Tag: conversation

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production early design S. Katy Tucker stage culture theatre opera

Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

opera stage Hansel COC Canadian Opera Company singers performance culture theatre fairytale

Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production culture theatre opera rehearsal director music Ivany Debus McIsaac

Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

Hansel Canadian Opera Company production early design S. Katy Tucker stage culture theatre opera

Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

Writing, Evolution, And The Pleasure Of Discovery

thoth tjaj scribe god ancient egypt

The scribe Tjaj in front of the god Thoth, patron of scribes, in the shape of a baboon. (New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amenophis III (?), 1388-1351 BC; collection of Neues Museum Berlin)

As some of my readers may know, the past year has seen a gradual shift away from formal journalism and toward more creative, personally fulfilling arenas. The precise nature of such a destination has yet to manifest or clarify itself, but, trusting the path, as they say, often brings the most important discoveries, whether we like them or not. Liking, much less being comfortable, isn’t so much the point, but evolving is.

One stage in that evolution has been taking a conscious step away from writing reviews. In Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant 2012 New Yorker essay about critics, he notes that “(t)he role of the critic […] is to mediate intelligently and stylishly between a work and its audience; to educate and edify in an engaging and, preferably, entertaining way.” Mendelsohn, Editor at Large of the New York Review of Books, writes with engaging specificity about how the work of certain critics from his youth inspired his curiosity: “I thought of these writers above all as teachers, and like all good teachers they taught by example; the example that they set, week after week, was to recreate on the page the drama of how they had arrived at their judgments. ” We all find our own in-roads when it comes to culture: the influence of people we are raised by; the big and small events we experience as children; the sounds and sights and smells and surfaces we absorb intellectually, emotionally, spiritually through the various facets that carry us into and through adulthood. Social influence, of course, has taken on a life of its own within the digital age, with the culture of “like” and “favorite” occasionally (Mendelsohn might argue too often) taking the place meaningful criticism might have occupied in the past. There’s also the pervasive (and now normalized) trinity of programming, pageviews, and promotion that have become sticky symbols of, among other things, the contemporary force of clickbait. A music historian friend of mine refuses to hit “like” on most things he sees on Facebook, whether he truly enjoys such posts or not, his reasoning that inspiration, and personal taste for that matter (something Mendelsohn mentions frequently), shouldn’t be reduced to algorithmic slavery. He has a point.

All of which is to say, criticism still matters, but instead of writing reviews myself, I’m going to help others do it. As of January 2020, I’ll be part of the Emerging Arts Critics panel, a Canada-based program that aims to mentor the next generation of culture writers in partnership with a variety of  Toronto-based media and arts institutions including Opera Canada magazine (to which I am a frequent contributor) and the Canadian Opera Company. I may no longer review opera, but I am happy to be teaching the next generation. I’m equally happy to point out interesting figures whose work, while uncritical, inspires that all-important cultural curiosity, while providing fun bursts of inspiration and education; classical music writer and enthusiast Jari Kallio is one of those people. Known to the online classical community for his deep knowledge and refreshing lack of pretension, the well-travelled Finn documents what he sees, listens to, and studies at regular intervals. His posts aren’t intended to provoke reactivity (namely those 21st century digital diseases like hate-likes or juvenile jealousies) but are meant to inspire and educate, and sometimes entertain too.

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Esa-Pekka Salonen’s score for Pelléas et Mélisande. Photo: Jari Kallio

It would be easy to dismiss Jari as a cheerleader. When he likes something (or someone), it is obvious. He does not make a secret of his favorites, but in an age where the fandom of Anna Netrebko is loud and boisterous, it’s nice to see that spirit being so vigorously applied to artists like Harrison Birtwistle, Oliver Knussen and Jörg Widmann. Having worked as a teacher of psychology and philosophy for over two decades in pre-university studies for students sixteen to nineteen in Finland, Jari has a natural ability to be as direct with his language as he is clear in his contextualizing. Well-versed in music new and old, he considers score-reading to be a natural extension of his ever-unfolding education as well as an expression of his intense creative curiosity. Those qualities lend him an authority which can often be seen in his online exchanges with fellow music lovers, ones which are wonderfully free of patronizing and condescension, and offer in-roads for those new to classical music. Clearly aware of the culture of the internet, his Twitter and Instagram feeds regularly feature playful comments and humorous shots of both himself and his cat, Nono (yes, named after the Italian composer). If one wants to apply the term “blogger,” I suppose one could, but the term feels somehow too small for his wide-ranging curiosities, and too limiting for his talents. He’s not a singular figure for his cultural pursuits, but he is one of the most earthy in their expression.

Our conversation here marks the first of what I hope will become regular exchanges with digitally-savvy classical music writers. There’s value, and some manner of delight, in conversing with such ambassadors and educators in a rapidly-changing art form.  And so, to my original point, that making a conscious choice to change one’s path without knowing the final destination isn’t meant to always be a comfortable process. Indeed. Jari’s posts sometimes provoke sharp stabs of shrieking panic (mainly of not knowing nearly enough about our shared passion) but it’s a reaction softened by a calm, more sustained voice whispering that it’s never too late to learn; the willingness is all. Back in June, Jari and I enjoyed a lovely, wide-ranging chat – about score reading, contemporary composers, the joys of attending rehearsals, and the connection between Star Wars and Sibelius. Enjoy.

Photo courtesy Jari Kallio.

Do you find your music passion seeps into your teaching life? I’ve introduced things like leitmotifs within a project-specific context, so students can then apply that concept. 

Yes, I do that too! For example, in psychology there are so many things you can work out through pieces of art and music, so basically that’s an endless source for cases and examples and allegories…

… and concepts, and inspiring people to understand things and experience things in a new way… 

Exactly.

Speaking of new ways, you found your own path into music, yes? 

I didn’t go to a conservatory but I took piano lessons for three or four years, and when I studied psychology as a major, I did some musicology and history of music as a second subject. From my teens is when it all got started. I’m from a working-class family, and there’s musicality in my family, but it comes from my father’s side. My grandfather was quite a good amateur player – he had a good ear. He could pick out tunes from the radio and play them; he was really good at it. My father had some of that too, but he played very little, and so in their world, there wasn’t a thing like music education; yes, it would’ve been available, but it was something rather unknown to them. 

Jari Kallio, scores, Bärenreiter, publishing, music, coffee, perusal

Photo: Jari Kallio

That sounds a lot like my mother; she came from a working-class background as well and only seemed to know the Conservatory as it related to my yearly piano exams. 

Exactly! I had very few early influences though, apart from school. In my first year at school in Finland – we start school at the age of seven – I remember our city orchestra, which was a small, 25-piece orchestra, paid a visit to our school. That was the first time I’d heard an orchestra live. They played some orchestral music, and the only piece I remember from that is Sibelius, his Karelia music, the intermezzo. It was such a huge thing to hear, and that’s the early thing which got me curious. And then, being of my generation, which is the Star Wars generation, I of course picked up John Williams’s music for the film, which was actually the first thing I had on a physical record. In my teens I suddenly started discovering more, and at some point I just felt I had to try to play something, so I did a couple of years of piano lessons and soon realized that I’m not much of a player. That never bothered me because I learned to read music and got kind of an understanding of how music works, performance-wise, which I think was very important. I picked up my first scores when I was about eighteen or nineteen.

What inspired you to delve into scores as a non-musician?

I was really curious to see how the music works, what happens on the page, how does it look? It was the fascination of seeing scores at the conductor’s podium and being really interested in seeing what they see, what do they look at, what is the source? So at first it was simply curiosity, and kind of like, can I read through it? Can I follow a performance from it? It was a challenge.

At the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with the score for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, June 2018. Photo: Jo Johnson, Senior Marketing Manager, Digital Communications, London Symphony Orchestra

What was the first score you bought?

I bought cheap editions of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and Debussy’s “La Mer.” In Helsinki, there’s a music shop that sells records and scores and they had these score on sale, and I went there with what little student money I had back then and I found these two, and I thought they were brilliant.

How many do you have now?

I haven’t really counted them, but I’d say something like 200 to 250 or so.

You take a particular interest in new music.

Finland has a great scene for contemporary music and not just special ensembles but for large orchestras. They all do it – they’ve been doing it for a very long time. It’s something really organic, it’s not just (orchestras) commissioning short pieces and force-feeding the audience; it’s an essential part of the programming. And interestingly, in Helsinki for example, many of the concerts that feature new music sell really well and really fast. They are very often the first concert that are sold out, which is really interesting. 

Why do you think that is? 

I think in a sense, it originally comes from the fact that the first Finnish orchestras were established in the late 19th century; from early on they played music like Sibelius and all the Finnish composers. (Orchestras and composers) were part of the Finnish independence movement at the time, so it became a natural part of our culture. Also, because we are here at the border of Europe, we don’t have such a long (classical) tradition; the first Finnish orchestra of music comes from the latter half of the 19th century. We weren’t burdened by tradition, so to speak, and that liberated the programming, which is a great thing. Many (living Finnish composers) are definitely well known outside Finland – Salonen and Saariaho and Sebastian Fagerlund, for example. There are really so many great new composers

What sorts of things do you think new music provides the listener? 

It might sound clichéd, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that it gives purpose, in the sense of discovery. It’s really hard to express in words, but especially with new music, I think it’s the pleasure of discovery. When you listen to a lot of music, you start to get the idea that there are sort of these black areas on the map – between styles, between pieces, these undiscovered territories – and then you hear something somebody has written, and it goes to that undiscovered territory. You hear something which is totally new, which totally opens a new view. That, in a sense, is one of the most rewarding things. And also with the older repertoire, I mean, the pleasure of music is that you can perform the same piece of music a thousand times differently and it can be fresh and new every time. This season I heard St. John Passion in Berlin, dramatized by Peter Sellars and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and it showed totally different aspects to a classic piece. I think, if you get the impression that, “this is the most important thing at this precise moment, the thing I want to focus on…” then that’s a good concert. 

Esa-Pekka Salonen during rehearsals for Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera, spring 2019. Photo: Jari Kallio

Yet you also delve into rehearsal work as well; your behind-the-scenes report on Pelléas et Mélisande at the Finnish National Opera with Salonen, for example, were fascinating. 

That was a lot of fun to do, to spend two weeks there. I’ll be covering the time when Salonen starts his first Ring Cycle at the Finnish National Opera – they’re doing Das Rheingold in August – and I have a couple of other projects in mind. For instance, Rattle is doing Idomeneo at the Staatsoper Berlin, so I might try to cover that. Obviously, it’s an important thing to review concerts, but it’s been done for ages. I know this might sound a bit pompous, but in a sense, I think that a critic (preserves) a memory – he or she documents something in the past…

… and evaluates it within various contexts for the present.

Usually yes! But I think it’s very important that the wider public understands how a performance is put together. What does it take? What is all the hard work done before the performance? This is so people can truly appreciate and understand how the thing is built. And of course, on a personal level, the best way to learn is to go to rehearsals and follow them and really try to get a hold of the thing.

From the very few I’ve attended, I find I re-discover, re-evaluate – and explore entirely new things as well. I’d love to attend more rehearsals.

With more experience you gain more levels of listening. What you hear in rehearsals – the process of creating music – is really the most rewarding part. Sometimes I have the feeling after attending a series of rehearsals I could easily skip the concert itself! I think one of highest fascinating and rewarding things was last year in January, when I attended a series of rehearsals by the LSO and Simon Rattle; they were doing the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust as soloist. Within the three days I heard that piece, they played it something like four or five times through, and worked on it and worked on it. I had known the piece for roughly twenty years or something, but hearing it that way was really amazing. 

Nono the cat. Photo: Jari Kallio

It often feels as if you provide a way into sometimes challenging pieces and composers through your updates on these processes, demystifying what is, for many, a rather daunting thing.

I hope so – that’s the point, really! When I started my writing career nineteen years ago, I worked as a full-time, jack-of-all-trades journalist for a year, and of course initially you are really excited to see your work in print, like “WOW!” But as time goes by, that feeling wears off and you really start to think about the most important thing: readers, the public. You are writing for someone, not just to please yourself. You have to think: what’s the point of doing this? What do I want to say and emphasize? If somebody reads my stuff, and if they are in some way inspired or informed, I’m really happy and pleased. 

Gautier Capuçon: “When You’re Onstage, It’s As If You Are Naked.”

Capucon Millot

French cellist Gautier Capuçon. Photo ®Jean-Baptiste-Millot.

What to do when you’re ready to speak with one of the world’s foremost cellists, and you have the world’s wonkiest phone/internet connection?

This was the conundrum I faced recently in London, when preparing to speak with Gautier Capuçon. All had been fine in my apartment up to the very minute, and then… le chaos a éclaté. Thanks to some last-minute manoeuvring and buckets of wonderful flexibility and good humor from Monsieur, we were finally able to connect. It was a pointed, passionate conversation, a bright and vivid exchange reflecting Capuçon’s extreme passion for his art — and if that sounds cliched, it’s one of those rare moments when the cliche is, in fact, true.

Described as “a true 21st century ambassador for the cello,” Capuçon, who began playing cello at the age of four, got his start in his hometown, where he was a student at the École Nationale de Musique de Chambéry. After graduating with first prizes in cello and in piano, he went on to study in Paris, and then Vienna, and before long, was a member of both the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester (Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra) and the European Community Youth Orchestra (now called the European Union Youth Orchestra), where he was led by a variety of illustrious conductors including Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez.

Along with a raft of prestigious awards and prizes, and a hefty discography (comprised of both orchestral and chamber works), he’s worked with an array of celebrated orchestras (including the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony, Staatskapelle Dresden, the Royal Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchester National de France) and conductors (including Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Paavo Järvi) and collaborators, including, at points, brother Renaud, a celebrated violinist in his own right. The pair have performed together on various occasions, including Bastille Day celebrations at the Eiffel Tower.

The cellist’s latest albumIntuition (Warner Classics), was released in early February and features short pieces by Fauré, Elgar, Massenet, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, and Astor Piazzolla, as well as work by Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima and pianist Jérôme Ducros, who performs on the album. Harrowing tale on photographing the cover art aside, the album is a deeply emotional journey through both familiar and unfamiliar terrains — you may recognize some of the pieces (the meditation from Massenet’s Thais, or Saint-Saëns’ “Le cygne” — “The Swan” — from his Le Carnaval des animeaux) , but at times you’re not quite sure what to feel experiencing them bunged beside other works, let alone how to perceive their varying subtexts when performed with such gripping (and largely unrelenting) drama and intensity. 

It’s a triumph for Capuçon on artistic, and I suspect, personal levels. This album is a deeply telling expression of an artist consistently in touch with both the earthy and the ethereal, in equal measure, and sees no tension between either. A relentless touring musician with a roster of high-profile appearances to his name, he recently performed with celebrated Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov at Carnegie Hall earlier this week, and tomorrow night (28 April) performs with French pianist Jérôme Ducros at Koerner Hall in Toronto, in a program featuring the works of Massenet, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and others. From there, it’s off to California, before jumping between appearances in Europe and North America — and that’s just in May.

In our chat here, he offers insights on the deeply synergistic relationship between soloist and audience, the importance of balancing technique and passion, and why intuition told him now was the right time for an album of dense, rewarding works. 

cello Capuçon Verbier

In Verbier for “Intuition” (Warner Classics). Photo: © Sébastien Méténier Fournet-Fayard

Where did the title for the album originate?

There are many different reasons, the first one is that intuition is something we all have, we are born with it. When you see kids — even without before knowing how to talk, they already feel everything. Of course you lose this intuition; we have an extraordinary brain and we use it to explain everything, and sometimes to connect more or less to our first experiences. Then of course, we all are lucky to say maybe we get closer to intuition again — you can call it that, or inspiration, or many different things, but basically it’s what we have inside ourselves, and for me, the way I express music on the cello. I wanted to call it “intuition” because all the (musical) choices around this album were so intuitive;  every new project should come from something you believe in, from your feeling it’s the right time to do it. I wanted to do an album of short pieces quite a few times but wanted to wait for the right moment — and this is the right moment. It’s almost like, how do you call it, a picture album?

It definitely creates a lot of mental images, especially because your style of playing is strongly romantic. How much do you think soloists’ personalities should be infused in the work they perform? And how much work does it takes to shape and mould that passion accordingly? It can’t be all passion, or all technique, or all intuition.

That’s the big difficulty. I’m fighting with myself a lot because I am so much a perfectionist — I’m always questioning myself, knowing I can always do better or at least always go further, always searching more, never satisfied in a way, so that’s why i keep being curious — but even though I’m a perfectionist, I know that quality in music doesn’t exist, because there is no one way to play something. It’s not only about technique. Technical things are there to serve the music, so you have to find the mixture, the good balance between extreme precision of course, and … leaving a huge space for that intuition, that inspiration, and that creativity. You really have to let go in another way. You have to find the right balance. And that is what is not easy to achieve.

It’s the work of a lifetime.

Absolutely, and I am trying to get closer to it, but there is no school for it — the only school is being onstage. Some days you realize maybe you’re too focused on the technical aspect, and maybe too emotional other days because you’ve experienced something personal, and this is what makes music so fascinating. Every concert is different, every situation is different, even though you’re playing the same piece. The connection with the audience is so special too — sometimes they don’t realize how much so. When you experience a concert, it’s really a team: you have the crew, the acoustics people, musicians, and of course the audience. The big thing is making this musical journey together.

Capucon Batardon

Photo: Gregory Batardon

In that musical journey you’ve said that this album reflects the story of your life and stages of emotional development — how personal do you think art has to be to be meaningful? And how does that art change within the context of audience engagement and personal experience?

I think it’s always the same thing: when you’re onstage, it’s as if you are naked. It’s the same for any artist. Onstage, the audience sees you exactly as you are; you can’t lie. Of course there’s music written by Brahms or Mozart or these other big geniuses, but we show our soul and our passion, and that’s what is magical: seeing how far can you go… that’s always the question. You have to respect the composer, and respect, of course, your own way of seeing or reading the story of the composer. It’s like reading a book to kids; the words are the author’s, but the sound is the expressions in your own voice. The sound is the DNA of an artist; it is the first thing you will hear, a perfect thing, and the most important. When you’re live, you give yourself — it’s your passion, and maybe what you also receive from the audience. In certain halls the sound is going right through, but sometimes, with the design of some acoustics it happens as an artist when you don’t feel that energy coming back from the audience. It hits you hard.

You’re touring many of the works on Intuition, including works by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff, among others  — some of those works are heavy, soul-baring pieces. What’s it like to tour this kind of material?

It’s exactly the same as what we were saying earlier: it’s all about balance. How much do you allow yourself to be really taken by the music? If you have one or two magical moments in concert, it’s a great concert. It’s that moment when you lose it. How far can you go? Can you allow yourself to be carried away and get tears in your eyes if something magical happens? Yes, it happens to me, but it doesn’t mean it will happen to you in the hall. There is no way to explain it. I love the moment where I’m really taken by the music, when there’s energy onstage and also a connection with the audience, when you have the feeling you’re really together. That’s really magical. It’s why I make music; I want to share that, experience that… it’s such a miracle! Even if you experience it just once in a concert, it is extraordinary.

“I like to build things.”

Douglas McNabney / Photo by Bo Huang

Eleven years ago, the Toronto Summer Music Festival kicked off in fine style. I remember being curious if cautious in my excitement, happy to see it unfolding, if unsure a classical music festival would catch on in Toronto; this isn’t exactly an environment that would support a Tanglewood, I reasoned, and come summertime, there was already so much to do in the city. It didn’t feel like classical music would get a foothold amidst all the festivals, street parties, and other summery cultural events. How wrong I was.

The TSMF has grown to become a very big, very popular part of Toronto’s cultural calendar. This year’s edition opens July 14th (this Thursday) and runs to August 7th, with a particular focus on the music of Great Britain. it sounds like a hoary old trope, but it’s true: the festival has something for everyone. You want fancy and big? Try the big-name concerts at Koerner Hall. You want smaller? Try Heliconian Hall. There’s also student performances, talks, and a generous helping of off-the-radar work too. And, there’s the Academy, perhaps the most vital part of the Festival, which offers a training and performance space for young musicians to work with established artists. And there’s a very casual, relaxed, entirely unpretentious approach to all of it.

That’s largely because of the work of one man, musician/academic Douglas McNabney, who’s been with the festival as Artistic Director since 2010. This year he’s stepping down, and will be replaced in the job by Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, with whom he’s worked in the past. Widely considered one of Canada’s finest chamber musicians, McNabney has performed all over the world, in every festival you can think of, and is currently Professor of Chamber Music at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

For someone so accomplished within the classical realm, you might think he’d come off snobbish, uppity — all the usual tropes associates with the culture. As you’ll hear from our chat, McNabney is none of those things; conversational, funny, and wickedly smart, he’s truly a Canadian cultural treasure who will be sorely missed by the Toronto music community. But, as he tells me, he’s a builder at heart.. so, onto a new (mystery) project, then! We also discuss the issue of diversity within the classical music world, and how the Festival, and the Festival Academy, is helping to bring about change.

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.

David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.

In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

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