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.
There is something within that always hesitates at publishing personal pieces. A Facebook post is one thing, a public post quite another. Courting judgment, creating low opinions, sacrificing credibility, reinforcing impressions of overwrought drama: 2020 is a year for many things indeed, but I am unsure which of these I dare encourage. The following piece did start out as a Facebook post, and so great was the response, so immense the encouragement, that I have decided to share it here, with revisions. It has opera (easily found on this website), it has my mother (also easily found). It has personal history, something I wince at sharing openly but which, in light of this awful year drawing to a close, feels somehow important, an act of acknowledgment and healing: Here Is A Bit Of My Self; Do As You Will.
Currently I am in the midst of editing another essay exploring the idea of being of service, inspired by a remark conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan made during our lengthy conversation back in October. Barbara essentially said she is driven to do what she does out of a need to be of service, that if she had chosen to take a more conventional opera-singer route (Verdi and not Vivier, for example), such a need would have gone unfulfilled. Other exchanges with artists I admire have led me to wonder if my writing is, in fact, just this, a way of exercising that very need – to be of service – whilst integrating, in a more fulsome way, a desire to move my work into a more creative realm, away from the world of journalism. In any case, here are some thoughts, shared Christmas Eve, and lightly edited. Happy New Year.
Looking at the window at the heavily falling snow, inhaling the aroma of a baking tourtière, watching the flicker of candles and feeling the acid sting of cranberry on tongue, I remember a remark my mother made to me the year before she died: “I love how you just pile your hair up and put on your strapless dress and high heels and don’t give a sh*t what anyone thinks of you.” Considering she wasn’t one to offer compliments on my appearance, it was notable, and I often wonder if her words were meant to extend past the opera-going context in which they were given, specifically to the parties we would attend every Christmas Eve.
“You’re taking too long!” she’d scream as 8pm, then 9pm passed, and we weren’t yet out the door. “Why do you always have to make things so bloody difficult?!” This year, with naught but the company of the telly and a seemingly endless line of headlights out the window, I think back to those nights, how they always started with tremendous arguments, how they always ended in relative peace, with late-night cognacs and music and sweets, my mother and I smartly dressed and perched on puffy, cream-color loveseats facing one another. The sounds of La bohème floated across the dimly-lit, luxuriously appointed room. “Only one thing,” she would instruct, taking a gold-foil-wrapped package into her lap, clinking glasses and smiling at the clang of fine crystal as a myriad of Xmas tree lights swirled around the ornate, boozy orbs. “Maybe a chocolate too… “ as the Godiva box lid was popped off. “But you must turn this up…” as the voice of Pavarotti rang like a silver bell across the bronzen warmth of the room… “it’s just so… so...!” … An inevitable headshake of red curls. A sip of cognac. A broad, happy sigh.
We had no family, but we had traditions entirely our own. Every Xmas morning she would don her velvet Santa hat and buzz around with a fine china teacup in one hand and portable phone in the other, her laughing voice and “Hellloooooo soandso!” and “Merry Christmas!” cadences like little motifs through the tinsel-laden score of the morning. Her own beloved father had died on Xmas Eve when she was a girl; thus the occasion was, for her, just that, something to mark, to make merry for, to fuss over, and always, to give and give. December was a month when no one was forgotten: bank tellers, postmen, delivery people, cashiers, clients, old work colleagues, friends new and not, close and not. Her whole being, even without Xmas, revolved around giving. Indeed, her generosity was doled out in such quantities she would sometimes chide herself, realizing (as I had tried to point out in past moments) that her good nature had been taken advantage of. “I’m too generous, I’m too soft-hearted… I’m a naive bloody chump.”
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
How different Christmas is now, and not only because of COVID19. I remember a glass-shelved console would be filled, from mid-November onwards, with a myriad of cards from around the world; some years they numbered in the hundreds. To quote Rilke’s “Requiem For A Friend”, “Oh, how we need customs. Oh, how we suffer from the lack of customs” – and this card-collection was but one of my mother’s. I look up at my four Christmas cards and acknowledge, of course, that such customs simply aren’t done anymore, but oh, how I miss some of the sensual ones that come with Xmas. I find myself wanting such things but largely blocked from their actualization; I can neither recreate in her fashion, nor create anew in my own. Not having a family means not having certain rituals to adhere to. And yet, this was the first time since 2017 that I have had a Christmas tree; I gave away the one I’d had with her years ago and most (not all) of the ornaments. Putting one up this year seemed like an act of love and defiance; I don’t have kids and the whole thing cost a small fortune, but oh, how fulfilling. I needed the exercise of such a custom more than I realized. “One of the only times you seem calm and happy is when you paint,” my mother used to say, “that and decorating the Christmas tree.”
My love of solitary activity was not something she always understood. My mother was Miss Popularity; she’d been a cheerleader in high school. That deep, warm generosity, a gaiety of spirit, a smiling lightness elegantly concealing a world of pain, her hands waving through the air to Musetta’s Waltz – people were drawn to her. It wasn’t magic; it was logic. And oh, she was the beauty queen, makeup in place, hair done just so, whether handing out sweets or pouring brandy into her tea Christmas morning, chatting gaily to faraway friends on the telephone, her fingers with their lacquered red nails moving between boxes of (homemade) whipped shortbreads and almond crescents and the infamous Godiva box. One year she decided to wear a red satin gown she’d initially bought for me; I looked over the second-floor railing, bleary-eyed, and there she was, on the phone, waving up at me, her lipstick matching the fabric. Years before I emerged from a retail store changeroom wearing that dress; I still recall the swoosh-swoosh rustling across the spiky berber carpet. Its shiny redness a festive flag against the drabness of that little fluorescent-lit room.
“Ohhhhh,” was the immediate, cooing response. “that’s your birthday gift, then.” Being broad-shouldered and tall it fit her like a glove, better than me, in fact; there was no pulling at the bust when she wore it (“You didn’t get those boobs from me; thank you father’s side of the family”) and thus it hung like it should, sans pooling around ankles, a puddle of satin where legs should be, and were, in spades, with her. I took a photo of her that morning, my beautiful, big-haired mother, in her sixties then, sitting with her signature movie-star-smile, on one of an immense pair of damask-patterned loveseats on Christmas morning. that dress in gorgeous contrast to the cream upholstery. She wanted to take a photo of me, as ever: “Come on, smile, it’s easy… don’t be so grouchy!”
I gave those loveseats away this year, a donation to a charity — too old, too many memories, too much dust attraction. Living alone I have no need of such immense things, and having no family of my own it makes no sense — but I still have that photo of her somewhere, perched so perfectly that snowy morning, in that big house I sold two years ago. Amidst my giant downsize this year, I kept that photo, and more than a few related albums; at the time I hesitated, but in retrospect, it was the right thing. Putting the past into perspective doesn’t mean erasing it – or hiding it, being embarrassed by it, or feeling the need to apologize for it. My mother had a contentious relationship with her own troubled past; it’s something I don’t want to repeat. I gave away those loveseats – and the old Xmas tree, and some of the ornaments – because they were her things, not my things. 2020 was the year of My Things, tangible and not, good and (mostly) not. It has been a horrendous but tremendously important year; at times I have wept in ways I have not wept since her death in 2015. Loss comes in so many shapes; sadness has so many variations. The person I am now is not the person I was with her. I recall her saying I was too serious; too brooding, too critical and full of torment. Oh, if she could see me now. I’ve become a soft-hearted, over-trusting, over-generous chump. Apple, meet tree; chocolate, meet box; I inherited more than her slender figure.
This is not *the* dress (but clearly my mother loved red dresses). Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
So this Christmas Eve is for tourtière, tears, and tender memories. December asks for acceptance, and offers hope. May 2021 bear the sweet fruit sewn by immense sadness; we could, all of us, use a fresh start.
Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre er hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.
Anticipate all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that’s now passing.
For under winters is one winter so endless,
only in overwintering can your heart overcome.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets To Orpheus, II.13
(trans. Kinnell, Liebmann, 1999)
It behoves any writer to know something about the subject to which they profess passion, love, adoration. Far from being antithetical to the spirit of discovery, context tends to enhance appreciation, understanding, and overall enjoyment, while leaving room for questions: why is a musical phrase Beethoven’s 5th done a certain way by Carlos Kleiber, but not by Klemperer? How much should the tempo in the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde be guided by text, or might there be another approach (and if so, what)? How do the alliterative sounds of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s writing inform the aural sounds of Strauss? What roads led to Wagner’s famous lack of resolution in Tristan und Isolde and what paths led out of it (what didn’t, really)? Some things have definitive answers, but in art as much as life, some things tend to be –must be – evolving conversations.
It’s good to be reminded of the importance of both definition and evolution, even while striving, amidst quotidian mundanities (the continual handwashing, the ever-growing pile of ironing, the nightly nod-off on the sofa) for something that can be felt and experienced beyond the immediate. Around the world culture lovers are largely in situ; the only travel many are able to do is through one’s own imaginings. How rich they truly can be when one has the brushes and the pigments at hand to shape the many flat, smooth surfaces of weeks and months before us, but oh, how difficult it can be to find the inspiration to start, let alone to continue. I tangle, on any given day, with threads that pull in all directions: emails, updates, cooking, correcting, battling seemingly-endless streams of dust. But something within persists, and has done to varying degrees since the pandemic began, a constant akin to Malevich’s infamous black square, which resonates, reverberates, swallows, enfolds, encompasses, and even (especially) enlightens. As I wrote at the end of April, curiosity has been the guiding light through not only the current COVID19 era, but more broadly, a music education sorely lacking in proper guidance through childhood and youth, but one which has enjoyed a lovely Renaissance in the last few years. In an editorial for Opera Canada magazine earlier this year I revealed my strong belief in studying prior to attending (or now, livestreaming) events; that belief extends to listening. I find it stressful to put on a piece of music and not know even a little bit about what I’m hearing, let alone something about the artists involved, its history of composition, and the various approaches to interpretation. The work of Edward Seckerson has been invaluable in this regard; context and curiosity join in important ways through his work, allowing for new insights, deeper questions, and ever more bundles of curiosity.
A self-described “writer, broadcaster, podcaster, and Musical Theatre obsessive,” I discovered Seckerson’s work via his regular reviews for Gramophone magazine. His smart, accessible, well-observed writing employs poetic if equally clear language; the Gramophone review of the Pentatone/Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester release of Das Lied von der Erde from earlier this year, for instance, mixes the text of Mahler’s grand work and its recorded history with keen musical and vocal observations, contextualizing and poeticizing in one sublime whole. Along with working in formal media for various British papers through the years (in the role of critic), Seckerson has worked in theatre and music, appearing onstage in various forms and roles. Writer and host of the long-running BBC 3 Radio series Stage & Screen, he is and has been a regular on radio and television, and has contributed commentary for the Cardiff Singer Of The World competition regularly. As well as penning books on Mahler and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, Seckerson has also been part of stage works exploring the life and works of composer Richard Rodgers and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Despite (or perhaps owing to) such accomplishments, Seckerson does not think of himself as press these days so much as a figure who, as he puts it, wants to be (nay, is) part of a broader creative conversation. Indeed, conversation is the thing he positively excels at; Seckerson has interviewed many, many people, including, as his website says, “everyone from Bernstein to Liza Minnelli, Paul McCartney to Pavarotti, and Julie Andrews to Andrew Lloyd Webber.” His interviewee list is a who’s who of figures from the classical music, theatre, and musical theatre worlds, reflecting his passion for all of them, and, more broadly, his commitment to the intelligent exploration of culture in all its facets and forms. Such a gift for (and active commitment to) one-on-one conversation is truly a rarity in a world of pre-written Q&As and preening Insta-videos. I was fortunate to be able to experience this gift live earlier this year, during a talk at London’s Bishopsgate Institute featuring Sir Antonio Pappano; over the course of the evening I was struck by his casual balance of personal and profound, funny and foundational; attending a Seckerson talk means one will learn as much about humanity and artistry (and the sometime-connections therein) as about the actual figure themselves, no small thing in a world where image tends to trump authenticity.
Seckerson has put his distinct talent for conversation to work via a regular chat series produced over the course of the lockdown. Guests so far have included conductor Edward Gardner, violinist Nicola Benedetti, actor/singer Julian Ovenden, and mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connelly. Conversations span from thirty to sixty minutes and, as he explains, are entirely unedited, and are inviting exchanges which nicely embrace both the macro and the micro aspects of individual artistry and creative development, particularly within the context of our current pandemic era. His casual remark to violinist Nicola Benedetti during their conversation in June, that Elgar’s Violin Concerto (the performance of which was one of the final performances he attended in London before lockdown) is “the most intimate of epics”, inspired a spontaneous and enthusiastic response from the violinist (“It’s an amalgam of the very public and the very private Elgar”, he went on to explain), the warmth of which fuelled their lively almost-30-minute exchange. In a time when one’s spirit can so easily be dragged down by a multitude of daily mundanities, when life can feel so cold, empty, and robbed of joy, such sincere exchanges feel like a needed blanket of warmth and goodness.
Writing about another writer one happens to admire is no easy task; writing about a writer who is also a gifted conversationalist and who, octopus-like, has many arms in many different and fascinating worlds and is, quite simply, so very genuine, is indeed a rare gift. Perhaps my students, when asked what the c-word is, might also now respond loudly with, “Conversation! Commitment! Curiosity!” – for these are things Seckerson’s work has encouraged in my own pursuits, particularly through these many gloomy months. We spoke in August, before much of the programming now underway in London was announced.
Photo: Edward Seckerson
How have things been for you through the lockdown?
I live in central London, and it’s disturbing that the West End, and London overall, has been so empty – so many businesses are going to close. The Chancellor introduced a supplementary package for eating out Monday to Wednesday; it’s done the trick, and a lot of people are eating out as a result – they get £10 off their meal. In terms of the arts, people here are so desperate to get things moving again – they’re being so resourceful and creative. It isn’t always successful, but the will is there, and that’s important.
Have you had time to reflect on your work during this time?
Well, one of the things I suppose I learnt over the years of reviewing – and of course I still review for Gramophone – is that I always feel, just as I did when I was writing for The Independent, there is really no point offering your subjective view. Everything is subjective! But it’s best to offer some sort of insight into the piece you’re reviewing. I wrote a review this morning for Gramophone of the new Dudamel recording of the Ives symphonies, and I spent most of the review really talking about the music, because that, to me, is more important than just registering whether we have another successful performance on our hands, or what the merits or otherwise are of this performance. I think it really is important to give some kind of guide to the piece you’re reviewing, and the same is true of when I do the comparative reviews on (BBC) Radio 3, on Record Review – I think it’s important to offer people some kind of road map to the piece as well as interpretations.
That map, for those who don’t have a formal degree in music, is very helpful; it feels like a door swinging open, which isn’t always the case with classical music writing. Is that your intention?
Yes, that’s exactly my intention, to make that map clear. I always say that it’s almost irrelevant whether Ed Seckerson thinks a performance is special or not; what is important is that I offer some kind of sense of the experience, the shared experience if you’re reviewing something live. People who weren’t there want to know what it was like to be there, so there’s that element. I used to get a lot of flak when I reviewed opera for The Independent; people would say I spend too much time discussing the production and not enough time discussing the relative merits of the cast and their performances, but since most of those reviews were about new productions to me it was important to try and express, or offer, some kind of insight into what I think the director was looking for.
I’ve received similar feedback, that I focus too much on the ideas of the director and theatre aspects overall, and not enough on the singing, but I read your review of Barrie Kosky’s infamously divisive staging of Carmen and it gave a real sense of why he chose what he did, contextualized within the history of this very famous opera.
… and that’s the point. I think there are a lot of spectators out there who simply want their opinion to be endorsed or otherwise when they go to the opera – (like) if their favorite singer is singing, they want to see a rave about them. But it is actually important to discuss how the piece is being reimagined. Opera would very quickly become a museum culture if people didn’t keep reimagining the pieces, and sometimes they do so with limited success, sometimes they do so with hugely insightful success, and I think that’s important. One of the reasons why I’m successful as a critic is because I was an actor, and I have a very real sense of what it’s like to be on a stage and be that vulnerable – but also, if a director makes a choice, I feel it’s important to be able to ask, if it’s not immediately clear, why he or she has made that choice, to be able to offer some kind of suggestion or insight as to why they might’ve made that choice. And I don’t think audiences question that side enough. One of the reasons it took so long for slightly more, shall we say, radical theatrical productions to become the norm was because audiences weren’t prepared to do some of the work themselves. And I think it’s important that audiences are not passive, even if it’s a concert. I’ve spoken to so many musicians who say they know immediately when an audience is listening in a certain way; if an audience isn’t listening in a certain way, or there isn’t that connection, they know immediately that that performance won’t succeed, or won’t succeed on the level they might’ve hoped.
Musician friends of mine have noted how the quality of the listening can change dramatically according to where they perform; geography makes a difference.
That’s because certain audiences are experiencing a different culture of music, sometimes for the first time, so they might listen more intently.
That’s true! We do take a lot for granted here; we are very spoiled in cities like London, which is surely a music capital of the world. The choice, on a daily basis, when there isn’t a pandemic, is absolutely extraordinary, and you know, this time has made me appreciate what live music really means to me.
Backstage with Dame Diana Rigg at Queen Elizabeth Hall, March 2019.
What has changed in the quality of your listening as you stepped away from reviewing?
Well, one of the pleasures of giving up writing newspaper reviews was that I could actually go and sit, relax and participate as an audience member, which gave me, and still gives me, great joy. You do listen differently when you are writing about something. I still listen in great detail but I think part of your brain is already forming the sentences, is already thinking of images, for the review you’re going to write, which is an intrusion. I first wrote for The Guardian in the days when pretty much all the reviews were overnight reviews, and I was never so unhappy as I was at that time as a journalist. I did it because it was a big break for me and it was establishing my name, but I hated every minute of it, and when I joined The Independent, the first thing I said to Thomas Sutcliffe, the arts editor, was, “If you’re doing overnight reviews, I’m not in the business of writing them” and he said, “No, I want people to sleep on what they’ve experienced and get up the next morning having digested and let it sit for a while.” All this nonsense about rushing out to meet the 11pm deadline doesn’t help anybody.
A long time ago there was an arts editor I worked with, and (Placido) Domingo was in town doing a revival, yet another, of the (Franco) Zeffirelli Tosca, it was Gwyneth Jones and Domingo, and the editor said, “We want an overnight review because it’s Domingo” and I said, “The show comes down at twenty minutes to 11pm; there are two intervals in the production; your deadline is 11pm; it’s impossible” and the editor said, “Well you’re no use to me as an opera critic if you can’t deliver a review after the show.” I said, “When will I do it?” He said, “You write during the intervals.” I said, “How can I write organically about a performance when it’s only a third of the way through? Oh, but wait, I have a good idea: why don’t I write the review before the performance?” It took him a moment or two to realize what I was actually, rather savagely, saying. And I did write the review, and I basically had to cheat it and write at the intervals, so there was no coherence. That is the kind of attitude that existed in media then and it still does, but thankfully some things have changed.
Some things have changed, but some have not, that attitude has transferred over to an obsession with clicks and views; Antonio Pappano and I spoke about it earlier in the summer and he said at one point, “if that’s what we rely on, we’re lost.”
When I did my talk with Pappano – you were there – at Bishopsgate earlier this year, we spoke backstage about the new culture of journalism, actually. You know, I was in at the start of this (change) – I was a mainstream classical reviewer in the days of broadsheet papers as well as this transition online, and indeed I remember people I knew at Glyndebourne, when the online thing started to happen, saying to me, “What are we going to do about inviting people?” I said, “You have to make value judgments about the kinds of writers you’re inviting – ignore all this business about how many clicks and hits they get, and just read what they write; read the work, and decide who you think is worth inviting.” It’s that difficult, and it’s that simple. And so when we spoke in January, Pappano himself was horrified I couldn’t get arrested at the ROH these days. I said, “It’s not because I’m writing reviews; I’m honest about that. It’s because I want to be part of the argument; I want to be part of the debate about the kind of work that’s being done at the ROH.” I mean, I’d be quite happy to attend rehearsals, but the attitude is always, “Oh no, you’re a member of the press! You can’t!” and I’ve said, “But I’m not a member of the press anymore, I’m just me…!”
This sounds frustratingly familiar.
It’s so frustrating. If I go to a dress rehearsal and I want to make some constructive comments, I won’t write a review, I want to be part of the debate before or after the performance. But I can’t contribute anything if I wasn’t there.
You’ve still really crossed over from the media world. What has that process been like?
It’s been very interesting. Long before I wrote for The Guardian or The Independent I was invited to ENO, during the Sir Mark Elder/David Pountney regime, and I got invited because the Press Officer was enlightened enough to know my background. I was making in-roads as a journalist and writer but had come from the theatre, and I had a musical background as well, but I had come from the theatre directly and they had the good sense to invite me long before I was writing reviews – so I had points of reference. When I did start writing reviews, I’d been there, watching these shows, seeing this company develop, which fed into the kind of writing I produced, which fed into the things I did when I started writing for a major paper.
So you paid your dues, just not in the usual way… ?
I paid my dues, though yes, my background is very unusual for a music journalist, because although I studied music when I was young – I was saying this in the interview I did recently with Nicola Benedetti – my problem was when I started learning the piano at a young age was that my musicality had already exceeded what I was capable of doing on the instrument, and I found it hugely frustrating. Nicola completely identified with that, by the way! I said, unless I started even earlier – and that battle that goes on between technique and musicality is huge.
When I was learning piano as a child, musicality was something others tried to forcibly extricate; there was an intense focus on technique instead, which I was never very good at. Musicality was perceived as being unfocused, sloppy, pointless.
How awful! I mean, I went to a comprehensive school where they had peripatetic music teachers, and I was handed a violin one day and learned my way around that instrument without much success, but at least I knew my way around it. I took up percussion, which was a way of producing more instant results. I could read music and rhythm, and picking up the technique was relatively uncomplicated compared to learning the violin, so I was able to play with amateur orchestras and youth orchestras, and that was another way in. But this thing about musicality, coming as I do from a theatre and music background, I was brought up to believe rather as Leonard Bernstein said, to just embrace music in all its facets, in all its styles – that’s the way I was brought up. I was never directed toward “good” music or “serious” music, I was just encouraged to enjoy music, period, and lucky enough to be taken to theatre and musicals and concerts, and that’s where it all started to marinate. Many of my colleagues come from more academic backgrounds. I always say, nothing wrong with that at all, but if you’re going to be a critic, and a lot of young students have often asked me about this – “What is the route in? What is the way in?” – I’ve always said, there isn’t any particular way in, it’s a case of just doing it.
This is precisely the advice I give my own students: do it, do it a lot, but be wary of doing it for parties who will exploit your talent and energies.
Precisely. I started years ago, by producing dummy reviews and sending them to people, because I was an avid record collector as a boy, and as I grew up I became more and more fascinated by interpretation, and that, to me, was where the music-making really started to happen. So I always say to people, it’s not so much what you know, it’s what you feel. And if you can’t recognize when an artist makes a beautiful phrase, then you’ve no business doing the job. It’s about having a musicality which chimes with what the artists themselves are doing. And you have to feel confidence in that. The one thing I am confident about amongst all my insecurities: I am completely confident about my musicality.
That confidence translates to your online conversations. Why did you start this series?
When lockdown happened, my partner said to me, “Why don’t you do audio?” I said, “Honestly, do I really want to do audio? And not earn a penny?! Surely I should be looking for ways to earn a bob or two during this period!” And my partner said, “It’s important you’re out there and doing what you do.” So I decided to do a series with people that I had some kind of association with, either we’ve crossed paths or I knew their work or they knew my work. Nicola was the exception – I had never met her, but one of the last concerts I went to this year was her live performance of the Elgar violin concerto at the Royal Festival Hall; I was blown away by it and thought it was a good reason to speak to her, since the related album was coming out.
But basically what I wanted to do was to talk to people that would feel comfortable relaxing on a remote audio with me, and were prepared to do so without editing. These audios are all unedited, they are completely spontaneous – this was important to me; sometimes a doorbell rings or whatever, but basically I’ve said to these artists, “I want this to be raw, as if we’re doing this live.” And I was determined we should mix classical and musical theatre, because they are my two main areas. I started with John Wilson – I bumped into him literally in the first week of lockdown, he’d moved around the Tate Modern, and I was walking down the Embankment, and there he was. We stood in socially-distance conversation for a while, and I said, “Hey do you want to this?” and he said “Sure!” What I decided now is to continue to do them. I think as a writer you have to get past … look, this is tricky, but you have to get past the idea that you do this only professionally for a living; sometimes you should do things occasionally for the hell of it. That was a difficult pill to swallow at first; I felt I was putting a lot of effort in for no return, and as a freelancer that’s a no-no. When I think back now to the kinds of jobs I would turn down routinely, I would be quite grateful for them now.
Engaging in freebie culture is something I caution my students against. When it’s you calling the shots, it’s a different energy; you have all the control. That’s different than giving everything away to an organization who will exploit your talent for their numbers.
Exactly! Several have said to me, “You should charge for these interviews” and I said, “But this is my product; I have total control over it.” It’s been quite refreshing to go to people with my reputation and history and just say, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Generally speaking they’re only too pleased, especially during this time, but I think they’ll be pleased after this crisis is past, so long as I can supplement it from other paid jobs; most of my work consists of live conversation events at festivals or the like; Bishopsgate was an experiment. I lost a huge amount of work when the pandemic struck, including live interviews with Dame Janet Baker, an evening with Petula Clark at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, and many bookings with Patricia Routledge, who I’ve been working with for years in a show called Facing The Music, about her musical theatre career. Those things are where the money for me is. Writing, broadcasting, the BBC fees have gone down and down… you have to move with the times, and reinvent yourself. I reinvented myself hugely, because as an ex-actor, I loved the buzz of being onstage and still do, albeit in a different capacity.
Backstage with Claude-Michel Schönberg at Bridge Theatre, February 2019.
I was in theatre also and I do miss it, though I find performance and authenticity now tend to meet through writing; do you find this in your pursuits?
Oh yes – and these audio interviews, I hope, are something that shows the best of what I do. I think good interviewers are few and far between; let’s focus on the people who can initiate a conversation as opposed to doing a Q&A. I hate those. People say “Will you do a Q&A?” and I say, “No, I’ll do a real conversation.”
The reciprocity of a real conversation demands sincerity, which seems like a rare commodity these days.
It is – and I’ve met and spoken with a huge cross-section of people, in various capacities. I was a mainstream presenter on (BBC) Radio 3 for some years, I used to do the breakfast show on the weekends and had a show called Stage & Screen, which ran for six years and was devoted to musical theatre. I learned a lot on that show and had a great time. We met an awful lot of luminaries from the world of musical theatre, and I learned a lot about sitting down and conversing with people.
That’s what radio teaches one: the importance of give and take.
It’s a huge thing. You know in the first few minutes of talking to someone who’s done x number of interviews with people if it’ll work. I interviewed Glenn Close for Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum; they didn’t want to put her in front of the press corps, it was done with me interviewing her rather than people shouting out questions. I did a video interview just before that for the website and I remember, it was so obvious, she sat down like, “Oh here we go, another interview” – as a film star she would have done twenty-five or more in a day to promote a film – but the first thing I wanted to talk about was the Richard Rodgers musical Rex she’d been in when she was unknown. I was just curious about that; Nicol Williamson had been in it also And she looked visibly stunned when I brought this production up. The whole interview changed direction the minute she knew that I knew what I was talking about, that I wasn’t another hack. But I’m afraid in some quarters, in the theatre and movie world, it’s par for the course. The level of ignorance among so-called journalists is breathtaking – and yes, the sheer laziness, the total lack of research. People you talk to, they want to know that you respect the work they do, it’s only natural, you sometimes have to talk with people in rotten moods, but the minute you turn it around and say, “What I thought was interesting about your performance was this and this and this… ” – it changes everything.
Good interviews demand many things: research, listening, reciprocity – all while holding one’s own. Lately it feels as if these things have been disposed of via online culture…
… oh, this whole business of so-called “influencers” is driving me absolutely nuts! It’s about nothing at all; it’s just so much noise around people who appeal to the lowest common denominator and who generate a following. Suddenly they’re endorsing various things…
It’s worse in the musical theatre world too – it’s a different kind of celebrity. There is Instagram casting in that world; I’ve spoken to producers who have engaged in it. When I did my stage conversation last year with Patti Lupone I brought this up and she was mortified by the whole thing. It’s this whole box-ticking thing…
Backstage with Patti LuPone at Theatre Royal Haymarket, March 2019.
“This person has x number of followers” – even if they bought them – “this person gets x number of views on their videos” – those are easy to fake – “this person gets lots of engagement” – how many of them are genuine? – “this person has a cool/sexy image” – which is all photo filters…
Indeed, but there’s also the basic question: can (the artist) actually do the job? Live and onstage? Are they the best person for the role? Or are they being cast because they have six million followers on Instagram? It’s a serious problem. Producers want to sell tickets obviously, and Intendants want to sell their opera houses, but if we’re not very careful, it could derail the integrity of the business. It really could. I participate in social media because I like to think of myself as savvy when it comes to online, but I don’t exploit it as much as I could; I am very suspicious of it. And I think unfortunately, the first question you’re always asked – and you probably experienced this yourself – you go to someone who doesn’t know your work, and you say, “May I do this?” and they say, “How many hits does your website get?” I mean… many of the people working in the business now are so young and they have no history or knowledge of the people or the history of people like you and me. And I’m not saying that in a boastful way; I’m saying it because it’s a fact. I get the most insane emails sometimes asking me to cover things that have absolutely nothing to do with my area of operation or expertise. I’m on a press list somewhere and so…!
Very often I get questions about my metrics too, and my response is that my numbers aren’t The New York Times, but they don’t have to be; my readership is faithful.
Exactly, and that’s the point! I mean social media is famous for endorsing things so you put something up with all your powers and people who know you in the business will like it, and click on the button, but how many listen to the interview the whole way through, or read the whole feature to the end? Of course I know people read Gramophone magazine – they read it from cover to cover, it’s the only serious record magazine left, which is why I still write for it – but I’m delighted some of my audio interviews have hit the spot for listeners. I know people who’ve listened to them and I know the pleasure they’ve got from them, which is far more important than reaching 50,000 people who don’t listen to more than a couple minutes. I will say, I didn’t want to do a series on the lockdown or the problems (of the music industry) associated with the pandemic; important though it is to talk about these things, that’s not what I’m in the business of doing. I wanted to stay talking about the music.
Speaking of music, Sarah Connolly’s relating the text of Das Lied von der Erde to Bach in your chat made me rethink that piece, but then, isn’t that the point of good conversation – to inspire one to think about things in new ways?
I agree with you entirely – but of course you’re only as good as the quality of your interviewee; this is where one has to be selective. I know why I chose the people I chose. And Sarah is a rare bird, not only a wonderful talent, but I’m probably more pleased with that one than the others so far, she’s such a great talker: engaging, amusing, smart, all those things.
Her trust in you seems palpable.
That’s where the history comes in. With some people it takes a long time to earn their trust; for instance, with Patricia Routledge, it took a long time before I earned her trust. She’s someone who’s lived on her own, who has huge integrity as an actor, but my goodness, it was worth the wait. When there is mutual trust, it frees you up, and it’s lovely for me when one’s reputation precedes one and someone is happy to do something simply because they trust you. We both know we’re going to have a reasonably stimulating exchange and I’ll not be talking about non-musical things as others might, that I’m there for the music. At the end of the day the music is what it’s all about, and that’s what I’ve adopted as my yardstick over the years.
In conversation with Patricia Routledge at Theatre Royal Haymarket, part of Seckerson’s “Facing The Music” series with the British artist. Photo: Danny With A Camera
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Over the past month I’ve found myself strongly gravitating to things that satisfy my curiosity and simultaneously whet it further, amidst grappling with memories of cultural restriction. Such limits, imposed by an opera-loving mother, manifest themselves in the comfortably familiar, a tendency experienced as an adult amidst periods of non-travel (i.e. now). The dynamic tension between familiar ephemerality (laziness calling itself comfort) and explorations into the unfamiliar (sometimes difficult; always rewarding) has, over the past five weeks, become increasingly exhausting to manage. I try to ride the tension even as I make attempts to be less harshly judgemental toward myself in enjoying cat gifs/Spongebob Squarepants/Blazing Saddles alongside the work of Ludmila Ulitskaya/Moomins/Andrei Rublev. There may be room for both, but I’m also determined not to let laziness squash curiosity, a curiosity I frequently had to fight to defend and cultivate.
That curiosity has found wonderful exercise in select digital work. Sir Antonio Pappano exudes (as I have noted in the past) a natural warmth as befits someone who once hosted a four-part series for the BBC exploring classical music history through the lens of voice types. “What potential for a great opera!” he exclaims of a motif from Peter Grimes he’s just played on the piano, closing his latest video for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, of which the eminent maestro is Music Director. Amidst the recent glut of online material, this particular video was, when I first viewed it, a pungent reminder of my incomplete musical past, one that firmly did not feature the music of Benjamin Britten. My Verdi-mad mother would make a sour face if she happened to see the Metropolitan Opera or, closer to home, the Canadian Opera Company, was to feature certain operas (i.e. Peter Grimes, Wozzeck, Lulu) as part of their respective seasons. “That isn’t music,” she’d snarl, turning on the old stereo, where the voice of Luciano Pavarotti would invariably be heard, singing “Celeste Aida”, “La donna è mobile”, or any other number of famous arias. “That is music.”
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Highly wary of anything perceived as too intellectual, my mother’s feelings (a word I use purposely) about what constituted good music were tied to traditional ideas about art from her being raised in a conservative time and place, in 1940s-1950s working-class Canada. I wasn’t aware of the influence of these things growing up; I only felt their effects, and strongly, for a long time. One feature of childhood is, perhaps for some more intensely than others, the desire for parental approval. Only in youth does one become better acquainted with a burgeoning sense of self that might exist outside so-called realities presented (and sometimes forcefully maintained) by parents. That I did not grow up with the music of Benjamin Britten, or Berg or Schoenberg or Shostakovich, nor distressingly large swaths of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Wagner, or very much besides, is a source of continual bewilderment, frustration, and occasional shame, feelings more pronounced lately within an enforced isolation. There’s much to learn; sometimes catching up feels overwhelming, impossible.
Many of those feelings are owing to a restrictive and very narrow childhood musical diet consisting largely of what might be termed “The Hits” of classical music. “Things you can hum to!” as my mother was wont to say; the worth of a piece of music, to her mind, lay largely here. Many may feel this is not such a bad thing, and that to criticize it is to engage in some awful form of classical snobbery; I would beg to differ. It’s one thing to enjoy something for its own sake, but it’s another to feel that’s all there is, and moreover, to dismiss any other creative and/or historical contextualizing and to belittle related curiosities. (“You’re ruining the enjoyment,” was a phrase commonly heard in my youth (and beyond), another being: “Just enjoy it and stop picking things apart!”) Being raised around the work of Verdi, Puccini, Offenbach, and Bizet, and equally famous voices (i.e. Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Corelli) set me on the path I now travel, and I’m grateful. I must’ve been one of the only suburban Canadian teenagers in the late 1980s and early 1990s to have seen Pavarotti, Freni, and Hvorostovsky live (and more than once) – but it’s frustrating not to be able to remember those performances in detail, and to not know who was on the podium, or who directed and designed those productions. Blame cannot be entirely laid at my mother’s (perennially high-heeled) feet; responsibility must surely be shared with young music instructors who, probably not unlike her, simply did were not in possession of the tools for knowing how to engage and encourage a big curiosity in a small person.
Anyone who has been through the conservatory system in Canada might be familiar with the sections that were required as part of their advancing in grade books. During the years of my piano study, they were (rather predictably) chronological – Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modern – with selections from each to be played at one’s yearly (entirely terrifying) exams. To my great surprise, I found I not only had an intuitive knack for playing the work of modern composers, but enjoyed the experience. This happy discovery coincided, rather unsurprisingly, with my teen years, though I barely understood basic elements like chord progressions, resolutions, polyphony, dissonance – these things remained largely unexplained, unexamined notions, big words dribbled out in half-baked theory classes. I played triads and diminished 5ths and dominant 7ths, but I couldn’t tell you what they meant, why they were used, or how they related to the composition and its history.
Still, I realized on some intuitive level, and partly through direct experience playing those modern works, that there was an entire cosmos I was missing. Exposure to world cinema confirmed that feeling, and led me to sounds that opened the door of discovery slightly wider; from there were trips to the local library for cassette rentals. Winter months found me alone in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, listening to the music of Prokofiev coming through my soup-can-sized headphones. This was definitely not Peter And The Wolf (which I’d loved as a small child), and though Cinderella was welcome… what would my mother make of Ivan the Terrible? Was it acceptable to play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” right after The Lieutenant Kijé Suite, or or George Michael’s “Faith” right before Alexander Nevsky? Did it make me awfully stupid and shallow? Did my intense love of dance music diminish or besmirch my desire to learn about what felt like its opposite? Was I not smart enough to understand this music? Was I always going to find certain works impenetrable? Should I stick with the tuneful things my mother would swoon over every Saturday afternoon?
Rather than resolve any of this, I stopped playing the piano. For years I had been wheeled out like a trained monkey to entertain adults, and I yearned for cultural pursuits I could call my own. My intense love of theatre and words took over my once-passionate music studies, eventually manifesting in writing, publishing, producing, and performance. The irony that my return to music came through these very things is particularly rich, if also telling. Writing about music, examining libretti, observing people, listening to dialogue sung and spoken, meditating on how various aspects of theatre transfer (or don’t) to an online setting, contemplating audience behaviours and engagements with various virtual ventures that move past notions of diversionary entertainment and ephemeral presentation – these are things which awaken, inspire, occasionally infuriate but equally fascinate. In watching Pappano’s Peter Grimes video, I recalled my experience of seeing it performed live in-concert at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest last autumn (in a driving presentation by the Romanian National Radio Orchestra and Radio Academic Choir led by Paul Daniel), and to what extent my mother might have judged my enjoyment of that experience. I’m grateful to artists who whet my curiosity, replacing the comfortably familiar with the culturally adventurous.
Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)
Violinist Daniel Hope excels at this. As well as performing as soloist with numerous orchestras from Boston to Tokyo to London, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, Hope is also the Music Director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (in San Francisco), and Artistic Director of the historic Frauenkirche Cathedral in Dresden. In this, the 250th anniversary year of Beethoven’s birth, he also assumed a rather special role, that of President of the Beethovenhaus Bonn. He possesses a fierce commitment to new music. Hope’s current online series, Hope@Home (presented with broadcaster Arte), is recorded live in his living room in Berlin and has become something of an online smash since its debut in March, with over a million views on YouTube. The smart daily program offers a varied array of offerings, which, over the course of 30 episodes so far, have offered performances presented within a smart context of either personal memories or well-known anecdotes (or sometimes both), creative pairings, and affecting readings, not to mention an unplanned appearance by his Storm Trooper-masked children at a recent episode’s close. Many of the works featured on Hope@Home are reductions from their orchestral counterparts, in adherence to social distancing rules, with Hope, pianist Christoph Israel, and (or) guests performing at appropriate distances. Touching but never saccharine, the program frequently enlightens on both verbal and non-verbal levels, hinting at the alchemical trinity of curiosity, communication, and reciprocity that exists as part-and-parcel of music – indeed art itself – any and everywhere, in any given time, pandemic or not.
Hope’s guestlist has been engagingly eclectic, with figures from a variety of worlds, including director Robert Wilson giving an extraordinarily moving reading of an original work set to Hope’s intuitively delicate performance of the famous “Spiegel im Spiegel”, the utterly delightful actor Ulrich Tukur, who, in his second appearance recently, exchanged lines with Hope himself in a touching performance of the final scene of Waiting for Godot. Equally powerful was an earlier episode with director Barrie Kosky which featured a poignant reading from Joseph Roth’s novel The Hotel Years, preceded by the Komische Oper Berlin Intendant dedicating the reading to those who might be quarantining alone. (I shed a few tears of gratitude at hearing Kosky’s words; the experience of being seen, however figuratively, right now, cannot be underestimated.) Another recent episode featured a very moving musical partnership between Hope and pianist Tamara Stefanovich (and later featured baritone Mattias Goerne), while another found Hope reminiscing about his experience of knowing and working with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. A regular feature includes Hope’s sharing videos of musicians performing together yet separate from various organizations; one such share was a stunning performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil by the Netherlands-based choir Groot Omroepkoor. There’s a real understanding and love of the larger cultural ecosystem on display here, one that betrays a great understanding of the ties binding music, theatre, literature, and digital culture together. That understanding was highlighted with memorable clarity for Hope@Home’s 30th episode, which heavily featured Russian repertoire. The stirring combination of elements in the episode, which featured the music of Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, and (inspiringly) Schnittke, left strange, and strangely familiar anxieties over old questions, with an odd, older-life twist: am I smart enough to understand this music now? Is this really so impenetrable? What things should I be studying? Listening to? How should I contextualize this? What is missing? Will I remember the things I learn, and will be learning?
Curiosity, discipline, focus, commitment: these are the tenets one tries to abide by, even as one allows for falling off the track every now and again with Spongebob and Lily von Schtupp. Such ambitiousness isn’t related to any idea of worthiness vis-a-vis productivity (not that I don’t have some experience of the profound connection between perfectionism, workaholism, and depression) , so much as taking advantage of the lack of outer distraction, and engaging in what author Dr. Gabor Maté has termed “compassionate inquiry.” Indeed, this piece itself, inspired by various inspiring video posts, might qualify as a valid manifestation of that very inquiry. How much we will absorb what we are learning now, in this time, consciously or not? Whither enlightenment, empathy, inspiration? We may scratch at the door of transcendence, but we are seeking respite, comfort, reassurance, and for many, familiarity. It is rare and very special for me to experience things which are curiosity-inspiring but equally comforting within the digital realm, to swallow lingering awkwardness and allow myself the permission to admit and embrace my cultural curiosity through them, and to have them inspire a reconsideration of the past, one that leads to forgiveness, acceptance, and a fortifying of commitment to that path’s expansion. To tomorrow. To curiosity.
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If there’s one quality that can be applied to Saimir Pirgu, it’s bravery, though perhaps “ballsy” is a better word.
Having left his native Albania as an ambitious teenager intent on a singing career, he graduated in singing at the Conservatory Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano, and was singled out by conductor Claudio Abbado at the tender age of 22 to perform the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Three years earlier, however, he sang for another famous opera figure: Luciano Pavarotti. And what an introduction it was. In the midst of his studies at the conservatory, the great Italian tenor, who was visiting the area in the early 2000s, had requested to hear a few of the school’s students. Pirgu launched into “Uno furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, a well-known work arguably made even more famous by Pavarotti’s famed performances of it. (What’s more, Pavarotti had named Nemorino (Donizetti’s famous dolt of the opera) as his favorite opera role of all time.) In a 2017 interview, Pirgu recalls Pavarotti aking with wonder at the end of his performance, “Who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” It would mark the beginning of what has become a very busy career.
The tale underlines Pirgu’s no-nonsense personality and ambitious approach. With a full calendar and appearances at such renowned houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, and Teatro Regio di Parma, Pirgu has also performed in some unique locales, including, this past summer, with the Greek National Opera at the ancient site of Odeon of Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis. Listen to Pirgu singing and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve turned on something from another era; his flexible, mellifluous sound conjures up ghosts of opera yesteryear, and is beautifully suited to the lyrical Italian and French repertoire he focuses on. That doesn’t mean he’s a fossil, embraces intransigent historicism, or only appears in old-style productions; quite the opposite. Pirgu has appeared in some very modern productions (as you will see) and has some strong thoughts about the role of the director and singer relationship. There’s no denying his 2015 album, Il Mio Canto (Opus Arte), recorded with powerhouse conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, is a wonderfully vivid display of the sort of old-school vocal fireworks and deep lyricism at which he excels; comparisons have, therefore, predictably been made between he and historic tenors like Giuseppe Di Stefano, but, as you’ll read, he takes it all in stride, preferring to focus on the task at hand.
As Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Teatro di San Carlo (Naples), 2019. Photo: Luciano Romano
Earlier this year he appeared at Royal Opera House Covent Garden as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role he previously performed at Teatro di San Carlo (Naples) and Staatsoper Hamburg. Over the years, he’s tackled a number of chewy Verdi tenor roles as well, including Macduff in Macbeth (at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona in 2016), Gabriel Adorno in Simon Boccanegra(Naples, 2017), and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera (Parma, 2019). This is particularly intriguing, since Pirgu’s career has been so firmly centered around what might be considered the “grounding” roles for tenor repertoire: Puccini’s Pinkerton (from Madame Butterfly), The Duke of Mantua (Rigoletto), Verdi’s Alfredo Germont (from La traviata) and Donizetti’s Nemorino (from L’elisir d’amore). I’m keen to see (and hear) him tackle meatier sonic things; I want to hear his Riccardo, Macduff, Adorno live, as well as his Don Alvaro in La forza del destino, because I think Pirgu’s vocally come to a place where he not only can do it, but he should. With a dashing, old-school stage presence and remarkable vocal heft and flexibility, Pirgu is a tenor to watch, follow, carefully listen to.
Despite his bold, ballsy approach, Pirgu has been careful in choosing his roles. His move into French opera has been watchful, with past appearances in Cyrano de Bergerac, Roméo et Juliette and Werther; he closes out 2019 with a role debut as Gounod’s Faust with Opera Australia, a role he’ll be performing again in Zürich in May. His next performance is in La bohème at L.A. Opera on Saturday (September 14th) – he sings the main role of Rodolfo in the Komische Oper Berlin production – before singing Don José in Carmen at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Next year he’ll be tackling his very first Lensky in Teatro dell’Opera di Roma production of Eugene Onegin under the baton of James Conlon, with whom he has worked many times, and with whom he is currently working in Los Angeles. All of this bodes well for a tenor whose voice is exploring intriguing and beautiful possibilities.
We recently spoke about the challenges and joys of new and old productions, his thoughts on the pressures singers face within the digital realm, and why having the right conductor makes all the difference.
In Idomeneo (Styriarte Festival Graz 2008)
You’ve worked with a variety of directors, some of whom take modern approaches, others the so-called “traditional” approach. Does either approach affect you creatively? I saw the Damiano Michieletto production of Rigoletto in Amsterdam and thought it really captured what that opera is all about.
It was very intelligent, that production. I agree that people say, “Oh but it’s not the real story!” or “It’s not the way it usually is!” but… a new director who wants to say something, what he can do? He just has to experiment like this in an intelligent way, to suggest that the opera is not just one thing – it can be another idea, it can be another thought of what the story can be. I don’t like to say that I like old-fashioned or Regie or whatever, for me it’s just a case of asking, is it intelligent or not? Is it beautiful or not? And the answers depend on if the director is prepared to show something to the public. I’ve worked with both styles. When I did Don Giovanni with Zeffirelli in Verona it was this massive wonderful production with original costumes it was amazing; the colors of that production and the costumes, it put you in this old-world epoque.
But this Rigoletto from Michieletto… and the one I did in Zurich with Tatjana Gürbaca: she just had a table and we went up and down and around it. There was just one big table in the middle. It was difficult to do. It showed me the directors have ideas. You can transmit it to the singer and we can do our best to give the best to the public, but if the idea doesn’t come through, then it doesn’t matter if it’s old-fashioned or if it’s a new production – it’s always the same: it doesn’t have success. People today are not stupid; they see television, musicals, online. And in the opera world, if the production involves everybody in the overall idea, of course they have a wonderful experience. And that’s the case with Barrie Kosky’s production of La bohème – it’s between people, it’s not just showing costumes or stage design.
It underlines the human drama.
You mentioned the competition with other media, and I wonder about digital influence. Some singers have told me the livestreams and HD broadcasts add another layer of pressure; one singer said he felt he was competing with Hollywood.
Today it’s important to look good. It’s our society. It’s not anymore about us, it’s about looking good, dressing well, so people … it’s a bit superficial – may I say that it is, yes. Sometimes a cover of a magazine is more important than a live performance, so you’re spending hours and hours and months in rehearsal, but with the cover on a magazine it doesn’t matter, it’s more important to have that image, than the real world. In the opera world, that doesn’t always work because we have direct feedback from the public; if you sing well, they applaud and if not, they don’t. So we have to be careful. The image has become very important and it’s why a lot of opera stars publishing pictures of what they drink and eat and how they dress, because they know the public now has changed, and is more like, “Okay, let’s see what the soprano is wearing at the party.” I’m sorry, for me it’s a bit superficial, but I know it is also the reality today.
In Werther, New National Theatre, Tokyo, 2019.
You mentioned audiences applauding or not, but they vary greatly, being wildly different between North America, Germany, Australia and Greece, for instance. Every audience you perform for will be different based on cultural awareness, exposure, expectations. What’s that like to deal with as an artist?
It’s not easy. In Italy and Spain they want to hear the voice first. If you’re a good actor, okay, it’s a plus, if you have stage presence, that’s okay too, but they want to hear voices, they want to hear: can you sing or not? And other parts of the world they’re more focused on acting and performance – it isn’t solely about singing. So it’s difficult to know what the public wants. I’m more concerned to sing in Italy, for example, because I know they will judge how I sing. Of course if you act very well it’s a plus in your interpretation but for them it’s important how you sing, the sound of your legato. I’m not saying for London or Amsterdam it’s not important, but they want to see a show; they see the whole performance differently. They go to the theatre to see the opera; they don’t go to see Pavarotti or Callas only. Whereas Italians will go for a specific singer. They want to enjoy that. So it’s different. The culture in Japan and other countries in Asia, they’re very nice and very silent, and really listening. You don’t understand if they like it at all until the very end when they do huge applause; they don’t want to disturb your performance.
Musician friends of mine who’s toured there have noted that the quality of listening from audiences in Japan and Korea is incredibly high; that can be both great and nerve-racking.
Yes, it is. And the lines after the concerts are huge! You may have sung a three-hour opera but people are willing to wait an hour or two for an autograph or at a CD signing. It’s a different culture. You have to be prepared.
That preparedness has shown itself in your careful choice of repertoire over the past while. What has it been like to explore, and where do you want to go with French and Italian work?
I’m enjoying my lyric repertoire right now, i have the feeling the voice is stable in that repertoire and every time I do it I’m getting better and better. It gets good feedback too. I’d like to do both French and Italian repertoire for as long as possible – first, because i like it, and second, because it’s the healthy thing to do. You keep going when you have wonderful results. So why not? I will not move to other big repertoire – I’ve always been careful about moving around with rep – but I’ll keep doing it too. It’s the only way I know, and it’s what gives me success, so why change?
Within that repertoire, your version of “È la solita storia del pastore” at Wigmore Hall was really special. Would you do more?
I think I will be doing more this year. It depends how you book yourself and if you have a new program and … it depends. It’s time now to do a series of concerts, I am thinking that, it’s just a question of timing. It takes all of time and it’s a lot of stress for a singer to do a recital series around the world. You sing a lot of arias and you get tired very easily.
But I would imagine there’s something satisfying about it artistically that is different than being in an opera.
Yes, it’s a different mentality of singing. You need to have stamina to last through all these arias! You sing more than ten or twelve of them, not including encores. You have to be prepared, and you need a lot of stamina. It depends on the repertoire of course – between lieder and arias, it’s a different scale entirely.
And sometimes that scale involves comparisons. There have been comparisons between your voice and Di Stefano, for instance.
It’s very human – when (Tito) Schipa was singing people would say, “Oh, Del Monaco is better, or Corelli.” It’s human to compare. But the thing is, if you are god in our business, there’s a reason you’re working. Nobody gives you anything for nothing in this business, especially the public.
With conductor James Conlon.
Chemistry powers so much in the industry too. What kind of a difference does it make to have that quality with a conductor?
I’ve worked a Abbado, Muti, Harnoncourt, all of whom are completely different, but because I was a violinist before, it made it much easier to understand what they wanted. The conductors can treat the singers sometimes like an orchestra, not all the way, and not all of them have the knowledge of the singing, they read the score and say, “Okay, you have to sing what’s in the score,” and then you have some conductors who aren’t listening to the singers, and a lot of conductors who do listen to the singers, down to the last second. So it depends who you have in front of you, and it depends of course on how good those conductors are, but all the legendary conductors have to spend a lot of time studying singing, piano, violin, orchestration — they’re full with knowledge, so it’s odd if they come to singers unprepared. I’ve been blessed to work with so many great ones, and I’ve learned a lot about music. The most important thing is to be patient, and to listen, not to say something, because always you will learn something with them. Being an artist means there’s a lot of energy inside us, and you have to deal with that, it’s part of your business, but don’t forget that you’re a human being; that helps a lot in terms of other relationships in the theatre.
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Sometimes the best moments happen when art overrides intellect — or at least, whispers in its ear to simply shut up and enjoy.
That isn’t to say Johannes Moser and the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB), under the baton of Thomas Søndergård, haven’t made a deeply intellectual album. Released on Pentatone last autumn, the work feature two giants of twentieth-century cello repertoire, Lutoslawski’s celebrated cello concerto and Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… (“A whole distant world”). Both works were premiered (at different events) in 1970 by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Amidst numerous performances and recordings in the intervening years, there’s something about the Moser/Søndergård/RSB release that completely caught me when I first heard it in Zurich last autumn — there is a shimmering, colorful, and occasionally quite sensuous interplay between orchestra and soloist, qualities which nicely integrate contrasting textures to produce a deeply rewarding listening experience.
To paraphraseGramophone writer Michael McManus, Witold Lutoslawski’s work was written during his “most avant-garde period” yet simultaneously does not fully belong to it. Taut yet oddly sensuous, the work (which runs roughly twenty-four minutes), with its large orchestration and episodic yet unbroken structure, alternates between the confrontational and conversational, a battle of sorts unfolding between individual (soloist) and state (orchestra). Many have seen this as a strong symbol of the Polish composer’s own highly political history and relationship with authority; his father and uncle were executed in the wake of the Russian revolution, and his brother died in a Siberian labor camp. The composer, who went on to be awarded the UNESCO prize (1959, 1968), himself escaped capture by German soldiers in the Second World War, and later found his work shunned by Soviet authorities for his strong opposition to the artistic ideas connected to Socialist realism. There are battles brewing in this work — between soloist and orchestra, individual and group, energy and dark matter — but they are brightly, fiercely characterized by alternating flashes of aggression, antagonism, acceptance, and the blackest sort of humour.
Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain… is dark as well, but in an entirely different way. Based on Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, Dutilleux wrote the piece between 1967 and 1970, and it’s a symbol of the fierce individualism that characterizes much of his hypnotizing sound world. It was with the outbreak of the Second World War, when a residency in Rome abruptly ended, that the composer began to question his place within the wider tradition of French composition; his influences until then had included Ravel and Fauré. Immersion in the music of the Second Viennese School meant creative liberation from rigid French conservatory training, one that never mentioned serialism (much less German composers) — but that isn’t to say Dutilleux was imitative; rather the contrary, in that he set about carving a uniquely singular path for his work, one that still cannot be easily categorized. His cello work reflects the composer’s fastidious approach but also symbolizes his mystical fascinations. In its rich textural orchestrations and lush passages, the cello sings, spins, twists, and turns with and around other instruments, large and small. He told BBC 3 Radio presenter Rob Cowan that Tout un monde lointain… was a favourite among of all his compositions.
Johannes Moser and the RSB capture this intertwining with warmth and vitality, the German-Canadian cellist giving riveting and idiosyncratic readings of each work. His Lutoslawski gleams with moody energy, his tone moving between acid, anxious, angry in his spindly orchestral interactions. Søndergård keeps the prickly texture in check with prancing strings and smartly blanketing brass. The ratcheting tension of the second movement (“Four Episodes”) slides skilfully between a skittish restlessness to a solemn eeriness, with Søndergård keeping watchful control over ominously droning woodwinds as Moser’s cello rises like a call from the wild. Vivid images are presented in the third movement (“Cantilena”), with Moser’s performance conjuring the wild despair of Munsch and his famous, silent scream, Schiele’s spindly, twisting bodies, and Malevitch’s stark shapes, moving in precise, angry formations. This painterly approach is continued with poetic acuity in his reading of Dutilleux’s cello concerto, sumptuously evoking Baudelaire’s dreamlike poetry through its five interconnected movements. The first movement “Enigme” is restless, breathy, the interplay between Moser’s plucked strings and the orchestra’s percussion and woodwind section playful and conversational, while “Houles” (“Surges”), the third movement, swells with strings, brass, and woodwinds, lusciously conjuring lines from the very sensuous poem on which it is based (and from which the entire work gets its title), while simultaneously providing an incredible showcase of Moser’s virtuosity.
A selection from “La Chevelure” (“Her Hair”), from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal (Bantam Books, 1963, Wallace Fowlie, editor/translator). Photo: mine.
Currently the Artist In Focus with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester (he’s already performed Walton’s cello concerto with the orchestra this season), Moser has also enjoyed residencies with both the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra this season. Tonight he’s in Berlin, performing with the orchestra’s cellists at the historic (and decidedly non-traditional) Kühlhaus Berlin. At the end of this month, Moser leads a cello flashmob at the historic Templehof Field, with cellists of all levels invited to join in. This kind of casual engagement seems par for the course for Moser, an artist with a great taste for a variety of artistic expression and exploration.
Hailing from a musical family (his family includes singers and professional musicians), Moser has played with top orchestras including the Berliner Philharmoniker, the London Symphony Orchestra, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Tokyo NHK Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name just a few. He’s recorded works by Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Lalo, and has also recorded the cello/piano works of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev with pianist Andrej Korobeinikov (released on Pentatone in 2016). Known as much for his Dvořák (most recently performed with Vasily Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic, as well as the Toronto Symphony last year) as for his forays into the work of contemporary composers, Moser has also made education a cornerstone of his creative endeavors, and frequently leads masterclasses in various locales. His commitment to teaching seems inextricably linked to his art, and one comes away from his recordings feeling somehow smarter, less daunted, more inspired — an effect the best artists tend to have.
I wanted to chat with Moser about his teaching, as well as his approach to the instrument, and was keen to explore how he feels about mixing the old and new, working with living composers, and why a so-called “cello swarm” is a good thing for classical music. As you’ll see, Moser is warm, honest, very smart and very approachable — precisely what one experiences in his performances, in other words.
What do you think accounts for the cello’s enduring appeal? Those new to classical sometimes start their explorations of instruments with either piano or cello concertos.
I think it’s partly the charm of the instrument and its versatility. And we have had very colorful protagonists over the years; the superstar of course is Yo-yo Ma, who totally transcends the instrument, becoming an ambassador of music and culture, basically. He was so smart in his career to pair the classical repertoire together with the film music and do projects with artists like Bobby McFerrin in the 1990s, to make the instrument accessible, to make it an instrument for everybody. Of course in 20th century more broadly, Rostropovich and du Pré were the people that not only expanded the repertoire, but had moving stories to tell through their (respective) lives, ones which never detached from the cello. I think that helped the popularity of the cello immensely.
There’s also the fact it requires intense physicality to play, one which translates into a very visceral listening experience on the Lutoslawski & Dutilleux Cello Concertos album. How has the experience of those works changed the way you perceive other more so-called “mainstream” cello works?
Every piece of music that you play is giving information on the pieces you are about to play or that you’ve played for years; you get a different perspective. With the Lutoslawski, I‘d say it has taught me very much about the relationship of the cello with the orchestra in terms of not always being amicable partners, but also it is interesting there is drama on stage, that combative element. I think that’s something Lutoslawski, through the narrative of his concerto and through how he wrote for the instrument, mastered it like no one else.
For the Dutilleux, I think it is the closest that a cello concerto comes to very spatial music. Of course it has a structure, but music is also a timeless kind of sound, and if you allow this timelessness to happen on stage, it is quite an experience. Being onstage, your heartbeat is up, your adrenaline is going, your mind is racing 150 miles an hour — but to experience a moment of stillness, of true timelessness, within that rush, is an incomparable feeling. I think these concerti taught me a lot musically but taught me a lot about what it can mean to be onstage; they give you a completely different tool-set of expression, and that expansion of expression is not something you can learn or teach, but something you have to live and experience.
Some of that work involves teaching — what does it give you as an artist?
The thing is, I always thought touring was energy-consuming, but a day of teaching, my goodness, I’m done, I’m spent! You always have to bring awareness and awakeness and also creativity to the table, because every student is different and I don’t want to have a cookie-cutter approach and I don’t to give everybody the same thing. What it gives me artistically, that’s a fascinating question… because the thing that I felt, and I’m sure you feel the same, is that whenever I walk away from a day of teaching, I feel like I’ve learned so much just by addressing certain topics and certain issues.
And, I feel like by having a shared interest in the cello, I learn as much about music with my students, because we share a common ground; I see them as partners in a development and understanding of music, not necessarily me going into the lesson and having answers. I’m interested in exploring together. Of course, in a masterclass, you have to give a certain amount of information — you can’t just let the student explore and hope they find something meaningful — but I do find with my long-term students, which I have at the University Of Cologne, I can really go on a journey and find unexpected things.
Another thing I do with them that helps me a lot personally is connected to learning a new piece. Right now I’m learning the Enescu Symphonie Concertante, and I’ve given that to two students to learn as well. We learn it together! Obviously it’s great music but they’re also getting very much a hands-on approach on how to learn a new piece of music — I see them as equals and partners, rather than me going in there and spreading neutral wisdom, so to speak.
One of the things you emphasize in your teaching is the importance of breathing with the music. How much is that influenced by having singers in your family?
I think that’s where it really all comes from. And, I have to confess I am a terrible singer! My mother, for her 50th bday, asked if she could give me a five-minute lesson because I was refusing so much (to sing) — but we had to stop after three minutes. She was laughing so hard! It was not great — there goes my singing career, out the window!
But, I think the fundamental idea of music before music — of breathing in before you speak or breathing in before you play — is something that is often grossly overlooked. I learned from singers and also wind players when I’ve played with them; what I also take, especially from singers, is the connection of words and sound. We come back to the human voice and the art of expression, of exchanging information and emotion, and I think the best education you can get is listening to a lot of singers if you don’t have gold in your throat. It’s really the best. After an afternoon of listening to every from Pavarotti to Thomas Hampson to …
… Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!
Yes, exactly! You get the biggest variety of color mixed with the biggest variety in use of text. It’s a masterclass, and also a joy.
And you can apply it to your work, and also to people you work with. “Music before music” made me think of your work with Jonathan Leshnoff. What’s it like to work with a living composer? Does it change your approach?
Yes and no. I have a mixed feeling about this. First of all, because it came from their mind and their understanding, nobody can tell you better than composers about the bone structure of a piece, and it is often, especially with a melodic instrument like the cello, it is often too easy to play your part, rather than see the bigger picture of architecture.
The downside of working with living composers is that composers are not necessarily the best performers, and are not necessarily the people who understand the art of performance best. My earliest memory of that was when, in 2005 I did my debut with the Chicago Symphony with Boulez; we played the Bernard Rands cello concerto. Before first rehearsal, I worked extensively with Bernard on the piece and he made a lot of adjustment; he toned a lot of the sounds down, he changed a lot of the markings (like from mezzo-forte to piano), and I said, okay! I went onstage at rehearsal, and did exactly as instructed. Halfway through he came running up to the front of the stage and said, “Ignore everything I said! Please perform as you had envisioned this.” It just turned out that he didn’t factor in the hall, he didn’t factor in the orchestra, and he didn’t factor in cancellation of sound. For example, if I play in tandem with a clarinet, it will eat my overtones; the cello, by itself, may sound loud but as soon as you have other instruments in the mix, suddenly your sound can be gone just by the nature of physics. There’s something to be said for experienced performers and bringing that to the table.
Photo: Daniel Vass
But it is fascinating to me when you see composers play or conduct their own works — we have amazing works of Elgar conducting his own work, we have Shostakovich playing his own music, and Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff. When I talk to composers who also conduct, most of them say “We have to completely relearn our own pieces!” You would think if you give birth to a piece of music you know it inside out, but they have to relearn it as performers, so they themselves also have to make that connection. It’s a fascinating process for many reasons. I do enjoy working with composers a lot, but I also invite them to trust me as a performer, shall we say.
Part of that trust has also been on the part of audiences who’ve followed you through various sounds and styles; when I listen to your work, there are no lines between Dvořák and Dutilleux. How much do you see yourself as an ambassador for non-standard repertoire?
You need to work up a reputation, and then have people follow you in these adventures. The interesting thing is, once people are in the seats, they mainly love the new stuff, if it’s performed passionately; it’s something that tickles the ear and can bring a lot of unexpected joy. (However) when people see it in the season brochure or outside the hall — for instance, “the complete works of Anton Webern,” of course, that is not going to be a big magnet, because they’re scared, and because maybe they had a lot of bad or mediocre experiences with new music. I would say it’s the first time in history when new music has a crisis, because in the 1960s-1970s-1980s, composers chose to alienate people. I think that stems from our history — I think the post-war generation played a huge role: “After genocide and camps, how can you compose in C major?!” That was the thinking at the time…
Yes exactly, and that resonated a lot with the Darmstadt crowd and the people around Boulez, including Stockhausen, so it’s up to composers and performers to regain the trust. There are a lot of fascinating composers from North America and Scandinavia — I think there’s a lot of great music coming from Central Europe too, but those composers from Central Europe need to be aware they cannot completely detach themselves from the listeners, and that is something that I take into account when I chose a composer to work with; I want to know if they’ll be hammering the audience over the head, or taking into account it should be an emotional experience that might be, I wouldn’t say it has to be “enjoyable,” but it definitely something that is sort of touching and moving and grabs you. If you are neutral after an experience, then that’s the biggest failure you can have.
Ha, that’s so true! When planned this residency, since I’ve lived so long in Berlin, I thought it would be great to bring as many cellists together as possible, and the orchestra was game. With residencies it’s interesting, because not every kind of project will work in every city; I also just completed one in Glasgow, and it’s absolutely unthinkable to do outdoor events there because it rains so much. Also I don’t know the amateur scene there as well as I know it in Berlin, and I know there’s a huge crowd in Berlin of amateur cellists — the Berlin Phil, very early on, made a lot of cello ensemble concerts and that inspired a lot of people here — so the idea of getting together and playing in large cello ensembles is an idea not uncommon for a Berliner. I’m very excited we’re making this part of the residency.
A few of years back I did a similar thing in Frankfurt; we had a flashmob in front of the opera, and a lot of people showed up and we played together. Just by the reactions I got, I mean musically we can debate if it’s so satisfying, but the fact that music is such a factor in bringing people together and is such a social event, if it goes well… it’s something that I think, well, you can maybe attain that with sports events, but then of course you have the notion of two adversarial parties coming together and there may be alcohol, but a peaceful gathering of making music together is something I absolutely adore.
It’s interesting that the RSB are performing a work like “Les Espaces Acoustiques” by Gerard Grisey, and then eleven days later are holding a cello swarm featuring Bach and Casals and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” in the middle of a field; it seems like creative programming.
Photo: Daniel Vass
Cultural institutions need to be aware we are not just artistic institutions anymore, but also social institutions; we provide a forum for people to collectively enjoy music. Although there is a lot of debate if classical culture is antiquated or not, I still think one of the biggest miracles of humanity is that 2000 or 3000 people can sit together in silence and listen to sound — that is absolutely mind-blowing and incredible! If we understand this not only as a cultural but also a sociological phenomenon, and a sociological success story, then we cannot just stop at making music but also we need to be all-inclusive, and that’s where these community events come in. Hopefully we’ll have sunshine!
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Midway through our recent conversation, Thomas Hampson paused, trying to find the right word relating to a musical concept.
“You speak German, don’t you?”
He couldn’t see me, but I wanted to crawl under my desk with shame. Here I was speaking to one of the most celebrated living opera singers in history and my wall of Anglo-Canadian linguistic ignorance was as glaringly solid as ever. Hampson, ever the gentleman, patiently (dare I say enthusiastically) explained, expanded, and engaged, as is his custom in both life and in art.
The American-born, Austria-living baritone is currently in Houston, having just openedThe Phoenix by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, playing the role of the elder Lorenzo Da Ponte to bass baritone (and real-life son-in-law) Luca Pisaroni’s junior. The project marks the second world premiere Hampson has been part of this season alone, having performed as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s new work of the same name (by Rufus Wainwright) in October. With four decades of singing under his belt and engagements with every major house (Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, the Met, Wiener Staatsoper, Lyric Opera Chicago, Opéra National de Paris, Royal Opera Covent Garden, Salzburg), you’d think he’d be content to rest on his laurels — but as you’ll read, that isn’t who Thomas Hampson is. His voracious artistic curiosity often makes itself known, through keenly dramatic approach to his various roles (and they’ve included all the goodies: Don Giovanni, Scarpia, Eugene Onegin, Werther, Amfortas, Macbeth, Boccanegra, Figaro) as well as through his extensive recital work, albums dedicated to song, and intense teaching time. Dame Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whom he met during his student days at Merola, once called him “the best singer in Europe.”
Thomas Hampson and director Peter Hinton in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Gaetz Photography
It was at a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017 when I fully understood and appreciated the true depth of Hampson’s artistry. Verdi being an absolute mainstay composer in my childhood household, I knew is works inside and out musically, and had heard many different version of many different roles, among them Giorgio Germont in La traviata. Despite the vocal grandeur of many performances, the reading of the role always, without fail, left me cold, whether on vinyl, compact disc, or live; the character seemed little more than a stiff cliche, barking on about honor and family. Hampson’s interpretation of the role in Willy Decker’s production, however, changed all that. Similar to my experience of Pisaroni’s Leporello in Salzburg in 2016, it was a bold, beautiful opening that made me rethink not only the opera and the composer, but my relationship with each, as with music and art. Hampson’s Germont was, by turns, angry, exhausted, overwhelmed, a deeply moving portrayal of a man in full awareness of his obsessive, possibly ill son, trying to balance his own sense of guilt with a seething fury echoing that of Alfredo (apple, meet tree). Hampson’s portrayal was just as much vocal as it was physical; his watchful, smart modulation and timbre were not meant to be pretty, graceful, smooth — all the things I’d grown up hearing. His Germont was, put simply, beautifully human, and it remains one of my all-time favorite performances on the stage to this day.
As Germont in La traviata, Metropolitan Opera, 2017. Photo: Marty Sohl
There’s a true and highly committed work ethic behind such performances, and it’s one Hampson has been recognized for often throughout his career. He has a load of honors to his credit: they include a Grammy for his role as Wolfram in a 2003 recording of Wagner’s Tannhäuser (done with Daniel Barenboim); six Grammy nominations; Male Singer of the Year at the 1994 International Classical Music Awards; five Dutch Edison Awards (including one for Lifetime Achievement); four Echo prizes; a Grand Prix du Disque, and many, many more. He has worked with so many great conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Antonio Pappano, Maris Jansons, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Fabio Luisi, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Franz Welser-Möst) and always has kept firm commitments to both to the art of song as well as to contemporary works; next season he performs the role of Jan Vermeer in Girl With The Pearl Earring(Stefan Wirth, 1975) at Opernhaus Zürich but before that, next month, he sings Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, a work Hampson is known (and rightly celebrated) for.
Another famous thing Hampson does is concert tours with Pisaroni, playfully called No Tenors Allowed, which makes a stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall this Tuesday (30 April). A mix of opera, operetta, and showtunes, the evening is a showcase of the baritone’s flexible vocality, theatrical vividness, and serious approach to his work. Even if he’s singing a Broadway number, it’s easily discernible just how much Hampson means every single word — and that applies just as much in conversation, in teaching, in rehearsal, in life, as it does in voice. Art and life fuse in a beautiful, passionate co-mingling with an artist such as he, and it’s that integration which, for me, powers his charisma, his artistic commitment, and that insatiable curiosity, which, as you will see, is such a palpable cornerstone to who he is, as artist and man.
Thomas Hampson as Hadrian in the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian, 2018. Photo: Michael Cooper
You have an immense artistic curiosity — what fuels that?
I’m just like that! How can I say this? In what I do, I’m a musician; my life and my mind as a musician is, every day, every hour, I’m exploring ways we express ourselves in a language we call music, and when that is coupled, especially in the song world, with the metaphor of our imagination through words, I find that it’s an incredible adventure into why we do what we do, who we are, how different people think of different things. That’s a grandiose answer to your question!
Something was written two years ago, or two hundred years ago, or twenty minutes ago, can, in some ways, not be the determining factor — it simply has been attempted. Of course, we to try and capture how people do what they do in a musical language. The story of Hadrian is fascinating, the story of Da Ponte is fascinating, the story of Scarpia is fascinating, the story of Boccanegra is fascinating, just to name some big characters; why do they do what they do and who are they? Some have a bit more to do with the value of humanity and the value of life, but to know a Scarpia is to understand how desperate and tyrannical humans can be to one another — and how dangerous humans can be. Tosca is just as contemporary today as the day it was written. These are things that fascinate me.
In terms of specifically new music, I feel very strongly that new opera must be supported — that sounds like more of a drudge that I mean it, but we have to give our composers the chance to become great. Verdi’s first three or four operas were not exactly amazing but they showed an amazing potential, and they’re probably all worth some kind of performance. There’s an awful lot of pressure on new opera productions today because people come, sit there and fold their arms and say, “Okay, am I going to experience greatness?” But I think that’s missing the point completely. Are we engaged in human beings? That’s my question and certainly, we were with Hadrian and certainly we are here with The Phoenix.
Thomas Hampson as Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane
What does that give you then, as an artist?
A lot of people in your position would be content to rest on their considerable laurels.
That’s not who I am or who we are as musicians. Bernard Haitink doesn’t keep conducting at 90 because he is trying to stay employed and wants to remember who he is. This what we do in the morning, this is what we live for, it’s our lifeblood, whether we play for three or 3000 is not the point — it’s what gets us motivated, what motivates us in terms of being musicians. It’s not about a gold watch and 30 years service.
Teaching at the Manhattan School of Music. Photo: Brian Hatton
Yes, and It gives me a great deal too. I’ve taught a lot in the last 25 years — I’ve learned a lot about it over the years and I’m thankful. When I teach for a couple days, or walk into a masterclass, just having to articulate the fundamentals or rearticulate the whys and wherefores to young colleagues, somehow reinforces your own; it’s like giving yourself a voice lesson. I thank my colleagues for letting me take the time to give myself a voice lesson! Now that I’m more extensively involved in pedagogical activities, and planning them, I see it as a wonderfully healthy way to pass it on. I’ve had some wonderful instruction since the heydey of my career — I was very fortunate; they gave me inroads into how to study and how to prepare that have stood me well. I’m confident that, at the very least, I can be a help to my younger colleagues in an experiential way, so I can say, for instance, “That’s not a path you want to go down.” In the last five or seven years, in my more concentrated studies, I’m very active in keeping abreast to pedagogical thought and to keeping it simple, and helping young colleagues truly mature into young professionals. It’s a passing-it-on situation, and it gives me a great deal of energy. To be part of someone else’s “a-ha!” moment is very intoxicating.
Keeping that “a-ha!” moment in mind, you’ve worked with some great conductors, and continue to. How much do you still find yourself surprised at learning from them? Everybody has a different style, different personality, different ways of adjusting.
That’s a good question. When I was singing a great deal of Mozart, bouncing between Harnoncourt, Muti and Levine, that was, talk about different styles and personalities! Everyone is on the same mountain, the mountain is the clarity of human emotion in musical language, and the different glaciers you might be on have different challenges. Yes, you do not sing, in a phraseology sense, the same with a Muti as with a Harnoncourt, but those are not absolutes. Both of those men are deeply dedicated, experienced musicians, and great conductors don’t happen by accident — they’re some of the greatest musicians musical minds. The best conductors have a direct and kind of uncanny ability to initiate other peoples’ making of music in a collective way, and that’s an extremely important talent. To learn from these really wonderful musicians is a privilege; having someone like Jansons feel you are the one he needs to make that musical decision or choice of repertoire viable at that particular concert, it’s a great validation. For him to want to do that with you is great — I don’t feel so engaged by him as invited to participate because we can go to this or that level with this or that piece, and that’s very important. Michael Tilson Thomas — I’ve learned so much from him, he’s so damn smart. I don’t have the musical training these people do, or the musical talent; I have a musicality and an instinct that can keep up! Bruno Walter said that about Lotte Lehmann; she was an amazing singer, she moved people enormously and was a great pedagogue, but he wrote the forward to her book, “Lotte’s curiosity has always informed her instinctual knowledge.” I think that’s a wonderful thing.
That’s a wonderful question. I’m not into a particular fach, or niche repertoire. I’m not trying to help keep the song alive because I think it’s a “cool” thing. As humans with have two options to express ourselves: we can either verbally articulate it, or we can write it. Whether that’s in a hieroglyphic or a scratch on a cave wall, or a fine use of the language any one person would call their own language, it doesn’t matter — the point is to get the experience, the emotional and intellectual experience out of your head and leave it like a footprint in the sand, and say, “Okay, this is what I thought.” Poetry has a little bit more focus to that in that someone is deciding in a particular linguistic structure to express thought and emotion at the same time. This is a wonderful source of inspiration for people whose antenna is essentially musical; these two antennae are somehow trying to figure out a way to articulate what Copland said, the moment of being alive now. And the composer fleshes out, in a musical language, more the emotional context of what that poem is about as well as participating in the intellectual side of the narrative, and that’s to think about what this or that chord represents, this or that harmonic structure or harmonic rhythm, whatever the tools of that musical composer are which indicate they’re fleshing out what they perceive that poem was about.
That’s what I feel is the alpha-omega of singing. This is what we do: we make the human experience audible, in a language called music, inspired by words, which is for the purpose of us as a community experiencing that particular moment of humanness, if you will. And I don’t think that’s a hobby, I don’t think that’s a fach, I don’t think that’s genre; I think that’s the beginning and the end of everything we do as singers, period. The idea there’s a concert fach and a lieder fach and an oper fach, “he’s this or that type of baritone” — I just think that’s a very dangerous and un-useful thing to think for singers within their own particular development.
Also, it’s not an idea to give our audiences, that we are jobbing. I think the arts and humanities is far more important than the idea that “Oh, it’s a job.” It is more than that. What we provide in the evening, what a classical concert is about, if you will, is the privilege and pleasure of any human to stop the clock just for a second. It might be three minutes or a forty-minute movement; we stop the clock for the privilege of going inside and asking ourselves, as listeners and performers, who are we? Why are we here? What does this all mean? How can we make a way forwards from this experience ? If that’s not the thrust of the classical music industry, the privilege and pleasure and the inroads of audiences we provide for their own human living development and experience, we’re in a lot of trouble. You can’t market or brand that. It has to be understood as part of the process of us asking, how can we be better human beings?
Operetta gala in Baden-Baden with Annette Dasch, Piotr Beczala, and Pavel Baleff conducting the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Photo: Michael Bode
Stopping the clock doesn’t have to be limited to serious music, either. As Barrie Kosky and I discussed last year, it can happen in operettas, a genre you perform in and make part of your concerts.
It’s like making fun of opera plots — talk about low-hanging fruit! But I don’t think opera is about plot; I think opera is about dilemma. Whether the door was opened or the sun went up or five years passed or whatever, it all gets condensed —the point is that a trio of people might come together to explore who they are. When the composers are gifted and the language of character is so apparent in their music — i.e. Verdi, i.e. Mozart – then I think we all go home happy. If you take that in another way, to the operetta world, yes they’re simpler but why not? The thing about operetta that fascinates me, as well as musical theatre, is that the distance between emotional language and the language of the music so much closer. And the believability factor is instantaneous with an operetta; If they don’t believe every word, you’re dead, forget about it. If you feel for a minute it’s about you and your voice, they’ll walk away. That’s not quite true in opera. It’s an experiential dimension, a wonder of what’s happening as much as why. It’s all healthy, and part of the enriching human experience of the theatre and the power of the musical language.
But we have a completely different sensibility to the language of music than the era from which a lot of these pieces were written; Bellini is not Mozart, Verdi is not Mozart, Puccini is not Verdi. I think these questions are important. As an example, Verdi, as great as he was, was vociferously criticized for the vulgarity of the beginning of Otello when he wrote it. I don’t know any conductor, esp Italian, who don’t feel the mantle of Verdi’s spirit on their shoulders. Yet all of the instruments are different — the strings are steel, the clarinets are plastic — the decibel possible out of an orchestra pit in a house now is something people in Verdi’s time would have never experienced, let alone the sheer size of the houses now. What am I trying to say? I’m saying when we do these performances, we need to be sensitive to the context in which they were performed; a forte piano in Schubert is different than a forte piano in Stravinsky I don’t care who wants to disagree with me — it’s just different. As musicians. it’s our job to flesh out the reality, to make it audible, so that the experience is contemporary, regardless of when the piece was written.
As Scarpia in Tosca at Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper / Wilfried Hösl
Part of what makes your performances so visceral is that you are such a believable stage presence. Luca and I spoke about how he prefers being known as a singing actor over being known for just his voice alone.
I know he’s said that before, and he’s right. What I would like is to be remembered as somebody you believed when you saw or heard him in the theatre. “Whether a Winterreise or in an opera or in recital, Hampson always made audible that which he was singing.” Luca’s right — in the theatre context, in an opera context, I certainly want to be thought of as a thoroughly professional singer; I don’t think that’s different than being believable in an acting sense. I think what makes Luca special is that his believability factor is so high. He searches for that dimension of understanding of why the music is saying that, and incorporates making it physical as well as audible.
A lot of my colleagues are extremely preoccupied with being remembered as a special or unique or great voice. I mean, Callas was unique in her generation, unique in several generations, with records that are still selling — people want to listen. Why? It’s not just the amazing agility and color and timbre. It’s the believability factor, giving it up to music — I believe what I do on stage has, this is going to sound incongruous, but it ain’t about Tom Hampson, it’s about what Tom Hampson can do to make that which he’s singing audible, believable, inhabitable, for the people who are experiencing that performance. Now, does that mean it’s not about me? Of course not. It’s my abilities to do that, but my whole effort is about the Schubert moment ,the Mahler moment, the Verdi moment, the Wainwright moment, the O’Regan moment.
In concert at Ingram Hall at the Blair School of Music. Photo: Vanderbilt University/Steve Green)
Those moments have to be infused with authenticity.
Yes, you have to do your homework. You have to work to do that. it’s a tremendous amount of study and detailed sensitivity. People who talk about the spontaneousness of this or that performer onstage simply don’t understand the dimensions of performing. Of course we want to be thought of as spontaneous, there’s nothing more miraculous than someone saying, “It sounded as if he was composing it as he sang it!” That’s one of the greatest compliments, but that is only possible with the minutest, most detailed sensitivity and homework.
And sometimes it’s nice to experience artists where you can see the gears turning, you can feel them, you can smell them. I love that.
Yes! I must say, I am not preoccupied with what people think about me. I’m preoccupied what what I think about me. It’s one of the things I talk about with my young colleagues: if you go onstage like a golden retriever, wanting people to like you and think you’re the cutest dog ever, you’re going to be a nervous wreck. I am not concerned with what people think about the Winterreise when I sing it; I am concerned that I achieve what I believe Schubert was trying to achieve in that cycle. I cannot convince anybody of anything from the stage. The energy in a concert hall or opera house is not from the stage to the audience, it is from the audience to the stage. And if you embrace that, and you know your technique and you know why you’re standing there and go into your zone as quickly as you can in that public context, as a performer your nerves will be more controllable. If you go out thinking the applause-o-meter is important, or “Oh God, there’s blank faces in the first few rows” … I mean, I don’t know who’s in front of me; I don’t want to know. That’s not why I’m there.
Photo: Catherine Pisaroni
There’s a real intimacy with singing — you don’t have an instrument; it’s just you, your body, the space, and sometimes conductor or accompanists, and the music. There’s something vulnerable about that.
Yes, for sure.
It’s a real pity when you see singers who’ve lost that vulnerability.
Yes, that’s so true — and their sense of wonder. I do this piece called Letters from Lincoln by Michael Daugherty, and it ends with him signing a letter,”Yours very sincerely, Abraham Lincoln.” I mean… wow. You have to sing it a few times not to get emotional.
The German phrase “stehen für” means “represent” but it doesn’t quite grasp things— it means someone who stands in place of someone else. That’s what I feel like when I sing the great music I’m allowed to sing; I am there at their service. The only megastars are the composers and poets, in my opinion. I know Pavarotti felt the same way. We all come and go. You do the best you can. My responsibility is a final link to the greatness of thought and captured in a language called music.
Photo: Jiyang Chen
And that includes fun music.
Yes, there’s different constellations. With the concert performances, yes it’s clever, we’re family, “no tenors allowed” — that’s a total tongue-in-cheek joke, it has no validity to our tenor colleagues or anybody else, it’s just a smirk and a hahaha. What is in these programs is Mozart. Bellini, Verdi, Massenet, then we get into Lehar, Kalman, Cole Porter, Gershwin, and our last encore is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, which is the precursor to Verdi. This is great music, these are great moments — admittedly some are lighter, but audiences will take this roller coaster ride, from a Don Giovanni duet, which is brief but white-heat kind of stuff, to this enormous contemplation of freedom and self-determination with that Don Carlo duet, to ending with “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”. I defy you to put a brand on that evening. It is interesting, some of the reactions we get, but audiences get it completely, they go with us. Most people respect who we are but some have had to chew on this: what is it? A vanity evening?
“That isn’t real opera!”
Yes, and I think that’s missing the point of a duet evening, this bouquet of great musical moments of human experience. Is it the Winterreise? No. Is it Don Carlo? No.
Wolfsburg concert. Photo: Andreas Greiner-Nap / Soli Deo Gloria
But it doesn’t have to be.
Exactly! Something in the back of ours minds is, maybe it’s the first time some of our public is introduced to some of this great work. We could’ve programmed nothing but duets — I did a record with Sam, I love duet evenings, I’ll do one with Opolais and another Gheorghiu this year. I think it’s a big evening, it demands everything from Luca and I — it is not a walk in the park. We are out there on the line, but we believe the program is very user-friendly and has a lot of value as well a big enjoyment factor for all of us. I want to believe some of that snobbery is because I’ve not had a chance to talk to the naysayers and offer a different perspective.
Maybe No Tenors Allowed in itself already offers that perspective?
That’s what our hope is!
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The last time I spoke with Luca Pisaroni, he was in Toronto with his beloved Lenny and Tristan, preparing to sing title role in Maometto II. The 1820 Rossini opera is a musically extravagant showcase of high-wire vocalism, demands which Pisaroni met with both cool panache and white-hot intensity. The Italian bass baritone has a knack for combining the hot and the cool; artistic passion is combined with technical meticulousness provide a genuinely authentic and very visceral live performance experience. What could be merely a cliched “Latin heat” is, with this artist, a genuine intensity of purpose, infused with palpable intelligence and grace. It’s one of the many reasons Pisaroni is so busy, and why he was recipient of a 2019 Opera News Award earlier this year.
Known for his stellar Mozart interpretations, Pisaroni is also ace with German and Italian repertoire, and has embraced the work of French composers in recent years. The Venezuela-born, Italy-raised bass baritone trained in Milan, Buenos Aires, and New York, and has worked with some of the world’s most celebrated companies, including Teatro Alla Scala, Opéra National de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, the Salzburg Festival, the Rossini Festival, The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Sante Fe Opera. He is especially known (and rightly celebrated) for singing the work of Mozart, having appeared in La clemenza di Tito, Die Zauberflöte, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. His Leporello in a 2016 Salzburg revival of the latter (directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf) remains not only my favorite performance of that role, but one of my all-time favorite opera performances all around, authentically human and very theatrically satisfying. I’m not alone in this sentiment. In 2015, Opera News writer Fred Cohn wrote of Pisaroni’s Glyndebourne Festival performance as Leporello (in 2010) that it was one which “demands that you focus on the character, not the voice. This Leporello is both thoroughly likable — sometimes goofily funny — and morally ambiguous, a willing conspirator in his master’s cruel schemes. He is bound to Gerald Finley’s Don in a relationship that’s almost startlingly intimate but still immutably governed by the power inequity between master and servant. Pisaroni achieves this characterization with an integration of music and movement so complete that you’re hardly aware that he is singing — or acting, for that matter. You’re aware only of the dramatic moment.”
As Don Pizarro in Fidelio in Milan, 2018. Photo: Teatro Alla Scala/Brescia-Amisano
Pisaroni got the chance to be the Don himself earlier this year, in a Met opera revival. He’s also added roles to his regular repertoire, not Mozart works, but French ones (and one German) — both Berlioz’s and Gounod’s Mephistopheles, the villains of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman, Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio. Tonight (26 April) Pisaroni adds a brand-new, never-before-seen role to the list, that of Lorenzo Da Ponte (librettist to Mozart, among other things) in The Phoenix, by composer Tarik O’Regan and librettist John Caird, at Houston Grand Opera. Pisaroni plays the younger version of the Italian-American writer/impresario/scholar, with baritone Thomas Hampson (Pisaroni’s real-life father-in-law) playing the elder Da Ponte. In addition to being partners in the new production, the pair are presenting No Tenors Allowed at Koerner Hall in Toronto on Tuesday (30 April), a program they’ve toured to great success, featuring a mix of classical works and show tunes. Later this year he’ll be touring as part of an in-concert version of Handel’s Agrippina in Luxembourg, Spain, and the UK, returning to Golaud at the Staatsoper Berlin and the villains of Hoffman at Wiener Staatsoper, doing an in-concert version of Don Pizarro in Fidelio (Montréal), and performing lots (lots) more Mozart (Figaro, Guglielmo, Leporello as well as his boss the Don) — in New York, Paris, Munich, and Zürich.
I spoke with both Pisaroni and Hampson separately; my interview with the baritone is here. What was so rewarding, coming away from each recent conversation, was the thoughtful nature of the respondents. Neither Hampson nor Pisaroni are interested in giving pat, tidy, soundbite-sized answers; they’re keen to explore various aspects of an ever-changing art form, the cultural/social/historical ideas that mingle with and transform old and new concepts of voice and theatre, and where, how, and why they fit into it all. It’s true, they are both low-voiced singers, they are family, they work together, their approaches are equally meticulous — but they’re rooted in entirely individual identities. Such uniqueness is what largely powers their real and ever-unfolding onstage chemistry. Each artist is so smart, so passionate, and very much an ambassador for their art form. Here Pisaroni muses on being an Italian singer doing a new work, vocal demands, his next (rather famous) role debut, why No Tenors Allowed is so special, and why it’s important to be more than a pretty voice.
With Thomas Hampson in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane
What’s it like to be part of a new project?
I would say it’s unusual for an Italian to do this. There is a tradition of people doing contemporary music but it’s like a niche; they just do that, they normally don’t do anything else. When Patrick (Summers) asked me if I was interested in playing Da Ponte, I said, “Hell yeah!” It’s such an interesting character, and he had such a fascinating life that I thought it would be really fun to play, and so here I am. The big difference is that Thomas has done quite a lot of new work and this is my first one — this is my first contemporary opera. I did a couple of modern pieces, like “Miserere” by Pärt (in 2016). It’s exciting to be able to create something that nobody has done, and have the chance to talk to the composer and be part of the process.
How do the vocal demands differ?
I try to sing it in the most natural way for me — it’s well written for the voice, but it’s definitely a challenge because it’s very rangey; it has a lot of high stuff and low stuff, high and lots of jumps, and so in that sense, yes, it’s a challenge. But I have to say it’s really well-written, and it doesn’t push my tessitura to an extent that it’s uncomfortable, so I just had to get used to it. In the beginning, the main issue was to learn the language of the composer, and that’s what takes a little bit of time — one needs to adjust. Eventually when you know it, you get it, and it’s really nice to be part of. Tarik (O’Regan)’s writing is amazing — there are some really unbelievably nice moments. At the first musical rehearsal, when we heard everybody else, the chorus and everything, we all went “WOW… “
As Lorenzo Da Ponte in The Phoenix, Houston Grand Opera, 2019. Photo: Lynn Lane
What do you think doing The Phoenix gives you as an artist? Do you come back to your more known repertoire with a different perspective?
That’s a good question. I don’t know! I’m going to do another world premiere in a couple of years, and I have to say, I actually enjoyed doing this; I’m surprised because I thought initially, “Well, I’ll try it once and see how it goes” — but it’s an interesting process, and it’s nice to be part of a creation. It gives you a good feeling. The most amazing thing is the fact the composer is there. I wish that every time I do something I could have the chance to talk to the composer and say, “What did you have in mind here”? But I think I will keep doing (new works), if they are offered it to me. It’s an exciting process.
Thomas said a project like The Phoenix feeds curiosity, a quality he feels is vital for artists.
That’s true. I always thought, the more you are exposed to new things, the better it is. For me (curiosity) is natural, though probably for some people, it isn’t. I have always tried varied things — songs, French and German repertoire — because I think it’s part of being a musician, to be curious, to try other things and explore the repertoire, to try as many styles and as many different types of repertoire as I can. I think it’s normal for a singer to try out things — and to remember that not everything you do is going to be successful; that’s absolutely normal, and it’s part of the game. Also, you may not like everything you do, but until you do it, you can’t judge. It’s like watching a bad movie and then saying you will not watch movies anymore; you watch ten, and nine are great but one is terrible. Are you never going to watch movies again?! This happens also with repertoire: until you sing it, you don’t know if it’s good, but you have to try. Only then can you say, “Okay it’s a role I won’t do again” but a priori, at the beginning, to say, “It’s not for me”, it’s not the right attitude for somebody who’s a singer / artist / musician who wants to try and evolve all the time.
Luca Pisaroni as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, Vienna, 2017. Photo: Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper
Part of your own artistic evolution has included French opera.
It’s amazing! This repertoire is just mind-blowing!
It takes a special attention and energy to do French music well; the things it often demands are things other repertoire doesn’t.
I agree. First of all you need to care about the language, and work on it. When it comes to Pelléas, it’s really the climax of French writing — it’s more like a play with notes than an opera. Music and words have absolutely the same importance; the combination is perfect. It does take a lot of work, but it’s a repertoire that I’ve found incredibly fascinating, and it’s written for my kind of voice, because it’s not really for a bass, it’s not really for a baritone, it’s right in-between, and I feel very comfortable with it. The tessitura is not constantly so high like it would be for a baritone. I’m happy I get the chance to do it, and I hope I get to do it all the time because I really really enjoy it.
But you’re also going to be doing your first Escamillo this summer, in Barrie Kosky’s production of Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It’s an opera that tends to come with a lot of baggage, musically, historically, culturally, for a lot of people. What’s it like to step into? Some artists refuse to do it because of that baggage.
That’s why I haven’t done it earlier either — it has a lot of baggage, for sure, and there’s a lot of preconceived notions about the piece. I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with it. The fact I haven’t done a production before, and I’ve never sung the role, will definitely help.
Thomas Hampson and Luca Pisaroni. Photo: Jiyang Chen
There may be some people who aren’t familiar with all of the music you and Thomas do in No Tenors Allowed — Mozart, bel canto, Verdi, show tunes. Why this kind of concert, now?
I remember when I was studying at the Conservatory, I bought the CD Thomas had recorded with Sam Ramey, ”No Tenors Allowed”. I think too often the repertoire between two male voices is kind of neglected, or not known as well as repertoire for soprano and tenor, but it’s so dramatically interesting, and it gives you a different perspective on the duet world in opera. To go from Puritani to Don Carlo and Don Pasquale and then to Broadway, I just think it’s interesting. We’re giving people a broad stroke of repertoire — we have fun doing it, and the audience have fun listening. It’s been a great project. Everywhere we go people say it’s fun to see us onstage, there’s such a connection. I’m happy to come back to Toronto for this. We’re singing one of my favorite duets, which is the Don Carlo duet — one of the best duets ever written. It’s just so powerful and so Verdi — so well-written and, dramatically, so intense. We try to give a dramatic sense to what we do, and to hear the reaction of an audience… it’s really gratifying. I do an Italian song also — after all, I am Italian! — and we do American stuff; I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter and Gershwin. It’s a really lovely evening and it’s very entertaining. There is such a range of emotion. There’s a little bit for everybody to enjoy.
As Caliban in The Enchanted Island, NYC, 2012. Photo: Metropolitan Opera / Ken Howard.
The drama within some of those duets reminds me of something you said a while back, that you weren’t interested in being known as a pretty-voice singer, but in being a singing actor.
When people come to an opera, they need to experience something that is not a voice lesson. Don’t get me wrong; the basis of being a great singer is that you should have a good voice and great technique. But our job as interpreters is to give somebody a dramatic experience and to tell stories and to make them go places within the opera they didn’t think they could go — and this is not just about singing pretty. I think a great voice without emotional connection is really… it works if we’re talking about Pavarotti; that voice was amazing, he didn’t have to act much because of that voice. But it’s one voice that exists in every 100 years. If you are not that kind of a voice, you need to tell a story. Even if I had the voice of Pavarotti, it would be the most important thing for me to tell a story, because without it, it’s not what we as performers are called to do. I just want to go onstage and tell somebody else stories; it’s not about me, it’s about the stories I’m telling. When I did The Enchanted Island at the Met, people didn’t even know it was me — I had to tell them. That was the best compliment I could have received.
There’s authenticity in that approach.
It requires, I don’t want to use the word “courage” because it’s not that, but it requires this desire to try, to risk. Sometimes it doesn’t work, because people might not get it, or your reading is not what people expect, but every time I’m onstage, I want to be somebody else, not me. It’s like when you play Don Giovanni, you don’t have to be a Don Giovanni in real life — but when you’re onstage, you have to think like him, act like him, and ask yourself: what would he do? You have to let yourself go and try to be somebody else. When I did Golaud onstage for the first time, a castmate said later, “My God, you looked really scary in that moment!” — I’d looked at him with such hatred — but it was the character. You have to push boundaries and try to tell the story. This has always been my target, and my desire. My idea of hell would be to do the same characters, the same roles, in the same way, every time. The great thing about this art form is that every night is different. You can have a fixed idea about the character, but you can also say, “Okay, I want to try something else”— that’s what makes this art form incredibly enjoyable, because every night you don’t quite know what’s going to happen.
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Dresden, with its fascinating history and ornate Old Town, has always been a city I’ve long wanted to visit. Two recent events, scheduled within a mere sixteen hours of one another, gave me the opportunity for a brief if fruitful and very music-filled visit. The first, of course, was opera.
It was something of a treat to be present for the official start of the Semperoper Dresden season, which kicked off with a revival production of Verdi’s La forza del destino (The Power Of Fate). Conductor Mark Wigglesworth led a bold, cinematic reading of the score, underlining its epic nature with bold brass sounds and exuberantly lush strings. Suitably subtitled “A Melodrama In Four Acts,” I half-expected Errol Flynn to pop out of designer Julia Müer’s angular scenery — not entirely an exaggeration, considering the episodic and highly sentimental nature of the work.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Verdi’s librettist Francesco Maria Piave used two sources as basis for the opera: an 1835 Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (Don Alvaro, or The Force of Fate) by Spanish dramatist and politician Ángel de Saavedra; and a scene from Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), the first part of the German poet/philosopher’s famous literary trilogy. Forza premiered at the Bolshoi in Saint Petersburg in 1862 before undergoing extensive revisions (including additions to the libretto by Italian writer Antonio Ghislanzoni) and being presented in 1869 at Teatro Alla Scala Milan. Its overture is one of the most performed and popular of orchestral works, and with good reason; it accurately reflects the unfolding drama with memorable melodic lines and some very grand orchestration.
The story, with its themes of vengeance and redemption, seem made for a 1930s Hollywood caper, one of its two central male roles, Don Alvaro, a swashbuckling bad boy who murders the father of his beloved before going on the run for decades, and winding up in a monastery, where he later kills the brother (Don Carlo) of his beloved. So much for penance! But as director Keith Warner rightly notes in the program, the narrative also very much is a study in contrasts, chiefly that between haves and have-nots; this divide underlines a broader social “kaleidoscope,” as he terms it, that went on to be explored and examined in all forms of art, including the literary works of Dickens and Balzac. Warner made his debut at the Glyndebourne Festival this past summer, with the equally intense Vanessa by Samuel Barber. “We are spectators in a big arena of life, in which all events influence each other,” Warner says in the notes for Forza. Such connectivity that drives so much great art, and I think, sustains it over decades, even centuries.
The curtain call for “La forza del destino” at Semperoper Dresden August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
Certainly a well-known facet of Forza for some time now has been its superstitious connections; it could well be considered the Macbeth of the opera world. Baritone Leonard Warren famously, tragically collapsed and died during a 1960 performance, having just sung an aria which begins, “Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”) no less; tenor Franco Corelli, well aware of the work’s unlucky reputation, was meticulous in exercising various rituals during performances; superstar tenor Pavarotti never performed it at all. Despite its spooky history, the opera was one of my mother’s favorites, with a 1969 recording (featuring Leontyne Price, Richard Tucker, and Robert Merrill, conducted by Thomas Schippers) being given regular plays on her grand old cabinet-style stereo system.
I kept thinking of what she might’ve thought at Friday evening’s performance in Dresden. I am confident in stating she would have been absolutely delighted that the first full opera I happened to experience here, in my period of temporary relocation in Europe, is one by her very favorite composer. Considering Verdi’s work was the first opera I heard and knew as a child, it felt like the force of fate indeed. I’m also confident that, like me, she would have been thrilled by the singing, which was, in a word, stellar, and were amply aided by the wonderful acoustics of the gorgeous Semperoper Dresden house. As the vengeful Don Carlo, Russian baritone Alexey Markov was a sparky, dynamic presence, his vocal flexibility and great stage presence expanding the character’s range beyond one-dimensional-angry cliches; I would love to hear his (oft-performed) Eugene Onegin at some point. Russian soprano Elena Stikhina presented her Leonora as so much more than a simpering victim, but a multi-faceted, deeply feeling woman whose hungry search for her own unique identity leads to leads to some dark, desolate (literally) places. Stikhina’s vocal richness was balanced by a resplendent tone; she channelled steely, soft, sensuous, and strong with ease, confidence, and charm, and deserved every “bravo!” directed at her at the curtain call.
Tenor Marcelo Puente at the curtain call for “La forza del destino” in Dresden on August 31, 2018. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)
Tenor Marcelo Puente, who I interviewed when he appeared in Toronto last spring as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca, has the right mix of macho physicality and leading-man-charm for Alvaro — and that voice! With a thickly virile sound, Puente’s bright top notes are nicely balanced by a very impressive oaken bottom. Many of Alvaro’s musical lines require thrilling flexibility and smart modulation, and Puente was more than up to the task in each. Since hearing him in Toronto, his voice has taken on a greater variety of tonal color; it’s become broader, more sensuous, lush. The Argentinian demonstrated ample drama in both runs as well as sustained tones. It was a performance that made me hungry to hear more of his Verdi repertoire. Fingers crossed.
So La forza del destino was the perfect start to my opera season; it was also an ideal introduction to the Semperoper Dresden, though it was not the only time I experienced the gorgeous house during my whirlwind visit — Shostakovich, Gautier Capuçon, and the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra awaited the very next morning.
Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino and Pretty Yende as Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera
Longtime readers of mine will know I was raised on a steady diet of Italian opera. Alongside Puccini, Bellini, and the household favorite, Giuseppe Verdi (whose dwellings I visited last fall, an account of which you can discover in an upcoming issue of Opera Canada magazine), there was also the music of Donizetti. What to say about the man who wrote one of the most famous bel canto works in history, one based not on any Mediterranean story but on a novel by Scotsman Walter Scott? While Lucia di Lammermoor was, alongside La boheme, Norma, and Rigoletto, one of the mainstays of my youth, it wasn’t the Donizetti work I immediately responded to; that honor belonged, rather, to L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love), a sitcom-like comedy brimming with warmth and humanity.
The opera, written hastily over a six-week period and premiered in Milan in 1832, is one of the popular and beloved of works in the opera world. Some very famous singers have been performed in it, including Nicolai Gedda, Tito Gobbi, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, Joan Sutherland, Placido Domingo, Anna Netrebko, Roberto Alagna, Rolando Villazon … the list goes on. The opera offers an array of vocal fireworks which are deceptive for their elegant, hummable simplicity. Luciano Pavarotti is widely known (and rightly loved) for his sparkling performance of Nemorino, the hapless, lovelorn male lead; I was fortunate enough to see him sing it live (along with another great Italian singer, Enzo Dara, who sang the role of the potion-peddlar, Dr. Dulcamara). The venerable tenor seemed lit from within in the role, and it’s no wonder; he confessed in interviews that his favorite stage role was, in fact, Nemorino, the role he felt closest to, out of everything he’d done. As well as having one of the most famous arias in all of opera, Nemorino is brimming with neither intellectualism or thoughtful reflection (or even that much witty repartee, unless he’s dead drunk on the potion Dulcamara gave him), but, rather, steadfastly tied to a beautiful, earnest position full of love and longing. Nemorino loves Adina, the popular girl, who doesn’t give him (initially) the time of day; it’s a familiar story, a simple story, and one that, when couched in such splendid music, makes for a great introduction to the art form.
Matthew Polenzani as Nemorino in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir d’Amore.” Photo: Karen Almond/Metropolitan Opera
And so it is that I’ll be hosting a special Cineplex event featuring the opera this coming Thursday (15 March) in Toronto, a Live in HD re-broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore, featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani and soprano Pretty Yende (both of whom I saw last season in various Met productions) in the lead roles. I was recently part of a panel on Toronto radio station Newstalk 1010 with broadcaster Richard Crouse discussing this, and mentioned Pavarotti, melodic music, and how I got into opera — but really, it’s much more fun to come see — and hear! — for yourself. Details on the screening are here — and you can win tickets here. I may or may not wear my crown (likely not), but I would love to see and meet (and chat with!) opera lovers old and new. Will it change your mind about opera? Maybe. Will you love the music? I would bet the response, post-broadcast, will be a resounding “si” — hopefully see you there!