Tag: humour

Chen Reiss: “You Come Back To The Basics And You See What Is Really Important”

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, opera, album, classical

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

When I last spoke with soprano Chen Reiss, she was in the middle of planning a Beethoven album. At the time, she spoke excitedly about possible selections, and happily shared a few morsels of insight her research had yielded. The fruit of that study is Immortal Beloved (Onyx Classics) a delicious collection delivered with Reiss’s signature mix of lyricism and authority, accompanied with sparky gusto by the Academy Of Ancient Music and conductor Richard Egarr. Released in March, the album is the latest in Reiss’s very ambitious discography featuring the music of Mozart, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Lehar, Schubert, Donizetti, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many others besides. The title of this latest album is an intentional reference to the name Beethoven gave to a mysterious woman in his life (the identity of the “immortal beloved” has long been a source of speculation), and showcases of the breadth of complexity pulsating within Beethoven’s early writing style. Far from fantastical, flights-of-fancy lovey-dovey ditties (the composer didn’t do those), these are sounds rooted in a very earthy sensibility. Reiss’s performance of these notoriously difficult works is a heartfelt embrace of the human experience and the myriad of emotions within. What was a thoughtful listen in former, so-called normal times takes on an even more contemplative shade in the current one.

Like many in the classical industry, the usually-busy soprano has been affected by cancellations stemming from the corona virus pandemic. Just two days into rehearsals at Semperoper Dresden last month (as Morgana in a planned production of Handel’s Alcina) the production, following others in Europe, was shut down. Thankfully, Reiss did get to record a sumptuous concert with the Academy of Ancient Music and conductor Christopher Alstaedt in early March, at Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg, one featuring a selection of tracks presented on Immortal Beloved, as well as orchestral pieces honouring this, the year of Beethoven’s 250th birthday. But, as with everything at present, the future is a giant question mark. Reiss’s scheduled appearances on the stage of the Wiener Staatsoper (as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Marzelline in Fidelio), with the Rotterdam Philharmonic (Mahler Symphony No. 2), and at Zaryadye Hall in Moscow have been cancelled; her scheduled performances in June (at the Rudolfinum Prague with the Czech Philharmonic; as part of the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch with Bamberger Symphoniker; a return to Wiener Staatsoper in Falstaff) have not. It’s so difficult to say what could happen now; the fingers, toes, and figurative tines of tuning forks everywhere are being crossed throughout the classical world, for a return, if not to normal (an idea that seems to bear redefining hourly), than to something that might still allow for that magical energetic exchange between artists and audiences.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, portrait, opera, classical

Photo: Claudia Prieler

Such an exchange is one Reiss is well-acquainted with. She has performed at numerous houses, including Teatro alla Scala, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Bayerische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, De Nederlandse Opera Amsterdam, and, of course, at her home base in Vienna with Wiener Staatsoper, where she has appeared over many seasons. As well as opera, Reiss has made concert appearances with the Israel Philharmonic, Wiener Akademie, Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg, Akademie Für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Laeiszhalle Hamburg, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Tonhalle Düsseldorf, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre National de France, as well as with festivals like Schleswig Holstein, Lucerne, the BBC London Proms, the Enescu Festival, and the Liszt Festival Raiding. Last spring the soprano was in Belgium as part of a sweeping performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Orchester Philharmonique Royal de Liège led by Christian Arming; not long after, she jetted off to Berlin, giving a truly divine performance in Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) with the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski, before embarking on a multi-city tour of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Munich Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel. Reiss also uses her considerable teaching skills in Master Classes at the Israel Vocal Arts Institute. 

The notable cultivation of a wider array of repertoire over the past while reveals an artist who is firmly determined to be her own woman – on stage, in music, and through life. Such fortitude is reflected in the selections on Immortal Beloved, not easy works, in either musical or dramatic senses, but chosen, clearly, for the arc they provide for an holistic listening experience – a theatre of the mind indeed, with intuitive heart-and-head moments. The songs reveal not only Beethoven’s approach to vocal writing, but the types of texts he was attracted to (which, as you’ll see, she expands on in our chat). Many were written in the hot intensity of youth (Beethoven was mostly in his twenties), so it follows that the texts the composer set are equally dramatic, with Big Emotions and Big Feelings, instincts that only grew in shape and complexity with time.  There is a definite dramatic arc to their arrangement on the album, with the Mozartian opening aria, “Fliesse,Wonnezähre, fliesse!” (“Flow, tears of joy, flow!”), taken from Cantata on the accession of Emperor Leopold II, composed in 1790. A young Beethoven was clearly wearing his influences on his sleeve here, an instinct which weaves its way throughout Immortal Beloved, where discernible threads of not only Mozart and Haydn, but contemporaries like Johann Baptist Wanhal, Fran Ignaz Beck, François-André Danican Philidor, and notably Étienne Nicolas Méhul can plainly be heard; the bricks laid by these classical composers along the path of composition – melodic development, instrumentation, counterpoint, thematic exposition – were absolutely central to Beethoven’s own creative development, and can plainly be heard on Immortal Beloved, both in the smart vocal delivery and the knowing, quiet confidence of Egarr and the Academy. 

The emotionally turbulent “No, non turbarti” (“No, do not be troubled”), scena and aria for soprano & orchestra, features Reiss carefully modulating tone, stretching vowels this way and that with just enough oomph to quietly underline the vital schlau, a quality she feels is central to understanding the piece. “Prime Amore” (“First Love”), which follows, is characterized by Reiss in the liner notes, “a startlingly mature way of looking at love’s complexities” and is conveyed with piercing tonal purity and tremendous modulation. The melodic grace of Fidelio, Egmont, and the incidental music for Leonore Prohaska (for a play by Johann Friedrich Duncker about the military heroine) highlight the soprano’s elegant phrasing, easy flexibility, and sparkling aptitude for injecting drama at just the right time, with just the right phrasing and vocal coloration; even if one doesn’t understand each word within their broader tapestry, one nonetheless feels the threads of multi-hued emotion running through and between them. Delivered with controlled passion and a watchful eye for storytelling, the selection of songs clearly convey a keen sensitivity to both the complexity of the writing and the complicated histories of their creation. As the liner notes remind us, the circumstances in which these works were written (and only sometimes performed) were less than ideal, and were frequently the source of sadness and frustration for their composer.

However, not all the material on Immortal Beloved is steeped in poe-faced seriousness; Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken” (“If a shoe is not to pinch”) is a jovial little number, performed with a wink and a definite smile in the voice. Written in 1795 and taken from the singspiel Die schöne Schusterin (The Shoemaker’s Wife) by Ignaz Umlauf (second kapellmeister to Vienna’s Hofkapelle, or Court Chapel), its jovial lyrics, reflected in the lilting music, fit within the overall playful nature of the work (the wife’s husband is named Sock, because of course), providing the album with some needed softness amidst its many sharper edges, ones which are displayed to perfect effect with the elegant ferocity of “Ah! perfido” (“Ah! Deceiver”). The famous two-scene aria, composed in 1796 and based on the work of Metastasio, has its roots in the mythological figures of Deidamia and Achilles. The song is an extended and emotionally varied lament over the antique hero’s abandonment and rejection of the narrator; it moves rapidly between fury, despair, confusion, and longing, feelings which inextricably fuse text and music. As has been noted, Beethoven’s Deidamia could be “a younger sister of (Mozart heroines) Donna Elvira, Fiordiligia or Vitella. Yet “Ah! perfido” contains elements that can act as premonitions of Beethoven’s later vocal style, where the mosaic of changing emotions is replaced by consistent and deepened psychology.” With “Ah! perfido” Reiss has chosen to close the album on a deliberately, and quite deliciously, thoughtful note. Indeed, there is something reassuring about Reiss’s sound across the whole of Immortal Beloved, one that blends strength, beauty, and wisdom, while showcasing an inherently intelligent approach to narrative and to creating a deeply satisfying listening experience, one which, in our current times, is more needed than ever. 

Like many in the music world right now, the soprano has turned to the online world for sharing her talent, and for showcasing that of others. On her Instagram account, she hosts exchanges with fellow artists as part of collaborative digital project Check The Gate. One recent exchange featured cellist Gautier Capuçon, with whom she performed in Paris as part of Bastille Day celebrations in 2019; another featured director Kasper Holten. Her virtual performance with guitarist Lukasz Kuropaczewski, of Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” (“Faith In Spring”, with its encouraging text, “Nun, armes Herz, vergiss der Qual! Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden” / Now, poor heart, forget your torment! Now all must change”), is particularly stirring. Reiss has also been featured in broadcasts of productions streamed through the Wiener Staatsoper website. Most recently she can be seen as an elegant Ginevra in Handel’s Ariodante, as well as a very cheeky Bystrouška (the Vixen) in Das schlaue Füchslein (The Cunning Little Vixen) by Leoš Janáček. Here the soprano conveyed a ferociously charismatic stage presence that alternated smoothly between thoughtful notions of innocence, experience, and everything in-between. Blake’s lines that “Mercy has a human heart  / Pity a human face;  / And Love, the human form divine; /  And Peace, the human dress” never felt more immediate than when experiencing (however virtually) her elegant intonation and lyrical vocal prowess in handling the complexities of Janáček’s delightful and truly tricky score. One positively thirsts to experience her broader explorations into the composer’s world, and fingers are crossed for things to manifest in what is currently, as for so many, an uncertain future.

More livestreams are, however guaranteed, in the interim. On May 2nd Wiener Staatsoper is set to broadcast Fidelio, which will feature Reiss as Marzelline, a role she is well familiar with, and there are sure to be more interviews and performances on her Instagram page as well. Over the course of our conversation in mid-March, just as Reiss was preparing to leave Dresden for home in Vienna, we chatted about a wide array of topics, including Immortal Beloved, as well as the impact of the cancellations, and the possible meaning Reiss is taking from the current situation.

What was the motivation to do these not-so-well-known pieces?

Actually that was just it: these pieces aren’t well-known. There isn’t any one album that has collected all these pearls for sopranos under one roof – you have to buy an entire Beethoven edition. There are so few recordings of these works, and I thought, why not? They’re so good, they should be standard repertoire, they should be recorded as often as Mozart concert arias and performed onstage. Most are early Beethoven, taken from the time he was living in Bonn and before he came to Vienna.

With “Primo Amore” for instance, for many years everybody thought it was written during his time with Salieri in Vienna; researchers found out recently, in comparing ink and paper, that it was actually written in Bonn before he came to Vienna, and to German text, and it was never published. Most of the pieces (on Immortal Beloved) were not published in his lifetime; he did revise them and had the intention of publishing them but didn’t come to do it because he was so particular and such a perfectionist. I think that he just didn’t trust himself with (writing for) the voice – it didn’t come to him as naturally or organically as writing for piano or orchestra – so (his vocal works) were just left in the drawer. Magdalena Willmann was a neighbour’s daughter in Bonn, and he was possibly in love with her, and we known he wrote (“Primo Amore”) for her. And the shoe aria (“Soll ein Schuh nicht drücken”) is an unusual piece for Beethoven; it’s a buffa aria, written a very Haydn-like style. It’s a humouristic aria, he wrote it for her also; we know that because (Willman) was soprano and had a very good lower range, and in those pieces there are a lot of passages where he’s using the lower range for an effect, either a comic effect or to express very extreme feelings. (Willman held a position as first soprano at the Bonn National Theater.) So it is very challenging because almost in every piece there are two octaves at least!

Beethoven, portrait, composer, young, German, Riedel, painting

Portrait of Beethoven as a young man, c. 1800, by Carl Traugott Riedel (1769-1832)

What’s that like for you as a singer? How do you approach it?

I put in ornaments – I built them in, because it’s early Beethoven and because I (recorded) it with an early music ensemble. Some of the (works) were written in 1791, 1795, around there – Haydn was still alive, Salieri was still writing, so they’re very much classical. The pitch we used to record is A=438 and not A=443 or A=442, which was used more in the Romantic time later on. It’s a very classical period (for these works) and I wanted to use ornaments, since some passages (of the songs) over two octaves. This is why I think it’s great for sopranos – you can show a very big talent of expression, of colors, of virtuosity. And with Beethoven, the virtuosity is not virtuosity for the sense of showing off the voice, but of showing big emotions: everything is bigger than life; we are pushing boundaries in every possible way, rhythmically, dynamically, harmonically. The length of the pieces is noteworthy too – “Ah! perfido” is fourteen minutes, “Primo Amore” is around fourteen minutes; no one wrote, at that time, such long songs. Mozart’s concert arias are between seven and ten minutes! Beethoven was using a bigger orchestra too. So clearly he liked to do everything big for his time. 

For me it was pushing my boundaries, like “Ah! perfido”, a work which is so identified with bigger voices, like Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe and Cheryl Studer – these are big voices but I think today more and more lighter voices are singing it, and I believe this is the kind of voice that sang it in his time.

Over the last few years, that undercurrent of very dramatic, authoritative sound has been developing in your voice, though The Times described your sound as “soubrette”… 

I don’t think I was ever a soubrette. I know some people say this but my voice never had this edginess, it was a light voice, a pure voice. Of course I sang roles that are soubrette-ish, like Adele (from Die Fledermaus) or Blonde (from Die Entführung aus dem Serail), but I no longer sing them – not that I can’t but I don’t find them as interesting. And I think the color of the voice… it was always an elegant voice, and in this sense I don’t know why people say it’s soubrette, I would not say it, but again, I’m very happy that they chose it as CD of the week! Everyone has a different view of voices; it’s quite individual.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

With Rene Pape in Fidelio at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

You’d said when we spoke before that you don’t like being slotted into one style, a view that’s been echoed by singers I’ve spoken with since, and I wonder if that is the result of a need to be flexible now in the opera world, or of wanting to be more artistically curious.

I think it’s happening because more and more singers are taking their careers into their own hands – well, “career” is the wrong word, but singers are taking charge, yes. I think we’re tired of being told all the time what to do. When you start as a young singer, yes, you have to obey everything, you have to take every job that is being thrown at you, but when you get a little bit older, there are benefits to that, one being that you can also make your own choices and you can say, “no, I actually don’t feel like singing this role anymore, I want to do something else” and also, “I want to do my own projects” – meaning, “I no longer want to be just a team player, it’s great to be that and I love doing it when I do opera, but I also want to do my own projects where I am choosing the repertoire, where I am choosing the partners I will work with, where I choose what will written in the booklet and what will be the order of the pieces and what will be the title of the CD.” So basically, I think that it’s coming because we singers feel a need to be more, not more in control, but we want to have more responsibility over our artistic  choices. And we want to present a complete product from beginning to end where we can say: this is me, this is mine, this is what I want to share with the world. 

And this is why I took this (Beethoven) project. It was huge – it took me two years to realize it, to come up with the idea, the research, learning the pieces, learning the circumstances in which the pieces  were written, finding the titles, choosing the photos, writing the booklet – it took a lot of time. I’m very proud of it and very, very happy because I feel that every tone that comes out of my mouth on the CD is 100% me, and no one is telling me how to sing and how to present myself, which is often the case when you do opera – they tell you everything: they choose your clothes, they choose your hairstyle, they tell you what to do on stage; how to move, how to breathe, how the lighting will be, the conductor is dictating the tempo whether it’s comfortable or not – usually you can’t say anything about it – the orchestra is playing as loud as they want to so… you’re kind of left out there … when you really have very little control of the end result, but when you do a CD and you are the soloist, you have much more control of the end result. 

Some do albums because they want a broader appeal, but the songs on this album are musically complex – how were they to prepare?

They required a lot of practise and stamina – they’re long, and written… not in the most singable way, I would say. Some of them are very instrumental, some of the coloratura was composed, not for the voice but as if he wrote for violin – there are all kinds of weird intervals and sequences, and the voice doesn’t want to go there. Also dramatically they are not easy; to keep the tension, one has to have a very clear plan dramatically and vocally. “Ah! perfido” is the exception – that is an exceptionally well-written scene, dramatically and vocally, but it’s one that came later. Others, like “Primo Amore”… it is so difficult to make sense of the character, it’s like a big salad, Beethoven is throwing in every possible compositional idea that he had in there, and in certain ways, in terms of form, it’s not the best written aria! So to make sense of it was not easy. Some of these works just require you to spend more time with them – they’re not as organic as say, Lucia’s mad scene, which is pure bel canto. But I think they are very interesting!

The text is so interesting, as are the characters – strong women, independent women, women with ideals of a different world, women who want to change the world, to take charge, to take things to their hands – these are the kind women he admired, and this I why I called the album Immortal Beloved; we don’t know who she really was… maybe an ideal in his mind.

In the booklet you contrast Mozart’s female characters with Beethoven’s, which is such a smart way to contextualize the world in which Beethoven was living and writing; he would’ve known all these Mozart heroines but he went for something entirely different. 

Yes, I think he appreciated Mozart very much musically but I think he was much more advanced in the ideas of the world and society as related in that specific sense, but for me, Mozart is beyond a composer, it’s musica assoluta, it’s really… the truth, like, God has spoken! It’s music itself; there can’t be anything better than that. But it’s something not human, and Beethoven is very human – he’s perhaps the most human composer. It’s wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve music in the most direct way, although not at all in a Puccini way

What was your experience of working with the Academy of Ancient Music?

I was debating whether I should use a Viennese orchestra, and I knew I wanted an original-instrument one. The English period instruments are really so fabulous, so quick, they have a great tradition, and in recording you need people who are really “on” there. I was doing the Egmont concerts with them last summer, so I thought, why not extend it and do the whole CD with them? Egmont was the starting point, the catalyst, and the performances were around the time I wanted to record, so it just made sense. I’m very happy we did it; they sound fabulous and I really enjoyed working with Richard, his energy is wonderful. 

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

As Marzelline in Fidelio at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

Your vocal work has become more varied over the last two years or so. I wonder if making this album has made you approach other work differently.

Marzelline as a character is really difficult – there is a lot of text in a very uncomfortable zone of the voice; it’s parking her in the passaggio, with lots of text. I’m trying to sing her as round and delicate as I can. Strauss is a completely different story! He’s a composer I think is so wonderful for sopranos, and I’m so happy to sing Sophie (from Der Rosenkavalier) because it’s so comfortable in the voice. I love singing Zdenka (from Arabella) too – it’s more challenging rhythmically and very chromatic, so one has to be more careful and really look at the conductor, otherwise you lose it! Sophie is a more fun role but Zdenka is a very interesting character. 

In Beethoven, I like singing some things. I love “Ah! perfido” – it’s a great piece. It sits so well in my voice, especially in terms of the range – surprisingly. This was the piece I was most afraid of, but it just feels very good! I love singing the shoe aria too – I think it’s fabulous and so funny and really well-written. And I really love the aria with the harp (“Es blüht eine Blume im Garten mein” /”In my garden blooms a flower”, from Leonore Prohaska). I think it’s a jewel… 

It’s a favourite of mine too, although it really goes against what many think Beethoven “sounds” like… 

Yes! It reminds me so very much of Schubert; you can hear him going off in that (musical) direction throughout this one. I also like “No, non turbarti” because of the text. It’s an aria of deception: (the narrator) has deceived (the female subject), and in such a masterful way…  he’s really a master of deception, and it’s very interesting to see how Beethoven fits the music and the text so perfectly. Every sentence has two parts, the parts when he’s carrying her, and the parts when he’s calming her down. He’s schlau, as we say in German, very cunning… there is no storm coming at all! He’s talking about the storm inside him, the storm of his soul, not about a real storm, but a storm of emotions, and she’s not in real-life danger – the only danger for her is him! Then in the continuation –”Ma tu tremi, o mio tesoro!” (“But you tremble, oh my treasure!”) – he tells her, “I’ll be here at your side, I’ll save you, and when the storm is over you will go away, you will abandon me, you ungrateful woman!”

So this narrator is a bit of a drama king, then?

Oh yes… but (the words of the songs) are like a strange prophecy in terms of Beethoven’s misfortunes in love. It’s amazing that even at such a young age he was attracted to those types of texts. 

In youth, every emotion is writ large, whether joy or sadness.

That’s true.

Speaking of the latter, you were going to do Morgana… ?

I’ve worked on it, yes – I learned it, though I sang it before, four years ago. So I approached it like new now – I wrote new ornaments – but we stopped rehearsal in Dresden. We rehearsed two days, with two rehearsals, and tomorrow, I’m going home.

You know, this whole virus…  it makes you put things in proportion. I don’t know where the future is going, even now. The fact I’m unemployed for this month and I don’t know next month… if they’ll open the (Wiener Staatsoper) house, who knows? Thinking about the future of our profession… public finding has to go to the hospitals… it just shows the priorities, of where things go, so what’s the situation with us, the freelance artists? I’m sure orchestras in the UK are worried about that as well; a lot of the players are freelance, and it means that if concerts are cancelled, they’re not being paid.

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Beethoven, album, portrait, opera, classical

Photo: Paul Marc Mitchell

Do you feel there Is there might be any value – as you say, you learned the role, you did the prep –  is there some good you still might take away from the experience?

Every time I learn a role or re-learn a role I have new ideas, new insights, and then in the future I share it with my students. But yes, you always learn about the voice, about different styles and different approaches to a role. You never know, maybe I can jump in again (to Alcina). The prep is never for nothing, it’s just… you kind of feel that it’s not complete. You have not completed the process; you complete it only when you go onstage and share it with the public. 

But I think maybe this virus is there to teach us a lot of things; maybe it’s not bad to just stop. Everything just stops for a few weeks… everybody is thinking, everybody will reinvent themselves, hopefully. The one thing I’m happy about is that it’s really good for our planet; there are no airplanes flying, the factories in China were closed so the air above China is much cleaner. So maybe it’s a way for our planet to refresh itself and maybe we need to use this time wisely. Spring is a time of rebirth, so maybe we all need to clean our closets and throw out the rubbish that we don’t need and concentrate on the important things – to understand the whole world is one community and we are a small village and we need to stick together, to help each other. 

Chen Reiss, soprano, singer, vocalist, Handel, Ariodante, performance,, stage, opera, classical, Wiener Staatsoper

Ariodante at Wiener Staatsoper. Photo © Michael Pöhn & Wiener Staatsoper

Look, I’m very sad the performances are cancelled – I was very stressed this week. The worst thing for me is the unknown; you make plans, and what gives me confidence is that I know exactly where I am at on any given day for the next two years, and I know who takes care of my kids and… there’s a plan for everything. And suddenly, the whole plan falls apart. I don’t know where I am, the kids are not in school, my mother is stuck in quarantine in Israel. You come back to the basics and you see what is really important: we are healthy, we are together as a family, we have food, we have music – and thank God we can share it. I can share the CD with my friends, with all my fans, with social media. Even with all the bad things about social media in these times, it’s giving us a feeling of being together. And, I really hope this Beethoven album will give hope, comfort, and joy to people now that they cannot hear live music. 

Yiddish Glory: “If You Can Laugh At Something, It Cannot Kill You.”

yiddish-lyrics-sheet

Manuy of the songs on Yiddish Glory were written on scraps of paper. (Photo: Six Degrees Records)

Just before Easter, I wrote about a memorable musical experience in which I sang in a language I didn’t speak, to music I wasn’t completely familiar with. It was a haunting, beautiful series of moments I still recall fondly and often; I thought about the experience, in various facets, listening to Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of WWII (Six Degrees Records), a very unique collection of songs which, again, are in a language I don’t speak, but which have a powerful impact, and, as it turns out, a very powerful history.

There are stellar performances from an array of gifted musicians here, including Russian singer-songwriter (and album co-creator) Psoy Korolenko, Juno Award-winning artists Sophie Milman and David Buchbinder, longtime Yehudi Menuhin collaborator Sergei Erdenko, and many more. Lyrical, sad, funny, and very feisty, the album, released this past February, is made composed entirely of works written by Holocaust victims and survivors during the Second World War. They offer not only unique and important historical perspective, but a creative lesson in resistance, resilience, and fierce, vibrant resurrection.  The sheer force of musicality on offer here is noteworthy, but combined with the power of the lyrics and their history, makes for a profound, joyous, and very moving listening experience. 

Anna Shternshis_IMG_1110 photo by Roman Boldyrev

Anna Shternshis (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

Anna Shternshis, who is Al and Malka Green Professor in Yiddish Studies and Director, Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, helped to put Yiddish Glory together. Professor Shternshis discovered the songs while researching a book about Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust. As she told CBC“I stumbled upon this collection of Yiddish songs and something seemed off about those songs, […] They were about Stalin. They were about fighting against Hitler. They were about Central Asia. These were the songs in Yiddish I’d never seen before.”

Currently on a music/speaking tour for the album, with stops at Center for Jewish History in New York City and Purdue University last month, Northwestern University’s Chicago campus earlier this month, and Montreal today (May 13th), Professor Shternshis took time out of her busy schedule to discuss the album and its creation, its significance in cultural and historical terms, the role of humour, and the twin timeliness and timelessness of the songs.

Yiddish Glory, Psoy Korolenko (Center), photo by Roman Boldyrev

Psoy Korolenko performing live. (Photo: Roman Boldyrev)

How were the pieces on Yiddish Glory chosen? 

Singer Psoy Korolenko and I worked together on bringing these pieces back to life as music. We selected songs that would give voice to the amateur authors of various backgrounds — women, children, soldiers, refugees — who composed music and poetry under the most difficult circumstances, and therefore provided some of the first testimonies of what it was like to live in the Soviet Union during World War II. Each individual composition has its own story, and together, these songs reveal a collective history of an entire generation, they provide an artistic comment on the Jewish experience in the Soviet Union during World War II

Beregovski

Moisei Beregovsky has been called “”foremost ethnomusicologist of Eastern European Jewry.” (Photo via)

How did you feel when you discovered the history behind these works? It must have been a very dramatic moment.

The work of a historian consists of many hours of monotonous research, and this project is not an exception. But when I began analyzing the lyrics, and understood that these were grassroots accounts of Nazi atrocities, and that none of these songs had been known before, emotions took over. I felt excited about reading these materials, and strongly moved by the lyrics. Above all, I felt enormous gratitude to Moisei Beregovsky and his colleagues, Soviet ethnomusicologists of the 1940s, who spent years collecting these unique materials.  They were arrested by Stalin’s government for doing so, and died thinking their work was lost to history without any recognition for what they had done. I felt professional solidarity with these people, who, of course, I never met. 

What kind of a reception has the album and your work received in the places where these pieces originated? 

When we began this project, restoring these songs as music, we hoped that these compositions that detailed the experiences of how Jews lived, died, tried to maintain hope and even love under the most horrific of circumstances would touch people. And indeed, radio stations and publications from around the world have been drawn to the project, including incredible coverage in Germany and Austria where so many have really come to grips with the dangers of fascism.  

In Eastern Europe, we have received coverage in Russia, HungaryCzech Republic (and others), but more on specialized media, as opposed to their national broadcasters.  Back in the 1940s, when Beregovsky and his colleagues were preparing these songs for publication, many of the specific “Jewish” references in the lyrics were censored and replaced with Soviet terms. You can actually see the censor’s marks on the original documents.  The researchers were eventually arrested for this work during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge that began in 1948. The government wanted to stress how all Soviet citizens were victims during the war, even though the Holocaust specifically targeted Jews for their ethnicity. This tendency persists today as well.  

Russian-language media abroad covered the project extensively. When we present these songs live, a significant percentage of our audiences are of Russian-Jewish descent, and these songs represent their heritage, and the broad range of their families’ experiences.

YiddishGlory_DigitalCover_300dpi

Cover to Yiddish Glory. The album was released by Six Degrees Records in February 2018.

Why these particular pieces? Do you have any favourites?

Each song was chosen because its lyrics conveyed a unique, often under-discussed historical experience, such life and survival in the Tulchin ghetto or in the Pechora camp, serving in the Red Army, working on the Soviet home front or fighting as a partisan. My favourites include one about a Red Army soldier singing about his machine gun that he uses to fight against fascism. Another favourite is one written by a child after losing his mother in Pechora. Both of these songs have raw emotional strength that just grab you by heart. 

What do you think accounts for the humour that runs through some of these works?

Many songs are so called “motivation” pieces, written by and for soldiers to encourage them to fight against Hitler and his army. Many describe the exact death that Hitler should endure – such as being sliced into pieces. The songs are angry because they blame Hitler, rightly so, for destroying the lives of Soviet people, including, of course, Jews. The hatred of Hitler, expressed in these songs, is raw, strong and emotional. Their authors do not spare curse words. One song, “Misha Tears Apart Hitler’s Germany”, for example, says that soldiers will drive Hitler away in the manner one chases a wild animal. 

Hitler is also an object of ridicule and satire. Many songs in the archive are humorous, sometimes based on the holiday of Purim, including “Purim Gifts to Hitler,” which compares Hitler to all of the failed enemies of Jewish people, including Haman. The song promises that Hitler, just like all other enemies of Jews, will end up being killed for his evil deeds. The fact that so many of these songs rely on humour is significant because laughing seemed to help people to keep their spirits up during horrific ordeals. Many survivors mention in their testimonies that if you can laugh at something, it cannot kill you. Songs indeed include ridicule of German soldiers running away with their pants down and Hitler dressed in funny clothes. Understanding that people wrote these songs during the time when the German army was destroying their cities and communities makes the presence of humour especially poignant and significant

There is an interesting classical connection with some of these pieces, their melodies being based on the works of composers like Glinka; how is this important to their overall story and history? 

About 80% of the songs in the collection did not have their original sheet music, so Psoy Korolenko had to analyze the texts to reconstruct them. He chose Glinka’s “Skylark” for “Yoshke from Odessa” because that song was very popular in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was inspiring to think about a soldier imagining himself as a popular Soviet tenor, and using (that particular piece) to tell his own both heroic and tragic story. 

How do you think an album like “Yiddish Glory” changes our perceptions of this period of history?

 One definite thing that we have learned from these materials is that Jews sang in Yiddish in the Soviet Union during the war, and that they forgot all about this decades later. During my work on a related project, on Jewish oral histories of Stalin’s Soviet Union, I interviewed almost 500 people from the generation of Soviet Jews born in the early 1920s, and not a single one of them could remember of a Yiddish song depicting the war. This material means that history and memory tell different stories of the war. Without these materials we would not have known that. 

The second finding is that Soviet soldiers, some of them amateur authors, continued to create in Yiddish during combat. We knew that Yiddish culture survived in the Soviet Rear, but we did not know about the soldiers — this is an important insight of how Jews made sense of these events during the war. 

Yiddish-Glory-303 Sophie Milman, photo by Vladimir Kevorkov

Sophie Milman is one of the artists featured on Yiddish Glory. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov)

Also, these songs give us a chance to learn about how children and women, who authored a majority of these songs, used music to make sense of their experiences: there are songs written by orphans, one by a ten year-old whose mother was murdered in the Holocaust; there are songs written by women serving in the army, women working in factories to support the war effort. The works give us an opportunity to hear their direct voices, something that rarely happens in the context of historical research.

Also, some songs are rare —  sometimes the only — eyewitness testimonies of the destruction of Jews in Ukraine. Some were written as early as 1941, and these represent the first documents of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Given that we have very few Jewish testimonies of this destruction, these are especially valuable.  

Why this album, now? How do you see it as relevant (indeed, needed) in the 21st century?

The fight against fascism, racism, bigotry and antisemitism is timely. Unfortunately, violence and wars did not disappear in the 21st century. Women and children are often the first, and the  least noticeable victims of it. The songs alert us to the dangers of wars and who suffers from it the most. 

Awful Funny

This past week, I posted the cover of the New York Post on my Facebook wall. I shared it from another friend’s wall, a journalist friend in New York, who’d come across the “toasty” cover and, presumably, found it too horrible -and horribly amusing -not to share.

While the cover didn’t get too much reaction on my journo-friend’s wall, it lit a bonfire on mine. Some people howled at the hilarious awfulness, others howled in derision at the aggressive cruelty. It was interesting to note not only the nationalistic splits (Canadians, you really are a nice bunch, mostly) but the fact that some people reacted in such a personal manner. The incident forced reflection on my recent love of mean humor, something I never used to indulge in, perhaps out of guilt, anxiety, or a caustic mix of both.

Now, I’ve sat through some rough stand-up material involving the most blatant, stomach-churning sort of chauvinism; I’ve sat beside people I had deemed intelligent as they haw-haw-haw’d at sexual and racial cliches being exhaustively exploited. That sort of humor isn’t mean; it’s lazy. And the Post isn’t much different in its laziness – but the difference is, it’s agonizingly clever. That cleverness that makes urban smarty-pants types like me (who poo-poo the Post, rolling eyes and making yucky faces) feel ashamed at the vicarious thrill to be gained from enjoying the notoriously bad taste of the News Corp tabloid in their quest to outdo themselves each day with the clever-meets-queasy quotient of their covers. My journo-friend admitted the cover was “tame for (the Post).” Too true.

Dark humor is more prevalent in some cultures than others. Living in Ireland taught me how often it’s been used as a survival tactic, meant to provoke and polarize; that’s a big part of its effectiveness. At the moment, I’m reading Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy (Riverhead), a book that’s chalk-a-block with dark humor, revolving around… the Holocaust, and what happens when the main character finds that a grown Anne Frank is living in his attic. Auslander mercilessly mocks -and shamelessly milks -a persistent, pernicious victim mentality as personified in both his main character as well as his mother. Upon the book’s release, author A.L. Kennedy observed that the book “will make very many people angry. It will also make very many people happy.”

Hope: A Tragedy makes me laugh, even as I gasp and feel slight pangs of guilt. Good, dark humor, when it’s done well, finds our weak spots and exploits them, as it should. The Post is not nearly as deep as this book, not by a long shot, but it is a cultural by-product of a human yearning (conscious or not) to be poked and prodded. Macabre humor isn’t only accepted but welcomed, especially by those of us who, having been bullied, beaten, and mocked, have emerged at the other end, with a ready smirk, triumphant, no longer victimized, but defiantly, vividly alive. At the end of the day, that is humor’s highest compliment, and its greatest achievement.

Flippant Coward


Sitting in the grand velvet cushiness of the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on a recent Sunday afternoon, I was struck by the theater unfolding around me. Ladies parading in all manner of frippery, many tottering on high heels their bridled, bejeweled hooves were desperate to break free of, wearing so many coatings of makeup and perfume as to be aromatically plastic, with cleavage hiked up to the neck and porn star pouts perfected.

The blonde woman behind me, in a black and white mini-dress several sizes too small for her frame and with towering hair that whispered of Moroccan oil and synthetic extensions, decided the time was right to voice loud opinions just as the lights went down.
“Why are they clapping?” she hissed as the over-eager audience broke out in applause when leads Paul Gross, and then Kim Cattrall appeared onstage.
“Shhhhh,” urged her suited, slick-haired seatmate.
“What?!” she continued, “They’re just onstage.”
“Ssssshhhhhhhh,” he continued, with some alarm.
“I mean, Gawwd, calm down, people,” she continued, unabated, “They’re just actors.”
“C’mon, it’s starting.”
“What?! People clapping? Jesus. They’re not in a marathon or something.”
Aren’t they? I wondered, smiling.
She finally shut up so the show could start, but it got me thinking.
Playing Coward is a kind of dance; doing him well is more of a marathon – albeit a well-dressed one involving martinis and silk pajamas and many, many well-placed, well-timed words. Cattrall and Gross are locked in a thrilling two-hour marathon of wills, hearts, words, and energies. This is possibly the most competitive production of Private Lives I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something; I’ve seen this particular play well over a dozen times, on a few continents, and each time I’ve taken something a bit different away – but all those variations doesn’t erase the delicious rhythm of Coward’s words, nor his brutal portrayal of the chattering, wining, dining, whining, whipping, slipping, shouting, punching upper classes, and their awful, awfully funny, awfully familiar way of living and loving.
Richard Eyre’s lush production, currently running in Toronto through the end of October, was last seen in London’s West End. This Canadian run is a warm-up for the Broadway run that begins in November. New York audiences would be wise to put aside their notions of Coward as a pish-posh playwright full of puffery, and pay close attention to the vital physicality Eyre brings to the 1930 work. Private Lives revolves around the quarreling, querying, cooing, cuddling, and wholly caustic exes Elyot and Amanda, who run into one another while each is on their respective second honeymoons. Words and fists fly back and forth with equal vigor, making for an engrossing production that milks the gender wars while highlighting the importance of flippancy through deft timing and clear body language.

“Is all this sophisticated, feckless, irresponsible flippancy the stuff that will endure?” asked Tatler after the play’s 1930 premiere. Of course it has. Irresponsible flippancy will endure, has endured, and in so many ways, should endure. Private Lives is as known for its barbed witty flippancies, flung back and forth like jaunty shuttlecocks, as it is for its depiction of scary co-dependency in intimate relationships. Coward is a master of flippant verbiage, holding a brutal, dark mirror to the creme fraiche of everyday experience, exposing the rotting fish-smelling underbelly of polite society with a smile, a martini, and an invitation to dance amidst the detritus.

It’s important to keep this delicious sense of expose in mind when watching Eyre’s gorgeous, glimmering production. Set and costume designer Rob Howell’s tidy, boxy balconies of the First Act’s honeymoon scene are simply too polite, too neat, too orderly, for Coward’s co-dependent heroes. Their wrought-iron-meets-greenery nicety can’t contain such volatile lovers. The huge, circular Parisian apartment where they escape is equally telling in its beautiful design; it implies the maddeningly cyclical nature of their relationship, one marked by vigorous, fighting, freaking, and… well, you might fill in the blank. Amanda (Kim Cattrall) and Elyot (Paul Gross) are like the yin and yang of an angry, amorphous amoeba that, between sips of martinis and champagne, screeches I love you/I hate you even as the creature – this monstrous thing called a “relationship” -swallows itself whole, dividing, again and again, into something we all wish we didn’t recognize.

So where’s the relief? Ah, that’s easy. The vitality of flippancy is what powers much of Coward’s work, and it has its very-best, most shining, flouncy display and expression in Private Lives. Flippancy’s souffle-like texture is sometimes a better balm than the soggy bandage of dew-eyed, saccharine sincerity. As Elyot notes, “All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. . . . Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths.” Private Lives wants you to be laughing at the absurd. It demands it. Even when Elyot and Amanda leave their respective mates and vanish into the night… laugh! When they worry over their respective mates’ well-being and wind up making love… laugh! When Elyot strikes Amanda and she strikes him back, without restraint… laugh! Laugh!, the work dares us, voila, shibboleths! Encore, rire!
That isn’t to say domestic violence is ever hilarious or not a thing to be taken seriously, but it does ask the viewer to confront the sacred cows that amble across one’s perceptions of propriety, comedy, relationship and romance, and whence they all doth meet in the dark alleys of life. Such presentation also calls to mind the possible literary inspirations behind the figures of Elyot and Amanda. The play is a puffy, meringue-like counterpart to the heavy steak of other dueling-couples works; their leads the sweet profiteroles to the sour pickles of George and Martha, their verbal wordplay is no less clever than Beatrice and Benedict. There is most certainly a palpable sense of competition between Cattrall and Gross, one that informs and powers much of the energy behind this particular Broadway-bound production.
Of all the memorable Elyots I’ve seen – Anton Lesser in London, Alan Rickman in New York – Paul Gross’ interpretation is easily the most brusque. His Elyot seems entirely disinterested in the niceties of civil society, and engages in them only so long as they amuse him, or those around him. The dark violence of the character is underlined with Gross’ deeply physical performance, as he throttles Amanda in the Paris apartment where the newlyweds escape to reunite with one another. It should be noted, Kim Cattrall’s Amanda gives as good as she gets; hers is an equally brutish interpretation, and put beside Juliet Stevenson and Lindsay Duncan respectively, is easily the most masculine of Amandas. Oh sure, Cattrall charmingly swans about, first in a towel, then a gorgeous flesh-tone gown, then a swishy silk robe, and finally a prim, fitted skirt-suit – but these are all feathers on a wolf. As the play progresses, Cattrall spits out her lines with such a crescendo of venom you begin to wonder if she’d be better suited to the boxing ring. When Elyot berates her for promiscuity, pronouncing that it “doesn’t suit women,” she retorts, in full eff-you mode, hand on jutted-out hip, that it doesn’t suit men for women to be promiscuous. There was more than a small hint of Samantha in that line, the character from Sex And The City Cattrall is known for, and the line itself received a hearty cheer at the opening. One senses Cattrall’s Amanda is promiscuous less out of sheer lust than out of sheer rage at being born the wrong sex. Vengeance drives her much the same way it does her (ex-ish) husband, but she expresses it more through well-placed words and large physicality than in actions.
Indeed, flippancy is what makes the hurtful, hilarious, the painful, pleasurable, the unbearable, bearable. Richard Eyre’s production of Private Lives reminds us of this wisdom in bouts of brilliant shallowness and bold declaration. Much more than a writer of witty sex comedies with well-dressed people sipping martinis, Coward’s work is a witty sex comedy with well-dressed people sipping martinis -and saying really, really smart, wise things. Pay attention to the language, and how it’s used: to soothe, seduce, insult, insinuate, degrade, debase. Rarely do we see polite society reflected with so much venom; even more rarely do we see it dressed so well, and so heartily applauded by those who are being mocked.
I emerged from the Royal Alexandra Theatre thinking that we all probably have a bit of Amanda and Elyot about us. The couple behind me had taken off early -presumably to fight, to love, to spar with words and fists and flying drinks. In short, to live another day. Hopefully with a sense of humor, and always, always well-dressed.
All photos by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Mirvish Productions.

Salty and Sweet

First things first: don’t bring anyone who’s sensitive to the f-word to see How Now Mrs. Brown Cow. It gets a workout in the hands -make that mouth -of the formidable Mrs. Brown, also known as one Brendan O’Carroll, Irish comedian and super-performer. For two hours, any easily-offended ears will be singed by its extensive and creative usage.

It should be noted, however, that the word, within the context of the show, is made musical, magical, and even poetic. I mean, hell, it’s an Irish show -you have to expect the salty and the sweet, the dark and the light, the low and the high, the profound and the profane, all mashed up in one gorgeous, overwhelming package of funny, naughty, heart-tugging hilarity. How Now Mrs. Brown Cow is the fifth in the wildly popular Mrs. Brown series, which started life two decades ago as a radio series before extending into TV, movies, books, and videos. O’Carroll, donning a big wig, glasses, frumpy dress and dowdy shoes, takes on the persona of a working class Dublin mum. In this show, she’s readying her home for the family, including her beloved Priest-son Trevor, and tangling with her other three sons, daughter, and “granddad”, who becomes the unwitting guinea pig for Mrs. Brown and her friend Winnie (Eilish McHugh) to test mail order products on. The scene involving country music, a baking sheet, and a crash helmet is especially memorable; like the show itself, this single scene is a smart blend of dark humor and gleeful slapstick. Politically correct it ain’t, but funny… hells yes.

The humour extends itself to local references, with O’Carroll playing to both the Toronto crowd (with mentions of local discount store Honest Ed’s) and Irish expats (jokes about son Mark’s “Prod” wife abounded). Later I overheard an audience member remark that some of the show’s references were “too obscure” for most Canadians, which is true. Equally, O’Carroll’s portrayal of Rory (Rory Cowan), Mrs. Brown’s gay son, could be construed as stereotypical and offensive- but as I recall it, some Northside Dubliners (and indeed some Irish) have a pretty narrow idea and tolerance of homosexuality altogether. Should O’Carroll soften the writing? The Mrs. Brown series concerns rough people who say (and do) offensive things, many of which are specific to a cultural time and place. The write and director is full aware of the ridiculousness of Rory, and perhaps, knowingly, portrays partner Dino differently, clothing him not in gold lame pants, but suit trousers, like everyone else. To moan about the “offensiveness” of this show conveys a huge ignorance around Dublin culture, and, to be frank, a poe-faced Canadian seriousness that doesn’t match the larkish nature of the material. There are many other forms of entertainment that portray gay people (and others) in far more offensive ways; this show isn’t one of them.

Indeed, Mrs. Brown is fierce, feisty, and very, very funny -she’s no cuddly Mrs. Doubtfire or cutesy Golden Girl. She’s a lot closer to the tough Northside ladies I once knew (and would occasionally borrow hoovers, tin foil, and window cleaner, or buy fruit and veg from). Mrs. Brown’s shouts at the unseen drug-users outside her door -“injectin’ yer cannabis!” -may be momentarily funny, but reflect a darker reality, one those of us who lived in Dublin around that time vividly remember. Mrs. Brown is tough, loud, and weirdly, very real, with echoes of Dublin echoing with her every word, whether it’s a curse or a blessing.


The potent mix of dark and light is brought to the fore again and again, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching results. O’Carroll creates short, simple scenes involving friends and family to explore elementary, albeit timeless themes of human connection and bonding, especially in tough times. Part story, part sitcom, the material leaves plenty of room for improvisation, something that cast members take full advantage of. At last night’s North American premiere of How Now Mrs. Brown Cow (produced by Toronto’s Mirvish Productions at the historic Canon Theatre), cast members Danny O’Carroll (as local boy Buster Brady) and Gary Hollywood (as Dino Doyle, companion to Mr. Brown’s son Rory) couldn’t keep straight faces, as O’Carroll, consciously but keeping in character expertly chided them. One telling moment saw Hollywood’s lack of composure become so acute, he was doubled over hysterically laughing into his hands. Rather than being unprofessional or distracting, the reaction worked beautifully with his character’s extreme horror within the context of the scene. After all, extreme horror and extreme giggles really do look the same at a distance. Salty and sweet indeed. (And, for the record, O’Carroll’s deadpan response -in character -was, “I remember writing this – it wasn’t this feckin’ long.” Ha.)

Other moments where O’Carroll purposely broke the fourth wall included his character’s attempt to place a star atop the Brown Family Christmas tree. After trying a variety of chairs, s/he balanced on a railing in the set, and then took hold of the upper edge of the set itself. It was a good example of O’Carroll’s extreme, and extremely happy, disregard for theatrical convention. He definitely play with panto, with improvisation, and with his castmates in the most jovial of ways, but when it comes to delivering the more serious moments, there’s no horsing around. He goes straight for the heart, without any compromises. Talking with the lone daughter of the family, Cathy (Jennifer Gibney), Mrs. Brown delivers a heart-rending speech about the closeness of mothers and daughters, one that brings to mind possible parallels with fathers and sons, which is made all the more poignant with the knowledge of the comedian losing his own son some years ago. The square emphasis on family, and on the ties that bind between people, generations, faiths, lifestyles, and ideas, couldn’t be more apparent, F-bombs or not.

How Now Mrs. Brown Cow definitely has fun exploding a few proper theatrical conventions, but it also leaves you wondering just where you stand in terms of your relationship to family and those closest to you. Wandering down Victoria Street after the opening, I overheard comments confirming this connectedness. One man remarked to his friend that the title character “is so much like your own mum!” to which the man readily agreed, while another pair of friends noted that the show’s premise, with its mix of stress and joy, “looks just like our Christmas.” Several Irish grannies stood outside the stage door, one with a mobile phone to her ear.

“It’s lovely show, just grand,” one said, waving a cigarette around, “Now what time will you be over for dinner tomorrow?” Pause.

“Don’t be f*ckin’ late again.”

Good advice.

Photo credits:
Top photo of Brendan O’Carroll as Mrs. Brown courtesy of Mirvish Productions.
Photo of “Shadowplay – O’Connell Street, Dublin” by Dave Walsh, blather.net
Photo of Moore Street courtesy of goperimeter.org

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