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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
… 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…
… 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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 atWigmorethisseason, 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.
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.
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.
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 Holländerand 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 individualtalentsandvoices. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Turandot, Tristan 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
Yes, most definitely, and with another phenomenal pianist, Rem Urasin.
Manysingers I’ve spokenwith 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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas in all, though many were unpublished during the composer’s lifetime. As well as utilizing unique modulations and dischords, some of the sonatas were clearly influenced by Iberian folk music. Along with the sontas, Scarlatti composed operas, cantatas, and liturgical pieces, and counted fans among composers (Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but also Shostakovich, Messiaen, and Poulenc) as well as pianists (Horowitz, Gilels, and Schiff). The late American harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all of the sonatas (across 34 CDs for Erato/Radio France) in 1988.
French pianist Debargue acknowledges Ross in the liner notes to Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas (Sony Classical), and also notes Ross’s influence on his own playing, but in releasing the work (in October 2019), Debargue must’ve known the challenges he would face. As Music Web International’s Richard Masters notes, “every piano-fancier has their champion of choice” for the sonatas.” Playing against preset favorites is always a risk, as any classical artist well knows, and yet Debargue is an artist who embraces such risk, and always has. The album is a continuation of a risk-taking drive that has been present ever since he burst onto the classical scene in 2015, his playing a deep and discernibly personal expression of an ever-evolving authenticity, to craft and to self.
His entrance into the classical music world is not the story you might expect, but it’s one that has directly influenced his approach. With no family or background in the industry, Debargue only took his first piano lessons at the age of eleven. As he told the Seattle Times in 2016,
I met a very nice pedagogue who was not trying to put me in a box and tell me what to do with a piano. She let me go my way. I was quite undisciplined and could not bear practice. For me it was absurd and I just wanted to play what I wanted to play.
Piano playing ceased in his teens, and Debargue instead went on to play in a rock band and work in a grocery store. He studied art and literature before returning to the piano at the age of twenty, attending the École Normale de Musique de Paris “Alfred Cortot”, a top French conservatory, and studying with famed Russian pianist and professor Rena Shereshevskaya, which he still does. Shereshevskaya’s opinion is one he very much defers to for her being “an authentic listener.”
In 2015 Debargue placed a controversial fourth place at the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition; many felt he deserved a higher placement, and that snobbery (related to his background, which included being self-taught) prevented his being awarded top honors. In any case, it hardly mattered; Debargue was invited by Competition Chairman Valery Gergiev to perform in the winner’s gala – in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin, no less. The French pianist has since attained much success, with non-stop rounds of touring, recording, and yet more awards, including an Echo Klassik (Germany’s major classical music award) in 2017. He’s played an assortment of great halls (including Wigmore, Carnegie, the Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie Berlin, Theatre des Champs Elysées, Munich’s Prinzregententheater, the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, and the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall) and has worked with top artists including conductors (including Andrey Boreyko, Mikhail Pletnev, Yutaka Sado, and Tugan Sokhiev) and musicians (Gidon Kremer, Martin Fröst, and Janine Jansen). His discography includes recordings of the work of piano greats, including Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Bach, Beethoven, and Medtner; he recorded a stunning album of the music of Schubert and Szymanowski in 2017. His most recent recording, of the carefully-selected Scarlatti sonatas, offers a very unconventional if highly inspiring listening experience, one which finds intellectual, emotional, and spiritual coherence through its various pedal-less ascents to grand harmonic vistas and gentle descents into valleys of varied tonal melody. Debargue’s rubato-infused playing is hypnotizing, heartfelt, intelligent, and intuitive.
I’ve written in the past about how certain pianists inspire my desire to return to the keyboard myself, and this disc is perhaps the most supreme encapsulation to date of that urge; Debargue’s gorgeously delicate if quietly confident Sonata in A Minor K. 109 (the 13th track on the first disc), for instance, is devastating in awful, awesome beauty, a whispering grandeur rustling through his delicious phrasing and touch. More than once I’ve hissed a happy “yassssss” listening to this, and to other tracks on this grand, sometimes overwhelming album. Richard Masters rightly notes in his review that this is not an album to be experienced all at once, but rather, savoured, “like a box of expensive chocolates,” with each of the three discs making up the album existing as their own sort of recital – its own little species of plant, which is possibly an appropriate reaction, as my conversation with Debargue revealed.
It wasn’t a surprise to learn that NPR rated Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas as one of their top classical picks in terms of albums that might best usher in a new decade, with writer Tom Huizenga noting Debargue’s “great self-assurance” and his ability to find “clarity, texture, and color” in order to coax “the mercurial personality in each of these miniatures, whether it’s the spirit of flamenco strumming, a tender aria or a boisterous march.” Currently on a tour that takes him to Toronto (on January 16th), Montreal January 19th) and New York (January 22nd in Brooklyn and January 31st at Carnegie Hall), Debargue and I chatted in the midst of a bustling festive season, in December 2019.
Photo: Xiomara Bender
You have said in the past you feel Scarlatti’s music is very psychological – what did you mean?
It’s because he plays with our consciousness. Music is language, and it’s playing with the connections you can make, not only between elements but surprising you, or confirming something you were expecting. He plays with the mind.
Fragments of the scores indicate Scarlatti didn’t write them himself…
Yes, the thing is that we only have so much information about Scarlatti, it’s hard to figure out how he managed to write those pieces, the copies are not in his hand, so someone copied this. We don’t have the draft from his hand directly, so it’s hard to figure out how it was originally made.
… but there’s a suggestion others copied down his improvisations. To me that echoes how your album sounds: very natural, very improvised.
It’s is one of my biggest interests – and this is part of the point of my approach also, an important part of my approach. Improvisation is probably the highest side of musical practice, and every piece I play I try to aim for improvisation – it has to sound that way. You can really be driven by the playing, because so often (these works) sound not like improvisation, and if you play them this way, you lose the energy of the music. And the energy of the music gives the presence, and the presence is expressed through the improvisation; it all goes together, especially for Scarlatti.
It’s not the same thing when there’s an orchestra; it’s less possible to improvise. The first thing is that it has to be very clear; for this reason you cannot really be free in time. For the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, I allowed myself to be free when I played alone – so during the Adagio, playing alone I just did what I wanted. But when it was with the orchestra, and you don’t play with this orchestra very often – I played only once before with the Orchestre National Du Capitole de Toulouse – this makes it more… for me the priority is to be attentive to the elements, to find some common points. It’s better to be more simple at the start.
If you collaborate again and again with an orchestra there are natural things that appear and it can be more flexible, but it requires time, and a lot of listeners and music lovers are not concerned about the time to takes. Even speaking about recital programs, a lot of people ask me, “What will you play in your next concert?” They don’t realize that a recital program takes at least one year to prepare. It’s not a question of being slow at memorizing – I’m fast at that, I can learn big pieces in one day or one week, but this doesn’t matter, there is nothing to admire here – what is important is the time it takes to actually raise it, as if you were growing vegetables or flowers. It takes time to make an interpretation exist, because it’s not only memorizing a score and playing the notes, it has to be like a living being, and the cultivation of a living being takes time.
Photo still: Bel Air Media
The recital you’re doing at Koerner Hall features the music of Scarlatti as well as that of Medtner and Liszt; what was the thinking to feature these three composers on the same bill?
It’s not so easy to explain, but there is a connection. It’s very personal. I would not try to put a bridge between these pieces and explain intellectually why, but within these works there is a kind of energy in terms of how they’re crafted. Scarlatti and Liszt have a lot in common in terms of the ability to transcend the techniques of the keyboard in order to express their musicality – Scarlatti with harpsichord and Liszt with piano, but it’s the same thing, to use all possibilities of the instrument to go beyond, spiritually. And you will hear, between the Liszt and Medtner pieces, that there are lots of connections, speaking about the form, the theme… I think the two pieces go well together, like some kind of Faustian inspiration, these romantic, Gothic, cosmic dreams I would say, fantasies. They go very well together and are good with the Scarlatti. With recital programs I like to use the possibility of having two parts, so there is a big contrast between the first part and the second part; then the people can have the sensation having attended two concerts instead of one concert.
You’re also forcing audiences to listen.
For me, yes, because I don’t think the audience is stupid, I think the audience has the ability to listen, to be moved and participate in what is happening, so I play as if my audience will not be passive but active, and participating with me.
This idea of transcendence is interesting in terms of your background, which is not musical.
My little brother is a musician but there are none before – parents, grandparents, no one was involved in music.
Photo: Felix Broede / Sony Music Entertainment
So you transcended your own background being a classical pianist.
Yes, but I take things simply. For a lot of people it’s special to be a musician, but for me it’s normal. I try to live with it as if it was just my job and my vocation – I take it seriously, and I do it with all my heart, but it’s not this prestigious, elite thing that people should admire. For me it can stay very simple. I see myself… I don’t have the desire to transcend normal life with what I do, but for speaking this language, and for sharing this kind of spirit with others.
What do you think that desire has given you? Especially since you don’t hail from a background where you had parents involved and conservatory training from a very young age?
Of course everyone has a mental picture of child prodigies but most of the big masters of the piano, if we talk about the piano and masters like Gilels and Rachmaninoff, they were not child prodigies not at all, they took their time, and they were doing other things and had other interests. What I see nowadays with children is that they are just obeying teachers and parents, and I’m not interested in this way of practising and this vision of music. For me I cannot be inspired by such musicians, they cannot have something to say; they are living like in a jail. And it’s very important for an artist to get inspired by a lot of things, to have other outside interests – to see movies, to read books – to manage to have a human life. So many musicians allow themselves to have a special life because of being in music, but I don’t think being a musician is special, and I don’t think one can allow one’s self to live with a special regime just because he or she is a musician. You are a human first; then you may be a musician. But it can never replace being a human first.
There’s a tendency for many in this industry to ensconce themselves within the classical-world bubble, which seems obvious but also bad for art.
Of course it’s bad for art – but it’s the same for all the other fields. We live in an era of specialization; everyone is a specialist in his or her own field. And that’s a problem because then people don’t really know what others are doing outside of their own channel. We all should manage at least to have the real life of a man or a woman, and not be overwhelmed by the job, or by the need for an audience, or for fame, or money. Those things take so much of the space of the spirit … and it’s crazy, actually.
It kills the spirit of taking risks also, a spirit which is discernible on your recordings.
I do it because I have no choice – it’s my only way, the only one I can consider sincere and honest, and where I am doing my best. That’s why I follow this path – otherwise I’d do something else. To not be true to one’s self in the field of arts… for me it is like a betrayal, really, because where you have such a gift of being able to understand a language like music, you don’t have the right to betray this, or to put yourself or your ego ahead of that. No! You need to cultivate humility. I wonder what one can communicate if he’s not putting his ego aside and thinking about being humble and having music be a tool to being more open and human.
Photo still: Bel Air Media
Few things make an artist more humble than doing recitals.
Yes, the recital is special — the solo recital is so special! There is something psychologically that is a bit insane, though; there are one thousand people attending the show, it’s a one-man or one-woman show, you are there for two hours, and you are the master of the time and the silence. It’s crazy if you think about it – it’s like a dictatorship, in a way! The people pay for being submissive to the atmosphere of one man or one woman for two hours; there is something not normal there, and it’s very important for me to feel it’s not normal. Before every recital I have these strong thoughts in mind: “What am I doing here? It’s not normal at all! This is insane! It’s crap!” And then the whole energy is to transform this crap situation into something nice, in which people are involved in a creative process, an expressive process. The aim is to feel better, for me and the people. And that’s a spiritual process.
Years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with Gerald Finley for the first time. It was a conversation about three major role debuts he was making within the space of a year, ones which included the lead in Aribert Reimann’s King Lear at the 2017 edition of the Salzburg Festival (a process he characterized at the time as “emotionally wringing”). The interview marked the first cover story of my writing career, and the first of many subsequent conversations, on and off the record, about various aspects of theatre, music, performance style, and of course, singing.
Starting out as a chorister in Ottawa, the bass baritone went on to study at the Royal College of Music before being accepted into the prestigious UK-based National Opera Studio. Finley’s career marked by a talent for blending sharp music insights, studious vocal practise, and instinctual theatricality. With every role (be they in the operas of Mozart and Puccini or those of Adams and Turnage) Finley’s multi-hued artistry expands, his voracious creative curiosity reaching new and fascinating corners. Noted for his portrayal of Don Giovanni, Finley has performed the role in New York, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna, Prague, Tel Aviv, Budapest, and at the Glyndebourne Festival, opposite Luca Pisaroni as Leporello.
Gerald Finley as Iago (opposite Jonas Kaufmann) in the Bayerische Staatsoper production of Otello, 2018. Photo: W. Hösl
Finley has performed in many prestigious houses, with Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin, Wiener Staatsoper, and the famed Salzburg Festival among them. The focus on German-speaking organizations is particularly noteworthy in light of our most recent conversation; as you’ll read, Finley wasn’t always so confident in such locales, vocally or otherwise, and it took him what he admits was a long time to mature vocally. As he toldBachtrack‘s Mark Pullinger in November 2019,
At one point I had Mozart, Handel and Britten on my CV – there was nothing in between, nothing lyrical, nothing Italianate – and that’s a real struggle when you’re trying to audition. I set myself some hard targets, like Hans Sachs, and I had to learn how to release the sound. Hopefully things are maturing and I’m getting better and keeping the voice fresh.
That freshness has revealed itself in some wonderfully memorable performances over the years. He did, in fact, get to Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (more than once), as well as Amfortas in Parsifal; other noted roles include the villainous Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, the tormented Athanaël in Massenet’s Thaïs and the very black Bluebeard in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Finley is also an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary composers, singing in several world premieres, including Tobias Picker’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in 1998, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie in 2000, and the song cycle True Fire by Kaija Saariaho (who dedicated the work to him), under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel in 2015.
Finley made a comically memorable turn as Verdi’s Falstaff (complete with a costume that made him seem four times his size) with the Canadian Opera Company in 2014, and a scarily sociopathic Iago in Othello (opposite tenor Russell Thomas) as part of the COC’s 2018-2019 season. The Royal Opera House Covent Garden recently marked his 30th anniversary with the company,which coincided with his performance in the ROH production of Brittten’s Death in Venice; classical writer Alexandra Coghlan praised Finley’s “sketching character after character in deft musical lines.” Along with working with celebrated conductors (including Mariss Jansons, Sir Antonio Pappano, Kiril Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle, Colin Davis, Vladimir Jurowski, Fabio Luisi, Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Bicket, and Bernard Haitink), Finley was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2014; three years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to opera.
Gerald Finley as Sir John Falstaff in the Canadian Opera Company production of Falstaff, 2014. Photo: Michael Cooper
As a personal aside, I have distinct and fond memories of Finley’s performance as the lead in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell; I was fortunate to see him perform it live at the Metropolitan Opera in a production from their 2016-2017 season. Finley’s robust Tell was a perfect echo of the character’s aching struggles (inner and outer), a seamless combination of great musicality, finely-crafted vocality, and a very keen, highly watchable theatricality; his was a deeply visceral portrayal, one that underlined the very real historical stakes while revelling in Rossini’s deceptively simple score. Finley is set to reprise the role this May at Bayerische Staatsoper, but before then, he can be seen on the stage of The Met (as Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Così fan tutte), as well as in Montreal and at Carnegie and Wigmore halls, where he’ll be performing a range of beloved lieder.
Portrait of Franz Schubert by Josef Kriehuber, 1846.
Finley’s distinct gift for German art song is beautifully expressed on a recording for Hyperion Records he and pianist Julius Drake made of Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, released in autumn 2019. The pair previously recorded Schubert’s famed Winterreise cycle (2014), songs by Samuel Barber (2007) and Maurice Ravel (2008), and did a live concert recording at Wigmore Hall (2008). Schwanengesang (or “swan song”) is a song cycle written by Franz Schubert written at the end of his life in 1828. I’ve written about Schubert’s love of the writings of Goethe, but in this particular cycle, Schubert used the poetry of three writers, Heinrich Heine, Ludwig Rellstab, and Johann Gabriel Seidl; his publisher, Tobias Haslinger, was the one who cannily named the song cycle thusly, following the composer’s premature death in November 1828. The works deal with themes of hope, love, longing, disillusion, and disenchantment, their sounds gracefully moving between sombre, sensual, and stark. Brahms wrote his Vier ernste Gesänge (“Four Serious Songs”) in 1896, using portions of text from the Lutheran Bible. Writer Richard Wigmore observes in the album’s liner notes that the songs were “(d)esigned to comfort the living, and indeed Brahms himself” – the composer’s longtime confidante (some might say more) Clara Schumann had suffered a stroke earlier that year, and he wrote them partly in full anticipation of her passing, though he was also feeling the first effects of the cancer that would take his life a year later. Wigmore characterizes the works as “profound, unsentimental testaments to (Brahms’s) sympathy for suffering, stoical humanity, his belief in the virtue of hard work, and the enduring power of love.”
Johannes Brahms, 1889.
Finley and Drake capture these themes with vivid clarity on the album. The opening track, “Liebesbotschaft” (or “message of love”), in which the speaker asks a little stream to send his message of love along to his beloved, sees Finley carefully modulating his chocolatey-bronze bass baritone, sensitively complementing, than contrasting, dense sonic textures amidst Julius Drake’s rippling, breath-like piano performance. On the famous “Ständchen” (“serenade”), a song in which the speakers asks his beloved to bring him happiness, Finley lovingly caresses every syllable so delicately so as to make the listener lean in, as if being told a very private secret. The meticulous attention paid to blending clarity and expression, particularly in the Brahms works, is miraculous; nothing sounds wooden and hard, but rather, silken, and fluid, with just the right amount of sensuality in phrasing and tone. Albums like this remind me why I love classical music, of its transcendent power to so often say what spoken language cannot. Finley’s deep dedication to the art of song is entrancing and he has a true and brilliant partner in the acclaimed Julius Drake. I had long wanted to discuss lieder with Finley, and the duo’s beautiful Schubert/Brahms album provided the perfect excuse to enjoy another lively conversation with a deeply dedicated and authentic artist.
Gerald Finley as the Gondolier in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
I read that you were afraid of Schubert for a long time – is that true?
Well, because he’s so simple. The thing about Schubert is that he is basically such a natural melodist and really gives the idea these songs have existed forever; I think to make them one’s own if you like, to have one’s own connection and one’s own version, and putting one’s own version into the world, takes a lot of confidence. The main thing about it is that I felt it would reveal all my technical insecurities and failings, and … I think it’s only really in the past decade really, that I’ve felt those sort of things have ironed themselves out. Put it this way; I always felt I could sing Schubert but I never felt competent enough to actually do it. I always shied away from the types of repertoire which would reveal my weaknesses rather than my strengths.
Now it seems as if, having had so much experience with the music of Schubert, his work has become a part of your artistic identity…
Very much, but it’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the culture of the language, and of the poetry, and the culture of the German history therein. Many young singers direct their early careers into German houses because that’s where obviously lots of work is, and they have the privilege of learning German and being in a German environment for the early parts of their careers, and for various reasons I didn’t do that – I actually rejected a place at the Hamburg State Opera when I was 26, because I knew I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t vocally prepared for that. So I kind of negated my opportunity to become immersed in the German environment and that entire musical world and experience. So my German became something I would learn on the way doing concerts, doing tours with orchestras; until my mid-30s I actually never appeared in a German opera house. It took a long time for me to become comfortable with the language. It did happen, eventually – I was invited to festivals in Austria and did Papageno in and around Germany, so that helped a lot to bolster my German confidence.
And you know, there have been a lot of really good German lieder singers, and to be part of the lieder fraternity is really something I longed for. I learned Wolf and Brahms and I did my best at Schumann for a while, and enjoyed it all very much, but Schubert being kind of the father of those, I realized it was going to take some time to get to the core, but it did happen, where I felt could really go to that altar for the father of lieder, and say, “Here’s my humble offering of what you have written!”
And of course Fischer-Dieskau was the main thing, my first recording was his Volume 1 of Schubert – so yes, it confronted me very much: what business did I have even attempting it?! I kind of got over it and realized, and still feel, Schubert has been my friend, he’s somebody I look to for inspiration. He demands I really think carefully about what it is to be an artist, because (the music) is so relatively clear on the page, and one this almost blank emotional canvas to treat the verse differently and to infuse the words in a way which will give meaning. There’s a feeling as soon as you record it, that the version you have in your head and heart at that moment… well, you will suddenly think, “Oh! But I could’ve done it this way!” So that’s why keeping performances scheduled in the diary is really wonderful, those versions will change and develop. And hopefully, going to other artists and seeing how they handle (the same material) – it’s really inspiring to develop. I don’t know whether painters go through the same thing, where they redo canvases all the time or decide they want to add various elements or develop a theme – but there we are, that’s why lieder is such a fountain of artistic joy now, and I feel that vocally I’ve been able to sort of finally mature into it.
Performing these pieces one has to be willing to enter into a specific place, or places, as you know, and being human, one’s not always in the mood or one’s tired, or there are other things going on – it’s not easy, but there are similar challenges in doing opera performances. What changes for you, going between your recital work and your opera work? How do you navigate those changes?
It’s a mindset, really. First and foremost, lieder is an intimate art form – it’s really thoughts which are, you know, nurtured out of a poet, and you get the feeling there’s a very personal relationship between the composer and the poetry they’re setting, that the way they’ve been inspired and reacted, or want to bring certain elements of a poem to the fore, takes quiet contemplation, it’s a very mindful thing. My very good friend and colleague (tenor) Mark Padmore says the difficulty of doing lieder recitals is that it was really meant to be sung amongst just a few people, and again, it’s really a very intimate art form, almost a private thing. What you’re asking audiences to do is give up elements of their busy lives and come into a space where they can become very quiet and very thoughtful, and think, not about what’s on the surface of their lives, but to delve a lot deeper, and a share a poetical journey, a psychological situation with a recitalist, in a way that is pretty demanding.
Mark Padmore as Aschenbach and Gerald Finley as the Elderly Fop in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
We do put demands on audiences, and it could be the cause of decline in audiences for lieder because it takes special listening skills and patience, and a certain acceptance that, okay, particularly for non-linguists, there are a couple pieces they may feel estranged from, but at least they’re there, listening to beautiful piano playing and hopefully good singing. So we’ll keep doing it, to keep people give them that opportunity to get involved with the best parts of their soul.
There’s something healthy about having that demanded of you as a listener. I want that to be demanded of me when I go to concerts, because otherwise I don’t feel I have a very satisfying experience.
Indeed! And to your question about the differences between lieder and opera for the performer, really, opera is such a collaborative event, you, the singer, are at the top of the iceberg as it were, you appear above, on the top 10th, or more like 2%, of a wealth of creativity and musicality and theatrics and administration too, so your voice and portrayal is a culmination of a h-u-u-u-ge team effort.
Gerald Finley as Iago in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper
And yes, you have to deliver the goods and focus on your character, and give your vocal performance the absolute top level in extremes, and that’s really not what lieder is about… it’s not much teamwork, other than with your fellow musician, and it can be chamber of course, as part of a string quartet or with a guitarist or flutist as well as the piano version, so I like to think that perhaps you are your own stage manager and production team and artistic personnel (in lieder recitals).
There are people who are endeavoring to bring out the essence of the presentation of lieder in a more theatrical way, like having staged elements, and I find that a revelation – because why shouldn’t people be inspired by beautiful, fundamental music? I tell you what: pace Barbara Streisand, if a pop singer got hold of a Schubert song and did something amazing with it, you’d be finding people saying, “Well, that’s a cover version, but where’s the original?” Hopefully! Or the other way around, take a Joni Mitchell song and rewrite it as a Schubert lied or Brahms lied, and… yes, I think we just need to be a little more accepting of how people are trying to just make sure these elements of inspiration can be shared by all.
Speaking of shared inspiration, the baldly emotional nature of lieder translates into the demands it makes on singers: you can’t hide.
That is actually one of the challenges of the technical aspects. Often the frustration about being a younger singer is that one hasn’t quite got the technical lability to be as free and honest in vocal terms. There are lots of wonderful musicians who are doing beautiful things with their voices but it means less, and that’s what we’re after, of course, is “the beautiful voice.” For me, my heroes are Fischer-Dieskau and Tom Krause and Hermann Prey, or José Van Dam doing Mahler; you’re not worried about how they sound, you’re worried about how they feel, but the reason you do that is because their voices are in such perfect shape! It’s like suddenly their instrument is serving them – that’s why it’s a rare thing, because we singers spend our whole life trying to figure out how to sing in order to be free, to be free from all that.
Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Angela Denoke as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Photo : Marty Sohl / Met Opera
It’s a fascinating pairing on this album. What was the thinking behind including the music of Brahms? The linguistic and musical poetry is so different from that of Schubert.
Essentially, I mean, in a kind of a very facile sort of conceit, the Brahms works were among the last things he wrote. He was at a time when he was in deep mourning for Clara (Schumann), and … well, to hear that Brahms… he was always at his best when he was thinking about hard things, big challenges, and the richness of the writing is so extraordinary. So in terms of periods of life for both composers, you know, really they are the two respective “swan songs,” effectively. I always feel Brahms is somebody who thought he knew where the spiritual elements of his life lay; you get it in the Requiem, of course, and certainly in these songs, and in the late string music. It’s all very dense and full of passion, and we feel that. I mean, Schubert knew he was dying of course, Brahms a little less, even though it was late in his life; he knew his time as a composer was reaching its end. So you get this kind of creative surge from both composers, and that’s really what attracted us to doing these works.
From Brahms’s overall output came many beautiful songs, but these ones are one huge level higher – the use of the language, the biblical texts, was very much something which encapsulated his fervor for the human potential of love and forgiveness, and relating to toil. As a socialist approach, it was, “death will comfort those who have toiled,” but also, “those who’ve lived comfortable lives is why there’s fear but there is still hope that the comfort of death will be here for you” – and that’s remarkable as a thesis. So yes, in these Brahms songs, death is treated with great… hope, and love, I’d say. The idea of being in a marvelous revelry of celebrating life – “What was it? Life was love; the greatest of all these things is love” – so I do feel Brahms was an extremely passionate person, behind all that grizzle.
Gerald Finley as the Hotel Barber and Mark padmore as ASchenbach in the ROH production of Death In Venice, 2019. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
That sense is especially noticeable in the final song, “Wenn ich mit Menschen” (When I am with people), which draws together spiritual longing and human logning, the epic and the intimate, in this great expression of acceptance and understanding.
Completely! The elemental earnestness of it – “Ernste” – I almost feel if you didn’t get it in the Requiem, then yes, you will here. One’s life can have a sense of accomplishment if you have loved – and he loved through this music, and certainly in life…
Yes, Clara for sure, and his mother as well, which was a big element. We know much less about Schubert’s love life and I suppose that makes him slightly more mysterious as to what his thoughts on love were, except for the fact that if you delve into the songs, for instance the Serenade, really, it’s a marvel of positive thoughts in a minor key, and negative thoughts in major keys, it’s just extraordinary how he goes against convention in thinking minor is more fulfilling than major keys. There’s lots of wonderful mysteries, shall we say, about Schubert’s music in that regard. He did struggle with the idea of being recognized too, as a composer of any worth, and from that point of view it’s also, you wonder, was he ever appreciated? Did he ever feel his music had any worth? And for me that’s the melancholy aspect of not just him but many people — Beethoven not hearing the applause, for instance – but the whole idea is that these composers are wearing their passions in their music, and thank goodness for it.
Mihail Teisanu, “Woman Wearing A Mask”, 1919. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please to not reproduce without permission.
Earlier this week Associated Press released a year-end summation of sorts relating to the story they broke earlier this year around allegations of sexual misconduct by Placido Domingo. Reading it, I found myself sad but also frustrated – it’s depressing to see so much consistent pushback against the women who spoke out, and equally sad (if unsurprising) to note the consistent attempts to discredit them. Such actions highlight the many social and cultural divisions that must be overcome if we, as an industry are to evolve.
I wrote in a recent post about walls, and how, despite a lot of big talk on the theoretical beauty of their vanishing, the reality is that we tend to like them – what they keep in but also what they perceivably keep out. Nowhere is this more true than in the chasms that have been revealed within the classical world related to the #MeToo movement. The issue is, to my mind, larger than whether or not these women should have spoken out (though I think it’s good they did); more broadly, it points to attitudes held by many in and around the industry which dictates that women and men are “a certain way”. There’s a lot of gender-slotting into little boxes of behaviour, ones that adhere to very old-fashioned and outdated clichés. These clichés around what’s “normal” for a gender feed into a reality relating directly to power, one that can hire and fire, favor and dismiss. Some may well argue (and have, vociferously) that women should use their so-called “feminine wiles” in an industry that is so tough to break into. Why shouldn’t a woman use the gifts God gave her? Aren’t all men interested in “that sort of thing” from a woman? Such comments bring to mind an exchange I noted on social media earlier this year, in which, over the course of a lengthy thread relating to the Domingo case, one individual reiterated the belief that young women today are “too sensitive” and they should “toughen up” and “in my day we weren’t so bothered by flirtatious men.” This attitude is reflected in a quote soprano Laura Flanigan gave to AP, that “(t)he climate has always been ‘don’t tell and suck it up and deal with it.”
Antoine-Augustin Préault, “Silence”, 19th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
This past year I’ve frequently thought back to a memory from childhood, of a friend and I hiding in closets as tweens whenever a flirty male friend of my mother’s would visit; this man, married and with three children, would insist on kissing us at every visit. We made a kind of game of it, daring him to find us, as my mother emitted what I can only surmise now must have been vaguely embarrassed chuckles as she clattered away in the kitchen. We would mock-shriek when closet doors opened and there he would be, this man in a three-piece suit, grinning at us and then puckering up and leaning forward, as we would duck and attempt to run. Usually we weren’t successful and would have to endure cycles of his lips repeatedly on our faces and occasionally lips. We were taught to “endure” it (and that if we weren’t enjoying it, there must be something wrong with us), but in truth, neither my friend nor I found any of it fun or playful; we found this man exasperating, irritating, his attentions humiliating and annoying. We giggled in the darkness of the closet not out of good, spirits, but out of nervousness, not knowing what else, as young girls, we should do.
My mother, being pre-boomer, belonged to an era where women were indeed taught that such attentions were “normal male behaviour” and, as I grew older, I was told, in either word or gesture, that I should “use what God gave” me. My mother was part of a generation that proclaimed women should “toughen up” (especially when it came to male behaviour) and “not take everything so seriously” (I still remember her saying that, almost up to her death in 2015), and, should any hint of complaint be uttered, it was my fault for being “too sensitive.” If I had a dime for every time my mother accused me of this in the negative sense, I would indeed be wealthy. Hers was an attitude that would shape large swaths of my life, my choices, and my perceptions around power, and men, and what validation is and how it supposedly works. I wasn’t entirely surprised when, years later telling her about my own assault, I was met with a dismissive attitude and accusations that, having drank too much and worn a low-cut a dress, I had somehow “asked” for it. Every time I see a woman vehemently defending terrible male behaviour, I think of hiding in that closet, choosing that dress, my mother, and her words.
Such moments from the past year, together with the AP round-up, also make me think back to a frank discussion I had with soprano Lisette Oropesa this past autumn. Much has been made about using so-called “womanly power” and how, in the classical world, this has and continues to be a key tool to getting ahead, and staying ahead. As Oropesa put it:
I’ve seen successful women behave and talk and dress and flirt a certain way and I think to myself, why? At this point, it shouldn’t be necessary… it’s such a cheap trick. It’s low-hanging fruit! Any gorgeous woman can use it to advantage – and how many women can have careers doing that? Sure it has power, but it’s *old* feminine power.
This attitude of, “if you got it, flaunt it” makes as many gigantic assumptions as its closest sibling, “she had a choice“; first of all, why should you? To quote the song, is that all there is? Secondly, what if one doesn’t have “it”? Through choice or not, what if the “it” simply isn’t there? In many senses the lack of a societally defined “it” makes a woman, no matter how talented, entirely invisible. In an ideal world, talent would win out (and sometimes it does, but not often), but to quote my post about walls, human foibles make such idealism incredibly difficult to manifest, let alone enact. Changing attitudes in the industry means changing the way classical is both thought of, and marketed, and yes, run – which means changing the way both audiences and artists view a very specific list of things that require redefinition, starting squarely with what “it” is and why it should so matter in 2020 – or be booted out the proverbial door along with last century ideas.
Alessandro Varotari (called Il Padovanino), “Susannah and the Elders” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
A woman coming into an industry where she can expect to be objectified (and used) sexually is de rigueur for success, where that notion of utilitarianism as it relates to the interweaving threads of success, sex, power, and identity, has no actual power– or choice. To pretend otherwise is a very convenient illusion; what a wonderful trick of the prevailing powers, to have so many, young and old, mouthing such nonsense with such wide-eyed seriousness, for so long. Secondly, there is no notion of “two consenting adults” when the playing field is not level to begin with; who’s doing the hiring and firing? Who’s propagating a continuing (outdated) framework of what “it” is? Who’s making the decisions? Why? To quote Lisette Oropesa again, “There’s this attitude of, “I went to the theater and didn’t get a boner, so it’s crap!”” A woman fortunate enough to have “it” and using “it” within a world run by those holding on to their outmoded frames is not levelling the playing field, it’s bending over to make the world seem normal. To pretend otherwise is to engage in the most intense form of cognitive dissonance, and such a willful misperception would be amusing were it not so common.
Women who speak out against this system do not deserve to be branded as harpies, or to be called “over-sensitive.” They don’t deserve to be held up as examples of “typical American overreaction” or some “Westernized” anti-male brigade. If you hate the term “woke,” fine – use “evolution” in its place. Cultural difference is understandable but sharply contrasting ideas about the female experience reveals uncomfortable truths about which environments are willing to acknowledge alternative (and perhaps more equitable) realities, and which ones are fiercely determined to stay the same.
Aelbert Van Der Schoor, “The Concert” (detail), 17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
The intransigent adherence to so-called “tradition” in this sense (“men are like this; women are like this”), even as modern presentations and productions are simultaneously applauded, reveals a sad if unsurprisingly comfortable hypocrisy that gives a strange new meaning to the term “Old World”; I would ask such audience members to apply their same spirit of opennness to women who don’t fit the so-called “traditional” moulds of desirability, and indeed, to women who are willing to stand up and say clearly, “I don’t like this system, it’s crap, can we please make a change?” They aren’t sensitive; they’re direct. I would ask women who can’t understand such directness to kindly not use the very same brush for others’ portraits as they might use for their own; everyone requires different shading, details, application, and focus. There is no one-size-fits-all in any world, classical or otherwise. Your experience is not their experience; your time is not their time; your voice is not their voice – nor should it be.
Hans Von Aachen, “The Three Graces” (detail), 16th-17th century. Collection: Muzeul Național de Artă al României, Bucharest. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
And so, as 2019 comes to a close, I want to believe there is a chance for evolution in the classical world. I want to believe there is a will to use ways and means heretofore unseen. I want to believe we can all do better. Whether or not we choose such an evolution is entirely up to us. We hate to admit loving our walls, and, more than that (and especially within the classical world), we hate to admit they exist at all. Let 2020 be the time we can at least see them, and if not take them down entirely, at least remove a few pieces here and there, to let the most strange, new, beautifully sensitive and wondrously strong flowers emerge.
Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.
This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.
Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?
Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler
Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.
Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)
I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with Julius Drake. (That feature will be posting soon.) To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe andSchubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.
Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.
Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:
How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.
Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.
Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.
As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””
The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:
Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.
After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.
In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise.