The lazy, hazy days of summer continue and seem endless, more hazy than lazy for many, and far worse than anything one could have imagined at this time last year. One feels helpless in the face of so much tragedy – and highly discouraged in continuing any form of creative pursuit.
After hours (days, weeks) spent negotiating with various forms of sadness, I’ve found solace, usually temporary if no less rewarding, in old favorites: reading, listening, watching, and lots of cooking. My deep freeze has never been so consistently full, my head similarly filled with novels, names, images, events, ideas, places, and oddly (or not) a renewed sense of creative inspiration. One has to give thanks for these things, and very often, make time for them, as much as for the good people who have spent time and energy in conversation, often over meals, enduring my meandering conversation and offering their own insights, “You need to move” being unquestionably the best.
Sometimes simple things pull one through challenging times, though of course there’s always the risk of those things clearing the ground for more pondering, furrowing of brows, (over)thinking. Perhaps Prince Orlofsky has the best response here…
Striking summer things for me have been wide-ranging and not always joyous (shock shock) but sometimes, just sometimes, they are that, and validating too. A fascinating study published in July 2023 points up the essentially visceral nature of the live experience. Babies between the ages of six and fourteen months were studied in order to examine the effects of music in live and controlled environments. Three groups (one presented with a live show; one with a playback of the show in the same environment; the last with playback at home) were shown an excerpt from The Music Box (a baby opera by artist Bryna Berezowska) at the McMaster University LIVELab, a research facility/concert hall located in Hamilton, Ontario.
The study found that the babies who experienced the live version were far more engaged, with their heart rates even synchronizing. Study co-author Laura Cirelli, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto’s department of psychology, noted that “If there’s something happening that we collectively are engaging with, we’re also connecting with each other. It speaks to the shared experience.” Cirelli also noted that the study reinforced ideas related to socialization. “An itsy bitsy audience: Live performance facilitates infants’ attention and heart rate synchronization” was conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough, the Department of Settlement & Community Services (Toronto), Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and Bucknell University (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania). This study makes me feel a bit less ridiculous about the amount of frustrated arm-waving I did during the first eighteen months or so of the coronavirus pandemic. “Whither will?!” I kept shouting (and writing) at anyone who would listen (read), “Don’t you know the live experience is so very vital to our being human?” It’s nice to see this sense has been confirmed in actual science, although I’m not confident the results will inspire a more intelligent and humane approach to the arts in certain sectors, especially given the precipitous rise of AI technologies.
Technology is only one aspect of the harrowing and thought-provoking article “The Perils and Promises of Penis Enlargement Surgery” by Ava Kofman, a collaboration between The New Yorker and Propublica and published in the former’s July 3, 2023 print edition. Along with admiration for the writer’s professionalism and thoroughness, the work also inspired a contemplation of operas which revolve around body parts – namely Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias and Shostakovich’s The Nose, itself is based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol. Quite often these operas are staged for laughs even as some – the best ones – feature serious subtexts. An appendage taking on a life of its own is comically surreal (as Barrie Kosky’s Royal Opera House 2016 staging of The Nose emphasized) but, as Kofman’s piece highlights, is just as much a lived reality for those who have undergone the procedure(s) she explores (and in one instance, directly observes). I wonder if an opera will ever be written that tackles the modern fixation around bigger-longer-thicker-stronger and the underlying culture of shame (not to mention social media-driven anxiety) fuelling that fixation. It’s certainly a topic rich in possibility, for writing as much as for staging, though one hopes it wouldn’t stray too far into comedic territory but keep (as Kofman does) a needed tension between the epic and the intimate.
Both the epic and the intimate come together nicely in Presto Music’s new podcast episode (released August 6, 2023) with writer Fiona Maddocks discussing her new book, Goodbye Russia: Rachmaninoff In Exile (Faber), published in June 2023. Maddocks experienced her own loss in writing this, the death of her husband, artist Tom Phillips. I especially appreciate how, through her discussion with host Paul Thomas, Maddocks emphasizes how Rachmaninoff’s predilection for melodicism and its resultant popular appeal inspired a sniffy attitude toward the composer in some quarters. Heaven forbid people write things that other people can sing, hum, get earworms from – oh, mon Dieu. I plan on reading this book soon and hope to write about it, and more broadly, about the composer and his exile.
2023 marks Rachmaninoff’s 150th birthday, and there are certainly no lack of events to mark the occasion. Conductor Kirill Karabits featured Rachmaninoff in a programme that also included music by his Ukrainian father, the composer Ivan Karabits. The works were on the bill of the first of two BBC Proms concerts presented by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at the start of August. Karabits Sr’s Concerto for Orchestra No. 1, ‘A Musical Gift to Kyiv’ (written in 1981 to mark 1500 years since the founding of Ukraine’s capital) opened a concert that also featured Mozart’s Horn Concerto No.4 and Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. BBC Radio has the audio from that concert as well as the third movement (‘Allegro con feroce’) of Ukrainian composer Borys Lyatoshynsky’s immense Symphony No. 3; it will be accessible for the next little while. Recommended; these are musical gems.
Also jewel-like: Nothing Like A Dame, the acclaimed 2018 documentary by Roger Michell featuring four talented, titled artists – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright. I recently viewed this a second time and was quite struck by the tension between the public and private selves which each artist was clearly trying to negotiate as the cameras rolled. One positively cheers when one of them (it may have been Dench) blurts out, “oh fuck off, Roger” in complete exasperation. The prodding to say Very Deep Actressy Things is pointed up when Smith says to an unseen figure, toward the end of the doc, “They’ve told you how old we are, yes? We’re tired…” – even several decades Smith’s junior, the sentiment felt oddly familiar. For all the film’s brilliance at allowing moments of true poignancy to emerge from the many lively conversations, there was a point (perhaps several) where the women clearly wanted the cameras off, and for the performance (such was it was) to end. The expectation of female creatives of all stripes to always be “on” for the public, in whatever fashion and context, can be exhilarating, daunting and yes, tiring. There may be truth to an adage oft-repeated that by a certain age one simply ceases to care what others think – but Nothing Like A Dame was a reminder of the paradoxical nature of that not-caring when one has spent decades on the stage, in front of the camera, negotiating the realities of “small people”, agents, partners, heartbreak, career frustration and immense success. The doc brought to mind the work of writer Jessica DeFino, whose work I have linked here in the past, specifically her brilliant piece, published in May 2023, about Martha Stewart’s Sports Illustrated cover. I have complex and rather conflicting feelings about this myself; I find myself relating to the ‘Dames’ at times, but oh, how I want to manifest Martha’s hot-lady magic (and the money that paid for it) if and when I reach 80.
Quite on another planet, and magically so, is Voyager, by the Munich Opera Horns, released on the Bayerische Staatsorchester Recordings label in July 2023. The 65-minute work offers an array of fascinating and very poetic sounds, with works by contemporary composers (Hans-Jürg Sommer, Konstantia Gourzi, Urs Vierlinger) alongside those of Anton Reicha, Oscar Franz, Pierre-Max Dubois, and Richard Strauss, whose own father Franz Strauss was a virtuoso horn player and principle horn with the Bavarian Court Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper). The album was selected as Gramophone magazine’s September 2023 Editor’s Choice. I recently interviewed the man behind the BSO label, Guido Gärtner, about the whys and wherefores of running an independent label, how it came to be, the benefits of being an independent, recent and not-so-recent DVDs (including Andrea Chenier and Die Tote Stadt, both featuring tenor Jonas Kaufmann), and the label’s unique aesthetic – which, with their vibrant tones and large silvery typeface, resemble nothing so much as gem-like, collector’s-edition books. My feature with Guido Gärtner will be published to coincide with the launch of the BSO’s massive European tour, at the beginning of September.
Keeping with the gem-like theme: this recipe for chana masala is delicious, but is also beautiful to look at! Wonderful, easy, filling, and freezes very well indeed, it has become a kind of go-to. I have improvised at various times since first trying this months ago, adding chunks of yellow-fleshed potato, chopped peppers, even (gasp) butter beans, as well as freshly-chopped coriander at the end. The fragrant herbal shards gleamed like little emeralds against the lovely orange, even (hurrah) at defrosting. Ooof, now I am working up an appetite…
… so before I run off to the kitchen, a word of clarity, and of gratitude: this website will be continuing for a little while yet. Thank you to those who have reached out or told me in-person how much you’ve enjoyed the work here and have found some measure of value in what it’s tried to accomplish. The encouragement has had a good (and arguably needed) effect, spurring on a continuance of work, one which may lack the regularity of years past but will makes up for that (I hope) with a palpable commitment to the passion and curiosity which inspired its creation back in 2017. Many heartfelt thanks for your readership – and remember: the “c” word is context. 🙂
Top photo: mine. Please obtain written permission for reuse.
For many in the classical world, summer means one thing: festivals. In continental Europe, the UK, and North America, outdoor festivals celebrating both opera and orchestral works, not to mention chamber music, are unfolding, with a certain joy more palpable this year than others. After so many experimental iterations (especially in Salzburg, where the festival powered through the worst of the pandemic in 2020), there is a firm, fond embrace of the familiar, and one hopes, a bit of a face toward the future in terms of programming, casting, productions, and (one hopes) safety protocols.
Fans of composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) will have already long planned a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, founded by Wagner himself in 1876 and built expressly to manifest his groundbreaking concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. Getting there takes a bit of planning; the town can be reached by train (from Munich it’s roughly a two-hour journey through Nuremberg) and tickets to performances require completing an early application, though online purchases were made available at the end of May. Local hotels are booked months in advance – usually; a quick check shows they aren’t all quite full this year, owing, perhaps more than anything to lingering effects of covid/omicron. Just how the classical world continues to navigate this challenge depends on who you ask; many are soldiering on, but there are also many cancellations and fill-ins, onstage and in the pit. Audiences are somewhat skittish about returning to indoor spaces – and again, the level of skittishness depends on who you ask, and where they’re travelling. The Festspielhaus, (in)famous for its uncomfortable seats and lack of air circulation, is mostly wood, as per Wagner’s wishes – as such, the nature of the house’s architecture simply doesn’t allow for modern interventions à la AC, a challenge given Germany’s increasingly steamy summers. You will experience Wagner’s works the way he intended; if you have to endure physical discomfort to do so, well, so be it. With the opening of the festival on 27 June with Tristan and Isolde (featuring tenor Stephen Gould opposite soprano Catherine Foster), there occurs the kind of sonic immersion Wagner aimed for; Wagner’s magnificent score has this odd (oddly discomfiting, for me) way of utterly erasing… time, circumstance, the edgeless, blunt forms of sameness that have been a hallmark of pandemic life thus far, the immediacy of mediocrity (and arguably the immediate realities of a hot, airless auditorium). As I’ve written in the past, my ears have lately developed teeth, a reaction to the prevailing attitude of safe-and-boring programming that colours far too much of post-pandemic classical life; Wagner offers up a chewy, delicious eight-course feast, then demanding even further capacity and appetite.
Something strangely similar in terms of sonic experience occurred in Weimar in August 2018, when I attended the world premiere of the first act of Franz Liszt’s Sardanapalo, a presentation which had been 170 years in the making. Liszt (1811-1886), a composer known far more for his piano work (compositions as much as his famous performances), never completed a full opera. Sardanapalo was based on the tragedy by Lord Byron, (published in 1821) and began life in sketch-form in 1849, with Liszt using abbreviations and creating alternative versions, eventually coming to a 115-page manuscript. The project fell by the wayside when the composer was unable to find a proper libretto for the second and third acts. Catalogued in 1910, the work was considered too incomplete for performance – until British musicologist David Trippett came across it at the at the Goethe and Schiller Archive in Weimar in the early 2000s, and subsequently spent years painstakingly piecing it together. Presented by Deutsches Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar with soloists soprano Joyce El-Khoury, tenor Airam Hernández, and bass baritone Oleksandr Pushniak all under the baton of Principal Conductor Kirill Karabits, the work has sonic connections with Wagner’s 1845 operaera Tannhaüser (something Karabits had noted prior to the premiere) and an equally clear nod in orchestration to Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) though its insistent melodicism and pungent scoring also recall Verdi’s Nabucco (1841) and SimonBoccanegra (1857). Sardanapalo demands much of its listener (one indeed needs toothsome ears here), but it offers compelling characterization through its orchestration, scoring, and mix of creative influences – indeed, hearing it inspires many thoughts around possible live presentations that go beyond in-concert formats. A recording of the work was released via Audite in February 2019 (done in Weimar), and a performing edition of the score released by Schott in summer 2019.
Trippett and I spoke briefly after the 2018 performance, but unfortunately we didn’t have the kind of extended, chewy exchange I would have liked. Thank goodness for an email that landed in my inbox this past April from Europe-based classical writer Dejan Vukosavljevic, asking if I would be interested in just this exchange, one which he and Trippett, who is Professor of Music at Cambridge University, had happily conducted earlier this year. Vukosavljevic explores not only Liszt’s work but the complicated artist behind it, his very complex relationship with Wagner, the possibilities for a work long thought lost, and, more immediately, inquires as to how the pandemic impacted academic pursuits. Trippett himself is a formidable interview subject, knowledgeable but never stuffy, excited to share discoveries, his joy of the material (and their various social, cultural, political, and historical contexts) palpable and infectious. This exchange was a fortuitous and good bit of timing personally – I have long considered bringing on new contributors to my website. The advantages of new voices are myriad, their wealth of knowledge, experience, and passion immense – you don’t always want one voice or viewpoint on any given topic, but a multiplicity of voices and related experiences in order to make the meal that much richer. This seems especially important in classical, which can very often feel like a small, airless bubble. Vukosavljevic has a natural curiosity (he mentioned in recent exchange that his hobbies include “stargazing, reading, playing chess, socializing”) and his knowledge of (and obvious enthusiasm for) the classical world makes one hope for further contributions, and further journeys up in music history, composition, and performance. Thank you Dejan, and thank you Professor Trippett – if I can’t go up the hill to Bayreuth this year, I am happy to go up the hill of music history and learn something new along the way; I hope readers will join us.
DV: How did COVID-19 pandemic influence your work as a musicologist and a cultural historian at the University of Cambridge? Where did you feel the biggest pressure?
DT: The world seemed to change in the blink of an eye, didn’t it? We instantly become online avatars, and adapted courses to keep all paths of study on track. But no online medium can replace the vibrant atmosphere of the seminar room. Looking back, lockdown feels like stolen time. Oddly, though, there were also benefits – like a lot of reading and exploring new repertoire, along with innovations in mediatized performance and testing the limits of multitrack performance. Digital resources are excellent for 19th-century studies, where many manuscripts are available online. This is the case for the Richard Wagner Museum and the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, both of which I use often in my work. So, if anything, the pandemic increased my reliance on these resources. Where was the biggest pressure? I would say the lack of contact, which was strangely alienating even as so much music went online. In concert, music touches you – literally so. Touch is the sense that unifies all other sense modalities. A singer’s voice or the vibrating reed sets in motion a pressure wave that physically touches your middle ear. Not experiencing that proximity to real acoustic sound, collectively as part of an audience – with its capacity for beauty, curiosity, and catharsis – was difficult.
DV: Your work encompasses many areas of classical music. What was your motive to begin to study the life and works of Richard Wagner?
DT: Originally I intended to do my doctoral research on Franz Liszt. I’d played so much of his piano music as a child that it had become a point of orientation for me, and I often felt it refracted in the music of others, from Debussy to Ligeti. In the end I defected to Wagner. I had listened to the Ring cycle three times when I was 14 (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink), the third time with libretto in hand, and I began playing all the vocal scores. As a student, I remember travelling to Helsinki just to hear Leif Segerstam conduct the Ring. Wagner’s intellectual reach is unparalleled in 19th century music and philosophy, and, aside from the sheer richness and power of the music, the range and quantity of his ideas and commentaries, and the copious evidence of the manuscript sources proved irresistible. There is still so much work to do.
DV: Would you label yourself as a Wagnerian? What do you see in Wagner’s music that makes him so special?
DT: The history of ‘Wagnerians’ makes any such label tricky. That’s one of the fascinating aspects of the Wagner historiography. On the one hand, few would want to align today with the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain or Winifred Wagner, both of whose curation of Wagner’s legacy was intertwined with bad politics; on the other hand, his works are continually reimagined for our time by directors, as when Siegfried’s body was draped in the Ukrainian flag in Madrid last month, or when (director) Peter Konwitschny situated Lohengrin in a German school. What remains constant is the powerful nature of the music, its continual colouristic and harmonic flux, and the ongoing psychological resonance of the drama.
Early on, leitmotifs were wryly dismissed as dotty ‘calling cards’ or ‘an address book’, but beyond simple signs, they convey the way that memories change, and the different experiences of time passing. When Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear, its significance reverberates backwards and forward throughout the entire cycle. The Greek model of an orchestral commentary, too, offers a dynamic structure in continually re-evaluating the significance of events. That said, Wagner’s sophisticated orchestration and motivic techniques change significantly across his oeuvre – so there isn’t simply the leitmotif technique. Listening before and after the Act III Prelude to Siegfried (the densest compression of motifs to date) makes this particularly stark.
Beyond this, Wagner absorbed the values and learning of his age, so his works faithfully and fatefully refract these interests, from anti-vivisectionism to purification by holy fire. The director Michael Hampe once put it to me that Wagner’s works are ‘miracles of humanity’, and that opera directors might begin by asking ‘how do I present this so that others will understand this immense value?’ I think it’s a wonderful question.
DV: Your first monograph Wagner’s Melodies, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, examines the cultural and scientific history of melodic theory in relation to Wagner’s writings and music. How did it start?
DT: I became fascinated with the paradox that Wagner placed ‘melody’ at the centre of his aesthetic theories (‘music’s only form’), yet he was consistently ridiculed by critics for being unable to compose a melody. The book uses this basic incongruity to re-examine Wagner’s central aesthetic claims, and places his ideas about melody into the context of the scientific discourse of the age: from the emergence of the natural sciences and historical linguistics to sources about music’s stimulation of the body and inventions for ‘automatic’ composition. Researching and writing it at Harvard and Cambridge was a fascinating experience. It led me to explore all manner of sources, from Wagner’s insertion aria for Bellini’s Norma, to a device called the psychograph for transcribing your unconscious musical thoughts… it gave me a chance to ask why it had become so difficult for German writers even to define melody (and—for most—quite impossible to teach it), and why melody simultaneously occupied the centre-ground of expression in opera, yet sat at the apex of artistic self-consciousness for German composers. Thinking about melodic intensity without actual, Italianate melody changed the way I listened to certain music – yes, I think it did.
DV: Wagner composed thirteen operas in total, but was also his own librettist; how would you describe his approach to literary writing?
DT: Wagner’s alliteration, coordinated speech roots, and creatively antique forms of language often raise a smile. Unlike, say, his orchestration, it was an area of his work that was openly questioned by contemporaries. For me, the opera poems after 1850 reflect his theories about language and of how language communicates, and these change, of course – which is why you find a diatribe against rhyming, metrical verse in his essay “Opera and Drama” (iambic pentameter as ‘five-footed little monsters’), yet a return to precisely such verse in Meistersinger fifteen years later. Ever pragmatic, his underlying goal in what he called ‘verse melody’ was to uncover a musically infected form of communication that couldn’t fail to be understood, even (especially) by those with no training.
There are various librettos that he completed but never set to music, including a quasi-Buddhist drama (The Victors), and a vaudeville about a cross-dressing bear (The Happy Bear Family). He held all of these poems dear, and suggested to other composers, including Liszt, that they set them instead. So fiercely did he feel that the Ring poem was a work of world literature, that he published it in 1853, as a book, though he came to regret that decision! Even accepting the importance of his theory of speech roots that rhyme and concatenate sounds, we now tend to use Wagner’s language more as an artistic means, for music, rather than celebrate it as literature.
DT: Much has been written about Bayreuth as a proto-cinema, but I think the desire to control an audience’s sensorium was only part of the story. Since his time in Dresden during the early 1840s, Wagner had been advocating practical innovations to his theatre (like enabling sight lines, updating the instruments, pensioning off the weakest performers), and his friendship with the brilliant architect Gottfried Semper — who designed the barricades Wagner defended during the uprising in May 1849 — shaped his ambitions for what a theatre could be. Add to this the explosion of contemporary research into sense physiology under figures like Johannes Müller and Helmholtz, and Wagner’s own belief that audiences had to physically experience music, first-hand, in order to ‘get it’, and it is not hard to see why the Festspielhaus project came about. Nor why it has become a focal point for the history of a specifically Wagnerian culture in all its stripes. Wagner sought to do away with mediating explanations, where ideally the entire role of music criticism would become redundant – in many ways Bayreuth was conceived as a monument to that ideal.
DV: Franz Liszt was the composer who helped raise the profile of the exiled Wagner by conducting the overtures of his operas in concert while he was in Weimar. How would you describe the relationship between the two composers?
DT: In a word: asymmetrical. They first met in 1841. Initially, Wagner pursued Liszt more for career advancement than artistic kinship, sending him the scores for Rienzi and Tannhäuser (‘I proceed quite openly to rouse you up in my favour’). By 1848, he began requesting financial help from Liszt, initially selling the copyright to his extant operas and accepting commissions, but thereafter simply requesting a series of bailouts, often in uncomfortably obsequious, manipulative prose. 1849 marked a sea change: Liszt was enormously impressed by Wagner’s latest works, which he felt were at the vanguard of progress. He conducted Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, making sets of piano transcriptions of both (a supreme endorsement), he sought to conduct Siegfrieds Tod (had Wagner finished it), and even asked to premiere Tristan und Isolde in Weimar. During the 1850s, Liszt had the fame, influence, resources, and financing to rescue Wagner from critical and political ignominy as a composer-criminal, ingloriously expelled from Germany in 1849. Perhaps most significantly, he was a key figure in securing Wagner’s eventual amnesty and in promoting the first fledgling Bayreuth festivals.
But by the end, he referred to himself as ‘Bayreuth’s poodle’ after being wheeled out as a celebrity to endorse the second festival, after Wagner’s death (in February 1883). Wagner had questioned the comprehensibility of symphonic poetry in 1857, and would (privately) dismiss Liszt’s late works as ‘budding insanity’. There were two rifts in 1859 and 1864, the first over a misreading of tone in Liszt’s remarks about Tristan, the second more serious – about the Cosima affair (Wagner to Cosima: ‘Your father is repugnant to me’). So despite an early period of genuine, intense artistic friendship on both sides, the relationship was always lopsided. There is much more to say, of course, and I’ve written about this in the Cambridge Wagner Encyclopedia (2013; Editor Nicholas Vazsonyi).
DV: Liszt was a prolific composer, but spent nearly seven years on Sardanapalo, an Italian opera based on Lord Byron’s play. How did Sardanapalo come about, and why do you think it became such a challenge for him?
DT: By his mid 20s, Liszt’s ambitions for the ‘social mission’ of art exceeded mere pianism. By his early 30s, he saw how Rossini and Meyerbeer towered above other composers in Paris. Their medium? Opera. In his eyes, the spectacle, size, expense and public appeal of Franco-Italian opera ensured that this was the privileged route to such power, to entering ‘the musical guild’, as he later put it. Schumann had written publicly of a ‘disconnect’ between Liszt’s two identities, as a great pianist but less developed composer, and it must have hurt. The opera Sardanapalo was born of ambition (‘to cross my dramatic Rubicon’) – and it sounds like that. Liszt was intimately familiar with French and Italian opera scores of the age (that is, transcriptions and paraphrases), so composition of his mature opera was remarkably fluent; the libretto was his Achilles heel. He had searched widely for the right topic, eventually settling on Byron’s tragedy Sardanapalus in 1845. Sadly, he wasted several years waiting for the playwright Félician Mallefille (1813-1868) to fulfil the libretto commission. He finally accepted a text procured by his close friend the Italian Princess Belgiojoso, a well-connected writer and salonnière exiled in Paris. We don’t know who this poet was – he was reportedly imprisoned for agitating towards Italian independence, and in need of funds! Liszt worried that he was no Byron or Metastasio, and implored Belgiojoso to work on the text herself so that it would emerge under her authority (‘Permit me simply to place my entire musical destiny in your beautiful hands’).
When the versified text for Act 1 finally came through, Liszt set it to music in a detailed, continuous short score (a particell). It took many letters, follow-ups and prompts, including the threat of commissioning a new poet, to extract the versified libretto for Acts 2-3, but Liszt never set them. He questioned aspects of the libretto to Belgiojoso, and evidently wanted changes made before setting anything further. As far as we know, no revised libretto was ever sent, and by this time (c. 1852), Liszt was so deeply involved in other compositional projects, not least the symphonic poems, that the zeal and original reason for completing an Italian opera a decade ago had faded.
DV: The score for Sardanapalo was thought to be almost impossible to read, and its music irretrievable. What was your approach in its reevaluation and eventual presentation in 2018?
DT: I was puzzled by the idea that a musician as intelligent as Liszt would have notated musical materials that were full of errors or made little sense, as some had suggested. The problem was more likely to be that we were reading his manuscript incorrectly. When I began studying the manuscript in detail, parts of it were legible, but at first glance it looked incomplete; Liszt used many abbreviations and forms of shorthand – like mini-codes to himself – to get everything on paper at pace. I made about 15 transcriptions of the full manuscript. With each new transcription, the contents became clearer. It was a bit like a very pixelated image gradually coming into focus, in ever-higher resolution with each transcription. Liszt was writing for his eyes only, so a lot of accidentals, signatures, rests etc. were missing. Fortunately, the vocal parts were complete and continuous – fully notated with text underlay. In three places, the accompaniment appeared to drop out, creating odd gaps with continuous vocal parts above. The solution was that Liszt in fact sets up clear, formulaic accompanimental patterns that would continue; in an age before cut & paste, he simply didn’t feel the need to write them out in full.
DV: How did the research process for Sardanapalo unfold for you?
DT: It was a genuine leap of faith. I had no idea what the manuscript would contain when I began, but as the project progressed, I felt a growing responsibility to bring the remarkable material he wrote to light in a way that was both scholarly and historically sensitive. There is a very detailed commentary in the critical edition (Neue Liszt Ausgabe), and a major question that remained was whether or not to orchestrate the work. As written, the short score is often unplayable on the piano, and Liszt left a few cues for instrumentation, even specifying orchestral textures in detail here and there. (Following normal practice, his assistant Joachim Raff was due to produce a provisional orchestration in 1852, which Liszt would then have revised.) It was clear, then, he was thinking in orchestral colours. For that reason, I felt the music should be presented in fully orchestrated form as well as in a critical edition.
Beyond this, it was enormously valuable working with several young singers from the Jette Parker Programme at the Royal Opera House, and later, with (conductor) Kirill Karabits and the three singers (Joyce El-Khoury, Airam Hernández, Oleksandr Pushniak) who performed the full world premiere. Although Liszt notated the vocal parts in full – for instance, with all ornaments, phrase markings – many details for performance still had to be discovered by trying out the music, and seeing how it fits in the voice: tempo, transitions, articulation, shape. All of this could only be explored by making the leap into sound.
Oleksandr Pushniak, Airam Hernández, Joyce El-Khoury and David Trippett at Staatskapelle Weimar on August 19. Photo: Candy Welz
DV: What were your impressions from hearing the world premiere in Weimar?
DT: It was a revelation. The performers were so committed and inspired in bringing this to an audience, and the orchestra – Liszt’s own orchestra, in his adopted city – was magnificent under Kirill. It had the feel not only of creating history, but of history folding back on itself, as though in an alternative reality the opera had finally materialized in all its splendour. That first performance was released as a CD, and it was such an achievement for all concerned, topping the UK Classical charts, ICMA finalist, making the Guardian’s Top 10 discs of 2019. I have such admiration for all the performers.
DV: The opera had concert performances lined up this year in Budapest, Edinburgh and London, but things got frozen due to COVID-19 pandemic. What are your plans for the future?
The pandemic froze many exciting artistic projects, and Sardanapalo was no exception. There are some discussions ongoing for future performances in Hungary and America, but it is sad to think that the music waited 170 years to be heard, had a moment of glory and began spreading with momentum, only for it to be silenced again by the cruel effects of the pandemic. I would hope that Liszt’s ingenuity in creating a modern, through-composed bel canto opera will continue to be enjoyed by audiences. And, it’s crucial to note here that following detailed work on the critical edition, the final, fully corrected score has yet to actually be performed – there is a striking difference at the end of Mirra’s cabaletta, for example.
DV: Do you believe that Sardanapalo could find its way into the repertoire of the opera houses in the near future in some staged production?
DT: It would be a creative opportunity for the right director. Could it be staged? Yes. Without doubt. The action is largely psychological – interior – but that is no different to Tristan (Wagner) or Bluebeard (Bartók). The challenge would be how to couple it with another one-act opera that complements Byron’s drama. Liszt frames the act with a concubine chorus and the royal army marching off to war; in between we have the adulterous couple learning about each other’s passions, insecurities and power, and on stage is the silent wife.
In today’s world of conflict, King Sardanapalo’s firmly anti-war stance resonates (‘Every glory is a lie, / if it must be bought with the weeping / of afflicted humankind.’), and the outer action pivots on Mirra’s plea that the he overcome this aversion to violent conflict, that he stand up and defend the realm. He listens and is finally persuaded by her lyricism – so off they go to war. It certainly offers plenty of creative material, from the opulence of ancient Assyria to the irony of a brutal Byronic hero who loves peace – 2024 is the 200th anniversary of Byron’s death, so who knows?
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Top: The Death of Sardanapalus (La Mort de Sardanapale), Eugène Delacroix, 1827. Source: Musée du Louvre.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.
Against the odds – or perhaps because of them – opera is making a welcome in some parts of Europe. Boris Godunov runs at Opernhaus Zürich September 20th through October 20th for six performances only, with baritone Michael Volle making his role debut as the titular czar. The production, directed by Barrie Kosky and conducted by Kiril Karabits, also features bass Brindley Sherratt as the thoughtful monk Pimen and tenor John Daszak as calculating advisor Shuisky. The project is unusual for not only its unique presentation (singers in house; orchestra and chorus down the street) but for the fact it’s happening at all; at a time when live performance is being set firmly to the side, the production of an opera – any opera, but particularly one as demanding as Mussorgsky’s 1874 opera, based on Pushkin’s (written in 1825 but only presented in 1866), produced here with the immense Polish scene – feels like a strong statement for the centrality of live classical music presentation within the greater quilt of life and the good, full, thoughtful and varied living of it. In the era of the coronavirus pandemic, opera is not, as Opernhaus Zürich and others across continental Europe seem to imply, a gold-threaded frill but a sturdily-sewn hem, one comprised of the common threads of community, communication, and not least, creativity.
Thus is Opernhaus Zürich’s current production of Boris Godunov making history, particularly in an industry hard hit by a steady stream of COVID19 cancellations. It’s true that creative operatic presentation (particularly the outdoor variety) is leading the way for the return of live performance (as an article in The Guardian suggests), but the price for freelance artists has, nevertheless, been totally devastating, and many musicians are leaving (or considering leaving) the industry altogether. The cost of singing, as Opera expertly outlined recently, is immense, and in the era of COVID, there simply isn’t the work to justify such expenditure. Amidst such grimness Boris feels like a blessing, fulfilling those needs for community, communication, and creativity, needs which so often drive, sustain, and develop great artists. Two singers involved in the Zürich production, Sherratt and Daszak, are themselves freelancers and, like many, lost numerous gigs last season, a trend which is unfortunately extending into the current one. As British singers working abroad (Daszak is based in Sweden), both men have varied if similar experiences appearing in memorable stagings that highlight acting talents as equally as respective vocal gifts. Sherratt’s resume includes an affectingly creepy, highly disturbing performance as Arkel in director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of Pelleas et Melisandeat Opernhaus Zürich in 2016. Daszak appeared at the house in 2018 in Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Gezeichneten; his Alviano Salvago plumbing layers of hurt, shame, and a visceral, deep-rooted despair.
Both performers have, like so very many of their cohorts, experienced tidal waves of cancellations for the better part of 2020. Sherratt had been preparing his first Pimen back in March with Bayerische Staatsoper; Daszak was in Vienna rehearsing Agrippa/Mephistopheles in The Fiery Angel. Both projects were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic, along with subsequent work at Festival D’Aix en Provence, Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin), and The Met, respectively. The revival of the 2016 opera South Pole in which Daszak was set to sing the role of Robert Falcon Scott (the Royal Navy officer who led various missions to Antarctica), has been cancelled; its creative requirements contravene existing safety regulations in Bavaria, as Daszak explained in our recent chat; the work was have to run in November and was to have also featured baritone Thomas Hampson as Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Daszak’s plans for New York are also off; he was to perform in the revival of Richard Jones’ production of Hansel & Gretel, as The Witch, this autumn. Sherratt’s workload this season has been equally hit; the long-planned presentations of Wagner’s Ring Cycle by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in January-February 2021, in which Sherratt was to appear as Hundig (in Die Walküre) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), have been called off, LPO Chief Executive David Burke explaining that costs, combined with an uncertain climate characterized by ever-shifting regulations, make the highly-anticipated work impossible to realize.
John Daszak as Schuiski in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
The elasticity of Kosky’s creative approach and Opernhaus Zürich’s willingness (and budget) to allow such experimentation has allowed for ideas to be grown and cultivated entirely out of existing health protocols; as a result, the orchestra and chorus will be, for the duration of the run, performing live from the Opernhaus’s rehearsal studios a short distance away from the actual house, with their audio transferred live into the auditorium thanks to sophisticated and very meticulous sound engineering. Opera purists might sneer that it isn’t real opera at all without a live orchestra and chorus, particularly for a work that so heavily relies on both for its dramatic heft, but the artists, far from being adversely affected, seem to have energetically absorbed a certain amount of zest from such an audacious approach. While some may perceive a “return to normal” in rather opulent terms, Kosky’s approach underlines the need for opera creators and audiences to embrace more creative theatrical possibilities and practises, ones whose realization has been, for some, long overdue. In Pushkin’s play, Shuisky remarks that “tis not the time for recollection. There are times when I should counsel you not to remember, but even to forget.” Godunov himself cannot forget of course, but the era of COVID19 has inspired sharply contrasting reactions; a cultural amnesia in some spheres, with the willful neglect of the role of the arts in elevating discourse and inspiring much-needed reflection, together with a deep-seated longing for a comforting familiarity attached to decadent live presentation, an intransigent form of nostalgia adhering to the very cliches which render live presentation in such a guise impossible. Is our current pandemic era asking (and in some places, demanding) that we entirely forget the gold buttons and velvet tunics, the gilded crowns and towering headresses, the hooped skirts and high wigs? How opera will look, what audiences want, and how those possibilities and desires may change, are ever-evolving questions, ones currently being explored in a variety of settings (indoor and outdoor), within a willfully live – and notably not digital-only – context; that willfulness, as you will read, is something both Sherratt and Daszak strongly believe needs to exist in order for culture, especially now, to flourish. Is there room for surprise and discovery amidst fear and uncertainty? Where there’s a will, there may very well be a way.
This will which is manifest in the realization of Boris Godunov in Zürich has its own merits and related costs both tangible and not, but the production’s lack of a live chorus is not, in fact, a wholly new phenomenon. The physical presence of the chorus has not always been observed in various presentations of Boris Godunov; at London’s Southbank Centre in early 2015 for instance, conductor and frequent Kosky collaborator Vladimir Jurowski, together with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, presented three scenes from work with a chorus recorded during prior OAE performances at St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theatre. Kosky himself, as you’ll read, joked before rehearsals began about this onstage presence, or lack thereof. As both Sherratt and Daszak noted during our conversation, the level of quality in Zürich renders a sonic immediacy which, even for artists so used to live interaction, is startling; the actual lack of physical presence of what is by many considered the central “character” of Godunov as an actual dramatic device holds an extraordinary meaning in the age of social distancing and government-mandated quarantine. An extra layer of meta-theatrical experience will be added, consciously or not, with the production’s online broadcast on September 26th, a date neither singer seemed particularly nervous about – rather, there is a real sense of joy, in this, and understandably, in getting back to work. Our lively, vivid chat took place during rehearsals, with the bass and tenor discussing staging and music as well as the politics of culture and the role of education, which seems to be more pertinent than ever within the classical music realm. Of course the intercontinental divides in attitudes to culture can be distilled into financial realities (funding for the arts is higher in some places than others) but within that framework lies the foundational experience of exposure, education, and awareness – and, as Sherratt rightly point out there, the will to make things happen in the first place.
Barrie Kosky’s production of Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich, 2020. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How are rehearsals going?
JD Good! It’s surprising when I think, considering we have no chorus onstage and no orchestra in the pit, at how it’s going particularly well – they’re a kilometre away, up the road in another building. The sound is being piped in by fiber optic cable. We were worried things could go wrong but generally they’re getting on top of it. It was good today wasn’t it, Brin?
BS It’s amazing. All these monitors and speakers are in the pit pretty much, so it sounds like the orchestra is down there.
JD And actually they have so many different speakers and microphones and they all sound directional, like different sounds in different areas of the pit… it’s quite incredible.
JD It’s a problem in that it’s not the same sound we’re used to; they’re playing live but it’s almost impossible to replicate an exact sound, no matter how much they spend on the system to replicate that live sound. We’re worried about balance because a sound guy is controlling the volume and at times they need to increase the chorus to sound more present onstage, but they have enough time to work on it.
BS It was dicey at the start, but it’s getting better all the time. Kiril (Karabits) is with the orchestra and looking at a monitor of us on the stage, and where the conductor should be is a monitor, so we watch the monitor as we do for other monitors normally, and the orchestra also have these screens and they can see what’s happening on the stage. It’s not as if the conductor was there he would see it all as big as life; he has a limited view of the hall to look at. If anything I think his job is the most difficult because he doesn’t have that direct contact with the stage all conductors are used to having.
Is it challenging as a singer to not have that live energetic exchange with a conductor?
JD We were concerned about that, all of us – we didn’t know what it would be like. I remember in Royal Albert Hall years ago, when they’d do opera in there, and the orchestra was behind you so you had to watch the monitors, but the conductor was at least there, live. Here he’s not in the same building, and we were concerned about that, but we had a lot of rehearsal with him before we got to the stage; we’ve had three, almost four weeks in the studio before we came to the stage, and then rehearsals onstage with him live in the pit. Normally by that point a conductor is pretty used to what we’ll do and we’re used to doing what he wants, and that’s the case here too, so won’t be too problematic for us – moreso for him, especially if something goes wrong onstage. He has to be very attentive to that.
It must be a nice feeling to be back on stage – the last time was in Vienna for you, John?
JD Yes that’s right. We started rehearsals in March – we got two weeks into The Fiery Angel but then the shit hit the fan and we were all sent home. That was my last live performance, apart from a couple concerts at home in Sweden, which weren’t professional in the same way. It’s nice to get back onstage.
Brindley Sherratt as Pimen in Boris Godunov in Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Brindley, you were about to rehearse another Boris Godunov (directed by Calixto Bieito) in Munich before it was cancelled, yes?
BS In fact they called me an hour before the first rehearsal to say, “Don’t bother coming in” – I’d arrived the night before. The last time I was on the stage in a fully-staged opera was November of last year in New York, so it’s been ten months really, and now, getting back, it feels like normal – I slipped into the rhythm of it and got used to singing in an opera and all that goes with it, and it feels like normal; I’d almost forgotten. It’s a desert everywhere else.
JD I felt like a criminal getting on the airplane to come here.
BS I feel here in Zürich, even now, they’ve clamped down a bit. You have to wear a mask on public transport and in the shops but there isn’t the same atmosphere of fear as in the UK, of doing this dance to avoid people – there isn’t that, generally speaking, they’re more relaxed I would say – but like John, I felt when I was about to get on the Eurotunnel in my car, a little bit of survivor’s guilt. Because you want to tell everybody that “I’m going to work! I’m going to do an opera in the theatre!” – you want to tell them it’s going to happen in places where they are courageous and able to fund things and you want to shout, “Opera’s not dead!” – but at the same time you are aware that a lot of your colleagues are out of work.
JD I’ve had mixed responses – a lot of people say, “We want to hear how it goes, because it gives us hope, every little bit of things turning back on is good to see, because it means it’s coming back together.” I just had another run of performances cancelled in Munich in November – I’m doing the Wozzeck coming up, but was also going to do South Pole but they’ve had to cancel it because they can’t fit the orchestra – which is a big orchestra with lots of technical things they need to sort out – they just can’t fit it in the pit safely… and Munich is a massive house. Seriously, you have to have vision; I think Zürich is very brave doing this. A lot of people could say, “Well this isn’t really live opera!” but it is; we’re all playing together, we’re just not in the same building. I think they’re very courageous to do this. It means they can now open, and they’re running their normal season. It will take a while to get back to real normality but I think it’s a really good idea and it seems to be working.
BS Obviously we kind of hope this will be paving the way, or pioneering the way, cutting the through the jungle, that people will come and say, “Maybe we can do something this way, with social distancing” – there’s a chorus of fifty and an orchestra of eighty that are in a room somewhere else, and that can be done in lots of spaces. A lot of ideas can spring from that sort of arrangement.
JD It’s not an ideal situation…
BS… but it’s something.
JD … yes, it’s a great thing to start with. We need to see live performances in theatres; as soloists, we are giving as much as we can onstage, and I think I’ll be an operatic experience. It’s just not going to be a comparatively normal operatic experience, but for a start, I think it’s a great solution.
Michael Volle (L) as Boris Godunov and John Daszak (R) as Shuisky in Boris Godunov at Opernhaus Zürich. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
How much do you see projects like this leading the way in the COVID era? I’m not sure this production of Boris would be accepted in some places, which have very specific ideas about how opera should look and sound.
JD I think there are big arguments… if you’re reliant on sponsorship, ticket sales, you’ve got to be more commercial or at least you’ve got to cater for what you think people want, rather than really cutting-edge art, in my view. I think the European system of public funding, especially in Germany, Spain, France, Italy if there is any money there, they’re not reliant on ticket sales so they can be far, far more adventurous, and that’s why I think there’s this tradition of pushing the borders, especially in Germany, with trying new ideas. I think it’s vital to experiment. There should be an allowance to to fail – I don’t see any problem with that. If a director wants something or a conductor wants and tries something, and we try to fulfill that for them, and it fails, so be it. It’s what we do as artists.
You won’t be performing in quite a full house, is that right?
JD The seating capacity in the theatre in Zürich now… I think we’re allowed 500 in one place and now 1000.
BS … which is great, it’s a small theatre anyway, but I think it’s more of an issue of countries and governments being comfortable with the audience being safe, not only the artists; that’s the main issue. Back in the UK they’re still allowing indoor performances so long as it’s socially distanced – and despite that, there is nothing happening in the West End. The health secretary dictated meetings of no more than six people and everybody went “WHAT?! We have stuff in the diary!” And the culture secretary sent a tweet out to clarify that that rule doesn’t apply to socially distanced performances; we can still have those. So I hope there is something happening soon.
To be involved in this Boris feels historic somehow… Do you feel the weight of that?
BS I don’t think we’ll forget it – not just because it’s one of the few contracts I’ve got left in the season, but because of the experience, the whole thing of working in this environment, it’s become more familiar now, like normal now, you just become aware quickly it isn’t the same.
JD We feel very lucky to be able to do this, to be one of the first to spring back to life. There is a guilt there as Brin said, but at the same time you are aware you’re giving hope to your colleagues. I’m pretty confident it will be successful, and we have the right guy at the helm. Barrie sent me a message before rehearsals started saying, “Hmmm, Boris Godunov without a chorus onstage: challenge of a lifetime!”
BS I always thought, if anybody can think out of the box, it’s Barrie. He could quickly come up with an idea, like, “Here, let’s do this” rather than, “OH MY GOD! MY PRECIOUS CREATION THAT TOOK YEARS OF PLANNING IS GONE!” It was, “Okay, let’s just do this, and see how it goes.” It’s thinking on your feet, thinking out of the box.
JD It’s been an inspiration to see and be around. I must say, when I heard our production of South Pole in Munich was getting cancelled, I said to my agent, “Surely they could do something like what’s being done in Zürich!” Bear in mind, the cost of the equipment is apparently astronomical. This quality of sound… when they started the overture yesterday, there’s a bassoon, and it sounded like it was in the pit… like a bassoon, right in the pit! Before, it sounded tinny, and they adjusted things and I think they’ll improve the sound with each performance. I think it’s millions they’ve spent…
BS It’s a lot of money.
JD … so it’s something to bear in mind, that not everyone can afford this kind of cutting-edge technology, but my gosh, it sounds almost like the orchestra is really there.
Photo: Gerard Collett
How much do you think this sense of immediacy is experienced by various audiences?
BS Well I went to a concert here recently and… I was staggered. It was pretty much a full house, we all had masks on but the orchestra on stage were as normal. At first, when the band started to tune up, I thought, my God… then they played some pieces which I love,and I welled up because it reminded me of when I was a trumpet player in the youth orchestra years ago. So I felt emotional anyway because of that, but it was the sound… that live sound, the sound of applause and cheers and laughter and people standing up and showing their pleasure, that was the most moving part. Chatting to people afterwards, I said what I’d been thinking, how elsewhere it’s a bit of desert. And the orchestra manager actually said, “Maybe also there isn’t the political will, or the will overall.“ And indeed, there isn’t this sense of, “We must have this back; it is vital to our society to have this back,” it’s “How soon can we get back to the pub, and the club, and have our football.” It’s a different emphasis. Sure, it’s the cash and government funding, but there’s also the actual will that we have to do something. The arts is much more highly prized here; culture is an essential part of life.
JD In Germany you go on the U-Bahn and you hear classical music being piped in down there…
BS … and in Vienna, on the subways on the walls, there are videos of various shows, and you walk down the road, I can’t remember the one, and on the pavement are all classical musicians.
JD The main problem over the years is that we’ve lost music education in schools. It’s just like having a language; if you are not brought up to learn Russian, how can you suddenly hear it and understand?
BS Bravo, John…
JD There’s no money in music education anymore, it’s dwindled over the last twenty-five or thirty years, and it’s the same all over the world now, but at different stages. Even in Germany there’s less and less support for the arts, really, and I think that leads to younger people growing up not understanding classical music, and thinking it’s somehow elitist. When I was a youngster there were choral societies all over Britain; we used to learn all the various songs and styles. If we don’t educate youth on these things, we’re in trouble, but of course, there’s no political weight in it.
BS There’s no political weight or will, and that’s the issue.
JD I heard years ago in the UK it’s science, maths, and technology, those are the things they were promoting and encouraging in schools, and for some reason they don’t see music and culture as important but as we said about Barrie, it’s about thinking outside the box. Theatre and music and drama are all about using your imagination, and I think it’s a really big problem to not have that ability to think outside the box, in any field. A Nobel Prize winner was once asked what his biggest influence was and he said, “My bassoon teacher.”
So how have you been keeping up your own training and education over the last few months?
BS I kept my voice going for fun, and learned some stuff for next year, and then I went on holiday for a couple weeks, then I came back and thought, “I better start singing Boris” – and my voice was just crap! The first few weeks felt dry and horrible. The last couple of days, it does feel a bit better; I don’t know if that’s the way I was singing or something, it was… being onstage again, you just find a way of going for it. I think a lot of it is mental – singing big, singing big music, singing in a theatre – you have to find something different amidst all of it …
JD I think it doesn’t matter what the music is – it can be difficult or not, but you have to make a beautiful sound. This (work) is far more conversational, I mean Brin has a much more challenging role than I do, Shuisky is not so much about vocal production, it’s quite a short role, an important one, but it’s more conversational and there’s more intrigue with the character, so for me it was not the same challenge. The weird thing is, I felt so far away from the business; I was surprised at that. I didn’t want to leave home – I’d been there for five months, which is odd for us opera people, who spend such long periods of time away. Suddenly you’re with the family and experiencing real life in a way you really don’t otherwise. When your life is frequently away from home you miss out on the normal life that most people experience. So it was great to have the opportunity to be there for a few birthdays and family gatherings, and to work on the garden for once; normally you go away and you come back two months later and everything is on the ground and you think, “I’m only here for three days, what will I do?!” It’s been amazing, growing things in the garden, going out on the boat fishing, seeing family a lot – it has been fantastic – but I have felt so far away from opera in some ways. Then with Boris it was, “Oh! I have to go back to work!’ and I put it off for a while thinking, “Ah, it’ll be cancelled” – that was the first thing; then a few weeks went by and my agent rang and said, “It’s definitely happening” and I looked at the music and was 120% working on it. Fortunately I’m not having to sing that extremely for this, but anything is hard when you’re out of it and have to come back. There’s also the mental pressure: you haven’t performed in such a long time, and suddenly you’re back with top-notch professionals, in a top-notch theatre, and you have to put it back on again! I remember Brin and I talking about it, this feeling of, “Oh gosh, we’re back to square one” but within two weeks, everything was back to normal, and it doesn’t feel any different. I didn’t expect that.
BS As John said, for a while you think, “So long as I have a nice meal and some nice wine and sing a little bit, honestly, it’s fine” but then suddenly, somebody says, “We need more of this and that sound” and you go, “Oh goodness, I forgot about this!”
JD Brin was a bit depressed to start with – he wasn’t himself. Pimen is a big role, it’s in Russian, it’s lots of work and memorization, but also it’s getting back into the business, and the character is rather depressive as well, so it was … kind of a mirror of what’s been going on in real life.
BS That’s the thing: mental fitness is an issue, not just vocally or physically, but mentally. I mean, last week I was amazed we did back-to-back stage piano rehearsals and I was really tired, physically tired; I’m just not used to it – I’m okay now, but was a bit scary! After this I have a contract to do some concerts in Madrid, but after that, I just lost two projects early next year – the LPO Ring won’t happen – and I don’t have anything in the calendar until March-April 2021, which is terrifying really. I am just getting going again.
So as you get going now, are you already thinking about the end of the run?
BS Oh for sure.
Photo: Robert Workman
How do you keep your focus?
JD Over the years you get thick-skinned with our business, because it’s pretty brutal from day one. You start off singing in college and go out and audition and don’t get jobs and someone says you’re terrible and someone else says you’re fantastic but doesn’t give you a job; the next year they offer you a job but you’re already booked… I mean, you get used to the whole spectrum of good and bad. So I think most singers are pretty thick-skinned and used to disappointment… but this is a very strange phenomenon; it’s abnormal for everyone in every walk of life. We’ve been hit badly but so have lots of people. It’s sunk in to accept it now;. I’ve had work cancelled – Munich and The Met’s been cancelled, it was supposed to be Hansel and Gretel (it’s a gift to play the witch!) and it’s just strange.
… which is why things like Boris Godunov seem so precious.
JD I’m pretty positive about the future, but not the immediate future.
B Not immediately – you have a contingency plan for say, three or four months, but not for the best part of a year. And no matter what you earn or what stage you’re at or what job you have, if someone says, “I’ll take away your income for the best part of a year, from tomorrow” – it’s a massive belly blow.
JD Nobody can prepare for that, really. We’ve not experienced something like this for a long, long time.
This era has really revealed the lack of understanding of the position of those who work in the arts.
JD There are massive overheads – people don’t realize that. I mean, I’m from a working class background in the north of England –there was nothing posh about my upbringing.
BS The same goes for me, I mean there are some singers who do come from privileged backgrounds but equally there are those of us who didn’t, at all; we had humble starts and had our introduction was through school teachers or family music, and that’s how we did it. The circles John and I are privileged to work in do have people who are quite well-heeled, but as far as the performers go, that isn’t the case at all.
JD The thing is, the more we take away from music education of young people, the more elite it will in fact become, because it’ll only be the rich people who can afford lessons and upper class families who know about it and were educated in that. It’s fighting a losing battle in some places. My wife sang for a few years, she was part of a group of three sopranos, and they sang at the Nobel Awards and had quite a big profile in Sweden, and they used to do things, going into schools, and allowing someone to hear operatic voices in a room; it’s amazing the effect that has, a properly-produced sound from a human body. And it was really shocking for some people to hear that. I think it’s important to be exposed to this music, to close your eyes and use your imagination – that’s what it’s all about; that’s why we’re in the theatre. It’s all about the power of imagination. We really have to remember that now.
Lately I’ve been gravitating toward the work of artists who possess an air of authority, ones who strengthen my resolve to weather the current, rather frightening storms of unprecedented global pandemic. Those artists include sopranos Lyubov Petrova (that conversation posted recently), Chen Reiss (who I spoke with in March 2019; expect a new conversation soon), and Catherine Foster, an artist who didn’t start out in the opera world, but in healthcare. That former life still provides the Midlands-born soprano with a steady stream of onstage inspiration.
Until today (Tuesday March 17), Foster had been set to make a highly anticipated return to her native UK for the first time in two decades, for an in-concert performance of Elektra on Wednesday (March 18th); because of the corona virus, those dates, like almost if not all of the events in the classical world, have now been canceled. Elektra was to have reunited Foster with conductor Kiril Karabits (who she previously worked with touring Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) and she was to have performed with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), having been hailed as “the world’s best Elektra.” Prior to the cancellation, Foster had been upfront on her Facebook page about her feelings performing amidst the current corona virus pandemic, writing that “Elektra is a tumultuous journey at the best of times but this has added a new dimension.”
Listening to her robustly elegant soprano, one is struck by a sound that possesses shades of authority, delicacy, strength, and vulnerability, warmth and expansiveness, in ever-shifting varieties like reanimated bronzen shards threaded into an El-Anatsui work; glinting, shimmering, shifting, ruffling and revolving, it is a timbre, which, no matter the repertoire, allows a dramatically complete picture. Her path to music was formed early. As soon as I could talk I was singing, according to my mother!” she said in 2009, and indeed, Foster went on to sing in the local choir in her youth, becoming lead chorister at 15. Another vocation beckoned however, that of nursing, and Foster’s training eventually led her to become a midwife. Singing in her spare time in an amateur choir, inspiration to return to music came via a conversation in a delivery room, which then led to singing teacher Pamela Cook, the co-founder of Cantamus, a celebrated all-girls choir based in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Cook recommended the budding singer for an audition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where Foster studied for two years before graduating. During her studies she was awarded the Dame Eva Turner Award, which allowed for a year of post-graduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music.
In the late 1990s, Foster worked with the Welsh National Opera, Opera Northern Ireland, and English National Opera, before being faced with the tough decision as to whether or not to relocate abroad. Foster was a newlywed but also determined to keep going as a singer; moving to continental Europe was done of necessity, as is so often the reality with life in the classical world. Recalling the decision in a 2018 interview with The Standard, she said the situation in the UK was “like a closed door, I’m too tall, I’m too blonde, I’m too this, I’m too that…”. Moving to Germany, Foster found the gruelling-if-necessary experience that formed the path for a natural expression and expansion of her creative abilities while integrating all the wisdom and experience (not to mention work ethic) from her nursing days. Through her time with the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar (from 2001 to 2011), she sang a variety of roles and styles, including Mimi in La bohème,Turandot, Elizabeth in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Leonore in Il trovatore, Sente in Der fliegende Holländer, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Fidelio, and of course, Elektra. “I was working with an A-class orchestra and ensemble on a daily basis” she told The Times in 2013.
It was amidst such varied creative experiences that she first encountered Brünnhilde, Wagner’s irrepressible heroine, in 2007 at Nationaltheater Weimar (released on DVD). Since then, Foster has become associated with the role and has appeared in a myriad of Ring Cycles – in Weimar, but also with Oper Köln, Aalto Theater Essen, Staatsoper Hamburg (where she recorded it with conductor Simone Young), Washington National Opera, Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin), and Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona, to name just a few. Of her 2013 performance as Brünnhilde with De Nederlandse Opera in Götterdämmerung (under the baton of conductor Hartmut Haenchen) it was noted that “it isn’t difficult to understand why Catherine Foster has become a much sought-after Brünnhilde in opera houses around Europe. Her voice is well-projected with beautiful high notes that easily cut through the orchestra.”
For Wagnerites – practitioners and fans alike – few places are more special than Bayreuth. The composer founded the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1876, conceiving and designing the house expressly for his own works’ presentation, most especially for the immense Ring Cycle. Foster’s first opportunity to perform at famed festival came when the festival’s co-director, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, having previously seen Foster perform Brünnhilde in Riga. The 2013 Ring Cycle production that marked Foster’s premiere Bayreuth appearance was directed by Frank Castorf and led in the pit by Kiril Petrenko, in a modern (and not entirely popular) staging. Foster went on to appear at the famous festival for five more consecutive seasons and took Brünnhilde took Hungary as well, where she performed with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Symphony Choir, and Budapest Studio Choir at Budapest’s Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. In a review of Götterdämmerung from June 2019, Bachtrack’s David Karlin noted that the soprano “can hit a high note with laser precision from a starting point anywhere in the stave below, sustain it as long as she wants and do so without ever going shrill. In the Act 3 immolation scene, she made good use of all that power, but also projected pianissimo clearly, fixing the audience with such a piercing stare that it felt as if she was singing to each listener directly.” Foster received the London Wagner Society’s Reginald Goodall award in 2018. With any luck, she’ll be returning to Budapest in June for a full Ring Cycle, part of a full 2020 slate including Turandot, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, a Verdi opera gala, and a return to Deutsche Oper next season, as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer.
Much sooner however, was to have been a return to native soil, March 18th at Lighthouse, Poole, and March 21st at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; those dates hae been canceled. Along with Foster, Elektra in concert was set to feature Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra and Allison Oakes as Chrysothemis; students from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity Laban Conservatoire were to form the chorus. The performances, and the planning and preparation around them, were two years in the making. We had the opportunity to chat in late February, before the pandemic was a real threat in the classical world and beyond. Foster was at home in Weimar, corralling her dogs (“Come in sweethearts, it’s getting cold out there!”) and eagerly preparing for Elektra. We enjoyed a lively conversation in which the jovial soprano mused on everything from learning German to real-life inspirations from her nursing days. Despite the cancellations, there’s tremendous value in sharing her ever-evolving thoughts around the Ring, new and not-so-new roles, and her evolving relationships with conductors and directors. Foster also discusses why she has no bitterness toward having to leave her home country, and why tough circumstances can sometimes provide unexpected pathways – telling and oddly prescient words for our current tough times. As you’ll read, Foster, while heartily embracing the high-art aspects of the job, keeps her feet planted firmly in an earthy authenticity, one that elevates her artistry while underlining her warm humanity – a balm for our times indeed.
When you moved to Germany in 2001, is it true that you didn’t know the language?
I could ask for a cup of coffee and that was it.
“But please don’t respond because I don’t know what you’re saying!” I can relate.
Yes, entirely! I remember coming here and no one spoke English back then. It was only in 2006-2007 that I first heard English on the street, but it was the best (environment) for me. My husband bought me a TV for Christmas, this really old-fashioned, huge thing, and I put Teletubbies on, and watched a bunch of very American series dubbed in German, and I had this book — the internet wasn’t out yet you couldn’t Google anything — that sat at the side, and I’d look up phrases: “Don’t shoot!” and “Don’t move!” It was an experience.
I never wanted to sing in the German fach; I just fell into it when I started having singing lessons. I never wanted to do opera or especially Wagner — I thought it was way too long! But now I absolutely adore the German language and adore singing in in German. I’m studying Elektra, and doing it of course in Britain, uncut, and what (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal does in the text is unbelievable; the nuances you can get out when you know the language, the colours you can put into the voice because you’ve not parrot-fashioned the words on top of what it means. You know precisely how things sit within the structures of a sentence.
Speaking of knowing structure, you’ve sung Elektra a few times…
I’ve sung it 52 times so far.
… and you’ve frequently performed the role of Isolde as well, including earlier this year in Bologna. When you start a new production is it a blank slate creatively, or do you think, “I can use this from here and that from there” and re-contextualize accordingly? What is the process for you?
The thing is, if you work with a Schauspiel director, for plays and things like that, then it is traditional that the actors and actresses don’t come having memorized their role, they memorize it during the rehearsal period. You can’t do that with an opera; it isn’t just words you’re memorizing, it’s music as well, and you have to be prepared, so of course you have your own ideas. But what I do find is that they mature, these pieces and roles mature like a good wine; you need to let them lie a bit. No matter how much you try with the first run, there’s no way you can actually know everything about the role, or know everything about a character.
For example, I’m doing Elektra uncut this time, and there’s six pages that I’ve never performed on the stage; I was going through it with my pianist yesterday, and I can tell vocally when I get to the point where I finish the bit I’ve already done on stage, then I do the uncut bit and go back into the (existing bit) — the body knows where it’s going and it’s a lot more comfortable. It’s like driving a car; when you change cars you have to think, “Where is this part going? The gears feel different…” but after a while it becomes second nature. When you’ve got that part done – all the nitty-gritty bits – and you know where you’re going and how, then you can start putting other layers on top.
For a new production, it’s the singer, the conductor, and there’s a director; those are three people who come together. The conductor has his idea of the music; the director has his concept; the singer comes with their ability to sing the role and some ideas. But if you don’t want a different concept there’s no point in employing a director – it’s our responsibility to listen, and to try and make that concept work on the stage, which, nine times out of ten, you can. The odd one you think, “Hmmm” but that’s very rare. I can count on one hand productions I’ve done that I just don’t get it from the inception, but I think the more mature you are with these roles, the better it is, and it’s a lot more comfortable for the audience and you can start to play with it even more.
My Elektra is based on three patients I used to look after when I was a student nurse in training; I had to do six months in the psychiatric unit, and I remember three wonderful patients who never went away out of my mind, so I use those memories. And if you look at Hofmannsthal when he wrote Elektra, he studied women in these asylums and how they were, and that’s his way of writing what these three ladies are all about. I find it very clever.
It’s fascinating that you directly relate your work on Elektra to your work as a nurse – there’s an air of authenticity that seems discernible throughout your work.
For me that’s what acting is. I’ve never had acting lessons, so I do take my previous experiences and use them. There’s a part when I go onstage where I have to find it in me. But… what does that really say, when I love Elektra?!
It means you combine imagination with experiences in the real world; the connection with the quotidian is clear.
If you think about a character like Brünnhilde, that role has been with me almost as long as my daughter has, and to me it’s (the story of) a young girl growing up. If you look at Wagner’s heroine, they are the ones that save the world; the men don’t save the world, the women save the world. So Walküre is very much based on a young teenager whose daddy is everything – whatever daddy says goes – and she’s probably been in that state for thousands of years…
That’s right. Then she starts to question things, and that’s when he gets angry, and that (reaction) also happens to be real. It makes me recall a relationship of mine in the past, and how, when I started to question what this person was doing, things got violent and angry. I always say Wotan gave Brünnhilde the power of love, but he himself has the love of power, and that’s the difference between the two; she can grow and mature because she’s learned to use power through her love, but he can’t change because he’s only in love with power. So therefore he’s unable to move on but she can move on, and therefore sacrifice. Siegfried is a testosterone-driven boy; it’s all about him, and about them getting together. It’s a prenuptial wakeup call.
I’ve think of Siegfried as the vehicle through which Brünnhilde achieves an actual sensual experience of the real, human world; she needs to have that experience, with all its interconnected pleasures and pains, so one world can end and another can begin.
You could also say he really can’t come into existence without her.
True! The awakening applies to both of them but the way it manifests is so different for each.
And I believe Brünnhilde, much as she was born of both Wotan and Erda… well, fate decided she had to be born; everything has its own time, everything has a beginning and an end, and this is Wotan’s end, so she was born, but of course she saved Siegmund and Sieglinde, and how much did she fall in love with Siegmund (in anticipation of) Siegfried – is that why she did what she did? It’s like Siegfried had to happen and he is the vehicle for her realizing what she has to do.
Yes, Götterdämmerung doesn’t abruptly end when Siegfried dies; we have to see her through her journey.
Brünnhilde says it herself: “I had to betray the person I loved the most to realize what I had to do.” The thing is, the Ring is cursed, everyone who touches it has to pay a price, even if you didn’t take it voluntarily; Brünnhilde took it out of love, Siegfried didn’t have a clue what it was about, Wotan did sacrifice something but not his life. The curse is ever-transferring, and essentially Brünnhilde says to Wotan, “I know what you did: you gave me the curse. So I will follow this through now; I will do what you should have done, and so goodbye, father! Valhalla is going to burn as it should have done already. You asked me to finish this and I will finish this” – and she does.
You have a history with Brünnhilde, and with Turandot, though her self-realization at the close is far less clear.
Oh, she doesn’t change! She is psychotic as far as I’m concerned! I don’t know what’s happened in her past to make her like she is, but I’ve done the Lydia Steier production – I’m going back this year to do it again – for me it’s fantastic, one of the best. We developed it together. When we did it, Lydia had this great idea that it’s all set like Big Brother if you like: they’re on an island, they don’t have a lot of money but have found a way of making money by advertising that someone can marry this Princess if they can solve three riddles, then it’s the sidekick who comes on and does all the organizing, and then on comes Calaf.
Now, every Calaf always wants you to believe he’s a nice guy; he is not a nice guy, otherwise he would not stand there and let Liu get tortured. He’d say his name and then, “Please, don’t torture her, don’t cut her hands off!” But because he’s also the son of a king, he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, and this is what Turandot sees in his eyes, this “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me” attitude, which really unsettles her. You have the Third Act which I don’t think is about love or anything about that; it’s all about power, and I think he has had such a rush, if you like, that he’s won that he plays with fire again, but he doesn’t come to Liu’s rescue. This is what I like about Lydia’s production – there is no sympathy, this character doesn’t know how to give that. She doesn’t really change; it’s a question of whether she’ll carry on or not.
You’ve been in some contemporary productions, including a staging of The Ring by Frank Castorf at Bayreuth. What’s it like to be part of Regie presentations?
The thing I always ask is, does it tell a story? Or do you have to have a book of notes to tell you why you’re doing certain things? There was a lot of controversy over the Castorf ring and I was asked why the public didn’t like it; I said that’s not for me as a singer to answer, the direction is personal taste. My husband came every year for six years and he saw the Castorf staging, and it grew on him, he said because there was so much on the stage you had to pick one thing you looked at and just watch it. I also met a lot of young people, in their late teens to early 20s, who absolutely adored Castorf and they said something very interesting: he makes you discuss it, and whether you love it or hate it, he makes you discuss it, so therefore, he’s won. It’s relevant whether you like or dislike it; you need to think about it. and I thought, that’s an interesting point of view.
So the contemplation is what matters, not the knee-jerk reactivity…
Yes, that’s what matters; he makes you think. It doesn’t matter that he made the gold oil – what is it that people want today? It’s oil, so he made the gold oil, but you know, if you can stay true to the music and the character then you can take The Ring and put it anywhere in the world, at any time, in any period. You can make it a family saga, a country saga, a world saga; it’s basically love, hate, money, power, it’s who is in charge. Castorf had a lot of symbols in his (production), which came from growing up in the DDR. People not from the DDR didn’t get, but anybody I invited to come along who’d grown up in that said, “Oh my God, that is so clever!”
Applying your car metaphor to conductors, I would think some maestros provide different styles of roads and gear shifts and signposts; sometimes you know the route but others want you to use a whole new highway.
Yes, you start again! I’ve experienced The Ring on the whole with about 32 conductors, and they fall into two categories: either they’re extraordinary experienced, or it’s a first time, so there’s a desire to always try to find something different. The experienced know how to let an experienced Wagner singer go. I’ve just been to Budapest last summer with Ádám Fischer and he came off stage and said, “You know, the more I leave you alone, the better you get!” He didn’t try to make me do anything and said he was really inspired after this last Ring. Working with certain singers gives (conductors) different colours. But why does opera still draw people today after centuries of singing and hearing the same roles? The only thing that changes is the people who sing and perform it. (Live performance) has to have something magical, otherwise, if you wanted it exact, go buy a CD, but where’s the magic in that? Every time I’ve ever done a Ring cycle, you have the stage, the singers, and the public, and they come with you, and by the time you finish Götterdämmerung you’ve done a huge journey together of sixteen hours.
How does that translate into new roles? You had your role debut as Die Färberin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Mannheim, for instance. Do you have an idea where you want to go with new parts, or is it more of a journey?
Part of my studying and getting to know (Die Färberin) and finding her was having two years to learn the opera. If you do Fest you don’t get two years, you get six months, if you’re lucky, to learn a role. The fact is, I had two years to really investigate (Frau) and do some research. I hadn’t realized it was essentially Strauss’s Zauberflöte, which was a gift with the way the direction was going; the only person I could connect to was Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances, which was fabulous – you know, the table had to be set down exactly right, and she catches herself, and tries to be this lady with the hair and everything. Especially in the second act all I could think was, “Mrs. Bucket!!” I’ve been asked to do another production this autumn, so I’m very happy to be able to do it again so quickly. I’ve got to check if it’s cut or uncut.
What are your feelings going back to sing in England for Elektra? Is there any sense of lingering resentment that you had to leave?
No, the complete opposite – if I hadn’t have left, I wouldn’t be where I am now and certainly wouldn’t be speaking German. Things happen for a reason. To me it’s a resolution; I’m coming full circle. I was looking to get on the stage, I wanted to sing, I didn’t even know that Germany existed when I first finished college, it was my singing teacher who said, “Oh, I’ve a pupil who’s just gone to do a Fest contact” and I said, “What’s that?!” and she told me Germany has opera houses in every city – I had assumed it was like Britain.
In 1999 when, literally, I was too tall, too blonde, too this too that, and everybody else was getting work, I thought, “My God, I can’t keep going like this.” I wrote 200 letters, I printed 200 CDs, and I sent them out; I got three auditions, and I got one job offer, and that’s all I needed. You just need one, and that’s what I got, which was in Weimar. I started here in May 2001, and by autumn 2006 I was studying Brünnhilde, literally, and truly, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do it. It’s all in how you look at things — what’s the point of resentment? I’m having a very good career. One could argue I have this good career because I didn’t get the work in England, I know several singers who never got the courage to leave the UK because they have just enough work to not actually push them that extra distance away. Sometimes having something taken away or being denied the possibility to do something spurs you into another place – sometimes it makes another door open.