensome than they really are. Having needs isn’t the same as being needy, but often the two have blurred. Things which should connect – common interests, creativity, inspiration – somehow, now, do not. Conversation feels effortful, whether giving or receiving, and when it isn’t, one often feels as if there is a sense of impermanence: so if we have a grand old chat we can be silent for two months, right? We’d all cry out our grief, cry out our disappointed, to paraphrase Rumi, but we’re all too busy trying to survive, and besides who would want to put in the effort to listen to such a racket?

Trying to interact with those with whom we share such commonalities can be (often is, lately) like speaking the same language but with different dialects. Somehow Hugh MacLennan’s ‘two solitudes’ concept takes on a broader and yet more precise meaning; there is no real, shared language but for the words that indicate precise, sometimes intricate division, within the era of pandemic. Talking classical with equally-passionate others isn’t the doddle some may assume; it can rapidly devolve into ferocious spit-balling, name-calling, intransigent foot-stomping, bragging, finger-wagging, or some combination therein. It is not news that people who love the arts (and who work in the arts) hold strong opinions, but that’s where vanishing also (alas) can come in; such relating is exhausting, and everyone is, without question, already so tired, and thus such exchanges become another burdensome ball to keep aloft. The desire to engage in these tribalistic exchanges speaks to a need for (perceived) community, one which is greater than ever, one fostered by a love of culture, and more accurately, its live expression. New avenues can and are created within the heated (if hopefully well-ventilated) atmosphere of shared experience – but such communal engagement can paradoxically encourage a laziness of thought, a dampening of curiosity; there’s a fear of going against the herd indeed, but more than that, sometimes there is precisely no thought given to not fitting in with the herd, to not parrot what everyone says, to apply nuance, to apply context, to ask for clarification and to do so privately. There is an urge to simply agree and to “amplify” (that overused word of the times), an urge applauded and underlined by platforms which, as I’ve written, are meant to encourage the notion of “social.” Lately I have decided to keep most experiences (cultural and otherwise) to myself, to not share, to not opine, to not publicly offer applause or evaluation unless I feel it is truly warranted. I’d rather discuss these things privately with my small if trusted circle, not of necessarily “like minds” but of what I would call “like spirits.” There is more community found with such contacts, many of whom hail from entirely different cultures and backgrounds – we might have a shared love of x-y-z art, but that isn’t the reason we’re friends, and it isn’t the reason we might forgive (or question) each other’s occasional vanishings and silences – and frankly, they have the balls to push back at me as needed. We like context; we like nuance. These things take time and attention, and when there’s time to be made, it is wholly taken. Chemistry can be cultivated, but it cannot be created whole.

snail, horns, shell, movement

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

Accepting this has had personal ramifications. I have vanished on many; I have been vanished on. I have become fussier in my interactions, and in the nature of those chosen interactions. This runs parallel with more selective listening and viewing habits; I am no longer a journalist or critic but my critical faculties now come with decidedly sharp edges, ones I wield carefully. In person, I have learned to speak with my eyes – and not. I have learned silence; I have learned to vanish. Interacting from the literal and figurative safety of a monitor has given harsh if vital lessons. Rare is the moment I will drop any mask now, literally, or figuratively. The willingness to be vulnerable is what fuels meaningful connections, of course, but its direct exercise is far more carefully considered. In his book La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) first published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1957, Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to shells and their paradoxical nature within the realms of creative human development. He ties artistic life with evolution of living forms, with “these snail-shells from which emerge quadrupeds, birds and human beings. To do away with what lies between is, of course, an ideal of speed… ”. In contemporary terms, that “doing away with” might constitute a great robbery, especially if one considers the heightened speed the digital world of 2022 demands, a pace which conflates perpetuation of connection with meaning, only to encourage its simultaneously illusory nature. Superficial ties are (mostly) easy to break; contacts we haven’t met (or barely met) are easy to vanish on. The people we meet and know are not immune to this virus of speed and ease, either, nor to the subsequent (and often casually done) breaking of those ties, ones which, within the creative realm, can be so inherently valuable. Bachelard continues, and offers a clue as to how to sort the vanishing/vanished-on fraught nature of modern adult relating:

A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk – the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them – we strain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.

Cruelty, it would seem, has been a hallmark of the pandemic era – cruelty, selfishness, pronounced exclusion and snobbery, behaviours that would seem to confirm beings comfortably, lazily ensconced within respective shells. For live culture and those who live by and for it, there should be another way, but we are all human, none of us (not even artists) above any other with regards to the hurt humans are well capable of inflicting. Let us be wolves, then, in our shells, considering how best to spend and direct our energies; energy goes where attention goes: let us hope we have learned how to direct it wisely. I want to feel such attention can be wielded, if not with great compassion (that seems like a big ask, and not a little precious), then at least with great curiosity, that such an exercise will get us out of our shells now and again, if only to breathe the cold, clean air.

Paris, Palais Garnier, Chagall, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe

Essay: On The “Relatable” – In Opera, And Beyond

Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”

Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:

The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”

The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.

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Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.

This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.

sculpture, Rodin, bronze, man, closeup, art, shoulder, body, bronze

Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words  (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.

The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.

Parma, Italy, Teatro Farnese, opera, production, Graham Vick, music, culture, history

Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues  – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.

The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need  some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.

This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Personal Essay: December Is The Hardest Month

December is a glum month. The cozy, communal nature of this time, reinforced by a combination of weather, occasion, social ritual, the marking of time and season, plus the digital signifiers that Surely Everyone Is Having A Better Time Than You, means, for those lacking family and/or firm social network, a keen feeling of being forgotten, whether it is true or not.

Oh, but the very many will (and do) say, we’re all so busy. Never has a word been more overused, and December is a good reminder of the ease with which avoidance is casually wielded – for fun, for comfort, and yes, for an understandable want of calm. Sometimes people, even the most popular, actually-busy, super-hyper-social ones, simply want to pull a Garbo. I appreciate that, as someone who often, pre-pandemic, felt the desire to leave hot, crowded rooms, the feeling that I was being smothered made smile-laden socializing difficult and stressful; usually I’d continue smiling and guzzle down a gallon or two of water. Such smothering feels more pronounced now, intro/extrovert labels be damned; one falls between, around, over, and under such easy categorizations, in this, the Age Of Omicron. I want to spend time… but are you boosted? Let’s have dinner… but can we get a negative test first? I’d love for you to kiss me but… ? Having viewed casual contacts with some suspicion over the years, lately I feel a deep gratitude for any miniscule crumb of kindness; amidst pandemic, little things become big things.

I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I received close to one thousand well wishes for my birthday. While I would have loved to have thrown a big party, or travelled (or ideally done both, as I had done in years past), reality dictates otherwise. Living alone as a freelance writer and adjunct Professor means being ever-conscious of illness and its effects, financial and social, as much as physical. Thus does staying in and alone become less a choice than an exercise in logic. Choosing solitude, when one has the absolute privilege of people around them at any given moment (and never let it be forgotten that having people around – partners, family, associates, work colleagues, friendly neighbours, pets – is a very under-recognized form of privilege), is far and away a different thing from solitude as a lived, actual norm. The few in-person conversations I’ve had lately are accompanied by a counterpoint of constant anxiety, wondering and worrying if I’m talking too much, too loudly, too quickly, pontificating and pondering, desperate to be heard, and desperately happy for this one (poor) individual to really be sitting across from me. I am, I fear, turning into the Crazy Old Woman cliche, minus (so far) the cats.

“You’re different, that’s for sure,” my mother used to say, furrowing her eyebrows and judging, for the thousandth time, how it was she, one of those hyper-social, popular, widely-loved, togethery-with-all-sorts, could have possibly birthed… me. The thing she perhaps didn’t see, or more directly refused to admit until the very end, was her culpability: a single, beautiful, cultured woman in a grey, artless, firmly conformist environment could not possibly be anything other than an outsider. The most powerful lessons are those done through osmosis, and her position as a divorced (and again, gorgeous, glamorous, artsy, social) parent in a bleak Canadian suburban had an effect – how could it have been otherwise? Such an upbringing screws in a keen sense of individuality, of the pain of being an outsider, and its strange, strangely-experienced joys. If, her reasoning went, everyone was to settle for being “dowdy” (her word), well… she’d be the precise opposite, and damn them if they hated her for it (they did). To hell with the cost to her daughter. Those costs were indeed great but sometimes there were benefits. I could show up most everyone who’d mocked me/pushed me over in the playground/thrown snowballs at my head with ribbons of intricate piano playing sounds that always impressed adults, namely teachers. It was a talent which sometimes got me out of boring classes and into the cool, quiet environment of a tiny teacher’s lounge that happened to have a piano; it was always a treat to be plucked out of class and be told I could, for an hour or sometimes two, practise to my heart’s content. I can still remember my shop teacher’s face when he heard me one afternoon, the way he stopped and stared, dumbfounded.

“Has your mother talked to anyone about putting you in the gifted program?”

They said no. I already tried.

His eyes widened, but he was silent. Years later I ran into other teachers from that elementary era, and all of them, oddly enough (or not), said: “You really should have been in the gifted program, you know. I mean, we all said that.”

It was at my mother’s insistence that I took some classes with the gifted group and felt that I was being ferociously judged, fiercely rejected, in a more brutal manner than usual. You’re not one of us you plain-spoken, poorly-dressed imbecile. I remember the silent stares, the quiet eyerolls whenever I spoke (which wasn’t often; I was terrified). I wasn’t smart enough for them (or something), I wasn’t unique enough (or something), my work was (apparently) unoriginal; thus it was back to the land of the super-normals (or something) where I clearly didn’t fit in either. I could not possibly be a part of their club, or so their behaviour implied, repeatedly. I recognized that same anxiety in speaking with various academics, authors, managers and musicians over the years, and I can clearly count the times I didn’t feel I was being similarly judged. Not smart enough; not unique enough; stupid, unoriginal. Back to the land of normals; rinse, repeat.

Snippets of overheard conversations my mother had with close friends arrived with the sound of her sighs. She just didn’t know what to do with me. What I loved was considered “too” weird, “too” outside, “too” daring, even for the woman who had, once upon a time, tried so hard to fit in with a world that wasn’t going to accept her either; I think it hurt her to see me making the same sorts of efforts, and with the same sort of results. Her efforts to gain acceptance within the teensy-tiny bubble of small-town Canada were never going to be successful; so too, for her artsy, anti-social, book-and-music-loving daughter who had a predilection for doing things in her very own way, who’d been told by the “special” folk she wasn’t “special” enough, who learned how to hide everything behind masks of makeup, dresses, heels, who became adept at distraction and diversion, who contented herself to be the entertainment, to inspire desire and derision, envy and confusion, and of course, ostracization, exclusion, isolation. To clench jaw and smile at rejection. To give a middle finger with a bat of the eyelashes. It became second-nature; it still is.

There were eyerolls when I’d exit my high school history class early on Fridays; I was off to then-dingy New York. My mother had a subscription to the Met Opera; it wasn’t as fancy as everyone thought – we had seats in the gods – but no one in our little town knew or cared about such details. We were being fancy, snooty, pretentious; I was perceived as uppity, absurd, self-important.

“Have fun at the opera,” they’d sneer.

“Have fun at the mall,” I’d reply, slipping on my faux-fur coat over my ugly grey uniform.

Really, it wasn’t a question of my believing opera was somehow “elite” – I never thought it was; looking around at the Met on any given night, I’d see all sorts, dressed in all ways, and it was nice to feel part of a community where we could all come together and talk about this thing we all loved. How many excited conversations did my mother and I enjoy at intermission and post-performance, with people whose fashions mattered so much less to us than that they could speak about x singer in y performance with z  conductor; that, to us, was every bit as magical as what we had just experienced. How could any of my fellow students, in my crappy little town, possibly understand? I didn’t try to fit in with them; I used their cliched, outmoded perceptions of the art form I loved in a way that protected my own passions, musical ambitions included. Thus my teenage weekends weren’t filled with parties and dancing and snogs with boys I barely knew, but with the sounds of Tebaldi and Domingo and Pavarotti, dinners at little Manhattan restaurants (long since gone), trying on a much-needed new coat at Century 21, cocktails mixed in our hotel room before and after performances (my mother didn’t believe in mystifying alcohol), and oh, the happy expressions during and after every performance – the sighs, the exchanged looks, my mother’s quiet “aaach!” at hearing, or remembering various musical moments, sung or played. I hated coming back after such excursions; Monday morning became tearful. I did not want to face them.

“But we’ll be back in two months!” my mother would shout over her cassette of Maria Callas arias. “Put on some lipstick – you’ll feel better!”

Rejection and defiance are close bedfellows, as recent history attests; the constant feeling of being outside the perceived (usually strict) circles of perceived norms and related social interaction mean that head-tilting haughtiness, protective thought it may be, screws in the nails of an innate, proud different-ness which led, in some cases, to a terrible if perhaps predictable isolation. “If you send out the signals you don’t want to fit in,” pronounces the school principal  in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink, “people will make sure you don’t.”

“That’s a beautiful theory,” retorts Andie (Molly Ringwald), maligned for her low socio-economic status as much as the unique fashion sense inspired by it. I loved that movie when it came out, not only for its style (I had wanted to be a fashion designer for years and still find myself sketching ideas for outfits to events I’ll probably never attend) but for its poor-girl-wins-for-being-weird theme. It’s one that is proven more and more within the realm of pure fantasy as a woman moves through life without hitting the predictable marks, rendering her invisible (or close to it), a position which not all of us have quite made peace with. The rise of digital media has created an algorithmically-dictated hierarchy of worth and attractiveness based on a youth that can only be conveyed through the erasure of physical indications of living – of experience, of endurance, possible wisdom. Difference comes with even sharper edges (deeper wrinkles, as it were) when one hits a certain age and is without family or close community; thus is one thrown into the bins of fetishistic sex fantasy or angry frump, with little if any room for (or interest in) nuance and all the fascinations such variance can (or should) afford. I am sure many perceive there to be something quite wrong, that my too-haughty shell  has led me here, that this is “the price” of such attitudes– a simple-minded calculation to smirk at. I didn’t expect my mother to die so young; neither did she. One of the last things she said to me six years ago (when she still had the strength to do so), was, “I’m sorry” – and it wasn’t just about that morning’s snappish behaviour, I knew; it was the same apology (the same words) uttered by my father at our final meeting eight years prior, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that manifests on the face and in the eyes. I knew precisely what she meant, and she knew I knew.

“It’s okay,” I said, choking back tears. It had to be; she was dead three weeks later.

More than once I have written to close contacts that I don’t miss my mother, and it’s true, I don’t; that feeling changes in December, the most glum month, as I wrote, a month when being an outsider hurts in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Geography, and the cultural differences that such geography brings, can (does, in my case) make an immense difference, but of course there are a whole new set of circles and a far more knowable kind of separateness to be navigated, which is easier and more difficult, all at once. The feeling of being different never leaves, no matter the setting; it isn’t something to be celebrated, or indeed, something that should inspire any form of reaction at all. Different-ness, and its unmissable expression in life, can only be accepted, along with all of its itinerant branches, reaching like octopus arms across various facets of living, the one facet, which shows itself every December, is painful, for it is a reminder of lack. But so too is there reason to remember abundance.

The pandemic brought the worst of childish habits to the fore and social media gave such instincts a stage for amplification; recently I looked back on old postings (since deleted) with a mix of horror and fascination. Oh, the ways we continue to seek a validation we felt was always missing since childhood; oh, the means we have at our disposal to receive and encourage it. The performative aspects of social media have led to aspects of our private lives taking on the appearance of a shadow-play, stripped of the blood-and-guts messiness of real, authentic living. But oh, that real living is what is most missed; my mother made a fuss in December, the month of my birth, the month of her father and brother’s birth, the same month of their respective deaths. How to navigate such sadness with the miracle of giving birth (something I am told she never expected to do, which she did late in life, and amidst a hideous separation) – December was a loaded month for her, and it still is for me. Lately I walk around my tiny abode wishing for little more than the aroma of her annual baking: the almond crescents, the raspberry bars, the whipped shortbreads. Her frenzied gift-giving, not just to close contacts but to everyone in quotidian life – postal people, bank tellers, hairdressers, delivery drivers– was perhaps her own way to seek (and find) validation, to fill the perceived hole of her own outsider-ness, feel her presence was somehow, despite everything, valuable.

For every individual who took time to wish me a happy birthday this past Tuesday – to write on my wall, to send a kind note, to offer good wishes: thank you. Small things are big things – now, more than ever.

Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Harry Bicket On Touring, Being Bullish, & Believing In Live Performance

Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.

That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led  Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic,  the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.

Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.

Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:

[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.

Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.

Harry Bicket, conductor, The English Concert, maestro, Baroque, classical, The English Concert

Photo: Richard Haughton

How is California treating you?

Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.

Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?

Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.

Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?

Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.

So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then… 

It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”

What’s the atmosphere been like?

We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.

Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?

I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.

In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.

I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!

A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!

I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”

In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.

Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…

.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”

And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…

That’s right…

… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?

In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.

In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.

Santa Fe Opera, theatre, auditorium, opera, outdoors, New Mexico, classical music, performance, culture, United States

Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin

Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?

In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.

But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.

I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.

But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.

Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.

The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.

So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.

It’s the act itself that counts.

That’s right.

Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…

Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”

But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.

I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.

Top photo: Dario Acosta
Bernard Haitink, conductor, orchestra, symphony, classical, performance, maestro

Remembering Bernard Haitink: Conductor, Vessel, Teacher, True Gentleman

More than a week has gone by since news came of the passing of Bernard Haitink. Tributes, fond remembrances, recollections, and analyses have poured from a number of sources across the classical world, notably from the organizations he was part of, including the Royal Opera (Music Director, 1987-2002), London Philharmonic (Principal Conductor, 1967-1979), Concertgebouw Orchestra (Chief Conductor, 1961-1988), and Glyndebourne (Music Director, 1978-1988) as well as others (including the London Symphony Orchestra) where he was a regular and beloved guest. BBC Music Magazine’s Michael Beek called Haitink “one of the most revered conductors of the last 65 years” and indeed, pondering the range of his influence, across  institutions, orchestras, conductors, even (or especially) listening, is a task which requests the very things one feels are lacking, especially in this, our pandemic era: attention, patience, time. They are things Haitink very often insisted on, with quiet confidence, through his recordings and performances across six decades.

The conductor, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland and hailed from a non-musical household, possessed a humble grace which was reflected in whatever he directed his own considerable attention toward – though, as The Guardian‘s Nicholas Wroe rightly noted in a (wonderful) 2000 profile, “his reputation as a taciturn and somewhat introvert figure is slightly overplayed.” Haitink’s greatness came not from his being so different from other conductors of his generation in his economy of gesture so much as being his very own self through such expression. He said a lot by saying very little, and in so doing, touched the lives of a great many. In reading through numerous tributes of late, I have found it increasingly difficult to put into precise words the ways in which Haitink’s legacy has influenced my own listening and appreciation. Much of my experience of his work relates to the alteration (or rather, evolution) of long-held perceptions around my own capabilities; he led music which, for various reasons, I believed was too complex, too intellectual, too … deep, too dense, too detailed, simply too much for a plain-Jane, non-Conservatory-schooled person who grew up in suburban Canada. Despite my years of piano playing, there was an innate feeling that certain composers, and certain works, were simply beyond my comprehension or appreciation. Haitink’s recordings showed me otherwise. His recordings, of those supposedly “dense” works (by Bruckner, Mahler, and Shostakovich), as well as symphonies I thought I knew well (Brahms) imbued a quiet confidence in my own abilities, as a listener, music lover, eventual writer and interviewer; such careful listening, and concomitant trusting, re-examining, and pondering, together with study, conversation, and engagement, are pursuits I credit Haitink with developing. He trusted the music, and he trusted the listener’s ability to experience that music. No daunting grand idea, statement, credo, or personality superimposed on top; there was, and is, only sound, something anyone can understand.

Lately I wonder about the context in which such artistry arose and was cultivated, especially now, in an age where image is so often conflated with impact. Listening to the recording he made of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, (captured live at Covent Garden in 1997; released via Opus Arte), one’s thoughts turn to that last quality, mentioned above: time. It is a long work, but oh, how the time stops, and simultaneously runs by so quickly. “There is no force more powerful,” writes Mark Wigglesworth in The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters (Faber & Faber, 2018):

We cannot control it. We cannot influence it. […] Through music we can experience an hour as if it were a minute or a minute as if it were an hour. Music gives us the power to live in the present […] releases the present from the weight of its past and the expectations of its future. […] (Conductors) seek to organize music within time while simultaneously releasing it from the restrictions time imposes. We work within the boundaries of this paradox, managing the ebb and flow of music to defy a ticking clock and inspire a pulsing heart.

How might Wagner’s work have sounded, I wonder, had Haitink been a few decades younger? Or older? And how might I have received it in my younger days? 1997 found me chasing rock bands, reading the work of William Burroughs, listening to trip-hop; none of these pursuits seem reduced by my appreciating the work of Haitink (and indeed Wagner) now, but of course opera asks something different, something one may or may not be prepared to allow and to cultivate. As noted in the contributions below, the Haitink of older years was not precisely the Haitink of younger years. The conductor’s magic, then, was a most human one: he allowed time, and life, to change him, and he allowed us to experience that with him.

From Holland to the UK (to Chicago, to Vienna, and beyond), with heart surgery in 1998 and a hectic schedule of performances and recordings leading to a final performance in 2019 (at the Lucerne Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic), Haitink’s feeling for life, and the living of it, is expressed in sound as much as in the silence between those sounds.”There is no excuse for arrogance,” continues Wigglesworth, “and I actually don’t think you can be a good conductor without feeling humility toward the music and empathy with the players.” To exercise such empathy is a choice, a simultaneously brave and vulnerable one; music very often asks, nay demands, its cultivation, if not its outright expression. Empathy in concert with time, can have particularly bittersweet effect when experienced through this, our pandemic era. Through the loss of so many people whose work has had a personal effect, people who I admired and with whom I so wanted to speak (Graham Vick, Christa Ludwig, Edita Gruberova, Alexander Vustin, Dmitri Smirnov, and Alexander Vedernikov among them), Haitink’s passing in particular feels like something of a ‘last straw’ in grief. In her 2005 book The Year Of Magical Thinking (pub. Alfred A. Knopf), Joan Didion writes that “we are not idealized wild things. We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.” Facing Haitink’s death has proven a reckoning on a number of levels, inner and outer, and I continue to try to calculate these losses – of people I don’t know and will never get to speak with; artists whose work so touched my life and shaped so many of its winding nooks and cranies. I continue attempts, however futile, to integrate the work of such figures with the loss of a mother whose passion for music, and inherent mistrust of being educated in it, led me into this world. Haitink helped me feel a bit more welcome, and I never got to thank him.

There are, of course, plenty who did, in a great many ways. “A good conductor gives musicians the feeling that even though they’re doing things his way, they would have chosen that way for themselves,” writes Christopher Seaman in his 2013 book Inside Conducting (University of Rochester). “This talent for persuasion is something you’re born with; nobody can teach it.” Such sentiments are echoed in the contributions below, from a range of inspiring conductors across the classical world. Also included are the thoughts of two music writers whose experiences of Haitink, on record and live, offer further insight. Some of these contributors are people I have interviewed in the past; others are new, but all, I feel, offer unique and moving perspectives. I am deeply grateful to all of them for sharing their thoughts here.

Bernard Haitink, conductor, orchestra, symphony, classical, performance, maestro

Bernard Haitink leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 2013. Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Sir Antonio Pappano

Music Director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Music Director, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
Chief Conductor, London Symphony Orchestra from 2024-2025 (Designate from 2023-2024)

As the handover (of the Royal Opera) was happening in London, when he was leaving and I was taking over, he was very, very gracious – in fact, he invited my wife and I to dinner, and although he was not a man of many words, he made me understand how much he cared for the institution. I was very much aware of what he did, to keep the whole structure afloat. I’m talking about chorus and orchestra now, as a whole, because it was really in peril then, and there were so many political forces, trying to bring the place down, somehow, and he would have none of it. He was just firm, he didn’t go screaming and shouting – there was an inner conviction – and he continued to do concerts – the orchestra was performing outside the opera house; it was a wonderful defense of the livelihoods of so many musicians, and also how important the building was, I mean it was a crown jewel in British artistic life, so … you know, he will be beloved forever there. It was very, very important for me to understand what I had to live up to – I’m a completely different musician from him in the sense that I grew up in the theatre and all that, but I understood the esteem in which he was held. There was a firm foundation in the orchestra that I had to work with; he had his hands all of it, and I consider myself very lucky indeed.

I think everybody will say this about Bernard’s podium manner and his way of conducting, that “he let the music speak for itself” – well, what does that mean? What it means is that basically, he’s not getting in the way of the flow of the music, but he is guiding it; it’s not that he just lets it happen, no, he’s very much guiding it, and that creates a feeling of well-being in the players, and in the sound… the sound starts to glow because everybody is happy in the way the music is being shaped and the way they’re being guided. And this is something that you can’t really learn. It was just his presence. He had a way, a warmth, and a security … in himself, and the knowledge that the music, with just a firm guidance, would meld together, and that it would happen in his performances – that somehow, the intensity of the listening, and the well-being of the orchestra, created this sound. And it was a beautiful thing. My approach is completely different, and others’ approach is completely different, but this was really his, and it was a sort of trademark, a beautiful signature.

Amsterdam has a very rich Mahlerian history, which Bernard continued, and continued over time to refine and to deepen. It was an ideal hall also for the music of Bruckner – the Concertgebouw I’m talking about – because the resonance of that hall, and the way the instruments blend, it almost sounds like an organ, which is how one must approach Bruckner’s music, in some manner or form, and I think this music became a part of him, over time. But very interestingly, he conducted beautiful Debussy also, and wonderful Vaughan-Williams, he was much more than just Mahler-Bruckner… that which required beauty of sound, poise, and very strong foundations, like Brahms of course, that was, I think, very fertile ground for his way of making music.

Bernard came up during the recording era, so there are many documents of his work, but how does one describe “egoless,” you know, or “absolutely faithful to the composer”? We say that because it’s an exterior manifestation. We see it from the outside. His podium manner was not flashy, yet he could whip up the orchestras to a frenzy if he wanted to. He was very measured in dosing out intensity. One of the most difficult lessons to learn, and I can tell you I am still learning it, is, how, if you have a passion that is extraordinary, how do you dose that out? Because if you pour all that passion into every single bar in the same manner, it… basically it’s like you are ruining food with a sauce that is just too overpowering. That’s not the most elegant of comparisons, but you get the idea. I think he knew how to dose out, and how to measure, how to weight – he was a patient musician, and he knew the moment, and when the real moment was coming, and that is a life lesson for conductors.

Vladimir Jurowski

General Music Director, Bayerische Staatsoper
Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin
Honorary Conductor, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (“Evgeny Svetlanov”)

The first time I saw Haitink conduct must have been autumn 1990, or winter 1991; I was just starting my conducting studies in Dresden and was trying to absorb as many musical impressions in concerts and opera performances as possible.

Luckily, Dresden was then one of those magical places in Germany which attracted world-class conductors, much in the same way a flower meadow attracts butterflies and bees… and the main point of attraction for all those great conductors was, of course, the Staatskapelle Dresden. Bernard Haitink was one of those musicians who chose to travel across DDR borders to work with the Staatskapelle. I remember very well the first ever concert of his I ever heard at the Kulturpalast (obviously this was long before it got refurbished, so the acoustics were still generally appalling and needed a real master to make the sound of an orchestra work in there), with Mozart’s “Haffner-Symphony” in the first half, and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in the second half. His Mozart was absolutely revelatory: so lean and fresh and completely fat-free! I could not believe I heard the same Staatskapelle who played a Beethoven Symphony under another famous conductor only a week before and (on that occasion) Beethoven sounded like Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”… ! BH’s completely unaffected but affectionate way to care about a piece of music made the orchestra play on an edge of their seats for him.

I have seen Haitink conduct countless times since, mainly at the helm of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics, and they absolute moments of musical happiness for me: Mahler’s Third, Bruckner’s Eighth… this man had a gift to make other people suspend their egos for the time being and become one with the music they were performing.

I met him only a handful of times and I particularly cherish the memory of our first encounter. I believe it was in 1999 or in 2001 when he came to Paris with the LSO to perform Britten’s War Requiem at the Theatre de Chatelet. I was conducting Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Opera Bastille around this time and rushed to the Chatelet on my free evening to hear the War Requiem. After the performance – which seemed perfection itself – I went backstage, introduced myself, and tried to express my gratitude for the incredibly loving performance which I had just witnessed. To my surprise, Haitink interrupted me and started praising… my performance of Queen of Spades which he saw the night before! He was apparently preparing this opera himself for a ROH production and went to see the piece on his free night. I shall never forget what he told me: “What I particularly liked about your performance was that it started right from the first note! Every performance should do it but not every performance succeeds at starting right from the first note…”

Our last two encounters were both due to mournful occasions – the death of Sir George Christie and Sir Peter Hall. But at the same time. Sir George Christie’s memorial concert in December 2014 was an unforgettable and most happy experience for me: to be conducting the same orchestra, sharing the podium with the great Bernard Haitink, and to also be witnessing him returning to “his” LPO!.. He chose to conduct the B-flat major Entr’acte from Schubert “Rosamunde” and there was barely any rehearsal (some 10-15 minutes beforehand, in an icy-cold church on an icy-cold London December morning) but what he conjured up from the LPO players for the memorial was of such noble and moving simplicity that tears came to my eyes. When he stepped from the podium and, after a moment of silence (there was no applause in that concert I seem to remember), sat down on the chair next to mine, leaned over, and whispered “You’ve got a very good orchestra, Vladimir” to which I answered, “Thank you Bernard. but it was you who shaped them!”

I feel privileged having met this great man and having inherited two artistic institutions of the highest calibre from him: Glyndebourne Opera Festival and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His humility, modesty and conditionless love and servitude of music remain a model for all of us – and what a dignified way to leave the stage that he chose, entirely in keeping with his personality, and his approach to his art.

Paul Watkins

Artistic Director, Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival
Cellist, Emerson String Quartet
Visiting Professor of Cello at Yale School of Music

I was a kid in the European Youth Orchestra, or the European Community Orchestra as it was called then, around 1988-1989, on a tour where Haitink led Bruckner 7 and also the Mendelssohn violin concerto. I knew about him, of course, because he conducted some of my favorite recordings ever, particularly the amazing recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Perlman and Rostropovich (Warner Classics, 1980). The orchestral playing was just as engaging as the solo playing in that, and I wore that record out listening to it. I loved his Mozart too.

So I knew his work as a kid, then with the EUYO, and then when I started my job with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s. He would come in now and again, and just rejuvenate the orchestra every single time he was there. When I left the BBC Orchestra and joined the Nash Ensemble, he came in to conduct us there; we did a program at Wigmore Hall with Felicity Lott, he led a chamber version of the Four Last Songs and the closing scene from Capriccio. In that scene there’s this wonderful horn solo at the start, and Richard Watkins, the horn player at the Ensemble (he’s not related to me!) who I don’t think had played with Haitink before, played this solo so magnificently in rehearsal. I looked at Bernard and he looked at me, and gave me this kind of smile and wink, of, “Oh my goodness… “ – and at the end he stopped, put the baton down, and said, “Bravo”, this heartfelt expression to this horn player he’d not crossed paths with before! That was so special to hear. The last thing I did with him was to play as a soloist in the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante on a tour with the EUYO in 2016. It was wonderful to work with him as a soloist.

I’ve seen a lot of obituaries in the last week or so saying Haitink was the “anti-glamour” conductor, and I think that misses the point: Haitink was actually a braver musician than people who would be characterized as “glamorous conductors”, the starry, charismatic maestri. Haitink had the most charisma of any artist I ever met – he let it come through the music; he became a vessel for the piece, a helper for the musicians, he was one of them. That’s not to say he wasn’t extraordinarily in control of the music – he’d studied the scores, absorbed them deeply, but he was also able to let go, and relinquish that control, and I think that’s why he got some deep, and warm, and human performances, That’s why people remember him. And he remembered everybody – he knew me, after only working with him those few times. I felt emboldened to get in touch with him then, and a lot of this was through his wife Patricia, who was so generous to me. Bernard would allow me to come to rehearsals; at that time, I had left the BBC Orchestra and was with Nash, and he was working with the London Symphony Orchestra. I would be allowed to attend those LSO rehearsals and would sit in the back of the hall with a score, and just watch and listen. That gave me an enormous education as a fledgling conductor myself. The way he was so patient, so quiet, but so intense at the same time – that quiet intensity is what I learned from him.

There are a lot of conductors very much in the public eye and known for being extremely flamboyant, but in the end the ones who have the deepest musicianship come back to that kind of stillness. It’s partly to do with being just getting older, and finding more economical ways to express what you have to express. I’m thinking back to pictures of Haitink as a younger man, and there was no shortage of fireworks from the guy then! It’s not like he didn’t have all this ability, he just found different ways to express it. He is really in the top five conductors of the 20th century. I’m not sure we’ll see that many like him in the near future, but give it ten or fifteen years – those characteristics and values will come back. He’s too great an artist not to have a far-reaching influence.

Bernard Haitink, conductor, orchestra, symphony, classical, performance, maestro, Ben Palmer, rehearsal, 2014

Photo: Ben Palmer. June 2014, taken immediately after Haitink’s first Mahler 7 rehearsal at the Royal College of Music.

Ben Palmer

Chief Conductor, Deutsche Philharmonie Merck
Founder and Artistic Director, Covent Garden Sinfonia

In 2014 I was invited by the Royal College of Music to prepare its Symphony Orchestra for Bernard Haitink’s performance of Mahler 7. As well as bringing the players together into a cohesive ensemble – the orchestra is assembled afresh for each project; I tried to rehearse in as much of Haitink’s own interpretation as I could, having done some intensive study of his most recent recordings. As a then-32-year-old, it was my first time conducting the symphony, and it was fascinating to learn it through someone else’s eyes, to try and make sense of their decisions and ideas. After a few days of intense work, I came into College to watch Bernard’s first rehearsal. Unsurprisingly, he was treated like royalty at the RCM: a welcome party of senior staff waited on the steps; the orchestra tuned and ready on the stage. There was complete silence as he stepped onto the podium. After a handshake with the leader, he said in a quiet voice, “We have a mountain to climb, so let’s start climbing.”

I almost had a heart attack when he began conducting in eight – I had rehearsed in four – but, of course, like every gesture of his, it was unmistakable. Much to my relief, he did all his tempi and rubato as we had prepared, and the first run-through of the first movement went extremely well. In those delicious moments of silence after it finished, he turned round, found me in the hall, did a little bow, and said “Bravo.” It still sends shivers up my spine thinking about it. Of course, in that rehearsal of his, I learnt more about the symphony than I had in all the weeks I’d spent preparing it. Passages that had been awkward or difficult for me, he navigated with a mere flick of the wrist; moments that left me sweaty he would conjure with a lightly clenched fist.

In 2017, the RCM asked me to prepare Daphnis et Chloé for him. The day before I was due to have my last two sessions with the full orchestra, the message came that Mr Haitink felt he might need an extra rehearsal, so my last one would be taken by him. I didn’t expect him to remember who I was, but when he arrived he walked straight up to me, shook my hand, greeted me by name, and apologised for “stealing one of your rehearsals.”

That he was so kind, encouraging and generous to me personally only proves what everyone says: he was a true gentleman. He was also, quite simply, my favourite conductor.

Kenneth Woods

Principal Conductor, English Symphony Orchestra
Artistic Director, Colorado MahlerFest
Artistic Director, Elgar Festival

The sorrow that came from hearing the news of the passing of conductor Bernard Haitink last week was, for me at least, made even deeper at the nagging thought that, widely as Haitink is already missed, we now live in a musical world that doesn’t share the unique qualities which made him such a remarkable figure.

Haitink was an exemplar of everything a conductor should be – and the antithesis of what most people assume a conductor is likely to be; he was a musician of real depth. In a climate where interpretive choices can sometimes be driven by fads and dogma, Haitink’s music-making was deeply intuitive, grounded in a deep knowledge of the scores he conducted, his artistry made all the more special through his famously collegial and collaborative approach.

For the last third of his career, Haitink stood out as a seasoned master in a craft which, more and more often, treats such experience with disdain. This is ironic because Haitink was something of a boy wonder, ascending to the position of Principal Conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra at such a young age – just thirty years old then! But, while some young talents seem to stop evolving the moment they achieve a first taste of success, Haitink never stopped growing. His life’s work is, if nothing else, a testament to the results of a lifelong commitment to learning and self-improvement. Haitink was absolutely allergic to empty display and conducted without a hint of vanity on the podium, yet he had possibly the most expressive, effective, and dare I say, beautiful conducting technique of anyone who ever waved a baton. He had a gift for drawing the most beautiful sound from any orchestra, but he also had a steely core and a plenty of fire within. His music-making could take the listener straight into the abyss when called for.

In an age that prizes first impressions above all else, Haitink’s performances offered more than a single listen could reveal. A wise teacher understands that even a fine student may not fully absorb a lesson for many years, but, nevertheless, shares their insights without impatience or condescension. Haitink was one of the last interpreters I can think of who made music in much the same way, serene in the knowledge that, as one grows as a listener, they will find more and more inspiration, more enjoyment, and more enlightenment in the scores he loved. I am grateful that I can continue to learn from his work.

Haitink, Shostakovich, recordings, compact discs, CDs, collection, music, Bernard Haitink, classical

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

Alan Mercer

Director, GBF Media
Editor, The DSCH Journal

Haitink was no “hero” of Shostakovich’s music, no showman, no denier or decrier of the endless controversies that the West loved to drag along in the composer’s wake. “Loyal Son”, “Closet Dissident” were of no significance to Bernard Haitink, or at least to the manner in which he approached Shostakovich’s symphonic oeuvre. What did matter to the Dutchman, and indeed what ultimately made his interpretations of many of the great composers of our age so moving, was his ability to embody a sense of humanity through his art, to convey the composer’s inner mind to the audience. During recording sessions for his Decca recording of Shostakovich’s Fifth, Haitink is quoted as saying “You must read ‘Testimony.’ [Solomon Volkov’s controversial ‘Memoirs’] It’s tragedy, black tragedy – Shostakovich was an “unhappy man.” And I defy anyone not to be stirred by the 3rd movement Largo, in the recording of the Fifth with the Concertgebouw.

Few people imagine that the two men might have met, crossed paths and even exchanged a few words. Yet they did meet, in 1975, in Moscow, Haitink describing the sick and weary composer as “A nervous man, very wary.” Shostakovich told Haitink that he had been moved by his performance with the Concertgebouw that day, an account that the conductor related with evident melancholic pride.

It was at the London Proms in 2008 that I truly comprehended how a genius such as Haitink could communicate to an audience such extremes of angst, ferocity and desperation that a work such as Shostakovich‘s Fourth Symphony embodies. The orchestra – the Chicago Symphony was of course no stranger to this repertoire, given Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s previous tenure – but if the Russian conductor drew out of the music its unmistakable Mahlerian influences, in Haitink’s hands the Fourth truly did, as one critic wrote “Appear from the depths of Stalin’s terror – as Shostakovich’s requiem.” Haitink’s control was subtle but absolute. The impulsiveness and orchestral volatility of the Fourth (which Haitink stated was his favourite of the cycle, along with the Fifteenth) can, in some performances err on the incoherent (no names shall be named): here the Royal Albert Hall shook with the intensity of the creeping violence of the 1930s, intertwining deafening expletives and hushed, fearful whisperings. After the final bars: silence. Sweat poured from the maestro’s brow, it seemed, onto the pages of the score. Silence. An unearthly peace had settled like the ashes of an existence.

Jari Kallio

Teacher
Music Writer

All my musical life, Bernard Haitink was there. My first encounter with Mahler 5 happened with his Concertgebouw recording on a 1970s Philips vinyl set. Picking up the Amsterdam tradition in the sixties, Haitink conducted Mahler way before it was cool. As years mounted, his recorded cycles of Mahler and Bruckner became paramount – and deservedly so. Alongside Austro-German repertoire, Haitink’s performances of Debussy and Ravel were equally indispensable, as a budget-priced re-release of the latter’s orchestral works, bought with my limited student money at the time, resoundingly demonstrated. As for Debussy, he was the one who first introduced me to the discarded fanfare in the last movement of La Mer; a discovery that ignited my inextinguishable fascination in the earlier versions of the well-known works in the repertory, and the musical processes concealed within the minds of composers.

My last two memories of seeing the man himself are both from London, one of his musical capitols. In May 2017, I had the privilege to join the Barbican audience for his Bruckner double-bill with the LSO, an orchestra he worked with in close association over the last two decades of his conducting career. While volumes could be written about the wonderful performances of Te Deum and Symphony IX, the fact that the London Symphony Chorus remained onstage after the intermission to hear Haitink conduct Bruckner’s last symphony, speaks more than any words I could come up with. A couple of months later, I saw him once more, engaged in post-concert discussion with Sir Simon Rattle, whose era as the Music Director of the LSO had just been augured in the hall below, with a marvellous contemporary programme. Though his name is mostly associated with the big works in the repertoire, Haitink did his share with contemporary music too, resulting in dedicated premieres, such as the terrific first outing of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Chicago Remains in with the CSO in October 2007.

A Haitink performance was always about the music – no more, no less. His readings did not draw attention to the act of conducting; rather, they evoked the sense of rediscovery of the musical works and the notion of the extraordinary quality of orchestral playing, and when it came to performing concertos, Haitink was the most generous accompanist. In terms of architecture, he made Brahms interesting – unlike many of his esteemed colleagues. On the podium, he inspired and helped, without getting in the way.

Bernard Haitink, conductor, maestro, Haitink

Photo: Clive Barda

Top Photo: Bernard Haitink leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in October 2013. Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013
sunset, sky, color, Romanian Athenaeum, Bucharest, scene, perspective

Essay: Reflecting On A Romanian Festival’s Past, Present, & Possible Future

This year’s edition of the Enescu Festival came to a close with a sharp contrast of good news and bad news. The good news is that Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru, currently Music Director of the Orchestre National de France in Paris and Chief Conductor of the Orchestre National de France, will be entering the role of Artistic Director of the Festival, taking over from Vladimir Jurowski, who this autumn has begun his tenure as Music Director of Bayerische Staatsoper, in addition to his duties as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin. Along with duties in France and Germany, Măcelaru is also Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in California, and Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Interlochen Arts Center in Michigan. He won a Grammy Award in 2020 for conducting Wynton Marsalis’ Violin Concerto with Nicola Benedetti and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Decca Classics). Timișoara is his hometown, which is where the next Enescu Festival is set to take place, in 2023. With such intercontinental experience, particularly within the realm of administration and festivals, Măcelaru may very well be the right man for the right job, coming in at just the right time, but just how much of that precious time he’ll be spending in Romania as a whole, especially in the coming months, remains, like much of the festival, an ever-shifting question mark. Classical, as a whole, has largely gone back to a sort of normal (ish), with an added frenzy provided by playing a massive, years-long game of catch-up, following months (sometimes years) of non-activity. Măcelaru’s responsibilities, like those of many other conductors right now, are mounting, outside of whatever tentative plans may already exist for 2023.

The bad news for the Romanian festival is that it’s losing its longtime General Director. Mihai Constantinescu is stepping down from what has been, one may safely assume, a hectic quarter-century of service. Very much a force behind the biennial fest, Constantinescu was also a continual presence who could be seen at any number of live presentations, backstage and in the audience, always talking to numerous people in-person or on the phone, via email, in messages. Along with arranging for artists (this year’s edition hosted 3500 of them according to the festival website), Constantinescu regularly liaised with branches of government, major sponsors, and all manner of management, marketing, publicity and touring teams to produce a busy, buzzy fest spread over several venues in Bucharest proper, as well as towns across the country. To see him at any point during the festival was to see the contemporary concept of “hustling” well and truly manifest. And no wonder: this year’s festival, its 25th, hosted a total of 78 concerts in Bucharest, and 13 events in other cities. That’s a scaleback given its usual size and sprawl, and one wonders how that sprawl might translate from Bucharest (population 1.83 million) to the smaller city of Timișoara (population roughly 306,000). Geographically the city is closer to the Hungarian town of Szeged than to Bucharest; having a more westerly locale may give the festival a more immediate presence (and easier, driveable access) through central and Western Europe, which may well benefit those visiting organizations, but proximity aside, the city has another reason for being an interesting choice for the future. Timișoara was the site of government demonstrations in 1989 that spread nationwide, ones that led to the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918–1989) and his wife on Christmas Day of that year; whether or not these events enter into or influence the shape of the festival is a huge question mark. The festival, for all its ambition, could certainly do with a more specific vision. It will be interesting to see, over the coming weeks and months, the extent to which Constantinescu’s exit, Măcelaru’s entrance, the roles of history, memory, and geography might play. The question, as ever, remains: will audiences follow, go, support – locals included, or perhaps especially?

The Enescu Festival is one of the world’s Top 5 classical festivals, as its website proudly notes. This year’s fest featured continual enforcement of health codes, ones that become more stringent toward the closing in late September. Masks backstage became not optional, but de rigeur, for artists and visitors alike. What with an alarming pandemic situation (one which has steadily worsened in the weeks since the final note sounded), conductor and former Festival Artistic Director Lawrence Foster made an impassioned plea for vaccinations from the stage of the ornate Romanian Athenaeum, a landmark in the city opened in 1888. Before a small if attentive audience, Foster was leading an in-concert performance of Berg’s Lulu with the Transylvania Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Cluj-Napoca, in a reduced orchestration by German conductor/composer Eberhard Kloke and featuring young German soprano Annika Gerhards in the title role. During his speech, Foster (who revealed he’d had COVID 19 himself) also saluted the work of Constantinescu and shared his own personal memories of working with the outgoing General Director. One had the impression everyone, onstage and off, was simply grateful to be there, in this, of all years. Yet the fact the festival (which Yehudi Menuhin supported in its earliest iterations) exists into the 21st century is a noteworthy thing. Since its inception in 1958,  it has hosted a good number of big names, sometimes more than once (Joyce Di Donato, Valery Gergiev, Yuja Wang, Gautier Capuçon) with concerts through most of September presented every other year, alternating with the Enescu Competition for young musicians. Local audiences are given numerous opportunities to experience the work of artists and orchestras who don’t normally appear otherwise, and to experience live work that isn’t normally played or programmed across much of the country. Those benefits extend to tourists; tickets (and indeed, hotels, food, attractions) can be had for a fraction of the cost of going to Vienna, Paris, or Munich. The savings are concomitant with difficult historical and political details in a place that still struggles to fit a terribly difficult past with a very fraught future, and some Romanian musicians have quietly complained that the Enescu Festival gets the lion’s share of funding (it being a big glamorous event that attracts foreign talent and visitors), while local companies are left to wither. While the festival features numerous Romanian musicians, artists, and orchestras, at my visit to the country in 2019, I kept hearing, repeatedly, sentiments that “the system isn’t fair” and “we feel ignored.” Such criticism isn’t new but is indeed valid, and worth heeding; there is a sharp and visibly distressing disparity between Western and Eastern EU countries.

The country has one of the widest gaps between rich and poor in the EU, and according to political scientist Iulian Chifu, who was an adviser to Romania’s president between 2011 and 2014, “corruption is the new communism.” Romania, with its painful past and seemingly-inert present, with a lack of socio-political willpower enmeshed with widespread (and again, distressing) corruption, horrific rising COVID rates (roughly 15,000 a day), government officials at odds with health officials, immense church influence across swaths of society, and a rapidly rising tide of right-wing political populism, such criticism feels both spiky on the surface and sharp around the edges; such realities have the very real potential to take a big bite (or two, or more) out of the country’s biggest and arguably most famous festival. The sentiment of many in Bucharest (and the wider country) of feeling ignored, of having their concerns be ignored, still strongly influences my memories of the city three years on, recalling the many sites that confirm the country’s painful past whilst at the same time trying, desperately, to paper it over. The immense Palace of the Parliament, built in 1977 by dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu , stands like a stern monolith in the middle of Bucharest, and its ghosts, even in the day, seem eerily intact; passing by after dark is shudder-inducing. It was surreal to visit the truly excellent National Museum of Contemporary Museum (MNAC), which is housed in one of the palace’s wings; even with its modern renovations and inspiring collection of abstract works, the building renders the presence of its creator a little too present, with its windows that look down menacingly upon various passers-by. A disparate group of elements always seems to be living next to each other in Bucharest, and no single can be discerned, let alone resolved; history, art, money, power, corruption, poverty, inequality, stagnation, and some form of glamour (which the festival has certainly celebrated and promoted) are neighbours in this post-communist society. The delicate layers of sonic magic from a concert just experienced seemed to wilt like petals with every evil glint from those palace windows, and the choice to run across the street, as it turns out, was obvious, and not only owing to impatient traffic lights and the aggressive drivers who seem to dominate the city’s roads.

Stavropoleos, Bucharest, garden, architecture, light, beam, green, arches, Orthodox, church, monastery, history

One side of the garden of the Stavropoleos Church and Monastery in Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Several ideas for repurposing the palace were tossed around after the 1989 revolution; possibilities included a casino, a mall, a Dracula theme park (!) before the decision came to maintain it, and to house Romania’s government within. For all its grim history and overblown pretentiousness, the structure gives a shred of order to what is a mostly chaotic urban layout. Wherever I wandered; I always managed to reorient myself in relation to its sprawling centrality. As Shaun Walker noted of Bucharest in The Guardian in 2019, “Decaying art nouveau mansions mingle with brutalist communist architecture. The city sprawls over a huge area and traffic is appalling. Masterplans for urban renewal have been written and ignored. The quarter around the Palace of the Parliament is perhaps the only area with orderly streets and layout, but has a soulless feel. “The whole ensemble makes no sense in relation to the rest of the city, and does not fit on the city’s main transport axises,” said Andrei Popescu, an urban planner and tour guide.” That delicate – some might say dysfunctional – infrastructure comes to light in ways one wishes weren’t so intermingled with the festival’s functioning, but geography, politics, the simple reality of Eastern Europe and the EU in the 21st century all make that impossible. Zig-zags of streets, punctuated by wide avenues pregnant with a seemingly endless zipper of roaring cars are, together with sidewalks, cracked, uneven, poorly lit, crumbling. They extend well past the immediate festival area into the touristy Old Town (surely a tip-off of a title), where the tiny if utterly delightful Stavropoleos Church and Monastery sits, a quietly elegant Orthodox jewel. Forget the giant Orthodox cathedral-monoliths dotting the city (including the one beside the palace itself); small is definitely beautiful, as the Stavropoleos so quietly, beautifully proves. A visit there, and a silent sit in the adjacent gardens, is good, and needed, medicine for the soul.

Close by is the bustling Romanian restaurant Caru’ cu Bere. Stained glass and wood panelling inside, with an expansive patio at the front, it (like the fest favorite, Romanian restaurant La Mama) features a distinctly Eastern European mix of offhand service, huge portions, reasonable price tags, rich, garlicky flavours and spicing that simultaneously embrace tradition and cross continents, their rich tastes intermingling with cigarette smells and loud laughs. Don’t go to such places if you’re alone, or rather, do go, but solo diners should be fully prepared to be largely ignored and exposed to numerous many happy young faces enjoying an extended summer. Many of them belong to visiting musicians in orchestras from everywhere; I heard Finnish, Russian, Italian, English, Norwegian, German, and French the times I visited these establishments, and others like them, through the afternoons and evenings between and around concerts. It was fascinating to see an assortment of musicians there, sometimes hours after a performance (or before), a concert in which they’d been more dressed, less free, but oh, young, beautiful, eyeballing every move of maestro, as if on some kind of shabby-chic safari. Oh, to be a young musician in Bucharest on a sunny day or starry evening during the festival, sipping beer in a garden with fellow minstrels, gossiping about the soloist, fidgeting with hair, smirking at the Sala’s notoriously poor acoustics, as the (male) musicians, spread around pushed-together tables, smile and nod silently, staring at bare shoulders and pert bosoms, holding up empties at the frowning, perspiring servers who would invariably scurry back with a full tray, plates of little sausages, fried potatoes, glinting shards of vinegar-dressed cucumber. Clouds of smoke would hang in the humid evening air like thought bubbles containing that word so present on everyone’s lips and minds: freedom.

Some way or another, the lot of them realized that concept, with varying degrees of success, at (perhaps ironically) the Sala Palatului, an acoustically dire hall built under the country’s Communist regime in 1959-1960, with its shabby velvet seats and worn floors and thick walls, amidst air so still and sweltering one could carve it with that little sausage knife. Modern sounds, amidst old Communist history; contradiction as balance. It would be the jolt the festival (country) needs, but oh the sound was (is) so bad. Whether or not Culture Minister Bogdan Gheorghiu will give a green light to that long-needed, much-requested new facility is an open question. With a background in theatre and television, Gheorghiu was, at the time of his appointment in May 2019, the fourth person to hold the position since 2015. Worth noting here is the Arena Națională, the largest sports arena in Romania, was opened in 2011, and cost €234 million. Earlier this year it hosted the UEFA European qualifying matches. Without going into tiresome false equivalency arguments around sports and arts, and populism and culture, what is notable is the just how quickly the government gears will turn, when, why, and for whom; it is a truth universally acknowledged that a small country in possession of a smaller budget must be in want of a big audience, with bigger wallets. “Every government from 2003 wanted to build a new hall, but every government refused to do it,” Constantinescu told me in 2019, “they told us in the beginning,”We’ll do it” but when the moment came, said, “We don’t have money or time” and “Oh, you need a different (location) for this hall.” It’s stupid, this is the best situated place in Bucharest – the hotels are here, the underground, buses – why move it? Bucharest doesn’t have so many places where you can situate a big hall.”

Sala Palatului, Bucharest, Romania, performance, venue, culture, Enescu Festival, immense, acoustics, architecture

Inside the Sala Palatului in Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

When Jurowski presented an in-concert version of Enescu’s 1931 opera Œdipe at the Sala in 2017, Bachtrack writer Aksel Tollåli noted that “the loudness of the magnificently played orchestral climaxes was swamped, reducing what could and should have been a tidal wave of sound into a trickle.” At the close of this year’s festival Jurowski commented that “I think what it most needs is a concert hall. It has been promised to us by so many ministers of culture, I have seen three or four who have come and gone; they all made this promise, which remains unfulfilled to this day.” Any given performance at the venue at least during festival time, requires spending money on a seat near the front, or else much will be lost sonically; I did this, more than once, and found a better if no less troubling acoustical experience. Sitting further back one will observe audience members shaking fans and programs back and forth, dabbing foreheads with embroidered hankies, anxiously awaiting the appearance of a nattily-dressed soloist playing that popular violin or piano or cello piece, then exiting at  intermission or more notably during any not-mainstream work that might come after, Enescu symphonies included. They want what they know; sometimes, usually, the festival obliges.

“I’ve always observed it’s a vicious circle,” Jurowski said at a press conference just prior to the start of his tenure in 2017, “(that) conductors and orchestras come, visiting the festival, and all they usually put on their programs is hits.” Audiences, as anyone who’s been to the fest will attest, eat it up. Why shouldn’t they? Having performed Brahms’ famous Violin Concerto in D Major at the fest in 2019, violinist Julia Fischer (performing with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, led by Jurowski) was greeted with such sustained, loud, and enthusiastic applause, it seemed impossible to oblige with anything less than an intensely-delivered encore. (Attendees certainly would’ve liked more, something violinist Ray Chen did provide thereafter, following a performance with the ​​State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov and conductor Gabriel Bebeșelea.) Similarly, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, performed in 2019 by Leif Ove Andsnes and the Oslo Philharmonic and led by conductor Vasily Petrenko, was wildly received. Petrenko, an affable presence and meticulous conductor, indulged the packed Sala, following a sweeping performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5, with warm smiles to the audience and directions to clap along. He was met with cheers, whistles, numerous camera-phones held aloft before-during-after. In a small room set aside for media interviews at the hall the day before, Petrenko said he felt it was a “duty” for him to perform contemporary works alongside the so-called hits; on the program for one of his concerts with the Oslo Phil was Morgon i skogen (Forest Morning) by Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund (b. 1976.) Neither the instinct nor the inherent risk to pair the new, and mostly strange, with the known, and mostly beloved, is confined strictly to Western orchestras, many wringing their hands over how to strike the right balance while attracting their own set of new and old audiences. “I think classical music should be alive,” Petrenko said, his blue eyes shining, “it should not be a museum, and the only way to have it alive is to perform new pieces. And I think it is the duty of every conductor and orchestra to perform music of local composers – if a piece is not played, it does not have a chance; we have to give a chance for them. If we don’t, who will?”

Indeed, Enescu himself, whose 140th birthday was marked this year, is among those “local composers” to whom Petrenko was referring, and his work has been a mainstay of the festival. This year, he took the opportunity, in his new capacity as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to lead a series of works over two nights that prominently featured the work of Enescu. The composer’s Strigoii, which started out as a piano sketch for an oratorio in 1916 and was “assembled” in the 1970s by Romanian composer Cornel Țăranu (with orchestration by conductor/composer Sabin Pautza) was presented in Romania for the very first time this year, by the George Enescu Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea (who has become something of a champion for the work, recording it in 2018 with Capriccio Records and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin). Cristian Măcelaru led the Orchestre National de France in a pair of concerts over two consecutive nights featuring the music of Shostakovich, Ravel, Dutilleux, Messiaen, Grieg, as well as Enescu, the latter featuring multimedia visual accompaniment by Romanian theatre director Nona Ciobanu and Slovenian artist Peter Kosir, part of the festival’s ambitious integration of various art forms through the medium of music.

Claims that the festival may have had some hand in the ascension of Enescu’s opera Œdipe, first presented in Paris in 1936, and being presented this season at both Komische Oper Berlin and Opera de Paris, speak to a certain optimism of influence, but such claims are not entirely accurate, especially if one considers the number of years opera houses plan in advance (at minimum four; usually more) and the demands being placed on the industry for new – but not too new – material. Wiener Staatsoper presented the opera as far back as 1997; La Monnaie/De Munt produced a staging (a co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu and Teatro Colon) in 2010, one that was later produced (and revived) at Dutch National Opera. The Royal Opera Covent Garden staged Œdipe in 2016; the Salzburg Festival in 2018. It was also staged in Romania, by the Opera Națională București, in 2015 and again in 2019. Certain houses, under pressure to present newer material and to expand the so-called ‘canon’ of core repertoire (Verdi, Wagner, Puccini) might wish to embrace the sole opera of a Romanian conductor/composer/violinist, famous for his widely (some might argue overly) programmed Romanian Rhapsodies, inviting their respective audiences to experience a work that, while new, isn’t so far afield sonically; the work clearly references the music of Strauss, Debussy, and Ravel, thus retaining a perceived “safety” in having European roots. (It’s worth noting the opera is usually marketed sans the tiresome cliched Eastern exoticism that usually tends to otherwise characterize many Western initiatives involving the work of composers from Romania and much of the former Eastern bloc.) The opera has as its basis a widely-known story taken from Greek mythology, giving directors a wide palate of opportunities for creative presentation. Programming Œdipe is an expansion of the canon, those in charge might say, one that comes with risk – just the right amount of risk. Being just that much outside the known canon will mean, of course, finding the right artists for its realization, but listing a performance/production on a CV is an assured feather in the cap for any singer, one that can open potential doors to future parts, conductors, recordings, houses. The vocal writing is, in places, fiendishly difficult, with the lead baritone role required to maintain an immense energy and vocal flexibility throughout the opera’s nearly three-hour running time. Yes, the opera itself is a thing of immense beauty, but featuring the work as part of a season in Europe (or further afield) seems less a symbol of the Enescu Festival’s reach than a considered business decision for houses in what is, more than ever, a tenuous time for the industry, with repeated pushes and pulls to expand, explore, include, exemplify, examine, exhume, and execute as warranted. Between those demands, and threats to funding, drops in audience attendance, ever-changing quilts of venue entry and visitor restrictions (not enforced in some places and roundly criticized for enforcement in others), well… what’s an opera company to do? The sight of baritone Christopher Maltman stalking around the Opera Bastille stage recently (in Wajdi Mouawad’s thoughtful, beautiful production), his eyes covered by a patchwork of tiny, mirrored squares, seemed more relevant than ever. Reflect; refract; rethink. Revive, over and over.

Constantinescu admitted over the course of a lengthy and involved conversation (part of a feature eventually published in the Winter edition of Opera Canada magazine that also featured the thoughts of Petrenko) that he agreed with Petrenko’s sentiments around avoiding a sort of musical ossification. “We need to present the work of people who are alive,” he told me, but he added a vital detail: Romanian audiences have not had the privilege of hearing many works by Western composers, the very works other audiences may know and take for granted, since they live in places where the funding, education, and public support for such things exists and is regularly cultivated. “Vivaldi, Gluck, Handel and Couperin are names that are not often performed in (regular) season concerts in Bucharest,” he said, his eyes widening behind his owl-like glasses. “This is the goal of the festival: to educate people.” Such didactic instinct was realized in many offerings, particularly over the past four years, in drims and drams. The 2019 program saw the Romanian premiers of Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten (presented by Jurowski and the RSB), Britten’s Peter Grimes (performed by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academy Choir, led by Paul Daniel) and Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and performed by the Orchestra and Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic together with Vocal Consort Berlin). Composer/conductor Lera Auerbach presented a number of her own works at the Radio Sala; Mark-Anthony Turnage premiered his new song cycle with tenor Allan Clayton and the Britten Sinfonia.

At the 2021 edition, Jurowski presented a series of works recognizing the 50th anniversary of the passing of composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), leading eclectic and demanding works (Les Noces, Renard, The Flood) which had never been performed live before in Romania; included in the first evening of his and the RSB’s two consecutive concert evenings was the work of Romanian composer Anatol Vieru (1926-1998). Czech composer Ondřej Adámek (b. 1979) enjoyed the premiere of his new work, “Where are you?”, written especially for Magdalena Kožená & Sir Simon Rattle, by the musical couple together with the London Symphony Orchestra. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, led by concertmaster Matthew Truscott and featuring soloist Yuja Wang, featured works by Haydn, Janáček, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich; members of the Berlin Philharmonic (including Noah Bendix-Balgley and Stephan Koncz) presented Enescu’s Piano Trio and Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1 (both pieces, rather interestingly, in G minor), while the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra closed the festival with two concerts, the first featuring Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini paired with the music of Carl Nielsen (led by Alan Gilbert) and the second comprised of Enescu’s Pastorale-Fantaisie, Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture, and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 (led by Daniel Harding). The sheer scale and ambition of the festival, particularly amidst the realities of this year’s pandemic, cannot be underestimated – nor can the realities of such future ambitions be ignored; while such realizations are certainly worth applauding, their direct experience can be, for want of a better word, totally exhausting, with little to any space given, in practical or theoretical terms, for contemplation of them in isolation, or more especially, broader relation to one another. Is there a connection? Should one attempt to be found? Whither the events of 1989? Themes given to the festival by its own team (this year’s was “The Sound Of Love”; in 2019, “The World In Harmony”) feel, somehow, too ephemeral, too vague. Together with data, such elements reveal and conceal simultaneously in a strange, Soviet-style bit of politicking. One would ask for something – not bigger and more impressive and more wow, but more substantial, meatier, more solid, and not from its foreign attendees from from its extant (make that shifting) leadership. The figures trumpeted on the Enescu Festival website are impressive, but obvious. Indeed it was “the world’s largest classical music festival of 2021” (bien sur) far more telling is the number of locals who attended in lieu of foreigners scared off or stuck by travel restrictions. I found myself happy to read this, but equally curious to know if these indoor attendees comprised the same audience who’d attended free presentations across the street in years past, at the giant outdoor screens which had been set up with rows of folding chairs, spaces which were half-occupied most daytimes, with mothers and prams and older people, stopping, sitting briefly, cocking heads and enjoying ice cream cones, before moving along, cloth shopping bags in hand. Perhaps this is just the sort of social milieu that might play into the 2023 edition and somehow (one hopes) shape future programming choices. Rethink, reframe, revive; se poate spera.

Sala Palatului, Bucharest, Romania, instruments, cello, classical, display, exhibition, music

Inside the Sala Palatului. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

A part of the infrastructure to which Walker alludes in his Guardian piece has an influence in shaping the perception of the music experienced live, in content as in performance. Works with noticeably little to no energy live, or delivered in a sort of rote manner, are suddenly, owing to the shared frenetic pace of Strada Știrbei Vodă and Calea Victoriei outside, infused with a manic quality. The effect also works in reflection, acting as a nifty sort of mirror to those concerts in which joy and good humour arise naturally, and there are plenty of those performances as well. The streets outside are bustling, sizeable thoroughfares; renamed after the 1989 revolution, they act as sharp lines of demarcation between festival venues (the Sala, together with the smaller Sala Radio and the Athenaeum, located opposite/behind-ish) and bars, restaurants, cultural attractions, as well as the many hotels used by artists and guests alike. How busy, how rushed, how intense it all felt being in the midst of it all. The festival itself, with its team of kind and ever-patient publicists, assistants, and other personnel, works hard, and is determined to shape a specific impression – Very Impressive, Very Big, Very Wow; like a happier, better version of that giant palace, perhaps. But it can all be too impressive, too big, too wow; the pace and sheer variety can be overwhelming, frenzied, mentally/emotionally/creatively/spiritually exhausting. (I can only imagine what it must be like for visiting artists.) Visits to the Stavropoleos: regular, and required – that, or after a concert, sheer solitude and silence. Following a beautiful performance (usually of a work I hadn’t heard live before) in a hot, stilted venue, the last thing I wanted to do was to rush off to yet another presentation – usually a midnight presentation of an opera. Nu, mulțumesc. I wanted to sit and simply be with the rather miraculous sounds I’d heard sitting in a hot hall in high heels and slowly-dampening hair over the past how-many hours. There was no respite at any bar or restaurant or street, large or small; the winding paths to my own hotel weren’t poetic, they were decrepit, depressing, scary to navigate even in flat sandals. (But oh, I was so grateful for the large bathtub, a rarity in Romanian hotels, or so I was told; I may well have had the biggest one in the city.) The race of footsteps along dim, cracked yellow-lit pathways shadowed by low-hanging branches and peppered with cars, the giggles and glass-clinks like staccato shots in the open-air gardens, the echoes in the long, goldfish-bowl-like, quasi-chic bars of hotels – the quiet contemplation of such creative experience one wished for, in conversation or alone, was simply impossible.

sign, Bucharest, Romania, city, Enescu, music, geography, architecture

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

Still, it’s tough to look at the festival in any careful way without being perceived as mean or peevish. It’s Eastern Europe, goes the (mostly Western) thinking, what did you expect? Well. I am not sure who is served by fluffy travelogues that ignore on-the-ground realities; certainly such reports fall into the “favourable content” category so favoured by online publishers (and marketers), but I’m not sure they do the artists, the administration, the organizations (visiting and local), or the country as a whole any favours. The city, once described to me as a sort of “shabby-chic Paris” by a previous visitor, is, as Walker noted, a hard-scrabble hodge-podge of new and old, have and have-not, blazingly modern in some sections, achingly dilapidated in others, a terrible if terribly real reflection of the country’s widening social divides. The Enescu Museum, a short walk from the festival locale proper, and with no real connection to the festival itself beyond the composer’s name (bizarrely), is in a horrendous state of disrepair. Perhaps there is a charm in the cracks, the discoloration, the water marks on the ceiling, the curling edges of paper and the worn velvet surfaces, but it’s one that can be experienced, or understood, as a visitor without romanticizing its actual, lived realities for so many; such romanticizing only serves to reduce the direct experience of its people, particularly the many young people I noted working in service positions across the city. They don’t want pity; they want to leave.

My mornings during my visit were largely were spent in a tiny cafe located with small wire chairs and shaky tables set out on a slanted, cracked sidewalk framed by yawning old trees and lining a narrow, similarly-cracked street hosting fast-moving cars. The servers at the cafe were all young, multilingual, polite; most were students, all of them hoped to leave Bucharest, in the near future, most probably for good. One server warmed up to conversation after consecutive days of my asking for extra milk for my coffee, and asked, with a cheeky grin, if I wanted a whole cow set on the pavement tomorrow. He wasn’t planning on staying in his country of birth much longer.

“There’s nothing here for us,” he said, “unless you are willing to work in a corrupt way, and then you can only go so far.” Where would he like to go?

Maybe Germany, although he didn’t think his German was good enough. Possibly France, probably Spain. Had he been? “Yes, Madrid is fantastic!” A broad smile, as he collected my empty mug. “Better coffee than here.” Had he been to any Enescu Festival concerts? “Only one, but that hall is so hot and awful. We go for other things here, you know, big musicals.” Did I know about them? Yes, I’d seen the posters outside the venue. “Sometimes I’ll go for those, but I don’t want to sit there sweating to music I didn’t know. And the tickets for the festival…” he said, waving at a persistent fly with his free hand, his brown eyes rolling up, “pfffft, I’d rather spend my money on other things. Maybe I’m a bad patriot, but… I don’t care, really. I’m too busy trying to survive, you know?”

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A Note On The Essays Section

trees, path, nature, fall, herbst, baum, bridge, tor, pathway

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

Some of you will have noticed the Essays section of my website, which I had touted this summer as a new feature, has been removed.

This move was inspired by alarming behaviour which took shape in repeated harassment across several platforms; my last essay, a very personal piece indeed, inspired a myriad of ugly, unwanted attentions and again, yet more harassment. I was met with silence from the very quarters in which I sought support in this situation. Such circumstances led to a difficult mental and emotional breakdown.

After a period of reflection, along with a return to the lecture hall recently (I teach Media Studies at a University in my day job), I decided the best thing, in light of such reactions and the current design and limited user features of my website, was to take down the essays, and the links. I felt it had been a terrible mistake to be so open with my life and work, doubts and deficiencies, particularly within the constricts of a design that necessitates scrolling as opposed to easy clicking.

These writings may or may not return in some fashion; that is an evolving decision. Some have remained. There may be a newsletter to come out of this, a redesign, a subscriber-only section to come out of this (preferably all three); there may also be audio and/or visual counterparts. Again, this is an evolving decision, one greatly depending on resources, timing, and energy allowances.

Thanks to those of you who did reach out to offer support of my work and efforts recently. Your words mean a great deal. I do this as a very open labour of love, one I am privileged to be in a position to do. The classical community has been most kind to allow me to have the kinds of in-depth conversations with artists which mainstream media arts coverage generally does not engage in anymore (alas); they have miraculously have stayed with me through my many long-winded introductions and industry-related thought pieces, as have my indefatigable readers.

Is there a place amidst the chats and ponderings for more personal musings? This is a question I am still debating. A whole different website is something I don’t want to do; rethinking, redesigning, and that overused-amidst-pandemic word, reimagining may be just the thing for this point in time. We shall see. In addition to these changes, I am considering broadening my conversational umbrella to include figures from other cultural worlds – those of cinema, television, books, visual art, for instance. I have already taken small steps in this area in speaking with various media figures; perhaps now is the time to cast nets further afield? Of course I would not change the name of my website; why would I change something which has become a moniker of sorts? Is there not energy in the frisson of contrasts? My kingdom (queendom?) has plenty of room for a range of voices, and I want to make sure everyone feels welcome – I wouldn’t be a good ruler otherwise! Artists may change; my conversational style will not.

And so, please stay tuned. Fun fall things are afoot, both in and out of the opera house. Thank you again, readers, friends, artists. Andiamo!

Nicky Spence, opera, tenor, singer, vocal, voice, music, Royal Opera, Scottish

Nicky Spence: Opera is “About How People Correspond With One Another”

London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.

There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.

Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu,  Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often.  Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:

Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.

I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.

There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.

Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.

Nicky Spence, tenor, classical, singer, voice, vocal, sing, stage, performer, culture, Scottish, Royal Opera

Photo: Ryan Buchanan

How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?

Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!

What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?

It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.

I spoke with (tenor) Allan Clayton when he was preparing this in 2020, and again when it was cancelled; he observed that Laca has “the chippiest of chips” on his shoulder. Your characterization will be different of course, but how did singing Števa prepare you for this, or did it?

I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.

They’re both outsiders.

Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.

… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?

I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.

His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?

I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.

So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?

The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…

What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?

I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…

… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?

Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.

Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.

That’s true!

You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.

For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I led masterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.

Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.

Well it’s important to be real.

Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…

There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.

In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…

… yes it is…

… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?

Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.

What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?

I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.

That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?

Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and, La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.

Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.

Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”

So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?

It’s a perfect balance.

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Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Dorn, culture, classical

Jan Lisiecki: “Live Art Is Live”

Jan Lisiecki has had a busy summer. Performances at a number of celebrated summer festivals, including Schleswig-Holstein Musik-Festival (SHMF), the Rheingau Musik Festival, Klavier Festival Ruhr, and Musikfest Kreuth left the pianist little time to prepare for his release of a long-planned project, Frederic Chopin: Complete Nocturnes (Deutsche Grammophon) but in speaking recently from his home base in Calgary, Lisiecki is chatty and energetic, a keen conversationalist who clearly revels in the reciprocal exchange of artistic ideas.

It’s an approach that colors his latest release, one which, as he explains, had been in his mind to do for many years. Hardly his first foray into playing or recording the much-loved music of the Polish composer (he’s released recordings in 2013 and 2017, respectively), his approach to the nocturnes conveys a delicate musical sensibility and a keen artistic maturity which belie Lisiecki’s own relative youth (he is not yet 30 years of age) and, even amidst pandemic, kept him in a creatively aware state which greatly aided in the realized recording. Lisiecki’s fame as a sort of wunderkind of the keyboard through the last decade-plus served to intensify such fastidiousness. At the age of 18, he became the youngest ever recipient of both the Leonard Bernstein Award (established by SHMF and named after one of the festival’s founders) and Gramophone‘s prestigious Young Artist Award (other recipients include countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński and soprano Natalya Romaniw). Having worked with a range of celebrated conductors (Claudio Abbado, Daniel Harding, Antonio Pappano, among many others) and orchestras (Staatskapelle Dresden, Bavarian Radio Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, to name a few), his playing has been described as “pristine, lyrical and intelligent” by The New York Times. This month sees him playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 with Marin Alsop and DR Symfoni Orkestret in Denmark, before a series of dates in the U.S., both solo recitals and appearances with the Pittsburgh Symphony conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In November Lisiecki tours Europe, performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto with the London Philharmonic under its new Principal Conductor, Edward Gardner.

Amidst his busy live calendar (which, like many artists, extends years into the future) Lisiecki had long planned for a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes. Recorded in Berlin in October 2020 and released in August 2021, the work shows a distinctively thoughtful approach to the famous, widely beloved pieces. Chopin wrote the series of works between 1827 and 1846, expanding on a form developed by Irish composer John Field (1782-1837). Unlike other piano forms (sonatas, for instance), nocturnes do not  possess a sort of programmatic narrative or formal structure, but mainly utilize a ternary form (ABA) which emphasizes a main theme and its related contrasts and embellishments. With a song-like right hand melody and the use of rhythmic, broken chords in the left hand, Chopin, in writing his own set, also utilized pedal effects and counterpoint in his composition to underline sonic tension and drama. There are a number of scholarly papers and debates around the tempos and role of rubato in the nocturnes, and the influence of such choices in relation to interpretative fidelity and style. In her 1988 book Performance Practises in Classic Piano Music: Their Principles and Applications (Indiana University Press, 1988), Sandra P. Rosenblum writes that “choice of tempo is a fundamental yet elusive aspect of performance practice. Tempo affects virtually every other aspect of interpretation: dynamics, touch, articulation, pedalling, realization of ornaments” and also observes that a pianist’s choice of tempo will certainly affect “what the listener perceives, hence it bears directly on the effectiveness of the interpretation.” Lisiecki has notably chosen to take a much slower tempo in his recording than many of his famous forebears, an aspect which has been questioned by some since the album’s release. If I may inject a personal view here, Lisiecki’s choice of tempi allow, to my own (admittedly non-conservatory-attending/music-degree-holding) self, a very thoughtful and lovely listening experience, one that skillfully combines intellect and imagination in ways that highlight the rhythmic nature of the writing (for both hands, equally) and the thought-to-word-like manifestation of clear creative articulation; such willful (nay, conscious) turning of the gears well reflect the sort of late-night contemplations to which the nocturnes directly refer. Don’t we all muse thusly in the middle of the night? This may not a so-called “traditional” reading, but, it doesn’t have to be – not for whatever perceived musical validity is deemed important by the classical world, let alone for one’s personal enjoyment. As musicologist Richard Taruskin argues in Text and Act: Essays in Music and Performance (Oxford University Press, 1995), traditions “modify what they transmit” via what he terms as “active intervention of the critical faculty, but also by what we might call interference.” Such traditions, he writes ( and most particularly within “a musical culture as variegated as the Western fine art of music has become”) are open to what he views as “outside influence.” It is this act, of combining inner critical faculty with various forms of external influence, combined with understandings of tonality, structure, and dynamics, that lends Lisiecki’s interpretations such innate power. Taking this course with such well-known works only serves to underline the pianist’s powerful blend of intellectual and musical instincts, and only makes one more keen to hear how he might re-adjust them for a live and considerably larger setting.

Despite, or more accurately owing to, the realities of the current pandemic era, Lisiecki was provided the an atmosphere conducive to the personal. The combination of simplicity (a room with a piano), proximity (or lack thereof, in relation to engineers), and the natural light in which Lisiecki recorded at Meistersaal (in Berlin) last autumn was, as he noted recently, good for encouraging a sort of natural approach, one which is so easily perceived on this, his eighth release with Deutsche Grammophon.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical

Photo © Christoph Köstlin / Deutsche Grammophon

What struck me about your album is how you personalize everything, but without sitting and steeping in a so-called sentimental sound. Your tempo choices, for instance, are well considered.

Well, I might not agree in ten years about them, but at the moment I did them it felt right, because, to be honest with you, those tempos choices were completely natural in the sense that I had no knowledge of them being that much slower. I’ve played the nocturnes a lot, in concerts and otherwise, and I know how I feel about them, some in the studio just ended up being like that. Listening in the booth and going back and forth, it never felt unnatural. I’m happy with it; I think it’s a good reflection of how I connected with (Chopin’s) music.

You didn’t consciously say, “I want this one to be this specific tempo” or do any sort of preplanning then?

No, definitely there was no, ‘Everybody’s playing these too fast; I’ll be much slower!” – I was recording the material at the tempo in, I guess, the way it felt right.

To me it makes them seem almost like speech if that makes sense…

Yes!

… it very much has the sound of somebody musing in the middle of the night on something; as a writer I like that.

Aw thank you Cate, I appreciate it.

But you recorded this in Berlin, in a space with natural light, during the day; did that make a difference energetically?

Let’s say, first of all I’m an artist and musician who plays concerts in the evening but I like working in the day; I’m not an evening practiser. I finish my work day of practise by 2 or 3pm, if I can, so to me recording during the day is when I feel most comfortable. What I like about natural light is feeling I’m connected to the day and not in a studio, especially since it was late October. During the day, the mood in Berlin, if you know Europe during the winter, is grey and bleak, so it’s nice to have those few hours of sunlight inside and you don’t feel like you’re missing out, and also then you can find your own space within that environment. It’s a beautiful hall, a rectangular room with high ceilings, and it’s rather ornate, not excessively so, but has some ornate elements, and feels nice to be in, the piano in one corner, the microphone in another area; it felt very natural.

It seemed like an environment where you weren’t completely in a bubble, cut off from everything, but just separated enough to be with your thoughts.

Exactly, and I’d had enough experiences of concert halls with no audience during the pandemic; it was nice to have not have yet-another-empty-concert-hall, but a studio with a piano, it almost felt like you were in your own studio practising for yourself, or working just for yourself.

That’s how it sounds.

Yes, and another sort of relevant fact, in terms of the sound, is that the booth where the recording engineer was sitting is quite a distance away from the (room with the piano), it’s down two flights of stairs and then across a hall, so it takes a fair bit of time to get from the room to the booth, and as a result, first of all, you’re more focused on doing something, it was a complete thought whenever you did sit down, and second of all, you have that crazy walk back and forth to get you out and into the mood accordingly.

And nobody behind a pane of glass staring at you and evaluating.

Right.

Now, recording in a space in these times, there is something unique about doing these extremely well-known works, and in this particular pandemic environment; how much were you able to pull down the blinds, or did you not want to? Was the act of recording amidst a worldwide pandemic an essential part of the creative process, or did you block it out?

It was definitely part of my process,and that’s part of the reason that I was able to record during the pandemic. I’d been thinking or dreaming about recording the nocturnes for a long time; it was a long-term project, not something that just came up, it was something which was a very conscious thought for years, and so it involved years of preparation, and those years of preparation are connected to wanting to experience (the works) in a concert hall – they are very personal as you said, but you run the risk while playing them of going too far in that direction, of going too far into your comfort zone, which is not where it feels the best when you are onstage, when you feel you’re losing the audience’s attention, when you can feel their attention wandering away. I can hear when that happens.

So to play and program 21 nocturnes onstage took many many many years, it’s something that I was preparing for, and happened to reach a culmination point this past year, and at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, Deutsche Grammophon said, “Oh, you’ll have fewer concerts, so let’s record this in August!” and as it got closer, I saw that things were very uncertain and people were antsy still, and I was supposed to have a few concerts but they were much more stressful than usual because there were so many external layers involved. I didn’t know how they’d look and be, and I would not have been in the right frame of mind at all. And then from March to October I did have things to do, I had things beyond music I was enjoying, and had the opportunity to do – like work in the garden or go camping with my dad, or not do anything for a whole day, which was very nice – but I could also work on the nocturnes in a much more relaxed sphere of mind, it wasn’t forced like I had a fixed deadline to prepare for and get to a certain point with. I could prepare and think through each one of them. That time right before the recording, to be honest, I was quite busy, I had something like ten concerts with Manfred Honeck and I was playing the Shostakovich First Piano Concerto in Dresden, it wasn’t like, “Oh sigh, I’m at home!” but some of the (moments leading to recording) felt calm, everything was calm, and I had to make peace with the pandemic and with the uncertainty it brought. Because of that, I could simply focus on what I was doing.

Living day-by-day has always been my motto; I’ve always lived in the present, but the pandemic has really heightened that. I like looking forward, I like to think “Well, I’m playing this concerto two years down the road” and “In two weeks I have to prepare this piece” – but all that went out the window. So it was, “Okay, what am I doing right now? What can I enjoy right now?” In this case, what with recording, it allowed me to focus, and to enjoy the moment.

Jan Lisiecki, music, piano, pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, culture, classical, Chopin, nocturnes, coverThat’s palpable in the recording, and I hear something different every time. Listening to the left hand can really bring something alive that one thought one knew well.

If the music is only a sum of its parts, if you don’t pay a close enough attention, then you can risk the music becoming too comfortable, and being too happy with the gorgeous melodies; you just completely tune out everything else because it’s easy, it’s just, “Oh, the left hand, sure, whatever, put it away!” and the right hand, “Yes, let’s enjoy that, it’s so lovely!” But it doesn’t work musically. That (balance) has always been something important to me in playing Chopin. Of course there’s a principal theme and an idea and the harmonizing in the left hand, but sometimes the interplay between right and left creates completely new concepts and I do like finding those.

To me you can hear it in other things of his, or things written around the same time, but I find it takes the right interpretation to find those connections.

That’s right.

Obviously you know the other recordings; did any stick in your mind as you prepared?

I tend not to listen to other interpreters when I’m actively playing something unless it’s a concerto and I want to hear the orchestra, which of course includes a pianist, but in the case of the nocturnes I didn’t hear any interpretations for at least a year before recording them. Perhaps it wasn’t conscious – it was not a forced effort – but I just had no need to, because I’m living and experiencing these pieces on my own, and that’s a huge privilege. I know the audience listening to these works who come to the concert hall don’t have that same privilege for the most part, to simply play something for themselves, so they have a different appreciation of what it means to listen. When I’m listening to a recording, I find it very hard to get into the right mood to enjoy it as opposed to analyze it, so I tend not to, especially with regards to pieces which I’m actively playing.

Of course, that being said, I do respect other interpretations, and the ones that accompanied me through my childhood and longer, into my life, are those by (Anton) Rubinstein. He recorded all of the nocturnes, and there’s a sophistication about his playing; it’s always so elegant, so poised, it’s hard to find any fault with them… it’s just beautifully done.

Yes, I have that set! I wanted to ask you with relation to others and individual identity, some have said, “Oh it’s a Polish pianist playing Polish music!” I’m not sure if that kind of a reduction is good or bad for art, but I wonder what you make of such an assumed connection.

I think Poland, of course, likes to claim Chopin as their own, and they have a complete right to do that, but he lived most of his life beyond Poland, his composing and adult life, so undeniably that (experience of living abroad) did shape his writing, and likewise, while I was born in Canada, I do have Polish roots, and without a doubt they must also shape how I approach Chopin, although I never had a Polish teacher and I never really liked the so-called “Polish sound” in playing Chopin, which has a lot of rubato, it’s very rich, quite swingy, and not at all my taste. Now, this is a sort of stereotypical description, and there are exceptions – I love how Zimerman plays Chopin, for instance – and so that’s a rather unfair stereotype perhaps, but it’s an easy thing just as much to say or assume, “Oh you have special affinity for him then, being Polish yourself?” It’s hard for me to say, because I am who I am, and I don’t know how I’d be if I wasn’t – if I was born in Poland, or if I didn’t have those roots, but I appreciate his music as a person and an artist. I just like it , and I feel very comfortable playing his music. I can sit in front of a score I’ve never seen before and feel, “Ah yes!” – I have a vague understanding of what I want to do, and how I will play it, which cannot be said for every composer. I will get to a point, eventually, that isn’t that straight-forward, but (the inherent understanding) speaks to how he wrote for the piano; his musical language is very familiar to me, and he wrote so beautifully for the instrument. It doesn’t feel to me like I’m ever struggling to find a way to solve any problem (within the work).

Do you find you approach other musical things differently now, having had this time with Chopin and especially, this time with Chopin during a pandemic?

Again, sort of like the Polish question, I don’t know how it would’ve been if I didn’t record during this time, but I do feel everything has an impact and shapes the way one approaches music broadly. I think the sort of calmness that has pervaded, or became constant during the pandemic… for me, I will certainly take it with me into the future, though I can see and am hopeful of course it all turns out, and that life is getting back to normal in the some parts of the musical world. Some countries are getting back to normal, so the natural thing is to feel like, “Oh I’m going to get back to my old self now – at last!”… but it’s not quite like that. The pandemic has changed our values and understanding, in the same way it’s changed the approach to the nocturnes, and I’m glad I had that chance of recording them amidst all of this.

What’s it been like for you to go back to live performance then?

There have been many stages, because last summer I played one of the first concerts live, if not the first in Germany, in June 2020. So if you think of the situation in Canada then, like… wow, just nothing… and it was the same in some parts of Europe in many regards, except where they were starting to experiment, and those experiments kept going and going, and there was a palpable excitement with each one. And after each lockdown this excitement kept building in the performing arts world – I experienced it so many times, and everyone had different concepts of how long they’d be locked down, so even though I had been playing live a while, everybody was so excited, and asking me “How does it feel to be back?” And I’d say, “Well last week I was playing a live concert in Spain!”

I was always happy to play live, but the difference for me is, I’m not a fan, at all, of streams. I prefer not to play if I have to do a stream, for the most part. It doesn’t have any aspect of what I cherish in music. Live art is live, and it should stay with those who are there, those who have shared that experience and felt its power. Recording is high quality: you prepare, you put a lot of thought into it; you have the best environment; you have the studio, the piano, the technician, the sound engineer. But streaming is somewhere in-between these things; it’s not live for an audience, it’s not the same high-quality sound you expect – in fact, it’s usually poor-quality sound. It was interesting to see orchestras doing streams, and it was good to see that musicians were playing, that they had the chance to play – but just me playing solo, no way, no – I’m not doing that, at all.

So you need the feedback?

Yes. And you know, people say with these streams, “Well of course live art will die now” – no it won’t. Many people will be happy to go back to the concert hall the moment they can. But until then, to be honest, we have such a rich array of performances, both live recordings from pre-pandemic times and things recorded in a studio, and we haven’t had time to listen to those during normal our lives – why don’t we go back to those amazingly high-quality things and listen to them? Instead of choosing to watch something live, just because…? Others will disagree but I’m happy to argue with them.

There’s a tremendous drive on the part of marketing departments everywhere to get people of your generation interested in classical music through streaming…

… but that’s not the strength of our genre. The strength of our genre is in the concert hall. It’s about this extraordinary experience you will sometimes have… sometimes. I play hundreds of concerts a year and not every single one will be magical, either it’s me or the piano, it’s something in the hall, or the day, or the circumstances outside – whatever. You will have those extraordinary experiences a small percentage of the time, and everybody remembers them. Many who’ve never been to a hall happen to chance on those magical concerts and they’re suddenly a huge fan of classical because they had that experience of intimacy which provided a foray into the musical world of live performance.

And you think that epic and imitate combo only happens in a live environment?

Exactly, yes.

Essay: Finding The Right Fit (Or Not)

Manon Lescaut, stage, opera, Puccini, performance, culture, women, image, branding, singing, lingerie

A scene from the 2013 production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at La Monnaie / De Munt, directed by Mariusz Treliński, set design by Boris Kudlicka. Photo © Forster.

This essay started out as a love letter to fashion, within the context of the joys to be had in buying a dress amidst pandemic. Folded into this were contemplations on dressing up – for the opera, and otherwise; there were (are) quotes from Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde, and Marlene Dietrich. I still intend to publish this essay in some form or another in future (hopefully sooner than later), but for now, it feels smarter, especially in light of the restart of live cultural events as autumn draws near, to explore my original idea, one I was encouraged to pursue by a longtime editor friend. It’s been in my mind to write this for a while, and the combination of seeing a production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut recently, a closet full of pinned items, an overstuffed drawer of underthings I’ve come to despise, all seemed like cosmic signs urging me on.

Following my second jab in August I had an exchange with this individual which touched on issues of body image, fashion, fit, popular perceptions, and the longtime, frequently tortuous relationship I have with my body, and more specifically, my breasts. This time last year I arranged an appointment with a doctor to see about a reduction, a procedure I had long pondered. To relieve the near-constant shoulder and neck pain; to have the stacks of ribs, distorted by years of intense weight, corrected; to have things finally, at long last… fit… it seems, even now, like a distant and incredible dream. To have a breast reduction would (could) mean I might at last look like the actually-size-2 woman I am, that I might actually for the first time in my life, be in proper proportion without the aid of acres of close-fitting fabrics. I wouldn’t have to worry about stares, smirks, or judgement; I could wear what I like – a low-cut gown at the opera; a fitted turtleneck in the classroom; my strapless sundress in the supermarket. Ultimately I decided against the operation – for now. The thought of removing chunks of my own flesh, of living with permanent scarring on a part of my body to which I have an already-troubled relationship, of navigating postoperative pain, of courting judgement (and possibly real horror) from would-be lovers at the sight of my scarred body… such concerns created a mountain of anxiety I am not, even now, able to scale. So I contend with thick straps, well-padded cups, tight, strong bands; a good bra really is a piece of marvelous engineering, and a well-fitting one is something I will pay (have paid) good money for. Finding one that fits off the rack is (like any item of clothing) a rarity; I have a litany of bras sitting in a drawer, all of them impaled with pins in a desperate attempt to fit a much-shrunken frame (I have lost a significant amount of weight over the past eight months or so). It’s good enough for now, but oh, for the freedom of awakening without pain, of moving around without aches, of fitting things perfectly, of never having another button pull or another visible strap or of having to buy things two sizes too large. Oh, to never have to feel I am inviting lecherous stares, acrid judgment, social ostracizing, or risking professional advancement, credibility, acceptance, approval.

It’s an odd thing, to write a piece which might come off as a complaint, when one admittedly receives attention, and more specifically certain types of attention, over the very thing (things) one purports to dislike. I do get a jolt of joy from the reactions I elicit through my highly-curated posts; it bolsters the shaky confidence of an isolated woman whilst reassuring some form of public worth, however superficial. That satisfaction is finite (perhaps intentionally so), as I wonder why in hell I can’t seem to get over 100 likes on anything, all the while knowing the reason: algorithms don’t favour aging female bodies, or faces, unless scantily-clad and heavily-filtered – since wrinkles, cellulite, stretch marks (more precisely, real, lived experience) are unwanted within fantasy landscape celebrated and promoted throughout much social media, Instagram in particular. A thusly-filtered photo of me in a bikini, bum expectantly up, breasts prominently displayed, head orgasmically thrown back, ultra-posed, ultra-horny, ultra-algorithm-pleasing, would unquestionably hit that magical 100 (200? 400? 700?)-likes mark. Indeed, such measurement (of worth / goodness / hotness / popularity / desirability, and much else, maybe) is an unfortunate tool in the freelance world, one worth knowing how to wield, if requiring very careful handling. Post the wrong (so-called) things, and one is ignored, along with one’s work and oeuvre; post the right (so-called) things, and one’s work is read (my own analytics bear this out) but one courts judgement in the process, along with distinct and narrow forms of categorization. One risks judgment and labels as well: dumb, shallow, vain, needy, an attention-whore, wannabe, poser, super-bitch. Bimbo. Dilettante. Sycophant.

All of these labels (and worse) run through my head whenever I post anything imagistic; I often wish there was a “reduce giant boobs” filter that might lessen such anxieties, but then I wonder if it’s really me who has the problem(s). My mother certainly didn’t think so. Years ago she and I attended the opening night of an opera season; it turned out to be her final one. A night of dressing up was a blessed bit of relief between chemotherapy sessions and hospital runs, and she looked so pleased and proud as watched me descend the stairs of our house wearing a black, strapless Yves Saint Laurent vintage piece (found in a consignment shop for a song), a dress that fit perfectly. I knew there would be hate-filled stares entering the members’ lounge – those always greeted me, they were predictable, if very wearing; I was good at pretending such nastiness didn’t bother me; I still am. “I love how you scoop your hair up and put your shoulders back and stick your bust out and don’t care what anyone thinks,” she said later that night. I didn’t have to look at the faces in the lounge to actually feel their all-too-clear judgments; I threw my head back indeed, jutted chin out, batted eyelashes, gave a tremendous smile. It’s a skill I have come to perfect. To quote Marquise de Merteuil (from Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons; play 1985, film 1988), “I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork onto the back of my hand.” Add to that making a tremendous middle finger.

There exists in my closet a lovely line of beautiful gowns, one a sumptuous, sweeping, super-low-backed, very fitted number, ordered in a fit of restlessness amidst the worst of the pandemic last year. I slipped it on at New Year’s in an attempt to summon some needed optimism. “If I ever have the nerve to wear this publicly,” I thought, “at least I’ll know what’s required.” (Two rolls of tape, carefully applied, and even more carefully removed; I will use more if and when that time ever comes.) But dare I court the inevitable judgment if I wear it? Dare I risk dumping whatever little professional credibility I might have (and have fought for), all for the sake of my innate love of fashion, and an even more innate need to feel the joy of wearing something that actually fits, and amidst (sigh, post) pandemic times, when dressing up is a pleasure that has been so long denied? I think, to a certain extent, many women, especially us large-breasted ones, are raised to ignore, to carry on, to try to keep head held high (when our necks and shoulders aren’t screaming in agony), and to fight against the high tides of judgement while riding the big, bouncy waves of attention. The digital era has brought a keen awareness of the pressures of playing to desire, of its inherently performative nature, of the idea of “sexy” being somehow divorced from presence (in the symbolic sense), of the lines between fantasy and reality blurring, of the perceived “power” in playing to a male-gaze-y algorithm that dictates what is seen, when, how, by whom. Susan Sontag wrote, in a 1999 essay “A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” (published in Women (Random House, 1999), a book of photography by Annie Leibovitz) thusly:

To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough.” Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.

As an aging albeit large-chested woman with a chosen online presence – one I require and have cultivated as a freelance writer and educator within a particularly narrow cultural field – I am simultaneously aware of both the judgement and the attention, the inherent risk of professional punishment, and virtue-patrolling, to say nothing of professional discreditation and social ostracization, all of which run concomitant with potential benefits and possible advancement. (Whether that advancement manifests in actual dollars and opportunities remains to be seen, and various classical and academic ingenues might tell you something similar, however quietly.) Damned if you do; damned if you don’t; such has always been the case for women, and never more so than now, in the pandemic-ridden 21st century, whence a screen is professional, social, political, cultural, creative, and personal, all in one. My mother’s pre-boomer, always-wear-lipstick generation didn’t have to face this, but then, if she had, I’d suspect she’d be very popular.

My mother had a ballet dancer’s body: a long torso, long legs, just-right shoulders, a long neck, and perfectly (to me) small hips/bum/breasts. She had my ideal body shape, one I still covet and dream of having. Anything else, to my mind and literal body), is chubby, gross, vulgar. She was a “model” in the definition that still largely fuels the definition of Very Beautiful today. “You didn’t get those from me,” she’d say, staring at my chest. Shorter, fleshier women have a history of being placed into the tiresome bin labelled “curvaceous” (or the like), one that is wholly fantasy-driven and easy to discredit; she always used the word “voluptuous” as a compliment, but it never felt like one. I could never (and indeed cannot) find things that properly fit. While I’d watch my thin, small-breasted school friends go off and meet decent men, I always felt I’d been left with horny ones wanting naught but masturbatory entertainment. The work world was just as bad, if not worse. An early episode of the American television sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) features a large-breasted if wholly unqualified woman promoted over the more small-breasted Janet by a bug-eyed man in a cheap suit who speaks in a lusty rasp. The woman later visits Janet at her apartment, resigning in a fit of shame and exasperation, and explains the realities of navigating a world in which men only see breasts (and their related sexual desires) without seeing the attached whole person. “They say things like, “why don’t you stand over me and keep the rain off, baby!”” she says, holding back tears.

These days of course, that woman would have a huge Instagram following, post pictures of herself in tiny bikinis, call herself “empowered” and many would simply seal-clap along. I’m not so sure; to borrow from Charles Laughton’s character in the 1957 film Witness For The Prosecution, that line of thinking feels “too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical…” (Note: most breasts are not, in fact, symmetrical, let alone sitting at attention when one lies on one’s back; they tend to sloppily nod off to armpits, gravity being the great downer in all senses.) Swimwear always presents a challenge; modest is realistic if boring, but finding something that fits is impossible. I don’t own a bikini, and if I did, I wouldn’t wear it publicly, let alone post pictures of myself in it. “Be proud!” shout the masses, “do your thing!” The problem is, all the male things go up whenever I reveal too much tit in public, and though i can’t control the reactions, I hate that I inspired them at all, and find myself wishing, at such moments, after a galling incident or smutty, unwished-for attention, that I had those perfect, tiny, pert, ballet-dancer breasts. The scars, the pain, the thought of going into a hospital at all right now… tell me to sit, round-shouldered, and do another round of dreary sit-ups. Apparently strong abs are helpful, but they’ve yet to relieve an ounce of the pain.

Following my second vaccination, I came home and changed into a low-backed bodysuit, one I would never wear in public – too revealing, too honest, too real. (I love it.) ‘Real breasts versus fantasy ones’ is a distinction that needs to be made (one might say this about female bodies overall) – I consciously thought this, putting that bodysuit on – but the need to recognize that distinction points more directly at a need to acknowledge real people versus fantasy figures. A 2013 production of Manon Lescaut from Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), directed by Mariusz Treliński and featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, caught my attention for just this reason. How refreshing, to see the soprano floppy-haired and braless and perspiration-soaked in the last act; yes, it’s the character, and yes it’s the opera, and of course, it’s part of the setting, but this was not the highly-stylized, romantic, dewy-doe-eyed suffering so often seen on opera stages. The transformation felt real, raw, and very visceral; it dared to explode the sexy-babe mythos into a thousand pieces, and dared its audience to see what was left. I wondered about two things, concurrently, as it concluded: Westbroek’s corseting (or apparent lack thereof, which is brave, and shouldn’t be, and yet) and, what would my opera-loving, glamour-obsessed mother make of it. In her younger years she so much resembled the younger Manon, poised and smiling across numerous images in photo albums spanning many decades. One shot features her wearing a green polka-dot bikini; she used to like to tell people how much she weighed when it was taken, some ridiculously low number, hiding the actual truth of her self-starving then, her utter self-loathing in fact, dating someone who eventually threw her over, having treated her like a diversion, a bit of fantasy, a sex doll. She wasn’t “curvy”; she didn’t have large breasts. I remember meeting him years ago, before she passed, wondering at her being so reserved around him then; I don’t wonder now.

And so I look at my closet-fulls of dresses, some of them my mother’s, many of them, like my underthings, full of pins and awaiting the skilled touch of my ever-patient tailor, and I wonder if I’ll ever wear any of them again. Do I want to? Dare I? Can I be floppy-haired, braless Manon and still have any worth? Still ignite any true desire? Does it matter? Can I be busty, non-music-degree-holding Catherine and still be perceived with any seriousness? Should I feel okay with being reduced? Am I not already? Oh, how I long for a good fit. A trip to the moon, even for a few hours, would not be so bad either; my shoulders, like much else, could use the rest. Maybe this is the season to fly, to not feel small, to not shrink, but to jut chin out, pull shoulders back, and at last, to truly smile, even, as the times dictate, it will be behind a mask or two.

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