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A Trip For My Mother: Experiencing Opera in Italy

Last evening was the last of two performances of Verdi’s magnificent Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Featuring the talents of soloists Veronica Simeoni (soprano), Anna Pirozzi (mezzo soprano), Antonio Poli (tenor), and Riccardo Zanellato (bass baritone), and led with intense passion by conductor Daniele Callegari, the occasion was dedicated to the memory of tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the tenth year of his passing. The Requiem was the first classical experience I had in Italy, and it was more emotional than I was anticipating.

Coming to Italy has meant facing the lingering grief associated with losing my mother, who introduced me to opera and who passed away in 2015 after living more than a decade with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I was her caregiver during that time, and I miss her in ways expected and unexpected. I knew this would be an emotional trip, but it also felt like an important one for me to take. Turning away from the opportunity to see some of my favorite artists live in places I know and love (like London) or places I’ve yet to see opera (like Paris, Munich, and Vienna), I chose Festival Verdi because it was, once it had been suggested to me, the sentimental journey I realized I needed to take.

Interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Carmen may have been my first opera as a small child (I was kitted out in long gown and rabbit coat, and taken to a production at Toronto’s then-named O’Keefe Centre), but Verdi was the composer whose work I was essentially raised to. It is not an exaggeration to say his music was the soundtrack of my life. Yes, there was Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, and ABBA, and Dean Martin, and Patsy Cline, and many others besides (my mother loved them all), but Giuseppe Verdi’s position in our little house was central and over-arching. I was a suburban ten-year-old who could sing along with “La donna è mobile” even if I didn’t know exact pronunciations of the words, let alone their meaning. I felt an electric thrill ripple from ears to legs to toes and back again the first time I hear “Di quella pira” (and I still do now). Watching a performance of La traviata‘s famous Brindisi on PBS inspired me to hoist a juice glass and sway around the room; I didn’t really know what they were saying (something about a good time?) but it felt good inside. This music still has the same effect for me; I feel good inside hearing it, whether it’s sad, happy, celebratory, or vengeful. The socio-political subtext of many of Verdi’s works, which I learned about growing older, only made me appreciate them even more, and never stopped me from swaying inside to that Brindisi.

My mother in opera-going gear. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Italophile though she was, my mother never learned the language, despite her love of opera and the many Italian friends we had through the years, and she didn’t travel as much as she would’ve liked for opera. Being a single mother in the 70s and 80s in Canada meant that going to the O’Keefe was all she could manage — that is, until we finally went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in the late 1980s. She’d already been of course, many years before, and prior to that, had seen many performances at the Metropolitan Opera’s original house. If motherhood (especially single motherhood) had dimmed her ability to see live performances, it had also made her go ever more deeply into her ever-growing music collection, and, at that time, record every single PBS special. I only recently cleaned out those (literally) hundreds of VHS cassettes, unplayable not just because of technological advances, but through sheer wear and tear; we watched the hell out of that stuff, and more than one happy evening was spent staring and listening, sipping on root beer floats.

Returning to the Met was, looking back on it, a kind of a homecoming for her. We sat up in the Family Circle and it was there, in the darkness, surrounded by well-dressed matrons and comfy-casual students, locals, travellers, newbies, old hands, the old, the young, everyone in-between, with the music coming in waves up to us, that I finally truly understood the depth of my mother’s passion. Not the swaying and verklempt expressions the many times she’d go up and down supermarket aisles, Sony Walkman firmly in place, listening to Saturday Afternoon At the Opera. Not the coy smile when we met Placido Domingo during his Toronto visit (a smile returned, by the way, with a wink). Not even the occasional breathy “ahh” between sections during live performances at the O’Keefe. No, nothing underlined my mother’s passion for the art form until we went to the Met, and especially, saw Luciano Pavarotti (her very favorite singer) perform, and the music of Verdi at that. If it’s possible to experience a person’s spirit leaving their body, I did in those times, and it’s a big reason I wish she was here with me in Italy.

My mother and I in 2000. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Still, there were challenges. Get two willful females living together and you may guess the rest; this trip she’d be chiding me to get a move on, stop burying myself in work, and “you don’t need that second glass of wine!” We’d argue about music as much as the mundanities of every life. I could not, as a teenager, understand her love of Wagner, whose work is, perhaps, the anchovies of opera, or was for me at least; only time, maturity, and experience allowed me to experience and appreciate the richness and complexity. While I adore his work now, in my younger days I had less than friendly feelings. My mother, by contrast, attended nearly an entire weekend of Wagner operas one trip to NYC; she wasn’t so deeply into the mythology as just the sheer, grand sound of it all, and if anyone could parse the threads between the two, it was her.

“You go for the music,” she would say. “If you don’t appreciate this stuff (meaning Verdi and Wagner, both), you can’t say you love opera.”

Not long after she passed away in 2015, an opera-loving friend active in the classical music world wrote to me. “She had the most pure appreciation for the music of anyone I’ve ever met,” he stated. “There was really nothing like it.”

Some may roll their eyes at this, and her perceived ignorance — the fact she couldn’t name all the international singers, didn’t know a lot of various directors’ works, didn’t closely follow very many careers outside of a famous few, couldn’t tell you about tessitura, cabalettas, or fach, didn’t (could’t) travel, didn’t have urban opera friends — and many more yet will say I parallel that ignorance in all kinds of ways, that I’m a twit, an amateur, a poseur, that I am pretentious and snobbish and full of hot air … to which I can only say, I admit ignorance to many things, I acknowledge the many holes that need filling, I try to educate myself in all sorts of ways, but also: I never, ever want to lose the purity of my mother’s appreciation. The day that purity is gone is the day I stop traveling, and the day I stop writing also.

Verdi’s Requiem at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 19 October 2017. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Last night I was reminded of my mother’s pure appreciation, and just how much it’s been passed on. There are plenty of reasons why Verdi’s Requiem is important in terms of historical and political contexts (and NPR is right to call it “an opera in disguise“); none of those relate to what I found striking and moving experiencing its magnificent performance at the Teatro Regio di Parma, though. There was such a directness conveyed by and through Maestro Callegari, whose body language and responsiveness conveyed such a truly personal connection with the score. I’ve seen this work many times — with my mother and without — and while I have my favorite performances, none rank with this one; the immense chorus and orchestra transmitted balls-out grief and anger, and were wonderfully contrasted and complemented by thoughtfully modulated performances of the performers, who carefully wielded vocal texture and volume to create a wonderfully satisfying unity of sound. The house itself created so much immediacy of sound, and I can’t wait to hear more in it throughout the coming week.

At the Teatro Regio di Parma. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

My mother attended the opera in both Rome and Florence during her lifetime, but she returned from that particular trip full of remorse, as she told me, that she’d gone to Florence and not had time to go further north, to Parma and especially Busseto, where all things Verdi are located. Her absolute dream trips were to go to Milan for La Scala, and Verdi’s birthplace and home. I’m nearby in Parma, and I am thinking of her constantly.

I smiled lastnight, my critic’s ear ever focused, thinking, “that brass section is a bit loud” only to hear my mother chide me, as she did so often in such cases, as she’d shake her mane of red tresses and furrow her brow: “Don’t be so critical all the time, just enjoy… listen and enjoy!”

Good advice. Mille grazie, mamma. Questo viaggio è per te.

faust, murnau, temptation, cinema, film, movie, Mephisto, good, evil, cinematography, lighting, costume, design, Expressionism, German, Goethe

Modern Life, Mephisto, & The Boys: The Faust Myth Endures

There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.

The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states”  […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.

The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its  forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.

faust, murnau, cinema, film, movie, Mephisto, good, evil, cinematography, lighting, costume, design, Expressionism, German, Goethe, town, civilization, terror, temptation

Emil Jannings as Mephisto in a famous scene from Murnau’s 1926 film “Faust”.

Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.

Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”

Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects  directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself ​​inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will.  “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”

Mephisto, film, movie, cinema, Szabo

Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer, right) speaks with The General (Rolf Hoppe) as supporter Lotte von Lindenthal (Christine Harbort) looks on. From István Szabó’s “Mephisto”, 1981. Photo: imago images/Mary Evans

This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyone will cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.

But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”

Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.

Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
Dmitri Jurowski, conductor, Dresden, podium, classical, music, performance

Dmitri Jurowski: “My Life And Profession Are The Same Thing”

One of the most moving episodes in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) occurred in 1960 upon his first visit to the health resort of Gohrisch, a mountainside town located forty kilometres south-east of Dresden, where he had gone to write the music for Lev Armshtam’s film “Five Days, Five Nights”. The String Quartet No. 8 was famously composed instead, the sole piece he wrote outside the Soviet Union, done over three days in mid-July in the green, scenic spot near the River Elbe. Tortured by questions of identity, integrity, history, creativity and the tenuous links therein, having been heavily coerced into joining the Communist Party just prior, Shostakovich dedicated the work to victims of fascism and war, offering a mourning of the past, a dirge for the present, a worried sigh at the future. The composer returned to Gohrisch in summer 1972 following the premiere of his Symphony No. 15, where he visited with conductor Kurt Sanderling. Little could he have known that the site would host a celebrated festival bearing his name, featuring a range of his own works as well as those by his colleagues and contemporaries.

The International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, founded in 2010 with the help of the Staatskapelle Dresden, has been a fount of musical exploration in the decades since its titular composer paid his visits. This year’s edition, which opened on Thursday (30 June), features the music of Shostakovich, of course, as well as that of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Sofia Gubaidulina (b. 1931), Yuri Povolotsky (b. 1962), and Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), who is this year’s recipient of the International Shostakovich Prize. It’s fair to say that there are several spectres hanging over this year’s edition of the festival, but they are encapsulated in the figure of one person who is no longer present, but whose history, with both Shostakovich and Gohrisch, remains vital. Conductor Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year, helped in the formation of the Festival and indeed led the Sächsische Staatskapelle in the concert barn (or the concert marquee) in Gohrisch from 2010 to 2013, and was awarded the third International Shostakovich Prize by the Shostakovich Gohrisch Foundation in 2012. An award-winning album of live festival recordings, released in 2017 (Berlin Classics), features the music of Arvo Pärt (1935), Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), and Shostakovich, including the 1948 song cycle, From Jewish Folk Poetry, op. 79, which was composed following Shostakovich’s denunciation of the Zhdanov Decree; it had to wait until 1955 to receive its premiere performance. Jurowski championed such repressed works, making it something of his life’s mission to uncover and present the pieces which an insidious combination of politics, history, nationalistic fervour, and ideological intransigence forced longtime silence, ignorance, misperception upon. Born in Moscow in 1945 but with Ukrainian roots, the conductor was a champion of bringing rarely heard (and even more rarely recorded) works to the fore, as much out of a sense of civic duty as artistic curiosity, something that stayed with him and was inherited by his children, pianist/vocal coach Maria; conductors Vladimir, and Dmitri. It is a family rich in artistic lineage as much as intellectual probing, as concerned with present exploration as much embracing the past, and looking to the future not with a worried sigh, but a defiant, direct stare.

This year’s festival is dedicated to the memory of Michail Jurowski, whose memory will be most poignantly marked on Sunday (3 July), when youngest son Dmitri Jurowski leads the Saxon State Orchestra Dresden in a programme of works by Silvestrov and Shostakovich, including the world premieres of Michail Jurowski’s arrangement of the latter composer’s The Human Comedy op.37 (1934) for concert orchestra, and Dmitri Jurowski’s arrangement of Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva opera.143a (1973) with soprano Evelina Dobračeva and chamber orchestra. The transposition of voice feels somehow very right for an artist like Dmitri Jurowski, a cellist with an innate feeling for vocal expression, both human and instrumental. Over the past two decades, he has led over one hundred different opera productions for a range of celebrated houses, including Bayerische Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opéra de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Teatro La Fenice, Grand Théâtre Geneva, Lyric Opera Chicago, Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. From 2011 to 2016 he was was General Music Director of the Flemish Opera Antwerp / Ghent. Jurowski’s history with opera does not obscure his deep sensitivity to (and with) orchestral scores –  he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic Manchester, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna, the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra Stockholm, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra, the Dresden Philharmonic, the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Shanghai Philharmonic, to name a few. One of my own favourite recordings features the works of Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) with Jurowski leading the Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal (Cybele, 2018). With iron-hand-in-velvet-glove confidence, the conductor coaxes a luscious lyricism from the string section in Symphonic Minutes for orchestra op.36 (1933), a lyricism that is carried through into conversational woodwind exchange so lovingly conveyed in the piece’s second movement Rapsodia: Andante, and manifest in an energetic final Rondo: Presto, which is resplendent with busy strings and Jurowski’s repeated emphasis on cross-sectional conversation, allowing the drama which arises naturally from and within it to direct, turn a corner, then another; balance is thoughtfully maintained, but not at the expense of spirit; seriousness is equally present, but not without an equal dose of play.

Theatre, like music, would seem to be a part of the Jurowski family’s creative legacy, which, given the actual as well as artistic ties, only makes sense, given their long connection with many celebrated theatre artists, as well as Dmitri Shostakovich himself. The Human Comedy, composed for a 1934 stage adaptation of Balzac’s immense 19th century work by Russian writer Pavel Sukhotin (1884-1935), the mix of lightness and uncertainty of Balzac’s Paris, its surface charm hiding an anxious underbelly. The Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva possess their own form of drama, its power imparted via the fulsomeness of the poet’s vowels and consonants and the ways Shostakovich writes in, through, and around them. In listening to recordings, one is constantly confronted with the question of inner and outer ‘voices’, both vocal and instrumental, by experiences as much spoken as not; the third poem in the cycle (“Hamlet’s Dialogue With His Conscience”) with its ponderings on guilt, responsibility, notions of love and romance, and micro/macro ideas of place, speaks directly to the fourth (“The Poet And The Tsar”) and fifth (“No, The Drum Beat”) with its meditations on private-public faces and paradigms of power within various spheres of influence. The composer’s ever-present internal debates are reflected in this cycle, as much through the words of Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) as through its chewy score, which was recorded by contralto Ortrun Wenkel under the baton of Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouworkest, released by Decca in 1993. Placing the Six Poems cycle on the same bill as The Human Comedy, written four decades earlier, feels ballsy and somehow, important, particularly in light of ongoing debates related to the various uses and teachings of music, the role of canon, the expectations of audiences, whether music ought to have an “identity” (and if so, what it should be), as well as perceptions of Music As Entertainment (“Unterhaltsmusik”) and (or, more tiresomely, versus) Music As Serious Art (“ernste Musik”). Can Balzac and Tsvetaeva (and Silvestrov, and Shostakovich) share a creative universe? Well, why shouldn’t they? Moreover, how could they not?

International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, Germany, Saxon Switzerland, Gohrisch, festival, Europe, outside, music, performance, green

The concert barn at the International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch, 2016. Photo: Oliver Killig

The lives and feelings these artists explored in their respective works, the words and sounds they choose for describing those lives and sharing inner thoughts, ask for the very quality Shostakovich himself seemed quite interested in (consciously or not), the thing which is in short supply as much in life as in art, especially at the moment: empathy. I am not a believer in music magically melting barriers; specific contexts (socio-economic, racial, religious) must be taken into account whenever one experiences new sounds – contexts as much as atmospheres, inner and outer, controllable and not. These things exist. Sounds don’t magically ping them away. The ways in which one experiences the work of Silvestrov and Shostakovich (and/or writers and poets) are as relevant as one possessing a background in either’s work, or both, or none. These things are as much related to context as the environment in which one experiences such works, environments filled with all manner of human comedy, tragedy, mediocrity, diversion, novelty, affliction, agenda, and (one hopes) opportunities for contemplation. Ugly circumstances, harsh realities, human life in all its variance, must be recognized. Lived realities, and the inevitable lines they (mostly unconsciously) create do not magically melt; they simply are. It’s up to you to acknowledge them. Thus is art’s role as a vehicle of empathy vital; If we are unwilling to do the actual, real work of feeling another’s experience (much less acknowledging it as real), particularly those who have not had the privilege we have enjoyed (and perhaps do not even recognize), if we do not conscientiously direct imagination toward those foreign experiences which are beyond our direct experience and knowledge (and thus may be unpleasant, unfamiliar, dull, wearying), then what use is theatre, art, music, culture? Leo Tolstoy grappled with this very question in What Is Art? (1897):

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. To take the simplest example; one man laughs, and another who hears becomes merry; or a man weeps, and another who hears feels sorrow. A man is excited or irritated, and another man seeing him comes to a similar state of mind. By his movements or by the sounds of his voice, a man expresses courage and determination or sadness and calmness, and this state of mind passes on to others. A man suffers, expressing his sufferings by groans and spasms, and this suffering transmits itself to other people; a man expresses his feeling of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to certain objects, persons, or phenomena, and others are infected by the same feelings of admiration, devotion, fear, respect, or love to the same objects, persons, and phenomena. (trans. Aylmer Maude, 1899)

Painter Mark Rothko would later say that “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” While such strength and visibility of reaction is personal, and may or may not be warranted (in the age of social media reaction can be more performative than authentic), that doesn’t cancel its validity within a real, lived framework. Empathy is needed in times of strife – in times of war, in times of pandemic, in times of division, separation, hostility, horror, anger, intransigence; it is work, indeed. Empathy is the energetic opposite of whataboutism that so heavily (alas) dominates contemporary discourse, and it is the hardest thing to keep alive, let alone cultivate, when algorithms inspire (and profit from) strong reaction, not slow thought. Consider slow thought, the festival in Gohrisch seems to whisper; slow thought is, very possibly, the very thing that best cultivates empathy. Somehow I can hear Silvestrov, Shostakovich, Balzac, Tsvetaeva, and Michail Jurowski whispering such a suggestion a bit more loudly right now.

And so, amidst such consideration, and one hopes, a related cultivation of empathy within creative realms, is a conversation in which family, culture, creation, grief, poetry, and that sticky, marvellous word “transposition” are all carefully, slowly considered. It was a true privilege and pleasure to speak with Dmitri Jurowski, and to hear, over the course of nearly an hour, his observations and ideas on music, writing, sound, performance, and his father’s influence. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Why did you choose the Tsvetaeva song cycle – why arrange it it for chamber orchestra?

This work of Dmitri Shostakovich was one of my father’s favourite compositions. The whole concert is dedicated to him – actually the concert, and the whole festival, which he had planned one year ago, was one he was supposed to conduct. So when everything happened of course we decided not to make any changes in the programme – the only thing we did was put in the Tsvetaeva cycle. That was not foreseen; originally it was a Shostakovich violin concerto with the bigger orchestra, but since the pandemic is still going on, the orchestra actually asked to have a work in the programme which is for chamber, not a big group. That was the first thing they asked, and the (the song cycle) was one of his favourite pieces. During his funeral his recording of it was played many times during the day – so we decided to do this. Also there was one little change (to the work itself). It was written for mezzo soprano, but we wanted to do this together with (soprano) Evelina Dobračeva; I know her, we studied together, she was working more with my father than with me, and during all these years they made many projects together. He was like a teacher for her, and it was very important to have her on board for this project, so the only thing we had to do was change the tonalities for the cycle, because for a soprano it’s really too low. That was the only thing we did. The programme’s second half, The Human Comedy, will be a very special thing; it’s a world premiere. The work has been performed in the past of course, but it’ll be the first time the whole music, music for theatre, is done, the way it was played in Moscow in the theatre of Vakhtangov in 1934. That was the only year it was performed in the theatre, so that’s why we had to go and find it all; it was a real adventure to find that material. I spent a lot of time in different archives in Moscow, in the Vakhtangov Theatre, searching for it – I have good friend who is an actor who helped me, and it was a real thrill to find all the notes of the director from that time, his writing on when exactly which part of music was supposed to be played. Luckily they were very bureaucratic in the 1930s, so I could find everything I needed, but it’s still interesting. I’m really thrilled – again, yes, it will be the first time it’s performed.

The Human Comedy has been dismissed in the past as something Shostakovich simply did for the money, but having it in a chamber arrangement also means it forces a reconsideration…

You’re right, it’s becomes very transparent because of that. As to my opinion on its inception, the same thing you can say about Mozart: a lot of music and composers wrote for money. It was normal, they did it for a living, but even what Shostakovich did for the money was great. I think he had a lot of humour, sometimes very black humour, cynical humour, so even with the music he was writing for entertainment, it still becomes, somehow, very biting. And it’s interesting that the problems in the society they were facing in the 1920s and 1930s, I have the feeling many of these things we are facing again. Shostakovich was saying the music, there is actually a great quote of his, that music is the only thing which should survive any wars and any illnesses. I have the feeling now in the beginning of the 21st century we are back in the same situation somehow. We have to somehow prove that art, that music, has the power and the possibility to survive and bring, a little bit, people back together, that’s actually the only thing you can do in this really difficult situation.

Michail Jurowski, conductor, cellist, Isang Enders, classical, performance, music, live, stage, hands, sound

Conductor Michail Jurowski leads the Staatskapelle Dresden and cellist Isang Enders at the inaugural International Shostakovich Days Gohrisch in 2010. Photo: Matthias Creutziger

The context in which it is presented is important, your father’s history with the festival being very much part of that context. I’m curious what you think attracted him to this work. I recall him telling me years ago that conducting in America was like a dream for him – something that really wouldn’t be expressed now – and I can only theorize that such an experience, and the related feelings of curiosity and wonder, play into Balzac’s explorations about the variance of human experience, and Shostakovich’s also.

Yes, I’m thinking a lot in the last few months about his relationship to Shostakovich as well. It’s a strange thing, my father had such a close relationship to (the composer) in a human sense, as well as professionally. It was such that I always had the feeling I knew Shostakovich myself, even though it’s not possible. We spoke a lot about Shostakovich from my childhood and now since my father is no longer here I think about this energy he was creating, because you are right, I feel strongly his presence is still here. Even though I’m not able to ask him in real life for advice, I feel it, and it has been like that before when I was in touch with the music of Shostakovich – I was doing a lot of his music throughout my life and always feel an energetic support from him myself, although I didn’t know him. My father would speak about a genetic memory, and I think it’s valuable; he himself had strong genetic memory because of his father and grandfather. The period of The Human Comedy, or when we speak about Balzac and the 19th century, or the first thirty years of 20th century when this piece was written for theatre, those are all periods my father couldn’t know himself, but still a very strong connection existed. And I have the feeling it’s not an accident that history sometimes makes these repetitions – that is also a little bit related to this Human Comedy, to this exchange of tragedy and comedy, this continuance; it never stops.

So the idea of Shostakovich, as with other artists, is that there is no end of the story – there might be the end of somebody’s life, but the whole story will continue with other characters, like a play. So when you feel part of the huge theatrical play, that’s also what people like Shakespeare imagined, then you… have to also create a distance to everything, which is not bad, especially in our days, because it is very difficult to continue and to go on when you are facing really very strong negative things, like war, like illness –so you need a distance to all that.

But you also need immediacy, a sense of relationship to what you watch, what you listen to, the people you spend time with, the food you eat, whatever you consume in whatever forms, and I feel Shostakovich really understood that – your father understood that also. That sense of connection is powerfully manifest in chamber arrangements. How, to your mind, does changing the tonality for voice, and within a chamber configuration, affect understandings of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, and Shostakovich’s music?

The word “transposition” is a great word; it has so much inside of it! I am always curious why we call it, in musical language, a transposition from one tonality or modulation to another one – of course it will be another piece, so I am very curious how this particular piece will sound. Every tonality has a colour; every tonality has a character, so when you change tonalities you change a lot of things – that’s clear. But we have to take into account that every piece of music we hear, from Baroque times or from Classical times, that all the tonalities – all the G Minors and whatnot – from that period are not the same as now because of the tuning, so when you start to play this music in the way it was done at the time it was written, then you understand it’s really another feeling. But it doesn’t mean you have to do that – you can play it also in the modern tonalities, with modern instruments. The times are changing and the acoustics are changing. What I can say about the Tsvetaeva work is, I have a feeling for now anyway, that the music itself remains dark, the cycles of Shostakovich remain dark, even if we put everything one tone higher, but the transference of the text now means it might be even stronger because of that. When you take the very high voices with the very high notes you can barely understand them.

For example, I’m talking now a little bit lower, because there is also microphone so I don’t have to raise my voice so much, but if I’m talking to somebody, the minute I speak a little bit higher, the attention, the whole energy, changes – it’s like a string pulled tighter, the whole connection is stronger, right at this moment. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different kind of energy, so I’m really curious how (the song cycle) will be, but it’s my feeling that the darkness becomes more transparent there. Also the number of musicians onstage is really not big, you can do it with a bigger group, but for me, I’m not a pianist, I’m a cellist – I was doing a lot of chamber music and a lot of soloistic music, especially, so it’s a different feeling. My best memories were the cycles of Shostakovich with the Blok poetry which is written for piano trio and voice, and there were movements where you had just cello and voice together, and this type of intimacy where you have this one voice and one instrument, for me is something I always try to aim for even when I have a big symphony to perform. I’m always searching for these intimate moments when you can really produce this kind of tension. It’s like when you have a crowd of people and everyone is talking and then suddenly everyone is silent and you have two people looking at each and talking to each other – that’s powerful. This silence is extremely strong. And for somebody like Tsvetaeva, her work really asks for silence, even if she’s screaming or crying, it’s not for mainstream television, let’s say.

Some translations capture that relationship between silence and music better than others; the repetitions in her writing are staccato in some ways – so deliberate, so rhythmic, so musical.

They really are…

I wonder if people miss that musicality because of the drama, but she’s asking as much for a subconscious understanding through that musicality as a conscious one through the words themselves, and I think Shostakovich captures both in this song cycle… 

Yes that’s true!

.. now I wanted to ask you, these chamber sounds, vocal sounds, ensemble sounds – the ways you perceive sound, and write, conduct, and transpose, are they informed by the cello?

Yes, you’re right; they are. I have to say, my biggest learning, one of my best schooling in working with singers was by playing cello, because it is the instrument which has the biggest connection to the human voice. It includes the whole range of all possible sounds, from bass to soprano, in one instrument. I remember I had an ensemble, a chamber group, we performed with a baritone, me as a cellist, and a pianist, we were doing many arrangements, not only opera arias but we were also playing, lots of duets for example, of Schumann and Schubert, where one voice was played by cello and one was singing, and there was always a moment where you consciously lost this – like “where is the voice and where is the cello?” This is also what Shostakovich really did great, his understanding of sounds, of the voice as an instrument, was really central. So when vocalists deal with Shostakovich, they have to really think like an instrument, especially for performing his music, it’s a great need. Of course it helps when you have, generally, great poetry. In Italian opera you sometimes have a kind of text which is, I don’t want to say it’s useless, but of course you have it sometimes where the words are really not important but the vocal line is, and that’s something else – but when you deal with Russian or German or also sometimes Italian, but another type of style, like something from Petrarch or Dante, something where the text is leading, it’s obvious how the music has to be.

That’s why it’s so great with Shostakovich: the music has to be leading and carrying at the same time. And especially when you see the amazing last movement of the cycle, when it’s about Akhmatova, so Tsvetaeva is writing about Akhmatova, through Shostakovich’s musical line, it’s just… you have so many incredible people in one little musical bar… it’s immense. For a conductor, a musician, a listener, it doesn’t matter – you have to show it to others, you don’t have to show yourself, you don’t have to pretend your art is higher or mightier than anything those people were creating. It’s not about you. That’s why it’s so important to be a little bit aside, and to be a little bit under this, let’s say, sound, still controlling everything, still producing your language, and with your capacities, but! This is too fragile, all this music and chamber music generally is very fragile, and in combination with poetry of Tsvetaeva and music of Shostakovich, you can’t just throw it somewhere; you have to touch it as if it’s crystal. That’s the best possibility, for everyone … to hear, to listen, to inhale it. That’s why I am always looking forward, so much, to all these sorts of concerts, but energetically they take… it’s a much bigger challenge than a huge symphony or opera. It’s sometimes much more difficult to produce something like that.

Your use of the word “fragility” brings Silvestrov’s work to mind. He is on the programme with Shostakovich on Sunday. How do you see the connection?

The interesting thing is I performed Silvestrov in my time as a cellist many years ago. His work is always very much related to beauty, and it’s very honest music; he was never trying to pretend that he was the big modernist of the 20th century. Somebody like Arvo Pärt is also not a modernist but is very much about the spirit of music. I know Pärt very well, we spoke a lot about music, and you can feel how important the spiritual energy has always been for him in his life, and not only in his music – but with Silvestrov, it’s different; it’s so simple with him. Of course now the situation has changed. He’s not the only existing Ukrainian composer but he’s the big one being performed. He’s the oldest, for sure – luckily it’s still alive, and he will be present on Sunday. For musicians performing his music now, you can imagine it’s even more a responsibility now than it was twenty years ago, and still, I am absolutely sure it is so important for him as a composer, and for us as interpreters, to play music, to make music, to show the artistic side of Silvestrov. Shostakovich was much more political than Silvestrov, of course, they were much different times in which Shostakovich lived. But he was somebody who was a fighter; he was always fighting crises. Somehow, luckily for him, he didn’t need to invent anything; it was already present in reality. Shostakovich generally works very well in combination with other composers of the Soviet Union of the 20th century, but with a little bit different way of energy.

It’s interesting that Silvestrov is being honoured at the festival this year, and that his work is on this programme with the Shostakovich chamber arrangements.

Especially the Tsvetaeva work, which comes directly after the Silvestrov piece. His work is chamber music, and it’s about feeling, about atmosphere. With Shostakovich there is a script, always, there is a clear storyline, even if it’s not… even if you play Shostakovich’s chamber music without words, still, yes, he is the narrator of the story. Silvestrov, it was always my feeling, he’s a witness of atmosphere, and he’s sharing that atmosphere. So that’s why I think there is a good link between them.

He’s an observer of atmosphere and putting it out there has its own kind of interpretation of script…

Yes.

… it’s one that is being written as it’s being played, and it changes all the time. That’s what I hear in Silvestrov, not a narrative but a sort of Beckett play where there’s a very pervasive mood that is inherent to overall understanding. I wonder if that’s another connection with the work of Shostakovich, that development of feeling with inner and outer worlds.

That’s about performing, though. Performing must include a script – whatever you are doing, it must have a certain sense. Sometimes you have a kind of clear help from the composer who is writing everything already, so you have just to comment; in other cases you have to create a script for yourself, and with the music of Silvestrov it’s not difficult. Especially in the 21st century – and the 20th they had it as well – you have movies, when you know how a movie can work, and you know what the perfect music is for it. That’s essentially what Shostakovich said about Silvestrov – they knew each other of course. Silvestrov is 84 years old now, he knew Shostakovich, who was always very polite to his colleagues, and had a lot of respect for people like Schnittke and Kancheli. I remember hearing from the widow of Shostakovich, from Irina, I spoke to her two weeks ago about this concert, and she said, “Yes, he always respected Silvestrov, he said (Silvestrov’s) music is amazing especially when somebody knows how to paint.” So somehow it’s an interesting way to describe his music.

So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?

Good point, yes.

Experiencing all these “paintings” in a live setting on Sunday, one which is so historically loaded, and especially with you doing it, feels profound, though it must be a little daunting for you?

What do you mean?

Parental figures who give their children deep connections to art can cast large shadows, as my own mother did; after she passed and I had to go do things in public with some kind of connection to her, it was like walking into a room naked; I learned that one has to draw a line between what one gives the public and saves for one’s self.

Well, you know Catherine, when I chose this profession and started to conduct, having my father and my brother, these important and successful conductors already, I knew I would be kind of naked my entire life. So that’s nothing new to me. I’ve done this job for seventeen years now. The only thing which is kind of changing for myself, not for other people, is that I feel my… responsibility, first of all, for this profession since he passed away, is now bigger than it was before. Because now I have not only to be just to be on a certain professional level, we all have to achieve this for all our lives, but I have also to respect and show respect to his memory, you know? And respect to memory, responsibility for somebody who is not there anymore, physically at least, for me it’s now an experience to say that somehow it’s even bigger, but it gives you more energy.

I remember the day he passed away, on the 19th of March, this day I was in my theatre in Novosibirsk and the next day I had Traviata to conduct, not the easiest opera to do, especially… but the thing is… whatever piece I would conduct, whatever I would take, my father had such a huge repertoire and had done so many things in his life, so there is always a kind of link to him. And I have to be honest, I didn’t have so much energy to go onstage of course at that time, but I did it, because I knew he would really appreciate it at this precise moment. And I mean I always have, it’s one of the main reasons I do this profession, is that I have very special feelings for singers – that’s the most fragile and most sensitive thing because you have an instrument here, inside. I always trying to treat the singers with a necessary sensitivity, but now I have the feeling it’s even more, because I know they have to produce out their emotions they have inside, you know? So this experience is something, and it’s the thing that will stay with me forever. I know of course there is always a period of grief you have to go through and some of your parents or the people close to you die, and somehow it’s over, you’re over this hill, and you still have the memories but there’s a distance…

… I can tell you the grief comes back, but in a different form.

Yes, I have the feeling when we talk about him, it will never be completely distant to me. We are doing the same profession and my life and profession are the same thing. There will be, always, a strong connection, and probably through the years, it will become even stronger.

Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editor

Boris Dralyuk: “You Have To Respond Emotionally To A Text, Not Just Intellectually”

Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.

And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture  the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.

Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?

Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in  or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.

The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.

Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:

It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.

Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.

After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.

And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.

Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 

Boris Dralyuk, translator, Odesa, writera, poet, Ukraine, Russia, literary, LARB, LA Review Of Books, My Hollywood, editorYou’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?

I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.

Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?

That’s my hope.

Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.

I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.

These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others. 

I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.

You are your own brand in that sense.

Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.

And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...

That’s very true…

… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.

I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.

The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…

Yes!

… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?

I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.

books, Boris Dralyuk, prose, writing, poetry, Russia, Ukraine, literature, reading, library

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

I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources.  So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?

I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.

That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.

That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”

I hate that…

Really?

I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.

By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?

People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.

I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…

The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.

The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?

I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…

… which provides an interesting subtext to your “Hollywood” title of poems; it feels like a hat-tip to the many others artists who settled in that precise area.

Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.

That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…

It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.

It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.

Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.

Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.

That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.

That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.

That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.

Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?

That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.

Because you haven’t done it yet… 

I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.

I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…

I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.

Like literary Ur-Text?

That’s right!

There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.

I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.

A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.

Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.

Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.

But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists? 

I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.

Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022. 
Axel Brüggemann, writer, journalist, portrait

Axel Brüggemann: “Why Are We Doing It? This Is The Question”

Among the varied aspects to emerge from the reporting on the invasion of Ukraine has been the near-unquestioned move toward binary modes of thought in culture: like this; hate this; do not question that; definitely demand that. War kills nuance, as everyone knows, and in some cases this clarity is good, even needed, terribly overdue. In the past I have praised various classical figures who made clear public statements following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; such clarity of language, I wrote (and stand by), was and is required in such a horrific situation. Clarity is also the thing that is weaponized by a good many now, two months into the war, a quality meant for what is perceived as a good cause, but more often used as a cover for inconvenient truths. When organizations demand artists make public statements, context must be considered first and foremost (the context of the organization: who their donors and sponsors are; what their budgets are; who their audiences are and what type of programming they expect; for artists: history; family; old-current-future repertoire; work connections; personal connections; all the tenuous connections therein). More often than not, contextual detail is the last thing considered, and is usually ignored entirely within the cultural media landscape.

This is a pity, I think; transparency is a cornerstone of both good journalism and good human relating, but it is the quality most often left at the door for the sake of expediency, politics, personal gain. In its place, buzzwords – simplistic, reductive language that generates outrage and clicks – which do little to foster deeper understandings of the inner workings of culture and the sociological implications of such language choices within it. For weeks – months – I have wondered when or if this language of reduction might cease, and real investigations might begin; when the phrases “cancel culture” and “politically correct”, both of which are thrown far too lightly around now, might be dismantled with the kind of thoroughness which is so sorely needed within the cultural realm. I desperately wanted to believe some semblance of nuance could be found in the one spot that sets itself up as a paragon of thoughtfulness and (supposed) humanism: the arts. Is there even room for nuance in a time of war? Should there be? Some would argue firmly “no” and I am not in a position to argue with those individuals. I still think nuance matters; I would argue it matters more than ever.

As I have written in the past, shrinking budgets for education and public broadcasting, together with the new normal forced by pandemic, and old one of publishing, mean that populism dictates decisions as much in culture as in media. To reference what Richard Morrison wrote in The Times recently, there is now a move to label what is challenging as “elite” and to dismiss the perceivably “difficult” (it isn’t) as a waste of money, time, and energy. Much more favoured now (in programming as much as publishing) is that which will generate hype, attention, clicks – maximizing revenue (and ad tech machinery), justifying budgets – giving the public “what they want”, by paying the least for what will generate the most. Thus, there are no investigations, no contextualizations, no dismantlings – but lots of clickbait, lots of binary thinking, lots of reductive language, all of it in perpetuating as if in a hall of mirrors, an ever-starved ouroboros of outrage, ever-spinning out more “content” with nary a concern for the easy phrases used therein. But language, as recent times remind us, creates various forms of lived reality. Who uses it, how, and why, determines and shapes the reality for one, and for many; witness the ways in which Russian-language media sites have characterized the war and those involved, or, more colloquially, the ways in which the word “woke” has been used (and lately weaponized). Consider the many ways in which curse words have entered the popular lexicon over the past three decades, losing some of their shock value in certain cultures, gaining a new level of horror in others. This experience of language extends to the ways in which we discuss, understand, and frequently reduce cultural matters – people, productions, presentations, official announcements and decisions – within public consciousness. Thoughtful analyses and contextualized methods of presentation are needed, yet more often than not incendiary language, divorced entirely from such thoughtful modes, prevails. Are Russian artists really being “cancelled” in certain places? Or are figures and organizations in those places determined to obfuscate specific financial trails that could prove questionable if given public scrutiny? Is there a trail that needs following, one made up of Euros, roubles, franks, of casting couches and gold-leaf steaks and private boxes?

Axel Brüggemann thinks so. The German arts journalist recently followed, and reported on, those financial trails, specifically the timely ones involving the Wiener Konzerthaus and its Artistic Director Matthias Naske; conductor Teodor Currentzis and his respective organizations, MusicAeterna (of which Currentzis is founder and Artistic Director) and SWR Symphonieorchester Stuttgart (of which he is Chief Conductor); sanctioned Russian bank VTB; a planned benefit concert for Ukraine which did not ultimately take place. In reports published at classical music site crescendo in April, Brüggemann (who is crescendo‘s ex-editor-in-chief) outlines the ways in which the opera/classical world has been (is) a place overdue for examination, particularly within the financial realm. That the cultural realm should have such connections is hardly shocking, even if it does now bear deeper scrutiny in light of current circumstances and related sanctions. New York Magazine published a detailed feature on April 1st (“How Russia’s Oligarchs Laundered Their Reputations In The West“) which outlines the ways in which various Russian oligarchs, notably Len Blavatnik (who has been called “Britain’s wealthiest man”) have heavily supported non-profit organizations, including numerous cultural outlets. As writer Casey Michel writes, “On and on and on, U.S. and British nonprofits appeared all too happy to take part of Blavatnik’s wealth and to praise him for his largesse without bothering to highlight any of his links in Russia. (To be clear, there’s no allegation of any illegality on Blavatnik’s part.) Nor could these institutions claim they were unaware of Blavatnik’s ties in Russia — or the controversy these donations generated.” In his post from April 11th, Brüggemann himself notes the many financial ties between individuals, corporations, and various classical events and the questions raised therein, and he makes a detailed account of the planned benefit for Ukraine, its players, its questionable aspects, and outlines the complex web of politics, music, and money which has long fueled large swaths of the classical industry, quoting a statement sent to him from Vienna’s City Councillor for Culture, ​​Veronica Kaup-Hausler in which she states that she was not aware of Naske’s work with the MusicAeterna foundation. (On April 22nd, Austrian public broadcaster ORF reported that Naske has resigned his position on MusicAeterna’s Board of Trustees.) Brüggemann wrote on the 11th, “Es ist Zeit, die Korruption der Klassik aufzudecken, ihren aktiven und passiven politischen Missbrauch durch Künstlerinnen und Künstler. Auch Schweigen hat in dieser Zeit eine Bedeutung.” (“It is time to expose the corruption of classical music, its active and passive political abuse by artists. Silence also has a meaning in this time.”)

The call was answered with a fair amount of criticism in German media, with many accusing the busy media figure of a personal vendetta against Currentzis, of whipping up a mob mentality, and perhaps most interestingly, of naivete. Writer and cultural commentator Peter Jungblut posted an editorial at the website of Bavarian public broadcaster BR Klassik, with a direct title: “Warum “Saubere” Kunst Eine Utopie Ist” (“Why “Clean” Art Is a Utopia”, April 21). In the brief piece, he makes mention of disgraced American philanthropist Alberto Vilar and notes the infeasibility of the classical industry to divorce itself from its financial ties at this juncture, and the inherent hypocrisy of making such a demand. “Seien wir ehrlich: Wirklich “moralisches” Geld gibt es nicht, Wirtschaftsbetriebe sind keine Wohltätigkeitsorganisationen, und keine Produktion der Welt ist völlig unangreifbar.” (“Let’s face it: there is no such thing as truly “moral” money, business enterprises are not charities, and no production in the world is completely unassailable.”) Whether one thinks the term “false equivalency” is relevant here greatly depends on the context in which one approaches (and especially perceives) culture; it is worth pondering its role and continuance in our current age, especially given the continuance of covid and the related financial fallouts. If Me Too, BLM, and global pandemic were not the catalysts for change within the industry – is war? More specifically, are the things resulting from this war the agents of change, namely threatening the hand that feeds all else? How far should the Faustian bargain go? Where is the place where financial and moral meet, or can they?

“So we’ve reached our wits’ end, the point where you gentlemen lose your head. Why do you seek our company, if you can’t handle it? You want to fly, but your head goes dizzy. Well – did we force ourselves on you – or was it the other way round?”

(Mephisto, Urfaust: Goethe’s Faust in its Original Form after the Göchhausen Transcript, trans. John R. Williams 1999 and 2007)

How such timely cultural matters are discussed, why one wants for it so much now, and the specific language used around (and within) such exchanges determine how the classical world can (might) create, perceive, present, produce, and receive live culture moving forwards. That line in the sand, of what is acceptable and what is not, when, is (has been) different for a great many, and will continue to shift. The line is personal; the ways in which it is answered are not. Such responses, particularly coming from those working directly within the creative field, possess significant social, political, and cultural ramifications. When do ethics enter the equation, and why? The ways in which this question is answered gain significance through direct and actionable manifestation within the public sphere, and thus, expand public understanding, engagement, and receptions of culture.

Brüggemann himself is no stranger to engagement with the public; he has been a known figure in German-language media for decades, as a host, interviewer, writer, critic, moderator, publisher, publicist, and filmmaker. A freelancer since 2006, he has authored books on Wagner, Mozart, systems of notation, as well as ones on politics, parenting, and the German provinces, and made numerous films on a variety of topics, including various aspects of the Bayreuth Festival and Wagner, the history of Elgar’s Pomp And Circumstance, Beethoven’s Für Elise, and Prokofiev’s Peter And The Wolf; his work has been broadcast on ZDF, arte, and SKY. In a witty, brilliant column published at crescendo last October, he examined the roles of optics, brand, social media, ego, audience expectations, artistic perceptions, and the big one – money – through a classical lens, whilst referencing the work of Walter Benjamin and Stefan Ripplinger, and noting that “Klassik wird zum modernen Gladiatorenkampf oder – nach Ripplinger – zur Peepshow, in der das Publikum Geld bezahlt, um als Pilger und Jünger am Götzendienst der Interpreten teilhaben zu dürfen. Dieses Prinzip der Pornografisierung der Klassik fordert eine immer weitere Eskalation und Exhibition dieses musikalischen Kampfes.” (“Classical music becomes a modern gladiatorial combat or – according to Ripplinger – a peep show in which the audience pays money to be allowed to participate as pilgrims and disciples in the idolatry of the performers. This principle of the pornographisation of classical music demands an ever further escalation and exhibition of this musical struggle.”) The CD series Der Kleine Hörsaal (The Small Lecture Hall), demonstrates Brüggemann’s additional talent, one placed firmly within the world of teaching; created and produced for label Deutsche Grammophon in 2008 (it won a prestigious ECHO-Klassik award), the series is comprised of discussions between children and artists who share favorite musical works, memories, and moments. Along with didactic pursuits has come predictably glamorous assignments, including attending numerous fancy events and rubbing elbows with assorted members of the classical and cultural glitterati. If the old dictum “write what you know” holds true, Brüggemann is its effective classical ambassador for such an approach. Our conversation over the course of an hour was involved, lively, and passionate, an expression of love for classical music, the industry around it, and the ways in which it is written about within contemporary (largely digital) discourse.

Axel Brüggemann, writer, journalist, portraitReading your article I was struck as to why arts journalism isn’t conducting these kinds of investigations during a war in which so many cultural figures – and organizations, and programming – are affected. 

Such investigations are normal in sports, for example; we talk about doping, we talk about money in soccer or in American football, in the Olympic Games – we investigate all these strange money transfers, and various timely issues. There, in that world, it is normal; investigative journalism is normal in politics also, and in daily business. It’s just in culture we don’t have that, funnily enough. I think people still think arts and culture is just about beauty, but the problem is with what we see, and how we see it. In order to create beauty there is a system and behind this system it’s a market system, it’s a very old-fashioned system; we have issues of sexism, issues of racism, directors of theatres and orchestras who are guilty in both cases, and why is that so? This is the big question now with Russia. It’s a big issue about money. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Navalny video on Gergiev, it’s quite expansive – we aren’t talking about tens of millions but hundreds of millions. I have been doing examinations for a couple years now and I feel as much support as I’ve got, all these friendly words, there’s a lot of critics. They don’t want the beauty to be destroyed. Lots of people don’t appreciate that.

Is it that they think you are destroying beauty or that you are destroying their deeply-held perceptions of beauty?

It’s their ideas of music, and their aims for it. They go to concerts to get a space which takes them away from all everyday life; they have a busy job, annoying children, perhaps parents in hospital, there’s a war, there’s corona, all these awful things. Then you go for an opera or a concert for two hours and you just switch off the world. It’s like going to a funfair or theme park. The problem is that music was never done for that kind of escapism. Wagner, Verdi, Mozart – they never just did entertainment alone, they always wanted to thrill our brains, and they wanted us to switch on our imaginations, to see the world differently, to find different perspectives on problems and try to solve them – big experiences like love, hatred, war. Music, at least classical, isn’t strictly the entertainment business, and even operetta is not. We have fair trade products, we even have fair trade porn, but we do not have fair trade opera, and this is strange, and I think it’s important we have fair payment for singers, and to expose directors who put their hands on the butts of women; I think it’s important that we don’t have donors who use classical music to wash their money.

So if pandemic wasn’t the tipping point for change, war is, or has become that, whether we like it or not…

Absolutely yes.

… and investigations stemming from the old dictum to “follow the money” have led to criticism of you, including accusations that you are driven by personal vengeance. How aware are you that you are putting yourself out there for attack in conducting the kinds of investigations you do?

Oh yes, I know this, but… why are we doing it? This is the question. I am doing it out of passion for art. I have the same passion for art as the people who go to be entertained, but I am an opera lover, a concert lover – I don’t like Currentzis’ work, I have always said that, but I would fight for him to do whatever he wants, as long as he stays within the terms of humanity, you know? The first question I ask myself as an independent journalist is, why do I do it? And the second question is, how difficult it to be independent? At the Sunday paper I write for, I’ve been contributing there ten years, and we’ve been invited everywhere – we went to The Met, we went to Japan with the Staatskapelle Dresden – and I can tell you honestly, the whole system is corrupt. As a freelance journalist I said, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I want to write books, do films – mainly I do that now, it’s what pays my living for the most part – music critic is my job, but not my money job. But one has to have a sense of independence. This is what I see with criticism of my work right now: very often, they might say, “he has a vendetta with this person” but… I don’t know what I should have revenge for… ? For whose aims? Mr. Naske now says, “oh he crashed the concert” and I think, “Wow, I am Superman! Maybe I’ll buy Twitter, or be the Musk of classical music!” I didn’t crash the concert, no – it was the Red Cross, Caritas, the ambassador of Ukraine. They are, all of them, people with a brain – they all saw the facts, and said, “Oh we better not do it!” I did present the facts to them but I did not make the actual choice.

So, to answer your question, we have a two-level system of music journalism. One is a bubble, and within that bubble, it works like this: the director calls the critic and says, “Don’t you want to come to the house for a coffee? You can meet maestro!” and “Oh I read your work, I love it! Listen, we have this great concert…” – this is the bubble. The second level of journalism goes more into politics, economy, a place with a completely different perspective on music and its role, and so now, with the Russia thing, the first bubble is exploding. We cannot simply live in this music bubble of incest, we have to open it, and this means you have to be a journalist first. And that is the change within reach now.

That brings up ideas of what journalism is or can be for in the 21st century, which leans at non-investigative things that will please ad tech and make people popular. I don’t write that kind of thing…

I’m like yourself there…

… bit of an old drum for me here, but digital publishing has had an influence on how people think of new and old music, and on how it’s presented, how it’s programmed, the language we use around it – that language has become largely reduced in the chase for clicks and shares. What’s your view?

Those sorts of things do get clicks, sure, but it gets them somewhere else, to those kinds of sites. One you mentioned earlier, somebody sent it to me, but that writer is not on my timeline, if you see my meaning – that’s not the page I’m on. I see my newsletter, sure I have 30,00 followers or whatever, there is a click value oddly enough, but I don’t change what I do, so… I think at least some people see the value of my work. The funny thing is, in corona we all thought classical music would be reset – we saw artists were not paid in America; whole orchestras were fired one day after another; we saw there seemed to be little to no value in musicians or the music. And now with the war, it is exactly the opposite. Suddenly, culture is in the peer group with propaganda, so it becomes important again. And this is so strange. Yesterday we were nothing, and today it’s very important! The truth is somewhere in-between.

And that truth sits differently in different places, because music was (still is) used in various ways as propaganda, particularly  where music was (is) perceived as an extension of government. Do you think organizations should demand statements from artists, when these artists were hired, promoted, and given carte blanche by these same organizations for so long?

I do think first of all, we shouldn’t force artists to make a statement. Culture is free, or should be, but… as soon as we smell that somebody is depending on somebody else and misusing art for propaganda, then we have to check: do we mean the same C Major? Is this the C Major of humanism or the C Major of propaganda? We have to check. We see those who are hooked to the system, and we can choose accordingly. In Germany we have 140 theatres which are highly subsidized by the German government, and in most of these theatres we have singers and orchestras, some made up of more than 100 musicians who are from France, Germany, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, Poland – and they play together, every evening, and nobody asks what side are they standing on; they know for many years they stand with democracy, humanism, letting the other one live. That’s how it works, and that’s the force of music. We don’t need to ask a thing of them because we already know, but as soon as we smell there is propaganda, a lack of independence, we have to ask the question. This is what makes me angry about Currentzis; he is head of the SWR Orchestra. I and every other German pays 30 euros each month for public broadcasting – which is good, I’m paid through public funds for my films! – but I pay him, his orchestra, and in a democratic system, when a public radio station pays somebody like this, then that person must be able to say, “Mr. Putin’s war is bullshit.” And if he can’t do that, then he has to be paid by somebody else. It is so simple, everybody should understand it – shouldn’t they?

It’s the public funding system: when you’re funded that way you are beholden to the public, which also means you are beholden to public scrutiny. But scrutiny now is often equated with being negative, because it isn’t fluffy PR, which doesn’t generate sexy clicks…

I’ve had this discussion since 2014. With Gergiev, I asked, how can he be the head of the Munich Philharmonic? He supported the anti-gay laws in Russia; he supported the annexation of Crimea; he performed in Palmyra as part of the pro-Assad concert. I have written, since 2014, letters to the head of the Munich Philharmonic, saying, “Do you think your conductor’s views are acceptable?” And it’s always been the same response: “This is the private opinion of Mr. Gergiev; we don’t comment on that.” I mean… no! It doesn’t work! We are doing the same now with Currentzis, and here come the accusations: “Ah, but you just don’t like him!” and “He’s a great musician and you don’t want him to be successful!” and “You don’t like him because he’s an eccentric genius!” and… really, I don’t give a damn. I love complicated people, but that isn’t the issue.

You use the word, “genius” – I have made a conscious decision to stop using it. A lot of terrible behaviour has flourished because of it. 

… and that’s what many said to me: “If we would judge these music figures like you do, we wouldn’t have all those great symphonies conducted by (Wilhelm) Furtwängler!” I said, “Well, that’s why we discuss him up to today, he hasn’t gotten out of that question yet!” – and yes, we have to discuss it, things like this are so important!

Scrutiny doesn’t invalidate the work or recordings to you?

No!

So you believe such debates help to contextualize those recordings?

Exactly.

How do you think we ought to encourage audiences who might not know or care about such debates, particularly when they are already nervous about returning to the opera house and concert hall? 

I think it happens all by itself already. The conductor Franz Welser-Möst – I wrote his autobiography with him – once said to me, “Look, the successful performances at Salzburg were Elektra, Salome, Rosenkavalier – it was all not really the big Netrebko/Tosca type stuff, but the content operas” – yes, and we got new singers like Asmik Grigorian as well. I think with corona we mustn’t underestimate the appeal of such things, and how those things will change classical music. With my own students, I mean, they are 19-20-22 years old, they are completely aware I am an old white man, and whatever I say about sex, race, politics, is through that filter – I grew up with other rules. But they are right, the young people. We can learn from them. I have two daughters, and I know if they go to classical things, they will have completely different expectations than the people who are in there now, which is our parents. They just want something else. My mum is not interested in my newsletter. She’s like, “Why can’t you just do something nice!”

My mother used to say the same: “Why are you so critical all the time? Why can’t you just go and enjoy the music?!”

Yes, that’s the generation! But what I want to say is, I am very optimistic. I think what happens now, it’s what I said to Welser-Möst also, is, lean back; the train is on the track, just let it go. We don’t have to do anything. I see the criticism of me and I don’t answer it. There was a critic in the 1920s, Alfred Kerr, who wrote a saying that translates essentially as, “what hurts is true ” – so, everything that cuts has a bit of truth. I’m invited to a European orchestra day, and I know the issue now is that the orchestras don’t know how to attract people – the audience is not there anymore – but the thinking of this orchestra who’s inviting me is, “We see the newsletter is successful, tell us what can we do?” My response is: be faithful. If I have a trademark in Germany, it is that everybody knows I’m not corrupt – you can’t buy me. I made enemies from friends, and I’ve made friends from enemies; if I know a conductor who behaves badly, I’ll state it; if I know someone I dislike who does something good, I’ll write. That’s what readers expect from us. And classical as an institution has to be faithful to what it is also; it mustn’t follow any trends. We’re coming into a time when classical will have a division in terms of how it’s presented, between very popular events – where you go to an open-air concert, have a glass of wine, it’s sunny and nice; it doesn’t matter who plays or what is on the programme, it’s just nice, I like them too! – and what I call content-first concerts, where somebody has an idea, and you can feel irritated, angry, happy, touched, moved, inspired, confused, you are shaking, you are upset; this form of presentation will just be … ideas, meaning, depth, craft. These two forms will, I am 100% sure, make up the future of the classical world. And all the mediocre music and presentations, like “Oh let’s put on Rigoletto because he’s in it and she’s in it” – why? Why should people go to see that?

It’s the star system many houses operate on – the wealthy will pay for the people they want to see perform live…

The Salzburg Festival has this problem…

… which then is playing to another bubble.

Yes, and this bubble has learned in corona, that sure, it could be cool if you pay 500 dollars for a ticket, that’s 1000 dollars for two, but hey, we can go for a super-fancy dinner, with the chefs cooking our fancy steak at the table in front of us and putting gold leaf on it at the end…

That amount of money I could see a hell of a lot of live music and theatre in Berlin…

Yes, but the super-rich I’m talking about aren’t interested in doing that kind of thing – opera for the rich, we see it in Salzburg, it’s a status symbol, or it was … the rich now have different hobbies as well, they have a yacht and go sailing or have tons of galleries; opera isn’t the hot spot now, it’s not the place now to be seen. Not anymore.

Yet so many marketing departments are desperately trying to push the ‘elite’ image and tie it to influencer culture…

… yes, because what is the thing you are not able to buy? It has always been emotions. You can go to a prostitute and they will do precisely what you ask her to do, or him to do, and perhaps that pleases you, what is done, but it doesn’t touch you, it’s just gymnastics. But culture can deeply emotionalize us, and if we have heard the Kindertotenlieder, we can’t have champagne afterwards and laugh away, or we don’t want to, at all. We want to go home and sip water and think, and fall asleep and wake up and go, wow, what was that experience? I think that’s much better. But as journalists and artists, we have to think about why we do these things – like, why do I write? Do I write a newsletter every Monday because I have to write a newsletter every Monday? Or do I do it because I have the chance to say something to lots of people every Monday? I don’t do it because I have to, but because I have the chance to, but I have to find something which I really want to say every Monday. If I don’t find something, I don’t write.

That’s precisely how I work – the inspiration has to be there. I have to sit and read and think and research, and then think again, for long periods of time.

Exactly. It has a lot of value, that style. Like us talking now, too. I’ve been working on this article for four weeks now, and I’ve also been doing research for two years now for a podcast project set to come out in November. That’s why we can be successful, because we take the time, we don’t have to react to everything, or if we see something we immediately say something. This Twitter-Facebook thing is fun but it belongs there, in that world; for an article you have to have an idea. Journalism can be smart, can be serious, and can be entertaining – this is what is difficult, combining them all. So I find it important to have conversations like this. There’s this shitstorm coming at me about my current investigations, and I rang some colleagues about it. I said, “I know we’re supposed to be competitors but can we please stop that” – because there’s enough topics now. But it’s because of these current investigations that I’m supposedly the bad guy, “Axel has a beef with Currentzis” – I said to these colleagues, “Can you please investigate this foundation also? Can you look it up? If I do everything, it’s not right.” I rang five or six different colleagues from different papers and said I’d share my information and my sources with them; I am not the story here. There’s enough for all of us. We have to have this sort of lobby as well, to support those who have ideas about a better way of journalism and of talking about classical music. I mean, realistically, we reach 5% of people at most in discussing this.

But that’s the problem: there aren’t enough people talking about this, which is largely owing to the realities of contemporary publishing. What do you think might change?

There are more and more of us doing this kind of work, and there will be even more, because the younger ones are coming. For them it is normal to ask these kinds of questions. In my 50-year-old wisdom (laughs)… perhaps I am able to see what is coming. Our role can be to open the doors. I don’t need this world anymore, really – I have my films, and my other work – but I can open the doors and prepare the path for younger ones to come. They are not interested in this old classical bullshit – why should they be? It’s boring.

Not necessarily, but the way it’s been presented to them is boring.

That’s true.

It’s the divide between the way something is presented, and the thing itself. But what do you think are the next steps in our world, then?

I think it’s all these small steps, one goes ahead, the other one follows, the other one moves ahead – change is a process, and again, this is why I appreciate conversations like this. We must be conscious of what we are doing, and then we can go and make these changes, and know we are not alone. We know why we are doing it, and that matters.

 

Fanny Hensel, Mendelssohn, Chen Reiss, composer, singer, music, portrait, classical, Onyx, album

Shining A Light On The Music Of Fanny Hensel

A bright spot amidst a sea of gloom lately has been the learning more about the music of Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), especially through the voice of a favorite soprano.

Hensel was the noted sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and the granddaughter of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Her position, as the musical daughter in an assimilated family (from Judaism to Lutheranism), allowed her both the freedom to write and the restriction of never enjoying a career. In 2012’s Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner (Cambridge University Press), author David Conway shares an observation from English writer Henry Chorley (1808-1872), who was also a friend to Felix Mendelssohn, in which he notes the profound connection between class and creativity: “Had Madame Hensel been a poor man’s daughter, she must have become known to the world by the side of Madame Schumann and Madame Pleyel as a female pianist of the highest class.” There are contrasting views in the musicology world around the extent to which Hensel might have pursued a professional music career were it not for the limitations of her social class and the times in which she lived.

Through such debates, one is bound to consider a broad range of circumstances, some of which was paid for by the privilege her social class allowed: the challenges in wanting to marry Catholic painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861); a poem Goethe himself dedicated expressly to her (“Wenn ich mir in stiller Seele”) in 1827 (which she subsequently set to music in 1828); of the trip to Italy with husband and son (1839-40) which allowed her to meet young prizewinner musicians (including Charles Gounod) and thus spurred her creative confidence; of her friendship with the German diplomat and music enthusiast Robert von Keudell (1824-1903) who was so supportive of her work; of her first experience having her music published (a collection of songs) in 1846 and her nervousness around her brother’s reaction to said publication thereafter. Hensel had not consulted Felix prior to the undertaking, but he did extend congratulations to her later, writing in a letter that “may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand”. She later wrote in her own journal that “Felix has written, and given me his professional blessing in the kindest manner. I know that he is not quite satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it.” She and her brother worked closely exchanging creative ideas through an active correspondence, with Felix regularly reworking his own compositions based on her suggestions. The pair had made tentative plans for an opera based on Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), a 13th century German epic. In 1847 Hensel and Clara Schumann met a number of times as well, but a mere two months later, Hensel died of complications from a stroke. She was 41.

Though Hensel published in her own name (in 1846 technically listed as “Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy”), through time she has often been referred to solely in hyphenated form (Hensel-Mendelssohn, or vice-versa). Her own work comprises 450 works of music in total (including four cantatas, an orchestral overture, over 125 pieces for piano and in excess of 250 songs), and only became more recognized through the 1980s, through various recordings of her songs. In 2012, Hensel’s Easter Sonata for piano, lost for 150 years, was, at its discovery initially attributed to Felix Mendelssohn; the work was premiered in her name by Andrea Lam at Duke University, and later performed on BBC Radio 3 by Leeds Competition winner Sofya Gulyak.  Duke Arts & Sciences Professor of Music R. Larry Todd noted the range of influences in the 1828 sonata, and that “we usually think of 19th-century European music as familiar enough terrain. Occasionally, though, a forgotten or lost composition comes to light, and the circumstances of its history prompt a reappraisal of the conventional wisdom about the century we thought we knew all too well.” In 2018, the Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum opened in the Neustadt district of Hamburg, and more recently, November 2021, Google featured Hensel in a Doodle to mark her 216th birthday.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, classical, music, klassische, musik, sangerin, Mendelssohn, Hensel, album, OnyxAcknowledging the various roles Hensel fulfilled in life allows one to more fully engage in her art, and to contemplate the whys, wherefores, and hows inherent to her creative process. Thus might one build an understanding, of not only her body of works, but the uniquely creative elements at play within them. Elements of the past (Bach, Beethoven, Schubert), contemporaneous (Schumann, Liszt), and future (Brahms, Liszt) intermingle in some thoughtful ways, and one senses, especially in her later works, a through-compositional style that would’ve found fulsome expression on the opera stage, a medium for which she would have been eminently suited. Soprano Chen Reiss agrees on this point, and brings her own beguiling brand of elegant, operatic flair to a new album. Fanny Hensel & Felix Mendelssohn: Arias, Lieder & Overtures (Onyx Classics) features two works by Mendelssohn himself (including concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), Rome version, and the first version (1834) of the concert aria “Infelice!”, and, centrally, a number of Hensel’s own works. The Lobgesang cantata, orchestrations of eight of her songs (done by composer/pianist Tal-Haim Samnon), and the rarely-heard concert aria Hero und Leander round out an engaging and aurally luscious listen. Reiss is especially moving in her performance of “Dämmrung senkte sich von oben“, with its opening, a lonely oboe, flitting in and out in beautiful counterpoint to Reiss’s silky soprano. Her delivery of Goethe’s text is beautiful, a seamless integration of head as much as heart; the line “Alles schwankt ins Ungewisse” (“Everything shakes with uncertainty”) is sung with such immediacy, and moments later modulated into an achingly sad sort of acceptance, as “schwarzvertiefte Finsternisse widerspiegelnd ruht der See.” (Darkness steeped in black is reflected calmly in the sea.) The spell is cast; this is performance of the very highest order, and one cannot help but feel in hearing it, as with all the album’s thirteen tracks, that Hensel herself would be well-pleased.

The release, initiated by the joint efforts of soprano Chen Reiss and Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich (JCOM) Music Director Daniel Grossmann, releases in physical form today (digital release was earlier this month), and showcases the range of colours and theatricality which are deeply woven within Hensel’s writing. I recently had the chance to speak with Reiss and Grossmann, about how the project came about, what the orchestrations add to pieces that started out life as piano arrangements, and thoughts on Hensel’s work as a female Jewish composer in the 19th century. They will be presenting a live programme, called “Die Familie Mendelssohn”, at Munich’s Cuvilliés Theater on April 6th.

Chen Reiss, Daniel Grossman, performance, live, singing, culture, music, klassische, musik, Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, singer, conductor.

Chen Reiss and Daniel Grossman, with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, in July 2021, performing as part of the celebrations marking 1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany. (Photo: Stefan Randlkofer)

How did this project come about, and why did you decide to orchestrate some of Hensel’s pieces?

CR It started in the middle of a coronavirus lockdown. I was in Berlin and got a call when I was there from Daniel, asking if I would join his orchestra in a special concert being held in Munich in July 2021, to celebrate 1700 years of Jewish life in Germany. Daniel suggested that I sing a piece by Fanny from the Faust Cantata which I didn’t know – I knew her art songs, but didn’t know she wrote any music for orchestra, or larger-scale pieces for orchestra and singers. So I heard it and completely fell in love with her music, and I asked Daniel later, do you know if she composed anything else for soprano and orchestra? And he came up with Hero und Leander, and the Lobgesang (“Meine Seele ist stille”), the two arias orchestrated by Fanny, and I told him, listen we have so little time to rehearse for the concert, let’s rehearse and record everything, and it’ll be ready! Daniel was fine with that, and on it went…

DG … I think it was a great idea to do it that way. We chose the songs because, of course, there’s not enough pieces by Fanny for orchestra and soprano – the problem with the Faust Cantata is that it requires a choir, and with corona restrictions at the time we couldn’t integrate a choir into the live concert. It was not possible to make a recording with a choir at that time either, and so we had the idea to perform her songs instead, and to orchestrate some of those songs. Chen knew Tal in Israel and he orchestrated those songs we chose, and I think it’s a very nice combination – the songs and some of these very dramatic cantatas, both Infelice and Hero und Leander.

What do you think the orchestration adds?

DG I think the interesting thing with orchestrating piano songs is that you get many more colours. Orchestral song, as a form, was not really known at that time (mid 19th-century) – of course there are some, but very few. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, this genre of orchestral song came up with Mahler and Strauss. Today we are much more used to the sound of songs done with an orchestra and these songs get so much more colour and much more meaning through the orchestration. The way these pieces (on the album) were done, the way Tal uses the orchestra, it’s in a very … it’s not a big orchestra sound, it’s very chamber-sounding, and I like that.

CR What Tal did, he orchestrated these songs in a very delicate way, and in a very transparent way, and very often the strophenlieder, the strophe songs, they normally are with the piano, and each verse would sound the same. In “Der Rosenkranz“, for example, Hensel wrote sections one after the other, one page with all four of them, with a completely identical piano part, but when Tal orchestrated them, he used a different instrumentation for each of the strophes, and that to me, gives each one a uniquely different colour. It’s like a story that develops not just in words and in poetry but also musically, in colour.

To my ears, the arrangements highlight a narrative element, which is exemplified in the song where you’re doing a call-response with a flute…

CR That’s “Gondellied“, yes I love that!

… it’s so striking, you think, ‘Ah, yes, evocative sounds, there’s a narrative, there’s a story.’ And the timbre of a flute is so interesting with that of your voice…

CR Well what gave us the courage there, and to orchestrate overall, was the expression. For instance, with Hero und Leander, Hensel orchestrated that herself, and it is a very dramatic piece! She uses a very broad range of expression there – a recitativo, then an aria, then a sort of cabaletta, so to say. It’s true of Infelice, by Mendelssohn too, that there are three parts in that, all three are orchestrated in a different way – and that gave me courage. Her thinking – Fanny’s thinking – was dramatic, theatrical, even, and I personally think that had she been a man, she would have written an opera.

After hearing this album – I agree with you!

CR Hero und Leander is even more advanced in its language, its harmonic language, than Felix’s. I don’t know if you agree, Daniel…

DG Yes!

CR… but it’s dramatic and sounds like Wagner in places, whose music of course came later – so I felt very good about these songs with orchestration and I think Tal did a great job with them. They come to life almost like theatre pieces.

How did you go about choosing these works specifically? Was there any sense that you were creating a broader story?

DG I chose the songs I liked most; I chose them by musical material. It’s not meant to be a story. Of course there are many more songs by her, all of which are beautiful, but these are the pieces I liked the most.

CR I had the fortune of meeting a very interesting lady in London who is a direct descendant of Fanny Hensel, and I actually learned from her about the character of this composer. She said if Felix was composed and well-behaved, like the facade of the family, everything proper, then Fanny was much more fiery and passionate, and so no wonder she wrote something like Hero und Leander, and also something like “Italien”, this song Felix published in his name – today we know that Fanny is the one who composed it. You probably saw me say this in another interview too: this song “Italien” was a favourite of Queen Victoria, and she asked Felix to play and sing it for her, when he visited Buckingham Palace, and it was then that he admitted to the Queen that his sister wrote it: “It’s not mine.” In the orchestration Tal added, especially with the extra bars it gives this evocative sound like you are in Tuscany somewhere. That’s one of my favourite songs, it shows she had a great sense of humour to choose that text and to orchestrate it.

You said in another interview that if her brother was more classical-leaning in terms of his sound, she was closer to Brahms…

CR Yes, Brahms came after her own time, as you know, but her harmonic language sounds a little bit more advanced than her own time. When I met her descendant and she told me how Fanny was very, very fiery and passionate and Felix, something she told me I didn’t know, he felt he had to kind of protect her from the public opinion – (the family) were worried if she were to have a (music) career in the open, that she might say something inappropriate, or do something which didn’t quite maybe sit well with her social class.

I like what you said on BBC Radio recently, about suspecting she would want us to use her name “Hensel” when referring to her compositions. Her brother had ‘ brand recognition’ as we call it now – but another contemporary issue pertains to ‘identity politics’, or more properly, contextualized understanding. How to think of Hensel – as a Jewish composer, a female composer, a Jewish female composer? Someone who came from a privileged family? Who had a famous brother? Can her work, should her work, be separated from those identities? Should we ignore them entirely? Or is it important we as listeners acknowledge those identities in order to appreciate her work more deeply?

DG This is a very delicate question – about being Jewish, and about being a Jewish composer. They had a third sister and the two sisters were really Christian; there are a lot of quotes where you can see Felix felt very Jewish, and … I read a lot about the Mendelssohn family because I’m really into this question of ‘how Jewish is this family?’ and I think they are much more Jewish than people think today. But: Fanny felt very Christian. Their parents raised them in a Christian environment. So it’s really interesting: Felix refers to himself quite often as Jewish, but she does not. And I think it’s much more about being a woman – their father, and also Felix, said it’s not allowed for her to be a professional composer, she’s a woman so she should be at home with her family, a woman shouldn’t work. But I think it was another time, and she was, as Chen said before, very happily married, so being a wife and mother was not a problem for her, or being at home with her husband, this famous painter. So I’m not sure we should speak of her as a specifically Jewish composer.

CR Speaking for Daniel and myself, we didn’t do the album because she’s a female Jewish composer – we did it because it’s really great music. And yes, I think because it’s been done with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich, it’s nice that we have a project where we have two Jewish composers (together with Tal), but I don’t think it‘s a must. People ask me, what is Jewish music? I say, it’s a very big question, because there are also non-Jewish composers who wrote music which is much more Jewish than that of Felix and Fanny. I don’t know if you agree with me, Daniel…

DG For sure.

CR … so in that sense, I always say, Jewish music developed in so many ways, because the Jews didn’t have one country. It’s not like Czech music, for instance, which is connected to people who were in that territory specifically; Jewish music developed obviously from the liturgy, from prayers. But the same prayer done on Yom Kippur in Berlin sounds completely different than the same done in Baghdad – it’s the same words but they use completely different keys. So if a guy from Berlin would go sing what he usually does in Baghdad they would throw tomatoes at him because it will sound so different. We can make a whole interesting topic just on what exactly is Jewish music! Later on in the 19th century much more music developed in synagogues in Germany and in Austria, and in my opinion they were influenced by Schubert, Schumann, and classical keys, but in a way Jewish music itself has been developing the most now in the past 70 years, since the formation of israel, with the Jews having their own land. It’s very interesting to see the progress of composers like Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984) who was born in Germany; at the beginning of his career he wrote very German-like works, he wrote in this Straussian kind of way, but when he moved to Israel his style changed completely, and he began using different keys and Yemeni styles of music and these different rhythms. Jewish music is a big thing – Daniel can elaborate much more on that.

DG I have worked with the Jewish Chamber Orchestra Munich now for 16 years and the idea when we started was never to play Jewish music; the idea was to find different Jewish cultural or religious elements and to speak about these elements through music. It’s the same with the Mendelssohns – they spoke through music. It’s interesting, this family: their grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the most important Jewish philosophers – he was really Jewish – and his sons founded this bank, they were businessmen, they wanted to make business, and they knew as Jews: “We can’t make business as we are.” So assimilation was important for them, for their business, for continuing their business. I think this is the interesting thing behind the Mendelssohn family; it’s not about how Jewish they were, or how Jewish their music is – I don’t know. In terms of someone like Zemlinsky, I recorded a CD with his music, and he was raised in a very Jewish household, but his music is, I think, not Jewish at all…

CR I agree, there’s nothing Jewish about Zemlinsky!

DG …but he was raised Orthodox-Sephardic Jewish.

A cornerstone of the Jewish Chamber Orchestra of Munich is education – where does this album fit within those initiatives?

DG I always say there is the singer projects, like this, I can’t say where it exactly fits, but all the work we are doing, all the concerts we are doing, is telling something about Jewish culture and Jewish religion, and yes, I would answer your question, it’s this story of assimilation in Germany and Jewish life in Germany. People don’t know anything about Jewish history and culture and religion, they only know about the Holocaust. In Munich there is a community centre right in the centre of the city but it’s closed, the synagogue is not an open place like a church, you can’t go in, so people don’t meet Jews, and that’s what I try to break down, through this orchestra, so people have an easier way; they attend our concerts and find differing aspects of Jewish life here. Now that we are about to perform these pieces in a concert in two weeks in Munich, I will speak about all of this, and about the Mendelssohn family, as part of a short intro before the concert. Again, it’s an aspect I enjoy speaking about and telling the audience about, and I think that’s the work. It’s like little mosaics: there’s always a new piece, so to say, to explain to an audience.

Fanny Hensel, portrait, painting, composer, Mandelssohn, klassische, musik, German

Portrait of Fanny Hensel, Moritz Daniel Oppenheim; 1842, oil on canvas. Jewish Museum of New York.

How do the songs change live, and your understanding of them?

CR We were very fortunate when we performed the songs initially, we already had an audience. It wasn’t full because we were allowed 50% back then, but we had an audience, so we tested some of these songs on the public. Musically, when I prepare for a concert or the recording I prepare the same way, and I always think how can I serve with my voice, with my imagination, to serve the music the best way, so it’s not like I prepare any differently, whether the audience is there or not. But magic happens when the audience is there and I have my favourite songs, but there are other songs the audience likes more, so it’s always a surprise in that sense, but I can’t say I prepare differently.

To elaborate on the question before and what Daniel said about assimilation, there was a lot of intermarriage and conversion in Germany, and this is so interesting. In reading about Mahler and Mendelssohn, they felt they couldn’t keep their religion to be successful in business – or in the case of Mahler he felt he couldn’t keep it if he wanted to get a certain post – so both of them felt they had to convert. It’s important for us today to realize how much we advanced in human rights, in rights of women, in the right to keep your own religion and to feel safe in to say, “I am a Jew, I am a Muslim, I can do what I want” – or, we aim for this situation. I live in England, and my kids go to school here, and they don’t hide that they are Jewish. For the generation of my grandparents in Hungary, they could not openly talk about their Judaism – back then, Jews could not hold certain posts, only because they were Jews. And it’s important not to forget that. But this is what I love about the orchestra and our project: it shows how much Jews contributed to culture in Germany, and in Europe overall, and the extent to which Jewish people played a key role in cultural life in Germany.

Chen Reiss, soprano, live, classical, singer, singing, sangerin, klassische, musik, performance, Muenchen, JCOM

Photo: Stefan Randlkofer

So there’s a personal relationship of sorts with Hensel’s work?

CR Yes, I feel so committed to promote her music, because it’s great music but also, the fact she was a woman. You know, my daughter plays the piano, she uses those graded exam books, and right now she’s in book 2; I looked at the composers they put in, and at least 50% of these little pcs are written by female composers. I bet you even ten years ago it was not like that. So I think there is much more awareness today to giving female composers a voice – and maybe we are helping with that a bit.

Top photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
Michail Jurowski conductor Russian music classical live performance

Remembering Michail Jurowski (1945-2022)

I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially meeting at a concert (where else), we subsequently arranged to speak, with him in Berlin, and me in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very involved in sharing his thoughts and experiences, and offered extraordinary insight extrapolating on how things like compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist, pondering responses, breaking out big grins now and again, asking me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this yokel Canadian asking these questions, even daring to approach him, music-degree-free me?

How long have I been incubating this, after all, this perceived lack which is burnished into shame: I don’t fit in because I can’t! It is a shrieking demon. Some days I wonder how much I should keep listening. In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music, that I cannot possibly have any value: I am unworthy! Everyone is laughing at me! What a fraud! No one in the industry takes me seriously or values my work! Why am I doing this? No one cares because I’m an idiot!  Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess, and the benefits they enjoy as a result (community, acceptance, applause, access, encouragement). I am learning to negotiate such details, to see a much broader picture; there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different? Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. Ah, but broody rumination pops its soggy head up just as the demon’s bright tail disappears.

The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, between looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a certain generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. He didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire (his father’s included), but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily  sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.

Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd, but again, more on that in a future post.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous. He asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? (Moses, by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording); how did I know about Kancheli? (Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions); he was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. He offered suggestions and encouragement, and I remember leaving that conversation smiling.

It wasn’t because there was some kind of bridge that had been magically built over the course of our 70-minute exchange, more a sense of open reception, faith, good energy. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language, nor does it build bridges; there are too many varied perceptions, too many differing lives, too much inequality, too many varied streams of thought, too much intransigence, too much sadness, and none of that is magically erased with romantic artsy lenses (nor should it be in some instances) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this act than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine – other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences – and yes, of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another (that’s the navel-gazing instinct social media encourages, after all), but the music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self, to another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control. We can only mitigate effect, minimize transmission, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.

Alas, we also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing (and tossing around giving it up altogether), eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick the parked cars away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required (hard and expensive it may be); perhaps a bit of patience. Loss is so difficult to understand, so huge to navigate. It is such a large hole, with such rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.

And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.

Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.

Top photo: T. Müller
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Etienne Dupuis: “Opera Can Affect Your Everyday Life”

In 2003, at the very the beginning of the Second Iraq War, my mother and I had gone out for a meal and when we came home, she poured us glasses of whiskey, and put on an old recording of Verdi’s Don Carlo. (The 1983 Metropolitan Opera production featuring Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni, to be precise.) I don’t remember what was said in turning it on, but I remember the look on her face after the First Act. “We’re going to wake up tomorrow and a bunch of people we don’t know are going to be dead,” she said, sighing softly. I’d been feeling guilty all night, and kept wiping tears away; it was hard to concentrate on anything. She knew I was upset and didn’t know what to do. “Listen to the music,” she said, patting my hand, “there is still good in the world, even if it’s hard to find. Just listen.” With that, she poured us more whiskey, and held my hand. I kept crying, but I took her advice.

The war in Ukraine broke out a day after I spoke with baritone Etienne Dupuis. I seriously questioned if this might be my penultimate artist interview, my conclusion to writing about music and culture. It was difficult to feel my work had any value or merit. Last week I wrote something to clarify my thoughts and perhaps offer a smidge of insight into an industry in tumult, but my goodness, never did my efforts feel more absurd or futile. Away from the noise of TV and the glare of electronic screens, there was only snow falling quietly out the window, an eerie silence, the yellow glare of a streetlight, empty, yawning tree branches. Memory, despite its recent (and horrifying) revisionism, becomes a source of contemplation, and perhaps gentle guidance. I thought of that moment with my mother, and I switched on Don Carlo once more. Music and words, together, are beautiful, powerful, potent, as opera reminds us. These feelings can sometimes be heightened (deepened, broadened) through translation, a fact which was highlighted with startling clarity earlier this week during an online poetry event featuring Ukrainian poets and their translators. American supporters included LA Review Of Books Editor and writer/translator Boris Dralyuk and writer/activist/Georgetown Professor Carolyn Forché, both of whom gave very affecting readings alongside Ukrainian artists. (I cried again, sans the whiskey.) The event was a needed reminder of art’s visceral power, of the significance of crossing borders in language, culture, experience, and understanding, to move past the images on DW and CNN and the angry messages thrown across social media platforms like ping-pong balls, to sink one’s self into sound, life, experience, a feeling of community and essential goodness, little things that feel so far. The reading – its participants, their words, their voices, their faces, their eyes – was needed, beautiful; the collective energy of its participants (their community, that thing I have so been missing, for so long) helped to restore my faith, however delicately, in my own abilities to articulate and offer something, however small. I don’t know if music makes a difference; context matters so much, more than ever, alongside self-awareness. Am I doing this for me, or for others? I push against the idea of music as a magically “unifying” power, unless (this is a big “unless”) the word we all need to understand – empathy – is consciously applied. Empathy does not erase linguistic, regional, cultural, and socio-religious borders, but it does require the exercise of individual imagination, to imagine one’s self as another; in that act is triggered the human capacity for understanding. Translation is thus a living symbol of empathy and imagination combined, in real, actionable form – and that has tremendous implications for opera.

On February 28, 2022, The Metropolitan Opera  opened its first French-language presentation of Don Carlo (called Don Carlos). Premiered in Paris in 1867, composer Giuseppe Verdi continued to work on the score for another two decades, and the Italian-language version has become standard across many houses. Based on the historical tragedy by German writer Friedrich Schiller and revolving around intrigues in the Spanish court of Philip II, the work is a sprawling piece of socio-political examination of the nature of power, love, family, aging, and the levers controlling them all, within intimate and epic spaces. The work’s innate timeliness was noted by Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times, who wrote in his review (1 March 2022) that it is “an opera that opens with the characters longing for an end to fierce hostilities between two neighboring nations, their civilians suffering the privations caused by the territorial delusions of a tiny few at the top.” The Met’s production, by David McVicar and conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, features tenor Matthew Polenzani in the title role, Dupuis as his faithful friend Rodrigue (Rodrigo in the more standard Italian version), soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth de Valois, bass baritone Eric Owens as King Philippe II, mezzo soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli, bass baritone John Relyea as the Grand Inquisitor, and bass Matthew Rose as a mysterious (and possibly rather significant) Monk. At the works’ opening, the cast, together with the orchestra, performed the Ukrainian national anthem, with young Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, making his company debut in a smaller role, placing hand on heart as he sang. One doesn’t only dispassionately observe the emotion here; one feels it, and that is the point – of the anthem as much as the opera. The anthem’s inclusion brought an immediacy to not only the work (or Verdi’s oeuvre more broadly), but a reminder of how the world outside the auditorium affects and shapes the reception of the one being presented inside of it. “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” ? Not always. Perhaps it’s more a reminder of the need to consciously exercise empathy? One can hope.

The moment is perhaps a manifestation of the opera’s plea for recognizing the need for bridges across political, emotional, spiritual, and generational divides. There is an important religious aspect to this opera, one innately tied to questions of cultural and socio-political identities, and it is an aspect threaded into every note, including the opera’s famous aria “Dio che nell’alma infondere” (“Dieu, tu semas dans nos âmes” in French), which sounds heroic, but is brimming with pain; Verdi shows us the tender nature of human beings often, and well, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than here. The aria is not only a declaration of undying friendship but of a statement of intention (“Insiem vivremo, e moriremo insieme!” / “Together we shall live, and together we shall die!”). It reminds the listener of the real, human need for authentic connection in the face of the seemingly-impossible, and thus becomes a kind of declaration of spiritual and political integration. We see the divine, it implies, but only through the conscious, and conscientious, exercise of empathy with one another – a timely message indeed, and one that becomes more clear through French translation, as Woolfe noted in his review. The aria, he writes, “feels far more intimate, a cocooned moment on which the audience spies.” Translation matters, and changes (as Dupuis said to me) one’s understanding; things you thought you knew well obtain far more nuance, even (or especially) if that translation happens to be in one’s mother tongue.

Dupuis, a native of Quebec, is a regular at numerous international houses, including Wiener Staatsoper, Opéra national de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, as well as The Met. The next few months see the busy baritone reprise a favorite role, as Eugene Onegin, with the Dallas Opera, as well as sing the lead in Don Giovanni with San Francisco Opera. Over the past decade, Dupuis has worked with a range of international conductors, including Phillippe Jordan, Fabio Luisi, Donald Runnicles, Oksana Lyniv, Bertrand de Billy, Ivan Repušić, Carlo Rizzi, Paolo Carignani, Cornelius Meister, Robin Ticciati, Alain Altinoglu, and, notably, two maestros who died of COVID19: Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. It was in working with the latter maestro at Deutsche Oper in May 2015 that Dupuis met his now-wife, soprano Nicole Car, and the two have shared the stage in the same roles whence they met (as Eugene Onegin and Tatyana, respectively, from Tchaikovsky’s titular opera).  Dupuis’s 2015 album, Love Blows As The Wind Blows, recorded with Quatuor Claudel-Canimex (Atma Classique), is a collection of songs from the early and mid-20th century, and demonstrates Dupuis’s vocal gifts in his delicate approach to shading and coloration, shown affectingly in composer Rejean Coallier’s song cycle based on the poetry of Sylvain Garneau.

Full of enthusiasm, refreshingly free of artiste-style pretension, and quick in offering insights and stories, Dupuis was (is) a joy to converse with; the baritone’s earthy appeal was in evidence from the start of our exchange, as he shared the reason behind his strange Zoom name (“‘Big Jerk’ is my wife’s pet name for me”). Over the course of an hour he shared his thoughts on a wide array of issues, including the influence of the pandemic on his career, the realities of opera-music coupledom, what it’s like to sing in his native language, the challenges of social media, and the need to cross borders in order to understand characters (and music, and people) in deeper, broader ways. Don Carlos will be part of The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, with a broadcast on March 26th.

 Congratulations on Don Carlos

It’s beyond my greatest expectations, really….

… especially this version! When you were first approached to do it, what was your reaction?

It was a surprise! For some reason, even though my first language is French, I do get offers for Italian rep all the time. I think I have an Italianate way of singing – I’ve never given it much thought. When Paris did Don Carlo exactly the way The Met is doing it – the five-act French version, then the five-act Italian version a year later with the same staging – even though I’m French, not France-French but Quebec-French, they cast me in the Italian version. So when The Met called and said, “We want you for the French version” it was very exciting and surprising, I was able to sing it in the original, which is my original language as well.

Being in your native tongue has you changed how you approach the material, or…? Or changed your approach to Verdi overall?

There are things I think I’m better at and things I think I’m worse at! It’s important to know that David (McVicar) and Yannick (Nezet-Seguin) have together decided on a French version that has a lot of the later Italian version’s music in it – so, for example, they’re using a French version most of the time, but the duet between me and the King, or the quartet in Act 4, is the revised Italian version, in French. They worked on a version which they felt made the music and the drama the clearest possible – that’s important to establish. The creation from 1867 isn’t what people will get. But my approach in terms of the language, it’s not the vowels or language, so much as the style. So it’s really cool, I’ve always liked hybrids, even in people who come from different backgrounds, like if one person is born in one place but raised in another, for instance – I think it’s interesting. And I love the writing of Italian composers, those long, beautiful legato lines – and in this opera, with the French text, it’s especially interesting because the text fits differently than you would expect. It doesn’t necessarily fall in the obvious places, especially when it comes to stresses. Italian sings differently than when you speak it, so the music of the language is different – and that translates live. I’ve done Don Carlo five times already my last one was in December so it’s very fresh in my head

Does that give you a new awareness of Verdi’s writing, then? You said in a past interview that his is music you can “can really live in” but this seems as if it’s making you work to build that nest for living…

Oh for sure. In general – and this is very stereotypical – the Italian, and I put it in brackets, “Italian” really, it’s emotional first… like, we’re going to go to the core! It’s so big with the emotion, and the French goes more into, I want to say a sort of intelligence but I don’t mean it against the Italian! It’s that in French, the characters are in their heads, they rationalise the emotion, so they’ll say “I love you” differently, spin it in a different way. The word we use is “refinement” – there is a refinement in Italian too. I want to be clear on this: the French and Italian influence each other, but I do love singing it in French because all the nuances I’ve seen in the score, in French they make sense to me. “Why is there pianissimo in that note?”, for instance – and in French, it works, those choices really work. It changes the way the line is brought up, like, “oh, that’s why it’s that way!”

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Jamie Barton as Princess Eboli and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So is that clarifying for the understanding of your character, then?

Yes – the short answer is yes; the long answer is, it has to do a lot more with the background in the sense that now I realise what they’re really saying. Of course it is the fact I speak the language, so now I mean, I’ve always known the phrase he was saying, but in French the translation is almost exact. There are these little differences, and they give me more insight into what’s going on.

I was talking with Jamie Barton about this yesterday – we all love each other in this cast, I’d sing with them all, any day of my life, for the rest of my life – and she and I were talking about this one particular scene. It’s a very strange scene before my first aria, the French court type of music, it’s not that long. My character just gave a note to the Queen in hiding, and Eboli saw I did something, and she has all these suspicions, so then she starts talking to me about the court of France and it’s the weirdest thing; I’ve always had trouble with that scene when I did it in Italian. Why is she so intent on asking me about the court of France? I don’t see Eboli caring that much, but the answer was given to me partly by McVicar, partly by Yannick, and partly through the French version. At this very moment (Rodrigue) has been supposedly sent to France, but he’s been in Flanders the whole thing trying to defend the part of the empire he loves – it’s not just he loves it, but he wants to defend human life, and so Eboli is not in a position to say to him, “I want to know what the Queen is up to” – so she attacks me, but it’s in the form of, “How’s France?” Even though she knows I’ve not been there at all, she’s that clever. It’s why she’s so relentless. “What do women wear in France now? What is the latest rumour?” My answer is, “No one wears anything as well as you.” I’m deflecting every question. This very short two-minute scene that everyone wants to cut – it’s very rich in subtleties! And because of the French language now, I think it’s become much clearer in my mind. In the French language sarcasm is very strong, we use it all the time, so.

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Sonya Yoncheva as Élisabeth and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

So it’s political-cultural context, for him and for us…

Yes, exactly. Eboli is very clever, fiercely clever, she’s a force to be reckoned with, so it establishes the two characters, her and Rodrigue. They are just behind the main characters: Don Carlo and Élisabeth and the King. Eboli and Rodrigue are both in the shadows, but quickly, just in this little scene, you understand they are pulling the strings in many instances. I become the best confidant of the king and I am already the confidant of Don Carlo; Eboli is sleeping with the King ,and she is pulling the levers with Élisabeth.

So you see the mechanics of power in that scene very briefly…

In a short way, yes. It’s one of my favourite moments of the opera now. We can blame the fact that, in the past, I should’ve coached with someone who knew the opera really, really, really well, and said, “Listen this is what’s going on” – I mean, it has been said to me, but it wasn’t that clear. I knew Eboli was relentless about the court, but what is really happening? It’s really about the power struggle of these two. That dynamic is one you find the trio with Don Carlo later on – the same thing happens. It’s real people fighting for what they believe is right.

There are some who, especially after this pandemic, have felt that the return of art is a wonderful sort of escape, but to me this particular opera isn’t escapist, it’s very much of the now.

There is an inclination to think of it like this: opera can affect your everyday life – and almost any opera can. And Don Carlo definitely should be something people see. They might think, “Wow, there’s so much in today’s politics we can with this.” There are always people pulling the strings when it comes to politics. When you see someone in power do something completely crazy, this opera reminds you that there are people in the back who might have pushed those rulers to that, it’s not always, exclusively just them waking up and going, “Hey, let’s do something awful today!”

It’s interesting how the pandemic experience has changed opera artists’ approaches to familiar material, like you with Rodrigo/Rodrigue, Don Giovanni, and Onegin… is it different?

Completely, and it’s not just the roles either, but the whole career. When you jump into it – and it’s the right image, you do jump, you don’t know where it takes you – at first you have a few gigs, smaller roles and smaller houses. You ride that train for a while and if you’re lucky, like in my case, you get heard and seen by people who push you into bigger roles and houses, so that train keeps taking you this place and that, and you never stop, it becomes unrelenting: when do you have time to stop for a minute and say, “Do I still like doing this?” We have people ask us things like, what’s your dream role? And I don’t know the answer. I kind of have an idea, and I have dreams, but was it a dream to sign at The Met? No. Was it a dream to sing in a produiton like this? Yes, a million times, yes. So it’s not just “singing at The Met”, but it’s a case of asking, in what conditions do I want to sing there? To totally stop during the pandemic and think, “Do I still like doing this? How do I want to do it now?” was, for me, very important. One of the first things that happened as things went back was that I had to jump in at Vienna for Barbiere – it was a jump-in but I had three weeks of rehearsals, and it was amazing. I’d done Figaro many times and it was the most relaxed I’ve ever done it.

Really!

Yes! It was complicated and high singing, sure, but, I’m going to be serious here: I took three days after each performance to recuperate because of how much I moved around and the energy I gave. I’m older – I tried to do it like when I was 28, but I had to recuperate as the 42-year-old man that I am. People said, “but you look so young on stage!” I said, “Oh my god, I feel so tired!” Still, I was really, genuinely relaxed about it all – the role just came out of me – I just let it go! I don’t feel like my career hangs on to it, or to any other role. I don’t feel it’ll stop me from doing things; one role doesn’t stop me from the other.

You were supposed to be in Pique Dame in Paris last year.

It is an amazing opera, it’s not about the baritone at all, so it’s not like Onegin, but what I know of Lisa and Herman’s music, well, I want to see and hear that, it’s amazing! But at the same time, I am interested in the baritone version of Werther – I can say honestly, it was one of the roles I’d wanted to do – it’s not a lover, Charlotte and Werther don’t have that beautiful love story…

… neither do Onegin and Tatyana…

Exactly! It is profound, the way it’s written.

Returning to your remark about teams, you worked with two conductors who passed away from COVID, Patrick Davin and Alexander Vedernikov. What do you remember of working with them, and how did those experiences affect working with various conductors now?

With Davin, we did two productions together; he was a different type of man. I never got with his way of making music so much but there is something you feel when people you know passed away -– and he was still one of the good guys, he was still fighting for art and beauty, even if we had different ways of doing it, it doesn’t matter. With Vedernikov, I met my wife singing under him in Berlin –he was the conductor of Onegin, and she was Tatyana. At that time I was doing my first Rodrigo, and my first Onegin. I was learning those two roles together, and the first premiere of Don Carlo fell on the same day as the first day of rehearsals for Onegin; I had both roles together in my brain, and it follows me to this day. In fact, my next gig is in Dallas, singing Onegin, a week after the last performance here, so the roles are forever linked for me.

Nicole and I met in this production of Onegin with Vedernikov, and I remember looking at the cast list and seeing his name, and thinking, oh no! I was nervous, because he had been the conductor for over ten years at the Bolshoi, so Onegin and Russian music overall poured out of him. It was my first time singing in Russian, and I thought, “Oh my God, what will he say about my Russian!” But he was the nicest, most relaxed man I ever met. He had this face conducting… it wasn’t grim, he had these really big glasses going down his nose, and he was conducting, head down, very serious and thinking, and sometimes he’d give you a comment, like, “We should go fast here.” I kept worrying that, “Oh no, he’s going to say my pronunciation is terrible” but no, he was giving me the freedom, saying things like, “make sure you are with me.” He taught me so much by leaving out some things. This one day, we had this Russian coach, she was really precise – I love that, it allows me to get as close to the translation as I can – and there’s a moment, I forget the line, but she was trying to get me out of the swallowing-type sounds that sometimes come with the language, and one word she was trying to get to me be very clear on, and Vedernikov turns around and goes, “That’s all fine but but he also has to be able to sing it.”

It’s true in any language. I speak French, and this whole (current) cast of people speaks French (Sonya Yoncheva’s second language in French; she lives in Geneva) and even though there are moments where I want to turn around and go, “Be careful, it doesn’t sound clear enough” – I think, let it go, because I think, and this is from Vedernikov, you have to be able to sing it. It’s an opera. And now that he’s passed away I really remember that, more and more. I think it’s the power of death, to highlight any little bits of knowledge or experience you gain from working with and knowing these people – you cherish them and what they brought.

How much will you be thinking of that in Dallas?

Every time, of course. Especially since I’m doing it with Nicole as Tatyana!

You guys are an opera couple, but do you ever find you want to talk about non-music things?

We almost never talk about opera. We’re not together now but even if we were, we have a little boy, so we talk about that. We have projects, we’re thinking where we’ll go live next and where Noah will go to school, and depending on how many singing opportunities come our way from different opera houses – that influences where we want to be. Should we be closer to those gigs, or… ? If she sings two or three years in a specific house, then maybe we should be as close as possible there? We talk about our families, our friends – humans are what matter the most to Nicole and I. Of course we talk about random gossip too, and what people post on social media. Sometimes we chat with each other about work since we are opera-oriented but we barely sing at home, mostly because Noah hates it.

You mentioned social media – some singers I’ve spoken with have definite opinions about that. It feels like an accessory that has to be used with a lot of wisdom.

For sure, but when it comes to opera singers, I have yet to see, maybe there’s an exception, but I’ve yet to see people really going into the controversial areas, except for a few. There are ones out there who like to impart and share their own experiences and knowledge of the world of opera, and they do it in a way in which people are interested, but… I’m torn on it, because it’s not the same for anybody. This is one of those businesses where you are your own product, everything that happens to you is so unique; I can tell you things about how I feel about the operatic world and it would be different to someone else’s. So I don’t mind if they share it, every point of view is important, but there’s definitely no absolute truth to what any of them are saying. To come back to your point about social media as a tool, we’ve noticed more and more it will make someone more popular in some senses – singers have been struggling for a long time with popularity. Opera used to be mainstream, and it’s been replaced by cinema and models, like spotting an actor vs an opera singer on the street is very different – people freak out over the actor, of course! So it’s kind of like the operatic world is trying to gain back some of that popularity it once had. I mean, we’re great guests (on programs), we have good stories, we’re mostly extroverted and loud…

But most of the postings don’t convert into ticket sales…

No, but they convert into visibility. So 50,000 people may not buy tickets, but they can be anywhere in the world…

… they don’t care seeing you live or hearing your work; they just want to see you in a bikini.

Ha, yes!

Your remark about visibility reminds me of outlets who say “we don’t pay writers but we pay in exposure”…

Yes, and that’s bullshit. In the world of commerce, there’s an attitude from companies of, “We’ll pay for an ad on your page” and it can work, but as a product, we don’t behave the same way a pair of jeans does; I can’t ship myself to someone, and if I don’t fit I can’t be returned. It’s a completely different way of marketing. You can’t market people in the arts the same, and you shouldn’t.

You have had to develop relationships with various houses and have worked for years with your team to develop those relationships, but things can change too.

That’s right, and I’ve already seen part of the decline, not for me, but yes. As human beings we will go really far into something until it repeats, and crashes, and as it crashes, we do the opposite, or try something else, and we do that over and over and over again. Big companies reinvent themselves enough they can find longevity; it isn’t the same for artists. If you think of how a company like Facebook began, there was a time not that long ago, it was like, “Oh my God, my mother is on Facebook!” Now it’s like, “Oh yes, there’s my mom.” That’s become a normal thing; that’s the evolution. And along with that you start to notice other things – for instance, I posted a photo of my hairdo on Don Carlo and I got a few flirtatious comments from men, people I don’t know, and I thought, “Wow, that was just one picture!” It made me really think about what women who post certain shots must face.

Yes, and most women, me included, will use filters – it’s a purposefully curated version of self for a chosen public, not real but highly self-directed.

It’s worth remembering: a picture is not a person, and no one seems to make the distinction anymore. That extends to the theatre: you see someone onstage, and you go and meet them backstage, and you can see clearly that they’re so different — a different height, a different shape, everything, even their aura is totally different from the image you were presented with. And sometimes it’s a shock. Sure, through photoshop and airbrushing, a photo can be good, but even onstage, a person is still not the same person, or in a TV show or whatever. It’s a picture; it’s not you.

Met Opera, Etienne Dupuis, Don Carlos, Rodrigue, baritone, opera, Metropolitan Opera, New York, stage, culture, performance, Verdi, Matthew Polenzani

Matthew Polenzani as Don Carlos and Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera

Top photo: Etienne Dupuis as Rodrigue in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera
Paris, Palais Garnier, Chagall, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parma, Teatro Regio di Parma, opera, opera house, Italy, Nuovo Teatro Ducale, music, culture, history, Europe, interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Personal Essay: December Is The Hardest Month

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

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

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

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

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

They said no. I already tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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