Category: history Page 1 of 4

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Kai Hinrich Müller: “What Can Opera Do For Society?”

As opera companies look to attract new audiences and cultivate relationships with existing patrons, specific combinations of knowledge, passion, and energy are increasingly required. There’s work to be done with nitty-gritty issues like funding, management, casting, commissioning, programming, and presenting. Companies have made conspicuous efforts to expand the definition of the widely-understood canon of classical music. Opera watchers (including yours truly) live in hope that such decisions are more than mere gestures, that they are made with an eye toward evolution, not just optics. More than ever, works are being programmed which have been penned by composers off the well-beaten path of Opera Hits – composers who were often persecuted because of race, gender, religion, sexuality and who remain largely unknown because of a stubborn adherence to that path.  Broadcaster Kate Molleson wrote a whole book about this, and I have written about it as well.

So where does the idea of “democracy” fit within the world of classical music, particularly opera? What role does (or can) art play in cultivating the idea – and the reality – of democracy? How do the notions of representation, choice, voice, equity and equality relate to opera’s history, goals, old audiences, intended audiences, financial demands, and day-to-day realities? The current Thomas Mann House series Opera & Democracy has been exploring these questions over the past six months. Instigated by musicologist and 2023 Thomas Mann Fellow Kai Hinrich Müller, Opera & Democracy is a unique combination of academic investigation, discussion, and live performance, with topics including power dynamics, representation, programming and casting choices, updated formats, and what the Villa Aurora-Thomas Mann House website calls “audience expectations as well as to academic challenges and opera’s ability to amplify the voices of silenced or persecuted artists.”

So far those artists have indeed included many persecuted figures: Gideon Klein, Viktor Ullmann, Rachel Danziger van Embden and Amélie Nikisch, Rosy Geiger-Kullmann, Ernst Toch, Tania León, and Ursula Mamlok, to name a few. Launched in Los Angeles in January,  the series has gone on to see packed houses in Munich, Cologne, New York, and Dresden. More dates are set to follow in Providence (RI), Berlin, and Hamburg; most immediately is an upcoming online event June 11th with Black Opera Research Network featuring composer Philip Miller, the composer of Nkoli: The Vogue-Opera (detailing the life of  anti-apartheid gay rights activist Simon Nkoli) and its musical director, Tshegofatso Moeng. Allison Smith, Civic Engagement Coordinator of Virginia Opera will also be joining the discussion together with Müller. In a recent blog entry reflecting on the New York City-based events for Opera & Democracy this past April, the musicologist wrote that “(b)y shining a spotlight on the works of composers who were once silenced by dictatorship, the week offered a way to reclaim their voices and honor their contributions to the cultural tapestry of humanity.”

Kai Hinrich Müller, scholar, musicologist, professor, Thomas Mann fellow, Opera & Democracy

Kai Hinrich Müller

That tapestry is one Müller has sought to explore in various facets. Having studied Musicology, Business Administration and Law at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Müller has worked as an advisor and curator on a number of international research and cultural projects, including an exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum called “Richard Wagner and the Nationalization of Feeling” in 2022. He has also also worked with musico-historical group Musica non grata and led its Terezín Summer School, the 2023 iteration of which featured Rachel Danziger van Ambden’s Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess), subsequently presented as part of Opera & Democracy’s presentation in Dresden. Müller’s publications explore musical life in the interwar and Nazi periods, past and present musical structures, and the functions of music within social discourse, topics which are also long-term research focuses. In addition to his teaching work at the Cologne University of Music and Dance (since 2017), Müller also works with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin, German public broadcaster WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln) and various concert and opera houses. As Director of the Bauhaus Music Weekend, he told RBB’s Hans Ackermann:

Meine Projekte sind immer an der Nahtstelle von Wissenschaft und Praxis angesiedelt. Schön finde ich, wenn man die Forschung “in den Klang” bringt. Musikwissenschaft soll nicht trocken sein, sondern wieder zum Klang werden. / My projects are always located at the interface between science and practice. I like it when you bring research “into sound”. Musicology shouldn’t be dry, it should become sound again.
(“Die Musik war fest im Alltag am Bauhaus eingebunden“, RBB24, 9 September 2023)

Opera & Democracy is anything but dry. Along with being an important forum for timely conversation and interaction, it is a refreshingly intelligent expression of creative advocacy, coming at a time when many (including those holding the purse strings) are questioning the role of culture within contemporary life. What can (or should) art’s role be in shaping the future? Over the course of our nearly hour-long exchange, the musicologist offered a few ideas, a real willingness to listen, and an interest in engaging with different experiences and ideas. Mehr davon, bitte…

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The Goethe Institut New York hosted the opening event of the week-long New York section of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Jamie Isaacs

Where and how did the idea for a series about opera and democracy originate? Relatedly: why this series, now?

The idea came out of my fellowship at the Thomas Mann House. The theme for the 2023 season of the Thomas Mann House programme was the political mandate of the arts, examining the question of the arts having a kind of political mandate, and what that means in a broader sense. I’m a musicologist; my habilitation was on Richard Wagner and Richard Wagner’s afterlife, a bit like Alex Ross in his last book, Wagnerism, so it was totally clear for me when I got to the Thomas Mann House that I would focus on opera.

Also there is one very important centenary in 2024, and it’s related to the Krolloper, which was this very important opera house in Berlin that hosted a lot of avant-garde works. But then it became the Nazi assembly hall of the Reichstag between 1933 and 1942. So on the one hand it’s a very important place for European history, and on the other it’s a very important place for international opera history; this was such a great coincidence that I wanted to use the centenary to think about the place of opera in society and politics, especially since the United States and the EU both have very big elections this year, and Germany is struggling with the rise of right-wing parties. In organizing the series I was in touch with many colleagues in the US and Germany – directors, singers, musicologists – and initially they all said, “Hey Kai, are you joking? ‘Opera and democracy’, this is a kind of contradiction!” – sure, but sometimes the tension is much more interesting with such pursuits. So we started, and so far it’s a real success for the Thomas Mann House and the broader academic world.

How did you choose the lineup of guests and events?

Some of it was interest from my side, and it was also a lot of magnetism from my research over the last few years, which has focused on the musical life in Theresienstadt, one of the big camps during the Nazi period. I also worked for Musica non grata, and that is why I’m very deep in this whole discourse on persecuted artists and artists in exile. This history, of course, brings up the question of democracy, because if you have a dictatorship, like the one during the Nazi period, you see what happens to artistic freedom. We thought about a kind of overall programme for the series, and everybody was very interested in unearthing unknown music, especially music by women composers. In Dresden we did a kind of Theresienstadt-influenced programme of opera and operetta by women. I can’t stand the fuss over the differences between opera and operetta, this idea of supposedly “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art forms; it’s music theatre, period.

Related to that, we also decided to present several works of Ernst Krenek – they will be focused in an event presented at Staatsoper Hamburg in January. He was living in exile in Los Angeles when he composed a very moving work called Pallas Athene weint (Pallas Athena Wept), which was also written during the McCarthy era in the US. Nobody knows it, but it’s fantastic! This opera actually reopened the house in Hamburg after the Second World War. It’s atonal, and presents a dystopic situation exploring the struggle between Athens and Sparta; Athens is the city of democracy and Sparta stands for dictatorship, but Sparta wins. There are these amazing correspondences which exist from that time between Krenek, Thomas Mann, and all the artists living in exile on the West Coast, all of them examining the question of the role of arts and politics. It was also during this time that German emigres were being accused of being communists. I think the history around Krenek’s work is very much tied to the ideas we’re exploring in the series.

Connecting the past & the present

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At Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten in May as part of Opera & Democracy. Photo: Clara Becker

To what extent is this series intended to expand opera’s breadth, especially in an intercontinental sense?

This is a very important question because it highlights two key questions in the Opera & Democracy series: what can opera do for society? And, how can opera itself become a more democratic art form via the means of plurality, diversity, accessibility?. I think it’s very important to bring both sides into a dialogue, particularly with a view to the two opera systems in North America and Germany, which have massive differences. The biggest intercontinental difference is the question of funding, because in the United States, opera is privately funded, and in Germany, it’s state funded. And this is why I think North American opera sometimes  seems to be much more aware of the ideas and wishes of the audience. At the Met there is a total change in repertoire, a shift to works which are much more focused on questions of diversity and black culture and history.

For me, one of the most influential experiences so far in the series was my panel discussion with Kira Thurman, an African American musicologist teaching in Wisconsin. She wrote her last book on black opera singers in Germany. She was in our opening session at the Thomas Mann House with Alex Ross and Daniela Levy, a researcher in Los Angeles. Kira’s perspectives were certainly eye-opening for me because discussed the last 100 years of opera from a racial history perspective.

Some opera companies have started installing a wider variety of language selections for seat-back translations – what do you make of that? 

The interesting point here is that you really can learn from history. At our opera week in New York City recently, I presented the case of Paul Aron. He was a very successful contemporary composer during the wars, and then the Nazis came and he had to flee to the United States. When he came to New York City in the 1950s he founded an avant-garde opera company and he brought all of the music of the other émigrés – works which had originally been composed in German – with new English versions for American stages, because he was aware of the question of language. It is a barrier; you have to be able to understand the language to participate in the story and the plot. It’s really good to see companies installing these technologies – it’s totally in line with the history of opera.

Invest in education

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Kai Hinrich Mülller at the inaugural event of Opera & Democracy at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles in January 2024. Photo: Aaron Perez

To what extent does a series like this act as an educational aid?

Well I hope it helps because I’m a teacher myself; I teach professionally here in Cologne. All of my programs are built around students. They are the next generation, and they are much better-placed than I am to do this work, because, well, I’m 39 years old, I have maybe 20 or 30 years in the opera system, but these students have at least 50 more years. So it absolutely doesn’t make any sense to stop education; you have to invest in education because this is the next generation, and if we want to change the system, we have to empower young people and invite them to become part of everything in the first place.

What are you bringing back to the classroom then?

The most important point is that I open a kind of dialogue between their interests and my interests. Very often I am told things relating to casting processes, about not feeling heard in current discourses, that nobody is interested in questions of their generation. We had very intense discussions after October 7th about Israel and Gaza. Sometimes it’s important to listen and to give them the sense that, “Yes, you are welcome, give me your speech, give me your opinion; I don’t have to agree, but I think you have the right to an open and safe space for discussion” – and this is especially applicable to an opera system that is largely not democratic.

Where do unknown composers fit in with the series?

They are very important! One of my most favourite composers right now is Rosy Geiger-Kullmann. We premiered three of her operas during our New York festival. She was a very successful woman composer in Germany, then the Nazis came to power, and it’s the same story as so many others – she fled, first to New York, then to Monterey; her son Herman Geiger-Torel, went to Canada and became a very important figure in opera in Canada through the 1950s to 1970s. Rosie herself composed five big operas. It was hard to believe that we were the first person to perform excerpts from her work during the festival. The 20th century is so full of rarely-heard or played operas.

I think this is another thing I learned from the series: that we really don’t have to be afraid of bringing unknown music back to the stage. Every event in this series so far has been totally sold out. We often play unknown composers, so clearly there is openness in the audience to learning more about new music.

“Opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other”

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(L-R) Composer/conductor Carl Christian Bettendorf, composer Alyssa Regent, and choreographer Miro Magloire in a discussion at 1014 – space for ideas as part of an April event in New York for Opera & Democracy. Photo: Sarah Blesener

What sort of an approach do you take in introducing new works?

We use the opera to open the discussion. For example, in the Thomas Mann House at the launch in Los Angeles, we started with Kurt Weill’s The Yes-Sayer, which is a 30-minute opera about belonging and the power of tradition. Directly after it was when we opened the discourse, first in a panel discussion, then for the audience. My first question was, “If this is a story essentially about saying yes or no, what would you have said?” People in the audience looked at me like, “Why is he talking with us?” but then more and more people engaged, and then we had a great discussion on the question of saying yes or no to traditions, and saying yes or no to opera. In Dresden it was, I think, probably quite simple but very effective storytelling as well.

What effect do you see this series having on the opera world?

Since I started it in January, more and more people are taking notice. Opera companies will knock at my door and say, “Hey Kai, this is interesting. Maybe we can do something together? Let’s think about it.” I see more and more institutions that would love to join us in thinking about the democratic potential of the art form. I think opera is very good for opening eyes, opening emotions, opening the brain, and opening connections between groups of people who might not normally talk to each other – and that is more important than ever right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photo: Students from the Manhattan School of Music perform in April 2024 at New York’s Leo Baeck Institute as part of the Opera & Democracy series. Photo: Jamie Isaacs
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Reading List: May Flowers, Rain, Sounds, & A Memory

May traditionally brings flowers, rain, more flowers… more rain, as well as abrupt temperature shifts. Those shifts might be a good metaphor for today (May 9th), a day fraught with many things, or possibly nothing, depending on where you happen to be. The whole month feels like a deep inhale before the intense demands which come with many summer music festivals. The following reading list includes oodles of opera, bundles of Beethoven, and little bites of chewy foods for thoughts when it comes to memory, live presentation, and seelenökologie; it also includes (I hope) a little bit of room to breathe.

In a personal sense, today marks 4o days since the passing of my godfather, who experienced his first opera at the age of 87. (More on that below.)

Spring has sprung – inhale, exhale, slowly; repeat.

Live Live Live (& Read)

My review of Medea (the Cherubini version), currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, can be found here. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who had been scheduled to sing the title role, was forced to cancel the remainder of her performances during the run. Italian soprano Chiara Isotton is taking over. TL;DR: See if you can; Isotton is truly great.

Médée (the Charpentier version) is currently running at Opéra de Paris (Palais Garnier), with mezzo soprano Lea Desandre receiving much acclaim for her titular performance, together with conductor William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the pit. The production is, like Medea, directed by Sir David McVicar, and was first created for English National Opera in 2013 before receiving a staging in Geneva in 2019. The presentation marks the first time Charpentier’s opera has been presented at Opéra national de Paris since 1693. It closes on Saturday (11 May); allons-y!

An opera that made its premiere at the Opéra Garnier: Guercœur by Albéric Magnard, in 1931. The work, which has a tragic real-life backstory, is enjoying a renaissance with Opéra national du Rhin having just finished a run in Strasbourg; the Christof Loy-directed production will be subsequently be presented in Mulhouse, on the 26th and 28th of this month, with baritone Stéphane Degout in the lead. The 2024-2025 season sees another presentation of the work, by Oper Frankfurt and featuring baritone Domen Križaj; the production will be directed by David Hermann with Marie Jacquot (and later Lukas Rommelspacher) on the podium.

Among the many offerings at this year’s edition of The Dresdner Musikfestspiele is the event “Silent Voices In A Noisy World” which features the music of Amélie Nikisch (wife of conductor Arthur Nikisch) and Rachel Danziger van Embden (a student of Wagner biographer Jacques Hartog). Condensed piano versions of Nikisch’s 1911 operetta Meine Tante, deine Tante (My Aunt, Your Aunt) and Danziger van Embden’s operetta Die Dorfkomtesse (The Village Countess) from 1910 will be performed at Dresden’s Palais im Großen Garten, with arrangements, curation, and moderation by Dr. Kai Hinrich Müller, who, as I wrote last month, is spearheading a series of events this year for The Thomas Mann House connected to the formal theme of Opera & Democracy. The Dresden concert is part of this initiative, and is also part of the Musica non grata program, both which I will be writing about in more detail as part of my upcoming conversation with Müller. The interview will be posted later this month; stay tuned!

Also on Sunday: a performance from Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the city’s Konzerthaus featuring soprano Camilla Nylund (singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs) and led by Finnish conductor Tarno Peltokoski. In a recent exchange with Helge Berkelbach at Concerti, Peltokoski discusses his debut album with Deutsche Grammophon (Mozart symphonies), his passion for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and the importance of clarity over emotions when standing before an orchestra: “Wenn ich beim Dirigieren von Wagner in meinen Wagner-Gefühlen schwimme, macht das überhaupt keinen Sinn. Ich meine, das Orchester wüsste nicht, was es tun soll, und das Publikum hätte auch keine Freude daran.” (“If I’m swimming in my Wagnerian feelings when I conduct Wagner, it makes no sense at all. I think the orchestra wouldn’t know what to do and the audience wouldn’t enjoy it either.”) Peltokoski’s responses belie his youth (he turned 24 last month), and I am curious to follow him on what may well be a very interesting journey involving Wagner, Strauss, and… ? We shall see.

Speaking of Wagner journeys: Wagner In Context (Cambridge University Press, 2024) has recently been released and it is a delectable slow read. Divided into clear themes (places, people, performances, politics), the book, edited by Cambridge Professor David Trippett, offers an assortment of thoughtful takes on varied aspects of the composer’s work and his impact on modern classical culture. Featuring essays from a wide range of contributors – including Barry Millington, Mark Berry, Katharine Ellis, Leon Botstein, and Gundula Kreutzer (whose  book Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera has been on my wish list since its release in 2018) – this is a book which quietly demands slow digestion. I hope to speak with Trippett in the coming weeks about the book and Wagner’s enduring socio-cultural footprint; stay tuned.

Progressive…ish?

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission. (Collection Bode-Museum, Berlin)

In the new and not-so-new realm: a recent article published at The Stage provides food for thought on serious issues which reach well past the immediate British opera landscape. Quoting analyses released in March by Arts Council England, writer Katie Chambers includes thoughts from a variety of figures including Opera North general director and chief executive Laura Canning, Musicians’ Union general secretary Naomi Pohl, and stage director Adele Thomas, who offers a valuable insight: “The critical response to the way that any feminist interpretation gets greeted with has forced [opera] to give us a flatter representation of what women are.

At a time when many houses engage in self-congratulatory gestures on what they perceive as a wonderful form of progressivism (the examples are really not difficult to find), it’s interesting to note how many tow a traditional line at heart, particularly in the years since the worst of the covid pandemic. Approaches promoted as “progressive” often employ straight-male gaze wrapped in the coat of creative inquiry (italics mine); question it and you are deemed stupid or uptight, or (gasp) woke. I’m not sure what will change within industry except for the way productions are dressed (more accurately, undressed) via publicity teams and traditional media, an element Thomas rightly acknowledges: 

We are at the tail end of a generation of opera critics who don’t question how much of their opinions are internalised misogyny rather than a genuine reaction to what is in front of them. No criticism to them – it wasn’t what they were asked to do at the time of learning their trade. But it has to change. (“Opera in crisis: leaders warn sector issues go beyond funding woesThe Stage, 7 May 2024)

I hope to speak with various critics in the future about this issue, and explore their ideas on risk and live presentation; it would be good to have their takes on the role of criticism in 2024. I want to have faith that there’s value in its continued practice –even as arts criticism quickly vanishes, everywhere – so again: stay tuned.

“Freude, schöner Götterfunken!”

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Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Speaking of expressions of faith: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony celebrated the 200th anniversary of its premiere on 7 May 1824. An assortment of German music publishers posted fascinating histories, including photos of the original score. The birthday of the symphony has also inspired various documentaries – one by German broadcaster DW (in English), and another by Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein (Beethoven’s Nine: Ode To Humanity), recently screened at the Toronto-based Hot Docs film festival. A recreation of the first concert in which the Ninth Symphony was performed took place in Wuppertal (with period instruments), and there are more concerts on the horizon including performances by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique in London and Paris, with a performance of the Ninth Symphony on the 29th of this month at St Martin-in-the-Fields, where they’ll be joined by the Monteverdi Choir & Chorus.

Amongst the many essays and articles which have appeared recently is one from Gramophone magazine (“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: the greatest recordings“, Richard Osborne, 7 May) outlining important aspects of the work, including Schiller’s famous text, and (hurrah) giving equal attention to all four of its movements. Osborne examines interpretations of the symphony by a range of conductors including Otto Klemperer, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and includes concomitant sound clips for each. Like many articles, Osborne also mentions Leonard Bernstein famously replacing the word “freedom” (Freiheit) for “joy” (Freude) in Friedrich Schiller’s text at a concert in Berlin in late 1989, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether or not one agrees with that replacement, Bernstein’s gesture was entirely in keeping with the mood of the times, a symbol of the way in which the work has been presented throughout various epochs.

Conductor Vladimir Jurowski references Bernstein  in a recent written feature for BR Klassik, exploring the work’s links to historic events as well as personal memories, some of which are tied, quite touchingly, to portions of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He also shares his thoughts on initially tackling Beethoven’s Ninth as an artist (“der Mythos um diese Symphonie herum kann einen auch erzittern lassen” – “the myth surrounding this symphony can also make you tremble”) and his decision to program the works of 20th and 21st century composers prior and sometimes even between movements. This approach to such a famous work brings to mind something he said to Hamburger Abendblatt journalist Joachim Mischke (in a podcast from earlier this month) about “Ökologie des akustischen Raums und seine emotionale und geistige Wirkung auf auf die Menschen” (“the ecology of acoustic space and its emotional and spiritual impact on people”). The idea of “seelenökologie” (soul ecology), especially within programming and live presentation in 2024, is one well worth considering, because of course it requires embracing experiences which move past the expected pushing of little emotional buttons – an experience that might be uncomfortable to some.

The first symphony concert I ever attended was a performance of a Beethoven’s Fifth led by Sir Andrew Davis. Roughly a decade after that, I experienced my very first live Beethoven’s Ninth, and by that point, I had formed opinions on how things should sound, and which emotional buttons I expected to be pushed. The performance happened to coincide with the night of my high school prom, but being a perennial outsider, I had no one to go with and I wasn’t too terribly interested anyway (or at least I told myself that at the time). Aside from the discomfort of a heavy velvet dress unsuited to a warm June evening, the most powerful memory from that time is of my hot teenaged fury at the tempos taken through a good portion of the performance; they were faster than what I was expecting, and they came as a total shock. How dare the orchestra not push my little emotional buttons! The whole experience was highly uncomfortable… but: my hate eventually withered and bloomed into real appreciation, dare I say love of this approach, though it took study, maturity, patience. Thank goodness for the local library in aiding with the bloom.

Big Reach

My first formal job, in fact, was at a library –retrieving, sorting, and reshelving books. Library services have expanded considerably since then, but essential purposes remain: the exercise of curiosity, and easy access to the results of that exercise. Cue those elements within a classical-viewing context now, thanks to a partnership between broadcaster Medici TV (who specialize in classical content and stream more than 150 live events annually) and Hoopla (an online borrowing system not dissimilar to Kanopy). Medici’s collection is now accessible to libraries in North America, Australia, and New Zealand. You just need a library card – and yes, the medici.tv/hoopla borrowing system works in Canada.

Another form of easy access comes courtesy of Wigmore Hall in London, which has a long history of presenting livestream broadcasts. Soprano Ermonela Jaho is set to perform live from Wigmore Hall on May 23rd as part of Opera Rara’s second ‘Donizetti & Friends‘ recital. Jaho, who is Artist Ambassador for the organization (dedicated to presenting little-heard operatic works from the 19th and 20th centuries), will be joined by its Artistic Director, conductor Carlo Rizzi, and his brother, violinist Marco Rizzi. The concert will be livestreamed on Opera Rara’s Youtube Channel and will be available for viewing for 30 days.

Space & Time

Speaking of viewing: the work of Alexander Calder is enjoying a special exhibition in Switzerland. Calder: Sculpting Time includes over thirty works which were made between 1930 and 1960 and explores what host MASI Lugano calls “the fourth dimension of time into art with his legendary mobiles.” Many of the pieces on display include items from the artist’s Constellations series, which he began in 1943. Calder won the grand prize for sculpture at the 1952 Venice Biennale and went on to be awarded the Legion of Honor in France and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the US; he worked across a variety of media, creating not only sculpture and mobiles but set and costumes designs, jewelry, and immense public installations. The MASI show seems a little more intimate, but the imagery at the website also conveys Calder’s signature knack for spatial integration: the epic and the intimate; the intellectual and the sensuous. There is a certain joy (Schiller’s Freude, maybe) in all of it, and particularly through the live experience.

woman, man, opera, performing arts, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

Referencing that live experience, and as promised: my godfather enjoyed his very first opera just after his 87th birthday. He passed away at the end of March. Lately I’ve been thinking back on our times together, that 2017 visit to the opera very much included. Those who knew about our connection (and that opera visit) have asked me what we saw (Tosca) and more specifically what he thought of it all (he liked but didn’t love it, though did express interest in German-language works, specifically Die Fledermaus). He was mostly happy to finally be experiencing the thing my mother (with whom he had been very close) possessed such a passion for, and he was grateful for my initiative in taking him.

At his passing my godfather had been in Canada for seven decades but he never forgot his Swiss roots, and made a point of playing folk music (complete with yodels) on his stereo system during our visits. “It isn’t opera,” he would say, sipping brandy, “but it’s a little bit of home.”

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
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New Zealand Opera: “We Want Stories That Are About Us, Now, Here In This Place”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

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

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

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

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

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

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

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

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

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

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

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

Gatekeeping In Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling As Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

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

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

“Consistent and determined”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top photo: A scene from the 2023 NZ Opera presentation of (m)Orpheus, a reimagining of Gluck’s 1762 work featuring dance ensemble Black Grace; directed by Neil Ieremia. Photo: Andi Crown
Louis Langrée, conductor, France, Paris, Opéra Comique, director, opera, classical

Louis Langrée’s “Larger View” At Opéra Comique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the connection in terms of musical language?

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

Does this reflect the connection between composers?

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

How did Guillaume Gallienne become part of this project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Volksoper”…

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

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

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

To what extent does that translate to your audiences?

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

So that’s where creativity comes in?

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

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

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

Top photo: Chris Lee
Gabriele Schnaut, Klytämnestra, Elektra, Bayerische Staatsoper, opera, classical, live, performance, arts, culture, stage

Things to watch, listen to, read (and a lot of Hamlet)

First things first: the Substack newsletter I’d planned is on hold, for many reasons, including technological. If and when things change, I will make an announcement here. Secondly (and related to first): I’ve been busy with professional work, which includes numerous reviews for The Globe & Mail.

Importantly:

Thank you, readers new and old, for standing by me and supporting my work, especially through these last three-plus years, which has been a largely difficult and painful time. I confess that I am slowly winding down my work here, though I may post a few occasional interviews related to artists and events in the future – things that catch my interest and equally speak to our current socio-political epoch with regards to creativity, geography, and ambition.

In that vein: my next interview is with conductor Giordano Bellincampi, who next month leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) in the New Zealand premiere of Die Tote Stadt. Bellincampi, who is also the Music Director of the APO, shares his thoughts around music-making with the orchestra through the pandemic, the necessity of risk, and why Korngold’s opera is so important, especially right now. (There’s also a very moving story that comes with that.) Look out for it next weekend.

A few things have caught my attention the last little while, one of them being the immense traffic my 2022 essay on war and cancel culture continues to garner. I still believe the co-opting of algorithmically-driven language by sectors within the arts community (and arts journalism) is fascinating if frustrating. Nuance, complexity, context, whatever; they don’t generate ad-friendly clicks fomented by white-hot outrage. Pffft. Patience, time, attention, intelligence – very unsexy indeed. To hell with nuance! (I can’t do it; maybe you can.)

All of which is to say: I was very happy to note the Kharkiv Music Festival went ahead this year. Conductor Vitali Alekseenok, who has been the Festival’s Artistic Director since 2021, led a closing-night gala which featured an inspiring mix of opera arias, Ukrainian music, and symphonic works, including Alekseenok’s own arrangement of “Hymn” by Valentin Silvetrov. The conductor, who published a book in 2021 chronicling the protest movement in his native Belarus and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 drove van-fulls of aid supplies from Berlin to the Polish-Ukrainian border, was named this week as Chief Conductor of Deutsche Oper am Rhein starting in the 2024-2025 season. In March 2022 he told Van Musik’s Hartmut Welscher about what he had observed with regards to his Russian contacts:

 I realize how hard it is to do anything in Russia, especially with the new laws that passed (…). But you have to do everything you can. You don’t necessarily need to take to the streets, but you must find some way of taking a stand and speaking out. Better small actions than no action at all. Silence is the most dangerous thing, but of course most people opt for that; or they keep their eyes closed.

Keeping in that vein: this is a very good documentary.

https://youtu.be/gep4147pJrQ

Much (not all) of the footage in this nearly hour-long work was filmed covertly. It is especially useful in illuminating the rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Wagner Group, and his/their recent “march for justice.”

Alekseenok’s work, together with recent events, and a re-examination of various texts, had me thinking a lot about opera, specifically Russian opera, and the ways in which various works have depicted and dealt with power, on stage as much as off of it. I worried this initial quote-tweet yesterday, based off of European Resilience Initiative Center founder Sergej Sumlenny, came off too glib, especially considering the gravity of the then-unfolding drama, so, to paraphrase Byron, I suddenly felt anxious to explain my explanation. Maybe I am context-obsessed, or maybe, as my mother often used to tell me, I’m being too sensitive.

tweet, opera, Russian, coup, Wagner Group, Mussorgsky, power

In this thread I also highlighted Staatstheater Nürnberg’s excellent in-concert presentation of Anton Rubinstein’s rarely-performed 1875 opera The Demon, a work which largely revolves around notions of nuance, balance, perceptions, faith, and ultimately, redemption. Baritone Jochen Kupfer gave a deeply moving portrait of the titular character, with a beautiful burnished tone and crystalline diction. The Demon gets one more outing this season, on July 8th, with the recent performance broadcast (and accessible) via BR Klassik.

Tomorrow (Monday, 26 June) the Bavarian broadcaster will be busy simulcasting the opening of Hamlet by composer Brett Dean at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich. The presentation follows on Dean’s new piece”Nocturnes and Night Rides” written for the 500th anniversary of the Bayerische Staatsorchester, which was presented by the organization earlier this year.

I reviewed Hamlet the opera when it made its world premiere in 2017 – my observation that it’s an important addition to the opera canon made the headline, which is amusing in retrospect, considering the extent to which that’s indeed become true! To say this work had a big effect is putting things mildly.

In the introduction to my interview with Hamlet librettist Matthew Jocelyn in 2019, I wrote that his and Dean’s work, “(t)he theme of vulnerability – Hamlet’s, Ophelia’s Gertrude’s, even that of Claudius –runs through this 2017 work like a trickle of blood on stone.” At the time Jocelyn was directing the opera’s German premiere at Oper Köln. He discussed the differences between English and German-speaking audiences, his work with conductor Duncan Ward, the uses of language (“the French say “dégustation”) and his collaboration with Dean in the work’s creation (“he more radical the decision, the more great the appetite with which Brett jumped on it”).

Allan Clayton, John Tomlinson, Bayerische Staatsoper, Hamlet, Brett Dean, Matthew Jocelyn, Bayerische Staatsorchester, Neil Armfield, Bavarian State Opera, Shakespeare

John Tomlinson and Allan Clayton in a scene from the 2023 Bayerische Staatsoper presentation of Hamlet. Photographer: Wilfried Hösl.

That collaborative spirit was echoed by tenor Allan Clayton when we spoke in early 2020. Clayton sang the lead in the world premiere of Hamlet in 2017, and performed the Met’s production of the opera last year; he’ll rejoin some of the original cast (including Rod Gilfry and Sir John Tomlinson) and crew (director Neil Armfield and conductor Vladimir Jurowski) for the presentation in Munich.  Clayton recalled working on the first Hamlet production in Glyndebourne and how “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.”

Speaking of giving: Gabriele Schnaut (pictured in the top photo) knew a thing or two about giving all onstage, and through all kinds of projects. The soprano passed away this week at the age of 72. As well as being one of the great singers of dramatic opera repertoire (Wagner, Strauss, Janáček), Schnaut was also open to working with contemporary composers, including Wolfgang Rihm. In 1987 she performed as Ophelia in Rihm’s Die Hamletmaschine, a work based on Heiner Müller’s 1977 play of the same name and a highly abstract reading of Shakespeare’s play. Throughout her career Schnaut was hailed for her forceful stage performances and visceral interpretations; she made her Bayreuth debut in 1977, and in the coming two-plus decades, gave more than 100 performances there. This, in addition to singing at major houses (New York, London, Milan, Paris, Vienna, to name a brief few), and, from 2005 to 2014, a professor of voice at the University of Performing Arts in Berlin.

Schnaut was especially associated with her work at Bayerische Staatsoper, and in 1997 she graced its stage as the lead in Herbert Wernicke’s then-new (and still-revived) production of Elektra. Almost two decades later, she was in the opera again, this time as Klytämnestra. Her bows from that time, caught on video here, are particularly moving, as were the many tributes and expressions of grief at the news of her death.

Until next time… keep your cultural antennae out, and remember the c-word (it’s context).

Top photo by Wilfried Hösl.
sea shore rocks sky blue scene clouds

Things I’ve Been Reading ( & watching, writing, pondering)

More than any other, Sundays have always been reading days. As a child I would spread newspapers over the few stairs which led to the bedrooms in the tiny split-level where I grew up. The family cat would often come and plonk herself down in the very middle of those papers, glaring expectantly with her saucer-eyes, and I would gently scoop her up. Poogie (that was her actual name) would settle in the crook of my arm, happily purring, before I would be allowed to continue my study – of the arts section, yes, but the business, life, politics, and sports ones too.

Reading about a variety of topics is good; being curious about a variety of things is very good. Such curiosity is something I try to continually impress upon students, with varying degrees of success. “When preparing for an interview,” I found myself saying recently, “don’t just study the person; read absolutely everything you can about the whole world around them.” I could practically hear their groans. “Yes it’s work,” I continued, “but it’s also logic. And reading – learning – is good!” In retrospect I certainly sounded very PollyAnna Prissy, but the despair over unconscious predilection to remain in tidy boxes grows daily. There’s a big reason I love radio and cable television: the element of the random, and its related exercise of curiosity, is inescapable.

So until I get the newsletter I alluded to in my previous post up and running, these updates, of things read, watched, listened to, pondered over, will (I hope) continue. Right now these pursuits feel logical, stimulating, important, pleasurable, challenging – sometimes at once.

In light of this week’s terrible news about the end of the historic BBC Singers, bass Brindley Sherratt has written a thoughtful piece (published in The Guardian) reflecting on his time with the group. His words offer a vivid portrait of the realities of young operatic careers and highlight the varied repertoire of the group throughout its history. “In one week,” he writes, “we would sing a couple of hymns for Radio 4’s Daily Service (live, early and terrifying), rehearse and record the most complex score of Luciano Berio or Ligeti and then bang out There is Nothin’ like a Dame on Friday Night Is Music Night.” His writing highlights the importance of there existing good opportunities for young singers while giving lie to the idea that such groups aren’t populist in their appeal and therefore deserve no public funding. This is a depressingly common current of thought in much of North America (sigh). The axing of the BBC Singers makes one wonder if the broadcaster is aiming at a more NA-style (i.e. highly corporate, ROI-driven) system with relation to their classical groups and output. The direct experience of singers like Sherratt should be considered here, along with good models of arts education, funding for which has been woefully dwindling for decades.

Speaking of experience, I finally watched The Big Lebowski, on March 6th – the day of its original release in 1998 and the related “Day Of The Dude” created to recognize the slouchy central character played by Jeff Bridges. Birthed at a time when the (Western) optimism of the early 90s had been turned inside out (the death of Princess Diana, the scandals of the Clinton presidency, the rampant corruption within the former Eastern bloc) and the digital world still in infancy, it’s a very surreal ride into not-unfamiliar terrain. It is tough to say whether or not filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could have seen Zerograd, a 1988 film by Karen Shakhnazarov (which details the visit of an engineer to a small town), or Mark Zakharov’s equally-surreal To Kill A Dragon (based on the play of Evgeny Schwartz about a man who sets out to kill a dictator), which is also from 1988 (a pivotal moment in Eastern European history) – but they share many elements, from their portrayals of social collapse and untrustworthy leadership, to a pervasive atmosphere of dread, not to mention central male figures who suddenly faced with responsibilities they don’t want. Also, it’s worth noting the Day Of The Dude falls directly after the death-day of Stalin (and composer Sergei Prokofiev), March 5th. (Add to this: the Dude’s favorite cocktail.) However unintentionally, Lebowski, Zerograd, and Dragon make for a thoughtful cinematic trinity in 2023.

Keeping in the film zone, the annual Academy Awards are tonight, and for the first time they feature a best animated feature category. Among the nominees is The Sea Beast by Chris Williams, who worked on number of famed animated films (Mulan and Frozen among them) pre-Beast. Voice work was done via Zoom amidst the worst of pandemic lockdowns, with its cast  (Jared Harris, Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) scattered across the globe. Along with touching voice performances, I enjoyed the film’s the subtext, which smacks at a common (if tiresome) element within current cultural discourse, that of “wokeism”‘s supposed cultural ruinousness. The Sea Beast, superficially a scary-monsters-of-the-deep tale, works in large part because of the ways it integrates diversity into a satisfying thematic whole. Its main female character, Maisie, is a Black British orphan; the crew of the ship she stows away on features diverse and gender-fluid members; the story (by Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin) uses various elements to convey the idea that historical narratives which elevate and glorify mindless violence are… well, bullshit. The fact this work comes from an outlet (Netflix) and a larger digital culture (streaming) that of course elevates such elements for profit gives the film a currency I’m not sure was intended, and yet.

Sea tales must have been in my algorithm because a Youtube suggestion for a documentary about the Mariana Trench popped up recently. This wonderful David Attenborough-hosted NHK work documents the efforts of various researchers to reach the very bottom of the earth; yes it’s exciting and informative at once, but it’s also, in this case, incredibly atmospheric. Watching it is akin to watching an edge-of-your-seat thriller; will they or won’t they see a sign of life? Will the equipment break? Will they see a… sea monster? An intense claustrophobia pervades many of the scenes, not only those captured (incredibly) in the trench itself but within the little floating rooms filled with anxious-looking researchers. I literally jumped off the sofa when one of the specially-built machines (made to withstand the immense oceanic pressure) hit the bottom with a loud THONK; I sighed heavily at the capture of a Mariana snail fish (yes it’s important for study, but my God, it’s so cute and graceful as it swims! Just look at it!). Another big part of my childhood, aside from reading Sunday papers, involved watching an assortment of nature documentaries, and this was a lovely reminder if also an incredible update on my nostalgia, blending cinematic sense with dramatic tension, and science folded within – in other words, one of the best things.

Another best thing is learning about forgotten (ignored, under-represented) writers. The philosophy of John Locke is well-known; that of Damaris Masham, less so. Yet the two are inextricably linked, as Regan Penaluna so ably shows in her moving Aeon essay published earlier this month. Shining a light on a late 17th century figure who explored women’s lives and experiences through two sole books, Penaluna also shares her own history with a contemporary (if unnamed) Locke-like figure who provided similar encouragement, someone “to whom I frequently looked for validation.” This is a common experience for women who enter largely male-dominated fields, and it’s refreshing to see a philosopher mixing the epic and intimate in ways Masham herself did in her writing. As well as examining ideas surrounding the nature and exercise of power and intimacy, Penaluna takes issue with Masham’s insistence on “women’s superior capacity for care”, noting how such a position “further entrenches patriarchal views”. This portion of the essay brought to mind a popularly-held view that “mothers understand the giving of life and if they ran the world we wouldn’t have so many wars” (a handy derivative of “if women ran the world we would have peace”) – there is a world of history, past and present, repudiating such (frankly narrow and rather sexist) views; viciousness – and nurturing – are not confined to any capacity for reproduction, individually or as a whole. Masham’s view, that “with the right conditions, women could make significant contributions to philosophy, on a par with men”, has real-life (if perhaps uncomfortable, for some) corollaries. Also, it must be said: the intertwined lives of Locke and Masham is the stuff of plays or movies – one or both should really exist. Were either to be realized one might anticipate more body than body-of-work depictions, a pity given the breadth of Masham’s ideas and work, only reprinted in (gasp!) 2005, and alas, no longer in print.

Masham might find more than a bit of interest in the words and music of Marko Halanevych, a member of the Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” band DakhaBrakha: “Art is not outside of politics; it is a factor within politics itself.” Halanevych distills the complex if innately linked relationships between art, history, and politics in a way that points up the connection with power and historically-received narratives; there is no hint of music being somehow magically “above” the fray of war but a key component within it. Culture is a longtime tool used in the wielding authority, particularly via the subtle, soft power methods used before the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and compromise in Putin’s Russia” (Granta, 2020) by Joshua Yaffa, is a useful reference for Halanevych’s responses, and more broadly, to DakhaBrakha’s artistic output, including their 2017 live-performance soundtrack to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksander Dovzehnko’s at-the-time controversial 1930 film Earth. Perceived within a larger framework of cultural history, one is struck by the continuing influences of the prisposoblenets Yaffa highlights, and a Soviet nostalgia (referenced so memorably in Zerograd), and the various ways each continue to shape current creative responses to the tragedy in Ukraine.

Notions of choice and circumstance do a strange, uncomfortable dance throughout Yaffa’s book – but such dances are, in 2023, coming to be the norm, and perhaps it’s wise to simply accept the discomfort. Hopefully such dances don’t signal the end of cultural appetite, discovery, and curiosity, but some kind of new beginning. 

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

 

 

 

 

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

Readings illuminate a new path (maybe)

It’s been a very busy few months.

Along with teaching commitments, I’ve been writing classical and theatre-related pieces for Canadian media outlet The Globe & Mail, and I have a cover story (about Cree composer Andrew Balfour) for the Winter 2023 edition of La Scena Musicale magazine. You can find all the links (to interviews, features, and reviews) here.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Jessica DeFino’s excellent, thoughtful essay posted at her website (The Unpublishable) which relates ephemerally to the recent chatter about Madonna’s face, but more directly, confronts issues around beauty, aging, perceptions, and the “fluffy feminism” that so colours modern discourse. De Fino forces her reader to confront their own (mostly subconscious, I suspect) ideas relating to aging and desirability; one of the things that jumps out (to me) is the extent to which social media has created a sense of performative intimacy around the experience of these things, and an encouragement of projection and identification, largely with people who hold great wealth and power. Such figures (and their respective teams) use that position of privilege to (try to) erase the effects of the aforementioned issues which women who don’t have access to that kind of wealth and power are forced to confront and negotiate.

Today I also came across a powerful piece by Olha Poliukhovych (for Prospect magazine) which examines cultural identity within a vital historical context. Is it Mykola Hohol or Nikolai Gogol? Poliukhovych’s writing has implications far beyond the work (and life) of one 19th century writer, and got me thinking about the romanticizing that (even or especially now) continues around Russian and (especially) Soviet histories, and the ways hard reality interrupts (resets, rethinks, sets afire) such pastel-tinged nostalgia. It’s something I tried to capture last year with my series of essays relating to Ukraine, Russia, and classical culture, and it’s something to ponder throughout Margarita Liutova’s exchange with sociologist Grigory Yudin for Meduza (abridged translation by Emily Laskin). His points relating to resentment have socio-cultural tentacles, and  reading it brought to mind the strong Russian backlash to the #MeToo movement, and subsequently to the persistent complaints of “cancel culture” at work in European and American cultural institutions. But is it really that (shouts of “cancellation” seem to smack of the resentment Yudin identifies), or a more contextualized and wholly overdue sensitivity and awareness, things which Poliukhovych highlights so eloquently?

Speaking of intelligent contextualizing, Opernhaus Zürich has published a very good exchange with German director Tatjana Gürbaca in which she examines the notion that opera is anti-woman – or at least, that a disproportionate number of women in opera die/suffer/are victimized/traumatized. Gürbaca notes that not all opera deaths are the same (“Und nicht jeder Frauen tod sieht gleich aus”) and uses contextualized examples. Donizetti’s Lucia, for instance, doesn’t merely die but goes insane and in her famous “mad scene” aria has more power than of the other characters combined, that “with her coloratura (Lucia) takes space and reclaims her freedom. She also becomes a perpetrator, just like Tosca.” (“mit ihren Koloraturen nimmt sie sich Raum und erobert ihre Freiheit zurück. Ausserdem wird sie zur Täterin, genau wie Tosca.”). The director notes it isn’t just the opera world that has to grapple with issues around diversity, patriarchy, and cultural appropriation, either. “Ver altetes Denken nistet nicht nur im Repertoire der Opernhäuser, sondern auch in Banken, Universitäten, Fernsehanstalten, Krankenhäusern und Supermärkten. Überall.” (“Outdated thinking nests not only in the repertoire of opera houses, but also in banks, universities, television stations, hospitals and supermarkets. Everywhere.”)

Still with readings (even if it isn’t fully finished just yet): a new interview is coming to The Opera Queen with bass-baritone Christian Immler, whom I last spoke with in 2021. That exchange focused on the work of Hans Gál (and a little bit on Johann Sebastian Bach); our most recent one revolved around that of Jorg Widmann and Detlev Glanert. The two contemporary German composers have done some very compelling writing lately, for chamber and orchestra respectively, and Immler and I explored their works within the context of a cultural landscape grappling with the realities of war, politics, and lingering health concerns. That conversation will be posting in March 2023.

Also: more The Globe & Mail work is coming. Links will be posted at my Professional Work page.

Finally: I am considering starting a monthly newsletter. The idea has been inspired by the various works and writers mentioned in this post. The newsletter would replace the unpredictable postings of the past, and would consist of either an interview or a short essay. More than ever I realize I need to follow new paths, although I am still working out details (though I am clear on some: old material = accessible; new writing, get out your wallets). Maybe? Updates forthcoming.

Until then, to borrow a phrase from the weekly newsletter of music writer Axel Brüggemann, “Halten Sie die Ohren steif!”

Top photo: the interior of Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Carlo Rizzi, conductor, maestro, Italian, musician, artist

Carlo Rizzi: On Medea, Maturation, & The Desire To Do New Things

Time, as Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote in the libretto of Die Rosenkavalier, is a strange thing. It is an observation perhaps most applicable to the world of opera, an industry which continues to endure its fair share of slow-downs, speed-ups, and stand-stills since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. It’s on; it’s off; it’s on; people are sick, the show must go on; it’s half-on, it’s half-off; it’s reduced, it’s streamed; it’s full capacity but “gosh, where is the audience?” is combined with “why aren’t we moving tickets when we made such cool instagram videos?” and “let’s invite some influencers because they’ll bring the sexy young audience we really want!” Questions, queries, and marketing tactics aside, it is risk which is arguably foremost in audience minds: the risk of attending, but also the risk of experiencing something new, or something familiar, but in new ways. Literal risk may well scare some off (or simultaneously attract others), but figurative risk – creative risk – has the power to tempt long-time audiences back in the house, and bring a much-coveted demographic: newcomers. This positive outcome of risk calculation is one some houses are willing to dare, especially as a long, challenging winter draws closer.

Just how the element of risk manifests now is worth considering, especially given the bundles of new works being presented as part of the 2022-2023 season across various houses in North America and Europe. The Royal Opera is presenting a new opera by Oliver Leith about rock singer Kurt Cobain next month, and its entire run is already sold out. Some works, especially those with less of a direct reference to mainstream popular culture, may not be as much in the public consciousness (yet), but do have existing audiences, and do possess the kind of appeal which expands a work’s fanbase, especially to literature and theatre lovers. Case in point: Medea, by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), opens The Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-2023 season on September 27th. The 1797 opera is most famous, or at least has a fair measure of fame among opera aficionados, for its live recording featuring conductor Tullio Serafin and soprano Maria Callas from 1957. It has never been presented in The Met’s history – not for lack of trying; in an essay at The Met’s website, Associate Editor Jonathan Minnick details former General Manager Rudolf Bing’s efforts to bring the opera, and Callas, to New York in the 1960s. The Met may well be hoping to make its own kind of history with the new production, directed by David McVicar and featuring Sondra Radvanovsky in the lead. A soprano known for her passionate work with bel canto roles (including Donizetti’s Three Queens – Maria Stuarda, Anna Bolena, and Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux), Medea offers a very different set of shoes indeed, vocally and musically, though it may well be somewhat familiar territory for the level of dramatic intensity it demands. Radvanovsky will be joined by tenor Matthew Polenzani as the faithless Giasone, Janai Brugger as Glauce, Ekaterina Gubanova as Neris, and Michele Pertusi as Creonte. Historically, the Euripidean tragedy (431 BC) has been adapted for stage, television, and film, and has been an object of considerable study with relation to its themes of betrayal, obsession, family, feminism, and murder  – and rather interestingly, the work itself (the opera as much as the ancient Greek play) has a keen relationship to time, and the ways in which it speeds up, and/or slows down, at pivotal moments in one woman’s life. Cherubini’s score masterfully captures the drama inherent in such temporal shifts, using a deft combination of voices, strings, and woodwinds, as well as hectic passages and highly considered silences, to bring listeners into Medea’s inner world; it is a world where time, its passing, and all that implies, stretches, stops, and twists amidst a tumult of conflicting emotions. Beethoven, who was a fan, called Cherubini “Europe’s foremost dramatic composer”

Conductor Carlo Rizzi, who leads Medea performances at The Met, has been studying the score for well over a year. The drama of Cherubini’s Medea, as he explains in our chat below, is sewn within Cherubini’s orchestration and is a full partner with the vocal writing. Rizzi and I last spoke in September 2019, as the Italian conductor prepared to open the Canadian Opera Company’s 2019-2020 season with Turandot, an opera he knows so well, he has (like other Puccini operas) conducted it from memory. Medea, of course, is a different thing as much for him as for the cast, including Radvanovsky, with whom he has previously worked. Originally written and presented in French and subsequently translated into German and Italian (frequently; The Met is using the 1909 Italian translation by writer Carlo Zangarini), Cherubini’s version of the mythological vengeance story touches on a myriad of musical styles without entirely conforming to any of them: it isn’t Classical; it isn’t Romantic; it has elements of both. Medea is notable for not only its ferocious lead but for the unique musical language it utilizes to convey drama.

As Rizzi explains in our exchange, the orchestration of Medea is a key factor in conveying that drama. Getting the balance just right demands things you might expect, but multiplied several times over: patience; study; discussion; rehearsals; edits; more edits. The qualities needed for such responsibility – a passionate involvement and a forensic attention to detail – are ones Rizzi has meticulously developed across multiple projects, not least of which has been his work as Artistic Director of Opera Rara. With its mission on the restoration, recording, and performance of lost 19th and early 20th century works, the group not only gives an opportunity for opera history to be perceived and understood in broader ways, but allows for a far richer contextualizing of the “new” and “old” labels as applied to it, particularly within the realm of performance practices. One of their most celebrated released in recent memory was Ermonela Jaho’s immense Anima Rara from 2020, which beautifully showcased little-known verismo arias, and won the vocal category at the 2021 International Classical Music Awards. Opera Rara’s most recent recording is the one-act opera Zingari by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), out 23 September via Warner Music. Based on a poem by Pushkin from 1827, Zingari premiered in London in 1912 to great success, although Leoncavallo made extensive cuts and revisions to the work throughout its various revivals in Europe and North America. Rizzi noted during a recent Opera Rara release event that Zingari and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo’s famous 1892 work) share some structural differences, but Zingari, which Leoncavallo started writing in the early 1900s, is truly a thing apart, something the new recording emphasizes. He leads the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with palpable verve, carefully colouring its gloriously rich passages with a warmth of tone and precision in phrasing.

The recording is a symbol of the extent to which opera has shaped Rizzi’s career, as someone who has led rarities by a range of composers (including Giordano, Cimarosa, Bellini, Donizetti, Pizzetti, and Montemezzi) alongside well-loved works by Puccini and Verdi. Rizzi has served as Welsh National Opera’s Music Director twice (1992 to 2001, and 2004 to 2008) and is its Conductor Laureate; he regularly appears on the podiums of Teatro alla Scala Milan, Opera de Paris, Teatro Real Madrid, Den Norske Opera and Ballet (Oslo), and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he has led over 200 performances. This coming season sees him conduct two more works at famed the NYC house – revivals of Puccini’s Tosca (starting 4 October), and Verdi’s Don Carlo (starting 3 November), before moving on to Paris, where he will lead works by Verdi (Il trovatore) and Gounod (Romeo et Juliet), and, in May, give an Opera Rara performance of Donizetti’s 1828 opera L’esule di Roma (The Exile From Rome) at London’s Cadogan Hall with the Britten Sinfonia. Rizzi and I spoke just prior to the release of Zingari, and, more immediately, the morning of a recent Medea rehearsal – about new works, old works, and the need to embrace risk, now more than ever.

Zingari, album cover, Leoncavallo, recording, Carlo Rizzi, Opera Rara, opera, classicalWhat was the process for recording Zingari amidst pandemic?

We did it in December 2021, at the end of the serious lockdown but still the world was mostly wearing masks and distancing. I’ve since done Il proscritto by Saverio Mercadante with Opera Rara; which we did in June. That was much easier, but still, some got covid, thankfully none in the cast, and here in New York now we are rehearsing with masks. Some of the singers are allowed not to wear the masks for stage rehearsals – some do, some don’t – but the orchestra is all with masks.

While things are still so uncertain in the opera world, The Met’s decision to open their season with Medea seems unique.

It’s a situation I’ve never been in. Nobody has ever done it at The Met – nobody! So for the orchestra, chorus, me, singers, production, everybody, it’s a new discovery – even though this opera is very well known, particularly for the Callas phenomenon – it’s like there is a vacuum to fill, in a certain way. I sent some corrections to the Met Opera Library for the orchestra parts, something I have never had happen in opera before – it’s a discovery for everybody. Saturday we did it for the first time with the singers, which was great – I discovered a couple things I wanted to modify in the orchestra, and so.

Carlo Rizzi, conductor, maestro, Italian, musician, artist

Photo © Tessa Traeger

Do you feel like something of a trailblazer?

This is a good thing and also a great responsibility – because in a way, there is the freedom to do things, but then again, in this case there is this recording, this Callas thing, and of course many people will have only heard that, so “oh this is Medea ” – well, actually no, this is Medea as she did it. Callas was Callas; now it’s 50 years later, and there is all this sense of anticipation and responsibility. It’s a big responsibility. I have to let the score speak to me, and in this particular opera it’s been very different from the others because his is a language, Cherubini’s, that is not very easy to classify. When you speak about Rossini, there is a certain way of writing to the voices with the support of the orchestra that you can identify – the same is true when you speak of Puccini or Verdi; if you think about an Traviata, okay, you can remember the Brindisi, the aria of the First Act, the duet in the Second Act. But here, in Medea of course there are those big arias and duets, but actually there is also a great interconnection in the drama between the voices and the orchestra. The orchestra is never a mere companion beside the voice, but a full partner. The orchestra players were talking about this recently – they feel in the middle of the drama with this opera. If there is a dramatic moment or a particular emotion a composer wants to express, of course it’s in the singing but with Medea it’s also fully in the orchestra.

There are some moments which I think are very clever; the character spends half ot the performance trying to get what she wants – to get revenge, of course – but she also wants to see her children. So there’s the line of Medea and the first violin, which is expressive of the latter, but if you look at the viola part, there’s something much more dark in it. When she says, “One day more” – the drama is in the scoring of the orchestra – Medea is, so to speak, in the orchestra. And I think that’s very interesting, because it allows the decisions you make with the orchestra and singers to be much more unified. For me that’s rewarding.

Cherubini’s work sonically anticipates much future work…

Exactly.

… but it’s interesting to consider that Medea premiered in French and is often performed in the Italian translation; what do you make of that? It’s curious how translation has the power to change received meaning and experience.

That is a huge question! The translation, per se, is not for me the most difficult thing, but there is some quirkiness to it. It’s for the simple reason that in Italian, always, basically, the accent is on the penultimate syllable, and in French the accent is on the last syllable. We do the (sung, in this version) Italian recitatives in this production. Now, one could say, “Why don’t you do them spoken in French?” – and sure, we could, but it’s the Italian version, and the recitatives are where the drama happens. The drama is never in an aria alone – what happened before and what happens after matter as much. The recitatives enhance the drama, beginning to end. Medea is so dramatic in her minimalism. She doesn’t come in flaming on a dragon – there is just a simple sound and simple chord: “where is the traitor?” It’s amazing, this moment, it’s so anti-operatic in a way, but totally, utterly dramatic. So taking the lead from what Cherubini wrote in these passages, I think, personally, that these recitative sections hold the drama of the piece; it all hangs on how those are performed.

You’re right regarding the translation – another opera I’m doing here later, Don Carlo, has the French version and Italian version – and there are differences in the ways that text is approached although written by the same composer. I grew up with Don Carlo in Italian, it’s what I’ve heard forever. When I did it in French at one point, or rather at certain points, things made more sense. The Italian (version) again, is not terrible – but in French, you can hear the meaning. We can discuss until the cows come home if we should do this only in French now, but I believe we can do both.

So the translation isn’t so central as to change the core meaning?

Sort of. What I’ve noticed, in studying both the French text and the Italian text, is yes, there are some differences. Sometimes you get translations of operas where, in the original language a character says one thing, and that comes out totally another thing in the translation – that is not the case with this opera! I think sometimes the (textual) quirks are there because (Carlo) Zangarini, as an Italian, was trying to keep the French line, the French text. The important thing to remember is that composers tend to think of certain words to give the apex of a phrase, it’s not just a question of translating it straight over. For example, if you take Rodolfo’s famous aria in Bohème, the word “speranza” is important, it’s everything Rodolfo hopes for, it’s why it’s a top C right there – but if you translate that word into another language, it changes the way everything lands. For Cherubini the drama isn’t on one note; the technical writing is less involving this apex which was common to Romantic aria writing, and is more focused around the development of the aria by the different orchestral sections. It’s instrumentation which brings characters to say certain things, including the moments with Medea and Giasone. You can hear it one way, or in another way, with the voice or with the orchestra, or both, so it’s like circles of relating.

Sondra Radvanovsky, Medea, opera, Metropolitan Opera, The Met, Cherubini, McVicar, premiere, New York

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of Cherubini’s “Medea.” Photo: Paola Kudacki / Met Opera

You have worked with Sondra Radvanovsky a few times, including a lot of work in bel canto repertoire; what’s been your experience now?

I do find working with her so rewarding. The past times we’ve worked together, like in 2017 with Norma among many other performances, she would know those roles in her body, not only in the notes. This isn’t the bel canto she’s used to doing, and as I said before, it’s a discovery for everybody. Yesterday after rehearsal she and I were still discussing and exchanging ideas of how to more clearly project a certain kind of personality at a certain point rather than another kind at other moments – and all this energy comes together at a certain point: through the next rehearsals; with some technical things like portamento; where she goes into chest for a certain phrase, or if it’s more legato, or more a conversational sort of style; all these things are things we constantly discuss. It’s a project that is a work-in-progress, because again, it is the first time everybody has done it. We’d be foolish to come in and say, “This is the way we have to do this” when there are different and better ways.

How do you see Medea fitting within your overall opera oeuvre?

It’s interesting because Medea is something that never happened in my life – well, maybe when I was very young – but this is my fifth new opera in a row this year. It’s been bloody hard work – it’s not just opening the score and doing it! I started with Cendrillon (Massenet), then I did Il Proscritto (Mercadante) then I due Foscari (Verdi), then Rossini’s La gazzetta, and now Medea. For me personally it’s been a period of a lot of study, I can tell you, but also challenging in a positive way, especially after the covid lockdowns. It’s been very welcome. Now I’m happy doing something I’ve done before too. So often people think, “What do conductors do? What do they really do?” And, fine, if you have a good technique you can read and conduct something within three days – but truly, it requires more. Being a conductor requires a real maturation, and only time gives that. You have to know to start studying early – I started on Medea more than a year-and-a-half ago. You think about it; you read; you mark it up; you go away; you come back; it’s been a great period, but it’s been very busy also.

It brings to mind something Alexander Neef said to me in 2020, that the pandemic era is ideal for presenting new things to audiences – for risk.

That’s very true. A related silver lining of this era is that we had the time to sit and study these things. Also, it has to be said, that even if everybody did the Zoom performances, the distanced performances, it comes out at the end that nothing can compare to, nothing can overtake the feeling of being at a live performance. That means there is a desire to have new things, to do new things, to not just do the same old things, and not to do them in such a comfortable way as before. We don’t take it for granted – because now we know: nothing is guaranteed anymore. So fine, let’s take it as a positive from the situation, and keep doing things this way, and hope the public will come back and not be fearful, and start to enjoy it again, and abandon one’s self not only to the music but visual art, to dance, to cinema, and so on. It’s why we’re making art.

Top photo: Carlo Rizzi rehearsing Zingari with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, December 2021. Photo: Simon Weir / Opera Rara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They really are…

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

Yes that’s true!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

So if Shostakovich is Kandinsky, Silvestrov is Mark Rothko?

Good point, yes.

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

What do you mean?

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

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

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

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

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

Top: Dmitri Jurowski leads a rehearsal with the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. Photo: Matthias Creutziger

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