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Essay: Hype, Money, Music

Everyone in the classical world seems to have an opinion on news of Klaus Mäkelä being named as the next music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The Finnish conductor will end his respective directorships in Paris and Oslo in 2027, and begin prestigious tenures with the CSO and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. He will be 31 years old by then, hopping between continents and, one may assume, making guest appearances with various orchestras as well. Since news of the Chicago appointment last week, reactions have been extreme; either Mäkelä (or his agent; or both) are out of depth, out of touch, out for money and in it for the glory; he isn’t serious; jetting in and out implies a lack of commitment! – or he is the lord and saviour of classical, he is especially brilliant live, he is beloved by musicians and audiences alike, he is talented and how dare everyone be so mean!

I am not a fan of hopping on bandwagons of any kind; they’re hot, they’re noisy, they’re airless – but sometimes such rides are required to ascertain the nature of a journey, its sites and stops, instead of looking to one final, ultimate destination. Money is not the final stop here but every bump along the road, with marketing teams and board members steaming up the windows. The people organizations choose as leaders have always been reflections of aspirations related to the artistic, intellectual, organizational, social, communal, as much as to an organization’s history with and around those elements. Leadership must be in a package incorporating all of these things, and be appealing to boards, donors, ticket-buyers, CEOs. Being good at smalltalk is every bit as important as studying scores – it greases the financial wheels, related parts of which are rather squeaky these days.  Attendance in Chicago is on the rise, but so is the cost of everything else, with Chicago’s rents roughly 20% above the national average – a fact worth considering; even the CSO’s lowest-price ticket of $35 is well beyond the means of a great many.

Recent upheavals within the city’s theatre scene are, as The Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Jones noted last year, symbolic of a wider problem involving the performing arts sector:

Companies run the gamut from nonprofit, community-oriented, avowedly anti-capitalist organizations with fundamentally social missions focused on political change, to high-cost commercial operations in the very capitalist business of producing profitable live entertainment. Often, their needs are divergent. And the former typically is contemptuous of the latter. (August 17, 2023)

One can make a face that classical music should never bow to commercial considerations, that it ought to be properly (however that is defined) funded by government at all levels – that classical music is so holy it must never bow to such a vulgar consideration, in which case the names Esterházy, Belyayev, von Meck, van Swieten, Coolidge, and various members of European royalty may not mean much. Flap arms about the nature of non-profits as much as you like; organizations need to feel they have secure futures, and they need a suitable figure in which to place those hopes. The cries of “Welcome!” that greeted Mäkelä’s recent appearances in Chicago following the news were obviously sincere, but also likely infused with a needed optimism for the art form as much as the organization and its illustrious history.

Feeling one is a part of that history, and a part of making that history, is attractive to audiences, even if they are largely unaware of the realities that are inherently part of working within the classical industry. Conductors, especially General Music Directors (GMDs), have never had only one job. Coach, counsellor, educator, initiator, glad-hander, poster boy/girl, diplomat, ambassador, peacemaker, activist, attractor of money, pseudo-guarantor of financial health and organizational stability – a few of the roles GMDs must play, in addition to that of leader, interpreter, and scholar of scores. Between the three-letter word “art” and the five-letter word “music” is the real four-letter word: work. Audiences want to feel the GMD is working for them even if they don’t know (or don’t want to know) the nitty-gritty, usually-unglamorous details. Those details involve shaking hands with strangers for hours on end, being agreeable to disagreeable if potentially useful people, coddling insecure players and soloists, courting CEOs of corporations who may know little about music, making appearances at various events, preparing for and partaking in of any number of meetings, creating programs that will be friendly to the box office, and negotiating those programs with a board and any number of administrators who may well think they know better (perhaps they do); the process of recording (and post-production) is a huge beast unto itself.

Such duties must also be negotiated around and within an immediacy digital culture demands, one specifically younger generations understand and (hopefully) respond to. Actual attendance at cultural things may be down but digital engagement is up, and boards are paying attention, relying on marketing personnel to manifest that digital engagement in real ways. As Los Angeles  Times music critic Mark Swed recently noted:

Boards! We can’t live with them, and we certainly can’t live without them. By their very nature, they are about money. They keep the institution running. They raise funds. When boards are excellent, they recognize the artistic vision and make miracles happen. But that can take some doing, because by their very nature, they operate by committee. (March 20, 2024)

Committees by their nature tend to have varying degrees of groupthink, an approach which rarely if ever (as Swed wisely notes) courts risk within the musical realm; that, in turn, leads to a perceived need to play to the masses, en masse, and in 2024, that’s social media. So in addition to all their usual duties, MDs of the 21st century are also expected to be online influencers of sorts; cue portraits of said leader in designer turtleneck or crisp shirt, in a well-lit locale, with score open, brow furrowed, wielding a pencil with carefully-manicured fingers, all of it Photoshopped to wipe away bumps, wrinkles, sags, and jowls. The face of the organization, so carefully edited to match digital ideals, is barely human; classical people are, you see, beyond the masses. (This is probably not the consciously intended message but such adherence to unrealistic and ageist beauty standards entrenches popular ideas that tie classical music to a perceived elitism;  I may write about this further at some point.) There is a kind of robbery at work when it comes to simply showing the actual people who work in classical, including (or especially) its leaders, the ones who must be the face of the organization, for good or bad.

Sometimes organizations demonstrate a great trust in their leaders, and they, in turn, opt for a touching (and refreshingly untouched) public authenticity. The social media presences of non-digital natives Paavo Järvi and Gianandrea Noseda (GMDs, respectively, of Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and Opernhaus Zürich) are good examples, as is the Tonhalle’s “Tram For Two” episode featuring the two maestros musing on their shared passions and ideas. Whether the CSO or Concertgebouw will emulate this kind of thing is a mystery. Two people who love and work in music, talking about music and music-making, in all its various angles, unscripted; would groupthink allow it? Will we see Mäkelä in conversation with, say, Enrique Mazzola or Lorenzo Viotti?

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Klaus Mäkelä and the L’Orchestre de Paris taking bows at the Philharmonie de Paris, March 6, 2024. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

To what extent Mäkelä will be the face of classical music in both Chicago and Amsterdam, and just how that image might be shaped, curated and spun back out to the public, remains to be seen. The open and hotly-debated question of his music choices – whether he will program things that reflect places and related histories, epochs, and demographics while offering a forward-thinking approach –  is one that only time will answer. (He would be wise to ask Esa-Pekka Salonen for a few pointers.) Will it be possible to do anything meaningful at either locale, given travel schedules? Is youth an impediment or an opportunity?

I want to stay curious, if also mindful of what I heard at the Philharmonie de Paris last month. Mäkelä led the L’Orchestre de Paris in a programme consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103 (The Year 1905); I came away with highly mixed feelings. The conductor did have a palpable chemistry with soloist Yunchan Lim, and it was special to see the effect that had on the orchestra – but there is nothing wrong with not following the crowd in other aspects (in this case Shostakovich). And as my former music professor Rob Bowman once said, energy goes where attention goes; extending energy to the work of  other conductors who are less firmly in the heat of a spotlight seems like a logical choice, one I hope classical music watchers will consider.

In the meantime, it’s time to leave the bandwagon and jump into the clear, cool evening. Remember the c-word.

Top image: original sketch, mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Amphitheatre Olivier Messiaen, Opera Bastille, Paris, auditorium, performance, space

Review: Ligeti, Crumb, and Gelin in Paris

György Ligeti is not a name one associates with fables – unless one knows his oeuvre, and his broader life story. The composer, who died in 2006 in Vienna, spent a long and illustrious career in Germany and Austria perfecting his angular, detail-driven work. Perhaps best-known for his  Atmosphères (1961), which utilized a micro-polyphonic technique, and his so-called “anti-anti-opera” Le Grand Macabre (1977), he was a master of atmospheric, dense textures which combined elements of 20th century absurdism with polyrhythmic layering. Born in Transylvania in 1923 to Hungarian Jewish parents, Ligeti was often prevented from pursuing his passions in his native Hungary because of his Jewish background as well as his passion for the avant-garde. He fled to Austria following the 1956 Soviet invasion. A recent chamber concert by musicians of the l’Orchestre de L’Opéra national de Paris, specifically named after a movement from one of his works, effectively evoked a strange, otherworldly, fable-like world of which the composer would have surely approved.

A tribute to the composer to mark his musical centenary, the concert also featured the music of American composer George Crumb (1929-2022) and a new work by French composer Françoise Gelin (b. 1980). Heavy on percussion, the well-attended evening at the Amphithéâtre Olivier Messiaen (located in the Opéra Bastille) was a showcase of skill, musicality, and innate communication between artists, particularly orchestra percussionists Christophe Vella, Sylvie Dukaez, Jérémie Cresta, and Charles Gillet, Mezzo soprano Hilary Summers, fresh off the opening of The Exterminating Angel on the mainstage, opened the evening with Ligeti’s Három Weöres-dal (Three Weöres songs) for voice and piano (1946-1947). Based on the poetry of celebrated Hungarian writer Sándor Weöres (1913-1989) whose work Ligeti set throughout various projects, the songs blend the casual and the classy in a way that can be difficult to translate into other languages. Weöres’ writing is notable for employing what musicologist Amy Bauer characterized in a 2008 paper as “an exploration of sound symbolism, novel metric structures and absurd juxtapositions”, qualities Ligeti sought to reflect and expand on. Three Songs blends descriptions of nature with fairytale-like tableaux settings that contain hints of menace, particularly in the third setting, ““Kalmár jött nagy madarakka” (A merchant has come with giant birds), with its closing lines, “The princess is pale, and as quiet as always In her heart great birds are shrieking.” Summers captured this suggestiveness perfectly, hanging on certain syllables, with shapely phrasing and pointed consonants. Crumb’s “The Sleeper” (based on the 1831 poem by Edgar Allan Poe) has its own creepy poetry which ponders the deceased subject’s “length of tress / And this all-solemn silentness!”. Summers’ delivery softened but was no less gripping. her maple syrup tones winding around the work’s lyrical leaps and moody melodic line to create a unique transcultural bridge between mythologies.

That connection was especially present in Bolliakis’ performances, which included three extracts from Ligeti’s Musica ricercata (1951-1953) and two from Etudes (1985-2001). The former, according to musicologist Donald Gislason, has a double meaning inherent within its title, saluting the formal compositional style known as the ricercare (a work with one or more melodic lines) while simultaneously embracing the Italian meaning (wanted; sought). Boliakis performed the first three movements of the work, each building from the last, with the first movement (consisting of just the note A), performed with genuine conviction, underlining the “seeking” quality of the composer himself, a ‘seeking’ which was echoed in Gelin’s (… texte manquant”) pour quatre percussionnistes. Dedicated to Jérémie Cresta, one of the work’s interpreters, Gelin also used the poetry of Weöres as inspiration, though one might be forgiven for thinking of Claude Vivier in the theatrical mix of percussive lines and talky textures and the gamelan-like sounds evoked within and through their interplay.

The notion of ‘the fable’ expanded with George Crumb’s An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1985) for amplified flute and percussion. The composer himself wrote of the work that “flute and percussion are the instruments that most powerfully evoke the voice of nature. Ideally (if impractically), my Idyll should be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlit evening in August.” A rainy March evening in Paris wasn’t quite the setting Crumb had envisioned, and yet flautist Sabrina Maaroufi’s performance captured the work’s startling purity. Her performance of lines by eighth-century Chinese poet Su-K’ung Shu, spoken while simultaneously breathing into her instrument (“The moon goes down; there are shivering birds and withering grasses”) was a keen reminder of the ways innocence and experience are often grimly joined within the world of fables and fairytales.

The closing work, Ligeti’s song cycle Sippal, dobbal, nádihegedűvel (With bagpipes, drums, violin) for mezzo-soprano and four percussionists (2000), expanded on this uncomfortable paradox, though the performance was shot through with wit and intense visual communication between the musicians, who were arranged around and behind Summers. Comprised largely of whimsical, often nonsensical language, the work is a fusion of Ligeti’s interest in the folk sounds of his homeland and the avant-garde sound world he helped develop. The cycle’s first song, “Fabula” (“Fable”) depicts a pack of wolves terrified of two unmovable mountains, and is a gripping call-and-response between voice and percussion section. The work uses a huge array of percussion instruments (marimba, tam-tam, log drum, bass drum, gong, vibraphone, tubular bells, to name just a few) which work in dialogue with the soloist. Its seven movements shifts between dance rhythms and meditative poetry, though the encore was less meditative – it was a repeat of the final, bouncy seventh movement – than brave, with Summers heartily tackling its fiendish rhythms one more time and thus proving that fables, while seemingly easy on the surface, can be difficult, knotty things, if also loads of fun.

Top photo: Simon Chaput
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Review: The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris

Independence is as important to art as it is to life. In adapting from screen to stage, that autonomy takes on special significance. Audiences often expect a familiarity which has been molded by filmic elements and reinforced in the digital era by quick, easy access. Many works become little more than 2-D images made three-dimensional; designs serve to imitate cinema, not live apart from it. The expectation attached to adaptation, is a clear and present danger, if also a ripe creative possibility; x-ray vision is needed for 3D presentation. It helps to have a good partner.

Composer Thomas Ades and director Calixto Bieito use their combined powers to bring Ades’ 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel to startling, autonomous life. Based on the 1962 Luis Buñuel film classic, the new production at Opéra national de Paris is an unapologetic stage beast that takes aim at everything from religion to family to art to opera itself. It is bawdy, bold, and brilliant. Bieito skillfully navigates the imprecise nature of the plot by plumbing the depths of its various scenes and character relationships. The work depicts a group of aristocrats who gather for a late dinner party and can’t seem to (or won’t, possibly) depart from it. Rich in symbolic possibility, the opera’s Salzburg premiere was directed by the opera’s librettist, Tom Cairns, and went on to be staged in London and New York. Cairns’ staging hewed close to Buñuel’s visual palette of mid-20th century aristocratic Europe, a world of crepe dresses, statement jewelry, roller-set hair, as well as a thick wall between that high society and the outside world, which includes members of an inquisitive media, police, and a curious crowd. Bieito’s production is a different, and far more visceral vision. There are no live sheep here, and no thick wall either. Instead, members of the chorus (that raucous public on the other side of the earlier wall, here led by chorus master Ching-Lien Wu) are in the top tier of the Opéra Bastille, their voices floating out across the auditorium, a heavenly-hellish host of would-be angels, set to exterminate all within earshot.

The Exterminating Angel, Bieito, Paris, opera, Yoli

Photo: Agathe Poupeney

The production opens with a small boy holding sheep-shaped balloons wandering onstage and offering halting bleats before being joined by a priest (Régis Mengus) who whispers something close (too close) to his ear; this, we later learn, is Yoli, the son of a dinner party guest, Silvia (Claudia Boyle), who may or may not be aware of the priest’s abuses but seems determined to ignore them. Her twisted love-hate relationship with brother Francisco (Anthony Roth Costanzo) reveals a vein of wider familial abuse and reinforced silence, recurring themes within Bieito’s oeuvre. Scenes from the film are clarified with varying degrees of tension: the arrival; the ragout; the musical performances; the sister-brother fight(s); eating the sheep; the double suicide; finding water. These chapters are punctuated by highly memorable images, including the performers directly facing the audience at the arrival (echoed at the close); the ragoût consisting of two large bags of blood; the servants ducking under the table; the sheep being the guests wrapped in sheepskin rugs. Opera singer Leticia Meynar (Gloria Tronel) stands on the long wooden dining table at one point, arms aloft, holding cutlery in each hand. The table is carried by the male members of the cast around in a circle, Easter-procession style, as Ades’ score blazes out from the pit, deliciously eerie ondes Martenot included, a smouldering requiem with clear traces of Berg, Britten, Stravinsky.

Ades has tread the damnation-salvation waters previously, notably in the chamber opera Powder Her Face (1995), which explores the salacious life of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Music writer Alex Ross noted in a 1998 review that the work bears “a repeated sense of a beautiful mirage shattering into cold, alienated fragments.” These fragments have been enlarged within the writing of The Exterminating Angel. With the Paris iteration, they’ve also become technicolour. The depictions of not only religious ritual, but masturbation, voyeurism, defecation, self-harm, and suggested cannibalism have clear dramaturgical intent and theatrical urgency. The upright doctor of the film becomes a shambolic mess live, with a shirtless Clive Bayley joining the other cast members in shambolic disarray. Sexually voracious Lucia di Nobile (Jacquelyn Stucker) is initially elegant in a low-cut red satin dress and wavy hair; by evening’s end she is in naught but underthings, with wet hair, messy red lipstick and manic grin, looking less socialite than avenging Joker. Starlet soprano Meynar is one of the last to remove her dress (a sparkling sea-foam design) but the first to recognize the importance of the ritual that will end the group’s self-imposed situation. Performing, it turns out, is the double mirror revealing the waving man at the very back – it might be an illusion, but it’s an illusion to indulge. Indulgence also comes with a repeat of the crucifixion imagery, when the dinner party guests turn on their host, Edmundo de Nobile (Nicky Spence), blaming him for their entrapment; Nobile, as with Meynar earlier, becomes Christ-like, but the question remains: is this conviction, sacrifice, selfishness, or (quite literally) performance? What do we want as an audience – deliverance or diversion?

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Photo: Agathe Poupeney

In presenting the group in a range of vivid colours (costume design by Ingo Krügler) set against an all-white backdrop (set design by Anna-Sofia Kirsch), the work’s relationships as well as individual foibles are both clarified and scrutinized. This clarification of structure has a direct effect on the delivery of the work’s score and performances, which are uniformly strong. The cast handles the pitchy nature of the score with dramatic aplomb and Ades’ conducting is equally precise, whether he’s leading the work’s doomed lovers, Beatriz (Amina Edris) and Eduardo (Filipe Manu) in one of the few lyrical moments of the opera, a lewd pseudo-baptism, or the work’s haunting final call, “libera de morte aeterna et lux aeterna luceat”. The lines are a fusion of a responsory sung in the Catholic Office of the Dead and Requiem Mass, respectively, with the final lines of the Libera Me particularly applicable to Bieito’s staging:

That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness,
When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.

The work ends with the cast standing as they began, assembled in a row downstage, staring at the audience in silence. Are they us? Are we them? The Exterminating Angel asks opera-goers to consider what we want, and expect – from entertainment, art, faith – and where and how they all meet. Let the light shine, suggests Bieito, but always remember the darkness. That’s where the ugly truth lies.

opera, Ades, performance, Paris, The Exterminating Angel, cast

The cast of The Exterminating Angel, Opéra national de Paris, 2024. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Top photo: Agathe Poupeney
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February: Links, Gratitude, Daring Fairytale Stagings

There’s plenty going on in both the orchestral and opera worlds right now. Everyone is busy – including yours truly – and feeling somewhat worn-down, but it seems important, amidst the chaos and concomitant tiredness, to keep interested, inspired, and reminded of the existence of good things and people, and to make the effort to recognize accordingly. It matters more than ever.

Thank you Ozawa!

The Japanese conductor, whose passing was announced this past Friday, was truly a powerhouse of passion for music, in all its expressions. My formal obituary for The Globe and Mail is here (paywall).

Ozawa truly changed the centre of classical gravity and the way it was perceived more broadly, by the public and aspiring musicians. “It’s hard to be a pioneer, but he did it with grace,” noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a moving video clip released by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Ozawa was the organization’s very long-serving Music Director (1973-2002) and was known as much for his dynamic performances as for his love of the Red Sox. He was also committed to music education, particularly in his later years. Well before his time in Boston, Ozawa was Music Director of the Toronto Symphony orchestra, and led the orchestra in the opening of City Hall in 1965. My music-mad mother recalled seeing Ozawa and the TSO at their then-regular digs (Massey Hall) many times and I clearly remember how she praised the maestro’s attention to detail and expressive physicality; she also noted the famous mop of hair, like so many.

Hair aside, Ozawa had a sizeable live performance track record and an immense  discography, although he wasn’t quite so well-known for his opera as for orchestral renderings, coming late (as he admitted) to the opera world. Still, everyone has favourites, and some of my own Ozawa treasures include opera, among them Messiaen’s Saint Françoise d’Assise, which Ozawa premiered at Opéra national de Paris in 1983 (at the composer’s personal request); Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, presented at Wiener Staatsoper in 2002 (when Ozawa was their Music Director); and Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio Oedipus, from the Saito Kinen Festival in 1992, the same year Ozawa co-created the festival and related orchestra. The poetic production featured Philip Langridge and Jessye Norman in a Japanese-influenced staging by Julie Taymor.

Speaking of Oedipus…

Update 18 February: The planned production of Jocasta’s Line (information below) has changed. Director/choreographer Wayne McGregor and actor Ben Whishaw have had to withdraw from the project. Now called Oedipus Rex/Antigone, the work will be directed by Mart van Berckel and Nanine Linning, respectively. Moussa’s Antigone is a co-commission with the annual Québécois Festival de Lanaudière.

Original: Actor Ben Whishaw is set to appear as the Speaker in an intriguing new presentation of the work to be presented next month at Dutch National Opera. Called Jocasta’s Line, Stravinsky is here being paired with 2023’s Antigone by Canadian composer Samy Moussa. With direction and choreography by Wayne McGregor, the work features tenor Sean Panikkar as Oedipus and mezzo soprano Dame Sarah Connolly as his doomed mother, as well as dancers from the Dutch National Ballet. Fascinerend!

Still in The Netherlands: the Dutch National Opera Academy recently finished a run of Conrad Susa’s spicy chamber opera Transformations. The 1973 work features texts by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton and subverts the archetype of the fairytale in a very unique, sometimes even disturbing (hurrah!) ways. The two-act work is a very adult re-telling of ten famous Grimm stories, including Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White. Susa’s work was widely performed in the US following its premiere, but only had its continental European premiere in 2006 in Lausanne and was later presented at the 2006 Wexford Festival Opera. I do wish this work was done more, especially since fairytales seems to play such a large if unconscious role within modern aesthetics and design.

… and Rusalka

Indeed, the timeliness of presentations that contrast long-cherished fairytale-related art is noteworthy, what with their unmissable corollary to contemporary digital imagery and its over-Photoshopped Insta-friendly narratives. But hostility to such cliché-breaking is abundant, and that hostility been underlined in the opera world with angry reactions to the new production of Rusalka at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. Dvořák 1901 work, which shares various elements with The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, is here stripped of its familiar long-haired-doe-eyed-fair-slim-water-maiden imagery. Director Kornél Mundruczó, together with designer Monika Pormale, presents something far more provocative –though to my mind, it shouldn’t be provocative at all. Such presentations are sorely needed, especially within the current cultural landscape.

Mundruczó isn’t the first to dare to strip the opera of its traditional aesthetic. Sergio Morabito, who staged the opera with Jossi Wieler in 2008, described Rusalka to Jessica Duchen in 2012 as a “really dark fairy tale. It’s really desperate – without any hope.” Part of this bleakness is linked to the main character’s muteness, though that narrative device has been presented in a variety of ways through the years. From a personal standpoint, robbing a girl of her voice for the sake of some idea of humanity connected to “romance” (and soft-focus tragedy) is nightmarish – dress it up any way you want; it’s still horrific. Reading comments about the Berlin production lately I was reminded of past Rusalkas, especially unconventional ones like those by Morabito/Wieler as well as the grimy (if great) 2012 Stefan Hernheim production; both kicked against the soft-focus aesthetic but in so doing attracted incredible vitriol. That a Rusalka might go against some set-in-stone image is bad enough (Kosky’s infamous Carmen arguably did the same), but that it should dare to present a title character who, likewise, doesn’t conform to a deeply conservative image of “the mythical (or mysterious) feminine” is unforgivable.

Is there value in upsetting the traditional aesthetic connected to certain operas? To paraphrase a recent conversation with a friend on just this topic: even if you don’t agree with every little choice in a production (especially the presentation of the main character), you can at least recognize the work’s place more broadly within the sphere of modern presentation. For reference: I have reservations about various aspects of  the updated productions of both Strauss’s Daphne at Staatsoper Unter den Linden and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at Bayerische Staatsoper, but I wholly support them being done. It’s important to try these things! As Morabito also noted in his interview with Duchen in 2012: “We don’t like the idea that we are making abstract aesthetic statements and people must swallow it or die! We think and hope that people wouldn’t have preconceived expectations.”

Classical writer Gianmarco Segato recently saw the very first presentation of Rusalka by the Hungarian State Opera and staged by director János Szikora. In his review for La Scena Musicale Segato cleverly notes the extent to which its designs were influenced by early 20th century Czech artist Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau more broadly, especially with relation to the opera’s titular character and her cohorts. In Berlin, reactions to Mundruczó’s far less imagistically romantic production have been divisive. Albrecht Selge covered the opening for Van Magazine (auf Deutsch) recently, describing soprano Christiane Karg in the titular role and arguably capturing its whole essence: “Denn Karg gestaltet ihre Nixe agil, zornig, aufbegehrend gegen die vorgegebene Opferrolle.” (“Karg makes her mermaid agile, angry and rebellious against the predetermined role of victim.”) It’s important to try these things – especially, I would argue in the age of Instagram!

Professor Pfefferkorn auf Insta

Speaking of the ubiquitous, ever-evolving, image-obsessed platform: music publisher Breitkopf and Hartel has an entertaining, intelligent weekly Insta-series that dives into the nitty-gritty of their work and broader realities for the industry. The format is simple, along with the aesthetic: head honcho Nick Pfefferkorn addresses viewer questions in quick if informative talks from his desk. (Special thanks to whoever thought to include the English subtitles.) Pfefferkorn, who founded his own independent publishing house in 1996, became publishing director of the Wiesbaden-based Breitkopf and Hartel in 2015. His narration style is equal parts tweedy professor and watchful butcher; he’s detailed in discussing the finer points of just how the music-score-sausage is made at this particular publisher.

These videos are helpful in demystifying what can be an intimidating part of deeper music engagement. I feel a bit less daunted at re-examining the various ingredients of scores in my own collection through watching Pfefferkorn’s detailed if direct explanations. Last week’s episode focuses on how the publisher indicates page turns, for which section, and why some indications differ from others; he starts with something more fashion-oriented. Vielen dank, B&H!

On Emigré

Deutsche Grammophon recently announced the upcoming release of Emigré, a 90-minute new oratorio by Emmy Award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh. The work details a  little-known piece of 20th century history, when the people of Shanghai welcomed Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe in the 1930s. Emigré examines this history through the lense of a story about two brothers and their respective journeys. Premiered in Shanghai last November, the work will receive its North American premiere in a semi-staged production at Lincoln Center at the end of this month, and is scheduled to be presented by the Deutsches-Sinfonie Orchester in Berlin at an as-yet-unannounced future date.

Emigré was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony, as well as its Music Director and conductor Long Yu, who was called “the real hero” of the project in a recent panel discussion hosted by classical NPR station WQXR. The upcoming New York staging will feature tenors Matthew White and Arnold Livingston Geis in the lead roles, together with sopranos Meigui Zhang and Diana White, mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu, and bass-baritone Shenyang, a former BBC Cardiff Singer of the World.

The project comes at a time when the classical world is realizing that it’s good to express a greater cultural awareness; my cynical (read: observant) self says this is also good marketing and optics for an industry that still has such a long way to go. But it is equally true that classical organizations and labels are being silently expected to step in and offer the history lessons that many educational systems sorely lack. So if Emigré aids in raising awareness and opening conversations, so much the better. It is disheartening to note the lack of Canadian dates for performances of Emigré, but hopefully that will change.

Finally, who says Beethoven and belly-dancing can’t be combined? Here’s “Für Elise” like you’ve probably never heard it:

Like music journalist Axel Brüggemann says, “halten Sie die Ohren steif” and remember: the c-word is context. 😀

Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
snow, lights, winter, tree, pretty, illumination, nature

An Update & An Inspiration (or two)

First things first: I will be teaching in January 2024 after all.

More specifically, I will be leading a class at the University of Guelph Humber on freelancing and small business development for third-year Media & Communications students. Huzzah!

Secondly, calling attention to an article by Alexandra Wilson published recently in The Critic. Wilson is Professor of Music and Cultural History at Oxford Brookes University, and has published extensively on various aspects of opera. (Her 2021 book on Puccini’s La bohème is on my wish-list.) These lines near the end of the article caught me:

Yes, classical music does help mind, body, and soul. But if we make the point of opera its capacity to improve “wellbeing”, or if we sell classical music on its ability to make you better at maths, or indeed if we campaign for the arts on the basis of their contribution to GDP, we have succumbed to a utilitarian mentality. And the problem is that this makes it very much harder to advocate for the arts on their own merits.

This utilitarian mentality greatly (if not solely) contributes to North American perceptions around classical being an “elite” world, an idea I’ve covered here in the past, but hope to write about in more detail soon. It’s inspiring to see Wilson’s words at this point in time – more please!

More seasonally: Journalist Uwe Friedrich recently did a fascinating and detailed comparative of recordings of The Nutcracker for Bavarian broadcaster BR Klassik. It made me especially happy to hear my own personal favorite (by conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky) made the list. Very often I explore the idea of ‘evocative sounds’ with my students, what that means, and why to use it; Rozhdestvensky’s 1961 recording with the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra and Bolshoi Theatre Children’s Choir is a perfect example. The conductor beautifully conjures Tchaikovsky’s various sonic landscapes with an alert, alive eye to every fine, delicate detail, and carefully avoids the far-too-easy showiness of the score while leaning into the vibrant textures inherent within its hypnotic melodicism.

Finally: thanks to everyone far and wide for the kind wishes for my birthday yesterday (the 14th). When people ask me my age now, this is the exact face I’m going to pull:

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

My interview with Gavin Friday about the new version of Peter And The Wolf is coming next week; stay tuned and stay warm.

snow, winter, branches, cold, trees, twisting, scene, snowy

Essay: Ch-ch-ch-changes

Update 15 December: I have a January position, but not at Seneca Polytechnic.

This announcement was made on Facebook recently, but for the sake of  clarity I am announcing it here also: I will not be teaching at Seneca Polytechnic Institute in January (For further clarification: I was not fired but it was also not my decision.)

I graduated from Seneca’s Radio Broadcasting program in 2005, with the teaching offer coming a decade later. It was the first time I’d taught in a formal classroom, the first time I’d stood in front of a group, having only taught piano one-on-one for many years prior. I’d been an Associate Producer at CBC Radio but I wasn’t sure how to transfer that knowledge, or indeed, anything I’d gained from working so long in the worlds of writing, chasing, interviewing, recording, and producing. I remember the stomach-churning nerves of that first class, repeatedly losing my train of thought and looking down to my notes for reassurance. What am I doing here? Who do I think I am?! Fraudster syndrome is not a new experience for me, but I remember how sharp its edges felt that day in January 2015. It was a sign of things to come, particularly when I returned to writing within the classical world.

Despite the nervousness that day, I’d made my mother proud. It felt good to have the approval of the person who had been my most ferocious critic. The praise came with an addendum  (“I told you you should have gone to teacher’s college all along…”) – and was short-lived. I became ill (there were suspicions of Crohn’s disease, not ultimately found) and I couldn’t finish teaching the term. This was the time before Zoom classes. I couldn’t do a requested opera review for The Globe & Mail during that time either, and I remember crying over everything one grey early-spring afternoon, bemoaning the inertia of an existence that couldn’t – wouldn’t, refused – to move forwards, despite every hard push and expensive effort. Living abroad, graduate school, New York (twice!), tutoring, teaching, workshopping, networking, writing – so much writing – balanced with looking after my mother, and just when it seemed things were finally, at last, moving… kaboom, by accident or design, the wheels stopped turning. Sometimes I wonder if my illness was a reaction to her obvious decline. I remember her tiny frame perched just outside the doorway of my bedroom after one of my surgeries, her saucer eyes peering in. She would be dead four months later. I remained, barely, and the school term was over.

branches, trees, green, nature, trunks, paths, leaf, leaves, bloom, park, forest

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

I would go on to teach at Seneca every winter thereafter, and subsequently instruct Media And Communications students at the University of Guelph Humber every autumn. All those things I pushed for and lived through I now use, in one form or another; everything had a purpose, and continues to. The stress of teaching can be intense at points, but what job comes without that? Creativity, logic, and process are partners in the classroom. To borrow Byron’s line from Don Juan (written in a highly different context), “explaining my explanation” is something I think about a lot, as much as for teaching as for writing. But such educational basics (including standing in front of a group) don’t scare me anymore. Communicating, after all, is what musicians (actors, writers, painters, playwrights) also do, and like an artist I try to be both creative and chewy in my delivery, a mix of the blunt, the bizarre, the theatrical, a kind of Bernsteinian flight of ideas and history, approach and practice. (I don’t think Lenny would mind my taking inspiration from his speaking/lecturing style.) Encouraging young people to explore their own talents, demonstrate a capacity to meet real-world demands and exercise their curiosity has been a special blessing for someone who never had children of her own. I like students; I like their energy. Seeing (and sometimes hearing) the lights go on – formulating unique thoughts and ideas, planning and dreaming, standing outside (creatively, intellectually, mentally) the influence and validation of the known – communication!

At the moment I am in the midst of term-end grading. It is odd to think that in a few days, there will be no classroom to go to, no externally-imposed schedule to keep, no student things to grade, no new slate of new faces to greet. January will be a big empty slate for the first time since 2014. “Turn and face the strange” indeed. Exacerbating this surreal feeling is a (big) birthday on Thursday. Maybe pushing for the things society tells us we “should” have by a certain age isn’t as effective a recipe for contentment as acceptance of and gratitude for present circumstances. True,  there is no castle in the sky, no Prince Charming, no sharing the washing-up or small joys or exasperated sighs. I am my own roommate, and it’s not a question of “strange” or “fail” or even “like”; it simply is.

Recently I had a conversation with someone working in the European classical industry who noted that while I seem “split down the middle” in terms of my professional life, I really should give serious thought to pursuing the things related to the classical self, the self who must try to stay quiet amidst the focus, that side I can barely silence, even (or especially) in lectures. Of course my readers may have noticed there’s been little published here the last few months – there’s been so little energy to do so. But I am called The Opera Queen, FFS! I should have written about Callas’s birthday! I should have written about Turandot(s) and Don Carlo! I should have written tributes to Marlena Malas and Pauline Tambling! I should have asked for interviews with x-y-z! Alas, time and energy are finite at this point (this is where nightly cooking/washing-up help would come in handy) and lately it’s gone to my students, and I don’t really mind, but I worry my readers do.

torso, sculpture, Glyptothek, Munich, Apollo, physique, chest, ancient, antiquity

Torso of Apollo; copy, probably after a statue of Onatas from Aegina (ca. 460 BC). Taken at the Glyptothek Munich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Rilke’s 1908 poem “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” (Torso of an Archaic Apollo), with its striking paradox of the complete and the incomplete, comes to mind often, and not solely for its famous last line. Lately I am less statuesque and immobile, more messy and unsettled, as if I’m being shoved onto an empty dance floor in naught but socks, sweats, and dishevelled hair; all I can do is dance with myself – figure out next steps, tiptoe through financial terror, pirouette around expected hardship, kick at the doubts and do jazz hands to the doubters. Maybe I know the steps better than I think, else I am a good improviser. It’s nice to move in winter anyway; something about the season’s stillness makes things easier, its cold temperatures offering a brisk clarity. I am looking forward to long walks in the snow (if it ever comes) and listening to Sibelius, Strauss, Shostakovich… and silence.

In the meantime, I’ve an interview posting soon featuring Irish artist Gavin Friday, the driving force behind a new animated version of Peter And The Wolf done with childhood friend Bono – an update to their 2003 project for the Irish Hospice Foundation. Culture and rebellion, change, theatre, performance; creativity; shifting identities: Mr. Friday is every bit opera. The feature is posting prior to the short’s broadcast on Irish television December 25th.

Until then, enjoy the eierpunsch, dance with yourselves, and most importantly: remember the c-word. My students, I think, already know it by heart.

Essay: If You Go Into The Woods Today…

tree, look up, green, wood, leaves, beauty, nature, Munich, branches

Photo: mine. Please do not use without written permission.

Prologue: The new section of this website, a non-classical cultural-writing category to which the following essay belongs, will be up in early 2024. In the meantime, enjoy!

Gennady Gladkov, whose works provided the soundtrack to a variety of movies, series, and animated works, died in Moscow last month at the age of 88. Among the many projects scored by the Russian composer was the 1978 film An Ordinary Miracle, directed by Mark Zakharov and based on the 1954 play by Evgeny Schwartz. A compelling allegory on the nature of creativity and its relationship to human connection, the Mosfilm movie is also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of human relating. At a time when division between people feels so sharp, its examination of connection, as much as power, offer powerful food for thought.

Gladkov’s unique melding of pop-Baroque-romantic sounds underscores the work’s meta-theatricalism, but in no way does that lessen its impact or dilute the sincerity 0f its core. The use of the Bear archetype, with its pungent Jungian and mythological ties, brought to mind obvious opera (Siegfried) and theatre (The Winter’s Tale) references but also examples from popular culture. “Wake Up Call“, an episode from the third season of American television series Northern Exposure (aired on CBS in 1992), written by John Falsey, Joshua Brand, and Diane Frolov. The episode depicts Alaska-based pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) meeting a mysterious man in the woods (Andreas Wisniewski) near the start of spring. The man is gentle, handsome, handy; he catches fish with his bare hands. Is he Prince Charming come to life? Maggie accepts his invitation to visit his abode, a decorated cave, complete with candles and dinnerware. Spring begins to blossom; Maggie’s new flame vanishes, or rather, doesn’t, or rather… because he’s a bear, probably, though he could also be imagined; the writers quite intelligently don’t answer this conundrum. Rather than framing the premise in a patronizing manner (“Poor woman, she’s so desperate for a man she fantasizes about a wild animal…”) Maggie, and by extension the audience, is left to make individual conclusions. Such anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily cutesy or whimsical either; that categorizing crumbles against the very real framework of death (Maggie’s past romantic partners have all died tragically). The bear-man could be a coping mechanism, or he could indeed be real, or he could have a connection with First Nations mythologies (also suggested) – he could be everything, or something, or nothing. Again, viewers are trusted to decide: maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe imagination is every bit as powerful as reality.

This is the idea which largely powers An Ordinary Miracle. The act of imagining things and people into a real, lived plane of existence is symbolized by a young man, simply called the Bear (Aleksandr Abdulov) who, created and controlled by his writer-creator (Oleg Yankovsky), was turned into a human, and will revert to his original state upon kissing the one person he truly loves, the Princess  (Yevgeniya Simonova). The narrative includes some very pointed critiques of power and the ways in which it is wielded (no small thing in Soviet culture) while simultaneously teasing out the ways in which power, love, responsibility, expectation, and free will intersect. Within its premise  is the possibility of violence toward female partners and the beast’s eventual demise. Men as “wild beasts” is hardly a new idea, and as such the responsibility of “taming” is assumed to be the responsibility of female partners, again following cliched notions of gender and heteronormative romance. Such clichés are upended, as Maggie’s “Bear” is already pretty domesticated himself (he makes her dinner in his fancy cave) and the Bear in Zakharov’s film seems too gentle and wide-eyed to ever want to inflict harm on his beloved. (Corrupt politicians are a whole other story.) The Princess certainly acts the part of caretaker, even as she dons men’s clothes to disguise herself and engineer an escape, at one point wielding a sword and even deceiving her beloved.

Miracle brought to mind other cinema works with pseudo-anthropomorphic elements, including the 1987 film Moonstruck. Lorna Castorini (Cher) is asked by her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Vincent Gardenia) to facilitate a  truce with his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who cut his hand in an accident years before and has sworn off love as a result. Following their introduction in the sweaty basement of his bakery (trial by fire indeed) the one-handed “beast” sits with Loretta in his pin-tidy apartment and begrudgingly admits he enjoys the steak she made him before sharing details of his almost-marriage. “That woman didn’t leave you okay,” Lorna observes pointedly, “you can’t see what you are, and I see everything. You’re a wolf (… ) You’re scared to death of what the wolf will do if you make that mistake again.” Ronny angrily retorts that on the day of his intended marriage, Johnny “made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand; he could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head!” Later on, as the two walk home after a poignant night at the opera, he tells Loretta, “You call me a wolf, you run to the wolf in me – that don’t make you no lamb. You’re gonna marry my brother; why you wanna sell your life short?”

Writer John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, The Bride and the Wolf, had floated around for years before director Norman Jewison took it on. The idea of men as essentially beasts is, as noted earlier, not new; the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood has existed at least since the 17th century, although earlier versions exist in classical Greece and Rome, as well as East Asia, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Its various adaptations into music, TV, animation, games, a musical, and indeed pornography underline the story’s enduring appeal. There is something of the mythology at work in An Ordinary Miracle and Moonstruck, and Northern Exposure too– but something beyond it: gentle if insistent; hopeful if sad; fantastical if recognizably human. The works are less concerned with the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and more concerned with the real challenges of relating – less about ‘taming’ than acknowledging the perceived importance of conformity within socio-cultural ties. The beasts here are not obvious, and they are not clichés, or even archetypes; they are human. Bear is delicate, thoughtful, scared; Ronny is a plain-spoken, music-loving neat-freak; Maggie is insecure and nursing a broken heart; Loretta is skittish and fearful, as much a creation of her Italian upbringing as The Bear is of The Wizard. Aware of with their own feelings and controlled by perceived limitations and heavy expectations within their respective words, they remain, for a time, locked in patterns of behaviour and reaction – until granted permission (of sorts) to exercise a self-determination that leads to a risky if richer path. Each film uses the form of the fairytale to disrupt expectations around that form, and that includes the respective happy endings, which would not have occurred without discord, loss, heated exchanges and grim silences. Robbing such tales of their uncomfortable moments robs them of their emotional weight.

In exercising imagination thusly we have to ask that the exercise includes such difficulties, because life often presents them unbidden. Horror, as it turns out, comes in many forms. The Wizard says to the Bear, “Men of wisdom rise to the sky and plunge into hell out of love for the truth; what have you done out of love for a woman?” to which the Bear responds (to Gladkov’s keen scoring), “I gave her up.” “Once in your lifetime there comes a day when the impossible is possible,” The Wizard says, admonishing no one but himself. “You missed your chance. I won’t help you anymore.” Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Shambhala, 2002)  that “(o)nly when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” An Ordinary Miracle might have easily not had any miracle at all, ordinary or otherwise, without the counterpoint of tragedy – vulnerability, loss, risk, the possibility of change itself – ever-ready and perched at the door. There may or may not a rougher nature to bears, wolves, and brides, but it’s up to us as audiences (readers, viewers; humans) to decide on the danger they present, and to engage, to show up, and share that ” wild” side ourselves – to dare to fall in the snow, to be shot, to die, to live; to look at the moon, to climb in bed with the beast. Vulnerability is an inherent part of creativity. The Wizard stands alone amidst fire at the close of An Ordinary Miracle for a reason; he knows they are explosive partners.

Standing outside of Schwartz’s narrative, Gladkov’s music is  a genuine “miracle” within Miracle. Touchingly sentimental one moment, cutting and dark the next, his style is a roadmap of character, emotion, memory, magic. A light in deepest darkness, Gladkov was an outstanding talent and will be missed. As the dark cold of winter cocoons much of the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend a pot of hot brandied tea, a viewing, and quiet moments away from the chatter of technology. Spring, when it does come, may look very different; until then, we can imagine.

Something New, Soon(ish)

leaf, hand, tree, nature, autumn, colours, green, nature

At the Villa Verdi in October 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without written permission.

Update 30 October 2023: Since posting this two weeks ago, it’s come to my attention that there is, in some quarters, a very incorrect takeaway. To be clear: I am not stopping my classical coverage – I am simply broadening my scope as a writer. Classical coverage will continue parallel to other cultural pursuits. FYI.

Time off is a very good thing. Much as there’s a certain joy in the stability of habit and structure, there’s just as much happiness in the temporary absence of those things, and the varied responsibilities accompanying them.

Having spent the last week reading, cooking, reconnecting with friends, grading student papers, and staring out the window at a red-purple-gold forest, I realized that my computer-time the last few months has been very taken up with other people – this is not a bad thing, but it can be exhausting. “Writer” – the thing in my online biographies, the title that perhaps most closely captures who and what I am; what have I written lately that’s matched that in any satisfying way? Hand-written scribbles outlining various ideas for opera libretti notwithstanding, what have I done, or not done, or not had the energy to do, until, unless…?

Space, that elastic thing Bachelard wrote of; time, that other (highly) elastic thing Borges (and Arendt, and many others) turned over many times; I’ve had lots of both this last week. That allowance provided an important reacquaintance with a beloved old television program; watching something I enjoyed thirty (!) years ago served as a good reminder of my early writerly instincts, and of  the importance of having space and time as a basis for authentic creative expression. I don’t know if Northern Exposure is responsible for a kind of reawakening of the spirit (yet) but I do feel closer to a kind of artist-self (dare I write that) than I have in ages.

I’ll be writing more about the show and its continuing influence in a new category which will be appearing at my website soon. Non-Classical Writing will be for all the work that doesn’t hew to the classical/opera area to which this site owes its principle existence. There are already examples of that work in the Essays section. (Those things will be moved accordingly.) I love that classical world, but I love lots of other cultural things also. I don’t want to be confined to writing about only one area (as some of you may have already guessed from last summer’s post about the Faust myth and The Boys) – it feels limiting, especially to someone (me) who started out wanting to be a screenwriter, with loads of loopy ideas and interests. I’ve found the only way to keep my joy as a writer these days is to exercise a natural and longstanding cultural curiosity.

Vielen dank, Cicely, Alaska? Stay tuned.

 

 

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.

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