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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

Kai Hinrich Müller, Thomas Mann House, Opera & Democracy, scholar, series, Los Angeles, music, opera, performance, theatre, lecture, ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Andi Crown

How did the New Opera Forum come about?

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

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

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

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

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

“Revivable, Sustainable” New Operas

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

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

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

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

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

Gatekeeping In Opera

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

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

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

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

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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”

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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
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Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings: “A Microscopic View Into The Orchestra”

History looms large when you’re 500 years old. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester might know a thing or two about the weight of such a history – but in-house record label Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings renders the present, as much as the present and future, profound, polished, and yes, portable.

The orchestra of the famed Bayerische Staatsoper began life in 1523, when regularized performances started at the Bavarian court. Its musicians became famous following the 1563 appointment of composer Orlande de Lassus, though their output was reoriented with the start of opera performances in the mid 17th century in Munich. Mozart himself led the orchestra in the world premiere of Idomeneo in 1781, which was also written in the city. But it was 1811 when, crucially, members of the Bavarian court orchestra found the Musikalische Akademie e. V. association; that decision led to the creation of Munich’s first public concert series, known as Akademiekonzerte. The orchestra gained particular fame in the latter half of the 19th century in their hosting the first performances of numerous Wagner operas, including Tristan und Isolde (premiered at the National Theatre in 1865)  Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Das Rheingold (1869), and Die Walküre (1870). One of the institution’s most famous General Music Directors (GMDs) was composer Richard Strauss, whose father Franz was a noted principal horn player with the orchestra, then known as the Court Opera. But Strauss Jr. was far from the only famous music figure in the position; subsequent leaders have included a who’s who in classical history, including Bruno Walter, Clemens Krauss, Georg Solti, and more recently, Zubin Mehta, Kirill Petrenko, and currently Vladimir Jurowski, who led acclaimed productions of Prokofiev’s War and Peace and Brett Dean’s Hamlet last season. Whether either will see their way to formal releases remains to be seen.

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BSOrec CD releases. Photo: mine; please contact me to reuse.

Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings (or BSOrec), run in-house, will be the label to make it happen. The independent announced itself in 2021 in a rather unique fashion, not with a splashy opera production but via big symphony – Mahler’s immense Seventh Symphony, to be precise. Captured live in 2018 and led by contemporaneous GMD Petrenko, the recording – and indeed label – generated big buzz across the classical world, with many music writers noting the orchestra’s responsiveness to the material. In a review for Gramophone at its release in 2021, Edward Seckerson wrote that “I really thought I knew this work – every facet of it. But Kirill Petrenko has a way of hearing deep into textures and harmonies that is at times really quite startling. He gives us X-ray ears.” The label quickly followed the Mahler release with a DVD of the acclaimed 2019 staging of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Marlis Petersen. In his assessment at Adventures In Music, classical blogger Jari Kallio praised Video Director Myriam Hoyer while noting that “the orchestral lines are drawn with acute intensity and tremendous sonic beauty.” In early 2022 the label released a DVD of The Snow Queen by composer Hans Abrahamsen and conducted by Cornelius Meister. Based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, the presentation features Barbara Hannigan and was recorded in late 2019-early 2020. All three releases went on to achieve significant accolades within the classical world, including four big wins at the 2022 Gramophone Awards. It was the first time in the history of the prestigious British organization that a Recording of the Year was won by an audio-visual title; it was also only the second time an orchestra won both the Orchestral and Opera categories. Quite the achievement for a young label.

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BSOrec DVD releases. Photo: mine; please contact me to reuse.

BSOrec marched on, releasing DVDs of  a combined ensemble production of Stravinsky’s Mavra and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta (released in 2022) and Andrea Chénier (released last month) again featuring Jonas Kaufmann and led by Marco Armiliato. It’s a curious if inspired selection, with an even more curious choice of design; in place of cover photos is bold silver lettering, with not one name larger than the other, set within sturdy holders, each in solid, rainbow-like colours. The eye-catching design, originally by Mirko Borsch, sends a clear message across both audio and video titles, along with the many thoughtful essays and interviews contained within, the majority penned by talented dramaturg Malte Krasting, who knows a thing or two about the role of context.

The first BSOrec release with current General Music Director Jurowski (from 2022) pairs Brett Dean’s Testament and Beethoven’s Second Symphony, and includes Krasting’s thoughtful interview with the Russian maestro in its liner notes. Releases (all of which enjoy distribution via Naxos) this year have marked the 500th birthday of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester though they also highlight the unique talents of individual sections. Original Grooves by Opercussion, and Voyager by the Munich Opera Horns, both released earlier this year, are a showcase of creative thinking within the recording paradigm. Original Grooves features a creative mix of classical, Latin, and jazz (Bach, Astor Piazzolla, Dizzy Gillespie) in original arrangements by ensemble members. Voyager offers music by Strauss, Dubois, Reicha, and Franz alongside compositions by contemporary composers Urs Vierlinger, Hans-Jürg Sommer, and Konstantia Gourzi. Such interlacing of sounds, with a keen eye on drama, was also realized via the the release of contemporary children’s piece Der Mondbär: Ein Hörspiel mit Musik für Kinder, with music by Richard Whilds/ libretto by Sarah Scherer, and based on the popular German books and animated series. BSOrec’s upcoming audio release is a firm nod to its storied history, if also an ambitious wave to the future. Mendelssohn’s Elias was captured in July 1984 and features a dream team of soloists (Dame Margaret Price, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Schreier, Dieter Fischer-Diskau) and choir (Chor des Städtischen Musikvereins zu Düsseldorf), led by celebrated conductor (and former company leader) Wolfgang Sawallisch.

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Conductor and former Bayerische Staatsoper GMD Kent Nagano meets with Bayerisches Staatsorchester in Hamburg September 10, 2023. Photo: Geoffroy Shied

Such an auspicious combination of elements (past/present; theatricality; dramaturgy; passion) could be experienced through recent concerts given as part of the orchestra’s recent European tour, which included stops in London, Paris, and Berlin. Tour repertoire was chosen thoughtfully, a true reflection of not only composer connections to Bayerische Staatsoper (Wagner, Strauss) but to the orchestra’s home city as well (Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was premiered in Munich in late 1901). Past and present mixed in certain programmes, with Ukrainian composer Victoria Vita Poleva’s Symphonie Nr.3 White Internment opening select concerts, and soloists ran the gamut between generations, with violinist Vilde Frang, pianist Yefim Bronfman, and sopranos Louise Alder and Elsa Dreisig. The orchestra’s stop in Hamburg included a visit with conductor and former GMD Kent Nagano; on their home turf in Munich they entertained over 10,000 spectators who had gathered in Marstallplatz as part of an “Oper für Alle” event which featured the music of Schumann and Strauss. Earlier in the month in Lucerne, the orchestra’s performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony was interrupted by climate activists whose presence was acknowledged with utmost diplomacy by conductor Jurowski; it was a moment of elegant humanism, a quality deep within the orchestra’s DNA and palpable throughout BSOrec’s output, and its small if highly dedicated team, led by Managing Director Guido Gärtner.

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BSOrec’s Guido Gärtner. Photo: Frank Hanewacker

Gärtner joined the Bayerisches Staatsorchester in 2008 as a violinist, a position he continues concurrent to BSOrec duties. He and I enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation in late summer, which touched on a myriad of topics, including that fashionable thing discussed so often within classical circles now, brand identity. I was also curious to know what advantages perceives Gärtner within the in-house label paradigm – Bayerische Staatsoper certainly isn’t the first big organization to do it (the Berlin Philharmonic is another notable example) but the challenges of the recording industry (and the weight of being 500 years old) are no small thing. What role does (or should) an independent label play in a decidedly difficult classical landscape? How to choose archives? What about new work? Whither relevance (another word so frequently thrown around in the classical world)? And what’s with the BSOrec design? Gärtner has the answers, and then some.

Why have an in-house label?

People might look at the orchestra solely within the context of musical theatre, so for us, being in charge of our own musical well-being, and our own concert performances, is a very strong and vital thing. We don’t just play because it’s fun – that’s a big part – but we want to be seen, and we want people to know what we stand for and why we do what we do. The key is to be accessible and visible; we don’t always travel, but the media travels for us.

With the Mahler 7 release, it was a stunt to start – we are an opera label but we made our introduction with a big symphony. We showed the world that the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is not just an opera orchestra but one of the finest orchestras in the world. By doing that, and doing it successfully, we really made a point, and it worked out really well.

So for the Mahler CD and the Die Tote Stadt DVD we had two real gems, especially with Kirill Petrenko being one of the greatest of his art, and the orchestra under him being on top also. We knew that together there was something worth sharing and exploring. We always aim to show how much is happening in one house, so the recordings recognize the versatility of the orchestra but also the entire system in our house, and how deep and broad it all actually is. We knew from the beginning it wouldn’t be just operas, or just concerts we would release, but everything this house produces, which is why we decided to release ensemble work as well.

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Bayerische Staatsoper’s Oper für Alle concert featuring Bayerisches Staatsorchester performing at Munich’s Marstallplatz, September 16, 2023. Photo: Wilfred Hösl

How does that label change or influence your position within the classical ecosystem of Munich?

It’s amazing – we have this relatively small city with this extremely large amount of fantastic musical institutions and ensembles like the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Munich Philharmonic. At the BSO we are always telling a story; I always say, it’s stopping the heart. A C# minor chord is never just a chord but a statement, part of a larger story. That goes for onstage work as much as recordings. What makes the orchestra so special is not that it’s the oldest one in Munich but it’s actually an orchestra whose DNA derives from theatre music: there’s spontaneity; there’s agility. But every orchestra stands for itself, and there’s enough space for all of them, especially in a city like Munich, which has so much music, and more widely in the state of Bavaria. We are very happy where we are. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester is identified as a theatre orchestra, as an opera orchestra, and we’re not trying to get away from that, but the point we’re making is we have even more to offer.

In terms of strategy and artistic development, it’s important to develop this awareness – if you want to survive as an orchestra I think it’s very important everyone knows why you exist. The education programs; the concerts and chamber concerts; the children’s pieces; things done within the community; the recordings: if you have all of these things to offer, it’s difficult to say you’re irrelevant. Relevance is everything to an orchestra.

Relevance seems very connected to BSOrec’s brand – what was the thinking behind its cultivation?

Being your own brand is powerful. Our in-house label gives us the freedom to choose which repertoire we want to release, because we genuinely like it. But more importantly, this choice gives us the possibility to influence how we are being perceived, not only as a label, but also as an artistic institution. As opposed to a major label, in our case the institution and the label are the same brand. That is an absolutely important element that gives us a lot of freedom.

How does this sense of freedom help to attract audiences, especially those new to the art form or those who know you exclusively for opera?

We can show what’s actually in the orchestra –who we are, what we do and where we come from.  We can of course show what incredible musicians we have. There are so many different people with so many different interests and styles. There’s also the possibility for that thing I mentioned before, storytelling: we tell stories about Strauss’s father, who was a horn player; we tell stories about various aspects of contemporary music; we offer tales on new aspects to well-known music that has been here for a long time. The label offers a microscopic view into the orchestra. The first archived recording being released is also a very important block in the overall idea of the label and tells its own story.

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Wolfgang Sawallisch in rehearsal. Photo: Sabine Toepffer

How do you find new approaches for archived recordings?

It’s an interesting question. For this latest release, Mendelssohn’s Elias, the statement is: it isn’t an opera; it isn’t a symphonic work; it’s an oratorio. It shows the versatility of the orchestra but first and foremost it shows the excellence. The cast and the orchestra are a dream team. It’s not that they just convened for this one thing and took off to various places when it was finished; all of these singers were often guests in the National Theatre back in those days. It’s not just one moment in the history of the house but shows the general level that was here in 1984. Also, this piece was premiered for both the Münchner Opernfestspiele and the 88th German Katholikentag (Catholic Convention). It’s music composed by someone with a Jewish background who converted to Protestantism. Sawallisch was also making his own statement on unity and religious beliefs.

When I first listened to the recording, it didn’t take me long to realize this is something we have to publish, because it was a moment, because there was so much energy in the room, and you can really hear it. In so many ways it felt like the perfect way to start the archived releases for the label.

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Conductor and Bayerische Staatsoper GMD Vladimir Jurowski speaks with composer Victoria Vita Poleva before Bayerisches Staatsorchester’s performance in Berlin, September 11, 2023. Photo: Wilfred Hösl

What is the role of new compositions then?

The idea was always to give contemporary music a real platform. We started with Mahler, yes, then released Die Tote Stadt; we knew those two would have momentum and be successful. They would give the label a good entrance into the world and get everyone interested in the next release. The next release after them was a contemporary opera, Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen, a project not many labels would have taken on. The other thing we released was Beethoven 2 – by the way that was the main piece played in 1811 at the inaugural Akademie concert – and that symphony was combined with a contemporary piece by Brett Dean. His “Testament” relates to the Beethoven immediately and also showcases Vladimir Jurowski’s approach to music and programming, which I find highly interesting.

For the Voyager release there was a contemporary work by Konstantia Gourzi, who wrote it specifically for the Munich Opera Horns. The entire album circles around her “Voyager 2”, which I find very strong, and which was chosen by the musicians themselves, as was the contents on the whole album. We didn’t intervene, because I like to think musicians have fantastic ideas when it comes to this kind of a project.

I like the idea of the Trojan Horse: as was seen with the Beethoven release, it’s good to combine the big great old repertoire with something brave and new, something that speaks to our time, and gets attention because of the combination. It’s an approach Jurowski uses a lot, and it works when you do it well. You have to find a good balance between everything and I’m sure the label will try to keep going in that direction.

To what extent does BSOrec’s package design reflect this balance?

When you see releases from other labels, you see the piece in big letters, or more often these days the singers, and in small letters you see the institution – the house isn’t the main thing. If you put those productions from all these labels in a row, everything looks different and what you recognize is the piece. But if you now put all the BSOrec releases together, it’s very clear which institution is behind it. It’s clear. The idea is, it isn’t about pictures, it’s about institution, and many different repertoire styles; it also signals a certain quality, and a certain idea or concept, all within one house. The door you open to all of that looks the same. I won’t tell you which colours are next – that’s the magic trick! But it’s always nice that people ask about that particular thing.

Interesting the DVD features Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen in what was a very acclaimed production but their photos aren’t on the cover – that’s a brave choice!

It equalizes. Some love it, some hate it. Whenever you see it it sticks out, and that of course is the oldest trick in the branding book: recognizing a logo or a certain style. And that style has to match the idea, and have the quality of the physical in terms of how the products feel when you touch them. All of this is important, but all of it, entirely, has to precisely match the musical content, the production content, but also, the written content. This is why I’m so grateful to have Malte on the team. The booklet, the music, the style, the sound, the way it feels in your hand – it all has to be one experience and it has to be a fine, subtle, and beautiful combination to give you one beautiful experience.

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Bayerisches Staatsorchester performs under the baton of  Bayerische Staatsoper GMD Vladimir Jurowski in London on September 19, 2023. Photo: Geoffroy Shied

Top photo: Bayerisches Staatsorchester on the stage of the National Theatre, Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: Nikolaj Lund.
Originally published 9 September 2023.
Edited and republished 23 September 2023.
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September Songs: Change, Relevance, Artistry, Loss

September has arrived though, at least in my part of the world, related cooler temperatures have yet to appear. Still, there is a marked change when it comes to the formal end of summer holidays. The “most wonderful time of the year” for parents is also the big inhalation for those of us working in the education system; the feelings I remember as a child at this time (dread; excitement; anxiety) have, in adulthood, whittled down to something leaner if no less energetic (anticipation; impatience). The return of structure and its first cousin, predictability, are pluses, though they’re hardly immobile; schedules, due dates, and outlines bump against individual and collective needs, abilities, and personalities, as well they must. Being an Adjunct Professor means not so much juggling as knitting – in new patterns, constantly, never quite sure what you’re making or to what end, at least until the conclusion of term. Here’s hoping the blanket (or whatever it is) proves useful to more than a few.

September also marks the start of the arts season, a time when the choices announced many months ago are realized and suddenly take on harder, thicker edges. Programming and concomitant production are more interlinked than ever, but understanding that link is proving more and more difficult. Just weeks after American magazine Opera News announced its imminent closure, prestigious German classical publication Fono Forum sent a note to its contributors indicating its final edition will be in January 2024. As I wrote with regards to ON last month: I am not surprised, particularly given the current state of media, and arts-dedicated media in particular. Publishing is pricy, audiences are splintered; algorithms and related ROI lead many away from niche publishing and toward the sort of output that tends to clash with the things culture (at least some of it) might perhaps inspire: slowing down; abstract thought; careful evaluation. Finding people willing to pay to read things at all is the toughest task for media in the 21st century; finding people willing to pay for things which might further inspire such focus is even harder; finding people willing to pay for coverage of a very niche interest is triply difficult. Classical does not (for the most part) inspire sexy clicks; the question is, should it, and can it? Are there people who don’t mind? Can those who make faces afford to keep making faces? I do think there are, and will be, other means and methods; whether they will have any quick and sexy ROI is another matter. It’s going to take time and that thing Axl sang about; to quote Hamlet (again), ’tis true ’tis pity, and pity ’tis ’tis true.

In Berlin

Also true: Komische Oper Berlin (KOB) is opening its new season with a very coverage-worthy event. The company’s first production away from its usual Behrenstraße locale is being done with a big (possibly literal) splash. Hans Werner Henze’s oratorio Das Floß der Medusa is being staged in an old airport hangar at Templehof, with seating located around a huge body of water designed especially for the production. Director Tobias Kratzer, notable for his work at a range of houses, including Deutsche Oper Berlin, Bayreuth , and Opéra de Paris, here leads a cast featuring Gloria Rehm, Idunnu Münch, Günter Papendell, 83 musicians, and over 100 choristers, all under the baton of conductor Titus Engel.

The work is based on real history: the wreck of French naval ship Méduse ran off the coast of western African in 1816. While the ship’s captains saved themselves and escaped, over 150 others took to a raft, which they stayed on (or tried to stay on when they weren’t gouging each others’ eyes out or committing suicide) for thirteen days; only fifteen people would survive the disaster. Théodore Géricault famously depicted the wreck in his monumental painting a scant three years after the event, interviewing Méduse’s survivors and examining the flesh of cadavers as he worked. Henze’s 1968 oratorio is a kind of veiled (or not-so-veiled) political statement on the issues which sit foremost within the tragedy. Its premiere inspired clashes between protestors (some pro-communist; some anarchist), the RIAS choir, and police who had come to break up the scuffles; Ernst Schnabel, who wrote the text, was among those arrested. Henze revised  the score in 1990, and the work has been presented, in concert and full production formats many times since. Its relevance, particularly for this time in history, is unmissable. As Opera Today’s Anne Ozorio wrote in her masterful review of a 2018 presentation by Dutch National Opera:

… Géricault was painting when the wreck of the Medusa was still raw political scandal. The rich had left the poor to die. What Géricault depicted was not lost on audiences at the time. The real horror is that modern audiences refuse to connect, even though we’re surrounded by images or war, destruction and refugees drowning at sea. Even if the press don’t know Henze, which is bad enough, surely some might have the humanity to think ?

The new KOB production was slated for five performances but a sixth was added out of sheer demand. Get thee to Templehof.

Also in Berlin

The European premiere of Chief Hijangua – A Namibian Opera in Four Acts by composer/conductor/baritone Eslon Hindundu takes place this month. The work features a libretto by Nikolaus Frei and will enjoy a semi-staged presentation by Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB). The multitalented Hindundu has performed and conducted in numerous events and festivals (including Swakopmunder Musikwoche, an annual music event held in Swakopmund, Namibia, and Germany’s annual autumn Immling Festival), and led the Namibian National Symphony Orchestra (as the organization’s Music Director) in the opera’s world premiere at the National Theatre of Namibia, Windhoek in 2022. The upcoming Berlin presentation will be directed by Kim Mira Meyer (who often works with Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater) and will feature the vocal talents of Berlin-based Cantus Domus and Vox Vitae Musica (a choral group founded by Hindundu); the opera utilizes both German and Otjiherero, one of the languages spoken by Namibians. The work is a clear reference to Germany’s brutal colonization of Namibia in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, in which (according to a report from DW) roughly 100,000 people were killed and numerous atrocities committed. The opera itself tells a personal story, with its theme (the search for identity) sewn into its depiction detailing the quest of a young prince.

Chief Hijangua is being presented at a pivotal point within the classical world, as calls rise for greater social relevance in an art form frequently derided for being out of touch with real-world concerns and lived experiences. Opera warhorses (and related old productions) are frequently programmed now to get covid-scared audiences back into the auditorium; in places where government funding is scant, that is a reality that can’t be ignored. But as The Met itself noted, box office (at least in New York) is being made with precisely with, and not despite, new works. Maybe classical organizations need to be slightly braver with their choices? Maybe a little more trust in audiences would be a good thing? Might this be more than a mere trend? Perhaps Chief Hijangua will receive further productions in international venues? It seems the RSB, along with showcasing Hindundu’s considerable talents, is celebrating their 100th birthday with a powerful symbol of creativity whilst simultaneously throwing down a gauntlet to the greater opera world. Chief Hijuanga runs for three performances at Berlin’s Haus des Rundfunks, and is being done in partnership with Deutschlandfunk Kultur.

In London

History, literature, music, and theatre all mix at the Barbican Centre in London this month with King Stakh’s Wild Hunt. Based on the popular 1964 novel by Belarusian writer Uladzimir Karatkievich, the work mixes folk mythology and pointed social commentary related to ongoing political repression in Belarus. Co-director Nicolai Khalezin calls it a story that “combines mysticism and reality, love and hatred, nobility and cowardice, history and modernity.” The work is being presented by Belarus Free Theatre (BFT),  an underground theatre group who were forced into exile in 2021, and who count actors Kim Cattrall and Jeremy Irons, rock musician David Gilmour, and playwright Tom stoppard among their supporters. King Stakh features a score by Olga Podgaiskaya, a composer and active member of Belarusian avant-garde chamber group Five-Storey Ensemble, who will be performing as part of the production.

Conductor Vitali Alekseenok, who leads the musical side, is currently Artistic Director of the annual Kharkiv Music Fest in Ukraine, and wrote about his experience there earlier this summer. In London he leads a troupe which will feature Ukrainian singers Andrei Bondarenko and Tamara Kalinkina, and is being helmed by co-founding BFT Artistic Directors Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. The latter’s own father recorded the novel in 2009 for an audio book (portions of which will be used in the production). She notes that her father had urged her to stage the novel for years, “not just because it’s one of the greatest Belarusian novels of the last century, but because he deeply understood its relevance.” The work, she continues, “reminds us that the past is not dead, it’s here in Europe today”. Kaliada’s father is unfortunately no longer alive to see the fruits of his daughter’s labour, but its realization is a strong sign of hope, and needed ongoing resistance to Belarusian repressions. King Stakh has its world premiere at the Barbican and will run for four performances.

Remembering…

Loss seems like a subtext through many upcoming presentations, and indeed it felt much closer this weekend. On Saturday it was announced that Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama has passed away at the age of 93. The Japanese artist, who survived a horrendous wartime internment on the west coast of Canada, was responsible for many famous landmarks in the country, including the Canadian War Museum, the Japanese-Canadian Centre (now called the Noor Cultural Centre), Science North, the Ontario Science Centre, as well as the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. In 2003 Moriyama was made a member of the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun (4th class), an award conferred in recognition of his services to Japanese culture in Canada. In 2009 he was the recipient of a Canadian Governor-General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2009. The awards were just two of the numerous honors the architect collected during his lifetime. I’ve always found Moriyama’s work to be musical, possessing its own distinct resonance; as a child I used to visit the Scarborough Civic Centre and look up and around in awe.

Growing older I visited other locales (mentioned above), and would silently wonder at his use of texture, shape, light, and structure. He created a smart, daringly (for the time and place) spiritual balance of notable contrasts (rich/stark; old/new; dark/light), providing a full experience of form that reaches well past the visual. I hear Stravinsky’s 1930 work Symphony of Psalms whenever I look at his work now. This 2020 documentary by Ontario public broadcaster TVO clearly shows why Moriyama and his work will always be a treasure. (Note: some may need a VPN to view this, but it’s definitely worth it).

Finally: I learned of the untimely passing of Maxim Paster yesterday morning, and spend a good chunk of the day (and night) listening to and watching a range of performances by the Kharkiv-born tenor. His repertoire was immensely wide (Puccini; Tchaikovsky; Bizet; Berg; Prokofiev; Strauss –Richard and Johann; Rimsky-Korsakov; Donizetti; Verdi; Mussorgsky) but barely captured his talent. Making his Bolshoi debut in 2003, Paster would perform with many prestigious institutions indeed – Opéra de Paris, Bayerische Staatsoper, The Metropolitan Opera, Semperoper Dresden, Teatro Alla Scala, the Salzburg Festival. He was rightly famous for his Shuisky in Boris Godunov, performing in a variety productions on an assortment of stages, including the Bolshoi, Opéra Bastille (Paris), The Met, and Teatro Comunale (Bologna). Paster’s commitment to music possessed an innate humility; this was an artist who very clearly humbled himself before whatever was in front of him, placing his entire self into the service of the text and music, and of rendering them as one. In so doing he gave us something personal, not performative – emotional, not sentimental – thus making the music immediate and very real. Witness his care with the words of Sergei Yesenin in this 2019 performance of Rostislav Boyko’s “Moon Above The Window”:

That voice, flinty and flexible, went hand-in-hand with a deep theatrical understanding. Paster understood, so well, the large value of small gestures. A turn of a torso; a cock of a head; the lift of a hand; slow, deliberate inhalations and exhalations, visible for all to see – such combinations, when done with such elegant economy as what Paster employed, quietly opened doors of perception and understanding, and made one hungry for more. There are very few artists who are so knowing in their creative choices, and whose vocal expression is so utterly attuned with a composer’s imagination – and that of an audience. Paster embodied an artistic authenticity as rare as it is remarkable. He died at the age of 47, still with so much left to offer to music, art, the world.

News of Paster’s passing made for a grim start to September, a month of change, and perhaps some needed reflection on that imminent change. “One hasn’t got time for the waiting game,” to quote Weill’s famous song, with words by Maxwell Anderson. “September Song”, interestingly, made its entry into the world on September 26, 1938 as part of the trial run of the musical Knickerbocker Holiday in Hartford, Connecticut. The “waiting game” need only be played out a few more days before my much-promised feature interview with BSO Recordings Managing Director Guido Gärtner is published. Until then, watch, listen, read, attend… think, rethink, evaluate… slowly.

Top photo: Mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
field, grass, daisies, green, nature, wild, summer

Endings, Beginnings, August

August is a month of abundance, but also, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, a time of acknowledging the inevitability of endings, and preparing for the uncertainty of new beginnings. A distinctly Augustian mix occurred within the opera world this year: many premieres, and many conclusions.

The end of June saw an announcement from Tulsa Opera of the cancellation of its two mainstage productions for the 2023-2024 season, and the resignation of its General Director. Earlier this week The Metropolitan Opera Guild announced it will be streamlining operations; its educational initiatives (which include programs allowing roughly 12,000 students to attend dress rehearsals every season) will fall under the auspices of The Met itself. Related publication Opera News, which had been a monthly glossy since 2008 and had a circulation of 43,000 (I was an occasional freelance contributor) will be incorporated into British magazine Opera following its final print edition in November. In related news, Takt1, the Dortmund-based classical streaming portal who operate in cooperation with a number of classical organizations (including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Gewandhausorchester and the Wiener Konzerthaus), announced that as of September 1, 2023, they will be discontinuing their subscription platform.

I have lately been asked for my opinion about this spate of bad news, with many making those requests quite aware of what I’ll say: education; media; resources; will. The long-term solutions related to social policy usually require a resilience which is anathema to the ROI and sexy (if very easy to fake) analytics espoused within digital circles and by their (mysteriously) heralded personalities. There is no guaranteed Land of Oz at the end of the rainbow – that isn’t how opera (or culture, or investment in culture, cultural education, and a broader non-utilitarian approach to learning) works, least of all in a capitalist-led consumer culture where generous government support for either arts or education is nearly non-existent. Opera is also an expensive art form with a (mostly, not entirely) limited appeal; its cost means that long-term investment in the things that make it actually work are unsettling for any organization (public or private) to support, and triply so when that art form is not, as in some locales, embedded within socio-cultural norms and traditions, and sewn into the daily fabric of living, learning, and regular live-experiencing – at cheap prices, in casual wear, outside or in large halls at that.

There has been a lot of bad news, but a lot of inspiring work as well. Rather than contradiction, I do see balance –however tenuous it may be – in the form of bold programming, choices from which I hope some organizations will draw inspiration. Of course there are vast differences between the North American and European classical worlds (it is a topic I have explored more than once) but there are ideas related to education, access, and awareness which cross borders and demand non-nationalistic airtime. In her final column for Takt1, music writer Charlotte Gardner notes that ever-entrenching perceptions of classical (along the lines of: it’s fancy-irrelevant-elitist) are being exacerbated “by classical music getting less and less print space and airtime from our national journalism providers. Essentially, classical music is currently engaged in an almighty fight for “establishment” acceptance (the irony…), and it doesn’t look as though it’s going to be over any time soon.” That goes triple for North America; anyone in the arts who has studied and contemplated the precipitous drops in education and media funding (i.e. me; I work in both) couldn’t have been terribly surprised by the Opera News update. Terrible, yes, and terribly inevitable, given the state of… everything. Thankfully, Gardner pinpoints the needed hope: “(I)f you talk about classical music with love, knowledge, and a clear desire to communicate, and if you offer a variety of formats in which to experience it, you will earn respect and curiosity, and people will give you a go.”

Salzburg, moon, spire, Osterreich, night, dark

Moon over Salzburg. (Photo: mine; please obtain written permission for reuse.)

And so in that spirit: I will try to continue to communicate my own love of the classical world as best I can at this website, for as long as I am able, and sharing a variety of formats in which to experience it. One thing which is relevant to this, and inseparable from my own love of the art form really, is the role of new (or more precisely, newish) things. The role of new work within the classical ecosystem is paramount; it is a truth, if not quite universally acknowledged, then perhaps on its way to a wider embrace. The first Salzburg Festival presentation of Bohuslav Martinů’s 1957 opera The Greek Passion happened last Sunday (13 August). A new production helmed by Simon Stone featured a host of vocal talent (Sebastian Kohlhepp, Sara Jakubiak, Gábor Bretz) under the baton of Maxime Pascal. Based on the 1954 novel Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Greek Passion is, as Opera North described it in their own 2019 production, “a passion play within a passion play” and concerns a group of villagers suddenly faced with taking in a group of refugees – or not. In his review for Merkur Online, critic Markus Thiel described the production as “Eine knapp zweistündige Gratwanderung ist das zwischen realer Brutalität und surrealem Spiel” (“This is a tightrope walk of almost two hours between real brutality and surreal play.”) Medici.tv will broadcast the The Greek Passion from Salzburg this Wednesday (22 August) at 8pm CET / 2pm EST.

The British premiere of György Kurtág’s’s Fin de partie also took place this week in London, with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting a razor-responsive BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall, part of this year’s edition of the BBC Proms. The opera, based on Samuel Beckett’s surreal 1957 comically macabre play Endgame, opened in 2018 at Teatro alla Scala, and has been presented in Amsterdam and Paris. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted in his recent review, “This is not, in essence, the bleak comedy we often find, but a work of pervasive sadness that continues to haunt us after its final notes have died away.” I found myself contemplating that sadness (so much my habit lately) at the opera’s close when the words of Brindley Sherratt came floating to mind; I had interviewed the bass together with tenor John Daszak in autumn 2020, when the pair were in a high-tech production of Boris Godunov in Zurich. Sherratt had said at one point, amidst pandemic bleakness, that “you want to shout, ‘Opera’s not dead!’” Kurtág’s opera is a brilliant and very needed reminder of just that sentiment at this time and place in classical history. BBC Sounds features the Proms performance until 9 October.

A fascinating Q&A with acclaimed psychotherapist Esther Perel at Vanity Fair (published at the end of June) has implications relevant to the classical industry and its current challenges. Perel says that owing to the widespread mainstreaming of the language of psychotherapy and its concomitant divorce from contextualized study and practice, there has occurred a distinct shift from “we” to “me”, a trend only exacerbated by echo chamber-like nature of social media. Added to this, she says, is self-diagnosis and related self-labelling:

[…] On one hand, there is an importance in gaining clarity when you name certain things. On the other hand, there is a danger that you lose all nuance, that you’re basically trying to elevate your personal comments and personal experience by invoking the higher authority of psychobabble. What you call therapy-speak, we used to call psychobabble—it’s a new word for an old concept.

In the past, you could have said, “I think this, and so does the rest of the community.” So does the family, so does the church. Today you say, “I think this, and so does the DSM-5.” I don’t like what you do, so I say you’re gaslighting me. You have a different opinion, and I bring in a term that makes it impossible for you to even enter into a conversation with me. Labeling enables me to not have to deal with you.

But in the end, it creates more and more isolation and fragmentation. That is not necessarily a good thing for the community and for the social good. (Vanity Fair, June 26, 2023)

Fragmentation is something I think many classical programmers are contemplating, along with notions around language and the perceived impenetrability (for Anglophone audiences) of anything that isn’t in English. Interviewer Delia Cai asks the multilingual Perel about working in English. “Every language makes you think differently,” she says, citing the myriad of words and phrases for “friend” in French. Experiencing the nuanced realities within those different languages allows  for different understandings – of self, relationships, and community.

Opera has a concentration of Eurocentric languages indeed, but that doesn’t close the possibility of enjoying it in a host of other languages, so long as the will exists, and the funding to match it. Canadian company Against the Grain exercised that will with a very unique vision of Handel’s famous Messiah in 2020, directed by Joel Ivany. Called Messiah/Complex, a project was sung in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone. There is possibility to expand horizons, but the will has to exist before any click-friendly digital strategizing – not the other way around. Perel’s final thought speaks to just this: “Expertise has very little to do with experience sometimes, and a lot to do with marketing. That’s capitalism with therapy-speak combined.” Or in this case, opera-speak. Ay, there’s the rub.

Finally: Renata Scotto never held back her passions – or her intelligence, wit, studiousness, and deep understanding of the art form. The soprano passed away earlier this week at the age of 89.

Her influence as much as her ideas and glorious recordings live on, and it’s been heartening to re-experience her work across so many media– at such moments the internet is a blessing. The above clip, from a 1980 television special (I have foggy memories of watching this as a small child), is a perfect demonstration of what made Scotto so special: the control; the drama; the attention to detail… magic. Since the announcement of her passing there have been outpourings of tributes by colleagues who worked with her as well as those she taught and mentored. Her influence across generations was (is) immense, her passion as palpable off the stage as much as on it. In a 2017 interview with Classic Talk TV the soprano discusses her training and the relationship between composer and libretto, and also shares her suspicions around contemporary opera-business casting practises:

 Today they look at the figure – it’s how you look. I don’t like that, because it’s not the looking, it’s what you give me. You communicate with your body to me, and not, ‘You have a beautiful face, you’re tall, you’re slender’ […] This is not the way to begin. (Classic Talk: Renata Scotto Part 1, February 24, 2017)

Vocal talent does have to be extant in the first place, she explains, but once that talent is acknowledged, it must be shaped: “I’m not interested in a big voice, I’m interested in a beautiful sound that gives some special colour.” That notion of vocal colour in the opera world is highly overused but re-listening to so much of Scotto’s work this week was a good reminder of its essence. Scotto’s artistic approach, combined with her sharp-eyed observations, speak firmly to the present, and help give shape to an abundance which can hopefully be part of opera’s future.

A quick reminder: my interview with Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings Managing Director Guido Gärtner is posting soon. For now, here’s to the end of almost-end of August, and to endings, beginnings, and whatever possible abundance might be in store. Opera is not dead – but does require and demand will, a commitment to education, media resources, money (as ever), and many breaths of fresh air. Let’s hope for a cool breeze or two as autumn draws closer.

Top photo: mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
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.
Christian Immler, opera, singer, performer, artist, vocal, classical

Christian Immler: Balancing New Projects & Old Favorites

Since our last conversation in early 2021, bass baritone Christian Immler has been busy. As was the case with many artists, the bass baritone’s schedule changed dramatically as a result of pandemic-related lockdowns; his approach to music, as you’ll read in our recent conversation below, didn’t change but intensified and expanded, particularly within the realms of score study, synergy with colleagues, and active public engagement.

In December 2022 Immler performed with the Czech Philharmonic and conductor Semyon Bychkov in the lauded world premiere of Prager Symphony, Lyric Fragments after Franz Kafka (Symphony No. 4) by contemporary German composer Detlev Glanert. Based directly on the work of Franz Kafka (including his letters, short stories, novels, and fragments from his notebooks) the work is an immense, daring exploration of the lyric symphonic form, with scoring for orchestra and two voices (bass baritone and mezzo), spread over twelve sections. As the composer told Bachtrack just prior to the premiere, the work is “a psychological landscape, where two people tell us something about ourselves: a story of life from the very beginning to the end, plus all human circumstances you can imagine: being witty, the pain of violence, happiness, and so on.” Prager Symphony will be presented again later this year, with Bychkov and Immler – in June, with the Concertgebouw and Gewandhaus respectively, and the UK premiere happening in November with the BBC Symphony.

Along with learning and performing the Glanert work, the bass baritone also released the album Das heiße Herz (Alpha Classics) with pianist Andreas Frese, featuring the music of Robert Schumann and contemporary German composer Jörg Widmann. Released in mid-2022, the work features songs from Schumann’s 1849 cycle Lieder und Gesänge aus ‘Wilhelm Meister’ (text by Goethe) as well as the composer’s 1850 cycle ‘6 Gedichte von N. Lenau und Requiem’; the world-premiere recording of Widmann’s Heisse Herz (The Burning Heart) comprises the album’s second half, with Immler conveying a stunning (and stunningly controlled) level of musicality, sometimes utilizing sprechstimme to exude the emotional intensity Widmann’s writing necessitates. A review in Opera News early this year (which singled the album out for its monthly Critics Choice designation) noted the degree to which Immler “shows a performance artist’s mastery of the work’s considerable demands, as does the fearless (pianist) Frese, who thunders, tremolos and occasionally slams the keyboard or strums the inside, in addition to playing with great tenderness when called upon.”

Our recent conversation began by my asking Immler about his fascinating forthcoming release (on Alpha Classics) of virtually unknown music by Wilhelm Grosz (1984-1939) and Robert Gund (also spelled Gound; 1865-1927), all set to texts by a range of celebrated European writers, including Eduard Mörike (1804-1875), Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The music project sees Immler reunite with pianist Helmut Deutsch, with whom he previously collaborated on a gorgeous 2021 album showcasing the largely unknown music of Hans Gál. The thought of Immler and the pianist reuniting for a project featuring music few know well (or are aware of at all) is a needed bit of hope amidst a still-difficult classical environment.

Immler is just embarking on an extensive Northern European tour, performing the work of another composer whose works he knows well; St. Matthew Passion is being presented by famed Bach conductor Masato Suzuki and the Netherlands Bach Society in twelve different locales between March 25th and April 8th. Before the tour began Immler took time to offer thoughts on everything from covid-related cancellations to the earthy writing of both Bach and contemporary composers. Immler is always inspiring to speak with, whether he’s discussing the finer points of scores, sharing the realities of singing works of rarely-heard composers, or how the simple act of breathing informs and influences musicianship; our recent midwinter exchange was, quite simply, a joy.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

How’s your work with Helmut Deutsch coming along?

It’s great! We both love this repertoire. There are cases where something will seem like a good idea and then you work with someone, in a duo, and it’s one person pulling the other – but not with Helmut, not at all. We both pull in one direction. With this repertoire, it is really a total discovery. I’m not unused to reading through unfamiliar repertoire but this time there is the added thrill of manuscripts – that’s all there is  – so we had to transfer them into Sibelius, all these songs composed as lieder. We did a test run for an audience of around ten people, and had to preface it with, “this is most likely the very first performance of this song cycle!”

What has your process been so far?

Helmut has been cursing me – playfully – for introducing him to this repertoire. The Grosz is very difficult to play; there are so many things are happening at the same time in the piano lines, and he says he needs a few more fingers. Nobody realizes how difficult it is, again, because this repertoire is so unknown. We don’t talk very much, a couple of times we verbalize what we want but the rest is push-pull, and listening.

Listening seems vital, whether it’s for a duo project or for larger performances, like Glanert’s Prager Symphony.

A lot of people can listen if they don’t do anything else, but if you have to do your work, playing and singing, and listen at the same time – that’s a special skill set, because you need to do what you do, and intrinsically listen to the other person at the same time. Helmut knows the text, and I know his piano part very well; sometimes I’ll look more down to what he’s doing and not only to my singer’s part. You have to process a lot at the same time. Also, we need to breathe – everybody knows that – but you wouldn’t believe how many conductors ultimately have no idea what that means; Semyon does. He and Helmut both use their breath as a means of expressivity, and it makes all the difference. When they intuitively run out of breath, they renew themselves. So it’s natural, we both do it. If you have well-written repertoire that breath comes very naturally anyway, but if it’s mediocre writing, and the phrases are really long, you think, “okay, I have to take an odd breath here” but it doesn’t usually happen with good composers.

That synergy is interesting given your recent projects use texts by authors who are long dead and/or did not write specifically for singers. 

It is known that Kafka, although he did not have an aversion to music, did not want some of his texts set to music..

… and yet!

… yes, Max Brod didn’t quite comply there! He didn’t burn the papers Kafka had written after his death. Glanert and Widmann have both said that at a certain point, they have to let their work go. Both are very experienced, so it means at one point they realize it’s no longer controlled by them, and they accept performers might have a slightly different viewpoint or approach, and I think there is a wisdom in this. They’re both great at letting things go. Glanert was present during rehearsals with the Czech Phil and took notes, and when there were moments of difficulty, instruments groups were too soft or loud or whatever, he, without running to the stage and making a fuss, would take notes, and Semyon would come and they’d communicate about it. The process was super-fluid in terms of it being a true work-in-progress situation. We didn’t have many rehearsals of that, either.

The subsequent performances of it this year may have more rehearsals, then?

I have a huge advantage now because I know the piece, but for orchestras, it’s different. Mind you, those other orchestras – the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Leipzig Gewandhaus – are super-orchestras, even with their different approaches. And I have to say also: the Czech Phil is stunning, just… top.

To what extent do you think these songs, and Kafka’s texts, have acquired a new relevance?

It’s funny, that work, as well as the songs I’m doing with Helmut and the theme of my doctoral research, it’s all on work done roughly 100 years ago – yet these poems, at this very moment, in my opinion, have an incredible modernity and relevance. You read some of them, and … well, so I read The Guardian in the mornings, and you see these terrible things about the war in Ukraine, and you see these works, and they resonate as a part of our time, right now.

How does this work and the Widmann speak to that time? And how much do you think listening as a result of that time changed?

Both Widmann and Glanert have a lot of experience in the operatic field and a high level of awareness. They won’t waste opportunities in sound; if they want a big turmoil they know how to create it, and likewise they can create the absence of sound and the power of pauses and stillness. They totally understand – it’s quite unsettling in the Glanert, you think, holy! You could hear a needle drop. It only happens if the ear is preconditioned in the writing, and both of them can do this very well.

For me, and so many who experienced an unprecedented level of isolation and loneliness, and a lack of outside distraction if you will, there was a total feeling of insecurity of what is going to happen. Nobody knew. I find in a lot in these poems, especially in the Kafka texts, there is a sense of basically trying to come out of that situation by saying, “Okay, let’s state we are lonely, and the only way we can kind of overcome this is by stating it first of all and being aware of it, and then sticking together.” This first Kafka text, if you read it, it’s so strong, it states: we are lonely yet we are interconnected by a network of invisible threads, and it’s bad enough if they loosen, but it’s terrible if one of them falls. That, to a certain degree, is what we all experienced in early 2020.

But somehow there is a hope through humanity, and that sounds grand, but these songs don’t leave you feeling dark, they leave you with a sense of… hope is not enough… but that there’s a chance for humanity. And it’s an important balance to what I read in the newspaper.

That seems more rooted in reality. 

Yes and I do like that these composers don’t go into the religious sphere or some form of theism, or into any kind of metaphysical sphere at all – everything stays deeply human, earthy and rooted, and thus very approachable. The subtext of them is: you don’t have to be a believer to come out of this darkness.

That’s exactly where they reminded me of Bach, which is perhaps odd…

It’s not odd!

Bach is associated with deep religiosity, but in St. Matthew Passion, for instance, the writing is blood-and-guts human, and it’s the embrace of that messiness which opens the door to the divine. The line between Bach and these modern works is not that long, is it?

It really isn’t It’s funny, I was standing in the Liszt Academy in Budapest recently – which is a total dream building, by the way – I was in a corridor and remembered being there one-and-a-half years ago, being tested with the orchestra, and at 5 in the afternoon the performance was cancelled; the entire bass section had covid. It was like a sudden rain-shower but you don’t know what to do; we are not programmed as artists to know what to do. When I get up on a performance day I am geared to that one thing in the evening when I am meant to deliver. It’s a lot of energy… this very earthy, a very sharply human experience…

How has that time influenced you in terms of singing both contemporary music like Widmann and Baroque?

In terms of the Widmann, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever learned, and if you don’t hear that I take it as a compliment. The scoring is very detailed! He is a total musician; he wants to define it as well as possible, but then you have to have it in your system. The actual level of preparation was intense; there is so much information coming your way, you can’t ignore it, and say, “Oh I feel it this way” – that isn’t possible. You have to prepare it to that level of detail and then know it subconsciously. It was an incredible amount of preparation, apart from pitching and rhythm, and the extended vocal techniques; he would write things in the direction like, ‘Dangerously Through Your Teeth’ or ‘Psychedelically Sung’ for certain passages, but it always makes sense. And, this may sound banal, but it could be Widmann or Monteverdi or Bach or Glanert, but look at it and I’ll think, “This is just top-class writing!”

Do you think preparing for something like the Widmann works would have been different in 2019?

I would say no …

So the pandemic didn’t change your approach that much… ?

It changed how people got together, via Zoom or not at all. The loneliness of preparation, overall, was strong for everything. Just after musicians here were allowed to come together again I did the Beethoven/Leonore with René Jacobs, it was just a piano rehearsal with the cast, and everybody started crying. It was such a release of… like, you can practice and vocalize, but it’s a profession which has to be done in community, and with a third ingredient in this: the public. The feeling of being together was unbelievable. For this experience we were grateful to have that return, to know we weren’t alone.

So yes, I stayed faithful to preparing well and being detailed, but, like the first time I sang the St. Matthew Passion, you come out of the pandemic experience a different person, obviously. It changes your whole perception of music and life. You can prepare the piece but the effect it leaves when you present it live… you cannot prepare for that.

Top Photo: Marco Borggreve
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.
Elena Dubinets, LPO, classical, music, leadership, management

Elena Dubinets: Ukraine, Russia, And Émigré Artists

Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.

Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:

By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)

The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).

These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.

Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021.  A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.

In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:

There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)

The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.

We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.

How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?

Elena Dubinets, book, author, Russian, Ukrainian, diaspora, composers, classical, historyI think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.

I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.

… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer. 

Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is  from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.

What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.

Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?

I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.

I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book  made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.

It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.

The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.

One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?

We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.

However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.

I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.

I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.

That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.

That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.

But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.

We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”

So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…

Context, the magic word!

Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.

I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…

So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!

It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with  full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.

Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.

We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.

Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…

Quite a few reports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this… 

… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.

The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?

Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.

That’s an important point, this notion of Russian exceptionalism, which has existed in parts of the Russian classical world for a long time I am not convinced such an attitude is good for art, or for people. Journalist Maxim Trudolyubov tackled the topic of Russian exceptionalism in the arts in a newsletter which attracted immense pushback from Russian artists, if also support from certain musicians, including composer Boris Filanovsky, who you quote in your book. 

You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.

So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?

It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.

Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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