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.
Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
London audiences will finally get to see a new Jenůfa. Restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic halted the Claus Guth-directed production in March 2020, but the show, as they say, must go on, and indeed it will; the opera is set to open at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on September 28th. The artistic team remains somewhat intact from its first iteration, with originals Asmik Grigorian in the lead (a role debut), and Karita Mattila as Kostelnička Buryjovka (reprising a role for which she has won much acclaim); new cast members include tenors Saimir Pirgu as Števa Buryja and Nicky Spence as Laca Klemeň; they’ll all be under the baton of conductor Henrik Nánási. That the Scottish-born Spence is making a role debut in an opera he knows well and has frequently appeared in in the past (as Števa) is a point not lost on the tenor, who was chatty and excited when we spoke recently, just between Jenůfa rehearsals and on the cusp of fresh ones for English National Opera (ENO)’s The Valkyrie, in which he’ll be making another role debut, as Siegmund, in Richard Jones’ new production of the Wagner Ring work, set to grace the stage of The Met in 2025.
There are many tales of many artists coming from small communities and making it big in the big opera centres of London, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and Moscow. Those tales tend to follow a predictable path, and indeed Spence’s tale falls into this mould: all-night buses and anxious auditions and moving from hard-scrabble Dumfries youth to London music school, and onwards, of helping relatives and settling into a house with partner and dog when success did arrive. It’s the stuff of cliché, but sometimes the cliché is simply too correct to dismiss, and besides, the brand of success Spence is now enjoying was hard-won, because it wasn’t the sort that initially came knocking. In 2004, during his final year of school at Guildhall School of Music And Drama, Spence accepted a five-record contract with Universal Classics (Decca). He went on to make his first album with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, toured with Shirley Bassey and Katherine Jenkins, and was nominated for a Classical Brit Award (as Young British Classical Performer Of The Year). During this time Universal/Decca had promoted him as “The Scottish Tenor”; Spence was in his early 20s at the time. When it came time to record his second album, Spence declined; back to Guildhall he went, for more intensive study of his craft. In 2009 Spence won a place at the National Opera Studio, and a year later joined ENO, as one of their inaugural Harewood Artists, where he did an equal mix of so-called “classic” opera (David in Die Meistersinger, The Novice in Billy Budd, Steva in Jenůfa) and contemporary: Spence created the role of Brian in Two Boys, Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera about the tragic intertwining of technology and passion based on a true story, which was subsequently staged at The Met.
Spence clearly wants to be a star, but that drive is in no way at odds with his keen musicality and theatrical instincts. An awareness of timing, texture, and technique, both vocally and physically, is evident, but Spence is smart enough not to show the gears turning – not without very good (read: theatrical) reason. Experiencing him with so-called “darker” material (which encompasses much of his core repertoire) is not so much a shock as it is a clue into an artististry still unfolding. Spence is still young, not quite 40; he’s performed on the stages of the Royal Opera, the Met, La Monnaie, Opéra national de Paris, and Glyndebourne and has worked with a range of conductors, including Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Philippe Jordan, Donald Runnicles, Carlo Rizzi, Alejo Perez, Alain Altinoglu, Mark Wigglesworth, and composer/conductor Thomas Adès, to name a few. He returns to working with Martyn Brabbins on The Valkyrie at ENO later this year; it seemed clear from our conversation he was both daunted and thrilled by the chance to tackle Siegmund, a role that mixes dark and light, shade and nuance, in vocal writing as much as theatrical expression. So, to simply state that the tenor specializes in “darker” repertoire is to rather miss the mark, as much as for Spence as for the music; composers like Britten, Berg, Dvořák, Martinů, Zimmerman, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Wagner. Strauss, and (especially) Janáček hold an appeal for the socio-religious, spiritually chewy, stained and earthy (sometimes dirty, ugly) elements which exist as much in their scores as in the texts and characters within their works, seen and unseen. This doesn’t diminish the work of other composers like Mozart, Rossini, Berlioz, or Beethoven (whose works can be every bit as chewy – Spence has performed them also), much less the work of contemporary composers, which Spence has admitted he would like to perform more often. Taste, talent, vocation, freedom, and the infusion of personal meaning and fulfillment are rare matches in the arts world; such an integration has implications for culture and its expression in the post-pandemic landscape (if we are even there yet). In Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1997), George Steiner ponders this equation of rare and special matches, positing its greater relevance within ever-shifting perceptions of freedom, a notion to which many culture-lovers might find their own meaning, particularly as the opera world enters (and perhaps redefines) a new normal:
Any attempt at serious thought, be it mathematical, scientific, metaphysical or formal, in the widest creative-poetic vein, is a vocation. It comes to possess one like an unbidden, often unwelcome summons. Even the teacher, the expositor, the critic who lacks creative genius but who devotes his existence to the presentment and perpetuation of the real thing, is a being infected (krank an Gott). Pure thought, the analytic compulsion, the libido sciendi which drive consciousness and reflection towards abstraction, towards aloneness and heresy, are cancers of the spirit. They grow, they may devour the tissues of normalcy in their path. But cancers are non-negotiable. This is the point.
I have no leg to stand on if I try to apologize for the social cost of, say, grand opera in a context of slums and destitute hospitals. I can never prove that Archimedes was right to sacrifice his life to a problem in the geometry of conic sections. It happens to be blindingly obvious to me that study, theological-philosophic argument, classical music, poetry, art, all that is “difficult because it is excellent’” (Spinoza, patron saint of the possessed) are the excuse for life. I am convinced that one is infinitely privileged to be even a secondary attendant, commentator, instructor, or custodian in some reach of these high places. I cannot, I must not negotiate this passion. Such negotiation, of which “political correctness” is an infantile, deeply mendacious tactic, is the treason of the cleric. It is, as in the unreason of love, a lie.
There is no aspect of untruth to any of what Spence brings to his work. His 2019 recording of Janáček’s disturbing, highly theatrical song cycle The Diary Of Who One Disappeared (Hyperion; recorded with pianist Julius Drake, mezzo Václava Housková, and clarinetist Victoria Samek, and including other Moravian folk songs) demonstrates a range of both expressivity and flexibility, balanced by a highly intelligent technical approach that in no way robs the music (or its troubling text) of its power. As he told Presto Music‘s Katherine Cooper at the album’s release, “once you’ve mastered the few sounds which don’t exist in spoken English, the Czech language is ideal for the voice as it sits forward in the resonance and feels legato in nature, with so much potential for expression in the language. As a keen exponent of his music, I feel a duty to try and commit to the Czech language like a native.” That committed approach won Spence rightful acclaim; he was the recipient of the Solo Vocal Award, Gramophone Classical Music Awards 2020 (“He sings with sensitivity and intelligence, projects the words with consistent clarity and covers this wonderful cycle’s broad emotional range movingly and convincingly,” wrote music journalist Hugo Shirley) and the BBC Music Magazine Vocal Award 2020 (Spence “combines passionate declamation with moments of exquisite delicacy,” wrote Jan Smaczny). His experience with the music of Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), whether in recital, production, livestream, or recording, has been considerable through the years, with repertoire in Káťa Kabanová and From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého domu) alongside Jenůfa and the Songs, but there’s more yet to come; in February 2022 Spence makes his debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin) as Gregor in Věc Makropulos (alongside soprano Marlis Petersen as Emilia Marty and Bo Skovhus as Jaroslav Prus) in a new production, again directed by Claus Guth, and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. He’s also set to be Samson to Elīna Garanča’s Delilah at the Royal Opera House next spring, under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano.
Complementing the hectic scheduling of an opera world that seems to be returning a semblance of normality (or new-post-corona normality) is Spence’s bubbly style. In his conversation with stage director Nina Brazier on her podcast, The Opera Pod, recently, he says, “I found this gift, I guess, it was like a superpower, really.” No longer The Scottish Tenor; now, perhaps, Super-Siegmund-Tenor, Spence’s past life filters into his present one: the pauses as much as the tones, the phrasing choices, the dynamic choices; the smell of hay, grass, and sea; the fumes of black cabs, the perennial buzzing of St. Martin’s Lane; everything informs Spence’s sound. Such authenticity makes his performances special, and memorable, events.
Photo: Ryan Buchanan
How are Jenůfa rehearsals going?
Hugely well – we’re heating up here onstage; my knife is sharpened, my stick is whittled, and I’m ready to go for it!
What’s it been like to step into the machinery of a production that was already largely done?
It’s been exciting. They’re such a generous group of colleagues! Although I was a newbie I felt very much welcomed into the family. I’ve never seen a video of what it was like before, so I could really put my own stamp on things. I love Claus Guth – we’re working together a lot this season; his instinct is so beautiful as a director, he really explores the grey area, which is what Janáček’s work seems to be all about.
I don’t think so, really – but it did offer me the ticket into Janáček’s world and this opera, so I feel the music in my bones. Laca is such a different character, and in a way it’s much more fulfilling; the character arc is much deeper from where it starts, with, as Allan said, him carrying the chippiest of chips. Laca has so many issues in terms of abandonment and not feeling loved and not really knowing where he fits into this hierarchy – he feels like he’s at the bottom – and slowly, as he develops more of a connection with Jenůfa, during this horrendous act of slashing her face, whether it’s accidental or not, they become a lot closer. And this imperfect perfection is something I find so moving, much more moving than any Hollywood ending, the fact that everything’s gone to shit and they still decide to give it a go.
They’re both outsiders.
Absolutely, they’re misfits and they’re stuck within this mill of abuse – a generational abuse and utter emotional incapacity.
… and the social milieu, of judgement, and fitting in, or not-fitting-in, are elements sewn straight into the quality of Janáček’s music. When you first got into singing, what attracted you to it? And what keeps you fascinated now?
I think it’s his honesty, and the truth of his writing – there’s such a sense of truth to it all. I’m not sure if it’s because he had this illicit relationship, which was unconsummated, with Kamilla Stösslová, who was so very much his junior, and they were both married to other people too – but it feels as if his operas are infused, as a soundscape, with what he couldn’t have in real life. He had so much of what he would’ve loved to have happened within the writing, but the music is not quite cathartic, and what is there, well, there isn’t ever any kind of relief in that catharsis; everything is a little bit crap in the end. There’s no real goodies or baddies throughout his work; everybody is very confused, and he explores that grey area of the human condition, which I find so interesting as an actor and artist.
His writing is dramatic, and also very dense – the text together with the musical language – how do you find your way in? Through all the recitals, operas, and song cycles, has your approach to his work changed through the years?
I really enjoy the contrasts (between those forms). I try to think of something like The Diary Of One Who Disappeared as a play set to music – so it’s not just difficult rhythms but lots of other things. For instance, there’s so much folk in that work, it’s something we hear in all his music. He was a fan of Moravian folk music and you can hear it in so many things – and I’m Scottish as well, so I guess we resonate through that folk idiom. Also I love the fact that vocally (his music) does have some challenges but those challenges are so totally married to the drama. You do your work in the studio, and hopefully by the time you are onstage you can enjoy the ride.
So how did doing something like Diary inform how you do things live onstage now? Or is it the other way around – does your opera work inform your approach to song cycles? Or are they all totally blank slates for you creatively?
The songs are just like mini-operas, really, you just have less time to set out your stall in terms of your journey and the drama, but certainly something like Diary is between something of an opera and a song cycle. I very much feel it’s an operatic display, I guess, it has all of the elements in there, just the structure is slightly more like the song, but that’s the way when it comes to Janáček’s writing: it’s so through-composed that it doesn’t feel very formulaic, at all. And that’s his genius, really. I adore these darker, murkier depths of his, qualities which are quite far away from my personality. It’s fun to get down and dirty…
What’s the attraction to that, to the “down and dirty”?
I guess not being myself… and I guess, I get to explore this kind of thing without messing other people up…
… so it’s a form of escapism that’s safe?
Yes, it’s playing with those things, and when, for instance, you’re with people like Karita (Mattila) and Asmik (Grigorian), it feels very primal in a way, which is exciting as an artist.
Part of that is the notion of connecting, too.
You said in an exchange with The Guardian in 2016 that the most important thing at a concert was that there be “any element of human connection.” I thought of that with relation to your online activities through the pandemic, and I am curious if that idea has changed because of the pandemic experience.
For myself, as for everybody, there was a natural reordering of things. When your time is entirely consumed with learning operas, your life is one way, and I was so pleased to learn through everything that there was more than a husk of a human being behind my singing. Some people lost a lot of their their work and thus their identity through this time, but I was really thrilled to not be doing so much singing – we got a clichéd Covid-dog, and, me and my partner were just about to get married, and we had to delay that, which was annoying, but I was thrilled to be able to have some creative moments and introspection. So going forwards now I want to encourage a better work-life balance. Yes, I ledmasterclasses, and even though I wanted to get back onstage and go back to work, doing that was such a great way of meeting people and of having a levolor. It was important to connect with people on a universal level, but also a human one.
Your classes really reveal how much you have that human touch.
Well it’s important to be real.
Yes, especially since there’s a lot of people who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk…
There’s a lot of old bullshit in opera, a lot of the time – and in the end it comes down to personal relations. It’s about people, and about how people correspond with one another. Especially when I’m talking to young people I encourage them to get back to their roots – it’s so easy to lose that connection amidst everything.
In terms of connection, you are going to be singing Siegmund at the ENO; it’s easy to lose the idea of connection amidst the epic nature of Wagner’s writing…
… yes it is…
… so what sorts of things do you keep in mind now as you enter the world of Wagner?
Well my mind is entirely open! Although they have quite a fantastical grand feeling – they are epic tales! – The Ring operas are still very human. I know Richard Jones, our director, says these characters have super-powers, they can do things, but he also says they are real people at the end of the day, and that (notion) gives me solace. So the production will be grounded in truth. (The music) is like a long bath which Wagner draws for you, and as a singer it feels that real. I love Wagner but I mean, with Janáček, these dramatic changes (in the music) happen quite quickly, while in Wagner, they don’t turn quickly – they turn like a truck! The music is like a truck turning a corner – and that’s really lovely musically, because as a singer you have more time to change gears, and vocally it feels like a nice thing for me, so… yes, I’m really excited for this production.
What new things are you learning about your voice through the experience of singing the music of Janáček and Wagner simultaneously then?
I’m always learning new things, gosh, every bloody day! I wish singing was a bit easier! You are always opening new fields, understanding the more you know and don’t know about signing, which is really humbling. And with this sort of singing, you are waking up with a new instrument every day – and with Wagner, because it’s quite low, I’ve been lucky to have that vocal release. It’s been nothing like the Janáček (to sing) – (Janáček’s vocal writing) is quite high, it’s where I am used to sitting, really. The writing is quite tightly wound and it sits high, so the character sits quite easily. But (with Wagner) I am finding the extra release in the lower range. I normally make quite a bit of noise… and I am aware Wagner normally demands a lot of noise, so yes, I am looking forward to making some noise in The Valkyrie.
That’s a noise you modulate through your recordings – you have a few coming out soon, yes?
Yes, I’m singing Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge with (pianist) Julius (Drake) – that’s out in February; there’s also my first Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, with (pianist) Christopher Glynn, releasing the month after … and,La Clemenza di Tito with the orchestra of the Opéra de Rouen Normandie. We recorded that in lockdown. I did quite a lot of Mozart in my early career but I’ve not done any recently. It was fun to delve back into that music.
Luca Pisaroni once told me he finds Mozart is like a massage for the voice.
Yes it is, and there’s also nowhere to hide when you do it. You can’t make it up – it’s like a singing lesson. Whatever you think you can sing, and however you think you can do it, you pick up some Mozart or Bach and you go, “Oh hell, I need to learn how to do this all over again!”
So it’s a good balance to what you’re doing now?
It’s a perfect balance.
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Among the many unexpected delights of lockdown life has been the opportunity to connect with people from the worlds of media and culture, and sometimes, the two combined in one. Waldemar Januszczak is art critic for The Sunday Times as well as a documentary maker with numerous television specials to his name. Those programs, which have been produced for over two decades, reveal immense curiosity for the ever-evolving, all-encompassing universe of culture, and each is presented with humour, gusto, and incredible if equally approachable intelligence. Waldy, as he’s known online and through his entertaining podcast with art historian Bendor Grosvenor, first came to my notice in 2015; though I’d read his work for years, it was Waldy’s four-part series on the so-called Dark Ages that caught my attention. Broadcast on a local channel across four Monday evenings at the height of summer, the series (from 2012) came at a particularly challenging time that year, having lost my mother in July and endured severe illness and multiple surgeries on my own before and after that. The nagging questions, in both personal and professional spheres, of who I was without the central figure of my music-loving mum loomed extraordinarily large; I would stare at the works of Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo in books and online for hours, trying to glean some sense of order (beauty seemed too far-off and impossible to hope for), some sense of understanding, to a world rendered hazy, tilted, skewed, strangely airless. I would go to my own easel and try to draw or paint; I would sit at the computer, and no words would come. Who was I, outside of being this person’s daughter? Who was I, outside of this prison of a body I felt trapped in? Who was I, with these hands, which held my mother’s as she passed away, which held pencils and brushes, which typed out so very many words-words-words that seemed to affect no one and nothing at all?
Waldy’s work – his friendly presentational style, his enthusiasm, his clear thirst for knowledge – helped provide some clues. The full of the series (The Dark Ages: An Age Of Light) was precisely the feeling imparted through the experience of watching the series at that point in time. It was as if a great spotlight was being shone on not only early Christianity and the Middle Ages, or indeed its related iterations, forms, and expressions, but along the way I, myself, was experiencing history and related notions of darkness, light, and all manner of shade and shadow between. By showing a new way to look at the past, the series, and Waldy’s work more broadly, provided an inspiring way of perceiving present and possible futures. The approach the writer/filmmaker takes to his work (one which, as I said at the start, blends smarts, humour, knowledge, and approachability) makes him a natural storyteller. Starting out at the University of Manchester as a student in art history, Waldy went on to become art critic, and subsequently arts editor of The Guardian. He worked in a variety of capacities across the BBC, and has, according to his own (quite humorous) biography, “since popped up pretty much everywhere where a radio dial can reach.” In 1989 he became commission editor for arts at Channel 4 (a time, which, he explains, was immensely fruitful in terms of providing future inspiration to his own broadcasting pursuits), and in 1993 also was put in charge of music at the channel, and subsequently began annual broadcasts from Glyndebourne – not to mention a little festival called Glastonbury.
That same year saw him become art critic for The Sunday Times, where he has been ever since. Twice voted Critic Of The Year, he co-curated a show at the British Museum in 2008 where modern and ancient sculptures were shown side by side, inspired by his own series on sculpture from four years earlier. Making films since 1997 with his own company, ZCZ Films, Waldy’s artistic explorations have been wide-ranging and ambitious: countries (Japan, Kazakhstan, America), concepts (politics, night), artists (Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo), religio-historical depictions (Mary Magdalene), and eras (the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo). Along with writing about contemporary art issues, including pieces on art collectives, the creative and spiritual meeting in abstraction (specifically the work of Hilma af Klint; both March 2021), the Turner Prize, the symbolic power of a show focused on textiles (both May 2021), and how COVID has changed the art world (January 2021), Waldy has also written touchingly personal pieces – about the father he never knew, and about his battles with weight. Those writings are sincere and visceral, but they bear no trace of the sort of overwrought sentimentalities which so often characterize such works in the digital era; rather, they are the rich and (more than occasionally) spicy ingredients which constitute a person who is unafraid to be his own culture-loving, knowledgeable, opinionated, funny, vulnerable, unpretentious, immensely real self.
Such qualities may go a ways in explaining his presence on this website, for while Waldy does not work in opera, he embodies the very qualities so vital to the classical world, especially at this point in history. I referenced his work last year in an essay, and I’ve come to feel in the time since that his is a presence and a talent wholly needed, as various cultural worlds move away from lockdown status and toward some kind of normalcy. For while brilliance does indeed hold a place in the classical world, authenticity, compassion – humanity – matters more, in this, our brave (and hopefully better) new world. We connected on Twitter (very brave new world indeed), over what I seem to recall was my love of the work of performance artist Ulay. (If you know of and/or like the work of Marina Abramović but have never heard of Ulay… please amend; his work holds extraordinary significance and beautifully poetic power.) Amidst the variety and ambition of Waldy’s pursuits, it seemed important to ask him, first and foremost, what he thinks of himself as: writer or broadcaster? His answer wasn’t particularly surprising, but his warmth and good humour, which carried throughout the course of our near-half-hour exchange, was a welcome and hopeful sign for post pandemic culture, and the people who love it.
You balance writing with broadcasting and documentary-making, but I’m curious what you call yourself.
An art critic, that’s what I’d like written on my grave. But right from the beginning, I’ve managed to do two things at once. When I was younger I was a student in Manchester, and I did this thing for radio, a student’s hour – I got roped into it – and someone at the BBC heard it, so I got working on the BBC doing a radio program when I was still a student, and it was out of pure luck. At the same time I was writing for Time Out; I’d do things for them and someone from The Guardian came across it and asked me to apply to them, so to cut a long story short, I’ve always done broadcasting and always done writing and the two have managed to keep going in parallel all the way through. I’m very lucky, and I made a step into television, but what I really like is looking at art and writing about it, which is what being a critic is – it’s not about being right or wrong with your opinions; you simply want to look at art, and to write about it.
Your integration of education and entertainment feels natural without being reductive.
I’ll put it simply: I’m an art lover. From my earliest memory, anything joyful involved cutting out pictures of famous paintings and pasting them, in my little cubby hole I had under the stairs – I’d paste stuff on the wall. I’ve always taken great pleasure from looking at art. I don’t understand why everyone else in the world isn’t that excited about art – it baffles me. In the UK we have these nature programs and people are happy to watch two frogs having sex or see beautiful butterflies in the air, or whatnot, for literally hours on end – millions will watch that – but put on something about a Raphael painting, which is also a thing of great beauty, or something about a sculpture by Bernini, or some great piece of architecture, and they tune out in the millions. I just don’t get it. It’s been this battle, always for me, to try and bridge that gap, to try and share this idea that art is interesting, exciting, and above all, a human achievement. It is my mission to try and tell stories of art in ways that connect with people’s lives. That’s all I ever tried to do. I don’t set out to be an original thinker necessarily, or to be necessarily different, I just set out with the firm belief that everybody should be able to talk about art in ways that involve or interest them, and that communication about it is what counts.
I like how you pull things away from being purely academic into a very direct and often sensuous relationship with art. I might be daunted by the artists and their related histories but watching your stuff, I don’t feel daunted at all.
That’s a real compliment, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that, because that is what I want to do. Many years ago now I did have a job in formal television, I was the commissioning editor for music and art programming at Channel 4. So for the eight years I was there, I commissioned other people to make art programs, and I watched what they did and how they did it. And I became more and more determined and experienced in the field myself, and determined to not do what they did. The thing I least like in any kind of writing about, or making films about art, is what you’re talking about, this sense of art being something difficult, some kind of homework, that not everybody can get or understand. A lot of the language of documentary filmmaking emphasizes that aspect, with these added tropes: the music that isn’t very cheerful or it is atonal and difficult; there is speaking about stuff in ways that don’t really mean anything – if people don’t know what they really want to say, they usually use twenty words instead of one, because it creates an illusion of knowledge, authority, and experience. So when I gave up being a manager of other people’s work and began making my own documentaries again, I made rules; there were things I knew I wanted to do, and those rules are all to do with this thing you’re talking about. I want people to learn stuff and enjoy it – I’m not there to preach or look down on them if they don’t know something. It’s been the experience of watching other people do this that has driven me to that.
But you combine this knowledge with your strong personality – I wonder how much that draws people in, so it’s not solely “Oh, a doc about the Renaissance” but “Oh, Waldy is presenting a doc on the Renaissance…”
I think one of the things is, I’m Polish, I’m not English, as you can tell from my name, and we’re a different breed you know? Polish people are not like English people; we have a different way of speaking and expressing ourselves. And in television and the BBC especially, there’s a very specific type of person that works there, fits into that culture, and succeeds, and someone like me comes along, and I’m the other, I’m different in almost every way. One of my sins is I like eating, a lot, so I’m chunky, and in television, especially these days, you don’t see chunky people, they go for the slim, pseudo-intellectual from Cambridge, so I stuck out there, because I am different and I’m not afraid. And, I think I’m confident in my knowledge. That’s one thing I can say of myself: I love art so much I’m constantly researching it, seeing it, loving it, and if you’re confident in your knowledge there’s nothing to be afraid of. So I try to find new ways of delivering material. I’ve always wanted to do that.
What I’ve noticed is that people remember things from the films, and what they remember surprises me often. In one of the things I made years ago, about the Baroque, there’s a scene where I’m looking at a ceiling in Rome, and I decided to do the camera shot lying on my back, because that’s the only way to look at it. If you want to see it properly, you lie on your back. It was a BBC series, and all the BBC people said, “You can’t lie on your back, you have to stand up and look authoritative on television!” So there are these funny things that do tend to bother some people but they’re not done for gimmicky reasons, I do them because I want to convey my excitement and experience in looking at stuff.
But that humanizes the art in the process, and that’s what is so often needed in the culture world. But it’s questionable if that style is supported by the people in charge…
That’s the point, yes – and arts programming does not get enough support anywhere. It’s a hard graft, getting the commissioning to do stuff. You know, I can’t tell you how many programs I’d love to be making right now; we don’t get the numbers to compete with the shows like reality television or the cooking shows, we don’t get the numbers they do because partly, in the past, arts programs have presented themselves as this thing you referenced, and that put a lot of people off. That’s a hard history to shift – a lot of people remember this sense of being talked down to, boringly, and they don’t want to see that. Of course what we want is everybody dying to turn on the television to watch, but it’s a tough ask because of that history; when you say something is “arty” there’s’ an awful lot of people who turn off, immediately. That word alone puts them off, and it’s one of the battles.
But do you think that tide might change now?
I’d like to hope so. I don’t know! I’ve not had a chance to find any evidence yet, but I do think the pandemic is having and will have a profound impact on the future, and I think it will be very hard to unlearn the joy of being at home and to not be imagining things for yourself. The pleasures we’ve had from this situation – as terrible as it’s been – have been things relating to people being in the position of having the time to examine the basics. And they’ve found new outlets for their attention, whether through television or podcasts or whatever. My own podcast, we only did it initially to do something during lockdown, but loads of people have said they’ve enjoyed it, so there is hunger for art, and an opportunity to take advantage of that hunger, but whether broadcasters will help us out with that is another question; they are not interested in changing the way people think about art, they have other fish to fry. But I’m optimistic.
One good thing is that my work has reached a much wider audience and that’s not to do with Covid, but the way television has gone everywhere with the preponderance of satellite channels. It used to be the only people who recognized me in the street were people who watched the BBC, but in the time when things eased between lockdowns last year, I remember going out and there were about sixty South Korean people who came rushing toward me in the street shouting, “Hey Waldemar!” They’d seen me on television there. So the international aspect of all that (interest) was very encouraging. I have a theory that in every country there are a million people who might be interested in art who, years ago, you had no chance of speaking with, but now there’s a chance, so add a million people up in every country – and that’s a lot of people interested in art. That’s encouraging.
I love Twitter – you hear other voices there. And the best thing about it is the reactions! For all we know, no one will ever read what I write formally, but on Twitter, people get back to you, and I love a good argument; I’ll argue with anyone, anywhere, on Twitter or elsewhere for that matter. So I’ve found (social media) fruitful. Some things I’ve done have been so pleasing. During the lockdown I ran this art thing with kids; people did homeschooling when the schools were closed, and, well, what could be more homeschooling-esque than art, really? People were drawing away, and so I’d set them little tasks, and there were these fantastic responses, they were really pleasing, these kids, 8, 7, 6 years old, drawing away and sharing their work. The other day we had David Hockney on the podcast and he said something wonderful: “why would anybody not want to draw? Try telling a 3 year-old kid not to draw!” It’s a thing we all have; everybody has that instinct, and so I had this forum where kids could express that during lockdown.
I loved that series (as didmany), especially as someone without kids. That series was actually the point where I lost my patience with people who dismiss social media; for some of us, that’s the only way we can see that kind of thing. It’s our window on a different world.
Well gosh, you’d be horrible not to like this kind of thing, and to just dismiss it because of where you saw it! And it’s worth remembering that so many artists have nourished themselves on memories of childhood as well, and that Twitter is a great vehicle for expressing and sharing that sort of stuff. If you’re someone who comes up with lots of ideas, it can be a great forum for expressing them, and for promoting them. I find it very alive. With all these hours of daytime we had because of the pandemic, a lot of times in the day, you’d be in the office, alone, twiddling thumbs; you’d go on Twitter and find someone to talk to. I’d see these nice people writing in from Scotland and Australia and New Zealand, and that (experience of communication) was liberating and very pleasing.
It’s how we connected too! I want to feel reading your various exchanges makes me a slightly smarter person.
You’re pretty smart as it is, so don’t worry about that! I’m so pleased we’ve connected, and with others too, I’ve done so much during lockdown. It’s nice to talk. That’s what it’s about.
How has all this connecting online changed your approach to your work, or… has it?
I don’t know how much it’ll change my approach in terms of my bread and butter work with The Times – with that, I do what I always do: see shows and write about them. But I have made a lot of new friends. One thing that Twitter is really good at is supplying you with information: you ask a question, you get a lot of responses. I had a film about Michelangelo on Sky Arts out recently and posted something relating to obscure arguments about biblical translations – the kind of stuff no one is into except me and a few biblical scholars, or so I thought! – and got so many responses from so many people. It was such fantastic information! You have to be really in the world of bible studies to know about these things, but it was so exciting to learn these things. So it can be a fantastic forum for education, for all of us, and more broadly, I think it’s given lots of silver linings to this terrible, terrible time, which we are now hopefully coming out of.
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Throughout the pandemic era the experience, or more precisely, lack of experience, in relation to human connection has been repeatedly underlined, in both large and small ways. How might that be attained through the glare of a monitor, the click of a mouse, the sound of a faraway voice resonating through tinny speakers? As life restarts and returns to some form of normal in certain areas, an unusual if somewhat predictable paradox reveals itself, for while the understanding of human connection has risen, its evolved expression has not; indeed, there are far fewer expressions of empathy than one might’ve hoped. The compassion deficit borne of the coronavirus experience is an issue yet to be worked out and in many cases acknowledged at all, particularly within the realm of culture, where new and old ways of being have collided (and occasionally enmeshed) with mixed results. People power culture, and this is a point worth remembering as the “new normal” unfolds. Such is it that the experience of chamber music, and particularly the art of song, comes into focus for some, for it is within such a realm where one might experience, however intangibly for now, the lifeblood of those people, and the sense of connection with them which is still very much missing in so many lives.
Tenor Ilker Arcayürek radiates this quality of warmth in bundles, whether on stage, in recordings, or through various online performances. His beautiful album of Schubert songs, The Path Of Life (Prospero Classical), recorded with pianist Simon Lepper, nicely conveys Arcayürek’s deft talent in handling difficult material, rendering the sometimes cold and over-intellectualized lied form with grace, intelligence, and genuine human warmth. The album, released earlier this year, is a showcase of vocal and interpretive gifts, the tenor’s rendering of “Dass sie hier gewesen” (“That She Has Been Here”) colored with the pungent longing so clearly expressed in both Friedrich Rückert’s poem and the mournful lines Schubert wove in and around them. The way he lingers on specific syllables, modulates volume between and around vowels, the careful coloration and phrasing, the watchful breath control and achingly sensitive delivery – all this, combined with Lepper’s sure-footed playing, makes for a rewarding, deeply enriching listening experience which highlights the humanity so central to the best lieder experience.
This human approach might have been influenced by a decidedly unconventional path for a classical singer. Born in Turkey but raised in Austria, singing figured prominently in Alcayürek’s youth, but conservatory training did not. In his youth Alcayürek worked a variety of odd jobs (not unlike pianist Lucas Debargue), and, as he told Turkish news site TRT World in 2018, “(o)ver time the singing got more and more, and I decided to try and live from (it)“, a decision that led to him being spotted by a casting director from Oper Zürich; he became a member of the company’s prestigious International Opera Studio, and remained, from 2009 to 2013. From there Alcayürek joined the respective ensembles at Stadttheater Klagenfurt (2013-2015) and Staatstheater Nürnberg (2015-18), performing a variety of roles, including famous Mozart-penned ones like Tamino (Die Zauberflöte) Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni), and the title role Idomeneo, as well as Puccini’s celebrated Rodolfo in La bohème. Since then, he has performed at Teatro Real Madrid, the Salzburg Festival, Volksoper Wien, and the Munich Opera Festival, among many others. In 2015 Alcayürek was finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World; the same year saw him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist; in 2016, he won the International Art Song Competition of Germany’s Hugo Wolf Academy. Summer 2019 saw him make his American opera debut, with Santa Fe Opera, as Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles. His concert repertoire includes Bruckner (Alcayürek performed the composer’s Mass in F minor with Mariss Jansons and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks), Liszt (Faust Symphony, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre National de Belgique), and Bach (both the St Matthew and St. John’s Passions; the former with Orchestre national de Lyon and Kenneth Montgomery, the latter with the Academy of Ancient Music and Riccardo Minasi). Arcayürek has also performed the immensely challenging vocal portion of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and more than once: with the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018, under the baton of David Parry, and on a Naxos recording with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Danish Chamber Orchestra, part of a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, released in 2019.
Balancing such grand orchestral sounds is the devotion Alcayürek has shown toward the decidedly more intimate world of lieder. The Edinburgh International Festival, the Innsbruck Festwochen, the Schubertiada Vilabertran (Spain), and the deSingel Antwerp, are just a few of the venues in which he has given recitals; in 2018 he told writer Frances Wilson that the celebrated Wigmore Hall, where he has also notably performed and recorded, is a place in which he feels “very well linked to the audience.” The distinctly larger Park Avenue Armory in NYC was the location of the tenor’s American recital debut in 2019 alongside pianist Simon Lepper, with whom he also recorded his debut disc in 2017, Der Einsame (Champs Hill Records). The title references not only the contents of Karl Lappe’s poem, but the idea of solitude as a state of being, one Arcayürek explores in various facets throughout the album’s 23 tracks. As he writes in the album notes, “(w)e can find ourselves alone as the result of many different circumstances in life – unhappiness in love, a bereavement, or simply moving to another country. For me, however, being alone has never meant being ‘lonely’. As in Schubert’s song Der Einsame, I try to enjoy the small things in life, and, especially in those times when I am alone, to consciously take time out of everyday life and reflect on my own experiences.” At the time of the album’s release, Alcayürek was praised by The Guardian’s Erica Jeal for his “airy, easily ringing tenor that puts across words beautifully, with power in reserve yet a hint of vulnerability too.”
It’s that very vulnerability, and the willingness to explore it through careful musical means and smart creative choices, which makes Alcayürek’s artistry so special, particularly now in the time of pandemic; perhaps the classical music world needs the sort of sensitivity and compassion which are so inherently a part of his approach. We started off our chat by discussing the ways in which perceptions of solitude have shifted as a result of the “new normal” and how this “new” aspect led him to perform the music of Benjamin Britten, which he performed back in March in a livestream with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.
As Rodolfo in Staatstheater Nürnberg’s production of La bohème, 2015. (Photo: Jutta Missbach)
What has your experience been through this time?
It’s been an opportunity I would say; every challenge has good parts and also negative parts. But I see (this era) as a call to use my time for another approach, another way. I get the chance to spend more time with my daughter, which is great, and I have the chance to explore my barista qualities, and to work on my latte art! You also recognize the small successes of life, and realize every day has new challenges – this became my motto, actually: you realize that singing is very important – it’s nice, making music, it’s essential – but on the other hand, you realize how much you have missed in the last couple of years by spending time on different things.
Those “different things” took in new meanings in the pandemic; has this been the case for you?
Definitely. But it’s strange to talk about! It’s like talking to a psychotherapist, because on the one side I do miss being in a hotel, I miss being on my own sometimes, because I used to be lonely and it became part of my life, to be lonely and on my own a lot, and have time to think about things, and now suddenly, you are responsible for the dishes, you are responsible for the cooking, you are responsible for all these things you missed out on in not being home – and also you are very involved in raising your child. It’s things like that you think about now. And it can be difficult to balance everything.
And I’d imagine having an album out now too, and seeing things slowly reopen in some places, underlines that divide.
Yes, for sure.
How much has your approach to singing has changed? Is there any stress at moving between the various-sized venues which are so much a part of any singer’s career?
Not very much, because every performance is a live performance and I react to the reaction of the audience. That’s especially important when you come from the chamber music world. It’s easier to get in contact with the audience in that world, and to react, and to get their reactions, than what happens on the opera stage, because on the opera stage you just see a dark room usually – you don’t have the faces you can rely on. When I sing Schubert and I see somebody crying, I am touched and I know I am in real contact with that person, and so then I try to bring the audience to me, somehow. I do the same in opera, or try to, but it doesn’t matter the size (of the venue); you have to just be connected with the music and then not act – you know, like “act” – something (which could be construed as) sincere but be as honest as possible in that moment.
But is that honesty easier to access now, because of the pandemic? You along with many musicians have been forced to examine your own approach to your work, and that related sense of honesty, in relation to music-making for over a year now.
It’s like this: when you make this music, when you perform, it’s all about honesty. And for me, I try to find a relationship between each song and my life. There are some funny songs like, “I wish I were a fish” (“Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Fisch“) – so it’s happy, and if you read this music, and read these kinds of poems, it has nothing to do with our time, but the honesty and the message within those songs has everything to do with our time. You could make a tweet instead of writing this type of poem now. The message and the honesty within a work like this will always survive, so this is what I try to do, to convey the honesty of this music to our reality now, because we all know the pain of love, and the nice moments too, and also the moments of reflection, or the moments of acceptance, and this human desire, these deep wishes – I try to bring out all of that during music-making. Yes, these are also the topics which people from the 18th and 19th centuries were working with, and they are still up-to-date.
How much do you think there is more of a place now for lieder, and chamber music – these smaller more intimate musical experiences? In my chat with Helmut Deutsch earlier this year, he seemed to think the pandemic had opened a new door for the art form.
I think lieder, and the way people think of it, is changing a bit.
You have to see it from an historical perspective. Lied was quite popular after the Second World War, but it was performed with a different approach, and in a different way than it is now. Lied was like, how can I say this, like a theatre piece, performed as a piece of art but maybe not with the same view, like I personally bring now, because emotions were kind of forbidden in that period, so it was more to bring people joy after this time of suffering.
As artsy escapism?
Yes, it was more like singing nice melodies, like a form of escapism, as you say, and I think now it is about time to break that, and say, “I am a musician, reading my own poem, and bringing this to you, and trying to explain my own personal story.” I think this is the next level we have to achieve. Also it’s vital to make lieder, the art of lied, interesting for a broader audience – the big difference between lied in the 1950s and nowadays is that people were educated about it in school, and they knew the poems which make up the text of these works. But nowadays people don’t know the poems. So getting to know these written works and their authors is another way to explain it, and to bring the audience into this music, and into the poetry, into this artwork overall, like the understand which existed before.
Maybe one small story: the first time I sang in New York was at the Park Avenue Armoury, and there was a young couple sitting in the first row and they were quite fashionably attired, the guy in the couple looked like a rock star; we met afterwards in a bar by chance, this place where we all went for a drink, and he said that he’s also a musician, and although he didn’t understand a word I sang and didn’t know the music either, he felt the emotions inside. So he understood on this other level. That was a very interesting experience for me, to hear that – I really liked it! And I think this is exactly what it’s about, to transport emotions, and not play them falsely but to live them. Singing this music needs a lot of life experience. For certain pieces I sing I think of various aspects in my own life, and these things make me emotional, and I try to express myself in a way that touches on those things.
Good lieder should connect to real life experience – and some of us can’t applaud at the end because we’re processing everything…
I prefer when people don’t applaud immediately after my singing.
Yes! For me, pauses, within the music but also after the music, are really important, so I really try to also have a moment of silence. I really enjoy that, especially after signing a cycle like Winterreise; I think it’s important to digest the music for a while, and then applaud, or not.
How does that translate to a venue like Santa Fe? What was that experience like?
Scary! I loved it a lot, but it’s scary, because the winds can be a challenge. It’s open-air, so you are affected by the weather, and it can be very cold, very hot, very windy, and suddenly there’s lightning; you see the clouds moving around and you think, “Oh no my aria is coming! If the winds come in on this side, will people hear me if I stand there?”” But oh, it was a very nice, very special experience, and I’m so glad I did it.
And it’s quite large, isn’t it?
It’s huge, I think it’s more than a 2000-seat capacity.
The other houses you’ve sung at are such a contrast – Zürich is very jewel box, for instance.
… especially in Zürich, yes. And it has a really good acoustic, and the seating, the way that’s built, was done with an angle, so the acoustic lifts up, which makes it easy to sing in. It also gives the singer the opportunity to step back and not sing at 100%, so you can create more colors, you can be very musical. Because of that (design), you are not using your full capacity, so you always have 20% left. My teacher said that in such a spot you are singing with your, how do you say it in English, it’s like with a bank account, you don’t sing with your capital, you sing with your…
Yes, the word I was looking for, interest! (Jewel box-sized spaces) give you the freedom of playing around and not going to the very, very edge, and then if you do go to that edge once or twice, it’s to build up a climax.
Interior, Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Indeed, one is able to hear so many colors in that house. You were part of the opera studio program in Zürich, yes?
I was in the opera studio at Zürich – most of the time I sang smaller parts during my years there. I used Zürich as my study spot actually, and I got some stage experience from singing in choir before, so (working at) Zürich was useful to get some confidence and security onstage, to find one’s self.
It seemed like a good place for that, and not only because of the singer-friendly acoustic.
I must say, it’s still one of the best houses. During the time of Alexander Pereira, the former opera director (Intendant of Oper Zürich, 1991-2012), it was filled with all the stars of the business – Netrebko, Nucci, Hampson, Bartoli, Camarena, and Kaufmann as well, to name a few – so it was just great for me to observe those artists, to be around them, to work onstage with them; you get so much input by seeing these people and getting the chance to be close to them. You also get to know in which places they save their voice, where there is the possibility to do that, when they go on their edge and how – things like that. I was amazed at being part of the whole thing. Later when I came to Klagenfurt, the first time maybe, of course, it was clear the orchestra was different, and there were challenges, but you find new ways to deal with those challenges, and ways to grow through them. Nürnberg was my first state opera experience, so it was a bigger orchestra again, and my debut there was La bohème of course – and I can tell you, the first time, with a German orchestra playing Puccini, is also not so easy! And in comparison to Zürich the acoustic in Nürnberg is, again, not the same either. So you have to adapt to each room, to each space, each orchestra, and you have to find your strategy in how to manage the whole situation, and your role within that situation.
That’s a good education is it not?
It is definitely good! As a singer you will always learn new things and adapt to situations, so after the pandemic I’m really curious what will happen with artists; I’m sure some singers will struggle, at least for a while, until they get back to shape. You can sing as much as you want at home, but it isn’t the same as singing on a stage, and you won’t have the same feeling of adrenaline and excitement. It’s another level of singing, like for a basketball player, the difference between the training and then the game. When you have people in front of you, it’s difficult to make that throw the same way.
Some singers have expressed those kinds of concerns; how much have your pandemic activities helped set the stage, to whatever extent, to going back to the actual stage?
I haven’t been singing recently so much. My last project was in March, so not so long ago, but it was during that experience that I sang, for the first time, the Serenade (Serenade for tenor, horn, and strings) by Benjamin Britten with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, and it was in a hall which is not so big. It was like a normal concert venue size – and it was different to sing not for an audience who’d normally be there, but for the microphone, because it was a broadcast concert, so.
That’s a whole new skill, one many are learning: how to sing for the internet.
Exactly! I mean, I have had some background in recording and singing for radio or for CD, but this project was still a new experience for me because I was singing for an audience without having an audience, so it was a mix between live performance, where you sing for the audience, and a CD recording, where you don’t. It was something in-between.
So was that Britten piece back in March a sign of things to come?
I wish I would sing more of it, actually, because the music is, for me, it was… musical love at second sight. Can I say that?!
Yes, that’s precisely my experience of Britten’s music too.
Really, it just happens sometimes with some composers!
Well I wasn’t raised to his work…
… me either! I was raised more to the music of Schubert and Mozart and so on, because I sang at the age of 9 in a boys’ choir, and we never got in touch with the music of Britten, we weren’t raised with it, like in the UK for example, when you sing Britten in choir, so it’s a totally new world for me and a new language, not the English language, but the musical language – the harmonies, for instance – but I really, really enjoyed singing this piece, I must say! I was surprised at how much I liked it.
It suits the timbral quality of your voice, and you bring a warmth to music which is not always perceived as warm (rightly or wrongly!) – but your approach is very sensitive.
Whatever you sing, you have to sing it with your voice. And yet there is always the sound of Peter Pears in one’s ear, or head, when singing this music. People know these pieces through Pears’ recordings. Friends in the UK said, “It’s hard to imagine you singing this because we have it in our ear with Peter Pears”, so I really tried not to adapt or imitate at all, but to sing it my way. Also, these pieces are a fit for me, I think, because they’re like singing lied but with some moments more operatic – it can be difficult to find the right balance, to find colors, which you need, which are connections with that world of lied, but also with the technique which requires operatic singing. It’s interesting, his music is right on the edge for me, and singing his work is a balancing game.
I want to hear you sing more Britten.
I hope I do more of it! We shall see what the future holds.
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Since mid-March, I’ve been engaging in drawing and painting more frequently. It is a passion I first found immediately following a trip to the Algarve almost two decades ago. After years of engagement in photography, dance, and acting, visual art seemed like a natural next step. A sharp contrast to my then-job in advertising (the social aspects of which were fun but equally draining), a weekly art class, held in the basement of a local artist and teacher, was a solace of quiet, self-directed time, a solitary creative activity at once technical, instinctual, emotional, and sensual. I loved the smell of paints, the feel of charcoal on fingertips, the way red smudged into green. Art became an extension, rather than an escape, and it’s one I’ve found myself driven to over the past few uncertain and lonely months of pandemic lockdown. The quarantine necessitated by coronavirus restrictions has allowed for both contemplations of the present and future, as well as regular wanderings through old memories and experiences, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes winding up in waves and lines across sheets of foolscap and virginal white canvasses.
Looking through a stuffed old steamer trunk of old paintings, I remember the ochre sand, the cerulean blue sky, the jade-like palm fronds, the steely grey of clouds, of the intermingling textures of mottled-smooth-rough sculpture of every crevice and darkened corner. I recalled smells (of salty sea and wet sand on skin), tastes (I brought spice packets and various savoury pastes home with me), the cool-warm granular feel of the rocks, the grains of sand like razor-blades underneath, around, and against fingernails and feet and face; all of this I tried to translate with paints, pencil, points and brushes. I even tried to capture my conviction at the time that one of the red-shorted lifeguards at the local beach was a merman; he had vanished beneath the waves one day for well over fifteen minutes, gracefully materializing out of the waves unexpectedly and glinting a sleek silver against a mid-September overcast sky. My amateur efforts were sometimes successful, sometimes not; it was a feeling I aimed to capture, of oneness with a moment outside of time, reason, reaction, comforting identities and familiar faces and places. My instructor, a professional artist and professor at a major Canadian art school, would actively discourage the use of erasers in sketching. “Be open to any and everything,” she would say, in soothing caramel tones, “Whatever you think is a mistake might not be.” It was surprisingly easy for me not to use an eraser, surprising considering I was a lifelong perfectionist. might instead be approached as an opportunity for a new and unexplored path, and so, off I went on many, many paths, losing, finding, forming, shaping, and re-shaping, again and again, each time anew, awake, alive… or, that’s how I frequently want(ed) things to be. They sometimes weren’t, and aren’t, and that’s probably important to remember, especially now.
The current overtures toward reconfiguring presentation within the context of classical music are being greeted with a mix of sighs, scowls, boos, cheers, but largely (I would suspect) held breath. Navigating change is not, depending on one’s familial, cultural, and social baggage, always easy; in a forced situation it seems even more difficult and onerous. it might be done on tentative tiptoes, or it might be approached with an open-armed embrace. What with the figurative windows and doors being replaced, there’s concern if and how the view might be affected – and if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, an overdue thing, a thing that can lead to what may or may not be some overdue transformation within an industry some (particularly in North America) perceive as being adverse to innovation, one which would embrace experimentation and all the possibility (and diversity) within that framework. The openness to new horizons, even (or especially) ones that don’t seem good or viable (or comfortable or familiar), are notions being actively discussed and tried, especially in light of the recent reduced musical and theatrical presentations at Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, running through early June. Some are appalled at the safety restrictions in place; others say it’s a hopeful sign. Classical fans (at least some) perceive the safety measures as a small (and hopefully temporary) price to pay for the opportunity to experience live performance again. Being taken entirely out of self and place and time, whether at the easel, the concert hall, or the opera house, is not a reliable or predictable thing, and indeed, it does not happen with every single drawing, or every single performance.
Still, there’s the possibility, and it’s the opportunity for this possibility that I suspect is so missed. Our collective cultural saudade (for what else should we call it?) relates directly to the concept of community, quite possibly the most important form of beauty we have right now, and perhaps also our hardest loss. What was ‘normal’ may not, as I wrote recently, be coming back any time soon, and as such, we can’t experience the breaths, the sighs, the miniscule “mm”s and slight (or not) head cocks, the irritation of audible humming and tapping feet and seat-conductors, the resonance of instruments and voices vibrating through thighs and hips and sternum, into temples and through ear lobes. Pressing one’s head against speakers does not produce the same feeling of transcendence, one intimately tied to community. Communal transcendence within a confined space and time is not an every day experience . It is, in the 21st century, one of the few highly experiential and directly visceral things we desire actively and will pay for. Writer Charles Eisenstein wisely writes in a lengthy and very thought-provoking essay:
Our response to it sets a course for the future. Public life, communal life, the life of shared physicality has been dwindling over several generations. Instead of shopping at stores, we get things delivered to our homes. Instead of packs of kids playing outside, we have play dates and digital adventures. Instead of the public square, we have the online forum. Do we want to continue to insulate ourselves still further from each other and the world?
To reduce the risk of another pandemic, shall we choose to live in a society without hugs, handshakes, and high-fives, forever more? Shall we choose to live in a society where we no longer gather en masse? Shall the concert, the sports competition, and the festival be a thing of the past? Shall children no longer play with other children? Shall all human contact be mediated by computers and masks? No more dance classes, no more karate classes, no more conferences, no more churches? Is death reduction to be the standard by which to measure progress? Does human advancement mean separation? Is this the future?
Advancement versus preservation; this seems like such a strange idea, and yet it has become, like masks in public, part of the new definition of normal. Perhaps the two ideas are synonymous? That advancement as a species means the preservation and protection of others, especially its most disadvantaged? Perhaps, amidst the lessons corona might be able to teach us (as Eisenstein posits), a more active idea of community might not only be understood but literally, loudly lived. Experience of community within a live setting implies agreement of chosen presence within a predetermined space, for a predetermined period of time with other breathing beings with their own notions and ideas (and hopefully sense of openness as well) hearing and seeing what you are, but as themselves, with their own ears and eyes. I go to live events as much to experience this unique interconnected energy as I do for the music and staging; hell is other people, so goes the saying, but it feels equally true that hell is also being without other people, without having the opportunity for that community, not by choice, but by force. To be robbed of that, when one has not partaken of the social ritual of family, is indeed a cruel and unusual punishment – never mind the masks.
Le Désespoir, Jean-Joseph Perraud, 1869, Paris; Musée d’Orsay. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
For those of us who are quarantined on our own, community and time acquire new meanings and varied applications. In an excerpt from his book On Nostalgia (Coach House Books, 2020), David Berry writes that “Nostalgia can only be lived in or abandoned: it is yearning distilled to its essence, yearning not really for its own sake but because there is nothing else to be done. Maybe it resisted definition for so long because naming it doesn’t help resolve anything anyway.” Thoughts of the past, of Portugal, of more recent trips and journeys, inspire an assortment of images, bold and pastel, hazy and in sharp focus. Amidst drawing, reading, teaching, there has also occurred the right kind of mental space for a re-exploration of Susan Sontag’s landmark 1977 collection of essays On Photography (Picador, 2001). The writer’s words ring particularly true in light of the many video items on offer throughout the pandemic era:
Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. Those occasions when the taking of photographs is relatively undiscriminating, promiscuous, or self-effacing do not lessen the didacticism of the whole enterprise. This very passivity — and ubiquity — of the photographic record is photography’s “message,” its aggression.
Such broadcasts are effective at giving a sense, however ephemeral, of memory of how, and what we remember of which performances, and why. How did X orchestra handled that particular passage, of who’s looking at the conductor and how often (and when, and sometimes perhaps why), of unconscious (and sometimes not visible to the assembled audience) forms of body language which may indicate sound and fury, or indeed, nothing at all. The Metropolitan Opera’s Live In HD series, originally intended for cinema transmission alone, has taken on a second life online, a life many of us feel should’ve been there all along as an actual first iteration in the way Wiener Staatsoper, Moscow Conservatory, and the many offerings via Arte and Mezzo have done, and continue to do. Does the disposition to digital erase the supposed “grandiosity” of the operatic experience? I suppose it depends on how (and if) one perceives the experience of opera-going as such in the first place. There is an understandable element of nostalgia at play for certain audiences who attend live performances, a nostalgia that leaks into filming and demands pure (so-called) documentation, rather than creative interpretation.
Playing on such nostalgia is useful for marketing (especially right now), but tries (in vain) to supercede the reality of theatre as living, breathing art form, giving obvious weight to those who say a creative experience can’t be replicated online. Hopefully governments in North America will sit up and take notice, and stop handing out grants based on digital appeal alone; never has the understanding of art as a necessary part of every day been more divided than in the pandemic era, with its patchwork of funding models and ensemble support. Perhaps now is the time, more than ever, for North American artists to stand, sing, act, move, dance in the streets, more boldly than ever, not to play on a collective saudade but to blaze, fiercely, in the windows of all, providing a new and better view.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
One of my last experiences of live vocal music in 2020 was hearing Ermonela Jaho perform live at Wigmore Hall as part of Opera Rara’s 50th anniversary celebrations. The acclaimed soprano made her recital debut, together with pianist Steven Maughan, to a packed hall, tackling an ambitious program of works consisting of French and Italian repertoire in memory of soprano Rosina Storchio (1872-1945), who originated many of the roles in the works being presented. As The Guardian‘s Tim Ashley wisely noted, Jaho’s artistry “is rooted in a deep identification with her chosen repertoire that results in performances of unsparing veracity and tremendous emotional honesty. In recital, as on stage, her ability to expose a character’s psyche in seconds is utterly remarkable.” I came away feeling not weakened but awakened, as much entranced by Jaho’s lilting phrasing in “Sérénade” (Gounod) as stunned by her plaintive “Tristezza” (Tosti), the honesty of her emotion clear in light shades, dark tones, and everything in between.
The evening offered a tantalizing preview of Anima Rara, Jaho’s third album with Opera Rara, set for release on 25 September via Warner Classics, and recorded with Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana and conductor Andrea Battistoni. The album, like the recital, is a tribute of sorts to Storchio, but is also a deeply moving showcase of the innate lyricism and emotional honesty which are so much a part of Jaho’s artistry. Known and rightly celebrated for her visceral stage performances, Jaho, who began her operatic career as a teenager in her native Albania, has appeared at a number of famous houses (The Met, Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Teatro Real, Opéra national de Paris, Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Royal Opera) in a range of dramatic and demanding roles, including the titular Anna Bolena, Suor Angelica, and Thaïs, as well as Mimi in La bohème, Violetta in La traviata, Liú in Turandot, Desdemona in Otello, and, perhaps most famously, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, a role she is set to reprise next month at Greek National Opera. Amidst the fourteen tracks featured on Anima Rara, Jaho seamlessly connects head and heart through a kaleidoscope of vocal colors via verismo, the late 19th/early 20th-century style of opera which uses real-life settings and characters as a means by which of attaining a greater degree of naturalism, and, I would argue, psychological familiarity.
Ermonela Jaho live at Wigmore Hall February 2, 2020. Photo: Russell Duncan
Confession: I was not the biggest fan of verismo until I heard Jaho live and subsequently on this album. Her attention to detail is so connected to emotional expression as to be indistinguishable; the transitions between notes, the considered pauses, the smart phrasings – they all allow a vivid series of pictures to be created in one’s mind. I felt I was actually seeing and starting to know, at a human level, many of the women Jaho here embodies in sound. Some of the narratives verismo favours are indeed soapy (revolving around sex, jealousy, and rather teenaged ideas about, and reactions to, the experience of love and its confusion with infatuation), but the emotions behind them are, thanks to Jaho’s endearing approach, made wholly authentic, and communicated with a graceful, smart blend of technical knowingness and soulful embrace. As Ashley wisely noted, the veracity is unsparing, which makes for not only a gripping listening experience, but one capable of changing one’s perceptions entirely. Bravo indeed.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi is the Artistic Director of Opera Rara, and has worked with Jaho on various occasions, including in 2018 in a production of Les contes d’Hoffmann at De Nationale Opera, Amsterdam, and in 2010 at La Monnaie on La bohème, in a production directed by Andreas Homoki. Maestro has a wide breadth of knowledge and experience leading various Italian works (Puccini, Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Giordano, Cimarosa, Pizzetti, Montemezzi) at a wide variety of houses, including The Met, the COC, Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Deutsche Oper, Den Norske Opera, Oslo, his homebase of Welsh National Opera (where he is Conductor Laureate), and most recently, Fondazione del Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. There exists a deep appreciation for both the vocality and the unique brand of theatricality the music featured on Anima Rara demands, a blend of the familiar (Verdi’s La traviata; Massenet’s Manon; Boito’s Mefistofele; Catalani’s La Wally; Puccini’s La bohème and Madama Butterfly) and unfamiliar (Giordano’s Siberia; Massenet’s Sapho, Leoncavallo’s version of La bohème, a trinity of Mascagni works including Lodoletta, L’amico Fritz, and Iris, in which Jaho was to have made her role debut at Teatro Real de Madrid in May, prior to the COVID cancellations). The conductor is effusive in his praise of Jaho and her inherently dramatic approach, but he is also simply marvelous in explaining the reasoning behind that approach – its technical demands, its musicality, the need for watchfulness in its application within the context of verismo. Following this are the soprano’s own thoughts on the album and its tie with that famous emotional honesty, the nerves that went along with her recital debut back in February, and why thinking of every stage appearance as her first and last is such a central part of her creative approach.
Carlo Rizzi: “Music Becomes A Part Of Her Life When She’s Singing”
Ermonela’s vocal acting, live and on Anima Rara, is so effective that she made me reconsider my ideas about verismo.
Actually I think you’re absolutely on with saying “vocal acting” – it’s fantastic, this expression, because that’s exactly what she does. With the bel canto and more classical things like Mozart, of course you do things with the voice but there is something in the sound and the way you have to deliver the words in verismo that is very particular, and this, in a way, makes it or breaks it for many people, because it’s not a way we are used to expressing ourselves anymore. The verismo, the language of the verismo and in particular the Italian language, is very full on; it’s like if you have a lot of water in a rather small pipe, it’s a little bit of pressure, and some people like it and some don’t like it, but it’s definitely necessary to have. Ermonela knows not only how to use the voice but how to lead the part, and that is really necessary – you cannot do verismo otherwise, it becomes empty. When I met her she was doing lighter roles, but she has really, I think, passed through these sort of, I don’t want to say “bigger” roles, but this more mature phase of her voice, seriously, yet she has not lost the freshness which is important to keep, even if you sing with a fuller voice.
Your water-pipe/language metaphor is apt; it’s like she gives just enough to keep your thirsty but not enough to soak you through.
Well Ermonela is a very good actress – it’s that simple. When I met her and we worked together, I really got very much enamored with her way of performing the music. Now there are many singers that fall into music because they don’t have the capacity to act, but she does – it’s not fake with her. I remember we did in Brussels, some years ago now, La bohème and at the end of this performance, we were both in tears and embracing each other, because the emotion she was putting in the voice, not just tearing hair out but in the voice, was feeding me and I was giving that (energy) back to orchestra. When this happens with a singer it’s fantastic, it’s not just one doing what the other wants, but is really what vocal music should be: it should be the orchestra entering into the voice, and vice-versa. With her it’s very easy because this is what she believes in, it’s never singing just to be singing – it’s singing matched to the expression.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
That attention to text – open vowels, repetitive sounds, their placement – that level of detail…
… this is actually what singing should be! Singing is talking at a higher level; when you talk, people talk lalala, fast, but if you really want to communicate, you need to linger on certain notes, give a shade to this or that, that is the point, the shape of the phrase and shape of the language. This happens in talking and also when one sings. For example when I work with young singers, immediately I understand how some can pronounce very well but they don’t have a clue how the thing goes, or one does a little slip as a musician but they know which place in the phrase the word occupies and this comes through even if you don’t know the language – that’s the point: if there’s a shape or a journey in the phrase, it goes to the listener, even if the people don’t know the language. Ermonela is very good at this; the music becomes, not corny, but part of her life when she’s singing, and I think she’s very honest about it, it’s not just a gesture.
That honesty complements her work with Opera Rara. There has to be an approach to presenting and performing these works as more than mere novelties or curiosities; there has to be as much intelligence for things like Lodoletta as for Traviata…
Yes, that is the understanding of the style, because if you don’t understand the style… an allegro isn’t just an allegro; there are allegri that are sometimes slower and largi that are sometimes faster, it’s how the style goes. Sometimes the approach is only technical, like “This is what is written” rather than, ‘Let’s get into the music: what is the message and the flavour here?”, where you are looking at and understanding the vocal development of the vocal line; if you look at that, 90% of the work is done, it’s clear, this is the way the composer was writing. Of course I’m not saying every composer is the same, but when you have composers who worked in the same field and era, chances are the approach to the written note was more or less the same, and this is what is important in terms of performing the underpinning style – Ermonela understands this sort of context entirely.
Recording Anima Rara in Valencia in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Ermonela Jaho: Speaking Through The Voice
Anima Rara is indeed transportive – listening to it, I was taken back to that night at Wigmore Hall but also very much into the worlds of these characters; they feel vivid hearing you do them.
That was my goal, because I feel some empathy, and, I can’t find the right word… the music transports me into that dimension, it feels like living in that world. Sometimes – it will sound crazy – but sometimes I think, if you believe in other lives, I’ve been a Suor Angelica, a Violetta, a Madame Butterfly, all the roles or arias I’ve sung, I can’t explain it but I enter that dimension and I believe in every single word I sing; it’s not only the singer, of course you need to have done the homework, to have the technique, the sound has to be there no matter what – but all of it is in service of what I’m singing, even with the imperfections. The vulnerability connects with people, and the imperfections too – we need to feel the fear, the joy, and I try to go to those places.
Something Pappano highlighted in your conversation this summer was the humanity in your approach, which is so noticeable hearing you live but it’s palpable on the album as well, this sense of lived humanity and visceral experience, and I’m wondering if you think that quality is reflected in the vocal writing of these verismo pieces.
Yes, absolutely, because it’s theatre. In bel canto you have long lines, these arias with cabaletta, which of course you need to put your soul and everything in, the drama is there as well, but this repertoire, verismo, it’s so direct, sometimes it’s like a dialogue, like a movie. When you need the pause to breathe, not just taking your time because you’re hitting a high note after the pause, it’s a pause of breathing the actual emotion – and sometimes the silence could be more dramatic than an explosion of certain notes. That’s theatre, but it’s tricky as well because you have to balance being believable against being ridiculous; sometimes you can go a little bit forward, like a drama queen, but you have to be believable. If you play just the pain or the joy, maybe you can make it work in two, three moments, but the whole piece is difficult to sell, if I can say that. I’m Mediterranean, and we are louder in everything – pain and joy – but there’s still a human element; sometimes we have the words and we don’t want to say them out loud, but our soul is screaming. And you can convey that in music with the breathing, or with other little details, although with this repertoire, it’s written so straight-forward.
Rehearsing Anima Rara with conductor Andrea Battistoni in 2019. Photo: Simon Weir
Your pauses and taking those breaths feel very much a part of your vocal acting; the timing and phrasings convey such an innate comprehension of the line between gripping and overwrought, because as you said, one can tip into the other easily.
Yes, and of course you can improve because it’s the kind of repertoire in my perception that is like, more, not older, but the more life experience you have, the more meaningful this repertoire is. Even to stage it is so difficult because it has to be so meaningful and you have to be … to live that story, 100%. Singing is the language of our souls. We can’t fake it. It’s something that the public will feel immediately, if you fake it. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult and interesting to go toward this repertoire and feel it’s mine. I don’t know how I can put it, but I love it, and I’m trying to improve as much as I can technically, to give that kind of liberty to my voice and express the emotions – if you don’t have a good technique, it could be only a beautiful thought, “make this phrase like this and that phrase like so” – but if you don’t give it all with your voice, your breathing, with all your body and soul onstage… they remain only beautiful notes in a score, and you fail as a singer and as an artist.
You also said to Pappano, and you have done before as well, that you always approach each performance as if it is the first and last of your life; I’m wondering if that applies to recital work. I was genuinely amazed at your pacing.
I tried to pace, believe me! It was a challenge, that recital, because I’d never had a recital on my own, not because I didn’t believe in it – I love it so much and would love to repeat it – but because I’m so shy as well, to be honest with you, and I let it go when I’m onstage (in opera). Somehow I feel protected and with some distance from the public – I want to feel the energy but I don’t want to feel judged. The costumes, the staging, they keep me a little distanced, and always I thought to myself, “Never will I be able to have success in singing in recital, opera is better” – but sometimes we have to challenge ourselves. What I chose was crazy to be frank, it was so long and so diverse, and I thought, “It’ll be the first and the last recital, but okay, let’s try it!” And I loved it so much though, because I thought, in that recital, like going back to that Pappano conversation, it’s my first and last appearance on the stage.
It was a dream for me to become an opera singer; I fought so much to reach the position I’m in now and for me, I won my dream, if I can say that. I endured a lot of difficulties, so now every time I’m on stage I appreciate how lucky I am. It’s about 26 years professionally now that I’ve been singing, and I don’t know if it will all end tomorrow – I want to live life in full, which sounds a little… stupid, but you know, at the moment especially, I don’t think about tomorrow, because you never know. In this situation with the virus, it brought to mind how I have suffered because I’m not onstage. Every time I am I’ve kissed the stage, because I think, “Maybe it’s my last time.” For sure a piece of my soul I leave that there, and with 100% honesty, but also embracing a spirit of risk.
It’s interesting you say this because it brings to mind Rosina Storchio, that embrace of honesty.
We always think verismo means using the biggest voice in the world, that you have to, not scream, it’s not nice! – but to be louder, because in that way you are more dramatic. When I had my first proposition to do Butterfly, I was scared, I thought, “no, never ever, I can’t sing this opera, because” – I’m really honest with my voice– “I’m a lyrical voice, not a dramatic voice.” It was 2009, and some people said to me then, “Please don’t accept that, you’ll lose your voice at the end of the First Act.” I like to read when I have time of course, and so I went to read Puccini’s letters, and in those, he is talking about Butterfly, and in there it came up, Storchio’s name; I didn’t know anything about her, but the way he wanted her to sing that opera (and similarly Mascagni in Lodoletta and Zazá), he wanted her to be the first in the role, and I thought, “Okay, let me see which kind of voice she had” – and she was a lyrical leggero, as they call it from the letters and docs we have – so why did they want her? Because, I discovered, she had a kind of pathos onstage, she was giving everything in order to be expressive but believable; she was an actress with a lyrical voice. When Butterfly didn’t have success the first time and Puccini changed the whole opera, she didn’t want to sing it, and in one of the letters of Puccini he wrote, “I think that Butterfly without Storchio becomes a thing without soul.”
From that moment , I thought, “Okay, my guts say Butterfly, or this kind of repertoire in that epoch, sounded different” – because you need that kind of fragility, because sometimes it doesn’t mean you have to be BIG; yes, for certain roles you do, but in this case, it’s why we get so moved, emotionally speaking, because we see this human being so fragile, and you have to convey that not only with your voice but in little movements – of course you try to improve, but that’s the connection, to do this kind of repertoire, this kind of drama, but the drama is in the whole story. It’s not because you somehow have to be dramatic; you are a human being, and we have all these colors, this palette of emotion. Even within the (context of) the drama, you honestly believe tragedy could happen to such a vulnerable soul.
I’m wondering about that stage presence and authenticity in relation to other work she was known for, some of which are on the album. You are known for roles like Butterfly too, but perform other lesser-known works; how does one inform the other, or does it?
I tried to follow the same philosophy I did with Butterfly: I don’t have expectations. So I think if I do something, like singing this little-known repertoire, if I put in soul and I believe 100% and try to work on the emotional part as I’ve done with Butterfly, I hope somehow it will help to bring to life this kind of music. For the first time ever I sung Siberia heard it, and… I can’t explain it to you. It was the only aria which we recorded in two tracks, immediately, because it came so naturally, I felt, I don’t know… this aria is about a love that only you know, no one knows about it, you can’t speak it to anyone… I really adore it, so maybe this will be interesting for certain houses, to bring back to life these kinds of masterpieces. We didn’t have so many rehearsals for these recordings you know, but I was in tears every time I had to repeat things. I mean, Lodoletta… my God!
Listening to these tracks made me think about Butterfly and Mimi in new ways in terms of the vocal writing and the line, the pacing, having a clear sense of character through those small details you mention…
But of course you can’t do this unless, as you said to Pappano, you feel protected.
Because teamwork means so much! I’ve had productions of Butterfly where I swear, I felt, “oh my God, my career is done now, I won’t sing this opera anymore” because I didn’t feel free to express what I had in my mind; it’s not only the voice, it’s not just, “Oh, sing your famous aria” – that’s wrong, especially in this repertoire. You have to work together and, I hate the word “sell” but you have to deliver it, as a whole story. Unfortunately not in every production do you have that (required) teamwork.
With Pappano, I felt so protected; we were working in the same direction, and I felt like a student. When you feel that way it’s beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if your picture is everywhere and people love and adore you and you have all kinds of applause – still, you are a student. Every day we are different, every day life experience shapes our souls and minds, and with music, you need to go in that direction (of learning). You really do with Pappano; he’s a dream to work with. Every time working with him you discover new things, even repeating the same phrase – he taught me from the first time we met, to never ever repeat a note twice the same way, because yes, you said it once and the second time it won’t be new, you have to find other colors. This is just the approach to take for this kind of repertoire.
(via Warner Classics)
This is something I feel I’m being educated on with each listening of the album, and Opera Rara’s work as a whole; you really come back to the more known repertoire with new ears.
That’s why I love Opera Rara; they’re very important for the opera world, not because I record with them, but really, we are students, and it’s easy to appreciate something that’s well-known and already-proven before the public, but it requires artistic vision to ask an audition to take a new look at a work of art lost in time, so Opera Rara’s vision is one I am passionate about. I mean, I’m harsh on myself (in terms of performance) here – every time after a recording session I would go home and think, “I could do better here, better there…”
But do you feel that’s a normal part of being an artist? That such perfectionism is a necessary part of creativity?
Especially for this repertoire, yes. What was my epiphany, if I can say that, is the period when I lost my parents, and I had to sing Suor Angelica then. I was numb completely. I’m sharing this episode because of how much art can mean, beyond technique, beyond the voice. Really, at that time, I was numb. I had some days before the premiere, where I was learning and creating with Pappano and everyone on the team, but only when I went onstage, when Principessa comes to Suor Angelica and says, “Your son is dead” – at that moment I felt the pain, the big loss that I had. The magic of the music… to have Pappano, as I said before, to read for this kind of emotion, the teamwork in London, they didn’t know about my loss but maybe they felt the energy, I was like a lost child. Before “Senza Mamma”, in the instrumental introduction, I was worried, like “oh my God, I’m going to stop here I won’t be able to sing it properly – there has to be a the pianissimo at this certain point, I can’t do it” and so on, and everything was discovered, and in that moment , I forget about the technique, I forgot, “oh this note has to be so precise” and… it was my soul singing, in tears, and it wasn’t Suor Angelica, the young mother crying for her son; I felt myself a little girl who had lost her parents. It doesn’t matter what age we lose our parents; it’s loss.
The effect this music had on me, I changed, completely, not because I doubted before, but at that precise moment… something changed in my mind, and I thought, “I have to work not toward the sound, because no one is perfect; some will like you, and some will like someone else, you won’t make everyone happy with your voice. But if you speak through your voice, the colors of the soul that you’re singing, and you are really honest with yourself, absolutely, it will connect with the public” and from that moment, my life changed. As an artist, I do work technically but always in service to the emotion, even risking being not-perfect, because if you don’t risk and go deep, you will never connect with the public – never, ever.
Whatever good may have resulted from the unfolding experience of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, one thing is certain: the gaping holes of arts broadcasting have been wholly, and quite hideously, revealed. Violinist Daniel Hope, together with French-German broadcaster ARTE, smartly stepped up to try and fill the tremendous programming gaps existing across so many spheres of both traditional and digital broadcasting. Taking as its model the European-style salon, Hope@Home has provided a modicum of the concert-going experience while consciously avoiding any attempted replication of pre-COVID (or so-called “normal”) formats.
I initially wrote about Hope’s program at the end of April 2020. Hope@Home began its life earlier that month in the South Africa-born violinist’s living room in Berlin. Equal parts fun, thoughtful, familiar, and surprising, each episode in the series (running roughly 30 to 45 minutes) features a mix of performance and poetry through creative chamber combinations. This is a show that is simultaneously aware of both its old(ish) roots in music and its modern presentation in medium, and it is clear-eyed in its mission to provide an ancillary form of classical experience which simultaneously educates, enlightens, and entertains. Guests have included conductors Sir Simon Rattle and Donald Runnicles, pianists Kirill Gerstein, Tamara Stefanovich, and Sebastian Knauer, opera singers Thomas Hampson, Mattias Goerne, Magdalena Kožená, and Evelina Dobračeva, and actors Ulrich Tukur, Iris Berben, Katharina Thalbach, and Daniel Brühl, many of whom performed in Hope’s own parlor. “I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that such an eclectic bevy of artists would pass through my Berlin salon, nor that we would resurrect the age-old art of the house concert,” Hope wrote in The Guardian in early May. With over sixty episodes now, Hope@Home attracts an international, ever-expanding viewership, and has thus far enjoyed over five million views. Blending old-world charm with a 21st century sensibility is no small thing, and in so doing, Hope has, if I might add a personal note, provided some wonderful moments of comfort and company over many sad months of enforced isolation.
The program has, in parallel with the easing of European lockdown restrictions, moved to a weekends-only format, and out of Hope’s house. Now called Hope@Home On Tour!, various unique and historical locales (indoor and outdoor) across central Europe have become its sets. The July 4th broadcast featured Hope’s very own Zürcher Kammerorchester (Zürich Chamber Orchestra), of which he has been Music Director since 2016, performing in a very evocative factory setting. As well as his duties with Zürich, Hope is also President of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn, Artistic Director of the Frauenkirche Dresden, and Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra in San Francisco. One senses the chamber set-up is where Hope feels most keenly at home in literal and figurative senses; the inherent intimacy of the arrangement provides a route through which the violinist clearly underlines its importance within the creative experience, together with the not-inconsiderable significance of a very human presentation. This is a program that directly addresses any lingering accusations about classical music being distant, heady, or cold; Hope@Home is none of those, and while it does wear its heart firmly on sleeve at times, it does so in elegant and thoughtful ways, immeasurably aided by the creative variety it has offered up over its three-and-a-half-month lifespan. Thus is Zürcher Kammerorchester’s early July appearance at the very tip of an ever-expanding sonic iceberg, pieces of which continue to be unearthed and examined each weekend. The sounds of jazz, swing, and folk are placed beside that of Baroque, classical, and modern, with poetry and theatre hovering close by; never has such a combination felt more right or indeed suited to the nature of the times, as notions of past and present crash and collide to provide an entirely new ways forwards.
Such variety is reflective of Hope’s own interests and oeuvre. His repertoire features the work of Schumann, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Mendelsohn, Tippett, Hindemith, Berg, Foulds, Poulenc, Messiaen, Bartok, Ravel, and Ravi Shankar (to name a few), and he has performed at many celebrated venues including Carnegie Hall, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Wigmore Hall, Alte Oper Frankfurt, and the Concertgebouw. Creative collaborators and partners have included Menahem Pressler, Anne Sofie von Otter, Sebastian Knauer, and Maxim Shostakovich, conductors Kurt Masur, Christian Thielemann, Ivan Fischer, Kent Nagano, Sir Andrew Davis, Sakari Oramo, Sir Roger Norrington, Thomas Hengelbrock, Jiří Bělohlávek , and organizations The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Beaux Arts Trio (of which he was a member from 2002 to 2008), Camerata Salzburg, and his very own Zürcher Kammerorchester. He recorded his latest, wide-ranging album, Belle Époque (Deutsche Grammophon, 2020), with the latter, and it reveals a fascinatingly wide selection of early 20th century sounds, all of which drive a certain narrative around navigating an immense precipice of change as much musical as social. The album skillfully blends the work of Schönberg, Massenet, Zemlinsky, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Fauré, and renowned violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler, whose work Hope has frequently presented throughout Hope@Home, into a gripping and very evocative 150-minute listen.
Along with Kreisler, another violinist to whom Hope regularly pays tribute is Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999). The New York-born soloist had formidable influence throughout Hope’s childhood, an accidental if highly fortunate connection thanks to his mother, who was Menuhin’s secretary for over two decades. Hope stated in an article for The Strad in 2016 (the centenary of Menuhin’s birth) that “Menuhin was the reason I became a violinist” and shared details relating to the spontaneous nature of their performance-instruction connection; it’s this precise quality, this flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants see-if-it-sticks spirit of adventure which gave early Hope@Home episodes such unique electricity, but which, alternately, made Hope himself a calm eye in the middle of a veritable storm, a steady presence who just as easily (even now) shares stories of his days with Menuhin (and others) as he does move between works by Miklós Rózsa and Manuel de Falla, beloved tunes like “Amazing Grace”, and riffing on the folk-balladry of Berlin-based Kiwi singer Teresa Bergmann, the timbres of Hope’s violin and Bergmann’s voice twisting and turning in beautiful, hypnotizing spirals of green-gold aural splendor. Throughout its short life, Hope has also championed the works of less mainstream composers, among them Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942). Partly pointing up the show’s blend of education and entertainment, such emphasis also reflects Hope’s discography, as well as his family history, one intimately connected with Berlin and his Jewish roots, a past he openly shares as part and parcel of his hosting duties. There is also, vitally, humour; in one episode from late April, Hope recalled knocking on Alfred Schnittke’s door and introducing himself as a keen teenager; therein developed a friendship which lasted until Schnittke’s passing in the late 1990s.
Such combinations, of personal and broad, intimate and epic, casual boldness and the yearning for inclusion, found direct contemporary expression in Hope’s decision to include homemade musical contributions by musician-viewers in early episodes of Hope@Home. Such easy integrations equally aid in the salon ambiance of live readings, initially done in an adjoining room in Hope’s house and sometimes set to live music. Robert Wilson (whose appearance on the program was, as you’ll read, a nifty bit of luck) read his own poem about the lockdown experience set to a performance of Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”; director and Komische Oper Berlin Intendant Barrie Kosky read a passage (unaccompanied) from Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years. Before embarking on wide-ranging locales, Hope kept his touring sites in Berlin, from whence occasional broadcasts still unfold. A visit in early June to the former residence of Hope’s grandmother (where she and her family lived until 1935) featured a 1920s-style swing presentation and was enjoyed by the small crowd who had gathered in the leafy Berlin suburb. More grand if no less intimate was a more recent broadcast from at the Strauss-Villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen featuring baritone Thomas Hampson, who noted of the experience singing in Strauss’s home that “it’s an incredible honor… and I’m terrified.”
Despite its immense popularity, the focus remains on the original intimacy. The show’s visual style is kept purposely consistent, and Hope’s conversational performance style translates seamlessly into his sincere, unaffected deliver. Such naturalism could be owing to past broadcasting projects (including a radio show), but it’s also innately connected with his actively communicative musicality. During a concert with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin honoring Yehudi Menuhin in 2016, Hope and conductor Iván Fischer share a seamless, intense exchange throughout an electrifying performance of Elgar’s Concerto for violin and orchestra in A Minor, Op. 61. Hope’s artistry is one innately connected to communication with his musical partners, whether they’re a pianist, speaker, swing band, or chamber orchestra; this need for communication, and its inherent sincerity, translates palpably to Hope@Home, no small thing in an era that has come to rely more and more on digital broadcast. Hope and I had the opportunity to speak recently, just after he had completed two long-awaited post-lockdown concerts with Zürcher Kammerorchester.
I had a conversation with Wolfgang Bergmann who is the German head of ARTE. (Bergmann’s official title is Managing Director, ARTE Deutschland and ARTE Coordinator of the ZDF.) I’ve known him for many years and we’ve been in touch regularly with various ideas, and we had a meeting at the beginning of March in Berlin about something else, just as things were starting to move very fast in terms of the lockdown. Once the meeting was over he said, “What will you do if a lockdown happens, if it gets serious?” I said, “I don’t know, I might turn my living room into a TV studio!” – I said it, just like that – and after about two weeks he called me up and said, “Were you serious about what you said?” I said, “I’m not sure, I might’ve been!” He said, “Let’s do it.”
And so my first question to him was: what about the sound? I’d been watching some of the (music) streams and thought, as great as they were at the beginning, they were missing really good sound quality on classical music. And he said, “How do you want to play it?” I said, “Let me speak to someone who knows about production of classical sound and we’ll see if it’s doable.” I got an engineer to come and check out if we could do it, then called Wolfgang back to let him know it was possible, but I didn’t expect him to say, “Can we start tomorrow?” That was really insane! And we threw everything together and went straight in. There was no prep, no script, no person checking – usually with these things you have a team of people writing up ideas and vetting artists and repertoire. There was nobody; there was just me. In that sense I did initiate everything, but of course with the help and the slightly mad suggestion of Mr. Bergman.
How much did that spirit of spontaneity directly influence your selections in terms of guests and repertoire?
I think partly, that very intense time was the reason behind what happened, but there were also some really wonderfully strange coincidences. I was walking with my kids around the block and bumped into Robert Wilson on the street, and was like, “What are you doing here?!” He said, “I’m in lockdown and I can’t get back to the States… and by the way, I’ve been watching your show; can I come on it?” It was just amazing! I suggested he do a reading of something, and racked my brains for things to send him. He showed up at the house an hour before the show with his own script. With Simon Rattle, I’d never met him before but got his number and texted him, and within half an hour he rang back and said, “Pick a day.” Those kinds of things would never ever have happened had there not been this severe lockdown. I would’ve never been able to reach these people and they wouldn’t have spontaneously said, “Let’s do this” – that (availability) was the key behind everything else.
And the freedom from the channel was incredible. They never said, “You can’t put a Simon and Garfunkel song next to a reading of Stefan Zweig and then play Schnittke – that’s just not possible!” I think in my mad attempt to get a show together that made sense, I thought about what kind of music I would like to hear, and then went about to see if I could draw a theme together.
The ease of movement between genres and media is refreshing; you’ve shown, however accidentally, that there is a big thirst for this kind of variety in a cultural presentation.
For a long time I read and researched a lot about the Berlin salons of the 19th century, or the French ones that hosted people like Marcel Proust, this idea, even going back to Schubert’s time, where he’d have these soirees and friends would come by and did something, anything –if they read, played, recited, danced, whatever – it was a getting-together of artistic minds and seeing what happens; that was in the back of my mind. I was sure after a couple of episodes we’d get complaints about something or the other, but because of the shutdown the structures usually in place in terms of regulating TV content were not there, so they let me run with it. One of the biggest victories was doing the whole thing in English, because it’s a German-French channel, so it would’ve normally been in German or French or both; I literally broke with all protocol and went in English, and after the first slightly irate comments from some people at the chanel, they figured out, “Oh wait, everybody speaks English…” And we went with it, because I feel most comfortable speaking English anyway. That was a big part of the success of (Hope@Home): it’s global. People can respond to it.
Noteworthy you spoke in German during your first performances with an audience at the Frauenkirche Dresden.
When we started to go outside of the house and into concert halls and started to have audiences, that was when the next big challenge came; I had an audience in front of me and the audience at home, and I think we were all a little bit anxious to see if it could work somehow, because either the people at home will feel out, or the people in the hall will feel left out, so I was juggling between them. That show in Dresden was the largest audience we’ve had to date (for Hope@Home), it was three or four hundred people, so it was important to address them in German as if it was a concert, but at the same time not to forget about the global audience at home.
What was that like to play for a live audience after so long – was it emotional?
It was very emotional, yes. Just a couple of nights ago we played in Zürich as well, two concerts with around 450 people, approximately. It’s an extraordinary feeling, having been cut off for months, and to go to back into the hall; even if people aren’t seated next to each other and there are distances, it’s still a very different feeling when you’re communicating directly in that moment and you see and hear applause, you’re watching peoples’ faces, and you’re making music together with colleagues. Playing that chamber music repertoire was unbelievably emotional for all of us.
The experience of hearing applause from a live audience in Dresden hit me quite hard…
… though it’s been heartening to note your being such a public champion of the work of Alfred Schnittke. I love that your program features stories like, ‘One night I just knocked on Schnittke’s door’ followed by performances of his works. You blend the personal with the so-called “high-art” of classical in a very engaging way.
Thank you for picking up on all of that. Schnittke is a huge, huge influence on me and I’ve always adored his music. After an absence of a few years I’ve really gotten back into him again. I try to tell stories; I’ve always tried to tell stories. The music is the most important story in all of that, but it’s not the only story. By connecting the dots and trying to at least illuminate the history of the pieces or the people behind them, or the dedicatees, or the messages, I think it enhances the experience. It certainly enhances my enjoyment of the music!
So it’s a gut decision really, of how much information do I want to spell out, without wishing to preach and without wishing to be sanctimonious, but trying to do a little more than, “And now I’ll play the Second Sonata in E-flat Major” – I think there’s more to it. If one knows the story of Erwin Schulhoff, for instance, I think you experience it differently; his Foxtrott, if you know this was written under a pseudonym, by a man who was close to deportation, and was forced to give up one of the greatest careers of his time – you listen differently. And listening differently, and intently, and deeper – that’s really about what we do. And that’s one of the many things I learned from Menahem Pressler in the Beaux Arts Trio, it was, dig as deep as you possibly can into the material; that musical digging is the most important, but the forensic, for me personally, is almost as interesting.
Contextualizing is so important to appreciate any sort of music, but it’s so often watered down, or presently poorly, or left off entirely.
In doing Hope@Home it was my great hope was we were not just going for classical music aficionados but would try to reach people who were locked down and who were maybe looking for culture. To get somebody to listen to an Alfred Schnittke piece who knows nothing about classical music is a challenge, and I think by telling stories and showing why we’re doing this, I wasn’t just going through a bunch of pieces or composers from A to Z, but there was a reason behind it all. A guest would come in and say, “I want this piece” or “I’ll read this text” or try to find something suited. For Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (read by actor Iris Berben), we put Manuel De Falla’s Andalusian folk songs underneath; for a Stefan Zweig reading (performed by Katja Riemann), we did Marietta’s Lied from Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. I tried to find connections that would enhance the experience and make it accessible without wishing to, in any shape or form, take something away from the music, knowing at the end of the day we only had thirty or forty minutes to present this experience which I was hoping would reach and touch people.
I grew up with the work of Menuhin, and that was his great gift, to contextualize these large histories in very approachable, highly enlightening ways.
Absolutely. I don’t know if you know the book he wrote, The Music Of Man…
My mother had it in her library.
Yes! It was a CBC production back in the late 1970s in which he looked at the influence of music over 500 years, which went from the Renaissance to Oscar Peterson and the people who inspired him. That kind of musical time travel is something I’ve always loved, and certainly, Menuhin’s eagerness to share that history was a great inspiration to me. I was lucky to grow up very, very close to him and to the collaborations in which he was involved. Even as a very small child, listening to him play with Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, the sound of those tablas and the spectacle of that giant virtuoso playing, stayed with me – but the same I can say of Carl Sagan, with whom Menuhin met in order to do this book The Music Of Man; Sagan was the man who told me about the music of the spheres when I was a kid, and that led, thirty years later, to a Spheres album (Deutsche Grammophon, 2013). So there are seeds that somehow get planted and often I come back to them, and at other times there are things, triggers – I’ll hear a radio program or an artist, or read a bit of text or a book which will start me thinking, or get me on a different journey, and sometimes those journeys can last for years before they become a project, and sometimes they happen really fast.
The interesting thing with this show is that I was thrown together with many different with artists, some of whom I’d admired for a long time but never met, and it gave me new impulses. I’d discover new pieces – I’d be feverishly looking overnight for a piece to play on the program the next day, and if it didn’t have the arrangement I needed, then I’d be getting somebody to arrange it in time. That was a creativity in overdrive, I would say.
So how has this overdrive changed you creatively then? You don’t seem to be the same artist you were back in March.
It’s a great question. I definitely feel a big change, I have to say. Those six weeks at home were some of the most intense and creative – I was literally on fire the whole time. Going from show to show, and sometimes we didn’t even know if the person was going to come, and if they did what they would do – it was fraught in that sense, but also very positive. And so I think the biggest challenge was going back to the schedule, or what’s left of it, let’s say, and trying to think, ‘Okay, there’s an inquiry to play a Mozart Concerto in four years’ time on this day; is this something you want to do?’ And I did find myself asking myself… I’m not sure if I want to do that. Because one of the greatest things about this show was and is that I’m calling up people and saying, “Can you come in two days and play?” and because they’re free they can do this – and that’s how classical music worked for centuries. If you look at the great artists at the beginning of the 20th century, the Horowitzs or Rubinsteins or even Menuhins, they’d arrive in a town, a concert would be scheduled, they’d play and wait to see the reaction, then if people liked it, they’d have another, or say, “Let’s do it again next week” – that happened with Thomas Hampson recently. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got him to do something?’ and I rang him up and said, “Can you come in two days’ time?” I think everything being planned three years in advance… as classical musicians we may have to lose that structure, and even security, if we’re going to survive.
The other thing is, this constant traveling, this constant being on-the-road, I think, again, there’s been a sort of reexamination of that. The fact one can actually stay at home and produce high-quality music and share it with a worldwide audience was quite a revelation to me, I have to say.
And you understood the importance of sound quality, and the value of an event in and of itself.
At the very beginning I loved the online stuff because I felt there was this giant worldwide hug – all musicians were trying to hug each other. I thought it was very uplifting. But very soon I found myself saying, ‘Well, this sounded good but this didn’t’ – and then it bothered me. Also (online streaming) became so spontaneous and so … kind of last-minute, and it lost some of the special factor of going to a concert – even just putting on a suit, you go and actually make an occasion of it. As you know we were all at home, all unable to cut our hair and able to wear what we wanted to wear – we were all forced to readjust, but for the program, I made a conscious decision. Tobias Lehmann said, “I can make the sound I know you want” and I said to Christoph (Israel), “Listen, we’re going to play concerts now; we’re not going to stream and sit there and take requests. We are making an occasion of this, and we are going to dress up because it is a concert, and we’ll see what happens.” I don’t regret that. It gave a kind of an element of escapism, which is what people were looking for, but at the same time the respect to the art form we’ve been practicing all our lives.
That’s why it was nice to see people dressed up, and it still is. And you are very natural as a host as well, there’s none of the “Daniel-is-in-his-hosting-suit-with-his-hosting-voice” routine.
I appreciate that. A lot of it was learning by doing and seeing how it would work, and trying things out, but trying to be myself, trying to be authentic. We were lucky to have the sound of Tobias, and the guests we’ve had, and lucky to have the guys on the cameras who created that look and to take the look with us when we go on the road – we take the lamps, we take the paintings. We try to give people that sense of, ‘Here we are again!’
How long will it continue?
At the moment we are pretty much sure we’re going on until the middle of August, but we’re not sure after that. At some point I will need to take a holiday, a break! It’s hard to imagine ARTE would keep this going forever, but the response has been so strong and we’re over 5 million streams. So, given the very precarious state of the world right now, as I always say, if we’re allowed to keep going, we will keep going; circumstances may change, and everybody’s talking about a second wave. Whether it will come or not, it’s in the stars right now, but if I had one wish, it would be to come to North America and do the show from there… but if it’ll happen, we just don’t know right now. I hope we will be allowed to come in at some point.
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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.
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.
A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company
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.
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?
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?
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.
Walls have been on my mind over the last few weeks and throughout the year. Their physical forms have made the news, in past and present iterations, with invisible counterparts revealing divisions within the worlds of culture, politics, and self. There is an odd, illusory comfort to them, the notions of order, permanence, stability they imply allowing for realizations of often staunchly-defended functionalities so delicate they may crack at the slightest hint of perceived disorder. One hates to admit wanting certain forms of them.
This winter I have naught to look at in my minuscule back garden but a high fence, erected at my request this summer. I’m still tossing around the merits of planting things around its wooden edges come springtime; I love (and painfully miss) the feel of soil on my hands and running through my fingers. Looking at a blank fence now brings memories of the cute, strange, unexpected buds that would poke through the old one that ran the perimeter of the immense garden behind the tiny house where I grew up. I remember looking out the kitchen window and being awed and perplexed by the unsymmetrical lattice patterns their insistent tendrils would make in the late afternoon sun, the greens, reds, and rust browns dancing in the shifting light. It made the fence oddly pretty, made spring seem somehow less distant.
Bud against a fence. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Walls and their winding, decorative counterparts have always existed in the world of classical culture. Division and debate have occurred (and continue) on the stage, in the pit, in the boardroom, on the bus and the metro — in bars, parks, galleries, galleys, bedrooms. Though there is the strong (and not incorrect) belief that art is the ultimate dissolver of walls, such a divine theory often fails when put into human practise, our foibles making such manifestation a challenge, even in ideal circumstances. We, and the connections we form, are a dynamic part of creation: human thoughts, words, and actions place slats, tear them down, replace them, tear them down. The energy created from that creation-destruction cycle sharpens the intermeshing wires of existence (class, wealth, race, gender, geography, health, age), and colour the way we experience concerts, operas, each other. The dissolution of walls demands true openness, curiosity, risk… a hunger for authenticity, something one may speak about at length but which can only find true manifestation in life. In short: talk is cheap. In my conversation with Lera Auerbach at the Enescu Festival earlier this year, she underlined the importance of this quality and its relationship to art — as an experiential rite of passage, and broader life journey — more than once, making me think harder still about all the walls and fences both in and outside of music, and writing. What if authentic connection is the ultimate “wall” to be crossed? Is it possible, in art and in life?
Goethe in 1828, by Joseph Karl Stieler
Famed German writer Goethe, whose work I referenced this past summer in relation to German composer George Katzer and his “Szene für Kammerensemble” (Scene for a Chamber Ensemble), tackled various types of walls throughout his wide range of poetry and novels. His works teem with characters who seek some way to live with authenticity – in spirit, in self, in practise. “Szene” takes this theme and goes further, using Goethe’s words to question, prod, and mock the then-contemporary East German regime under which it was created, satirizing its bureaucratic control of artistic exploration and expression. The chamber group ensemble unitedberlin, who performed “Szene” at the Konzerthaus Berlin in June as part of a larger program, was founded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was a richly resonant and very timely choice to feature Katzer’s work as part of the group’s thirtieth anniversary concert, not only because of Katzer’s own history, but because of the rising political and social tensions within Germany itself. They are wars in which Schubert would have, I suspect, recognized and understood.
Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl (1827)
I’ve been thinking a lot about his lieder lately, not least because of thinking back to a concert of Schubert lieder by soprano Golda Schultz in Berlin this past summer, as well as a recent conversation with baritone Gerald Finley in relation to a recent (gorgeous) recording he made of the composer’s Schwanengesang with pianist Julius Drake. To say the composer loved the work of Goethe is putting things mildly; Schubert set no less than eighty of Goethe’s poems to music, with at least a third of them written when he was still a teenager, between 1814 and 1815. As music writer Kenneth S. Whitton noted in his book Goethe andSchubert: The Unseen Bond (Amadeus Press, 1999), “The musicality of Goethe’s words unlocked Schubert’s unique voice, and continued to inspire Schubert for the rest of his life…”. The composer died in 1828, having never met his literary hero, but before that, he composed a song for a scene from Faust, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the spinning wheel”), written when Schubert was seventeen. One of the most famous and beloved of Schubert’s lied, the work deals with some very real societal walls. The tale of the heroine’s seduction and subsequent abandonment by the titular anti-hero, followed by her trial and execution for the murder of her child, had a terrible resonance; stories of infanticide by desperate, socially-outcast unwed mothers (who dealt with very real walls of their own in the times in which they lived) were not uncommon in the poet and the composer’s day.
Setting such subject matter to song gave Goethe’s words — and its horrific reality — an especially disturbing resonance, one more fully realized in “Gretchen im Zwinger” (also known as “Gretchen’s Plea”). Music is not merely an echo of text here but experience, one that transcends the limitations — the walls, if you will — imposed by the verbal. This transcendence has real-life roots, however, giving these works an earthiness that roots them to lived human experience and suffering. One does feel the soil of the earth in his compositions, and rightly so.
Equally human are his Suleika works. Johannes Brahms once said of the first of its two parts (written in 1821) that it was “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The lied are based on Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Divan), written between 1814 and 1819 (an expanded version appeared in 1827), with the Book Of Suleika being one of its twelve sections, and one of its lengthiest. Inspired by the work of Persian poet Hafez and greatly aided by translations of said work by historian Joseph von Hammer, West-östlicher Divan was the final major cycle of poetry Goethe wrote before his passing in 1832. Along with Schubert, other composers, including Schumann, Mendelssohn, Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg, set verses from Suleika to music; there’s a musicality to the words that beg for sonic expression:
How your wings in gentle movement-
In my breast awaken longings —
Flowers, meadows, hills and forests —
Stand beneath teardrops of your soft breath.
Yet your mild and balmy blowing
Cools my eyelids’ painful aching —
Oh, for sorrow I would die —
When I could not hope to see his face.
Hurry, now to my beloved —
Speaking softly to his heart, (oh,)
Careful never to distress him —
Hiding from him all my torment.
As it turns out, The Book Of Suleika (which means “seductress” in Arabic) may have not been written by Goethe at all, so much as edited; there is suspicion (however contentious) that the actual writer could have been Austrian dancer and actress Marianne von Willemer. Married and thirty-five years the poet’s junior, von Willemer and Goethe engaged in a passionate correspondence when the poet was at his height of his fame, despite being married to Christiane Vulpius, regarded as his social and intellectual inferior – a woman with whom he knocked down walls himself, living scandalously unwed for eighteen years before marrying and having five children with her (only one survived). Vulpius suffered a series of serious health challenges (including a stroke) before her passing in 1816. We don’t know what she made of the predictably large galaxy of worshipful fangirls who threw themselves at her husband; it would seem Goethe himself was always “in love” (in a clichéd fashion) and cycled through numerous affairs (physicalized and not) before, during, and after his marriage, his writing ever expanding in incredible breadth and scope. As writer Adam Kirsch wrote in The New Yorker in 2016, “(f)or Goethe, love and learning and writing formed a continuous cycle, which didn’t cease until he was on his deathbed—and perhaps not even then. At the age of eighty-two, dying of a painful heart condition, Goethe’s last words were “More light!””
The dividing lines between artist and behaviour can sometimes be very hazy indeed, let alone its connection to the actual art being produced amidst such circumstances, but Suleika offers a meta-narrative (however inadvertent) in the form of a small if captivating bud poking through some rather tall fences, ones with slats labelled “genius,” “worship,” “art”, even up to our own time. It’s in such unexpected invasions one can find the truest sort of authenticity, or so I’d like to believe. In the notes for Hyperion’s immense Schubert: The Complete Songs box set, pianist and song specialist Graham Johnson writes:
Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman’s voice since the climax of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne’s and Goethe’s fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasize alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? […] Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.
After attending Schultz’s concert earlier this year, I remember looking down to see various markers on the Berlin sidewalks, plaques indicating where the Berlin Wall once stood. I’ve walked across and on them innumerable times, but something about that night — the sight of them, with the sound of Schubert still buzzing in ears and vibrating in heart, combined with my walled view now — renders them more poignant. Physical walls fall, others become more fortified.
In Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Maybe it’s good to look back – and while we’re at it, around, up, and down – at the ground, the pavement, the plastic, at the base of the posts we’ve so keenly laid slat after slat across. Is it a chaos we’re afraid of, or our own perceptions – us– being changed? Perhaps it’s time, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, to find the cracks that let the green through, and time to be unafraid of feeling our hands in the warm soil once more. Nothing real grows otherwise.
What could possibly be said of Yuja Wang that hasn’t already been said?
Yes, she’s glamorous, yes, she gets a lot of attention, and yes, she’s one of the world’s most celebrated pianists. But she is also warm and funny, and a very thoughtful conversationalist, strong in her opinions, it’s true, but also entirely unapologetic in her individualism. It could well be that such innate authenticity, and never feeling the need to apologize for it, has been, and continues to be, part of what draws audiences around the world to her – that, and of course, her being one of the true greats of the piano.
Born into a musical family in Beijing (her mother is a dancer; her father, a percussionist), Wang began piano as a child, and went on to study as a teenager at the famed Curtis Institute of Music. In 2002, she won the concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival, and a year later, made her European debut with the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich led by conductor David Zinman, playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Wang debuted with the New York Philharmonic at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival in 2006, and toured with the orchestra and conductor Lorin Maazel their very next season. Wang’s big international breakthrough came in 2007, when she replaced Martha Argerich as soloist in a concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
Wang is almost always on hectic rounds of touring, and moves regularly between continents and concert halls. 2019 has been a particularly rich time; along with her tour with Capuçon, Wang gave a hugely well-received performance at the Enescu Festival in September (as part of a tour with the Dresden Staatskapelle and conductor Myung-Whun Chung), and also performed at the inaugural edition of the Tsinandali Festival in Georgia. Last month, she gave the first London performance of John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?”, a work commissioned by the LA Phil and written especially for Wang; music writer Jari Kallio called the performance “a ravishing experience.”
January sees further tour dates with Capuçon as well an extensive solo recital tour and concert performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (led by Andris Nelsons), the Toronto Symphony, (led by incoming TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno) the San Francisco Symphony (led by Michael Tilson Thomas) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin). Chances are she may collect a few more awards along the way; she’s already been the recipient of several, including being named Musical America’s Artist of the Year in 2017. A four-time Grammy Award nominee, The Berlin Recital (Deutsche Grammophone), released in November 2018, is a live recording done at the Philharmonie Berlin; in October it won the prestigious 2019 Gramophone Classical Music Awards in the instrumental category.
The recording evocatively captures Wang’s ferociously individualistic voice, her unapologetic musicality filling space – sonic, but also intellectual and emotional. These are qualities Wang balances so skillfully in her readings of Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Ligeti, and Prokofiev. Gramophone’s David Fanning noted in her performances of both Rachmaninoff’s B minor Prelude as well as Scriabin’s Sonata No 10 that “she moves smoothly between feathery, evocative touches and maximum eruptive volatility.” The recording is a firm personal favorite of mine for a number of reasons, chief among them its beautifully therapeutic qualities. Speaking as a simple listener, it feels as if Wang has a special talent for poking holes in the many clouds of depression that have descended with such force, weight, and consistency over the past year. The way she shapes the trills of Scriabin’s Sonata, her twisty rubato of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 8 , her fierce, eff-you-haters phrasing of Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in G Minor (which opens the album) – these sounds, and the feisty spirit behind them, have been instrumental in envisioning a path through some desperately sad, cloudy times.
And so it is with Chopin-Franck (Warner Classics), released today. As I wrote in my feature on the French cellist earlier this week, the album offers truly enlightening approaches with composers whose works you may think you know well, with two works by Chopin (Sonata in A Major and Polonaise brillante in C Major), the famous Sonata in A Major by Cesar Franck (in a transcription for cello by Jules Delsart), along with an encore of Piazzolla’s beloved “Grand Tango”. Recorded at Toronto’s Koerner Hall at the end of a whirlwind tour that included stops in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the work brings inspiration both intellectual and emotional, and is a luscious sonic intertwining of two highly complementary artistic sensibilities, with Wang’s performance (blazingly sparky one moment, whisperingly delicate the next) matching Capuçon’s note for note, and, as you’ll read, breath for breath. The pianist told the Los Angeles Times in 2017 that for her, “playing music is about transporting to another way of life, another way of being” and this album is a very good display of such sonic transcendence.
Wang took time over the recent Thanksgiving holiday to chat about the nature of performance and the unique joys of collaborative musical partnerships.
Gautier said he felt the creative chemistry with you immediately; did you have a similar experience?
Yes, definitely that feeling is mutual. On tour we’d sometimes joke, “Oh, we don’t have to rehearse!” We have the same ideas of phrasing and how a piece should go. It’s very flexible in terms of what we’re deciding on the spot. And with this (album), all the pieces are so centered on piano, like the Chopin Sonata – I told him, “This is harder than the solo stuff!” It was fun; it never felt like there was a dull moment, and if we play something beautiful for encores which he’s known for – like “The Swan” (Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) or “Meditation” (from Massenet’s Thais)– he just melts every person in the concert. I enjoy that as well.
How did you decide on touring and recording these pieces specifically?
We did the tour and decided on Chopin, since I am always a big fan of Chopin. Even talking about repertoire is very easy, we never have to explain – it was just, “Okay, let’s do that!” And I always loved the Franck sonata. Violinists will hate me, but I love how it sounds on the cello more than the violin version,. We did Rachmaninoff when we played Carnegie Hall – he did record it in 2001, but I think it’s time to do another version.
How does the energy of your partnership affect other things you do?
I have a few fixed partnerships, and he is definitely one of them, the other is Leonidas (Kavakos). Gautier and I did that recording in April and now we are preparing to go out for another three weeks in January – it is a big chunk of your life, to travel together and play together. I always look forward to that because, as a pianist, you always usually travel by yourself, and this way it’s like having a partner around musically. I mean, as a woman and musician, this sort of work seeps into your psyche. It’s not like playing a concerto where you are soloist and there’s an orchestra. The hardest is the solo recitals, where you’re traveling by yourself and busy onstage for ninety minutes. But with Gautier or Leonidas, I’m onstage with another person, making music together – in a way it’s more relaxed, very relaxed – which I love.
That’s the biggest difference, but you know, you count on the other person as well, you give and take onstage, it’s not just you with full responsibility. And, of course, there’s the usual cliche, “we learn a lot from each other” – and of course we do – but in a way it feels like a musical family to be around. You can count on someone, and be very comfortable with them.
It feels protecting?
Yes, protecting, yes! That’s the word. And, because (Kavakos and Capuçon) are such amazing musicians, if I’m having an off day, if I’m tired, they are there to support and to be there. The recording session (in Toronto) was at the end of a two-week tour, and there was a photo session, and an intense recording session; it was a lot, but because Gautier was there I agreed to do it. He is very different from Leonidas – I don’t want to compare! – but with Gautier, we just breathe the music together and it’s there, super-spontaneous.
It’s a musical intimacy that feels rare for its authenticity.
It’s true, and we try to protect that as much as can onstage. It’s very delicate, very vulnerable, that kind of intimacy, and it’s really about intensely listening and just being there for each other, breathing together. It sounds so strange, but because of that, it’s why it feels so spontaneous – because there’s this other way of making chamber music, which is very calculated and planned. And that’s never my way of doing things, but the contrast of doing that also sometimes brings very good results. I think the only other musician like that was Claudio Abbado. He never said anything – he used his gestures and his musicians knew what to do. Gautier is a bit like that; his bowing and his breathing, his whole body is so involved in music. So artistically speaking, it was love at first sight!
Has this partnership changed your relationship with the piano? I would imagine when you experience such creative closeness, you return to your own instrument with a slightly different perspective… ?
I wouldn’t say I play very differently actually, I feel like the repertoire we chose is so piano-oriented so sometimes I feel as if I’m playing solo. But you learn how they use the bow, how they sing, what colours you can bring, and how they see music. That’s the thing with Gautier: we see it very similarly. When I play concerts, I always have been the same way – I’m very reactive; I respond to something on the spot. I see what others are doing and I respond like that.
I guess that’s why I love playing this music and my partners are happy with it too – it’s all about listening, which I learned from Curtis: that’s how you should play music. I’m not so much, I think, trying to be like the leader or like, “Do this! You follow me!” – I’m never like that in any kind of way, and I have the same principles doing concertos or chamber music. But solo is a very different thing, because it’s like being a conductor: you decide what pieces you’re going to play, what they mean to you, and you have to take full responsibility for everything. So that’s a totally different way of operating.
But I would imagine you think of Chopin and Franck in new ways now.
The Chopin cello sonata is very enigmatic for me. I never played any Franck in any real sense! We did Rachmaninoff together – I’m doing Rachmaninoff 4 this week in Cleveland, it’s a language I know very well, so I would say it’s in my comfort zone – but the Chopin was a puzzle for me. The Polonaise, okay, that was very fun to play, but especially after we did the Sonata, it was so intricate, and so much voice, the cello… he just had one line and had to go in and out, but between all of my five lines, and the harmony is so forward-looking. It’s not just, “Oh, what a nice melody by Chopin!” except the third movement, which is so meditative and beautiful – especially the way Gautier played it! But the rest is a Mazurka, and it’s the Chopin we know, but not; he didn’t finish it, and it’s a late work and … it makes you think, where would he go if he didn’t die at 39? The harmony… it’s fun, but it’s really hard. There’s one passage in the first movement, these chords are almost like in Petrushka –but then you have to think about the balance with the cello and the melody.
I think, in a way, I do think more about orchestrating when I go back to my solo music: how to balance the sound, each voice in harmony. Those are the things that become more obvious as a result of doing chamber music-making.
Gautier called the Polonaise “pianistic.”
I think maybe he is conscious of choosing this repertoire because he’s aware that I am in my comfort zone doing all this stuff, rather than sometimes, you know… I mean, I don’t want to just be playing accompaniment…
… but it seems like this is very much both of you doing equal give-and-take, like a tennis match.
And I would imagine things will expand now? Gautier mentioned you’re in planning stages for future projects.
Exactly. I just love the chamber music by Rachmaninoff, and why not the cello sonata? There’s so much other repertoire, I was telling him yesterday, that I want to do: “Let’s do Brahms! Let’s do Rachmaninoff!” He already recorded that, but it’s very special when we do it. We can choose to stay with Russians: Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev… I mean, he makes the cello sing but he can also make it such a beast; I just take care of voicing. And it’s fun, I don’t have to always worry about, “Oh, I’m covering the cello now” because he has such a big presence.
So do you!
We little people have big presence!
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