Sound in and of itself is neither good or bad; it simply is. But more than ever, sound, and the way it is delivered and experienced, is tied up in commerce. The various sources of revenue and concomitant connections to money within the classical world often provides silent framing of a vast and under-discussed reality. Recently The Metropolitan Opera announced they would be performing 10% fewer works next season, drawing on their endowment, and focusing on new works for next season. This year’s new works – Kevin Puts’ The Hours and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones – drew near-capacity audiences, while old chestnuts (like the Italian version of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos) barely filled the immense auditorium by half. Similar challenges with audiences in post-pandemic life resound internationally, and organizations need to rethink their over-reliance on both starry names and ossified presentational styles. The challenges are less related to “rubbing people’s noses” in current issues (as a famous tenor recently mused) than to organizations attenuating to ever-unfolding realities (including pandemic) within a media ecosystem ever more reliant on the machinery of hype and ad tech which polarizes audience experience (/ inexperience) and expectation, often screwing in unconsciously-held cliches around opera in the process in a breathless bid to please sponsors and conservative board members. Whither sound? Does it matter when there are no camels in Aida?
Exposure, education, and cultural curiosity have everything to do with receptivity of sounds, and in building the critical thinking structures needed for reception of their live realization. More than once this year I have written about (and linked to) the precipitous drops in educational standards, particularly across North America. If Europeans groan at hearing the word “privilege” and roll eyes at the mention of culture wars, it is worth remembering the basic cost of things across the ocean. (Various American contacts of mine living in Europe are aghast at the sheer cost of groceries in visits home for the holidays, as one immediate example.) This seems an issue worth shouting about, repeatedly, even if people want to stick fingers in ears and continue rolling eyes. The Met is not The Royal Opera Covent Garden is not Bayerische Staatsoper is not Oper Zurich is not Opera de Paris is not the COC is not ENO (alas…). Different strokes; different horses. As I discussed with Mark Williams (the new CEO of the Toronto Symphony) this autumn, one city cannot simply be grafted onto another. One culture cannot be grafted onto another. One educational system cannot be grafted onto another; one set of ideas and living experiences cannot be grafted onto another. We cannot wish x was like more y; x may be devolving back to m but it is its own m, in its own place, and this is worth remembering. Blithely accepting what various levels of government cut or mete out or hype without a peep of protest, pause, or media scrutiny does not make for a healthy arts ecosystem, or for healthy artists.
Thus do the educational systems in various locales – along with social safety nets, levels of (non-corporate) funding, culture, history, infrastructure – contribute to respective classical atmospheres and moreover to the perceptions of sounds, and their direct experience within specific environments. In classical within a North American idiom, some of those sounds are treated as a decimal in the equation of style, performance, and digital bragging rights. Marketing departments often dictate programming choices; risky sounds are placed straight in the bin unless those departments are very sure they can create an online buzz that directly translates to ticket sales – the unicorn goal of classical marketing rarely achieved with any reliable consistency. Of course sound is, at its core, represented by dots on a page, but sound is much more than dots, symbols many people can’t read, let alone hear in their heads. It matters how/where/when/within what circumstance one experiences them, or does not experience them, where and how one learns them, from whom, in what atmosphere. Absence is as importance as presence, something musicians of all genres know. Contributor Tori Wanzama experienced Bizet’s Carmen for the first time this past autumn – in a highly individualized way and certainly different to those who grew up hearing the music throughout childhood. Context is everything, and it ought not – especially now in a war that so affects cultural arenas – to be ignored in favour of romantic notions which do not contextualize (let alone acknowledge) the role of privilege in the listening/live/learning-about experience.
Sounds are, or can be, loaded; they often carry the heavy ammunition of intertwined histories – personal, professional, political, and beyond. Recently I came upon a unique performance of a German-language version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin led by Michail Jurowski, who passed away in March of this year. Recorded at Semperoper Dresden in 1991, this Onegin demonstrates clearly, how sound is not only sound but can be much more. Yes, this is recognizably Tchaikovsky; no, it is not the recognizable Onegin, at least not for those who are solely familiar with the opera in its original language. The famous “Letter Scene”, for instance, features Czech soprano Zora Jehličková performing Tatyana’s passionate declaration in an excited if highly knowing manner – she sounds worldly, as if she is about to set Valhalla on fire. The reading of the score has transformed to reflect the vagaries of the language in which it is being sung. Use all the Teutonic-music cliches you wish (see above) – they apply to Jurowski’s reading, but they don’t quite capture the singularity of this particular sound at this particular juncture. How could they? Think about what was happening in Germany at the time, and you hear it in this reading; the swift tempi, the jaunty phrasing, the acid tone of the strings against the excitable blares of the horns, the way in which the orchestra swells around certain syllables – and how much it all contrasts with various Russian recordings. These divides in sonorities aren’t solely down to the differences between maestros (though that’s a factor) – but time, place, language, people – context.
Sound embodies so many things, if only we would listen. Semperoper is not The Met is not La Scala is not Mariinsky is not Kyiv Opera is not… we are not you; you are not me; one but not the same, and sounds are bigger than both of us, together or apart –the biggest question, the smallest decimal; the hard sell, the soft touch; sound draws in the most tiny details and simultaneously reveals a far broader picture. It is difficult to define because its experience differs so greatly between people and changes through time, privilege, history, locale, and family. This website has tried to reflect such concerns since its founding in 2017, and the past twelve months in particular have brought a reassessment of its purpose. I always resisted definitions for what this website is, or could be, though I was always quite sure of what it was not. I always wanted my work to be more than hyperbolic PR – to be a meaningful (and yes, critical) engagement with an art form I love in all its facets. I aimed to share authentic, unedited (mostly) conversations with people whose work genuinely inspires curiosity, and in so doing provide a forum for the sorts of exchanges mainstream media has neither the bucks nor the bandwidth for. I aimed to float somewhere between the heady and the populist, the intellectual and the everyday, and to firmly keep my own voice intact, as someone who floats in that netherworld herself, and probably always will. This is, at least, what I had hoped. Have I achieved these aims? Have I contributed anything of worth to conversations around classical music? Should I worry about legacy brand media, and which writers and artists love, hate, or share my work?
2022 has been a year of learning to live with and accept open questions that may never have answers, and to stop worrying about the ones that really don’t matter. This website will exist in the short term; there will be occasional feature interviews – as ever, with people and things not being given the attention or quality of time and detail, let alone the uniqueness of perspective, in mainstream media coverage. But just as practical priorities (paid writing opportunities; teaching) call, so does the living of life, remade from what it was in March 2020. Returning is different, which is just as it should be; it is not returning at all, but remaking. Just as locales cannot be grafted onto one another, neither can experiences, ideas, or notions of normal. I want to have meaningful real-life conversations that won’t be shared online, and I want to experience sounds, live, with people I call friends, and note how those sounds are different now that everything else – that magical context – is too. There are voices, and sights, and (thank goodness) sounds, and all they carry – quietly, loudly, beautifully; the readiness, to quote Hamlet, is all.
Photos: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Every day comes the email reminder: It’s time for your German lesson! Daily practice is key to learning a new language! During the worst of the pandemic lockdown I took formal lessons with a real, live teacher via Zoom; the experience was a useful and stimulating way to integrate education and interaction. Those months were indeed fruitful but pricey, and proved ultimately too dear for my limited budget, and so I am now left with basic, self-directed gadgets and services, and to my own analogue study, pursuits which demand other forms of payment (namely energy and attention) that I am not always able to give. It pangs me to consider the extent to which my language skills have slipped away, what with memories falling like raindrops lately – of winning fancy language prizes during elementary school days; of the praise garnered by my mother for pronunciation and swiftness of comprehension; of casually shrugging it away the way teenagers so often do when other interests enter and academic responsibilities loom. Playing linguistic catch-up (otherwise known as jumping in the deep end) as a middle-aged freelancer is daunting, exhausting, often disheartening, but passion for culture renders it necessary, and if I am being honest, uniquely rewarding.
And while knowledge of languages isn’t obligatory to opera appreciation, especially with the introduction of surtitles in 1983, such knowledge deepens the experience considerably. I always felt I was being left out of something, anything, everything, in not knowing opera’s prime languages (Italian-French-German) as well as I ought. That knowledge is slowly expanding, but so too, is my appreciation of the art of translation itself. Companies dedicated to presenting works in their geographically-specific local language (like the English National Opera, and once, if less so now, Komische Oper Berlin) would (do) rely on translations that aim to capture the nuances of both text and its relationship to and with orchestration and scoring, and (in some cases) to the contexts in which the work was first created and presented (and/or contemporaneously produced). Many composers have actively participated in translations of their works and/or collaborated with their respective text-based counterparts; among opera’s most famous librettists/translators are Alfred Kalisch (1863-1933), Edward J. Dent (1876-1957), Andrew Porter (1928-2015), Amanda Holden (1948-2021; her work will be the subject of a future feature here), and the famous team of W.H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). Auden-Kallman wrote, along with collaborative translation on works by Mozart, Weill, and Dittersdorf, original libretti for living composers, including Stravinsky (The Rake’s Progress, 1951) and Henze (Elegy for Young Lovers, 1961; The Bassarids, 1966). More recently, to take just one of many examples, English National Opera’s production of Die Walkure – or The Valkyrie – in autumn 2021 was presented in a singing translation by musician/scholar John Deathridge, whose own meant-for-reading translation of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle was published by Penguin Classics in 2019. The book points up a vital aspect of the industry that has faced new challenges in the digital era, most particularly with the rise of streaming services amidst pandemic.
Any opera lover will know, probably too well, that hitting “translate” on a video lacking formal subtitling invites a world of frustration; the result is mostly comical, and stems from a longstanding caption problem on Youtube. Even with the insertion of formal subtitled translations,the nuances of expression are often lost, drowned out in weird mishmash mixes of intended accuracy and grammatical gibberish. One can’t help but notice the many inadequacies in watching various introductions, talks, interviews, and previews released by opera houses, orchestras, and other classical-related organizations, when it comes to translation options; the varied socio-cultural / political / historical contexts are often binned in the name of (one supposes) expediency, digestibility, an ever-present pressure to get a post up quickly with the least amount of fuss and satisfying ever-shrinking arts budgets while hoping to garner the ever-desired sexy clicks. Is the arts world really so ready to throw something as important as translation to the side? Isn’t it a foundational part of attracting new audiences (and keeping old ones) to cultivate meaningful comprehension (and thus engagement)? At such moments the digital world seems woefully ill-equipped for the demands of translation, yet the internet would seem to be the very spot to offer more fulsome possibilities for the sort of nuanced appreciation that best serves the repertoire – thus arguably increasing its overall appeal. Someone, surely, must be able to build something(s) better, a system organizations at any level can access that goes beyond Google translate (or deepl.com) limitations – but then, someone, something, surely, must fund all of it, and aye, there’s the rub. But how much meaning is being lost in the meantime? How many potential audiences? How many potential ears, minds, hearts?
Of course there is no substitute for direct sensory experience when it comes to the marriage of music and words, but the key, as ever, is finding the time. One of my favourite if too-rarely enjoyed activities is spending a day (a week, a month) studying an opera libretto and related score, large pot of fresh tea at hand. Noting the rhythm of language, the shifting colours of sounds, the ways in which the dynamism of vowels and consonants shapes and informs musical lines and orchestration; pondering interactions, phrasings, silences; these are gifts to be enjoyed and explored, over and over. The act of reading a libretto (especially aloud) gives one a simultaneously broader and more intimate relationship with words, with sounds, with flow, intonations, and emphases, the way they all feel in the mouth, carry-float-sink-shoot in or through the air – such a reading allows a greater comprehension of the world of words, of the work’s creators, and all those who’ve presented it since. Thus does the world become larger and more detailed, all at once. Deathridge did the world a great service indeed with his Ring book, but his efforts rile my writer’s heart for giving a sharp reminder of the fact that so few other opera-text ventures exist in the 21st century. There is clearly a long history of writer-composer relations – Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Stefan Zweig worked with Richard Strauss, for example, and the texts of Friedrich Rückert and Clemens Brentano (among many others) were used by Gustav Mahler. English translations of these writers and others do indeed exist, though the output when it comes to their musical manifestations is spotty; those which are extant in scores, such as those which appear in the Dover editions of Mahler lieder, are far less than ideal (and don’t list translator names for the most part, pity). Indeed they may be intended for phonetic starting points, and as the bases of introductory study for musicians, but they are decidedly not a comprehensive whole. The ever-expanding Lieder.net is a good resource for song translations (and recognizes the translators, natch) even if it makes one long for a more comprehensive whole within the classical industry. Good English translations exist, but to reiterate, are spotty, not always easy to find, and are sometimes couched within more comprehensive volumes.
The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal (Princeton University Press, 2008), edited by poet/librettist J.D. McClatchy, contains a highly readable, immensely poetic translation of the first act of Die Rosenkavalier by dramatist Christopher Holme, done in 1963. Years before, in 1912, Strauss’s popular opera was its first full English translation by English critic and librettist Alfred Kalisch, who championed the composer’s work and translated other operas into English as well, Salome and Elektra among them. Kalisch himself noted in “The Tribulations of a Translator”, a 1915 presentation for the Royal Musical Association (published by Taylor & Francis; Source: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 1914-1915, 41st Sess. 1914-1915), pp. 145-161) the varied difficulties of translating opera, pinpointing the issue of whether it is the translator’s duty “to produce a readable translation or singable words.” This gets to the heart of the matter for current purposes, for while the latter is a topic for another day, the former – having something readable – is worth investigating, particularly in light of evolving technologies, audience engagement, cultural discussion, and to further perceptions around various forms of identity. Smart translations matter, and readable, easily accessible ones are a net good, in the world of literature as much as in the world of music and specifically classical culture. Most creators would, one assumes, like for their works to be understood in their full range of expression, for audiences of all locales and backgrounds to be given access to those intrinsic cultural nuances which are not always part of the concomitant scoring alone.
Thus it can be said that the act of translation demands respect for place, process, history, and humanism, qualities classical (as much the art form as its artists and ambassadors) aims to embrace and promulgate. In November 1959 writer Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982) presented a lecture at the University of Texas in which he outlined, with fascinating precision, the ways in which the act of translation (as applied here to poetry) changes according to various contexts and received understandings. Using Sappho’s “Orchard” as his first example, Rexroth offers up eight different translations (including his own) to illustrate the vagaries and subtle ways in which language, and the societies from which understandings and experiences of the world springs, informs translation choices. He goes on to observe that translation “can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level.” Translation can do much more, as he notes:
It is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human life outside of one’s own. Making that leap requires imagination, but also compassion.
Thus I would posit that translation is (as I have written in the past) more than sympathy, but a true act of empathy, for translation engages the imagination just as empathy requires, and both require active, directed integrations of intellect and creativity to achieve meaningful effect. Someone who understands this integration thoroughly is poet and translator Boris Dralyuk. Born in Odesa and later relocating to America, Dralyuk is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the LA Review of Books, and is married to acclaimed fellow translator Jenny Croft. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature, though he also taught at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Awarded first prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award competition, he went on, together with Russian-American poet/essayist Irina Mashinski, to win first prize in the 2012 Joseph Brodsky / Stephen Spender Translation Prize competition. In 2020 Dralyuk received the inaugural Kukula Award for Excellence in Nonfiction Book Reviewing from the Washington Monthly. His work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Granta, The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New York Review Of Books. His book Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934 (Brill) was published in 2012; three years later, he co-edited, together with Mashinski and British poet/translator Robert Chandler, the immense Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015), containing a wide swath of poets and writers from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Dralyuk also served as editor of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016). His translation of Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press) by Russian writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was published in 2018. Dralyuk has also translated the works of Ukrainian writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940), with Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2015) and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016). The writings of Babel, a fellow Odesa native, were described by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard in 2016 as “(f)ractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour […] they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will.” With bold strokes and wild energy, Babel vividly explores the lives of an assortment of colourful sorts drawn from real life, and Dralyuk’s own poetic attention to tone, colour, and pacing shine through the words, not to mention the meticulous, carefully considered rests between those words; rhythm, as it turns out, is just as important as exactitude. In addition to translating the work of Babel, Dralyuk has a close association with noted Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov (b. 1961), whose equally timely and often harrowing books The Bickford Fuse (Maclehose Press, 2016), and Grey Bees (Maclehose Press, 2020) have been translated to much acclaim, with Kurkov’s own recent fame in the West fuelling a rising awareness of the centrality of good translation and all the moving parts therein.
After much planning and re-planning, Dralyuk and I finally were able to chat – about translation as it applies to various corners of culture, about so-called identity politics, the choices he’s made as editor of the LA Review Of Books, his debut collection of poetry, My Hollywood (Paul Dry Books, 2022), and about the role technology can (should) play in advancing the awareness and appreciation of languages. We also discussed current notions around expression of cultural identity; related moral panics; the value (if any) of retaining romanticized notions in art and music and the related role of context in breaking apart habitual webs of intransigence. Just what does Dralyuk think of the current (and perhaps lasting) labelling of identities? Certainly such labels matter in translation? In an essay from March, The New Yorker music writer Alex Ross noted that “(a)cknowledging the polyglot entanglements of the musical canon can, in fact, serve as a check on the oppressive allure of nationalist mythologies.” At a time when privilege, didacticism, and binary conclusions dominate large swaths of cultural discourse, examining the complex connections between familial (and social, economic, cultural) origins and creative output is vital, translators play a crucial role in helping to facilitate (and in some cases, promote) awareness and expansion of those connections, and of fostering curiosity, comprehension, and compassion to those identities.
And, a quick if vital note: I don’t speak or read the languages Dralyuk translates (yet), but I do strongly feel that his work, especially at this point in time, is of tremendous importance. Dralyuk possesses a musician’s approach to the elements, skillfully balancing, conjuring, and highlighting tone, colour, dynamism, texture, tempo, rhythm, silence, as pace and structure dictate. He understands the complexities of technique, the labyrinthe of contexts, the connections between head and heart, and he wants to let us, the reader, into that world. Emotion is, as you’ll read, a key part of what he does. Dralyuk is a maestro of translation, but he is also (and this was confirmed in our chat), humble, funny, kind, and involved. I remain grateful for his time and energy.
Note: The following interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
You’ve translated authors whose works are now more widely known, and you’ve taken part in panels on Ukraine; do you think the attention on the country and its authors will lead to an overall greater curiosity and knowledge?
I think the attention is a good thing if it’s a lasting awareness.None of this is certain yet, whether this period of newfound fascination will outlive the conflict or whether it will even, frankly, be sustained throughout this war, which shows no sign of ending. I can only rely on my personal impressions and on the things I hear from my friends, but I think the worry is that social media and the news cycle bring up new scandals and new conflict and new conflagrations every day, and they have a lifespan of their own, and it would be wonderful if the people who are advocating for and spreading awareness of Ukrainian culture, if they’re able to leverage this attention that’s been drawn to the country – for the wrong reasons – for good.
Leverage the attention in a meaningful way that technology allows for?
That’s my hope.
Very often, I see – and I’m sure you do too – these updates and opinions go by, and I always wonder how it is that we don’t have a better technological framework that would accommodate the translations you and Jenny do.
I think Jenny is more of an optimist than I’ve tended to be. I’m pretty pessimistic myself, nowadays, but let’s put it this way: let’s say you have some degree of earned respect in the world, you’ve done a few things people like, and therefore you speak with some degree of authority. If that’s the case, what you put out there, regardless of the technological channels, will reach people. Social media is powerful in that regard; these things, even poems, if well-timed – and I don’t make a study of when to post or that kind of thing, though I know some do – but if well-timed in the general sense, if they hit on something people are thinking about, and you are one of the people to whom others tend to listen on these very subjects, the thing you’re putting out there will reach someone, a good number of people. Even if you reach two or three people when you could’ve reached five, you’ve still reached two to three people. I’m not really complaining about the channels available to us, I know there are people like yourself who actively work and think about new platforms and new ways to present the cultural items we care about most in a way that might gain traction.
These new ways of presenting culture tend to bump up against the perceived legitimacy of legacy brands, but the tools at hand, which everyone uses, make changing perceptions a challenge. Being independent means you gain certain things but lose others.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I don’t intervene too heavily in the things we publish at the LA Review of Books. I edit what we accept, if not myself, then others do, but it’s a broadly-based organization and always has been. The editing is not a reflection of my personal vision – I’m not Draconian, I don’t rule like a tyrant – but where I do rule like a tyrant is at my own blog or on my social media platforms, and I regard those as a rather pure form of expression. I have a very different sense of what a successful post on my own blog means to what a successful post on LARB means. Not infrequently a poem or translation published on my blog will reach more people than it might have at the LARB website itself – and that’s because people who believe that I do something well enough to listen to me go to the place where I do it; they’re not the readers of the LA Review of Books, necessarily – they’re the readers of my translations. And over time that number of people has grown, largely thanks to my use of WordPress and Twitter.
You are your own brand in that sense.
Yes, that’s right – because I’m not thinking of how to elevate my position there. I don’t get paid for my blog posts or the translations I post there. lf I really wanted prestige I’d try to get them into the major journals and would submit widely every 6 months, and face rejection letters and do it again and again – but that’s not what matters to me. I want those translations and those poems to reach the largest possible number of readers. And so they go on my blog.
And that’s to me a crucial point about the act of translation: you want to reach people. Reaching isn’t the same as engagement...
That’s very true…
… but through reaching people you can engage with what you translate in a new and important way. When I spoke with Elena Dubinets she said she found it hard to fathom how soldiers who’d read Dostoyevsky could engage in such horrendous acts of violence – which made me ponder the ways in which culture is received and perceived according to various factors.
I think if there is a net-positive outcome here, it is a change in how we perceive Russian culture. Some people do have a starry-eyed view of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I myself do not – but I don’t think it’s a crime to think that way. I do think it can become pernicious when we associate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, and their art, with a kind of purity of soul, and a purity of vision, and then assume that anyone speaking Russian must surely possess those innate qualities. That’s not a good thing. We have to be realistic, difficult though it may be. We can’t always hold ourselves to this, but we have to be realistic when we make judgments about cultures and the bearers of those cultures, whatever the culture we come from. We may love the US but hate our neighbour because our neighbour has this to say, and our mother has that to say, and the guy down the street says something else – we’re all very different, yet there are things that tie us together. The same goes for people living in Russia and living in Ukraine. At some moments those common features become the most important things in our lives – as in moments of crisis, moments like these – but in general we are all different people and all have different capacities for insight and capacities for love and capacities for hatred. Russian culture, being such a powerful force in the world, has convinced many people, too many people, that Russians are a bunch of soulful Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys and Pushkins, when Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin were themselves complicated figures, not pure of soul at all times. I think this war can make us more realistic, bring greater nuance to our understanding of the people we read and admire, of the cultures in which we’re interested.
The “nuance” aspect largely goes against the algorithms that power the platforms we use…
… but now especially, do you feel a particular weight or responsibility to not just present new things but old things with that same nuance? And how much do you see others carrying it forwards?
I think anyone working in Ukrainian and Russian right now feels a heightened sense of responsibility. I know I certainly was much more likely to do things before this war because I was interested in them without thinking about their effect in the world. I was kind of an “art for art’s sake” purist… I mean, I have ethics, but I’ve always been interested in presenting the most … challenging, the most delightful, the most complicated, the most unusual work, in translation, regardless of the life of the man or woman who wrote it, regardless of their political affinities. It’s basically been my sense that if the work is well made, it deserves to be read, and people can make up their own minds about how terrible the person was or how terrible the things expressed in it are. I still think that’s largely where I land, but I feel I now have to be more selective, not because anyone asked me. The people I translated tend to be people who are, I think, generally, somewhat responsible – not always. But I do think that it behooves us to be careful, now, in how we present work that may be interesting but perhaps can be too easily misread or misused at the same time.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
I’m curious how you think this relates to the music world. It’s difficult to find good translations, even with companies dedicated to performing in English; there is this sense of “well just learn” whatever language – “just” carrying a number of unfair assumptions, not least access to resources. So how to most effectively move past these attitudes? And how do we approach translating things like libretti, which, by their very nature, resist any form of translation?
I think the technology is very much the answer. Google has taught people that translation is no easy thing, and Google Translate, yes, people knock it, but there are two things about it worth considering: one, it’s getting better every day, because of the input – every time someone asks it to translate something, it learns – and the other thing is that it reminds people every day of the need for a human touch. I think ultimately it’s a great educational tool, not only for getting the bare thing across, so some people can move about their business day, but also, if you plug in Tolstoy whole, you’ll get rubbish that’s useless unless a human being gets involved. The technology leads people to realize how important translation is. Over the last ten years or so there’s been a greater appreciation of the work of translators and that appreciation has inspired many young people – I see this every day, more and more people are asking me about my career and how I got into this. So there’s more interest in learning and mastering and communicating across languages, and the number of younger translators is growing by leaps and bounds, and that speaks to a broader interest in foreign languages.
That said, I don’t think this necessarily means the quality of translation will improve, because what you need in order to be a great translator is the ability to read very closely and very carefully, and with a lot of emotion. You have to respond emotionally to a text, and not just intellectually. You also have to have deep intellectual understanding, but you need a real love for expression – a real love for the target language. You have to revel in it and relish it. You have to find the task of writing immensely rewarding, find a lot of joy in it. People who translate simply because they love the original and are just going through the motions of putting it into English will probably not come out with as pungent or flavourful a product as those who both love the original and love the target language.
That brings to mind a common line of thinking on English: “oh it’s so limited…”
I hate that…
I really do, I hate it when people say, “Oh, well, English is a poorer language, because it doesn’t have a-b-c” – no, every language lacks something, an a, b, or c, but it makes up for that in other ways, by what it brings to the table. So you have to be in awe of the possibilities of English when you embark upon a translation – that’s how you get the best text. You don’t get it by saying, “Oh no, I’m going to lose this and that because English can’t possibly do it” – yes it can! English can do anything you want it to! That’s the attitude you’ve got to take.
By the same way of thinking, how would one translate the works of writers like Joyce or E.E. Cummings into Russian?
People have – you do it by writing Ulysses, by being a genius at your work. Those translators did a good job. That’s how Alice In Wonderland was translated into Russian – you have to have the same level of imagination and sense of possibility as Lewis Carroll had.
I love the Irish sense of playing with the language of their British colonizers – it’s a big reason I fell in love with Irish literature years ago, and underlines what Rexroth says when he explores Sappho, and gives examples of how each culture translated the same poem differently…
The Irish thing is a good example of what Ukrainians have attempted to do with the Russian language, from Gogol on – a good parallel –Isaac Babel would count, by dint of two circumstances, as a colonial subject –he’s Jewish and he’s from Ukraine. He’s a good analogy for Joyce, for speakers of Irish extraction. That’s one of the things I love most about translating the Russian language of Ukrainian speakers, which is a kind of endangered species now: they approach it from the side, as insider-outsiders, and it makes for very rich texts. I’ve spent a good deal of time on that aspect.
The insider/outsider thing is especially interesting – how much do you identify with that, as someone not born in America but raised there?
I think of myself largely as an American. So many of us weren’t born in America, and it’s a unique culture in that regard; nativism is present but isn’t the defining feature of the culture. Most of the people who have contributed mightily to the formation of American letters and culture, from the colonial period on,, were immigrants to the United States…
Yes, exactly! I feel I’m a pretty good run-of-the-mill American – but yes, of course, you are also right that there is an outsider component to it. This happens to be a nation of immigrants, but that doesn’t make me anything other than an immigrant: I am still an immigrant to the United States. The story of immigration is central to the story of America, writ large.
That inclusivity stands in stark contrast to a world that quickly ostracizes those who don’t speak the language…
It happens, but I think that’s wrong – and to my mind, very dated.
It brings to mind what Rexroth noted, that translation is an act of sympathy, or to my mind, empathy.
Yes, and it’s amazing to me that that observation had to wait until 1959 to be made – I mean, it probably didn’t, I’m sure others said something similar – but it seems so natural to me that those who enjoy translation the most, the people who are the most successful at creating readable and moving texts based on texts in other languages, are using their capacity for empathy. They really do feel deeply connected to the texts they’re reading and to the people behind them. And if you don’t feel that connection, if you just sit there mechanically translating, then you may produce a more accurate version than Google Translate, but it won’t necessarily be a fuller version – or a more appealing one.
Your work has made me ask ‘who’s the translator?” through many book purchases the last little while.
That’s so lovely – that’s as it should be! I think Jenny probably did more to accomplish that than I did, but it’s important to pay attention to the translators. There are certain translators, long dead, whose work may not be perfect, but who I feel have as much of an oeuvre as that of any author, so I will read everything they’ve done, simply because I love their artistry.
That’s similar to following the work of soloists or conductors: one may not like a particular piece or opera, but one might really love the artistry of the person doing it.
That’s a perfect analogy! The soloist or conductor is an interpreter, just like the translator.
Speaking of translations and artistry: do you have a favourite translation of Bulgakov’s famous The Master and Margarita?
That’s a tough question. I think the Michael Glenny translation of 1967 is overall the more flexible and colourful, but there are glaring errors that have yet to be corrected. If somebody were to sit down, somebody who really understands the text, and use it as the start, building it out, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands.
Because you haven’t done it yet…
I would love to edit that Glenny text, but process-wise, one way I check – it isn’t a perfect thermometer, but it works – how good a translation is, is by the impact it has on the target culture. For instance, it was the Glenny translation that gave us “Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones. Personally, I don’t think the later translations would’ve had that influence – they’re not quite as readable as the Glenny.
I keep being told that there has yet to appear a translation which captures the humour, the rhythm…
I think that’s generally true. We’ve made a start, but we need someone to go in there and finish. Frequently I’m drawn to older translations not because they’re the most accurate in every sense, not because they capture all the tones of the original, but because the world in which those earlier translators lived is more or less the world in which the authors lived – they were contemporaries, so when the authors described something they could see with their own eyes, those translators of long ago saw those things with their own eyes too. When they were translating a description, they knew exactly what was being described. That creates a sharper image in English, a clearer sense of what it is Tolstoy is talking about, or Dostoyevsky is talking about. I would urge people not to toss out the old versions completely; you can continue to translate and refine the texts but I think those old versions have something to offer us too.
Like literary Ur-Text?
There is the urge now to make plain cultural labels – ie, “this is Ukrainian; that is Russian” and to draw pat conclusions based on them.
I don’t think people will hold on to that; I think it’ll go away. Right now there’s controversy about renaming streets in Ukraine. But renaming a street from Tolstoy Street has nothing to do with saying that “Tolstoy is a bad writer.” What it’s about – and this is spelled out clearly in a LARB piece – is saying: look, there’s every reason to keep reading Tolstoy; go ahead and read Tolstoy, no one’s stopping you. But there’s a reason this street was named after Tolstoy in the first place: this country was subjugated by Russia. The reason that we have so many streets named after Russian writers and none at all named after Portuguese writers is that we were not subjects of Portuguese colonization – we were subjects of Russian colonization. So by renaming these streets in honour of Ukrainian authors and cultural figures, all we’re saying is: these are our streets. If you want to sit on the street and read Tolstoy, that’s fine. It may not be a comfortable thing for those who love Tolstoy to witness, but it’s the choice of the people who live on that street. I really don’t think this hysteria about Russian culture being cancelled will be proven to have been justified. There are a lot of reasons why we should worry about all the things happening now; the fact Russian literature will lose a few more readers in the short term is not one of them.
A couple people have written to me to say, “It’s not the time for Russian voices,” and I myself have shown preferential treatment for those writing from Ukraine – it’s more important right now. People will make that kind of editorial judgment call. Yet I can’t imagine any person, no matter how patriotic they are who will say, “I will never again read anything from a Russian, ever” –even those who are militant say, “It may take five years, or ten years; it may take twenty years,” – but at some point, I think Ukrainians will be reading Russian literature, and Russians will be reading Ukrainian literature. Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to listen to Ukrainians who are under active attack rather than to most Russians. That said, I still translate Russian authors myself; I just did a translation of a piece by Maxim Osipov (“Cold, Ashamed, Relieved: On Leaving Russia“, The Atlantic, May 16, 2022). But, to be blunt, I don’t think Russians are paying that big a price, comparatively – that’s my sense of things.
Elena Dubinets also noted in our chat how the language around how we discuss these cultures must be decolonized – a word that’s been used more and more often in this context.
Yes, and decolonization is not necessarily cancellation. Again, all we’re talking about is adding nuance to our understanding of how Russian culture functions, and has functioned, and been allowed to function, in the world. Tolstoy himself is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy is another. A monument to Tolstoy on his estate is one thing; a monument to Tolstoy in a place he never visited, simply because Russia owned it, is another.
But this questioning has led to a big moral panic in some circles – certain corners of the classical world have made quite a lot of noise about how identity politics is detracting from art and music. For instance, Prokofiev was born in Eastern Ukraine; Tchaikovsky’s paternal family were Ukrainian. What do you make of the current debate around identity politics as it relates to Russian and Ukrainian artists?
I don’t think this is identity politics – I think this is the acknowledgement of the complicated histories of this region and of the people who called and still call it home. To say that Gogol is strictly a Russian writer or strictly a Ukrainian writer would be silly – he’s obviously a Russian writer and a Ukrainian writer, and that’s a consequence of the complicated relationship between Russia and Ukraine. I think we as lovers of culture can arrive there – many of us are already there. Right now tempers are heated, and for good reason: cultural monuments are being destroyed by bombs. The head of Shevchenko has a bullet in it.Those things are not acceptable; those things are not going to bring about truth and reconciliation. But I do feel we’ll get through this. Both of these cultures are too strong to be eradicated, and no matter how powerful the Russian military is, it will not squash Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture. which was banned over several centuries yet lives on, and is one of the most productive literary cultures in Europe right now. I don’t think anyone who aims to kill the culture as part of this conflict will succeed, and once they’ve failed decisively, we can go about creating a better, more representative picture of this region’s history, and its art.
Note: This interview was edited by Boris Dralyuk on 30 May 2022, following its original posting on 29 May 2022.
Throughout my series of essays over the past three months examining various cultural, musical , and media-related aspects concerning the war in Ukraine, the one thing that seemed just out of reach was a direct view on the act of departure – or the act of remaining – from or in one’s place of birth. Recent events, most notably those around so-called “Victory Day” in Russia, have served to underline the changing realities around leaving and staying, in both tangible and intangible ways.
Russia’s list of émigré composers is lengthy; the reasons for their departure (and in some cases, return) relating to socio-cultural, financial, and political circumstances and opportunities. Perhaps the most notable Russian non-Russian, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) could only explore his culture through being away from it, not unlike his literary counterpart, the Ireland-born, Europe-living James Joyce (1882-1941). Stravinsky’s relentless curiosity and his willingness to experiment with elements of the Russia he’d left behind in various ways – milking, mocking, embracing, tossing aside those sonic elements, and surgically excising the clichés even as he sentimentally held on to their other, more personal aspects – feels, in retrospect, like a quilted instruction manual of artistic fortitude and spiritual survival. He is one of the composers examined in Music and Soviet Power, 1917-1932 (The Boydell Press, 2012), authors Marina Frolova-Walker and Jonathan Walker. The authors incisively feature a quote used by Soviet musicologist Yuri Keldysh (1907-1995), who is himself quoting critic/pianist/composer V. G. Karatygin (1875-1925), with relation to speculations on the roots of Stravinsky’s work: “The artist, while his art reflects a soul that has been splintered and corroded by neurasthenic impression, is fatigued at the same time by all this nervous tension and seeks out an antidote in the knowing return to simplicity.” Social relations, posit the authors, relate to this tension: “The less the facts of public life pointed towards hopeful outcomes, the more these demands were placed on art. Some strong and vivid external impulses were needed for this.” Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, premiered in 1911 at Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, reflects a dualism which became more varied if concentrated in its expression once Stravinsky embraced his émigré status. Keldysh’s observations on the work’s symbolism hold modern echoes:
By way of contrast to the noisy, notley crowd, there is Petrushka, with his sufferings and his broken heart, expressed through his convulsive rhythms and angular melodies. A wooden doll, a mere puppet, turns out to have feelings too. We have an opposition here: on the one hand, an apparently lifeless puppet jerking mechanically on his strings but capable of refined and complex feelings, and on the other hand we have the living but soulless crowd; this opposition bore a social meaning that responded perfectly to the mood of the intelligentsia during the period of reaction following 1905. A complete withdrawal from active social struggle, a forlorn subjectivism, a dissatisfaction with reality – all these were expressed through the passivity of a moribund psyche, embodied by the image of the suffering Harlequin. The bright colours of Petrushka’s folk scenes, is thus only a superficial element that throws the inner psychological content into relief.” (p. 244-245)
The bright colours seen in recent news reports, as well as across the social media pages of various Moscow-living musical figures, might be viewed thusly, with the realities of those who have left the country making for a far more grim, far less click-friendly presentation. Writer Masha Gessen captured the contemporary experience of departure thusly: “The old Russian émigrés were moving toward a vision of a better life; the new ones were running from a crushing darkness. […] As hard as it is to talk about guilt and responsibility, it’s harder to figure out what the people who used to make up Russia’s civil society should do now that they are no longer in Russia.” (“The Russians Fleeing Putin’s Wartime Crackdown”, The New Yorker, March 20, 2022) It must be noted, of course, that there are varying levels of the experience of tragedy, and that no equivalency can or should exist between Russian émigrés and those fleeing Ukraine. In an exchange with Ilya Venyavkin, who is a historian of the Stalin era, Gessen makes this point explicit: “Now that this parallel society was gone, Venyavkin could think only of the future, which had become strangely clearer. “I refuse to look at this as some kind of personal disaster,” he said. “Disaster is what’s happening in Ukraine.” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2022).
These readings, combined with observations of the numerous concerts, benefits, and tours recently, have been powerful reminders of the ways in which people respond to trauma, particularly those within the creative sphere. Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka wrote about such trauma in his 2000 paper The Ambivalence of Social Change: Triumph or Trauma? (Polish Sociological Review , 2000, No. 131 (2000), pp. 275-290). He expertly examines the coping mechanisms through which various traumatic situations and events might turn into what he terms a “mobilizing force for human agency” and catalyze “creative social becoming.” Aside from the fascinating examinations of the rise of moral panics (more on that in a future essay), Sztompka quotes American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) in his four adaptations to anomie, a term with particular currency. Merton had postulated possible consequences to social strain, elements which could be experienced via the misalignment of individual or collective ambitions, and the circumstances in realizing them. These elements formed the basis of his famous strain theory, published in 1938 in the American Sociological Review. Piotr Sztompka (b.1944, Warsaw) adapted Merton’s ideas to cultural trauma thusly as innovation; rebellion; ritualism; retreatism, elements which he discusses at length in excellent paper, written a scant decade into post-Soviet life. I fully credit Marina Frolova-Walker for the introduction to Sztompka’s work; in an online lecture last month, she provided a wonderful introduction to these concepts within the context of her own post-Soviet musical analyses. It is the innovation aspect to which I am the most interested presently, one I suspect possesses the greatest resonance within the post-pandemic realities of the classical sphere. Certainly innovation (or its lack) is a concept relevant to the many new season announcements by orchestras and opera houses of late; just how those “reimaginings” will manifest, in light of pandemic and war, remains to be seen.
Thus it was that Sztompka’s ideas, together with the currently cautious cultural climate, that I was inspired to reread Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned (Indiana University Press, 2021), by Elena Dubinets, with a fresh, curious view. As well as being an author, Dubinets is the Artistic Director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), a position she began in September 2021. A self-described Jew from Moscow with a Ukrainian spouse, Dubinets has a length and very impressive CV. She worked as Vice President of Artist Planning and Creative Projects at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for 16 years, where she also played a central role in producing and co-founding the orchestra’s in-house label. The trained musicologist was also a Chair of the City of Seattle Music Commission (appointed by the Seattle City Council), a member of the Advisory Board of the University of Washington’s School of Music, and was Chief Artistic Officer at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra before accepting her position with the LPO. A graduate of the Moscow Conservatory, Dubinets has taught in her native Russia, as well as in Costa Rica and the United States, the country where she and her family moved in 1996. Russian Composers Abroad: How They Left, Stayed, Returned examines the movement of both Soviet and post-Soviet composers within the greater paradigm of socio-political identities, ones which shifted and morphed, or not, according to geography and circumstance. Connections in and around these inner and outer realities are ones Dubinets takes particular care with; such investigations have pointed resonance to the current, perilous displacements and journeys being made by so very many. Utilizing a myriad of references and quotations from a variety of sources (including composers Boris Filanovsky, Anton Batagov, Serge Newski and Dmitri Kourliandski) Dubinets examines the 20th and 21st-century diasporic musical landscapes through wonderfully contextualized lenses of history, culture, finance, socio-religious beliefs and practises, and old and current politics, as well as the ways in which identity can and does change according to a combination of these factors.
In a Chapter titled “The “Social” Perspective”, Dubinets features an exchange she shared with composer Mark Kopytman (b. 1929-2011), outlining the cultural explorations and varied journeys which were seminal to his creative identity. Born in Ukraine, Kopytman graduated from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and went on to work at conservatories in then-Soviet Moldova and Kazakhstan. Kopytman emigrated to Israel in 1972, where his ascent at the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance (Jerusalem), from Professor, to Dean, then to Deputy Head, gave him a unique perspective on his past experiences and then-current path. He told Dubinets that his understanding of his own Jewish roots stemmed from his study of Yemenite folklore, which led directly to various compositions integrating various histories and traditions. “Would Kopytman have developed his Jewish identity had he stayed in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or Moldova? Most certainly not.” (p. 139) Dubinets also examines the important if often overlooked act of return. Given the current circumstances and the related antagonisms connected to speaking out against the war or not, these observations hold particular poignancy:
There is a heightened sensitivity among Russian returnees about the resentment they perceive to be directed toward them, and some clearly remember the antagonism and even discrimination they experienced when they came back […] Having studied the emigration-related consequences of the Balkan conflict, Anders Stefansson observed that relationships between emigrants and those who stayed behind often provoked the strongest outbursts of frustration and anger, even more than their memories of violence or the stigma of refugee life. The notion of Otherness and nonbelonging developed in these situations in relation to one’s territorial kin and the sense of former national unity did not guarantee welcome, tolerance, or even basic acceptance. Emigrants – many of whom later tried to return – fell from favor in the homeland and were treated as both social and cultural foreigners and national defectors. (p. 290-291)
The notion of “Russian”-ness needs to be re-examined, Dubinets posits, as she skillfully untangles the fraught web of Soviet and post-Soviet musical identities, and the twisting social connections therein. Her thoroughness and conversational writing style lend a cohesiveness that illuminates Eastern creative landscapes as well as those further afield; Dubinets puts her business acumen to good use in examining aspects of marketing, criticism, and “value” as ascribed to musicians across varying social fields, and related locales. This is a book of nuance, not of binaries, a timely work that moves past the noise of reductionism. Dubinets provides meaningful investigation into the realities of creative life amidst the current sea of both manufactured and real outrage, of profitable obfuscation and polemical thought, creating a myriad of vital understandings and illuminations of musical life, insights which are especially valuable in a time of war.
We spoke at the end of April (2022), about war, identity, and much else.
How do you see musical Russian musical identity now, especially within the wider umbrellas of socio-political and cultural shifts?
I think the definition needs to change – it needs to be decolonized, yes. How we do it is a different story. It will take many generations, I’m afraid, to bring it to something different, because the definition is so established in our minds due to the fact that the idea of Russia as a whole has been perpetuated in the hands of successive governments, not just the current one but prior ones. They made that cultural identity a soft weapon for the country, and the Russian world, so to speak. I’m not sure if you speak Russian, but there’s a term that’s been widely used by Putin’s government, “Russkiy mir“, in order to include any Russian-speaking person on the planet. This was striking for me to realize when I was beginning to do my research about the music of émigré composers: wherever they’d go they’d do Russian music based only on their language. They could be from Georgia, Estonia, from Ukraine of course, or from Russia, but wherever they were placed on the globe, the perception is that they were Russians.
I have a similar story myself: back in Russia when I was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, I did a dissertation on American music, and when I moved to the U.S. and people realized I was speaking Russian and a musicologist, everybody who got in contact with me assumed I was a specialist in Russian music itself – and I was not. I had to slightly go with the flow, but it was an assumption that was quite often put on people and they became labeled with it. Typically this is what the current Russian government wants, and what they organized way before the war, in the late 1990s; Putin then strengthened it, but they organized these meetings of Russians abroad, so to speak, and created certain organizations for supporting the development of Russian culture and Russian music abroad. These associations were especially strong in the UK and they were run by Russian state organizations, so it was an intentional effort to broaden the scope of the government, and to put us all under the same umbrella, regardless of our differences. And it didn’t work, this idea of Russian culture.
… and now it’s biting many people back. Various forms of identity are part of the public discourse now, and identity politics, traditionally seen as being the purview of the West, are being applied in the very place that would resist them most. I wonder what you think about that, particularly within the broader scope of what is being programmed for future seasons? Valentyn Silvestrov (b. 1937, Kyiv), for instance, specifically identifies as a Ukrainian composer.
Well, there are ethnic identities, some want to change them, stick to them, become something else, not all want to be presented as Russian or Ukrainian. Silvestrov specifically wants to be considered a Ukrainian composer because this is his passion, this is what he dedicated his life to. Others will tell you, “I am a composer. I am not a Russian composer.” The same goes for women composers: “I am not a woman-composer; I am a composer.” And so… I’m in favour of people somehow identifying what they do themselves, rather than us putting them in a corner, and trying to label them with certain things that sometimes even we don’t understand. What is indeed “Russian”? It’s really hard to explain to those who are far removed from that state and culture, and for some of us, even the word “Russian” can be understood differently, because there are different words for it. One word can be translated to mean it’s a state-related identity, like Russia as a country-state – “We are Russians because we belong to the state in one way or another” – but another word can be translated as a cultural identity, a language-related identity, which would have nothing to do with the state. In my book I have discussed this concept, and the idea of cultural affiliation – it might be a useful concept to consider instead, to replace the other, much more questionable forms of national identification. What I mean by that is some people simply can’t or don’t want to be singularly associated with the state, or another state, not just Russian; it’s an idea which is applicable to all countries. You might have seen the names in my book, composers like Tszo Chen Guan (b. 1945, Shanghai), who is from China, or Lantuat Nguen (Nguyễn Lân Tuất; b. 1935, Hanoi), who is from Vietnam – they learned Russian, it’s not their first or even their second language but they moved into Russia, and became Russian citizens. And for that reason they had to be affiliated with that specific culture and learn how to accommodate its main stipulations. They started writing Russian overtures and Russian symphonies, and went on to other cultural affiliations. So there is a way to be attached to a country even if you are not really born there.
What I’m trying to conceptualize is that the binary concepts of inclusion vs exclusion, belonging vs otherness, acceptance vs intolerance – these concepts are becoming outdated because the world has changed so much. We are on the move; we are learning new cultures. And we want to be considered as individuals rather than attached to any identity politics.
Context moves against those binary notions, although the nature of contemporary publishing is such that context is thrown off in favor of binary thinking, because it means more clicks, more views, immediate reaction; outrage. I was thinking about this when I read Kevin Platt’s op-ed in The New York Times, which made me consider composer Elena Langer (b. 1974, Moscow), whose work you write about and have programmed as part of the LPO’s 2022-2023 season. How much do you think the idea of redefinition matters? Redefinition moves against binary reductiveness, but it requires flexibility to implement. How do you cultivate that?
I think after the pandemic we have received this very unusual level of flexibility – because we had to change everything for two seasons and we had to do it on the fly, according to each situation. This season we had at least five weeks in a row when we had to make considerable changes in our programming for multiple reasons, not only covid-related but we had a storm – there were all kinds of things, and one of them was the war. For me this ability to change programming and to change, to react to the surrounding world, is absolutely necessary. I have always been troubled by the inertia of arts organizations, and particularly opera houses and symphony orchestras; we have to plan very early, at least two to three years out, and with the opera houses, it’s even more, it’s up to five years out they plan, and that’s in order to ensure availability of composers, singers, directors, conductors – everybody possible – but covid changed all of it. All the plans got shifted. Organizations are still rescheduling and will be accommodating those whose performances got cancelled during covid, for a while, but priorities are also changing, so now I’m asking myself: what should I prioritize? A piece by a Ukrainian composer or one that was cancelled during covid? I’m enjoying the flexibility this time gives us because the audiences expect that kind of flexibility; they got trained by cancellations, which is a strange thing to say. We’d print our brochures and send them out in the “before times”, and we’d stick to what was in those brochures for the rest of the year; this is what people expected from us and we were proud we could satisfy their expectations. But it all went astray, and now if I ask somebody, “What concert are you coming to here next week?” they often get confused – the programmes have been so regularly changed. And that’s the beauty of the situation, this is terrific actually, because we can swiftly implement something that hadn’t been in the plans but can be responsive to the moment.
I wonder if that relates to the first facet of cultural trauma as outlined by Piotr Sztompka, innovation, a concept that feels especially important now. Your choice of quotes from critics in both North America and the UK in your book made me wonder how much innovation does or doesn’t travel across the ocean, particularly post-pandemic.
It’s coming, slowly! It’s much much slower than what we are used to in North America, and I’m still struggling with the fact that sometimes I have to explain very simple things to my colleagues in London. They didn’t live through BLM (Black Lives Matter), or, they didn’t have a similar experience of it; that time was a very, very different thing for them. It was mostly distant; music people here heard about it but didn’t internalize it. In the States it’s impossible not to think about it, but in the U.K., it’s largely, at least in the cultural sector, “Oh right, that.” It is slow to get it into the fabric of our thinking about classical music, and you know, we need a number of pioneers who will lead the way, like for example, my orchestra has been working closely with the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) – they are definitely leading the way, they know about BLM and what they should be doing, but you know, they need to continue convincing the constituents. There are other organizations the LPO works with who are educators, they are groups who are very passionate – they don’t do programming themselves but work with the institutions who do. So I think the more of this work there is, the better it will be. The consensus exists that change has to come but they haven’t gone through things yet.
The UK is much more attuned with the concept of sustainability, however. People use public transportation here more than in North America. There, my team was trying to consider what could be done in terms of greener orchestra attendance, and because everybody uses cars it’s just not possible, but really, it’s one of those things we have to think about. It’s what we do, after all, it’s a life form – people have to physically attend – and In the U.S, to do so they have to drive, whereas in the UK it’s much more about trains, even when we’re on tour. We work with venues on certain aspects of that much more so than counterparts in the U.S. do.
One thing I appreciate your acknowledging during the recent LPO season preview recently is the overall insularity of the classical music world – “our small and somewhat isolated classical community” as you put it – but do you think that bubble is breaking up now, however slightly?
We’ve been observing a pretty interesting process here, but sadly we still can’t qualify it. What we’ve noticed this season, when we came back with the first season of live performance after the pandemic, was that many people got used to watching us online, because we had organized a major series of concerts. We streamed 35 concerts online, the same number we’d normally perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. People were receiving it in the comfort of their homes and they got used to it. Many say it’s a very different experience than when they come for live concerts, that they get something else, they get a different type of engagement – but not all of them decided to come back (live). Some of them are still worried about their health; some live too far away; there is a constituency that hasn’t returned.
However, there is a completely new group of people and it’s mostly younger people who show up randomly at our concerts. We always understand how many are coming, it used to be so subscription-based that we’d know a year out how many would come, but it’s not the case anymore; people really don’t buy until the last minute now, but they do come and they are extremely enthusiastic A recent concert with Renée Fleming is a good example. Of course she’s a star, but it felt like a rock concert! People were screaming, they were young people too – it was stunning for me to see. I’ve worked with her before, in many orchestras, but it was a totally different planet, this concert. So I’m constantly asking myself if this is what we are getting because of the covid and the streaming, if this is why people are so much more embracing of programming changes and of new music and of things they’ve not heard before – I hope this is the case. I do hope we have obtained new audiences somehow after the pandemic, but we still don’t have any statistical data.
I had a conversation with classical marketing consultant David Taylor recently and we discussed how low prices do not inspire younger audience attendance – it could be free but they wouldn’t go – it’s the experience itself, of offering something that can’t be had online.
I totally agree, and I know things we’ve learned about, that we understand what may or may not bring them in that regard. We had an Artist-In-Residence this year, Julia Fischer, who did all five Mozart violin concerti, and we had half-houses for all these concerts. Now if you asked our marketing department three years ago about this they would have said, “That’s a definitive sellout, continue doing only this stuff and then we’ll be all set with our budgets” – but people didn’t show up this time. They showed up for some random and obscure performances we hadn’t budgeted for accordingly, so yes, they come unexpectedly. It’s hard to understand at this point, as I said.
That’s part of the innovation aspect with relation to the cultural responses to trauma, seeking new experiences after two years of watching behind a monitor, although there are many who still choose to do so, whether because of economics or health, or a combination of both. It behoves many cultural organizations not to take those audiences – or how we choose to enjoy concerts – for granted.
That’s true – it’s why our goal with programming has been and will remain in balancing our repertory and offerings; we know that younger people are predisposed to new things and older people mostly prefer their blockbusters, and we’re also going back to the habit of explaining musical experiences – that is, our conductors speak from the stage. I want to say that for almost a decade such a thing was considered a no-go: “Music should speak for itself,” many would say. But now people seem to have the desire to learn more, and how do you learn if you have all possible restrictions? I’m always annoyed the lights go down during performances to such an extent it’s impossible to read the program books – you just can’t see them – and also the small type is very unfriendly. On the other hand younger people can open cell phones and read the notes online but it is too bright in the auditorium to do that, and we make a point to tell them they can’t use their devices during performances. It is an unfriendly art form in many ways when it comes to educating people about music and educating them about the experiences they have paid money to hear, so we are now beginning to talk more openly about doing pre-concert lectures and doing quick introductions from the stage right before the music. Of course we’ll be using digital means going forward as well, that’s important, we really want people to come back! They vote with their feet, and if they don’t like something, they don’t come back.
But you are also filling in the holes for an education system that has been continually underfunded over many decades. I am not sure all classical organizations themselves think of their mission this way; I recently read about a festival featuring the music of Rachmaninoff and the language consisted largely of clichéd notions of “Russian” music. Is this, I thought, how we should talk about him (or any Russian composer) anymore? It seems so outdated.
We played Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony on the third day of the war – that concert was called “From Russia With Love” and consisted entirely of Russian music: Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s Second. I actually had to go onstage and say something because it was unimaginable to do the concert without any framing of it, without putting it within the current situation, whereby it could have been just cancelled outright. We could have done just that, but people bought tickets; they wanted to hear this music. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) has never associated himself with Putin, and I thought, “Why would we cancel it? We just have to position it properly.”
So we played the Ukrainian national anthem to open, after I said a few words, and really, this is what it means to be relevant as an industry: it means engaging with people’s emotions and thoughts in a particular moment. We played the anthem at a time before everyone else was doing it. I explained how Prokofiev (1891-1953), even though he is considered Russian, was born in Ukraine, specifically in the territory being bombed at the moment; as to Rachmaninoff, he left Russia because he never agreed with the regime change or its policies. Putting the music in context makes a huge difference in people’s minds…
Context, the magic word!
Yes! And we had a standing ovation after the anthem, and it wasn’t a standing ovation for only how well they played this music or how beautiful it was or is; it was a standing ovation for the fact we decided to open a concert with, let’s use this word, a “dangerous” program this way, by explaining what it means to us and why we are doing it.
I asked Axel Brüggemann about this recently and he agreed but added that such contextual information can sometimes disturb people’s closely-held perceptions of beauty in art…
So maybe he’s thinking of Dostoyevsky’s idea that beauty will save the world… and we know it will not!
It’s interesting you mention Dostoyevsky because there have been numerous discussions pondering if he should still he be held up as “the great Russian writer” considering his anti-semitism. Rather than knee-jerk reaction, my instinct as a teacher is to examine his work with full contextual awareness, which might lead, as your book also suggests, to a rethinking of greatness, of Russian-ness, and how we use the word “genius” going forwards.
Yes, and what I tried to always state and intimate, when I can, is that Russians are very different, Russian music is a part of the Russian image, the government has used it to its own narrative, but we must never conflate all Russians, and especially Russian composers and musicians – and artists in general – into something unified. It would be anachronistic and inaccurate. In that op-ed you mentioned, Kevin Platt was trying to do this, and I don’t think it came off right, especially since he placed Gergiev and Netrebko in a strange context – but he did say Ukrainians who write in the Russian language, they certainly self-identify as Ukrainians, but they still use the Russian language, the same way as Gogol (1809-1852) did in the 19th century or Shevchenko (1814-1861) as well. They did it because Russian was the language of the empire, it was a colonizing language, and actually moving to Saint Petersburg was because of the opportunities that existed there, ones that didn’t exist for their art in Kyiv or in Ukraine in general.
We can never forget about the social element and infrastructures of how the arts are done when we examine any art form, especially music, because it is an extensive art form; you sometimes have to hire hundreds to perform your piece, and how can it be supported if the state or major donors don’t invest in the art form? We can’t forget about that reality. Some Ukrainian writers simply had opportunities in Russia, and when Russian had become a terribly universal language for all citizens of the former Soviet empire, they simply continued using this language – but that doesn’t mean they’re Russians; we can’t conflate them all into the same plot . For this reason we can’t cancel it all; we should perform it. People like Gergiev… no, that’s different. It’s clear to everyone on the planet I believe, that he specifically benefited from this government and specifically supported its war efforts; many others have not, they protested, it should also matter and it should count.
Having said that, I have experienced opinions from other folks, for example Ukrainian musicians, who think that while the war is ongoing, Russian and Ukrainian music shouldn’t be on the same platform or the same programme, and while I don’t quite agree with it, I do see the rationale for that, and I understand their position. Ultimately what they’re saying is music is their weapon as well, the same way it is and has been soft power, and a soft weapon for the Russian government, so Ukrainians are also saying, “We have this meaningful tool and we want to use it appropriately.” But there is also another element bothering me recently as a scholar of Russian music and culture: I agonize over the fact that right now is not an ideal time to advocate for Russian music, but it is impossible to reconcile the unimaginable atrocities that have been committed by Russian soldiers with the fact they were educated in school studying Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. They were part of the system and even if they didn’t internalize it, it was there, it existed. I know myself, I studied and taught there, and know how it’s done right now. So it’s hard to understand how people who had at least some cultural background and education in school, do what they’ve been doing…
Quiteafewreports have explored the connection between military service and poverty, and President Zelensky has noted this also, which makes me think that for all culture they were shown in school, it doesn’t mean the same thing for them as it would for others in different areas. What is culture if you have nothing in the fridge and no job prospects outside the door? This makes me ponder our role(s) as artists / thinkers / writers / producers / programmers of culture, and of how to create or support a system that reaches past our bubble – which goes back to your points. The classical community needs to start thinking about all of this…
… we do have to, yes, but unfortunately right now the domination of the Russian government there, in those places, is remaking the ways in which school kids, those in elementary schools, will be studying history and culture, and also unfortunately, that history and culture will now become even less based on facts and even more based on ideology. This is the reform they’re initiating right now as we speak. So who will grow up within that system, between ten to fifteen years from now, is scary to imagine. And that’s not talking only about rural areas but cities as well, because they all have the same agenda, to glorify what the army is doing right now.
The language for that glory creates and shapes a reality which is not, in fact, reality – but surely this is why we have to talk about culture, and characterize decisions in culture, very carefully ourselves, and make sure when we make these decisions public or engage in exchanges that such language is very precise and not reactionary…?
Yes, and we should do that. In Russia that sense has been killed; what exists is public television which is a very determined agenda. And going back to what you asked me about what we learned as a result of the pandemic and how Europe is different from North America: Russia is an entirely different planet. They’ve never heard of some of the concepts we are trying to implement, or they are totally against them. They are not even trying to understand or accept the realities of the current time. If you are talking about diversifying the art form, they’re never considered this. I’m worried this feeds into the overall line of the “exceptionality” of the Russian culture in general, and that idea applies to Russian musicians in particular. They don’t want to accept that there are other cultures, other important elements in our world that they need to consider.
You know it’s always interesting to consider how decolonization should happen, and quite an obvious way would be for those formerly colonized cultures to be considered independent of their colonizers. This is what I am observing right now: I think the deconstructing of Russian imperial identity is happening in such a way. Ukraine has always been positioned in comparison to Russia, and Ukrainian artists are often compared to Russian artists. I’ve heard here, on my job with the LPO even, on multiple occasions, that we don’t know Ukrainian music because “Oh, it’s not as good as Russian” – and this is silly. People don’t know Ukrainian music, period, because it was purposely colonized that way, it was undermined by the occupier, by the empire, by its ambitions for their counterparts who would willingly point it out to everybody, that what they do is better than what other people in the provinces do, and Russians just don’t want to hear this piece of history, we completely ignore this societal argument. So when decolonizing these cultures, say, Belarusian or Ukrainian, I think they should be able to stand on their own rather than being constantly compared with Russians – and right now the public discourse is such that it’s just not happening. Maybe a few more months have to pass. Right now our goal is to perform as much Ukrainian music as possible and convince everybody it does stand on its own, and that it does have this individuality which it was not granted in the past.
So it starts with those programming choices and the flexibility you mentioned and saying, “Yes, we are going to have this composer and that composer in our programme tonight, it isn’t announced, but here it is” – just that spontaneous?
It’s just that. We performed a piece for violin and orchestra, “Thornbush”, by Victoria Polevá (b. 1962, Ktiv) at the fundraiser for Ukraine in Glyndebourne in early April; it was not really announced but we spoke about it from the stage, and then we decided to commission a new piece from her for next season.
Our entire 2022-2023 season will be dedicated to music by composers who had to leave their own countries as refugees to displaced composers – so we’ll talk about issues of home, what is home, what is displacement, how the composers experience exile, homelessness, despair, when and why they had to drop everything and leave – and what does it mean to “belong:, in a much broader sense? Is the idea of “home” just an emotional environment they wanted to create for themselves? Or is it a certain geographic location? Is it a time and place? There are so many possible descriptors of what “home” is, and this is what we hope to explore through music next season. The idea of this season came up when I was just hired to become the Artistic Director, about a year ago, and we thought we were implementing it pretty well, we incorporated composers who had left Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany but also Cuba, Afghanistan and Syria, and you’ll hear music from all these composers although few know their names. We had to make some choices in favour of these composers instead of programming Beethoven, let’s say, who could sell us many more tickets – but we used this new season to represent our general mission. And unfortunately the idea became – I say “unfortunately” because I wish this war never happened – very relevant when the war was starting, so we commissioned Victoria Polevá, who was on the way from Kyiv to Poland to escape the bombs at the time we asked – and so she will write for us next season. This is how I understand the mission of our art form at this terrible moment: decolonizing the preconceptions about classical music.
On a recent afternoon, I looked out at the pond outside my office window and noted a pair of geese staring at the sky in confusion. It was 12°C yesterday, their tiny flapping wings suggested, now it’s snowing! This isn’t normal! The idea – the experience – of “normal” is gone. Whether it was real or a veneer hiding far uglier things, “normal” or our idea of it, has been blown apart. What we did in some version of then, and who we are in an ever-evolving sense of now, don’t mix or even intermingle, despite the ephemeral details indicating otherwise. Thus does the practice of letting go – of the old, the familiar, the “normal” – ascend in conversation yet be ignored in practice; old markers of an old life, like jangling charms on a bracelet, make the right sounds, but play the melody roughly, too slow, out of tune. Nothing can be as it was, but still, we long for the return of that which we knew, or thought we knew, and thought we wanted to continue forever, and so we wait, like Puccini’s Butterfly, all night, all day, and then all night again, time blurring into self, waiting, hoping, looking for signs to materialize, in some sentimental, macaroon-coloured reverie of hope, lowering masks and taking a deep breath, eyes darting around in the darkness. It was like this and now it’s like this – not normal!
My writing focuses on the intersection of culture, media, and history, with a firm eye on current affairs, which is related to the influence of my other life, as a Professor of Media Studies. As journalists know, what is “current” one day is old the next, or more likely within hours. Constantly trying to keep up with the “new” in news renders one’s concentrated efforts rapidly obsolete, one’s words tired and old, “like too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote Tolkien’s world-weary Bilbo. Meaningful conversation is in short supply in such a world, and is now mediated and distributed through digital means. Cues are lost, viscerality is lost; far more valued is short, hot reaction, stoked to keep the engines of commerce turning. Horror is churned out into mere content; images of suffering are rendered war porn pleasing hungry advertisers. There is little I feel qualified to say about this, other than to continue reading, thinking, conversing, in as respectful and curious a manner as possible. This series aims to examine the ways in which individuals and organizations move, or try to move, past the hot reaction and loaded language that turns the wheels of social media and related ad technology; I have no idea if it will have any effect, and have given up hope of such impact, but I write it anyway, mainly because I don’t see this kind of analysis happening elsewhere. There’s a reason for that lack: money. Finance, or its lack, is also the root cause of misunderstandings, snap judgements, and shallow readings of events which deserve more thoughtful analyses within the classical sphere.
In analyzing the varied and deeply-rooted causes of recent Russian artist/artwork cancellation, there has been a growing awareness of the role of flexibility: who can bend, when, how much, to what cost, literal and otherwise. The ideas of “normal” held by audiences and administrations, and the ways in which the classical industry has continued to cling to those notions, veneering themselves in some semblance of it, are revealing, and mostly unflattering. Anxieties over cost, in Dollars and Euros and Pounds, is very real in the post-pandemic (or whatever phase we are currently in) landscape of the performing arts; ignoring it or pretending it is not a motivating factor in current cultural decisions is to ignore perhaps the single most vital element of the industry. The North American performing arts landscape has been immensely altered by the experience of pandemic; an LA Times report (March 24, 2022) lists ten artists who have permanently left the theatre scene in the United States, but judging from social media activity and reactions, one may safely assume there are far more departures from the industry across the continent, with individuals leaving an industry en masse, simply because they cannot energetically (financially, socially, mentally) justify staying. Organizations have, simply put, not been flexible in accommodating needed changes, particularly when it comes to freelancers (a point made with repeated brutal clarity by Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones at his blog). The single biggest factors asking for this flexibility (money and education, and how the two relate) don’t seem to be given any meaningful degree of public scrutiny in any media outlet – the need for healthcare; the need for paid ensembles; the need for early arts education across all sectors; the need for active and consistent outreach; the (great) need for far larger arts budgets; the centrality of culture to community (especially to healing the broken sense of community so exacerbated by corona isolation); the inherent comprehension that culture can and should be a cornerstone of such community and of asking vital questions within those communities – apparently the examination of such elements doesn’t drive clicks, so (I know this from experience) those stories are not being assigned in newsrooms. Editors have to justify their chases and thus their budgets; public institutions in particular (and this applies as much to arts organizations as news outlets) have been pressured, through years of heinous budget cuts, to feel they must compete with commercial interests and outlets. The two should be able to co-exist, with understandings of the roles and functions each fulfills, and yet the worst impulses and influences of one (namely ROI) have largely co-opted the base mandates of the other; thus the chance for real change, and thus real flexibility, dies. The whole tenor of contemporary conversation – around current events as much as arts and culture – been largely (if not wholly) reduced to clicks, likes, reaction, firing flames for a guarded, angry intransigence that doesn’t like looking beyond headlines, let alone making time for such examination.
Yet the old “normal” no longer exists, and it seems clear many in the classical industry are aware of this. To paraphrase Hamlet, organizations would rather bear those ills they have, than “to fly to others we know not of.” No one knows what the “new” will bring, but there are small signs that point to those who may have the bravery, and the will, to offer another path. People don’t want to race back to auditoriums; the risks are still real. What was once “normal” within the sphere of live performance experience (especially certain behaviours) is no longer acceptable; what was once taken for granted can no longer be treated as such. That sense of needing to create a new normal is lately reflected, at least sometimes, in programming choices and the will which has clearly been exercised to make them; it has been encouraging to see various organizations acknowledging this need and manifesting it, without worrying too much about sexy clicks. At the very start of the war in late February, the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin made a quick if important change to their weekend programme. Contrary to reports in Russia media, Chief Conductor and Music Director Vladimir Jurowski did not (as he had been accused of) “cancel” Tchaikovsky from the entire existing program; he replaced Marche slave (written in 1876 as a paean to Russia’s intercession in the Serbian-Ottoman war) with two works by Ukrainian composer Mykhailo Verbytsky (1815-1870), the Ukrainian anthem (1863), and Symphonic Overture No. 1 in D major. The latter work, with its folk-like lines, created an immensely thoughtful frisson alongside the world premiere of Dmitri Smirnov’s “Concerto piccolo” for cello and orchestra, “History of Russia in 4 anthems” (2001), a sarcastic and brilliant deconstruction of Russian machismo within the paradigm of shifting musical-political identities. Anton Rubinstein’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 2 in D minor (1874) followed, its nods to Ukrainian folk melody so apparent in its final movement, with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 (1888) to close; its militaristic lines sounded a snide bravado most poignantly in a final movement that spoke as equally to specific tragedy as to the broader circumstances which birthed it. None of this was on any social media channels – such thoughtfulness does not play well within the strictures dictated by such platforms, nor publishers – though it was thankfully broadcast (and accessible for a month thereafter) on the public radio channel Deutschlandfunk Kultur.
Other orchestras have followed suit. The Berlin Philharmonic was featured on both their own dedicated platform (its Digital Concert Hall) and that of German national broadcaster RBB for a benefit concert held recently at Schloss Bellevue. The concert was one of many recent (and rapidly-organized) charity initiatives done in partnership with ARD, an integrated organizations comprised of Germany’s public-service broadcasters. The Berlin Phil’s programme featured two works by Valentyn Sllvestrov (b. 1937), who fled his native Kyiv earlier this month, thanks to the help of Ukrainian conductor Vitaly Alekseenok and Russian pianist Yuri Lyubimov. Silvestrov’s music is also featured in a beautiful new release by violinist Daniel Hope with Ukrainian pianist Alexey Botvinov, Music For Ukraine (Deutsche Grammophon) which, along with works by Silvestrov, includes music by Myroslav Skoryk (1938-2020) and Jan Freidlin (b. 1944). All proceeds from the album’s sales will go to Aktion Deutschland Hilft, a non-profit organization working to deliver emergency aid to those affected by the war. If Silvestrov’s music known only to those with specialized knowledge of the contemporary compositional scene in Europe prior to February 24th, it is now being hoisted into something approaching mainstream awareness. Lithuanian Opera and The Metropolitan Opera both performed Silvestrov works as part of hastily-organized charity initiatives, though his Symphony No. 4 was presented by the London Philharmonic Orchestra last month as part of a regular season concert, albeit in an altered programme that impressively demonstrated the needed flexibility in accordance with the times. Some might posit that the work of the so-called “most famous living Ukrainian composer” has become something of a go-to for organizations looking to telegraph concern for current events; perhaps one ought not to question sincerity in such cases, these are worthy causes after all, and attract wide audiences and much-needed funds. But the composer himself expressed frustration at the race to embrace his work at this particular juncture, telling Professor of Musicology Peter Schmerz “that this misfortune needed to happen for them to begin playing my music. […] Does music not have any value in and of itself without any kind of war?” (New York Times, March 30, 2022)
It is a question worth pondering, especially as questions around flexibility and, related to that, responsibility swirl in the classical community. Will audiences get the opportunity to hear the works of Silvestrov, Skoryk, and Verbytsky as part of regular programming? And will organizations place them beside Russian works, or have them be played by Russian artists? Should they? Will some kind of statement be required? Conductor Ariane Matiakh, who has described herself as “a Frenchwoman with Ukrainian roots which are bleeding at the moment”, told Radio France earlier this month that she “condemn(s) the artists who have always seemed close to power” in Russia but, like others in her profession, made a distinction between the artists cozy with power, and those others who are “not able to take a stand.” Similarly, The Association of British Orchestras (ABO) released a statement in early March in which they stated that “no Russian artist should be compelled to make such a public statement, when the consequence of doing so would be that the lives, liberty and livelihoods of themselves and members of their family in Russia are endangered. We will also look after those of our staff and musicians who are personally impacted by the invasion of Ukraine.” Here the question is one of perception, of proportional concern, of turning away from the urge toward simplistic false equivalency, the problematic nature of which I outlined in Part 1 of this series). To put it plainly: there is no equivalency between artists suffering in Russia and those (artists or not) suffering in Ukraine. It’s upsetting to see such moral trafficking made quotidian, within such insulting and reductive equivalencies, when the context exists for a far deeper and more compassionate response; concern-trolling and moral policing plug up what should be open if extremely difficult discussions that must be had, in the classical world and elsewhere. It is equally vital to understand the ways in which the classical industry has, or is, or could be responding, most specifically within the context of post-pandemic recovery, with a firm awareness of the economics, inside the industry, and outside of it, via the media who cover it with less and less depth of detail and comprehension. Controversy, or the mere whiff of it, plays well to the machinery of algorithms and ad technology; a headline that uses triggering keywords or phrases (“cancel culture”, “boycott”, “ban”, “freedom”) is likely to please publishers (and advertisers) far more than one that might better represent its true content (or indeed, the actual, far more complex story). Context is often the thing left behind under duress of analytical realities (time on page, clicks, other forms of engagement metrics) but such contemporary publishing realities leave a gaping hole in precisely the spot where most cultural workers (artists, writers, composers, academics) like to think they live: the world of thinking. For every cancellation, there is anotherstory (ormore); for every decision veneered by brand management, there is another one deserving of attention. In a searingly honest op-ed (published 1 April 2022), Opera Wire Managing Editor Polina Lyapustina wrestles with her own background, the notion of supposed “cancellation” and the ways in which the recent flexibility shown by artists (Jurowski included) has proven important: “The Great Russian culture was supposed to educate (its own people in particular). Stop using it to mask problems, and excuse crimes. Stop.”
If one approaches the study of a score and only looks at its most superficial elements – sans history, sans connection to other works, sans past recordings or artists’ performances – one misses a great deal; perhaps a similarly careful and contextualized media literacy needs to be at play, particularly within the classical music realm. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve suggested that a basic education in the realities of contemporary publishing (especially within the digital realm) is required for those in the classical world – just as writers in this realm need to be aware of the particulars of music, the awareness and knowledge should be reciprocal – but this may be my most direct appeal. Never has context been more important to so many, and so many with or needing money especially. Making a snap judgement, and creating a confirmation bias around that judgement, of there existing an overarching “cancellation” of Russian culture based on cherry-picked headlines (ones which are algorithmically pushed up to prominence in Google searches) ignore immense and very important contextual roots: limited repertoire because of funding; management timidity; administrative ignorance of repertoire; audience skittishness; audience ignorance (remember, they are as culpable to those hot-reaction headlines as anyone); shifting infection numbers; optics to please a moneyed and influential donor base; ever-widening educational gaps; marketing to attract a longed-for young audience (who are largely victims of that educational gap, natch). To not acknowledge these factors and investigate them further, but instead choose a reductive understanding that plays into a mythologized (and highly politicized) clash of civilizations seems reductive when placed against the thoughtful approach which the classical industry tends to pride itself on cultivating. One cannot look at such incidents in isolation but as part of a much wider, and rapidly shifting ecosystem with innate ties to money, or lack thereof. The fashionable “reimagining” terminology has only been applied in some cases, and with utter timidity, and not seen or experienced at this moment with any level of reliable consistency that would indicate long-term commitment to change.
Yet, as with the RSB decision in February, motions toward meaningful dialogues exist, however minutely. Those motions are dependent on leadership demonstrating the kind of mature resolve which the situation requires – a resolve to open dialogues (however uncomfortable), to dare returned tickets (certainly a great risk, given the times), to court angry social media reaction (which perhaps means taking a step or two back from it – yes really; no, I’m not naive). The flexibility with which certain programming changes have been (and continue to be made) in incremental ways suggests an innate awareness of the importance of this flexibility in leading an embrace of a new normal, and the willpower to implement it. The ABO released a link to a spreadsheet listing six pieces by Ukrainian composers, their respective orchestrations, and their respective publishers, as well as a far more comprehensive link to Lviv National Opera featuring a far larger range of Ukrainian composers, and related works, performances, and useful information. Facebook groups, similarly, have been active in providing links and downloads to Ukrainian works. Some organizations are actualizing their intentions beyond charity initiatives. Writing at American Orchestras’ website recently, London Philharmonic Orchestra Artistic Director Elena Dubinets referenced the need for programmatic flexibility and active engagement with new and/or unfamiliar repertoire. In acknowledging her personal history (Dubinets’ husband is Ukrainian, she is a self-described “Jew from Moscow”), Dubinets reflected on how cultural connections (in both macro and micro senses) can (or should) play out within artistic realms. The complicated, all-umbrella term “Russian” music was given particular attention, with Dubinets repeatedly recognizing the contributions of Ukrainian artists to past and present classical life, and observing that the LPO’s inclusion of Silvestrov’s Symphony No. 4 in its programme last month was a symbol that “sooner rather than later, Ukrainian music will become an essential part of the symphonic repertoire.” Let’s hope these are not hollow words and empty gestures; as she notes, “Ukrainian music is less known than it ought to be”, due in part to intransigence, nervousness, and pushback by organizations who are, more than ever, risk-averse to programming new and unknown works.
This is where the Instagrammification of classical music niggles; “fun” content is favoured over meaningful items that might dare less engagement. I have sat through numerous “day in the life of” Instagram Stories released by various houses and orchestras over the course of the past four weeks; there’s nothing inherently wrong with such things, but the timing, and the content (that hideous word) is wretched. Oh, I kept thinking looking out the window at the confused geese, for an ounce of something intelligent and good, something that does not so obviously play to shallow algorithms. It’s not that I believe the classical industry is somehow “better” than entertainment outlets that utilize such strategies, but I do believe it is different, and thus it has an entirely different set of demands and realities. The willingness to embrace meaningful change might, particularly at this moment, convey a real form of real commitment to dialogue and respect (the very words Bayerische Staatsoper loftily hashtagged in their own posts at the start of the war in late February), yet the lack of commitment to such realization renders these motions as little more than optically-pleasing marketing, of lulling audiences into some perceived form of “safe” that does naught but museumify what should be a living, breathing, vital entity, with shiny, Instastory wrapping. Arts organisations need to ask who they are serving , and more pointedly, to what end. The 2022-2023 seasons of many orchestras and opera houses have been announced, and so far, there is little if any embrace of risk, or display of meaningful change. If we are to ‘carry on’ in whatever fashion we can now, two years into Covid and amidst war, then let’s not “carry on” as per usual; it behoves every leader at every level to make a concerted effort which entails not merely the replication of an old normal but the embrace (and active cultivation) of new ones. This won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, because there can’t be, and yes, it is difficult, and indeed very risky, especially in an era where (as I also wrote) audiences are proving very slow to return, where every ticket return and disgruntled subscriber is magnified one-hundred-fold. Better not to risk even one angry letter or one pair of returned tickets, all these season brochures whisper (or sometimes shout), better to stick to the tried and the true. Carefully telegraphing We Really Care™ to audiences has priority; real change, or committing to it, is much further down the list.
I am willing to court accusations of cynicism – that would hardly be new – but I am not willing to let context and its inherent need at this juncture evaporate, not when arts and media, together, and the people who work in both, can do more. Alas, if only they were allowed to. Organizations who believe they are doing precisely what they think audiences want by doing the safe thing are only proving how little they actually know about those audiences, and how little they care about the tenor of the times; they are also unwittingly telling me how adverse they are not only to risk but, ultimately, to any form of meaningful change which the practice of their art might inspire. Those who bat around ugly phrases and espouse the beliefs inherent to them (i.e. “cancel culture”) reveal how little commitment exists to needed change, how little commitment exists toward the cultivation of context, how much attachment there is to an old idea of “normal.” That “normal”, and our perceptions of it – our attachment to it, as audiences, as artists, as administrators, as writers, as thinkers, as lovers of culture – must be set alight. At their final stop on a recent European tour, the RSB performed a piece by Valentyn Silvestrov, “Abschiedsserenade” (2003), a hymn to endings, a prayer for beginnings. The two-movement work, written just after the passing of Ukrainian composer Ivan Karabits (1945-2002), was not part of the orchestra’s formal Budapest programme but was added on and performed with gentle grace and delicacy. With its long lines and lingering tones, the work reminds one of the cyclical nature we so often take for granted. Music in 2022 can, must, be more, for everyone; to quote poet E. E. Cummings, “where everything’s nothing —arise,my soul;and sing”.
Amidst the many classical features published over the past year, the word “relatable” has popped up, an insistent neon sign in a landscape of bucolic rural scenes and insistently grinning portraits. Art, and especially, opera, should be relatable in some way, apparently – relatable as in connecting directly to the viewer’s life, habits, predilections, and peccadillos in obvious and recognizable ways. If Figaro is presented on the stage, we should immediately recognize him, if not as someone else, but precisely as one’s own self: “Hey, that’s me! That’s what I do, that’s how I react, that’s just how I think!” So too for Carmen, the Marschallin, Aida, Papageno, Rigoletto, Lulu, Brünnhilde, Hansel and Gretel, Boris Godounov, the Cunning Little Vixen, the Miserly Knight, Lady Macbeth(s), Eurydice, Rodelinda, Poppea. This desire (more of a demand in some places) to see our immediate and recognizable selves on a stage (on a screen, in a book) is not new. In 2014 American public radio personality Ira Glass dismissed a production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, his tweet stating he found “no stakes, unrelatable”, then subsequently referencing 2013 productions of Shakespeare in New York with another pithy tweet: “(F)antastic acting, surprisingly funny, but Shakespeare is not relatable, unemotional.”
Rebecca Mead’s 2014 piece for The New Yorker, The Scourge Of “Relatability”, contextualizes the history of the word in relation to its rise on early-aughties American daytime television and its subsequent rise across various media sources and literary review websites, along with an indicative listicle from a clickbait-heavy site – surely a bullseye example to contemporary eyes, inundated consciously and not with the mechanics of ad tech, whose role here is not inconsiderable. Mead notes the concept has roots in Freud’s mechanism of identification – that is, cultivation of self through imitation and idealization of a parental and/or authority figures. (“Children are inclined to behave like the significant adult models in their environment, Freud postulated. These identifications give identity and individuality to the maturing child,” as Britannica helpfully notes.) The challenge to cultural expression, as Mead rightly identifies, is that the demand for relatability becomes conflated with expectation, that “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” This has immense implications for opera, with its widely-regarded, unconsciously-held expectations of ecstasy, ones which are all the more subsumed within a culture which grapples with outmoded perceptions and clichés around elitism. Why shouldn’t one want to see one’s self, precisely, live before them, especially when one enters the auditorium having paid good money, made the effort to dress up, obtained the now-required documentation for entry? Mead continues:
The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.”
The demand on directors, and by association, singers, to be relatable, to have familiar elements of daily life and the 21st century living of it, grows more and more present. “Reimagined” is the buzzword of the Covid era, with presentations of many works overhauled, rebranded, and largely decontextualized for consumption by a supposedly hungry online audience; offering up new/old works with the intention to relay some form of the relatable (be it in gender, gender fluidity, race, sexuality, social strata) before the truly theatrical, is less a fad than a lived reality in many corners of the cultural landscape. The hearty use of digital technologies, while initially heartening 21 months ago, more than often this year points to confusion between the accessible and the relatable; the assumption that we’re all on our computers because of pandemic isn’t wrong but it’s lazy, and takes the onus off the human urge toward imagination, and the exercise of it. We want to imagine ourselves fully dressed, out and about, in pre-corona land, but that’s not going to happen, and so, we’re presented with endless forms of what is perceived by marketing departments to be entirely relatable, and we, of course, are meant to applaud.
Inside the Teatro Regio di Parma. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Some figures, like Faust, are already familiar, or should be, by the sheer dint of previous literary/socio-cultural history. Don’t we all make a deal with the devil, whether it’s posting open-moistly-mouthed photos in order to get the notice of powerful casting agents, going maskless backstage, posting over-edited (in modern parlance, “curated”) performance snippets on Tik Tok, or even (especially) getting on an airplane at Xmas/New Year’s amidst pandemic? Ah, but that magic word “choice” is a captivating sirin in modern life, eyes glinting with perceived power and colored talons wrapped around an invisible pen, waving the papers for an imaginary divorce from hard, real circumstance – that messy, multi-layered stuff which makes us. It’s pleasant and convenient, (some will righteously label it “immense”, a handy form of ego-combing empowerment), to feel that everything in life is entirely within one’s control, that everything boils down to the woo of personal responsibility and individual energetic direction. I can choose to be agreeable about this exploitative situation; I can be h-o-t as defined by the narrow parameters I myself entrench; I choose to see myself in Carmen; I choose to see Sarastro as a closet sub in search of a dom. I can choose, lalala! If we do not see our very selves precisely presented on the stage, so the thinking goes, then where? Should we (can we) “choose” otherwise? Shall our complicated and messy 21st century world not be part of (nay, constitute the entirety of) theatrical presentation now, in the midst of pandemic? Is it not awfully elitist to ignore such realities given such a forum? Can we choose something else – really? In an industry so bifurcated by geography, funding models, educational models, and quotidian culture, the concept of “relatable” as connected to stagings differs widely, and takes on various forms, some of which are shared, many of which are not. One can choose to applaud or be angry, but one must always be loud in 2021, and probably 2022 also; awareness, contemplation, nuance, quiet – time-consuming, seemingly effortful, unfashionable. The recent hand-wringing in Berlin over The Nutcracker (given intelligent dissection recently in Süddeutsche Zeitung) makes clear the onerous challenges of a lacking historical awareness, the disinterest in engaging with its sharper corners, and the unsexy nature of nuance, a quality which works against the acrid reactivity which makes the machinery of ad tech turn so merrily, which has hoisted the cult of the relatable to godlike status. Everyone takes sides; everyone is supposed to. We signed the papers, after all.
This is not to dismiss diverse representation, a powerful and wholly overdue thing. Such representation offers an encouragement to young artists (read: non-white, non-straight, non-gendered, non-moneyed) who might otherwise not see themselves, literally, figuratively, or otherwise, as having any role or value in the industry, or indeed, elsewhere in the wider world. I have imagined myself, at various points, a mother, a partner, a socialite, a popular and promiscuous girl; I have imagined myself tall and elegant and reed-thin; I have imagined myself tiny-breasted and long-legged and saucer-eyed; I have imagined myself part of a wide and active social group, with a large and rambling line of loud, boisterous relatives; I have imagined myself a successful writer and artist, living in various places, each with its own beautiful view. Don’t dream it, be it; there’s that invisible pen at work again. I don’t have to imagine myself as a lawyer, a doctor, teacher, accountant, engineer; I’ve never been interested enough in those things to exercise such energies, and I know I have the advantage of class, colour, and nationality to take seeing myself in them entirely for granted; others do not. There is no leap of imagination required for seeing and experiencing people like me in those roles. For those who don’t look and sound like me, that leap is required, constantly, outside the theatre just as often as inside of it. That the best and most effective solution might be at the elementary education level is what many nod at with seriousness and understanding, but is the very thing few seem willing to actually do. It isn’t sexy, tangling with education departments and ministries who aren’t interested in you or your world, and such long-haul commitments are made more difficult (and difficult to justify) amidst the economic ruin of pandemic, to wave arms and shout until hoarse, Spend more on school instruments! Stop cutting music classes in your budgets! The issue isn’t as simple as online arm-waves anyway, but oh, the work involved, the sheer level of energy (to petition, to raise awareness, to do the continual footwork, to educate and re-educate one’s self and others) – fighting against decades of lacklustre government policy is not a job for the weak of heart, it bears no public plaudits or shares or retweets, and more often than not of late, no real fruit either. Such work is not favoured by algorithms, ergo, such work does not, within the digital sphere of the 21st century, exist; most arts educators already know this.
Detail, The Age of Bronze (L’Age d’airain), Auguste Rodin, bronze; 1906. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
One thinks back to innumerable noisy recorder lessons in small, windowless rooms, sitting on scratchy orange carpet, one’s fingers moving along the narrow round body, the tips growing moist from all that joyful, effortful breathing producing squeaky versions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and the recognizable theme from Dvořák’s New World Symphony. I could play both, in far fancier (if still simplified) versions on the piano, but then, I came from an odd household, privileged in the sense that culture, including classical music, was an integrated part of quotidian life. I didn’t relate to most of elementary (or high) school, but for the music and cultural/literary elements. For those who keep and cultivate these things, for those whom music is in fact a central facet of daily life, it becomes all too easy to forget about those outside the bubble of such privilege – and it is that, something we inside of it often conveniently forget. Being an educator at post-secondary institutions these last seven years has served to underline, in some rather bold and striking ways, the parameters of such a bubble, and all the concomitant implications of such a world view. Most of my students through the years have never heard of Peter And The Wolf, let alone Prokofiev; many of them think of opera only as a formal if dull event adhering to the #fancy clichés pushed by the very organizations who wish to court them, and those online only too happy to entrench such cliches for the sake of some high-school-competition win. The music-minded note the growing gaps in arts education, sigh heavily, write tweets with predictable words (ie Philistines, barbarism) and carry on listening to the latest BBC3 podcast on the work of a composer many (most?) of the students silently nodded at (but never seen) in such exchanges have never heard of, or probably experience live. Them vs. us; us vs. them; make the arts great (again), or something; RT this; pageviews that. Ad (tech) infinitum.
The polarities encouraged by the mechanics of the internet, and which characterise much online discourse now, have had an obvious and unmissable effect on the discourse around opera. Burn it all down on one side; I want camels in Aida dammit! on the other. Cliques exist, foment, gather choristers accordingly. Polarity, as history has shown, is profitable for the few and bad for the many, and any step outside the boundaries cause for ostracising (or worse yet, in the digital realm, being – gasp – ignored), but such a vast and inflamed auditorium has given rise to a frustrating conflation between relatability and revisionism, with no sense of the influence or role of funding according to geography. When marketing has to somehow make up for a lack of proper funding, well, what then? Somehow the appeals to “relatable” art (and antecedent calls for more diverse representation within it) become louder, with nary a contemplation given to the nuanced ecosystems of creation, imagination, context, history, and plain, messy, debt-ridden, ill, heartbroken people. Everything begins, and ends, with money, and as with educational reform, arts funding is an area rife with predictable name-calling (the poor old Philistines) and salty intransigence. People want to see people like them presented onstage, with all their preferences and problems and concerns, and those with deep pockets will pay for that – but only that. As Mead wrote, “In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities.” Such capacities, like nuance, do not translate through the narcissistic lens of the digital realm, and, in the mid-pandemic landscape of opera, are largely not welcome.
Graham Vick’s interactive production of Stiffelio at Teatro Farnese, Parma, 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.
Thus the desire (demand) to see ourselves presented, just so, on a stage continues – but so too, I hope, does the desire to see something that demands a leap of faith, and imagination, not unlike church (but with better costumes, unless you are Orthodox). Some of my favorite contemporary directors (Graham Vick, Barrie Kosky, Andrea Breth, Kirill Serebrennikov, Claus Guth, Calixto Bieito, Katharina Thalbach, and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) take the leap of faith and imagination so integral to theatre, and to the presentation of opera, now more than ever; words bandied about with disdain (modernized, Eurotrash, and my favorite, unrelatable) discount the vital roles of each, and further entrench the polarities which have proven so damaging, and so very profitable. Representation becomes less about literalism and more concerned with staring us opera fans in the face in challenging our culpability for its longtime lack. My favourite operatic presentations tend to ask something I’m not always prepared to give; sometimes there is discomfort, confusion, anger… and hours, weeks, sometimes months later, I am glad for the experience, and grateful. It is with no small awareness that I attend opera not wanting to see me on the stage; I have the luxury of taking for granted the musicians, performers, director, designers, and much of the audience, already does. In no way does such awareness diminish the power of individual imagination within the parameters of creative presentation in that particular auditorium, on that particular day, at that particular hour, in that particular locale, with my own particular knowledge of director / work / singers / conductor / orchestra / house / personnel / history. I attend theatre, and opera, wanting to see another’s life and experiences, wanting another’s thoughts and emotions, hungry for another’s ideas and observations, all of which are conveyed through the lens of just such a chosen group, and thusly judge, evaluate, contemplate, and imagine for myself, whether or not the parts fit, how, and why, or why not. Knowing the history inherent to stage works, like The Nutcracker is vital; I cannot possibly relate to the Sugar Plum Fairy or Drosselmeyer, but I can at least understand, or gain some sense, of the context in which it was created and presented, and engage in an exercise of imagination with relation to Tchaikovsky (and Dumas, and Hoffmann too), to the first (and subsequent) audiences of the work, to evolving senses of lives and world views. Imagination is not the same thing as empathy, and shouldn’t be confused as such; such an conflation is analogous to that of representation and revisionism, and says more about our world now, with its digital cliques and keyboard warriors, its comfortable bubbles and reductive phrases (ie “cancel culture”) borne of the polarities encouraged by algorithms. Anything “guaranteed to offend” yields as many yawns as something “guaranteed to wow”; hype is the ever-bleeding wound collected by the Holy Grail of clicks, one best to exercise conscientious choice in ignoring. Sometimes, that invisible pen comes in rather handy.
The basic elements around which narratives turn are familiar tropes to all, no matter the background or exposure, the education or the privilege, or lack thereof. This past autumn I played my media students Peter And The Wolf (none of them – 61 in all – had ever heard of the work) to encourage a creative cultivation in their perceptions of the building blocks of narrative. For all the bewildered looks I courted at the time (bewildered eyes, that is, times being what they are) the quality of writing thereafter noticeably improved. Whether this is down to Prokofiev, Karloff, my mad live note-taking, or some combination therein, I cannot say, but a thought was reinforced: introduction, enthusiasm, and contextualization matter, and they affect how one thinks of and approaches those other, popular building blocks. None of them could relate to the specific elements; nearly all of them could relate to the work’s themes of growing up and moving away from childhood through frightening, direct experience with a clear and present danger. Romance, with its inherent silliness often presented as Actual Real Love across large swaths of culture, is a common theme carrying its own unique roads to imagination and winding paths to memory; more often than not the two combine in such an element, and produce frequent misunderstandings, if simultaneously checking the box of expected ecstasy. Sentimental swoons at the close of La bohème ignore the basics: there is fighting; there is suffering; there is terrible poverty. There is death, remorse, inevitably harsh growing up. Do we really need some romanticized version of poverty, loss, death? To use the common parlance, fuck that noise. Fighting with the person you love isn’t romantic; it’s awful. Watching the person you love die isn’t pastel-adorned, beautied sentimentality; it’s cold, steely, horrific. There’s no call for a director to make things “relatable” – such a quality already exists within the work itself, as much as its characters. Romanticized clichés – the ones sometimes expected and often friendly to donors (who wish nothing more than to have at the theatre, a manageable, tidy vision of the world that reflects their own desires and/or worldview) – have a tendency to diminish, not enhance, boxing in that which shouldn’t be (really can’t be) tidily wrapped. The work itself is so painfully real in places, the characters themselves could be depicted on the moon (in fact, they were, in Claus Guth’s staging at Opéra de Paris a few seasons ago) – Puccini’s music, his vocal writing, his orchestration, reveals something deeper, more real, more human. Some things are relatable, and some things are not; where there are elements missing, imagination is charged, and re-charged, with every note, every pause, every breath.
This holds true as much for Mimi and Rodolfo as it does for Tosca, for Don Giovanni, for the Marshalline, for Boris Godounov, the fox, the knight, Carmen, and Lulu too. There are smidges of the sacred, the profane, the hellish, the divine, the undeniably human, conveyed not only with words (of course not), but through music, that thing so often (too often) bizarrely, somehow, forgotten in the Race To Relatability. Motifs, orchestration, phrasing, pauses, individual performance choices as much as scored ones, melodies, harmonies, tones (semitones, quarter tones): these choices, made by creators, together with their backgrounds, the worlds from which they sprung, the people who paid them and the people who booed – all are worth examining, staring in the face, knowing, learning, with or without any sense of familiarity, but with nuance, consideration, curiosity. There is no such thing as attending a cultural event with a blank inner slate; there is, however, a role for curiosity, and intimately related to that, a role for imagination, and they are things capable of, and for, everyone. Live creative expression carries the weight of whatever context is brought by artists who might allow for such trust to be built within a space dedicated to imagination and the conscious and delicious exercise of it. Here the invisible pen vanishes, there is no fairytale, nothing is relatable, and everything is understood, or not; here there is only sound, silence, sighs, and one hopes, magic.
One of the most painful aspects of the current era has been the observance and experience of chasms. Opera, as an art form, mixed with the reality of pandemic may find fascinating intersections within the virtual sphere, but that meeting does not translate very effectively, at least so far, within tangible form. Cost, travel restrictions, vaccination passports, and Brexit challenges aside, many more barriers exist which ask for careful consideration. The opera road has many divergent avenues which are all largely based around locale; views and vistas along respective routes, to say nothing of who travels them, vary widely. Big trucks, small bikes, winding paths, superhighways; “how far to the next pit stop?” and are-we-there-yet-isms; lamps, darkness, diners, picnics; baggage, necessities, extras; time, route, and of course, purpose, are all paramount, but none trumps locale, of calculating just how one actually gets from Point A to Point B, and just who’s going to pay for that particular ride.
Such matters came to mind during Bayerische Staatsoper’s final presentation of the company’s 2020-2021 season, a performance / livestream of Tristan und Isolde featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Anja Harteros in the title roles and outgoing Music Director Kirill Petrenko on the podium, with a moody production by Krzysztof Warlikowski. During the second intermission, German media personality Thomas Gottschalk, acting as event host, spoke with American baritone Sean Michael Plumb (who was singing the role of Melor) about the differences between North American and European systems, highlighting obvious financial realities and the ways in which certain perceptions relate to not only aesthetic expectations but to overall presentation, as well as to the early and regular exposure to classical music. I confess to being struck by this exchange, especially the questions – ones that are rarely if ever asked in interviews, let alone at the intermission of a major production at one of the world’s foremost houses; they’re the sorts of things I tend to discuss privately with friends, not openly in a broadcast, for thousands to hear and ponder. Yet such an exchange is worth publicly contemplating in an era when some North American opera/classical devotees may well be looking across the sea green with envy (or blue with sadness), highly aware that homegrown and European models are simply not comparable. Artists and administrators who have traveled from Europe to North America, whether on a contract or in lengthier capacities, are struck by such sharp contrast, within the realms of style and approach as much as the realities of funding on one side and audience expectations at the other. There are a lot of those expectations to fulfill, many more demands to be met at every turn, and sitting at the obvious core of it all, of course, is money. In many senses it is miraculous that wheels turn at all in North America, given the delicate state of funding, the realities of union negotiations, a near total lack of media exposure, and widespread public indifference to an art form so heavily laden (if not outright presented) with hideous clichés, literal as much as figurative.
And while there’s plenty of talk about the funding side (not wrongly), the other aspect which must be considered is education, perhaps now, more than ever. Generations of brutal government cuts in Canada and the United States, to education as well as to public broadcasting services, have cultivated an environment whereby experience, understanding, and appreciation of the arts has been perniciously removed from numerous non-arts contexts to which is dependent; history, social issues, politics, and other art forms (literature, painting, dance) are now largely disconnected from any form of live performance art and/or presentation. The teaching of history, in all of its diverse and frequently ugly aspects, has been divorced from that of cultural expression (and direct experience) by generations of teachers who may well not know or understand the role of culture themselves, and who, not unlike opera companies, are working in relation to the decisions of their own boards and committees, and the related budgets as set forth by each according to respective government bodies. Teaching journalism at post-secondary institutions myself, I wrestle with how to infuse my media teachings with music; students tend to get fired up through sounds, not words, because sound, in most spheres, has a resonance words do not (cannot) wholly possess. Sometimes international examples (written + audio/audio-visual) are given within the contexts of lectures and homework; study this, listen to that; watch this, what did you get out of that, and how can you apply it to your work? The results are usually insightful, enlightening, expansive, lending themselves to new questions – and that’s precisely the intention.
Encouraging such enthusiasm is central to education, particularly for endeavors attempting to integrate the world of culture within an environment that would seem to spurn and diminish such efforts. Stefan Zweig writes in his momentous memoir The World Of Yesterday (Die Welt von Gestern: Erinnerungen eines Europäers, 1942) that “enthusiasm is infectious among young people. It passes from one to another in a school class like measles or scarlet fever, and by trying to outdo one another as fast as possible novices, in their childish vanity and ambition, will spur one another on.” Infection does not live long in a state of lockdown, as many of this era certainly know; enforced isolation, within education as much as artistic realms, is its own form of hell. Teaching online this past year was harsh for all involved; the “enthusiasm” of which Zweig writes was in little supply, yet I found its expression in some unexpected if delightful places. At the end of various classes, there would almost always be some students who would want to chat – about the lesson and the issues we raised, about things they’d seen/read/heard which were somehow related, about the various music things I’d brought in as illustrations of this or that concept. Very often there were further questions, about how I became interested in opera, who introduced me, what I specifically liked. Such curiosity and enthusiasm would later be glimpsed (explored, realized, manifest, however tentatively) via formal submissions, whether written or via audio or visual means. How different these exchanges might’ve been within a live context is difficult to say; would students have possessed as much boldness? Did the perceived safety of a monitor – distant, faceless if they so chose (most did), vocally disembodied – make the asking of such questions, about a world so foreign (and perhaps daunting) to them, less awkward? I find the medium of a monitor energetically deadening, that it robs me of the vibrations and resonances which accompany the experience of the live, whether in the house or the classroom; one senses the receptors inherent within learning and response, which allow one to fully listen and fully feel, are simply not there. I never felt entirely as present I should’ve been for my students from behind the screen, and yet there was something about the experience that encouraged curiosity. Hurrah!
Just how much this curiosity may or may not be expressed in the autumn is questionable. As of now, classes and labs are to be held in-person partially, with a 50% in-room capacity. It will be another chasm to cross, creatively, enthusiastically, with much courage, curiosity, commitment. I am not quite sure what I’ll be using, music-wise, as part of my instruction, but by December, I imagine we will all be thirsting to attend some form of live music event, perhaps genres not yet anticipated. Until then, I’ll be cocking an eyebrow at the various education departments of opera companies, hoping they encourage the experience and exercise nuance, rumination, and curiosity; though not formally part of the STEM system, they are vital to helping close the chasm to which Gottschalk and Plumb’s exchange alluded. It isn’t about budgets now; it’s about brains. Bitte, let’s use them, in all their various capacities, through all the various trips.
Certain sounds inspire one to sit up a little straighter, look away from the monitor, pull up the blinds, gaze out the window, and then remove the pandemic uniform of fleece loungewear and replace it with something more elegant and beautiful. Thus it is that those sounds – singers, operas, concerts, arias, and oratorios – have worked in tandem to provide a much-needed uplift over the course of the past fifteen months, aiding in a more focused, thoughtful, and elevated quality of energy than much of the classical internet, and its overdue if very often over/underwhelming digital pivot, tends to demand at any given moment in the age of Covid. Lisette Oropesa’s debut album, Ombra Compagna: Mozart Concert Arias, released via Pentatone earlier this month, provides such uplift, along with a hefty dollop of inspiration.
Recorded in August 2020 with conductor Antonello Manacorda and orchestra Il Pomo d’Oro, the album’s ten tracks showcase Oropesa’s poetic musical sense, as well as her talent for balancing the whirlwind spirals of drama with the straight-arrow trajectories of technique. Hearing such luscious sounds, one immediately adjusts one’s spine, fixes one’s hair, puts on a nice dress; it feels as if the artists, and composer too, would request nothing less, or more, in the era in which the album was recorded and released. Three tracks feature the words of Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782): “Misera, dove son!”, (composed in 1781) “Alcandro, lo confesso – Non so d’onde viene” (1778) and the album’s closer, “Ah se in ciel, benigne stelle” (started 1778; completed 1788). The latter two arias were composed for Aloysia Weber (1760-1839), an accomplished singer whom the composer had taught and been enamoured with prior to his marrying her sister, Constanze (in 1782); the works are notable for the poignant musical ideas which fully anticipate more fulsome creative expression in Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and La clemenza di Tito (1791) . Oropesa’s handling of the aural and textual aspects of the respective arias expresses a touching emotional honesty; the knowing way in which the soprano delicately modulates her tone and breath, her studied phrasing and vivid coloration, imply a comprehension of things beneath, around, between, and beyond the words. “Alcandro, lo confesso”, for instance, is from Metastasio’s libretto for L’olimpiade (Olympiad), and was originally set to music by Antonio Caldara, who was court composer to Empress Elizabeth Christine of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (the work was originally meant to celebrate her birthday). As John A. Rice’s fine album notes remind us, “(t)he concert aria gave composers and performers flexibility in regard to the gender of the singer vis-a-vis the gender of the character portrayed. To be more specific: a female singer could freely portray a male character.” Such fluidity is conveyed with quiet elegance through Oropesa’s controlled if unquestionably heartfelt delivery, complemented by Manacorda’s stately tempo and dynamics:
Alcandro, lo confesso,
stupisca di me stesso. II volto, il ciglio,
la voce di costui nel cor mi desta
un palpito improvviso,
che lo risente in ogni fibra il sangue.
Fra tutti i miei pensieri
la cagion ne ricerco, e non la trovo.
Che sarà, giusti Dei, questo ch’io provo?
Non so d’onde viene
quel tenero affetto,
quel moto che ignoto
mi nasce nel petto,
quel gel, che le vene
scorrendo mi va.
Nel seno a destarmi
sì fieri contrasti
non parmi che basti
la sola pietà.
Alcandro, I confess it,
astonished by myself. His face, his
expression, his voice—they awaken
a sudden tremble in my heart
which the blood repulses through my veins.
I try to find the reason in all my thoughts,
but I can’t find it.
Good Gods, what is it that I feel?
I don’t know where this tender
feeling comes from,
this unknown emotion
that is born in my breast,
this chill that runs
through my veins.
is not sufficient to cause
those strongly opposed feelings
in my breast.
(English translation by Christina Gembaczka & Kate Rockett)
With a rich vocality displayed in the frequently challenging, wide-ranging works, Oropesa’s flexibility and confidence, together with her calculated blend of sass, class, and deep sensitivity, show an artist flowering in a range of colors and styles. The concert arias demand, as Oropesa writes in the album notes, “extremes of range, breath control, dynamics, and stamina” and the soprano’s versatile technique (well explored through her history with Italian repertoire, especially bel canto) is keenly studied, if easily received.
That’s the point, Lisette said when we chatted recently – the music should sound effortless, even if it’s anything but – in content, as much as in style. Having such multi-faceted awareness is, for the singer, central to understanding and expressing the depths of real, lived emotional experience within the music; even if the topics are mythological, the subtext is far more familiar.The album’s title (which translates as “companion spirit”), originates in the aria “Ah, lo previdi” (“Ah, I foresaw it”), used in a scene from Vittorio Amadeo Cigna-Santi’s libretto for Andromeda (1755); it uses the recitative form for maximal dramatic impact whilst offering a careful musical scoring that highlights aural power to convey the speaker’s grief over what she believes is her beloved’s passing. As Oropesa writes, “the most sublime music accompanies the journey between life and death, as the spirit of a loved one slips away.Though we may wish to follow them into the next life, we must stay behind. So to be an “Ombra compagna,” to be with someone in spirit”, when we say that, it is a comforting yet heartbreaking testament of love.”
Known for her work on the stages of Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Alla Scala, Opéra national de Paris, and the Met, Oropesa is acclaimed for her performances of Italian, French, and German repertoire; she is especially known for her performances as Verdi’s Violetta (Latraviata) and Donizetti’s Lucia (Lucia diLammermoor). Zooming recently from Arizona, Oropesa was warm, funny, real, moving with ease and humour between discussing music approaches and dishing life lessons, with the same warmth and honesty as I remembered in our previous chat in 2019. Despite the challenges of the past year-plus, Oropesa’s upcoming schedule is busy, and, along with recordings and performances in Paris, Zurich, and Vienna, features concerts in California, Italy, and, in March 2022, a much-anticipated concert appearance at Teatro Real Madrid. January 2022 sees the soprano perform the title role in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, after being unable to perform at the season opener for the fabled house in December 2020 because of coronavirus-forced closure.
We began by discussing Ombra Compagna and how the project came to fruition amidst the numerous restrictions necessitated by the pandemic.
How did you choose material – why Mozart?
I didn’t actually pick that material! I am a big Mozart fan and I sing a couple of the concert arias; I studied them, but Pomo d’Oro wanted to record this material and they wanted me to sing it –they were the ones who reached out originally. I didn’t have a label at the time, so while I said yes to them and “it sounds great, send me a list of which arias you mean, there are so many and some are out of my realm of possibility but some are doable, I’d have to study them” – shortly thereafter Pentatone reached out. We had a meeting, and they said, “We want to offer you a package deal for six albums: three recital discs and three opera discs, and I said, would you consider this Mozart project? They said, “Yes, that would be a great first disc!” – so that’s how it happened. From there, Pomo d’Oro sent me a list of arias they were originally thinking of me doing. I chose which ones I wanted, and went on a journey; I got all this sheet music and spent a long time studying and listening to stuff, trying to find what arias were more well-known, ones that had and hadn’t been done. I did pick the arias but didn’t plan the project. In our business so much is given to you, and you either take it or you don’t; very few artists are capable of manifesting their own dreams into any reality. I had wanted a record deal for years, so I’m happy. To produce an album is akin to buying a house: to get an orchestra together, hire a conductor, order scores, find the space for recording, get in the right sound engineers… it’s a lot. So this was great, because someone else produced it. Pentatone is a label that very much cares about sound quality and specifics, and their producers have a lot of experience with orchestra and voices.
And artistically, if you offer me a Mozart project, I’ll never say no! In recording this, I had to find ways I could sing and interpret these works, because they’re all written for different individuals and that means, in a lot of ways, they’re tailored to specific voices: some might have amazing jumps, some might have great coloratura, some might have dramatic capabilities. Every aria has its own personal stamp, so I had to find my way of interpreting all of that, with the best of what I can do. I’m not a master of every single technical thing but I can do a lot of things okay enough that, I can probably pull from my experience – I can pull my flute experience here, I can pull my band experience there, I have my experience with recitative – and the fact I feel comfortable in Italian was very helpful too. The conductor (Antonello Manacorda) was a concertmaster and leads a lot of Mozart so we got on really well, and the orchestra are a great Baroque ensemble. They tuned down to 432Hz for some things; because I am not the highest-sitting a soprano right now, that made my life easy. It was fun, the whole thing. I loved it!
You really personalized the material in your approach.
You have to – really, you have to! I was telling someone the other day, with a lot of people singing Mozart, it’s like watching a gymnastics routine or an ice skating routine; we’re waiting for the jumps and flips and landings. And that’s fine, but those routines in particular, even though they’re sports, they’re also artistic: you’re looking for elegance and beauty and seamlessness of one move to the next, and the power of the gymnast who has their own way they move. In that respect, it’s like singing Mozart: you can’t just look at the technical demands and not go past that into what he is really about, which is depth of emotion. And you can’t do the emotion without the technical stuff – that’s a doorway into the realm of what I think Mozart really is, but you can’t start from that side of the door, you have to go through the technical door first. The problem is a lot of people – artists, industry people, listeners even – get very hung up on the door, but we have to get past it. It’s a tough thing to do, so I try to make the easiest-sounding door possible. Whatever technical demands there are, I try to make them sound easy, even though they’re not. But if I make it seem hard you won’t get past it.
Then all we’d hear is a door.
With Artur Rucinski in Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Real, 2018. Photo; Javier del Real
Your bel canto experience must have been good preparation too…
Tremendous. Bel canto helps you with learning to use recitative in a way that is emotionally effective. Mozart is a beautiful writer of recitative so I never had an issue. These arias are all accompagnati; the orchestra is playing, it’s not with just a harpsichord, which you get in his operas – so because these are concert pieces, the entire orchestra is involved, even doing recit, and you might be doing it for four pages before the aria starts. It’s odd to sing it in a way, but it’s also a dramatic part of the piece: you’re setting up the story and that’s very nice as a singer! The other thing is that being a former instrumentalist is really helpful; I learned to express music that didn’t have words, I learned how to express a musical intention, a phrase, without text. With text, sometimes it’s all singers obsess over, this “What about this consonant? What about this vowel? How should I put across all the immense poetry?” – and yes, all of that is important, but with Mozart, the text and the musical phrase are joined; the musical phrase is as vital as the text. Ideally, you marry those two things together when you perform.
Would you say they’re lieder-esque in a sense… ?
Yes, they are.
I hear a lot of Schubert and Beethoven being anticipated in these works, and especially in how you perform them, which made me consider how much I’d like to hear you doing these works in recital.
Thank you, that means a lot. I love lieder, especially the Viennese school and the German stuff; it’s some of the best rep in the world. One of the good things about the pandemic, one of the few silver linings, is that solo-singer-with-piano configurement has become much more popular; I have a massive book full of recital rep that I’m preparing for next year. It’s months’ worth of recitals – the bookers all want lieder, so honestly? Yay! I’m ready, I’m bringing it!
Well yes, recording was the only thing people could do for so long, because orchestras were free and you could record, as long as you were distanced and the room was aired out, and you tested throughout the process. It was one of the only things still allowed to happen. I did three albums myself since this whole thing has happened, and realistically, I’d never be able to book them otherwise; most singers are never free, they need a week at least of just recording, and normally no one can spare the time, so (setting time aside to record) is a scheduling issue (in relation to opera houses). But this past year everybody’s been recording or rehearsing, or learning new roles.
What’s that like for you as a singer, to be taken away from audience energy but to get closer to your voice and to other musicians?
It is a chance to navel-gaze at our larynx, haha! And, not having the audience when you’re doing an album is not a problem because you’re focusing on just recording; you can rehearse, worry about the singing, you don’t have to please a director, you don’t have to wear a costume, you can wear the flat shoes, no makeup and do your thing. I never recorded with an orchestra before – this was my first taste of doing that, and even though we were distanced (so it was slightly less intimate than it would normally be), I was maskless and I could sing into the mic, start, then stop; repeat.
Now, doing performances like an opera or a concert, without an audience… that sucks. We can do it, but. What happens in rehearsal is, you’re basically rehearsing and then you run the whole show with an audience of your castmates, which is intimate and beautiful, but the next level is presenting it to the public; that is what you are preparing to do. And then to do that presentation with no public present, except on the internet – we can’t hear them, or see them – it almost feels like you’re still rehearsing somehow, like you painted something but didn’t hang it on the wall. There’s no finished feeling, and that’s odd; there is no energy back, and that’s odd. So you can sing your balls off and then you don’t hear any applause or reaction – you can’t feel what the audience’s energy is toward you – and that’s awful.
But lately I feel I have to wave my arms about this; yes, you do it to fulfill an innate creative urge, but related to that, at least to my mind, is the desire for energetic feedback.
Exactly right. I mean the thing is, we, and this is what’s been hard, the public comes to us for escape in some ways. We are entertainment for many people; they come to the theatre to dream, and that’s been taken away from them, but, we as artists are expected to still perform at the same level, or a more high level, because everything is so hard now, so it’s “Please come perform on the internet for an audience you can’t see or hear!” You’re doing it for less money and for much more stress and much more risk, and the stakes are 100 times higher; as artists we’re stressed beyond belief doing this, and we still have to put that aside, and put emotions to the side. It’s hard enough when things are functioning normally – there’s enough difficulty in the business as it is – but now there’s far more; there’s world stress, there’s financial stress, there’s various forms of personal stress, and there’s still this attitude, like, “Sing for us! Entertain us! Sing under these circumstances!”
In La traviata at Teatro Real, 2020. Photo: Javier del Real
Your work as a singer is being filtered through the choices of a director as well; it must create a weird self-consciousness not only about how you sound, but how you look.
I’ve talked about this with regards to opera in HD – you don’t get to direct what frame is on the screen at any given moment, so you might be on camera or not, doing all this great work, but no one will see it if the director doesn’t choose you. And then there will be these snap judgements – “He’s a bad actor!” – but in theatre you can pick where you want to look. The energy and electricity of performers reaches audiences in a different way live than through a camera. Cinematic awareness is something we are having to deal with more and more, yes – I made a movie in Rome of Traviata, and we did so many takes of every scene, live-sung, with the orchestra piped into a speaker. We had to follow as best we could, and I had no idea which take they ultimately took. My mother saw rough cut and said, “That director likes your back!” and a friend in film said, “Oh that’s a specific directorial thing, seeing what (Violetta) is seeing rather than presenting an outside perspective” but I was doing all these things with my face, because I have experience in theatre, and theatre is much more immediate.
It’s surprising how many don’t understand or appreciate that immediacy, implying the big digital pivot is somehow going to “save” opera and how it needs re-defining; I wonder if the real issue is better cultural education.
It is, because the art form does not need redefining – I 100% agree with you. Opera does not need redefining; it does not need watering down, it does not need censorship. It is actually more progressive than people have interpreted it as being, even though it isn’t always presented that way, but it can and should be presented in different and new ways. Opera also provides one of the very best opportunities for women to work: as a prima donna, as a lead character, as a very central if not entirely pivotal character on the stage. I mean, I’m lucky I don’t have to compete with men for my job.
The pandemic era has shown that a lot of companies definitely needed to up their digital game, but lately it feels like music is the last thing to be considered.
You’re right; it doesn’t seem like the music is that important sometimes. I feel at the moment that the focus is more on, “how many people can we reach”, “what are the numbers”, “what social message can we put out”. Some companies are trying to do innovative things, like performing in a parking garage, a racetrack, an airport… but I think, look, we’re not cars. We don’t belong in cement buildings. I know we’re trying to do the distance thing and I get the whys and wherefores of that, but an opera voice is meant to resonate in a concert hall that’s designed in a very specific way to showcase this very specific thing. It’s the same thinking as, ‘let’s put a ballerina on a cliff and make her dance’ and sure, she could, but her shoes aren’t made for that, her training isn’t made for that, it’s taking this very particular craft and sticking it in another medium it isn’t made for, and as a result it doesn’t come across the same way.
And it isn’t perceived the same way as a result; there’s pluses and minuses to that. But to me the central issue is still one of education, or lack thereof.
Yes, I mean, where does the music go when these sorts of construction things happen? You lose a lot of the intimacy in those giant settings…
… sure, but it’s not a new thing; Arena di Verona exists, and other spectacles have come and gone. I remember attending Aida at the local stadium as a kid, and that was really not about the music. The sound was horrendous but it looked impressive.
Some things don’t work outdoors, and some do. The problem is that (outside stages) force singers to adopt a whole different way of interpreting the music, and Aida has a lot of intimate moments. How would you expect a soprano to sing “O patria mia” in a stadium? That’s a very internal moment, that aria, she isn’t barking it – and sure, The Triumphal March works great, it’s 800 people and the orchestral scoring is very exciting right then – but for much of the opera, it’s just two people or one person singing on the stage. It’s a story about relationships, and you can so easily lose sight of that. It’s the same for any of these operas about individuals going through intimate experiences – in Aida or Traviata or Rigoletto. Actually, Rigoletto was staged at Circus Maximus – the stadium where the chariot race in Ben Hur was filmed – last summer; now, Rigoletto is about a father and a daughter, and a very complicated, close relationship, and … you know, in such a big space… I don’t know, it’s unusual. But somewhere like Arena di Verona, it’s an amphitheatre, it’s good acoustics, the stagings are done at night; there’s a special sort of vibe there.
Singing for the internet is a whole different thing, I’d imagine…
Oh yes – for broadcasts shown in a cinema or for the internet, you have to deal with a crappy little microphone hidden in your bosom or wig, and then try not to think about the fact that you’re singing for somebody’s crappy computer speakers. And: the majority are judging your voice. You are totally aware that the online audience are often critical and anonymous. Everybody’s a critic and has a platform to bitch and moan about not sounding good, but look, it’s not fair to watch and judge a singer’s voice on this platform; overtones don’t get picked up, color largely do not translate, subtle things you do with your voice do not translate, and there are these weird resonances. Now, a real hall has acoustics which are designed to promote those things in a proper way; at La Scala a voice bounces, as it should, and you can’t get that in speakers. I don’t know how else to explain it. When you train as a singer in school and take lessons you are not training to sing into a microphone; you are trained to sing over an orchestra and/or another instrument, playing loudly, in a hall. That is our training. If you tell me to take my training and do something else and expect me to be brilliant and get everything perfectly, there’s a problem.
And, we are not trained to act for a camera; we are trained for the theatre, our faces are meant to be open and expressive, and we are taught a certain level of exaggeration in ways that underline enunciation and presentation. You stick that on camera and it looks unflattering, over-exaggerated, not believable, silly. Then you get told, “Well tone it down for the camera” and you think, I’m supposed to be singing for 3000 people here, but apparently I should… be subtle? It becomes this whole issue, and then it goes into, “This person doesn’t look good on camera because they are old.” And they’re not old at all, they’re at a perfect age, they’re good-looking, and, yes, they sound amazing! But it’s become this new “normal” for singers, that they look “old” somehow.
Ombra Compagna was released via Pentatone in May 2021.
… exactly, “People love her, she has lots of followers, she looks hot in a bikini…”
“… and we have to attract a younger, hip audience, so…”
… “we have to attract a younger audience” is dog whistle for, “We have to get the heavy, unattractive, older people off.” Why are we trying to attract them? In Europe there are tons of young people going to classical events; if you make it cheap enough, the younger patrons will attend, and, if you don’t try to water it down into these headlines, like, “Passion! Jealousy! Opera!” That sounds like a telenovela, come on, they see through that. But the marketing to young people involves us singers now, too, so any singer with a decent following – organizations tend to use us to advertise, and that’s fine, they can do it; that’s the reality.
So much marketing adds insult to injury by implying knowledge is somehow bad, that it’s elite to educate your potential audiences.
If people think they don’t like classical music, or that it’s elite, then ask them to turn on any movie/series/TV show, and tell me what it is they’re hearing and responding to. I’ll tell you: it’s classical instrumentation and writing. 90% of the time people are responding emotionally to a theme while something is happening. Classical is an art that deals in human emotion; it happens naturally. You can play a video game and the music is gorgeous, epic, classical music, most of the time, it’s otherworldly – so if people don’t think they’ll like it, well, they might. It shocks me sometimes, the ignorance, but classical is absolutely mainstream. And so I don’t think it’s any more elite than the Olympics. People think classical is so hoyty-toytoy – but it’s like going to a nice restaurant or a special dinner; you have certain protocols you follow. That should be something you look forward to doing, like going on a date. Do you really want to go in your PJs?
Ah, but that’s the uniform this year!
Right? Lounge-office wear is the fashion in 2021 now!
I actually took off the lounge-wear and put on a dress to listen to your album; I still do.
Oh thank you!
It felt elevating and inclusive at once, and that is an integration Mozart seems especially good at.
Mozart is not a composer who leaves people out – he’s one of the more easy-to-listen-to composers. It’s why so many of his works are known by so many people, in and out of the realm of classical music. It’s melodic, harmonic, theatrical, entertaining, not too much chromaticism, nothing people wouldn’t get, but so human. His work is a great introduction to classical music overall.
Various singers have told me they love returning to the music of Mozart because his music is a massage for the voice – is that true for you too?
It is, yes, and it can be a really great thing to get you in line vocally. If you are everywhere with your voice, Mozart is a very challenging composer. He demands you understand the door, to go back to our image from earlier; all the hinges have to be lined up, everything has to be right, and just so. Only then, yes – walk through that door; Mozart wants you to.
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Toward the end of her life my mother would chide me for what she perceived as prolonged screen time. “You are always at that damn computer,” she’d sigh, “but I suppose you have to think about your audience and what they’d like to read.” What with everyone spending longer and more concentrated time in front of screens amidst the current coronavirus crisis, the lines between education, entertainment, and enlightenment can be fraught indeed. As an educator and writer, I frequently have to balance my desire to share information with a deeply-held urge to entertain, and then be able to skillfully juggle the added ball of measured impact. Those of us whose work is largely based in or around the internet (i.e. writers, artists, musicians) are at the mercy of ever-changing algorithms; we want to have our work seen, but we want to keep our voices and ideas intact. Playing to the desired young audience many classical institutions now eagerly pursue should, I suppose, be a priority, but playing to such an audience is not easy when you are no longer young yourself, not comfortable changing the nature of your work (or its presentation), and have an innate awareness that it is not desirable (or very dignified) as an aging woman with highly specialist passions and specifically artsy tastes, to attempt to compete with young/cute/sexy/etc. And yet, to note one’s work being read, shared, engaged with, and sense it is having an impact – it is gratifying. To play to the algorithm, or not to play to the algorithm; this is the question.
This juggling act can become even more complex when it is one’s modus operandi to impart what you feel is vital information whilst providing a modicum of inspiration which might (possibly, hopefully) encourage independent exploration, on and off the screen. Gresham College has been able to do all of these things, with incredible style and success, specifically through its Russian Piano Masterpieces series, featuring Professor Frolova-Walker and pianist Peter Donohoe. Introduced in September 2020, the series consists of what can only be described as lecture-conversation-concerts – in-depth, one-hour explorations of the history, structure, harmonics, and socio-economic-creative contexts of composers and their respective (if oftentimes linked) outputs. Frolova-Walker specializes in Russian music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has published, lectured and had her work broadcast on BBC Radio 3; along with being Professor of Music History and Director of Studies in Music at Clare College, Cambridge, she is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2015, she was recognized for her work in musicology and awarded the Edward Dent Medal by the Royal Musical Association. Peter Donohoe, CBE, is a celebrated international pianist who, since his winning the 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, has worked with a range of conductors, including Yevgeny Svetlanov, Gustavo Dudamel, and Sir Simon Rattle. He has appeared at the BBC Proms no less than twenty-two times, and is steeped in the music of the composers who are featured in the series, though he also has vast experience with the music of Tchaikovsky, whose music Frolova-Walker had also wanted to include as part of the series, as she explains below.
The wonderfully easy rapport between Frolova-Walker and Donohoe – their mix of playfulness, intelligence, insight, experience, and genuine love of the material – makes the series a special event amidst pandemic gloom, and their impressive viewing numbers seem to confirm this. Algorithm or not, the series has hit a nerve with numerous classical-loving, culturally starving viewers; newcomers and old hands alike have been tuning in faithfully these past six months and interacting with good-humoured ease, judging (if one dares) from the comments shared and exchanged during live broadcasts. Indeed Frolova-Walker and Donohue do have their sizeable and frequently overlapping fan bases, but it’s heartening to note the embrace with which those fans have greeted a virtual presentation, and just how welcoming the community has been to newcomers. It was something of a thrill to chat recently for thirty minutes with Professor Frolova-Walker, whose work and style I have long admired, and to discuss not only the series itself, but wider ideas about classical music’s youth appeal (or not), how and why fashion intersects with events (or not), and the steep digital learning curve experienced by educators and artists alike over the past twelve months. The next presentation in Russian Piano Masterpieces is scheduled for Thursday, March 25th (at 6pm GMT), and explores the music of Sergei Prokofiev; the following presentation (the final one in the series) is on May 20th, about Dmitri Shostakovich.
How and why did this series come about?
Good question! When I applied to Gresham College I secretly was hoping I could get Peter to collaborate with me. Gresham College has been so proactive in using a different venue they don’t usually use, because we needed a piano. About a year ago we found out they managed to secure it, and I was absolutely delighted because it’s such a wonderful venue, everything is there; of course we couldn’t imagine how it would turn out, because it was planned as a live event, always. It was *never* supposed to be online. I mean, the online presence of Gresham College lectures was always an afterthought – it’s not the main thing, so you shouldn’t imagine we planned it as an online series at all – but emotionally it started with this great feeling of despair that we could only get 15 people. The next time we couldn’t get anyone, and then we got used to it. Now we’re just grateful for the opportunity, even if it’s in an empty hall! Really, it’s been a learning curve.
I would imagine part of that curve has involved upping technological skills, as has been the case with so many in the classical world.
I’m not sure I can claim anything in that field, really! The big moment was when, a year ago exactly, I was told I would have to do my other course, my Diaghilev lecture series, online; that was really… I was in complete panic, because basically I’m a person who draws energy from the audience. About 50% of my energy comes from the audience, from improvising in front of an audience, and in seeing their reactions. And suddenly, to not have this energy… I thought, “I can’t do this; I can’t write out text and read it. That isn’t me. I can’t do it properly!” So that was I think the worst, the steepest learning curve. It was primitive what I used – I just recorded myself and it was edited by someone else, but I had to actually speak to the camera and still have it be lively.
Photo via Gresham College
I find you very engaging – knowledgeable, passionate, with a really good understanding of pace and structure; I wonder if that’s because you have an artist’s understanding of the role of audience already.
It’s just something that was given to me. I think it’s one of the few gifts that I *was* given. Really, it’s not a gift of speaking coherently at all! But there’s something about connecting with an audience, which I was able to do since I was 19. I did my first lecture at that age, at a college in Moscow, and there were these students completely bored; they were basically forced into this room, it was their cultural program, they had to be there, and I was talking about Bach, and something just clicked at a certain moment, and they seemed to be really enjoying it so it was an opening. And I realized, “I want to do this” – but I don’t know what I do or how. It is just something I suppose I am predisposed to doing. And I’m sure I could learn to do it better, but I wouldn’t know how.
There has been a learning curve for everyone; my own output has been transformed and I’ve had to learn to release the need to know the immediate impact of my work on others.
It has been difficult, doing a series of undergrad lectures in an empty room, and there’s no connection! The previous year I was doing them so much better because I had the power of the audience. But what can you do?
Nothing. But it’s so hard sometimes…
… but things like your series help. How did you choose these composers and which pieces of music to feature in each segment?
When I was choosing which six to feature, it was very difficult because I had at least seven I wanted, but because I knew I’d be working with Peter, I looked at what he’d recorded and would play or remember, to bring it back to mind. One that is missing is Tchaikovsky; I would’ve loved to have had the music of Tchaikovsky as well, because Peter has a wonderful recording of his Grand Sonata and it’s a very I think undervalued work – people think it’s very loud and goes on forever, and I think it’s wonderful! So yes, Tchaikovsky had to fall off, but generally you know, I had some ideas of stories I could tell about some particular works, but then very often Peter would say, “Well let’s do this instead” and though it’s not what I planned it works perfectly, because there is no audience, and it’s not a concert. So it makes more sense to break things up, I think, and show different pieces in different ways.
Part of that method involves you and Peter trading various moments; how do you and Peter decide on these trade-offs in speaking, or do you just wing it?
I think you can guess!
I want you to tell me.
I think he believes in improvisation as much as I do, and you do, probably.
Right. So there is a certain amount of preplanning, but I think the interesting thing about this, and my thought behind it was, I’ve always known the way musicologists talk about music is very different from the way performers talk about it; I discovered that very early on when I travelled with a quartet. I was supposed to give a lecture about Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and then they’d play it; on the train (with quartet members) I was telling them my ideas and they were like, “Wow, we would’ve never thought of it in this way!” and some of them I know, like other performers, find some of these things weird. So I’m kind of… I know that some of the things musicologists say about music are completely opaque, and possibly the other way around is true as well, so these are two different approaches, and my idea was to see whether they can go together and whether people in the audience can gain a third thing which might emerge. As to what is working or not, it is not for me to judge.
Photo via Gresham College
So musicologists, performers, and audience are in this interesting triangulation of musical reception and experience within the context of live experience specifically; where do you see the role of online presentation?
My idea, my vision for it, is that in principle (the series) can grab the attention of someone who is not into piano music, who is not into music at all, who doesn’t read notation or know many things about this, that they would get something out of it, maybe very different things from what what you could get out of it, or what my students would get out of it, or my colleagues would get out of it. Ideally I would like that *everyone* will get something out of it, and that’s why I think also, this series is so multilayered; those who, say, want to do a project on Shostakovich’s piano music, can watch it and stop and look at the slides, and get much more out of those slides than during the lecture itself, and download the transcript – which of course is not really the actual transcript, because I wrote it before the lecture, but it has references on things we cover. There is depth in it, and depth in varied slides. I don’t have time to address everything when we’re presenting it live, and especially when it’s an improvised performance, but I am secure the content is there, and if somebody wants to get at it in a deeper way, they’d be able to.
Do you imagine your potential audience and write to that, or… ?
You get a little bit of feedback on things, not ever, of course, as you would like, but you get a bit, and I know that some of my former students for example who work in schools, show it to their pupils, who are A-level music students. I know there are music lovers who tune in, but there are also people who are just into Gresham College lectures overall – because Gresham College lectures are amazing. I started getting into them as well, for instance, I listened to a lecture on bell-ringing and mathematical patterns, and about 25 minutes into it I was completely lost, the mathematics side stopped making sense, it was too complicated – but I could still enjoy what I got out of it. It’s still valuable as an experience. My attitude to everything, basically, is it’s better to have a part of something and not be a purist, instead of having the attitude of, “I don’t understand this at all; I won’t bother getting into it.” I think it’s the same with classical music. When you first listen to a Wagner opera you get about 5% of it, then after 30 listenings you get maybe 20% of it; I think this is very important for people who want to get into classical and feel it’s too forbidding. It’s a reminder not to be too hard on themselves.
Having things laid out clearly, with intelligence and confidence, and letting people use their imaginations as well, is a good way to introduce the classical idiom overall, I have found.
Yes, I think it’s good too – I mean, notation is such a hot topic right now, but it’s why I use it. I think even for people who’ve never seen it before, it’s like a diagram: you understand it when (the piece) goes up and when it goes down, and that’s all you need to know. The time goes like this, you have these two axes like that; just from those elements, you can get quite a lot. You can see how many notes there are, how fast it goes – roughly – so with this very basic knowledge you can get quite a lot of comprehension, just by looking at two bars of music, even if you don’t know what it sounds like.
That’s just it, and then having the immediate experience of hearing Peter play what might be shown too...
It’s amazing. I think the last lecture we did Peter sight-read a piece just straight off the screen – the whole piece! It was so funny!
When I spoke to John Daszak about singing reductions he mentioned working with Peter on the Das Lied Von Der Erde piano reduction and how he found it louder than the full orchestration, and Peter’s playing in particular to be very full-on.
People who would have been in the room to actually hear the sound… it’s *astounding*. What a loss not to hear him live. Our little group from Gresham College has been obviously privy to this, and myself, and you realize this kind of piano playing is completely on a different level; there’s nothing in common between how I play the piano and how Peter plays the piano, it’s just a different thing. First of all the range of sound, the range of pianissimo to fortissimo is six times bigger – he can be very loud but he can be very quiet too – and also the control is amazing, I don’t know to what extent… we are in the hands of the technical team, so many things can go wrong, but really, the live-ness can never be replaced.
I hear your lectures and all I want to do is hear these pieces live.
That’s nice to hear! Maybe we’ll have a CD sale at the last lecture. There’s a tiny bit of hope that by the 20th of May we’ll have an audience, but we’re not worried about this now, we’ve gotten used to it the way one gets used to chronic illness or chronic pain, but it’s not something you want to necessarily have permanently. When the restrictions are lifted I think, people will realize what they were missing.
Some, but it’s different for everybody.
I think you know this well, that what we need to realize is that there are different generations who have very different relationships with online. My son, for example, was born online and he lives online, and to him, it’s different, so I’m sure, he would enjoy things in the real world, so to speak. His attitude to online things is *very* different, and for that young audience I think the idea of a short video or something that is not actually a full-scale lecture but a short video, really well done and well presented, professionally done, expensively done, is the best possible teaching aid. And I think he would prefer those things to reading books, to having live lectures, I have a suspicion that young people think very differently about these things.
But then when you get them in the concert hall or opera house they are quite shocked at what they’re hearing –in a good way, but shocked nonetheless. “What do you mean it’s not amplified?!” etc…
Oh, it’s amazing, yes! But here we get into the ritualistic side of it, and also I found out by talking to him, for example, what would prevent him from coming into the Royal Opera – I would always demand he would put on some smart clothes. I was shocked by this. He wants to hear the music but feels there is something alienating and hostile about the audience, and you know, he feels he can’t really wear normal clothes. And that’s something we have to fight. It really was shocking for me to hear that.
I find the correlation between dressing up and elitism bizarre; I dress up because I enjoy it, but I haven’t done it every single time I’ve attended an event.
I dress up as well – because I’m Russian, we tend to dress up, it’s normal to go out of the house to the bakery dressed up, so it’s a different attitude. There’s a big long explanation for it, I am sure – Russia never had a hippie culture, for example – so the idea of casual clothing is, for us, still a bit alien. For my son, who is 18 right now, he doesn’t want to make that effort, and also I think, if I meet someone who knows me and say, “This is my son” – he hates that, so that’s another reason he won’t hear a Wagner opera. But I said to him, “You can wear what you like and be completely separate from me” – and that was the pact.
So did he go?
He‘s seen the whole Ring cycle, and he knows it’s amazing – he could feel the fire in Walküre because he was in the 2nd row! He said, “I could feel the heat… !” Really, he loved it.
If you can get young audiences exposed like that even once, they’ll get it.
Some of them will come back, I think… some. But we need this kind of thing, of just going at all; we used to have this sort of cultural exposure in Soviet Russia. We used to have concerts for children, and for teenagers, and you had to go to them with your school – you had to go to a symphony concert, it was not a choice. And for 80% it meant nothing, but there would be that 20% who’d get completely hooked.
So your series feels like the next logical step for people who are curious, young or not…
I think that’s probably why I can do this so easily with Peter – he thinks the same; he’s very open, he can talk to anyone about these things without trying to create a mystique about any of it. I mean obviously there is a sense at some point where we say, “The rest we can’t explain because it’s magic, it takes you over” – but there are lots of things you can explain in an ordinary way, with very simple language, and that’s what we try to do.
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Illustration for a scene from Das Rheingold, the first opera of Der Ring des Nibelung. Art by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)
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.
Richard Wagner, (1871, photo etching by Franz Hanfstaengl)
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.
Brünnhilde rides Grane into the funeral pyre at the close of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Der Ring des Nibelungs. Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from “Siegfried And The Twilight Of The Gods”, trans. Margaret Armour (William Heinemann, 1911)
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.
The 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.
Richard Wagner in Paris, 1867.
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.
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.
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?
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 (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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Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.
Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisandeat Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.
Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.
John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.
This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.
Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How are rehearsals going?
JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?
BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.
JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.
JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.
BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.
Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?
JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.
It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?
JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.
Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?
BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.
JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.
BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.
JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely… and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.
BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.
JD It’s not an ideal situation…
BS… but it’s something.
JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.
Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.
JD I think there are big arguments… if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.
You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?
JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.
BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.
To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?
BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.
JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”
BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.
JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…
BS It’s a lot of money.
JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.
Photo: Gerard Collett
How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?
BS Well I went to a concert here recently and… I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God… then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.
JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…
BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.
JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?
BS Bravo, John…
JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.
BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.
JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”
So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?
BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …
JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.
BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”
JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.
BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.
So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?
BS Oh for sure.
Photo: Robert Workman
How do you keep your focus?
JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.
… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious.
JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.
B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.
JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.
This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.
JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.
BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.
JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.