Category: classical Page 1 of 7

Barrie Kosky: “Crises Always Bring Out The Best And Worst Of People”

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus

What do you do when all the energy you’ve put into careful planning over many years is suddenly threatened? Barrie Kosky decided to wipe the board clean and start again. The new autumn programme at Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic means, for the busy Intendant, a tangle of what he calls “scheduling nightmares” but also opens the door to new possibilities, for artists and audiences alike. It’s a purposeful step into the unknown, something the self-described “gay, Jewish kangaroo” is well used to doing after three-plus decades of working in theatre.

As head of the Komische Oper Berlin since 2012, Kosky (who has been called “Europe’s hottest director“) has made it a mission to regularly stage early 20th century operettas, Baroque opera, musicals, Mozart, and 20th century works. The pervasive idea of opera being an art form designated entirely for certain classes is one that niggles Kosky; he told The Telegraph in 2019 that “it fits a cultural agenda to say it’s elitist, but it is bullshit.” The idea that a work of art is challenging, entertaining, and enlightening at once is, in Kosky’s world, good, and entirely normal; just how much the bulbs for any or all of the elements in this trinity are dimmed or brightened depends, of course, on the material, but just as equally, the context. Berlin’s history, and indeed, that of Germany, have been constant sources of inspiration and exploration, and have often provided a meaty subtext to Kosky’s stagings, notably in his 2017 Fiddler on the Roof, here called Anatevka, with its unmissable, and purposefully uncomfortable, recalling both distant and recent pasts. His 2015 staging of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron featured imagery which disturbingly recalled the Holocaust. This bold combination of vision, politics, and thoughtful imagination (and in many cases, reimagination) is what has largely fuelled the incredible success KOB has enjoyed over the course of Kosky’s tenure, which is set to end in 2022. Before then, the company’s re-envisioned autumn program is a concentrated symbol of all Kosky has, and hopes to still, accomplish, both within and outside of Berlin proper. The new slate of programming is ambitious: there will be minimalist stagings of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Offenbach’s opéra bouffe The Countess of Gerolstein, Gluck’s Iphigenie auf Tauris, Schumann’s Mondnacht, and the operetta Die Blume von Hawaii by Paul Abraham; concert performances of works by Schubert (the song cycle Winterreise will be performed by ensemble baritone Günter Papendell) and Kurt Weill (with singer/actor Katherine Mehrling); a three-concert series devoted to the works of Igor Stravinsky (led by Music Director Ainārs Rubiķis); a series of salon talks combining science, creativity, and social issues; dance presentations (including choreographer Emanuel Gat’s SUNNY by Staatsballett Berlin); and a video project by Gob Squad (a British-German collective specializing in video/performance collaborations) which will use Berlin as a backdrop tot explore perceptions around the comfortably familiar.

That sense of comfort is not, as a concept, something Kosky has ever spent time or energy presenting or encouraging. In a conversation with James Clutton (Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera) earlier this year, he compared the overall position of KOB to Berlin’s other two opera houses, noting that “Deutsche Oper is Moby Dick, Staatsoper (Unter den Linden) is Jaws, and… we’re Flipper.” It’s Kosky’s smart, sassy,  singular way of illustrating the vivid approach of the house and its sparky Intendant to the material they program and the artists (both ensemble and guests) they engage. The longtime director’s style – if he could be said to have one – busily combines color, movement, and drama in a vivid theatrical aesthetic, colorfully aided by the work of longtime collaborators, including choreographer Otto Pichler, set designer Rufus Didwiszus, costume designer Klaus Bruns, set and lighting designer Klaus Grünberg, and designer Katrin Lea Tag. Embracing strong imagery and dramatically rich theatricality, Kosky is unafraid of upsetting the apple cart of operatic expectation; in fact, it’s something of a specialty of his, to purposefully turn it over, kick the wheels, collect the apples, and go off to make something considered delicious by some and unpalatable by others. Not everything he does is easily digestible, but then, it isn’t supposed to be; Kosky’s oeuvre as an artist is to question perceptions and long-held beliefs, which sounds simple enough but is no small thing in an industry constantly pressured to hew to so-called “safe” programming and presentation. While expanding the possibilities of live presentational experience, great attention is given to small details within a larger overall narrative framework. His 2017 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, for instance, contextualized the very place in which it was presented – Bayreuth – in order to question notions of identity and creativity; utilizing puppetry and a backdrop of the Nürnberg trials, Kosky put the opera’s composer on trial. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian “(a)t the heart of this Meistersinger is an imaginative, subtle and serious staging of a simple question: how far does Wagner’s antisemitism invalidate his artistic achievement? In the end, Kosky proves to be a fair judge of a question that is still necessarily debated.”

Creative probing into the nature of creation, ideas of artistry, and the role(s) of context within all of them reveal pursuits at once serious (Schoenberg’s unfinished 1932 opera Moses und Aron) and gloriously silly (Oscar Straus’ frothy 1923 operetta Die Perlen von Cleopatra), with a particular penchant for combining surreal dreamscape visions with unapologetic disruptions to socio-religious (and operatic) norms. His 2016 production of The Nose by Dmitri Shostakovich for the Royal Opera Covent Garden famously featured a line of tap-dancing title characters, while the 2015 staging of Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel for Bayerische Staatsoper revealed (nay, revelled in) an even more surreal, grotesque world where the personal and political intersect. The production, which was to have been presented at the Metropolitan Opera this December (cancelled because of COVID19), features a sparring, obsessive couple, and delves into the subconscious of each to reveal a parade of decadent, deprived fantasies that strip away the eroto-goth, pseudo-romance of Valery Bryusov’s breathless 1907 novel. Fierce, ferocious, and at times suitably unfathomable, the memorable production was not only notable for its comically nightmarish vignettes (one of which featured a very sarcastically-presented penis being roasted and consumed) but for the genuine interest Kosky took in the depiction of the opera’s female character, Renata, an interest which applies more broadly to the many pivotal female characters within the works he’s helmed. Paul Abraham’s 1932 operetta Ball im Savoy, staged at KOB in 2013, featured the inimitable Dagmar Manzel (a company mainstay) as Madeleine de Faublas, who clings desperately to an elegant dignity while trying to keep her marriage afloat; Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe Die schöne Helena (known more for its French title La belle Hélène, and staged at KOB in 2014) offered a fascinating depiction of its title character, one touching on vampy, vapid, scary, silly, and girlish. Monteverdi’s Die Krönung der Poppea (in its original Italian, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with the Komische using a richly reimagined score by composer Elena Kats-Chernin) portrayed the title character’s ruthless and naked (sometimes literally) ambitions with zealous, bloody clarity. Franz Schreker’s 1918 work Die Gezeichneten (staged in 2018 at Oper Zürich) Kosky presented Carlotta through the disturbed, damaged perceptions of the male character obsessed with her, creating a twisted parable that hinged, like much of his work (notably his Pelleas et Melisande staging in 2017), around the dialectics of male desire, female identity, power, subservience, and beauty.

Nowhere, perhaps, were these angular explorations made more clear than in Kosky’s highly divisive staging of Carmen, first presented at Oper Frankfurt and subsequently at the Royal Opera in 2018. Kosky purposely stripped away the opera’s historical visual cliches (farewell fans and flamenco!) while mocking the audience’s expectations of them. Instead of the cliched-sexy, wide-eyed, wink-wink-nudge-nudge choreography so often (almost constantly) deployed as a central part of the character – as embodied in the famous habanera – Kosky’s Carmen was a kind of toreador herself, and during the aria itself she wasn’t swaying hips but peeling off a gorilla costume – gimmicky perhaps, but a deliberate nod at Marlene Dietrich’s similar revelation in Blonde Venus, with its balance of power, desire, and subversion of expectation, and a smirking (if highly confrontational) shove at long-held, seemingly immobile notions of what constitutes “sexy” in female operatic depiction. The moment – indeed the entire production – underlined Kosky’s love-it-or-leave-it approach. 2021 will see the Australian director helm a highly-anticipated new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Bayerische Staatsoper together with his regular team, and conductor Vladimir Jurowski, with whom he has previously worked several times, including, most recently, at Komische Oper Berlin last autumn, for a visceral staging of Henze’s 1965 work The Bassarids. There is no small amount of anticipation for next year’s Rosenkavalier; it follows Otto Schenk’s widely-adored, Rococo-style production, first presented at the house in 1972. The production will also mark Jurowski’s first staging at the house since being named the company’s General Music Director Designate (formally starting in autumn 2021); soprano Marlis Petersen is set to sing the role of the Marschallin. The production is set to open in mid-March of 2021.

Before that, however, is the re-envisioned autumn season in Berlin, a brave step into what is a largely unknown world still grappling with the effects of pandemic; how much audiences will respond is anyone’s guess, though the combination of a faithful live audience, and a growing digital one (thanks to a partnership with Opera Vision) means the company will continue to grow its presence in both local and global respects. When we spoke recently, Kosky had just returned to Berlin from finalizing lighting plans for a future production at Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. (“Who would say ‘no’ to a week in the South of France?” Well, especially right now… “Hello!”) This was my second conversation with Kosky, the first having been in early 2018 when we chatted about the central role of operetta in his programming. Funny, warm, blunt, and chatty, Kosky is a lively conversationalist with none of the I’m-A-Famous-Artiste characteristics that might trail from a figure of his stature. Authenticity is a theme which has emerged through the many conversations I’ve been privileged to share with various classical figures, and I can think of no better figure to embody such a quality than Kosky; he is real, earthy, wholly himself, wholly authentic, with a like-it-or-lump-it boldness that will either engage or repel. It’s not difficult to figure out which camp many opera fans sit in, myself included. Here the director shares his thoughts on the whys and wherefores of changing programming, what the pandemic hath wrought in terms of acceptance and humility, the logistics of funding, upcoming projects (including Rosenkavalier in Munich), and just how his dedication on an April episode of Hope@Home came to be.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

Why did you redo the schedule from September through to the end of the year?

We decided we just couldn’t mess around. Some of my colleagues are all hoping by October we’ll all be back to normal, but I think they’re living in la-la land – it’s impossible. We have a luxurious thing you don’t have in North America or Britain: the subsidized ensemble system. It enables us to be able to do things so we don’t have to spend a cent, and we don’t have to employ people – they’re all here.

I read somewhere you’d said how artists who are complaining in Germany have no idea about how bad things really are elsewhere…

Oh… yes, it’s my pet thing at the moment! It’s like, I just find that this German word, “jammern”, it’s like this, well, more than complaint, this … <whining noise>… and you know, I understand any freelance artist can do that if they’ve lost jobs. I have no problem if friends of mine, freelance friends, do it – they can complain twenty-four hours a day if they have no money. But for people within the system who are getting their full monthly payment and doing no work – like the orchestra, like the chorus, like the soloists, like the technicians – you know, shut the fuck up. Really. I don’t even want to hear about your difficulties – you have none, you’re being paid and not working. And then they say, “We miss performing!” And I say, “Go stand in front of an old folks’ home and play your violin like so many other people are doing!” When I speak to all my friends in America, Canada, Australia, Britain, they’ve just lost six months of work! Some of them fall between the funding slots so they can’t apply for financial help! So… really.

Comparatively speaking , I think many classical artists outside of Germany look in with envy because of the system being much more well- funded.

Well it is. The system is stronger, and the financial packages are bigger – Merkel announced €1 billion for the arts, but that’s on top of hundreds of millions the city gave, and on top of the billions they give to the arts anyway.

Is it true you don’t like the term “reduced” opera? That seems to be what many organizations are doing, or thinking of doing, right now.

I mean, I don’t think if something is small that it’s “reduced.” Certainly if you have a reduced Ring Cycle, like the one by Jonathan Dove, it’s a reduced orchestration, but what we’ve deliberately done is not that, even though we may be using smaller forces. Some of the best pieces of music ever written are small, and quite frankly, if we have to have a six-month pause from Mahler, well, there’s too much Mahler being played anyway – it’s lost its specialness being done so much. But more Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Bach wouldn’t hurt anybody! Not everything has to be monolithic – but “reduced” is a word that implies things that I don’t want to imply. We all know what the situation is, and I feel it’s better to say, “We’re doing a version of The Countess Of Gerolstein” and not “We’re doing a reduced version” – I don’t like that word “reduced.” I’ve tried to ban it.

The needed move into these smaller versions of things highlights an intimacy within the overall experience which audiences may have been craving – this idea that opera and classical must always be so grand and monolithic, as you say, is being dismantled.

Indeed. Let me give you an example. We started rehearsals recently for a planned production of Pierrot Lunaire with Dagmar Manzel; she’s been wanting to do this for the last twenty years. We paired it with those two fabulous Beckett monologues, Not I and Rockaby. This was planned two years ago, but the idea we begin a season with that talking mouth, I mean… it couldn’t be better, that you actually begin the first season after the whole corona thing with not music but Beckett’s (style of) music and this insane talking mouth! And just to be in the room and to work on that Pierrot Lunaire score – it’s an important work written in Berlin in 1912, just before Schoenberg started to meddle in 12-tone music – but you forget what an astonishing piece of music it is. Stravinsky said Pierrot Lunaire was like the solar plexus of 20th-century music. You hear so much in these tiny twenty-one poems – they’re not even sung, there are about ten notes the speaker has to sing, but with five instruments. And it’s just as extraordinary as Tristan und Isolde, it’s just as extraordinary as Wozzeck, and it’s just as extraordinary as the chromatic worlds of Mahler 6 and 7, so you suddenly think, well, maybe forget the epic, forget the grand, forget the huge statement – there’s plenty of repertoire to use.

But I do tend to feel a bit wary of giving large philosophical or existential answers about what is art, what is culture, what is opera, what will it be, what should it be, when we’re still in the middle of a health crisis. We can have this discussion maybe next year when we’re in the middle of a financial crisis, because that’s going to hit. I feel my job now is to try and discover what wonderful pieces of music theatre we can perform with the resources we have available and within the constraints which are in place. It’s very pragmatic; I think the existential things can come later.

Speaking of pragmatism, KOB has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Opera Vision; the broadcasts have had a central role in shaping ideas relating to culture within the digital realm. Those working in music and theatre have said numerous times over the past four months that video can never replace the real thing, that the live experience is entirely singular and of course that’s true – but digital isn’t supposed to replace anything; it’s ancillary, complementary, an add-on, and it’s also very helpful for those who can’t make it to the actual location. You have a digital component to this new fall season, which implies an embrace of technology as part and parcel of this new way to experience culture in the so-called “new normal.” Why?

I’ve always said technology isn’t here to replace the live experience; it’s to operate through it in some way. It is a great marketing tool – we hardly print anything anymore – and it’s also a way, as you said, to share. Not everyone, outside of a few German opera critics, can jump on an airplane and come see work all the time, so what’s the choice, you can’t see this show because we don’t want to present it digitally, or we give you the opportunity to see it and… ? I think after the crisis finishes there’s a big discussion to be had about rights and royalties; people should be paid something, the time of all free-free-free should be over. I’m also not sure in future we’d have everything free online; we’d have to look at that. So I think if we do charge for viewings, the money would go toward the artists’ royalties in some way. I think it’s very important. But yes, when it comes to digital, people jump to the polarized position: when opera has a livestream, it’s “oh this is the end of the magic of opera!” and you go, “No.” I don’t make the jump from ‘making it accessible and available in another form’ to ‘it’s the end of opera’ – I don’t make that jump.

I do feel differently with the cinema stuff; I think there’s a big difference. You can sit at home and watch Moses und Aron in your house, which I like the idea of, but I’m not so wild about you going to your local cinema and buying a ticket to see that work live on the big screen. For some reason I think that competes then, it takes away from your local house, and makes it into a cinematic experience…

… which it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.

Right. But I like the idea of streaming things at home – that sort of accessibility I like a lot. Digital is there as another way of exploring how we can make interesting work available to more people. We did Moses und Aron for only six performances, so only 7000 people saw it live – we sold out the run – but now already 15,000 or even more have seen it in the last few weeks. So more people  saw it digitally than they did originally. I’m not going to complain about that.

Moses und Aron, staging, Kosky, Komische Oper Berlin, Schoenberg, opera

Robert Hayward as Moses in Moses und Aron, Komische Oper Berlin, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

The style of filming was very specific to online streaming; it wasn’t trying to be cinematic but did provide a different perspective than if one had been sitting in the back row on the top tier of the house. 

Every theatre experience is different if you watch it live or filmed, and we were very lucky when we decided during my time at KOB that we would do livestreams and we would record them. I think the other big house that has a library for livestreams is Munich (Bayerische Staatsoper), in terms of being able to just release productions during the last few months, but my job is to try and entice people to Berlin eventually, so if thousands of people have seen these productions in the last few months, maybe some are thinking, “Oooh I want to go to Berlin, what are they doing right now?” It’s all connected.

I shared the link for Die Perlen der Cleopatra to a friend who is writing a musical and although he doesn’t know the KOB’s work he loved it and was curious to see more. 

That’s great! I think for non-Germans, in terms of seeing operetta or musicals done on that scale, you just don’t see it anywhere else quite like that.

We’ve spoken about operetta in the past, and it’s nice to see it as part of your autumn programming.

We do need laughter right now. What I’ve found amazing the last few months is, at the beginning, when the shock of the lockdown was dissipating – we had our lockdown so early – various things came online and people started to play, and it was terribly lamento, this self-indulgent thing of “it’s the end! I’m playing the saddest most depressing music I could imagine to share with you across the world!” And I’m thinking, you know, it’s not a requiem we’re dealing with. I think we can still assume, when we weren’t playing, and then when we do play, we want to present a spectrum of music theatre experiences, so to balance the Schoenberg and Iphigenie, (KOB) had to do an operetta with the ensemble, because by the time we get to October we’ll have to have some laughs along the line. That’s not to make any light of any situation or of the hundreds of thousands of deaths, but we’re going to have to not just sit here and think it’s the end. Because it isn’t the end.

It’s felt that way for many – there’s been a lot of despair because of the pandemic situation.

Yes but I think we’re also got to realize it’s all about perspective. The Western idea of despair is not on the scale of despair on other continents. Historical despair…  you know, a lot of the sort of, German cultural scene at the moment is railing against the idea of wearing masks and think it’s hysterics and whatever, the whole discussion is about, “are my freedoms and rights being taken away by being told to wear a mask in shops and on public transport” and I think, if your definition of the loss of freedom and rights is about wearing a mask to maybe not infect someone else in society, then you need to go and live in a country when freedom and rights are really under threat. That to me is another issue of this whole thing.

I said to my house as part of an internal video that I think it’s very important we have a perspective about this, and that it’s very easy to sink into a negativity – you can sink into a frustration, but as I said at the beginning, you know, outside the Western European cultural system, it’s terrible – orchestras, dance companies, institutions that have been developing for decades are under existential threat, and I think sometimes it’s better if you’re lucky to either help people or to shut the fuck up.

… or whinge on the internet?

The internet is the great whinge forum of all time! I don’t mind people being frustrated, I can understand it, and also understand I speak from a privileged position, and I’m very careful about that. I think crises always bring out the best and worst of people. It’s interesting to run a house when you’re successful, it’s also interesting to see how stable the ship is if you’re in a storm. That’s also interesting.

You’re hoping to leave something of a stable ship at KOB in the near future, then?

I leave in two years, but I sort of don’t leave, because I’m still staying on to do my work and as an advisor. I’ll be looking after the whole renovation project for two years, my team I’ve been working with are taking over the house so there’s continuity there but it’s a chapter finishing, and the last thing I want to do is hand over an institution that isn’t strong and creative.

I feel like this whole lockdown experience has been such an exercise in humility for many.

It still is, and everyone’s in the same boat. Salzburg, it’ll be interesting this summer to see what happens there in the laboratory of Salzburg, but that’s also not quite the reality, because Salzburg is a summer festival. At the Felsenreitschule where they’re presenting Elektra, there is no pit, it’s a huge, open area, so they don’t have to deal with musicians and big orchestras in pits and big choruses and hundreds of people backstage – they don’t have to deal with any of this. So I’m skeptical of it being used as a template of how the future will be. I wish them well, but it has nothing to do with what we’re doing or the challenges we face.

… or the audiences you have.

The average age in Salzburg is 345; we are considerably younger than that.

Kosky, director, Komische Oper Berlin, portrait, Intendant, Berlin

Photo: Jan Windszus Photography

And your Der Rosenkavalier is still in the books next year in Munich. 

We won’t be changing it. If we have to do social distancing, it’ll be postponed. I can’t do with it what I’m doing with Boris Godounov in Zürich – the chorus and the orchestra will be beamed into the opera house live, and the singers and extras will be doing a strange, dreamlike production live, but I can do that with Boris Godounov because it’s fragmented anyway, it’s about history and how we remember history, so conceptually, fine – that’s not how I conceived it, but it’s fine.

But with Rosenkavalier, no! The opera itself is impossible to do with any form of social distancing, and it’s impossible to play in a smaller orchestral ensemble. They’re building the sets so it’s not as if it won’t happen. But as I said, I refuse to get into a situation where it’s, “Oh no my precious Rosenkavalier, it simply must be done!” – yes, I’d be devastated if it didn’t happen, but if it doesn’t happen in February-March, well, they’ll have to do it at some time; they’ve invested so much in costumes and sets already. I really want to do it next year, but it’s impossible to know what’ll happen, and they know that. Some of these productions we’re planning are impossible to do with restrictions, but I’m not even thinking about next year. January the 1st is not on my radar.

So it’s an exercise in non-attachment then?

It is. And the good thing about Rosenkavalier is that the work had all been done before corona – we’ve been working for three years on it, three-and-half years in fact. And it was all sort of finished in terms of the large concept – that was finished, but now it’s how it’s to be done, working it out in rehearsals, as you know. So it’s Strauss, and Rosenkavalier, and it’s Kosky’s Rosenkavalier, and in Munich: throw everything and the kitchen sink into it! And yes, there’ll be a lot of surprises in that one.

But first some surprises in the autumn in Berlin… 

I think what’s happened in the German-speaking world is there are two thoughts: one thought is to bury your head in the sand and say, “It’ll all be fine and we’ll deal with it after summer; just wait and see” and…  I don’t think that’s the way to do it. Some of the larger houses are doing that. But the other thought is to ask: how far ahead do we want to imagine this will have an impact on us? The Met cancelled my Fiery Angel I was meant to come for a month to New York to do – which I am sad about. I was going to go to Tel Aviv to do Magic Flute also, and it got cancelled.

So when the lockdown first happened, I thought, “I’m in Berlin, and that’s good; it’s good to be with my house” and I said, “I think we have to just scrap everything.” So we postponed the three premiers that were to happen this season: Katya Kabanova, the children’s opera Tom Sawyer, and (Rise and Fall of the City of) Mahagonny, which are going into 2021-22. We cancelled four revivals as well. For me it’s more interesting not to adapt or reduce – that terrible word – existing repertoire, but to start from scratch, to invent things, do new things, all with social distancing. The biggest thing is smaller audiences –okay, that’s one thing, but the social distancing with an orchestra and ensemble, that’s the tricky thing. I said, “Let’s see what we can do; do I want to do this in a year’s time? Or for a few months’ time next season? I’ll have to do it.” And the only way we can do this and have the luxury to do it, is because I have 105 orchestra musicians, 60 chorus members, and 24 singers, all on salary. And I said “okay, we won’t have any sets; we’ll have a bare stage but we’ll invest in lights and costumes” and I’ll be in the rehearsal room with my company creating things. The alternative is to say, “We can’t possibly present anything” and that’s not an option if you’re being paid millions and millions of Euros in taxpayer money. It’s not an option.

It’s a sharp contrast to the North American system. 

It costs money, that’s the thing. We have a 90% subsidized system here and we also have ensembles, which don’t exist in North America, They can’t do anything. And they actually save money by not investing money – of course they could put on this and that but it’ll cost money, and as you know, it’s all box office, box office, box office, so it doesn’t make sense to have a few hundred people in the theatre…

Or outdoors.

Right, it still costs. I know from discussions with my colleagues in North America, yes, as you said before, they look over here with extreme jealousy. We know where the biggest costs in opera go – they go to salaries of orchestra, chorus, and singers; it’s a very different discussion being had in North America and Britain, and as I said, within the subsidized system we are even more lucky because we are a repertoire-based ensemble house; we are not having to pay a lot of guest singers.

When I spoke with (KOB Kapellmeister) Jordan de Souza near the start of the lockdown (for Opera Canada’s summer 2020 edition) he explained how rescheduling singers and guests is a tremendous jigsaw because cancellations mean constant changes.

It’s not a jigsaw; it’s a domino set, and it’s always falling! Jordan is absolutely right though, you deal with cancellations and the new plan, and then of course the longer it goes on the more problems it creates because someone is suddenly not available, they’re meant to be here, or they’ve been postponed, or “oh that’s still happening, we’re changing the version, are you free then?” It’s been a nightmare of coordination. A nightmare! And that’s why I did what I did: by sweeping everything off and concentrating on one thing, it instantly creates a new situation.

The difficulties are with next year; the more there are postponements and cancellations, the more it gets really complicated. In Berlin we decided to keep the workshops open; they’re building all the sets for all the new productions as per normal because if we don’t do that we get into a situation where you can’t just switch on a machine and build a set in two weeks. Secondly, there’s a few hundred people not working and they need to, as a purely psychological exercise in saying, “These sets have to be built.”

So you don’t really have a proper summer…

I’m rehearsing Pierrot, but I do have two weeks’ holiday in Greece. In quarantine I had seven weeks off, which is the longest I’ve had off in thirty years.

It was nice to see you accompanying various KOB ensemble members on the piano over the course of the lockdown.

That was an easy thing to do, they’re great people. It started with Katherine Mehrling doing the Kurt Weill songs, there was something like 15,000 people who saw it. We saw that number and went, “oh! Let’s do it every two weeks then, and feature people associated with the house!” I didn’t want it to be… I mean, you look at other houses, and their livestream musical presentations with no audience are treated like a funeral. That’s why we called ours celebrations, like, “here’s a little taste of something and we hope you enjoy it” – I wasn’t making any great statement about the times we live in, I just wanted to show people we’re still there and we’re thinking of them. They were fantastically successful, but after five we said “that’s enough, we have to get back to working” but also, I play the piano very rarely in public, and so I get such enjoyment out of doing it, particularly when accompanying. I’m not interested in playing solo, I just like playing with great people. I feel happy and secure when they’re in front and I’m playing away behind them – but also it’s a middle finger, to show people around the world who assume directors aren’t musical or that directors don’t know or care about music. All of that is nonsense. Sometimes it’s good to remind people of that.

You read the work of Joseph Roth as part of an early episode in Daniel Hope’s ARTE series at the start of the lockdown; that reading began with your dedication to people who were enduring the lockdown alone. I must confess when I heard you say that, I stood in my kitchen and wept with gratitude – it was very special to feel seen during that time.

I have a number of friends who are between partners, or don’t have partners or families or whatever, and were doing it alone, particularly the first part of it, and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, a few days and nights fine, but for weeks and weeks and weeks, that’s quite tough” – especially in some countries that had very severe lockdowns. So I really felt for a number of my friends. And I thought about the time when I didn’t have a partner or whatever, and I have a dog too, which helps – the dog has to get out and have a pee – but I thought about those who were alone, I mean…  oh, that’s quite hard. We all love being alone at various times; I love being alone in my apartment or walking my dog, but weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks of it… my God.

So it just came to me, I mean, I so love Joseph Roth, and I love everything about his writing and everything about him; he was this sort of solitary journeyman going on trains through Europe and staying in hotels. Actually a few minutes before we went on, I said to Daniel, “Can I say something?: and he said, “Whatever you like!” He was playing something beautiful and melancholic just before, so it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but I’m glad I did it.

Daniel Hope: “I’ve Always Tried To Tell Stories”

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo © Nicolas Zonvi

Whatever good resulted from the experience of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, one thing is certain: the gaping holes of arts broadcasting have been revealed. Violinist Daniel Hope, together with French-German broadcaster ARTE, have stepped up to try and fill these gaps. Taking as its model the European-style salon, Hope@Home has provided a modicum of the concert-going experience while consciously avoiding any attempted replication of pre-COVID (or so-called normal) formats.

I wrote about the program at the end of April, which began its life earlier that month in the South Africa-born violinist’s living room in Berlin. Equal parts fun, thoughtful, familiar, and surprising, each episode (roughly 30 to 45 minutes) features a mix of performance and poetry through creative chamber combinations. This is a show that is simultaneously aware of both its old(ish) roots in music and its modern presentation in medium, and it is clear-eyed in its mission to provide an ancillary form of classical experience which simultaneously educates, enlightens, and entertains. Guests have included conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Donald Runnicles, and Vladimir Jurowski, pianists Kirill Gerstein, Tamara Stefanovich, and Sebastian Knauer, opera singers Thomas Hampson, Mattias Goerne, Magdalena Kožená, and Evelina Dobračeva, and actors Ulrich Tukur, Iris Berben, Katharina Thalbach, and Daniel Brühl, many of whom performed in Hope’s own parlor. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that such an eclectic bevy of artists would pass through my Berlin salon, nor that we would resurrect the age-old art of the house concert,” Hope wrote in The Guardian in early May. With over sixty episodes now, Hope@Home attracts an international, ever-expanding viewership, and has thus far enjoyed over five million views. Blending old-world charm with a 21st century sensibility is no small thing, and in so doing, Hope has, if I might add a personal note, provided some wonderful moments of comfort and company over many sad months of enforced isolation.

The program has, in parallel with the easing of European lockdown restrictions, moved to a weekends-only format, and out of Hope’s house. Now called Hope@Home On Tour!, various unique and historical locales (indoor and outdoor) across central Europe have become its sets. The July 4th broadcast featured Hope’s very own Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zürich Chamber Orchestra), of which he has been Music Director since 2016, performing in a very evocative factory setting. As well as his duties with Zürich, Hope is also President of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Artistic Director of the Frauenkirche Dresden, and Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco. One senses the chamber set-up is where Hope feels most keenly at home in literal and figurative senses; the inherent intimacy of the arrangement provides a route through which the violinist clearly underlines its importance within the creative experience, together with the not-inconsiderable significance of a very human presentation. This is a program that directly addresses any lingering accusations about classical music being distant, heady, or cold; Hope@Home is none of those, and while it does wear its heart firmly on sleeve at times, it does so in elegant and thoughtful ways, immeasurably aided by the creative variety it has offered up over its three-and-a-half-month lifespan. Thus is Zürcher Kammerorchester’s early July appearance at the very tip of an ever-expanding sonic iceberg, pieces of which continue to be unearthed and examined each weekend. The sounds of jazz, swing, and folk are placed beside that of Baroque, classical, and modern, with poetry and theatre hovering close by; never has such a combination felt more right or indeed suited to the nature of the times, as notions of past and present crash and collide to provide an entirely new ways forwards. 

Such variety is reflective of Hope’s own interests and oeuvre. His repertoire features the work of Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Mendelsohn, Tippett, Hindemith, Berg, Foulds, Poulenc, Messiaen, Bartok, Ravel, and Ravi Shankar (to name a few), and he has performed at many celebrated venues including Carnegie Hall, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Wigmore Hall, Alte Oper Frankfurt, and the Concertgebouw. Creative collaborators and partners have included Menahem Pressler, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sebastian Knauer, and Maxim Shostakovich, conductors Kurt Masur, Christian Thielemann, Ivan Fischer, Kent Nagano, Sir Andrew Davis, Sakari Oramo, Sir Roger Norrington, Thomas Hengelbrock, Jiří Bělohlávek , and organizations The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Beaux Arts Trio (of which he was a member from 2002 to 2008), Camerata Salzburg, and his very own Zürcher Kammerorchester. He recorded his latest, wide-ranging album, Belle Époque (Deutsche Grammophon, 2020), with the latter, and it reveals a fascinatingly wide selection of early 20th century sounds, all of which drive a certain narrative around navigating an immense precipice of change as much musical as social. The album skillfully blends the work of Schönberg, Massenet, Zemlinsky, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Fauré, and renowned violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, whose work Hope has frequently presented throughout Hope@Home, into a gripping and very evocative 150-minute listen. 

Along with Kreisler, another violinist  to whom Hope regularly pays tribute is Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). The New York-born soloist had formidable influence throughout Hope’s childhood, an accidental if highly fortunate connection thanks to his mother, who was Menuhin’s secretary for over two decades. Hope stated in an article for The Strad in 2016 (the centenary of Menuhin’s birth) that “Menuhin was the reason I became a violinist” and shared details relating to the spontaneous nature of their performance-instruction connection; it’s this precise quality, this flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants see-if-it-sticks spirit of adventure which gave early Hope@Home episodes such unique electricity, but which, alternately, made Hope himself a calm eye in the middle of a veritable storm, a steady presence who just as easily (even now) shares stories of his days with Menuhin (and others) as he does move between works by Miklós Rózsa and Manuel de Falla, beloved tunes like “Amazing Grace”, and riffing on the folk-balladry of Berlin-based Kiwi singer Teresa Bergmann, the timbres of Hope’s violin and Bergmann’s voice twisting and turning in beautiful, hypnotizing spirals of green-gold aural splendor. Throughout its short life, Hope has also championed the works of less mainstream composers, among them Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Partly pointing up the show’s blend of education and entertainment, such emphasis also reflects Hope’s discography, as well as his family history, one intimately connected with Berlin and his Jewish roots, a past he openly shares as part and parcel of his hosting duties. There is also, vitally, humour; in one episode from late April, Hope recalled knocking on Alfred Schnittke’s door and introducing himself as a keen teenager; therein developed a friendship which lasted until Schnittke’s passing in the late 1990s.

Such combinations, of personal and broad, intimate and epic, casual boldness and the yearning for inclusion, found direct contemporary expression in Hope’s decision to include homemade musical contributions  by musician-viewers in early episodes of Hope@Home. Such easy integrations equally aid in the salon ambiance of live readings, initially done in an adjoining room in Hope’s house and sometimes set to live music. Robert Wilson (whose appearance on the program was, as you’ll read, a nifty bit of luck) read his own poem about the lockdown experience set to a performance of Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”; director and Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky read a passage (unaccompanied) from Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years. Before embarking on wide-ranging locales, Hope kept his touring sites in Berlin, from whence occasional broadcasts still unfold.  A visit in early June to the former residence of Hope’s grandmother (where she and her family lived until 1935) featured a 1920s-style swing presentation and was enjoyed by the small crowd who had gathered in the leafy Berlin suburb. More grand if no less intimate was a more recent broadcast from at the Strauss-Villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen featuring baritone Thomas Hampson, who noted of the experience singing in Strauss’s home that “it’s an incredible honor… and I’m terrified.” 

 

Despite its immense popularity, the focus remains on the original intimacy. The show’s visual style is kept purposely consistent, and Hope’s conversational performance style translates seamlessly into his sincere, unaffected deliver. Such naturalism could be owing to past broadcasting projects (including a radio show), but it’s also innately connected with his actively communicative musicality. During a concert with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin honoring Yehudi Menuhin in 2016, Hope and conductor Iván Fischer share a seamless, intense exchange throughout an electrifying performance of Elgar’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in A Minor, Op. 61. Hope’s artistry is one innately connected to communication with his musical partners, whether they’re a pianist, speaker, swing band, or chamber orchestra; this need for communication, and its inherent sincerity, translates palpably to Hope@Home, no small thing in an era that has come to rely more and more on digital broadcast. Hope and I had the opportunity to speak recently, just after he had completed two long-awaited post-lockdown concerts with Zürcher Kammerorchester.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo © Nicolas Zonvi

How did Hope@Home happen?

I had a conversation with Wolfgang Bergmann who is the German head of ARTE. (Bergmann’s official title is Managing Director, ARTE Deutschland and ARTE Coordinator of the ZDF.) I’ve known him for many years and we’ve been in touch regularly with various ideas, and  we had a meeting at the beginning of March in Berlin about something else, just as things were starting to move very fast in terms of the lockdown. Once the meeting was over he said, “What will you do if a lockdown happens, if it gets serious?” I said, “I don’t know, I might turn my living room into a TV studio!” – I said it, just like that – and after about two weeks he called me up and said, “Were you serious about what you said?” I said, “I’m not sure, I might’ve been!” He said, “Let’s do it.”

And so my first question to him was: what about the sound? I’d been watching some of the (music) streams and thought, as great as they were at the beginning, they were missing really good sound quality on classical music. And he said, “How do you want to play it?” I said, “Let me speak to someone who knows about production of classical sound and we’ll see if it’s doable.” I got an engineer  to come and check out if we could do it, then called Wolfgang back to let him know it was possible, but I didn’t expect him to say, “Can we start tomorrow?” That was really insane! And we threw everything together and went straight in. There was no prep, no script, no person checking – usually with these things you have a team of people writing up ideas and vetting artists and repertoire. There was nobody; there was just me. In that sense I did initiate everything, but of course with the help and the slightly mad suggestion of Mr. Bergman.

How much did that spirit of spontaneity directly influence your selections in terms of guests and repertoire? 

I think partly, that very intense time was the reason behind what happened, but there were also some really wonderfully strange coincidences. I was walking with my kids around the block and bumped into Robert Wilson on the street, and was like, “What are you doing here?!” He said, “I’m in lockdown and I can’t get back to the States… and by the way, I’ve been watching your show; can I come on it?” It was just amazing! I suggested he do a reading of something, and racked my brains for things to send him. He showed up at the house an hour before the show with his own script. With Simon Rattle, I’d never met him before but got his number and texted him, and within half an hour he rang back and said, “Pick a day.” Those kinds of things would never ever have happened had there not been this severe lockdown. I would’ve never been able to reach these people and they wouldn’t have spontaneously said, “Let’s do this” – that (availability) was the key behind everything else.

And the freedom from the channel was incredible. They never said, “You can’t put a Simon and Garfunkel song next to a reading of Stefan Zweig and then play Schnittke – that’s just not possible!” I think in my mad attempt to get a show together that made sense, I thought about what kind of music I would like to hear, and then went about to see if I could draw a theme together.

The ease of movement between genres and media is refreshing; you’ve shown, however accidentally, that there is a big thirst for this kind of variety in a cultural presentation.

For a long time I read and researched a lot about the Berlin salons of the 19th century, or the French ones that hosted people like Marcel Proust, this idea, even going back to Schubert’s time, where he’d have these soirees and friends would come by and did something, anything –if they read, played, recited, danced, whatever – it was a getting-together of artistic minds and seeing what happens; that was in the back of my mind. I was sure after a couple of episodes we’d get complaints about something or the other, but because of the shutdown the structures usually in place in terms of regulating TV content were not there, so they let me run with it. One of the biggest victories was doing the whole thing in English, because it’s a German-French channel, so it would’ve normally been in German or French or both; I literally broke with all protocol and went in English, and after the first slightly irate comments from some people at the chanel, they figured out, “Oh wait, everybody speaks English…” And we went with it, because I feel most comfortable speaking English anyway. That was a big part of the success of (Hope@Home): it’s global. People can respond to it.

Noteworthy you spoke in German during your first performances with an audience at the Frauenkirche Dresden.

When we started to go outside of the house and into concert halls and started to have audiences, that was when the next big challenge came; I had an audience in front of me and the audience at home, and I think we were all a little bit anxious to see if it could work somehow, because either the people at home will feel out, or the people in the hall will feel left out, so I was juggling between them. That show in Dresden was the largest audience we’ve had to date (for Hope@Home), it was three or four hundred people, so it was important to address them in German as if it was a concert, but at the same time not to forget about the global audience at home. 

What was that like to play for a live audience after so long – was it emotional?

It was very emotional, yes. Just a couple of nights ago we played in Zürich as well, two concerts with around 450 people, approximately. It’s an extraordinary feeling, having been cut off for months, and to go to back into the hall; even if people aren’t seated next to each other and there are distances, it’s still a very different feeling when you’re communicating directly in that moment and you see and hear applause, you’re watching peoples’ faces, and you’re making music together with colleagues. Playing that chamber music repertoire was unbelievably emotional for all of us.

The experience of hearing applause from a live audience in Dresden hit me quite hard…

I bet!

… though it’s been heartening to note your being such a public champion of the work of Alfred Schnittke. I love that your program features stories like, ‘One night I just knocked on Schnittke’s door’ followed by performances of his works. You blend the personal with the so-called “high-art” of classical in a very engaging way.

Thank you for picking up on all of that. Schnittke is a huge, huge influence on me and I’ve always adored his music. After an absence of a few years I’ve really gotten back into him again. I try to tell stories; I’ve always tried to tell stories. The music is the most important story in all of that, but it’s not the only story. By connecting the dots and trying to at least illuminate the history of the pieces or the people behind them, or the dedicatees, or the messages, I think it enhances the experience. It certainly enhances my enjoyment of the music!

So it’s a gut decision really, of how much information do I want to spell out, without wishing to preach and without wishing to be sanctimonious, but trying to do a little more than, “And now I’ll play the Second Sonata in E-flat Major” – I think there’s more to it. If one knows the story of Erwin Schulhoff, for instance, I think you experience it differently; his Foxtrott, if you know this was written under a pseudonym, by a man who was close to deportation, and was forced to give up one of the greatest careers of his time – you listen differently. And listening differently, and intently, and deeper – that’s really about what we do. And that’s one of the many things I learned from Menahem Pressler in the Beaux Arts Trio, it was, dig as deep as you possibly can into the material; that musical digging is the most important, but the forensic, for me personally, is almost as interesting.

Contextualizing is so important to appreciate any sort of music, but it’s so often watered down, or presently poorly, or left off entirely.

In doing Hope@Home it was my great hope was we were not just going for classical music aficionados but would try to reach people who were locked down and who were maybe looking for culture. To get somebody to listen to an Alfred Schnittke piece who knows nothing about classical music is a challenge, and I think by telling stories and showing why we’re doing this, I wasn’t just going through a bunch of pieces or composers from A to Z, but there was a reason behind it all. A guest would come in and say, “I want this piece” or “I’ll read this text” or try to find something suited. For Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (read by actor Iris Berben), we put Manuel De Falla’s Andalusian folk songs underneath; for a Stefan Zweig reading (performed by Katja Riemann), we did Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. I tried to find connections that would enhance the experience and make it accessible without wishing to, in any shape or form, take something away from the music, knowing at the end of the day we only had thirty or forty minutes to present this experience which I was hoping would reach and touch people.

I grew up with the work of Menuhin, and that was his great gift, to contextualize these large histories in very approachable, highly enlightening ways. 

Absolutely. I don’t know if you know the book he wrote, The Music Of Man

My mother had it in her library.

Yes! It was a CBC production back in the late 1970s in which he looked at the influence of music over 500 years, which went from the Renaissance to Oscar Peterson and the people who inspired him. That kind of musical time travel is something I’ve always loved, and  certainly, Menuhin’s eagerness to share that history was a great inspiration to me. I was lucky to grow up very, very close to him and to the collaborations in which he was involved. Even as a very small child, listening to him play with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, the sound of those tablas and the spectacle of that giant virtuoso playing, stayed with me – but the same I can say of Carl Sagan, with whom Menuhin met in order to do this book The Music Of Man; Sagan was the man who told me about the music of the spheres when I was a kid, and that led, thirty years later, to a Spheres album (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013). So there are seeds that somehow get planted and often I come back to them, and at other times there are things, triggers – I’ll hear a radio program or an artist, or read a bit of text or a book which will start me thinking, or get me on a different journey, and sometimes those journeys can last for years before they become a project, and sometimes they happen really fast. 

The interesting thing with this show is that I was thrown together with many different with artists, some of whom I’d admired for a long time but never met, and it gave me new impulses. I’d discover new pieces – I’d be feverishly looking overnight for a piece to play on the program the next day, and if it didn’t have the arrangement I needed, then I’d be getting somebody to arrange it in time. That was a creativity in overdrive, I would say.

So how has this overdrive changed you creatively then? You don’t seem to be the same artist you were back in March.

It’s a great question. I definitely feel a big change, I have to say. Those six weeks at home were some of the most intense and creative – I was literally on fire the whole time. Going from show to show, and sometimes we didn’t even know if the person was going to come, and if they did what they would do – it was fraught in that sense, but also very positive. And so I think the biggest challenge was going back to the schedule, or what’s left of it, let’s say, and trying to think, ‘Okay, there’s an inquiry to play a Mozart Concerto in four years’ time on this day; is this something you want to do?’ And I did find myself asking myself… I’m not sure if I want to do that. Because one of the greatest things about this show was and is that I’m calling up people and saying, “Can you come in two  days and play?” and because they’re free they can do this – and that’s how classical music worked for centuries. If you look at the great artists at the beginning of the 20th century, the Horowitzs or Rubinsteins or even Menuhins, they’d arrive in  a town, a concert would be scheduled, they’d play and wait to see the reaction, then if people liked it, they’d have another, or say, “Let’s do it again next week” – that happened with Thomas Hampson recently. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got him to do something?’ and I rang him up and said, “Can you come in two days’ time?” I think everything being planned three years in advance…  as classical musicians we may have to lose that structure, and even security, if we’re going to survive.

The other thing is, this constant traveling, this constant being on-the-road, I think, again, there’s been a sort of reexamination of that. The fact one can actually stay at home and produce high-quality music and share it with a worldwide audience was quite a revelation to me, I have to say.

Daniel Hope, violin, violinist, soloist, performer, artist, host, Hope@Home, classical

Photo ©Harald_Hoffmann

And you understood the importance of sound quality, and the value of an event in and of itself.

At the very beginning I loved the online stuff because I felt there was this giant worldwide hug – all musicians were trying to hug each other. I thought it was very uplifting. But very soon I found myself saying, ‘Well, this sounded good but this didn’t’ – and then it bothered me. Also (online streaming) became so spontaneous and so … kind of last-minute, and it lost some of the special factor of going to a concert – even just putting on a suit, you go and actually make an occasion of it. As you know we were all at home, all unable to cut our hair and able to wear what we wanted to wear – we were all forced to readjust, but for the program, I made a conscious decision. Tobias Lehmann said, “I can make the sound I know you want” and I said to Christoph (Israel), “Listen, we’re going to play concerts now; we’re not going to stream and sit there and take requests. We are making an occasion of this, and we are going to dress up because it is a concert, and we’ll see what happens.” I don’t regret that. It gave a kind of an element of escapism, which is what people were looking for, but at the same time the respect to the art form we’ve been practicing all our lives.

That’s why it was nice to see people dressed up, and it still is. And you are very natural as a host as well, there’s none of the “Daniel-is-in-his-hosting-suit-with-his-hosting-voice” routine.

I appreciate that. A lot of it was learning by doing and seeing how it would work, and trying things out, but trying to be myself, trying to be authentic. We were lucky to have the sound of Tobias, and the guests we’ve had, and lucky to have the guys on the cameras who created that look and to take the look with us when we go on the road – we take the lamps, we take the paintings. We try to give people that sense of, ‘Here we are again!’

How long will it continue?

At the moment we are pretty much sure we’re going on until the middle of August, but we’re not sure after that. At some point I will need to take a holiday, a break! It’s hard to imagine ARTE would keep this going forever, but the response has been so strong and we’re over 5 million streams. So, given the very precarious state of the world right now, as I always say, if we’re allowed to keep going, we will keep going; circumstances may change, and everybody’s talking about a second wave. Whether it will come or not, it’s in the stars right now, but if I had one wish, it would be to come to North America and do the show from there…  but if it’ll happen, we just don’t know right now. I hope we will be allowed to come in at some point.

Alexander Neef: “I Believe In The Resilience Of The Art Form”

Alexander Neef, portrait, Canadian Opera Company, General Director, leader, director, executive, administration, opera, Canada, German

Photo © Gaetz Photography

Update 22 June 2020: The Canadian Opera Company has cancelled its 2020 autumn season. The conversation with COC General Director Alexander Neef, below, took place in May 2020, prior to the official announcement.

Cancellation, closure, calibration: these are the elements at work within an arts industry trying desperately to stay afloat in the middle of a pandemic. What to cancel? What to postpone? What to calibrate – or recalibrate – as the situation warrants? Which companies will be around in year, and which will close? Some organizations are busily preparing for presentations of old favorites within the context of a new normal dictated by the coronavirus, acting, consciously or not, as beacons of an industry facing an immense and undeniable transformation.

The annual Salzburg Festival, for instance, will be going forwards in a modified form as of August 1st. On the slate is Elektra (with Aušrine Stundyte in the lead and Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski) and a revival of Così fan tutte, as well as four theatre works (including the world premiere of Zdeněk Adamec by Peter Handke) and numerous concerts, including a Beethoven cycle by pianist Igor Levit. In Germany, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) has also made adjustments. The company recently announced a 90-minute chamber presentation of Das Rheingold in its very own car park, running for five performances starting this Friday (12 June), and featuring twenty-two musicians and twelve singers. The production, by Jonathan Dove (who also did orchestration) and director Graham Vick for the Birmingham Opera Company, is not the first presentation by DOB in such an environment; in 2014 the company presented Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia in the very same parking deck. Wagner’s first opera in his epic Ring Cycle had been originally planned as a fully staged work from director Stefan Herheim, a premiere which has since been postponed. The upcoming version, adhering to the guidelines set out by the Senate of Berlin, has a €5 entry fee and a pay-what-you-can structure, with audience member contact information being recorded and a 1.5 metre distance enforced; moreover, masks will be required when entering and exiting, toilets will be accessible, and (rather crucially) small bottles of “beverages” will be made available to visitors.

Such an ambitious undertaking underlines the very thin lines that currently exist between possibilities and probabilities. Those who can are doing their best, in the most creative and safe methods presently allowable; others are bending and flexing in ways heretofore unimaginable six months ago. The Metropolitan Opera cancelled its autumn season and will be reopening (ostensibly) on December 31st, although it continues to offer a revolving slate of productions online. Looking over their latest release, it’s hard to not think of the artists who were set to make their debuts at the house this autumn, either in a role or with the company itself: soprano Christine Goerke was set to sing her first fully-staged Isolde in a revival of Marius Treliński’s production of Tristan und Isolde; 74-year-old conductor Michail Jurowski was to have made his Met Opera debut leading Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. On the other side of the ocean, the Royal Opera House, itself in dire straits, is getting set to launch a new series, Live From Covent Garden, on Saturday (June 13), which will complement its extant online offerings of opera and ballet. Curated by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, and Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, the event (set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 15th) will feature performances by baritone Gerald Finley, tenor Toby Spence, soprano Louise Alder, and the premiere of a new ballet choreographed by Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. The following two presentations of the program, on the 20th and 27th of June respectively, will be available on a pay-per-view basis. Like every company, a prominent “Donate Now” button is displayed on the ROH homepage, one whose request will no doubt grow in urgency  as the autumn season inches ever closer.

production, opera, stage, COC, Canadian Opera Company, Tim Albery, Verdi

Rosario La Spina as Radames (background) and Sondra Radvanovsky (foreground) as Aida in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Aida, 2010. Photo: Michael Cooper

For Canadian Opera Company (COC) audiences, the fall season is just as fraught with uncertainty. In late March the company made the difficult if necessary decision to cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season, which was to include revivals of The Flying Dutchman and a wildly divisive staging of Aida by Tim Albery. Bereft of the gilded visuals so frequently attached to presentations of the famed Verdi work, the production had been anticipated for the reactions it might have provoked a full decade after its premiere. Would Toronto audiences have grown to accept Albery’s arresting vision? Would it have been so upsetting in 2020? Will it even be staged again, now that COVID seems, for some, to have put a damper on even perceivably risque productions and programming? The opportunity to discover the elasticity of the COC audience was, alas, lost this spring but another chance, possibly, awaits in the fall. The company is set to present Wagner’s Parsifal – the first presentation of the opera in the COC’s history. A co-production with Opéra de Lyon, The Metropolitan Opera, and the COC, the highly abstract (and at times, very bloody) François Girard-helmed work was presented in February 2013 at The Met, to widespread acclaim. Owing to the monumental nature of the production, the company launched a fundraising campaign with various levels of support named after elements of the opera. Tenors Christopher Ventris and Viktor Antipenko share the title role in the COC production, with Johan Reuter as Amfortas, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Kundry, and Robert Pomakov as Klingsor; COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Opening night is scheduled for September 25th.

Parsifal, opera, stage, presentation, design, Girard, Metropolitan Opera, The Met, Wagner

A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

According to Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef, those plans are still intact. Neef, who is also Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Festival, had been set to leave the COC at the end of the 2020-2021 season and become General Director of the Opéra national de Paris. The company is facing €40 million in losses this year alone, from both the pandemic as well as numerous strikes which occurred before the lockdown. The Opéra’s current Director, Stéphane Lissner, announced in an interview with Le Monde on June 11th, 2020 that he’s ending his mandate at the end of 2020, emphasizing the extreme nature of the situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: “nous ne sommes pas dans une situation de passation normale.” (“we are not in a normal handover situation.”) Neef confirmed in a COC release the following day that he “certainly did not anticipate Lissner’s early departure and that also confirmed not leaving Canada just yet. Neef says he “has not yet had any formal discussions – either with the Paris Opera or members of our Board of Directors – about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris. Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated.”

Back in May, Lissner spoke to the unfeasible economics around presenting opera at the Garnier and Bastille theatres within prescribed social distancing mandates. France, like most other locales, requires audience members to be two meters (6.5 feet) apart. “Le protocole [proposé pour reprendre les spectacles] est impraticable : impraticable pour le public, pour les artistes et pour les salariés. Suppression des entractes, c’est impossible, faire entrer 2700 personnes en respectant les distances, c’est impossible, la distance dans l’orchestre, dans les chœurs, c’est impossible,” he noted in early May (“The protocol [proposed to take over the shows] is impractical: impractical for the public, for the artists and for the employees. Eliminating intermissions is impossible, bringing in 2700 people while respecting distances is impossible, the distance in the orchestra, in the choirs, is impossible.”). Will there even be a 2020-2021 season for Opéra national de Paris? The report in Le Monde indicates, if not an outright cancellation, then a greatly altered one, with an emphasis on revivals, including La traviata (led by James Gaffigan, in a production by Simone Stone), the ballet La Bayadère, and the ever-popular Carmen, with Domingo Hindoyan on the podium, in an acclaimed staging by Calixto Bieito. The Bastille is not set to reopen until November 24th, and the Garnier in late December. A planned new Ring Cycle staging is off the books. “Fin 2020, il est probable que l’Opéra de Paris n’aura plus de fonds de roulement” (By the end of 2020, it is likely that the Paris Opera will no longer have working capital”), Lissner told Le Monde. “C’est pourquoi, à partir de janvier 2021, j’ai choisi de m’effacer afin qu’il n’y ait plus qu’un seul patron à bord.” (“That’s why, from January 2021, I chose to step aside so that there would only be one boss on board.”)

Paris, Palais Garnier, opera, France, art, auditorium, Chagall, culture, history

The interior of the Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That “seul patron” is shouldering a lot of responsibility right now. Notwithstanding this unfolding and weighty situation, plus the cancellation of the COC’s spring season and the uncertainty of its 2020-2021 season, Neef was also very recently heavily involved in negotiations to obtain recorded COC performances for online broadcast during the quarantine – hardly a simple task, as music writer Lydia Perovic ably outlined in her smart investigation into the paucity of online Canadian opera content for Opera Canada magazine in 2018. Yet in our conversation last month, before the Paris news, Neef was his characteristically cool, unflappable self. The COC head honcho and I have spoken many times over the years, most recently last summer following the announcement of his Paris appointment. The German-born Neef has always been direct if highly diplomatic, eloquent but possessing an undeniable edge of steel. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of history (not surprising, given he graduated from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen with a Master of Arts in Latin Philology and Modern History) and a solid if wholly unsurprising knack for thoughtful casting (honed during his time as casting director at the Paris Opera from 2004 to 2008), Neef is as much passionate as level-headed; that passion shows itself in strong, well-observed opinions and observations, and then translates itself into elegantly understated wisdom. Having started at the Salzburg Festival with famed opera administrator Gerard Mortier, Neef went on to work at the Ruhrtriennale, New York City Opera, and later, Opéra nationale de Paris, before arriving in Toronto in 2008. In the decade-plus of his directorship with the COC, Neef has brought a number of celebrated international opera figures to the Four Seasons Centre stage: singers (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anita Rachvellishvilli, Patricia Racette, Stefan Vinke, Luca Pisaroni, conductors (Carlo Rizzi, Speranza Scapucci, Paolo Carignani, Harry Bicket, Patrick Lange), directors (Peter Sellars, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Claus Guth, Robert Wilson, Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants). He has consistently championed the work of tenor Russell Thomas, who has appeared on multiple occasions on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (The Tales of Hoffman in 2012, Carmen in 2016 Norma in 2016, Otello in 2019, and was to have performed in Aida this spring), along with that of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as well as Norma), bass baritone Gerald Finley (Falstaff, 2014, Otello, 2019) and soprano Christine Goerke, whose Brunnhilde in the company’s year-by-year presentations unfolding Wagner’s Ring Cycle won her acclaim and, like Radvanovsky, Finley, and Thomas, bolstered a fierce following.

In mid-May, Neef took part in an online chat hosted by the Toronto-based International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) in which he was asked about how he perceived the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the opera community, singers in particular; I was keen to hear more from Neef and was grateful when, not a week later, he and I had a lengthy discussion – about pandemic, Parsifal, Paris, and, to start, the question of risk and its place in the industry moving forwards.

Alexander Neef, portrait, Canadian Opera Company, General Director, leader, director, executive, administration, opera, Canada, German

Photo © Gaetz Photography

In light of the damage the pandemic is doing in the arts world, some believe that opera programming and presentation will become more conservative, that any perceived risk in either is off the table for the foreseeable future. What’s your take – can opera afford to break eggs in a pandemic/post-pandemic environment?

To stick with your analogy: I think there is no art if you don’t break the eggs. And I think since we don’t have any live art in our lives right now, breaking eggs becomes even more important in the future. I got this really interesting manifesto in my mailbox this morning – and it’s easier to say this when you run a little company rather than when you have X number of employees you want to keep feeding – but, it says, “time to commission new works from young composers; time to ally with other theatre, cinema, dance, performing arts centres; time to follow the example of cinema, the storytelling medium that came after opera and was predicted by great opera composers” and so on. When you’re a small, flexible structure, then yes, those boats are easy to turn around; you can be much more reactive. The bigger your apparatus becomes, the harder it is to change because there are a lot of people who need to make that change with you, but in general, I’ve never believed and still don’t believe it, that going back to more traditional approaches, to what we consider “safe” repertoire, will do anything for the future sector – the only thing it will do is make people get more tired of you. Or, to say it another way, how many times will you need to see the same production of La bohème, even though it might be with different people? At some point you may say, “I’ve seen this five times over the last ten years; give me one reason why I should go again?” I think what we’ve been trying to do is to space things out enough, or to hold off with programming, so there’s still for us a reason to do (a certain opera), other than the reason that it’s popular repertoire…

Or it’s nostalgia… 

… or it’s nostalgia, yes. Also, our audience is not eternal. Like everybody who deals with an audience, we are always interested in refreshing – we want a relationship with our public where we don’t always confirm what they think opera is.

That’s a big hurdle, especially for companies who play into clichés. How do you counter it?

It is a hurdle, but I continue to believe, and this crisis hasn’t changed my opinion so far, that what’s really important is people know what kind of company they’re coming to; you need to have a spine. And again, I always say, and have said: indifference is our biggest enemy. If people think, “Oh, this is the same old thing” or they leave a show and can’t remember, ten minutes later, what it was all about…  well, obviously we want people to like what we do, but I prefer they hate (a production) with a passion than be indifferent to it. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that revival of Aida that people were itching to see, for very different reasons!

I distinctly recall someone saying to me at the opening in 2010 that “it’s actually just fine if you close your eyes.”

Think what you want about that production but ten years later people still talk about it. That’s what I mean when I say indifference is our biggest enemy. Obviously there was a lot of rejection at the time but also a lot of people came to it and said, “Wow, I had no clue opera could be so current, and about me, and not just stuffy and purely representational.” 

There were also younger people I know who went and later said, “That was my first opera experience and I wanted grandeur and camels!”

… and other people walked away from it thinking, “Where has this art form been all my life?!” So it’s hard to say what’s interesting to one and not to the other. People think about young audiences that, very often, those are the ones who want the avant-garde, but I think it’s not necessarily true; sometimes they’re way more conservative than someone who’s been subscribing for twenty-five years. It’s a complicated thing! But just because you are older does not mean your taste in art is more conservative – that’s not how it works.

Parsifal, opera, stage, presentation, design, Girard, Metropolitan Opera, The Met, Wagner, Jonas Kaufmann

Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

There’s been so much effort on the part of classical organizations to try and get this mythical young audience, but I feel as if the pandemic has forced them to realize the importance of a far wider cultivation.

In the end you can’t afford to ignore any part of your audience. Right now there’s an issue with at-risk populations; a young audience is not seen as so much at-risk (for COVID), but I think that shouldn’t mean we totally abandon our older audiences. The whole discussion for me is kind of moot anyway, because you cannot separate the discussion of keeping an audience safe from keeping the performers and staff safe, and while that might not be exactly the precisely same measures, if you can’t combine both, then it’s going to be very hard to have a show. Right now the pit is a very dangerous work environment. We’re in a lucky position in Canada and the COC – we won’t be going back into rehearsals before two-and-a-half months from now, so we will have better information in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that will allow us to make better decisions. The big hiatus we have now, I’m rather grateful for that.

Some in the Toronto opera world are wondering what will happen to Parsifal – it’s been a long road to having it staged at the Four Seasons Centre.

What I say is: I simply don’t want to make that decision right now. And I don’t feel I have to. Right now we’re living in an equation with too many variables and those variables make it hard to solve that equation. There’s already some measures falling in place in terms of public health advisories, and some of the variables are starting to be eliminated. Today I read something stating that essentially the virus is mostly circulating in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the rest of Ontario is under control – which is not great news for the GTA, but it’s true in all urban centres – Montréal, Paris, all those places – it’s true that it hangs on (in those locales) for longer because there’s more movement of people, but it also means it can get contained. We need to have a better idea of the public health measures.

Obviously we won’t be able to perform Parsifal if we have to have limited numbers in the audience, it’s an economic nightmare and it wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t even accommodate all of our subscribers (in that scenario), but we have to be prepared, and we are taking the time to be prepared, and when we have to make a  decision, we will gather all the elements to make the best decision for our staff and performers, and the house, and everyone.

Paris, Palais Garnier, opera, France, art, auditorium, Chagall, culture, history, curtain, red

The interior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s a strange new equation to accept, that we are now in a world where there’s a question mark over both Parsifal and Paris’s opera season.

It is a strange new equation, and with strange new variables – and I think one needs to take this a week at a time. There are supposed to be additional announcements of openings in Europe…  

… under strict conditions. Returning to the theatre-going experience people are familiar with will take much longer. 

Yes, and it’s a two-way street, or more than a two-way street. A part of it is medical progress as well – I think even more effective and widely-available testing will do a lot to reassure the public about the situation. That is big! Everybody knows the vaccine will take a little while but also we’re working on all kinds of things in terms of an effective antiviral, because the truth is, if we didn’t have a flu vaccine we would be having a terrible situation every winter. But because we have a flu vaccine there’s no discussions of masks or additional hygiene measures during flu season… so we need to find a way through additional safety measures, through progress in medicine, all of that, to kind of normalize this situation in a way that is…  I mean, there’s always a risk: you leave your house and you can catch something on the subway, right? That happens to a lot of people. I am not a scientist and indeed COVID is very contagious – if you get sick you can get very sick, but we need to take time to really learn more about it and then calibrate all the available information and input it back into a form where people can gain a certain amount of comfort in leaving their homes, in order to assess different levels of risk.

Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, pit, orchestra, view, auditorium, architecture, opera, ballet, performance

View from the orchestra pit of R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Lucia Graca

How do you see the current recalibrating in the opera world influencing not only companies but artists?

Again, for everything that’s on the performer’s side, regular testing is going to be the key so that you can be certain the people working together in confined spaces, people touching each other in rehearsals and so on, they can have a reasonable level of confidence that everybody is up to date on their health. Now it’s the case that you wake up in the morning and you feel a little bit off and take your temperature; three months ago you would have thought, “Oh I’ll see how I feel in the afternoon” but today you get the thermometer out and look at the reading and say, “It’s not normal.”  People will be more sensitive to their own symptoms and more responsible, I think. I was reading something interesting, about how work culture will change, especially in North America, where coming to work sick was like a badge of honor, not letting the company down, now it’s, “You’re not feeling well, we don’t want to see you” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! That’s the performer’s side. 

On the audience side, if people feel safe again if wearing a gloves and a mask when they go somewhere and feel okay to sit next to someone they don’t know, if we can reach that level of confidence, I think nobody will care about people wearing a mask in the foreseeable future in a theatre, even if it’s not a requirement. It will be part of the new normal, and frankly, it’s normal already in certain parts of the world. It’s funny that in Canada, which was so haunted by SARS, mask-wearing didn’t become a norm, so maybe now it will. If that’s the worst thing that can happen to us, that people put on a mask before walking into the Four Seasons Centre, we can do that. There’s so much cultural change about masks that’s already happened – people felt, “Oh you can’t speak with a mask” – well, people do it all the time.  I was at the supermarket the other day and ran into someone I know, and we didn’t take our masks off, we just spoke with our masks on at a safe distance. Places are going to normalize these kinds of protocols, and it’ll make it all less scary, I believe. And of course, if you are part of a risk group, you would think twice about where you go and what you do; we might be able to accommodate you somewhere in the theatre. We’re more than happy to do that with patrons; it’s our business to accommodate their needs. Frankly, every theatre would be willing to do that to get their patrons back. But then again it’s not something we haven’t done already in making all reasonable accommodations for people with needs.

Russell Thomas, tenor, rehearsal, Otello, COC, Canadian Opera Company, singer, vocal, Verdi, rehearsal, opera

Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

And casting?

That’s actually one of the bigger problems we’re discussing. Zoom doesn’t give you a lot of information about the size of the voice but it does give you information about the personality you’re dealing with, about pitch, about rhythm. We were talking about this in relation to the ensemble, for example; they were Zoom coaching before they went off contract for the summer. Everybody hated the idea initially, and then came away saying it was better than not doing anything at all, so that is obviously also a part of that new normal, as you say. There’s also the situation of stage auditions and having a pianist and nobody in the hall except for two or three casting people; that seems less complicated than a full stage performance in this environment, if you can get them safely in through the stage door and onstage. All these things are being worked out. 

I’m curious if you think digital platforms like Instagram will become a big factor in casting the post-coronavirus opera world. 

It probably will… but…  I look at it more as an added tool to what we’re already doing than anything else. We have more and more tools at our disposable, yes, but there’s a lot of the old stuff that still works and we can’t abandon it, that’s been true for our marketing and communications as much as for casting – we still send postcards to people (for marketing) because there’s people who really like postcards, maybe not as many as twenty years ago, but it’s still a valuable part of our audience, so why would we abandon that practise?

Alexander Neef, General Director, COC, Canadian Opera Company, event, live, stage, announcement, administration, opera, arts, culture, Toronto, German

Alexander Neef at the COC’s 2020-2021 Season Reveal event, 2020. Photo © Gaetz Photography

So the same holds true for singers then? I see a lot of imitation online. 

As I said in the IRCPA talk, people who do casting are really not very interested in generic products… 

… you mean in terms of singers pushing an homogenous image?

Yes – going back to your breaking-the-eggs metaphor at the beginning of our conversation, if you don’t have that appetite for risk-taking there’s not going to be a lot of art in what you do.

Strange to think that being yourself is perceived as a risk.

We all know it’s the hardest to be yourself – but as an artist you have the opportunity to not be yourself, and to figure that out, and to live it out, in a way a lot of people cannot, but I think it’s very important to have that self-assessment skill and to figure out, clearly, “What can I do better than other people?” If you have better high Fs than anybody, then all I want to know is, can you sing Queen Of The Night? That’s the thing, and there’s nothing bad about it, and you must acknowledge that as you get older, your high Fs won’t be as great, and you’d better figure out what you can do then.

Or have figured it out already… 

Yes. It comes back to having a lot of courage. Sometimes I feel the courage, especially for a young artist, will always come before the self-assurance, but it’s kind of a bit of – I really like this egg thing you started with! – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t put in the courage it might just never happen, but you will not know if there’s a reward before you’ve done it, and I think doing it for the first time, and seeing if it works, will give you more courage for the second time, and so on.

The benefit of digital is it’s creating a vital form of community a lot of people miss right now – are the recent COC opera broadcasts a sign of things to come?

Right now it’s a concession to the times we’re in; we wouldn’t want to necessarily put archival recordings out as a standard, but what’s important for me is – and some don’t see it this way but that’s fine – that it’s about creating a presence for all those artists who can’t work right now. Putting this kind of work out – work that was done in a good environment, where (artists) are performing good roles with a good company, with a high level of quality – reminds the world that is what artists do. And having such material released also reminds the world that this is just a video, and if you want the real thing, you will have to come back to the theatre and get a real-life experience.

So you see video as a complement, not a replacement?

Absolutely.

Paris, Palais Garnier, opera, France, art, auditorium, culture, history

The exterior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I asked you this in our conversation last year, but of course so much has changed, and I want to ask again: what are you taking with you now from Toronto to Paris? 

I’m not leaving just yet! 

Something you’d noted before is your desire at Opéra national de Paris to highlight various historical aspects within a contemporary context.

That hasn’t changed, of course – putting historical opera within the larger context of what happens today, for 21st century artists and for a 21st century audience – that won’t change, but we’ll have to see as we emerge from this crisis, what has actually changed, and when we can go back. That (plan for return) will determine a lot. The longer this goes, the more we will have to think about smaller things we can do for limited groups of people. The goal is to go back to fully staged opera as quickly as possible, but if we can’t do that, we better get inventive. Ultimately I believe in the resilience of the art form. 

Personal Essay: Exposure, Exchange & Freebie Culture

Berlin, classical, auditorium, performance, music, culture, stage, orchestra, performance

At the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Every morning amidst sips of strong coffee and self-exhortations related to baking (because a piece of good white bread, toasted, is suddenly so much work), I examine a raft of newly-arrived emails, skimming this one and that to distinguish the urgent from the not. Some of the messages contain links to videos, some feature video and audio material embedded within; some link to longer features at a formal website, some hold lengthy features within the boxy confines of the message itself, ribbons of rich text snaking down like bits of untidy morning hair scattered around shoulders, glinting in the morning sun. Some contain good news; most don’t. Another sip or two of coffee, a sigh, a look out the window, past the brick wall of a tiny garden to tree tops poking proudly up in the distance; the sight is a vital reminder to try and see a better, broader picture amidst the far more limiting and depressing immediate one. At certain times perspective is indeed the most vital thing – but sometimes it’s just as true that a bad view is simply a bad view, a bad location is a bad location, and that certain changes are quietly if firmly asking to be set in motion.

A favored activity of late is watching panels featuring  figures who are speaking outside of their immediate and respective comfort zones. One recent such event featured violinist Nicola Benedetti hosting classicist Mary Beard, mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill, and psychiatrist Raj Persaud; it was refreshing to experience such varied points of view about music and its effects; hearing Beard discuss Plato and his notions of music was a wonderfully bright bit of non-musicologist counterpoint. Another recent conversation featured conductor Alan Gilbert chatting with fellow maestro Herbert Blomstedt, a figure one might assume is not wholly used to speaking about music on Zoom. His jovial (and sometimes lengthy) hums of portions of Beethoven’s Third Symphony inspired, at the time of their delivery, a grab at the score off the shelf, and a mental note to devote energy to further examination – but oh, the humming was charming, a warm expression of humanity behind brilliance. I am presently looking forward to listening to Opera Holland Park’s Director of Opera, James Clutton, exchange views and insights with Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky. Such offerings, together with concerts broadcast on various international radio channels, have been effective at not only filling in various knowledge gaps, but in allowing a needed experience of community amidst the continued quarantine isolation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, and there’s a great worth in to such activities, one which needs to be recognized, for the pseudo-normalcy such material provides is at once comforting and enlivening, even as concerts in certain locales, under strict conditions, continue to resume. The sound of applause in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche following Daniel Hope’s recent broadcast from the historical locale was gut-wrenching to hear through computer speakers, a happy if equally awful reminder of separation, communion, presence and absence, of a circle slowly being closed but revealing a yawning hole at its core, one that asks a nagging question: who’s being paid?

It’s a question being asked with more persistence as horrific economic realities settle in. Recently I took part in a Zoom conference which connected neurological reaction with online classical presentation, organized by the University of Oxford in collaboration with HEC Montréal (the graduate business school of the Université de Montréal). Numerous participants eagerly discuss their unique experiences (virtual and not) before discussion invariably turned to money: funding models, proper remuneration, the psychology inherent within the act of paying. One user subsequently commented that “I’ve found that I can really find any (event) online and for free, pre-recorded. However, I am much more likely to fully participate if I’ve had to pay a fee and strangely feel as if it’s of higher quality (untrue!). So that investment and ‘live’ element are crucial to me as a value indicator.” Observing the tide of rising doubt around online freebie culture has been interesting if somewhat painful, because it underlines the ugly and (for so long) taken-for-granted reality that writers, especially those with an arts beat, have faced for so long. My mother used to excoriate me for taking free work, when, still in my toddler-scribe stage, I would busily contribute to numerous large (and occasionally well-known) sites. “You’re giving away your talent,” she would say with exasperation, “to people who could well afford to pay you something. Just because they don’t know how to do business, you shouldn’t be the one helping them for nothing.” I would outwardly agree but feel inwardly trapped; was I really getting nothing? The choice between providing free work (which I wanted to believe opened a myriad of professional doors) or struggling in relative obscurity seems like a false one… and yet. The glittering of the promise of the internet, for a budding writer, depends so much on how willing one is to wade through a deep, dank swamp, for a very long time.

sculpture, fountain, satyr, spout, face, expression, carving, intensity

Water Spout Depicting Pan Or a Satyr, 2nd-3rd century AD, limestone; Altes Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That swamp became so deep through the immense devaluing of professional arts writing decades ago via the rise of digital and the related media/ad-tech/management decisions accompanying that ascent, decisions which still resonate and seem frustratingly entrenched within the media industry. As a writer, it’s terrible to feel consistently undervalued; it’s equally disheartening to continually donate your talent to large, faceless organizations without any form of reciprocal remuneration or recognition. I suspect, this is one reason why there are so many independent arts blogs in existence: people want an avenue for their passions, a place to share and sharpen and connect. The blogging world’s role and wider value within the classical ecosystem is a post for another day, but suffice to state here it is a world which bears contemplation, nay scrutiny, in direct relation to the concerns artists now express around the fairness (or not) of freebie culture. Awareness of individual value means retaining some measure of control over public offerings, which therefore necessitates the wilful exercise of choice in the implementation of remunerative properties. According to Buddhist belief, money is a form of energy, and as artists, it seems more important than ever to, as a 1996 article in Tricycle notes, “learn to ride this powerful energy, instead of being ridden by it.” I started this website in 2017 as a labour of love; its material, produced solely by yours truly, remains free for readers because it feels right to do so, as befits certain perceptions of me as an ambassador for music and the classical arts, which I am truly flattered by, but also take seriously. (Hopefully I don’t sound unbearably pretentious stating this.) I would far prefer to keep the unique value of that independence, in its myriad of forms, to myself, and carry my wonderfully faithful readership in that spirit, than give any bit of it (and me, and them) away.

carving, Thoth, baboon, scribe, god, work, writing, writers, discipline, sculpture, Egyptian

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon, Egyptian, 1388-1351 BC, wood & serpentinite; Neues Museum Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That means any residual anger at the boss is worked out in front of a mirror, and whatever exposure (that infamous word) I gain is that which I am able to fully control, measure, and reinvest in and around pursuits and goals related firmly to gaining a broader perspective, for me, for the artists who interest and inspire, and for readers. I realize this isn’t sexy to advertisers, much less large swathes of music lovers, very much less the intelligentsia-musicology crowd I confess to sometimes feeling I need validation from. (Newsflash: writers are insecure.) But if there is to be any momentum in the classical ecosystem now, it behoves all of us, at all levels, to start thinking more carefully about ideas around exposure, exchange, and innovation. The notion of “giving” exposure to artists who produce cultural material for wide consumption across digital platforms in lieu of payment, by large (or even not-so-large) organizations needs to be more broadly and boldly questioned, for it calls into consideration the whole idea of how we, individually and collectively, think of culture and its role in our lives. A powerful recent editorial in The Guardian and today’s dire (if not unexpected) announcement from The Met force issues of cultural value to the fore. Should we care about culture in a time of pandemic and murder and social unrest? How much? Is culture (and its related written coverage) perceived as a leisure pursuit? An escapist activity? A pleasant diversion from Real Life? Should artists be giving songs, shows, concerts, ballets, paintings, plays, and poetry (writing) out of the sheer goodness of their hearts?

Amidst the sudden closures and cancellations that took place in March there was an intense whirlwind of sudden online activity and free offerings from classical artists, a panicked logic that shrieked the understandably obvious. Large outlets with paid models (The Met, the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper) were suddenly giving work away, standing, rather bizarrely, toe-to-toe with choirs and freelance musicians who were willingly performing from balconies, living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchen tables, suddenly grappling with cameras, microphones, angles, lighting, and the interminable joys of uploading, trying to balance self-promotion with communal experience and needed connection while ensuring their presence in a piece of unprecedented history. There was a wonderful and refreshing underlining of personality in some quarters. Lisette Oropesa’s warm exchanges, and the vivacious work done by Chen Reiss (for online interview series Check The Gate), for instance, revealed them both to be the plain-speaking, earthy sopranos I conversed with in respective past chats. I suspect many classical artists enjoyed (or are still enjoying) the experience of a quite literally captive audience, a heady and unusual mix of accidental and intentional, and why not? In those early quarantine days, keeping access free was not only a nice gesture but vital for business.

Wigmore, auditorium, hall, performance, culture, music, London, intimate, venue

Wigmore Hall. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Nevertheless, with the current resumption of concerts in some places and continued quarantine in others, the virtual is becoming tied to the real, the fantasy of a past normalcy tied to current financial reality. Desperate times call for stark if/then mathematics: if you want this album, then pay for it. If you want that performance, then pay for it. Artists are realizing it can be difficult if not impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube once a precedent for free content has been established, with related expectations for its continuance. I strongly suspect certain events are about to have paid models applied to them, in various forms. Zoom conferences, like the HEC one I participated in recently, will, sooner than later, become paid events. Would I pay to watch/listen to a panel featuring Benedetti, Cargill, and Beard, or Maestros Gilbert and Blomstedt, or Clutton/Kosky? Yes. Wigmore Hall has just resumed weekday performances, with broadcasts (online, radio) in collaboration with BBC Radio 3, but one wonders what will happen after the end of June; will there be a paid model? The Berlin Phil’s Digital Concert Hall has returned to its own subscription-based service, while many opera houses are currently offering limited-run broadcasts of past productions. One wonders about all the discussions taking place around offering new models that might allow greater user flexibility and personalization of (especially live) experience. Crow’s Theatre in Toronto recently offered a (delivered) gourmet dinner from a local restaurant with a live presentation of their theatricalized staging of Master And The Margarita, all for a set price; Tafelmusik has paired with a local gelateria for their at-home listening experiences. Conductor Vasily Petrenko, in the most recent edition of his (excellent) Lockdown Talks series, flat-out asks Jonathan Raggett (Managing Director of the Red Carnation Hotels chain) if he thinks a future partnership between orchestras and hotels might be possible in terms of chamber presentations in conference/ballrooms. Everyone is madly examining the possibilities of alternative revenue streams with this, the new normal of cultural presentation and experience, even as we try to absorb what feels, many days, like a never-ending stream of shock and sadness.

Berlin, classical, auditorium, performance, music, culture, stage, orchestra, performance

At the Berlin Philharmonie. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

The ugly reality is, after all, that many outlets and individuals are facing bankruptcy. Nimbleness, while lovely as a concept, is not something easily, quickly enacted or adaptable to many lives, and exposure, or even its promise, does not (as so many writers know) pay bills/rent/mortgage, much less provide the stones that could line the pathways leading to such dreamed-of stability – but the promise of exposure is a terribly tempting, a solid-looking thing to hop on (equally so the “tip jar”) that is proving itself to be naught but a rusty anchor with one clear direction. The question remains: what are we willing to pay for? How does spending relate to the (vital, right now) notion of scarcity? What value do we place on the experience of community? It behoves artists to stop being squeamish about openly discussing proper remuneration, just as much as it behoves us to start considering the broader ecosystem that allows this form of energy to fully flow – an ecosystem that surely includes the written word as much as the sung note, as much as the open string, as much as the pressed valve and held tone. Certainly it can be intoxicating at seeing one’s work enjoyed and shared by many, in revelling in attention and praise; digital culture exacerbates this attachment, and indeed it is sometimes an energetic black hole of a swamp one might choose to never leave. But it is vital to know when one is able to walk on stilts, and to trot away proudly, not looking back.

Lately I have experienced tremendous doubts about this website’s continued existence, ones specifically tied to my overall worth as a writer. If I’m not getting paid by a big mainstream outlet, do I have any real worth? How can I possibly compete with intellectual types who have the backing of far larger organizations and fanbases? Do I have anything remotely worthy to contribute through my writing or other creative efforts? Would that feeling be altered were I to receive remuneration, or what might, in Buddhist terms, be called reciprocal energy? Should I cease public writing entirely? I keep looking  up to the treetops, trying to imagine a clearer, better view. Notions of worth, value, and self-doubt are things everyone in the classical world grapples with at the best of times. Perhaps more thinking, more coffee, and a higher pair of stilts are required. Perhaps it’s time to find a better view.

Personal Essay: Pondering Community, Technology, Nostalgia, And “Normal”

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

The curtain of the Komische Oper Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, dome, architecture, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allan Clayton: “I Don’t Know What To Do With My Days If They Don’t Have Music In Them”

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Speaking with someone before a global pandemic and again after (or more accurately during) it is a very interesting experience. All the formalities drop away; the predictable edges of topics become rounded, blending into one another. The optimism and hope, gleaming like jewels in sunlight, have, over the past three weeks or so, been burnt into ugly despair, that gleaming dulled into desperate, leaden sadness.  Everyone is hoping for a swift resumption to normal activity, but of course, the question right now, more obvious than ever, is what “normal” might look like then – indeed, one wonders now, in the thick of it, what “normal” is and what it means for life both in and outside the classical realm. We are all adjusting ideas, expressions and experiences, as creative pursuits, social activities, and bank accounts yawn steadily open.

Allan Clayton had been set to make his role debut as the angry Laca Klemeň in a new production of Leoš Janáček’s most famous opera, Jenufa, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (ROH) earlier this week; roughly ten days before opening, the production (and all ROH activity) was shut down. The tenor’s next engagements – in London, New York, Madrid – are still on the books, but as with everything in the classical world right now, giant question marks hang like immense, heavy clouds over everyone. On March 30th, Wigmore Hall cancelled the rest of its season; Aldeburgh, for which Clayton was to serve as Artist-In-Residence this year, is likewise shuttered. It remains to be seen if Clayton will get to sing a role he’s become associated with, that of Hamlet. in Brett Dean’s 2017 opera of the same name;  performance is still set for June with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under the baton of Markus Stenz. “To be or not to be” indeed.

Clayton has a CV that leans toward the dramatic, as befits his equal gifts within the realms of music and theatre, with experience in Baroque (Handel), French (Berlioz), German (Wagner), and twentieth-century work (Britten), alongside an admirable and consistent commitment to concert and recital repertoire. His varied discography includes works by Mendelssohn, Mozart, and of course, his beloved Britten, with his album Where ‘Er You Walk (Hyperion), recorded with Ian Page and  The Orchestra of Classical Opera, released in 2016. It is a beautiful and uplifting listen. A collection of Handel works originally written by the composer for tenor John Beard, Clayton’s voice carries equal parts drama and delicacy. As well as the music of Handel, the album features lively, lovingly performed selections from the mid 18th-century, including William Boyce’s serenata Solomon, John Christopher Smith’s opera The Fairies, and Thomas Arne’s opera Artaxerxes.

On the album’s first track, “Tune Your Hearts To Cheerful Strains” (from the second scene of Handel’s oratorio, Esther), the scoring features voice and oboe gently weaving their way in, around, and through one another in beads of polyphonic perambulation. Clayton’s timing, pushing sound here, pulling it back there, moving into blooming tenorial splendor before trickling watchfully away like a slow exhale, is artistry worth enjoying over several listens. Equally so the aria “As Steals the Morn”, taken from Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (The Cheerful, the Thoughtful, and the Moderate Man), which is based on the poetry of John Milton. The graceful call and response of the instruments is echoed in the gentle if knowing exchange between vocalists, in this case Clayton and soprano Mary Bevan, their poetic, deeply sensitive vocal blending underlining the bittersweet truth of the text, with its tacit acknowledgement of the illusory nature of romance. The work is set within a wider contextual framework extolling the virtues of moderation, but Clayton and Bevan inject the right amount of wistful sadness the whispering kind, with Clayton a burnished bronze tonal partner to Bevan’s delicate glass. Theirs is a beautiful pairing, and one hopes for further collaborations in the not-too-distant future.

 

As well as early music, Clayton’s talents have found a home with twentieth century repertoire, and he’s been able to exercise both at the Komische Oper Berlin, a house he openly (as you’ll read) proclaims his affection for. In spring 2018 Clayton performed as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele, and later that same year, made his role debut as Candide in Leonard Bernstein’s work of the same name, with Barrie Kosky at the helm. Clayton returns to the house for its 2020-2021 season, as Jim Mahoney in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny) by Kurt Weill, another role debut. Clayton has also appeared in Rameau’s Castor and Pollux at English National Opera (his performance was described by The Arts Desk as “astounding, his piercingly ornamented aria, “Séjour de l’éternelle paix”, one of the highlights of the evening”) as well as Miranda, a work based on the music of Purcell, at Opéra Comique, under the baton of Raphaël Pichon and helmed by Katie Mitchell. And, lest you wonder if he works only at opposite musical poles of old and new, consider that Clayton, who started out as a chorister at Worcester Cathedral, has also given numerous stage performances as David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, both at the ROH, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, and at Bayerische Staatsoper, with Kirill Petrenko. November 2018 saw the release of his album of Liszt songs, recorded with renowned pianist Julius Drake.

And yet, as mentioned earlier, Hamlet is still arguably what Clayton is best known for. The opera, by Brett Dean, with libretto (based on Shakespeare) by Matthew Jocelyn and presented at the 2017 Glyndebourne Festival, featured a stellar cast including Sarah Connolly (as Gertrude), Rod Gilfry (as Claudius), Barbara Hannigan (as Ophelia), Kim Begley (as Polonius), and Sir John Tomlinson (as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father). Clayton,who made his debut at the Festival in 2008 (as the title role in Albert Herring), gave us a Hamlet that was the veritable eye of the hurricane as well as a tornado of energy himself. There was no perceptible line between the worlds of vocalism and drama in the slightest; the performance, matching the opera as a whole, was a perfect fusion of the varying art forms opera encompasses. Dean’s hotly dramatic scoring and Jocelyn’s musically rhythmic libretto provided a whole new window into the world of the gloomy Danish Prince, one divorced from the arch world of hollow-eyed, sad-faced, skull-holding clichés, but sincerely connected to truly felt, deeply experienced aspects of human life: what it is to love, to lose, to grapple with notions of shifting identity and an unknowable present. The work carries extra poignancy in these times and remains a strong personal favorite.

In 2018 Clayton was the recipient of both the Royal Philharmonic Society Singer Award as well as the Whatsonstage Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera. 2019 proved just as busy and inspiring, with, among many musical pursuits, including much time with the music of Berlioz – at Glyndebourne, as the lead in La damnation de Faust, and then as part of the oratorio L’enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ), presented first at the BBC Proms with conductor Maxime Pascal, and later at Teatro Alla Scala, with conductor John Eliot Gardner ). In September Clayton travelled to Bucharest to premiere a new song cycle by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Enescu Festival before presenting it shortly thereafter in London, where the work was performed along with related pieces by Benjamin Britten, Oliver Knussen, and Michael Tippett; The Guardian’s Andrew Clements later wrote of the concert that Clayton’s voice “wrapped around all of (the compositions) like a glove, with perfect weight and range of colour and dynamics.” Clayton and Turnage are two of four Artists in Residence (the others being soprano Julia Bullock and composer Cassandra Miller) at this year’s edition of the Aldeburgh Festival, set to run June 12th to 28th. Founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten, tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier and spread across various locales in Suffolk (with the converted brewery-turned-arts-complex Snape Maltings being its hub), Aldeburgh offers performances of everything from early music to contemporary sounds, and attracts a heady mix of audiences just as keen to take in the gorgeous landscape as to experience the wonders of the festival. Clayton is presenting two concerts which will feature the music of Britten Turnage, Ivy Priaulx Rainier, and Michael Berkeley (a world premiere, that) as well as perform as part in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. It all remains to be seen, of course. As pianist Stephen Hough wrote in The Guardian, “it’s impossible at this point to say where this will end” – it is equally impossible at this point to say where things will begin, too.

I’ve presented this interview in two parts, as you’ll see, which act as a sort of yin and yang to one another for perspectives and insights into an oft mentioned, rarely-explored world that makes up opera, that of the rehearsal. As you’ll see, Clayton speaks eloquently about its various moving parts (particularly, in this case, linguistically-related) and the weeks of preparation that go into a new production, the fruits of which, like so many in the oprea world right now, will not be enjoyed by any. It’s tempting to write such effort off, to say it was in vain, but my feeling is that the best artists, of which Clayton certainly is, have taken their bitter disappointment and turned in inside-out, finding new energy for forging creative new paths; they are roads which, however unexpected, are yielding their own sort of special fruit in some surprising ways. Clayton’s mix of playfulness, curiosity, and earthiness seem to be propelling him along a route showcasing his innate individualism and artistry. I am looking forward to the results, to say nothing of the cross stitch projects promised herewith.

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

Before Jenufa‘s Cancellation

How are rehearsals for Jenufa going?

I’d not done any Czech opera at all and this has completely opened my eyes to the whole music I knew was there. I’d heard some things and seen the opera before at the Coliseum in that famous production in English, but the richness of the score and the music, it’s so emotionally present, there’s no artifice – hopefully it’ll be the same live.

It’s written phonetically, an approximation to match the inflections of the language

Exactly.

… so how are you finding learning not only Czech, but, as a singer, matching it to the sounds in score?

Something our director Claus Guth said on our first day, with the rehearsal that afternoon, is that this something we have to create, with our own stage language, to deal with the repetition of text in a short space of time. It’s not a Baroque opera where you have extended passages of five or six words stretched out; you have very important information delivered rapid-fire. (Conductor) Vladimir Jurowski said, “you have to remember this is how, coming from that region, people would talk to one another, you bark . I’ve been in places in Eastern Europe” – and he’s speaking as a polyglot who rattled through seven languages in rehearsal – “and when you listen to them, it’s like they’re shouting at each other, but they’re not; they’re communicating in a staccato, loud, repetitive manner, so just embrace it as part of normal day life, because the piece is about routine and everyday life, and the threat from the outside to that.”

And the character is tough as well. Opera has lots of characters with chips on shoulders…

Yes indeed.

… but Laca has one of the biggest and chippiest chips.

Completely, and he cannot stop it. He hates Steva. We’ve rehearsed the scene where the infamous cut happens to Jenufa’s cheek, which is the beginning of the end of the story and we have talked about it: does he mean it? Is it intentional? In his very first scene, from the very start, he’s raging at people, and he has a furious temper, which is something else we talked about, that this was Janacek’s character, he could fly off the handle at any time and took badly to things, and he was tempestuous in relationships. This is something I try and embrace but not let it affect me vocally and move into shouting, because that’s not nice to listen to!

It’s not vocally healthy either.

No!

You also did Candide in Berlin, which is totally different. Finding your way through extremely complex scores when it comes to new roles – what’s that like?

For Candide, it was a chance to work with Barrie Kosky again, who I get on really well with – I think his approach to directing and to life is a pretty solid one, and I agree with a lot of what he says. It was also a chance to work at the Komische Oper again; I’ve done quite a few shows there now, it’s a positive space to work in, even though it’s a busy house, but it’s also the chance to do something different. He said, “we’re going to do it in German” and I thought, right, thanks a lot! I only speak a little German but not near enough, so learning dialogue was a challenge, but I also thought: it’s a chance to do something a bit more theatrical. That was certainly what I enjoyed. The creative input I had on it was the most I’ve ever had, because we had a completely blank stage, and Barrie would go, “okay, we need to get from this locale to that locale in the next page-and-a-half of music; we have no set, so what do we do?” We had fun with that. I could say, “Well why don’t we kick a globe around, or do a silly number with Monty Python-style soldiers?” The challenge, and the great thing with him, is always, this creative side of things. 

And Barrie is so open to artistic collaboration.

He is! I‘ve often said the best directors – and he is one of them – make you think you’ve come up with a great idea, which is probably what they wanted all along, but they make it feel like it’s a collaboration, that you are not just a cog in a machine. Again, like Claus was saying in rehearsal he had some plans for certain scenes but the natural circumstances means the scene will go in a completely different direction – and he loves that. It’s about embracing that flexibility. If you just go in there and think of yourself like a moving statue, it makes for a very long six weeks.

Some performers enjoy the predictable – it’s comfortable and they say they can concentrate on their voice more that way – but for you that doesn’t feel like the case; it feels like comfort is the antithesis of who you are as an artist.

Yes, and the most fun I have is in rehearsal room. The pressure is on when you do a show, in that you want the audience to be happy, you’re trying to be faithful to the score and remember your words and blocking and all else, but actually being in a rehearsal room for five or six weeks with brilliant colleagues and creative minds makes it interesting, and for me that’s the part of the job I enjoy. When people say, “you must be so lucky to do what you love” that’s the bit I think of, because if I didn’t do that, I’d be trudging out the same couple of roles and it would be boring as hell. How do you bring something different each time doing that? You fall into one production or role, like “this is my Ferando, this is my… whatever”, which is so less interesting.

But it takes a lot of confidence to go into those rehearsal for the length of time you do, with the people you do, and say, openly, “I have these ideas and I want to try them.”

I guess, but it doesn’t always feel so, though that’s also why, for me, whenever I’m speaking to casting people or my agent about future projects, my first question is always, “who’s the director?” Because it’s massively important – the conductor is always the second question, but if I don’t feel the director is going to trust me or if I can’t trust them, then I won’t have the confidence to put those ideas out there and try some things. Like, this role, it’s about offering things when i can and not holding up rehearsal when it’s not my turn. That’s part of being a team. That’s part of working collaboratively.

Humility is so vital, especially in the world of classical music, where egos can get out of control so quickly.

Exactly! It’s something I’ve not had to deal with a lot, but (that egotism) is so alien to me, I think there’s less of it maybe than there used to be, or maybe the level at which I work, but it can be difficult.

Your Hamlet was very ego-free, and very beautiful.

It was such a special opera, wasn’t it?

I spoke to Matthew Jocelyn when he directed Hamlet in Köln in November 2019, and he was also clear about the role of collaboration in its genesis. 

Yes absolutely, I can’t imagine a more perfect storm. The way Matthew and Brett got on, even if they didn’t share ideas, was always dealt with in a creative and good way, and it was the same with (director) Neil Armfield and Vladimir Jurowski, and with Glyndebourne as a company as well. I can’t imagine that piece working anywhere else. There was an incredible amount of people who gave above and beyond what you’d expect; it was extraordinary, and was given without a question. I don’t know what it was, but every department was being collaborative, from Matthew and Brett’s first jotting down which scenes they wanted to include, to the first night. Everybody was giving everything. 

That generosity of spirit bleeds into the concert work I’ve seen you do, your 2018 performance of Spring Symphony with Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra, for instance… 

If I didn’t keep a mix of things I’d go even more insane than I am!

Is that why you do it? Staving off restlessness?

Completely. I can’t imagine that part shutting off. If I didn’t do concerts or recitals, I’d be shutting off two-thirds of what can be done with this amazing, weird world we live in. I think of the music I’d be depriving myself of, so it’s also a selfish thing, with recitals but also with concert work. You get to be more involved in how you present things, you have a more immediate connection to the orchestra or pianist or chamber group, which you don’t get in opera because you are separated by the floor, so it’s slightly more engaging for me.

You also bring an operatic approach to those formats, though, as with the Britten, you live right inside those words.

You have to with a lot of Britten – if you don’t engage, you’re lost. It’s so dramatic, and he writes so well for the stage because he has a natural sense of drama throughout his writing, and you know, if you are just trotting it out without really going for it, it doesn’t make for a good experience for the audience 

But you can’t do that in recitals; artists say it’s like standing there naked, although Thomas Hampson said he thinks all singers should do them.

It’s true, you explore so many different colors than you would in opera. It’s hard, hard work to keep that concentration that long and stamina-wise. In terms of preparations you put in for the output, you might do each recital once, so it’s weeks, hours, months of work to inhabit each song and try to say something fresh with it since the three-hundred-or-so odd years since it was written, but that’s what makes it fun.

I would imagine you come into Jenufa rehearsals, having done your recital at Wigmore not long before, for instance, with a new awareness of what you can do with your voice.

Absolutely, yes, and it makes you more interesting for directors and conductors, because if you can offer these interesting colors they’re like oh cool!” Just the other day, I was rehearsing and Vlad said to me, “Don’t come off the voice there, it doesn’t work” – so (responsive versatility) is an option I can offer, it’s not just full-frontal sound, or one color, and that’s again, about confidence. The more (varied) stuff you do, the more options you can present.

And you are Artist in Residence at Aldeburgh this year too. 

It’ll be great – I love that place. When I was in my first year of music college (at St. John’s College and later the Royal Academy of Music) I did Albert Herring there as part of a student program, and it was seven weeks in October living in Aldeburgh, learning about the region and all the weird people from that place. It couldn’t have been a better introduction to the place and what it means to not only British music but internationally as well. The residendency, well I’m so chuffed, and especially happy with the other people doing it too.

Their ten-quid-tickets-for-newcomers scheme also fights the idea that opera is elite.

It’s crap, that view – but you feel like you’re speaking to the wind sometimes. I was in a taxi going to the Barbican doing Elijah a few weeks ago and the driver said, “oh, big place is it, that hall?” I said, fairly big, he said, “like 300?” I said, no it’s about 2000 or something, he said, “oh gosh!” I said, you should give it a go someday. He said, “I can’t, it’s 200 quid a ticket”, and I said, no, it’s five quid, and you can see lots of culture all over for that price, for any booking. I mean, it’s infuriating – I took my sister and kids to see a football match recently and it cost me the best part of two grand. I mean, talk about classical being “elite”!

Baroque is a good introduction for newcomers I find, it’s musically generous and its structures are discernible. You’ve done a good bit of that music too.

If I’m free, I say yes to doing it. That music is really cool to do, things like Rameau, which I really didn’t know about, and Castor and Pollux, which blew my mind, and as you say, the music is so beautiful, it’s not too strange or contemporary, so people can engage with it easily.

And it’s a good massage vocally.

Yes, not crazy Brett Dean vocal Olympics! 

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British

Photo © Sim Canetty-Clarke

After Jenufa‘s Cancellation

Sorry for the delay, I was just doing an online task with my family, it wasn’t working and I was swearing and throwing things at the computer. How are you?

Trying to figure things out.

It’s such a change, isn’t it… 

I teach as well and had my first Zoom session with my students recently.  

How did it go?

Nobody wanted to hang up at the end – they were so happy to see each other. I wrote about that moment recently.

My youngest niece had the same thing this morning – a mum arranged a big Zoom class phone call and my sister said exactly the same thing: they just loved seeing each other.

I think everyone misses that community.

Yes, and especially given how close we got to opening Jenufa; tonight (March 24, 2020) would’ve been the opening.

I’m so sorry.

Well, thanks, but certain people are in much worse situations, so it’s not the most important thing. It is a shame, though; everyone had worked so hard and put so much into a show that was going to be so good. I was chatting last night with Asmik Grigorian (who would have sung the title role), and she was saying how opera houses plan so far ahead and it’s difficult to know how they’ll cope with these loss of projects, whether they’ll put them on in five years’ time or move things back a year, but you do that and then you’re messing with people’s diaries in a big way. Fingers crossed people will get to see what we worked on anyway, at some point.

Some of those diaries are now big question marks.

Absolutely. I’d’ written off Jenufa until Easter, and then after that I was supposed to go to London – Wigmore Hall – and then New York, then Faust in Madrid and Hamlet in Amsterdam. I’ve written all of them off, because I can’t see things being back to normal the beginning of May, or even the end of May, when Hamlet is supposed to happen. And I’ve got the opera festival… I’m hoping it’ll be able to go ahead, but the brain says it won’t happen either, so suddenly my next job isn’t until August. We’ll see if things have calmed down by then.

It’s so tough being freelance, there’s this whole ecosystem of singers, conductors, musicians, writers, and others that audiences usually just don’t see.

My sister is a baker, she has her own business; she’s self-employed. And obviously all the weddings have been cancelled, and birthday parties, and all the related stuff, like cakes, musicians, planners, all these people – all cancelled. So yes, it isn’t just singers in opera but people like yourself, the writers too – we’re all in the same boat. We are together under the same banner of freelance and self-employed, but at the same time, at least in this country, we’ve been abandoned under that same banner by the government. 

It was notable how loud freelancers were through Brexit about the implications to its various ecosystems.

I don’t know whether it’s because us freelancers spend a lot of time working on our own and are not part of a bigger company, but it’s why Brexit felt so silly, because to become more isolated at a time when the world becomes less so, just doesn’t seem to make any sense. You’ve got the rest of Europe, although it’s closing its borders, it’s maintaining as much community and spirit as it can, whereas little Brexit Britain is just sort of shutting down. 

And in the current circumstances, literally doing so rather late. The scenes of the crowded parks this past weekend were… 

It was absolutely insane. 

So how are you keeping your vocals humming along? 

I have a couple of projects – I did a Mozart Requiem of sorts, with Joelle Harvey and Sascha Cook, the American mezzo. She was in Texas, Joelle was in Washington I think it was, and I was in Lewes, and we did this arrangement where I did the soprano part, and Joelle sung tenor, which was pretty special. I’m doing something with the French cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton as well – I sent her the Canadian folk song “She’s Like The Swallow” recently. We’ll record some Purcell later today. She’s going to try to put her cello to my singing. So, little things like that going on. Otherwise, we’ll see what happens really. I’ve got my laptop and a microphone and a little keyboard with me, so hopefully I’ll do something, maybe a bit of teaching and singing as well to keep the pipes going. 

A lot of people are turning to teaching now.

I wouldn’t do anything seriously, I just think it’s nice to be able to use what is the day job in other ways. A friend put on Facebook yesterday, “is anyone else finding the silence deafening?” I think that’s apropos at the moment. We’re so used to hearing music all day, to having it be part of our regular lives, six or seven hours (or more) a day, in rehearsals and at concerts, that feeling of making music together and hearing music live – it’s just not the same at the moment .

Allan Clayton tenor classical singer sing vocal vocalist opera British Enescu Festival 2019 Britten Sinfonia Turnage premiere

Performing at the 2019 George Enescu Festival with the Britten Sinfonia and conductor Andrew Gourlay. Photo: Catalina Filip

The performative aspect too – there’s no live audience. It’s nice to feel somebody is out there in a tangible way.

That’s the thing, it’s only times like this you realize what a two-way process it is. It’s so easy to think, without experiences like this, that we’re on stage, people listen to us, and that’s it. And it’s not like that at all. The atmosphere is only created by the audience. When things were heading south at the opera house and we weren’t sure what would happen, there was talk of trying to livestream a performance without any audience in Covent Garden, and we were considering that, and thinking, like, how would that work? The energy wouldn’t be at all the same. It’s completely intangible, but it’s a vital part of the process, of what we do. 

Having that energetic feedback… 

Absolutely, the buzz in the room. People stop talking when the house when lights go down – it creates adrenaline for us, it creates a sense of anticipation, in us, and with the audience, of “what will we see, what are we going to hear, are we going to enjoy it and engage with it and get out of the 9 to 5 routine?” And it’s the same for us: will we be able to get out of our daily commute when we step onstage and see smiling faces (or not)? All of those little interactions that we took for granted – I certainly did – well, we don’t have the option anymore. 

And now you have to try to adjust yourself to a different reality, like the Zoom meetings, and there is that weird community sense being together and alone at once. 

Exactly, because we’re all stuck in the same boat. We have to accept things like Zoom, Skype, Facetime are the only ways we’ll cope, otherwise we’ll all go mad. It’s very well hearing one another’s voices but seeing – the things we get from humans, from facial tics – that reaction is another level, and without it we’ll start to go insane. I’ve got a Zoom pub date lined up later this week with a couple musician friends, we’re going to sit and have a beer together and chat, just as a way of keeping in touch.

It makes things feel semi-normal too.

Exactly, because you know, you put yourself in their spaces, their homes, you see their living room, and given that we’re all stuck in our own environments at the moment, it’s very important to have as much escapism as possible.

We’re getting peeks into homes, and there’s a weird sort of familiarity with that because everyone’s in the same boat.

I find it interesting! My sister was saying at lunchtime, remarking how interesting it is seeing journalists’ living rooms, because they’re broadcasting from there now, it’s a peek behind the curtain, which is really quite nice.

And everyone has the same anxious expression…  

… because we don’t know where this is going.

Hopefully things will be clear by the time you start work on Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny at Komische Oper Berlin next season

I love Barrie Kosky, and I’ve not sung Mahagonny before, so I’m looking forward, though it’s a weird piece. I said to Barrie when he first offered it to me, that scene whilst Jimmy’s waiting, the night before he dies, when he’s praying for the sun not to come up, it’s like a (Peter) Grimes monologue, it’s like Billy Budd through the porthole, this really, really operatic bit of introspection.

It’s also kind of like Madame Butterfly turned inside out…  

Quite!

I wonder if Weill was aware of that when he wrote it.

I hadn’t made that connection at all but you’re absolutely right! It’ll be fascinating to see what Barrie does with it. 

You have lots of time to prepare now.

That, and all the other projects next year. We’ll see what happens, but it’ll be great to focus on those. That’s what I’m having to do at the moment: focus on next year and hope what we live with now goes past us. I’m still going to prep for concerts that were set to happen, even if they don’t, in New York and at Wigmore Hall. I put a lot of time into the programming, especially at Wigmore this season, and off the back of those programs I’m hoping to do some recordings, and later maybe tour the same programs, or an amalgam of them, but certainly it makes sense to keep doing it, and to satisfy the creative part of my brain. I have to be doing something like that. If I don’t see any printed music, I’ll go crazy; it’s been my life since the age of eight, so I need it. I don’t know what to do with my days if they don’t have music in them. I’ve also taken up cross stitch, but I can only allow myself to buy cross stitch with swear words in it, so that’s my next project. 

Will you be sharing the fruits of these labours?

Absolutely. 

Personal Essay: Watching, Listening, Writing – Alone And Together

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Pianist Igor Levit performs on March 16, 2020 as part of the Bayerische Staatoper’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

The damage the corona virus has wrought in the cultural world is beyond imagining. There is no way to classify or quantify the losses, ones that will be felt for decades, maybe even centuries, to come. Galleries, museums, studios, open spaces, cinemas, opera houses and concert halls are shuttered, with long-planned, eagerly anticipated events and seasons cancelled; one agency has shut down so far. The harsh peals of the force majeure clause contained in many contracts echo through every vast, empty space where people should be. The global pandemic has  laid bare the extreme fragility of arts organizations and those who depend on them.

Along with extensive virtual tours, online streaming has, over roughly the past two weeks, become a way of keeping the cultural flames alive. The charming nature of many of the broadcasts affords a peek into the home life of artists, places which are, in normal times, rarely seen by many of the artists themselves. The livestreams also provide a reassuring familiarity, a reminder that the tired, anxious faces are exact mirrors of your own tired, anxious self. Artists: they’re just like us. In better times it is sometimes easy (too easy) to be fooled by the loud cheers, the five-star reviews, the breathless worship, even when we think we may know better. What’s left when there’s no audience? These videos are providing answers and some degree of comfort. It’s heartening to see Sir Antonio Pappano sitting at his very own piano, his eyes tender, his voice and halting words reflecting the shock and sadness of the times. Moments like these are so real, so human, and so needed. They are a panacea to the soul. The arts, for anyone who needs to hear it, is for everyone, anyone, for all times but especially for these times. Pappano’s genuine warmth offers a soft and reassuring embrace against harsh uncertainty.

Equally as buoying have been the multiple together-yet-apart performances by numerous orchestras, including Bamberger Symphoniker’s recent presentation of a section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. There are so many examples of this type of fellowship which have sprung up, and they are all worth watching. One of my personal favourites is a solo performance from violist Marco Misciagna, who is currently volunteering with the military corps of the Italian Red Cross (CRI). Misciagna performs outside the Southern Mobilization Centre, mask firmly in place, leaning into tonalities and, one can almost hear, breathing in and through his instrument’s strings. As an opinion piece in The Guardian noted, “When people look back on the pandemic of 2020, they will remember many things. One of them ought to be the speed with which human beings, their freedom to associate constrained, turned towards music in what may almost be described as a global prisoners’ chorus.”

Some may also perceive the recent flurry of online activity as savvy marketing, and there’s little wrong with that; they — we (if I can say that) — need every bit of arm-waving possible. Performing for a captive audience in need of inspiration, hope, distraction, diversion, and entertainment fulfill a deep-seated need for community. Choosing where and how to direct our attention, as audience members, is no easy thing (although, to be frank, my own efforts to filter out the hard-posing ingenue/influencer types have become increasingly more concentrated). To be faced with such a sweet and succulent buffet whilst facing the sometimes sour and glum realities of ever-worsening news is no small thing. Shall it be a weekly livestream from Bayerische Staatsoper or one of Waldemar Januszczak’s wonderful art documentaries? Perhaps a modern opera work from the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, or a Jessica Duchen reading her great novel Ghost Variations? Maybe a dip into the Berlin Philharmonic’s vast online archive or piano sounds with Boris Giltburg and then Igor Levit? Perhaps it’s time to mop the floor and clean out the humidifiers? Maybe time to tackle that terribly overdue filing? Shall I check Twitter yet again for the latest? Dare I dip into Facebook? is it time to update both groups of students? What words of comfort and encouragement should I choose as their teacher/mentor? Is it time to check in with my many lovely senior contacts – maybe a phone call? When the hell am I going to finish (/start) that immense novel that’s been sitting on the table acting as a defacto placemat?! Cultural options (physical media collection included) have to compete with less-than-glamorous ones, but, orchestrated  in careful harmony, work to keep one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual selves humming along, and offer a reminder that the myth of individualized isolation is just that – a myth.

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Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in a program of music by Bartók and Berio on March 12, 2020. The Philharmonie Berlin is closed until April 19th but the orchestra is offering free access to online archives at its Digital Concert Hall. Photo © Stephan Rabold

Professional duties remind us of the fallacy of isolation, underscoring them with various technological notifications in bleep-bloop polyphony. Obligation can’t (and doesn’t) stop amidst pandemic, especially for those in the freelance world. Writers, like all artists working in and around the arts ecosystem, are finding themselves grappling with a sickly mixture of restlessness and terror as the fang-lined jaws of financial ruin grow ever-wider. Since January I’ve been part of a mentoring program run through the Canadian Opera Company (COC) and Opera Canada magazine. This scheme, a partnership with a variety of Toronto-based arts organizations, allows emerging arts writers currently enrolled in journalism school the opportunity to see and review opera. Along with opera, students also write about productions at the National Ballet of Canada, concerts at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, presentations at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Some indeed come with theatre and dance backgrounds (or equivalencies in written coverage), a great help when covering the sprawling, integrative art form that is opera. For many, this isn’t merely a first outing in writing about the art form; it’s their very first opera experience, period. Next up (we hope) are the COC’s spring productions of Die fliegende Holländer and Aida. Lately I’ve been crossing fingers and toes at their arts (and arts writing) passion continuing; each writer I have mentored thus far has possessed very individual talents and voices. I am praying they, and their colleagues, are using at least some of these stressful days to exercise cultural curiosity and gain as much richness of exposure as the online world now affords. It’s not purely practical; surely on some level it is also medicinal. 

Bayerische Staatsoper corona virus Nagy Muller opera classical music performance series empty hall

Soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller and baritoneMichael Nagy rehearse ahead of their March 23, 2020 performance at Bayerische Staatsoper as part of the house’s weekly Monday broadcast series. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

What happens to those voices now, of writers new and old? What happens to their potential readers, to audiences, to new fans, to old fans? Will they (we) get an opportunity to be part of the ecosystem? Will there even be one left to write about? Similar anxieties have surfaced for my radio documentary students. Tell your own stories! I constantly advise, This is a writing class with sound elements! When today’s first online class drew to a close, it seemed clear no one wanted to leave; there was something so reassuring about being able to see (most) everyone’s faces, hear their voices, share stories, anxieties, fears. I have to agree with historian Mary Beard’s assessment in The Times today, that “I am all in favour of exploiting online resources in teaching, but no one is going to tell me that face-to-face teaching has no advantage over the remote version. Lecturing and teaching is made special by real-time interaction.Sharing stories is more crucial than ever, whether through words, music, or body, or a skillful combination of them all. As director Kiril Serebrennikov (who knows a thing or two about isolation) wisely advises, keep a diary. I started doing just that recently, reasoning that writing (like sound and movement) is elemental to my human makeup ; whether or not anyone reads it doesn’t matter. Exercises in narcissism seem pointless and energetically wasteful, now more than ever. The act of writing – drawing, painting, cooking, baking (all things I do, more than ever) –  allow an experience, however tangential, of community, that thing we all need and crave so much right now. We’re all in the same boat, as Pappano’s expression so poignantly expressed.  It’s something many artists and organizations understand well; community is foundational to their being. 

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Photo: mine. Please do not use without permission.

The ever-changing waves of my own freelance life are largely made up of the elements of writing and sound, with community and isolation being their alternating sun and moon. Quarantine means facing the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves: our choices, our behaviours, our treatment of others, our home lives, our approach to our art, and how we have been fitting (or not) these multiple worlds together. Noting the particularly inspiring German response around support for freelancers has made my continentally-divided self all the more conscious of divisions within perceptions of the value and role of culture, but it’s also forced some overdue considerations of just where a writer working so plainly between worlds might fit. Maybe it is naive and arrogant to be questioning these things at such a time in history, and publicly at that – yet many artists seem to be doing similar, if social media is anything to go on. There seems to be a veritable waterfall of honesty lately, with rivulets shaded around questions of sustainability, feasibility, identity, and authenticity,  just where and how and why these things can and might (or cannot, now) spiral and spin around in viscous unity. I shrink from the title of “journalist” (I don’t consider myself one, at least not in the strictest sense), but whence the alternatives? One can’t live in the world of negative space, of “I am not”s (there is no sense trying to pitch a flag in a black hole), nor derive any sense of comfort in such non-labelled ideas, much as current conditions seem to demand as much. (The “I will not go out; I will not socialize” needs to be replaced with, “I will stay in; I will be content,” methinks.) Now there is only the promise of stability through habits new and old, and on this one must attempt nourishment. The desire to learn is ever-expanding, like warm dough in a dimly-lit oven, eventually inching beyond the tidy rim of the bowl, into a whole new space of experience, familiar and yet not.

bread baking homemade kitchen aroma warm bake oven

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Where is the place, I wonder, as fists pound and knuckles grind and the dough that will eventually be loaves of oatmeal molasses bread squeaks and sighs, where is the place for writers in this vast arts ecosystem that is now being so violently clearcut? What will be left? The immediate heat of the oven feels oddly reassuring as I ask myself such things, a warmth that brushes eyelashes and brings to mind the wall of strings in the fourth movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. We are all being forced into a new structure,  and we cannot ask why. There is only the experience of the present, something the best art has, and will always embrace, express, and ask of us. As Buddhist nun and author Pema Chödrön writes:

All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. There are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.

The pith instruction is, Stay. . . stay. . . just stay.

What is there now but the present? I think of the many artists so affected at this time, and I thank them all; their authenticity, courage, and commitment to their craft are more needed and appreciate than can be fathomed. There is a place for them; it is here, it is now, and it is our community, a grand joining of sound and soul and presence. Let’s tune in, together.

Catherine Foster: “Having Something Taken Away Spurs You Into Another Place”

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Photo: Uwe Arens

Lately I’ve been gravitating toward the work of artists who possess an air of authority, ones who strengthen my resolve to weather the current, rather frightening storms of unprecedented global pandemic. Those artists include sopranos Lyubov Petrova (that conversation posted recently), Chen Reiss (who I spoke with in March 2019; expect a new conversation soon), and Catherine Foster, an artist who didn’t start out in the opera world, but in healthcare. That former life still provides the Midlands-born soprano with a steady stream of onstage inspiration.

Foster is known for dramatic repertoire, and has built a career performing the music of Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, and most especially Wagner. She recently made debuts as Leonora di Vargas in Verdi’s La Forza del destino (at Oper Köln) and Eglantine in Weber’s Euryanthe with conductor Marek Janowski, as well as Die Färberin (the Dyer’s Wife) in Die Frau ohne Schatten at Nationaltheater Mannheim in 2019-2020. Cultural review site Die Neue Marker proclaimed in its review (translated from its original German) that throughout the sumptuous Strauss work, Foster “increased her modulation-rich soprano, always present in all registers, to stratospheric heights, combining soft colouration with persistently powerful yet always round vocal attacks. Her phenomenal ability to span large dramatic arches with unbroken intensity, without any technical losses in the constant focus of the harmony of her expressive soprano timbre, is spectacular.”

Until today (Tuesday March 17), Foster had been set to make a highly anticipated return to her native UK for the first time in two decades, for an in-concert performance of Elektra on Wednesday (March 18th); because of the corona virus, those dates, like almost if not all of the events in the classical world, have now been canceled. Elektra was to have reunited Foster with conductor Kiril Karabits (who she previously worked with touring Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) and she was to have performed with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), having been hailed as “the world’s best Elektra.” Prior to the cancellation, Foster had been upfront on her Facebook page about her feelings performing amidst the current corona virus pandemic, writing that “Elektra is a tumultuous journey at the best of times but this has added a new dimension.”

Listening to her robustly elegant soprano, one is struck by a sound that possesses shades of authority, delicacy, strength, and vulnerability, warmth and expansiveness, in ever-shifting varieties like reanimated bronzen shards threaded into an El-Anatsui work; glinting, shimmering, shifting, ruffling and revolving, it is a timbre, which, no matter the repertoire, allows a dramatically complete picture. Her path to music was formed early. As soon as I could talk I was singing, according to my mother!” she said in 2009, and indeed, Foster went on to sing in the local choir in her youth, becoming lead chorister at 15. Another vocation beckoned however, that of nursing, and Foster’s training eventually led her to become a midwife. Singing in her spare time in an amateur choir, inspiration to return to music came via a conversation in a delivery room, which then led to singing teacher Pamela Cook, the co-founder of Cantamus, a celebrated all-girls choir based in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Cook recommended the budding singer for an audition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where Foster studied for two years before graduating. During her studies she was awarded the Dame Eva Turner Award, which allowed for a year of post-graduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music.

In the late 1990s, Foster worked with the Welsh National Opera, Opera Northern Ireland, and English National Opera, before being faced with the tough decision as to whether or not to relocate abroad. Foster was a newlywed but also determined to keep going as a singer; moving to continental Europe was done of necessity, as is so often the reality with life in the classical world. Recalling the decision in a 2018 interview with The Standard, she said the situation in the UK was “like a closed door, I’m too tall, I’m too blonde, I’m too this, I’m too that…”. Moving to Germany, Foster  found the gruelling-if-necessary experience that formed the path for a natural expression and expansion of her creative abilities while integrating all the wisdom and experience (not to mention work ethic) from her nursing days. Through her time with the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar (from 2001 to 2011), she sang a variety of roles and styles, including Mimi in La bohème, Turandot, Elizabeth in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Leonore in Il trovatore, Sente in Der fliegende Holländer, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Fidelio, and of course, Elektra. “I was working with an A-class orchestra and ensemble on a daily basis” she told The Times in 2013.

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As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

It was amidst such varied creative experiences that she first encountered Brünnhilde, Wagner’s irrepressible heroine, in 2007 at Nationaltheater Weimar (released on DVD). Since then, Foster has become associated with the role and has appeared in a myriad of Ring Cycles – in Weimar, but also with Oper Köln, Aalto Theater Essen, Staatsoper Hamburg (where she recorded it with conductor Simone Young), Washington National Opera, Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin), and Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona, to name just a few. Of her 2013 performance as Brünnhilde with De Nederlandse Opera in Götterdämmerung (under the baton of conductor Hartmut Haenchen) it was noted that “it isn’t difficult to understand why Catherine Foster has become a much sought-after Brünnhilde in opera houses around Europe. Her voice is well-projected with beautiful high notes that easily cut through the orchestra.”

For Wagnerites – practitioners and fans alike – few places are more special than Bayreuth. The composer founded the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1876, conceiving and designing the house expressly for his own works’ presentation, most especially for the immense Ring Cycle. Foster’s first opportunity to perform at famed festival came when the festival’s co-director, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, having previously seen Foster perform Brünnhilde in Riga. The 2013 Ring Cycle production that marked Foster’s premiere Bayreuth appearance was directed by Frank Castorf and led in the pit by Kiril Petrenko, in a modern (and not entirely popular) staging. Foster went on to appear at the famous festival for five more consecutive seasons and took Brünnhilde took Hungary as well, where she performed with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Symphony Choir, and Budapest Studio Choir at Budapest’s Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. In a review of Götterdämmerung from June 2019, Bachtrack’s David Karlin noted that the soprano “can hit a high note with laser precision from a starting point anywhere in the stave below, sustain it as long as she wants and do so without ever going shrill. In the Act 3 immolation scene, she made good use of all that power, but also projected pianissimo clearly, fixing the audience with such a piercing stare that it felt as if she was singing to each listener directly.” Foster received the London Wagner Society’s Reginald Goodall award in 2018. With any luck, she’ll be returning to Budapest in June for a full Ring Cycle, part of a full 2020 slate including TurandotTristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, a Verdi opera gala, and a return to Deutsche Oper next season, as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer.

Much sooner however, was to have been a return to native soil, March 18th at Lighthouse, Poole, and March 21st at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; those dates hae been canceled. Along with Foster, Elektra in concert was set to feature Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra and Allison Oakes as Chrysothemis; students from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity Laban Conservatoire were to form the chorus. The performances, and the planning and preparation around them, were two years in the making. We had the opportunity to chat in late February, before the pandemic was a real threat in the classical world and beyond. Foster was at home in Weimar, corralling her dogs (“Come in sweethearts, it’s getting cold out there!”) and eagerly preparing for Elektra. We enjoyed a lively conversation in which the jovial soprano mused on everything from learning German to real-life inspirations from her nursing days. Despite the cancellations, there’s tremendous value in sharing her ever-evolving thoughts around the Ring, new and not-so-new roles, and her evolving relationships with conductors and directors. Foster also discusses why she has no bitterness toward having to leave her home country, and why tough circumstances can sometimes provide unexpected pathways – telling and oddly prescient words for our current tough times. As you’ll read, Foster, while heartily embracing the high-art aspects of the job, keeps her feet planted firmly in an earthy authenticity, one that elevates her artistry while underlining her warm humanity – a balm for our times indeed.

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

When you moved to Germany in 2001, is it true that you didn’t know the language?

I could ask for a cup of coffee and that was it.

“But please don’t respond because I don’t know what you’re saying!” I can relate.

Yes, entirely! I remember coming here and no one spoke English back then. It was only in 2006-2007 that I first heard English on the street, but it was the best (environment) for me. My husband bought me a TV for Christmas, this really old-fashioned, huge thing, and I put Teletubbies on, and watched a bunch of very American series dubbed in German, and I had this book — the internet wasn’t out yet you couldn’t Google anything — that sat at the side, and I’d look up phrases: “Don’t shoot!” and “Don’t move!” It was an experience.

I never wanted to sing in the German fach; I just fell into it when I started having singing lessons. I never wanted to do opera or especially Wagner — I thought it was way too long! But now I absolutely adore the German language and adore singing in in German. I’m studying Elektra, and doing it of course in Britain, uncut, and what (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal does in the text is unbelievable; the nuances you can get out when you know the language, the colours you can put into the voice because you’ve not parrot-fashioned the words on top of what it means. You know precisely how things sit within the structures of a sentence.

Speaking of knowing structure, you’ve sung Elektra a few times… 

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

… and you’ve frequently performed the role of Isolde as well, including earlier this year in Bologna. When you start a new production is it a blank slate creatively, or do you think, “I can use this from here and that from there” and re-contextualize accordingly? What is the process for you?

The thing is, if you work with a Schauspiel director, for plays and things like that, then it is traditional that the actors and actresses don’t come having memorized their role, they memorize it during the rehearsal period. You can’t do that with an opera; it isn’t just words you’re memorizing, it’s music as well, and you have to be prepared, so of course you have your own ideas. But what I do find is that they mature, these pieces and roles mature like a good wine; you need to let them lie a bit. No matter how much you try with the first run, there’s no way you can actually know everything about the role, or know everything about a character.

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As Elektra in Wiesbaden, 2016. Photo © Sven-Helge Czichy

For example, I’m doing Elektra uncut this time, and there’s six pages that I’ve never performed on the stage; I was going through it with my pianist yesterday, and I can tell vocally when I get to the point where I finish the bit I’ve already done on stage, then I do the uncut bit and go back into the (existing bit) — the body knows where it’s going and it’s a lot more comfortable. It’s like driving a car; when you change cars you have to think, “Where is this part going? The gears feel different…” but after a while it becomes second nature. When you’ve got that part done – all the nitty-gritty bits – and you know where you’re going and how, then you can start putting other layers on top. 

For a new production, it’s the singer, the conductor, and there’s a director; those are three people who come together. The conductor has his idea of the music; the director has his concept; the singer comes with their ability to sing the role and some ideas. But if you don’t want a different concept there’s no point in employing a director – it’s our responsibility to listen, and to try and make that concept work on the stage, which, nine times out of ten, you can. The odd one you think, “Hmmm” but that’s very rare. I can count on one hand productions I’ve done that I just don’t get it from the inception, but I think the more mature you are with these roles, the better it is, and it’s a lot more comfortable for the audience and you can start to play with it even more.

My Elektra is based on three patients I used to look after when I was a student nurse in training; I had to do six months in the psychiatric unit, and I remember three wonderful patients who never went away out of my mind, so I use those memories. And if you look at Hofmannsthal when he wrote Elektra, he studied women in these asylums and how they were, and that’s his way of writing what these three ladies are all about. I find it very clever. 

It’s fascinating that you directly relate your work on Elektra to your work as a nurse – there’s an air of authenticity that seems discernible throughout your work.

For me that’s what acting is. I’ve never had acting lessons, so I do take my previous experiences and use them. There’s a part when I go onstage where I have to find it in me. But… what does that really say, when I love Elektra?! 

It means you combine imagination with experiences in the real world; the connection with the quotidian is clear.

If you think about a character like Brünnhilde, that role has been with me almost as long as my daughter has, and to me it’s (the story of) a young girl growing up. If you look at Wagner’s heroine, they are the ones that save the world; the men don’t save the world, the women save the world. So Walküre is very much based on a young teenager whose daddy is everything – whatever daddy says goes – and she’s probably been in that state for thousands of years…  

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With Johan Reuter as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo © Szilvia Csibi, Müpa Budapest

In suspended development.

That’s right. Then she starts to question things, and that’s when he gets angry, and that (reaction) also happens to be real. It makes me recall a relationship of mine in the past, and how, when I started to question what this person was doing, things got violent and angry. I always say Wotan gave Brünnhilde the power of love, but he himself has the love of power, and that’s the difference between the two; she can grow and mature because she’s learned to use power through her love, but he can’t change because he’s only in love with power. So therefore he’s unable to move on but she can move on, and therefore sacrifice. Siegfried is a testosterone-driven boy; it’s all about him, and about them getting together. It’s a prenuptial wakeup call.

I’ve think of Siegfried as the vehicle through which Brünnhilde achieves an actual sensual experience of the real, human world; she needs to have that experience, with all its interconnected pleasures and pains, so one world can end and another can begin.

You could also say he really can’t come into existence without her.

True! The awakening applies to both of them but the way it manifests is so different for each.

And I believe Brünnhilde, much as she was born of both Wotan and Erda… well, fate decided she had to be born; everything has its own time, everything has a beginning and an end, and this is Wotan’s end, so she was born, but of course she saved Siegmund and Sieglinde, and how much did she fall in love with Siegmund (in anticipation of) Siegfried – is that why she did what she did? It’s like Siegfried had to happen and he is the vehicle for her realizing what she has to do. 

Yes, Götterdämmerung doesn’t abruptly end when Siegfried dies; we have to see her through her journey.

Brünnhilde says it herself: “I had to betray the person I loved the most to realize what I had to do.” The thing is, the Ring is cursed, everyone who touches it has to pay a price, even if you didn’t take it voluntarily; Brünnhilde took it out of love, Siegfried didn’t have a clue what it was about, Wotan did sacrifice something but not his life. The curse is ever-transferring, and essentially Brünnhilde says to Wotan, “I know what you did: you gave me the curse. So I will follow this through now; I will do what you should have done, and so goodbye, father! Valhalla is going to burn as it should have done already. You asked me to finish this and I will finish this” – and she does.

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

You have a history with Brünnhilde, and with Turandot, though her self-realization at the close is far less clear. 

Oh, she doesn’t change! She is psychotic as far as I’m concerned! I don’t know what’s happened in her past to make her like she is, but I’ve done the Lydia Steier production – I’m going back this year to do it again – for me it’s fantastic, one of the best. We developed it together. When we did it, Lydia had this great idea that it’s all set like Big Brother if you like: they’re on an island, they don’t have a lot of money but have found a way of making money by advertising that someone can marry this Princess if they can solve three riddles, then it’s the sidekick who comes on and does all the organizing, and then on comes Calaf.

Now, every Calaf always wants you to believe he’s a nice guy; he is not a nice guy, otherwise he would not stand there and let Liu get tortured. He’d say his name and then, “Please, don’t torture her, don’t cut her hands off!” But because he’s also the son of a king, he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, and this is what Turandot sees in his eyes, this “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me” attitude, which really unsettles her. You have the Third Act which I don’t think is about love or anything about that; it’s all about power, and I think he has had such a rush, if you like, that he’s won that he plays with fire again, but he doesn’t come to Liu’s rescue. This is what I like about Lydia’s production – there is no sympathy, this character doesn’t know how to give that. She doesn’t really change; it’s a question of whether she’ll carry on or not.

You’ve been in some contemporary productions, including a staging of The Ring by Frank Castorf at Bayreuth. What’s it like to be part of Regie presentations?

The thing I always ask is, does it tell a story? Or do you have to have a book of notes to tell you why you’re doing certain things? There was a lot of controversy over the Castorf ring and I was asked why the public didn’t like it; I said that’s not for me as a singer to answer, the direction is personal taste. My husband came every year for six years and he saw the Castorf staging, and it grew on him, he said because there was so much on the stage you had to pick one thing you looked at and just watch it. I also met a lot of young people, in their late teens to early 20s, who absolutely adored Castorf and they said something very interesting: he makes you discuss it, and whether you love it or hate it, he makes you discuss it, so therefore, he’s won. It’s relevant whether you like or dislike it; you need to think about it. and I thought, that’s an interesting point of view. 

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

So the contemplation is what matters, not the knee-jerk reactivity… 

Yes, that’s what matters; he makes you think. It doesn’t matter that he made the gold oil – what is it that people want today? It’s oil, so he made the gold oil, but you know, if you can stay true to the music and the character then you can take The Ring and put it anywhere in the world, at any time, in any period. You can make it a family saga, a country saga, a world saga; it’s basically love, hate, money, power, it’s who is in charge. Castorf had a lot of symbols in his (production), which came from growing up in the DDR. People not from the DDR didn’t get, but anybody I invited to come along who’d grown up in that said, “Oh my God, that is so clever!”

Applying your car metaphor to conductors, I would think some maestros provide different styles of roads and gear shifts and signposts; sometimes you know the route but others want you to use a whole new highway. 

Yes, you start again! I’ve experienced The Ring on the whole with about 32 conductors, and they fall into two categories: either they’re extraordinary experienced, or it’s a first time, so there’s a desire to always try to find something different. The experienced know how to let an experienced Wagner singer go. I’ve just been to Budapest last summer with Ádám Fischer and he came off stage and said, “You know, the more I leave you alone, the better you get!” He didn’t try to make me do anything and said he was really inspired after this last Ring. Working with certain singers gives (conductors) different colours. But why does opera still draw people today after centuries of singing and hearing the same roles? The only thing that changes is the people who sing and perform it. (Live performance) has to have something magical, otherwise, if you wanted it exact, go buy a CD, but where’s the magic in that? Every time I’ve ever done a Ring cycle, you have the stage, the singers, and the public, and they come with you, and by the time you finish Götterdämmerung you’ve done a huge journey together of sixteen hours.

How does that translate into new roles? You had your role debut as Die Färberin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Mannheim, for instance. Do you have an idea where you want to go with new parts, or is it more of a journey?

Part of my studying and getting to know (Die Färberin) and finding her was having two years to learn the opera. If you do Fest you don’t get two years, you get six months, if you’re lucky, to learn a role. The fact is, I had two years to really investigate (Frau) and do some research. I hadn’t realized it was essentially Strauss’s Zauberflöte, which was a gift with the way the direction was going; the only person I could connect to was Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances, which was fabulous – you know, the table had  to be set down exactly right, and she catches herself, and tries to be this lady with the hair and everything. Especially in the second act all I could think was, “Mrs. Bucket!!” I’ve been asked to do another production this autumn, so I’m very happy to be able to do it again so quickly. I’ve got to check if it’s cut or uncut.

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

What are your feelings going back to sing in England for Elektra? Is there any sense of lingering resentment that you had to leave?

No, the complete opposite – if I hadn’t have left, I wouldn’t be where I am now and certainly wouldn’t be  speaking German. Things happen for a reason. To me it’s a resolution; I’m coming full circle. I was looking to get on the stage, I wanted to sing, I didn’t even know that Germany existed when I first finished college, it was my singing teacher who said, “Oh, I’ve a pupil who’s just gone to do a Fest contact” and I said, “What’s that?!” and she told me Germany has opera houses in every city – I had assumed it was like Britain.

In 1999 when, literally, I was too tall, too blonde, too this too that, and everybody else was getting work, I thought, “My God, I can’t keep going like this.” I wrote 200 letters, I printed 200 CDs, and I sent them out; I got three auditions, and I got one job offer, and that’s all I needed. You just need one, and that’s what I got, which was in Weimar. I started here in May 2001, and by autumn 2006 I was studying Brünnhilde, literally, and truly, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do it. It’s all in how you look at things — what’s the point of resentment? I’m having a very good career. One could argue I have this good career because I didn’t get the work in England, I know several singers who never got the courage to leave the UK because they have just enough work to not actually push them that extra distance away. Sometimes having something taken away or being denied the possibility to do something spurs you into another place – sometimes it makes another door open.

Lyubov Petrova: “I’m Always Learning Something”

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Photo courtesy IMG Artists

Lyubov Petrova is an artist impossible to put in a box; as you’ll read, that’s just the way she likes it. An immensely gifted soprano with a knack for infusing her singing with a keen sense of storytelling, Petrova has an immensely varied opera history, from a smart, note-perfect Adele in Stephen Lawless’s 2003 production of Die Fledermaus at the Glyndebourne Festival to a raging Queen Of The Night in Kenneth Branagh’s fascinatingly recontextualized cinematic adaptation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote (2006). She’s also ace at epic concert repertoire (including Rachmaninoff’s choral symphony The Bells and Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), as well as more intimate work, a talent she poetically showcases on her 2017 album of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff songs.

A winner of the 1998 International Rimsky-Korsakov Competition and 1999 International Elena Obraztsova Competition, Petrova trained at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow before joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Programme, and has enjoyed numerous Met appearances, including as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (her Met debut), Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Norina in Don Pasquale, Sophie in Werther, Nannetta in Falstaff, and Woglinde in Das Rheingold, to name a brief few. The New York-based soprano has performed with numerous other North American outlets too, including Dallas Opera, LA Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, and has performed at various festivals worldwide, including ones Glimmerglass, Glyndebourne, and Spoleto, at the Bellini Festival in Catania, the Pergolesi Festival in Jesi, Italy, and the BBC Proms.

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Photo: Ronnie Nelson

Petrova has appeared with numerous prominent international houses including Opéra National de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Dutch National Opera, New Israeli Opera, Korean National Opera, the Bolshoi, the Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow, and the Teatro Colón (Argentina). She’s also done a range of symphonic and concert work (music of Bach, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Bizet, to name a few) with an assortment of orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Orchester Pressburger Philharmoniker, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, and the Russian National Orchestra. One look at such a varied history reveals an impressive and entirely consistent development into vocally heavier repertoire, while still keeping a firm foot in Petrova’s place of origin (figuratively and literally) – a tuneful and fleet-footed spot with an ever-present edge of laser-like authority.

Petrova first caught my attention through her remarkable, gleaming, in-concert performance in Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic at the Concertgebouw in 2016, where she brought a thoughtful lyricism to Prokofiev’s angular, driving score, making the fraught nature of the work  – and its deceptively simple characters – warmly, recognizably human. During the opera’s composition, the opera’s would be producer, Russian theatre artist  Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested and later murdered as part of the Great Purge; at the time of its 1940 premiere its perceived importance was strongly connected to a “Soviet opera” aesthetic (despite the frisson between its obvious melodramatic and moralistic scheme of social realism), a perception strengthened for its being based on Valentin Kataev’s 1937 novel, I, Son Of The Working People. The complicated nature of the work, combined with its even more complicated (and tragic) composition history (involving the sudden disappearance of Meyerhold as well as a political pact that necessitated changing the bad guys from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists), plus its (predictably) myopic reception (celebrating its ideology while ignoring the music) meant the opera wasn’t performed anywhere between 1941 and 1958, and only entered the repertory of the Bolshoi in 1970; Prokofiev would later compose an orchestral suite based on the opera. It is notable when singers can integrate this sort of charged history into the very seams of sound, so that performances become much greater than the sum of their individual parts; such visceral interpretative artistry is what Petrova – and indeed the entire cast – did with such affecting results in Amsterdam in late 2016.

Petrova’s vocal warmth is something of a signature. Her tonally shimmering, golden-hued turn as Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold was truly memorable, part of an in-concert presentation in early 2018 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Michelle de Young, Matthias Goerne, Matthew Rose, and Brindley Sherratt, under the baton of conductor Vladimir Jurowski; she performed the role again the role later that same year with the Odense Symfoniorkester (Denmark) with conductor Alexander Vedernikov. 2018 also saw Petrova sing the role of Marfa in Bard Music Festival‘s presentation of The Tsar’s Bride and perform works from Shostakovich’s 1948 song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry as part of Music@Menlo. 2019 opened with the music of Mozart, with Petrova taking on Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro with Florida Grand Opera. Freia returned with an October 2019 in-concert presentation of Das Rheingold in Moscow, again with Jurowski but this time with the State Academic Orchestra of Russia Evgeny Svetlanov.

Petrova’s 2017 album Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff: Songs (Nimbus Records), recorded with pianist Vladimir Feltsman, showcases this vocal excellence, and nicely displays another side of the multi-faceted artist, a silken, soft suppleness that delights the ear. Her caressing of the text, careful phrasing, and thoughtful tonal intonations betray a deeply sensitive artistic sensibility able to quickly adjust itself according to both the tangible and intangible elements of music-making. In 2017 music writer Ken Herman noted of Petrova, in relation to her performance at that year’s edition of the La Jolla Music Society Summerfest, that “(w)hether she sings of love, death, sorrow, […] she never merely sings about these states—she incarnates them and forces her listeners to confront them.” It’s an observation that feels very apt to not only the works on her album, but her artistic approach overall, one that combines a deep musicality and love of text with a natural affinity for theatre and drama. Listening to Petrova isn’t a mere exercise in passive hearing but an active experience of the visceral power of her art, and her skill in expressing it with such a vivid force of conviction. Indeed, David Patrick Stearns’ observation in Gramophone that “when she sings of ‘magic stillness’ in ‘A Dream’, you hear it in her voice” applies far past the final album track to which he alludes.

Petrova is currently preparing for her premiere performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, happening at Moscow’s Zardadye Concert Hall on February 22, with Tchaikovsky’s own “Ode To Joy” Cantata also on the bill. Vladimir Fedoseyev conducts the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra together with the Prague Philharmonic Choir and chorus master Lukáš Vasilek, together with fellow soloists Daria Khozieva (mezzo-soprano) Vladimir Dmitruk (tenor) and Nikolay Didenko (bass). A more intimate appearance takes place at Zaryadye (in the small hall) on March 6, when Petrova will be giving a recital with pianist Rem Urasin. Together, the appearances encapsulate Petrova’s refusal to be easily classified or boxed in by sounds or experiences. We spoke recently when the soprano was recently back in Russia and busily preparing for her upcoming Zaryadye performances.

How did you choose the songs on your album?

I went through the whole of two Tchaikovsky volumes of song, and one big book of Rachmaninoff songs. I went through all of them, and chose what I liked, basically. Vladimir (Feltsman) also had ideas of what he wanted or not to do but mainly he left it all  to me, and it was very special. Most of the songs I’ve never sung before, so it was very risky, I have to to say. We have a funny saying in Russian; we say, “the first blin” – blin is like a Russian pancake – “always goes badly” – but I don’t think it’s the case here, so I’m happy!

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Photo: Vladimir Feltsman / Nimbus Records

I feel like your interpretations offer understanding on a deeper level that goes past language.

It’s like souls talking – mine, Vladimir’s and every person who listens. And it’s very universal. That’s the key to music: it communicates beyond words, heart to heart.

So are some of these going to be part of your recital in March at Zaryadye Hall?

Yes, most definitely, and with another phenomenal pianist, Rem Urasin.

Many singers I’ve spoken with emphasize the importance of doing recitals. What does that experience give you creatively?

It’s very true; recitals give a completely different connection with music, and a different connection with the audience, actually. The songs are rather short so you have to create a whole world in two to seven minutes, and it has to be the story, the complete story, so one recital in two sections gives us ten to twelve different worlds in each half, twenty to twenty-four songs all together – so basically I create twenty-four different worlds in one evening. And then I also love how it’s me, and the pianist, who is part of me – we are together; I always try to become one person with the pianist, and the audience. On stage we are very exposed, much more than in opera where we have costumes and sets and a director; it’s a completely different interaction. In recitals, I’m basically just sharing who I am and what I’ve learned; it’s much more intimate and in a way we are completely naked.

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Photo: Nimbus Records

When you emerge on the other side, what things do you take back into the world of opera?

Absolutely I come out different. I know myself much better through this experience, as a musician and a person; I can create more defined characters and go, on a much, much deep level, into the characters I play onstage. I love drama, and I love theatre, and I love opera. I’m a singing actress, no questions asked – but I started to feel suffocated without doing recitals, without those little songs. I missed not sharing that side of me with people, and not having that experience. So I’m happy I am able to sing more songs nowadays.

And you’re doing your first performance of Beethoven’s 9th soon. His vocal writing is known for being difficult; what’s your experience as someone new to singing his music?

You know, as short as (the vocal part in Symphony No. 9) is – compared to any opera it’s very short – I have to agree, it’s difficult and rather demanding, and from a soprano point of view, it’s very high; he keeps the vocal line up there and we have to soar above the orchestra, and yet keep it graceful and also be “full of joy! full of joy!” but I’m very excited and am working hard on it. But of course I don’t want anybody to hear “Oh, she’s working hard!” when I perform it!

Sir Antonio Pappano recently said that Beethoven’s writing for voice is entirely analogous to his instrumental writing, minus the consideration that people actually have to breathe.

Yes, I know what he means. Basically you use everything you’ve ever gathered as an artist, and try to enjoy it and pray it comes out well! There are some brilliant moments – it’s phenomenal music.

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With Matthew Rose (L) and Brindley Sherratt (R) in the 2018 London Philharmonic Orchestra presentation of Das Rheingold. Photo: Simon Jay Price

You’ve done Wagner too, which is also demanding vocally, though in an entirely different way.

I’m starting to do Wagner, and I have to say … it’s, well, Wagner is a genius but only when I started singing his music did I really embrace it, and now I’m feeling , like, “Wow, what a phenomenal experience for any musician to sing his music!” There’s a lot to discover in his work, it’s true – but I was surprised. I surprised myself at how much I love it.

It’s not music that is commonly done in Russia either.

Not that much, only in St. Petersburg – it’s done almost exclusively there. A few pieces are performed here and there, outside, but not really. I have to say it’s a whole universe, and I’m excited about becoming a part of it.

There’s no end of learning when it comes to Wagner’s work.

That goes with my whole philosophy about singing and stage and my profession: I never stop learning. Since I started singing, it’s always, to my mind, been a process; I’m always learning something and trying to make my instrument better, and finding new ways and colours. It’s non-stop. Wagner fits in perfectly in with how I see myself as a singer and my job.

You’re featured on The Compassion Project (Innova, 2018) as well – your work on the album features some new sounds for you, writing which I think suits you well vocally. What does performing contemporary work give you artistically?

I am searching for the not-well-known stuff, for things forgotten or for things fallen out of the limelight. I think it’s exciting for us as musicians to find those gems and open them and bring them to people. On our album with Feltsman there’s also some pieces of Tchaikovsky, ones few ever knew of – and it’s Tchaikovsky, of all people! It’s the same with contemporary music, but you see, it’s, how can I say, it’s challenging most of the time for singers if they don’t have a musical background, because you need to have a very attuned ear. You have to hear, really well, the intervals and all of the changes in harmony (within the composition) – it’s just a skill. As long as a young singer is willing to learn and challenge him or herself, they’ll find it exciting and fascinating, but if they are not secure enough, then of course it’s easier to stay with Mozart, because it’s universally harmonic and easy and something they’ll hear again and again.

and it’s something audiences will have heard a lot as well. There’s something to be said for classical artists purposely – and purposefully – doing things outside the mainstream, on mainstream stages.

Yes, and I have say unfortunately it’s not that easy, because some people who organize concerts and programming at concert halls – not all but some – are afraid of new pieces, even if it’s not contemporary music. Recently I did a beautiful cycle by Bartók; it’s not contemporary – I mean, it isn’t Mozart but it’s not contemporary – but it’s glorious music, and I had to push for it. I had to use my name and all that, to just say, “Hey , don’t ignore this just because people haven’t heard it!” And later (audience members) came up and said, “That was phenomenal – thank you for introducing that to me!” People who organize for venues are scared, I guess because there are problems with financing – maybe difficulties related to the financial end of things – but hopefully again, if we keep doing what we love and what we feel is important, then we will push through these tough times.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation.

Yes.

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As Contessa Almaviva in the _ production of Le nozze di Figaro at Florida Grand Opera. Photo: Chris Kakol

Classical organizations in North America are facing similar issues, if in a more concentrated way. For instance, if Stravinsky is programmed, it’s always The Rite Of Spring, which is considered daring; it’s never lesser-known works that are just as interesting, if not more so. Organizations are scared tickets won’t move, but if you never program it, people won’t know, and they won’t have a chance to decide for themselves.

Thank you very much, yes!! But also for a musician it takes time and experience to have grown into that. For me, I feel now I have something special and unique to say in those new pieces, I feel I’ve grown in music and into the music and have learned enough in order to do it.  So I can offer my vision and feel of it, and I hope people will love it, because it’s something new, something very personal and human. But again, it is constant work, and it all depends on if we’re willing to work and make ourselves better, and if we’re willing to push other things, and make concerted, constant pushes toward… what’s the word…

Evolution?

That’s a good one, yes. Never stopping. Trying new things will always teach you something!

Evolution is two-pronged; it’s work, as you said to do this – evolving is work– but it’s also allowing yourself to evolve, which means being open to all sorts of things, including discomfort, which takes courage to face. How much did your time with mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova helped to cultivate that quality?

She has always been one of those people I look up to, and the fact that I had a chance to meet her personally and a chance to share the stage with her… it’s huge! Also the trust she put in me and, you know, she was such a generous and kind person, and the things she told me when I was still young gave me so much confidence, you know what I mean? She believed in me so much, and that belief gave me wings, like, “Go baby, fly! Enjoy the singing and share with the people your gift!” Such an amazing woman and amazing artist she was, and I feel very fortunate and very blessed she was in my life, she IS in my life. I have, as we say, a ticket and a blessing from her for this career, and for this world of singing.

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At the Opera Ball at the Bolshoi in November 2019. The concert was in memory of mezzo-soprano Elena Obratzsova. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Live News

How much did she help to instil your sense of exploration?

It’s just how she was herself; Elena was never afraid to take a risk. For example, at some point she went into theatre; she was doing a lot of things with various organizations – recitals and working with contemporary composers, and being onstage doing big opera things and going to recital halls and doing small pieces – and when she was older she went into theatre, and people said “Are you crazy? What are you doing?!” And she was brilliant! But the main thing is she enjoyed it, and that was one of the biggest inspirations. (Obratzsova was artistic director of the Opera Company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre from 2007-2008, and appeared as The Countess in their production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen Of Spades in 2011, the same year she created a charitable foundation to promote music education; she passed away in 2015.)

There are so many languages an artist can speak in terms of different ways and different approaches, and (Obratzsova) showed all of us there is never one way, that we don’t have to lock ourselves in one box: “I’m doing opera” or “I’m a recitalist” or whatever. She was free herself, and she inspired us in that way, those who were her students or the winners of her competition. She never put any chains on anybody; she never put anyone in a box. And that was a very big inspiration, no question.

That’s how it seems with you, that you’re not in a box of doing one style or sound, which reflects your life between the United States and Russia.

I feel like it’s a blessing and a gift; every way is different. Everybody has a right to choose the way they’re living and approach careers, and I love it. It’s very challenging, that’s true, but I do love it and I am trying to enjoy every minute of it. When I sing Wagner that doesn’t mean I don’t love singing Handel, or that I can’t; if I sing Handel that doesn’t mean I can’t sing my heart out in other modern pieces, or do the most intimate, almost whispering things in a recital. I love it all.

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

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Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

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L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

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Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

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Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

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