Gennady Gladkov, whose works provided the soundtrack to a variety of movies, series, and animated works, died in Moscow last month at the age of 88. Among the many projects scored by the Russian composer was the 1978 film An Ordinary Miracle, directed by Mark Zakharov and based on the 1954 play by Evgeny Schwartz. A compelling allegory on the nature of creativity and its relationship to human connection, the Mosfilm movie is also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of human relating. At a time when division between people feels so sharp, its examination of connection, as much as power, offer powerful food for thought.
Gladkov’s unique melding of pop-Baroque-romantic sounds underscores the work’s meta-theatricalism, but in no way does that lessen its impact or dilute the sincerity 0f its core. The use of the Bear archetype, with its pungent Jungian and mythological ties, brought to mind obvious opera (Siegfried) and theatre (The Winter’s Tale) references but also examples from popular culture. “Wake Up Call“, an episode from the third season of American television series Northern Exposure (aired on CBS in 1992), written by John Falsey, Joshua Brand, and Diane Frolov. The episode depicts Alaska-based pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) meeting a mysterious man in the woods (Andreas Wisniewski) near the start of spring. The man is gentle, handsome, handy; he catches fish with his bare hands. Is he Prince Charming come to life? Maggie accepts his invitation to visit his abode, a decorated cave, complete with candles and dinnerware. Spring begins to blossom; Maggie’s new flame vanishes, or rather, doesn’t, or rather… because he’s a bear, probably, though he could also be imagined; the writers quite intelligently don’t answer this conundrum. Rather than framing the premise in a patronizing manner (“Poor woman, she’s so desperate for a man she fantasizes about a wild animal…”) Maggie, and by extension the audience, is left to make individual conclusions. Such anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily cutesy or whimsical either; that categorizing crumbles against the very real framework of death (Maggie’s past romantic partners have all died tragically). The bear-man could be a coping mechanism, or he could indeed be real, or he could have a connection with First Nations mythologies (also suggested) – he could be everything, or something, or nothing. Again, viewers are trusted to decide: maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe imagination is every bit as powerful as reality.
This is the idea which largely powers An Ordinary Miracle. The act of imagining things and people into a real, lived plane of existence is symbolized by a young man, simply called the Bear (Aleksandr Abdulov) who, created and controlled by his writer-creator (Oleg Yankovsky), was turned into a human, and will revert to his original state upon kissing the one person he truly loves, the Princess (Yevgeniya Simonova). The narrative includes some very pointed critiques of power and the ways in which it is wielded (no small thing in Soviet culture) while simultaneously teasing out the ways in which power, love, responsibility, expectation, and free will intersect. Within its premise is the possibility of violence toward female partners and the beast’s eventual demise. Men as “wild beasts” is hardly a new idea, and as such the responsibility of “taming” is assumed to be the responsibility of female partners, again following cliched notions of gender and heteronormative romance. Such clichés are upended, as Maggie’s “Bear” is already pretty domesticated himself (he makes her dinner in his fancy cave) and the Bear in Zakharov’s film seems too gentle and wide-eyed to ever want to inflict harm on his beloved. (Corrupt politicians are a whole other story.) The Princess certainly acts the part of caretaker, even as she dons men’s clothes to disguise herself and engineer an escape, at one point wielding a sword and even deceiving her beloved.
Miracle brought to mind other cinema works with pseudo-anthropomorphic elements, including the 1987 film Moonstruck. Lorna Castorini (Cher) is asked by her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Vincent Gardenia) to facilitate a truce with his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who cut his hand in an accident years before and has sworn off love as a result. Following their introduction in the sweaty basement of his bakery (trial by fire indeed) the one-handed “beast” sits with Loretta in his pin-tidy apartment and begrudgingly admits he enjoys the steak she made him before sharing details of his almost-marriage. “That woman didn’t leave you okay,” Lorna observes pointedly, “you can’t see what you are, and I see everything. You’re a wolf (… ) You’re scared to death of what the wolf will do if you make that mistake again.” Ronny angrily retorts that on the day of his intended marriage, Johnny “made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand; he could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head!” Later on, as the two walk home after a poignant night at the opera, he tells Loretta, “You call me a wolf, you run to the wolf in me – that don’t make you no lamb. You’re gonna marry my brother; why you wanna sell your life short?”
Writer John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, The Bride and the Wolf, had floated around for years before director Norman Jewison took it on. The idea of men as essentially beasts is, as noted earlier, not new; the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood has existed at least since the 17th century, although earlier versions exist in classical Greece and Rome, as well as East Asia, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Its various adaptations into music, TV, animation, games, a musical, and indeed pornography underline the story’s enduring appeal. There is something of the mythology at work in An Ordinary Miracle and Moonstruck, and Northern Exposure too– but something beyond it: gentle if insistent; hopeful if sad; fantastical if recognizably human. The works are less concerned with the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and more concerned with the real challenges of relating – less about ‘taming’ than acknowledging the perceived importance of conformity within socio-cultural ties. The beasts here are not obvious, and they are not clichés, or even archetypes; they are human. Bear is delicate, thoughtful, scared; Ronny is a plain-spoken, music-loving neat-freak; Maggie is insecure and nursing a broken heart; Loretta is skittish and fearful, as much a creation of her Italian upbringing as The Bear is of The Wizard. Aware of with their own feelings and controlled by perceived limitations and heavy expectations within their respective words, they remain, for a time, locked in patterns of behaviour and reaction – until granted permission (of sorts) to exercise a self-determination that leads to a risky if richer path. Each film uses the form of the fairytale to disrupt expectations around that form, and that includes the respective happy endings, which would not have occurred without discord, loss, heated exchanges and grim silences. Robbing such tales of their uncomfortable moments robs them of their emotional weight.
In exercising imagination thusly we have to ask that the exercise includes such difficulties, because life often presents them unbidden. Horror, as it turns out, comes in many forms. The Wizard says to the Bear, “Men of wisdom rise to the sky and plunge into hell out of love for the truth; what have you done out of love for a woman?” to which the Bear responds (to Gladkov’s keen scoring), “I gave her up.” “Once in your lifetime there comes a day when the impossible is possible,” The Wizard says, admonishing no one but himself. “You missed your chance. I won’t help you anymore.” Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times(Shambhala, 2002) that “(o)nly when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” An Ordinary Miracle might have easily not had any miracle at all, ordinary or otherwise, without the counterpoint of tragedy – vulnerability, loss, risk, the possibility of change itself – ever-ready and perched at the door. There may or may not a rougher nature to bears, wolves, and brides, but it’s up to us as audiences (readers, viewers; humans) to decide on the danger they present, and to engage, to show up, and share that ” wild” side ourselves – to dare to fall in the snow, to be shot, to die, to live; to look at the moon, to climb in bed with the beast. Vulnerability is an inherent part of creativity. The Wizard stands alone amidst fire at the close of An Ordinary Miracle for a reason; he knows they are explosive partners.
Standing outside of Schwartz’s narrative, Gladkov’s music is a genuine “miracle” within Miracle. Touchingly sentimental one moment, cutting and dark the next, his style is a roadmap of character, emotion, memory, magic. A light in deepest darkness, Gladkov was an outstanding talent and will be missed. As the dark cold of winter cocoons much of the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend a pot of hot brandied tea, a viewing, and quiet moments away from the chatter of technology. Spring, when it does come, may look very different; until then, we can imagine.
Negotiating the realities of a pandemic, war, and continuing loss of life, grief can become impersonal. One develops callouses to horror; quick reaction followed by indifference keeps the algorithms humming. Recent cultural examinations of grief and loss (in its variousaspects) feel more needed than ever. Korngold’s early 20th century opera Die tote Stadt occupies a very real, very warmly human place for some of us opera fans; it feels like so much more than a disembodied stage work from a century ago, but functions as an extension of the grieving self, a phantom limb that still aches on rainy days. The work will be receiving its New Zealand premier July 8th, with an in-concert performance by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) led by conductor and APO Music Director Giordano Bellincampi. For the Italian-Danish conductor, the work is an important expression of a topic too rarely explored onstage.
The timing of its world premiere seems especially profound. Die tote Stadt was first presented in December 1920, opening simultaneously at Stadttheater Hamburg and Oper Köln. Based on the 1892 symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, Korngold began composition in 1916, but had to leave off his work for a year while participating in World War One military service. The plot revolves around a man (Paul) who has spent years mourning his dead wife (Marie), and keeps a room of keepsakes related to her; he subsequently meets a woman (Marietta) who bears a strong resemblance to his wife; this inspires a series of horrendous hallucinations which eventually resolve into a quietly powerful conclusion. The opera was a huge hit, its themes resonating strongly within post-war Europe – though the Nazis would go on to ban it in 1938 on account of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. The composer had moved to Hollywood by that time, and would go on to compose numerous film scores, and the opera fell into a decades-long obscurity within the post-war cultural landscape, although there were revivals in Vienna, London, San Francisco, and Bonn. The opera’s French premiere, an in-concert performance, took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1982, with a fully-staged performance taking place in Strasbourg in 2001. More premieres, in the U.K. (1996 in-concert; 2009 staged), Latin America (1999), and Australia (2012), took place, along with a highly-acclaimed 2019 production at Bayerische Staatsoper featuring Jonas Kaufmann (as Paul) and Marlis Petersen (Marie/Marietta) and conducted by Kirill Petrenko.
In my recent exchange with conductor Giordano Bellincampi I got the real sense, in hearing him speak about his experiences in Aarhus and more recently his negotiating of pandemic realities, that he views Korngold’s opera as less a study in obsession (specifically male obsession) and more as a metaphorical process examining the delicate and often difficult stages of grief. In June 2020 Bellincampi led a concert in commemoration of the victims of covid, but clearly, notions of loss have occupied his thoughts for much longer. His ideas relating to Korngold’s work are (as you’ll read) sensitive and insightful, and reveal an approach which is just as attuned to the spheres of human feeling as to the details of scoring.
Music Director of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) since 2016, the Rome-born, Copenhagen-educated Bellincampi began his musical career as a trombonist before moving on to conducting. He has held a number of esteemed positions – Chief Conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra (2000-2006); General Music Director of the Duisburg Philharmonic (2012-2017); Chief Conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra (2013-2018 – and has been a guest conductor with the Rotterdam Philharmonic, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, I Pomeriggi Musicali (Milan), KBS Symphony Orchestra (Seoul) the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and Canada’s Victoria Symphony and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
With a particular gift for Central European, Italian and Scandinavian symphonic repertoire, one might be led to believe opera is a faraway world for the conductor – but nothing could be further from the truth. Bellincampi was General Music Director of the Danish National Opera in Aarhus for almost a decade (2005-2013), and during that time led performances of numerous Puccini and Verdi works, plus those by Strauss (Der Rosenkavalier), Wagner (Der Fliegende Holländer, Tristan und Isolde), and Mozart (Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte). Aarhus also allowed for collaborations with a range of singers (Angela Gheorghiu; Joseph Calleja; Bryn Terfel) and soloists (Sarah Chang and Grigory Sokolov). In Germany Bellincampi worked with Deutsche Oper am Rhein, leading performances of Luisa Miller, Norma, Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci, and La bohème (to name a few), and led numerous Italian works at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, including a new production of Aida in 2005 which opened the company’s new theatre.
This focus on opera has continued in New Zealand. Bellincampi has led the Auckland Philharmonia through in-concert performances of Aida (2018), Don Giovanni (2019), Fidelio (2021), and Il trovatore (2022) But Die tote Stadt is, as you may guess, a thing apart, not only for its complex orchestration and very demanding vocal lines, but for a personal connection related to Bellincampi’s Aarhus days. In August 2023 he leads the APO in a programme featuring the music of Mahler, Brahms, and the world premiere of Symphony No.7 by celebrated Kiwi composer Ross Harris, and with that in mind, we began our conversation discussing the role of New Zealand artists within APO’s programming, and how Bellincampi finds balance between old and new sounds.
Did the pandemic affect your plans and programming choices with the APO?
Honestly we were really lucky in New Zealand because what happened was they closed the country down completely for most of 2020 – so while everyone else in the world was distancing and wearing face masks and shut down, we were playing as normal and there was no covid, though of course we couldn’t fly in guest soloists or guest conductors. But we did continue!
How has the relationship with the orchestra developed since 2016?
I’ve had orchestras in Copenhagen, Dusseldorf, in the Essen area too, which are all more traditionally you could say, classical – especially in Germany, because there it was very easy: we had 95% of the hall filled with subscribers; the basic culture of the symphonic concert idea was strong. Of course New Zealand is slightly different and rightly so; it’s much more diverse and there are many cultural opportunities, all of which I find to be great. And when I started with the APO, they already had a very loyal and good audience in the Town Hall, so I think I just built on what already was there. There’s a good loyalty toward the orchestra. Continuing that is important, even as I sometimes offer something challenging once in a while, but also giving them what they like. Personally I do love Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms – all that kind of repertoire – which helps, because it’s the repertoire the audience loves also, so it makes the connection very easy.
I’m curious how you tie that to respective socio-cultural values; there are a lot of questions around the role of European classical culture in 21st century presentation, particularly in places with colonial histories. How do you find balance at the APO?
This is a really good question, and I’m glad you asked it. First of all in a way I’m very idealistic, because I do believe every person can sense if what is transmitted from the stage has a strong emotional and intellectual depth – for instance, even if people don’t know Beethoven’s music at all, they can sense the power, just as when I go to a concert or a Maori event, although you don’t really understand the specific cultural codes, you sense the meaning and the depth. The idea of really performing music with conviction and great passion is paramount.
There is a need for balance as well, and that’s why we do New Zealand-commissioned music, some of it with original folkloric instruments. But I also have to be honest and say, we are a symphony orchestra – and a symphonic orchestra plays symphonies. We will never be a Maori orchestra; that isn’t possible. I do think it’s important the government and city support Maori music, 100%, and of course we can connect with the audience for those sounds, and with that community in every way we can, but it’s important we are loyal to what our core music is. That’s a difficult balance, but I think we’re handling it quite well. Honestly, we have good audiences and they are curious and they like the big classical hits, but they also are curious for new things.
In a 2017 interview you noted that “programs that challenge us and our audience is an important part of being a Music Director” – but classical organizations seem averse to anything new and/or pushing their audiences right now.
I would say we’ve approached it differently by making a conscious effort to keep the level of ambition up, consistently. During lockdowns we could sit at home and enjoy streaming of really good concerts, sure, but what people have actually missed is the live experience, and that’s something driven by our urge to perform and share music. If we want to survive as artists we need to keep on going; if we are just defensive in our programming choices, the audience will sense that, and it won’t work on any level, especially musically.
In 2021 we were planning opera where the country was completely shut down; what I said at the time was, “Okay, which New Zealand opera singers do we have here?” And we found the best singers we had and found the titles we could play with them, like Simon O’Neill who lives in Auckland. He was available, so I said, “Okay let’s do Fidelio; we have a Florestan.” That way we kept the artistic vision up, and it was so much better than doing some opera gala or what-have-you. We are taking the same approach for the first New Zealand performance of Die tote Stadt – it is extremely risky, on a few levels, and yet!
When was Die tote Stadt planned?
The decision came probably about two years ago. We are not that far ahead in planning as many other organizations, who normally plan four to five years out. I remember being in Germany, where things were always planned extremely far ahead, which meant you could secure the best artists and you know what you’re going to do, but it’s not a very agile as a system – you can’t change things easily. But New Zealand organizations are extremely dependent on the commitment of the people who want to travel and perform with us. We’re planning a bit differently these days, and very much together with the Australian orchestras, so we can share artists as much and as often as possible.
How much does that force you to strengthen community ties with local artists?
I believe very much that every institution – it was the same when I ran the opera company in Denmark – every institution has its place in the habitat we work in. And I also think that if you are a relatively big organization you have an obligation not to kill the things underneath you. So we kind of try to find our place. We do support the best local artists, both the ones that are in New Zealand and many Kiwi artists who live in the UK, Germany, and the US, but basically we are part of the international orchestra world, and that’s where we try to stay. There’s space for other organizations, like chamber organizations, and they can have their own seasons – we shouldn’t kill them just because we are bigger. That’s my ambition really, to keep all the various organizations, there has to be space for everyone.
I’ve loved this opera for twenty-odd years. When I was running the opera company in Aarhus, I decided to program this opera. It was the first performance in Denmark ever, but I didn’t conduct it. At the time I was extremely busy with a lot of other projects and running the company, and I knew it was a difficult score and I just didn’t have the four to five months needed to be secluded with the score and to properly study it. We did the first performance in Denmark with a colleague leading it who had done it in Prague previously, and it was beautiful, although I remember my marketing department at the time saying, “We will never be able to sell tickets for something called THE DEAD CITY! People won’t like it!” – but it was an enormous success. I’ve loved it for so long, and waited for a new opportunity to program it, and now I have finally found an outlet! The big issue with this opera is the tenor role, which is so absolutely super-challenging, but we have a great Paul (Aleš Briscein) who’s done it many times before, and I’m looking forward to the experience.
What is it you love about Die tote Stadt?
Most of my opera work has been Puccini and Wagner, although I’ve also done Der Rosenkavalier and other Strauss, but I think that this extremely modern way of approaching musical theatre (in Die tote Stadt) is very close to what Puccini explores in for instance, La fanciulla del West and Turandot – his later operas are film-score-esque. Now when we talk about the music of Korngold it seems like a cliché to call his work ‘cinematic’ but there is very much, in this opera, a very strong way of communicating in that way, via the music. And of course the orchestra colours are absolutely incredible, the instrumentation is beyond… it’s just immense.
But what I also like is the drama itself: we have a lot of operas about death – in the sense of revenge and power – but we don’t have many about grief, how it is when people actually die. I think Korngold’s way of dealing with the feelings of this person, and his way of coping with the nightmare and the visions and the feelings that overwhelm him in this situation, is very strong and very modern, and it appeals to me because it’s something we’re not very good at expressing in the theatre. And I think this is quite a unique work as a result.
I had an incredible experience with it in Aarhus – there were a lot of fantastic reviews, great singers. A few months after its presentation, an older gentleman came to the opera office with a bottle of wine, knocked on the door, and introduced himself. He said, “I just wanted to tell you that I lost my wife five years ago, and after seeing that opera, I went back home and was thinking and thinking – and I decided to start living again.” And… that’s what we make opera for. He knew nothing about this work. But seeing this kind of… incredible grief, like what Paul experiences, is something I think a lot of people who have lost someone can relate to, and again, I think we don’t see it very often in the theatre. So I hope that (the APO performance) will touch someone.
Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch
What do you think might be good sonic preparation?
New Zealand audiences will know Korngold because weplay his work, including his great violin concerto, regularly; we played several other pieces of his last season. There’s nothing strange about the sound in and of itself – it’s not like doing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre or something! – people can definitely recognize the Korngold sound. But I’m curious as to how this will be received. We do have a semi-staged concept for Die tote Stadt, so there are no sets but we do have some action and surtitles.
Operas presented in-concert are becoming real staples within orchestral programming in some areas; how do these presentations differ from a full production for you creatively?
For many years (APO) have done one every year – we’ve done Don Giovanni and Il trovatore in past seasons, for instance – and though I think those are great, overall I’m very ambiguous, because basically I’m a theatre person. I love being in the pit and I do think opera ultimately belongs in a theatre; that said, there is also something incredibly beautiful about being able to perform these works in an acoustically ideal room for sound. Most theatres are super-dry, so being in a concert hall gives a completely different impression of the sounds. That’s one aesthetic thing.
The other is that some operas, like Die tote Stadt, have a lot of interludes, and so the activity within the orchestra itself is enormous. I think it’s very exciting for the audience to see all of what happens right there, not hidden in a pit. We’ll be performing, hopefully, the complete score which is almost never done nowadays. It’s going to be fully all three acts we do, with two intermissions, and there are long interludes when the orchestra plays. Nothing happens onstage at those times, and in most stagings you have to invent something as a result, but here it will be a very strong experience for the audience to simply to listen. There will be a livestream – my mother in Italy always says, ‘I have to get up so early to watch them!’ – but I really think this will be something unique for both musicians and audiences alike.
Top photo: Conductor Giordano Bellincampi leads the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in a 2022 in-concert presentation of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at Auckland Town Hall. Photo: Adrian Malloch
More than any other, Sundays have always been reading days. As a child I would spread newspapers over the few stairs which led to the bedrooms in the tiny split-level where I grew up. The family cat would often come and plonk herself down in the very middle of those papers, glaring expectantly with her saucer-eyes, and I would gently scoop her up. Poogie (that was her actual name) would settle in the crook of my arm, happily purring, before I would be allowed to continue my study – of the arts section, yes, but the business, life, politics, and sports ones too.
Reading about a variety of topics is good; being curious about a variety of things is very good. Such curiosity is something I try to continually impress upon students, with varying degrees of success. “When preparing for an interview,” I found myself saying recently, “don’t just study the person; read absolutely everything you can about the whole world around them.” I could practically hear their groans. “Yes it’s work,” I continued, “but it’s also logic. And reading – learning – is good!” In retrospect I certainly sounded very PollyAnna Prissy, but the despair over unconscious predilection to remain in tidy boxes grows daily. There’s a big reason I love radio and cable television: the element of the random, and its related exercise of curiosity, is inescapable.
So until I get the newsletter I alluded to in my previous post up and running, these updates, of things read, watched, listened to, pondered over, will (I hope) continue. Right now these pursuits feel logical, stimulating, important, pleasurable, challenging – sometimes at once.
In light of this week’s terrible news about the end of the historic BBC Singers, bass Brindley Sherratt has written a thoughtful piece (published in The Guardian) reflecting on his time with the group. His words offer a vivid portrait of the realities of young operatic careers and highlight the varied repertoire of the group throughout its history. “In one week,” he writes, “we would sing a couple of hymns for Radio 4’s Daily Service (live, early and terrifying), rehearse and record the most complex score of Luciano Berio or Ligeti and then bang out There is Nothin’ like a Dame on Friday Night Is Music Night.” His writing highlights the importance of there existing good opportunities for young singers while giving lie to the idea that such groups aren’t populist in their appeal and therefore deserve no public funding. This is a depressingly common current of thought in much of North America (sigh). The axing of the BBC Singers makes one wonder if the broadcaster is aiming at a more NA-style (i.e. highly corporate, ROI-driven) system with relation to their classical groups and output. The direct experience of singers like Sherratt should be considered here, along with good models of arts education, funding for which has been woefully dwindling for decades.
Speaking of experience, I finally watched The Big Lebowski, on March 6th – the day of its original release in 1998 and the related “Day Of The Dude” created to recognize the slouchy central character played by Jeff Bridges. Birthed at a time when the (Western) optimism of the early 90s had been turned inside out (the death of Princess Diana, the scandals of the Clinton presidency, the rampant corruption within the former Eastern bloc) and the digital world still in infancy, it’s a very surreal ride into not-unfamiliar terrain. It is tough to say whether or not filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen could have seen Zerograd, a 1988 film by Karen Shakhnazarov (which details the visit of an engineer to a small town), or Mark Zakharov’s equally-surreal To Kill A Dragon (based on the play of Evgeny Schwartz about a man who sets out to kill a dictator), which is also from 1988 (a pivotal moment in Eastern European history) – but they share many elements, from their portrayals of social collapse and untrustworthy leadership, to a pervasive atmosphere of dread, not to mention central male figures who suddenly faced with responsibilities they don’t want. Also, it’s worth noting the Day Of The Dude falls directly after the death-day of Stalin (and composer Sergei Prokofiev), March 5th. (Add to this: the Dude’s favorite cocktail.) However unintentionally, Lebowski, Zerograd, and Dragon make for a thoughtful cinematic trinity in 2023.
Keeping in the film zone, the annual Academy Awards are tonight, and for the first time they feature a best animated feature category. Among the nominees is The Sea Beast by Chris Williams, who worked on number of famed animated films (Mulan and Frozen among them) pre-Beast. Voice work was done via Zoom amidst the worst of pandemic lockdowns, with its cast (Jared Harris, Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Marianne Jean-Baptiste) scattered across the globe. Along with touching voice performances, I enjoyed the film’s the subtext, which smacks at a common (if tiresome) element within current cultural discourse, that of “wokeism”‘s supposed cultural ruinousness. The Sea Beast, superficially a scary-monsters-of-the-deep tale, works in large part because of the ways it integrates diversity into a satisfying thematic whole. Its main female character, Maisie, is a Black British orphan; the crew of the ship she stows away on features diverse and gender-fluid members; the story (by Williams and co-writer Nell Benjamin) uses various elements to convey the idea that historical narratives which elevate and glorify mindless violence are… well, bullshit. The fact this work comes from an outlet (Netflix) and a larger digital culture (streaming) that of course elevates such elements for profit gives the film a currency I’m not sure was intended, and yet.
Sea tales must have been in my algorithm because a Youtube suggestion for a documentary about the Mariana Trench popped up recently. This wonderful David Attenborough-hosted NHK work documents the efforts of various researchers to reach the very bottom of the earth; yes it’s exciting and informative at once, but it’s also, in this case, incredibly atmospheric. Watching it is akin to watching an edge-of-your-seat thriller; will they or won’t they see a sign of life? Will the equipment break? Will they see a… sea monster? An intense claustrophobia pervades many of the scenes, not only those captured (incredibly) in the trench itself but within the little floating rooms filled with anxious-looking researchers. I literally jumped off the sofa when one of the specially-built machines (made to withstand the immense oceanic pressure) hit the bottom with a loud THONK; I sighed heavily at the capture of a Mariana snail fish (yes it’s important for study, but my God, it’s so cute and graceful as it swims! Just look at it!). Another big part of my childhood, aside from reading Sunday papers, involved watching an assortment of nature documentaries, and this was a lovely reminder if also an incredible update on my nostalgia, blending cinematic sense with dramatic tension, and science folded within – in other words, one of the best things.
Another best thing is learning about forgotten (ignored, under-represented) writers. The philosophy of John Locke is well-known; that of Damaris Masham, less so. Yet the two are inextricably linked, as Regan Penaluna so ably shows in her moving Aeon essay published earlier this month. Shining a light on a late 17th century figure who explored women’s lives and experiences through two sole books, Penaluna also shares her own history with a contemporary (if unnamed) Locke-like figure who provided similar encouragement, someone “to whom I frequently looked for validation.” This is a common experience for women who enter largely male-dominated fields, and it’s refreshing to see a philosopher mixing the epic and intimate in ways Masham herself did in her writing. As well as examining ideas surrounding the nature and exercise of power and intimacy, Penaluna takes issue with Masham’s insistence on “women’s superior capacity for care”, noting how such a position “further entrenches patriarchal views”. This portion of the essay brought to mind a popularly-held view that “mothers understand the giving of life and if they ran the world we wouldn’t have so many wars” (a handy derivative of “if women ran the world we would have peace”) – there is a world of history, past and present, repudiating such (frankly narrow and rather sexist) views; viciousness – and nurturing – are not confined to any capacity for reproduction, individually or as a whole. Masham’s view, that “with the right conditions, women could make significant contributions to philosophy, on a par with men”, has real-life (if perhaps uncomfortable, for some) corollaries. Also, it must be said: the intertwined lives of Locke and Masham is the stuff of plays or movies – one or both should really exist. Were either to be realized one might anticipate more body than body-of-work depictions, a pity given the breadth of Masham’s ideas and work, only reprinted in (gasp!) 2005, and alas, no longer in print.
Masham might find more than a bit of interest in the words and music of Marko Halanevych, a member of the Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” band DakhaBrakha: “Art is not outside of politics; it is a factor within politics itself.” Halanevych distills the complex if innately linked relationships between art, history, and politics in a way that points up the connection with power and historically-received narratives; there is no hint of music being somehow magically “above” the fray of war but a key component within it. Culture is a longtime tool used in the wielding authority, particularly via the subtle, soft power methods used before the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February. “Between Two Fires: Truth, Ambition, and compromise in Putin’s Russia” (Granta, 2020) by Joshua Yaffa, is a useful reference for Halanevych’s responses, and more broadly, to DakhaBrakha’s artistic output, including their 2017 live-performance soundtrack to Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksander Dovzehnko’s at-the-time controversial 1930 film Earth. Perceived within a larger framework of cultural history, one is struck by the continuing influences of the prisposoblenets Yaffa highlights, and a Soviet nostalgia (referenced so memorably in Zerograd), and the various ways each continue to shape current creative responses to the tragedy in Ukraine.
Notions of choice and circumstance do a strange, uncomfortable dance throughout Yaffa’s book – but such dances are, in 2023, coming to be the norm, and perhaps it’s wise to simply accept the discomfort. Hopefully such dances don’t signal the end of cultural appetite, discovery, and curiosity, but some kind of new beginning.
Top photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Along with teaching commitments, I’ve been writing classical and theatre-related pieces for Canadian media outlet The Globe & Mail, and I have a cover story (about Cree composer Andrew Balfour) for the Winter 2023 edition of La Scena Musicale magazine. You can find all the links (to interviews, features, and reviews) here.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Jessica DeFino’s excellent, thoughtful essay posted at her website (The Unpublishable) which relates ephemerally to the recent chatter about Madonna’s face, but more directly, confronts issues around beauty, aging, perceptions, and the “fluffy feminism” that so colours modern discourse. De Fino forces her reader to confront their own (mostly subconscious, I suspect) ideas relating to aging and desirability; one of the things that jumps out (to me) is the extent to which social media has created a sense of performative intimacy around the experience of these things, and an encouragement of projection and identification, largely with people who hold great wealth and power. Such figures (and their respective teams) use that position of privilege to (try to) erase the effects of the aforementioned issues which women who don’t have access to that kind of wealth and power are forced to confront and negotiate.
Today I also came across a powerful piece by Olha Poliukhovych (for Prospect magazine) which examines cultural identity within a vital historical context. Is it Mykola Hohol or Nikolai Gogol? Poliukhovych’s writing has implications far beyond the work (and life) of one 19th century writer, and got me thinking about the romanticizing that (even or especially now) continues around Russian and (especially) Soviet histories, and the ways hard reality interrupts (resets, rethinks, sets afire) such pastel-tinged nostalgia. It’s something I tried to capture last year with myseries of essays relating to Ukraine, Russia, and classical culture, and it’s something to ponder throughout Margarita Liutova’s exchange with sociologist Grigory Yudin for Meduza (abridged translation by Emily Laskin). His points relating to resentment have socio-cultural tentacles, and reading it brought to mind the strong Russian backlash to the #MeToo movement, and subsequently to the persistent complaints of “cancel culture” at work in European and American cultural institutions. But is it really that (shouts of “cancellation” seem to smack of the resentment Yudin identifies), or a more contextualized and wholly overdue sensitivity and awareness, things which Poliukhovych highlights so eloquently?
Speaking of intelligent contextualizing, Opernhaus Zürich has published a very good exchange with German director Tatjana Gürbaca in which she examines the notion that opera is anti-woman – or at least, that a disproportionate number of women in opera die/suffer/are victimized/traumatized. Gürbaca notes that not all opera deaths are the same (“Und nicht jeder Frauen tod sieht gleich aus”) and uses contextualized examples. Donizetti’s Lucia, for instance, doesn’t merely die but goes insane and in her famous “mad scene” aria has more power than of the other characters combined, that “with her coloratura (Lucia) takes space and reclaims her freedom. She also becomes a perpetrator, just like Tosca.” (“mit ihren Koloraturen nimmt sie sich Raum und erobert ihre Freiheit zurück. Ausserdem wird sie zur Täterin, genau wie Tosca.”). The director notes it isn’t just the opera world that has to grapple with issues around diversity, patriarchy, and cultural appropriation, either. “Ver altetes Denken nistet nicht nur im Repertoire der Opernhäuser, sondern auch in Banken, Universitäten, Fernsehanstalten, Krankenhäusern und Supermärkten. Überall.” (“Outdated thinking nests not only in the repertoire of opera houses, but also in banks, universities, television stations, hospitals and supermarkets. Everywhere.”)
Still with readings (even if it isn’t fully finished just yet): a new interview is coming to The Opera Queen with bass-baritone Christian Immler, whom I last spoke with in 2021. That exchange focused on the work of Hans Gál (and a little bit on Johann Sebastian Bach); our most recent one revolved around that of Jorg Widmann and Detlev Glanert. The two contemporary German composers have done some very compelling writing lately, for chamber and orchestra respectively, and Immler and I explored their works within the context of a cultural landscape grappling with the realities of war, politics, and lingering health concerns. That conversation will be posting in March 2023.
Also: more The Globe & Mail work is coming. Links will be posted at my Professional Work page.
Finally: I am considering starting a monthly newsletter. The idea has been inspired by the various works and writers mentioned in this post. The newsletter would replace the unpredictable postings of the past, and would consist of either an interview or a short essay. More than ever I realize I need to follow new paths, although I am still working out details (though I am clear on some: old material = accessible; new writing, get out your wallets). Maybe? Updates forthcoming.
I learned of conductor Michail Jurowski’s passing yesterday morning, March 19th, 2022. What a blessing, to have met him and later spent time in conversation. Initially connecting at a concert (where else) we subsequently made arrangements for a proper interview, with him in Berlin, and me (then) in Bucharest. Kind, patient, generous, and full of stories, he was very keen to share his thoughts and experiences on everything from meeting Stravinsky to pondering the ways in which compromise and authenticity affect the work of being a conductor and artist. He was someone who took time with his responses, broke out big grins now and again, asked me to repeat things (“the sound on my computer is so bad!”). In other words, Jurowski was warm, human, and unpretentious.
I confess to feeling like a fraud at a few points, battling through the anxiety I could feel rising in waves now and again: who was I, after all, this eager-beaver Canadian without a music degree, asking such an accomplished person such questions? How long I had incubated that question, one of a perceived lack which had, up to news of the maestro’s passing, burnished into an acid shame that had become a near-unconscious part of every day being. I don’t fit in because I can’t! It was a shrieking demon of self-doubt.
In learning of Jurowski’s passing I was reminded of a moment when that demon was, if not silenced, content to sit in a corner, only making the occasional ruckus. Some days are better than others in facing down such a creature. Sometimes it shrieks, tells me I ought best quit writing about music. Imposter syndrome for writers is real; equally real is the rejection one feels from lacking what all the other members of the club seem to so easily possess. I am learning to negotiate such details and related feelings, to see a much broader picture with far less self-doubt there are things happening in the world. I am slowly learning to kick the demon’s tail out of the way as best I can, with a reminder (in my mother’s voice) that I’ve always been an outsider anyway; why should now be any different?
Maestro didn’t care about my perceived deficiencies, or if he did, he didn’t let on. Get the lead out, as my mother would say. The last thirty hours or so has been spent, in large part, ruminating on that 2019 conversation with the conductor, listening to his wide variety of recordings (from ones of his own father to those by Khancheli, Shostakovich, Schulhoff, and Lehar too), and then looking at a litany of news items, one more horrible than the next. That he should pass now, of all times, seems especially tragic. Moscow-born and with Ukrainian-Jewish roots, Jurowski belonging to a generation that looked to the West as a source of hope and even inspiration. It seems hard to believe, and yet. Jurowski didn’t buy the reductive Them vs. Us narrative made so popular (so widely if unconsciously carried) promulgated through Putin-era politics. His focus was European and Slavic repertoire, but he was well aware of administration stesses and funding realities and what they all meant, having held official positions in various organizations (Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden). He was highly aware of postwar perceptions of Russian-ness versus its lived reality, and painfully aware of what it was to be an outsider. He knew about audiences; as he told me in our chat, the one in Cleveland was among the most receptive he’d experienced. He didn’t carry heavily sentimentalized notions of his home country, or if he did, he didn’t let on about them publicly. (Through such a lens the final image of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia begins to make an awful sense, but more on that in a future post.) “My family has been through a lot,” he said, speaking about his father toward the end of our chat. I remember he shook his head, letting out a little sigh.
Whatever memories he did carry were firmly in the past, and not meant to be guides of the present, creatively or otherwise. It is painful to think he only enjoyed his American debut in 2019, at the age of 73, a few months before we spoke. Jurowski cared about a great many things, but what he didn’t care about where I happened to be from, what that might imply, or what that could mean in European classical music circles. (The recent cries from the continent, along the lines of, “Mon Dieu, don’t import your North American culture wars here!” seem especially absurd.) Maestro didn’t seem to care about my perceived lack, as someone born in North America: of the “right” background; of the “right” degrees; of the “right” books / movies / theatre / albums having been consumed in childhood / youth; of the “right” linguistic skills; of the “right” cultural knowledge. All of these things seem to hold a certain weight to some in the current cultural milieu, ironically, in an era that is (the marketing tells us) meant to be more inclusive. He was curious, and in today’s climate, a symbol of what Russian culture can, should be, and maybe still is: curious, yes, but also open, inclusive, generous.
Jurowski asked me again in that conversation, just as he’d done when we met: how did I know his work? Through his wondrous recording of Moses (by way of soprano Chen Reiss, who appears on the recording), released in 2018. How did I know about Kancheli? Well, Youtube makes sometimes-magical suggestions. And Pärt? Via the 1999 Meltdown Festival programmed by Nick Cave; I was living in London at the time and intrigued by Cave’s mix of rock, punk, blues, and classical. Isn’t that kind of mix the way music should be experienced? Maestro was flattered at my enthusiasm, my admitting to exploring things I didn’t grow up with, what I want to call my Canadian moxie. He was happy to exchange ideas, happy to listen to what I heard in those albums and others, keen to know the paths I’d taken thereafter. What’s more, he offered suggestions of things to listen to and watch. I left that conversation feeling not stupid but encouraged. What a refreshing, welcome feeling.
That sense didn’t occur because of some magical bridge that had been constructed over the course of our 70-minute exchange. Music is not, to my mind, a universal language; it does not always build bridges. To believe it does, or can, is to ignore the many varied landscapes and circumstances and realities of human experience – varied perceptions, inequalities, streams of thought, beliefs (and related intransigence); sadness, loss, engagements and learned behaviours. None of these things magically vanish via romantic artsy lenses, or should vanish, particularly now (universalism is a nice theory for and by the privileged) – but the thing music asks us to do, in its best form, matters: to use your imagination, and sometimes, do that in the active exercise of empathy, to make the leap across a chasm, sans bridge. Bridges are for the lazy. Get your feet dirty, and all the better in someone else’s reality. Some (composers, conductors, singers, ensembles) are more skilled at highlighting this than others. As listeners, we are often asked to imagine: other people, other worlds, the composer composing, the musicians playing, the maestro on the podium, the faces and hands of engineers and producers and audiences. Of course, one imagines one’s self sometimes too, as one or another – that’s the social media reality of navel-gazing, but more than that, it’s also a reflection of the human need to dream.
The music I love best is the sort that gently requests a look outside, away from self –and simultaneously within it, honestly enough to throw that shell away in order to glimpse another world, another time, another life, without attempting to understand. Some things don’t make sense, because they can’t. This has been something I think the last two years has constantly reminded us of; loss doesn’t ask to be understood. We cannot understand, we cannot control it; we can only mitigate its effects, minimize the transmission of grief, think, consider, act – stare at the chasm, wonder if we have the right boots to wade in. Sometimes the right sounds, at the right time, blow the fuse on the ouroboros of suffering. It isn’t the music doing that, it’s what what we’re bringing to it. Perhaps we’ll light some tiny spark, somewhere. Perhaps the chasm will fill in, however slightly and temporarily.
We also have the choice not to move at all. A quietly-yawning compassion deficit, prevalent throughout modern life and made noticeable amidst pandemic, is now writ horribly, painfully large through war. I’ve been writing about this lately and how it relates to the classical industry (including as part of an essay series; Part 1 is already up), contemplating its implications and origins a great deal – reading, watching, trying to understand various worlds, minds, lives, and ways of thinking and being, all of them largely powered on this horrendous deficit of compassion (Andrey Kurkov, Hannah Arendt, and Ingeborg Bachmann provide a few clues, along with the films of Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev). I have been avoiding and simultaneously diving straight into news, furiously hoovering, barely eating, avoiding mirrors, slowly completing student marking, booking a trip, cancelling a trip, pecking at writing and tossing around giving it up altogether; eyeballing graduate school, smirking at cat photos, and looking out the window at the pond across the street. The signs of life are there, though the colors are still muted; the geese have yet to return, but the robins are already out, bobbing along the edges of low bushes. I want to flick parked cars and noisy voices away like dirty crumbs. Perhaps a little bit of faith is required, hard and expensive it may be; perhaps a bit of patience needs be extended. Loss is a huge a hole to navigate, and it comes with consistently rough edges. There is no such thing as the “right” kind of grieving; there is only grief, and it takes as long as it must. In the meantime, one remembers, and keeps remembering.
And so I remember Michail Jurowski – his kindness, his generosity, his curiosity, and the ways in which his work touched so many. Seeing the various tributes of late, I am struck at their shared chords, the ones sounding out those qualities which are so precious, the ones which have become so scarce. He was Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, a musician, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a confidant, an inspiration, a mentor, an artist; he only made it to America once, but oh, lucky Cleveland. He affected so many, so much, and I hope his spirit lives on not only through his family but through those who worked with him, spoke with him, and those who listen to his work with renewed curiosity and enthusiasm. His mind, and his spirit, knew the notes as if burned into the heart; as he told me in 2019, he “composes” them in a sense, himself, every time he opens a score. He never used such knowledge as a weapon, but instead, as an umbrella. I imagine myself standing under its shade now, hearing the sounds of Kancheli, Rubinstein, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and those of his father too, and I imagine things blooming, slowly, however briefly, waiting out the storm.
Thank you, maestro. I wish we could have spoken one more time.
Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.
The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.
It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness, silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:
One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.
Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:
I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.
This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?
Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):
The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war.
We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!
The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:
My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.
Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”
Herewith are twolinks, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. Theselinks (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine.
I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.
(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
The bonds formed and broken over the course of the past twenty-two months has led to reevaluations around relationships, and the kinds we want, and don’t want, in our lives. Complex equations relating to time and energy, volume and content, content and quality are being weighted against sheer exhaustion; many are just so tired and often feeling so much older than our years. If age is most accurately measured in moments than time, as Lord Byron implied, there are a good few of us in the arts who have been rendered ancient between March 2020 and now. That sense of aging has played a significant role in why and how relationships have shifted and changed. Sarah Miller’s “On Not Talking To Someone Anymore” (at her website) and Katharine Smyth’s “Why Making Friends In Midlife Is So Hard” (TheAtlantic) are documents of people reaching a certain pandemic point and realizing things have irrevocably shifted, for good and bad. The corona era has made those positive/negative lines sharper, and blurrier, at once; has what’s been lost, especially in middle age – outside of the physical – may or may not be worth mourning.
That loss seems more pronounced in some spheres than in others; the high-wire act of balancing solitude and community, isolation and relating, very much powers cultural expression. Vanishing and being vanished on, the sorts of people we spend time with or move away from (literally and figuratively), the nature of our relating, alone and otherwise – these notions hold particular relevance in an age where community matters less and more, at once. Such presence is more fraught (again, literally and figuratively) than at any other point in recent memory. In her piece, Miller points out that the reasons behind silences can, at least sometimes (and if you ask), be reduced to the petty, the mundane, the cutting truth (or untruth) of seeing yourself and your behavioural choices through another’s eyes (whether you have vanished, or been vanished on), and of the painful divides when experiences, time, and nostalgia for the passing of both are mismatched to the onerous realities of the present. Smyth explores the strangeness of connecting in a strange place, inwardly and outwardly, in engaging in a practice one less considered than simply enjoyed, and the various nuances of experiential difference that adhere to the digital pursuance of such. The profound loss to which articles both allude has been magnified by the relentless ephemerality of digital platforms carrying the ironic title of “social”, outlets which encourage anything but phones-away, non-posting, simple, human relating. Social media platforms, as many know, play to pandemic times: avoid safely, connect comfortably. Observing endless streams of photos posted by high school/elementary school friends/exes/co-workers/colleagues/casual contacts, one tends to automatically engage in the algorithmically-calculated behavioural compunction toward comparison-making. It is a human urge which technology has become adept at identifying and exploiting. The urge toward comparison becomes all the more pronounced when some places have live performance, and some places don’t – where some places have full houses (and antecedent requirements for that to happen), and some places outright cancel events. Such contrasts have a sometimes acidic effect for those of us in the arts, who have lost work or are still looking, who are looking to bump up CVs and pay bills. Not being a part of regular crowds these last almost-two-years (and thus not working, for the most part) encourages an insularity whereby anything good that happens to someone else, and thusly advertised, is now suspect. Envy, most especially within the cultural realm, has been writ large; those who have are in such sharp contrast with those who have not. What should be unvarnished joys – a new job, a trip, an excursion, a concert, a conversation – are flashpoints for lack, reminders of non-abundance and ultimate separation.
So much of what gets shared now seems mundane, overwrought, calculated, or a strange combination therein. People have largely burrowed into the, to quote Jim Morrison, “woolly cotton brains” of the familiar, following or leading lessons online whilst baking bread, with dusty blinds, gritty floors, and rattling furnaces intact. Ah yes, we say, seeing such familiar elements of the quotidian to which we’ve been reduced, I recognize that, yes. The yeast/flour scarcity in early 2020 has morphed into current supply-chain issues; baking shortages led to furniture shortages, and now, apparently grocery shortages, the very place the money once spent on cultural excursions, now doth flow. The familiar has become a safe bubble to love and resent, a strange new counterpoint of the era. Rising economic uncertainty, coupled with financial realities, mean community, as a lived reality, grows more distant under the weight of such mundanities, only slightly flecked these days by random twinkling lights of diversion, originating from strings of lights, rows of candles, and more often than not, a panoply glowing screens that keep us apart, talking (typing, tapping) about the same mundane things we all watched or saw or tweeted. Opening up to 50% capacity in Bavaria is a big deal – to hell with the screens, hurrah!
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
But Mein Gott, who would go? Should I? Will I die going to see a concert or an opera? Or wanting to keep writing about such things? Will I get sick going backstage to interview, to chat, to greet, to hug and handshake? Drinks later? Oder? Was ist noch “normal”? Not being around people, or more importantly, being only around the same tightly-controlled group of people, aggravates such anxieties, leading to a reinforcement of experiential bubbles, and that is, obviously, bad for art, but it is what many are being forced to do, if not through their own choice now, than through guidelines that dictate external conditions. Thus do silence and its hurtful counterpart (vanishing) become as normal as overcrowding and cacophony, as alternating rhythms of zen and anxiety; somehow pandemic has underlined such extremes of living, and creating. I have come to understand, at a deep level, that people with families/partners/networks/busy jobs/illness are juggling heavier balls than I, a family-free freelancer. This isn’t to diminish the sharp and painful realities of solo creative life; lack of regular benefits, precipitous drops in income, whole months of work washed away, to say nothing of continuous days and weeks of isolation, makes those uniquely spiky freelancer balls difficult to keep aloft, and more than once I have dropped them all at once along with the concomitant connections meant to make them feeling lighter and less burdensome than they really are. Having needs isn’t the same as being needy, but often the two have blurred. Things which should connect – common interests, creativity, inspiration – somehow, now, do not. Conversation feels effortful, whether giving or receiving, and when it isn’t, one often feels as if there is a sense of impermanence: so if we have a grand old chat we can be silent for two months, right? We’d all cry out our grief, cry out our disappointment, to paraphrase Rumi, but we’re all too busy trying to survive, and besides who would want to make the effort to listen to such cacophony?
Trying to interact with those with whom we share such commonalities can be (often is, lately) like speaking the same language but with different dialects. Somehow Hugh MacLennan’s ‘two solitudes’ concept takes on a broader and yet more precise meaning; there is no real, shared language but for the words that indicate precise, sometimes intricate division, within the era of pandemic. Talking classical with equally-passionate others isn’t the doddle some may assume; it can rapidly devolve into ferocious spit-balling, name-calling, intransigent foot-stomping, bragging, finger-wagging, or some combination therein. It is not news that people who love the arts (and who work in the arts) hold strong opinions, but that’s where vanishing also (alas) can come in; such relating is exhausting, and everyone is, without question, already so tired, and thus such exchanges become another burdensome ball to keep aloft. The desire to engage in these tribalistic exchanges speaks to a need for (perceived) community, one which is greater than ever, one fostered by a love of culture, and more accurately, its live expression. New avenues can and are created within the heated (if hopefully well-ventilated) atmosphere of shared experience – but such communal engagement can paradoxically encourage a laziness of thought, a dampening of curiosity; there’s a fear of going against the herd indeed, but more than that, sometimes there is precisely no thought given to not fitting in with the herd, to not parrot what everyone says, to apply nuance, to apply context, to ask for clarification and to do so privately. There is an urge to simply agree and to “amplify” (that overused word of the times), an urge applauded and underlined by platforms which, as I’ve written, are ironically meant to encourage the notion of “social.”
Lately I have decided to keep most experiences (cultural and otherwise) to myself, to not share, to not opine, to not publicly offer applause or evaluation unless I feel it is truly warranted. I’d rather discuss these things privately with my small if trusted circle, not of necessarily “like minds” but of what I would call “like spirits.” There is more community found with such contacts, many of whom hail from entirely different cultures and backgrounds – we might have a shared love of x-y-z art, but that isn’t the reason we’re friends, and it isn’t the reason we might forgive (or question) each other’s occasional vanishings and silences – and frankly, we have the balls (I hope) to push back at one another as needed, if not always welcome. Kissing ass isn’t the point – sycophancy doth not a friendship make – because authenticity matters more. We like context; we like nuance. These things take time and attention, and when there’s time to be made, it is wholly taken. Chemistry can be cultivated, but it cannot be created whole.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Accepting this has had personal ramifications. I have vanished on many; I have been vanished on by a great many more. I have become fussier in my interactions, and in the nature of those chosen interactions. This runs parallel with more selective listening and viewing habits; I am no longer a journalist or critic but my critical faculties now come with decidedly sharp edges, ones I wield carefully, according to that treasured context. In person, I have learned to speak with my eyes – and not. I have mastered obfuscation; I have learned silence; I thus can vanish, in many ways. Interacting from the literal and figurative safety of a monitor has given harsh if vital lessons. Rare is the moment I will drop any mask now, literally, or figuratively. The willingness to be vulnerable is what fuels meaningful connections, but its direct exercise is far more carefully considered these days. In his book La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) first published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1957, Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to shells and their paradoxical nature within the realms of creative human development. He ties artistic life with evolution of living forms, with “these snail-shells from which emerge quadrupeds, birds and human beings. To do away with what lies between is, of course, an ideal of speed… ”. In contemporary terms, that “doing away with” might constitute a great robbery, especially if one considers the heightened speed the digital world of 2022 demands, a pace which conflates perpetuation of connection with meaning, only to encourage its simultaneously illusory nature. Superficial ties are (mostly) easy to break; contacts we haven’t met (or barely met) are easy to vanish on. The people we meet and know are not immune to this virus of speed and ease, either, nor to the subsequent (and often casually done) breaking of those ties, ones which, within the creative realm, can be so inherently valuable. Bachelard continues, and offers a clue as to how to sort the vanishing/vanished-on fraught nature of modern adult relating:
A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk – the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them – we strain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.
Cruelty, it would seem, has been a hallmark of the pandemic era – cruelty, selfishness, pronounced exclusion and snobbery, bubble-think; they are behaviours that would seem to confirm beings comfortably, lazily ensconced within respective shells. For live culture and those who live by and for it, there should be another way, but we are all human, none of us (not even or especially artists) above any other with regards to the hurt humans are well capable of inflicting, and of feeling. And that capability to feel has not left, and indeed, should not.
But let us be wolves, then, in our shells, considering how best to spend and direct our energies and attentions. Energy goes where attention goes: let us hope we have learned how to direct it wisely. I want to feel such attention can be wielded, if not with great compassion (that seems like a big ask, and not a little precious), then at least with great curiosity, that such an exercise will get us out of our shells now and again, if only to breathe the cold, clean air.
December is a glum month. The cozy, communal nature of this time, reinforced by a combination of weather, occasion, social ritual, the marking of time and season, plus the digital signifiers that Surely Everyone Is Having A Better Time Than You, means, for those lacking family and/or firm social network, a keen feeling of being forgotten, whether it is true or not.
Oh, but the very many will (and do) say, we’re all so busy. Never has a word been more overused, and December is a good reminder of the ease with which avoidance is casually wielded – for fun, for comfort, and yes, for an understandable want of calm. Sometimes people, even the most popular, actually-busy, super-hyper-social ones, simply want to pull a Garbo. I appreciate that, as someone who often, pre-pandemic, felt the desire to leave hot, crowded rooms, the feeling that I was being smothered made smile-laden socializing difficult and stressful; usually I’d continue smiling and guzzle down a gallon or two of water. Such smothering feels more pronounced now, intro/extrovert labels be damned; one falls between, around, over, and under such easy categorizations, in this, the Age Of Omicron. I want to spend time… but are you boosted? Let’s have dinner… but can we get a negative test first? I’d love for you to kiss me but… ? Having viewed casual contacts with some suspicion over the years, lately I feel a deep gratitude for any miniscule crumb of kindness; amidst pandemic, little things become big things.
I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I received close to one thousand well wishes for my birthday. While I would have loved to have thrown a big party, or travelled (or ideally done both, as I had done in years past), reality dictates otherwise. Living alone as a freelance writer and adjunct Professor means being ever-conscious of illness and its effects, financial and social, as much as physical. Thus does staying in and alone become less a choice than an exercise in logic. Choosing solitude, when one has the absolute privilege of people around them at any given moment (and never let it be forgotten that having people around – partners, family, associates, work colleagues, friendly neighbours, pets – is a very under-recognized form of privilege), is far and away a different thing from solitude as a lived, actual norm. The few in-person conversations I’ve had lately are accompanied by a counterpoint of constant anxiety, wondering and worrying if I’m talking too much, too loudly, too quickly, pontificating and pondering, desperate to be heard, and desperately happy for this one (poor) individual to really be sitting across from me. I am, I fear, turning into the Crazy Old Woman cliche, minus (so far) the cats.
“You’re different, that’s for sure,” my mother used to say, furrowing her eyebrows and judging, for the thousandth time, how it was she, one of those hyper-social, popular, widely-loved, togethery-with-all-sorts, could have possibly birthed… me. The thing she perhaps didn’t see, or more directly refused to admit until the very end, was her culpability: a single, beautiful, cultured woman in a grey, artless, firmly conformist environment could not possibly be anything other than an outsider. The most powerful lessons are those done through osmosis, and her position as a divorced (and again, gorgeous, glamorous, artsy, social) parent in a bleak Canadian suburban had an effect – how could it have been otherwise? Such an upbringing screws in a keen sense of individuality, of the pain of being an outsider, and its strange, strangely-experienced joys. If, her reasoning went, everyone was to settle for being “dowdy” (her word), well… she’d be the precise opposite, and damn them if they hated her for it (they did). To hell with the cost to her daughter. Those costs were indeed great but sometimes there were benefits. I could show up most everyone who’d mocked me/pushed me over in the playground/thrown snowballs at my head with ribbons of intricate piano playing sounds that always impressed adults, namely teachers. It was a talent which sometimes got me out of boring classes and into the cool, quiet environment of a tiny teacher’s lounge that happened to have a piano; it was always a treat to be plucked out of class and be told I could, for an hour or sometimes two, practise to my heart’s content. I can still remember my shop teacher’s face when he heard me one afternoon, the way he stopped and stared, dumbfounded.
“Has your mother talked to anyone about putting you in the gifted program?”
They said no. I already tried.
His eyes widened, but he was silent. Years later I ran into other teachers from that elementary era, and all of them, oddly enough (or not), said: “You really should have been in the gifted program, you know. I mean, we all said that.”
It was at my mother’s insistence that I took some classes with the gifted group and felt that I was being ferociously judged, fiercely rejected, in a more brutal manner than usual. You’re not one of us you plain-spoken, poorly-dressed imbecile. I remember the silent stares, the quiet eyerolls whenever I spoke (which wasn’t often; I was terrified). I wasn’t smart enough for them (or something), I wasn’t unique enough (or something), my work was (apparently) unoriginal; thus it was back to the land of the super-normals (or something) where I clearly didn’t fit in either. I could not possibly be a part of their club, or so their behaviour implied, repeatedly. I recognized that same anxiety in speaking with various academics, authors, managers and musicians over the years, and I can clearly count the times I didn’t feel I was being similarly judged. Not smart enough; not unique enough; stupid, unoriginal. Back to the land of normals; rinse, repeat.
Snippets of overheard conversations my mother had with close friends arrived with the sound of her sighs. She just didn’t know what to do with me. What I loved was considered “too” weird, “too” outside, “too” daring, even for the woman who had, once upon a time, tried so hard to fit in with a world that wasn’t going to accept her either; I think it hurt her to see me making the same sorts of efforts, and with the same sort of results. Her efforts to gain acceptance within the teensy-tiny bubble of small-town Canada were never going to be successful; so too, for her artsy, anti-social, book-and-music-loving daughter who had a predilection for doing things in her very own way, who’d been told by the “special” folk she wasn’t “special” enough, who learned how to hide everything behind masks of makeup, dresses, heels, who became adept at distraction and diversion, who contented herself to be the entertainment, to inspire desire and derision, envy and confusion, and of course, ostracization, exclusion, isolation. To clench jaw and smile at rejection. To give a middle finger with a bat of the eyelashes. It became second-nature; it still is.
There were eyerolls when I’d exit my high school history class early on Fridays; I was off to then-dingy New York. My mother had a subscription to the Met Opera; it wasn’t as fancy as everyone thought – we had seats in the gods – but no one in our little town knew or cared about such details. We were being fancy, snooty, pretentious; I was perceived as uppity, absurd, self-important.
“Have fun at the opera,” they’d sneer.
“Have fun at the mall,” I’d reply, slipping on my faux-fur coat over my ugly grey uniform.
Really, it wasn’t a question of my believing opera was somehow “elite” – I never thought it was; looking around at the Met on any given night, I’d see all sorts, dressed in all ways, and it was nice to feel part of a community where we could all come together and talk about this thing we all loved. How many excited conversations did my mother and I enjoy at intermission and post-performance, with people whose fashions mattered so much less to us than that they could speak about x singer in y performance with z conductor; that, to us, was every bit as magical as what we had just experienced. How could any of my fellow students, in my crappy little town, possibly understand? I didn’t try to fit in with them; I used their cliched, outmoded perceptions of the art form I loved in a way that protected my own passions, musical ambitions included. Thus my teenage weekends weren’t filled with parties and dancing and snogs with boys I barely knew, but with the sounds of Tebaldi and Domingo and Pavarotti, dinners at little Manhattan restaurants (long since gone), trying on a much-needed new coat at Century 21, cocktails mixed in our hotel room before and after performances (my mother didn’t believe in mystifying alcohol), and oh, the happy expressions during and after every performance – the sighs, the exchanged looks, my mother’s quiet “aaach!” at hearing, or remembering various musical moments, sung or played. I hated coming back after such excursions; Monday morning became tearful. I did not want to face them.
“But we’ll be back in two months!” my mother would shout over her cassette of Maria Callas arias. “Put on some lipstick – you’ll feel better!”
Rejection and defiance are close bedfellows, as recent history attests; the constant feeling of being outside the perceived (usually strict) circles of perceived norms and related social interaction mean that head-tilting haughtiness, protective thought it may be, screws in the nails of an innate, proud different-ness which led, in some cases, to a terrible if perhaps predictable isolation. “If you send out the signals you don’t want to fit in,” pronounces the school principal in the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink, “people will make sure you don’t.”
“That’s a beautiful theory,” retorts Andie (Molly Ringwald), maligned for her low socio-economic status as much as the unique fashion sense inspired by it. I loved that movie when it came out, not only for its style (I had wanted to be a fashion designer for years and still find myself sketching ideas for outfits to events I’ll probably never attend) but for its poor-girl-wins-for-being-weird theme. It’s one that is proven more and more within the realm of pure fantasy as a woman moves through life without hitting the predictable marks, rendering her invisible (or close to it), a position which not all of us have quite made peace with. The rise of digital media has created an algorithmically-dictated hierarchy of worth and attractiveness based on a youth that can only be conveyed through the erasure of physical indications of living – of experience, of endurance, possible wisdom. Difference comes with even sharper edges (deeper wrinkles, as it were) when one hits a certain age and is without family or close community; thus is one thrown into the bins of fetishistic sex fantasy or angry frump, with little if any room for (or interest in) nuance and all the fascinations such variance can (or should) afford. I am sure many perceive there to be something quite wrong, that my too-haughty shell has led me here, that this is “the price” of such attitudes– a simple-minded calculation to smirk at. I didn’t expect my mother to die so young; neither did she. One of the last things she said to me six years ago (when she still had the strength to do so), was, “I’m sorry” – and it wasn’t just about that morning’s snappish behaviour, I knew; it was the same apology (the same words) uttered by my father at our final meeting eight years prior, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing that manifests on the face and in the eyes. I knew precisely what she meant, and she knew I knew.
“It’s okay,” I said, choking back tears. It had to be; she was dead three weeks later.
More than once I have written to close contacts that I don’t miss my mother, and it’s true, I don’t; that feeling changes in December, the most glum month, as I wrote, a month when being an outsider hurts in a way it doesn’t the rest of the year. Geography, and the cultural differences that such geography brings, can (does, in my case) make an immense difference, but of course there are a whole new set of circles and a far more knowable kind of separateness to be navigated, which is easier and more difficult, all at once. The feeling of being different never leaves, no matter the setting; it isn’t something to be celebrated, or indeed, something that should inspire any form of reaction at all. Different-ness, and its unmissable expression in life, can only be accepted, along with all of its itinerant branches, reaching like octopus arms across various facets of living, the one facet, which shows itself every December, is painful, for it is a reminder of lack. But so too is there reason to remember abundance.
The pandemic brought the worst of childish habits to the fore and social media gave such instincts a stage for amplification; recently I looked back on old postings (since deleted) with a mix of horror and fascination. Oh, the ways we continue to seek a validation we felt was always missing since childhood; oh, the means we have at our disposal to receive and encourage it. The performative aspects of social media have led to aspects of our private lives taking on the appearance of a shadow-play, stripped of the blood-and-guts messiness of real, authentic living. But oh, that real living is what is most missed; my mother made a fuss in December, the month of my birth, the month of her father and brother’s birth, the same month of their respective deaths. How to navigate such sadness with the miracle of giving birth (something I am told she never expected to do, which she did late in life, and amidst a hideous separation) – December was a loaded month for her, and it still is for me. Lately I walk around my tiny abode wishing for little more than the aroma of her annual baking: the almond crescents, the raspberry bars, the whipped shortbreads. Her frenzied gift-giving, not just to close contacts but to everyone in quotidian life – postal people, bank tellers, hairdressers, delivery drivers– was perhaps her own way to seek (and find) validation, to fill the perceived hole of her own outsider-ness, feel her presence was somehow, despite everything, valuable.
For every individual who took time to wish me a happy birthday this past Tuesday – to write on my wall, to send a kind note, to offer good wishes: thank you. Small things are big things – now, more than ever.
Baroque music might be the classical form that comes with greatest number of clichés. It is arch, it is highly formal, it possesses a tight structure which erases any notion or expression of emotion; it is repetitive, it is fussy; once you have heard a bit, you have most certainly heard all – these are the bit of baggage I carried myself whenever I would sit down at the piano and play the works of Bach, Telemann, and Handel. I knew the notes well enough, and I didn’t care; I understood the repetitions, but they were dull. Along with grey hair and wrinkles, adulthood brings maturity (one hopes), patience (sometimes), and a deeper appreciation of form and content, and the connections therein. So arrives a greater energy put toward understanding the myriad of emotional expression wrought by artful engineering; through time da capo comes to mean something more than the snazzy hat from youth now gathering dust in the hall closet. Those olives that were once so acrid are now heavenly; those anchovies once so bossy on the palate now meltingly luscious – those repetitions once so dull are now so… real, so immediate, so achingly, recognizably human – messy, even, just the way humanity, and all manner of human relating, happens to be.
That immediacy, so inextricably and intimately linked with baroque itself, is something conductor Harry Bicket knows well, as his recording and performance history so thoroughly demonstrate. Bicket started out as a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and went on to be an organist at Westminster Abbey, from there going on to play freelance harpsichord through the 1980s with Christopher Hogwood, John Eliot Gardiner – and Trevor Pinnock, who, significantly, co-founded The English Concert in the early 1970s. In 1990 Bicket led Handel’s Ariodante at English National Opera – it was his was his first outing conducting an opera – and it was the success of that production (by David Alden) which led to an invitation to lead Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne with director Peter Sellars. From there, productions with Bayerische Staatsoper and the Metropolitan Opera soon followed, opening the doors to something of a baroque opera revival. Maestro has appeared at The Royal Opera Covent Garden, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company, to name just a few, and has also led concerts as guest conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and led masterclasses at The Juilliard School. Numerous appearances with Santa Fe Opera (starting with his first, Agripina, in 2004) led to his being named the company’s Chief Conductor in 2013, and in 2018, the Music Director. He led two of the company’s 2021 productions (The Marriage of Figaro and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and is set to lead a new production of Carmen for Santa Fe’s 2022 season.
Bicket became Artistic Director of The English Concert in 2007, and has left an indelible mark on what is considered by many to be one of the finest baroque chamber orchestras in the world. The group, who play on period instruments, have conducted lauded international tours and played numerous concerts at their London base, in an assortment of venues, including Wigmore and Cadogan Halls and the Southbank Centre. The group’s recording of Handel’s Rodelinda, released earlier this year (Linn Records), is miraculous in every respect. Its stellar cast includes piercingly beautiful performances by soprano Lucy Crowe in the title role and countertenor Iestyn Davies as Bertarido. Handel’s opera, premiered in London in 1725, is one of his most popular, if also deeply touching, with its themes that explore ideas of power, loss, grief, and the nature of fidelity. The production was originally scheduled for presentation at Carnegie Hall, but pandemic realities rendered that plan impossible; instead, a recording was done at St John’s Smith Square, London in September 2020, with musicians and singers observing formal distancing protocols. Despite, or perhaps owing to such mandated distancing, the work has a rich aural cohesion of instruments and voices, a quality one might associate more with late-nineteenth-century German opera than with baroque opera, although the distancing contributes what Fiona Maddocks noted (in her review at The Guardian) as “a sense of risk to music already, in its energy and complexity, on the edge.”
Bicket knows that edge very well, and his attention to detail is palpable; he led a hailed production of the opera at The Met in 2004 (the opera’s first-ever production of the work in the history of the company), and returned for a revival in 2012. In March 2022 he returns to the pit at The Met once more, leading Elza van den Heezer and Iestyn Davies. He told San Francisco Classical Voice‘s Michael Zwiebach in early November that his work with the chamber-sized The English Concert, which he leads from the harpsichord, forces such attention to detail:
[…] all this music, obviously, is based on text, and the music exists because of the amazing libretto and also the characteristics of the Italian language. You know, every double consonant, every diphthong, every open vowel, every closed vowel: How do we find a color in the orchestra to match that. Because if we don’t do that, we are the equivalent of a singer that goes on stage and sings “lalalalala.” So I say to the orchestra, “look this word begins with a hard ‘S’ not a soft ‘S’ so our bowstroke has to be a sibilant ‘S’.” Now we have a common language so we can do that quite easily.
Earlier this month Bicket and The English Concert went on a much-awaited mini-tour of California, presenting a series of in-concert performances of another Handel opera, Alcina, with stops in Los Angeles and Berkeley; the stellar cast included Karina Gauvin, Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth DeShong, Paula Murrihy, Alek Shrader, and Wojtek Gierlach. Bicket and I spoke between those performances, about that needed detail, travel realities amidst pandemic, the recently-announced 2022 season at Santa Fe Opera and why he loves its house, how atmosphere informs experience, and why he feels it’s vital to fight for the continuance of live performance in an atmosphere of digital streaming.
Photo: Richard Haughton
How is California treating you?
Good! We had our first performance two nights ago when we were very jet-lagged; it was an effort to get through the third act of the programme – it was 5am for us! – but we did well.
Is this your first time being on the continent since the pandemic?
Yes, we only got in, really by the skin of our teeth. Any other organization might’ve not bothered going it, but we were determined to make it work. All the orchestra had to get visas, these NIEs they’re called, National Interest Exceptions, which are notoriously hard to get; you have to go to the (American) embassy, be interviewed, each member has to be able to prove they can come, then they take your passport away and don’t tell you if you’ve got your visa or not.
Is that paperwork only because of the pandemic?
Yes, although starting next week you can get on a flight to the United States without any of this paperwork – I mean, as a musician, you always need a visa, but at the moment, because (the border) is still technically shut down and they are not allowing Europeans in, and if you do come in you have to prove your work is essential, which is quite hard to do and very labour intensive. We’d already booked flights and hotels and everything, so we’d have taken a huge hit had we not made it, but it worked.
So traveling to the U.S. was a real leap of faith then…
It was! This was the third time we’ve tried to do this in Los Angeles, it’s been three years in a row trying now, the first two years were cancelled because of both lockdowns and we thought, “We can’t not do it now!”
What’s the atmosphere been like?
We had a very joyful time the other night, but obviously ticket sales are down and they’re not going to come back immediately. I mean with Santa Fe this summer, people were crazy ordering, but that is more of an outdoor space, so perhaps people feel more comfortable going there, but it’s depressing to think if people don’t want to come back to live theatre and music overall.
Have you found this pandemic has revealed an intercontinental chasm in terms of those audiences?
I think in Europe it varies from country to country in terms of the strictness (of safety protocols and related enforcement) – L.A. is pretty hardcore on those rules; you can’t go to restaurants without proving you’re double vaccinated. We’re being tested the whole time we’re here. People wear masks walking down the street – and in L.A. the streets are the size of five blocks anywhere else, but people wandering around here, not near anyone else, are doing it with masks. You see it. It’s mandated. And so it feels very locked down, in a way. The audience has to show proof of vaccination also, but I think it’s too early to tell, to be honest, how long things may last, and how people will react once things are just open. I mean, my sense in Europe is that we’re over it. I think now that the majority of people are vaccinated, and I think everyone accepts masks are here to stay and for certain rules and distancing, to a certain extent, to keep going, but it’s more a question there of, “how do we live with it?” rather than, “when will it be over?” – because it won’t really be over.
In your line of work you must hear of the attitude to baroque music – that it is emotionless, clinical, cold – but I don’t feel that listening to your Rodelinda at all.
I understand what you’re saying about those attitudes, though!
A lot of those clichés get perpetuated – in media of various forms, and even by some musicians!
I wasn’t an early music person years back; I was a pianist. I listened to Rachmaninoff and a lot of contemporary music. It was only by chance I got into earlier stuff partly because I started playing harpsichord for groups in the 1980s and yes, I don’t know why I ever thought baroque was boring but I thought of it as rather crystalline, this sort of perfect thing, and then I started working with certain theatre directors who were staging Handel operas particularly, and that was such an eye-opener, the depth of passion and also how very human that work is. We’re so used to opera being very telescoped, like Mimi and Rudolfo meet and three minutes later they’re singing a love duet and we accept that: “That’s opera, isn’t it?” But I always sat there and thought, “Oh come now, that’s absurd, really!”
In a Handel opera, for all the convoluted plots – well, it’s not really about those plots at all. After every recit you’re hearing someone for ten minutes, exposing their inner life, their inner thoughts, in real time, with two sentences – which is actually a very human thing. I spend a lot longer than ten minutes if there’s a grief in my life of an issue, so it does require a certain amount of recalibration in terms of the way we listen to something. Great are the artists who can really invest the repetition of these words in a way that makes clear the same words but constantly gives them a new meaning – like a person holding up a prism; it’s the same prism, but your turning it to the right, then the left, the light moves through it in a slightly different way. It’s a prism, it’s the way we use words. You can say ‘I love you’ as words, but how many different ways can we say those three syllables? That’s what Handel, for me, really explores. And this apparent simplicity, and some would say rigidity, of form becomes something really powerful.
Structurally it reveals so much, but often it feels like some people can get hung up on those repetitions; my mum used to say, “The music is all the same from this point on” – but it isn’t…
.. and that applies just as much to non-opera music! I’ve had discussions with orchestra members performing Mozart and Haydn symphonies and they’ll say, “Oh God, do we have to do the repeat? It’s just the same music…!” but you look at later repertoire where the composer writes out the repeats, and they don’t have a problem with that. You put a double bar there and they go, “Oh, let’s just go on, why are we doing it at all?”
And for opera especially, there is that theatrically rich territory related to that element…
… so it’s a prism as you say, but sometimes one requiring strength training for arms and shoulders to hold it up, and especially to hold it up in a way that allows the seeing of new things. How much do you think working those arms and shoulders is necessary when coming to something new? There is a debate now about preparing for classical events beforehand – what’s your take?
In terms of telling the story, I don’t… well, I mean, sometimes I don’t think a lot of these pieces are about the actual stories, they’re stories which were well known in the 18th century, it’s not like people came to Alcina going, “Hmm, I wonder what happens?” Everyone knew the story of Orlando Furioso; what the composer was doing was taking a snapshot of the middle of that book and exploring these characters, so to me it’s all about character, I mean plot is really secondary.
In terms of doing the homework before you go, of being a good listener, and/or getting the most out of enjoying a performance, I mean, different people have different ways of approaching it; a lot of people say, “Oh we always listen, we start couple weeks before going to this or that, it’s how, so we know what we’re coming to and understand it all” – and I think that’s fine. But equally, personally, I love going to pieces that I’ve never seen or heard before and not really doing that sort of study – not because I’m lazy, but I’d rather do it afterwards, so if I see something, if it can’t interest me on a surface level, more often than not I’m intrigued and maybe I’ll go back and see it again, or not.
Santa Fe Opera with the Jemez Mountains in the background. Photo: Robert Godwin
Looking into it later depends on the circumstances in which one experiences it in the first place, though. In Santa Fe the venue is outdoors; how does that affect music-making?
In acoustical terms it’s a very good – it doesn’t feel like an open-air theatre. It’s really a remarkable pit and stage area which allows the sound to be as good as any indoor theatre. I think the audience knows what this mysterious alchemy is if they’ve been before. And I think if you go there and you sit under the stars and watch the sunset go down behind the mountains – and often directors have the back of the set open during the sunset so you look through the set so the mountains become part of the set –I think then, if you hear some profound, beautiful music in amidst all that, it’s like you just drank three bottles of wine. It’s so rich and so powerful. And I would say it’s more powerful for some than going to a city centre opera house, battling the traffic and all that. Working (in Santa Fe) is the same thing; every morning, you drive up the hill with yet another beautiful cloudless sky, and you see these incredible gardens and rehearsal spaces, which are outdoors as well. I find that people’s spirits are so open because there’s something about that landscape and way of working that makes people happy. Musicians, by and large, have difficult working conditions, I mean for some places, not all – not everybody has what’s (in Santa Fe), which is very much a place of hard work as well. It’s not summer camp; it’s an Eden where people expect you to work very hard and the level is extremely high, so it’s not a pool party.
But how much of those expectations have changed now because of the pandemic? I would imagine there’s an extra layer of pressure.
I was very bullish when we were talking about reopening there, and about how exactly we can reopen. There were many questions: can we have a chorus onstage? Will we all have to wear masks and be distanced? A lot of decisions had to be made in February-March even though we didn’t rehearse until June. The thinking was, “In June it might be better, or “In June it might be worse!” We had to make a lot of those decisions, but I was very keen to quash this thinking of, “Oh look, it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the chorus onstage, the audience is so grateful we have a season at all!” I said, “No, no, no, that’s not part of this story! We have to be good, I’ll not have people making allowances.” “Oh, but we could be creative! We could use the restrictions in a creative way!” – this attitude to just sort of cop out and say, “Let’s work with those rules, everyone will be fine with them” – well I wouldn’t be fine. I would not be fine.
But that move toward allowances, of relegating everything to digital without any demonstration of willpower with regard to live presentation’s return, has become been a frustratingly common norm for certain companies. It makes me question whether the people working there really understand the nature of what they supposedly want to produce.
Well, this magic of the live experience is not just a thing in Santa Fe, which is particularly a unique experience – you don’t get that everywhere! – because it’s not something strictly related to landscape or setting .. it’s this thing of listening to music, together, with fellow human beings who you don’t know, who maybe you don’t even say hi to, maybe you sit there on your own, but you are all there, communing, for the evening, and you then disperse to all parts of the world. And you were all just at a totally unique performance, an experience you will never be able to replicate. When you watch a stream or edited concert, you know when you press ‘play’ what it’s going to sound like, every time, guaranteed, absolutely – it will be the same. But there is no danger, there is no excitement.
The whole point of live theatre is that we, as human beings, can communicate with each other – artists, performers, musicians, and audiences do that too, just by being there, together: loving it, hating, being indifferent to it. It is really important as a society that we do this.
So if you don’t get that, well, then anything I say will not make a difference anyway, but it will for the people who do come and experience it and get something out of it, or not – not everyone does! But then, not everyone who goes to a restaurant likes the food either; what’s important is that we go and eat, and that we can still do it, together.
It’s the act itself that counts.
Now with your live tour now, you have an amazing cast…
Yes we sure do! In a way one of the nice things… well, if you can say that about pandemic, but the fact is, when things like this are done at such a high level in these conditions, a lot of people are saying, “I want to be a part of that!” So a lot of singers through this period have looked at their lives, having had almost two years off now, and said, “I want to do the work that I really want to do; I’m just not going to take every single thing and be crawling up that ladder the whole way through my career, but pick the things I’ll get some personal satisfaction from as well.”
But that satisfaction, those projects existing at all, is, in some places, rather miraculous. Alexander Neef said in our conversation last year that he thinks classical companies should be embracing risk more than ever right now, so to your point, perhaps musicians are picking and choosing, but there has to be the will to make those projects a reality in the first place.
I think we have to be more aggressive with that. At The English Concert, we have a fantastic manager who is also our principal viola – I think having a musician there in that position is a good thing, at least from my point of view. He knows the value of an orchestra of working, and of being part of an orchestra; it’s a group of people, together. And if that group is sitting at home, not working, well, you’re not really an orchestra, are you? It’s not like being a resting actor; an orchestra, by definition, plays together, and it’s really important we are working, together. For instance, this tour was meant to be bigger, we were meant to go to Bogota for ten days, then go back to the U.K. via New York; Bogota got cancelled, it was put on the red list until a few days ago. We took the choice to cancel that, and our manager said, “That’s fine, we’ll do a week of recording in New York then” and I thought, “Oh really?” because I knew this tour would be busy – but actually, I also thought, “Good, yes, let’s keep working, let’s keep doing this.” So let’s keep knocking on doors, sometimes kicking those doors down – and let’s keep doing it.
This essay started out as a love letter to fashion, within the context of the joys to be had in buying a dress amidst pandemic. Folded into this were contemplations on dressing up – for the opera, and otherwise; there were (are) quotes from Susan Sontag, Oscar Wilde, and Marlene Dietrich. I still intend to publish this essay in some form or another in future (hopefully sooner than later), but for now, it feels smarter, especially in light of the restart of live cultural events as autumn draws near, to explore my original idea, one I was encouraged to pursue by a longtime editor friend. It’s been in my mind to write this for a while, and the combination of seeing a production of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut recently, a closet full of pinned items, an overstuffed drawer of underthings I’ve come to despise, all seemed like cosmic signs urging me on.
Following my second jab in August I had an exchange with this individual which touched on issues of body image, fashion, fit, popular perceptions, and the longtime, frequently tortuous relationship I have with my body, and more specifically, my breasts. This time last year I arranged an appointment with a doctor to see about a reduction, a procedure I had long pondered. To relieve the near-constant shoulder and neck pain; to have the stacks of ribs, distorted by years of intense weight, corrected; to have things finally, at long last… fit… it seems, even now, like a distant and incredible dream. To have a breast reduction would (could) mean I might at last look like the actually-size-2 woman I am, that I might actually for the first time in my life, be in proper proportion without the aid of acres of close-fitting fabrics. I wouldn’t have to worry about stares, smirks, or judgement; I could wear what I like – a low-cut gown at the opera; a fitted turtleneck in the classroom; my strapless sundress in the supermarket. Ultimately I decided against the operation – for now. The thought of removing chunks of my own flesh, of living with permanent scarring on a part of my body to which I have an already-troubled relationship, of navigating postoperative pain, of courting judgement (and possibly real horror) from would-be lovers at the sight of my scarred body… such concerns created a mountain of anxiety I am not, even now, able to scale. So I contend with thick straps, well-padded cups, tight, strong bands; a good bra really is a piece of marvelous engineering, and a well-fitting one is something I will pay (have paid) good money for. Finding one that fits off the rack is (like any item of clothing) a rarity; I have a litany of bras sitting in a drawer, all of them impaled with pins in a desperate attempt to fit a much-shrunken frame (I have lost a significant amount of weight over the past eight months or so). It’s good enough for now, but oh, for the freedom of awakening without pain, of moving around without aches, of fitting things perfectly, of never having another button pull or another visible strap or of having to buy things two sizes too large. Oh, to never have to feel I am inviting lecherous stares, acrid judgment, social ostracizing, or risking professional advancement, credibility, acceptance, approval.
It’s an odd thing, to write a piece which might come off as a complaint, when one admittedly receives attention, and more specifically certain types of attention, over the very thing (things) one purports to dislike. I do get a jolt of joy from the reactions I elicit through my highly-curated posts; it bolsters the shaky confidence of an isolated woman whilst reassuring some form of public worth, however superficial. That satisfaction is finite (perhaps intentionally so), as I wonder why in hell I can’t seem to get over 100 likes on anything, all the while knowing the reason: algorithms don’t favour aging female bodies, or faces, unless scantily-clad and heavily-filtered – since wrinkles, cellulite, stretch marks (more precisely, real, lived experience) are unwanted within fantasy landscape celebrated and promoted throughout much social media, Instagram in particular. A thusly-filtered photo of me in a bikini, bum expectantly up, breasts prominently displayed, head orgasmically thrown back, ultra-posed, ultra-horny, ultra-algorithm-pleasing, would unquestionably hit that magical 100 (200? 400? 700?)-likes mark. Indeed, such measurement (of worth / goodness / hotness / popularity / desirability, and much else, maybe) is an unfortunate tool in the freelance world, one worth knowing how to wield, if requiring very careful handling. Post the wrong (so-called) things, and one is ignored, along with one’s work and oeuvre; post the right (so-called) things, and one’s work is read (my own analytics bear this out) but one courts judgement in the process, along with distinct and narrow forms of categorization. One risks judgment and labels as well: dumb, shallow, vain, needy, an attention-whore, wannabe, poser, super-bitch. Bimbo. Dilettante. Sycophant.
All of these labels (and worse) run through my head whenever I post anything imagistic; I often wish there was a “reduce giant boobs” filter that might lessen such anxieties, but then I wonder if it’s really me who has the problem(s). My mother certainly didn’t think so. Years ago she and I attended the opening night of an opera season; it turned out to be her final one. A night of dressing up was a blessed bit of relief between chemotherapy sessions and hospital runs, and she looked so pleased and proud as watched me descend the stairs of our house wearing a black, strapless Yves Saint Laurent vintage piece (found in a consignment shop for a song), a dress that fit perfectly. I knew there would be hate-filled stares entering the members’ lounge – those always greeted me, they were predictable, if very wearing; I was good at pretending such nastiness didn’t bother me; I still am. “I love how you scoop your hair up and put your shoulders back and stick your bust out and don’t care what anyone thinks,” she said later that night. I didn’t have to look at the faces in the lounge to actually feel their all-too-clear judgments; I threw my head back indeed, jutted chin out, batted eyelashes, gave a tremendous smile. It’s a skill I have come to perfect. To quote Marquise de Merteuil (from Christopher Hampton’s Dangerous Liaisons; play 1985, film 1988), “I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork onto the back of my hand.” Add to that making a tremendous middle finger.
There exists in my closet a lovely line of beautiful gowns, one a sumptuous, sweeping, super-low-backed, very fitted number, ordered in a fit of restlessness amidst the worst of the pandemic last year. I slipped it on at New Year’s in an attempt to summon some needed optimism. “If I ever have the nerve to wear this publicly,” I thought, “at least I’ll know what’s required.” (Two rolls of tape, carefully applied, and even more carefully removed; I will use more if and when that time ever comes.) But dare I court the inevitable judgment if I wear it? Dare I risk dumping whatever little professional credibility I might have (and have fought for), all for the sake of my innate love of fashion, and an even more innate need to feel the joy of wearing something that actually fits, and amidst (sigh, post) pandemic times, when dressing up is a pleasure that has been so long denied? I think, to a certain extent, many women, especially us large-breasted ones, are raised to ignore, to carry on, to try to keep head held high (when our necks and shoulders aren’t screaming in agony), and to fight against the high tides of judgement while riding the big, bouncy waves of attention. The digital era has brought a keen awareness of the pressures of playing to desire, of its inherently performative nature, of the idea of “sexy” being somehow divorced from presence (in the symbolic sense), of the lines between fantasy and reality blurring, of the perceived “power” in playing to a male-gaze-y algorithm that dictates what is seen, when, how, by whom. Susan Sontag wrote, in a 1999 essay “A photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” (published in Women (Random House, 1999), a book of photography by Annie Leibovitz) thusly:
To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one’s best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care “enough.” Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.
As an aging albeit large-chested woman with a chosen online presence – one I require and have cultivated as a freelance writer and educator within a particularly narrow cultural field – I am simultaneously aware of both the judgement and the attention, the inherent risk of professional punishment, and virtue-patrolling, to say nothing of professional discreditation and social ostracization, all of which run concomitant with potential benefits and possible advancement. (Whether that advancement manifests in actual dollars and opportunities remains to be seen, and various classical and academic ingenues might tell you something similar, however quietly.) Damned if you do; damned if you don’t; such has always been the case for women, and never more so than now, in the pandemic-ridden 21st century, whence a screen is professional, social, political, cultural, creative, and personal, all in one. My mother’s pre-boomer, always-wear-lipstick generation didn’t have to face this, but then, if she had, I’d suspect she’d be very popular.
My mother had a ballet dancer’s body: a long torso, long legs, just-right shoulders, a long neck, and perfectly (to me) small hips/bum/breasts. She had my ideal body shape, one I still covet and dream of having. Anything else, to my mind and literal body), is chubby, gross, vulgar. She was a “model” in the definition that still largely fuels the definition of Very Beautiful today. “You didn’t get those from me,” she’d say, staring at my chest. Shorter, fleshier women have a history of being placed into the tiresome bin labelled “curvaceous” (or the like), one that is wholly fantasy-driven and easy to discredit; she always used the word “voluptuous” as a compliment, but it never felt like one. I could never (and indeed cannot) find things that properly fit. While I’d watch my thin, small-breasted school friends go off and meet decent men, I always felt I’d been left with horny ones wanting naught but masturbatory entertainment. The work world was just as bad, if not worse. An early episode of the American television sitcom Three’s Company (1977-1984) features a large-breasted if wholly unqualified woman promoted over the more small-breasted Janet by a bug-eyed man in a cheap suit who speaks in a lusty rasp. The woman later visits Janet at her apartment, resigning in a fit of shame and exasperation, and explains the realities of navigating a world in which men only see breasts (and their related sexual desires) without seeing the attached whole person. “They say things like, “why don’t you stand over me and keep the rain off, baby!”” she says, holding back tears.
These days of course, that woman would have a huge Instagram following, post pictures of herself in tiny bikinis, call herself “empowered” and many would simply seal-clap along. I’m not so sure; to borrow from Charles Laughton’s character in the 1957 film Witness For The Prosecution, that line of thinking feels “too neat, too tidy, and altogether too symmetrical…” (Note: most breasts are not, in fact, symmetrical, let alone sitting at attention when one lies on one’s back; they tend to sloppily nod off to armpits, gravity being the great downer in all senses.) Swimwear always presents a challenge; modest is realistic if boring, but finding something that fits is impossible. I don’t own a bikini, and if I did, I wouldn’t wear it publicly, let alone post pictures of myself in it. “Be proud!” shout the masses, “do your thing!” The problem is, all the male things go up whenever I reveal too much tit in public, and though i can’t control the reactions, I hate that I inspired them at all, and find myself wishing, at such moments, after a galling incident or smutty, unwished-for attention, that I had those perfect, tiny, pert, ballet-dancer breasts. The scars, the pain, the thought of going into a hospital at all right now… tell me to sit, round-shouldered, and do another round of dreary sit-ups. Apparently strong abs are helpful, but they’ve yet to relieve an ounce of the pain.
Following my second vaccination, I came home and changed into a low-backed bodysuit, one I would never wear in public – too revealing, too honest, too real. (I love it.) ‘Real breasts versus fantasy ones’ is a distinction that needs to be made (one might say this about female bodies overall) – I consciously thought this, putting that bodysuit on – but the need to recognize that distinction points more directly at a need to acknowledge real people versus fantasy figures. A 2013 production of Manon Lescaut from Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Brussels), directed by Mariusz Treliński and featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, caught my attention for just this reason. How refreshing, to see the soprano floppy-haired and braless and perspiration-soaked in the last act; yes, it’s the character, and yes it’s the opera, and of course, it’s part of the setting, but this was not the highly-stylized, romantic, dewy-doe-eyed suffering so often seen on opera stages. The transformation felt real, raw, and very visceral; it dared to explode the sexy-babe mythos into a thousand pieces, and dared its audience to see what was left. I wondered about two things, concurrently, as it concluded: Westbroek’s corseting (or apparent lack thereof, which is brave, and shouldn’t be, and yet) and, what would my opera-loving, glamour-obsessed mother make of it. In her younger years she so much resembled the younger Manon, poised and smiling across numerous images in photo albums spanning many decades. One shot features her wearing a green polka-dot bikini; she used to like to tell people how much she weighed when it was taken, some ridiculously low number, hiding the actual truth of her self-starving then, her utter self-loathing in fact, dating someone who eventually threw her over, having treated her like a diversion, a bit of fantasy, a sex doll. She wasn’t “curvy”; she didn’t have large breasts. I remember meeting him years ago, before she passed, wondering at her being so reserved around him then; I don’t wonder now.
And so I look at my closet-fulls of dresses, some of them my mother’s, many of them, like my underthings, full of pins and awaiting the skilled touch of my ever-patient tailor, and I wonder if I’ll ever wear any of them again. Do I want to? Dare I? Can I be floppy-haired, braless Manon and still have any worth? Still ignite any true desire? Does it matter? Can I be busty, non-music-degree-holding Catherine and still be perceived with any seriousness? Should I feel okay with being reduced? Am I not already? Oh, how I long for a good fit. A trip to the moon, even for a few hours, would not be so bad either; my shoulders, like much else, could use the rest. Maybe this is the season to fly, to not feel small, to not shrink, but to jut chin out, pull shoulders back, and at last, to truly smile, even, as the times dictate, it will be behind a mask or two.