Month: June 2024

Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Brindley Sherratt: “There’s A Great Intimacy When It’s Just Me And A Piano”

The classical world continues to be in a state of transformation since the shutdowns forced by the coronavirus pandemic, with varied forms of transformation rippling through an array of houses, companies, and, perhaps most especially, people. I last spoke with English bass Brindley Sherratt in August 2020, when he and English tenor John Daszak were busy rehearsing an unusual, socially-distanced production of Boris Godunov directed by Barrie Kosky in Zürich. “You want to shout, ‘Opera’s not dead!‘” Sherratt commented, a needed buoy amidst the near-universal opera world gloom at the time.

Since then, Sherratt has applied that brand of encouragement to his own work. The bass’s first album of art songs, Fear No More, was released by Delphian Records in April. Recorded in 2023 at Henry Wood Hall in London, the album takes its title from a song by 20th century composer Gerald Finzi, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”, part of the composer’s Shakespeare-connected song cycle Let Us Garlands Bring (1929-1942) and itself based on lines from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. Along with Finzi and fellow British composers John Ireland, Ivor Gurney, Michael Head, and Peter Warlock the album also features the music of Schubert, Strauss, and Mussorgsky. Booklet writer John Fallas notes in his album text that “not many singers record their first recital album two decades into a successful international career” – but one listen reveals a wealth of vocal riches underlining Sherratt’s deep musical intelligence and his innate understanding of text.

In a review of Fear No More for BBC Music magazine, writer Ashutosh Khandekar notes that “Sherratt possesses that rare gift – a genuine bass voice that carries its lyrical, expressive clarity from its ringing high notes right down to a full-toned basso profundo delivered without a trace of muddiness.” Indeed, Sherratt brings light, colour, texture, and a positively operatic splendour to the album’s smart lineup. Fear No More opens with six songs by Franz Schubert, all, with the exception of the famous “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) written for a bass voice; Sherratt’s crisp diction, oaken tone, and colourful phrasing poetically illuminate the composer’s thoughtful vocal writing. Richard Strauss’s early 20th century song “Im Spätboot” follows and is given particularly a delicious reading. Songs and Dances of Death, Mussorgsky’s mesmerizingly macabre song cycle, is performed with a touching mix of terror and humanism. Sherratt especially soars in the English-language songs; John Ireland’s 1913 song “Sea-Fever” shows Sherratt’s careful modulation and colouration of the words of poet John Masefield, offering a masterclass in the art of storytelling through song.

That instinct for storytelling has also found expression in recitals, with the singer’s former reluctance around them replaced by something approaching glee. In addition to performances at Oxford Lieder Festival and Temple Music Foundation in 2022, Sherratt made his Wigmore Hall debut this past February, and more recitals are indeed in the works. There’s also a busy 2024-2025 opera season ahead, with performances of Billy Budd in Vienna, new productions of Semele in Paris and London, and a revival of Der Rosenkavalier in Munich. Sooner than that, Sherratt is set to perform in a BBC Proms presentation this August of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass with the Czech Philharmonic led by incoming Royal Opera House Music Director Jakub Hrůša; he will be singing alongside soprano Corinne Winters, mezzo soprano Bella Adimova, and tenor David Butt Philip.

A conversation with Sherratt is always a true pleasure, his easy mix of intelligence, passion, and kindness  creating a natural, good-humoured exchange of ideas and experiences.

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Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

How did you choose the works on the album? You’d mentioned your love of text in a recent interview, and I wonder if that played a role. 

It was indeed that love of text, but a lot of other things as well. I felt it was an incredibly risky thing to do an album at my age, with my voice – some of that feeling was in my own mind, but there were other fears related to there not being many basses doing recordings of lieder. Also there aren’t many basses my age, with an entire operatic career, suddenly switching to song. I met Julius Drake after a performance at Covent Garden and he said, “Why don’t you come around to my house on a Saturday morning and we’ll play around with a few pieces?” I said, “I don’t know what to sing!” He said, “Come around; we’ll work through some repertoire – let’s have a go.” So we did. We spent about three hours exploring this and that.

I wanted to choose things for the album that A/ I like, and B/ I think suit my voice. As a bass, and I’ve said this before, songs and recitals are like wearing your sibling’s hand-me-downs: you have to transpose down and adjust everything. I knew from the get-go that I wanted to include Schubert. As for Strauss: there are three or four songs that wrote specifically for the guy who first sang them (Paul Knüpfer), a bass who went on to be a famous Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier, so I thought “Im Spätboot” was a good start. I’d already done some other Strauss songs with an orchestra –  and I do love his writing so much.

Likewise the Mussorgsky cycle; I’d done Songs and Dances of Death with an orchestra two or three times, and I thought, gosh I’d love to do this with piano. Julius said, “Why don’t we just put them on the record?” I also thought I would like to do something in my own language and then it became a case of finding things I like.

There’s something extra special about the English songs – why these ones in particular?

When I was a student decades ago and had just started to sing – I was a trumpet player and switched to singing – I remember learning a few songs, and thinking, well, I’m a singer so of course I should sing songs. One of them was Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” – I loved it ever since, but never had the chance to sing it because I’ve never done recitals. There’s something about this work, after all these years, that I still connect with, so I knew I had to include it on the album. For other songs, I had help: Sarah Connolly introduced me to “By A Bierside” (Ivor Gurney) – she said she thought it would suit me because it’s quite dramatic; Roderick Williams was a very big help also. He really knows his repertoire! I said to him, “Please help me out? Give me pointers as to what would suit me since you know my voice.” He’s been a very big source of information with the English song material. It’s like the TV show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” with contestants using a lifeline to call a friend and help them with a question – I phoned a friend, or rather several friends, who had done this repertoire and said “Hey, hello!”

On Being Pushed

Tell me more about your creative connection with Julius Drake – to what extent was he pianist, coach, mentor, critic… ?

He played all of those roles at some point – all of them. He kept saying, “Brin, you can do this” throughout. I would say, “Oh, I can’t sing this stuff, It’s too this, it’s too that.” And he said, “Come on, let’s keep going.” He would literally push me through the songs and offer ideas for others, and I would look at them and say, “Nah, don’t want that, it’s too boring” or “Maybe?” – and he was there to urge me on.

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Brindley Sherratt recording Fear No More with collaborative pianist Julius Drake. Photo: foxbrush.co.uk

Did this form of coaching happen with your recitals as well?

Oh yes! Having not done a recital for 20-something years or more, there I was suddenly doing two recitals on two consecutive nights. Whilst we were preparing Julius would say things like “Not like that, we need more colour here.” I’d try something else and say, “Is that right?” And he’d say, “Nah, not right. Try something else.” We’d try this and that, and in that process I discovered a whole softer colour to my sound, one I didn’t know I could do. I was able to play around a lot more as a result, and Julius would push me: “Bring that sound”, “We need to bring this text out here”, “That was too slow”, “That was too fast”,“That was close to being chamber music!” The process was new to me.

With opera, it’s just such a huge scale, and sometimes you’ll have a conductor who will coach, like Tony Pappano – he gives loads of notes like “Just sing this way”, “Try it that way” and I love that approach – but opera is still this big long process. You’re on stage, you have other things and people to add and interact with. Also, I might have said this already in another interview: I prefer my audiences in the dark about 80 feet away with a symphony orchestra in-between. The kind of intimacy chamber music demands was the thing that I feared most, especially in terms of doing recitals; it also became the thing I enjoyed the most. There’s a great intimacy when it’s just me and a piano. This whole process has been a revelation.

Does that include your recital work?

Initially I was worried about those. I thought, “What if nobody comes?” Well, I went out and there were big crowds who gave big cheers and I thought, “Oh, this is great!” At Wigmore Hall in February the place was heaving with people. All the students I worked with were there along with every bass in the country, including John Tomlinson. I found it overwhelming, though it also made me think that maybe I’m okay at this stuff; I need to trust that feeling.

Do you think recitals and art songs have made you a better opera singer?

I think so, yes. I was doing Rocco in Fidelio (in Munich) this year, and Gurnemanz a year or more ago, and I found I used a lot of soft colours which I would have not have used before. Those softer colours are really important, especially to basses, as you know. I feel much more rounded as a singer, and the songs (on the album) were great for that kind of work.

Keeping The Voice “As Fresh As Possible”

What have you learned about your voice through the last decade or so?

There was a stage I went through actually about eight or ten years ago where I wanted to make a big noise. At one point I thought, “I don’t think I’m singing healthily.” Going back to Gurnemanz, when I was first learning that part years back I was listening to Gottlob Frick, who is my favourite German bassist of all. He was 68 when he recorded Parsifal; he came out of retirement to do it. Having had a long career singing the heaviest roles, the Hagens and the Hundings, over and over and over again, here he is at 68 – when really the voice should be starting to wear a bit – and my God, he sounds so good, so vulnerable – it’s just sublime, beautiful singing. When I heard it I thought: I want to be able to do that.

It was while I was singing I was singing Ochs at Glyndebourne (2018) that I found a much more, what’s the word, a more contained and less fat kind of sound; I purposely took my voice down a little bit and worked. That moment was the foundation, as it were, because when I started to learn and sing songs, I realized that I want to be able to sing “Some Enchanted Evening” and have it be beautiful – that, or Winterreise, or Finzi’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”. I want people to say, “That’s a beautiful voice” and not “That’s a ragged old voice.” So I think the combination of songs and opera is important to keep the voice as fresh as possible at my age.

What role does teaching play?

I coach a lot of young basses, bass baritones too, and for so many of them the pressure is on in their 20s in terms of making a career, and so they all want to sound as loud as possible. What happens is they go into a young artists program and they’re on stage with guys who really know what they’re doing, but they have to match it, or feel like they do, so they try to make their voice big before it’s kind of found its way. There are so few roles for young low voices – it’s a lot of Second Old Man or Third Gatekeeper – but young artists feel forced to make big sounds so early on, and I’m always saying to them now, “Learn songs, sing songs; learn a few cycles; learn Handel, and more Handel; listen to various artists.” I think you need to have that balance, and the confidence too – we definitely need to have that!

Brindley Sherratt, bass, English, album, Fear No More, voice, singer, opera, song, Benjamin Ealovega, Delphian

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

A second album?

Which songs might be in the future for you, on record or live in recital?

I think everyone wants to sing Winterreise, and I admit to being one of them! It’s an incredibly intimidating cycle but I find it so enchanting; I love listening to it and I love singing it. I’d want to do it in recital a few times before I went anywhere even near a recording studio. So that’s a possibility. I’ve also been thinking I would like to do a disc of songs in my mother tongue, and at the moment I’m leaning towards an album of English song; I asked Ryan Wigglesworth if he would write me something, and he’s up for that. Robert Lloyd said to me many years ago, “Make sure you do a song recital once a year; It’s so easy to just bellow” – it’s so true.

I was amazed in the recitals to note that after I’d sung a few phrases that are quiet and soft, I could sense everyone leaning in and really listening – it was just lovely! I never would have thought of having that kind of closeness with an audience, but it’s been amazing, and I definitely look forward to more moments like that.

Top photo: Benjamin Ealovega
Opera & Democracy, series, performance, history, lecture, New York, NYC, stage, Leo Baeck Institute, opera, democracy, Kai Hinrich Müller, Thomas Mann House

Kai Hinrich Müller: “What Can Opera Do For Society?”

As opera companies look to attract new audiences and cultivate relationships with existing patrons, specific combinations of knowledge, passion, and energy are increasingly required. There’s work to be done with nitty-gritty issues like funding, management, casting, commissioning, programming, and presenting. Companies have made conspicuous efforts to expand the definition of the widely-understood canon of classical music. Opera watchers (including yours truly) live in hope that such decisions are more than mere gestures, that they are made with an eye toward evolution, not just optics. More than ever, works are being programmed which have been penned by composers off the well-beaten path of Opera Hits – composers who were often persecuted because of race, gender, religion, sexuality and who remain largely unknown because of a stubborn adherence to that path.  Broadcaster Kate Molleson wrote a whole book about this, and I have written about it as well.

So where does the idea of “democracy” fit within the world of classical music, particularly opera? What role does (or can) art play in cultivating the idea – and the reality – of democracy? How do the notions of representation, choice, voice, equity and equality relate to opera’s history, goals, old audiences, intended audiences, financial demands, and day-to-day realities? The current Thomas Mann House series Opera & Democracy has been exploring these questions over the past six months. Instigated by musicologist and 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow Kai Hinrich Müller, Opera & Democracy is a unique combination of academic investigation, discussion, and live performance, with topics including power dynamics, representation, programming and casting choices, updated formats, and what the Villa Aurora-Thomas Mann House website calls “audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.”

So far those artists have indeed included many persecuted figures: Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, Rachel Danziger van Embden and Amélie Nikisch, Rosy Geiger-Kullmann, Ernst Toch, Tania León, and Ursula Mamlok, to name a few. Launched in Los Angeles in January,  the series has gone on to see packed houses in Munich, Cologne, New York, and Dresden. More dates are set to follow in Providence (RI), Berlin, and Hamburg; most immediately is an upcoming online event June 11th with Black Opera Research Network featuring composer Philip Miller, the composer of Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera (detailing the life of  anti-apartheid gay rights activist Simon Nkoli) and its musical director, Tshegofatso Moeng. Allison Smith, Civic Engagement Coordinator of Virginia Opera will also be joining the discussion together with Müller. In a recent blog entry reflecting on the New York City-based events for Opera & Democracy this past April, the musicologist wrote that “(b)y shining a spotlight on the works of composers who were once silenced by dictatorship, the week offered a way to reclaim their voices and honor their contributions to the cultural tapestry of humanity.”

Kai Hinrich Müller, scholar, musicologist, professor, Thomas Mann fellow, Opera & Democracy

Kai Hinrich Müller

That tapestry is one Müller has sought to explore in various facets. Having studied Musicology, Business Administration and Law at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Müller has worked as an advisor and curator on a number of international research and cultural projects, including an exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum called “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling” in 2022. He has also also worked with musico-historical group Musica non grata and led its Terezín Summer School, the 2023 iteration of which featured Rachel Danziger van Ambden’s Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess), subsequently presented as part of Opera & Democracy’s presentation in Dresden. Müller’s publications explore musical life in the interwar and Nazi periods, past and present musical structures, and the functions of music within social discourse, topics which are also long-term research focuses. In addition to his teaching work at the Cologne University of Music and Dance (since 2017), Müller also works with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, German public broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) and various concert and opera houses. As Director of the Bauhaus Music Weekend, he told RBB’s Hans Ackermann:

Meine Projekte sind immer an der Nahtstelle von Wissenschaft und Praxis angesiedelt. Schön finde ich, wenn man die Forschung “in den Klang” bringt. Musikwissenschaft soll nicht trocken sein, sondern wieder zum Klang werden. / My projects are always located at the interface between science and practice. I like it when you bring research “into sound”. Musicology shouldn’t be dry, it should become sound again.
(“Die Musik war fest im Alltag am Bauhaus eingebunden“, RBB24, 9 September 2023)

Opera & Democracy is anything but dry. Along with being an important forum for timely conversation and interaction, it is a refreshingly intelligent expression of creative advocacy, coming at a time when many (including those holding the purse strings) are questioning the role of culture within contemporary life. What can (or should) art’s role be in shaping the future? Over the course of our nearly hour-long exchange, the musicologist offered a few ideas, a real willingness to listen, and an interest in engaging with different experiences and ideas. Mehr davon, bitte…

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The Goethe Institut New York hosted the opening event of the week-long New York section of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Jamie Isaacs

Where and how did the idea for a series about opera and democracy originate? Relatedly: why this series, now?

The idea came out of my fellowship at the Thomas Mann House. The theme for the 2023 season of the Thomas Mann House programme was the political mandate of the arts, examining the question of the arts having a kind of political mandate, and what that means in a broader sense. I’m a musicologist; my habilitation was on Richard Wagner and Richard Wagner’s afterlife, a bit like Alex Ross in his last book, Wagnerism, so it was totally clear for me when I got to the Thomas Mann House that I would focus on opera.

Also there is one very important centenary in 2024, and it’s related to the Krolloper, which was this very important opera house in Berlin that hosted a lot of avant-garde works. But then it became the Nazi assembly hall of the Reichstag between 1933 and 1942. So on the one hand it’s a very important place for European history, and on the other it’s a very important place for international opera history; this was such a great coincidence that I wanted to use the centenary to think about the place of opera in society and politics, especially since the United States and the EU both have very big elections this year, and Germany is struggling with the rise of right-wing parties. In organizing the series I was in touch with many colleagues in the US and Germany – directors, singers, musicologists – and initially they all said, “Hey Kai, are you joking? ‘Opera and democracy’, this is a kind of contradiction!” – sure, but sometimes the tension is much more interesting with such pursuits. So we started, and so far it’s a real success for the Thomas Mann House and the broader academic world.

How did you choose the lineup of guests and events?

Some of it was interest from my side, and it was also a lot of magnetism from my research over the last few years, which has focused on the musical life in Theresienstadt, one of the big camps during the Nazi period. I also worked for Musica non grata, and that is why I’m very deep in this whole discourse on persecuted artists and artists in exile. This history, of course, brings up the question of democracy, because if you have a dictatorship, like the one during the Nazi period, you see what happens to artistic freedom. We thought about a kind of overall programme for the series, and everybody was very interested in unearthing unknown music, especially music by women composers. In Dresden we did a kind of Theresienstadt-influenced programme of opera and operetta by women. I can’t stand the fuss over the differences between opera and operetta, this idea of supposedly “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art forms; it’s music theatre, period.

Related to that, we also decided to present several works of Ernst Krenek – they will be focused in an event presented at Staatsoper Hamburg in January. He was living in exile in Los Angeles when he composed a very moving work called Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athena Wept), which was also written during the McCarthy era in the US. Nobody knows it, but it’s fantastic! This opera actually reopened the house in Hamburg after the Second World War. It’s atonal, and presents a dystopic situation exploring the struggle between Athens and Sparta; Athens is the city of democracy and Sparta stands for dictatorship, but Sparta wins. There are these amazing correspondences which exist from that time between Krenek, Thomas Mann, and all the artists living in exile on the West Coast, all of them examining the question of the role of arts and politics. It was also during this time that German emigres were being accused of being communists. I think the history around Krenek’s work is very much tied to the ideas we’re exploring in the series.

Connecting the past & the present

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At Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten in May as part of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Clara Becker

To what extent is this series intended to expand opera’s breadth, especially in an intercontinental sense?

This is a very important question because it highlights two key questions in the Opera & Democracy series: what can opera do for society? And, how can opera itself become a more democratic art form via the means of plurality, diversity, accessibility?. I think it’s very important to bring both sides into a dialogue, particularly with a view to the two opera systems in North America and Germany, which have massive differences. The biggest intercontinental difference is the question of funding, because in the United States, opera is privately funded, and in Germany, it’s state funded. And this is why I think North American opera sometimes  seems to be much more aware of the ideas and wishes of the audience. At the Met there is a total change in repertoire, a shift to works which are much more focused on questions of diversity and black culture and history.

For me, one of the most influential experiences so far in the series was my panel discussion with Kira Thurman, an African American musicologist teaching in Wisconsin. She wrote her last book on black opera singers in Germany. She was in our opening session at the Thomas Mann House with Alex Ross and Daniela Levy, a researcher in Los Angeles. Kira’s perspectives were certainly eye-opening for me because discussed the last 100 years of opera from a racial history perspective.

Some opera companies have started installing a wider variety of language selections for seat-back translations – what do you make of that? 

The interesting point here is that you really can learn from history. At our opera week in New York City recently, I presented the case of Paul Aron. He was a very successful contemporary composer during the wars, and then the Nazis came and he had to flee to the United States. When he came to New York City in the 1950s he founded an avant-garde opera company and he brought all of the music of the other émigrés – works which had originally been composed in German – with new English versions for American stages, because he was aware of the question of language. It is a barrier; you have to be able to understand the language to participate in the story and the plot. It’s really good to see companies installing these technologies – it’s totally in line with the history of opera.

Invest in education

Kai Hinrich Müller, Thomas Mann House, Opera & Democracy, scholar, series, Los Angeles, music, opera, performance, theatre, lecture, ideas

Kai Hinrich Mülller at the inaugural event of Opera & Democracy at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles in January 2024. Photo: Aaron Perez

To what extent does a series like this act as an educational aid?

Well I hope it helps because I’m a teacher myself; I teach professionally here in Cologne. All of my programs are built around students. They are the next generation, and they are much better-placed than I am to do this work, because, well, I’m 39 years old, I have maybe 20 or 30 years in the opera system, but these students have at least 50 more years. So it absolutely doesn’t make any sense to stop education; you have to invest in education because this is the next generation, and if we want to change the system, we have to empower young people and invite them to become part of everything in the first place.

What are you bringing back to the classroom then?

The most important point is that I open a kind of dialogue between their interests and my interests. Very often I am told things relating to casting processes, about not feeling heard in current discourses, that nobody is interested in questions of their generation. We had very intense discussions after October 7th about Israel and Gaza. Sometimes it’s important to listen and to give them the sense that, “Yes, you are welcome, give me your speech, give me your opinion; I don’t have to agree, but I think you have the right to an open and safe space for discussion” – and this is especially applicable to an opera system that is largely not democratic.

Where do unknown composers fit in with the series?

They are very important! One of my most favourite composers right now is Rosy Geiger-Kullmann. We premiered three of her operas during our New York festival. She was a very successful woman composer in Germany, then the Nazis came to power, and it’s the same story as so many others – she fled, first to New York, then to Monterey; her son Herman Geiger-Torel, went to Canada and became a very important figure in opera in Canada through the 1950s to 1970s. Rosie herself composed five big operas. It was hard to believe that we were the first person to perform excerpts from her work during the festival. The 20th century is so full of rarely-heard or played operas.

I think this is another thing I learned from the series: that we really don’t have to be afraid of bringing unknown music back to the stage. Every event in this series so far has been totally sold out. We often play unknown composers, so clearly there is openness in the audience to learning more about new music.

“Opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other”

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(L-R) Composer/conductor Carl Christian Bettendorf, composer Alyssa Regent, and choreographer Miro Magloire in a discussion at 1014 – space for ideas as part of an April event in New York for Opera & Democracy. Photo: Sarah Blesener

What sort of an approach do you take in introducing new works?

We use the opera to open the discussion. For example, in the Thomas Mann House at the launch in Los Angeles, we started with Kurt Weill’s The Yes-Sayer, which is a 30-minute opera about belonging and the power of tradition. Directly after it was when we opened the discourse, first in a panel discussion, then for the audience. My first question was, “If this is a story essentially about saying yes or no, what would you have said?” People in the audience looked at me like, “Why is he talking with us?” but then more and more people engaged, and then we had a great discussion on the question of saying yes or no to traditions, and saying yes or no to opera. In Dresden it was, I think, probably quite simple but very effective storytelling as well.

What effect do you see this series having on the opera world?

Since I started it in January, more and more people are taking notice. Opera companies will knock at my door and say, “Hey Kai, this is interesting. Maybe we can do something together? Let’s think about it.” I see more and more institutions that would love to join us in thinking about the democratic potential of the art form. I think opera is very good for opening eyes, opening emotions, opening the brain, and opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other – and that is more important than ever right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photo: Students from the Manhattan School of Music perform in April 2024 at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute as part of the Opera & Democracy series. Photo: Jamie Isaacs

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