Category: programming

Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

Alexander Neef: “The Essence Of Theatre Is To Engage In A Dialogue”

History can be many things, but mostly, and especially within the classical arts, it is heavy. Alexander Neef, General Director of the Opéra national de Paris (OnP), is aware of this weight, yet he views it as a rich inspiration. The German administrator, who was the company’s Casting Director from 2004 to 2008 before becoming General Director of the Canadian Opera Company for twelve years, came to his current position in autumn 2020, much earlier than planned and smack in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. It proved the first of many adversities managing one of the opera world’s most celebrated and storied institutions, one which has been known as much for its variety of names as for its trials and tribulations in the distant and not-so-distant past.

Those challenges, particularly since 2020, are very real: financial pressures, strikes, accusations of racism, the sudden resignation of Music Director Gustavo Dudamel. Where there is strife, however, there is also hope. This past March saw French-Senegalese OnP ballet dancer Guillaume Diop join the company’s coveted “Etoile” (star) category; he is the first Black artist to achieve the top rank. In 2020 Diop had co-authored a manifesto (“On The Racial Question in Opera”) which criticized discrimination within the organization. Neef, as you’ll read, took these concerns seriously, and met them with his own initiatives. A report commissioned by the company in February 2021 stated that diversity was seriously lacking, with Diversity Referent Myriam Mazouzi (who is also Director of the OnP Academy, a training ground for young artists) underlining the need for the company to “get out of our walls” and “open up our recruitment channels, otherwise we always have the same profiles and we become poorer.” To facilitate this opening, the company embarked on an ambitious initiative in French Guyana in 2022 to encourage and promote local talent. L’Opéra en Guyane works in close collaboration with Guyanese cultural institutions and includes all training in voice and dance as well as set design and makeup. The program ran this past October and November, and will return to Guyana again in March 2024, with its development being chronicled in a documentary series on POP (Paris Opera Play), the company’s dedicated streaming platform.

POP itself is impressive, hosting an immense and ever-updated archive of anytime-is-a-good-time (read: audience-friendly) viewing which includes all aspects of OnP’s considerable output: ballet, orchestral concerts, and opera (with subtitles available in English and French), as well as backstage documentaries, masterclasses, and artist interviews. The platform is the realization of the company’s earlier foray into video streaming, l’Opéra chez soi, launched just after Neef’s arrival in December 2020, and elegantly demonstrates a commitment to something beyond sexy opera branding, an overused aspect within the current classical-marketing landscape which mostly involves substance-free clickbait and/or posts (whether on social media or websites proper) with plenty of seemingly intellectual finery but ultimately bereft of the humanity and depth their subjects demand. POP runs counter to this trend; a thoughtful and accessible platform, its user-friendly design and wide range of subject matter implies a trust to let its users decide for themselves what is sexy – or intriguing, provocative, challenging, entertaining, engaging.

The platform’s launch happened almost concurrently to news of OnP joining forces with behemothic streaming giant Apple Music Classical. Along with playlists and previews, the channel features two special sections, curated by José Martinez, Director of Dance, and Neef, respectively. As noted in Van Magazine this past August, OnP has proven remarkably adept at attracting the ever-important young audiences, with all of these initiatives demonstrating a deeply intelligent stance in attracting younger people (although €10 tickets can’t hurt either). ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre) takes things one step further. The company’s first French young lyric orchestra works in direct partnership with eleven different French conservatoires and provides opportunities for apprenticeships and performances on the main stage of the Bastille, the more modern of the company’s two spaces, the other being the famed Garnier. Each space comes, of course, with its own particular set of heavy histories.

Amidst all this – whither music? Gluck, Lully, Rameau, Cherubini, Gounod, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz, Thomas, Halévy, Stravinsky, Messiaen: a partial list of composers who have enjoyed historic premieres with the Opéra and a veritable who’s who of classical music history, albeit a lineup some may perceive as creaky in 2023. Those names, however, sit comfortably beside contemporary ones including Adams, Adés, Saariaho, Kurtág, as well as acclaimed modern directors like Lydia Steier, Kirill Serebrennikov, Wajdi Mouawad, and Barrie Kosky. Ballet is an equally intriguing mix of traditional (Nureyev, Ashton) and modern (Pina Bausch, Jiří Kylián). Navigating the shifting classical landscape of the 21st century, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape, is scary business for any house, requiring a good deal of confidence in both institution and audiences, and a willingness to push the expectations and boundaries of both. The ambitiousness of Neef’s plans combined with an ever-smart approach to programming and production means audiences can expect slightly more than polite visions of familiar (or even unfamiliar) territory.

In our last exchange in 2020, conducted when he was still in Toronto, Neef emphasized a need for the new; in 2023 Paris, there is a broader if no less compelling view. Nothing quite new, as Roman statesman Cicero noted in Brutus, is perfect. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted, particularly at a time when the opera world feels more divided than ever, as much by geographies and money as by ideologies and history. But history is, like the future, only heavy without the muscles  – and the brains – to bear it; Alexander Neef has both, and then some.

When we last spoke you mused on the role of so-called “safe” repertoire and audience fatigue; has time in Paris altered your views?

I don’t think so. One of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is to consider the thinking process around what do we do here. We are called the Paris National Opera; we have an obligation for specificity in the planning and programming, but also we have to ask what is our identity and how do we express via our programming? I think there are some very simple principles that have come from that question, and they are referenced in our programming now. First we have to take care of our own repertoire , which is a very large repertoire and includes all the pieces created at the Paris Opera and predecessor organizations over the centuries. That’s why you’ll find one or two productions which represent our house repertoire , if you want – Charpentier’s Médée, for instance. There’s a very rich variety to choose from. The other aspect is pieces which we have not premiered here specifically but which are part of French repertoire – works which are not in our repertoire currently which we are bringing back, like what we’ve done with Cendrillon, Faust, Romeo et Juliet, also Massenet’s Don Quichotte which we are presenting later this season. We are one of the biggest companies in the world, so yes, there is a standard repertoire.

The last part of this, which is also important for identity, is 20th and 21st century repertoire. The priority is not necessarily commissioning – as you know it takes time for those pieces to be developed – but to look at successful pieces of the very recent past and bring them to the Paris Opera, like Kurtág’s Fin de partie in the 21-22 season, or The Exterminating Angel, which we’ll do later this season. With Angel it’s also the first new production after the world premiere that we’ll be doing. All that is a very deliberate attempt to bring those pieces to the repertoire by presenting them often, which means if someone has created something great and we think it’s great, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t present it here just because we haven’t commissioned it. We have a couple co-commissions coming up; one we did with Festival D’Aix is coming to us soon; another, a substantial piece at La Scala, will be presented in Italian there and then come here later in French.

So to circle back to your original question, when we do the revivals of the standard or even the new productions, we try to bring people to the company who hadn’t sung here before and create a relationship of trust with the audience; even though they might not know all the names on the playbill, they can expect it will be a quality proposal. We just had Tamara Wilson onstage here – she had sung Turandot in Toronto in 2019. It was highlighted (in Paris) because Sondra (Radvanovsky) had to cancel the run and Tammy was slotted into the opening. People were like, “Who is this Turandot I’ve never heard of?” – but now everybody knows who Tamara Wilson is. Sometimes we have to have the confidence and trust to just do the things we feel are right.

House identity is something I’ve considered a lot this year. You told the New York Times in 2021 that when you were hiring a diversity officer that you wanted to put on “opera and ballet by 21st century artists for 21st century audiences” – what role has that diversity initiative played in house identity?

We’re lucky in Paris, the debate around diversity is much less charged than in North America. I say that without criticism of what’s going on in America, but it does create an opportunity here to get things done more quickly because we’re not in conflict but in a spirit of working together. One of the things that happened concurrent to BLM (Black Lives Matter), I was still in Toronto, confined in my kitchen then, but already appointed to take over in Paris, was that we decided to commission a diversity report for my arrival. At the same time a group of artists and other employees of colour in the company reached out and said, “We want to talk to you, we want to know how you feel about this issue.” They wrote a manifesto which was published in August 2020, when I was almost there – though I wasn’t supposed to be, I was supposed to arrive a year later – but at that time we had an initiative coming from the incoming leadership and the employees. There was a base of discussion which was almost immediate because we did not need to get over a steep mountain of conflict. We now have an advisory committee who meet regularly with staff but also with people from outside the opera, where we discuss all issues related to our repertoire and performances, as well as recruitment practices and so on. The discussions are all evolving.

We also started a big education outreach project in French Guyana with two main purposes, one of them to just run one of our established outreach programs for young people there but also to find talent, mostly for dance, but also for singing and instruments in the long run, people can be trained to reach the levels of excellence we would have to expect of the artists who perform here.

“If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it.”


What role does the newly-created ADO (Apprentissage De l’Orchestre – Learning the Orchestra) play in all this?

It’s too early to say yet, it’s just started; we’ve had two or three weekends when they’ve been together so far. But I think it’s in the same spirit. Today in France most musicians are the sons and daughters of other musicians – they get into the field or some form of arts environment early on and there are few obstacles if they want to learn to sing or play an instrument. Our challenge is to open up the pipeline, to create a larger pipeline, different pipelines, because one of the crucial issues of recruitment is that if you always look in the same spots and at the same people you’ll always find the same thing. The moment you open up and look at things a bit more broadly, there will be different talent. And all of this is not part of any ideology, but it’s more if I can say, the perennial nature of our art form: yes, what we do is opera and ballet for 21st century artists by 21st century artists. If I want society to buy into what we do then we need artists from all kinds of backgrounds, people who want to do it, and can do it. The imminent challenge for the repertoire is obviously finding people who are trained to perform it at our level, and who may also say, “We still want to sing Don Giovanni or Don Carlo, or dance Swan Lake or Giselle.” It’s for everybody to find themselves in what we do, on the performers’ side just as much as the audience’s side.

Alexandra Wilson recently wrote at The Critic that “It is not opera’s job to do social work.” I wonder what you make of that with relation to your various initiatives.

I think what we benefit from and use to our advantage, since we have a strong critical mass for culture in France but especially in Paris, is that we use our cultural weight to be heard, to be seen. What I’ve discovered being here is that whatever we do there is a lot of attention; when I commissioned the diversity report it was like a signal. We can put the subject on the map. So we try to do that quite deliberately now, to choose the subjects we want to talk about in order to get them the visibility we can, in our position, provide.

La Vestale, with Lydia Steier directing, may or may not make the world a better place, but it does seem like an interesting symbol of where the company is at now.

That’s fair, but like I said before: if we want to do the repertoire which has a reputation of being difficult to realize onstage, then we will tell it our way. La Vestale has certain formalisms the audiences of today are not quite familiar with today, so it’s vital to find not only one artist but a group of artists to say, “We want to defend this repertoire for an audience of today and we actually want to tell a story.” Whatever we do, whether it’s more or less traditional – even though one doesn’t know what that exactly is – or completely out-there avant-garde, it’s a reading of a piece, because we cannot not offer readings of pieces. We have to hire a cast, a director, and a conductor to read the piece for us; it’s not all there in the score and they just have to do what’s written. It would be an oversimplification to think that. We need people who actually do it. Otherwise we can sit with the score and read it, which is a more personal and private thing, but there is no unalterable truth that will always be the same. That’s why we still keep working on repertoire both recent and old – things like Médée, which we’re doing since the first time we created it in 1693.

Does that history feel heavy at points?

I find it rather exhilarating, I have to say, because there is a richness and also a high responsibility for this repertoire – but also an incredible richness. I find it really quite wonderful there’s that depth to draw from.

“The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one.”


There were very polarized reactions to Robert Wilson’s staging of Turandot in Paris recently; do you find yourself having to explain or justify your choices to your audience?

First of all there’s no such thing as The Audience, anywhere. Secondly, and I said it at the COC that we had 2000 people every night; here at the Bastille we have 2700, and a different audience. The thing about going to the theatre, not only opera, is that it’s an individual and collective experience, in one. You are part of the collective who sits there but you also experience it all for yourself. So of course there will always be audiences who are more conservative and others who are more avant-garde, and then everything in-between. And in the end it’s very simply, “I like / don’t like what I see onstage” – that’s fine. But if we maintain there is not solely one truth in the pieces we present, then there can’t be one opinion, no matter how we present them. Ultimately it’s not about liking or not-liking something but being able to talk about it. The essence of theatre is to engage in a dialogue about what we’ve experienced together onstage. That dialogue is something that’s big in everyday life here, and it can be made richer because of people having a deep cultural routine. I found it was more restricted in Toronto – there I found that even with the variety of choices, people stick to the offers of one cultural organization. I would meet people at cocktail parties and they’d say, “I’m a ballet person” – fine, good, there’s no discrimination – but in Paris there’s a much stronger overall cultural routine which has been in place since early childhood. People don’t feel the need to choose between the ballet or the opera or the museum or the symphony. What keeps fascinating me, and it’s so different culturally, is that they bring kids to the theatre, young kids, on weekdays when there’s school the next day…

My mother did that…

Exactly! People do it because they feel it’s important their child sees this or that. It’s not the last thing you do, but the first thing you do. And I think that regularity with culture changes a person, it sets up a cultural routine. And if it’s diverse it can bring a lot to audiences and people in general. So to go back to your quote about opera’s job, we are not making the world a better place – but maybe through our work we can get people to think about how to make the world a better place.

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”


Finally: I have to ask you about your GMD search.

It’s going slowly but surely. Since Gustavo left earlier than he was supposed to, I decided not to jump to fast conclusions because I thought it would be better to use the time, mostly with the musicians of the orchestra, to engage in a real dialogue. That’s something that had been done the last few years but which had been quite disturbed because of the pandemic. Who are the conductors we really like? Who are the people who debuted during covid, maybe not under ideal conditions? Who are people who’ve come once that we want to see again? Who are people we’ve never met but want to meet? So over time let’s say maybe over the course of the season, we come to, or by default, a small list of people we’re interested in – it’s not going to be a list of 25 – between the people who have declared themselves candidates and the people we want to be candidates. Without necessarily formalizing that or having it in the public sphere, I think between the musicians and us, we will have more in-depth discussions about what we want, for the company, for the orchestra; what kind of profile does that person have, the one who comes closest to the ideal? All of which is to say: it’s an ongoing process.

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP
sky, autumn, September, colours, himmel, farben, natur

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.
trees, forest, wald, baum, nature, winter, still

Essay: Thoughts On Sound, & An Announcement

Sound in and of itself is neither good or bad; it simply is. But more than ever, sound, and the way it is delivered and experienced, is tied up in commerce. The various sources of revenue and concomitant connections to money within the classical world often provides silent framing of a vast and under-discussed reality. Recently The Metropolitan Opera announced they would be performing 10% fewer works next season, drawing on their endowment, and focusing on new works for next season. This year’s new works – Kevin Puts’ The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – drew near-capacity audiences, while old chestnuts (like the Italian version of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos) barely filled the immense auditorium by half. Similar challenges with audiences in post-pandemic life resound internationally, and organizations need to rethink their over-reliance on both starry names and ossified presentational styles. The challenges are less related to “rubbing people’s noses” in current issues (as a famous tenor recently mused) than to organizations attenuating to ever-unfolding realities (including pandemic) within a media ecosystem ever more reliant on the machinery of hype and ad tech which polarizes audience experience (/ inexperience) and expectation, often screwing in unconsciously-held cliches around opera in the process in a breathless bid to please sponsors and conservative board members. Whither sound? Does it matter when there are no camels in Aida?

Exposure, education, and cultural curiosity have everything to do with receptivity of sounds, and in building the critical thinking structures needed for reception of their live realization. More than once this year I have written about (and linked to) the precipitous drops in educational standards, particularly across North America. If Europeans groan at hearing the word “privilege” and roll eyes at the mention of culture wars, it is worth remembering the basic cost of things across the ocean. (Various American contacts of mine living in Europe are aghast at the sheer cost of groceries in visits home for the holidays, as one immediate example.) This seems an issue worth shouting about, repeatedly, even if people want to stick fingers in ears and continue rolling eyes. The Met is not The Royal Opera Covent Garden is not Bayerische Staatsoper is not Oper Zurich is not Opera de Paris is not the COC is not ENO (alas…). Different strokes; different horses. As I discussed with Mark Williams (the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony) this autumn, one city cannot simply be grafted onto another. One culture cannot be grafted onto another. One educational system cannot be grafted onto another; one set of ideas and living experiences cannot be grafted onto another. We cannot wish x was like more y; x may be devolving back to m but it is its own m, in its own place, and this is worth remembering. Blithely accepting what various levels of government cut or mete out or hype without a peep of protest, pause, or media scrutiny does not make for a healthy arts ecosystem, or for healthy artists.

Thus do the educational systems in various locales – along with social safety nets, levels of (non-corporate) funding, culture, history, infrastructure – contribute to respective classical atmospheres and moreover to the perceptions of sounds, and their direct experience within specific environments. In classical within a North American idiom, some of those sounds are treated as a decimal in the equation of style, performance, and digital bragging rights. Marketing departments often dictate programming choices; risky sounds are placed straight in the bin unless those departments are very sure they can create an online buzz that directly translates to ticket sales – the unicorn goal of classical marketing rarely achieved with any reliable consistency. Of course sound is, at its core, represented by dots on a page, but sound is much more than dots, symbols many people can’t read, let alone hear in their heads. It matters how/where/when/within what circumstance one experiences them, or does not experience them, where and how one learns them, from whom, in what atmosphere. Absence is as importance as presence, something musicians of all genres know. Contributor Tori Wanzama experienced Bizet’s Carmen for the first time this past autumn – in a highly individualized way and certainly different to those who grew up hearing the music throughout childhood. Context is everything, and it ought not – especially now in a war that so affects cultural arenas – to be ignored in favour of romantic notions which do not contextualize (let alone acknowledge) the role of privilege in the listening/live/learning-about experience.

Sounds are, or can be, loaded; they often carry the heavy ammunition of intertwined histories – personal, professional, political, and beyond. Recently I came upon a unique performance of a German-language version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin led by Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year. Recorded at Semperoper Dresden in 1991, this Onegin demonstrates clearly, how sound is not only sound but can be much more. Yes, this is recognizably Tchaikovsky; no, it is not the recognizable Onegin, at least not for those who are solely familiar with the opera in its original language. The famous “Letter Scene”, for instance, features Czech soprano Zora Jehličková performing Tatyana’s passionate declaration in an excited if highly knowing manner – she sounds worldly, as if she is about to set Valhalla on fire. The reading of the score has transformed to reflect the vagaries of the language in which it is being sung. Use all the Teutonic-music cliches you wish (see above) – they apply to Jurowski’s reading, but they don’t quite capture the singularity of this particular sound at this particular juncture. How could they? Think about what was happening in Germany at the time, and you hear it in this reading; the swift tempi, the jaunty phrasing, the acid tone of the strings against the excitable blares of the horns, the way in which the orchestra swells around certain syllables – and how much it all contrasts with various Russian recordings. These divides in sonorities aren’t solely down to the differences between maestros (though that’s a factor) – but time, place, language, people – context.

Sound embodies so many things,  if only we would listen. Semperoper is not The Met is not La Scala is not Mariinsky is not Kyiv Opera is not… we are not you; you are not me; one but not the same, and sounds are bigger than both of us, together or apart –the biggest question, the smallest decimal; the hard sell, the soft touch; sound draws in the most tiny details and simultaneously reveals a far broader picture. It is difficult to define because its experience differs so greatly between people and changes through time, privilege, history, locale, and family. This website has tried to reflect such concerns since its founding in 2017, and the past twelve months in particular have brought a reassessment of its purpose. I always resisted definitions for what this website is, or could be, though I was always quite sure of what it was not. I always wanted my work to be more than hyperbolic PR – to be a meaningful (and yes, critical) engagement with an art form I love in all its facets. I aimed to share authentic, unedited (mostly) conversations with people whose work genuinely inspires curiosity, and in so doing provide a forum for the sorts of exchanges mainstream media has neither the bucks nor the bandwidth for. I aimed to float somewhere between the heady and the populist, the intellectual and the everyday, and to firmly keep my own voice intact, as someone who floats in that netherworld herself, and probably always will. This is, at least, what I had hoped. Have I achieved these aims? Have I contributed anything of worth to conversations around classical music? Should I worry about legacy brand media, and which writers and artists love, hate, or share my work?

2022 has been a year of learning to live with and accept open questions that may never have answers, and to stop worrying about the ones that really don’t matter. This website will exist in the short term; there will be occasional feature interviews – as ever, with people and things not being given the attention or quality of time and detail, let alone the uniqueness of perspective, in mainstream media coverage. But just as practical priorities (paid writing opportunities; teaching) call, so does the living of life, remade from what it was in March 2020. Returning is different, which is just as it should be; it is not returning at all, but remaking. Just as locales cannot be grafted onto one another, neither can experiences, ideas, or notions of normal. I want to have meaningful real-life conversations that won’t be shared online, and I want to experience sounds, live, with people I call friends, and note how those sounds are different now that everything else – that magical context – is too. There are voices, and sights, and (thank goodness) sounds, and all they carry – quietly, loudly, beautifully; the readiness, to quote Hamlet, is all. 

nature, snow, wald, forest, footprints, trees, Fußspuren, quiet, winter

Photos: 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.

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

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

Photo © Gaetz Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

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

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

Or it’s nostalgia… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And casting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or have figured it out already… 

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

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

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

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

Absolutely.

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

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

I’m not leaving just yet! 

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

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

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