Tag: ideas

painting, oil, figures, Yablonska, Ukrainian, art, culture, history, socialist realism, war, Russia, identity, scandal, protest, punishment

Essay: On Ukraine – Moving Beyond Performance

What is there to say?

Artists and organizations – some of them – have said plenty; others, very little. Some have chosen their words carefully, like a doe making her way through a field riddled with landmines – any step provokes angry reaction, any bent blade of grass a torrent of judgement. Some have simply not said anything at all. There are arguments in waterfalls of threads online – sometimes they break a dam, mostly they don’t. Walls remain walls. That doesn’t mean hacking at them in a real way, with real tools, isn’t important. Social media has, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, been a fascinating way to observe who uses tools, and how, and why, though these platforms (whose influence, for good and bad, ought not to be dismissed) have also provided reminders of the ease with which many organizations and figures alike can hide, obfuscate, and conceal, or alternately, promote, congratulate, posture. Sometimes though, none of those things happen, but something far deeper, better, more authentic. At present that authenticity isn’t merely nice – it’s necessary.

The Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra, currently on tour, recently engaged in a fascinating series of exchanges on their Facebook page after posting a supportive message and an actionable link (which I publicly thanked them for); the transparency of such efforts and exchanges is what the situation now demands. One hopes more organizations will follow suit, but alas, such direct expression in those other arenas is being blunted by political and economic interests, not humane and conscientious ones. The meaningful change inspired by pandemic which so many had hoped for in the classical world hasn’t totally manifest. (Some may argue with me on this, and really, go ahead; sticking to my guns.) There is a feeling, in looking at the mad race back to a crap old normal that didn’t work well for anyone not at the top, that war has magnified the compassion deficit uncovered by the pandemic a hundred-fold. People are already suffering emotional burnout, and now… now. But I’m not so sure performative hashtags are the answer. Certainly, such gestures satisfy marketing departments and board members who wish to convey concern (#concern); whatever is easiest, least risky, most theatrical, requiring lowest effort but eliciting maximum applause and maintaining the comfortable position of coolness (or victimology narratives), with the requisite grab for sexy influencer clicks, well yes, this. (I get it; take a look at my hashtags, done for clarity and indexing on the internet, but still.) I naively want to believe people are still (somehow) good, that they are not all selfish, that they will take initiative, however big or small, and not for their own sake; how I want to feel there is a willingness to risk comfort and familiarity and position, that humanity will make an effort, move beyond, give a damn – not for themselves, not for bank accounts, not for comfort or the continuance of some pretentious, capital-A form of art or some jewellry-rattling form of #fancy #night #out, but because it is simply the right thing to do. Watching numerous huge protests across the world is encouraging; people care, many of them, but I wonder how much is translating into real action, a contemplation given extra force in examining various responses within the classical world.

It is a community which has, this week, been a hodge-podge of activism, protest, confusion, awkwardness,  silence, diplomacy, and carefully-worded outrage. Some, like Opernhaus Zürich, have been straight-forward: “We strongly condemn the unprecedented war of aggression on Ukraine.” The purposeful inclusion of those words (“condemn” “war” “aggression”) are incredible when seen in contrast to the approach of other houses. Clarity matters; language matters. Russian conductors Kirill Petrenko and Semyon Bychkov, have used similar clarity in their respective statements. Released through the Berlin Philharmonic, Petrenko’s note says that Putin’s “insidious attack” does indeed “violate international law.” The head of one of the world’s most famous (and storied) orchestras writing this, publicly, is noteworthy; for Petrenko (who is Jewish), music is certainly not above, nor separate, from politics. How could it be, though, considering the history and creation of so many pieces? Going further yet is Semyon Bychkov, who has written a series of strongly-worded, thoughtful responses over the past week. In one statement, he pinpoints the importance of recognizing the intersection of history, memory, conflict, and narratives, something which has been the subject of heated online discourse since the start of the war this week:

One of many signs and symbols that the country has returned to pre-Perestroika times is the dissolution of the Memorial Society founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov in 1989. Its mission was to research every single victim of repression and keep the memory of the dead alive. Through the dissolution of the Memorial on 29 December 2021 victims of repression were killed once again. This too is a form of genocide. Not in the Russian-occupied Donbas of Ukraine as Putin claims.

The Russian regime wants to obliterate the memory of its victims. If we forget them we will betray them.

Earlier this week, Bychkov announced the cancellation of a planned series of concerts leading the Russian National Youth Orchestra. Rather than sticking head in the sand and stating “culture continues” he makes real the very real idea that choices during war matter; actions result in things people will, or won’t, experience directly – and this is what creates impact in a real way, an impact which morally dominates any ostrich-like, romanticized notion of what culture (specifically classical music) can or should be. Bychkov’s cancellation is not about punishment, as the St. Petersburg-born maestro explains:

I want the spirit of this decision to be unmistakably clear: it is in no way directed at the orchestra or its public. The emotional suffering of ordinary Russian people at this time, the feeling of shame and economic losses they experience are real. So is a sense of helplessness in face of repression inflicted by the regime. Those individuals who dare to oppose this war put their own life in danger. They need us who are free to take a stand and say: ‘The guns must fall silent, so that we can celebrate life over death’.

He writes something incredibly important just before this, that performing “under the present circumstances would be an unconscionable act of acquiescence.

This is not, it is worth nothing, an act meant to sow division; it is an act of solidarity that fully and openly acknowledges the central role of economics within the classical world, one rarely discussed but wholly vital, especially the impact the pandemic has had on culture. The money-meets-government factor is an element which certainly deserves scrutiny, and indeed it’s one many Russian artists have now dared to question. A strongly-worded open letter from Russian arts workers reads, in part, “Everything that has been done culturally over the past 30 years is now at risk: all international ties will be severed, cultural private or state institutions will be mothballed, partnerships with other countries will be suspended. All this will destroy the already fragile economy of Russian culture and significantly reduce its significance both for Russian society and for the international community as a whole.” So far the petition has more than 2100 signatories. I can only guess how many of those who signed are, or have been, on the streets to protest – there have been several across Russia, and thousands of people (including composer/musician Alexander Manotskov) have been detained . Several Russian cultural figures (including, rather notably, Vladimir Urin and Vladimir Spivakov) have signed an anti-war petition in which they recognize that “in each of us lives the genetic memory of war. We do not want a new war, we do not want people to lose their lives.” It may seem milquetoast in its wording, but as Meduza editor Kevin Rothrock pointed out, “many people are risking their livelihoods with this. It’s not your throwaway virtue signalling.” If art is about connection, as some have recently claimed, then the most important points in that line of connection must be financial; to disinclude them is to engage in a privileged form of willful blindness. Who can afford such a luxury now?

Moscow-based art museum Garage has released a public announcement in which they announce they are halting all of their exhibitions “until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased. We cannot support the illusion of normality when such events are taking place.” A group of public figures, including author Vladimir Sorokin and actress Chulpan Khamatova, composer/pianist Anton Batagov, and Nobel-Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, have added their names to another petition, which reads (in translation):

The war Russia has launched against Ukraine is a disgrace. It is OUR shame, but unfortunately, our children, the generation of very young and unborn Russians, will also have to bear responsibility for it. We do not want our children to live in an aggressor country, to feel ashamed that their army has attacked a neighbouring independent state. We call on all citizens of Russia to say NO to this war. 

We do not believe that an independent Ukraine poses a threat to Russia or any other state. We do not believe Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukrainian people are under the rule of the “Nazis” and need to be “liberated”. We demand an end to this war!

The outrage – its reality, its clarity in expression, the risk inherent to its expression – are all very real, and witnessing it across the spectrum, in real time, has been harrowing. To be blunt: I never expected Russian artists to publicly take a stand, to venture, to risk, but when they did, I am struck (mostly) by the humanity, and the specificity of language in conveying that humanity (something I think Bychkov is especially good at capturing). That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been disagreement, defensiveness, an appalling lack of compassion. False equivalency, that pungent symbol of 21st century socio-political exchange, has been expressed by some – it reads as little more than self-interested apologism; the “what aboutisms” that come with such reactions beat on the intellect and the soul equally. Such responses were taken to task by Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who shared specific and personal details of her family history, one which is, like so many of us Eastern Europeans, threaded through with tragedy:

My already very old grand-grand-parents were deported by the Russians to Siberia during the second world war. One grand-grandfather was shot. My grandparents were robbed by Russian soldiers of home and everything. Not even being allowed to keep the shoes of their small children they had to live on the street. These are facts, not opinions.

Equally clear has been the position of music publisher Bärenreiter: “We vehemently oppose violence as well as the unfounded and unjustified aggression of one state against another, for which there is absolutely no place in cultural Europe.” They added the call to “let us all think about how we can actively support the Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price just for expressing their will to live just like us.”

Herewith are two links, ones I shared with Bärenreiter, which I am sharing here – not to seem saintly, not to prove anything, but merely because of a feeling of utter helplessness; I don’t know what else can be done, but to provide something which might have a real impact past numerous other tepid words and performative gestures. Perhaps my history working for Amnesty International many years ago in Dublin is making itself known; those busy days working alongside journalists covering a variety of human rights stories left its own indelible mark. These links (to accredited charities) were shared with me by Ukrainian contacts, who have been pleading with their well-meaning, non-Slavic counterparts to please fucking do something! They contain real, actionable suggestions to real organizations, many of them working at ground level in Ukraine. 

I don’t want to offer any grand philosophical statement about how culture “erases” borders – those borders and identities matter to people. People are fleeing across them right now; the fact they’re from a certain place matters a great deal, to them and to others. People right now are arguing about those identities, warring over them, with words and weapons equally. Culture doesn’t melt anything; music doesn’t mend anything – if anything, music has the power to rip hearts wide open, to inflame passions, to provoke strong feelings and thoughts; sometimes it should. Music isn’t always some mystical prescriptive bandage meant to heal the world – history has repeatedly taught us (or tried to teach us) that such reductive understanding doesn’t exactly work, for performers or audiences. Of course, history is largely labyrinthine; right action and its effects are not. We all experience life, and its sounds, differently – anthems, marches, symphonies, operas – births, deaths, sex, love. We all come from somewhere; sometimes we leave those places, but our hearts stay. How could they not? Sing, proclaim, protest; have a voice. Your voice matters, and will in time, I think, be less a part of the labyrinth of history than a ragged, colorful thread in a vast quilt, a piece of which we take back to our homes, someday, somehow – against our skin, hidden, but close to our hearts.

(Artwork: Tetyana Yablonska, “Life Goes On”. Oil on canvas, 1970. The National Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv.)
opera, Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, stage, culture, opera, performance, reach, hands, beautiful

Essay: Bridging The Divide

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.

Matthew Rose: “We Have To Believe In Opera, And Do It In Brave Ways”

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

The opportunity to see the worlds of art and music joined live on a stage is always a treat, whether it’s with William Kentridge’s production of Alban Berg’s Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, or Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe at the Canadian Opera Company. Stimulating intellectually, such integrations offer the additional possibility of emotional contemplations and experiences that reach past the limits of language.

The history of  blending art and music is, of course, very long and encompasses total creations, notably Stravinsky’s 1951 work The Rake’s Progress, which was inspired by a series of eight drawings done by William Hogarth between 1732 and 1734; they chart the decline of innocent Tom Rakewell, who comes to London and is drawn into a world of debauchery, debt, and personal destruction. Stravinsky had seen the drawings as part of an exhibition in Chicago in 1947, and, together with poets W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, created a sonic landscape that vividly captures the vitality of Hogarth’s work while simultaneously exploring vice, loss, and vulnerability. The Rake’s Progress premiered at  Teatro La Fenice in Venice in 1951, before productions in Paris and New York; it was also part of the premiere season of the Santa Fe Opera. The text, by Auden and Kallman, is arguably one of the richest in the repertoire, but like the music, it’s dense and requires deft listening. Those aren’t bad things, by the way; as you’ll read, perhaps should be more encouraged in our overloaded, insta-hype culture. 

glyndebourne rose rake

Topi Lehtipuu as Tom Rakewell and Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow in the 2010 production of “The Rake’s Progress” at Glyndebourne. Photo: Mike Hoban / Glyndebourne / ArenaPAL

This weekend the London Philharmonic Orchestra presents a live in-concert presentation of the work, featuring tenor Toby Spence as Tom, soprano Sophia Burgos as Anne Truelove, and bass Matthew Rose as Nick Shadow. They’ll be performing under the baton of Vladimir Jurowski, who led the work in 2010 at the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera (where he was then-Music Director), in a storied production originally first presented in 1975, which featured Rose (as Shadow), Topi Lehtipuu as Tom, and Miah Persson as Anne. Designed by artist David Hockney and directed by John Cox, the production has toured extensively, and is a beloved part of Glyndebourne history. Smart, funny, and scary, this pretty production was my initial way in to its world; between it and a various recordings, I found this Stravinsky demanded great amounts of time, attention, patience, and care, much more so than many of his other works. Those qualities were heightened and found a natural (and dare I say, surprisingly comfortable) outlet when I was heard portions of it live at an LPO rehearsal earlier this week. The Rake’s Progress is, more than many operas, one that needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, providing a visceral experience that goes far past its decline-in-fortunes narrative. Tom’s loss, especially of his true love (pun intended), takes on a wholly real, and wholly passionate, sound. Equally striking is the unrepentant sensuality of the score, between the bronzen throb of basses and horns, the gossamer-like delicacy of violins and woodwinds, and ethereal (if utterly precise) vocal lines, The Rake’s Progress is as rough as it is poetic, as funny as it is sad, and as real as it is fable-like; it’s art and life joining, in a deeply satisfying integration of flesh and spirit.

This is something I sense Matthew Rose knows and appreciates about the opera. We spoke last year about his work with the Scuola di belcanto; since then, the English bass has been named Artistic Consultant to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met. He just wrapped up performing in two Puccini works in New York, La fanciulla del West (opposite tenor Jonas Kaufmann) and La bohème, and is scheduled to be in a Royal Opera House production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godounov next summer. Between then and now, Rose appears at Opera Philadelphia as Bottom in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (something of a signature role of his) and will also be performing with the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Rose is notable not only for his incredible vocal flexibility (his repertoire includes Baroque, belcanto, and contemporary works) but for his immediacy as a performer; there is a palpable sincerity to his work, a sense of urgency, and depth of true feeling. This applies every bit as much to the character of Nick Shadow (the actual devil in disguise) as it does to poor old Leporello (servant to Don Giovanni), the role I last saw him perform live onstage.  I was keen to get his thoughts on the work itself,as well as the ways it’s perceived, and how those perceptions have played into contemporary programming choices. His responses were passionate, thoughtful, and hugely informed by a balanced sense of keen artistry and quotidian approachability, with large splashes of humour. Rose may be singing a villain this weekend, but I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the good guys.

hogarth sir john soanes

The third of Hogarth’s paintings in “A Rake’s Progress” – The Orgy: The Descent Begins. (Photo: Sir John Soane’s Museum London)

What would you say to someone who’s new to The Rake’s Progress?

It’s very, very intelligent, and very intellectual. (The creators) put this thing together based on pictures by Hogarth, creating a whole story in a very intellectual way. It’s not Traviata — you have to really do your homework to understand what every sentence means. The Hockney production in Glyndebourne I’ve been lucky to do is so illustrative of what is happening — it is so accessible, which is why it’s been such a success.

Experiencing it live also makes it accessible, because one can clearly sense how immensely powerful and detailed the score is.

It’s the whole thing: seeing someone’s life go from one thing to another entirely, as this does. Tom’s this very happy, innocent young man who goes completely insane and dies in the end. It’s a very sad story, and Stravinsky’s music is so illustrative, and so appropriate for the time and to Hogarth. It’s brilliant he decide to do this.

The sensuality of the music can be surprising at points for newcomers.

Yes! And every single bit is exactly what it needs to be — the music is so brilliantly descriptive, some bits are so beautiful, (like) the way he uses the two voices (of Tom and Anne). There are also bits with Tom and Nick Shadow, at the end of their card game, where they sing a duet, and it’s very hilarious — the way he uses angularity and harmony is so clever.

There’s so much dramatic momentum within the musical lines as well.

Completely, though somehow it’s not quite become the great ticket seller I guess we all think it should be, but we get to spend hundreds of hours preparing it, so if audiences are able to have the same understanding as they did for the Hockney one, that would be good indeed.

Jurowski LPO

Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

John Cox has said this is “an English opera written by a Russian composer” — what do you make of that?

That’s exactly what it is. As Vladimir says, there’s bits where Stravinsky quotes Tchaikovsky and Russian folk music; it’s very influenced by the Russian thing and classical music thing, and Kallman, who was American, and Auden, who was English, were putting the text together with that, so it’s an amazing collection of people and ideas. Shadow is the person who makes this story happen: he takes Tom out of this innocent place, and puts him in this situation which is opposite to that, and his life becomes worse. It’s interesting… it’s evil defeated, but not completely defeated. 

He is Tom’s actual shadow… 

They talk about that, don’t they — it’s his alter-ego in a way.

… but the serious stuff is balanced by comedy.

It can be done funny or sinister; it’s this brilliant script you can play with in many different ways. I think Kallman took on persona of Anne, and Auden did all the other bits as they wrote this. You have to trust what they and Stravinsky have given you, and use your own imagination too.

Matthew-Rose

Photo: Lena Kern

How much do you think that sense of imagination applies to programming these days?

Who knows… people are being more and more conservative about what they’re doing, which I think is worrisome for our art form if this goes into the future. We have to believe in opera, and do it in brave ways. If you do very general, safe repertoire, in a very safe way, that won’t do anything for anyone. 

Administrators would argue that those programming choices are not being made now because auditoriums are having trouble filling seats.

Yes, and they think they’ll solve that problem by programming safe stuff that won’t challenge anyone, but this art form is challenging, it’s not easy and it shouldn’t be easy. That’s the great thing about it: you are given so much information at once, and you can take so many things out of it, and perceive and experience it so many different ways. You can take it as a film and just sit back and watch, or you can think about the music itself, or whatever — it’s a great thing.

Some past productions of The Rake’s Progress made it about pretty pictures and wigs and corsets and, I think, contributed to the way it is perceived in some quarters, as this costume-heavy, non-tuneful Anglo-Russian piece.

It’s none of those things though; it’s very dangerous and sexy and brilliant. We shouldn’t be scared of these things; audiences should know about them. Also the way things seem to be going in terms of marketing and selling, you now have to have the right star — and these are people who won’t be singing things like this, or Peter Grimes. Art galleries can get people to see art of all different kinds of art, but at the same time we’re scared about cutting people off opera with new ideas; one art form can somehow do it and yet… maybe we need to help people understand what this is.

… while not dumbing it down, I would suggest.

You don’t need to dumb it down. Music is being taken out of schools and out of the core curriculum of education, and it’s a shame for our industry. If people are educated to know about stuff, then they can appreciate it, and why shouldn’t they know and appreciate this kind of thing?

Opera ≠ Church

Simon Schnorr as Don Giovanni in Jacopo Spirei’s 2016 production
for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

People come to opera with many opinions and ideas. If they’ve never seen a production, or have only caught tidbits online or the television, have gone at the behest of a significant other for a special occasion, or, they’ve worked in the industry their entire lives in some capacity, everyone has an opinion: It’s the greatest art form there is. It’s stagnant. It sucks.

In speaking with director Jacopo Spirei recently, it seemed as if he was highly aware of all of these opinions, and moreover, had spent considerable time with groups who held a diversity of ideas around the art form. It’s this awareness, I suspect, that powers so much of his directing work; the Florence-based director has a powerful desire to reach through all the baggage a person carries (whether artist or audience member), to present something new and very immediate. Spirei, as I outlined in part 1 of our chat recently, spent the early part of his career working with British director Graham Vick, whose own stagings of operatic works have attracted their fair share of fans and critics. Vick is a figure who firmly believes in community involvement, and in reinforcing the art form as an intrinsic part of society.

Spirei has a similar approach. He has a number of acclaimed productions under his belt, including Rossini’s comic La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) for Theater an der Wien (Vienna) in 2012; another Rossini opera,  the beloved La Cenerentola (Cinderella), for Festival Internacional de Musica (Cartagena) in 2014. He’s also worked with the renowned Co-Opera Co., helming productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) for the London-based organization. Spirei’s production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte won the audience prize for best production of the 2012/2013 season at the Salzburger Landestheatre, and he also helmed Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca (La rencontre imprévue, ou Les pèlerins de la Mecque) there in 2013. Spirei’s resume is long and impressive, and extremely varied.

As he mentioned in part one of my interview with him, the busy director has been behind a few versions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, including a popular, acclaimed version of the work staged at the Landestheater in 2011, and remounted in 2016. He’s set to direct Verdi’s Falstaff in Parma at the Festival Verdi in October.

With his recent San Francisco Opera debut,  Spirei was tasked with re-envisoning Gabriele Lavia’s 2011 production of Don Giovanni. The director and I spoke just on the cusp of the production’s opening (on now through June 30th); thoughts about the dastardly deeds of the Don, as well as the centrality of women in Mozart’s famous 1787 opera, led to a broader discussion on opera attracting new audiences, the vital role of education, and the particulars of opera fashion. To go casual or not to go casual? Read on.

You recently told Newsweek that in Italy, opera is more about “pretty pictures”; I was reminded of the ongoing debate between new and old productions. Some people love the contemporary take on works; others feel there should be a return to beauty.

Director Jacopo Spirei.

Yeah the problem is, what is beauty? It’s such a wide concept. When something you put onstage doesn’t help the story or doesn’t tell us anything, it hasn’t got a thing to say, then it has no place on our stages — it’s very simple. In a way you have to tell the story that is in the piece, that is written down; that’s where you start from. Of course you do it through your own intellect and creativity, but you cannot start decorating it; it doesn’t need that. The art form is absolutely fine on its own. What it needs is to be alive. It needs absolute essence, which is the live performance.

The joint work the director does with the conductor and the singers is to lift the opera from the page, to take it away from what’s written and recreate it, reinvent it. There’s no such a thing as pretty show or an ugly show; there’s a good show or a bad show. That doesn’t mean in-period not-in-period; somehow it’s a fake problem. If the work is good and relevant and done with honesty, then it’ll get through. Some work is provocative, some not, sometimes it want to be thought-provoking and hit something; each (production) has its own definition of beauty and of art, which makes us grow and develop.

… and some productions aim to be purposely unpleasant.

If you think about Caravaggio and a lot of his stuff, they’re beautiful paintings with incredibly morbid subjects: people without teeth, rotting away; fruit disintegrating. There’s a reason it’s rough, with that very harsh lighting. Beauty is, first of all, a completely subjective thing — I like purple maybe you like red, you see what I mean — in those terms it’s one thing. There are different styles, there’s brutalism, there’s a more decorative style. What I said about Italy and opera is not the fact that beauty is wrong, it’s just, instead of it being the obsession it used to be for this country — I mean, even Pasolini his own own version of beauty! — the theater has stopped developing, and become just a showcase of pretty costumes and nice scenery.

You mean museum pieces?

Right. So then you don’t need to do new productions — (old ones) were beautiful and had a lot of money (put toward them), a fantastic costume designer, what more do you need in life?

Gillian Ramm, Laura Nicorescu & Tamara Gura in Cosi fan tutte from Spirei’s production for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

The Met is grappling with this right now; the tension between those who enjoy what is called traditional stagings, and the group who say that’s boring and doesn’t move opera forwards.

First of all I think theater should be a leader, not a follower. The theater should lead an audience, teach an audience, make an audience grow, otherwise you end up with what TV has become, which is an endless number of reality shows, with no imagination, no creativity. In that sense the theater has to lead, in a way that works at every level; you have to show your audience a path and take them down that path. That’s one element of it, of course; the other element is the constant discussion about tradition. I find that very entertaining!

When we refer to “tradition” we’re basically referring to operas in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a really narrow frame of time for almost 500 years of opera history. If you go and look at the operas written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s, the sets were different; if you look at some of the sets from the early music festivals, they did the most abstract, extreme productions that today would get completely trashed. We’re only referring to the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and little bit of the 1970s; what does it mean? Composers like Verdi cared so deeply about a piece, he would do anything to bring it to life. This debate on tradition, it means nothing!

What it is, is, it’s comfortable — and comfort is laziness. The comfort of it, it’s everything. Nowadays we live in a political world that is only looking backwards, thinking back at the supposed good old times, because we think we know what good old times were — but we never had good old times. Like, “oh remember the 1980s!”

Ines Reinhardt and Sergey Romanovsky in Spirei’s 2013 production of Gluck’s The Pilgrims of Mecca for Salzburger Landestheater.
Photo: © Christina Canaval

People romanticizing the past…

Yes! So we have to move forward; we have no choice. As human beings, there’s no going back.

Where does art and accessibility to newcomers, fit in? A lot of people have said to me that they find opera intimidating, they don’t know where to start, they think they won’t understand.

You’re absolutely right when you say “intimidated” — we just need to take the aura off it. It’s not a church, it doesn’t matter what you wear so long as you come and watch it. The San Francisco Opera is doing this thing where they’re showing the opera at the baseball stadium. It’s fantastic! I’ve been taking Uber cars around, the drivers all ask me where you from what you do, and when I tell them, they say, “Oh how cool, I’m curious!” And I say, listen if you want to see it, go to the baseball stadium, on thirtieth of June, you can see it, and they all say, this is great, cool!

The opening of the 2013-2014 Met Opera season; Eugene Onegin (with Anna Netrebko), broadcast live in Times Square.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s like the Met broadcasting its opening night in Times Square — I’ve gone to that more than once, and it’s fun. People bring thermoses and sandwiches. 

Wonderful! Really, there’s nothing wrong with the art form, it’s fine, it just needs to be taken to the people. Of course, if the people don’t come to the theater, the theater has to go to the people, and find a way to go to the people, maybe not via the big institutions — you need the big institutions to keep the art form alive — but you also need the new world of young companies to bring the artform to the people and even take the people into the theater, or not, at least then it’s an educated choice. People can then reasonably say, “I’ve seen it and I don’t like it” or “Wow, that’s great!”

At least plant the idea…

Yes.

My attitude is, if you do want to come with me to the opera house, please make an effort to look smart; I like doing something special, and it’s nice to see people having the desire to do that. That doesn’t mean opera is snotty or elitist —dressing up doesn’t mean those things. I feel like we have to demystify the opera house as an overall experience, and that extends to fashion.

Absolutely. If a person says, “I’m not wearing a suit but I’m still going,” in a way, from my point of view, that’s the priority (getting them in). It’s like going out on a Saturday night: you dress up, but it shouldn’t feel like, “OH MY GOD I HAVE TO PUT ON MY BEST TUX!”

Simon Schnorr und Sergey Romanovskys in Spirei’s 2013 production of Cosi fan tutti for Salzburger Landestheatre. Photo: Photo: © Christina Canaval

But seeing jeans and sneakers sometimes frustrates me; I feel like we’ve coddled everybody, especially in North America, to constantly feel the need for comfort, throughout every single experience. It seems as you say, lazy. You can look smart casual, but that’s not the same thing.

Ah, sneakers and jeans, you see them everywhere. You can spend more on jeans than an actual tuxedo, D&G and Cavalli make some very fancy jeans! Times change, and all that develops, it’s absolutely fine, and again, one can like it or not like it. You have all the right to say, “If you come with me, look decent” — I don’t have a problem. What I think is crucial is to bring opera to the people, as well as people to the opera.

Nowadays, unless you live in Germany or Austria or a few other countries, you don’t grow up with music, it’s not taught in schools, the opera house is not a place where you go. I worked a lot in Germany and Austria, and it’s completely part of the culture. You take your kids to it, they grow up watching music and go to the opera and they are completely unfazed by it. They are not shocked, they have a relationship to culture; they know what they’re talking about when they discuss it.

It’s woven into the fabric of society there.

Yes, moreso than in Italy. I’ve worked so little in Italy; life has brought me outside. There’s a lot one has to say “no” to; it also has to do with the funding, (Italian companies) can’t really plan ahead because they don’t know if they will have money next year or how much money they might have. Italy has been cutting things regularly, every year, sometimes mid-season. So theaters are trying. It’s harder for sure — but Italy has also mismanaged money for a really long time.

And now it’s catching up with them?

Of course.

Hannah Bradbury, Raimundas Juzuits, Florian Plock, Kristofer Lundin und Lavinia Bini in Spirei’s 2016 production of Don Giovanni for Salzburger Landestheater. Photo: © Anna-Maria Löffelberger

It’s always the arts that gets cut first…

Always, and it’s the biggest mistake a society can make.

Education and arts are essential; theater is essential; if you study it, if you go, if you do it, you learn to be in somebody else’s clothes, somebody else’s problems, you start to empathize with those problems and become more tolerant and less judgemental, you are a better person. And being an audience in a theater makes you a better person also. It teaches you to be in a room packed with other people, and to really listen to something, not interfering with it or with others, but sharing an experience.

Beautiful Nothingness

Photo via

Translating complex philosophical ideas onto the stage can be a challenge, particularly when that stage doesn’t involve words, but The National Ballet of Canada’s Being and Nothingness, based on the work by Jean-Paul Sartre, offers a riveting expression of the ideas around the nature of existence, done with a definite visual poetry that makes for compelling watching. The work is being staged at Toronto’s Four Seasons for the Performing Arts as part of the company’s spring program (which also includes work by Alexei Ratmansky) and runs through June 6th.

Principal dancer Guillaume Cote turns choreographer for Being and Nothingness, which took shape after fellow dancer Greta Hodgkinson approached Cote about creating a solo. Cote was reading the work of Sartre at the time. As he prepared the solo, Cote says in the program notes that he was surprised by “how many aspects of Sartre’s theory began to come up. There was this idea of creating an image of ourselves, an ideal of what we should be, and no longer living in the moment but rather somewhere between what we’e done in our past and what we’re striving for in our future.”

This “somewhere between,” where the dancers look caught between past and future, is the space where Being and Nothingness derives much of its power. Soloist Hodgkinson performs with just the light of a sole bulb dangling on a long string, her body twisting and contorting, a Giacometti come to life. It’s as if she is in a frantic fight against inertia and vanishing, fending off the darkness but fearful of what the light might reveal. Her arms and legs turn toward, and then away, from light, toward and back from the corners of Michael Levine’s satisfyingly grim set. Cote’s choreography nicely integrates the fluid, spatial elements of Tharp and Balanchine, while deftly maintaining a poetic urgency that perfectly matches the gorgeous panic of the Philip Glass Metamorphosis and Etude pieces that score the work, ones expertly performed by Edward Connell.

Kathryn Hosier and Félix Paquet (Photo by Karolina Kuras)

If, like me, you can’t quite place Being and Nothingness from your reading past (I did a paper on it in university roughly two decades ago), it’s worth remembering that the French philosopher starts from the point of humans being precisely zero essence; we are not “essentially” good or “essentially” bad, we simply are. In other words, life’s what you make it. Sartre writes that because humans lack any pre-determined essence, they make themselves purely by acting in the world. This “world” is presented onstage through a series of vignettes, many of which feature couples in various circumstances. This reflects the dualism Sartre explores (and ultimately rejects) in his work; to put it simply, what you see is really what you get.

Thus Cote has staged a work with few light spots, though the ones there shine through brilliantly, and are complemented by intense dancing and a forceful theatricality that dips and dives around the abstract and occasionally surreal. Dancers Kathryn Hosier and Felix Paquet share a lovely, playfully romantic pas-de-deux in “The Bedroom,” while Svetlana Lunkina and Brent Parolin bring a strained connection to vivid life, with the help of a carpet (frequently dragged around with someone on it), in “The Living Room.” The bridges between past and present, of sitting in a purgatory of the present, couldn’t have been made more searingly obvious, and the choreography and imagery presented in this vignette was particularly affecting for its visual inventiveness and seamless blend of movement and design. Further along, an ensemble of male dancers, clothed in natty grey suits designed by Krista Dowson, perform upstage (they’re downstage for “The Street”) and remind one of Sartre’s argument that “we, as human beings, can become aware of ourselves only when confronted with the gaze of another. Not until we are aware of being watched do we become aware of our own presence.”

Greta Hodgkinson and Ben Rudisin (Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic)

This idea of presence makes the solo work all the more trenchant;  Hodgkinson’s intense performance that opens the show,  as well as Dylan Tedaldi’s tormented solo performance in “The Sink,” add challenging if beautiful layers to what is, at its essence (and yes it has one), a brilliantly inventive piece of dance theatre.  Fully immersing his head in a sink full of water and then throwing his head back, lion-like, Tedaldi gives a controlled and sure physical expression of Sartre’s idea that “the gaze of the other robs us of our inherent freedom” — even if that gaze is coming from a mirror, it would seem. Freedom here looks like a joy and a torment, at once, and choreographer Cote seems to understand this perfectly.

The idea of freedom as a leviathan-like force, haunting, harrowing, beautiful and terrifying, is examined with quiet intensity in the final vignette, “The Call”, where Hodgkinson and dancer Ben Rudisin wrestle with a phone call (and an ever-lengthening phone cord); it’s as if they are wrestling with their own need for connection, and a repulsion at being defined solely by it, grappling for freedom and pushing against it simultaneously. Such push-pull tension fuels the piece on to a surprising, if nicely contemplative ending, elucidating the philosophical notion that “freedom is humanity’s curse as well as its blessing, and what we make of that freedom is our own.”

It is an awful, awesome, awe-inspiring note Cote has chosen to end on, and it will, like Being and Nothingness itself, leave you quietly contemplating the lights, the shadows, the movements, and the stillness; you may even want to pull out that old volume of Sartre again.

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