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curtain, stage, culture, performance, opera, operetta, Komische Oper Berlin, red, Berlin

Essay: Pondering Community, Technology, & “Normal”

I feel bad about not doing more writing lately. There’s been a terrible, nagging sense of letting people down, although, truth be told, there has also been a realization of my desire for privacy, together with an innate need to sit and steep, regularly – not only literally in the tub most nights, but figuratively, in words, sounds, images, ideas, inspirations, and observations, for days and weeks. It has been no easy thing, as a generally impatient person with a fiery workaholic streak, to will myself to sit quietly, attempting to comprehend and synthesize macro and micro experiences – the strange, the silly, the scintillating – within a truly historic time frame, a whole new era, wholly unexpected, wholly unwelcome, and wholly undeniable in its impact and reach. Why and how might I rush anything, and to what end? For clicks, views, eyeballs and hype? Why should I put my thoughts into the public sphere in relation to the cultural issues of the current times? How can I possibly reconcile the monumentous with the mundane? What can I possibly contribute?

Pianist Igor Levit pondered similar questions in a recent Q&A with German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel in which he asked, “Was ist Kultur nach Corona? Sind wir Entertainment oder sind wir wichtig, im Sinne von: Erfahre ich Relevanz und haben wir Relevantes beizutragen?” (“What is culture after Corona? Are we entertainment or are we important, in the sense of: Do I experience relevance and do we have relevant things to contribute?”) What indeed is culture? Where do I fit in? Does what I and who I am do hold any merit? I haven’t felt qualified to tackle these questions, in writing or otherwise, and, with no desire to put myself in the public eye simply for the sake of it, I have kept purposely, purposefully quiet, tending to what little paid work there is, engaging in predictable domestic responsibilities, and attempting the odd bit of creative endeavor in paint and ink and pastel. In between, I have listened, relistened, watched, painted, cooked, cleaned, ordered, reordered, organized, reorganized, reached out, shut down, kept a routine, broken a routine, smiled, cried, raged, and pondered – and amidst all of this, I have read voraciously: articles, poetry, maps, interviews, comments on social media platforms; in the morning, through the afternoon, into many evenings and over many meals. A computer is not a good brunch or dinner companion, it must be noted.

Recently I poured over various bits of news tearing into the remains of a roast chicken, one delivered by kind neighbours, bought during one of their regular outings. Grocery shopping, like so many activities, feels like something from a distant past, and yet it was only a few short months ago I, like so many, felt it to be the most normal of activities. Being a freelancer meant (means) carefully watching a budget and it was earlier this year that I had noted, with some pride, that I’d been able to bring the cost of my weekly grocery bill down. Seeing the refreshingly low price of that chicken last week, having noted the painful inflation of grocery prices over the past two months, was a strange reminder of those (so-called) normal times, a time when I’d walk into a supermarket as casually as I’d walk into a concert hall. Being immune-compromised has meant not venturing into a supermarket, hardware store, restaurant, or indeed, concert hall, theatre, or opera house since early March. There is an understandable sense of longing for things once taken for granted, and a simultaneous anxiety over what those very things (privileges now, if we are honest) might actually cost in the long run in terms of safety, stability, and, if you’re lost people during this pandemic (as I have), visceral mortality.

Berlin, cathedral, dome, view, perspective, city, Germany, Berliner Dom

The dome of Berlin Cathedral. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Such concerns loom amidst the recent news that German culture minister Monika Grütters, together with the culture ministers of Germany’s states, have agreed on an idea for resumption of cultural activities at the end of May. This news runs parallel with stringent outlines for those reopenings, plus the recent news that Berlin has recorded its lowest level of COVID-19 patients in eight weeks. Reopenings are bound to happen, but there is a question of how recognizably “normal” they may or may not be. Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden has been the first house in Germany to reopen, with a live presentation series which kicked off this past Monday (18 May) with baritone Günther Groissböck. The series, which includes theatre works along with opera, runs through early June and is happening at both the large and small Wiesbaden stages, with reduced orchestra, or sometimes (as was the case with Groissböck’s concert) solo piano. Upcoming highlights include excerpts from Tristan und Isolde presented twice (21 and 31 May), with tenor Andreas Schager and soprano Catherine Foster, and Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, performed by tenor Klaus Florian Vogt next week (29 May). An audience of 200 are permitted for the performances in the large house (instead of the usual 1,000) and masks are required for all attendees, with no bar service and only one person at a time allowed to use bathroom facilities. One expects other organizations will shortly follow suit in adherence with the same guidelines, finding further ways to facilitate live performance.

Only some of this matches what once constituted “normal” in the classical world, of course, and it will be interesting to note, over the coming months, how various houses and orchestras will be adjusting programming and presentations accordingly. “Normal” is has become an experience which is entirely changeable, linked to an unpredictability attached to both the new nature of the virus and the old station of human behaviour. Therein, of course, lies its terror. One music writer recently examined the connections between music and context using performances of Beethoven’s Ninth as a potent example and asking “(w)hat matters more in a performance: the art or the context?” The era of corona has joined the two in ways no one could have ever anticipated at the start of 2020, and yet the entire classical world is bound to that fusion (and the energy it is creating, and has yet to create) in both professional and personal spheres. For as much as there is true cause for joy in the classical industry at resumption of activity, there is also immense worry. I have stopped asking when I might next attend a live event and have begun to ask if. Will it be possible? Will I feel safe? Will I be able to afford a ticket? Just as much do I worry over the role independent writers (especially those of us intentionally off the media path) might play; do we have a place, particularly in a landscape that is rapidly relying on digital transmission and engagement? I want to believe there’s possibilities within the ever-changing classical ecosystem, but I also wonder if corona (and its repercussions) has reinforced the very walls that ask (need) to be torn down. There is a human tendency toward finding comfort in the familiar, one which calcifies into intransigence, and it affects artists as much as audiences, resulting in a creativity that is controlled, controllable, and despite all the big talk of embracing exploration, as comfy-normal as ever. Will that continue?

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, dome, architecture, Germany

Looking up at the Alte Nationalgalerie Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Such notions are useful reminders of just how intertwined art and context really are. The classical culture table seems to be expanding and contracting simultaneously, and one holds out a tiny sliver of hope for creative, intelligent integration between various artistic disciplines, one that moves beyond replication and talking heads (enjoyable as a very select few of them are). Such replication, particularly within the realm of the spate of Instagram Live videos on offer at any moment, brings to mind Susan Sontag’s notion that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” Those who enjoy online streams and broadcasts (notably The Met’s Live In HD series) were motivated, during pre-corona times, by a number of factors, among them health, economics, proximity, curiosity, simple company. (I know; I was sometimes among them.) Some may tune in in order to watch a favorite performer, others to have their views about a specific work (or indeed, an entire art form) affirmed and validated (or not, if frequent use of the word “Eurotrash” in comment threads is reliable evidence of such non-affirmations). Lately I suspect the desire (or “addiction” to use Sontag’s not-wrong phrase) to watch is linked to the desire to partake in a ritualized form of socio-musical nostalgia. The “remember when”ism of the live experience, always an extant factor within digital culture, has been magnified one-thousand fold over the past two months. It feels normal to watch these things; we, as an audience feel normal – even though “normal” is entirely, at this point in history and within the context of corona, a construct, a memory, another bit of nostalgia. 

What is on offer now by various arts organizations might be intended as a temporary replacement, but of course nothing can (or will, or does) replace a live experience in the theatre, nor should it. There has been a lot (a lot) of hand-wringing online, across various platforms, about the live-vs-digital experience; this seems like a false narrative of competition, and a reductive way of framing culture. (I will be writing about this and the culture of “free” that goes with it in greater detail soon, I promise.) Digital is not a replacement for live, it is merely, if right now, vitally, a complement. The live, lived experience, of being (truly being) in an auditorium with hundreds or sometimes thousands of other living beings, collectively intaking breath at certain moments, expressing surprise or shock or grief or relief at others, the resonance of voice and sound and applause moving through layers of velvet, wool, silk, cashmere, flesh, bone, nail, eyelash; the light of eyes, the cock of necks, the bow of heads, the ripple of fingertips; the sheer magic of being in a room with others, listening to and watching and experiencing everything in a sensual symphony of sound, movement, light, and shadow — this is singular, special, worth protecting, supporting, meditating on, and dreaming about. I am, however, unsure such an experience conforms tidily into a preset idea of “normal”, nor has it ever; it is extra-ordinary. The times I’ve had to miss performances out of consideration for my own delicate health are memories stained with an aching tone of regret. Independent freelance life (and the sacrifice inherent within it), a frustratingly sensitive constitution, plus an overall quotidian solitude add up to a weight given to live events which is rarely if ever afforded to other experiences. In addition to the sensuous, they offer a rare (for me) sense of living community within a highly confined and intensely concentrated space and time. The sharpness of experiential contrasts – from no people to lots of people, from empty spaces to filled spaces, from silence that is chosen (mostly) to silence ritualized, timed, imposed, manoeuvred – is, or was, my own form of normal. (Certain parts of this have stayed blessedly intact; I have written most of this in a lovely silence punctuated by the odd drips of a humidifier, the self-propelled squeaks of an antique maple chair, and the regular rumbles of a tea kettle. One might safely add the maraca-like clatter of ice-cubes in a cocktail jigger after this is posted.) Dipping in and out of communal experiences is its own sort of privilege, and it can be difficult to navigate the visceral tidal waves that come with those arrivals and departures, but the grey, windless days are worse and I’ve found certain online broadcasts to be colorful buoys to latch onto amidst the seemingly-endless grey days of late.

music, performance, classical, venue, architecture, design, lights, Berlin, Philharmonie

Looking up at the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Tuning into an online event means not coming with any of the same ideas or expectations of ecstasy (not that I attend live events with such expectations either), but in full awareness of the value of community, however virtual it may (must) be right now. There’s something satisfying about watching the numbers on the side of a live chat; never has pressing the “Like” button and watching it sail across the screen been more connected to some form, however tangential, of validating social cohesion. Nothing about it is normal, and yet… isn’t it? What is normal anymore Live events, whether conversations or concerts, offer the necessary frisson of excitement missing from the lives of those used to attending live events, and the contrasts they provide which form, for some of us, some vision of normalcy; sometimes they even offer rewarding illumination and revelatory insights. Professor Marina Frolova-Walker’s excellent series of lectures on the Ballet Russes (via Gresham College) underlines fascinating connections between dance, design, and music at a very creatively fertile time in history (maybe that should be “histories”), while conductor Alan Gilbert’s weekly exchanges with fellow conductors (his last one featured Sir Antonio Pappano, Marin Alsop, and Esa-Pekka Salonen) have revealed inspiring ideas on not only the current circumstances but experiences, observations, and confessions in relation to specific scores and composers. As Alsop noted last Friday, the exchange probably wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances, and certainly not in public. Violinist Daniel Hope has found success by placing intimate live performance firmly within a digital idiom; he has recently re-started his Hope@Home series with broadcaster Arte, performing from various German venues, including, this past Sunday, from the incredible heights of the Berliner Fernsehturm, with music by The Kinks and an appearance by actress Sophie Rois. What is normal (“normal”) now?

art, sketch, mixed media, color pastels, abstract, original

Original sketch. Art & photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Despite or perhaps because of the immense supply of digital material, uncertainty has become its own form of community, one filled with billions of sighs, billions of gasps, billions of yawns, all peering at the glow of large or tiny screens, together and apart. Everyone, amidst the bells of instant messages or the yawning quiet without them, exhales heavily and wonders what life will look like a month, a year, a decade from now. I wonder at the premiere live event that I’ll be attending in a post-lockdown world, and again, not when but if… and if so, will I wear a mask (yes) and will I mind (no) and how far others may have travelled to be in the same spot, what sacrifices they may have made and what risks they may be taking in making the effort for something they love. What will the artists be thinking and feeling, I wonder, performing for what may well be a select audience, and what sense of community might they might grasp? How might that experience of community complement or contrast with mine?  Will it compare at all to past events? Should it? Will I feel relief, calm, ecstasy, sadness, guilt, joy, beauty, confusion, a sense of overwhelm… perhaps all or perhaps none? Will it matter? More than anything: I want to leave a blank inner canvas for undefinable things that have yet to be understood. Call it whatever you want; it won’t – can’t  – be normal. Not anymore.

Chanticleer, early music, vocal ensemble

Chanticleer: On Music, Modernity, Social Media, & Singing Machaut

When most people hear the words “classical religious music” they might immediately think of Requiems by Verdi and Mozart or sprawling Masses by Bach and Beethoven. The work of Guillaume de Machaut may not be top of mind, yet the 14th century French composer is a central figure within Western musical expression and development. He was also a survivor: Machaut endured the disastrous Black Death that killed a third of the European population.

Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) was composed in 1365 for the Cathedral at Reims where Machaut was serving as a canon; the work marks the earliest complete setting of the Catholic Church’s Ordinary of the Mass (the part of a mass which is constant) traceable to a single composer. As music writer Davis Smith noted at their website A Taste of the Divine Specific in 2022, Machaut’s Messe (written in Old French) is notable because “it is the first large work of Western music to showcase an individual voice […] perhaps the first truly major musical statement.” More precisely:

Machaut’s music serves the purpose of worship and brings the listener closer to the source—and sound—of his faith through the mastery of poetic idioms, translating the established text into abstract sonic patterns, exploring the potentials of the human voice in combination with others, painting the diction and meaning of the Mass text with meticulous strokes, playing with sonorities and their relationships, testing the boundaries of what poetry and music alike can do. In so doing, he paved the way for all composers within the following 400-year period.
(Davis Smith, “The Poetry of Sound and the All-Wellness of Faith“, June 23, 2022)

Various recordings of the Messe have been made through the years, all of them utilizing a variety of vocal styles specific (or in some cases not entirely tied) to early music performance; the Taverner Consort and Taverner Choir (1984), the Oxford Camerata (1996), and Antwerp-based Graindelavoix (2016) are just a few of the groups to have put their individual stamp on the work. Machaut also composed a wide variety of songs, many of them written in first-person and exploring terrestrial concerns like courtship, longing, and heartbreak; his ironically-titled Le voir dit (“A True Story”) is a meta-fictional narrative which mocks contemporaneous tales of courtly love even as it seduces the listener with its flowing poetry and intriguingly modern-sounding vocal writing.

That paradigm of new and old sounds is something Chanticleer specialize in. The ensemble will be performing the work of Machaut in a series of concerts in California between June 2nd and 9th, with each one featuring the Messe de Nostre Dame interspersed with selection of his secular works and those by medieval contemporaries. This musical curiosity comes naturally to Chanticleer. Known as “an orchestra of voices”, the group was formed in 1978 by tenor Louis Botto, who cleverly named it after the singing rooster in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Initially exploring the music of the Renaissance, their musical palette has expanded to include a host of sounds from a variety of eras, thanks in no small part to Music Director Emeritus Joseph Jennings, who joined Chanticleer as a countertenor in 1983. Assuming the position of Music Director a year later, he remained with the ensemble in that position until 2008 when he stepped down and assumed the title of Artistic Advisor; during his tenure the ensemble released a tremendously diverse and often Grammy Award-winning array of recordings showcasing the ensemble’s vocal flexibility, from early music (Josquin, Palestrina, Byrd, Desprez) to spirituals and traditional gospel music to jazz.

Current Music Director and countertenor Tim Keeler has continued this tradition of expanding the ensemble’s oeuvre while happily embracing a 21st century approach. Recent ecologically-themed programs have included tje song cycle The Rivers are our Brothers (which includes “I Am A Tree“, a live performance of which was recently captured during a tour stop at Toronto’s Koerner Hall) by neoclassical-electronic composer Majel Connery, as well as “I miss you like I miss the trees” by electro-acoustic composer Ayanna Woods, who is also Chanticleer’s composer-in-residence. Their social media platforms feature the group performing contemporary and nostalgic pop hits, gospel, and a sample of chant from the video game “Halo: Combat Evolved”. A busy summer is in store for the group, with German dates to include a premiere appearance in Dresden (at the city’s storied Frauenkirche) and another in Ludwigsburg, performing for the first time with British vocal ensemble Voces8 – but before all that, there’s Machaut and his unique Messe. Is it really a work only for the religious and/or early-music-loving ears?

Keeler (TK) and countertenor and Assistant Music Director Gerrord Pagenkopf (GP) think otherwise. “It’s early music,” Keeler recently told San Francisco Classical Voice writer Jeff Kaliss, “but you almost have to approach it with a new-music sensibility.” He and Pagenkopf recently shared their thoughts on the Messe and a variety of Chanticleer initiatives, many of which offer a unique integration of entertainment and education, with any enlightenment for audiences a natural and happy side-effect of smart, approachable musical presentation.

Chanticleer, vocal group, early music, ensemble, singing, voice, music

Photo: Stephen K. Mack

What’s it been like to explore the music of Guillaume Machaut?

TK It’s been a bit of a switch. We do so many different styles of music in Chanticleer. We started as an early music group back in 1978, singing Renaissance music mostly, and we still do a lot of Renaissance music in our programs and on tour; last year was our William Byrd anniversary program, the year before that was another Franco-Flemish program. But rarely do we go so far back as medieval music, which is a genre in and of itself, very unique and very specific. The way you sing it, and the harmonies involved, it almost feels modern in some ways.

How so?

TK Well, in a sense, it’s very unpredictable. As I said we do a lot of Renaissance music, and when you do a lot of Renaissance music, you start to understand the patterns. You can kind of assume what’s going to come next and there’s definitely a tonal soundscape that you get used to. But with medieval music, those conventions are not set up yet. The composers then were experimenting a lot – many musical conventions were being set down for the first time, things as simple as bar lines and time signatures. You think, “Well, how was there ever music before that?”– but there was. These medieval composers like Machaut were really establishing what music looked like, and they were experimenting a lot. Musical lines go where you might not expect them to go; harmonies are up against each other; sometimes you’re completely unprepared for the sounds and you think, “Wait, is that real? Did they really mean to write that?” And you go back to the source material and yes, those in fact are the notes that were written. There was a lot of experimentation, and in a sense, that’s how you have to think about modern music also: you have to forget everything you know about singing and take it for what it is.

Beautiful vs. “beautiful”

How have you adjusted vocally?

TK Gerrord’s been doing more singing than I have, so he’ll have more to say. But I do think there’s really no actual way to know how Machaut would have wanted his music to be sung. We have some small bits of writing from contemporary sources that are mostly just complaining about how things shouldn’t be sung, not telling you exactly how it should be sung. So we don’t really know! There are a few recordings of the mass out there, and they all take wildly different approaches – because nobody really knows. There are Renaissance-inflected approaches that are sort of straight tones, beautiful beautiful sounds, then there’s some that are much more nasal and much more aggressive – for lack of a better term – that take their inspiration from improvisational modern Corsican polyphony and things like that, where it’s a much more visceral sound. And there’s a lot to be said in this regard about modern music as well, because a lot of times we have composers asking us to make a certain kind of timbres with our voices or to go for a certain kinds of sounds. So we get to experiment in the same way with the super early music – because we don’t really know the “should” – so we get to have some fun with it and try things out. What do you think, Gerrord?

Gerrord Pagenkopf Chanticleer, Assistant Music Director, countertenor, singer, musician

Chanticleer’s Gerrord Pagenkopf. Photo: Stephen K. Mack

GP Yeah, that’s pretty much it! In the bel canto era everything was all about beautiful singing and about making the tones as beautiful as possible, and that singing technique was superimposed, for a long time in the 20th century anyway, onto all genres of all time periods of vocal music. I feel like in the 1980s and ’90s, we started to try and perform music in what we think is a more authentic way, pre this bel canto kind of style –so not every single tone has to be quote-unquote beautiful; it can be a little bit nasty, snarly, a bright kind of nasally. And we think that that’s okay. When you hear some of these very dissonant chords, you understand that if you try and do a nice beautiful operatic vibrato, it really obscures the tonality, so maybe a more laser-pointed, bright tone is actually necessary to make those chords ring, we would say, or, have their effect.

“The sounds feel new”

How does this translate to your live presentation? Is there any intentionality in your blend of education, enlightenment, and entertainment with these concerts?

Tim Keeler, Chanticleer, Music Director, countertenor, singer, musician

Chanticleer’s Tim Keeler. Photo: Stephen K. Mack

TK All of the above! Really, that’s a great question. My first thought is that with Machaut, the sounds feel new – actually the time period is called Ars Nova, or the new art, which is fascinating. It was new back then, and it feels new today. It is pretty remarkable how these sound worlds are still a little bit a part of everybody’s subconscious, like everybody knows them if you grew up in the Western world. And so you underline that and all of a sudden people are transported in a way that maybe they didn’t quite understand they could be. One of our videos online is us singing the Halo theme song; it’s a video game which is essentially a Gregorian chant that is just put into this video game to give it a sense of time and space; that sound world is not dissimilar to the Machaut world. The piece is a mass, right? And within the mass there would have been chant as well as polyphony. In the upcoming concerts we’re going to start with a chant in the 10th century style to get everyone into that mystical religious world, which is a very unique space – but one everybody has a little bit of familiarity with already. It’s a tricky business to program an entire religious work of such length in a concert and make it feel like something that people want to sit through.

GP But there’s a wide variety of audiences for Chanticleer: we have people who love Kansas’ music and people who love early music. So our goal is to find a way to do a medieval music concert in a way that feels accessible to all of those people. I’m sure we’re not going to be entirely successful with that, but we’ll do our best. The way the program is structured is that we split the mass into the beginning and the end of the program so it’s not all in your face, all at once.

TK Obviously we’re not going to perform it as part of a religious service, which it would have been done. Our concerts will be more of an exploration of the sound and its world, and the effect of that sound, as opposed to an exploration its religious aspects – that being said, most of the places we’re performing in are churches because that’s where the acoustics are best, and quite frankly, there aren’t very many spaces in America that act as gathering places that also have good acoustics other than churches! In the middle of the program, in between the two halves of the mass, we’re going to explore a lot of Machaut’s secular music, a lot of his chansons. These works feel very modern, very personable, very intimate and relatable. They are also reminders that people in the 1300s had a lot of similar emotions, desires, and fears – so if we can relay those same things, even though we’re singing in old French, the hope is that the audience will come along for the ride and be a part of that journey.

You normally have little explanations between songs in your concerts, correct?

GP That’s right. In our regular programs we would sing every single genre, and in those situations it is helpful to explain and speak between songs, like, “This 1500s piece is paired with this 1800s piece, and is also paired with this completely new piece, and they all relate like this.” And I think it’s good to help the audience make those connections because we do have program notes usually for our regular program – but during the concert people generally aren’t reading them or they might read them beforehand and then forget all about them, so it’s good to just sort of keep them with us during the performance and be like, “Okay, here’s where we are, and here’s where we’re heading, and this is how this all relates together.” But as Tim said for this Machaut presentation, we want it to be more of a journey.

Happiness = Many Sounds

Chanticleer was founded on Renaissance music, but I am curious how your varied musical choices relate to your mandate and how they have helped to expand it and your audiences.

TK When Chanticleer was founded, Renaissance music was still very much a niche market, and it still is to some extent today, but there was really a need for exploring this repertoire at that time, because not a lot of people were singing music from that time. Over time we realized that there were people who wanted to hear more of what Chanticleer was able to give so we started to expand our repertoire. We decided early on that we wanted to tour and in order to make ourselves more marketable we needed to incorporate more styles and genres into our music and repertoire. Our mandate is to perform all music at its highest level. So that if you do hear a Renaissance piece, you’re going to hopefully hear it at the highest level you can possibly hear it; likewise Max Reger, you’re going to hear it at the highest level. That’s really what we lean into now.

GP We have this amazing opportunity to do all these different genres and to bring people together. If you visit the Chanticleer Instagram account you might click on something and think, “Wow, this Kirk Franklin piece is awesome. What else is on here? Oh, William Byrd, who is that? I like that, it’s awesome!” – and vice versa. It’s often the case that the people who love Renaissance music are maybe the least exposed to other kinds of music, so we have this way to give them exposure to old music or a gospel song – or both. Also, I don’t think any of us in Chanticleer would be happy just performing one genre of music.

How important has social media been to this expansion?

TK Pre-pandemic we really didn’t have much of a social media presence but with the turnover in our administration and even some singers it was interesting seeing several of our musical colleagues leaning into their social media presences. We saw then just how vital it is. It’s been amazing to see how much of an impact it has had, to have exposure to people all over the world who engage with us and write things like, “When are you coming back to Sweden?” and “When are you coming back to Japan?” It’s been really amazing to see our appeal not just locally nationally but internationally and it serves as a reminder that what we’re doing is important.

Do you feel like ambassadors for vocal music?

TK Absolutely – ambassadors for early music, and ambassadors for all other genres of music also. You know, our Music Director Emeritus Joe Jennings has arranged so many gospel quartets and African-American spirituals for the ensemble, and that aspect is now very much part of our identity. It’s an aspect we try to carry forward as respectfully as possible.

GP We have a responsibility not only to early music but to all these other musical genres that are so much a part of what we do, and of us.

Top photo: Stephen K. Mack
New Zealand Opera, NZ Opera, (m)orpheus, co-production, Black Grace, dance, ASB Waterfront Theatre, Samson Setu, arts, performance, performing arts, stage, opera, reimagined, Gluck, Gareth Farr, Neil Ieremia

New Zealand Opera: “We Want Stories That Are About Us, Now, Here In This Place”

Is opera in crisis? It depends on who you ask. Directors, programmers, musicians, dramaturgs, academics, and music writers alike have been grappling with what exactly opera’s place can or should be in contemporary society. Shrinking interest; dying audiences; lack of funding sources; layoffs; closures; relocations; charges of abuse; increasingly desperate marketing and juiced-up data – outside of the small silo in which opera produced, presented, shared, and discussed the signs aren’t exactly encouraging. These issues highlight a bigger problem: the perception that opera, for all of its beauty and benefits, is simply irrelevant to a great many people.

It’s an idea – or reality, depending on your viewpoint – which has come about through decades of dramatic economic, cultural, and technological shifts, not least of which has been the precipitous cuts to arts journalism. Those cuts are frequently not acknowledged by the opera cognoscenti, though such lack of awareness (or interest) is possibly symptomatic of a larger issue facing opera, one related to community. The extent to which opera companies (and their leaders) meaningfully engage with the community, and in what spirit that engagement is conducted, are hard if important questions right now; is local engagement done for marketing and optics, or does it mean something more, something outside of affirming positional privilege?  Should opera reflect the place it’s presented, and if so, how? Opera is inherently linked to context; the cultures and histories of one locale can’t (and shouldn’t) be grafted onto another one. So how should opera acknowledge context? In which formats? And what role might commissions play in all of this?

One might look to New Zealand. A new report from Arts Council New Zealand Toi Aotearoa released this past Tuesday (“New Zealanders and the Arts – Ko Aotearoa me ōna Toi“, Creative New Zealand, 23 April 2024), shows public engagement, participation, and attendance in arts events all impressively up, with increased support for Ngā Toi Māori (Māori arts) as a way of connecting with culture/identity and encouraging language skills and usage. Various aspects of accessibility stand out, however; in identifying elements that would make a difference to their regular attendance, 53% of respondents cited cheaper tickets, and 30% said feeling confident they would be welcome. Might these respondents feel welcome at the opera? New Zealand Opera (NZ Opera) certainly hopes so. The company is dedicated to presenting work which reflects the people and history of Aotearoa; that focus means the country’s rich heritage and history sits at its core – and clearly manifests in the company’s bilingual website, which acknowledges a range of cultural consultants. Among the four values on its Mission & Values page is, rather notably, “Mahitahi | Collaboration“. Presenting works in a number of cities including Wellington, Christchurch, and Auckland’s Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre (named after the famed Kiwi soprano), the company partnered with the acclaimed dance ensemble Black Grace and its founder, choreographer Neil Ieremia last September. Gluck’s 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice was presented in reimagined form, as (m)Orpheus, with reorchestration of Gluck’s score by New Zealand composer Gareth Farr for a ten-piece ensemble that included a string quartet, marimbas,  guitar, woodwind, and brass. The production was a hit with critics and audiences alike. As well as live presentation the company has a clear commitment to education – hosting a student ambassador programme; school presentations and tours; and Tū Tamariki, characterized as “a space for Māori driven works, created specifically for tamariki and rangatahi” (children and youth).  Its first opera, Te Hui Paroro by music theatre artist Rutene Spooner, incorporates various theatrical elements including text, movement, and waiata. Upcoming presentations include Rossini’s Le comte Ory (opening the end of May) and a concert version of Wagner’s epic Tristan und Isolde in August with the Auckland Philharmonia led by Giordano Bellincampi.

This past week the company hosted its inaugural New Opera Forum, or wānanga, at Waikato University, located roughly 90 minutes south of Auckland. The Māori Dictionary defines a wānanga as a “seminar, conference, forum, educational seminar” as well as “tribal knowledge, lore, learning – important traditional cultural, religious, historical, genealogical and philosophical knowledge” – a definition which complements the company’s interest in music-based and text-based storytellers. Featuring composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone and reo Māori expert Kawiti Waetford (Ngāti Hine, Ngātiwai, Ngāti Rangi, and Ngāpuhi), the wānanga is described on the NZ Opera website as “a space for story-telling creatives in Aotearoa to gather together and consider the essential steps required before starting new opera projects.” The company’s General Director, Brad Cohen, told local arts website The Big Idea in February that the idea for the forum sprang from two questions, ones relating to support for new works’ “success and longevity“, and best ways to welcome storytellers to an art form they may perceive to be one of “exclusivity and entitlement.” (“New Forum Eager To Smash Creative Stereotypes”, The Big Idea, 15 February 2024)

Cohen has a lifelong history in music – as a conductor, administrator, and founder of the immersive music platform Tido. Raised in Australia, he began playing violin at the age of four before becoming a chorister in Sydney; as a teenager Cohen won scholarships (organ and academic) to The Kings School, Canterbury (UK) and went on to St John’s College, Oxford. Studying conducting with Sergiu Celibidache in Munich and Leonard Bernstein in Strasbourg, he eventually was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. In 1994 he won the Leeds Conductors Competition. (Other winners include Martyn Brabbins, Paul Watkins, and Alexander Shelley.) From 2015 to 2018, Cohen was Artistic Director of West Australian Opera. A fan of French and Italian repertoire, his track record with contemporary works is equally formidable; along with collaborations with composers Thomas Ades, Jonathan Dove, Georges Lentz and Ross Edwards, Cohen has directed ensemble works by Frank Zappa and worked closely with the celebrated Almeida Opera Festival in the 1990s. He has led the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Orchestras, the Philharmonia, the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to name a few, as well as conducting operas at English National Opera, New York City Opera, and Opera Australia, and recorded on the Naxos, Chandos, and Deutsche Grammophon labels.

Named as General Director of NZ Opera in April 2023, Cohen outlined his belief in opera to national broadcaster RNZ:

For me, opera is a universal resource. It uses one very simple element, the human singing voice, and it does one very simple thing with that, and that is tell stories through the power of that singing voice. This is a resource that is the first thing we as infants hear…we hear our mothers singing to us…it’s what we grow up with, it’s the only instrument everyone is born with…and it belongs to us all.

(“The new NZ Opera: progressive rather than radical“, 14 November 2023, RNZ)

In January Cohen took part in a panel called “Conversations About Opera” and admitted he was part of what he called the “apprentice and master model” and that the current opera landscape requires “more consideration in how we collaborate.” (“New Zealand Opera boss hails changing culture”, New Zealand Herald, 21 January 2024). Collaboration has a recurrent theme throughout Cohen’s work; in a 2018 blog post closing his tenure with West Australian Opera, Cohen outlined the centrality of what might be termed the three c-s of 21st century opera: community, curiosity, and confidence. Ties to my own favourite c-word (context) are obvious; they jump out of the opera silo by simply acknowledging there’s a reality (or rather, several) outside of it.

Our recent conversation took place the week before the start of the wānanga. Cohen and I began by discussing the origins of the forum before exploring the role companies might play in cultivating new commissions, a role that goes well beyond workshops and acknowledges collaboration and related community. At a time when there are calls to “burn it all down” – “it” being the opera world – Cohen takes what has he himself has termed a progressive (as opposed to radical) approach; the opera-is-fancy clichés can go; the stories and the music remain.

Brad Cohen, New Zealand Opera, General Director, conductor, opera, arts, culture, leadership

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

The idea really began 35 years ago; I started out my career working at the Almeida Opera Festival in London in the 1990s – that was where I did the premiere of Ades’s Powder Her Face and a lot of other major work. We also developed many new commissions. The 1990s was probably the last decade of real confidence around new opera. There was a vision of a way forward then, that (new opera writing) was part of a tradition and that it was going to continue. My perception is that that confidence has really deteriorated and lessened over the last couple of decades. When I came into the role here as General Director, there were some commissions in progress and discussions around future commissions. I thought we needed an overhaul and that sent me to thinking: what would the preconditions be for new works? The forum is about exploring the best means of ensuring success for new work that we can – and by “success” I don’t mean first performance or run; I mean sustainability and revivability.

How does the forum aim to counteract the one-time-only issue for new opera works?

It goes back to process. My experience of working with experienced and less-experienced composers and librettists is that the historic pattern for many houses seems to be, “Here’s a chunk of money, we’ll see you in three years with a masterpiece.” At that stage, abject terror normally sets in for the music and/or text creators, because they don’t normally have experience in writing opera. They have no idea what the rules of the game are, if you like. They may not even be experienced in writing text or music for voices. There are basic things: how many words do you think a singer can sing a minute and be comprehensible? Do we really want a libretto that’s longer than Tristan when the brief has been for a 90 minute one-act? There’s a real potpourri of experience coming in, but also, from the opera companies, there’s often a real lack of shepherding. Companies will decide on the big name to give the commission to, and then they’ll step in with their direction in the six months before the premiere, in the form of workshops. In my view, and from my experience at the Almeida, that’s far, far too late. It’s the holding of creatives through the entire process that we are proposing as a better model.

NZ Opera, New Zealand Opera, Jonathan Dove, Kawiti Waetford, Frances Moore

The New Opera Forum  (L-R) included NZ Opera Participation Manager Frances Moore, baritone Kawiti Waetford, and (bottom) composer Jonathan Dove. Photos supplied by NZ Opera.

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

However, it does encounter a few obstacles because I think opera composition is one of the last citadels of the ivory tower. That is, there is an expectation amongst lots of creatives that they’re going to be given a chunk of money and that the success of the project is in simply getting the commission. Now for me, that emphasis is all wrong. The success of the project is the revivability of the piece. It’s not the getting of the commission. If everything’s inflated towards, “Okay, I’ve got this commission” and then “What the hell am I going to do?!” – that’s the wrong emphasis. How are we going to make these works revivable and sustainable? It’s about how the opera company, with all of our practical and pragmatic experience in putting work on, supports and educates where needed, but does not interfere with the creative process of these people who are writing these works.

What is the role of workshops? What should come before them?

Sometimes workshops have become little more than a PR exercise: “Hey, this piece is coming and here are some bits from it!” But by the time you get to that, it’s way, way too late. What about the robustness of the libretto? What about the dramaturgy? What about the structure? Is this going to work? Is this going to work on stage? Do we think this has a reasonable chance of working? Because a lot of the pieces that I get, you know, I mean, there’s some obvious question – like who wants to see this piece? Who wants to actually see this story? Do you have the authority and the knowledge to tell this story? Is it really your story? Is it your kind of story? Or are is this another form of appropriation? These are really big questions. One of the days of the forum we’ll have one hour focusing on story sovereignty. Some composers and librettists don’t even know what story sovereignty is, so there’s a lot of ground to cover.

There’s a strong element of didacticism within various new works, and it’s sometimes tied to grants and funding schemes. Where does that element fit in with your notions of new opera creation?

That’s a complex issue. I just want to consider your question of whether the existence of grants, to some degree, actually distorts the choices that are made downstream of that. If didacticism is becoming a part of this, is this because in some sense, the grants have a stipulation or a vision mission statement somewhere that suggests that didacticism would actually be welcome? I think I, like you, don’t really feel that didacticism is germane to opera, necessarily. I don’t think historically it’s played that well or successfully and I think if you want to teach and to create teachable moments there are probably far better media to do that.

Gatekeeping In Opera

In terms of our commissioning there’s a lot of dishonesty. I think a lot of people say, “Oh we’re not gatekeepers!” – but actually, I am. I’m pretty much the only gatekeeper in this little corner of the world. I am leading the only opera company here with national reach. I am pretty much the path through which all decisions about commissioning or not commissioning go – and not just commissioning work, but who directs, who produces, who sings, who is cast, all of that. I am ultimately responsible for those decisions. So it doesn’t behove me to say “Oh, you know, we don’t like to think like a gatekeeper.” You know what? We as companies are the gatekeepers; there’s no getting away from it. Someone has to say yes or no. And the biggest part of my job normally is saying no. That’s just the way it is, and I accept the responsibility, but I’m not going to be dishonest about that. Someone has to press go or no-go on all of these projects.

We are not a grant giving body; we source commissioning funds from trusts, foundations and other institutions, but we are still the conduit through which those funds come to creators. The question is, how can NZ Opera support artists better? And by “support creators better” I do not mean, “how can we give you more commissioning money?” – that’s not the point of the question. The question is, what do you expect from a national opera company in terms of their responsibility towards you? Because opera commissioning is an unavoidably expensive process. There’s some sense of adult responsibility here that we’re really keen to discuss on that final forum day; we’re adults, let’s all act like adults and have a serious discussion about what our responsibility is as the national opera company towards creatives, but also what responsibility do creatives have towards the National Opera Company, towards our narrative, towards our journey. It’s a sense of mutual obligation, ideally, and that contract, if you like, is very rarely explicitly stated.

That mutual obligation is made extremely clear on your website – how does that work in terms of the company’s diversity?

I don’t frame it around Māori and non -Māori; we frame it as, we are here to serve our community or, alternatively, communities in a multiple sense. There’s a lot of complexity here around Māori hiring, our bicultural journey going forward, and there’s a lot of complexity politically, with the new, more right-wing government. I won’t use the phrase “cultural war” but there’s an aspect of a culture war developing here right now and as the national opera company, we are right in the middle of that. We feel that we have been given a responsibility, but it’s not like we’re inside and the others are outside. In fact, in many ways, we are outside. We’re outside the main thrust of culture as opera people; we’re outside the main way that people spend their time and what they want to go and see. It’s a very parochial if very common thing to think, “We are at the seat of power and we will open our doors to these lovely creatives from various communities and let them have a chance to play” – for me, the model is exactly the reverse of that. The opera industry as a whole is holding on by our fingertips – we are on the verge of irrelevance – and everything else is either deception or self-deception. I don’t have any time for it.

rehearsal, repetiteur, Brad Cohen, David Kelly, NZ Opera, Mansfield Park, performing arts, culture, music, arts

Cohen (centre) in rehearsals for NZ Opera’s 2024 presentation of Mansfield Park, speaking with Principal repetiteur David Kelly (right). Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Storytelling As Foundation

So if we’re going to serve our communities, what is necessary? What I do is simplify everything to the pithiest possible message, and the only way that I really approach new work, is to see who is the best storyteller and who feels that they both have to tell them and that they have the competence to be able to articulate them. That is really where it stops and starts for me.

If you’re a composer – whether a white male composer or a female of colour – and you’re not interested in storytelling, you’re not a good match for our organisation here, because storytelling – we’ve made it very explicit – is what we believe in and we are about. We want to tell stories not only about our communities, but ones with historical awareness of this nation’s narrative. What part do we play in the narrative going forward? That’s a really big responsibility, but we try and wear it as lightly as possible, not by saying that we are The Chosen Ones and we’re going to occasionally allow a chink of light in so a diverse someone can slip through and become anointed by us – no! It’s about who has great stories to tell and if those who do have any interest in working within the operatic art form. If not, is it because they’re genuinely not interested? Or because there might be some misunderstanding about what opera is – i.e. “It’s not for me because it’s elitist, it’s exclusive” or “They wouldn’t want me anyway”? What we’re saying, really strongly, is that we want great stories – stories that are about us, now, here in this place. We have advocacy and persuasion to do; the way that opera has sold itself for the last hundred years is not the core of what it actually is.

You’ve said in many interviews that the whole “elite” cliché around opera has to go.

Yes, you’ll hear me say it again and again: opera is not about the champagne; it’s not about the black tie. Those things can be part of it, sure, but that’s not what opera is. Opera is storytelling through the human singing voice. Period. I just say that ad nauseam, because that is the most condensed form of definition of what opera is. What’s the quality of the storytelling? Does it reach the heart? Does it speak to audiences? Is it something that people want to come and see?

Brad Cohen, New Zealand Opera, General Director, conductor, opera, arts, culture, leadership

Photo: Andi Crown

Who decides what’s great or not then? Who decides on that definition as applied to the art form?

It’s a pretty intractable problem. You can abdicate from your responsibilities as gatekeeper and you can say, right, we’re throwing it entirely open, no one’s going to make a decision about this! Then what’s left to you? You could mount competitions too, but at the end of the day someone is always saying “go” or “no-go. ” Always. It doesn’t matter who. It could be the board; it could be the funding body; it could be the GD; there is no world in which work is entirely self -generated and rises to the surface and gains performances without someone at some stage going, “Yes, we’re going to go with this” or “No, this is not for us.” There’s no way around that. The longer-term solution is that my successor is a Māori person – that’s the obvious result of everything I’m doing, and it is my own thinking about succession. I’m not on my way out yet, but it behoves every leader to start thinking about succession immediately. The logical next step for a country who is engaging with these narratives and taking its responsibility to the whole community seriously is that it shouldn’t probably be a white, Oxford-educated male who replaces me. That’s what I am, right? It doesn’t matter how liberal I am.

“Consistent and determined”

Cosi fan tutte, New Zealand Opera, NZ Opera, Mozart, Cosi fan tutte, Lindy Hume, Tracey Grant Lord, performing arts, culture, classical music, opera

A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, directed by Lindy Hume. Photo: Jinki Cambronero

Is it fair, then, to say the Forum is aimed at both creators and a larger classical ecosystem?

It’s absolutely aimed at the ecosystem – we hope that it is going to be a nourishing activity that will send tributaries out into the ecosystem – but that’s not our intent; I hope that it’s going to be a consequence. And for clarity, we are being very explicit that we are not aiming for outcomes from this one; this is a space for reflection, for safe discussion, and for erecting an intellectual superstructure around the space in which we can create new work. We’re not going to have workshops in this one; that’s not what this is about. This is really pushing the walls out to create a safe space and a way to say to people, “Hey, you might have an interesting story we want to hear.” And one of my hopes is that some of the more marginalized voices who may be attending the wānanga will go back to their networks and say, “You know, they might not be full of shit; they might actually have a little bit of understanding.” That’s the best we can hope for. We are very consistent and determined at NZ Opera about the journey we’re on, and our messaging and our communication reflects that.

“Oh, they actually mean it; this isn’t just optics.”

Yes we do mean it! I’m very passionate about it because… my big stick is, I feel like I’m a slight subversive within the establishment, and I’ve watched opera alienate its audiences for my entire life, and I love it too much to let that continue. So I’m doing what I can and encouraging subversion, not merely for subversion’s sake, but in order to refresh this art form and make it purposable going forwards –  that’s my mission in life. I think it’s what the art form needs so desperately.

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor, Dario Acosta, classical music

Remembrance: Sir Andrew Davis

To say “I grew up with Sir Andrew Davis” isn’t quite accurate.

Davis was a regular a sight growing up in southern Ontario in the 1970s and 80s. As Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra from 1975 to 1988, Davis led a varied and fascinating series of programmes, helping to cultivate new ideas on sound and its live iteration. He felt as familiar as the green carpet in the little house where I grew up – as familiar as the fruit trees in the front yard and the glass Pop Shoppe bottles in the refrigerator. It was normal to climb into a rumbling old station wagon with my music-loving mother twice a month (sometimes more) and see Davis stand on the podium in front of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the then-new Roy Thomson Hall. He didn’t make classical cool – I didn’t care about any of that; to me it existed outside of such labels – but he did help to make that world less daunting.

No one smiled at the creaky Royal Conservatory building where I took my yearly piano exams. No one smiled at the opera, either; very few smiled at recitals or chamber concerts. Davis was different. Vaguely resembling a large teddy bear, Davis had a discernible warmth that you could feel, whether seated near or (for us more often the case) far. I felt that warmth, especially when we sat in the hall’s choir loft behind or to the side of the stage and observing Davis made me want to listen more to everything with more care and attention, to make mental notes of things I heard and saw, to think about relationships between pieces within one programme. Davis also made me want to learn more about conductors and their mysterious art: a flick of the wrist, a raise of the shoulders, a big swoosh of the arms; what did it all mean? I began, slowly, to try and understand.

Trips to the hall were not limited to ones with my mother; those arranged through school, though far less frequent, were nonetheless welcome variations to the drudgery of boring gym and daily bullying. They were happy journeys to a second home – green carpet replaced by grey carpet; fruit trees by labyrinthine halls and escalators. They were also opportunities to finally become an authority, however briefly. I would lead my fellow students to the loos and show them the drinking fountains, and tell them to shut up when Davis (and Gunther Herbig after him) inhaled and raised baton.

“Just listen… ”

And then I would listen too, open-mouthed and pie-eyed. It was one thing to hear this music on the radio and records; it was quite another to hear it live. I started to hear counterpoint, instrumentation, texture, colour. Davis, perhaps more than any other musician at that time, made classical music real for me – me, an art-loving nerdy, oddball girl from a small suburban town who began to desperately want to pursue a musician’s life, who eventually skipped classes in grades 6-7-8 to sit at home and play the piano, who would pause from Beethoven-Handel-Liszt-Kabalevsky and ponder the memory of Davis’s arms as they moved through a space that hardly seemed empty. “How would he play this passage?” I wondered. “What would he tell me?”

News of Davis’s passing today at the age of 80 was met with immense outpourings of grief – from singers (including Sarah Connelly, Christine Goerke, Alice Coote), conductors (Sakari Oramo, Dalia Stasevska, John Andrews) and a number of classical organizations, including those with whom he’d held longtime positions including Glyndebourne (Music Director, 1989-2000), Lyric Opera Chicago (Music Director and Principal Conductor, 2000-2021) the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (Conductor Emeritus), and BBC Symphony Orchestra (1989-2000; Conductor Laureate). Norman Lebrecht praised Davis’s wide repertoire, noting that “Beethoven, Berg, Brahms, Britten, Elgar and everyone else were treated with respect and meticulous attention.” He led 700 performances of over 60 operas by 22 different composers, including Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. One of my favorites is his recording of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and BBC Singers, released via NMC in 2021; I’m not sure I would have considered the work of Birtwistle were it not for Davis.

In early 2020 Davis commented in a video for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (a preview of a concert he was leading) on the connections between Beethoven and 20th century composer Michael Tippett. “In their different periods, they were both kind of looking to show us the same thing: a way forward that would enrich us.” Beethoven’s Third Symphony may well have been the very first thing I experienced Davis leading live; the sound was riveting to my young ears – thrilling, poetic, profoundly moving. Today I re-listened to the acclaimed 1991 Teldec recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.6, (a longtime favorite) with Davis leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra – and I experienced precisely the same feelings as a child, along with that now-deeply-planted desire to simply, quietly… listen. Davis was so much a part of my musical life and it seems strange and sad to now have to contemplate life without his presence. I am so grateful for having grown up, in my own way, with Sir Andrew Davis. Thank you, maestro.

Top photo: Dario Acosta

Update:

My feature with New Zealand Opera’s Brad Cohen, announced last Thursday, will be publishing this week. Sincere apologies for the delay.

tulips, flowers, spring, orange, colour, petals, vibrant

Reading List: Movies, Music, Media, & … Butchers?

Another university term has wrapped and I am still busy, largely with self-initiated things including interviews, chases, planning, and (as ever) copious amounts of study. Herein, a few things that have caught the attention, inflamed the imagination, cocked my head and furrowed my brow; I may have smiled once or twice also. Voila, news, views, musings, questions, reprimands, and previews… April showers bring what? We shall see.

This week: A series called “Opera and Democracy” has been unfolding in an assortment of locales throughout Manhattan. Presented by The Thomas Mann House and musicologist Kai Hinrich Müller (also a 2023 Fellow of the organization), the series hopes to explore “how the opera can contribute to diverse and inclusive societies” and uses Berlin’s Krolloper as a symbol of both art and politics. (Built in 1844, the facility became an opera house in 1851 and eventually served as the assembly hall of the Reichstag from 1933 to 1942; it was demolished in 1951.) The topics of  the series, according to the website, include “aspects of the democratization of opera, to questions of power and representation, new formats, casting and programming policies, audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.” The series has already hosted themed conversations in Los Angeles and Munich. Its next events happen next month in Dresden, with June’s week-long online series exploring involving the Black Opera Research Network (BORN). I’ve put out a request to speak with Müller about this – fingers and toes crossed for a future feature on a timely topic.

Later this month: Dame Felicity Lott will be performing at London’s Institut Français on April 30th as part of a screening of Jean Cocteau’s first film, the 1930 avant-garde work The Blood of a Poet (Le sang d’un poète). Considered a masterpiece by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, the film is the first installment in The Orphic Trilogy (subsequently followed by Orphée in 1950 and Testament of Orpheus in 1960), which explores themes of identity, creativity, fame, and the unconscious. Lott’s performance (happening after the screening) will be accompanied by composer Jason Carr, with whom she has worked extensively; the appearance  is part of the Institut’s broader series celebrating the work of French composer Georges Auric (1899-1983). Cocteau’s film includes a rather perfect line for classical watchers: “Those who smash statues should beware of becoming one.”

Next month: If you don’t know the music of Maria Herz (1878-1950), you might – soon. Born in Köln to a music-loving family, Herz and her family eventually moved to England in 1901 because of the rising tide of antisemitism in her homeland, though they would return in 1914 and be forced to stay. After her husband’s premature death in 1920, she would use his first name in her compositions, in order to, as website Music And The Holocaust puts it, “gain a foothold in her male-dominated profession.” By 1934 she had produced over 30 works, though only five of her songs (as well as her arrangement of a Bach Chaconne) were published during her lifetime. She died in New York City at the age of 72. Much of her music sat forgotten in drawers until grandson Albert Herz’s heroic efforts in Switzerland; he would go on to donate it to the Zurich Central Library. In 2015 Herz’s music became a permanent part of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’s music department. As publisher Boosey & Hawkes recently announced, a new recording is on the horizon. Set for release in May via Capriccio Records, the album will feature Herz’s Concerto for cello and orchestra Op. 10 (soloist Konstanze von Gutzeit), Concerto for piano and orchestra op. 4 (soloist Oliver Triendl) and various orchestral works, all performed by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the baton of Christiane Silber.

Carving up space

London’s Southbank Centre recently announced a new festival based on Kate Molleson’s book Sound Within Sound (Faber & Faber, 2022). I interviewed Molleson not long after the book’s release with relation to a feature I was writing for The Globe & Mail on changing ideas of the classical canon.  The festival, named after the book, runs 4 to 7 July and places its spotlight on the ten composers Molleson identifies in her book, ten artists whose work has, for various reasons, flown well under the radar – until now. The festival will include concerts, installations, stories, DJ sets, and recitals, including pianist Siwan Rhys performing Galina Ustvolskaya’s harrowing and extremely timely Piano Sonata No. 4 in 4 parts (1957), Piano Sonata No. 5 in 10 movements (1986), and Piano Sonata No.6 in 1 part (1988). You might feel yourself walking out of the Purcell Room in pieces following the performance, but then, it’s up to you to put them back together again in a way that makes sense with every other musical morsel – and maybe that’s the whole point of the festival.

Speaking of pieces and morsels: butchers have been on my mind, thanks to a thoughtful essay at Longreads. Along with a fascinating history, author Olivia Potts gets meaty (pun intended) input from a variety of people in the industry, many of whom left careers in other areas. This element has a special personal significance – I considered this very path over a decade ago; my opera-loving mother said I would probably make a good butcher indeed but for my small stature, not – as the author points out – that this is an entirely insurmountable thing. The feature immediately brought to mind other industries, ones with overwhelmingly male leadership and/or overwhelmingly clubby, insular attitudes. (I’ve mused on this theme frequently in the past, most recently in last month’s reading list.) Among the many brilliant observations and direct quotes, one section particularly stands out to me:

“It feels axiomatic to say that those who come from outside an established or “validated community of knowers” will find it significantly harder to both acquire knowledge and have that knowledge recognized than someone whose path is a well-trodden one. One of the most common ways of excluding non-traditional entrants to an industry is to be dismissive of them. This idea of being “taken seriously”—often those exact words—comes up again and again in the butchers I speak to about women in the trade.” (“The Women at the Cutting Edge of Butchery“, Olivia Potts, Longreads, 15 February 2024)

Shut your (my) filthy (rich) mouth…

Still in the non-conformist (or is it?) category: Theatre writer Lyn Gardner has written a chewy column for The Stage explores the rise of self-censorship in both organizational and individual aspects. I long for something to be added here around the normalization of false equivalence – how and why some views are given equal weight when they are not clearly not equal – and on the proliferation of hate speech, particularly within the realm Gardner points at as being the most problematic (social media), and how that proliferation has leaked into current cultural discourse. She does touch on an important aspect to all of this – money – and the role of funding bodies, but I wonder to what extent so-called “cancel culture” (whose popularization has made a tiny handful of tech people very rich) actually informs real programming decisions. After all, the moral authority to which she alludes doesn’t come cheap, and it largely flies out the window to keep the money rolling in; ever has it been thus. That tendency is more pronounced now that revenue sources are becoming increasingly scarce. Gardner’s mention of her students not knowing about Britain’s history of theatre censorship is somehow both depressing and unsurprising. (“Self-censorship doesn’t only silence voices but erodes moral authority“, Lyn Gardner, The Stage, 8 April 2024)

… but do speak up

The GVL (Gesellschaft zur Verwertung von Leistungsschutzrechten) is conducting a survey on the state of the German music industry. The survey is intended for artists who are either self-employed or active in the music industry and based in the country. Responses are due by no later than 19 May 2024. Co-founded in 1959 by the German Orchestra Association and the German wing of the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry), the GVL represents the interests of both producers and performing artists related to audio recordings, as well as ancillary rights through different forms of media. Machen Sie mit!

Hallo Medien

Amidst recent German media speculations regarding the current situation at Bayerische Staatsoper, its multi-award-winning in-house record label (BSOrec) is not mentioned once. Am I the only one who finds this strange? The label, founded in 2021, has so far released ten acclaimed audio and visual works, the most recent being last autumn’s recording of Mendelssohn’s Elias led by former company leader Wolfgang Sawallisch and captured live in 1984. Does media (local and international, equally) not consider BSOrec part of the musical ecosystem of the house (or city)? The exclusion is particularly galling if one considers the excitement such releases tend to generate globally; as well as being good for ears and eyes, they further the branding of the organization, and, more broadly, that of Bavaria overall – something Markus Blume must surely be aware of (we hope). Furthermore: why is the label’s work so under-promoted by the house? Why are there no related online updates – ones that might impress Herr Blume and demonstrate an interest in engaging with the wider public? Does Guido Gärtner need to come back from Bremen?

Lebeswohl, Scheiße

Writer Anne Midgette has penned an open letter to the musicians and administrators of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, and what she terms “other classical music organizations and orchestra musicians’ collectives.” The letter is a response to their posted expressions of solidarity with relation to an article by Sammy Sussman in New York Magazine detailing the 2010 rape of New York Philharmonic horn player Cara Kizer by two fellow musicians and its horrific aftermath; since the article’s publishing, the two are, as of 16 April, are no longer rehearsing or performing with the orchestra. Midgette takes aim at the statements of support posted by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute (along with those unnamed others) for their rampant hypocrisy, something I’m not sure she would have been able to do with such clarity in her former position as classical critic with The Washington Post. Along with the force of her prose, Midgette provides stellar links and digital trails. I have met many people who intensely dislike Midgettes reporting, the #MeToo movement, what they feel she represents and supports – dislike these things as much as you wish, but you cannot deny Midgette excels at bringing the damn receipts.

Coming soon:

This weekend you can read my recent conversation with New Zealand Opera General Director Brad Cohen. The company’s first-ever New Opera Forum takes place next week (22-26 April) with composer Jonathan Dove, librettist Alasdair Middleton, and baritone Kawiti Waetford. The company recently opened their production of Dove’s 2011 chamber opera Mansfield Park – the work’s libretto is by Middleton and based on the 1814 novel of the same name by Jane Austen. Cohen and I had a fulsome discussion in which he offered thoughts on what opera can and should be in 2024, for artists as much as for audiences.

This sense of possibility is one of the things I’ll be exploring in an upcoming exchange with Renaud Doucet and André Barbe. The busy director-designer duo have two productions on the go right now, in Liège (Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande) and Toronto (Donizetti’s Don Pasquale); their 2019 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote in Glyndebourne  (which I previewed in Opera Canada magazine) incorporated aspects of real-life hotelier Anna Sacher into its dramaturgy. The last time was at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the pair had made a dramatic escape from Venice; this time will (we hope) be a bit less dramatic.

In the meantime, remember the c-word– and use it. 🙂

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Louis Langrée, conductor, France, Paris, Opéra Comique, director, opera, classical

Louis Langrée’s “Larger View” At Opéra Comique

Most people know Opéra Comique in connection with Carmen, but there’s so much more to the famed Paris house than Bizet’s famous opera. Conductor and General Director Louis Langrée is clearly in love with the “jewel of a theatre” that has hosted premieres by a who’s-who of French classical greats, including Debussy, Delibes, Massenet, Méhul, Offenbach, Poulenc, Lalo, Meyerbeer, Halévy, and Thomas, as well as Italian Gaetano Donizetti; the theatre also hosted the French premiere of Puccini’s Tosca in 1903.

Appointed director of the Opéra Comique in November 2021 by President Emmanuel Macron, Langrée came with ideas – lots of them – though it’s clear he also possesses a wider awareness of the practicalities required to bring them to fruition. Langrée’s name is known on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his work in New York and Cincinnati as well as his native France. Beginning his studies at Strasbourg Conservatory, Langrée went on to becoming vocal coach and assistant at the Opéra National de Lyon in the mid 1980s. From there he worked as assistant conductor at Aix-en-Provence Festival and music director with Glyndebourne Touring Opera. He made his North American debut at the Spoleto Festival in 1991. But it was his time in New York that so many North Americans may know him for, as Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Centre, a position he began in 2003 and would hold for the next two decades. In 2011 led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for the first time in a guest capacity; he became its Music Director in 2013. He’ll be concluding his time there at the end of this season.

An award-winning discography comes naturally with so many varied experiences. It includes work with the Camerata Salzburg, l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège, and Baroque ensemble Le Concert d’Astrée, covering an array of composers (Liszt, Franck, Chausson, Ravel, Schulhoff, Mozart, Weber, Rossini). In Cincinnati  Langrée has recorded commissions by Sebastian Currier, Thierry Escaich, and Zhou Tian. The 2020 recording Transatlantic (Fanfare Cincinnati) with the CSO illustrates what could be an artistic ethos for the conductor in its intelligent transcending of borders and strict definitions. Langrée’s third album with the orchestra features shimmering, gorgeously vibrant readings of Stravinsky’s Symphony in C (1938-1940), the original 1922 version of Varèse’s Amériques, and the world premiere recording of original unabridged version of Gershwin’s An American in Paris. Music writer Jari Kallio wrote at its release that “Be it the ravishing colours, the ever-enchanting melodies or those uplifting rhythms, these performances of American in Paris are nothing short of an epiphany” and called the Grammy-nominated album “one of the most important releases of the year.” Yet opera isn’t a side-job for Langrée, but close to a raison d’être; the conductor has been involved in numerous opera productions across Europe – at the Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala (Milan), Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Opéra national de Paris, as well as the Glyndebourne and Aix, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led stagings of Iphigenia in Tauris, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Carmen and Hamlet, one of his favorite works.

Notably open about the siloed nature of conducting and the classical world in general, the Alsatian artist made it clear in a recent conversation that his administrative demands have actually strengthened his artistic output. Notes, phrasing, orchestration – any conductor can talk about those things; Langrée is just as interested in pondering resources, labour costs, world realities. The role of education is just as paramount, and the conductor is keen to strengthen and expand the connection between artistic institutions and learning for young people who may have only cliched ideas about the opera. Offering tantalizing morsels relating to a new work (an intriguing-sounding multilingual commission), Langrée enthused on his more immediate project, the upcoming double-bill of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, which opens at Opéra Comique on March 9th.

The pairing feels like a highly symbolic choice for an artist who seems perfectly at ease with his audience, whether near or far. We began by discussing why he chose these works, and what French actor/director/writer Guillaume Gallienne brings to the stage of the Opéra Comique.

Why pair L’Heure Espagnole and Pulcinella as one programme?

There’s an amazing repertoire of works which were commissioned and premiered by the Opéra Comique, of course the most famous is Carmen, but there’s also Pelléas et Melisande (1902), La voix humaine (1959), Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947), Les Contes d’Hoffmann (1881), La damnation de Faust (1846), Manon (1884), Cendrillon (1899), Lakmé (1883), all of them were premiered here, along with L’Heure Espagnole (1911). Pulcinella was not premiered at Opéra Comique and it isn’t an opera but a ballet. L’Heure Espagnole is short, it’s one-act opera, or as Ravel said, a comédie-musicale; at the time it was premiered, it was paired with Thérèse from Massenet, which is a very moral story in which a lady abandons her lover to go to the guillotine with her husband. It could have been possible to show the contrast between the two pieces, but generally L’Heure Espagnole is presented with Ravel’s other operatic work, L’enfant et les sortilèges. They are two lyrical pieces that Ravel wrote but they have nothing to do with each other.

So I wondered, what could we present? I thought of an evening with contrasting subjects and arts; when you come to the foyer of the house here, you see les quartiers allégories (the four allegories) de Opéra Comique: la comédie, le chant, la musique, et le ballet (play-acting, singing, music, ballet). I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose ballet and opera. But which subjects? With these two works we have two contrasting subjects: Pulcinella is this man who is so attractive, an irresistible sex symbol for women, and the woman in L’Heure Espagnole can’t be satisfied by any of her men.

What’s the connection in terms of musical language?

It’s a case of contrasts. Stravinsky said he had an epiphany in discovering the music of Pergolesi, it was a way for him to go further; with Ravel, we have the sound of his beginning with L’Heure Espagnole. It is just amazing, these sounds that mix music and effects: a metronome, the sound of a rooster crowing, the soldier, with sounds that are very militaristic. The orchestration Stravinsky uses in Pulcinella, however, is like black-and-white: there is no clarinet, for instance, or any kind of a sound that might give some shimmering effect. It’s oboes, horns, trumpets, trombones, this concerto grosso-type orchestration with soloists and the tutti, whereas L’Heure Espagnole is much closer to The Nightingale or The Firebird in terms of its orchestration.

Does this reflect the connection between composers?

Ravel and Stravinsky were friends – they met at the premiere of The Firebird. Diaghilev had asked them to orchestrate bits of Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina. They were using “vous” and not “tu”, but then they began letter-writing, and would open with “mon vieux” or ‘you old guy’ – it was a term of affection. (Conductor) Manuel Rosenthal told this story that on the day Ravel died (December 28, 1937) Rosenthal was conducting L’Enfant Sortileges; at the end of the evening he saw Stravinsky looking really upset, because he had lost his friend. Stravinsky went to Ravel’s funeral along with Poulenc and Milhaud – there were not many people, but Stravinsky was there.

How did Guillaume Gallienne become part of this project?

Guillaume is an immense French actor, stage director, and film director. I don’t know if you saw his film, Les Garçons et Guillaume, à table – it was so successful in France and rightly so. He has his own language, his own world, and he knows how to transmit it. He’s also gifted in how he inspires singers. The characters in both pieces here are not romantic, but they do want to be loved. Even the muscle-man in L’Heure – one is touched by his naivete. You need to accept them for what they are. It’s very difficult for singers with these works because normally they want to interpret a personage, to incarnate a person as a person, but there is none of that here, otherwise it would become a cheap piece. It’s amazing to see how Guillaume works, with his precision. Funny, because Stravinsky called Ravel “l’horloger suisse” (the Swiss watchmaker) there is this perfection in the details, as Ravel was fascinated by mechanical objects. With his opera, you don’t need to incarnate a person, you just have to sing and allow yourself to be placed in situations which are nonsense, a nonsense that makes you laugh, cry, smile, think, feel – that’s something special. Guillaume understands this perfectly. Every rehearsal with him is a masterclass.

What’s it like to return to Paris and lead a theatre so rich in cultural history?

I have a double life, the life of a conductor and life of a General Manager. When you’re in the pit, you don’t think, “My God, this place!” or “So much history!” but rather, “I should not take this phrase too fast” or “I should help the singer move on here.” You’re with very practical things. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, then you’re not doing your job.

What kind of responsibility do you feel to that history in terms of programming?

I do feel the DNA of this theatre, and everything that comes with presenting both new productions as well as works that everybody knows. You can have traditional houses, or houses where there is innovation, experimentation, trying to find new ways to do things, and generally the two are opposed, but actually the tradition of the Opéra Comique – our history – is to create, to innovate, to experiment. So even with old pieces like Pulcinella and L’Heure, juxtaposing an opera, comédie-musicale, and a ballet is a very unusual thing, but it is also symbolic of my mission. And of course we are going to continue to premiere new pieces, to give world premieres, to give Paris premieres also. But it’s one thing to create and to do the world premiere, and another to be confronted with different audiences, and have the work be interpreted by different singers, directors, conductors, orchestras.

Where do you see Opéra Comique being part of the ecosystem in the post-pandemic landscape then?

Today in the new economic situation we must have corporate users, which means that when you present a piece, either a new production or a new work, you have to find partners. For instance, after Paris L’Heure/Pulcinella is going to Dijon. When L’Autre Voyage opened here earlier this year, there were several festivals and opera managers and house directors who came to see it, and of course we hope that the piece will be presented in different places. We have also commissioned works with various outlets in Germany – and those commissions take into account traditions the Opéra Comique have always embraced in terms of languages. Gluck composed Orfeo ed Euridice in an Italian version (1762) and a French version (1774); Cherubini’s Medée had multiple translations from the French into German and Italian. So we are planning to do a new work with Matthias Pintscher now, in both German and French.

Also, and this is quite important, and maybe the main reason I wanted to come and lead the Opéra Comique, is the production and the transmission sides. We have the Maîtrise Populaire, which involves young people from 8 to 25 years old, they have part of a scholarship, morning is general studies and afternoon is for dance, singing, staging, acting. Many of these kids come from places in the suburbs of Paris where there is absolutely no contact with opera at all. Their dream might only be to become a soccer star, not an opera singer or any kind of an artist, and through this program they discover a new world – and it changes their lives. They learn that when you sing together, you must have concentration and discipline; you have to know that your partner counts on you and you can count on them, and that’s something wonderful. We are a theatre nationale, de la republique, so this is all part of our message: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Where does this mandate toward education and development fit within your greater vision?

I arrived at an age where I feel that I must transit, I must help the new generation, I must pass the baton, and develop the image and the identity of this house and its public perception. This title, “opéra comique”, what does the “comique” part mean? People think it means operetta, but no, it’s from the same etymology as “comédie” or speaking; in opera you sing, in comedy you speak. It’s much clearer in German: “singspiel”. Opera, as an art form in the old sense, was a representation of royal power, onstage; at Opéra Comique it is the opposite, it’s the representation of ourselves as ourselves…

Volksoper”…

Genau! That’s why The Magic Flute is a singspiel, it’s an opéra comique! And Carmen is not a princess, Manon is not a princess, Melisande – well, we don’t really know…

Your quote to the New York Times last year comes to mind:“When you have to read these Excel things and have to balance budgets and work with subsidies from the government — now, I feel like I’ve been plunged into real life. And that’s hard” – but from what you’ve said it seems as if these real-life details have made you a better artist.

Absolutely. I realize now as a conductor I was really in a silo. I used to feel an opera was the score, the dream of the composer together with voices and visuals – but now that I’m the General Manager of the house, there are so many things to think about: props, stagehands, electricians, costume designers, seamstresses. You have a larger view of the entire thing. And that awareness makes you think differently.

To what extent does that translate to your audiences?

What matters now is to understand the importance and role of philanthropy and sponsorship in relation to audiences – something I learned in the US – which is developing in its own way very quickly here in France and all of Europe. It’s especially relevant with inflation and the raising of electricity rates, in building sets and understanding raised wood prices because of the war in Ukraine. You can’t ignore all of that. And of course being on a constant budget, when you have inflation, you’re hyper-aware of salaries too. So what is reduced is the production budget, which is quite difficult, therefore we need to continue searching in terms of partners, corporate users, sponsors, philanthropists, and doing so with a lot of determination and energy.

So that’s where creativity comes in?

Entirely. I mean, a set that costs ten times more will not necessarily be ten times better. The realities force us to be imaginative. In terms of programming, there are at least three other houses in Paris – Châtelet, Champs-Elysées, Opéra national de Paris – and it wouldn’t make sense if we presented Tosca here, even though that opera did premiere in France at the Opéra Comique, and that’s only because the General Director at the time was a friend of Puccini’s. But when we present Carmen here,  for instance, we present it with the dialogues, not the recits. We’ll do the same for various presentations next season. That way we don’t compete with other houses. Also a small theatre is a great advantage; there’s an intimacy here, you can whisper and have it be heard, it gives a different relationship to the stage and the music. I remember conducting Hamlet (in 2o22) and (soprano) Sabine Devieilhe was whispering during parts of the mad aria – you could hear every word. It was incredible.

Is it right to say that intimacy is part of the Opéra Comique brand?

Yes, this place is a hidden gem. My office here, the office of the General Director, is close to everything. It’s often the case that the offices of house directors are on top floors, with beautiful and impressive view of their cities, but here, I have people above me, below me, next to me, and if I leave my office… <carries laptop> in three seconds, I am on stage…. voila! <shows auditorium on camera> This proximity really says everything.

Top photo: Chris Lee
trees, nature, path

August 2023: What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, Listening To, Contemplating, & Cooking

The lazy, hazy days of summer continue and seem endless, more hazy than lazy for many, and far worse than anything one could have imagined at this time last year. One feels helpless in the face of so much tragedy – and highly discouraged in continuing any form of creative pursuit.

After hours (days, weeks) spent negotiating with various forms of sadness, I’ve found solace, usually temporary if no less rewarding, in old favorites: reading, listening, watching, and lots of cooking. My deep freeze has never been so consistently full, my head similarly filled with novels, names, images, events, ideas, places, and oddly (or not) a renewed sense of creative inspiration. One has to give thanks for these things, and very often, make time for them, as much as for the good people who have spent time and energy in conversation, often over meals, enduring my meandering conversation and offering their own insights, “You need to move” being unquestionably the best.

Sometimes simple things pull one through challenging times, though of course there’s always the risk of those things clearing the ground for more pondering, furrowing of brows, (over)thinking. Perhaps Prince Orlofsky has the best response here…

Striking summer things for me have been wide-ranging and not always joyous (shock shock) but sometimes, just sometimes, they are that, and validating too. A fascinating study published in July 2023 points up the essentially visceral nature of the live experience. Babies between the ages of six and fourteen months were studied in order to examine the effects of music in live and controlled environments. Three groups (one presented with a live show; one with a playback of the show in the same environment; the last with playback at home) were shown an excerpt from The Music Box (a baby opera by artist Bryna Berezowska) at the McMaster University LIVELab, a research facility/concert hall  located in Hamilton, Ontario.

The study found that the babies who experienced the live version were far more engaged, with their heart rates even synchronizing. Study co-author Laura Cirelli, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s department of psychology, noted that “If there’s something happening that we collectively are engaging with, we’re also connecting with each other. It speaks to the shared experience.” Cirelli also noted that the study reinforced ideas related to socialization. “An itsy bitsy audience: Live performance facilitates infants’ attention and heart rate synchronization” was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough, the Department of Settlement & Community Services (Toronto), Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania). This study makes me feel a bit less ridiculous about the amount of frustrated arm-waving I did during the first eighteen months or so of the coronavirus pandemic. “Whither will?!” I kept shouting (and writing) at anyone who would listen (read), “Don’t you know the live experience is so very vital to our being human?” It’s nice to see this sense has been confirmed in actual science, although I’m not confident the results will inspire a more intelligent and humane approach to the arts in certain sectors, especially given the precipitous rise of AI technologies.

Technology is only one aspect of the harrowing and thought-provoking article “The Perils and Promises of Penis Enlargement Surgery” by Ava Kofman, a collaboration between The New Yorker and Propublica and published in the former’s July 3, 2023 print edition. Along with admiration for the writer’s professionalism and thoroughness, the work also inspired a contemplation of operas which revolve around body parts – namely Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Shostakovich’s The Nose, itself is based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Quite often these operas are staged for laughs even as some – the best ones – feature serious subtexts. An appendage taking on a life of its own is comically surreal (as Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera House 2016 staging of The Nose emphasized) but, as Kofman’s piece highlights, is just as much a lived reality for those who have undergone the procedure(s) she explores (and in one instance, directly observes). I wonder if an opera will ever be written that tackles the modern fixation around bigger-longer-thicker-stronger and the underlying culture of shame (not to mention social media-driven anxiety) fuelling that fixation. It’s certainly a topic rich in possibility, for writing as much as for staging, though one hopes it wouldn’t stray too far into comedic territory but keep (as Kofman does) a needed tension between the epic and the intimate.

Both the epic and the intimate come together nicely in Presto Music’s new podcast episode (released August 6, 2023) with writer Fiona Maddocks discussing her new book, Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff In Exile (Faber), published in June 2023. Maddocks experienced her own loss in writing this, the death of her husband, artist Tom Phillips. I especially appreciate how, through her discussion with host Paul Thomas, Maddocks emphasizes how Rachmaninoff’s predilection for melodicism and its resultant popular appeal inspired a sniffy attitude toward the composer in some quarters. Heaven forbid people write things that other people can sing, hum, get earworms from – oh, mon Dieu. I plan on reading this book soon and hope to write about it, and more broadly, about the composer and his exile.

2023 marks Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday, and there are certainly no lack of events to mark the occasion. Conductor Kirill Karabits featured Rachmaninoff in a programme that also included music by his Ukrainian father, the composer Ivan Karabits. The works were on the bill of the first of two BBC Proms concerts presented by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the start of August. Karabits Sr’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, ‘A Musical Gift to Kyiv’ (written in 1981 to mark 1500 years since the founding of Ukraine’s capital) opened a concert that also featured Mozart’s Horn Concerto  No.4 and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. BBC Radio has the audio from that concert as well as the third movement (‘Allegro con feroce’) of Ukrainian composer Borys Lyatoshynsky’s immense Symphony No. 3; it will be accessible for the next little while. Recommended; these are musical gems.

Also jewel-like: Nothing Like A Dame, the acclaimed 2018 documentary by Roger Michell featuring four talented, titled artists – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright. I recently viewed this a second time and was quite struck by the tension between the public and private selves which each artist was clearly trying to negotiate as the cameras rolled. One positively cheers when one of them (it may have been Dench) blurts out, “oh fuck off, Roger” in complete exasperation. The prodding to say Very Deep Actressy Things is pointed up when Smith says to an unseen figure, toward the end of the doc, “They’ve told you how old we are, yes? We’re tired…” – even several decades Smith’s junior, the sentiment felt oddly familiar. For all the film’s brilliance at allowing moments of true poignancy to emerge from the many lively conversations, there was a point (perhaps several) where the women clearly wanted the cameras off, and for the performance (such was it was) to end. The expectation of female creatives of all stripes to always be “on” for the public, in whatever fashion and context, can be exhilarating, daunting and yes, tiring. There may be truth to an adage oft-repeated that by a certain age one simply ceases to care what others think – but Nothing Like A Dame was a reminder of the paradoxical nature of that not-caring when one has spent decades on the stage, in front of the camera, negotiating the realities of “small people”, agents, partners, heartbreak, career frustration and immense success. The doc brought to mind the work of writer Jessica DeFino, whose work I have linked here in the past, specifically her brilliant piece, published in May 2023, about Martha Stewart’s Sports Illustrated cover. I have complex and rather conflicting feelings about this myself; I find myself relating to the ‘Dames’ at times, but oh, how I want to manifest Martha’s hot-lady magic (and the money that paid for it) if and when I reach 80.

Quite on another planet, and magically so, is Voyager, by the Munich Opera Horns, released on the Bayerische Staatsorchester Recordings label in July 2023. The 65-minute work offers an array of fascinating and very poetic sounds, with works by contemporary composers (Hans-Jürg Sommer, Konstantia Gourzi, Urs Vierlinger) alongside those of Anton Reicha, Oscar Franz, Pierre-Max Dubois, and Richard Strauss, whose own father Franz Strauss was a virtuoso horn player and principle horn with the Bavarian Court Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper). The album was selected as Gramophone magazine’s September 2023 Editor’s Choice. I recently interviewed the man behind the BSO label, Guido Gärtner, about the whys and wherefores of running an independent label, how it came to be, the benefits of being an independent, recent and not-so-recent DVDs (including Andrea Chenier and Die Tote Stadt, both featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann), and the label’s unique aesthetic – which, with their  vibrant tones and large silvery typeface, resemble nothing so much as gem-like, collector’s-edition books. My feature with Guido Gärtner will be published to coincide with the launch of the BSO’s massive European tour, at the beginning of September.

Keeping with the gem-like theme: this recipe for chana masala is delicious, but is also beautiful to look at! Wonderful, easy, filling, and freezes very well indeed, it has become a kind of go-to. I have improvised at various times since first trying this months ago, adding chunks of yellow-fleshed potato, chopped peppers, even (gasp) butter beans, as well as freshly-chopped coriander at the end. The fragrant herbal shards gleamed like little emeralds against the lovely orange, even (hurrah) at defrosting. Ooof, now I am working up an appetite…

… so before I run off to the kitchen, a word of clarity, and of gratitude: this website will be continuing for a little while yet. Thank you to those who have reached out or told me in-person how much you’ve enjoyed the work here and have found some measure of value in what it’s tried to accomplish. The encouragement has had a good (and arguably needed) effect, spurring on a continuance of work, one which may lack the regularity of years past but will makes up for that (I hope) with a palpable commitment to the passion and curiosity which inspired its creation back in 2017. Many heartfelt thanks for your readership – and remember: the “c” word is context.  🙂

Top photo: mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
Giordano Bellincampi, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, APO, music, classical, opera, performing arts, culture, New Zealand, Auckland Town Hall

Giordano Bellincampi: “We Have A Lot Of Operas About Death But We Don’t Have Many About Grief”

Negotiating the realities of a pandemic, war, and continuing loss of life, grief can become impersonal. One develops callouses to horror; quick reaction followed by indifference keeps the algorithms humming. Recent cultural examinations of grief and loss (in its various aspects) feel more needed than ever. Korngold’s early 20th century opera Die tote Stadt occupies a very real, very warmly human place for some of us opera fans; it feels like so much more than a disembodied stage work from a century ago, but functions as an extension of the grieving self, a phantom limb that still aches on rainy days. The work will be receiving its New Zealand premier July 8th, with an in-concert performance by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) led by conductor and APO Music Director Giordano Bellincampi. For the Italian-Danish conductor, the work is an important expression of a topic too rarely explored onstage.

The timing of its world premiere seems especially profound. Die tote Stadt was first presented in December 1920, opening simultaneously at Stadttheater Hamburg and Oper Köln. Based on the 1892 symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, Korngold began composition in 1916, but had to leave off his work for a year while participating in World War One military service. The plot revolves around a man (Paul) who has spent years mourning his dead wife (Marie), and keeps a room of keepsakes related to her; he subsequently meets a woman (Marietta) who bears a strong resemblance to his wife; this inspires a series of horrendous hallucinations which eventually resolve into a quietly powerful conclusion. The opera was a huge hit, its themes resonating strongly within post-war Europe – though the Nazis would go on to ban it in 1938 on account of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The composer had moved to Hollywood by that time, and would go on to compose numerous film scores, and the opera fell into a decades-long obscurity within the post-war cultural landscape, although there were revivals in Vienna, London, San Francisco, and Bonn. The opera’s French premiere, an in-concert performance, took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1982, with a fully-staged performance taking place in Strasbourg in 2001. More premieres, in the U.K. (1996 in-concert; 2009 staged), Latin America (1999), and Australia (2012), took place, along with a highly-acclaimed 2019 production at Bayerische Staatsoper featuring Jonas Kaufmann (as Paul) and Marlis Petersen (Marie/Marietta) and conducted by Kirill Petrenko.

In my recent exchange with conductor Giordano Bellincampi I got the real sense, in hearing him speak about his experiences in Aarhus and more recently his negotiating of pandemic realities, that he views Korngold’s opera as less a study in obsession (specifically male obsession) and more as a metaphorical process examining the delicate and often difficult stages of grief. In June 2020 Bellincampi led a concert in commemoration of the victims of covid, but clearly, notions of loss have occupied his thoughts for much longer. His ideas relating to Korngold’s work are (as you’ll read) sensitive and insightful, and reveal an approach which is just as attuned to the spheres of human feeling as to the details of scoring.

Music Director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) since 2016, the Rome-born, Copenhagen-educated Bellincampi began his musical career as a trombonist before moving on to conducting. He has held a number of esteemed positions – Chief Conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra (2000-2006); General Music Director of the Duisburg Philharmonic (2012-2017); Chief Conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra (2013-2018 – and has been a guest conductor with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, I Pomeriggi Musicali (Milan), KBS Symphony Orchestra (Seoul) the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and Canada’s Victoria Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

With a particular gift for Central European, Italian and Scandinavian symphonic repertoire, one might be led to believe opera is a faraway world for the conductor – but nothing could be further from the truth. Bellincampi was General Music Director of the Danish National Opera in Aarhus for almost a decade (2005-2013), and during that time led performances of numerous Puccini and Verdi works, plus those by Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), Wagner (Der Fliegende Holländer, Tristan und Isolde), and Mozart (Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte). Aarhus also allowed for collaborations with a range of singers (Angela Gheorghiu; Joseph Calleja; Bryn Terfel) and soloists (Sarah Chang and Grigory Sokolov). In Germany Bellincampi worked with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, leading performances of Luisa Miller, Norma, Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci, and La bohème (to name a few), and led numerous Italian works at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, including a new production of Aida in 2005 which opened the company’s new theatre.

This focus on opera has continued in New Zealand. Bellincampi has led the Auckland Philharmonia through in-concert performances of Aida (2018), Don Giovanni (2019), Fidelio (2021), and Il trovatore (2022) But Die tote Stadt is, as you may guess, a thing apart, not only for its complex orchestration and very demanding vocal lines, but for a personal connection related to Bellincampi’s Aarhus days. In August 2023 he leads the APO in a programme featuring the music of Mahler, Brahms, and the world premiere of Symphony No.7 by celebrated Kiwi composer Ross Harris, and with that in mind, we began our conversation discussing the role of  New Zealand artists within APO’s programming, and how Bellincampi finds balance between old and new sounds.

Did the pandemic affect your plans and programming choices with the APO?

Honestly we were really lucky in New Zealand because what happened was they closed the country down completely for most of 2020 – so while everyone else in the world was distancing and wearing face masks and shut down, we were playing as normal and there was no covid, though of course we couldn’t fly in guest soloists or guest conductors. But we did continue!

How has the relationship with the orchestra developed since 2016?

I’ve had orchestras in Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, in the Essen area too, which are all more traditionally you could say, classical – especially in Germany, because there it was very easy: we had 95% of the hall filled with subscribers; the basic culture of the symphonic concert idea was strong. Of course New Zealand is slightly different and rightly so; it’s much more diverse and there are many cultural opportunities, all of which I find to be great. And when I started with the APO, they already had a very loyal and good audience in the Town Hall, so I think I just built on what already was there. There’s a good loyalty toward the orchestra. Continuing that is important, even as I sometimes offer something challenging once in a while, but also giving them what they like. Personally I do love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms – all that kind of repertoire – which helps, because it’s the repertoire the audience loves also, so it makes the connection very easy.

I’m curious how you tie that to respective socio-cultural values; there are a lot of questions around the role of European classical culture in 21st century presentation, particularly in places with colonial histories. How do you find balance at the APO?

This is a really good question, and I’m glad you asked it. First of all in a way I’m very idealistic, because I do believe every person can sense if what is transmitted from the stage has a strong emotional and intellectual depth – for instance, even if people don’t know Beethoven’s music at all, they can sense the power, just as when I go to a concert or a Maori event, although you don’t really understand the specific cultural codes, you sense the meaning and the depth. The idea of really performing music with conviction and great passion is paramount.

There is a need for balance as well, and that’s why we do New Zealand-commissioned music, some of it with original folkloric instruments. But I also have to be honest and say, we are a symphony orchestra – and a symphonic orchestra plays symphonies. We will never be a Maori orchestra; that isn’t possible. I do think it’s important the government and city support Maori music, 100%, and of course we can connect with the audience for those sounds, and with that community in every way we can, but it’s important we are loyal to what our core music is. That’s a difficult balance, but I think we’re handling it quite well. Honestly, we have good audiences and they are curious and they like the big classical hits, but they also are curious for new things.

In a 2017 interview you noted that “programs that challenge us and our audience is an important part of being a Music Director” – but classical organizations seem averse to anything new and/or pushing their audiences right now.

I would say we’ve approached it differently by making a conscious effort to keep the level of ambition up, consistently. During lockdowns we could sit at home and enjoy streaming of really good concerts, sure, but what people have actually missed is the live experience, and that’s something driven by our urge to perform and share music. If we want to survive as artists we need to keep on going; if we are just defensive in our programming choices, the audience will sense that, and it won’t work on any level, especially musically.

In 2021 we were planning opera where the country was completely shut down; what I said at the time was, “Okay, which New Zealand opera singers do we have here?” And we found the best singers we had and found the titles we could play with them, like Simon O’Neill who lives in Auckland. He was available, so I said, “Okay let’s do Fidelio; we have a Florestan.” That way we kept the artistic vision up, and it was so much better than doing some opera gala or what-have-you. We are taking the same approach for the first New Zealand performance of Die tote Stadt – it is extremely risky, on a few levels, and yet!

When was Die tote Stadt planned?

The decision came probably about two years ago. We are not that far ahead in planning as many other organizations, who normally plan four to five years out. I remember being in Germany, where things were always planned extremely far ahead, which meant you could secure the best artists and you know what you’re going to do, but it’s not a very agile as a system – you can’t change things easily. But New Zealand organizations are extremely dependent on the commitment of the people who want to travel and perform with us. We’re planning a bit differently these days, and very much together with the Australian orchestras, so we can share artists as much and as often as possible.

How much does that force you to strengthen community ties with local artists?

I believe very much that every institution – it was the same when I ran the opera company in Denmark – every institution has its place in the habitat we work in. And I also think that if you are a relatively big organization you have an obligation not to kill the things underneath you. So we kind of try to find our place. We do support the best local artists, both the ones that are in New Zealand and many Kiwi artists who live in the UK, Germany, and the US, but basically we are part of the international orchestra world, and that’s where we try to stay. There’s space for other organizations, like chamber organizations, and they can have their own seasons – we shouldn’t kill them just because we are bigger. That’s my ambition really, to keep all the various organizations, there has to be space for everyone.

So an ecosystem… ?

Exactly.

On the APO website Alastair McKean’s essay explores Korngold’s time in Hollywood and how that may have impacted how he’s perceived; it ends with a call to “ignore the snobs” and quotes Korngold himself.  Where does his work fit in terms of your opera rep?

I’ve loved this opera for twenty-odd years. When I was running the opera company in Aarhus, I decided to program this opera. It was the first performance in Denmark ever, but I didn’t conduct it. At the time I was extremely busy with a lot of other projects and running the company, and I knew it was a difficult score and I just didn’t have the four to five months needed to be secluded with the score and to properly study it. We did the first performance in Denmark with a colleague leading it who had done it in Prague previously, and it was beautiful, although I remember my marketing department at the time saying, “We will never be able to sell tickets for something called THE DEAD CITY! People won’t like it!” – but it was an enormous success. I’ve loved it for so long, and waited for a new opportunity to program it, and now I have finally found an outlet! The big issue with this opera is the tenor role, which is so absolutely super-challenging, but we have a great Paul (Aleš Briscein) who’s done it many times before, and I’m looking forward to the experience.

What is it you love about Die tote Stadt?

Most of my opera work has been Puccini and Wagner, although I’ve also done Der Rosenkavalier and other Strauss, but I think that this extremely modern way of approaching musical theatre (in Die tote Stadt) is very close to what Puccini explores in for instance, La fanciulla del West and Turandot – his later operas are film-score-esque. Now when we talk about the music of Korngold it seems like a cliché to call his work ‘cinematic’ but there is very much, in this opera, a very strong way of communicating in that way, via the music. And of course the orchestra colours are absolutely incredible, the instrumentation is beyond… it’s just immense.

But what I also like is the drama itself: we have a lot of operas about death – in the sense of revenge and power – but we don’t have many about grief, how it is when people actually die. I think Korngold’s way of dealing with the feelings of this person, and his way of coping with the nightmare and the visions and the feelings that overwhelm him in this situation, is very strong and very modern, and it appeals to me because it’s something we’re not very good at expressing in the theatre. And I think this is quite a unique work as a result.

I had an incredible experience with it in Aarhus – there were a lot of fantastic reviews, great singers. A few months after its presentation, an older gentleman came to the opera office with a bottle of wine, knocked on the door, and introduced himself. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that I lost my wife five years ago, and after seeing that opera, I went back home and was thinking and thinking – and I decided to start living again.” And… that’s what we make opera for. He knew nothing about this work. But seeing this kind of… incredible grief, like what Paul experiences, is something I think a lot of people who have lost someone can relate to, and again, I think we don’t see it very often in the theatre. So I hope that (the APO performance) will touch someone.

Giordano Bellincampi, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, APO, music, classical, opera, performing arts, culture, New Zealand, Auckland Town Hall

Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch

What do you think might be good sonic preparation?

New Zealand audiences will know Korngold because we play his work, including his great violin concerto, regularly; we played several other pieces of his last season. There’s nothing strange about the sound in and of itself – it’s not like doing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre or something! – people can definitely recognize the Korngold sound. But I’m curious as to how this will be received. We do have a semi-staged concept for Die tote Stadt, so there are no sets but we do have some action and surtitles.

Operas presented in-concert are becoming real staples within orchestral programming in some areas; how do these presentations differ from a full production for you creatively?

For many years (APO) have done one every year – we’ve done Don Giovanni and Il trovatore in past seasons, for instance – and though I think those are great, overall I’m very ambiguous, because basically I’m a theatre person. I love being in the pit and I do think opera ultimately belongs in a theatre; that said, there is also something incredibly beautiful about being able to perform these works in an acoustically ideal room for sound. Most theatres are super-dry, so being in a concert hall gives a completely different impression of the sounds. That’s one aesthetic thing.

The other is that some operas, like Die tote Stadt, have a lot of interludes, and so the activity within the orchestra itself is enormous. I think it’s very exciting for the audience to see all of what happens right there, not hidden in a pit. We’ll be performing, hopefully, the complete score which is almost never done nowadays. It’s going to be fully all three acts we do, with two intermissions, and there are long interludes when the orchestra plays. Nothing happens onstage at those times, and in most stagings you have to invent something as a result, but here it will be a very strong experience for the audience to simply to listen. There will be a livestream – my mother in Italy always says, ‘I have to get up so early to watch them!’ – but I really think this will be something unique for both musicians and audiences alike.

Top photo: Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch
Stefano La Colla, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Tosca, Paul Curran, Canadian Opera Company, Puccini, Cavaradossi

What Tosca And Metal Share (More Than You Think)

One of my strongest childhood summer memories involves the great indoors. The intense humidity and rain of one Southern Ontario July forced in-house activities, so my mother decided to enjoy the fruits of still-new VCR technology and watch some of the items within an immensely arts-leaning library. It used to be such an occasion to pop a tape in and watch something one had recorded weeks or even months before; the act of rewatching a program, of having easy access to that piece of news or entertainment, of being able to fast-forward through commercials, or rewind and re-view something, or pause on a favorite spot – it was all a big deal, and a unique form of techno-social adhesion.

Many of the tapes in my mother’s growing collection were recordings of Metropolitan Opera productions, broadcast regularly on PBS. I imagine this is how more than a few people (kids included) came to opera, through such broadcasts and through the use of VCRs. The rainy summers became more bearable, and introduced a host of young friends to what, for me, was just a normal part of everyday life.  Puccini’s 1900 opera Tosca was a favorite; the characters, the setting, the music – it was all very intriguing to a young mind. I wore out the videotape of the celebrated 1985 Franco Zeffirelli production with Hildegard Behrens in the lead, Placido Domingo as her devoted lover Cavaradossi, and Cornell MacNeil as a very scary Scarpia. One rainy afternoon the mother of one of my friends who had been visiting came by to collect her child, and then stood, open-mouthed, in our doorway. I had turned around, between bites of an ice cream float, and looked at Mrs. So-and-so. How was this so weird? What was she stunned over? My friend was as taken as I was over this intense, passionate, violent, crazy work with amazing music; why the surprise? My mother offered her most elegant smile.

“It’s almost over; can you wait a few minutes?”

“Sure,” said shocked mum. “I just never expected my daughter to be so interested in… opera!”

My mother laughed over dinner later in our tiny, dimly-lit kitchen.

“She just couldn’t believe her eyes…”

I made a face.

“Not everyone likes classical music, you know. Especially opera.”

Well they should, I said, leaning over and scooping up the cat, humming the Dah-DAH! notes of Scarpia’s scary musical motif.

“Put the cat down when you’re at the table.”

DahDAAAHHHH!

My mother rolled her eyes.

“Let’s watch something else tonight, okay?”

It’s easy (and certainly fashionable) to make faces and roll eyes and pronounce Puccini’s work too vulgar, too loud, too big, too (heaven forbid) emotional; to write off Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” (musicologist Joseph Kerman’s infamous 1952 pronouncement) and to wave it off as not-serious art and not-real opera. I’m not sure how to feel about this line of thinking; indeed, it isn’t The Ring, but so what? Should all opera be precisely the same? What’s so wrong with emotion? Intelligence is elevated but empathy is far more rare, and Tosca reminds me of its importance, in art and in life. Yes, the opera is clearly a part of my childhood nostalgia, but I hear bits of the score and still get chills at how evocative it is, in terms of conveying both outer and inner realities, and the ways it deftly combines art, sex, religion, and politics. Scarpia’s attempted rape of the title character in the Second Act lands very differently as an adult; there is a stomach-churning familiarity. It is uncomfortable but the scene renders his murder by the would-be victim that much more powerful, and his ultimate revenge on her that much more horrific. Such immediacy matters in art and gains more meaning as the years go by.

This close-to-the-bone quality is one writer Tori Wanzama picks up on beautifully in her essay below. The Communications student, who previously contributed to this website with an excellent essay on her first opera experience at Carmen this past autumn, recently attended the current Canadian Opera Company staging (a remount of its 2008 production) and offers some wonderfully singular insights involving theatre, drama, and… heavy metal? Read on.

Canadian Opera Company, Paul Curran, Tosca, Roland Wood, Puccini, Scarpia, cross, Te Deum, scene

Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage left) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023.

Tosca: Love, Hate, And A Twisted Triangle

Last October I had the privilege of attending the Canadian Opera Company’s presentation of Carmen at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, and to detail the excitement of my first opera experience. I enjoyed the show thoroughly, though it didn’t spark the classical-leaning revolution in my musical taste the way I had anticipated.

Admittedly I do return to the famous “Habanera” from time to time, and it, like Bizet’s opera, remains just as hypnotic as the first time I heard it. But metal has dominated my listening habits lately, making screaming and “shredding” the standard for me. While I consider my music taste eclectic and all-encompassing, my affinity for metal has given me a critical ear toward other genres. I enjoy them all, but still feel most lack a vital ingredient: drama. I find myself longing for the ferocity of intense instrumentals and booming vocals that demand virtuosity from artists. It is the same quality which is alive and nurtured at the opera, and that I found especially present in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which I was fortunate enough to attend in Toronto last week.

In Rome, 1800, a twisted love triangle begins amidst the French Revolutionary Wars. The union of opera singer Tosca (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace) and painter Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) is challenged when the latter hides escaped political prisoner Angelotti (Christian Pursell). The painter’s crime is discovered by the cruel chief of police Scarpia (Roland Wood) who plans to execute both men; the chief’s enthusiasm for execution is matched only by his lust for Tosca whom he propositions, offering her lover’s freedom in exchange for her submission to him. Tosca seemingly concedes, but once Scarpia signs a letter of safe conduct she is quick to kill him. Victoriously, Tosca reunites with Cavaradossi to deliver her good news, but the couple’s happiness is short-lived when Cavaradossi’s execution is still carried out; in despair Tosca ends her life. This third act betrayal is played as a shock but the tragic end reveals itself far earlier, in Act 1, when the three leads reveal their true natures; with every passing aria their terrible trajectory becomes plain to see.

In the Toronto presentation (running to May 27th), La Colla’s Cavaradossi is sung with pure conviction. When he sings of his love for Tosca in “Dammi i colori” his passion for her is tangible, with a vocal tenderness difficult to describe. I can only stress to see it live it if you can; I quite literally swooned in my seat as he sang his admiration of Tosca’s brown eyes, and I find I am yet haunted by his delivery, even several days after experiencing it; his commitment is clear, as is his loyalty to Angelotti, the friend he helps to hide. “E’buona la mia” is delivered with genuine urgency as he promises his help, and curses Scarpia with a hypnotic cadence that is reminiscent of a priest delivering blessings to ward off evil. Cavaradossi is dedicated to those whom he cares for, but it is this devotion that is his demise when faced with cruel competition.

The same can be said of Tosca, whose love for Cavaradossi is demonstrated in her possessiveness. Despite her jealous ways, it is clear why the role is so famous as Campbell-Wallace takes the stage to offer a Tosca who is both cunning and cute. Campbell-Wallace brings such charisma to the character that even Tosca’s jealousy is endearing, especially in the scenes with her bickering back and forth with Cavaradossi in their love duet. Campbell-Wallace and La Colla’s vocals are heavenly in harmony, and there is a seamless chemistry between the performers that makes the exchange especially charming; I could see the years behind this couple, just as clearly as I could see the end of their days. Their devastating love for one another creates a malaise that lingers and peaks in act two with “Vissi d’arte”. Your heart breaks as Tosca mourns her tragic circumstance and sings with beautiful horror at Scarpia’s advances. Her audible desperation underscores her determination to protect Cavaradossi no matter the cost.

Roland Wood, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Tosca, Canadian Opera Company, Paul Curran, Puccini

Roland Wood as Scarpia and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper

This ruthless resolve is matched by Cavaradossi’s competition, Scarpia, who is driven by lust rather than love. Roland Wood embodies Scarpia perfectly, with a booming baritone befitting of such a cruel character. The “Te Deum” is an absolutely chilling number conveying the chief of police’s corruption to superb effect. Scarpia is explicit about his evil intentions as he revels in his manipulation of Tosca with the Cardinal’s procession as his chorus. The chief explains the pleasures of romantic conquest with such perverted pride that makes his performance both uncomfortable and enticing to watch.

The First Act sets a foreboding tone with each performer conveying emotions which make individual motivations clear, and with such conviction coming from each character that there is no other end but disaster. We can only await the sequential calamity as the loyalty of the lovers is tested against Scarpia’s ruthlessness. The small cast creates a palpable intimacy, bringing the audience closer to each character, surely an aim of the verismo tradition; the operatic genre contrasts contained, realistic story writing with a florid and declamatory vocal style that emphasizes emotion. This cast delivers with awe-inspiring vocals that soar above even the bombastic orchestra led by conductor Giuliano Carella.

I left Tosca both impressed and unsettled; the show is unmistakably “metal” in its presentation of beautiful brutality. In his director’s note, Paul Curran noted that “opera is about sex, religion, and politics” and immediately I thought metal is much the same. The two genres also share an unflinching gaze, not only at death, but at human anguish. Researching this shared affinity for agony led me to Aristotle’s concept of catharsis in which the ancient philosopher states in observing tragedy that evokes fear and pity, “the human soul…is purged of its excessive passions”. Across both genres, artists explore the aforementioned ideas to their extremes, creating a unique release for respective audiences; despair becomes delight amidst the throes of musical virtuosos, and metal and opera alike offer an essence that cannot be found anywhere else.

Top photo: Stefano La Colla as Cavaradossi and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2023. Photo: Michael Cooper
trees, forest, wald, baum, nature, winter, still

Essay: Thoughts On Sound, & An Announcement

Sound in and of itself is neither good or bad; it simply is. But more than ever, sound, and the way it is delivered and experienced, is tied up in commerce. The various sources of revenue and concomitant connections to money within the classical world often provides silent framing of a vast and under-discussed reality. Recently The Metropolitan Opera announced they would be performing 10% fewer works next season, drawing on their endowment, and focusing on new works for next season. This year’s new works – Kevin Puts’ The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – drew near-capacity audiences, while old chestnuts (like the Italian version of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos) barely filled the immense auditorium by half. Similar challenges with audiences in post-pandemic life resound internationally, and organizations need to rethink their over-reliance on both starry names and ossified presentational styles. The challenges are less related to “rubbing people’s noses” in current issues (as a famous tenor recently mused) than to organizations attenuating to ever-unfolding realities (including pandemic) within a media ecosystem ever more reliant on the machinery of hype and ad tech which polarizes audience experience (/ inexperience) and expectation, often screwing in unconsciously-held cliches around opera in the process in a breathless bid to please sponsors and conservative board members. Whither sound? Does it matter when there are no camels in Aida?

Exposure, education, and cultural curiosity have everything to do with receptivity of sounds, and in building the critical thinking structures needed for reception of their live realization. More than once this year I have written about (and linked to) the precipitous drops in educational standards, particularly across North America. If Europeans groan at hearing the word “privilege” and roll eyes at the mention of culture wars, it is worth remembering the basic cost of things across the ocean. (Various American contacts of mine living in Europe are aghast at the sheer cost of groceries in visits home for the holidays, as one immediate example.) This seems an issue worth shouting about, repeatedly, even if people want to stick fingers in ears and continue rolling eyes. The Met is not The Royal Opera Covent Garden is not Bayerische Staatsoper is not Oper Zurich is not Opera de Paris is not the COC is not ENO (alas…). Different strokes; different horses. As I discussed with Mark Williams (the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony) this autumn, one city cannot simply be grafted onto another. One culture cannot be grafted onto another. One educational system cannot be grafted onto another; one set of ideas and living experiences cannot be grafted onto another. We cannot wish x was like more y; x may be devolving back to m but it is its own m, in its own place, and this is worth remembering. Blithely accepting what various levels of government cut or mete out or hype without a peep of protest, pause, or media scrutiny does not make for a healthy arts ecosystem, or for healthy artists.

Thus do the educational systems in various locales – along with social safety nets, levels of (non-corporate) funding, culture, history, infrastructure – contribute to respective classical atmospheres and moreover to the perceptions of sounds, and their direct experience within specific environments. In classical within a North American idiom, some of those sounds are treated as a decimal in the equation of style, performance, and digital bragging rights. Marketing departments often dictate programming choices; risky sounds are placed straight in the bin unless those departments are very sure they can create an online buzz that directly translates to ticket sales – the unicorn goal of classical marketing rarely achieved with any reliable consistency. Of course sound is, at its core, represented by dots on a page, but sound is much more than dots, symbols many people can’t read, let alone hear in their heads. It matters how/where/when/within what circumstance one experiences them, or does not experience them, where and how one learns them, from whom, in what atmosphere. Absence is as importance as presence, something musicians of all genres know. Contributor Tori Wanzama experienced Bizet’s Carmen for the first time this past autumn – in a highly individualized way and certainly different to those who grew up hearing the music throughout childhood. Context is everything, and it ought not – especially now in a war that so affects cultural arenas – to be ignored in favour of romantic notions which do not contextualize (let alone acknowledge) the role of privilege in the listening/live/learning-about experience.

Sounds are, or can be, loaded; they often carry the heavy ammunition of intertwined histories – personal, professional, political, and beyond. Recently I came upon a unique performance of a German-language version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin led by Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year. Recorded at Semperoper Dresden in 1991, this Onegin demonstrates clearly, how sound is not only sound but can be much more. Yes, this is recognizably Tchaikovsky; no, it is not the recognizable Onegin, at least not for those who are solely familiar with the opera in its original language. The famous “Letter Scene”, for instance, features Czech soprano Zora Jehličková performing Tatyana’s passionate declaration in an excited if highly knowing manner – she sounds worldly, as if she is about to set Valhalla on fire. The reading of the score has transformed to reflect the vagaries of the language in which it is being sung. Use all the Teutonic-music cliches you wish (see above) – they apply to Jurowski’s reading, but they don’t quite capture the singularity of this particular sound at this particular juncture. How could they? Think about what was happening in Germany at the time, and you hear it in this reading; the swift tempi, the jaunty phrasing, the acid tone of the strings against the excitable blares of the horns, the way in which the orchestra swells around certain syllables – and how much it all contrasts with various Russian recordings. These divides in sonorities aren’t solely down to the differences between maestros (though that’s a factor) – but time, place, language, people – context.

Sound embodies so many things,  if only we would listen. Semperoper is not The Met is not La Scala is not Mariinsky is not Kyiv Opera is not… we are not you; you are not me; one but not the same, and sounds are bigger than both of us, together or apart –the biggest question, the smallest decimal; the hard sell, the soft touch; sound draws in the most tiny details and simultaneously reveals a far broader picture. It is difficult to define because its experience differs so greatly between people and changes through time, privilege, history, locale, and family. This website has tried to reflect such concerns since its founding in 2017, and the past twelve months in particular have brought a reassessment of its purpose. I always resisted definitions for what this website is, or could be, though I was always quite sure of what it was not. I always wanted my work to be more than hyperbolic PR – to be a meaningful (and yes, critical) engagement with an art form I love in all its facets. I aimed to share authentic, unedited (mostly) conversations with people whose work genuinely inspires curiosity, and in so doing provide a forum for the sorts of exchanges mainstream media has neither the bucks nor the bandwidth for. I aimed to float somewhere between the heady and the populist, the intellectual and the everyday, and to firmly keep my own voice intact, as someone who floats in that netherworld herself, and probably always will. This is, at least, what I had hoped. Have I achieved these aims? Have I contributed anything of worth to conversations around classical music? Should I worry about legacy brand media, and which writers and artists love, hate, or share my work?

2022 has been a year of learning to live with and accept open questions that may never have answers, and to stop worrying about the ones that really don’t matter. This website will exist in the short term; there will be occasional feature interviews – as ever, with people and things not being given the attention or quality of time and detail, let alone the uniqueness of perspective, in mainstream media coverage. But just as practical priorities (paid writing opportunities; teaching) call, so does the living of life, remade from what it was in March 2020. Returning is different, which is just as it should be; it is not returning at all, but remaking. Just as locales cannot be grafted onto one another, neither can experiences, ideas, or notions of normal. I want to have meaningful real-life conversations that won’t be shared online, and I want to experience sounds, live, with people I call friends, and note how those sounds are different now that everything else – that magical context – is too. There are voices, and sights, and (thank goodness) sounds, and all they carry – quietly, loudly, beautifully; the readiness, to quote Hamlet, is all. 

nature, snow, wald, forest, footprints, trees, Fußspuren, quiet, winter

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

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