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Lecturing, Improvising, And Russian Piano Music: A Chat With Marina Frolova-Walker

piano, keys, keyboard, music, instrument, playing, hands, fingers, sound

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.

This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.

The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.

How and why did this series come about?

Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.

I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.

I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.

Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor, Gresham College, lecture, musicology, portrait, Russian

Photo via Gresham College

I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.

It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.

There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.

It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?

Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…

It is!

… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?

When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.

Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?

I think you can guess!

I want you to tell me.

I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.

I do.

Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.

Peter Donohue, pianist, performer, artist, music, classical

Photo via Gresham College

So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?

My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.

Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?

You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.

Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.

Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.

That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...

It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!

When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.

People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.

I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.

That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.

Some, but it’s different for everybody.

I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.

But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…

Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.

I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.

I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.

So did he go?

He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.

If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.

Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.

So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…

I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.

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Piano Heart

I don’t miss playing the piano. But I miss having a piano.

It was no easy thing to grow up in the shadow of a violinist and band leader, watched over by an opera aficionado, mocked by a large, grand piano parked like a monolith in the living room, its white and black keys jutting out like jagged, menacing teeth.

You don’t know what you’re doing! it always mocked, You’re just reading what’s in front of you! Anyone can do that!
Seeing 2 Pianos 4 Hands was an exercise in nostalgia. With its review of time signatures and keys, its lines about semitones and a syllabus, its portrayal of the dreaded Conservatory exams, the show, produced by Mirvish Productions and currently on at Toronto’s cozy Panasonic Theatre, gently, humorously reminded me of all the things I hated about my piano-centric past. When I began lessons at the tender age of four, I only knew it was fun to sit at a keyboard and go plunk-plunk-plunk. Over time, I derived a certain smug satisfaction from deciphering little black marks on a page. My considerably more-musical best friend across the street would come by and rock my staid classical world with his off-the-cuff, fast, fun, boogie-woogie improvisations and fancy-dancy pop tunes new and old. It irritated me because not only did it mess up the organized world of Bach, Beethoven et all the RCM presented, but it reminded me of what I could not do: play something fun, straight out of my head, without any little black squiggles for guidance. Music has an important role in my life, but it’s not an artform I can actively be a part of, because I am critically lacking in the one thing you need to make a go of it: real musical talent.
It was when I dropped formal music lessons that I realized visual and written arts come far more naturally to me than sonic ones. Writing, drawing, and photography are work -sometimes torturously so -but the kind of work I enjoy. I don’t revel in failure so much as get nervous at the prospect of throwing all my dirty laundry out for public scrutiny. It was bolstering, then, to see two men who, for all their success in other artistic disciplines, willingly reveal their shared failure at being full-time professional musicians. Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2P4H’s co-creators, are good at a lot of things, mainly within the realm of performance -that includes acting, directing, writing, and yes, lots of very-able piano-playing. A pair of Horowitzes they are not, but then, that’s just the point. Not everyone can -or should -be.
2 Pianos 4 Hands paints a portrait of artistry frustrated by the relentless slings and arrows of reality. The show was first performed at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1995, and has since gone on to play over 175 different theaters worldwide, including a six-month run at the Kennedy Center in Washington. The production is simple, with two huge grand, Yamaha pianos facing each other, and the leads kitted out in formal suits (including tails) and alternating characters: piano teachers, parents, their disgruntled childhood and teenaged selves. What could easily slip into saccharine territory comes crashing back into the sour zone, thanks in part to the duo’s finely-tuned sense of timing. Moments that could be difficult for non-classical music lovers to stomach (young Ted’s swooning over a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz at Carnegie Hall, for instance) are quickly given necessary shots of levity (an eyeroll here, a shrug there), elements that work in tandem with the innate chemistry between Dykstra and Greenblatt. The trust they have, in each other, the material, their abilities, the music, shows, and extends itself to both emotional scenes (like those involving a face-off between young “Teddy” and his strict father) and comedic ones (such as young Richard’s meltdown during a music competition), offering some far more than the warm-hearted fuzzies a memory show might imply. Artistic passion and brutal truths are dished out with equal vigor, making the final scene -of the two playing J.S. Bach’s Concerto in D minor, 1st Movement -all the more poignant. With the two pianos joined in one fussy piece of Baroque splendor, the line between music and theatre is rubbed away, with performer and performance becoming one expression of frustrated dreams, of altered plans, of new awakenings. 2 Pianos 4 Hands is one of those shows that makes you think, and feel, and remember, and hope, all at once. No small feat.
My child-like urge to plunk around on the keys bubbles up every now and again, minus the heavy weight of classical-music education squashing my innate creative curiosity. That’s the spark of where all my artistic (and journalistic) pursuits come from, after all- from that prickly-skinned, many-tentacled, multi-eyed, fast-swimming creature called curiosity. Part of giving in to that creature means enduring the occasional mental shit-kicking to keep at it, to commit, to sit in the damn chair until it’s done, and to go deeper and reach higher and be better. But what if you hit the glass ceiling? What if there is no “better”? Coming face-to-face with that reality is no easy task; acknowledging it in public, in front of a group of strangers, in the dark, on a stage, every night can be downright terrifying, a horror show of the highest order. But risk is good, and, in the realm of the arts, an absolute necessity. Risk keeps curiosity happy and alive. Kudos to Dykstra and Greenblatt -and to all the frustrated artists. Thank you for putting your risk on display. We hear, we paint, we write, we read, we see. Thank you for taking that risk. Thank you for the music.
Photo credits:
Top photo, Wikipedia.
Middle photo by Rick O’Brien.
2 Pianos 4 Hands photos courtesy Mirvish Productions.
Dmitri Jurowski, conductor, Dresden, podium, classical, music, performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They really are…

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

Yes that’s true!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?

Good point, yes.

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

What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger
Sardanapalus, death, French, La Mort de Sardanapale, Eugène Delacroix, oil, art, Byron, Liszt, tragedy

David Trippett on Liszt’s Sardanapalo: “It Was A Genuine Leap Of Faith”

For many in the classical world, summer means one thing: festivals. In continental Europe, the UK, and North America, outdoor festivals celebrating both opera and orchestral works, not to mention chamber music, are unfolding, with a certain joy more palpable this year than others. After so many experimental iterations (especially in Salzburg, where the festival powered through the worst of the pandemic in 2020), there is a firm, fond embrace of the familiar, and one hopes, a bit of a face toward the future in terms of programming, casting, productions, and (one hopes) safety protocols.

Fans of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) will have already long planned a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, founded by Wagner himself in 1876 and built expressly to manifest his groundbreaking concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Getting there takes a bit of planning; the town can be reached by train (from Munich it’s roughly a two-hour journey through Nuremberg) and tickets to performances require completing an early application, though online purchases were made available at the end of May. Local hotels are booked months in advance – usually; a quick check shows they aren’t all quite full this year, owing, perhaps more than anything to lingering effects of covid/omicron. Just how the classical world continues to navigate this challenge depends on who you ask; many are soldiering on, but there are also many cancellations and fill-ins, onstage and in the pit. Audiences are somewhat skittish about returning to indoor spaces – and again, the level of skittishness depends on who you ask, and where they’re travelling. The Festspielhaus, (in)famous for its uncomfortable seats and lack of air circulation, is mostly wood, as per Wagner’s wishes – as such, the nature of the house’s architecture simply doesn’t allow for modern interventions à la AC, a challenge given Germany’s increasingly steamy summers. You will experience Wagner’s works the way he intended; if you have to endure physical discomfort to do so, well, so be it. With the opening of the festival on 27 June with Tristan and Isolde (featuring tenor Stephen Gould opposite soprano Catherine Foster), there occurs the kind of sonic immersion Wagner aimed for; Wagner’s magnificent score has this odd (oddly discomfiting, for me) way of utterly erasing… time, circumstance, the edgeless, blunt forms of sameness that have been a hallmark of pandemic life thus far, the immediacy of mediocrity (and arguably the immediate realities of a hot, airless auditorium). As I’ve written in the past, my ears have lately developed teeth, a reaction to the prevailing attitude of safe-and-boring programming that colours far too much of post-pandemic classical life; Wagner offers up a chewy, delicious eight-course feast, then demanding even further capacity and appetite.

Something strangely similar in terms of sonic experience occurred in Weimar in August 2018, when I attended the world premiere of the first act of Franz Liszt’s Sardanapalo, a presentation which had been 170 years in the making. Liszt (1811-1886), a composer known far more for his piano work (compositions as much as his famous performances), never completed a full opera. Sardanapalo was based on the tragedy by Lord Byron, (published in 1821) and began life in sketch-form in 1849, with Liszt using abbreviations and creating alternative versions, eventually coming to a 115-page manuscript. The project fell by the wayside when the composer was unable to find a proper libretto for the second and third acts. Catalogued in 1910, the work was considered too incomplete for performance – until British musicologist David Trippett came across it at the at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar in the early 2000s, and subsequently spent years painstakingly piecing it together. Presented by Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar with soloists soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández, and bass baritone Oleksandr Pushniak all under the baton of Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the work has sonic connections with Wagner’s 1845 operaera Tannhaüser (something Karabits had noted prior to the premiere) and an equally clear nod in orchestration to Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) though its insistent melodicism and pungent scoring also recall Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) and Simon Boccanegra (1857). Sardanapalo demands much of its listener (one indeed needs toothsome ears here), but it offers compelling characterization through its orchestration, scoring, and mix of creative influences – indeed, hearing it inspires many thoughts around possible live presentations that go beyond in-concert formats. A recording of the work was released via Audite in February 2019 (done in Weimar), and a performing edition of the score released by Schott in summer 2019.

Dejan Vukosavljevic, opera lover, writer, reporterTrippett and I spoke briefly after the 2018 performance, but unfortunately we didn’t have the kind of extended, chewy exchange I would have liked. Thank goodness for an email that landed in my inbox this past April from Europe-based classical writer Dejan Vukosavljevic, asking if I would be interested in just this exchange, one which he and Trippett, who is Professor of Music at Cambridge University, had happily conducted earlier this year. Vukosavljevic explores not only Liszt’s work but the complicated artist behind it, his very complex relationship with Wagner, the possibilities for a work long thought lost, and, more immediately, inquires as to how the pandemic impacted academic pursuits. Trippett himself is a formidable interview subject, knowledgeable but never stuffy, excited to share discoveries, his joy of the material (and their various social, cultural, political, and historical contexts) palpable and infectious. This exchange was a fortuitous and good bit of timing personally – I have long considered bringing on new contributors to my website. The advantages of new voices are myriad, their wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion immense – you don’t always want one voice or viewpoint on any given topic, but a multiplicity of voices and related experiences in order to make the meal that much richer. This seems especially important in classical, which can very often feel like a small, airless bubble. Vukosavljevic has a natural curiosity (he mentioned in recent exchange that his hobbies include “stargazing, reading, playing chess, socializing”) and his knowledge of (and obvious enthusiasm for) the classical world makes one hope for further contributions, and further journeys up in music history, composition, and performance. Thank you Dejan, and thank you Professor Trippett – if I can’t go up the hill to Bayreuth this year, I am happy to go up the hill of music history and learn something new along the way; I hope readers will join us.

DV: How did COVID-19 pandemic influence your work as a musicologist and a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge? Where did you feel the biggest pressure?

DT: The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye, didn’t it? We instantly become online avatars, and adapted courses to keep all paths of study on track. But no online medium can replace the vibrant atmosphere of the seminar room. Looking back, lockdown feels like stolen time. Oddly, though, there were also benefits – like a lot of reading and exploring new repertoire, along with innovations in mediatized performance and testing the limits of multitrack performance. Digital resources are excellent for 19th-century studies, where many manuscripts are available online. This is the case for the Richard Wagner Museum and the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, both of which I use often in my work. So, if anything, the pandemic increased my reliance on these resources. Where was the biggest pressure? I would say the lack of contact, which was strangely alienating even as so much music went online. In concert, music touches you – literally so. Touch is the sense that unifies all other sense modalities. A singer’s voice or the vibrating reed sets in motion a pressure wave that physically touches your middle ear. Not experiencing that proximity to real acoustic sound, collectively as part of an audience – with its capacity for beauty, curiosity, and catharsis – was difficult.

DV: Your work encompasses many areas of classical music. What was your motive to begin to study the life and works of Richard Wagner?

David Trippett, scholar, Professor, musicologist, CambridgeDT: Originally I intended to do my doctoral research on Franz Liszt. I’d played so much of his piano music as a child that it had become a point of orientation for me, and I often felt it refracted in the music of others, from Debussy to Ligeti. In the end I defected to Wagner. I had listened to the Ring cycle three times when I was 14 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink), the third time with libretto in hand, and I began playing all the vocal scores. As a student, I remember travelling to Helsinki just to hear Leif Segerstam conduct the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual reach is unparalleled in 19th century music and philosophy, and, aside from the sheer richness and power of the music, the range and quantity of his ideas and commentaries, and the copious evidence of the manuscript sources proved irresistible. There is still so much work to do.

DV: Would you label yourself as a Wagnerian? What do you see in Wagner’s music that makes him so special?

DT: The history of ‘Wagnerians’ makes any such label tricky. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of the Wagner historiography. On the one hand, few would want to align today with the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain or Winifred Wagner, both of whose curation of Wagner’s legacy was intertwined with bad politics; on the other hand, his works are continually reimagined for our time by directors, as when Siegfried’s body was draped in the Ukrainian flag in Madrid last month, or when (director) Peter Konwitschny situated Lohengrin in a German school. What remains constant is the powerful nature of the music, its continual colouristic and harmonic flux, and the ongoing psychological resonance of the drama.

Early on, leitmotifs were wryly dismissed as dotty ‘calling cards’ or ‘an address book’, but beyond simple signs, they convey the way that memories change, and the different experiences of time passing. When Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, its significance reverberates backwards and forward throughout the entire cycle. The Greek model of an orchestral commentary, too, offers a dynamic structure in continually re-evaluating the significance of events. That said, Wagner’s sophisticated orchestration and motivic techniques change significantly across his oeuvre – so there isn’t simply the leitmotif technique. Listening before and after the Act III Prelude to Siegfried (the densest compression of motifs to date) makes this particularly stark.

Beyond this, Wagner absorbed the values and learning of his age, so his works faithfully and fatefully refract these interests, from anti-vivisectionism to purification by holy fire. The director Michael Hampe once put it to me that Wagner’s works are ‘miracles of humanity’, and that opera directors might begin by asking ‘how do I present this so that others will understand this immense value?’ I think it’s a wonderful question.

DV: Your first monograph Wagner’s Melodies, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, examines the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. How did it start?

DT: I became fascinated with the paradox that Wagner placed ‘melody’ at the centre of his aesthetic theories (‘music’s only form’), yet he was consistently ridiculed by critics for being unable to compose a melody. The book uses this basic incongruity to re-examine Wagner’s central aesthetic claims, and places his ideas about melody into the context of the scientific discourse of the age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music’s stimulation of the body and inventions for ‘automatic’ composition. Researching and writing it at Harvard and Cambridge was a fascinating experience. It led me to explore all manner of sources, from Wagner’s insertion aria for Bellini’s Norma, to a device called the psychograph for transcribing your unconscious musical thoughts… it gave me a chance to ask why it had become so difficult for German writers even to define melody (and—for most—quite impossible to teach it), and why melody simultaneously occupied the centre-ground of expression in opera, yet sat at the apex of artistic self-consciousness for German composers. Thinking about melodic intensity without actual, Italianate melody changed the way I listened to certain music – yes, I think it did.

DV: Wagner composed thirteen operas in total, but was also his own librettist; how would you describe his approach to literary writing?

DT: Wagner’s alliteration, coordinated speech roots, and creatively antique forms of language often raise a smile. Unlike, say, his orchestration, it was an area of his work that was openly questioned by contemporaries. For me, the opera poems after 1850 reflect his theories about language and of how language communicates, and these change, of course – which is why you find a diatribe against rhyming, metrical verse in his essay “Opera and Drama” (iambic pentameter as ‘five-footed little monsters’), yet a return to precisely such verse in Meistersinger fifteen years later. Ever pragmatic, his underlying goal in what he called ‘verse melody’ was to uncover a musically infected form of communication that couldn’t fail to be understood, even (especially) by those with no training.

There are various librettos that he completed but never set to music, including a quasi-Buddhist drama (The Victors), and a vaudeville about a cross-dressing bear (The Happy Bear Family). He held all of these poems dear, and suggested to other composers, including Liszt, that they set them instead. So fiercely did he feel that the Ring poem was a work of world literature, that he published it in 1853, as a book, though he came to regret that decision! Even accepting the importance of his theory of speech roots that rhyme and concatenate sounds, we now tend to use Wagner’s language more as an artistic means, for music, rather than celebrate it as literature.

DV: You were the Main Editor of the book published by the Cambridge University Press in 2019, Nineteenth-Century Opera and the Scientific Imagination; the book features, among other things, the so-called “Wagnerian manipulation” – what is its connection to Bayreuth?

DT: Much has been written about Bayreuth as a proto-cinema, but I think the desire to control an audience’s sensorium was only part of the story. Since his time in Dresden during the early 1840s, Wagner had been advocating practical innovations to his theatre (like enabling sight lines, updating the instruments, pensioning off the weakest performers), and his friendship with the brilliant architect Gottfried Semper — who designed the barricades Wagner defended during the uprising in May 1849 — shaped his ambitions for what a theatre could be. Add to this the explosion of contemporary research into sense physiology under figures like Johannes Müller and Helmholtz, and Wagner’s own belief that audiences had to physically experience music, first-hand, in order to ‘get it’, and it is not hard to see why the Festspielhaus project came about. Nor why it has become a focal point for the history of a specifically Wagnerian culture in all its stripes. Wagner sought to do away with mediating explanations, where ideally the entire role of music criticism would become redundant – in many ways Bayreuth was conceived as a monument to that ideal.

DV: Franz Liszt was the composer who helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert while he was in Weimar. How would you describe the relationship between the two composers?

DT: In a word: asymmetrical. They first met in 1841. Initially, Wagner pursued Liszt more for career advancement than artistic kinship, sending him the scores for Rienzi and Tannhäuser (‘I proceed quite openly to rouse you up in my favour’). By 1848, he began requesting financial help from Liszt, initially selling the copyright to his extant operas and accepting commissions, but thereafter simply requesting a series of bailouts, often in uncomfortably obsequious, manipulative prose. 1849 marked a sea change: Liszt was enormously impressed by Wagner’s latest works, which he felt were at the vanguard of progress. He conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, making sets of piano transcriptions of both (a supreme endorsement), he sought to conduct Siegfrieds Tod (had Wagner finished it), and even asked to premiere Tristan und Isolde in Weimar. During the 1850s, Liszt had the fame, influence, resources, and financing to rescue Wagner from critical and political ignominy as a composer-criminal, ingloriously expelled from Germany in 1849. Perhaps most significantly, he was a key figure in securing Wagner’s eventual amnesty and in promoting the first fledgling Bayreuth festivals.

But by the end, he referred to himself as ‘Bayreuth’s poodle’ after being wheeled out as a celebrity to endorse the second festival, after Wagner’s death (in February 1883). Wagner had questioned the comprehensibility of symphonic poetry in 1857, and would (privately) dismiss Liszt’s late works as ‘budding insanity’. There were two rifts in 1859 and 1864, the first over a misreading of tone in Liszt’s remarks about Tristan, the second more serious – about the Cosima affair (Wagner to Cosima: ‘Your father is repugnant to me’). So despite an early period of genuine, intense artistic friendship on both sides, the relationship was always lopsided. There is much more to say, of course, and I’ve written about this in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013; Editor Nicholas Vazsonyi).

DV: Liszt was a prolific composer, but spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s play. How did Sardanapalo come about, and why do you think it became such a challenge for him?

DT: By his mid 20s, Liszt’s ambitions for the ‘social mission’ of art exceeded mere pianism. By his early 30s, he saw how Rossini and Meyerbeer towered above other composers in Paris. Their medium? Opera. In his eyes, the spectacle, size, expense and public appeal of Franco-Italian opera ensured that this was the privileged route to such power, to entering ‘the musical guild’, as he later put it. Schumann had written publicly of a ‘disconnect’ between Liszt’s two identities, as a great pianist but less developed composer, and it must have hurt. The opera Sardanapalo was born of ambition (‘to cross my dramatic Rubicon’) – and it sounds like that. Liszt was intimately familiar with French and Italian opera scores of the age (that is, transcriptions and paraphrases), so composition of his mature opera was remarkably fluent; the libretto was his Achilles heel. He had searched widely for the right topic, eventually settling on Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus in 1845. Sadly, he wasted several years waiting for the playwright Félician Mallefille (1813-1868) to fulfil the libretto commission. He finally accepted a text procured by his close friend the Italian Princess Belgiojoso, a well-connected writer and salonnière exiled in Paris. We don’t know who this poet was – he was reportedly imprisoned for agitating towards Italian independence, and in need of funds! Liszt worried that he was no Byron or Metastasio, and implored Belgiojoso to work on the text herself so that it would emerge under her authority (‘Permit me simply to place my entire musical destiny in your beautiful hands’).

When the versified text for Act 1 finally came through, Liszt set it to music in a detailed, continuous short score (a particell). It took many letters, follow-ups and prompts, including the threat of commissioning a new poet, to extract the versified libretto for Acts 2-3, but Liszt never set them. He questioned aspects of the libretto to Belgiojoso, and evidently wanted changes made before setting anything further. As far as we know, no revised libretto was ever sent, and by this time (c. 1852), Liszt was so deeply involved in other compositional projects, not least the symphonic poems, that the zeal and original reason for completing an Italian opera a decade ago had faded.

DV: The score for Sardanapalo was thought to be almost impossible to read, and its music irretrievable. What was your approach in its reevaluation and eventual presentation in 2018?

DT: I was puzzled by the idea that a musician as intelligent as Liszt would have notated musical materials that were full of errors or made little sense, as some had suggested. The problem was more likely to be that we were reading his manuscript incorrectly. When I began studying the manuscript in detail, parts of it were legible, but at first glance it looked incomplete; Liszt used many abbreviations and forms of shorthand – like mini-codes to himself – to get everything on paper at pace. I made about 15 transcriptions of the full manuscript. With each new transcription, the contents became clearer. It was a bit like a very pixelated image gradually coming into focus, in ever-higher resolution with each transcription. Liszt was writing for his eyes only, so a lot of accidentals, signatures, rests etc. were missing. Fortunately, the vocal parts were complete and continuous – fully notated with text underlay. In three places, the accompaniment appeared to drop out, creating odd gaps with continuous vocal parts above. The solution was that Liszt in fact sets up clear, formulaic accompanimental patterns that would continue; in an age before cut & paste, he simply didn’t feel the need to write them out in full.

DV: How did the research process for Sardanapalo unfold for you?

DT: It was a genuine leap of faith. I had no idea what the manuscript would contain when I began, but as the project progressed, I felt a growing responsibility to bring the remarkable material he wrote to light in a way that was both scholarly and historically sensitive. There is a very detailed commentary in the critical edition (Neue Liszt Ausgabe), and a major question that remained was whether or not to orchestrate the work. As written, the short score is often unplayable on the piano, and Liszt left a few cues for instrumentation, even specifying orchestral textures in detail here and there. (Following normal practice, his assistant Joachim Raff was due to produce a provisional orchestration in 1852, which Liszt would then have revised.) It was clear, then, he was thinking in orchestral colours. For that reason, I felt the music should be presented in fully orchestrated form as well as in a critical edition.

Beyond this, it was enormously valuable working with several young singers from the Jette Parker Programme at the Royal Opera House, and later, with (conductor) Kirill Karabits and the three singers (Joyce El-Khoury, Airam Hernández, Oleksandr Pushniak) who performed the full world premiere. Although Liszt notated the vocal parts in full – for instance, with all ornaments, phrase markings – many details for performance still had to be discovered by trying out the music, and seeing how it fits in the voice: tempo, transitions, articulation, shape. All of this could only be explored by making the leap into sound.

Liszt, Sardanapalo, premiere, Weimar, opera, performance, stage, culture, Germany, David Trippett, presentation, live, classical music

Oleksandr Pushniak, Airam Hernández, Joyce El-Khoury and David Trippett at Staatskapelle Weimar on August 19. Photo: Candy Welz

DV: What were your impressions from hearing the world premiere in Weimar?

DT: It was a revelation. The performers were so committed and inspired in bringing this to an audience, and the orchestra – Liszt’s own orchestra, in his adopted city – was magnificent under Kirill. It had the feel not only of creating history, but of history folding back on itself, as though in an alternative reality the opera had finally materialized in all its splendour. That first performance was released as a CD, and it was such an achievement for all concerned, topping the UK Classical charts, ICMA finalist, making the Guardian’s Top 10 discs of 2019. I have such admiration for all the performers.

DV: The opera had concert performances lined up this year in Budapest, Edinburgh and London, but things got frozen due to COVID-19 pandemic. What are your plans for the future?

The pandemic froze many exciting artistic projects, and Sardanapalo was no exception. There are some discussions ongoing for future performances in Hungary and America, but it is sad to think that the music waited 170 years to be heard, had a moment of glory and began spreading with momentum, only for it to be silenced again by the cruel effects of the pandemic. I would hope that Liszt’s ingenuity in creating a modern, through-composed bel canto opera will continue to be enjoyed by audiences. And, it’s crucial to note here that following detailed work on the critical edition, the final, fully corrected score has yet to actually be performed – there is a striking difference at the end of Mirra’s cabaletta, for example.

DV: Do you believe that Sardanapalo could find its way into the repertoire of the opera houses in the near future in some staged production?

DT: It would be a creative opportunity for the right director. Could it be staged? Yes. Without doubt. The action is largely psychological – interior – but that is no different to Tristan (Wagner) or Bluebeard (Bartók). The challenge would be how to couple it with another one-act opera that complements Byron’s drama. Liszt frames the act with a concubine chorus and the royal army marching off to war; in between we have the adulterous couple learning about each other’s passions, insecurities and power, and on stage is the silent wife.

In today’s world of conflict, King Sardanapalo’s firmly anti-war stance resonates (‘Every glory is a lie, / if it must be bought with the weeping / of afflicted humankind.’), and the outer action pivots on Mirra’s plea that the he overcome this aversion to violent conflict, that he stand up and defend the realm. He listens and is finally persuaded by her lyricism – so off they go to war. It certainly offers plenty of creative material, from the opulence of ancient Assyria to the irony of a brutal Byronic hero who loves peace – 2024 is the 200th anniversary of Byron’s death, so who knows?

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Top: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale), Eugène Delacroix, 1827. Source: Musée du Louvre.
Adriana Gonzalez, soprano, singer, voice, opera, classical, Operalia

Adriana González: “Give Yourself Time And Space”

The extent to which concert and opera-going habits have changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is slowly becoming known. Recent announcements suggest that many organizations are playing it safe (or what they perceive as safe) in offering reams of favored classical chestnuts for 2022-2023 seasons in order to entice audiences, both old and new, back into the concert halls and opera houses. Any semblance of challenge is being left largely within the parameters of individual approaches – an interesting twist on “make your own fun”, perhaps – but one might still wish such notions (challenge, individual thought, critical thinking) hold some form of value in the post-pandemic classical landscape. I would like to believe that the idea of challenge – and its first cousin, curiosity – do indeed matter, and that whatever choices are (or be perceived as) over-cautious within future programming might be somehow reconfigured in order to open the door to more careful, contextualized listening / live experiences. As someone fascinated by how sounds transmit both verbal and non-verbal meaning, it has become a natural, near-unconscious habit to listen not passively but passionately. My ears, as I remarked to someone recently, have grown teeth; everything is evaluated with an intense energy and attention to detail. Developing incisive listening (and seeing, and evaluating) skill, however unconsciously, does not, despite being a music writer, always bring benefits; such habit is now perceived in some quarters as churlishness, over-criticism, over-analysis, even (heaven forbid), ingratitude (“You should be grateful live music is back at all!”). Yet this aural and visual approach, one now so useful amidst so many programming announcements, is not to be turned off or hidden, but rather, used in the interests of feeding curiosity, furthering inquiry, broadening the field of discovery.

Adriana Gonzalez, Iñaki Encina Oyón, melodies, Dussaut, Covatti, album, recording, piano, French, Audax, voice, vocalSo what a treat it was, to come across the album Mélodies (Audax, 2020) by soprano Adriana González and Basque pianist/conductor Iñaki Encina Oyón earlier this year. Featuring the largely-unknown songs of French composers Robert Dussaut (1896-1969) and Hélène Covatti (1910-2005), the album is a stellar showcase of González’s immense vocal talents, conveying a strong sense of the Guatemala-born soprano’s immense gift in integrating sensitive interpretation and smart technical approach; comparisons to the late Welsh soprano Margaret Price (1941-2011) come to mind, and have been rightly noted. The natural chemistry between González and Oyón share is evident through album’s 22 tracks, with the soprano’s coloration, phrasing, and textures matched by the pianist’s poetic tempos, touch, and dynamism, creating a luscious showcase of the hauntingly beautiful writing of each of the respective composers. “Adieux à l’étranger (1922) is a wistful work, Dussaut’s writing recalling the lyrical qualities of Massenet, while Covatti’s “Berceuse” shows clear connections to Ravel and De Falla; in each, González’s skillfully modulates voice and dynamics with and around Oyón’s delicate, intuitive playing. Mélodies is a very rewarding, very captivating listen, one that provides a wonderful introduction to both the composers and to Gonzalez’s larger talents, tantalizingly hinting at the explosive intensity which she so ably channels in live performance.

Winner of the First and Zarzuela Prizes at the Operalia competition in 2019, González has performed with Oper Frankfurt, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Opéra de Toulon, Opéra national de Lorraine, Opera Naţională Română Timişoara. Most recently she made her American debut with Houston Grand Opera, singing the role of Juliette in Gounod’s opera Roméo et Juliette opposite tenor Michael Spyres. This month sees Gonzalez perform Verdi’s Requiem in Portugal, a work she will perform again later this year with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; other roles next season include Michaela in Carmen (with Dutch National Opera, Paris Opera, and with Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège) and as Echo in Gluck’s Écho et Narcisse with Opéra Royal, Versailles. Having become a member of the Atelier Lyrique of the Paris Opera in 2014, González has developed a wide repertoire, one that hews to her rich if highly flexible lyric soprano style, with an emphasis on Mozart, Rossini, and Puccini so far. That doesn’t mean she isn’t prepared to expand her fach, but she does it with maximum awareness of her instrument – its demands, its realities, the stamina required and the ways it can be fostered with grace and sensitivity, all whilst simultaneously exercising a clear artistic curiosity. González’s recital with Oyón earlier this year in Dijon featured music from her Dussaut/Covatti album, as well as music by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), Fernando Obradors (1897-1945), Frederic Mompou (1893-1987), as well as songs from her recent album, Albéniz: Complete Songs (Audax), a 30-track exploration of the Spanish composer’s varied vocal oeuvre. Released last October and rightly nominated for an 2022 International Classical Music Award (ICMA), the album is a seamless integration of chemistry, technique, and artistry with González again delivering a stunning display of her immense vocality and feeling for the art of song.

Adriana González, Iñaki Encina Oyón, Albeniz. album, recording, piano, Spanish, Audax, voice, vocal, songsAs I learned when we spoke recently, González, while highly aware of her powerful, affecting sound, is also aware of her desire to stretch, explore, and cultivate her talent creatively, with a firm hold of context at every step. We started off discussing what it was like to quickly step into the role of Liù for a performance of Turandot in Houston, as she was concurrently performing Juliette. Stress, what stress? González seems too focused a performer to let nerves ever get the best of her, and her recollection of the experience was coloured more by a mix off excitement, disbelief, and gratitude than any dregs of self-doubt. González is as much earthy as she is studious, and that intensity I referenced earlier is, as ever, always in the service of a knowing approach to craft. Such a combination of ingredients makes for a meal that satisfies toothsome ears, and for a very rewarding form of listening amidst post-pandemic times.

When I learned about your quickly stepping into the role of Liù I reviewed my 2019 conversation with conductor Carlo Rizzi about Turandot, who called that character the heart of the opera. What was it like to step into that world so quickly?

Musically it was quite something – but I didn’t do the staging. They had me singing from the side and had an actor doing the staging tagging because Robert Wilson’s Turandot is very precise in terms of movements. The actress didn’t know the music really well, so (the production team) were talking to her through an earpiece and she had someone telling her, “Walk here, do this, do that, step left, one step back – no you stepped too far” – for her I can’t imagine what it was like. For me of course Liù is such a different vocality from Juliette, it was like, “Okay, go for it!” In Roméo et Juliette I thought, “Keep it proper, it’s French” and with Puccini, well, it’s home very much for me vocally, but I hadn’t sung Liù since 2019 and in doing it recently I thought, “Oh my voice has really grown, it’s changed, this feels different” – so that was wonderful. And the conductor, Eun Sun Kim, is amazing; every entrance was so clear, she would be waiting attentively at other moments; she knows the text of everything. She was there every step. It was like, “I know my part but I’m glad you do too!”

You said in a past interview that in preparing for a role you go over the vowel sounds and various details of vocalizing. What has it been like for you to examine the sounds within the text – has your process changed? I’m thinking here specifically of your doing Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta in Paris in 2019.

Iolanta was difficult because I don’t speak Russian and it was a secondary role – it was Brigitta, one of her nurses, and it was one of the contracts I did from the studio years in Paris. I had to do it but otherwise, I would be very skeptical to choose a role in an opera which is written in a language I don’t speak, because I find you really need to learn the language, you need to understand the cultural context and background from which the words originate. French is great for me: I know all the expressions; I find humour. When you see the phrases in opera, used in day to day, you can react better, just from an acting point of view –you can react better and propose things knowing the meaning of the text, from a technical and vocal technique point of view. You need to know the meaning of the word to know what kind of colour and what kind of nuance works also. For example, if you’re saying “I’m hesitating” then you don’t want to say “hesitating” or the feeling it implies so beautifully, it’s a feeling that doesn’t reflect something good – maybe it can be a good thing in the long run, but in the moment hesitation is doubt, it’s a feeling of unbalanced things. This is a lot of the thought process – you need to find a way of expressing that feeling clearly. And then of course we singers, we do these sounds and feelings through vowels, not through consonants specifically, so if you have vowel sounds, you need to make them a bit more acid if you are expressing a certain feeling, and you need to do it in a way so the whole experience of the word comes through. That’s the background we singers need to do even years before we start, just looking at the role and singing the role, because it’s muscular training you have to do to find those colours, and so you don’t get in trouble. You can’t do colours and really go for it with just your acting instinct. You have to take care of yourself, so that when you do those colours you’re not hurting your instruments. It’s a balance.

When I spoke with Etienne Dupuis earlier this year, he said how doing Don Carlos opened the door to many new things he hadn’t experienced singing it prior in Italian, but I wonder about the “acid sounds” – how much might such a vocal choice disturb perceptions of beauty in opera? If you’re concerned about making the expected “beautiful” sound you risk flattening the drama into this heterogeneous sonic mass, but committing to the sounds you describe means risking the way you – and your voice – are perceived by those who hold fast to notions of ‘the beautiful’ as paramount.

Tamara Wilson, who is amazing Turandot, dares to go piano, and it’s in those moments where you can really see Turandot’s vulnerability – and hearing that approach changes absolutely everything. It’s no longer this sort of scream-and-fight cliché– her performance has this power and this contrast, but also has length: the role is long enough that she can showcase all the colours she has. For some singers it is sometimes difficult. I did four years of young artist programs, and it was through that experience that I learned short roles can be just as hard; in a long role you have to pace yourself –when to do what –you have this amazing amount of time to showcase your whole palette. But with a short role, it’s just that little bit of time – I did a small role in Rigoletto, for instance – in which you can’t show a lot, but definitely when you have a longer role you make decisions on how to showcase the beauty but also the anguish, because opera is very much about real life. There are sad moments –you want to make people cry and think about beauty – but it also has to be real emotion. It can’t be beautiful all the time; there has to be a balance between the elements. There has to be a balance between where and how you choose the moments to really go for pain, and all else.

This speaks to theatre, does it not? To the power of theatre?

Yes!

Theatre is firmly part of what opera is, and indeed these operas – Turandot is Carlo Gozzi via Friedrich Schiller, by way of Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni; Roméo et Juliette is Shakespeare by way of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Do you, alongside opera recordings, examine the plays and/or performances of plays as part of your preparation?

I did read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and I also heard an audio book performance of it, to hear the inflections of the language, and to hear how the pain of certain scenes was expressed through the words – some of those inflections of text were so powerful. I also listened because of (curiosity around) the stage movement; the Houston production has specific stage movement; we had to train to do and we rehearsed, but I find if the emotion and intention are clear, then that helps you, no matter how you move, no matter the specifics. The intention of the action is there in the background. I definitely went through that process and got a good feeling: “Okay this is a painful moment” Also it was good to compare Shakespeare to what Gounod took for his final libretto – it’s very different. There are varying characters who are emphasized or not emphasized, and the family feud (in Gounod) is in the background compared to what Shakespeare presents. Also I couldn’t help but notice Juliet’s cheekiness – she’s very cheeky in Shakespeare; Gounod’s Juliette is more fragile and sentimental.

How much was working with Michael Spyres (as Roméo) an aid to the process?

From the first day Michael and I clicked really well. I’m a World Youth Choir baby – I did that really young, that’s what sort of got me to Europe – and I had always heard about Michael Spyres, as he was also in that choir as a kid. We’d heard of each other too – all of our friends know each other but we hadn’t actually met ourselves, but then we did and it was like, “You! Yes, you!” We clicked immediately – it was a wonderful meeting. Working with him was fabulous. He’s such a professional, he knows how to manage his instrument and be expressive, and he’s so much about the text also. It was a beautiful and natural collaboration. Even outside of the duos, he’s someone who really listens to what you’re doing – I listen to what he’s doing also. The first time we did a run-through, we did it one way; the second time was comp different because we were listening to each other so intently, so we felt good to make changes already. He’s a wonderful colleague. I couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful Roméo. Even without verbal language, it is so clear we are so much on the same page.

Adriana Gonzalez, soprano, singer, opera, classical, stage, Houston Grand Opera, Michael Spyres, Romeo et Juliette, Gounod, romantic, chemistry, duet

Michael Spyres and Adriana González in Romeo and Juliet at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Singers often emphasize chemistry – either it’s there or it isn’t. That’s important in a romantic opera, I should think… ?

It is important! It’s also a thing connected to life experiences. Talking with Michael, we’ve shared a lot of life experience, him and the countries he’d lived in, and me from Guatemala. Certain experiences create a certain way of thinking. Even if we grew up in different countries, he’ll say something about what he saw and I’ll say, “Hey, that happens in my country too!” So the life experiences are shared and create the way you behave and interact. That was also something that added to our work relationship.

And somehow the details, as you say, fall away. When you are doing this kind of project you can still come from your different places with all the related cultural backgrounds, but the meeting point somehow still exists, and that meeting happens in opera, and on record. Your album of Dussaut-Covatti is a good example, though I confess I hadn’t heard of the composers before hearing it…

That’s totally normal!

I don’t feel so bad now…

Don’t feel bad, seriously!

When you refer to chemistry, that is something definitely evident with your pianist, Iñaki Encina Oyón, through these songs; why make an album of their work?

I’m glad the complicity Iñaki and I have comes through. Now why do I say it’s normal not to know these composers? Because they are very unknown! The project came out of a very personal project for Iñaki and myself; the two composers, Dussaut and Covatti, are the parents of Iñaki’s piano teacher from Toulouse. When he left Spain he studied piano and conducting in Toulouse, and his piano teacher was the pianist Thérèse Dussaut (b. 1939), daughter of Hélène Covatti and Robert Dussaut. Thérèse doesn’t have children and she is getting older, and at the time she said to him, “Hey you know a lot of singers, why don’t you take my parents’ music and see what you can do with it?” Iñaki has such a curious brain, he loves to read and discover old composers, he digs for music all day, and one day he said, “Adriana let’s sight-read this.” The songs fit my voice so perfectly – the way it’s written was perfect with the tessitura and with the French. We went on to have a lot of fun performing them in recital. One day we decided to record them because otherwise, we worried they’d be lost to history – most were manuscripts, so we made a new edition of the scores, and recorded the album. The composers have so many other works – and Robert Dussaut was awarded the Grand Prix De Rome, the biggest composition prize you can win in France, he got it back in 1924 – it’s a prize Gounod won also; although Gounod only got it the second time he applied (in 1839, for the cantata Fernand), and Dussaut won it the first time around. It was music that had also not been done, and so it was wonderful to not be compared to anyone else and do something not done ten-thousand times already. The record label, Audax, is also independent, and their slogan is “Stay Curious” – they basically do unknown works, mainly Baroque and instrumental things, but are slowly taking on voice also.

As to Iñaki, that starts World Youth Choir also, like Michael. In 2012 Iñaki was the Assistant Conductor of the project and I was a choir person who did a solo, which I auditioned for. He heard me and said, “Where do you come from? What is this voice? Where did you train?” I said, “I want to sing Mimi!” I was 18 or 19 years old, and he said, “You know there’s the opera studios…” He informed me of all of these programs and how things work in Europe. I’d never left Guatemala – and a year later he invited me to Paris to do a production with him and invited the director of the Paris opera studio with whom he’s very good friends – Christian Schirm – and they got me the audition for the Paris casting people. It turns out they needed a Zerlina for the studio and took me in and asked me subsequently to stay in the program. And, all of that happened because of Iñaki, and his selflessness in wanting to help young talent. So I really owe him everything, he’s a wonderful friend and travels where I am singing – he came from Paris to Houston to see my Juliette debut, for instance. He’s really a close friend. So when you say the chemistry comes through on the album, that is really a wonderful compliment! We worked so hard on that album, and to express what’s written in the scores.

And now you’re shifting gears entirely, to Verdi’s Requiem. How do you prepare for something like this, especially something you’ll be performing across different continents?

When I accepted I thought, wait, should I have taken a longer pause between things? But it’s definitely something I did not want to turn down – the first one in Portugal at the end of May came as a proposal from Lorenzo Viotti. His sister Marina Viotti is doing the mezzo solo and she is one of my best friends. I thought, I’m not missing this opportunity to perform with my friend, and especially when it’s a first time for both of us! And also with her brother, I thought, really I can’t say no to this – so I will try to pace myself.

For singers, as a bit of context here, we are athletes, so we have to train vocally how we’ll use our muscles for the different types of writing from different types of composers. Gounod is different, specifically Juliette, to Verdi anything, of course. The wonderful thing is that the Verdi Requiem, if you look at the score, has many piani written and you have to keep a more slim position, a certain sort of throat opening, let’s say it that way – you can’t go full throttle, and doing a role like Juliette has helped keep that youth in the voice. Also having done a rebel kind of a Juliette has helped build the stamina for doing the Verdi Requiem, even with such different writing styles. I’ve learned the whole of the music and I’ll have a week to switch over from the Gounod to the Verdi – it’ll be a lot of training over that week. I’m slowly adapting my muscles and stretching them in a different way so I’ll be prepared to do Verdi. It’s such an iconic piece, and there’s been lots of reading, lots of analyzing, considering how to phrase the music – how to place this or that vowel; how to breathe in this place or that; how to make the larynx go into position so I can get a specific colour at a certain point –and how to get there fresh, so I can achieve that sound needed at the end of the Requiem but still have this sound of youth for the beautiful phrases at the very beginning.

Stamina is the right word  – but it’s a different kind of stamina required for Verdi’s work rather than Gounod’s. How might this experience and the preparation for it carry over into future roles?

It takes a lot – but you do think about it: what decisions to make when; what roles to take on; what do I want to do in the next five years. My voice will go into Verdi repertoire. I want to still enjoy the roles I’m doing now – Mimi, Liù, the Contessa, Fiordiligi. A Desdemona in the middle would be wonderful too…

That’s a role I’d love to hear you do.

It’s one I’m really looking forward to doing – and I am going in that direction, slowly. It is where my voice is headed – but you need to know how to pace yourself. In past times singers would do 60 shows a year for one role; now it’s like, we do 4 shows… and, can we do more, please? It takes so much time and effort and knowledge and, again, time… to prepare a role and then you do 4 shows, and you think, well, I hope I get to do this more!

That’s why the covid era was so devastating; singers trained five years out for roles in operas that were cancelled or moved. I want to believe the industry learned something from that time, but I’m not so sure… what’s your take?

It’s definitely been a time that’s made us think slower, so we were not just jumping around from one thing to another without a thought. It’s been a reminder of the importance of taking the time to do your things with dedication – dedicating time to the music, time and energy the music deserves, not jumping from one thing to another, but just focusing on one thing. Do that one thing wonderfully, then close the book, turn the page, go to the next thing. It’s very important to be this deliberate, and it’s the key for a long career also, to do one thing at a time, and to focus on it, and give yourself time and space also. I mean, God knows before in the opera world, in the Golden Age as it’s called, travel wasn’t that fast, it took how long to get to the American continent from Europe –you had days to recover from your performances, and you would travel on the boat, and then have a production in the US. Rehearsals were different also, so much was at a slower pace. There’s a lot to remember and to think about from that era in terms of taking time to enjoy things, and to enjoy the music itself.

Top photo: Marine Cessat-Bégle
branches, tree, sky, nature

Essay: The C-Word Is Context (Part 2)

On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t  normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details  indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!

My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.

In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.

Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)

It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is another story (or more); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”

If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.

Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.

This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping.  Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.

I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it,  as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.

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

Shining A Light On The Music Of Fanny Hensel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think the orchestration adds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

After hearing this album – I agree with you!

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

DG Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DG For sure.

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

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

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

DG …but he was raised Orthodox-Sephardic Jewish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Stefan Randlkofer

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

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

Top photo: Paul Marc Mitchell
curtain, stage, culture, performance, opera, operetta, Komische Oper Berlin, red, Berlin

Essay: Music, War, & The Reality Of Cancellation (Part 1)

Chasms in the classical music world are becoming increasingly obvious as a result of the war in Ukraine. The pressures recently placed on artists to make a clear public statement, pressures which are being applied by various cultural organizations, have fomented resentments and created a whirlwind of controversy around the exercise of private and public opinions in relation to art and culture. There has been a heated reignition of the long-standing debate of how far one might (or should) separate the art from the artist. Things are not quite so clear-cut as some involved in the debate would believe, however;  the institutional motivations behind applying that pressure, and the decision to cancel Russian artists and music in some instances, are enmeshed within a tight knot of funding, education, location, history, access, and the effects of two years of pandemic on the arts landscape overall. Audiences are proving slow in their return in many markets; the optics of doing the perceived “right thing” to convince them of the value of return has never been more pronounced.

This essay began life as a series of observations on the current state of music, politics, intercontinental preconceptions, funding models, education cuts, algorithms, public relations, and evolving notions of collective responsibility. Since starting on 3 March, the piece has become longer and broader than what was initially intended, and is now an ever-evolving, super-fussy Hydra. Just when I think one section is complete, along comes… more: another piece of learning; a dire bit of news; the reading of a comment thread; a conversation; the sound of violins playing a folk song. At those times I become curious, and am forced to rethink. In the interests of organization and finitude, I will be publishing this piece in four parts, likely not wholly consecutive but interspersed with artist conversations, this website’s initial raison d’être at its launch in 2017. It has been suggested this current essayistic pursuit is more suited to book form – perhaps? The great paradox of digital publishing is its essential changeability and permanence; everyone remembers when you screw up; everyone knows when you edit. I have no problem standing thusly naked before readers – I just want to make sure I can control the temperature of the water before dropping my robe.

Part 1

It feels reductive to state “war is hell.” It is that, of course, because it makes everything and everyone around it hell, one rife with twisting corridors and uneven floors, crumbling staircases leading to ever more dimly-lit labyrinthine levels. The invasion of Ukraine has uncovered an increasingly rigid cultural exceptionalism across continents, one fast becoming the elephant in the auditorium. It is an element which is proving unhelpful for artists and audiences alike, because its existence is so patently antithetical to the notion that music is a unifying force, this concept which many artists state with urgent sincerity. How can this great oneness have any validity in the real world if a newcomer is constantly made to feel intellectually and creatively small by those holding more formal knowledge and training? The reactionary engineering of social media fosters such hostilities (and related reactivity) whilst simultaneously obscuring the practises of public relations, thus perpetuating a broad ignorance around the roles of finance and education. Such comprehension is not something governments or organizations would wish to be known, but that does not erase the validity of such investigation. One cannot simply shout “They are cancelling Russian artists!” without understanding the true mechanisms which have largely driven such cancellations; I would wager that they are less driven by xenophobia than by economics, and as much related to maintaining public relations as to pleasing donor bases. There is also, importantly, a deep aversion to risk after two years of pandemic; anything that gives off so much as a whiff of risk is duly launched off the boat, with all the expected words and righteous noises – sensitivitycommunitysolidarity. Bravo… ish.

Thus the recent claims of there occurring a giant wave of Russophobia within the classical realm (a victim narrative the Putin regime fosters, incidentally) are not completely accurate; no doubt that does exist, but one must keep context in firm focus. New York’s Metropolitan Opera, for instance, has roughly ten Russian singers, as well as Ukrainian basses Alexander Tsymbalyuk and Dmitri Belosselskiy, on board for this season and next. Such a detail holds significance; to ignore it is to ignore the necessary context which lays the groundwork for meaningful discussion. If we mean what we say, as music lovers and seeming ambassadors, we must be willing to get our hands dirty with various realities, including our own unconsciously-held beliefs and attitudes, as much as negotiating with those held by others. While classical culture prides itself on humanism, growth, and the ever-vital curiosity, I have witnessed few of these qualities in action of late from so many directly and indirectly involved parties; what I have seen is judgement, obfuscation, anger, showboating – reaction. Is there hope for sincerity? The jury is still out. As bass baritone Paul Carey Jones pondered in a recent post, “is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?” In an attempt to explore pertinent issues within and around the intersections of culture, technology, politics, PR, and presentation, it seems wise to continually turn attention back, and forwards – to read, study, think, repeat, and to keep asking such questions, and expanding on them at every turn.

Such is the privilege of my own situation that I am able to pursue study, in a relatively healthy environment, with food in the refrigerator and heat buzzing on at predictable intervals. It is worth acknowledging this – the thing I ask for more of (education) and the things required to carry that out (time, money, environment) are not necessarily things everyone has access to, or easy access at that. Between hoovering, hay fever, student marking, sighing, cooking and clearing up, my days have filled up with reading, writing, note-taking, chasing people, ideas, and some cogent line of discourse, interspersed with glances at the telly every now and again. Context, as my many media and broadcasting students through the years will attest, is something of an obsession, but it takes continuous amounts of time, energy, money, and a calm atmosphere to grasp and cultivate an appreciation of context – not everyone has those things, or can so easily parcel them out; I acknowledge this (and shake angry fists at the utter failure of education systems, school boards, and arts departments here, but that’s a future essay). Context is often the very quality most often missing in contemporary discourse, and especially in times of war. Its absence, and the overall lack of commitment to its fostering on the part of artists, writers, organizations, educational departments, teachers, writers, publishers (most everyone in or around the system) has created a crater of non-awareness; that crater existed far before the start of war on February 24th but is growing exponentially, caving in on itself – and classical culture is fast becoming its most damaged casualty.

Along with an obsession of context is, as my students well know, a heavy dislike of false equivalency. Its rise not only within media presentation but the seemingly-innocuous realms of quotidian exchange is immensely frustrating for both its intellectual laziness and whataboutism, that debate-stopping, brain-melting tendency with a rather timely history. It is exhausting to wave arms against things which, over the last three weeks, have become so common, and so often go unquestioned. False equivalency hinges on giving equal weight to that which is not at all equal, but it also underscores a galling lack of empathy for which music is (again) meant to (magically, romantically) cure. Over the past week there have been numerous posts from musicians expressing concern at losing opportunities over what seems to be little more than their nationality – but (to be a bit of a broken record here) I’m not convinced that’s the actual reason for the cancellation. We all know perceptions are not reality, but oh, they certainly feel that way, and nowhere more sharply than in times of war. The wording isn’t always the same with these expressions, written in a mix of despair and outrage, but the subtext is shared: fear. Who should speak out? Is it a good idea? How much specificity is expected? As violinist Alexey Igudesman recently posited:

You are a Russian artist who lives in Moscow with a family and a child, or who has family in Russia.
If you give statements against the government, the danger of something happening to you or your family in a regime like Russia is very real.
No-one should be forced to become a martyr and put their family and livelihood in danger. If one does, that has to be the individual’s own choice.

As human rights project OVD Info outlines, such exercise of choice is not done lightly. It begs the question: is it a choice when it isn’t really a choice? Artists living in the West who have spoken out are to be lauded, but such statements are not comparable with those made by others living in the country, or with family living in such an environment. In acknowledging such a reality there is also the need to acknowledge another: “How can one feel bad for Russians when Ukrainians are  being bombed?” – there is no answer to this. There can’t be; there shouldn’t be.

Grappling with suffering means gently if consciously engaging the imagination; even (or especially) if that suffering is not ours. This is which is a key component in making the engine of empathy run. Such exercise sometimes opens the door to understanding – but more often, in this age of quick reactions and retweets, leads to un-feeling, to closing doors, to shutting down engines and kicking them down several sets of stairs. Invariably come the comparisons (of suffering; of victimization), neither side bearing equal weight to the other. (If you don’t think Putin and his gang delight in fomenting such divisions, kindly reconsider; he is arguably the author of the mud-slinging event at contemporary edition of The Suffering Olympics. Such an event merits no winners, and should not attract so many willing recruits, and yet.) Why do people engage in this? False equivalency isn’t related to “seeing all sides” –  such valuation robs us of humanity, and robs us of the ability to exercise the empathy that clearly expresses that humanity.

Alas, such reductions are the currency with which wars are waged and fought; bending too far back is dangerous, but bowing too far forwards is apologism. That doesn’t mean suffering should not be acknowledged, and it doesn’t mean such an acknowledgement negates the need for figures within the classical community to speak with clarity  at a moment when it ought to be least effortful; compassion is either present or it is not. If it is effortful, well, so the person is clearly revealed. Politics, as ever, presents a challenge. The classical community was largely silent over many things, seemingly floating above it all: James Levine, Me Too, BLM, casting couches, COVID19 – the list of issues which classical has faced are lengthy, perceived as inconvenient, viewed as overheated reaction from an over-anxious, social-media fuelled public. It’s a witch hunt! they shout, and alas, the algorithm of social media clicks along; fans obediently seal-clap, defend their heroes, slut-shame accusers, publish breathless articles filled with puffy questions that mysteriously divorce art from life. Such conversations are handy bits of propaganda and certainly make the classical ecosystem (along with non-paying publishers and ad tech) very happy. So what? The fact that war is possibly the classical world’s tipping point for meaningful change is telling; something has to give, but whether something will is a whole other matter. In a recent exchange at Tablet, celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky offers his thoughts on the war, and remembers his own experiences of being a Jew growing up in Ukraine:

Donetsk was a very international city, it had many nations. It was an industrial center, so for 100 years people had been coming there to look for work from different parts of the Russian empire. There were Ukrainians and Russians in Donetsk, of course, but also Kazakhs and Armenians and Georgians and Tatars. So none of that really mattered. What really mattered was: Are you Jewish or not? […] Jews were the only people who were really discriminated against. There were jokes about every nation, but the real prejudices and the official discrimination were against Jews. Now, I studied in a Russian school where the second language was Ukrainian, and there were many Ukrainian schools where the second language was Russian. As a Jew, I tried to be the best in everything, so I tried to also be the best in Ukrainian literature.

The pressure on a minority group to be the very best has gone from being a shared reality among many young musicians into an uncomfortable requirement. Expectations are high; competition is rampant. Be the best at performing, and now, be the best at performing the mechanics of virtue; such is the pressure now. Any chance for meaningful change is choked in the race to apply the right level of knowledge at the right time, in front of (or with) the right people. Ever has it been thus.

Indeed, growth is uncomfortable (meaningful growth, that is), and authenticity is messy; our heroes won’t be so shiny through some forms of growth, and we may have to end our (over)use of the word “genius.”  The payoff might be more meaningful engagement –with material, audiences, program directors, artists… cultures, experiences, histories, ideas. One can show sensitivity to Ukrainian ticket buyers while simultaneously engaging them in these conversations – one is not (should not be) exclusive of the other. It’s an instinct one would have hoped would have been applied by the Canada Council, the Honens Competition (notably since reversed),Théâtre Orchestre Bienne Soleure, Kartause Ittingen, the Cardiff Philharmonic, and Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the Vancouver Recital Society.

It’s easy to point at these cancellations and scream witch hunt! (Putin would want you to) but far more difficult to examine the position of each, their board members, their audience demographics, the position of unions in some of them, and the ever-significant role of funding, which matters in providing wider music knowledge and related (needed) rehearsals of new material. Perhaps the work of Serge Bortkiewicz, Yevhen Stankovych, and Myroslav Skoryk will be programmed for more than benefits alone; perhaps these works will become, like so many others, part and parcel of regular season programming. Perhaps audiences will want to hear them, and more.

Serious consideration of such possibilities hint at the acknowledgement of a needed structural change and an overdue embrace of its smart application. The grounds must exist for dialogue which is free from angry exceptionalism but open to uncomfortable realities, including anger and disappointment, sometimes with words, sometimes in the form of returned tickets. That’s the reality; some outlets will be skittish in broaching this. Two years of pandemic has meant a wholly risk-averse landscape (the effects of which can clearly be seen in cancellations now), but such initiatives – such bravery – is required. It is in the exercise of these qualities that classical culture will, perhaps, find the kind of 21st century significance many argue it sorely needs. Alongside angrily returned tickets might come, one hopes, something else: curiosity. It is a quality which lays the seeds for… I won’t call it hope (which sounds precious) but… an opening. There needs to exist curiosity – for discussion, education, expansion, uncomfortable ideas, new avenues. “Just look,” says curiosity, “at least look…”

One might stomp off across the concrete, back to the labyrinthine bunker, ignoring the green shoots pushing through that soil, seeing only craters, mud, debris; one might walk away carefully, observing tiny buds, remembering it is spring, after all; one might be grateful to see such possibility. Setting fire to the field is not the answer. It is time to breathe, and to replant, carefully.

Photo: The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Paris, Palais Garnier, Chagall, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

snow, bridge, winter, scene

Personal Essay: December Is The Hardest Month

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

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

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

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

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

They said no. I already tried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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