Tag: direction

Alexander Neef, OnP, Opera de Paris, General Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that history feel heavy at points?

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

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

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

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

My mother did that…

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

“It’s not going to be a list of 25”

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

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

Top photo: Elena Bauer / OnP

“There Are A Lot Of Wagners”: A Chat With Authors Mark Berry And Nicholas Vazsonyi

As the first anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown draws nearer, thoughts turn to sounds, people, and performance, to that which has yet to be seen, yet to be saved to memory, yet to be savoured (one hopes) and shared with others. It’s interesting if somewhat frustrating to also consider, in light of varying restrictions across countries and continents, what stagings are, in fact, happening, which ones might still happen, when, where, and to consider how they might be presented, in both theatrical and sonic ways. What is “familiar” anymore? In light of the huge amount of streaming happening at the moment, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how reception and consumption of the live experience, within both virtual and live realms, will have changed as theatres slowly reopen and we are allowed to be together once more. How might one’s relationship with certain pieces of music, and their related performance(s), have transformed through these past months (/ year)? How much have perceptions of music both familiar and not changed? What elements of scoring, vocal writing, instrumentation, interpretation will come to the fore, and which ones might have faded? Will our critical faculties have sharpened, or will they be silenced in a tidal wave of gratitude? Will the wave be quite so big if the sound is slightly (or noticeably) smaller, rearranged, or (that hackneyed word) reimagined? A written feature on reduction and rearrangement which I wrote recently for a magazine broadened the scope of such meditations and opened doors to deeper ones (i.e. the ways in which we receive and experience sound in various spaces; expectations and planned versus planned ecstasies; the way cultural experience is irrevocably altered amidst the breathing, spluttering reality of presences). The possibilities for exploration are tremendous, and very timely – so, more on that in future posts, hopefully.

Suffice to say few creative and compositional outputs better capture such considerations than those of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose dense orchestrations and innovations, combined with a philosophical-musical ethos and notion of Gestamtkunstwerk force such questions. Such are the contradictions of Wagner’s works, life, and character, that these philosophical meanderings tend to produce more questions than they answer, and tend to awkwardly if accurately mirror back the contradictory nature of our own times. There is, unsurprisingly, a cosmos of literature on Wagner, and everything relating to him. The work and the person who wrote them can be fiendishly, ferociously inseparable; artist, man, and music have been analyzed, explored, discussed, debated, framed, reframed, deconstructed, recontextualized, and reconsidered. The contradictions and controversies of his character, combined with the dense layers within his creative output, which mingle with the philosophies of Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Bakunin, Nietzsche, and Buddhism, have haunted generations of musicians and scholars. Alex Ross, music writer at The New Yorker, wrote in his latest book, Wagnerism (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2020), that Wagner’s work was, for the Nazi regime, “the chief cultural ornament of the most destructive political regime in history” – an inarguable fact. Yet Giuseppe Verdi, born the same year as Wagner, said of Tristan und Isolde (composed 1857-59; premiered 1865) said he stood in “wonder and terror” before it, that he could never quite grasp the fact that it had been created by a mere human being – this from a composer who was not a fan of either the man or his music – and yet… and yet. Within such contradictions sits an ever-shifting portrait, one that will never be finished, never be suitable for framing, and never hang quite perfectly. Those who love the work of Wagner love it, and the same can be said of those who don’t; their vehemence is equally strong. It’s difficult to be neutral, just as it is difficult to be unconflicted; how can the man who wrote such beautiful things (like Tristan) have also written such hateful things (the hideous essay Das Judenthum in der Musik, or Jewishness in Music, published in 1850)? There is, perhaps, no real solution, and we are left with ever-shifting thoughts and ideas on the music, which shifts and alters, like waves of the Rhine, according to experience, education, exposure, and individual explorations within and outside of culture.

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or The Ring), written between 1848 and 1874, is, specifically, a cycle of four operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung) but more broadly of  course, is one of the most famous pieces in the opera world, requiring large forces to explore epic and intimate (if ever-applicable) themes of greed, power, love, betrayal, family, forgiveness, transformation, and much, more more. Record producer John Culshaw, who was behind the very first full recording of The Ring (in 1958, for Decca) wrote in Reflections on Wagner’s Ring (Secker and Warburg, 1976) that its enduring popularity and central position within the opera world (to say nothing of the position it holds within the hearts of many opera fans) is that “it is about each one of us, and all of us. It is about humanity, and that is why it is important.” That line comes off like a bit of ad copy in our cynical age, and yet the sheer volume of material inspired by the work, the energy expended by countless artists, scholars, educators, thinkers, fans, detractors, hints at the great river of human experience with which Wagner himself so vividly paints in sounds, one which still carries so very many. Numerous planned versions of the famed tetralogy set for 2021 had to be shelved, among them an in-concert version (two complete cycles) by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, featuring a stellar cast (which would have included Matthew Rose and Brindley Sherratt), and a highly anticipated production by director Valentin Schwartz for the Bayreuth Festival, which, this summer, is planning a scaled-back version of its usual giant self, like so many other festivals and institutions. In the meantime, there are streams, and there are words, and though they are not, in any way, substitutes, they do provide a modicum of relief to the thirsty Wagnerians keen to drink from the sonic swell. Various facets of The Ring (musical, theatrical, theoretical, mythological, mystical, etc) are explored through thousands of different works and scholarship. Musicologist Carl Dahlhaus made a very prescient observation in his famous 1971 work, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas (Cambridge, trans. Mary Whittall):

Over and all around the simplicity of the myth, and the vigour and sometimes violence of the stage action, there lies a musical commentary, a texture woven from many motives, the most outstanding characteristic of which is precisely that complexity of thought and reflection […] The listener needs to be able to distinguish the musical motives, the ’emotional signposts along the drama’s way’, as Wagner called them, to recognize them when they recur, and to keep track of them as their relationships and functions change, if the music is not to roll on as the ‘torrent’ that the classicists among its denigrators have called it. It is only after reflection, and the suspension of reflection, that an emotion arises together with a power of musical observation that is more than aural gawping.

That “aural gawping” is such a deliciously tempting activity to engage in amidst the drudgery of lockdown; what’s wrong with a gawp now and again, really? Nothing I suppose, but if that’s all your after, you might be missing a thing or two, and that’s a pity; one’s experience of something as wide-reaching as The Ring might be most rewarding when it is just that – wide-reaching – and shot through with the kind of exploratory spirit with which the composer himself applied to its creation.

book, Wagner, opera, The Ring, Cambridge, Mark Berry, Nicholas VazsonyiThe Cambridge Companion to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (Cambridge University Press, 2020), released late last year, is an insightful, highly readable collection of essays edited by Mark Berry and Nicholas Vazsonyi, two distinguished Wagner scholars and dedicated Wagner fans, which explores the tetralogy from a variety of illuminating and diverse angles. With related printed music sections, the book is divided into smart sections (Myth, Aesthetics, Interpretations, Impact) which offer solid musicological analyses which integrate composer anecdotes and quotes, cultural reference points, and contextual history. Its editors also provide thoughtful explorations and an array of viewpoints. Co-editor Mark Berry is Reader in Music History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has authored a number of books on music, including After Wagner: Histories of Modernist Music Drama from “Parsifal” to Nono (Boydell Press, 2014) and a biography of Arnold Schoenberg (Reaktion, 2019); he is the Recipient of two music prizes (the Prince Consort and the Seeley Medal, for his work on Wagner) and keeps an excellent, music-focused website. Nicholas is Dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, and Professor of German at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has authored works on Goethe and Wagner, and acted as editor of Wagner’s Meistersinger (University of Rochester Press, 2003) and The Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (Cambridge University Press, 2013). On a recent wintery day, with Mark in the United Kingdom and Nicholas in South Carolina, we discussed both the book (and its creation), as well as just a few of the great many issues in and around Wagner, and just how and where his music and the challenges of our Covid era might intersect. We began by discussing how work is used as a kind of “escape” route from family, which led to ideaas on escapism particularly applied to the works of Richard Wagner.

The notion of escapism keeps popping up in various recent exchanges; people are desperate for it in some form. That notion is especially active in online opera groups, with some input revealing some clear continental divisions of the “role” opera should have right now. In your book, Anthony Arblaster writes in his essay (“The Ring as a Political and Philosophical Drama”) that Wagner “never intended that his music dramas should be mere entertainment”– how much can the idea of escapism be applied, or should it?

Mark: I suppose, quite apart from any normative end to it, I agree with Wagner on that – it’s a peculiar choice of what you want to sustain. People can escape into anything if they so wish, but it would seem there would be better choices! I can’t quite see what one would be escaping from, some ghastly Lord Of The Rings style perhaps. I know lots of people like it but I can’t stand it, it’s something that doesn’t seem to have any real association with anything in and of itself. Perhaps they like watching people wear strange helmets and such, but it really doesn’t seem to be what Wagner is about. And I’m sure there is some element of geographical distinction in that respect. I don’t think it’s so crude as saying, “One side of the Atlantic thinks this; the other side thinks that” and presumably this country (the UK) is floating in the middle, but I guess there are differences in theatrical understanding, certainly with German theatre, in not just musical theatre but in an operatic sense. More generally, I’m not convinced that I’m capable of going to the theatre and just relaxing, and doing it in a noncritical way. Obviously I’m not going to the theatre at all at the moment…

Nicholas: I think it’s great how Mark and I work so well together and yet we see the world differently, yet it all works somehow. What I would say is, and this is not disagreeing with him at all, but to approach it differently, is to say there are so many layers to Wagner. It’s layer on layer on layer, and one of the things – it’s Wagner’s fault, he did have guys there in helmets and breastplates – is that on a surface level you really can just approach Wagner that way, if that’s what you are looking for. One of the classical examples of Lohengrin is set in an historical period; generations of Wagner scholars have nothing better to talk about than the MIddle Ages and Christianity and that, and Wagner clearly says, Lohengrin is about the modern artist, it’s about the journey for the artist! Peel away a couple layers of the opera, and that’s what he’s talking about: the displacement of the artists in modern society. It doesn’t look like that at all if you read the text as-is, but it also requires a certain kind of approach and a certain kind of work, to not just accept that surface layer. I think that’s what stage directors have been doing for twenty, thirty years now, not accept that level, and try to present to us different ways of approaching the incredible depth of these stage dramas he has created.

Barry MIllington’s essay  (“Notable Productions”) is really helpful in this respect, having been raised to the Otto Schenk vision of Wagner but not being a great fan of it. Learning about different presentations highlights the layers you mention, Nicholas, but also points up the heightened reality of Wagner’s writing, which seems spiritual in nature. It’s one that feels quite relevant to now…

Nicholas: The Ring is always for now…

… but most especially right now, at this time in history…

Nicholas: Well, what I would say – I don’t want to completely get rid of Otto Schenk, though Mark will now disown the friendship! – but I came to opera when I was ten, eleven, twelve years of age, I didn’t see a staging until I was twelve, and I’m not sure I would’ve been ready to see Chereau’s staging then, as a twelve-year-old. One of the problems in the opera world is that the audiences are getting older and older, and certainly I don’t want Schenk now but actually, it’s the Schenkian approach to staging I think I probably needed in my early teens in order to have that gateway into the works, and it kept me coming back for more. I needed and wanted more and when I was ready I got it. I remember the shock of seeing The Magic Flute with Ruth Berghaus’s staging (Oper Frankfurt, 1980), and it was not all the Flute I imagined! I was ready for it – by that time I was in my late teens and I’d spent almost ten years with opera thinking about it – so I was ready for that, it was unbelievable to me, the turning-on-its-head of the Flute I thought I knew, and that wasn’t the most extreme I’ve seen subsequently. It’s another opera that has all these layers which, if you dig, are there for unpacking – but there’s that escapist layer that is perfectly okay for many, many people.

Mark: I suppose one thing I’d say, and I think that’s all fair enough as I do with whatever Nicholas says, is… I’m not entirely convinced that Wagner is really for children in the first place. Not that I wish to ban them from going, but maybe there are some things in The Ring, or Lohengrin, or… I mean, I can’t see much for children in Tannhäuser either, but then again, I don’t know, maybe they like it! And there’s nothing wrong all that but I do think there’s a danger in that something like Schenk or whatever, might be presented as somehow without interpretation, as though it is somehow actually a sort of literal working to a recipe that Wagner presents, when it is actually a transformation of something into something else, a Disneyfication, and that is *not* neutral.

It’s not the “neutral” or somehow “pure Wagner” presentation some may perceive it to be.

Mark: One might say, “Well lots of children like to watch Disney, therefore it’s a good idea” – I don’t know, but I’m not convinced. I came to these things through listening to them, following the libretto in translation, either with the CD or with a score, and I knew the things I heard and read produced images in my head which were pretty much literally according to what I saw in the stage directions. I was a teenager then, and I suppose different people come in different ways; people will come from a theatre background who will be perfectly conversant with contemporary theatre, and may have a tendency to actually see the absurdity of a “traditional” production or whatever one wants to call it. If opera is just people sitting around in helmets shouting at each other, it may or may not be for people who are coming at it from elsewhere.

… and that notion of “elsewhere” matters! Every year I play my students bits of classical music; one of those pieces is Peter And The Wolf. In the seven years I’ve been teaching this course, three students had heard of it – that’s three out of hundreds. Many like them will be “coming from elsewhere” to The Ring and it’s nice to read your acknowledgements about feeling daunted  as a newcomer, but to also “try and see it performed. Even bad productions and performances will contribute to your understanding of the work.”

Mark: That (live) experience is important, but of course it’s quite at odds with how I came to it! I guess it’s only how I would do it now. I’ve changed partly because I’ve had the chance now, which I didn’t have when I was younger, to go to a lot of theatre and concerts. I started out at home listening to something.

Nicholas: That’s also how I came to opera, at home, listening and following the score, but I speak for both Mark and myself when I say that that is not normal…

Mark: No, it isn’t!

Nicholas: the other thing is, access –  we say, “go see if you can” but it’s easier said than done. Unless you are sitting in a major world capital or living in Bayreuth or nearby, it’s a challenge, to get to The Ring in any case, and opera in general is not cheap; unless you’re in a metropolis there’s very little opera to see.

Mark: … but in Germany, in general, to be fair, you don’t have to be (to see live presentations).

The essays in your book are organized in a very good way, for both newcomers and experienced fans; how did you decide on the chapters and why?

Mark: Well really, you don’t want to know how a sausage is made!

Yes I do!

Nicholas: It felt like a very organic process, what we were doing; we’d been relegated to Zoom and Skype because we were only rarely in the same place at same time, but we developed it. I would be hard-pressed to recall whose idea was what.

Mark: I think probably to be fair, Nicholas actually came up with more of the initial suggestions than I did, and we discussed them, but I think Nicholas had some conception of an overall plan which we then worked on. There were things we might’ve loved to include, things which, in the end, didn’t quite work out for whatever reason; there’s always going to be that element, particularly in something such as this. Frankly we could’ve made twice the length if we’ve been able to, it wouldn’t have been difficult to come up with twice as many chapters – but looking back it seems quite an organic thing.

Nicholas: The other issue of course is that although we have a concept of how each chapter would be, that’s not necessarily what was delivered. That was a tough thing for us: do we just let the authors have their way, so to speak, even if it’s taking the book in a slightly different direction? Or do we want to exercise our editorial power to interfere with that process? Or do we want to mould the article for the chapter? We had examples of all of these, and the authors responded in kind to our interventions. Not all of it was clean and fun – some of it was a little bit messy – but I’m very glad you like the results.

It’s incredibly illuminating and I really appreciate, as someone whose music studies are ever-evolving, the clarity and variety of both voices and subject matter here.

Nicholas: It was very important, in the process of development, that certain things be covered one way or the other, but first of all to have things written in such a way that it would not be excluding a possible audience. I think that’s a problem with a lot of academic writing, people can be exclusionary, and very elitist, in the worst possible way.

Yes, some music writing I’ve come across has felt highly exclusionary! I don’t find the writing of Alex Ross to be so, but it can be dense; Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) was released at roughly the same time as your book, and I found it challenging to engage with certain sections which felt steeped in the specificity of American culture and American cultural figures – that’s not a criticism so much as a reflection of my ignorance, probably.

Nicholas: I think Alex Ross had a very different vision from our book, and it’s encyclopaedic in its own way; it has all the strengths and weaknesses of an encyclopaedia. It is a great book, though.

It is! I found it tough-going though educational.

Mark: Exactly – I learned a great deal from it too, not only in connection to Wagner, but to figures I didn’t know of at all. Alex is doing a different thing and he writes from a different standpoint, which for me and Nicholas, as we were saying, well… everybody is coming at this from different ways. The Rest Is Noise (Picador, 2008), for instance, is a history of 20th-century music which I think is written from very much an American standpoint, and this side of the Atlantic one notices that more than if one were on the other side, yes. But I’m sure the same could be said of what I’m doing or anybody else, none of us is without a past, none of us is Parsifal or some hero coming out of nowhere.

That whole sense of writing from nowhere doesn’t really exist, and most especially not with someone like Wagner; I appreciate you tackling that from the outset. Was it intentional?

Nicholas: I think, in my section in the introduction, that comes from personal experience, in talking to educated people who know nothing about Wagner but think they do know something – these conversations with educated people who thought Wagner was alive during the time of the Third Reich, for instance, were shocked to learn that he was not alive in the 20th century, and so that’s why I just wanted to list all these things right at the beginning and tackle them head-on, not that you can really deal with them – and especially the antisemitism issue, with any degree of resolution.

Mark: I think the only problem I have with that sort of thing is when, if the antisemitism – like racism more generally, on these sort of critical studies – if one isn’t careful, it becomes a way of closing things off rather than opening things up. Clearly these are issues that want to be discussed and demand to be discussed, in particular moments; in the wake of the Third Reich how can one not actually want to look at what has opened up here? But the problem is, there’s a sort of childishness at the moment, i.e., one sees something programmed and then says, “That’s racist, take that off!” – well, that doesn’t seem a remotely helpful thing to do. I mean, what isn’t racist in a racist society, ultimately?

That is a pertinent issue to many festivals right now; I saw something an exchange online about Glyndebourne recently in this vein… 

Nicholas: I’ve been there once, and it’s unbelievable to see the remnants of the British Empire on full display, the picnics and the way they dress…

Mark: I think it’s a bit more the local golf club thinking they are fancy, though; I think these people are not what they think they are, necessarily!

Is that not sentimentality though? That sentimentality for a highly edited version of the past to make oneself more comfortable in one’s present time, country, situation? My issue as it relates to Wagner is that such sentimentality really works against his the actual nature of his output. 

Nicholas: I agree but… the potential to read nationalism into Wagner is not a complicated step to take. Even if that’s not “my” Wagner…  but you know, there is also lots of peoples’ Wagners, I think that’s the point Alex Ross is trying to make – in a lot of words! – and one which is very true, is that there are a lot of Wagners, and have always been, since the time of Wagner himself. He turns up in the most unlikely places, and functions, or represents, something for people very different ways, depending on where they are coming from. At the beginning of this chat with relation to escapism vs genuine interaction with Wagner, I’m not sure there is any such thing. To go back to me as a twelve-year-old, when I heard the First Act of Walküre on a recording I had no idea what I was hearing, I didn’t know the story, didn’t know about incest or any of it, all I can tell you is, I said to myself, “What is this music?! I can’t get enough of it!” I was just swept away by this flow. It was an uninterrupted hour of unprecedented – that’s the word of the year isn’t it? – an unprecedented hour of music and drama.

Castorf, Ring, Wagner, opera, staging, theatre, music, drama

Iain Paterson as Wotan and Nadine Weissmann as Erda in Frank Castorf’s 2014 production of Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. Photo: (c) Enrico Nawrath/Bayreuther Festspiele

Mark: This compartmentalization, not just of Wagner but of cultural life in general, is undesirable. A lot of directors are bound up with how a lot of people receive culture, and now, everything now is on the internet – people go search for whatever on Youtube, they don’t necessarily buy a CD with surprising things on it they can listen to and be surprised by. I think to a certain extent we all tend to go to things we think we’ll get something out of; we may like to challenge ourselves, and certainly, we like to *talk* about challenging ourselves, we like to *think* we’re good critical listeners, and to some extent we are. But if I’m given the choice of going into two productions of The Ring, which one I think I’m going to get more out of, whatever that may mean, then I’m going to choose that – but one *can* be surprised, and I think the ability to experience things, and to think about them, and to rethink them in a way one might not initially have chosen to do, so insofar as one can do that, is extremely important.

For an example, the first time I saw Frank Castorf’s production of The Ring at Bayreuth (in 2014), there were things I greatly admired, but there were things I utterly loathed and really didn’t understand. I thought I would never want to see that again, although I liked the Rheingold and parts of Götterdämmerung, but what came in-between, much less so; I was utterly shocked when I decided against my initial judgement to give it another go years later (2016) and I was utterly bowled over, often precisely by the things that I initially had loathed. I came to see a different sort of theatre being applied to Wagner than I had ever done before. I suppose it was what one broadly could call postmodern or post-Brechtian theatre – but these are such large umbrella terms; Castorf is Castorf, not just postmodern. And, it was clear (in re-seeing it) the cast had grown into it also – they were less shocked by what they were having to do. I came to understand what was going on, and so I say that of any production I’ve ever seen of The Ring, at least it’s the one that has most made me rethink the whole work; it transformed my understanding of a work I thought I knew very well, in a way unlike any other.

Nicholas: But Mark, your journey to the second viewing, think about that. Your journey is a forty-year journey, it’s one that got you to this moment, and got you ready. You needed two viewings to be ready for it: think of what that means, and what type of conversation we’re having now. It’s not that we shouldn’t have it – you shouldn’t have that experience! – but what about everybody else? Who do we need to be brought into at least a version of this conversation in order for the genre to continue to exist and be supported the way it needs to be?

That’s something I covered most recently in my last essay, where I quoted my interview with Barbara Hannigan and essentially asked (as I keep asking myself now): who are we doing this for?

Nicholas: Again, there are many levels, and there has to be a level that’s at the absolute pinnacle. My daughter is studying theoretical physics; I didn’t understand what she was talking about at thirteen, now she’s twenty, and I asked her what she’s studying and I’m stuck in the third word of her first sentence. There has to be that level (of understanding) – that’s what gets us forward, but the danger is, when it’s so rarified, it’s exclusively rarified, how do we mediate what’s important to a large group of people in order for this whole thing to be sustainable? With physicists what they are able to figure out is able to filter down, and manages to be your GPS – without Einstein and his essays at the beginning of the 20th century, we wouldn’t have GPS technology. I don’t know how this translates to the art world, but it’s a problem if only three of your students, Catherine, over six years so far, heard of Peter And The Wolf –  and that’s children’s music, that’s not even Wagner.

To me that underlines basic education, or lack thereof; when school funding is cut, what’s the first thing to get the chop? I make a point to play students the music of Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, Wagner’s “The Ride of the Walküre” – things they know already but don’t know the context of and haven’t been asked to think about in imaginative ways. It personalizes the music for them, but also gives them a background.

Nicholas: “Ride” was in an AXE commercial and maybe that’s where they know it from. And they probably also know the Bridal March of Lohengrin too, I bet; those works are part of popular culture.

Mark I suppose we shouldn’t assume that everyone would be coming to that Castorf production of The Ring as I did. Maybe it was more difficult for me, coming with all the baggage I have, knowing it as I do and its performance tradition. It’s like difficulties people might have with contemporary music. I think children, in many ways, or people with less actual classical, less exposure in classical romantic grounding, find it far less of a challenge to dispense with tonality than those spending most parts of everyday practising their scales, for instance. It’s not necessarily one way.

Mark Berry, writer, author, music, classical

Mark Berry

And that “not necessarily one way” especially applies to whatever baggage one brings to The Ring, or how it’s thought of and written about. How did you choose the authors for the book?

Nicholas: We wanted a very broad array of voices, and I think to a certain extent we also wanted the usual suspects, but some people who’ve not had a chance to participate in the conversation a chance to do so. It was very important to have a broad range of nationalities as well, because that also colors the way one approaches the issue of Wagner.

Mark: I think that says it all, really.

Nicholas: We did want it to be relevant to today; we wanted authors who were aware of the full length and breadth of the conversation, but also brought a current perspective. And some of the issues are current, like environmentalism and the Ring. That’s a relatively new way of approaching The Ring, because … well, it’s not that new actually, but applied in this way, it’s relatively new and applied to Wagner, and it’s not really been part of the conversation.

But it’s smart – and speaking of currency then, which Wagner work then would you like to see live right now and why?

(long silence)

Mark: Having given it a few seconds’ thought, my instant reaction is I want to see the whole Ring, because it just seems to be feeding into so much of everything that is going on at the moment, and might just help me make sense of it all. Also, perhaps this is coming back to the escapism aspect -– I’ve missed it. That communal element that is so a part of theatre, that is to musical life and art in general, I think is never stronger, at least in my experience, than when you go to a performance of The Ring. Often, for example, you end up sitting with the same people for all four events and you share that experience, even physically, talk to them a bit or not at all, but at the end of Götterdämmerung, when it’s all over, it does feel like the end of a school year; you’re leaving the immediate surroundings, you’re leaving the people you’ve been going through it with, and there’s nothing quite like that in my experience.

Nicholas: Everything Mark said, and I would add to that, unfortunately that kind of confirms the escapist concept: Wagner does create a whole world, and if you go to The Ring the way he imagined it in Bayreuth, you are really sucked into that world. It’s quite a phenomenon, the coherence of that world he creates, it’s all-encompassing. There is no equivalent experience in our culture, or even has been.

Nicholas Vazsonyi, Clemson, writer, author, music

Nicholas Vazsonyi (Photo: Craig Mahaffey, Clemson University)

I love this concept of community created in real and meta ways through the direct, lived experience of The Ring. The engagement of the senses in an environment like Bayreuth seems very purposeful.

Nicholas: Absolutely, it’s why he wanted Bayreuth itself to be in the middle of nowhere, so you are drawn out from your everyday surroundings and put into this especially structured world; that’s the Disneyworld aspect of it. Even though I know Mark shudders at the comparison, it is a unified, holistic world that is there in Bayreuth; you see those people were sitting next to, see them at 2pm in one of the very few places you can eat in Bayreuth, you run into them and they are recognizable, your eyes meet, and there’s a kind of a greeting there, and you go your separate ways; it’s a feeling of community both in and outside the theatre.

Mark: That’s a festival in a very religious sense, and (Wagner) intended it to be so. Maybe he changed his mind somewhat about what it entailed, but it’s part of this form he so strenuously disassociated from the day-to-day, opera-as-entertainment aspect –  it’s *not* supposed to be something you approach having had a hard day at work, going across the city on public transport, being exhausted by the time you get there, with your mind elsewhere. So yes, you could say that is escapism, you could say it’s transformative, you could say it’s aesthetic – I suppose it’s all of these things. We shouldn’t probably get too hung up on that. I’m contradicting myself from what I said earlier – which is what Wagner makes you do!

Nicholas: It’s the exact opposite of our Covid world right now, with the total absence of physical distancing. That’s the other reason of course I share Mark’s yearning for The Ring: it’s about getting as close as possible to each other.

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Review: ‘Wozzeck’ at Deutsche Oper Berlin Misses The Mark

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Which came first, the concept or the opera?

This is the question I kept asking myself through Ole Anders Tandberg’s production of Wozzeck at Deutsche Oper Berlin. Having been frequently presented in Berlin over the past few years, this presentation is, admittedly, up against some stiff competition, but not having seen any of those stagings myself, I was going in fresh, curious if I might finally experience a production I liked. Alas.

Keeping in mind what I’d written about Claus Guth’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and how Regie can and frequently does divide opinion, Wozzeck is one of those works that is divisive by its very nature. It invites abstract production because of its entirely abstract nature — the work itself, through its score and story and frequent use of Sprechgesang, resists the idea of tradition, purposely poking, prodding, and sometimes happily eviscerating the entire concept. Creative choices can sometimes thrive in and around such works, and yet, I have yet to see a live performance of Wozzeck that completely satisfies; alas, last evening’s experience at Deutsche Oper  Berlin did nothing in altering this stymied state of music affairs.

Berg’s opera is based on the play Woyzeck, and though it was left incomplete by author Georg Büchner (who died in 1837), it remains a highly influential work, particularly within the German theatre world. So too Berg’s Wozzeck within a classical music corollary; even now, a century after its composition, the work remains revolutionary for its whole-hearted embrace of atonality. Solidly resisting all the predictable sounds and techniques which had dominated Western classical music (along with standard operatic forms) up to that point, the opera, written between 1914 and 1922 and premiered in Berlin, went on to enjoy immense success across Europe before it was labelled “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1933. It is, as Britannica tidily puts it, “a dark story of madness and murder,” its titular character a soldier stationed in a town near to a military barracks in the early 19th century; an unfaithful wife, an illegitimate child, medical experiments, and murder are all part of the narrative which unfolds over 15 scenes, spread across three acts. It is, in a word, haunting; within Wozzeck‘s score can be heard the oncoming horror of the First World War, the breaking point of the social divides within late 19th century/early 20th century Europe, the desperation of people in an unforgiving place — physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, spiritually. It is a deeply affecting portrait of alienation, a trait various productions have attempted to underline, amplify, and explore, with varying results, since its first production in 1925.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

Tandberg places the action in the early/mid 20th century, in, as the program notes, the interior of a coffee house near the Oslo Royal Castle, on or around National Day in Norway, May 17th. The work opens with Wozzeck (Johan Reuter) and the Captain (Burkhard Ulrich) debating morality, though viewers will clearly note the line of soldiers with their pants down as Wozzeck tends to (ostensibly shaves) them; he later bends over for an examination himself. The carefully sterile set design, by Erlend Birkeland, reveals a precise geometry of repression, with square school-style tables in a canteen-like space framed by more boxes: a long bar, imposing doors and windows, where things are seen but remotely revealed, not even when soldiers can be seen frolicking and stripping naked. The scientific specimens the Doktor (Seth Carico) looks at through his microscope are projected via a tidy white circle upstage, which later drips with color, a display of fragility and cruelty at once. These are striking images, to be sure, but feel oddly distant to the work and its concerns. Those twin concepts — fragility and cruelty — and the way they interact, are vital to knowing and appreciating the life (inner and outer) of the central character, yet they are never explored. Wozzeck and the other characters are so smartly attired, it’s as if the subtext of destitution (so closely connected to that fragile-cruel dance) doesn’t exist at all. Surreal free-flows of ideas are fine, but the ones here have been placed not in service of the drama, but before it, which short-changes both the characters and our sense of them.

Deutsche Oper Wozzeck

Photo © Marcus LIeberenz

This emphasis is most clearly expressed in the use of video. Tandberg, who previously directed Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Bizet’s Carmen at the Deutsche Oper, presents each of the fifteen scenes that make up Wozzeck as pseudo-vignettes, tenuously (and tediously) divided by the closing and reopening of a black curtain, onto which is projected an immense, black-and-white close-up video of the face of its title character, blinking and silent. Rather than being an insightful and excitingly confrontational choice in tandem with the nature of the writing itself (since the work is, in fact, composed entirely of just such a series of vignettes), the technique becomes a frustrating and emotionally distancing distraction that kills the much-needed empathy for its titular character. The aesthetic of Tandberg’s Regie-heavy approach to Berg’s sensitive, sweeping score creates a paralyzing disconnect between score, story, character, and experience, destroying any hope for an integrated and satisfying theatrical experience.

It doesn’t help that musically this Wozzeck seemed over-dynamic and yet frustratingly gutless. Musical motifs for the Doktor, Captain, Drum Major (Thomas Blondelle), and Marie (Elena Zhidkova), while prominent, were not clear in delineating characterizations within Deutsche Oper General Music Director Donald Runnicles’s grey reading, which had an unfortunate and consistent tendency toward limpid tempos and lack of coloration. Wozzeck’s insistent motifs were jaggedly unfocused and suffered further by being diffused against a muffled orchestral acoustic. Any sense of vocal nuance baritone Reuter might have brought to form a more satisfying and complete characterization was washed out by the sheer volume coming from the pit, though baritone Carico, as a demented Doktor, and Zhidkova, with her plummy mezzo tones, fared better. The firmly Regie tone of the production, while brave, added little if any value to the experience of the themes of Berg’s opera. Alas, all was also washed out to sea, drowning in more than the blood that flowed, mercilessly, in the final scene.

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